The Elements of Friendship, Book I: Harmony

by Amras Felagund

First published

Twilight fails to defeat NightMare Moon, and the world is plunged into eternal night. Twilight must travel the world with her friends to unlock the secrets of the Elements of Harmony.

Twilight Sparkle, a ward of the crown ever since she accidentally turned her parents into plants, is dispatched by Queen Celestia to the small hamlet of Ponyville; the Unicorn has expressed fear that an eldritch Alicorn of the past will arise there. And when Twilight Sparkle fails to defeat the fiendish NightMare Moon in the two Queens' former palace of Concordia Arbos, the planet is plunged into night on one side and day on the other. With only shards of rock to her name and a band of ponies at her side, she sallies forth to bring back the Sun. She will traverse field and mountain, desert and labyrinth if she needs to. Will she be able to solve the mystery of the Elements of Harmony? Who was NightMare Moon, and what evils come to Equestria apart from her everlasting night? And why does Queen Celestia believe that making friends takes priority over everything else for Twilight...?

Can be found on TV Tropes.
Has a YouTube reading by our own Alchemystudent.

The Elements of Friendship, Book I: Harmony
The Elements of Friendship, Book IS [interlude one-point-five]: Bonds
The Elements of Friendship, Book II: Chaoskampf
The Elements of Friendship, Book IIS [interlude two-point-five]
The Elements of Friendship, Book III
The Elements of Friendship, Book IIIS [interlude three-point-five]
The Elements of Friendship, Book IIII


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Once upon a time, on the magical world of Harmonia, there existed a race known as ponies. They were divided into three tribes: the earthbound Earth Ponies, masters of the earth; the horned Unicorns, masters of the spirit; and the winged Pegasi, masters of the air and sky.

But these three tribes were divided by hatred and bigotry for many, many generations… until the Last Ice Age, which brought the three tribes together in the United Tribes of Equestria. The United Tribes remained as one for almost a grossentury, but then, chaos descended from The Far Beyond, and life on Harmonia was a time of misery and terror. For douzaides, it seemed that the dream of peace on the planet Harmonia was to be a false, fleeting one, but then a pair of regal Alicorns − ponies who possessed the traits of all three races of pony − appeared from the fables of old, wielding the Elements of Harmony, the greatest magic known to any pony before or since. With the six Elements, they banished the chaos to a stony prison, and the Diarchy of Equestria was established, with the savior Alicorns as dual queens regnant.

The two regal Alicorns fought their hardest to bring harmony to all the land of Equestria. To do this, the elder Alicorn, as bright as the day, used her nigh-divine Alicorn powers to raise the Sun at dawn; the younger Alicorn, as dark as dusk, used hers to raise the Moon to begin the night. Thus, the two Alicorns maintained balance for their queendom and their subjects, all the different types of ponies.

But as grossenturies wore on, the younger Alicorn became resentful. The ponies relished and played in the day that her co-regent brought forth, but shunned and slept through her beautiful night. One day, the younger Alicorn refused to lower the Moon to make way for the dawn. The elder Alicorn tried to reason with her, but the bitterness in the young one’s heart had transformed her into a wicked mare of darkness:

NightMare Moon.

She vowed that she would shroud the land in eternal night. Reluctantly, the queen of the day called once more upon the Elements of Harmony, and used them to banish the younger queen permanently inside the Moon itself. The elder queen regnant then abandoned their ruined castle in the Everfree Forest, and took on responsibility for both the Sun and the Moon, and harmony has been maintained in Equestria for generations since.

Ordinarily, Twilight Sparkle could not imagine anything better than burying herself in a good book under the shade of a tree on a sunny day. Even before Queen Celestia had taken her in as a Ward of the Crown, she had always been most content with her muzzle between a book’s pages. As a foal, she always enjoyed it when her mother read her all the old breezie tales, and when she learned to read them herself and to use her magic to turn pages herself. Books were the one thing in her life that never gave her any vexation. There it was: the truth, in fine print, black-on-white. Books could not hurt you, or yell at you, or call you a terrible pony. They could not curse at you for not being able to control sudden magical outbursts. Books were the only friend Twilight Sparkle could ever want or need.

She didn’t care to pretty herself up like so many other mares she had seen around Canterlot. This was not to say that Twilight Sparkle did not care for her appearance. Her mane, dark-sapphire, with violet and pink streaks flanking her alicorn, was kept in a bowl cut with a simple sweep to her left. She kept herself well-groomed, trimming any overgrown hair when necessary. But it was not for other ponies; it was so that she would be presentable, from poll to fetlocks, as the star pupil of Queen Celestia, ruler of all of Equestria.

Appearances alone would not do as the apprentice to the Queen of the Day and Night, though. Twilight Sparkle immersed herself in all the books of every form of thaumaturgy that she could find in the royal library. As an admittedly prodigious practitioner of magic, Twilight devoted much of her time to reading some new book on some new theory of magic, with a particular focus on transfiguration − transforming an inanimate object into something animate, or vice versa. On her pre-scheduled off-days such as this, though, she liked some light reading on her favorite thaumaturgists, historians, and theorists.

Again, there was ordinarily nothing that Twilight found better than reading a book in a tree’s shade, with no company save for the book and dewy grass to idly graze upon.

But now, on this sunny day, under this particular tree beside the Creek of Dawn in the Courtyard of Sunrise, this book − specifically, the prelude to A Contrite Chronology of Equestria, As Told By Griffons, For Griffons − had struck something in the lavender Unicorn that made her fetlocks itch. Her leonine tail, typical of Unicorns, twitched behind her in some unconscious uneasiness, as though she meant to flick a fly off of it.

“NightMare Moon…?” Twilight murmured to herself, her cloven hoof tracing an invisible line under the name of that doombringer. “I know I’ve heard that name somewhere before… But where?”

With a mental shrug, she sent a signal down her horn, to pick up the book. Her horn glowed a bright pink matching one of the streaks in her mane, and the book followed suit − this was typically referred to by Unicorns as the dwimmer shimmer. She closed the book, levitated it into one of her saddle-bags, emblazoned with the cutie mark on her flanks − a pink starburst with five smaller white starbursts around it − and prepared to wink back to her home in deeper Canterlot when…

“Twilight Sparkle!” cried a spirited voice of another Unicorn, galloping towards her. She had a bright-pink mane and a white coat.

Twinkleshine, today of all days, Twilight thought bitterly. She’d hoped to avoid social interaction this one time.

“Moondancer is throwing a bit of a shindig in the West Castle Courtyard,” Twinkleshine said brightly, either ignoring or oblivious to the obvious disinterest that Twilight was projecting.

“And?” Twilight said, just curtly and quickly enough that she’d hoped that Twinkleshine would leave her be.

Such hopes were quickly dashed.

Twinkleshine took a step backwards, her ears flattening slightly against her head, her eyebrows creasing slightly.

“W-well, if you don’t want to go…”

“No. I don’t.” Twilight galloped past the other mare, her prior concentration on winking so scattered now that she might as well have tried to wink to Tartarus. “Some ponies have studying to do.”

As she left the Courtyard of the Sun, Twilight Sparkle heard Twinkleshine hiss, “Do you ever do anything but study?”

She pretended to herself that this didn’t hurt.

CHAPTER i: The Mare In The Moon

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The capital city of the Diarchy of Equestria, named Canterlot, was as much a work of art as it was a work of thaumaturgy. It was built more than halfway up the south-facing mountainside of Alicorn’s Peak, the tallest mountain in the North Equinus Mountains overlooking the Saddle Valley. For the city’s construction would have been impossible if not for the thaumaturgical work of the Unicorns of old. Canterlot’s foundations were built into the nearly vertical side of the mountain itself, with a cliff-face only two-dozen hooves across leading to the city’s main gate. Almost the entirety of the city hung over the Saddle Valley almost two-dozen megagross hooves below, its ponymade waterfalls disintegrating into a fine mist that made for an ideal spot for Pegasi to spread their rainbows.

Canterlot itself was widely considered one of the most beautiful locales in all of Harmonia. Its sparkling ivory towers, peaked with gold, easily added another six-megagross hooves to the city’s height. Low-hanging clouds that Pegasi strategically placed about the minarets lent additional awe-inspiring atmosphere. Its two courtyards − the West Castle Courtyard, known colloquially as the Courtyard of the Moon, and the East Castle Courtyard (the Courtyard of the Sun) − were spaces of great beauty, whether you wanted to take a nap, to think, to graze, or to sip from the stream.

It was not uncommon to see folks from around the globe − Zebras, Mermares, Giraffes, Deer, Centaurs, Minotaurs, Qílín, Hippalectryons and even the odd Griffon − taking the journey to Equestria just to bask in the magnificence of Canterlot. Once you were in the city, you could easily forget that you were almost a mile off of the ground. The wide city streets were paved with the highest quality of cobblestone, with many parks set aside for grazing and simple relaxation. If you wanted to do something, you could likely find the means to do it in Canterlot. There were many bookshops in Canterlot, boutiques and restaurants, concert halls and theatres, art galleries and racetracks, observatories and planetariums.

Jailhouses were nowhere to be found in Canterlot; crime was a seldom occurrence in even the most seedy establishment in Equestria, and Canterlot was hardly seedy. The harmony that Queen Celestia had strived for so earnestly since she first sat the throne almost two-dozen-and-a-half-gross years prior was now a reality.

None of this was on Twilight Sparkle’s mind as she galloped at full speed through the streets of Canterlot, ignoring the calls and cries of other ponies as she passed them by. Though she was a Ward of the Crown, which gave her the same ranking of a Princess, she did not care for stature or appearance at the moment.

She had to get home.

Why oh why was her favored reading spot such a distance from her home?

After pushing her way past a particularly ornery Centaur, Twilight arrived, with a stitch in the barrel of her chest, at the Ivory Library Tower. The uppermost level, a golden bulb, was where Twilight lived alone with her books.

Well, not quite alone.

Reaching the top of the staircase that spiralled around the Ivory Library Tower, Twilight entered the wards that prevented anypony − or anyone, for that matter − from passing without her permission. Her horn glowing pink, the double-doors bearing a sign which read Twilight Sparkle’s Quarters swung inward violently.


Twilight winced. She had not anticipated that Spike was behind the doors as she opened them.

“Spike, are you alright?” she asked, using her dwimmer shimmer to help the young drake pull himself up.

Spike was a Dragon cub of about a dozen years, which meant that he was still a baby by Dragon standards. He was a light mulberry, with moderate harlequin spines along his head and back, pistachio-colored eyes, and lime-green-colored frills flanking his face. His underbelly was a light spring budish gray. He could walk on all fours like a pony, though he preferred to walk on his hind legs, using his claws to help carry Twilight’s books. He was presently using his claws, though, to rub his head where the double-doors had bumped him.

“I’m fine, Mom,” he muttered.


Twilight fixed him with a firm glare. Spike sighed.

“Fine, Twilight,” he groaned, reaching around to pull a wrapped gift off of his spade-tipped tail.

Twilight’s ear twitched. “What’s that?”

Spike pulled a teddy bear, stuffing poking out of a large hole in its belly, out of the wrapping paper. His nose wrinkled slightly. “Well… It was a gift from Moondancer.”

Twilight rolled her eyes, and Spike followed suit. This was no big loss. Moondancer was always trying to get on Twilight’s good side, trying to mooch her way into a place of higher social standing by riding the coattails of Queen Celestia’s number one student. She had reached a new low now: bribery. Well, it wouldn’t work.

“You know what to do with it, Spike: the same as all of her previous invitations. More importantly, have you rotated Mom and Dad to match the Sun’s place in the sky?”

“You bet, Twilight!” Spike said brightly, as he dropped the busted present and teddy bear in a wastebasket, already almost full of unanswered invitations to other social gatherings around Canterlot. He then took a deep breath, and exhaled a blast of sparkling green fire. Soon, all that was left in the wastebasket was a pile of ash. “Gran−… err, your parents are still soaking up the Sun!”

Twilight strode past Spike, who followed her out of the foyer into the living room, which was really more of a miniature library in and of itself. The centerpiece, in lieu of some form of couch or seating cushions, was a large hourglass filled with sand that flowed from the bottom bulb to the top. It was a conversation piece she had payed hard bits for, as it was one of the prized possessions of Star Swirl the Bearded, one of Twilight Sparkle’s favorite thaumaturgists of old. Crafter of grosses of spells, the ancient mage was revered in many circles of magic.

Passing through the living room to the ceiling-to-floor windows that made up the opposite wall, Twilight trotted onto the balcony, overlooking the Saddle Valley over a mile below. The view of the Saddle Valley, in which rested a humble hamlet at the edge of the wild Everfree Forest, of the South Equinus Mountains, beyond which could be seen the distant rolling hills of the San Palomino Desert, was ignored by Twilight as her dwimmer shimmer drew a watering can from a nearby table. Smiling sadly, she watered an agave and a cactus which Spike had placed on the westmost side of the balcony, for the afternoon sunlight.

“Good afternoon, Mom,” she said softly to the agave. “Good afternoon, Vati,” she said quietly to the cactus.

Spike clung to Twilight’s left hind leg, sniffling slightly at the pair of potted plants. Twilight turned to Spike, placing the watering can on the floor between the agave and the cactus.

“Spike, it really doesn’t make sense for you to call me Mom, or my parents Grandmom and Grandpa,” Twilight explained clinically. She smiled in what she thought was a comforting way as she rubbed Spike’s head with her right forehoof. “I’m not your biological mother; all I did was magically incubate your egg as my entry test into Queen Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.”

“Which makes you my mom!” Spike cried.

“I just happened upon something that could be of vital importance to the future of Equestria − no, of Harmonia,” Twilight said, ignoring Spike’s continued pleas.

Spike sighed; this was par for the course when making arguments for calling Twilight his mother.

“Aren’t we supposed to be on break, M−… Twilight?”

“Not anymore,” she said, cantering back into the living room. “I need you to help me find that book on prophecies and predictions.”

“Which one?”

“Any one within the past dozen-gross years will do,” she said offhoofedly, her dwimmer shimmer already calling forth several books from the shelves of several bookcases.

By Spike’s own admission, his own capacity for help was miniscule when Twilight was in the zone. She could use her dwimmer shimmer to hold at least a gross of books on an easy day. Still, she was just a single pony − a brilliant mare, but a lone mare nonetheless − and she could only peruse one book at a time. Any help to sift through the books for what she was looking for was a blessing.

Still, a meggrossium of prophecies was a large area to cast one’s net into.

“Any prophecy in particular?” Spike dared to venture.

“The Mare In The Moon,” Twilight said shortly, a half-dozen books circling around her head.

As it just so happened, Spike had pulled a dusty old tome out from the back of a bookshelf, and the dust made him sneeze. Thankfully, it was not a sparky sneeze (his nickname for a sneeze that produced fire), so the book did not ignite. He did drop it, though, and it just so happened to open up to a particular page. In a flash, Spike saw the words Mare In The Moon as the header. He picked it up eagerly, accidentally shutting it in the process.

“I found it!”

In a flash, Spike found the book locked in Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer, his underbelly dragging along the blue-tiled floor as his caretaker pulled the book to her. By reflex, Spike let the book go, and he heard the muffled sounds of hardcovers of various sorts hitting the floor. Spike groaned internally.

Guess who’s on clean-up duty, he thought sullenly as his surrogate mother started sifting through the book.

“Aha! The Mare In The Moon (aka: the Shadowmare, NightMare Moon)! I thought that I’d read that name somewhere before!” Twilight scratched her chin thoughtfully. “Though… I don’t think I knew Old Equus at the time that I’d read this, so I’d dismissed the prophecy in question.”

“Why didn’t they bother translating it to begin with?” Spike asked, holding a stack of at least a dozen books.

“The author notes that Forget-Me-Not, the prophet who made this prediction, specifically requested that it be transcribed exactly as she’d dictated, so that no meaning would be lost. I’ll see if I can glean as much meaning from it into Modern Equus…”

Twilight squinted down at the faded Old Equus calligraphy.

Ofer sixtwelf-scora ġēar… Okay, so that’s ‘after six-dozen-score years’ in Modern Equus.”

“‘Six-dozen-score’ years?”

“That means a megagross years, or a meggrossium in our modern language. ‘A score’ means two-dozen.”

“So, you’re…” Spike counted on his claws from his precarious spot on top of a rolling ladder, having placed the books back on the proper shelves. “A score years old minus two, Twilight?”

Twilight nodded.

“That would be correct, Spike,” she said curtly, “Though it’s not polite to comment on a mare’s age.”

“Sorry, M− ...Twilight.”

Twilight turned back to her translation.

“‘After six-dozen-score years have passed…’ ‘seo…’” Twilight’s eyes narrowed upon the next word. “…’Niht-Cwen’…?”

“Neat guin…?” Spike echoed, forgetting his task and walking to Twilight’s side, looking down on the faded words.

“I don’t quite understand it, either,” Twilight muttered. “And it’s in all capital letters, which means that it’s a crucial element of this prophecy. I know that niht means night in Modern Equus, and cwen means queen. The Night Queen…?”

Spike snapped his claws. “The Queen of the Night!”

Twilight nodded. “That makes sense. The Queen of the Night is…” She stopped abruptly. “Wait. The Queen of the Night is the Alicorn who ruled alongside Queen Celestia when this Diarchy was established… before becoming NightMare Moon and being sealed in the Moon for threatening to bring about eternal night.”

“What’s so bad about that?” Spike asked in an offclaw fashion. “Then you could sleep in as late as you want. I mean, sure, sundials would be useless, but―”

“No, Spike!” Twilight almost shouted, her ears going flat against her head, actually kneeling down and almost pressing her nose to Spike’s. The young drake took an involuntary step back. “Everlasting night would have catastrophic consequences for everyone on the planet! The climate would become colder than Tartarus’s deepest circle. Snow and hail would be all the precipitation we’d ever know. Rivers and lakes would freeze. Crops would die out without the Sun.” Twilight’s purple eyes twitched over to the agave and cactus out the window, just barely visible from her position. “In short, all the world would be thrown into ruin. And that’s not even considering the everlasting day the other half of the planet would be forced to endure…!”

“Okay, okay! I get it!” Spike waved his forelimbs about defensively. “Unending night equals bad news! But it’s alright, isn’t it? I mean, you said it yourself. The Queen of the Night is sealed in the Moon.”

“We haven’t finished reading this prophecy, though, Spike,” Twilight pointed out, returning to the desk she’d placed the tome upon. Her eyes darted back and forth across the lines in Old Equus, apparently translating to herself in silence. Spike found himself becoming very edgy watching Twilight reading so quietly. He wished he knew what was going on in Twilight’s head, but he knew it couldn’t be good. She was becoming increasingly horrorstruck as she read further and further down the prophecy.

Finally, after an eternity of silence, Twilight’s alicorn lit up, and her dwimmer shimmer closed the book.

“Uhh… Mom?” Spike asked nervously.

“Spike… This is worse than anything we could have imagined,” she said lowly. She turned to face her drake ward. Her round pupils were narrowed to points, and her face looked pale.

“What…?” Spike asked. If Twilight did not automatically correct his addressing of her as Mom, it must have been really, truly, very bad.

“I just translated the whole prophecy, and… I wish that I hadn’t. We − and when I say that, I don’t mean ‘just you and I’, I mean the whole wide world of Harmonia − are in a great deal of trouble.”

“Wh-what did the prophecy say?” asked Spike fearfully.

Twilight opened her mouth, and recited her translation of the ancient prophecy:

After six-dozen-score years have passed

Since the QUEEN OF THE NIGHT's interment,

The stars will undo her shackles

On the longest day of the year,

And she will descend from her celestial cell,

And darken the Sun,

And turn the Moon to blood.

Unless she is cleansed by the Six Dwimmercrafts,

She will bring nighttime eternal,

And all life will perish.

Twilight’s legs shook, and she collapsed onto her belly. Her ears drooped, and her tail swooped around her left side.

Spike trotted slowly up to Twilight, reaching his right foreclaw towards her.

“What… what are the ‘Six Dwimmercrafts’?” Spike questioned.

“I think that it means the Elements of Harmony,” Twilight said distantly, “The force that sealed NightMare Moon in the Moon to begin with. But I don’t know where they are, or how they work, or even what they do!”

“What’re we gonna do…?” Spike asked feebly, nuzzling into the voluminous tuft at the end of Twilight’s tail, colored and styled just like her mane. “Nopony alive today was there when she was beaten before…”

“Actually, there is, Spike,” Twilight said, and Spike looked up and was astonished to see Twilight smiling.


Twilight jumped up to her hooves, and Spike was flung into the air, landing on her back, as she paced around the hourglass centerpiece.

“Who else, Spike, but Queen Celestia herself!” Twilight said brightly. “She’s beaten NightMare Moon before. I just need to tell her that NightMare Moon is coming back, and she should be able to put down the Queen of the Night once and for all!”

She dug in her forehooves, and bucked her hips upwards, sending Spike into the air. To his credit, she’d done this many times before, and he had long since worked out how to land safely.

“Take a note for the Queen, Spike,” she said brightly.

“Are you sure, Twilight?” said Spike, producing a quill and a scroll from a desk drawer. “I mean, she’s pretty busy right now as it is. I mean, today’s the dozen-second of Solis. The day after tomorrow is the Summer Sun Celebration, and she’s gotta be pretty busy with―”

“This is more important than the Summer Sun Celebration, Spike!” Twilight shouted. “Didn’t you hear the prophecy? It said that the Queen of the Night − NightMare Moon − would escape her imprisonment on the longest day of the year a millennium after her banishment. This will be the megagrosseth Summer Sun Celebration since then, the megagrosseth summer solstice. It is absolutely imperative that the Queen be informed right away!”

Spike saluted, taking care not to stab himself with the quill. “Okie dokie, Mom! …Err, I mean, Twilight!” He put the quill to the scroll.

Twilight dictated exactly what she wanted Spike to write to Queen Celestia, and though Spike needed to be told how to spell certain more complicated words, he wrote down what she said masterfully. She had considered, and quickly dismissed, the idea of recalling Her Highness’s history with NightMare Moon, but she had no idea what relationship they’d had before the banishment, only that they were very close. Twilight had no idea if they were friends, or soul-mates, or wives, or even sisters. Her letter to the Queen was as follows:

Dear Queen Celestia,

I have come upon an unsettling prophecy that indicates that we, Equestria − neigh, Harmonia − stand upon the very precipice of disaster. This prophecy, told by the late Forget-Me-Not, indicates that the Queen of the Night, who we can only assume is a reference to NightMare Moon, will return on the longest day of the megagrosseth year since her banishment, and bring forth nighttime eternal if she is not stopped. Something must be done to assure that this prophecy does not come true. I await your quick reply.

Your faithful student,
Twilight Sparkle

Twilight then took the parchment and quill in her dwimmer shimmer, once she’d been sure that Spike was finished transcribing, and added her signature before rolling up the parchment and sealing it with the seal of the House of Twilight. She then returned the parchment to Spike’s claws.

“Now, send it.”

Spike hesitated for a moment, then took a deep breath, and exhaled his green fire again. This time, though, the parchment did not ignite. Instead, it glowed with bright-yellow sparkles and seemed to disappear into the fire, which became a trail of bright-green smoke which flew out the window and out of sight.

“So… Twilight…?” Spike said awkwardly. He crossed his forelimbs behind his back, kicking at nothing with one of his hindclaws. “Don’t you want to sit down, have something to eat? I mean, it’s not like she’s gonna reply right awa―”

For the third time that day, Spike found himself interrupted, but for the first time, it was not Twilight. Rather, Spike had interrupted himself with a loud belch, which produced a bright-green cloud of smoke that coalesced into a regal white scroll, bound with a red ribbon and a seal showing half of the radiant Sun and half of the crescent Moon.

“There,” Twilight said simply, with a faint hint of a smug smile. “I knew that Queen Celestia would trust my judgment and take prompt action.”

Meanwhile, Spike had unfurled the scroll.

“I never did understand why Queen Celestia wrote her little ‘s’s so weird,” he muttered.

“The long ‘s’, also known as the medial s or descending s, was retired two-gross years ago because too many ponies kept mistaking it for lower-case ‘f’s,” explained Twilight, “and Queen Celestia is very old, Spike. Old habits die hard. Now, if you would kindly proceed…”

“Oh, right!” Spike said, just before he cleared his throat and began to read Queen Celestia’s missive.

“My deareſt and moſt faithful ſtudent Twilight Sparkle,” he began, “You know that I value your diligence, and that I truſt you completely…”

Twilight nodded approvingly. This was going swimmingly. She had successfully nipped this potential cataclysm in the bud. The Queen would commend her for her timely discovery and utilize the power of the Elements of Harmony to finish the job she had started a meggrossium ago, whereupon she would grant Twilight Sparkle access to even more complicated tomes of magic, and bestow upon her even more intricate feats of thaumaturgy to practice than she was already adept at, and she would be able to return her parents to their original pony forms, and everything would be just fine, and why had Spike stopped reading?

Twilight cleared her throat. “Go on, Spike,” she said, her smile betrayed by a shadow of impatience in her tone.

Spike glanced at Twilight nervously, before flipping the Queen’s parchment around, so that Twilight could see the ten little words that Her Majesty had written that put a frog in Spike’s throat:

...but you ſimply muſt ſtop reading thoſe duſty old books!

Twilight was seething. She was, as the Pegasus saying went, on cloud nine, and then Queen Celestia of all ponies yanked out the rug from under her. Yesterday, she thought that she would be spending this day learning the absolute deepest secrets of magic from the Queen as a reward for cutting NightMare Moon’s revenge short.

But instead, she found herself in a chariot being pulled by two Pegasus Royal Guards, with her parents the agave and cactus, and Spike, rereading the Queen’s letter.

‘My deareſt Twilight, there is far more to a pony’s life than ſtudying’,” he read, “‘So, I’m ſending you to this year’s location for the Summer Sun Celebration: Ponyville.’

The chariot ride would not be very long; Ponyville was the very same hamlet in the Saddle Valley which rested on the edge of the dreaded Everfree Forest. Twilight knew very little about it, only that it was established by Earth Ponies within the past gross years, that it had a population of barely three-gross, and that it had developed an affinity for ponies of mixed blood. It was not uncommon anymore for the three pony races to mix, so there could be Earth Ponies and Pegasi who had the leonine tails or cloven hooves and unshorn fetlocks of Unicorns, or Earth Ponies and Unicorns with the feathered fetlocks and chest feathers of Pegasi, or Unicorns and Pegasi who had the short fetlocks of most Earth Ponies. Though they had these mixed physical attributes, though, nopony ever inherited the magic of any of the three races save the race they were born as. Each pony of mixed race was just as capable as any other full-blooded pony of her or his race. Only Queen Celestia bore the physical attributes and magical abilities of all three pony races.

As far as Twilight was concerned, though, being relocated to this hamlet was a severe blunder for the part of her mentor. She held the key to preventing nighttime eternal falling upon Harmonia, and the Queen saw fit to positioning her right within the very epicenter of the problem.

Spike continued to read, “‘And I have an even more eßential taſk for you to complete:’” The final three words, apart from the Queen’s loopy signature, were written in a surprisingly bold font, and underlined three times. “‘Make ſome friends’.”

Twilight groaned. Why was it that everypony was now trying to push her into having social interaction? Getting to know ponies, letting them into her heart, was only ever the path to pain and heartbreak. Books were a more reliable tool to get through life by far. At least there was no ambiguity there.

Spike rolled up the Queen’s scroll and resealed. He put a claw to her shoulder. “Aww, c’mon, Twilight. Chin up! Look on the bright side. The Queen arranged for you to stay at Ponyville’s library, the Golden Oak. Doesn’t that make you happy?”

Twilight was quiet for several more moments…

Then she perked up, her ears sticking straight into the air. They were coming in for a landing in the main square of Ponyville, right beside the town hall (known locally as the Gazebo). She could make out individual thatched rooftops by this point, and a few cloud-houses for the few all-Pegasus families that called Ponyville home.

“Yes! As a matter of fact, I am. You know why? Because I’m right. I’ll be sure to find a book out here that will back me up in reaffirming NightMare Moon’s return. The proof is in the printed pudding!”

“So… When are you going to make friends, like the Queen said you should?”

Twilight scoffed. “Come on, Spike. Friends? Please. She told me to supervise the preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration, and that’s just what I’ll do. As soon as I’m finished, I’ll head straight back to the library, find some additional proof of NightMare Moon’s impending return, and inform the Queen of it right away. The fate of the world can’t possibly rest on me making friends.”

“But are you sure you’ll find something that important out here? I mean, Ponyville’s pretty much the sticks, isn’t it?”

“Can’t get much stickier than this,” Twilight droned as the chariot made landfall, the pair of Pegasus Royal Guards slowing their midair gallops to a canter, then a trot, then rearing up with mutual whinnies as they came to a stop. Twilight disembarked, as did Spike. The pair of them staggered slightly; they’d both lost some of their sense of balance on solid land somewhere in the flight.

“Thank you, kind sirs,” Twilight said brightly to nearest Royal Guard.

“Think nothing of it, Lady Twilight,” said the alabaster stallion. “Shall we take your plants to the Golden Oak Library?”

“Yes, please,” said Twilight, raising a hoof in concern. “And do be careful with them, would you kindly? I’m taking very good care of them while I study how to fix them.”

The stallions glanced at each other in confusion, not quite aware of Twilight’s checkered history of control of her own magic. After a moment, the pair of them shrugged, and galloped in the direction of the library.

“Well, now to get that Summer Sun Celebration overseeing over with,” Twilight said flatly, walking in the opposite direction from the chariot. She kept glancing back, as if she were afraid that they would blink out of existence the moment she looked away.

“Come on, Twilight,” said Spike, who produced the overseer’s checklist. “You gotta keep in high spirits. Try to make some small talk on the way. I mean, it’s not like Ponyville’s ponies have nothing interesting to talk about, right?”

Spike glanced about, and his eyes settled on one particular mare, cantering along with a bounce in her step.

“Why don’t you try talking to her, Twilight?”

She had a pale pink coat of fur, and a brilliant deep-pink mane and tail that both looked impossibly frizzy and poofy. She had very vibrant cerulean eyes, and her cutie mark was a baby-yellow balloon with a baby-blue string flanked by two baby-blue balloons with baby-yellow strings. She had an aura of seemingly perpetual energy about her, as though she was the absolutely happiest mare in the world and wanted to share that joy with everypony. As she got closer, Twilight could see that this mare had bright pink feathers matching her mane and tail color around her fetlocks and chest. She had a Pegasus at least two generations back in her bloodline.

“Come on, Twilight!” Spike said with a degree of impatience. The pink mare was about to pass them by. “Just try!”

Against her better judgment, Twilight conceded.

“Uhh… hello?”

The result was completely unexpected. The pink mare turned at the sound of the hello, and the instant that the o in hello had finished being said, seemed to float up in the air as some unearthly sound escaped her throat. Twilight only just registered that sound as an exaggerated gasp before the pink Earth Pony mare seemed to dart off down the thoroughfare. In midair.


“Well, that was interesting,” Twilight said, blinking at the yellow flash down the street as the pink pony left her sight. “I might even say that that pony was special.”

Spike could only sigh. This was going to take a while.

“Okay,” said Spike, clearing his throat as he read the overseer’s checklist again. The first stop on the overseer’s checklist was of the banquet preparations. Granted, the banquet would not unfold until after sunrise the next day, but a sampling of the wares that would be provided was necessary.

Though if the food turns out to be bad, Twilight thought, Everypony will need to rush to find a suitable replacement. This food might very well be eaten by the Queen… if NightMare Moon hasn’t snuffed out the Sun by then.

The trek to the location of the banquet preparations actually took them out of Ponyville, rather uncomfortably close to the Everfree Forest. What Twilight had taken to be a rather gutsy home placement within the edge of the Forest was actually a large grove of apple trees, along with a barn that seemed to pull double-duty as a farmhouse. The path Twilight and Spike trotted down took them to a shoulder-height fence, broken by a gateway with a sign emblazoned with a large engraved apple, and the phrase SWEET APPLE ACRES: est 2561 ER.

“Sweet Apple Acres,” Twilight read aloud. “Well, might as well find the banquet preparations.”

She had barely crossed the threshold before almost being bowled over by a great orange blur shouting “Yeehaw!”, which then made contact with one of the apple trees. Each and every apple in the branches fell down into cleverly placed buckets that Twilight just noticed around the trunk. Now that the blur had stopped, Twilight made out a towering mare with a long blonde mane and tail, both of which were tied off at the ends with red hairbands. She was wearing a worn leathery Stetson. Her legs ended in long, blonde fetlocks (she had to have some draft horse in her blood), and her right legs were currently crossed in front of the left ones. Her cutie mark was a set of three vibrant red apples. She was very large, the largest mare that Twilight had ever seen, and she was powerfully built too, with muscles rippling under her coat. Twilight winced a little at the sight of jaw-shaped scars across the apple-mare’s back; what sort of monsters from the Everfree tried to attack Sweet Apple Acres?

But Twilight cleared her throat to get this mare’s attention, hoping that this mare was not aggravant. She didn’t want to be split in half on the eve of the Summer Sun Celebration. And this mare looked easily capable of it.

“G-good afternoon,” she stammered, bowing and closing her eyes. “M-m-my name is T-Twilight Sparkle…”

Twilight felt like her right foreleg was about to be ripped out, and she wondered how she’d offended this powerful mare. But she opened her eyes, and she saw that the apple-mare was smiling a very irreverent smile, and shaking her forehoof very vigorously. With both of her own forehooves. From the front, she could see that this mare had deep emerald eyes, many white freckles across her cheeks and muzzle… and two deep scars running across the bridge of her nose.

“Well, howdy-doo there, Miss Twilight Sparkle!” she said, and she had a powerful country twang. “Pleasure to make yer acquaintance. Mah name’s Applejack. We Apples sure do love makin’ new friends!”

“‘Friends’?” Twilight said, her voice shaking because Applejack just kept on shaking and shaking and shaking and shaking and shaking. “Actually, I’m―”

Applejack winked one of those emerald eyes. “So, what can I do you for?”

Twilight realized that this ‘Applejack’ had let go of her foreleg, which was stuck pointing straight ahead because of muscle strain. Smiling nervously, and ignoring Spike’s snickering, Twilight brought her leg down with her left. She’d be feeling sore in that leg during the Summer Sun Celebration.

“Err, well, Applejack,” Twilight began, “you see, I am the pupil of Queen Celestia, and I have been sent here to supervise the food preparation. You got the Queen’s letter of notice, I take it?”

“Eeyup, we sure as sugar did!” Applejack said brightly. “Now, wouldja care to sample some vittles?”

Although Twilight had grown up amidst the high class of Canterlot, she had no fear or disdain for the so-called “rabble”. Granted, she did not understand some of their slang when she saw some selling their wares in Canterlot, but that was because she’d never read a book on slang.

“Well, as long as it doesn’t take too long. I have to be back at Golden Oak Library before sundown, and―”

“No sweat there, sugarcube,” said Applejack, and Twilight couldn’t help but blush a little at the pet name. “Last Ah checked, the family’d just finished workin’ out the practice batch. Ah’ll call ‘em out right now!”

She kicked a large frying pan hanging from a nearby post, which let out a deafening CLANG that forced Twilight’s ears against her skull.

Applejack bellowed joyfully, “TH’OVERSEER’S HERE, EVERYPONY!”

And Twilight and Spike found themselves swept up in a stampeding herd that seemed to come out of nowhere. Once she’d regained her bearings, she found herself at a rectangular wooden table set out in a plain patch, surrounded by trees. A herd of scores of ponies, mostly Earth Ponies of all sorts of colors, at all sorts of ages, stood in a circle around her. And they all had the same irreverent smile.

“Ah’d like to introduce y’all to my family: the Apples!”

Twilight laughed nervously, “Th-that won’t be nece―”

And then Applejack named each Apple in turn, and as each Apple was named, she or he bolted up to Twilight, placed a food dish on the table in front of her, and then returned to her or his previous spot. Twilight could not help but notice that each Apple had baked an apple-based treat based off of her or his name. Apple Tart, Apple Strudel, Apple Brioche, Apple Cinnamon Crisp, Apple Fritter, Apple Bumpkin… some were named after apples themselves, like Red Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Ballarat Seedling, Braeburn… some of them were barely apple-related, like Mosely Orange and Valencia Orange and their elder daughter Sunflower (a Pegasus, and Ballarat Seedling’s elder sister). But Twilight would not have been able to recall any names or faces afterwards if she did not have an eidetic memory. She never forgot anything. Ever.

After reciting almost a dozen-dozen names, Applejack finally took a breath.

“And lastly… mah direct kin!” she said. A red stallion with a bright orange mane and short tail, and a green apple cutie mark approached. He was even bigger than Applejack, and looked just as scarred. He too had white freckles across his muzzle, his fetlocks were a shaggy dark-red, and he wore a hitchcollar. His green eyes were the same as his sister’s.

“Mah big brother, Big McIntosh! We call ‘im Big Mac for short. He’s the strong silent type. Aintcha, Big Mac?”

“Eeyup,” said Big McIntosh. His voice was deep and resonant, and held Applejack’s same farm accent.

Applejack smiled lovingly up at her brother, before a little filly galloped into the closing circle on her tiny legs. She had a very bright yellow coat, a bouncy red mane and tail the same color as her brother’s coat, bright-red freckles across the bridge of her nose, and a large pink bow tied into her mane that even Twilight had to admit was adorable. Her left hind leg had a different color: sugary-white, with the same furry fetlock as her big sister. She had bright peach-colored eyes that sparkled with the vim and vigor that only came from youth. She had no cutie mark, which meant that she likely had not found her special talent yet.

“Mah little sister, Apple Bloom! She’s a right little sprout straight outta Heaven, f’you ask anypony in Ponyville or the Apple family.”

“Applejack!” Apple Bloom whined, kicking a tiny little foreleg at Applejack, though Applejack’s size meant that she barely reached her big sister’s elbow.

Twilight giggled to herself, a hoof over her mouth. Spike dug an elbow into her side.

“Watch out; somepony’s having fun,” Spike said in a sing-song voice which earned him a glare.

“And last, but not least in the slightest… the matriarch of the whole Apple family... Granny Smith!”

Into the circle trotted an elderly mare with a pale-green coat color, and a gray mane and tail both done into buns. Trotted being a relative term; she looked positively ancient. If Twilight didn’t know any better, she would have wagered that this Granny Smith was present at the very founding of Ponyville. She had the same peach-colored eyes as Apple Bloom, and an apple pie cutie mark. She wore an orange neckerchief speckled with red apples.

“Ahh, quitcher shoutin’ there, AJ! Ah cin hear just fine without mah hearin’ trumpet!” Granny snapped, though there was a bit of a playful edge to her tone.

Applejack laughed, a deep hearty laugh that suited her.

“Ah gotcha, Granny Smith. Ah gotcha.”

Twilight, who had started off by eating an apple fritter at that moment, suddenly felt like every Apple was training their eyes upon her. It really was delicious, and Queen Celestia had always had a preference for simpler food wares, despite the elitist attitudes of the high-class ponies who surrounded her. Twilight nodded her approval. The Apples cheered.

“How ‘bout that? Looks like we’ve got ourselves another Apple, folks! She's part o' the family already!”

As the Apples let out a collective Yeehaw!, Twilight spat out her second bite of apple fritter in shock. This was going too fast! She was here to supervise the Summer Sun Celebration wares, then to further research NightMare Moon’s return, not to do social interaction. She had to get out of here, and quick!

“Well, I can see the food situation is taken care of, so…” Twilight laughed nervously. “I really think I’d better go.”

“Aren’tcha gonna stay fer brunch?” Apple Bloom said meekly, her bottom lip quivering as her ears drooped. “Ah thought Ah’d gotten anuther big sister…”

Twilight’s heart ached. “Sorry,” she said, trying not to feel too conflicted about leaving. “But I have a lot of activities to supervise before the day is out.”

The Apple family, to their credit, were not an angry sort. The whole of the family prided themselves on their closeness to one another; it was almost an Apple family motto to say that one was an “Apple to the core”. Even the Oranges did not sever all ties to the family; when they’d heard that Queen Celestia herself would be at the Summer Sun Celebration, they came with full speed to help with the proceedings. The collective Apple family let out a low disappointed sigh.

In the face of such sunken spirits, Twilight felt absolutely wretched. Though she feared she would regret it, she only had one word to say:


For the third time, the Apples cheered.

“Ugh… I ate too much pie…” Twilight felt like she was going to explode. She had never eaten so much food in her life. She had to have eaten at least a week’s worth of food of all sorts in the span of a single “brunch”. She just couldn’t refuse any food offered to her, or she’d feel like she had let the Apple family down. There were so many different types of apple-based foods she’d not heard of before, and many she was positive did not exist until that morning. It was all delicious, but it was all just too much. Twilight only hoped that nopony offer her so much as a wafer-thin mint before the day was out.

“What’s next on the list?” Twilight sighed, hoping that it was nothing too taxing to her gastrointestinal system.

Spike looked over the overseer’s checklist. “Looks like… weather! There’s supposed to be a Pegasus mare named Rainbow Dash clearing the clouds.”

Twilight and Spike looked up at the high noon sky. Though the sky was somewhat clear, it was only somewhat clear. There were clouds dotted here and there overhead. There was apparently no wind scheduled for today by the local weather team, so the clouds remained stationary.

Twilight scoffed, “Well, doesn’t look like she’s done a good job, does it?”


Twilight found herself face-down in a puddle of mud. Her stomach was screaming in protest of the severe blow she’d taken to the gut, and she was quite sure she looked ridiculous with her tail pointing straight into the air. Something, or more specifically somepony, had crashed into her.

And not just any somepony.

It was a Pegasus.

A Pegasus who was giving a light and irreverent laugh in a high and scratchy voice that grated at Twilight’s ears.

“Uhh… excuse me,” said the Pegasus as Twilight turned herself over, to get a good look at the crasher. It was a light-blue Pegasus with a scruffy rainbow-colored mane - red-orange-yellow across the top, green-blue-purple at the back. Her tail progressed from purple just below her tail-feathers to red, a reverse rainbow. She had rainbow-colored feather fetlocks, chest feathers, and rainbow feathers over her tail. She was small, lean, and wiry, with a feral look to her, and she had a cocky grin that revealed long fangs. One rainbow eyebrow was cocked upwards over her bright-pink eyes. Her cutie mark was a cloud with a tricolor lightning bolt − red, yellow, blue − protruding from the bottom.

Twilight merely growled. This could only be…

“Let me help you with that,” said the rainbow Pegasus with a haughty snicker, and Twilight had a strong suspicion as to why: she was absolutely covered in mud by the crash. Before Twilight could say I have no words, the rainbow Pegasus was back with a spare raincloud, placing it at a spot some six hooves over the prone Twilight’s head. With a deceptively innocent smile, she jumped up onto the cloud, and pounced upon the cloud over and over, releasing a downpour onto Twilight.

By the time it was finished, Twilight was clean of the mud, but soaked to the bone, and absolutely incensed.

“Whoops,” smirked the rainbow pony. “Guess I overdid it, huh?”

Of course you didn’t, Twilight didn’t say. I absolutely need to be even more thoroughly drenched.

“So, how about this?”

Whatever it is, how about No.

Before she knew what was going on, Twilight found herself wrapped up in a rainbow-colored tornado.

“Just a little something I whipped up for just such occasions!”

The tornado stopped, and the rainbow Pegasus stopped on the spot, posing like some sort of superstar.

“My very own, patent pending, Rainblowdry! Oh no, you don’t need to thank me. You’re quite welco…”

Twilight knew exactly why her assailant had stopped talking: after such thorough abuse − mud tackle, drenching downpour, and now being caught in a gale of a twister by an overzealous Pegasus − her mane and tail were both absolutely tangled and messy, her coat sticking straight out, making her look like a partial transfiguration of a pony-porcupine.

It seemed like this was too much for the rowdy Pegasus to bear, and she collapsed in a tearful laughing fit. There was something absolutely grating about the way that she laughed in a way that made her speaking voice sound positively cultured.

And then Spike had to join Rainbow Dash in the laughter.

Yes. There could be nopony else that this rainbow mare was.

“Let me guess… You’re Rainbow Dash,” Twilight murmured.

In an instant, there was a significant change in the rainbow Pegasus mare. She went from laying on her back, forehooves on her belly as she guffawed at Twilight’s ridiculous new manestyle, to standing up with her wings unfurled fully, a forehoof on her chest. Spike coughed the last few laughs out.

“The one and only!” said Rainbow Dash with every degree of arrogance and self-assuredness that made Twilight want to hate the mare with all the intensity of the inferno of the Concord Flame. Rainbow Dash flapped into the air, pressing her nose to Twilight’s; Rainbow Dash’s pupils were oval-shaped, Twilight noted. “Why, you heard of me?”

Twilight engulfed Rainbow Dash in her dwimmer shimmer, and levitated her away; her breath smelled terrible.

“I’m Twilight Sparkle, I was sent by my teacher, Queen Celestia, to supervise preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration…” Twilight sighed, taking the forgotten overseer’s checklist from Spike’s side, using her dwimmer shimmer to point the quill at the words weather control. “And I heard that you were supposed to be keeping the sky clear, so that everypony can see the sunrise clearly when the Celebration of the summer solstice begins tomorrow morning.”

Rainbow Dash waved a hoof dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll get on it. I just gotta finish practicin’ my sick moves!”

“Sick moves like ‘Cover-Everypony-In-Mud-By-Crashing-Straight-Into-Them’?”

“Hey, practice makes perfect. I gotta make sure I got all my maneuvers down pat for the Wonderbolts! They’re performing at the Summer Sun Celebration, and I’ll show them my moves!”

Twilight cocked a deep-sapphire eyebrow. “The Wonderbolts? You seriously think that the most big-time group of the most magically powerful Pegasi in all of Equestria − in all of Harmonia − are going to seriously consider letting a slacker like you join the force?”

Rainbow Dash grinned, showing off her canine and wolf teeth. “You seriously think I’m a slacker? You sure you didn’t bump your head in that crash?”

“Well, you might hit hard, but you can’t even keep the sky clear for one day!”

Rainbow Dash flapped up into the air, alighting upon the cloud she’d used to downpour on Twilight.

“Spoiler alert, Twilight Sparkle: the Summer Sun Celebration’s tomorrow! Their performance is this time tomorrow, a whole two-dozen hours away! I got time to clear the sky! And when I do it, I’ll clear it in Ten. Seconds. Flat.”

Twilight decided to throw down the gauntlet, make this blustering Pegasus put her bits where her mouth was.

“Prove it.”

As soon as Twilight finished saying the word it in Prove it, Rainbow Dash bolted into the sky, leaving a prismatic trail of light behind her, some artifact of her inborn Pegasus atmokinetic magic. Twilight’s smugness immediately took a sharp plummet at Rainbow Dash’s movements in the sky. Even somepony like Twilight who had no experience with flight − and no chance of having personal experience, being a Unicorn − could tell that Rainbow Dash was a flight prodigy. She didn’t waste a single movement, her wings and tail feathers angling her just the right amount to beeline straight at each cloud, dispersing each one with a swift midair buck. And she was fast, faster than any Pegasus that Twilight Sparkle had ever seen, faster than any she’d ever read about in any of her books. She wondered if even General Firefly, the very first Wonderbolt, would have been able to match Rainbow Dash’s speed in a competition. Almost as soon as Rainbow Dash had bucked one cloud, she was already beelining straight for another, as though she had a sixth sense for where every cloud in the sky was. She was almost too fast for Twilight’s eyes to follow, and she literally seemed to cross from one side of Ponyville to the other in a blink of the eye.

Almost before Twilight’s brain caught up with her eyes, Rainbow Dash was sitting back on the cloud she’d started on. She wasn’t sweating. She wasn’t even out of breath. She was grinning down at Twilight again, her eyes sparkling with mirth.

And the sky, as far as Twilight Sparkle could see, had not a single cloud anywhere over the Saddle Valley.

“See? I wasn’t pulling your leg, Twilight Sparkle! Ten. Seconds. Flat!”

It was indeed ten seconds. Or close enough. If anything, Rainbow Dash had actually come under ten seconds, if only by a dozisecond or two.

Rainbow Dash floated the cloud down to Twilight’s eye level. “Did you really think that I’m, just some showpony who boasts faster than she flies? I’d never tell anypony something that ain’t so.”

And then Rainbow Dash started snickering again, and this time, Twilight had no idea why. “You should see the look on your face!” It was only when Twilight felt Spike grabbing her jaw and pushing her mouth shut that she realized her jaw had dropped at some point during that spectacle.

“You’re a real laugh, you know that, TS? We should totally hang sometime!”

And in a flash of rainbow light, Rainbow Dash was already gone.

Spike was gaping after the rainbow pony. “Wasn’t she amazing?” he asked, looking up at Twilight.

He started biting his lip when he saw her mane.

Twilight scowled.

“Come on! It looks nice when you get used to it!”

Their next stop, as it turned out, was Town Hall itself, where the opening ceremony of the Summer Sun Celebration would unfold. Retrospectively, they probably should have made this the first stop on their trip. But the past was the past. No point fussing over should-have-beens. A Unicorn mare, Rarity of Carousel Couture, was cited as being the pony responsible for this third stop of the overseer’s checklist: decorations.

Upon entering the hall, Twilight could see why this place was chosen for the opening ceremony. The double-doors leading into Town Hall was on the west side of the building, and the atrium had a large window facing to the east, so that the sunrise would always be seen to anypony entering through the front doors. It was an ideal locale for the celebration of the longest day of the year.

She heard Spike gasp at her side, “Beautiful…”

She could only agree. Twilight was no connoisseur of decor, but the curtains and ribbons and drapes and such were all so well-placed that she had to find Rarity and offer her sincerest compliments to the mare in question. After the exhausting meeting with Applejack and her family of Apples, and the frustrating encounter with Rainbow Dash, she only hoped that she could make it through this meeting unscathed.

For the moment, Twilight merely nodded, soaking in the details all around her. “I agree. The decorations are very lovely, Spike.”

“Not the decor… Her!”

Twilight looked down at her young dragon companion, and he was gazing dreamily at the podium at the head of the atrium, a claw pointed in that same direction. His grip on the overseer’s checklist and quill were both slack. There, up behind the podium, below a balcony flanked by a pair of regal curtains respectively decorated with the Sun and Moon, adjusting some ribbons and bows in her periwinkle dwimmer shimmer, was a slender Unicorn mare who could only be Rarity. She had a sleek alabaster coat, with not a single hair out of place. Her mane and the skirt at the end of her tail were a rich, deep purple, curled in thin spirals at the ends. Her cutie mark was three pale-blue diamonds. Her almond-shaped eyes were azure, and framed by very prominent eyelashes. Curiously, for a Unicorn, her back was darkly dappled − perhaps she had an Earth Pony in her immediate heritage?

Immediately, Spike dropped the quill and parchment and got to work adjusting his frills and spines.

“Twilight, tell me! Are my spines straight? Do I look good? Do I―”

Twilight rolled her eyes and approached the podium.

“Good afternoo―”

“Ah-ah-ah,” said Rarity, not even looking the way of her addressee. She spoke with a refined and cultured accent that Twilight could only assume was put on out here in Ponyville. “Just a moment, if you will. I am, as the common phrase goes, ‘in the zone’.”

Rarity cocked an amethyst eyebrow, looking pensively at one particular bow tied around a support beam. After a moment, she closed her eyes, revealing pale-blue eyeshadow, and her horn flashed periwinkle. Blinking the spots out of her eyes, Twilight saw that all of the decorations around Town Hall were now sparkling, as though each ribbon and bow were studded with a million diamonds.

“Ah yes!” smiled Rarity triumphantly. “Sparkles always do the trick. Why, Rarity Belle, you are a talent. Now, how can I help yo…”

Rarity began to turn to Twilight, and her query quickly degenerated into an astonished cry.

“Good Heavens, darling! Whatever happened to your coiffure?”

With a start, Twilight realized that she had not tidied her mane since her less-than-pleasant encounter with Rainbow Dash.

“It’s a long story,” she said flatly. Hoping she did not come across as too cross, she tried to lighten her tone as she continued, “But I’m just here to check on the decorations. It all looks to be in order, so I’ll just get out of your hair now and―”

My hair? What about your hair?” cried Rarity, diving down from the podium to Twilight’s side. She began to butt her head into Twilight’s side, pushing her fellow Unicorn towards the main doors. Spike followed dreamily. Twilight hastily dwimmer-shimmered the overseer’s checklist and quill to her side.

“Wh-where are you taking me?” she asked the fashion mare.

“I am taking you to my boutique, Carousel Couture, for a makeover! I simply cannot allow such a travesty to befall such lovely mane colours in my presence!”

“N-no, really, it’s alright! I can fix it myself!” Twilight said hastily, trying to flatten her mane with a forehoof. It refused to cooperate.

“Oh, nonononononononono, dear!” Rarity said emphatically. “If it’s price you’re worried about, put those worries aside! This one’s on the house! I simply will have you looking more beautiful than you’ve ever been!”

Carousel Couture was a circular building, shaped and decorated almost like an upscale circus tent. Above the canopied front door was a symbol of a carousel horse, and a pair of carousel mannequins circled around the top story. It almost looked like it did not belong in Ponyville, with how high and cultured an appearance that it presented. Twilight had little time to absorb every detail before she was shoved through the door by the surprisingly forceful Rarity.

Inside, Twilight found her mane and tail were sorted out within the first two-dozen minutes, but for the remaining three-quarters of the hour, Rarity had experimented on several more manestyles. And for the next several hours, Rarity pulled a veritable cornucopia of dresses of all manner of styles to test upon Twilight. During this high-speed fitting session with no end in sight, Twilight observed the workroom of Carousel Couture. The outermost hoof’s length of the workroom’s circumference was devoted to a circle of mannequins fit onto poles that actually rotated about the room like a carousel as Rarity’s dwimmer shimmer glimmered. Each mannequin was fitted with a dress of some sort. There were mirrors and screens for changing into dresses and observing one’s attire. There was another door that led away from the workroom to some other room Twilight was oblivious to the purpose of, though it was possible Rarity lived here. Any attempts to get Spike’s attention were curtailed by his obvious infatuation with Rarity.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, Rarity had found a dress that she seemed to think suited Twilight quite well. Twilight had to admit she looked quite stylish in it, though the bridle was perhaps a little flowery for her tastes. The emerald in her chest might have been pushing it as well.

“Now, do go on, my dear,” Rarity said, taking the corset’s laces in her dwimmer shimmer. “Where did you say you were from?”

“I didn’t,” said Twilight, who gasped sharply as Rarity tightened the corset. “I… was sent from Canterlot to…”

Rarity released the corset laces abruptly, and Twilight fell onto her chest as Rarity began to canter gaily about Twilight.

“Did you say Canterlot? Such a truly lovely locale! The glamour! The sophistication! I’ve always dreamed of living there!”

Twilight picked herself up off of the ground, just as Rarity cantered right up to her and nuzzled her. Twilight flushed at such closeness of another pony.

“I can already tell that you and I will be the best of friends!”

Again with the whole ‘friend’ deal? And she’s a social climber, by the looks of it...

With a start, Rarity glowered at the emerald in Twilight’s dress.

Emerald? What was I thinking? Let’s get you a ruby!”

That was it. She’d wasted enough time here at Carousel Couture. She needed to leave now, before Rarity decided to dye her coat a new color or something. As soon as Rarity closed the door out of the workroom, Twilight caught Spike in her dwimmer shimmer and galloped out the front door, leaving the dress behind.

Spike sighed from his spot on Twilight’s back. “Wasn’t she just wonderful?”

Twilight gave him a weary smile. Carousel Couture was far behind them, and Rarity was the last thing that Twilight wanted on her mind. “Focus, Casanova. We’ve still got one last thing to check off of the checklist. And that is…”

Spike shook his head back and forth, smacking his cheeks with his claws, clearing his throat as he stood on Twilight’s back with the parchment.

“The last thing on the checklist is: music! It should be a chorus of birds being conducted by a Pegasus mare named―”

Twilight shushed Spike. She thought she’d heard something. Her ears twitched as she listened in for whatever she thought she’d heard. After a moment or two of attention, she heard it: faint, a minute’s further walk out of Ponyville, was the sound of a menagerie of birds chirping, whistling, twittering, cheeping in sequence. It was some of the most lovely music that Twilight had ever heard, and she was getting closer to it. With a bright smile, Twilight cantered down the road towards the source of the bird chorus.

Within a minute, Twilight reached a small tree, each branch seated with every manner of bird she could imagine. Robins, bluebirds, pigeons, canaries, doves, cockatiels, cuckoos, macaws… The sound they were making was just so magical. But… one of the bluebirds seemed just a bit off. Spike slid off Twilight’s back, hiding behind a nearby bush so as not to frighten off the birds; a dragon was more off-putting than a pony to a bunch of birds.

In an instant, Twilight heard the soft chirping of a bird she’d never heard before. She imagined some lovely, angelic swan of a dove making the sweet accent to this orchestra… But the birds had stopped singing. In swept from the top of the tree behind Twilight a butter-yellow Pegasus mare with long, slender legs, a long, slender neck, and a sweeping pink mane and tail. She had the modest fetlocks and chest fur of an Earth Pony − was a parent of hers an Earth Pony? − and her cutie mark was of three pink butterflies. Astonishingly to Twilight, despite her small, lithe build, this Pegasus had a startling number of scars and bite marks across her deerlike body, moreso than even Applejack had.

And this yellow mare was the one who was chirping.

She could talk to birds.

She was talking to the one bluebird whose tempo was off… Was she informing of his mistake? She seemed to be, as it was nodding slowly. She flapped back, chirped a couple more times, then said in a soft, sweet voice, “A-one, a-two, a-one-two-three…”

“Hello,” Twilight ventured before she could help herself. Maybe it was the approachability of this mare compared to the extreme personalities of the other ponies she’d seen so far today. Maybe she was emboldened by the glorious chorus of birds that she’d been privy to. In either case, the word Hello was out of her mouth before her brain caught up to what she was doing. In a split-second, the birds scattered to all manner of different trees, and the yellow mare gasped sharply before fluttering to the ground before Twilight, hiding her face behind her long mane.

“I… I’m sorry I scared your birds off,” Twilight started awkwardly. “I mean, it sounded beautiful and all that. I just… I had to say something.”

Twilight offered a smile she hoped was endearing, even comforting, but the yellow Pegasus mare withdrew even further behind her mane.

After another moment’s awkward silence, Twilight held out a hoof. “I’m Twilight Sparkle. What’s your name?”

Glancing out from behind her rosy curtain of a mane, the withdrawn Pegasus mare looked at Twilight with a cyan eye. “Umm… I’m Fluttershy.”

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Twilight asked, taking a step forward.

“Umm…” the shy Pegasus mare took two steps back. “My name is… Fluttershy.”

Twilight smiled ingratiatingly, though she was inwardly starting to find this mare aggravatingly quiet. “Didn’t quite catch that, either.”

The yellow Pegasus whimpered.

Twilight cast her eyes about, looking for some topic, any topic other than this reticent Pegasus’s name, which seemed to be a real challenge to dig out.

“…Well, it looks like your birds are back now,” she said brightly, pointing up at the tree over the yellow pony’s shoulder, where many of the birds had started to perch back on the branches. “So… I guess you guys can get back to… practice? Keep up the good… work?”

But with each successive word, Twilight’s conversation partner retreated further and further back, receding more and more behind her own mane.

“Ohhh-kayyy,” Twilight said, turning back to face Spike, who had emerged from behind the bush, shrugging. “Well, that was riveting conversation.”

Twilight heard a very loud gasp. For a moment, she thought that the pink Earth Pony from that morning had followed her here, but when she heard the delighted cry of “A baby dragon!”, she realized that it was the pony she’d been trying to talk to this whole time! And she nearly bowled Twilight over trying to meet Spike face-to-face.

“I’ve never seen a baby dragon before. He’s so cute!”

Spike glanced over his shoulder at Twilight, who was staring at the Pegasus in alarm. “Well, well, well. All that talk, and it takes just a little bit of dragon action.”

“Oh my!” the Pegasus gasped. “I didn’t know that dragons could talk.” She fluttered into the air again, her eyes closed in glee. “That’s just so incredible, I − I just don’t know what to say…!”

“Well, that’s a big surprise, and a real shame,” Twilight said, dwimmer-shimmering Spike up to her back, “Because we really need to get to Golden Oak Library, now.”

“But, wait!” cried the yellow Pegasus. “I want to know his name!”

“Sure thing!” Spike said smilingly. “My name is Spike!”

“Hello, Spike,” said the Pegasus softly. “My name is Fluttershy. I take care of all the critters all around Ponyville, settle disputes between the rabbit and jackalope warrens, make sure beaver dams don’t block off streams to Sweet Apple Acres, and…” She squealed. “Oooh, a talking dragon! I still can’t quite get over it! What do dragons talk about?”

“What do you want to hear me talk about?”

“Absolutely everything!” Fluttershy said brightly.

Twilight groaned. This was going to be a long walk having to listen to every single little detail of Spike’s life, which she herself was already privy to.

“Well, I started out as a cute little purple egg…”

“...and that’s the story of my whole entire life!” Spike finished. Sunset had come and gone, and the sky was the deep royal purple of dusk before the deep blue-black of night. “Well, except for today. Would you like to hear about today?”

“Oh, yes, of course!” said Fluttershy happily, rearing up at the thought. “Whatever brought you two to Ponyville?”

“I’m sorry to have wasted your time,” Twilight said curtly, “but we’ve got to where I’m going to be staying here in Ponyville for the night.”

It was the Golden Oak Library, known locally to some ponies as the “Tree of Knowledge”. A large tree that had been standing since before Ponyville’s founding − if the placard by the door was to be believed − had since been hollowed out and made into a well-stocked library, along with living quarters for whatever lucky librarian happened to call the Golden Oak Library home. The leaves on its branches had been enchanted to retain their color, depending on the season.

“Now, that was really a riveting conversation,” Twilight said in a falsely cheery voice, “but my little dragon here is all tuckered out and needs his rest for tomorrow.”

“Nuh-uh!” Spike said, folding his arms. “I’m not the least bit―whoa!”

Twilight had (she hoped) nonchalantly bucked Spike off of her back and onto the ground. She kneeled down over him, giving him a pitying look as she said in a baby-ish voice, “Aww, wook at dat! He’s so sweepy he can’t even keep his widdle bawance!”

“Oh, you poor little dear,” said Fluttershy, sweeping Spike up into her forelegs and flittering through the door of Golden Oak Library, “We simply must get you into bed.”

Twilight deftly swept past Fluttershy, dwimmer-shimmered Spike out of the Pegasus’s hooves, and none-too-gently pushed the Pegasus out the door.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll get right on it. He’s my little dragon. Good night!”

Twilight slammed the door on Fluttershy, leaving herself and Spike in pitch blackness. Twilight frowned at this; she’d expected somepony to be in Golden Oak Library to show her her living quarters, or at least for the window shades to be opened and let some of the last light of Queen Celestia’s Sun to shine in when she showed up. Dismissing this, she faced Spike, whose eyes she could make out even in this dimness. He was frowning.

“Wow. Rude much?”

“Sorry, Spike, but I have to convince Queen Celestia that NightMare Moon is coming, and we’re running out of time. It’s six in the evening, and we have less than a dozen hours till dawn tomorrow, when NightMare Moon will surely return! I need to be alone so that I can study without a bunch of crazy ponies trying to make friends all the time!” She glanced around; Ponyville had become increasingly sparse as the day progressed, and she couldn’t help but get an ominous feeling in the pit of her belly about it. Maybe it was just paranoia at the impending return of a dark abomination from the past, but she still had to wonder.

“And for that matter, where’s the light?”

In a flash, the lights came on, and Twilight was blind for a second or two. When her vision cleared, she saw that the library was packed full of almost all of the ponies in Ponyville. She could barely make out the bookshelves behind all the rows of ponies of different shapes, sizes, colors, and races. Some Pegasi flew, some walked, but all of the ponies in the room threw confetti into the air and set off party favors that let off surprisingly loud POPs as the ponies all shouted SURPRISE!.

Suddenly, Twilight caught a whiff of cotton candy and found her cheeks being squeezed together by a pair of hooves that definitely seemed to be wearing rubber horseshoes and had no sense of personal space.

And then her vision was filled with a bright pink muzzle, a brilliant pink frizzy mane, and a pair of very bright cerulean eyes that seemed to have spirals swirling from the edge of the irides to the pupils. Their noses were touching.

“SURPRIII~ISE!” sang the pink Earth Pony right into Twilight’s face, and Twilight realized that it was the same Earth Pony whom she’d run into at the start of the day. The pink mare pulled herself up off of her hind legs, but Twilight surprisingly did not bow under the weight of an Earth Pony mare who surely weighed more than she did. It was almost as if she was floating of her own power − it’s probably just some recessive Pegasus magic, Twilight thought nonchalantly − and seemed to do a midair pirouette as she spun around to land in front of Twilight with an uncommonly wide smile filled with very white teeth.

“But my name isn’t Surprise. I mean, that was the name of my Granny Pie, but my Granny Pie taught me that parties like this are the absolutely-dutely best ice-breaker there is! Daddy didn’t agree with a lot of what she told me, but he loves my parties! Everypony loves my parties! ‘Cause nopony has really partied until they’ve partied at a Pinkie Pie party! My name is Pinkie Pie, and I threw this party together just for you! Was it a Granny Pie? No, wait. This party can’t possibly be my Granny Pie. She’s up in the Elysian Fields now, and it couldn’t be possible for one pony to be a party anyway, because a party of one is just sad and boring. What I meant to ask was, was this Granny Pie party a surprise? Was it, was it, huh?”

She said all of it in one breath, and very quickly, and most of it while bouncing around Twilight, cartwheeling and somersaulting, backflipping and frontflipping, bouncing around as if her tail was some sort of spring. She made Rainbow Dash look like a sloth.

Very surprised,” Twilight said numbly. She’d spent so much time today trying to dodge social interaction in the hopes of getting to the Golden Oak Library to research NightMare Moon, and now she walked right into a party! “Libraries are supposed to be quiet.”

“That’s just silly, filly~!” giggled Pinkie Pie. “What kind of Pinkie Pie welcome party would this be if it were quiet? Duh! Bo~ring!”

With a heaving sigh, Twilight began to trot aimlessly through the party, avoiding eye contact with anypony. She passed all sorts of ponies, with all sorts of different levels of excitement at seeing a Unicorn straight out of Canterlot. All of them attempted to talk to her, or to Spike, but they might as well have tried to talk to a wall. Twilight wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but she was sure she’d know when she got there.

Meanwhile, Pinkie Pie just kept. On. Talking.

“I mean, you remember me from Town Square, don’t you? You were all like Hello! and I was all like−” She did an exaggerated rendition of her already exaggerated gasp from that morning, and Twilight and others looked at her as she floated up, wondering if she was having a seizure… then she dropped back on the ground and continued on without pause, “−remember that? Because I do! I’d never gasped like that before in my life, not even when I saw that rainbow! Y’see, I’d never seen you before, and if I’ve never seen you before, that means that you’re new to Ponyville, because I know everypony in Ponyville, and if you’re new to Ponyville, that means that you don’t have any friends here, and that made me so sad, but then I got really happy and had a great idea that made me feel really glowy, you know, like PING!, and that great idea is why I went−” Exaggerated gasp and gravity-defying act again, “−when I saw you! That great idea that I had was to throw a super-duper-looper-wooper-yooper welcome party just for you where I invited everypony in Ponyville to welcome you and be your new Ponyville friends! Isn’t that just so great? Now you have lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of friends!”

At some point around Pinkie’s second GASP, Twilight had reached a table set with all sorts of drinks and some leftover Apple family food wares. She saw a dark-brown bottle, took it in her dwimmer shimmer, looked at the cups set out around the table… and tipped the whole bottle back into her mouth.

“Wow, you like to drink that, Twilight?” said Pinkie, tilting her head. “I usually like to put a dollop or two on my cupcakes before I eat ‘em, but whatever floats your boat~!”

Twilight’s eyes almost popped out of her head. She only just now realized what she was drinking, and she barely registered Applejack asking, “Sugarcube, are ya alright?” before she tore off across the library towards the stairs in the back, the bottle clattering to the floor. It felt like her mouth was on fire, and she needed water, and she didn’t trust anything that Pinkie Pie set out on the table!

“Aww, she’s so happy she’s crying!” Pinkie squealed. Around her were Spike, Applejack, Rainbow Dash (flying in the air), Rarity, and Fluttershy. With the exception of the smiling and seemingly oblivious Pinkie Pie, all of them were looking concerned for Twilight.

Spike bent down and picked up the bottle that Twilight had dropped. He read the label:

“Hot sauce.”

It took Twilight the better part of ten minutes to wash the taste of hot sauce out of her mouth in the bathroom. What kind of insane pony put out hot sauce as a condiment for sweets, in a bottle that one put drinks in? It made absolutely no sense whatsoever! Of all the crazy ponies she had met here in Ponyville, Pinkie Pie was without doubt the most suited for the asylum. Downstairs, she could hear the party had escalated by way of some sort of oompah band working its way around the ground floor. Seriously, what business did a music band have being in a library in any form other than the subject of a book or if they were reading books on music themselves? Angry and weary, Twilight trotted up to the vacant bedroom in the upper levels of the Golden Oak Library.

It was a miniature library of its own, but its book selection was far narrower, and reading the spines told Twilight that she would not find what she wanted up here. A short staircase led up to a mezzanine level that had a single bookcase, a window in front of which sat a very familiar agave and cactus pair − Twilight smiled sadly at them − and a bed.

The Sun was long down by now, and there was no way that Twilight could possibly string together enough thoughts to write a letter to the Queen, and Spike was too busy partying with Pinkie and the others to be helpful. The party down below showed no signs of slowing down at all whenever Twilight poked her head out the door, and she almost got pulled down a few times by Pinkie Pie, but dismissed herself quickly by claiming (truthfully) to have a headache.

The party continued well past midnight and into the wee hours of the morning. Twilight had not stayed awake that late into the Summer Sun Celebration when it was celebrated in Canterlot in her fillyhood; seeing the whole Celebration meant being awake almost two days straight. She had since become accustomed to late nights and being awake for over a day due to her self-imposed crunch study sessions, but this

She flung herself onto the bed, pulling the pillow down hard over her flattened ears.

Sometime around half-after-two in the morning, Spike had barged into the room, wearing a lampshade over his head. The music intensified with the door’s opening, and Twilight buried her head as deeply as she could in the covers.

“Hey, Twilight! Pinkie’s started up a game of Pin The Tail On The Pony! Wanna play?”

It had been Twilight’s favorite game to play with Spike when he became old enough to understand how to play games. Spike enjoyed it as well, especially when playing it with Twilight.

No!” Twilight bellowed. “All of the ponies in this town are crazy! Do any of them have any idea what could happen this morning, if there even is a morning?”

“Aww, Mom! …err, Twilight! Lighten up. It’s just a party. But what a party it is! Pinkie Pie wasn’t lying when she said she throws the best parties ever!”

“But Queen Celestia might have―”

“Queen Celestia probably knows what she’s doing, Twilight,” Spike said with surprising sage. “She knows just about everything, doesn’t she?”

Twilight had no answer to that, and Spike decided to rejoin the party while there was still party to be had.

With a heaving frustrated sigh that failed to carry all of the tension that Twilight was carrying, she laid back onto the bed, clutching the pillow in her forehooves.

Here I thought that I was going to find some downtime to study up on NightMare Moon and the Elements of Harmony and have Spike send a letter to Her Majesty the Queen before it’s too late, she thought bitterly, But silly me, all of this stupid friend-making has eaten up any time I could have put towards finding out anything!

She threw the pillow up into the air with her dwimmer shimmer, and punched it repeatedly with her forehooves − her right foreleg was still somewhat sore from Applejack’s overzealous hoofshake. She didn’t know how long she kept it up, but she knew that it outlasted the partygoers’ music-making. She didn’t know how long she laid there sobbing silently. But she knew that it was close to five in the morning − less than an hour to dawn (maybe) − when she looked out the window at the Moon.

The lunar maria and craters took the shape of a Unicorn (or Alicorn) mare in profile seen from the left. Until the past day, she had not given it much thought. Now, she realized, that was probably the likeness of NightMare Moon herself, staring down on Equestria with envious eyes towards Queen Celestia’s throne.

There were four stars around the Moon that glimmered particularly brightly.

“After five-dozen-score years have passed since the Queen of the Night's interment,” Twilight recited to herself, “The stars will undo her shackles on the longest day of the year, and she will descend from her celestial cell, and darken the Sun, and turn the Moon to blood. Unless she is cleansed by the Six Dwimmercrafts, she will bring nighttime eternal, and all life will perish.”

…you simply must stop reading those dusty old books! Queen Celestia’s words echoed in Twilight’s head, and she almost imagined the Queen laughing dismissively as she thought of them.

Twilight looked down to her mother and father. They would be affected more immediately than normal ponies by NightMare Moon’s return, not being ponies anymore.

She looked up at the Moon again, trying to ignore those four stars that seemed to be glowing more brightly than before.

“I hope that Her Majesty is right,” she whispered to herself, slipping down to the floor and placing a hoof around each pot that her parents were in. “I hope that it is just an old breezie-tale…”

The door slammed open. It was Spike, now devoid of the lampshade.

“C’mon, M− Twilight! It’s time to go watch the sunrise!”

The atrium of the Gazebo was larger than the Golden Oak Library’s ground floor, but still was not quite large enough to contain all of the ponies who lived in Ponyville. Many of them had to watch the sunrise from outside the Gazebo. The situation was somewhat exacerbated by those who dared to travel to Ponyville from around Equestria to witness the Summer Sun Celebration firsthoof. All told, there were at least five-gross ponies who were to bear witness to the rising of the Sun on the day of the summer solstice. Which was why it was recommended that ponies attempt to make it to the Gazebo at least an hour before sunrise, so that they would not miss it.

To her own mild astonishment, Twilight Sparkle made it into the atrium of the Gazebo, beside a table set with some Apple family appetizers. To the credit of most Pegasi, though, they had taken flight to allow for more non-flying ponies to fit into the atrium. Sitting on Twilight’s back was Spike; beside her were Pinkie Pie and Applejack, and above her was Rainbow Dash, who seemed to be grinning boldly at Fluttershy. The yellow Pegasus was hovering by her chorus of all sorts of birds behind the podium, idly chirping with them as they warmed up for their impending performance. Rarity was up on the mezzanine by the balcony over the podium. Flanking the podium itself were a number of Royal Guards of all three pony races, their golden armor sparkling amidst the glimmer of Rarity’s decorations.

“Isn’t this exciting?” Pinkie asked Twilight excitedly. “Are you excited? ‘Cause I’m excited! I’ve never been so excited! Well, except for the time I saw you walking into town and I was like −” Gasp and floating, “− but I mean, really, who could top that?”

Twilight cocked an eyebrow at Pinkie Pie, and then the bird chorus rose in volume, chirping out the anthem of the Diarchy of Equestria. In spite of her nerves, and her hoping against hope that she was wrong, Twilight felt a swell of pride at being an Equestrian when she heard that leitmotif.

Stepping up to the podium was a slightly stout middle-aged Earth Pony mare with a pale-amber coat and a wavy silver mane: the Mayor of Ponyville. She had a cutie mark of a rolled-up scroll bound by a blue ribbon, and she wore a pair of pince-museau glasses, a white collar and a bluish-green cravat. Once the anthem was finished, she clacked a forehoof against the floor for silence, though she didn’t need to, as all eyes were on her.

All eyes but Twilight Sparkle’s.

“Fillies and gentlecolts…” the Mayor began. “It is my great pleasure as mayor of Ponyville to announce the beginning of the Summer Sun Celebration!”

Everypony save Twilight began to cheer and, if they could, clop their forehooves against the ground as applause. Twilight was looking out the gap between the pillars above the balcony, through which she could clearly see the Moon.

“It is also my great pleasure to offer my welcome to one Miss Twilight Sparkle −” Twilight started at this mention of her name. “− the star pupil of Queen Celestia herself, who has come to ensure that the Summer Sun Celebration preparations were to the Queen’s standards!”

Ponies applauded more, cheered and whistled, and Pinkie shouted, “Twilight Sparkle over here, everypony!” and soon Twilight was having to wave sheepishly at anypony who looked her way.

The Mayor continued, “Now, in just a few moments, we will watch the magic of the sunrise…”

Twilight’s attention drifted away from the Mayor’s speech; it was the same sort of speech that she’d read in every book about every Summer Sun Celebration ever. She looked back up to the sky. The faintest tint of pink had entered the sky, and a thin sliver of golden sunlight peaked up from the unseen horizon.

Maybe the Queen was right, Twilight thought, closing her eyes and smiling to herself. Not all prophecies come true; you know this, Twilight. Forget-Me-Not’s prophecy won’t come to pass. So just enjoy this Summer Sun Celebration, and leave for Canterlot as soon as it’s ov―

Twilight had reopened her eyes and glanced up at the Moon out the window again. For a moment, she thought nothing of it. Then, in a double-take, Twilight realized in horror…

The four stars around the Moon, and the lunar maria of the Mare In The Moon, were gone.

Twilight’s ears went flat, but it seemed like nopony else had noticed. Why hadn’t anypony else noticed? Surely they had heard her before they’d sprung the surprise party on her. Were they really so enraptured by the idea of seeing the majestic and beautiful Queen Celestia in the flesh that they couldn’t bear her frantic warnings in mind?



“...bringer of harmony to all of Equestria…” the Mayor continued, “The good, the wise…” − Fluttershy chirped a signal to her bird chorus − “Her Majesty, Queen Celestia!”

The curtains of the balcony over the Mayor were drawn back, the bird chorus soared in song, and the ponies cheered and clopped…

And there was nothing there but blackness.

The birds stopped singing, the ponies gasped and started to mutter to one another, and Twilight whispered to herself, “I have a bad feeling about this…”

The Mayor tried to maintain order, despite sounding shaky herself. “Remain calm, everypony. There must be some logical explanation for this.”

“Ooh, ooh! I love guessing games!” Pinkie shouted, but Twilight paid her no mind. “Is she hiding somewhere back there? Come out, come out~, Queenie Celly~

Rarity, who was the closest to the balcony, had leapt over the balustrade onto the balcony and inspected the dark room behind. She emerged, looking startlingly pale.

“She’s gone!” she called down to the gathered herd.

Whatever semblance of calm there had been before was broken. The nervous mutters became sharp screams of terror, and ponies began to look back and forth amongst one another, wondering what could be done without the Queen.

But Pinkie…

“Oooh, she’s good!” she said bubbly as she looked up at the balcony where Rarity was.

And screamed in true fear.

Twilight, who had not associated Pinkie Pie with fearful screaming, looked up where the pink pony was looking.

Behind Rarity was coalescing a cloud of sparkling blue mist. It formed together into a solid equine shape, taller than anypony save the Queen. A long, deadly pointed alicorn emerged from a narrow head, chiropteric wings spreading from its back to the ceiling. Shape gave way to form, and an Alicorn as black as the darkest night appeared. She wore a pale-blue battle helmet, a matching armored collar, and armor across her legs. Her mane and tail were comprised of that same mist, and her flank was blotched with nebulous deep-purple shapes, each flank emblazoned with a pale crescent moon. She was built lithe and slim, like a predator. Her alicorn could have gored a buffalo, her wings were a bat’s, and her Unicorn-like tail swished like a snake.

“Oh no…” Twilight whispered in fear.

Spike fainted from her back.

The dark Alicorn’s appearance, following Pinkie’s scream, had petrified the ponies in the atrium. She cast her cyan eyes, pupils slitted like a cat’s, about at her stunned audience.

And when she spoke, it was with a voice like honey coating a silver dagger.

“Oh, my beloved subjects,” she said, smiling down upon them like a predator. Rarity, having finally noticed the dark Alicorn right behind her, turned and stood stock-still, spooked. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen your precious little sun-loving faces.” She spat the word Sun as though it were poison.

“What did you do with our Queen?!” demanded Rainbow Dash, who prepared to shoot herself at the dark Alicorn. Applejack threw herself into the air, hurling herself down on Rainbow Dash before she could fly at the intruder.

“Whoa there, Nelly…” hissed Applejack to the prone Pegasus.

The Alicorn chuckled darkly. “Why?” she asked, baring a mouth full of fangs. “Am I not royal enough? Do you not know who I am?”

“Ooh, ooh, more guessing games?” Pinkie asked eagerly. “Lemme guess. Your name is… Hokey Smokes! Nono, how about Queen Meanie? Dis Chord? Or Dat Chord? Black Batty? Ohh! Ohh! I know it! I definitely know it! This one is definitely it! Black Snooty!” Any further guesses by Pinkie were interrupted by Applejack using her tail to flick a slice of apple pie into Pinkie’s mouth.

The dark Alicorn cast a black glare about the room. She leaned in towards Fluttershy, whose wings had locked up in fright (Rainbow Dash looked mutinous). “Does my crown no longer count now that I’ve been imprisoned for six-dozen-score years?” She turned to Rarity, her misty mane that sparkled with the stars reaching down and cupping Rarity’s chin. “Did you not recall the prophecy? Did you not see the signs?

“I did!” shouted Twilight, who had worked up the nerve to stand up while everypony else cowered. The dark Alicorn cast her devilish gaze upon the lavender Unicorn. Their eyes met, and Twilight glowered in spite of her overwhelming desire to run. “And I know who you are. You’re the Mare In The Moon…

“NightMare Moon!”

Ponies all about the atrium looked back and forth between Twilight and NightMare Moon in terrified disbelief. There was no gasp or scream which could elucidate the fear that filled each and every pony in the atrium at that moment. A mare who had to have come from Prance shrieked La Jument Séléniaque! in terror before fainting.

NightMare Moon laughed to herself. “Well, well, well. Somepony who remembers me.” Her wings flapped, and the blue starry mist of her mane and tail began to swell and swirl like a typhoon. “Then you should also know why I am here!”

Twilight’s ears drooped, and she felt her willpower sapped. She could see the shoot of sunlight in the sky beyond the pillars diminish and die.

“Y-you’re here to… to…”

NightMare Moon chuckled to herself, raising an armored forehoof.

“Remember this day well, my little ponies,” she said with all of her teeth bared, “for it will be your last.”

With a loud and terrible creaking noise, the roof of the Gazebo was ripped off by the swirling blue mist. The Moon was now directly overhead, and though it was now past the hour of six in the morning, it was as dark as midnight.

“From this moment forth,” NightMare Moon declared, “The night will last FOREVER!”

Her laughter echoed as a legion, compounded by the flashes of lightning and the sound of thunder. And in that moment, every pony felt as though an icicle were plunged into each of their hearts.

CHAPTER ii: The Everfree Forest

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“Seize her!” cried the Mayor of Ponyville, and the stunned Royal Guard stallions snapped to attention. Twilight blinked; she’d almost forgotten they were there. “Only she knows where Queen Celestia is!”

Even as the Pegasi among the Royal Guards rose up and prepared to dive upon NightMare Moon, Twilight had a sinking suspicion that they would not be successful in their attempt to subdue the former Mare In The Moon, so she scooped up Spike in her dwimmer shimmer and made for the exit as quickly as she could − which was taking quite a bit longer than she’d hoped, considering that everypony else was rooted to their respective spots. Behind her, she could hear NightMare Moon cry out to the Royal Guards Begone, you foals!, and a deep crack of thunder followed by fresh shrieks of horror told her all she needed to know as to their fate.

Meanwhile, Rainbow Dash was still struggling to get free from underneath Applejack’s tackle. The Earth Pony was not only larger than she was, but Earth Pony muscles were much denser than the other two pony races, giving them greater strength and resilience… and greater body mass to boot. Add onto that the fact that Pegasi had many hollow bones in their body to reduce body weight for the ease of flight, and Rainbow Dash was really in a tough spot.

But she did manage to wriggle out from under her day-to-day competitor, and beelined straight for NightMare Moon.

NightMare Moon cackled madly, her mane and tail of starry blue mist now a twister that encircled her completely and sent every Pegasus slamming against the walls of the Gazebo atrium. The mad mare of darkness then tore off towards the sky through the hole she’d just ripped in the roof.

“Wait, you!” Rainbow Dash bellowed, recovering quickly and shooting after the dark Alicorn. Though Rainbow Dash prided herself on being the fastest Pegasus in the Saddle Valley − in the air; on the ground, Applejack the Earth Pony would probably give her a run for her bits − NightMare Moon was proving to be a diligent pursuee. Still, she was closing in. Rainbow just needed to flap a little harder and she’d be on the usurper…

All of a sudden, NightMare Moon was knocked off course by a golden fireball. Rainbow Dash skidded to a halt in midair, eyes gaping at the near-miss.

A pair of azure-uniformed Pegasi bolting by, not even dozen-and-eight hooves above Rainbow’s head, snapped her back to her senses. Rubbing her eyes fiercely, she turned to look at the trajectory of those two Pegasi. They themselves seemed to be in hot pursuit of NightMare Moon.

NightMare Moon was presently in hot combat, firing blinding cyan dwimmer-beams arcing with violet lightning from her alicorn, with three Pegasi in azure flight uniforms emblazoned with golden lightning patterns.

Rainbow Dash gaped.

The Wonderbolts!

There was Captain Spitfire, leader of the Wonderbolts, crackling with a golden aura of fire that Rainbow felt the heat of even at this distance, her orange mane flaring like an inferno all its own. And Soarin, whose aura of shimmering wind deflected NightMare Moon’s dwimmer-beams into the empty night sky. And Fleetfoot, whose speed-bursts allowed her to deftly dodge the NightMare’s attacks and waste the enemy’s energy.

OhmygoshohmygoshohmygoshohmygoshohmygoshohmygoshohmygoshohmyGOSH! Rainbow Dash thought excitedly, her mind abuzz with all sorts of wild fantasies of darting in there, delivering a decisive kick to NightMare Moon’s gut, ending the battle, coaxing the tearful admission by NightMare Moon of where she’d imprisoned Queen Celestia, being awarded the position of Honorary Captain of the Wonderbolts for her actions in the line of duty…

But a dwimmer-beam that whizzed by her left ear, singing part of her mane, snapped Rainbow Dash out of fangirl mode.

Which she snapped right back into when Spitfire, who’d spotted Rainbow Dash hovering stupidly just under a big battle, glowered at the rainbow Pegasus and barked, ”Clear the sky, rookie!”

A Wonderbolt just… talked to me! Rainbow Dash squeed inside.

But this turned out to be just the distraction NightMare Moon needed. With their primary offensive compromised, she came off of the defensive and sent her starry blue mane exploding outwards, sending the Wonderbolts tumbling. They recovered swiftly − as per their training − but the damage was done. NightMare Moon was tearing off into the night, off to who knew where.

Spitfire cursed under her breath; she’d hoped to buy a bit more time by engaging NightMare Moon in battle, but this

Rainbow Dash smiled nervously as the three high-ranking Wonderbolts hovered down to her level, glowering at her with looks that could have killed if they knew the spells for that. She scratched the back of her head with her right forehoof, chuckling casually, “Uh… I’m a big fan?”

A hoof struck Rainbow Dash in the face. Spitfire was blasting fire out of her nostrils in fury.

”What was going through your mind to be flying into a combat zone, civilian?” Spitfire shouted, with all the force of a drill-sergeant in the military days of old.

“I…” Rainbow Dash hesitated, her ears drooping slightly. “I was… chasing NightMare Moon…”

“Obviously,” said Fleetfoot shortly, her cerise eyes narrowed in severe distaste. “But you have no military training. Your mind clearly wasn’t on your objective.”

“Well… you guys are just so… awesome!” Rainbow Dash said defensively, reaching out her forehooves in plea.

“We would have kept her pinned down until our reinforcements arrived,” said Soarin coldly, his forelegs folded, “if you hadn’t been in the line of fire.”

Rainbow Dash withdrew her hooves in shame. She’d seriously messed up. She always dreamed of impressing the Wonderbolts with some of her sweetest moves − like the Super Speed Strut, the Fantastic Filly Flash, and the Buckaneer Blaze − but now, they wanted nothing to do with her. All because she’d gotten too close to one of their military operations.

But… they were just an aerial flight team! How had they held their own against somepony who was surely at a power level matched only by Queen Celestia herself?

“I… didn’t know you guys were military… guys,” she offered weakly.

Spitfire bowed her head slightly, glaring at Rainbow from under her brow. “The Wonderbolts have a strong military history, you know,” she hissed. “We’re not just pretty showponies who fart lightning storms. Maybe if you’d open up a book, you’d know that!”

And with that, the Wonderbolts bolted off, leaving Rainbow alone with her thoughts.

Well, Celestia, there go my chances of becoming a Wonderbolt, she thought miserably, looking down to the Gazebo. A lavender Unicorn had just emerged, and was beating a direct path towards the Golden Oak Library.

A rainbow eyebrow cocked itself upward.

“Where’s she off to?”

Twilight found a basket in the closet on the ground floor of the Golden Oak Library, ripped the tablecloth out from under the leftover food from Pinkie Pie’s surprise party the previous night, and tucked the tuckered Spike into the basket with the tablecloth as a makeshift blanket. She smiled warmly down on the baby drake in spite of herself.

Despite her clinical stance regarding her part in his birth, Twilight still cared deeply for Spike. How so, she did not know, but for some reason that drove Twilight to distraction, she could not allow herself to care for him as her son.

Although she was only smiling on Spike for a moment, Twilight shook her head vigorously to get her thoughts in order. She was just doing this because Spike needed his sleep. He was a baby dragon, after all, and he had already been up almost a whole two-dozen hours.

Nodding, Twilight turned to face the bookshelves along the circular walls of the Golden Oak Library…

And found herself completely lost.

The library was definitely a lot more spacious-looking now that scores of ponies were not crowding it trying to be her friends. However, some part of Twilight that Twilight herself could not understand found the library to be woefully empty now. Brushing this errant thought aside, Twilight tried to apply herself to the task of finding some information on NightMare Moon and/or the Elements of Harmony, but she had no idea where to even begin her search. She had no idea what sort of system of organization this library used. In a rube town like this, who knew how they set up their books?

Twilight cursed, muttering to herself, “As improbable and ridiculous as the very concept is, is it too much to ask for a reference guide to the Elements of Harmony?”

“And just what the hay are the Elements of Harmony?” snapped a hostile − and very scratchy − voice that Twilight immediately recognized. As soon as turning towards the voice, she found herself nose-to-nose with a very irate rainbow-maned Pegasus. She had a hoof-shaped bruise under her left eye.

Twilight had left the door open, apparently.

“And how did you know about NightMare Moon, huh?” Rainbow Dash continued, glaring deeply into Twilight’s eyes, her wings flapping irritatedly at her sides. “What are ya, some sorta spy?”

To Twilight’s relief, Rainbow Dash abruptly pulled back, but that was a short-lived reprieve. For Rainbow Dash had been pulled back by the tail, by Applejack, who had strided into the library while Rainbow Dash was grilling Twilight. And − Twilight screamed internally − the other three crazy ponies she and Spike had met yesterday were following Applejack!

“Simmer down there, Sally,” Applejack said coolly. “Ah reckon Twilight here ain’t no spah.” She gave Twilight a very direct gaze; Twilight couldn’t look her in the eye. “Butcha sure know an awful lot ‘bout these goin’s-on, don’tcha, Twilight?”

Faced with five ponies standing between her and the library exit, and no real chance to wink out without somepony tackling her − if she could even concentrate with the world being turned upside-down as it was − Twilight heaved a sigh, and confessed:

“I read all about the prophecy foretelling NightMare Moon’s return. It said that she would return on the longest day of the megagrosseth year of her banishment, and that unless she was defeated once and for all with the Elements of Harmony, that she would bring about…”

Twilight’s heart stopped.

“...nighttime eternal…”

Her pupils contracted.

“Oh no.”

She turned and bolted up the stairs without another word. Perplexed, and a little frightened, by Twilight’s sudden actions, the five other ponies slowly followed her up.

“No!” Twilight cried, throwing herself at the base of a pair of potted plants by the east-facing window past the bed. One was an agave, the other a cactus. Her ears were flat against her head, and the barrel of her chest was heaving. “No! This can’t be happening! You’ll die without sunlight!”

Fluttershy put a hoof to her mouth in sympathy, but the other four seemed befuddled by this seeming overreaction.

“They’re just plants, TS,” Rainbow Dash said, a rainbow eyebrow cocked.

“‘Just plants’?” Twilight mumbled, turning to face them. She was actually crying! Her eyes were bloodshot. “They’re my parents!”

This seemed to only confuse them more, and Twilight had to collect her thoughts and compose herself so that she could explain. It was very difficult; every moment lost was another moment of everlasting night, and another moment of her parents’ lives squandered.

Eventually, though, she calmed herself enough to where she thought she would do more than blubber incoherently.

“At my entrance exam… for Queen Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns…” She gestured towards the agave & cactus. “I accidentally… turned Mom & Dad… into these!”

Rarity gasped sharply, a hoof flying to her mouth. She was not alone; Applejack gave a shuddering hiccuping gasp herself, bringing a hoof up to lower her Stetson over her eyes. Pinkie gave a look of surprisingly sincere sympathy.

Twilight had collapsed into a sobbing heap, burying her face in her hooves. Her tail swished back and forth agitatedly.

“And now, after all this time trying to find a way to change them back, I’m going to lose them! What’ll I do? What’ll I do??”

A hoof slipped down under Twilight’s hooves, lifting her face up to make eye contact. It was Applejack, who was smiling sadly.

“Ya have mah sympathy, sugarcube,” she said levelly, despite the tears streaming down her freckled cheeks. “Ah lost mah Ma ’n’ Pa just after Apple Bloom was born, but you still kinda have yours. Ma & Pa are up grazin’ in the Elysian Fields for the rest a’ eternity. You cin still bring yours back. You just gotta buck up and get to it.”

Twilight rubbed at her eyes with her long fetlocks, wiping away the last of her tears. Of all the crazy ponies she’d met in Ponyville, Applejack seemed the most levelheaded, if a little too intensely familiar with her extended family. The aching in her heart started to ebb, but she pushed away the warmness that was flooding in in its place.

“You’re right, Applejack,” said Twilight as she got back onto her hooves, fighting the smile in her heart. “I can’t be blubbering here when there’s work to be done. Queen Celestia might be missing − my guess is, NightMare Moon imprisoned her in the Sun, as a form of revenge − but that doesn’t mean that I still can’t do something as her protégée.”

“What can you do?” asked Rarity.

“Ooh, ooh!” squealed Pinkie, pronking wildly about the room. “Is this another guessing game? I love guessing games! I love all kinds of games!”

“Can it, Pinkie!” shouted Rainbow.

After a moment’s tense silence, Twilight answered Rarity’s question.

“Well, not much,” she said offhoofedly. “I mean, I could create a temporary miniature Sun that arches over Ponyville for the day period that we expect, but it would have to be renewed every week or so…”

To Twilight’s surprise, the five ponies’ jaws dropped.

“Y… You can do that?” Rainbow Dash gaped. “That’s… amazing! You’re, like, some kinda magical projidy!”

“It’s prodigy,” Twilight corrected, “and no, I’m not. I’m not anything special…” Her ears flattened as she glanced sadly back at her parents. “Or I would’ve figured out how to fix my greatest mistake.”

She shook her head violently, as if trying to shake those nasty sad thoughts out through her ears.

“I always knew I had a time limit: how long I can stretch out the lives of these two plants. But now, with the Sun on the other side of Harmonia, potentially forever, time is even more of an issue. I can cast the heliogenesis spell, but I can’t guarantee it will last very long, not with NightMare Moon’s fury against the light of day. Then…” She dug her hooves into the polished wooden floor, grinning. “We find the Elements of Harmony!”

“Yeah, yeah, sounds great and all,” Rainbow said with a cocked eyebrow, forelegs folded over the barrel of her chest. “But you didn’t answer my question: What are the Elements of Harmony?”

“The Elements of Harmony,” explained Twilight, “Are the force of magic that Queen Celestia used to banish NightMare Moon to the Moon a meggrossium ago. There are supposedly six Elements altogether, but I have no idea what they are, how they work, or even what they do!”

“Umm…” Fluttershy began quietly. “You do know where they are, right?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know where they are,” Twilight answered, “but I have a very good idea. I’ll explain after the heliogenesis spell.”

Twilight stood a good dozen-and-three paces away from the entrance to the tree library, the five other ponies standing − or, in the case of Rainbow Dash, hovering − at least five paces away from her. In the distance, they could hear the screams of terror of many ponies who were spooked by the everlasting night, and the cries of foals who were confused as to the fact that the Sun was still ‘asleep’.

“So, what’s this fancy sun-summonin’ spell a’ yers like, Twilight?” asked Applejack.

Twilight turned to face the Earth Pony.

“Well, it’s nowhere near as powerful as Queen Celestia’s direct control over the Sun itself, but it’s no cantrip in and of itself,” she replied. “It brings forth a miniature facsimile of the Sun that mimics the movement pattern of the actual Sun, giving off the equivalent amount of heat and light, so don’t look right at it. And it’s also much closer to the ground, and faster, so some flyers will need to watch where they’re going,” she added in a cutting tone, glowering at Rainbow Dash, who glowered back.

Ignoring Rainbow’s glare, Twilight brought her head down, her alicorn glowing pink, then white. Sweat beaded at the base of her horn and her knees shook as a ball of heat and light appeared above her head. Her five companions gaped in awe as the blinding ball of light swelled in size, before it darted off to the edge of Ponyville, where its brightness flared. True to Twilight’s word, it brightened up the area around it, and the sky around it turned from a deep midnight-blue to merely a Wonderbolt-azure-blue, but only just around it. Apart from the sky, though, Ponyville looked as bright as it had the day before.

Twilight panted heavily; she’d never cast that spell before, even though Queen Celestia had personally taught her it. Now she knew why; was she perhaps prepared for this day? In any case, a weight in her heart eased; for now, at least, her parents had sunlight.

The sounds of hooves clopping reached her ears, and she looked up to see the five ponies whooping and cheering. But they weren’t the only ones. Standing and flapping about them were dozens of Ponyville ponies. Earth Ponies, Unicorns, Pegasi; all of them were stomping their forehooves against the ground, giving her bright smiles and cheers.

“Leave it to the pupil of the Queen herself to bring back the Sun!” cheered the Mayor, standing at the forefront of the herd.

“Long live Twilight Sparkle!” cheered the crowd.

Twilight waved a hoof about to hush the herd. “Everypony, listen.”

The crowd quieted itself… mostly. There was still an intermittent cheer now and again, but for the most part, it was enough for Twilight’s words to carry to the whole herd:

“That’s not the real Sun. That’s just a substitute that I called forth to keep Ponyville at least in daylight. It should last a week or so, if NightMare Moon doesn’t snuff it out by day’s end.”

She turned away from the crowd, preparing to gallop off.

“Wait!” the Mayor called out. “Where are you going?”

“To find the Elements of Harmony,” replied Twilight simply, looking over her shoulder.

Rainbow Dash let out a frustrated groan. “For Celestia’s sake… Where are the Elements of Harmony?”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “I have a suspicion that they’re in the abandoned Palace of the Two Alicorn Queens, in the Everfree Forest.”

The entire herd gasped.

Except Pinkie Pie.

“Whee!” she said, bouncing into the air, where she seemed to hover as her hooves wiggled. “Let’s go!”

“Are you insane?” Rainbow Dash said, with genuine fear in her voice. “The Everfree Forest is, like, the most dangerous place in all of Equestria!”

“For once, Ah agree with ya, Rainbow,” said Applejack, stepping toward Twilight. “Ah don’t know how much ya learned ‘bout th’Everfree up in them ivory towers a’ yours in Canterlot, Twilight, but that forest…” She shivered. “T’ain’t natural. None of it.”

“How so?” Twilight asked. The Everfree was not the subject of much study by Twilight Sparkle. She only knew that it was also known as the Forest Of No Return, because nopony who ever went into the Forest ever came back out, and that it was a place of ancient and wild magic that nopony, not even Queen Celestia, could control.

“Well…” Applejack began hesitantly. “The plants grow…”

“Animals care for themselves…” breathed Fluttershy with a fearful shiver.

“And the clouds move…” whimpered the ordinarily cocky Rainbow Dash.

”All on their own!” the three of them cried.

Twilight shuddered. The Everfree did sound like a fearsome and unwholesome place. She couldn’t have imagined that the aura of evil magic around the forest was so great that no amount of pony magic could even control the weather and wildlife around it.

Still, the choices boiled down to braving the dangers of Everfree and its uncontrollable animal denizens, risking life and limb to retrieve the Elements of Harmony that only might be there…

Or remaining in the safe sanctuary of Ponyville, forgetting the Elements of Harmony, and submitting to the selenic reign of a madmare.

There was no choice in Twilight’s mind.

“I’m still going,” Twilight said, digging her right forehoof against the ground.

“Hold up there, sugarcube,” called Applejack, trotting up to Twilight’s side with a soft smile. “We’ve barely known ya for a day, but don’t get it inta yer head thatcha gotta tackle this alone. You can betcher bottom bit on it; yer friends are with ya, through to the end.”

“You really think any of you ponies are my friends?” snapped Twilight, trying not to let herself be affected by the looks of mingled shock, offense, and hurt on each of their faces. She pointed an accusing hoof at each mare in turn, who avoided her gaze in shame. “You stuff my face with every bit of food your family’s ever cooked, you drench me through to the bone and mess up my mane trying to dry me off, you try to fit me into an improperly fitted corset and waste hours of time I could’ve spent trying to find information on NightMare Moon, you throw a surprise party that I never wanted just because you think I want friend, and you…” She hesitated over Fluttershy. She couldn’t think of anything Fluttershy had done to offend her other than being cripplingly withdrawn. “You…”

With a frustrated shout, Twilight collapsed onto her haunches. By now, the herd had awkwardly dispersed, leaving just Twilight and the five flummoxed fillies. Applejack looked hurt, Rainbow Dash was gritting her teeth in poorly repressed frustration, Rarity had a forehoof to her chest as she looked down at the ground with drooping ears, Pinkie Pie’s mane and tail started to droop a bit as she actually started to turn blue, and Fluttershy looked on the verge of a breakdown.

The caw of a bird of some sort surprised the six of them, and Twilight looked up in shock. She knew that caw!

A burst of fire descended from the sky − Rainbow Dash recoiled − from the direction of Canterlot, and it materialized into the form of a gorgeous eagle-like bird with fabulous bright-red and burnt-orange plumage. It held a rolled-up piece of parchment in its golden beak.

“Philomena!” Twilight breathed, gaping at the phoenix. The bird nodded, her yellow eyes glinting warmly.

“Philo-whatnow?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“It’s Queen Celestia’s pet phoenix,” Twilight explained. “And it looks like she has a message!”

The moment Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer grasped the scroll, Philomena let go, before alighting upon Twilight’s back, her black talons not digging into her flesh, but still grasping firmly. Twilight undid the Sun-and-Moon seal of the Crown on the scroll, undid the red ribbon underneath, and read the letter aloud:

My deareſt and moſt faithful ſtudent Twilight Sparkle,

Should you be reading this right now, then NightMare Moon has ſurely claimed my throne and impriſoned me. Philomena is truly one of my moſt exquisitely loyal companions, and the only one on hoof whom I could truſt to deliver this meßage to you. I pray that she found you with great speed, and that the everlasting night is still young.

Even so, I have reaſon to believe that you did not take ſeriouſly my earlier assignment for you to make friends. That was no idle advice, my little pony. No one pony, not even me, can ſet things aright. Friendſhip is the greateſt, moſt powerful magic in all of Creation. If you have not yet made friends − or if your friends are not faithful to you − then all hope is loſt to you, to Equeſtria, to Harmonia.

You will need to make friends in order to ſave us all from NightMare Moon, and to ſave her from herſelf. Remember, it only takes a ſingle spark to ſtart a fire.

Your hopeful mentor,
Queen Celeſtia Apolinaria di Equeſtria

If Queen Celestia had assumed that this letter would answer any of Twilight’s questions, she was sorely mistaken. Twilight’s mind was buzzing with even more questions than before? Save NightMare Moon from herself? NightMare Moon was a monster who would sooner see the world freeze in unending night than let the world’s balance remain in check. Why in the wide world of Harmonia was Queen Celestia treating this like an exam? Many lives were at great risk from the return of NightMare Moon, all of which were surely very dear to Queen Celestia. Why were friends such an important part of saving the world? Everypony who’d previously called Twilight friend were only in it for the social benefits of being associated with Queen Celestia’s number one student. And these five ponies whom Twilight was being shadowed by were some of the most contradictory ponies she’d ever met. Even as ungregarious as she was, Twilight thought it highly illogical for these five to be a close circle of friends. One was loud and brash, one was immensely introverted, one had no sense of personal space or when to shut up, one was very prim and proper, and one was still tracking dirt on her hooves from her applebucking.

Still, Queen Celestia had never steered Twilight Sparkle wrong before, and she swallowed her misgivings with a nod to Philomena. The phoenix gave a short caw before taking flight for the South Equinus Mountains.

Looking back at the message again, though, another question came to Twilight’s mind. Seemingly random letters had been written in a darker ink, as did the word spark in the last sentence. It could have simply been a split nib in the quill that the Queen had used, but there was some sort of pattern that Twilight thought she could discern…

“I think Queenie Celestia needs to work on her spelling~” came Pinkie’s squeaky voice from over Twilight’s shoulder. “I don’t think that ‘deareft’ is a word. Or ‘ftudent’ or ‘furely’ or ‘imprifoned’ or ‘moft’ or ‘truft’ and she really needs to not put a big letter into ‘mebage’ − which I don’t think is a word, either − or ‘reafon’ or ‘ferioufly’ or ‘fet’ or ‘friendfhip’. ‘Loft’ is a word, though I don’t think it’s an adjective like that, and I don’t know where Equeftria is. And what does she mean by asking you to ‘fave us all from NightMare Moon’? And who is this ‘herfelf’ she wants us to fave NightMare Moon from? And what’s a ‘fingle spark’, how’s it different from a normal spark, and how can it ‘ftart’ a fire?”

Twilight’s eye twitched.

“Do you have any idea of personal space?” she shouted, to which Pinkie shook her head. Twilight sighed in frustration. “It’s the way she writes her ‘s’s, Pinkie. It’s how ponies wrote their letters over a dozen-gross years ago.”

“So, they didn’t have ‘s’s back then? That musta been a tough life to lead. What if you needed an order of soap and got a whole buncha foap instead? What would somepony do with a whole bunch of foap? What is foap, anyway? And what about Hearts and Hooves Day cards for your special somepony? Did they call each other fpecial fomeponies instead? Was the name Sassafras pronounced Fabafraf?” She giggled. “They were a bunch of silly ponies back then~”

”IT’S JUST A WRITING IDIOSYNCRASY!” Twilight screamed, breathing heavily. “Pinkie, du bist ein Schwachkopf!”

“Take a deep breath, sugarcube,” Applejack said levelly. “Repeat after me.”

Applejack placed a forehoof on her chest, inhaling slowly and fully. Twilight mimicked her. Next, the farmer mare slowly pointed her foreleg ahead, exhaling just as steadily. Twilight followed suit, and found to her surprise that the tension that had been building up the past day had ebbed considerably. She smiled; she would have to remember this for future tests by the Queen.

Taking a deep breath, Twilight faced the group of five again.

“Alright,” she said shortly. “My exclamation in Germane aside, you five can accompany me to find the Elements of Harmony. We’ll have safety in numbers.”

Applejack reared up with a joyful Yeehaw!, Pinkie pronked into the air with a Whoohoo!, Fluttershy nodded her ascension with a soft smile, Rarity let out a sigh of relief, and Rainbow Dash did a victory loop-de-loop.

“But don’t think this means that I’m overlooking how overbearing some of you have been,” Twilight cut in sharply. “The sooner we get this over with…” She hesitated. She was burning bridges that she would need to cross if she continued to say what she wanted to say. …the sooner I’ll never have to see you five again. “…the sooner we can bring back the day.”

Rainbow Dash nodded with a frown. “Fine, then. We’ll do things your way. Just don’t count on us to hold our tongues just ‘cause you’re the Queen’s little egghead.”

“Whoa there, Rainbow,” Applejack snapped. “Don’t get too uppity now. We’ve all gotta stick together if we’re gonna make it through the Everfree.” She shivered slightly, her ears drooping as she rubbed at a scar running down her right foreleg. “Ah never thought Ah’d be goin’ back there after…” She shook her head once or twice, fixing a smile on her muzzle and giving Twilight a bright-green gaze. “You ain’t got ta worry none, sugarcube. We’re gonna stick to ya like caramel on a candy apple.” She galloped past Twilight, beelining for the Everfree. After a moment, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Fluttershy followed suit.

“Especially if there is candy apples in there!” Pinkie squeaked in delight. Twilight quirked a sapphire eyebrow up at her. Pinkie looked back, confused by Twilight’s confusion. “What? They’re good!”

The six mares stood well beyond the borders of Ponyville, beneath the canopy of the trees at the very edge of the Everfree Forest. Each and every one of them shivered involuntarily; the Forest exuded a sickly aura that told them that they were plainly unwelcome. The lowest hanging branches seemed to be swaying of their own accord, as though they were claws trying to reach down and snatch up the nearest pony. Beyond the thicket which engulfed the crumbling stone boundaries of the olden settlement around the Palace, there seemed to be pitch blackness, even with the miniature Sun that Twilight had summoned on the other side of Ponyville.

Pinkie arched an eyebrow, rubbing her leg. “Hmmm… my knee’s gettin’ all pinchy.”

Applejack looked up at her fellow Earth Pony, and muttered darkly, “Ya better get used t’that here in Everfree, Pinkie…”

Twilight gave the two an odd look. “What?”

“Ah’ll explain after all this is over,” answered Applejack.

Do I even want to know? Twilight thought.

“I’ve never been this close to the Everfree before,” Fluttershy whimpered.

“And I hope that I never return after this day!” said Rarity dramatically, flinging a cloven hoof to her forehead.

Applejack was rubbing the scar on the forearm of her right foreleg still more vigorously. She was staring blankly ahead, as though she was trying to look at something beyond the Everfree Forest. Twilight noticed this. “Are you alright?”

Applejack gave a start, blinking at Twilight. She scratched the back of her head. “Sorry ‘bout that, Twi. Ah was just reminiscin’ on a painful mem’ry.”

Applejack held her head up high and fixed her face in a glare.

“But the past is the past,” said Applejack. “Ah got one job, and that’s to keep ya safe. Ah swear on mah honor as an Apple that you’ll make it outta this here forest!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s cool and all,” drawled Rainbow Dash, “But we gotta hurry and snag those Elements before NightMare Moon does, and she’s got a major headstart on us.”

“Rainbow Dash is right,” Twilight said as she dug in her hooves, preparing to gallop. “Time is of the essence, and we need to get through to the Palace, and the Elements, as fast as possible. With me!”

And with that, six mares galloped and flew into the Everfree Forest.

If the Everfree was terrorful from the outside, being inside it was infinitely worse. The moment they crossed the threshold, it was as though the outside world had gone completely silent and subsequently fallen out of existence. The path was almost impossible to keep to, and there was a pervasive feeling that something was watching them. But whenever any one of them looked out into the darkness between tree trunks, they just saw empty blackness. If they could just know who or what was watching them, there would be some surety as to what to feel about it. It was physically and mentally exhausting, ears twitching at every little snap of a twig that one of the party of six would tread upon. It was as though the entire world had disappeared except for those six and the Everfree.

But mingling with the oppressive atmosphere of the Everfree around them was a blue filter of pure malice. Intermittently in the distance − sometimes off to the left, or to the right, or ahead, or even behind − a faint twinkle of stars could be made out.

NightMare Moon was watching their every move, but from where?

“So,” Twilight began, her head swimming, “None of the rest of you were in here, either?”

Heavens, no!” cried Rarity, looking aghast at the very thought. “Just look around − this place is positively dreadful.”

“You can say that again,” Applejack said. After a few moments, she turned to Twilight. “If you don’t mind, mind if Ah ask ya a question, sugarcube?”

“What about?” Twilight replied.

“Well… Ah didn’t have ya pegged fer one a them Germane ponies. Where’d’ja git it from?”

Twilight frowned to herself a little, before recalling her outburst at Pinkie earlier that… well, technically not earlier that day, but earlier nonetheless. She answered matter-of-factly, “My father, Nachtlicht, was an astronomer from Germaney who married into the House of Twilight. I picked up Germane as a second language from him.” She found herself smiling at Applejack. “I actually know quite a few languages apart from Modern Equus. I know Old Equus, Germane, Fancy, Neighponese―”

“I got a question for you, too, egghead,” Rainbow Dash cut in.

Twilight blinked, glowering at the Pegasus as she continued to trot forward. “’Egghead’?”

“Yeah. Egghead,” repeated Rainbow Dash. “You read a lot of books, so you should know exactly what made the Everfree Forest this way.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes at Rainbow Dash. “I’m not an egghead; I’m just well-read. And besides, I have no idea why the forest is this way.” She cast her eyes about uneasily. “It was not covered in any of the books I’d read, and I’d read plenty of theories by leading thaumaturgists regarding Everfree mana. Queen Celestia never told me why, either, though she hinted that it was related to a great battle long before NightMare Moon.”

“A great battle?” Fluttershy echoed. “Against who?”

Twilight shook her head, “She never said. But that’s not important right now. What is is getting through this Forest quickly and―”

At that moment, Twilight turned her head to face forward… and almost fell face-first off of a cliff into a ravine! It was only through Rainbow Dash’s timely clamping down on Twilight’s tail-skirt and pulling her back that she was saved. Twilight’s eyes widened at the near-miss she’d had. There were petrified wooden poles that doubtlessly were once a part of a wooden bridge across this ravine, apparently having rotted away grossenturies ago. She gave a gasp of relief.

“I never thought I’d say this, but, thank you, Rainbow Dash,” she said with a genuine smile.

Rainbow Dash grinned, her fangs glinting in the dim moonlight. “Don’t sweat it… Though it was kinda your fault to begin with. You were so distracted blabbing on with your eggheadedness that you almost walked off yourself!”

And then the cliff gave way, sending Twilight, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity down onto the steep slope under the cliff. Fluttershy, by instinct, took to the air to join Rainbow Dash.

“Let’s get ‘em, Flutters!” smirked Rainbow Dash, diving down towards the four fillies rolling down the slope.

“Oh my goodness…” gasped Fluttershy, following her old Pegasus friend.

The pair of Pegasi managed to grab up Pinkie Pie and Rarity before they rolled too far, but Twilight and Applejack continued to tumble. Applejack’s hooves began to glow a grassy green, and she planted her forehooves into the slope. She continued to slide, but far slower, eventually stopping.

Twilight was not so lucky. She was standing the closest to the edge of the cliff, and so was the furthest down the slope, reaching the point where the steepness became vertical. Desperately, she clung to the cliff face, trying not to fall, but it was proving fruitless…

“Hold on, Twilight!” called Applejack, the green glow of her hooves fading as she gently slid down the last few meters to Twilight’s side. She wrapped her hooves around Twilight’s as tightly as she could, stabilizing her hold.

Twilight took a deep breath of relief. “Thank you, Applejack. Just don’t let go, okay?”

“Don’tcha worry none, sugarcube,” smiled Applejack, her hind hooves glowing green against the slope. “Ah ain’t never letting ya go.”

Against her better judgment, Twilight looked around beneath her. Over two-dozen meters below, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy had respectively set down Pinkie Pie and Rarity, and were beginning to fly up to help Twilight.

Twilight looked to Applejack, and nodded. “Okay, Applejack. They’re on their way. Let go.”

Applejack blinked bemusedly at Twilight.

“Are ya sure, Twilight? Ah mean, Ah got a right firm grip ‘n’all. Ah ain’t lettin’ ya go till Ah’m sure you’ll land safelike.”

After another few moments, during which Applejack ascertained that the two Pegasi were close enough to catch Twilight, she slowly loosened her grip on the lavender Unicorn. She fell less than a meter into their waiting hooves. Fluttershy fumbled slightly, but managed.

“Oh, sorry about that, Twilight,” Fluttershy said softly as Applejack deftly leapt down hoofholds in the cliff face, her hooves flashing green as she made contact with each little ledge. “I’m not terribly used to carrying anything heavier than a bunny or two.”

“That’s alright, Fluttershy,” smiled Twilight. “I owe you three my life. Rainbow, Applejack, and you.”

Fluttershy blushed, the three of them settling down at the bottom of the ravine.

“Oh my stars, Twilight!” Rarity gasped, a relieved smile on her muzzle. “Thank the Maker you’re alright!”

Twilight waved a hoof in dismissal as Applejack landed amongst the party.

“I think I have some ponies closer than that to thank,” she said. “I’m really starting to question how far I’d have made it through here without you girls.”

Rainbow Dash scoffed. “There are just some things that some ponies can’t share without ending up liking each other, and taking a tumble off a cliff is one of ‘em.” The instant that she finished speaking, the rainbow-maned pegasus scrunched her lips shut, her pupils pinpricks.

Twilight smirked in spite of the situation.

“Oooh, looks like I’m not the only egghead around here,” she said slyly. “I didn’t quite peg you for a fan of the Daring Do series, Rainbow Dash.”

“I − I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!” said Rainbow Dash hastily, her muzzle scrunched up and her eyes darting back and forth. Fluttershy giggled, and the other four joined in. Rainbow Dash frowned, her ears flattening against her head.

A loud roar like a trumpet blast broke the light atmosphere. Immediately, the six ponies tensed, prepared to gallop in an instant.

“Oh no…” Fluttershy breathed. “What was that?”

“I have an idea…” Twilight said in a dreading tone. “And I hope I’m wrong.”

A distant growling became clear to the party, and off down the ravine they could make out a large hunched shape approaching. Stepping closer, it became clear what it was: a large crimson lion-like creature with black spines down its back, a maroon scorpion’s tail and an albino equine face with golden eyes.

A manticore!” Twilight shrieked.

The manticore reared onto its hind legs and bellowed its trumpet-like roar once more, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth, before charging the group on all fours, a pair of ebony pincers raised above its back. The Pegasi took to the air over it, dodging its pincers, while the Unicorns and Earth Ponies dodged to either side.

“If there’s a manticore here…” Twilight panted, galloping down the path the manticore had been blocking, the other five not far behind.

“Then its chimera mate has t’be nearby!” Applejack finished. “Let’s all get outta here before―”

Almost as soon as the words had left Applejack’s mouth, a large creature dropped down directly in front of them from a cloud of starry blue mist. It had the head and front half of a tiger, a goat’s head to the left of its tiger head, goat legs, and a snake for a tail.

“Where do you think you’re going?” rumbled the chimera’s tiger-head.

“Our husband was just inviting you to dinner,” bleated her goat-head.

“Yesss,” hissed the snake-head. “And you three… are the main courssse!”

“Oooh! Ooh, ooh!” Pinkie pronked eagerly. “Can I be the dessert?”

Her pony companions − and the manticore and chimera − tilted their heads to the side in confusion.

“Umm, Mrs. Chimera,” Fluttershy began softly, “if it’s not too much trouble, would it be alright if you and your husband let us go… just this once…?”

Twilight gave Fluttershy a look of complete bafflement.

The tiger-head purred in thought. “I think not,” it said. “Our husband and my sisters and I haven’t eaten in days.” (It was common for one head on a chimera to refer to its other two heads as its sisters.) “We were about to turn in for the day…”

“But the Sun is still asleep,” the goat-head said gleefully. “And while the Sun sleeps, we are awake!”

“Ssso prepare to become sssix sssupple helpingsss of filly filet!” growled the snake-head with mirth.

An idea flashed into Twilight’s mind.

“Everypony, grab on to me!” she shouted.

Her companions didn’t need to be told twice. She looked up to the cliff face above the ravine, taking careful note that it was the opposite cliff from the one she’d fallen off of. She knew they would not land on top of it directly, but maybe a meter or two over it, but it was better than to be devoured by a pair of chimericals.

The manticore and chimera were wise to the fact that their prey was up to something, and after a moment’s hesitation, both dived at the party of six at the same time.

Half a second too slow. The six of them vanished in a sparkling flash of purple light, leaving the manticore and chimera to crash into one another face-first. Infuriated by their loss, they began to maul one another.

Twilight Sparkle had seldom winked out before, and the sensation was as unpleasant as it always was. It was as though every single particle of her being were being squeezed through an extremely narrow keyhole. It couldn’t have been any easier for any of her travel companions; side-winking was not easy when Queen Celestia first demonstrated it for Twilight.

After an eternal instant of infinite compression, Twilight could breathe again, and felt herself flopping against grass. Down in the ravine, she could hear the chimericals tearing each other apart. Up on the cliffside with her, she could hear Rainbow Dash retching.

“What in tarnation was that?” Applejack asked woozily.

That,” explained Twilight, “was a last resort. I don’t like to wink out at the best of times, but that was the only way out of there with all of us in one piece.”

Rainbow Dash wiped her mouth off on her forearm. “Yeah, well, that was majorly uncomfortable, so please don’t do it again.”

Twilight glared. “You’re welcome for saving your life.”

“Girls, please!” declared Rarity. Her mane and tail were sticking out in every direction. “As… distasteful as I found that particular excursion into inner space to be, we simply must be pressing on.”

They pushed forward into the forest.

“Aww…” Pinkie mused at the back of the group. “But I wanted to be the dessert.”

The path through the Everfree Forest angled down, though not by much, and the thicket overhead forbade much moonlight from showing through. The path they’d followed at the mouth of the forest was not steady, but the one they were following now made that path seem like it was paved out of a mirror. Roots seemed to pull themselves up to trip the six travelers up, trod-upon stones had an unfortunate habit of dislodging just as a mare put her weight upon it, both such events leading to much stumbling and cursing by the mares. What spots were not eaten up by roots or rocks was moist and boggy, so that one could not keep her hooves in one place for too long, or the suction would make it difficult to move on. The air was stifling, and there was a stiff heat around them that made them bleary. Their coats stuck tightly to their skin.

Two-and-a-half-dozen minutes, a half an hour, had passed in such a manner, with little said of any substance, and any conversation was quick and hushed. Tension was mounting, as was a degree of impatience; how much further into the Everfree was Queen Celestia’s old castle, anyway?

“Remember when I said I doubted how far I’d make it into the Everfree?” Twilight said brusquely.

“Yeah…?” said Rainbow Dash slowly.

“I take it back.”

What?” the rainbow-maned Pegasus bellowed in rage. The other four stopped, making similarly affronted exclamations. “But I saved you from walking off the − GAHHH!” She smacked her face with her hoof.

“I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong,” continued Twilight, which lessened the tension somewhat, “But I wouldn’t have needed saving if somepony didn’t call me an egghead to begin with! I would not have had to worry about those chimericals if somepony didn’t try to reason with them!”

“YOU LEAVE FLUTTERSHY OUT OF THIS!” Rainbow Dash screamed, her nostrils flaring and her ears flattening. “SHE TRIED HER BEST!”

And,” Twilight pressed on, “I would probably have been able to wink across the gorge myself, not wasting potentially valuable mana winking five other ponies.”

“So, what?” Rainbow Dash snapped, folding her forelegs. “You want us to go back to Ponyville? So you can hog all the glory?”

“Guys…” Applejack said tentatively, raising a foreleg.

“Put a cork in it, AJ!” barked Rainbow Dash. “I wanna hear it, straight from the horse’s mouth.”

“You think I got involved in this mess for glory? Glory has nothing to do with this!” Twilight growled. “I just don’t want any blood on my hooves!”

Rainbow Dash growled, but Rarity placed a dainty − and muddy − hoof on Rainbow Dash’s shoulder, causing her to withdraw as Rarity advanced.

“As much as we appreciate your concern, darling,” interjected Rarity, “Did that not seem a remarkably… insensitive way to put it?”

Twilight gave Rarity an intense glare.

“Insensitive?” she repeated. “Well, I’m sorry that I lost my parents at a young age due to my own lack of control over my mana output. My sensitivity was trampled to pulp ages ago.”

“I don’t think so, dear,” Rarity said, and by the dim light, she seemed to be smiling faintly. “I have seen how you treat your surrogate dragon son.”

“He’s not my son,” Twilight interrupted. “I just hatched his egg with my magic.”

“Nevertheless, he’s still very fond of you. And you, too, hold him near and dear, do you not?”

“I… I guess.”

“Ah-ah-ah. No guessing. Yes, or no. Is little Spike dear to you?”

“…Yes. Yes, he is.”

“See that, Grumpy Gracie?” piped in Pinkie Pie, who was balancing on her forelegs upside-down, somehow not sinking into the mud. “You’re a real softie, after all~”

Fluttershy nodded in agreement.

“I still think you were being a jerk,” Rainbow Dash said derisively.

“Rainbow!” shouted Applejack, before facing Twilight with a gentle expression. “Now listen, sugarcube. We’re all gettin’ a little hot under the hitchcollar here in the Everfree. But that don’t mean we gotta be feudin’ ‘n’ all. Y’can’t be ruminatin’ on the coulda-beens or mighta-beens all the time; you could do that till the cows come home. ‘Sides, ya didn’t drag any of us out here; we came with ya ‘cause yer our friend. We ain’t leavin’ ya, come Tartarus or high water.”

Twilight looked down at her hooves. Now she felt ashamed of her earlier statement. She had not meant for it to come across as insensitive as it had. She had never exactly found the books on socialization to be all that important, and when she did bother to read them, nothing seemed to stick.

But why did she care? These ponies weren’t her friends! They just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and now they were all in some Maker-forsaken forest where their lives were in peril at any given moment!

Looking up, she saw each of them giving her an expectant look, except Rainbow Dash, who was hovering in the air, glowering off to her right.

“I’m sorry,” Twilight said softly, and sincerely. “I’ve just… never been with other ponies who’ve liked me for me before.”

“Canterlot’s swarmin’ with all sortsa social-climbers, ain’t it?” Applejack queried. Twilight nodded.

“Wait, waitwaitwaitwaitwaitwait!” Rainbow Dash bolted upright. “Aren’t we supposed to be nabbin’ some stinkin’ Elements so that we can get out of this stinkin’ forest?”

Twilight stood erect herself. “You’re right. Everlasting darkness has gone on long enough. We need to get moving!”

The sound of creaking branches was heard. Fluttershy let out a sharp Eep! and clutched Rainbow Dash in a vice.

“What… was that?” Rarity asked tensely.

It spoke to the atmosphere of the Forest that Pinkie did not ask if this was a guessing game.

“We’re gonna find out, and then we’re gonna run,” Twilight said, lighting up her alicorn with a basic illumination spell.

The undergrowth looked perfectly normal, save for a few oddly-shaped logs in the distance. There was no sign that any predators had been anywhere near them.

“Uhh, Twilight…” said a suddenly shaky and pale Applejack.

Twilight faced the farmer mare. “What’s wrong, Applejack?”

“Behind you!”

Twilight turned and impulsively fired a concussive force spell. Something large and wooden and alive went flying backwards into a tree, its eyes glowing with an unearthly green light. Its lupine body splintered into many pieces, the glow in its eyes fading.

“RUN!” Applejack screamed, galloping further into the Forest. The five others followed without hesitation.

The oddly-shaped logs ahead suddenly leapt up, exposing glowing-green eyes, branches for limbs, twigs for ears and tails, long thick thorns for claws and teeth…

The screams of five ponies echoed weirdly in the forest.

They might have covered the same distance in five minutes they’d covered the past two-dozen-and-a-half, but time was lost on the six galloping ponies. All that mattered was evading their pursuers, those monstrous tree-creatures.

Applejack leapt up over one of the monsters, coming down on top of another with all four, the beast shattering under her glowing hooves, before she propelled herself off with a powerful leap. Twilight caught the shrapnel in her dwimmer shimmer, sending the pieces flying at deadly speed at the other creatures, shattering them. Rarity kept her head down and charged blindly, crying out in fright and hoping that she did not run into the unearthly beasts. Fluttershy tried to fly as close as she could to the canopy of trees, thorny teeth snapping at her hooves. Pinkie Pie played hopscotch on the heads of the tree-creatures, burying their muzzles deep in the mud. Rainbow Dash barreled straight through the monsters, shrugging off the splinters that dug into her forearms shielding her eyes.

In time, the six ponies came to a thinning of the trees, and finally to a stream. Somehow, someway, they had survived that ordeal. Each and every one of them was panting heavily, trying to fight the stitches in their barrels. The ordeal had left them disheveled, sweaty, and mud caked around their hooves.

“What were… those beasts?” gasped Rarity.

“They were timberwolves,” Applejack replied hoarsely in answer. She doffed her Stetson. “Spirits of the Everfree inhabitin’ dead tree parts.”

“I think… I read… about them,” Twilight panted. “Not a single… thaumaturgist… was able… to successfully… find out how… their magic works.”

“Magic don’t matter to them abominations,” snarled Applejack. “All they want is to eat ponies. Don’t even need to, neither; they just eat ‘n’ kill things fer th’ sport of it.” Her eyes darkened. “A timberwolf pack attacked the farm the day Apple Bloom was born. Big Mac was too young to fight ‘em. So, Pa fought ‘em off. Alone.” She bowed her head. “He didn’t make it.”

Twilight gasped in horror. “I’m so sorry, Applejack.”

Applejack shook her head with a sad smile. “T’ain’t worth fussin’ over. I loved Pa, and he loved us. We had a swell time together in this life, and he laid his life down fer Sweet Apple Acres. Fer us. And, fer what it’s worth…” She smiled brightly at Twilight. “Not a single timberwolf’s dared come near Sweet Apple Acres the ten years since.”

A high, mirthful laugh reached their ears. The five of them leapt up, spooked, wondering where in Harmonia that laugh was coming from. Looking down, they saw Pinkie Pie, rolling about in the dewy grass at the stream’s edge, almost literally laughing her head off.

“Pinkie Pie,” Twilight queried, “Why are you… laughing?”

Pinkie Pie struggled back to her hooves, hiccuping through her last few giggles.

“Because… hee-hee-hee… We’re alive!” she said gleefully. “Those mean old timberwolves sure were a scary bunch − I mean, of course they’re scary. They’re trees that come to life and try to bite your patootie off! That would be like getting, like, a gigagross of splinters all over your body −” (“Yeah, isn’t that just terrible?” snarked Rainbow Dash, who was busy biting splinters out of her forearms.) “− and that’s if the timberwolf doesn’t try to body-slam you. Could you imagine how painful that would be? I mean, that would be like a rock falling on you! Well, I was fine that one time a rock fell on my head back at the rock farm, but that’s probably because I don’t let things like that bother me. A rock can’t keep on trying to body-slam you. (...Can it? I should ask Maud.) But anyway, we made it out, and I’m laughing because we made it out, and we’re that much closer to getting to the pretty shiny rainbow thingies!”

Twilight barely caught any of what Pinkie Pie had said, because of how fast she’d been speaking. And judging from the looks on her companions’ faces, they were not much clearer on it, either. But still, she got the basic message, and pretty soon, a bubbling came up from her lungs.

Before long, Twilight and her five companions were rolling on the grass laughing about their merriment and relief. For about five minutes, they forgot completely about their quest, and NightMare Moon, and the everlasting night. For five minutes, they just laughed.

Twilight brought a cloven hoof up to her eye, wiping away a tear of mirth. Regardless of how this ended, whether it ended with NightMare Moon annihilated by the Elements of Harmony, or with the Queen of the Night cackling triumphantly over their dead bodies, she would always remember this moment.

“How did that start, Pinkie?” she asked.

Pinkie giggled. “That’s a funny question, Twilight; I don’t get what you mean~”

“What I mean is, when did you start laughing about things like that?”

Pinkie put a pink hoof to her chin in thought. After a moment, a surprisingly pensive expression crossed her face.

“Well, before my Granny Pie went off to the Elysian Fields, she told me not to cry at her funeral, but to laugh. She wanted me to remember the good times I’d spent with her − like the time she taught me to giggle at the ghosties in my closet! − instead of letting all those sad feelings take over. ’Laugh to enjoy the good times, and to endure the bad.’ That’s what she always told me.”

Twilight gaped. She wasn’t expecting such sage from such a random mare as Pinkie Pie.

“Well,” Rainbow Dash said abruptly, stretching her forelegs. She was actually standing on the ground, as opposed to flying. “We made it out, so what say we take five, graze a little? Get our energy back.”

Truth be told, despite the urgency of their pressing on, Twilight had to agree with Rainbow Dash. She had not had any food to speak of since the “brunch” at Sweet Apple Acres the previous morning, and after the hurricane of events that had turned her life upside-down in the past few hours, she was feeling positively starved. She nodded her consent to the Pegasus’s idea, and the other four followed suit.

For the next several minutes, the six of them simply stood in a circle, kneeling down, taking clumps of grass in their teeth, and simply grazing. The Everfree grass was coarser and less enticing than any grass that any of them had ever eaten, but in such a desperate location, they could not afford to be choosy about what sustained them. Rarity, who fancied herself a mare of haute couture, was particularly hesitant to graze upon the Everfree grass, but she conceded in the end.

After she’d felt satisfied with the grass she’d grazed upon, Twilight trotted up to the stream to take a sip. Upon closer inspection, though, the water looked slightly stagnant, if not slightly tense, as though anticipating some sort of altercation. Thinking twice, she trotted back from the stream.

“Any idea how we’re gonna cross this?” Twilight asked her five comrades. “I don’t think we should cross by hoof.”

“Uhh, hello?” said Rainbow Dash dryly, flapping her wings.

“Oh. Right. Well, could you and Fluttershy…?”

“No can do, bookworm,” Rainbow Dash said with a shake of her head. (“Bookworm?” Twilight hissed.) “Pegasi are good at slowing down other ponies who are falling, not at lifting them up.”

“We’re so sorry,” Fluttershy whimpered, her ears drooping slightly as she hid her face behind her mane. Rainbow Dash gave her a sidelong glance.

“Don’t worry about it,” replied the lavender Unicorn lightly. “I can just wink everypony else across.”

“Not me!” said Pinkie, jumping back and forth on alternating forelegs and hindlegs. “I can make it across, with a hop, skip, and a jump!”

With each successive hop, skip and jump, Pinkie Pie made a higher and higher jump, finally bounding across the stream in a single leap.

Twilight gaped. “How did she do that?”

Applejack shrugged. “Ya get used t’ stuff like that when ya’ve lived with Pinkie Pie fer a while. Ah bet it’s somethin’ to do with that Pegasus grandma o’ hers.”

Twilight scratched her chin. “Makes as much sense as anything else…”

As Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy glided across the stream to join Pinkie, Twilight looked back to Rarity. The alabaster Unicorn was no longer quite alabaster. Her coat had been stained by mud and grass, and her mane and tail were lank and damp, respectively sticking to her face and hind legs. Granted, it looked better than the zebro look her mane produced when frazzled by a side-winking.

“You’ll have to wink out alongside me again, Rarity,” Twilight said simply.

Rarity sighed. “If I must.” She wrapped a hoof delicately around one of Twilight’s.

“Think you can make the jump on your own, Applejack?” asked Twilight to the farmer mare.

“Ah’d rather not chance it. Ah think Ah’ll tag along with y’all an’ the fashionista.”

Applejack approached Twilight and Rarity, circling around so as to be on Twilight’s other side from Rarity. She took Twilight’s other forehoof.

“I appreciate your distance from me, Applejack,” Rarity said aloofly. “Some of us are trying to maintain some semblance of sophistication in this dreadful place.”

“‘Sophistication’?” Applejack snapped. “Th’ Everfree’s no place for no sophisticatedness! We gotta get through an’ get the job done!”

“Girls, let’s not fight,” murmured Twilight.

“If you please, Twilight,” said Rarity with barely restrained irritance, “I would like to remind Applejack that some ponies take offense at looking an absolute mess all the time!”

“Well, sometimes ya gotta get t’be a mighty big mess if you wanna get th’ job done quicklike!”


“I’ll have you know, Applejack, that a mare of my standards takes great pride in her appearance. Do you have any idea how long it takes me to coif this mane and this tail?”

“Prob’ly longer than it’d take to find the Elements if we did things your way! Ah betcha we wouldn’t even’ve gotten outta Ponyville bah this point!”

“Appearances must be upheld! Without beauty within and without, what does a mare truly have?”

Look aroundja! It’s pushing noon already, and the Moon’s still out! And this eternal night’s gonna be a heckuva lot longer if we don’t get those Elements pronto!”


“That is simply no reason to allow one’s hooficure to go to waste!”

“Are you sayin’ mah hoofs aren’t well-kept? How d’ya think Ah’m such a good bucker?”

“Oh, you buck trees with your hooves? I thought that it was with your thick skull!”

Yer the one with the thick skull here!”


Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer grabbed hold of Applejack and Rarity, pulling them apart from her, and each other. In their anger, they had almost forgotten Twilight was there. The lavender Unicorn’s ears were flat against her skull, and her purple eyes were shifting between the two bickering mares.

“This bickering is not going to help us get to the Elements faster!” she growled.

She’s the one who started it!” said Applejack, pointing an accusing hoof at Rarity.

Started it?” Rarity gasped. “Ladies do not start fights…” She narrowed her eyes at Applejack. “But they can finish them!”

“I don’t care which one of you started it!” Twilight shouted. “Neither of you are making this any easier, not for me, and especially not for each other! This entire trip through the Everfree could have been so much easier if you five weren’t trying to be my friends! I don’t need friends, especially not if this is what friends do! All of this bickering back and forth between the two of you has only made my mind even more muddled, and I’ve got half a mind just to throw you two Dummköpfe across!”

With a last frustrated growl, Twilight made good on her threat, and hurled the farmer mare and her fellow Unicorn across the stream.

Her mind temporarily cleared by her outburst, she winked across to a spot five paces away from the three who’d already crossed, just as Rarity landed on her rump just on the edge of this other side of the stream. Applejack, who’d regained her bearings quicker than Rarity, had already flipped around, one hoof holding her Stetson to her head, her hind legs poised for a landing.

Just short of the riverbank with a splash.

The stream’s surface instantly began to violently roil, large rocky shapes clamboring fiercely for the apple-farming Earth Pony. Applejack gave a start, leaping straight over the other five and landing at the mouth of the trees ahead of them. Spooked, her five companions backed several paces away from the riverbank.

“It’s a bask a’ cragodiles!” she cried, the crocodilian rock-monsters snapping at the riverbank for prey that was no longer there. “That musta been why th’ water was so still! This here’s cragodile territory!”

“And I daresay we keep it that way!” quavered Rarity, galloping past Applejack deeper into Everfree.

“Ah never agreed with you more in mah life!” concurred Applejack, following her.

Twilight, Pinkie and the two Pegasi were about to take off after Applejack and Rarity, when the stream began to stir even more violently. Peering closely, Twilight understood quickly what was going on. A pod of chuul had apparently just encroached upon the cragodiles’ hunting territory while looking for more promising feeding grounds, and the blue crustacean beasts were currently locked in a turf war with the stony ambush predators. Claws and tentacles clashed with rocky fangs and tails.

“I think we better go after those two before one side wins and realizes that there’s four very tasty ponies waiting just on the shore,” Twilight said in a strained tone.

“I agree,” Fluttershy breathed, before galloping along the path Rarity and Applejack had taken.

Twilight turned to follow, and found herself muzzle-to-muzzle with Rainbow Dash.

“You really don’t know what friends do together, do you?” she asked.

Twilight, baffled by such a question from Rainbow Dash, found herself shaking her head.

Rainbow Dash sighed.

“Then I think you might be in for a bit of a shocker: Rarity and Applejack aren’t friends.”


“Yeah, you heard me right. They argue like that all the time whenever they meet at the market. I mean, they don’t hate each other, but they don’t like to spend more time together than they need to. I mean, what do they really have in common? Rarity’s a frou-frou fashion freak, and AJ gets dirty buckin’ apple trees from dawn to dusk. I’ll bet Tartarus will freeze over before they have a conversation that doesn’t end in shouting.”

Twilight breathed heavily out of her nostrils. “I feel really bad throwing them like that. They could’ve gotten hurt, even if there weren’t cragodiles in the stream.”

“Yeah, that was pretty lame.”


“I’m just callin’ it as I see it,” Rainbow shrugged, before she bolted down after Fluttershy.

With a heavy sigh, Twilight made ready to gallop after them.

Everypony needs friends, you know.”

Twilight found herself giving Pinkie Pie a wide-eyed look. Since when had this pony been so full of wisdom?

Pinkie just gave a wide smile.

“There’s nopony out there who’s happy without friends. Well, I mean there’s probably some kinda weirdo out there who’s sure that she doesn’t need ponies to hang out with and share jokes with and eat cupcakes with and prank each other with… but you’re not that kinda weirdo, Twilight!” Pinkie patted Twilight’s mane with a bright-pink hoof, her eyes twinkling. “You’re the funny kind of weird~”

And Pinkie took off with a skipping gallop.

Twilight simply stared after the pink pony, flabbergasted.

Did Pinkie Pie say that she thinks I’m weird?

Shaking her head, Twilight reared up and took off after them

Maybe I do need friends… But these five… Wouldn’t exactly be my first choices…

The third patch of Everfree Forest that the six of them walked through was less oppressively enclosed, and cooler to boot, which was a welcome reprieve from the stifling hotness of the one just prior to the stream of cragodiles. However, the tension had not let up; if anything, it had only escalated. The trees in this area were flowering with some of the most unwholesome-looking fruit that any of them had ever seen. Not a single one of them thought of bucking the fruit down for a bit of portable edibles, even before some of the fruits started to stir.

Twilight took a deep breath. “Applejack? Rarity?”

The two addressees turned to face Twilight.

“Yes, darling?”

“What’s eatin’ ya, sugarcube?”

“I’d like to apologize for throwing you two over the stream,” she said carefully. “Everything is just really piling up on top of everything else, and I lost my cool. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want me as a friend anymore.” She bowed her head, closing her eyes.

“Twilight…” came Applejack’s voice, and Twilight opened her eyes to see that the farmer mare was smiling genially. “What kinda friend would Ah be if Ah stopped callin’ ya friend over one little ol’ outburst? Ah should be apologizin’ fer puttin’ ya in such a situation.”

“No, I should be the one who apologizes,” Rarity said, stepping forward. “I was the one who started the altercation, despite my otherwise ladylike demeanor, so I shall accept full responsibility for your fit of temper.”

“Betcher not as sorry as Ah am.”

“I do believe I am.”

“Are not.”

“Are too.”

“Are not!”

Are too!”

“Girls!” Twilight shouted, torn between screaming and laughing. “Let’s get a move on, get those Elements, bring back the Sun and Queen Celestia, and get out of this nasty place!”

“Well, you better scratch that first one off the list,” said Rainbow Dash slowly, and Twilight looked ahead from Applejack and Rarity, to see Rainbow pointing through the gap between the trees some ten paces ahead. “‘Cause I think we found something.”

Following Rainbow’s pointing hoof, Twilight saw across, through swirling clouds of fog and mist, the crumbling battlements and guard towers of an ancient castle.

Twilight beamed for what felt like the first time in her life.

“We’re almost there!” she cried, galloping forward.

“Wait for us, Twi!” Applejack shouted after her.

Twilight smiled back at Applejack, but almost immediately felt the ground vanish from under her forehooves. Flailing about somewhat, Twilight’s heart leapt into her throat at the slope she’d almost taken a nasty tumble down, into the foggy chasm. She felt her tail being yanked back, and looked back to see Rainbow Dash unclamping her teeth from the tuft at the end.

Rainbow Dash offered a light humor-filled smile, so unlike her cocky, borderline feral grin. “What is it with you and falling off cliffs today?”

Twilight looked out at the ancient castle again, just as the fog began to drift aside. She caught sight of five or six large towers, but little else. She squinted; the castle seemed far too low to have been the former capital of Equestria for a meggrossium and a half.

“The castle is sinking,” she concluded. “We’ll have to slide down the slope.”

“Whee!” cried Pinkie Pie, curling up into a ball and rolling down the slope.

“Pinkie Pie, wait!” Twilight called, reaching out futilely. With a grating sigh, she turned to the others. “Alright, everypony, we gotta follow her, but carefully!”

She lit up her alicorn, her hooves glowing as she slid down the slope at a brisk but controlled speed.

Rarity looked ruefully at her hooves. “But I’ll ruin my best horseshoes…”

“Then take ‘em off!” Applejack shouted, leaping down and bracing for impact, her own hooves glowing with a faint green light even before she touched the earthy slope.

Turning to watch Rainbow Dash bolt down the slope, Fluttershy meekly shadowing her, Rarity bit her lip, sat on her haunches, looked down at her forehooves, and…

“Whatcha waiting for, Rarity?” piped up Pinkie Pie.

“I’m contemplating taking off my − wait, WHAT?”

Before the alabaster Unicorn could say another word, Pinkie grabbed Rarity’s forehooves between her own and pulled her down. The whole slide down, Pinkie squealed with delight, and Rarity screamed with fright.

“I swear that I was the first one down here,” Rainbow Dash repeated. “I didn’t even see Pinkie on the way down.”

They were standing on the wrecked remains of what was once surely the great stone bridge that spanned a majestic moat now long dry. The bridge must have snapped at some point as the castle sunk into the earth, turning it into a large cobblestoned ramp leading up to the Palace.

Twilight rubbed her chin, her eye scrunched almost shut.

“That doesn’t make sense. Even with your speed, Rainbow Dash, she should have made it down first with that head-start. Could she have wandered off and around the bridge?”

Applejack looked down at the swirling eddies of mist undered the slanted bridge. “Doubtful.”

A delighted squeal reached their ears as Pinkie Pie and Rarity slide down to the four other ponies, Pinkie doing a double frontflip as she did so, landing on her hind legs with a bright Ta-da~! Rarity, meanwhile, was lying at Pinkie’s hooves, shuddering.

“H−How did you do that…?” Twilight asked.

“I thought the slide was fun, so I went back up to do it again and get Rarity~” Pinkie grinned.

Twilight stroked her chin again. She wouldn’t put it past Pinkie to do that, but… something didn’t quite add up. After a moment, she shrugged. Pinkie was probably just a fast runner, and might have just been covered in a cloud of mist, or maybe Rainbow Dash didn’t look properly. Besides, there were bigger issues at hoof than Pinkie’s weirdness.

“Well, guys, we’re almost there,” said Twilight with a degree of finality, facing up to the ancient Palace of the Two Alicorn Queens. She began to trot up the bridge with deliberation; the angle was treacherous, and one wrong step could see her tumbling down and potentially off. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the fog was frustratingly thick down here, and they could barely see five paces ahead.

“Reckon ya could do somethin’ about this here fog, Twilight?” asked Applejack, squinting, with her Stetson pulled low past her forelock.

“Just give me a moment,” Twilight replied, already lighting up her horn with a basic wind spell that would disperse the fog long enough for them to scale this bridge… hopefully. In moments, the dwimmer shimmer expanded outwards with surprising speed, dimming as it sped away from its caster, creating a sound like a soft sonic boom. The fog cleared in a circle around them, at least twenty meters to each side.

And so Twilight Sparkle and her companions beheld the ancient Palace of the Two Alicorn Queens.

Tall, imposing, and proud, the Palace was once the crown-jewel of the Diarchy of Equestria. Now, time and neglect after a fierce battle had taken their cumulative toll upon the castle. Gouge marks and holes had been blasted in many walls, and some towers ended roughly and abruptly, likely during the decisive battle between Queen Celestia and NightMare Moon a megagross years before. The untamed weather of Everfree had worn the stone down, leaving the once-majestic Alicorn statues flanking the large wooden gates eroded and impotent. Vines and moss and other forms of creeping plant-life had invaded the walls. There was one other detail about the castle that could be seen now that the six were closer to its base…

“Is that… a tree…?” asked Applejack.

It looked that way. It seemed as though the ancient Palace was built upon the branches of a very large, very wide tree whose roots disappeared into the fog. The way that the dim moonlight reflected off of its bark, though, told them something else…

“Is it petrified…?” mused Twilight.

“Or… made from stone...?” Fluttershy wondered.

“No,” cut in Rarity. “Black diamond.”

Rarity was correct. The tree, roots to branches, seemed to be formed out of a singular piece of multifaceted black diamond. Five great branches supported ancillary wings that splintered off from the central hub of the Palace.

“It really is lovely,” Rarity said, more to herself than anypony else. “It seems such a shame that this place should have fallen to such ruin. If I could, I would see this palace restored to its former glory!”

“That’s pretty sweet and all, Rare,” said Rainbow Dash, “but we got some Elements to swipe.”

“Yes. We do,” Twilight said simply, galloping straight up the bridge, her five companions trying to keep pace.

This everlasting night had simply gone on long enough.

The main gate proved to be surprisingly simple to open, seeing as whoever had last left the Palace had not taken care to lock it down or even completely close it. Each taking a deep breath, they crossed the threshold.

The main hall of the Palace was easily large enough to contain the Gazebo and the Golden Oak Library and still have plenty of space to the front, the back and the sides. If Twilight figured the dimensions properly, it was probably even larger than Queen Celestia’s throne room up in Canterlot. Pillars as thick as redwoods were engraved with images of great pony warriors whose names escaped even Twilight’s mind. The carpet beneath them, and the tapestries depicting the Sun and Moon at the far end of the main hall, were faded with age and weathering, and the ceiling was caved in in many places. Debris littered the floor; abandoned weapons, the odd helmet or two of bygone armor design, and chunks of roof-rock made crossing the main hall slightly less straight-forward. Branching off from the main hall were many corridors, flanked by empty sconces that once held bright-burning torches and candles.

Circling the shattered remains of a long-derelict chandelier brought the six halfway through the main hall. Now they had a more proper look at the other end of the hall. There was a large dais easily higher than one pony standing on another’s withers, with a pair of circling staircases leading up to it. Up there, directly before each staircase, seemingly untouched by time, were a pair of thrones, side by side. The one on their right, beneath the Sun-based tapestry, was bright-yellow, and surrounded by all manner of engravings and heraldry depicting the Sun and the activities of the day. On their left, beneath the Moon-based tapestry, was a deep-blue throne, identical save for color, surrounded by engravings which depicted stars, constellations, and the Moon in its varying phases.

Between the circling staircases was a fountain overgrown with weeds and moss. It bore on it several large stones, each set with some unclear mark, and looking on them seemed to fill Twilight with a peace of mind as though her soul had been supplied with some spiritual balm.

“There they are! The Elements!” Twilight cried with joy, rearing up.

Collecting the Elements would have seemed to be a hassle; each orb, perfectly smooth and polished, as though they’d just been placed yesterday, was about as wide around as the gap under Twilight’s legs while standing fully erect on all fours. But when Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy flew up to grab one together, it lifted with surprising easiness. After they’d placed it on the ground, Rainbow then experimented with a single Element, tapping it with a hoof. It almost slid off, but Rainbow Dash quickly bolted and snagged it. Within a minute, all six of the Elements were collected and at their hooves.

“There’s only five!” Pinkie said, sounding a little fearful.

A lump appeared in Twilight’s throat. One of the Elements was missing?

“Do you think that the sixth Element might have been stolen?” Rarity pondered. “Or, perhaps, spirited away by NightMare Moon?”

“Or maybe it’s hidden somewhere?” Fluttershy asked hopefully.


A lightning bolt shot through Twilight’s mind, and she beamed.

I’ve got it!!”

“Got what? The sixth Element?” Pinkie asked, an eyebrow quirked up.

“No, but I just remembered,” Twilight used her magic to produce Philomena’s letter from Queen Celestia. “See all these randomly bolded letters? And the bolded word spark?”

The other five nodded.

“I just realized… they’re not random at all! The Queen always uses a fresh quill whenever she writes, so that her message is plain as day for anypony she sends it to. She had to have bolded these letters deliberately! Now…” She squinted down at the letter. “If I read this carefully, I should be able to decode her message…”

Her tongue curving up her upper lip, Twilight looked carefully down at the letter, looking carefully for a bolded letter.

“Let’s see… the s in should is bolded… ixth… Okay, so the first paragraph’s secret word is Sixth. So the second paragraph’s secret word should be… As I thought. Element.”

“‘Sixth Element spark’…” pondered Rarity. “It doesn’t seem much to go on, darling.”

“The Queen had to have written this knowing that NightMare Moon was just minutes away,” Twilight said. “She can’t have had time to give much. But I think I know how to produce the sixth Element of Harmony.”

“How?” all five asked at once.

Twilight smirked.

“If I understand this coded message correctly, then the sixth Element should appear when a spark ignites the other five,” she explained, trotting into the circle the five inert Elements formed. Her alicorn lit, her dwimmer shimmer casting an unusual amount of light off of the Elements.

“You girls might want to stay back,” she said cautiously. “I’m not quite sure what will happen.”

Applejack nodded to the others, “C’mon, y’all. She needs t’ concentrate.”

With varying degrees of reluctance, they retreated to the fallen chandelier.

Once she was sure that they were safely away, Twilight set to work. Closing her eyes, she lit up her horn again, casting her mind around to a spell that could create a spark.

But what sort of spell would generate a spark that would ignite Harmony? she thought. Think, Twilight Sparkle, think! This isn’t for them! This is for your parents! This is for Spike! This is for everypony you care about!

…This is for the Queen.

Meanwhile, the five Ponyville natives were convening among each other.

“I really don’t think we should’ve left her alone,” Rainbow Dash said bluntly. “I smell something funny about this.”

“We’re close enough that we’ll notice if anything funny happens,” replied Applejack, digging in a hoof. “You think Ah’d let somethin’ bad happen to one of mah friends?”

“Oh no. Rainbow Dash didn’t mean anything like that,” said Fluttershy, raising her head slightly so that her mane covered her eyes slightly less.

“What else could she have possibly meant?” Rarity said. “And besides, we do need to give Twilight her space. Why, it’s just like me when a client takes out a big order of Carousel Couture carousel-style wares!”

Hold it!” Pinkie shouted in a frightened voice. Looking at her, her fellow Ponyvillagers saw that she was holding her left elbow. “My knee’s super-pinchy!

Immediately, the five turned to face Twilight. A starry blue mist had gathered around her and the Elements and the lavender Unicorn, who had not noticed her peril.

“TWILIGHT!” the five shouted, breaking into a full gallop.

Twilight snapped her head up, her horn going dark in an instant. She cried out in shock as she saw the swirling mist and the floating Elements.

And heard the diabolical laugh.

The mist tore off down one of the side-hallways, having taken Twilight and the Elements.

“After her!” Applejack shouted, the five ponies galloping in hot pursuit. Their foe was fast, but she left a long smoky trail.

This was the opposite of the feeling of winking out. Whereas winking out felt like every particle of your body being compressed into a singularity, this felt more like her body was being broken down and spread across the universe. It was peculiar, but not an altogether unpleasant means of winking out.

The experience was short-lived, as Twilight felt her body reconstituting and her hooves making rough contact with hard stone. Collapsing onto her belly, she blinked the bleariness away and looked up.

She was in some dilapidated meeting hall, a large stone dais at the end of the long room. Behind it were three high broken stained glass windows.

And on the dais stood NightMare Moon, the Elements of Harmony held in her starry blue mane. She wore an expression of savage pleasure, her batlike fangs glinting in her razor-sharp grin. Lightning flashed outside the windows.

Twilight struggled to her hooves, a plan coming to her mind. A risky one, a crazy one, but if it worked…

She glowered at the Queen of Darkness, pawing at the ground as she lowered her head for a charge.

NightMare Moon narrowed her slitted eyes at Twilight.

“Surely you jest at me,” she snarled, a snakelike tongue flicking out of her mouth. Nevertheless, she accepted Twilight’s invitation to duel with her own pawing at the ground. She placed the Elements on the dais around her as she lowered her head, her own alicorn far longer than Twilight’s own. She had the clear edge.

The combatants charged, the hall echoing loudly with their hoofsteps.

Twilight grinned internally as she saw NightMare Moon’s alicorn lighting up with that bright-cyan dwimmer shimmer, purple lightning arcing up and down the dark Alicorn’s horn. Her own horn was already ablaze with bright-pink light.

But she was not preparing an offensive spell.

The instant before NightMare Moon’s horn would have impaled Twilight Sparkle’s skull, she vanished in a bright flash of pink light. NightMare Moon slid to a stop, momentarily perplexed by the lack of a corpse impaled on her alicorn.

On the dais, Twilight appeared amidst the Elements, her head bobbling back and forth. Going from practically inconstituent particles to solid to a singularity to solid again was not an experience that left Twilight in an altogether collected state. Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, Twilight desperately set about trying to ignite a spark.

Come on… she thought as her horn crackled with pink lightning. Just one spark… Just one little spark… Nur ein Funke… Please…

Behind her, NightMare Moon had noticed what Twilight had done, whirled into the air as a twister of blue starry mist, and descended upon the dais. The impact sending Twilight to the floor again, hitting her head with a sickening CRACK.

Blinking spots out of her eyes, Twilight made note of her condition. She was probably concussed, but she would have to worry about medical attention later, and stay conscious to see NightMare Moon through to the end. She rolled over onto her belly, facing the dais.

The Elements were crackling back and forth, white lightning dancing between them. NightMare Moon’s eyes were wide with fear, drawing her forehooves back. Twilight smirked in victory…

Then the Elements of Harmony fell silent and dim. NightMare Moon raised a deep-blue eyebrow at them, then grinned her devilish grin at Twilight.

“But…” Twilight reached pleadingly towards the Elements. “The sixth Element…”

NightMare Moon let out a wicked cackle, rearing up and crushing two of the Elements under her forehooves, the stone shards flying towards Twilight.

Then she crushed two of the others under her hind hooves.

Then she drove her alicorn down into the fifth, the Element splitting into at least a dozen pieces.

“You little foal!” snarled NightMare Moon. “Thinking you could defeat me? Me, the Mistress of the Darkness?”

Tears streamed down Twilight’s muzzle. Without the Elements, all hope was truly lost…

“You have amused me, though, with your insignificant little rebellion,” the dark Alicorn said, idly trotting towards the fallen Twilight. “I won’t kill you, though; you will serve a fine example of those who defy me, and I would not waste my mana upon the likes of Celestia’s lap-dog.” NightMare Moon was now directly over Twilight, and she kneeled down so that she could meet Twilight eye-to-eye. NightMare Moon’s snake tongue flicked across her fangs and wolf’s teeth, and Twilight shivered. She had to stay awake. She had to. She didn’t want to die in her sleep…

NightMare Moon gave a feral smile to Twilight. “Instead, I will give you one last look at your Queen… and your Sun. Behold!”

NightMare Moon’s dwimmer shimmer lit up, projecting a large cyan circle in the air. The hollow middle turned to bright golden fire, and Twilight knew that this was the closest that she had ever seen of the Sun. And, that form, that silhouette in fetal position, with a horn and wings… Was that…?

But then the image dissipated, and Twilight blacked out. The last thing she heard was NightMare Moon’s declaration of, “The Sun shall not shine upon Equestria ever again!” followed by a mad cackle. The last thing she felt was the brush of wind as NightMare Moon took flight and departed for her new throne in what was once Canterlot.

CHAPTER iii: Nighttime Eternal

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Canterlot was on edge. The bourgeoisie had been privy to the Summer Sun Celebration within Canterlot and in many of the more celebrated locales around Equestria − Cloudsdale, Vanhoover, Fillydelphia, Los Pegasus, Salt Lick City, Manehattan, Baltimare − so to repeat the Celebration in a serf’s village was not acceptable. Their peasantriness might be contagious. But when the Sun did not rise at the anticipated time, they began to fear the worst: Queen Celestia had tasted too much commoner food and taken to becoming a serf herself, neglecting her royal duty to raise the Sun.

The Royal Guard entered high alert, the Day Guard and the Night Guard putting all their time into quelling the fears of nobles who panicked at the idea that even the Queen could be assimilated by the plebeians. They feared, as all in power do, the uprising of the rabble against them. It took the better part of eight hours to calm the hollering masses of noblemares and noblestallions, but all that the Royal Guard had truly done was put a cap on the boiling pot.

When a cloud of blue starry mist streamed into the city from the Saddle Valley below, many nobles began to panic anew. This was some eldritch magic of the masses, come to drag the rich down to their level! It streamed up Mane Street, up to the gates of the Castle of the Queen, where it began to coalesce into a singular solid form: a towering Alicorn with a pitch-black coat, her feathered bat wings unfurled ominously at her sides, her misty mane and tail billowing out behind her. The aura she projected upon the nobles sent them grovelling to their knees.

And when she spoke, it was with the echoing voice of a legion that carried to the very foundations of Canterlot.


The diminished spirits of the nobles had been rekindled. This was the subject of fear to their colts and fillies − “if you don’t do as you’re told, then NightMare Moon, the Mare of Shadows, will gobble you up” − and to themselves when they were colts and fillies. As quailed as they were at the prospect of the rabble pulling them down, the idea of NightMare Moon slipping down and out of their worst nightmares aroused a spirit of vigor in them.

They began to gallop towards the main gate, trying to save their own hides, but were waylaid by bolts of lightning, which cowed them into quivering wrecks.

”You cannot run from my everlasting dominion of night!” called NightMare Moon.

A bright pink dwimmer-beam shot by NightMare Moon’s head, blasting a hole through her starry mane. The blasted hole quickly sealed itself, and the black Alicorn narrowed her eyes down at the Mane Square.

Standing there in defiance, pawing at the ground, his alicorn lit up a bright pink, was Canterlot’s Captain of the Royal Guard. He was a Unicorn stallion, tall and broad at the withers, with a sapphire mane that ordinarily was streaked cerulean and dark-blue to either side of his horn, but which was concealed by his guardspony’s helmet. His cutie mark was hidden by his barrel-length golden armor.

“Everypony, stay calm!” he barked to the quivering nobles around the square. “We can stand against her!” His throat began to glow pink itself, and when he spoke, it was with a voice of ten times the volume.

“All personnel of the Royal Guard, rally to me before the Castle of the Queen!”

Within moments, scores of Royal Guards of every race answered their Captain’s call. Pegasi of the Day Guard soared in through the gaps between minarets; Unicorns winked out to their Captain’s side; and Earth Ponies galloped with the enhanced speed of their geokinetic magic. Along with the Pegasi glided the Night Guard, all members of which were an offshoot of the Pegasus race: a Bat Pony. Bat Ponies had bat wings instead of feathered wings, tail fins in place of tail feathers, leonine tails not unlike a Unicorn’s, slitted cat pupils, and fangs for puncturing fruits (they had an exclusively liquid diet).

NightMare Moon arched an eyebrow at the sight before her of the Captain of the Royal Guard at the head of his army of grosses of the gold-clad Royal Guard.

“You foals…” she hissed, a blinding cyan dwimmer-beam lancing out from her alicorn at the Captain. In a flash, his horn lit up, a bright-pink dwimmer-shield appearing before him and his fellow guardsponies, the dwimmer-beam arching violently off of the shield and striking the tiled roofs of the surrounding buildings, shattering tiles and sending charred fragments to the streets below. NightMare Moon’s alicorn dimmed in moments, her eyes narrowed upon the Royal Guard in its entirety.

“I ask you, Captain,” she said with a devilish grin. “How can you and your troops stand against me…” Her mane and tail swelled to massive proportions, before fragments split off, descending upon the Royal Guard like a fine mist. “When you can’t even stand against yourselves?”

The Captain braced himself for some dark magic of NightMare Moon’s, but whatever it was had no effect upon him whatsoever. Emboldened, he pawed dangerously at the cobbled stone with a forehoof.

“You can’t intimidate us with your theatrics, NightMare,” he snarled. “To her, men!

Two pairs of forelegs restrained the Captain’s forearms, and he looked back and forth in dismay. A Unicorn Day Guard and a Night Guard had blank looks on their faces, the whites of their eyes glimmering with a faint blue light. They were holding him back, and behind them, he could see several more Day and Night Guards had fallen victim to NightMare Moon’s hex as well. The two factions of the Royal Guard were themselves split in twain, to the point where the divisions of Day Guard and Night Guard meant nothing. Free-minded and enslaved were nearer the mark.

“It would seem that some of your Royal Guard are weak-willed enough to submit to my hypnosis,” hissed NightMare Moon, who had appeared directly before the captive Captain, a savage grin on her muzzle.

The Captain struggled against the grip that his fellow guardsponies had on him, to no avail. He considered winking out, but decided he would rather not chance winking himself out all over Canterlot.

“Please! Phalanx! Echo Eyes! Snap out of it!” the Captain called desperately. “It’s me, your Captain! Your friend, Shining Armor!”

“We must obey the Night Queen,” they said in flat droning voices.

NightMare Moon let out a high triumphant cackle, lightning leaping from minaret to minaret above Mane Square. Captain Shining Armor’s ears dropped in defeat. Her laughter spent, the dark Alicorn conqueror lowered her head to his level.

“As the olden Commander Hurricane would have said:” NightMare Moon was almost on top of Shining Armor, her snake tongue flicking between her front fangs. She took in a low hissing breath, leaned in to Shining Armor’s right ear, and almost whispered into it, her tongue dancing at the edge of his outer ear: “Divide and rule.”

Thus ended NightMare Moon’s conquest of Canterlot.

The world was blackness, and Twilight Sparkle floundered about in the lightless void, shapeless. Muffled voices echoed around her, and she reached out with formless appendages, trying to grasp at the source of those conversing voices. She had no clue of what they were discussing, or if those voices even existed outside of Twilight’s own head. She even wondered if her own head even existed, or if she was just some stray collection of barely collected synapses in the mana-leylines that swept Harmonia.

In time, Twilight came to realize that she herself existed in a physical form, and her body began to ache all over, her alicorn feeling as though it were split down the middle. Despite the pain, she felt heaven upon her back. With the pain came memory, and she sat bolt upright.

NIGHTMARE MOON!” she shrieked, her voice sounding hoarse, her eyes squinting at the white light that encompassed her. Her forehooves came up, blocking her eyes.

“Twilight Sparkle,” snapped a sweet but firm voice, as a hoof gently eased her back down, “You’ve been badly injured in the Forest. You must rest until you’ve recovered.”

Blinking the light out of her eyes, Twilight made out a slender Earth Pony mare with a white coat and pale-pink mane tied back in a bun. She wore a nursing cap emblazoned with her cutie mark − a red cross with a pink heart pointing in towards each indentation. Her blue eyes were shadowed, as though she had not slept in a good long while. As her vision adjusted to the light, Twilight realized she was in a hospital room with faded-green walls and bright-white chandeliers in recessed rectangles in the ceiling. Twilight heard a faint BEEP every one-point-five seconds, in time with her heartbeat.

With a slight start, the nurse mare glanced at something out of Twilight’s field of vision, and beckoned over. A silhouette of a Unicorn doctor appeared behind the curtains to the left of her bed, and the nurse addressed him:

“Tell the visitors in the waiting room that Twilight Sparkle has come to. They must have heard the scream.”

The doctor nodded, retreating back out of view. The nurse looked down at Twilight with a soft smile, and Twilight weakly tried to return it.

“Try not to overexert yourself, dear. You’ve been through an awful lot, and even though you’ve been out a good while, you still need your rest.”

“Where am I?” Twilight asked blearily.

“You’re at Ponyville General,” replied the nurse. “My name is Nurse Redheart, and I have been caring for you these past―”

Mom!” cried a small boyish voice to Twilight’s left. Looking over, her heart soared at seeing Spike, running over on his short hind legs. His ordinarily slitted pupils were almost round, taking up much of his visible eyes, tears running down his scaly face. With a great leap (for Spike), he reached Twilight’s bedside, his claws wrapping around Twilight’s bandaged left foreleg.

Twilight smiled at him. She was in no mood to ruin Spike’s by correcting him. She brought her other foreleg around to wipe his tears away.

“I’m okay, Spike. Really, I am.”

Spike sniffled, smiling at Twilight. “Thanks to these guys! Didn’t I say you should make some friends?”

With a hesitant glance, Twilight looked up at the five who trotted into the room behind Spike. The same five mares who had followed her into the Everfree Forest were there with her, each giving her a tentative, nervous look.

Twilight had a lot of questions, but she could not ask each question at once.

“How long was I out?” she asked weakly.

“Goin’ on two days now, sugarcube,” replied Applejack. Twilight felt her heart in her throat.

“And… how are my parents?”

The five mares looked back and forth at each other, and Twilight felt a bolt of panic shoot through her heart; what had happened to them?

“Well… you have to understand, Twilight…” began Rarity, “That NightMare Moon did not… take kindly to your little sun spell…”

“But when she tried to dispel it, she just went pew-pew-pew!, and your sun just went like, Uh-uh~,” Pinkie suddenly sang, pronking about the room − Nurse Redheart took a step back to avoid the bouncing party mare.

Twilight raised an eyebrow, her head aching worse than ever, rubbing one of her ears with a forehoof. “Translation, please?”

“NightMare Moon tried to blast your mini-sun outta the sky,” Rainbow Dash said loudly, flapping into the air, “but her dwimmer-beams couldn’t do a thing to it! She was getting, like, seriously ticked off! Eventually, she gave up and went off towards Canterlot.”

Twilight wondered at this unexpected news. How in Harmonia did NightMare Moon not have the power to dispel her heliogenesis spell? Maybe it was because NightMare Moon had only re-emerged from the Moon just hours before…?

“We moved yer parents to th’ walkway ‘round Town Hall, so’s they can get more sun an’ all,” Applejack added, “an’ each of the Ponyvillagers took up th’ call t’ water ‘em whenever they passed by. They’ve already accepted you as one o’ their own.”

Looking around at each of their sincerely concerned faces, a relieved Twilight could not bear to tell them what was really on her mind, and instead resorted to asking another question:

“How did you get me out?”

Silence greeted Twilight’s query, as her compatriots gathered their thoughts. It was Rarity who spoke up first.

“Now, darling, you were quite unconscious when we found you in that meeting hall,” she explained. “The wall was blasted out, and the Elements were missing―”

“The Elements,” Twilight bolted up, despite Nurse Redheart’s protestations. “Please tell me that the Elements weren’t destroyed!”

Four mares and Spike looked back and forth at one another in confusion, while Pinkie Pie smiled.

“Nope, no Elements, Twilight, but I did find some really great rocks to make rock necklaces for my sisters!”

From out of nowhere, Pinkie produced several shards of surprisingly light stones. They were once five spheres engraved with unseen symbols.

Pinkie had collected the shattered Elements of Harmony.

“Those are the Elements!” Twilight shouted, before grasping her head and groaning in pain.

Please don’t push yourself!” Nurse Redheart said sharply, moving to push Twilight back down to the pillow.

Twilight moaned in distress, rubbing her alicorn sorely. She absently noted that her head was bandaged as well, her forelock pulled up and tied with a hairband behind her horn, before continuing.

“Okay, so… you found me and the Elements. Then what?”

“Well, we did have a bit of hassle getting back up the slope that the Palace lay at the bottom of, but we managed. We got to the stream, and then…”

Rarity fell silent there.

“Then…?” Twilight pressed.

“That’s when they showed up,” Rainbow Dash finished darkly.

The rumble of thunder drew five pairs of eyes up from the stream to the sky. Streaks of storm clouds bolted through the sky, but Rainbow Dash felt that these could not be the Wonderbolts. The storm cloud trails were too dark for that team of flyers.

When the three dark Pegasi landed directly across the cragodiles’ stream from them, she knew that these were not the Wonderbolts.

Their flight-suits were a deep-dark purple, with dark-gray hoods over their heads − with holes cut out for their ears and manes − and dark-gray forearms and cannons. Golden lightning bolts accented the boundaries. Their yellow-tinted goggles gave the impression of perpetual glares. The flanks of their uniforms bore the mark of a winged pony skull. The mare at their lead had a rich blue windswept mane and tail, pale bluish-gray coat and wings, and a devilish grin.

“In the name of the Moon, you will not make it out of this forest!” she called out, her wings flaring as she pawed at the ground.

“Says who?” countered Rainbow Dash, pawing at the ground herself, her fangs bared.

The mock-Wonderbolt darted at Rainbow Dash, who barely had time to react before being tackled into the air. Her attacker’s muzzle was split in a maniacal grin, revealing a mouth of razor teeth and fangs.

“Says I, Nightingale, Captain of the Shadowbolts!”

“The Shadowbolts?” Twilight echoed.

“That’s what she said they were called,” Rainbow Dash affirmed. “I don’t know who those copycats think they are, but they’re stealing the Wonderbolts’ thunder!”

“Ah think that’s the whole point, RD,” Applejack cut in. “Ah’d wager that they’re a cult that sprung up in worship o’ NightMare Moon ‘round the time the Wonderbolts themselves were founded.”

“So, how’d you get past the Shadowbolts?” Twilight pressed.

A crack of lightning tore through the sky, and Nightingale suddenly drew away from Rainbow Dash. Shaking the stars out of her eyes, Rainbow Dash caught sight of the foe which appeared and drew the attacks of Nightingale.

The Wonderbolts!

The advent of Spitfire, Soarin, and Fleetfoot had brought the wrath of Nightingale and her two stallion cohorts to rest upon the Wonderbolts instead of the five escapees from the Palace (Twilight resting unconscious across Applejack’s strong back). Three Wonderbolts did battle against the three Shadowbolts, the night sky dazzled with lightning under the Moon. The bolts generated by the Wonderbolts sent white light dancing against the trees, while those produced by the Shadowbolts seemed to cast an unlight, diminishing all light save the Moon’s. As Spitfire’s warm golden flames licked the night sky, Nightingale produced white fire that chilled the blood to look at.

Even Rainbow Dash’s fangirling out for the Wonderbolts could not outlast her feelings of self-preservation in light of the battle unfolding in the sky above the Everfree, and she descended to the surface, facing her fellow Ponyvillagers.

“How the hay are we supposed to get back now?”

“And then AJ kicked down a tree over the stream, and we all walked across it,” Rainbow Dash explained. “A few cragodiles tried to snap at us, but we managed to get across pretty safely.”

“We thought we’d have a tough time about gettin’ past the timberwolves,” Applejack said, “but one o’ the Wonderbolts − or one o’ them Shadowbolts − sent down a lightnin’ bolt that set that part of Everfree ablaze. All manner o’ creatures ran about, tryin’ t’ save their own skins. We jus’ galloped straight fer the ravine.”

“The fire had weakened several of the trees just at the edge of the ravine, and we managed to cross on one tree that had… rather precariously set itself between the cliff-faces,” Rarity added.

“And then we brought you here,” Fluttershy finished, withdrawing behind her mane.

Twilight closed her eyes, trying to sift through all of this information. Her head was still hurting terribly after hitting it during her one-on-one battle with NightMare Moon, and the influx of sudden information had not done her any favors.

Still, these five had risked hide and hair to make sure she and the Elements had returned safely to Ponyville.

“I’m… grateful,” she began slowly. “Really, I really am grateful. I never would have made it out of there without you five there for me.”

Spike and the five mares smiled at Twilight; even Nurse Redheart, who had retreated towards the door during the tale of their trek out of the Everfree, allowed a small smile to grace her soft features.

“But,” Twilight added, and six pairs of eyes widened slightly; Rainbow Dash narrowed hers. “If someponies hadn’t been trying to make friends with me all day long, or thrown a stupid little party that kept me from concentrating for a single nanosecond, I might have actually been able to do the research that I needed to do to figure out how these Maker-forsaken Elements of Harmony actually worked!”

As Twilight’s tirade progressed, the faces of each of her companions gradually changed. Spike’s face showed growing heartbreak, Rarity and Applejack’s showed progressing guilt, Rainbow Dash’s glower intensified, Fluttershy withdrew further and further behind her mane, and Pinkie Pie started to lose her color, literally. Nurse Redheart awkwardly chose this moment to slip out of the door and into the hospital hallway.

“If I could have just figured that out, then NightMare Moon would have been out of all of our manes! But now, because nopony can just take studying first, the Elements of Harmony are… are…”

Twilight realized that she was crying, her eyes trained on the shards of white rock laying at the side of her bed. Her chest rose and fell unevenly as the horrid truth began to sink in.

The Elements of Harmony were gone.

As was Queen Celestia.

NightMare Moon had won.

The Sun would never rise again.

“The world is doomed…” Twilight sobbed, her ears flopping against the sides of her head, her eyes clenched shut. “Mom… Dad… I’m sorry…”

“As much as I appreciate your being so upfront with us and all that hay,” Rainbow Dash said flatly, flapping up to Twilight, “You’re being a bit of a nag.”

Twilight winced at Rainbow Dash’s language.

“Did you really…” said a meek and soft voice, but Fluttershy was not speaking. Twilight realized with a start that the one who was talking was Pinkie Pie. She had no idea that the pink mare could talk so softly. But she wasn’t pink right now; she was a pale blue. Her ears were completely slack against the sides of her head, and her mane and tail had lost much of their frizz and became merely curly. Twilight could not imagine a sadder or more defeated-looking mare.

“Did you really hate my party…?” Pinkie whimpered with quivering lips, tears leaking from her eyes.

Twilight’s mind could not process how Pinkie did some of the things she did in even the short time they’d known each other, and right now, with how numb her mind was after being unconscious for two days straight, she did not want to deal with something like this.

“I… I wouldn’t hate it, but… That was no time for a party…” she said weakly, treading softly in case she set Pinkie off even further. “I needed to find out more about the Elements of Harmony, and now…”

“If you’ll be begging my pardon, darling,” Rarity cut in, adding a slightly sarcastic edge to the word darling, “I think it’s a bit too soon to be considering this situation a hopeless one.”

“Really…?” asked Pinkie hopefully, her slack mane and tail beginning to curl up and return to a rosy hue again. Her tears ceased as the corners of her mouth turned up in a shadow of a smile.

“Well, we may perhaps have a party that Twilight Sparkle here will find enjoyable, but I was more thinking along the lines of… the Elements.” Rarity gestured a cloven hoof at the Element shards. “How do you know that they have become impotent just from being shattered? How were they created?”

Twilight sniffled. “Well… Queen Celestia always hinted that she and the Queen of the Night had worked together to create the Elements, but…”

“There you have it,” Rarity said with a flourish of her hoof. “Perhaps the Elements’ physical vessels can be destroyed, but not the Elements themselves. They are the greatest magic in Equestria, are they not?”

A shoot of hope blossomed in Twilight’s chest. “They are.”

“And they could not be unmade so easily, could they?”

“Not when you put it like that.”

“So now that we can reasonably assume that these Elements,” Rarity levitated the shards of one Element in her periwinkle dwimmer shimmer, “are not so easily destructible, perhaps we can do some research into how to remake their vessels…?”

“And make them usable again!” Twilight declared, standing up on all fours atop the hospital bed. She must have been projecting such an aura of joy that Pinkie Pie leapt into the air and reverted to her bright pink joyous self once again with a joyous Whee-hee~.

“The Elements are an immutable thaumaturgical force, bound into physical vessels by the Queens of the Day and Night,” Twilight explained very quickly. “If we can study the thaumaturgical properties of the Elements themselves, then we can hypothesize how best to magically repair the vessels themselves. And the only way to do that is…” Twilight rested on her haunches and clapped her forehooves triumphantly. “Research trip!

Spike planted his face in one of his claws, and four of the five mares with Twilight tilted their heads to the side.

Whee!” Pinkie leapt into the air, wiggling her hooves and floating in the air for a fraction of a second. “Can we throw a pre-research trip party?”

Twilight hesitated for a split-second, then replied simply, “Sure, why not?”

Pinkie squealed with such high glee that Twilight half-seriously pondered if she would reach a pitch too high for ponies to hear.

“So, by ‘research trip’, you mean… leavin’ Ponyville?” Applejack asked. “Fer… how long?”

“That depends on how easily we can track down information on the Elements of Harmony,” Twilight explained. “Before we officially declare this research trip, I say that we thoroughly scour the Golden Oak Library and―”

’We’?” Rainbow Dash echoed. “Whatever happened to the whole ’I work alone’ bit just now? I thought we’d just get in your way.”

Twilight huffed through her nose.

“Like it or not, we have to work together,” she said levelly, as much to herself as the others. “Seven pairs of eyes can scour an oak tree’s worth of books faster than two.”

“I pair up with Rarity!” squeaked Spike, raising a claw eagerly. Rarity gave a light ladylike chuckle.

Twilight laughed to herself, Pinkie echoing it for no real reason.

“Alright, Spike. But remember that we’re looking for information on the Elements of Harmony. You can study anatomy later.”

While Spike tilted an eyebrow in confusion, Rainbow Dash, Applejack and Pinkie Pie let out uproarious whinnies of laughter. Rarity sniffed with disdain at such a colorful joke (though her muzzle did scrunch up somewhat), and Fluttershy withdrew behind her mane with a fierce blush.

“Whoo-boy, Twilight!” choked Applejack between guffaws. “Ah didn’t know you told jokes like that!”

“Talk about your off-color jokes!” Rainbow Dash snorted.

“You’re worth a hoot and a half, Twilight!” Pinkie snickered.

Following Twilight’s checkup the morning after, wherein the nurses and doctor found little that they could do apart from insisting that Twilight Sparkle maintain an easygoing schedule and not strain herself, the six mares and the dragon cub found themselves on the dirt streets of a Ponyville under NightMare Moon’s selenic reign. The shattered remains of the five Elements were each kept in the saddle-bags of Twilight’s five companions.

Even with Twilight’s heliogenesis spell, the sky was not as brightly lit as on a pre-NightMare Moon day. It was only about as bright as day in a very small radius around the facsimile sun, quickly dropping off to dusk-levels of darkness before it even reached the other side of the sky from the early-morning sun. Still, it was warm enough, and that was what mattered most. Passing through the unpaved roads of Ponyville, the group of seven met up with many mares, stallions and foals, all of whom greeted and were greeted in turn by Twilight’s companions by name, and offered their deepest and sincerest thanks to Twilight for her replacement Sun.

Reaching the Gazebo, Twilight stopped by her parents, using her dwimmer shimmer to take up the watering can between them and giving a generous watering to them both. Agaves and cacti were water-retaining plants, so admittedly they did not need quite as much water, but they definitely needed as much sunlight as she could muster. She knelt down, embracing the pots holding her parents.

“I swear, Mom, Dad,” she said softly, “I’ll bring back the Sun, and bring you two back.”

Looking up, Twilight’s heart soared at the bright sign hanging up over the agave & cactus. It read in bright paint Please Water Twilight Sparkle’s Parents, If You Have The Time!. Somepony actually took the time to make this, and raise such awareness of her parents’ needs…

“Wh-who made this sign?” she said, tears running down her smiling muzzle.

Pinkie leapt into the air. “It was me, me, me! It was me all over! But it was all Rarity’s idea!” Pinkie gestured with feathery hooves towards the alabaster Unicorn. Rarity raised a hoof up to cover her blush, failing badly at doing so.

“I-it was nothing, really, dear,” she said quickly. “I just thought, it’s such a shame Twilight’s not awake to water her parents, and then, Inspiration struck! I simply could not let such a dear friend of mine take such a heartrending task upon herself, and so I asked Pinkie Pie if she could aid me in this endeavor. And, if you look closely at your parents’ pots, I think you’ll see a little something extra.”

Taking a second glance down at the pots, Twilight sunk onto her haunches as her forehooves covered her mouth, lest she let out a sob of gratitude. Each pot had been itself placed in a slightly wider and thicker pot, each one decorated with Twilight’s cutie mark. The agave’s new pot read Twilight Sparkle’s mother in loopy dwimmer-writing, and the cactus’s new pot read Twilight Sparkle’s father in the same.

Twilight faced Rarity, trotting slowly towards her, her mane shadowing her eyes. Rarity took an involuntary step back; was this too much?

But Twilight threw her hooves around Rarity, sobbing into the alabaster Unicorn’s shoulder.

“Thank you,” she mumbled over and over again. Rarity patted a hoof on Twilight’s back. After a minute or so, Twilight pulled away.

“But… how did you know which plant was my mother and which was my father?”

Rarity winked slyly. “A mare’s intuition.”

Twilight wiped a tear away. “How can I ever repay you for this?”

Rarity waved a hoof firmly in the air. “Think nothing of repayment, my dear. It was the least I could do for such a dear friend.”

There it is again, Twilight thought wearily behind her grateful smile. Why in Harmonia does she want to still be my friend after all of the horse-apples I’ve been putting them through?

The seven reached the Golden Oak Library in no time, though admittedly it would have been slightly faster had they not been stopped every five paces by somepony wanted to shake Twilight’s hoof for her Sun. Regardless, they reached the Library just shy of eleven o’clock ante-meridian, so they had a good few hours left in the “day” before the false Sun had set, and the growing cold of the everlasting night set in.

In the main room of the library, Twilight − with Spike at her side − turned to face the five mares who’d followed her here.

“Alright, everypony,” she said sharply. “We need to put a stop to NightMare Moon’s nighttime eternal as quickly as equinely possible. And to do that, we’re going to need to peruse every single one of these books.” She stamped a hoof on the ground to emphasize each word. “It doesn’t matter how trivial or insignificant you think it is (unless it’s fiction); we need to find any information that we can get on the Elements of Harmony. If we all search together, surely we can find something.”

The party split up into pairs − Twilight and Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, Rarity and Spike; Pinkie hopped between each of the three pairs − and each pair took a bookshelf. It was clear from the beginning that this would be a tedious test of patience (especially for Rainbow Dash), but the prospect was not made any easier by seeing just how many books there were to peruse. Since they did not want to chance missing a thing, simply glancing at a page would not suffice. They would have to carefully scan every page of every book in the library to see if they could find anything on the Elements of Harmony.

After the first hour, even Twilight Sparkle had to admit that all of the fun had left this exercise. By her own admission, this was not meant to be an enjoyable exercise, but there was only so much reading that one pony could do. Even Spike’s attempts to woo Rarity were only met by curt remarks that there were more important things to deal with presently than her birthday, her favorite color, her favorite flower, her favorite type of music, what she looked for in a special somepony, and the like.

Mercifully, their search was ended by the discovery of a slip of parchment between Elements of Good Cooking and Emerging Force of Will: A Guide on How to be Assertive. Pinkie Pie was the one to find it, squealing It was under ‘E’~ as she waved it about between her forehooves.

Twilight took the note in her dwimmer shimmer, reading it aloud for her companions.

My deareſt and moſt faithful ſtudent Twilight Sparkle,

I can only hope that you followed your inſtincts and ſearched here in the ‘E’ ſection of the Golden Oak Library firſt, and ſpared yourſelf a headache. Even in the most modeſt of libraries, an alphabetical ſearch for ſpecific ſubject matter can be egregious.

I will mince no words: you will not find anything on the Elements out here in Ponyville. I have a perſonal journal regarding the nature of each of the ſix Elements, and how each is activated, but I have taken care to conceal it outſide of Canterlot, for fear that NightMare Moon would ſee it deſtroyed. Where, I cannot ſay, in caſe this meßage is intercepted. So, I inſtead leave you with theſe laſt few words:

Stay vigilant, my little pony. Too many in Canterlot lack the reſolve that you do to stand up to adverſity. Under NightMare Moon, you will find many enemies. Do not let your ſpirit falter. I have high hopes for you. Ever ſince I brought you under my wing, you have been my beacon of hope. Stay ſtrong.

Of courſe, you muſt keep your friends at your ſide. Never let them out of your heart.

Ponies have ſtrong hearts, my beloved pupil. Under the most adverſe conditions, they can ſtill ſtand ſtrong. Nothing holds higher admiration in my heart. Do not doubt them. All ponies have great capacity for goodneſs. Many do bad things, to be fair, but only when they are angry or ſcared. In time, even the blackeſt heart ſhines with light. Let your friends carry your burden if you find it too great. I aßure you they will not falter. Adverſity brings out the beſt in a true friend.

Calm your mind, and do not puſh them away. Unleſs we ſtand in unity, we will crumble in the night. Learn to make friends. Truſt in them. Unlooſe the bonds on your heart. Rest eaſy, do not ruſh, and take care. Eventually, I know that you will learn the magic of friendship.

Your ever hopeful mentor,

Queen Celeſtia Apolinaria di Equeſtria


Twilight twisted the parchment in her dwimmer shimmer. There was nothing on the back. Queen Celestia may have taken quill to this paper in the hopes of alleviating Twilight’s tension; it was clear now that there was nothing related to the Elements of Harmony or NightMare Moon out here in Ponyville. But if anything, this just made her quest seem even more hopeless; she was trapped in a world of everlasting night, her mentor the Queen was imprisoned, she had no way of reversing what had unfolded, and everypony wanted her to make friends with everypony in the entire universe.


Maybe it was something in the message that Twilight was missing. Perhaps the Queen’s message that Philomena delivered that had given Twilight an added degree of insight, but maybe… just maybe…

“I think the Queen’s hidden a message in this letter as well!” she said brightly.

Rainbow Dash groaned. “What’s with all the hidden meanings with Queen Celestia all of a sudden?”

“I would think it prudent to obfuscate the message,” Rarity said sharply, “in case it falls into the wrong hoofs.”

Rainbow Dash crossed her forearms. “It’s still stupid.”

Twilight had placed the note on the table in the middle of the room, just under the wooden bust of Smart Cookie, one of Equestria’s six founders over two-and-a-half-dozen-gross years ago. Producing a quill, she carefully looked over the letter again, writing a letter in the corner intermittently. After a minute, she smiled brightly.

“As I thought. It was an acrostic!”

“A what?” the six other echoed.

“A coded message where the real message is concealed in the first letter of each sentence,” she explained. “It’s simple, but her previous message tipped me off to the hidden message she could have made in this letter!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “So what’s the message?”

Studies on Pundamilia Culture.”

Silence greeted Twilight. For a moment.

“The Study of What-now?” Applejack asked.

“It’s a book on the study of the cultures of Zebras,” explained Twilight, eyebrows furrowed slightly in consternation that nopony else knew that. “It was written a long time ago by Masquerade, a noted historian, and it can only be found in the most upscale of libraries. I doubt we’d find it here, but… It can’t hurt to check.”

A quick perusal of the ‘S’ section made it quite plain that there was no copy of Studies on Pundamilia Culture in the library’s stores.

“Now what do we do?” Fluttershy asked meekly.

“Now,” Twilight said with every degree of confidence, “I simply wink out to the Royal Canterlot Archives, get their copy of Studies on Pundamilia Culture, check either page 25 or Chapter 25, and see what hidden messages I can decipher from the text.”

Twilight’s alicorn began to twinkle with her pink dwimmer shimmer, the spell matrices lining up in her mind to wink out to her favorite reading spot in the Royal Canterlot Archives…

And she felt a violent jolt shooting down from the tip of her alicorn all the way to her brain stem, as though she had just galloped at full speed into a steel wall. Her body quaked feverishly, both forehooves clasping at her horn as she fell to her chest.

Spike ran up to Twilight, trying to help her up. “Are you alright?”

“Wards…” she muttered through clenched teeth, tears of pain streaking down from closed eyes. “NightMare Moon must have set up anti-winking wards around Canterlot.”

“Oh my…” Fluttershy gasped.

“So now what do we do?” Rainbow Dash growled.

“There’s only one thing we can do:” Twilight said decisively, stamping a hoof on the ground. “Approach Canterlot on hoof, sneak into the Royal Archives, and sneak a peek at the Studies on Pundamilia Culture!”

“Twilight,” Rarity cut in, waving a hoof to get Twilight’s attention. “If I may ask, isn’t there, perhaps, a more… easily accessible copy of this ‘Studies on Pundamilia Culture’?”

“I’m afraid not, Rarity. That’s the only copy of the book that I’m aware of. It’s very rare, and has a very long backorder time.”

At this, Rarity withdrew her hoof, using it to nervously brush her mane.

“But… walking to Canterlot… It could take days. Away from home. Away from all my amenities. I’ll become simply unpresentable.” Rainbow Dash and Applejack both planted their faces in their hooves. “Why… I might even… grow a… b-b-b-b-b-b-beard.”

Awkward silence hung over the library room for several seconds. Applejack and Rainbow Dash bit their respective lower lips, trying not to laugh. Fluttershy’s eyes widened and her lips drew taut in some sort of distraught emotion, and Pinkie Pie rubbed her own chin pensively.

Twilight knitted her eyebrows.

“Rarity, all Unicorns grow beards, even the mares,” she said matter-of-factly. “Even I’m growing a beard, look.” She pointed at the sapphire stubble on her own muzzle, having not shaved since the night before she left for Ponyville, a pink streak of stubble running directly down the middle of her chin.

“But you don’t understand!” Rarity hissed frantically. This seemed to be a genuinely big deal for her. “My facial hair… It clashes completely with my mane and tail. It is absolutely untamable in every meaning of the word. I would find it unbearable to present myself at the gates of Canterlot with the appearance of a vagabond! Oh, woe is me!” On those last three words, Rarity threw a forehoof to her forehead and reared onto her hind legs dramatically.

“Then bring a razor!” Rainbow Dash said bluntly. “We’ve got bigger things to worry about than making sure our facial hair matches our forelocks!” For good measure, she flipped her forelock as she finished her sentence.

Twilight sighed, stroking her stubble with her forearm.

“Bring a razor if you must, Rarity,” she said. “But we have to travel light. Don’t being anything more than what you need. We’ll live off of grass and dew if we have to, but we have to get that book!”

“If ya don’t mind mah askin’, Twilight,” Applejack asked, “what in the wide world of Equestria is so important about that book?”

“Yeah,” agreed Rainbow Dash, her forelegs folded. “I mean, it’s not like Zebra rhymes are the way to fix these Elements.”

Twilight scowled slightly at Rainbow Dash’s slight at Zebra poetry.

“Maybe not, but Queen Celestia may have hidden a message in there that has information we need related to the Elements of Harmony.”

Her eyes settled on each pony in turn: Applejack, with her scars and Stetson; Rainbow Dash, with her cocky arch to the eyebrows; Rarity, with her sleek coat; Fluttershy, with her meek turn of the head to hide behind her mane; and Pinkie Pie, with her bouncy mane and indomitable joy. Twilight reached down to Spike, who took her hoof in his claw.

“I’m leaving Spike in your care, while I go and get the Studies on Pundamilia Culture.”


Spike wasn’t the only one who said it; each and every one of the five mares in front of Twilight said it at varying degrees of volume and length.

“No way am I letting you go off like that without me, Mom! …Err, Twilight. I waited right by your bed in the hospital the minute that they brought you in, and I don’t want to see you like that again! I’m going with you, wherever you go, from now on!”

Spike said all of this with more of a fortitude that Twilight had ever heard out of her drake ward. She did not doubt that he was a strong-willed little dragon, but this was different from refusing to go to sleep at your usual bedtime. This was a quest, one fraught with peril and dangers that could very well take your life. As confused as Twilight was as to what Spike meant to her, she knew that she couldn’t put his life at risk.

“Spike,” she said softly, “I really appreciate it, but I can’t let you get hurt. That’s why I want you to stay with Applejack and the others until I’ve returned. That’s the safest place you can be.”

“But I’d feel safer with you!” Spike hugged her foreleg.

Twilight was confused; exactly who was trying to keep who safe?

“Sugarcube,” began Applejack, stepping forward towards the table, “Ah understand ya mean well, but Ah reckon yer tryin’ t’ shoulder a burden that’s too big for ya.”

“We followed you into the Everfree,” continued Rainbow Dash. “I think that that kinda makes us enemies of NightMare Moon, too.”

“It would make me feel just awful if I couldn’t do what I can to help,” Fluttershy added, shadowing Rainbow Dash.

“I would be remiss to let you undertake such a task on your own,” Rarity said, trotting to stand alongside Fluttershy.

“And you’re gonna need me to help keep your frowns upside-down!” Pinkie gleefully squealed, pronking back and forth behind the other four.

Twilight locked eyes with each of the five mares sharing the room with her. Each one wore a hopeful smile upon their muzzles. Looking down, Twilight saw Spike smiling hopefully as well. Smiling down at her only friend, Twilight nuzzled him gently, before slowly looking up at the other mares.

“You don’t have to do this.”

“Like hay we don’t!” Applejack said sharply, stomping a hoof. “Yer our friend, and we’re stickin’ to ya like apple butter to Fancy toast!”

“You wouldn’t have made it out of Everfree on your own, and that was before NightMare Moon took over Canterlot!” Rainbow Dash added.

“I would simply not be able to live with myself if I let you go alone,” said Rarity.

“I’m afraid I’ll just get in the way,” Fluttershy said, “but I would really rather be there to help you… if that’s okay with you…”

“Everypony needs a laugh and a smile!” Pinkie cheered.

Twilight blinked. Earlier, she’d thought that she was better off without these ponies who seemed to want to be her friends simply for the sake of being her friends. But now, after all that they’d had to say, and all that she had seen them do, she realized that their efforts were not simply selfish. They were genuinely looking out for her. Ordinarily, she would not have cared that their care was genuine, but a fire had been kindled in her heart on realizing the care these ponies showed for her parents.

Twilight found herself smiling.

“If you girls really want to come with me, there’s something we’ll all have to do.”

It turned out that Pinkie Pie’s home was a large two-story home, with a loft, that looked more like it was made out of gingerbread than wood. The tiled roof was the exact shade of milk chocolate, detailed with what looked exactly like white frosting. One of the rafters at the top bore a weathervane shaped like a pony holding a candy cane in its forelegs. The loft, clearly added later on, was shaped like a cupcake decorated with pink icing, three purple stalks at the top alight with lanterns posing as larger-than-life birthday candles. Twilight marveled at the candy-cane pillars flanking the front door before Pinkie kicked in the front door with a forehoof, the door ricocheting off of a set of springs.

Her parents must have gotten used to that, Twilight thought, looking about the store-space that made up what once had to be a living room. There was a fragrance of freshly baked cookies in the air, and Twilight was instantly transported to her fillyhood days, with her beloved Smarty Pants doll at her side, snagging her mother’s cookies from the cookie jar.

“I’m hooo~ome!” Pinkie called out in a song-like tone, bringing Twilight back to the present.

An Earth Pony couple emerged from the door to the kitchen. The male of the pair was tall and gangly, while his wife was short and plump, though a certain tautness of her belly told Twilight that she was expecting. The stallion had a bright-yellow coat, a brilliantly orange mane, orange freckles, and an underbite. The mare had a dark-pink mane that swirled not unlike the icing on a cupcake, and a light-cerulean coat. The stallion’s eyes were deep-green, and his cutie mark was a set of three carrot cakes. The mare had a cutie mark of three cupcakes, pale-pink baubles dangling from her ears, and bright pink eyes.

Between the pair of them, though they put on joyous airs, Twilight couldn’t help but to note a slight air of fear about the two. She could understand why; the false Sun would not last forever, and they perhaps feared Mrs. Pie foaling under an eternal night.

“Welcome home, Pinkie!” said the stallion, he and his wife bringing up a foreleg each as Pinkie dived into a hug. Twilight felt a tug at her heartstrings; her own parents had not been able to hug her like that in almost twelve years.

The mare looked over Pinkie’s shoulder at Twilight, and smiled. “I suppose you are Pinkie’s new friend, Twilight Sparkle from Canterlot?”

“Yes, I am, Mrs. Pie,” replied Twilight.

Pinkie and the baker mare and stallion gave Twilight a peculiar look for a moment, then Pinkie began to laugh uproariously, rolling around on the floor. The baker couple laughed far more sheepishly, and Twilight suddenly felt her face flushing.

“We’re not Pinkie’s parents, dear,” the mare said with a wave of a fluffy fetlock. “We employ her and fill her living space.”

“But she’s as dear to us as any daughter,” said the stallion, resting his head on top of Pinkie’s, who returned the hug with rib-crushing force, if his bulging eyes were any indication.

“I love you too, Daddy Carrot Cake!”

The mare cleared her throat.

“My name is Cup Cake, and this is my husband, Carrot Cake − Pinkie, dear, would you kindly let him go? He needs to breathe − thank you. And we are the proprietors and founders of this confectionery-slash-bakery: Sugarcube Corner!”

After this came Twilight’s more proper introductions of herself and Spike to Mrs. and Mr. Cake, which led them into the Cakes’ living quarters behind the store-space and the kitchen. There, the party explained to the Cakes the endeavor that Twilight was going to undertake and which Pinkie was going to join her on.

“And we’re gonna throw a pre-research party to boot!” Pinkie piped in as Twilight finished her explanation to the Cakes. “Think you can swing some of the usual party cakes, cupcakes, carrot cakes, pound cakes, pumpkin cakes―”

“Pinkie,” Mr. Cake said quickly, waving a hoof at Pinkie. “I think we can handle a bit of a big order. Though, we’ll have to be careful with our flour after this. We can expect a bit of a decline in buying flour now that…”

“Now that the night’s fallen,” finished Mrs. Cake darkly.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Cake,” Twilight said in what she hoped was a sympathetic tone. “With any luck, the Sun will be back soon, and your business will flourish again.”

“And you can’t spell ‘flourish’ without ‘flour’~!” Pinkie said brightly, bouncing up to the ceiling. The Cakes smiled up at her, and Twilight couldn’t help but to crack a smirk too. What’s wrong with me…? Twilight thought. It’s not like I think of these ponies as friends or anything… She tried to ignore Spike’s snickering directed at her smirk.

Fluttershy’s home was a small cottage beyond the edge of Ponyville, not even a minute’s trot away from the Everfree Forest. A stone bridge crossed the creek − perhaps the Everfree was not as close to the house when it was first built? − and an unpaved road led from the bridge to a low wooden fence, encircling a cottage with a small field, and in that field were a chicken coop and a small gardening shed.

“You live alone, Fluttershy?” Twilight asked.

“Oh no, of course not,” Fluttershy replied, smiling softly. “I live with some of my very best friends.”

“Really?” Twilight said in bemusement, looking to the cottage. It really looked too small for more than two or three ponies.

“Oh yes,” affirmed Fluttershy. “I couldn’t possibly let so many bunnies, mice, rats, cats, dogs, bats and such go without a safe place to go to so close to the Everfree.”

Wait what.

A large shape lurched by one of the trees, and Twilight gave a start, diving in front of Fluttershy.

“It’s a bear! Run, you guys. I’ll distract it!”

But Fluttershy fluttered right past Twilight, raising a hoof towards the bear. Before Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer could envelop Fluttershy and snap her away from the beast, the bear actually leaned in to Fluttershy’s hoof and began to growl in pleasure as she scratched the top of his head.

“You’re just a big old softie, aren’t you?” Fluttershy said gently to the bear.

Twilight took a step back, wondering if Fluttershy had lost her mind, and also what she could possibly do to get Fluttershy away from the bear before it mauled her. Before she could make up her mind, though, Rainbow Dash put a hoof on her shoulder.

“Cool your wings there, bookworm,” Rainbow Dash smirked. “As crazy as it sounds, she’s got this.”

“B-b-but… it’s a bear!”

“Yeah. A bear with killer cravings for porridge. And believe me, Fluttershy cooks it just right.”

Twilight stared in awe at the bear as it lowered itself onto all fours, then its belly, as Fluttershy rubbed a hoof on its forehead. The yellow Pegasus was letting out a low growl in a melodious rhythm that sounded more like a purr. The bear certainly seemed harmless enough now, but…

“But… how did you know that that bear liked porridge to begin with?” Twilight sputtered.

Fluttershy removed her hoof from the bear’s forehead − its paws curled contentedly at the grass − and looked to Twilight with a deeply loving smile.

“I didn’t,” she said softly. “I just saw this poor little thing at the edge of the Everfree, and he looked positively starved. Although, he did lash out at me…” Fluttershy looked down at four large, deep claw marks on her left flank, across her cutie mark, and Twilight winced as she realized how the yellow Pegasus got those scars. “But I knew he didn’t mean it. Harry here tells me that he just lost a fight against an urstrix.”

“You call him Harry?”

He calls himself Harry. But I offered him my porridge if he would spare me. I know that bears don’t normally eat porridge, but… he just looked so hungry…”

“You were going to feed an animal that very well could haven eaten you? What if he just ate you after that?”

Fluttershy’s smile never faltered, and her sweet tone stayed completely unchanged as she retorted, “I would have been glad to know that my last act on this good earth was an act of kindness.”

To this, Twilight had no reply.

“And it worked out in any case.” Fluttershy looked back to Harry the Bear, smiling sweetly down at the bear, who waved at Fluttershy with a floppy paw. “He really is a big sweetie. All I did was give him a bowl of porridge, and he’s been such a help in keeping harmony off here at the edge of Ponyville. He helps me get honey for Ponyville, too; Everbee honey is some of the best in all of Equestria.”

“That’s amazing, Fluttershy!” piped up Spike excitedly. “You can tame anything!”

Fluttershy’s ears drooped slightly, withdrawing behind her mane slightly. “Oh, um… I wouldn’t quite say anything… I’ve always had trouble with ravens…”

Deciding to not press Fluttershy down a path she was uncomfortable with, Twilight brusquely changed subjects.

“You said you live with friends. Who are they?”

At this change of subject, Fluttershy perked up.

“Oh! I live with my friend Angel Bunny − he’s a bunny-rabbit − and the Mouse family, and all sorts of different birds, and badgers, and raccoons, and hedgehogs, and porcupines.” She fluttered into the air, her eyes closed in glee. “Oh, my heart is fluttering just thinking about them!”

Twilight’s eye twitched.

“Those are pets, Fluttershy, not friends.”

“Maybe you think that,” Fluttershy replied, and Twilight gave a start at the sudden sharp edge to Fluttershy’s tone, “but I see each animal as an individual. I don’t see them as pets.”

“I − I’m sorry,” Twilight said hastily, quailing under Fluttershy’s intense stare. “I didn’t know you felt that way.”

Fluttershy’s eyes softened. “It’s okay, Twilight. You just didn’t know. Shall I introduce you to all of my friends?”

Twilight shrugged a forehoof. “I might as well. A few more friends can’t hurt.”

“Angel Bunny is a complete dockhead.” Twilight muttered as the party left Fluttershy’s cottage.

“Oh, I’m sure he didn’t mean to throw that carrot at your head, Twilight,” Fluttershy said gently, fluttering just over Twilight’s shoulder. “I’m positive that his paw slipped.”

“Six times in two minutes?”

“Well… maybe once or twice. But once you get to know him, Angel Bunny is a real sweetheart.”

Twilight sincerely doubted it, but as they were still quite within earshot of Fluttershy’s cottage, she held her tongue and set her trot towards Ponyville proper once more. Her generated Sun was at about high noon.

The animals who lived in Fluttershy’s cottage − specifically, Angel Bunny, a family of five mice, four robins, three bluebirds, seven sparrows, five pigeons, six ferrets, three badgers, four hedgehogs and two porcupines − had all listened in on the explanation that Fluttershy would be away for an indeterminate amount of time. This was when the first carrot struck Twilight in the face. Angel smiled innocently, but the carrot always seemed to “slip” from the white rabbit’s paw whenever Twilight mentioned the idea of Fluttershy leaving.

The animals had started a protestful din, but Fluttershy chirped, cheaped, twittered, chittered and squeaked to each in turn that she was not going to be away forever, and it was to bring back the real Sun. It was around this point that the last carrot “slipped” from Angel’s hand onto Twilight’s muzzle.

“I suppose we could stop by my parents’ place on the way to Sweet Apple Acres,” Rarity added, once they’d passed between the two homes at the edge of Ponyville. Passing by were a gray Pegasus mare, a chestnut Earth Pony stallion, and their pale-purple Unicorn filly. “It’s not terribly far from Sugarcube Corner. We could perhaps have gone there first, but I imagine that Fluttershy needed to tend to her animals.”

“Thank you for your consideration, Rarity,” smiled Fluttershy.

“What about your house, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight asked pointedly.

Rainbow gave a nervous chuckle. “My place is way on the other side of Ponyville from Sweet Apple Acres. And besides, you non-Pegasus guys would have to figure out how to walk on clouds to drop by.”

“Well, there is the cumulatory spell―”

Rainbow Dash sneezed violently, in a manner that sounded suspiciously like Egghead!.

Twilight scowled, and Pinkie Pie trilled, “Geshundheit~”

The home that Rarity’s folks lived in was at the end of a cul-de-sac leading off from Sugarcube Corner. It was surprisingly… homely for a home that Rarity Belle grew up in. Indeed, Rarity seemed to have slunk quite low to the ground, trying to remain unseen as she approached the house. Twilight raised an eyebrow, but then recalled Rarity’s haute-couture accent and almost regal manestyle.

Her ears flat against her head, Rarity trembled as she raised a hoof to the door. She hesitated for a long, long moment. Pinkie whispered in Twilight’s ear, “Do you think she knows how to knock?”

Finally screwing her courage to the sticking-place, Rarity tapped faintly at the door, before huddling against it, trying to remain as small and unassuming as possible.

The door swung open, revealing a beefy Earth Pony stallion with Rarity’s white coat, a faded brown mane and mustache, and three hoofballs for a cutie mark. He was wearing a collared shirt, navy-blue, decorated with horribly clashing white and yellow flowers. Though his coat was the same shade as his daughter’s, his had a rather uncared-for quality to it, starkly different from Rarity’s expertly cared-for coat.

“Well, buck me ta the goalposts and call me a figskin!” He had a very pronounced Chicacolt accent, so unlike Rarity’s. He pulled her up with his faded brown hooves and pulled her into a tight hug. “I didn’t know you were droppin’ by just in time fer Sweetie to git home, Rares!”

“Really, now, Father…” Rarity gasped out.

It was at this point that Rarity’s father noticed the five other mares and dragon cub on his doorstep, and loosened his grip slightly. Rarity slid to the doormat in numb shock.

“If I may ask, who th’hay’re these ponies, Rarity?”

Rarity, picking herself up, dusting off her coat as best she could, gestured towards her father.

“Everypony, this is my father, Hondo Flanks.” There was the slightest hesitation before she said her father’s name.

“But my Sunday mornin’ quarterbackin’ posse also knows me as ‘Magnum’!” he cut in with a cheeky grin.

Trying to ignore her father’s lack of classiness, Rarity pointed to each of the five mares in turn.

“Of course you’ve heard of my spa friend Fluttershy − ” Fluttershy withdrew behind her mane. “ − and there’s also Rainbow Dash − ” Rainbow did a loop-de-loop. “ − Applejack − ” Applejack crossed her right legs in front of her left. “ − Pinkie Pie − ” Pinkie pronked twice. “ − Twilight Sparkle from Canterlot − ” Twilight waved sheepishly, giving a very faint smile.

“And I’m Spike!” Spike cut in, pushing his way towards Rarity and her father, putting on rather obvious airs as a gentlecolt. “And might I say, Mr. Rarity’s Father, that you have a very lovely daughter.”

Rarity gave a light lady laugh. “Oh Spike, you flatterer!”

Hondo let out a nasally laugh, and Twilight saw Rarity’s nose wrinkle at the sound of it. He leaned down to Rarity’s ear and whispered in a mock-conspiratory tone, “Looks like ya’ve got yourself an admirer, Rares.”

Really, Father,” Rarity said with a dismissive wave of her hoof, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Twilight had a very good idea that Rarity was putting on airs.

“Hondo?” called a mare’s voice with a strong New Jennet accent. “Is there someone out there?”

“Rares’s back with some friends a hers,” Hondo called back into the house.

Really?” the voice said excitedly. “Well, let ‘em in, Flankie! There’s still some a Sweetie’s Rose Velvet Cake left over from last night.”

Rarity put on a forced smile. “I… wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

They entered the home, and it was plain all the more why Rarity made it such an issue as to avoid being seen entering into this house. The home’s homeliness was only greater on the inside, and the interior design was severely lacking, even to somepony with such a novice idea of interior design as Twilight Sparkle. A Unicorn mare, short and round, was standing near the kitchen doorway. She had her purple mane, identical to Rarity’s in color but not in sheen, in a tall beehive behind her horn. Her coat was a light pink, and she wore a pair of large pale-yellow baubles in her ears.

“Well, come on in to the dining room!” she said in her New Jennet accent. “Dinner’s just about ready! It’s yer favorite, Rarity: spaghetti, with lotsa oregano!”

“Sounds… lovely,” replied Rarity, sitting on her haunches at the modest dining table, her mother stirring the cooking pot with a skimmer in her mouth. From this angle, Twilight could see that her cutie mark was of three choco-chip cookies, one with a bite out of it. After a few moments, Rarity turned to her friends, seated awkwardly around the cramped dinner table, and gestured towards the cooking mare. “And this is my mother, Pearl Bubbles.”

“I sell cookbooks under th’ name ‘Cookie Crumbles’,” Pearl added brightly. “And little Sweetie likes to do summa her mom’s recipes. I’m ever so proud of her! Oh, and that reminds me. Sweetie Belle’s gonna be home from school soon!”

“Already?” Twilight piped in, looking at the clock. “But it’s barely half past eight.”

“Schools’ve been letting out early since you’ve been out,” Rainbow Dash explained. “I guess a lotta parents got worried ‘bout their foals.”

No sooner had Rainbow finished speaking than a small series of knocks came at the front door, before it slid open and a squeaky little filly’s voice chimed in with, “Mommy, Daddy, I’m home!”

Looking through to the living room, Twilight saw a tiny Unicorn filly trotting with short legs around the couch to the dining room. Her coat was sleek and white, just like her big sister Rarity, and her mane and tail were pale-purple with pale-rose highlights, perky and poofy. Her pale-green eyes were bright with youthful energy, and her flank was devoid of a cutie mark.

“C’mere, ya little rascal!” beckoned Hondo, reaching out with a foreleg to wrap his younger daughter in a one-armed hug, nuzzling her mane with his other foreleg. “One a’ these days, yer gonna be too big fer me ta hold like dis!”

“Did Miss Cheerilee walk you home, Sweetie?” asked Pearl.

“I did, Mrs. Bubbles, don’t you worry,” came a bright mare’s voice from the front door. There, Twilight now noticed, was an Earth Pony mare about her age, slender and yet not frail. Her bouncy pale-rose mane did not quite fall over soft light-green eyes. Cheerilee’s coat was a moderate cerise, and her cutie mark was of three smiling flowers. Curiously, she had pale-rose feathers around her fetlocks; did she have a Pegasus in her immediate family?

“Yer a lifesaver, ya know that, Miss Cheerilee?” Hondo said. “Ya really didn’t have ta take the time out ta walk each filly ‘n’ colt home from school.”

“It’s my job, Mr. Flanks,” Cheerilee explained brightly, “to make sure that every filly and colt learns the joy of knowledge. And I can only do that if each filly and colt is safe and sound.”

“I guess it also helps that our little Sweetie is a regular little angel,” Pearl said as she endearingly ruffled Sweetie’s mane.

Cheerilee chuckled briefly. “I suppose so. Well, take care!” She turned and closed the front door behind her.

“Rarity, isn’t Miss Cheerilee just the greatest teacher ever?” Sweetie said brightly, turning to Rarity with a big smile. Sweetie gave a double-take. “Wait… Rarity?”

Rarity smiled slightly sheepishly. “Long time no see, Sweetie Belle.”

Sweetie Belle let out a high squeal of My big sister’s home! and started bouncing about the room declaiming her adoration of her big sister. Pretty soon, Pinkie Pie joined in, seemingly just for the sake of joining in, pronking along behind her.

Birds of a feather, Twilight thought, before she realized she herself had a smile on her face.

Once they had gotten Sweetie Belle to settle down, they all sat down and helped themselves to Pearl Bubbles’s cooking. Twilight found it quite well-cooked, though Twilight’s mind was not on the cooking, and she doubted Rarity’s was either. After the plates were cleared of spaghetti and sauce, Pearl Bubbles produced from the ice-box a plate laden with some sort of black burnt lump.

“And now fer the dessert: Sweetie Belle’s take on an old family recipe: Rose Velvet Cake!”

Trepidatiously, Twilight sniffed at the pile of black ashes that had been piled onto her plate. Her ears went flat at the sensation of nose-hairs being burnt away, but she noticed that Rarity was eating it without any outward reaction out of the corner of her eye. Sweetie Belle was smiling expectantly at Twilight, who was the only one who had not touched her “slice” of Rose Velvet Cake. Hesitating no longer, Twilight scooped up some with her fork and levitated it towards her mouth.

It tasted exactly like nails. Chewing it slowly, Twilight found it very dry, like she was chewing dirt. Trying to ignore the fact that Pinkie was chowing down as though it was hay from the Elysian Fields, Twilight slowly swallowed.

“It’s good,” she said quickly.

Really?” Sweetie Belle squeaked.

“What’re you talking about, Twilight?” Rainbow Dash blurted from across the table. “This stuff is just―”

Rarity shoved her hoof into Rainbow Dash’s mouth, glaring daggers at her. It was only after the rainbow-maned Pegasus gave an imperceptible nod that Rarity removed her hoof.

“Wh-what I’m saying is that,” Rainbow Dash said, her nose wrinkled as her eyes darted up and down the table, “this stuff is awesome!”

“It is?” Sweetie Belle repeated excitedly.

“It sure is, sugar,” Pearl said, nuzzling her daughter. She had an excellent poker-face.

Trying not to let herself hurt at the sight of such a loving mother doting on her daughter, Twilight cleared her throat and explained the reason why they had come there. As she explained the situation of the Elements and NightMare Moon to Rarity’s family, Twilight wondered whether she should have brought each of these five’s families to one place and explained it all at once. That, perhaps, would have been more efficient. However, that could lead to potentially more interruptions, and perhaps some families might get into a fight, and that would take precious time in breaking up the fights. As far as Twilight knew, which was precious little, there were no quarrels between the families of these five, but better safe than sorry.

“And yer sure ya thought this all the way thru, Rares?” Hondo asked his older daughter.

“Positive, Father,” she replied. “I simply couldn’t bear to let Twilight go off on such a quest all on her own.”

“And I’ll be there to make sure that Rarity stays safe!” Spike interjected.

Sweetie Belle giggled. “But you’re just a little dragon!”

“Well… I have a big heart!”

“We have faith that you’ll keep our Rarity safe, little guy,” Pearl said softly, tickling under Spike’s chin.

“You will make sure that Opal Essence is taken care of, right?” Rarity asked her parents.

“Sure thing!” squeaked Sweetie Belle. “I’m great with cats!”

Rarity gave a forced smile. “I’m sure you are, dear.”

Rarity let out a none-too-subtle sigh of relief as soon as they left the cul-de-sac. “I daresay, that was a bracing encounter.”

Twilight cocked an eyebrow at Rarity. “Your parents weren’t that bad, Rarity.”

“I would agree to disagree with you on that spell, my dear,” replied the fashionista. “Did you see just how tacky their dress sense was? How can they possibly let themselves show in public?”

“Just be glad that you still have parents,” Twilight said darkly, her ears drooping.

“Oh,” gasped Rarity. “I’m terribly sorry, dear. I didn’t mean to―”

“Don’t worry about me, Rarity,” Twilight interrupted. “I’ll fix the problem of my parents on my own.” Looking for some way to lighten the mood, if only for her own sake, Twilight decided to change the subject. “So, what about your little sister?”

Rarity’s eyes began to sparkle. “Sweetie Belle… Well, she is a darling little dear, though her cooking could use some work. She might be a bit enthusiastic for my tastes sometimes, but I love her more than anything in the world.”

“Rats!” hissed Spike, on Twilight’s back − he was still a baby dragon, and walking to and fro throughout Ponyville was taking its toll on his hind claws.

“So, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said to the rainbow-maned Pegasus, “Should we visit your folks’ home and tell them that you’re―”

“My parents live in Cloudsdale,” Rainbow Dash said, her eyes not meeting Twilight’s. “They’ll find out sooner or later what I’m doing.”

Before Twilight could puzzle out the reason for Rainbow’s evasiveness, her ears flew back in response to a sudden shout from a completely unfamiliar voice.


Her eyes darted around for the source of the shout, and settled on an approaching cloud of dust and dirt. At its head was a small Pegasus filly, with a wild cerise mane and a light-orange coat. Her pale-purple eyes were sparkling with unbridled energy as she rode up on a scooter, her small wings buzzing at her sides.

Just as soon as she’d taken in the details of this filly’s appearance, Twilight gaped as noticed a pale-blue Unicorn mare with a mixed dark-blue-and-pale-gray mane about to cross between the filly and her party. Before Twilight could shout Watch out!, the filly leapt off of her scooter, her wings not giving her flight, but supporting her in the air just long enough to clear the space over the blue Unicorn mare, her scooter whooshing by underneath just as the mare realized what was happening.

Twilight blinked in astonishment − and the blue mare shook her hoof in surprise and anger − as the Pegasus filly landed back on her scooter, resumed her forward momentum, and skidded to a stop just before a smirking Rainbow Dash. Now that she was closer, Twilight could see that this Pegasus filly had no feathered fetlocks, and her coat was unkempt, as though she had been caught in a number of schoolyard scrapes in the very recent past. She had a small scar in the middle of her chin.

“Rainbow Dash! Rainbow Dash! Did you see that? How was that for a sick scooter move?” the filly said very excitedly.

Rainbow Dash tousled the filly’s mane, making it appear even more disheveled.

“That was pretty sweet, squirt!” she said with a smirk. Then she frowned, sat on her haunches, and pointed at her own skull. “But… you forgot the helmet.”

“Aww, I can take a little rough-’n’-tumble, Rainbow Dash,” the filly said dismissively. “I’m awesome, just like you!”

“Well, that is true,” Rainbow Dash said, her chest swelling with pride, before resuming her stern stare upon her admirer. “But you still gotta keep safety first, Scootaloo. Especially with this whole ‘nighttime eternal’ deal. There might be a big, dark rock that you don’t see until it’s too late.”

The filly named Scootaloo looked down ashamedly, her ears drooping slightly. “You’re right, Rainbow Dash. I shouldn’t be so reckless. I mean, my wings haven’t even grown in yet…”

“Hey kid!” Rainbow Dash leaned forward, raising Scootaloo’s head by the chin. She smiled down at Scootaloo with such warmth that Twilight was astonished. “Don’t be so glum. You’ll never be pullin’ those sweet moves for all Equestria to see with that attitude. Be careful, wear a helmet, knee and elbow pads if you can get ‘em, but only when you’re practicing. When you’re really, truly, absolutely, 110% certain that you’ve nailed it, then you can ditch the safety gear.” She pulled in the filly with a wing, holding Scootaloo to her barrel. “I don’t want to see you hurt yourself, Scoots. You’re the most awesome filly in Equestria, and don’t you forget it!”

Rainbow Dash nuzzled Scootaloo, and the little orange filly returned the favor. After a moment, Rainbow Dash nudged Scootaloo back towards her scooter.

“Enough with the mushy stuff, kid. You gotta get home. School might’ve let out early the past couple days, but the Sun’s still out like a light. I’m sure your parents are worried sick about you.”

Scootaloo was just putting a hind hoof to the dirt road, and she went stiff at the last sentence. Twilight noticed, though it was only because she had a sharp eye for the most minute changes in a pony’s demeanor. (She put it down to her years of chemistry under Queen Celestia’s tutelage.) After a moment that contained an eternity, Scootaloo smiled up at Rainbow Dash, though Twilight noticed that the smile seemed a little forced.

“Yeah. Sure.”

And Scootaloo darted off without another word.

Twilight looked to Rainbow Dash.


Rainbow Dash looked to Twilight.

“Did you notice that?”

“Notice what?”

“How she was about… about…”

“About what?”

Twilight felt her throat constrict. This really wasn’t her business. Whatever state of existence Scootaloo’s parents were in was Scootaloo’s business alone, and what she told Rainbow Dash about her folks was Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash’s business. With a heart of lead, Twilight sighed, “Nothing.”

Rainbow Dash rolled her cerise eyes. “Whatever. I think Ponyville’s turning you weird.”

As the group made a turn to the west, towards Sweet Apple Acres past the Ponyville Schoolhouse, Twilight could not help but contemplate the look in Scootaloo’s eyes. It was a look that Twilight was intimately familiar with, because those eyes were eyes she saw in the mirror every day.

The eyes of an orphan.

The miniature Sun generated by the heliogenesis spell projected a light just as bright as the real deal. However, because it was far smaller, and closer, the light it put out created starker shadows than would have been present under the genuine Sun. It gave a certain emptiness to the main building of Sweet Apple Acres, which was exacerbated by the lack of tents pitched up around the orchards.

“Your relatives all left, Applejack?” Twilight asked.

“Well, they all got ta tend to their own farms,” replied the farmer mare. “Ah mean, in this eternal night, th’ trees need all the tendin’-to that they can get.”

“Including your Aunt and Uncle Orange’s orange groves…?”

“They farm stocks,” Applejack corrected, “up in Manehattan.”

“Oh,” Twilight said softly. “Sorry.”

“Don’ sweat it, sugarcube. Ah’m sure their stocks’re gonna take a bit of a hit, an’ they gotta make sure ta sell an’ protect their investments an’ the like.” In answer to Twilight’s gaping look, Applejack continued, “Ah spent a while livin’ with them up in Manehattan as a filly. Before Ah realized how much Ah love apple-farmin’.”

The group of seven had now come to the front door to the Apple abode. When Applejack reached up to knock, she found that the door slid open. Through the open door, Twilight saw a homey space, cushions set up around the edges of the room for comfortable sitting on the wooden floor. The wallpapering was a soft grassy green, supplemented by framed paintings of orchards and portraits of Earth Ponies. Seated upon three of the cushions, a small circle of candles burning in the middle of the room, were Applejack’s big brother Big McIntosh, little sister Apple Bloom, and grandmother Granny Smith. Curled up at Apple Bloom’s hooves, watching Applejack with bright black eyes, was a brown Border Collie with white spots. The matriarch of the Apple family gave a wrinkly smile and beckoned to the group.

“Sit yerselves down, if ye kindly,” she said gently. “Ah’d like to see if ye’ve thought this through, Applejack.”

Applejack blinked. “What do ya mean, Granny?”

“She means that yer goin’ off on a quest a some sort,” said Big McIntosh, and Twilight’s feeling of shock was apparently lesser than Applejack’s. The Border Collie whimpered slightly at Big Mac’s words.

“If Big Mac’s talkin’ in more th’n just Yeps ‘n’ Nopes, this ‘quest’ mus’ be somethin’ serious,” Apple Bloom said, looking around at the faces of the older mares and stallion. “Applejack, what do Big Mac ‘n’ Granny mean bah a ‘quest’?”

Applejack looked back to Twilight and the group behind her. Twilight gave her a small nod; they’d told everypony else’s families. Applejack gave a low, long sigh as she faced her siblings and grandmother.

“Ah’m goin’ with Twilight Sparkle here ta find out how ta get these here Elements a Harmony ta work again,” she shifted her weight to allow the Element fragments to rattle in her saddle-bags. “Ah don’t intend ta let anypony tell me otherwise. Ah’m goin’, and that’s final.”

Granny Smith’s expression was unreadable. Big Mac looked somewhat stern. And Apple Bloom… Apple Bloom looked absolutely crestfallen, an expression mirrored by the dog.

“So… yer leavin’ us?” said Apple Bloom with teary eyes. Even her bow seemed to be drooping dejectedly. “Doncha love us anymore?” She scampered up to Applejack, throwing her forelegs at her big sister in a feeble attempt to hit her, but it ended up turning into a hug around one of Applejack’s own forelegs. The Border Collie trotted up to Applejack as well, resting her head at Applejack’s hooves with a whimper.

Applejack embraced her little sister.

“Ah love y’all jus’ the same as ever, Apple Bloom,” Applejack said, lowering her head to her sister’s eye level, “an’ that’s the honest truth. Ah wouldn’t trade ya for any other little sister in all th’ wide world. Ah couldn’ possibly ask fer a more loyal work dog than you, Winona,” she said, addressing the dog, who barked eagerly at her master. “It’s because Ah love y’all that Ah gotta help Twi figger out how these Elements work.”

“And if’n ya don’t mind mah askin’,” cut in Granny Smith, pulling out an ear trumpet, “what the cock-a-doodle are them Elements?”

“The Elements of Harmony are a powerful thaumaturgical force of concordance, the same force which banished NightMare Moon a meggrossium ago,” Twilight explained.

“Come again?” Big Mac said.

Twilight sighed heavily. This was what she’d get for consorting with ponies who didn’t read the same level of books as she did.

“Let me start again, Apples,” Twilight said sharply. “The Elements of Harmony are a collection of six powerfully magical items that Queen Celestia used to banish NightMare Moon to the Moon a dozen-gross years ago. I have reason to believe that they are the only means of defeating NightMare Moon for good and bringing back the Sun.”

Granny Smith nodded slowly, closing her eyes.

“Ah understand how ya feel, AJ, and Ah won’t stop ya.”

“But, Granny…!” squealed Apple Bloom, her mismatched hind legs kicking at her grandmother in consternation.

“Apple Bloom…” Granny Smith said sharply.

“Sugar-foot,” Applejack said gently, “This is a problem fer all a’ Equestria. All those cousins ‘n’ aunts ‘n’ uncles who up ‘n’ left yesterday? Well, their farms aren’t lucky enough to have a fake Sun circlin’ overhead. Their orchards are facin’ a whole heap a’ trouble with the Sun not bein’ there to warm things up. Ah’d bet that snow’s already fallin’ ‘round some parts.” She held her sister close. “Ah don’t wantcha to grow up in a world with no Sun. Nopony knows how long Twilight’s fake Sun’ll last, so Ah gotta do what Ah can ta help mah friend fix this mess.”

Apple Bloom’s nose wrinkled as she struggled to hold back more tears. She clutched her sister’s foreleg even more tightly.

“At least let me come with y’all.”

“No doin’, little sis,” Applejack replied firmly.

“Applejack, Ah’m not a baby! Ah can take care a’ mahself!”

“Maybe ‘round the farm, but…” Applejack sat on her haunches, rubbing one of the scars on her left foreleg. “Ya know them nighttime beasties off in th’ Everfree that me ‘n’ Big Mac protect the farm from?”

Apple Bloom nodded. Winona whimpered involuntarily.

“Well, they’re gonna realize soon enough that the Sun ain’t gonna poke her head out anytime soon, and start prowlin’ about to lands outside a’ Ponyville. They ain’t gonna come near Sweet Apple Acres, so long as Big Mac holds down the fort.”

“Eeyup,” Big Mac said, as an affirmation of his protection of farm and family. Applejack smiled at him shortly.

“All them nasty creatures − manticores, chimeras, owl-bears, timberwolves…” Applejack let out an infinitesimal shudder. “They’re all gonna be on the prowl all over Equestria, an’ Ah don’t wantcha to be in more danger than ya need ta be.”

Apple Bloom gave a shuddering sob. “Applejack…”

“Let ‘er go, Apple Bloom,” Granny Smith said softly, placing a feeble foreleg on the small of Apple Bloom’s back. “Ain’t nuthin’ you can say that cin change Applejack’s course now.” Apple Bloom buried her head in Granny Smith’s chest, her sobs muffled by her grandmother’s fur.

“If it makes ya feel any better, Apple Bloom,” said Applejack, tilting her Stetson down slightly, “Ah’m not leaving till tomorrow at… well, the crack a’ dawn, Ah guess ya could call it. An’ it’s not like we’re gonna slip out like neighnja in th’ night. Ah hear tell that Pinkie Pie here’s gonna be throwin’ somethin’ of a farewell party, t’ give Ponyville a bit a’ hope fer our quest.”

Apple Bloom looked back to Applejack, a small smile gracing her teary muzzle.

“See? You just gotta smile away your tears~” chirped Pinkie Pie, producing a blue balloon the exact color of one of the balloons on her cutie mark. It even had a yellow string! “Here’s a balloon to keep your spirits up!”

Apple Bloom took the balloon, her smile broadening as Twilight saw the balloon reflect in her eyes.

As far as Twilight had known, parties were something that needed to be planned out reasonably far in advance, to allow for all the preparations to fall together in all the right places. The pre-research trip party invitations were sent out by Pinkie Pie at about half-past-two in the afternoon; the invitations indicated that the party would not begin until four, giving Twilight, Pinkie and the party only an hour-and-a-half to prepare.

Still, Twilight had to be impressed with the camaraderie of Pinkie’s adopted parents the Cakes, who had baked up several trays’ worth of cookies, cupcakes, muffins and the like while Pinkie was with Twilight trekking back and forth around Ponyville; of the neighbors of Sugarcube Corner supplying their living room and dining room tables to lay out the treats in the circle around the Gazebo; of Fluttershy’s call to the rabbit and jackalope warrens to send out the invitations and collect the RSVPs.

Twilight found herself, though, perplexed by something about Pinkie Pie. There was a certain something about her that had changed since they left Sweet Apple Acres, and Twilight was sitting on her haunches, rubbing her now-stubble-free chin, watching Pinkie leap from table to table, placing party favors, plates of cookies, cakes and streamers, when she realized what it was:

One of the blue balloons in Pinkie’s cutie mark was missing. Her right flank was decorated with only one blue balloon and a yellow balloon.

“Pinkie…” she began tentatively. How did one tell a pony that their cutie mark was different on each flank?

“What is it, Twilight? Is something missing?” she asked.

“Uhh…” The question was so near the mark that Twilight stumbled mentally. “Eh… Your… balloons…”

“Oooh! You’re absolutely right, Twilight! This party need balloons!”

And before Twilight could utter another word, Pinkie twisted her head around, bit down on her left flank, and pulled off the yellow balloon. Twilight’s jaw dropped as she watched Pinkie tie the blue string off onto one of the tables, the yellow balloon bobbing innocently above the cakes and muffins. And then Pinkie reached down to bite off another balloon.

“P-Pinkie… please stop…” Twilight gasped feebly. This was so far out of her league, so far out of her comfort zone, that she was struggling to find her breath. “Pinkie… if you… keep this up… your… your cutie mark will…”

But Pinkie had already pulled off a fifth balloon, each of the five tables in front of the Gazebo decorated with a balloon in a blue-yellow-blue-yellow-blue sequence. Twilight rubbed her eyes with a forearm, blinking as well to make sure she wasn’t imagining it.

No, she wasn’t.

Pinkie Pie had gleefully pulled off all six of the balloons in her cutie mark, given one to Apple Bloom to cheer her up, and used the other five to decorate a party.

“Pinkie… your… flank… it’s blank…”

Pinkie began to pronk towards another table, giving Twilight an accidental view of her newly cutie mark-less flank, when Twilight felt a pair of hooves seizing her by the shoulders, spinning her around from facing the Gazebo to face the pony behind her: Pinkie Pie.

Wait what.

Pinkie’s eyes were wide, and her teeth were clenched.

“Twilight, why aren’t you helping with the party? It was your idea!”

Her mind catching up with her eyes, Twilight pondered the physical impossibility of Pinkie Pie being in front of her, pronking aimlessly about, and behind her spinning her around at the same time. She decided she’d worry about it later.

“Uhh… I just… never did anything with a party before…” Twilight said evasively, glancing to Pinkie’s flanks, looking at the tables behind her. Pinkie’s flanks were once more adorned with three balloons, one yellow and two blue, apiece. But there were still five balloons on the tables behind Twilight, and no other sign that Pinkie could have been around the tables only ten seconds prior.

Pinkie seemed satisfied with Twilight’s answer. She let Twilight go, smiling brightly.

“Okie-dokie-lokie~! Then you can just help to receive the RSVPs!”

There were exactly a dozen yellow balloons and one-dozen-eleven blue balloons hanging above the tables when the party goers began to arrive. Twilight decided that she was not going to question how Pinkie somehow managed to find a new way to break the laws of common sense and physics every time she turned around. She had enough on her plate having to contend with ponies making her care about them, and the issue of everlasting night potentially wilting her parents.

Even so, the scientist in Twilight Sparkle needed to know: what did these balloons feel like? Taking one in her dwimmer shimmer, Twilight reached up and touched a blue balloon with her hoof. It was soft and fuzzy, like Pinkie’s coat. Noticing that Pinkie was giving Twilight an odd look, she quickly rejoined the festivities.

The party was, as far as Twilight was concerned, more of a success than her welcome party. She had several reasons to believe this: For one, there was no sense of pending urgency to prevent NightMare Moon’s return, as NightMare Moon was already loosed upon Equestria. Secondly, the party was in Ponyville Square and not in a library, so the noise level was not necessarily a violation of protocol. Thirdly, there were no hot sauce bottles.

Each of the families that she had met that day were present as well, as were the other nine-dozen-odd ponies of Ponyville. Rarity tried in vain to pretty up her parents’ outfits, but there was only so much that her glitter spell could cover up their clashing apparel. The Cakes were turning down any pay that anypony desired to make for the wares they set up for consumption at this party. An Earth Pony magnate named Filthy Rich was placing a big order on Apple family food products with Big McIntosh, while a pale-pink filly at his feet with a tiara for a cutie mark, matching the tiara on her head, was hounding him at his heels.

“Daaaad!” whined the filly, roughly brushing her pale-purple-and-white-streaked mane. “We’ve been buying Apple products too much! Don’t you know how much of a money pit it is to waste our money on their food?”

“Diamond Tiara, don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed Filthy, who preferred to be addressed as Mr. Rich. “I find them to be quite reliable business partners.”

“Reliable, my cutie mark!” Diamond Tiara countered, shaking her flanks slightly. She took notice of Twilight, smirked, and approached Twilight, practically oozing with haughty self-absorption.

“You must be the new mare in town,” she said, with none of the nasty tone in her voice and every degree of oily fawning that Twilight heard from all manner of social climbers back in Canterlot. Diamond Tiara took a shallow bow. “My name is Diamond Tiara, and my daddy, Mr. Rich, is the wealthiest pony in Ponyville.”

A light-gray filly who had been standing by the stallion alongside Mr. Rich cantered over. Her pale-silver mane was braided in a ponytail to her right, and her cutie mark was of a silver spoon with a bright-pink heart at the tip of the handle.

“Silver Spoon,” Diamond Tiara said to the gray filly, “this is that new mare that I was talking about. She’s from Canterlot.”

“Ooooh!” said Silver Spoon, her purple eyes widening behind cyan-framed glasses. “She must have a lot of conne―”

A pale-pink hoof shoved itself into Silver Spoon’s mouth. Twilight narrowed her eyes slightly at this display. Diamond Tiara must have noticed, as she offered a nervous smile up to the lavender Unicorn.

“W-well, if there’s ever anything you need, just ask me or my daddy!” Diamond Tiara said sweetly.

“Really?” Twilight said, raising an eyebrow.

“Really,” replied Silver Spoon, smiling brightly. “Her dad has lots of connections to all sorts of different businesses in different cities.”

“But… none in Canterlot,” Diamond Tiara sighed, her ears drooping. “All we have to deal with out here in this rube-town are hicks like the Apples and insane ponies like that Pinkie Pie.”

“Pinkie’s the big party planner around here, though, isn’t she?” Twilight asked, swallowing the bile rising up from her chest at the description of the Apple family as hicks. “Didn’t she throw you a cutieceañera?”

Diamond Tiara hesitated. “Well… yeah, she did. Last week, actually. I suppose it was fine, but she’s still crazy!” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, you have to know it better than anypony what it’s like having to deal with peasants like the Apples. I mean, you were at their little reunion, weren’t you?”

“It wasn’t exactly little,” Twilight said, trying to keep a level tone, “but yes, I was there.”

“Well, it’s not too late for you, then,” Diamond Tiara said, pacing in front of Twilight now, her smile taking on a more sinister turn at the corners. “You can always switch sides, sign a few deals with Daddy. You don’t want to be sullying your reputation by consorting with the wrong sort.”

Twilight’s eyebrows narrowed. Before she could offer her answer, Apple Bloom trotted over. “Hey, Twilight? Aren’tcha gonna have some more fritters?”

Several things happened in that instant. Apple Bloom sighted Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon talking to Twilight, and took a step back sharply, her ears going back and her teeth clenched. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon caught wind of Apple Bloom talking to Twilight, and rounded on her with malicious glares. Twilight found herself taking a step forward.

Diamond Tiara gave a devilish smirk.

“You see what I’m talking about here, Twilight?” she said with an accusing hoof pointed at Apple Bloom. “This filly’s ten years old and she still hasn’t gotten her cutie mark. Neither do two others in our class, and one of them is Pegasus pony who can’t even fly. Silver Spoon has her cutie mark. I got mine just last week. It’s all too clear what sort of company a Canterlot elite like you should be keeping!”

At which point Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon shared a special hoofshake, which involved bumping both forehooves together high, then low, then just the elbows of one each, then bumping their cutie mark-marked flanks together, to a singsong chant of “Bump, bump, sugar-lump rump!”

Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon looked back up to Twilight, smiling in what they must have hoped was an endearing fashion. Twilight ignored their looks and glanced at Apple Bloom, who was teary-eyed and sulking, biting her bottom lip to hold in what might have been a wail of sorrow.

“I know what company I should keep, and it’s not yours.”

Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon almost cheered, but realized that Twilight was talking to them. She was also levelling a glare at them that would have levelled a mountain if she had that power.

“But… but… I’m the richest filly in Ponyville! My Daddy’s got connections! What does that filly have that I don’t, other than a batty old grandma who couldn’t remember her own name?”

“I’ll tell you what she has:” Twilight kneeled down over the two bullies, who quailed under her intense glare. “A heart. A loving family. The will to extend a helping hoof without expecting anything in return.”

“But… isn’t it weird that she doesn’t have a cutie mark yet? She’s ten!”

“I was ten when I got my cutie mark,” Twilight growled, “the same day I entered Queen Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. And I’ll have you know that most of the fillies and colts who entered already had their cutie marks.”

Diamond Tiara let out a high laugh, which caught the attention of many passers-by. “So you were a late-bloomer? I’m surprised that Celestia took you in as her student!”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed.

“Don’t you dare to talk down about Queen Celestia,” she said, her voice shaking with rage.

“What’s going on here, Diamond Tiara?”

Mr. Rich had trotted over, his deal with Big Mac finished.

In an instant, Diamond Tiara had started crying, blubbering into her father’s foreleg.

“Daddy, Daddy! Queen Celestia’s student was being mean to me!”

“I was there, Mr. Rich!” shouted Silver Spoon. “She called Diamond Tiara a doodoo-headed little nag!”

Filthy Rich arched a brown eyebrow at his daughter and her best friend, then faced Twilight with a look of sad understanding.

“What’s your side of the story?” he asked.

“There are no sides to it, Daddy!” Diamond Tiara seemed to have forgotten she was supposed to be crying. “All I did was ask to be her friend and she started yelling at me!”

“Your daughter was trying to kiss up to me, Mr. Rich,” Twilight explained, causing Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon to shoot her murderous looks, “and I, having grown up in Canterlot amidst all sorts of hooflickers and brownnosers, was able to spot a shallow attempt at flattery. And then she started to verbally assault the Apple family, especially Apple Bloom here.” Apple Bloom nodded at Twilight’s mention of her name, attempting to rub away the tears from said lashing.

“But most ponies have their cutie marks by the time they’re my age, Daddy!” the tiara-wearing bully said in defense. “Isn’t it just wrong that she doesn’t have hers by now?”

“Who cares if she’s got a blank flank?”

Scootaloo had appeared from behind Twilight, glowering at Diamond Tiara.

“It’s not like that’s a bad thing,” Scootaloo continued.

“It… it means that she’s not special,” Diamond Tiara replied, clearly holding her tongue with her father behind her.

“It means she has potential,” said another voice, and Sweetie Belle appeared from Twilight’s other side. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon gaped at the two new blank-flanked fillies that had appeared. Twilight, for her part, was a little relieved that ponies more the proper age had decided to stand against the bullies.

“It means she could be great at anything,” said Scootaloo.

“And she doesn’t have to be stuck being stuck-up like you two,” Sweetie Belle said with a surprisingly sharp tone.

Diamond Tiara levelled a death glare at the three fillies − and Twilight − before snarling, “Of course you blank-flanks and teacher’s pet would team up together. I should’ve known a screw-up like you who turned her parents into plants would’ve―”

DÉGUEULIS DAZZLE RICH!” bellowed Filthy Rich, causing his daughter to shrink down to her haunches, her ears swiveling down. That he had used the name that he had given her, rather than the appellation she gave to herself upon earning her cutie mark, meant that she had well and truly screwed up.

“I am withholding your allowance for a month for your cheek today.”

“But Daddy…”

“No buts, Diamond Tiara. That’s another week of lost allowance. You have been very rude to your classmates, and an esteemed guest, the Queen’s own disciple. Think about how you treat the less fortunate, and I’ll reinstate your allowance in five weeks. Five weeks. Now, get home.” He pointed off down the street, and Diamond Tiara trotted miserably off, glaring at anypony who looked at her.

“Mr. Rich, I―”

“I’ll be sure to let your parents know that you took part in this, but that my own Diamond holds the manticore’s share of the blame. You can go.”

Silver Spoon returned to the party proceedings, brighter than Diamond Tiara, but with a lesser spring in her step.

“I’m terribly sorry for my daughter’s attitude,” Mr. Rich said to Twilight and Apple Bloom. “Ever since her mother left, she’s been…”

“I understand,” Twilight said lowly, looking at her hooves. “I know that some ponies who’ve lost their parents can say things that hurt. Hurt bad.”

“You look like you understand all too well,” said Filthy Rich.

“Hey, what’s with all the long faces?” came Pinkie’s high singsong voice, bounding into the makeshift circle of Twilight, Apple Bloom, and Mr. Rich, and Twilight realized that everypony at the party had stopped partying and was looking at them. “This is a party, right? A time to hang out with your friends and make new ones!”

Twilight blinked at Pinkie, before smiling and trotting off to the punch bowl, which a mulberry Earth Pony mare was standing beside.

Apple Bloom, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle looked back and forth amongst each other.

“Wanna go grab some apple fritters?” Apple Bloom offered.

“Do we?” squealed Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo excitedly.

Twilight’s facsimile Sun had set, and it was closing in on half-past-ten at night when the party began to wind down. The Mayor of Ponyville stood at a podium set before the doors of Town Hall, and clopped her hoof against the sounding block to get Ponyville’s attention. Twilight vaguely noticed pinkish roots at the roots of the Mayor’s mane.

“Fillies and gentlecolts of Ponyville,” she began once the party goers had reached silence, “three days ago, an ancient legend came to pass, and NightMare Moon returned to our lands, imprisoning our Queen and darkening our queendom.”

Dark murmurs broke out amongst the populace.

“Now, to make sure that we receive the greater picture of what is going on here, I invite up to the stand… Twilight Sparkle!”

Doing a double-take at her name being called, Twilight looked around. Of course, no other pony had to be named Twilight Sparkle in Ponyville, and the looks that everypony else was giving her only confirmed that she was the Mayor’s addressee.

“Go on, Twilight,” whispered Spike, standing at Twilight’s side (next to Rarity as well). He was nudging Twilight towards the podium. Reluctantly, first at a trot, then a canter, Twilight made her way through the parting crowd of ponies to the podium before Town Hall. The Mayor, smiling encouragingly at Twilight, surrendered the podium to Twilight, who placed her hooves nervously upon it. She became aware of the fact that she was sweating, but she didn’t dare to wipe it away. She had to appear resolute to these ponies, so that they would not fear the NightMare.

“P-Ponies of Ponyville,” she started. “I’m… Twilight Sparkle, from Canterlot.”

“We know!” called out Rainbow Dash from the crowd. “Get on with it!”

Twilight cleared her throat irritatedly.

“Anyway, I am Queen Celestia’s personal protégée, and I have learned many spells during my time in her tutelage. The Sun that lit up Ponyville these past three days was the product of the Queen’s heliogenesis spell. Maybe she knew this day was coming. I don’t know. I don’t know what was on the Queen’s mind the days and nights leading up to NightMare Moon’s return. But I do know this: If we want to stop NightMare Moon once and for all, we’ll need the six Elements of Harmony.”

Confused murmurs broke out.

“I know. I only just knew of them because of the high-level books that I had access to in Canterlot. I can only assume that the Elements are not well-known outside of the particularly well-read. N-not that I think you Ponyvillagers don’t read,” she added hastily, but the crowd just continued to watch her patiently. She sighed. Great impression you’re making on them, Twilight. “It’s just… even I don’t quite understand the Elements of Harmony. I do know, though, that their magic cannot simply be limited to their physical vessels. Even though NightMare Moon smashed the Element stones, I’m positive that they can be restored. The Queen has told me where I can find more information on the Elements:

“In Canterlot.”

The crowd of ponies glanced as one up to the mountainside to the north, where Canterlot was situated in its glory. In the three days since NightMare Moon descended, the city had seemed to undergo a radical transformation. From white and gold to deep-blue and black, the sun-and-moon heraldry replaced simply with Moon banners, the whole city seemed to have gone to the dark side.

“Don’t be afraid, everypony,” Twilight called out. “I won’t be going alone. Five of your very own have volunteered to accompany me to Canterlot. If you five would kindly join me up here. Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie.”

The five trotted up, along with Spike. Once up on the tier with Twilight, they faced the crowd they had just left. Applejack gave a humble smile and doffed her Stetson, Rainbow Dash gave a cheeky grin and wink to the crowd, Rarity struck a glamorous pose by hoisting her left hind leg to her barrel and flicking her mane with her right forehoof, Fluttershy hid her face behind her mane and shrunk down to her haunches, and Pinkie hopped in place several times, flipping upside-down occasionally. Spike hopped up onto Twilight’s back.

The crowd had begun to murmur amongst itself in confidence. Twilight could see a few smiles amongst the faces down there.

At the crack of dawn tomorrow, we will depart for Canterlot, to claim further information on the Elements of Harmony, so that we can use them to defeat NightMare Moon, and bring back the day!”

Twilight found herself shouting those last four words, and the whole of Ponyville cheered to the skies at her proclamation. Many were leaping into the air, several Pegasi were doing loop-de-loops or barrel rolls in the air, and some Unicorns were sending dwimmer-sparklers up into the air in celebration of the oncoming return of the Sun.

“We’ve ignited the sparks of a full-blown rebellion,” Applejack murmured.

CHAPTER iv: Changing of the Guard

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The facsimile Sun of Twilight’s heliogenesis spell peeked over the horizon − or, more precisely, just past the rocky fields to Ponyville’s east, grazing just over Rainbow Dash’s home of clouds. The sunrise, normally tinted with oranges and magentas, was colored in deep grays and blues and purples. The light was sterile, but it was warm, and it would suffice for now.

The six mares and their dragon cub companion stood at the northernmost edge of Ponyville, just past the Hay And Clover restaurant. A small herd had gathered to see them off; not everypony in Ponyville, for fear that this gathering would attract NightMare Moon’s eye. The party the previous night had been a bit too bold of a gathering under the watch of the night, so caution was being taken this morning.

“What do you suppose NightMare Moon would call a morning?” Pinkie spontaneously asked, the saddle-bags she wore rattling with the sounds of the Element shards inside.

Twilight shook her head slowly. “If NightMare Moon had her way, I don’t know if the word morning would even be permitted. Mourning, perhaps, but morning is a part of the day.”

“Oooh!” Pinkie replied. “So I could say Good mourning to somepony if I wanted to super-dooper-sneaky about wanting the day back? But wait. Why would you want somepony to be good at mourning? Could you imagine somepony whose special talent is mourning? That would be so sad. Good thing my special talent is making ponies laugh!”

Ignoring Pinkie as she continued to ramble on about mourning and morning, Twilight turned to Applejack giving her farewells to her family.

“Be sure to write to us!” Apple Bloom said eagerly.

Applejack waved a hoof in a slightly evasive manner. “Well, that might be a tad hard, given that we’re headed fer the heart a Canterlot, but Ah’ll try.”

Granny Smith hugged Applejack tightly.

“Stay safe, mah little appleseed.”

“Ah’m not s’little no more, Granny,” Applejack said proudly. “But Ah’ll try to keep mah nose clean.”

Applejack turned to face her big brother.

“Big Mac, keep mah family safe. Alright?”


Winona, sitting on her haunches, simply looked up at Applejack with plaintive eyes. Applejack gave her dog a pitying look.

“Sorry, girl, but Ah can’ risk takin’ ya. Ah don’ wantcha gettin’ hurt by pony-knows-what out there. Can Ah count on ya t’ keep things safe here ‘round Ponyville?”

Winona leapt to her feet, barking brightly, panting.

Applejack smiled. “Ah knew Ah could count on ya.”

Rarity was holding a cat-carrier in her dwimmer shimmer, levitating it towards her parents and sister. Twilight noticed that Hondo Flanks was currently wearing a straw hat with a wide rim, covering up much of his forelock. Was Rarity trying to hide the fact that her father was not a Unicorn…?

“Please take good care of Opal,” she said tenderly. “Remember, it's liver in the morning, heart for the evening. Except for Fridays, when it's steak in the morning, and cooked liver at night. Anyway, warm it up in a frying pan for a bit before you feed it to her; she dares not to touch cool meat.”

“Cats eat meat?” Sweetie Belle gaped, sticking out her tongue.

“I understand your trepidation, Sweetie Belle,” Rarity said. “Nopony eats meat, after all.”

“We’ll be sure t’ keep to that, Rarity,” Pearl said.

“We just have ta stock th’ ice-box, is all,” Hondo added, throwing out his chest.

Rarity smiled as her mother took the cat-carrier in her dwimmer shimmer, Sweetie bouncing up and down to get a good look at the cat in the carrier.

“Ooh! Ooh! Hey there, Opal!”

The cat-carrier rattled violently, the sounds of hissing and spitting joining the clatter of the carrier’s door. Her ears flicking irritatedly at the din, Twilight realized that Pinkie Pie had stopped chattering about the significance of the letter u, and was now talking to Mr. and Mrs. Cake. She also realized, upon looking over at the rosy-pink Earth Pony mare, saw that there was a…

“PINKIE!” she shrieked.

“What is it, Twilight?” Pinkie said brightly, turning towards the lavender Unicorn.

There’s a crocodile biting your tail!” Twilight shouted.

Pinkie turned around to look at her tail… but she didn’t turn her tail with her, so all she did was spin in place. As Twilight’s hoof met her face, Pinkie twitched her tail around and turned her head, so that she could look at her tail. She smiled widely.

“Twilight, you silly filly! That’s not a crocodile. That’s my pet baby alligator, Gummy!”

Even though it’s unmistakably a crocodile… Twilight thought, looking at Gummy’s pointed snout. Shaking her head, she shouted at Pinkie, “But isn’t it really dangerous? He’s biting your tail!”

“Oh, don’t worry, Twilight! He doesn’t have any teeth yet. See?” she said, just as Gummy opened his jaws, freeing himself from Pinkie’s tail. True enough, as Twilight glanced at his gaping mouth, he only had gums. His teeth had not grown in yet.

Then Gummy started to gum at Pinkie’s leg, causing her to giggle.

“So, you can look after Gummy for me while I’m gone?” she asked Mr. and Mrs. Cake.

“You can count on us, Pinkie!” said Carrot Cake brightly.

“Just be careful out there, dear,” said Cup Cake.

Pinkie picked up Gummy in her forehooves, looking deep into his bright purple eyes sadly.

“Mommy’s gonna miss you. Be good, okay, Gummy?”

Gummy blinked, one eye first, then the other. Pinkie sniffled, tears running down her muzzle. She smiled sadly.

“Aww, don’t look so sad, Gummy,” she said, and Twilight blinked in confusion. Gummy’s expression had not changed at all. “It’s not like I’m gonna be gone forever. Just until I help Twilight here beat back that mean old Hokey Smokes!”

Gummy blinked at Pinkie once more, very slowly. Pinkie squeed in joy, her bright teeth showing.

“That’s the spirit, Gummy!”

She planted a big, wet kiss on Gummy’s snout, before setting the sedate alligator (crocodile?) down before Mr. and Mrs. Cake.

“Oh dear… Oh my…” Fluttershy was hemming and hawing back and forth beside Twilight. Angel Bunny was standing at her hooves, thumping a foot impatiently.

“What’s wrong, Fluttershy?”

“I really overlooked something,” she said tensely. “Oh dear… Please don’t be mad, Angel Bunny… I… I really don’t know anypony in Ponyville, so I…”

“Wait. But you live here!” Twilight snapped. “How could you live somewhere and not know the ponies there?”

“I know, right?” Pinkie interjected.

“Well… It’s just that… other ponies scare me… I really only come out here to Ponyville when me or my animal friends need food…”

Twilight groaned in frustration, before turning to the crowd.

“Is there anypony here,” she asked in a raised voice, “who would take care of Fluttershy’s pet bunny rabbit?”

The small herd of Ponyvillagers looked back and forth tentatively at each other. Clearly, though Fluttershy did not know very many ponies in Ponyville, almost all of them knew of Angel Bunny and his temperament. Many of the ponies in question were actually arguing with their significant others, trying to not be the pair who were saddled with the impish little bunny.

“I’ll do it.”

It was a Pegasus stallion with a coat the color of milk chocolate, and a mane of black and purple. His hind legs were hitched into a steel wheelchair, but his purple eyes still sparkled with optimism. He trotted forward, his wheelchair squeaking slightly as he did so, stopping just in front of Fluttershy.

“Umm, thank you, Mister…” Fluttershy began.

“Stellar Eclipse,” he said in his boyish voice. Angel Bunny looked up at him warily, his arms folded across his chest. “I’m not the best with animals, but… I’m okay with chickens and… bunny rabbits are pretty much chickens without feathers, right?” he offered as an unconvincing finish. Angel Bunny smacked his forehead.

Fluttershy looked back and forth between Angel and Stellar Eclipse uncertainly, clearly having second thoughts. Twilight decided this was a good moment to step in.

“Maybe I should grab a rabbit care book from the library for you before we leave,” she said.

“That might be a bit necessary,” said Stellar Eclipse, who did not notice Fluttershy nodding eagerly behind him.

In a flash, Twilight had winked straight into the main room of the Golden Oak Library, and looking through the directory led her to Sweet Little Cute Bunny: How to Care for Your Pet Rabbit. Smiling, she made a note of its check-out date in the back of the book, before winking back to the northern edge of Ponyville, passing the book to Stellar Eclipse, who was already having to contend with Angel giving him the stink-eye.

“Oh, don’t be so upset, Angel Bunny,” Fluttershy said tenderly, lowering herself to Angel’s level. “I’m sure now that he’ll do a fine job. After all, you’re just a little bunny, and you need constant watching after to make sure that you don’t choke on a carrot.”

Fluttershy did not seem to notice Angel rolling his eyes.

“Well,” Rainbow Dash said sharply, “Looks like everypony’s got their pets taken care of. Everypony got everything they need in their saddle-bags?” Five of the group, minus Twilight, carried fragments of the Elements in their saddle-bags. Rainbow Dash’s own contained small clumps of raincloud, in case she got thirsty.

“Sure do!” replied Applejack. Her saddle-bags carried some apple-based rations, a canteen of water, and a lasso.

“Of course,” assented Rarity, whose saddle-bags contained a razor and several beautification products besides.

“Ooh, ooh! I do! I do!” squealed Pinkie Pie, whose saddle-bags contained confetti, streamers, party poppers, party hats, noise-makers, candy bars, and a bottle of sugar water.

“I’m pretty sure I do,” breathed Fluttershy, whose saddle-bags contained bundles of hay and oats.

“I’ve triple-checked my checklist on what I need, and I’m ready,” Twilight said. Her saddle-bags contained the letters from Queen Celestia (noted numerically in the order she’d received them), some five-gross bits of assorted change, and some spare ink, quills, and parchment.

“Seemed more like a quadruple-check,” Spike mumbled, his forelegs crossed.

“Hush, Spike,” Twilight hissed, before turning to face the crowding herd. “Well, everypony, wish us the best of luck. With good luck, we should return with the rise of the Sun, and the defeat of NightMare Moon.”

The herd cheered. Twilight lit up her alicorn and flashed her dwimmer shimmer brightly to get their attention once more.

“In the meantime,” Twilight continued, “try not to attract too much ire of NightMare Moon. Be good little night-lovers. Don’t give her more reason than we already have to target you.” Twilight gulped. “Please be safe.”

And with that, Twilight Sparkle, her dragon cub assistant Spike, the farmer mare Applejack, the fashion mare Rarity, the action mare Rainbow Dash, the party mare Pinkie Pie, and the animal-whisperer mare Fluttershy trotted outside the sphere of safety of Ponyville, and into the great night.

It was mere moments after they’d left the boundaries of Ponyville when a filly on a scooter scooted up, glancing about eagerly.

“Rainbow Dash! Sorry I slept in, but I’m here! Rainbow Dash… I’m here… Rainbow Dash?”

Outside of Ponyville, the landscape underwent a remarkably radical shift once they left the paths that ponies usual traveled. Gone were the usually worn pathways of Ponyville, replaced with the ragged edges of paths taken by herds of varying size. The further that the small herd traveled from the parabola of the arc of Twilight Sparkle’s heliogenesis-generated Sun, the lower the temperature sank. Already they could see their own breath misting in front of their muzzles, and the intermittent frosted-over puddle of mud.

“It just ain’t right, none a’ this,” Applejack muttered.

“I know exactly what you mean,” Twilight concurred. “This is in direct defiance of the Nychthemeron!”

“The what-now?” Rainbow Dash said. “The Nick-they-moron?”

“The Nychthemeron,” Twilight explained slowly, “is the quantum thaumaturgical principle that insists that the Sun and Moon remain in perpetual, perfect synchronicity.”

“In Equus, please,” Rainbow Dash snarked.

Twilight narrowed her eyes at the cyan Pegasus, before saying, slowly, “The Nychthemeron is a really hifalutin law of the universe, which states that the Sun and Moon must always follow the exact same path at exactly the same pace. If not…”

Twilight paused.

“If not…?” Fluttershy echoed nervously.

Twilight cleared her throat.

“Even the most expert thaumaturgists have no real idea what could happen. But Queen Celestia once told me if the Sun and Moon were to fall out of sync, then, quote-unquote, ‘chaos would fall over Harmonia, and discord would reign’.”

A shudder swept through the group that had no connection whatsoever to the chill of prolonged nighttime. The word discord had always been somewhat taboo in Equestrian society, as though it were associated with some great horror in its collective past. None of them had any idea why the word was such a powerful instigator of fear, and that made the word even more terrible to the average Equestrian.

“Well,” Rarity said, regaining her composure, “we don’t want that to happen, now, do we?”

“Nopey-dopey-lopey!” said Pinkie Pie in as angry a tone as she could muster, which did not do much to make her not sound happy. “I mean, an everlasting night would let you throw the world’s longest slumber party, but a slumber party that doesn’t end isn’t a slumber party anymore. It’s just a… slum! …ber!”

Twilight nodded hesitantly.

“…Yeah,” she added after a moment. “And that’s why we have to end this everlasting night as fast as possible. We’ve already lost enough time to NightMare Moon. We have to find out what the Queen wants us to find in that book!”

And her trot quickly became a canter, the other ponies following suit behind her.

I only hope that any slumber party with these ponies doesn’t end with the building it’s inside being demolished, Twilight thought. Then she shook her head violently. Wait, what am I thinking? These ponies don’t mean that to me! They’re just travel companions, nothing more! As soon as this business is done, I can go on pretending I’ve never met them!

The ache in Twilight’s heart at that last thought told her otherwise. She glanced back at the five ponies she saw behind Spike perched on her back.

Maybe I’m starting to see some good in spending time with them…

Travel to Canterlot by hoof from Ponyville was ordinarily less than a day’s journey, if one knew the right paths to take. Twilight had been flown down to the hamlet from Canterlot in less than an hour, but the trek she would take on her return journey was hardly straight. The path wound along the countryside, cutting as level a path as it could across the valley floor. Then, once one reached the base of the North Equinus Mountains, then it was a matter of traversing the winding cliff-faces leading up to the cobbled path leading to Canterlot’s main gate. In addition, the startling cold of a land of eternal night had a way of sapping the energy of any traveler, even in an Earth Pony as hardy as Applejack.

But the hard road to travel ahead could have potentially been beset by other dangers that Twilight had taken to describing to her company.

“M-merewolves…?” Spike had stuttered in fear.

Vampires… ?” Fluttershy had gasped.

Twilight nodded darkly. “Yes. Unfortunately, the new moon is in a week, so we should have a one-day breather from merewolves if it takes us more than seven days to get to Canterlot.”

“Wait, wait wait wait wait!” Rainbow had interrupted, waving her forehooves quickly. “I think I… heard… somewhere that merewolves only transform under the full moon.”

Twilight had narrowed her eyes at Rainbow Dash, a smug grin on her face. “Daring Do fanzine?”

The change was instantaneous; Rainbow’s pupils had shrunk to pinpricks, her muzzle scrunching up as her eyes darted back and forth nervously. “Wh-what gave you that idea?”

A rush of satisfaction had filled Twilight; despite being brought up not to get other ponies’ goats like that, it was still nice to get back at Rainbow, even if in a minute way, for her rough introduction. “Well, I’m sorry to say, Prism Blaze, but that’s one merewolf myth I’m gonna have to bust. Merewolves actually transform under any moonlight at all.”

Applejack had shuddered, “So… yer sayin’…?”

“Yes. Merewolves will be violently active for days on end until the new moon. And I just hope that we don’t run into any hemolupes.”

“Hee-muh-whatnows?” Pinkie Pie had asked, looking remarkably concerned.

“When a vampire bites somepony, it injects a toxin that slowly turns the target into a vampire themselves… if they live. But when a merewolf is the victim, a hemolupe is born.”

“What is a hemolupe?” asked a shaking Rarity.

“A hemolupe, called the murciélobo in Manada, or ein Vampirwolf in my father’s native Germaney, has the combined powers of a vampire and a merewolf. It feeds on pony flesh, blood and bone. In addition to transforming into a large bat, or a cloud of fog or mist, it can transform into its wolf form, regardless of time of day or the face of the Moon. And it’s completely feral.”

“You mean… We can’t talk to it?” Fluttershy had asked with limp ears, sitting on her haunches and rubbing her forehooves together. “We can’t appeal to its better instincts?”

“The only instinct of a hemolupe is to feed. There is no appealing to it.”

“Oh,” Fluttershy sighed, her ears drooping completely.

Proceeding along afterwards had proved to be surprisingly taxing, even with the nebulous threat of blood-suckers and flesh-eaters hanging over their heads. The Moon hung idly in the middle of the sky overhead, all of Equestria falling deeper into colder as it lingered in perpetual midnight. Even Pinkie Pie and Applejack, the hardiest of the party as Earth Ponies, felt fatigue settling into them.

“What’s say we take five fer now an’ warm ourselves up by a fire?” Applejack said after what seemed like days of trotting.

Twilight looked ahead along the rugged path. They were still a ways off from the Alicorn’s Peak and Canterlot, but close enough to see that the city had undergone some radical changes since Twilight had last seen it. What had once been a pristine, white metropolis perched on the mountainside, was now dark and foreboding, with silvery battlements all along the towers. Tapestries the size of entire city blocks hung down from the lowermost levels of the city. It had been almost completely transformed into a monument to NightMare Moon’s conquest.

She sighed.

“We might as well,” she said. Even in spite of the bubbling fury she felt at NightMare Moon’s audacity, Twilight still knew it would be foalish to press herself ever onwards beyond the point of exhaustion. She did not want to reach the gates of Canterlot with no energy to spare. Who knew how many members of the Royal Guard had been coerced into her service…?

“Alright, everypony, take a load off,” Twilight said, and with that, Rainbow Dash none-too-gently dropped her saddle-bags to the ground. Twilight gave her a sharp glare, and Rainbow whistled innocently, looking up to the sky.

“I assume that most of you thought to pack very little food, or at least food that keeps for a long time?” Twilight asked.

“Food?” Rarity gasped. “Oh my stars! In all my worry of facial hair and split ends, I forgot to bring food!”

“You were more worried about appearances than eatin’?” Applejack asked.

“Talk about your screwed-up priorities,” Rainbow Dash mock-whispered to Applejack, who snickered and hushed her Pegasus companion.

“You don’t have to worry, Rarity,” Twilight said. “We can just eat the grass if we have to.”

Grass?” Rarity repeated. “Did you say grass?”

“Do you need a hearing aid or something?” Rainbow Dash said. “Of course she said ‘grass’.”

“But… must we eat something so… unsavory?” said Rarity. “I mean, grass is just… just…”

“It’s what our ancestors have been eating for meggrossia, Rarity,” Twilight snapped.

“Yes, but… that was then. Must we return to their ways?”

“Yes. We must. If our other food sources become scarce, we’ll have to eat at the grass. In fact,” she said with a raised voice, to get Pinkie Pie’s attention, because the pink Earth Pony seemed too preoccupied with seeing how high she could float in midair and for how long, “I’d recommend that we only use the food we brought along as a supplement, to make it last longer.”

Rarity stammered dramatically for several more moments, pulling surprisingly animated faces for such a cultured Unicorn, but finally heaved a heavy sigh.

“If it must be a means to the end of everlasting night, then I will bear this burden.”

The seven of them settled in a circle of soft bare earth, under the canopy of a cluster of trees. After collecting a small bundle of dry twigs and placing them in the center of their circle, they watched as Twilight summoned a bright-pink spark from the tip of her alicorn, setting the bonfire ablaze. It felt like they had all taken a deep dip into a warm spa.

“Now, why wasn’t it that easy to spark the Elements back to power?” Twilight muttered.

“Ah still don’ think Ah rightly understand what happened back in th’ Everfree, sugarcube,” Applejack queried. “What exactly happened?”

“Queen Celestia’s secret message indicated,” explained Twilight, “that a spark would ignite the five Elements that we had and cause the sixth to appear. I tried to ignite them. I tried so hard, but… Pferdeäpfel!” Twilight swore in Germane. Her ears drooped. “Maybe I’m just not powerful enough to repower the Elements…”

“I think you probably got it backwards, Twi,” Rainbow Dash interjected.

Twilight gave Rainbow an exasperated look. “What? I’m Queen Celestia’s own personal protégée. I know exactly what was going through the Queen’s mind when she write this!” She produced the Sixth Element spark parchment, waving it in Rainbow’s face with her dwimmer shimmer.

Rainbow took it in her teeth, her eyes almost crossing as she tried to read it herself. After only a moment, she just spat it back out, Twilight catching it with her magic before it could hit the dirt, or the bonfire.

“And you call yourself an egghead, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash chuckled.

Twilight sputtered in barely constrained indignity. “Wh-what? I’ve read more books in a day that you have in your entire life! How could you possibly understand this letter better than me?”

Rainbow Dash crossed her forelegs over her barrel… then she scrunched up her muzzle, her pupils shrinking to pinpoints, darting back and forth. After a moment, she returned to her previous casual confidence, her elongated fangs glinting in the fire’s light.

“Do tell me that you’ve read Daring Do and the Razor of Dreams?”

“Read it? I own every book in the series!”

“Then you should know how the Artifacts of Exodus were powered.”

Twilight snorted in derision. “That’s easy. They were activated by the dark energy brought forth by Ahuizotl and his followers, allowing them to summon forth the Exodus Golem, also known the Razer of Dreams.”


Twilight paused. “What.”

Rainbow Dash grinned. “You got it all backwards, Twilight. The Artifacts of Exodus weren’t activated by the fanaticism of Ahuizotl, bringing forth the Exodus Golem; they were already active. It was the fanaticism of Ahuizotl and his followers that allowed the Artifacts of Exodus to awaken the Exodus Golem. It’s like… like a lightning storm! The cloud is like the Artifacts of Exodus, the lightning bolt is like their fanaticism turned into that flashy beam of light, and a tree that catches fire is like the awakening of the Razer of Dreams.”

Twilight opened her mouth to contest Rainbow’s point, then blinked, and gulped. The Razor of Dreams did always seem to be the weakest of the Daring Do series to Twilight. But now, when she recollected the contents of the book through the lens of Rainbow Dash’s perspective…

“It makes so much sense now!” Twilight said brightly.

“I know, right?” Rainbow’s fangs glinted. “A.K. Yearling’s a genius, isn’t she?”

“Well, she is, but… Rainbow Dash… You’re… Du bist ein Genie!

“Hey!” Rainbow replied angrily. “What’re you insulting me for?”

Twilight blinked, then smacked her forehead with a cloven hoof. “Twilight, you dolt. She doesn’t know Germane.” She addressed Rainbow directly, “I was calling you a genius, Rainbow.”

“Oh…” Rainbow rubbed a forehoof against her chest smugly. “Well, I always knew I was a genius, but…” She blinked. “I just assumed that since you were talking in Germane that you were insulting me.” She blinked again. “…Wait. How, exactly, am I a genius?”

“Ah think we’re all curious as t’ how ya reached that conclusion, Twilight,” Applejack agreed.

Twilight was prancing about the bonfire now.

“How could I not have seen it? It all makes so much sense now! I was reading the Queen’s message wrong!” Suddenly, Twilight’s energy vanished, her ears drooping. “I read the Queen’s message wrong…”

“What, pray tell, did you read incorrectly about the message, darling?” Rarity asked. “Sixth Element spark seems an awfully vague message, but… what ambiguity is clear to you now?”

Twilight perked up a little.

“Well, it looks like I had it all backwards,” she explained. “If I had to make a hypothesis right now, the reason that the Elements of Harmony didn’t activate at my usage of a spark spell, is because the five Elements that we have are not, in fact, activated by a spark. Rather, the Elements themselves generate the spark that creates the sixth Element.”

“Well, that sounds genius and all, Twilight,” Applejack said, smiling a little. “Just one little query, though: how do ya activate the Elements ta generate th’ spark ta begin with?”

Twilight paused.

“I… I don’t know.” She planted her hooves in the dirt. “But that’s why we need that book! The Queen has surely left some answers for us in it!”

“And we’re gonna need some shuteye ‘fore we get t’ Canterlot, so… Ah’m takin’ the first watch.” And with that, Applejack stood up from her spot by the fire and strode to the edge of the fire’s circle. “Ah won’t let anypony or anything into this circle!”

Rather quickly, everypony settled down onto their bellies to go to sleep. Spike curled up as closely as he dared to Rarity. Before Twilight could close her eyes, though, she felt the nudge of a hoof at her alicorn. Looking up, she saw Rainbow Dash, looking a little anxious.

“Uhh… You won’t tell anypony back in Ponyville that I read Daring Do, right? I got a reputation for being awesome, you know.”

Twilight paused.

“If you let everypony know, you’ll have a reputation for being honest about yourself. Wouldn’t that be awesome in its own right?”

Before Rainbow Dash could come up with a retort to this, Twilight settled her head down and closed her eyes.

The five of them came to at roughly the same time. Exactly what time it was was lost on them; they were too far out from Ponyville now to make out whether the facsimile Sun was out or not. The implications of nighttime eternal were reinforced even further upon them.

Applejack was wavering on her legs, her eyes struggling to stay open.

Twilight gaped at the palomino Earth Pony. “Did you stay up all night?”

Applejack blinked around, blubbering in a half-awake stupor. Settling her eyes on Twilight, she gave a tired smile that only accentuated the bags under her eyes, and said, “Oh, sugarcube. ‘Course Ah wasn’t up all night. It’s a night that never ends, isn’t it?”

Twilight sighed heavily. “Applejack, when you said first watch, I assumed that you meant that you would wake one of us up to take over when you got tired.”

“Ah wasn’ gonna leave mah post just ‘cause Ah got a little bit hazy in the eyes.”

“So you are tired!”

“No Ah’m not!” Applejack yawned loudly and obviously. “Ah ain’t never been more…” Applejack’s head pitched forward, and she fell asleep where she stood.

Twilight groaned in frustration. This mare is as stubborn as a mule! …Meaning no offense to mules, of course, but… Der Macher im Elysium! She needs to know that she isn’t alone in trying to save the world!

Twilight paused, ruminating on the paradox of her trying to persuade somepony else to share the burden of saving Harmonia, before she reared up, clapping her forehooves together with a loud CLACK.

Applejack snapped awake, her eyes darting about in alarm.

“Applejack,” Twilight said sharply, “you don’t have to do this alone. You can depend on other ponies to help you do this.”

The farmer mare reached blearily up and attempted to adjust her Stetson… but in her present state, all that she succeeded in doing was brushing her hat off of her head. Before it had even hit the ground, Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer lit up around it, suspending it in midair. Applejack’s emerald eyes followed it stupidly, before Twilight set it back onto Applejack’s head, adjusting it so that her ears were not flattened by it.

“Ah appreciate yer concern, Twilight,” Applejack slurred, “but Ah’m made outta tough stuff. Ah can stand ta lose a few winks.”

“Everypony has their limits, Applejack,” Twilight persisted. “Nopony here wants to see you hurt yourself, least of all me.”


And before Twilight knew it, it was out of her mouth.

“You’re my friend, Applejack. As difficult as things got since I first showed up here in Ponyville, you’re the one pony who I’ve really come to like. Granted, meeting all of your family in one day was a little overwhelming, and your cousin Sour Apple’s tarts were… bracing… but I really don’t want to see you like this.”

Applejack stared at Twilight blankly… or was it shock? Behind her, Twilight heard the sound of somepony’s hooves clapping. Turning, she saw Rainbow Dash hovering several paces away, bringing her front hooves together slowly. Around her were the other three, and all four of them were giving Twilight smiles of approval.

“Congratulations, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash said with a grating smirk. “You’ve just made your very first friend!”

“Hey!” Spike said indignantly. “What about me?”

“Oh.” Rainbow Dash scratched the back of her head nervously. “Right, well… Make that very second friend.”

“Second friend party!” Pinkie squealed to high heaven.

“I don’t think now’s a good time for a party,” Twilight said curtly. “Now that we’re all awake, I say we move on.” She paused, facing Applejack. “That is, assuming you feel up to it on next to no sleep.”

Applejack smiled at Twilight, and this time the bags under her eyes seemed to disappear. “Y’know what, sugarcube? Knowin’ that Ah’m yer friend, Ah think Ah could make it a little while longer. S’long as yer there ta support me if Ah start t’ teeter.”

“I’ll be there,” Twilight said with a smile.

As it turned out, Applejack made it almost four hours before she started to falter. Despite her earlier promise that she would be there to hold Applejack up if she started to tire, Twilight was only a Unicorn, and Applejack was an Earth Pony. Even though Twilight was the second tallest of the six mares present, Applejack’s denser muscles as an Earth Pony meant that Twilight had a surprisingly heavy load to prop up.

Applejack yawned, and the weight against Twilight’s side only grew stronger.

“Ah’m awful sorry, sugarcube, but mah dogs’re barkin’,” she drawled. “Ah gotta lie down somewhere…”

The tired palomino set her eyes on a ring of rough, bare earth, surrounded by six white-petaled flowers. She smiled.

“Well, Ah do declare,” Applejack said with a serenity that unnerved Twilight. “That looks like a mighty comfy circle a’ earth. Ah think Ah’ll take a rest right there.”

Twilight blinked in disbelief at Applejack, as did her five other companions, as she made her way towards the circle of flowers. Twilight was befuddled; how could these flowers possibly look this vibrant in the eternal night? She knew that there were plenty of flowers that bloomed under moonlight or starlight, but none that looked like these. Now, as she watched the flowers turn their heads towards Applejack hungrily, she knew that these were no flowers…

Get back, Applejack!” she cried, grabbing the Earth Pony in her dwimmer shimmer and yanking her away from the flowers. It was good timing, because the “flowers” had begun to lunge at Applejack, their “petals” now revealed to be teeth, snapping at the drowsy Earth Pony now just beyond their reach.

“Oh my goodness!” Fluttershy gasped.

“Twilight, do you know what those flowers are?” breathed Rarity.

“Those are no flowers,” Twilight growled. “That’s an udoroot!”

“A what?” Spike, Pinkie, Rainbow, and Rarity asked, but Fluttershy seemed to know what she was talking about. Applejack, who had stopped trying to walk in midair at this point, apparently came to her senses and caught wind of what Twilight had just said.

“An udoroot!” Twilight repeated. “It’s a camouflage predator that pretends it’s a bunch of flowers, then uses its psychic powers to lure tired travelers to their doom!”

Six gasps met Twilight’s statement.

“Pinkie!” Twilight said. “You’re the only Earth Pony we have who’s not half-asleep. You gotta dig it out! Its six feelers are its only line of defense against alert ponies!”

“Wilco walnut, Twilight!” said Pinkie, who then yanked on her own tail, her forelock twisting up into a drill shape and spinning wildly in response. Before Twilight could even string two thoughts together as to how this was possible, the pink Earth Pony had thrust her auger of a forelock into the earth at her hooves, digging out a perfectly Pinkie-shaped tunnel behind her.

“You know what?” Twilight said flatly. “I’m not even going to question it.”

After a few moments, the udoroot’s flower-feelers started to flail in violent protest, snapping at the ponies and drake who stood just out of its reach (Rarity shrieked in fear and hid behind Rainbow Dash). The earth began to shake and crack around the patch where the udoroot had planted itself, and moments later, the large root structure of the udoroot blasting upwards, a pink Earth Pony with a drilling forelock hoisting it upwards with both forehooves.

“One udoroot platter, made to order!” Pinkie squealed with all the lightness of presenting a birthday cake as she spun forward, hurling the udoroot upside-down into the hole she’d created pushing it out. Its roots settled in defeat, earth crumbling onto the grass at its edges.

Twilight then waved her hoof back at Spike and her five mare companions.

“Stand back, everypony.”

Her alicorn lit up with her pink dwimmer shimmer, and some pink lightning began to spark across its length. Then, in a flash that made all six behind her gasp, pink-purple fire erupted from the udoroot. Its roots quickly ignited, the sounds of its flower-feelers beating against its earthy tomb in its death throes sounding like the drums of war which had not beat in Equestria for over three-dozen-gross years. What sounded like a shriek rose up for a moment, and fell silent.

The udoroot was blackened and shriveled, pieces of its roots falling to the ground and crumbling to ash. A small funnel of grass behind the udoroot was singed as well from the force of Twilight’s dwimmer-fire. A terrible stench filled the air, not entirely like how a plant smelled when burnt.

Twilight turned back to her companions, who looked mildly alarmed at the action their lavender friend had taken. She hung her head mildly, her ears drooping.

“I’ll understand,” Twilight said heavily, “if you guys don’t want to call me your friend anymore.”

“Are you kidding me?” Rainbow Dash said indignantly. “That was awesome!”

“While I do think that it was a bit… excessive, it was quite the fancy bit of showmareship, if I do say so myself,” Rarity said with a mildly forced smile.

“I know!” Pinkie Pie said with a pronk. “And plus, that mean old meanie-pie plant lookalike whatchamacallit tried to gobble up Applejack like she was a cupcake!”

“I know! That thing was going to chomp her down, but then Pinkie flipped it up, and then you barbecued that thing!” Spike cheered merrily. “Now I know that I’m not the only one of us who can char broil hayburgers!”

Fluttershy’s ears drooped, her eyes flickering between Twilight and the burnt udoroot remains. “I… I think that plant could have been punished a little more kindly, but… if burning it was okay with you… I’ll be okay with it.”

Applejack had been silent, and had a hoof on her Stetson. After a moment, she peered out from under the rim of her hat, and smiled warmly at Twilight.

“Thank you. Fer savin’ mah life. An’ ya wouldn’ta had to if Ah’d not been so plumb stubborn.”


“From now on, Twilight,” Applejack said, trotting up to Twilight and resting a hoof on the Unicorn’s withers, “Ah’m countin’ on you t’ keep me from gettin’ too far ahead a’ mahself.”

Twilight raised a hoof up to Applejack’s, meeting her eyes. “That’s what friends are for, right? Being there for each other.”

The palomino Earth Pony and lavender Unicorn shared a gaze for several moments.

“Alright, lovebirds,” came a grating Pegasus’s voice, rousing the pair. “I know you two were having a moment, but can we please have it away from this smoking udoroot corpse?”

The pair blushing, Twilight cleared her throat and gestured for Spike to hop onto her back.

“Well, what are we waiting for, the Sun to rise? Let’s go, girls!”

The adrenaline rush of the udoroot incident had kept Applejack on her hooves for another few hours, to the point that it was now almost an entire day since they had first taken a rest. They now stood at the sheer southern face of the North Equinus Mountains, with a series of low cliffs serving as their secret path, gradually leading up to the main road to Canterlot, looming almost directly overhead.

Applejack was practically dead on her hooves, and it was to her great relief that Twilight decided to take the first watch.

“In exactly four hours, I will wake somepony else up to take the second watch,” Twilight explained. She turned her head to the mulberry drake on her back. “Spike?”

Spike jumped down from Twilight’s back and gave a little salute. “Yes?”

“I’m leaving you in Applejack’s care while I take the first watch.”

Applejack smiled up at Twilight. “Ya can count on me, sugarcube.”

Up in the air, Rainbow Dash had produced a minute cloud from a saddle-bag, squeezing out a small trickle of water into her mouth.

“You sure you can handle it, Applesack?” she drawled towards the orange Earth Pony. “I could swear you spent half of the past trek sleeptrotting.”

Green eyes narrowed at Rainbow Dash.

“Ah had t’ raise mah little sister on mah own half the time. With Granny Smith gettin’ on in years, Big Mac ‘n’ Ah had ta take it in turns t’ bring Apple Bloom up. Ah think Ah can handle one baby dragon.”

Fluttershy had already settled down onto her barrel, breathing slowly as she settled down for a sleep. Pinkie was rolling about on the grass, humming to herself. Rarity was turning about in place, teasing out the blades of grass at her hooves.

“Rarity, if you don’t mind me asking,” Twilight asked, “and don’t take this the wrong way: Do you ever intend to set yourself down?”

Rarity cocked an amethyst eyebrow at the lavender Unicorn.

“If it’s all the same to you, Twilight, I would really prefer to not dirty myself up prior to our approach to Canterlot. I do so hate getting grass stains on my cannon and barrel.”

“We’re not going to the Grand Galloping Gala, Rarity. We don’t have to look our best.” Twilight indicated her own growing stubble. “And besides, I doubt that NightMare Moon would let us just canter on in. No doubt she’s forced the Royal Guard to obey, under pain of death.”

“Then, pray tell, how are we going to get in?”

Twilight paused. How would they get in…?

“Maybe,” she postulated, “just maybe, there are Royal Guards who’d only pretend to serve NightMare Moon. They’d let us in and pretend otherwise. We can only hope that there’s one at the front gates.”

“We can only hope,” Rarity said, finally certain that she would not get her coat stained on the grass, and settling down softly, closing her eyes. “Rest well, Twilight.”

They had made it a habit of not saying good night since this journey had begun. That would be seen as an acknowledgment that this nighttime eternal was a boon to Equestria, and not a curse. It was what they would say to one another until either they tore down NightMare Moon’s regime, or were themselves defeated.

Preferably the former.

As her partners drifted off to sleep one by one, Twilight kept a solid watch out for anything that could be on the prowl. This cold eternal night would be a huge benefaction to nocturnal predators, which would make it that much more perilous to travel Equestria under the Mare in the Moon.

Twilight looked up to the Moon itself. It had settled out of its full moon phase of the day of the Summer Sun Celebration, and was now a waning gibbous. Seeing it without the Alicorn-shaped profile was alien, as though a foreign celestial body had substituted itself for their Moon.

A bolt of cold white lightning shot past the Moon.

Twilight narrowed her eyes. There were no clouds in the sky this night.

Two more bolts shot past after the first.

Twilight turned to Rainbow Dash, the only travel companion of hers who was still awake.

“Did you see that?” she asked.

“You mean the Shadowbolts? Yeah.”

Twilight snapped her head back into the sky. The bolts had disappeared.

“The Shadowbolts? But…”

Twilight looked back to the cyan Pegasus.

“But what happened to the Wonderbolts?”

Rainbow shrugged. “After we escaped the Everfree with you, we saw the two Bolt groups scatter. Guess they were evenly matched.” She curled a forehoof in anger. “Copycats showing up the Wonderbolts like that―”

“But where’d they go?”

Rainbow’s cerise eyes met Twilight’s purple eyes.

“No idea. I wish I knew. ‘Cause they need all the help they can get.” Rainbow Dash’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll show ‘em. I’ll show ‘em that I’m no bronco. I can fight and fly as well as any Wonderbolt, whether or not I know their history!”

And with that, Rainbow Dash alighted on the ground by Fluttershy, resting her head on Fluttershy’s barrel and intertwining their primaries together. She was out like a light in moments.

Twilight ended up waking up Rainbow Dash to be the second watch; the Pegasus was jumpy enough as it was that she would not be likely to miss anything that moved. Also, as Twilight had noted, as long as Rainbow Dash was in the air, she had a sixth sense of sorts for where anything was at any given time.

When Twilight came to after her rest, it was to Applejack’s face.

“Have a good rest, friend?” she asked with an offered hoof.

“I have, actually,” Twilight said smiling, accepting the hoof to get onto all fours. “How was yours?”

“Ah slept like Winona after a day a roundin’ up herds a sheep an’ cattle,” the Earth Pony said with relish. “Ah don’ think Ah’d slept so good in ages.”

Twilight nodded. “And how was Spike?”

Applejack shook her head ruefully, turning to show the mulberry drake asleep on her back. “Yer little son here’s a reg’lar smoker. He kept on puffin’ clouds a black stuff in mah face till Ah just put him on mah back.”

Twilight laughed lightly, and making Twilight laugh put a little laugh at Applejack’s lips as well.

“Well, Spike’s not really my son, but… I’ll see what I can do about his smoking habits.”

Applejack snickered slightly at that pun, and Twilight joined in.

“So, how exactly is Spike not yer son?”

The suddenness of Applejack’s query caught Twilight flat-hoofed. The palomino was still smiling at Twilight, but her eyes were slightly narrowed, giving her a slightly devious look. Twilight bit her lip. This was the first and only friend she’d made apart from Spike. How could she handle this tactfully?

“Well… see, Spike isn’t my son in any biological sense. All that I really did was hatch his egg with my magic when I was a filly.”

“So basically, ya inseminated th’ egg, didn’tcha?”

Twilight blushed furiously. “Well, if you put it like that, he should be calling me Dad!”

Applejack snorted, covering her muzzle with a hoof. “Ah didn’ think of it like that, sugarcube!”

Twilight chuckled a little herself. “Yeah. Thinking of it like that is actually kinda funny.”

After a moment of further chuckling, Applejack continued.

“But in all seriousness, ya did do more than just hatch his egg. Don’t his color look mighty like yours?”

Twilight looked at Spike’s scale color. True enough, mulberry was pretty close to her lavender coat, but…

“There are plenty of dragons with mulberry scales out there, Applejack,” she said lightly. “It’s probably a coincidence.”

“But even if there ain’t that kinda connection, ya did take him in, didn’tcha?”

“Well… yes. With the Queen’s help at first, though; I was just ten.”

Ten? That’s mighty young t’ be adoptin’, sugarcube.”

“It was a test: hatch the egg of a dragon, and you get accepted into Queen Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. I hatched his egg, and I took him in. Simple as that. Does that have to mean I’m his mother?”

“It don’ have ta,” Applejack said shortly, crossing her forelegs, “but it don’t figger that you can’ treat him like he’s the bes’ thing that ever happened t’ ya. Ah helped care fer Apple Bloom after Ma left us fer th’ Elysian Fields… Don’t make me her mother, but Ah had t’ fill the role fer her.”

At this point, Spike stirred from Applejack’s back, his forelimbs stretching in the air. He looked around blearily.


“Rise ‘n’ shine, heavy smoker,” Applejack drawled.

Spike started.

“I-I don’t smoke!” he gasped. “Don’t listen to her, Mom! …err, Twilight!”

At that moment, Spike let out a wide-mouthed yawn, which triggered the release of a surprisingly large billowing cloud of black smoke.

Twilight snickered, her hoof at her muzzle. “I think you might want to get that checked out, Spike.”

Spike blushed embarrassedly, hopping off of Applejack’s back, turning to face Rarity, who was approaching with the other three members of the troupe.

“And how did you sleep, Rarity?” Spike asked with a flourish.

“As well as can be,” she said with an elusive air. Twilight suspected that it was due to sleeping in the fields.

“You look beautiful as ever,” the mulberry drake said in an endearing tone.

“Oh, Spike, you are too kind,” Rarity chuckled with a wave of a hoof.

Twilight picked up Spike in her dwimmer shimmer, placing him upon her back. He pouted at her, but she smiled nervously at him and addressed the five mares.

“So, did everypony rest well?”

Rarity nodded slowly, Applejack gave a short but sharp nod with a smile, Pinkie pronked into the air gleefully, Fluttershy’s mane fluttered a little, and Rainbow Dash gave a short, surly tilt of the head. (“I was up the past four hours, by the way,” she grumbled.)

“Well, I hope everypony’s got a lot of energy to spare, because we’ll need it,” Twilight said darkly, pointing her alicorn up at the cliffs running up megagrosses of hooves to Canterlot.

These cliff-faces were not the work of any pony, but were formed from the natural wind currents that had swept down the Saddle Valley before the South Equinus Mountains closed off the stable wind passages. For they did not delve into the side of Alicorn’s Peak, but instead wove back and forth up the face of the mountain. It would be a simple matter of flying and occasional resting for the two Pegasi of the group, but for the four non-winged ponies of the group…

“We have to climb that?” ask Rarity, aghast and awed by the scale of the climb.

“It’s… so… high…” Fluttershy gasped.

“Well, it is a mountain,” Rainbow Dash said flatly.

“I could probably float some of you up there with my magic,” Twilight offered, her horn glimmering with a pink light as she said it.

“No can do, sugarcube,” said Applejack, drawing her lasso from out of a saddle-bag. “If Canterlot’s anythin’ like you say it is, then yer gonna need all the strength you can git.”

And with that she threw the length of rope up to one of the cliff faces over their heads, the rope looping around a hook-shaped prominence and lowering down. A fine green glow not unlike Applejack’s eye color emanated from the rope and the rock it had looped around.

“Ge’ hold a’ deh wope,” Applejack muttered through the rope in her mouth. “Agh logg agh I’be god deh wope id by bouth, deh wock’ll howed youw weight.”

“She said, ‘Get hold of the rope’,” Pinkie Pie translated, pronking about her group of fellow ponies. “And then she said that ‘As long as she’s got the rope in her mouth, the rock’ll hold your weight’.” At which point Pinkie stopped to scratch her chin. “Or maybe she said to ‘Get hold of some soap’ and then something about logs and woping your id by a bouth…”

“Thank you, Pinkie Pie, but we quite get it,” said Rarity curtly, trotting up to the rope, looking at it curiously. She raised up a hoof and tapped it. A glint of green slid up her leg, and she found that it was stuck to the rope like it was nailed to her horseshoe.

“Umm, Applejack… Is this normal?”

“Ish Uurf Phody bagic,” Applejack explained. (“It’s Earth Pony magic,” Pinkie translated.) “Fold tie.”

“Fold tie―?”

And before she knew it, Rarity found herself flying into the air as Applejack galloped as quickly as she could away from the cliff-face, the rope pulling Rarity sharply upwards but not snapping the rock it wrapped around. The instant before the screaming Unicorn would strike the rock, the rope slackened, and she flew at just such an angle that she came to a stop just over the cliff itself, her madly clamboring hooves finding purchase and pulling her up. Rarity sat their hyperventilating for several moments, her life flashing before her eyes.

“SHE SAID ‘HOLD TIGHT’!” Pinkie Pie yelled gleefully up to Rarity.

“Ya okay up there, Rares?” Applejack called up, having spit out the end of the rope.

Rarity’s wits returned to her, and she glowered furiously over the edge of the cliff.

“Of all the… Applejack, you… you… you silly pony!”

“Hey, gotcha up there, didn’ it?” Applejack said with a crossed foreleg.

Rarity grit her teeth and did not deign to reply.

Rainbow Dash was the next up, darting up in a heartbeat and alighting beside the alabaster Unicorn. Fluttershy was slower, but settled daintily beside her fellow Pegasus some moments later.

“Now,” Applejack addressed Twilight, “all that’s left are you, Twi, and Pinkie Pi―”

But when the Unicorn and Earth Pony looked for said pink party pony, she was nowhere to be seen.

“Where’d she go?” Spike asked.

“Up here~” trilled a high voice from the ledge above, and Rarity, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy turned in shock to see Pinkie standing right behind them, beaming brightly. Twilight, Spike and Applejack gaped first up at Pinkie, then down at the rope.

Twilight sighed in frustration.

“I’ll never understand Pinkie magic.”

“Ah’d advise agains’ tryin’, sugarcube,” Applejack said lowly, picking up her rope again.

“I don’t think that will be necessary, Applejack,” Twilight said with a wave of her hoof. “Spike, hold on to me, tightly.”

“Sure thing… Mom,” Spike said, the last word emerging tentatively. Twilight felt another shoot of that warmth in her heart, and she smiled as he clutched her left foreleg. Her alicorn lit up, and she and Spike were shooting through that infinitely small point together, emerging in a flash of pink light on the cliff besides the four other mares.

Twilight looked down to Applejack. “Do you want me to hold onto that rope for you, Applejack?”

Applejack tilted her Stetson forward, a lopsided grin appearing on her muzzle.

“Ah don’ think that’ll be necessary, sugarcube,” she echoed, her hooves glowing as she slowly trotted towards the cliff-face. Memories of tumbling down a cliff re-entered Twilight’s mind as Applejack reached the mountainside and began to trot straight up the vertical face of stone. Twilight and Rarity found themselves gaping at this display of magic, while Pinkie bounced and wooted behind them.

In mere moments, faster than anypony would have thought, Applejack was on the cliff-face besides them. The green glow in her hooves faded, and she fell to her barrel, sweat beading on her forehead.

“Never tried standin’ firm while trottin’ fer so long b’fore,” she panted.

“‘Standing firm’?” Twilight asked.

“It’s a type of Earth Pony magic, though Ah don’t imagine ya hear of it too much in Canterlot,” replied Applejack, getting shakily back to her hooves. “Think of it this way, sugarcube: if yer Unicorn magic’s all about changin’ things, makin’ it so that things that aren’t so become so, then Earth Pony magic’s ‘bout keepin’ things rigid-like.”

Rainbow Dash snickered. “Rigid,” she whispered.

Applejack narrowed her eyes at Rainbow.

“That was amazing, Applejack!” Spike said. “You’re really strong and dependable!”

Applejack tilted her head away from Spike, her ears flattening.

“Aww, shucks, little fella,” she said humbly. “Ah just do what Ah can t’ help out the ponies who matter t’ me.”

“Why, Applejack,” Rarity cut in, “I had no idea you cared.”

Applejack replied, in an exaggeratedly civil tone, “Ah’m not th’ sorta pony who’d leave others behind t’ rot. Ah never leave anypony hangin’.”

Twilight cleared her throat, Spike climbing onto her back.

“Okay, everypony,” she said shortly. “One cliff down…”

As she looked up, though, and she took in the sheer scale of this undertaking, realizing that they had many megagross more hooves of vertical travel to cover, she gulped.

“…ten-gigagross to go.”

As it turned out, there were not ten-gigagross-and-one cliff-faces to traverse up the face of Alicorn’s Peak. Twilight kept count, and in actual fact, there were precisely four-megagross-one-gross-four-dozen-and-four cliff-faces up the side of Alicorn’s Peak between its lowest point and the main gates into Canterlot.

And not all of the cliff-faces were of uniform length, either. Some of them were barely a hoof’s width out from the mountainside, and many were clearly too treacherous for anypony, even the gangly Fluttershy, to dare place any weight upon them. More than once did Twilight have to resort to levitating the others one at a time to the nearest ledge that any of them felt were safe to tread upon. At one point, a ledge gave out from underneath Twilight herself, but she caught herself in her own dwimmer shimmer, winking safely back to the side of her companions.

It was bitter work, it lasted quite possibly a day and a half, and they had scrapes and bruises they would remember, but the long climb paid off at the sight of the Diurnann, the gates of Canterlot.

If the distant sight of Canterlot under NightMare Moon was sobering, seeing the changes to the Diurnann itself was downright heart-wrenching. Once a pair of great gates, one white and emblazoned with a yellow Sun, the other black emblazoned with a blue Moon, they were now a single wrought-iron gate, emblazoned with a single crescent Moon. The pearlescent parapets around the Diurnann were now highly fortified with black steel sharpened to deadly edges. Patrolling the perimeter were the silhouettes of several equine figures, the Unicorns among them shining beams of light from their alicorns, keeping watch for any intruders.

“So some ponies did turn traitor on us!” Rainbow Dash hissed.

“Things aren’t as they appear, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight whispered cautiously. “NightMare Moon has strange magic, and she probably swayed them with more than just words.”

She indicated a cluster of bushes off to the right of the road to the Diurnann, less than five-dozen paces from the gate.

“Follow me closely, on my signal,” Twilight breathed.

As soon as that one Guard turns around, Twilight thought tensely, watching a Unicorn passing his beam across the road towards the Diurnann. It would be close, only about two-point-seven seconds before another beam of light passed, but with any luck, all seven would make it.

One more moment…

Now!” she hissed sharply, and the six of them − Spike riding on Twilight’s back, watching Rarity − galloped with all speed through the dark space and across the road, ducking behind the shrubbery, just as the second beam of light slid across the path.

Twilight sighed in relief. That was entirely too close, but now they were past the main watchponies. Peering over the bush cautiously, Twilight caught a glimpse of the two ponies standing to either side of the Diurnann itself.

One was an Earth Pony stallion, with a dark-gray coat, deep-blue tail, blue irises, and… a faint blue glow in the whites of his eyes. His face was blank, expressionless. Now that Twilight recalled, she did see a faint bluish light in the eyes of the guardsponies as she looked out towards the Diurnann the first time. The other watchpony, nearer to their hiding spot, was a Bat Pony mare, with a pale-pink (almost white) coat, black tail-skirt that transitioned to dark-red at the tip, and yellow slitted eyes. Her tufted batlike ears were flat against her head, and she was glancing warily back and forth.

Most notably, though, the Royal Guard had had their armor changed when NightMare Moon took over. The armor was now a pitch-black, with jags like secateurs along the edges; you could shear your hooves off against it. A gleaming white crescent emblazoned each armored flank, and the helmets worn by the new Nightmare Guard were almost skull-like in their design. Their former armaments, spears, were replaced with lethal-looking polearms that looked like a cross between a halberd and a sickle.

Twilight ducked back down, cupping her muzzle in her hooves.

“NightMare Moon’s cast a hypnosis spell on several members of the Royal Guard,” she explained in a breathy whisper.

“She has? I was not aware such spellwork existed,” Rarity replied softly.

“Neither was I, and I’ve read more spellbooks than I’m sure anypony else here has read books.”

“I like whispering, too~” Pinkie cut in, grinning at the odd looks she received.

Twilight peered back out at the nearest guardspony. The wall beside her was decorated with a dark emblem of an Alicorn with bat wings spread wide, staring in profile off to the left of the viewer, her hooves alighting upon a wreath around a crescent moon. Engraved beneath were the ominous words Una Luna, Una Nocte, Una Regina.

“It looks like the Night Guard isn’t necessarily siding with NightMare Moon.”

“And why should they?” Rainbow Dash hissed.

“Because the Bat Ponies were created by the Queen of the Night.”

This was met with a succession of gasps and confused Huh?s. Twilight felt another explanation coming on.

“Over a dozen-and-three-gross years ago,” she began softly, “the Queen of the Night sought to create a race of ponies who would be awake to serve as her personal guard during the night. I’m still not entirely sure what she did, but the Bat Ponies…” Twilight nudged her alicorn in the direction of the shifty-eyed guard, “were the result of this yearning.”

“We Bat Ponies also can hear everything,” said a soft, musical-sounding voice.

Seven hearts leapt into seven throats. Looking nervously up, Twilight caught sight of the selfsame Bat Pony, staring down at them with an unreadable expression.

Then the Bat Pony smiled at them. Warmly.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I don’t mean to sound the alarm. You’re Twilight Sparkle, aren’t you? Queen Celestia’s star pupil?”

Twilight hesitated, but only for a moment. “Y-yes…?”

The Bat Pony guard heaved a deep sigh of relief. “Oh thank you Celestia. The night will finally end, and I can have some daylight to sleep!”

She removed her helmet, revealing a messy black mane that also transitioned to dark-red towards the tips.

“My name is Crescent Rose,” said the Bat Pony mare, “and I’ll help sneak you into Canterlot.”

CHAPTER v: A Generous Spirit

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“What?” Twilight caught herself; in her excitement, she’d almost forgotten about the hypnotized Guard pony.

Crescent Rose shushed Twilight, gesturing for the group to stay hidden behind the bush as she put her helmet back on. Peering through a small hole in the bush, Twilight saw Crescent Rose addressing the other guard keeping watch over the Diurnann.

“What was the disturbance?” he asked in a flat monotone.

“Nothing, really,” she said lightly. “Just a chameleon amongst the heliotropes.”

The guard nodded at this, seemingly satisfied with this answer. As he resumed his watch, Crescent Rose glanced back at the bush, and jerked her eyes towards the cliffs repeatedly. Realizing what it was that the Bat Pony was indicating, Twilight began to line up a spell matrix in her mind, her dwimmer shimmer lighting up.

“Twilight!” hissed Rainbow Dash.

“What in tarnation ‘re ya doin’?” asked Applejack.

“I need something to toss to distract the guards,” Twilight explained, “something that is sure to grab their attention.”

“How ‘bout a little thundercloud?” offered Rainbow Dash, producing one from a saddle-bag.

Twilight thought about it, scratching her chin with a hoof. “I don’t think so. Who’s to say if the thunder from such a small cloud will be enough to grab their attention?”

“If it’s attention you wanna get,” Pinkie said gleefully, “then how’s about a party popper?”

The pink Earth Pony produced one such item from her saddle-bag. It was relatively small, and Twilight had doubts as to its effectiveness.

“This is hardly any better than Rainbow’s cloud, Pinkie,” Twilight said shortly.

“Ah think ya got somethin’ there, Twilight,” whispered Applejack. “Ya ain’t heard one a’ Pinkie’s party poppers, have ya?”

“Well,” Twilight conceded, “Maybe if we had a whole bunch of them…”

“Oh, Ah don’t think so, Nellie,” Applejack replied. “Only if we wanna blow out ev’ry Bat Pony’s ear drums from here to Cloudsdale.”

Twilight looked down at Pinkie’s party popper. Could it really hold such a bang that one would be enough to catch the attention of all the Guards around the gates?

“Well, it can’t hurt, can it?” she said, taking the party popper in her dwimmer shimmer and winking it to a small distance from where they’d come up. She could see it, a small glimmer of pink magic just within earshot (hopefully) of the Diurnann.

“You might wanna cover your ears, everypony,” warned Pinkie Pie, doing just that.

“Better do as she says, Twi,” said Applejack, pulling her Stetson down tightly over her ears. Her three other fellow Ponyvillagers got down onto their bellies and pressed their ears to their heads.

Arching an eyebrow, Twilight decided to trust Applejack’s judgment and cover her own ears, ducking for cover just in case. With a quick little twist of her dwimmer shimmer, Twilight pulled the party popper’s string.

Even with her ears covered, it still felt like Twilight had heard a cannon blast. That was not a party popper; it was more like a party blaster! Twilight could even swear that she felt a miniscule sonic ripple across her muzzle as she lay in the dewy grass.

Removing her hooves from her ears, though, it seemed as though it had been a success.

“What in Equestria was that?” shouted Crescent Rose, sounding genuinely surprised. If she wasn’t a Guard, she’d do good on Bridleway! Twilight thought with a smile.

“It sounded like cannonfire!” shouted one of the hypnotized Unicorn guards… who somehow managed to shout in a monotone.

“Go investigate it!” ordered Crescent Rose. “I’ll keep watch over the Moongate!”

In an instant, every single member of the Nightmare Guard apart from Crescent Rose had abandoned her or his post, investigating off in the distance for a cannon that would turn out to not be there.

“Brilliant work, friends!” cheered Crescent Rose as the seven approached.

“So… how do we get in?” Rainbow Dash asked, looking up at the gate. It seemed to be wrought from a single piece, and had no apparent hinges.

Crescent Rose giggled to herself, extending her right wing, the one facing the gate. She wiggled her wing’s thumb teasingly, before touching her wing to the solid iron. To Twilight’s eye, trained to spot magic where it occurred, the iron of the Moongate seemed to go slightly less opaque, almost like it was smoke that was just beginning to clear.

“Quick, get through the gate, before they come back!” Crescent Rose hissed, gesturing with a forehoof for Twilight to pass through.

Rainbow Dash tilted her head, “I don’t see any― Wait, Twilight!”

Twilight had already galloped straight into the Moongate, passing through it with ease, as did Spike on her back. She felt no resistance, but an oppressive feeling came upon her as she passed, as though there were some will that did not desire her presence in the newly refurbished Canterlot.

Twilight trotted to the side, which caused Spike a small bit of confusion.

“Why did you move over here, Twilight?” he asked.

Twilight pointed with a cloven hoof to the gate, and immediately, the remaining five members of their party passed through at various speeds − Rainbow Dash first, Applejack second, Pinkie third, Rarity fourth, and Fluttershy last.

“Well, girls, now we’re in Canterlot,” Twilight said with a heavy air, looking down the street, taking in the darkened streetlamps and the empty windows. “Stay close to me; we’re gonna need to be careful not to trip any security alerts.”

“You might actually have an easier time than you think, Twilight Sparkle,” came a voice from the Moongate. Crescent Rose was passing through, the Moongate solidifying behind her as her leonine tail passed through.

“What are you doing here?” Twilight asked. “Won’t they get suspicious if you’re not there keeping an eye on the gates?”

Crescent Rose shrugged, “The Nightmare Guard is still young, so they won’t be in top form. The ones who NightMare Moon hypnotized will be too driven to summon backup to investigate that they won’t notice my absence, and the ones who she couldn’t hypnotize… well, they’ll be on our side anyway, won’t they?”

Twilight scratched her chin. “I guess…” She gestured towards Crescent Rose. “About how many of the Royal Guard have been mind-controlled by NightMare Moon?”

“Just under half, Twilight Sparkle,” said Crescent Rose. “Slightly more in the Day Guard, though, have fallen under NightMare Moon’s control. The Captain, however, is of his own mind.”

If Crescent Rose expected Twilight to respond favorably to her emphasis on the Captain, she was sorely disappointed. Twilight merely blinked and snapped, “What about him?”

Crescent Rose’s ears went back slightly.

“Well… it’s just… he’s in the prison block. I know his exact cell number. I thought that you’d want to free him…”

“NightMare Moon hasn’t hurt him, has she?”

“Well… no, but I’d thought since he’s―”

“Then he’s fine where he is,” Twilight said with a degree of cold finality that told the others that more than enough had been said on the subject.

“Umm, Twilight,” asked Fluttershy, the nearest to the lavender Unicorn and pale Bat Pony, “Shouldn’t we be on our way? Umm, I mean, if that’s what we’re doing?”

Twilight dug in her hooves. “You’re right. We have to find that book.”

“A book?” asked Crescent Rose. “Don’t you have the Elements of Harmony?”

“NightMare Moon shattered them,” Twilight answered darkly. “We need a book to figure out how to fix them again.”

“Which book?”

Studies on Pundamilia Culture.”

Crescent Rose tilted her head. “What would a book on Zebra culture have to do with the Elements of Harmony?”

“I’ll explain on the way,” Twilight said, pointing a hoof down the thoroughfare. “Let’s go, everypony!”

“I’ve always dreamed of going to Canterlot,” Rarity gasped, her breath misting in front of her muzzle in the chill of Canterlot’s air, “but never like this.”

“I never imagined that anything like this would happen,” Twilight said with a shiver, “not even in my worst nightmare.”

Once more, Twilight found her expectations of the horrors of the change to Canterlot to be lacking. The streets were empty, as she had seen upon passing through the rechristened Diurnann, but now that she was in the streets…

The windows all had the curtains drawn, and in many, Twilight could see the faint flicker of a fire burning. Any business she passed was more likely than not to have a banner across the door reading Business closed until further notice. There were propaganda posters declaiming NightMare Moon’s greatness and denouncing Queen Celestia as a tyrant. Twilight’s breath caught in her chest at the wanted posters set up of herself, Spike, and the five mares with her. They were plastered across walls, windows, lampposts, parked carriages… Each poster presented a startling likeness of each of their faces, representations of their cutie marks, and the heading WANTED for crimes against the Moon.

“It’s just awful,” Applejack murmured.

“I agree,” added Crescent Rose, her tufted ears flattening against her helmet. “We Bat Ponies have extremely sensitive eyes, so we were perfect for the Night Guard. But now, under NightMare Moon… there’s no daytime to rest in.”

“Really?” Rainbow Dash said, floating down lower to Crescent Rose’s eye level. “‘Cause I thought you Bat Ponies would’ve loved eternal night.”

“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight snapped. “I thought we talked about this!”

“Did you?” Crescent Rose asked Twilight, a little too curtly.

“Yeah, just last chapter,” Pinkie answered.

Silence met Pinkie’s remark.

“Ya git used to it,” Applejack said levelly. “Jus’ Pinkie bein’ Pinkie.”

“Just ignore Rainbow Dash,” Twilight assured Crescent Rose. “She doesn’t know when not to speak her mind.”

“I understand, and no, I want to hear it from her,” Crescent Rose said tartly, rounding on the cyan Pegasus, her own vampiric fangs bared at Rainbow Dash, who alighted on the ground with flat ears. “Why is it you think that I would like eternal night?”

“Well… ‘Cause… you Bat Ponies… you’re only really awake at night, so I thought…”

“Well, maybe you’d like if there was daytime eternal, wouldn’t you? I mean, you Pegasi are only really awake in the day!” snapped Crescent Rose, her bat wings flapping and her hind legs leaving the ground. Rainbow Dash fell onto her haunches, looking ashamed of herself, rubbing a forearm.

“Please, just… let it go,” Fluttershy stepped in. “She didn’t mean it.”

Crescent Rose sighed heavily, her eyes closing for a moment.

“I know. It’s just… I don’t like this everlasting night any more than you diurnals. You’re stuck in a world where you feel you must sleep all the time; we Bat Ponies are in a world where we have to constantly stay awake. I… I…”

Twilight put a hoof on the dark-maned Bat Pony’s shoulder.

“It’s okay. I understand.”

Crescent Rose smiled warmly at Twilight.

“Thank you, friend,” she said.

Twilight returned the smile. For how short a time she’d known this Bat Pony, she felt as though she had found a friend whom she could confide in. If it were not for Twilight’s (perhaps willful) lack of meaningful interaction with anypony in the Royal Guard, she felt as though she had missed a long and beautiful friendship. Two friends, Twilight Sparkle and Crescent Rose, spending long nights together, reading about the stars…

“Umm, excuse me?” Fluttershy interjected, rousing Twilight from her reverie. “I’m sorry, Twilight, but we really should be going, right?”

“Oh! Right! The book on Zebra culture!” Twilight said, cantering with renewed purpose toward Mane Square. The six ponies followed her.

Soon they entered the residential areas of Canterlot. These areas, normally bustling with so many of the upper crust, were now deserted. Abandoned parasols fluttered by on intermittent winds, and half-eaten meals languished at the tables of restaurants’ outdoor seatings.

“So, just to refresh my memory:” Crescent Rose queried, “this Studies on Pundamilia Culture… you think it has a hidden message from the Queen in it?”

“I’m quite positive, Crescent,” Twilight said with aplomb. “Queen Celestia hid the message in the first letter of each sentence, and it spelled out Studies on Pundamilia Culture.”

“And… do you know where to look?”

“Below her signature, the Queen wrote down the letters XXV. Those are the Old Equus numerals for 25, so I can assume that the message is either on page 25, or in Chapter 25.”

“I see…” said Crescent Rose pensively. “That explains why NightMare Moon has dispatched her most formidable Nightmare Guard troops to all library entrances.”

Twilight skidded to a stop, Spike sliding off of her back. She heard a good number of thumps behind her as the other five mares came to an abrupt stop, bumping into one another.

“The library is guarded?” Twilight gasped. “It’s never been guarded before, except for the Star Swirl The Bearded wing!”

Crescent Rose scratched the back of her head. “Well, a change in the crown, a change in the rules.”

Rainbow Dash snarled at Twilight, “Tell me that you saw this coming!”

Twilight looked up at Rainbow Dash, looking so genuinely hurt that the cyan Pegasus actually found herself backing up.

“I just thought…” Twilight hung her head, “that NightMare Moon had the same respect for books as the Queen. They did rule together for grossenturies…”

“Ah guess all that changed when the Queen a’ th’ Night did,” Applejack suggested.

Crescent Rose nodded darkly. “Once the Miasma took hold of her, the Night Queen and her power over the night sky became mere puppets.”

Twilight perked up, looking at the Bat Pony. “The Miasma?”

“You’ve heard of the Miasmata?” Crescent Rose asked.

Twilight nodded her head vaguely. “I’ve read about them somewhere, but… it’s been so long… and the details were vague…”

“You won’t find anything on the Miasmata in any decent book. The less said of them, the better,” Crescent Rose said bitterly. “The Miasmata are an abominable race of eldritch beasts from The Far Beyond. They feed by taking control of a lifeform and all of its powers, until the victim is exhausted. A victim can be more easily dominated if they are twisted by anger or rage.”

Twilight looked Crescent Rose in the eyes.

“And it’s your belief that the Queen of the Night was possessed by a Miasma?”

All Bat Ponies know it to be true,” Crescent Rose said, her eyes falling into shadow. “You diurnals don’t know what nameless things appear in Equestria while you sleep in bed. The nameless beasts that we, the Night Guard of Canterlot, stand firm against! And I will stand firm against any eldritch horror that tries to sit the throne, even if it masquerades as our Queen of the Night!”

She finished this declaration with a stomp of her forehooves and a flair of her bat-wings.

Then she pulled off her helmet, holding it gingerly under a wing.

“Excuse me now while I strip myself of this armor,” she said. “We need speed, and this Nightmare Guard armor is too restricting.”

And with that she began to fiddle with a strap under one of her wings.

“Please give her some decency, girls!” cried Rarity, trying to drag the nearest mare − Applejack − into an alleyway.

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Rarity,” Applejack said slowly, “But we don’t ordinarily wear clothes.”

“Says the only pony in the group who even wears clothes!” Rainbow Dash cut in with a sassy smile.

Pinkie giggled to herself at Rainbow Dash’s statement, pronking into the alleyway with the Applejack and Rarity. “I see what you did there, Dashie~”

Fluttershy followed after, a wing drawn up over her face to preserve Crescent Rose’s “decency”. Twilight trotted alongside the yellow Pegasus.

“It’s alright, Fluttershy,” Twilight said lightly. “We’ll be on our way soon.”

“Oh. It’s… not a big deal, Twilight,” said Fluttershy dismissively. “You don’t have to feel like you have to rush on my account. I’m perfectly fine with a reasonably slow pace… if that’s alright with you…”

“I always told you to quit bein’ such a doormat,” Rainbow Dash said to Fluttershy, crossing her forelegs in front of her chest as she hovered over the rest of their posse.

“Oh. Okay. I’m sorry, Dashie,” Fluttershy said meekly, ears drooping as she rubbed a forearm.

“See? There it is again! You gotta stop saying Sorry about everything, too!”


Rainbow Dash growled in frustration, but Pinkie couldn’t help but to giggle at the irony of apologizing about apologizing too much.

A metal something the size of a pony’s torso flung itself down the alleyway, landing just at Twilight’s hooves. In strode Crescent Rose, flicking her mane back and forth. Her cutie mark was of a thorny red rose, framed by a yellow crescent moon.

“That feels much better!” Crescent Rose sighed as she stretched her forelegs, then her hind legs. “I can’t believe that NightMare Moon thinks that this is a good set of armor to wear!” She gave it a none-too-gentle smack with a forehoof. She looked up at Twilight. “So, shall we go?”

Twilight nodded sharply.

“Let’s go.”

Eventually, the Royal Castle came into view as they entered Mane Square. The towering monument to Queen Celestia, set at the very edge of Canterlot so that it may overlook the Saddle Valley almost a mile below, had dramatically changed since Twilight had last seen it. No longer was the carven white stone visible, nor were the minarets and parapets lined with gold. Black steel, sharpened to razor edges, plated across the entirety of the surface of every tower. The highest towers, the Towers of the Sun and Moon, were now fused together into a single makeshift tower, a large gleaming white crescent-shaped stone floating in the space above them, rotating slowly around and showing different faces over the course of a minute.

Mane Square had changed as well. Gone were the tapestries showing the Sun and the Moon hovering over Queen Celestia, and the glorious golden statue of the queenly Alicorn at the middle of the square was gone as well. In place of the tapestries of old were newer, darker ones, displaying the Moon floating on high, with a fanged NightMare Moon crushing the Sun under an armored hoof. The statue of Queen Celestia was substituted with a demonic statue of her usurper, rearing and baring her teeth, carved from a solid block of icy obsidian.

“Are the Royal Archives inside the palace?” Rarity asked, agape at how different Canterlot looked from how she imagined.

“No, it isn’t,” Twilight answered. “They’re down a side-street from here, down that way.” Twilight pointed her alicorn down a street to their right… and could make out the shapes of patrolling guards. She cursed.

“Crescent Rose, dear, do you think you could ask those ruffians to stand at ease and―?”

“No can do, Miss Rarity,” replied the Bat Pony. “I’m sorry, but I can’t pull rank on these guards. They’ve been given explicit orders to not abandon these posts unless NightMare Moon herself gives the okay. All of them are Bat Ponies, to see in the absolute darkness, and are under hypnosis as well, so we can’t appeal to their better instincts.”

“Pony-feathers!” swore Applejack. “Ain’t there anything we can do ta throw ‘em off?”

Twilight rubbed a fetlock under her chin.

“Another party-popper?” Pinkie offered, holding one up in a forehoof.

Crescent Rose shook her head. “We’ve already done that once. We can’t afford to rely too heavily on one trick.”

“Crescent Rose is right,” Twilight said. “We’ll need to use something else. Not sound this time, but… smell? No. Maybe sight?”

“Ooh! Ooh!” Pinkie pronked. “I got fireworks!” She produced a bundle of firecrackers from one of her saddle-bags that looked at least twice as big as both put together.

“I don’t think so, Pinkie,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “Then we’ll have a hard time getting in to the Archives.”

“Aww,” Pinkie sighed, sinking to her haunches. “But I like fireworks.”

“I think that fireworks are frightening,” Fluttershy breathed fearfully. “They scare so many of my animals…”

“Ah don’ reckon they’ll be lured from their posts bah mah apple wares,” Applejack mused aloud.

“Do you think thunder scares them?”


Pinkie clucked like a chicken and hid underneath Applejack. The group looked up sharply, and caught sight of a storm cloud circling around the minarets of the Royal Castle, sending off lightning bolts intermittently.

“Keeps the guards on edge, so that they don’t sleep,” Crescent Rose explained. “NightMare Moon is running us ragged. She needs to go down!”

“But what can we do?” Rarity asked. “Our options have run dry, we cannot figure out how to sneak past some hypnotized ruffian guards, and my complexion is being ruined by this lack of true sunlight! Oh, walking a razor’s edge are we!” Rarity fell onto her back, throwing a hoof to her forehead dramatically.

Her eyes blinked back open.

“I-dee-ah!” she trilled, her dwimmer shimmer lighting up and opening up one of her saddle-bags.

“What are you doing, Rarity?” Twilight asked.

This!” Rarity said loudly, her dwimmer shimmer drawing out from within her saddle-bag a single straight-edge razor. “Crescent Rose, darling, you said that all of the guardsponies down that particular street are your Bat Pony kin, did you not?”


“And, if I recall correctly, Bat Ponies are typically sensitive to light, right?”

“They are…” Crescent Rose’s eyes widened. “Ohh!”

“Rarity, you’re a genius!” Twilight said brightly.

Rarity shrugged, “Well, I just happen to have a flash of inspiration every now and again…”

Twilight took the razor in her dwimmer shimmer, twisting it around, inspecting the way that light reflected off of the polished blade.

“You’ve really taken good care of this razor, Rarity,” Twilight said sincerely.

Rarity waved a hoof dismissively. “Oh well, you know…”

“So, we have the reflector,” Crescent Rose said. “But what of a light source?”

Twilight put a hoof to her chin for the umpteenth time in the past few hours, casting her eyes around Mane Square. There was nothing about the square which could conceivably output the sort of light they would need to incapacitate some Bat Ponies with. And it was difficult to think with those random shouts of thunder from up above…

“Twilight! Use that!” Rainbow Dash shouted, pointing up at the storm cloud, which was crackling with lightning.

Twilight’s eyes lit up.

“Of course! Lightning! Rainbow Dash, do you think you can fly up and grab off a piece of that storm cloud?”

Rainbow Dash smirked, “I don’t think so. I know so!”

And with a quick salute, she bolted off towards the storm cloud, dodging side to side to avoid being struck by bolts of lightning, before thrusting her forehooves into the dark cloud. Her wings flashed cerise, the light traveling down her forelegs and into the cloud, and a small clump about the size of Rainbow Dash herself came off. In moments, Rainbow Dash was back with her group, resting on a miniature storm cloud. Twilight could not help but to think of the moment when she’d first met this Pegasus, when she’d gotten knocked into mud, drenched to the bone and subsequently blow dried.

“Ready when you are, TS,” Rainbow grinned.

Twilight’s horn flashed pink, and the cloud the cyan Pegasus sat on began to shimmer the same color as well. Rainbow flapped off of it in surprise, but the pink glow had already faded. She tentatively alighted back upon the cloud.

“What was that about?” she asked.

“I cast a silencing spell on the storm cloud, so that we’re not deafened by the thunder going off right next to our ears,” explained Twilight.

“Good thinkin’, Twilight!” Applejack piped in.

Twilight nodded shortly.

“Okay, everypony, this is the plan: I will use Rarity’s razor here to reflect the light of the lightning bolts into the eyes of the Nightmare Guard. Given how sensitive their eyes are to light, it should be enough to incapacitate them long enough for us to pass.”

“But won’t it take a while to do that for each and every guardspony?” Fluttershy asked.

“And not to mention that any one of us could be hit by a lightning bolt, Twi,” Rainbow Dash added.

Twilight hesitated. The two of them raised good points. Lightning was not something that even master weather-ponies could control; it was simply directed. She would be making a big gamble with her fellow ponies’ lives if she carried out the plan as-is. Also, the idea of flashing each guard’s eyes individually was a perilous notion; if any one guard noticed one of her or his others going down, their stealthy entry was for nothing.

An idea flashed through Twilight’s mind.

“Rainbow Dash, get off of the cloud for a moment,” she said shortly.

Cocking a rainbow eyebrow, Rainbow Dash nonetheless heeded Twilight’s request.

“Rarity,” Twilight addressed her fellow Unicorn with a heavy tone, “I’m afraid your razor is going to have to become a lightning rod.”


“My new plan is this: to create a magical bond between the lightning cloud and your razor, so that lightning is only attracted to the razor. I will levitate the razor past as many guards as I can, and then Rainbow Dash will make the lightning cloud discharge. The lightning bolt will shoot out to the razor, crossing the paths of each guard’s gaze, blinding them long enough − hopefully − for us to slip past.”

Rarity looked at her razor with bereavement. For a moment.

“I gave you that razor, Twilight. Use it however you will,” she said with an air of dignity.

“But, Rarity. Keeping clean-shaven is important to you.”

“I must insist, Twilight. I would rather see you use that razor to save the day − literally − than see myself with a clean muzzle for the duration of this emergency.” She smiled sheepishly. “Besides… I could always just buy a new one.”

Applejack palmed her face in her hoof. “An’ ya didn’t think a’ this before we left Ponyville?”

Twilight gaped at Rarity.

“Rarity… I didn’t know you were so… generous with your things.”

“Come now, Twilight, darling. Do you think that I would be so selfish as to withhold something from a friend, when I know they really need it? And, if you recall, I didn’t charge you a single unbit for your fittings at Carousel Couture.”

“Why was that?”

“You were already marred by such a visually abrasive manestyle. I was absolutely loath to charge you for what was a greater inconvenience for you than for me.”

“But… those dresses! I have to pay you back for those!”

“Oh, pish-posh, darling. Most of those looked dreadful on you in hindsight. I have already dismantled them and disposed of what I could not use anymore.”

“So I do owe you money for them!”

“Twilight, please stop raising your voice. It’s unbecoming of a mare to shout. And no, I insist that you not pay me for those dresses. The pursuit of a true artist is in only one form of repayment: the satisfaction of the customer. Tell me, Twilight: did you like the last dress you tried on?”

Twilight thought back on it. She had not given it altogether that much thought at the time; she was altogether more occupied with trying to prevent NightMare Moon’s return. But now, looking back on the dress…

“I loved it, Rarity. Really. I did. Granted, the emerald was a bit of an odd choice, but… I never thought of myself as much of a fashion connoisseur, but even I could tell that it was a well-made dress.”

Rarity’s entire demeanor became as serene as a swan, and the smile on her face made Twilight realize just why Spike had been so enamored of the alabaster Unicorn.

“Thank you, Twilight. That is more than enough payment for me. Consider the two of us even.”

Twilight blinked. How could one pony be so beautiful inside and out? Rarity really was, well, a rarity.

“Now,” Rarity said with a new, sharper tone, “I think we’ve wasted enough time on pleasantries. Shall we proceed with the plan?”

Blinking, Twilight realized that they were still standing in Mane Square, that the night was still eternal, and that Applejack and the others were waiting impatiently. (Not Spike, though; he was staring at Rarity in absolute lovestruck awe.) Rainbow Dash had actually landed beside Fluttershy, resting on her haunches and folding her forelegs tightly, tapping a hind hoof.

“Oh!” she said sheepishly. “Right!”

As the appropriate spell matrix lined up in the nerve clusters in Twilight’s alicorn, her horn began to pulse with pink light, rather than glowing steadily. After a few seconds, the razor began to pulse with the same pink light, as did the cloud. At first, the pulses from the razor and cloud were out of sync with each other, but slowly, they began to fall into rhythm. In moments, the pulses slowed, and matched each other perfectly. The pulses of Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer faded out, and the light radiating from the razor and the cloud slowly dimmed as well.

“Now, the lightning should be attracted to the razor, and the razor alone,” Twilight explained. “Get ready, everypony.”

She levitated the razor down the street leading to the Royal Canterlot Archives, taking care not to let it pass the eyeline of the patrolling Nightmare Guard. The street itself was less than one gross paces long from Mane Square to the Royal Archives, but the guards’ patrol pattern allowed for a very short time frame when all of the guards were looking at the same spot.

“Okay, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said lowly, sweat beading around her alicorn. “Send off a lightning bolt on my mark.”

The razor lowered into position, just in front of the double-doors into the Royal Archives.

Now, we wait for the guards to fall into position…

The guards’ patrol was intended, Twilight imagined, to maximize the amount of time each of the guards was keeping watch over the road to the Archives. However, the semi-erratic pattern was still a pattern nonetheless, and very soon Twilight was beginning to tick off the seconds to the magic moment…

“Now!” she hissed to Rainbow Dash, who bucked the storm cloud as hard as she could.

A blinding and silent bolt of lightning shot down the street and connected instantly with the razor (Rarity winced as though struck). In an instant, all six of the guards, who were all facing their opposite side of the cobbled road, threw hooves or wings over their eyes, hissing and recoiling from the light, darting into the dark archways of the buildings flanking the road.

“It worked!” Twilight cheered, her dwimmer shimmer hold on the razor dissipating.

“Alright!” said Spike, perched on Twilight’s back, with a clenched claw.

“Yeehaw!” Applejack called out as she reared up.

“Whoo-hoo!” Pinkie squealed as she jumped into the air, wiggling her hooves.

“Yeah, that was, like, a super bolt right there!” grinned Rainbow Dash.

Yay,” Fluttershy cheered softly.

“No time for celebrating, let’s just go!” Crescent Rose shouted, already at a full gallop.

Without another word, Twilight took off at full speed after the Bat Pony, the five other mares following suit. As they passed the collapsed guards, Twilight could have sworn that she heard Crescent Rose uttering hasty apologies to her friends lying on the cobblestone. They barely stopped at the gates of the Royal Archives, Rarity slowing down only slightly to scoop the razor in her dwimmer shimmer before the seven of them galloped into the double-doors being held open by Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer. As soon as the last one’s tail had cleared the threshold, Twilight Sparkle slammed the doors shut, leaving them in the abandoned candlelit foyer of the Royal Archives.

Wasting no time, Twilight began lining up the spell matrix of another spell. In moments, the glowing pink shape of a keyhole had appeared over the door.

“There,” she panted as Spike hopped off of her back. “We’ve bought ourselves some time. Now we need to spread out and look for… the book…”

As Twilight turned around from the door and looked at the six mares and the drake, she noticed that their expressions were all of awe save Crescent Rose’s.

To Twilight, the sight of the Royal Archives was always amazing; after all, it was the single largest place to find a book in many grosses of miles. Twilight even doubted that the Manehattan Public Library was quite so well-stocked as the Canterlot Royal Archives… or at least, if it didn’t beat anypony in quantity of books, the Royal Archives at least had them beat in quality.

Regardless of what other libraries stocked, the Royal Archives were massive. The main chamber, just beyond the abandoned desk normally maintained by a librarian, was massively long and wide, and almost five-gross hooves to the ceiling, with bookshelves running at least that high. Almost all of the books at that level would have to be retrieved by a Pegasus attendee. And if one could not find a subject one wanted in the main chamber (unlikely), then one would search in the adjoining Restricted Section (with prior approval by the librarian, of course), or in the Star Swirl The Bearded Wing, which covered all of the successes (and failures) of the noted inventor of grosses of spells.

On any other day, it would have made Twilight’s day to come to the Royal Archives and attempt to solve some sort of riddle or cipher of the Queen’s. But this was not any other day.

“Okay, everypony,” Twilight said, gearing up to gallop to the ‘St’ section. “Take the ‘St’ section in pieces. Spike, Applejack, Pinkie, you take the bottom shelves. Rarity and I will take the next highest. Rainbow, Fluttershy, Crescent, you three handle the top shelves. Got it?”

“Got it!” came the six-voiced reply.

“Okay… Go!”

And they were off. But even with the six of them, and the fact that their search was narrowed to the ‘St’ section, there were still dozens upon grosses of books in that section alone. As fastidious as the staff of the Archives was about keeping things as close to alphabetical order as equinely possible, some errors still slipped through the cracks, and Twilight knew they had to account for this. Granted, the book Studies on Pundamilia Culture was likely to be close to the bottom, as there were few St words that were below Studies. Well, there were studio, study, stun, stunt, sturdy, sturgeon, style, Styx

Twilight rubbed the base of her alicorn, placing Stunning Spells for the Learned Magic-Maker on the nearest table. Thinking of so many St words was giving her a migraine. Was this what it was like to think like Pinkie…?

Pinkie bounced up and down on her tail like a spring, pulling out a book, looking at its cover, and placing it back on the shelf before she’d even fallen back to the floor. Applejack pulled books out with her teeth − spitting out dust − and inspected the cover before putting it back where she’d found it. Spike dusted off book covers with a brusque wave of his claw, though the dust tickled the insides of his nose and he had to sneeze fire… thankfully turning away from the shelves and only igniting an empty table. Rarity took down one book at a time in her dwimmer shimmer, while Twilight tried the same with at least a dozen apiece. Up above, Rainbow Dash was apparently pulling out books pell-mell, placing them back anywhere there was space. Crescent Rose used her wings to blow off dust, allowing her to inspect the titles on the spines. Fluttershy apparently had trouble keeping a grip on some of the thicker books, as Twilight had to catch many books in her dwimmer shimmer and set them aside for reorganization.

It seemed like an insurmountable task, and they had a narrow window of time. It seemed like they would likely be caught before anypony found the book. But mere moments after Twilight heard a tiny mouselike squeak from up above…

“Found it!” cried out Rainbow Dash, gesturing towards Fluttershy, who was holding up a musty old tome, four-gross hooves off of the tiled floor. “It was between Standards for Standard Carriages and Stark and Strand: A History of Two Great Pony Barristers. …Y’know, standard egghead flair.”

Ignoring this latest crack, Twilight smiled up at Fluttershy as she descended with Rainbow Dash and Crescent Rose, the book held in her forehooves. The cover, with faded black stripes and stained white stripes almost indistinguishable, read Masquerade’s Studies on Pundamilia Culture: Abridged Edition.

Twilight’s eye twitched.

“‘Abridged’?” Twilight breathed. “There was no unabridged up there?”

“Afraid not, Twilight Sparkle,” said Crescent Rose, alighting next to her Unicorn comrade. “I’ve checked every book cover, and it seems that this was the only book that was misplaced before we arrived.” She leveled a glare at Rainbow Dash, who replied by pulling down an eyelid and sticking out her tongue.

Sighing, Twilight placed the abridged Studies on Pundamilia Culture on the table, inspecting the table of contents. The abridged version contained only two-dozen-and-three chapters, 23 chapters. Grunting in frustration, Twilight rifled through the pages to page 25. Lying between pages 24 and 25 was a folded up piece of parchment that was, compared to the dry yellow of the book’s pages, relatively recent. It bore a simplistic, almost foallike, depiction of the Sun − a circle with eight lines pointing out from its sides.

In excitement, Twilight grabbed the parchment in her dwimmer shimmer and unfolded it. At last! Celestia’s secret to unlocking the secret of the Elements of Harmony! NightMare Moon would be defeated within the hour!

469 - 27 - 53

481 - 31 - 51

472 - 27 - 45

487 - 11 - 3X

473 - 6 - 37

48X - 35 - 10

485 - 28 - 36

488 - 13 - 59

676 - 24 - 4E

48E - 4 - 42

46E - 14 - 43

462 - 1X - 49

Twilight’s eye twitched. Twice.

“…That’s it?” Rainbow Dash groaned. “That’s what we went to all this trouble for? For just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo numbers?”

“That don’t look like no mumbo-jumbo to me,” Applejack said, pointing at the numbers. “They look mighty like coordinates t’ mah eyes.”

“Coordinates to where?” Crescent Rose pondered aloud.

“That’s an awful lot of numbers for coordinates, though,” said Fluttershy.

“Perhaps we are to travel to a large number of locations to extract the secrets of the Elements…?” Rarity thought out loud.

“That’s an awful lot of traveling!” Spike added.

“Traveling to one-gross-and-a-dozen-and-three places would take us a really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really―”

PINKIE!” Twilight shouted, snapping out of her stupor. Her mane was beginning to curl oddly at the ends.

“…really, really long time?” Pinkie finished lamely. “I really wanted to say really one-gross-and-a-dozen-and-three times, Twilight.”

“And why is that?”

“Because that cipher is exactly one-gross-one-dozen-and-three lines long.”

Twilight’s eyes widened, before she practically threw herself onto the page again. Sure enough, by her count, there were exactly 113 lines of numbers. But more than that…

“What makes you figure it’s a cipher, Pinkie?” Rarity asked.

“Just a hunch,” Pinkie shrugged.

“A hunch,” Twilight said with a bright smile, “that may be correct! Pinkie, you’re a genius!”

“No, I’m not. I’m a party pony!” And with that, Pinkie stood on her hind legs and threw her forelegs into the air with a boisterous grin, confetti erupting from seemingly nowhere as she spread her forelegs wide.

Twilight arched an eyebrow at this display.

“Mom… err, Twilight,” Spike asked, tugging at Twilight’s tail lightly, “I think I overheard you and Queen Celestia talking about ciphers before. But what is a cipher?”

“I’m glad you asked, Spike,” Twilight said with a smirk; answering questions was one of her favorite hobbies. “A cipher is a way of concealing a message in plain text, so that nopony but the pony with the code can read the cipher. This particular cipher,” Twilight held up the Queen’s cipher in her dwimmer shimmer, “looks to me to be the Bookworm Cipher.”

Rainbow Dash snorted, hastily disguising her laugh as a cough.

Twilight glowered at the Pegasus. “Laugh if you must, but I’ll have you know that Bookworm was a very learned scholar on linguistics.”

“He’d need to be, with a name like that,” Rainbow said in a strained voice, trying hard not to split her sides.

Sighing, Twilight continued.

“Anyway, the Bookworm Cipher works like this: the first number here:” the 469 on the first line lit up pink, “represents a page in a specific book; the second number:” the 27 next to that lit up, “represents a line on that specific page; and the third number:” the 53 lit up, completing the line, “represents a letter in that particular line.”

Noticing that her audience’s eyes seemed to be glazing over, even those of the normally quite willful Applejack, Twilight cleared her throat.

“Basically, on page 469, the 27th line down from the top, and the 53rd letter in the line, will be the first letter of the message the Queen has left us.”

Rainbow Dash groaned loudly.

“So! Many! Secret! Messages!” she shouted, her shouts echoing all around the Royal Archives’ main chamber. She thrashed her legs about wildly with each emphasized word. “Why in Tartarus doesn’t Celestia just tell us ‘Here’s how to use the Elements, don’t point ‘em at your face’? Why does it have to be all secrets all the time with you eggheads?”

“Calm your silly little self down, Dashie!” squealed Pinkie, squishing Rainbow’s muzzle between her rubbery forehooves. “It’s not a secret; it’s a surprise! Right, Twilight?”

Twilight scratched under her mane, just over her withers. “Well, if you want to put it that way…”

The lavender Unicorn looked back down at Studies on Pundamilia Culture, eyes narrowed.

“But I don’t understand,” she said uneasily. “The cipher indicates pages in the high four-grosses, but this book is less than three-gross pages long. What book does the cipher go to?”

“What book, indeed.”

Eight hearts quickly froze to ice, spinning to face the entry from the foyer.

NightMare Moon was striding in, along with a veritable army of her Nightmare Guard. She was not wearing the same simple armor she was on the night of her return. She wore a fuller, more complete armor set, polished black. Ear-guards stretched up and curled behind her alicorn like the horns of the Great Devil Lord of Tartarus. Narrow plates stretching from a steel saddle formed a ribcage-shaped barrier over her barrel. A black velvet cloak, bejeweled with white diamonds that shone like stars, draped over her hip and around her flanks. On her chest glowed a blue crescent-shaped gem, engraved with ancient runes of power. Her left foreleg was drawn up and slightly tucked under, in a sick parody of Queen Celestia’s usual stance when addressing her subjects.

“Well, are you surprised to see me?” NightMare Moon hissed, her mouthful of fangs bared in the candlelight.

“Not really,” Twilight snarled, already going through a cognitive list of spells that could get them out of Canterlot’s boundaries quickly so that they could wink out to somewhere safe. “And it seems an awful lot like you were expecting us as well.”

NightMare Moon chuckled, a chilling sound, as she began to prowl amidst the seven ponies and one drake, uninvited into her city. Up close, Twilight only just realized how tall NightMare Moon was; she had to be at least a dozen-and-a-half hooves tall at the withers.

“Why, of course I expected you and your subordinates to show up here in my city Endymion,” she said lowly, her misty mane caressing the muzzle of each pony that she passed by. “And it seems you’ve made… well, quite the impression upon my loyal guardsponies.”

“Loyalty, mah apple-spotted behind!” Applejack shouted, stomping a hoof with such force that the tiled floor actually cracked from the force. “Yer just a no-good tyrant, bendin’ other ponies t’ yer will like that!”

NightMare Moon’s eyes fell upon the Earth Pony farmer, and Applejack saw her death in those eyes, the dark Alicorn’s mane and tail splitting into tendrils as though to strangle her. Applejack found herself backing away with flattened ears.

“You would do well to hold your tongue,” the black Alicorn growled. “You have already squandered my goodwill in sparing you by sneaking into my capital and assaulting my Nightmare Guard. You will join the Captain of the Royal Guard in the prison block, and there will you rot, never to even see starlight or moonlight. Guards!”

The Nightmare Guard platoon behind Nightmare Moon saluted as one, moving to either side of their dark queen, moving to capture the seven conspirators…

Crescent Rose bolted in front of Twilight, Spike and the Ponyvillagers, standing firm before the Nightmare Guard.

“Ahh, Lieutenant,” NightMare Moon said in a lilting hiss. “I was wondering why guards reported your armor as being found discarded in an alleyway.”

“I won’t let you take these ponies prisoner!” Crescent Rose shouted.

The Alicorn tyrant chuckled evilly.

“Oh, I’m not going to take them captive,” she said in a low, almost seductive tone. Her mane billowed out, a fragment splitting off and descending towards Crescent Rose’s head. “You are.”

Looking up in surprise, Crescent Rose tried to dispel the cloud with her bat-wings, but it engulfed her head, forcing itself into her head through her ears, nostrils and tear-ducts. Her pupils narrowed to even thinner slits.

Crescent!” Twilight cried, reaching out for her Bat Pony ally. Crescent Rose turned towards Twilight with a stumble; the whites of her eyes were glowing a faint blue, a deep blue mist seeping from the edges of her eyes, running with fresh tears.

“There now, my pet,” cooed NightMare Moon.

“Let her go!” bellowed Rainbow Dash, attempting to bolt at the black Alicorn. The pink and periwinkle dwimmer shimmers of Twilight and Rarity kept her beating her wings in place. “Hey! Let me go!”

NightMare Moon’s bat wings unfurled ominously, “You’d do well to obey your friends, you brash one. You shall only live by one creed from now on: Praise the Everlasting Night!” Thunder cracked outside at that moment, lightning flashing through the skylights.

“Now, my little pony slave,” NightMare Moon said with a casual air, “Place your seven ‘friends’ here under arrest, would you kindly?”

Crescent Moon stood dumbstruck before them, her ears flickering up and down.

“I…” she breathed. “I…”

The Bat Pony jammed her eyes shut, the miasmic mist in her eyes dissipating. When she opened her eyes, they were completely normal, but before Twilight could so much as squeak in joy, Crescent Rose hissed to her, “Listen to me. Run, and don’t look back.”

Twilight hesitated. Was Crescent Rose suggesting what Twilight thought she was suggesting…?

“I’m a soldier; I’m expendable. If you fall here, so does any chance of the world going back to what it was. Just go.”

Applejack whispered in Twilight’s ear, “Ah hate t’ say this, but Ah think we should do as she says.”

Twilight was loath to agree, but she had to admit she saw the logic in this. She wanted to get Crescent Rose out as well, so that they might all plot against NightMare Moon. But if they failed here, then the Elements would be robbed from them, and they would rot in prison cells, never to see light ever again.

I never thought I’d hate logic quite like this, Twilight thought bitterly, but she gave a nod to Crescent Rose.

“Well?” NightMare Moon said to Crescent Rose impatiently.

“As a Soldier of the Night,” she said furiously, turning towards a baffled NightMare Moon, “I will live by this creed: Day and Night are equals. It is preposterous to suggest that the aspirations of the Queen of Everlasting Night should endure. That the night is there after a long bright day is a soothing thought, however. To believe that the night can surpass the day is a mere breezie-tale.”

NightMare Moon snarled, “Do not utter that archaic creed before the Queen of Everlasting Night!” Her alicorn lit up cyan, purple bolts of lightning lancing at Crescent Rose, who took flight, circling around NightMare Moon. At this point, Twilight scooped Spike up onto her back and led the herd of mares around the corrupted Queen of the Night.

Seize them! Do not let them escape!

The controlled guards stood at attention, the Earth Ponies standing firm, the Unicorns lowering their horns, and the Pegasi and Bat Ponies linking their wings together, attempting to block their path of escape.

“Spike?” Twilight said with a smirk.

Spike took a deep breath and exhaled violently at the guards, a twister of bright-green fire shooting towards them. Instinctively, the guards parted from the torrent of flames. Casting a dwimmer-shield before her, Twilight led the galloping charge down the path of fire, towards the exit.

Twilight’s shield shattered against a bright-cyan dwimmer-shield, Twilight herself skidding to a stop just in front of NightMare Moon’s shield. She felt muzzle tingling at how close she was to the shield, just as her fellow ponies skidded to a stop behind her.

“Great,” mused Rainbow Dash, watching the Nightmare Guard recovering and gathering around them, looking quite fearful with the green flames dancing around them. “Now what do we do?”

“I’ll try to break the enchantment on this shield,” Twilight said, spell matrices already lining up in her mind. “In the meantime, try to keep those guards at bay!”

“Easier said than done, darling!” Rarity said as she aimed a buck at a Unicorn guard diving at her, striking him in the chin and sending him stumbling.

“The Nychthemeron keeps the world in balance and harmony!” Crescent Rose bellowed to the dark Alicorn queen, a twister beginning to form around her foe. “The idea that the Sun should never rise because of a bitter heart is a delusion meant to keep me living in fear!”

“You know nothing of Fear, you foal!” NightMare Moon shrieked in return, trying to get a bead on Crescent Rose, her own bat-wings flapping in a counter to the recalcitrant Bat Pony.

Applejack lassoed a Pegasus guard by the legs, tripping her up. When she tried to fly up and tackle the farmer mare, she was met with a headbutt to the jaw, and she was out like a light.

Rainbow Dash utilized her patent-pending Rainblowdry to stir up a storm amongst the advancing Guard. At least a dozen were caught up in her makeshift twister, flailing about and trying to break free.

Crescent Rose continued her creed, “The night freezes, so the Sun shall keep us warm, but the night offers freedom that the day denies! We walk in the daylight, but we would burn under its rays over time! The Sun is not greater than the Moon in a world without eternal night! The Moon shall only gleam in subtlety! It is a ridiculous notion―”

An amethyst bolt struck Crescent Rose in the side, and she fell to the floor with a cry. The Nightmare Guard turned to face the fall of their queen’s foe, as did the six mares and drake she had smuggled into the city.

“CRESCENT!” Twilight screamed, wanting to gallop to her friend, but the collapse of the cyan field behind her tore her up inside. Crescent Rose was in mortal danger, but Twilight and her comrades needed to escape armed with new information. The smell of singed fur filled the air.

“It is a ridiculous notion…” Crescent Rose continued defiantly, “to think we should all live without the Nychthemeron, the cycle of Sun and Moon!”

NightMare Moon snorted loudly, clouds of black smoke emerging from her nostrils.

“The Moon cares not for the barking of a dog,” she growled gutturally. “I will only give you this order one more time: Take them down to the cell block.”

“No!” Crescent Rose snarled, pawing at the ground, exhaling sharply from her nose. “You can’t make me!”

“But I can unmake you,” NightMare Moon hissed, her mane swelling tremendously and reaching numerous tendrils towards the rebellious Bat Pony, who was snatched up before she knew what was happening. Crescent Rose shrieked in pain, before the miasmic cloud of NightMare Moon’s mane completely engulfed her. In a panic, Twilight fired a dwimmer-beam at the shield NightMare Moon had raised, but the cyan field held firm. Crescent Rose’s screams faded away, and the dark queen’s mane shrunk to its original size.

Crescent Rose was gone. There was no body to be found.

Twilight’s jaw was agape, her leonine tail gone slack. Crescent Rose couldn’t be… she just couldn’t be…!

“C’mon, Twilight!” Rainbow Dash shouted. “We gotta get outta here!”

On instinct, Twilight obeyed the flight of her fight-or-flight response, galloping past the desk in the Royal Archives foyer and out the double-doors into the streets beyond.

The street leading back to Mane Square was now full to bursting with Earth Pony and Unicorn guardsponies. The skies above were filled with Pegasi and Bat Ponies. Every single one of them looked to be under NightMare Moon’s mind control.

“We’re surrounded!” gasped Twilight.

“Oh no…” Fluttershy shuddered, huddling close to the ground.

“Now this is a fine mess,” Applejack muttered.

A miasmic mist tore over their heads from out of the Royal Archives, coalescing over the battalions of the Nightmare Guard into NightMare Moon, flapping her wings and hovering in place.

“Do not let them escape!” NightMare Moon ordered. “They must not be allowed to leave Endymion!”

“Look!” cried Pinkie, pointing up to the sky. “It’s a thingie, and it looks like it’s a fiery flamey thingie!”

Looking up, Twilight gaped at what looked to be a veritable twister of fire, a firenado, that was plummeting towards Canterlot. Specifically, the very street that they were standing at the edge of. NightMare Moon looked up, scowled at the incoming tornado of flame, and beat her wings to intercept it, her body trailing into miasmic mist as she shot upwards. In a collision of golden fire and blue miasma, the firenado and NightMare Moon collided, clashing with one another in midair over the capital. NightMare Moon shot blasts of cyan dwimmer energy and purple bolts of lightning, but her foe, whoever or whatever it was, was too fast.

The Nightmare Guard would have arisen to their queen’s defense… if it was not for the Wonderbolts.

Whether it was by great coincidence, or because they happened to glimpse the firenado descending on Canterlot, Twilight did not know, but the Wonderbolts dived upon the Nightmare Guard mere moments after NightMare Moon engaged the firenado. And it was not just the trio that had first attempted battle against NightMare Moon when the night became eternal.

“Omigosh, that’s Fire Streak!” Rainbow Dash had entered into fangirl mode so quickly that Twilight wondered if she would ever get out of it again. “And there’s his brother, Lightning Streak! They’re shooting fire and lightning at them! That’s so awesome!” She gasped. “And… Blaze? I thought she was still recovering from crashing in that race! Wait, is that Surprise?”

“Surprise?” Pinkie cut in. “I don’t see my Granny Pie.”

“No no no!” Rainbow Dash grumbled. “That white Pegasus over there, with the yellow mane, popping balloons in guards’ faces? See her? That’s Surprise the Wonderbolt!”

“Oooh! That’s surprising,” Pinkie lilted, causing Rainbow Dash to palm her face in a hoof.

Twilight gaped. Eleven Pegasi, holding their own against scores of Royal Guards. If her cursory knowledge of the Wonderbolts held true, then that meant that all eleven Wonderbolts were in battle right now. Even though she only really knew of them through the bets that Canterlot nobles placed on the races that Wonderbolts held against each other, and she was sure that Rainbow Dash’s idolization of them stemmed from something closer to that than to… this.

Captain Spitfire was casting fire, along with Blaze and Fire Streak; Fleetfoot, Rapidfire and High Winds darted with blinding speed; Soarin, Wave Chill and Misty Fly deflected attacking guards with erratic gusts of wind; Silver Lining sent mini-tornadoes flying with a flick of his tail; and Surprise had an uncanny ability to always be behind her opponent to POP a balloon.

Rainbow Dash was practically frothing at the mouth in excitement, her hooves clamped to either side of her muzzle. “So awesome…!”

The Nightmare Guard were soon on the retreat, and Spitfire took active notice of the six mares (and one drake) at the doors to the Royal Archives.

“Soarin, you get that rainbow-maned bronco!” Spitfire ordered.

“Wilco walnut, Captain Spitfire!” Soarin said with a snapping salute.

(“Bronco?” echoed Rainbow Dash in an insulted tone.)

“Fleetfoot, the yellow one!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Silver Lining, the white one!”

“Aye-aye, Cap’n!”

“Surprise, the pink one!”


(“She even has my catchphrase!” squealed Pinkie in delight.)

“Wave Chill, the orange one!”

“Already on it!”

“And I’ll take the purple one! The rest of you, keep the skies clear!”

Each order was given and followed up on in a surprisingly quick fashion, each Wonderbolt taking the pony they were ordered to carry under their forelegs, looping their forehooves under the barrel of the mare they were set to carry. Spike slid off of Twilight’s back to make room for Spitfire, and Twilight scooped him up in her own forehooves. The six Wonderbolts flew up over the retreating Nightmare Guard, passengers in tow as they soared between the minarets of Canterlot’s high-rises, beelining for the Diurnann.

“You know, I can fly by myself,” Rainbow Dash offered weakly to Soarin. The Wonderbolt stallion looked ahead to Spitfire with a tentative smile.

“Orders are orders, Soarin,” she said without looking back. “You keep that bucking bronco under control, and maybe she’ll learn that there’s more to being a Wonderbolt than being a good flyer.”

Excuse me?” Rainbow Dash snapped, struggling against Soarin’s grip around her barrel. “You think I’m not good enough for the Wonderbolts?”

“Humility. Self-control. Devotion to duty. Learning from one’s mistakes. Working well with others,” Spitfire recited from over Twilight’s head. “These are all attributes that we look into for new recruits, and I haven’t seen those qualities in you.”

“You’ve only seen me, like, twice!” Rainbow Dash said, wriggling free and spreading her wings, flapping alongside Soarin. “And I’ve been to all your shows since I was four!”

“Soarin, restrain that bronco,” Spitfire said. Twilight blinked; Spitfire wasn’t even looking back. Was she that attuned to flight that she could sense all these things happening without her eyes?

Soarin, for his part, clamped all four of his legs around Rainbow Dash’s barrel, his hind legs binding her wings to her sides. It looked remarkably awkward for Soarin to maintain such a hold, but he managed. Rainbow struggled for only a moment or two, before her ears fell and her legs hung slack.

“While I admire and appreciate your… tenacity,” Spitfire continued, “if you really want to join our reserves, you’ll need to take a test on our history. Then, you’ll be subjected to an aeronautics test, to see to it that your wings are in prime condition, that you preen them frequently enough, that you have the right body dimensions for our high-speed flying maneuvers. Then, you’ll need to take a personality test, to see to it that you have the right stuff mentally for our…”

Spitfire trailed off, and Twilight was unnerved. She could almost imagine Spitfire’s ears swiveling this way and that, trying to pick up some sort of sound.

Evasive action!” she bellowed, and each Wonderbolt-and-passenger looped around, narrowly avoiding what looked like lightning shooting up from the ground. Swinging her head around so fast that her head ached, Twilight witnessed the other five Wonderbolts in battle with at least a half-dozen other Pegasi in dark-purple flight suits…

“The Shadowbolts!” Spitfire swore. “We have to high-tail it outta here! This is Make-Your-Mamas-Proud Time, girls!”

“I love my Mama!” squealed Pinkie Pie, almost slipping out of Surprise’s grip.

“Alright, Wonderbolts!” Spitfire said through gritted teeth, and the wind against Twilight’s eyes suddenly intensified. “It’s time we show them where we got our name from!”

In a flash − or, at least, Twilight assumed that there would be a flash from where they were that others down below in Canterlot would see − the six Wonderbolts picked up in speed, the sound at their ears dying away as they entered a tunnel of wind and swirling lightning. Twilight almost felt Spike slipping out of her hooves, but a little adjustment on her hold on him with her dwimmer shimmer and he was fine. It seemed to last for an eternity, but in just seconds they were at the edge of Canterlot, the Diurnann passing by underneath. Slowing down to a modest speed, the Wonderbolts descended to the ground.

Twilight and each of her companions touched hooves to the ground tentatively. They were only in flight for less than five minutes, but each had lost their bearings to some degree. Applejack was almost green in the face, tipping back and forth, while Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie seemed almost unfazed.

“What was that thing that attacked NightMare Moon?” Twilight questioned.

“Yeah! That looked amazing!” Spike cheered.

“A Wonderbolts military technique,” Spitfire said shortly, rubbing a hoof on her chest. “Takes a lot of magic to pull of something like that.”

“I must say, that was quite a trip,” Rarity said, a hoof to her forehead.

“You’re telling me,” Rainbow Dash said, stretching her wings out. “My wings are still sore about that.”

“Sorry ‘bout that,” Soarin said with a nervous smile, scratching the back of his head.

“If you’d learned to follow my orders,” Spitfire retorted, “you wouldn’t have ended up in that position!”

“News flash, Captain:” Rainbow Dash snarled in return, “I’m not a Wonderbolt!” She smirked. “Yet!”

“At the rate you’re going, you wouldn’t make it into the Wonderbolts even if you lived to be a dozen-gross years old!”

The pair growled at each other, before Fleetfoot burst in between them.

“Captain, newbie, calm down!” she said, her cerise eyes flashing. “We already have enough enemies in the world of NightMare Moon; do we need to make enemies amongst ourselves?”

Spitfire and Rainbow Dash each rubbed a foreleg in shame.

“Sorry about that, Fleetfoot,” Spitfire sighed. “The Eternal General wouldn’t be happy to see that display.”

“‘Eternal General’?” Rainbow echoed.

“It’s what the Wonderbolts nickname their founder, General Firefly,” Twilight explained. “It’s symbolic of a Wonderbolt’s duty to follow the principles that she’d founded the Wonderbolts on.”

“But isn’t General Firefly, like, dead?”

Spitfire shook her head. “A pony never truly dies, as long as there’s somepony who remembers them.”

Applejack doffed her Stetson. “Words t’ live bah.”

Spitfire stood at attention.

“Now then. We’ve made sure you seven made it out safe.”

“We owe you our lives,” Twilight said, bowing slightly.

“Thank you so much for your help,” said Fluttershy, miming Twilight.

Spitfire waved a hoof dismissively.

“Think nothing of it. All in the line of duty.” She faced her five other compatriots. “Alright, Wonderbolts. It’s time to spread some more light to the corners of Equestria. Let’s bolt!”

In a shuddering boom, the six Wonderbolts took to the skies, leaving behind six identical streaks of sun-colored lightning which remained in the air long after they’d left the Saddle Valley.

“Whoa…” Twilight gasped in awe. “This is some advanced magic…”

“What is it, Twilight?” Fluttershy asked timidly.

“I don’t know. It looks like it’s… some sort of fire made out of lightning… or lightning made out of fire? I don’t know. But I do know that it’s providing daylight, and the warmth of day.”

This was true. The sky above seemed to be that much lighter, and the air seemed to be less chilled than before.

Rarity let out a deep, long sigh, stretching her hind legs, then her forelegs. “It certainly helps to loosen up these achy joints.”

“So,” Rainbow Dash addressed Twilight, “What did we learn from all of this?”

The past dozen-and-a-half minutes came rushing back to Twilight. In the rush of the advent of the Wonderbolts, the near-miss with the Shadowbolts, and the discovery of the sun-bolts, Twilight had nearly completely forgotten about what they came into Canterlot to gain… and what they’d lost.

“Crescent Rose…” Twilight sobbed, collapsing onto her barrel, her ears drooping. Spike clutched at one of her hooves sadly.

“Ah never knew any Bat Ponies,” Applejack said in a low somber tone, “but Ah’ll offer a free cider to any Bat Pony who drops bah Ponyville who knew Crescent ‘fore this happened.”

“That really was very brave of her,” Fluttershy sighed.

“A very bold soul to stand up to NightMare Moon in such a fashion,” Rarity said as she looked up to the stars.

“Or very stupid.”

Six pairs of eyes glowered at Rainbow Dash. She shrugged.

“What? I’m just saying. Why didn’t she pretend like she was hypnotized and sneak us out a backway or something like that, instead of trying to fight?”

When she put her issue with Crescent Rose’s sacrifice like that, Rainbow Dash’s point was more easily taken.

“Maybe she just didn’t think of that,” Twilight said, looking down at her hooves as she swished blades of grass through the toes of her hoof.

“I know, right?” Pinkie said, bouncing up and down. “It’s like on those days when I realize that I didn’t remember to buy any balloons for the party, and then I’m like−” She did a loud GASP; not quite so loud as the day she’d met Twilight, but very close. “−kinda like that. And then I realize that I always have six balloons on me all the time, so I just balance myself on the party table, and I let little foals hold onto my tail and pretend that it’s a balloony string!”

Upon realizing that she was getting odd looks, Pinkie slunk down to the ground, her pink color starting to fade to blue, her mane and tail seeming to deflate slightly.

“Sorry. I’ll just stop being happy.”

“No no, not at all, Pinkie,” Twilight said with a sad smile. “Crescent Rose might have been out of her head, putting up with a lot of pressure in standing against NightMare Moon, but in the end, we got out of Canterlot… or Endymion, as I’m guessing NightMare Moon is calling it now.”

“We’ll trah not t’ forgit what Crescent Rose did f’r all of us,” Applejack said, her Stetson pulled low over her forelock.

“We never would have gotten into the city without her help,” Rarity said pensively.

“Oh! Twilight? I’m sorry for asking, but,” Fluttershy began hesitantly, “but, you do have that cipher, don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” Twilight said, fishing out the sun-marked scrap of parchment from one of her saddle-bags. “I hid the cipher in my saddle-bag as soon as I heard NightMare Moon’s voice.”

“Nice one, Twilight!” Rainbow said with a smirk and a flexing foreleg.

“But… what book does it go to?” Rarity asked.

“Ooh! Ooh! Is this another guessing game?” Pinkie squealed.

“If I had to guess,” Twilight thought aloud, “I would think that this key goes for the unabridged copy of Studies on Pundamilia Culture. And one of the only copies that I know that anypony has, is in the ownership of A.K. Yearling.”

Rainbow Dash gasped; she was the only other one who seemed to recognize the name.

“No… way! The author of the Daring Do series owns a copy of that book?” She unfurled her wings as far as they would go. “What are we waiting for?”

Twilight snickered a little. “Rainbow Dash, your egghead is showing.”

Rainbow Dash’s muzzle scrunched up, her eyes darting back and forth nervously. She tried to save face by giving a cocky grin and saying, “Come on, Twilight. What I meant was, What are we waiting for? We need to get that book, and fast!.”

“We can’t go,” Twilight said shortly.

“What?” the cyan Pegasus asked indignantly. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t know where A.K. Yearling lives.”

Rainbow Dash was not the only one to give Twilight an incredulous look at this admission.

“You what?” Rainbow Dash echoed emphatically. “Wait up. Hold on. Back up a bit. You, Twilight Sparkle, the egghead, don’t know where one author lives?”

“Shocking, isn’t it?” Twilight replied flatly. “But honestly, have you ever read her autobiography?”

Rainbow Dash scoffed. “I don’t read any more than I need to.”

“Well, if you’d read her autobiography, you’d know that A.K. Yearling uses her copy of Studies on Pundamilia Culture for resources in her books. You would also know that she likes her privacy. Nopony knows where she lives, not even her editors. So, we can’t use her copy of the book.

“Thankfully, I do happen to know where a copy of the unabridged Studies on Pundamilia Culture exists.”

“Where?” her five fellow mares asked.

“Inside the Crystal Mountains, right on the edge of the Sea of Eris, at the northmost edge of Equestria.”

“The Crystal Mountains?” echoed Spike.

“The mountains themselves are hollowed out, where the Queen places items of utmost importance to the security of the realm. Security there is extremely tight, which is why I wanted us to come here to Canterlot first.”

“An’ now, under NightMare Moon…” Applejack mused.

Twilight exhaled sadly, looking down at her hooves. “Maybe we should have gone to the Crystal Mountains first. Security there will only have tightened…”

Rarity placed a hoof under Twilight’s chin, bringing her face up.

“Let it be, Twilight,” she said softly. “What’s done is done. We can take our time, figure it out at our own pace. The Wonderbolts can keep Equestria warm with those heavenly bolts of sunlight of theirs. In the meantime, we can figure out some way to work our way through the security of these Crystal Mountains.”

“Do you think maybe I could eat through them, Twilight?” Spike asked eagerly, salivating slightly. “Entire mountains of crystal… it sounds so delicious!”

Twilight took note of the odd looks that everypony was giving to Spike, and recalled that she was the only one with close experience with a dragon.

“Dragons eat gemstones,” Twilight explained shortly. “In addition to their normal carnivorous diet.”

“I see,” Rarity said curtly, examining a twisted piece of metal she had produced from her saddle-bag.

“Rarity… is that…?”

“I’m afraid so, Twilight. This is what remains of my razor.”

“Oh, Rarity… I’m so sorry. I know how important your looks are to you…”

“Oh, water under the bridge, Twilight,” Rarity said with a wave of her hoof, flinging the mangled razor off of the cliff’s edge beside her. “Your needs, and Equestria’s, were greater than my own. I had the means to your end, and I supplied it gladly.”

“Rarity…” Twilight said with a smile. “You really are a great and generous friend…”

Rarity giggled shortly.

“Thank you, Twilight, my dear.”

“Alright, enough with the sappy stuff,” Rainbow Dash said with mirth. “Let’s regroup down in Ponyville!”

“Right!” the six others said with joy.

Twilight’s alicorn began to glow with pink light, Spike, Applejack and Rarity the first at her sides, with Pinkie, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash also making sure to keep close so that Twilight could wink them all to Ponyville’s outskirts. As they disappeared from sight, a faint purple glow unseen by any of them began to emanate from inside Rarity’s saddle-bags…

CHAPTER vi: A Major Ursine Trick

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Scootaloo watched from the outskirts of Ponyville forlornly, her forehooves resting on the handles of her scooter. How could she have been so stupid to sleep in? Well, it’s not like she could help it; the New Sun wasn’t exactly that bright at sunup, but still! She showed up to the seeing-off herd late, probably hours after Rainbow Dash had already left with those other ponies.


The Pegasus filly turned to face a yellow Earth Pony filly, and a white Unicorn filly. She couldn’t help but smile.

“Hey, girls,” she said sadly. “How’ve things been?”

Apple Bloom gave her new friend a quizzical look.

“Pretty fine, considerin’ it’s only bin ‘bout two hours since we were last here.”

Really?” Scootaloo asked nervously, her eyes darting around. “No kidding. Has it really only been two hours? It seems like it’s been ages since I’ve seen you two…”

“Scootaloo…” Sweetie Belle stepped forward. “Have you slept at all since Rainbow Dash left?”

“Sleep? Who needs sleep? It’s everlasting night; I can sleep when I want! But I gotta see Rainbow Dash when she gets back, and you never know when she might drop in!”

“C’mon, Scoots,” beckoned Apple Bloom with a dull-yellow hoof. “Ya needjer rest. Do ya really want Rainbow Dash t’see ya lookin’ lahk this?”

Scootaloo’s raggedy cerise mane was even more wild than it usually was, sticking out in more directions than up and back. Her eyes were baggy, and her feathers were badly ruffled; she had not been preening.

Scootaloo sighed. “Fine. Only because it’s you guys.” She smiled at her two fellow crusaders for cutie marks. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle respectively did a little victory leap and a victory rear-up.

“Should Ah carry yer scooter for ya?” asked Apple Bloom.

“Nah, I’ll use it for support,” replied Scootaloo, slouching over the scooter’s handles and pushing herself along on her hind legs.

Sweetie Belle arched a pink eyebrow. “Are you sure that’s safe?”

“Safer than a buncha creepers, Ah bet,” Apple Bloom commented.

“Actually, I think a group of creepers is called a ‘cataclysm’.”

Scootaloo scoffed. “What are you, a dictionary?” She finished this statement with a yawn.

Apple Bloom gave her friend a sad smile. “Yer dead on yer hooves there, Scoots. Let’s go ta Sugarcube Corner, getcha some sugar in yer system. Then, onta Sweetie Belle’s house.”

“Yeah!” Sweetie Belle said, pronking slightly. “And when we get there, we can start brainstorming about the different ways we can try to get our cutie marks!”

“Sure,” sighed Scootaloo, her eyes drooping a bit. “I just hope that I’m not asleep when Rainbow Dash―”

A booming bellow of a roar shook the air, almost shaking the clouds out of the sky. The three fillies squeaked in terror, grabbing each other in tight three-way foreleg hug.

“Wh-what was that?” Scootaloo asked aquiver, her prior sleepiness forgotten.

“Ah don’t know,” Apple Bloom stuttered. “It didn’t sound like no beast that’s tried t’ ‘tack Sweet Apple Acres.”

“Then… where did it come from…?” Sweetie Belle gasped, eyes fixated in the direction of the roar, past the carriage-stable.

The ground rumbled violently, then went still.

Then it rumbled more violently still.


And more.

A pale-magenta glow began to emanate from beyond Ponyville’s edge. The intermittent rumbles were becoming stronger and stronger.

An eight-pointed cornflower star rose into view, on a pale-magenta forehead of translucent fur.

The three cutie mark crusaders cowered as the beast rose up, claws as long as carriages, teeth as thick as tree trunks, its body as large as Town Square speckled with what might have been glowing stars.

When the ursa major roared, the three fillies and all of Ponyville need not have screamed.

“It’s not even been three days, and we’re already returning to Ponyville?” queried Rarity, staring out at the thatched roofs of Ponyville, out under Twilight’s high-noon sun simulation. “The more I think about it, the odder it seems.”

“As prepared as we think we were before setting off for Canterlot, we were too ill-prepared,” Twilight explained.

“I’ll say,” Rainbow Dash frowned, brushing imaginary dust off of her shoulders. “We barely got in and out. We can’t just bank on NightMare Moon hoofing over the keys to her defeat.”

Twilight nodded. It wasn’t quite how she would have worded it, but it was correct in fundamentals.

“I’m sure Angel Bunny will be so glad to know that I’m back early,” Fluttershy said with a faint smile. “I mean, I know that that stallion will have done a great job taking care of him, but I’d really rather not impose Angel on him.”

“I’ll bet,” Twilight murmured so lowly that Fluttershy did not hear, though Rainbow Dash did let out a suspiciously loud cough.

“Alright, everypony,” Applejack said sharply. “We sure we got everythin’ that we left with, more ‘r less?”

“I think so,” Rarity replied, patting at her saddle-bag. A purple glimmer from inside caught Twilight’s eye.

“Rarity, did you leave a flashlight on in there?”

“I… didn’t pack a flashlight, Twilight.”

Rarity used her periwinkle dwimmer shimmer to lift her saddle-bags off of her back, setting them down on the ground. She opened up each saddle-bag, one after the other.

“Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” Pinkie squealed, jumping up and down and all around her friends. “What is it what is it what is it?”

“The Element pieces in Rarity’s bag…” Twilight started.

“Are… glowing?” Spike finished.

The shards were glowing a bright purple, and yet the pieces of rock themselves seemed to not be hot, or even really warm. They made Twilight feel warm as she put a hoof near them, as if somepony had given her a tremendous gift at their own personal cost.

“Twilight… are these from one Element of Harmony or…?”

“They’re definitely from one,” Twilight replied. “I’d tried fitting them together in our off-time just before we left, so each of the separate piles were each of the five Elements.”

Rainbow Dash palmed her face. “Egghead.”

Twilight scowled at the Pegasus for a moment, who grinned back sheepishly. Once she’d had her fill with glaring at Rainbow, she returned her questioning stare upon the Element fragments in Rarity’s saddle-bags.

“But… how did this happen? Rarity, did you do anything or feel anything weird since we left Ponyville?”

Rarity shook her head.

“I did nothing that I would not have ordinarily done.”

Twilight put a hoof to her scruffy chin, but before she could get very far, a booming ursine roar split the night sky. Fluttershy made a wilting groan not unlike a goat and fell onto her back, her legs pointing straight in the air. Her six other companions did not fare much better, the five other mares either ducking and covering their heads or digging their forehooves in and preparing to bolt. Spike did the latter (because it was what Rarity was doing).

“M-Mom, wh-what was that?” he asked timidly, looking up at Twilight.

“It’s ‘Twilight’,” the lavender Unicorn insisted, looking quite ill at ease. “And I have an idea. I just pray to Queen Celestia that I’m wrong.”

She grabbed Spike in her teeth by one of his spines, tossed him up onto her back, and took off for Ponyville at a gallop. The five other mares galloped, flew, or pronked after her.

“Sweet Celestia!” cried Rose, the raspberry-maned and pale-yellow-coated mare. “It’s an ursa major!”

“NightMare Moon is going to destroy us all!” screamed her sister Daisy, a mare with a pale-magenta coat and bouncy spring-green mane.

“The horror, the horror!” shrieked their sister Lily, a pale-raspberry-coated and amber-maned mare, her hooves at her cheeks as she passed out in horror. The two Earth Pony mares on either side started trying to help her away from the scene, to no avail.

The townspeople of Ponyville stared up in horror at the titanic ursa major, roaring up at the sky, threatening to bring its forelegs down upon the rooftops.

Six more mares and a dragon cub joined the congregation, several of them gaping in awe. The dragon cub fainted on sighting the creature.

“I was afraid of this…” Twilight muttered. “It’s an ursa major. There’s no mistaking it.”

“A bear-titan…” gasped Applejack. “Celestia help us…”

“Queen Celestia isn’t here,” Twilight said, stepping forward, “But I am. Everypony, get away from the ursa major!”

The rest of Ponyville noticed Twilight’s return with her company. In a split-second, they parted to either side of the street, leaving just the Golden Oak Library between Twilight and the ursa major.

Twilight gritted her teeth. “I won’t let you hurt anypony here, or their books.”

Her alicorn glowed brilliantly pink, a ring of light appearing around it as well. Each of her companions stared in awe − Applejack standing watch over Spike − as her horn began to emit a low hum and Twilight herself began to sweat. Finally, after what seemed like forever, a blinding dwimmer-beam shot out from Twilight’s alicorn directly at the ursa major’s heart. It took a few seconds for the beam to reach the ursa major…

Then it shot straight through as though the ursa major was not there.

Twilight gaped.

“But… no!” Twilight screamed. “That was a direct hit! How could that ursa expulsion spell not have worked?”

“What’s going to happen, Twilight?” Fluttershy asked fearfully.

“I don’t know,” replied Twilight in terror, her ears flattened. “I don’t know what to do…”

“Fear not, fair ponies of this town!” boomed out a voice from what seemed like everywhere. Ponyville looked about in confusion, while the ursa major seemed to forget its rage and cast its wide eyes about in fear.

“For you are about to be saved from this ursine menace by…!”

A great pale-magenta cloud of smoke appeared directly before Twilight, sending sparkles out in every direction. Waving a hoof and coughing to get the smoke out of her face, Twilight barely had time to wonder where this all came from before the cloud of smoke and sparkles dissipated dramatically, sending glitter to every corner of this corner of Ponyville.

Standing in place of the cloud of smoke was a Unicorn mare with a coat of most brilliant azure, a luxurious cornflower mane with not a single hair out of place. Her entire existence exuded exuberant assurance. She wore a pale-purple cape fastened with a large blue-white gemstone over her chest, and a tall, pointed hat with a wide brim in the same color. Both were patterned with pale-blue and -yellow stars. Her cutie mark was of a magic wand, a crescent-shaped swirl of stars emerging from the five-pointed tip.

The Great And Powerful Trixie!” the Unicorn said, her voice still echoing about the streets, her dark-violet eyes sparkling at Twilight. She produced a crooked staff with a flourish of a forehoof.

The ursa major’s eyes contracted at the sight of Trixie, and Twilight could not understand why. As a student of magic, she could tell amateur parlor tricks from genuinely advanced magic, and this Trixie had clearly placed more study into showing off than actually doing anything of substance. Puffs of smoke and loud bangs were more often than not a sign of inept magic.

Trixie is the scourge of ursae major and minor across Equestria!” the azure Unicorn continued, raising the staff which glowed with a brilliant white light. “And now, The Great And Powerful Trixie shall save you―”

A tremendous ursa major paw fell down upon the azure Unicorn, though one digit would have been more than enough. Ponyville − and Twilight − gasped in horror; this was a sudden and grisly end to meet. But when the ursa major brought its paw up, there was nothing on the ground. No blood, no body, no bent and broken staff. Nothing.

As The Great And Powerful Trixie was saying…” a voice echoed from atop the balcony of the Golden Oak Library. It was Trixie, once more holding her staff aloft. “She shall save you villagers from this beast, as she has saved many towns before you!

The light from her staff shot up and impacted the ursa major in the chest. The beast roared in defiance as the light consumed its titanic body, which rose up and into the sky, breaking down into starlike particles of light as it blazed past the Moon and became one with the Big Dipper, shining bright in defiance of Twilight’s sun.

Trixie leapt dramatically down from the balcony to a lower tree-branch, then to a lower one, then to the grassy earth around the Golden Oak Library.

The ursa major is banished from this town!” she shouted to the skies. “Never more will any abominations strike here!

Twilight and her five companions gaped. Most of Ponyville simply gaped as well. Spike rose up, rubbing his eyes.

“What happened?” the drake mumbled.

“Something fishy,” Rainbow Dash replied. “How could a showboating Unicorn like that take down something that Twilight couldn’t?”

“I don’t know,” Twilight said, her head bowed slightly as she scratched behind her forelock, “but that was like no ursa major I’ve ever seen.”

“As Mayor of Ponyville,” the Mayor announced clearly, so that everypony could hear as she trotted up to the azure Unicorn in front of the Golden Oak Library, “I would like to heartily commend you for your actions in saving us from that dreadful bear-titan!”

The reaction from Ponyville was mixed. Though many assented the Mayor’s sentiments and started to cheer and stomp their hooves in approval, still many muttered darkly to each other in suspicion of the oddly convenient timing of Trixie’s arrival. Still, Trixie seemed to ignore the voices of these latter neighsayers as she addressed the Mayor:

“The Great And Powerful Trixie thanks you, Mayor of Ponyville. She has journeyed long and far to track that ursa major down before it could reach a settlement, but alas, due to her own tiredness, it arrived ahead of her. It was only our good fortune that The Great And Powerful Trixie arrived before any major damage could be made.”

“Horse-feathers!” cried Rainbow Dash, flying straight up to Trixie’s face, practically muzzle-to-muzzle with the traveling Unicorn. “You faked that somehow, I know it!”

Trixie’s mouth quavered dramatically, streams of tears pouring down her muzzle. Rainbow flapped back a couple paces.

“The… Great And Powerful Trixie… lays her life on the line for you ponies… And this is the thanks she gets?”

Several ponies began to crowd behind Trixie, giving Rainbow Dash dark glowers. She flapped back even further, and an Earth Pony mare with a pale-yellow coat and a bouncy cobalt-and-fuchsia mane snarled, “You leave her alone, Rainbow Dash, and let her explain!”

Rainbow Dash settled on the ground.

“Sorry… I just thought… it looked fishy…”

“Come on, Rainbow,” Twilight said, trotting up and placing a hoof on Rainbow’s shoulder. “Let it go. Let’s just give her the benefit of the doubt for now. Maybe she does know more about taking down ursae major than I do…”

“Ha! You see?” Trixie said triumphantly, her tears seemingly forgotten. “The Great And Powerful Trixie’s greatness and powerfulness is acknowledged by a fellow Unicorn! She truly is the most accomplished slayer of ursae major and ursae minor in all of Equestria!”

As she reared up in victory, a pair of shafts of pale-magenta light shot up into the sky, bursting with twin BANGs into flowers of sparkles that descended upon them.

Rainbow Dash!” cried a little filly’s voice, and Rainbow Dash turned just in time for Scootaloo to throw her forelegs around the cyan Pegasus’s neck.

“Whoa, take it easy there, squirt!” Rainbow grinned at the filly. “You’re gonna strangle me one of these days doing that!”

“I’m so sorry I missed you leaving like that, Rainbow Dash!” Scootaloo said sadly. “I overslept and I missed being able to see you off! I’m so sorry!”

Rainbow gave the filly a sad and slightly confused look, patting her on the back.

“C’mon, kiddo. It’s not that big of a deal. I wouldn’t hold a bit of shuteye against you.”

“See what Ah toldja, Scoots?” Apple Bloom said as she and Sweetie Belle trotted up to the pair of Pegasi. “Ah toldja that it weren’t no biggie.”

A throat cleared, and the gathering group turned to see Trixie glowering. Ears going flat and giving the azure Unicorn a dark glare, Rainbow Dash trotted backwards and clamped her jaws shut, Scootaloo giving her idol a bemused look.

“As she was saying, The Great And Powerful Trixie is tired from her long journey, and in need of supplies for her journey to the next town.”

“Anything that you ask of is yours, O Great And Powerful Trixie,” said the Mayor, prostrating herself before Trixie.

“Trixie is glad to hear this,” the azure Unicorn said with aplomb, following the stately Earth Pony along with the herd of supportive ponies. It was noticeably larger than the crowd that had initially supported Trixie; Rainbow Dash’s little stunt had only brought ponies who were tentative more firmly on Trixie’s side.

“I can’t believe you, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash shouted as soon as the posse surrounding Trixie had left the street leading to the Golden Oak Library. “I mean, it’s so obvious that that was a fake-out!”

“It may be, Rainbow Dash, but charging in blindly and flinging accusations around isn’t going to get us anywhere,” Twilight explained. “We’ll need to tackle this with a more logical deductive approach.”

Rainbow Dash folded her forelegs miserably.

“Err, umm… welcome home, Rarity!” piped in Sweetie Belle.

“Oh, Sweetie Belle! Thank you so much!” Rarity replied, embracing her little sister. “I’m so glad to be home!”

“How was yer trip?” Apple Bloom asked her big sister. “Will the Sun be risin’ soon?”

Applejack averted her eyes, rubbing one foreleg.

“Err, not quite. Y’see, we still need t’ find out how t’ activate th’ Elements a’ Harmony t’ begin with.”

“What are the Elements of Harmony?” Scootaloo asked.

“The answer to this mess,” Twilight replied, “and we’ve only managed to activate one of six so far… if making Rarity’s shards glow counts as activating it. We don’t even know how we activated it.”

“Wait. My sister’s Element started glowing first?” Sweetie Belle asked, before beaming and throwing her forelegs around her big sister’s barrel. “Rarity, you’re the best big sister ever!”

“Ah still think Applejack’s the best big sister ever!” Apple Bloom argued.

“No, it’s Rainbow Dash!”



Rainbow Dash!

“Girls!” shouted Rarity. “Please stop arguing. It’s giving me a migraine!”

The three fillies smiled innocently.

“We weren’t arguing,” Sweetie Belle said sweetly.

“Yeah, we were jus’ tryin’ t’ get our cutie marks in arguin’!” Apple Bloom added.

“Wait, is arguing really a special talent that we want to have?” Scootaloo asked, raising a cerise eyebrow.

“Yeah, you’re right. And what would it even look like?”

“Ah don’ know. Maybe two ponies shoutin’ at each other…?”

“Well, shouting at each other isn’t going to solve this Trixie situation,” Twilight added, turning to canter into town. Before she left, she turned to Pinkie Pie. “You know, you’ve been awful quiet for a while now, Pinkie.”

Pinkie waved a hoof, loudly shushing Twilight. “I’m thinking of parties.”

Twilight raised a sapphire eyebrow. “What kinds of parties?”

Pinkie began to energetically pronk around the five mares, three fillies and one drake.

“I was thinking of throwing us a welcome-back-to-Ponyville-but-not-quite-done-with-taking-down-NightMare-Moon party, but I thought that that was too long of a title to put on a banner, unless the banner stretched from one side of Ponyville to another, but then ponies would take too long reading it to enjoy the party, and then I started thinking of a shorter way to say ‘welcome-back-to-Ponyville-but-not-quite-done-with-taking-down-NightMare-Moon party’, and then I saw that new Unicorn named Trixie and I did a big mental − ” Pinkie floated up into the air as she did a slightly quieter impression of her gasp upon meeting Twilight “ − when I realized that I’d never seen Trixie in Ponyville before, and I started thinking about throwing a mixed ‘welcome-back-to-Ponyville-but-not-quite-done-with-taking-down-NightMare-Moon-and-Welcome-to-Ponyville-The-Great-And-Powerful-Trixie party’, but then I realized that that was even longer than that old title and I started thinking of how to shorten that party title, but―”

“Okay, okay, okay!” Twilight flapped her forelegs about frantically. “We get it! You think about parties!”

Twilight’s ears twitched; ponies were laughing. Looking about, she saw that pretty much everyone in the group with her − including Spike − was chuckling, giggling, or snickering to her- or himself.

“What’s so funny?” she asked, confused.

Rainbow Dash recovered quickest.

“Well, you gotta know, Twilight, that you’re kind of a stick in the mud.”

“Rainbow!” scolded Applejack, before giving Twilight a soft smile. “Ah think what she’s tryin’ t’ say is that we’re all used t’ Pinkie Pie. We’ve all learned t’ just go with her flow an’ let ‘er say what’s on ‘er mind. Ya gotta learn to laugh at things ya don’ quite understand, or yer gonna go a bit crazy.”

Twilight looked at Pinkie, the bouncy Earth Pony who smiled and laughed at so much in the world that she had no business to laugh or smile at…

And Twilight laughed a little at the absurdity of it.

“See what I mean, Twilight?” Pinkie said, bounding towards Twilight in an energetic double front-flip and holding Twilight’s face in her rubbery hooves. “Laughter is the best medicine!”

Twilight gave a nervous chuckle.

“Sure thing, Pinkie, but would you kindly let my face go? We have a Unicorn to investigate.”

The Everfree Forest was a domain unto itself. Since the Era of Discord, the thaumaturgical ley lines that crossed deep beneath were corroded with a forbidden ancient magic, preventing pony magic from affecting the ways of the land. As such, it was a place that only the most hardy or foolhardy ponies would travel willfully into. The creatures of the forest, from the most miniscule of gnats to the full-grown dragons and ursae that dwelt within the caves at the northern and southern edges of the forest, were completely out of the fine control of pony magic.

In one cave rested an ursa minor and its ursa major mother. The ursa minor’s translucent back rose and fell with each sleepy snore that it took, even as a miasmic mist appeared around it on the ground and drew it away and out of sight.

The ursa major stirred.

The group of ten had trotted − or pronked, in Pinkie’s case − along the street after the herd that followed Trixie. They had a pretty good idea of where the crowd was going; though there were very few threats in Ponyville’s short history that threatened the entire town’s existence, it seemed logical that Town Hall be the center of ceremonies for a savior of Ponyville.

“Whoa, kiddo,” gasped Rainbow Dash, looking at Scootaloo’s wings. Her feathers were ruffled and askew, clumps of dirt worked into the gaps between many of her secondaries. “How long has it been since you’ve preened?”

Scootaloo chuckled nervously. “Uhh… I was waiting for you quite a while.”

Rainbow Dash sighed, looking to her companions.

“Could you guys give us some space? Pegasi don’t usually preen when others are watching.”

Fluttershy nervously shooed her fellow ponies to the side, hiding one side of her face behind a wing.

Once she was sure that everypony − and Spike − was looking away, Rainbow Dash set down upon Scootaloo’s wings.

“Y’know, I can do it myself,” the small orange Pegasus said ruefully, though only halfheartedly.

“Who’s the preening expert between the two of us?”


Rainbow Dash flashed a fangy grin. “You bet I am! How do you think I’m such a good flyer?”

“I always thought you just got up earl―… ohhh…”

Rainbow Dash had just started to preen at Scootaloo’s left wing, her fangs sifting through the feathers, sliding them back into place, pulling out bits of dirt from between her secondaries which Rainbow Dash then spit onto the ground.

“Seriously, kid. You gotta clean your wings a bit more often than this,” the cyan Pegasus said in a mildly scolding tone.

Scootaloo took a deep breath. Somepony else doing the preening for her was… it was…

“Uhh… Scoots?”

“Err… yeah?”

“I still need to do the other wing.”

Some minutes later, after Rainbow gave Scootaloo time to recover from somepony else preening her feathers, the herd moved on. Scootaloo flapped her wings experimentally, sighing deeply at the feel of the cool air through clean feathers. Her right wing still twinged a bit where a broken feather had to be plucked out, though.

“You feel that, squirt?” Rainbow Dash said with a smirk, picking the filly up in her forelegs. “Nothing beats the feeling of freshly preened feathers flapping in the wind!”

Scootaloo nodded up at her idol.

“You said it, Rainbow Dash!”

“That I did. Now, promise me that you’ll preen every day, and that you won’t neglect them again.”

“But preening takes forever!”

“It does, and believe me, I hated preening when I was a filly, too. But, it’s better to start clean wing habits early, so that when your wings have grown into proper flying strength, you do it without even thinking about it.”

“But most kids at the school my age are already able to fly…!”

“So you’re a late-bloomer. You’ll fly one day, squirt, and you’ll put all of ‘em to shame!”

Scootaloo beamed up at Rainbow Dash at this bit of encouragement.

“I promise, Rainbow Dash.”

Rainbow smirked at the cerise-maned filly between her forehooves, then she felt an uneasy sense that somepony was watching her. Turning her head around, she saw Twilight gaping at her.

“What?” Rainbow asked.

“Well… it’s just… you sound so…”

“Smart? Is that what you were getting at?”

Twilight paused. “Yes, actually.”

Rainbow frowned. “Look. If I just went about flying everywhere without taking care of my wings, do you really think I’d be as awesome at flying as I am?”

Twilight thought for a moment. “No, actually.”

Rainbow Dash smirked. “Exactly. Being a good flyer means taking good care of your wings. I mean, without good wings, what is a flyer, really?”

Twilight nodded slowly. “Wow, Rainbow Dash. I… guess I was kinda wrong about you. You really do know your stuff.”

Rainbow Dash scoffed. “Of course I do. I’m awesome.”

“Yes, you are, Rainbow Dash!” squealed Scootaloo.

Twilight chuckled a little at the rambunctious little Pegasus, before turning towards Town Square, which they had just reached. Virtually everypony in Ponyville was standing around Town Hall, and in front of the double-doors into the Gazebo stood the Mayor at a podium, and The Great And Powerful Trixie trying poorly to look humble and contrite.

“And now, as Mayor of Ponyville, I bestow upon Trixie Lulamoon…” The Mayor produced a very large golden key from behind her podium. “The key to Ponyville, as the reward for saving us from that dreadful ursa major!”

The herd of Ponyvillagers clopped their hooves vigorously against the gravel of Town Square, cheers and whoops filling the twilit air. Trixie reached over with the hoof not holding onto her staff.

Twilight raised an eyebrow at the sight.

“Hey, ‘Great And Powerful’ Trixie!” Rainbow Dash called across the crowd. “Why ain’t you using your magic to take that key?”

Several stallions, mares and foals gave Rainbow startled expressions, and some glowered at her. Up at the Gazebo, the Mayor looked out at Rainbow Dash with a severe expression.

“No, Miss Mayor,” Trixie said loudly, barring the Mayor’s path to Rainbow Dash with her staff. “The Great And Powerful Trixie will have a word with this rowdy birdbrain.”

“‘Birdbrain’…?” Rainbow Dash repeated with gritted teeth.

“Do not interrupt the Great And Powerful Trixie!” scolded the azure Unicorn, waving her staff at the cyan Pegasus.

“Yeah, don’t interrupt her!” shouted Pinot Noir, an Earth Pony mare with a bouncy cerise mane and mulberry coat, a strawberry-and-grapes cutie mark on her flanks. Pretty soon, a small group of ponies around Pinot Noir had started shouting angrily at Rainbow Dash.

“Please, everypony, calm down!” called the Mayor with a sharp stomp of a hoof. The din soon silenced itself.

“As The Great And Powerful Trixie was saying…” Trixie began. “It was long ago, when The Great And Powerful Trixie first began her hunting of ursae major. She became too full of herself, and allowed an ursa minor to get too close. One swipe of its paw, and The Great And Powerful Trixie was knocked out. When she came to, she realized that she had lost the ability to cast magic…” Tears began to slide down her muzzle. “And so… The Great And Powerful Trixie made this magic staff… to do her magic for her…”

Rainbow Dash cocked an eyebrow and made to protest, but Twilight placed a hoof at her side, and when she saw the look on the Unicorn’s face, she set down on the ground, placing Scootaloo before her.

“Come on, Rainbow Dash. Let it go,” Twilight said softly. “Let’s talk about it at the library.”

“Okay, seriously, what gives, Twilight?” Rainbow Dash glared at Twilight, shouting at the lavender Unicorn as soon as the library door shut behind them. “You know just as well as I do that that Trixie isn’t great or powerful at all!”

“I know,” snapped Twilight, “But she saved the town after I failed to… or at least made it look that way. We’re not exactly in a place where we can criticize her.”

“But… in Daring Do and the Griffon’s Goblet, A.K. Yearling said that Unicorns can only not use their magic if their horns are cut off!”

Twilight narrowed her eyes at Rainbow Dash.

“You’re assuming that that’s true just because you read about it in Daring Do?”

Rainbow Dash gritted her teeth, her eyes darting back and forth nervously.

“Who said that I read Daring Do?”

“You did. Just now. But you’re lucky that A.K. Yearling got that fact right about a Unicorn’s alicorn, or you’d be in a lot of hot water right now,” Twilight said, running her own alicorn up and down the cloven gap in her hoof.

“Really? That’s for real?”

“It is indeed,” Rarity interjected. “Why, my own maternal grandfather lost his horn in a dreadful elevator accident. It left the nastiest scar.” The alabaster Unicorn shuddered.

Applejack tilted her head.

“Is there any other way fer a Unicorn t’ lose th’ ability t’ use their magic?”

“No,” Twilight said shortly. “There isn’t. I mean, not in any functional way. A Unicorn could suffer severe head trauma and lose their alicorn’s functionality, but they wouldn’t be able to do much else, either. The level of cranial trauma that a Unicorn would need to sustain to be rendered magically inert would be way beyond that which would be needed to turn her or him into a vegetable.”

’Vegetables’?” Pinkie Pie cut in. “But ponies eat vegetables! Are you saying that every single bit of carrot and celery and leek and beet and corn and lettuce that I’ve ever eaten before is a pony?” Her forehooves pulled down at her eyelids in terror. “What have I done? I’m a cannibal!

“She didn’ mean as in literal vegetables, Pinkie,” Applejack replied.

“‘Literate vegetables’?” Pinkie replied, her previous terror forgotten completely. “So carrots can read?”

“Carrots can’t read, Pinkie!” Twilight shouted.

“But… Applejack was just saying that vegetables were literate.”

“Ah heard that too, AJ,” Apple Bloom said confusedly.

“What Ah said was―”

“Girls!” Rarity shouted. “Please. We’re getting off topic. Can we please return to the issue at hoof?”

“Thank you, Rarity,” Twilight said with a sincere smile. “As I was saying, a Unicorn could get hit on the head really hard and lose their ability to use their horn that way, but… they’d also lose the ability to do anything else. A Unicorn who sustained that level of head trauma would be comatose for the rest of her or his life.”

The five mares, three fillies, and drake around her shivered involuntarily. Sweetie Belle wrapped her forelegs around one of Rarity’s, and the older Unicorn nuzzled her little sister tenderly.

“So… You’re saying that Trixie is… faking it?” Spike asked.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying, Spike,” Twilight smiled. “As for that ursa major, or the magic staff, and how the former was only affected by the latter… I have no clue.”

“I know,” Pinkie said, scratching her chin. “That ursa major looked pretty convincing.”

The remaining nine members of the posse went still at Pinkie’s choice of words, gaping at her. She looked around at her companions, shrugging her forelegs.


“Pinkie,” Twilight said cautiously. “What did you mean by ‘convincing’?”

“I dunno, Twilight,” the pink Earth Pony replied. “It looked just like in the picture books that Granny Pie would read me and my sisters back on the rock farm, but… my Pinkie Sense just wasn’t telling me that it was dangerous.”

‘Pinkie Sense’?”

“It’s somethin’ we in Ponyville have just come t’ trust, Twi,” Applejack commented. “Ah’d recommend ya do th’ same.”

Deciding to file the Pinkie Sense away among the gigagross-and-one other things to investigate about Pinkie Pie, Twilight pressed on.

“But a full-grown ursa major… how can that not be dangerous?”

“I don’t know. It just wasn’t.”

Twilight palmed her face in a forehoof. This was getting nowhere fast.

“Okay. Let’s assume for a moment that this ‘Pinkie Sense’ is real,” Twilight mimed quotation marks with her forehooves. “Now, if Pinkie’s Pinkie Sense did not sense anything dangerous about that ursa major, then it stands to reason that no ursa major could have been there.”

“But… we saw it right there,” Fluttershy added.

“An’ we were the ones who saw it first!” Apple Bloom put in.

“You can’t honestly have us believe that there was no ursa major there!” Scootaloo shouted.

Twilight smirked.

“There was no ursa major there,” Twilight said brightly. “Trixie Lulamoon is no mage. She’s a showpony; I could tell just by watching her. All that smoke, all those sparks… no self-respecting mage who knows her stuff would ever be so flashy about that, especially if there really was an ursa major attacking.”

“Then… what did we see?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“If I had to guess, it was an illusion that Trixie set up,” Twilight replied. “In this eternal night of NightMare Moon’s, there will be some ponies out there, trying to take advantage of the panic and high tension that’s arisen because of the lack of a Sun.”

“That low-down snake in the grass…!” Applejack growled.

“Why, that jus’ ain’t right!” Apple Bloom snapped, stomping a forehoof.

“Tricking ponies into thinking they need her help when there would otherwise be no crisis…” Rarity simmered. “That is the! Worst! Possible! Thing!”

“Let’s go call out that sham artist!” Rainbow Dash snarled, her wings flapping faster and faster as she geared up for a bolt back out of the Golden Oak Library’s door.

Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer gleamed around Rainbow Dash, holding her in place.

“Not so quickly, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said sharply. “I already said that we won’t be able to deal with this by openly confronting her. We’ll need to handle this with more tact and subtlety.”

“Ahh, that is the language that I speak, Twilight, darling,” Rarity said softly, trotting to Twilight’s side with a slightly dramatic air. “How shall we approach the citizens of Ponyville regarding this revelation?”

A great roar shook the library, knocking Fluttershy off of her hooves and driving the three fillies to clutch each other and Spike to clutch Twilight’s leg.

“That’s not an ursa major roar,” Twilight gasped lowly. “That’s an ursa minor.”

“A bear-titan’s baby…?” asked Applejack.

“Ehh, no big deal,” Rainbow Dash said with a shake of a hoof. “It’s probably just Trixie pulling another fast one on everypony.”

“I don’t think so,” Twilight said, her pupils dilating and her heart racing. “I think that that’s a real ursa minor.”

“Well, what’s the problem, then?” Pinkie beamed. “I mean, it’s only a baby ursa, right?”

“It is… But what happens when its mother realizes it’s missing?”

A bolt of horror shot through everypony present. An ursa major may ordinarily be ferocious when hunting for a meal, but a mother ursa who had been separated from her baby would stop at nothing to reunite with her child. And if the ursa minor wandered too close to Ponyville proper…

“The ursa major could trash all a Ponyville!” Apple Bloom cried.

“We have to get that ursa minor out of here!” Twilight shouted, galloping out the door, followed by Spike who leapt up onto her back, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy following soon after.

“You three stay here, where it’s safe,” Rarity said sternly, giving Sweetie Belle one last little hug.

“What? But wait! Rarity!” Sweetie Belle shouted, but Rarity was already galloping off after her friends.

“We don’ wantcha facin’ more risk than ya need ta,” Applejack added, removing her Stetson and dropping it onto Apple Bloom’s head, the rim falling down over the Earth Pony filly’s eyes. “Pa’s hat will keep ya safe, Bloom. Ah’ll see ya soon.” And with that, she galloped after Rarity.

Scootaloo looked up at Rainbow Dash, grinning.

“You show that ursa major what-for, Rainbow Dash!”

Rainbow grinned cockily. “I’ll belt it one for you, squirt!” She mussed up Scootaloo’s mane before bolting after the rest of the herd.

A modest party had broken out in Town Square. It was impromptu, and nothing like the sort that Pinkie Pie would throw, but some ponies had gotten impatient waiting for the town party planner to return from the Golden Oak Library and broke out some bottles of hard cider. Trixie had naturally gravitated to the middle of the celebration, posing dramatically and swishing her magic staff this way and that. She evidently did not take to hard cider very well, as she barely noticed her hat slipping off of her head after only one swig.

Then the roar sounded from the north, and ponies began to obey their ancestors’ response to danger and galloped as quickly as they could in the opposite direction.

“Wh-what was that?” asked Snips, a squat Unicorn colt with a scissors cutie mark. He huddled as close to the ground as he could, though it did not do much to make him less visible with how short his legs were.

“Sounded like somethin’ pretty big, eh?” replied Snails, his lanky Unicorn friend with a snail cutie mark. He mimicked Snips’s fearful kneeling, and it did much more for him for how much of his height came from his leg length.

“Remain calm, everypony!” called the Mayor, who had become rooted to the spot, digging her hooves into the ground as firmly as she could. “The Great And Powerful Trixie will protect us from this!”

Trixie, who had dropped her bottle of hard cider at the roar, winced noticeably.

“I − The Great And Powerful Trixie will…?” she replied shakily.

“Yeah… That’s right!” Snips perked up, pronking back to his hooves. “That sounded a lot like that whatchamacallit roar not too long ago!”

“Wasn’t it called a Warsaw Mayor…?” asked Snails slowly.

‘It’s an ursa major!’ cried out a Shire-accented brown Earth Pony stallion with an hourglass cutie mark, pointing off to the north at a baby-blue glow beyond the rooftops to the north of Town Square. The glow grew stronger, and an ursine shape rose up and let loose another roar that shook Ponyville to its foundations.

“Oh sweet Celestia help us…!” murmured the Mayor, sinking to her knees.

“Don’t worry about it!” shouted Snips. “The Great And Powerful Trixie’s defeated an ursa major before; we all saw it!”

“Yeah, and this one looks even smaller!” Snails added.

The gangly Unicorn colt was right. The creature that loomed over Ponyville in the distance was much smaller than the ursa major that had appeared at the edge of the village not even half an hour before. It was still capable of great destruction, though, as it proved when it began to clamber clumsily along the rooftops, beelining for Town Square.

“It’s coming right for us!” screamed a grey Pegasus mare, her golden eyes staring in opposite directions.

“C’mon, Trixie, do something!” Snails complained.

“Yeah, quit lettin’ it break stuff!” Snips snipped.

“Err, well… Okay.” Trixie warily raised up her magic staff. She continued in a stilted, halting fashion, “Umm, everypony might want to look away while I − while The Great And Powerful Trixie vanquishes this ursa.”

Obeying without question, the few Ponyvillagers who had remained in Town Square buried their heads under their forehooves.

Once she was sure that everypony had covered their heads and eyes, Trixie began to tiphoof her way towards the western half of Ponyville…

And came muzzle-to-muzzle with a cross Twilight Sparkle.

“Going somewhere, Great And Powerful Trixie?”

“It’s The Great And Powerful Trixie,” Trixie replied harshly without thinking. “And what are you doing here? The Great And Powerful Trixie thought that you had accepted her greatness compared to you!”

“I was withholding my judgment,” Twilight said, her posse fanning out behind her as the huddled ponies began to look up again. “And now, I want to look more closely at how you do what you say you do. There’s an ursa minor, right there.”

Trixie’s eyes flashed in barely-concealed alarm up at the ursine beast. “That’s only a bab―?” Covering up her outburst with a hasty cough, Trixie quickly assumed a more collected demeanor. “That’s only a baby. Trixie shall vanquish it with ease.”

“Well, if it’s so easy, then I dare you to do it without this magic staff of yours,” Twilight said cunningly, her bright-pink dwimmer shimmer latching around the staff and pulling it out of Trixie’s grip.

Trixie’s eyes widened. “No! Trixie needs it!”

Twilight’s eyebrows rose, then she gave a grin showing all of her teeth. “Trixie, your magic is showing.”

“What…?” Trixie looked up. In her haste, a pale-magenta dwimmer shimmer had lit up around her horn, catching onto her staff as Twilight pulled it away. The ponies who had huddled on the ground stood up and stared in awe and betrayal at Trixie’s clear demonstration of magic.

“The Great And Powerful Trixie… you’re using magic…?” Snips gasped.

“You lied to us…?” Snails breathed.

Trixie took in a deep breath, giving Twilight a look of deepest loathing, before sighing heavily and staring at her hooves.

“I’ve never slain an ursa major or an ursa minor.”

What?” gaped the Mayor.

Nopony can slay an ursa, major or minor. I just made the whole story up of being an ursa-slayer so that I could go from town to town and be a hero.”

“But… there was an ursa major right there!” Snips cried, pointing off to the north end of town where the “ursa major” had appeared almost three-dozen-nine minutes prior.

“The Great And − I… am exceptionally gifted at illusion magic. I worked as a sleight-of-hoof artist out in Vanhoover for years, but nothing came of it. I could barely rub two unbits together. Then, I discovered that I could craft tremendous and terrifying illusions with my own imagination. I… created the ursa major out of thin air. That’s why I never used my magic when it was around; the ursae I create are the same color as my dwimmer shimmer. I planned it all out so that I would take it out before it even reached Ponyville’s outskirts, so that nopony would realize that it was just my imagination and that it couldn’t actually touch anything.”

“So that’s why my magic didn’t do anything to it!” Twilight said triumphantly.

“Yes, yes, magic can’t affect what goes on in somepony else’s mind!” Trixie confessed. “But I need time to plan these things out, and I can’t pull up an illusion to get that ursa minor―”

Another roar shook Ponyville, but far deeper and more resonant, every ribcage vibrating in each pony’s barrel. It may very well have been the roar of the Great Devil Lord of Tartarus himself, breaking free of his shackles after being placed there by the Concord Flame.

“What in tarnation…?” Applejack gasped.

“It’s what I feared…” Twilight turned pale at the sight of the large purple-glowing shape rising up beyond the southern outskirts of Ponyville, at the very edge of the Everfree Forest. On its hind legs, it could step easily over even the tallest buildings in Ponyville without scraping the rooftops across its underbelly. Its claws were as long and thick as the double-decker carriages of Manehattan. Yellow teeth as big as trees dripped with saliva in a mouth large enough to swallow a manticore whole. Its glowing eyes darted about over Ponyville, before it let loose a bellowing roar that shook Harmonia to its core.

“Is that…?” Trixie breathed.

“It’s a bear-titan…” Rarity gaped.

“And she wants her baby…” Twilight finished.

Trixie flung herself to the ground, sobbing.

“Oh, what can we do? Nopony can slay an ursa major, and it’s going to stomp me flat before I can get away!”

Every pair of eyes in Town Square narrowed coldly at the snivelling azure Unicorn.

“Maybe nopony can slay an ursa major,” Twilight said decisively, facing the ursa minor to the north. “But there is somepony here who can placate it!”

“Twilight Sparkle…” the Mayor sighed in awe. “We’re so terribly sorry that we let ourselves be swindled.”

“Save the speeches, Mayor,” Twilight replied. “I didn’t save you yet. And I just hope that the ursa major doesn’t notice the ursa minor before it’s outside of Ponyville…”

And Twilight’s alicorn verily shone like a pink sun. Off to the north, the ursa minor became enveloped in a pink dwimmer shimmer, raising slowly up into the air. The ursine infant was perplexed, flapping its limbs about curiously. With a massive shift in the spell matrices in her alicorn, Twilight hefted the ursa minor over the last few rooftops separating the northern blocks of Ponyville from Town Square, passing it over the buildings of the village’s southern blocks.

It was at this point that the ursa major looked down and noticed that her cub was floating towards it in a pony’s dwimmer shimmer! A black rage that would drive a pony to madness filled her titanic heart, visions of the deaths of scores of ponies filling her mind as she caught a sparkle of pink magic in the heart of the wooden hills. As her cub approached, the ursa major became curious; the magic was slowing down, as if the ponies wanted the ursa to take her baby back. Tentatively reaching out her forepaws, the ursa major took her cub in her forearms. The pink magic dissipated. The ursa major cradled her precious one in her forearms, the rage in her heart giving way to the light of love as the cub playfully cuffed at her face.

Looking out to where she’d spotted the pink sparkle, the ursa major let out a low growl of appreciation, before lowering onto her forelegs − her cub clambering up onto her back − and turning to return to her cave at the feet of the South Equinus Mountains.

Overhead, the Big Dipper and Little Dipper glimmered brightly, defying the singular glow of the Moon.

Down in Ponyville, Twilight Sparkle had collapsed, sweat dripping off of her forehead and alicorn liberally. Applejack had lowered herself to her friend’s side, nuzzling her gently as townsponies returned to Town Square cheering.

“Unbelievable!” Rainbow Dash shouted, doing a loop-de-loop to let loose some pent-up energy.

“That was amazing!” Spike called, his claws clenched in excitement.

“Well, looks like we know just what kinda ability ya got, sugarcube,” Applejack said softly. “Somepony get Twilight some water!”

Fluttershy turned to Ponyville and flapped quickly off to the nearest well. Twilight offered a tired smile to Applejack, slowly lifting her head up to nuzzle the Earth Pony.

“Thank you, Applejack,” she breathed. “That took a lot out of me. You can’t imagine how hard that was…”

“Butcha still did it,” Applejack replied, “An’ that’s more’n anypony in Ponyville can say.”

“Oh, I’m sure that there’s somepony here who could’ve done it better than me…”

“Nope!” Pinkie suddenly appeared in Twilight’s vision, as suddenly as though she’d winked out. “I know everypony in Ponyville, and nopony in Ponyville can do all that fancy sort of…” The pink Earth Pony started to flail her forelegs about in the air randomly, making weird zapping noises in her throat. “…like that!”

“Come again?” Twilight groaned; hoisting the ursa minor was hard work, and trying to deal with Pinkie Pie’s shenanigans on top of that was a bridge too far.

“What Pinkie’s tryin’ t’ tell ya, is that there is no pony, Unicorn or not, who coulda got them bear-titans offa our backs.”

Fluttershy appeared at Applejack’s side, carrying a hollowed-out gourd of a bucket and depositing it at the farmer mare’s side.

“Thanks, Fluttershy.”

The yellow Pegasus nodded quickly and withdrew.

“Drink up, sugarcube,” Applejack said, tipping the gourd-bucket slightly as Twilight leaned up and took a sip of water that may have been pure ambrosia to the lavender Unicorn. After she’d had her fill, she smiled up at Applejack.

“Thank you, Applejack, Fluttershy.”

“It’s th’ least we could do, after ya saved all our hides again jus’ now.”

“I’ll say!” Rainbow Dash called, swooshing about in the air. “I’ve never seen a Unicorn lifting something like that!”

“I must vouch for that myself, Twilight, darling,” Rarity put in. “As a fellow Unicorn, I must add that I would never have dreamed that anypony would be capable of even budging such a titanic beast.”

“In any case, it was very commendable!” the Mayor said as she trotted up. She pushed her glasses up her muzzle. “Ponyville is indebted to you deeply, Twilight Sparkle. Because you saved us from a real ursa major attack, I present to you…”

Starting slightly, the Mayor looked back up at the podium in front of the Gazebo, smiled nervously at Twilight and made a Wait just a moment with her forehoof, before cantering briskly up to the podium and grabbing something from beside the podium, carrying up to Twilight in her mouth. She responded by taking it in her dwimmer shimmer and placing it on the ground.

“I present to you the Key to Ponyville!” declared the Mayor, gesturing to the large gold key that Twilight had set down.

Twilight got back to her hooves, lifted the Key into the air…

And passed it back to the Mayor.

“Sorry, Ms. Mayor, but I can’t accept this,” Twilight said. “I don’t want or need any reward for this. I just did what any pupil of Queen Celestia would have done…”

The Mayor shrugged.

“Well, if you insist, Ms. Twilight Sparkle. Though, for your part, at least you merited the Key to Ponyville, unlike you, Trixi―…”

The Mayor had turned a severely stern expression upon the azure Unicorn who had played her own false witness, but the so-called great and powerful Trixie was gone.

“Hey! Where’d she go?” Rainbow Dash growled, her head darting around.

“Ferget about it, RD,” Applejack said lowly. “She’s prob’bly halfway outta the Valley bah now.”

“I know, but…” Rainbow Dash let out a frustrated snarl. “I gotta get the word out that she’s a fake! I’ll start climbin’ the walls if I can’t!”

“That’s her call, really, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said, setting the Key blade-first into the earth. “If she’s gonna turn over a new leaf on her own, let her. But… if she keeps up this charade, she’ll get caught again. I’m not saying that word shouldn’t spread, but don’t rush it. Trixie Lulamoon is out of our manes now; we should stay out of hers. I’m sure she’ll find a new outlet for her illusion magic.”

Rainbow Dash nodded tentatively.

The Great And Powerful Trixie, bedraggled and humiliated, trudged along under that Celestia-forsaken Moon. Her ears flattened against her skull, her beautiful hat clenched between her perfectly beautiful teeth bared in a grimace.

It was only her birthright to trick ponies into thinking that she was their savior from ursa threats and reap the rewards afforded only to heroes. It was a glorious life for a showmare, much preferable to rotting away in some two-bit Vanhoover theater. She was an illusionary prodigy, her imagination indistinguishable from the real deal once projected outwards. The Great And Powerful Trixie could live out the life of an epic hero that she had so aspired to as a filly, but now, because of Twilight Sparkle

The Great And Powerful Trixie’s teeth dug more tightly into her hat, fabrics tearing.

Yes, it was all Twilight Sparkle’s fault! She only showed up after the ursa minor had revealed itself! She had to have planted the ursa minor there to make The Great And Powerful Trixie look bad, to make The Great And Powerful Trixie reveal her great shame before the entire town! Even now, Twilight Sparkle was sending word of the truth to every city, town and village in Equestria, The Great And Powerful Trixie was sure of it!

Taking her hat in her dwimmer shimmer and tearing out a corner of the brim in her teeth, The Great And Powerful Trixie slowed her fierce gallop to a simmering canter, then to a determined trot.

If Twilight Sparkle was as powerful as she put on, and as much of a spoilsport to see through any illusion, then The Great And Powerful Trixie would need to become greater and more powerful…


The Ever Greater And Powerfuler Trixie would have revenge!

CHAPTER vii: Laughing at Tartarus

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“I must say, this has been quite the eventful return to Ponyville,” Rarity sighed.

“I must agree,” the Mayor said, looking up to the sky. “Is it still nighttime? Is the Sun due to rise in a few hours?”

Twilight and her companions each rubbed a foreleg nervously − even Spike.

“Err, well… about that…” Twilight began.

“We need to find a book!” Pinkie Pie piped up. “And that book is gonna have some kinda secret code inside of it that’s going to help us fix the Elements of Harmony so that we can save the day!” She finished this with a cheeky grin at the Ponyvillagers, the bulk of whom only chuckled lightly at her statement.

“Yeah, and it’s a real page-turner,” Rainbow Dash added sarcastically.

“Are you kidding?” Twilight said fiercely. “Studies on Pundamilia Culture is notorious in the literature community for the horrendous back-order time due to its being published by the Masquerade Foundation independently! Anypony would be lucky to get their hooves on an unabridged copy of it!”

“Twilight,” interjected Applejack. “If this book is so dang important, why didn’t Celestia have the unabridged copy with that there code ya found?”

Twilight scratched her chin, putting on her metaphorical thinking bridle.

“Maybe Queen Celestia didn’t want the book and the code to be too close together, in case they got compromised…”

“That does make sense,” nodded Rarity.

“But we don’t have time to wait for a back-order,” Twilight said in a determined voice. “We have to go to the Crystal Mountains posthaste, and find that book, decipher the code, and…”

The path towards the downfall of NightMare Moon stretched out in front of Twilight. It was very long, and getting longer with every step she took. Her forelegs gave out from under her, hooves atop her head.

“O Queen Celestia… When is this going to end? Once I get to the Crystal Mountains, the cipher will just lead to another clue, and that will lead to another clue, and another and another and another and―…”

“Twilight!” Applejack said sharply, causing Twilight to look up. Applejack’s freckled muzzle creased in a smile. “We all know that it’s gonna be a long road till we bring back th’ Sun, but that don’t mean we gotta stop an’ gawk at how long th’ road is ahead of us. Queen Celestia’s dependin’ on us t’ put an end t’ this eternal night, and if Ah didn’t help ya see this through t’ the end, Ah’d never fergive mahself!”

“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash put in. “It might take a while, but I didn’t become an awesome flyer overnight, and I don’t pretend that I did!”

“I don’t want to get in your way,” said Fluttershy quietly, “but I’d just feel awful if I couldn’t help you out if I can.”

“It would be remiss of me to leave your party now,” Rarity said simply.

“And speaking of parties,” Pinkie squeaked as she bounced around the group, “You’re gonna need some laughs to keep your chin up!” She produced a party favor from out of nowhere and blew it in Twilight’s face. The party favor tickled Twilight’s nose, forcing a small giggle out of her.

“And I’m always here for you, too, Twilight,” Spike added finally, pointing a claw at his chest importantly. Smiling down at her ward, Twilight pulled him in with a hoof and nuzzled him.

“See what Ah mean, Twilight?” Applejack said brightly, one foreleg crossed in front of the other. “We’re with ya, through thick or thin.”

Twilight looked up from Spike, her hoof still resting around his shoulders.

“Thank you, girls,” she said, and she meant it. Even if these girls could be utterly infuriating at times, they still went with her into the very heart of Canterlot − or Endymion now, rather − and still wished to travel with her to the end. It meant more to Twilight that she would otherwise let on.

“Well,” Rainbow Dash said abruptly, clopping her forehooves together, “now that we’re back in Ponyville, I think I’m gonna pull up a nice bit of cumulus and catch some Z’s.” And with that she bolted up into the sky, coming down moments later with a small cloud, which she wasted no time in alighting upon.

“While I ordinarily would be loath to be on the same side of Rainbow Dash in the trading of words, I have to agree with her,” said Rarity. “After all that befell us up at Canterlot, I’d say we deserve a small bit of rest.”

Canterlot… Crescent Rose…

A rock fell into Twilight’s chest; she had nearly forgotten the friend she had made up at Canterlot less than an hour before. Crescent Rose had given everything to make sure that they got out of Canterlot alive, and now…

Twilight brushed away a tear.

“Crescent Rose did a great service to Equestria, but we can’t let her sacrifice be in vain. We have to make absolutely certain that we’re prepared for the long haul. It pains me to say this, but we can’t be saddled with grief at her loss. We’ll have to press on.”

“Crescent Rose?” the Mayor asked. “Who is that?”

With the help of Spike and her five mare companions, Twilight gave a brief summary of what unfolded from the moment they left Ponyville to the moment that they winked out back to its boundaries.

The Mayor scratched her chin thoughtfully for a moment, before bowing her head, “My deep condolences to Crescent Rose’s family, wherever they may be. You have raised a fine daughter, who fought for what she felt was right, at great personal cost. May your memory be honored long after by those who you saved.”

Even though it was a token political eulogy, Twilight still bowed her head, as did everypony in Town Square. She felt her grief for Crescent Rose ebbing away into heightened resolve. Even though many lives were threatened just by the Sun never rising, the fact that NightMare Moon had outright ended a life directly felt that much stronger to Twilight.

This NightMare would need to be put down, the Miasma dispelled, and the Queen of the Night brought to her senses.

“How long do you intend to remain in Ponyville before departing again?” the Mayor asked.

“No more than two days,” Twilight replied.

“What? Two days?” Rainbow Dash sat bolt upright on her cloud. “That’s only, like, four-dozen hours!”

“Yes, and we’ll need to prepare as much as we can. I’ll need to chart the easiest and yet most discreet route to the Crystal Mountains as I can, and the rest of you… does anypony have a radio?”

“A radio?” Applejack echoed. “Mah family has one, but Ah reckon they’ll need it t’ hear ‘bout the goin’s-on ‘round Equestria. ‘Sides, those things’re th’ size a three bread loafs stacked atop one another. Ah don’ think we’d be able t’ fit one in a saddle-bag.”

“Ooh! Ooh, ooh!” Pinkie started to jump into the air frenetically, waving a hoof back and forth. “Me, me, me, me, me! I have a radio I could bring!”

Two days passed in a blur, with the party of seven resting intermittently, trying to maintain their diurnal schedule as well as they could. (Twilight’s heliogenesis sun could only output so much light, and sunrise was barely brighter than high noon.) Twilight had little time to acquaint herself with many more ponies in Ponyville as she used the Library’s maps of Equestria to determine a path to the Crystal Mountains that followed little-used roads. She had conceded to some interaction, though, at the requests of Applejack and Rarity.

A major distraction, though, almost prevented Twilight from inspecting the maps of Equestria. Pinkie Pie had presented her radio.

“This is… a radio?” Twilight poked at the small… thing sitting on Golden Oak Library’s table, barely as large as a horse-shoe.

“Don’t look like no radio Ah’ve ever seen,” Applejack muttered.

Indeed. The radio was made out of various candy materials. The radio’s casing was made from a jawbreaker, gumdrops substituted dials, a candy cane took the place of antennae, and criss-crossed bits of licorice formed the speaker.

“And it’s got cotton candy wiring on the inside as well~” Pinkie added.

“Looks tasty…” mused Spike, licking his chops.

A pink hoof came between Spike and the candy radio. “You might not wanna do that. Just the faintest little lick, and the whole thing will go KABLOOEY!” Firework sparkles seemed to emanate from Pinkie Pie as she reared up at the shout. Then she beamed widely, “So don’t actually do it. I had to go through five candy-radios before I figured it out.”

Twilight screwed up her face in thought, perplexed as to how something like this would function. “But… how does it work? I mean, I doubt that cotton candy is very thaumaturgically conductive…”

“It would be nice to listen to some music right about now…” Rarity mused.

“Okie-dokie-lokie!” Pinkie said brightly, taking one of the gummies in her teeth and twisting it around. A high warbling buzz filled the air. Five pairs of ears flattened against five skulls, and Spike clamped his claws over the sides of his head.

*…husband-and-wife law firm, Cease & Desist, have pushed to file suit against NightMare Moon for damages resulting from her everlasting night…*

*…noted entertainment entrepreneur, Reedy Creek, has insisted that nighttime eternal has not interrupted the timetable for his plans to open an amusement resort in…*

*…strange lightning bolts that radiate the light and heat of the Sun all across the country…*

After several interspersed stories from numerous radio stations broadcast from all around Equestria, bridged by high squealing static, Pinkie settled on a slow and soothing cello piece.

At once, the tension dissipated as the music settled in through their ears and calmed their minds. It brought to mind sunny fields and warm days. Even Rainbow Dash, who ordinarily would not be caught dead listening to classical music of any sort, felt as if somepony had somehow transformed honey into sound.

As the cello performance concluded, a boisterous voice belted out from the radio, “And that was An Ode to the Summer Breeze, a composition by my very special somepony, Octavia Melody!”

Vın̈yl!’ shouted a Shirish mare’s voice. Pinkie gasped.

“Is that my cousin Tavi?” she squeaked.

“What? I’m just tellin’ it like it is, Octy,” replied the pony named Vın̈yl on the radio.

“It is Tavi!” Pinkie squealed, bouncing about the library in mirth. “My famous cello-playing cousin is on the radio! And I tuned into her!”

“Wait. You’re cousins with Octavia Melody?” Twilight asked.

“I must say, the family resemblance is rather lacking,” Rarity added. Twilight nodded in agreement.

Rainbow Dash shushed them loudly; Vın̈yl and Octavia were wrapping up their on-air bickering and returning to their script.

‘We’re sorry to say this, but our safehouse has become compromised due to circumstances outside of our control. As such, the next broadcast of Daydreams with a DJ will be indefinitely postponed.’

“Until next time, keep those dials spinnin’, and those smiles shinin’!”

The sound of records scratching segued into empty static.

“A resistance radio show…” Twilight breathed.

“That takes a big heap a courage t’ do what they’re doin’,” Applejack commented.

“And my cousin Tavi is doin’ it, too!” said Pinkie giddily as she bounced into the air, floating a little with each hop.

“How can you be related to Octavia Melody?” Twilight asked in a flabbergasted tone.

Pinkie stopped in mid-air, slowly hovering down. “Well, my mom and her mom are sisters, but…”

“That’s not what I meant,” Twilight hissed. “How can you, somepony who couldn’t take anything seriously if her life depended on it, possibly be related to Octavia Melody, one of the most steadfast and proper ponies this side of San Palomino?”

Pinkie just shrugged. “I don’t know. We just are. But seriously, Twilight, you gotta stop being so serious all the time. You gotta laugh and giggle and smile, smile, smile, or your shoulders’ll be all stiff and grumpy all the time and you’re gonna be a grumpy-wumpy-saddykins ‘cause of that, and you’re gonna be all sad and grumpy even when your shoulders aren’t all achy and everypony around you is gonna be sad because you’re grumpy, and everypony they know is just gonna be so sad because of that and―…”

“Okay, I get it!” Twilight barked, her ears going flat. “You don’t want people to be sad because you’re a clown! I get it!”

Pinkie blinked at Twilight in confusion. Rainbow Dash folded her forelegs in disapproval.

“Twilight, she’s not a clown; she’s a party planner,” the Pegasus said sharply. “For such a smart pony, you’re sure stupid.”

“I just love to see ponies being happy, Twilight!” Pinkie said, holding her forelegs wide as she stood up on her hind legs with a broad smile. “I make parties and stuff to make other ponies super-happy all the time!”

“Besides, clowns are creepy,” Rainbow Dash added. “Pinkie Pie is just… weird.”

At Rarity’s insistence, Twilight joined her and Fluttershy for a visit to the Ponyville Spa, run by a pair of twins, Aloe and Lotus Blossom. Though the building looked too small to contain any kind of facilities for rest and relaxation, a staircase down to an expanded subterranean level revealed a much larger facility than Twilight could have guessed. After a treatment package that Rarity had put on her own tab (insistingly), Twilight felt completely rejuvenated, as though she could take on a dozen NightMare Moons on her own.

The time came to leave, though, and the journey would not be easy.

“We will have to loop around the North Equinus Mountains, so that we can travel as close to straight north as we can,” Twilight explained, her mane tied back into a queue; this served the dual purpose of keeping her mane from dripping sweat onto maps that she’d pore over, and preparing for the long journey ahead. “The path I’ve marked out keeps alongside the road, but it will involve traveling wide around any towns that we cross. We can’t chance the notion that NightMare Moon hasn’t deployed her Nightmare Guard to each and every settlement in Equestria. It should take us a few weeks of steady pace to reach the Crystal Mountains.”

“A few weeks?” Rainbow Dash interjected.

“The North Equinus Mountain range is two-dozen-gross miles south of the Crystal Mountains. If we maintain a steady travel time of about a gross of miles a day, it should take us about two-dozen days to reach the Crystal Mountains.”

“A gross a’ miles?” echoed Applejack. “That don’ sound like it’s a big thing.”

“Not a big thing?” Rarity said in astonishment. “But… one gross of miles in one day! That’s… it’s like…!”

“A day is two-dozen hours long, and ponies usually sleep six hours, right?” Twilight explained. “If we maintain a good cantering speed of about ten miles per hour, we should cover about that distance in a dozen-two-and-a-half hours, taking a breather for the remainder of the day.”

“But… what about eating?” Fluttershy asked.

“We’ll just help ourselves to the grass on the ground on this trek.”

Grass?” Rarity gasped. “But grass is just so… so…” She sighed, taking several deep breaths. “Do forgive me, Twilight. I still plan on accompanying you, but… I cannot lightly set aside my refined lifestyle.”

“Grass isn’t exactly my favorite either, Rarity, but we just have to make do,” Twilight said shortly.

“There might even be some dandelions out there! They’re always so tickly when I eat them~” Pinkie said gleefully, balancing on her forehooves and hoisting her hind legs into the air.

“Or maybe some pansies!” Rainbow Dash said eagerly.

“Or daisies,” Fluttershy added.

The conversation continued in this vein for at least a minute before Twilight called their attention back to the task at hoof.

“We’re not going out there to look for our favorite flowers. We’re heading off to the Crystal Mountains to find Studies on Pundamilia Culture.”

“And who says we can’t have a bit of fun on the way?” Rainbow Dash smirked.

“This isn’t about having fun!”

The six others around the library table froze up, each giving Twilight an odd look. Her ears involuntarily drooped; she felt the tension mounting in the air.

“Twilight, darling,” Rarity began slowly, “we are all of us very aware of the high stakes of this endeavor. But I would dearly hope that this is not a humorless venture.”

“Yeah!” Spike said with balled-up claws. “What Rarity said!”

Twilight suppressed the urge to roll her eyes at Spike’s attempts at endearing himself to Rarity, and addressed her fellow Unicorn directly.

“But NightMare Moon… we can’t pretend that this isn’t a big deal!”

“None a’ us are sayin’ it ain’t,” Applejack said, slightly cross. “But anypony’s gotta laugh at some point, or she’s just gonna be up a creek without a paddle.”

“Tell me about it,” Rainbow Dash said while she made a circle or two around the table. “I know that joinin’ the Wonderbolts ain’t gonna happen in a day, but I’ve learned to joke about it with myself.”

Twilight arched an eyebrow at the cyan Pegasus. “But I thought that getting into the Wonderbolts was, like, serious business for you. Why would you joke about it?”

“Because it makes getting things done seem more fun!” Pinkie said from her hoofstand on Twilight’s back. Twilight did not find herself buckling under the pink Earth Pony’s weight, which perplexed her. How Pinkie had gotten there without Twilight noticing until she’d spoken was also a mystery. Twilight instinctively bucked her hindquarters into the air, and Pinkie did a high twirling somersault from her momentum, landing on her forehooves, smiling upside-down at her band.

Immediately the four other mares started to clop their hooves against the polished wooden floor, whooping and cheering. Spike clapped his claws along with them. All five wore broad happy smiles on their faces.

“Whoo-hoo! Nice sailin’ there, Pink!” Applejack called.

“Yea-heah! Sweet moves there!” cheered Rainbow Dash.

“Wow. That was… amazing,” said Fluttershy.

“Very dazzling spectacle, Pinkie Pie,” praised Rarity.

“That was amazing, Pinkie!” Spike shouted gleefully.

Pinkie started to laugh with joy at the praise that her friends showered her for her launched move, rolling up into a ball on the floor. The laughter spread to Spike, Rarity, Applejack, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash. Twilight watched the six others laughing with an odd creeping feeling in her chest. She wanted to join in, but she did not want to lose herself in the herd…

But she started to laugh anyway. It started out small and low, but quickly rose and became a high bell-like sound that rang out alongside the six other laughs in the library. It fit right in; if anything, it made the rest of their laughter sound much more melodious, bringing them all together.

The laughter also did something that Twilight could not have anticipated. The fear and burden of taking down NightMare Moon was already beginning to overwhelm her, to make her curl up in a neurotic little ball and ruminate on all of the worst-case scenarios. Now, Twilight felt all those worries and fears evaporate away, leaving only the goal ahead, as clear as the sunrise. She’d feared that she would let the goal itself pass out of her mind in a lackadaisical apathy brought on by the spell of laughter, but that was not the case at all.

Picking herself off of the ground − had she laughed so hard she’d fallen to her barrel? − Twilight looked around and saw the six others similarly pulling themselves to their hooves (or claws, in Spike’s case).

“And let’s share a little round of applause for Twilight here!” Pinkie called out. “Because I wouldn’t have been able to do that double-dangle-half-twist-hold-the-onions-change-for-a-bit somersault without her!”

Before Twilight could dissuade them, the others had already started to stomp their hooves (or clap their claws, in Spike’s case) and whoop and cheer for Twilight herself. In that moment, Pinkie Pie smiled brightly at the lavender Unicorn, and their eyes met. Twilight saw in those swirly irises and bright pupils a pure unbridled joy at being around to brighten up everypony’s lives, and she realized…

“I’m sorry, Pinkie,” Twilight said, slowly but cheerily. “I didn’t know that you were just so…”

“So what, Twilight?” Pinkie asked with a tilted head and a wide smile.

“Crazy?” Rainbow Dash suggested.

“Unrestrained?” Rarity added.

“Outspoken?” Applejack queried.

“Forward?” Fluttershy wondered.

Fun?” Spike asked.

“So… happy.” Twilight nervously ran a cloven hoof along the other foreleg, one of her ears drooping slightly. “You just love seeing everypony smile, and you try to share that happiness with everypony around you. You… you put so much time into planning parties just to see them smile. You don’t even ask for any money payment, do you?”

“What? No!” Pinkie actually looked affronted. “I don’t take their money! That would make them sad!”

“My point exactly,” Twilight indicated brightly. “Bringing happiness and joy to ponies isn’t a means to an end for you at all. Their happiness is an end in and of itself. You help ponies to laugh and smile, and that’s…” Twilight couldn’t help it; she wiped away a tear. “That’s just so beautiful. I… I’d love to call you my friend.”

Pinkie beamed brightly, her mane and tail frizzing about all on their own. She seemed to be vibrating very quickly as her grin widened more and more. Twilight took a step back from Pinkie. The pink Earth Pony had shown herself capable of a good number of inequine feats; who knew what would happen now that she was so…?

Twilight’s field of vision became filled with infinite frizzy pinkness, and her barrel became enwrapped by at least a dozen fuzzy rubbery limbs. Breathing was difficult; at least two of her ribs had to have cracked.

“Oh, Twilight, thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you!” Pinkie squealed, pulling back so that she could meet Twilight eye-to-eye. Even though Twilight could see Pinkie’s forelegs free from the hug, it still felt like at least ten forelegs were wrapped around her. “I always love it when ponies want to be my friends!”

Twilight chuckled nervously. “Yeah, that’s… great, Pinkie Pie. But… think you could let me go now?”

Pinkie became confused. “Wait. But… didn’t I already let you go?”

Blinking, Twilight realized that she no longer felt those other limbs wrapping themselves around her. Looking at Spike and the other four mares, she only received shrugs as answers to this little episode.

“Pinkie…” Twilight began. “Do you think you could explain why it felt like I was being hugged by six ponies at once just now?”

Pinkie began to giggle, a hoof to her mouth. “I could.”

Gritting her teeth in frustration at Pinkie’s light evasiveness, Twilight took a deep breath and prepared to shout…

“Twilight!” Applejack shouted.

Twilight rounded on the Earth Pony, snapping, “What is it, Applejack?”

Applejack pointed to the saddle-bags, piled in the corner, “Ah see some blue lights over ‘mong the saddle-bags!”

All thought of Pinkie’s odd hugs aside, Twilight, Spike and the five mares bolted to the piles of saddle-bags, looking for the source of the lights Applejack had seen.

“Here!” Twilight said as her dwimmer shimmer held aloft a bright-pink set of saddle-bags decorated with yellow and blue balloons. Blue light was coming from under the loose flaps on top.

Breath caught in seven chests.

“Another Element’s been activated?” Spike gasped.

“But… how?” asked Twilight, opening up the saddle-bag flaps and looking down at the glowing-blue shards of stone.

Pinkie Pie started to bounce gaily around Twilight, her eyes closed in mirth. “I bet it’s ‘cause you learned a lesson in friendship not being about being super-serious-business all the time and realized that you need to have a little laughter every lap around the racetrack so that you don’t lose your marbles because of being super-serious-business all the time!”

Twilight palmed her face in a hoof at the smile that Pinkie offered her.

“Pinkie… this isn’t some silly little fantasy novel. You’ve got to get your head into the real world.”

“‘Reel World’? But I don’t feel like going to the movies today, Twilight. I don’t even think the newsreels’ve been updated for the whole ‘nighttime eternal’ dealio by Hokey Smokes up there!”

Twilight stammered a few times, trying to wrap her mind around what Pinkie Pie was telling her, trying to construct some sort of retort to what the insane Earth Pony was telling her…

“Twilight…” grumbled Applejack out of gritted teeth, sidling up to the lavender Unicorn. “Remember that there lesson in friendship…?”

Twilight cocked her eyes at the palomino Earth Pony, before glancing back at Pinkie, who was smiling innocently and widely at Twilight. The juxtaposition of Pinkie’s mix-up of real and reel suddenly hit Twilight like a runaway conestoga, and she let out a loud snort that would have gotten several Canterlot elites turning up their noses at her.

The snort became a laugh, and soon Pinkie was laughing, and Spike, and the others. For the second time in so many minutes, the Golden Oak Library, which was supposed to be quiet, was privy to the laughter of six mares and one drake.

Twilight wiped away a tear of joy, “Well, that’s one more Element down. Hopefully, Queen Celestia’s hidden message in Studies on Pundamilia Culture will elucidate their activation process for us.”

The farewell to Ponyville was very akin to the last time they’d left, only with more ponies present. Virtually everypony in Ponyville was seeing them off this time around, and Scootaloo had not been asleep to see Rainbow Dash off.

“Keep practicin’ those sweet moves, kiddo, and be safe as long as I’m away!” Rainbow Dash said, holding Scootaloo tight to her chest with one foreleg and giving her a noogie with the other.

The little orange Pegasus filly flailed little hooves around, trying to reach Rainbow Dash’s noogie-applying hoof. “I will if ya lemme go, Dash!”

Pinkie Pie was giving Mrs. and Mr. Cake big hugs and giving little cootchie-coos to Mrs. Cake’s pronounced belly, bidding farewell to her “other little siblings”.

Fluttershy was (reluctantly) leaving Angel Bunny in the hooves of Stellar Eclipse once more. The wheelchair-bound stallion was more confident in his stride this time around, but was still sharing a wary gaze with the recalcitrant little bunny rabbit.

Applejack was trading heartfelt “see ya later”s with her folks from Sweet Apple Acres, placing her Stetson over Apple Bloom’s head, the wide brim falling over her little sister’s eyes. Rarity’s farewells to her family were rather more subdued for her part, but her family’s exuberance more than made up for her reticence.

A very familiar agave and cactus had been brought forward from the Gazebo, placed before Twilight and Spike. A teary smile crossed Twilight’s muzzle, Spike mirroring her expression.

“Well… Mom, Vati… your little girl is out finding friends,” she said with a cracking voice. “Applejack is wonderful, always at my side. Rarity is one of the most generous ponies I could ever hope to meet, and Pinkie Pie… well… Pinkie makes me laugh.” She knelt down and hugged the base of each plant’s pot. “I love you two. I wish I could do more, but… it’s all I can do to water you two and hope that the Sun comes back again.”

Taking a watering can that had been presented from Town Hall as well, Twilight gave each of her parents a small dosage of water before passing the watering can to Spike. Spike looked up at Twilight with wide eyes, and Twilight smiled down at her ward.

“You can water them too, Spike,” she said softly. “You never knew them, but I know they mean a lot to you.”

Spike’s eyes quivered, and he gave a wavering smile and nod as tears flowed with renewed fervor down his cheeks. With shaky claws, he tipped the watering can over the plants that he saw as his grandparents. As she watched Spike watering her parents, there was just something wholesome and right about Spike calling them family, and by extension her.

But, Twilight thought, calling him son seemed to be a step too far. Sure, she seemed cold and closed-minded looking back, and Spike was very dear to her, but…

As Twilight turned and addressed the ponies of Ponyville, shallow farewells mixed amid genuine biddings of good fortune, she wondered about what would lie ahead for her friends and companions in this journey to the northernmost edge of Equestria. There would be trouble, to be sure. There would be encounters with the Shadowbolts, doubtless, and creatures emboldened by about a week’s nighttime. Chimericals would be more active in their search for pony prey, as would merewolves and vampires. Equestria would be a much more dangerous place, particularly in the frontiers that were yet underexplored and unsettled.

But she had friends to back her up. And she was sure that she would help to keep Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy safe as well. Fluttershy was almost friend material, but seemed exceptionally timid and soft-spoken. Rainbow Dash was about the exact opposite; outspoken, brash and blunt. One was exceedingly introverted, and the other immensely extroverted.

At least she could trust Rainbow Dash to speak her mind.

“…and when we return, we will have all six Elements of Harmony, ready to take down NightMare Moon once and for all!” Twilight finished.

The reactions of the Ponyvillagers was a rather rousing but also somewhat subdued chorus of cheers. Perhaps they’d been jaded to Twilight’s declaration only a few days prior? Or maybe they were becoming used to her ability to save lives after that ursa major incident?

Twilight shook her head mentally. Of course it wasn’t either of those. The extended nighttime was wearing down on their spirits in spite of Twilight’s heliogenesis sun and the Wonderbolts’ sun-bolts. Twilight could feel it herself; a pervasive weariness from a lack of the vitality that natural sunlight gave to everypony.

“When we’ve cracked the code that Queen Celestia has left us,” Twilight continued, raising her voice to reacquire any flagging attention, “I’ll raise the Sun for a few moments, just as a signal to you, and to NightMare Moon, that we won’t go quietly.”

Hasty, anticipatory murmurs broke out in the herd of Ponyvillagers.

“Yo, Twilight,” hissed Rainbow Dash. “You really got chutzpah if yer gonna do that, but… you think ya got the power to back it up?”

“I don’t know,” replied Twilight, “but I’ve seen the Queen do it so many times in our early-morning study sessions. I should be able to get a grip on the Sun for a few moments.”

“You can do that?” asked Applejack.

“I can imitate any Unicorn magic after seeing it just once,” Twilight explained.

Numerous ears perked up which had caught wind of Twilight’s statement, and every pony within earshot of Twilight’s statement goggled their eyes at her. It honestly made Twilight feel very uncomfortable.


“So, you could imitate my magic for finding gemstones?” Rarity asked.

“Well, I suppose…”

“Or, perhaps, more to the point, Trixie’s illusion magic?”

Twilight froze. She had not thought of that. Though she did see the ursa major produced by Trixie’s illusory spellwork, she did not reckon it for thaumaturgical smoke-and-mirrors until afterwards. Maybe, just maybe, knowing the basic theory of how Trixie had done it…

“I might be able to,” Twilight admitted. “And you know what?”

“What?” asked six voices.

Twilight grinned. “I think it might have figured out how we’re gonna get into the Crystal Mountains if the Nightmare Guard has secured it.”

With some quick final farewells and mutual well-wishes, the band of seven departed from Ponyville.

The first day was full of energy and vigor as the band made their journey westward. A canter of ten miles per hour, or a mile every six minutes, was a reasonable speed for any pony to canter at if she or he wanted to get somewhere briskly. The destination, however, was nowhere near their departure point. The Crystal Mountains laid nearly two-dozen-gross miles northwards from Canterlot, a distant journey even for seasoned travelers.

Various means of travel allow for Equestrians and foreigners to reach the various corners of the queendom with ease, but not necessarily with speed. Caravans hauled by Earth Ponies can hold a family of up to six ponies and travel five-gross miles in a single day, provided that relay stations switch out for a second band of ponies to pull the carriage. Pegasus caravans, partly constructed of clouds and cavorite to lighten its load, provide an aerial view of Equestria as they are drawn by Pegasi across the country at an average of two-gross miles a day (providing for relay stations). Unicorns have devised the Narbaculus System: a series of quantum thaumaturgic tunnels − portals, in laypony’s terms − based off of the feeding patterns of the narbaculus beast, which created similar portals to fling prey into its gaping maw.

None of these means of travel would be advisable to reach the Crystal Mountains. The relay stations into and out of the Saddle Valley were likely out of service as the mares and stallions who ordinarily serviced said stations returned to their hometowns to care for their families, or maintain other more traveled relay stations.

“I don’t know the narbacular tunnel spell,” Twilight had lamented, “and I don’t know if I’d have the authorization to open a narbacular tunnel even if I did.”

“Authorization?” Rarity had asked as Spike made goo-goo eyes at her.

“The thaumaturgists in charge of the Narbaculus System keep a tight watch on the network of narbacular tunnels around Equestria, to ensure that ponies do not abuse them for illegal purposes. What we’re doing − breaking into and out of the Crystal Mountains − is technically illegal.”

“But we’re doing it under the authority of Celestia!” complained Rainbow Dash. “Isn’t that good enough?”

“Not under NightMare Moon,” Twilight had answered ominously. “I’m honestly surprised that we made it out of Canterlot alive for all the hate she must feel for the Queen.”

At that moment Rainbow Dash had sulked to the ground, resting on her rump as she folded her forelegs. Then she beamed.

“We could hitch a ride on Pegasus caravans from Cloudsdale!”

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Rainbow Dash,” Applejack had cut in, “but i’n’t Cloudsdale, well, in the sky?”

Rainbow replied with a slight smirk, “Not quite, Applesnack. Y’see, not every pony in Cloudsdale is a Pegasus, so there’s land-based cottages and stuff on the ground under the cloud city. Fluttershy here grew up in one of them and everything!”

Fluttershy nodded slightly, mildly flushed at having attention brought to her so suddenly, “My mother Posey was an Earth Pony.”

“I don’t think that will work, either,” Twilight shook her head.

“What? But Twilight…!” Rarity began.

“Think about it, Rarity. NightMare Moon has almost half of the Royal Guard under her mind control. And I don’t think she’ll stop at that; she’ll try to cow the police forces of so many cities, towns and villages into her control, hypnosis or not. She’ll be keeping an eye on everypony everywhere. If we’re flying in a carriage across the sky pulled by Pegasi, how do we know that hypnotized Pegasi or Bat Ponies won’t bring us down?”

“Or perhaps some a’ the Pegasi pullin’ ‘em might be mind-controlled,” Applejack added.

Twilight nodded at the palomino Earth Pony with a faint smile, “Maybe.”

Rarity looked mournfully at her hooves and horseshoes, already starting to lose some of the manicure and luster that she’d prided them so much on. She took in a deep breath, her eyes clenched shut.

“I will accept this burden, Twilight. I will shoulder every crack in my hooves, in the hopes that it will all be worth it when the Sun shines upon Equestria once more.”

Spike almost swooned. “She’s just so… perfect…!”

Twilight rolled her eyes at Spike’s infatuation.

The rim of the Everfree Forest shrunk to the horizon as the western edge of the North Equinus Mountains came into view at the end of the second day. The path they’d followed was rugged, as they traveled alongside the road rather than directly on it. As Twilight explained, to varying degrees of acceptance, following the road as opposed to cantering down it put them in a safer position, as NightMare Moon’s agents would look for them directly along the road.

“If we stay off of the beaten path, they shouldn’t take notice of us,” Twilight had explained. “But we should still keep out of sight from the road, and be wary of anypony we see walking down the road. If we let anypony see us, then NightMare Moon could wheedle that information out of her or him under threat of death. If we’re careful, all we’ll have to worry about are the odd wild animal, along with merewolves, vampires, or even the odd hemolupe. Hopefully, we won't meet such misfortune.”

Their journey to the edge of the Saddle Valley, where the North Equinus Mountains shrunk to easily-scalable hills, was relatively lacking in danger. There had been some treacherous moments when they passed a little too close to a cockatrice nest and had to run away with their eyes slammed shut to avoid being petrified. Thankfully, Applejack had a profound sixth sense for the earth beneath them, and was able to tell everypony exactly where to run so that they would encounter the least resistance from the ground. To her credit, everypony followed her lead without question or hesitance; her prowess as an Earth Pony gave her a lot of clout with her fellow Ponyvillagers, and Twilight had come to trust Applejack’s input on any given situation, however harrowing.

A cave of urstrice had also been happened upon, but thankfully the investigation inhabiting that particular cave had all been asleep.

“Urstrice sleeping at night is very unusual,” Fluttershy commented. “Their sleep cycle must be off, the poor babies…”

“I know,” Twilight murmured in agreement.

“‘Poor babies’? Good riddance, I say!” Rainbow Dash blurted out. “I’m just glad they’re not awake to eat us!”

Twilight hastily shushed Rainbow, clamping a hoof over the brash Pegasus’s muzzle. A sleepy hoot rumbled from within the cave, and each one of the seven went stock-still. Any moment, an urstrix, an owl-bear, would lumber out of the cave, spot the band of ponies which had disturbed its rest, and lay them out for its hatchling cubs’ dinner…

But the growling gave way to hooting snores, and the mares and drake relaxed.

Twilight engulfed Rainbow in her dwimmer shimmer, shaking the Pegasus slightly.

“You birdbrain!” Twilight swore. “What if that urstrix woke up? What would you have done? Fly away and abandon your friends? We should be thankful for small miracles like an investigation of urstrice being asleep at night. Besides, you can’t carry all six Elements of Harmony on your own!”

“I’m sorry, alright?” Rainbow Dash said blearily, her eyes spinning slightly because of the shaking. “I just blurt things out sometimes.”

“Well, you’re gonna have to get that under control, before it gets somepony killed.”

Her dwimmer shimmer faded abruptly, and Rainbow Dash, still woozy from being shook around for shouting, weaved into the ground muzzlefirst. Pinkie Pie let out a whinnying giggle at Rainbow’s rump sticking straight in the air.

“Full moon, Dashie~” she trilled. Rainbow Dash gave her a miserably sour look.

The urstrix in that cave may not have attacked them, giving Pinkie cause to spread laughter of relief at their escape. However, she found the going a little more tense with her fellow Ponyville prankster giving her the stink-eye for at least a day after that crack.

By the time they’d reached the edge of the North Equinus Mountains on the 21st of Solis, though, Rainbow Dash had begun beaming as though the Sun were shining from her own face. Looking out beyond the low hills at the lowest point of the North Equinus Mountains, she saw the wide expanse of plains stretching for miles beyond. The distant cloud construct of Cloudsdale glimmered under the Moon.

“The Wide Plains of Earth…” Twilight gasped in awe. “Where the Earth Ponies first discovered Equestria…”

Two-dozen-gross miles north to south, and over three-dozen-gross miles east to west, the largest single expanse of plains on all of Harmonia laid out before them. As far as they could see, the land was almost perfectly flat under the starlit sky. The road beside them stretched out into the Wide Plains like an arrow, pointing the way towards the nearest settlement to the north.

“It’s been a dog’s age since Ah’ve seen it…”

“It’s so… big,” Fluttershy breathed, shivering.

“Well, what’s everypony waiting for? Let’s go!” Pinkie squealed, beginning to dart forward.

“Yeah!” cried out Rainbow Dash, who actually did bolt into the blue.

“You get back here, Rainbow!” shouted Applejack.

“No, let her go,” Twilight said sharply. “She’ll tire herself out, and she’ll realize that we need to stick together then. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but a necessary one.”

As the cyan Pegasus receded to a rainbow speck on the horizon, Twilight took in the night air. There were almost no sun-bolts overhead in this region; the fact that there were a few, however, indicated to Twilight that the Wonderbolts perhaps did anticipate that the band would travel this way. Were they privy to Queen Celestia’s plans as well…?

Shaking her head lightly, Twilight dismissed such thoughts. That was strict paranoia. The Wonderbolts were just an ace team of flyers with a strong military history. That didn’t mean that they necessarily had a close allegiance to the Queen herself… right?

“Well, what’re we waiting for?” Pinkie said, bouncing back and forth impatiently from one hoof to another. “Let’s go!”

“For once, I agree with Pinkie,” Rarity said with a tip of a hoof. “But… perhaps we could proceed at a more leisurely pace than she?”

Twilight nodded. “Yes. We’ll catch up with her, but we’ll pace ourselves. Ten miles per hour it is.”

Rarity’s eyes widened and her teeth clenched, but Twilight received nods of acceptance from the other three − Applejack’s head-bobbing was slow and paced, Pinkie’s was so fast that she almost looked to have eight eyes, while Fluttershy’s was more like hanging her head in shame.

Twilight smirked, spell matrices lining up in her mind for a simple light spell. A ball of pink light appeared on the tip of her alicorn.

“Alright then, girls. Let’s go!”

The long canter to catch up to Rainbow Dash was longer than any of them would care to admit, at least five hours. Five hours of unbroken, uninterrupted cantering at a near-constant ten miles per hour. Covering a mile in six minutes was not terribly difficult for any pony worth her salt, but covering four-dozen-and-two miles in a five-hour stretch without rest was a feat of endurance that most would balk at.

It helped that none of the band were travelling alone. Though ponies had long since evolved to the level where they could be solitary if they so chose, they still flourished most in a band or herd of fellow equines. Pinkie Pie’s boundless energy and jokey behavior, while ordinarily rather obnoxious and in-your-face, acted as a sort of one-pony cheering squad for the party.

“C’mon, everypony! I know we can do it! And I don’t even need my Pinkie Sense to tell me that; I just know we’re gonna make it to Dashie! Put some hussle into those haunches, Rarity! Just look at Jackie over there! She’s just plodding along. She’s not letting anything get to her! She’s like a mountain! But let’s not make her into a molehill, ‘cause she doesn’t have moles. She has freckles!”

Twilight had to admit to herself: Pinkie’s continual stream-of-consciousness dialogue was probably what kept her going in this long canter. The pink Earth Pony’s flighty darting about amongst the other members of the band − including Spike, who had decided to follow on all fours in the space between Twilight and Rarity − had kept everypony’s spirits up as they marched forth into the chilly Wide Plains.

They knew that it could not be this cold at this time of year. The month of Solis was nearly concluded, and Aster began on Sunday. The Summer Sun Celebration − and the return of NightMare Moon − was little over a week ago. The lack of proper sunshine (excepting the sun-bolts) meant that the temperature throughout Equestria would plummet. Twilight could only hope that other ponies were knowledgeable of the heliogenesis spell, or some other form of thaumaturgy capable of warming body and soul.

It turned out that Rainbow Dash had only made it about four-dozen-and-two miles on her initial spurt before collapsing in apparent exhaustion. They found her curled up in a patch of dewy grass, snoring with grunting neighs. Her ears were flat against her head, and her expression was surly as she curled up nearly a gross of hooves’ distance from the road.

Twilight, who was closest to the tuckered Pegasus, flicked her head lightly, her queued mane bouncing against the back of her neck. At the flick, the orb of light separated from her horn, dimming slightly as it hovered directly overhead. She turned to face Spike and the other four mares.

“Alright. Take five, everypony… Spike,” she added with a soft smile at her ward. Almost immediately, Rarity practically collapsed onto her barrel, looking at her forehooves in misery.

“My poor hoovsies…!” she said in a high rueful tone. “They’re in such wretched condition after just four-dozen miles…!”

“Get used to a bit a rough ‘n’ tumble, Rare,” Applejack said lowly. “Th’ wilderness is real… wild.”

“I never would have guessed,” Rarity replied acidly.

Twilight arched an eyebrow at Fluttershy, who was poking her muzzle around the underside of one of her wings.

“Aren’t you tired, Fluttershy?” she asked the yellow Pegasus. “Why don’t you take a rest?”

Upon hearing Twilight address her, Fluttershy looked up sharply and frightfully at her addresser.

“Oh… no. Should I be?”

“Oh no! It’s just… you’ve been walking for quite a while…”

“Oh… Well, this is not that bad. I mean, I spend a lot of time every day taking care of all the animals all around Ponyville. I help keep the tunnels of rabbit and jackalope warrens from intersecting; I make sure every little birdie around town has enough seeds to feed their little birdie babies; I help Harry The Bear out in collecting Everbee honey for Ponyville; I keep weekly tabs on new animals that move in from outside of Ponyville; I…”

Fluttershy trailed off; she saw that Twilight’s eyes were glazing over at this.

“Oh… I’m sorry, Twilight,” Fluttershy said softly. “I forgot that you aren’t interested in animals.”

“No no no, Fluttershy! I don’t want you to think that at all! I mean, I’m no zoologist, but you just seem to speak with animals at a whole other level from most other ponies.”

At once, a thought occurred to Twilight, and she gasped sharply. Immediately, everypony − and Spike, who was trying to console Rarity over her hooves − turned to face Twilight in alarm. Even Rainbow Dash had woken up, rubbing her eyes.

“Where’s the fire, Twilight?” Applejack asked.

“Fire? There’s a fire?” Pinkie started to shout in a panic. “There’s a fire! Everypony for themselves!”

“It was a figger a’ speech, Pinks,” Applejack drawled.

Twilight beamed at the band, “Guys, I just realized something: Fluttershy’s a Whisperer!”

“Whoop-dee-freakin’-doo. Harmonia-shattering revelation there, egghead,” Rainbow Dash snarked. “I’d have been able to tell you that she whispers at all times of the day.”

Twilight’s eyebrows lowered at the cyan Pegasus’s dry remark, while Fluttershy covered her flushed face with her wings.

“What I mean is, is that Fluttershy is capable of understanding animals at a deeper level than any normal pony. Only one is born every three or so generations; they’re really rare. I’d have thought I’d meet one in Canterlot somewhere, and now… well, I meet one in Ponyville!”

“You find all sorts down in Ponyville,” grumbled Rainbow Dash, clearly apathetic to Twilight’s explanation.

Applejack replied by bucking a cloud of dirt into the drowsy Pegasus’s face.

Rainbow Dash coughed, “What the hay was that for, AJ?”

“That’s whatcha git fer chargin’ off an’ leavin’ yer pardners in the dust,” Applejack murmured.

Rainbow Dash’s ears drooped again, rubbing her forehooves together. “Yeah, sorry ‘bout that. I just saw all that open space (I mean, Ponyville’s got plenty of open space around it, but that’s nothing to this), and I just… took off. It was real rotten of me, and I’m sorry.”

Applejack gave the Pegasus a hesitant look, as had Twilight; Rainbow Dash did not exactly have a steady track record for sensitivity. But… being upfront was one thing they knew her for, and Applejack smiled down at her. “Well, don’ be makin’ a habit outta this. Ah reckon we all oughta stick t’gether.”

Rainbow Dash chuckled shortly. “Yeah. I’ll try to slow down for you guys. Even if it’s just for Flutters.”

Pinkie let out a tremendous laugh. “Dashie going slow? That’s like if I stopped laughing, or Twilight burning books!”

Twilight scowled at the possibility, then the absurdity of hating a book so much that she’d burn it on sight made her laugh. It was not a big laugh, even she had to admit, but it definitely caught attention because it was Twilight Sparkle laughing.

“See? Even Twilight thinks that’s funny!” Pinkie Pie giggled.

Rarity put a hoof to her mouth and stifled a giggle herself. “I must admit, the idea is patently ridiculous. It’s like… Fluttershy screaming at the top of her lungs.”

“Oh my…” Fluttershy shuddered at the very thought. “Why would I do something so… frightful?”

“Or like you skippin’ a shower t’ rough ‘n’ tumble it outside?” Applejack queried towards the alabaster Unicorn.

“Or like you even taking a shower at all?” Rarity countered.

“Or like you not puttin’ a ton a sequins on a dress jus’ ‘cause ya can?”

“Girls… I thought we’d dealt with this…” Twilight grumbled.

“Or like you switching to pears?”

Applejack opened her mouth to retort, but her fierce expression shattered as her muzzle scrunched up in amusement. After a few moments, the dam broke as Applejack guffawed loudly, banging a hoof on the ground.

“Wow, Rares. Ah never took ya fer a mare a’ humor, but that was a real rib-tickler,” Applejack commented with a slight wheeze.

Rarity looked up at nothing as she thought back on what she’d said, before a rather unRarity-like whinnying laugh bubbled up from out her muzzle. For a moment, Twilight could definitely hear that she was her parents’ filly. The moment passed, though, and Rarity’s laugh became refined faster than one could say wink out.

“Now that I think back on it,” Rarity choked out between giggles, “that is quite the amusing image.”

“See what I mean?” Pinkie leapt in between Applejack and Rarity, her forehooves looping around their necks and bringing them in closer so that the three of them were practically muzzle-to-muzzle. “Call me Dr. Pie ‘cause laughter is the best medicine!”

“Sure thing, Dr. Pie,” Applejack mumbled; her muzzle was entirely too close to Rarity’s and Pinkie’s, close enough to kiss. “Now could ya kindly let us go?”

Pinkie giggled, “Your breath tickles my nose!” before collapsing into a giggling fit on the grassy ground.

Spike looked up at Twilight, “She’s insane.”

“I know,” Twilight said shortly, “but she means well. And Queen Celestia knows we’re gonna need some laughs on the way…”

“Tell me about it, Twilight,” Rarity began. “I dare say that I shall likely lag behind the rest of you…”

Despite Rarity’s fears to the contrary, she did not fall behind. Indeed, she proved to be at a caliber of willpower surpassed only by Applejack and Twilight Sparkle. The notion of more days passing by wherein the condition and quality of her hooves, mane and tail would only deteriorate seemed to have lit a fire in her. For the first two days of northward marching, Rarity could be heard to press the band onward in the swatches of time when Pinkie Pie had silenced herself to actually concentrate on making some forward progress herself. Truly, long canters could bring out the worst in some ponies.

“Press onward, if you please, girls! My coiffed mane will not remain coiffed forever! The less time that it remains uncoiffed, the better!”

“My horseshoes are getting worn down more and more by the day! We must not flag in our forward momentum, or I could be spending more time unshod!”

“Don’t you dare tell me not to shave while cantering, Twilight! I am a fashionista; multitasking is second nature to me!”

Eventually, Twilight had to intervene, telling her in so many words that she was being overbearing and letting the stress of the situation get to her, telling her that she needed to loosen up.

Rarity cocked an eyebrow at her fellow Unicorn.

“Surely you of all ponies understands the necessity of bringing this everlasting night to an end? To bring back your mentor, and the Sun?”

“Yes, I want it all back. I want it back worse than you can even imagine. The Queen was like a mother to me when I didn’t…” Twilight took a deep breath, ignoring the burning around her eyes. “But this isn’t just about you, Rarity. I thought you realized that. This isn’t just some camping trip; this is saving Equestria. And we can’t save it if we’re letting ourselves get worked up over little things.”


“This isn’t easy for any of us. Don’t you think I’d rather be at home reading books? Or that Applejack would rather be bucking apple trees? Or Fluttershy taking care of animals? Or Rainbow Dash doing… whatever it is that Rainbow Dash does? My point is: we all have to sacrifice something to change the world.”

Twilight looked deep into Rarity’s eyes, their alicorns almost touching. Rarity’s face became pensive and slightly somber.

“Forgive me, Twilight. I let myself become overwhelmed by the pressure of not looking fabulous. I mean, as long as nopony here breathes a word of it to anypony else…”

“My lips are sealed,” Twilight smiled.

Rarity sighed deeply, “Thank you, Twilight. I shan’t pressure myself unduly about keeping up appearances.” She gritted her teeth. “But I must still shave!”

Six days and six-gross miles after the group crested the edge of the North Equinus Mountains, the third day of Aster came to pass. There had been surprisingly little to be concerned over, though the band had occasionally run astray of the odd rustle of some underbrush as some small creature like a hare or a mole scurried from one hole to another. The odd howl could be heard at times, chilling the band to the marrow. It was always far off, though how far off was difficult to gauge with so little around for sound to echo off of. In the instances after the band heard the howls, they sped up their speed as one without any need for verbal communication. Though Twilight was only vaguely aware of it, they were falling back upon the ancestral herding instinct, each one of them subconsciously sublimating their individuality in order to ensure that most of them survived. Once they were certain that the howls were far behind, however, they would return to their prior cantering speed, and their individual senses.

With the North Equinus Mountains now more than six-gross miles behind them, and the most recent settlement some five-gross miles behind, the band was completely surrounded on all sides by the Wide Plains as far as they could see. Stars twinkled over their heads, unencumbered by the nighttime lights of Ponyville and Canterlot. The Moon had vanished completely from the sky above, and Twilight breathed a mild sigh of relief.

“The new moon…” she said lightly.

The lack of a glowing moon meant that any merewolves that may or may not be out in the Wide Plains would be in their normal pony form, and thus unlikely to attack. They were not quite in the clear, but Twilight felt that it was somewhat safe to set down a light orb at grass-level as a mock-fire. With only starlight, it would be quite dim, and they would need some light to see by.

“Okay, everypony. We’ve made some excellent progress today. We’ll rest here for tonight.”

Twilight set her saddle-bags upon the stretch of bare ground with her dwimmer shimmer.

“Spike, would you be so kind as to collect everypony’s saddle-bags?”

“Of course, Twilight!” Spike said with a smiling salute, before trotting off to collect Rarity’s saddle-bag (even though she was furthest from him and Twilight).

Applejack arched a pale eyebrow at Twilight. “Yer little guy’s got it bad fer Rarity, don’t he?”

“Looks like it,” Twilight replied as Spike placed Rarity’s saddle-bag delicately inside a ring of particularly tall grass. He then took it in turns collecting everypony else’s saddle-bags, though not with the same eagerness as before.

“Hey, Spike,” Rainbow Dash asked slyly as the drake took her saddle-bag into his arms, “any particular reason you went and grabbed Rarity’s bag first?”

“Rainbow Dash,” Rarity began testily, “I do believe that Spike’s business is his own.”

“Yeah!” Spike agreed. “My business is my own!”

Feeling the situation turning against her, Rainbow Dash saved face by simply scoffing. “Sure, okay. It’s cool. Your secrets are yours to give or keep. I mean, it’s not like I was prying or anything…” Twilight narrowed her eyes at Rainbow’s, which darted about nervously at that last.

Seemingly satisfied with this response, Spike set about setting the last of the saddle-bags on the ground by Rarity’s…

When a high, piercing shriek cut through the cold night air.

Each of the seven rooted themselves to the spot on instinct, eyes darting about in every direction, searching for the source of the howl. Slowly, the six mares withdrew into a circle, keeping Spike inside the ring of their tails, standing watch for any sign of movement or rustle of grass.

“That didn’t sound good…” Twilight hissed.

“What was that?” Spike asked nervously.

“I have an idea, and once again, I hope I’m wrong.”

Ears pivoting about at the sounds of tearing grass, the band of mares turned as one towards the west, where a patch of tall grass was rustling increasingly violently.

A large dark shape with gleaming red eyes leapt out at them, and the group scattered, Spike leaping onto Twilight’s back. Each of the six galloped or flew in a different direction, instinct overriding higher levels of thought.

Turning around swiftly, Twilight lit up her alicorn with a rosy light, to get a better look at their attacker.

It looked like a pony… a pony that was at least twice as large as Applejack, the largest of the six mares in their band. It was even more scarred as well, with a large chunk missing out of its right ear. Its muzzle was not equine in shape, but rather more canine, mouth bared to reveal razor teeth and fangs. Its forelegs did not end in hooves, but in lupine paws ending in sharp silvery claws; its hind hooves were cloven. Its mane was wilder and shaggier than any mane that anypony had ever seen, as was its bottlebrush tail, and feathered bat wings spread from its back.

The beast’s wide red eyes darted about madly at each of the six ponies, saliva dripping out of its mouth and leaving burn marks upon the barren earth. A low growl like the prisoners of Tartarus rumbled in its chest.

“A merewolf…?” Spike shuddered.

“But… it’s a new moon…” Rainbow Dash noted fearfully.

“That’s not a merewolf,” Twilight gulped. “That’s…”

The beast howled to the sky with the shriek of Death, and fog rose up as if from out of the earth itself.

“A hemolupe…” shivered Fluttershy.

“Stay close, everypony!” called out Twilight, increasing the light of her dwimmer shimmer, hoping to pierce the fug that obscured her vision. A black panic gripped her heart as she took a step forward, then another. This was her first encounter with a wild hemolupe; some had been brought in, sedated, for the study of thaumaturgists in Canterlot, and Twilight Sparkle had been privy to some at her own insistence to the Queen. Despite being a merewolf that had been exposed to vampiric toxins, it carried none of the sapience of the pony race anymore. At least with a vampire, one could bargain one’s safety if one offered some other source of blood forward (like a blood bank).

Anypony who became a hemolupe was a beast, incapable of reasoning or negotiating with.

All it wanted was blood.

A large shape appeared ahead of Twilight, and she involuntarily powered up a dwimmer-beam.

“Twilight, simmer down!” Applejack strode forward, looking immensely fearful. “It’s only me!”

Sweet relief flooded into Twilight’s chest, releasing her heart from that panic-stricken grip.

“Thank the Maker, Applejack. You nearly scared the cutie mark off of me! Where are the others?”

“Up here!” Rainbow Dash waved from above the pair of ponies.

“I’m here too,” Fluttershy whimpered, appearing at Applejack’s right.

“As am I,” Rarity trotted up and appeared at Applejack’s left.

“Where’d the hemo-loopy go?” Pinkie asked as she popped up in the middle of the band.

“I’ve read about these creatures and their habits,” Twilight said ominously and quickly. “A hemolupe’s got the same weather powers as a vampire, since the first vampire Shish Kebab was a Pegasus cursed by NightMare Moon. It’s trying to intimidate us…” Twilight’s pupils shrunk and her heart stopped. “Lure us all… together and…”

A piercing screech split the fog, and a bat almost as large as Applejack swooped in from behind Twilight. In an instant, the palomino Earth Pony leapt up and tackled the transformed hemolupe to the ground, bucking in the sides as it landed.

Bucking it was a bad idea. Individually, a vampire and a merewolf have enhanced resilience to bodily damage. This resilience was only bolstered by the combination of vampire and merewolf in a hemolupe, and the end result was Applejack clutching her hind leg between her forehooves and cursing in pain. Behind her, the bat-shaped hemolupe opened its jaws impossibly wide, yellow fangs glinting in the starlight…

“LEAVE HER ALONE!” bellowed Rainbow Dash, bolting up to it and delivering a double-buck to its head. Striking its head instead of its torso proved more decisive, as the hemolupe withdrew, nursing its jaw awkwardly with one of its wings. Rainbow Dash growled triumphantly at it, baring her own atavistic fangs as she flapped her wings defiantly at it.

The hemolupe’s eyes narrowed hatefully at the cyan Pegasus, a pale wavering light like the Moon’s shimmering across its body, and soon the hemolupe’s lupine form hulked over them, roaring with such force that a twister blew the six mares and one drake backwards, blasting the fog away.

Fluttershy got wearily to her hooves, her legs shaking underneath her after having cantered a gross of miles (admittedly, flying some of the way as well when her legs got tired). Behind her, her friends were groaning in weariness and pain.

She looked back, and was stricken by how prone they were. Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Pinkie, Applejack, Twilight and Spike were all lying broken and hurt and maybe even dying because of…

Something in Fluttershy snapped.

Because of…

She faced the advancing hemolupe, furious.

Because of…!

“How dare you…” she said lowly.

The hemolupe did not falter.

“How dare you!” Fluttershy snarled, her friends behind her gaping in disbelief at the sight. What was especially astonishing was the fact that the hemolupe seemed to have halted its advance, its eyes widening at Fluttershy as she advanced towards it.

“Just who do you think you are?” Fluttershy snapped at the hemolupe, which actually withdrew as if struck even though it could have easily broken Fluttershy in two. It let out a low growl and started turning its head up towards the ponies behind her…

Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Fluttershy yelled, flapping her wings to raise herself to its eye level. The hemolupe immediately complied, its teeth bared in… fear? Twilight could almost swear that she saw a queer cyan light dancing in Fluttershy’s eyes as she continued her tirade,

“Now, listen here! Just because you’re so big doesn’t mean you can hurt or kill ponies that are smaller than you! Like me! I’m terrified of vampires, and merewolves, and hemolupes, and sometimes even my own shadow! But just because you have sharp claws and bloodsucking fangs and turn into a big bat and roar fog… Don’t think that you can ever get away with hurting my friends, or my Dashie!”

Twilight gaped at what she was seeing; this was literally unimaginable half a month ago. Before she’d come to Ponyville, Twilight would have never thought that anypony could tame a hemolupe. Now, here she was, in the dead middle of nowhere, at the mercy of a bloodthirsty hemolupe, which was being cowed by the most timid pony she had ever met!

“Now, you leave my friends and my Dashie alone, and never let me catch you trying to eat anypony ever again! You got that?”

As Fluttershy stared the hemolupe down, Twilight witnessed a wavering shimmer passing across the paralyzed beast. In a moment, a regular-sized Pegasus mare was huddled in front of them, her mane, tail and coat so mottled, dirty and crossed with scars that it was impossible to guess what color she was or even what her cutie mark was. Her ragged ears were flat, her lips quivering around her mouth of fangs as tears spilled down her face.

“So… rry…” she croaked, and Twilight gasped; a hemolupe was supposed to be incapable of speech!

Fluttershy had fluttered to the ground, her stare still penetrating the hemolupe’s maroon eyes. “Now, go!” she barked, pointing off to the south. The hemolupe wasted no time before she loped off in the exact direction Fluttershy had pointed as quickly as possible, disappearing into the brush.

“Fluttershy, that was amazing!” Twilight bolted up to her hooves, almost ready to embrace the yellow Pegasus. When Fluttershy withdrew fearfully, though, Twilight refrained. “Where did you learn to do that?”

“Do what?”

“That stare!” Rainbow Dash cut in. “I’ve known you since forever and you’ve never done that around me!”

“I…” Fluttershy rubbed a foreleg nervously. “I don’t like to talk about it…”

“It did save our collective hides, darling,” Rarity added. “I would be remiss to withhold information on my gem-finding spell if it saved somepony’s life…”

“Well… I guess… it’s something that I’ve had ever since I was a filly. I just… I don’t really have control over it, but when I get angry at animals that won’t listen to me… I just end up Staring them down. I call it my Stare.”

“Well, however it works, it saved all of our lives back there,” Twilight smiled at Fluttershy. “I’ve really underestimated you, Fluttershy.”

“I didn’t!” cut in Spike, who was swinging his arms around, claws curled up into fists. “That hemowolf thing was just swooping and swinging around, and then you just went all…” He bugged his eyes out with help from his claws holding his eyelids open. “And then it turned back into a pony and ran off… That was awesome!”

“I’ll say!” Pinkie leapt in, almost muzzle-to-muzzle with the yellow Pegasus. “That’s pretty much worthy of a party!”

“But we don’t have the party materials here…” Twilight muttered.

“Doesn’t matter! Let’s party anyway!”

“Get in the icebox an’ chill down, Pinkie Pie,” Applejack said coolly. “What Ah’d like t’ know is how exactly this ‘Stare’ thing works.”

“You and me both, Applejack,” Twilight replied, “but I think I have a hypothesis.”

“None of us are sick, though, TS,” Rainbow Dash said confusedly.

“I said hypothesis, not hypodermic.”

“None of us are cold, either, Twilight.”

“Not hypothermia either, Pinkie!”

“Girls, please!” Rarity cut in. “I do believe we should let Twilight speak; she is the most well-read of our band.”

“Thank you, Rarity,” Twilight smiled. “Anyway, as I was saying, my theory as to what the Stare is is this: Fluttershy, you said that your mother was an Earth Pony, right?”

“I did, yes.”

“Applejack, correct me if I’m wrong, but is one form of Earth Pony known as standing firm?”

“Ah cin back ya up on that spell, sugarcube. ‘t’s when an Earth Pony needs to stand her ground, let her foe know that she ain’t gonna budge an inch from where she stands.”

Twilight nodded.

“And now, my theory: perhaps Fluttershy’s Stare is a magic spell cast through her eyes, channeling the Earth Pony standing-firm magic in her blood.”

Many hooves scratched chins at this suggestion. Some looked like they understood Twilight’s suggestion better than others; Rainbow Dash seemed particularly lost.

“It’s… I cannot quite wrap my head around it, but makes as much sense as anything,” Rarity said slowly.

“I… suppose it makes sense,” Fluttershy added.

“‘Course it does!” Applejack beamed at Twilight. “Ah mean, look at Pinkie Pie. She’s an Earth Pony who can float ‘n’ fly as well as any Pegasus!” Sure enough, as they looked over, Pinkie was prancing gaily about, intermittently taking a big leap and galloping in midair to somehow stay in the air longer, giggling and whee!ing all the while.

Rainbow Dash snickered a little as she rested a wing over Fluttershy's shoulder, “Looks like somepony up there’s got a bit of Pegasus in their Pinkie Pie and a bit of Earth Pony in their Fluttershy!”

“I’m just glad that everypony’s okay,” Fluttershy said with a delicate smile and a faint blush. “You are all okay, right?”

“Fit as a fiddle, sugarcube,” Applejack replied.

“I feel like a megagross bits!” added Rainbow Dash, stretching her forelegs in the air. “Tired as all get-out, though…”

“Well, it’s a good thing that we were gonna rest here,” Twilight said. “I don’t think anything’s gonna bother us here for now, since we apparently scared off a hemolupe!” She gasped. “The saddle-bags! The Elements!”

Miraculously, the saddle-bags had been completely undisturbed by the hemolupe attack. Twilight sighed heavily as she sank down to her barrel in relief. Slowly, the mares around her followed suit, Spike settling to a spot between Twilight and Rarity.

Ein Vampirwolf, Vati…! Twilight thought to herself. Wer hätte gedacht, dass ein Pony einen Vampirwolf zähmen könnte…?

Pinkie’s giggling roused her from her thoughts. Twilight looked over at the Earth Pony, who was lying on her back and looking at the sky.

“What’s so funny, Pinkie?”

Pinkie looked over at Twilight with a wide smile. “Oh, I don’t just laugh at things that are funny, Twilight. I laugh when I’m happy, too. You want to know why I’m happy?”

“Humor us,” Rainbow Dash cut in.

“As a party pony, that’s my job~” Pinkie giggled. “I’m happy because that mean old hemo-loopy is gone and we’re all a-okay! You gotta laugh when you’re happy about something, and when you’re sad, you gotta laugh to get the sadness out. You gotta laugh at the troubles of the world to make them smaller. Laugh at Tartarus; that’s what Granny Pie taught me!”

“Ya already told us this, Pinks,” Applejack drawled, “But no reason why we don’ need a reminder after that scare.”

Pinkie giggled in response, and pretty soon Rainbow Dash started to chuckle, and Applejack joined in, and pretty soon all seven of them were laughing at the closing darkness, relieved that everything had turned out alright.

After a minute of laughter, the band sighed, laid back, and looked up at the twinkling star-filled sky.

“The night is rather beautiful,” Rarity breathed. “I don’t think I have ever appreciated it quite so much before…”

“Get used to the sight, Rarity,” Twilight said darkly, “because we’re gonna be seeing this all day, every day, until we’ve defeated NightMare Moon…”

“Ah’ll take th’ first watch t’night, sugarcube,” said Applejack, rising to her hooves and beginning to patrol the perimeter.


The next “morning” they had awoken to Rarity’s screams of terror, the alabaster Unicorn flailing her forelegs in the air in a panic as she scrambled to her hooves. Applejack gave a start; they must not have slept for very long if she was still on first watch.

“Rarity!” Twilight bolted from her sleeping spot to Rarity’s side, attempting to put a foreleg around the alabaster Unicorn to calm her down.

“Twilight, where is Opal?” Rarity asked raggedly, her mascara running.

Twilight gave Rarity a confused but sympathetic look. “She’s back home in Ponyville, being cared for by your family.”

Rarity gave Twilight a shuddering look, before letting out a shaky sigh.

“Thank Celestia it was just a dream,” she said with a relieved smile, wiping away her tears and running makeup.

“What in tarnation was that all about?” Applejack queried now that Rarity seemed to have calmed down.

Rarity shuddered again, her eyes widening slightly, “It was a nightmare… but worse, more real than any I’ve ever had. I dreamt… that my cat Opal Essence… had run out into the streets… and a wagon… it just happened so quickly…” Tears flowed down her muzzle once more as her face fell into her forehooves. “My little kitty-cat was cut down right in front of me…!”

Every one of the six around Rarity gave her a sympathetic look, particularly Applejack.

“That’s… terrible,” Applejack began. “Ah couldn’ imagine somethin’ like that happ’nin’ t’ Winona.”

“Or Angel Bunny.”

“Or Gummy!”

“Or Spike.”

The words were out of Twilight’s mouth before she could stop herself. Spike looked up at her with a mildly hurt look.

“M… Twilight, am I… just a pet to you?” he asked, his eyes shimmering as his lip quivered.

“What? No, Spike! I didn’t mean it like that at all!”

“Then… how did you mean it?”


Twilight wrapped a foreleg around Spike, and his arms wrapped around her chest and barrel. Tears slipped down her muzzle as she realized just how much she had taken Spike for granted, how much she had accepted it that he would clean up after all of her messes, how much Spike really meant to her.

“Spike… you’re more than just my Number One Assistant. You’re family to me. You’ve been there for me when nopony else was, and I’ve never been there for you when you really needed me. I promise you, that I’ll change that now.” She smiled down at her little drake ward. “I won’t say that I’ll be your mom, but I won’t stop you from calling me that anymore. I promise that I’ll look out for you better. I don’t want you to ever feel like a tool ever again.”

Spike’s claws clenched into fists, his mouth hanging open as tears slid down his scaly face.

“M-Mom…? You…”

He jumped up and threw his arms around her neck.

“Mommy! You really do care!”

Twilight nuzzled him.

“I never stopped caring, Spike. It just took me this to realize how much I did.”

Applejack rubbed the top of her head subconsciously, her eyes misting up. Rarity smiled at the scene, rubbing away a tear from one eye with one cloven toe. Fluttershy’s eyes shimmered as she too smiled at Twilight and Spike’s bonding. Pinkie, for her part, was sobbing incoherently, veritable fountains of tears forming a puddle at her hooves. Rainbow Dash looked away from the scene, trying to maintain a cool smirk and hide whatever tears she may have been showing.

“I really do love you, Spike,” Twilight muttered into one of his ear-spines. “You’ve been so close to me all this time, and I never realized how close I was.”

“Mom…” Spike croaked with a deep smile.

“This is really touching and all that,” Rainbow Dash cut in, “but what the hay was that nightmare all about? I barely got any sleep!”

“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight scolded. “Think of Rarity’s feelings! Do you really think she wants to think about this nightmare more?”

“No, Twilight, it’s alright,” Rarity interjected. “Rainbow Dash has a point. I’ve never had a nightmare like that before. So real… so dreadful… You don’t think it was planted by NightMare Moon as a deterrent to our party?”

Twilight’s heart turned to ice.

“Now that you mention it… that could be within NightMare Moon’s power. Maybe she’s plotting to plant nightmares in our heads so that we can’t get any sleep, so that she’ll be able to take us down in a sleep-deprived state. It wouldn’t surprise me, at any rate.”

“Plus, her name is NightMare Moon!” Pinkie added.

“Umm,” Fluttershy cut in, “wouldn’t that mean that NightMare Moon knows where we are?”

Twilight’s heart jumped into her throat.

“That’s right. No magic spell can be cast on somepony unless you know where they are. We’ve been too careless, setting up light spells every time we stop and go. I’m sorry to say this, everypony, but we’re going to need to stick close together, because I’m dousing the light until we reach the Crystal Mountains.”

Any protestations held by the group were assuaged when they realized that NightMare Moon would be less capable of tracking them without the light. It was agreed that NightMare Moon could reasonably guess where they were heading towards, so the band decided to pick up the pace and attempt to outpace the new government at “Endymion” from sending word to the Crystal Mountains.

To be fair, their journey was not precisely north, but slightly to the northeast as well. Twilight knew that the entrance to the Crystal Mountains was not directly in a direct northward line from the western edge of the North Equinus Mountains, nor was it directly north from Canterlot. It was actually within that one-gross-nine-dozen-and-nine-mile stretch between the two, and Twilight knew exactly where along that stretch it was. Queen Celestia had been privy to her about it, keeping it a closely guarded secret that only the most high-up members of the Royal Guard were privy to. With any luck, they were not under her mind control, meaning that they would not easily crack.

It was now the dozenfifth day of Aster, one month to the day since the Summer Sun Celebration. Two weeks had passed since the encounter with the hemolupe, and almost a dozen-gross of miles were behind the band from that spot. Their horseshoes had long since been worn out and discarded off of the road, leaving just their bare hooves against the earth and grass. Pinkie Pie kept a high spirit about this, stating that it was “like in the good old days” before ponies had invented hoofwear. Despite the loss of their shoes, they dared not stop in a town to resupply, for fear that word would spread as to where Endymion’s Most Wanted were located… and where they were headed.

To Twilight’s immense surprise (and slight disconcertion), they encountered little resistance from many other threats after the hemolupe. There had been an altercation just four days later when they found what seemed to be a tree out in the middle of nowhere. When Fluttershy started to sing to it in hopes of some birds flying down to retrieve some berries for them, it turned out to be a treant which rounded on them and started to attack. A swift buck from Applejack and a good minute of galloping put the treant behind them. Other threats that they managed to avoid included the odd udoroot attempting to lure away tired ponies, a flight of stirge and a migrating flock of basilisks; a good leap was needed out of each of the band to clear the eastward path of toxins that the basilisks had left in their wake.

Through it all, Pinkie Pie’s spirits never flagged, and she always had a joke to lighten any moment of terror or tension. Twilight had to admit, she never would have made it alone. Even if Pinkie did not take this endeavor entirely seriously, her levity was invaluable to this venture. It was as the old saying went: A little nonsense here and there is relished by the wisest mare.

Twilight slowed her canter to a trot, and Applejack behind her followed suit, as had Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie beside her, Rarity and Rainbow Dash.

Spike jumped down from Twilight’s back. “What’s wrong, Mom?”

“Spike, collect everypony’s saddle-bags. We’re resting here for a while.”

“But it’s not even been six hours a’ marchin’, Twilight,” Applejack pondered aloud as Spike strode past her to collect Rarity’s saddle-bag.

“That’s because I have a strong feeling that those sparkling lights ahead of us aren’t stars anymore,” Twilight said as she lit up her alicorn, creating an orb of pink light on the tip.

They were trotting upon a dirt road, which took a moment to be registered by the band’s six mares. They were walking on a road. Which meant that they were near to some sort of settlement. The band had passed a good number of towns, hamlets and farms as they made their two-dozen-gross-mile trek across the Wide Plains towards the Crystal Mountains, always taking care to extend a nightly journey or cut it short if it meant passing within eyeshot or earshot of anypony outside of their band. The fact that they’d been careless enough to cross onto the road meant…

“We’re gettin’ mighty careless t’ take the road, Twilight!” Applejack said warily as Spike took her saddle-bag and set it beside Twilight’s and Rarity’s.

“Actually, that’s not what I’m talking about,” replied Twilight. “We’ll need our rest here, now, because… look.”

Risking a little more light, Twilight’s horn began to shine like a beacon as she set a determined look ahead of her. Applejack narrowed her eyebrows slightly against the light as she looked at the sparkling expanse directly to their north. Fluttershy’s eyes passed it over in awe, her slack jaw closing itself on its own. Pinkie’s eyes almost popped out of her head at the sight ahead. Rarity involuntarily smiled at the glimmering sparkles, and Rainbow Dash, smirking at Spike who was making a funny gaping face to their north, found herself being smacked by Rarity’s leonine tail.

“What?” she snapped.

“Look,” Rarity said giddily, almost dancing on her hooves.

Rainbow Dash looked forward surlily, before her own jaw dropped and her eyes expanded to the size of dinner-plates.

They weren’t looking at stars.

They were looking at an expansive rocky ridge that was verily studded all over its façade with star-bright gemstones of every color and shape. It loomed over them, seeming all the more massive after all of the flat plains that they had been accustomed to for the past three weeks, even though it could not have been higher than the North Equinus Mountains at all.

They had done it.

They had reached the Crystal Mountains.

CHAPTER viii: The Crystal Mountains

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“Sweet Celestia…!” Rarity gasped at the sight ahead of them.

“It really is a sight, isn’ it?” Applejack said with wide eyes, to which everypony − and Spike − nodded in agreement.

It was indeed. The Crystal Mountains, which rested at the northernmost edge of the Wide Plains of Earth, marked the northern border of Equestria. Beyond the Crystal Mountains was the Sea of Eris, and beyond that, the Crystal Empire in the Frozen Circle around the north pole of Harmonia. In a bygone era, the Crystal Mountains marked the boundary between the nascent Equestria and the chancellery which would become the Crystal Empire. The splintering of the Crystal Empire landmass off of the Equestrian continent and settling of it in the Frozen Circle was heavily debated by tectonicists the world over, with very few coming up with plausible ideas as to how it could have happened so suddenly.

Neither was it fully understood how the Crystal Mountains had become so completely encrusted with precious stones of all sorts: diamonds, amethysts, pinkamenas, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topazes, beryls, opals. The study of geologists and thaumaturgists amounted to nothing, leaving it a mystery − and a beauty − for the ages.

“It’s amazing…” Fluttershy piped in.

“I never thought I’d see these in person,” Twilight breathed, her eyes sparkling at the mountains in the distance.

“It’s just a bunch of shiny rocks,” Rainbow Dash muttered.

“‘Just a bunch of shiny rocks’?” Spike asked in indignation, his claws balled into fists and his pupils narrowing to slits. “That’s a veritable buffet right there! So many different types of gems up there…!” Saliva dripped from the corner of Spike’s mouth, his fangs bared and his spines standing upright. “And they’re all ripe for the taking…!”

“Sorry, Spike, but we’re going to have to wait for you to sate that gem appetite of yours,” Twilight said warningly. “We’re going to need to rest up here for a day or so. We might need to clean ourselves up; I can’t imagine what we smell like after three weeks of almost completely steady cantering.”

“Prob’bly smell worse th’n Winona at the end of a hot mid-Solis day,” Applejack mused.

Rarity shivered. “Please, don’t make me think of such horrors, Applejack!”

“Ah don’t think that Winona smells quite that bad, Rarity.”

“Not your dog. Me! I can’t perish the thought of smelling so dreadful…”

“Yeah, it stinks, don’t it?” interjected Rainbow Dash, wearing an uncanny smirk as she cocked her eyebrows with that statement.

Rarity gave the flying Pegasus a withering look.

“That droll statement was so unfunny that I forgot how to laugh.”

Pinkie gasped sharply, clamping Rarity’s muzzle between her hooves. “You forgot how to laugh, Rarity? That’s awful! I can’t imagine what sorta life you’d live not knowing the joy of laughter!”

“Pinkie, she didn’t really―…”

Pinkie ignored Twilight’s statement. “Quick, Rarity! Ask me what the ruby said to the diamond!”

“Pinkie Pie, I hardly see what this―…”


Recoiling in terror, Rarity whimpered, “What did the ruby say to the diamond?”

Immediately, Pinkie beamed.

“Nothing, silly! Gems don’t talk!”

Rarity let out a short and sharp whinny that only tenuously passed for a laugh. It seemed to satisfy Pinkie, though, because she gave a little neighing giggle as she pronked into the air.

“Guys!” Twilight barked, getting everypony’s attention. “We’re going to need to make camp here, clean ourselves up so that we don’t stink any guards out, and―…”

“Wait. Guards? I thought that there wouldn’t be any so far off from Canterlot!” Rainbow Dash interjected.

“Like I said, the Crystal Mountains are a very secure facility, within which Queen Celestia has stored all sorts of materials that must be kept apart from the average Equestrian. That includes, apparently, Studies on Pundamilia Culture. She must have been planning for this day.”

“Maybe,” Applejack said lowly. “Ya think maybe that’s why th’ estate a’ this ‘Masquerade’ is so shifty about publishin’ it too much?”

“Anything is possible,” Twilight replied, shifting her forelegs in a slight shrug. “All I know is that the sooner we rest up, the sooner we’ll be rested up to get into the Crystal Mountains. And we don’t need any more delays in getting our hooves on that book!”

“Why don’t we listen to my radio a teensy bit?” Pinkie said brightly, balancing the little gumball-radio on a forehoof… while she balanced herself on her other forehoof and flapped her hind legs about in the air, her tail twirling about like some kind of whirligig.

“You know what? Let’s,” Twilight said. “We need to cool down a bit before we work out what we’re going to do. I have a good idea about my part, but we’ll need to talk out what everypony else does before we take another step toward those mountains.”

Pinkie’s gumball-radio had seen a good deal of work during the two-dozen-gross-mile trot, being used to keep updates on the means by which other Equestrians had reacted to daytime’s extended leave of absence, to play music from Octavia Melody & Vın̈yl Scratch’s DJ station and receive clandestine reports that NightMare Moon was likely cracking down on, to lighten the atmosphere in the seemingly endless days when they would do nothing but canter forward through the seemingly endless Wide Plains. They’d taken care to shut it off as they approached towns, villages and farms; it would not do to attract undue attention to themselves.

Reading between the lines of what made it to the radio waves, the band learned through the radio that Unicorns in virtually every other major city, town or village in Equestria were casting heliogenesis spells over each settlement to counteract the everlasting night. The Shadowbolts and the Nightmare Guard were evidently stretched thin attempting to suppress these disparate insurrections. Tellingly, though, the heliogenesis spells were occasionally dispelled by the Nightmare forces who’d struck. Twilight had been encouraged as to her magical strength (her TQ, or Thaumaturgical Quotient) by the rest of her band at this revelation, as NightMare Moon herself was unable to dispel the heliogenesis-generated sun she’d created for Ponyville.

It was also through the radio that the band learned of large groups of ponies who were migrating out of Equestria, to the other hemisphere of Harmonia which was still sunlit… only for inhabitants of said opposing hemisphere to arrive in Equestria and state that that other side of the planet was scorching and dry. While this was news to Twilight and her band, it was not unexpected; the Sun could not have disappeared from the sky everywhere on the planet. The fact of the matter was that one side of the planet being exposed to perpetual sunlight while the other was subject to eternal night did nobody on either hemisphere any favors. With word spreading on each side of the globe as to the return of NightMare Moon, it was unlikely that the selenic demon would only see resistance from within Equestria.

This, together with Pinkie’s continuous and humorous encouragements, was what enabled the band to traverse the two-dozen-gross-mile journey from Ponyville to the Crystal Mountains. Now, Pinkie’s gumball-radio was belting out manic polka music by the Cheese Sandwich Band which elicited light laughter even from Rarity, who so fancied herself as being haute-couture. With this laughter came a lessening in tension, and with this lessening in tension came heavy eyelids and drowsiness.

Quickly rousing herself, Twilight looked over to Pinkie Pie, “Pinkie, do you think you could take the first watch?”

Pinkie hopped into the air with wiggling hooves, “Yuppers~! You bet that I can, Twilight!” She suddenly and uncharacteristically narrowed her eyes. “Nopony will get past my eyes while I’m awake!”

Twilight nodded, knowing that she could trust Pinkie to keep her word. The bubbly pink Earth Pony had proven her mettle during their dozen-and-eight-day trek, as she had eagerly volunteered to take first watch the very first night. Against her better judgment at the time, Twilight acquiesced, if only to keep Pinkie quiet. To her astonishment, Pinkie had kept a vigilant watch from the moment she’d taken her spot around the perimeter to the moment that everypony had awoken six hours later refreshed, bright-eyed and ready for another day of continuous cantering. It was then that Twilight decided that, after Applejack, Pinkie was her choice for first watch.

Maybe she’s just so crazy already that a little sleep deprivation doesn’t mean anything to her, Twilight thought grimly as she drifted off to sleep.

Coming to, Twilight spotted Rainbow Dash flying in a tight circle around the sleeping band; Pinkie had apparently tagged the cyan Pegasus as her second watch. Giving the Pegasus a glance, Twilight received a small but emphatic salute in response.

“What time is it?” Twilight asked.

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Does it really matter? I mean, it’s nighttime all the time, Twilight.”

“Let me rephrase that. How long have we been asleep?”

Rainbow looked up at the starry sky.

“Well… Let’s see… Pinkie woke me up an hour ago so she could get some shuteye… and she told me that she’d hopped around us exactly five-megagross-two-gross-six-dozen-and-one times, so… it’s been six hours.”

“Wait… you know how long a Pinkie jump is?”

The Pegasus shrugged. “When you’ve lived in the same village as Pinkie Pie for as long as I have, you pick things up. And Pinkie Pie jumps, provided that she doesn’t hover with her weird Pinkie magic, are usually in the ballpark of about one-point-one-nine seconds long.”

Twilight rubbed her eyes.

“Still tired?”

“No, I’m just… weirded out that you’re using dozenals.”

Rainbow Dash narrowed her cerise eyes at Twilight Sparkle.

“Just because I don’t like reading doesn’t mean I’m dumb.”

“Oh yeah?” Twilight smirked.


“Name the five most recent commanders of the Wonderbolts, starting with the most recent.”

Rainbow scoffed. “That’s easy! There’s Spitfire, then there’s…” Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened a little and her teeth clenched together as her mind ground to a halt. She rubbed her hooves together nervously as Twilight arched an eyebrow at her. The Pegasus chuckled nervously, “Can we rain-check on that?”

Twilight scowled.

“Okay, fine, so I’m not that well-read on the Wonderbolts! There, I said it! Happy?”

“I appreciate the honesty,” Twilight commented, “though you could’ve been a bit more upfront about it. If you want to join them, then you’ll need to read up all you can on them, memorize names, places, maneuvers, battles that the Wonderbolts took part in…”

“Sounds like a bunch of egghead stuff. But… Spitfire did say something about that. I always thought the Wonderbolts were just… flyers.”

“I’ll have you know, Rainbow Dash, that the Wonderbolts do more than just fly about leaving contrails of thunder-clouds and sun-bolts. The maneuvers they pull in their shows are based off of the military tactics that were used since the Wonderbolts were founded ell-gross-ell-dozen-and-eleven years ago.”

“They’re that old? Who was the old fossil that founded them?”

Twilight’s eyes almost popped out of her head.

“General Firefly was a great mare, but she was hardly ancient when the Queen banished NightMare Moon. I’ve seen woodcuttings from that time, and she looked quite young. She stood by Queen Celestia’s side after the banishment of NightMare Moon, and oversaw the beginnings of the Equestrian military as we know it… including the Wonderbolts.”

“General… Firefly?” Rainbow Dash smirked. “Sounds like my kinda mare.”

“The way I understand it, she was a very strong-willed mare, always looking for trouble. Not too unlike a certain Pegasus I’ve come to know,” Twilight said lowly, looking at Rainbow Dash from under furrowed eyebrows. “But General Firefly had resolve, and fortitude. She knew when there was a job to do, and she did it. And she never left Queen Celestia hanging.”

“Hey! I waited for you guys! It’s not that I’m too fast; it’s that you guys are too slow!”

“General Firefly was also disciplined, never abandoning her comrades.”

“Look, if you want me to apologize, I already did.”

“I’m not asking for an apology. I just would like for you to consider ponies who aren’t as ‘awesome’ as you claim to be!”

“You asked me to prove I could clear the sky in ten seconds, and I did! I told you that I don’t talk out of my―…”

“Landsakes, Rainbow! Ya tryin’ ta go fer some kinda shoutin’ record or sumthin’?”

With a start, Twilight and Rainbow looked at their company. In all of their shouting back and forth, neither had realized that the rest of their group had woken up. Each seemed quite rejuvenated, even Pinkie Pie, who could not have gotten much more than an hour’s rest.

“How was your power nap, Pinks?”

“Powerful!” Pinkie replied with a backflip into a hoofstand.

“‘Power nap’?” Twilight echoed.

Rainbow arched a prismatic eyebrow at the lavender Unicorn. “Wait. You know everything there is to know about everything ever, but you don’t know what a power nap is?”

“Should I?” Twilight suddenly felt worried, and it showed in her own voice. Over the dozen years of her tutelage to Queen Celestia herself, Twilight Sparkle had read a good number of books, and the volume of reports she had written on them (most were of her own volition, and not mandatory for the Queen’s assignments). But never, in any of the readings she had perused, had she ever seen the word power nap. Had she overlooked something in a book of hers…? Was this ‘power nap’ some sort of secret to unlocking greater power through napping in a particular way? Did these Ponyville ponies really hold some sort of secret power that could help her triumph over NightMare Moon…?

“A power nap’s when you only sleep for, like, half an hour or an hour,” Rainbow Dash explained shortly. “You get all the benefits of a full night’s sleep, but in only, like, half of the time.”

Something in Twilight’s mind snapped. An eye twitched.

“Technically, Rainbow, that power nap a’ yers would only really be ‘bout a quarter or an eighth ‘f a night’s rest.”

“Don’t bring math into power naps, AJ. It won’t end well.”

“Trust me. I know~”

“Only you could bring math into a power nap and cause such mayhem, Pinkie Pie.”

“Well, it all worked out well in the end, didn’t it? Well, I mean, apart from Mr. Cake’s tail getting caught in that clothes wringer, and Auntie Mayor’s silver mane dye going missing, and all the leaves on the Golden Oak Library being painted plaid…”

“Um… girls…?”

“What’s shakin’, Fluttershy?”

“I think you girls… should look at Twilight…”

“Twilight…? Sugarcube…?”

Twilight had zoned out, staring blankly at Rainbow Dash even as she carried on her conversation with the other four ponies. Spike, who had just begun to stir, immediately looked to Rarity, then to Twilight when he saw where the alabaster Unicorn was looking.


Twilight shook her head swiftly, her ears flattening as she did so. She fixed her expression into a more confrontational look at the cyan Pegasus.

“That’s it? A power nap is just what you call a nap where you can’t put in the time for a full six hours of sleep?”

“Hey, don’t get mad at me. I didn’t name it. Besides, I’d thought an egghead like you would already know about power naps. Get more time into the day to read, right?”

Twilight prepared to snap at Rainbow Dash’s cocky expression, but then she processed those last nine words, and a whole new range of scenarios opened up in her mind…

“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight beamed. “I really shouldn’t have gotten mad at you about power naps. They really sound useful for a reader with so little time on her hooves!”

‘I bet they would be,” Rainbow Dash muttered. This did nothing to diminish Twilight’s high spirits. Now she could potentially earn acclaim for being the pony who’d read through A Treatise On The Exchange Of Spell Matrices Through Alicorn Contact faster than anypony! Said treatise was notorious for being particularly sesquipedalian and loquacious even for a treatise, and took an average of three-dozen hours to read in full, so it took most ponies three days at least to read it. With power naps, Twilight could read it in two days! This was…

“Why’re we focusin’ so much on power naps?” Applejack interjected. “We gotta be plannin’ on gettin’ into and outta them there Crystal Mountains!”

Twilight recoiled, shaking her head. She had been so sidetracked by this little discourse that she had almost forgotten about what they had come all this way for.

“Right. Thank you, Applejack,” Twilight said seriously. “You always help keep me on track.”

“Ya cin count on me fer that,” replied the palomino Earth Pony with crossed forelegs.

“So, what’s the plan?” Rainbow Dash asked. “We’ve kinda trusted you knew what to do for the past three weeks. Ready to spill?”

“Just about,” Twilight said sharply, “if you were less blunt about it.”

Fluttershy stepped forward, between Twilight and Rainbow Dash; was it coincidence, or was she interceding on her friend’s benefit? “I’m sorry, Twilight,” she said, “but shouldn’t we be worrying more about the Crystal Mountain plan?”

Twilight bowed her head slightly to the yellow Pegasus, “Es tut mir leid, Fluttershy. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Maybe I’m a little sleep deprived myself…? Anyway, here’s the plan…”

Twilight then delineated the plan to her band, etching lines in the ground with one toe on her hoof to represent the boundary of the Crystal Mountains a mile away, their present location, the path that security would head to see to their distraction, and the assumed path they would need to take to avoid the security detail. Twilight had been mulling over the details over the fortnight-and-a-half since they crested the North Equinus Mountains. She’d recalled looking over an outdated overview of the Crystal Mountains the year before. She had no idea how much stronger the security had gotten since then. She knew about − and warned the band of such − silent alarm spells that were placed around many of the most vitally important items kept in stock within the Crystal Mountains. Twilight emphasized, particularly for Rainbow Dash, that caution was of utmost importance, and that quietness and stealth would be needed in the event that stealth spells Twilight had learned under Queen Celestia would not be sufficient for the security they’d meet.

Twilight took in a deep breath. “Well, I think that’s everything we’re going to need to cover. Any questions, anypony?”

The five mares had set themselves down on their haunches, listening to Twilight attentively, though attention could be easily feigned (as Twilight had learned by so many social-climbers back in Canterlot). Sure enough, Rainbow Dash put a hoof into the air.

Twilight sighed. “Yes, Rainbow Dash?”

“You sure you can handle your part of the distraction?”

Twilight paused for a moment, impressed; she had expected a more intricate question out of the cyan Pegasus.

“Well… I’m a more adept Unicorn than Trixie was. I’m sure I can handle it.”

Rainbow Dash blinked, “I guess.”

“Alright. Any more questions?”

Some seconds passed. Nopony else raised a hoof − but Spike raised a claw.

“Yes, Spike?”

Spike blushed, “Can I go with Rarity?”

Twilight chuckled lightly, “Of course you can, Spike. Rarity, keep a close eye on him.”

“You can depend upon me, darling, to keep Spike safe during this operation.”

Spike trotted up to her, clasping his claws endearingly, “Isn’t she just wonderful, Twilight?”

Rarity giggled shortly, “Oh, Spike, you flatterer!”

Twilight cast her eyes about the band, “Well? Anypony else?”

Silence greeted Twilight, and she gave a sly smile to the group.

“Alright then, everypony. Grab your saddle-bags. We’re gonna get that book!”

Officially, the Crystal Mountains had been first transformed into a storage facility for extremely sensitive items less than a douzaide after the banishment of NightMare Moon. In a confrontation unrelated to NightMare Moon, Queen Celestia came to possess several artifacts brimming with forbidden magic − known to some as dark magic or black magic, though the Queen worked hard to discourage such classification, as neither dark magic nor black magic were inherently evil, and even light magic and white magic could be used towards ill ends. Storing them under Canterlot was considered, but rejected; it was a heavy population center, and a port of call for airships and zeppelins the world over.

The Queen’s eye drifted towards the Crystal Mountains. They were too treacherous for the residents of the Crystal Empire to traverse, and at any rate, the Crystal Ponies usually made port at Vanhoover (then known as Coltumbia) to the west or Manehattan (New Amstirrupdam at the time) to the east anyway.

Over the course of two-gross years, the entirety of the Crystal Mountains’ interior was carved out into a labyrinthine complex save for a four-dozen-and-two-meter-thick façade bolstered by all manner of defensive and repulsive spells, burrowing at least two miles down below the base of the mountains. Laws were passed forbidding the settlement of any land within one-gross miles of the Crystal Mountains in case of a cataclysmic breakdown in security. A token guard force was kept on patrol to maintain the defensive spells, which were constantly being updated to counter advancements in offensive spellwork, and to ensure that the items within remained tranquil.

For not all of the spells were meant to keep things out, but to keep just as many in. As the facility within the Crystal Mountains saw its contents swelling, many artifacts that were possessed of a fell eldritch magic began to stir, and countermeasures had to be developed to prevent them from visiting terror unimaginable upon the ponies of Equestria.

Nopony knew exactly what simmered beneath the surface of the Crystal Mountains, but many terrible stories had spread over the grossenturies by word of mouth and by guardsponies lucky enough to successfully transfer out of Crystal Mountain duty, driven half-insane and living off of a compensatory stipend granted by Queen Celestia herself. Tales of quasi-sentient books that twisted the minds of innocent ponies into bloodthirsty puppets; of mirrors that sucked out the soul of anypony unlucky enough to even glance at her or his reflection; of feedbags filled with ponies’ teeth that turned a pony’s bones into splintered wood when worn; of troughs of water that drain the fluids from anypony sorry enough to drink from it… The list of horror stories could go on forever.

Of course, as time passed, and awareness of how to deal with certain artifacts became more widespread, the deterioration of Crystal Mountain guards’ minds trickled off, though would usually spike shortly after the acquisition of a new magical artifact.

As things presently stood, the two guards on duty at the unassumingly small entrance to the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility were bored out of their respective skulls by the tedium of the far-too-long-lasting night sky.

“So, I just got a message in Horse Code just after lunch,” the orange Pegasus said abruptly, his blue mane sticking in every direction and even hanging over heavy-lidded eyes.

“Really?” replied his compatriot, a hazel-eyed Earth Pony with an earthy coat color and dark-brown mane. His eyes had shadows under them as well; neither had gotten good sleep in weeks, and orders were often slurred and repeated angrily as a result. “What’d it say, Flash?”

“Said that NightMare Moon came back, stopped the Sun on the other side of Harmonia,” Flash said flatly. “Don’t that explain this, Blade?” He nodded lazily out to the gleaming stars and glowing Moon.

“Oh,” Blade said lazily. If either was at their full faculties, the return of NightMare Moon and the eternal night would have seen a far more animated response. As it stood, they knew that they would be better served saving their energy in case anypony or anything got too close to the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility.

Not that anypony ever bothered to come up here. Not even dragons looking for gems for their hoards bothered to attempt any sort of attack on the Mountains. It really was as dull as a worn horseshoe these days up at the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility.

“You know,” Blade sighed, “sometimes I wish that my special talent was tempting fate, so that I could say I really wish that something would happen out here at the Crystal Mountains, and then, bang! Something happens.”

Flash only nodded and gave a grunt of acknowledgement.

It seemed like fate had a sense of humor.

A tremendous ursa major, bright pink in color, a white six-pointed star gleaming on its forehead, reared up as if out of nowhere, bellowing to the heavens a half a mile off to the east. Its claws were as thick as tree trunks, its teeth wider than a draft horse’s torso, its gaping mouth wide enough to swallow a six-pony house.

Flash Sentry and Valiant Blade’s hearts leapt into their throats, and adrenaline shot through their bodies. Any malaise that had hung over them moments before had vanished. All that was left was an exhilarating terror pumping through their veins as they faced each other.

“Valiant Blade, alert the security detail! They probably felt the roar in their ribcages, but tell them anyway!”

Valiant Blade smiled in spite of the situation, saluted Flash, “Wilco!” and galloped back into the Storage Facility. The ursa major continued to prowl about the exterior of the Crystal Mountains, too close to the entrance for comfort; if it figured out there was an entire detail of ponies inside this mountain, it would not rest until it smashed the mountains apart to feed upon them.

Within minutes, Valiant Blade had returned with every able-bodied mare and stallion in the Storage Facility, saluting Flash Sentry. The herd of guardsponies galloped − or flew in the case of the Pegasi − towards the ursa major in the hopes of driving it off from the Crystal Mountains.

After five minutes, when they had gotten within a stone’s throw of the ursa major, a shadowy band slipped up to the entrance of the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility.

“We made it!” Twilight beamed.

“That worked smashingly, darling!” said Rarity smilingly in spite of her ragged mane and rough hooves.

“Well, Ah’ll be…” Applejack looked at the carven cavern leading into the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility. It was not lit up by any means, but there could be no mistaking this for any naturally formed cave. The walls of gray stone were exactly parallel with one another, as was the earthen floor with the ceiling, leading deep into the mountain. “This is some quality Earth Pony work…”

“I think I should warn you guys,” Twilight said sharply, getting everypony’s attention. “If what I remember about the Crystal Mountains is still accurate, there are all sorts of evil magic artifacts being stored here. Most of them should be under containment, but… just don’t touch anything, no matter how much it tempts you.”

“‘How much it tempts us’…?” Applejack echoed.

“Darling, what could possibly be so tempting?”

Twilight hesitated. She was not exactly inclined to tell them exactly what could be found in the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility, nor was she entirely sure what could have been introduced into the mountainous warehouse since she had read about the Crystal Mountains. She knew that, as a filly, she was always terrified of the idea that NightMare Moon was hiding under her bed at night. Finally, her mother set her mind at ease, her alicorn lighting up blue to show that there was nothing there but a pair of shiny ping-pong balls that she’d taken for eyes. Knowing that imagination was more powerful than words, she took a deep breath.

“You don’t want to know what could tempt you down there,” she said as she gestured into the mountain with her horn.

“Uhh, yeah. She does,” Rainbow Dash interjected. “And I’m pretty sure we all do.”

“Ah’m fairly certain that what’s down in these here Crystal Mountains is better worth not knowin’ about.”

“Thank you for your continuing support, Applejack,” Twilight said brightly. “Now, everypony after me.”

And with that, Twilight led the path down the tunnel, followed by Spike, Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy.

The tunnel sloped down slightly, at a steady angle set by Earth Ponies probably long dead, lit by the occasional grate in the ceiling revealing a dwimmer-light cast by Unicorns probably long dead. Though the tunnel itself was not long, only a couple gross of hooves, the trip seemed to take an eternity. There was no way of knowing what was happening outside except judging by the ursa major outside, which was no accurate barometer of how much time they had to search for Studies on Pundamilia Culture. Their every hoofstep seemed to echo with exceptional clarity, as though the very Mountains themselves were trying to alert the guardsponies as to intruders.

“Umm… Twilight…?” Even Fluttershy’s hushed voice seemed to be magnified in the tunnel.

“Yes, Fluttershy?”

“Will… will the guardsponies know something is up when they can’t touch your ursa major?”

“Well, my ursa major should be intelligent enough to avoid being touched by them.”

The hoofsteps of Twilight’s companions stopped, and she turned to see why. The looks on their faces, illuminated dimly in the faint dwimmer-light of the tunnel itself, were of shock and astonishment.

“You mean… that there bear-titan outside’s… alive?” Applejack stammered.

“Not exactly, Applejack,” replied Twilight. “It might be acting out in ways that would prevent those guards from touching it either physically or magically − better they suspect an unusually fast ursa than know that it’s an illusion − but it’s not in any way self-aware, which is a hallmark of something that is truly alive.”

Rarity blinked. “Darling, I do not believe that is quite how Trixie Lulamoon’s illusion spell worked.”

“Oh? An’ what makes you an expert on illusion magic, Rarity? All them airs ya put on each day?”

“Ha ha ha, very funny, Applejack. As I was saying, I have a very keen eye for how ponies’ minds tick. It’s how I determine what a mare is looking for in a saddle when coming to my Carousel Couture. And though I know that your ursa major is a dead ringer for hers − even being the color of your dwimmer shimmer, like hers was − it behaves altogether more autonomously.”

“Well… I guess I might have subconsciously improved on Trixie’s illusion magic, having never actually seen her doing it, but―…”

“Wait. So… you mean you actually wrote a new spell, darling…?”

“Not exactly…”

“See what I mean, Mom?” Spike piped in, spreading his arms wide. “You’re amazing! No wonder Queen Celestia picked you as her student!”

Twilight’s ears flopped as she felt herself smiling stupidly and flushing pink. “I’m not all that special. The Queen just took me in so that I could train myself up enough to turn Mom and Dad back to normal…”

“Not just that, judging by the string of clues she’s left us,” Rainbow Dash cut in.

“Ah agree. Doncha think it a might bit odd, sugarcube, that she’d put so much faith in ya if’n she didn’ think you were a real swell magic-doer?”

Twilight turned away, facing back down the tunnel. “You guys are just saying that to make me feel better about myself…”

“Of course we are!” Pinkie suddenly popped up in front of her, despite Twilight not having heard her move. “It’s because we all like you!” Once more, Pinkie Pie administered a rib-crushing hug to Twilight’s barrel, and once more Twilight felt like she was being hugged by a very fuzzy octopus. Looking down, she saw that Pinkie’s forelegs seemed to be bending fluidly around her multiple times, as if they had no bones. And that wasn’t all…

But Pinkie had already let go, and had immediately grabbed Twilight’s face in her really rather rubbery hooves, her spirally blue eyes filling Twilight’s vision.

“It’s not wrong to wanna make somepony happy just to make them happy, Twilight, you silly filly! We’re your cheering squad when you need it! Don’t forget it!”

Looking over her shoulder at the mares standing behind her and offering her each of their unique smiles − Applejack sloppy but also steady, Rainbow Dash irreverent and fangy, Rarity graceful and strong, Fluttershy small and sincere − Twilight felt her heart singing in her barrel. She never felt such kinship with any ponies before. After everything she’d seen with all the social climbers and hooflickers before and especially after becoming Queen Celestia’s personal protégée, she had foalishly assumed that everypony everywhere was exactly the same. There was no reason that anypony wanted to know you unless they could get something out of it. The sole exception seemed to be Queen Celestia herself; such a paragon of patience and kindness that even the meanest and most petty pony could easily see the light of the world just by meeting her. Spike had the reason of seeing Twilight as his mother.

But these ponies… they wanted to be her friend… just for her being her!

Twilight shook her head.

“We better get going,” she said clinically. “We’ve wasted enough time in this tunnel as it is.”

But as they continued their trot down the tunnel into the hub of the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility, Twilight wore a gentle smile on her muzzle, and tears of warm joy slid slowly down her face.

The central hub of the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility was a wide perfectly circular chamber hewn out of solid rock, lit by intermittent torches along the wall. Between each pair of torches, enchanted to glow whiter and brighter than normal fire, was a hallway leading deeper into the facility in every direction. At the opposite end of the hub from the entryway was a ramp leading up to higher rings in the hub, each one also featuring bright torches and hallways into further subsections. At the right-hoof corner of the hub was a larger hallway, obviously leading into the living quarters for the guardsponies. Despite the brightness, or perhaps because of it, the atmosphere was very unfriendly, as though somepony or something did not want them there.

“Ah’ll be…” breathed Applejack. “This place just keeps surprisin’ us…”

“Where do we even start?” Rarity gasped.

Twilight examined one hallway entrance carefully. Etched into the wall above one of the torches were the words AQUASTRIA ACQUISITIONS.

“Aquastria…?” Rainbow Dash asked. “Somepony must not’ve paid enough attention in spelling.”

“No, it’s… this is where artifacts from the undersea kingdom of Aquastria are kept,” Twilight explained.

“I do believe I have heard of that,” Rarity said. “Is that not the realm of Mermares and Sea Ponies?”

“It is, Rarity. And that means that these storage archives are categorized alphabetically.”

“So where do we start the search?” asked Fluttershy.

“If I had to guess…” Twilight scanned around the hub, squinting at the lettering by each torch. After a few moments, her alicorn glimmered pink, a thin dwimmer-beam shining out at each distant etching by each hallway, the letters glowing pink briefly. After a quick sweep, Twilight’s dwimmer-beam settled upon a singular hallway on the second level, the letters gleaming out for everypony to see: PUNDAMILIA ACQUISITIONS.

“There!” Twilight shouted triumphantly.

“Alright! Let’s go!” Rainbow Dash cheered, gearing up for a flying charge down the Pundamilia hallway.


The clearing of Twilight Sparkle’s throat stopped Rainbow Dash dead. Her ears flattened as she grinned nervously, floating to the ground and innocently nibbling at one of her primaries.

Twilight smiled, “That’s more like it. Everypony after me!”

She cantered to the Pundamilia corridor with her band of companions at her heels.

The hallway into the Pundamilia section had entered into another hub of sorts. For this was how the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility was laid out; the central hub branched off into smaller hubs that themselves branched off to the expansive storage chambers throughout the Crystal Mountains. As such, many of the branching pathways could lead on for miles in any given direction, a simple but proven defense against any aspiring thieves; the isolation could often be enough to prompt a ne’er-do-well to turn themselves in out of desperation to simply see somepony else again.

So when the path started to curve onto its side ahead of the band, most of them became tremendously unsettled.

Pinkie Pie just giggled, “The hallway’s all twisted~”

“Twilight, I think I’m going quite mad!” Rarity breathed. “The corridor seems like it’s… twisting.”

“That’s a part of how this facility was designed,” Twilight explained, sounding a little uneasy herself. “Special gravity alteration spells were devised exclusively for this Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility, so that the storage chambers would not necessarily have to be level with one another. Each hallway twists and turns at any angle the designers pleased, regardless of the gravitational center of Harmonia itself. It’s to disorientate anypony who’d be daring enough to come all the way up here and and try to steal something they shouldn’t.”

“Well, it’s really working,” Rainbow Dash said warily, floating in the middle of a twist in the hallway, trying to remain upright with the hallway’s original orientation. “I feel like I’m flying sideways…”

“Ya should land on the floor an’ give walkin’ a try, Rainbow,” Applejack sighed. “Yer just makin’ things all complicated-like fer yerself.”

Rainbow Dash gave a look of bitter defiance to Applejack before alighting on the stony floor, kicking spitefully at the smooth surface.

“We all have our burdens to bear, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity said. “We must progress forward in spite of, and because of, the troubles that we will face.”

“Yeah, yeah, I gotcha. No need to sound like some Dark-Horse Ages philosopher or something.”

“That’s… an oddly specific simile, coming from you,” Twilight observed. Instantly, Rainbow’s muzzle scrunched up and her pupils narrowed, prompting a round of laughter from her fellow members of the band.

“Umm, I’m sorry, but… shouldn’t we be moving on?” asked Fluttershy.

Twilight started, “Yes, we should! You shouldn’t apologize for it, Fluttershy. We really do need to be moving along! But… slowly, if you please. With gravity as it is, you really don’t want to go too fast, or you’ll get sick or dizzy.”

In spite of Rainbow Dash’s grumbling at being “grounded”, the band progressed down the hallway even as it twisted around such that if one of them were able to look up through the ceiling, they would be able to see Harmonia’s core dozens of grosses of miles straight “up”. The progressing gravity spells placed upon each hoof’s length down the corridor were meant to gradually ease a pony into a new gravitational orientation from the normal, but not so gradually as to be unnoticeable. Particularly sensitive guardsponies in the past had gotten quite nauseous in passing through especially sharp twists and turns. It had since become an unspoken rule of the facility to take the corridors at a leisurely trot and keep one’s gaze down so as to avoid vertigo. This corridor to the archive of Pundamilia artifacts twisted around itself by one-gross-six-dozen-and-nine degrees counterclockwise, before gradually sloping down into the very roots of the Crystal Mountains. This meant that, after the twisting, the corridor would seem to slope upwards to an angle of six-dozen-and-eight degrees off of the perceived horizontal. Skittish or hasty ponies could be dizzied by the nature of the gravity spells.

The progression down the corridor was handled better by some than others. Rarity kept staring down at her own hooves, almost bumping into Twilight as one either slowed down or the other sped up. Fluttershy trotted forward very slowly, to the point that Rainbow Dash flapped over behind her − staggering a little at the vertical shifting in gravity − and pushed her along with her head against Fluttershy’s flank. Pinkie was bouncing off of the walls and ceiling, seemingly unencumbered by the changes in gravity as Twilight could swear that Pinkie occasionally walking along the walls or ceiling. At some point, Twilight thought that Pinkie was trotting along with her left hooves on the wall and her right hooves on the ceiling! Each time Twilight double-taked, and Pinkie was suddenly on the floor with the rest of her band. Twilight put it down to her experiencing delusions because of all the gravitational shifts she was walking through and gave it no further thought.

After some minutes of trotting down an increasingly darkening corridor, never knowing if the hallway would take another twist or turn in some other disorienting direction, the band of seven suddenly stepped into pitch blackness. Twilight’s ears perked as she heard her hoofsteps echoing more loudly than they had in the corridor. They had entered a large space.

“I think we’re here,” Twilight whispered to her companions.

The instant the words had left her mouth, the room lit up brilliantly. After the progressively dimming dwimmer-lights in the hallway ceiling, the bright-white torches encircling the room were practically blinding. Twilight’s foreleg flew up over her eyes, and some stumbling behind her told her that the other six were doing the same.

Blinking the spots out of her eyes, Twilight took in the Pundamilia archives hub. It was smaller than the central hub of the Crystal Mountains facility, but more decorated, and with no branch off to living quarters. There were ominous-looking wooden masks with wide empty eyes and long muzzles. Deadly-looking spears, tipped with barbed teeth rather than forged steel, rested against racks between torches and hallways. At the opposite end from the entryway stood a pair of statues like ponies, but with grooves along their bodies at intervals, manes that pointed straight out not unlike mohawks, and rather broader muzzles than ponies.

“Zebra culture,” Twilight said lowly.

“It’s… rather frightening,” Rarity stammered.

“Actually,” Twilight motioned towards the wooden masks, “those masks are supposed to mean hello and welcome.”

“They don’t look very welcoming,” Rainbow Dash blurted out, her ears flattened slightly.

“It’s welcoming to Zebras,” Twilight said. “It’s the culture that they’re used to, and we have to respect it, as different as it may be to us.”

Eyes spread out to the six corridors branching out from the Pundamilia archives’ hub.

“Okay,” Twilight continued, “We each take our own corridor, and investigate for a book titled Studies on Pundamilia Culture.”

She lit up her alicorn.

“Everypony, touch your heads to my horn.”

“Why?” Rainbow Dash asked. “What’s this all about, purple-smart?”

“It’s a simple signal spell I learned,” explained the purple Unicorn. “I’m going to place a small enchantment on each of you, which will be lifted when one of you says The striped book, by hook or crook. That will be psychically broadcast to each of the rest of us, a signal that we should all return to this hub.”

“Will it hurt?” Fluttershy asked timidly.

“It don’ matter if it hurts,” Applejack said decisively, stepping forward. “Ah’ll do it.”

“That’s the spirit,” Twilight said with a joyfully triumphant tone, and she touched her shimmering alicorn to Applejack’s forehead. Their eyes met, and Twilight could count all the freckles on Applejack’s scarred muzzle. As the palomino stepped back, Twilight asked, “How do you feel, AJ?”

Applejack lightly rubbed a forehoof against the side of her head, a faint pink light glowing from the roots of her mane, “It tingles a might bit, but Ah cin bear it.”

With some mild trepidation, each of the four other mares trotted up to Twilight, one by one, starting with Rarity. Twilight’s pink dwimmer shimmer glimmered at the roots of each mare’s mane as she stepped away.

“Okay,” Twilight nodded, before turning to each of the six corridors in turn, “Everypony, pick a branch-off and look for the Studies on Pundamilia Culture book.”

“I’m going with Rarity!” Spike interjected brightly.

Trading nods and exclamations of assent, the seven split off down into the six corridors in search of Queen Celestia’s next clue to unlocking the Elements of Harmony and retaking Equestria.

The ursa major just would not go down!

It was not due to lack of trying for the part of the guardsponies. It just moved… too fast. Too fast for an ursa major. Flash Sentry chalked this up to their being sluggish with so little activity up here in Equestria’s Far North. What was truly baffling was how it seemed to become sluggishly slow when it was about to strike somepony, giving them just enough time to evade. Then somepony would lash out with a dwimmer-beam or a flying buck, and it would evade too quickly once more.

“Something’s not right here,” Valiant Blade huffed to Flash, bracing himself for another assault on the ursa. “No bear-titan can move that fast…”

“I know,” Flash replied. “There’s something off about this ursa.”

Before he could think any further on the situation, a boom echoed from the south. In a flash, a band of stars leading back to Canterlot blacked out, and dark contrails swirled around the ursa which went deathly still, as if it were stuffed by some vile Griffon of Orlalvov, before it dissipated into pink mist and faded away.

Flash, Blade and their comrades barely had time to comprehend what had unfolded in front of them before three dark-purple shapes landed sharply upon the plains. They were three Pegasi, in flight suits not unlike the Wonderbolts. They looked altogether less friendly and more formidable, and the mare at the head, with a wild blue mane stepped forward to Flash Sentry.

“Well, it doesn’t look like these guards will be of any use to the Queen,” she hissed through a mouth of fangs. She lowered her flight goggles below her muzzle, revealing golden eyes with slitted pupils narrowed in murderous intent. “They can’t see through such an obvious illusion!”

Nightingale’s partners bared their teeth as well, and Flash’s blood ran cold.

The hallway was all straight forward and stuff. To Pinkie Pie, straightforward was boring. Why do something straightforward when it can be all crooked and wonky and fun? So, she bounced down the twisting hallway with all-encompassing glee, ricocheting off of the walls and ceilings shamelessly, sometimes bouncing in opposite directions at once just to laugh at the look that would be on physics’ face if they had one. Really, obeying the same laws of physics as ponies did wore her down sometimes.

Pinkie sung a song of friendship and laughter and love and smiles to herself, which for Pinkie Pie meant singing for all the world to hear. Ignoring the social norms of not being a noise polluter, and flagrantly breaking the laws of physiology and gravity in such a way that Twilight Sparkle would be driven insane if she bore witness to this, Pinkie Pie found herself in the archive within a minute.

The hallway expanded slightly on what ponies would call all of Pinkie’s sides, alcoves every ten paces down the hallway winding downwards into Harmonia’s core, dwimmer-shields that were meant to prevent ponies from touching or interacting with their contents. For inside each alcove was an artifact of Pundamilia, and inside each artifact was an eldritch energy that sought to twist the minds of ponies into puddy.

Pinkie didn’t care in the slightest. So she reached through each dwimmer-shield as though they were not there and doodled funny faces on each of the snarling masks, produced some of her fluffy balloons from her flanks and blew them up and tied the strings around the grasping claws of loathsome statues, pulled her custom-built party cannon out from one of her saddle-bags and sent confetti and party favors flying both up and down the corridor at the same time, sprucing up every horrible thing in the hallway that she could find (and even some that she couldn’t, just in case).

This place was just so gray, just like the rock farm.

It really needed some fun colors, then everypony would smile!

Even for a steadfast mare like Applejack, it still took quite a bit of effort to avoid looking too intently at any of the artifacts to her left or her right. There were some downright peculiar doohickeys hereabouts: amulets made out of yellowing teeth and opals; a staff made out of what had to be bone; a shrieking mask with ivory fangs, headed by a sign stating WARNING: Has claimed the lives of two-dozen-and-three guardsponies; bulky statues of looming apes with wide jaws and clutching not-claws. If she was not mistaken, it almost seemed as though the gleaming gemstones set as eyes in statues were watching her. Thoughts that were not her own were whispering in her mind, trying to persuade her to break the magic shields and set them loose.

Applejack shivered. The hallway seemed to stretch on for eternity in front of her and behind her. Her hoofsteps echoed into infinity. She might have been the last mare on Harmonia for all she knew. She didn’t even hear the hoofsteps or voices of the others anymore. Had they fallen victim to the weird magic of these Pundamilia voodoo whatchamacallits…?

She steeled herself. This was not a good line of thought to take. If Applejack of the Apples was the last of this band, she would see its goal through to the end, if it was the last thing she’d do. Twilight Sparkle trusted her to see this task done, and she would stand by Twilight even if she could not be by the Unicorn’s side.

Folks back in Ponyville called her “the loyalest of friends, the most dependable of ponies”.

Stepping forward further into the dark, Applejack resolved to put her bits where her mouth was.

“Urgh… This is nothing like they made it sound in Daring Do…”

Rainbow Dash was beside herself with boredom. She could hear the voices of these things hissing free us this and unlimited power that, and really, what was it all about? She knew it was all a ruse, so why were they even bothering? The way that A.K. Yearling made it sound, Rainbow Dash would have thought that they would be controlling her mind to draw her in and disrupt the magical shields protecting them from less-than-awesome ponies and let them out and was Rainbow actually almost touching her muzzle and a hoof to a shield?

Withdrawing sheepishly, Rainbow gave a nervous laugh to herself.

“Yeah, that’s totally not creepy,” she muttered to herself. “I totally didn’t just almost kill myself.”

Guess I better eat my words, she thought. I guess this… this toothy-spear-thing was trying to get me to pull it out. I guess things really are more like Daring Do than I thought…

Bristling from her cannons up to her withers, Rainbow Dash shook her head violently, her mane settling even more unsettled about her neck than it had been previously.

She really wasn’t much of a daredevil for this sort of thing as Daring Do was.

Archaeology was for eggheads.

Whimpers echoed up and down the corridor. Fluttershy was quite overwhelmed by all of the scary Zebra things that were being stored here. Of course she wanted to help Twilight bring back Queen Celestia and the Sun, but this… this place… there was so much hate all around her!

Fluttershy froze. Did one of those statues just… turn?

Her heart leapt into her throat. It couldn’t have moved! But… maybe it did move! Fluttershy had never seen a creature like whatever the statue represented. It looked like a bull, but thinner and wilder. A sign above the alcove read CAUTION: This wildebeest statue has driven scores of Zebras and guardsponies incurably insane.

Rage filled her heart, her eyes meeting the sapphires in its head. Something changed in the light of those gems as she glowered at it.

“How dare you do that to those Zebras, and those ponies, and their families and friends? All that pain and misery you’ve put them through, and for what? You should be ashamed of yourself!”

The wildebeest statue did not budge − it was a statue − and Fluttershy quickly withdrew from it.

“Oh. I’m sorry. I forgot that you’re… just a statue…”

But the atmosphere of this wing of the Pundamilia storage wing had changed. What had previously been an angry and oppressive air about the room had become more withdrawn. Radiating out past the wildebeest statue went a wave of fear and regret, and Fluttershy felt that she was no longer unwelcome here.

“See? If you can’t do something nice, it’s better to not do anything at all.”

“So, Rarity… how’ve things been for you lately?” Spike asked in his most casanova-ish voice.

“I’m sorry, Spike, but now’s not really a good time to talk,” Rarity said in her most sympathetic tone.

Spike’s face fell. “Oh. I see. You don’t like me.” He kicked ruefully at the stone floor, looking morosely at the wall for scraps of gem.

Rarity placed a cloven hoof under the mulberry drake’s chin, drawing his eyes up to hers. “No, Spike! You mustn’t let yourself believe that. Of course I like you!”

His entire demeanor changed immediately, his slitted pupils widening to either sides of his eyes and his smile almost splitting his head in two. “Really?”

Rarity smiled, “Really. It’s just… we’re on a bit of a tight schedule here, helping look for that book for Twilight. I’ll promise you, Spike: we can talk together, pony-to-pony − err, rather, pony-to-dragon − after we’ve emerged and found a place to settle down. Promise?”


With Spike’s spirits lifted, Rarity faced down the hallway once more.

“Now, remember, Spike, that we’re looking for a book titled Studies onPundamiliaCulture…”

Spike turned from facing the left-hoof side of the corridor to face Rarity… who was enraptured by a golden statue of an ornately dressed ape wearing a savage grin of fangs, clutching in its not-claws the biggest ruby Spike had ever seen!

Rarity’s eyes shimmered with the crimson glow of the ruby. It was so big… so beautiful… It had to be over ten-and-a-half-megagross carats! And it was just sitting there, gathering dust, nopony wanting it or needing it… Nopony would miss it… It deserved a better home than this…!

Spike watched Rarity warily. She was almost pulling herself forward towards the ruby, an odd glow in her eyes that Spike didn’t like. This wasn’t right. That ruby looked delicious, but there was just not something right about this. It was down here for a reason…!

Looking up at the frame above the statue and ruby, Spike read a sign that stated The ape should NEVER be parted with its ruby. The fact that the word NEVER was triple-underlined set Spike’s heart at marathon speeds. In all his time living with his mom Twilight, triple-underlining meant that it was of absolute utmost importance. Then again, Twilight triple-underlined almost anything, but even so…

“Snap out of it, Rarity! That ruby’s not good! Leave it alone!”

Rarity’s ears twitched at hearing her name, but she continued to trot forward as if hypnotized. Spike began to cry; this was not good for Rarity. Even if the dwimmer-shield in front of the ape statue didn’t kill her, the ape statue itself most likely would…!

He gulped. “I’m sorry, Rarity…”

He grabbed her tail and pulled as sharply as he could.

Rarity let out a high squeak as she jerked back from Spike’s pulling, and she almost fell backwards on top of the little drake. Scrambling backwards from the fallen alabaster Unicorn, Spike braced himself against the wall as she staggered back to her hooves, staring at the ape statue’s base. Would she hurt him…?

“Please don’t hurt me, Rarity…”

She turned to face him, slowly, mechanically.

Tears were flowing down her smiling muzzle, leaving black eyeshadow trails.

“Why would I hurt you, Spike? You saved me from that wretched statue,” she said, her soft tone shifting briefly to venomous as she glanced back at the ape statue. “I felt compelled… to take the ruby it had there… It’s just too big to leave down here… But it’s not mine to take, or to give, is it?”

Spike sniffled, “I’m still sorry I hurt your tail.”

Rarity twitched her leonine tail gingerly, “Well, I will admit that it will be a little sore where you grabbed it, but… I could have been hurt a lot worse.”

Suddenly Spike, who was twiddling his thumbs, found himself in a periwinkle dwimmer shimmer, Rarity bringing him in towards her, her right foreleg wrapping around his small torso as she nuzzled him. Spike’s round face flushed pink as he smiled stupidly at her warm touch.

“I do feel like I owe you my life, Spike, my little knight in shining armor.”

She opened her eyes, looking at the alcoves opposite the ape statue…

And froze.

One of them did not have a dwimmer-shield.

And on a small plinth inside it was a thick book with wooden bindings and yellow pages. Its title, etched into the cover, was Studies on Pundamilia Culture.

Rarity gasped.

“What is it, Rarity?” Spike asked concernedly.

Rarity beamed at Spike broadly. If it wasn’t for him saving her hide here, they might have passed this by and not even noticed it. She really did owe him a real treat, one that she did not have to pass through a deadly dwimmer-shield for. She would if she could, but for now…

Rarity’s words had a peculiar echo to them as she said, “The striped book, by hook or crook.”

A faint numbness trickled down Twilight Sparkle’s alicorn as she looked at each of the successive Pundamilian artifacts. At first she dismissed it as some sort of mental intrusion by one of the terrorful sources of magic in this corridor. But then she heard a distinctly ursine roar in her mind’s ear, and she knew:

Her ursa major had been extinguished.

Time was limited now. Any minute now the Crystal Mountain guardsponies would return to their posts throughout the facility, and Twilight and her band would be trapped in her until they were eventually found, by which point the guards would most certainly have switched their allegiance to NightMare Moon, and the seven of them would be brought to the chopping block in public executions as a testament to the folly of rebelling against the Night and Spike would die and

“The striped book, by hook or crook.”

Rarity’s voice echoed in Twilight’s head and presumably the heads of each of the other four mares in their band. The fact that she’d said those words, which Twilight chose because of the unlikelihood of anypony else using them in casual discourse, could only mean one thing: she’d found the book Studies on Pundamilia Culture.

The timing really could not have been better.

Without sparing another look further down the corridor, Twilight turned and galloped as quickly as she could back down the hall towards the hub. The nauseous spells of passing through the twisting, turning gravity orientation deviances meant nothing to Twilight; all that mattered was reuniting with her friends, getting out of here and deciphering the Queen’s message.

Reaching the hub, shaking her head to clear out the urge to heave. Applejack and Pinkie Pie were already waiting there, the latter bouncing back and forth from her left and right hooves.

“Got here as fast as we could, sugarcube,” Applejack said as Rainbow Dash flew out of the third corridor. “Seems like Rarity beat us to the buck.”

Pinkie Pie was singing a song about how working together meant that everypony could laugh together. The first hallway, the one she had searched down, was streaming with confetti and streamers and blue and yellow balloons. Blinking, Twilight realized that, once more, Pinkie was short some balloons on her flanks.

“Uhh, Pinkie?” Rainbow Dash said quickly. “You might wanna straighten your cutie marks out.”

“Oh? Really?” Pinkie said, looking over either shoulder and twisting her flanks slightly to get a good look at her now-asymmetrical cutie marks. “Okie-dokie-lokie~!” She took in a deep breath, deeper than Twilight thought she’d ever seen anypony taking, her cheeks swelling as her face twisted in consternation, concentrating and straining as though she were trying to pass a kidney stone…

Pop! With a sound not unlike a party popper, the missing balloons popped into existence back on Pinkie’s flanks. With a gleeful smile, Pinkie inspected her renewed cutie mark and gave a joyful cheer and leap.

“Guys, Rarity found the book! Rarity found the book!” Spike called out as he ran out from the fifth corridor, Rarity cantering closely behind. A wood-bound book levitated in her dwimmer shimmer.

“Excellent work, Rarity, Spike!” Twilight said brightly as Fluttershy trotted out of the fourth corridor. Twilight took Studies on Pundamilia Culture in her own dwimmer shimmer and slipped it into one of her saddle-bags. “Now that we’re all here… we have to leave. Schnell. The ursa major’s been dispelled.”

Her six addressees suddenly went stiff with shock, their pupils shrinking to points. Twilight lowered her head slightly, “Spike, get on my back. I can’t wink out because of anti-winking wards, so we’re going to have to run.”

The band did not need telling twice. Spike bounded up to his surrogate mother and leapt onto her back without her kneeling over for him, as she had already begun a full gallop straight out the hallway leading back to the main hub, the other five mares hot on her heels. The sickening feeling of galloping at full speed through the gravity shears did not affect the six adrenaline-charged ponies. What mattered more than anything was getting the book on Pundamilia culture out so that the Queen’s message could be decrypted.

The seven emerged into the hub from the Pundamilia corridor, and froze.

The Shadowbolts awaited them, several guardsponies tied up in some blue miasmic mist by the hallway to the living quarters. Nightingale’s malicious gaze shined even through her glowering shades, chilling the marrow of her seven targets.

“Well, well, well,” the Shadowbolts’ captain sneered, “look what the chimera dragged in. You fillies have got a huge bounty on your head, put forward by Queen NightMare Moon herself. And guess what? You’re also trespassing on government land.”

“This is Queen Celestia’s storage facility!” Twilight shouted in defiance.

Nightingale bolted forward quicker than blinking, leaving a misty blue contrail behind. She bared her teeth in Twilight’s face, her off-white muzzle twisted in a snarl. Yellow light danced behind her goggles.

“You do not interrupt me!” the dark captain growled, before her look settled down to mere dark anger. “This government facility is now under the purview of the Queen of Everlasting Night. Any claims that Celestia could make to it are now rescinded.”

Nightingale reared up.

“As are your rights to live.”

Without thinking, Twilight quickly shot a dwimmer-concussive-beam into Nightingale’s belly, sending the Shadowbolts’ captain flying into the ceiling. Her two wingponies immediately flew up to her sides to aid her.

“RUN!” Twilight bellowed, and immediately she and her band charged under the dazed Nightingale as she pulled herself off of the wall, shaking her head. As Fluttershy’s tail crossed the threshold, Nightingale’s voice echoed up the tunnel to Twilight’s ears.

“I’ll be fine! Wind Shear! Descent! Pursue them! Don’t let them escape!”

Daring to turn her head around to look at her chasers, Twilight saw the two Shadowbolt stallions as growing specks in the distance. Before she could call forth any banishment spells to send them back into the hub, Pinkie Pie leapt into the air, pulled out a bright-blue cannon that had no business fitting into one of her saddle-bags, and fired what looked like a ball of condensed confetti at the pursuers. Wind Shear and Descent, for their part, were too baffled themselves by Pinkie’s random attack, and were blown back by the packed party favors.

Shaking her head lightly to drive this insanity out of her head, Twilight looked ahead to see the growing gateway back into the starlight and moonlight of the outside. Any minute now, they would be outside of the Crystal Mountains’ anti-winking wards…

They were outside!

Taking in a deep breath she did not realize she was holding, Twilight took in the rich night air. The earthy scent filled her nostrils, reinvigorating her even though she could not have been in the Crystal Mountains facility for more than two hours.

“Hey, Twilight, we’re out!” Rainbow Dash shouted at Twilight as she flew up to her side. “Why didn’t we wink outta here yet?”

“The anti-winking wards extend for half a mile southwards from the Crystal Mountains themselves.”

Half a mile?” Rarity called out from behind.

Applejack stole a glance back at the Crystal Mountains. The three Shadowbolts had emerged, beelining for Twilight. Nightingale’s flight goggles had shattered, revealing gleaming gold eyes with slitted pupils. Her eyes glowed with a murderous light.

“Sugarcube, we’ve got company!”

“Look, in the sky!” Fluttershy cried out.

More Shadowbolts, seven more, were descending from the southwest and southeast.

Now what do we do?” Rainbow Dash moaned.

“Now’s the time for you to put your sick moves to the test!” shouted Twilight.

A spark danced in Rainbow Dash’s eye, and she beamed at Twilight as she’d never had before.

“Wilco, Captain Sparkle!” she barked before taking off into the air, barrel-rolling her way into the air to form a twister.

“Don’t stop!” Twilight called to the other four mares behind her. “Just let Rainbow Dash distract them long enough for us to get out of these wards!”

“No need to tell us twice, Twilight!” Rarity huffed.

Up above, the Shadowbolts were attempting to dive down towards the band galloping away from the Crystal Mountains, but none of the nine got very close before Rainbow Dash swooped in with a twister at her beck and call. Rather than risk getting caught in the prismatic tornado and tossed out at cyclonic speed (potentially) into the side of the mountains, each of the Shadowbolts veered off and attempted to regroup.

Nightingale narrowed her eyes at Rainbow Dash’s twister, before she bolted forward, barrel-rolling her way towards the cocky Pegasus bronco. Rainbow grinned boisterously at the blunder that Nightingale was making, before realizing that Nightingale’s move mirrored her own.

Nightingale planned to fight her twister-to-twister.

“Oh pony-feathers.”

Down below, Twilight Sparkle felt a fine change in the way that the magical currents traveled through the air. There was only one thing for it.

“We’re out of the wards! Rainbow, get down here!”

But Rainbow Dash, so close to a twister of her own making, which was struggling against the counter-spin of Nightingale’s, did not hear Twilight’s call.

“Stand back, Twilight!” shouted Pinkie Pie, stepping up in front of Twilight, “I’ll handle this!”

Reaching into her saddle-bag, Pinkie produced a megaphone − just how much could she fit into them? − and bellowed into it, “IT’S TIME TO GO, DASHIE!”

Twilight shook her head to try to get the ringing out of her ears, as did Applejack, Fluttershy and Rarity.

But Rainbow Dash did hear Pinkie’s call, and she broke off from her twister flying down to her friends at a speed faster than terminal velocity, tucking her legs in as close to her body as she could. The winded Shadowbolts, catching on to what she was doing, bolted down in pursuit to overtake her… “This is gonna be close!” Twilight said through gritted teeth as the other four mares huddled close to her… Rainbow Dash was pulling ahead of the nine… She tackled the group to the ground…

And Twilight Sparkle and her band of five mares and one drake fell through a singularity into an infinitely tight space, the seven of them being crunched into a single subatomic point, everything of all seven of them being compressed together, mingling and crushing together…

Until the seven emerged to take deep breaths of relief in the salty, misty air.

CHAPTER ix: Beyond the Sea

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Fading in and out of consciousness, a stitch in her chest, Twilight had only a vague idea of where she was. The full moon glowed in the western corner of the sky, indicating that they were megagrosses of miles away from the Crystal Mountains, from NightMare Moon, from the Shadowbolts. Weary moans and the sounds of hooves shuffling through sand reached her ears.

After what seemed an eternity, Twilight felt strength returning to her hooves, and she rolled over onto her side, a feat made more difficult by the imbalanced weight in her saddle-bags.

Twilight paused.

The book, Studies on Pundamilia Culture, was theirs!



She stood up, facing her companions − dare she even call them her friends? They were battered and bruised, shaken and rattled with their manes tousled. Pinkie Pie, surprisingly, seemed the least affected, but that may have only been because her mane and tail were perpetually frizzy. She was rolling about in the sand with a look of pure bliss, though. By contrast, Rarity looked utterly woebegone, not just in how unkempt her mane looked after three weeks of constant travel and a high-speed pursuit from the Shadowbolts, but her body language as well; she looked as though her cat Opal had died right in front of her. The other three − Applejack, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy − each looked wilder than they had in Ponyville, with ragged manes and overgrown fetlocks. On the Pegasi, it was clear that their wings needed preening work.

“Everypony okay?” Twilight asked hoarsely.

“Looks like it,” Applejack replied with a glance around at the band.

“Okay? I look positively bedraggled!” Rarity groaned. “I don’t believe I have ever looked quite so unkempt in all of my life! Err, I mean…” The alabaster Unicorn started upon noticing the dark withering glare that Rainbow Dash was giving her, “I’m… quite sure that the uncared-for look will be fashionable sometime soon. I just wish I’d packed a swimsaddle if I’d known we were coming to someplace sandy…”

“Twilight…” Fluttershy began timidly, “If you don’t mind my asking… can I ask you something?”

“Of course, Fluttershy,” Twilight said smilingly. “You should never have to ask me if you can ask a question.”

“Ohh. Okay. I’m sorry.”

“Jeez, Fluttershy!” interjected Rainbow Dash. “You don’t have to apologize over everything you say to anypony!”

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize about apologizing, either!”

“I’m sorry.”

Rainbow Dash groaned in frustration. “We’re having this fight again? It’s, like, the second time we’ve had this fight in a week! We’ve known each other all our lives, we’re closer than we’ve ever been, and we’re still…” The cyan Pegasus let out a growling sigh.

“Oh, we were arguing?” Fluttershy responded. “I’m sorry.”

“So, what was your question, Fluttershy?” Twilight asked loudly, bringing the yellow Pegasus’s attention back from the brash Rainbow Dash, who gaped at the yellow Pegasus with a look of mild irritation.

“Ohh. Umm… Twilight… What made you think to bring all of us here?”

Twilight looked around the beach. In the distance to the south she could make out the lights of a distant seaside village. To the north was a derelict lighthouse visible against the lights of the night sky. She knew exactly where this was.

“I guess I was just thinking of someplace safe and remote. NightMare Moon has to know that we’ve come from Ponyville, so she’s going to crack down on them terribly.”

“Then why didn’t we go back to Ponyville?” Rainbow Dash snapped. “We should stick with ‘em and be protecting them!”

“Ah don’ see it that way, Rainbow.”

Rainbow Dash blinked at the palomino. “You can’t be serious, AJ. You’re all about family sticking together. You think of Ponyville as like a big second family!”

“That Ah do, and Ah don’t deny that family should stick t’gether,” Applejack said levelly, sitting in the sand and drawing circles with a hoof. “But Twilight’s family t’ me, and she’s facin’ a whole world’s worth a’ trouble right now. Troubles that affect ev’rypony ev’rywhere. Ah can’ just let ‘er work through it alone.”

“Applejack…” Twilight gasped.

“An’ besides, Ah cin trust Big Mac t’ keep our family safe. Ah’d hoped you’d do th’ same, Rainbow.”

Rainbow Dash pointed a hoof at Applejack and opened her mouth to retort, but after several seconds of silence, she lowered her hoof and sighed, “I still feel like a pile of horse-apples for not being there.”

“Well, we have a job to do taking down NightMare Moon, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity cut in. “Queen Celestia has left this task to us, and we’ll have to bear our burdens…” She shuddered as she pawed at her mane gingerly. “And carry on.” Spike placed a claw gently on Rarity’s other foreleg, smiling at her. She smiled back.

All was silent for a few moments save the sounds of cresting waves and Pinkie’s humming as she continued rolling back and forth.

“Continuing on from where I left off,” Twilight said, “I knew that it wasn’t safe to go back to Ponyville. I knew that we’d have to trust them to handle troubles that come to them.” She looked out to the lighthouse in the north. “Queen Celestia brought me here five years ago, when I heard that she was meeting with mermare dignitaries from Aquastria. I’d never met one before then, and I admit that I was obsessed with their culture back then. Did you know that mermares are ovoviviparous?”

“What’s that about their uvulas?” Pinkie Pie asked, rolling onto her belly.

“Ovoviviparous,” Twilight explained, a slightly testy edge to her voice, “means that a creature carries eggs to term inside their body. Oviparous creatures, like birds, griffons and dragons, lay their eggs externally and wait for them to hatch. Viviparous creatures, like us ponies, don’t lay eggs. But even among ovoviviparous creatures, mermares are unique.”

“How’s that, sugarcube?” Applejack asked, ignoring Rainbow Dash’s groan of boredom.

Twilight’s eyes lit up, and an eager smile crossed her face the likes of which none of them had seen. The lavender Unicorn had always been so serious about so much that seeing her smile was very peculiar indeed.

“It’s the mermare stallion who gives birth to the babies.”

…But not so peculiar as what she had to share with them.

“What.” Rainbow Dash blinked.

“It’s true!” Twilight continued gleefully. “The merstallion carries the tadfoal to term and gives birth when the eggs hatch!”

“Then why are the guy mermares called merstallions?” Rainbow Dash asked bemusedly. “I mean, the merfillies don’t sound like they do a whole lot to do with the kids…”

“Because females lay eggs,” Twilight explained, trying to keep her patience, “and the merstallion isn’t the one who lays the eggs.”

“Let’s call him Mr. Mom~!” Pinkie piped up, pronking to her hooves.

Twilight smiled nervously, “Sure. Let’s go with that.”

“I still think it’s weird,” Rainbow Dash murmured to Twilight.

“Duly noted.”

“On a more pressing matter,” Rarity cut in, “Twilight, darling, do you have the book?”

“The book? Yes, I have it,” Twilight said, opening up her right saddle-bag with her dwimmer shimmer and levitating the wood-bound book out of it. The carven title Studies on Pundamilia Culture stood out strong against the starlight.

Applejack smiled, “We’ve got it!”

Twilight beamed at the farmer Earth Pony, “Now we just need to decipher the message, and we’ll be one step closer!”

“Umm… perhaps we should take the book a little further away from the shore,” Fluttershy added softly. “Umm… I mean… if it’s okay with you.”

“No, no, no, of course it’s alright,” Twilight said, trotting off with the book in her dwimmer shimmer, Spike close behind. Slowly, one after the other, the five other mares stood and followed after her. Settling down her saddle-bags at a promising spot, Twilight propped the book against a rock and rested down on her cannons and forearms. Her alicorn glowed pink, and the cipher left by the Queen in the Royal Canterlot Archives floated out of her saddle-bag. Settling the cipher next to the book, Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer glowed around the book itself, turning page after page after page. Upon reaching Chapter 25, Twilight beamed; it matched the page numbers on the cipher perfectly.

“It could take a while to figure this out, girls,” Twilight said lightly as she levitated a quill and inkwell out from her saddle-bag. “You should take a rest while I decrypt this. When I’ve finished, I’ll raise the Sun over the horizon for a few moments, as I promised to Ponyville.”

Rainbow Dash looked ready to protest, but a raised hoof by Applejack silenced her potential objection. Pinkie scooped up Spike and plopped him onto her back as she hopped on back towards the ocean.

“Ah don’ rightly think it’s warm enough t’ warrant a dip in th’ ocean,” Applejack observed. “It has t’ be below freezin’ by this point.”

“I would agree,” Rarity added. “I care not for frolicking about in the brine, but in this eternal night, I care even less so.”

“But why’s the ocean still all watery if it’s below freezing?” Rainbow Dash asked. “Shouldn’t it be… well, freezing?”

“Because th’ ocean’s got salt in it. It’s why ponies don’ drink direct from the ocean. Ya’d be losin’ water faster than ya’d take it in. Ya ever wonder why th’ Apple family lays down salt on our roads whenever y’all Pegasi schedule snowfall?”

“‘Cause you’re a bunch of spoilsports who don’t want to have snowball fights?”

Applejack glowered at the cyan Pegasus, who waved her forehooves defensively.

“It’s just a joke, Applesauce! Cool down!”

Applejack snorted through her nostrils, before resting back on her haunches and offering a thin smile, “Ya know, we Apples use salt t’ help chill iced water t’ keep our butts a’ cider cool.”

Rainbow Dash began to snicker, and Applejack narrowed her eyes at this.

“What’s so funny?”

“You said butt!” Rainbow Dash chuckled highly.

Rarity lightly threw a forehoof across the rowdy Pegasus’s cheek. Rainbow stopped laughing immediately, nursing her cheek as though it were cut.

“Hey! What did you do that for?”

“As a fellow businessmare, I will stand by Applejack in defense of her business terminology,” Rarity said with a dignified air, her hooves clicking together and her muzzle held high.

“Appreciated, Rare.”

“Pray don’t mention it.”

“Ah won’,” Applejack said, before turning her head back to face Rainbow. “Just so ya know, Rainbow, a butt’s about a ten-dozen gallons. Try drinkin’ all that cider at cider season an’ prove that yer worth yer saltlick.”

The bantering continued on for some time between the two, leaving the other four to find some other means by which to kill time.

“Let’s play volleyball~!” Pinkie squealed with a fluttering jump in the air.

“With what?” Spike asked. “We don’t have a ball.”

“Oh,” Pinkie said, sighing sadly as she sunk to the ground miserably, turning a faint shade of purple. Spike blinked; were ponies really as boneless as Pinkie when they got this sad? She looked like a pale-purple pancake with sad blue eyes.

“Maybe we could collect seashells…?” Fluttershy suggested.

Pinkie literally reinflated − complete with a balloon’s swelling sound − and returned to her normal bright pink hue and bright pink joy. “Ooh! Can we play volleyball with the seashells? Can we play seashells, Fluttershy? Please, please, please?” She was actually grovelling at Fluttershy’s hooves. The yellow Pegasus backed up sharply, alarmed by Pinkie’s rapid changes in behavior.

“Umm… yes?”

Pinkie put a hoof in the air victoriously, “Woo-hoo!

“You can play with seashells all you please, Pinkie Pie, dear,” Rarity said, leading Spike down the beach, “But Spike and I are due a little alone time.”

Spike half-turned back to Pinkie and Fluttershy and held up a curled-up claw with his thumb pointing to the sky. To the best of their knowledge, this was some sort of dragon coded gesture meaning Score!.

Searching for seashells with Rarity proved to be surprisingly entertaining to Spike. When Rarity had taken him along to kill time in this way, he thought that the only thing to look forward to was to be spending more time with his beloved Rarity. But in its own way, it turned out to be quite fun. There were so many different kinds of shells that Spike and Rarity found: clam shells, snail shells, conches of all sorts!

“Hey, Rarity!” Spike held up a clam shell with a white squishy something inside it. “This one’s still got something living in it!”

Rarity resisted the urge to smack the shell out of Spike’s claws, as the only clam shells that she would like to see should have pearls in them. But, for Spike, she swallowed her revulsion and smiled, “W-Well found, Spike! I daresay that that clam may yet produce a pearl for you!”

Spike gently placed the clam back on the beach, fixing Rarity with the best romantic look he could muster, which he held for several seconds. Rarity gave him an expectant look, and his presentation of suaveness evaporated as he scratched his chin, “Darn. Really shoulda come up with a good line about pearls…”

Rarity sharply gasped, pointing out into the spray, “Spike, look!”

He saw it, too. A multicolored shimmering glimmer from under the tide, just a few paces out from the edge of the water.

“I’ll go get it!” Spike cried out, charging to the water.

Suddenly, Applejack’s voice echoed in Rarity’s head.

…we Apples use salt t’ help chill iced water…

“Spike, wait!” Rarity implored, a hoof raised in alarm. “That water is…!”

But Spike was already wading through the water towards the rainbow something in the surf. He seemed completely unperturbed by what must have been freezing water as he reached down and picked up the object of Rarity’s former attention, returning to her side in less than half a minute. He looked slightly confused.

“Why the long face, Rarity?”

Rarity blinked, “You… just walked through that ocean water like it wasn’t… well, freezing.”

Spike looked back at the ocean, “Well… I was gonna show you that my scales can hold back a lotta heat and cold, but… It’s not that bad, actually. It’s actually pretty warm.”

Once more, Rarity found herself blinking at Spike. “Really?”

“Really really. You should try it out!”

“I’m sorry, Spike, but I dare not. My mane will dry out for sure!”

“Aw, c’mon. Just your hooves, at least!”

Rarity hesitated. “Well, I suppose a little couldn’t hurt. I mean, I have also read that seawater is utterly rejuvenating in small exposures… But wait, Spike! What about that… thing in the water…?”

Spike looked down at the thing in his claws, and gaped.

It was a conch made out of some pearlescent rainbow material that almost seemed to glow. Its gleam shone in Spike’s eyes, and his natural draconic urge to start a hoard began to claw at the back of his brain.

“That’s my gift to you, Spike, for saving my life in the Crystal Mountains.”

But when Spike looked up at Rarity, awed by the beauty of her gift to him, the beast shriveled in its corner at the back of his mind, cowed by the strange warm feeling that filled Spike like the Sun’s light.

“Th… Thank you, Rarity…”

“Think nothing of it, Spike. It’s just a little gift to my favorite little dragon!” She nuzzled him as she finished her sweetly spoken statement.

Spike blushed, “Aw, shucks…”

The sky brightened to a deep purple-blue, a bright-red aura hovering over the eastern horizon. Spike and Rarity shared a quick look before a blaze of bright yellow-orange broke across the beach and ocean, and a blast of warmth struck them. They instinctively took in deep breaths as the Sun shone upon them; it was the first sunlight either had seen within a month. The loss of something so simple and so beautiful dawned upon them, and the urge to fight the NightMare was bolstered.

Then it sank back below the horizon, the night returning but not the cold, and Spike and Rarity both took off for their point of unwinking. Their seashell collecting venture had taken them surprisingly little distance from the place where Twilight settled down to decrypt that Bookwork cipher. On the way, they regrouped with Pinkie and Fluttershy, who were both clutching seashells in their mouths, and with Applejack and Rainbow Dash, both of whom was looking smugly triumphant (Rainbow Dash more smugly than triumphantly).

Twilight’s expression was neutral as she placed her ink-and-quill and Studies on Pundamilia Culture in one of her saddle-bags.

“So, does everypony want the good news first, or the bad news?”

The six others conferred quickly and silently amongst each other, and figured that the bad news could come first.

Twilight nodded slowly, blinking. “I figured as much. But… the good news and the bad news are so closely tied that I might as well just go through them the most logical way:” She took a deep breath, before continuing, “The good news is, I’ve decrypted the Queen’s Bookworm cipher. The bad news,” Twilight raised her voice slightly as Rainbow Dash had started to chuckle at the word Bookworm, “the bad news is… well, the bad news is what the decryption is.”

The slip of parchment on which Queen Celestia had written her cipher levitated in Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer, showing her six companions what the cipher said when decrypted.

I, Queen Celestia, have hidden the secret to the sixth Element with the royal bloodline of Pundamilia. Go to the capital, Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe, and present this cipher to Queen Malkia. She will trust you.

“But…” Rainbow Dash was the first to pipe up. “Isn’t Zebra-land basically across the ocean from us?”

“I’m afraid so, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied, “and that puts us in a bad position. We can’t bank on NightMare Moon leaving the transpasturic zeppelins and cruises alone. The illusion magic I’ve copied off of Trixie can’t do us any good anymore, because the Shadowbolts have seen through it.”

Applejack nodded darkly, “An’ y’all cin bet that they’ll file some sorta report ‘bout it to that nasty ol’ moon-crater.”

Twilight bowed her head at Applejack’s statement.

“So why don’t we just wink across the ocean?” Rainbow Dash blurted out. “I mean, you just winked us, like, a gigagross miles across the planet, so getting us to Pundamilia should be easy!”

“It’s not that easy, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight snapped. “Nopony who can wink out can wink to a location that they’ve never physically been to before. And since I’ve never been to Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe before, nevermind Pundamilia in general…”

The discussion of Pundamilia petered out after that, and Rainbow Dash floated down the sand, kicking in frustration.

“That’s a bunch of ponyfeathers!” she shouted. “This can’t be how it ends! We didn’t come all this way, fighting all sorts of hypnotized Canterlot Guards, trudging all the way across the Wide Plains, dealing with weird magic that Celestia locked away under a mountain, just to meet a dead end at the edge of some stupid ocean!”

Rainbow Dash took one deep ragged breath after another, her cerise eyes darting around to each of her other compatriots. Twilight Sparkle had a look of mixed anger and sadness on her face, one cloven forehoof rubbing the other foreleg. Applejack looked rather pensive, running a hoof around on the spot where her Stetson usually rested. Rarity was staring down at her hooves. Fluttershy traced out circles absentmindedly in the sand. Pinkie Pie’s mane had become long and lanky, her ears flat against her skull as she drew a smiley face in the sand with a weak smile on her face. Spike clutched a forearm, looking nervously morose as a rainbow conch rested at his feet.

Twilight sighed, “Well, girls, guess we’ll have to go undercover. Work out some secret identities. Smuggle ourselves out across the Pasturic Ocean. Spike, you’ll have to… Spike, where did you find that?”

Spike looked down at the rainbow conch at his feet, before picking it up and presenting it, “It’s a real pretty shell that Rarity gave me! Isn’t she just―?”

“That’s the Prism Conch!” Twilight gasped, eyes wide with mirth.

To Twilight’s immense disappointment, nopony else seemed to know what she was talking about. The rest of her band gave her looks of complete bafflement.

“The what-now?” Applejack asked.

Twilight let out a slow breath, “The Prism Conch is only a priceless artifact linking the Equestrians and Aquastrians together. It’s been thought to be lost for almost a dozen-gross years.”

“Lost?” Rarity asked.

“And found~!” Pinkie added gleefully.

“Yes, lost,” Twilight continued. “For a grossentury after NightMare Moon’s banishment, Equestria was in chaos. Apparently, there were large cults devoted to the former Queen of the Night who were trying to overthrow Queen Celestia. Few of them went quietly. One that was based around here, near the seaside village of Pegasus―”

“‘Pegasus’?” Rainbow Dash interrupted excitedly. “They named a village after the Pegasus race?”

Twilight gritted her teeth, “If you’ve ever read On the Origin of Ponies by Charles Darweanling, you’d know that Pegasi got their name from the village of Pegasus itself. Dozens of gross years ago, before Equestria, before the Era of Discord, before the Queens, even before the Three Pony Tribes, there were just the Earth Ponies and the Unicorns. Pegasus was an Earth Pony village, where Pegasus ponies would wear the wings and feathers of seagulls. It was supposed to represent the freedom they felt by the sea. Then… a gorgon slunk out of its cave and petrified every pony in town. Mare, stallion and foal.”

Fluttershy whimpered, “I don’t like this story…”

“I love this story!” Pinkie squealed. “Ponies always tell the funniest stories!”

Heads turned towards the pink Earth Pony at that statement.

“Pinkie,” Rainbow Dash cocked an eyebrow at the pink pony, “if you’re not a pony… then what are you?”

Pinkie just giggled, grinning at Rainbow Dash with a smile that may have been a little too wide and showed more teeth than should have had any business in a pony’s mouth.

“Silly Dashie. I’m Pinkie Pie~”

“Putting Pinkie Pie’s ambiguous equinity aside for a moment,” Twilight interjected with a raised voice, “Unicorn scholars arrived, subdued the gorgon, and unpetrified the afflicted ponies. But when they were first petrified, the gorgon’s magic stare had even petrified the wings and feathers they wore. And when they were unpetrified…”

“They had wings and feathers themselves?” Spike asked.

“That’s right, Spike, they did!” Twilight answered brightly, before continuing in a more sober tone, “along with the hollow avian bones that allow for unaided flight. That’s why Pegasi break bones easier than Earth Ponies or Unicorns.”

“So, what does this history lesson have t’ do with this doohicky?” Applejack asked, pointing at the Prism Conch.

Twilight smacked her forehead lightly, “Trots of the mouth. Sorry, girls. Anyway, about two-dozen years after NightMare Moon was apparently banished, an anti-Queen Celestia cult calling themselves the Eclipse Gorgons rose up.”

“‘Eclipse’?” Rarity asked. “Pardon my interruption, darling, but what is an eclipse?”

“I don’t know,” Twilight replied with a shrug, “but apparently the Eclipse Gorgons meant to violently invade the Saddle Valley and overthrow Queen Celestia. From what I can tell, based off of my readings on mermares and Aquastria, the Prism Conch was kept in the museum up at New Pegasus, but the Eclipse Gorgons stole it. Their last stand was about a furlong up the beach, where that lighthouse is now. The Wonderbolts tried to negotiate. Yes, Rainbow Dash, the Wonderbolts! Now don’t interrupt me,” Twilight added loudly as she noticed Rainbow Dash perking up at the W word. “Anyway, the Wonderbolts tried to negotiate, but the Eclipse Gorgons wouldn’t compromise, and attacked. Their hooves forced into action, the Wonderbolts completely dismantled the Eclipse Gorgons, but one of the pro-NightMare Moon Pegasi must have had the Conch and been flying over the ocean when she or he was… well, the Prism Conch was lost. But now we have it!”

“So, what’s so big about this stupid Prism Conch?” Rainbow Dash cut in obnoxiously.

“Rainbow!” Applejack barked. “Stop interruptin’ Twilight when she’s ‘bout to explain somethin’!” She gave her lavender friend a look, “Ya were about to explain, right?”

Twilight snorted out of her nostrils, “As a matter of fact, I was, Applejack.” She paused, took in several deep breaths to calm her nerves after all the interruptions, trying to think about all the good things that would come about when (or if) she turned her parents back from their vegetative states. She continued, “The Prism Conch, when blown into, will magically light a beacon down in the Aquastrian capital of Lyonesse, letting the mermares know that ponykind is their ally.”

“So, if we were to blow it now…?” Fluttershy asked.

Twilight beamed, “Then the mermares would know that the Prism Conch was found, and they’ll come up to investigate!”

“But how do we know that they didn’t take down that beacon?” Rainbow Dash asked, and for once, Twilight found it an astute observation. Equestria and Aquastria’s search for the Prism Conch, lost at sea, lasted for douzaides, before it was assumed that it was carried off by an ocean current to some uncharted part of the South, where the Dragons lived. It was widely accepted that it would never be found, that it was now buried at the bottom of some Ice-Dragon’s hoard, and now here it was. One half of the link between land ponies and sea ponies. They could blow on the Conch. But would their message be received…?

Twilight smirked, her alicorn glowing pink, “Only one way to find out!”

The Prism Conch floated out of Spike’s claws, a pink dwimmer shimmer shining around it. Twilight brought the narrow end to her lips, trying not to swallow any seawater. Breathing in deep through her nose, she blew.

A deep bellowing noise, not unlike a trumpet, but less even and refined, boomed out from the conch, reverberating in seven skulls and echoing across the ocean. It lingered in the air and their ears for at least half a minute before they felt that they could hear clearly again.

“Well…” Rainbow Dash scratched at an ear with a hind hoof. “That was definitely a thing.”

“So… how long do we wait?” Rarity asked.

“I’m not sure,” replied Twilight, returning the Prism Conch to Spike’s claws. “Lyonesse is a dozen-and-a-half miles out from here, but they’re at the bottom of the ocean. The mermares aren’t going to get here in ten seconds, even at their top swimming speed. Also, like Rainbow Dash pointed out, there’s no guarantee that the Aquastrians have even kept the beacon up. We might be sending a signal that will never be received.”

“So… what’s th’ plan, leader girl?” asked Applejack.

Twilight paused at that statement by her Earth Pony friend. Well, I do suppose I’m the leader. I’ve been the one who’s made so many of the decisions for our band. For better or worse… Crescent Rose’s face flashed in her mind, and her heart ached. Inhaling deeply through the nostrils, Twilight spoke, “We wait. For a day. That should be plenty of time for somepony from Aquastria to get the signal and swim out here. Everypony okay with that?” She looked pointedly at Rainbow Dash.

Applejack looked at Rarity, who looked back at Applejack. Fluttershy and Pinkie locked eyes. Then Applejack switched to meet Pinkie’s eyes, and Fluttershy locked eyes with Rainbow Dash. Twilight met Rarity’s eyes. One after another, each mare made eye contact with each of the five other mares in the party… and Spike as well.

“Ah’ll wait with ya, sugarcube,” Applejack replied.

“I’ll stay with you… if that’s okay with you,” breathed Fluttershy.

“I can’t wait to throw a sea pony party!” Pinkie Pie squealed.

“I would be a terrible pony to leave you now,” Rarity said with a dignified tone. Spike clutched his claws together and his eyes sparkled at her generosity.

Rainbow Dash sighed, “It wouldn’t be awesome of me to gallop off on you like this, so I’m with you all the way, TS.” She smirked a fangy smirk. “Besides, it’s fun getting your goat!”

Twilight’s ears drooped, “Why am I not surprised?”

“It’s always the most serious ponies who are the funnest to see squirm!” Rainbow Dash snorted in amusement at the sour look on the lavender Unicorn’s face.

Pinkie popped up from between Twilight’s forelegs, her forehooves clamping on either side of Twilight’s mouth and making Twilight make kissy faces, “Aww, c’mon, Twilight! Don’t be looking so dour! Being happy and laughy gives you power!”

Scrunching up her muzzle, trying not to laugh at how her face must have looked, Twilight puffed her cheeks out. Almost everypony in her band started to snicker; Rarity brought a hoof up to cover her muzzle, and Spike actually started to smothered his own mouth to hold back his chuckles. Seeing Spike’s expression, Twilight could not hold it in anymore. She laughed, and the dam broke on everypony else’s restraint, and soon the whole group of seven was laughing on the sand, and they laughed for a good long while.

Applejack wiped away a tear, “Goodness gravy, Ah think we all needed a good laugh right ‘bout now!”

“We all will,” Twilight said with a faint choke, “if it turns out that the mermares didn’t receive the Conch’s call.”

Spike looked down at the Conch in his claws, contemplating taking a blow at it himself. Screwing up his face, he puckered up his lips…

A deep lowing, somewhere between a cow’s moo and an earthquake, boomed out from the ocean. The waves went as still as ice, pale lights stirring beneath the surface.

Spike fumbled, almost dropping the Conch. “That wasn’t me!”

“We know that, Spike,” Rainbow Dash said bluntly.

“Could it be the mermares?” Fluttershy wondered aloud.

“I don’t know,” Twilight replied. “We’re so far out, and they might not even have received the―”

A beam of light shot up into the sky, shimmering with all the colors of the rainbow. A faint choral humming emanated out from the ocean, drawing the seven of them in.

“The message…” Twilight finished weakly. Off in the distance, she could make out the shape of something equine poking up out of the water. Its head turned to face them, and when it spotted them, it dove back down beneath, leaving no ripples. The band caught sight of a pair of flippers in place of hind legs and a long tapering tail.

“Ah think we’ve made contact, Twilight,” Applejack replied shakily.

“Ooh, I’m just so excited, I’m speechless!” Rarity cried. “Meeting our own nautical cousins, living at the bottom of the Pasturic Ocean! Can you just imagine what their saddles must be made out of? Do you think they use seashells? Oh, they simply must bind them with seaweed!”

“I thought you were speechless…” grumbled Rainbow Dash as Rarity continued on.

“I wonder what happens to balloons underwater,” Pinkie Pie mused in rare pensiveness.

Regardless, the six mares and one drake kept their eyes fixed on the edge of the shoreline, waiting for some sort of sign.

With nary a ripple, a half dozen shapes emerged from the deep. They were definitely pony-shaped, at least from the midsection forward. There were differences, though, even in what was equine; narrower muzzles which tapered to a rounded tip, flaps of skin along either side of the neck that were clearly gills, clear fins on the backs of their fetlocks. From the barrel back, though, was where the most pronounced differences were found. Where the hind legs would be were a pair of long flippers, and a tail as wide as the torso stretched out and tapered to a point. They did have cutie marks, like their terranean cousins. Two of the band − for even mermares used that term for a group − had wide translucent fins emerging from their backs, and another two had a row of spines leading from the backs of their skulls which terminated in very long spiraling bone-white alicorns out of the middle of their foreheads. All six wore a clamshell on her or his back.

The mermares had arrived.

“I… I’m Twilight Sparkle,” Twilight said with a high voice, nervously approaching and giving a bow to the orange merstallion at the front. “I’m the apprentice of Queen Celestia, and I call upon you bearing urgent news.”

“I am Wavebreaker,” he replied in a screechy voice that made many land ponies’ ears recede, “And the King already knows of what has unfolded, Twilight Sparkle. Our emissaries have reported on NightMare Moon’s return, and the beacon was immediately reoccupied.”

“King Leo requests an immediate audience with you and your friends, pupil of Queen Celestia,” added the finned mermare, sea-green; her voice, too, was high and screeching.

“An audience?” Rainbow Dash echoed. “But we can’t go underwater; we’d drown!”

“Patience, rainbow one,” the finned mermare replied, before facing the horned merstallion, “Angler, if you please.”

Angler the pearly-white merstallion nodded, his horn glowing the same deep-blue as his eyes, and the seashell upon his back opened up, a good seven leaves floating out in a deep-blue dwimmer shimmer.

“Ah don’ like kelp,” Applejack muttered ruefully. “Ah don’ even like seaweed.”

“The leaves of the sirenomelon plant,” explained the horned mermare, “cause land-ponies who eat them to temporarily exhibit the aquatic traits of those who live in Aquastria.”

“How long is ‘temporary’?” Fluttershy asked. Wavebreaker rounded on her, and she withdrew sharply. “Oh! I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have asked!”

Wavebreaker offered a friendly smile, revealing a mouth of fangs. Fluttershy whimpered.

“You’ll have to excuse Fluttershy,” Twilight interjected. “She’s scared of strangers.”

“I’m terribly sorry to have frightened you,” said Wavebreaker gently, offering a finny hoof to Fluttershy. She took it hesitantly, offering a wary smile. “As you have asked, the sirenomelon leaf’s effects vary from land-pony to land-pony. This batch, however, should last each of you a week, just enough time to cross the King’s Ocean.”

“Call me a landlubber,” Applejack groused, “but Ah’d rather keep mah hooves on solid ground!”

“Pardon my bluntness, but your options are dreadfully limited,” said the finned mermare, “landlubber.”

Pinkie Pie giggled, “She called you a landlubber, for real!”

“These leaves should be enough for you six mares, and your son,” Wavebreaker said to Twilight, looking about. “Where is the little small-fry?”

Spike raised a claw nervously, “Umm… it’s me, Mr. Wavebreaker.”

Wavebreaker looked down on Spike, double-taking. His frilled ears flattened, “I am sorry, Miss Twilight, but our sirenomelon leaves are… disagreeable with dragons’ digestive system.”

“That’s fine,” Twilight said brightly. “I can just cast a Bubble-Head Charm on him!”

Spike’s eyes widened, “But… won’t I run out of air?”

“You shouldn’t, Spike. The spell allows oxygen from the water to permeate the bubble, siphoning out your exhaled carbon dioxide.”

“Oh! Okay!” Spike smiled.

Rainbow Dash nudged the mulberry drake, whispering in one of his ear-spines, “You actually understood any of that?”

“When you’ve grown up with Twilight Sparkle as your mom, you pick up a lot of things.”

Wavebreaker cleared his throat, which sounded like a hoof on a chalkboard. It was immensely effective, as the band rounded on him with wide eyes, flat ears and gritted teeth.

“If you will,” he said as Angler lowered the sirenomelon leaves in front of each of the six mares (the seventh returned to his saddle-clam).

Giving one another tentative glances, each mare balled up her leaf and shoved it wholly into her mouth.

It had a rubbery, clammy texture to it, as though it had spent a great long time in the salty seawater (which it most likely had). It was definitely not terribly palatable, most probably used by mermares as a last-resort meal on long-distance journeys.

As one, they swallowed.

For several seconds, nothing happened. Behind her, Twilight could hear Rainbow Dash rustling impatiently, and just before the inevitable declaration of boredom…

A hot stabbing pain shot through either side of Twilight’s neck, and she felt like knives were stabbing her in the backs of her hooves. Cries of surprise and pain rung out behind her, and Twilight knew that the same feeling was being felt by her friends. Though she’d never experienced this before, Twilight knew that the first-time usage of sirenomelon leaves was as painful as it was surprising, especially for Pegasi; their whole wings would transform into large translucent fins for the duration of the effects.

Once the pain subsided, Twilight faced her friends. Each of them now had gills on their necks, and fins on their fetlocks. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy now had transparent fins where their wings ordinarily were. Fluttershy was shaking inconsolably, and Pinkie… wait.

“Pinkie… Why didn’t you change?” Twilight asked in a screeching above-water mermare voice.

Pinkie looked herself over, checking her feathery fetlocks quizzically. “Really? Silly me! I forgot to…” She took a deep breath, placed one of her forehooves in her mouth and… blew into it. In moments, deep-pink fins erupted from the backs of her hooves, and gills split open on her neck. “Ta-da~!”

Twilight blinked. Something is wrong with me if I don’t question this…

“I… I can’t breathe! What’s wrong with my voice?” cried out Rarity in a high screeching voice; apparently, she did not take well to being temporarily amphibious.

“I don’t hear a difference,” growled Rainbow Dash, her wing-fins bristling. If her voice was grating before, its scratchiness was tenfold now.

“Neither do Ah,” Applejack drawled, looking at the cyan Pegasus. Rainbow scowled darkly at the apple-farmer.

“Well, if you’ll come with us…” asked the mermare beside Wavebreaker, before the six of them turned back towards the water.

“Excuse us for just a moment,” Twilight said, before facing Spike with a glow to her horn. Spell matrices aligned in Twilight’s alicorn, and a pink bubble emerged from the tip, floating down to Spike. He reached for it curiously, before it slid down over his head without bursting. Once it completely encompassed the drake’s head, Twilight’s horn stopped glowing, and the bubble turned colorless and translucent.

Spike felt at the bubble around his head, before looking at Twilight, “Thanks, Mom.” His voice came out distorted by the bubble, and he chuckled, “Now my voice sounds all funny!” Pinkie Pie joined in with his laughing.

“Now, if you please, we’re on a bit of a schedule,” Wavebreaker said sharply.

“But… our saddle-bags…” Fluttershy said, before clamping her hooves over her mouth at how raspy she sounded.

Angler spoke, “If you’ll allow me, I shall carry them in my bubble magic until we can retrieve more appropriate baggage for you.”

Acquiescing, the band relinquished their saddle-bags, and soon they were floating in a half-dozen deep-blue bubbles around his head.

“Now then, let’s go!” Wavebreaker said with no small degree of impatience, before he and his five fellow mermares dived back into the water.

“Well, here goes nothing,” Twilight breathed, before leaping into the water.

“Wait for me, Mom!” Spike called, running after Twilight down into the deep.

Rarity whimpered, “I don’t like to get my mane wet…” before closing her eyes and charging into the sea.

“Don’ think Ah’m gonna be too long before you, Rarity!” Applejack called as she galloped to the water’s edge and did a flying leap into the deeper parts of the water.

“Whee! Cannonball~! Pinkie cheered as she almost literally flew over the water before curling up into a perfect pink ball and slamming into the sea.

Rainbow Dash turned to face Fluttershy, taking the timid Pegasus’s hoof in her own and offering a sincere, tender smile, “Want to hold my hoof on the way in?”

Fluttershy blushed, “Oh, you don’t have to, Rainbow, my dear. It’s no big deal.”

“I want to, so I will anyway,” Rainbow replied. “You ready?”

Fluttershy nodded, never breaking eye contact with her darling Rainbow Dash. Her hoof clenched Rainbow’s.

“Good,” Rainbow Dash smirked, before she darted into the water, almost dragging Fluttershy behind her.

The water was life. The first breath that Twilight took through her gills refreshed her far more than she could have imagined. A wide smile broke across her muzzle as she flipped around through the water; these fins were almost second-nature to her! She felt so free! This must be what Pegasi feel all the time!

“Wait up, Mom!” Spike cried out, flapping his claws frantically to try to keep up with Twilight.

Twilight giggled to herself, and she used her magic to draw Spike towards her. “Wrap your arms around my neck, Spike,” Twilight told him, and she was pleased to hear that her voice was back to normal. “And try not to cover my gills; I do need to breathe.”

Spike nodded and did as Twilight told, just as Rarity came charging down from the surface. She inhaled deeply, her gills flaring as she took her first underwater breath. “O Maker above, this is simply divine!” She gasped sharply. “My voice is back! And my mane!” She flipped her mane back and forth. “My mane is still gorgeously coiffed!”

“Yee-haw!” called out Applejack as she came to a stop beside Rarity, smirking slyly. “Don’t go thinkin’ y’all are more darin’ than Ah am!”

Before Rarity could retort, a pink sphere as big as a pony’s head dropped in between the country pony and the fashionista. Once the cloud of air bubbles cleared up around the pink ball, it let out a faint Pop! and expanded out into Pinkie Pie. She cheered with a “Whee-hee-hee~!” and flapped her fins as she spun about in circles.

The Pegasi of the band swept down into the group − which is to say, Rainbow Dash swept down into the group with a squealing Fluttershy in tow. The moment she joined the circle, she unhooked her hoof from Fluttershy’s and began to flap her back-fins vigorously. Sand kicked up from the bottom of the ocean floor, but Rainbow Dash barely left the ground.

“Why can’t I fly? …or… swim?” she complained with a strained voice.

Fluttershy took a tentative flap of her fins, receiving no lift. She then flapped marginally harder, though still slower than she would have flapped her wings on the surface. Her hooves left the sandy bottom for a few moments. Smiling slightly, she began to flap her fins slowly and regularly. She floated hesitantly off of the ocean floor, levelling up just over the heads of the rest of her band.

Rainbow Dash gaped, “How are you doing that?”

“She took things at a slower pace,” said a hypnotically beautiful stallion’s voice, and the seven turned in shock to see that it was Wavebreaker who had spoken. Evidently, mermares and merstallions’ voices became completely screechy as a result of being out of water. “She chose not to rush herself in an unfamiliar situation, and learned at a speed she was comfortable with.”

“But… I’m only comfortable going real fast.”

“Sometimes,” said the back-finned mermare, “we learn best when we take things in slowly.”

“Now,” Wavebreaker continued, “shall we return to the capital?”

“Of course,” Twilight replied, “but… how did you get here so fast?”

The back-finned merstallion grinned broadly, “The same way we’ll get back so fast!” He waved a hoof off deeper into the ocean, and the band of land-mares blinked at the undersea view stretching out into the darkness ahead of them. By the light of the Moon above, however, they could see the shape of a large fish-like creature with pronounced pelvic fins resembling bird’s wings, a substantial crest of a dorsal fin and a sharp avian beak.

“A manta-hawk…” Twilight gasped.

“The fastest swimmer King Leo’s oceans have to offer,” Wavebreaker said proudly, before facing the horned mermare and merstallion. “Sealight, Angler. Jet on ahead and let them know that Queen Celestia’s company is on their way.”

The horned mermares nodded and, with a flash of their horns, vanished in twin clouds of glowing bubbles. Twilight blinked at her first sight of an underwater wink-out.

“Now, come along, Twilight and company,” waved Wavebreaker. “Climb aboard the manta-hawk’s back, and let it carry us to Lyonesse!”

Twilight flipped her fins as best she could; though she understood the basic movements that she would need to make, a dozen-and-ten years of learning the trot, the canter, the gallop kept coming back to her and she found herself fumbling through the water awkwardly. Wavebreaker and his mermare counterpart took her forehooves in each of theirs and guided her forwards, and Twilight found her forward momentum much more stable.

If Twilight thought she was having a bad time getting her sea-legs, Applejack fared far worse. The farmer was a very grounded mare, barely ever catching sight of a body of water larger than a puddle, and now she had found herself thrust into the largest ocean on Harmonia with little preamble or preparation. It took Fluttershy, with her uncanny learning curve, to hoist the unsteady Earth Pony up into the air and towards the manta-hawk.

“Thanks, Flutters,” Applejack murmured.

“Oh. Y-You’re welcome, Applejack,” Fluttershy replied haltingly.

Rainbow Dash looked nervously at the fins on her back where her wings used to be. Slowly, hesitatingly, she began to flap them. With each full flap, she left the seafloor a little bit more. Confidence growing in her chest, she began to flap harder and faster, though not as frantically as before. Grinning broadly, she drew her legs in close and flapped her fins hard, darting forward to the manta-hawk with a barrel-roll.

Rarity watched Pinkie quite literally canter through the water with giddy little twitches of her deep-pink fetlock-fins, and looked down at her own. The purple fins tweaked this way and that, and Rarity cocked an eyebrow at them. Experimenting, she swished a foreleg slowly, along with the opposite hind leg. She left the ocean floor a small bit. Giggling to herself at her progress, she swished the opposite legs, gaining a bit more distance. Letting out a decidedly unRarity-like whinny of a laugh, she took to a slow cantering swim towards her transport.

“Hey, Rarity, think ya could rustle up a bit more speed?” Applejack called out from the manta-hawk’s back.

“A lady never rushes herself, Applejack!” Rarity shouted in return.

“Time is of the essence, Miss Rarity,” said the hornless mermare beside Wavebreaker. “We must put aside pleasantries and pretense; King Leo requests your immediate presence!”

“Patience, Backstroke,” Wavebreaker said. “We need speed, not haste.”

Rarity took Backstroke’s words to heart, though, and her succeeding hoofstrokes were fuller and harder, and she reached the back of the manta-hawk in less than a dozen-and-eight seconds. She settled onto the scaly back, silently wondering about how they would stay on this creature’s back if it moved as quickly as the mermares attested, when she suddenly felt an adhesion of sorts as soon as her hooves touched the manta-hawk’s back. She looked in awe around at each of her friends. Twilight smiled at her.

“This manta-hawk has been trained by Narwhal Ponies to magically hold riders to its back!” she explained. “Isn’t that great?”

“What’s a Narwhal Pony?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“It’s what mermares call their Unicorns,” Twilight answered. “Their Earth Ponies are Seahorses, and their Pegasi are called Sailfins.”

Backstroke looked mightily intrigued, “You mean, you land-ponies call your Seahorses Earth Ponies? Tell me more!”

“Perhaps we can discuss this more,” said the male Sailfin, “Once we’ve returned to Lyonesse.”

“Right,” Wavebreaker said, before he looked ahead to the manta-hawk’s head. “Cevil?”

Cevil the manta-hawk turned his head to look at the ten equines on his back, his golden eye as big as any one of their torsos, his beak broad enough to snap any of them in two. He looked at Wavebreaker with an inquisitive gleam in his eye.

“Take us back home, Cev.”

With an imperceptible nod, Cev flapped his pelvic fins, beelining up for the surface.

“What, where are we going?” Rarity asked. “The Aquastrian capital is at the bottom of the ocean, isn’t it?”

“It is,” the male Sailfin explained, “but to get there quickly, the manta-hawk needs to leap out of the water to get its forward momentum going!”

“You mean…?” Rarity and Fluttershy asked in fear.

You mean…?” Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie asked in anticipation.

“Yes!” Wavebreaker shouted with a broad grin. “We’re going to breach!”

“Breach?” Applejack asked. “What’s ‘breach’ mean?”

Her question was answered almost immediately. Cev soared up and out of the water, and for several glorious moments, they seemed suspended in midair, the manta-hawk’s pelvic fins fully extended as he crested through the air, the ocean spray around them glistening under the starlight and moonlight…

Then Cev pulled his fins in and dove into the ocean like an arrow, four mares screaming in fear and two whooping in delight as the manta-hawk tore through the seawater faster than any other creature in the sea.

Deeper and deeper into the ocean did Cev carry his eleven passengers, and eventually even the light of the night sky above the ocean dimmed to nothing. In almost no time, though, their eyes adjusted to the dark, and the land-dwellers spotted veritable forests of reefs and coral and seaweed and fronds in every direction. Schools of fish of every color, shape and size parted at the sight of Cev the manta-hawk.

“Manta-hawks are the apex predator of these waters,” explained High Tide, the male Sailfin (introductions passed by way of terrorful shouting moments after Cev reached top speed). “No fish is faster, or deadlier. They are the perfect high-speed transport for anypony who can tame them.”

“And… who tamed Cev here, if Ah cin ask?” Applejack asked.

“Oh, the beastmasters of Anarpagí have been taming mermares’ mounts since our ancestors started living here in the ocean,” explained Beachcomber, High Tide’s twin sister. “Not everypony can jet out, so we need high-speed mounts to take us far and wide across the ocean for food.”

“Ah see…”

“Speaking of seeing,” interjected Backstroke, “once Cev’s crested this upcoming ridge, we should be right about at Lyonesse.”

I thought it was starting to look a bit light again, Twilight thought, eyes narrowed slightly at the prismatic lights dancing past the ridge. What wonders awaited them upon arriving at Lyonesse, the capital of of Equestria’s aquatic neighbor of Aquastria…?

Cev crested the ridge, broadening his fins so as to slow himself down for the approach, and…



“By the light of Celestia’s Sun…!”

“Well, Ah’ll be…!”

“Oh my…”


So cool…!

Towering pinnacles of coral and rock rose up from the seafloor, with fronds of seaweed woven together for bridges interlinking almost every building. Some sort of glowing algae lined the sides of the buildings, bathing the aquatic metropolis in a pale heavenly light. Darting to and fro amidst the seascrapers were myriad mermares, merstallions, Dolphins, Manatees and Narwhals. A low song echoed through the water around them, and Twilight and her band looked up to see the shape of a whale passing across their path.

“I think Cap’n Nemo would like to welcome you to Lyonesse,” Wavebreaker said jovially, waving a hoof up at the pale-white whale.

“Cap’n Nemo…” Twilight mused with a faint knowing smile at the whale’s scarred form.

As they approached the aquatic capital, many mermares of all sorts poked their heads out of the seaweed flanking the path that Cev took. They cast curious and wondrous eyes at the seven non-mermares astride the manta-hawk with four of their own, particularly upon the prismatic conch clutched in the mulberry drake’s claws. Spike waved a claw nervously at the crowd, and a merfilly beside her heavily pregnant father waved back.

“Well, on behalf of King Leo and all the mermares and merstallions of Aquastria,” Wavebreaker said with a clear voice, “I welcome you… to Lyonesse, the greatest city under the sea!”

If the city was bewondering from a distance, to soar through the streets of Lyonesse itself astride a manta-hawk of all creatures was most stupefying. While Twilight still thought of Canterlot as the most beautiful city in all of Harmonia (though she had yet to visit every other city in Harmonia to justify that feeling), she would have had to say that Lyonesse was a close second.

The rocks hewn into the shapes of minarets and towers by mermares of meggrossia past shone as if coated with pearl, with coral accenting the buildings and acting as additional support or windows if need be. The algae patches’ blue glow emitted a faint warmth, enhancing the welcoming feel of such a city beneath the waves. The bridges of seaweed and kelp that Cev passed by as they swam towards the center of Lyonesse were far larger than Twilight had reckoned, and served a more versatile purpose than she had imagined prior as well. As any inhabitant of Lyonesse swam by, she or he would take a small chunk of seaweed in her or his mouth, leaving a clam in its place. They were stop-and-go snack bars!

And those who called Lyonesse home were a fine sort as well. Far from the haughty elitists of Canterlot, everyone who Cev passed gave a warm welcome to the passing newcomers and casually engaged in brief discourse with the four accompanying mermares.

The rainbow fins on Rainbow Dash’s fetlocks bristled impatiently.

“This is boring. I need to fly!” The clear fins on her back rustled.

“Do as you wish, Rainbow Dash,” Wavebreaker said with a surprisingly light tone. “But take care not to lose sight of Cev here. If you slow us down, we won’t wait up for you. The King’s message is imperative.”

“Yeah yeah yeah, important king business, got it.” And Rainbow Dash was off of Cev’s back as quick as could be, her fins flapping none too fast nor too slow. It had an immediate effect, however, as a blissful smile crossed her muzzle and creased shut her eyes. The expression was quickly replaced with one of sheer audacity as she began to perform loop-de-loops and corkscrews around Cev, who followed her with one eye, keeping the other on his twisting path.

For the streets of the city of Lyonesse did not travel in straight lines, but rather turned with the erratic shapes of the seascrapers. Even the most direct path to one’s destination often entailed a fair amount of circling around if one did not wish to take sharp turns… which, considering that mermares and merstallions were more adept at swimming in straight lines and gradual curves than turning sharply, resulted in a rather more leisurely lifestyle in the Aquastrian capital.

“We should be arriving at King Leo’s palace shortly,” Wavebreaker said to Twilight, who was holding Spike between her forelegs.

Twilight smiled and nodded in reply, “It’s been too long since last we met.”

“Whoa whoa whoa, hold on a second,” Rainbow Dash said as she circled back over Cev’s back. “King Leo, city of Lyonesse… isn’t your king a bit bigheaded?”

“Yer one ta talk,” Applejack snarked.

Rainbow Dash flashed a fangy grin at her appley friend, “I’m not bigheaded; I’m awesome!”

“Bigheadedness or awesomeness aside,” Twilight cut in crossly, “Lyonesse was not named by King Leo, but by his steward Seawinkle in the year 22 ER, when Aquastria declared her independence from Equestria.”

Beachcomber gave Twilight an impressed smile, “You know our history quite well, Miss Twilight.”

Twilight blushed humbly, “Well, I just really like reading, and…”

Sharp gasps from her compatriots as Cev rounded the corner caused Twilight to trail off, and when she followed their eyes wide with astonishment, she herself took in a startled breath.

Shells as large as whales fitted together to form a mostly flat and wide palace, gleaming with a golden light. Towering auger shells marked the five corners of King Leo’s palace, two of them respectively peaked with a blue light and a purple light. From the heart of the palace erupted a singular auger shell, as tall as a blue whale was long, standing watch over all of Lyonesse.

And they were approaching it.

“This is Morse, the palace of King Leo the Fatherless, immortal ruler of Aquastria,” explained Wavebreaker, a tone filled with awe indicating that he too was struck by the immensity of the palace Morse.

“It’s… amazing…” Twilight said, lacking anything better to say as Cev approached the front gates of Morse. The moment that the manta-hawk settled before the mermare guards at the gates, Rarity leapt down to the seafloor, almost kissing the sandy bottom. The mermares still on Cev’s back gave her odd looks.

“She doesn’t take well to travel, I guess,” Twilight explained as she stood up on Cev’s back. “She handled side-winking just fine at first, but… she kinda felt sick for a little after it. I feel bad now.”

“Well, she handled it better th’n Ah did,” Applejack admitted as she leapt down off of Cev’s back. When she fell slower than she would have on land, she flapped her reddish fetlock-fins furiously to flap downwards faster. Kicking up sand on her landing, Applejack scratched behind an ear with a hind leg, “Ah can’ rightly say that Ah’m that big on the slow fallin’ in water.” Feeling a gooey sucking at her hooves, Applejack looked down and saw that she was already knee-deep in the briny sand. With a faint green glow about her legs, she managed to shuck herself out.

“You will want to spend more of your time floating than actually standing,” High Tide suggested. “It’s what fins are for.”

Applejack scrunched her lips together, but she acquiesced quickly, as the alternative was having to continually use her Earth Pony magic to pull herself loose from the sandy suction. Spike hugged his arms tightly around Twilight’s barrel as she flapped her fins to float down to hover a hoof’s length above the sand, just as Pinkie and Fluttershy joined the rest of their band on the seafloor.

“So, we’re all set and ready to meet the King?” Fluttershy asked meekly, pale-pink fins on her fetlocks flicking.

“Just about,” replied Wavebreaker, before swimming up to Cev’s beak and running a hoof down it. The large manta-hawk closed his large golden eyes and let out a low content coo. “Good boy. You’ve done good today. You’ll feed especially well tonight.” At this Cev perked up noticeably, a smile − if it could be called that − breaking out on his beak, rows of minute serrated teeth visible. Before Twilight could imagine what it was that Cev would be feeding on, the manta-hawk flapped his pelvic fins and took to the air (so to speak), disappearing in the hazy atmosphere of the sea.

“Wavebreaker presents himself,” said the selfsame Seahorse to the mermare guards before the gates of Morse. “He comes bearing the pupil of Queen Celestia and her fellowship from Equestria, to meet with King Leo posthaste.”

The mermares in their clamshell armor glanced at one another, before nodding at Wavebreaker and uncrossing the spears that they had crossed across the pearly gates of King Leo’s palace.

“You may proceed,” said one of the mermare guards.

Wavebreaker smiled, “I thank you,” before swimming up to the gates, which swung open on their own just as he reached them.

“Sweet! Self-opening gates!” Rainbow Dash grinned, darting after Wavebreaker.

Twilight’s sapphire fins twitched a little at the Pegasus’s brazenness, offering what she hoped was an apologetic smile to the guardsponies before swimming after her herself, her band and Wavebreaker’s following after only a moment.

The path leading to the palace from the gates was made from a single smooth slab of stone, flanked on either side by all manner of undersea plants and trees the likes of which Twilight had only read about before. Having never been to Aquastria before, Twilight had not thought that seeing these things she’d only seen in illustrations and woodcuts before would be very significant. She was wrong. This… this was breathtaking! Twilight truly wished that she had the vernacular and skill with prose of some of her favorite authors, like A.K. Yearling and Inky Dart, so that she could describe the beauty to others…!

Reaching the main archway leading into Morse, Twilight found Wavebreaker speaking with the Narwhal Ponies Sealight and Angler, Rainbow Dash sitting miserably at his side. Twilight approached her warily.

“He says I can’t go in ahead of you guys,” she grumbled. “It’s not like I would’ve knocked anything over.”

“I trust that you wouldn’t,” Wavebreaker said as he broke off from the Narwhal Ponies, “but since we were instructed that ‘Twilight Sparkle and her band’ should be brought before the King, I assumed that you and your group should remain together as much as possible until after parlaying with King Leo.”

Rainbow Dash huffed, folding her forelegs morosely, “Fine. But I really need to dash!”

“Well, the sooner you and your friends can see the King,” said Sealight as she drifted towards Twilight, “the sooner we can assuage your friend’s impatience.”

“Follow us,” Angler said, turning into the archway into Morse. Sealight followed after, then Wavebreaker and his band, then Twilight and hers.

The long walls and high arched ceiling seemed to have been polished with some sort of pearly lacquer, reflecting the light of luminescent jellyfish which drifted freely about the hall. Archways branched off into other halls, beneath large painted depictions of war and peace between the mermares and various foes: chuul, the Sahuagin, Skum, Locathah, Aboleth and even an epidemic of Lacedon.

“Whoa…!” Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened at one painting, “is that… A giant squid…?”

“Not quite,” answered Beachcomber. “That is an aberration among the likes of giant squid: the Kraken. Yes, its maw of tentacles resembles the giant squid of which you speak, but notice the crustacean claws behind its soulless white eyes, the shell as hard as iron ending in an armored whale tail…” She shuddered. “It still haunts the dreams of mermares even so many douzaides later.”

Rainbow Dash returned her eyes to the Kraken, locked in battle over Lyonesse with some sort of great fish. “What happened?” she asked, enraptured.

“The Beast struck us, almost a dozen-dozen years ago. It had stirred after meggrossia of dreamless sleep, and sought to bring the end upon us. It would have been the end of Lyonesse, and Maker knows how much else, but for the friendship that King Leo struck with the mightiest of all whales: Cap’n Nemo.”

Six pairs of eyes swiveled towards the great fish that they saw fighting the Kraken. It was, indeed, the same pale-white whale with its exceptionally long serpentine tail as they’d seen crossing the threshold into Lyonesse.

“No way!” Spike said with a broad grin behind his bubbly source of air. “Is that how she got all those scars?”

“Every one of them,” replied Angler. “You may ask her one day, when you have the time.”

“So that’s why you were so caught up in Cap’n Nemo when we came in!” Rainbow Dash darted down to Twilight, beaming at the lavender Unicorn. “You totally knew that story of how she totally killed that Kraken!”

Twilight chuckled nervously, “Err, yeah, well, I have read about it. I wasn’t exactly privy to the idea that King Leo and Cap’n Nemo were friends, but… it makes sense, I guess. Also… The Kraken isn’t dead.”

Six pairs of eyes widened in horror at Twilight.

“What…?” Spike gasped, pointing up at the eldritch sea-beast locked in frozen battle with Cap’n Nemo on the seapainted portrait. “So… that thing is still out there…?”

“We’re afraid so,” Sealight said with a flourish of her bony alicorn to indicate that they speak as they continued to swim down the main hall. “After it became clear that Cap’n Nemo could battle the Beast to their mutual deaths, so the scops say, it fled to the deepest and darkest cave in the oceans. There may it rest until the Unmaker’s coming.”

The remaining time spent traveling towards King Leo’s throne room was spent in morbid silence; it seemed that NightMare Moon and the fell abominations of Tartarus were not the only otherworldly menaces to Harmonia. Queen Celestia had to have known about them, perhaps even played some role in keeping them from harming the peace-loving denizens of the world. Twilight knew that Queen Celestia and King Leo were very close, having apparently kept in touch with each other for grossenturies and maybe even meggrossia. It would not be a terrible surprise to Twilight if Queen Celestia knew of the Kraken and took measures to further inhibit it. She may have even encouraged King Leo to befriend Cap’n Nemo to begin with!

Wait… she thought as she passed by tapestries woven out of dyed seaweed forming heraldry of ancient honor. King Leo forms a bond of friendship with Cap’n Nemo, who comes to Lyonesse and Aquastria’s aid and drives off the Kraken. Queen Celestia bids me to make friends to defeat NightMare Moon… I know already that friendship can drive a pony to do incredible things, but… what can six mares and a drake possibly do against the Alicorn of Night herself…?

“We’re here,” Wavebreaker said abruptly, stopping before a large double-door forged out of interlinked seashells of many colors, a pair of clamshells for doorknobs. Wavebreaker approached with a reverent air, slowly knocking on the door.

The double-doors glowed with a brilliant sea-green dwimmer shimmer, and a deep voice growled out, “Enter.”

And the doors opened slowly outwards, and Twilight and her band gaped in wonder.

The throne room of King Leo of Aquastria was a wide circular space, the walls arcing into a singular golden dome overhead with a circle opening up into the ocean at the middle. There was no apparent light source; it was as though there was some invisible light in the air that lit up the sanctum. The floor was a prismatic helix that dazzled the eyes, as if some titanic snail’s shell had been pressed flat into a perfectly smooth surface. Archways at regular intervals along the walls formed alcoves which displayed ancient heroes of Aquastria, graven in cold stone. At the far end, directly opposite the double-doors, was a construct of numerous rainbow shells and conches, within which sat a sea-green and vermilion shape which glinted gold at them.

Shaking off her astonishment at the scope of the Aquastrian king’s throne room, Twilight and her band followed Wavebreaker and his five mermare friends towards King Leo himself. If only they had the time to admire each of the carven forms representing some hero of the realm! Surely there was a veritable treasure trove of information that could be gleaned from these that Twilight had not caught in her readings on mermares, or that she had forgotten…!

After what seemed like hours, they stood before King Leo, the ruler of the mermares. Despite being the King of the mermares of Aquastria, no merstallion was he but a large and majestic sea-lion of sorts. His front half was like that of a lion with a wild vermilion mane, but with sea-green scales and vermilion fins alongside his paws, and twin golden horns emerging from in front of his finned ears. More akin to a shark was his back half, with pelvic fins where his hind legs should be and a spiny dorsal fin. Along the back of his head trailing down his back was a golden set of spines which resembled a crown at his crest, and he wore a cape of blue-dyed seaweed.

“Welcome, I say,” he said in the same low growl as he had just before they had entered his throne room. He rose up from his seat, holding a large finned paw out, which Twilight swept up to and nuzzled.

“It’s been far too long, Your Majesty,” she said in reverence. “And I wish my first visit to Aquastria could be in better times.”

“Indeed,” replied King Leo, a dark look in his eyes. “But let us enter a more casual place. I believe that you and your band are quite hungry and tired. You have traveled a long and bitter way. I bid you, stay as long as you please in Aquastria. You are in safe fins with us.” His eyes fell upon Spike, holding out the Prism Conch. The Aquastrian king’s eyes sparkled. “You… found the Prism Conch. I knew when I heard it again, that it had been found at long last.”

King Leo’s private dining hall was far smaller and more intimate than his throne room, though by no means less extravagant. At the center of the hall was a long table made out of a slab of white marble balanced on fused stacks of clamshells. Fronds of coral spread out across the window openings, and algae along the convex ceiling provided light that the outside could not.

“Be seated here, Miss Twilight Sparkle,” said King Leo, gesturing a paw at the spot to his immediate right. Twilight hesitated, but only for a moment; this was a pending discussion of greatest significance. The land was not the only place in the world that would be affected by the stagnant Sun and Moon.

“Spike, Applejack, Rarity, I would like you three at my side,” Twilight said brightly.

“Rarity!” Spike called from his seat at Twilight’s right. “Come sit next to me!”

Rarity giggled lightly, “Well, if you insist, you brave little drake.”

Applejack scrunched up her muzzle, before shrugging; she’d wanted to be as close to Twilight’s side as she could, and if not for Spike’s precocious crush on Rarity…

She smiled in resignation, seating herself on her haunches to Rarity’s right. She couldn’t stay mad at a little kid over an infatuation.

“So, what sort of food does Aquastria have to offer?” Twilight asked the King politely.

“Well,” King Leo said lightly, “we can offer you any dish that you so please here in my palace. Being the King does have that benefit.”

“Ah’d sure as sugar go fer a good ol’-fashioned apple pie right ‘bout now!” Applejack called joyously.

“I would be fine with a daisy-and-oats salad, if you please,” Rarity said in a formal tone.

“I… I’ll just have whatever you offer me; I don’t want to impose,” Fluttershy said meekly.

“I’ll take a watermelon, a whole watermelon!” called out Rainbow Dash.

“You guys wouldn’t happen to have any rubies, would you?” Spike interjected.

“I’ll take some kelp and eelgrass à la mode~!” Pinkie squealed.

Twilight and King Leo blinked.

“While I am certain that our stores can indeed prepare food to your likings,” the sea-lion said levelly, “I am… perplexed that your pink companion should know an exact item on the Aquastrian menu. Are you certain that this is your first time under the sea…?”

Pinkie nodded.

“Then… how did you know…?”

“Begging your pardon, King Leo,” Twilight interjected, “but that’s just Pinkie Pie being Pinkie Pie. I try not to question it too much.”

King Leo nodded slowly, glancing back to Pinkie with wary golden eyes. “In any case, the sirenomelon leaves affect the appetite of ponies who eat it for the duration of their transformation. You may anticipate cravings of aquatic flair, and so we will have to… substitute what we have learned do not agree with your stomachs in your quasi-mermare state.”

“Tha’s fine. Jus’… don’t give me any kelp, or seaweed,” Applejack said in as polite a voice as she could muster. “Ah don’ particularly like ‘em.”

“I don’t mean to disagree with you now, Lady Applejack,” King Leo replied, “but your stomach might later.”

“Umm, excuse me, King Leo?” Twilight asked. “But… aren’t we to discuss what we should do about NightMare Moon?”

King Leo placed a large but gentle paw on Twilight’s shoulder, “My child, your goal is noble, but this quest that Celestia set you on is not one that shall be accomplished in haste. You and your companions tire, and yearn for rest.”

Twilight almost protested, but her stomach took that moment to betray her and growl loudly, reverberating loudly through the water. King Leo gave her an amused smile, and Twilight returned it in nervousness.

“Umm… I’ll have a Kelp Forest Cake…?”

Applejack propped her bowl up on her forehooves, “Ah’d like s’more, if ya please!”

The mermare waitress arched an eyebrow as she floated by, taking the bowl in her mouth.

“I never took you to be such a connoisseur for kelp, Applejack,” Rarity commented.

“Ah can’ help it; it’s just… so good!” Applejack replied indignantly.

King Leo smiled amusedly, a paw resting on the Prism Conch, “Did I not say that you would find your brain and your stomach at odds with one another?” He turned to face Twilight, “Is the Kelp Forest Cake to your liking, Twilight Sparkle?”

Twilight nodded vigorously, a fork levitating in her dwimmer shimmer, “It is, Your Highness! Exactly as I remember it! But… better!”

“That would be the mermare in you speaking, child,” the king beamed. “You and your friends are welcome down here anytime.”

Twilight looked out across the dining table, at her friends (Twilight supposed that all five of these mares were friends to her now), and at Wavebreaker and his band, as the whole lot of them dined upon Aquastria’s finest dishes. As Twilight understood it, certain food from the surface did not taste well to the mermares, such as apples. In that way, many of their meals had to go altered to account for the alterations to their biology due to the sirenomelon leaves in their systems. Luckily, the quasi-mermare Applejack had a much greater affinity for kelp and seaweed than the landlubber Applejack.

The fact that King Leo and the mermares ordered meals that contained meat in them was a matter of revulsion and horror to the more sensitive of the foreigners − primarily Rarity and Fluttershy. Twilight, who had experience with Spike’s carnivorous tendencies, alleviated concerns by pointing out that mermares never ate anything that thought at the sapient level of a pony; things like tuna, clams, crabs, lobsters and polyps were fair game, while creatures like dolphins, octopi, narwhals and Aboleth were off-limits. Trusting Twilight at her word, any further ill feelings were silenced, though Twilight did spot Rainbow Dash’s eyes darting over at the crab legs on Beachcomber’s plate.

Twilight looked down at the Prism Conch under King Leo’s paw, and she cleared her throat a little at the king, “Excuse me, King Leo? But… how did you anticipate that ponies would find the Prism Conch?”

“Hmm?” King Leo looked to face Twilight from the slab of tigerfish on his plate. “Oh, well… I shall discuss this in further detail with you later. It’s not proper discourse in present company. I trust,” he began again in a louder voice, indicating that Twilight need not repeat her line of questioning at the table, “that rooms have been arranged for Twilight Sparkle and her friends?”

“They have, sir,” replied Angler from his spot at the table.

“Excellent, my boy. Nothing but the best for my cousin’s star pupil and her friends!”

Rainbow Dash almost choked on a watermelon seed, and Pinkie Pie lamented not having access to a glass of water to spit-take with.

“Hold yer horses there, King Leo,” Applejack said. “Yer cousins with Queen Celestia?”

King Leo looked out one of the tall coral-windows, “You could say that. Our family history is… complicated. Not good table conversation, not at all, and I’d rather not put you girls off of your appetite.”

“Hey!” Spike asked. “What about my appetite?” He waved a half-eaten ruby indignantly at King Leo.

The sea-lion let out a loud hearty laugh and clapped a large paw on Spike’s back, “Don’t worry one bit, son. Your appetite will always be whet at my table!”

“Why? ‘Cause of all the water?” Rainbow Dash asked, a too-wide grin on her face. King Leo grinned back, revealing fangs and teeth as sharp as knives. Rainbow Dash’s dry grin sagged slightly.

Twilight coughed lightly, “Back to the subject at hoof, King Leo, we were told to meet with you at utmost speed.”

“And you were,” King Leo replied. “I have a very firm idea of what has transpired, but… perhaps you and your friends could explain in finer detail what has befallen my queenly cousin and her Equestrian nation.”

And so for the next half-hour, Twilight Sparkle and her friends explained the highs and lows of the journey they had taken, from Twilight’s first discovery of the prophecy regarding NightMare Moon to their arrival at the edge of Equestria’s shores. It was mostly Twilight’s job to explain the trek to King Leo, with help from her friends when their experiences filled in gaps that Twilight was not privy to. It was imperative that King Leo be brought as up to date as possible on their journey.

By the time they had finished, the temperature of the water around them seemed to have dropped by about ten degrees as well. King Leo ran a paw through his vermilion mane, golden claws protracting from the end of each digit. Slowly, he placed his paws on the table, flipping his tailfin so that he could float over the table itself.

“I cannot go forth with an army to face the Night Queen,” he growled slowly, looking at his golden claws. “My little mermares are such fragile creatures out of their homely waters, and Canterlot is so far inland. Besides, I must protect my own here. The oceans are growing colder, and my control over the tides can only keep up with the boiling oceans on the other half of Harmonia for so long. Balance must be maintained, but not on the back of one. No one can keep the world in balance alone. Not I. Not my cousin Celestia. Nor even you, Twilight Sparkle. But if Celestia believes that you and your friends have the power to bring her back from her own madness…”

“Yes…?” Twilight blinked hopefully, briefly wondering That’s the third time that somepony’s made it sound like NightMare Moon’s some kind of puppet… First the Queen, then Crescent Rose, and now Uncle Leo… before King Leo faced away from Twilight Sparkle, giving her a full view of his cape of dyed kelp.

“There is a narbacular tunnel that you can access in Atlas’s Transit Services. I shall pay your fares. Pass through it the precise number of times that you are instructed to, and you should arrive at the coastlines of eastern Pundamilia, not even a day’s journey to Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe.”

A great beam of light shown through Twilight’s heart, and she found herself flapping her sapphire fetlock-fins eagerly, actually floating off of the stony floor by about a hoof. “Oh, thank you, King Leo! This is a real help!”

“You bet!” Pinkie Pie interjected gleefully, flipping to and fro across the table, drawing many arched eyebrows and sharp glares. “It’s super-tough having to trot around for days and days and days and days and having to slow yourself down because all your best pony friends have to slow down and take rests all the time because nopony is totally hopped up on sugar all the time like I am ‘cause I just looo~ove it!”

King Leo, who had seen all sorts of terrors of the ocean that would baffle a land-dweller but paralyze an Aquastrian, could only blink. “She is always like this, you say?”

“‘Fraid so, Yer Majesty,” Applejack replied. “Ya kinda get used to it after a while.”

Letting out a growling cough, King Leo regained his composure, “Regardless, you would need to give the sirenomelon effects time to subside. Until that time has come upon us, you seven shall call Morse, and Lyonesse, your home.”

“If you say so, Your Eminence,” Twilight said levelly.

“I don’t mean in any way to sound impatient, Your Highness,” Rarity queried, “but why must we wait until we begin to become land-ponies again?”

King Leo rested one paw atop the other, “You have to understand, that the sirenomelon’s effects cause a land-pony’s body to depend more heavily on breathing underwater than a mermare. In short, you would not last as long out of water as a mermare would in your current state. As such, I would advise that you make preparations to leave within an hour of the end of the seventh day since you all have ingested the sirenomelon leaves.”

“Also,” added Sealight, levitating six pairs of clamshells in her bright-green dwimmer shimmer, “we have outfitted your old saddle-bags with new clamshell exteriors, to protect the contents from any damage. Each one should respond to each of your dwimmer-prints.”

The seashell-saddle-bags floated down from the far end of the dining table, stopping before each of the six mares. As certain saddle-shells passed by certain mares, they each lit up in the eye color of that mare, being quickly set down at their her side.

Dinner wrapped up relatively smoothly, and after a long day that began with raiding the Crystal Mountains Secure Storage Facility for Studies on Pundamilia Culture, all that anypony − and Spike − wanted to see nothing else but a soft bale of hay to rest in. Bales of hay being rather lacking at the bottom of the ocean, and King Leo loath to risk the potential saviors of Equestria, Aquastria and Harmonia drying up by resting their quasi-mermare bodies in one of the dry rooms, Twilight Sparkle and her party were allotted six rooms in the King’s private guest wing.

The moment that Spike saw the clamshell opening up in their room, a pearly-pink shine to the walls, he let himself fall right into it, and he was asleep in moments. Twilight smiled down at him.

Clamshells for beds… I suppose they’ve been trained not to try eating anypony who rests in them. Twilight leaned down to Spike and, feeling daring, kissed him on his scaly forehead.

Sweet dreams, my number one assistant.

“Seems like you’ve become quite fond of the lad, Twilight,” came a low growl from the entrance to Twilight’s room − a mere curtain of seaweed; privacy was taken for granted, in a good way, down in Aquastria − and when Twilight turned to face the owner of the voice, surely enough, the mighty King of the Oceans swept in.

“Oh, Uncle Leo, it’s nothing like that,” she said evasively. “It’s just… it was a long day… we’re all tired… And…”

“True feelings come out in moments of weakness. Remember that, my dear.”

Twilight had no answer to that.

“Any further progress on your parents…?”

She avoided his eyes with a sigh, “No. I’m on the right track, I feel, but… I just need… more power…”

Leo nodded slowly. “And… nopony else can reverse the transformation?”

Twilight shook her head, invisible tears instantly joining the salty water around her, “Queen Celestia said… That transformation spells can only be reversed by the Unicorn who cast it… It was a failsafe… devised by Star Swirl the Bearded… but… nopony’s ever transformed a whole pony before! It can only be me! And my… my…!”

King Leo swam forward, pulling Twilight in towards his chest with a large paw. There she cried for a long while.

“Give it time, Twilight Sparkle. Time mends all things. Even bad blood will out in the end. Why, my father and brothers would always stir up such a fuss… But that’s a story you wouldn’t like to hear, I’m sure.”

Twilight chuckled tearfully, and Leo returned the laugh deeply.

“You’re much quicker to laughter now, though, my dear. Has that Pinkie Pie been sharing her sugar with you…?”

Twilight choked back more laughter, before replying shakily, “You could say that. She drives me up the walls, though. Ponies just should not be able to do what she does.”


Twilight looked up at her honorary uncle darkly, “If Physics were a law book, Pinkie Pie would be a serial criminal.”

“Really? Could you tell me more?”

Twilight could not help smirking, “That’s a story you wouldn’t want to hear, I’m sure.”

King Leo bowed his head, “Touché.”

Withdrawing slightly as her composure came back to her, Twilight faced Leo with a more serious countenance, “Now, Uncle, tell me how you anticipated where and when somepony would find the Prism Conch.”

King Leo waved a claw teasingly, “Paranoia is a stopped clock, my dear landlocked niece. It’s only right two times a day.”

“Paranoia got me and my friends out of the Crystal Mountains alive. It’s still got one shot left this night.”

The great sea-lion blinked lightly, before nodding in acknowledgement, “Right. You always were one of Celestia’s brightest. One of her most promising. Anyway − and you must understand that this is something that you are to only discuss after you and your band have entered Pundamilia.”

“Anything, Leo. Now what is it?”

“I found the Prism Conch grossenturies ago.”

“I knew it! You − what?”

“I did,” King Leo said, his chest rumbling with a belly laugh as he closed Twilight’s slack jaw with his index-toe. “You must understand that this is a longstanding arrangement. Celestia knew that NightMare Moon would emerge on the dozen-grosseth summer solstice since her banishment, as Forget-Me-Not’s prophecy foretold, and she could not be unprepared. I myself found the Prism Conch less than a year after its loss, but at Celestia’s behest, I would keep its recovery a secret from my subjects, and she from hers.

“I don’t know exactly why, don’t ask me why, but I suspect that Celestia anticipated some word of it reaching NightMare Moon somehow. And she would obviously do all she could to keep the Elements’ Bearers from unlocking the secrets of Harmony. Celestia is a clever one, let me tell you that. Either that, or she likes to leave things to chance and coincidence. Whichever one floats your boat. She would have to have anticipated that a pupil of hers would intuit the placement of her code in the Crystal Mountains. She then would have to have thought that said pupil would wink out to the Pasturic shoreline, as it is the nearest point to Pundamilia in all of Equestria. I knew that such a student would need my help in getting to Pundamilia, so I held the Conch in secret, and waited.

“When the Sun did not rise and alight upon my seas, I knew the time had come. I alerted my watchmares to renew their vigor at the beacon, and I kept watch along the beachline. Then, barely a month later, I saw your little drake trotting along the edge of my ocean with that ravishingly beautiful Unicorn mare of your party. I recalled him, and you whom I also saw, from a diplomatic meeting several years ago. Surely you remember?”

“I do indeed, Uncle Leo,” Twilight smiled at the memory. “Queen Celestia wanted me to become more worldly and more aware of the world outside books. Needless to say, she’s failed up until about a month ago.”

“So rare to hear you speak of Celestia failing in some manner. But I digress. Upon sighting your party at the edge of the Pasturic Ocean, I placed the Prism Conch at the edge of their view, knowing it would catch his eyes, or hers. And… well, here we are.”

Twilight nodded slowly. She supposed that it made sense, but… it seemed as though secrets and lies were tricks of Celestia’s trade. Keeping the Conch a secret, lying about its loss…

“Do not think ill of my dear Tia,” Leo interjected as though he could read Twilight’s mind. “I am an old ruler, canny enough to know a pony’s thoughts by reading their face. Straightforward solutions can be circumvented by cunning trickery. So, you have to be all the more cunning, to trick the trickster. And is NightMare Moon not the greatest trickster of all? Queen of the Veil of Night, which masks the terrors of the world and makes them seem fair, or makes the fair seem terrible?”

“I suppose… You’re right, Uncle Leo. I can’t afford to question the Queen’s plans right now. For almost a dozen-gross years now she’s maintained the Nychthemeron which keeps our world in order. If the harmony of this world remains offset for much longer, we could see the return of discord and chaos to Harmonia…”

King Leo nodded darkly, and the lights of his golden eyes dimmed slightly at some black memory of which Twilight did not know. “Yes. Discord…”

Twilight smiled nervously, attempting to steer the conversation in a more conducive direction, “Umm, Uncle Leo… may I ask you about the Queen of Pundamilia?”

Leo seemed to greatly appreciate the change in topic, as he pulled himself upright with his forelegs standing completely straight upon the smooth pearlescent floor.

“Queen Malkia of Pundamilia is old. Very old. Perhaps the oldest creature on this planet who is not immortal like myself, Celestia or… well, NightMare Moon. She is strict, tolerating no nonsense, but… I see no reason why she would withhold the secret of the Elements from you. The only other recourse would be for Pundamilia to burn away under the everlasting Sun.”

“How does she know so much about the Elements? She didn’t help to make them, did she?”

King Leo shook his head, “She did not, and she has only seen the Elements in action once: the day when the Sun and Moon shone in the sky together. When the Moon attempted to block out the Sun. Such a dreadful day; a fell day. It was the day the Elements fell silent. Why, I do not entirely know. I can guess, but do not know. The Elements are a mystery to even those who have beheld their power, as I have, two-and-a-half meggrossia ago.”

“You’ve seen the Elements?” Twilight asked, glancing at the saddle-shell beside Spike’s shell-bed. “How do they work? What will they do?”

“I would not know, for I took no part in their making. There is only one you could ask presently who would know anything about their creation, and she currently sits upon a stolen throne.”

Twilight’s ears flattened.

“I think that this is all for tonight, my dear Twilight. I would not like to overfill your head with riddles that you will not puzzle out for a long time now.”

Planting a very whiskery kiss upon Twilight’s forehead, King Leo swept out of Twilight’s bed-chamber, leaving the lavender Unicorn alone with a sleeping drake, and her buzzing thoughts.

CHAPTER x: Cutie Marks The Spot

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“First order a’ business of th’ Cutie Mark Crusaders:” Apple Bloom barked out over the podium − really just an empty apple bucket turned upside-down − to the Unicorn and Pegasus fillies facing her, “Ev’rypony else in our class has gotten their cutie marks ahead of us. That means we gotta stick t’gether! We gotta work it out ourselves how t’ git our cutie marks! An’ we’re gonna git our cutie marks, or die tryin’!” On that ominous note, she perked up as she brightly finished, “Any questions?”

Sweetie Belle put up a hoof, her fetlocks as curly as her mane.

“Yes, Sweetie Belle?”

Sweetie put down her hoof, “Can’t we just ask adults about how they got their cutie marks?”

“No can do, Sweetie Belle,” Apple Bloom shook her head, her big pink bow bouncing slightly. “Ah asked Big Mac how t’ git yer cutie mark, an’ he said that it’s sumthin’ thatcha gotta figger out fer yerself.”

Scootaloo stuck out her tongue and made a retching noise, “I got the same thing from Fluttershy one time.” Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom gave her odd looks, and she shrugged, “Rainbow Dash was staying over her house for some reason. Some sorta sleepover, I think. But anyway, Fluttershy told me that ‘getting a cutie mark is about finding out who you really are’.” She put on a breathy falsetto in imitation of the meek yellow Pegasus. In an instant, she dropped out of it and finished, “That’s boring. A cutie mark really comes out from action! I’m sure of it! Rainbow Dash had to of gotten her cutie mark through some really sweet moves!”

“Ah’ll bet Applejack got her cutie mark bah buckin’ all the apples in Sweet Apple Acres in one day!” Apple Bloom cried gleefully.

“Or Rarity put every gem on Harmonia onto the best dress ever for Queen Celestia!” squeaked Sweetie Belle.

“Or maybe… maybe Rainbow Dash did the Sonic Rainboom!” Scootaloo’s two compatriot Crusaders gave her baffled looks. She arched a cerise eyebrow. “What? Every Pegasus knows the… Ohh. Right.” She chuckled nervously.

“The ‘Sonic Rainboom’?” Apple Bloom echoed.

“What’s the Sonic Rainboom?” asked Sweetie Belle.

“I’m not entirely sure myself,” Scootaloo began, “but it’s supposed to be what happens when a really awesome Pegasus gets going really fast! So fast, that no other Pegasus has ever flown that fast, except one:” She smirked broadly. “General Firefly of the Wonderbolts! The fastest flyer who’s ever lived! …Except Rainbow Dash, of course.”

“That sounds awesome!” cried Sweetie Belle, her voice cracking. “Maybe we can get our cutie marks in being the first non-Pegasus ponies to make a Sonic Rainboom!”

“But how would we get t’ goin’ that fast?” Apple Bloom wondered out loud. “We’d need some kinda catapult contraption t’ get goin’ that fast…”

“I’m liking this idea!” Scootaloo said with a grin. “Maybe we can take along a lasso so that we can grab the Sun and pull it back over Equestria!”

Sweetie Belle leapt joyously into the air. “That’s sound so cool! Our big sisters’ll be so proud!”

“Ah know! Then Applejack cin come back home an’ not have ta take such a big ol’ journey across the entire world!”

“What are we waiting for? The Sun to rise?” Scootaloo said, darting towards the clubhouse door. “Let’s go!”

“Alright!” Apple Bloom called out. “But first, let’s do that cheer thang we were talkin’ ‘bout.”

“Cheer thing?” Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle asked.

“Y’all know… the whole ‘Cutie Mark Crusaders something-er-other’ thang.”

“Oh…! Right…”

Each of the three put a forehoof in the air, each bellowing to the rafters,


The day after Twilight Sparkle had left Ponyville for Canterlot with five Ponyville mares, a letter had been dropped off at both Sweetie Belle’s home and at Sweet Apple Acres, each addressed to the young filly living at each house. It was an invitation to meet somewhere private in Ponyville (a private table at Sugarcube Corner) to discuss the formation of some sort of club. Upon arriving at the bakery and sweets shop, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle spotted a very familiar Pegasus filly.

Over a rich salt-lick sundae, the three fillies each agreed that they would team up together to brainstorm ideas to get their cutie marks. Alternatively, they also agreed that they would work together to show stuck-up snobs like Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon that not having a cutie mark did not make them second-class ponies.

“I mean,” Scootaloo had said, “I’m sure Rainbow Dash was still super-awesome even before she got her cutie mark!”

Though Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle thought nothing more on this comment the rest of the day, they came to agree that Scootaloo needed an intervention after she spent more time pining after Rainbow Dash than actually brainstorming about how to get a cutie mark.

Then the ursa major came on down.

Then it turned out to be a magical illusion by a delusional stage performer.

Then a real ursa minor appeared, drawing the attention of its all-too-real mother.

Then Twilight gave the bear-titan-sow back her cub, and it left Ponyville alone.

Then Twilight and the others left again, but not before Scootaloo received a more substantial farewell from Rainbow Dash.

The next time that Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle saw Scootaloo, the Pegasus filly was far better rested, but her cerise mane was still as wild as ever.

But before any orders of business for the newly formed Cutie Mark Crusaders could commence, they would need a meeting place a little more discrete than Sugarcube Corner. After several days of searching fruitlessly around Ponyville, they eventually came to an old clubhouse in a tree at the edge of a grove at the northern border of Sweet Apple Acres.

“Big Mac said that it used ta be where he an’ his friends hung out,” Apple Bloom told Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo down the overgrown path leading out from the barn. “Says he built it with help from Ma ‘n’ Pa when he was just a colt. So it should be right sturdy stuff.”

“Is that it?” asked Sweetie Belle as she pointed ahead.

The two other Crusaders looked where she had pointed…

“Somepony needs ta put that thang outta its misery,” Apple Bloom drawled.

The clubhouse had not taken the test of time kindly. The roof was collapsing in parts, and the windows were busted in. The front door hung off of one hinge.

“Rarity wouldn’t come at this thing with a ten-and-a-half-furlong pole,” Sweetie Belle commented. “But it’s just a fixer-upper.”

“Yeah. Ah cin see that. It just needs a bit a’ TLC.”

“As in Tender Loving Care, or Totally Lost Cause?”

Despite Scootaloo’s quibbling, the Crusaders set to work on restoring the old clubhouse to workable conditions. For the first week, the fillies plugged away at trying to fix it up with direction from Apple Bloom. Even with the farmer filly’s guiding hoof, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo would inadvertently botch the areas they would be working on, setting the reconstruction back at least a day. When asked for more direct guidance, Apple Bloom refused on the grounds that she would only make it worse.

“B’sides, who’d want a cutie mark in rebuildin’ rundown ol’ clubhouses? Ah mean, there can’ be a big ol’ market fer that, can there?”

Apple Bloom did acquiesce to asking Big McIntosh for assistance and guidance in restoring the clubhouse, however. The three fillies − Earth Pony, Unicorn and Pegasus − worked together with Big Mac’s taciturn instructions to tear out rotting slats of wood and refit in fresh planks, to carefully replace the windows and window frames, to sand down the floor and to disinfect the clubhouse of any ill sorts of creatures that would now call it home. Last was the repainting: pale rosy pink, with a burgundy roof.

It took a good two weeks more to fully restore the clubhouse, but it was done by the ‘monthiversary’ (as Sweetie Belle called it) of their big sisters leaving to go save the day. With Big Mac’s permission and oversight, they were allowed to indulge in a special brew of the Apple family’s cider: a dram of hard cider had been added for each gill of fresh cider, to help calm the body and nerves.

“Well,” Apple Bloom had said as she planted her empty mug on the smoothed-out wooden floor of the clubhouse, wiping away the bubbly froth around her lips, “Ah think that this is a clubhouse we cin call a meetin’ place.”

Sweetie Belle had nodded with a smile, “It’s got plenty of space for brainstorming.”

“And it’s got a telescope, so we can see if anypony’s coming before they can see us,” Scootaloo beamed.

“So… all in favor?” asked Apple Bloom.

All three fillies had put a forehoof in the air, grinning brightly at each other. They lowered their hooves after a moment.

“All out of favor?”

None of the three put a hoof into the air, only glancing awkwardly back and forth at each other.

“Is that even what ‘out of favor’ means?” Sweetie Belle had asked.

“Who cares?” Scootaloo replied. “We’re all set to start our first order of business!”

At which point Apple Bloom turned over an empty bucket of apples, and began her spiel…

Collecting parts for an impromptu catapult proved to be surprisingly difficult for a trio of frolicsome fillies on a farm brimming with old parts of outdated farm equipment. The grown-ups of Sweet Apple Acres − in other words, everypony but Apple Bloom − had taken care to hide anything “dangerous” from Apple Bloom, in the event that she got a little too curious.

“Can’ rightly say Ah see th’ sense in this, child,” Granny Smith said feebly when Apple Bloom asked her in the living room, the elderly mare’s hearing trumpet propped on the lampstand by her rocking chair. “When Ah was yer age, Ah wasn’ so worried about mah cutie mark as Ah was about tendin’ to mah Pappy’s farm out by Fillydelphia.”

“But Granny…!” Apple Bloom implored. “Ev’rypony else in mah class ‘cept fer me, Sweetie Belle an’ Scootaloo has their cutie mark already! An’ Ah don’ know how long Applejack an’ her friends’ll be out savin’ the world, but Ah really need ta git mah cutie mark before they come back frum their big adventure!”

Granny Smith scratched behind her ear. “Ah unnerstand yer impatience, Apple Bloom, an’ Ah git thatcher wantin’ ta help yer big sister out. But all good things come in time, an’ a cutie mark’s somethin’ that takes its time. What is it that yer good at?”

“Ah don’ know…”

“But that’s why we want to build a catapult!” Scootaloo cut in. “So we can see if our cutie marks are in catapulting ourselves and pulling the Sun back into place with a lasso!”

The three fillies beamed hopefully at the Apple family matriarch, who rubbed her chin in thought.

“Hmm…” murmured Granny Smith. “Ah don’ think that’s how cutie marks work. A cutie mark is when ya realize what it is that yer good at, an’ what it is that ya really like doin’. Big McIntosh tells me that y’all put a real good bit a work inta that rickedy ol’ clubhouse. Maybe one a y’all’s good at buildin’ things!”

“But that’s boring!” Sweetie Belle whined. “We wanna get fun cutie marks, not cutie marks about things like building or…” She ground a hoof ruefully against the floor planks. “…or singing…”

Apple Bloom and Scootaloo gaped at Sweetie Belle. “You can sing?” Scootaloo asked in astonishment.

Sweetie Belle’s ears fell back, “I don’t like singing in front of ponies…”

Scootaloo groaned, “When did you turn into Fluttershy on us? Let’s hear you―!”

“Simmer down there, young’un,” interjected Granny Smith, a knowing smile on her face. “Give ‘er some time.”

Scootaloo sat down on her haunches, crossing her forehooves on the ground.

After five seconds she looked at Sweetie Belle again.

“Can you sing for us now?”

“No!” squealed Sweetie Belle, blushing red and covering her face with her forehooves. “I don’t like to sing in front of ponies!”

Granny Smith let out a raspy groan, “She needs more time th’n that.”

“How much time, Granny Smith?” Apple Bloom asked her grandmother.

“As much time as she needs.”

Scootaloo threw her forelegs in the air in frustration, her tiny little wings beating furiously, “That’s it! We’re not getting any closer to our cutie marks just sitting around in Apple Bloom’s living room! Let’s go ask her big brother!”


They found Big McIntosh out in the western orchard, inspecting which apple trees had grown to ripeness. Though Twilight Sparkle’s new sun kept the trees from dying of freezing or sun-starvation, the development cycle of so many plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables had been impeded by the encroaching night. As such, Big Mac took it upon himself to inspect the groves of trees punctually, with the help of whatever willing Ponyvillager he could contact readily − usually his close friend Caramel, who was an Apple in all but name and blood. As it was, though, he always had a moment to set aside for his littlest sister, even moments after he’d finished savoring the newly reconstructed clubhouse of his youth.

As it turned out, she did not take kindly to his answer in regards to her question of him letting her get some catapult parts.

“But Big Mac…!” she begged, her ears and even her bow sagging as she pawed at one of his giant hooves with her own.

“‘Nope’ is ‘nope’, Apple Bloom,” Big Mac reiterated. “Ya can’ force a cutie mark to appear the way y’all’re goin’ about it.”

“But you’ve only gotten your cutie mark the way you got your cutie mark!” Sweetie Belle shouted.

The stallion and two other fillies beside her gave her questioning looks. “Huh?”

“Uhh… What I think I’m trying to say is…” Sweetie Belle continued awkwardly, tracing a circle in the cold earth with a tiny cloven hoof. “Well… You only got your cutie mark story. Other ponies must of got theirs in all sorts of other crazy ways.”

“She’s right!” Scootaloo piped in. “Everypony gets their cutie marks doing something really special! And what’s more special than launching ourselves with a catapult we built ourselves, lassoing the Sun, and swinging it back around the world?”

“Th’ Sun ain’t somethin’ anypony could lasso,” Big Mac explained patiently. “It’s over a gigagross miles wide, an’ almost a gross-a’-gigagross miles away. There jus’ ain’ any way that any three fillies could build a catapult strong enough to throw ‘em that far. An’ if that weren’ enough, th’ Sun’s burnin’ hotter th’n the heart a’ Tartarus. Any rope or filly’d fry before they got within a furlong.”

Scootaloo moaned, “We didn’t come here for an astronomy lesson, Big Mac! We came here to get catapult parts! Right, Apple Bloom?”

But Apple Bloom wasn’t listening. She was staring off back into the east, over the Everfree Forest.

“Apple Bloom? Are you listening to me?” Scootaloo shouted.

Apple Bloom continued to gape out towards the horizon, slowly pointing a hoof out to the place where the Sun ordinarily rose.

“The Sun’s risin’…”

She was right. The sky was brightening from black to deep-purple to royal-blue to pink to orange, and at the very edge, right where the sky met the earth, a sliver of bright golden light pierced the night. A blast of warmth struck the faces of all four ponies standing on the hill of apple trees. The leaves glistened with an earthy green light, as though they were attempting to soak in as much sunlight as they could in case the Sun vanished back below the horizon.

The stalk of wheat in Big McIntosh’s mouth fell to the grass at his hooves as his jaw fell open. The three fillies around him gazed at the Sun in awe, as though it were the first glimpse they had ever had of daylight.

“Oh mah stars…” Apple Bloom breathed.

“Is Queen Celestia coming back?” Sweetie Belle asked.

“Wait,” Scootaloo shook her head, snapping out of her enraptured state. “Didn’t Rainbow Dash’s new friend Twilight Sparkle say something about sunrise and figuring out some secret Celestia message?”

“Eeyup,” replied Big Mac, smiling broadly.

“Then that means,” Apple Bloom continued with a beaming face, “that Queen Celestia’s not back yet, but she’ll be back soon!”

Sweetie Belle giggled gleefully, a pale-harlequin shower of sparks emerging from her stubby little alicorn.

Suddenly, Big Mac’s large foreleg scooped all three little fillies together, and the burly stallion began to herd them back towards the homestead.

“Hey, what gives?” Scootaloo asked irately.

“What’s goin’ on, Big Mac?” asked Apple Bloom.

“NightMare Moon will’ve seen that, an’ she won’ be happy,” he said shortly. “She’ll send ‘er troops on down here. We gotta lock ourselves down fer now.”

“Why, though?” Sweetie Belle said confusedly. “I bet you could fight all of them off, Big McIntosh!”

The big Apple stallion gave a small humble smile, “Well, maybe. But why risk gittin’ swamped?”

After swiftly alerting his grandmother as to the situation regarding the Sun and NightMare Moon, Big McIntosh deposited three protesting fillies in the Sweet Apple home and promptly bolted for Ponyville proper.

He gulped. This would involve a lot of talking.

Reaching Town Square, Big McIntosh looked around at the ponies present. There was Golden Harvest, packing up her carrot baskets; Bon Bon and Lyra, respectively putting away jars of candy and placing a lyre into a case; Pinot Noir, taking down the displays of her vineyard wares; Stellar Eclipse, placing cartons of chicken eggs onto a cage containing a very irate white rabbit; and many more whose names Big Mac knew, but did not feel the need to remind himself as it looked like most everypony had gotten the right idea as well.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to help somepony else out so that they could all get back to their homes quickly, before the new Nightmare Guard up at the newly rechristened Endymion arrived to tear Ponyville down for providing further shelter to NightMare Moon’s Most Wanted (so Applejack and company were called on the radio by those radio hosts who were intimidated or hypnotized into obeying NightMare Moon).

Big Mac approached an Earth Pony stallion. He had a light-amber coat, a chocolate-brown mane, bright-blue eyes and a cutie mark of three sky-blue horseshoes. This was Caramel, the last of Big Mac’s childhood friends who had not moved off from Ponyville. He was a forgetful sort, but forgetful help was better than no help at all.

So Big Mac hoped.

Caramel was startled to see Big McIntosh. “Big McIntosh! Oh, I… wasn’t expecting to see you here. Are you here to help me take my seed wares back home to stock?”


Caramel turned back to his cart, counting the bags of various types of seeds. His ears flattened.

“That’s strange… did I really only bring along two bags of sunflower seeds?”

Big McIntosh sighed to himself. Caramel must have forgotten to restock his cart the night before…

The firstborn Apple son looked up at Miss Twilight’s fake little sun in the sky.

Or as close to night as we’re likely to get for a while, he thought.

He did not doubt that his younger sister Applejack had fine intentions in leaving with Miss Twilight to help overthrow NightMare Moon and reinstate Queen Celestia, but he feared that she would bite off more than she could chew. He knew her longer than anypony else in Ponyville, and he knew that Applejack possessed a fierce stubborn streak, stopping for nopony else. She was even better at standing firm than Big McIntosh himself was, though she was too humble to admit so. Such was her tenacity and refusal to give in or compromise.

He only hoped that such stubbornness would not give in to recklessness and an early end.

Bringing himself back to the present, Big Mac hitched himself into the harness of Caramel’s cart and began to tow it towards Caramel’s home.

“Oh… well, thanks, Big Apple!” said Caramel, using his own personal nickname for Big McIntosh. He always told Big Mac that he felt the term Big Mac to be uncannily close to something that “those meat-eater Griffons” would eat.

“Don’ mention it,” grunted Big McIntosh as he brushed past the Bon Bon-Lyra pair. He never enjoyed talking much, even around family, and he was already surly enough with having to be so bluntly reminded of Caramel’s forgetfulness on top of NightMare Moon’s impending crackdown on Ponyville and his littlest sister getting the wrong idea of cutie marks into her head.

Regardless, when they reached Caramel’s home, Big Mac offered Caramel a very patient smile and helped the slighter stallion haul his wares indoors, stowing them in his seed stores in the back. After only three trips back and forth (sunflower seed bags were not the only wares which Caramel had forgotten to restock his cart on), Big McIntosh bade Caramel a wordless farewell and left for Town Square.

“…An’ that’s how Ah got mah cutie mark!” Granny Smith finished to the three fillies.

Apple Bloom’s eyes sparkled. “Wow…”

Scootaloo made a raspberry. “Phooey! That sorta thing isn’t gonna help us get our cutie marks!”

Granny Smith let out a knowing chuckle, “Oh, Ah don’ know ‘bout that, youngster. My grandpappy told me the story ‘bout how he got his cutie mark, an’ Ah got mine less’n two weeks later. These cutie mark thangs… ya gotta take yer time with ‘em, figger out what yer special talent is. An’…”

Whatever it was that Granny Smith had to say further on the subject was lost, as the elderly matriarch’s eyes slowly slid shut as she was speaking, before her head bobbed down, and she began to slowly snort and snore.

Scootaloo raised an eyebrow skeptically at the sleeping old mare, turning towards the radio on the corner table.

“There’s gotta be something good on right about now,” she said just before she began to spin the dial with her teeth. A cyclic din of chattering voices and spurts of music reached their ears.

“Okay!” squeaked Sweetie Belle, trotting forward to rest beside Scootaloo in front of the radio. “Maybe there’s gonna be something about Rarity and her friends!”

Apple Bloom shook her head hesitantly, “Ah don’ know. Ah don’ think that anything like that’d be good news fer us…”

“Oh…” Sweetie Belle sighed sadly, before perking up brightly. “Maybe the Cheese Sandwich Band is playing something!”

“Or maybe there’s some story ‘bout the ol’ NightMare Moon war goin’ on!”

“Or maybe there’s a Daring Do radio play!” Scootaloo received odd looks from her two accomplices, before shrugging her forelegs, “It’s better than reading, isn’t it?”

Awkwardly returning to spinning the dial back and forth, Scootaloo cast her mind out to her prospective mentor and (hopeful) big sister Rainbow Dash. Where was she now? Was she alright? What was she doing? Did she (Scootaloo shuddered) find some other new Pegasus filly to take under her wing and raise as a wingpony? Some little filly that could actually fly…?

The word Queen Celestia buzzing in her ear from the radio caught her ear, and she let go of the dial and sat back with her two best friends.

“Why has Queen Celestia abandoned us in our time of need?” hissed a very unbalanced and scratchy voice, as though the pony who was speaking had skipped many nights of sleep before speaking. It did not help that his speech was interspersed with bursts of static. “We have been told by Kibitz, the Royal Steward of Canterlot, who was conveniently outside of Canterlot at the time of NightMare Moon’s arising, that the Queen of the Sun has been imprisoned by NightMare Moon inside of our own Sun. Maybe he’s telling us the truth…

Or is he?” breathed the speaker on the other end, and his microphone blasted feedback so loud that the Crusaders leaned back with flattened ears and Granny Smith gave a loud grunting snore.

“Well, I, Tinfoil Hat, have cracked the reason behind the unexplained disappearance of Queen Celestia and the equally unexpected appearance of a dark mare calling herself NightMare Moon. And the reason is… they are the same pony!”

“What?” cried out the Cutie Mark Crusaders in shock. Could it be…?

“Yes, my friends. It’s true,” he continued in a tone approximating sympathy. “The guardsponies of her New Order didn’t want me to reveal this to you. That is why I had to hijack this radio station’s broadcasting waves. But why, you must be asking yourself, why has she only revealed herself now? Why has she not already attempted to enslave us under her tyrannical horseshoes?

“I would have thought that the answer was obvious: She didn’t want us to think that she was a bad, bad pony. Oh no no no. She fabricated the legend of NightMare Moon, and the prophecy of her return, so that we would never know of her monstrous heart and diabolical intent. That small sunrise you saw out to the east? That was her reminding us of her absolute control over every celestial body, and how we only continue to exist at her whim!

“But, you may ask me, the prophecy told to us by her loyal little lapdog Twilight Sparkle. Surely that could not have been a lie. Well, my friends, I can only answer Neigh. She was so close to the Queen, she would surely know of how twisted of a mare the Queen truly was. It’s obvious that she is Queen NightMare Celestia’s right-hoof mare, out to conquer the planet with her band of hypnotized lackeys!”

“Wait a minute,” Sweetie Belle began, raising a hoof in query. “This pony sounds super-crazy!”

“Yeah… I was just beginning to think that, too,” Scootaloo replied.

“Let’s change the station,” Apple Bloom said, getting up to take the dial in her teeth…

“Wait!” Scootaloo hissed hastily, biting her lower lip. “I gotta hear how crazy the rest of it is!”

Cocking an eyebrow at the Pegasus, Apple Bloom sat down nonetheless as Tinfoil Hat continued on his tirade.

“…then, they shall conquer Saddle Arabia, and the fiendishly cruel Shutterfly shall be the adjutant in charge of that country! And then, they shall conquer―…”

A clattering ruckus arose on the other end of the radio, and Tinfoil’s voice stopped immediately. In a moment, it returned, losing its manic tone and gaining an irate edge.

“Do you mind? This is a very important message that the ponies of Equestria need to― AGH!” The sound of a hoof striking a chin rang out, and Scootaloo put a hoof in the air with a Woot!.

‘Vın̈yl!’ came a Shirish mare’s indignant voice. ‘You were not supposed to strike him!’

“Aww, c’mon, Octy,” drawled the voice of another, more sassy mare. “I left the door unlocked while we went to get milk and food; I get first dibs on any breakers and/or enterers.”

As Tinfoil groaned and (apparently) struggled back to his hooves, “Octy” made a huffing noise and could be heard to hiss something that sounded oddly like ‘I wanted to get first dibs.’

“You miserable nags…” Tinfoil growled, spitting something out of his mouth that clattered against the floor. “What’re you two doing here?”

‘What are we doing here?’ snarled “Octy” in a rising voice. ‘I believe we should be asking why you are in our safehouse!’

“I’m telling Equestria what they need to hear,” Tinfoil said with a feeble attempt at dignity.

Vın̈yl scoffed, “Sure, and me and Octavia here are secretly the same mare. Now, if you don’t mind…”

Before she could finish her sentence, there was a scuffling noise interspersed with coltish grunts and disturbingly high hisses, culminating in a high and long scream followed by Tinfoil groaning in pain.

‘Hmm…’ mused Octavia. ‘Falsetto. Even most geldings cannot reach that pitch. I’m impressed.’

Vın̈yl let out a loud guffawing laugh that Scootaloo echoed, the latter occasionally choking out a couple words: “She… she kicked him in… in the…”

“Now,” growled a surprisingly dark-sounding Vın̈yl, and they heard the unmistakable tinkling sound of a Unicorn’s dwimmer shimmer, “if you don’t mind… GET OUT!”

Tinfoil let out a great and long yell as he was apparently thrown out of a door which promptly slammed itself shut. Vın̈yl let out a heaving sigh.

“Man, that dockhead really worked my appetite,” Vın̈yl grumbled. “I need a tomato juice.”

‘There’s some left over in the fridge, Vın̈yl,’ sighed Octavia, whose voice was far louder; she must have been standing closer to the microphone. She breathed softly, before speaking directly into the mic:

‘Apologies for that, listeners, but it would seem that Daydreams with a DJ will be postponed until such time as we can find a new safehouse. If somepony didn’t leave the door unlocked and let some lunatic prat waltz right in…’

The sound of exhaling sharply through nostrils.

‘In any case, we will take extra care that tin-shoe mental cases do not use our station as a platform for their ridiculous theories in the future. You will know when we are back on the radio waves. As always, keep those dials spinning, and those smiles shining.’

“Hey! That’s my line!” came out Vın̈yl’s indignant voice, before the broadcast cut out to static.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders looked back and forth at each other.

“I don’t think I want to listen to the radio anymore,” Sweetie Belle said softly.

“Neither do Ah,” agreed Apple Bloom. That had gotten entirely too scary, finding out that somepony could think something so crazy and do something so wrong as to break into somepony else’s house.

“Are you kidding?” Scootaloo grinned at her two friends. “That was hilarious!”

“Hilarious?” Apple Bloom questioned. “How was that funny?”

“How could it not be? I mean, it’s so obvious that it was a fake guy telling fake stories! That’s what makes it so funny! That Tinfoil Hat’s a laugh and a half!”

“I don’t know,” Sweetie Belle glanced back at the radio. “I think that those deejay ladies really hurt him…”

“Well, he rightly deserved it,” said Apple Bloom with a stomp of her hoof. “He shouldn’t a’ been breakin’ an’ enterin’ like he did.”

“Well… yeah, that was pretty bad,” Scootaloo conceded, “but you gotta admit it was pretty funny when she kicked him in the―”

“Scootaloo!” Apple Bloom hissed, shushing the Pegasus. She nudged her head towards Granny Smith, who was rubbing her eyes sleepily with one foreleg. The three fillies watched the old mare for a few tense seconds, but Granny Smith lowered her leg and rested her weight upon it once more, snoring softly.

Apple Bloom breathed a sigh of relief, before fixating a glare with scrunched-up lips at Scootaloo.

“What did I do?” Scootaloo asked.

“Ya almos’ woke up Granny Smith. An’ she don’ like bein’ woken up from her naps. Exspecially not in this whole ‘eternal night’ thingamabob.”

“Sorry,” Scootaloo said with an abrasive edge.

“‘Sides,” Apple Bloom grinned, “we wouldn’ want Granny ta stop us helpin’ Big Mac out in Ponyville.”

Sweetie Belle gasped delightedly, “Maybe there are catapult parts we can get out in the town!”

Scootaloo grinned, “Yeah! There’s this huge basket they use for laundry out at the orphanage that I know will be good for a catapult!”

“Alright!” Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle cheered, charging out the door. Scootaloo followed after a moment, glad that they did not question her as to how she knew the orphanage so well…

“Thank you so much for your help, Big McIntosh,” said Miss Mayor, a hoof on her chest as she smiled proudly at the burly Apple stallion. “Once more, the Apple family comes through for Ponyville.”

“Eeyup,” Big Mac replied simply.

(“Sure, everypony thanks the Apple family for the work of one stallion,” Diamond Tiara groused next to her father, “but if wasn’t for Great-Granddaddy Stinkin’ Rich, Ponyville wouldn’t have anything to call Ponyville in the first place!”

(“But,” retorted her father shortly, “if it wasn’t for Old Miss Granola Smith’s Zap Apple wares that put Ponyville on the map, my grandfather Stinkin’ Rich would not have become so wealthy in the first place.”)

“Now, everypony,” the Mayor continued, her voice losing much of its joviality and becoming more serious, “please hurry back to your homes, and try not to act suspicious if the Nightmare Guard comes knocking. Just tell them the truth: Twilight Sparkle is not here, and hasn’t been here for weeks.”

Everypony nodded, standing beside or hitched to their carts, ready to return to their homes in an instant. Everything could have proceeded very quickly and smoothly…

If not for the sonic boom.

Everypony in Town Square flattened their ears against their skulls, obeying the rush of adrenaline and the ancestral evolutionary urge to bolt and save themselves for the benefit of the herd. The result was a cacophony of crashing carriages and a plethora of provoked ponies. Big Mac and the Mayor gaped at the chaos that had erupted in Town Square caused by the…

The sonic boom.

Looking up at the source, the pair of Earth Ponies barely registered a pack of eleven purple shapes before one of them landed directly in front of the Gazebo, a miasmic trail dissipating behind it as it resolved into the shape of a shadowy Pegasus. She exactly matched the description which Daydreams with a DJ had given for the Captain of the Shadowbolts, Nightingale.

Then a second sonic boom shook Ponyville, shattering windows around Town Square and overturning several unattended carts. This paralyzed the panicked ponies in Town Square, stopping in their tracks and staring with wide fearful eyes at the dark captain.

“Hey Big Mac!”

Big Mac’s heart clenched as his head turned back toward Sweet Apple Acres. Apple Bloom and her two friends were galloping his way as fast as their little legs could carry them − or, in Scootaloo’s case, buzzing her tiny wings as fast as she could to propel herself forward on her scooter.

“We thoughtcha could use… a little… help?”

Apple Bloom trailed off as she saw Nightingale the Shadowbolt captain standing in front of Town Hall, her mouth full of fangs bared and her shattered goggles resting against her chest. Ten more Shadowbolts descended behind her slowly, half of whom were Pegasi and the other half Bat Ponies.

Nightingale’s slit-pupiled eyes narrowed on Big McIntosh, “Stern.”

A Shadowbolt Pegasus stallion with his muzzle completely covered by a black cloth flapped up to Nightingale’s front, bowing slightly before his Captain.

“Go up to Sweet Apple Acres and turn out the place,” she ordered fiercely. “Turn the place upside-down. Look for any sign that Most Wanted were here recently.”

“They ain’t been here in weeks!” Apple Bloom blurted out, before Big Mac drew her back to his side with a quiet hush.

Nightingale glared at the small filly, “We’ll be the judge of that.”

Stern nodded his assent to Nightingale’s order silently, before he bolted off above the heads of the Ponyvillagers towards Sweet Apple Acres.

Turning back towards the Gazebo, Apple Bloom gave a squeak of terror; Nightingale was right on top of her! Big Mac gave a roar of rage and made to cuff the Shadowbolt Captain across the head with a mighty forehoof. The area where he would have struck her turned into a miasmic blue mist, his hoof traveling straight through her as she glowered at Apple Bloom.

“We’ll be having none of that,” she snapped at the baffled Big McIntosh, before she practically touched her muzzle to Apple Bloom’s. The filly’s ears fell flat, scooting backwards into her big brother’s forelegs, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle shuddering at her sides.

“The Moon wears many faces, my little pony:” Nightingale hissed, “the faces of kindness, of love, of fury, of sorrow. You are to love every one of the Moon’s faces. But I am not here to make you love the Moon’s faces. I am here to make you fear mine!”

She soared into the air with a wing-roll, half-turning her head to face her nine remaining Shadowbolts.

“Shadowbolts, fan out! Search for the Most Wanted! If you find them, or any evidence that they’ve been here recently, do not harm them! We will bring them straight to Queen NightMare Moon, and be rewarded the best out of all her loyal followers!”

“You mean ‘out of all her coerced and hypnotized slaves’, don’t you, you big bullies?” called out Ditzy Doo, a wall-eyed Pegasus mare.

Nightingale passed a surprisingly gentle look over to the gray Pegasus, “Oh. Silly me. I forgot about the whole ‘coercion’ part. Ponyville!” Her voice boomed out, reverberating out from every beam of timber, every cornerstone, every shard of glass around the hamlet. “Your village is a known haven for those who conspire sedition against our Queen of Everlasting Night. Surrender them, or information leading to them, and we will leave your quaint little hamlet unsearched.

Every mare, stallion and foal in Town Square glanced fearfully about at one another. The Mayor faced Nightingale with conviction in her lined face, “You can threaten to raze our Ponyville to the ground, but we will never surrender a single pony to you!” Around her, the looks of fear melted away to match the Mayor’s look of defiant resolve. “Each of them, including the young dragon cub Spike, is a part of our extended family here in the Saddle Valley! You will never get a whit of information out of―”

“They were going to the Crystal Mountains!” piped up a shrill filly’s voice, and scores of eyes spun around to face Diamond Tiara, who was pointing up past the North Equinus Mountains. “They should be getting there pretty soon! If you hurry, you might catch them!”

Filthy Rich gaped at his daughter’s brazenness, and many ponies who had merely tolerated her in the past leveled looks of deepest loathing at her. In spite of this, she held a look of smuggest triumph on her face.

Until her father clamped his teeth down on his daughter’s ear and started to drag her off down the street, a look of most pronounced distaste on his face. Her tiara fell askew as she gave her father a distressed and panicked look.

“Daddy? What did I do wrong? They’re not gonna touch our money now. They won’t touch our money!”

“We just came from the Crystal Mountains, and they got away to Maker-knows-where,” Nightingale growled, an evil grin appearing on her muzzle as she continued, “but it’s gladdening to know how easily you’d sell them out, little filly. You must be so proud of your little filly, sir,” she finished in a lilting voice like poisoned honey.

Mr. Rich unclamped his teeth from Diamond Tiara’s ear and glared at the Shadowbolt Captain.

“I’ve never been more disappointed in my life, I’ll have you know.”

“But… Daddy―”

“Don’t talk until I’ve given you permission to, young mare. I didn’t raise you to be such a self-serving little snitch.”

“But I don’t serve myself; that’s why you hired a butler, right?”

“I’m hearing you talk without my permission, Dégueulis Dazzle Rich,” he growled. “Your allowance is now indefinitely withheld. I can’t believe you would be so ungrateful to your family here in Ponyville.”

“But you’re my only family, Daddy!” she whined, imploring at his hooves as tears ran down her muzzle. “Ever since Mommy left for the funny farm, you’re the only one who matters to me other than Silvie! Silvie!” She cried out as she spotted Silver Spoon, who wore a neutral expression on her bespectacled face. “You think I did right by Ponyville, right? We’re sugar-lump buddies, right?”

Silver Spoon walked up to Diamond Tiara, tilting her head down so that she could look at Diamond Tiara over the rims of her glasses. Diamond Tiara offered a hopeful smile…

Silver Spoon’s hoof slapped roughly against Diamond Tiara’s muzzle, the pink filly’s jaw dropping in shock as the gray filly gave her a look of deepest disgust.

“You’re a monster,” breathed Silver Spoon, her eyes narrowed to slits at Diamond Tiara, whose ears drooped as her eyes overflowed with fresh tears. Raising her head, Silver Spoon turned away from Diamond Tiara and flicked her tail in the latter’s face.

“If you please, sir,” Nightingale said shortly to Mr. Rich, who only nodded in return before nudging his daughter along with his head. She let out a few whining whinnies, but acquiesced and allowed herself to be escorted out of Town Square and out of sight.

Nightingale returned to the air, a look of somber fury on her face. “If you will not surrender further information on the Most Wanted, then my Shadowbolts will fan out across Ponyville and turn the place inside-out and upside-down. If we find a single shred of evidence that they’ve been here in the past fortnight, you will all pay dearly! Are you still sure you and your little ponies are all so noble, Miss Mayor?”

The Mayor returned Nightingale’s glare with a stare of steel fury. “I can assure you, that filly is a bad seed. You won’t find a single soul here who knows any more than you do.”

Nightingale floated down until she was almost nose-to-nose with the Mayor. Her golden eyes seared through the Mayor’s pince-museau glasses, but the stately Earth Pony stood firm.

“You’ve got guts, for a politician,” snarled the Captain of the Shadowbolts. She looked over her shoulder at her team, “Alright, mares and stallions! Pegasi and Bat Ponies! Turn Ponyville on its head! Leave no horseshoe unturned! Grill these pansies! Find some evidence that the Most Wanted were here recently!”

The nine Shadowbolts silently saluted their captain, before taking off into the sky and fanning out in enneagonal directions, leaving trails of miasmic blue mist through the air. Nightingale turned a glowering gaze upon the ersatz sun at early afternoon, baring her teeth in fury.

After the Shadowbolts spread out across Ponyville to shake down everypony in town, Big Mac took the Cutie Mark Crusaders back to Sweet Apple Acres, where a very irate Granny Smith gave each of them an earful about how worried she was when she woke up and they weren’t there, her only company being a Shadowbolt who had completely ransacked their foodwares, asking them if they even gave a thought to how their families would react if something bad happened to them on their way to Ponyville. Sighing, she’d told them to go up to Apple Bloom’s room and think about what they’d done, but not before promising that they would not go anywhere outside without adult accompaniment during the night.

“You know, I don’t like Diamond Tiara any more than you girls,” Sweetie Belle said sadly, sitting on Apple Bloom’s canopy bed, “but I kinda feel bad for her.”

“‘Feel bad’?” Scootaloo echoed incredulously beside her. “She tried to rat out Rainbow Dash and her buddies! I hope her dad beats her for this!”

“Ah don’ think Mr. Rich is the beatin’ type, Scoots,” Apple Bloom cut in on Sweetie Belle’s other side. “An’ b’sides, parents don’ usually beat their kids. Ah know Big Mac an’ Applejack were never beaten.”

“And what about you?”

Apple Bloom gave Scootaloo a cross expression, “Ah never knew Ma ‘n’ Pa. They died same day as Ah was born.”

“Ohh…” Scootaloo sighed sadly. “Sorry. I didn’t know we were… uh! I mean, that… you were! Yeah, you were an orphan. I didn’t know you were an orphan.”

“Yer repeatin’ yerself, Scoots. Are y’alright?”

Scootaloo chuckled nervously, “What do you mean? Of course I’m fine! It’s fine! We’re all fine!”

The door opened abruptly, drawing the eyes of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. In stepped Stern, the masked Shadowbolt. He raised a hoof to his covered mouth and made a quiet shushing noise, before silently sweeping over to Apple Bloom’s closet.

Scootaloo sighed, “Fine. I’m not fine.” She unfurled her wings. “Do you girls see my wings?”

“Aww, they’re so cute and tiny!” Sweetie Belle cooed, touching one of the tiny primaries.

“Yeah? Well, all the other foals in Ponyville have fuller wings than me.”

“Aww, c’mon, Scoots,” Apple Bloom said comfortingly. “Ah’ve seen ya flyin’ ‘round on that scooter a yers, an’ yer real swell at flyin’!”

“You call that flying? That’s scooting! I’ve seen other Pegasi in our class flying − remember when Golden Parachute did that double loop-de-loop in recess?”

“That was pretty cool, too,” Sweetie Belle conceded, “but not as cool as your scooting.”

“Yeah, well, that’s all I’ll ever do,” Scootaloo grumbled with flat ears.

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle put their hooves on Scootaloo’s back, smiling at her.

“I’ve been to the doctor’s, and he says that I’ve got some sort of gene problems with my wings. They’ll never grow to their full size…” A tear glistened down her cheek. “I’ll never fly.”

“But…” Sweetie Belle began sadly, the rustling searching sounds in Apple Bloom’s closet silencing. “Didn’t he give you some medicine to fix it?”

“He said that this isn’t something medicine can fix.”

“What about some kinda magic solution?”

Scootaloo shook her head, “I don’t think that this is something that magic can fix, either. That one Unicorn in our class, Roughshod? She told me as much last week. And I got her good for it,” she smirked as she pounded one hoof into the other. “Got detention from Miss Cheerilee, though, but it was worth it.”

“Well, we’re here ta support ya, through thick an’ thin!” Apple Bloom said brightly, throwing both of her forelegs around Scootaloo.

“We’ll be there to get you anything you need!” Sweetie Belle said sweetly, also hugging Scootaloo.

Scootaloo looked back and forth at the two other Crusaders, tears of joy on her face. “You guys…”

Apple Bloom’s closet slammed shut, Stern standing at the edge of their bed. Bright-pink bows were strewn about the floor. The Cutie Mark Crusaders glowered at the masked Shadowbolt, who lowered his golden goggles and looked intently at Scootaloo with brilliant emerald-green eyes.

Scootaloo snapped, “What’re you looking at?”

The dark-clad Pegasus slipped his goggles back up over his eyes, before clambering out the window and taking flight off to Ponyville.

“What in Equestria was that all about?” Scootaloo asked.

“Ah don’ rightly know,” Apple Bloom answered. “Adults’re just so complicated.”

“Except for my parents,” Sweetie Belle added. “Rarity’s more complicated than them.”

Scootaloo raised an eyebrow at the Unicorn filly, “But isn’t she an adult, too?”

“No,” smiled Sweetie Belle. “She’s a sister.”

With the Shadowbolts turning Ponyville inside-out in their futile attempt to find Twilight Sparkle and her six companions, any semblance of working capacity in the town ground to a sudden halt. You couldn’t make any sort of deal with anypony else without fear of a dark-clad Pegasus or Bat Pony sweeping in and completely disrupting any semblance of order you had kept your things in. The post office was entirely emptied of its letters and packages, which were individually opened and scrutinized by each Shadowbolt in turn, looking for some kernel of evidence of the Most Wanted’s recent presence in the hamlet. Sugarcube Corner’s stored sacks of sugar and flour were torn open and thoroughly emptied. The Bon family’s BonBonnière was ransacked, jars of candies smashed to pieces and each bit of chocolate, each jawbreaker, each praline, every sweet in stock unwrapped for something resembling a hidden message along the lining of the wrapper.

The Shadowbolt shakedown only lasted four hours, but to the ponies involved, it may have been an eternity. They knew that the Shadowbolts would not find anything that would suggest that Twilight Sparkle and Spike and the five native Ponyvillagers were in Ponyville more recently than four weeks before. Even so, the blatant invasion of privacy and lack of care for personal space by the Shadowbolts was an atrocious matter to be subject to, and it was with tremendous relief when the eleven intruders gathered together in Town Square and confessed to the Mayor that they had not found anything.

“But…!” continued Nightingale, “don’t think that this means your village is off the hook, Miss Mayor. You’re a marked mare, as is everypony in your town. So, until such time as Queen NightMare Moon sees fit, this town will play host to a garrison of the Nightmare Guard, who will make sure that you Ponyville ponies remain good little moon-loving ponies.”

The ponies standing around Town Square watching these proceedings began to raise an outraged din, but the Mayor raised a single hoof to keep them calm.

“We will accept these terms,” she said levelly. “We know that you could do far worse to us. So long as the day-to-day lives―”

Nightingale cleared her throat loudly over the Mayor’s statement. Realizing her faux-pas, the Mayor continued,

“So long as the night-to-night lives of my constituents remains uninhibited, we will raise no fuss about this arrangement.”

“You’re in no position to stand against them,” Nightingale hissed as she flapped into the air. “The rules have changed with your ruler, Mayor. Celestia has gotten sloppy, and now the true heir to Equestria’s throne − to Harmonia’s throne − has made her glorious return!”

And with that the eleven Shadowbolts bolted into the air, an elevenfold sonic boom blasting out from overhead as a miasmic cloud exploded behind them. What direction they went in, Ponyville could not have known.

Almost as soon as the Shadowbolts had made themselves scarce from Ponyville, several mares around Town Square shrieked in terror. Ponies in jet-black armor had appeared from the shadowed alleyways, carrying polearms with silvery scythe-blades over their shoulders. Secateur edges gleamed along the bodies of armor, a crescent moon ablaze on each flank. Pale-blue eyes gleamed under skull-like helmets. Earth Pony, Unicorn, Pegasus and Bat Pony were represented in their ranks.

The Nightmare Guard had come to Ponyville.

“Ponyville under martial law…” Granny Smith murmured, rubbing a tired eye with a wrinkled foreleg. “Never thought Ah’d live ta see th’ day. Big Mac, can ya bring th’ girls down?”

“Eeyup.” And without another word he strode up the stairs, leaving Granny Smith alone to her thoughts.

Granny Smith felt every one of her eight-dozen-and-ten years. She could still buck apples as good as any Earth Pony, but not as good as an Apple. Her reflexes were getting sluggish, her joints were getting creaky and her hip was getting saggy. If she pulled back on her wrinkled face hard enough, her age would seem to melt away in the mirror, and a southern belle would be smiling back at her in the mirror. But ever since her husband left for Elysium, she had seen little reason to let her looks persist. She’d had many, many children with him, and they could carry the Apple name.

Big McIntosh came back down the steps with three slightly sullen-looking fillies at his tail. The four of them sat themselves down on their haunches in front of the Apple family matriarch, who commanded attention despite being about half as many hooves to the withers as her grandson.

“Now, Ah jus’ got wind a the fact that NightMare Moon’s done stuck some a her guards on us down here in Ponyville,” she explained slowly and clearly. “Ah personally don’ rightly like it, but we gotta bear this burden.”

“But why should we?” Scootaloo asked angrily, her little wings buzzing like a hummingbird’s. “We didn’t do anything wrong, so why should we let them push us around?”

“Scootaloo,” Apple Bloom said sharply. “Ah don’ like it either, but Ah reckon we oughta listen ta Granny Smith.”

“I don’t know…” Sweetie Belle scratched her chin. “Maybe we should just ask them nicely if they could leave…?”

“Eenope,” Big McIntosh said shortly.

“They’re not here ‘cause a us, young’uns,” Granny Smith said as she slowly rocked her chair. “They wanna be sure that they cin catch AJ an’ her friends if they come back.”

“What?” Apple Bloom gasped. “That’s jus’ not fair!”

“Fair or not fair, we gotta lay low,” Big Mac said.

“Big McIntosh is right,” nodded Granny Smith. “Ya can’ give them Nightmare Guards any reason ta be cross with ya. Who knows what they’ll do ta ya if they thinks y’all’ve been in touch with Applejack or any a her friends.”

“But… we can still crusade for our cutie marks, right?” Scootaloo asked nervously.

“S’long as it don’ involve catapultin’ yerselves off ta lasso the Sun,” Granny Smith replied.

The three fillies put their forehooves triumphantly in the air, “ALRIGHT!”

“Ah still think ya girls’re takin’ this crusadin’ business a little off-center,” Big Mac admitted.

Apple Bloom shrugged, “Well, if it helps us git our cutie marks before our big sisters come back, it’ll be worth it in the end, right?”

Big Mac shrugged noncommittally.

“Well, technically, Rainbow Dash isn’t really my big sister,” Scootaloo said as she rubbed her foreleg, “but she’s real awesome, and she’s gonna teach me everything there is to being as awesome as she is!”

“Rainbow Dash?” Granny Smith echoed. “Ain’t she the filly what drinks us dry of cider ev’ry cider season?”

“Th’ one an’ only, Granny,” replied Big Mac. “S’far as Ah know, she’s also all set t’ marry some animal caretaker.”

“Aww, that’s so sweet!” Sweetie Belle squealed.

“More like sappy,” Scootaloo groused with her tongue sticking out. “I never thought Rainbow Dash would do something so girly as getting married.”

“Colts get married too, Scootaloo,” Sweetie Belle reminded.

“Yeah,” added Apple Bloom, “an’ th’ way Ah heard, straight from th’ horse’s mouth, she’s known Fluttershy fer ages ‘n’ ages. She even told me last cider season that she was itchin’ t’ ‘pop th’ question’. What that question was, Ah don’ know, but―”

“Wait…” Scootaloo’s eyes went wide. “Rainbow Dash is engaged to Fluttershy?”

When Granny Smith and Big McIntosh traded awkward smiles and Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle started to giggle inconsolably, Scootaloo had to wonder just how much girliness Rainbow Dash was hiding with her awesomeness.

CHAPTER xi: Brave and True

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Lyonesse of Aquastria was still as beautiful and as awe-inspiring after a week as it was immediately after Twilight Sparkle had arrived. The sights, the sounds, the smells; every time she turned around, she saw or heard or smelt something else that astonished her. Statues of solid coral molded into the shapes of ancient Aquastrian heroes − not just Cap’n Nemo, but also Surf Dancer and Sand Dollar and even (to Twilight’s bemusement) Sea Shimmer − were erected at regularly placed squares where mermares and Sea Ponies and other Aquastrians could stop and rest their fins. The smells of all sorts of mermare cuisine came from every building and cart that Twilight passed; not just Kelp Forest Cake, but also seaweed salad, lilypad lasagna and many others that she could not even name. Large schools of Sea Ponies swam about and raised their voices in song, their choral serenades filling the streets with cheer.

“Sea Ponies are different from mermares,” Twilight remembered explaining to Spike when he first asked (on behalf of the others), “in that mermares are ponies that evolved to live underwater several megagross years ago, and Sea Ponies are highly evolved pipefish that have evolved pony-level intellect and very pony-like facial structures.”

Though Spike seemed a little bit perplexed by this explanation (being only a baby dragon, after all), he seemed to accept it. His equine companions definitely appeared to grasp it far better than he had, though Rainbow Dash did chuckle a little at Twilight’s “egghead-ness” showing.

There was one very astonishing moment the day after she and her friends had arrived in Lyonesse. She had been outside browsing the streets of Lyonesse − King Leo insisted that she not lock herself away in the palace of Morse, but to mingle with the populace of the sea-capital and to assuage their fears of the Sun’s disappearance − and meeting and greeting scores of mermares, Sea Ponies, Narwhals, Dolphins and Manatees…

When she spotted Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy together, sitting side-by-side in front of a choir of Sea Ponies singing a slow and haunting love song. They were resting their heads against one another, and Rainbow Dash was talking far lower than Twilight had ever heard. Twilight’s ears twitched as she tried to make out what was being said.

“…really been letting my nerves get to me,” she was saying softly to Fluttershy, “and I’ve been taking it out on you. I really shouldn’t be letting all this nighttime eternal and Elements of Harmony junk get to me. And I really shouldn’t be using you as my vent. I’m sorry.”

“I forgive you, Dashie,” Fluttershy breathed, and Twilight was floored by the affection she heard in that voice.

Rainbow Dash turned her head toward Fluttershy and kissed her under the ear. “Besides, I shouldn’t need to use you as an outlet. That’s what Twilight’s for.”


Twilight’s hooves flew over her mouth as soon as the word was out of her mouth. The Sea Pony choir continued to serenade, but Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash turned on the spot and (respectively) hid her face behind her hooves and mane, and crossed her forelegs crossly.

“Anypony teach you not to eavesdrop, TS?” Rainbow Dash said with a crooked grin.

“W… W…” Twilight stammered slightly, not quite anticipating her having been caught flathoofed like this. Recovering with a shaking head, Twilight narrowed her eyes slightly at the cyan Pegasus, “When exactly were you planning to let me know?”

“Know what?” Rainbow Dash asked in mock obliviousness.

“That you two were dating,” Twilight said simply. “I mean, it’s been plain as day that you two have a thing going on, but…”

Rainbow Dash shrugged, before throwing a foreleg around Fluttershy’s shoulder. Immediately the timid Pegasus slackened slightly, resting a forehoof on Rainbow Dash’s, the pair blushing pink.

“We’re not dating, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash began.

Fluttershy smiled brightly, wider than Twilight had ever seen on her face, “We’re engaged.”

“That’s even more reason to let me know!” Twilight blurted out.

“Sorry if we don’t keep you up to date on our entire life stories, TS, geez!” Rainbow Dash drawled with a flippant hoof waving.

“I don’t know if I’m quite ready to let Ponyville know,” Fluttershy said softly. “Could you please keep it to yourself when we get back?”

Twilight offered a slight smile, “Of course. Take your time with it. It’s just… surprising, is all. You two are just so… different from one another.”

“Well,” Rainbow Dash gave Fluttershy a short little tightening of her hug, prompting a tiny squeak! from the timid Pegasus, “maybe we just have a lot to offer each other.”

“And… well, if you don’t mind me saying,” Twilight pressed on, “you’ve been… well, you’re very impatient with Fluttershy at the best of times.”

Fluttershy hid behind her mane, and Rainbow Dash’s face darkened, “I’m not proud of it. This whole adventure’s been getting to me. I can’t fly about like I want, free as an Everfree cloud; I have to lay low and take it slow.” She gave a sad grin. “And you know all too well that that ain’t me, TS.”

“Yeah, that has been abundantly clear,” Twilight said shortly, before smiling again. “Anyway, I’m really happy for you two. Congratulations! Did you two have a date set for the wedding?”

Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy both shook their heads.

“And get dolled up in some frilly doohicky that would make Rarity blush? I don’t have the time for it.”

“And I just can’t stand large crowds of ponies…”

Rainbow Dash smirked, “So the day for the wedding is basically whenever I can get enough Pegasi to move my house over Fluttershy’s.”

“Well… of course!” Twilight replied. “It’s your prerogative to let ponies know when you’re ready. And… well… this journey might help you get together some nerve to let everypony know.”

“I guess…” Fluttershy said softly, tugging at her mane with a pair of finny forehooves.

“What about the others?”

Rainbow Dash looked down at Fluttershy, and their eyes met. Fluttershy smiled and nodded lightly.

“We’ll tell ‘em,” Rainbow Dash said with a smile. “We’ll tell ‘em before we leave for Zebra-land. Gotcha?”

“Got it.”

True to her word, Twilight did not breathe a word of the unexpected arrangement to any of her companions. For her part, it was not difficult; she was no gossip, unlike so many hooflickers whom she had become acquainted with back in Canterlot. She merely took in the sights around Lyonesse and acquainted herself with everyone around the capital.

It turned out that the oceans themselves were becoming incredibly unbalanced because of the sheer cold on one half of Harmonia and the sweltering heat on the other. Sea creatures acclimated to certain water conditions began to migrate in search of new seas to call home, and battles would break out between schools which met in the same spot. The sun-seared side of the planet was producing powerful storms above the warming ocean waters, threatening coastal civilizations on every continent. King Leo was doing his best to even out the temperatures worldwide with his inborn control over the tides, but there was only so much that he could handle on his own.

And this was just what Twilight gathered from mingling with the Aquastrians and all ocean-folk who called Lyonesse a home, permanently or otherwise. She and her band continued to keep updated on the events transpiring through Pinkie’s gumball-radio.

“Pinkie…” Twilight asked hesitatingly. “How… how has that not dissolved in this sea-water…?”

Pinkie shushed Twilight loudly. “Don’t notice it! Don’t question it! Otherwise it won’t work!”

Twilight stammered somewhat as she tried to compose a rebuttal, but when the gumball-radio sparked to life in the sea-water anyway, she decided to put it on the shelf in the library she kept in her mind of all the nonsense things Pinkie seemed capable of, and resolved to worry about this later.

Through the radio, Twilight learned that migrations were unfolding on the surface world as well. Entire cities of folks of all races on both hemispheres of the planet were emigrating from their homes and attempting to establish homes as close to the twilit border of day and night. The hosts of Daydreams with a DJ colloquially referred to it as “The Twilight Zone”. Unfortunately, there were very few landmasses on Harmonia that intersected this Twilight Zone, one of them Pundamilia, and they were apparently becoming very densely populated.

Most disturbingly, though, on the last day before they would depart from Lyonesse through the Aquastrian Narbacular System, they heard from various radio stations that many cities throughout Equestria had become locked down under martial law by NightMare Moon’s Nightmare Guard. These cities included Manehattan, Los Pegasus, Cloudsdale (Rainbow Dash swore at the sound of her hometown’s name), Vanhoover and − Twilight and Applejack gasped sharply at this last − Ponyville.

“Well, don’ that beat all!” Applejack snarled, her fins thrashing about and stirring up a storm of bubbles. “Ah’ve got half a mind ta march straight on back ta Ponyville an’ learnin’ them Nightmare Guards a lesson or two in messin’ with Apples!”

“Applejack, please, keep a level head on your shoulders,” Twilight pleaded, attempting to sound less affected than she was. “NightMare Moon’s just trying to distract us from what we have to do. You’re a strong Earth Pony, but we need you here with us, to help us through whatever obstacles stand in our way.”

Applejack rubbed the top of her head, feeling for a Stetson that she’d left in Ponyville, and snorted bubbles out of her nose.

“That darn snake-in-tha-grass NightMare Moon. She an’ her Guards better not lay a hoof on Apple Bloom…”

She gave Twilight a determined look.

“Twilight, Ah’m with ya all th’ way.”

“But, Applejack!” implored Rarity of all ponies. “Your little sister! You must be worried sick about her! I know that I am!” She sniffled, the only sign that she was crying. “Sweetie Belle…!”

“Ah know, Rares. Ah know yer worried ‘boutcher li’l sis. It ain’t easy t’ turn mah back on mah kin, neither. But Ah gotta. If’n Ah were ta turn back now, an’ go back ta Ponyville, Ah’d only be helpin’ out NightMare Moon, wouldn’ Ah? It breaks mah heart ta leave her ta fend fer herself ‘gainst them ne’er-do-wells, but Ah wouldn’ be doin’ th’ whole cycle a day-’n’-night any favors bah quittin’ now.”

Rainbow Dash’s cerise eyes boggled at Applejack. “Thank the Maker you didn’t show guts like that at our last Iron Pony Competition. You’d be holding the title of Iron Pony right now!”

“You said it!” Pinkie Pie piped in, flapping about around the algae-lights in Twilight’s ceiling. “AJ’s got nerves of steel! And a heart of steel! And a skeleton of steel! And a liver of steel! And tendons of steel! And hooves of steel! And―…”

“Thank you, Pinkie,” Twilight said shortly, before facing Applejack again. Meeting the Earth Pony’s green eyes was harder than she’d thought it would be; the willpower she saw in those eyes was far stronger than she had ever seen in anypony else’s eyes at any point in her life. She felt herself quailing slightly; was this what Fluttershy’s Stare was like? “Applejack… You understand what this means, right? You might never see your family again. We might end up dying trying to take down NightMare Moon. If you want to turn back, now is the time. I won’t fault you.”

Applejack did not blink, or even stir from her position. “Ah know. An’ if Ah cin go t’ mah grave knowin’ that mah fam’ly will be able ta live under the Sun an’ Moon, then Ah’ll have no regrets. We Apples pride ourselves on bein’ loyal ta th’ core, an’ Ah’m not gonna let mahself falter in mah duty fer even an instant. Mah place right now an’ until NightMare Moon is thrown down is right at yer side, Twilight.”

Twilight’s lips quivered, salty tears joining the salty sea-water around them as she threw her finned forelegs around Applejack’s neck.

“Applejack… You’re such a brave friend…”

Applejack patted Twilight’s back with a sad smile, “Ah wouldn’ be mah Pa’s li’l girl if Ah turned back b’fore th’ job was done, Twi.”

As Twilight’s friends crowded around the scene with teary smiles (Rainbow Dash trying to hide her teariness), they missed the crimson light glimmering through the seam of Applejack’s saddle-shells…

The morning of their seventh day in Lyonesse came to pass, and each of Twilight and Spike and each of their five companions were gathered from their rooms in the guest wing of Morse. Curiously, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy were found to be sharing a room together, and that was what prompted the revelation that floored everypony in the band… except Twilight.

“Goodness gracious, darlings! Congratulations!” Rarity said with obvious joy. “I simply must design your wedding saddles when the day comes!”

“Oh, you really don’t have to, Rarity,” Fluttershy replied softly, rubbing a finny foreleg with her other forehoof. “We’re… not really planning anything…”

“What?” Pinkie shouted in dismay. “Not even a wedding party?”

“You mean a reception?” Applejack quipped.

“That too! But getting married!” PInkie squished her face between her forehooves. “Two of my best friends are getting married!♥”

Rainbow Dash tightened her foreleg’s hold on her fiancée’s torso. “Uhh, Pinkie Pie… we’re not exactly bosom buddies with you. You’re a good pranker, I get it, but… you’re pretty weird.”

Pinkie made upside-down eye-contact with Rainbow Dash… which was weird, because she was standing on the floor. She beamed, “Oh silly Dashie. I’m best friends with everypony in Ponyville~”

“We ain’t in Ponyville, though, sugarcube,” replied Applejack before facing the Pegasus pair with a broad smile. “Well, RD, Ah’m happy fer the both a’ y’all, but Ah gotta say that Ah’m kinda surprised.”

Rainbow Dash gave Applejack a thin smile, “Leave it to the second most honest pony in Ponyville to be my buzzkill.”

“No no no, Rainbow, Ah couldn’ be happier. It’s jus’ that… Ah never saw y’all courtin’ each other all that much.”

“Who are you, my mom? Maybe we’re just too fast for you to catch up to us, Applesnack…!”

Applejack looked down at her hooves, “Ah s’ppose…”

“But can we pretty please throw you a wedding party when you’ve decided to tie the knot?”

“Well…” Fluttershy looked conflicted.

“Please? With alfalfa and whipped cream on top?

Rainbow Dash sighed and slowly nodded, looking down at Fluttershy. The timid yellow Pegasus brought her cyan eyes up to meet her fiancée’s cerise eyes. She bobbed her head yes, and Pinkie immediately put a hoof in the air with a loud cheer.

To her credit, though, Applejack insisted that most everypony in their band not badger Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy about their relationship, because it could make them become too self-conscious about themselves, especially Fluttershy. Twilight admired this in Applejack, but she herself could not help but wonder about her two Pegasus compatriots’ relationship herself.

How can two ponies be friends if they’re affianced? she thought. I mean, my parents were very close from when Vati first came over from Germaney, but… did they stay friends after they got married? Does friendship end when two ponies marry? Or is friendship just another part of marriage?

She shook her head vigorously.

No, Twilight. Stop thinking like that. Queen Celestia tells you that making friends is very important. I still don’t see why, but… I guess facing this struggle alone would be far worse. I’m not in this fight to find a marriage partner out of my comrades in hooves; I’m just trying to work together, keep the peace, so that we can take down NightMare Moon as best friends!

This last thought, and the smile it brought to her face and the warmth to her heart, gave Twilight Sparkle pause.

Wait… Are these ponies my best friends? I… don’t have any friends back home in Canterlot, so… I guess they’re my best friends. They’re my only friends, granted, but… they’re still my best friends.

Soon enough, the band of seven stood before King Leo’s throne once more, and the sea-lion smiled warmly upon them.

“My little ponies,” he began lowly, “In just a few hours’ time, the sirenomelon’s effects should wear off, and you six will return to being normal ponies once more.”

“And I can get this bubble off of my head!” Spike said brightly. Though he took to the bubble initially, he now found the distorting effect it had on his voice grating.

King Leo chuckled shortly, “Yes. Quite. Now, my aides have provided you surface-foods to each of your likings. They have been packed into your saddle-shells along with your other belongings, and should keep even in the great heat of Pundamilia under perpetual morning sun.”

“Thank you, King Leo,” Twilight said happily with a bow.

“Now, time is pressing. You shall join me in my personal chariot as I escort you to the Lyonesse Narbacular Station. I shall front your pay to get to Pundamilia’s eastern coast. I should expect you will find breakfast foods of your choice at the local shops, but do not dawdle. I would be remiss if one of you drowned.”

King Leo’s personal chariot was crafted from numerous seashells of several different types of sea creatures now long extinct. It had been his transport of choice since before NightMare Moon’s banishment, and was partly a gift from the two Equestrian Queens. It was large enough to seat King Leo and ten guests comfortably, and was usually drawn by six mermares or six Sea Ponies.

Twilight and her pony companions looked up at the passing seascrapers of Lyonesse as the chariot crossed the sandy streets, the leviathan silhouette of Cap’n Nemo visible beyond the buildings as she patrolled the perimeter of the capital. It seemed as though everypony and everyone in Lyonesse had turned out to see Queen Celestia’s heroes off. Sea Pony choruses rose up and sang songs of encouragement and victory; Dolphins gave great leaps over the chariot as it passed by and gave cheers of joy; Manatees waved fins brightly at those in the chariot with the King; Narwhals pointed their horns straight toward the surface as a show of solidarity; Narwhal Ponies shot streams of boiling water above them; Sailfins twirled into the air with vigor…

Gazing back at Morse, Twilight cocked an eyebrow. She distinctly recalled that only two of the five auger spires about the edges of the castle had been alit when they had arrived in Lyonesse. Now a third was peaked with a glimmer of light, this one a bright-red. The lavender Unicorn screwed up her mind in perplexity; what did this entail? Had three of them been lit up when they’d arrived, but Twilight had not noticed the red light? And if not, what brought it forward?

“Hey Mom! Look!” Spike said, peering over the railing at the mermares drawing the chariot. “It’s the mermares who brought us down here!”

Pushing her ruminations aside, Twilight took a second look at the mermares pulling King Leo’s chariot, and she was pleasantly pleased to recognize Wavebreaker and his band. Taking a moment to turn his head, he flashed a knowing smile at Twilight and her friends before he returned his attention to drawing the chariot.

Seeing such joy in the face of crushing darkness gave Twilight a fiery shoot of courage through her heart. NightMare Moon was a dreadful foe; only Queen Celestia and the Elements of Harmony could stand against her. But with such large numbers dissenting her bitter heart, there could only be victory!

In what seemed like no time at all, they arrived at a rather large, broad building of coral. The molded coral words over the great archway spelled out GRAND LYONESSE TRANSPORTATION CENTER. Every so often, a large transport of seashells emerged from the rooftop and departed for parts beyond Lyonesse.

Wavebreaker and his band slid to a halt with a whinny apiece, and King Leo disembarked along with Twilight and her friends.

“I thank you, my friends,” King Leo said as he passed Wavebreaker and his band.

“You are very welcome, Your Highness,” replied Wavebreaker.

King Leo addressed Twilight and her band, “Follow me.”

Passing through the archway into the Grand Lyonesse Transportation Center, Twilight and her friends found themselves in a great space filled with fronds wide enough to allow mermares to trot along with their forelimbs in a queue, leading up to numerous chariots and transports lined up along the far walls. A large ticker sign stood erect over the kiosk in the middle of the grand chamber, a good three- or four-dozen different arrivals and departures passing by in rapid sequence upon the board.

“Goodness gracious…!” Rarity gasped.

“It’s like it’s smaller on the outside!” Pinkie gaped.

“It seems that way, does it not?” King Leo replied. “Now, there are refreshment stands along the way to the narbacular terminal at the back. Take what you want, but do not dally. I want to make sure you are on your way to the Pundamilia shoreline before your time is up.”

King Leo drew the eyes of scores of awed Aquastrians as he led the band through the milling schools. Passing by each food stand, the band was offered whatever food that was stocked, free of charge by reason of accompanying the King. Twilight turned down most that were offered to her, but she found that she could not turn down a waterlily-and-kelp sandwich. Her friends were a bit more accepting of the free foodstuffs being offered them; Pinkie Pie in particular gladly took anything that anyone put in front of her, swallowing it without chewing before taking the next food item.

In a matter of minutes, they had crossed the Transportation Center floor, reaching a broad entryway through which small schools of Aquastrians of all sorts were passing into and out of. A sign reading Narbacular Arrivals and Departures hung over the entryway, formed from orange-and-blue algae inlaid in etched stone.

King Leo approached the Dolphin manning the booth under the sign and said, “Seven tickets for the western Pundamilia coast, please. I shall cover the cost.”

The Dolphin nervously saluted with a fin and replied, “T-think nothing of it, Your Majesty!” He quickly rifled around in a shelf behind his booth and produced seven hoof-sized pearls (Rarity’s eyes boggled), which King Leo passed back to each of his seven escortees. “No charge, s-sir.”

“Ahh, but I insist,” King Leo pressed, producing a small purse from under his cape with his dwimmer-shimmer and levitating a small number of tooth-sized seashells onto the Dolphin’s booth. “What sort of King would I be if I did not help keep the wheels of the economy spinning, international crisis or otherwise?”

The Dolphin smiled nervously at his King as he passed by into the narbacular terminal with Twilight Sparkle and company at his tail.

“These pearls are simply gorgeous!” Rarity squealed, twisting her pearl back and forth in her dwimmer-shimmer. “It’s such a shame that we’ll have to give them back at the other end. That’s how it will work, right?”

“You would be right indeed, ma’am,” replied a Manatee waiting ahead of them. He floated in the middle of a great circular room, with squared-off alcoves in the stone walls. On the facing walls of each alcove was a glowing circle, tall enough for NightMare Moon to stride through with room to spare and just as wide. On the left-hoof side the circles glowed blue, and on the right orange. Various Aquastrians passed through the blue-glowing circles or emerged from the orange-glowing circles, apparently vanishing into the other space on the other end or appearing from out of nowhere.

“This, fillies and gentlecolts,” the Manatee explained, “is the Aquastrian Narbacular System. These special portals, developed from the unique magical capabilities of a surface-beast known as the narbaculus, enable anytee − err, anyone, to pass from one point to another a megagross of knots away in an instant, without swimming the distance at all.”

“Wow~” gaped Pinkie Pie, before squealing loudly enough to shatter glass, “Now you’re thinking with por―…”

“Please, Pinkie!” Twilight interrupted. “This could be very important.”

The Manatee gave Twilight a mildly thankful look before continuing, occasionally gesturing at the narbacular system, “You see, the magic is rather steady, so the narbacular tunnel has no chance of closing while you are partway through it. However, I would not advise dilly-dallying; this is a public transportation system. Is this their first time using the narbacular system…” He gulped slightly at the sight of his king. “Your Highness?”

“It is, so far as I am aware,” King Leo explained. “Their destination is eastern Pundamilia, posthaste.”

“Pundamilia… err, right… That would be…” The Manatee was not so neurotic as the Dolphin, but he was definitely flustered with having to deal with King Leo rather directly. His fin passed along the row of alcoves, scanning the departure and arrival titles along the top of each one. “There!” he said, his fin settling on one alcove that, to Twilight’s memory, had not received a single departure or arrival since they had entered the chamber. “That narbacular aperture connects each Aquastrian narbacular terminal to Pundamilia. If memory serves correctly, you should have to pass through a dozen-and-five narbacular portals to reach Bahari, a mermare colony off of the eastern Pundamilia shores.”

“Thank you very much, sir,” Twilight said brightly. “We really appreciate your unflappable service in this endeavor.”

“Ummm… You’re welcome…?” he replied. “May I ask… Why you need to get to Pundamilia so quickly that you would need to pay top sand-dollar to get there?”

“We’re going to stop NightMare Moon!” Rainbow Dash said boldly before Twilight could so much as open her mouth, “And we need to figure out how these Elements of Harmony work so we can kick her sorry flank back to the Moon!”

“NightMare Moon?” the Manatee replied with wide eyes and a mortified expression. “You mean the Devil of the Lunar Maria? You’re going to stop her? How?”

“These fillies and this drake represent Queen Celestia of the surface realm of Equestria,” King Leo explained calmly. “My cousin Celestia has entrusted them with the only sure way to neutralize NightMare Moon, but Queen Malkia of Pundamilia is the only one on Harmonia who holds the deeper secrets of the Elements of Harmony who will divulge them. It is of vital importance that they reach the Pundamilian capital as soon as possible.”

The Manatee saluted, a new resolve apparent in his eyes and body language. “Your will is my action, Your Highness! Now, after me!” He swam briskly towards the alcove he’d previously pointed out, with King Leo and Twilight, Spike and their friends behind him.

“Seems kinda edgy, doesn’t he?” Rainbow Dash replied, balancing her pearl between two of her back-fins.

“His nerves are likely because of being so close to his king,” Rarity explained. “I can only imagine any one of us would be in such shape around Queen Celestia.”

“I doubt I would be that nervous, Rarity,” Twilight said with a wary smile.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Rainbow Dash interjected, and Twilight did not like the smirk she was wearing. “You’d be even worse.”

Twilight sighed frustratedly, “I’ll not dignify that insinuation with a response.”

Reaching the narbacular tunnel connecting Aquastria to Pundamilia, Twilight heard Rainbow Dash being shushed by Fluttershy. The Manatee and King Leo faced the band of six mares and one drake on either side of the alcove.

“Well… This is it,” said the Manatee with a slight gesture of his fin.

“Go now, my little ponies,” King Leo said in a low growl, his paws outstretched. “Hurry, and learn the secrets of the Elements of Harmony, so that this night will not last forever.”

Twilight smiled with a bow to the King of Aquastria, “Thank you, King Leo. It’s been all too brief to stay here in this kingdom of yours.”

“What’s the hold-up?” Rainbow Dash interjected. “Let’s go already!”

Twilight looked back to the King and the Manatee. “As blunt as she is, she’s right. Take care, Uncle Leo!”

And so Twilight Sparkle cantered briskly through the blue narbacular portal with Spike on her back and her saddle-shells at her sides, with the other five mares in her band hot on her tail.

Passing through the portal, Twilight did not feel any change in the water’s pressure around her as she left Lyonesse and immediately entered the alcove of another transportation center elsewhere in Aquastria. The narbacular quantum tunnel was infinitely thin; it was a direct opening into another space, blue light shining out in front of Twilight, and orange behind.

One down. A dozen-and-four to go.

“‘Uncle Leo’?” Pinkie Pie asked gleefully. “You didn’t tell us you were part-sea-lion, Twilight!”


“I’m not, Pinkie. It’s… kind of an honorary title. Like how Queen Celestia was my honorary mother after…”


“Oh. Sorry I asked, Twilight.”

“Don’t be, Pinkie,” Twilight smiled. “I try not to let it bother me anymore.”


“I just hope that they’re alright with NightMare Moon cracking down on Ponyville.”


“Darn-tootin’ they better be! Mah big brother Big Mac’s got a bit of a fondness fer plants an’ such. He’ll keep watch over ‘em…”


Twilight smiled back at Applejack, “Thanks, Applejack.”

Rainbow Dash stuck out her tongue, “Don’t get all sappy on us, you two!”


“Says one of only two of us who’s engaged,” Applejack retorted.

“Hey, Fluttershy needs a little bit of help with assertiveness, and I got it covered for her in spades!” Rainbow Dash finished with a grin.


“Oh Dashie…” Fluttershy nuzzled against Rainbow’s neck. “You don’t have to push yourself for me. I’ll just slow you down…”


“Well, somepony’s gotta make sure you don’t fall behind the herd, and who better than somepony as awesome as me?”


“I daresay this is quite the discombobulating system, Twilight,” Rarity said softly. “Who in Equestria came up with this ‘narbacular’ system?”


“Bitter Pineapple, a maniac Unicorn who thought time was flowing backwards and tried to get himself banished to the Moon on his deathbed,” Twilight explained darkly.


Rainbow Dash burst out laughing.

“It’s a shame, really,” Twilight continued over the Pegasus’s guffawing. “Not every pony invention was because of ingenuity. Some were born of insanity. I mean, the narbaculus is a terrible beast. What madness would drive a pony to study its means of capturing prey so closely?”



“No wonder it never caught on in Equestria,” Applejack mused.

Twilight nodded slowly, “Narbacular tunnels are stigmatized back home because of their creator.”


“Not back in Cloudsdale,” Rainbow Dash cut in. “There’s this amusement park ride where they drop you over and over and over in these types of tunnels. They call it the Narbacular Drop!”


“Well, we’ll have to try it out sometime, now won’t we, Rainbow Dash?” Twilight said sharply. “But for now…”


“We’re here at Bahari.”

“Whoa, really?” Rainbow Dash’s eyes popped out at the circular chamber of alcoves, browner and smaller than Lyonesse’s. “That was barely anything. I mean, seriously, we’ve only been trotting for, like, a minute and a half. I swear, I can still kinda see that sea-lion King back down these tunnels!” She pointed a cyan hoof back down the rings of orange light at a faint glimmer of gold and blue.

“I myself must admit to skepticism as well, darling,” Rarity added. “These narbacular portal rings are just so… off… but I would like to step outside.”

Twilight felt a slight gagging at the back of her throat, and she felt her fins twitching violently at her fetlocks. Their time was running short.

“Well, we’re gonna have to find out the hard way, girls,” Twilight said brusquely. “Give your pearls to the nearest attendant and get to the surface, fast!”

Galloping across the stony floor with all the speed that she could gather in the deep water, Twilight swiftly deposited her pearlescent proof of purchase in the fins of a mildly flustered Narwhal, as did Spike from her back. Twilight heard him swearing after them in a local Pundamilian dialect, proof enough for her where they were…

But time was wasting.

They only had minutes to reach the surface before their gills and fins disappeared!

Emerging out of the Bahari Narbacular Terminal into the streets of the mermare colony off of Pundamilia’s eastern coast, Twilight blinked back at the beams of light shooting down from the surface. Spike cried out in astonishment at the brightness.

“This place is so much… brighter than Lyonesse,” Fluttershy commented.

“Because Pundamilia is cut in half by the Twilight Zone,” Twilight explained, already flapping her fins rapidly to try to swim to the surface. “It’s perpetual morning in the capital!” She swore in Germane. “Why can’t I swim faster?”

She looked down at her hooves, at the fins that the sirenomelon leaf had given her. The fins were sloughing off of her fetlocks, her lightness in the water fading away. A burning cut across either side of her throat, and Twilight’s lungs screamed in protest at the volumes of saltwater in them.

No… she thought in feeble despair, barely recognizing the sounds of her friends behind her as they too began to feel the effects expire. It can’t end like this… We didn’t come so far, just to drown out here…

She drew Spike off of her back with her dwimmer shimmer, smiling sadly at the horrified little drake. The bubble cast around his head held firmly, outlasting their sirenomelon transformations. At least he would live…

Twilight scooped him up in her forelegs, hugging her close as her eyes slid shut. In the cold ocean water, the coldblooded drake felt uncannily warm against her fur.

Oh Spike… she thought, not daring to speak or breathe, for that would only hasten her expiration. I only wish that it wasn’t this gruesome end that made me realize… just how much you really mean to me… Oh Spike… Oh my son…


Her eyes shot open at the sound of Pinkie’s voice. Spinning around to face the Earth Pony, she saw everypony clutching onto each of her hooves. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy’s fin-wings had transformed back into their ordinary feathered wings. Pinkie was waving her tail back and forth, and beckoning Twilight towards her with flicks of her head.

“C’mon, Twilight! Stop gettin’ all sappy with Spike and grab my tail!”

Not even bothering to question how Pinkie could possibly be talking underwater after losing the sirenomelon leaf’s effects, Twilight floundered over with Spike clutching his claws around her barrel. She sank her teeth into Pinkie’s tail, and she caught the taste of wet cotton candy…

“Okay, everypony! Fasten your seatbelts~”

And just like it had with the udoroot, Pinkie’s forelock curled around itself in a helical shape, spinning around rapidly and leaving a torrent of bubbles that swirled into Twilight’s face. Suddenly, Pinkie took off, Twilight tightening her toothhold on Pinkie’s tail for fear of slipping free and being lost in the ocean forever. She blinked as the lights in the water above her began to grow brighter and brighter… Somehow, someway, they were going to make it…! They were going to Pundamilia…!

Gasping deeply as they broke out of the salty water into the salty air, Twilight heard Rainbow Dash whooping up ahead as she clutched Pinkie’s right forehoof. They soared through the air over the shallows, the wind blasting them icily after a week’s chill under the sea. The water flew out of her ears, and it was as if she could hear for the first time in her life. Twilight thought that they would sail forever and land in the Elysian Fields…

But her face filled with even more of Pinkie’s sugar-scented tail as she felt gravelly sand at her hooves and cannons.

Coughing out the water from her lungs, Twilight collapsed to her barrel…

And simply relished being alive.

“We made it,” Applejack gasped, coughing raggedly as she finished. “Ah don’ know how, but we made it.”

Rarity make a sobbing choke as she held her mane limply, “My manestyle didn’t, though… I really hope that Zebras have hair-gel.”

“Ah don’ rightly know much ‘bout Zebras, but Ah doubt we’ll find much in the way of yer hair-stylin’ products way out here.”

Fluttershy wrung out her mane, “I really hope that somepony finds us soon… It’s a miracle we made it out here as it is…”

Spike unfurled one of his claws and pricked the bubble around his head, bursting it in an instant, “But how did we even get out of there, anyhow?”

Rainbow Dash shook herself vigorously, her mane, tail and feathers puffing out comically as the water flew off of her body, Rarity crying out in protest as the droplets came her way. “We really gotta thank Pinks for being a complete goofball in the face of physics!”

“Oh, I just march to the beat of my own drum,” Pinkie Pie said in a feeble attempt at sounding casual. Her mane and tail were completely slack because the dampness. The entire right half of her smiling face was covered by a mane that easily reached her hooves, her lanky tail curling almost in a complete circle around her body.

Then she put one of her forehooves in her mouth and blew into it, all of the ocean dampness shooting off in an instant and her mane and tail returning to their previous frizziness.

A thought of That shouldn’t be possible flashed through Twilight’s mind just as Pinkie pulled a baby-blue party hat from out of nowhere and plunked it on her own now-dry head, and Twilight’s self-enforced acedia found itself pushed rudely to the side as she bolted straight to her hooves and faced the pink party pony with a furious snort, trying to ignore the wet mane in her eyes.

“No!” Twilight shouted at Pinkie.

Pinkie arched her eyebrows at Twilight, offering a faint smile, “What no, Twilight?”

“Just… no! You… you shouldn’t be able to do half the things that you do! You can move your mane around like it’s a whole other limb! You hug me with more legs than you have! You change color when you get upset about things! You even doing it right now!” Twilight angrily added as she witnessed Pinkie wilting on the spot and shifting from pink to purple to pale-blue, her mane and tail once more going slack. “It’s just…!” Twilight exclaimed angrily. “It’s not something that ponies can do!”

“But you do magic too, Twilight,” Rainbow Dash cut in shortly, “and you do weird things, too.”

“No!” Twilight replied. “My magic is nothing like what Pinkie does! My magic is something that I’ve studied for years, something that I’ve spent sleepless nights trying to figure out. It’s something tangible that I’ve been working on. But what Pinkie does is… it just doesn’t make sense! How does she do it?”

“I don’t know!” cried Pinkie, tears sliding down her blue cheeks. “I’ve just always been like this since the pretty rainbow!”

“Rainbows don’t randomly give ponies special powers!” Twilight growled. “That’s just a load of Pferdeäpfel from comic books! I don’t know what you are, but it doesn’t make sense, and I don’t like things that don’t make sense!”

“Twilight, stop!” Applejack snapped, stepping between Twilight and Pinkie. “Look. Ev’ry single one a’ us has been questionin’ the state a’ things an’ why Pinkie can do what she does. But if Pinkie can’ rightly explain it, then Ah don’ see why anypony should be causin’ a hullabaloo over it.” Applejack gave her fellow Earth Pony a sad smile. “We mostly jus’ think of it as Pinkie bein’ Pinkie.”

“But… that’s so unscientific!” Twilight blurted out. “There’s no basis for anything that Pinkie does in science, and you just write it off as ‘Pinkie being Pinkie’? Aren’t you interested at all in the root cause of anything she does differently?”

“So, what? Pinkie’s just a science experiment to you, then?” Rainbow Dash cut in darkly.

“No!” Twilight replied, feeling genuinely hurt. “I don’t think that at all! I just want answers about what my friend can do! And we can’t wait for answers to just…”

Twilight trailed off in horror, not at the looks of mingled anger and fear on her friends’ faces, but at the shadows that stretched up over them, blotting out the perpetual morning Sun. The seven stalks rose up into the sky behind the mares giving her such bitter looks.

“Uhh, guys…?” Twilight gasped, recognizing the beast.

“What’s wrong, sugarcube?” Applejack asked quizzically, catching the new look of distress on the lavender Unicorn’s face.


Noticing the shadows at their hooves, the other mares looked up at the creature now looming up and out of the ocean which retreated behind the beast.

Seven mouths opened on seven heads at the end of seven long necks, dripping with saliva at the sight of the band of six mares and one drake…

And roared.

Pinkie Pie shrieked in abject horror and bolted down the beach towards a broad forest some distance from the beach.

“RUN!” Twilight screeched.

They needed no telling twice. Spike hopped onto Twilight’s back, and the five mares galloped with full abandon after the fleeing Pinkie.

The trees were most certainly not Equestrian trees; far more exotic were they than any that any of them had seen before. Tall and thin, but with wide sweeping canopies to make up for the broad spaces between them. The sounds of the forest were peculiar as well to any Equestrian, for many birds and primates and the like could not be found outside of the forests of Pundamilia. Many of them, however, were fleeing deeper inland at the sound of the seven roars.

Twilight and her band came to a halt just behind the sullen blue Pinkie Pie, not a minute’s gallop from the shoreline. The beast seemed to have not pursued them, though, which was all for the best.

Twilight gasped for breath, reaching out to the blue Pinkie, “Are you okay, Pinkie?”

Pinkie, looking rather dark, squeaked at the sound of Twilight’s voice before charging deeper into the brush and out of sight.

“Pinkie, wait!” Twilight pleaded, before sighing. “This is all my fault. If I hadn’t snapped at her, none of this would have happened.”

“Probably not.”

Rainbow!” Applejack snarled. “If y’all talk outta turn one more time, Ah swear Ah’ll buck ya so hard that yer pa back in Cloudsdale’ll feel it!”

Rainbow Dash crossed her forelegs sulkily as Applejack approached Twilight with narrowed eyes.

“Don’ let Rainbow getcha down, Twi. Raisin’ hob between friends is jus’ like tryin’ ta rattle a hornet’s nest. It don’ end pretty.”

“That’s the thing,” Twilight said, getting back to her hooves and trotting after Pinkie’s trail. “I was shouting at Pinkie about something that I knew nothing about. I made one of my only friends cry, and I almost got us all eaten by a waterlord!”

“A ‘waterlord’?” Rarity inquired. “I thought that that was a hydra back there!”

“A waterlord is a Pundamilian ocean-dwelling hydra,” Twilight explained, moving from a trot to a canter. “It uses its magic powers to cast a drought on nearby foliage to smoke its prey out. They hate going inland, though, so we should be safe.” She looked back ahead, deeper into the forest. “But we still need to find Pinkie, fast. Before something else finds her.”

“Something else?” Spike asked fearfully from Twilight’s back. “What else is there in these forests?”

“I’d rather not talk about them,” Twilight said softly. “I just want to find Pinkie and apologize to her as much as I can. She saved our lives, and how do I repay her? By snapping at her. I’m a horrible friend!” Twilight wailed, her voice echoing off of each tree trunk.

Behind Twilight, Fluttershy put a hoof to Rainbow Dash’s mouth to hold back the inevitable retort.

“Some friendships are rougher than others, darling,” Rarity interjected sagely. “Why, take Applejack and myself for instance. I would not say that we are terribly close, but I would be loath to sell her out for any reason at all! What sort of mare would I be to rat out a fellow Ponyvillager?”

Applejack smiled warmly back at the alabaster Unicorn, “Ah feel th’ same way, Rarity.”

Spike sighed, looking dreamily back at Rarity, “Isn’t she just wonderful?”

“Girls, wait!” Twilight stopped, putting out a hoof to the side and motioning ahead. “I see light. There must be a village!”

“And a village means…” Fluttershy said in a rising voice.

“Food!” Rainbow Dash cried.

“Folks!” shouted Applejack.

“Mane braids!” Rarity called.

The five mares went forth at a full gallop with whoops of joy, the trees on either side thinning out as the path that they followed began to broaden and the brush became less dense. The sounds of wildlife around them also began to dwindle, but they cared not, for soon they would meet Zebras…!

The trees stretched out to either side as they entered a wide red-earthed plain, and about this plain were scattered many straw-roofed adobes lined up in rows and columns for at least a mile in each direction. Vines and creepers grew up along each building’s façade, even across some empty doorways, and the general atmosphere was of desolation.

Fluttershy’s ears flattened, “I don’t like the looks of this place…”

Rainbow Dash unfurled one of her wings and laid it across her fiancée’s back, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”

Twilight looked about anxiously, “This isn’t right. This village looks like nozebra’s lived here for weeks.”

“I would only hope that this place was not so ill-kept while Zebras still lived here,” Rarity shuddered.

Applejack leaned close to Twilight, “Do ya reckon that some Zebras still live here?”

Twilight shook her head, “I doubt it, but we still need to find Pinkie. It’s my fault she ran off, and…” She wiped away a tear. “And we have to stick together and find her!”

With this goal clear in their minds, the band trotted cautiously into the old Zebra village. Twilight’s earlier assessment of the village being unlived in seemed to be more accurate the further they trekked into it; there were upturned water-basins and ragged bits of saddle here and there in the streets, as though the Zebras who had called this village home had vacated it very quickly.

“Where do ya think Pinkie coulda gone?” Applejack asked quietly.

“I have no idea…” Twilight replied in a hushed tone.

“HEY PINKIE!” screamed Rainbow Dash with her hooves cupping her muzzle. “GET YOUR BALLOONY BUTT BACK HERE!”

Applejack yanked the Pegasus down by the tail and covered her mouth with a hoof, but silence greeted them. Each of the mares braced themselves for some inevitable threat descending on them from the surrounding streets, but… Nothing.

“As cliché as it sounds,” Rarity cut in, “this village is entirely too quiet.”

“Rarity’s right,” Twilight said, lining up spell matrices for defensive spellwork within her alicorn. “You’d think that there would be something that would have been roused by Rainbow Dash’s shout, but…”

Rainbow Dash flew straight up into the sky, hovering at least four-dozen hooves over the nearest building. She put a hoof above her eyes to block out the Sun as she scanned the village from on high, looking for something, anything that would point them in the direction of Pinkie Pie or some Zebras.

“See anything up there, Rainbow?” Applejack called up.

“Negatory on that, AJ,” she said when she flew back down. “I didn’t see anything around town, Pinkie Pie or not Pinkie Pie. She’s probably crying in some corner somewhere and…”

“Wait!” Fluttershy squeaked, her ears flapping like mad. “Do you hear that?”

Everypony else swiveled their ears about, Spike looking around in confusion, cupping his claws around his auditory spines.

“I hear it, too,” Twilight breathed.

A faint chorus of high laughter was emanating from every building around them, as though there was some great private joke being shared by a great many someponies… or somezebras…!

But the laughter came to an abrupt halt as several wretched bird squawks emanated from various points around the village. But, they were not bird-calls; rather, more like someponies mimicking bird-calls.

The village remained silent for several moments, but then the laughter resumed in earnest, and shapes began to move in the doorways and windows of the seemingly empty houses.

“Guard yourselves, girls!” Twilight hissed, her alicorn openly glowing now. Rarity followed suit with a periwinkle twinkle, Applejack dug her hooves into the earth, Spike bared his claws and Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy fluttered up into the air with their forelegs bared for combat.

The shapes that emerged from the doorways were of equine shape, with black-and-white stripes along their bodies. Their manes were exceptionally straight, like mohawks, and their tails were long and leonine like Unicorns. Some had two alicorns in the middle of their foreheads, and other had feathered wings and a pair of antlers.

“Zebras…” Twilight gasped. “So this village was populated after all…”

She turned to face her party, the tension in the air lessening at the meeting of Zebras.

“Okay girls. I’ll try to talk to them, see if they can take us to Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe.”

“You speak Zebra?” asked Rarity, looking warily out at the chortling herd gathering around them.

“Well,” Twilight explained, “there are actually a lot of languages that Zebras speak. Scores of languages, actually. The way I understand it, Queen Malkia has a very loose monarchy in place, letting various city-states handle their own affairs. As such, there is a lot of linguistic and cultural diversity throughout Pundamilia.” She turned to face the herd of Zebras. “I happen to be rather learned in the common Zebra tongue, Idube. I just hope this villagers know what I’m saying.”

Twilight cleared her throat, approaching the Zebras with a low-bowed head and a humble smile.

“Hello, my fellow equines,” she began in stilted Idube. The Zebras’ ears swiveled slightly at her words and she felt a surge of hope. They understand me! “We are emissaries from Equestria, and we have just arrived from the care of Aquastria’s King Leo.”

To Twilight’s astonishment, the Zebras began to stir dramatically at her mention of the kingly sea-lion. They began to chatter back and forth at each other in a laughing tone that was nothing like any Zebra language Twilight had ever heard or heard of.

“Twilight…?” Rainbow Dash said uneasily. “I don’t think these guys are Zebras.”

Twilight was beginning to think the same as well. The “Zebras” were drawing in closer and closer, their laughs becoming shriller and bone-chillingly bloodthirsty. Their zebrine appearances melted away to reveal the feral shapes of hyenas, closing in around them…

A fierce lion’s roar erupted from beyond the village entrance, behind the band. The hyenas instinctively huddled to the ground, whimpering. Twilight and her friends also squirmed closer together; though they never had encountered a wild lion before, the roar of the king of the jungle was something that instilled fear in anything which heard it. Spike clutched at one of Twilight’s legs, seeking her protection. She leaned down and nuzzled her little ward, yearning to protect him from anything that crossed her path.

The lion’s roar belted out again, closer than before. Several hyenas lost their nerve and bolted deeper into the village, leaving their prey behind. Fewer than a dozen hyenas remained around them now, but they no longer had their entire attention on the five mares in the middle of their village. Moreso even than the ponies they surrounded and outnumbered, the hyenas feared the lion above all other creatures. It was only the scarcity of food in the village that kept the bulk of them in a circle around the mares and drake.

Steeling itself, one of the hyenas lunged at Twilight, its jaws agape and its saliva dripping to the ground. Instinctively, Twilight spun in place and thrust her hind legs out in a buck. Though she did not rank very high at all in the annals of bucking mares, it caught the hyena by surprise and it fell with a cackling yelp.

The lion’s roar echoed out a third time, closer than ever, and even more hyenas yelped in fear and fled away.

“SCATTER!” Twilight shouted to her friends, and the four other mares bolted back the way they came, making for cover in various alleyways. Seeing that only one mare now remained, and with a lion doubtlessly on its way, what hyenas there were facing Twilight decided to cut their losses and abandon the cause, fleeing back after the bulk of their group.

All but one had gone now, and the straggler let out a low feline growl at Twilight. Spike clambered up onto his surrogate mother’s back, putting his claws around her barrel.

“I should’ve guessed that this was a bultungin nesting ground,” Twilight mused lowly to herself.

“A bultungin?” Spike echoed.

“A hyena that can make itself look like a Zebra, to lure its prey in. Some ponies call them merehyenas, even though…”

The bultungin made another lunge at Twilight and Spike, prompting the lavender Unicorn to fire a blast of pink lightning at it. It flew back into the wall of a mudbrick house, the wall cracking behind it as it slid off. It gave Twilight a pitiful look as she snarled at it, “You leave my son alone, or you’ll get worse.”

The hyena whimpered and limped off.

Spike gaped at Twilight, “M… Mom?”

Twilight turned her head to smile at the darling drake on her back, “Yes, Spike. You’re my son. My precious, beautiful little boy. I don’t ever want us to be apart again.”

Spike’s jaw fell open in a smile, tears sliding down his scaly face…

And he pointed past Twilight’s head in horror.


Twilight spun quickly, seeing the oncoming jaws of a bultungin. It was too close to cast a spell at or to buck and getting closer… Twilight instinctively closed her eyes…



Twilight dared to peek, and what she saw astonished her.

Applejack stood before her at a perpendicular, the hyena’s jaws clenched deep into her spine.

Tears spilled afresh from Twilight’s eyes, “APPLEJACK!”

Applejack gritted her teeth in a grimacing smile, “Hey there, Twilight. Do ya reckon this looks like it hurts?”

Twilight nodded numbly.

Applejack furrowed her brow, her irises glowing a deep earthy-green, “Well, compared ta leavin’ ya ta die, this don’ hurt at all!”

The spots where the bultungin’s teeth had dug into Applejack’s fur began to glow green themselves, and the hyena found itself being pushed off of the palomino by some unseen force. Irked, it tried to bite Applejack on the barrel, the cannon, the forearm, but none of its bites made the slightest nick in the Earth Pony’s fur or hide.

“Ah’m warnin’ ya jus’ once, ya crazed varmint,” Applejack growled lowly. “If ya don’ leave now an’ leave Twilight an’ mah other friends alone, y’all’ll be facin’ down the single most stubborn Earth Pony in all of Equestria.”

Applejack pulled one hind leg out of the dirt, and Twilight could swear that she saw blonde fetlock strands as glowing-green roots before the orange Earth Pony brought that leg around and gave the bultungin a sharp solid kick to the belly. The hyena-creature flew down the streets and tumbled along the red earth, before it scrambled back to its paws and tore off yelping into the distance.

With a grunt, Applejack withdrew her other three hooves from the earth, pale-blonde fetlock roots returning to their natural hair state.

“That was awesome, Applejack!” Spike called out with a bright fangy smile. “How’d you do that stuff?”

Applejack shook her head with a smile of her own, “T’weren’ nuthin’, Spike. Ah jus’ had ta give that rascal the ol’ whatfor fer tryin’ ta pull a fas’ one on one a’ mah friends.”

“But Applejack,” Twilight said softly, “you’re hurt.” She inspected Applejack’s back more closely, but was astonished to see no blood, no torn skin, not even any hair that was any more rough-and-tumble than Applejack’s coat normally was. It was even still somewhat damp from their week-long sojourn in Aquastria.

“How is this possible…?”

Applejack smirked, “Not so learned on Earth Pony magic, are ya? Well, s’long as an Earth Pony’s touchin’ some Earth, there ain’t a beast or weapon in the world that cin hurt her.”

“But… those bites there…?” Twilight asked, indicating the bite marks across Applejack’s spine.

Applejack’s face darkened, “That was a lucky shot. Th’ varmint caught me off mah guard. Ah was outta commission fer a week. Ah was dozen-an’-two.” She smiled. “But it was worth it. Ah kept Apple Bloom safe from that chimera.”

“A chimera…?”

“Eeyup. An’ Ah like ta think it don’ walk right on that leg anymore. Even bleedin’ outta mah spine, Ah’ll fight ta protect th’ ones Ah love an’ cherish.” Applejack’s eyes went dark. ‘’Cause Ah know… that losin’ ‘em’d hurt a lot more.”

“And that’s why you saved me and Spike from that hyena…?”

“Yer mah friend, Twilight. Ah couldn’ jus’ letcha handle all them nasty critters all on yer lonesome. Ah’ll always be there ta lend ya a helpin’ hoof, take mah word fer it.”

Twilight smiled, tears sliding down her muzzle. “Applejack…”

She gasped.

“The lion! The others! Applejack! We’ve gotta find them!”

Applejack looked to the edge of the village they’d come from, narrowing her eyes, “Ah don’ think that was a lion, Twilight. Remember them queer-soundin’ bird-calls just as them snake-in-th’-grass hyenas came out on us? Ah think that those weren’ rightly birds, either.”

“You’re right!” Twilight said, scratching her stubbled chin with a cloven hoof. “But if those weren’t bird-calls or a lion’s roar, then what were they?”

‘Perhaps they came from a friendlier face,’ came a voice with a heavy Received Pronunciation accent from a street on their left, ‘than one you’ve yet seen in this place.’

Emerging from the street came a group of at least ten, led by a Zebra at least as tall as Applejack. And a true Zebra she was, for she had a longer muzzle and a cutie mark: a black spiral surrounded by black triangles symbolizing the Sun. She had large golden earrings in her ears, and five golden rings around an elongated neck marching those on her left foreleg. Her deep-blue eyes shone with kindness and deep wisdom. Along with her were a number of other Zebras, some with twin alicorns, some wings and antlers, and with them were…

“Twilight, darling! Applejack! You’re alright!” Rarity called out, galloping over and giving her Unicorn friend a nuzzle. (Spike leaned forward hopefully.)

‘I see that we have reunited you with friends,’ continued the Zebra at the head of her group. ‘I should hope that we can soon make amends.’

Twilight beamed at the Zebra mare, “Thank you so much, Miss…”

‘Zecora is the name I have carried since birth. It is a pleasant name that I carry with mirth.’

“Excuse me,” Rainbow Dash cut in, “but do all Zebras talk in rhyme?”

Some of the Zebras around Rainbow Dash began to exclaim angrily in their native tongue, and Rainbow Dash sank down miserably.

Zecora cleared her throat and explained, ‘You will have to forgive me for my prose, but I’ve an affliction of which I cannot dispose. It is an embarrassing tale, one of which I am not proud, but I feel that I serve a lesson by speaking aloud.’

“What happened to you, Zecora?” Twilight asked.

‘I am much learned in bushel and in branch, and of plants so dreadful that you would blanch. But there was one day that came to pass, when I neglected the lessons of agriculture class. In a bushel which I did foolishly poke, I touched a plant that you ponies call… Poison Joke?’

Rarity gasped, “Oh my…! And… you’ve rhymed ever since…?”

‘The deal is not big, I have learned how to cope. I have learned not to be a linguistical dope. If a rhyme for my speeches evades my brain, I am forced to suffer greatest pain.’

“That sounds… awful…” Fluttershy breathed.

Zecora laughed, a bright sound like tinkling bells, ‘Be not fearful, my pony friend. A simple rhyme brings the pain to an end. But no cure can be found for my condition, not even by our greatest academicians. Though at first difficult by my admission, I’ve learned to speak more cleverly than any politician.’

Every pony and Zebra present broke out into laughter at this statement of Zecora’s.

“Well, looks like some jokes cross cultural boundaries!” Rarity choked out between laughs.

Twilight’s brain snapped back to a more pressing issue than Zebra humor, Wait… jokes… laughter… Pinkie Pie!

“Zecora!” Twilight interjected. “Have you or your friends seen our friend Pinkie Pie?”

Zecora quirked an eyebrow, ‘I know of no pony to whom that name ascribes. Perhaps you could this ‘Pinkie Pie’ describe.’

“Well, you see,” Twilight began, “she’s normally very pink… and… bouncy… but I got mad at her and… she turned blue. It’s a long story, one that I don’t have all the answers to, but… she’s an Earth Pony who can do really weird things.”

‘An Earth Pony of blue? I cannot say… But my party did find a Unicorn of gray. Half of our number watches over her, to act as a protective chauffeur.’

“A Unicorn?” Rainbow Dash asked. “That can’t be Pinkie Pie… can it?”

“Ah don’ think so,” Applejack said with a hoof on her chin. “Pinkie’s never grown a horn b’fore, an’ Ah ain’ never seen her turn gray neither.”

“You don’t think those bultungin got her, do you?” Twilight asked Zecora fearfully.

Zecora closed her eyes slowly, before turning back to her compatriots and conversed with them in their native Idube. Tellingly, she still rhymed in her native tongue. Twilight flattened her ears, trying to not listen, in case there was some horrible fate that had befallen Pinkie that they were as yet not privy to.

Zecora faced Twilight once more, ‘Bultungin are savage, more or less. When they eat, they leave behind a bloody mess. But though we’ve searched, myself and my friends, we’ve found no proof of such a grisly end. It is possible your Pinkie Pie still survives, though we cannot wait until she arrives. A party shall patrol for her around this village, lest the bultungin return to pillage. You half-dozen shall accompany me, on the way back to the capital, see?’

“The capital?” Rarity gasped, a broad smile on her face. “The capital of Pundamilia itself? Why, I have heard such fabulous tales about the decor, the fashion, the je-ne-sais-quoi of the place!”

Zecora gave Rarity a slightly nervous smile, ‘It seems you are eager to make the trip. Very well, to the caravan with a hop, a jump and a skip!’

The village proved to be far more secure now that the bultungin had fled to the outskirts, though Twilight’s band still found themselves skittish about shadows inside the abandoned houses and shops on the path.

‘This village of Chekacheka was abandoned a month past,’ Zecora explained, ‘when the bultungin saw that the morning would ever last. They sought the shade of a Zebra home, for we are far from the place of gloam.’

“The Twilight Zone?” Twilight asked, to which Zecora nodded.

“So, if ya don’ mind me askin’, Zecora,” Applejack began, “how did y’all make that lion-roar t’ spook off all them hyena varmints?”

Zecora winked slyly at Applejack, ‘A trick of the trade of my Abada friends, to transform one’s vocal chords for many ends.’


‘What you ponies would call a Unicorn, though with two horns are they adorned. The Mbawa fly, with no magic in their horns; for theirs is a magic to be airborne. And my kind are called the Kwato, and ours is the talent to help plants grow.’

“So yer jus’ like us ponies!” Applejack smiled. “Well, don’ Ah feel like a mule’s uncle fer assumin’ some funny things ‘bout… well.”

Zecora nodded with an understanding smile, ‘We often find that our greatest foe, is merely what we believe that we know.’

A mere ten minutes later, they found themselves at the edge of Chekacheka, facing a large caravan of wood ornately carved with the snarling faces of Zebras. Rarity shuddered at the sight of it.

“Dear goodness…! That looks quite forbidding…!”

‘Tis merely a warning to fearsome beasts, who would see us all to be nothing but feasts. Now aboard, one and all, we have no time to lose. The Queen awaits us all, with no further time to schmooze!’

Passing towards the front of the caravan, where a door awaited its guests into the interior space, half of Twilight’s band let out fearful shrieks at the creature drawing it.

“What in tarnation is that thing…?” Applejack asked with a faint voice.

It looked like an elephant… but there was no elephant that was green and scaly across its entire body, with ears more like a cobra’s hood under its ram-like horns, or with a long serpentine tail, or with a snake’s head at the end of its trunk…

‘The creature which pulls our ride, though large, is an most excellent guide. A grootslang he is, a most intelligent beast, smarter than any you will find to the west or east!’

The grootslang’s slitted yellow eyes looked down at the band, who shivered in fright, but its gaze promptly returned to the front. Taking the moment to clear her throat, Twilight not-so-slowly sidled into the caravan, with her band of four close behind.

Oh Pinkie… I’m so sorry… I hope that wherever you are, you’re safe… As soon as we’re finished hearing Queen Malkia out, we’re winking back out here to come find you!

But any further thought of Pinkie was shifted to the side as Twilight took in the interior of the caravan. It was a single long space, dimly lit by grates in the ceiling. By the light did Twilight see tapestries depicting various Zebras of historical significance performing acts of heroism against beasts current or extinct, divided by panels that apparently slid aside and allowed views of the passing forest. Along either of the long walls of the caravan were raised seats for anyzebra to seat themselves upon.

And one of them was already taken.

In the back-left of the caravan was seated what looked to be the Unicorn whom Zecora was speaking of. She had an impossibly long white mane, though it did not look to be white from age but its own natural color. A fat slate-gray alicorn poked out from the top of her head. But her body language told Twilight that this was a more defeated mare than any she had ever seen or heard of. Her head hung low over the smooth wooden floor, her face completely covered by her mane and her ears completely flat against her skull. Her tail, almost as long as her mane, curled around her slate-gray haunches and covered her cutie mark from their view. A small band of Zebras stood apart from her, keeping watch over her but clearly giving her a wide berth. Upon sighting Twilight, they practically galloped towards the band at the exit.

“Thank Queen Malkia you’ve come!” he gasped in hasty Idube. “She uses her magic to throw us against the walls! She fills our heads with misery! She wants to be left alone! If you’re here, she’ll throw you against the walls and fill your heads with misery instead!”

And they not-so-politely pushed their way out of the caravan to join Zecora up on the grootslang.

“Pride of Queen Malkia, those Zebras are,” Twilight grumbled, before making her way down the aisle to sit across from the miserable Unicorn. Spike sat at Twilight’s left, beckoning for Rarity to seat herself next to him and finding himself once more disappointed by Applejack sitting next to him. Each of Twilight’s friends sat in a row to her left, opposite that miserable gray Unicorn.

“Little ray of sunshine, isn’t she?” Rainbow Dash muttered to Fluttershy, not bothering to keep her voice down. The gray Unicorn started at her voice, but made no other sign that she’d heard the Pegasus.

A shadow fell over one of the grates, and Zecora’s voice came down, ‘If you are all seated, it is time to depart. Do not be saddened, dear ponies; take heart! Your normally-pink friend our party will find, once her true location here has been divined. And the grootslang is as swift as he is loyal; we’ll soon be at the capital to meet someone royal!’

The shadow faded, and in moments the band heard a shout of Idube as the Zebras doubtlessly ordered the grootslang to move forward.

The caravan jolted into forward movement, and the entire band pitched out of their seats, Twilight pitching towards the gray Unicorn and knocking her off of her her seat as well.

Coughing slightly, Twilight pulled herself up, “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t expecting such a jolt. I…”

Her eyes drifted towards the slate-gray cone-shaped alicorn lying on the floor in front of her. It had a little silvery tuft of tinsel at the tip, like the tuft of bright-blue tinsel that had been on tip of a certain party hat Twilight had seen less than an hour ago…

That was no alicorn.

That, colored a miserable slate-gray, was a party hat!

She looked up at the slate-gray Earth Pony with the impossibly long white mane, a cutie mark of the popped remains of three jet-black balloons, and the saddle-shells around her barrel…


Lanky white hair parted seemingly of its own accord, and a blank-white eye focused on Twilight in resentment, a jet-black spiral radiating out from a pinprick pupil.

CHAPTER xii: The Zebra Queen

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“Whoa…” Rainbow Dash boggled at the gray Earth Pony − for now they knew that this was no Unicorn − and shook her head vigorously to be sure that her mind was not playing tricks on her. “Pinkie Pie, you really altered your looks.”

“I’m not saying that the flat-mane look isn’t in right now, dearie,” Rarity said softly, reaching a hoof out to Pinkie’s exceptionally long pale mane, “But… I think that this is overdoing it.”

Pinkie’s mane withdrew of its own volition, the sullen Earth Pony shifting slightly in her seat so as not to face the fashionista.

“Pinkie Pie,” Applejack began steadily, “from one Earth Pony to another, Ah’m tellin’ ya not ta shut anypony out. It ain’ healthy.”

A slate-gray hoof raised itself sharply and pointed straight at Applejack’s muzzle. The message was clear: Talk to my hoof, because my face doesn’t want to hear it.

Applejack began to growl irritatedly.

“Applejack, please,” Twilight said sympathetically. “She’s not mad at any of you, really. She’s mad at me. So… I have to be the one to talk to her.”

Pinkie’s eye settled on Twilight as the lavender Unicorn lowered onto her haunches in front of her. Twilight took a deep breath in, and started slowly, “It really was out of line to get on your case about your… well… your Pinkie-ness. I was horrible to you, after you saved all of our lives, and… I’m sorry. I’m really truly deeply sorry.”

Pinkie said nothing. She may have been a statue for all the movement that she showed. It was beginning to unnerve Twilight how Pinkie Pie was just not blinking, nor was the one eye Twilight could see even moving. Saccades were perfectly normal in a pony’s eye, as it was never truly at rest, taking in every minute detail with miniscule darts here and there to gather a fuller picture. But Pinkie’s eye was just staring so intensely at one singular point on Twilight’s face that Twilight felt as though she was under the eye of the Unmaker himself, her continued existence only a matter of the willpower of some obscure figure of awe and dread.

“Pinkie…? Why aren’t you saying anything…?”

Pinkie did not reply, but pantomimed toward Twilight: with a spiteful glare she pointed at herself with her right hoof, cupped her colorless hooves on either side of her open mouth (allowing Twilight to see that even her insides had gone gray), then pointed at Twilight with her left hoof.

“You… want to say something… to me?” Twilight asked.

Pinkie nodded.

The monochrome Earth Pony took in a deep breath with closed eyes, her eyelids black. Twilight could see faded teeth set in ebony gums…

Then Pinkie blew a long and loud raspberry less than an inch from Twilight’s face, her eyes slightly askew. Twilight’s view filled with pale-white hair and black spirals in white eyes.

Her pale-gray tongue retracting into her mouth, Pinkie resumed her previous stance of slack misery, her curtain of lanky white hair closing over her face.

“Please, Pinkie… let me talk to you…” Twilight tried to pry open Pinkie’s mane, but somehow the strands adhered to each other like they were a solid piece.

Twilight sighed, her eyes burning, “Pinkie, please… I’m sorry…”

Desperately, Twilight took the slate-gray party cap in her dwimmer shimmer and placed it on Pinkie’s head. “See, Pinkie? It’s your party hat! You love parties! You love being happy, making other ponies happy, making them laugh!”

Pinkie’s mane slid open, letting Twilight see her spite-filled eye once more. Twilight offered a nervous smile…

Then a colorless dwimmer shimmer illuminated the party hat and Twilight found herself being hoisted off the ground in a cold pale light and dumped roughly on her head facing the wall. Pinkie swung around on her seat, choosing to face the wall herself. As she turned round, everypony saw that even her cutie mark had changed: the popped remains of three black balloons and their strings.

Rainbow Dash arched an eyebrow, “Well, that could’ve gone better, Purple Smart.”

“Bite me,” came the sharp reply.

Fluttershy reached out towards Pinkie plaintively, “Pinkie… please don’t be mad at Twilight… She really is sorry…”

Pinkie’s head spun around so fast that everypony thought that they could hear bones cracking as the gray Earth Pony’s head turned past the ten-dozen-and-ten-degree mark, her eye widening madly at the yellow Pegasus, her nostrils flaring and her teeth grinding together. Fluttershy yelped and shrunk back into her seat.

“Or stay mad at her, whatever makes you happy!” Fluttershy squeaked fearfully.

Hey!” Rainbow Dash bellowed, leaning in towards Pinkie with gnashing teeth. “You leave her alone! She didn’t do anything to you!”

“Rainbow Dash, leave her be,” came Twilight’s voice, the lavender Unicorn having righted herself, rubbing her head sorely. “We can’t force her to be happy again. We have to let her come to her senses on her own.”

“So we’re gonna let her stew like this?” Rainbow Dash snapped. “She bound to bite somepony’s head off at this rate!”

“We can’t force her hoof, Rainbow Dash. I apologized to her. Now I have to wait for her to bounce back out of this funk.” Twilight watched as Pinkie’s head finished its full rotation, leaving the gray Earth Pony facing the wall again. She gulped, “If she even does snap back out of it.”

Hoofsteps atop the caravan caught everypony’s attention save Pinkie’s, and soon Zecora’s face appeared behind one of the grates in the ceiling.

‘My pony friends, is there trouble about? Methinks that I may have heard a shout,’ she asked of them.

Twilight waved a hoof at the gray mare huddled in the corner, “Remember that Pinkie Pie we told you about? This isn’t a Unicorn; it’s her.”

Zecora arched an eyebrow, ‘But such a revelation cannot be; she used Unicorn magic, my friends did see.’

“Well, I did say that she does weird things,” Twilight replied, before looking sadly at Pinkie’s back, “but right now, I couldn’t care less. I don’t care if her weird powers are just part and parcel of her special talent, or if she’s a liminal being of some sort. She’s my friend, and I made her angry at me, and at the world.”

‘Perhaps, to alleviate some remorse, you could open the window and view our course,’ Zecora offered, gesturing a hoof to the sliding panels between the tapestries on the walls.

Rainbow Dash bolted up to each panel in turn, sliding them open at lightning speed. She was back at Fluttershy’s side in a literal heartbeat, peering out the grated window at passing flora and fauna.

“Whoa, check that thing out!” she said brightly, pointing at a large reptilian creature in a marsh. It had a neck as long as a Giraffe’s, and a tail just as long. It was currently feeding off of the leaves on the top branches of a tree.

“A mokèlé-mbèmbé…” Twilight gasped in awe, watching it plod from one tree to the next.

“A whatnow?” Applejack replied.

“Equestrian herpetologists call it the apatosaurus. One of the largest reptiles on Harmonia. I never thought I’d see one so close…!”

It was obvious that Twilight’s friends were overcome with wonder at the mokèlé-mbèmbé, or the apatosaurus, or whatever name they preferred to call it. Fluttershy in particular looked in awe of the beast as it took a large branch in its teeth and bent it down to level with its knees, where…

“Look!” the yellow Pegasus gasped happily. “Babies!”

Some hatchling mokèlé-mbèmbé were cawing up at their parental figure, which had apparently lowered the branch to its children’s level so that they could feed on the dewy leaves of the tree’s highest branches.

Looking over her shoulder, Twilight’s smile faltered at the sight of Pinkie. She was seated in front of a closed panel. Maybe seeing some of the natural wonders of Pundamilia would do her some good…

Pinkie spun around in a flash before Twilight had even halfway crossed the caravan’s breadth, her forelegs miming the act of being trapped inside of a large box. Her mane completely covered her face; Twilight could not begin to guess what Pinkie’s facial expression was, though she had a shrewd idea. Almost as quickly as Pinkie had spun around, she was facing the wall again.

Twilight was too canny regarding Pinkie’s unusual abilities to write off the monochrome mare’s antics as fruitless. Sure enough, when she reached a cloven hoof out to the exact spot where Pinkie had placed her hooves, it met a completely invisible wall that would not yield at her force.

A clown when she’s happy, a mime when she’s sad… What have I done to you, Pinkie…?

Underneath Pinkie’s curtain of lanky white hair, ink-black tears leaked from the helical black markings on her blank white eyes, her teeth constricted and her lips quivering in misery…

The journey to Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe was not necessarily a slow one, but it was definitely a leisurely one. The creatures of Pundamilia were most certainly less agitated by the perpetual morning than Equestria’s were by eternal night. There were many that were not terribly unlike the sorts that ponies would see in zoos, such as primates swinging about through the trees and eating various types of fruit, hippopotamuses wallowing about in the shallows and the crocodiles that they steered clear of. However, there were many others that were obviously either too big or too dangerous to be kept in any zoo.

Fluttershy squeaked in terror and hid from the window. “I… I think I just saw a dragon!”

“No way!” Spike cried gleefully, looking eagerly out the grated slots. “Where is it? Where’s the dragon?”

Twilight looked out curiously, before shaking her head at the long-necked beast in the broad swamp to the left of their path, “That’s not a dragon, Fluttershy. That’s a ninki nanka.”

“Is that Zebra fer ‘dragon’?” Applejack asked pointedly.

“I’m afraid not,” Twilight replied. “It’s a brachiosaurus. It’s very territorial; notice there aren’t any other creatures in the swamp with it? And it will overturn any boats that stray too close to it.”

Fluttershy sighed happily, “Thank goodness it wasn’t a dragon.”

“Hey!” Spike interjected. “What’s wrong with dragons?”

“Well, it’s just… I’m scared of dragons.”

“But… I’m a dragon,” Spike continued, looking and sounding more than a little hurt.

Rainbow Dash wrapped a wing around Fluttershy, “I think what ‘Shy means is that she’s scared of full-grown, fire-breathing, eat-a-pony-in-one-swallow dragons. You’re just a baby dragon, Spike; cute and harmless.”

“Hey! Who said I’m harmless?” Spike growled, before Twilight rested a hoof on his shoulder.

“Don’t listen to Rainbow Dash, Spike,” she said softly. “You’re the toughest, bravest dragon that I know. What other dragon could have held back the Nightmare Guard like you did?”

Spike smiled broadly and warmly at the nuzzle that Twilight gave him, and the sight of his joy kindled a new warmth in her heart. How could she have lived without this happiness…?

Noticing the looks that her friends were giving her, Twilight pulled Spike a little closer and said brightly, “I have accepted Spike’s feelings for me as a son… and give him my feelings as a mother.”

Rarity let out a high squeal of delight, Applejack gave a joyful cheer, Fluttershy gave a nod with a smile and Rainbow Dash…

Rainbow Dash gave a genuinely warm smirk.

“Word to you for being honest to yourself, TS.”

Twilight blinked, but made no other show of surprise at the rather reserved reply from the rainbow-maned Pegasus. “Well… thank you, Rainbow Dash.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Fluttershy squeaked in fear as she looked back out the window, “Is that a dragon, Twilight?”

Twilight took a look at the winged shape between the treetops.

“That’s a kongamato − or a pteranodon, if you like.”

Rainbow Dash pointed out the window herself.

“And that. You can’t tell me that that’s not a dragon? That thing has to be a dragon!”

“That’s a gbahali,” Twilight scoffed at the crocodilian creature basking in the sunlight, its long legs hidden by the swamp water.

“Really?” Rainbow Dash replied nervously. “Coulda sworn that that was Spike’s fourth cousin twice removed. Oh hey, is anypony else hungry? ‘Cause I am!”

Bald-faced attempts to steer the subject away from her faux pas aside, most everypony agreed that they were indeed rather peckish. Their attention switched to opening their saddle-shells and digging into the provisions that King Leo’s cooks had provided. Only Applejack seemed to hesitate at opening her saddle-shells.

“Applejack?” Rarity queried, purple light shining at her face from inside her saddle-shells. “Are you not hungry?”

Applejack waved a hoof dismissively, “‘Fraid not, Rarity. Ah specially requested ta King Leo’s cooks ta only bake me nonperishables. Ah’m savin’ mah food fer emergencies, in case we run out.”

Her stomach began to growl furiously almost immediately after she finished. The palomino offered a nervous grin.

“Well… mah Granny Smith always did say Ah have th’ appetite of a full-grown stallion.”

“Well, you could share my food,” Twilight offered, levitating a hayburger out of its paper wrap.

“Aww, no, Ah couldn’, Twi. It’s th’ food that yer honorary uncle had made fer ya.”

Rainbow Dash snorted, “What is it with you Earth Ponies going on hunger strikes today?”

Applejack glared, “Excuse me?”

“Well, don’t look at me; look at her!” She pointed at Pinkie Pie. The monochrome Earth Pony had not so much as moved, her ears not even having twitched; she might as well have not heard Rainbow Dash.

Twilight hesitated; she had told her friends that leaving Pinkie alone right now as probably the best idea now that she’d apologized. However, Pinkie going on a hunger strike was only likely to exacerbate any irritation that she was holding onto. Swallowing her nervousness, Twilight set down onto all four hooves and took slow steps towards the desaturated Earth Pony.

“Pinkie…” Twilight levitated a small daisy-oat sandwich from her saddle-shells. “Please… you have to eat something.”

“Twilight?” Applejack asked with a nervous edge. “Are ya sure that’s a good idea Ah mean, ya did say―”

“I know what I said, Applejack,” Twilight replied shortly, before facing Pinkie once more. The gray Earth Pony had not budged at all; she was stiller than a statue.

“Please, Pinkie, you have to eat. I’m not asking this for me; this is for you. We have to keep up our strength.”

Pinkie turned slowly towards Twilight, a part opening in her mane to allow the sullen mare a glance at the sandwich in Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer.

Twilight felt her eyes burn, “Please, Pinkie…?”

Pinkie blinked, looking from Twilight to the sandwich and back again. Finally, slowly, her hoof drew itself upwards and held itself out beneath Twilight’s floating sandwich.

Twilight smiled, “Thank you, Pinkie,” and lowered the sandwich into Pinkie’s waiting hoof. The monochrome mare slowly drew the sandwich back towards herself, pushing her mane back behind her head as she held the daisy-oats sandwich between her hooves. Her spiraled eyes focused singularly on the sandwich, as though she’d never seen one before. She seemed to pay no mind to the anxiously expectant looks that Twilight and her friends were giving her.

Her mouth slowly opened, the sandwich drawing towards her mouth, her teeth sank into the bread, and she drew back as she chewed.

Twilight could see the microscopic flash of enjoyment on Pinkie Pie’s face, the minor widening of the eyes, the slackening of the jaw, the loosening of the cheeks as she apparently caught the taste of the daisy and oats mixed together with the bread and some special seasonings of Aquastrian origin that evidently magnified the flavor of all the parts. It was past in less than a moment, though, and she was chewing more slowly and scowling as though to pretend that she was not enjoying the sandwich one bit.

Smiling encouragingly at the sullen mare, Twilight returned to her seat to face her other friends’ mildly perplexed looks. She shrugged.

“It’s the best we can hope for for now,” she said lowly in the hopes that Pinkie was too absorbed with eating the sandwich to hear her. “Even eating a sandwich that I offered her must have been a big step for her.”

“Ah hope yer right,” Applejack whispered, glancing over at the gray Earth Pony across the aisle. “Ah ain’ never seen Pinkie so glum b’fore.”

Twilight nodded, her heart lightening at the sight of Pinkie absentmindedly licking bread crumbs off of her hooves with a gray tongue.

With no sunset, it was difficult to judge when was the correct time to fall asleep. It was the opposite problem that they had faced on so many days’ journeys back in Equestria, where the sheer lack of sunlight led to more than a few false stops on any given day. Here, in a Pundamilian caravan traveling through foreign wilderness surrounded by foreign creatures, the constant morning sunshine continually tricked the band into a state of wakefulness.

Zecora evidently seemed to be rather aware of this, as she drew the caravan to a halt and entered the caravan itself, facing the band with sympathetic eyes.

‘The journey is still long, I realise,’ she said slowly, ‘so we will stop for now and rest our eyes.’

There was no contesting this; if anything, the fact that the caravan and grootslang had stopped was as good a way to induce sleepiness as they could acquire out here in a state of perpetual morning. Zecora’s fellow Zebra attendants provided blankets for the entire group, though it proved difficult to drape Pinkie Pie in a blanket when she continued to sit upright in her statuesque posture. These blankets were specially enchanted by an Abada named Kitanda, who made the blankets cool to the touch, to aid in sleeping through the eternally baking morning.

Falling asleep was hardly restful for Twilight, and she assumed that the same held true for Pony and Zebra alike. It had nothing to do with the beasts which lived in the thinning forest around them; the grootslang was the mightiest beast in the continent of Aspicia, feared even by the kingly lion and the deadly manticore. Despite their security because of the great beast drawing their caravan, the ever-present daylight kept many restless. Even the stoic Pinkie Pie was shuddering mildly, though perhaps she was just trying to wiggle herself deeper under her blanket. Taking one last sad look at the mess that she’d made of that funny little mare, Twilight threw herself under her blanket and forced her eyes shut.

Sleep did not come easily just because she kept her eyes tightly shut, but Twilight refused to yield to insomnia, and a quick sleep spell cast upon herself soon brought her into the land of rest.

Her dreams were filled with falling stone spheres which crumbled at the sound of devilish laughter… Pinkie Pie elongating into a long rope and giggling madly… Rarity giving away all that she possessed including her very skin and bones… Applejack fusing into her body and following her everywhere… Fluttershy nursing her with a milk bottle… Rainbow Dash being Rainbow Dash… Spike burping up a letter from NightMare Moon that detailed the greater significance of dust in a world of perpetual darkness…


Her parents were back to normal! But… her father Nachtlicht still had a cactus for half of his head, and one of his legs was extremely prickly. He collapsed, and Twilight reached down to him in horror, before she heard a wretched gagging noise above her. Twilight Velvet, her mother, had a cluster of agave leaves emerging from out of her mouth, nostrils and ears… She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t scream, but ripping out the leaves caused her even greater pain! What had gone wrong? Was it bad to try to turn them back…? How would they last in this world in this state…? Why was this life such a nightmare?

Twilight sat bolt upright, almost bumping into a pair of bright-blue eyes.

“Woo-ee, Twilight! You gotta let some ponies know when you’re gonna wake up from a really really bad dream, ‘cause you almost knocked my block off with that head-butt~”

Twilight blinked; was she still dreaming? Bouncing about the room with gleeful abandon and rubbery legs was Pinkie Pie, as bright and pink and gleeful as the day Twilight had met her. Her party hat had even returned to its bright blue hue.

Pinkie…?” Twilight gasped. “You’re… you again?”

Pinkie giggled, “Silly Twilight. I’m never not me~ It’s just…” The normally exuberant mare’s ears drooped slightly, and the corners of her mouth fell. “Sometimes… when I think that other ponies don’t like me… I turn gray. And when I’m gray, I’m… not fun anymore. I’m just angry at everypony, and I just want to be alone. I…” She sniffled. “If I get to be Not-Fun Pinkie again, I’m sorry.”

“I know, Pinkie,” Twilight said with a sad smile, putting a hoof on Pinkie’s feathery shoulder. “I know. I’m sorry I had to put you through that. But right now, I’m just glad that my friend’s back.”

Pinkie wiped away a single tear. “I’m glad I’m back too.”

Rainbow Dash let out a long whinnying yawn, stretching out from under the blanket she was sharing with Fluttershy. The cyan Pegasus’s wings flexed slowly as she rubbed at her eyes with a feathery hoof. Blinking, Rainbow Dash squinted at the ruffled feathers of her fetlocks, digging her teeth into the downy fetlock and pulling out a split orange feather which she spat out on the floor. Slowly shaking her head, she began to bend one of her wings around to preen when she noticed that Twilight and Pinkie were awake and watching. She glowered with half-sleepy eyes.

“Preening’s a private business, guys,” she slurred. “Do ya mind not starin’?”

“Oops! Sorry, Dashie~” Pinkie squealed as she pulled her tail around her eyes… Then her eyes poked out through her tail. “But I preen my fetlocks in public, Dashie, and nopony complains about that~”

“Well, you’re you, Pinkie Pie,” Rainbow Dash drawled before returning to nose at her secondaries.

Her eyes popped out of her head, and she double-taked at the pink Earth Pony, who batted her eyelids innocently at Rainbow.

“Pinkie Pie? You’re… you? You’re back to normal…? Well, I mean, normal for you, but…”

“Yupper-wupper!” Pinkie squeaked with a broad grin. “Twilight here said she was sorry, and I could tell that she really really really really really really meant it, so I decided that it was wrong to be a grumpy meanie-pants about the whole situation and go back to being normal bouncy happy Pinkamena Diane Pie again~! And let me tell you, it feels good to be able to talk again, ‘cause earlier when I was being a grumpy-wumpster I didn’t talk and it felt so terrible not talking about my problems and not being able to tell you how tasty that hayburger was, Twilight, and I‘m just so so so so glad that I‘m glad to talk again~!”

Rainbow Dash chuckled, “You’ve definitely got your head back on straight, Pinks.”

“Really? I never thought that my head had ever gotten back on backwards before,” Pinkie wondered with a hoof to her chin and flicking an ear in thought.

“It’s a figure of speech, Pinkie,” Twilight explained with a mild grin, trying not to imagine the prospect of Pinkie taking her own head off and putting it back on with no intervening period of death.

Others began to stir around them, Zecora being the first to fully draw herself to the waking world. The rhyming Zebra scanned the room slowly, blinking slowly at the sight of Pinkie Pie before turning her head towards Twilight.

‘Do I spy with my very own eye,’ she said sleepily, ‘the pink mare whom you called Pinkie Pie?’

“Yes indeedy that’s me all over! It is I, Pinkie Pie~” Pinkie Pie shouted gleefully and somewhat dramatically, the others rousing more fitfully as a result of her exuberance. Spike jolted awake and began to stammer blearily about some sort of attack, Fluttershy let out a fearful squeak and glanced about anxiously, Applejack clamped her hooves over her ears and clenched her eyes shut, and Rarity actually shot bolt upright and sent her blanket flying up to the ceiling. The zebras around them, to their credit, made virtually no noise as they quickly rose to all fours and began to paw the ground in readiness for combat.

“Worry not my friends, the mare is no danger,” Zecora said in Idube. “Though there is now no need for our rangers. For this pony you see before your eyes, is the very selfsame Pinkie Pie.”

The zebras looked at Zecora with slightly bemused expressions, but the fact that they had lowered their raised hooves to the ground was a sign to Twilight that they no longer thought of this pink Earth Pony as potentially hostile.

Once the crabbiness had been successfully averted, Twilight explained as best as she could (with the occasional interjection from Pinkie herself) what exactly had unfolded to make Pinke temporarily turn gray and bitter. Her audience simply nodded and accepted her explanation (as translated by Zecora), but it was clear that they were just as baffled as the one explaining it to them.

After all was said and done, Pinkie Pie’s Ponyville friends rose to their hooves and, one by one, gave her a firm hug.

“Ah cin rightly say that Ah ain’ never been happier ta see ya, Pinkie Pie,” Applejack said softly.

“Aww, I’m happy to see you too, Appley-jack~”

“You’re really spooky when you’re gray, you know that, right?” Rainbow Dash said with a broad grin.

“I know, right? I mean, I turned gray!” Pinkie giggled emphatically, earning her several odd looks.

“I must say, as unbecoming as it is for a mare of your age to be so exuberant,” Rarity said smilingly, “it is most relieving to see you rather than… that.”

“Who wouldn’t want to see me? I’m the partiest pony in Ponyville~!”

Fluttershy hesitated a little in approaching the pink party pony; she clearly recalled the deathly stare Pinkie had given her in her more hostile condition. But the hug that she gave to Pinkie was just as firm as her other friends’.

“Please don’t scare us like that again,” Fluttershy said in a low breath.

“Pinkie Promise!” Pinkie said brightly, crossing her heart with a forehoof.

With all business relating to Earth Ponies who could change color behind them (hopefully), Zecora and her band of zebras returned to their positions atop the caravan to man the grootslang. Twilight and her band prepared to open their saddle-shells and have some breakfast…

When a great hissing trumpet broke the morning air, echoing out for miles.

Fluttershy screamed in terror, hiding underneath her blanket. “What in the world was that?”

She was not the only one to show alarm, just the one to show it most timidly. Rainbow Dash and Applejack tensed up, preparing for combat. Pinkie Pie reached into her mane and pulled out a large blue cannon, wrapping the fuse around a hoof. Twilight and Rarity alit their respective alicorns, each cycling through spells in their minds that would be adequate for subduing some foe. Spike put up his claws, balled into fists, trying to put on a brave face.

Zecora’s face appeared in one of the grates overhead, ‘Worry not about that sound, which echoed forth through air and ground. The grootslang’s call we did send out, so as to call back our patrolling scouts. These forests they know, from treetop to root, and the speed that they travel will leave you quite mute. They will join us in time, with the speed of the wind, with news that surely will make them grin: The pink one is found, and our journey commences; by this week’s end, we’ll see the capital’s fences!’

Settling down once more, the band sat down to have their breakfasts, Fluttershy snuggling up to Rainbow Dash for comfort. Applejack once more abstained from opening her saddle-shells, choosing to subsist only on her own internal stores of Earth Pony magic.

“Ah actually got a lot a’ excess energy from when Ah saved Twilight from that hyena feller,” she explained. “Ah cin take in energy from soil when Ah’m standin’ firmlike, an’ Ah did that ta ward off a bite from that nasty critter. It’s how an apple-farmer can work in the field all day without needin’ so much as a salt lick! Ah like the feel a’ the soil out here in Zebra country; feels right fertile!”

Twilight did not quite understand Applejack’s talk of the “feel” of Pundamilian soil, but put it down to Earth Pony magic’s uniqueness.

The last legs of the journey to the Pundamilian capital took the caravan out of the forest and into the savannah, the trees and swamps settled with wildlife replaced with wide plains of grass and intermittent herds. The occasional spark of lightning in the sky initially brought Rainbow Dash glee, thinking that the Wonderbolts had come out to aid them, but it turned out to be an impundulu, or a lightning-bird as Twilight translated.

Of course, not all of the sights and sounds were unpleasant. Herds of wildebeest could occasionally be seen grazing, giving the grootslang and its towed caravan a wide berth. Magnificent birds of all sorts, even the majestic bennu, alighted upon the occasional rock and pecked away at moss or bugs upon the rocks’ surfaces.

The zebra scouts who had been searching for Pinkie Pie under the assumption that she was lost, and not gray, had joined up with the caravan a mere two days after the grootslang had sounded its call. Twilight was astonished at the speed with which zebras could travel, but recalled Applejack’s “standing firm”, and reasoned that perhaps the Kwato zebras had implemented the opposite kind of magic: repulsion as opposed to attraction.

Pinkie’s gumball-radio let them know that NightMare Moon was cracking down even harder upon Equestria than she had before, coercing the greatest Unicorns in the land to erect an anti-winking ward around the entirety of the queendom. Nopony could wink into or out of Equestria, and if they tried, then the Nightmare Guard and the Shadowbolts would know immediately.

“But where are the Wonderbolts?” Rainbow Dash asked anxiously.

As it transpired, the Wonderbolts themselves had forfeited combat operations against the Shadowbolts, instead taking to the sky and raining down their sun-bolts over cities, towns and villages without heliogenesis suns, using their high speed to evade pursuit and capture. Rainbow Dash scoffed at the notion of them “backing down from a fight”, but conceded that perhaps this was the smarter option.

On the seventh day since they entered the caravan (days measured only by the duration of sleep cycles), the savannah around them began to thin out, the grass becoming shorter and more sparse. The rocks were smaller, but more frequent. More unsightly kinds of plants made their homes here, and few animals dared to cross this way willfully.

“Look!” Twilight pointed out the window, at a patch of deep-blue flowers off in the distance. But it was not simply their petals that were blue. Their stems were blue, their leaves were blue, even their pollen was blue. Twilight had a shrewd idea as to the genus of those plants. “Poison Joke.”

“That’s it?” Rainbow Dash commented, a rainbow eyebrow raised. “Doesn’t look so bad. It’s just… blue.”

“While I do find it a most pleasant shade of azure,” Rarity cut in, “blue can be a rather dismaying color.”

“Excuse me?” the cyan Pegasus replied, furrowing her brow. “I happen to be very blue!”

“Rather more a very light cerulean,” Rarity corrected, “but that patch of Poison Joke is, based off of Zecora’s own recollection, capable of pulling some rather mean practical jokes.”

Rainbow Dash snorted, “I betcha you’d look like one of them mop dogs.”

Rarity butted her forehead against Rainbow Dash’s, her eyes flaring, “You take that back!”

“Why should I?”

“Because some ponies happen to take great pride in their appearances!”

“You got that right!” grinned Rainbow Dash, flicking a few locks of green, blue and purple mane with a sweep of her hoof. “See this, baby? All natural. I just let the wind brush my mane out!”

“Well, I suppose that does work for some mares, but…” Rarity suddenly stammered, rearranging her pensive look into a rather perturbed one. “But I still do not appreciate the snide remark about my potential resemblance to a puli dog!”

“Okay okay, fine, I’m sorry, princess,” Rainbow Dash drawled. “End of the chapter, close the book.”

“But we’re not over!” Pinkie Pie interjected, looking madly about at… well, nothing in particular. “This chapter’s not over yet! …Is it? Is someone still writing out my words? Am I about to go mute? Is the whole world about to go mute?”

Laughter began to brim from each of those sitting around Pinkie. Her madcap declamation had effectively defused the tension in the caravan more effectively than anything that any of them could have planned or suggested.

Rainbow Dash beamed, “Man, Pinkie sure is a laugh and a half, isn’t she?”

Rarity nodded with a light smile, “She appears to be in top form at the moment.”

Rainbow Dash’s eyes met Rarity’s, “No hard feelings?”

Rarity’s eyes met Rainbow Dash’s, “None.”

“Right, then. Let’s hoof-bump on it!”

Rainbow Dash spat in her hoof and held it out towards Rarity.

Rarity recoiled with a shriek of horror, her ears going flat and her hooves drawn up over her face instinctively. Applejack bust out a great guffawing laugh at the sight, and Rarity glared daggers at the palomino.

‘My pony friends, do not glower,’ Zecora’s voice interjected from one of the ceiling grates, drawing the attention of all, ‘for we’ll approach the capital within the hour. Collect yourselves, and keep your manners clean, for you shall soon be meeting the Zebra Queen!’

The prospect of soon meeting the Queen of Pundamilia shot bolts of eagerness and anxiety through Twilight and her friends. Finally, some answers! The secrets of the Elements of Harmony would be revealed, and the downfall of NightMare Moon would soon follow!

With the approach to Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe imminent, Twilight found herself getting rather giddy at the prospect of meeting somebody who had known Queen Celestia for so long.

“This is really exciting!” she said fervently. “Queen Malkia has a long history with Queen Celestia! They’ve been on the Cosmic Council together for grossenturies!”

“The Cosmic Council?” Rainbow Dash remarked. “What’s that?”

“It’s a council of the heads of state of the greatest countries in Harmonia,” Twilight explained patiently. “Equestria is represented, of course, as are the Crystal Empire of the Crystal Ponies, Aquastria of the Mermares, Magnesia the land of Centaurs, Saddle Arabia the home of Horses, the Minotaurs, Qín the country of Qílín, Orlalvov the empire of Griffons, and a fair few others. Honestly, Rainbow Dash, you’d think you never read a book in your life.”

The cerulean Pegasus scoffed, “Reading, schmeading. I couldn’t possibly think of very many books that would be awesome enough for me to read.”

Twilight let out a snorting chuckle, “I can think of at least ten.”

Rainbow Dash promptly scrunched her muzzle up and darted wide cerise eyes about nervously, prompting a high giggle from Pinkie Pie.

Their saddle-shells replaced upon their backs, Twilight and her friends took to their seats and anxiously anticipated their arrival at the capital. Spike cuddled himself in between Twilight’s forelegs, the lavender mare wrapping her hooves around his belly. He rested his claws on her forelocks and smiled up at her, Twilight smiling in return.

Barely dozen-and-eight minutes had passed before Zecora appeared once more in the ceiling windows, with a kindly smile.

‘The capital nears; join me on the roof,’ she explained, ‘for soon we shall have to enter by hoof. The capital allows no grootslang entry, for they await at the gates as sentries.’

Acquiescing to the zebra’s request, Twilight took Spike onto her back and led her friends out of the caravan, scaling a small wooden staircase that Kitanda the Abada had set down for them. Seated at the top of the caravan, behind the great back of the grootslang, Twilight could see far into the distance of the savannah. Squinting slightly, she thought that she could make out the wavering shapes of sand-colored buildings, along with a white building topped with black bulbs and a large central black dome.

“We’re almost there…!” Twilight breathed.

Spike placed a claw over his eyes to block out the light bouncing off of wild clouds above. “That’s the zebra capital? Doesn’t look all that big.”

‘A large capital does not a good capital make,’ Zecora explained. ‘If invaded, we’ve not many lives at stake. Also… the Queen can foresee a time, when her funeral bells will surely chime.’

Twilight found herself wincing slightly; Queen Malkia, dying? “Wh-what do you mean?”

Zecora closed her eyes in bereavement, ‘She allows her subjects some laissez-faire, with all of her compassion beyond compare. She gives us time to think and grow, so that her passing will not be such a blow. One day, she will die, and I fear it’s soon. She may not even see the defeat of NightMare Moon.’

“That’s heavy stuff, man,” Rainbow Dash replied soberly.

In a matter of minutes, the grootslang had reached the walls of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe. Tall and built of sandstone they were, but enchantments of Abada and Kwato alike lay upon the walls to prevent erosion; these same walls had been erected over two-dozen-gross years prior when Malkia Mrahaba’s great ancestor founded the metropolis. The great gates into Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe, Kupigwa, were forged from alternating rows of dark and light stone, and they were also fortified with powerful defensive magic, only opening when the guardszebras allowed passage into the city. On either side of the great gates were two lion’s heads carved into the stone, the left one snarling.

A pair of zebra guards, one Mbawa and one Abada, crossed a pair of spears in front of the Kupigwa, blocking the passage into the city. They spoke with Zecora in their native Idube, and the rhyming zebra responded in kind to them. Though Twilight blocked most of their speech out of her mind as a matter of privacy, she caught the general gist of the conversation: Zecora had been sent out to retrieve a party of mares dispatched from Lyonesse, and confirmation of their retrieval was made. The Mbawa and Abada guards nodded smilingly, Zecora leaping down to join them. Each of them placed a hoof upon the Kupigwa gate, and the dark and light stones sank into the ground as if it were quicksand.

“Whoa…” Rainbow Dash gasped.

“That’s some magic,” commented Applejack with wide eyes.

‘Come on down, my pony friends,’ Zecora beckoned. ‘Your travel has now reached its end.’

Leaping down from the caravan and trotting alongside the grootslang as it slid its eyelids shut, Twilight and her band joined Zecora as she welcomed them into the Pundamilian capital of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe.

Gasps and exclamations of awe and wonder broke out. After the gradually deteriorating conditions of the outside leading up to this arrival, they had every one of them grown to fear that the capital of the zebra nation had fallen into dilapidation. Such worries proved to be unfounded; though by no means in prime condition, it withstood well the ill conditions that a perpetual early morning sunrise would bring after over a month’s time.

All around were buildings of sandstone, as Twilight had seen from atop the caravan, and these were workshops of blacksmiths, store-owners, carpenters, weavers, all sorts of different working zebra-folk. Streets branched off into each different direction from this main thoroughfare, leading directly towards the capitol castle, the residence of Queen Malkia and the royal family.

Rarity’s jaw was agape at all of the fine tapestries and cloths that she saw zebras of all shapes and sizes selling at their places of business. “I… I do not think that I have ever seen such beautiful garments before. I think that I’ve found the inspiration for my next fashion line!”

“That’s great, Rarity, really it is,” Twilight said with a bright but firm tone, “but we really need to get to Queen Malkia quickly.”

‘That will not be necessary, my dear little pony,’ came a low and melodious voice from up on high, prompting the eyes and heads of Twilight and her band to crane upwards. Floating above the main street of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe was an Mbawa, the grandest and most magnificent that anypony present had ever seen. Her colors and stripes were almost more like a tiger’s than a zebra’s, and as she descended to the street her regalia could be easily made out: a nemes, striped blue and white across her head with holes for her horns, a golden collar emblazoned with a shining white diamond ankh identical to the mark on her flanks, six golden bands on each leg and three binding her tail. Alighting upon the thoroughfare, everyzebra in the plaza immediately sank to her or his knees and began to susurrate reverently.

“Queen Malkia…” Twilight said in awe, preparing to sink to her own knees.

‘Stand, Unicorn,’ said the Zebra Queen sternly, before craning her head down to meet Twilight’s eye level. Twilight leaned back slightly, the compulsion to blink rising as those dark eyes burrowed into hers.

‘We require proof of your passage, little pony,’ pressed Malkia.

Spike gasped, “Mom! The cipher!”

“Oh! Right…” Twilight used her pink dwimmer shimmer to open her saddle-shells, producing the cipher that Queen Celestia had originally left for her. The Queen took it in between two primaries, scrutinizing the piece of ancient parchment. Twilight found herself sweating, even though she was in the shadow of the walls of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe; what if Queen Malkia did not understand the purpose of this cipher…?

‘“I, Queen Celestia, have hidden the secret to the sixth Element with the royal bloodline of Pundamilia”,’ read Queen Malkia aloud. ‘“Go to the capital, Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe, and present this cipher to Queen Malkia. She will trust you.”’ She then passed the missive back to Twilight, who placed it back in her saddle-shell. A new twinkle was in the Queen’s eyes.

“You can read the Bookworm Cipher?” Twilight gasped.

‘Truth be told, I cannot,’ Queen Malkia confessed with an astonishing levity, ‘but I would not forget those numbers if I lived a dozen-giggrossiad more.’

She reached a wing over and draped it over Twilight’s back − Spike chuckling slightly as the feathers brushed against his ticklish spots − and drew the lavender Unicorn in close for a surprisingly warm hug.

Queen Malkia murmured to Twilight in Idube, “Where do the Sun and Moon shine together?”

Remembering the customary return to such a statement from her learnings on Pundamilian royalty, Twilight smiled as she replied, “In the sky of the hearts of all that live.”

Queen Malkia beamed brightly, ‘You are very knowledgeable of our customs, young one. May you and yours be ever blessed by Sun and Moon alike.’

Twilight’s heart ached for her broken family back in Equestria, but when Spike wrapped his claws around her neck, she smiled warmly back at him.

‘Now, perhaps as we proceed back to my audience chamber,’ Queen Malkia said with a flair of her wings and a great leap down the thoroughfare, ‘we can introduce ourselves to one another.’ She faced Zecora, “Zecora, you will accompany us.”

Zecora inclined her head, “You honor me, my Queen so kind, whose mind is brighter than the stars combined.”

“Quite,” replied Queen Malkia levelly, before addressing her pony companions in Equus, ‘Now then, shall we?’

“…and then I turned gray!” Pinkie Pie giggled. “Isn’t that so funny?”

Queen Malkia raised a quizzical eyebrow at the pink Earth Pony as they passed through the gate from Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe’s outer ring to its inner ring. For the city of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe was laid out in a circle of three rings, each of which could be locked down in case of an enemy assault. The outer ring was home to the merchants and their workplaces; the inner ring was where the bueraucrats and stateszebras of Pundamilia worked and lived while within the city’s walls; and the innermost ring, the “royal ring”, served as the home to Queen Malkia, her royal family and their attendants. Each ring was permeated with powerful defensive magic, bolstering one another to provide a solid protection to everyzebra inside.

‘Yes. Quite amusing,’ Queen Malkia offered hesitantly to Pinkie Pie, before leaning her head down to Twilight and speaking in sotto voce, ‘Does this mare speak figuratively, Twilight Sparkle, or is she possessed?’

Twilight merely shook her head, “It’s better just to laugh it off. That’s why she turned gray, because I didn’t.”

Queen Malkia blinked expectantly at Twilight Sparkle, before glancing back at the beaming Pinkie Pie who pronked gaily along, finally turning her gaze upon the two Pegasi, both hovering along side-by-side.

‘You two seem exceptionally close,’ she observed. ‘Perchance are you two… married?’

“No, we’re not sisters!” Rainbow Dash growled, before blushing red and hiding her cerulean face in her forehooves. “Agh… Sorry. I thought that you were… Forget I said anything.”

“Technically, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy are engaged,” Twilight interceded.

‘Ahh…’ nodded Queen Malkia, before smiling upon the Pegasi. ‘My greatest wishes of benefaction upon your union.’

“Umm… thank you… Your Highness,” stammered Fluttershy, withdrawing a little behind her mane.

“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash nonchalantly brought her hooves down, putting on a broad grin. “Yeah, what she said.”

Queen Malkia gave them one last nod before passing her eyes onto Applejack, whose eyes were passing along each passing noblezebra, each one dressed in robes of royal hue.

‘And what is your name, young Earth Pony?’

Applejack’s attention immediately returned to the Zebra Queen, a slight blush in her freckled cheeks, “Oh! Well, Ah beg yer pardon, Yer Highness, but Ah ain’ seen such high-livin’ since… well, since Ah was a little filly mahself. Anyway, name’s Applejack, an’ Ah’m of the Apple family!”

‘The Apple family…’ Queen Malkia pondered aloud. ‘Yes, I do recall Celestia speaking of a colony settling in the Untamed Vale.’

“More’n a colony now, it’s a whole village! An’ mah family sells all the apple wares anypony − or anyzebra − could ask for. Why, Ah have some apple treats right here in mah saddle-shells if’n ya’d fancy a bite.”

Queen Malkia politely shook her head with a smile, ‘I thank you, but I pass.’

Finally her eyes drifted to Rarity, who was admiring the Queen’s regalia with an almost hypnotized demeanor.

‘And you are…?’

Rarity blinked, and her entire posture went shocked and loose in a decidedly unRarity-like fashion, “Oh! Do forgive me, Your Eminence! I was just so… taken with your attire! It is simply divine! But oh, where are my manners? My name is Rarity, Rarity Belle! I am a humble yet talented fashionista mare, and my boutique is known as Carousel Couture. It would be my greatest pleasure to design an outfit for you… that is, when we can find the time. What is it that you would look for in a Carousel Couture dress-saddle?”

Queen Malkia lowered her head in rumination, before breathing darkly, ‘My funeral vestments.’

The formerly light and even jovial atmosphere became suddenly darker, as though a violin string had become exceptionally tightened while being played.

“Your… funeral vestments?” Twilight echoed. “Queen Malkia… is everything alright?”

Queen Malkia passed a sad smile on to Twilight, ‘I am fine, Twilight Sparkle. In fact, I could not be happier. Forgive me, but I found myself rejoicing at the Sun freezing in the sky that morning over one month ago. For it meant that my own long day was soon to be passed, and I could finally take a very long rest.’

“Your own long day…?” echoed Rarity.

“Is this to do with how you look like you’re in your prime, and yet you’re…” Twilight hesitated; she knew it was not polite to ask a lady two things: her age, or her weight. “You’re…”

“Like, a gigagross years old?” Rainbow Dash cut in.

Queen Malkia turned her dark eyes upon the cerulean Pegasus, her ears flattening.

“Rainbow Dash!” Applejack snapped. “There’s a time an’ place fer talkin’ bluntly! An’ this ain’ the time or the place!”

Feeling the pressure of the Queen’s gaze, and the force of Applejack’s shout, Rainbow Dash sank to the ground with her ears limp, her wings folding over her face in shame.


The band blinked.

“Ex… cuse me?” Twilight queried.

‘That is how many years have passed since Mother bore me. There was nothing entirely special about me; I was like every other royal zebra foaled with a noble. But I was in Equestria, on that day.’ Her eyes turned heavenward, looking past the clouds and the sky, perhaps trying to gaze past the Firmament itself. ‘The day when the Moon stopped in the sky. The day when Queen Celestia banished that Mwezi Shetani to the Moon and took up the mantle of sky-mover on her own.

‘I knew, that day, that I would harbour the secret of the Elements for Celestia. She protected my life from the NightMare; I would repay that debt by offering her my life.’

Twilight gaped, “What did you do?”

‘I agreed,’ Malkia explained, ‘to have a geis placed upon me.’

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Yer Majesty,” Applejack interjected, “but what in the name a th’ Sun an’ Moon is a ‘gesh’?”

“It’s a powerful thaumaturgical injunction, a contract binding two or more parties together,” Twilight explained. “But geasa are usually forbidden nowadays, and all of the spellbooks containing knowledge of how to cast them have been locked away. Too easy to cast, apparently, for fickle matters.”

“Why?” Fluttershy asked.

“Usually, if one breaks a geis, or fails to live up to the terms… they die.”

The ponies around her − and Spike − gave her shocked and astonished looks, and Queen Malkia nodded before continuing.

‘The terms, as Celestia and I agreed upon, were that I would not die until I shared with her student all that I knew of the Elements of Harmony, in the hopes of defeating NightMare Moon. And if I were to break my vow… I would never die.’

What?” Twilight was horrified; this was nothing like the Queen Celestia she’d known.

‘There must be a punishment in the terms of any geis, and since it is customary for one to die from breaking the injunction… In any case, it was not a common situation, even for a geis. But I have no intention of breaking the contract. I will tell you everything that I know about all six Elements.’

Twilight stopped, Spike’s head nearly colliding with the back of her skull.

“You know about all six Elements?”

‘Indeed I do,’ Queen Malkia replied coming to a halt before the gate leading to the royal ring. ‘I know not all of their secrets; I suppose Celestia had reason not to divulge the full nature of the Elements. But, when we reach my audience chamber, I, Queen Malkia Mrahaba of Pundamilia, shall give you as full a divulgence as you are to get without the Queens of Sun and Moon!’

The guardszebras at the gate placed their hooves to the stony barricade, which receded into the cobbled pathway. Queen Malkia passed through with great strides, Twilight and her party close behind.

If the inner ring was a step above the outer ring in terms of decor and care, then the royal ring was almost as if stepping into a grand painting by a Reneighssance artist. The paths were crafted from slabs of light and dark marble, flanked by pillars of alternating colors depicting coldly engraved figures of stately Zebras of all three races. Before them rose the great palace of the Mrahaba, the royal Pundamilia family. All in white sandstone was it forged, save for domes of black and the peaks of the minarets. And in the middle rose a grand black dome, from which arose a single spire of gold.

Queen Malkia beamed at the awed looks on her seven accompanying Equestrians, ‘I take it that you are find the view stunning? Sadly, to say that it still stuns me would be false.’

She gestured towards the grand staircase leading up to the Mrahaba’s great front doors.

‘Shall we?’

The stairs themselves would appear gray from a distance, but as one got closer one could see that they too were made from alternating slabs of light and dark stone. The intent of the original construction was that one’s eye was dazzled as gray gave way to stripes of bright and dim colors.

Well, they’ve certainly done their job right, or I’m a Pegasus, Twilight thought to herself as they reached the top of the steps.

‘I suppose you Equestrians are enjoying Pundamilia thus far?’ Queen Malkia asked as they approached the great doors, one black and one white, each marked with a noble zebra’s face.

“I’ll say!” Pinkie Pie interjected. “It was pretty crazy at first with me going blue and then gray and then going missing and running away from big crazy cat-creatures and seeing that snaky elephant and getting tossed in that caravan and tossing zebras around who were getting too nosy and refusing to accept Twilight’s apology, but ever since I accepted it, it’s been sweet! So many different zebras to make friends with! So many party favors to hand out! So many different sweets to try out!”

“Yeah!” Rainbow Dash cut in. “Plus, you guys’ve got so many awesome Daring Do creatures here!”

Queen Malkia and Zecora each raised an eyebrow at Rainbow Dash, who was clearly struggling not to scrunch her muzzle up again.

“She’s a closeted bookworm,” Twilight explained taciturnly.

“I am not closeted,” Rainbow Dash grumbled.

Sparing a sympathetic smile for Rainbow Dash, Queen Malkia pushed open the soundless double doors into a grand hallway the likes of which Twilight had only seen in Canterlot, Lyonesse and in the Palace of the Two Alicorn Queens. Torches alight with pure-white fire hung from the walls, exposing grand bas-reliefs depicting ancient zebra conflicts and treatises. Even the pillars were richly carved with the history and culture of two-dozen-gross years of zebra society, many a Kwato and Adaba and Mbawa rendered in unambiguous glory. At the far end of the hall was another grand set of double-doors, flanked by two pairs of zebra guards.

‘There lies my audience chamber,’ said Queen Malkia softly. ‘Follow me, and speak not to the guards.’

Obeying her words, the seven from Equestria followed the Zebra Queen down the hall, each turning her or his eyes upon the bas-reliefs surrounding each archway leading elsewhere into the palace. Twilight saw Queen Celestia depicted numerous times, often coming to the aid of the Mrahaba royal family. In one frieze apparently depicting an ancient meeting of the Cosmic Council, Twilight did a double-take at the dark Alicorn mare at Queen Celestia’s side. Was that… NightMare Moon? Or rather, the mare who would become entrapped by a Miasma and transform into NightMare Moon?

Reaching the doors to her audience chamber in short order, Queen Malkia addressed the guards imperiously in Idube, and Twilight recalled King Leo’s words. Malkia was ordinarily very stern and humorless, but now that her last day had come upon her, she had lost any semblance of tension that she may have felt. Appearances, though, had to be maintained, and she maintained her cold poise quite well.

Slowly, though, she lowered her head down to her four guards and apparently began to whisper to them softly. Twilight, the only Equestrian present who could understand and translate Idube, flattened her ears; she did not need to know what was being said.

She had a very good idea.

And judging by the solemn looks in the faces of the guards, and the tears rolling down the face of one Abada mare, it seemed that Twilight’s idea was accurate.

But no further words were spared, and the four guardszebras allowed the Queen and her entourage to enter the throne room.

“Zecora!” cried a zebra stallion’s voice from the main doors into the Mrahaba palace. The addressed zebra turned, as did her six pony friends, her drake friend and her Queen.

It was Kitanda the Abada from the caravan. He beckoned Zecora towards the entryway where the double-doors were once more opened. Against the glare of the early morning Sun, Twilight made out the shape of another equine figure standing in the doorway. Who was it…?

Zecora traded some confused Idube words with Kitanda, before facing Queen Malkia and Twilight.

‘I apologize for this unexpected event,’ she said sorrowfully, ‘but this is a conundrum I must see unbent. Though I would rather be with you to the end, my Queen, I must break off and sort out this befuddling scene.’

Malkia bowed her head sadly, ‘Very well, child. See it done.’

Zecora’s eyes shone with unshed tears, but she quickly galloped up the hall, with Kitanda hot on her heels.

“What in tarnation was that all about?” Applejack asked.

Malkia let a single tear slide down her muzzle, but she did not answer as she pushed herself forward into the audience chamber.

Though narrower in width and lower in height than the entry hall, the audience chamber was far grander in the sense of its decor. Rich tapestries depicting every noble family in Pundamilia hung between narrow windows high on the walls that lit the white sandstone chamber with perpetual sunlight. Along the walls were long white benches, carven from solid white marble. At the far end of the chamber was a tall, high throne of black marble, with a smaller humbler throne to its right.

“Whose throne is that little one’s?” Rainbow Dash asked pointedly.

Queen Malkia lowered her gaze, her eyes going dark, ‘The crown-princess’s.’

“And…” Twilight began to ask, “who is the crown-princess…?”

Malkia’s eyes swam with tears, darting back towards the now-closed double-doors back into the grand foyer. Twilight’s eyes widened in horrified realization, and her heart broke at the prospect, hoping against hope that she was wrong…

But the Queen drew herself back up to her full height, seating herself upon her haunches.

‘But there is no time for grief,’ she said with a strong tone that nonetheless wavered. ‘You have come for questions regarding the Elements of Harmony, and I shall answer each one to the best of my ability.’

Twilight raised a hoof, “Your Highness, don’t you think that… this could wait a little for…?”

Malkia hung her head, closing her eyes, ‘I cannot bring it upon her. I don’t know how I will die, but I don’t want her to see this. Not now, when she can be spared of it.’

Fighting back her pained expression, Queen Malkia addressed Twilight more sternly, ‘Every moment spent idly is one more moment of victory for NightMare Moon. I will not hesitate, even in the face of my own death. If my life can be exchanged for every other life on this planet, I will gladly surrender it, here and now.’

Recoiling at the Queen’s resolve, Twilight hesitated to respond. This just wasn’t right, to deny her own blood a last moment. But… Twilight understood her reasoning. After all, she herself would not want Spike to see her go. She would want him to move onward, follow his own path his own way, unencumbered by grief. Drawing him into one of her forelegs, she nuzzled him and gave Queen Malkia a teary nod.

Malkia returned the nod with a faint smile, ‘I thank you, Twilight Sparkle. Now, pay close attention, as I may not be able to repeat myself before I… expire. Please, present the Elements.’

Each of the six mares drew their saddle-shells off of their backs, opening them one at a time. Sure enough, Rarity’s Element shards still glowed purple, and Pinkie’s blue. But…

“What in Equestria…?” Applejack gasped at the shards aglow in her saddle-shells, an apple-red light shining out at her.

“Applejack’s Element’s… glowing?” Twilight gaped.

“Alright!” Rainbow Dash pumped a hoof in the air. “Three down, three to go! Halfway there!”

“But… how in the world did it become active now?” Rarity asked.

‘The answer to that question,’ Queen Malkia said, her eyes on the red-glowing shards of stone, ‘I do not know, but I can guess. I believe that the Element shards which Applejack carries were awoken by a realisation on her part and yours, Twilight Sparkle, of her compatibility with that Element.’

“My realization?” Twilight asked. “But… why me? What makes me so special?”

‘I shall come to that shortly,’ Malkia said patiently. ‘But I believe that each Element awakens when two friends realise that one of them has a personality consistent with that Element’s parameters.’

“So, what are the Elements of Harmony?” Twilight asked, trying to not sound impatient. “We need to know these parameters.”

‘There are five material Elements, and a sixth which is more… abstract. Elusive. The five more concrete Elements embody the traits of Loyalty, Honesty, Generosity, Kindness and Laughter. The sixth Element, the one which binds them all together, is the Element of Magic.’

Queen Malkia’s eyes met Twilight’s.

Twilight’s eyes met Queen Malkia’s.

‘Twilight Sparkle,’ the Zebra Queen said lowly, ‘I believe that you are the Bearer of the Element of Magic.’


Malkia nodded slowly, with eyes closed.

‘You have a powerful touch of destiny about you, Twilight Sparkle. All of you do. I strongly suspect that you seven have the strongest chance possible of defeating NightMare Moon and bringing our world back to order.’

“But…” Spike interceded. “I’m not a pony. I’m a dragon. And I don’t have an Element, either.”

Twilight squeezed him tight to her barrel once more, “You don’t need an Element, Spike. You’re perfect, just as you are.”

Spike smiled up at her.

‘I suspect, though,’ Queen Malkia cut in, ‘that your presence in her life has been a constant force for friendship. You have shown her the miracles that one can achieve with a simple act of kindness or charity. You are her oldest friend, are you not?’

“He is indeed,” Twilight affirmed, giving her son a warm maternal smile. “And there’s no reason that my oldest friend can’t also be my son.”

“So ya know that Twilight’s the Bearer a’ this here Element a’ Magic?” Applejack asked. “So, where is this Element a’ Magic? Twilight ain’t got no stones.”

‘As I have said, the Element of Magic is immaterial. It only manifests when all five other Elements are brought together and synchronise with one another. It will not appear on Twilight’s person until she has realised all five Elements with you five, and…’

Twilight blinked bemusedly at the regal Mbawa, “And what?”

‘My apologies, but your queen Celestia was vague on this point as well. She likened the Element of Magic to a “fire of friendship”, and would say no more. I fear she may want you to unlock its secrets on your own.’

“So this is some sorta big test?” Rainbow Dash cut in, slumping down onto her barrel. “Snoresville!”

“Hey!” Twilight snapped. “Tests are serious business! If you fail, you’re not going to pass! And the bigger the test, the bigger you fail! This isn’t any easier on me, but we’ve got to work together to solve this!”

‘I believe,’ Malkia added softly, ‘that that is exactly what is entailed here.’

“So Twilight is the Bearer of the Element of Magic,” Rarity said slowly, as though attempting to imprint this so that she could recall it later. “What other Elements do the rest of us carry?”

Pinkie let out a loud ringing laugh that echoed to the ceiling, “I bet I’m the Element of Laughter!”

Twilight put a hoof to her mouth to withhold a slight giggle of her own, “Really wouldn’t surprise me, Pinkie.”

“So we’re at two out of six,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “But what Elements do the rest of us hold?”

‘I am afraid I do not know,’ Malkia replied. ‘I know that each Element glows a distinct color, but I do not know which Element is which color. That is not a detail which Celestia was candid on. I…’

The Queen’s eyes bulged out of their sockets, her nemes slipping from her head and crumpling to the floor.

Along with clumps of her mane, now gray and stringy.

To everypony’s horror, Queen Malkia was aging before their very eyes. Her muzzle wrinkled, her legs shriveled and gave out beneath her, her coat and mane going gray and slowly falling out strand by strand.

Twilight bolted up to the deteriorating Queen, attempting to support her head in her hooves, “No! What’s happening?”

‘The…’ Malkia’s voice creaked, sounding half-a-dozen-gross years old now. ‘The geis… Is complete. I’ve shared with you all that I know of the Elements of Harmony.’

“But… no! This can’t be the way you die!” Twilight sobbed.

The decrepit zebra smiled, ‘Spare me your tears, child. This is not a sad moment. I want this.’

“No! No!” Twilight cried. “It’s not fair!”

Malkia now looked verily skeletal, her skin stretched taut over ancient bones. Breathing shallowly, she spoke in Idube, “Go now, pupil of Sekhmet, and make this a peaceful world for my own little ray of sunlight…”

Queen Malkia Mrahaba’s smile remained upon her withered features, her eyes focusing at some point beyond the ceiling, maybe even beyond the Firmament into the Elysian Fields.

Twilight drew shuddering breaths, slowly using her dwimmer shimmer to close both of Malkia’s eyes, before cradling the zebra monarch’s head in her forelegs. Each of the five mares behind her sat in repose, letting their tears flow silently down their cheeks.

The audience chamber doors burst open forcefully, Zecora galloping into the chamber with wide and fearful eyes.

‘My ponies, I thought I felt an omen while I was speaking with foreigner and yeoman!’

Her eyes fell upon the fallen body of Queen Malkia, Twilight shaking her head sadly at the new arrival.

Zecora’s eyes and jaw quivered as she took slow steps towards the body of her Queen, scarcely believing her eyes. Then she galloped towards the fallen Queen − Twilight stepping aside and gently lowering the Queen’s head to the cold floor − and knelt in sorrow over the deceased queen.

So did Zecora Mrahaba ascend the throne.

“I’m sorry, Zecora,” Twilight sighed softly. “Really, I am.”

Zecora gave no indication that she’d heard Twilight for all the tears and the wails that she gave off. Twilight backed towards her band, taking Spike gently in her foreleg.

Kitanda stood in the doorway, observing the scene with melancholy.

‘Arrangements shall be made for her funeral,’ he said in stilted Equus, ‘and for your return to Farasinchi.’

Twilight sniffled, rubbing away tears with her free foreleg, “But… how will we get back into Equestria without winking in or using cross-Pasturic transportation?”

“NightMare Moon’s sealed off Equestria from the rest a’ th’ world,” Applejack murmured through trails of tears. “An’ Ah don’ think some zeppelin’s gonna make it in with us aboard.”

‘I do not know,’ said Kitanda gravely, ‘but perhaps some friend can be helping you.’

“A friend?” Twilight asked. “But… how can my friends help me get back?”

‘I speak not of your friends here,’ Kitanda explained, ‘but I called Zecora over for her. She comes to Pundamilia on her own somehow. She says that she is a friend of yours, and that she has a way back to your home.’

Before Twilight could puzzle this out any further, Kitanda wordlessly gestured to one of the audience chamber’s guards, who silently ushered into the grand chamber another figure, svelte and purposeful. Not a Zebra, but a Pony.

A Unicorn.

Twilight’s eyes widened.


CHAPTER xiii: The Way Back

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Moondancer smiled broadly at Twilight, showing perfectly white teeth. She was an off-white mare with a swishing pale-pink mane and tail, each marked by a single pale-purple streak. Her cutie mark was magenta, a crescent moon and two five-pointed stars on each flank. One cloven pale-purple hoof was curled under a raised foreleg.

“Salutations, Twilight Sparkle,” said Moondancer in her cultured mid-Pasturic accent not unlike Rarity’s. Her pale-blue eyes sparkled with something resembling joy, framed by long eyelashes. “Did you like my present?”

“Not particularly,” Twilight replied curtly. “I’m not the sort to accept bribes, and I wouldn’t have expected you to sink so low.”

“Well…” Moondancer shrugged. “It was a cute teddy bear.”

“Maybe, but I’m not going to accept bribery. I don’t want to be friends with somepony just because she gives me gifts, or because she wants to use me to get into Queen Celestia’s inner circle.”

Moondancer flicked her mane, scowling slightly, “Come on now, Twilight Sparkle. Give me some credit. Every time I’ve ever seen you, you’ve had your muzzle shoved into a book in the East or West Castle Courtyards, ignoring or outright pushing away other ponies. And that’s even if you come down from your ivory tower. I only want to get you out and about, talk to ponies instead of reading about them.”

She turned her pale eyes on the mares who were with Twilight, appraising them as her eyes scanned them each from fetlock to poll.

“So, these are those ponies from down in Saddle Valley? The ones on the wanted posters with you and Spikey?”

“You don’t get to call me that!” Spike growled, folding his forearms.

“Twilight,” Applejack asked as she pointed at Moondancer, “who in sam-hill is this?”

“She’s a wannabe social climber from back in Canterlot. She’s been trying to draw me away from my studies ever since I became Celestia’s student.” Twilight’s ears flattened as a sour look crossed her face. “As if being well-read is less important than kissing up to the well-connected.”

Moondancer’s carefully composed look did not falter save perhaps for a slight pursing of the lips.

“There is more to life than being studious, dear Twilight. One does not get by in this world solely by one’s own potential. It takes connections to become the greatest one can be.”

“A pony can’t just get by by her connections alone, or she’ll not be able to do something by herself!” Twilight retaliated.

“Please, let us not argue, Twilight Sparkle. If we must raise our voices, let us take it outside.”

A sob from Zecora brought Twilight back into the audience chamber of the Mrahaba, and she felt a dark and horrible feeling welling up in her stomach. This was neither the time nor place to be having a tense discussion with a kiss-up from her past life in Canterlot.

Her past life… Was she really so disconnected from that time already?

“I agree. Can we… take this outside, Moondancer?”

Moondancer trotted a good five paces ahead of Twilight and her comrades, once more passing down the grand hallway. Numbers of zebras − royal guards and other Kwato, Abada and Mbawa who must have been other children or descendants of Malkia from prior unions − proceeded to the audience chamber with terrorful looks of foreboding on their faces. No mind did they pay to the seven mares and drake who passed them by, the only ones to be heading away from the Queen’s throne room.

Emerging from the palace and onto the promenade, Twilight faced Moondancer.

“Now, how in the name of Queen Celestia did you get here? Isn’t Equestria supposed to be under lockdown?”

Moondancer’s face darkened. “It is. Even I’m not entirely sure how I got out without alerting the Nightmare Guard. I had to leave my family and friends behind. I wanted to get them out, too, but…” She looked pained, and Twilight felt an aching twinge at one of her heartstrings.

“I’m sorry, Moondancer,” Twilight said sincerely.

The Unicorn socialite gave Twilight a small and sad smile, “Thank you, Twilight. It’s nice to know that your heart has grown since NightMare Moon’s return. How did it happen?”

Twilight looked around at her friends, who each smiled at her, each in their own way. She beamed back at them, and turned her eyes back to Moondancer.

“Queen Celestia told me to make friends, but I…” Twilight let out a sheepish smile. “I really wanted to focus on taking down NightMare Moon by looking in books. I let these ponies come along because I thought that there was safety in numbers, and that it would make looking for a solution in a book that much faster. But… it looks like the Elements of Harmony don’t work that way. It looks like…” She gazed fondly upon her friends again. “It looks like friendship is magic.”

Rainbow Dash made a fake retching sound and smirked, “Way to sound completely sappy, TS!”

Moondancer let out a giggle like crystal bells.

“I suppose we will have to be introduced, won’t we?”

As each pony in question made her introductions to Moondancer, the Canterlotian gave a deep tilt of the head and a broad grin. After everypony knew each other’s name, Moondancer approached the band and slowly batted her eyes.

“So, Pinkie Pie, you’re the type of pony whom I would speak with if I wanted a party to end all parties?”

Twilight palmed her face in her hoof, but Pinkie pronked gleefully and squealed, “Absotively posilutely! But who would want a party to end all other parties? Wouldn’t that be a party so bad that nopony would ever want to party again because of how bad it was…?”

Choosing to ignore Pinkie’s continuing rambling about how a really bad party could leave a bad taste in ponies’ mouths for parties forevermore, Moondancer turned to give an endearing grin to Rarity, “And I suppose that you, Rarity, are the type of pony to know if I would want, say, a fancy new dress for a Pinkie Pie party?”

Rarity laughed nervously, “Well, I don’t like to brag, but I suppose my dress-saddles are fine enough for a party amid the upper crust. Not a Pinkie Pie party, though; those can be rather more… informal.”

Twilight cleared her throat testily.

“Moondancer, aren’t there more pressing matters than getting more ponies for your window dressing?”

Moondancer’s eyes widened marginally, before she began to scratch at the back of her head ruefully.

“Forgive me, Twilight Sparkle. I rather lost my head with all of the perks I could see from… well, from your friends. No wonder you were drawn to them. Or was it because Queen Celestia told you to?”

“Mooondancer, you wound me,” Twilight retorted. “I’ll have you know…” Slowing down, Twilight looked to her friends standing by the railing overlooking the square in the middle of the royal ring, and she felt herself calming slightly at the sight of them. “I’ll have you know… that I was admittedly furious to be so disposable… that’s how I thought at the time. I wondered, how can making friends possibly be the key to throwing down NightMare Moon? But… I didn’t know a thing about the Elements of Harmony − admittedly, I still don’t know very much − so I couldn’t know that they were powered by…”

Twilight paused, waving a cloven hoof nonchalantly.

“Listen to me. I’m getting sidetracked by sentimentality. I mean, it’s not like the Elements of Harmony are really powered by the magic of friendship.”

“But it has to be, Twilight!” Pinkie piped in. “Isn’t that what Queenie Celestia told you about in that letter when her fiery birdie flew in just before we all went into the Everfree Forest?”

Twilight scratched her stubbly chin, “I suppose…”

“Then it’s true, all of it?” Moondancer pressed, a look on her face bordering on horrified and impressed. “You’ve actually been into the Everfree Forest?”

“For all that it was worth,” Twilight explained. “We managed to acquire the Elements, but… not before NightMare shattered them.”

“Really?” Moondancer asked, sounding immensely intrigued. There was an impish sparkle in her eyes. “Can I see them?”

Twilight glanced around nervously, “Not here, I don’t think. Maybe somewhere more private.”

“Perhaps a dining establishment in the inner ring?” Rarity asked tentatively.

“Works fer me,” Applejack said brightly.

In short order, they were able to locate a plaza not too far from the royal ring, with a canopy of wicker overhead to shield them from the morning sun’s unrelenting rays. Twilight and her companions sat in a semicircle facing Moondancer, who turned a curious eye on Twilight’s foreleg around Spike’s midsection.

“You and your little Dragon cub have… bonded, I see.”

Twilight nuzzled the drake warmly.

“We have. We almost drowned on our way out of Aquastria, and I realized… that I could never leave Spike alone in this world. I mean, I always cared for him, but when the thought came into my head that he might lose me…” Twilight closed her eyes. “I just couldn’t stand it.”

“Y’all sure have gotten mighty close,” Applejack commented with a faint smile.

“A little too close, maybe?” Moondancer interjected. She continued despite Twilight and Spike’s glowers, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for you two. Really. But… do you not think that Twilight may be overcompensating for her relative distance from Spike since she hatched him?”

Twilight and Spike looked at each other uncertainly. His claws clenched and unclenched as he prepared to place his arms around Twilight’s nearest leg. Looking into Spike’s eyes, Twilight could see the sheer adoration that he felt for her, and…

In her own heart of hearts, Twilight realized that she truly did love the little drake sitting in the crook of her forelegs. Perhaps not as obsessively as she had made it out to be, but…

She nuzzled the drake nonetheless.

“I do love Spike,” Twilight said with resolve. “Maybe I have come across as overly touchy-feely, and maybe that will come to pass with time, but what I do know is that I don’t want to go back to what I was. Making friends has…” She shook her head with a sad smile. “What can I say? As cliché as sounds, making friends has unlocked my heart. I didn’t think that there could be so many ponies who would like me for me, instead of just… well, you.”

Moondancer raised a pale-pink eyebrow at Twilight’s comment and pointed stare.

“What about me, Twilight Sparkle? Don’t be shy; let it all out for everypony to hear.”

“Fine, then.”

Twilight took in a deep breath.

“For years now you’ve been trying to kiss up to me, talk me down from my position as Queen Celestia’s pupil, all in some vague outlandish hopes of climbing the social ladder in Canterlot? And not just you, but so many others in the capital tried to woo me.”

Twilight tapped her hoof against the hard soil for each name she listed.

“Blue Belle. Upper Crust. Glory. Starshine. Forgive me, Moondancer, but I’ve just been too jaded by other ponies’ trying to rub elbows with Queen Celestia’s protégée to even consider adding another to the list.”

Moondancer snorted lightly, “Well, then. What makes these ponies any different? These ponies are from the sticks. What could they possibly offer you?”

“Hey!” Rainbow Dash bolted into Moondancer’s face so fast that she might have winked out without Unicorn magic. “Don’t talk about Twilight like that! She’s not some hooflicker like you are!”

“I prefer to think of myself as ‘well-connected’,” Moondancer replied with disdain. “I like having friends in powerful places. It means that if my own abilities don’t cut it, then I can fall back on ponies who I know and trust.”

“But what about Centaurs?” Pinkie cut in. “And Zebras? And Giraffes? And Deers? And Hippapapapallies?”

“What?” Moondancer narrowed her eyes in confusion.

Twilight faced the pink Earth Pony, “Pinkie, are you trying to say Hippalectryons?”

“Yeah, them too!” Pinkie continued. “You’re saying that you should fall back on ponies you trust. Well, what about all the other races out there in the world?”

“It’s a figure of speech,” Moondancer replied dryly, apparently putting great effort into ignoring the giggles of the ponies around her. “And I fail to see the humor in this situation.”

Twilight waved a hoof, “You get used to it.”

The tension dissipating before it could take firm root, Twilight pressed a firm hoof deeply into the earth, trailing two grooves back towards herself.

“So, Moondancer, how did you get out of Equestria?”

Moondancer’s ears fell limp, her own delicate hoof tracing circles in the dirt.

“It was all I could do to get out of Canterlot − no, sorry, it’s called Endymion now,” she interrupted herself acidly. “But anyway, I wanted to get my family, my friends, everypony I care about out of the capital, but…” Tears began to run down her muzzle. “Mother told me to leave alone, save myself. My brothers and sisters…”

She sniffled, before clenching her eyes shut and letting out a dreadful wail. Twilight found herself putting a sympathetic hoof on Moondancer’s own, letting the socialite mare let her sobs out, and she kept her sympathetic smile upon Moondancer until she collected herself.

Wiping her eyes on a pristine white foreleg, Moondancer continued, “After I left Canterlot − this must have been just before you showed up there, now that I think about it − I wandered along these empty roads, looking for somewhere, anywhere to go. I settled down for a while in Baltimare − I have some old family friends living there − and I laid low there, listening for some news about the resistance to NightMare Moon.”

“We’ve been listening in as well,” Rarity added. “Pinkie Pie here has a most… unusual radio.”

Pinkie proudly produced her gumball-radio from a saddle-shell. Moondancer took it in her pale-blue dwimmer shimmer and examined it closely with narrow eyes.

“Is it… made out of candy?”

Pinkie nodded with such extreme vigor that Twilight thought that her head would roll off. Given Pinkie Pie’s track record, that would have been par for the course.

“Well…” Moondancer blinked. “That’s not the oddest thing I’ve seen. And I’ve seen some oddities, let me tell you.”

She returned the gumball-radio to its gleeful owner.

“So anyway, may I see your Elements of Harmony?”

In a matter of moments, the shards of the five Elements were deposited in the center of the circle of seven ponies and one Dragon cub. Beams of purple, blue and red light danced in eight pairs of eyes.

Moondancer’s mouth fell open at the shards of stone laying before her.

“So... these are what banished her…?”

“Yes,” Twilight replied lowly. “And they’re what can apparently free her from the Miasma.”

Moondancer’s eyes widened, “You know of the Miasma?”

“Wait, you know about it too?”

Moondancer nodded. “I have many connections in the Night Guard, and we have had our share of conversations about the Mare in the Moon. I truly do pity the mare who became NightMare Moon. Yet… sometimes I wonder… what was her name? Did she really want to freeze us all in everlasting night, or was that the Miasma’s doing? And how tight is the Miasma’s hold on her? Is there even a distinction between the two anymore?”

Twilight stared at Moondancer dumbfoundedly. This was not the sort of impression that she had gotten from her admittedly scarce meetings with the other Canterlotian. The Moondancer of Canterlot was superficial and flippant, but with an eagle’s eye for talented folk. This Moondancer, however, was pensive and remorseful, even aggrieved. Now that Twilight got a deeper look, the lights in Moondancer’s eyes were dimmed, perhaps because of the troubles that she had faced because of the advent of NightMare Moon.

“Moondancer…” Twilight began slowly, reaching a hoof out. “I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, and I really wish that I did. But right now, those questions don’t matter. What’s really important right now is figuring out how to get the two remaining Elements activated. Based off of what Queen Malkia told us, that should reveal the sixth Element.”

“‘Should’?” echoed Moondancer.

“She said something about the five Elements ‘synchronizing’, but I don’t have any idea what that could mean. And I have no idea if there’s a book that could offer some sort of help for synchronizing these five ancient Elements…”

Twilight’s ear twitched.

“But maybe there is,” she said in a high voice. “Maybe Queen Malkia’s got a book in her library that’s all about the Elements. Yes, heehee! That’s right! We just need to make a trip to the royal Mrahaba library and see what books and reference guides they have on the Elements of Harmony! There has to be something that not even Queen Malkia knew!”

“Twilight, yer scarin’ us,” Applejack said lowly.

“Scary? You want to know something scary? Not reading a proper book in weeks. My only proper reading for the past month has been my notes from Queen Celestia and random bits of Chapter 25 of Studies on Pundamilia Culture! That’s it! I need to read something! Don’t you want to read something? Any of you?”

Twilight suddenly felt the corners of her strained mouth being tugged up to some point on either side of her nose, her teeth gritting together nervously. The culprit was none other than Pinkie Pie, who was beaming brightly at Twilight with shining blue eyes.

“C’mon, Twilight! Don’t be so grumpy~! If you want to read, you got a whole joke-book in your heart!”

Twilight murmured in confusion, but with her lips pulled apart in a rictus grin she could no more speak than sing.

Pinkie grinned and continued, “I know that you like reading a super-duper lot, Twilight, but reading the same things over and over and over again is just gonna make you go a wee bit loopy! So you gotta laugh about something! Think of something funny to snap out of it!”

Trying not to concentrate on the fact that her cheeks were aching at the super-stretched smile, Twilight closed her eyes…

And when she opened them, she was facing herself. A dusty thin book was lying between them on an endless expanse of parchment around which numerous lavender quills were endlessly writing.

Sliding open the book, Twilight noticed that the words on the right-hoof pages were all upside-down. Looking down at the small passage at the top of the left-hoof page, Twilight read aloud the muzzle-scratch, How does a mathematician induce good behavior in her children?

The other Twilight in her mind gave a very sharp smirk and read the facing page, I've told you n times, I've told you n+1 times…

Twilight burst out laughing, almost rolling on the ground as Pinkie leapt back in astonishment. The lavender Unicorn had her hooves to her belly as tears of mirth rolled down her muzzle.

“What sort of a joke would Twilight Sparkle find funny?” Moondancer asked in a hushed tone.

n+1 times…” Twilight choked out between fits of wheezing laughs.

Rainbow Dash looked at the Canterlotian Unicorn with low-lidded eyes, “Apparently, an egghead joke.”

Taking in a deep breath and still letting out an intermittent chuckle now and again, Twilight sat up, her posture looser and her mane losing its raggedy edge.

“Thanks, Pinkie,” she said with a soft smile. “After everything that we’ve been through − from Aquastria to those bultungin to Queen Malkia succumbing to her geis − on top of not having read anything really new recently, I think I was beginning to lose my nerve.”

“All in a day’s play, Twilight~!” Pinkie smiled back.

“Wait,” Moondancer interjected. “Queen Malkia was subject to a geis?”

Twilight nodded darkly, “To tell an apprentice of Queen Celestia’s everything she knew of the Elements of Harmony. If she didn’t, she would never have died.”

Moondancer’s eyes dimmed.

“That explains her longevity all this time. To think that Celestia had placed such safeguards to ensure the corrupted Queen of the Night’s eventual downfall. But is it not callous of her to throw away the life of another sovereign so casually?”

“How would you know?” Rainbow Dash sneered. “You weren’t there a dozen-gross years ago.”

Moondancer gave Rainbow Dash a defiant look.

“I may place my bets on horses other than myself, but I still fancy myself as being reasonably well-read. As I understand it, the decision was made by Celestia only a day or so after having first met the then-Princess Malkia.”

“But, speaking as a pony who has had to foalsit her own little sister while her parents went on yearly celebrations of their wedding,” Rarity cut in, “even a single day can be tediously long.”

“Days pass in a blink to me, personally,” Moondancer shrugged. “If I may wax introspective briefly, that may be why I like to make all sorts of connections to other ponies: to prove that those days really happened.”

“Moondancer…” Twilight blinked. “I’m starting to see more facets to you than I could have ever imagined.”

“Really, Twilight?” Moondancer said, switching on a dime from contemplative and introverted to an altogether more familiar magnetic expression, wearing the same ingratiating smile as she had when she first entered Queen Malkia’s audience chamber. “Would you be all the more willing to call me a friend and come to my parties when NightMare Moon is defeated?”

Twilight sighed. It was just too good to be true, wasn’t it?

“We’ll see. Maybe if I see some reason that doesn’t just involve perks for you.”

Moondancer’s eyes narrowed imperceptibly, “I suppose that’s the best I can hope for.”

“Umm… excuse me, Miss Moondancer,” Fluttershy said softly, “but would it be okay if you told us what happened after Baltimare?”

“Yes, it is very okay,” Moondancer replied with a renewed sense of urgency, her eyes shining with a light that did not come from the Elements at their hooves. “Now, this is a matter that must be dealt with in utmost haste after we’ve finished talking here.

“While I was at Baltimare, I was approached by an old family friend: Sparkler. She told me the most peculiar thing about how Minotaur mazes work…”

“Minotaur mazes?” Applejack echoed. “What the hay do Minotaurs got ta do with this?”

“I’m getting to it, wise-apple,” Moondancer said shortly. “Now, she told me that there is a reason that Minotaurs have allowed themselves to become so spread out across the world, into all of their little city-states seized on snatches of land that nobody wants anymore, in abandoned Changeling hives and the like, right?”

Most everypony nodded, either because they knew the information or because they (this latter ‘they’ consisting solely of Rainbow Dash) trusted that everypony else had their facts straight. Unlike most of the rest of the world, Minotaurs chose not to have a centralized kingdom or country. Rather, dotted around the globe along the edges of virtually every country or kingdom or principality on Harmonia were the labyrinthine city-states of Minotaurs. Despite this incoherency, the Minotaurs still saw representation on the Cosmic Council alongside other great nations like Equestria, Magnesia, Saddle Arabia and Neighpon.

“Well,” Moondancer continued, “these Minotaurs have actually enchanted each of the mazes in each of their cities to allow for clever navigators to travel from one city to another within these mazes.”

“For reals?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Technically, it’s ‘for real’, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied curtly.

Moondancer nodded shortly, “Yes, it’s ‘for real’, as your rube of a friend said so adequately.”

“Don’t call her a rube,” hissed Twilight hotly.

Moondancer cleared her throat, a slight glare crossing her features. But before she could continue, Rarity cut in.

“Hold on. I was under the impression that we were attempting to not repeat the same forms of magical travel. This is sounding uncannily like the narbacular tunnel system.”

“So far as I know,” Moondancer replied, “that’s actually not the case. Narbacular tunnels were first devised by a Unicorn who was… well, who was a few punch bowls short of a shindig. These connecting maze paths are apparently Minotaur magic, having existed long before Bitter Pineapple’s insane mind formulated the notion of using narbaculi’s means of capturing prey for… shower curtains.” Moondancer shook her head bemusedly. “Even I can’t see the connection between portals and shower curtains.

“Anyway, I had this information, but no reason to make use of it… until I caught wind of the fact that you had probable cause to appear in Pundamilia. Now, if I remember correctly, there is a Minotaur establishment not too far from the Giraffe nation Twiga. It’s called… Mzingile, if I remember right.”

“And if we take this maze,” Twilight said with rising joy, “then we can slip in through Labyrinth in southeastern Equestria!”

“Exactly!” Moondancer said brightly. “And we should make for Mzingile immediately!”

Within this rising joy, though, Twilight felt a dark presentiment, and she gave voice to it.

“But wait. I think I heard on the radio; some Giraffes have gotten together and are rallying to claim the land around Mzingile. That could be a problem…”

“Yes, it really could. But we must set out immediately!”

‘Though not before you accept some aid,’ came a very familiar voice, ‘in the hopes that you will not be waylaid.’

Zecora, her eyes still somewhat red, stood at the edge of the plaza with retainers around her. She carried herself with a greater purpose than Twilight had seen in the forest when they’d first met, though it was all too easy to see the grief in her face.

‘Follow me back into the castle, so that you can avoid further hassle.’

Queen Malkia’s body had been placed upon a white marble plinth in the center of the audience chamber, covered by a silken cloth. The benches along the walls were occupied by scores of zebras, each turned towards the Queen’s final resting place. Zecora stood before the throne, giving Twilight and her companions a strong gaze.

‘You plan to leave soon, you cannot deny,’ Zecora said to Twilight with slow, deliberate fortitude. ‘I can see it by the look in your eye.’

Twilight found herself nodding to the crown-princess − or was Zecora the new Queen now? − and raised a hoof in entreaty, “We do. I apologize on behalf of my entire party for having…”

She gulped.

“For having brought your Queen’s reign to a sudden end.”

Zecora’s eye glimmered with unshed tears, but she remained standing firm and nodded slowly. ‘No harm was meant, though it was unexpected. Long has our Queen kept that secret protected. Though it causes our nation much sorrow...’ Zecora fought back the gritted-teeth look of pain, and resumed her stately stature. ‘We know that this will be all the better for tomorrow.’

Twilight bowed lowly, “We thank you, Princess Zecora.”

‘No such formalities are needed, friends of mine,’ Zecora smiled. ‘Addressing me as Zecora is just fine.’

“Alright then, Zecora,” Twilight continued. “For what purpose did you call us to your audience chamber today?”

Zecora raised a forehoof, ‘We will all of us aid you in your quest. To defeat NightMare Moon, we must all walk abreast. We shall refit you with fresh supplies, and will give you time to rest your eyes.’

“Thank ye kindly, Zecora,” Applejack said with an inclined head.

Zecora replied, ‘But now the question lies with you: Where will you go, and what will you do?’

Screwing up her face and gathering her composure, Twilight ignored Moondancer behind her attempting to crane her head curiously past Twilight, and addressed Zecora.

“We mean to make for the Minotaur city of Mzingile, where we will be able to find safe passage back into Equestria. This eternal stalemate between day and night has gone on long enough!”

‘Mzingile? Is that what you say?’ Zecora replied, sounding apprehensive now. ‘Are you certain there is no other way?’

“It’s the only one we’re willing to risk. We’re aware of the issues at hoof with Giraffe rebel cells along the border, but… we’re not entirely certain how to evade them if they are too close to the Minotaur city.”

“So we avoid Giraffes and pretend we hate Zebras if we do run into them!” Moondancer said impatiently.

‘That will not be easy, for war may come soon, and the Minotaurs are close by, you dancer of the Moon. In the middle of the conflict will the Minotaurs be, and I fear that long will not be such neutrality. The Zebra Queen’s death will embolden the tower, for they’ll feel that our zeal has been depowered.’

Rainbow Dash growled in frustration, her wings flapping her into the air as numerous zebras collectively gave her a cold indignant glare.

“Stupid long-necks! Are we gonna have to be, like, invisible to sneak up to this Mizzingilly place?”

Twilight’s eyes sparkled, and an idea shot through her mind.

“Rainbow, you’re a genius!”

Rainbow Dash puffed out her chest and smirked, pounding a hoof on her chest as she said, “Well, of course I am. I am awesome, after all.”

The cerulean Pegasus’s chest deflated, her ears flattening uncertainly as she continued, “So, how exactly am I a genius?”

Twilight beamed around at her friends, at Spike, at Zecora and at Moondancer, each of them wearing expressions that were rather befuddled. Her lips parting to show a grin, Twilight stamped a hoof decisively on the marble floor.

“Take a good look in the mirror, girls, because we’re going to disappear!”

Upon hearing of Twilight’s declaration that the lot of them would be subjected to a chameleon spell cast by Twilight herself, Zecora had begun to protest, saying that it was simply too dangerous for them to place all of their hopes on a single enchantment. Twilight began to raise her voice in turn, but another voice cut in that only mildly surprised the lavender Unicorn at this point.

“Miss Zecora, Twilight is no ordinary Unicorn,” Fluttershy had said with conviction as she trotted up towards the Zebra princess. “She is not Queen Celestia’s star pupil for nothing. She once lifted an ursa minor up with her magic and gave it back to its mother.”

‘An ursa minor? I do not understand. I know little of the creatures of your land.’

Twilight had quietly uttered two words in Idube, “Nyota kubeba.”

Zecora’s eyes had widened, her jaw gaping as she declaimed in her native tongue… before quickly uttering a nonsense word that rhymed with it. All about the audience chamber, numerous Zebras began to stir and converse amongst one another in rapid clicking Idube. By their tone, they seemed similarly astonished at the implications of Twilight’s status as a thaumaturgical prodigy. Shaking her head lightly, Zecora had then turned her gaze back to Twilight Sparkle, a new light in her eyes and a new smile on her muzzle.

“To think that you have tamed a star-bear,” Zecora said to Twilight in Idube, “it brings some fresh hope into the air. Though great I knew you to be, clearly your true greatness was unknown to me. With our blessings and our provisions will you go, and with the hopes that your prospects will grow.”

Twilight bowed lowly, “You honor us, Your Eminence.”

Zecora had then seen to it that her handlers supplied the band with dried herbs and corked gourds filled with fresh water to be kept in their saddle-shells with the rest of their supplies and only eaten when necessary.

“How are our saddle-shells holding so much, anyway?” Rainbow Dash asked with furrowed rainbow eyebrows, reaching a cerulean foreleg deep into her own saddle-shell, watching it seem to disappear deeper than the shell appeared to be.

“It must be an undetectable extension enchantment by a Narwhal Pony,” Twilight pondered aloud as she placed her gourd between her old saddle-bag and the copy of Studies on Pundamilia Culture inside her shell. “It seems like the inside’s been getting bigger the more we’ve been putting into them, but I’m sure there’s a limit to how much we can carry in these. We’ll have to get rid of things we don’t need at some point.”

“Unfortunately,” Moondancer cut in, “I didn’t go to Aquastria, so I have no such saddle-shell. Would you kindly carry my supplies, Twilight? Oh, don’t worry yourself, Twilight,” she added with a slight giggle at the sour look on Twilight’s face. “I’ll mark my supplies as mine so that I have no excuse to make off with yours.” With a twinkle of her alicorn, Moondancer’s dried herbs and water-gourd each became marked with a half-moon emblem.

Twilight narrowed her eyes at the marks.

“Well… I suppose,” she replied cautiously. “But do try to get a saddle-bag of your own at the earliest convenience, bitte.”

“Wouldn’t dream of inconveniencing you, Twilight Sparkle,” Moondancer said with a sly grin that made Twilight wonder if she could trust the pink-maned Unicorn at her word.

Zecora bade them farewell at the edge of Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe, with crowds of Zebras standing around in pale-yellow cloaks, somber expressions upon their faces.

“The best of goodness and fortune to you and your people, Zecora,” Twilight said, tears running down her muzzle.

‘My mother has reigned for nigh on a megagross years,’ replied the royal Kwato, ‘but do not allow yourself these tears. Her time to pass on was always to come, as it is for each of us, everyone. My time has come to take her place, and with hope I will match her pace.’

“I know you can, umngani,” Twilight smiled, raising a foreleg to embrace Zecora, who returned the gesture.

Passing back out of the Kupigwa into the savannah, Twilight and her band convened to discuss their immediate plan of action.

“So, where exactly is this here Mzingile place?” Applejack queried.

“It’s almost directly to the north from here,” Twilight replied, pointing off to the north at their left. “The border to Twiga is actually really close to the capital of Pundamilia, only about three days‘ trot from here. But… the desert is very sparse, with little shade. And in this perpetual daylight…”

The realization of what was to come fell heavily upon everypony in the band, even Spike. Though the extremes of high heat and deep cold meant nothing to the cold-blooded little drake, he knew that the other ponies around him had been badly affected by the long treks through the increasingly chilled Wide Plains. Already were the seven mares beginning to perspire, the dry heat of the relentless Sun pounding upon them all.

“Really makes one appreciate the night more, doesn’t it?” mused Moondancer, and Twilight had to admit that the pink-maned Unicorn had a point. She recalled the beauty of the stars under the cool black-blue sky, the Moon rotating from its light face to its dark face… the reprieve from sunlight that was a veritable oven in the summer months…

“Good thing I still have some little rainclouds left,” Rainbow Dash muttered, wiping at matted fur on her forehead to clear away excess sweat.

“I do believe that we will need to ensure that they are not hoarded by a single mare,” Rarity added. “We must only drink from our gourds if absolutely necessary, so it is imperative that said rainclouds be used first.”

Twilight blinked at Rarity; the alabaster Unicorn looked somehow different, but she could not place her hoof on it straight away. Then she realized, Rarity was not wearing her makeup. Her blue eyeshadow was absent, as were her mascara and her false eyelashes. Indigo stubble showed around her muzzle. Had Rarity’s commitment to this endeavor to take down NightMare Moon really superseded her desire to look glamorous?

“So, when are we going to be subject to this chameleon spell of yours, Twilight?” Moondancer asked as she brought a hoof over her eyes to shield them from the Sun’s rays.

“I don’t think that we should utilize the spell until we’re at least a day out from here,” Twilight replied levelly in spite of the heat. “We should be fine until we’ve gotten so far. Then… we’ll have to blend into the desert.”

Pinkie Pie bounced from one pony to another, a wide smile on her face despite the brightness and hotness of the stagnant morning. “Come on, everypony! Turn those frowns upside-down! Moping about how hot and sweaty we’re gonna get isn’t gonna make it any easier! So let’s all just smile and laugh the Sun away as we make our way~!”

Nodding with a slightly nervous smile at the bouncy pink pony, Twilight took a first trepidatious step into the Pundamilian wild, Spike on her back and six mares behind.

The savannah stretched on northwards from Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe for a small stretch of about five miles, the grass providing some miniscule form of nourishment in spite of its dryness under six weeks of uninterrupted sunlight. The flatlands stretched onwards into seeming eternity, the wavering air giving the impression that Harmonia dropped off sharply before one could even reach the horizon, a band of royal-blue sky stretching between them and their destination.

Before the first hour had passed, the savannah grass shrunk away and gave way to hard soil, which only yielded hard and tough plants which were unappetizing and unsatisfying. They passed these up, instead drawing upon the dried herbs which Zecora and her retainers had provided.

“This stuff’s actually really good!” Rainbow Dash smiled through a half-chewed mouthful. “What’s this stuff called?”

“This stuff is called an amandla, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied. “It is purported to have properties that boost energy and increase metabolism. Just what we need for crossing this desert.”

“Desert is right,” Applejack said ruefully, grinding her hooves fruitlessly against the rough earth. “Ah can’ feel a lick a‘ Earth-energy in this here soil. It’s dry in every sense a‘ th’ word.”

“It’s been six weeks with terrible sunlight and very little shade and water,” Rarity interjected. “I sincerely believe that this land will not see proper plant or animal life for a good long while after we’ve brought the Sun back.”

If you bring the Sun back,” Moondancer added with a sullen voice and expression.

“Aww, come on, don’t be a grumpy little grumbler~” Pinkie squealed as she dropped onto Moondancer’s back and began to ruffle her mane.

“Get off of my back, would you kindly?” asked Moondancer testily.

“Nope~! I’m not gettin’ off your back till you smile, or my name isn’t Pinkamena Diane Pie!”

“Wait… Your name is Pinkamena?” Moondancer started to snicker. “Isn’t a pinkamena a type of gemstone?”

Pinkie giggled, a musical sound, “It is indeedy! Mommy and Daddy run a rock farm, and they take it super-duper-seriously! I’ve got two sweet little sisters named Marble and Limestone, and a real awesome big sister named Maud! We trade rock-candy necklaces~”

“Pinkamenas are really rare, though,” Twilight commented. “Do your parents mine them? Are you from a rich family, Pinkie?”

“Oh no, I don’t think so,” Pinkie replied with a flippant flop of a hoof. “I mean, I paid out of pocket to go to engineering school so I could build all my party contraptions.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped.

Pinkie smiled sheepishly, “Though maybe that deposit of rock molasses Daddy hit that one day the year after I got my cutie mark might have gotten us a teensy-weensy bit of a windfall.”

“Wait. You mean you’re related to the Pie Rock Molasses fortune, Pinkie?” Twilight gaped, before smacking a hoof against her own forehead. “Pinkie Pie, why didn’t I see it earlier?”

Pinkie tittered, “I guess I am! Have you heard of me before, Twilight? Isn’t our rock molasses just the best?”

“It is indeed, Pinkamena,” replied Moondancer in a honeyed tone. “I do believe my chefs have used Pie Rock Molasses in our cakes and pies and gingerbread ponies.”

“Gingerbread ponies?” Pinkie squeaked, licking her lips eagerly. “I haven’t baked gingerbread ponies in ages! We oughta bake ‘em together back in Ponyville!”

“Or perhaps in Canterlot, where you can find more baking supplies for more treats than you could possibly imagine. And who knows? Perhaps our friendship will lead to discounts in the future!”

Twilight cleared her throat sharply, and Moondancer smiled nervously, her ears flattening.

“Or… perhaps not?”

“Wait. Rock molasses?” Rainbow Dash interjected. “What sort of molasses is that?”

“The sort that comes outta rocks, silly Dashie~” Pinkie beamed. “I thought anypony would know that!”

“I’m from Cloudsdale, a city in the clouds.”

“Oh, right!” Pinkie giggled with a hoof to her mouth. “Silly me!”

“Off of the subject of rock molasses,” Twilight added with a sharp tone, “perhaps we should think about what we’re going to do about sleep in this desert?”

“Twilight’s right,” Applejack commented. “There ain’t no shade fer miles an’ miles an’ miles. An’ that Sun sure is beatin’ down on us like beatin’ eggs.” She looked up into the sky with a hoof over her eyes. “Ah’m startin’ ta wish Ah’d kept mah hat with me instead a‘ passin’ it off ta Apple Bloom.”

“Probably would have gotten all moldy under the sea, though, AJ,” Rainbow Dash commented.

“Ah guess.”

“Umm… Twilight?” Fluttershy ventured cautiously.

“Yes, Fluttershy?”

“Umm… You don’t happen to know any… shadow magic, do you? You know, to keep us from getting hit by so much sunlight? But… if you don’t… I’m sorry I asked.”

“Don’t be sorry, Fluttershy. It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask me right now. But no. I actually don’t know any shadow magic. Queen Celestia was actually planning to get into that after the Summer Sun Celebration, but… Sorry, but I don’t know it.”

“Hey, no sweat, TS,” Rainbow Dash smirked. “…Well, figuratively speaking. ‘Cause we’re sweating all over. But hey, if you don’t know it, you don’t know it. No biggie. Not gonna lie, though; it could stand to be a little cooler out here. And not cool like me, that’d be impossible. I meant chillier.”

“I got it, Rainbow Dash,” said Twilight testily, before giving her own sly grin. “But I do know some basic temperature modification spells. If I can modify a cooling spell so that it stays around our group, we should be in business!”

“Allow me, Twilight Sparkle,” cut in Moondancer, her alicorn lighting up in her pale-blue dwimmer shimmer. A ten-hoof high translucent bubble matching the color of her magic sparkled into being around them before dimming into the nothing it came from. She gave her fellow Canterlotian a slight smirk, “Well, if you please, dear Twilight.”

A sapphire eyebrow arched, Twilight nonetheless arranged the spell matrices in her alicorn to allow for a drop in the temperature in the surrounding area, and fairly soon a small flurry of pink snowflake-shaped sparks shot out into the air around them. Within moments, the hot dry desert air suddenly dropped to that of a modest day of spring. Even the dryness had abated.

Rainbow Dash let out a great sigh.

“Now that is some quality coolness!” She did a small loop-de-loop before fanning her wings at those who walked on the ground, sending cool gusts in their direction. “Now my drinking clouds won’t evaporate as soon as I take ‘em out of my bigger-on-the-inside saddle-shells!”

“Yer startin’ ta sound one a’ them radio infomercial types, Rainbow,” Applejack snarked.

Twilight smiled at the looks of relief and joy on the ponies’ faces around her. Even seeing Moondancer’s smile made Twilight’s heart sing.

“Still, we’ll have to pace ourselves, girls,” Twilight warned. “This cooling spell only lasts so long, and if we get too hot and sweaty we’ll only cut the spell shorter. It will need to be recast at a certain point to make sure that we don’t pass out in this desert. Because if we do… nopony will ever find us.”

Despite Twilight’s concerns, the presence of a cooling spell and an invisible bubble shield around them to hold the cool air in allowed for much easier travel across the Indlulamithi Desert. They sweated far less than they otherwise would have, which meant that their water rations lasted far longer. Rainbow Dash’s drinking clouds, which had thus far lasted her a surprising month and a half, finally saw their expenditure by the end of their first day northwards from Nyeusi-na-Nyeupe; though the coolness definitely allowed for less water-drinking, the clouds were very bereft of drinking rain by this point. Thusly did Twilight and her companions switch to drinking from their water-gourds. The water-gourds themselves were hollowed out from adkeysi gourds, which also carried nutrients that aided in stamina to the drinker.

The end of the first day brought the eight to the edge of sandy dunes. Circling around, they found a shaded spot on the western side of one of the dunes, surprisingly unoccupied by any sorts of runabout creatures.

“Maybe this area is just too dry for anything to try and make a living,” Twilight murmured.

“Maybe,” Moondancer replied. “But we’ll have to make do here.”

Pinkie Pie squeed, “We leave at first light?”

Most everypony snorted at the absurdity of the notion, with only Moondancer not responding.

“You didn’t laugh, so you take first watch, Moondancer~” Pinkie giggled with a pointing hoof.

Moondancer grumbled.

In spite of Moondancer’s grumblings, the first “night” in the Indlulamithi Desert proved to be rather uneventful. Taking second watch herself to give the crabby socialite a bit of beauty rest, Twilight recast the cooling spell as she felt the boiling desert air start to overtake the magically chilled bubble.

Once everypony had awakened, a small breakfast was had of an amandla and a swig of adkeysi gourd water each before Twilight cleared her throat for everypony’s attention.

“Okay, everypony. We should be coming up on the disputed territory pretty soon.”

“Why in tarnation is this land of all land bein’ disputed? It’s all sand.”

“I’m not entirely sure myself, Applejack. I didn’t realize until recently that the Minotaur city near the borders of Twiga and Pundamilia was near… well, this disputed territory. If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s some old ruins buried under these dunes that hold value to the Zebras and to certain Giraffes as well.”

“I’m waiting for the movie,” Rainbow Dash commented dryly.

“Well, it’ll probably be a talkie by the time they get around to making it. But in any case, this land is definitely in dispute, so we don’t want to cross paths with any Giraffes we see. Some may be friendly, but we can’t take that risk, and we can’t chance it that they might not see us because of a mirage. So, I’ll be casting a chameleon charm on each of us.”

“How long should it last us?” Rarity questioned.

“A day. Maybe. But I can’t guarantee that. Now who’s first?”

Applejack raised a hoof, and she strode forward to Twilight whose alicorn already began to glow pink…

“Whoa, wait a minute! Hold everything!” Rainbow Dash blurted out. “Why do we even need to do this? Can’t Moondancer, like, wink us all out to get there right away?”

Moondancer rubbed a foreleg ruefully. “I didn’t wink out from Mzingile. I walked.”

“You walked?”

“Yes. It took me three days, but I made it. We must have gotten here about the same time. I would have presented myself before Queen Malkia’s… expiration, but I simply had to spruce up. A mare must look her best in the domiciles of others.” She gave Rarity a pointed glance, taking in her unruly amethyst mane and grubbly stubble.

Rarity flushed. “I beg your pardon? The situation is far too grave to place great worry about one’s appearance. And also, I’ll have you know that I am ordinarily the most gorgeous pony in all of Ponyville!”

“It’s true, she is,” Rainbow Dash concurred, before blinking and smirking at Fluttershy with half-lidded eyes. “Well, except for you, babe.”

Fluttershy smiled sweetly and blushed pink.

Moondancer wrinkled her nose at Rarity, “I’ll take your word for it.”

“Girls, can we please stop dilly-dallying?” Twilight said shortly. “Applejack, if you please.”

Bowing her head, Applejack felt Twilight gently rap her glowing alicorn upon her forehead. She heard gasps and ooh!s and ahh!s around her, in addition to feeling the feeling of cold water running down her head and up her barrel. Opening her eyes, she looked down at her hooves… or rather, at the sandy curve of the gap between dunes. She could still faintly make out the shape of her own hooves, but only if she squinted slightly. She was not truly invisible, but it was as though the palomino had become a large pony-shaped chameleon, as the spell’s name implied.

Beside Applejack, Twilight had already done her job at chameleonizing Spike and Rarity. Spike’s eyes glimmered fearfully as he watched Rarity’s body seemingly fade away into nothing, but her bell-like voice brought the lights of joy back into his slitted eyes. Next came Pinkie Pie, who barely seemed able to sit still long enough for Twilight to cast the spell on her, such was the party pony’s excitement at being as near to invisible as she’d ever be. Last came Fluttershy, Moondancer and Rainbow Dash, the latter of whom looked distinctly ruffled at the notion of becoming unseen.

“This is, like, the opposite of a rainbow,” grumbled a certain cerulean Pegasus as she examined her nearly-unseeable tail.

“Well, we’ll have to deal with not being able to see ourselves or each other for now, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight replied curtly. “Now Pinkie Pie, we―”

Twilight blinked. Pinkie Pie was nowhere to be seen. Her trained eyes could make out the faint outlines of everypony around her, including Spike. But Pinkie… it was as though she’d vanished into thin air.


A great weight flumped straight onto Twilight’s back and a pair of feathery fuzzy somethings dropped over her eyes, blocking the sunlight.

Guess who~” came Pinkie Pie’s singsong intonations.

“Gee, let me guess,” Twilight said with a falsely inquisitive tone and a barely concealed smile. “Is it… Spitfire?”


“Is it… Fluttershy?”

“Not even close~!”

“Wait… I think I know. But… it’s on the tip of my tongue…”


“Oh for the sake of the Moon and stars, Twilight!” Moondancer snapped. “We don’t have time for these games!”

“Is it… Pinkie Pie?”

“Ding-ding-ding-ding~!” Pinkie front-flipped off of Twilight’s back, seemingly hovering by dint of her Pegasus heritage and rearing up in joy upon landing. Twilight could still make out the joyful shimmer in Pinkie’s eyes despite their near-invisibility.

And on the subject of such…

“Okay, now onto more serious affairs, as Moondancer wants,” Twilight said with a snippy tone. Moondancer glowered at Twilight. Twilight continued, “This chameleon spell, as you can tell, does not really make you invisible. Instead, it just makes you appear to blend into the scenery around you. You still cast a shadow, as faint as it is, but you can still be seen if someone looks hard enough. Also, your saddle-shells might be camouflaged as well, but if you take them off, the chameleon spell will wear off on them, as with anything inside them. So we still have to be cautious.”

Twilight closed her eyes, focusing on the chameleon spell once more, and the feeling of cold water washing down over her entire body told her that it had worked. A quick once-over confirmed this feeling, and Twilight turned to face her band.

“Alright, everypony. Onwards and northwards.” She faced Spike who was standing beside Rarity. “Spike?”

“Okay, Mom!” he said brightly, climbing up Twilight’s tail and onto her back. And with a smile, they were off.

Without Moondancer’s bubble shield and Twilight’s cooling air, the chameleon spell would have proved to be an inhibitor to their progress. A slight shift in the temperature could be noticed as the Sun’s rays were more readily absorbed by the sandy coloration of their backs. It was not much of a difference, but it would have been utterly debilitating otherwise.

Per Twilight’s warnings, they took cautions when it came to removing anything from their saddle-shells. Any dried herbs that were removed were to be eaten completely, so any reservations that anypony had about sharing food with somepony else were to be withheld. Thankfully, the water-gourds would not show when placed back into a saddle-shell, as it was camouflaged by the exteriors of the shells showing the desert stretching off in either direction.

Rainbow Dash’s eyes lit up; a green bulb-shaped plant with yellow and pink flowers appeared in the distance.

“Sweet! A cactus! They store water in them! Now we don’t have to waste any herbs or gourds!”

She darted towards it… or would have if she were not caught in Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer.

“Rainbow Dash, wait! That’s a peyote cactus!”

Moondancer recoiled, but Rainbow Dash merely scowled.

“What about peyote cactuses?”

“Peyote cacti,” Twilight corrected, “are hallucinogenic. If you were to eat it, you’d see all sorts of weird things. It might make you think we’re out in the middle of the ocean, that we’re all on fire, or make you see giant friendly mushrooms. And believe me, mental impairment is not what any of us want right now.”

Rainbow Dash gave the suspect cactus another glance, much more wary this time. With flat ears, she flapped back from it and alighted beside Fluttershy.

“Well, at least it has good taste with its flower colors.”

Continuing on, they decided to avoid any further plantlife that they came upon in this otherwise desolate landscape. Overhead, some clouds appeared to taunt them by drifting close to the Sun but never quite obscuring it. The sand dunes occasionally gave way to patches of dry soil which Applejack found just as desolate and impotent as the earth beyond the savannah. It was long and tedious, though Pinkie Pie did take great enjoyment in taking tumbles down the sand dunes, and her friends sometimes joined her in such. Moondancer made a point to avoid such behavior, watching with disdain and impatience.

A dark pinnacle appeared on the horizon about two hours after the incident with the peyote cactus, wavering in the desert heat.

“That’s it!” declared Moondancer triumphantly. “That’s Mzingile the Pundamilian city of Minotaurs!”

“It looks pretty far,” Fluttershy breathed. “It’s… big.”

“That’s because it’s built inside of a derelict Changeling hive,” Twilight explained.

“Changelings…?” Rarity shuddered. “I didn’t think that there were still hives left in the world…”

“There aren’t. Changelings have gone extinct over 2000 years ago. Their hive mounds have been largely repurposed, if not outright demolished.”

“What the hay are Changelings, anyway?” asked Rainbow Dash. “I mean, I’ve heard about them… here and there.”

“Changelings,” interjected Moondancer, “were a race of pony-shaped insect creatures that could shapeshift and leech off of love. I can only imagine what life must have been like when they still lived: loved ones may or may not have been replaced by Changelings, feeding off of your love for them until you were left a dried-up husk, ready to be converted into another drone for the hive.” She shivered, even though the cooling spell needed to be recast.

“So, we’re almost there?” Applejack queried as Twilight’s horn emitted glowing pink snowflakes again.

“With any luck, we should reach it before the end of tomorrow,” replied the lavender Unicorn.

“And without running into any angry Giraffes?” Spike asked.

Twilight nodded forebodingly.

“Yes. Without running into any angry Giraffes, Spike.”

Coming to a rest atop a dune with a freshly cast cooling spell, Twilight decided to take first watch so that she could recast the spell again before switching out for second watch.

Twilight’s eyes slowly drifted back open after a relatively restful sleep, to find Applejack crouched tensely down to the ground, her ears flat against her skull. Before Twilight could ask what the problem was, she heard Applejack hissing with clenched jaws and teeth.

“Don’t… move… a muscle…”

Looking up with her eyes, Twilight’s heart tightened in her chest.


The pale-yellow shapes with dark-brown spots patrolled southwards mere hoofsteps to their east, spears held in holsters along their forelegs within easy reach of their long prehensile tongues. Their dark almond-shaped eyes darted about, looking for any sort of signs of activity. Twilight felt her stomach lurch at the black-and-white striped pelt worn by the Giraffe at the head of the tower.

Twilight and Applejack kept their eyes on the pack of Giraffes for several minutes, until they were certain that the tower would not turn around and note their positions. Then they quickly awakened their companions and told them to move quickly to the northern side of the dune in hushed tones.

“What’s the situation, TS, AJ?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“We almost got spotted by a tower a’ Giraffes,” explained Applejack. “If it weren’ fer this here camouflage, we wouldn’ta woken up. We’da been ponynapped, or worse.”

“Looks like you really saved our hay bacon, Twilight~!” Pinkie beamed with a tight hug around Twilight’s barrel. Twilight smiled at the pink pony cheek-to-cheek with her.

“I wouldn’t have thought of this if not for Rainbow Dash,” Twilight smiled, and Rainbow Dash thumped a forehoof against her chest with a fangy smirk. Pinkie reached out one of her forelegs to loop around Rainbow Dash’s barrel as well, hugging lavender Unicorn and cerulean Pegasus close to her with a bright grin.

Pressing on towards Mzingile after that near-miss with the Giraffe platoon proved to be of higher tension than the day before. More Giraffes could be hidden by the heat ripples in the distance and Twilight’s band would probably not know until it was already too late.