25. Necessary Evil: Lord Tirek will return to wreak havoc on Equestria... when he is needed again.
Brief stories about Equestria as it might have been—or, you may suspect in darker hours, already is.
25. Necessary Evil: Lord Tirek will return to wreak havoc on Equestria... but not before he's needed.
24. Queen of Foals (Fausticorn): I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said—"Four vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies alone..."
23. The Mechanical Donkey (Cranky Doodle alt-universe): A colt working for the school paper uncovers an old donkey's secret.
22. The Element of Audacity (Twilight, Dash, Cthulhu): It would take a very brave, very stupid pony to defy the Eater.
21. The Gentle People (dark): The gryphon tribe that tried to follow a pony goddess.
20. It's a Trap! And Twilight knows it. But her opponent knows that she knows it. But she knows that Twilight knows that she knows that Twilight knows it...
19. Fraud!: Trixie is accused of cheating at cards.
18. Celerity: Rarity wonders what Celestia sees in her.
17. Worth It: Fluttershy teaches Twilight about the cost of love.
16. Self Image (Twilight, Rarity): Is beauty really only skin deep?
15. The Quiet One (Luna): Some ponies express emotions differently.
14. Special: Discord teaches Pound Cake an important lesson.
13. Twenty-one! (Pinkie Pie, Twilight; comedy, horror?): Twilight discovers the danger of asking Pinkie "why?"
12. Changeling Dream: You may think the cost of living on emotions is too high. But we know the cost.
11. Loyalty (Rainbow, Applejack): The job of an Element of Harmony is simple, and sometimes impossible.
10. The ones who walk away from Equestria (DARK): Every year, ponies leave the magical land of Equestria, and are never heard from nor mentioned again.
9. Sombra's Curse (comedy): The terrible curse Sombra unleashed that made him king, and stole his soul!
8. Game of Immortals (Celestia, Discord; dark comedy): Celestia likes to win—no matter which side she plays.
7. The Pony Side (comedy): Darth Vader has more important things to share with Luke than who his father is.
6. No Regrets (sad): Looking back on her life, Twilight remembers how she treated Derpy, and faces some unpleasant truths about herself.
5. Shipping Costs (comedy): If you knew you were about to meet Celestia in the next life, you might ask yourself: Did you leave the world a better place? Did your friends know you loved them? Should you have written thirty-nine chapters of Celestia clop-fiction?
4. The Green Hills of Equestria (tragedy): Vincent's big-game hunting trip was a success ... almost.
3. Mare of the Rings (Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash; comedy, LotR): The greatest could not be trusted with the Ring. So Gandalf sought out the humblest. Maybe too humble....
2. Happy Thoughts (horror): Her sun, happy to be in its place in the sky, wrapped the land in its warm embrace, and flowers bloomed in her hoofprints. Celestia smiled. It was going to be another perfect day in Equestria. And all she had to do was think happy thoughts. Again.
1. The Pony: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I clicked weak and weary, Thru many a vile and bilious image on slash-b of yore...
Original cover art by ModeratelyDeviant@DeviantArt
Once upon a midnight dreary, clicking, clicking, weak and weary, Browsing many a vile and bilious image on slash-b of yore, Through the trolling, tired and phony, suddenly I saw a pony - Noodly arms like macaroni, and a pastel-hued decor. "'Tis some anime," I muttered, "with those big eyes that I abhor— Only this, and nothing more."
Yet so heavy was my sadness, I was seized with sudden madness, braving years of pony badness for a torrent of that mare. Quick I turned with pirate scheming, to a Youtube channel streaming to the phosphor brightly gleaming, vector art from everywhere. Rainbow-coloured pony gladness, in the monitor's flickering glare. "Just one show is all, I swear."
Pony followed on the heel of pony, pleasant was the feel of ponies on the print from We Love Fine that soon adorned my chest. Daymares took me on fantastic flights of fancy, and the plastic figurines I'd purchased "for my niece" still lingered on my desk. Half the ringtones on my phone were songs composed by Sherclop Pones, Daniel Ingram wrote the rest.
Heretofore, I'd been laconic; yet those ponies, so iconic (plus a little gin and tonic) had me writing fics galore. Others, seeing me so Byronic, feared that I had turned moronic, I swore that it was all ironic, as my fics grew by the score. Soon my ships turned less platonic; soon I tagged them "sex" and "gore". FlutterMac forevermore!
Far too late 'twas, when I realized I had struck a Faustian deal, and tiny hooves would softly steal the reins that held my soul in sway. And my stomach soon was feeling, like the remnants, still congealing, of another Happy Meal, forebodings of the price I'd pay. And at the pony gods I hurled the vilest curse I yet could say: "Sweet Celestia, what the hay?"
"Ponies!" said I, "things of Hasbro!—atop the pyramid of Maslow, By the grace of Leader Kibo, leave me browse in peace once more! Haunt not all mine waking hours with thine pastel-coloured flowers, Choreographed thundershowers have no place in Edinburgh!" But the ponies kept returning, with pony plots my brain was churning, With a never-ending roar.
And the ponies, always grinning, now I fear are just beginning To drive my feverish brain to spinning ponyfictions evermore. And my eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is scheming, As the lamp-light o'er me streaming throws my shadow on the floor; Pointed ears and nostrils flaring, in my shadow on the floor. Ponified—forevermore!
Higher.... A little to the left.... There! The sun beamed brightly, seeming as happy to find itself gliding along its familiar path as she was to put it there. Another perfect start to another perfect day.
She allowed herself one brief ladylike shake of her mane before trotting off toward the royal gardens. Off at the northern archway leading into the keep she saw Bright Eyes, her chief minister, snort in frustration as he watched her go. Oh, there was so much to do today! And that would make it all the more fun not to do it!
Her guards stood stiffly at attention as she passed. She would have loved to stop and ask how their day was, how the wife and kids were, and if that golden armor wasn't just a little bit hot now that her sun was climbing its way towards the top of the sky. But she knew they wouldn't like that. They wanted her to be perfect, and above them, so they could simply delight in her presence. And she could be that for them.
It wasn't as easy as it seemed, being a god. It wasn't what she had expected.
But she mustn't dwell on that. Happy thoughts, Celestia! Rainbows and unicorns!
The wrens and finches were in the garden, politely taking turns singing. That was how birds ought to behave. Birdsong was beautiful and transcendent. Not in her world would it be a tool to mark out territory, to warn off lust-filled competitors this is MY tree this is MY bitch stay aWAY I'll peck your EYES out—
She gasped as she felt the bloody intentions trickle out of her mind and leak into the world. The songs turned harsh and raucous. She staggered, grasping for control of her thoughts, while she felt the darkness inside her surging upward, sensing a chance to escape—it wasn't FAIR!—One finch cocked his head at another, eyes narrowed, then leapt forward into the air toward his rival—LUNA can let her feelings ALL OUT, but SHE had to stay here and take care of these STUPID PONIES and—
Think happy thoughts.
She regained her footing and stood up straight, panting. A sickly yellowish haze that had gathered about her blew away in the gentle breeze. A patch of withered, brown grass extending several yards around her slowly uncurled its blades as a healthy bright green color spread up once more from its roots.
There. Finches and wrens, singing a four-part interspecies harmony, with the females on alto and soprano and the males on tenor and bass. The way things ought to be.
She drew a deep breath and raised one hoof to wipe her brow.
Then she pranced around to the front of the castle, inhaling the fragrance of the flowers, or merely admiring from a distance those too subtle for her nose. Her royal sleigh was waiting exactly where it should be, with one white pegasus stallion at each of its four corners, every bright feather in place, awaiting her orders. And though it was such a lovely day that she was tempted to spread her own wings and leap into the air right where she was, she knew how disappointed they would be. So she sprang gracefully into the sleigh, and smiled at each of her escorts in turn, and said, "To Ponyville, my dear ponies!"
They rose into the air, and she sat on a red silk cushion and looked out at her lands below her, fields and forests in a checkerboard of bright and dark green, and she knew—knew—in each field and in each home were happy little ponies, and they loved her, and she would not let them down. It was going to be another beautiful day.
"And now," Gandalf said, "we come to the matter of the Ring-Bearer. For who among us could carry this burden?"
The Council, gathered in the shade of Elrond's porch, looked questioningly at each other, till each saw that none of them knew of whom Gandalf spoke.
Boromir, son of Denethor, rebuked the wizard, saying, "Surely that is the least of our problems. Seldom has an assembly of so many of high repute gathered in one place."
"And that is itself the problem," Gandalf replied sternly. "None of us may carry the Ring. I myself have carried it too long already. For the gravest danger to the Ring-bearer's mission is not the Dark Lord, but the Ring-bearer himself. Or, as may be, herself."
"Herself?" Gimli repeated, incredulous.
"You will meet her shortly," Gandalf said. "She may do what none of us could hope to, for her greatness is that she is the humblest creature I have met in my travels—and I have travelled more than a little. The Ring tempts all to power. It corrupts all whom it touches. Anyone who thinks highly of himself—anyone accustomed to the esteem of others—in short, any one of us—would ourselves become the new Dark Lord long ere we reached Mordor. Ah, I hear her approaching now."
In the distance, hooves drummed against the hard earth of the road approaching Elrond's house. They did not stop, but turned to a sharp ringing as the animal continued onto the paving-stones leading into the house. Soon a small, light-yellow horse with a flowing ribbon of pink mane passed out from the house, under an archway, and stood before them, regarding them with wondering, innocent eyes. The members of the Council likewise stared back in wonder, for great gossamer wings were folded along her sides.
"Um. Hi?" the yellow pegasus mare said. She looked to Gandalf.
"This is Fluttershy, of the Pony folk," the wizard said the the Council. Then turning to her, he said, "Fluttershy. The burden I ask you to bear is a heavy one. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right."
"Okay," Fluttershy said. "If you think so." And Gandalf placed around her neck a silver chain, which bore a plain golden ring of no remark, save for an almost sinister, winking gleam.
Aragorn, son of Arathorn spoke. "You shall not bear it entirely alone. Many who stand before you now already have pledged their lives to see you safely to the land of Mordor, even unto the very crack of Mount Doom."
"Gee," the pegasus mare said, taking stock of all those gathered there. "That's an awful lot of people."
"A shamefully small number, lady," Aragorn said, "to stand against the evils arrayed against you. But if by my life or death I can protect you, I will. You have my sword."
Legolas stepped up. "And you have my bow."
"And my axe,” Gimli said grimly.
"Or ... um ... I could just fly it there," Fluttershy said. "If that's okay with you."
The members of the council looked at each other in wonder.
Gandalf stroked his beard. "I was thinking you could fly back from Mount Doom. After walking all the way there, experiencing many marvellous and terrible adventures, and witnessing the heroic death of at least one of those present here."
And the rest of the council all coughed and shuffled their feet.
Then Elrond spoke. "To walk into Mordor needlessly would be an act of folly."
"Flying's good, too," said Gimli. All save Gandalf nodded in agreement.
"Okay," Fluttershy said. "I'll just go drop this nasty thing in the big boiling volcano, then." And she unfurled her wings and leapt into the air.
"Wait!" Gandalf called after her. "You're missing out on a wonderful learning experience!" But she had already vanished from sight.
All were silent for a time, until at last Elrond spoke again. "This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."
"Hooves," Gandalf corrected, still cross.
"Yes. Small hooves. And to divert the eyes of the great, we must straightaway move on Mordor, though all the might of our armies be naught but a distraction from the mission of this most humble mare—"
"Hi again," Fluttershy said, landing softly on the flagstones before Elrond.
Gandalf spoke softly. "Back so soon? Does this burden weigh heavily, now, my dear Fluttershy? There is no shame in saying so."
Fluttershy shook her head. "Oh, no. I gave the Ring to Rainbow Dash. She's a much better flyer than I am."
"Rainbow Dash?!" Gandalf struck the stone floor with his staff. "Fool!" he cried. "You have doomed us all!"
And thus began the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth, the Age of Awesome. And the shadow of Rainbow Dash fell across the land, and all trembled before the terrible glory of Her rainbow.
Vincent lay on his cot. The sun outside was bright, and the shadow of the maple tree on the canvas roof of his tent was sharp. He had not raised the fly off the roof vents, and the air in the tent was hot. He took another swig from the bottle of whiskey on the floor beside the cot. He should be out guarding the trophies, not getting drunk in his tent. God knew what kind of predators they had in this place.
He drank whiskey from the bottle when he was very happy or very sad. He did not know which it was this time. It had been a clean shot. When he got home they would mount the head on the wall of the lodge and Vincent would be a somebody. Even Sir Gradson had never shot a unicorn. That crazy witch doctor who brought them here knew what he was doing after all.
The creature had walked right into their camp. Sometimes animals did that. It had walked underneath the oak they had hung the carcasses from to drain, and stretched its neck down to sniff the blood on the ground. It hadn't noticed Vincent lying behind a clump of ferns not fifty yards away. The angle had been no good. Its neck had been in the way of its heart, and the Rigby .465 left holes that made taxidermists cry. There were mosquitoes in the shade under the ferns, and they had bitten his arms and face as he waited for the thing to lift its head.
"Daddy," he heard a little girl call from outside.
"Go 'way," Vincent muttered.
Brett thought the lodge was going to mount his gryphon over the fireplace, in the empty space to the left of Sir Gradson's tigers. When he and Molo returned from their hunt, he would see the unicorn stallion's carcass hanging from the oak tree and would know that his gryphon would never be mounted over the fireplace next to the tigers.
"Daddy!" the little girl screamed.
Vincent cursed, and took another drink. "Leave me 'lone!" he shouted. "You aren't real!"
The gryphon had also screamed, and kept screaming for a long time, after Brett gut-shot it. Brett always jerked the trigger. A loop of intestine had fallen out, and the thing had attacked it, yanking it out like a long, pink-purple earthworm. If it had flown off instead, they never would have found the body.
Now the little girl was sobbing. She sounded almost real.
"Honey," Vincent called hoarsely. "It wasn't Daddy's fault. Daddy didn't wanna leave you. Your mommy wanted a somebody." He rolled onto his back and stared at the patterns the maple leaves cast on the tent roof. "But 's gon' be okay," he slurred quietly. "Daddy's a somebody now."
The sobbing continued. "Daddy... Daddy... Oh, Daddy..."
Vincent staggered to his feet. He stumbled once on his way to the end of the tent. He was terrible with children, even when he was sober and they were real. "Hold on, honey," he said as he opened the tent flap. "Daddy's coming."
Brian drifted, weightless, in a dark tunnel of what looked like clouds. Far above him, a light twinkled invitingly. He let his eyes close as it drew him gently upwards, until—
He blinked and raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sudden light. It poured in through a rift in the side of the tunnel, where a familiar alicorn, flanked by two pegasus guards barded all in gold, stood on a platform of cloud. Her horn glowed brightly, pulling him towards them.
"Princess Celestia!" Brian shouted, as he touched down softly on the cloud. "You're real!" He looked up the tunnel towards the light at the other end. "And you saved my life!"
Celestia stepped forward to meet him, and her laugh made Brian think of a champagne waterfall. "My dear Brian. No, you're as dead as they come. Didn't you see the size of that truck?"
"Oh. No, I was texting."
"Of course you were," she said. She came a step closer. "Brian, because you were such a—devoted fan in life, I've decided to make you a very special offer. How would you like to spend eternity in Ponyville?"
Brian clapped his hands to his ears, bent his knees and head, and yelled, "Squeee!"
Celestia blinked. "Squee? Did you really just say squee? Don't you know that's onomatopoeia?"
"Never mind. Does that mean yes?"
"Yes! Omigosh yes! This is going to be the Best ... Afterlife ..."
Celestia quickly raised one hoof to Brian's mouth, cutting him off. "Wonderful!" she said, with a smile that would melt glaciers. "This is going to make me very happy, Brian."
"Really? So, you're not mad about...." He fell silent.
She bent her head down to him with one raised eyebrow and a coquettish smile. "Oh, come now. You can tell me."
"You know," he said, looking down while shifting back and forth from one foot to the other, "the fan-fiction."
"Fan-fiction? It must have slipped my mind. I'm terribly sorry. What was it called?"
"Um ... you know...." Brian mumbled something and began to blush.
"Sorry, what was that?"
"Molestia does Equestria."
"Oh!" she said, brightening. "I think I remember it now. It was long, wasn't it?"
"There were a lot of characters in the show," he said, scraping one foot on a cloud.
"I seem to recall an especially steamy chapter with Featherweight."
"And Tank the Tortoise."
"Tank doesn't get enough attention."
"And a rock. What was that about?"
"Rocks need love too!"
"No, they don't." She nickered pleasantly. "But it was all in good fun. I've been known to play a prank or two myself." She turned to regard the two guards waiting just out of earshot. "Just out of curiosity, Brian. Why didn't you ever ship me with one of the strapping hunks of stallionhood that I always keep by my side? It's not like I'm being subtle. I've got more eye candy than a Bond villain."
Brian blinked. He glanced at the guards, then whispered, "Well, just between us, those guys weren't exactly chosen for their personalities."
"No, they certainly weren't," Celestia said. She closed her eyes for a moment and smiled absently. "In fact," she said, "that reminds me. I really must get back to—" she glanced over her withers again at the two guards standing ramrod straight, a fine layer of sweat on their flanks glistening in the bright sun—"some Sun-goddess things. So long, Brian. Enjoy eternity!"
"Boy, will I! I can't wait to find out who really ships with who!"
Celestia rolled her eyes. "With whom, Brian," she corrected. "Just once in your life—oh, too late. Anyway, don't be silly. There's no shipping in G3!"
She winked, then she and her guards faded into stardust and sunbeams.
The light dimmed, the clouds dissipated into a fine mist, and Brian found himself standing in a field of grass covered with bright flowers. Butterflies even more colorful than the flowers fluttered here and there, leaving trails of glitter behind them. Soft, tinkling, unrelentingly cheerful music played somewhere in the distance. As the mist evaporated, Brian saw a group of brightly-colored ponies further off. They were puffy-looking, as if made out of marshmallows, and they looked back at him with the whole-hearted smiles of children. Or half-wits.
"Hey, everybody!" a pony said in a squeaky voice. "It's a new friend to play with!"
A differently-colored but otherwise identical pony said in an almost-identical voice, "I love having friends! Don't you love having friends?"
"Oh, yes! I'm just so excited. Aren't you so excited?"
"Yes! I am excited!" The marshmallow ponies thundered softly towards him. The gentle, chiming music started the same saccharine refrain for a third time.
"Da buck?" Brian said. He looked up to the skies. "Princess Celestia! Help!"
Looking back, I have no real regrets. Questions, maybe. I could have had a family. I could have been less focused on impressing you. I could have spent less time reading and more time with my friends. All that learning is going to die with me now anyway. Maybe I could have even been a little ... crazier in my youth. I didn’t know that was a one-time opportunity.
But the thing that bothers me most isn’t a regret. Because I know I’d do it again.
When I used to live in Ponyville, we had a mail-mare who was ... eccentric.
Oh, Celestia, that’s a stupid excuse. I was more eccentric than she was.
She was sweet, okay? I liked her. Everypony liked her, I think. I just liked her in small doses.
I mean, that mare was a walking disaster area. Like the time she destroyed half of town hall by accident while trying to fix it. Come to think of it, I don’t recall ever seeing her again after that. Hard to imagine somepony could disappear, in a town as small as Ponyville, without there being talk.
I hope she’s happy, wherever she is.
I know this is the part where I’m supposed to regret not trying harder to be her friend, and give some lesson on how we can learn something from everypony. Sure, you can learn something from everypony, if you listen long enough. But I barely had enough time for the friends I had! The friends I enjoyed being with.
I think I can honestly say I never learned anything from Derpy.
I had my own life to live. I had my own problems. I wasn’t as happy as I pretended to be. I needed my friends. I needed to write those letters to you, fatuous as they seem now. I needed to grab onto anything that would make my life more meaningful, more ... noticeable. The older I got, the more I needed it; and the less time there was for anything that didn’t help me feel better. The last thing I needed, when I was struggling every minute to stay afloat in a sea of despair, was to have my ear talked off for half an hour by somepony I couldn’t even understand half the time.
What? No, Pinkie Pie was different. Though it is funny, now that you point it out. Talking to Pinkie made me feel better, even when I had no idea what she was talking about. Talking to Derpy just made me sad. Or irritated.
There are only so many things to say about muffins!
So I avoided her. I memorized her route and schedule. I don’t mean I was like a, an un-stalker. But I knew that, if I went to Sugarcube Corner between 2 and 3pm, there was risk of Derpy.
Oh, come on. She dropped a piano on me. I think anypony can be excused for avoiding somepony who dropped a piano on them. That’s just classical conditioning.
Pinkie Pie never avoided Derpy. She loved talking to Derpy as much as she enjoyed talking to anypony. She was indiscriminate. And Fluttershy, of course. To somepony who spent the morning talking with rabbits and chickens, Derpy probably seemed like a stellar conversationalist.
Did that sound condescending? I guess it was.
Truth is, I always thought I was a little bit better than my friends. You can probably relate to that.
I had to do things. You invested a lot of time in me. I had to honor that. And I had to honor the gifts I was given. Ponies need somepony who can figure out how to grade a track so the train doesn’t fall off, or how filling in a bog to eliminate mosquitoes will affect the apple harvest. Or when Nightmare Moon is coming back from her thousand-year exile. I saved that town! Several times! So don’t tell me it wasn’t worth it. I had to know things. I didn’t know ahead of time what I’d need to know. So I had to know as much as I possibly could.
I couldn’t let myself be the kind of pony who could take pleasure in ... just ... being with somepony else, somepony who wasn’t helping me along that path. I didn’t have that luxury. Rarity would have understood. So would Applejack. Heck, Rainbow Dash would probably have understood.
Stop looking at me like that. I didn’t do it for me. Do you think it was fun? Toiling late into the night, every night, on things whose importance was so subtle that other ponies would have simply laughed at me even if I’d been able to explain to them what I was doing?
Maybe it was a little fun.
But I could have had lovers. I was famous, you know. I could have had foals. They’d be here with me, now. I gave that up. For you. For everypony.
I hope it was worth it.
What? You’re really going to let me off that easy?
I know you tried to warn me. Time and time again. “Twilight, make some friends. Twilight, don’t spend all day indoors.” I’m not blaming you. Okay, maybe I was blaming you.
Maybe I did do it all for myself. I thought that if I did something amazing, ponies would like me.
I never did "make" any friends. I just took the friendships that were offered me, for reasons I never understood. I was never exciting or cool. I could never make anypony feel better just by talking to them. All I had to offer was braininess, but that wasn't what they wanted.
I was Derpy all along.
I was better than them. But they were better ponies than me. Why did they give me their friendship? Did I do anything more for them than Derpy did for me? Did I do anything more for you?
The young man in the torn khaki flight suit, blood-stained and sweating, grasped the gantry's steel supports with his remaining arm as his lightsaber—still clenched in his right hand—fell into the endless abyss below him. He stared in horror at the black-armoured figure looking down on him.
The dark Jedi switched off his lightsaber. Its ominous humming stopped, leaving only the sounds of the endless wind rushing downward past them both. He returned it to somewhere within his cloak and reached out one arm towards the other man.
"Join me," he said, "and I will complete your education. With our combined posting, we can end this destructive trolling and bring love and toleration to 4chan. Join me, young Skytrotter—"
"Stop it! My name is Skywalker. Skywalker!"
"Just go with me for a moment on this. I've got some really cute vector avatars from DeviantArt you can use. Let me show you—"
"No!" The beaten jedi's hoarse cry fell away into the vast tunnel and disappeared without an echo. He stared downward for a moment as if contemplating the drop. Then he pulled himself up a few inches closer to the gantry railing with his remaining arm and clung to it tightly. "You spammed my email with lolcats," he said. "You forced my friends to watch your Lego stop-motion animations. But I'll never join you in your furry depredations!"
The black-suited figure's steady mechanized breathing was interrupted by a sharp inhalation. He drew back from the precipice. "What?"
"I said, I'll never—"
"We're not furries."
"—dress up in a cheap polyester costume—"
"We're not furries."
"—at a convention at a seedy hotel—"
“You seem to have an inordinate fascination with this topic.”
“—and slide my hand over a taut, zebra-striped rump, feeling the soft fur—"
"We're NOT—" The dark figure threw up both arms in frustration. "Silence! You leave me no choice, young Skytrotter—"
"—but to provide you with ... a demonstration." He reached into his robes and pulled out a simple, oblong device about half the size of a lightsaber, and pointed it to the wall across from them. "Observe." He pressed a button on the object's surface.
A vast stretch of the black metal surface opposite them began to glow. For a moment, dim figures could be made out on its surface, which quickly resolved into bright scenes of a forest and a small town in all the colors of a pastel rainbow. And that terrible music that haunted Luke's dreams began to play—
I used to wonder what friendship could be
Until you all shared its magic with me
Luke threw back his head in despair. "NOOOOO!"
One month later, the same two figures sat on an avocado-green sofa, in the center of a room with wood-veneer panelling and a horrible 1970's shag carpet. Pastel ponies ran across the screen in front of them, until finally they were replaced by credits scrolling to that very same music. The younger man, holding a bowl of popcorn in his new cyborg arm, turned to the older.
"That was the best. Episode. Ever!"
The taller figure turned to the other and raised one black-gloved fist towards him. "Bro-hoof, son!"
Luke’s arm paused in mid-bro-hoof. “Wait—‘son’?”
The dark jedi reached for the popcorn. “Oh. Remind me to tell you about that sometime. But first, I hear there’s a new Friendship is Witchcraft....”
Celestia trotted into the hedge garden behind the castle. The sky was a bright hazy blue, the heat of the sun drove the aroma off the leaves of the lavender and rosemary bushes and into the air, birds sang, and crickets chirped. This day was all the more beautiful to her because she had waited so long for it.
She quickly found the lopsided statue of her old draconequine nemesis. Her horn began to glow, and she touched it to the statue's belly. A patch of color appeared on the white marble there and began to spread. The frozen white fur glowed with color and began to ripple in the wind, and the scales glistened in the sunlight. Last of all, the stone eyes came to life. Discord quickly locked eyes with the princess. He jumped away and arched his back in a more threatening pose.
"Back for more so soon?" he asked. "Did you finally tire of your little proteges? Or are they waiting around the corner to blast me again with—"
Celestia raised a hoof to interrupt. "No, no, stop. Time's up."
The cocky look on Discord's face vanished. "What? Are you sure?" His moustache drooped sulkily. "I spent an entire year preparing my banter!"
"I'm sure. Add it up. I ruled the first three thousand years. Then you had a thousand, then I had a thousand."
Discord pursed his lips moodily. "I think the first two thousand were more of a tie."
Celestia smiled her radiant sun-goddess smile. "If you say so. Now, let's see. I counted two hundred seventy-five thousand, three hundred and ninety-one songs, poems, stories, plays, paintings, sculptures, and other artistic works about me, and ... forty-four thousand, six hundred and seventeen about you. Oooh. That must smart."
"I'm more difficult to draw!" Discord protested.
"Nonsense," Celestia said. "You're far easier, since it's practically impossible to draw you wrong."
"Now you're just being mean, Tia," Discord whined. "I don't think I want to play anymore."
"Don't be a sore loser," Celestia said. "Just a short game. Two thousand years."
Discord eyed her warily. "No turning anypony into a statue this time?"
Celestia's smile lost a little of its radiance. "Oh ..." She kicked a pebble along the flagstone path with one hoof. "All right. No statues."
Discord frowned down at the ground for several seconds, then looked up at her. "Okay," he said reluctantly. "But this time, I get to play white."
Sombra excelled at all forms of magic, but his special talent—some would say obsession—was alchemy. He specialized in the properties of esoteric forms of matter. In the spring, he would leave his village pulling a small wagon behind him, and where he went, no one knew. When he returned in the fall, his little wagon would be full of scrolls and tomes from foreign lands, written in nearly-forgotten tongues. Then he would spend the winter in a laboratory he had dug deep under his house, working from before sunrise until past sundown. Sometimes passers-by saw a warm glow or sudden flash of light play on the crude stone steps leading down, or smelled sweet scents or noxious fumes.
One cold winter evening, Sombra staggered up the steps with deep circles under his eyes and a strange burning light within them. A few crystal ponies, hurrying by to reach the warmth of their homes before nightfall, stopped and stared. He blinked in the sunlight, then held his arms above his head. Something brightly-colored, with an iridescent glow, oozed from his hooves and splatted on the ground before him like fat, rancid raindrops. It trickled down his fetlocks and pooled in quivering slimy mounds on his shoulders.
"Behold!" Sombra called in a booming voice that trembled with just a hint of mad laughter. "I have done it! I have discovered the secret of—"
But the glowing substance had seeped into his ears, and the few watchers later swore that his eyes changed color and a sickly green smoke came out of of his throat. He stumbled forward, his now-glowing eyes bulging wildly.
"What?" a pony called. "What did you discover?"
Sombra clutched at his throat, struggling to speak, but all that came out was, "Gak!"
This is an adaptation of Ursula LeGuin's story "The ones who walk away from Omelas." It is "alternate universe" and "dark". If you don't want to read something sad about an Equestria not quite like the one you love, DON'T.
Somewhere far away from here, although no one who knows will say exactly where, lies the magical land of Equestria, where brightly-colored ponies tend rich valleys of fields and orchards, crowd each other hurrying to and fro through the cobblestone streets of their great cities, or bask in the sunlight on the soft cottony backs of clouds. The capital city of Canterlot gleams white, clinging improbably halfway up the side of a mountain, from which the loving eye of a powerful and benevolent princess watches over them all.
These gentle creatures are said to be the friendliest of all the races of the earth. The unicorns with their natural grace and powerful magic, the hot-blooded pegasi diving through the clouds, and the wise and dependable earth ponies all live in harmony, taking pride in their own abilities and talents even while admiring those of their fellow Equestrians. They live in such unnatural harmony that even the wind, rain, sun, and moon obey them, knowing that the time and place for their respective work will be planned and agreed on for the good of all.
A visitor to Equestria might brave a few dust clouds to take a seat on one of the plain but sturdy wooden benches lined around some fallow field and watch local earth pony stallions test each other in a friendly game of hoofball. He might visit a village marketplace and taste for himself that unnamed sixth flavor found only in food grown by those who love and are loved by the earth. Or he might stand in line outside the palace gates on a cold Canterlot morning, to be let into the yard with a hushed crowd of ponies at precisely five minutes before dawn and silently watch the silhouette of the sun princess emerge onto the balcony above, ready to summon the light for a new day. There is work, hard work, and there is money, and clothes and residences signifying higher or lower status, for those who care to play the games common to all civilizations. But if a pony tires of all that, there is always grass, and peace, and friends.
It is, as I said, a magical land, and besides ponies there are dragons, manticores, and other nightmare creatures, so that the visitor might wonder at the casual freedom of the inhabitants, who let their foals play near woods full of ravenous beasts. But it is part of the magic of that place, that no pony ever comes to harm from these things. There is an invisible line, inscribed with powerful magic, over which terrors may not cross.
And yet, every year, ponies can be seen leaving the fields and the cities and the clouds, walking or flying outward, always moving directly away from Canterlot and the watchful eyes within it. They do not say where they are going, and no one asks, nor watches them as they go. The ponies they pass on the way do not look at them, and they do not look at those ponies, and the travellers meet each others' eyes only reluctantly. When they have passed, the birds begin singing again, and the sky is again as blue and the grass as green as it was before.
But every thirty or fifty years, the blue drips from the sky, and the green fades from the grass, and the ponies of Equestria give each other extra-hearty greetings through tight lips and glance uneasily in the direction of the mountain and the white city which clings to it. At those times many ponies can be seen walking away, especially young mares big with foal. Some travel with silent, brooding stallions at their sides, their eyes cold and dark. Some travel alone. Those least-able, heavy and near term, walk most urgently, and their wide eyes flash white easily.
The ponies who stay, wait. When the sky has faded from the color of a robin's egg to that of slate and the grass has wilted and yellowed, a collection of dignified-looking noble ponies trots up to the palace and requests an audience with the princess. They are brought inside, and flashes like lightning are seen from the windows, and an angry shout heard that penetrates the thick glass, and soon the noble ponies flee from the palace and rush headlong across the manicured gardens in their haste to escape it.
When the slate sky has faded to the color of dust, and the grass has died and shrivelled into stiff brown claws, a herd of angry-looking farmers and townsponies bursts into the palace grounds and demands an audience with the princess. They are brought inside, and from within can be heard a great sobbing, and soon the farmers and townsponies walk slowly from the palace, dragging their hooves, their faces ashen.
When the dust sky has bleached to the color of bone, and the dead grass has blown away, a silent procession of parents approaches the palace with their heads down, and request only that their foals, who stumble behind them on thin legs and wait meekly with hollow eyes, may enter the palace grounds and eat what scraggly shrubs and withered grasses remain, for nothing else in the land remains to eat.
Then, and only then, the call goes out from the palace for a volunteer. To answer this call is the land's greatest honor, and the names of those who have done so are a closely-kept state secret, though it is certain they are richly rewarded. Some say that sometimes no volunteer can be found and one must be chosen, though I do not know if this is true.
I have said that Equestria is a magical land, but in truth, all lands are magical. There are laws, deep laws, some known by only a few, some as yet undiscovered, governing all the earth and beyond. The deepest magic of all is how these few simple laws combine to give birth to matter, energy, and life. Equestria is distinguished only by its inhabitants' ability, at times, to reach a hoof down into those cold, vast streams. They may not stop its flow, or divert it to another final destination. They may only redirect, sending it briefly here rather than there. The princess who watches over Equestria is most skilled in such diversions, and in the trading-off of many small things that will scarcely be missed for one precious thing—or of one precious thing for a great many smaller things. I have said Equestria is unnaturally harmonious, but beneath the surface it balances out. The deep laws must be observed.
Eventually, some sad-eyed mare creeps up to the back gate of the palace at Canterlot, and the guards admit her while keeping their eyes straight forward. She follows someone—some say it is the princess herself, some say only an old gray nag—into the palace, into the basement, through an unmarked door, and into dark tunnels reaching deep into the heart of the mountain. There she waits in a secret room, attended on foreleg and back by a host of hoofmaidens, in as great luxury as the wealth of Canterlot will allow, until it is her time. Then she is escorted through a plain door covered with decades of dust, into a vast, dark, foul-smelling stone cavern, where a vast pile of hay has been stacked in the meantime, and births her foal on its rocky floor.
She may not lick it, or touch it, or call out to it. She is allowed one look, by torchlight, which is immediately extinguished before the foal's eyes have opened, for it must never see light, hear another's voice, or feel another's touch. Then her hoofmaidens escort her out of the cavern, and as the foal gasps in its first breath and struggles to its shaky feet to take its first stumbling steps in the dark, the heavy door through which no sound can penetrate is sealed behind them, not to be opened again until the next time that the deep laws require balancing.
And as the grass springs back to its verdant green, and the sky regains a healthy blue flush, another wave of ponies can be seen walking away from Equestria. They will never be seen again in Equestria, nor will their names ever again be spoken. Some say that the magic demands this, too, but I myself think there may be a simpler answer.
Rainbow Dash nodded absently and pushed her way through a cluster of reporters, the mugs of cider in her teeth her excuse. Applejack's Stetson was easy to see above the crowd, up against the far wall, a dark unmoving island on the edge of a shifting multicolored sea.
She set both mugs down on the small, round standing table between them. "Courtesy of the Wonderbolts."
"Thanks, Dash," Applejack said. "Guess I win on both ends of this transaction."
They each took a long draw of cider and looked out at the ponies milling around the dance floor. There wouldn't be any dancing for at least an hour, after the fanboys had gotten their signatures, the reporters their soundbites, and the schmoozers their business cards. And if some fanboy could keep up with her dancing, then–
Dash leaned over and nudged Applejack's elbow, and nodded over towards where Twilight, Derpy, and Fluttershy were being chatted up by three stallions. Twilight seemed to be arguing a point with one of them, Fluttershy was backed up against the wall and nodding intermittent reluctant affirmatives, and Derpy was leaning forward excitedly, as if the story the agitated unicorn across from her was telling were the most fascinating thing she could remember. Dash didn't doubt that it was.
"I should totally set them up," she said.
Applejack rolled her eyes.
"I could too!" Dash insisted. "You see how Twilight's about to wreck it for all of them? I go over there, give her a big hug, be all buddy-buddy with them, sprinkle a little Wonderbolt glitter, and, bam, it's over. Even Twilight's dancing won't be able to scare them off then."
Applejack snorted. "Ah'm sure Fluttershy would be eternally grateful for that."
"Or Derpy's eye," Dash added.
Applejack looked away.
"And we have to stay for the dancing. Just to see if Derpy is worse than Twilight."
Rainbow Dash frowned. "Sure, sure. I understand." She took a longer drink and gulped it down. "You gotta stick up for her. I respect that, AJ. I really do. It was hard enough to get anything done dragging around Pinkie and Fluttershy. I can't imagine how you don't go crazy with a third–"
"She's loyal. That's all the job requires."
The two ponies both looked away. Off to the left, a DJ was setting up for karaoke.
Rainbow Dash took another long look across the room at Derpy, then pushed her empty mug away from her. "On second thought, I saw a cute stallion in the corner with stars in his eyes. I oughta snap him up before one of my teammates does."
"If it makes you happy."
"It does," Dash said. "Very. You oughta try it sometime. You staying at the palace?"
Applejack shook her head. "The Sun's Rise. Less fuss."
"I'll stop in and see you after, okay?"
Applejack raised her eyebrows. "After?"
"I'm fast," Dash said. "You should know that."
"What about your friends?" Applejack nodded to a couple of other Wonderbolts out on the floor, surrounded by reporters.
The hair on Rainbow's neck rose.
Applejack fiddled with her hat. "I mean, sure, Dash. Come on round by after. That'll be nice."
Rainbow set off for the other side of the club, where she'd idly noticed the stallion half an hour ago. He wasn't really all that cute, but she might give him a chance. Or she might just step outside, climb into the night air, then fold her wings in tight and dive down the side of the mountain until the air pressure squeezed any pointless thoughts out of her head.
I dreamt that the soldiers had come. The small square in front of my home was dotted with figures in green uniforms, as if shrubs and saplings had sprung up through the pavement overnight. A cluster of them were dragging the changeling across the street out of his house. He was a famous tenor, and I threw the shutters on my front window wide open, because I knew that his suffering would be exquisite.
Changelings, I knew within my dream, look like ponies, but they’re wrong inside. They are uniquely sensitive to emotion. If their neighbors fight, instead of slamming the window, they lean out and listen. When ponies need comfort they barge in offering sympathy, sidling up to them in hopes of a taste of their pain.
They travel among ponies, watching, listening, grasping for emotions and desires, storing them to savor at leisure. But sometimes it overwhelms them, and they regurgitate these stolen feelings as poems, paintings, stories, or music which the ponies can consume, as a sap-sucking aphid expels a glistening drop of refined sugar when prodded by a black ant. So the ponies allow a few changelings to live in each town. The ponies provide the raw materials that the changelings refine.
Usually, the ordinary vicissitudes of life are shocks enough to ensure a steady flow from each changeling. But sometimes, when the ponies praise some changeling’s excretions highly for their sweetness, it grows content, and hoards its nectar. Then it needs prodding.
My neighbor, Windsong, was very successful, and for the past few months had been dangerously happy. I couldn’t see him now, with the green-clad ponies swarming over him like weaver ants over an intruding hoof, but I saw the light rippling over their backs as they twisted back and forth, like aspen leaves in the wind, their forelegs pulsing with a steady rhythm. Soon I heard the clear tones as he began to sing. I leaned against the window-sill, leaving my work to wait. The pony beside me did not stop me.
Some performers seek to amaze their listeners by piling notes upon each other, rapid-fire, as if the aim of music were to get it over with as quickly as possible. Windsong could sing one note, and hold it, and that one note would mean more than a fusillade of sound from a mere technical master. His voice reached in and ran its fingers lightly over my soul, plucking at my deepest secrets. I glanced at my companion to see if he suspected, and I saw the same shameful expression on his face.
All about the square, windows opened, heads thrust forward, ponies leaned dangerously far out of upper-story windows to get a few inches closer. The soldiers felt it too. Their limbs thrashed more vigorously, as if dancing, and the song rose in intensity and power in reply. I felt tears trickle down my face, but no longer felt ashamed, for while that voice spoke to me I understood without words that tears were the proper response to the beauty and the horror of life, and it was those who did not cry who should feel ashamed.
His voice rose and swelled, drawing us reluctantly and joyfully towards the conclusion of his song. Soon I would understand everything.
But the song squealed to a halt, and the soldiers drew back. I saw Windsong lying on the ground. He breathed in quick, violent gasps, like hiccups in reverse. Panic flowed off him as he realized he might not complete this, his greatest performance. I staggered, drunk on his sharp, acidic fear, mingled with the aftertaste of my own despair of ever being able to communicate it. His eyes implored the soldiers for just one more blow, that final kick that would expel his finale. His sides heaved in quick, shallow jerks from the beating and from the power that had flowed out of him. Then they stopped.
A large earth pony stepped forward with the business-like gait of a sergeant, then turned and lashed out at Windsong with his hind legs. I perked my ears and leaned forward hopefully. Nothing.
The sergeant reared on his front legs and came down heavily on Windsong with his hind ones, three times in quick succession, but each time Windsong’s head and legs only bounced a little, as if he were made of rubber.
A few soldiers kicked the body experimentally before backing away, still panting from their work and muttering resentfully, like farmers regarding a particularly stubborn stump. The townsponies in the street lowered their eyes and drifted slowly away, while those in the windows pulled their heads back out of the light, and shutters banged closed one by one.
I don’t know for how long after that I wept, knowing I would never hear the end of the song.
The pony standing beside me brought me back to my senses with a swift kick to my stomach. “Show’s over. Get back to work, changeling,” he said, and slashed my face with his forehoof, and everything disappeared behind a burst of stars.
Then I awoke from my dream of changelings, and found I had written this story.
On the way back from Fluttershy's cottage, Twilight almost didn't register the familiar voice coming from a dead-end street on the outskirts of Ponyville. "Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one...."
She had a familiar sense of foreboding. She knew that she should continue walking and not stop to find out what Pinkie Pie was doing. Also, that she would stop anyway.
Twilight walked down the street towards the sound, until she saw a familiar pink pony, still chanting, jumping high up into the air and then landing on a ponyhole cover in the middle of the street, over and over again. A crowbar was slotted into place just under the lip of the cover, as if she had been about to remove it and then gotten distracted by a sudden fit of jumping.
"Pinkie Pie?" Twilight asked. "What are you doing?"
Pinkie landed on the ponyhole cover. She cocked her head at Twilight. She looked down at the iron cover. She looked back at Twilight.
"Is this a trick question?" she asked.
Twilight shook her head violently, trying to clear it of the impression that Pinkie was making more sense than she was. "Okay," she said, "I can see that you're jumping up and down on a ponyhole cover and shouting 'twenty-one!'"
Pinky nodded eagerly and gave Twilight a wide, congratulatory smile. "You got it!" She began jumping again. "Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
"But why are you jumping up and down on a ponyhole cover and shouting 'twenty-one!'?" Twilight shoulded up at her.
Pinky came to a stop again. She raised one hoof to her chin, perplexed. "I don't think I understand the question."
"What's not to understand? Why—"
"Stop! That's it. That word. It confuses me."
"Yes! That's the one."
"No, I mean—" Twilight scrunched up her nose in thought. "Why does it rain?"
"That's easy!" Pinkie said. "Because pegasus ponies make it rain! Didn't you know that, Twilight? Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
"Of course I knew that! My point was that you understood the question. The use of the word 'why' indicates I am asking what caused some event."
"Yes," Pinky said, between jumps, "I. Know. That." She came to a stop again and leaned forward to come nose-to-nose with Twilight. "But since I am a sentient and purposeful agent, my will constitutes the final cause of all my actions, and your asking me for a cause of my jumping up and down when you can clearly see its final cause constitutes a violation of the Gricean conversational maxims, silly!" She began jumping again. "Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
"Gaaaaah!" Twilight said. "How do you even know about Aristrotle and Grice?"
"Who? Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
"Gaaah-aah-aah!" Twilight said, hoping to drive the point home this time.
She began pacing back and forth, while Pinkie kept jumping and shouting "twenty-one" at the pinnacle of each leap. Phrasing her question, Twilight realized, was a semantic problem. Pinkie literally did not know why she did what she did. But Twilight was still curious; and that proved that "why," at least in the sense of intentions, wasn't what she really wanted to know.
"Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one...."
Pinkie Pie's lack of conscious insight into her motivation wasn't mere cluelessness, Twilight realized. Most people in fact had no conscious insight into any of their motivations; they merely invented them after the fact, as demonstrated by experiments in which people were asked to justify decisions that were the opposite of the ones they had actually made. Pinkie was actually more self-aware than most in apprehending her lack of self-awareness.
"Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one...."
Perhaps, Twilight thought, she should take a behaviorist approach. She was interested in the operational effects of this activity, not Pinkie Pie's motivations. And yet, she could not treat Pinkie Pie as a black box, as B.F. Skinhorse would have advocated, since the primary effects were probably some subjective emotional payoff.
But, if she focused on the action's conscious effects, rather than its conscious causes....
"Pinkie!" Twilight finally said.
Pinkie stopped. "Yes?"
"How do you feel when you jump up in the air on a ponyhole cover and shout 'twenty-one'?"
"I feel great!"
"Hmm," Twilight said. "Not really helpful. Wait—hold on, give me a moment." She smiled slyly. "I've got it. Pinkie, how would I feel if I jumped up and down on a ponyhole cover and shouted 'twenty-one'?"
"Well, that's a silly question!" Pinkie said with a laugh.
"GAA—Why is it any sillier than jumping up and down and shouting 'twenty-one'?"
"Because," Pinkie anwered, "the only way to answer it is to do it!"
"You're ... right," Twilight said. "You're actually right." Twilight shook her head again, even more violently.
"Course I am! Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
"Pinkie ... Pinkie!"
Pinkie came to a stop yet again, smiling as excitedly as if she were just seeing Twilight for the first time. "Yes, Twilight?"
"Pinkie, may I jump on your ... um ... can I try that?"
"Okie-dokie-lokie!" Pinkie stepped aside, and Twilight stepped on to the heavy iron cover. She looked up and down the street to make sure no ponies were in sight.
"Well," she said, "here goes."
Twilight began hopping up and down.
"You've got to count!" Pinkie said.
"Twenty-one.... twenty-one.... "
"Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one—"
Twilight grunted as she jumped as high as she could, and shouted, "Twenty-ONE! Twenty-ONE—"
At the top of Twilight's jump, Pinkie stomped on the crowbar with all four hooves. The ponyhole cover flipped off like a tiddlywink, and Pinkie watched as Twilight dropped into the hole with barely enough time to register a look of surprise before she disappeared from sight. A loud and disturbing thud came out of the hole.
Pinkie walked over to the cover, and kicked it until it slid back into place over the hole. Then she walked onto it, and began jumping up and down again.
A minute's trot down a sandy path off one side of the road to Salt Lick City lay a tiny inlet of Hooveser Lake. There, next to a herd of gray-white boulders wading about its entrance, were a little strip of sand on one side of the inlet, the beginning of a sunset, and four ponies.
"You be careful, Pound Cake!" Mrs. Cake called out into the wind coming off the lake, towards where a little pegasus colt bounded from one boulder to another. He was headed for the farthest and tallest one that stood guard out in the cold, deep water. He could have already zoomed there and back three times with thirty flaps of his wings. But colts must jump on boulders. They must vault up every stone staircase like a gymnast, then stand on its top and score themselves—another perfect 10!—before leaping off to the next event.
Pumpkin stood near the water's edge, aiming her horn down. The sand at her hooves swirled around like foaming cider being stirred in a mug, hissing softly as it spun.
"Can you make a castle?" Mr. Cake asked. She bit her upper lip and concentrated on the sand. It hurried together into a tall round silo that stretched up like a growing flower, then unfurled at the top and sprouted battlements.
"That's great! How about a whale?"
A million grains of sand spilled over the tower's walls and reconvened in a lump at the bottom. They conferred with each other a moment, then spread out into a big domed forehead and a broad flat tail which slowly undulated back and forth. Mr. Cake leaned down to look into its big smiling eyes, and it winked, a piece of its eyelid crumbling away.
A spray of sand rained down on the whale like a hundred harpoons, eroding its smile down to a nervous pucker. Pound stood before them, panting, legs splayed from the impact of landing.
"Mom! Dad!” He swung his head once to each side, his pupils flicking back behind him, toward the lake. His ears were flat against his head. “It's Discord! Run!" He bounded back into the air. The whale crumbled away further in the wake from his takeoff.
"Come on," Mr. Cake said to Pumpkin with a smile. "Run!" He bounded after Pound, laughing. Pumpkin frowned at the whale, and grains of sand shifted until its pocked face was smooth again. Then she galloped back toward the road after her father.
He stopped a hundred hooflengths up the sandy path, grinning and breathing hard. Pumpkin pulled up beside him and looked up at him.
Pound banked back and around him like a swallow. "Don't stop! Where's Mom?"
"I'm not so—whew!—so young as I used to be," Mr. Cake said. "I can't keep up with you kids anymore. Never could, now that I mention it. Come on, let's go back and protect your mother from Discord."
Pound buzzed past him on a beeline for his mother. She was still standing on the beach, shaking her head at Pound and smiling, when Mr. Cake caught up with them again.
"It's not safe!" Pound was saying. "He's right there, behind that big rock!" He glanced back and forth between his parents and the granite patriarch.
"Sure he is, lump," Mr. Cake said. "He's probably just here to watch the sunset."
"Oh? What's he doing?"
"Standing. Grinning. He winked at me." Pound shuddered.
"Well, there's no law against that. And we have four brave defenders of Equestria here. He can't possibly hurt you."
Pound looked dubiously out towards the boulder. "He can't?"
"I promise." He nudged Pound back towards the boulders. "Now go and play while there is still light."
The little pegasus looked at the big boulder again. "He really can't hurt me?"
"Absolutely not. I forbid it."
"Well... okay." He took a few steps forward, neck stretched out in front of him, sniffing.
"What an imagination," Mr. Cake said to his wife.
This time it was a giant crouching sand-frog hit by the spray from Pound's landing.
"Come look! You gotta come see him!" Pound said.
Pumpkin glared at him, then bent forward towards her sculpture. "I'm sorry, Croakers. He's a colt. No, they aren't very smart."
"See who?" Mr. Cake asked.
"Discord again? Why would I want to see Discord?"
"He said you didn't believe me. Said you wouldn't come look. I told him he was a mean old liar liar mane on fire."
Mr. Cake squinted at the boulder, purple in the fading light. "I would, lump, but I don't think I could even get out there without taking a swim. That deep water's pretty cold."
"But, you hafta! Prove he's wrong. Wipe that nasty grin off his face!"
"I'm a little tired, son. Let's see Discord some other day."
Pound stood, uncharacteristically quiet, studying his father.
"You don’t believe me."
Mr. Cake bent down to get a closer look at Pound. The colt looked back into his eyes, unblinking, peering closely as if he were looking at his father for the first time.
"Now, Pound, I didn't say that," Mr. Cake said slowly, trying to work it out for himself as he spoke. "I believe you think you saw Discord. Or maybe you didn’t, at first, but all this running and playing was so exciting and real that you talked yourself into it." He reached out and tried to ruffle Pound's mane with one hoof, but the colt bent away from him.
Pound lowered his head and snorted. "I'm not stupid. I didn't see some twisted old tree. He talked to me."
Mr. Cake grinned stupidly at Pound, hoping the tension would somehow dissolve into a joke, but Pound just picked at a few strands of ragged shore grass with one hoof.
"Well—well, would you look at the time," Mr. Cake finally said. "We'll have to hurry to get to the ice cream parlor before they close."
"Ice cream!" Pumpkin shouted, and jumped up and pawed at the air.
Pound kicked a pebble into the water. "He said you wouldn't believe me."
"Now, Pound," Mrs. Cake said.
Mr. Cake tried grinning again, gave up, and began leading the way back to town. Pound and Pumpkin trailed behind the adults, Pumpkin skipping and singing a kind of song about the relative merits of frogs and brothers. Pound kept glancing back towards the water.
"You're awfully quiet today, Pound," Mr. Cake said after the third verse.
"You promised me he couldn't hurt me," Pound said. "You promised, and you didn’t even know he was really there."
"Well, he didn't hurt you," Mr. Cake said.
"He said it'd change me. Finding out I can be right, and you and Mom and the whole rest of the world wrong."
Mr. Cake smiled at Mrs. Cake. "Such an imagination." Mrs. Cake only frowned thoughtfully.
"He said it'd make me special," Pound said in a flat voice.
"You're special alright," his sister taunted.
"Pumpkin! We'll have none of that," Mrs. Cake said. She stopped and looked back, but instead of squabbling foals she saw only Pound's brown eyes staring back at her.
Pumpkin kept after him all the way home, but Pound ignored her, looking down, trudging as silently and steadily as a draft horse.
"Look at that," Mr. Cake said to his wife. "Our little colt may be growing up."
Or maybe he just wasn't feeling well. At the ice cream parlor, he ate only one scoop, even though it was peppermint chip.
The palace sun room had not been designed or decorated with viewings in mind. Professionals would consider its skylights and bright white-and-gold decor to be insufficiently somber. But it was the only room on the ground floor of the palace that had both a front and a back entrance, and was large enough for the coffin.
The room was normally not used at night—it was not night, according to the grandmother clock near the entrance, but the skylights were empty black mirrors—and so four portable gas lights had been brought in and one placed in each corner. Their steady, quiet hissing seemed loud in the silence.
Every few seconds, the two honor guards at the front entrance let a group of ponies in, usually one at a time but sometimes an entire family. Outside, in the darkness, the line of waiting ponies, standing in hushed little clusters, stretched out through the palace gates and far down Main Street, back towards the city gates.
Two more guards stood at the exit, and a final pair, one unicorn and one pegasus, both white with blue manes, stood at attention on the side of the room opposite the enormous gold-plated coffin. They kept watchful eyes on each pony as he or she came in and stood a few moments in front of the coffin. Some sniffled; some cried freely; a few wailed loudly. Some pursed their lips tightly together, so that only short bursts of low whinnies escaped.
Nopony noticed the guards, except now and then, when they would gently but firmly drag an overwrought mourner out. They did notice the dark, metallic-blue alicorn brooding over the opposite side of the coffin, gripping its edge with her forehooves. She never raised her eyes from the casket, and seldom blinked. She ignored them so completely that some ponies wondered whether they had not been admitted by mistake.
“Three days, and she hasn’t shed one tear,” the pegasus guard whispered. “Nor raised her sister’s sun. Disrespectful, is what it is.”
The unicorn shrugged.
“I’d just like to see some decent, pony feeling out of her for once,” the pegasus went on. “Her own sister laid out before her. Dead three days, and still warmer than her.” He looked over at Luna and shivered.
“Princess of the Night,” the unicorn whispered back. “What did you expect?”
An elderly unicorn mare wearing a black veil stood before the coffin. Her hoof began to shake violently as she tried to blow her nose. The two guards paused to watch her with a professional detachment, until she managed to stow the used hoofkerchief in a pocket and exit without incident.
“When she’d walk by in the morning,” the pegasus said, “she’d smile as she passed me on her way in. Just that one smile, you know, but it would last me the whole day. It was like—like honey, or warm mead.”
“I always thought of hot melted butter, myself,” the unicorn said.
“It’ll be a cold and quiet palace now, mark my words,” the pegasus said. “I’ve half a mind to ask for a discharge.”
“Don’t talk like that. We’re royal guards. We’ve been through worse than cold looks.”
“For her. That one, she don’t even know my name.”
“First Corporal Wind Racer,” a husky voice said from the other side of the room.
The pegasus guard jerked to a more rigid attention, his eyes and nostrils wide and his breath silent, and his ears flicked up and down, struggling with themselves to stay upright. Luna looked up slowly from the coffin and fixed her eyes on him without changing expression. “You are relieved of your watch for today. Go and inform the Captain of the Guard that any member of the Solar Guard in good standing who no longer wishes to serve may receive an honorable discharge.” Then she looked back down, her demeanor so unchanged and remote that it seemed to the two guards that they might have only imagined she had spoken at all.
Wind Racer blinked at the princess uncertainly, but she did not look up again. He glanced at his comrade, then saluted to Luna, clicked his rear hooves, and marched out the exit.
No one in the room spoke for the rest of the evening. When the last pony in line came through the doors, the honor guard shut it, gently, with a quiet click. Only after the last mourner left did Luna take her hooves down from the lid of the casket and leave through the rear doors, holding her head high and moving at a stately walk. The guards kept their eyes straight ahead. She did not look at them as she passed. Then the two guards at the rear doors shut those after her, and the five remaining guards were left alone with the body. Not long after, six fresh solar guards relieved them to stand the night vigil.
One of the new guards let out a startled whinny and spooked sideways as he passed the casket. The others swivelled their heads around quickly.
“I didn’t do it!” he brayed, staring at the casket. “It was like that when I got here!”
Where Luna had been standing, the edge of the casket’s lid had been crushed in two places, stripping off the gold leaf and splintering the bronze beneath into two hoof-shaped depressions.
The curtains fluttered for several more seconds like startled doves, then settled, and Carousel Boutique was utterly silent. Dust motes still danced crazy spirals in the beam of sunlight shining in through the southern window. Two unicorn mares lay stunned on the floor, one white and slender, with indigo mane and tail; the other, lilac with navy blue.
They rose unsteadily. After their legs stopped shaking, they looked across the room at each other, shook their heads clear, blinked, and looked again, eyes wide, jaws hanging dumbly.
The white mare turned and cautiously approached the enormous mirror dominating one side of the room. Miraculously, it was still intact.
She tilted her head slowly to the left, then to the right. As she studied herself, her slumped shoulders rolled back, pushing her chest out and straightening her neck.
She tossed her head, and sunlight glinted off the royal purple coils of her mane, which each bounced gaily once or twice before falling back into its own perfect place. Her fur glistened like freshly-fallen snow in the sunlight. She leaned forward and twisted her head coyly toward the mirror. She stretched her neck and tilted her head toward the ceiling, batted her long, dark eyelashes, and raised one eyebrow in a smirk at the image facing her.
The white mare twitched, and jerked her head back to look over her shoulders.
“Hurry up and undo whatever you did before somepony walks in and sees you!” the other mare snorted. “You’re making my body look ridiculous!”
“Heh. Sorry, Rarity!” The white mare grinned apologetically, and her shoulders fell back into a slouch.
Flowers adorned every wall and window of Canterlot Castle’s throne room. All the candles were lit, though only for the festivity; bright sun shone through the windows.
On the dais at the front, before the hundreds of ponies who crowded the enormous room, a dozen ponies stood. On one side were Luna, Shining Armor, and Spike. On the other, Twilight, Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie all stood in a line, facing forward but looking toward the center of the stage. There beneath an arched wreath full of roses and tulips stood Fluttershy, wearing an enormous bouquet behind her ears, and Discord, wearing an even more enormous one behind his.
“If there are any objections to this union,” Celestia said, “speak now, or—”
Sparks exploded across the dais, and a burning white glow bloomed in the space between Discord and Fluttershy. A sudden spiralling wind whipped their manes. Wisps of smoke and ozone spun around the vortex.
“Twilight,” Celestia said with a disapproving frown, “what did I tell you about time-travelling?”
“I didn’t do anything!” Twilight said. “I’m right here! … oh.”
The glowing sphere collapsed on itself with a bang and a flash, and a somewhat-older Twilight stood on the dais.
“I object!” she shouted.
A din arose as the throng of ponies standing before the throne began talking excitedly.
“Called it,” Discord said in a bored voice to nopony in particular.
“I’m so sorry about this, Fluttershy!” the original Twilight said. “I don’t know what I’ll be thinking!”
The new, old Twilight turned urgently to Fluttershy. “Don’t do it, Fluttershy! I’m from the future! This marriage will be a disaster!”
“Hello, Twilight,” Discord said to her. “How thoughtful of you to add a little chaos to my wedding.”
She glared at him as she stepped between him and Fluttershy. Bending toward her, she hissed, “He’ll never grow up! He’ll never be reliable! He’ll break every promise he ever makes!”
“Oh, Twilight,” Fluttershy said. “Surely not every promise.”
Discord bowed to Fluttershy. “I promise to break this promise, my dear.”
“You can’t do this!” Twilight insisted, ignoring him.
“You’re just jealous,” Discord said.
“I am not! In fact, I’m already married to…” Twilight looked away and blushed.
“Yes?” Celestia asked with a smile.
“I’d like the answer to that as well,” Discord said. “Wouldn’t you, Present Twilight?”
“What?” The present Twilight half-flew across the dais and pawed at her future self’s shoulder. “Who? Who am I married to?”
“Well, Twilight?” Celestia asked. “Aren’t you going to answer your own question?”
Future Twilight pulled away from her past self. “You were right,” she confided to Celestia. “Time travel can be incredibly awkward.”
Celestia nodded sympathetically. “Now, you’ve had your say. Twilights, I’m afraid I must ask both of you to step back and make some room for the bride and groom.”
“But… but, you’re not going to let them go through with this again, are you?”
Celestia smiled. “Twilight, what do you suppose would happen if I stopped every pony I thought was making a mistake?”
“I don’t think she’s making a mistake. I know she’s making a mistake!”
Celestia shook her head. “No, Twilight. You only know what’s going to happen.”
Present Twilight led a stunned-looking Future Twilight back to join her in the line of bridesmaids. Celestia looked up and cleared her throat. “It is not often that ponies contemplate the union of marriage with foreknowledge of the future. Consider it carefully before you take your vows.” She leaned closer to Fluttershy. “We aren’t in any hurry here. Take as much time as you want. This day is yours.”
Fluttershy nodded back. She took one step closer to Discord and looked into his eyes. “I promise you, Discord, that every day, I’ll be the best mate for you that I can, and hope”—she glanced at the future Twilight for just a moment—”and hope that will always be enough for you.”
Discord reached out and took her hoof in one claw. “And I promise you, Fluttershy, that every day, I’ll be the best mate for you that I can. And I hope that will always be enough for you.”
“I judge these promises sincere,” Celestia said. “Do you, Fluttershy, take Discord as your mate?”
“I do,” said Fluttershy.
“No!” future Twilight gasped.
“And do you, Discord, take Fluttershy as yours?”
“Absolutely,” Discord said. “Also: unreservedly, unequivocally, indubitably, and indisputably.”
“I pronounce you pony and draconequus,” Celestia said. “You may now kiss the groom.”
The future Twilight fluttered her wings helplessly. “He’s bent to the bone! He’ll break your heart a hundred times! It’ll all end in tears!”
Fluttershy looked up at Discord and smiled. She stretched her head out and kissed him on the cheek, and the angry glare on his face was washed away by a smile of happy confusion. Then Fluttershy turned back toward Twilight, who was already beginning to fade.
Celerity (noun): The quality of being rapid, swift, brisk. From the Hipponian, keles, a fast horse or ship.
During the spring, they’d been awoken each morning by proud, boasting birdsong on the balcony outside their room. Rarity supposed the latticework of its thick stone balustrade was the most-desirable avian real estate in Equestria, by virtue of being closest to the princess; and if they wanted to boast of being close to her, well, Rarity of all ponies couldn’t blame them.
The birds had served as a less-reliable alarm clock throughout the summer, and failed them entirely now, in the leafless tail end of autumn. An alarm clock, unfortunately, was the one thing Celly wouldn’t tolerate in her bedroom. “The most barbarous invention Equestria has ever suffered,” she called it; alternately, “my slave-driver,” or, “that which must be obeyed.” Before its invention, morning had come when Celestia jolly well wanted it to, and nopony could say she was wrong. Now even the sun had been trained to rise on a regular schedule, and it peeked over the horizon at their bedroom window with just the deepest purple of its rays, waiting eagerly for its master to take it for a walk across the sky.
“Rise and shine,” Rarity said, prodding Celestia’s big white flank. She carefully gauged her pressure to be not quite enough to get Celly out of bed. It would be a shame, after all, to prod that flank only once.
Without opening her eyes, Celestia reached out with one hoof, snatched Rarity’s pillow away, and dragged it over her head.
There were elements of the Equestrian press, such as that The Daily—shameless rag—which had little sense of lèse-majesté. Every piece of cake Celly had would somehow find its way onto the front page, usually accompanied by a photograph of Her Majesty’s hindquarters, taken through some sort of distorting lens. Their continual snarks about her tea “habit” were not, Rarity thought, in good taste. And “taste” had not even been in their vocabulary, unless it were in a lewd sense, back when she and Celly had begun their liaison. But there was one palace secret not even the tabloids would dare publish: Princess Celestia was not a morning pony.
“Now, what would our old friend Mister Robin think if he knew you were sleeping in while he was away?” Rarity chided. “After all the years he’s spent training you.”
“'s a different robin,” Celestia muttered from under her pillow.
“What? What do you mean, a different robin?”
Celestia did not elaborate, so Rarity prodded her again, a little more sharply. Celestia pulled herself into a ball and pressed the pillow more tightly against her ears.
Rarity smiled. She was going to get to do a lot of prodding this morning.
She draped herself over Celestia’s exposed back and drew one hoof slowly along her flank. “What would the nobleponies say,” she said, “if they knew that the start of the new day, all their business, all their plans—the fate of the Empire, really—depended on me getting you out of bed?”
A white foreleg reached back and arrested Rarity’s. “You’re not trying to get me out bed,” Celestia said from beneath her pillow. “You’re trying to keep me in bed.”
Rarity ran her horn up and down Celestia’s neck, combing her mane.
Her Majesty, Eldest Princess of Equestria, groaned, wiped the drool from her mouth, raised her head to look back at Rarity, and blinked stupidly as the stolen pillow fell beside her.
Rarity nibbled gently at the royal ear.
“Well,” Celestia said, “I don't suppose it would hurt the sun to wait a few more minutes.”
“What did you mean,” Rarity asked more than a few minutes later as Celestia sat in front of the vanity set and she re-did Celestia’s mane with a proper brush, “a different robin?” The hairs throbbed under her strokes, and often curled back around the brush and towards Rarity, but she was firm about mane care and could not be distracted.
“Wormbiter and Twig Sculptor didn’t come back this year,” Celestia said. “This is a different pair.”
“You named them?”
“No. Those are their names.”
Rarity paused, holding the brush out to the side.
“Rare?” Celestia asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Rarity said, resuming her even strokes through the long flowing rainbow. “It’s just—when they were just birds, it seemed natural that they should come and go. But it’s a little sad now that they have names.”
Celestia pushed the brush aside, turned, and raised her head to nuzzle the underside of Rarity’s neck. “You’re precious. But the best way to honor the pretty things is to enjoy them while we can, Rarity. You of all ponies should understand that.”
Rarity reached up and stroked Celestia’s chin with one hoof. Then she froze.
“Dear?” Celestia asked.
“Nothing,” Rarity said. She pulled the brush back in and began tugging it urgently through Celestia’s mane.
“Dear?” Celestia repeated, leaning back far enough to look her in the eye.
“Well…” She set the brush on the desk. “It’s just… oh, I know I was terribly shallow when we began seeing each other, Celly.” She laughed, quietly but crystal-clear. “I really don’t know what you saw in me! But I certainly hope you don’t imagine, after all these years, that I think of you as just a pretty thing.”
Celestia said nothing, and turned her face away.
Rarity bit her lip, and set her forehooves on Celestia’s shoulders, giving her a quick hug before patting her on the back and sending her outside to start the new day.
I was nearly to the door of the Bird and Foal when it swung violently open and an aquamarine unicorn mare hurtled out, stumbling onto the boardwalk.
“And stay out!” I heard the gravelly voice of Hard Knocks say.
As soon as the mare regained her footing, her startled eyes and confused frown drew together into something tight and hard. She turned around, tossed her mane arrogantly, and angled her head back so as to be looking down her nose at the bouncer. “If you think for one moment that the Great and Powerful Trixie will ever again grace the dim-witted, unsavory patrons of your dim and unsavory establishment with her talent and—”
The bouncer’s stubby head thrust out from the doorway. It resembled a boulder in shape, consistency, and concern about what was in its path. The mare broke off in mid-sentence and galloped off the boardwalk and down the street, leaving a cloud of dust behind her.
“What was that all about, Knocks?” I asked.
He looked down the street and narrowed his eyes at the retreating mare. “Some showmare. Tonight’s entertainment. Card tricks. Guess the card, find the card, unshuffle the deck. The works.”
“I say, weren't you a bit hard on her for doing bad card tricks?”
He snorted. “Oh, they were good. Too good.”
“You don’t mean…”
“Yeah,” he said. He leaned out beyond the boardwalk and spat into the dirt of the street. “Turned out she was usin’ magic.”
Twilight scratched her nose and stared at the small marble figure of a guard, pushed forward from its protective phalanx on her opponent’s left flank, right onto a diagonal of her princess.
She checked again, three moves ahead, then four, for any recapture, pin, or fork. Nothing. The move would split her major pieces between the left and right halves of the board. Could that weakness be worth a guard sacrifice?
But it wasn’t even a weakness! Her princess was still on the back rank; moving it would only strengthen her position. She'd been considering the move even before her opponent put the guard there. So what was her opponent up to?
Wobbly Wisher had said, “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.” Taking the guard was the best move.
But evidential reasoning required considering that her opponent thought moving the guard had been a good move. Ergo, there was something Twilight still wasn’t seeing, because she thought it was an awful move.
But her opponent knew Twilight would think it was an awful move, one so bad that it was obviously a trap. So avoiding the “trap” might be the trap! It was a psychological trick to let Twilight let her move the guard through a protected square.
But she also knew that Twilight knew that she knew Twilight knew that it looked like an awful move. So...
Twilight shook her head, scratched her nose again, and started over. If she ignored the guard, she'd avoid the trap--if it were a trap--and still have the initiative, probably a game-winning—
“AAUGH!” Twilight glared at the chess clock beside the board, then slumped her shoulders and let her head drop.
“I WIN AGAIN!” Rainbow Dash shouted, jumping up from the table. She froze in mid hoof-pump and looked at Twilight. “The buzzer means I win, right?”
Twilight sighed. “Yes, Rainbow. The buzzer means you win.”
Dash pumped her hoof. “Yesss! I win, I win, I win, I WIN!”
Twilight frowned and began setting up the pieces again. “One. More. Game,” she said through her teeth, without looking up.
“Naw,” Rainbow said, waving one wing dismissively at the board. “This game’s too easy.”
Yes, I have heard of the Farisi, the gentle people. I have heard their females were graceful in flight, their males crested with golden feathers. I have been told we must learn from the Farisi.
The Blackbeaks say the Farisi made the best music, and that once every Blackbeak fledgling had a Farisi flute. But if you ask them to sing a Farisi song, they will smile and say they have all been forgotten.
These tales are foolish. I have seen that peak whose name is forgotten, midway between Brokebeak and the Claws. Its sulfurous stink reaches through thick clouds.
Its western edge is steep and rocky. This is the land one flies over on the updrafts. This is where the lookouts stood watching for Blackbeaks or Silvertails, and where they cried out Dull Claws' name when he returned from across the western sea.
Woods climb its eastern edge. A traveler drifting over it sees a thin gray line below the ridge. A yellow haze clings to the mountain's eastern side even on cloudless days.
The gray line is granite. The haze is smoke, foul like rotten eggs, rising from narrow cracks a claw's breadth across. The cracks stretch a hundred spans and more through the stone and earth around them. I could not see to their bottoms.
The riven stone is dry and hot. An egg broken upon it would soon turn hard and white.
The road's northern end curves uphill and ends in a great field of limestone covered with moss. Here the tribe sat while Dull Claws told them of the ponies, who lived across the sea in peace and harmony, neither killing nor being killed. He told them that the earth gave them more fruit and berries than they could gather, and the stones of the earth shaped themselves into great cities for their comfort. Here he told them of their leader, the great white Sun Mare.
In the center of the plaza stands a stone statue with no head, still twice as tall as a gryphon. Chisel cuts on its flanks mark an eight-pointed sun. The statue looks like a bear with wings. Its carver never saw a pony.
Little else remains. The Farisi built with wood.
In the brush below the road, queer vines cling to strange gnarled trees. Dull Claws brought their seeds from across the sea. In the fall the vines bear the sweet purple berries and the trees bear the hard, round, red fruit he told his tribe to eat instead of meat. The Blackbeaks say there were other fruit besides, and ground grains, and cooked roots, at the feast the Farisi threw for the Blackbeak to teach them of the white mare of peace. But the Farisi were thin from eating them.
The Blackbeaks still feast on that day every year, to remember.
North of where the village was, there is a hole in the ground that spews thick yellow-and-green smoke night and day. This is where the Farisi dug for the black burning rock which Dull Claws said gave the ponies great power. This is the hole the Blackbeak warriors threw Dull Claws into after they broke his wings. They filled it with wood and set it on fire, the same fire that burns in the mountain's belly today.
But no one knows if the Farisi had beautiful voices or golden crests. The chief of the Blackbeaks feared their weakness would infect his people. So he ordered their carvings burned, their pottery smashed, their males gelded and used as beasts of burden, and their females sold or kept to serve his soldiers and household. Their eggs fed his brood.
Every year on the feast of the Farisi, the holy one of the Blackbeaks brings out a box of bone flutes, and they play songs on them late into the night. I have seen these flutes with these two eyes. This is what is left of the Farisi.
So if someone bends your ear with stories saying the Farisi had golden crests, and voices like honey or like flutes, he is a fool and does not know the world. He would do well to learn from the Farisi.
I release another blast from my horn, but the battle is over. The Messengers lie broken, their blubbery mouths open in shock, their gelatinous bodies slowly dissolving in their own foul secretions. One grasps at me with a wet tentacle as I trot by. Its grip is too weak to hold me, but it looks at me, pleading, and I pause.
“Do not fight us!” it slurs. “We offer you glory, glory! The glory that we yearn for, the glory that we have been denied, the glory of feeding the Eater!”
I shrug the slimy thing off in disgust and rush past. We hurry towards the lake. Already it’s strangely silent. The birds have gone. Silver lines flash on its surface. We draw closer, and I see they are thousands of dead fish, bobbing on waves this lake should not have.
Out in the center of the lake the waters stir. Huge bubbles, glistening oily black, surface and break, belching foul sulfurous gases that spread a fine yellow-green mist over the lake. The water rises and pushes, a great green wave surges and sweeps forward and yet still rises and rises behind, rising like a tower, turning blacker as it rises, until the wave breaks and reveals the dark lugubrious glory of the Eater.
We were wrong. We were fools. It Is.
Suddenly I’m covered in sweat. Why am I here? What is there to do but run? We are less than insects before it.
I try to turn away, but can’t take my eyes off of the shimmering spirals of its formless black protoplasm as it oozes and pulses through our reality like gobs of oil dropped in water, taking and discarding the shapes of strange alien organs. It has no shape, and all shapes. Every conceivable form and thought, and many inconceivable.
It shifts, and the black blaze of light reflecting off its glittering carapace hits me like a wave of heat. I raise a hoof to ward it off, and I see eight great white oval discs in rows on its side, black circles growing in their centers, and I have only a moment to think Its eyes, don’t look, I’m not worthy—
and it. Looks. At. Me.
I'm panting. How long have i stood here? Is it possible that i have had Its Eye, even one of Its Eyes, upon me? Could i be found worthy of feeding It?
I thirst for just one drop of the viscous black ambergris i know coils within its hidden intestines. To taste, and be tasted, and trade my stiff, solid, solitary soul for an infinitesimal piece of the bilious Infinite.
Up above, a sky-blue gnat buzzes about before the god’s face. It darts forward and strikes at its squamous hide. Momentarily some tree-like tentacle will swat it out of the air.
Far off inside me something is shouting, shouting the folly that this somehow matters even though the black gates lie open before me, beckoning. My legs claw at the ground; i shamble towards the jaws. Soon Its Eyes will fall upon me, Its jaws will open for me!
But instead the Eyes, pits that pull in my gaze and return nothing, slowly turn towards the blue speck. They stop and focus on it, and i follow Its gaze obediently.
In the sky is a pony like me, blue, with wings. It—the pegasus—she—has too many colors in her head and tail, colors that seem obscene out there in the open, instead of hidden decently within the black intestines of the Eater.
She seems vaguely familiar.
The Eater is still looking at her, and i worry It will forget me. No! Take me! She isn’t worthy!
The tiny creature hovers before the god, her forelegs crossed, and half of me laughs and half of me cries and half of me screams in silent terror.
Something is wrong about how she moves. It is—not in tune with the Eater. She moves unbidden. She—defies—the Eater. I shake my head, trying to understand.
I look down at the hooves beneath me, and wonder. I think a thought, a small one, and receive a small miracle in return: the hooves move. My hooves.
I feel the path from me to my body again, coming to life like a vine in the spring.
I look up.
The vast mouth of the Eater moves, forming words that blast the insolent pegasus backwards, though they rumble out slow and unhurried as elephants.
I feel magic flowing within me. I reach back inside myself, full of wonder, to touch it.
The pegasus leans back in mid-air, raises one eyebrow, and throws her puny voice against the god:
“Well?” Bounder said, grinning gleefully. “Is it creepy, or what?”
It was so dark in the barn I had to stand right next to the thing to make it out. The slits in the rafters cut the moonlight in stripes and laid them across it. I ran my hooves over it in the dark places between the stripes. It looked like a sawhorse wrapped in felt, but I could feel hinges underneath, and thick rubber hoses.
“I don’t get it,” I said, and sneezed in the dusty air. “What is it?”
He smacked my shoulder, hard. “What does it look like, idiot?” He pointed at two long, stiff strips of buckram sticking up from a ball on one end. They looked like ears.
I squinted. They were ears. Donkey ears. Suddenly I saw the whole thing was like one of those dummy ponies in the clothing stores, but all flat lines and sharp angles.
The front legs were long wooden slats that stuck up way past the shoulders. There was a flat yoke across its back, connected to each leg by a hinge. I thought maybe the parts sticking out above the shoulder were wings, but they were too skinny, and anyway I was pretty sure it was supposed to be a donkey. A rubber hose ran up the inside of one leg to the top of the shoulder, then across to the other shoulder, hanging between them like a fat black clothesline, and down the other leg to the floor.
“Why’d you think he never opens the windows?” Bounder said. “He’d die if anypony saw this. Which is why we’re gonna splash a photo of him with it across the front page of the school paper.”
“I don’t think it’s the kinda thing for a school newspaper,” I said.
Bounder narrowed his eyes at me and I flinched.
“Come on,” he said. “He’ll hafta leave town! Or do you like being yelled at every time you speak louder’n a whisper? Every time a ball bounces on his side of the street?”
Well, I sure didn’t. I didn’t know how bad being caught with a thing like that was, or why, but I guessed it couldn’t be worse than that grumpy old donkey deserved. Nopony would miss him.
“He’s a pain in the ass," Bounder said.
“Shut up. You said that like three times already.”
“In the ass,” he said again.
“Wait. How’re you gonna get him in the picture?”
“He comes out here every night before bed.”
Outside, I heard a door slam. Bounder dashed across the floor and disappeared. I stood staring at where he’d vanished.
“Under here, idiot!” he hissed.
I blinked, and saw Bounder crouched in an even darker spot under a wall cabinet. I stuffed myself under it a moment before I heard the barn door slide open and saw the old donkey’s shadow stretched across the floor. Even as a shadow, his wig looked ridiculous.
He shut the door, and everything was dark. I heard him clomp towards us. Beside me, I sensed Bounder lifting the camera.
There was a snap, and a mechanical humming started. Something moved in the strips of moonlight. After a minute, the old donkey started moaning, like maybe he was in pain.
Bounder did his ugly gargle-snigger, real quiet. It gave me a sick feeling. I wanted to call out and warn the old donkey, but I was afraid, of him and Bounder both.
Then the flash blinded me, and I heard Bounder scrambling out and running, and realized I was running too. I groped for the latch in the dark, and then somehow the door was open and we were outside. I ran straight home, stumbling in the dark and startling at shadows.
The next day I passed by the old donkey’s place on my way to school. It was silent. The barn doors were open. I didn’t see anything inside.
I was jumpy all through school, expecting the teacher’s hooves to grab me every time he walked past. Afterwards I met Bounder in the school’s darkroom.
“This’ll be good,” he said, swishing the film under the developing fluid in the red light.
There were two shapes in the picture, facing each other. Soon I could tell which was the real donkey and which was the fake. The fake donkey’s forelegs were lifted up and lying across the real one’s shoulders. The hose between its shoulders that had sagged before was full of air, pushing out on the slats and pushing the forelegs together. They squeezed the old donkey like it was giving him a hug.
Bounder looked at it and said some bad words. I still didn’t get what was so bad about it. Anyway, with the real donkey already gone, we never did run that picture.
I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said—Four vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies alone, Whose gentle smile, and hint of knowing wink, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet spring forth, passed on through pen and ink, In every lowly village in that land; And on the pedestal, these words appear: “Let this statue sink into the sand, Let desert zephyrs scour its scribings bare, If my dreams still peek from eyes of foals, Then what for stone or statue should I care? I spent my years on small and foolish things, Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Lord Tirek stood in his cage, held his manacled arms out before him, and waited.
Inside he ached with hunger. The knotting and jumping of his empty stomach, the maniac thirst that rode him, certainly, but above all the agonizing hunger for magic. Not to lock a pony’s eyes to his and drink hot draughts of stolen power for another hundred, another thousand years!
He grasped the iron bars of his cage and grinned through the hunger. Though he yet starved, he drank his fill—not of food or drink or magic, but of time.
He had not merely fought the gods of this place before—not merely escaped them—but had been captured, bound with the strongest steel, warded with the most-powerful spells, guarded by the most-ferocious beasts, and buried deep beneath centuries of solitude that would have driven a mere mortal mad.
Lord Tirek giggled at the thought. Mad!
And he had overcome them all and come back from the underworld, and when ponies gazed into his eyes they felt the weight of all those sunken centuries crash down onto them. This cage, these bars had made him legend.
Now, again, he waited.
Far above, stallions frightened their foals with tales of Tirek’s might, then tucked them in bed, reassuring them that he, Tirek, was safely in chains and would never escape again. And the foals thought fool me twice and whispered could and couldn’t to each other in the dark, their eyes shining.
Someday, they would begin to forget. Someday the stories would wither and the nightmares fade, and those above would munch their hay and walk their quiet streets and watch their sunsets, and wonder what they had lost. And then Tirek would emerge again, smashing their staid sums, overturning their confident chronology, breathing the hot breath of history in their faces. Tirek threw his head back and laughed, and rattled the iron bars of his cage in anticipation.
One bar, which had held solid for centuries as he had shaken it and howled in anger, chose that moment to finally break free of the cement foundation. He easily pulled it loose. He held it in his arms and stared at it.
“Guards!” he called, “guards!”
His rasping voice trickled down from his cage, broke on the stalagmites all about, fell back and evaporated.
He scowled at the traitorous bar, then shoved it back in place as best he could. When all was well again, he stroked it gently.
“Too soon, my dear,” he whispered. “Much too soon.”
Lord Tirek stood in his cage, held his manacled arms out before him, and waited.