Empowered by the Alicorn Amulet, Trixie foalnaps Queen Celestia's little sister. Twilight and her new friends must save her!
After freeing Queen Celestia's sister from the pall of NightMare Moon, Twilight Sparkle has settled down in Ponyville with her new circle of friends. But no sooner does she settle down than a foe from the reign of NightMare Moon returns: Trixie Lulamoon! Bearing a mysterious trinket of great magical power, Trixie leads Twilight to test her assessment of friendship being the greatest magic. What is the Alicorn Amulet? How does it possess such absolute power? Where did Trixie get it from? Who gave it to her, and why? And what was the Sonic Rainboom, and how does it tie Twilight Sparkle to the friends she has just made...?
The Elements of Friendship, Book I: Harmony The Elements of Friendship, Book IS [interlude one-point-five]: Bonds The Elements of Friendship, Book II: Chaoskampf The Elements of Friendship, Book IIS [interlude two-point-five] The Elements of Friendship, Book III The Elements of Friendship, Book IIIS [interlude three-point-five] The Elements of Friendship, Book IIII
DROW TSAL MORF KCAB DROW TSRIF NI SRETTEL FO REBMUN
That is what they thought was her due.
To have her name dragged through the mud, all over a simple parlor trick.
The sheer unmitigated gall of some ponies!
She put so much of herself into her illusions and tricks, and ponies could not have the common decency to not see through her sleights of hoof and give her the rewards that a hero deserved. After all, was not her ursa major a spectacle to behold? Were the ponies of Ponyville not given a thrill that they needed in the doldrums of everlasting night? Was the magic of The Great And Powerful Trixie really such a pittance to them?
And that… that nag, Twilight Sparkle!
She had to have told everypony of the humiliation that Trixie Lulamoon had faced in that wretched hovel of Ponyville! Word had to have spread to the far corners of Harmonia by now; it’s what Trixie would have ensured if the tables were turned! And for what reason? Out of jealousy that Trixie could project an uncanny image of an ursa major from her mind and Twilight Sparkle could not?
What could possibly be more petty than that?
Because of such pettiness on Twilight Sparkle’s part, Trixie had to force herself to not make any further performances until she had cleared her name. But traveling from town to town, all attempts to explain that she had been swindled in Ponyville were only met with incredulity. Trixie’s heart burned with rage; they were playing dumb, misdirecting her, tricking her into thinking that they did not know. That was the only explanation! They had to know, even if they would not tell her! Just how deplorable had ponies become nowadays if the most inestimably great and undeniably powerful Trixie Lulamoon was the subject of such cowardly mockery?
What did it matter that the queen had been missing for the past two months? Why was it so terrible that frosty nighttime had descended and could very well never end? The Great And Powerful Trixie had had to sell her assets to cover the lack of expenses from her lack of performances! That should have been the real travesty that got Equestria in a tizzy!
But… Trixie grinned to herself, pulling her hat down over her alicorn, that will all change very soon.
Soon all of Equestria will see the majesty of the Great And Powerful Trixie!
Upon reaching the western edge of the Saddle Valley, Trixie had had to sell her many assets − amassed from the many towns which she had previously entertained with her grand illusory spells − so that she could make ends meet and attempt to find her place now that her very special talent had been all but robbed of her. Los Pegasus, Salt Lick City, Anahoof… every one of them ended poorly. And just when Trixie had considered the notion of sinking all her bits into a zeppelin ticket to Shire, she caught wind of a lead.
A lead that had ignited a spark that lit a new path for Trixie.
Bartering passage to the other side of the Equinus Mountains, where her lead indicated that she could find it, Trixie wound up in Dodge Junction, a ramshackle burrow at the edge of the Descort Fields. She looked about, holding her nose at the idea of taking a job far below her station. Nopony had an opening.
Nopony save for a rock farm run by a rather well-to-do family. Name your wage!, the advertisement said with a vehemence and a color that betrayed the stony stoic expressions of the stallion, his wife and their three daughters.
A rock farm…
Trixie recognized the name of the Pie family for their wealth in rock molasses, but the idea of Trixie Lulamoon working at a rock farm was utterly onerous.
But… Trixie could name her own wage…!
Swallowing bile, Trixie approached the main building on the Pie Rock Farm complex and set forth her application.
“The Great And Powerful Trixie is the most powerful Unicorn in all of Equestria!” she’d said emphatically before the stone-faced Earth Pony mare. “You will not find a mare better at splitting rocks and rotating rock crops if you would travel to the very ends of Harmonia!”
The stone-gray mare with a sheet of pale-purple mane gave Trixie a very flat expression, though the marginal widening of her eyes told Trixie that she had piqued the Pie mare’s interest.
“‘Great And Powerful Trixie’?” echoed Ms. Pie. “My little sister wrote about you recently. She liked your show a lot.”
Trixie swelled with pride, “As she should. But tragically, because of a travesty which you must have heard of, The Great And Powerful Trixie is left destitute! She requires work, any work!”
Turquoise eyes blinked slowly.
“Very well. What would you like your wage to be?”
“As high as you can manage!”
The mare picked up a pencil in her mouth and scribbled down a number which Trixie could not see on the clipboard on the desk.
“That seems to be in order. When can you begin?”
Rock farming was far worse than Trixie could have imagined. The three Pie daughters were stocky and heavily built, almost as if their bones and muscle were made of steel rather than bone and sinew. This work of rotating rock crops from one field to another was laborious, and keeping time with the flow of magical currents in the air so that the minerals in the ore could grow was tedious. Trixie could not imagine why anypony would want to undertake this job, especially not when one was sitting on a wealth of rock molasses!
But it would all be worth it when she received her pay.
The revelation that the Sun had resumed its rise and fall came as little consequence to Trixie. So that uppity NightMare Moon got tired of her little trick and decided to become a good little mare again, so what? It did not affect her lifestyle. Once she led the life of a truly spectacular mare, the likes of which her parents would have truly envied. Now, she was forced to make a living on a rock farm, dragging stupid rocks to and fro across stupid fields for stupid ponies!
And she knew exactly who to blame for her misery!
Each time she took a pickaxe in her dwimmer shimmer and split a rock in two, she imagined that she was caving in Twilight Sparkle’s skull.
A fortnight later, Trixie was called into the main building of the Pie Rock Farm complex. As kind as they were to offer her one of their daughters’ bedrooms − did they have a fourth? − Trixie dreaded what they would have paid her. If she were in their position, she would not have given an employee even a single halfbit for their trouble! Surely these Pies would swindle her and pay her mere quadbits for all of her blood, sweat and toil!
“Your pay,” said the eldest daughter, whom Trixie had learned was named Maud Pie, as she pushed a check across the desk towards the azure Unicorn. “I hope that you find it satisfactory.”
Sniffing derisively, Trixie took the check in her pale-magenta dwimmer shimmer and read the pay with half-lidded eyes and great Trixie she could not remember seeing that many thoroughbits!
Trixie looked in bemusement at the stone-gray Earth Pony who was almost twice as big as she was. Were these ponies completely poor of money sense? What could they possibly have to gain from giving so much money to somepony else? It just made no sense!
But, as Trixie recalled the lead she’d uncovered, why second-guess a sudden windfall? This really simplified the matter of paying off the pony who carried it.
Trixie galloped off without a second glance at the eldest Pie daughter, retrieving her beloved hat and cape from the peg by the door and tearing off across the eastern field towards the distant Dodge Junction.
Emerging brightly from the bank with a bag of bits jangling at her side, Trixie strode with prideful purpose past several local mares and stallions. Each of the Dodge Junction ponies were dressed in fine denim, many of the stallions bearing cowpony hats and several mares with their manes done up in buns at the backs of their heads.
“Oh my, now that is a good number of bits!” interjected a rather dreadfully dressed Unicorn mare, approaching Trixie with an ingratiating smile that reached too far across her muzzle. She wore a large pink bow that clashed terribly with her pale-spring-bud mane, a ring of imitation gold set with a very large zircon around her right foreleg, and an obnoxiously frilly pink dress. Her frizzy mane bounced as she trotted alongside Trixie, who tried to ignore the obnoxious and self-absorbed mare.
“I mean, of course, it really is none of my business what you got all of those bits for,” continued the mare, eyeing Trixie’s matted and dirt-stained coat and her chipped hooves with a wrinkled nose. “But with all of that money, you must be looking to buy something very valuable.”
Trixie glowered at the mare.
“What is the business of The Great And Powerful Trixie to you?”
The other mare’s smile did not falter.
“Nothing at all… unless you’re looking to buy something very pretty and very valuable.” Her voice suddenly lost its honey-sweet coating and took on the vocal equivalent of the sheen of a silver knife. “You better not take what rightfully belongs to me. Whatever it is you want, it’s mine!”
Trixie snorted, her teeth bared.
“What is your hubris when set against the humiliation I’ve felt?”
“What is it that you want?”
Trixie turned her gaze from the other mare and set her eyes upon her destination: a run-down old shack at the edge of Dodge Junction with windows all boarded up and no lights showing from inside. The paint had long since chipped off from neglect, but it was not so ill-cared-for that the wood had rotted away. Still, the mare who now trotted a pace behind Trixie grimaced at the sight of the place, but Trixie turned a victorious smile upon her.
Trixie knocked at the door with a rough forehoof. It fell completely from its hinges onto the dusty foyer floor. Trixie and the other mare leapt back slightly in shock.
“Come in,” came the boyish voice of a stallion, a dwimmer-flame flicking from a wax-white alicorn and lighting up several candles in the pitch-black hovel. The dim light revealed a very dusty and very old shop, empty glass cabinets reflecting the silhouettes of the two Unicorn mares against the near-blinding doorway.
Standing behind a desk which was missing a leg and supported by yellow-paged books in its stead, was a wax-white Unicorn stallion with a wild flame-orange and fire-yellow mane. He had a strange youth about the shape of his muzzle, and a bright smile that showed perfect white teeth. Red cloven hooves rested on the edge of the desk.
“Welcome to my humble shop, dear ladies,” he said jovially, his red eyes shining brightly. “My name is Candlelight. What service might I render to you?”
Trixie looked past the stallion onto the empty shelves… but one shelf was not really empty. Under a glass bubble was a single item: a silver carcanet set with a large rhomb-cut ruby that seemed to gleam with its own light. Above the ruby was a Unicorn head in profile with a single gleaming ruby eye, flanked by a pair of ruby-and-silver wings.
Trixie opened her mouth.
The lead was true!
“I want that!” cried out the mare beside Trixie, her eyes shining with unbridled greed. “That’s mine!”
“No!” snarled Trixie, her bag of bits jingling impatiently. “That amulet belongs to The Great And Powerful Trixie!”
“It belongs to Ignobility!”
“‘Ignobility’?” she repeated. “What absurdity was in your parents’ minds to give you such an appalling name?”
“‘The Great And Powerful Trixie’ is an abomination of a name!”
“Ladies! Ladies…” interjected Candlelight, interceding in between the quarreling mares. “Please… I know that that is a very valuable artifact. Practically priceless. But… it’s exceptionally dangerous. I’m afraid you’d quite lose your head if you put it on. I don’t know if either of you ladies could rub enough bits together to persuade me to part with it.”
Brushing past Ignobility, Trixie took her bag of bits in her dwimmer shimmer and shook it before the wax-white stallion. Candlelight arched a fiery eyebrow at the sack, taking it in his own flame-colored dwimmer shimmer and settling it upon the desk. Undoing the drawstring, Candlelight tipped the bits out of the bag and onto the tabletop, the innumerable thoroughbits spilling out freely.
Candlelight’s eyes flickered with gold, and he faced Trixie with a toothy grin, the flame-shaped skirt at the end of his leonine tail flickering exactly like fire.
“Would you like it gift-wrapped?”
Trixie replied with a far wider grin.
“The Great And Powerful Trixie will wear it out, thank you.”
“No!!” screamed Ignobility, tears streaming down her crestfallen muzzle. “It belongs to me! It’s so beautiful!”
“Quit whining, you fool of a mare,” came Trixie’s voice, a new melodrama reborn from her days of glory as she levitated the amulet in question in her dwimmer shimmer. Her eyes glimmered in the light of the altogether precious ruby in its heart. All the power in the world awaited her in this necklace, and all it took was to put it on…!
Fastening it around her neck, Trixie took in a deep breath as she felt power coursing into her chest-first. Energy swelled within her heart, engorging her feelings of rage and indignation. All of the deeds that she dreamed of seemed all too real now. Ursae major and minor now seemed altogether akin to ants. There was nothing that could stand before her now.
Trixie turned upon Ignobility, Candlelight beaming behind her, the light of Trixie’s dwimmer shimmer gleaming crimson in her eyes.
“This is no ordinary trinket, Ignobility. You don’t know the true power that it holds, that The Great And Powerful Trixie holds now! The Great And Powerful Trixie's absolute power lies in this carcanet! Behold, the greatest magical artifact on Harmonia: The Alicorn Amulet!”
In the Saddle Valley that lay between the northern and southern mountain ranges of Equinus, there could be found a modest hamlet called Ponyville. As unimaginative as the name might have seemed at first blush, the settlement was named as such to let anypony traveling towards Canterlot, regardless of race, that they were welcome.
For you see, despite the long-running integration of the three pony races after the unification of the Three Pony Tribes, there were still many cities, towns and villages throughout Equestria which were predominantly one race or another. For instance, the majority of the population of Manehattan on the eastern coast was Earth Ponies, and despite its land settlements the Pegasus city of Cloudsdale remained almost exclusively the residence of Pegasi. There even existed a town almost exclusively of Bat Ponies called Hollow Shades. But through all the continent of Vespucca, there could not be found a single city, town or village that held to such parity as Ponyville. Earth Ponies, Unicorns and Pegasi sharing the same homes and workplaces, voting for the same public officials, buying and selling the same wares in the same marketplace, laughing at the same jokes and sharing in the joy of the same parties.
And now, a Zebra − the former Crown Princess of Pundamilia herself − would begin to call Ponyville home.
Zecora joined the group of Ponies and Deer around the round table in the center room of the Golden Oak Library. Her black-and-white mane was styled in a perfect mohawk, large golden hoops dangled from each ear, and five gold rings adorned her neck to match the five around her left foreleg. She looked about from the foals the Cutie Mark Crusaders and Butter-And-Eggs, to the Deer Cobnut, Strawberry and Fuzzhead, and finally to the seven friends she had made in the zebra capital.
‘Your Pony-land is truly blessed,’ she began with her light Pundamilian accent, ‘but I have something that I must confess. I have never been to a land of this clime, nor to this country in all of my time. My mother the Queen never did allow…’ Zecora looked mildly pained. ‘But that has now changed, this I avow.’
“‘Climb’?” asked Apple Bloom, a small yellow Earth Pony filly with a bouncy red mane tied back with a large pink bow. Her peach-colored eyes over red-freckled cheeks showed her confusion. “What’s she mean by ‘climb’?”
“Is the Zebra-land in a big pit or something?” asked Sweetie Belle, her Unicorn friend with white coat and light-purple mane.
“Did the Zebra-Pegasi have to fly her out?” Scootaloo the orange Pegasus filly wondered, her own tiny wings flapping slightly at the thought.
Zecora chuckled lightly at the foals’ misinterpretation.
“Ah think Zecora’s sayin’ that the climate round Equestria ain’ exactly what she’s used to, girls,” cut in Apple Bloom’s big sister Applejack, the Bearer of the Element of Loyalty, with a slightly wry smile. The palomino wore a Stetson, and her mane and tail were tied off at the ends with red hairbands. “Ain’ nuthin’ ‘bout climbin’ nowhere.”
“Though we did climb up a lotta steps up at the Zebra capital~” Pinkie Pie cut in with a beaming smile and a giggle. Her pink mane and tail were impossibly frizzy, and her teeth shown perfectly white beneath bright-blue eyes.
“Umm, I don’t think that that’s exactly what they meant by ‘climbing’...” murmured Fluttershy breathily, brushing a pale-pink mane away from cyan eyes with a pale-yellow foreleg.
Rainbow Dash scoffed, “What else could they mean by it? I mean, it’s not like we did much else in the way of climbing out there.”
“Don’t forget, though, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight Sparkle replied smartly, “that the Cutie Mark Crusaders aren’t psychic.”
“‘Psychic’?” Butter-And-Eggs, the young colt raised by Deer, tilted his head in confusion. “What’s ‘psychic’?”
“It’s when somedeer can read another deer’s mind, buckaroo,” answered Fuzzhead.
“Or when somedeer can control something with just their mind,” continued Cobnut.
“It would be like if, say, this young Dragon here,” Strawberry indicated Spike, “could control fire with his mind.”
The mulberry drake perked up.
“Whoa… That would be so cool!” He looked towards Twilight. “Do you think I could really do something like that, Mom?”
The lavender Unicorn smiled maternally at Spike, wrapping a foreleg around his shoulders.
“We’ll see, Spike. We’ll see.”
Zecora smiled at the pair, the surrogate mother and son.
‘I am glad for you all, my friends from abroad,’ she beamed. ‘For your good fortune do I clap and applaud. But I have a question that is far less cheery: What befalls Equestria after a reign most dreary?’
Twilight and her band stiffened marginally, glancing back and forth at one another uneasily.
A little over three months ago, Twilight Sparkle, personal student to Queen Celestia herself and a ward of the crown, was dispatched to the hamlet of Ponyville to make friends before the Summer Sun Celebration. This was despite or because of Twilight’s warnings that the 1000-year anniversary of the banishment of NightMare Moon fell upon that day, and a prophecy of old indicated the return of that eldritch Alicorn to bring forth nighttime eternal to the planet of Harmonia. Sure enough, NightMare Moon returned and overthrew Queen Celestia, bringing forth a dark despotic regime to Equestria. Fortunately, Twilight was able to realize the beauty and magic of friendship and utilized the Elements of Harmony − the ancient artifacts which Queen Celestia had previously used so many centuries ago to banish NightMare Moon in the first place − to fully cleanse the Queen of the Night and eradicate the Miasma which had possessed her.
Even a month later, the after-effects of the reign of NightMare Moon could still be felt. Though the Nightmare Guard returned to their senses, the merewolves, vampires and hemolupes retreated back to the dark corners of society which they had previously inhabited, and the puppet-dead which had arisen from the grave degenerating into impotent ash, there still remained unrest and distrust of the new Queen who once more sat the throne beside Queen Celestia. Queen Selena’s decision to host a party the very night after the Sun had returned still rang somewhat hollow to many, who felt that an immediate turn towards reconstruction would have been more appropriate. Several expressed the notion that she underestimated the damage that she had caused as NightMare Moon, a notion which she herself responded to with somber resignation.
‘Loaþſome doð ƿe find it to cauſe our ſubjects diſdain,’ Queen Selena had said on a national radio broadcast, ‘but your Queen of þe Night found herſelf quite overcome ƿið þe joy of her emancipation. Ƿe apologiſe moſt forðrightly for our haſte. Henceforð, ƿe ʃall put more ſomber effort forƿard to rebuild a world þat ƿe ʃalt all ʃare, togeþer!’
(Granted, this took several retakes over the course of two days, as she apparently continually underestimated the ability of the microphone to catch her voice, speaking in a volume far too loud for the equipment to withstand and requiring reimbursement by the Equestrian Royal Family.)
“Well, it could be going better,” Twilight Sparkle admitted, idly scanning the pages of Daring Do and the Eternal Flower. “NightMare Moon has no holdouts from her regime; I mean, who in their right mind would want nighttime eternal, even amongst the Bat Ponies? − or, the Drow is what Queen Selena calls them, I suppose. But… ponies are still wary of her, and frankly it isn’t that surprising. The Miasmata are not a well-known species, and the only known specimen died a month ago at the hooves of the Elements of Harmony.” Twilight nudged to the next page. “Maybe we should just give it a bit of time after these changes to NightMare Night.”
In spite of the loudness of the knock − which was followed up by agitated hissing whispers on the doorstep − Twilight found herself not being terribly unsettled. Twice in the past hour had the door been knocked on already, so she found herself inured to it.
But still, who was it?
“Ah’ll git it this time, sugarcube,” said Applejack, slowly rising from the table and striding towards the double-doors. She pulled one of the doors open.
“Aunt ‘n’ Uncle Orange?”
Standing on the threshold of the Golden Oaks Library were a pair of middle-aged Earth Ponies, both of whom were smaller than Applejack (though not by much). The mare’s light-amber mane was done up in an elaborate beehive, and a large orange beauty mark was placed under her right eye. Her pale-yellow coat was perfectly groomed, and she wore a golden necklace laced with green and orange gemstones. Under half-lidded cerulean eyes she wore a soft smile, the sort that one wears when dealing with individuals who are particularly dim. It did not take keen eyes to see lines beginning to form on her face, however cleverly she tried to hide it with make-up. On her flanks were a cutie mark of three orange wedges. Her husband had a short light-pistachio mane streaked faintly with gray, and his pale-gold coat was similarly well-kept. His smile was less condescending then his wife’s, and his cutie mark was of a whole orange.
Applejack gathered her thoughts; what were Aunt and Uncle Orange doing in Ponyville? It was only three moons since the Reunion, and it was typically these reunions when they deigned to grace the Apple family with their presence.
“Ah… Ah had no idea y’all were comin’.”
Aunt Orange laughed to herself.
“‘Y’all’…” she mused. “I still find that so adorable.”
Uncle Orange nodded in response.
“But, if y’all’re here,” Applejack queried, “then where are Sunflower an’ Babs?”
Uncle Orange looked back over his shoulder.
“They should be along presently,” he said, “but it seems that Sunflower’s quite taken with this quaint little village.” He looked about at the thatched roofs, the cobblestone paths. “I say… it really is quite humble, isn’t it?”
Applejack cleared her throat.
“Well, no sense in crowdin’ th’ doormat. Why don’cha both come on in?”
“Oh I don’t know,” Aunt Orange said with a sad tilt of her head, though her smile barely faltered. “I’m sure you Bearers of the Elements have luxurious accommodations that suit the Orange lifestyle, but… we wouldn’t want to impose.”
“No, of course not,” added Uncle Orange, succeeding more than his wife at looking somber. “We wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Oh, it’d be no imposition, Mrs. and Mr. Orange,” interjected Twilight, stepping to Applejack’s side. “I’m sure that Spike and I can work something out to your liking.”
“Oh! Well, in that case…” Aunt Orange took a step forward over the doorstep.
“Whoa whoa whoa, Mom, Pop, don’ leave me an’ Babs out on da stoop!”
A pale-crimson Pegasus swooped down from the rooftops with a filly swept up under her foreleg. Her mane and tail were a brilliant gamboge, lanky and straight. She had a sort of sloppiness about her that, set against her parents, made her look positively bedraggled. Her pink-and-gamboge feathers were well-kept, though, from fetlocks to tail-feathers.
“Oh Sunflower!” gasped Aunt Orange. “What have you done to your mane?”
Sunflower blowed a stray hair out of her face.
“I don’ like havin’ ta wave my mane out, Mom. We ain’t gunna be seein’ none a’ youse white-hitchcollah buds out heah in Ponyville. ‘Sides, my mane’s wavy enough a’ready.”
“Be that as it may,” Aunt Orange insisted, parting Sunflower’s forelock so that it fell back under her ears, “you simply must look presentable in front of Queen Celestia’s personal student.”
Sunflower snorted, “I really don’ think she cares ‘bout dat sorta thing, Mom.”
“She’s right; I don’t,” Twilight cut in hopefully.
“Oh don’t listen to her, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” Aunt Orange shook her head, pulling her hooves back from Sunflower’s freckled face.
“Now, let’s take a look at you, Ballarat,” she said, turning her head down to her younger daughter whom Sunflower had set down.
The filly was not built like her cousin Apple Bloom, who was rather lanky like most fillies her age; rather, she was quite bulky and burly for a filly of a dozen years. She had a brilliant gamboge coat, rough and coarse, almost exactly matching her elder sister’s mane, and a brilliant amaranth mane that fell lank across half of her freckled face. Her light spring bud eyes darted about nervously, trying to avoid contact with her mother’s eyes.
“Ballarat Seedling,” said Aunt Orange crossly, “why did you let your elder sister ruin the mane that I had so expertly coiffed on the way out here?”
Babs looked up at Sunflower, the skirt of her tail covering her blank flank seemingly instinctively.
“Well… She kinda felt we’d be stickin’ out sumthin’ wild if we looked too frou-frou,” explained the Orange filly.
Aunt Orange sighed.
“I’ll hold my tongue in lieu of present company,” she said coolly, “but don’t think that I’ll have forgotten this. Now get in, you two!”
The atmosphere turned somewhat frosty as the Orange family stepped in, the family dynamics abundantly clear even to anypony who did not know them. It seemed, Twilight noted, that the reason Aunt Orange was so insistent on keeping her daughters dolled up was not out of any genuine desire to make them look good, but to reflect good upon herself. By the looks of it, Sunflower and Ballarat collectively cared less for appearance than their mother. Though Sunflower’s mane was largely straight and lank, there were parts that were wavy in a completely incongruous way from her more laissez-faire attitude towards appearance. Ballarat’s mane, though short and coarse, still had a hairband that pulled a part of it into a pigtail.
Aunt and Uncle Orange approached the central table with their daughters, eyes casting about the table for a spot to take a seat.
“Hey, Apple Bloom,” started Applejack casually, “why don’t you an’ yer friends entertain yer cousin Babs Seed?”
Apple Bloom brightened up, “Sure thang, AJ!” She and her fellow Cutie Mark Crusaders left their spot at the table and led Babs off towards the pile of books on acuomercology (or cutie-mark-ology, as they called it). Aunt and Uncle Orange looked at the spot that the three fillies had vacated; it was only just enough for the pair of them, and not enough to include their elder daughter.
“Sunflower dear,” Uncle Orange began, “do you think you could sit with your cousin Applejack?”
Sunflower beamed, “A’ course I could, Pop! I really like spendin’ time wit’ my not-city-folk fam’ly!”
With a deft flap in the air, Sunflower swept from between her parents to the spot between Applejack and Rainbow Dash.
“Now… introductions!” began Aunt Orange with a deft clop of her forehooves. “My name is Valencia Orange, and this is my husband Mosely.” She waved a manicured hoof at the stallion to her side. “And these are my daughters Sunflower…” She indicated the pale-crimson Pegasus who was already chatting rapidly with Applejack. “And Ballarat Seedling.” The gamboge filly nodded lightly at her name being called. “But enough about us. Let us talk stocks!”
“So,” Babs began awkwardly, blowing a bit of amaranth mane out of her right eye, “whatcha been up to out heah in Ponyville, cuz?”
“Well,” Apple Bloom began, stretching out her sugar-colored hind leg, “Ah found out a little while back that Ah weren’ th’ only gal in mah school what didn’t have her cutie mark yet.”
“She’s talking about us!” piped in Sweetie Belle.
Scootaloo rolled her eyes slightly, “Obviously.”
Babs’s eyes flicked quickly from her cousin to the Unicorn and Pegasus filly who sat with her, her tail’s short skirt sweeping up to cover her flank.
“Ohh… Blank flanks. Right.”
Apple Bloom beamed at Babs.
“But th’ thing is, we’re helpin’ each other in tryin’ ta git our cutie marks!”
“We haven’t been doing so well,” added Sweetie Belle, presenting her own off-white haunches, “but if we keep on trying, I’m sure we’ll get them!”
“Yeah! And we’ll get them together!” grinned Scootaloo.
Babs nodded noncommittally. “That’s great.”
Apple Bloom looked at her Manehattanite cousin confusedly.
“Why ya look so shifty, Babs?”
“It’s nuthin’, cuz,” Babs said shortly, shifting away from Apple Bloom with ears flopping lankly.
“It doesn’t seem like nothing,” Scootaloo commented.
“Well, it ain’t nuthin’, okay?” snapped Babs, her tail swishing and eyes flashing as she seemed to swell imperceptibly.
“She’s a blank flank, girls, just like us!”
Sure enough, Babs’s gamboge flank was unmarked by anything resembling a cutie mark. Knowing that there was no point in continuing the charade of keeping her blank flank hidden, Babs settled down at the edge of the Crusaders’ circle.
“Yeah… I ain’t got ma cutie mahk yet. And don’t think that I ain’t bin tryin’. Mom an’ Pop keep me dressed up in frilly frou-frou saddles that hide ma… ma mahklessness.”
Apple Bloom gave Babs a quirked eyebrow over peach-colored eyes.
“Whah th’ long face, cousin? Ya cin join our little friend-group an’ crusader fer yer cutie mark, too!”
Babs averted her eyes.
“Ev’rywheah I go, I’m bein’ judged by ma blank flank. Back in da city, I gotta deal wit’ uddah foals pullin’ at ma tail an’ callin’ me useless an’ ‘Girth Pony’ an’…”
She turned eyes flashing dangerously at the Cutie Mark Crusaders.
“An’ then I come out heah an’ I git told that I’m not useless fuh not havin’ ma mahk yet. Cantcha ponies make up youse minds ‘bout me?”
Apple Bloom and her friends cowered. There was no mistake; Babs Seed was definitely swelling now. Her eyes and hooves glowed bright green, and she stood taller than Applejack at the withers now, and she was still growing.
“Really, Ballarat!” scolded Aunt Orange, breaking off from her discussion of her and her husband’s bountiful stocks in orange groves. “Not in front of other ponies! Get that under control before somepony sees it! What will they think of us?”
Almost literally shrinking before her mother’s lashing tongue, Babs’s eyes and hooves ceased their glowing and she slowly returned to her natural size.
Apple Bloom’s eyes sparkled, and she opened her mouth to say…
“That was so cool, Babs!” Scootaloo piped in, interrupting Apple Bloom’s statement. “Where did you learn to do something like that?”
Babs trailed a spring bud-colored hoof along the ground.
“I didn’t learn anything ‘bout doin’ sumthin’ like dat. ‘t’s been sumthin’ I could do since I was tiny. An’… I can’ really control it. I get angry, an’ I get big. An’ I can’ control when I get angry. All dose bullies back in da city jus’ don’ stop till dey’ve pushed me ovah da edge.” She clenched her eyes shut, fighting back tears. “I hate it!”
Apple Bloom rested a sympathetic hoof on her city-born cousin’s shoulder.
“It’s alright, cousin. We’re here for ya. All three of us.”
“Yeah!” added Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo.
“We have to put up with bullies out here,” Sweetie Belle continued, “but we don’t care what they have to say.”
“They’re just a bunch of stupid dock-heads,” smirked Scootaloo, and Babs could not help but to snicker a little at the orange Pegasus filly’s brazenness.
“We’re gonna help ya figger out how ta git yer cutie mark, Babs,” declared Apple Bloom, a peach-colored hoof on her chest, “bah our honor as Cutie Mark Crusaders!”
Babs looked from the smiling faces of her cousin and the two other Crusaders to the books on cutie-mark-ology, then over to Sunflower looking at her out of the corner of her eye while talking smilingly with Applejack, then over to her parents not even glancing her way as they talked self-absorbedly about their stocks and their obvious prestige…
Babs blew her amaranth mane out of her right eye, smirking at Apple Bloom.
“Suah thing, cuz. Count me in as one a’ ya group.”
“Alright!” Apple Bloom cheered, putting a hoof in the air which Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo hoof-fived. With a bright grin, Babs added her hoof to the group.
“So,” Aunt Valencia said, in an abrupt switch in subject, “when is Queen Selena to arrive? Or is she already here?” She glanced about eagerly, as though hoping to spot the Queen of the Night hiding someplace in the library.
Twilight looked up to the clock, “Well, she’s supposed to be here by quarter-to-four − about three-and-three-dozen-nine − so she should be here in… less than two-dozen minutes.”
Almost as soon as Twilight finished speaking, Spike (who had been sitting quietly at her side since the Oranges arrived) burped up a bright-green cloud of smoke that lingered over the table.
“What in tarnation?”
Aunt Valencia’s hooves flew up to her mouth, as though she had uttered a disgusting swear-word. Virtually every pair of eyes in the Golden Oaks Library flew around to look at her, sweat beading on her forehead. Even Owlowiscious spun his head around from his roost by the agave and cactus at the window to look curiously at the big-city mare.
“Whoa Mom,” gaped Sunflower, smiling broadly nonetheless, “I ain’t nevuh heahd you talkin’ like dat outside a’ da house.”
“I ain’t nevuh heahd Mom talk like dat at all,” mused Babs Seed, her fellow Crusaders snickering behind her.
Aunt Valencia cleared her throat.
“Well, umm, do pardon me,” she stammered in her cultured Manehattan voice. “I do believe that slipped out. But, really, Twilight Sparkle? Haven’t you trained your dragon to not burp when in the presence of company? I thought that of all ponies, the pupil of Queen Celestia…”
“Hey, I can’t help it when I’m getting a message!” Spike cried defensively, scowling at the Orange mare.
Aunt and Uncle Orange gasped.
“He can talk?” the Orange stallion gasped.
“I had no idea dragons could talk,” breathed Aunt Valencia.
Twilight cast a curious look at Applejack’s aunt and uncle. “And how did you expect that Tiamat spoke at the Cosmic Council with the Queens?”
“I… I just thought that there were interpreters,” answered Aunt Valencia weakly. “But… your dragon… he said that he’d gotten a message?”
“He did,” Twilight replied brightly, her dwimmer shimmer lighting up around a rolled-up parchment at the exact spot where Spike’s burp-cloud had settled. “It’s how Queen Celestia and I maintain long-distance contact.”
“Is he… a familiar of the Queen’s?” asked Uncle Mosely.
Spike looked affronted.
“No I’m not! She just taught me how to do magic with my fire-breath to help Mom out.”
Aunt and Uncle Orange’s eyes flicked to Twilight in sharp confusion, as did Sunflower’s and Babs’s.
Twilight scratched behind her ear with a forehoof.
“Well, he’s not my son in a biological sense, but I did hatch his egg with my magic, so… I guess that makes me his mother. And I have raised him all his life. But really, what’s in this letter that Queen Celestia sent me?”
Unfastening the red ribbon and seal, Twilight unfurled the parchment and read her mentor’s elegant dwimmer-writing:
My deareſt and moſt faithful ſtudent Twilight Sparkle,
My dear little ſiſter Selena ſhould be on her way preſently to Ponyville, via Pegasus-drawn carriage. She eagerly awaits the opportunity to inſpect the NightMare Night preparations that you and your fellow Ponyvillagers have put together. As unſettled as ſhe may have been at the notion of a holiday that has demonized her for a meggroßium, I ſincerely feel that ſhe ſees this as a chance to enſure her ſtanding with the next generation. And I have aßured her − as I aßure you now − that I had no part in the onſet of NightMare Night. I would have been remiſs to forbid my little ponies to celebrate when there is the urge to, ſo I have made an effort over the großenturies to ſoften the preſentation of NightMare Moon in ſuch celebrations.
But I digreſs. My darling Selena approaches Ponyville, my beloved Twilight. Let her know that ſhe is ſtill welcome, that ſhe is always welcome. This paſt month has ſeen many ups and downs for her; her magic ſtill returns from the Miaſma’s hold on her.
I ſtill have affairs to ſettle here in Canterlot before I arrive in Ponyville, but know that I await the newly celebratory face of NightMare Night!
Your loving mentor,
Queen Celeſtia Apolinaria di Equeſtria
PS: As I underſtand it, your friend Pinkie Pie finds it amuſing that I continue to write my ‘s’s in a particular faſhion. Such ſimpliſtic ſatisfaction ſtirs ſolace in Queen Celeſtia. Stifle not ſtirring ſnickers behind your ſnout.
Reading the Queen’s postscript, Twilight bit down on her lower lip and let out a small and short laugh.
“Twilight Sparkle?” queried Aunt Valencia Orange with a quirked light-amber eyebrow. “Are you feeling quite alright? You seem like you’re acting quite like a middle-class Equestrian.”
“Pinkie, you’ve got to read the Queen’s postscript,” Twilight snickered, pretending not to hear the social-climber of an Orange. The pink Earth Pony poked her head over Twilight’s shoulder, reading the last few lines at the bottom of the parchment…
And Pinkie Pie looked disappointed.
“A joke’s not funny if you keep doing it over and over again,” she said with narrow eyes and crossed forelegs. “If jokes were that easy to make, then nopony would need a party planner pony.”
As if on cue, the postscript shimmered, the letters swirling around and shifting:
PS: Pinkie Pie piles packs of puce pumas pell-mell partway to Ponyville Penitentiary.
Pinkie’s eyes almost literally popped out of her head at the sight of the changing letters, while Twilight snorted lightly out of her nose at the baseness of the Queen’s magical application. In short while, Pinkie Pie began to short and giggle to high Elysium at the rearranged postscript.
“P-p-p-p-p-p-please, Queenie Celestia~!” trilled Pinkie, rolling on the floor with feathered hooves on her slightly rotund stomach. “You’re p-p-p-p-pulverizing my p-p-p-p-potbelly!”
Uncle Mosely Orange cast a worried eye upon the pink Earth Pony on the polished wooden floor.
“Twilight Sparkle… Are you sure that the Elements of Harmony didn’t just turn one of your fellow Bearers insane?”
Twilight shook her head amusedly.
“She’s always been like this, as far as I know. This is just Pinkie being Pinkie. She’s the Bearer of the Element of Laughter, so it stands to reason that she loves to laugh and see other ponies laugh.”
Valencia cleared her throat.
“Yes, well… that’s all well and good, but… I must confess myself disappointed that our dear little Applejack has fallen into…”
But she cleared her throat again and said nothing.
“What? Fallen inta what?” Applejack said sourly. “Don’ be shy, Aunt Blenheim.”
Aunt Orange flushed, her cheeks blotchy as she snarled at Applejack.
“Don’t call me that! I left that name behind when Ah… when I got my cutie mark!”
“Ya don’ seem ta have a problem with it when Granny Smith’s th’ one sayin’ it,” retorted Applejack.
“That’s because she’s my mother. Blood is thicker than orange juice, dearie.”
“If it is, then why do ya put on yer airs at family reunions? Ya ain’ got none a’ yer frou-frou Manehattanite pals ‘round ta judge ya.”
“I… I, for one, haven’t thrown away a golden opportunity to chase after rainbows!”
Applejack took in a deep breath to offer a heated retort…
“AJ,” cut in Sunflower, touching her pinions to Applejack’s side, “now’s probably not da time.”
Applejack’s growing hostile look softened as she looked at her cousin out of the corner of her eye. Glancing at the Cutie Mark Crusaders and the latest recruit Babs, she saw that the four fillies had expressions of fearful trepidation on their round faces. She took a low sigh.
“Fergit about it, Aunt Orange. This is NightMare Night. Let’s not rattle th’ cage.”
“Thank you, Applejack,” replied Aunt Orange with a relieved smile. “I’m glad that you shall let bygones be by―…”
“Don’ think Ah’m fergittin’ about this, though. Ah’m not keen on some things ya’ve done, but it ain’t sumthin’ Ah want ta ruin th’ new NightMare Night with. Queen Selena’s due ta arrive soon.”
Twilight nodded at Applejack’s ending assertion.
“That’s right, Applejack. We should probably head out and inspect what everypony has been doing.”
With that, the dozen-seven in the room − Twilight Sparkle and Spike and their five Ponyvillager friends, the four Cutie Mark Crusaders, Cobnut and his family and Fuzzhead, Zecora, and the Oranges − slowly rose from their seats around the Golden Oak Library and made their way out towards greater Ponyville.
Ever since its foundation less than eight-dozen years before, Ponyville had demonstrated itself a very humble sort of hamlet. Because of its proximity to the royal capital of Canterlot, many ponies assumed that the village would quickly rise up at the rapidity that New Amstirrupdam showed when it became Manehattan, the Big Orange. However, as the douzaides passed, it became bafflingly clear that the ponies of Ponyville were content in remaining a tight-knit family of a relatively small two- or three-gross, rather than ballooning to a megagross or more.
There were many who felt that Queen Celestia should have mandated that Ponyville expand outwards and upwards, but no such mandate came. As puzzling as it may have been to some, Ponyville remained a sharp contrast to cosmopolitan metropolis that sat on the mountainside to its north.
“‘Welcome to Ponyville, Queen Selen’?” Twilight read from the sign in front of the Gazebo. “What happened to the ‘a’ at the end?”
“We couldn’t fit it on,” mused Golden Harvest sadly.
“Well, we’ll have to redo it, then,” Twilight said decisively. “This NightMare Night presentation must be absolutely perfect if it is to leave the holiday’s old image behind.”
She rounded on a mulberry Earth Pony mare.
“Pinot Noir, how are the supplies from the vineyard progressing?”
Pinot Noir batted cerise eyes pleasantly, gesturing a cerise hoof towards the table stacked with bottles of fine wine and numerous glasses.
“They are indeed progressing well, Miss Sparkle,” she said in her light Fancy accent. “Mary and myself ‘ave test-tasted a good number ourselves.”
“Oh, I can bet you two did,” teased Rainbow Dash.
“Rainbow Dash!” scolded Rarity. “You know better than to make insinuations regarding another mare’s…”
“Oh no, it iz quite alright, Miss Rarity,” cut in Pinot, and she swayed her sizable hips suggestively as she winked. “Mary can be quite… forward when she wants to be.”
“Too much information!” squealed Fluttershy with a wing over her eyes.
Pinot laughed throatily.
“Oh, I tease, I tease! Would you like a sample, Miss Sparkle?”
“Oh no, I think I’ll pass,” Twilight said genteelly. “I’m sure there will be plenty in stock for the festival.”
“Wine…” mused Aunt Orange aloud. “I must say, Applejack, it still surprises me to see such a cultured drink out here in Ponyville.”
Applejack said nothing, only furrowing her eyebrows in response. She had set herself up as the better mare by offering the olive branch, and if Aunt Blenheim was going to continue to make snide comments and cutting remarks the whole day long, then so be it.
“And Ditzy Doo,” Twilight approached the gray Pegasus mailmare, “how are the preparations for the muffin menagerie?”
The gray mare saluted Twilight brightly, her left eye meeting Twilight’s; her right eye looked aimlessly up at the sky.
“Muffin platoon is all armed up and ready to be deployed, Mon Capitain!”
Twilight giggled a little at the silliness of Ditzy Doo. In the month she’d spent living in Ponyville, she had long since accepted the semi-random statements that came to the flighty but altogether capable mailmare. Despite her misaligned eyes, or because of them, Ditzy Doo was an exceptional deliverer, knowing where each pony lived by house and not by address.
Also, her muffins were to die for.
“Twilight?” asked Sweetie Belle.
“Is NightMare Night really gonna change forever?”
“I’m afraid so, Sweetie Belle,” Rarity said sympathetically. “You see, Queen Selena, who has been held in psychic captivity by the erstwhile NightMare Moon, does not hold the present incarnation of the holiday NightMare Night in highest esteem. Now that she’s been cleansed on that dreadful creature’s evil influence, the Queens have decided that it’s time for a change.”
“But Ah liked NightMare Night th’ way that it was,” cried Apple Bloom, her muzzle scrunching up. “Ah liked goin’ out in costume an’ gittin’ candy from ev’rypony ‘round Ponyville.”
“And I liked it when Rainbow Dash would spook ponies by bucking thunder-clouds in the middle of it all!” Scootaloo said emphatically with a swing of one of her hooves.
Spike shrugged, “We never really did NightMare Night up at Canterlot. Nopony ever really put out anything like that. And when they did, there were never any gems that anypony was giving out.” He frowned darkly.
“Gems?” Valencia Orange gasped. “Why in the world would somepony give up gems? They’re so valuable!”
“Because Dragons eat them,” Twilight answered. “Dragons find gems valuable for an entirely different reason.”
Babs rubbed a forehoof slowly, “I ain’t nevuh been much fer dis heah holiday; too many kids pokin’ an’ pullin’ at me up at da city. But Sunflowah’s been pretty swell at keepin’ ‘em off my back long enough fer me ta git a bag a’ treats!”
Sunflower gave her little sister a noogie, grinning sloppily.
“‘Cause nopony messes with ma little sis!”
“Please, keep it together, girls!” Mosely Orange said. “You never know when Queen Selena is due to arrive.”
“Yes sir,” murmured the two sisters, each blowing a bit of mane out of their eyes.
“Sorry ‘bout Mom ‘n’ Pop bein’ such putzes,” Babs murmured to Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. “Dey don’ ceah foah da country life.”
“Ah ain’ got much experience with city life,” Apple Bloom replied, “but Ah don’ see no reason not ta care fer it. Ah mean, AJ didn’ stick it out much, but Ah’ve read about some a’ th’ thangs y’all have up there. Thangs like subways an’ elevators an’ buildin’s that’re taller than trees! How did y’all do stuff like that?”
Babs smiled sheepishly, “I don’ really know. I didn’ build any a’ dem buildin’s. I ain’ no engineeah.” She blinked. “Oh yeah! Youse guys met da Queen of da Night, didn’cha? What was it like meetin’ hah?”
“It was pretty swell!” Apple Bloom said brightly. “Ah ain’ never met a Queen before, an’ Ah never thought Ah’d meet one ever.”
“And she stood up for us against a mean old bully named Diamond Tiara,” continued Sweetie Belle, beaming.
“She’s got awesome bat-looking wings, too!” Scootaloo grinned, flapping her own tiny undergrown wings for emphasis.
The Mayor of Ponyville approached Twilight, her pince-museau and silvery mane glinting in the afternoon as she smiled.
“Twilight Sparkle,” she said amiably, “are the new NightMare Night preparations to the New Queen’s liking?”
A blare of a trumpet rang out from the north, and the hullabaloo of Town Square came to an abrupt halt.
“Look!” cried out Butter-And-Eggs, pointing a butter-yellow hoof up in the direction of the trumpet’s call. “That’s not a bird!”
“Nope, don’t look like it!” added Pinkie Pie, pulling a pair of binoculars from out of nowhere and affixing them to her face. “It looks like some sorta flying chariot thingy!”
“It’s the Queen of the Night!” cried Aunt Orange, before setting upon her daughters. “Quick, make yourselves presentable!”
The surrounding dozens of ponies in Town Square turned their eyes northward and skyward as the chariot descended towards Ponyville, drawn by a pair of winged Royal Guards. As it drew close, it was apparent that one of them was a Pegasus and the other a Bat Pony, a Drow. A runway had been cleared out alongside the Gazebo for the chariot and its most regal passenger, and it was the target for the new arrivals from Canterlot. The ponies flanking the runway sank to their knees as the Royal Guards alighted upon the ground with sharp whinnies, the golden wheels of the chariot bouncing along the cobbled road as it came to a halt beside the Bearers and their party of ponies, Deer, a drake and a Zebra.
With a flap of midnight-blue feathered bat-wings, Queen Selena Artemis di Equestria disembarked from her chariot, alighting upon polished-black greaves to the sounds of paparazzi snapping pictures.
The younger sister of Queen Celestia Apolinaria di Equestria, Queen Selena was smaller and slightly less beautiful than her elder sister. Though her front half bore a coat of pale gray-blue, her coat was a midnight cornflower from her wings back. Her voluminous light-azure mane was bound by a hairband behind her tall black crown and between her ears, and both mane and tail-skirt were tied near the ends by additional hairbands. Her lion-like tail was not marked at the dock by tail-feathers, but by fins not unlike a Bat Pony’s. A sapphire-blue patch of fur shaped like a five-point star marked her right cheek, beneath cyan eyes with oval pupils. Her graceful smile revealed vampiric fangs. As she spread her wings, glowing-white secondaries caught the sunlight and dazzled the eye.
‘Fair citizens of the town of Ponyville,’ spake she, and her voice boomed as a legion, ‘your Queen of the Night has arrived to oversee the transformation of this fell holiday, into a joyous and rapturous FEAST!’
Twilight could not help but to smile. Already did Queen Selena sound much more in tune with the times; though her faintly Germane accent remained, it was significantly less pronounced, and even one of the least educated ponies could freely interpret her words without confusion.
But her usage of the Royal Canterlot Voice did make it difficult for another reason to listen to: volume.
“Really, Queen Aunt Selena,” whined a voice from another figure as it descended from the chariot, “you must keep your voice down. It’s bad enough to be so far away from my manicurist.”
A white Unicorn with a perfectly coiffed amber mane stepped down from the chariot after Queen Selena. He was quite tall at the withers, and he had quite the pleasant appearance. He wore a white collar with a blue bowtie, and not a single amber hair at the end of his leonine tail was out of place. There was a dashing glimmer in his icy blue eyes that spoke of a lifetime of luxury.
Rarity gasped so sharply that Twilight thought for a moment that her throat would bleed raw.
“Y… You are Prince Blueblood, Duke of Canterlot!” she breathed.
The stallion in question grinned in a rather self-assured way that made Rainbow Dash seem positively humble.
“Why yes, indeed I am.”
“But I have read so much about you in all of the gossip columns. They say that you are the most eligible bachelor in all of Canterlot.” The alabaster Unicorn suddenly stood in a much more stately fashion than she had assumed before, a demure bat of her eyelids clearly intended to woo. Twilight recalled how Rarity so delighted in the idea of living in Canterlot, and knowing who this stallion was, she could not help but fear that her Ponyville friend was setting herself up for a bad fall. “But why in the world do you hold the titles of Prince and Duke?”
“Prince is just my given name; Blueblood is my family name,” Blueblood explained coolly. “Mommy and Daddy gave me that name to remind me of the lifestyle that I would lead here. Did you know that my lineage can be traced back to the sister of Queen Aunt Celestia’s mother?”
“Can it?” Rarity replied in astonishment, though Twilight detected a hint of foreknowledge in Rarity’s tone; this clearly was something she had read in her gossip columns. “Do tell me more, Duke Prince Blueblood! You may begin your inquiries with myself, you handsome stallion, you,” she said with a faintest hint of amorous lilt to her tone. Applejack palmed her face in a hoof.
Twilight made to speak to Rarity and warn her of the pit she was about to set hoof in, but…
‘Please, dear nephew,’ interjected Queen Selena, placing an armored hoof on the Unicorn elite’s shoulder. ‘Thou mayest pursue thy fancies at thine own pace at a later time. Anon, we must attend to the festivities…!’
As Queen Selena reared back triumphantly, crimson-red bolts of lightning arched across the sky, bathing Ponyville in bloody light. Twilight grimaced; if Queen Selena was keen on changing the image of NightMare Night, then this was entirely the wrong approach to take.
Queen Selena settled back down to her forelegs and cast her eyes about in confusion; she clearly was not in control, as became clear when the lightning persisted, darting from rooftop to rooftop, blackening weathervanes and sending shattered roof-tiles to the roads below. Ponies ran in terror, abandoning their stalls and their wares (though Mary Smith-Noir and her daughter Mornen Noir had to almost literally drag Pinot Noir from their vineyard wares) for fear of their lives.
The Queen of the Night rounded on her two guards,
‘Flash Sentry! Wind Chill! Dispatch yourselves and ascertain the origin of this fell threat!’
The pair of Guards saluted, bright Pegasus and dark Drow, and spread their wings…
Before being quickly laid low by a crimson bolt each, collapsing to their barrels with cries of shock.
Queen Selena spun on the spot, a deep-royal-blue dwimmer shimmer blazing along her alicorn and her wings spreading to their fullest breadth…
And chain-lightning the color of blood ensnared her, clamping her wings to her sides and her legs to her belly. The glow of her dwimmer shimmer faltered and died. Her cyan eyes darted about in fright and alarm.
“What in the world…?” gasped Aunt Orange.
“What’s happening, Mom…?” whimpered Butter-And-Eggs, huddling under Strawberry’s legs.
Pale smoke began to seep up from the earth beneath them, mini-arcs of red lightning appearing sporadically. By now, most everypony had abandoned Town Square save for those who had arrived with the Bearers from the Golden Oak Library.
Zecora gaped at the lightning caging Queen Selena.
‘I have read of no magic like this in any tome. This is new to me abroad as it would be at home.’
“Aunt Selly!” cried Blueblood in fright, cowering on the ground in a manner completely unbefitting royalty.
“What could have caused this?” breathed Twilight. This was a terrible disaster! No sooner had Queen Selena made her first real public appearance since her liberation from the Miasma, than she was apparently ensnared once more by evil. And on NightMare Night no less! Nopony would ever associate this with anything good or wholesome anymore…
And a maniacal cackle filled the streets of Ponyville.
“Good afternoon to you all, Ponyville!” boomed out a very familiar voice, but with far more power and force than any had heard from it.
And it seemed to boom out from the lightning itself.
“Your savior from the days of unending night has returned to you, to right what has been wronged to her!”
The lightning branched out from around Queen Selena, coalescing into an equine shape in front of Twilight. Red light filled the lavender Unicorn’s vision, and she brought up a foreleg to shield her eyes.
“Mom…?” Spike gasped, his nictitating membranes sliding over his eyes to block out excess light. “Is this who I think it is…?”
The laughter boomed out once more.
“Behold, Equestria, Ponyville, Twilight Sparkle, the absolute power of the one known only as…”
The lightning flared out, and dissipated from the equine shape. Lowering her foreleg, Twilight beheld a pony she had not seen in near-on to three months.
A brilliant azure coat… Ragged cornflower mane and tail-skirt… A pale-purple cape and wizard’s hat, both patterned with pale-yellow and blue stars… The only thing that seemed to have changed was the most peculiar amulet she wore on her chest. But then Twilight met her eyes. There was a crimson gleam in her pupils, bleeding out into the dark-violet of her irises. And her smile… no smile should have looked so savage as she declared her name:
“She will never let her go! Trixie has been wronged and sinned against as you could not possibly understand, Twilight Sparkle! You, who have ruined my life!”
Twilight pawed at the ground in readiness even as confusion wracked her brain.
“Ruined your life…? How could I have ruined your life?”
“How could you not know, Twilight Sparkle?” snarled the azure Unicorn. “You let Equestria know of my deep shame: that I cannot slay an ursa major, not even an ursa minor. You spread word from coast to coast, all out of spite and jealousy of The Great And Powerful Trixie’s prodigious illusory talent!”
‘Twilight Sparkle, of what doth she speak?’ asked Queen Selena in her captivity.
“That’s a load of horse-apples!” growled Rainbow Dash. “She’s not jealous of your stupid magic!”
“SILENCE!” Trixie bellowed, and the sky roared with red thunder. “You think that Trixie does not know? Everypony envies her magic. Nopony casts illusions better; illusions so realistic that they seem almost tangible, that most everypony is fooled by them… except for you, Twilight Sparkle, who has broken the unspoken creed shared by all those who practice magic: Never reveal the secret of how it is accomplished!”
“Twilight Sparkle,” cut in Aunt Valencia Orange, “who in Equestria is this mare? Was she NightMare Moon’s right-hoof mare?”
“Has she come back to avenge the Dark Queen’s passing…?” breathed Prince Blueblood in fright.
“She was a show-mare,” Twilight answered shortly, “who tried to take advantage of the eternal night by bilking Ponyville of its food and shelter.”
“An' Twilight didn’ reveal nuthin’!” interjected Applejack. “She ain’ let anypony outside a’ Ponyville in on yer shortcummin’s!”
“You cannot fool The Great And Powerful Trixie!” shouted Trixie. “She works in illusions and misdirection; you think that she cannot recognize a ruse when she sees one? The Great And Powerful Trixie knew as soon as setting hoof at the first town out from Ponyville, that word had already reached them, so The Great And Powerful Trixie immediately began to prostrate herself before them, to let them know that The Great And Powerful Trixie had been had, that she is as capable as they’d heard before. They claimed to not know, but The Great And Powerful Trixie knows better! She knows that they know! They all know!”
Most everypony was stunned into silence by Trixie’s ranting. She was clearly delirious with rage.
“The Great And Powerful Trixie could not put on her show in any city, town or village, so she had to resort to terrible things to make ends meet,” Trixie continued, her eyes burning like coals. “Dreadful dead-end jobs unbefitting of the likes of Trixie! She even had to find work at a rock farm. A ROCK FARM!”
“Hey!” shouted Pinkie Pie, looking angrier than Twilight could remember ever seeing on the Earth Pony’s face. “You’re lucky that a rock farm would take the likes of you!”
“Do not belittle The Great And Powerful Trixie’s suffering with your stupid mouth!” Trixie snapped, a scarlet dwimmer-beam lancing out from her alicorn towards Pinkie faster than anypony could react. Twilight spun about in alarm to face Pinkie.
“Pinkie! Are you alright?”
Pinkie opened her mouth to answer, but no sound came out. Her eyebrows knitted in bemusement as she rubbed a hoof in one ear. She flapped her gums some more and her eyes widened in horror at the realization. Tears leaked down her face as she let out unheard cries.
“Give Pinkie back her voice, now!” Twilight warned Trixie, her own alicorn gleaming pink.
“The Great And Powerful Trixie will not! She is sparing her own ears the chaotic din that she recalls from that mare, at least for a few hours! You Ponyville ponies should be grateful to The Great And Powerful Trixie that she didn’t blast that pink mare’s muzzle off, as you should have been grateful for her gracing you with her great illusion show!”
“That was hardly a show, if I may say,” Rarity said shortly.
“You may not say,” snapped Trixie. “The Great And Powerful Trixie will not suffer any indignation, not when she is able to provide spectacle like nopony has ever seen!”
“‘Spectacle’?” Twilight said. “That ursa major you created could have caused widespread panic, on top of the eternal night of NightMare Moon!”
“What is a little panic, if The Great And Powerful Trixie can make for herself the sort of glory that would make most ponies blanch? If there is one thing that The Great And Powerful Trixie despises, it is the idea of nopony speaking of her. Panic would only spread the knowledge of The Great And Powerful Trixie, and so more ponies would offer her greater rewards for her great illusions!”
Queen Selena gasped, ‘Thou art insane! Egotistical! Dost thou not know the pitfalls of hubris?’
Trixie laughed maniacally, the scarlet lightning clawing its way around Selena far more energetically, and the blue-and-black Alicorn screamed in agony.
Twilight snarled, her alicorn glowing bright.
“Stop it! Let her go!”
“Let Aunt Selly go!” echoed Blueblood, and Rarity nearly swooned at the plea in his voice.
“Not until The Great And Powerful Trixie has spoken her piece!”
“You don’t know what you’re doing! She’s still weak from the Miasma―…”
“A farce!” shouted Trixie. “The Great And Powerful Trixie knows misdirection when she sees it, nopony better!”
“Harken to me, ‘Great And Powerful’ Trixie,” hissed Fuzzhead, taking a step forward. “Speak your piece, let us know your business with Miss Sparkle here, and then let the Alicorn Queen of the Night loose.”
“The Great And Powerful Trixie shall set free your Queen of Air and Darkness,” answered the azure Unicorn, “if Twilight Sparkle consents to a Magic Duel with me!”
Gasps circled through the Ponies in the semicircle facing Trixie. For as long as Unicorns had been studying the art of thaumaturgy and spellcraft, there had been rather more aggressive mares and stallions who would turn their magic upon their fellow pony. Eventually, meggrossia before the arising of Equestria, King Füllhorn of the Unicorn Kingdom of Cornucopia had it decreed that no one Unicorn could cast deadly spellwork on another pony, or allow them to come to indirect harm by their magic, and that any duel between Unicorns would only be allowed to unfold by the mutual consent of both parties. Such laws regarding Magic Duels were so well-accepted that they were more or less brought whole-cloth into the laws of Equestria by Clover the Clever when she drafted the Articles of the United Tribes. With the passing of the Age of Discord, though, Magic Duels largely fell out of style, with only token events transpiring to make political distinctions clear.
This, clearly, was drawing a line in the sand.
“A Magic Duel? You’re forcing my hoof, Trixie,” Twilight growled in response. “It’s not fair to use a hostage to force consent to a Magic Duel.”
“Fair?” Trixie breathed, eyes wide; it was more frightening than shouting. “Do not speak to The Great And Powerful Trixie of fairness. Her life was one of splendor and enjoyment until you had to ruin it by revealing a magician’s secret!”
“I didn’t reveal it!” Twilight insisted, pawing still harder at the ground. “As I recall, you admitted to being unable to stop an ursa yourself!”
“That is not how The Great And Powerful Trixie remembers it!” Trixie replied. “You, Twilight Sparkle, are a golem crafted by envious ponies for the express purpose of bringing about the downfall of Trixie! And she challenges you to a Magic Duel to set things to right!”
Twilight quirked up an amethyst eyebrow at the suggestion of her being a golem, casting her eyes upon Queen Selena. The dark Alicorn’s cyan eyes were wide with fear, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Twilight met her eyes, and Queen Selena nodded her head nigh-imperceptibly. In the crimson dwimmer shimmer, it was all that she could do. Twilight mirrored that most faint of nods, before turning her gaze back upon Trixie Lulamoon.
“I will consent to duel you, Trixie,” Twilight said slowly, choosing her words with care. “And now, name the terms of this Duel.”
“If The Great And Powerful Trixie should win − which she will − then Twilight Sparkle must depart from Ponyville forever!” Trixie’s cape flared like bat’s wings as a blast of wind accompanied her shout.
Twilight answered, “And if you should lose?”
“The Great And Powerful Trixie will not lose,” came the reply, “but for the sake of your tiny and inflexible mind, Trixie supposes she will set this lowly Alicorn free if she should lose.”
“I accept your terms, Trixie,” said Twilight, pawing at the ground, “but I think I should warn you, it will be over quickly.”
Trixie smirked evilly.
“Yes. It will be.”
Twilight narrowed her eyes at the azure Unicorn.
“I may not be the greatest or most powerful Unicorn to have lived, but all that you have to your name is a decently convincing illusion spell. All it takes to expose an illusion for what it is is to pull aside the curtain.”
“You would know all about that, wouldn’t you?” Trixie spat acidly. “But The Great And Powerful Trixie is greater and more powerful than anypony who has ever lived. For Trixie…” A rapturous expression crossed the azure Unicorn’s face. “Trixie has discovered herself.”
Twilight’s eyes flicked to the silver necklace beset with rubies around Trixie’s neck. “What do you mean?”
Trixie stared off into the sky, drawing confused looks from most ponies facing her, and fearful looks from the six youngest.
“During her time of despair, The Great And Powerful Trixie met a kindly Earth Pony who called himself Nightshade. He listened to Trixie’s tragic story, and he told Trixie of a necklace of untold power, in the possession of a Unicorn in Dodge Junction… only to be sold at a great price. Trixie knew that you were a deceptive Unicorn, Twilight Sparkle, and she knew that the only way to circumvent such subterfuge was to indulge in a little skulduggery herself.
“Those rock farmers were truly careless with their money, but The Great And Powerful Trixie deserved every thoroughbit. Yes, thoroughbits, Twilight Sparkle! More money than Trixie is sure you have ever seen in your life living out here in the sticks. More than enough, Trixie knew, to collect this amulet from Candlelight! And it has been more than worth Trixie’s troubles! You cannot imagine the power that The Great And Powerful Trixie is possessed of now!”
Twilight looked closely at the carcanet around Trixie’s neck again. It looked to be a somewhat gothic tribute to the Alicorn Queens, and it looked vaguely familiar somehow; perhaps she’d seen it at one of Moondancer’s parties before she stopped attending them? Or…
Twilight shuddered. Trixie’s dwimmer shimmer was a rather different color than it was when she had appeared in Ponyville nearly three months prior, and her TQ seemed to be much higher with that amulet on. If it really did boost her power to the level she claimed that it did…
“Trixie…” Twilight implored, “you needn’t have gone to such troubles to try to overcome me. I’m sorry for what I’ve done to ruin your life.”
“You don’t need to apologize to her, Book-horse,” cut in Rainbow Dash. “She set herself up for a pretty bad fall.”
“Rainbow Dash is right, Twilight,” added Scootaloo. “She scared the willies out of me and the Crusaders with her big fake ursa major!”
“Do not interrupt!” Trixie snarled, blasting Rainbow Dash with a flare of crimson light from her alicorn. When the spots in Twilight’s eyes had cleared, she could see − to her horror − that Rainbow Dash’s wings had been transplanted onto her belly. Her aerodynamics fouled up, the cerulean Pegasus swerved out of control off to her left, careening into one of the pylons of the Gazebo and cracking it.
Fluttershy gasped, “Dashie!”
The butter-yellow Pegasus darted up to Rainbow Dash, cradling her in her forelegs.
“Please Dashie, you have to stop flying…”
“I can’t…” gasped Rainbow Dash, her wings beating mutinously in front of Fluttershy’s face. “They won’t stop… flapping…”
Twilight could not take it anymore. She sent a pink dwimmer-beam flying at Trixie, aiming for her heart…
And a crimson dwimmer-shield erected in an instant around Trixie and her captive, deflecting the shot into the sky.
“A cheap shot, as anticipated of you, Twilight Sparkle.”
“You’re casting spells to hurt my friends!”
“The Great And Powerful Trixie was provoked. Do you expect her to allow such slander against her name?”
“I try to apologize to you, and you do this to somepony who has no quarrel with you? My friends have nothing to do with this!”
“They have everything to do with this; they are your hangers-on, Twilight Sparkle. Besides, the time has passed for apologies, and all debts must now be paid, with interest.”
Breathing heavily through her nostrils, Twilight glowered at Trixie with all the hate she could muster. Trixie was clearly a mare beyond reasoning, and there was no accurate way of gauging her power level as things currently stood. Although her repertoire of spells had to be limited to those related to illusion and sleight-of-hoof, the possibility still existed that that amulet Trixie wore would whisper spells to its wearer to give her a better chance at victory.
Still, she had to try and save the Queen’s little sister, or the Queen would…!
“Very well,” Twilight said with resolve, raising her voice over the sounds of Rainbow Dash struggling against her own misplaced wings. “When does our Magic Duel begin, then?”
Trixie bared her teeth manically.
A flash of red light flared out from her horn, and Pinot Noir’s abandoned bottles of fine wine blasted the corks clean out, directly at Twilight. The lavender Unicorn’s party gave out cries of alarm and indignation, Blueblood ducking once more and covering his head even though he did not stand in the line of fire.
Twilight replied with a wink-out away from the wine bottles’ line of fire, reappearing at Trixie’s side.
“Cheap shots in a duel are uncalled for, Trixie, but I’m not so long in the tooth that I would fall for something like that.”
Deciding that caution best not be thrown to the wind, Twilight ensnared the amulet round Trixie’s neck in her dwimmer shimmer, and attempted to pull…
A tremendous pain shot down Twilight’s alicorn, straight through the center of her brain and into the base of her skull.
It would not yield.
A tremendous and completely alien willpower kept the amulet affixed to Trixie’s neck, leaving Twilight baffled and pained.
“NO! DON’T TOUCH ME!” roared a completely unfamiliar voice… from Trixie’s mouth? from the amulet? where?… and Twilight found herself thrown back to her band, landing on her back.
“Mom!” shouted Spike.
“Twilight!” Applejack cried, before stepping over the lavender Unicorn and confronting Trixie. “If ya want trouble, yer barkin’ up th’ wrong tree, Trixie…!”
A bright flash of crimson, and Applejack was gone.
“Applejack!” gasped Twilight. Had Trixie just…?
”Ah’m fine, Twilight,” squeaked a very tiny drawling voice from atop Twilight’s belly. “But ev’rything’s lookin’ a mite bit bigger than b’fore…”
Looking down around her navel, Twilight spotted Applejack, perfectly fine… except for the fact that she was easily the size of a mouse, Stetson and all!
“Applejack!” Apple Bloom cried, before rounding on Trixie. “Ya turn mah sister back, ya big bully!”
‘Prithee, child,’ interjected Queen Selena, ‘provoke not the mad mare!’
“Aunt Selly is right, young rube!” whimpered Blueblood. “Don’t say anything, or you’ll make this insane mare even more mad!”
“‘Young rube’…?” mused Rarity, giving Blueblood a quizzical look. This wasn’t at all like the Blueblood she’d read about…
“The Great And Powerful Trixie,” snarled the azure Unicorn, “is not MAD!”
As Applejack leapt down from Twilight’s midsection to gallop back to the group of increasingly more mangled ponies, Twilight had to ponder the true magical power of what she was dealing with. In all of her time as a student of Queen Celestia, she had never seen the Queen make use of a transsizing spell to either enlarge or reduce an object. It was never a subject of very great study save for her lessons on Burgeoning Earth Ponies, as it was widely considered impractical even for the highest level of Unicorns.
Just what was that amulet…?
Still, Twilight thought, no reason to sink to Trixie’s potentially dangerous spellwork.
A flash of bright-pink light, and Trixie felt something bristling on her muzzle. Looking down, she saw that she now had a full cornflower mustache and beard, reaching down to her hooves.
“Facial hair is unbecoming of The Great And Powerful Trixie,” the azure Unicorn snorted in derision, summoning a set of shears that made quick work of the rapidly grown facial hair.
Trixie’s alicorn glowed red, and clouds suddenly coalesced overhead, darkening the skies over Ponyville. Training her eyes upon the gathering storm, Twilight could discern exactly what type of precipitation was being called forth by these clouds…
And with a flash from her own alicorn, Twilight Sparkle called forth a shield of heat just over the rooftops of Ponyville, the hail dissolving into rain as it crossed the threshold of the hamlet’s airspace.
Flicking her head in another direction, Twilight transfigured the raindrops into beams of rainbow light that swirled about through the air and dazzled the eyes of everypony who beheld it.
“Almost as cool as Rainbow Dash…” breathed Scootaloo.
“I haven’t seen anything so cool before…” grinned Butter-And-Eggs.
“Nopony upstages The Great And Powerful Trixie! Nopony!”
The swirling prismatic beams shifted to crimson, veritably transforming into blades that set themselves upon the four Cutie Mark Crusaders, the sound of air being cleaved reaching all ears…
And the red light became pink glitter as it descended upon the heads of the young fillies, whose reactions shifted from abject terror to cheers of glee.
Twilight again snorted out her nostrils, drawing two lines in the earth with a cloven sapphire hoof.
“Leave them out of this, Trixie!” she growled. “You’re not playing fair!”
“Do not press the issue of fairness, Twilight Sparkle!” snarled the azure Unicorn. “You must surely know what it was like for Trixie now to be so humiliated by now. How does it feel to have your simple-minded admirers so far beyond your power? You must know! You must!”
“They’re not simple-minded admirers. They’re my friends!”
“‘Friends’? That is just a word ponies use when they want something from you that they cannot get themselves. It is a ruse, an illusion meant to mislead and misdirect. If they’re really your friends, Twilight Sparkle, why are they not protecting you?”
Twilight gnashed her teeth together.
“You… You don’t understand the first thing about friendship. All you think about is yourself!”
“And you don’t, Twilight Sparkle? You only have this paltry number of followers, and you keep them so close to yourself for fear of losing them. The Great And Powerful Trixie, however, has scores upon scores of adoring ponies to call her followers! And she does not need them to follow her constantly to remind herself that she has them. Everywhere she goes, ponies scream her name: Trixie! Trixie!”
“Where? I never heard of you before you came to Ponyville!”
Trixie looked absolutely outraged.
“You… have never heard of The Great And Powerful Trixie? Surely you have heard of the thwarted Parasprite invasion of Fillydelphia? The savage horde of spectral Buffalo who was driven away from Appleloosa? The banishment of the UFOs over Los Pegasus? All of them the immersive illusion shows of The Great And Powerful Trixie!”
Twilight blinked, suddenly struck. She did recall those stories, appearing as miniscule articles at the back of the Equestria Daily, written in a dismissive tone that spoke volumes of the credibility (or lack thereof) of each account of the events in question. Those were all the work of the same mare? Could they all be this mare before her…?
“That was all you?” Twilight gasped. “Of course I wouldn’t know that that was all you! They all had different names; you used different names each time!”
“A great magician’s identity need not be steady or stable. The greatest ponies to live use different names for each group of ponies who know them, so The Great And Powerful Trixie has followed their example!”
“Ya great dirty trickster!” shouted Applejack at the top of her voice… which carried surprisingly far for her size. “Ma cousin Braeburn almost went ta war with a local Buffalo tribe ‘cause a’ that stunt ya pulled, Sleight-A’-Hoof!”
Trixie laughed, a high insane sound.
“Then Trixie’s illusory Buffalo herd was a true success!”
“Ponies coulda died!”
“That is not Trixie’s problem! Ponies need to not take Trixie’s success so seriously!”
Twilight lit up her alicorn once more, spell matrices aligning within. Just how much of Trixie’s madness was a result of the fell artifact round her neck, and how much had she masked with a silver tongue beforehoof?
“It’s all clear to me now, Trixie,” Twilight hissed. “You’re completely insane. You’re imbalanced, you have identity issues, and you need help.” Her eyes narrowed. “This will be over quickly.”
Trixie yawned, seemingly unbothered by Twilight’s statement. Infuriated by Trixie’s dismissal, Twilight made to conjure up a straitjacket about the azure madmare, a magic inhibitor to place around her alicorn to (hopefully) hold back her mad magic antics…
Trixie flicked her head casually, a crimson beam blasting out at Rarity faster than Twilight could react, the alabaster Unicorn vanishing behind a flash of bright red light.
Sweetie Belle screamed her sister’s name in fright, and most everypony shielded their eyes from the blood-colored glow emanating from Rarity.
The glow faded into black smoke, and weak wheezing coughs reached their ears.
“This smoke…” cried a disconcertingly elderly voice. “Why in Equestria is this smoke irritating me so? I don’t… wait. What’s wrong with my voice?”
When the smoke cleared, it became all too clear why. Sweetie Belle screamed in unmasked terror alongside her three filly friends, Spike wailing in defeat and misery, the remainder of the band who’d accompanied Twilight letting out similar vocalizations of horror.
Rarity was no longer a young and beautiful mare, but old and decrepit, her muzzle creased by a veritable spider’s web of wrinkles, her slender legs bowing under her body’s weight. Her mane and the skirt of her tail had lost all of their color and almost all of their luster, an impossibly curly growth of hair coming from around her mouth and chin.
Twilight found herself short of breath, terror pushing everything else out of her heart.
“An age-changing spell…?” she gasped. “But… the only Unicorn who was ever powerful enough to do that was Star Swirl the Bearded, and…”
Trixie let out a triumphant laugh as Rarity looked at Twilight in disbelief bordering on horror.
“Then, does Twilight Sparkle concede the duel to The Great And Powerful Trixie?”
Looking at Rarity, who was inspecting her hooves and forelegs in rapturous despair, Twilight was filled with a resolve as she had never known before. The obnoxious azure Unicorn thought that she could rob the best years of a mare far better than her… That was unforgivable!
Twilight began to align spell matrices for the age-changing spell within her alicorn, her pink dwimmer shimmer lighting up around the now-aged alabaster Unicorn. The lavender Unicorn brought all that she knew of the age-changing spell to the forefront of her mind, preparing to return Rarity back to her normal age…
And she realized to her dread…
That her information was incomplete.
Most books she’d read regarding the age-changing spell gave no information at all regarding how to cast it, and the remainder gave only fragmented descriptions of the proper alignments to make in the spell matrices of the alicorn. Without complete information on how to cast the spell, then she could end up turning Rarity into a pile of ash, or reduce her age into the negatives, or worse…!
With a sigh, Twilight relaxed the matrices in her horn, her dwimmer shimmer fading from around Rarity.
“I give up. You win, Trixie.”
“What?” gaped Rainbow Dash, angry and indignant. “No, Twilight! You can’t give up!”
But Trixie cackled in mirth.
“Trixie is the most powerful Unicorn to ever live! She has redeemed herself of your humiliation, Twilight Sparkle, and you now have to honor your word! You must leave, Ponyville… FOREVER!”
The sky echoed with the roar of thunder at that last word.
Before Twilight could make a move, her discombobulated collection of friends darted between her and Trixie (Rarity, now being so decrepit, was the slowest).
“Twilight’s not going anywhere!” growled Rainbow Dash, her wingtips smacking against the ground as she struggled against being airborne.
“She’s our friend!” Fluttershy said, and Pinkie nodded vigorously in agreement.
“Ya can’ make us git outta th’ way!” snapped Applejack, pawing at the ground ineffectually.
“You did not win this Duel legitimately,” wheezed Rarity.
Twilight floated up behind her friends, wrapped up in a blood-red dwimmer shimmer that burned every inch of her body.
“Girls…?” Twilight gasped, and her friends turned towards her in fright.
“The Great And Powerful Trixie is justice,” Trixie said with a manic red light dancing in her eyes, “and she will see to it that Twilight Sparkle does not break her word!”
And so Twilight Sparkle found herself being flung bodily from Town Square with all the force of a Buffalo collision, her entire party pursuing the far-flung lavender Unicorn.
Reaching the northern outskirts of Ponyville, Twilight noted detachedly that that mysterious amulet must have gifted Trixie with some exact formulations of force, for she was due to land exactly beyond the edge of the farthest-out house on the outskirts of Ponyville. Trixie clearly did not intend for Twilight to have a safe landing, but even though she had lost the Duel, Twilight knew that such a forceful ejection was uncalled for.
Aligning spell matrices in her alicorn, Twilight felt herself become swept up in her own dwimmer shimmer, and she decelerated, slowing to a simple floating less than a hoof’s length over the knotted grass.
Her hodge-podge group of friends galloped up just as Twilight had righted herself.
“Twilight… Are you alright?” Fluttershy gasped.
Twilight brushed off one of her forelegs.
“I’m fine, but… that was kinda startling.”
‘That fling of yours was quite a fright,’ said Zecora, stepping forward to Twilight’s side. ‘It’s not something of which you should make light.’
Twilight nodded to her Zebra friend. “Point taken, Zecora.”
She turned back towards her friends in Ponyville… and her son.
“But… now that Trixie has had her fun, she can take off that amulet and let me back into―…”
But Twilight, who had been trotting back towards Ponyville as she spoke, found herself interrupted by her nose smacking into a great invisible something. It was exactly like the time when Pinkie Pie had turned angry and mute in Pundamilia and cast up an invisible wall to keep Twilight from comforting her.
As the lavender Unicorn put out a sapphire hoof to feel the wall before her, a great red-tinted sheen fell between her and the one standing closest to her: Spike, whose claw rested on the spot opposite Twilight’s hoof.
“Not so quickly, Twilight Sparkle!” Trixie hissed in victory, appearing in a puff of black smoke and a blast of crimson lightning over the heads of Twilight’s band. She hovered seemingly of her own accord, her star-spangled cape and hat billowing in a nonexistent wind. Queen Selena hung listlessly at her side, still looking rather distressed. “You are a tricky mare, false and wicked! The Great And Powerful Trixie has to take countermeasures to ensure that you never return to Ponyville! She claims that which you call yours, because you took what Trixie claimed as hers! Your all-time home of Ponyville now belongs to The Greatest And All-Powerful Trixie! Nopony can come in, and nopony can leave.”
No doubt there are anti-winking wards as well, Twilight thought. Looking to her left and her right, she saw that the translucent red shield stretched in a perfect circle around Ponyville. Judging by its circumference, it had to engulf even Sweet Apple Acres and Fluttershy’s cottage, so there was no way of seeking refuge in the home of one of her friends, regardless of whether or not they could presently reach those homes.
“You mean we’re trapped in here amidst all of the plebeians?” Prince Blueblood cried, a hoof flying to his forelock. “I’m… feeling quite faint.”
“Duke Prince Blueblood,” implored Rarity, raising a saggy foreleg towards the regal Unicorn, “it’s not quite so bad here in Ponyville as you think.”
“Yes it is; it’s why I left it behind ages ago,” interrupted Valencia Orange, earning sharp glares from her daughters and nieces.
Blueblood recoiled at the sight of Rarity’s aged appearance… and started to wave violently at her with a forehoof.
“Please, get back, bearded nag! What if your decrepity is contagious?”
Rarity’s jaw dropped at the shameless ignorance of her attempt at comfort. Surely he could not have forgotten what a ravishing mare she was before this… before this happened to her.
Her ears flat against her skull, Pinkie breathed heavily against the transparent bubble, fogging it up. Using the very tip of her left forehoof, she traced out a message to Twilight:
PLZ COME BACK SOON
Twilight gave a pitiful look to her pink friend.
“I’ll try, Pinkie,” she said sadly. “I’ll try…”
“Go, Twilight Sparkle!” boomed Trixie, the entire dome electrifying itself and forcing Twilight, Pinkie and Spike backwards from their respective sides of the shield. “Go, and never come back!”
As she and Zecora began to slowly trot away northwards from Ponyville, Twilight could not shake the disturbing feel of how the flap of Trixie’s cape in the wind was becoming altogether more like the flap of a pair of wings…
Spike reached plaintively towards the retreating shapes of his mother and Zecora the Zebra. Less than two hours ago, everything was so swell, even with Mom talking fearfully about rising tensions between Equestria and the Griffons. And now, a self-absorbed madmare with a weird magic necklace had locked down Ponyville and kicked his mom out and foalnapped the Queen of the Night…!
“There are going to be some big changes around here, now,” said Trixie sweetly, like poisoned honey. “You silly little ponies have spent too much time idolizing the wrong mare. Twilight Sparkle is a charlatan and a fraud, envious of truly talented Unicorns. And now…”
Trixie polished the amulet absentmindedly with a hoof, looking down at it with an enraptured expression. Its rubies reflected in her pupils.
“Now… Trixie is complete. Trixie is whole.”
Her eyes traveled up to the herd of ponies and Deer.
“You can’t keep us here against our will!” snarled Mosely Orange, moving between Trixie and his daughters alongside his wife.
“What will do you have to set against mine?” Trixie bore a wide grin that showed all of her teeth (had they always been that sharp?). “Every single one of you is nothing before The Great And Powerful Trixie, who has avenged the gross injustice of her humiliation upon Twilight Sparkle! Now, worship Trixie as she deserves! Worship her as you surely worshipped Twilight Sparkle!”
She presented a dark-purple hoof to the band, who looked back and forth towards each other concernedly.
“We will not worship you!” interjected a familiar and stately voice; the Mayor trotted purposefully towards Trixie, who whirled around to face the stout Earth Pony. “We won’t worship you, and we did not worship Twilight Sparkle! She is a mere supervisor and organizer of activities in Ponyville, one of the very best we’ve ever had, and she would not accept our worship even if we did.”
“Lies!” screamed Trixie. “She is a jealous mare, jealous of the abilities of others! So she surrounds herself with more talented ponies so that she herself might feel more fulfilled! And if somepony else threatens the attention she craves, then she will fight tooth and wall to ensure that that other pony is humiliated!”
“Are you sure you’re not talking about yourself?” barked Rainbow Dash, rolled onto her back with her wings beating at the air.
Trixie’s eyes widened madly, and her expression was inequinely furious as she rounded once more on Twilight’s party. Her eyes flashed a dangerous red the same as the rhomb-cut ruby in her amulet, so bright that the whites of her eyes seemed black. As her cape billowed like bat’s wings, a similar crimson flash could be seen in the swirling stars of her cutie mark.
“The Great And Powerful Trixie is nothing like that no-good two-timing Twilight Sparkle!” she snarled, a disconcerting echo to her words as if the very earth quaked at her whim. “Trixie is a beautiful and selfless mare, gifting so many ponies across Equestria with her magic shows! It is not Trixie who is wrong, but the world!”
As the blood-colored gleam in her eyes diminished, it seemed to those present that Trixie Lulamoon’s eyes were perhaps less purple and more blue than they had been − and the whites of her eyes had gone slightly gray. Those with a less head-on view of the mad Unicorn may have noticed that her cutie mark was no longer a bright blue, but stained with red.
Around her neck, the fur around the amulet had begun to pale…
“And once she is finished with Ponyville, Trixie will show the world that she is its greatest blessing!”
‘Do not despair, my dear Twilight,’ murmured Zecora. ‘Though this is far from the best NightMare Night, remember that eternally springs hope. Come on, chin up! Don’t be a dope.’
Twilight, her ears flat against her skull, looked up at the former Princess of the Zebras.
“I appreciate the pep rally, Zecora, but… I lost a Magic Duel. My friends have been mangled, and I couldn’t help them. I didn’t even get the chance to fix who I could, and…”
She looked over her shoulder at the distant red dome, framed against the South Equinus Mountains. It glimmered in the dusky sunlight, mocking her for her defeat.
“And now… my friends… my parents… Mom… Vati…”
Tears flowed down Twilight’s muzzle.
She pounded a forehoof against the earth beneath her.
“Though separated from home we be,” comforted Zecora in her native tongue, “many avenues of hope have we.”
“That’s it!” Twilight beamed. “Hold on to me, Zecora! I’m going to wink out!”
‘To where, may I ask?’ Zecora looked mildly puzzled. ‘How may it aid us in this task?’
“We’re going back to my home!” Twilight said with a smirk.
Trixie may have been powerful with the amulet, but she was still not very bright. She assumed that Twilight Sparkle was born and raised in Ponyville, when that was far from the truth.
As Twilight and Zecora vanished in a flash of bright pink light, falling through an infinitely compact singularity, Twilight Sparkle was filled with a sense of nostalgia.
Repairs to the Diurnann were swift, as there was very little in the way of actual damage dealt to the gates of Canterlot. It was the first true instance of damage being dealt to the Diurnann; not even the violence of NightMare Moon’s insurrection a meggrossium before had reached Canterlot, remaining entirely within and around the palace of Concordia Arbos. There were still scaffolds to be taken down, however, when Twilight Sparkle and a stately Zebra appeared in a pink flash before the Diurnann.
“Twilight Sparkle?” asked one of the guards at the gate.
“What brings you to Canterlot?” asked his compatriot. “And where is Queen Selena?”
“There’s no time to explain,” Twilight answered. “Zecora and I must see Queen Celestia immediately!”
The pair of Royal Guards looked at one another curiously, before providing the secret combination-knock upon the Diurnann gates.
For you see, there is an ancient enchantment upon the Diurnann that prevents any force from opening it forcefully from beyond the capital. The gates can only be opened from within and only by those who wear armor which is enchanted to match the Diurnann. There was no way for NightMare Moon to break this enchantment, so she forced new enchantments over it to transform it into her Moongate, enchantments that had since been broken.
The dual gates of Sun and Moon swung inward, granted Twilight and Zecora entry into the city. The pair of them wasted no further words; they began to gallop straight down the main thoroughfare, beelining for Mane Square.
The streets of Canterlot were far more bustling than they had been under NightMare Moon, and Twilight could avouch for that despite having only truly been inside “Endymion” once. The ivory minarets peaked with gold shone gaily in the fading sunlight and rising moonlight, as though celebrating in the recent return of the Queen of the Night. Wealthy ponies trotted every which way on perfectly paved walkways, with the same elaborate mane- and skirtstyles and haute couture fashion as before that fateful Summer Sun Celebration. The bon vivants and boulevardiers milled this way and that, quite unaware that anything terrible had happened down in Ponyville…
Quite unaware that one of their two Queens was in the hooves of a madmare.
Twilight and Zecora skidded to a halt at the beckoning of a large Unicorn stallion in front of a patrolling squad of Royal Guards. The armor he wore was gold, and marked on his flanks by a six-pointed star.
There was only one pony he could be.
“What are you doing back in Canterlot?” he asked her coolly. “Aren’t you supposed to be transforming NightMare Night down in Ponyville?”
“I am here to see Queen Celestia on a matter most urgent,” pressed Twilight in a level, clinical tone. “Now, if you’ll excuse me and my companion, Captain…”
But the Captain stood in her path.
“One last thing, Sparkle:” he said stoically. Then he offered an exact imitation of a smile. “Good job with NightMare Moon.”
Twilight did not allow herself to feel any joy from the Captain’s compliment.
“I thank you, Captain of the Royal Guard.”
And she and Zecora were off down the thoroughfare once more without any more words exchanged.
‘Twilight Sparkle, there is a mystery I must unmask, regarding the Captain,’ Zecora said as they neared Mane Square and the Royal Castle. ‘May I ask?’
“Yes,” Twilight replied shortly, her forelock shadowing her eyes. “Can’t say if I’ll answer, though.”
Mane Square had been returned to its former decorum, with the familiar banners and tapestries presenting the Sun and Moon, though with one key difference: where once Queen Celestia stood alone, now stood together with a deep-blue Alicorn who could only represent Queen Selena. Similarly, the statue in the center of Mane Square was no more an obsidian statue of NightMare Moon, nor a golden effigy of Queen Celestia in solitude, but a pair of cantering gold and silver statues, respectively Queens Celestia and Selena. Already were there families with young fillies and colts who were showing their children the newly returned Queen, attempting convince themselves more than their children that NightMare Moon was now nothing more than just a nightmare.
The Towers of the Sun and Moon gleamed in the light of the sunset, freed from the shackles of Nox Aeternum, of the Tower of Everlasting Night. The Tower of the Sun, Sol Invictus, shone seemingly of its own light, gold and proud, long and straight with narrow windows. Its counterpart the Tower of the Moon, Selûne Ferratus, was crooked and wicked, seeming to repel light from itself as it never had during Queen Celestia’s sole reign. Long had it been since the Tower of the Moon felt the presence of its greatest inhabitant, and with the return of Selena Artemis di Equestria, it seemed to be celebrating in the return of its dark master.
‘Lothe do I find such darkness to mine eye,’ mused Zecora aloud, the pair slowing to a trot. ‘Are you sure that your Selena’s not a bad guy?’
Twilight swiveled purple eyes to face the Kwato.
“I’m sure of it,” she replied. “Dark magic is not evil magic, not any more than light magic is good magic. Both light and dark have good and evil application, and both branches of magic have forbidden branches of their own. Queen Selena is a master of dark magic, which Queen Celestia has also dabbled in in the grossenturies since NightMare Moon was banished; I have already demonstrated an aptitude for dark magic myself. As for forbidden magic…” Twilight and Zecora paused; they had reached the main gates of the Royal Castle. “That is not something I’d like to know my aptitude for.”
After being admitted into the main castle, Twilight allowed herself a few moments more to marvel at the tapestries depicting the Queens of Equestria meeting with foreign dignitaries across the years since the foundation of the Diarchy, taking in everything that had been missing from Equestria for a dozen grossenturies…
And stepping out onto the purple carpet.
In time, with Zecora close at her heels, Twilight came to the large and ornate double-doors leading into what was once Queen Celestia’s throne room, and which was now the shared audience chamber of both Queens.
‘Twilight Sparkle, you are the Equestrian here,’ queried Zecora. ‘Why did we not to the Queen directly appear?’
“Because,” Twilight explained logically, “Queen Celestia is a very busy mare. She has a great many pressing matters on her hooves, and she should have the right to deny somepony entry.”
Without another word, Twilight brought a hoof up to the door and knocked thrice.
“Enter,” came Queen Celestia’s melodious voice, and the double-doors parted in a glimmer of a pale-golden dwimmer shimmer.
Dim sunlight passed through the stained glass windows to the right, sending a mosaic of burnt colors all along the regally accented carpet leading down the chamber. On both the eastern and western walls of the chamber, behind the rows of benches for the varying courts, and between pillars of solid white marble, there could be seen windows of colored glass depicting the triumphs of Equestria from the year of its foundation. Twilight shuddered as she passed one depicting a creature that almost completely resembled that chaotic statue in the Sculpture Garden, hoisting a pony of each race with puppet strings over a pit of fire. The ponies looked to be in agony, and were depicted very realistically; Twilight could almost hear them screaming. One discrepancy Twilight could note, though, was that its right forelimb resembled an equine leg rather than a lion’s paw. Dismissing this as the work of an overheated stained-glass artist, an abstract depiction of the Age of Discord, Twilight proceeded further down the hall to the throne.
The throne itself had changed as well. While it had previously been a single golden seat coated with a royal-mauve mink, it was now for all intents and purposes a giant scale. On the left, where the Sun would rise, Queen Celestia’s golden throne, emblazoned by her cutie mark of the Sun, sat upon the eastern scale. On the right, where the Sun would set, sat Queen Selena’s silver throne, a crescent moon emblem set above a deep-purple seat. Even as the Sun’s last light left the room, Celestia’s gilded throne slowly lowered while Selena’s argent throne rose up.
Queen Celestia, radiant with her aura of mane and tail-skirt, looked down at the approaching pony and Zebra with kindness marred by curiosity.
“And so the Night Court returns to session…” murmured Steward Kibitz, a pale Unicorn with a bushy mustache that completely covered his mouth. He levitated a quill and parchment in his dwimmer shimmer, and looked down to Twilight Sparkle and Zecora from the dais. “And you two are the only ones in attendance. That is very unusual for NightMare Night. I did not have you penned down, Twilight Sparkle.”
“This is an emergency, Uncle Kibitz,” Twilight said shortly, before turning her attention to Queen Celestia.
“Twilight, what brings you here to Canterlot on such a fine NightMare Night?” she asked curiously. “Is Selena adjusting well to Ponyville now that her Equus has improved?”
“Queen Selena’s been foalnapped,” Twilight said too quickly, her heart pounding in her chest. Now that she was here before the Queen, the full failure of her attempt at rescuing Queen Selena hit her with the force of a cannonball. Queen Celestia would not take it too kindly that Twilight had so easily let her sister slip out of her hooves, and she would then banish Twilight, or imprison her, or imprison her somewhere where she was banished to, or send her back to magic kindergarten, or…!
The lavender Unicorn in question shook her head vigorously at being addressed. Queen Celestia had stepped down from her lowered throne, past Kibitz who looked at her with mildly curious alarm.
“Twilight, tell me how it happened,” Queen Celestia said. Her expression was the last thing that Twilight expected to see on the regal Alicorn. Rather than anger or fury or even disappointment as she’d been expecting, she saw only fear. Raw, undiluted fear was twisting her mentor’s features, drawing back the corners of her mouth and creasing her brow. Her eyes met Twilight’s.
“Twilight, please. Tell me what happened to my little sister.”
Queen Selena floated in a cage of crimson dwimmer-lightning before the Gazebo, the Mayor of Ponyville kept in an iron-wrought cage hanging beside her. The pair of them traded expressions of fear. Dozens of ponies stood around the Town Hall (or, in the case of several Pegasi, flew), wondering as one what to make of the sight before them: a familiar azure Unicorn with a purple wizard’s hat and cape, wearing a strange silver amulet about her neck. Her indigo eyes flashed red as she glanced agitatedly about. Her voice, magically amplified, carried to every corner of the captive Ponyville at whatever pitch she decided to speak in.
“The Great And Powerful Trixie has come to relieve you Ponyvillagers of the disease of democracy!” she hissed gleefully. “It is but a trick of the abhorrent Twilight Sparkle to get other ponies to adore her! How low of her, as usual. You will, every one of you, adore The Great And Powerful Trixie! It is what everypony in Ponyville was born to do!”
A crack of thunder from the dwimmer-dome overhead, and a crimson lightning bolt struck the pinnacle of the Gazebo. There were a number of screams, and airborne Pegasi alighted abruptly upon the ground, the odd rabbit or possum who were within Ponyville limits at the time of the sealing scampering for cover.
“This ain’ right,” mused Applejack, watching the announcement from atop her little sister’s bouncy red forelock. “This just can’ be right at all…”
“It’s gunna be alright, AJ,” replied Apple Bloom, wearing a smile somewhat dissonant with the surroundings. “Miss Twilight’s gunna be back lickety-split an’ fix ev’rything up, jus’ like she did with NightMare Moon!”
“Ah sure hope yer right, Sugar-foot,” Applejack said, looking sadly back at her friends. Pinkie Pie, unable to make so much as a titter and clearly becoming unhinged by her inability to speak; Rainbow Dash, actually struggling against the urge to soar as her wings beat themselves into a frenzy on her belly; and Rarity…
Rarity… she was left an empty shell of her old self… or rather, her young self. But still, Applejack had to respect the alabaster Unicorn. She did not seek any sympathy or aid in her regard, instead extending a wrinkled helping hoof to anypony that she could. Unfortunately, the primary pony whom she did this for, Duke Prince Blueblood, recoiled in horror, nearly retching at her agedness, before seeking the sanctuary of the Oranges who all too eagerly obliged.
Applejack couldn’t help but to smile. Sunflower and Babs were making sassy faces back and forth at each other behind their parents’ backs, mocking how haute-couture their parents pretended to be. The puny palomino could only sympathize; that slip of Aunt Blenheim’s less than an hour before was not the only time that Applejack had heard her natural accent. Every time it had slipped out when she had lived with her aunt and uncle up at the Big Orange − usually related to some bizarre food craving she had received by dint of her pregnancy with the foal who would be Babs − she made Applejack swear to never speak of it whenever they had upper-class company over… or any company, for that matter.
Still, she thought, it’s easy fer Apple Bloom ta not git too worked up about it. She gits ta be th’ big sis fer a change, Ah s’ppose. This can’ be much better’n when th’ Shadowbolts came down on Ponyville, ‘cept… Trixie acts more like kin t’a blowhard th’n anythin’ else.
As Trixie screamed out, “Now, kneel before The Almighty And Legendary Equivoque! KNEEL!”, as the freshly retitled Unicorn sent forth bolts of crimson lightning from alicorn and eyes and mouth, as the denizens of Ponyville lowered to their knees one at a time out of fear for their lives…
Applejack’s thoughts and eyes went up to the distant white metropolis halfway up the face of Alicorn’s Peak.
Ah hope that Queen Celestia’s got a quick fix fer all a’ dis, Twi, she thought morosely.
“I won’t bow down to you, you Unicorn poser!” snapped a young filly’s voice. It was Diamond Tiara, standing at the head of her new little posse.
Trixie (or rather, Equivoque) narrowed her eyes at the small pink filly, a demented grin crossing her face.
“You dare to cross The Almighty And Legendary Equivoque?” she snarled. “Then you do so at your own peril!”
A blinding blood-red beam shot out from her alicorn, directly at the tiara-wearing filly. She and her friends screamed, ducking and covering their heads. Nopony, stallion, mare or foal, made a move to block the blast…
Except for two.
When the momentary blindness passed, everypony stared in shock at the sight. Diamond Tiara was not struck, but two ponies who had jumped between her and the blast had: her father Filthy Stinkin’ Rich, and her old friend Silver Spoon.
The pair had been respectively turned into gold and silver statues, their expressions frozen in shock.
Diamond Tiara and her five-pony posse stared blankly at the statues…
Then Diamond Tiara laughed.
“They look just like statues of blank flanks! I like you, Trixie! You’re a credit to the Unicorn race!”
Trixie sneered at the filly, “You think more highly of yourself than others, and you don’t think of Equivoque as greater than yourself? You deserve no less than they do!”
And the statues of Filthy Rich and Silver Spoon flowed and twisted like metal, the gold forming into a cage not unlike the one which caged the Mayor of Ponyville, while the silver condensed into a very large and ornate key. A crimson dwimmer-shimmer alit around Diamond Tiara − “Hey, let me go!” − and the spoiled filly was flung into the golden cage, the silver key sliding into the lock and forming a padlock.
Diamond Tiara took a few moments to set her namesake properly upon her head as her gilded prison was levitated to the opposite side of Queen Selena from the Mayor, before she furiously wrapped her forelegs around the bars of her cage and began to shake them.
“Daddy deserved this, you know, for trying to take away my allowance! My allowance! And Silvie didn’t stay my friend when Daddy was being mean to me! But I don’t deserve this! I’m the top filly in town! Let me out! Let me out!”
Selena asked the Mayor, ‘‘Tis an ill choice, whether the Unicorn or the foal doth rattle one’s ears more, ist it not, Constable?’
The Mayor only nodded, her pince-museau glasses askew, as Equivoque turned her attention back to the townsfolk.
“And so, with that nuisance out of the way…”
Crimson lightning filled the dwimmer-dome.
And Ponyville obeyed, but not entirely out of fear, although that was still a major deciding factor.
You see, Diamond Tiara continued to fling away any sympathy that she may have had, and nopony wanted to be imprisoned anywhere near to her cacophonous complaints.
“I thought that I’d sensed something amiss in the Valley,” Celestia finally said, flapping her wings as she ascended the shelves of the Royal Canterlot Archives, “but I assumed that it was an aura of Selly’s projected as a part of the celebrations. Now I know that I misjudged that presentiment.”
“So,” Twilight said haltingly, “you’re not mad at me?”
Queen Celestia looked down from her position nearly two-dozen hooves over Twilight’s head. She smiled sadly down at the lavender Unicorn.
“I could never be angry at you, Twilight,” she said softly, her voice carrying through the entire chamber nonetheless, “nor am I disappointed. The only thing which weighs on my mind now is a question: How? Even with her apparent weakness, Selena should be able to withstand any attempts at foalnapping. You said that this Trixie Lulamoon bore a peculiar amulet?”
Twilight nodded up at her mentor, who had continued to browse through the books in this library chamber.
This is where Crescent Rose died, she thought grimly. Pushing this dark train of thought away, Twilight brought herself back to the present and spoke,
“I did. It was… it was silver, with a rhomb-cut ruby set into its middle. And it had a shape like a Unicorn’s head in profile near the top, and wings made from more rubies and silver.”
Queen Celestia’s ears swiveled at the back of her crown. Though Twilight could not see her teacher’s face clearly, the swan-white Alicorn’s pupils constricted.
It can’t be… she thought, horrified. ‘That’ can’t have returned, could ‘it’ have?
Her pale-gold dwimmer shimmer lighting up around the object of her search, Queen Celestia let the book − Fell Artifacts From Another World − fall open at the spine. With the most miniscule flicks of her magic, the most precise number of pages passed by under her eyes until she reached the defining image of her fear.
“The Alicorn Amulet.”
‘Queen Celestia, could you repeat?’ called up Zecora. ‘We cannot hear you so far below your feet.’
Starting slightly − she had not quite forgotten that she had company − Queen Celestia stretched out her wings and ceased flapping, disallowing her flight so that she may glide down, Fell Artifacts in her dwimmer shimmer. Twilight and Zecora awaited her anxiously at the base of the high shelf.
Queen Celestia alighted upon the checkerboard-tiled floor, setting Fell Artifacts upon the nearest table. As Twilight set her eyes upon the page which Celestia had turned to, she saw a rough sketch of a very familiar amulet.
“‘The Alicorn Amulet’,” Queen Celestia read, “‘is a mysterious artifact of staggering power and unknown origin. Anyone who wears the Alicorn Amulet will be granted absolute power, with complete dominion over the world and all makes it. However’…” Queen Celestia hesitated for a moment, and Twilight gave her teacher a fearful glance. The white Alicorn wore a wide-eyed look, her own teeth bared in fear. “‘However, with this great power comes great insanity, and the pony who wears it is eventually’… ‘is eventually consumed by the Amulet.’”
“What…? ‘Consumed’?” Twilight gasped.
“I have never seen it happen before,” answered Celestia, “but I have heard it described to me by numerous witnesses. It is… not pleasant. Do you know how long that this Trixie Lulamoon has worn the Alicorn Amulet?”
Twilight shook her head, and Queen Celestia bowed hers slightly.
“I see. Then we have no idea how far it may have progressed. This is ill news, and my little sister…”
Twilight blinked in shock. Was Queen Celestia crying? Even having seen the Alicorn monarch weep as she did at the touch of the newly redeemed Queen Selena, Twilight Sparkle still could not fathom her mentor allowing herself such weakness. Within moments, though, Celestia had shaken her head slowly, her aurora of a mane barely swishing at all as she did so, her tears drying in an instant.
“But Selly is strong, even now, and she grows stronger every instant. She has always been somewhat of an enigma, honestly, ever since we were young; I have never had a full reckoning of how strong her magic was. But she was always so crafty with her magic, moreso even than I. But this Amulet…
“The earliest reports of a necklace matching the Alicorn Amulet came about less than a grossentury after NightMare Moon was banished. A young Earth Pony stallion, envious of Unicorn magic, sought to use it to impress the Unicorns on my council. Though he succeeded, even earning himself a position on the council… the Amulet had an ill effect on him, though it took years to manifest. His coat paled, and his eyes grew to an icy blue. His body became frail, and eventually, during one meeting of the council…”
But Queen Celestia turned her head aside and said nothing more.
“Do you know if he’s the one who made the Alicorn Amulet, Your Majesty?” Twilight asked, lifting a hoof inquisitively.
Celestia glanced at her lavender student with sad eyes.
“I do not believe that was the case, but it is possible. However, I do not know who made the Alicorn Amulet; nopony and nobody does. It arose suddenly that one day, disappeared for scores of years, and reemerged in the hooves of another, this one a Unicorn. She succumbed to the Alicorn Amulet as well, though about a year more quickly than the first victim.”
‘If this second pony succumbed that much faster, then was her health too weak to outlast her?’
At Zecora’s question, Queen Celestia looked up to the high vaulted ceiling.
“I do not recall. I do not imagine that that would have mattered when set against the Alicorn Amulet. You’ll understand as I tell you more. You must realize, however, that we have never had our hooves on the Amulet for study, so we have no firm idea of how the Alicorn Amulet works. We do have a firm idea, though, and it holds up against more contemporary appearances of the Alicorn Amulet.
It does not, as most parasitic artifacts do, cause any ill effects to the body of the wearer, but the soul. The fell magic of the Amulet ensnares a pony’s soul, slowly enveloping it with its own eldritch essence. The absolute power it grants, it would seem, to distract the pony it wears from the fact that it is slowly eating their soul alive. And, once it has sated itself upon the soul… The pony’s body vanishes, in an instant.”
Twilight’s ears fell limp against her skull. What sort of dreadful artifact was it that Trixie Lulamoon had unearthed? Who was it that had sold it to her, and why? Did they even know what it was that they were peddling to the azure Unicorn in question? Of all the questions swirling around in her mind, though, only one made its way to her mouth:
“Why has something so terrible not been allocated to the Crystal Mountains?” she gasped.
“The Amulet always disappears very quickly after it has consumed a pony, under circumstances that elude reason. As such, we only have the most base knowledge of how the Amulet functions, and none whatsoever on who or what created it. But we do know one thing: It is getting stronger.”
Twilight’s heart pounded against her ribs.
“‘Stronger’ how exactly, Your Majesty?”
Celestia opened her right wing in an inviting gesture, giving Twilight a maternal smile. Accepting the gesture, Twilight allowed herself to be pulled in by the Alicorn’s soft feathers into her warm side. Judging by Zecora’s movement, Celestia had offered the same gesture with her left wing. Smiling, Twilight nuzzled up to the Queen’s side.
“You see, Twilight,” said Celestia, her voice thrumming in Twilight’s left ear as she felt the Queen’s voice reverberate in her chest, “the Alicorn Amulet took several years for its effects to become obvious in its first victim. Its next few victims, may their souls find peace in Elysium, lasted similar lengths of time. However, it became apparent as time passed that the Amulet’s victims were dying sooner and sooner after having first put it on. Its most recent victim, an Earth Pony mare named Sunbeam, only wore it for a week before it claimed her. She was lost only two-dozen years ago. And now, the Alicorn Amulet has ensnared Trixie Lulamoon… or, if our intel is correct, a horse of a different name, though perhaps of not of a different color.”
As if on cue, a mare of the Royal Guard approached from the entryway, holding several files under one of her wings. She snapped to a salute upon reaching Queen Celestia.
“At ease, Grey Guard,” the white Alicorn said gently.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said, holding out the files. “I have compiled the dossiers that you’ve requested. Would you like to read them here?”
“Yes, Grey Guard, thank you,” replied Queen Celestia kindly, the folders lighting up in her dwimmer shimmer and settling down upon the table besides Fell Artifacts. Parting from her pupil and the rhyming Zebra, Queen Celestia trotted up to the table with the latter two quick on her heels.
Opening the top folder exposed a multi-page report on a Unicorn mare named Sleight-of-Hoof who had suddenly appeared in Appleloosa at the tail-end of a herd of pink-glowing Buffalo who stampeded up and down the main thoroughfare before being banished to Tartarus by the mare in question. Clipped to the report was a rough sketch of Sleight-of-Hoof, evidently based off of the description by witnesses. She looked uncannily like Trixie.
Wordlessly passing through each of the files, they read of the exploits of identical mares to Trixie Lulamoon and Sleight-of-Hoof, named Smoke-and-Mirrors and Hocus-Pocus and Presty Changey, each one as outlandish and as fishy as the next.
And each one, accompanied by a witness sketch of a mare who bore an extreme resemblance to the self-proclaimed Great And Powerful Trixie.
“These all happened over the past seven years,” Twilight pondered aloud. “And none of them were concurrent with another, so these ‘mares’ are definitely quite possibly the same mare.”
“More than ‘quite possibly’, my dear student,” answered the Queen. “I don’t think that there is any doubt that these mares are all one in the same.”
Twilight and Zecora nodded.
“But what I would like to know is: Why? Why would a mare with such a high opinion of herself constantly change her name? And look at this: ‘The Amazing Hocus-Pocus commands you, alien forces: Leave these ponies be!’. Speaking in the third-pony, just like Trixie.”
‘I will admit, it makes no sense,’ added Zecora, ‘for a mare of who holds such self-importance. Does she know that what she does is wrong? She will not be celebrated in book or in song.’
“I think that, perhaps, she changes names as often as she does in order to evade authorities who may or may not have seen through her acts,” commented Celestia. “There are many ponies who look exactly alike. Perhaps our ‘Trixie’ is hoping that nopony will assume her to be the same pony, or… perhaps she was trying to find some trick that will impress the most ponies, be it alien threats or thaumaturgical…?”
Twilight nodded in a vaguely absentminded fashion. It made a certain amount of sense, but… another question weighed on her mind.
“I would hope that Trixie is not like this,” continued Queen Celestia. :There are some out there who do not understand the kindness of others, thinking them to be acts of folly. They cannot see the world outside of themselves, cannot fathom the idea that ponies would think differently from them. Your assessment of this Trixie seems to verge more towards this, Twilight, but I would hope that, deep down, Trixie Lulamoon is a kind and thoughtful mare.”
“Queen Celestia,” Twilight interjected, “you mentioned that the first victim of the Alicorn Amulet was an Earth Pony. And the second was a Unicorn. Tell me: Does the Amulet’s trail of victims follow the path of pony races?”
Celestia gave her protégée a curious look, before smiling.
“You are a very bright Unicorn, Twilight Sparkle,” she said, and Twilight found herself swelling in pride at the praise of her beloved mentor in spite of the situation. “Yes, indeed, the Alicorn Amulet does indeed follow the cycle of the three pony races, from Earth Pony to Unicorn to Pegasus before repeating itself. Much like the cycle of the Alicorn of Love, actually. But…” The Queen’s features darkened. “The cycle of the Alicorn Amulet troubles me greatly, because of the unbroken pattern of its cycle. It implies that there is a calculating mind behind its movements.”
Twilight felt a chill despite the fact that the Archives were rather toasty to counter the frosty month-of-Hurricane weather.
“But… what sort of pony would make use of something like the Alicorn Amulet?”
Celestia looked ominously down at Fell Artifacts, beside the dossiers for Trixie’s alter-egos.
“I don’t even know if we’re dealing with a pony who’s in control of the Alicorn Amulet…”
‘Well, now we’ve researched, and now we know,’ interrupted Zecora, looking surprisingly agitated. ‘When can we set out and make that mare go?’
Queen Celestia looked to Zecora.
“O daughter of my old friend Malkia… It will not be that simple. I have taken a geis myself, many many moons ago. I made an unbreakable vow to never bring harm to another pony.”
“But, Queen Celestia,” Twilight said, confused. “You’re such a kind and gentle ruler. Why would you need to subject yourself to a geis to force yourself to be what you are?”
The regal white Alicorn bowed her head, her ears actually falling flat as her eyes went dark.
“You don’t know what the Age of Discord was like, Twilight, the era in which I was born. Not even I have a true reckoning of how much time passed in that period when discord reigned. It may have been only a few douzaides, or grossenturies, or maybe even meggrossiums or giggrossiads. I have no idea. Nopony does; no hoof- or dwimmer-written accounts have survived the Age of Discord. And in all of that endless madness… I have stained my hooves in blood, and I can never wash them clean.” She looked down at her forehooves, her teeth bared and her eyes shining with unshed tears. “This geis is my penitence, my desire to never see another pony suffer in my reign.
“My power, Twilight… you don’t understand my power. For all of your brilliance, you can’t comprehend how much power I have compared to you. The flames of the Sun flow through my veins, and it is my sole purpose to move the Sun through the cosmos. My magic is not suited to such fine work as combat, especially with so many witnesses as would be in Ponyville. Were I to descend onto Ponyville, with all the might of the Sun at my beck and call, I could fell the Alicorn Amulet… but at the cost of every life in the Saddle Valley. Tell me, Twilight: Is my magic so reliable a tool in these circumstances?”
Twilight gaped at her Queen. In all the time that she had known her, Twilight had never been privy to such suffering on the part of the Alicorn. She had thought of herself as something of a daughter to Queen Celestia, for she saw the Queen as something of a mother (which, to be fair, was to be expected of most ponies both in Equestria and abroad), and the notion that this was not something that Queen Celestia had deigned to share with her was…
Actually, now that Twilight Sparkle thought more deeply on it, it was exactly what she should have expected of the Queen. Celestia despised more than anything the suffering of ponykind, even more so than poorly brewed tea. Twilight ordinarily despised the withholding of knowledge more than anything, but… the Age of Discord held such a fell ring to it that even Twilight was loath to seek further research into it. And though Twilight knew Queen Celestia to be far more powerful than she could ever be, she knew not the thin line that the Queen walked to ensure that flaming nuclear death did not engulf all of her little ponies.
“I see…” Twilight sighed. “I understand, Your Majesty. I will see to this myself.”
Queen Celestia smiled down at Twilight.
“For your friends?”
Twilight nodded solemnly.
“Your heart shines so much brighter than it had three months ago, my most faithful student. I knew that you had the great potential of a grand friend. But I see distress in your eyes; what ill fate has Trixie foisted upon your loved ones?”
Twilight fought back tears.
“She shrunk Applejack to the size of a Breezie, she stole Pinkie Pie’s voice, she misplaced Rainbow Dash’s wings onto her belly and made it so that she can’t stop flapping them, and Rarity… I tried to reverse the spell, but… I never realized how incomplete our surviving records of age-changing spells are. I didn’t want to do anything that could hurt Rarity more than she already is. You see, Rarity’s…”
She could not stem the flow of fear down her cheeks.
“Rarity is dying.”
Rarity let out a rough fit of coughing as Fluttershy pulled a blanket up over her.
“Thank you kindly for affording me houseroom, Fluttershy darling,” she gasped. “I… I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”
“Oh, think nothing of it, Rarity,” replied the kindly Pegasus. “I just couldn’t leave you out there, with the constant demands of your darling Opal. And I know how much you despise your facial hair, so…”
Rarity gave a weak smile which shone all the more brightly on her freshly shaven muzzle, “Thank you, darling.”
“Is Rarity gonna be alright, Fluttershy?” Sweetie Belle asked fearfully, standing by the bed with her saddle-pack set beside it.
Fluttershy turned to the Unicorn filly with a soft smile.
“Oh, umm… of course she’ll be alright. Twilight will handle everything, and you’ll have your big sister back soon. Just you wait. You’ll see.”
Leaving the sisters to her bed-chamber, Fluttershy descended the stairs, taking care as usual to avoid trodding on mice and rats and voles and hamsters and gerbils and squirrels and porcupines and hedgehogs who she gave houseroom to and who she called friends.
Who is old grey mare, Shy-Wings? she heard them whispering to her.
“She is good friend of mine,” Fluttershy explained to them in hedgerow, the common dialect of most brush-animals. “Terrible she-pony makes her old with horn-glow. She stay with us for while.”
Reaching the ground-floor, Fluttershy looked to her darling Rainbow Dash, freshly tied down to a couch by her other houseguest: Spike the Dragon-cub.
“Fluttershy,” Spike said, looking lost and sounding like all the world was gone to him. “How’s Rarity? Is she… gonna be alright?”
“Oh. She’s… of course she’ll be alright. Just you wait. You’ll see.”
“Yeah,” added Rainbow Dash, her wings beating against thin air and causing her voice to reverberate comically. “Twilight’s gonna handle everything, isn’t she, Fluttershy?”
“Oh, yes she is, Dashie,” answered Fluttershy, a rat poking out of her mane and nibbling at a bit of her forelock.
“Hey Spike, why don’tcha run on upstairs and go be a pep squad for Rarity?” said the cerulean Pegasus. “I kinda wanna cuddle with Flutters here.”
Spike flushed, “Eugh, girl cooties!” and darted up the stairs faster than one could say Beware pony shadows near peryton eyries.
Fluttershy gazed up the stairs at Spike hopping from one step to the next, altogether more awkwardly stepping around Fluttershy’s many animal friends than the Pegasus herself.
“He really is just like a pony child, isn’t he?” she mused.
“Flutters, c’mere,” breathed Rainbow Dash, beckoning with a forehoof and a slightly cross expression. Slightly put off by this curious display by her special somepony, Fluttershy approached slowly. As soon as she was within reaching distance, Rainbow Dash threw her hoof around the back of Fluttershy’s neck and pulled her in close. Angel Bunny poked his head out from under the couch, glowering up at the cerulean Pegasus.
“You’d be a terrible Element of Honesty, Flutters,” she hissed into the landlocked Pegasus’s ear. “Everypony knows that Rarity’s not taking well to her oldness at all. You know it, and Twilight has to know it. Why don’t you let Spike know it?”
“I…” Fluttershy did not know what to say. Rainbow Dash was very dear to her, but the cerulean Pegasus was all too canny about when somepony was being even remotely false in her presence. “I… don’t want to break his little heart. You know how much he looks up to her.”
“All the more reason to let him know!” snapped Rainbow Dash. Catching herself, her eyes swiveled up to the ceiling, her ears twitching as she listened for something up above. Fluttershy followed suit, but neither of them seemed to hear anything untoward happening overhead. Their eyes met once more, cerise on cyan, and Rainbow Dash continued at a lower volume, “I mean, he’s crushing on her so hard, right? All the more reason for him to know that if Twilight doesn’t fix this soon, Rarity will die!”
Fluttershy felt an arrow pierce her heart at Rainbow Dash’s last three words. The notion that Rarity would be robbed of her so suddenly…
“Dashie…” Tears pricked at Fluttershy’s eyes. “I… I don’t want to lose her…!”
Rainbow Dash did a double-take. She hadn’t realized what she said until after she’d said it, and now she had gone and gotten her fiancée so shaken and tearful. Cursing her restless wings, she twisted her upper body towards Fluttershy and gave the meek mare a soft hug.
“I’m sorry, Flutters. I just let it slip out. I guess… I guess there really is a time and a place for the truth.”
Fluttershy’s tears fell wet and warm against Rainbow’s shoulder, wracking sobs shaking the both of them.
“Is Rarity really… really going to die, Dashie…?”
Rainbow Dash awkwardly rubbed a forehoof along Fluttershy’s back. Angel Bunny looked torn between comforting his owner and glowering at Rainbow Dash for doing the comforting.
“I don’t know,” the rainbow-maned mare finally answered. “I mean, I hope that Twilight makes it back with Celestia and the two of them put Trixie in her place, but… I don’t know how long Rarity has. I’m a weather-pony, not a doctor. But for now… all we can really do is hope, Flutters.”
“I’ve known her, for as long as we’ve been here. She’s one of the only ponies I met here… who doesn’t terrify me. She knows that I don’t like loud things, and… and…”
“Easy there, Fluttershy. Just think about happy things, like the day you got your cutie mark. I think about my cutie-mark-day whenever I feel down!”
Fluttershy cast her mind back to that day, that fateful day.
“It was the same day you got yours,” she said slowly, a graceful smile crossing her muzzle. “I was there at the starting line, and you stood there against Hoops, Dumbbell and Score. They… you made them swear that if you beat them at a race, that they’d leave me alone. I… After you guys all raced off, it was just me down there, at the starting line drawn in the grass. All the animals started to crowd around me. They didn’t quite know what was going on, but they knew that I was so distressed. I didn’t want you to hurt yourself for me, Dashie.”
Rainbow Dash scoffed, “What kinda pony would I have been to let those dock-heads have their way with you? I may not be the Element of Loyalty, but I’m not gonna leave any of my friends hangin’!”
“So, all of the animals were closing in around me, and I was just… overcome with wonder. I found myself alone with all these wonderful animals, squirrels and bunnies and birds and bees… And then you did your Rainboom. Before I knew it, all of the animals were running afraid, trying to find shelter; they must have thought that it was a storm. But I knew differently, when I saw the rainbow lights in the sky…
“I spent the next several minutes uncovering all of the animals, in the brush, in the treetops, in the burrows, letting them know that it was safe to come out, that there was nothing to be afraid of. And I knew. I knew that this was what I loved more than anything else. I knew exactly where each animal would run, and I knew exactly what to say to comfort them. I knew… I knew how to communicate with animals on a different level than most ponies. And when I felt the heat on my flanks, and the light glowed there… I knew that I’d found my purpose in life.
“And I knew that those rainbow lights couldn’t have been a storm. It was you, Rainbow Dash, and it was your love for me, I knew it even then.”
Rainbow Dash waved a hoof nonchalantly.
“Ahh, it was just something I would do for anypony.”
“Hmm… I’m glad you’ve decided to be honest with me, Rainbow Dash.”
Rainbow Dash blinked.
Fluttershy presently affixed Rainbow with a sharp gaze, the likes of which she had not seen on the mare in a good long while. Rainbow Dash quailed slightly; where had this come from?
“You’re right; you would do the Sonic Rainboom for anypony. You did do it for more ponies than just me.”
Rainbow Dash opened her mouth and closed it a few times, flabbergasted, trying to work a sentence together.
“Well − it’s − I − Rarity’s not my type of pony, Flutters! She’s just too… frilly-frou-frou-fashionista. I just did it because she’s my friend.”
Fluttershy nodded slowly, sagely, with an unsettlingly serene expression suddenly.
“I see… So, I’m just a friend to you?”
“What? No!” Rainbow Dash replied, flustered even more so than before − which, considering that her wings had been magically displaced onto her belly and could not stop flapping, was rather remarkable. “You mean more to me than my other friends, Fluttershy! There’s all sortsa things that we have that normal friends don’t!”
“Oh?” Fluttershy drew away from Rainbow Dash, flapping a hoof’s length off of the floor, looking down on Rainbow Dash with disdain. “Are these… kissy, physical sort of things, Dashie? Is it love? Or are we just friends… with benefits?”
“Fluttershy…” Rainbow Dash looked slightly pained. “Where is this going?”
“Rainbow, I… I think that we rushed into this. When NightMare Moon happened, I was just… so scared to lose you. All those warnings − those… really loud warnings − that Mom and Dad gave me about NightMare Moon eating me in the middle of the night if I was too disobedient… or too loud… or too forward… or too over-confident… I guess that it scared me into proposing to you. I didn’t know if… if NightMare Moon would be the end of us all…”
“So… this is it?” Rainbow Dash said with a venomous edge, belied by the frantic flap of her belly-wings. “We’re calling off the engagement? I’m not getting all the Pegasi of Ponyville to move my house over yours?”
Fluttershy nodded slowly, not meeting Rainbow’s eyes.
“I see,” Rainbow replied sourly. “Can you leave me alone to think?”
“Yes… I think I could do with the same.”
Leaving Rainbow Dash tied to the couch, Fluttershy slid open her front door and strode out to the chicken coop on the left-wing side of her home…
And broke down into tears, not knowing full well that the same was true of the cerulean Pegasus inside. A possum crept in below the bottom rail of her fence and eyed her curiously.
“Blenheim!” cried Granny Smith, raising up her forelegs to bring her youngest daughter in for a hug. “So surprised ta see ya back so soon!”
“It’s ‘Valencia’, Mother,” grumbled Aunt Orange, nonetheless accepting her mother’s embrace. “But, it’s not terribly surprising. Mosely and I were eager to set up a connection with the new Queen of the Night… or, I suppose, the old Queen of the Night, newly returned.”
“Darling?” Uncle Orange asked with a faint shudder, his ears lank. “Will we really be staying in this… this place?”
“Oh come off it, dear,” Aunt Valencia chuckled. “I grew up in this home. It’s… Oh mah stars!” She slipped back to her native drawl as she darted up to a framed picture of her parents and her many siblings. “Ah almost fergot about this! Ah haven’ seen this picture in ages! Ah…” Taking a moment to clear her throat, she continued in her city-folk accent, “I forgot that Bright McIntosh was that high at the withers back then. I…” Her ears fell lank, and her expression darkened. “I really wish that you could see your children, Bright Mac. Your son is an admirable apple-bucker, your first daughter helped to bring back our long-lost Queen of the Night, and your second daughter… well, she has nice friends, doesn’t she?”
“You bet Ah do, Aunt Orange!” squeaked Apple Bloom, crossing one foreleg across the other in a manner not unlike her elder sister… who sat atop her little sister’s head still. “We’ve got ourselves a friend-group goin’: The Cutie Mark Crusaders!”
“An’ yer little gal Babs is a member as well,” added Applejack, waving a minute hoof in the direction of the younger Orange daughter, who withdrew slightly in shyness.
“Really?” asked Uncle Orange curiously. “So you’re finally going to get your cutie mark?”
“Aww, don’t be like dat, Pop,” interjected Sunflower, giving her little sister a rough noogie. “She’s tryin’ da best she can, ain’ she?”
“You bet, Sunny,” murmured Babs with a meek little smile, which Sunflower answered with a wide sloppy one.
“Well, if I may say so,” said Aunt Orange, placing the picture back upon the corner table, “I do hope that you can bring your growing fits under control one of these days. I could care less for all the bills your school sends me for broken chairs and desks.”
“Actually,” cut in Apple Bloom, “Ah heard th’ Cheese Sandwich Band’s song sayin’ that it’s ‘Ah couldn’t care less’, ‘cause sayin’ that ya could care less means that ya do care, at least a little.” She found that she had finished the last few words in the same cadence as was sung by Cheese Sandwich himself.
Aunt Orange scoffed, “What does that yokel know, other than how to play the accordion?”
“Oh, quit bein’ such a spoilspoaht, Mom,” grinned Sunflower, the pink Pegasus in question hovering upside-down in front of her mother’s face. “Dat stallion’s a comic genius, an’ it looks like da apple don’ fall too fah from da tree if mah fav’rite little sugah-footed cuzzin’s a big fan a’ da guy.” Flipping right-side-up, Sunflower applied a noogie to Apple Bloom’s poll with a fierce grin.
Apple Bloom attempted to bat her Pegasus cousin off.
“Sunflower! Git off!”
Sunflower laughed boldly.
“I just love ta heah dat good ol’ country accent!”
“So, if I may ask,” cut in Uncle Mosely, “where shall my wife and I sleep? Can we not stay in the same accommodations as the Duke of Canterlot?”
“Ah don’ think so!” answered Granny Smith in a slightly sing-song voice, leaning forward from her spot on the rocking chair. “Ya got lucky ta be out in th’ Big Orange unner NightMare Moon. Family needs ta stick t’gether durin’ times a’ stress ‘n’ strife. There’s plenny a’ space in th’ farm-house fer all! Sunflower cin take yer ol’ room, Blenheim, the two a’ y’all cin take me an’ ma husband’s ol’ bed, and Babs… ya don’ mind takin’ the room next ta Apple Bloom’s room, do ya?”
Babs perked up mightily at her grandmother addressing her, her green eyes widening eagerly.
“You bet I do, Granny! Dat way, Apple Bloom ‘n’ I can get ta woahk talkin’ ‘bout all soahta Cutie Mahk Crusadah stuff. I’m gunna get my cutie mahk, and I’m gonna show dose dock-heads back at school!”
“Ballarat Seedling!” scolded Aunt Valencia. “Where in the world did you hear such language?”
Both Babs and Sunflower covered their mouths in a mock show of shock, but both Apple Bloom and Applejack noticed a smile on Babs’s muzzle behind her hoof, and it was not unreasonable to think that the same was true with Sunflower.
“Uhh, Ah’m gunna go show Babs a special little thang that Miss Twilight made fer me an’ th’ other Crusaders after that big party up at Canterlot!”
And with that, Apple Bloom tugged at Babs’s tail with her teeth, coaxing the bulky filly into following her up the stairs and into the upstairs corridor. In no time at all, they were in Apple Bloom’s room, and the yellow country filly trotted brightly up to the corner table beside her bed.
“Whoa…” Babs’s eyes roved across the floor. All sorts of odd bits of wood and metal littered the floor, forming some weird little trinkets and flappy little things. “What are all dose things, cuz?”
“Oh, those?” Apple Bloom answered dismissively. “Those’re jus’ little side-project kinda thangs. They don’ mean nuthin’. They ain’ wut Ah was fixin’ ta show ya.”
“But dese ahh seriously da bee’s knees, cuz!” insisted Babs, pointing to a miniscule pony made from bits of wood and bolts. “Ya made dese all by yaself?”
“They ain’ nuthin’,” snapped Apple Bloom. “They’re just a buncha junk. But this is what’s really swell!”
The country filly indicated what looked like an old tin can resting on her bedside table.
Babs cocked an amaranth eyebrow at it.
“Uhh, it’s just a can, cuz.”
“It looks like it’s just a can,” Apple Bloom said with a conspiratorial whisper, “but Miss Twilight enchanted it with her Unicorn magic ta be able ta talk with two other tin cans jus’ like it. An’ Sweetie Belle an’ Scootaloo ‘re th’ ones with th’ other cans!”
“So, youse guys can talk whenevuh youse want, without telephones?”
“Well, they’re… nah, nevuh-mind. Can ya show me dis tin can in action?”
Apple Bloom beamed.
“Ya bet Ah can!”
At the revelation that one of Twilight’s close friends, one of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony, was practically at death’s door, Celestia felt a stab of hot fury burbling up in her chest. This Trixie Lulamoon or whatever her name was thought that she could break the heart of her beloved student Twilight Sparkle? How dare she? How dare she? Twilight had suffered enough as it was with her parents being so deprived from her life, but even if her family was still whole and happy this was still...
This was just…
But something else rose up in Celestia’s chest, something more wholesome and less monstrous:
A shoot of love for all pony life.
I cannot risk the lives of all in the Saddle Valley, she thought, just to avenge this sin against my Twilight, kin though she may not be. I love her, far more than I can ever say, but… I love all ponies with all of my heart, and I… I just cannot bear to let myself hurt a pony.
“Her heart is palpitating. Badly,” Twilight sobbed, sinking to her haunches. “She only has weeks. Days, maybe. And it’s all my fault! I ruined Trixie’s life, and now she’s ruining the lives of everypony that I love! It’s my fault that Pinkie can’t speak and that Rainbow can’t fly and that Applejack is bite-sized and that Rarity is…!”
“Twilight, please,” interjected Celestia, placing a hoof upon Twilight's shoulder. Locking eyes with her pupil, Celestia wordlessly levitated her crown off of her head, setting it upon the table. Her royal necklace unbuckled itself and set itself beside the crown, and her regal shoes floated away in a gleaming pale-yellow shine.
And Queen Celestia wrapped her forelegs and wings fully around Twilight.
“Twilight, please, it’s not your fault,” she whispered into Twilight’s ear. “What you did has no bearing on what Trixie did. You didn’t make the decision for Trixie to don the Alicorn Amulet; she did. You had no idea that she would take your actions that night so seriously. All that is left to do… is to react to Trixie’s actions.
“I fear,” Celestia continued as she brought away her forelegs and one of her wings, leaving one large warm wing around Twilight’s back, “that our time is short, and our options limited. With Selena’s powers still lacking, and my own magic ill-suited in its strength, this is something that we must take great care in. Deploying the Royal Guard would cause a great panic here in Canterlot, so this must be something that is restricted to those of us in this circle.”
‘May I ask, O Queen of the Sun,’ said Zecora, ‘what can Twilight and I do to see this done?’
Celestia gave a soft smile to the former princess of Pundamilia.
“The two of you can plan this out, together, as friends and as new residents of Ponyville. It is you and yours who are being so punished by a mare literally driven mad with power. And you two are very bright, in your own ways. I am sure that, together, the pair of you can surmount this conundrum. I know you can do it; you’ve overcome worse.
“But do not underestimate the power of the Alicorn Amulet. When worn by a pony, it grants absolute dominion. I do not fear Trixie, though I fear for her. She does not know what she is wearing, and we ourselves barely know more. And regardless of what her character is, Trixie Lulamoon would not deserve the fate that the Alicorn Amulet would see for her.
“So, Twilight Sparkle, Zecora Mrahaba, I set forth a task for you two: Retrieve the Alicorn Amulet, save your friends and Trixie Lulamoon, and let no more ponies suffer at the hooves of this fell trinket.”
Queen Celestia touched the tip of her alicorn to Twilight’s shoulders, left and right, and then Zecora’s. The pair bowed to the monarch as she drew back.
“We will see this mission through to the best of our abilities, Your Majesty. But, where will Zecora and I be staying until we’re ready to set out?”
At this, Queen Celestia smiled.
“You two shall be staying in my own bed-chamber, or rather in the royal guest wing. Yes, Twilight,” Celestia offered a broader beaming smile at the wondrous joy on the lavender Unicorn’s face, “just like old times. And you shall see the magical brand of fire which Spike lit as well. It still burns, to this very day, from when he first lit it nearly a dozen years ago.”
Twilight nodded, a wide smile splitting her muzzle, “Thank you so much, Your Majesty! And that brand might be useful in more ways than one!”
The tall white Alicorn gave Twilight a proud look.
“I would expect nothing less from you, my faithful student.”
Although the orphanage was the only home that she could remember, Scootaloo preferred to spend her time at the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ clubhouse. And this was not simply because of the fact that her own possessions disappeared and had to be reclaimed in schoolyard scuffles far more often than she preferred. No. This clubhouse felt more like a home to her than that tiny room at the orphanage ever had. It was something that she and two of the sweetest fillies she had ever known had worked on together, someplace that she had already come to associate with more fond memories than that place for homeless, parentless, unloved foals.
Although, this was a possession that she would not dare to bring to the orphanage, and she valued it about as highly as she valued her scooter (though not perhaps as highly as her helmet).
“Rarity’s looking way prettier without that scraggly beard of hers,” came a tinny echo of Sweetie Belle’s voice from within the tin can atop the upside-down wooden bucket. “And she’s not looking too good, but Miss Fluttershy says she’s gonna be fine.”
“Well, it is Miss Twilight who’s gone out ta try ‘n’ fix this mess,” came Apple Bloom’s tinny drawl, “an’ she’s fixed up th’ whole NightMare Moon sicheeation. Ah bet she’s gonna be here any minute now ta fix yer big sis up.”
“Not ta mention ya own big sis Applejack, cuz,” came the heretofore unprecedented third voice of Babs Seed, the fourth Cutie Mark Crusader.
“And don’t forget about Rainbow Dash,” added Scootaloo, pounding a hoof against the side of the bucket, rattling the tin can. “How can the most awesome pony in Equestria fly with her wings on her belly? It’s just not right! I really wanna be there to help her through it, but I can’t really show her my latest moves if it’s at Fluttershy’s house! That mare’s afraid of her own shadow! Why are they so hot for each other?”
“Scootaloo, please pipe down!” squeaked Sweetie Belle. “Rarity needs her beauty sleep, now more than ever.”
“Yeah, she’s right!” added the indignant voice of Spike the Dragon-cub.
“Spike? Where are you calling from?” Scootaloo asked bemusedly.
“He’s here with me and Rarity!” answered Sweetie. “Isn’t he such a sweetheart?”
The tin can let out a tinny chuckle that sounded remarkably like Spike’s… and then a tremendous burp.
“Eurgh! Who let one rip?” Scootaloo asked with a wrinkled nose.
“That was me,” came Spike’s sheepish response.
“And he burped up all this pretty sparkly green smoke,” Sweetie said, “and it made a piece of paper appear. It’s… It’s a letter from Miss Twilight.”
“From Mom?” Spike asked in surprise. “What’s it say, Sweetie Belle?”
“She says that she’s at Canterlot, and that she knows about the amulet that Unicorn is wearing. She thinks she has an idea for how to get it off!”
“This is way serious!” continued Sweetie Belle. “Plus, Miss Twilight said that she has a special ‘brand-new’ way to get back into Ponyville!”
“Did Ah jus’ hear sum quotation marks ‘r sumthin’ in jus’ now, Sweetie?” asked Apple Bloom.
“I’m pretty sure you did, Apple Bloom” answered Spike. “Mom, like, triple-underlined the word ‘brand’. I didn’t know that Mom was so big into… brands…”
The voice of the Dragon-cub on the other end of the tin can went silent, and Scootaloo’s feathered ears twitched lightly as she tried to make out any further dialogue. Seriously, what was so big about brands that got Spike so suddenly antsy?
The brand sat in a sconce besides an exceptionally plush bed, sending out the occasional shower of yellow-green sparks from the bright-green flame. Illuminated by the green-glowing flames on the brand were polished oak bookshelves stacked with thick-spined volumes of untold contents, a fireplace alight with sun-gold flames, and a gilded birdcage containing Philomena, the red-and-gold phoenix pet of Queen Celestia’s. Beside the Queen’s bed sat a small round table set with rolls of parchment, an inkwell and a single shining-white quill that was most likely one of the Queen’s own wing-feathers. Most absurdly, to anypony who did not know the Queen personally, one could see a radio set beside the inkwell, tuned to a station that was playing a record of the Cheese Sandwich Band.
Twilight Sparkle had very seldom been inside Queen Celestia’s private bed-chambers, at the very peak of Sol Invictus the Tower of the Sun. The first time was when she had turned a dozen-three years old, and she had been taken into the Queen’s chamber for a private celebration of her passage into adulthood. Very few were invited, only Spike and her parents (as unaware as they may have been of everything), and the cake was most exquisite, baked (and mostly ate) by Queen Celestia herself.
But Queen Celestia, Twilight Sparkle and Zecora Mrahaba were not in this bed-chamber for any sort of frivolity or activities of levity. Twilight had just sent a note through the brand of Spike’s magic-fire breath, to hopefully prepare her ward for what she planned next.
“May I inquiry, Twilight,” asked Queen Celestia, “what it is that you plan to do about the Alicorn Amulet?”
Twilight took the green flame torch in her dwimmer shimmer, levitating it in a glimmering aura of pink light.
‘Twilight Sparkle, may I ask,’ Zecora cut in, ‘what do you hope to accomplish with this task?’
Twilight offered a slightly sly smile…
Before flinging the brand into the fireplace, the golden flames instantly flaring out as green. Yellow and green sparks shot out across the chamber, Philomena cawing and flapping her wings in alarm.
Celestia and Zecora’s eyes widened in surprise, the former also bearing an admiring smile.
“Color me impressed, Twilight,” the Queen commented. “You presume to re-enter Ponyville through Spike’s magic-fire breath? I would expect no other solution from you.”
Twilight beamed back at the swan-white Alicorn.
“I try, Your Majesty. I really do. This is the one path back into Ponyville that Trixie has no knowledge of. I mean, it’s not like I’ve never sent things other than just letters to you through Spike’s magic-fire breath. I’ve sent vials of my samples of potions to you in the past as well, and… I definitely remember the time you sent us a live toad for NightMare Night.” Twilight’s tone went slightly accusatory, and Queen Celestia smiled sheepishly. “So anyway, I’ve been meaning to ask him to test this further, but one thing or another keeps either of us distracted. But this is an emergency, so I thought, why not? If it works, then Zecora and I have a fail-safe path back into Ponyville!”
“And if it fails…?” Queen Celestia looked down at Twilight with a dark fear.
Twilight’s ears flopped as she rubbed a foreleg with a cloven hoof.
“I… I’m sure that it’s gonna be fine, but… my real worry is about Spike. He’s never transported anything so large through his magic-fire before. He’s a Dragon, so he should be fine, but belching out Zecora and I might… give him a bad stomachache, or indigestion. And then what kind of mother would I be? If he gets a stomachache, then he might not see me as a fit mother because I let him get hurt like that, and then he’ll hate me, and then he might leave me to go back to Banefold, and the Dragons there will tear him apart to protect their hoards, and…”
The touch of warm primaries brought Twilight back to the Queen’s bed-chamber, and when she looked up into Celestia’s face all that she saw was concern.
“Twilight… Spike could never hate you. No child could ever despise their mother. And to Spike, you have only ever been his mother. I assure you, Spike would not blame you for whatever happens to him in this regard. But Twilight… I worry for you. You are a much more complicated creature than a toad. Your life, and Zecora’s, might be put on the line if you simply throw yourself into the fire.”
Twilight met Celestia’s eyes.
“I’ll go first. And if I make it through, I’ll send my note back to make it clear that Zecora can follow. But… on the off-chance that I don’t… please do what you can to make sure that Trixie doesn’t hurt my friends.”
Ignoring for the moment the looks of mild alarm on the faces of Zecora and Celestia, Twilight turned towards the fireplace burning with yellow-green fire. She swallowed her fear, took in a deep breath…
“What’s got you so spooked suddenly, Spikey?” asked Sweetie Belle, placing her tin can back inside her saddle-bag. Rarity looked like she was beginning to stir slightly, and she didn’t want to give her big sister an undue aneurysm because of the unsightly sight of a slightly squashed tin can.
“Well,” the mulberry drake began, “you see, Queen Celestia has a brand of my magic-fire breath in her bed-room, and she keeps it lit all the time. And she taught me how to use my own breath to send things to her, and she can send things to me through that brand.”
Sweetie Belle’s eyes widened in fascination “Oooh! It’s like some sort of instant mail thingy!”
Spike allowed himself a small prideful smile at that.
“Well, I do like to think I’ve helped out Mom with some of her assignments from the Queen. It gives her a bit of extra time to squeeze in one last little bit of research before turning it in.”
He looked back down to Twilight’s note in the last fading lights of the Sun, feeling an unsettling curling in his stomach already.
“But… I don’t just send or receive letters. I’ve also received a… a toad on NightMare Night. I mean, it was kinda funny looking back, but… Is Mom thinking what I think―?”
But whatever it was that Miss Twilight was thinking, it was lost on Sweetie Belle, as the small Dragon placed a claw on his belly as if he had eaten too much ice cream. Before the Unicorn filly could do more than take a step towards Spike in concern, the drake heaved and vomited out a shower of green fire and yellow sparks that covered the floor. Sweetie Belle squeaked in alarm and leapt up onto the drawer at the foot of the bed, eyes peeled in terror at the pile of flames on the floor in front of Spike. After several moments, the torrent of vomitous fire ceased, and almost immediately the flames on the floor dissipated, revealing…
“Urgh…” Twilight Sparkle rubbed her head ruefully. “I didn’t know how rough that was gonna be…”
“Miss Twilight!” squealed Sweetie Belle in joy, pronking on the spot.
Rarity stirred fitfully, graying eyes showing through the slits of her barely-open eyelids as she set her gaze upon the small white filly.
“Sweetie Belle… Please pipe down,” she gasped, scratching an ear slowly. “Wait. Is Twilight back…?”
Spike sat up, a claw at his chest.
“Yeah… She is… Wait. Mom!”
He ran up to Twilight and set his claws atop one of her forelegs. The lavender Unicorn smiled at her mulberry ward.
“Yes, Spike. I’m back. And… I’m sorry that you had to endure something so taxing as sending me out of your magic-fire breath.”
Spike coughed into a claw.
“I − I’ll be alright. I just… don’t think I can receive something bigger than a loaf of bread for a few hours.”
Twilight nuzzled Spike.
“You’ve earned a break from receiving things for a while, Spike. But first, I need you to send a letter.”
“Just a letter?” Spike replied, relieved. “Of course! Just… how long do you think it’ll take to write that letter?”
“Not long, I’m afraid,” Twilight replied. “It’s just a little postscript. But you can hang out with Rarity and Sweetie Belle until you think you’re ready.”
Spike hugged Twilight around the neck.
“You’re the best, Mom.”
Twilight smiled back at her son.
“Is everything alright up there, Rares?” called Rainbow Dash’s voice from the ground floor.
Sweetie Belle trotted up to the stairs and shouted down, “Your friend Twilight’s back, Rainbow Dash! She came back through Spike’s breath!”
Rarity veritably sat up from her position in Fluttershy’s bed and cocked shadowed eyes at her little sister.
“Please pipe down, Sweetie Belle,” she said crossly. “Your big sister’s in a bad spot and she needs peace and quiet.”
Sweetie Belle shrunk slightly, her ears flattening.
Twilight strode up to Rarity, taking a shriveled hoof in her own.
“Rarity… I’m so sorry that this had to happen to you. And I’m sorry that… I couldn’t make you young again…”
Rarity smiled feebly.
“That’s alright, darling. You tried your best for me, and I truly cherished the time that we spent together. There is so much still that I would have liked to have done, but these past three months have been so much more than what I could have imagined. I can rest now, knowing that I have been helpful to somepony.”
“No, Rarity!” Twilight said in a raised voice. “I won’t let you go! I think I have a way to get that Alicorn Amulet off of Trixie, a way to reverse what she’s done!”
“You mean… I could be young again?”
In a startling flash of motion for the elderly Unicorn’s part, Rarity practically flipped out of the bed and onto the carpeted floor.
“Better? Sweetie, I feel positively brimming with vim and vigor,” returned the alabaster Unicorn. “Far better than I’ve felt the past few hours. Now that the path back to my youth and beauty is clear, I can most assuredly woo Duke Prince Blueblood and make certain my family’s prosperity!”
Twilight wanted to make it clear to her Unicorn friend that the Duke was most assuredly not to be wooed, that Prince Blueblood was not the sort of pony to appreciate the act of seduction by any pony who possessed lesser wealth than his stockbrokers. She made to warn her,
“Well, what are we waiting for?” interjected Spike, leading Rarity to the steps only hooves away from the foot of the bed. “Let’s get everypony together and put a stop to Trixie!”
“Oh! Twilight, darling,” asked Rarity, a hoof down the steps already, “what is it that you plan to do to put that wretched Unicorn in her place?”
Brought back to the greater objective, Twilight took in a deep breath and said,
“The Elements of Harmony.”
Sweetie gasped, “I’ll tell Apple Bloom to tell Applejack to gather everypony up!”
Twilight smiled softly as the little filly pulled open her saddle-bag, Rarity descending the stairs with Spike on her heels. Then, curiously, Sweetie Belle started to screw up her face, as though she was trying to remember something gnawing at the back of her mind. The grooves in her stubby alicorn let out intermittent flashes of a pale harlequin-green.
“Uhh, do you need help with that?” Twilight asked, taking a step forward.
“Nuh-uh! I got this!” replied Sweetie Belle, despite the fact that she was sweating mildly, tongue sticking out between her teeth. Sighing and smiling sadly at the filly’s determinacy, Twilight allowed herself a few moments to seat herself just behind the little Unicorn, her leonine tail curling around her forehooves as Sweetie Belle sagged with a ragged sigh.
“I don’t got this,” breathed Sweetie Belle. “Can you help me grab the can with magic, Miss Twilight?”
“I can try. I think of myself as more of a student than a teacher, though,” replied Twilight. “The trick to taking something in your dwimmer shimmer, is to use your horn to reach through the mana in the air. Use your horn as a conduit through the mana, and draw the can to yourself through the mana.”
Eyebrows creased in confusion, Sweetie Belle nonetheless looked down upon her open saddle-bag. Her expression became tense with concentration as she stared down at the tin can in the recesses of her bag. Her horn flickered a pale green, and Twilight beamed to herself at the sight of an identical greenish glow in Sweetie’s bag. Sweetie Belle must have noticed it as well, for her face lit up like the Sun.
Twilight smiled, but said nothing. Silence had worked with her when Queen Celestia first taught her the basics of a Unicorn’s psychokinesis. It was not apathy, but allowing her to figure out the technique of how to do it on her own without undue criticism or prying encouragement. Of course, Twilight was not naïve enough to presume that this was the only technique that Queen Celestia had used when training her Unicorn protégés, but it was simply the one she was the most familiar with, and so the first one she was keen on applying.
And, judging by the wondrous look on Sweetie Belle’s face as the tin can hovered in front of her in a pale-green shimmer, it was the right sort of teaching method for Sweetie Belle as well.
“Rarity, look!” Sweetie Belle squeaked, galloping down the steps as fast as she could, her saddle-bag left behind beside the bed. Shrugging slightly, Twilight followed Sweetie Belle down the stairs with her letter to Spike held in her dwimmer shimmer.
In the living room she found clusters of all sorts of brush-animals huddled around, from mice to badgers to bushwoolies. Chittering and chirping and such filled the room, mostly drowned out by the sounds of Rainbow Dash punching a pillow with her forehooves, trying to reach around her endlessly flapping belly-wings.
Twilight was startled. She had never seen the cerulean Pegasus so agitated, not even when her wings had been replaced by fins when she went to Aquastria. Her eyes were red, and the fur around her eyes looked matted and damp. Her teeth were ground together and her lips drawn back, the molars visible behind the bars of her mouth.
“What’s wrong with Rainbow Dash, Spikey?” Sweetie Belle asked timidly, the tin can clinking to the floor forgotten.
“Search me,” shrugged Spike. “I’m just wondering where Fluttershy is…”
Twilight tentatively approached the Pegasus tied to the couch. How had that happened? It was good, perhaps, to keep her from flapping all about the place and potentially hurting herself or others. Looking closely at the knot-work, Twilight wordlessly filed Spike away as the most likely candidate for tying Rainbow Dash down. Putting these thoughts out of her mind, she addressed the Pegasus,
“Flutters broke off the engagement.”
The pillow flumped to the floor as it rolled off of Rainbow’s extended forehoof. Even the chitter-chatter of the animals around the cottage went silent.
“I… I’m so sorry, darling,” said Rarity, a sympathetic look on her elderly face.
“Yeah, well, doesn’t look like she is,” Rainbow Dash grumbled, her eyes shifting towards the front door.
“She’s outside?” Twilight asked, and Rainbow nodded. The lavender Unicorn pressed, “Did she say why she wanted to break up?”
Rainbow smacked at her flapping wings in a huff.
“She said some horse-apples about how my saving Rarity with a Sonic Rainboom meant that I saw her only as a friend, and that we were moving too fast, which is total horse-feathers ‘cause she was the one who proposed to me!”
“Rainbow Dash, Rainbow Dash, Rainbow Dash,” sighed Rarity. “Do you truly understand a lady’s heart? Fluttershy’s proposal was not because she wanted to enter your life wholesale, but because she wanted your life to become one with her own. Love and marriage is about give-and-take, and if one party feels that there is an imbalance in what is desired… well, perhaps dear Fluttershy would rather just be friends.”
“But where did this come from? Why’s she saying all this now?” asked Rainbow Dash, unable to keep a pleading tone out of her voice. “I mean, it’s been a month since NightMare Moon and everything is peachy-keen!”
“I think,” interjected Twilight, with a hoof on her chin, “that that might be why she cut things off with you, Rainbow. I can’t really speak for her, though, and she…” Twilight looked towards the front door. “She really must be hurt to have done this.”
“Yeah, it did take her a bit to get it out,” Rainbow Dash breathed, with a slight shrug of her forelegs.
The rope tying Rainbow to the couch lit up pink, the knot unraveling and coiling to the floor. Rainbow Dash slid off the couch onto the floor, her wings sweeping at the round carpet. She looked up at Twilight with an unusual look for the brash Pegasus: wonder.
Twilight offered a sympathetic smile.
“Go talk things out with her,” she said shortly. “I’m sure that she still wants to be in your life, still wants you in her life.”
Flipping and struggling because of her misplaced wings, Rainbow nonetheless made it to the front door (which opened at the glow of Twilight’s dwimmer shimmer). Settling for an odd traipsing sort of canter, Rainbow Dash stepped out into Fluttershy’s garden, the door closing gently behind her.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” Twilight said, ostensibly to Spike, Rarity and Sweetie Belle. Of course, Twilight knew that she had been wrong before, many more times than she would like to admit. She could only hope that she was not tempting fate with such a statement.
With a sigh, she placed the letter upon Fluttershy’s table and procured a quill from a side-table.
Fluttershy was hunched over by the chicken coop, staring blankly at a dark patch in the dirt. Some hens were pecking about for the odd bit of feed that the others had not touched; Rainbow did not recall most of their names, though it seemed that Elizabeak was not amongst them. That particularly willful hen seemed to be cooped up in the… well, in the coop. Putting errant chickens out of her mind, Rainbow Dash stepped up behind the slim Pegasus mare.
“Please go away, Dashie,” snapped Fluttershy without looking up. Her voice was cracking, and her eyes were closed. “Please go, before I hurt you more.”
Rainbow furrowed her eyebrows.
“I’m not going anywhere, not until you stop acting so sappy.”
Fluttershy opened her eyes. A faint cyan glimmered in her irises; she was Staring at nothing in particular, but every time a hen crossed her line of vision, it quailed, let out a frightful cluck and darted away.
“I don’t want to lose you, Dashie, but… after NightMare Moon, I didn’t feel so scared about losing you. I clung to you when I thought that we would die from the cold and hunger. And without that, I just…” She collapsed onto her barrel, burying her face in her mane and forehooves. “I’m so sorry I put you through that, Dashie!”
Rainbow sat herself down beside the shaking mare, running her primaries through the pinkish down in the small of Fluttershy’s back. The shivering hiccuping sobs started to ebb.
“I’m sorry, too. I… really shouldn’t have been so forceful. I was just so happy to be so in love with somepony, especially somepony I’d known for all my life. You’re such an awesome pony, Fluttershy, way more awesome than I am. I’d have never been able to keep my cool sandwiched between a chimera and a manticore, but you did it. I’d never have been able to stand my ground against a hemolupe, but you did it. Me… I just fly fast. I’ve got scars and bruises I’ll remember, but that’s just to try and get my flying moves ready to impress the Wonderbolts. You got your scars…” Rainbow Dash paused to look over the scratch and bite scars all over Fluttershy’s frame, earned over a lifetime of animal care. “You got yours helping out all your favorite little critters − and even some big critters like Harry. If that don’t take guts, I don’t know what does.
“Plus, you had the guts to tell me when enough was enough. I might be, like, the Element of Honesty, but I don’t know if I’d have had the guts to do that. I’m so quick to tell Twilight when her egghead is showing, but… I have to struggle to admit to others that I read Daring Do.” She rolled over onto her back, letting her wings beat at the evening sky. “I’m spineless.”
Fluttershy’s divine face appeared upside-down over her. Was she smiling? The corners of her mouth were curved towards her eyes…
“You’re not spineless, Dashie. Nopony else would have stood up for somepony like me against Hoops and his gang. Your parents practically adopted me when mine were… less willing to accept me for me. You kept me going all over the world when we were helping Twilight out with the whole NightMare Moon disaster. And… you are one of the bravest ponies I’ve ever met. Nopony else would have dove off that cliff to save somepony else who they’d been fighting with.”
Rainbow Dash smirked sadly.
“You give me way too much credit.”
Fluttershy shook her head.
“You’re selling yourself short, Dashie. I… well, I love you for… I mean, I just… I…”
Emboldened, Rainbow Dash lifted herself up and pecked Fluttershy on the lips.
“You talk too much.”
Blushing pink and smiling demurely, Fluttershy attempted to draw her mane over her eyes. Rainbow Dash felt a shoot of hot affection in her chest.
“You… you need to brush your teeth more often,” Fluttershy murmured.
Rainbow Dash laughed, “Like Mary hasn’t told me that a million times every time you’s drag me out to Smith-Noir Dental.”
Fluttershy giggled behind her mane, “It’s because I care about you.”
Rainbow looked up at Fluttershy.
“So,” she asked, “we’re still friends, right?”
“Mm-hmm. Still friends.”
“And… is that all we’ll ever be?”
Fluttershy looked off towards Ponyville.
“I… don’t know. We’ve only ever been with each other. I know it hurts to stop this thing we have, but… I think you need to see other ponies, Dashie, see if I really am the one for you. And, if you still want me after all of that… you know where I’ll be waiting.”
Rainbow brought up her forelegs and wrapped them around Fluttershy’s neck − a difficult task with the new placement of her wings courtesy of Trixie − and she nuzzled the shy Pegasus with a broad grin.
“You’re the best, Flutters.”
I made it fine. Stay with Queen Celestia, though. I’ll be back with the Amulet… I hope.
PS: Don’t answer back. Spike’s gastrointestinal system needs a break.
“That’s it?” Spike asked, quirking a scaly eyebrow at the addendum his mother had made. “That was the postscript you were talking about? Only you could write a postscript within a postscript…”
“I suppose. Now, if you would do the honors, Spike?” she said, passing the scroll to Spike in her dwimmer shimmer. Taking it in a claw, Spike smirked as he breathed a cloud of green fire over the scroll, which erupted in a cloud of yellow sparkles and disappeared in a cloud of bright-green smoke.
Spike wiped his claws together with a smile on his face.
“Good job, Spike,” Twilight smiled back. “Even if Owlowiscious is taking up a lot of your more menial jobs as Number One Assistant, there are just some things only you can do.”
“Hey Apple Bloom, you there?” Sweetie Belle said into her tin can.
“Pickin’ ya up loud an’ clear, Sweetie Belle,” came the drawling twang of Apple Bloom’s voice. “Anythin’ happen on yer end since ya cut out?”
“Is Rainbow Dash there? Can I talk to her? What’s going on?” interjected Scootaloo, so loudly that the can actually shook with her voice.
“Girls,” Sweetie Belle rubbed an ear painfully, “something big’s happening out here. Spike just spat out Twilight in a cloud of green smoke and―”
“Twilight’s back?” interrupted Apple Bloom.
“Yeah, she is, and she needs to get the Elements of Harmony all together to give that Unicorn lady the boot!”
“Ah gotta tell Applejack ta git ev’rypony t’gether… an’ not ta git stepped on.”
The tinny sound of scampering hooves and a slamming door came from Sweetie’s tin can.
“So, uhh,” came Babs’s voice, “I guess I’ll foal-sit dis heah can till Apple Bloom gets back.”
“Aww, don’t be like that, Babs,” cooed Sweetie Belle. “What could possibly happen to a tin can at Sweet Apple Acres?”
“Well, uhh… a goat could chew on it.”
“Actually,” Twilight cut in, “goats don’t eat cans. That stereotype is derived from multiple sightings of goats chewing the paper and paper adhesive off of tin cans. Goats are also actually very picky eaters; they’d sooner urinate on hay than to eat it.”
“Ugh, way to put me off of hay forever, Book-Horse,” came a scratchy voice from the front door.
Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy had strode back in, a spring back in the cerulean mare’s step that did not just come from her displaced wings and a serene joy in the movement of the yellow Pegasus.
“Rainbow Dash… Fluttershy…” Twilight chuckled awkwardly. “So… How was your talk, may I ask?”
Fluttershy smiled at her fellow Pegasus.
“We’re just fine.”
“She means that we’ll just be friends,” added Rainbow Dash, flapping shakily into the air.
“Is that Rainbow Dash? the tin can said in Scootaloo’s voice. “You guys are gonna get the Elements together so you can kick Trixie’s flank, aren’t ya? You go get her, Rainbow Dash!”
Rainbow Dash smirked at the tin can perched on Fluttershy’s table and said, “You bet that I’ll do that, squirt! But wait. What was that about the Elements of Harmony?”
“I’ll explain at the Golden Oak Library. I don’t sense any anti-winking wards inside this bubble, which means that Trixie just wants to prevent anypony from getting in or out. So it should be safe for me to wink out there.”
“And the rest of us?” asked Rarity.
“You can wink out with me to the Library, Rarity; the fewer of our group seen gathering in one place, the less suspicious Trixie will be. You’re with me too, Spike. I’ll wink out behind Sugarcube Corner and collect Pinkie Pie. You two can meet me there after you’ve…” She cleared her throat. “Picked up Applejack.”
“Wait, what about me?” Sweetie Belle asked indignantly.
“You,” answered Rarity, “are going straight back to Mother and Father. There is no way I am leaving my little sister here alone with all of Fluttershy’s animals.”
“Oh, come on!”
Spike and the six Bearers of the Elements sat around the table in the center of the Golden Oak Library. Owlowiscious hooted beside the agave and cactus at the window. Candlelight flickered about the room, keeping the proceedings well-lit, glinting off of the golden carcanets four of them wore, and the golden tiara worn by the head of their party.
“So, I figured that if the Elements of Harmony could expunge a negative possessive influence from Queen Selena,” Twilight explained, “they can very easily be used to remove the Alicorn Amulet from Trixie Lulamoon.”
“Sounds right plausible ‘f ya ask me,” answered Applejack, seated on the edge of the table atop the ruby of the Element of Loyalty. “An’ darn-tootin’ if it couldn’ come fast enough. Ev’rything’s jus’ too dang big like this!”
Pinkie Pie nodded vigorously. The poor mare had not taken well to being muted. Her mane, ordinarily frizzy, was now almost lank and flat despite her colors still being as vibrant as ever. Her ears laid flat against her head, and she continually massaged her throat with a forehoof, occasionally nibbling at an errant feather around her fetlocks.
“Our little circle has been quite ill affected by that Alicorn Amulet,” Rarity said, “but from how you described it, darling, it sounds as though dear Trixie is the most wounded party here. To be so consumed by a trinket that you wear… It’s just wretched to consider!”
“Oh, like you don’t get consumed by the clothes you wear,” Rainbow Dash quipped, earning a wrinkly glare from the aged Unicorn.
“Oh, come off it, Rainbow Dash. Being devoured by clothes… that sounds like some absurdist cartoon out of Neighpon!”
“Umm…” Fluttershy cut in. “Umm, shouldn’t we be getting the Elements to Trixie?”
“Fluttershy’s right,” Twilight said. “The sooner we get that Amulet off of her, the better. Spike,” she addressed her mulberry drake son, “You’re going to stay here and safe from Trixie. Things could get messy.”
Spike sighed. “Sure thing, Mom.”
As it turned out, it was not terribly difficult to locate Trixie. She had spent the past few hours in Town Square, apparently setting off great magical blasts in every direction, testing the limits of her power and declaiming her greatness and powerfulness. Crimson flashes betrayed her location, which may have been what she wanted; she craved attention, after all. The Mayor of Ponyville and Queen Selena were now joined by Diamond Tiara, in a golden cage locked with a silver key.
Trixie looked terrible. Her coat had paled to a faint silvery blue, her mane and the skirt of her tail now white and wispy. The whites of her eyes had faded to darkest gray. Her cape on her back flared up now, looking more like star-spangled bat’s wings than anything how.
“Behold, you foals!” she shouted, her voice echoing through all of Ponyville. “Behold the absolute power of The Almighty And Legendary Equivoque! Behold!”
The formerly azure Unicorn cocked a faded eyebrow at the lavender mare standing indignantly in the middle of one of the offshooting roads. Around her stood (or flew) four other mares, and a golden necklace set with an apple-shaped ruby laid around a miniscule palomino.
“You never left, then. You continue to irk Equivoque with your presence…!”
“Come off it, Trixie,” Twilight snapped, “if that’s even really your name. Take off that Amulet.”
“Yes, dear,” added Rarity. “Your neck was more fair without it.”
Trixie let out a high laugh.
“Equivoque could never part with a piece of herself, not even to a figment like you! You have no idea what power it is that the Almighty Equivoque has, but then… nopony truly knows power save what Equivoque Herself knows!”
“Git off yer high horse!” squeaked Applejack’s voice. “That Amulet’s no good fer anypony, not even one as no-good as yerself!”
“Equivoque is the only good! Without Her, there is nothing! No laughter, no joy, nothing! It is only when She comes that anything means anything! Even the gaudy trinkets you bear are only so gaudy because Equivoque demands that they be too good for any of you!”
Twilight glanced back at her friends.
“There’s no reasoning with her while she wears that Amulet,” she said. “Alright, girls! It’s time for Harmony to shine!”
The six Bearers closed their eyes and concentrated on their Element, and the gemstone set into each golden trinket began to glow with their inner light. Trixie gazed apathetically at the rising glow of the half-dozen colors of the Elements of Harmony. In a flash of bright-white light from six pairs of eyes, a brilliant six-colored rainbow blasted out in a parabolic arc from the Element of Magic, high into the air over the highest buildings of Ponyville and descending down onto Trixie.
Light filled all of Ponyville, and most everypony had to shield their eyes.
Blinking away spots, Twilight looked at the dark cloud of smoke that now emanated from where Trixie had stood. What had happened…? This wasn’t like what happened with NightMare Moon… was it? She and her fellow Bearers were knocked out in the moments after the Miasma was defeated.
The smoke swept itself up in a whirlwind, pale-blue lightning crackling across it as it fizzled away. Trixie stood there, completely unaffected, the Alicorn Amulet glinting in the starlight.
“What…?” Twilight gasped with jaw agape. “But… How could the Elements of Harmony not do anything…?”
“That was a very pretty light-show, Twilight Sparkle,” she sneered, “but if you were hoping to impress The Almighty And Legendary Equivoque, then you were sorely mistaken. She will be merciful, though, and allow you to remain in Ponyville, under Her gaze. Equivoque will not be so cruel as to banish you from Her presence; She is not petty as you are, Great Enemy Twilight Sparkle.”
“You’re tricking us!” snapped Rainbow Dash, attempting to fly up and gain high ground on Trixie… a feat made all the more challenging by her uncooperative wings. Despite her wobbly posture in the air, she maintained a strong glare at the errant Unicorn. “You have to be, you… you trickster!”
“Do not stand above Trixie, you fool!” snarled Trixie, sending a bolt of red light at Rainbow Dash, whose belly-wings disappeared in a flash of light. The cerulean Pegasus dropped to the earth, and it quickly became clear that she was not completely de-winged. Rather, her wings had taken the place of her ears, tiny little things that flapped ineffectually.
“Rainbow Dash!” cried Fluttershy.
Rainbow Dash gave no indication that she had heard Fluttershy; had she lost her hearing with her ears?
“What did you do, Trixie?” she snapped. “I can’t hear anything, you pansy! Make me hear things again!”
“The Great And Powerful Trixie suffers no neighsayers! Flying is clearly on your mind a lot, so Trixie has placed your wings upon your head!”
“Hey, One-Trick-Horse, I can’t read lips,” Rainbow growled, her head-wings twitching. “Mind fixing my ears?”
“Trixie,” Twilight pleaded, “you’re going to be in so much trouble. Please take of the Amulet and let Queen Selena go.”
Trixie lazily rubbed a hoof along the Amulet.
“Trixie is not answerable to anypony, not when such power lies at her beck-and-call. Who can possibly challenge The Amazing Hocus-Pocus?”
“Stop callin’ yerself all diff’rent sortsa names!” hissed Applejack, pointing at Trixie from atop the Element of Loyalty.
“The Amazing Hocus-Pocus is an enigma, a shroud to all. She does not answer to a single name, not for all those who have seen her magnificent performances. And now that She has achieved her true power by reuniting with this lost piece of herself,” she grinned down at the Amulet, its crimson light reflecting in her pupils, lightning arcing through her mane and skirt, “she will show all of the fools of this world that they are themselves the greatest illusion of all!”
Twilight cowed slightly, a pink dwimmer-shield unconsciously raising itself between herself, her friends and Trixie. This mad mare, literally mad with power, with profound identity issues to boot, was not content with merely humiliating Twilight anymore. No…
Equestria, and all of Harmonia, would not be safe, if Trixie lasted longer than the Alicorn Amulet would allow…
Zecora looked down upon Ponyville through a telescope on Queen Celestia’s balcony. The item in question had been enchanted to allow the user to clearly view whatever it was that they gazed upon in perfect clarity, as if in a perfectly clear day.
Her brow furrowed in concern.
“What is it?” Celestia asked worriedly. “Is my sister alright? How is Twilight?”
‘The time to come bodes ill for all,’ Zecora breathed, ‘for the Alicorn Amulet did not fall. The power of Harmony was not enough, and Trixie’s reigns grows ever more rough.’
Queen Celestia hung her head.
“I should have thought that this would happen,” she sighed. “The Alicorn Amulet drives its wearer towards absolute dominion. Dominion, order, harmony… of course the Elements would not be effective against it.
“The Alicorn Amulet is never worn; it is the pony who is worn by the Amulet. And to ensnare a pony’s soul, it requires that they use its unmatchable power. The more a pony uses it, the deeper they fall into its thrall. And I fear that Trixie may be in too deep to emerge unscathed.”
‘Has anypony escaped its grip?’ asked Zecora. ‘Or did all it wore into its maw slip?’
“Not all who wore it were so far gone as to be unaware of what they’d become,” Celestia answered, “but the act of removing oneself from the Amulet… has never ended well. Death would be preferable to those who removed it in the past.” The queenly Alicorn shuddered. “There is no such pain that I would wish upon anybody.”
Celestia set her eyes upon the captive hamlet of Ponyville.
“Our options are running dry. I shall summon the Concord Flame to our aid.”
DROW TSAL MORF KCAB ELTIT RETPAHC NI SRETTEL FO REBMUN
In no time at all, all the three-gross-odd residents of Ponyville had been herded into Town Square at the insistence of their new lord. Trixie sent forth billowing clouds of smoke to the very edges of Ponyville, choking away light and air except in what path would lead one to the circle around the Gazebo. The herds of Earth Ponies, Unicorns and Pegasi gazed fearfully at the paling Unicorn standing before her trio of captives, her pale-blue eyes flashing with crimson malevolence. Fillies and colts cowered at her gaze, and all but the most hardy stallions and mares followed suit.
“This is the worst NightMare Night ever,” breathed Fluttershy. “And I’ve seen some terrible ones.”
“You’re telling me!” interjected Duke Prince Blueblood, quite literally shivering with fright. “I never thought that I would spend the duration of a NightMare Night in the company of such… such riff-raff!”
“Be that as it may,” Aunt Orange replied sharply, “would it not behoove you to speak more kindly of those around you?”
“Well spoken, Madam Orange,” nodded Rarity, her head bowed and the Element of Generosity dim.
“Be SILENT!” shouted Trixie, a crack of thunder ringing out through Town Square and flattening the ears of most everypony in the area.
Applejack hunched over across the peak of her sister’s head. “Rainbow Dash is lucky ta not havin’ ta hear any a’ this…”
The selfsame cerulean Pegasus sat miserably next to her childhood friend, wings in place of her ears flapping miserably.
“I can’t fly…!” she grumbled loudly to herself, as if trying to hear herself over her lack of apparent ears and eardrums. “I’ll never be able to fly again!”
Scootaloo looked morosely at her idol.
“At least you’ve been able to fly at all. It must be so great.”
“I’m sorry you girls have had to be trapped like this on my account,” Twilight said. “If I hadn’t tried to use the Elements of Harmony… Trixie wouldn’t have become so… so…”
A soft and plushy hoof touched her shoulder. It was Pinkie Pie, and she was offering Twilight a sad smile. The straight-maned pink pony’s smile and the spark in her eyes told Twilight exactly what was on her mind as if the lavender Unicorn was psychic: Don’t feel bad for yourself, Twilight. We’re just glad that we have you here with us. In response to such unconditional sweetness, Twilight could only return the smile.
“I SAID BE SILENT!” Trixie roared, still more thunder rumbling through ribcages and rattling skulls.
Babs Seed sunk to her chest, forelegs entirely over her head, her hooves and irises glowing a bright green as she swelled up to at least twice as large as Big McIntosh, ponies around her backing away in alarm to make space.
“Too loud…” she whimpered. “I can’t stand all dis thundah…”
Trixie glowered at the Burgeoning filly.
“DO NOT STAND OUT ABOVE THE AMAZING HOCUS-POCUS, THE WONDROUS SMOKE-AND-MIRRORS, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL TRIXIE!”
Her alicorn glowed crimson, and a bolt of light shot out at the over-large filly.
“Oh no ya don’t!” growled Sunflower, darting into the air with a flap of her wings and taking the hit, vanishing in a burst of red smoke.
“SUNFLOWER!” screamed both Mosely and Valencia Orange, fearing the worst.
“Sunny!” gasped Babs, gazing in fear up at the red cloud of smoke as it dissipated. Sunflower was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey little sis!” snapped a tiny voice in Babs’s ear. Turning her head, she saw Sunflower, shrunk down to an even smaller size than Applejack was, even smaller to Babs as she had not reverted to her original size yet. “I’m okay, really. It’d take moah dan just dat ta take down yah big sis. So stop gettin’ all hot an’ bothehd an’ git back down ta size.”
Babs was so filled with overwhelming relief that she felt the world around her growing, the space between her and the rest of the Ponyvillagers growing. As the younger Orange sister returned to her normal size, Sunflower alighted upon her outstretched hoof, both of their parents looking down with mingled fear and concern.
For the first time ever since her arrival in Ponyville, Trixie looked perplexed.
“Why would you take the spell that The Legendary And Almighty Equivoque cast upon somepony else? It is not something that She, The Great And Powerful Trixie, would do. You cannot possibly do something that She would not do! You are out of order! You deserve to be so small as to be squashed! Every single one of you does, before the absolute power of the Spectacular Sleight-of-Hoof! KNEEL before Her!”
Too cowed by fear, the populace acquiesced, while the Mayor and Diamond Tiara looked on respectively in concern and indignation.
Unbeknownst to anypony, the ends of Queen Selena’s mane and tail began to darken, growing wispy and immaterial…
It soon reached half-past-seven, the Sun’s light gone from the Saddle Valley. If Twilight thought that Ponyville was miserable before her attempt with the Elements of Harmony, she found herself sorely mistaken. Though Trixie (or whatever name she chose to apply to herself on a whim) made it all to clear that she despised every single stallion, mare and foal in Ponyville, not a single one was to leave her presence. As far as she was concerned, their sole purpose in life was to lavish praise and affection upon her, and to serve as the odd capering jester for her whimsical amusement.
“Trixie grows bored,” she grumbled. With a flash, her alicorn pointed at Pinkie Pie, “You! Dance for Trixie!”
Her legs glowed red, and Pinkie’s eyes widened in terror as she stood on her hind legs and began to perform a jig with such vigor that her legs would surely pull themselves out of their sockets. With a surprisingly hostile expression, Pinkie stuck her tongue out at Trixie…
And her muzzle vanished, leaving blank pink fur where it used to be.
Twilight and most everypony gaped in horror at the sight of Pinkie robbed of her muzzle. Mr. Carrot Cake gently nudged his wife behind him and pointed angrily at Trixie with a green cloven hoof.
“You put Pinkie’s mouth back where it belongs!”
But Trixie merely zapped a large zipper over his mouth.
“The Glorious Presty Changey does whatever She pleases to the phantom shadows of Her imagination! Surely you must know that.”
For several moments all that could be heard was the madcap clopping of Pinkie’s hind hooves, the pink Earth Pony clearly off her balance from prolonged time on two legs.
“What… What are you talking about?” asked the Mayor from her cage.
Trixie’s cape flapped not unlike a pair of bat wings, carrying Trixie into the air as lightning filled the dome overhead.
“Is it not obvious? It is to Trixie! None of you are real, and The Great And Powerful Trixie is dreaming of all of you! That is why Trixie’s power is so absolute. She was not aware of this until She reclaimed this amulet as a piece of Her.” Trixie’s forehoof, scorched black, touched the ruby in the heart of the Amulet. “Trixie Lulamoon dreamed you up, so worship Her, obey Her and love Her!”
Trixie’s coat shone paler than ever in the light of the bolts over Ponyville, and the whites of her eyes darkened even further as her irises and toothy grin glowed red.
“But, we aren’t just figments of somepony’s imagination!” cried Mrs. Cup Cake, distressed at her husband’s predicament. “I have a life, a livelihood, that you can’t possibly know of.”
“Oh yes?” Trixie asked with a sneer, floating down to the pregnant mare’s level. “Then prove that you are not a thought in Trixie’s mind!”
“I − but − How in the world can I do that?”
“Exactly! You can only prove that one pony exists, no more. And the only pony that is sure to exist is The Great And Powerful Trixie! All of the rest of you, your world, every animal that exists, are mere illusions crafted by Her own mind! And this world… is Hers to craft as She sees fit! Her power is absolute! And for as long as She dreams, The Great And Powerful Trixie will rule!”
Twilight’s eyes flicked from Pinkie’s incessantly forced dancing, to the Cakes trying to pry the zipper off of Mr. Cake’s face, to the agitated Rainbow Dash fruitlessly flapping the miniscule wings on her head…
But then, the lavender Unicorn spotted something.
Something that surely would be the key to removing the Alicorn Amulet from Trixie!
“Hoo.” Spike imagined that Owlowiscious was saying, I wish that I could help Twilight out.
“I hear you, man,” Spike replied glumly, flipping idly through Daring Do and the Forbidden City of Clouds. “But you heard what Mom said. She told me to stay here, ‘cause it could get messy. I mean, it’s not like I can do a lot to help, right? They’re a half-dozen grown-up mares, and me… I’m just a baby dragon. They took out NightMare Moon, and I couldn’t even help to do it.”
“Hoo.” Oh come on, man. You have to have done something to help them out.
“I dunno. I suppose I did kinda help out a little, but not much. I mean, I did help out Rarity at the Crystal Mountains with that freaky statue, and I did find that rainbow conch that King Leo’s ponies were trying to find. But other than that…” Spike sighed, resting his elbow on the table − Mom would not be pleased with such ill manners, he idly thought − and rested his cheek against his claw.
“Hoo.” You’re selling yourself short, dude. You can help Twilight out without saving the whole world. You don’t have to move the Sun and Moon to impress your Rarity.
Spike paused. Owlowiscious was right.
“You know what? That’s right. I don’t have an Element of Harmony, but I did help Mom and her friends all the way through to the end. I mean, if we didn’t find that conch, do you think we would of gotten down to Aquastria? And if I hadn’t been there to pull Rarity back from that statue…” Spike shuddered. “I don’t want to know what would of happened to her.”
“Hoo?” Well, what are you waiting for, Spike? You gotta help out Twilight and be Rarity’s knight in shining armor. You might not save the day, but you’ll help out, and that has to count for something.
“You’re right!” Spike said, standing up from his position at the table and clenching a claw. “I have a part to play in all of this, just like when Mom was doing her thing for Queen Celestia against NightMare Moon!”
The mulberry drake hesitated, glancing at the agave and cactus. His grandparents would need someone to watch over them, and what sort of grandson would he be to leave them where they were unattended?
Owlowiscious flapped up from his post, the tawny owl clearly sensing Spike’s dilemma. What Spike must have imagined him to be saying was clearly at odds with what he truly intended to say with each hoot, but it was as plain as the Sun in the sky what Spike wanted to do and felt he needed to do, and the contradiction of what Spike felt like he should do.
With a bright Hoo, the pet owl alighted upon the handle of the watering can besides the two formerly-equine plants. Flapping his wings furiously, Owlowiscious hoisted the can into the air, sliding the handle along his claws so as to guide the sprinkling water over the agave and cactus.
Spike took this to mean, Don’t worry. I got this.
“Oh no. I couldn’t ask you to look after them, Owlowiscious,” he murmured. “Mom and her friends’ll probably be able to handle Trixie just fine on their own.”
He hesitated again.
“But then… Trixie did make Rarity into an old grey mare. She ain’t what she used to be. She’s… old, maybe dying.” Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. “I don’t want to lose her.”
Slinking up to the agave and cactus on all fours, Spike slowly gave the potted bases of each plant a full and tight hug.
“I’m sorry, Grandmom, Grampa, but… I gotta help out Mom and her friends.”
Spike gave Owlowiscious a serious expression.
“Guard them with your life, Owlowiscious.”
And Spike was out the door.
Trixie’s hat flew back as she let out a grand cackle.
“Very impressive, Trixie,” came a bold and snarky voice. The pale Unicorn looked down in disdain at the one who dared to address her with such a sneer in her tone. It was that infernal plague upon her perfect dream-world, The Small And Petty Twilight Sparkle!
“But tell me,” she continued, “in the waking world, what was your special talent? What sort of magic is your specialty according to your cutie mark?”
Trixie snorted derisively.
“The Wondrous Smoke-and-Mirrors is not inclined to answer you because of your insolence, but She will regardless. It is a riveting tale, of a young city filly whose magic was so great that it could mask the horrible world that would not accept her, that she could spin illusions so great that every pony who witnessed them would bow in wonder at the sight of her! And then, one day, the brand marking her talent for illusion magic appeared on her flanks. And now, in Her eternal rest, The Mare Of Many Names spins the ultimate illusion: that of a world that loves Her!”
Though her voice remained strong and steady, tears streaming down Trixie’s face told Twilight all too much that the formerly azure Unicorn’s life had not been kind to her. A new dimension of pity filled her heart, and she hesitated at the prospect of ruining this mare’s life for the second time.
But resolve filled hesitation’s void, and Twilight knew that whatever she did for Trixie now was preferable to the Alicorn Amulet having its way with her.
“Then let me tell you what it is you’re wearing, Trixie. It’s the Alicorn Amulet, an ancient artifact of powerful forbidden magic that corrupts its user in exchange for giving them absolute power… Or so it would seem.”
‘What dost thou imply, Twilight Sparkle?’ Queen Selena asked, the crimson lightning around her turning her gray-blue coat a deep purple.
“I’m saying,” Twilight answered, “that Trixie’s magic is all misdirection, even now. All it takes to look past an illusion is to know that it’s a ruse. The Alicorn Amulet doesn’t grant its wearer absolute power; it merely amplifies the wearer’s special talent to absolute levels. Not everything is what it appears to be, is it, Trixie?”
Trixie’s alicorn glowed red, and Twilight felt a sudden clenching in her throat. The ponies around her gasped in horror as she was levitated into the air by her neck. Even telling herself that this was all an illusion, that she wasn’t really choking or seeing spots in her eyes or graying out, it still was extremely realistic for an illusion, far more than Trixie’s own ursa major.
Even understanding how the illusion was created did not undermine the wonder and terror of it.
“So you hope to undermine The Great And Powerful Trixie again, Twilight Sparkle? She has no idea why She could have ever conceived of you, and right now She does not care! All that is on Her mind is to banish you to the deepest and darkest recesses of Her mind, where you belong!”
A mulberry blur sped from out of nowhere and tackled Trixie to the ground, the dwimmer shimmer around Twilight’s throat flickering out in an instant. Taking in a deep breath, Twilight took in the sight of Spike with his arms wrapped tightly around Trixie’s neck, keeping her from concentrating on a spell.
“I got her, Mom! Now get the Amulet off of her!”
Torn between elation and terror, Twilight prepared to take that infernal trinket in her own dwimmer shimmer…
But Spike lit up crimson, and Twilight froze.
“Make one wrong move, Twilight Sparkle, and the lizard gets it!”
Another blur tackled Trixie to the ground, this one a bright orange. Spike flopped down onto Applejack’s back, the palomino now full-sized once more.
“If yer gunna mess with Twilight’s kin, yer gunna have ta answer ta me!”
“And me!” snapped Rainbow Dash, her wings now properly in place on her back and her ears flat against her skull, the word illusion scrawled into a dirt patch in front of her by an irate Fluttershy.
“And all of us!” growled Pinkie Pie, her muzzle back in place and clearly no longer muted. “And good Celestia is it good to be able to talk again, because not being able to talk was the absolute worst thing that ever happened to me because I wasn’t able to share a joke with my friends to make them feel better about how terrible this NightMare Night was because I couldn’t talk and then I couldn’t breathe and not being able to talk is way worse than not being able to breathe because just breathing and not talking is just creepy and when you can talk you’re able to tell your friends how much fun it is to make them smile and how I like to make funny faces like the one that I’m making right now and…”
Trixie screamed in frustration.
“Trixie thought that She silenced you for good, you infernal mare from Tartarus! You keep abominable company, Twilight Sparkle!”
Twilight Sparkle smirked.
“And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Nor would I, darling,” replied Rarity, lustrous, young and vibrant as she had ever been.
“Wait a second,” muttered Diamond Tiara, suddenly fearful. “If Daddy and Silvie being turned to blank-flank statues was just an illusion, then…”
Seated to either side of her atop a pile of upturned apple crates were her father and Silver Spoon, both giving her irate and cross expressions.
The small pink filly smiled nervously.
“Uhh… I love you both?”
Before another word could be uttered, a deafening boom echoed through the Saddle Valley, and all eyes and ears turned to the sky. A grand prismatic wave spread across from the west where the Sun had set, the midnight-blue sky shifting along the colors of the rainbow. At the head of the wave was a great trail of golden fire emanating from a singular point of gold light. It paused megagrosses of hooves directly over the Gazebo, wreathed in an aura of flame, before descending in a blast of rainbow and golden light. Though the shield around Ponyville vanished with each villager’s growing awareness that it was in fact an illusion, the descending firenado seemed to be unaware of this, as it broke mightily upon the shield unsensed by anypony but itself. As it turned aside to attack from another angle, Twilight thought that she saw a flash of rainbow from within the gold flames. Who or what was that…?
Was it… the Concord Flame?
If it was, then…
Spell matrices aligned in Twilight's mind, and as her alicorn glowed pink there appeared over the roofs of the tallest buildings in Ponyville large letters glowing in the same hue, bathing Ponyville in a rosy light. To any that were skilled in reading backwards, they would see that the message Twilight had projected read THE SHIELD IS AN ILLUSION.
The gold-fire-spirit-thing was clearly sapient, because it paused at the sight of the words for a split-second, and then charged straight down towards Town Square in a beeline for Queen Selena. The Queen of the Night’s eyes widened in sharp alarm, but the crimson lightning began to fizzle as the golden fire’s light grew upon her. Selena was swept up into the golden fire and carried off and over the rooftops of Ponyville.
“NO!” Trixie shrieked, her coat paling to white and her sclera darkening to black. “Do NOT be a coward, NightMare Moon! Face the one strong enough to ensnare you, The Great And Powerful Trixie! FACE ME!”
Her voice rang through the hamlet, and all of the Saddle Valley, reverberating off of every window and rattling every skull. Mr. Filthy Rich carted his daughter (by the scruff) and Silver Spoon (on his back) off of the pile of apple boxes, the Mayor clamboring down off of a stack of barrels.
The Moon shone brightly overhead, all the more so because of the shrouding dark clouds billowing in from the east and the west. A low growling rumble grew from all directions, as though the Unmaker itself had arrived at last, as if the Kraken rose up from its deathlike sleep in the darkest and deepest ravine of the oceans to crush Equestria in its death-throes.
A torrent of pale lightning-bolts erupted from the point where the specter of golden flame had carried Queen Selena away, arcing along the rooftops and into the sky overhead, dispelling the words which Twilight had spelled.
“What’s… happening…?” Twilight breathed.
A twister arose from the lightning’s point of origin, the fallen leaves of autumn being swept up along with the varying bits of detritus from the failed NightMare Night preparations; corks and muffins and abandoned masks…
And a dark shape rose up through the heart of the tornado, wings flapping and alicorn glowing a deep royal-blue.
‘THOU ART A FOOL, LULAMOON!’ boomed out a great legion of voices.
Twilight felt as though her blood had turned into ice-water. That voice sounded far too much like NightMare Moon, filled with a fell rage. Had Queen Selena fallen again…?
But no, Twilight realized her folly as the nightly Alicorn glided swiftly down to Town Hall to face Trixie. The pale gray-blue coat of her forward half had darkened to a deep blue, the star on her right cheek to the midnight cornflower of her hindquarters. Below the hairbands near the ends of her mane and the skirt of her tail… Twilight had no words for what she saw. It looked like NightMare Moon’s mane and tail, amorphous, almost miasmic… stars and the gleaming lines of constellations showed beautifully. And at the very tips of the her mane and tail… Blackness, with odd dancing purple orbs.
‘Thine actions tonight hath provoked thy Queen of the Night,’ snarled Queen Selena, ‘and hath also led to the hastened restoration of her dark powers!’
Trixie’s alicorn glowed red, along with her eyes and cutie mark and teeth.
“You cannot do that! That is not Trixie’s will! You are Trixie’s dream!”
Selena’s shone white.
‘We are not merely the Queen of the Night-sky, of the Moon and the Stars, but also of the Oneiron, the Realm of Dreams. Were this a dream, we would be aware of it. Thou have erred gravely, young one, and we shalt avenge the injuries these villagers have suffered under thee!’
“Queen Selena!” Twilight cried. “Be careful about Trixie and the Amulet!”
The dark Queen glanced at Twilight out of the corner of her eye.
‘We are aware of this, Twilight Sparkle, as surely as a tarasque has six legs. But you Ponyvillagers hath taken humiliation most dreadful at this Unicorn’s wrath. This shall not be forgiven!’
A bolt of lightning shot out from Selena’s alicorn at Trixie, who shattered like a pane of glass…
Reappearing over Selena’s head, her cape-wings billowing.
“Even the Queen of Dreams cannot hurt Trixie in her own mind!”
A flash of red light that left a blue-green after-blur in Twilight’s eyes, and a crater as wide around as Queen Celestia’s wingspan appeared under where Selena had stood, clouds of dirt and clumps of grass flung in every direction and forcing many ponies to duck and cover their heads to avoid taking dirt or grass in the eyes.
But a shadow had shot out the instant before the blast made contact, and the shadow coalesced back into Queen Selena, now airborne and her swan-white secondaries leaving trails of white light as she flapped.
“Do not violate the sanctity of Trixie’s mind!” snarled the namesake Unicorn, an army of blood-red ursae major larger than any that ever lived appearing in every direction around Ponyville. Their expressions filled with a frightening rage, they walked straight through the homes and businesses of Ponyville straight for Queen Selena, each raising a large paw with claws as large as the minarets of Canterlot.
The dark Alicorn vanished in a flash of deep-blue light, re-appearing directly behind Trixie. The Unicorn was too invested in watching the ursae major dig their claws into the rooftops of Ponyville to regard the Alicorn who had winked out directly behind her.
Twilight squinted; what was happening with Selena’s mane? The amorphous end had grasped Trixie by her leonine tail and the pair of them vanished in a royal-blue flash before the Unicorn could react.
The ursae major, the damage they’d inflicted on Ponyville, the crater and the flung dirt and grass all vanished as Selena and Trixie reconstituted back in the spot that their confrontation began.
And Selena’s leonine tail had whipped around, the miasmic tip of her skirt wrapping itself around the clasp of the Alicorn Amulet.
‘Thy mind is already violated, Lulamoon!’ she cautioned. ‘The carcanet that thou bearest hath robbed thee of thy sense, and it would be in thy greater good to remove it!’
“Yeah, you do it, Selena!” cheered Rainbow Dash, putting a hoof in the air.
“You teach that nasty old Unicorn!” shouted Scootaloo, fluttering for a few moments with her tiny wings.
“Teach dat ovah-sized bully a lesson, new Queen!” grinned Sunflower, flapping away over her parents and sister with a slightly savage grin.
“Preferably a clean and refined lesson, Aunt Selly,” added Blueblood, rubbing a hoof along his chest. “I’d really rather not have to clean any blood out of my beautiful coat.”
Ears bristling at the word Aunt, Trixie’s mouth seized up in a manic grin.
It all happened very quickly, and yet it all seemed to happen very slowly to Twilight, as though her vision was being overcranked by some astral movie-maker: The sound of a dwimmer-beam being launched forth. A squeak of alarm, followed by a shriek of dismay, a clink of metal and a sound of crumpling.
Trixie hastily fired a blast of crimson energy at Blueblood, who grabbed Rarity in his own dwimmer shimmer and hoisted her in front of him to take the spell for him, the alabaster Unicorn squeaking in alarm at being so abruptly toted by magic. The spell made contact with Rarity, whose coat suddenly swelled outwards and gave the impression that she had been transfigured into a giant white puff-ball. Upon realizing what had happened to her, Rarity let out a dismayed scream.
As soon as the blast was sent forth, Queen Selena pulled roughly on the Alicorn Amulet, the clasp coming undone in a metallic clink. Immediately Trixie’s furious expression went blank, her legs giving out underneath her as she crumpled to the earth, all but vanishing beneath her cape.
Scores of ponies stood around the fallen Trixie Lulamoon in stunned horror. Little Mornen Noir buried her head in her mother Pinot’s chest, the mulberry mare and her Unicorn wife each placing a comforting hoof on the back of their daughter’s head. The Mayor’s pince-museau glasses slipped slightly down her muzzle, necessitating a light push back up.
“E-everypony with children, please see to it that they’ve been taken back to their homes,” the Mayor said shakily. Even before she’d finished, at least a dozen parental pairs began to herd their foals off and away from Town Square.
“Come along, Apple Bloom,” muttered Big McIntosh, nudging her lightly in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres.
Apple Bloom let out a high protesting “Hey!”, before sputtering in resignation and trotting off, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo following morosely.
“This is only a safety measure,” called the Mayor after the receding families. “Word shall be sent out swiftly once the situation has been cleared up.”
Upon finishing her words, the Mayor turned her bespectacled gaze upon the fallen Unicorn, as did Twilight Sparkle and her band of friends. After only a moment’s hesitation, she lifted away the cape…
Twilight felt her stomach lurch slightly; the cape came unclasped, but upon close inspection she could see that the fibers had become interwoven into her shoulders and withers. The changes that the Alicorn Amulet had effected upon Trixie’s body had not been reversed. Her coat was still palest blue-white, her mane and the skirt of her tail had all but fallen out, and her irises were still blue surrounded by black sclera.
“Oh dear…” murmured Fluttershy. “This is just awful…”
“Indeed it is,” added Strawberry, the doe nuzzling her son’s head. “Why would something like this happen?”
Whatever answer anypony could offer to the Deer mother, it was lost in that moment. Rarity, no longer the puffball that she’d appeared to be, rounded indignantly upon Blueblood.
“You… used me as a meat-shield?” she snarled. “You, sir, are without a doubt the single most charmless pony I have ever met!”
Blueblood withdrew frightfully, calling out, “Guards! I’m being threatened!”
Flash Sentry and Wind Chill answered almost immediately, flanking the Duke and placing their wings across the space between them.
“Is there a problem, Ma’am?” asked Flash Sentry strictly.
Stealing one last disgusted look at the cowardly Duke, Rarity snorted.
“No. I have nothing whatsoever to say. It would be a waste of breath.”
The pair of Guards lowered their wings hesitantly. Queen Selena approached, the Alicorn Amulet in her dwimmer shimmer.
‘Thou dost carry little of the royal bearing, Princeling,’ she admonished. ‘Thy many-dozens-great-grandmother was mine and my sister’s aunt. If I may say so, thou must act the role of kindly royalty.’
“But she was yelling at me!” Blueblood retorted.
Rarity sighed heavily.
“I really dodged an arrow with that one,” she murmured to Twilight. “I swear to you, the Duke will have turned me away from stallions forever.”
Twilight snorted humorously in spite of herself. “He has that effect on mares. I tried to tell you earlier, but…” Her eyes drifted darkly down to Trixie’s fallen form.
Rarity nodded slowly. “I see…”
A trumpet call blared out from the north, bringing the attention of the dozen-four remaining in Town Square. A glimmer of light approached from Canterlot.
“Q-Queen Celestia…?” gasped Aunt Orange, before setting to her daughters’ manes. “Quickly, you have to look your absolute sharpest!”
‘That will not be necessary, Lady Orange,’ sighed Selena. ‘Elder Sister cares little for appearances or status anymore.’
Uncle Orange tilted his head confusedly.
“But… Isn’t she the Queen? Why would the Queen not care about status or appearances?”
“Perhaps you’d be best suited to asking her when she arrives,” answered Twilight, pointing a sapphire hoof up at the approaching chariot, nearly identical to the one which had carried Queen Selena and set down in Ponyville several hours before. It set itself down beside Queen Selena’s chariot, a pair of figures disembarking shortly. It was Queen Celestia and Zecora.
Twilight made to address the Alicorn Queen, but a pale-blue shimmer of magic from one of the ponies who’d drawn the chariot. His wings were flying apart into dozens of flat squares, a pale-blue glow from the peak of his head.
A Unicorn? she’d thought confusedly as the squares all converged at a single point that diverged from Royal Guard’s regulation armor: a simple brown satchel tied to his left hind leg. And… are those sheets of paper? He has paper magic?
Shaking her head slightly, Twilight turned her attention to Queen Celestia and Zecora. In the nighttime of Town Square, Celestia practically glowed in her eminence and her radiance.
“Selena,” she said brightly, verily prancing up to her younger sister. “I’m so glad to see you safe again after such a troubling turn. And on NightMare Night at that!”
‘Elder sister,’ Queen Selena levitated up the Alicorn Amulet, ‘I do believe that the rapscallion fallen at our hooves was being manipulated by this carcanet.’
The beaming look on Celestia’s face gave way to a dark shrewdness, the royal-blue dwimmer shimmer around the Amulet giving way to Celestia’s bright-yellow dwimmer shimmer as the Queen of the Sun brought the offending trinket towards herself.
She narrowed her eyes.
“There is a fell magic in this amulet,” she mused partly to herself. “If it had stayed on Trixie Lulamoon much longer… I cannot imagine that she would have lasted.”
Twilight glanced down somberly at the formerly azure Unicorn, immobile and unresponsive. Catching the movement of her pupil’s eyes, Celestia followed the lavender Unicorn’s gaze and gave a slight gasp.
“This… this can’t be young Lulamoon,” Celestia breathed, eyes moving along shriveled legs, protruding ribs, thinning mane and skirt of tail. She addressed the Unicorn Royal Guard who had helped to lead her chariot into Ponyville, “Guard the Amulet with your life, Paper. I shall ensure that Trixie Lulamoon receives the utmost care at Ponyville’s hospital.”
Paper the Royal Guard saluted, “I can do it, Your Majesty!” His alicorn glowed pale-blue, his satchel flying open and scores of sheets of paper flying out to form a treasure chest that encased the Alicorn Amulet.
‘Too long it seems, my Unicorn friend,’ smiled Zecora. ‘But glad I am that this has reached its end.’
Twilight reached a foreleg over Zecora’s shoulder, holding the Kwato Zebra tight.
“I hope it has, Zecora. I hope it has.”
Doctor Horse, M.D. removed his stethoscope from the pale Unicorn’s chest. The medical Unicorn faced his queenly guest with dread. “Well, Your Majesty… I’m not picking up any cardiac activity. No heartbeat at all. No lung activity either. For all intents and purposes, she should be dead.”
“‘Should be’?” echoed Queen Celestia. “What do you mean?”
Doctor Horse took up a reflex hammer in his dwimmer shimmer, rapping against one of Trixie’s knees sharply. Her leg bucked sharply, then settled back to its original position.
“As I thought,” he said decisively, as though this settled some great mystery. For Queen Celestia, however, pony anatomy was not a matter of great study for a very long time, and the memory was not quick to come back to her.
“Please, Doctor. Enlighten me as to what this means.”
“Well,” explained Doctor Horse, “while I was checking for a pulse and for breathing, I also performed a quick spell to check for neuronal activity. I… think you’ll find the results interesting.”
His bright-blue dwimmer shimmer projected a graph over Trixie’s hospital bed. It showed a steady rising and falling series of parabolic arcs.
“This is the typical pony’s brainwaves while engaged in learning, the point at which a pony’s brain is at its most active, around three-dozen-four cps. It is around eight-to-dozen-one cps when a pony’s mind is considered to be ‘at rest’. Now…” His voice lowered noticeably, and he hesitated at the prospect of discussing this with the Queen, but he recalled that she had lived through the timeless Age of Discord, seen worse horrors than he had ever dared to imagine, and he acquiesced to himself. “This is what our patient’s neural pattern looks like.”
The parabolic arcs spiked dramatically, rising and falling at erratic intervals, but at a far higher frequency than before.
“As you can see, Your Majesty,” Doctor Horse explained, “her neural activity is significantly abnormal. Far higher than I’ve ever seen or read of. Higher than is safe for the equine brain. But… It should be impossible for a pony to have any semblance of a brainwave without breath to refresh their blood… on top of an inactive cardiovascular system.”
“Her soul was ripped in two.”
Doctor Horse looked at Queen Celestia curiously.
Celestia turned pitying eyes upon Trixie’s catatonic body.
“She was victim of a horrific artifact of terrible power. It tried to devour her soul wholly, taking her body with it, but it was removed before it could accomplish this fully. I have seen this before, but not for grossenturies.”
“So… your diagnosis is that she is in a coma?”
“I’m afraid that it’s not that simple. I have witnessed the other five who successfully removed the Alicorn Amulet from themselves… for scores of years, never changing. If Lulamoon’s soul was fully removed, she would at least be granted the sweet dignity of death. But, with half of her soul devoured by the Amulet, the torn fragment in her body remains earthbound. What you are reading, Doctor Horse, are not brainwaves, but soul-waves.”
“‘Soul-waves’?” Doctor Horse looked puzzled. “I’m afraid metaphysics is not a field that I am tremendously knowledgeable of, Your Majesty. Could you… enlighten me?”
Celestia nodded. “Well, perhaps you are not reading the soul-waves directly, but rather the erratic spikes that it generates in her nervous system. If I may hypothesize (although I am not a scientist), I would guess that these spikes you registered have been her soul spasming, trying to find its missing piece, so that she can find an end to her misery.”
Doctor Horse looked down at the body in horror. It was cold to the touch, but could it really be called dead?
“Is… is there no way to euthanize her?”
Celestia shook her head sadly. Tears streaked her muzzle.
“I wish that there was. Lulamoon here marks only the sixth pony to suffer such a fate, but… without a whole soul inside her, any fatal blow would glance off. The only thing that can be done for her, is to take her to the place of the other five survivors of the Alicorn Amulet… and hope that our research into the Alicorn Amulet will allow us to reintegrate the souls of its victims.”
The doctor and the queen looked down on the former showmare.
“For now… all we can do is hope. And… may I make a request of you, Doctor Horse?”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” replied the doctor, bowing his head to the Alicorn.
“Please don’t tell my student Twilight about anything that we discussed here. It is not time for her to know what has befallen our poor subject here.”
The four Royal Guards congregated in front of the two chariots, helmets deposited at their sides. Flash Sentry’s mane was deep-blue and wild, while Wind Chill’s was a dark purple. Of the two ponies who’d drawn Queen Celestia’s chariot, the Drow mare bore a sleek mustard-brown mane, and Paper the Unicorn’s mane was spiky and pale-blue with paler highlights.
“Flash, Chilly,” asked the Drow mare, “are you two alright?”
Flash scratched the back of his head with a nervous smile. “Yeah… I think so? We kinda couldn’t see anypony for a long while, though; it was like all of Ponyville was deserted.”
“And when we tried to leave,” droned Wind Chill in his low grumble of a voice, “we met an invisible barrier. For so long, it was just the two of us, with nopony to guard. We had no idea what had befallen us or Ponyville. But then, we heard Lady Twilight’s voice, explaining that it was all an illusion…”
“And we reappeared in Town Hall,” finished Flash Sentry. “It was… weird.”
“Definitely sounds very strange,” answered Paper, his leonine tail twitching slightly.
“Wait,” Twilight interjected. “How did you hear my voice? Unless… unless Trixie was losing control of her illusion magic. Yes, that has to be it.”
“Sounds about right,” Paper nodded, looking down at his paper treasure chest. Twilight smiled at the faint dwimmer-gleam of the Alicorn Amulet’s resting-place.
“I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced,” Twilight said to the four guards genially.
Immediately, three of the four guards snapped to attention with a salute, Paper deciding to bow instead.
“Flash Sentry is my name, ma’am. Playing guitars by moonlight, serving the Guard by daylight!”
“Wind Chill of the Night Guard, Lady Twilight. I dream that one day we shall learn all the secrets of the night.”
“Vinum-Mustum. I may have regrettably fallen under NightMare Moon’s sway, but I shall serve Queen Selena until the night I breathe my last!”
“And I’m… I’m Paper Mache. I’m new to the Royal Guard, and… I’ve… I don’t want to brag, but I’ve already been considered to be Queen Celestia’s personal bodyguard!”
Sizing up the Unicorn, Twilight could tell that he was indeed quite young; he couldn’t be much older than dozen-five. He was slight and slender, looking slightly feminine.
“Congratulations, Paper!” Twilight beamed. “You must have particularly powerful magic if the Queen wants you at her side in that capacity.”
To Twilight’s minor befuddlement, Paper shifted his bright-blue eyes away awkwardly, a faint pink tinting his cheeks.
“W-Well… it’s not just that, but… you see, to me… Queen Celestia is…”
“That’s sweet and all,” butted in Rainbow Dash, waving a grayish-blue hoof about nonchalantly as she flapped up to Paper, “but you’re still just a rookie. I didn’t know they made armor in your size.”
“Rainbow Dash!” snapped Twilight. “You leave Paper alone!”
“No, it’s alright, Miss Twilight,” murmured Paper.
“Really? If that’s alright, then strip.”
“Rainbow!” growled Applejack. “Now yer just goin’ too far!”
Paper covered his face with a grieved foreleg, his fellow Guards giving the cerulean Pegasus deep glowers.
‘Guards, stand ye down!’ Selena barked as she stepped in. She cupped Paper’s chin under a cloven hoof. ‘Be not afraid, thou steadfast soldier. Oblige the commoner her request, and show her thine unsheathed form.’
Gulping slightly, Paper leveled a glare and a scrunched-up muzzle at Rainbow Dash before using his dwimmer shimmer to unhitch the numerous locks that kept his armor hitched to his body. Golden barrel-armor and grieves joined the helmet.
If Paper Mache appeared thin with his armor on, then he looked far leaner without. It also became apparent that the blue-tinted-white Unicorn had a great deal of Pegasus blood in his veins, for he had pale-blue feathers around his fetlocks, narrow and almost dainty cloven hooves crossed in front of him. Narrow shoulders were marked by feathered patches of the same pale-blue hue as his fetlocks, and his cutie mark was a piece of parchment surrounded by eight yellow stars. Well-groomed tail-feathers bristled as his ears flattened against his skull at Rainbow Dash’s snickering.
“Really? Celestia wants you to be her personal guard? You look like a stiff breeze could knock you over.”
Paper Mache glared at Rainbow Dash.
“Appearances can be deceiving, Rainbow,” Twilight warned. “If Queen Celestia wants somepony to be her personal guard, then she or he must have exceptional ability belying her or his outward look.” She smiled kindly at Paper. “What is your special talent, if I may ask?”
Paper offered a sly smile in return.
“I’m glad you asked me, Twilight Sparkle. You see, my special talent is kamitsukai!”
At his last word, Paper Mache’s satchel sprung open in a flash of pale-blue light matching Paper’s feathers, scores of sheets of paper soaring out and around the Unicorn’s head like a grand orbit of asteroids around their own Harmonia.
“‘Kamitsukai’…” Twilight echoed.
The off-white Unicorn Guard laughed sheepishly, “Sorry about the gratuitous Neighponese. My father’s a copywriter across the pond, and… Sometimes it just slips out. Sorry.”
“That’s nothing to apologize over. But… Your special talent is paper magic?”
Paper grinned. “You bet it is. I can manipulate paper wherever I can sense it. I’ve been doing it since I was little, and I―”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” Rainbow drawled. “That’s great and all, kid, but try not to get a paper-cut with your little magic tricks.”
Paper glared darkly, turning his attention away from the brash Pegasus.
“See that tree right there, Pegasus?” he said, pointing at one of the trees circling Town Hall. It was not exactly a large tree, but it was no sapling, the topmost branches hanging over the balcony at the Gazebo’s second level. Several dozen sheets of paper coalesced into what looked to be a broadsword, gleaming pale-blue at its edge, while several dozen others formed a perfectly circular shield.
Rainbow Dash grinned, “Yeah I see it, kid. So what’re you gonna do with your fold-up sword? Chop it in half against―”
Rainbow Dash’s words were cut off.
As was the tree, the top half sliding down the diagonal slice at the thickest part of its trunk, various nuts and such falling from its branches as it crumpled to the cobbled path.
Rainbow Dash gulped nervously at the sight, Paper’s paper-sword dispersing into its constituent sheets.
Fluttershy stuttered, “You… you just killed a tree…”
“The bronco insulted my magic,” Paper snapped. “It couldn’t be helped.”
“―…the tree,” Rainbow finished, jaw hanging slack after the last syllable.
“And that’s not all,” said Paper, drawing up the shield of sheets. “Miss Twilight Sparkle, could I ask one of your Earth Pony friends to buck this shield?”
“Oooh~!” Pinkie Pie squealed. “Let Jackie be the one to do it, ‘cause she can buck harder than anypony I’ve ever seen anywhere else, except back home on the rock farm where my big sister Maud can shatter boulders with just one kick from one of her hind legs, and my other two sisters aren’t too bad about it either, better than me at least, and I was never very good at rock-farming like the rest of my family, and it wasn’t until―”
“Thank ya kindly, Pinkie Pie,” Applejack said, stepping towards the shield. The palomino raised her right eyebrow, tapping it gingerly with a tan forehoof. “Seems a right sturdy shield, Paper Mash. But… are ya sure Ah cin buck this with all mah strength? Ah might hurt ya.”
“It’s Mache. And yes, I want to show you the durability of paper that’s under my magic control.”
Hesitating for only a moment, Applejack turned halfway away from the feathered Unicorn, dug in her forehooves and bucked with a single hind leg. The shield held firm, though Paper did wince slightly at the strike.
Paper smiled, “Inspection, if you please, Lieutenant?”
Flash Sentry strode up to the shield of paper sheets, passing over it gently with a grieved hoof, inspecting closely with eyes trained to spot shoddy welding from a distance of two-dozen hooves.
“Hmm… Now this is interesting.”
“What?” asked Rainbow Dash.
“It doesn’t appear to have even been dented. Come and see, Miss Twilight.”
Obliging the Pegasus Guard, Twilight ran her own hoof across the shield. Sheets of paper pressed together more tightly than she had ever seen before, yielding not even an inch at her application of pressure. On each sheet of parchment, Twilight made out the Queen’s elegant dwimmer-writing.
“Impressive spell-work, Paper Mache. I can see why Queen Celestia would choose you to be her personal bodyguard. Yours is a very versatile special talent.”
“Indeed it is,” said Queen Celestia, descending from the sky with a grave expression, the ponies around Town Hall bowing as she landed. “Paper’s magic is not wholly offense nor defense. For if one focuses one’s abilities solely on pushing forward, then one will be pushed back all the more easily. But conversely, if one were to sink all of their energy into refusing to be pushed back, one will never advance.”
“Please, Queen Celestia!” squeaked Paper, his face flushing. “Don’t give me a big head!”
Celestia let out a light chuckle in spite of herself.
“You’re always so cute when you’re flustered.”
Paper’s muzzle scrunched up.
“Your Majesty,” Twilight cut in, “how is Trixie? Will she live?”
The Queen of Day set her sad eyes upon the lavender Unicorn.
“She will be perfectly fine, my dear student. I shall take her into a special care unit at an undisclosed location, where she will receive the best care that is available to victims of these sort of artifacts.” Her eyes glanced towards the paper-chest beside Paper Mache. “And… we shall confiscate the Alicorn Amulet, attempt to crack its secrets and answer the many questions that it has left us.”
“Very good, Your Majesty,” piped in Paper, beaming up at the Queen.
“I thank you, Paper. Now, if you’ll please put your armor back on, there is a task I would like to entrust you with.”
“O-Of course, Queen Celestia!”
In no time at all, Paper Mache had donned his armor once more and snapped to attention with a salute. “What sort of clandestine mission do you have in store for me, my Queen?”
Queen Celestia draped a wing across Paper’s shoulder − Paper blushed furiously − and she drew the Unicorn guardspony in close, her muzzle against the kamitsukai’s ear. Twilight averted her gaze from Celestia’s mouth so as not to read the Queen’s lips, instead looking to the expression on Paper’s face. His eyes were slightly unfocused at the moment, his ears standing straight and alert, attuned to Celestia’s voice. Slowly, a slightly somber expression crossed the Unicorn’s countenance, and when Celestia drew back, the pair of them locked eyes.
“Do you understand what I am asking of you, Paper?”
Paper Mache nodded slowly, his eyes seeming slightly darker than before, a neutral death’s-mask expression on his face. “I do understand, Queen Celestia.”
Celestia smiled dearly, leaning down and offering a maternal kiss to the poll of Paper’s helmet. “Now fly, and see it done.”
Paper’s face screwed up and flushed as red as a tomato, but nonetheless his alicorn lit up pale-blue, scores of sheets of paper soaring out from his satchel and forming a gigantic paper plane, hovering at level with his withers. The large paper-plane bowed only slightly when its maker boarded it, resting his forelegs around the pointed nose. With a faint pale-blue flash, the paper plane darted off down a side-street and out of sight, with Paper astride.
Celestia smiled after the departing guardspony.
“Paper Mache is such a darling Unicorn, isn’t she?”
Twilight nodded in numb agreement.
“Yes. But why not send me to attend to this task for you, Queen Celestia? I don’t doubt that Paper Mache will handle this to your liking, but I like to think that I am more than capable of what… Wait… ‘She’? Paper Mache is a mare?”
Celestia covered a giggling mouth with a forehoof. “She does come across as rather coltish, doesn’t she? Not to mention her rather wilder manestyle. But, as for your question…” The Queen knelt down to meet Twilight’s eye-level. “I understand that you’ve had to deal with greater issues than most ponies could imagine, my most faithful student, and I would be remiss to force you to deal with more than you need to. Besides, in this instance…” Celestia looked over the rooftops of Ponyville, and Twilight followed her gaze to spot a shape like a paper-plane with two pony shapes on it gliding off to the west down the Saddle Valley. “I believe that Paper is more suited to the task at hoof.”
Twilight looked off down the street which she knew ended at the Golden Oak Library. “If you say so, Your Majesty.”
Spike hugged Twilight’s hind leg, smiling sweetly up at her.
“Buck up, Mom. It’s all gonna be fine. You’ll see.”
Twilight smiled back at Spike.
“I suppose… Perhaps we could call back all of the families with their children, and celebrate what time is left of NightMare Night?”
The clock tower at the northeastern edge of Town Square read quarter-past-eight.
“I don’t know…” mused Aunt Orange. “Sunflower and Ballarat really need to get to bed early tonight; it’s been such a trying day, and they must have been so frightened by what happened!”
“Ahh, don’t fool yahself like dat, Mom,” Sunflower said casually. “Me ‘n’ Babs’re made outta toughah stuff dan dat! Ain’t dat right, bro?”
Babs grinned eagerly. “You got dat right, Sunny!”
Uncle Orange sized up his daughters with sharp eyes before facing his wife. “Well, honeycrisp, it’s not like they have class in the morning, so… it’s not like there is necessity for them to wake up ‘on time’, per se.”
The orange-maned Earth Pony mare averted her eyes and absentmindedly traced a circle with a forehoof. “I… suppose not.”
Babs leapt up to high-five her big sister.
“Sweet!” piped in Pinkie Pie, bouncing about like a rubber ball. “Isn’t this exciting? We’re gonna go out in NightMare Night costumes, collecting candy from ponies, dump all the candy into a NightMare Moon piñata that we bust open tomorrow morning in the hopes that she won’t swoop down and snatch away all of our little fillies and colts―”
“Please, Miss Pie,” interjected the Mayor, looking quite cross.
“Sorry, Miss Mayor,” sighed Pinkie, looking a little too rejected for such a simple statement.
The Mayor cleared her throat. “As I understand it, Twilight Sparkle’s plans for NightMare Night diverged quite widely from what has hitherto been celebrated here in Ponyville. Where once we would have worn costumes representing ours or others’ deepest fears, it sounds as though Miss Twilight planned for re-enactments of historical accounts of the disappearances of the Children of the Night and of the rise of NightMare Moon grossenturies later.”
Twilight nodded approvingly. “Very good memory, Miss Mayor.”
The Mayor continued, “And in place of placing the offerings of candy inside an effigy of NightMare Moon, if I recall correctly, Miss Twilight insisted that we treat the image of the Queen of the Night with more… tact. So there will instead be a costume contest where the contestants are judged by the fidelity of their costumes to either that of NightMare Moon or the Queen Selena as she appears now.” The Alicorn in question nodded her head with a faint smile at that acknowledgement. “And for a closing celebration of NightMare Night, Twilight has evidently proposed that there be a recitation of the creed of the Night Guard, to reflect on the manner in which we are protected by the night.”
Queens Celestia and Selena both nodded pensively, trading looks between each other, words seeming to pass between them simply through their gazes rather than through any speech.
“Has… Has Twilight Sparkle divulged these plans to either of you?” the Mayor asked.
Selena shook her head silently.
“This is my first time hearing it as well,” admitted Celestia, “and if I may speak frankly about what I’ve heard of your plans Twilight, they sound like a real bore.”
“Wait, what?” gasped Twilight. “But… I thought you wanted me to start changing the way NightMare Night is celebrated, so that your sister would be celebrated more kindly!”
“That I did, Twilight,” Celestia said, “but change that comes too quickly can be alarming to any pony. Allow NightMare Night to be celebrated by other ponies as it always has been, my little pony. And as time passes, as ponies come to view my sister as more than just a figure of fear…” She draped a wing across her sister’s shoulders, and Selena responded with a grin revealing her vampiric fangs. “…Well, still capable of projecting fear, but on the whole a much more complex figure than legend would suggest. And as greater and greater numbers of ponies come to see her as such, then the celebration will shift towards a vindication of my darling little sister.
“And I want you, Twilight, to be at the forefront of the changes to this celebration.”
“But…” Twilight murmured. “If Queen Selena just goes around scaring little fillies and colts so soon after she’s been set free…”
Pinkie plopped down along Twilight’s back.
“Oh Twilight! Fillies and colts enjoy being scared on NightMare Night!”
“I don’t enjoy being scared, not even on NightMare Night,” sighed Fluttershy, huddling close to the ground.
“But what about me?” cut in Butter-and-Eggs − the family of Deer from Harthind had remained in Town Square, but apart from the group of Equestrians. “I like being scared sometimes, but I’m a buck!”
Queen Celestia knelt down to smile at the Deer-adopted colt, eyes flicking up to the antler tied to his head. In less than an instant she puzzled out exactly who this child was and how he figured into coming to Ponyville with his family, based off of Twilight and her friends’ account of their journey.
“You are more than welcome to join in our customs, young buck, in whatever way you choose to celebrate them (provided that nobody gets hurt).”
Fuzzhead bowed onto one knee.
“We thank you, Queen of the Horses. We shall be everlastingly pleased at celebrating alongside our compatriots who brought light to Harthind.”
Celestia said softly, “I am not the Queen of the Horses. I am merely a Queen of Equestria. The Horses of Saddle Arabia are not subservient to me. But I welcome you to celebrations of NightMare Night! Of course, provided that Selena will call upon all of Ponyville to join us. Shall you do so for us, Selly?”
‘Shall I?’ asked a sinister hissing voice, and Fluttershy gasped very sharply − her idea of a scream. Very quickly it became apparent why: Queen Selena was replaced with the form of NightMare Moon, a savage face-splitting grin that exposed all of her teeth.
‘Have I mentioned that I am capable of a limited form of shapeshifting? Your Queen of Air and Darkness was incapable of using it before because of her drained powers, but she feels that her strength hath returned sufficiently to allow this. NightMare Night shall live on!’
Throughout Ponyville, scores of parents and their foals sat in their living rooms, inspecting the costumes that their fillies and colts had made in preparation for this night to show Selena the Queen of the Night the hard work that they put forward in celebrating her holiday. Somber feelings swept through the parents, fearing for the life of that Unicorn who had collapsed seemingly dead in the middle of town, while their children grew sad for the fact that their ventures for sweets and treats was to indefinitely postponed.
Then a darkly familiar mist swept through the streets, into open windows and under doors. Parents barely had time to clutch their foals to themselves when a similarly familiar voice rang out from seemingly every direction:
‘NIGHTMARE NIGHT! WHAT A FRIGHT! GIVETH US SOMETHING SWEET TO BITE!’
Reactions across the dozens of homes throughout Ponyville carried numerous commonalities: Parents looked fearfully at one another, puzzled and more than a little mortified by the bizarre juxtaposition of such a nightmarish voice with such a juvenile rhyme. Foals split their sides laughing about the notion of such a bogey-mare saying something so silly.
One by one, a very surreal sight greeted each family as they looked out the window: NightMare Moon, pulling grotesque faces and sticking out an elongated snake tongue with a goofy grin on her face. Emboldened, many foals threw on their costumes and barged out the front doors in spite of their parents’ implorences. But as each sire and dam witnessed their dressed-up children being embraced warmly by NightMare Moon and sharing silly little scares, they themselves came to realize that this was no threat to their children’s lives and joined the festivities.
‘I am going to use thy hooves as mine own lollipops!’ cried Queen Selena as NightMare Moon, chasing after a small colt dressed as a pirate, who gave out a cry of exaggerated fear and scampered off with the NightMare in hot pursuit.
Pinkie Pie clucked in joy; for reasons that Twilight no longer allowed herself to pursue, the pink pony had somehow spontaneously generated a chicken costume. Fillies and colts and their families had returned to Town Square, spooking and being spooked by themselves and by “NightMare Moon” in their variety of costumes.
“Whoa, dose ahh some sick costumes!” beamed Babs at the sight of her fellow Crusaders’ duds.
“Ya really like ‘em?” asked Apple Bloom, inspecting the fake seams along her legs. “Ah decided ta go out as th’ monster frum Free Stone, th’ Modern Pilfire. Ah thought it fit since mah one hind leg’s a diff’rent color.”
“And I decided to be a merewolf!” Scootaloo added, finishing off with a fake howl and somehow seeming more adorable than normal with the wolf’s head around her own.
“And I’m a vampire!” squeaked Sweetie Belle, rising up to her hind legs and spreading her cape. “I vant to suck your blood!”
“No way ahh you gunna suck on my little sis’s blood!” grinned Sunflower, flapping over Sweetie’s head and picking up the Unicorn filly.
“Mu-ahahahahahaha!” laughed Sweetie. “I’m now a vampire bat!”
“Oh no!” gasped Sunflower, while Babs practically rolled around laughing. “I cannot escape from dah cuhse of Count Yahchange!”
“‘Count Yerchange’?” Apple Bloom asked with a raised eyebrow. “What’s that s’posed ta… Ohh!” She giggled brightly at the pun.
“Ah’m real glad that NightMare Night worked out alright,” Applejack mused with a warm smile.
“As am I,” Rarity said. “Although, I am rather saddened that your plans were almost completely put to waste, Twilight.”
“Ahh, it’s alright, Rarity,” Twilight mused sadly. “It wasn’t what Queen Celestia thought was proper for her sister’s first NightMare Night… even though it’s so educational and informative in regards to the history of the holiday.”
“Pffbt!” Rainbow Dash raspberried. “Who cares about where it came from? It’s a holiday, not a test. It’s about having fun and getting candy, not memorizing a whole bunch of stuff about things that happened a long time ago! I mean, it’s not like those kids she foalnapped are still alive or something…”
“Rainbow Dash…!” squeaked Fluttershy in fear.
The cerulean Pegasus winced at her ex-fiancée’s reaction.
“Oh… sorry, Flutters.”
“Ohh, come on, fillies, don’t be sour when things are so sweet!” Pinkie Pie said, bouncing in. “I’ve never been so happy as I am now, not even when I got my cutie mark the day I saw that rainbow that also made me so happy!”
“I remember you mentioning that before,” Twilight mused aloud, almost to herself. “What day was that, if you remember?”
“I’d never forget that day. That day was the dozen-third of Pansy!”
Twilight felt her breath catch in her chest. That day… It rang out to her with such mingled joy and sorrow… How could such a dreadful day be good for anypony?
“You… That’s the same day that I got my cutie mark!”
“And it’s my birthday!” added Spike, looking rather shocked himself.
“That is the same day as I received my cutie mark as well,” Rarity said. “I was looking for gemstones to accent some costumes I volunteered to make for the school-play, but… my burgeoning gem-finding spell led me to a giant rock, deep in Gnoll territory. I cursed at it and cursed my magic… but then the most spectacular rainbow blazed across the sky, a tremendous explosion sounding forth and shattering the rock. And inside… I saw the most beautiful, dazzling gemstones I’d ever seen! I took them home with all due speed and added them to the costumes. So, I realized my true talent for gems and tailoring that day as well.”
Twilight smiled at Rarity. “I’m glad that that day was so good for you, Rarity. But that day, for me, is not a day to look back on fondly… apart from this,” she indicated her cutie mark, “and this,” she hugged Spike close to her chest.
“Umm, if it will help you feel better about it,” offered Fluttershy, “do you think you could tell us about it?”
“Well, you already know kinda what happened,” Twilight explained. “It’s the day that I turned my parents into… into plants, and the day that I hatched Spike’s egg. But that was also the day that I was signed up for Queen Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. Mom and Vati knew I was a lover of reading of all subjects, so they signed me up as soon as I was old enough. I was tested as soon as showing up: I had to hatch a Dragon’s egg using only my magic. But no matter how hard I tried to focus on the egg, my magic wouldn’t come out.
“And then, when I thought that I couldn’t disappoint my parents more… I was proven wrong. The Cloudsdale Bang sounded outside, and I―”
“Wait, the Cloudsdale Bang?” Rainbow Dash interrupted. “That was me, remember? That was my first Sonic Rainboom! I got my cutie mark before I’d even landed because I realized that I really loved racing, and more than that winning!”
“Heck yeah, Rainbow Dash!” piped in Scootaloo, the wolf’s-head she wore bouncing excitedly. “That’s how you get a cutie mark, not some sappy ‘find-out-who-you-really-are’ sort of thing!”
“Wait. Something seems weird here. Rainbow, Rarity, Pinkie and I all got our cutie marks on the same day, because of the same event.”
“Umm, I got my cutie mark that day as well,” Fluttershy interjected. “Rainbow’s Rainboom scared all the little animals, and I couldn’t just let them be scared.”
“Then that’s five of us,” Twilight mused, facing Applejack. “Well, AJ?”
“Well… The dozen-third a’ Pansy…” Applejack began. “That was th’ day Ah decided that city livin’ jus’ wasn’ right fer me. That’s th’ day Ah saw…” Her eyes widened. “Th’ rainbow.”
The palomino spun towards Rainbow Dash.
“Ah remember now. That was yer rainbow, Rainbow. It looked like it was comin’ from ‘round Cloudsdale.”
“But,” Rarity said, “in that case, then all six of us earned our cutie marks as a direct result of a single event!”
“That’s… this is just uncanny. We all owe our cutie marks to Rainbow Dash performing the Sonic Rainboom, an event that hasn’t been performed in almost eleven-gross years! There has to be something entirely more cosmic at work about this! And that… that fireball that saved Selena from Trixie performed a Sonic Rainboom as well…!”
“Settle down, sugarcube,” smiled Applejack. “Yer gettin’ yerself all worked up. All it means is that we were meant ta become th’ best a’ friends. We all had a bond that we weren’t aware of at th’ time.”
“We were BFF’s forever and didn’t even know it!” beamed Rarity.
“Well − you know what I mean, Pinkamena Diane Pie!”
“Hey! Who’s up for a group hug?” smirked Rainbow Dash, already holding Fluttershy in a vice-grip with one foreleg, the yellow Pegasus smiling nervously at her ex-fiancée.
The response was unanimous. With a high squeal that verged on only being heard by bats and Drow, Pinkie gave a great bone-crushing hug to Rainbow Dash, Rarity clutching tightly to Fluttershy, Twilight and Applejack diving on the four other mares and the six of them becoming a tangled pile of legs and wings, laughing and smiling.
“Aww, isn’t that just so sweet?” cooed Sweetie Belle, completely destroying any menace that she may or may not have projected in her costume.
“Bleckh!” Scootaloo stuck her tongue. “It’s just so sappy! Why’s Rainbow Dash acting so sentimental all the time? Isn’t she supposed to be cool?”
“Looks like somepony needs a group hug,” trilled Apple Bloom, the little Free Stone’s Monster filly diving on the Merewolf filly and snuggling her head against Scootaloo’s.
“Ackh! Get off! You’re crushing my wings!”
“Pony pile!” cried Sweetie Belle, diving on top of Apple Bloom.
“Ahh! Guys! Knock it off! You’re acting crazy!”
Queen Celestia glanced about at the madcap antics about Town Square, beaming to herself at the quiet indignation of her many-times-removed nephew Prince Blueblood. She did not doubt that he had built up a greater image in his mind as to how royalty was supposed to behave, and was conflicted as to the behavior of his Queen Aunt Selena on a holiday which had heretofore presented her in such a dreadful light.
Celestia anticipated a day when Twilight would ask why she would allow such a holiday to exist that would disparage her sister so much. The stately Alicorn refrained from stepping in and telling her little ponies what they could or could not do. Who was she to judge what was best for ponies? Additionally, she wanted her little sister to take part in mending her relationship to Equestria. It was being overshadowed by Celestia that led to Selena being made vulnerable to that Miasma, and allowing the younger Alicorn the autonomy in this regard was the best solution to what would otherwise have been an untenable situation.
Just at a glance, it looked like everything was working out as well as it could.
If only you could be here now, Sunset, Celestia thought morosely. You and Selena would share such great thoughts… Twilight brought her back; she understood that which you shunned, and the Elements of Harmony are reawakened. I can only hope that they will be sufficient against the tide of Discord, my little pony…
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“Really, Candlelight?” snapped Moondancer. “You would peddle off the Second Princess’s Carcanet to a Unicorn of such poor power? What in the name of Apsinthos were you and Nightshade thinking?”
Candlelight shrugged, “We just figured that Lulamoon’s anger would be enough to suffice for her… err, help me out here, Nightshade.”
The deep-purple Earth Pony nearly opposite him across the High Council’s table bristled slightly at being put on the spot so suddenly. Nevertheless, he acquiesced to his blood-brother.
“I think what Candlelight is trying to say is that we anticipated that the Carcanet would be satiated on Lulamoon’s quintessential rage, to compensate for her meager and shriveled soul. Sadly, we may have been quite wrong.”
“You think?” Moondancer growled. “Now the Carcanet is less than a stone’s throw from Celestia, our mortal enemy! If she can study the Carcanet, then she will be able to trace it back to―”
“Calm down, Moondancer,” interjected the eldest blood-sister, her cougar’s tail twitching agitatedly. “Have some milk and cookies to cool your nerves.”
Moondancer glowered down at the plate of cookies and glass of milk levitating under her big sister’s beaming face a quarter of the way round the table, rolling her eyes and taking the proffered items in her own dwimmer shimmer.
“It doesn’t really matter that the Carcanet has passed into the hooves of Celestia,” mused the pale-blue Pegasus to Moondancer’s left. He had a pensive look about him. “At least, for the moment it doesn’t matter. Let her think that she’s won for now. We have our agents to discreetly reclaim it the instant we command it.” He grinned savagely.
Moondancer sopped up some milk from her lips with one of the choco-chip cookies. “Point taken, Windy.” With a chomp, the cookie vanished into Moondancer’s mouth. “But still, the Carcanet has taken a piddling amount of power into itself in this instance. The Second Princess will not be pleased by this venture.”
“I’m with Moony on this one, Sis,” drolled the Pegasus directly across from ‘Windy’. Her dark-lidded eyes were narrowed with discontent at the eldest sister. “When she finds out that her Carcanet has been so misused, she will do more than confiscate your cookies.”
The big sister grinned, “As if she could ever do that! That’s my special talent, after all.” As if to prove her point, her alicorn gleamed harlequin, and a pile of choco-chip cookies fit to serve at least two-dozen ponies appeared on their table. The Pegasus beside her clapped her hooves excitedly.
“Aw yeah! You’re the best, Sis!”
And she began to dig in on cookie after cookie.
“Be sure to eat slowly, Maggie,” chastised the Pegasus stallion across from her. “Remember what happened last time.”
Maggie nodded absentmindedly, a pack of cookies protruding from her mouth.
“But regardless,” the big sister continued, adopting a more serious tone, “the Second Princess will have to abide by the position of this Council. We are all of us answerable to only one, and surely She will see the greater picture.”
A dozen heads nodded in agreement.
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