Thirty-one one-shots inspired by thirty-one random Magic cards.
There's a story behind every Magic card, but they probably don't have quite as many ponies in them as these do. Set throughout Equestrian probability space, each of these stories was inspired by a card chosen through Gatherer's Random Card function. As such, categories and characters will vary.
Key: EoH canon: Happens in the Elementals of Harmony continuity. EoH compatible: Does not contradict that continuity, but didn't necessarily happen there. Not EoH compatible: Contradicts that continuity in some way; definitely didn't happen there. OW canon: Happens in the Oversaturated World continuity.
1. Fish Out of Water (EoH compatible) Tags: Sad, Slice of Life, Human Characters: Sonata Dusk, Ditzy and the Quantum Mechanics After the events of Rainbow Rocks, Sonata tries to cope with her new situation.
2. Last Trump (EoH canon) Tags: Sad, Adventure, Historical/Mythic Characters: OCs, Discord The final battle for the Marengeti.
3. Mental Health Day (Not EoH compatible) Tags: Comedy, Slice of Life, First-Person Discord Characters: Discord, Celestia, a surprise Discord shows Celestia how much he cares.
4. Core Values (EoH canon) Tags: Sad, Slice of Life, Backstory Characters: Big Macintosh, Granny Smith Reliving memories on a grim anniversary.
5. Guest Speaker (Not EoH compatible) Tags: Comedy, Slice of Life, Ensuing Hilarity Characters: Discord, Cheerilee and her students Fluttershy asks Discord to help teach the foals about fantastic creatures. See third tag.
6. Necessary Evil (EoH compatible) Tags: Dark, Pre-Adventure, Worldbuilding Characters: Celestia, Twilight A meditation on the Hollow Shades.
7. Left Shaken (Not EoH compatible) Tags: Pre-Adventure, Implied Dark Characters: Celestia, Luna, Twilight, Discord The father of all earthquakes strikes everywhere except Equestria.
8. Aftershock (EoH compatible, OW canon) Tags: Slice of Life, Human, Human Ponidox Characters: Twilight, Rainbow Dash, Rainbow Dash After the events of Rainbow Rocks, pony Dash wants to have a word with her human counterpart.
9. Prismatic Mercy (EoH compatible) Tags: Cool, Radical, Awesome Characters: Rainbow Dash A typical day in the life of the coolest pegasus ever.
10. In the Details (EoH canon) Tags: Dark, Worldbuilding Characters: OCs A grim ritual is successfully performed.
11. Downtime (EoH canon) Tags: Slice of Life, Metareferential Characters: Twilight, Spike Twilight feels she's overdue for a disaster.
12. Rock On (EoH compatible, OW canon) Tags: Adventure, Human, Urban Fantasy Characters: Maud Pie Maud Pie can speak with stone. When she comes home for a visit, the rocks are screaming.
13. Peer Review (EoH canon) Tags: Slice of Life, Comedy, Technobabble Characters: Ditzy Doo, the Flimflam Brothers Ditzy encounters a curious construct on her way back from an air mail delivery.
14. Contained Blaze (EoH canon) Tags: Adventure, Crossover (more so than usual.) Characters: Diamond Dogs, Spot (the short one,) a certain someone The Diamond Dogs find themselves in possession of another troublesome unicorn.
15. Tomodachi Sentai Ponyranger (Not EoH compatible) Tags: Adventure, What If? Characters: Mane Six, Tirek, Discord Dash jumps the gun on turning her Key of Harmony. Events proceed from there.
16. Tutti Frutti (EoH canon) Tags: Slice of Life, Slice of Fruit, Backstory Characters: Granny Smith Zap apple jam wasn't made in a day.
18. Lather, Rinse, Repeat (Not EoH applicable) Tags: Adventure, Alternate Continuity Characters: The Mane-iac, the Power Ponies, OCs She's a hair's thickness from her old insanity, and Hoof and Mouth on the prowl. What will the Mane-iac do? Find out inside, true believers!
19. No and Yes (EoH canon) Tags: Adventure, Angst, Forwardstory Characters: Pumpkin Cake, a few others In the not-too-distant future, Pumpkin Cake goes forth on a righteous mission that happens to involve a can of spray paint.
20. Military Tradition (EoH canon) Tags: Slice of Life, Worldbuilding, Friendshipping Characters: Shining Armor, Spike Shining entertains a young Spike with stories of some of the Guard's greatest heroes.
21. Roundabout Route (EoH canon) Tags: Adventure, Implied Dark, Third-Person Paranoiac Characters: OC, one other One stallion flees from a grim ritual, and from everything else.
22. Yo, Jimbo! (Not EoH compatible) Tags: Slice of Life, Comedy, Friendshipping Characters: Mane Six, Discord Discord discovers the meaning of duty in the most obnoxious way possible.
23. My Little Ponzi (EoH canon) Tags: Slice of Life, Adult Content (white-collar crime) Characters: Babs Seed, OC, stallions who have a purely circumstantial resemblance to the Flimflam Brothers The Invisible Hoof is a metaphor for market forces. The Visible Hoof? She's a lot more literal.
24. Without Haste (EoH compatible) Tags: Slice of Life, Friendshipping Characters: Applejack, Zecora To something AJ's been invited. Zecora thinks she'll be delighted.
25. Reasonable Doubt (EoH canon) Tags: Slice of Life, Implied Dark, Crossover Characters, Lyra, Bonbon, Twilight, Spike, Ditzy Doo Lyra's stint as Chrysalis's bridesmaid was not without consequences.
26. Marine Biology (EoH compatible) Tags: Slice of Life, Dark, Worldbuilding Characters: OCs In the grim wetness of the ocean depths of Ungula, there is mostly war.
27. Matters of Interest (EoH canon) Tags: Slice of Life, Friendshipping, Early Modern English Equish Characters: Celestia, Luna, OCs A month after Luna's return, Celestia finally has a chance to spend some time with her sister.
28. Born of Conflict (Not EoH compatible) Tags: Worldbuilding, Historical/Mythic Characters: OC, the founders of Equestria A brief biography of a notable pegasus who survived the Great Freeze.
29. Alone in the Darkness (EoH compatible) Tags: Dark, Tragedy, Worldbuilding Characters: King Sombra A stallion scribes his struggle against the shadows.
30. Coda (EoH canon) Tags: Slice of Life, Obsolete Headcanon Characters: Octavia and her quartet, OCs Another night's performance. Of course, it's never just another night's performance.
31. In Amazing Technicolor (EoH compatible) Tags: Slice of Life, Holiday Characters: Luna Nightmare Night's a busy time for the mare of honor.
Sonata sat in a corner of the cafeteria and sighed. Getting disempowered sucked, and nothing could change that, not even Taco Tuesday.
Okay, it being Taco Tuesday helped a little, but not much.
At least she didn't mind being alone. Adagio and Aria didn't want anything to do with her, and really, the feeling was mutual. After all, they were predators. This was how they were supposed to work. It was all Adagio's fault for screwing with the natural order, but now Sonata had to pay for it too.
Scraping chairs brought her attention back to the table, where three girls were seated on the other side, all dressed in blue and yellow. Sonata mentally labelled them Blue, Yellow, and Red, going by their hair color from left to right. Yellow was smiling and adjusting her tie, but Blue and Red both looked wary.
"Hi," said Yellow. "I'm Ditzy Doo." A beat, and she nudged Red with an elbow.
That spurred an introduction. "I'm Raspberry Fluff."
"Blue Oyster," said Blue—oh hey, Sonata got that one right—in a very Aria-like tone. Her half-lidded eyes were equally familiar, though the poofy hair was definitely a change.
Sonata moved her tacos closer and put her arms around them. "What do you want?"
Ditzy kept smiling. "We want to be your friends."
"Ditzy wants to be your friend," said Blue. "Razz and I are tagging along to make sure you don't pull something."
Raspberry nodded. "And she said she'd bake us apology muffins if this didn't work."
Ditzy pouted. "Come on, girls! Sunset Shimmer turned into a demon, but after she got took a rainbow to the face, she cleaned up her act. I mean, she even stepped up and took out the next evil mind-controlling magical horses." Her eyes widened, and with an awkward grin, she brought her attention back to Sonata. "Er, no offense."
Sonata just scowled and grabbed a taco with her right hand, keeping her left arm between her food and Blue Oyster.
Raspberry ran a hand through her waist-length hair. "Well, you like tacos," she said, "so you can't be all bad."
Sonata hunched over her food. "Why are you doing this?"
The three looked at one another. Ditzy spoke, a bit more anxious than before. "Like I said, we want to be your friends, to one degree or another. It seemed like you were just going along with the other two more often than not. Now you can be your own person, do what you really want instead of whatever they tell you."
"Oh." Sonata shook her head. "Wow, you really don't get it."
Two of the girls frowned, but Blue Oyster quirked an eyebrow. "Do tell."
"Adagio... she's always been really smart. She's the one who figured out how to combine our powers, and she's the one who could figure out you people. I..." Sonata frowned and squirmed. "I'm trying to find the words, and that's kind of the problem."
Blue nodded. "How so?"
"You know why I like tacos? They remind me of home."
Ditzy brightened up. "Really? How?"
Sonata felt a hint of a smile develop. "A thin skin over yummy meat. Just like sailors." She took a big bite. "Mmm…"
The other three girls glanced at one another. "Sailors?" asked Raspberry.
Sonata nodded. "Find a ship, sing to them, get them fighting, feed off the negative energy, and eat them after they wreck themselves. It was a good life." She scowled. "Then Adagio came, and she promised all I could eat if I joined her, and that worked until it didn't." Cracks sounded from the taco shell as her grip tightened. "And now I'm stuck here in this stupid body and this stupid world where everything's complicated and nothing makes sense and it all sucks."
Something touched her left hand. She flinched back and saw Ditzy looking back, hand outstretched and eyes askew. The blonde cleared her throat and said, "You could see this as an opportunity. We can help you adapt."
"Besides," added Blue, "even if you'd succeeded, what would you have done after you took over the world?"
Sonata blinked. "After?"
"Yeah. World domination sounds all well and good, but then you have to do something with the planet."
Ditzy smirked at her. "You've thought about this."
Blue returned the smirk. "You haven't?"
"Are we just ignoring the part where she ate pe—"
Ditzy shook her head. "Not the time, Razz."
Sonata barely noticed. She was too busy considering the concept of "after." "I… I guess Adagio would've thought of something?" Sonata shrugged. "I was just in it 'cause… well, we're the only three sirens in this world." She sagged. "At least, we were. We needed each other to squeeze a little magic out of you monkeys. Now…" She sighed.
"Now you can have actual friends," said Ditzy.
Sonata rubbed her temples. "I don't get you."
Blue nodded. "Yeah, Ditzy's weird, but that's part of her charm."
Sonata shook her head. "Not just her. I really don't get any of you. I don't get anything about this world. For a while, I could figure stuff out, but now everything changes so fast that by the time I have, it doesn't matter anymore." She folded into herself. The tacos were pale imitations anyway. She could barely remember the taste of minotaur. "Just leave me alone."
"Ditzy, let it go." Raspberry Fluff actually sounded sad. Weird.
"If she says she wants to be left alone," said Blue Oyster, "we should respect that."
A sigh. "Okay. Sonata?"
She looked back up. The other two were standing, lunch trays in hand, but Ditzy hadn't gotten up yet. "What?"
"If you ever change your mind, we're here for you." Ditzy gave a sad little smile. "In any case, I hate seeing people being sad. Take this." She set a muffin on Sonata's lunch tray.
Sonata just looked at the pastry for a few seconds. "That's what always gets me. You people are just enough like ponies that I can never figure you out."
"Like I said, we're here for you." And with that, the trio left her alone.
Balanbos trudged into the camp, his steps heavy with more than mere mass. The news he bore was almost more than even an armodon could bear. His four tusks felt frivolous now, his crown of horns weighed not with honor and responsibility but despair. His trunk all but dragged in the dust.
And yet, as he passed through the first ring of tents, how the many peoples of the savannah rushed out to greet him! Zebras made lean and hard by war, warriors and shamans alike. Giraffes humbled by circumstance into consorting with the "low-minded" races. Okapi, gazelles, quagga, all forced together by circumstance. And of course, the common elephants, his charges and subjects, their reverence unmarred by the long struggle.
And now approached one of his peers. His heart cried out, for it was sweet Mtala, gentle Mtala! None deserved to hear what he had witnessed, but least of all she who protected the orphans and destitute.
"Balanbos," she said, her sweet voice unable to disguise the pain in her eyes, brought by all the suffering she had seen. "What news?"
He wished to spare her, to spare all of them, but it would be no kindness to leave them unprepared. He moved close to her ear and whispered, "Grim tidings, my friend. We must speak with our fellows."
The pain in Mtala's eyes grew, but she nodded her crowned head and laid her trunk upon his shoulder. "I will gather them. Go rest."
Balanbos watched her leave, biting back a bitter laugh. Rest? Even if he had earned the right to rest. he wouldn't. He couldn't. None of them could, not with the Monstrosity still at large.
Balanbos waded through the camp, deaf to those around him. Yes, such was the tragedy that even wise Balanbos, the righteous judge, could not maintain his constant vigilance. Though he knew it not, his presence left near-silence in its wake, nervous whispers the only sound.
He entered the central tent, hung on a ring of twenty poles, held in place by twenty stakes. Each of the noble armadons had personally set one or the other. Though nothing compared to the palace they were forced to abandon, it stood as a testament to their united might.
Only four waited for him now, seeming almost small within the grand structure.
"Well?" asked brave Donot, his mighty tusks shamefully broken by the Monstrosity. "What is it, then?"
Balanbos shut his eyes. "Queen Ferana is dead."
The others followed suit, their heads bowed. "Then the terastodons are no more," whispered once-beautiful Lezu, who had but one eye left to shut. "No more can be elevated to join us. To replace those lost."
"Did she die well?" asked Du, all jests forgotten.
"She challenged the Monstrosity to single combat," answered Balanbos.
The others gasped. "To what purpose?" Lezu cried.
Balanbos slumped to the ground, his shame grown too heavy even for him. "Her last words to me were, 'A queen with no country is a sorry sight. Go, my friend. Live well, for that is the best revenge.' It was my duty to obey."
"She never could take her own advice," Donot grumbled, blinking back his tears.
Mtala was not so reserved. "What do we do now?"
"We honor her memory as best we can." Du smiled, a grim mockery of his grin of old.
"How so?" asked Donot.
Du told him, and Donot's answering smile was even worse.
A storm brewed on the horizon, a nightmare of impossible colors and improbable smells. The light of the setting sun was not blotted out by the billowing clouds, but instead was twisted and made unwholesome. That the sun was setting in the north only emphasized this perversion.
Rank after rank stood in defiance of the storm and the one who had brewed it. At the vanguard were the five armodons, and leading them was Balanbos. He held back his own storm, one of fury and righteousness, until he could see the Monstrosity.
There he was, riding his storm of chaos, serpentine and misshapen. The fiend laughed, a fang jutting out of one end of his mouth, a tusk from the other.
Du's original battle cry had been similar to his proposal: "We go out as damn foolishly as Ferana did." Balanbos had something different in mind.
He trumpeted and began the charge. As the thunder of angry feet met that of utter madness, Balanbos cried out.
Yes, yes. Glare, shout my name, all very droll. Now—
Honestly, young lady, is that how you greet all your friends? I didn't know hoofshakes had been replaced by gouts of stellar plasma, but what do I know?
"Imprisoned?" You call a five-star tropical resort a prison? Well, remind me to book time in the Canterlot dungeons.
Well, yes, that's true, but I was hoping you'd actually enjoy your stay rather than determine the boundaries of the pocket universe. A strange concept, I know, but—
Oh, for crying out loud. Look, I came by because I don't have much to do at the moment, and I thought I'd answer a few of your questions out of the goodness of my hearts. But if you can't be civil for ten seconds, then I'll just excuse myself.
There. Was that really so hard? Now, I'm not going to do something so gauche as give you a set number of questions, then count every vaguely interrogative statement against the quota. Ask as many as you want. I'll answer them until I get bored, so I suggest you keep them interesting.
Oh, Celestia. Really? How long have we known each other? I thought by now you'd have learned that for me, the answer to "Why?" is always "Why not?" Except when it isn't, and this is one of those times, so well done!
Now, as for the actual answer, you needed it. The Tirek incident shook us all up, I'm not afraid to admit that, but you? You still haven't let it go. You were working yourself to the bone trying to ensure that there won't be a next time, and even if there is, that you'll have more warning than whatever your dreams deign to show you. I could see you flagging, Celestia. I could see just how heavy hung the head that wore the crown, and I wasn't the only one. Luna agreed with me, however grudgingly, as did Twilight.
Let's stop and think about that one for a moment. Twilight Sparkle thinks you're working too hard. If that isn't a warning sign, I don't know what is.
Ah, another good question. I care because, believe it or not, I don't actually have an interest in ruling again. Meanwhile, you could be seen as doing an adequate job of running the country by certain metrics, none of which I personally use. As such, while I could do a much better job than you, I don't actually want to, and so I have no wish to see you burn yourself out.
What am I really after? Well, if you must know, my cruel, sinister, true plan is to give you a chance to pull the Califoalnia redwood out of your rump and relax.
Celestia, stop jerking your knees at me and think for a second. Why do you think I didn't tuck you away in a far less pleasant pocket universe the moment I stopped being a rest stop for pigeons?
No. It was because I wanted to see your face as I made my triumphant return. I wanted to watch you as everything you spent millennia to build got torn down in an afternoon.
For the record? This is why I find you so aggravating anymore. The moment I step outside of the horribly limited space you allow me, the only way you'll listen to me is if I play the villain. Honestly, it was all I could do not to give myself a mustache to twirl just then.
In any case, that's why and what. I believe we're both familiar with the who, when, and where. Anything else?
Very good, the one H to go with the five W's. We'll make a journalist of you yet! And it was a well-chosen "how" to boot. If you'd asked how I did this, any answer more elaborate than "Chaos magic" would make your poor little equine brain go supernova. I rather doubt anypony would appreciate that.
But how did I get the others to go along with this? Again, excellent choice. You see, it wasn't just Moonbutt, Magicpants, and me who were concerned for you. No, even dear Fluttershy was worried, and your replacement regent was entirely her idea.
Yes, Fluttershy. Twilight may allegedly be the Princess of Friendship, but it's Fluttershy who has the most friends in Ponyville. Granted, many of those friends aren't ponies themselves, but given that I'm in that particular subset, it would be terribly hypocritical of me to hold that against her.
Now, I admit I may have gossiped a bit, but it didn't take much. Just assurance that yes, this would be harmless; yes, it would be temporary; and yes, it wasn't part of a scheme to reclaim the throne that is rightfully mine but that I frankly don't want anymore. Cross my hearts and hope to fall, make myself symmetrical.
What? Even I know better than to break a Pinkie Promise. I'm chaotic, not crazy.
In any case, once I made it clear that this would be perfectly safe for everyone involved, she made her suggestion, and I loved it. I have to say, one of the more surprising bonuses of friendship is how much inspiration friends can provide. I've gotten more than a dozen ideas just from Twilight forbidding me from doing things that I'd never even considered.
Yes, but I didn't do it lightly. I made sure to interview him first, and I think his views on defense spending and tax policy are exactly what this country needs. Besides, Twilight and Luna are handling most of the affairs of state behind the scenes, and Fluttershy's taking some liberties when translating his edicts.
And I'm a draconequus and you're an alicorn. Are you going somewhere with this?
Well! "Monster" is such an offensive term. I prefer "chimeric-Equestrian." Really, Celestia, I thought you were more progressive than that.
And here we go again with the plasma. Honestly, if you're going to be such a brat about it, then I'll spoil the other surprise. You see, I dilated time a bit when crafting this lovely little getaway. You're experiencing it about seven times faster than Equestria is.
Yes, that's right. Manny Roar may only be king for a day, but you have a week's vacation. Now for the love of yourself, go enjoy it!
Most days, anypony who went to Sweet Apple Acres could be assured of meeting a friendly face. Most days.
One day out of the year, when the apples were still little green hints of what was to come, the farm got a lot less friendly. A pall hung over the house, and not just because of the cloud cover that, scheduled or not, sat like a heavy dumpling in an empty stomach. On that day, Ponyville left Sweet Apple Acres alone, and those who worked it were silently grateful.
That night, some five years after it had happened, Big Macintosh stood near the wheat field, looking up at the sky. Sometimes a pair of shooting stars came by around this time of year. They hadn't paid the Acres a visit yet tonight, but he was patient, and his thoughts were good company.
"Ah'm tryin', Pa," he said to the stars. "It ain't easy, but Ah'm tryin'. AJ's still got yer hat. Keeps it in th' closet, won't wear it. Got a whole bunch made jus' like it, but that one's special to 'er. An' she's a national hero, but Ah ain't surprised by that. She knew she was meant fer more 'n some farm; she jus' found a way t' have it both ways. Apple Bloom's startin' t' get antsy 'bout 'er cutie mark, runnin' 'round town causin' trouble. Finally made a few more friends, though, so it ain't all bad. An' Granny—"
"What about 'er?"
Mac smiled. "Granny's th' same as she's always been."
"Yer dang right she is." A few worrisome pops told him that Granny Smith had settled down beside him. "Jackie's holed 'erself in 'er room. Bloom too."
He just nodded. Words would do nothing to change that.
A hoof patted his shoulder. "Sometimes Ah don't know what's goin' on in that head o' yers, Macky."
He heaved a sigh. If he couldn't open up to Granny Smith, then who? "This time o' year, Ah always think about Pa. Don't know if Ah'll ever be th' stallion he was." Mac kept his gaze locked on the stars. "He always seemed so sure. He never doubted himself. He knew who he was and what he was s'pposed t' do. An' Ah ain't."
"Oh, Macky." It was creaky, but there was laughter in Granny's voice. "Oh, bless yer heart, ya poor, sweet thing."
He turned to face her, mind awhirl. "Granny?"
She shook her head. "Big Macintosh, yer pa seemed so sure to ya 'cause he was too plumb dumb t' know what doubt was. If it weren't fer me an yer ma, th' farm'd have gone under inside of a year."
Mac wanted to say a lot of things, and they all tried to get out at once, jamming up his throat. All he managed was a "Huh?"
Granny patted his shoulder again. "Ah know how it is. When yer young, yer ma an' pa seem big as Celestia an' just as wise. They passed on b'fore ya found out that they were jus' ponies.
"Make no mistake, Ah loved that stallion sure as Ah love you an' yer sisters. But he was thicker 'n ol' Methuxylem over in th' north field. Strong as an ox, but didn't have more 'n one thought in 'is head a day. Th' day he intr'duced me t' yer ma, Ah said to 'er, 'Valencia, thank ya fer takin' in my stupid son. Ah hope th' foals take after you.' An' thank Celestia, they did. 'Specially you.
"Y' look like yer pa, Mackie, but y' got twenty times th' brains. That's yer problem. Y' ain't Apple Syrup, an' y' shouldn't try t' be."
The two of them sat there for awhile as Mac took this in. "He was still a good stallion," he finally said.
"Oh, no question there. Ah named him well. Sweet an' thick. But don't go thinkin' y' need t' be yer pa, Big Macintosh. Yer yer own stallion. Remember that, an' he'll be prouder of ya than if ya jus' tried t' be him."
Mac gave a solemn nod. "Thank ya, Granny."
"Well, Ah best get inside b'fore this night air gums up mah joints any worse." Granny stood with much groaning, not all of it from her mouth. "G'night, Macky."
And as his grandmother walked back to the house, Macintosh saw the paired stars.
Cheerilee loved the beginning of the day. So many eager young minds, hungry for knowledge. She just wished it didn't feel like she was about to give them hayburgers and strychnine. "Good morning, class!"
"Good morning, Miss Cheerilee," they chorused.
"We have a very... exciting development today." Her smile felt more artificial with every passing moment. She'd been a living siege engine once; how could her face feel so sore now? "You see, Miss Fluttershy heard what we're focusing on, and she thought a... friend of hers would like to..." She couldn't do this. She'd apologize, get back to the old curriculum, and everything would—
"Hello, my little ponies!"
—be ruined. Forever. Though there weren't any screams, which was far better than Cheerilee had been expecting. The foals all seemed stunned more than anything. "Class," she said, "a draconequus who needs no introduction."
"Indeed! But just in case: Hi, I'm Discord. You may remember me from such world-shaking events as my glorious, albeit short-lived return." He looked about the room, fingers pursed, eyes eager. It was like a grotesque parody of a precocious student.
No, Cheerilee couldn't think like that. She'd taught old Marediterranean myths enough times to recognize a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Now, I don't want any of you to be nervous. Mister Discord—"
"Please, just Discord," he said with a wave of his paw. "'Mister Discord' is what they'd have called my father, if that had been his name and if there had been any kind of 'they' around to call him that."
"Discord has assured me that this will be entirely safe." Cheerilee caught his eye and tried to look as threatening as she dared. "Right?"
"Of course!" Discord circled through the air like a flying eel. "I'm not going to unleash untold chaos here! After all, there are children present!" He winked at her. "My work is already done."
Cheerilee really wished she could disagree with that sentiment. Especially with the Crusaders in the classroom. "In any case, I trust Miss Fluttershy told you about what we're studying right now?"
"Naturally." Discord vanished from the ceiling, only to reappear in front of her desk, clad in a pith helmet and a Haywaiian shirt so loud as to be almost deafening. "You're studying fantastic beasts, a subject truly dear to me." He produced a crooked pink umbrella and began pointing at illustrations that weren't there a moment ago. "Now, you've covered manticores, cragodiles, cockatrices, all sorts of local fauna—and in the case of timberwolves, flora. Entirely understandable, close as you are to the Everfree. I, however, am uniquely capable of teaching you about creatures that live further afield."
Discord's helmet sprouted curly red locks as his shirt grew into an improbably patterned dress. "Now, regrettably, I neglected to prepare permission slips, so a field trip to the deepest reaches of Pataponia is not an option. Of course, that just means that rather than take us to the lesson, I need to bring the lesson to us. Everypony outside, there's learning to be had!" And with a flash of light, he vanished from the classroom.
Cheerilee had never been very religious. Seeing the princesses on a somewhat regular basis for the past few years had lessened it further. But now, she could only pray. Pray and smile. "Well, let's go see what he has for us."
It wasn't at all what she'd expected, which may have been the point. It looked rather like a badger, if badgers were brown, had sickle-like front claws, and were about twenty feet long. Given how it was looking around and what Cheerilee could make of its expression, the creature looked as confused as she felt. Still, she made sure to put herself between it and her students... though many of them peeked out from either side of her.
Discord popped up from behind the beast, beaming with pride. "Fillies and colts, I present to you the megatherium!"
"The what?" Scootaloo never had been one for new vocabulary.
Discord shrugged. "Well, that's what the zoologists call it. Personally, I prefer 'super-sloth.' That's what it is, after all."
"What doeth it eat?" Twist was slowly edging away from the creature, and Cheerilee really couldn't blame her.
"Oh, leaves, mostly. Don't worry, little ones, I wouldn't bring out something that would think of you as lunch. I'm pretty sure that's reserved for advanced placement students." Discord winked at Cheerilee again. It did nothing to settle her fears. Still, the megatherium seemed content in looking back and forth, watching the conversation like a tennis match.
"How smart is it?" asked Silver Spoon.
"Bright enough to have a sense of what we're saying. Not because it doesn't understand speech, but because it's unfamiliar with the language." Discord turned to the creature. "¿Es verdad?"
It nodded. It spoke Sponish. Of course it did. At this point, Cheerilee wouldn't be surprised if it stood up and started singing.
"In any case," Discord continued, "I've explained the situation, and you're all welcome to some hooves-on experience with this delightful fellow. Just remember, he's going to try to be gentle, but he is rather immense. Be careful. And that's me saying that."
The class herded around the megatherium, and Cheerilee forced herself to stay in place. Her hooves itched with the need to make sure her students were safe, but she had to admit, this might actually work.
"You really need to relax."
She jumped. She might have cleared the schoolhouse; it certainly felt like it. Discord was only a few inches from her face. "Don't do that!" she hissed.
"I have to get in a little chaos now and again." Discord's tone was entirely factual. Instructive, even. "Still, I should be good for a while. Now, I assure you, I picked one of the gentlest creatures I know."
"Well, gentlest and most interesting. And native to this universe. I could've conjured a bunch of flobberworms, but I don't think anypony would've appreciated them, nor would they have learned much." Discord smiled. "Still, I do have standards, and one of them is not hurting children. They're glorious little bundles of havoc-wreaking potential. Why would I want to change that?"
Cheerilee scowled. "They're—"
"What? Innocent?" Discord rolled his eyes and put them back in the opposite sockets. "Innocence is a myth born of nostalgia. You've seen Diamond Tiara. There is no cruelty like that of a child."
Cheerilee made sure to keep her voice even. She hadn't stopped keeping an eye on her students, who were having a great time with the megatherium. She had no wish to disrupt that. Certainly not with something she didn't want them repeating later. "Aren't you supposed to be reformed?"
Discord blinked at her for a moment, then groaned and smashed a pomegranate between his eyes. "You are entirely right, and I'm going about this all wrong. I was attempting to bond through a common interest, but I fell back into the old adversarial routine. You have my apologies, Cheerilee, and I don't give those out frequently."
There was a brief pause before Cheerilee nodded. "Accepted. We all have something more to learn."
"Hey, what's this do?"
Both teacher and draconequus turned to the class with surprisingly similar expressions. Cheerilee bolted forward. "Scootaloo, no!"
After a 5.8 on the Sparkle-Adjusted Ponyville Disaster Scale, Cheerilee was understandably frazzled. "I'm not ungrateful for his help, Fluttershy, but I'm not letting him help teach anything again."
Fluttershy gave a little frown. "I don't think that's entirely fair." She turned to the major culprits in the afternoon's shenanigans. "Now, what have we learned today?"
"Always respect others' personal space," said Scootaloo.
"Never underestimate the chaotic potential of a Cutie Mark Crusader," said Discord.
"Grrowrrowwr," said the megatherium.
Fluttershy beamed. "Very good. Especially you, Joaquim." She looked back to Cheerilee with the smile still there. "You see? It may not have been the lesson you expected to teach, but today was still very educational."
"It's a beautiful sentiment, Fluttershy." Cheerilee scowled. "However, it is, in all frankness, not at all helpful. Discord is banned from my school."
Discord gasped. "You mean..." He raised his eagle talon against his forehead. "You mean I'm expelled?"
"You were never enrolled. Please put back the giant sloth."
This doesn't exactly come as a surprise to ponies. Names are almost always meaningful in Equestria. Nopony is going to see that label on a map and think that the cartographer meant to put "great vacation spot!"
But the Hollow Shades are not at all a nice place.
Equestria has small regions of darkness, shadows cast by its light. A fire swamp here, an aberration-infested cave there, and of course there's the Everfree right at its heart. But the Hollow Shades are far worse. They act as a sort of metaphysical low point, where all the nearby foulness and corruption flows downhill, like water into a storm drain.
Creatures that fear to even enter the rest of Equestria, much less show their faces, thrive in the Shades. Some shadows have a semblance of life there. They are nowhere near Sombra's power, but are strong enough to hunger. Minor fiends, insignificant and lucky enough to escape Tartarus unnoticed, congregate there. Some only want to enjoy their freedom, but some seek to call their masters out of their prison. Even nightmares can gain a semblance of reality there. None of them last for very long, starving from the moment their dreamers awaken, but some of them last long enough.
No, the Hollow Shades are by no stretch of the imagination a nice place.
This, of course, makes some ponies wonder why Celestia permits them to exist, why she has not cleansed the stain on Equestria with the righteous power of the sun.
Some cite her compassion, noting that for all their horrors, the Hollow Shades are still home to ponies, and Celestia could never bring her full, terrible might down on those she so loves. The more cynical agree, but think she is more concerned with the fallout that would come of directing such force on her own country and people.
Some wonder if Luna might hold the explanation. Perhaps the Shades reminded Celestia of her sister in some way, and she could not bear to bring harm to them during Luna's millennium of exile. Perhaps they were always the younger princess's jurisdiction, and the elder had no right to trespass there, bound by compacts of unknowable age and potency. Perhaps, whisper a few, the Shades are but a symptom of some unspeakable act of the Nightmare, one that Celestia could not undo and that Luna now lacks the power to correct.
Some look at it pragmatically. The Shades, they say, are terrible, but they are a concentrated terror, a contained one. Were Celestia to stamp them out, future creatures of fell darkness might not seek a haven, but try to create one wherever they find themselves. By removing the Shades, Celestia might be inflicting their darkness on the rest of Equestria.
As with so many questions about the princess, few have the opportunity to ask her, and even fewer dare to. For a long time, a certain purple unicorn was among the latter camp. Only after she earned her wings did she find the courage to ask her former mentor. What was it that stayed Celestia's horn? Mercy? Luna? Expediency? Some combination of them, or something of which the layponies could not conceive?
And Celestia felt joy and sorrow alike. Joy, for the student who once would've accepted her every word unquestioned was now her own mare, unafraid to question the old nag who thought she could teach such a brilliant mind anything at all. Sorrow, for one of the first things she questioned was one of that nag's greatest shames.
Celestia then ushered Twilight into her private chambers and lined the walls with a spell of silence. There, she whispered the truth to her student:
"There is a darkness there greater than any it attracts, one that befouls the very land. I did try to destroy it once. It dodged, and then it moved north. The Badlands were not always such. I thought it better to let that corruption rest where it now lies than to rouse it again."
The first tremors struck at 10:15 AM, Canterlot time. From Maredrid to Tokirin, Hosslo to Rio de Caballero, the earth heaved. At yet, despite what every seismograph read, those closest to the epicenter felt it the least.
Though the world shook, Equestria was still.
At high noon, Celestia and Luna paced around a central point in the Hall of Honors. Equestria's history was presented in stained glass, but they could only see an ominous future.
"You are certain it wasn't Discord?" asked Luna.
Celestia nodded. "Positive. He said himself that—"
Luna stumbled, turning it into a spin that had her facing her sister. "And you believe him!?"
Celestia met her gaze, unblinking. "I do when he says something isn't funny. Humor is the one thing he's serious about. Such is his nature."
Luna glowered, but any rejoinder was lost to a burst of violet light. Twilight looked from one sister to the other, her wings flared, her mane and mein both crazed. "What's going on!?"
The diarchs huddled next to one another. "I thought you sent her a letter!" Luna hissed.
"I can hear you!" Twilight said from five feet away. She stalked closer. "And I can read between the lines, too. A letter that essentially reads, 'Go stick your head in the sand until it's over' doesn't fill me with confidence!"
Amusement and incredulity warred on Luna's face. She turned to Celestia and shook her head. "Really."
"I told her to go on vacation!" Celestia yelped. "Take her friends! They deserve it for all they've done!"
"We both know I panic when I'm caught off-guard! Stop looking at me like that!"
"Ladies! If we could focus?" Twilight nodded as the sisters brought their attention back to her. "Thank you. Now, whatever Celestia was trying to do—presumably to protect me, which I can understand—it didn't work. As such, could one of you please tell me what happened?"
Celestia and Luna looked at one another, and after a few twitches of cheek and ear, the former bowed her head. Luna turned back to Twilight. "What do you know about the name Behemoth, Twilight Sparkle?"
Twilight blinked and scrunched her muzzle. "I'm familiar with the word, of course, but I didn't realize it was a name."
Luna nodded. "Understandable. Even before my madness, the lore was obscure. Behemoth claims to be the first dragon. I do not know if this is true, but he is certainly the oldest still living." She moved to one of the windows, which depicted some kind of spherical egg containing a draconic form. "Dragons do not die until they are killed, and until that time, they never stop growing."
Twilight noticed the sun and moon on either side of the egg. She backed away from the window. "No. No, you can't mean—"
"She does." A white wing spread over Twilight's withers. "Behemoth is so vast, there is only one place where he can lair."
"The molten bowels of the earth," concluded Luna.
"You mean that..." Twilight pointed a shaking hoof at the depiction. The dragon took up most of the space in the "egg." "That... that... that!?"
"Well, it's not to scale." A stained-glass Discord peeked out from behind the cutaway view of the planet. "Behemoth's a behemoth alright, but he's not quite that big."
Twilight gulped. "So the seismic readings were because—"
"Big B's awake, yes." Discord vanished from within the window, reappeared face-to-upside-down-face with Twilight, and stuck a gold star on her horn. "Brilliant deduction. Perhaps next you can—"
"Discord." Phantom thunder echoed in Luna's voice. "We have no time for your usual japes."
"Yes, yes, I know. Very, very, very..." He paused for a moment, counted on his eagle talons, and sprouted eight extra heads, no two alike.
Discord ended his hydra impression. "Old dragons are no laughing matter. I don't know about you, but that's the sort of situation when I could most use a chuckle, if only to break the mood."
Twilight glared at him. "And I suppose you had nothing to do with this?"
Discord nodded. "Your supposition is entirely correct, yes. I didn't even have anything to do with Equestria not feeling the quakes. That was all Behemoth."
"Quakes?" Twilight gasped. "As in earthquakes? But my seismograph didn't..."
Discord went utterly still for a moment, eyes wide. "They didn't tell you?" A grin spread across his face. "They didn't tell you. Oh, this is a surprise. But really, when a dragon that big gets out of bed, everyone's going to feel it."
"We have had no time, Discord." Luna glared at him, then looked to Twilight. "Do not misunderstand, Twilight Sparkle. That we were preserved from Behemoth stirring from his slumber is not a sign of the dragon's mercy, but his thirst for vengeance. He wishes to confront Celestia and me personally."
"We have faced him before," added Celestia, "but every battle was more difficult than the last." She knelt before Twilight. "I have asked much of you and your friends in the past, Twilight, and it is at least possible that you could help. But should the unthinkable happen, Equestria will need a ruler in our stead."
"Yes, the unthinkable." Luna glared at Discord. "Say, a sudden outbreak of magic-devouring vines from the Everfree."
Discord stuck his nose in the air and crossed his arms. "Oh, that happened once." He pulled his nose back out of the air and reattached it. "A few more jabs like that, and I may rethink helping with collateral damage." He paused and furrowed his brow. "Hmm. Best to be sure. Celestia, did you mean causing or preventing?"
"Preventing." Celestia's weary groan made it clear that this was far from the first time he'd asked.
Discord shook his head. "I really should know better by now, but I keep getting my hopes up, and you ponies keep disappointing me."
Twilight frowned. "Wait, why can't Discord just, I don't know, turn Behemoth into a chinchilla or something?"
"Ooh!" Discord sharpened a notepad and jotted something into a pencil. "Delightful as that idea is, a dragon as ancient as Behemoth is going to be largely immune to my more whimsical methods. If I were to dispose of him..." He shook his head. "Most complex molecules wouldn't survive. Life wouldn't stand a chance. Certainly not ponies."
"But..." Twilight gritted her teeth. "Ugh! After all the times you've trusted me with the fate of Equestria, if not the world, I'm really supposed to just sit back on a beach somewhere knowing that you two are risking your lives?"
Celestia shrank before her former student. "I... I never wanted to burden you with the knowledge, Twilight. You've grown, but to ask you to take on something like Behemoth—"
"Oh, gag me." All three alicorns glared at Discord, who simply raised an eyebrow. "What? Besides, Twilight has a much more important task ahead of her."
Luna kept her glare steady. "Explain."
"Call it an outsider's perspective. While you three are worrying about national security, the rest of the planet is rather more concerned with picking up the pieces. And once they do, they're going to look around, and see that everyone else in the world is suffering as they are... with one notable exception."
Discord ran his hands through a mane much poofier than usual, then held them up defensively. "Now, I'm not saying they'll think we're responsible, but they may suspect us, especially if they misinterpret the Behemoth fight as you two trying to contain an out-of-control magical weapon. Even in the best case, there will be refugees wanting to flock to these unshaken lands, and that's certainly going to stir things up."
The diarchs looked to one another, each seeing a mirror of her own uncertainty. Twilight kept her wary gaze on Discord. "So?"
He smiled. "So? So, somepony's going to need to keep the surge of immigration from becoming tent cities with quality of life somewhere below 'Sibearian gulag.' So, the Crystal Empire felt enough of the tremors that the palace is currently being held together by spit, chewing gum, and Candybutt's magic. So, Little Miss All-Team Organizer, you have a task in the near future that's going to need every ounce of logistic weight you can throw around. After all, I'm certainly not going to do anything about that."
After some contemplation, Twilight sat heavily, her expression vacant. "Oh."
"Indeed. Honestly, what did you ponies do without me?" Discord smirked at Celestia and Luna. "Come now, ladies, if you have time to glare, you have time to prepare. And I believe I now owe a minotaur royalties. I'd offer you all, but I don't think the books would balance." He bowed. "Now, I've performed my good deed for the day. I need a little mischief to rinse the taste out of my mouth. Tata!"
Once he vanished, the room was silent for a good minute. Finally, Twilight turned to Celestia. "What do you think?"
"I think Discord resents something else generating more chaos than he does." Celestia nodded. "Twilight, return to Ponyville and prepare for the influx. The town and all its resources are at your disposal, as is anything here in Canterlot that Luna and I will not need."
Twilight began charging the teleport, but hesitated with her horn aglow. "What about you?"
Luna moved next to her sister. "Focus on your task for now, Twilight Sparkle. If we fall, employ the powers bequeathed to you by the Tree of Harmony. Should those fail..." She shut her eyes. "We shall see."
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, which meant that no one in their right mind was in front of Canterlot High. Given the weekend rush at Sugarcube Corner, neither was Pinkie Pie. As such, no one saw a cell phone pop out of the school statue, followed by a familiar purple girl.
She moved away, giving room for the next arrival, one those absent onlookers would be harder pressed to recognize. The rainbow hair narrowed it down, yes, but her outfit was a definite deviation from the norm, a bomber jacket over a sleeveless white top, running shoes so streamlined that they looked like they could travel through time, and pants with an improbable number of zippers. She had an air of poise and confidence that looked entirely out of place on a still-growing body.
Then she tipped over and landed on her face.
Twilight knelt down, wobbling a bit herself. "I told you that first step was a doozy." She held out a hand.
"No kidding." Rainbow Dash took it and heaved herself up, nearly sending Twilight for a spill. Dash steadied her, and after a precarious moment, both managed to find something resembling stability.
After they shared a laugh, Dash took in her surroundings. "Huh. Not what I imagined." She shifted her focus to her body. "Really not what I imagined. Where'd the clothes come from?"
Twilight shrugged. "I honestly don't know. Still, leave them on."
"Yeah, yeah. No coat, no magic hiding stuff under the tail, you told me." Dash twisted herself about, trying to get a good look at her own back. "No wings either, which is all kinds of lame."
Twilight nodded and tapped her forehead. "No kidding." She brought a hand to her chin. "What's interesting is that your clothes are almost entirely different from the local Rainbow Dash's usual outfit. I'd expected some degree of similarity, but—"
"Twi, I'm sure that's really interesting, but I'd like to spend as little time without wings as I can." Dash folded her arms over her chest. "You may be used to it here, but I keep thinking of the hedge maze and… yeah."
"Oh! Rainbow, I'm so sorry, I didn't—"
Dash grinned. Well, she exposed her teeth, at least. "You don't need to apologize, Twilight. Just, you know, step it up a little."
"Right. Of course." Twilight looked around for the phone. "Ah!" She snatched it up and began fumbling with the text messaging.
Dash looked over her shoulder. "So, that thing works now?"
"Well, it worked before, but without other phones or the requisite infrastructure, it couldn't do much." Twilight frowned at the interface. "Honestly, who needs a key for every letter of the alphabet?"
"High Unicornian, for some reason." Twilight began hunting and pecking. "And there only seems to be the one, here. No one's heard of harvest runes or Equestrian Symbolic." After another moment, she positioned the phone so Dash could better see it. "Does this look good?"
"'I'm here with your analogue from Equestria'—what's with the red line?"
"It thinks the word's misspelled."
Dash's eyes widened. "This thing knows how to spell?"
"No, Dash, you can't use it to proofread your Daring Do fan fiction."
Dash pouted. "Aw, come on…"
Twilight rolled her eyes. "Arguing with me isn't going to get you out of this dimension any faster."
"This isn't over," Dash huffed. She refocused on the screen. "'I'm here with your analogue from Equestria. She wants to speak with you.'" She stuck out her tongue. "How did you manage to make me meeting myself sound lame?"
Twilight held back her sigh. If anypony knew how to talk to Rainbow Dash, it was… well, Rainbow Dash. She knew this was going to be confusing. "What would you recommend?"
"Just keep it simple," said Dash. "'Pony you wants to hang out.'"
Another minute, and the message was sent. "Faster than dragon mail, and almost as reliable," said Twilight. Within seconds, the phone buzzed with a reply. Twilight's excitement shifted to brow-furrowed confusion as she considered it.
Dash frowned. "What is it?"
"They may only have one alphabet here, but there's some kind of bizarre subgrammar associated with this medium that I still can't grasp."
"Give it here."
After another moment of struggling with the code, Twilight did so. "Be careful, These devices may be ubiquitous, but they're still expensive. I feel bad enough for Rarity—this world's Rarity—paying for this one. I'd hate to ask her to replace it."
"I'll be careful. No broken ubiqs on my watch." Dash lay on the grass belly-down, put the phone on the ground, and considered the screen.
b there 10sf
Dash groaned. "She says she'll be here in ten seconds flat." She shook her head. "Ugh, that one was getting old the day I met you." She frowned and looked around. "And shouldn't she be here by now?"
"I don't think she meant it literally," noted Twilight. "She could be miles away, and she doesn't have your level of speed. We may have—oh, there she is!"
Dash got to her feet, still a little shaky, but much less so than the first time. Sure enough, there was another rainbow-headed figure fast approaching on a bicycle. One that met her eyes, then redoubled her pedaling.
The other Rainbow skidded to halt next to the statue, stumbled off of the bike, and collapsed onto her hands and knees, gasping for breath. "Hi." Gasp. "Twi." Pant. "Light." Wheeze.
After a few moments, she caught her breath and managed to stand. "Got here fast as I could." She nodded to her counterpart. "I look good."
The pony Dash returned the nod and the grin. "Likewise."
"So, what did you want to do? Soccer, biking, skateboarding, footra—"
Twilight gasped. One Dash fell to the ground. The other cursed and shook out her hand. "Lousy flimsy little… Give me a hoof any day of the week."
The punched Rainbow bolted up and tackled her counterpart, driving her into the ground. "What was that for!?"
The two thrashed back and forth. "That was for betraying your friends!"
The local Dash froze. "You did not—"
The other took the opportunity to get on top, sitting on her opponent's waist and pinning down her forearms. "Your head got so feathering swelled that you gave those sirens the magic they needed to take over the world." She didn't sound angry, just disappointed.
The pinned Rainbow clawed at the other's arms. "We still kicked their butts!"
"Because you got lucky." The other Dash leaned in close. "The world was saved thanks to a pair of headphones!"
The local Dash looked away and saw Twilight, who was gazing on the grapple in horror. "Did you seriously set all this up?"
Twilight shook her head furiously. "I had no idea! She just said she wanted to meet you!" She raced closer. "Dash, there's a nonzero chance that prolonged contact with your analogue will cause a cataclysmic paradox that—"
The skirtless Rainbow paid her no heed. "How much has Twilight told you about our world?"
Her counterpart glared back. "Not much. We usually had something bigger to worry about."
"Well, in Equestria, we have a set of magic doohickies called the Elements of Harmony. Sunset Shimmer stole Twilight's. Mine is the Element of Loyalty. And loyalty? It's a two-way street. You have to give as much as you get."
"I know. I learned that."
Pony Dash sneered. "I'm you, doofus. I know exactly how thick that head of yours is. I've made this mistake before, and I admit that I still let my ego get away from me sometimes. But never when the world was at stake."
"What, so the others were blameless? AJ and Rarity—"
"Aren't you. They've got their own strengths, they've got their own failings. They're not better than you, and you're not better than them. But I have been a much better Rainbow Dash than you have, and I want to make sure you live up to the level of awesome I expect from myself."
"So you punch me in the face!?"
A smirk. "I had to get your attention somehow." One Dash got up and offered her hand to the other.
That other looked at it warily. "Seriously?"
"Yeah. I said my piece."
The local Rainbow took the hand, to her counterpart's pleasure. Then she drove her fist into that counterpart's gut, which was less to her pleasure.
"For the love of Celestia, you two!" cried Twilight.
Pony Dash held up a hand from where she was curled up on the lawn. "No," she groaned, "it's cool. She owed me one."
"Damn straight I did." The other Rainbow smirked and offered a hand. "Now we're even." She helped her analogue to her feet. "So, still wanna hang out?"
"Thanks, but no thanks. I'd like to get my wings back ASAP."
This got a gasp. "You have wings all the time!? Forget here, let's go hang out in your—"
"Absolutely not!" Twilight wedged her way between the two Rainbows and pushed them apart. "You two have put probability space through the wringer more than enough for one day. Dash, we are going home now."
Twilight shuddered. Whining in stereo. Creepy with a capital everything. "I will make this a royal decree if I have to."
Her Dash sighed. "Fine…"
As she was being dragged back to Equestria, she exchanged a wink with her counterpart. This wasn't over. It was just the beginning.
A massive yawn, and Rainbow Dash did just that. She blinked the sleep out of her eyes and nodded to her personal assistant, taking the offered cup of coffee with both hooves. After emptying it, she said, "Morning, Keyring. What's on the agenda for today?"
Keyring, a bald, bronze-coated pegasus stallion, pulled a clipboard out from under his wing. "Well, you'll be training the 'Bolts in about an hour. The Council of Friendship will be convening at noon; Princess Twilight and Lady Pie have both assured me that it will be catered this time. You have a private air show scheduled for your fan club at four this afternoon. Scootaloo says she'll be able to do the duet performance with you. And at seven this evening, you'll be inducting two more knights into the Order of Loyalty."
"Excellent." Dash dragged herself out of bed and began her morning stretches. After the Wonderbolts moved their headquarters to Ponyville, it would be really bad form to show up unready. "Though you know Twilight and Pinkie don't want ponies to make big deals out of their titles."
"Until I receive their explicit permission, I will continue to refer to them as their station demands."
"Please." Dash shook her head. "You won't even talk to them. Because that's 'as their station demands.'" She waved off his reply. "I know, I know. We've driven this into the ground more than once. We probably need to get going anyway."
Rainbow looked over the Wonderbolt recruits and saw that they were good. Not up to her level, of course, but that was why she was here. She'd started to suspect she was being snowballed as ever more hoops popped up to fly through, but it turned out that that was because she wasn't being trained to be a Wonderbolt; she was being trained to be a trainer.
A single awesome flier was good. An entire squadron of similarly awesome fliers? That was why they'd hired her.
"I've thought this through very carefully," said Twilight. "I know it will be good for the town, and I believe it will be good for all of Equestria. Still, I'm only one pony. Are there any objections?" She looked around the crystalline council chamber.
No voices or hooves were raised in protest. Dash's were a bit busy with her pie. Oh, she'd been listening, and the plan did sound good. But this was really good pie.
"Boys and girls of all ages and species!" Spike's voice echoed across the field. "Presenting the one, the only, Rainbow Dash!"
One swoop of their heads, and they were cheering their little lungs out.
"With Ponyville's Princess of Peril, you know her, you love her, Scootaloo!"
Diving from above, Scootaloo hovered next to her idol. They exchanged a hoofbump, and the show truly began.
A castle courtyard. Not exactly where Dash wanted to do this, but Celestia insisted, and even Dash couldn't just say no to her. Now how did that speech go again? Oh yeah. "For your service to Equestria, your unflinching devotion, and your overall awesomeness, it is my pleasure and honor to induct you into the Order of Loyalty."
Soarin' and Spitfire had only been the first of Dash's knights. She'd inducted a few more over the years, but it was these two she wanted to see most of all. She slipped the lightning bolt medallions over each of their necks, ignored whatever had gotten in her eyes, and said, "Rise, Dame Gilda kra-Gisela and Dame Lightning Dust."
Her old friend and her mirror image, finally as awesome as she knew they always could be. It was like a dream come true...
Dash opened her eyes, blinked blearily, and took stock of the situation.
She felt like death warmed over. Her vision was still blurry with sleep, but the sounds, smells, and shades of what she could perceive told an all too familiar story: she was in Ponyville General. Fan-feathering-tastic.
"Rainbow! You're awake!" Well, that settled the matter of who the wad of pink was.
"Hey, Fluttershy." Dash winced at the croak that had come out of her mouth. Weak, in every sense of the word. "Could I get some water?"
Fluttershy gave the littlest gasp. "Of course!"
As the other pegasus puttered about with a pitcher, Dash's vision began to clear. At least, she thought it was clearing. Still, that raised a number of questions. "Uh, Shy?"
A half-empty glass presented itself before her muzzle. "If it's too much, just wave a hoof."
Dash drank. Water had no right tasting that good. "Thanks. But..." Yeah, no sense pussyfooting here. "Why is there a snake on the bed?" And there was totally a snake on the bed. Granted, it was a pretty cool looking snake, what with the rainbow effect on the scales along its face and belly, but still. Snake. Hospital bed. Not a good match.
"Ah." Fluttershy looked at the snake, and Dash learned that snakes can't sweat, because if they could, that one would've been soaking the sheets. It wasn't a full-bore Stare, but it was definitely a Look, and Fluttershy had a real mean Look when she wanted one. "Miss Phagi here is the one who put you in the hospital."
"Oh." Dash glared at the snake. It didn't get a capital letter or anything, but still. "Did she?"
"She has been thoroughly chastised," Fluttershy said in a tone like an angry mom, all hard tones and disappointment. "She is very sorry for biting you and injecting you with one of the more dangerous venoms in the Everfree, and was considerate enough to provide a sample so the doctors could synthesize an antivenin." She was muzzle to muzzle with the snake at this point. "Wasn't she?"
Dash was a little concerned at this point. Probably just splashover from being near a very angry Fluttershy. "Shy, I appreciate you putting the fear of... well, you in the snake, but I don't think the hospital will appreciate snake poop on their sheets."
Fluttershy didn't move her gaze. "Miss Phagi is a lotus cobra," she said, her insistent tone promising that there would be consequences if Dash didn't listen. "Her venom contains a potent magical neurotoxin with both hallucinogenic and paralytic properties. Her victims see their greatest desires until they stop breathing. I had less than half an hour to rush you and her here from the old castle. I will reimburse the hospital for the detergent."
A subject change seemed prudent. "You got me and the snake here from the old castle that fast?"
"If I hadn't, you'd have died."
Dash's eyes started to water. They must have been sensitive from being closed for so long. "Thanks, Shy."
Fluttershy just smiled. "It's what you would do for me."
They met in an empty field, far from civilization. Only the countless stars bore witness as they prepared their grim offering. It was terribly bad luck to perform the ritual under the jealous gaze of the Mare in the Moon.
They themselves were anonymous, deliberately so. Their hooded cloaks hid all signs of tribe or destiny. The darkness reduced any visible hair to monochrome uncertainty. They had planned this without seeing one another, through notes left in safety deposit boxes, codes in newspaper editorials, even a few imps called out of Tartarus as a last resort.
All that led to tonight's gathering, and now they would be calling up a being far greater than an imp. A circle of grass had been cleared away by those who had come earlier. Now, they drew there a design of sharp angles in black sand. Once the last connection was made, the shape flared with heat, fusing into glass. Two of their number walked into the center of the design carrying a heavy sack, filled with a shifting weight. They deposited it there, and returned to the group with all haste.
One stepped forward, the hem of his robe trimmed in something that glittered in the starlight. "Hear me, great one!" he cried. "We gather in your name! We sacrifice in your name! Let the smoke of this offering be the key that frees you from your hated prison, that we may honor you!"
Another held in one foreleg a torch that burned with an unnatural flame, one that shed heat but not light. Once it touched the lumpy bundle, the new flames were of the common sort, and they crackled merrily over the burlap and what laid within.
Smoke rose and writhed, dancing on an unearthly wind. The flames billowed and cavorted in unearthly glee. And just as it seemed that the blaze would snatch at those who dared start it, it imploded.
The congregation was silent. The creature at their center, a serpentine thing with the arms of a minotaur, whose skin glowed with abyssal runes, was not. "Those were first editions." The voice was cool, almost disinterested save for the hint of chastisement.
The summoner knelt before the beast. "Lord, we have called you here to—"
"I know." Now the weight of apathy had well and truly settled onto the demon's voice. "If you knew enough to summon me, then you know that I knew your purpose the moment I felt your spell pull me out of Tartarus." It heaved a sigh. "Still, decorum must be observed. Speak your question."
A few ponies shifted uneasily. This wasn't quite how they'd imagined their lord and master. Still, the leader pressed on. "Oh awesome Laplace, unquestionable Algorithm of Fate, how do we destroy the hated sun tyrant and give this land to its rightful rulers?"
There it was. The question that burned in the heart of every mare and stallion present, as hot and fierce as the pyre that had called the demon to this world. Their lives hinged on the answer. None spoke. None breathed.
"What!?" The leader's cry was echoed by a few others, who gasped and cowered as their fellows edged out of the likely blast radius.
"You don't," repeated Laplace. "I extrapolated the activities of every pony here to the moment of his or her death, and an hour afterwards for the sake of thoroughness. None of you even inconvenience Celestia, much less have a chance of destroying her."
The leader fell to his haunches. "But... but then... Is she truly unbeatable?"
"No." The demon examined its claws. "Phrasing is important. You didn't ask how one could destroy Celestia. You asked how you would destroy her. So I looked to see how you would, and found you didn't."
"Oh." The pony gave a laugh that wasn't entirely sane. "Well, if that's all, then—"
"You have asked your three questions, cultist. I am not bound to answer any more, neither by magic nor by fate." Laplace moved closer, so the leader could see the demon's slit pupils and smell its strangely spiced breath. "However," and here its apathy was tinted by annoyance, "know that calling me again will not give you more answers. You know me by one name. Hear others. Rightly am I called the Puppet of Predestination, the Actor and the Stage. Knowing everything is a terrible burden, for I look upon the future with cockatrice's eyes, freezing infinite possibility into incontrovertible certainty. Even now, I say these words not because I choose to, but because I see that I must."
Some small part the cultist not consumed by terror noted that the demon was all but constricting him. "And now," continued Laplace, "by your request, you share my burden. By examining your fate, I have sealed it. You will not win. Your efforts are guaranteed to fail. If anything, it's only going to get worse for you. Make note of that."
Laplace then vanished in a massive, choking burst of smoke. The stallion scrambled to his hooves, his mind unsure whether to hold his breath or hyperventilate.
Once he collected himself, he saw that he was almost alone. The flattened grass told of panicked ponies fleeing in all directions. Only one other remained, a stallion whose robe could not hide his truly stupendous bulk. "Same time next week, boss?"
The leader didn't hear him, focused as he was on gathering his fear-scattered thoughts. Then, the proud fool echoed generations of demonologists who sought insight from the demon Laplace.
Twilight smiled as she stepped out of the shower. It was a truly beautiful day. The sun was shining, her towel was especially fluffy, and thanks to the recipe Spike was trying out, the air smelled pleasantly like warm root beer. It was though the Smarty Pants Incident had preemptively taken up all of the little snags and inconveniences she normally expected from life. It had been smooth sailing for...
Twilight froze in place, as did the towel. Then she bolted out of the bathroom and into the kitchen. "Spike!"
He gave her a glare that would be much more intimidating in a century or two, assuming he wouldn't still be wearing a frilly apron. "You are very lucky that I'm not making a souffle."
Twilight pranced in place, mind whirling. "This is more important than root beer float cake, Spike!"
Spike tensed, his eyes fixed on the unicorn. "What is it?" No hairs out of place, he thought to himself, no creepy grins. Not yet, anyway.
"It's..." Twilight paused and settled herself. "Well, actually, it's nothing."
"It's okay, Twilight. You know I'm willing to lend an ear." Spike chuckled. "Well, sort of."
"No, I mean it's literally nothing. It just feels like it's about time for something to happen. It's been more than a week since the Smarty Pants Incident, and..." Twilight shrugged. "I don't know, I'm not used to this kind of calm in Ponyville. Not unless there's snow on the ground. Is there anything going on?"
Spike thought for a moment. Twilight was getting better, but he was the one who'd had his finger on society's pulse in Canterlot, and that had carried over to their new home. "Only thing that comes to mind is the Sisterhooves Social. And, aside from Shining not being a mare, you're weirdly insistent on nopony knowing about him."
Twilight stomped a hoof. "I'm enough of a security risk as it is! Knowing that I'm the sister of the captain of the Royal Guard? I might as well just wear a 'Kidnap Me' sign."
Spike just shook his head and brought his attention back to the oven. "That was a dream, Twilight. Didn't you write a paper on all the ways that the ritual wouldn't work?"
"The cultists don't know that!"
"Assuming there are any, and that they want to use your blood as a reagent to restore the Nightmare." Spike waved his claws towards the front door. "It's too beautiful a day to be cooped up with conspiracy theories. Go grab a book or find a friend and enjoy the weather. We've got showers scheduled for the next three days."
Twilight just stopped, not even moving save for blinking. Spike recognized this; her mind was so busy, it had locked her knees and left her body to stand there until it needed it again. This could go on for hours when she encountered an especially tricky problem.
Fortunately, this particular instance only took a few seconds. Twilight then shook her head, smiled, and said, "You're right. How much longer will the cake be?"
Spike peered into the red-hot belly of the appliance. Instincts designed for assessing volcanic calderas came to the fore. Some part of him still thought there should be a rotten-egg smell involved. "Should be ready any minute now. Why?"
"When it's done, how about we go out and have a picnic? Just the two of us?" Twilight nuzzled Spike.
He smiled and hugged her head. It was a little awkward, but love tended to be. "I think it's exactly what we both need."
Maud would always remember the moment she began to hear the rocks. She'd been sorting samples in one of the geology labs, and for a moment, the world tasted like rainbows.
Rainbows were surprisingly spicy.
After the moment of sensory confusion… well, it wasn't exactly hearing per se. She suspected no one had ever experienced that sense before, so the word to describe it didn't actually exist. It was somewhere between sound, emotion, smell, and several concepts that were also outside of human experience.
When Pinkie's e-mail about her new friend and old friends and amazing magical abilities arrived, complete with attached photo, it only confirmed Maud's suspicions. The news answered more questions than it raised, which was always nice when dealing with Pinkie. As for those that remained mysteries, well, Maud was a scholar and an aspiring scientist. She knew what to do. She experimented.
Over the next few months, Maud came to understand the stones and their wisdom, secrets that had either been forgotten for ages or had only just come into existence. That part was still a bit vague. Between her studies, both the scientific and the supernatural, the holidays went by with little fanfare and spring break caught her by surprise.
The University of Arepona's spring break didn't sync up with the Canterlot school district's, which was something of a mixed bag. Maud would only have four days off with her sisters, but she'd be able to see Pinkie perform in a battle of the bands, which was very nice.
Still, something was… off. The local rocks seemed frightened of something. The susurration was such that she couldn't sleep the first night she returned home. She took Boulder, an unusually vocal pebble she'd found at school, and went downstairs, beginning the discussion as she walked.
Her communion was broken by a scream. A girl in the kitchen. No, two girls. Maud didn't recognize them, but they must have been Pinkie's friends. A slumber party, no doubt.
Well, she couldn't exactly tell them, "I'm trying to determine what's upset the rocks." She had to think fast.
"Boulder was hungry."
…She was going to blame that on jet lag. Still, best to follow through with it. A box of corn chips was a small price to pay for avoiding an awkward conversation. With any luck, she'd get the same benefit of the doubt people gave Pinkie.
The day of the finals had been a pleasant one. Maud had gotten a chance to catch up with the high school's geology club. Fido, Spot, and Rover had been doing a fine job in her absence, having excavated and catalogued a number of samples from around town. She didn't understand their dog-themed affectations, but they were very good rockhounds.
Oh. She just got that. That was almost funny.
Still, there was a tension in the student body that matched that in the stones. It was odd. Pinkie's e-mails had painted a very different picture, and while she might gloss over bad news, it wasn't like her to make up good.
Without more information, Maud couldn't do much. She would just have to keep her eyes open during the finals.
She didn't think much of the opener. Lyrics to the contrary, it neither captivated nor dominated, and she had to wonder who thought it would be a good idea to give a high school girl access to those kinds of pyrotechnics. Still, everyone else seemed to enjoy it, so she guessed the warmup group had done their job.
Then came the "Dazzlings." Again, Maud didn't think much of the music. Not nearly enough percussion for her tastes. However, while the performance didn't catch her attention, how it was being performed did.
There weren't three singers on stage. There were six, or perhaps three with two voices each. The jewels on their necklaces were harmonizing with the singers, resulting in chords only Maud could hear. She could feel the ground tremble beneath her. There was something wrong here, but she couldn't think of what. It definitely wasn't the wings and ears. Pinkie and her friends had made it clear that that just kind of happened. Maud had never seen it firsthand, so she couldn't say whether the "dark chrysalis" effect was normal.
Then came the Rainbooms' rebuttal… from a hill some distance from the auditorium. Huh. Maud supposed they were taking the "battle" part of the event a bit more literally than she'd expected.
The Dazzlings' rejoinder gave her pause. Fish-tailed horse monsters were definitely not just friendly—if magical—competition. Maud's fists clenched with a final low guitar chord. These were the girls that the stone feared, and they'd briefly clouded her own mind. Worse, they had hurt Pinkie.
As if in rebuttal, the sound of drums came from the hill. Maud relaxed. Every mineral grain in the soil was resonating with this new song. The earth itself was rejoicing, and soon, so was the crowd.
Given that lead-up, when the enormous horse formed from coherent light descended from the heavens, Maud really wasn't that surprised.
Once it smote the Dazzlings—and Maud knew with a poet's certainty that "smite" was the only appropriate way to describe its actions—she started working her way towards the stage. The trio fled, and the crowd was still distracted. This was her chance.
The fragments of the jewels sounded like nothing she'd ever encountered. There were harmonics there that didn't seem possible, horrified screams in the key of pure agony.
Maud stared down at them and mustered as much authority as she could. In the wake of the giant light horse, it came a little easier. Her ears itched a little, and she spoke a single word. "Quiet."
The crystals didn't fall silent, but they did at least go from wailing to whimpering. Maud nodded and gathered them into her hands. Then she squeezed.
The fragments glowed with the color of fresh blood and gave an unearthly cry, their voices full of horror and confusion and morbid fascination. Sweat trickled down Maud's face. Her mind ached as she fumbled with a power she'd never even thought she had, much less had used. But, after seconds that felt like years, it was done.
The outside of the mass in her hands was dull, almost gray, but cracks in the irregular lump showed the ruby interior. The stone's voice was still confused, unsure whether it was one or three or many.
Maud smiled, just a little. She'd find a much better use for this treasure. Or, at the very least, better music.
Ditzy liked air mail duty. Sure, her sense of direction left something to be desired, but from a distance, the gathered magic of city populations acted like beacons for her senses. Granted, it had been rather more of a concern when she'd been the entire Ponyville postal system, but now she had underlings with whom she could trust day-to-day affairs, even if Address Unknown barely trusted them to bring him coffee.
True, there was another pegasus on the staff now, but Speedy Delivery couldn't use acceleration spells to guarantee same-day delivery, or invisibility spells to keep ponies from noticing the barely subsonic grey blur. (Ditzy always made sure not to break the speed barrier. Muting a sonic boom was far more trouble than it was worth, and even if it weren't, Rainbow Dash would never forgive her.)
Still, on those precious occasions when there wasn't a pressing problem for postmistresses or planeswalkers, Ditzy liked to travel at rational speeds and take in the scenery.
Thus, somewhere between Hoofington and North Hayverbrook, she noticed what she could only describe as a sullen metal aardvark on wheels. Curious, Ditzy swooped down for a better look.
The aardvark impression only grew as she got closer. The contraption had a few spots of red paint, but it was bare metal for the most part, including a prominent proboscis of some kind. The mana pathways glowed faintly under the surface, a length briefly flaring into activity here and there.
As Ditzy landed, she noted what was likely the cause of the flare-ups, two ponies looking into an open hatch on one side. Two tall, rather thin, yellow coated ponies.
Ditzy made a point of landing with as much noise as she could without eating dirt.
One of the pair looked up, spotted her and frowned. He nudged the other with a knee. "We've got a lookie-loo, Flam."
The other looked over. Ditzy saw that he was wearing what could only be described as a hairnet adapted for a mustache. He glared at his brother. "Don't call her that, you pinhead! She's standing right there!"
Not-Flam winced, then trotted with a winning smile on his face. "Good afternoon, ma'am! Please forgive me, my brother and I were in the middle of some delicate calibrations, and I'm afraid my tongue got away from me." He held out a hoof. "Flim Flimflam, artificer extraordinare."
Ditzy shook his hoof. "Ditzy Doo." She quirked an eyebrow. "So, not 'traveling salespony nonpareil'?"
Flim gave a nervous chuckle, "I, er, take it that we've met then." He took a step back.
"Well, I never introduced myself at the time."
"Indeed. Well." He cleared his throat. "I'd like to say I never forget a face, but life on the road, never putting down roots, I'm afraid you have me at a bit of a disadvantage. Might I ask where we met?"
"You may." Ditzy let the question hang for a few seconds. As Flim opened his mouth, she completed the thought. "Ponyville."
Flim's gaze shifted up. "Ponyville, Ponyville…" He stamped a hoof. "Ah! The Squeezy! 6000 model?"
"That's the one."
He winced as the memory came in full. "Oh. Not our finest hour." He smiled far too wide. "But that, my good mare, is a thing of the past! The Flimflam Brothers are hard at work on an invention that will change far more than mere apple processing!"
"One of them is hard at work," groused Flam. "The other is selling to a market of one."
Flim scowled at him. "Didn't you say something about not being rude?"
"To the customer, yes. I can be as rude to you as I like."
Flim turned back to Ditzy and gave a put-upon sigh. "Family. What more is there to say, Miss Doo?"
She tilted her head towards the contraption. "Well, you could tell me about your invention."
"Well…" He brought a hoof to his chin. "Normally, I'd keep this confidential, but I think I can divulge a bit if you promise to keep it to yourself."
Ditzy nodded. "Scout's honor." Not that she'd ever been a Filly Scout.
"Well, ma'am, I am pleased to tell you that in the very near future, there will be no more coal plants, glorified boilers that belch out toxic smoke. No more hydrothaumic dams dangling Swords of Damoocles over the heads of humble towns. No, those will both be things of the past with the introduction of the Flimflam Brothers' Geothaumic Generator!"
There was a distinct lack of fireworks. Trixie would've been appalled.
"You see," Flim continued, "the Flimflam Brothers' Geothaumic Generator takes in the ambient magical energies all around us and concentrates them to a level high enough that it can run all of the modern-day electromantic conveniences that make life worth living!"
Ditzy tilted her head. "This one's on wheels."
"Well, the current model is more proof-of-concept. We want ponies to see the benefits of the Geothaumic Generator for themselves, drum up a little demand, and to do that, we need to take our product to them. Same principle as the Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000, really."
Ditzy nodded. "Same startup spell, then?"
Flim shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't tell you that much, Miss Doo. Certain proprietary secrets need to stay that way for now. Patent pending and all."
"Well, I ask because if I'm looking at it right, it would be possible to plug the thing into itself, creating a feedback loop that would produce a sizable dead magic zone."
This got an indulgent chuckle. "Oh, I assure you, that's completely…" Flim trailed off and looked at the device as though he'd never seen it before. "Er…"
Ditzy began pacing around the generator. "Hmm… Yes, a blood sacrifice would break the effect."
Panicked choking came from both stallions.
"Miss Doo." Flam's voice was rather strained. "Can you substantiate these claims, or are you just pulling our legs?"
"I have some experience with artifice," said Ditzy. "I also have something of a unique talent."
"I'm not sure how bubbles enter into this, Miss Doo," said Flim.
Ditzy looked at the stallions, who were standing side by side. Her eyes flashed blue, and theirs did in turn.
Flam stumbled back and blinked. "An impressive parlor trick, but it doesn't answer my ques—"
"Look at the generator, Flam."
He looked at his brother instead. Flim was rapt, gazing at the device. "I mean it. See for yourself."
Flam rolled his eyes. "If you're bamboozled because some mare—Hurricane's ghost!"
"I know," said Flim. "It's like a living schematic."
Flam hissed. "She's right about the feedback."
"We can put in an override."
"And if some enterprising pony overrides the override?"
"Then they've violated the warranty."
"We're offering a warranty?"
At that moment, the mana sight faded away. Both brothers turned from their invention to Ditzy. Flim spoke first. "What did you say you did for a living, Miss Doo?"
"I didn't. I'm a postal worker."
The stallions stared at one another, aghast. "A postal worker!?" they chorused.
Flam zipped to her side. "Why that won't do at all!"
Flim flanked her. "Such a waste of potential!"
"Miss Doo, would you be willing to lend us some aid in developing what could very well usher Equestria into a new golden age?"
"We'll offer a generous cut of the profits!"
Ditzy looked from one brother to the other. "What profits? You'll never sell one of these."
The brothers looked at one another over her back. Flim looked horrified. "Never…"
"Sell?" finished a shocked Flam.
Ditzy pushed the brothers away with her wings and slipped out from between them. "Even when it isn't sucking all the magic out of an area, it's still drawing a significant portion of it. Earth ponies wouldn't want to get within a mile of it, unicorns would have the spells sucked out of their horns before they can cast them, and the less said about what it would do the stability of cloud cities, the better." She bobbed her head from side to side as she thought. "I suppose if you could find a civilization completely devoid of magic, inherent or developed, you'd have your ideal customer, but don't ask me where you'd find one."
She looked from one gaping unicorn to the other. "Um, of course, that's just my read on it."
They said nothing. They were barely breathing.
Ditzy cleared her throat. "Well. Um. Yeah." She took flight. "I'll just head back to Ponyville now. Good luck!"
It was some time before Flam finally broke the silence. "Well, there's fifty thousand bits we'll never see again."
"Now what?" asked Flim.
"Well, selling this hunk of junk for scrap isn't going to recoup much."
"Not if we go for the technology angle, no…"
Flam quirked an eyebrow. "I take it you have an idea?"
Flim grinned. "The scrap money wouldn't buy the components we'd need… but think about how many apples and beet leaves we could get."
Spot glared at the pony. She smirked back. He'd known this would be a bad idea. The wails of the Unpleasable Demon Mare of a Thousand Demands still echoed in his memory. But he had been busy training pups when this one had been taken. Fido and Rover had made this decision themselves, proving that they were utterly useless without him.
So much trouble from one mare. Really, they should've known. Even if she weren't a horned pony, the same cursed kind as the Demon Mare, her coat was the color of sulphur, her mane a match for the very blood of the earth. Even her haunch mark was a flame. What did they think would happen?
But no, all they saw was a flame for the forge that would need no wood or coal, only grass. They caught that fire off-guard, but never thought about what it might do once it gathered its bearings.
Not surprising. They never thought. And so he had to clean up after them. It hadn't been easy. She'd been clever. Her flames weren't able to burn the tunnels—at least, not most of the time—but she'd used quick fires to spoil the air behind her.
But they were Diamond Dogs, and they knew these tunnels better than some horse ever could. It had taken hours, but the Dig Dogs had finally managed to corner the mare and slip a ring over her horn. Spot didn't know how it worked, but he did know that the scavenged bit of surface magic would keep her from starting any more blazes. Still, she didn't seem at all worried, and that set Spot's blood boiling.
"Do you know," he growled, "how much damage you have caused?"
She shrugged. Her chainmail rattled. (And honestly, the pony was wearing armor. How did capturing her seem at all like a good idea?) "I wasn't exactly keeping track."
"Collapsed tunnels. Burnt dogs. Dead dogs. Gems cracked and ruined by heat!" He stalked closer to her. The grunts on either side of her kept their spears pointed at her eyes. "I should kill you here and now."
She quirked an eyebrow. "You're not going to?"
Spot grinned. "Oh no. The other alphas may be idiots, but they were right about how useful you could be, pony. You will make a fine forge flame."
The pony rolled her eyes. "Yeah, because that's been working out great for you so far."
Spot raised a paw. A Dig Dog walked to his side, wielding not a spear, but an axe. "Oh, but pony, how will you run without legs?" Surely that would wipe that insufferable, Firstpack-damned smile from her muzzle.
It did, but she didn't panic as he'd hoped. No, she looked serious now. "This isn't my first time getting captured, you know."
Spot felt a shiver go down his spine. He shook it off. The horse was bluffing. No magic, surrounded on all sides, she had no chance. He waved the axedog forward.
The moment the grunt took a step forward, a blast sounded from far down the tunnel. The tunnel trembled as bits of rock fell from the ceiling. Worst of all, the pony was smiling again.
Well, she'd just confirmed that she was more trouble than she was worth. "Ki—"
Another explosion, closer this time. The speardogs flanking the pony stumbled, and she shook her head. "I wouldn't do that if I were you. As I was saying, not my first time getting captured. Not even my first time getting captured with something keeping me from using magic. Frankly, I'd rather be up against you than the snake people."
"Snake people?" Spot had heard about pony adventurers, thrill-seekers and mercenaries that went where most with hooves feared to tread. He'd thought the Demon Mare might have been one. But now, somehow, he knew she was a kindness compared to this one.
"Lousy dancers, terrible sense of humor. Anyway, after that incident, I decided to find a fire spell that I could set ahead of time. One that didn't need mana to activate. I'd just need to think about it."
Spot swallowed. Time to cut his losses. "If we let you go—"
The mare cracked her neck. "Your goons are going to want to get clear."
The speardogs didn't wait for the order. They fled, and a circle of light popped into existence beneath the pony, filled with curling designs. A moment later, it burst into flame.
The axedog looked to Spot. "Dead?"
He shook his head. "We should be so lucky. She put that there beforepaw. She wanted us to corner her there."
Sure enough, once the smoke cleared, the mare was unscathed. Going by the lighting, she was also at the bottom of a shaft that went all the way up to the surface. A toss of her head, and glowing molten metal splattered against the cave wall. Her mane and tail went aflame again. "As much I like to utterly destroy places, I have to give you credit for knowing when to quit. Let's not do this again."
Then flames blasted out from her hooves, and she rose on wings of fire.
Chandra was impressed. She couldn't have been out of the dog-goblins' tunnels for more than two minutes, and purple-girl-horse-Jace had already found her. She shook the embers off of her hooves and smiled. "Hey."
Purp… okay, okay, Twilight gasped for breath. "I am… so sorry. I swear… I thought… they'd learned…"
Chandra held up a forehoof. "It's okay, really. Honestly, I was getting kind of bored until now. Getting kidnapped gave me an excuse to blow off some steam." She glanced at her escape tunnel. "Well, smoke, but you get the idea."
Twilight gave a sheepish grin. "More than you know, actually. Coming back to town?"
"Eh, why not?" Both mares began the walk back to Ponyville. "It's nice to visit a plane that actually welcomes planeswalkers, even if it does turn me into a horse."
"Right. I'm probably not going to stay for much longer, but I'll definitely remember the place."
Twilight smiled. "Well, you're always welcome, as long as you're careful."
"Oh, 'careful' is my middle name." A subterranean explosion shook the rocky flats. "Yup, Chandra Careful Nalaar."
Good news, her friends were out of Tirek's clutches, and she had what could very well be the Key of Magic.
Bad news, she'd kind of botched the whole "keep alicorn magic out of Tirek's hands" thing. It was worth it, especially if this worked, but in the meantime, he was very nearly a physical god. They'd beaten a physical god before... but so had he. Said physical god was running at her side, similarly disempowered.
Twilight's body tried to intrude with something about being tired. She paid it no mind. She didn't have time for exhaustion right now.
More good news, Tirek was too distracted processing the accumulated magic of four alicorns to notice the ponies and draconequus slip away before he could crush them like insects.
Twilight made a mental note to reread those books on positive thinking if she survived this. When. When she survived this. She mentally underlined the note.
At that point, they had made it to the Tree of Harmony's grotto. Twilight held Scorpan's amulet to the box and crossed her primaries. As it transformed and was pulled into place, she felt a tremendous weight lift from her withers. This was going to work. "Together!" she cried. "I think we have to do this togeth—"
"Come on, girls!" Dash was already there. Dash had already turned the Key of Loyalty. Of course.
Twilight swallowed as surreptitiously as she could. "Well, it should still work. Come on, everypony."
Five more keys turned, and the ground began to shake.
Tirek snarled and swept another devastating blast across the forest. He might have unparalleled levels of power, but he still had the same intellect that had helped him escape the inescapable. If he left an alicorn free, she could act as a rallying point for those who might think to resist his rightful rule. That could not stand. She may have slipped away for a moment, but he would find her.
A tremor brought his attention to a ruined castle. Perhaps this "Princess Twilight" had found some forgotten artifact of the older alicorns? Tirek grinned. It would no doubt be delicious.
The tremor intensified, and the sound of stone grinding on stone rose above it. Tirek's grin widened in anticipation. He imagined the look on her face as her final, desperate hope was dashed. It would be beautiful.
A dust cloud rose from the ledge on one side of the castle. Tirek nodded. The castle itself was far too obvious a target. He'd have to remember to annihilate it while the fledgling princess watched.
Then the ledge detached itself from the rest of the forest, and Tirek's grin faltered a bit. Stone and soil arranged themselves into a crude mockery of his own magnificent form, and he scowled. This was far too elaborate for some automated defense. He had somehow missed something with enough power to craft a golem this immense in a matter of seconds. What else had Discord so conveniently "forgotten" to tell him?
Instead of his own illustrious visage, the golem had some manner of staging platform. Tirek squinted. Some manner of glowing crystal and... yes. Yes, really. Princess Twilight and her precious little "friends," Discord included. Completely and totally exposed, the fools. Tirek approached the construct, firing a blast at them as he did so.
His magic struck an invisible shield, fractured into rainbows, and was drawn into the golem. A flash of light, and even from this distance, he could tell that the ponies had somehow become even more garish. Tirek snarled and charged. Hand-to-hand combat it was.
He took a pair of hind hooves to the chest and was thrown back. He hadn't expected something so large and slapdash to be so quick.
"Equestria rejects you, Tirek!" cried the princess.
Tirek rolled his eyes. Always with the speeches, these ponies. Even before his imprisonment, they never stopped talking. He opened his maw wide. He'd just suck the magic out of the cursed construct.
He drew in nothing, then took a bone-shattering punch to the jaw. "The ponies reject you!" added the unicorn.
An uppercut to the chin. "All creatures reject you!" Fluttershy, Discord's pet pony. A surprising amount of fire in that one.
A one-two from the front hooves into his solar plexus, giving him a bit of distance. "Every dang blade o' grass rejects ya!" The one in the hat. He'd be sure to burn it to ash.
As Tirek healed himself, the golem strode forward. "Together, we're going to kick your flank all the way back to Tartarus!" The rainbow one. She had spunk.
Tirek hated spunk.
He lunged forward. The golem's arms met his, their hands intertwined, and they struggled to overpower one another. For a time, they were evenly matched. Then, slowly, methodically, Tirek could feel his opponent gain the upper hand. He saw why. Rainbows were wafting into the construct from where it made contact with him. They were stealing the magic that was rightfully his!
Tirek brought his own forehooves against the golem, making it stagger back. He backpedaled even as he called up a tremendous amount of power.
"Ooh, are you giving back more magic?" The pink one. She unsettled him. There was some aspect of her that he could not touch. "Thanks!"
He sneered. "You have outmatched me, ponies, but I will have the last laugh!" The sphere of power had grown too large to be contained between his horns. It hovered above him like a fell sun. "If I cannot have this magic, then no one can! If you do not stand down, I will destroy myself. Pony magic will die with me!"
Tirek blinked. Just a blink. A fraction of a second. And when he opened his eyes again, he was face to faces with the infuriating mares. But their determination wasn't the worst. No, that went to the smug satisfaction on Discord's face. "Surprise," said the draconequus. He pointed up.
Tirek looked. The golem's hand was plunged into the orb of magic, which was roiling, hissing, and spitting. His eyes widened. "No. NO!" He tried to release it. A beam, a burst, even just recalling it into his body. It didn't heed his commands. Instead, it leeched even more power out of him. He felt himself begin to wither, even as more colors bloomed on the surface of the sphere. "You cannot do this! This is impossible!"
"Friendship and chaos, old boy!" crowed Discord.
"When all thing are in harmony," cried the princess, "nothing is impossible!"
The last dregs of Tirek's magic were yanked out of him. The gathered prismatic energy, now an amorphous blob, wobbled around the golem's arm. It stuck the limb into the sky, and a shockwave spread as far as the eye could see.
After all ponies' magic was restored, the golem walked to the edge of Ponyville, sat, and would move no more. For reasons she would never be able to explain, Twilight felt oddly disappointed.
Meanwhile, Rarity felt a similarly inexplicable sense of gratitude towards Rainbow Dash.
Sugar Smith glared at her opponent, a frustrating, stubborn little nightmare of headache and heartache.
The zap apple didn't look back, but she wouldn't have been surprised if it had. It was clear that the Everfree was where sanity went to die. Well, it was where a lot of things went to die, but sanity was one of the first casualties.
When she'd found the zap apples, they had been literal life-savers. But fresh fruit only lasted so long, even for earth ponies. Her first attempt at jam had not turned out at all well. Really, it had been downright cruel to the pectin.
Sugar wasn't going to let that stand. She was Sugar Smith. She didn't bake. She wrought. Her oven was her forge. If she earned her mark and name after putting grass, molasses, and one lonely apple in pie crust and making the tastiest thing her family had eaten that week, then she wasn't going to admit defeat now.
Still, conventional methods weren't working. That meant she'd need to use unconventional ones. Sugar took the zap apple in her hooves and shut her eyes. "Alright, you glorified crabapple. We ain't gonna plant more o' ya if yer more trouble'n yer worth. So what do Ah gotta do t' make you as delicious as Ah know y' can be?"
The fruit didn't answer with words, of course. (It was an apple. What did it know from Equish?) Instead, Sugar's mind filled with jumbled images.
She was silent for several minutes as she sorted them out. Finally, she said, "Alright, let's see if Ah got this straight: there ain't no way Mama's gonna let me paint th' kitchen, an' Ah got no idea where t' find some screwy rabbit costume, but bein' nice to bees Ah can do. That seems like common sense, really. What else y' got?"
The answer entered Sugar's mind, and a smile spread over face like jam on toast. "Oh, that won't be no problem at all."
There were days when Cody Lead-On still wasn't sure about settling down. His family had been gathering seeds for generations. But Dinah had insisted, and he'd learned that it didn't pay to argue with his wife in those rare moments when she put her hoof down. The Princess Herself agreeing with her only underscored that.
Still, sometimes it felt wrong to be in the same place for so long. He worried about what it was doing to his children. It didn't seem right to coop up the young when they could call all of Equestria home.
The commotion in the kitchen was only confirming this. Sugar Smith had just about claimed it as her second home, but that wasn't what worried him. As she grew into her talent, that sort of thing was to be expected. No, what worried Cody was that she was wearing a saucepan and pacing in front of a table full of jars.
"Alright, ya sons o' windows," she barked, "Ah may not know why Ah'm s'possed t' do this, but yer all gonna listen, and yer gonna listen good. Ah have been negotiatin' with th' zap apples, an' they expect only th' best an' brightest when it comes t' jam jars. Ah don't aim t' disappoint 'em, an' you ain't gonna embarrass me. Do Ah make mahself clear!?" She stomped her hoof.
There was a high-pitched tinkle.
"Well, well, well. Looks like there's somethin' t' this after all. We got one poor, delicate lily here who can't handle the pressure. Who else ain't got the guts?"
"That's what Ah wanna hear. But if yer all just butterin' me up, yer gonna wish y' cracked here an' now."
Cody shook his head and moved away from the kitchen as quietly as his hooves let him. It seemed crazy, but jars didn't break for no reason. He just hoped his daughter didn't crack as well. He'd keep an eye on her, but for now, she didn't seem to be doing too much harm. Still, they'd need to have a talk about how expensive good glass was.
Sugar tried to gauge her parents' reaction at once, her gaze never lingering on one of them for very long. This batch of jam hadn't ended in screams and lightning, which was always a good sign. Still, that wasn't a guarantee of success, and now the seconds stretched into eternity.
Her ma spoke up first. "Cody, what was the name o' that stallion who put on more airs than a pegasus at the Grand Gallopin' Gala?"
Her pa frowned. "Dinah…"
"Now Ah remember." Dinah Cott smiled at her daughter. "Tomorrow, Ah'm goin' to that Stinkin' Rich, and Ah'm tellin him that mah Sugar Smith has somethin' that'll make him a mint.
Sugar gasped. "Y' mean it?"
Her mother nodded. "Oh, most definitely." She grinned. "Now hide what y' got, else yer brothers'll eat th' whole batch."
Sugar practically trotted on air as she did so, already thinking of how good the jam could be with every step taken. She couldn't wait to find out.
Firstly, I would like to apologize. My recklessness was a sign of great disrespect towards you and everything you have been trying to teach me, especially the lessons I abused today. In my eagerness to apply that knowledge, I neglected true wisdom for thoughtless action, and others paid for my folly. You asked me to think about what I've done, and I have. In particular I have thought about how the law would punish me for my actions today.
My actions were done without first receiving a license from the Canterlot Construct Authority, nor did I first submit the appropriate notifications and registration requests to the CCA prior to beginning assembly and animation. That I am too young to apply for an artificer's license only underscores my violations of proper procedure.
I also violated Article 3 of the Equestrian Artifice Accords, which explicitly proscribes the use of volatile or formerly living materials as golem substrates. Given the nature of my chosen substrate, I technically violated both aspects of this law.
My punishment for these acts would be severe indeed. I would be charged for the sum total of all damages incurred by my creation, as well as an additional fine of no fewer than one hundred thousand bits. I would also have to carry out a period of indentured service to the crown for a period of no fewer than five and no more than twenty years. Given that my personal finances cannot even begin to cover the fine, my indentures would be extended to compensate for this.
The service period would be spent giving back to the society I exploited to create my unlicensed, unpermitted construct. As I am a unicorn, this would likely entail long hours at an assembly line enchanting electromantic components, performing fine-detail telekinesis in assembling those components, or other menial magical labor.
During my indentures, I would have to wear a standard-issue "penitent's ring" around my horn at all times. This would act as a tracking device, and when I was not at work, a magical suppressor. It would also allow me to perceive the city limits of Canterlot as a luminous barrier, because if I were to leave those limits, it would immediately paralyze me and notify the City Guard.
The punishment for this attempted escape would depend on how and why it was carried out. If I was forced out of the city limits against my will, the one who coerced me would be punished with a fine of not more than one thousand bits. If I attempted to leave Canterlot of my own free will, my sentence would be extended by no fewer than two years, or five years on a second offense. A third offense would result in my incarceration for the remainder of my sentence.
As a minor, my sentence would normally be much lighter. Penalties for minors are capped at a fine of no more than five hundred bits and/or thirty days of community service for most crimes, and the use of penitent's rings is virtually unheard of for young offenders. However, the laws assume that all unlawful constructs created by minors are created as a result of magical surges, either in infancy (in which case even the minor punishments are waived) or on or around the time of cutiesynthesis. Intentional creation of a construct by a minor is not even considered, as it would not normally be possible.
Such legal gray areas have traditionally been decided by royal fiat, a tradition that extends back to the Uni Carta. You chose to commute my sentence to this written report and what you described as "a surprise." You went on to state that when the time comes, I'll know.
I suspect that the anticipation is intended to be as much a part of the punishment as whatever action you take. I admit, it's working.
In conclusion, I shouldn't build a golem just because I can. Definitely not when I don't yet know the command spells needed to operate the golem, certainly not when I make that uncontrolled golem out of coal, and most especially not when that golem then catches on fire.
Cream Rinse sipped her tea and enjoyed the beautiful day. Maretropolis had many cafes, and they all had their charms. (Well, except the three hundred or so Queequegs scattered throughout the city, but those didn't really count.) The key charm of this particular cafe was that it actually served her. This was far from guaranteed. After all, she was the only pony holding her teacup with a prehensile tendril of hair.
Ponies ran by, screaming. The rest of the cafe's customers followed suit. It was kind of nice to know they weren't panicking because of Cream. Still, she was kind of curious about what was causing it.
She got her answer in a pair of earth ponies, or what had once been a pair of earth ponies. Now their skin was hairless and pallid, their eyes clouded and vacant. One was a huge stallion, staggering on distended hooves the size of ponyhole covers. His every step came with a sound like onions on a hot griddle. In his footsteps, cement crumbled and asphalt bubbled. The other was a mare, her enormous jaws making her nearly tip over with every step. Unhealthy greenish vapor, uncomfortably close to the color of Cream's own locks, leaked out between cracked teeth with her every breath.
They had no names for themselves; they no longer had the capacity. But the city knew them as Hoof and Mouth.
Part of Cream wanted to be a hero, to leap at the pair and do something useful with her powers for once. The rest remembered what had happened the last time she'd tried that. Still, when Hoof and Mouth showed up, there was only one thing they wanted.
"Huuuun-gryyyy," moaned Hoof, moving like a puppet with half its strings cut.
"Huuuun-gryyyy," agreed Mouth, more of her foul breath leaking out.
All they wanted was to feed, and they were in no mood for salads. What they did to their victims... Cream knew how terrible she'd been in the past, but she also knew she wasn't ever that horrible. She hoped she never would be.
A lilac streak zipped towards Cream, resolving itself into none other than Filli-Second. "Heya, Creamy! You're looking pretty sane, think you can look after Humdrum for a bit?"
Cream blinked. She'd completely missed the colt until he started clinging to her leg. Judging by his expression, he was still recovering from his trip on the Filli-Second Express. "I suppose, but—"
"Great! Back in a blink!" And then the speedster was gone, and it was just Cream and Humdrum against the Decaying Duo.
Cream coughed into a fetlock. "Um, so..."
Humdrum smiled at her. "Don't worry, Miss Rinse. The rest of the team should be here soon enough."
She nodded. "Good to know. It's just, well, after the last time I tried to help..."
"The relapse, yeah." He wilted for a moment, but perked up with an optimism that she suspected was literally superequine. "More than anything, we just want you to be safe and happy."
Cream smiled and nodded. Then she turned back to Hoof and Mouth. They were still approaching, not so much slowly as inexorably. "So, didn't the Masked Matter-Horn use some kind of 'quiet rest' beam on those two? I'm fairly certain she told the papers it would last for years at the minimum."
"She said it was supposed to." Humdrum gulped. "She, uh, she thinks the Neighcromancer might be back in town."
Cream stiffened. "Humdrum, I don't care if she has to hit me with that sanity ray of hers every two minutes, I'm helping against him."
"No buts. I'd rather become the Mane-iac again than let that monster walk free."
A wordless groan preempted anything Humdrum might have to say to that. Both turned and saw that Hoof and Mouth had noticed them. With only two potential meals, the pair could focus, and they raced forward with startling speed.
Hoof's putrefying touch was one of the reasons why Cream knew her hair was only nigh-indestructible. Even if it could withstand him, it would do nothing to protect the rest of her against Mouth's necrotic breath.
That didn't matter. "Humdrum." Cream positioned herself between him and the Decaying Duo, her locks flaring out around her. "Run."
He gasped. "B-but if you fight, your sanity's going to hang by a thread!"
She chuckled. "No. By a hair. And a hair is stronger than the same thickness of steel. Now run."
"Meet my maelstrom, mephitic malefactors!"
Hoof and Mouth stumbled to a halt and looked to the skies. There was a flash of lightning, and a vortex engulfed the pair. It soon turned the sickly green of Mouth's breath, but not a wisp escaped the tiny tornado.
Cream's body and locks both sagged in relief. "I have never been happier to hear alliteration."
"Yeah, sorry," said a suddenly present Filli-Second. "Not quite 'a blink' a blink, but we can't all be me."
"I don't know if the world could handle two of you." Saddle Rager strode to Cream's other side.
She looked from one to the other, then backed away. "Sorry. Feeling a little boxed in."
Rager nodded and offered a small smile. "I understand. It's nothing personal though. We're just not that useful against Hoof and Mouth."
Filli-Second nodded. Well, her head blurred in a generally vertical manner. "Yeah, SR and I actually have to hit people, and those two? Those two you don't want to touch. So, bodyguard duty!" She beamed. "I saw what you were ready to do."
Cream watched as Zapp released Hoof and Mouth from the cyclone just in time for Radiance to conjure restraints on both of them, including a muzzle for Mouth. Mistress Marevelous had her lasso ready as the Masked Matter-Horn swooped down and fired a beam the color of fresh milk at each of the monsters. Both slumped over, and Cream released a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding.
She turned to Filli-Second. "I want to make up for what I've done in the past. Somehow, some way that's more constructive than going mad in the heat of battle." She mane-pointed to the Matter-Horn. "I know you already have a genius who managed to invent an artificial horn, but I can at least act as an assistant. If the Neighcromancer is back..."
Filli-Second and Saddle Rager shared a look. The latter heaved a deep breath. "Hoof and Mouth would indicate something like that is happening, and if it is the case, then we'll need all the help we can get."
"We'll probably have to put it up for a vote," noted Filli-Second, "but if it were up to me, you'd be in before you could say 'Welcome to the team.'"
Cream smiled and savored the moment. It was also possible that she was holding back tears. "If nothing else, I appreciate the sentiment."
"Just remember," noted Rager, "we will be keeping a close eye on you. One 'mane' pun, and..." Her costume strained at her bulging form. "Just remember. I'm always angry."
Cream took a few steps back. She kept that distance even after Rager returned to her usual proportions. "Duly noted."
Humdrum peeked out from under Filli-Second. "Well, I believe in you."
"Heh." Cream had to smile. "Thank you, Humdrum. That makes one of us."
Pumpkin Cake looked upon Sugarcube Corner and sighed as only the adolescent can sigh. Ponyville had changed.
Oh, she admitted that many of the changes were for the better. As the Bearers of Harmony had saved the world again and again, Ponyville had gone from an obscure backwater to the unofficial second capital of Equestria. Ponies flocked to the town, and with those ponies came new businesses, including all sorts of interesting things for a growing foal to do.
But now, in her pubescent wisdom, Pumpkin could see the downside of all that growth. Her parents had moved to a newer, bigger bakery, and now the old one sat cordoned off by velvet ropes and armored guards. They said they were turning it into a historical landmark. What they meant was that they'd bleed all the life out of it, then charge tourists a nominal fee to walk around the corpse. Pumpkin had seen it happen to the Carousel Boutique, Rainbow Dash's first cloud mansion, and even the charred stump of the Golden Oak Library. But she'd never imagined it could happen to her home.
Mom and Dad had insisted that they needed the space. Pound just didn't care. But she wasn't going to take that lying down. Pumpkin watched as the last of the so-called renovators left the Corner for the day, then waited another few minutes just to be sure. Once she was, she double-checked the contents of her saddlebags, centered herself, and called on her magic. Her horn glowed a silvery blue, and soon, so did the world.
Pumpkin walked out of the alley and towards her home. The guards didn't notice her, because there was nothing to notice. The velvet ropes and door didn't block her, because there was nothing to block.
This was her personal trick, her special talent. Twilight Sparkle had called it ontolomancy, the magical manipulation of the very nature of existence. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, Pumpkin wasn't there. She actually had to add a little extra to the spell to make sure the ground still supported her. That had been an unpleasant surprise...
Pumpkin shook herself. No time for nostalgia now, even if that was why she was doing this. She made her way to the kitchen, and her heart sank. Only a few weeks ago, this had been a place where ponies had taken flour, sugar, and love and made wonderful treats for the town. Now the oven was gone, the cupboards were bare, and the room was cold.
Blinking back tears, Pumpkin dropped the spell and returned to the world's notice. She then pulled a can of spray paint out of her saddlebags. Pink, of course. If anypony would've supported her, it would be Pinkie Pie. That Mom and Dad had chosen to move now, when Pinkie was in Canterlot on official world-saving awesome sister/aunt business, couldn't have been a coincidence. Pumpkin removed the cap, shook the can, and aimed towards the ceiling. She knew exactly what she'd write.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"Ah!" Pumpkin jumped, her shock releasing the can from her magical grasp. She spun to face the other pony, and recognized her in a moment. She was a pillar of Pumpkin's foalhood, an exemplar of unicorn awesomeness... and somepony who'd never let her get away with anything. "Dinky?"
Dinky Doo smiled. It was a familiar smile, a patient and patronizing one she often wore when putting an end to Pumpkin's plans. "Hello, Pumpkin."
"How did... Why are..." Pumpkin sputtered, trying to pick one question out of the many flooding her mind. Finally, she settled on "What are you doing here? I thought you had a job or something."
"I do. One of my first assignments was tracking you down."
Pumpkin considered this for a moment. "Huh?"
Dinky chuckled. "Well, I'm one of the few who can find you when you don't want to be found. Mom probably could, but my employers try not to call on her too often." She laughed again. "Guess I'm following the family business after all, huh?"
Pumpkin gaped, her mind well boggled. "You... have a letter for me?"
"Two, actually." Dinky's horn lit. A matching circle of light formed in front of her, and she dug a hoof into it. "Let me see..."
"Yup. Pocket storage dimension. Not as efficient as Pinkie Pie's, but it gets the job done. Ah!" Dinky pulled a pink envelope out of the space. "Well, there's one. Give it a read while I find the other one."
Pumpkin did so.
I really, really appreciate the thought, but Mr. and Mrs. Cake cleared the move with me before they did it. I think Mr. Cake said something about being worried about seas of blood and legions of unspeakable horrors if I didn't, but I'm pretty sure he was joking. I know Mrs. Cake laughed.
Anyway, don't graffitizegraffiterate spray-paint Sugarcube Corner. Do you really want your last memory of the place to be vandalizing it? I didn't think so.
See you soon, Pinkie Pie, Lots of Titles
Pumpkin looked up. Dinky was still struggling with the hyperspace pocket, looking on the verge of saying words that Pumpkin wasn't supposed to say in front of her parents. She bit her lip, then lit up her horn to fade out of notice.
"Nope." A spark from Dinky's horn, and Pumpkin felt the spell slip away from her. She looked up to see the older unicorn smirking at her. "Remember, Pumpkin. It's not just my PHENOMENAL ARCANE INSIGHT that lets me track you down. That's a side benefit."
Pumpkin pouted. "Like the glowing eyes and echoing speech?"
"Exactly," Dinky said shamelessly. "I break spells. You know that. There is nothing you can do that I can't undo."
This started an awkward silence. Awkward for Pumpkin, at least. Dinky kept rooting through hyperspace. After some time, Pumpkin cried, "BLARGH!" and charged at the older unicorn.
Telekinesis lifted her, leaving her legs flailing a few inches off the ground. "See what I mean?" said Dinky. "Aha! Finally." She produced a scroll and magicked it to Pumpkin. "Here's the other one."
Pumpkin took it in her own magic. "I don't recognize the seal." It was a dark green wax stamped with what looked like the number four.
Dinky nodded. "Yeah, it's not exactly a well-known one."
Pumpkin broke the strange seal, unrolled the scroll, and read. Once she reached the signature, the paper turned into a thin sheet of greenish clay and crumbled to dust. She blinked at this, then turned to Dinky. "Why can't I remember what I just read?"
"Ultra-tippy-top secret reasons," answered Dinky. "Do you at least remember the gist?"
"Some kind of... job offer?" Pumpkin frowned. "At least, I think that was it."
"If you accept, your abilities will be put to use for the good of all of Equestria."
Pumpkin squirmed. "I don't know. This seems kind of... off."
"Also, I'm pretty sure you'll be sent to the past rather often. Back to before Ponyville became a world-renowned name."
Pumpkin thought about this for a good minute. "I'm in." The full text of the letter filled her mind.
Dinky set her back on the floor and beamed. "Pumpkin Spice Cake, welcome to the Equestrian Time-Space Administration Bureau."
Shining Armor had been tremendously proud to hear how Twilight had made it into Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. More than a little terrified, given the tales of her incredible surge, but still proud. His LSBFF was coming into her own, living up to her tremendous potential. He wished she'd stop cloistering herself with battalions of books, but hopefully her new school would give her a chance to flourish.
Still, it wasn't just the school that had accepted her. Princess Celestia herself had named Twilight her personal student. Cadence had been ecstatic to hear about that. Shining wasn't so sure. It was bad enough when he knew the princess's niece was gossiping about him. Adding his little sister to the mix? Celestia would have every reason to keep a close eye on him, the thought of which turned his knees to water. There was no way that kind of scrutiny would end well.
And then there was Spike.
Shining really didn't know where he stood with Spike. Once the wonder of having a dragon in the house died down, he found himself unsure whether he should think of himself as a brother, an uncle, or just a petsitter. Especially when the two of them were the only ones in the house.
Shining scratched "petsitter" off the mental list. Pets might resemble their owners, but few asked questions like them. "Yeah, Spike?"
"How come all guards look the same?"
"It's called a uniform. There's magic in the armor that—"
The wyrmling pouted and stomped his foot. "I know what it's called. I want to know why."
Shining shook his head. The inflection was spot-on. It was as though Twilight had reared up and grown scales. "Well, it's..." He trailed off. Explaining the need for easy identification of ally and enemy in combat to a toddler seemed like a bad idea. Especially if Mom found out. Or Twily. Or, Celestia forbid, Cadence.
Mercifully, an alternate answer came to mind. "It's to honor some of the greatest members of the Royal Guard."
Spike's eyes widened (Shining still wasn't used to the slit pupils) and he sat in rapt attention. "Who?"
Shining felt himself relax a bit. Military history was a much more comfortable subject for him than babysitting. He tried not to think about what that said about him. "Well, the unicorn uniform—" He paused for Spike's giggles. "It's based on Honor Code. He was an incredible illusionist and tactician."
"Tac...?" Spike tilted his head as he considered the new word.
"He directed his troops in the middle of battle, and he was very good at it. His specialty was rendering almost anything completely unnoticeable. Platoons, airships, even siege weapons." Shining grinned. "He'd drop the spell, and suddenly there was a row of cannons right in front of the foe's front lines."
Spike gaped, jaw slack and eyes wide.
Shining nodded. "Yeah, according to the records, they looked just like that."
"Right? Now, the earth pony guards—"
Spike frowned. "There are earth pony guards?"
"Of course there are. Why wouldn't... oh." Shining almost smacked himself, but that probably wouldn't be a good influence on Spike. "Yeah, the earth pony guards don't see a lot of ceremonial duty. Nopony's quite sure why. Anyway, their uniform gives them black coats and dark gray manes, just like the pony they honor, Hold de Line."
"Did he?" asked Spike.
Shining considered this. "Did he what?"
"Hold the line."
"What about him?"
Spike rolled his little eyes. "Did he?"
"...Oh!" Shining laughed. "Right. Well, yeah. Yeah, he did. During one of the Griffin Wars, it's said he personally held off a good dozen reivers to give Princess Celestia time to cast a decisive spell."
"What did the spell decide to do?"
Shining held back his laugh this time, though he still smiled. "I mean the spell was what won the battle for the ponies."
"Oh." Spike grinned. "Neat! So what happened to Hold de Line after the battle?"
"He... was commended for his bravery and skill, and is still honored to this day through the uniform enchantment." Shining very carefully didn't mention that that honor was posthumous.
Spike was nearly bouncing in place. "And what about the pegasus?"
"He was named Cold Steel, and he may be the greatest of those honored through the uniform."
"What did he do? What did he do?"
Shining grinned. "Oh, not much. Just single-hoofedly slew a..." He trailed off, mouth still wide open.
"What?" Spike looked at him with adoring eyes. "What did he slay? A manticore? A hydra?"
"Well..." Shining glanced at the clock. No, still way too early for bedtime. Spike had just eaten, so no breaks would come courtesy of his digestion. Shining sighed. Well, might as well bite the bit and get it over with. "A dragon."
Watching Spike go from excitement to horror just about broke Shining's heart. "Huh?"
"He was nothing like you, though!" Shining cried. "He was a very old, very mean dragon who had never learned how to make friends."
"Oh." Spike looked at the floor, and Shining couldn't think of anything more to say.
After what felt like hours, Spike spoke up again. "Shiny?"
Spike looked up, eyes narrowed. "I think Cold Steel was kind of mean too."
Shining quirked an eyebrow. "Why's that?"
"Just because the dragon didn't know how to make friends didn't mean that he couldn't try to show him."
Shining considered the tales of dread Istruzinov, the fell wyrm who had flown over the top of the world on thermals of his own making. The mighty dragon who had glowed with his own heat, who had sought to claim the sun itself for his hoard, who had reduced thousands to ash before laughingly accepting Cold Steel's challenge to single combat.
"You know what, Spike?" he said. "I think you're right."
The dragon gave a solemn nod at this. Then he started sucking his thumb.
He had known. He did not know how he had known, but he had known. From the moment they had beckoned the beast out of the pit, he had known it would destroy them. So he ran. He ran before the beast could pin down his life with its inequine gaze, doom him to the same fate as the others.
At the time, he hadn't known what that fate was, but that hadn't mattered. All that mattered was making sure that it wouldn't be his fate. Thus, he ran and ran until he could run no more. He was an earth pony, so that was quite a ways.
Of course, they had come to the field via teleportation, which meant that he had no idea where he was, or where safety was. That didn't matter. What mattered was the running. He could feel the demon just behind him, waiting for him to look back, to stumble, to show any kind of weakness that it could exploit.
By some incredible luck, he found a safe place. It called to him, tugged at his hooves like an eager foal. The demon lost track of him, distracted by all of the other, lesser beings he felt around him. The Hollow Shades were not a nice place, but they were a safe place. Safer than Tartarus, at least. Safer than being exposed.
The town he found was happy to accept him. They didn't ask questions there. They hadn't even named the town, for fear of others finding them. There, he sought out even better ways of hiding, of protecting himself. But to do that, he needed to better understand how others might find him or do him harm. There were scholars in the nameless town, collections of useful lore, both devoted to those very topics. He used both eagerly.
After long months of study and acquisition, he returned to Manehattan. His apartment had been sold. His job had been given to another. He didn't care. He understood now. It wasn't the demons who he had to fear most. They were terrible creatures, yes, but without outside aid, they could not touch him from their prison. No, it was Celestia who he had to fear, for however brief his exposure to Tartarus had been, it was enough to taint him in her eyes. His teachers in the Hollow Shades had been very clear on that.
He found a tenement that would ask no questions, paid rent directly from his dwindling savings. He had no time for employment. His work would pay far greater dividends than bits.
The circle. The circle was key. Without it, he would've never gotten as far as he had. Lead, silver, gold, and the bones of a purehart, powdered and poured in a groove along the basement floor. Luring down one of the cervine angels from her supernal habitat had been the hardest part, but they were honor-bound to come when their ground-dwelling cousins called. He'd just… gotten one to call. Simple. Easy.
With the circle in place, he was safe. The entire royal guard could come crashing into the building, Celestia herself could level it to the ground, but he would not care. They wouldn't be able to touch him. They wouldn't even be able to get near him. He would soon have all the power he could ever need. Feeding even a fraction of it into the circle would keep him safe from the sun and all who served her, forever and ever and ever.
Soon he did not ever leave the circle. He had no need to. The power he had already gathered sustained him without food or drink. Attempts to evict him had been thoroughly rebuffed, and the landlady had matters of her own that she didn't want the Guard looking into. In the womb of the earth, night and day lost all meaning.
Finally, for one last time, he slept. When next he awoke, he could ensure that he would finally be safe once and for all.
He was awakened by hoofsteps. He smiled. Let them come. They could not disturb him. Not here. Not now.
A ray of magic passed through the circle without a pause and struck him right between the eyes. He fell over on his side, immobilized.
As he fell, he heard the hoofsteps close behind him. No. Impossible. He'd been charging the circle regularly. Nothing of the light could get in. Nothing could hurt him. It wasn't possible. He was safe.
Silver shoes entered his vision. The dusky blue legs sprouting from them knelt down before him. A mane of stars filed his sight, and within, a regal face regarded him. Not light. Not Celestia. Who? How? Why?
The impossibility shook her head. "A fool. Not how We wished to resume Our solemn duties, but it will do."
And, understanding nothing, the stallion fell to darkness anyway.
By all accounts, it was a lovely scene. Five friends gathered in one of Ponyville's prime picnicking places, blanket spread, baskets open, banter pleasant. Really, there was just one thing missing.
"Where the hay is Twilight?" Applejack looked around for any purple princesses who might have joined in unnoticed. "She's th' one who asked us all here. Now she's late t' her own roundup." Applejack stood. "Ah'm gonna go check on her. Filly prob'ly got distracted by somethin' in that new palace o' hers."
Rarity rolled her eyes. "Oh, do sit back down, Applejack. This isn't one of our little sisters. Twilight is a responsible adult. If she's running behind a bit, it is no doubt for an exceedingly important reason."
"And she's right there," added Pinkie Pie.
"Yes, she—" Rarity paused mid-nod. "She is?"
"Yup!" Pinkie waved at empty air. "Hi, Twilight!"
The other four mares shared a concerned look. Rainbow Dash spoke for them. "Uh, Pinks? You feeling o—" She blinked, then turned to her left. "Yeah, never mind. Hi, Twilight."
Applejack took a a few steps back. "Pinkie, Ah love ya like a sister, but if yer crazy is catchin'—"
Dash gave her a flat look. "Nice, AJ." She spread her left wing and poked empty space with a primary. It clearly hit something. "Nah, Twi's just invisible. I felt the air currents when she landed. Not sure how Pinkie picked up on her, though."
"Shivery back means I'm being watched."
Dash nodded. "There we go." She faced Twilight. "There a reason you're not saying anything?"
"Persistent petitioners?" Rarity guessed.
"The ponyrazzi?" asked Fluttershy.
"Mayor Mare hockin' ya on yer shiny new zonin' law violation again?" said Applejack.
Twilight resumed visibility with a sigh. "No. It's—"
"There you are!" Discord manifested, dressed in armor just as mismatched as he was: paper plate, alpha mail, boiled pleather, and more, all topped with a ludicrous helmet bearing familiar lavender wings. Every piece bore a familiar six-pointed star.
Twilight just rammed her muzzle into the blanket. A muffled "Him" came from it.
A variety of looks, from curious stares to angry scowls, met this revelation. Fluttershy spoke up. "Discord, what are you doing?"
The draconequus took a seat, twining most of his body around Twilight. "Well, as the sole member of the Order of Magic, and by extension, the Liminal Guard, it is my sworn duty to watch over and protect my liege."
Applejack scowled. "The Limi-what now?"
Twilight's voice came from within the cuirassed coils. "It's one of the names I've been considering for my branch of the Royal Guard. Which I haven't formed yet!" She stuck her head out of the top, like an angry grape topping a cone of chaotic soft-serve. "And I certainly haven't associated it with the Order of Magic! Discord just thinks this is funny! He's been like this since this morning."
Spike yawned as he stumbled into the kitchen, once again reminding himself that chewing on the walls was strongly discouraged.
Spike looked up at the improbably armored draconequus. "It is way too early for this."
Discord just scowled at him. "State your name, rank, and serial number."
"Just humor him, Spike." At least Twilight looked apologetic. It didn't help much, but it did help.
The dragon sighed. "Spike Keyfahdon, number-one assistant, and I wanted waffles."
Discord gave him a long, appraising look. Spike swore he heard a voice admiring the veneer on his scales. Finally the draconequus gave a quick nod. "Very well. You may pass."
"And he's only gotten more obnoxious as the day's dragged on! I gave Spike the day off just so he wouldn't have to deal with any more of this nonsense." Twilight glared at Discord. "Even my brother's never been this bad."
"Which only underscores the sorry state of the Guard," Discord shot back.
"None of the others are having this sort of issue with their knights!"
"Yes, because their knights all have previous engagements. Coco Pommel is spreading the gospel of Generosity."
Rarity gave a shy smile. "Well, I couldn't tear her away from her career. Being knighted has made her the talk of Manehattan."
Discord nodded. "Rainbow Dash has instructed the Wonderbolts to prioritize their other duties to the Crown."
"Like I'm going to tell them to stop touring just to hang out with me." Dash paused, her muzzle scrunched in thought. "Well..." She shook her head. "No. No, I'd rather have them performing."
"Cheese Sandwich wanders the earth in his quest for enlightenment through festivity."
Pinkie Pie, sitting in the lotus position, gave a single nod. "He has looked through the world and seen himself, but the path of transcendence does not ever truly end."
"Seabreeze is in another dimension." Discord scratched his chin. "Granted, I could tear open a portal between our world and that of the Breezies, but given the effects it would have on space-time... Fluttershy?"
Fluttershy shook her head. "You know my feelings on that sort of thing, Discord."
He sighed. "Yes, yes, nothing directly injurious to the fabric of reality."
Twilight teleported out of Discord's embrace and glared at him. "And what about Silver Shill? He's living with his brother here in Ponyville. Why isn't he looking over Applejack's shoulder every waking minute?"
Applejack pulled her hat over her face. "Shoot, Twi, you know Ah ain't comfortable with all these titles an' such. Last thing Ah want is t' trouble some stallion who's puttin' his life back t'gether."
Twilight nodded furiously. "You see? You're not obligated to hover over me, Discord!"
"And if you want to, you should just say so."
All eyes turned to Fluttershy. She didn't flinch. "Say what?" asked Dash.
Fluttershy smiled softly, not turning from Discord. "You were really touched when Twilight demanded that Tirek free you. You're using your knighthood as an excuse to spend time with her. But if you just tell her, I think you'll both enjoy it a lot more."
Discord said nothing for a few moments. Finally, he sighed and dismissed his armor. "Open communication? No misunderstandings? Fluttershy, you and I have very different concepts of enjoyment sometimes."
Twilight looked back and forth between them. "Wait, you mean—"
Discord groaned. "Do I really need to spell it out? Fluttershy already did it for me. Yes, Twilight, I've come to appreciate your presence. To a degree."
"Well. Um... huh." Twilight opened her mouth a few times, closing it without saying anything each time.
Rarity turned to Pinkie Pie. "I'd say this calls for a celebration, don't you?"
"When don't I?" Pinkie beamed, reached under the blanket, and produced a cake with icing the other ponies found they couldn't directly look at. "Who likes octarines?"
Discord gasped in delight and stuck his eagle talon in the air. "I do!"
Twilight frowned. "I thought octarine was a theoretical color that only existed in extremely high-energy magical fields."
Pinkie nodded. "It's also a citrus fruit."
Twilight considered this for a moment, only to find that her mind had pretty much given up on today. "Sure, why not?"
Day Planner was one of those ponies who was saddled with what others might see as a less than appealing special talent. Of course, she didn't think so. If she didn't like being a receptionist, she wouldn't have gotten her closed-book cutie mark that day she told a door-to-door salespony that her mother wasn't home. That she was a receptionist for one of the biggest up-and-comers in Manehattan? That was just icing on the cake.
But even for one so satisfied with her lot in life, there were those days when it just didn't pay to get out of bed, and today was one of them. Her alarm clock had broken, a taxi had splashed her, and a born sniper of a pigeon had used her back as target practice.
Still, Day had gotten to work on time. Today's appointments were minimal. She was free to soothe the morning away with coffee and crosswords.
Or not. Day put on her usual polite mask and looked up. "Welcome to the Razzle-Dazzle Investment Group. How may I..." She trailed off as she felt her ears press against her skull.
The pony on the other end of the desk was built like a plowhorse. Her gender would've been a mystery if it weren't for her reputation. But Day knew who she was. Everypony in the Financial District knew who she was. She was the legend, the one who'd gone from peerless entrepreneur to one of the Financial Oversight Commission's most feared inspectors.
The Visible Hoof was in the building, and that was almost never a good thing.
"M-Ms. Seed!" Day yelped. "What brings you here?"
Seed smiled. "I'm here to see the Razzmatazz brothers."
Day's mind slipped into automatic. "I'm afraid you're going to need an appointment. Um. Ma'am."
Seed shook her head. "Surprise inspection. I believe they're currently available?"
Day could lie. She could say they were booked for the day. But the same sense that told her who to stonewall and who to rush in was currently screaming at her to tell the truth. "Y-yes, ma'am. End of the hall, ma'am."
"Excellent." Seed smiled, and Day was surprised to see no fangs. "Thank you, miss. And have a nice day."
As the commissioner walked away from the reception desk, Day Planner slumped into a boneless heap. "How?" she whispered to herself.
Babs sighed as she walked down the hall. She didn't like intimidating the undeserving, but she couldn't really help it. Heck, she'd managed to cow ponies more than once just by ordering coffee.
Cousin Applejack once told her how Princess Celestia hated being so freaking huge sometimes. She could certainly sympathize.
Babs shook herself as she reached the double doors. No time for regrets right now. Time to put on her game face. She didn't like coming down hard on the undeserving, but these two were anything but.
She opened the doors. The Razzmatazz brothers looked up from their paired desks. Razzle and Dazzle Razzmatazz were twins, both tall, lanky unicorns, their manes more mayonnaise than ketchup. The only distinguishing trait between them was Dazzle's drooping mustache, which was the sort of red that only came out of a bottle.
Babs gave a smile. "Good morning, gentlecolts."
Their faces were fascinating to watch, showing synchronized alertness, confusion, terror, and hastily erected cheer, all over the course of a few seconds. "Why if it isn't Barbara Seed!" said Razzle.
"This is quite surprise," added Dazzle.
She moved into the office, giving significant glances to their lit horns. "Don't exert yourselves on my behalf, gentlecolts. I put on my suit one leg at a time."
Dazzle chewed at his lip for a moment. "May I ask why you're here, Ms. Seed?"
Babs gave the sort of smile that wore away at ponies' bladder control. "Of late, your firm has shown truly remarkable returns."
"Well, thank you, Ms. Seed," said Razzle.
"But last we checked," added Dazzle, "success isn't a crime."
She nodded. "Oh, it certainly isn't. No more than your uncanny resemblance to two known violators of several trade laws, including the Food, Drug, and Potion Act; the Truth in Advertising Act, the Equestrian Artifice Accords..." She yawned. "Oh goodness, I'm boring myself. I can only imagine how dull it must be for you gentlecolts."
Razzle gave an oddly high chuckle. "Yes, well, it's a small world, as they say."
Babs nodded. "In any case, I'm here in a largely congratulatory capacity. Just about every truly stellar company gets a visit from the FOC: Hayburger, Barnyard Bargains, Blossom Innovations. Think of this as a rite of passage. For the most part, the inspection will be between a small team of auditors and your accounting department. I'm here as a formality more than anything."
"Just making the announcement, then?" Dazzle gave what might generously be called a smile.
"More or less. Though I do like to be a part of these sorts of things. You see, I went into government work because I have something of an unfair advantage when it comes to investment."
The brothers traded a look. "Oh?" asked Razzle.
Babs began to pace about the room "It stems from my special talent." She could see the brothers almost unconsciously glance at her cutie mark, a brown casing opening to reveal a seed of gold. "You could say it's literally a business sense. When I research a company, I get impressions much like another earth pony might get from inspecting soil. I can tell when I'm looking at fertile ground." She glared. "And I can tell when somepony has salted the earth."
"You don't say."
"I do." She smiled. "So! This shouldn't impede with your day-to-day operations. However, if you had vacation plans, I strongly suggest postponing them. After all, if you were to leave the city prior to the end of the inspection, well, we'd be unable to congratulate you on your no-doubt impeccable business practices. And that would be a terrible, terrible tragedy." Babs nodded to the unicorns. "Have a nice day, gentlecolts."
Applejack was working the apple cart when the offer came. Zecora got her usual (half a dozen apples and a pie she made last all week,) but with her bits came an invitation. "Applejack, when next you're free, I ask that you come with me. There is something you should see deep within the Everfree."
AJ was shocked enough to disable her good manners. "Y' rhymed 'free' twice."
Zecora just grinned. "Separate couplets. No distress. But was that a no or yes?"
"Well..." Applejack looked over Zecora's withers. There wasn't much of a line, and Junebug was a patient sort, but it was still best not to hem and haw over this one. "Look, Ah may go into th' Everfree more often nowadays, but that don't mean Ah like it. Everypony knows that place ain't right."
That got a grin. "Yes, much like the whole town 'knew' that I cooked up pony stew."
"T' be fair, that was jus' Pinkie." Applejack sighed. "Ah'm just sayin, Zecora, good things in th' Everfree are few an' far-between."
Zecora nodded. "In this we don't disagree. I just ask you to trust me. Though the forest you revile, you will find this worth your while." She smiled as she left the stand. "The next evening you've no chores, come and see what lies in store."
And that was how Applejack found herself huddled in a bush next to Zecora, looking at a bunch of trees as the sun set. "Not exactly what Ah thought y' had in mind," Applejack muttered.
Zecora answered in a whisper. "Do you not daily tend the trees? I thought you would like seeing these."
"Well," Applejack said in similarly hushed tones, "Ah didn't know redwoods grew in th' Everfree, so there's that. But why didn't ya bring Twilight, or maybe Fluttershy? They'd prob'ly get a lot more outta this."
"Are we not friends? Can we not do something that's between just us two?"
"Well, sure we are. But..." Applejack groaned. Quietly. "Ah'm jus' fine with havin' a cup o' tea at yer place. Y' don't need to break out th' grand tour t' impress me. An' why are we whisperin'?"
Zecora patted her fetlock. "Just wait a bit. It will be clear precisely what we're doing here."
"Ah just ask 'cause Ah don't get a lot o' free time. Ah mean, there's always somethin' Ah could be doin' back home."
"Calm yourself, Applejack. Farming can wait. Give this a chance and you'll see something great."
"All Ah've seen so far is—" Applejack's eyes widened and her ears shot up. Her surroundings always felt screwy in the Everfree, her magic ramming up against the forest's own, but her frequent exposure had gotten her used to the odd sensations. Now, a whole new collection of odd sensations was line dancing up and down her spine.
Zecora made an odd, breathy sound that might have been laughter if it were louder. "Ah, you can sense them. I thought you could. Of all my friends, you're closest to wood."
"Well, Zecora, that's all well and good, but what exactly am Ah sensin'?" Applejack peered up. The answer came climbing down.
They were built like monkeys, or how Twilight described the creatures in the world beyond the mirror portal. But instead of fur or skin, they were made of wood and greenery, blending in with the trunks, visible mostly through motion until they reached the ground.
Applejack gaped at them. "Sweet Celestia... What are they?"
"High in the branches, there do they nest," said Zecora. "Sunrise to sunset, then do they rest. But in the nighttime, they come to ground. Such are the wonders you have now found."
"Right." Applejack considered this for a moment. "So... what are they?"
Zecora made her odd whisper-laugh again. "If this people has a name, knowing it I cannot claim. To them never have I spoke. I think of them as treefolk."
"Treefolk, huh?" Applejack watched them. Several dozen had reached the ground by now. They stood around the trees, joining hands. Between the distance and the sheer scale of the trees, it was difficult to tell, but she guessed they were three or four times the height of a pony. A dry, rattling rhythm came from them. "Now what're they doin'?"
"They bless the earth and tend the trees. They are, in some ways, like ponies."
Applejack frowned, but she kept watching the treefolk. "But this is th' Everfree. Plants grow on their own here."
"Many do, but redwoods can't." said Zecora. "It's the wrong place for these plants."
For a time, both were content to watch. The chant concluded, and the treefolk started wandering about the bases of the trunks. Applejack spoke up again. "Yup, they're somethin' like earth ponies. They know they gotta put in some hard work."
"I'm not yet sure; that's still a theory. Though your belief makes me quite cheery."
Applejack looked away from the creatures long enough to share a smile with Zecora. Then both went back to their observation.
Applejack was content on the way back to Sweet Apple Acres. Not overjoyed, but feeling the same pleasant buzz as after a good day's work. "Thank ya, Zecora. Ah wasn't expectin' this, but Ah had a good time."
Zecora smiled. "I feel the same. I'm glad you came."
An unwelcome thought had been dancing around Applejack's head for a while now. She knew it would bother her all night if she didn't make it known. She bit her lip. "So, uh, was this a... date?"
The silence stretched out for far too long. Finally, Zecora said, "I am glad that we are friends. That's where my affection ends."
"Right. Right. Jus' makin' sure." Applejack had never been happier to see the edge of the forest. "Well, gotta go. Lots o' work t' do tomorrow." She galloped away in a hurry.
Some couples woke up together, sharing loving looks as they started the day. Some had very different sleeping habits and only saw one another after at least one had already had some coffee, which hardly seemed fair. And then there were Lyra and Bonbon...
"Good morning, Lyra."
"Are you a changeling?"
Bonbon groaned and buried her face in her forehooves. "No, Lyra. I'm not a changeling. I wasn't a changeling yesterday, or the day before, or any time this week."
Lyra just glared at her. "That's exactly—"
"What a changeling would say," Bonbon groaned. "Yes. I know."
Lyra squirmed a bit. "I'm sorry, Bonnie, but I have to be sure. You don't know what it was like."
"No, I don't." Bonbon shivered. Lyra hadn't been able to remember much when under the changeling queen's thrall, but what she'd been able to recall painted a haunting image. "I can only imagine how bad it must have been for you. I'm not expecting you to get better immediately, but we need some way to welcome the day with something other than accusations."
"Hmm..." Bonbon smiled. Lyra had an idea to chew on. This could keep her content for hours, if not days. "Well, we could do a sort of call-and-response password."
"Something out of one of your spy novels?"
"Basically. I say 'the duck quacks at midnight,' you say 'the moon rice cakes were sticky,' that sort of thing." Lyra scowled. "Of course, that relies on you actually not being a changeling."
"I'm just saying, it defeats the purpose of the password if some bug bypassed it before we even put it into place! This is basic logic, Bonnie."
Bonbon flipped over and plopped her face into her pillow. She tilted her head a bit and asked, "At what point did logic ever get involved here?"
"We can't proceed until we have faith in the initial axiom that you're not a changeling. All conclusions proceed from that point." Lyra nodded, clearly very pleased with her intellectual skills.
Bonbon took a deep breath. At least it isn't humans, she told herself. "I can't prove I'm not a changeling, honey. Why don't you go see Twilight Sparkle? She was the one who sussed out the changeling queen."
Lyra gave a delighted gasp. "You're a genius!" She smooched Bonbon, leapt out of bed, and pranced out of the room, crying, "I married a genius!"
"And I married a lunatic," Bonbon muttered. "Why are the cute ones always crazy?"
"And that's why I'm here!"
Twilight nodded slowly. Sudden movement always seemed unwise when Lyra was that cheerful. "I... see."
Lyra reared up and rubbed her hooves together. "So!"
Twilight glanced about the library. "...So?"
"So, I'm sure you must already have a good dozen changeling detection spells! I mean, you're Twilight Sparkle, after all."
Twilight shook her head. "I'm afraid not."
Lyra blinked at that. She went back on all fours and just stared at Twilight for a bit. "Huh?"
"Well, after Chrysalis's capture, most of the changelings in Canterlot surrendered. We know so little about changelings that nopony could prove that they weren't coerced, much as you were. By the time they told us about the army gathering under a massive field of disguise magic on the other side of the Canterhorn, that army had already dispersed."
Lyra wilted. "So... no test subjects?"
Twilight scowled. "Lyra! These are sapient beings we're talking about! They may be different from you or me, but they still have thoughts, feelings, and rights!"
"That didn't stop them from magically enslaving me!"
Spike looked over the second floor landing. "What are you two—" He cut himself off, backing away from the angered unicorns. Both were just silently glaring now, their heads down and horns pointed at one another. Twilight's mane and tail were starting to smoulder, and Lyra's were an oscillating blur. On the edge of Spike's hearing were a hiss and a hum, and neither sounded particularly good for the library.
He charged downstairs, got between the two mares, and put a hand in front of each. "Okay, okay, you both need to calm down!"
Both blinked and bashfully backed off. "You're right, Spike," said Twilight.
"Sorry. To both of you." Lyra took a deep breath. "I... I just need to know that Bonnie isn't... isn't one of them."
Twilight nodded. "I understand. I may not be able to help, but I can at least point you in the right direction. You see, I had help in exposing Chrysalis..."
"And that's why I'm here!"
Ditzy Doo sighed. "Got it." She leaned close and whispered, "My wings are so pretty."
Lyra blinked, thought for a moment, and facehooved. "Wow. I have been a complete rear end lately."
Benjamin, Ponyville's lone maildonkey, gave her an appreciative nod as he went out on his deliveries.
"You kind of have been," said Ditzy. "Come on, let's go to my office."
Once there, Lyra sat and looked to the ceiling. "Okay, I at least understand why I've been obsessing over this. I was active for pretty much the whole time I was a bridesmaid."
"You were?" gasped Ditzy.
"Oh yeah. That kind of insidious mind whammy is just the sort of thing that's supposed to trigger me." Lyra scowled. "Of course, a mentalist on Chrysalis's level is a bit out of my league, so pretty much all I could do was observe and try not to tip her off. But, after spending so much time as an active agent, that meant that my sleeper self would have virtually no memory of the incident, and thus I assumed I was under complete and total mental domination." She shook her head. "I really don't like other ponies messing with my thoughts."
"The ETSAB security measures don't count. That's me messing with my own thoughts."
Ditzy wingshrugged. "If you say so. In any case, you'll be pleased to hear that Bonbon isn't a changeling."
Lyra nodded. "Well, yeah, you'd know. How many are in Ponyville?"
Ditzy waved her head from side to side. "Well, I'm actually not sure. See, changeling disguises are really subtle. Chrysalis was so powerful that it leaked out, but for most changelings, it's a lot more subtle, even to me. Unless I'm a few inches from them, disguised changelings just look bluer to me than to other ponies. Not glowing or anything, just blue."
"Shouldn't that be a tipoff?"
"Only if they've replaced somepony I know."
"Huh. That could be problematic," said Lyra. "Have you found any?"
"Four, but none of them seem to be feeding on a specific target like Chrysalis was." Ditzy shrugged again. "They didn't seem to be doing any harm, so I didn't bother them."
Lyra was quiet for several moments, nodding to herself now and again. "Well, I'm not completely happy with that, but I can't really argue with the policy. Still, probably best to tell Minuette and the Doctor, keep everypony in the loop."
Ditzy nodded. "Will do. Now, how about you?"
Lyra smiled. "Well, knowing myself, I know exactly how to solve this situation. Here's what you'll need to do..."
"And that's why I'm here!"
Bonbon rolled her eyes. "You live here, Lyra."
"Well, that too. But look!" Lyra unrolled the paper she held in her magic and presented it.
CERTIFICATE OF EQUINITY
This document certifies that Bonbon Dulcinea___ is not a changeling, as of this day, the twenty-eighth of April_______, the Celestial Year 5873.
Saddlantis was a beautiful place. The capital of Aquastria shone in the sunlight, and a thousand anglerlamps glimmered in the night. The buildings were crafted with beauty in mind: spiraling minarets like nautilus shells, mother-of-pearl bas-reliefs coaxed into being from specially trained giant oysters, squid-ink frescoes that charmed the stoniest heart.
King Leo's palace was the most breathtaking sight of all. (Well, gill closing. Some terms don't translate well between air and water.) Its countless gilded spires were a blend of brilliant glory and unassailable might, glimmering like a crown for the sea itself.
And yet, the dreamlike splendor was marked by a blemish of reality. The sunken, sullen brown dome appeared like nothing more than some enormous horseshoe crab that had made its home next to the palace. Armored seaponies swam about it with purpose, doing laps, practicing formations, and otherwise preparing for what the rest of the city denied. This was the Merroan Military Academy, or at what could be seen of it. Much of the structure was made up of caverns dug into the sea floor. There were found the barracks, the officer school, the mess hall, and most importantly for this story, the lecture halls.
One such hall had a semicircle of stadium seating with room for three hundred seaponies, and today it was packed with recruits in every color of the rainbow. A scarred, kelp-green stallion looked over them with one eye, the other milky-white and blind. He was clad in a ventforged steel helmet and a sash marked with numerous commendations.
"Hello, and good afternoon," he said. "I am Instructor-Sergeant Riptide. You are here because you want to be Aquastria's first line of defense against whatever the world throws at us. That, or you took a very impressive wrong turn and are wondering why this dance hall had you doing spear drills."
There were a few laughs there. Riptide waited for them to die down. The fry would treasure laughter in the coming days. "Now, your other instructors have begun training your bodies. Here, I will be training your minds. On the field of battle, you will need to recognize anything you might face and react appropriately in a matter of seconds, or you will die in at least one of a number of terrible ways. Here, you will learn everything you will need to know about each and every one of our enemies, also known as just about everything that swims. Needless to say, this will not be done in an afternoon. Today, we will simply be reviewing the coming curriculum."
He looked to the wall before him. His helmet conveyed his thoughts to it, and magic like octopus skin writhed with color for a moment before displaying a variety of common sea life. "Our first subjects will be the mundane bestial predators, which you will be spending most of your time putting down. These include cephalopods from cuttlefish up through demi-krakens, the living war machines known as giant crustaceans, and every kind of shark that blights the sea. Fortunately, such creatures are stupid enough that the same tactics will almost always work against them, unless some more intelligent foe has trained them. Don't worry; you will also learn how to detect the signs of such training. Untrained, they are simple-minded brutes, and several of them are good eating. However, don't let your guard down because of that. Sharks can still bite, and the rainbow death doesn't need magic to blast you into bloody chunks."
Stranger beasts appeared on the projector. "Then we will cover the magical beasts, supernatural foes that still have the minds of animals, thank Svyelun. Devilfish, blood tides, charybidises, and such like. They are often more dangerous than the mundane predators, but they are similarly easy to defeat. Easier in some ways; they're far harder to train, and thus you'll rarely find any taught something other than their normal habits.
"After that, we will begin covering the more intelligent threats, beginning with those roughly on our level." Riptide changed the image again, and the cadets murmured in concern at the lobster-like figures now displayed. "Thankfully," he said, "homarids have not been seen in these waters for many years. Some believe they may be extinct. But you will learn their ways nonetheless, for we shall never forget the manatee city-state of Moo, or our own Lemareia, lost but not forgotten.
"The manatees themselves are of course among our few allies. As such, we will review their capabilities only in brief. Let us hope that that knowledge will never need to be used.
"Then we come to the dolphins." Riptide looked about the room and nodded to himself. "I see some of you are confused, and I'm not surprised. You think that the dolphins hate sharks, and thus are allies of convenience, if nothing else. You would be wrong. Dolphins don't hate sharks. They have no concept of hatred. They are innocent as fry, and those of you who liked to tear the legs off of shrimp when you were young will understand just how dangerous that makes them. Dolphins only understand 'fun' and 'not-fun,' and only in relation to themselves. They are a frighteningly unpredictable force.
"Whales come in two camps. The toothed whales are like dolphins, only with greater size, an understanding of cruelty, and magic. This makes them exactly as terrifying as you would think. The baleen whales are capable of compassion and are our nominal allies, but they are like indulgent, protective parents to their kin. They can also sing songs that will make your head explode, and I say that from experience.
"Then we come to the intelligent monsters, creatures that are more magic than flesh. A few, like naiads, are content to live and let live. The rest are the likes of sirens, sea hags, and nightwaves. You'll need skill and no small amount of luck to take them down if they're prepared for you. Some of them are still dangerous even when taken off-guard. We'll cover them in more detail when the time comes. For now, if you see one, run.
"Finally, we will cover those beings as beyond us as King Leo himself. That will be brief, for there is little you will be able to do against them. Thankfully, they have little interest in us. The sea serpents are consumed by their age-long game of politics. We are as alien to the krakens as they are to us, and thus we avoid one another. And the leviathans slumber, hopefully until the end of time."
Riptide looked about the room one last time. "These are your enemies. These are the creatures who would destroy us, who see us as little more than meat on the fin. You will prove them wrong, and I will show you how. Class dismissed for today."
Celestia hesitated outside of the guest room. It had been a month since Luna had been cleansed by the Elements, and three weeks since Celestia had seen her last.
This wasn't by choice. Reintegrating Luna into Equestria's government was a time-consuming process, one that had to be done concurrently with the usual affairs of state. Thankfully, Cadence was available for some of the more routine matters, because there simply weren't enough hours in the day for Celestia to cover everything on her own. (Technically, Celestia could've added more hours to the day, but that was a terrible idea for countless reasons, not least the poor taste of doing so just weeks after the return of Nightmare Moon.)
Twilight Sparkle's first few friendship reports were a balm, little bits of innocent self-discovery that buoyed Celestia when she needed it most, though that first one rather underscored just how busy Celestia was. She never would've sent a form letter with the usual two tickets if she'd had two spare seconds to rub together.
Celestia had been able to spend a little time with Luna during that first week. The sisters had been together as Celestia raised and set the moon. Then, with scarcely a star in her mane, Luna had taken it upon herself to resume her duties. Celestia had objected, not wanting her to strain herself, but Luna had proved her wrong. Celestia had been thinking of her own struggles with the moon, but it had responded to its rightful mistress's touch with ease and eagerness. Celestia had embraced her sister with love and pride... then had fallen asleep on the spot.
The moment Celestia's millennium of double duty came to an end, her body began exacting its toll. For the next several weeks, from sunset to sunrise, she slept the sleep of the undying, which was even deeper than the sleep of the dead, excepting certain strange aeons.
But now, Celestia had recovered enough to see the sky go dark, and so she found herself outside of the room where Luna was being cared for. The younger diarch might have reclaimed her moon, but she was still weak and in need of care in many ways. At first, she hadn't been able to allow others to enter the elaborate bunker that was her personal chambers, and even now, she felt uncomfortable extending such invitations for as long as they were needed. Thus, she was kept in one of Castle Canterlot's best guest rooms, her every need attended to.
Naturally, she hated it. She'd welcome the reprieve from her pampering. But Celestia would have to explain why she hadn't visited for so long...
A procession of servants leaving the room broke Celestia's dithering. One of the hoofmaidens looked up at her and, knees shaking, "P-Princess Luna... requests your presence, Your Highness."
"I suppose she didn't put it quite so politely," Celestia said with a smile.
The hoofmaiden—Humble Service, that was her name—shook her head. "No, Your Highness. She..." Humble squirmed. Luna no doubt ordered her "request" delivered verbatim.
Celestia knelt, putting herself at eye level for the poor mare. "I won't be offended, Humble Service."
Humble gave that familiar little "the princess knows my name!" gasp. "Sh-she said to come in already, because she tires of listening to you whipping yourself for your failure to be utterly flawless."
Celestia nodded and held back a laugh. Ponies never seemed to know how to handle her laughter. "That sounds like her, alright. Thank you, Humble."
"Of course, Your Highness."
In Celestia went, watching Humble flee as quickly as she dared out of the corner of her vision. Then the princess brought her attention to her sister.
Luna was looking well. Not quite back to her full state; it would take years for her to return to being Celestia's equal as well as her opposite. But she had grown in stature and power, her mane and tail once more gently undulating in cosmic waves. She scowled at Celestia from the four-poster, but it was one of her friendly scowls. "Celestia."
"Good evening, Luna."
Luna looked out the window. As with her, the stars were coming out. She smiled a little. "Yes, it is. I am proud to have had a hoof in making it so once more." She turned back, her expression hardening once more. "I thank thee for the chance."
Celestia dipped her head until her horn touched the floor. "I'm sorry for not thinking you were ready. And for not coming to see you for so long."
"Thou worriest without need. Thine efforts in guiding the moon in my stead were clearly great. I did not expect to see thee again for some time yet."
"Sister..." Luna's tone had become surprisingly plaintive. "Prithee rise. 'Tis not like thee to abase thyself so."
Celestia did so, and moved to the side of the bed. "It's just... Even now, I can barely forgive myself, Luna. There was so much I did wrong, so many times I could've stopped this—"
Luna raised a hoof "Peace, sister. Thou wert never the only pony at fault, and at the end, all blame lay with that which I became." She hung her head. "I do not blame thee for not forgiving me in full."
Celestia flinched and took a step back. "What! How could you think that?"
"If thou didst truly forgive me, why dost thou still speak to me so formally?"
The two just looked at one another for a time. Celestia then facehoofed. "Because I am even more of an idiot than I realized."
"A thousand years is a long time for a language, Luna. 'Thou,' 'thee,' and 'thine' have fallen out of use."
Luna gaped at this. "Truly? Then how do ponies show proper respect to their superiors? Affection towards those close to them?"
"Shared madness, more like. Art thou certain Discord remains sealed?"
Celestia nodded. "Oh, yes. He's in the statue garden."
"Ha! A fine jest, sister. Truly, where lies the blackguard?" Luna's smile faded as Celestia didn't answer. "Oh. I see. Clearly thou wert in greater need of my counsel than I realized."
"I have plans for him, Luna."
Luna rolled her eyes. "Of course thou dost. Mother forbid thou leavest even the least insect from thy machinations. Tell me, sister, be that the sun on thy rump, or a gilded cog, elaborate and impractical?"
Celestia rushed forward and embraced. "I missed you so much, Luna."
"And I... you?" Luna managed to shake her head in such a way as to nuzzle her sister as well. "Neigh, it feels most unnatural. Mayhaps anon, but I shall thou thee for now."
"Whatever makes you comfortable, Luna."
For a time, the two simply enjoyed the other's presence. Luna broke the silence. "I believe I shall work a new starscape soon. I still cannot believe thou left it unchanged in all my exile."
"I... Well, I could never figure out how to alter it," Celestia confessed.
Luna broke from the embrace, the better to stare at her sister. "Truly? The stars be like tiny suns, Celestia. Lie they not in thy ken?"
"Tiny suns, Luna. I could never figure out how you'd gotten them so small." Celestia frowned. "In any case, I'm all for something new in the night sky, but you may get some rather hostile reactions."
Luna drew herself up. "Who would question the Princess of the Night on matters sidereal?"
"Astronomy has also changed in the last millennium."
Luna tossed her head imperiously. "Then it shall change again. I ask thee, how could our ponies stand to look at the same constellations for centuries on end? We have done them a grave disservice, sister, and it is my duty to correct this." She smirked. "Of course, I shall blame thee should these modern stargazers vent their spleens."
"I suppose that means I can blame you for my busy schedule lately."
"Blame?" Luna's smirk became a grin. "Neigh, thou canst not blame me for that. That too is my duty, as it is the duty of all younger sibs to bother the elder."
Celestia found herself caught between affection and annoyance. "Luna..."
"Oh! Yon talk of the celestial vault reminds me, what became of my private assets?"
Celestia blinked. "Your what?"
"My private assets," Luna repeated. She frowned at her sister's continuing confusion. "Recallest thou not? When we minted the first bits, I gave thee the gold and kept the rest for myself, for as Princess of the Night, those treasures formed knowing not the light of day are rightfully mine. Thenceforth, I tithed the miners, the rock farmers, all and sundry who gathered such things." She looked down. "When the Nightmare consumed me, it thought to use them as a war chest and raise a dark army to conquer the land in its name. Thankfully, thy actions were swift enough that it could not."
"Still, I had assumed thou knewest of those savings and allowed me to collect them, so that we would have a reserve in times of need." Luna tilted her head as she looked at Celestia. "Didst thou truly not know?"
"I'm not omniscient, Luna."
"Sometimes I wonder." Luna snorted. "Still, surely somepony knew of that fortune. That it might still be lying slugabed in some forgotten coffer... Neigh, I refuse to believe such. CHAMPION!"
Celestia's ears flattened against the Traditional Royal Canterlot Voice. The whole palace had likely heard Luna. Of course, that was the idea.
A brief burst of anti-light, and Witching Hour, the Champion of the Moon, stood before the princesses, fully barded in the manner of the Night Guard. The dusky unicorn stallion knelt. "Yes, Mistress?"
"Rise," Luna boomed. Not quite Royal Canterlot Volume, but considerable. "Thou hast never failed Us in telling Us of what has become of what We left behind in Our absence, Sir Hour. Tell Us, what has become of Our Treasury of the Night?"
"The family of the last Shadow Bursar has been looking after it in your absence, Mistress."
Luna nodded. "Ah, yes. Our remembrance of Black Market is clouded, but fond. What is the state of Our personal wealth, then?"
"Some is used to fund charities and other worthy programs, including the Chiropteron Defense Fund and the Royal Astronomical Society."
"We will have much to tell the latter," Luna snarled.
"How have I never heard of this?" asked Celestia.
Witching hesitated for a moment. "By your own request, Your Highness. You asked that the Night Court attend to the matter of your sister's legacy roughly nine hundred and eighty years ago. I believe it was mostly out of grief, but we've tried to avoid troubling you since."
Celestia processed this for a moment. "Luna, may I borrow your champion for a few days? I get the feeling he'll be very helpful in getting you back into the system."
Luna nodded. "If it will ease thy burdens, sister, then with great pleasure." She turned back to Witching Hour. "These are indeed worthy tasks for Our wealth, Sir Hour, but We suspect that they are not all it is doing."
"You are correct, Mistress. Through careful investment and simple aggregation, roughly ten percent of Equestria's gross domestic product is technically in your name."
Both princesses boggled at this. Luna shook her head. "Per centum tells Us only so much. How many bits would We receive, were We to sell the lot?"
Witching nodded. "Your pardon, Mistress. It is as Her Highness says."
"Another term We are sorry to see the end of. Still, We thought a million millions seemed a bit much." Luna nodded again. "Thou hast done well, Sir Hour, as have the foals of Black Market. Thou hast Our deepest gratitude, and art dismissed."
"Mistress." The champion teleported in another flare of sourceless shadow.
Luna sniffled. "They never forgot." She turned to Celestia, tears welling in her eyes. "When only thy student could name the Nightmare, I thought..."
Celestia hugged her again. "You were always loved, Luna."
Luna squeezed back. "I was," she said with wonder. "I truly was."
Varchild (31 BE-EY 22) was an officer in the armies of Pegasopolis. He is considered a microcosm of the rapid cultural changes that took place over the course of the Tribal Unification and the early days of Equestria.
Varchild was born in a griffin slave corral. Liberated as a yearling during the Third Griffo-Pegasopolitan War, he was raised in the traditional Pegasopolitan manner: he was placed in one of the free-roaming, half-wild herds of foals that rampaged across the streets and skies of the city-state, where the brave and ambitious could distinguish themselves and the unworthy would make themselves known. The still-unnamed colt rose through the bucking order with incredible speed. By the age of five, he had bitten, kicked, and wing-slapped his way into leading his herd.
This rapid ascent did not go unnoticed by the colt's elders. He became one of the youngest pegasi to earn the right to a true name and military service. Varchild selected his name based on the faint memories of his earliest days, choosing a Griffish word meaning "One born of conflict."
At the beginning of the Fourth Griffo-Pegasopolitan War, Varchild was nine years old and a trained if unbloodied hoplite. During the conflict, he greatly distinguished himself, both through valor in combat and in the single-minded determination with which he gave others the salvation he had received. Such heroism saw him rise through the ranks of the military nearly as quickly as through his childhood herd. By the war's end six years later, Varchild had the rank of primary, with five feathers of five pegasi each under his command.
Of course, this final war against the griffins marked the beginning of the end for the Three Kingdoms Era. Griffins were the last major menace to Dream Valley, and now the few remaining on this side of the Saddlantic would avoid ponies for centuries to come. After centuries of defending themselves against external threats, the ponies had hostility ingrained in their culture, and the only ones who they could be hostile towards were one another.
Pegasopolis's highly militarized culture meant that it was already poised for the extortion and terrorism that would mark its contribution towards the coming of the windigoes. Varchild now directed his troops not against griffin reivers, but earth pony settlements that refused to pay tribute to the pegasus city-state. The towns were sacked, though Varchild was actually one of the less cruel raid leaders, keeping lost lives and ruined crops to a minimum. His reputation protected him from his superiors' displeasure, but these tactics still put a halt to his advancement, and patience was wearing thin with him by the time of the Great Freeze some fifteen years later. This likely contributed to his choice to join Commander Hurricane's Peregrines and seek out a new land.
Hurricane thought little of Varchild's soft heart, but Private Pansy understood and respected his pragmatic attitude. As the chief of logistics for New Pegasopolis (or, as she put it in her memoirs, "chief of everything Commander Blowhard couldn't be bothered with,") she made Varchild the first wing-commander of the new city-state, giving him authority over virtually all of the surviving rank and file. In this, Varchild would be the salvation of the pegasi.
The Second Freeze was of a necessarily much greater intensity, encasing a more temperate region in an even greater chill. So great was this cryomantic calamity that it even overwhelmed the innate pegasus resistance to temperature extremes. The barracks and bivouacs of the pegasi were designed with this resistance in mind, and thus they offered virtually no shelter against this incredible cold. Varchild was the one to swallow his pride and order them to seek shelter with the wingless.
While not everypony could huddle together with the preternaturally powerful student of Star Swirl himself, the catastrophic conditions were such that many saw the same wisdom as Varchild. Doors (or, in some cases, chimneys) were opened to the pegasi, and many bonds were formed as the Fire of Friendship was ignited.
In a moment of irony, Varchild found himself weathering the catastrophe in an earth pony homestead. Such was his gratitude that, after the founding of Equestria, he dedicated the rest of his life to repenting for his crimes against his fellow pony. Today, he is best remembered for his method for doing so: he vowed to create a life for every one his troops had taken.
The results of this quest can be seen even today. Commander Hurricane's virility is widely popularized, best seen in the rather inaccurate statement that he is a direct ancestor of roughly one seventh of all living pegasi. However, genetic analysis has determined that Varchild actually is a direct ancestor of approximately four percent of today's earth ponies.
I have been able to see them since the day I found my destiny, when the black-burning candle appeared on my hips. From that day on, I have seen wisps of darkness wavering through the Empire, like smoke that never disperses. Some float free. Others coil within the hearts of ponies, eerily visible through their glittering coats.
At first, I tried to tell others of what I saw. They didn't believe me, and I can not blame them. I had only my own sight for proof, and what only one pony saw could easily be dismissed as illusion or hallucination. For all they knew, every unicorn saw something that wasn't there. Who could say for certain? I was the first unicorn who had ever been born in the Empire. Before me, the only horned ponies it had known were the imperial family, and they are divine, immortal, and unquestionable. Their clarity of vision is what has seen the Empire this far.
When they thought I couldn't hear them, less kind ponies whispered about the madness of unicorns, the folly of Platinum that had called the windigoes forth, freezing the Valley of Dreams. They began to call me "Sombra" for my doomsaying. The new name was quick to overtake the old, for my warnings had made me infamous. Sombra, the mad unicorn, afraid of shadows. Darkness lurked in the hearts of those who mocked me, and for a time I was not certain whether it was making them cruel, or if I just imagined something that would explain them, forgive them.
But I knew by my mark that what I saw was real. However, my talent was unique. Nopony else saw what I did, not even the emperor himself. I was alone in this, but that was not new for me. I have always stood out, like a lump of coal in a dragon's hoard. It is the nature of ponies to fear and distrust the unusual; I could not begrudge them their suspicion. They could call me mad all they liked; I would still keep them safe.
To do that, I needed to know more. Between the great library and my own fateful intuition, I soon found cause for the shadows. The Crystal Heart's light should've purged them, but the Heart was only a lens. It needed the hope and joy of ponies to function, and centuries of safety had made us complacent. Arrogant. We took the Heart's protection for granted, and in so doing made it wane. The greater horrors of the wastes still could not get through, but these leastmost menaces were able to slip in unnoticed.
The path ahead was clear. As the shadows nested in ponies' hearts, they would further occlude the light that powered the Heart. Thus greater darkness could enter and clear the way for greater still, on and on until the Heart stopped working at all, or worse, was inverted in its purpose. All would be laid to waste, and only snow would move through the Empire's streets.
But now I saw the purpose behind the shadows, and it was still early in their plan. Even alone, I could thwart them still. But at the time, I did not know how. The great library was well named, a vast archive of the Empire's collected wisdom, but it held little on unicorn magic. There was barely anything on how to work my horn at all, much less turn it against the darkness.
After mastering what few scraps I did not already know, I dedicated myself to new research. If the wisdom of the past could not help me, then I would trust my mark and magic to discover what I needed. It took many trials and a great deal of error, but in time I stumbled upon the secret. I doubt I could've done it any faster; it was my frustration at my own lack of progress that led to the epiphany. By instilling my magic with that anger, helplessness, and self-loathing, my magic went from aura to umbra, burning against my horn and startling me enough that I ended the spell.
In that moment, I knew this was what I was seeking. I grasped this new magic quickly, soon growing accustomed to the sting. I channeled my hatred of the darkness, my fear of failure, and even my envy of those fortunate enough not to know of what was to come if I did.
Strangely, other ponies seemed to sense this. I kept mostly to myself, kept my experiments contained, leaving my home only for the necessities, yet the mockery of others turned to fear. Merchants filled my orders with undue haste. Conversation died as I approached. Parents took their curious foals and fled my presence. I have never been a social pony, but I will not lie, this hurt to see.
But I also saw the shadows, which seemed more numerous every day. Some of this was because my second sight grew more acute as I practiced the darker arts. Some was not. The shadows' presence reminded me why I had isolated myself from my fellow pony, and I took heart in this. I was the only one who could even see the threat. I was the only one who could stop it. Better for everypony that my efforts went unrecognized, that they lived their lives never knowing of the doom that might have befallen them.
Still, I helped clear the way for any who might follow me of their own choice. If another found the secrets that I had, if I failed and needed to leave a legacy, if by some miracle another unicorn was born in this fragile jewel of a nation, I would see to it that they did not struggle as I had. As my umbramantic mastery grew, I wrote my findings. First and foremost, I made it clear that these were not the only ways to use this power, that any who might read it should not show slavish devotion to the insights of only one stallion. I have always been of a scholarly bent, and I could not bear the thought of an entire field of magical study going unexplored simply because I had charted but one path.
When the time came to bind my discoveries into a single codex, I dedicated it to those I sought to protect. It was a moment of some whimsy, for good humor was needed for any who would follow me. The way I unsettled others was likely a symptom of my studies, and keeping a light heart around them kept me from resenting them for what neither of us could help. Rather than dwell on what I had become, I chose the title to reflect my earliest attempts to aid ponykind and the reward they had earned me. Thus was written the Sombranomicon you hold in your hooves or, unlikely though it may be, your magic.
What follows may be my final discovery, my magnum opus. This spell opens a gateway between our world and the home of the darkness. I do not know what I will find there. I do not know if my skills will be enough to destroy it, banish it, or even survive it. But I can sit and study no further, not while the shadows thicken and the Empire slowly drowns in darkness. I go to this dark realm swathed in every defense I have penned, the enchantments that will turn the darkness's hunger against itself, that will make me seem a thing of shadow myself, that will let me use the light of my own heart as a weapon.
Should I return, I will record my findings. If this is the final page of my Sombranomicon, then do not let this knowledge be lost. Stand vigilant against the darkness, lest it worm its way into all things. And if you are fortunate enough to have others who are willing to fight by your side, do not forsake them. I have had no choice in doing this without aid, but this is an unnatural state for a pony. If I do not survive this journey, then together you may triumph where alone I failed.
Octavia tuned her instruments: her cello, her body, and her mind. The quest for pure tones was more than just rote preparation. It was a form of meditation. By seeking harmony in her music, she achieved harmony with it. The cello became more than just an oddly shaped box; it grew into an extension of herself. It didn't matter whether she was tuning up for a performance before thousands or a private recital like tonight's. This was her passion, her destiny. No matter how many were in the audience, that audience deserved her best.
It still astonished Octavia that some of her peers saw their work as little more than a job. That such beauty and artistry could be reduced to unfeeling routine... It was another reason to meditate, to reflect on her role and its importance and to renew her sense of wonder. She'd never again be the naive filly who stepped off the train onto Canterhorn Terminal with little more than a cello on her back, a treble clef on her rump, and a dream in her heart, but as long as she could see a hint of that filly in the mirror, she was content.
Of course, there were certain aspects of her youth that she could do without. That same naivety had believed that nopony with a name like Pie would be taken seriously in a place like Canterlot, so she'd overcompensated. Using her middle name wasn't so bad, but tacking a moniker as overblown as "Philharmonica" on the end...
"Tavi? You ready?"
Octavia blinked as her focus shifted outside of herself. She nodded to Beauty Brass. "Is everypony else?"
Beauty gave her a flat look. "Yeah, like always. Harpo's chomping at the bit. Fred's trying to keep him occupied, but we have a minute or two before we'll have to play without a harpist."
"Ah." Octavia went to all fours and positioned her cello on her back with practiced ease. She bowed her head. "As always, my apologies."
Beauty waved a hoof. "Eh, it happens. Not like you're the only one who gets lost in the music sometimes."
As the two mares left the guest room, Octavia said, "That reminds me. Did you—"
"Yes, I made sure the sousaphone's lubrication spell was charged up." Beauty shook her head, but she was smiling. "Honestly, I get stuck in the thing once and you guys never let me forget it."
"After the way you reacted when Frederick suggested cutting it off of you?" Octavia allowed herself a slight grin. "If none of us will ever be able to forget it, what makes you think we'll let you?"
"Sheesh. With friends like you, who needs elegies?"
Octavia winced. "I suppose I deserved that."
They entered the small hall where they'd be performing. There was room for perhaps twenty ponies, and the stage wasn't much more than an elevated platform. The elaborately carved dark wooden furniture, equally dark paneling, and wrought-iron magelight sconces made it feel smaller, almost stuffy.
Harpo Parish Nadermane's glower went well with the rather dour impression. "If Beauty made a music pun, I can only assume so. Are you ready to grace us with your presence, Miss Philharmonica?"
Frederick Horseshoepin peeked over Harpo's shoulder "If not, we could probably manage another few rounds of Twenty Questions."
Harpo's stare intensified. "Please tell me you're ready."
"I am," said Octavia.
Harpo sagged with relief. "Thank Celestia. It's so hard being the only professional in the room. Scales, everypony."
They went from do to do and back in flawless harmony. After the arpeggio, Octavia performed her usual custom, going higher and higher up the scale, up through notes that shouldn't have been possible for a cello. Only when she heard the wine glasses in one cabinet resonate with the notes did she stop.
Fred shook his head. "No matter how many times I hear that, it's still creepy. You should not be able to hit higher notes than I can."
Beauty laughed. "That's a treble clef mark for you. The only reason I don't do the opposite is because I'd shake my fillings loose. Well, that, and I'm not superstitious."
Octavia shrugged. "What can I say? It reminds me of the day I got those clefs."
"In any case," said Harpo, "Frederick, if you could tell the ambassador that we're ready?"
Fred snorted. "I always go get the audience when we do private gigs."
"Yeah," said Beauty, "because Tavi and Harpo have get into position and I have thirty-five pounds of brass coiled around me. You get to sit, you twelve-inch pianist. You can survive walking thirty feet and back."
"Sit the way I do for a whole performance, Little Miss Locked-Knees, then tell me how good I have it." Even as Fred said this, he was off his stool and making for the master bedroom.
To Octavia's practiced eye, Beauty visibly stiffened as she put on her mask of professionalism. Fred returned shortly thereafter, also holding himself much more seriously.
Behind him were three griffins. The one in the middle was a sleek male with aspects of falcon and panther. On either side of him were near-identical hulking slabs of furred and feathered muscle, eagle-lions both. Ambassador Gunter seated himself in a recliner. His security detail flanked him like statues in front of the First National Bank, watching everything with avian attentiveness.
As Fred took his seat again, Harpo nodded to their audience. "Sirs."
The griffin on Gunter's left cleared her throat meaningfully.
"Sirs and madam. We are very pleased to perform for you tonight. As per the honorable ambassador's request, we will be performing selected works of Johann Sebastian Beak. We hope you enjoy."
Beauty tapped her hoof against the floor for four beats, and then there was music. It flowed out from Octavia's soul, her bow and cello as much a part of her as her hooves and heart. Gunter was rapt at first, but after some time, turned his attention to other matters. Octavia didn't mind. She was used to being in the background. Attention wasn't the point. The music was.
Once Gunter was finished with whatever affairs he felt were necessary, he dined, having something sufficiently seasoned and sauced such that Octavia couldn't tell it used to breathe. They played on. Soon they had his full attention once more, and held it for the rest of the performance.
Once they were finished, Gunter applauded, an odd clacking sound as his talons met one another. "Exquisite," he said. "I'd heard good things about your group. I see they weren't unfounded."
The quartet dipped their heads as one, Fred standing for the occasion. "Thank you, sir," said Harpo.
Octavia silently echoed him.
The group was much less dignified as they left the Griffish embassy that night. Well, Beauty and Fred were. They were bouncing in an rather nostalgic way.
"He liked us!" cried Fred.
"I know!" said Beauty.
"The Griffish ambassador liked us!"
Harpo sighed. "Must you two?"
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Fred, smiling and clearly not sorry in the least, "I should just treat this like all the other times we got our hooves in the door to international stardom." He gasped and put a hoof to his cheek. "Oh, wait! That's never happened before! I suppose I can set a precedent then!"
Octavia smiled. "Fred's right, Harpo. This is rather big. Let them have this."
"See?" Beauty cried. "Even Tavi's on our side here! We need to celebrate! Party at Fred's!"
"Yeah! Wait, what?"
Beauty laughed, cried "Too late!", and galloped towards Fred's apartment. He chased after her, screaming. Harpo and Octavia watched them go, and he gave a hint of a grin. "Well, I suppose I should at least tag along and make sure they'll be presentable for rehearsal tomorrow. The Gala's in less than two weeks."
"I'm afraid I'll have to bow out," said Octavia. "Somepony has to do the same for Vinyl, after all."
Harpo nodded. "Too true. Give her my regards."
"Will do." The two parted ways.
After a few blocks, Octavia took a sharp turn away from Canterhorn Terminal. Vinyl liked to project an utter lack of restraint, but she actually knew her limits well. No, Octavia's true destination was entirely different. Soon enough, she approached the gates of Castle Canterlot.
The Night Guards stationed at the gate barred her path with spread wings and glared at her. "Who goes there?" demanded one.
He nodded, but didn't step aside. "Good pruning," said the other.
"Calm nights," Octavia answered. With that, they folded their wings and let her pass.
Ever since Luna had reclaimed the night and her throne, the magelights in the palace's entrance hall were doused while she held court. The hall was beautiful at any time, but the play of starlight and soft darkness presented an entirely different image than the golden glory of daylight. Now there was suggestion rather than impression, hints of what might be rather than a bold statement of what was. It was like half of an optical illusion that had taken incredibly long to click into place, and Octavia wondered how she ever could've missed it.
She shook herself out of her woolgathering and pressed a hoof against one of the wall panels. It clicked, then swung open into the hidden servants' corridors. Octavia went in, the hidden door closing behind her. She worked her way through the twisty passages, heading steadily downward, past the wine cellars, the larders, the refrigerated cake vault.
Octavia stopped just short of the catacombs, where the magics rooting Canterlot to the mountain did strange things to space and an unwary pony could find herself lost in the abandoned crystal mines. Just to one side of that fateful staircase was a door. Given where it stood, it should've been some fell portal, carved from obsidian and inscribed with skulls and dread imprecations directed towards those who would dare to cross its threshold.
Should've, but wasn't. The door was a bog standard thing of wood and frosted glass that wouldn't have looked out of place in any Manehattan office building. Aside from its incongruity, its only notable feature was that the glass seemed blank where it would normally display a name of some kind. It seemed that way, but a pony who knew what to look for could find a hint of purple in one corner, a twisting shape somewhat like a lowercase "h."
Octavia focused on that symbol, waited until she heard the faint click of a latch, and opened the door. She bowed as she entered the room, the door swinging shut behind her. "Your Highness."
Like the entrance, the room was much more ordinary than seemed appropriate. Filing cabinets, in and out trays, even one of those office toys with the row of little pendulums. It seemed a grossly improper place for the alicorn behind the desk.
"Hello, Inkie," she said with a smile. Her coat was a dark grey, and only because nothing could be as black as her mane or tail. No star shone in those voids, though the edges quickly lightened to a soft white. "How'd it go? And do get up."
Octavia stood at attention. "The ambassador drank four glasses of wine after I applied the appropriate resonance to the glasses. Between that and the performance, his desire for war was thoroughly terminated. He will very likely revise his assessment of our military capabilities before sending it to Gryphheim."
The princess nodded. "Excellent work. I've come to expect nothing less. It's easy enough to end a life, but you're one of my best when it comes to ending ideas."
Octavia gave a slight nod. She didn't trust herself with anything else right now. "Thank you, Princess Temperance."
Temperance gave a brief laugh. "Well, you're not calling me Mi Finale anymore. I suppose that's progress." She plucked a form out of her in tray with her indigo magic. "I'll contact you though the usual channels should I need your services again. Thank you again, Inkie."
Octavia dipped her head again. "Of course, Your Highness. It is more than a service for me. It is art."
The Winter Moon Celebration was no more. With no princess to revere, ponies had seen little reason to continue the tradition. In the wake of the Nightmare, the longest night of the year no longer seemed like something to celebrate. Over time, the festivities were shifted a few days down the calendar, and thus what had been a quiet time of togetherness for friends and family grew into Hearth's Warming as it was now.
In these modern times, the only special occasions on the winter solstice were the Fall Finale and the first snow of the season. At least the falling flakes offered a distraction for Luna on that day, for they brought to mind her dear friend Snowdrop, and how folklore had so horribly misrepresented her. Really, the very thought of that proud warrior as a mewling little waif. Luna didn't know whether she wanted more to laugh or to thrash whoever was responsible for that travesty. Perhaps both at the same time...
Ah, but now was not the time for Luna to think fondly of icy blades that froze the blood they drew into yet more blades. Now, a turning of her moon after her sister's White Sabbath, when the night took the majority from the day, it was the night her ponies had chosen to fill the gap left by the Winter Moon Celebration, though they knew it not. Truth be told, neither had Luna at first, and her fragile pride had nearly spelled its end. But once again, the Bearers of Harmony helped her see through her resentment. The festival, like its participants, had been disguised, but the Bearers had removed its mask, revealing what she had thought a grave insult to be a strange sort of tribute.
Yes, it was Nightmare Night, and Luna strode through Ponyville, adoring and adored. Dear Pipsqueak cleared her way and announced her presence, marching in front of her in mock armor styled after her Night Guard. Frolicsome Meadowlark had even made a show of assigning the colt to her side, and so Pipsqueak rightly strutted, proud as any two nobles Luna cared to name and far more worthy of her time.
Many ponies braved Luna's young guardian to bid her greetings on this night, costumed as all manner of things real and imagined. Ponies danced and played in her beautiful night, and where once she had brought screams and uncertainty, now laughter and joy trailed in her wake.
And there was candy. Such candy. Luna admired much of the progress ponies had made during her banishment, but little was as close to her heart as the advances made in the confectioner's art. Still, if Celestia did not allow herself to knight the Cakes, then Luna supposed she would have to leave Madame Dulcinea unelevated.
At one point, as Luna was laying siege to targets with pumpkins, Twilight Sparkle approached her. Twilight's guise was Hockrates; she was clad in a toga and bore a wooden cup, though one blessedly clean of hemlock. "I'm always happy to see you, Luna," she said, "but don't you ever get tired of Ponyville? This is the third year in a row you've come to see us."
Luna smiled and released her catapult. A direct hit, the gourd sundering itself against the wooden battlements. "I will always love this village, Twilight. Here is where my ponies first welcomed me back to sanity. Here is where I learned the art of fun and its applications in terror. How could I not come here on this most wondrous of nights?"
"Don't get me wrong, we're always happy to have you, but..." Twilight looked down and ground a hoof into the grass. "Well, you remember how everypony reacted that first time."
"Not everypony," answered Luna. "You did not, nor did good Applejack." She smiled down at Pipsqueak. "And soon enough, the rest of the town followed suit."
"And now you're the best part of Nightmare Night!" Pipsqueak cheered.
Twilight frowned. "But if that was how ponies reacted in a town where they'd already met you before, imagine what they must think elsewhere in Equestria."
Luna chuckled. "Tell me, Twilight, do you recall how I tried to sway Rainbow Dash from her cause in the Everfree?"
"The Shadowbolts, magical projections of some kind," Twilight said immediately. "I never got a chance to examine them closely, so I don't know whether they were illusions or constructs. I could see them, so I know they weren't just phantasms, but beyond that—"
Luna raised a hoof, silencing her. "Ah, but Twilight, who ever said they were mere projections?"
Twilight frowned a bit as she considered this. Her gaze grew steadily more distant as her thoughts deepened, until in one moment she went from neutral to utterly aghast.
Luna grinned. There were many ways to deliver a good scare. She was experiencing several of them right now.
In Manehattan, she stood at the head of a tremendous herd of foals, not so much chaperoning their fright-or-biting as she was leading their raid on the city's sugar supplies.
In Baltimare, she bestowed a dark blessing upon the crabs of the harbor, changing them into sinister but harmless creatures that chased ponies about the beach amidst shrieks of delight.
In Los Pegasus, she shaped the clouds into the stage and actors for grand pantomimes, tales of terror and triumph punctuated by thunderclaps of her own making.
All across Equestria, Luna was there. Her bodies were scattered as the stars in the sky, spreading frightening fun among her ponies. She would pay for such a grandiose display; deep exhaustion awaited her on the morrow and days to come. But it was Nightmare Night, her night, and on this night she would rather pluck her wings bare than not be everywhere she could.
And there was one place she always needed to be, a place found on no map. As always, since scant days after her return, Luna walked among her subjects' dreams. But the spirit of the night was not forgotten, even here. While Luna banished nightmares as she always had, tonight she stirred up more peaceful dreams as well. She wrought no new nightmares, but she did craft shocks and thrills, little tokens of the holiday for all to enjoy. These were the treats she gave back, spicy reveries and sour fantasies, each with something sweet at the core.
At that moment, in Ponyville, Appleoosa, Tallahorsey, and Seaddle, ponies wished her a happy Nightmare Night.
Luna smiled in all those places and more besides. Who was she to deny such a request? She tore apart the nightmares she'd expunged thus far and wrapped herself in the raw dreamstuff. Then she trotted through the collective unconscious, that she might tenderly terrify every pony she missed in the waking world.