My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring

by JohnBiles

First published

The Mane Six. Typical D&D Adventurer Hijinx. As told by an adventurer rescued by them.

Only fools, madmen, and adventuring parties go into the Malpheggi, the swamp beyond the Everfree Forest. It can be left as an exercise for the reader as to which of these categories Samus Marcus (a Thyatian swordsman, or so he says) and Ivan (his companion in trouble) fall into. When they are rescued by the registered adventuring party, the Elements of Harmony, a grand quest across the D&D world of Mystara begins. Together they face culture shock, international politics, romance, dungeons, and a dragon with a grudge as Marcus learns how to trust his new friends and make up for his past mistakes while the Elements of Harmony try to save Equestria from a threat which proves more... complicated... than they originally thought. Also, pie. And hats. A D&D (Mystara)/MLP Crossover.

Book One: Well-Met in the Malpheggi

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My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring
A D&D (Mystara) / My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic crossover

Book 1: Well Met in the Malpheggi

By John Biles

***************

There is no more wretched hive of scum and villainy than the Malpheggi Swamp, a fetid mass of muck, trees, more muck, more trees, lizardmen, sucking sinkholes, quicksand, muck, more lizardmen, hideous blasphemies against the Immortals, muck, trees, more trees, even more trees, trees which kill you, more quicksand, black dragons, sinkholes, and more muck. Only fools, madmen, and adventuring parties go into the Malpheggi. And ponies, but I already covered them in the first three groups. And hideous blasphemies against the Immortals, but I think I listed them too.

I had to flee Shireton after a small misunderstanding with the Thyatian ambassador (no, just because this pipe of mine resembles the belly dancing Alaysian pipe he favors does not mean it used to be his. Necessarily). The authorities did not accept my protests that I do not know what happened to his harem, though I don't think they REALLY wanted to know. But appearances must be kept up, you know.

That's why I pretended to run for the hills and they pretended to chase me with fire and sword, shouting about young maidens or something. You know how Halflings are, they think everyone is after their women.

I made it across the border to Port Athenos and signed on with an expedition into the Malpheggi Swamp in return for the boss faking my death and giving a fake severed head to the Shires ambassador. I had to submit to polymorphing but I haven't used the face I was born with ever since I was caught naked with Duke Stefan's daughter. I find it suspicious that Duke Stefan somehow memorized the birthmark on my groin. But that's another story.

I must have been too drunk to actually hear the words 'Malpheggi' or I would have smuggled myself to Ierendi to avoid taking this job. By the time I sobered up, our scout had fallen into quicksand and died. Normally, this would be where I ran for the hills but I knew I would die if I tried to make it through the Malpheggi alone.

The first dragon attack killed most of us, which is how Ivan and I ended up floating down some river, clinging to a board. Ivan is Karameikan, an old friend of mine who got me drunk to drag me onto this mission. I'll pay him back later; the Alfheimers are STILL looking for him.

"Ivan, if this isn't the biggest treasure EVER FOUND, I will kill you," I told him. "As it is, I'm going to give you a beating once I am no longer clinging to this board."

"Cafen, my old friend," he said cheerfully, "This will be the greatest treasure ever, once we get it away from the Dragon who has it."

Why do I even bother to get up in the morning? WHY?

"Hey, that looks like fun!" a cheerful woman's voice said from the shore. "Let me play too!"

"No, throw us a rope!" I shouted, trying to figure out who was talking and where and if she was pretty.

"GERONIMO!" Something pink came down like the spear of Halav and landed on the board, breaking it into bits; the splash sent us both towards the shore we'd been unable to reach, though we didn't ACTUALLY reach it. However, I was now clinging to a sagging tree branch with both hands and Ivan was clinging to ME. Why do I always have to be the responsible one?

"Wow, this is a great current!" the pink blur said, now clinging to Ivan somehow. Great, he gets the wet woman clinging to him and I get the smell of wet Karameikan as my body works on freezing.

"Hello, ma'am," I said. "I hope you are a great swimmer because I fear my hands are slipping and we are about to be swept towards that waterfall over there." OF COURSE there is a waterfall.

"I thought humans were good swimmers," she said, surprised. "Oh, I should introduce myself! I am Pinkie Pie from Equestria!"

My water-sogged vision finally cleared; a pink horse with reddish-pink mane, was clinging somehow to Ivan, legs wrapped around him as he moaned from trying to support her weight. An Equestrian. Oh God, I am so... oh wait, they won't recognize me in THIS form. I was a tall blond the time I got drunk and... Let's never speak of that again.

"Hello, I'm Ivan," Ivan said. "And I think I am about to die. This is my friend..."

"Samus Marcus. I am from Thyatis," I lied. "I have never been to Equestria at all."

"Well, you should visit, it's very nice!," Pinkie said. "Hold on, my friends are around here somewhere. HEY EVERYPONY!" she shouted loudly.

Five more ponies came into sight. Four of them were strangers to me; one was golden in color... She'd best avoid dwarfs. I coveted her hat; a man is NOTHING without a hat. Another was a paler yellow and had wings. So did the blue one, who had rainbow colored hair... a mane. Rainbow colored mane. And then there was...

OH FUCK ME.

Twilight Sparkle, favored student of Princess Celestia, who I think either IS an Immortal or is well on her way to that status. Celestia is the Immortal, I mean. Twilight is merely a candidate for such, I suspect. Celestia claims she makes the sun rise, which I suspect pisses off Ixion, but she certainly CAN set your ass on fire.

If Twilight figures out who I am, I am a corpse. It was all a big misunderstanding, though if she was HUMAN instead of a horse... I am going to shut up now.

"Well, I reckon you got yerself in over your head again, Pinkie," the hat-wearing one said. Did I mention I covet her hat?

No, I am not stupid enough to steal it with Twilight watching.

Any more.

"Hey, we're having fun but Sammie's arms are tired and we don't have a barrel!" Pinkie shouted.

SAMMIE?

I won't pretend I understand why we need a barrel.

"SAVE US!" Ivan shouted. "I have apples!"

Dammit, you'd think the man would have the decency to share if he's going to drag me into the damn Malpheggi Swamp when I could be relaxing and enjoying myself and having a nice smoke and DAMMIT MY TOBACCO IS NOW WET.

The blue one zoomed over, grabbed Ivan SOMEHOW, and flew back with him. "There you go! One instant rescue!"

Pinkie immediately latched onto me before the current could take her. "So the idea is to rescue everyone one by one and anyone who goes over the waterfall loses?"

"Yes, you could say that," I said in a panic.

"Hold on," Twilight said, turning to Spike, who was studying me intently. She began digging through her saddlebags. "I have my water rescue guide here somewhere. Spike, help me out."

He began digging, while the golden pony said, "I've got this." She then lassoed Pinkie Pie. "Okay, hold onto him and I'll pull you in!"

I eyed her. Could she really pull a pony and me to shore? If she was wrong, we might well pull her over the waterfall too. I'd feel pretty guilty about that.

For the three seconds before I died on the rocks below, but I WOULD feel guilty.

"We might pull you over!" I shouted, regretting the fact that my conscience had chosen this moment to wake up and stumble around my mind, confused and hungry. "I'd hate to kill someone who I just met!"

"Don't worry, sugarcube," she said. "My name is Applejack and I've got you. Trust me."

Not a commodity I easily part with.

"Don't worry, Applejack's the best," Pinkie said assuredly. I know that tone. It's how I sounded when I assured Helga that we could EASILY make off with the Troll King's crown before the curse kicked in.

Trust is a leap in the dark, they say in Rockhome.

I am going to lodge a protest if this kills me for doing something nice for once. I turned and let go and grabbed onto Pinkie Pie. We rushed towards the waterfall and SHE WAS LAUGHING.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" I'm not sure if I was screaming or the waterfall was.

We traced a long arc in the water as Applejack and the blue pegasus pony and a white unicorn I hadn't noticed before joined forces to pull on the rope with Ivan pulling too. That's a true friend.

I'm going to punch him in the nuts until he cries for getting me into this, but he's a true friend.

"Okay, the first step is to make a lasso," Twilight read from the book.

"I think we did that," the yellow pegasus pony said softly, then she looked around and frowned at the noises in the swamp.

"Lasso made, check," Spike said, checking off something on a piece of paper.

I could see my feet dangling over the edge as I clung to the pink pony, utterly waterlogged and exhausted, while she began singing a song. I will not transcribe this song for fear it will drive you to the brink of sanity as it did me.

Also you cannot, in fact, rhyme waterfall and toast.

I think.

"Okay, next step is to throw one end to the victim," Twilight said.

"STOP READING AND START PULLING," Applejack said. Her hooves were dug into the dirt and though the line wobbled, with her anchoring it, the current, the monstrous current, could not pull us to our doom. A doom I deserved for my past sins and Pinkie deserved for her song.

That's not fair, my sins aren't THAT bad.

On the other hand, she was also saving my life by holding onto me... somehow... as my limbs were giving out from exhaustion.

So I will count it even.

Once Twilight and Spike joined the tug of war, they began to gain ground, gradually tugging us out of the water. The yellow pegasus now took to the air and looked around, frowning.

This did not bode well.

Finally, we came out of the water and then the white unicorn cantered up and brandished her horn. The water flew off both of us and suddenly, I was as groomed as a man can be in torn and cut leather and cotton, though my poor hat was now well on its way to the ocean, I think.

DO NOT STEAL APPLEJACK'S HAT, I reminded myself.

Most importantly, I was dry.

I took one of the lady Unicorn's forehooves and kissed it in the Equestrian style, even if it had muck on it. The moment she saw the state of her hooves, she froze in terror. I said, "Fair lady, I am in your debt." I could tell she was a lady of refinement. I can fake refinement well. "I am Samus Marcus, a traveling swordsman from Thyatis." Thankfully, I still had my gladius. Given it's enchanted, losing it in a river would make me very unhappy.

Spike gave me the eye and I kept my calm but screamed on the inside.

Ivan buried his face in his hands and the lady Unicorn smiled. "I am Rarity, and it is a pleasure to meet you."

Twilight Sparkle now introduced herself, the blue pegasus pony (Rainbow Dash), the yellow pegasus pony (Fluttershy), and Spike. "We are the Elements of Harmony, an officially registered Adventuring Party in Equestria, the Republic of Darokin, Sind, the Five Shires, Alfheim, and Karameikos. I can show you our licenses if you need to see them."

"I will take you at your word, Lady Sparkle," I said, bowing and trying to look gentlemanly. Ivan looked at me dubiously.

KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT IVAN UNLESS YOU ENJOY PAIN.

"I am quite grateful," I told her. "I fear my companion and I have gotten in over our heads on our quest."

"Ooooh, quest. What kind of quest?" Pinkie asked, bouncing around us.

"We're trying to stop a marauding dragon," Ivan said.

Technically true. He does maraud and we do want to stop him.

Stop him having any treasure.

"The terrible Grand Wyrm Vermicoritax?" Spike asked.

The fact he knows its name does not bode well.

"Yes," I said. One of them is probably a priest, even if I'm not sure which one. Priestess. Or possibly Fluttershy is a druid, given she's talking to a bird right now.

While I know Twilight Sparkle is very powerful, I don't know if she can handle a Grand Wyrm. I know I can't, which is why we planned to ROB it.

"We're off to convince it to stop raiding Equestria," Twilight Sparkle said. "Why don't you join us? We can help you get back to human civilization once we finish here; you can easily get a train ride down to Manehattan on the coast and get a boat from there, once we're done." Ponies have an interesting invention known as 'trains', which are multiple wagons on wheels which run on special tracks, chained together and pulled by a team of earth ponies. They're quite nice to ride in, but I digress.

If we join them, eventually, I will be revealed and will die.

If we do not, something WILL eat us, and we will die.

This is the story of my life.

I bowed to her, trying to sweep my hat... my poor hat... "Thank you, Lady Sparkle. We are most grateful and will do our best to assist you."

Applejack was whispering to Dash, who was laughing. Okay, that didn't bode well.

Rarity was busy cleaning up Ivan, who was most grateful.

Twilight Sparkle looked at Rarity, looked worried, then smiled just a little, though it wobbled. "Rarity, why don't you explain to Samus what is going on?"

"Samus is my family name; you may all call me Marcus since you saved our lives," I told them grandly. If nothing else, it will hopefully get Pinkie to stop calling me 'Sammy'.

"I would be happy to, darling," Rarity said, then finished cleaning up Ivan to the extent anyone can clean him up.

Then she looked at me and I realized exactly how horribly this is going to explode.

HOW DO I GET INTO THESE MESSES?

*************

I was in the middle of coveting Applejack's hat again when I suddenly realized that despite the fact that being hatless makes me feel more naked than when I am naked, it likely saved my life. TWILIGHT KNOWS MY OLD HAT.

If she finds me out, I will be lucky to become a soulless zombie, bound to carry her books forever.

Further, for some reason, Spike suspects me. He keeps looking at me as if willing me to DIE DIE DIE.

"So where in Thyatis are you from?" Rarity asked. "I've always wanted to visit Thyatis," she said. "It's so sophisticated and urbane," she continued a little dreamily.

"We've been to Thyatis," Dash pointed out.

"Thyatians put broccoli in their pies, which NEGATES the ENTIRE POINT of pie," Pinkie said sadly.

I cannot quarrel with that.

"It does not count if you are hiding in the back of a wagon as it moves at blinding speed over Thyatis and you can't even see it," Rarity said firmly with her elegant voice.

I have to admit to a certain curiosity, given that sounds like a moment from my life.

Except the wagon would be on fire and full of zombies.

Saferi, I HATE YOU, by the way.

Don't ask.

"Well, perhaps one day I could show you around," I said, knowing I would either be dead or fled before that.

Probably dead, but a man must dream or be no man.

"I would be delighted, Marcus darling," she said with that accent of hers. I can't tell if it's real or affected.

I began regaling her with half-true tales of adventure and excitement in Thyatis City. I know it well, though I'm not really Thyatian. But I can fake it.

I've been all over, even to Canterlot. As you likely know, Canterlot is the capital of the Princesspality of Equestria, a state which lies west of the Malpheggi and east of Sind. At its heart is a high plateau inhabited by a mixture of ponies and buffalo (also intelligent). The two groups have an ongoing conflict over whether the plateau top will be used to grow fruit and vegetables and hay or whether it will remain a free range.

Canterlot is carved out of and into the walls of the southern face of the plateau; which is rimmed by forest and hills. Many ponies live in cities carved into the sides of the plateau; others live down in the plains and forest and hills below in a variety of towns and cities, of which the most prominent is the port of Manehattan.

Long ago, the ponies were enslaved by Orcs and brought to this area, where the Orcs wiped out the primitive humans who refused to adapt to changing conditions and were still trying to live the way people lived in the ancient dawn of the first humans. Eventually, though, Princess Celestia appeared (somehow) and led the ponies to revolt, driving off the Orcs. She has ruled ever since as the ponies slowly grew more civilized under her tutelage and influenced by the Sindhi and Darokinians and the Halflings of the Shires.

I'm not sure where the intelligent ponies came from, but I suspect Blackmoor. It's usually guilty when charged with species creation and mutation.

Canterlot is actually a very nice city, especially since the Ponies drank from the same well Halflings did: as long as they're well fed, they're very nice, kind people. They are more prone to mass panic than Halflings but also less likely to bloat up like balloons as they age. Honestly, old Halflings don't so much 'walk' as 'roll'. This is what happens when you eat six meals a day.

Halflings can't trample you to death if they panic, though.

Thankfully.

Ivan was busy talking to Twilight about the dragon. Since I still hoped to never ever see the dragon, I focused on regaling Rarity, as she was enjoying the stories and I enjoyed telling them. Mutuality, it's the key to everything.

"Rarity, I'm sorry, I need to borrow Marcus," Twilight said apologetically to Rarity.

"Oh, it's fine," Rarity said. "Our mission must come first." She waved a hoof.

I bowed to her. "Until later, fair lady," I told her and she smiled brightly.

I went up to Twilight. "I fear Ivan knows more about the dragon than I; he just asked me to help. But, of course, I will give whatever assistance I can," I said graciously, wondering how on earth... I suppose Twilight will just freak out and kill it or turn it into a duck or something.

Ponies can fight... some fight very well. But this group looked too... civilized to tussle with a dragon. And Twilight, intelligent and interesting as she is, is basically a bookworm, which is why...

Let's not think about that.

I am rather surprised to see her here, in the field, actually doing things with her knowledge instead of endlessly studying, though I suppose this is what Celestia has been grooming her for.

I suddenly wondered how many of these ponies were going to die before this was over and felt my stomach curdle. They're so optimistic, they can't really understand what they're up against. I've tussled with a very young dragon and I had to get a new arm. That was years ago, but the principle remains.

Magic sword or not, I did not want to fight a dragon. If it is as old as Ivan thinks, it can swallow a pony with one gulp. OR ME.

Especially ME.

"I understand you lost most of your group," Twilight Sparkle said. "It must feel terrible," she said sympathetically. "I can tell you're trying to hide your pain and put on a good face, but losing friends is never easy."

I barely knew them and I've seen too much death, but now suddenly, my stomach curdled anyway. I winced and she nuzzled me sympathetically, then looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry, that was probably too forward. I know humans are not as affectionate as we are."

"I had not known them long," I confessed. "And some of them may just be lost. I hope so," I told her. "But they deserved better than that." A good beating for leading me into the DAMN MALPHEGGI, yes. But I try not to wish death on anyone.

Except that one damn Alphatian, but that's another story.

"Anyway, it's okay, I have spent time with Ponies before," I told her. "So I am aware of your major customs. I don't mind."

She relaxed a little. "I wouldn't normally... you just seemed... I knew you must be feeling bad, but you seem the sort who tries not to lay their burdens on others."

"A man must carry his own sorrows," I told her. Then I prayed I had NOT said that when I knew her before.

Either I didn't or she didn't remember.

I live another five minutes, YES.

I can't beg off this conversation but every moment is another chance for me to remind her of the past and DIE.

My stomach curdled again.

"Fluttershy can probably help you if you feel sick to your stomach over it," Twilight said sympathetically. "Don't hold it in forever, or you'll throw up." She made a face. "I did that once, trying to finish a book." She sighed. "I got in so much trouble because I stained it."

I laughed at the image; it was SO her. Then I covered my face. "I am very sorry, Lady Sparkle."

"You can call me Twilight," she said firmly. "Since we are friends. I'm not really a noble, just Celestia's student."

I wondered again if she was really Celestia's daughter, but there was no sign of wings. And she was too short. "It is well known you have her favor," I told her, then clambered over long, annoyingly placed tree roots she simply hopped over.

I have to say this, Equestrian ponies are quite nimble.

"We're just friends, we're not..." Twilight turned red.

Surely they're not... I couldn't be sure, though they hadn't been when I was there. But then, she didn't have her own adventuring party either.

I could see Spike talking urgently to Rarity; hopefully not telling her who I really am and organizing a lynch mob.

Twilight followed my line of sight, then said, "Spike h..."

Pinkie dropped out of a tree and landed on Twilight's back and covered her mouth with her legs. "SHHH, it's a secret!"

"Announcing a secret exists weakens its secrecy," I noted. As I know from PAINFUL experience.

At least my hair grew back.

Twilight nodded to me, trying to get loose from Pinkie.

"Twilight is terrible at keeping secrets," Pinkie said. "I think it's her student instincts, from all those reports to Celestia." She now released Twilight and dropped down to all fours again.

My brain chose THIS moment to remind me that Spike can send anyone a letter by immolating it. And that Celestia can mail him back.

"Reports to Celestia?" I asked. "So you are now her field agent?"

"Yes," Twilight said.

"Celestia sent her to Ponyville in order to learn about Friendship and so she'd stop moping over some boy who broke her heart!," Pinkie said cheerfully.

My conscience stirred, smacked into a wall, and knocked a bookcase on itself, then moaned under the weight. I... was she... dammit.

"I was NOT MOPING," Twilight insisted firmly. "We were just friends and I just missed him when he left. That is ALL."

Pinkie whispered in my ear loudly enough for the dragon to hear it, "She is lying."

"I am not lying!" Twilight insisted.

"She sends regular reports of our adventures and life in Ponyville to Celestia, and sometimes Celestia asks us to help out Equestria, which is usually really fun and the victory parties are GREAT, if I do say so myself," Pinkie said proudly.

She is in constant, daily contact with Celestia, ANYWHERE ON THE PLANET. Thanks to Spike, who probably hates the me he used to know and I think suspects I am that me he knew. He certainly doesn't like me for some reason, I can tell that.

"That must be a great help in an emergency," I told Twilight carefully, feeling my stomach grind.

"Someone needs something sweet," Pinkie said, finally getting off Twilight, then began rifling through her saddlebags.

"Well, I don't like to burden Celestia if I can do it myself and she's often busy; sometimes she may not reply for hours," Twilight said. "Especially if it's late. But yes. Usually, though, my friends and I can handle anything." She sounded amazed and proud.

"She doesn't mope nearly as much either," Pinkie said. "When she thinks we're looking." Rifle, Rifle. She pulled out a fez. "This isn't food."

"You and Ivan have been friends a long time, right?" Twilight said, glancing at him as he now talked to Fluttershy. She looked panicked for some reason but I think that is her natural state.

Mind you, this is THE MALPHEGGI SWAMP. Honestly, she's the smartest person in this group if she's actually scared.

"Cookie," Pinkie said and stuffed it in my mouth.

I choked on it, falling down, flailing and Pinkie stared at me in shock.

Twilight's horn glowed and cookie pieces flew out of my mouth and a flask flew out of her saddlebag and cool, clean water washed my mouth out. "Are you okay?"

"Thank you, Pinkie," I said weakly. "But I can't eat that much cookie in one bite." PLEASE NEVER DO THAT AGAIN. "Thank you, Lady Twilight."

If I died by choking on a cookie, I would probably have to go dwell with whatever Halfling immortal handles death by overeating. I don't know and do not wish to find out.

"It's just Twilight," she said. "Are you okay?"

I got to my feet, now covered in muck. UGH. "I am fine," I said, trying to sort of rub myself on a tree. I hate being filthy. This is part of why I HATE the Malpheggi.

Twilight produced a plate and put the cookie bits on it. "Here you go."

I ate them and she then cleaned the plate and stashed it. Pinkie said, "Sorry, Marcus."

"It's okay," I told her, lying. Best to keep good relations with everyone so that when I have to run for the hills, they won't see it coming. "Did you ask me something about Ivan?"

Pinkie bounced off to see Applejack about something.

"Have you known him a long time?"

"Ever since his Shearing," I told her. "We're roughly the same age, though Thyatians don't do the Shearing."

"Is that why his mane is so short?" she asked curiously. "What is the Shearing?"

"Karameikan youths ready to become adults have their hair cut and go on a quest to find themselves. Usually they go work on the docks or maybe become an apprentice for a while, but some become adventurers like Ivan," I told her. "I left home to seek my fortune in the same basic way." And to avoid being forced to marry Anya, who had slept with me to spite her boyfriend for being an ass, then we got caught. No, she and Boris NEVER got caught but of course we did.

I still have a scar and I think she eventually married Boris.

"Applejack did something like that," Twilight said. "I pretty much knew what I wanted to be at an early age, when I got my Cutie Mark." She looked thoughtful. "So what was your plan?" she asked. "Ivan said you usually make the plans." Her voice, though not hostile, had clearly changed to 'Twilight the thinker' mode instead of the surprising 'Twilight the comforter'. I knew Twilight the thinker well.

"It involved lots of people who are dead or fled," I told her. "Also, we needed to scout the lair area before we could finalize it."

"Rainbow Dash is going to scout once we get close to it," Twilight said. "I've been contemplating a series of plans..." She paused and glanced back at Rarity, who now looked irritated; Spike was now off talking to Pinkie and Applejack.

Please don't let this be a DOOM countdown. "I'm sure Rarity will clean you up if you ask," she told me.

Not when she looks that unhappy, I thought. "I would hate to impose on her," I told Twilight. "And better we discuss plans first, then I can attend to my grooming, which is less important."

Twilight looked at her filthy hooves and forelegs. "I know," she said, sighing. "We will have to sacrifice for now." She smiled at me and I felt my conscience try to crawl out from under the bookcase. I threw a sheet over its head for now. I have to focus, not lose myself in guilt and regrets and...

Has she really been moping all this time? Dammit.

"If Rarity cleaned me up, I would likely just end up filthy again soon anyway. It's how the Malpheggi is." I shook my head.

"You know it well?"

"Too well," I told her. "I've seen many a hero die here, or get swamp rot or..." I finally got that rash off, thankfully.

She sighed. "I'm sorry. You must have a lot of old pain."

"I'm used to it," I told her. I certainly do.

"I... never mind," she said. "I'm being forward again and..." She glanced back at Rarity, who was trying to walk and stare at her dirt at once; Rarity now walked into a tree and fell down, then got more muck and began to go into a panic.

I knew what to do; I sprang into action, helping her up and using my cloak to try to wipe the worst of the muck off her. I know how to gain someone's favor and you can never gain too much favor.

Or run too fast once you run out of it.

"Thank you so much," Rarity said, smiling. "If I have to keep grooming myself with magic, I will become exhausted."

"Worry not, fair lady. You deserve better than to be bespeckled with mud and filth like a common pig," I told her.

"Pigs are actually pretty clean," Applejack said. "That's a myth. They just use mud to cool off." Her voice was a little chiding. "And frankly, a little dirt ain't never hurt nopony." Still chiding.

"But now your cloak is filthy," Rarity said, frowning at it.

"It's okay, it's really too hot for it anyway," I told her.

"You are a true gentleman," she said approvingly.

Which I could tell was what she wanted.

As I said before, always curry favor, so you have it when you NEED it.

"I must finish my conversation with Twilight," I told her. "But I'll be back later."

"Of course," she said. "Good luck making a plan."

"You're welcome," I said and returned to Twilight, who was smiling at me in an odd way. I could see Applejack talking quietly to Rarity now, who looked much happier.

"Thank you for helping her," Twilight said. "She really needs to get more used to dirt, though."

"She is clearly a lady of refinement who is not used to such difficult conditions as this," I told Twilight. "Is she a noblewoman?"

"No but she does carry herself like one," Twilight said, then paused. "She has no title, anyway."

The Equestrian nobility is rather complicated and is mostly found at Canterlot; they once had a lot of power, but now they basically dance attendance on Celestia and fight in wars. Her transformation of them from wolves... who are horses... to simpering courtiers was a MASTERWORK of manipulation.

I greatly admire Celestia and fear her at once.

SPIKE CAN SEND HER LETTERS.

Twilight looked at me, then at Rarity and had that odd smile again. Maybe a little wistful. Then she said, "Treat her nicely. She is very kind and generous. She gives without thought for herself."

"As a true lady should," I said. "As the poem says, 'Grace is the heart of the maiden / Unasked, she gives of herself / Heedless of the cost, yet she gives / Without asking anything from you'."

"Mellifluous Rhymes' third book, Poetry for the Fall Season, published in 886," Twilight said. "I knew a..." She fell silent.

I now realized I had just quoted a book I GAVE HER.

DAMN MY PRETENSIONS TO HIGH CLASS.

"You should read all four volumes. I believe that's from the Discourse on the Six Virtues of Harmony, right?" I asked her.

It now hit me that she'd named her group the Elements of Harmony, so of course she knows about all that.

She looked somewhat pained and I felt my stomach try again to kill me. My conscience flailed feebly. Dammit.

"It's not just a poem," she said softly. "Though I thought so at the time and didn't really..." She sounded very guilty. "I didn't finish the book until much later, when I had to research..." She paused, as if uncertain whether to go on. That anything could stop Twilight from speaking about her studies bothered me a little.

It was like me passing up a night with a beautiful woman or a free meal.

A free meal NOT JAMMED INTO MY MOUTH BY SURPRISE.

"You need not dwell on it if it pains you," I told her.

"I keep wondering if he knew," Twilight said to a passing bush, which I nearly walked into, but managed to dodge.

A half dozen mosquitoes now descended on me; all subsequent dialog should be imagined to be accompanied by me flailing while Twilight walked along untouched and apparently not noticing my flailing or perhaps not caring.

"If he knew what?" I asked.

"The six of us, we were marked by destiny," Twilight said softly. "Events drew us together before we even met each other. And then..." She licked her lips nervously, then glanced at the others.

"A destiny which includes good friends is a fine destiny indeed," I told her. "I confess I do not see the link between the poem and yourself, though. Or destiny."

My flailing hand (remember, I was flailing frantically to ward off mosquitoes with every syllable I was speaking.) now hit a tree. OWW.

"We possess six powerful artifacts which I hope will help us against the Dragon," she said softly. "The Elements of Harmony, which the poem speaks off. Rarity has... is the Element of Generosity. Applejack, Honesty. Pinkie, Laughter. Fluttershy, Kindness. Rainbow Dash, Loyalty. And I am the sixth Element, Magic, which is also Friendship, the root of Pony magic. But this is a state secret that we possess the Elements."

Which is why you registered your group as the Elements of Harmony in a half dozen countries.

Twilight, my old friend, you REALLY ARE TERRIBLE AT KEEPING SECRETS.

"When you say artifacts, you mean an object created by the Immortals? Or are they potent mortal magic?" Now I was curious.

"By the Immortals," Twilight said. "One from each sphere," she said. "Collectively, they create the sixth element, my element."

Wait... "Wait... there's one made by Entropy too?" I said in shock.

"It wasn't always called Entropy and maybe... one day it won't be," Twilight said very softly. "None of the others are really into metaphysics, so keep this between us, but I can tell you are a scholar."

The sphere of Entropy supports the others against invaders from other dimensions, but mostly it's a collection of whackjobs, necromancers, killers, thieves, liars... They support chaos, whereas the other four spheres tend to support law and that never ends well. Still, they are a trouble making part of the system of the Immortals instead of a...

A...

I forced myself not to look. "It's Laughter, right?" I said softly.

"We need order and chaos," Twilight said softly. "In its proper form, Entropy forces order to grow and change, refusing to allow it to become locked down and fixed and stagnant and basically dead but faking life. Pinkie ensures the rest of us do not become too fixed in our ways or just work ourselves to death and never play. Without Entropy, everything would just be the same forever, fixed and boring. I know, it's hard to accept... I kind of like things to be fixed and predictable. It's why I like books."

Yes, you've always been like that. Or so it seemed when I last knew you but you've grown stronger and more flexible.

And don't SEEM to be moping, though...

Do NOT look at Pinkie.

Somehow, I knew she was looking at me. CRAP.

"I will tell no one," I promised her. An uncorrupted artifact of Entropy? At the roots of Pony power? A set of artifacts made by all the spheres and somehow creating a sixth? Now I am curious.

That is bad, because curiosity is how I ended up trapped inside golems or clinging to the underbelly of a star whale as it heads for the planes of Matter.

Also, star whales smell terrible.

"So you think the person who gave you the book knew you would find these artifacts?" I tried to think about the book; I had not read it in a long time, since I gave Twilight my copy.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law, right?

It was sort of mine.

I read it, anyway.

"He must have known, or he wouldn't have given me volume three when I didn't have volume one or two yet," Twilight said. "Only..." Her voice wobbled.

That's Twilight logic all over, I thought. Volume three was, in fact, the only one I hadn't sold to buy beer yet, once I read it. "Only?"

"He probably thought since he wasn't part of the prophecy, he had to leave, since my destiny would take me elsewhere," she said, staring at the ground, voice wobbling. "So he gave up his own happiness to help set me on my path." She sounded quite guilty.

I briefly lost my ability to speak OR think.

Shut up, Ivan.

BRIEFLY.

"He may have just thought it was a nice book of poetry and you would enjoy it," I told her. THIS WAS THE TRUTH. "Did he put a box around that part, saying, 'READ ME' or something?" I most certainly did not.

This should cover my tracks a little.

"It was bookmarked," she said.

I stuck that bookmark in at random because it was cute and had a poem about loving books on it! Celestia told me Twilight would love that poem and gave me the bookmark when I found it stuck in a book she'd loaned me.

A book I did NOT sell for beer, before you ask. I am not that crazy.

"Annotated, you mean?"

"No, a literal bookmark with a nice poem about books on it," Twilight said. "He knew I'd love that poem," she said wistfully.

My conscience climbed out from under the bookcase and went looking for coffee, bitching at me. DAMMIT, GO BACK TO SLEEP.

I glanced around, but Spike was busy pushing bushes out of Rarity's way and not plotting my horrible death, thankfully.

I hope.

Twilight got the odd smile again for a moment, then she said, "Though I sometimes wonder..." She did not finish it.

I caught a branch about to whack her. "Wonder?" I can't believe she managed to convince herself of all this. Out of WHOLE CLOTH. "I would think he'd just tell you about the Elements and not kind of hint at it," I told her. Unless it was a con, but I had NOTHING to do with the Elements.

Unless I conned myself, like that time in the Heldaan Freeholds.

Another story, another time.

I hate dopplegangers.

The mosquitoes finally gave up, not that Twilight had noticed my flailing. "He was probably afraid to admit he was worried that he wasn't part of the prophecy and thus didn't have a... special role in my future. But I wouldn't have cared." She glanced back at Rarity. "Surely we're not meant to be alone... I mean, not alone, I have friends who I love, but you know. Ponies are meant to fall in love too. I never thought..." Her voice wobbled. "He can't have just... I don't even know why or what happened to him, but... This theory makes more sense and explains everything and I feel so bad for him. He... He didn't have to go," she said weakly. "But I'm sure he did it for my own good. And worried about his..." She sighed. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't lay this all on you. I just... the others kind of make fun of me and say I'm moping when I... you know." She sighed again. "They love me but sometimes that means teasing."

"I don't mind," I told her.

I DO mind but it's too late now and...

Dammit, I hate feeling guilty. My guilt doesn't get enough exercise, so when it tries to do something, it tends to ache a lot.

I can't tell her the truth without dying horribly and if believing this gives her comfort, maybe it's better I let her believe it. "Are you happy being one of the Elements of Harmony?"

"Very happy," she said, recovering a little.

"Then I'm sure he's glad you are happy and moving forwards on your destiny, with or without him," I told her. I never wanted her to be unhappy, I just...

For all that people claim humans sleep with EVERYTHING, we normally stick to bipeds and... Okay, obviously someone didn't and we got centaurs, but I'm not into Ponies. If she was human, or an Elf or even maybe an Orc, that would be fine. But I had to go before things got to where it was all going to explode messily.

Also, I expected she'd forget about it in a few weeks and go find a nice pony, the way it's meant to be. That's what I would have done.

Note to self, DO NOT DRINK AROUND PONIES EVER AGAIN, EVER.

I can see she has the good brandy in her saddlebags.

FUCK.

Okay, it being Twilight, maybe it would take longer to find someone who at least has the same number of legs. But ONLY because she spends all her time reading or else discussing what she read with people. Mostly Celestia, Spike, and myself.

Surely there are books about dating, though.

It suddenly hit me that Spike clearly had not told her about how he tried to beat me to death with a chair when I ran for the hills. I'm still not entirely sure how I got out of that fight.

Also, I left her a letter which clearly NEVER got delivered to her.

Spike probably ate it or accidentally sent it to Celestia or something.

I really should revise my will. I will leave my sword to Ivan if he lives and Applejack can have it otherwise; it deserves to be with someone who has a nice hat and who helped save my life.

Dammit, I want my HAT. And her...

DO NOT STEAL HER HAT.

"I hope he'd be proud of me," Twilight said, then sighed. "I am moping."

"It's okay," I told her. "It's only natural to wonder about the past but it's best to focus on the future, which looks quite bright for you, and involves six friends who love you very much."

She turned red. "I know. And I love them," she said. She sighed. "I'd mostly moved on but now I find myself thinking about him again and hoping he's okay."

"I'm sure he is," I lied to her, knowing that my DOOM is coming steadily closer. It may be anything from Applejack hanging me for coveting her hat to Spike burying me in donuts until I cannot breathe.

But I fear it is coming.

"What brings him to your mind?" I asked, calm outside, gibbering with fear on the inside.

"Nothing," she said, then glanced at Rarity again.

Does she have a crush on Rarity or something? It would be healthy for her to move on but it might cause group cohesion problems if she favors one Element over the others. I could only guess at how this thing works, but I suspect she has to keep them all in balance or something bad happens.

We then started trying to make a plan to deal with the Dragon.

Assuming I live that long.

****************

Ponies are civilized enough that they tend to prefer to process their food, though they can just eat up the landscape if they must. We reached an area with actual grass, with a stream running along one side of it around time for dinner. They all stopped and took a snack, to save on their prepared rations, while Ivan and I went to find something to eat, as our rations had all been lost and we can't eat grass. To my surprise, Applejack and Fluttershy joined us. "You need meat, right?" Fluttershy said softly.

"Yes," I said. Ponies keep pigs but don't eat them; they hunt truffles and keep various vermin down. They also have dogs and cats, which eat meat, so they fish a lot for their pets. I ate a lot of fish and eggs when I was in Canterlot.

I now noticed Fluttershy was wearing a necklace which matched her Cutie Mark. I hadn't seen it before. "That's very nice," I told her. I bet it would sell for a lot, though I'd happily trade ANY jewelry for a decent hat.

"Thank you," she said, then whispered, "It's a secret."

A secret you just exposed to someone you met hours ago. That much trust is a dangerous thing, kind lady Fluttershy.

Applejack was wearing one like that as well. And then it hit me. Were these two of the Elements of Harmony? They didn't look very big and powerful.

But neither did that DAMN RING.

Let's not think about that ring.

Ever.

Fluttershy began singing and animals FLOODED out of the forest; I instinctively went up a tree and pulled Ivan after me; they flocked around Applejack, who looked amused, and Fluttershy, who looked rapturous.

She began speaking to them in their own languages and I stared in amazement as they replied. Soon they began to scatter, but a squirrel remained.

"Stampede's over, Ivan, Marcus," Applejack said, amused. "You can come down now and the bunnies won't bite you. You really don't go out in the country much, I reckon."

"Not if I can help it," I confessed. I am a city boy.

"Better safe than sorry," Ivan said.

I agree wholeheartedly.

The squirrel lead us into a thick grove of trees, the air very humid, and the whole thing shadowed by the thick overgrowth. We stuffed Applejack's saddlebags with mushrooms which grew on the trees. She also, to my surprise, knocked two dozen peaches down from a tree for us.

And then it was time for fishing.

"You sure you're okay with this?" I asked Fluttershy, who looked rather nervous.

"I know how nature works," she said. "It'd be nicer if we could all just eat plants, but the carnivores check the herbivores so they don't breed out of control and then all starve and kill the plants and everything dies." She sighed. "Once upon a time, it didn't have to be that way, but the world is broken now."

Amen to that. I'm not much for believing in mythical golden ages, but I can't argue that the world is out of whack.

"You don't have to watch," I said kindly. "Ivan, Applejack, and I can handle this."

"My animal friends do this too," she said. "I... I'm used to it." She had the look of someone who was trying to put on a strong face.

Ivan, meanwhile, improvised a fishing pole with some string that Applejack had. I made another one and Applejack... was going to lasso fish?

Fluttershy now began a song. Her necklace glowed gently and now you could see lights under the water. "Catch those, they're the oldest and won't live through the winter anyway."

"..."

Ivan and I began fishing; we threw back any fish that didn't glow. Unfortunately, the old ones seemed most disinclined to bite; maybe they were too old and tired to bother eating.

Applejack lassoed several, then she and Fluttershy somehow started a fire and got a pot out. I don't think that's how you make fish jerky but I think that was her goal.

Can you make fish jerky? I've never had it, but I thought you needed a smokehouse or something.

Also, I didn't think it involved apples. But we keep feeding the workers as we caught more fish.

The stars were out and the moon was up by the time we finished; I smelled like fish guts and swamp muck. But the fish jerky was pretty good and so was the fruit we'd gathered. We headed back and found everyone else flopped out, exhausted, even Pinkie. They'd had dinner but Dash was fast asleep in the grass, Pinkie was asleep using Dash for a pillow, and Twilight and Rarity were lying in the grass with Spike sitting next to them, talking quietly.

"I should bathe, but I am plum tuckered out," Applejack said. "And I got a nose full of spices."

"Come here," I told her, and got a bucket and washed her legs off carefully. With no soap, I couldn't do too much but she looked much better.

"I'm right grateful, partner," she said. "I'm gonna go flop out with Dash."

She was soon asleep and I began trying to get myself clean; given my clothing was soaked with muck, this was fairly futile. Ivan just waded into the stream and wallowed in it; Fluttershy had crashed out as well.

I went to join the ladies; they'd both probably used magic to clean up as they and Spike were spotless. "Pardon my filth, but I have no soap and no clean clothing."

Rarity turned and concentrated; power washed over me and I became very clean. My eyes crossed. Goodness, she's strong. Twilight smiled a little smile. "Turnabout is fair play, good sir," Rarity said.

"You are a lady of grace," I told her solemnly and Spike made grumbling noises.

"Do you like fish, Spike?" I asked.

"I love fish," he said, drooling a little.

I tossed him a piece. "I don't know if it's Applejack or Fluttershy's recipe."

He gobbled it down and looked mollified. "Thanks, Marcus."

"You're welcome," I told him. "Will we be standing watches?" I asked, yawning.

"I used my copy of Hallonica House's Guide to Handy Travel Rituals," Twilight said, "To put up Eyes and Ears of Warding. They'll alert us."

Basically, invisible eyes and ears look and listen for trouble, then wake you. Quite effective against those who can't disarm a ward. Mind you, with regard to Hallonica House's guide, Hallonica simply acted as ghost-publishers for Prince Jaggar, who wrote it to raise money for his private army. Since many people hate Glantrians but no one hates Darokin, the deal made a lot of people wealthy.

This, I believe, is the very definition of 'honest graft', and I applaud it.

"If you have the components, you might want to put up Volospin's Air Shield also," I told her. "There may be invisible things afoot." I used to have a copy of that ritual book, but my copy is in the stomach of an undead crocodile in Ylarum now. Along with the magical harp I once had AND one of my previous hands.

"You study magic too?" Twilight asked.

"I dabble in it, but I am not on the level of a full professional," I told her. "I seem to end up getting all my ritual books destroyed constantly." I can do a few tricks and I have a nice attack spell with fire.

"I'd be happy to loan you some of mine," Twilight said. Another sign she is a Pony and not a normal wizard.

"Thank you, kind lady," I told her. "I am short on necessary components too, though I expect I can improvise for some." If I am really lucky, she has one for re... getting a new hat.

She tossed me two, then said, "Oh dear, it's late, Spike has to go to bed and I should sleep too." Her voice sounded odd.

"I'm fine, I'm a big boy," Spike said, then yawned.

"Enjoy the books, we're going to bed!" Twilight said, grabbed Spike somehow and bolted.

Then she spoke a few words and produced a magical tent, into which she dragged Spike; I could hear muffled conversation.

I slid the books to one side; Twilight would have started reading immediately, but I have manners when they are useful.

"I don't mind if you read them," Rarity said.

"It's fine, I'll read when you go to bed," I told her.

She smiled brightly and we conversed for a while; I told her more about Thyatis and she told me about how Twilight had come to Ponyville and ended up leading the six of them on a secret mission. Which she couldn't talk about but which clearly involved getting the Elements of Harmony. Then she told me of some of their other adventures.

Eventually, she yawned. "Well, Princess Luna may stay up all night, but I must sleep."

"I'll be up reading a while," I told her. "Goodnight, fair lady." I paused. "Princess Luna?"

"Celestia's sister," Rarity said, then looked nervous a moment. "She makes the moon rise and set."

Which I thought Celestia ALSO claimed as her doing.

"I must admit I have never heard of her," I told Rarity.

"She's been off on a long trip," Rarity said, her voice wobbling; she was lying. But why?

Celestia must be pulling some really deep maneuver

I put it out of my head; it wasn't my worry as I was not going back to Ponyland, because whatever Celestia will do if she gets her hooves on me, it won't be pretty.

I bid Rarity goodnight after helping her to set up her tent, then I went to do a little reading by moonlight.

******************

I am well familiar with Hallonica House's Guide, though I skimmed through it again just to be sure I hadn't forgotten something useful, like something that gets rid of Dragons without having to risk acid slowly rendering your flesh into a tasty slurry.

There was in fact, a ritual to make things acid-resistant which I carefully bookmarked. It had a check mark by it, which I hope either indicates Twilight already thought of this or at least that it works well and she's used it before.

I noticed she'd circled two rituals: one of them gives you big butterfly style wings, but the thaum cost is hideous. Thaums, for those of you unversed in wizardry, are the unit which measures how exhausting a ritual is. Most rituals cost either a thaum or a fraction thereof, most commonly a decithaum. This one cost SIX thaums. I would probably fall unconscious if I tried to pull that off, sadly.

Not that I want fluffy butterfly wings, but flying... would be VERY useful.

The other one was for walking on clouds. Only 2 decithaums, quite reasonable, though it does require an ounce of roc unguent per person. The words 'Big Success' were penciled in, and I smiled. Pegasi ponies can walk on clouds and build cloud cities; I expect Twilight visited one. Good for her, getting out and around some.

I could hear Spike snoring over in her tent. She'd always been kind of reclusive; seeing her out in the world had surprised me a lot. But despite knowing this had to either end in me running for my life or me dying horribly, it was good to see her again, despite the constant low level fear.

I hadn't run away because I didn't like her. She was good company and it was nice to talk to someone smart enough to actually keep up with me. I like ladies, but normally, I seem to end up with... not idiots, but they usually aren't even close to Twilight's level of brains. A lot of smart women seem to shun me for some reason.

But humans and ponies are not meant to date. Everyone has their limits. Even I have my limits.

I need a smoke.

So I got my now dry tobacco and loaded up my pipe. At least I got to keep my new pipe; soon, the belly-dancer engraving was dancing. However, it's hard to see it while you're smoking. Still, I find it endlessly amusing.

The other book was Maeglin Woodwalker's Book of Practical Rituals; I had heard of it, but never touched a copy. For some reason, Umbarth House had stopped printing it fifty years ago and no one else had bothered to violate the copyright.

Which made me a little nervous, as normally Darokinians treat copyright as a courtesy warning, not something to actually STOP someone. Typically, by the time you win a suit in their courts, the copyright period has expired or you both die of old age.

This gives Elves and Dwarfs an edge in suits, I admit.

Maeglin Woodwalker was a great hero who stopped many rampaging monsters, found a lot of treasure and wrote several books to raise money to make potent magical items with. However, he mysteriously vanished about a century ago, which is why Umbarth House had felt free to print his book without paying him anything.

Until they stopped.

Hmm, maybe he's secretly alive and enforcing his copyrights. That would explain a lot.

A version of Terjon's Fabulous Floating Discs and the ritual component is SWAMP GRASS. Twilight had circled this one and I stared. It could NOT possibly be that easy.

TWO THAUMS. OWW. So you get easy, cheap use but you have to burn your own life force like crazy. Of course, Twilight has thaums coming out the... horn... so for her, this is perfect. Especially given she's not physically strong even for a Unicorn.

I puffed away at my pipe, looking for rituals of use. There was one for removing curses which required a 'large diamond'. Way to be vague, Maeglin. It had the pencil note 'Ask Rarity for diamonds'.

Only now did it sink into my brain that Rarity has three diamonds on her flank. Or some sort of clear, slightly blue gem. If she can create diamonds from nothing or summon them...

Ooooooooohhhhhhhh.

I kept reading; several more rites of use, I noticed. Indeed, I went ahead and did one of them, which made my clothing more water-resistant. It just asked for a few decithaums, which I could easily handle.

Why had Twilight circled a ritual for summoning sweater vests? I guess that wouldn't hurt for winter-time but I would think you'd get one that didn't actually fit a pony. She must have circled that one a while back; the lead was somewhat faded. It had a double check mark by it, though.

I eventually finished my pipe, then decided to sleep; the last thing I need is to be so tired I do something foolish like steal Applejack's hat in my sleep.

I paused then paged through the book; no hat-summoning rituals, dammit.

I did another simple ritual to summon a pillow, then laid down in the grass and slept.

**************

"I have a ritual at home," Twilight said apologetically. "None of us usually wear hats except Rarity and Applejack."

"I would gladly make you a hat if I was at home, but I fear I am short on materials," Rarity said, sighing. "I have made some magnificent hats, but they're over a hundred miles away from here." She patted my shoulder.

I had eggs, peaches, and bread for breakfast; it was pretty good. I don't know where Fluttershy got the eggs, but I wasn't going to question it; I just thanked her for it.

"Ivan and I should go take a bath," I told them. "We'll go downstream a little so you don't have to watch. Rarity, do you think you can clean our clothing? And does anyone have any towels or soap?"

"Always carry a towel," Rainbow Dash said, throwing us one.

Applejack had one as well, while Rarity had soap.

"You don't need to go downstream, though," Dash said. "We're all naked anyway."

I can't talk to Ivan in private to ensure we don't die if we're right here. I did my best to stammer in an embarrassed manner.

"Rainbow Dash, there are things which are done and things which are not done," Rarity said firmly. "If they desire privacy for bathing, then we shall give them privacy." She held the towels up with her powers so we could strip behind them so she could clean our clothing in our absence.

"Ain't much use in getting clean; we're gonna be knee deep in filth by lunch," Applejack pointed out.

"They've seen us naked, it's only fair if we see them naked," Rainbow Dash said, hovering, legs folded in front of her chest.

"Yeah, I'm totally naked all the time unless it's a formal occasion," Spike said. "Though I wouldn't say no to a mustache"

A mustache?

We finished stripping, then Rarity fastened the towels around our waists with a loose knot. "Thank you, fair lady," I said to her.

"Your modesty is quite fetching," she said, smiling at me and cocking her head slightly.

That is something I NEVER thought anyone would say to me.

Ivan muttered something and I tried to very subtly frog-punch him. NOT NOW.

"Fetching what?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"What?" Rarity asked.

"Yes, what is... wait, who is named Modesty and what are they fetching?" Rainbow Dash asked.

I prayed this was a pony joke.

"Don't worry about it," Rarity said to Rainbow Dash. "Just let them be."

"It's really not a big deal," Applejack said. "What if an alligator jumps them while they're around the bend? They could get eaten." She frowned at the thought.

Fluttershy said something too soft for me to hear but she looked worried.

Pinkie said, "I could go with them and keep watch." She got up on her hind legs in a stance reminiscent of a bear. "They'll be TOTALLY safe with Pinkie on guard!"

"Pinkie, you really ought to just let them go. I'm sure they'll be fine," Twilight said nervously.

Her being nervous was making ME nervous. Why is she saying it's okay but she's nervous about...

Oh, THAT incident. Which I had forgotten about.

She just couldn't wait to tell me about something she'd read and of course, I was trying to take a bath and wacky embarrassment ensued but nothing bad came of it. Back in my days in Canterlot. When I was blond and tall. I miss that body.

"Come, my dear friend Ivan," I said, dragging him off. "Thank you, everyone, for the towels and the soap." I now hustled Ivan down around the bend.

As we went, I could hear Twilight trying to whisper and half-shouting to the others, "Humans get really embarrassed when you see them naked, then they run around in a panic and fall down and injure themselves or worse. You're going to embarrass them." Her voice was urgent.

"How in Celestia's name do they reproduce?" Applejack asked, sounding dubious. "You can't mate with your clothes on, you know."

We got round the bend and I couldn't hear anything except the panicked tone of Twilight's voice.

"Remember, the better your manners and the more favors you do them, the more they'll reciprocate," I hissed to him once I thought we were out of their earshot. "And follow my lead, I know ponies."

"Are you seriously trying to score with a pony?" he asked me. The fact that he didn't sound very surprised was the most aggravating part. "Is that why you got that tattoo?"

I have a tattoo of a five-jack hand at cards, one of each of the five suits, and it IS on my left buttock, and it was not one of my wiser decisions, but I was DRUNK OFF MY ASS. Sadly, it has no magic, unless you count reminding me of my younger, stupider days. I am a fair hand at cards, though. "NO. I am trying to maintain good relations. Part of that is figuring out what each pony wants and giving it to them," I said firmly to him. "I am not looking to spawn a new line of centaurs."

We both started getting clean; while Applejack was right, I need that brief moment of clean so I don't sink into abject dementia before lunch. "So what is the plan?"

"I don't know," I said. "If we're lucky, Twilight will turn it into a cow or something," I continued. "She had huge amounts of power and now she has even more. Also, Twilight told me that Fluttershy has some sort of stunning spell which might be useful." I rubbed my forehead. "We discussed a lot of options, but they're all risky. I don't know if even Twilight can just polymorph a Grand Wyrm."

"They seem awfully optimistic about this," Ivan said.

"Ponies are hopeful by nature and apparently they have dealt with dragons before," I told him. "Once we get closer, we can decide if we need to run for the hills or stick it out or what."

"So, basically, we don't have a plan and you want some Pony loving so you're going to hold on and hope the universe saves us for no good reason," Ivan said, frowning as he worked on his legs.

My hands clenched. "I am just trying to ensure our survival, Ivan," I said. "And a shot at the treasure if they are right and they can handle it." I could mention the Elements of Harmony but Ivan would probably try to steal them and hock them for ale and whores.

This is why we can never go back to the Minrothad Guilds.

The Water Elves are REALLY vengeful, let me warn you.

"It's not like YOUR plan worked," I continued, trying to scrub my back.

This is why I like to stay at very high-class inns with sexy women who help you bathe. Instead, I am in a swamp, using soap with a picture of a duck carved into it, while standing waist-deep in water with strands of swamp weed in it, while fish tickle my legs.

At least I have both legs.

Why does this soap have a duck on it?

I started to feel more human as the soap did its work; Rarity had mostly cleaned me up yesterday but just sleeping in the swamp had given me new layers of filth.

I HATE THE MALPHEGGI.

"But we ARE naked," I heard Applejack say distantly.

You are never naked so long as you have a nice hat.

"This Dragon has a HELL of a treasure," Ivan said, now working on his arms. You could see his freckles now. I suppose the Ponies would say he's dappled. "Most importantly, he's got the Lock picks of Asterius."

"Seriously?" I said. Holy shit, that's.. anyone who picks locks at all would give their left nut for those. Then use them to steal their left nut back.

"Yeah," Ivan said. "He gave me a vision," he said softly.

"Wait, what?" I said.

"Asterius. I... I'm a candidate for Immortality, I think."

I stared. IVAN? What kind of crazy...

You know, it does make sense for Asterius. I was jealous now. "Holy shit, man, why didn't you say it before?"

"Because probably half the people I recruited would have knifed me for it, and you were drunk off your ass until it was too late," Ivan said, now working on his neck. "I'm sure there's probably some Immortal with their eye on you by now."

"Valerias, I hope," I said, eyes crossing at the thought.

"She has a boyfriend, you know," Ivan said. While neither of us is very religious, I DO know Ixion and Valerias have been an item forever.

But I also know she has a wandering eye.

"I am a man willing to share," I told him, working on my face.

Ivan began laughing very loudly.

"The man who dragged me into a quest without telling me doesn't get to laugh. Tell me you wouldn't happily just have a little of Valerias' time!" I pointed at him.

"Okay, okay, yes," he mumbled, looking embarrassed.

Ivan the Immortal. The idea scares me, but hey, having an Immortal who owes me would be VERY convenient. I'm surprised Asterius didn't eye someone more subtle and clever, though.

Not that I'm thinking of anyone in PARTICULAR.

"So what are we going to do if they find out whatever the hell you did that you're trying to hide?" Ivan asked me.

I believe the word is 'die'.

"If I have to, I will attempt the flight ritual," I told him. Assuming I can actually stay conscious through it, which I am not sure of, having never tried anything that powerful. "That means only two of them could pursue us."

Until Twilight gives herself wings and hunts us to the ends of Mystara and beyond, anyway.

"And Fluttershy's too nice to really chase us down," Ivan said. "Dash, though, she's not mean, but I think she'd enjoy kicking our ass, just to show off she could do it."

I fear that too. But hopefully, we can handle one pony who is not Twilight.

Maybe this will go smoothly and we won't end this running for our lives. At least there's plenty of water to douse flaming asses here.

We discussed ideas for dealing with dragons as we finished washing, then I said, "I really wish I could get my back cleaner."

"I'll help," a woman said.

I passed her the soap and I could feel my back getting clean, but then I saw Ivan staring at me.

Then I realized two things.

One, we were not alone.

Two, IT WAS PINKIE.

I panicked and ran for my life instinctively, images of clinging to a tree branch to the smell of wet horse and wet Ivan in my mind. I heard Ivan shouting about something and then I streaked (literally) through the camp, unable to overcome my survival instincts. Rarity was shouting and Dash said something about size and Twilight was yelling angrily.

OF COURSE I RAN INTO QUICKSAND.

DAMN THIS SWAMP AND MY PANIC REFLEX!

And, of course, I worried about how much she'd heard as I worked on drowning.

There was a flash of light and Twilight landed next to me. "It's okay, I brought you a... ack!"

She immediately sank into the quicksand, towel and all. I grabbed the towel and donned it. "Try to float, don't move too much or it'll stir the suction," I told her. Or something.

"I don't know how to float, I brought a book on swimming but I didn't have time to read it because we had to get to the Dragon quickly!," Twilight said, flailing and sinking.

I caught hold of her hooves. "Pull yourself together," I told her.

She was breathing hard. "Just relax," I said, then sighed. "I'm sorry I got you into this, Twilight."

"I told Pinkie to leave you two your privacy," she said in frustration. "But she got curious or... something... I'm sorry, they don't understand humans and how they need their privacy," she said. "He... Anyway." She sighed. "I think we're stable. I have some Phoenix feathers I stored some spells in, but I can't get them out of my bag and I can't concentrate enough to cast them myself without sinking and drowning." She sounded frustrated.

"We just need to hold on until they find us," I told her. If she could teleport again, we'd be fine, but teleporting tends to drain thaums like crazy. It's more than I can handle. Phoenix feathers? Nice. You can store a spell just shy of completion in one, then complete it in just a few seconds. Great for those times when you need to dispel a ward and don't have a half hour to spend on it because someone is shooting flaming arrows at you.

I guess once Ivan is an immortal... assuming that wasn't someone conning him... Of course it was. Asterius would clearly want someone smarter who understands the whole idea of buttering people up. Poor guy, he's being rooked. Those lock picks probably will eat his soul or something. I can't let that happen to him. But would he even listen if I warned him?

I may have to steal them myself to protect him.

It's for his own good, really. Then we can find out who set him up for this.

"Twilight, do you know anything about quests for immortality?" I asked her.

I could hear distant shouting and running about and something about snakes. "OVER HERE," I shouted to them.

Now I am going to have to take another bath, dammit.

One without any pink horses.

"A little," she said. "I have read Ilsundal's memoirs. And Celestia had me read up on the Pearl the Water Elves of Minrothad used to have that got stolen."

Ahahaha.

"The Wonderbolts recovered it and returned it to them in return for a trade deal. They're very great adventurers," Twilight said a little wistfully. "Rainbow Dash is a good friend of them."

It's good I have trained myself not to show fear or I would just die now.

Well, not show fear except when I panic.

Ahaha.

There was more yelling and something about lizardmen and a noise like someone getting hit in the head with something.

"Oh no, we need to help them," Twilight said, trying to swim but now we sank deeper from her flailing. I managed to keep her head above the surface, barely.

"Careful," I said to her. "We almost went under."

She looked around, then saw a vine. "I am going to telekinesis the vine over. We'll wrap it around you and then you can climb up it while I hold onto you and we'll be out."

"Will it really hold your weight and mine?" I asked, worried. I could help her do it; I know a little magic, though I'm not nearly at her level. She can telekinesis a cow, I can move a couple of coins or a coin purse And so on. I do have a big boom flame spell I'm rather proud of.

Setting the forest on fire would, however, not help.

"You pull yourself out, then you can get the others, and I'll tread quicksand," she said, frowning.

"I can't just leave you in here," I told her. She'll probably drown herself, then Celestia will make me into a puddle of slime and banish me to the moon. A cesspool on the moon.

Who the hell is this 'Luna' person?

Celestia is up to something, I can smell it.

She turned a little red. "I got you into this," she said.

"I'm the fool who panicked and ran into quicksand; you were just trying to save me," I told her.

"Rarity is going to kill me," she said to the quicksand, staring at it.

"Since you didn't dump me or Rarity into this, I am sure she will only be worried over you being okay," I told her. "This is not your fault. Let's try the vine. The worst that can happen is that it breaks."

"And then you fall back in and my weight pulls you to the bottom and you drown and then Rarity makes me into a hat for your tombstone!" Twilight said in a panic. She started thrashing and we now were just barely above the surface. Our heads, anyway.

"I am sure she would not make a friend into a hat, even if she was angry. And if you thrash, we sink," I said, trying to calm her. "Try the vine anyway."

She pulled the vine over, but when I tried to use it, it broke. "That always works in stories," I muttered.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"It's okay," I told her. "If we stay calm, they'll find us. Or do you remember the flight ritual?" I asked her with sudden insight.

"It's really hard and I don't think I can do it and not drown at the same time," she said. "Hmm, maybe I can lift you out, and then you can braid vines to make a rope to pull me out."

"Try it," I told her.

I could still hear chaos in the distance. Then several lizardmen fled past us with fruit splattered across their faces. I couldn't help but laugh a little.

She lifted me out and I made a vine rope, but unfortunately, I wasn't actually strong enough to get her out, though now she was head and shoulders above the surface. I kept trying until, suddenly, the vine moved and I fell backwards and she flew out and over my head, landing on Applejack, who had somehow come up without me noticing. And Pinkie, who now was covered in muck.

"Thank you," I told them, trying to bow.

"Ain't nothin', sugarcube," Applejack said, amused. "I guess you two will need another bath now."

"I'll get you another towel and some more soap!," Twilight said, then teleported off.

Like she could have done earlier.

TWILIGHT!!!!

"I'm sure she'd be happy to scrub your back," Pinkie said cheerfully. "Are you okay?" she then said.

"I'm fine," I said. "Except for embarrassment and nearly dying and nearly taking someone with me." My guilt and my frustration were hitting each other with maces.

"I just wanted to help," Pinkie said. "I thought Twilight was exaggerating." She sounded embarrassed too.

"What happened with the lizardmen?" I asked.

"Pinkie thought she heard something, then kind of got distracted but it was them," Applejack said. "They panicked when you ran naked and then we spotted them. Ivan fights pretty well," she said.

"I hope no one's hurt," I said. Fluttershy probably has some healing but not a lot.

"Nothing too serious," Applejack said. "We're tough little ponies."

Twilight appeared with a fresh towel and soap. "Okay, I promise you, I'll sit on Pinkie until you're done."

"I'll help you clean up, Twilight!" Pinkie said cheerfully to her. "Enjoy your bath, Sammie!"

"Honestly, you're just gonna get dirty AGAIN," Applejack said.

It's the principle of the thing. I am VERY principled.

**************

I couldn't actually say no to the sweater vest which Twilight gave me as an apology, though it'll be warm in this swamp. It had 'TS' blazoned on it, but Rarity rewove it into 'SM' for me.

"I'm so sorry," she said softly to me. "I understand the importance of maintaining some dignity and privacy."

We'd gotten underway and were now trudging through the swamp.

"Thank you, and thank you for reweaving it," I told her, patting her back and she smiled.

"Anything for a friend," she said.

The ritual didn't mention monogramming your true name on it when you summon it. I'd best not risk that one, not that I am likely to need ANOTHER sweater vest in the swamp.

"Is it because they're so small there?" Rainbow Dash whispered to Twilight.

Twilight turned twelve shades of red and babbled about the uses of garlic.

What is... NURG.

Rarity sighed. "She's a dear friend; she would have dove down to the bottom of the quicksand to save you. But no one can do everything well."

"I didn't see any garlic," Rainbow Dash said hesitantly.

"Rainbow Dash, please come over here," I said.

Twilight made an 'I'm sorry' gesture as Rainbow Dash ZOOMED over. "Hey, what's up, Marcus?" she asked with a kind of hearty fellow well met tone I know well. It's the sound of someone trying to bluff past a faux paux.

"Humans typically only get naked for bathing and sex," I told her. "It's generally frowned on to run around naked in front of people of the opposite sex, though married couples and lovers may bathe together. Or parents with young children."

"Why?" she asked.

"It embarrasses people," I told her. Especially when it's insane pink ponies.

"That is not an answer," she said, frowning. "Saying it embarrasses you because it embarrasses you."

"Too much seeing each other naked usually sends humans into heat," I said, trying to put it in pony terms.

Her eyes crossed. "But you're seeing me naked ALL THE TIME," she said in a sudden panic.

"But I'm not naked," I told her. "Also, naked ponies doesn't set us off or we'd be in trouble."

She gave a sigh of relief. "I can see how that would be embarrassing."

"Anyway, it's okay. I've made a fool of myself, nearly died, and now I'm mostly clean and it's all good," I told her. Pinkie is going to be the death of me if Twilight and Celestia aren't first. "So I hear you're a weather pony?"

"Yeah. But it's a LOT harder outside Equestria. I don't know how you all stand the crazy random weird weather out here," she said, looking around. "Why make it this hot? I'm surprised everything doesn't wither."

"The Malpheggi has been like this for hundreds of years; the plants all got used to it," I told her. "Do you think you could make a dense fog?"

"Hah! EASY," she said and started to zoom up.

"No wait, not yet!" I shouted and she came back.

"Oh wait, you're thinking we could fog up the dragon's entrance to his lair, so he comes out to fight us and gets lost, right?" Rainbow Dash said excitedly.

"Yes," I said, surprised. Unknowing, not stupid, I told myself, revising her profile in my head. "Are we going to fight him? Or what?"

"I think we will try to negotiate a deal first, then fight if we have to," Rarity said. "Dragons are dangerous." She shivered.

"Oh, I showed that last one what for," Rainbow Dash said, miming punches. "I can take him down," she said confidently.

I looked at Rarity, who shook her head. "I know you will fight valiantly," she said to Dash.

Exactly the way to do it.

"Is that armor?" Rainbow Dash asked me.

"My leather can reduce damage from blades," I told her.

"No, the fuzzy thing." Dash touched my sweater vest

"It's a gift from Twilight," I said. Rarity had to adjust it; it was cut more for a human woman. It's pretty stylish, but hot.

Dash looked at Rarity, looked at me, looked back at Twilight, who was reading and marching at the same time, then said, "Okay," sounding a little confused.

"I adjusted it to fit him," Rarity said, smiling a little.

"OH," Dash said. She relaxed.

Dammit, I am not getting something.

I suddenly felt INTENSE DEATH GAZE.

It was Spike, trying to set me on fire just for being alive. Does he know? He certainly has the 'DIE IN A FIRE' gaze down. Why else would he care?

Dash said, "Time to go play with Spike! He can help me scout!"

She swooped over, grabbed him and flew off with him.

"Please tell me I didn't trample him in my panic," I said to Rarity.

She sighed. "It's nothing, darling. He's still quite young and you know how children are."

"I know," I told her. "I was a child once." It feels like another universe.

Possibly it was, given some of my mishaps.

Deep beneath the Great School of Magic in Glantri City, there is a door. It is labeled 'Do Not Open EVER.' Of course Sergei opened it.

If you ever find it, DO NOT OPEN IT or visit the plane on the other side of it. Dimension. I don't know what it was, but I AM NEVER GOING BACK.

We chatted as the quest continued forwards.

*************

"You're a farmer?" I asked Applejack as we rumbled on through the swamp. Dash thought we could reach close to the lair tonight, which means tomorrow we scout out the area and figure out a plan. I was taking this chance to circulate and feel out the rest of the party.

"I'm a fair hand in a scrap but my real talent is growing apples," Applejack said. Which does, admittedly, match her Cutie Mark. I suppose she mainly fights with her lasso, which she's quite nimble with.

"How good are you at lassoing something in the air?"

"Depends on how fast it's goin'," she said.

Earth Ponies are mind-bogglingly strong, or at least some are. I know it only takes four to pull a 'train' and those things must weigh tons. "I'm wondering if you could snare a dragon's leg and pull it to the ground. Maybe even making it crash if it was going too fast to stop."

"It would have to fly a mite low for me to reach, but I reckon I could," she said thoughtfully. "Depends on the size, mind you. Dragons can be a mite huge."

"Someone could bait it to fly low, then you could snag it," I mused. "You're from Ponyville, right?"

"Ever been there?" she asked.

"I must confess I don't even know where to find it on a map. My apologies," I told her. "I only know the big picture of Equestrian geography."

"About forty-eight miles northwest of Fort Nar, between Cloudsdale and Hoofington," Applejack said. "There's no direct route from Ponyville to Fort Nar, though; they'd have to go through the Everfree and only crazy people and us do that." She shook her head.

Okay, that pins it down pretty well for me. "Seems dangerously close to the Malpheggi."

"First you hit the Everfree, THEN you hit the Malpheggi," she said. "Mind you, the Everfree ain't no better than this, though I guess it is drier."

"So what brought you to join an adventuring party?" I asked curiously. She doesn't seem like she has the need to go plunging into danger like Ivan and I do. Admittedly, in part because she likely never has to run for her life.

"Ah do mah part to defend Ponyville and Equestria," Applejack said. "I ought to be home working the farm, but if this dragon keeps raiding, I may end up with NO farm. And of course, I can't just let my friends get in trouble with out me." She shook her head. "How about you?"

"I have too much curiosity for my own good," I told her and she laughed, but I laughed too. "Seems like the world wants me to wander. I hate the Malpheggi, but mostly I like seeing new places."

"Then you should come back to Ponyville with us, stay for a while," she said. "It's a good town, very friendly, and maybe you'd get rid of that case of the nervous nellies you've got." Her voice was blunt but not hostile.

I laughed nervously. She is... honesty... uuurgh. "The Malpheggi makes me nervous." That IS true. Can she detect lies? How fucked am I? "And the other thing, that's just how humans are raised."

"Didya come from a noble family?" she asked curiously.

"No, but I've been around nobles enough to come off well in high society," I told her. "Your family probably has more money than mine did." I think. I don't remember my childhood well any more and sometimes it seems like my memories contradict each other.

But the past is dead and gone, right?

And I am not.

"Then you'd be fine in Ponyville. No pretensions there. Well, a little from Rarity, but it seems to me you like that." She gave me a look which made my marrow shake; there was a kind of odd cunning to it, like she was seeing through to the heart of me.

"I must confess I enjoy elegant company, but please don't take that as a slight," I told her. "Ivan and I are old friends, and he is rather rough, as you've no doubt noticed. But we always look out for each other." Which is why I can't let this fake immortal sucker him.

"He's not what you'd call smooth," Applejack said, watching him talking to Rainbow Dash; they were both laughing loudly. "But I don't look for smooth m'self."

"The best friends are different from you; their strengths cover your weaknesses, their weaknesses, you cover with your strengths. Everyone can't be good at everything, but the sum is more than the whole of its parts. As Didymus said in his Machina Explicata, 785 AC." This is in chapter 12, 'Never Split the Party'. A very useful book for a man of adventure like myself.

"So you're a scholar like Twilight, too?"

"I dabble in many things," I told her. "You can call me a jack of all trades." Her hat now tried to tempt me but I ignored it. "I do a little magic." I called on one of my best learned tricks, snapping off two branches, then making them sword fight in the air. "I can't move nearly the weight a Unicorn can, but I can move lightweight things, light small fires, do some other tricks. I have a couple of combat spells. And I can do fancier things if I have a book of rituals. Unfortunately, every book I own usually dies horribly within a month or two." I sighed. "Or I end up giving it to someone."

"I guess that's the price of wanderin' so much," Applejack said. "I had some wanderlust when I was younger, went down to Manehattan, but in the end, I didn't feel right until I came back home," she said thoughtfully. "You been back to Thyatis, lately?"

"Not for a while," I told her. "So you went to Manehattan?" She doesn't sound like a Manehattanite.

She now told me the whole story, which you probably already know. In brief, she dreamed of the sophisticated big city, went to live there, got lonely for the country, came home, and settled down, content to be a country girl.

It reminded me, though, of the Shearing in Karameikos; many kids go to their parents, get their hair cut and set out to see the world around fifteen, sixteen, seventeen or so. Most of those Sheared return home after a few years, their youthful rebellion spent, money in pocket, ready to settle down and become adults. Those who don't, they had too much wild in them to have settled down happily. They're happier in the world. Everyone wins. Ivan was one of those who never came back.

For some reason, the trees were moving. I blinked at them; wondering why Applejack was turning different colors. "Are you trying to blend like a chameleon?"

"Whoah there, Marcus, you don't look so hot."

"I'm fine, it would be rude of me to discard this fine gift," I said, suddenly aware of how hot I was and how much I was sweating.

I should take this off, really but it's probably a magical sweater of protection or something that Twilight made and the world is spinning, oh dear...

THUNK.

*****************

I awoke, sans sweater vest At least I was on nice dry grass. "I am alive, right?"

"You betcha," Applejack said. "Does your head hurt?"

It was resting on something soft. "Am I using someone as a pillow?"

"It's me," Pinkie said behind me. "Feeling better?"

"Yes," I said.

"I'm so sorry," Rarity said, sounding guilty.

"Me too," Twilight said, worried.

"It's okay," I said. "A gift should be cherished in the spirit it was given. It felt good to be in something new and clean I hadn't worn for days and days over and over," I said grandly, trying to stand. I wobbled but rose, leaning on Rarity as she moved over to me. "And I couldn't let your work go to waste, Rarity." No one kisses ass like I kiss ass. I am a true master. Here's another order of curried favor!

"Save it for cold weather," Rarity said, smiling. "Twilight froze some ice to put on your head; I hope it helped."

"It feels much better," I said.

I could see Ivan shaking his head, but I just smiled. "And thank you, Twilight," I said to her.

"I didn't even think about it being more of a winter item," Twilight said. She frowned. "The book just assumes you know."

"Well, it was written with humans in mind. I expect I wouldn't know which plants are safe to eat and which not in Equestria, but you do," I told her. That cheered her up a little.

I have to keep my head about me. Currying favor at the expense of my own health is, I think, a little too far, when I need to ensure that I don't die horribly at the hands of a dragon soon.

I have to keep my wits about me and not bake my brain.

I wish I could hold onto that until winter; it would be nice, but I suspect it will go the way of all my wealth.

Such is my life, a life of poverty and fits of terror with brief moments of joy that enable me to go on. But it beats staying at home. Whatever Applejack may think.

*************

A little later, as we were traveling, Rainbow Dash said to me, "I hear you know magic stuff, right?"

"Yes," I told her.

"Good, you can come scout with me; I'll look for normal stuff, you handle the magic," she said.

Shit. I HATE SCOUTING. But I can't back out now without looking pathetic; it won't matter once I run for the hills, but until then, I have to look cool, admirable, fearless.

"I don't know if I can keep up with you," I told her. "You fly very quickly."

"I fly so fast, I can outrun SOUND," she said. "Perfect stealth."

Okay, I am VERY envious.

I could use that.

"Isn't it hard to see anything at that speed?" I asked.

"Umm, yeah. It's only for wide open spaces," she said, then sighed. "Anyway, I think you can ride me; you don't look too heavy."

"Okay, if you don't mind."

"Twilight insisted I take you," Rainbow Dash said, shrugging. "And yeah, someone to find magic stuff would be good; there may be dragon magic traps or something."

I studied Rainbow Dash. "I'm too big to ride you, though."

"We have a clever plan," Rainbow Dash said.

That doesn't bode well.

She took me back to where Twilight Sparkle was studying a book intently. "Okay, I believe this spell will let me make Rainbow Dash big enough to carry you without making her too big."

Spike laughed and Twilight frowned. "I know what I'm doing THIS time," she said.

"I need to be at least twenty percent bigger," Rainbow Dash said. Rarity snorted, and Applejack and Pinkie both laughed loudly. Spike grinned too.

I don't get it. Ivan laughed. What does he know that I don't?

Unless this like that Alph... no, no, I am still trying to forget that.

Twilight began chanting and I felt the glow of magic. This was Enlarge Person or something similar. Pretty easy low level magic. She carefully pronounced each syllable from the book and light washed over Rainbow Dash, who grew about thirty percent bigger. "I could make you really big, but it will last longer this way," Twilight said.

Rainbow Dash was about the size of those steppe ponies the Ethengars use, but much more colorful and, well, both more benevolent and more intelligent. Those things are bastards like their owners.

"Sweet," Rainbow Dash said, stretching her bigger wings. "Come on, Marcus, mount up!"

I mounted up and she took to the skies. I held on as best I could, feeling mounting terror, gripping me so tightly that I couldn't even cry out in fear. She was grinning manically as she zoomed up and over the swamp, moving in a complex search pattern, while I tried to keep an eye out for anything arcane. My ass began to hurt more and more as I'm not used to riding horses.

There was something... "Back up, I think I saw something by that pool."

The pool in question was maybe forty feet across with muck on the surface and the skeletal remains of an alligator next to it, cut in half. Halfling bones poked up out of the muck and grass and bushes around it and a half-dozen rivulets of water ran into or out of the pond; tall plants grew inside the water along its edge, but the middle just had strands of water-weed.

There was something magical at the bottom.

"Some treasure lies below the surface," I told her.

"Diving time!" she said before I could stop her. She dove down and the water churned. I GOT DRAGGED UNDER, SCREAMING.

Then we came up, now draped in pond weed and pond scum, with her clutching a brazier made of black metal, coated in ice, by its metal handles. She had it gripped in her powerful and now thirty-percent larger teeth.

ICE? In this weather?

Rainbow Dash passed it to me, then shook us dry and clean, forming a rainbow that arched right over me; she looked proud and I applauded. "This looks familiar," I said. It had carry handles that were not frozen but the rest of it... why ice? I held my hand near the main body of it; I felt it sucking at my body heat.

Then the bones started moving. "Undead!" I shouted.

We ZOOMED out of there instead of fighting them all and I decided I liked Rainbow Dash. Most heroic types would have stuck around to fight them all.

Screw that, you get the loot and RUN! Like a sensible person!

Maybe scouting isn't so bad.

**************

"You left an undead army wandering loose?" Twilight said, stunned.

"More like an undead company, really," Rainbow Dash said, clearly trying to use the 'Shift Blame' spell. One that all adventurers must learn.

"There was no way the two of us could have handled it," I said. "It was my decision," I lied. "She wanted to stay but I thought it best to withdraw and get reinforcements." Now she owes me. I'll take some heat for this, but nothing I can't overcome.

"Yeah, I was going to clobber them!," Rainbow Dash said boldly, miming punching skeletons out. "But I couldn't protect Marcus and fight them all at once."

"I... can't we just avoid them?" Fluttershy said. "We need to conserve our strength for the dr... dragon. And probably they just don't like strangers."

"They're probably going to hunt us down to try to get their brazier back; it probably *made* them," Applejack said. "What do you think, Twilight?"

Twilight and Spike were busy digging through books.

"I vote for avoiding them," Ivan said. "I'm with Fluttershy, save our strength for the dragon. But make sure that thing isn't evil." He eyed it suspiciously.

"I'm working on it," Twilight said. "Marcus, can you look through Krangon's?"

Krangon was a halfling adventurer from about fifty years ago; he visited the Malpheggi among other places and volume 4 of his memoirs deals with it. That's the one she brought. She tossed it to me and I started skimming.

Rainbow Dash lurked by me, reading over my shoulder. I moved a little to make it easier for her, though I was probably going to fast for her to keep up easily.

"Damn, you read fast," she said.

"I can't fly like you but I can turn pages with the best of them," I said dryly and she laughed.

"There we go," she said; I had nearly gone by a picture of the brazier but I guess she's used to processing visuals quickly if she can outrace sound.

Damn, I am so jealous of that!

"It's a crucible of Blackflame, a kind of fire which is cold," I said. "The Halflings use it for making magical items. Nothing here about it making or being used by undead. It says it comes from the Nightmare dimension." Everything is backwards in the Nightmare dimension; if we enter it, we go mad, but beings from there go mad in the face of our universe. Their fire is cold, their water is dry, and so on.

"So they probably stole it," Rainbow Dash said hesitantly.

"Given those were Halfling bones, it's likely something killed them and turned them into undead, but somehow the crucible got dumped in the pond," I said. "I don't know why they would have had a crucible with them, though; according to this, they're found usually in Halfling clanholds."

Of which I think there are roughly a hundred in the Shires and more elsewhere.

"Well, we can see about returning it to the Shires later," Twilight said. "Maybe I can get the ice off, see what clan it belongs to."

Of course the Ponies will want to return it to the original owners instead of selling it and splitting the wealth. Dammit, they're always so goody goody!

"Oh man," Ivan said. "That thing..."

I gave him the *hide what you are thinking* glare.

"Are you sure it won't kill us all?" Ivan asked nervously.

"It's perfectly safe as long as no one tries to put fuel in it or light it," Twilight said.

There was a deep and terrible silence.

I knew, in my gut, what was happening this very moment.

My head swiveled and found Pinkie trying to roast marshmallows over it.

Everyone stared in horror.

She laughed. "Psych! I didn't turn it on!"

We all fell over.

"I don't even know how to," Pinkie confessed. "But you should see the look on your faces!" She rolled around in the grass, laughing.

Then Rainbow Dash started laughing loudly. "Good one, Pinkie."

I snagged the brazier before something could happen like laughing turning it on.

Okay, it was kind of funny. I might have smiled just a little.

But dangerous. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff this thing may do. Time to read up on it.

*************

We picked our way forwards through the swamp, wading through knee-deep water and trying to arc off to the left of where the undead were. Rainbow Dash, now back to normal, and Fluttershy flew high to keep watch.

Ivan and Applejack spent the WHOLE TIME talking about farming. I knew he came from a farm family, but I thought the whole point of him leaving was to never touch wheat again. However, he and Applejack were discussing something called 'Three Sisters Agriculture', which was NOT some sort of sex position as you would think.

Apparently, it involves growing beans, corn and squash together, which strikes me as a good way to become very gaseous.

While they plotted to give us all gas, Twilight and I talked magic shop; it was a reminder of why I stayed in Canterlot long enough for everything to blow up in my face. Every so often, I noticed Spike glaring at me; I still don't know for sure why he's mad. None of the reasons could be good, though.

We were studying the Crucible of Blackflame, which made me nervous and interested at once. Spike was carrying it for us and a half-dozen books were floating in the air. "Okay, so each Halfling Clan has one of these, which means some clan either lost theirs or they all moved here and died," Twilight said, frowning at the idea.

"Or someone stole it," I said.

"All the undead are halflings," she pointed out. "Except for the alligator."

"Maybe halflings used to live here," Spike said. "Lots of fish, and they could make rice paddies easily." It's easy to forget Spike has a pretty good education, especially as he's still childish. But he's not stupid and he knows more than you'd think.

"This doesn't seem very ideal for their burrows," Twilight said, looking down at the knee-deep water. It was more like waist-deep on Spike.

"You think you could get Winona to actually put the fish in the ground without eating them?" Ivan said to Applejack, sounding surprised.

Who?

"Hmm, so you need something flammable to ignite it," I said, studying the layer of frost. "Which might be hard to do with the cold and the ice. Though I do have a fire spell which might do it."

"Ignatius' Igneous Ignition?" Twilight asked.

Rarity was busy talking to Pinky. Something about a cat. Or an alligator? Rarity was fretting over whether her sister was taking care of their pets. AHH. I'm sure Rarity's sister is reliable, though, if she's much like Rarity.

I remember the time Ivan, Helga, and I stupidly agreed to take care of that damn Flaemish wizard's familiar while he was in Parliament. The Glantrian Parliament, that is. Stupid Salamander.

By the way, flame spells make them STRONGER.

"Vanderhoven's Spiraling Fiery Burst," I told her. "I learned it from Pieter Vanderhoven, a Glantrian Wizard, after the HELL known as taking care of his familiar."

Spike is, I think, Twilight's familiar. "HEY," Spike said.

"Nothing personal, Spike. You're intelligent, you don't run around burning everything, and you don't keep trying to climb up the chimney," I told him apologetically. "It was a salamander."

Rarity and Pinkie now came up to us. "What's this?" Rarity asked.

I had to tell them the whole story. They were busy laughing at me, except for Applejack and Ivan, who were trying to figure out how many beans a human needed to eat.

If humans 'need' to eat beans, I am in trouble.

Rainbow Dash now dropped down from the sky and said, "We've got trouble. The Undead are following us."

Ivan grimaced. "They probably are tracking the Crucible."

"I'm thinking we should dump it, then," Applejack said.

DUMP TREASURE?

Even LOKI would never dump treasure. And he's an EVIL TRICKSY BASTARD.

So are his priests. They built a whole country around LYING. How Hule works, I'll never understand.

"Dump treasure? I'm pretty sure that's immoral in every religion," Ivan said frantically.

Agreed.

"We can't just throw away treasure," Rarity said firmly. "I am losing income every day my shop is closed. That thing has to be valuable to someone."

A woman after my own heart.

"Oooh, I bet I could make ice cream in it," Pinkie said.

I suspect it would be dangerous ice cream.

"It's too valuable to throw away," Twilight said. "And undead can't be bargained with." She sighed. "Not most undead, anyway. There was this one book..."

"About a lonely Boldavian prince of the night?" I said. No one has ever proven the rulers of Boldavia in Glantri are vampires. Just as no one has ever *proven* Celestia is a Pony and not someone engaged in a really, really thorough impersonation of a Pony. Or proven with irrefutable proof that I am human or Spike is a dragon or Twilight is a Pony.

Her eyes widened and lit up. "You read it?"

There are a ton of crappy books for people about romantic Boldavian vampires. I suspect someone in Prince Mikhail's family churns them out to raise money for fancy coffins for everyone.

"I wouldn't take those as truth," I told her, and her face crashed. "They're intended as entertainment."

She sighed.

"Anyway, this thing is too valuable to throw away and they might chase us anyway, given undead tend to want to eat tasty creatures like Ponies and Humans," I said.

"Actually, Ponies are MUCH tastier than Humans," Fluttershy said.

WHY DOES SHE KNOW THIS???

Spike raised an eyebrow at Fluttershy.

"But candy is TASTIER than either! If we make people out of candy, maybe they'll eat the candy people and leave us alone," Pinkie said hopefully, then began digging in her saddlebags.

"We haven't got the facilities to make candy, and I think they smell the living," Rarity said.

"I didn't bring any of my field guides to the undead, because I assumed we'd only meet swamp monsters and dragons," Twilight said, frustrated. "I need some spell I can pull books out of my library with."

"Can you send or receive books, Spike?" I asked him.

"No, too long," he said. "I could send someone a letter and ask them to go look in the library but by the time they find it, probably zombies will be trying to eat us." He studied me suspiciously.

Did I ask Spike about that in the old days? I racked my brain, trying to figure out if I had, but it's too much of a blur. I only remember the big events, like the time we were in the library so late the castle librarian fell asleep on on our books to make us leave.

Or maybe just fell asleep.

We'd been knee-deep in a discussion of ring theory. I don't remember why, so we went back to her chambers and continued the discussion until we both fell asleep on the floor.

Man, Spike makes good waffles.

"Waffles?" Twilight said.

FUCK ME. PLEASE LET ME ONLY HAVE SAID WAFFLES.

"Focus, sugarcube," Applejack said. "We need to decide what to do about the dead."

"I suggest we press on to something drier," I said. "Ivan and I can fight better if we aren't slogging through water."

"Me too," Applejack said. "Throws my speed and coordination off a mite."

"There's a rocky outcropping," Rainbow Dash said. "Up ahead. About a half mile."

"Is it dry?" Rarity asked.

"Yes."

We agreed to head for the outcropping. Rainbow Dash got Twilight to enlarge her again, then took me with her so we could make sure it didn't have any traps on it.

See, normal people don't have to worry if ordinary terrain features have traps, but in my line of work, EVERYTHING has traps in it.

Possibly even waffles.

Dammit, I want Spike to make me waffles now.

"Hey, thanks for covering for me earlier," Rainbow Dash said to me sheepishly.

"That's what friends are for, right?" I told her. You can't really call someone a friend you just met, but being SEEN as one is a very valuable tool.

She smiled brightly. "Yeah, exactly. Friends take care of each other. You're an alright guy, Samus Marcus. I was kind of worried about you, but I guess that Erik guy was an unusual bad apple." She laughed. "Geez, I sound like Applejack."

The wind battered at me; Rainbow Dash was flying at a good clip but not too fast, soaring over the trees. It was more fun and less terrifying this time, and I envied her. To fly whenever you want, that must be wonderful.

"It is wonderful," she said. "And, of course, I'm one of the greatest flyers in Equestria!" She demonstrated with a loop-de-loop which nearly flung me off into the swamp. "Ack, I'm not used to carrying anyone."

Only now did I realize I had voiced my thoughts AGAIN. If I am not careful, I am going to die.

"Humans can't fly unless they use magic," I told her. "Though there are some winged humans and elves in Alphatia." Though that might have been magic too. Alphatia is an ancient empire, thousands of years old, ruled by anyone who can spell-cast. Everyone else is a flunky at best. Glantri wants to be Alphatia, but is basically a cheap rip-off.

"You do magic... I guess you don't have a horn, though," she said thoughtfully.

"It's the fruit of hard study. I EARNED my magic," I said. "I taught myself from a book I got on an adventure." I later found out it was one of the introductory books from the Great School of Magic.

Okay, I bought it because it had a mostly naked Elf on the cover. I was sixteen, okay?

Why Glantrians had mostly naked Elves on the cover of a school textbook, I don't know. It certainly is an inducement to study magic.

"I went to the flight academy in Cloudsdale," she said. "I don't know if you've heard of it," she continued hesitantly, glancing back at me.

"Cloud city, center for weather production, right?" I said. Equestria, like Alfheim and parts of Alphatia and Glantri, has managed weather. The Pegasi Ponies fly around, controlling it. They all have a knack, but some are better than others.

"Yeah, I'm a weather pony. And I won an award for best Junior Flyer!" she said proudly. "I got to save the Wonderbolts and now I'm pals with them!" She sounded really excited about that.

We now reached the outcropping. It looked rather odd, a mix of grey and black rocks all jumbled together and fused into huge chunks, rising out of the swamp. The land rose north of it to where the water was just ankle-deep and on the west side of it, a stream flowed south. Hardy berry bushes and moss grew on it but no grass. The fire-blackened skull of a dragon of middling age sat on the south face of it, halfway down the slope and a few other dragon bones stuck out of the rocks.

"Look, you're a guy, right?" Rainbow Dash said nervously.

...

"You saw me naked," I said. And commented on my genitalia. Actually, let's forget that ever happened too.

"I'm sorry, I am trying to figure out how to ask this. It's just, I kind of don't have a lot of guy friends," she said nervously.

Whatever she's going to ask me, it's going to be bad. I can SMELL it. "If this is about male Ponies, I can try to help, but I know more about male humans," I told her. I now began casting a spell to hopefully find any magical energies.

She circled the outcropping as I did this. I noticed a long flow of fused rock down the east side. Surely this isn't some kind of volcano. There's no feeling of heat from it. And it's too small, I think.

"Well, I...umm... I think there's enough similarity. This isn't about anatomy," Rainbow Dash said. "From the stories I've heard, Humans and Ponies... they...umm... Has a girl ever made you a pie?" she said frantically.

What?

"I have been fortunate enough to eat food made for me by many ladies," I told her. "Did you make someone you like a pie and you can't judge his reaction to it?"

"What, no, this is just totally theoretical," she said. LYING LIKE A RUG. "If, by chance, a girl made a guy a pie and he got sick but said it was okay... would it mean he was just being polite and now hates her forever?" she asked nervously.

Wow, this is a flashback to when I was eleven or so. But I suppressed the urge to laugh. Never mock people who you want to get on their good side unless they clearly like teasing.

"Is he the honest, athletic, rugged type like you?" I asked.

"Yes," she said nervously.

No sign of magical traps on the hill, thank you, but now I was nervous it might erupt. I don't have any spells for that, thanks to my usual inability to hold onto ritual books for long.

"It means he really does like you," I told her. "But next time, maybe you should get Pinkie to help you."

"I wanted to make it myself," she mumbled.

"But any true man knows that if a woman makes him food, she likes him." I paused. "Unless she's a baker like Pinkie, anyway."

She relaxed. "But this isn't about me," she then said, un-relaxing, and waving her forelimbs frantically.

"Try touching down on it," I told her. "You can tell your 'friend' that the guy likes her," I said kindly.

She landed lightly on top. A rock shifted but her footing was steady. Good visibility from here, lots of places to hide. So what horrible deadly doom am I not seeing?

"I'll try making another pie after this," she said. "I mean...umm..."

"I am sure he will enjoy the pie," I told her, hoping I wasn't sending her down a blind alley. But I'll be long gone before she tries making him another pie. I wonder which one of the Wonderbolts it is. Not that I know much about them beyond their appearance and some of their... "Oh, you know the Wonderbolts, right? Did they ever tell you about their adventure recovering an artifact for the Minrothad Guilds?"

"Those Guilders are ASSHOLES. Greedy, greedy, greedy," she said, spitting on a rock. "But you're not like that, thankfully."

"Aren't there ponies in the Guilds?" I asked.

"CRAZY ponies who think bits are the only things which matters," Rainbow Dash said, shaking her head. Bits are what Equestrians call gold pieces. "Even Applejack and Rarity don't think that."

The Minrothad Guilds control islands off southeast of here, beyond Ierendi. They're major sea traders and compete with Thyatis to control the sea trade. For understandable reasons, they don't like me very much, though I don't THINK they've figured out everyone they hate is the same person. I'm kind of under a few Black Marks, where they are out to kill me but they can't FIND me in this body. Hah!

Twitch.

Anyway, the Pearl was IVAN'S fault, not mine. I only helped.

Anyway, the Islands are home to all five sentient races, who work together in remarkable harmony to get everyone else in the multiverse's gold, by trade, theft, piracy, stealing intellectual property and so on.

If they weren't so greedy, they'd be kind of inspirational, really. Hard working, racial cooperation, no internal wars... but totally greedy.

"This seems like a good place to make a stand, but I feel like I'm missing something," I told Rainbow Dash.

"It looks fine to me," she said. "As long as we don't have to sleep on it."

You know, I can use my new sweater vest as a pillow. That would be nice. It's nice and soft. "Okay, let's get the others, then."

"So do you know this Erik guy who Twilight had her trouble with?" she asked me as she took off.

"Not any more than you know every pony in Equestria," I lied smoothly. "I don't even know what exactly happened beyond people saying she was moping."

"No one knows, beyond him running away and some kind of drinking game with books and... what kind of drinking game involves BOOKS?" Rainbow Dash asked. "Even Berry doesn't know any book drinking games."

I know far too much about exactly what kind of drinking game involves books. Twilight, in fact, had a book of drinking games for book lovers.

Of course.

"I'd be afraid to ruin the book spilling something on it," I told her.

"I kind of got rainbow all over a textbook one time," Dash said ruefully.

Well, I can say I NEVER have done that.

And hopefully never will.

"He probably was from the Northern Reaches with a name like that," I told her. I was claiming to be a Vestlander at that point but it would give up too much if I somehow 'guessed' that.

"Do they break women's hearts a lot up there?" she asked.

"They do in Ostland," I said. "They're all crazy raiding maniacs there." And the women are hot but insane. Anyway, Ostland has earned my wrath, so I don't mind dumping on them.

She grimaced. "That explains that."

"You really care about Twilight," I said softly.

"Yeah, we're pals. I'd do anything for a pal," she said. "But I'll have to save flying to Ostland and kicking his ass for later."

"Better not go alone; they're pretty tough," I told her. I just need to deflect suspicion from myself, not get her killed trying to hunt someone imaginary.

"Well, right now, we have to focus on this," she said. "You holding up okay?" she asked softly.

Why... OH. "Having something else to focus on lets me get by," I told her.

She nodded. "Yeah. It does." She didn't volunteer what she might want to get by from and I didn't pry.

You know, Ivan and I could finally get into that damn tower with the help of someone like her. Assuming the map isn't full of TOO many lies.

And assuming we still had the map, but I THINK I remember where that tower in the Broken Lands is.

She could just fly around until we found it!

This would, however, get in the way of running for the hills. Though if this DOES end smoothly... Well, I'll contemplate that later.

Especially since I know better than to think dealing with a Great Wyrm EVER goes smoothly.

***************

Rainbow Dash left me there to secure the position. This made me VERY nervous, but I only had to kill a single snake which popped out and tried to kill me for no good reason. I was busy hunting for more snakes when the others arrived, splashing through the water.

Rarity paused, then stared at the rocks. I blinked, following her gaze.

"Oooh, did you find gems?" Spike asked, drooling a little.

"There's LOTS of gems in these rocks," Rarity said. She concentrated and various points began to glow, especially along the fused rock on the east side.

"We can dig for gems later, once the undead are gone," Applejack said. "So hold your horses, Spike."

"Oh man!"

I nodded. "I'll help you dig them up, Rarity."

Spike glared super-death at me. Why does he care if I help dig up gems? I know he likes to eat them but surely he isn't going to eat them all. "I can handle it," he said.

"We'll all help," Twilight said. "Maybe we can use these to bribe the Dragon."

"Hmm, good idea," Ivan said, nodding.

We disposed our force along the south and east slope, hoping the river would shield our western flank. Twilight and Rarity took up positions near the peak with Fluttershy over them. Rainbow Dash, Pinkie, and I were on the south slope, Ivan and Applejack on the east. Spike stood at the very corner. Fluttershy now began to sing and scatter seeds and they began to grow up into brambles around our three open sides. GO DRUID!

Twilight began reading from a book, tendrils of magic reaching around the rocks and Rarity now concentrated; a dozen finely crafted arrows rose out of her right saddlebag, each with an engraved head with her Cutie Mark set into it in blue-gem slices. The shafts were smooth oak and the feathers were bright and colorful and carefully cut to match each other for balance. "Wow," I said. They were the most beautiful arrows I have ever seen.

"I will act as the last line of defense for Twilight, but until then, I can support with arrows," Rarity said. "And Fluttershy and I support each other."

Hmm, interesting, I wonder how. I peered off through the steamy wetlands towards where the undead would appear, getting ready to cast.

When I saw them, I opened up with pyrotechnics to mark their position. I can't make very huge ones, unfortunately, but it was enough to give the signal for everyone else to FIRE.

Twilight did a set of signs with her hooves and finished her spell. The ground cracked and black tendrils thrust up, grabbing some of the halfling zombies and beginning to crush them. She looked pleased and determined. Evard's Black Tentacles. He was a Svart-Alfen from the Northern Reaches, I think.

Ivan and Applejack and Spike all held their ground for now, waiting for the enemy to get within range. Rainbow Dash hovered; she clearly wanted to go HIT HIT HIT but Twilight had told her to hold her ground.

Pinkie... began a fan dance. She's remarkably nimble on only two legs and she began singing a song about laughing at ghosts and facing your fears. Somehow, it eased my fears about facing these creatures. I feel strange without fear, like something is missing. I could see the others relax, too. Bards are pretty nice and for all that Pinkie is crazy, she's good at her job.

Rarity studied the onrushing hordes; there were dozens of halfling zombies and skeletons, a skeletal alligator with two independently moving halves, a dozen or so spectral halflings and one shambling corpse limned with blackflame. Unfortunately, Twilight's tentacles had mainly grabbed the slow moving, easy to grab halflings.

"Don't touch the spectral ones with your flesh," Twilight said, pointing them out. "Rarity, if you can hurt them, focus fire on them, because Dash and Applejack and Pinkie can't fight them safely. Marcus, Ivan, your swords can hurt them, right?"

Great, just because I have a magical sword, I GET TO FIGHT THE LIFE FORCE SUCKING UNDEAD. This is the story of my life.

I might have just panicked, but I couldn't run with Pinkie singing. It was too soothing.

Now I know what I will hear when I die.

Rarity concentrated, arrow flickering back and forth as she aimed it with precision. Then she pushed it mentally and it flew with grace and beauty into the left breast of one of the spectral figures and stuck, hovering there. It howled and swatted at it, but it stayed stuck and now Fluttershy began to sing and branches sprouted from the shaft, wrapping around and trapping the creature. Not bad at all.

The lead elements of the wave now hit the massive brambles, and pressed on, getting tangled and trapped, moving very slowly.

Meanwhile, I concentrated and waved my hands, speaking the words of Vanderhoven's Spiraling Fiery Burst. A mote of flame erupted from my hand and began arcing towards one of the spectral halflings. It stared at it and now the flame spiraled in and hit it, then exploded in an outrushing burst of spiral flame which rushed over three of the spectral halflings and some zombies and skeletons as well; the zombies began to burn and the spectral halflings howled. But then the blackflame limned creature just sucked up my flames and his black flame got bigger.

DAMMIT.

At least their injuries stayed.

"Dash, get up and make sure there aren't some coming from a surprise direction," Twilight said, then began another spell.

Dash took to the skies and I began trying to think of something else I could do before it was melee time. My fire spell is my only memorized spell that kills things. I'm not telekinetically strong enough to fling them and my pyrotechnics would probably just annoy them. I doubt they like card tricks either.

Rarity and Fluttershy took down another spectral halfling together, but now the rest were coming through the brambles, faster than the zombies and skeletons, who got stuck in the brambles. But the spectral halflings just floated through the brambles like they weren't there.

"I don't see any more of them," Dash shouted from above.

Applejack now tried kicking apples at the spectral halflings. The apples went right through them, but now they turned and chased the apples.

...

Pinkie paused in her song and dance long enough to tell me, "Ivan, Marcus, I have PIES in my pack."

We dug around in her saddlebags, which she shucked off. They were HUGE inside. I'm going to have to digress.

Every race EXCEPT humans have signature magical items. I'm not sure whether we couldn't make up our minds or what. Elves, for example, have their magical swords, magical boots for stealth, and magical cloaks for stealth. Halflings craft weapons out of blackflame, such as rods of justice, which paralyze on a touch. They also make this GREAT potion called Oil of Moonlight, which makes things fly when you anoint them with it. Dwarfs make magical weapons and armor and these vessels called rockships, which sail through solid earth. I've ridden in one and it's a really smooth, quiet ride and very convenient.

For Ponies, one of their signature magical items are saddlebags of holding, magical bags which hold about a ten foot cube worth of space in each bag while being fairly small on the outside and toning down the weight of what you put in them. The result is that Ponies can carry a ton of stuff with them and just about everypony has one of these. Best of all, you just stick your hand in and think about what you need and you can reach it.

So Ivan and I armed ourselves with pies and started throwing. The spectral halflings began chasing them and eating them. Applejack and Rainbow Dash began laughing and laughing. Meanwhile, Rarity and Fluttershy began picking them off.

The boss, however, was not distracted by food and he now lashed out with huge tendrils of blackflame at us as we fed his minions. Everyone had to jump everywhere and then Twilight lightning bolted him. Which he absorbed and got MORE POWER.

I HATE FOES LIKE THAT.

Then he started to make a beeline for Spike.

Spike shivered, then got a determined look. "I won't let you hurt my friends!" He let out a huge gout of flame. Which, of course, the guy sucked up.

"Ivan, it's up to us," I told him. DAMMIT, I DO NOT WANT TO GO HAND TO HAND WITH THIS GUY.

Quickly, I donned my sweater vest, while Ivan said, "Do we have to?"

"If the ponies try to fight him hand-to-hand, it will probably eat their life force," I told Ivan.

"IT WILL TRY TO EAT OUR LIFE FORCE," Ivan said.

See, here's the problem. I agree with him totally. But if we don't do it, it will kill everyone else, then chase us through the swamp ANYWAY, THEN kill us.

"I'll do it, Marcus, while Nervous Nellie here hides behind Spike," Applejack said, now digging in her pack. She quickly removed and donned... galoshes?

Maybe they're Galoshes of Slaying or something.

"Fine! I'll do it!" Ivan said, charging. Ivan, foolishly can't handle being called a coward.

He does things to look brave.

I am a coward, but sometimes I have to fake bravery when I know cowardice won't actually work.

Seeing that thing closing in on Ivan, tendrils of blackflame lashing about, made me want to piss myself. I was utterly terrified of it. But seeing Ivan charging, I circled left, and Applejack right. It lashed out at me, but I parried with my blade and cut the tendril off. It regenerated but I now moved with Applejack to flank our foe. As he and Ivan flailed at each other and Ivan's blade began to grow a layer of ice, I would dart in and stab him, then parry or duck under or jump over his lashing tendrils, while Applejack did the same, delivering kicks with her now galoshes-shielded hooves. Ice formed on the surface of the galoshes, but her hooves were warm inside.

I could hear Rainbow Dash now charging through ranks of skeletons, smashing them up and flying, and now Pinkie Pie was singing about the hip bone connects to the skull bone, which I will note is TOTALLY wrong, for human OR pony.

I saw Spike set one of the spectral halflings on fire as he tried to climb the hill and then Rarity nailed the specter in the head with one of her arrows and it dissipated. Spike gave a huge cheer. "GO RARITY!"

"SUDDEN DAWN!" Twilight shouted, and sunlight, pure sunlight, washed over the zombies, searing them.

I got lashed by our foe, but it enabled Applejack to do a double kick that knocked him down. I had ice across my chest but the sweater vest kept me warm. Thanks, Twilight, Rarity! HAH!

The three of us hit him wolf-pack style; if he turned to face one of us, the other two would nail him. Applejack could kick him so hard he often fell down. He was starting to get very angry.

Angry enough that he now bowled Ivan over with an all out attack, leaving Ivan crusted in ice and howling, though Ivan gave him a nasty cut down one side which slowly was burning with REAL fire.

Then he rushed towards Spike.

This posed a problem. Without his fire, Spike can't stop this thing AND it likely WANTS more of his fire to get stronger. But if Spike gets out of the way, there's nothing to stop him attacking Twilight and Rarity or getting the Crucible, which would probably make him unstoppable.

"Spike, if you breathe on it, it gets stronger!," I shouted as Applejack and I chased it.

Fluttershy called up a wall of brambles, but he just froze and burned them at the same time, and she stared in horror as he kept coming.

Rarity shot him in the chest, then hit him with two more arrows and he lashed out with long tendrils at her and Spike. Spike bravely interposed himself to protect Rarity, ended up coated in ice and fell down. Rarity's eyes glinted now with anger.

"SPIKE!" Twilight shouted. Her horn glowed brightly.

Oh shit, here comes everyone becoming a turnip.

Pinkie Pie grabbed Spike and dove out of the way.

Rainbow Dash climbed upwards in a long arc.

Rarity pulled the arrows out of him and now all her arrows flew around her in an angry storm, building up speed. But now a tendril came lashing for her.

The river rose up and a lash of water hit the attacking lash and the water became ice and rained down, but now our foe was thrown off enough for Applejack to catch up with him, kicking him down.

"Don't you dare attack Spike and Rarity!" I shouted, stabbing him in a way that would have killed an ordinary person. "They're my friends!" Given he was an undead horror made out of undead blackflame (or whatever he is), it just hurt him and ice rushed up my blade, which now was stuck.

Well, shit.

Stupidly, I tried to stand on his back and pull it out and my boot froze to him. OH FUCK ME.

Rarity's breath caught and Spike said something weakly through the ice around him. Pinkie took a cake knife from her bags and began gently jabbing the ice, cutting Spike loose. Two of Rarity's arrows began ice-pick style assistance.

Dash continued to zoom around, beating up the skeletons and zombies, since everyone else was too distracted to even pay attention to them. She could pretty much kill any skeleton by ramming it, hooves first, and the zombies fell down when she hit them.

Ivan struggled, trying to get loose, his sword fallen on the ground out of his reach.

Applejack now secured her legs around my waist and pulled as I pulled but this just pulled me and our foe back and then we all rolled and ended up more or less back how we started, except I was getting more cold and more weak and our foe had a bigger hole in him.

I will note her galoshes DID NOT FREEZE. For some reason.

Fluttershy looked at me, looked at my sword, then smiled.

I don't get it.

She flew in close and began chanting gently. The ice on my sword melted and now it glowed hotly and I began stabbing our foe while Applejack pinned him down.

"You'd better surrender or it's the graveyard for you!" Applejack said.

I tried to figure out why Druid heat didn't feed him and Arcane fire HAD. Not that I was one to argue with success.

Fluttershy now helped Ivan, while Applejack and I dealt with our foe, the blackflame monster. Rarity shot him with several of her arrows and Applejack stomped him. I still had my feet frozen to him; they were leather and I guess druids don't spend much time learning to heat leather. Heating METAL is a classic Druid trick.

Usually for roasting their foes alive in their armor and weapons, but I assume Fluttershy doesn't go for that.

Hmm, you know, I bet she could make an AWESOME kebab.

I could now see Pinkie had produced a giant fake human hand... why did Pinkie have a giant fake human hand??? It was like a glove over her hoof and she was now using it to do a dance. The surviving zombies were now following her, copying her every motion. Okay, that's a pretty nice Bard trick, I have to say. She was leading them over to the river.

Ivan got the killing shot on the blackflame monster, with Rarity, Applejack, and myself providing support. Fluttershy had joined Pinkie and was singing while Pinkie danced. Pinkie led the zombies into the water; she had enough mass to resist the current, but they did not and it washed them away.

"Well, I guess that's done," I said.

Then one of the spectral halflings, which we'd all lost track of, suddenly came up OUT OF THE GROUND and grabbed the Crucible of Blackflame. Twilight hit him with lightning, Rarity with an arrow, Spike with a wobbly thrown rock, and he died.

"Okay, now we're done," I said.

"There's a flying boat coming this way!" Rainbow Dash said.

I rubbed my forehead; I could see a huge flying ship off in the distance now that Dash pointed it out. Too far to see if it is friendly or hostile, though.

I helped Ivan hobble back to the rock outcropping and Fluttershy began treating our injuries, with Rarity and Applejack for nurses. Spike got out a piece of paper and a quill, then got on Rainbow Dash and flew up with her, to go scout the ship. I assume he plans to send Twilight a letter if necessary.

"Fluttershy, do you know why your abilities could hurt it without making it stronger when Spike's fire and my fire and Twilight's magic couldn't?" I asked her.

"He was mean and I am not," she said.

I am not MEAN. Twilight is not mean. Spike... isn't usually mean, other than hating me.

"Fluttershy, Marcus and Twilight and Spike are not mean," Rarity said, gently chiding.

"I'm so sorry," Fluttershy squeaked, dropping the cloth she had in her mouth, with which she was applying some kind of salve to Ivan's chilled chest. "I... Ivan."

"What about you and the Salamander?" Ivan said to me, grinning a little. "Yes, Fluttershy?"

"The Salamander had it coming," I grumbled.

Rarity laughed softly and said, "You will need to take your boots and pants off, if that's okay, Marcus."

I did so and she worked on me. My poor cold feet soon felt a nice warmth soaking into them.

"She... said, yes," Fluttershy mumbled.

"I don't understand," Ivan said.

"She needs you to strip some in order to treat you."

He began doing so.

"See, he's not panicky about it," Applejack said to me. "Ain't no big deal, a little nudity between friends."

It's not so much the nudity as the surprise and the fact that when someone surprises me when I'm naked, they usually are out to kick my ass. And I was TRYING to speak secret things with Ivan.

Pinkie rose up onto her hind hooves. I think she must have a little human in her ancestry or something. "We're all born naked," she sang. "And naked into the grave we go!"

"Actually, humans are usually buried with clothing on," I said as Rarity now worked on my chest.

"Oh COME ON," Applejack said. "In case of what? The worms seeing you nekkid?" She reared up. "I'm naked and what does it matter? Nothing."

"No one is really naked with a hat on," I said. My tombstone will probably say that. I shivered as Rarity worked on my legs, then remembered my tattoo was just covered by my underwear now and if that got out... I really shivered now.

"I am going to teach you not to be silly about your body," Applejack said to me.

"Applejack, you should respect their customs," Rarity said firmly.

"It's stupidly finicky and gets in the way of way too much," Applejack said. "What are you going to do if your butt gets injured, Marcus?"

"Cry," I mumbled, and she rolled her eyes.

Rarity sighed. "I'm sorry, Marcus, sometimes Applejack carries on like she lives in a barn."

"I HAVE A BARN, you know," Applejack said, irritated. "I LIVE in it."

"Really, it's more like a house than a barn," Fluttershy said; I could tell she was really uncomfortable with this argument.

Twilight was watching us work but also consulting three books hastily.

"We can't bump, if you won't show your rump!," Pinkie sang, dancing along.

Please tell me she is NOT singing about what I think she's singing about.

Fluttershy's eyes crossed.

"You live in your shop and I live in MINE," Applejack said, frowning. "You picking up bad manners from your sewing machine and your thread?"

"Your manners seem fine to me," Ivan said. "Fluttershy, are you okay?"

"I'm okay," she squeaked, then took a deep breath. "Ivan, I'm done. We can put your shirt back on and then you should rest a little while, then you'll be okay."

"Thank you," he said. "I feel much better."

Rarity and Applejack were trying to kill each other with their eyes. "My legs," I mumbled and Rarity looked embarrassed and went back to work treating them.

"You got perfectly nice legs for a human," Applejack said, then for some reason ran a hoof along my calf. "Nice muscle definition there. You do much runnin'?"

A lot. A whole lot.

"Humans are intended as long-distance runners," Fluttershy said. "Ponies are faster over short distances but we tire out quickly. Humans can chase things for miles if they're in good shape. It's how they hunt."

"We should go runnin' some time, then. I'd like to see how fast you are," Applejack said, clearly giving Rarity the 'Wall of Ignoring' spell.

"Sure," I said. I'll be long gone by then, assuming she isn't planning to run in the swamp.

Please not in the swamp.

Rarity finished with the warming salve. Oh yes, feels good. I made happy noises and she smiled. "You can put your pants on."

Twilight was now urgently whispering to Pinkie, who looked baffled.

I put my pants on. "Thank you very much, Fluttershy, Rarity, Applejack."

"I mostly just stood here waiting my turn, sugarcube," Applejack said. "But yer welcome, Marcus."

"I like to help people," Fluttershy said, smiling brightly.

"I shouldn't eat up our limited food but now I'm hungry," I grumbled.

"We can go catch you more fish," Applejack said. "If we're lucky, we'll get some here."

We now got down to getting Applejack treated as well.

*************

Once Applejack was treated, which Ivan helped with, we all went fishing, though Twilight and Pinkie were still talking. Rarity is a pretty good spear fisher with those arrows, I learned. She and Applejack both relaxed while we were fishing. I was in the middle of frying up the fish when it hit me. "Should Dash be taking this long?"

The ship was drawing closer and there was no sign of Rainbow Dash.

Applejack frowned. "I wouldn't think it would."

There had been no sounds of violence or anything, though.

The ship was coming from north by northeast. "It's coming from Darokin or Glantri or maybe even Wendar."

"Assumin' it came in a straight line," Applejack pointed out.

Good point.

A letter now tumbled down to Twilight. We all looked over, curious.

"Dear Twilight Sparkle," she read out loud. "Duchess Sapphire of Sugar Hollow is here, on her way to make a visit of state to Equestria on behalf of Princess Emerald of the Principality of Dream Valley in the Republic of Glantri. She actually wears more clothing than Marcus and Ivan."

...

Ivan laughed. "Now that would be something to see."

Applejack laughed loudly.

"Also, no one needs three tiaras. She wants to see Duchess Twilight Sparkle." Twilight blinked. "I am not a duchess."

"You are now," I said. "Clearly Rainbow Dash wanted her to see you as an equal, rather than some peasant to be pitied and trampled on. Or maybe Spike. If she's like most Glantrian nobles, she has an ego bigger than an Ursa Major."

They all shivered at that, as I knew they would. Star beasts are terribly dangerous things.

"I don't know if we really have time," Twilight said nervously.

"Everyone did bring their formal clothes, right?" Rarity said. "I have mine."

They brought formal clothing to a swamp?

"The only thing I have which is clean, let alone formal, is this sweater vest," I said. "Ditto for Ivan."

Twilight frowned. "I'm certainly not going to leave you behind."

"I got mine, if I have to dress up," Applejack said.

"If you enjoy waves of disdain, then you could go without dressing up," I said. "Duchesses are the next best thing to a Princess. She's probably second in command after Princess Emerald and probably her heir." There are... eleven? Twelve? There is a small number of Princes of Glantri, a slightly smaller number of Dukes and Duchesses, then various other ranks. Usually a Duke or Archduke (higher than Duke, even rarer) is the designated heir of the Prince or Princess.

Applejack grimaced. "Stupid snooty nobles."

"I don't know how we'd go about getting cleaned up here to the right level, though," I said. "And Ivan and I are kind of trashed."

"I'll stay here with you two," Applejack said. "Twilight, you can take Rarity and Fluttershy. They'll come off well. And Pinkie can stay with us."

Ivan pulled out a deck of cards. "I've got the party right here."

"I... is that really okay with you all?" Twilight said hesitantly. "I should meet with her, but I hate leaving you here."

"We'll have a little party," Applejack said. "I have some apple cider and everything."

"I've got pie!" Pinkie said cheerfully.

"We're too filthy to go," I said.

"We could... but you..." Rarity sighed. "I didn't bring much material, as I only expected to make repairs on the fancy clothing if something went wrong."

"It's fine," I told her. "I can help you dress up if you like, fair lady."

"It figures," Applejack said. "Better be careful or he'll have you clothed all the time, Rarity."

Everyone laughed.

I don't know how non-unicorns get these fancy outfits on. Rarity could have done this all herself, really, but I could tell she enjoyed having someone help her. Twilight helped Fluttershy to suit up. I have to say, I thought the three dresses looked pretty nice, though I think Rarity tends to go a little overboard on using gemstones.

Which reminded me, we haven't dug up the gems in this hill yet!

Well, later. We can worry about it later, they're not going anywhere.

"Thank you for the help," Rarity said. "I am sorry I haven't got anything appropriate to dress you up in and no way to make a full outfit suitable for a human." She sounded very guilty.

"It's fine," I told her. "I know you would if you could. After all this is done, I will need some fine clothing."

"I will be happy to help you then," she said, then joined the others. Then Twilight Sparkle teleported them up to the boat, which now was hovering over us.

SHADE! SWEET!

By now, Ivan and Applejack and Pinkie had our improvised party set up.

I eyed the cider warily. I wanted it but I needed to stay SOBER so nothing foolish would happen and why is Pinkie looking at me like that? I shivered.

"It doesn't bite," she whispered loudly to me.

Thanks for the heads up, Pinkie.

Applejack produced mugs and straws and we all got some cider and started playing. I could have easily rooked them all, but this is just for fun and to build stronger bonds with the rest of the party. So I carefully won some hands, but didn't really show off.

Applejack played conservatively, not winning big but never losing big either. She was very good at seeing through bluffs, I noted. Pinkie... I will not pretend I understand her goals. She either won big or went down in flames. Ivan takes moderate risks. He had some big wins, some bombs, but neither as big as Pinkie.

"So Ivan's a farm boy, what's your background?" Applejack asked, sipping through a straw.

"I was the seventh son, wouldn't inherit anything, so I got a sword and training in using it and a kind of hint to seek my fortune," I told her. I actually... dammit, I've lied about my childhood so many times I'm not sure any more which story is the right one. "I went to Karameikos to stay with kin who had immigrated there, which is when I met Ivan." I'm pretty sure the Anya and Boris thing happened. Maybe that was in Karameikos; those really aren't Thyatian names.

Every so often, I have these dreams where I grew up in a tree city, but I'm pretty sure that's my imagination.

Why is Pinkie looking at me like that???

"Seventh son of a seventh son?" she asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Ahh," she said sagely.

What?

I studied my hand. Jack of Flames, Ten of Shadows, Queen of Winds, Six of Stones, Jack of Shadows. I could go for a Straight, or throw most of them and stick with the pair of Jacks. Jack-high is my favorite way to win but it's hard to pull off.

"We've been in a lot of adventuring parties, along with Ivan's cousin Helga, but now she's married to a Glantrian noble and doing well," I told her. "I was sorry to see her retire, but I hope she's happy."

I decided to go for the Straight, hoping I wasn't messing up. Goodbye, two cards.

"You two met on some secret mission you can't talk about, right?" I said.

Pinkie and Applejack looked at each other. "I reckon it wouldn't do no harm to...," Applejack said, studying her cards.

"SECRET," Pinkie said urgently. "We can't tell you. I'm sorry, Sammy."

"My name is Marcus," I mumbled, then said louder, "Okay."

Pinkie discarded three Flames. "This hand is NOT on fire," she said, and Ivan laughed. I smiled.

Applejack sighed. "I hate secrets."

"Well, it's best to keep them," I said. "There's a lot of lunatics who run around stealing artifacts and they might cause you trouble if the full story came out." Not that I know anyone like that, of course.

Applejack tossed out two cards and took a deep sip of cider. "So you're a city boy?"

"Very much so," I told her. "Though I spend a lot of time in the country, getting in trouble."

Ivan dealt everyone more cards. I studied mine. Eight of Flames, Nine of Shadows. YES! I tried not to grin too much.

"So you like the sophisticated city types?" she asked.

"Yes," I told her. Didn't we already have this conversation? "But I enjoy the company of all of you here." Okay, Pinkie terrifies me just by looking at her cards. But other than that, they're good company. I sipped the cider. "Very good. I assume you brewed it yourself?"

"Big Mac handles all the distillin'," Applejack said. "He's my big brother."

"He's BIG," Pinkie said, spreading her forehooves wide. "And very Macky."

Whatever that means.

"You can commend him on his fine skills," I said. "Does he add honey?"

She blinked. "Yes, just a little for sweetness," she said.

"I bet Ponies make some fine mead," Ivan said.

"Shouldn't someone be betting?" Pinkie said.

"Sorry, I raise twenty," I said, shoving the coins out.

"See and raise five," Applejack said, pushing her coins out.

Pinkie turned her cards upside down. "Still the same, blast it!" She took a swig of cider.

"I guess you're missing the noble party on the boat, then," Applejack said. Something odd about her tone. Was she making fun of me? No. She wasn't mad at me, but...

Aargh, this is probably important.

Ivan frowned at his cards. "Fold," he said, sighing.

"I haven't bet yet!" Pinkie said.

"Fold anyway," Ivan said.

"I will admit that I do enjoy high class affairs, but I also enjoy a good game of cards with friends," I told her. "I'm actually more worried something will eat us." I did NOT mean to say that!

"You are a nervous nellie," Applejack said. "Why do you do it?"

Pinkie finally saw and raised two.

I saw her bet and raised five.

Applejack studied me, then her cards.

"There's no reason to be scared of cards," I said hesitantly.

"..." Applejack stared at me, confused.

"She means why go adventuring if you get scared so much," Ivan said. "Dumbass." He sipped his cider. "Man, I could totally go for some nice warm rye bread with butter and jam."

"Me too, but I can't bake anything out here very well," Pinkie said, sighing. "I put JUST a touch of sugar in it."

"You put sugar in everything, Pinkie," Applejack said. "And yeah, Ivan got it right." She frowned at her cards, then studied my forehead. Is she reading... no, Applejack would never invade my mind, find out my secrets, then reveal herself to be a vampire.

History doesn't repeat itself that precisely.

Pinkie said, "You need to bet, Applejack."

She looked up at the flying boat and sighed. Had she wanted to go? Maybe she was the sort of person who fakes reluctance and has to be pushed into what they want.

No, I don't think so. But there is something.

"I see but don't raise," Applejack finally said.

"I raise five," Pinkie said.

Pinkie was betting in an oddly moderate way, which meant... anything. It could mean ANYTHING. Dammit.

My eyes drifted to Applejack's hat. Such a nice hat but I doubt she'll put it up for a bet.

Dammit, I need a hat.

"You gonna answer?" Applejack asked me.

"Answer? OH," I said. "It's the only life I know," I told her. "Every time I try to settle down, something goes wrong. People die, things explode, I have to flee." I sighed. "Am I really that nervous?"

"No," Pinkie said.

"Yes," Ivan said, grinning. BASTARD.

"Yes," Applejack said. "I can see you're always eyin' the exits, so to speak." She took a sip of cider. "You have a bad experience with a pony or something?"

Well, there was having a pony JUMP ON ME as I clung to a tree branch in a raging river. Who thought it was a game. And who basically brings me fear just by... holding her cards sideways.

"In the adventuring business, caution helps you survive," I said. "I think you saw during the big fight that I am not going to run away, scared as I may get sometimes." I felt offended, really. When I run away, it won't be fear, it will be my survival instinct. Eventually, sooner or later, Twilight will figure out who I am and then I will be lucky to be a bottle stopper

"Damn life-drinking undead," Ivan grumbled.

We could hear music on the boat, pleasant tunes from the seventh century in Thyatis. The kind of thing they play at fancy parties in noble courts. Mind you, in the seventh century, it was peasant music and someone probably used a fiddle in it.

Age often gives things an unearned patina of classiness and glory.

Pinkie began tapping her feet and looked up jealously at the boat.

"I could tell you and Ivan fight together a lot," Applejack said. "Kinda like wolves fight."

"Yeah," Ivan said.

"Oh, I raise five," I said, studying my cards; now I was tapping my foot.

Applejack said. "Stay."

Pinkie shuffled her cards, then picked them up, looked at them hopefully and her face fell.

"You do those fancy dances?" Applejack asked me.

"I am versed in many styles of dance," I told her. "I can even sort of do the Pony Square, but with only two legs, I can't do it fully correctly."

Applejack sipped her cider. "You ever met Prince Blueblood?"

"I must admit I don't even know who he is," I said. Maybe I've heard the name.

"I...aaargh. FOLD," Pinkie said to my surprise. "Prince Blueblood is a meanie."

"What, now?" Applejack said in surprise.

"What did Prince Blueblood do?" I asked. "I think I am going to stay."

"Me too," Applejack said. She turned out to have a full house. "Hah! I win." She raked in her winnings.

I hadn't MEANT to lose that, but it's okay, it helps maintain the balance.

"He's a selfish, self-centered jerk," Pinkie said. She sighed. "That whole party was made out of not-fun-at-all. I tried my BEST to liven it up but even though Celestia enjoyed it, I have to do better, next time."

"I dunno if I'll go. Bunch of snobs," Applejack said, sipping her cider.

I sipped mine, then got the deck and started shuffling. "As they say in Karameikos, shake a noble's family tree and a bunch of farmers fall out of the upper branches. You shouldn't care what they think, Applejack," I said firmly. "YOU actually have done something useful with your life. If they look down on you, it just is because they know you're better and they're bitter over it."

She blinked. "Thanks, Marcus." She sipped her cider, and Ivan sipped his, while I continued to shuffle.

I slid the deck to Applejack and she cut it. Then I started dealing. I heard this odd beat, then I realized it was probably ponies dancing to the beat, their hooves striking the deck in unison. "Damn, I am so filthy," I said, looking at myself and sighing.

"It's the dirt of honest hard work, rightfully earned," Applejack said. She studied her cards as I dealt them. "Be proud of it."

There was a sudden sound of thunder in the sky and I jumped to my feet, dropping the deck, though I caught it with a quick spell before it hit the ground. I shouldn't have dropped it but the sound startled me.

It was, in fact, twelve flying Pegasi, soaring in a huge formation from the west. They wore matching blue uniforms and flew in formation. My eyes widened. "The Wonderbolts. I hope they're just here to escort the Duchess." And not because the end of the world is about to start NOW, right here on this rock.

"Rainbow Dash is gonna' be happy," Applejack said, smiling.

I was about to ask which one she has the crush on, but Applejack might not know about the crush, so I just licked my lips. "Rainbow Dash is a friend of them, right?"

"She saved three of them and Rarity at the Junior Flyer Competition in Cloudsdale," Pinkie said. "It was GREAT."

Wow. "That's pretty impressive."

"Rarity was using a flight spell Twilight cast on her and kinda got overconfident," Applejack said, shaking her head. "Sometimes she wants to be loved a little too much."

"Nothing wrong with wanting to be liked," I said defensively. "Everyone wants to be liked." I studied my cards. Two of Stones, Three of Stones, Six of Stones, Three of Rivers, Jack of Winds. Hmmm.

"There's probably some stallion trying to get her attention right this minute," Applejack observed, sipping cider and studying her cards.

"I'd think she'd have stallions all over her," Ivan said. "Sorry, that came out cruder than I intended."

"The boys *love* Rarity," Pinkie said. "It's how she got them to haul us in a carriage to the Grand Gala!"

Good for her, I thought. Using your sex appeal wisely is a VERY valuable tool. I expect she has a lot to ponies. "So what happened with this Prince Blueblood?" I asked.

"I bet... ten," Applejack said.

"He kept being mean to her, wouldn't be a gentleman at all. She had her heart up so high and he wouldn't even open a door for her," Pinkie said. "I am more of a gentleman than him! Open *every* door, that's my motto!"

That does not surprise me at all.

"I promise you I will not do anything like that to Rarity," I told Applejack. "He sounds like a cad, who deserved whatever he got."

"He got CAKE!" Pinkie said cheerfully. "I match Applejack and bid thirty."

He was mean to Rarity and got CAKE for it? I can't accept that. Though I doubt I'll ever see him, he'll get something worse than CAKE from me. "Well, I hope he didn't like the cake, as it sounds like he deserved much worse." Wait, 'Prince' Blueblood? How many people has Celestia elevated lately?

"I... see for now," Ivan said warily.

Now I could see Rainbow Dash up in the air with three of the Wonderbolts, all of them zipping around. Two guys and a woman, I think. I wonder which guy it is.

"I see," I said for now.

Soon everyone was discarding. I tossed all but the threes and got TWO MORE THREES. YES!

"I'm sorry to give you the tenth degree," Applejack said apologetically. "Maybe I've had too much cider." She sighed.

"It's okay, looking out for your friend is a good thing," I told her and she perked up a little. "It's perfectly normal to take a while to get to trust a stranger." It's pretty refreshing, really. Ponies often trust blindly if you seem friendly and nice and that's a good way to get hurt by a con-man who wants to abuse that trust.

"Thinking about Zecora?" Pinkie asked Applejack.

Applejack mumbled into her glass.

Ivan looked at her and frowned, then said, "You don't have to talk about it."

"Apple Bloom was the smart one there," Applejack said. She sighed deeply. "I fold."

Pinkie studied her cards.

High above, Rainbow Dash continued to zoom around with the Wonderbolts. They moved far out away from the ship, then began a long high arc over it, splitting into two pairs, each one man, one woman. I could hear ponies clapping and I smiled. She deserves it.

"Enjoying the show?" Pinkie asked.

"Yes," I said. "I've never actually gotten to see them in action."

"Dash must be in Heaven," Applejack said, perking up some.

"I raise twenty," Pinkie said.

"Dammit, fold," Ivan said, sighing.

Me versus Pinkie. Crap.

Applejack refilled my glass. "Drink up, it's good."

"Humans can't drink as much as ponies," I told her. "If I get too drunk, I might be useless if a monster shows up."

She sighed, then sipped from her glass. "Didn't think about that."

The Wonderbolts and Dash were now zipping around the ship, weaving in and out in elaborate patterns as people cheered. Someone fired off some pyrotechnics, MUCH bigger than what I can do. I was jealous.

I suspect Applejack wanted to get me drunk so she could make sure I wasn't going to be an ass like Blueblood to Rarity. Which I won't. I like her. She's classy and I like that. What an idiot that Blueblood must be.

We kept on playing and talking until it was time for dinner; the party was still going on as the ship hovered. We made dinner, then played some more cards and traded adventuring stories. It was a lot of fun. The formal party would have been more fun but with my luck, some old Glantrian acquaintance would have been there.

I... naah, Helga's probably not there. Why would a member of House Blackhill be on a Pony Duchess' ship? The Aendyrs aren't hostile to Ponies but they're not huge allies either.

To my surprise, one of the Wonderbolts came down to us with Dash, who looked happy, nervous, and excited at once. "Hey, guys, this is Soarin' of the Wonderbolts," she said. "Soarin', you know Applejack and Pinkie, but this is my new friends Samus Marcus of Thyatis and Ivan."

"Of Karameikos," he said, shaking hand to hoof with Soarin'. I shook hand-to-hoof with Soarin' too.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," I told him. "Do you like pie?"

"I LOVE pie," he said.

I gave Applejack a meaningful look.

She perked up and got out a pie and tossed it to him. He ate it down VERY quickly, while Dash bopped about him goofily, looking excited.

"How come you're not up at the party?" he asked.

"We're filthy messes," I said ruefully. "I wish I could go but I lost all my clothing except this and a sweater vest Rarity and Twilight made for me."

"Rarity looks kinda guilty for some reason," Rainbow Dash mused. "Twilight's talking to the Duchess about... crops and things."

Applejack said, "Oh great, NOW she wants to talk about crops." She sounded quite cross.

"I got bored in three seconds flat and fortunately, Soarin' and Spitfire invited me to come fly with them," Dash said cheerfully.

"I assume they want to increase their imports of silk and cotton and satin from Equestria?" Ivan said. "What are they offering?"

Applejack and Dash blinked in unison.

"I... yeah. I think so. How... did you know?" Dash said.

"Cotton? Hmm," Applejack said thoughtfully. "Doesn't seem fancy enough for them. I own some cotton clothin'."

"Servants have to wear clothing too," Ivan pointed out to her.

"Oh," Applejack said.

"There's some humans with them too," Dash said. "They're dressed VERY fancily."

"Are they from House Blackhill?" I asked.

"Dunno. They're kinda dark haired, neatly dressed, fine immaculate uniforms, kind of military style," Dash said.

"Aalbaneese?" I asked.

"Dunno. Where is that?"

"It's a Principality in Glantri."

Dash looked at Soarin'; he shrugged. "I dunno."

There's no way Jagger is here, but Prince Jagger is one of the world's greatest dragon-stompers. He could probably whip this dragon's ass totally, saving me having to risk horrible death in order to live five more minutes.

I WISH Jagger was here. Five minutes is five more precious minutes.

I WISH I had nice clean clothing, so I could be dancing and schmoozing and enjoying myself. I'm sure Rarity is a good dancer; we'd have some fun. It's nice having someone around who appreciates things like this.

"Can you fly?" Soarin' asked me.

Either he only ta... of course he mainly encounters humans as adventurers. Some of whom can fly.

"Twilight has a spell to give wings," Dash said. "But Marcus doesn't know it."

"Yes," I said. "I've seen it but I don't know it well enough to do from scratch. And I'm too filthy to go up and have no clean clothing."

"I'll see about that," Dash said. "You should be up there."

She zoomed upwards with Soarin'.

"Well, dang," Ivan said. "I guess you'll be bailing on us."

"If she can find clothing to fit me. I doubt the Aalbaneese will just give her clothing," I said.

"It's fine," Applejack said, a little morosely. "You go have fun. I'll just take all of Ivan's money."

"Then I'll take yours and Ivan will take mine and we'll all be even," Pinkie said cheerfully.

Now I felt bad leaving them down here.

Not quite bad enough not to go if I had the chance.

I am a sucker for big formal parties, even if I usually end up running for my life.

Which could be risky on a big flying ship.

Hmm, I suspect Celestia was worried these diplomats would get eaten by the dragon, thus the dispatch of Twilight's team.

Of course, if Jagger is here, he may have manipulated the Dragon into raiding Equestria, so he could then 'save' Equestria from it. I frowned at the thought. What would he...

Jagger is obsessed with invading Ethengar, which is full of crazed swordsmen and archers on horseback. He probably wants a Pony army to take them on with. Good luck there, Jagger. Celestia isn't going to dance to your tune and if she did, well, Ponies are not exactly aggressive, usually.

I went and took a bath while I was waiting, just in case. Ivan did likewise. I kept thinking someone was watching us, but I couldn't spot Pinkie and I assumed Applejack, despite her advocacy of nudity, would not just peep on us.

But I had the distinct feeling of being watched. "Ivan, someone's watching us."

"Whatever. I don't particularly care if they see us naked," Ivan said. "I'm surprised you do."

"You don't have a tattoo that will cause Spike and Twilight to know about your past encounters with them, resulting in your horrible, horrible death," I said very softly, hoping the spy didn't know about this.

Though now I probably just told them.

FUCK ME.

Ivan grinning at me did not make me feel better. "Too bad Helga isn't likely to be there."

"Yeah," I said. "Though she wouldn't know this me."

We got clean, though we only had filthy clothing to put back on afterwards. Still, it makes me feel more human.

I like feeling human.

To my surprise, Dash and Soarin' returned with two full SUITS, each sized appropriately for Ivan and myself. "Twilight says for you two to suit up also," Dash said to Applejack and Pinkie. "Time for us to REPRESENT."

The suits looked Aalbanese to me. "Did someone talk them into loaning these to you?"

"Rarity bought them for you," Dash said. "Once I raised the idea. These guys all had spare clothing and, well, offer enough bits and you can buy anything, I guess."

I wonder how many bits. Though these are NICE.

"Okay, Ivan," I said. "Let's go change, and then it is party time."

I was looking forward to it.

*************

Several more of the Wonderbolts assisted us all getting up. Ivan was kind of nervous, which I didn't understand until I remembered the Wonderbolts had been involved in recovering the Pearl he hocked and they might have had some clues as to who did it. Though not very good ones or I assume they would have found us long ago.

The entire deck of the flying ship was one giant party. Humans and ponies and elves were intermingled, having a grand time. To be precise, they were the dark-skinned (but not evil, merely arrogant) elves of the Principality of Belcadiz. A principality from which I was permanently exiled in another of my past bodies. Due to having an affair with Dona Carlotta, daughter of Don Diego, the younger brother of Princess Carnelia. Princess Carnelia was not here, but Don Diego WAS. I couldn't see Dona Carlotta, but if her father was here... Belcadizians, Aalbanese, and Glantrian Ponies. What on Mystara is going on?

A mixed band of all three races was providing the music. One thing I noted is that Dash was right. The Ponies didn't JUST wear clothing, they wore a TON of it. I'm taking 3-5 layer dresses, suits cut to fit a Stallion, and so on. I could probably buy half of Karameikos with the amount of jewelry on display.

I then had to suppress the part of my brain that began planning how best to make off with it. Given my only escape route from this ship is either the Wonderbolts, Fluttershy, Twilight, or Dash, I am not going to do anything too foolish.

No one will know me in this body, I reminded myself. And even if...

I now saw Twilight; she was up on a dais with a blue coated pony with a pink and green mane done up in a fancy bun. Duchess Sapphire of Sugar Hollow (or so I presumed) was busy greeting guests and generally doing the 'look at how awesome I am, everyone come kiss my ass' routine of a noble holding court. Twilight was stuck basically helping her to greet guests; Spike was lurking by her, looking bored out of his skull.

Dash said softly, "We told them all your fancy clothing was destroyed in the swamp and that Ivan is a Karameikan Baron and you're a Thyatian Count."

Ivan grinned. "Sweet."

I have to say my respect for Dash increased when she cunningly pulled this giant scam out of her head spontaneously when needed. It's what I would have done and it means I will be treated with respect instead of being hired help.

I'm a little nervous the Aalbanese will see through the bluff, though; they're of Thyatian descent in part and keep tabs on their homeland, though they've lived in Glantri for centuries.

I could see Herr Sigmund, Jagger's son and heir. He's a noted inventor and quite dashing with short black hair, a nice physique and impeccably dressed. He was busy dancing with some Glantrian pony I didn't know; I could see she was as versed in improvised bipedalism as Pinkie, though.

Pinkie adjusted her hat. "Let's party!" She then plunged into the fray.

Applejack looked around uncomfortably at everything and Dash said, "Come on, we've got to go see the Duchess. She's REALLY eager to meet you two. And you too, Countess Applejack."

"Wait, when did I become a Countess?" Applejack said.

"When Twilight became a Duchess," I said.

"When did we all get noble titles?" Applejack said, slightly panicked.

"Just pretend you are Marcus and all will be well," Ivan said, patting her back.

A lot of the ponies here were faking bipedalism as much as they could, I noticed. They were fairly good at it, really. I never visited Dream Valley during my time in Glantri; it's off in the northwest part of the country, I think. Around Fort Sablestone, by the Adri Varna Plateau. Which means constant invasion by horrible monsters.

Rainbow Dash and Soarin' helped us press through the mass of people towards the dais, but then, I saw her.

Dona Carlotta.

Slender and short, elegant and graceful, with long flowing black hair down to the middle of her back, wearing a four layered dress in reds, greens, and blacks, a silver earring with an emerald shaped like a rose in each ear. She is probably the most beautiful woman I have ever touched.

She had ascended the dais, and while her father spoke to Duchess Sapphire, she was busy talking to Twilight.

Given she knew me as Erik of Vestland...

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

"What's wrong?" Dash whispered to me, hovering next to me.

"Nothing," I said urgently. She won't know me, she can't see my tattoo, it's under several layers of clothing, EVERYTHING is going to be okay.

I can probably survive falling from this height if I aim for the water.

Carlotta and I actually parted on good terms. Her grandmother simply decided I was no good for her AND a human, therefore, I had to go. I could have... I felt a great deal of sadness seeing her, though it was good to see she seemed to be doing well. She wanted to go with me, but her mother forbade it, and the will of a Princess of Glantri is not easily evaded. In case you're wondering, this was about six months before I went to Equestria.

I want to talk to her, but if I do, I will do something STUPID. I can smell it. But I may have no choice.

Dash, Soarin', Ivan, Applejack, and I pressed up and waited for Don Diego to finish talking to Duchess Sapphire.

"I assure you, the use of black puddings for food disposal is perfectly safe, so long as you periodically flush it with fire to check the growth of the pudding," Don Diego said. He's an expert on slime monsters and similar monstrosities. If you're not careful, he will trap you for hours and lecture you on why gray ooze and grey ooze are NOT the same creature at all.

Hours I will NEVER get back.

But he's a good guy at heart, humble and kind. Just with a tendency to ramble endlessly about his academic obsessions.

"Mother drove him into exile because I was an Elf and he was Human," Carlotta said to Twilight. She sighed, sagging a little. "It was a great tragedy."

WHY ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT ME?

Ivan grinned and punched my shoulder.

Damn you, Ivan.

Twilight's eyes widened as she drew the conclusion from that which I KNEW she would. "But Celestia..." She suddenly looked very nervous.

"Dear Sapphire, may I borrow Twilight?" Carlotta said to Sapphire. "We need to talk in private."

"That's fine, dearie," Sapphire said to her. "Take her to your quarters below deck No one will bother you there. I can have refreshments sent."

"Oh yes, please," Carlotta said. "Some of your nice brandy."

Sweet mother of Ixion, I am going to DIE. DIE DIE.

I breathed out and came forward with everyone. Rainbow Dash said, "Duchess Sapphire, I present to you, Countess Applejack of Apple Acres, head of the House of Apple. Baron Ivan of Novgorod in Karameikos, and Count Samus Marcus of Samuspolis in Thyatis."

'Samuspolis'. Well, it does at least match up the right pattern.

A huge amount of hand-kissing and hoof-kissing ensued. I noted that Duchess Sapphire wore... would you call them slippers? Gloves? They were fine silken sacks around her hooves, dyed blue to match her coat. And she had a very nice tiara of platinum, studded with sapphires.

"You throw a grand party, Duchess," I said, bowing to her. "I am very flattered to be invited to such a high class affair."

"Now, now," she said. "You stand only two ranks below me. If I only invited Dukes and Archdukes and Princes, this would be a very small party. All nobles are welcome here. Twilight tells me you are a wizard like myself."

"I fear I am not up to the shining level you set for the rest of us," I said. I have no clue at all how good she is, but all Glantrian nobles must graduate from the Great School of Magic and then get Parliament to appoint them to a titled position. Or inherit it, but even that requires Parliament. You must at minimum be a pretty good wizard and then you need political skills or strong allies. At minimum, she has the power level needed to teleport, force people into other shapes temporarily, commune with extra-planar entities to learn secrets, and other tricks of like potency. That's about halfway up the ladder of spell potency. And it's nothing to sneeze at. Which actual spells and rituals she knows, I don't know.

Mind you, Twilight's about two or three rungs higher than that, I think.

I then conjured a bouquet of blue flowers. "But a gift for you," I said, bowing and handing them to her. She smelled them and smiled.

One of her servants took them and now got a vase for them.

"A wizard AND gracious," Duchess Amethyst said. "Oh yes, this is Don Diego, *brother* of Princess Carnelia, his daughter Carlotta, and of course you know the great *Duchess* Twilight Sparkle."

Ahh, yes, the classic reflected glory trick. By having such important people around her, it makes her look more important. This is a woman who knows how to play the game. Very good.

"I specialize in fire magics," I told her, making a flame dance. "Applejack specializes in plant and animal control magics, and Ivan specializes in getting in trouble."

She laughed at that, and Applejack blinked.

"I would of course expect the great Twilight Sparkle to surround herself with skilled wizards," Duchess Sapphire said.

Applejack started to speak and Ivan whispered to her and Applejack's eyes crossed. Duchess Sapphire got an odd smile on her face, then said, "Thank you all for coming. I hope you will enjoy the party."

Carlotta led Twilight Sparkle off and I prayed this would not lead to doom.

******************

"I ain't no wizard," Applejack said a little later.

"I know but when in Thyatis, stab like the Thyatians do, you know," Dash said nervously.

"You did the right thing," I told her. "There's no point in us getting mocked because we don't follow their customs where anyone who isn't a wizard is second-class at best."

"You are a wizard," Applejack pointed out.

"Yes, but I don't like seeing my friends mocked," I told her.

Dash and I now high-fived. "Exactly," Dash said. "Anyway, a Cutie Mark's as good as being a Wizard."

"I am going to find Rarity and thank her," I told the others. "She's probably dancing."

She was, in fact. Some stallion unknown to me with a green mane and a brown coat, wearing a fancy navy blue suit, was busy dancing with her. I went and got some punch and a cookie, waiting for the music to end, then swept in and took her before anyone else could pounce. The waltz is a fine dance, though like any human dance, difficult for a pony. Rarity, however, was quite graceful despite the need to rise up on her hind-legs for it.

Pony dances, designed FOR ponies, usually involve a lot of what you might call 'line dancing', where groups of ponies match each other, sometimes in two lines facing each other. Done well, it can be very impressive and plays to pony strengths.

It was clear to me that the ponies of Glantri, though, were trying very hard to be just like their human and elven neighbors. Which was a little surreal to see.

"You look smashing," Rarity said warmly to me.

"You look enchanting," I told her. "Knowing you made it yourself makes it even more impressive," I continued as we waltzed. One hand on her side, I guided her to move into a box step, which is four sets of quarter turns, so you rotate around a fixed point. She moved gracefully; I'm guessing she must have some experience at this, as she doesn't normally go bipedal as much as Pinkie does.

"You flatter me," she said, smiling and letting me guide her, one of her forelegs on my shoulder, the other wrapped around my back. "My dress is hardly the most beautiful here," she said modestly.

"Yes, but you MADE yours. The rest either cheated with magic or just paid money for it," I told her. "You earned your beauty by the sweat of your brow."

That clearly pleased her. I am VERY good at buttering people up.

We danced and flattered each other through several more dances, greatly enjoying ourselves. Well, praised each other. Her skills really do impress me. But you know how it is with elegant conversation. There is an art to the verbal dance. It's one I am good at, which is how I met Dona Carlotta and how we became lovers.

I would have... Dammit. I really liked her, you know. But her mother... I can't prove she's the head of the Secret Craft of Witchcraft, but I can't prove the sun will rise tomorrow, either.

For a sudden moment, I was intensely terrified that Celestia was going to show up. With Carnelia. And Twilight's parents. And I felt someone was watching me. I looked around and realized several couples were watching us, and I felt less paranoid. There were other ponies dancing with non-ponies here, but of course, they don't know either of us.

Then a couple suddenly zoomed in at the end of a dance, the stallion taking Rarity and the mare taking me. Well, time to make some contacts for the future, assuming I don't die horribly or have to abandon this identity, both of which seem likely.

The stallion, by the way, had a magnificent FOUR layered hat. FOUR layers. Damn, I was jealous.

**************

I ended up dancing with a ton of people. Humans, elves, ponies and all. I had stopped to have some punch and a slice of chocolate cake when Twilight Sparkle and Dona Carlotta came up to me. I did my best to show no fear. "I hope you're enjoying the party," I said.

Dona Carlotta said, "It cannot be denied that Duchess Sapphire throws a great party. Would you do me the pleasure of a dance?"

I felt my legs lock up. "I would be happy to," I said.

"Don't mind me, I have to go represent for Celestia," Twilight said, sighing.

"You should at least ask Ivan to dance with you before you go back to representing," I told her. I would have offered, but given I just agreed to dance with Carlotta, I can't.

I hate seeing Twilight sad. It makes me feel guilty and... dammit, my guilt is now up and wandering around my mind again.

"I'm not sure if..."

Ivan now ambled our way. "Hello, everyone."

"Ivan, dance with Twilight," I said.

"..."

"I don't want to impose," Twilight said.

I gave Ivan the STARE. He touched his forehead, then said, "Let's dance, Twilight."

I led Carlotta out onto the dance floor, taking her hands parallel to mine for a traditional Belcadizian dance, the cha-cha. Basically, you only touch hands, so you have to guide your partner by pushing or pulling their hands, or moving the linked hands, side to side. In fact, you basically touch palms. It requires sensitivity and grace, and thus is ideal for Elves.

She smiled broadly as we moved into the cha-cha. "Have you been to Belcadiz, Samus?" she asked.

"I have met Belcadizians. And in Thyatis, we like to draw upon every culture, taking their best ideas. Like this." We glided sideways as I gently nudged her palms left, then back, then right then forwards again, and then I spun her around. "So what brings you here?"

"We import wheat and other grains and certain spell components from Equestria and trade worked metal and rare fruits in return. The current trade agreement expires soon, along with several others. I think the Aalbanese are here about a trade agreement, also," she said.

I marched us gradually around the room as we danced, then did a spin myself, and then she did one and then we both spun in unison. "I expect Herr Sigmund wants to sell Celestia some of his inventions."

"Creepy mechanical things," she said, shivering. The Belcadizians are more like humans than most Elves, but they don't love machinery any more than most elves do.

"They have their uses," I told her. "I'm sure Celestia will give you a fair deal, if you don't mind a few pranks."

"Pranks?" Dona Carlotta said weakly. She was never as fond of a good prank as I am.

Perhaps best I not introduce her to Pinkie.

"I love a good prank too," Pinkie said behind me.

...

She was dancing with a befuddled looking Aalbanese noble with short brown hair and a short, neatly trimmed beard. "Hello, I am Herr Ukvarth of Graez," he said. I noticed he had an odd looking wand holstered at his hip, L-shaped and made of black metal, tubular with runes but no gems. Was it Blackmoorian? That looks like their work.

"He's a DRAGON HUNTER," Pinkie said. "I want him to talk to Twilight."

"It's nice to meet you," I said to him. The name was vaguely familiar.

"A pleasure to meet you, Herr Ukvarth," Dona Carlotta said. "I am Dona Carlotta de Belcadiz."

"The legendary beauty," he said, taking her hand and kissing it. "So you are the Count of Samuspolis," Herr Ukvarth said. "It's a very nice place, but I haven't been there in quite some time. How is it doing?"

There are two possibilities. One, he is bluffing in order to look cosmopolitan and traveled and sophisticated. This is plausible. Second, this is his subtle way of saying he knows I am LYING and letting me know he knows, so that he has a hold on me. This is also plausible and since I have never heard of him, it could go either way.

Graez is home to about half of the von Drachenfels, and the other half live in the Principality's capital, Leenz. I don't know the details beyond that, though.

I now became aware Rarity was pointing at me for some reason as she danced with somepony I didn't know. WHY?

I tried not to think about it. Someone may have me by the balls and it isn't Rarity or the stallion she's dancing with.

"Quite well; the weather has been good, so the fish are flourishing," I said. "Everyone is no doubt busy with that this very minute. This left me free to come to Equestria on some business, and of course, I had to help the Duchess with Vermicoritax. We hope for a peaceful resolution."

The four of us danced together; Pinkie was VERY adept at the cha-cha and I had to wonder where she learned it. Better, indeed, than Herr Ukvarth He, though, was good enough at leading that our two couples bobbed and weaved around each other without ever colliding.

"With a black dragon?" he said dubiously.

"Princess Celestia believes in trying diplomacy first, even with the worst of foes. And so does Duchess Twilight. I am simply along for the ride," I told him.

"Black dragons are horrible creatures who live only to kill and destroy and ruin," Dona Carlotta said, worried.

"Fluttershy will scare him off if he won't negotiate," Pinkie said with absolute assurance.

I find this to be VERY dubious.

Herr Ukvarth looked more dubious than I and now Dona Carlotta looked very worried. Pinkie smiled with serene, absolute confidence. Or dementia. Or both.

"Her?" he said. He pointed to Fluttershy; she was dancing with a unicorn stallion and looked extremely nervous and panicky and clearly didn't like being in the middle of the huge herd of sentients around her.

"Yes," Pinkie said. "She is fierce as a manticore, wrathful as a gorgon, mighty as a fire elemental king!" She sounded quite cheerful about this.

Herr Ukvarth studied me, probably trying to decide if this was a joke on him, if we were all insane, or what. I simply glided around him with Dona Carlotta. "They've dealt with dragons before," I told him. Show no fear, I told myself.

"I would hate to see Duchess Twilight get hurt," Dona Carlotta said. "We have a mutual... friend. And she is very nice."

They talked about me. Other me. I am going to kill myself now.

"How large is your group?"

By the time we finished the dance, I had told Ukvarth everything... a version of everything... excluding my personal secrets, of course. He did not seem a lot more optimistic. "Countess Pinkie, I am sorry to run off on you," he said. "I must speak with your lady."

"I don't have a lady, I prefer men," Pinkie said, confused.

"He means Twilight," I told her.

"But we're not pillowfriends," Pinkie said, confused.

"She is your leader," I said while Herr Ukvarth stared at us.

"OH, yes, totally," Pinkie said. "Unless it's a party and then I lead the charge. Like right now! Twilight's all busy shaking hands and hooves and being pouty instead of having FUN."

Herr Ukvarth bowed to Pinkie. "It was a pleasure, fair lady," he said.

She tried to curtsy and fell down. "Oops!" She laughed and Dona Carlotta helped her up.

Carlotta, always so kind to others... unlike most Belcadizians, who tend to be pretty arrogant. But then, her father is a scholar and quite gracious.

And she'll still be young and beautiful when I am old and dead. Maybe it was for the best that her aunt kicked me out.

But I'd rather have taken my chances with the worst. But I'm also not stupid enough to take another run at it. I'll just stand here and be nostalgic and sad, which I hate being.

"Cookie?" Pinkie said, offering us each one as Herr Ukvarth headed off to see Twilight.

I took it and ate it quickly; Dona Carlotta nibbled at hers gracefully. "Thanks, Pinkie."

"Anything for a friend!" She said, "I'm off to teach the musicians how to play something cool!"

Urk.

**************

To my surprise, the band went along with it and soon the place was jumping with some very lively music, even if I couldn't keep up with... Was Pinkie singing about how a pie did her wrong and ran around with other girls?

This was actually Shires style music. They like their music fast and lively; halflings like to jitterbug. I'd ended up dancing with Rarity again, as Carlotta had run off to see Twilight once the previous song ended. She was having a hard time of it; the Jitterbug is REALLY not designed for Ponies. But I guided her through it and gripped her hooves as best I could. A big part of the problem is that the Jitterbug relies on hand to hand grips, which you change during certain moves and, well, she can't grip due to having hooves. But she looked almost grimly determined to do it and do it WELL.

Every mistake, she let me correct her and kept doing things over and over until she got it right. Cheating with my magic a little also helped me keep hold of her hooves. I think she did the same.

Golden horseshoes, by the way, as you probably expected.

For a moment, I had that feeling of being watched, but then it passed.

Rarity blinked. "Did you feel that?"

"Yes," I said, frowning. "Did someone scry us?"

"Not for long," she said softly.

It was time to see Twilight, who was surrounded by people who were all trying to tell her how to kill Dragons. She looked rather overwhelmed, especially since Dona Carlotta was working on building up a pretty powerful level of panic.

"Dona Carlotta, I hate to impose, but is it possible we could speak with Twilight in your chambers? It is quite important."

Herr Ukvarth was busy talking about the apparently copious misdeeds of Vermicoritax at a mile a minute. He was not happy when Carlotta consented and we dragged her off.

"I need to talk to you later, Rarity," Twilight told us as we relaxed in the remarkably large and spacious suite. This ship was clearly bigger below decks than it was on the outside and I briefly feared this would trigger saddlebag ruptures, but it seemed everything was okay.

You should NEVER put one set of Pony saddlebags inside another, or they both burst and dump their contents into the Astral Plane. This is, to say the least, inconvenient.

Rarity nodded. "Of course."

Dona Carlotta's servants brought us spiced brandy and these really delectable Belcadizian cakes which twisted in stripes into a big circle with cinnamon layers between the cake layers. I had to just eat one. Spike ate four, all at once.

"Someone scried us," I told Twilight.

"I think someone scried me too," she said, frowning.

"Not I," Dona Carlotta said.

"Unfortunately, the rest of our friends probably didn't notice," I said.

Twilight frowned. "Spike, take a letter."

"MRPHMRHMRPOH."

Dona Carlotta patted his head. "You're adorable, Spike."

Why does her voice have to still sound like liquid sunshine? I remember standing with her on that balcony at the Alhambra, kissing her as the sun came up and we said...

Things that never came true. Couldn't, but they felt like they would at the time. Promises I wanted to keep but her mother thought otherwise.

Damn me.

I tried to be serious about it for once and it all blew up anyway.

What's the point of even trying if you always end up running for your life?

I tried to rein in my angst.

DAMMIT.

I breathed in, then out.

"Dear Princess Celestia, I am very, very sorry to bother you at this hour. I have made contact with Duchess Sapphire and her guests, over the Malpheggi Swamp. The Wonderbolts have arrived to escort them safely, and we are still heading to deal with Vermicoritax. However, someone is scrying us and I did not bring any of my books on scrying and thus do not have any defense. We are not even sure why someone is scrying us. It's VERY impolite."

I couldn't help but smile nervously at that. As if there was a way to scry politely.

"I request further instructions on what we can offer him in return for his refraining from further raids," Twilight Sparkle said. "I have been informed he is rather a hard case."

"He might go for the Crucible," I said. Much as I would rather SELL IT FOR GOLD. But since I have to live that long to sell it, better to lose it than MY LIFE.

"We have a Crucible of Blackflame. Do you think he might like it? Marcus suggested that we try that," Twilight added as Spike scribbled. "Please reply tonight. Your faithful student and friend, Twilight Sparkle."

Spike now sent it whisking away. I suddenly wondered how much she had told Celestia about me. ACK.

We made small talk with the others about the party. Then Rarity and I had to show Twilight how to Jitterbug. Seeing her and Carlotta dance with each other, both trying to lead, amused me.

TWO letters now arrived via Spike Flame. One was marked 'From Mom and Dad', the other marked 'To my beloved student and friend, Twilight Sparkle'. Twilight's parents are hanging out with Celestia right now?

"Oh wow, it's from Mom and Dad," Twilight said and quickly read it. First, I will note. She smiled brightly and handed it to Spike to hold onto. Then she turned to the second one.

The problem, though, with bribing Vermicoritax is that he's likely to expect regular tribute payments and that's problematic, though less than being raided by a Grand Wyrm. I have to agree with Herr Ukvarth that black dragons are not even slightly trustworthy.

But it's ponies. Force is always the last option after diplomacy, sharing and caring, pies, and so on.

Also, I am not sure we have enough force, though with the Elements of Harmony and Twilight's vast power, we may get a simple 'Twilight makes a new pancake, Spike eats it' scenario.

Spike's pancakes are better but less cosmic.

"What did she say?" Carlotta said, very worried.

"She advised me to tell Duchess Sapphire about the scrying and that the idea of offering the Crucible sounded reasonable to her, and some other ideas on things we can offer him," Twilight said. "And that she trusts my discretion." She blushed a little.

She turned the page. "She says that Herr Ukvarth is an expert on killing things but that if you have a hammer, you tend to go looking for nails."

Rarity and I both laughed at that; Spike and Carlotta laughed a few seconds later.

"If you try peace, you can still fight if peace fails; if you go straight to war, peace becomes impossible," Twilight read to us. She nodded. "And... hmm, interesting."

"Interesting?" I asked.

"She has a page of coded orders for me to give to the Wonderbolts." She held it up; the letters constantly changed and shuffled. Nice magical security.

"I can have a servant deliver them," Carlotta said.

"I'll do it myself as it must be secret." Twilight paused. "Nothing personal, you know I trust you, Carlotta."

"Of course," Carlotta said, taking her hoof. "We have shared an experience."

Spike held up a hand to his mouth and sidled over to Rarity and whispered to her, shielding his mouth, "Girl talk," he said. Rarity laughed softly. "But I got to skip it and go to the snack bar."

A blessing indeed, but I know what they talked about. Another nail for my coffin.

I am going to die hatless. Dammit.

"Oh yes," Carlotta said to Rarity. "I have a present for you."

It turned out to be a fair sized piece of red felt and a spool of green thread. "This is one of our trade samples, but you can have it."

"Oh, darling, I can hardly take something you need to sell your wares," Rarity said, though her eyes said 'YES MINE MINE MINE'. Her voice though, sounded a little guilty.

"I can summon more," Carlotta said.

"You know how to summon cloth?" Rarity said, eyes lighting up.

"It can only summon, not create, but yes," Carlotta said.

"Teach me," Rarity said urgently. Then she looked embarrassed. "I am sorry, Dona Carlotta. That was rude of me."

"I would be happy to teach you," she said. "Count Marcus, why don't you escort Twilight up to see the Duchess?"

"Of course," I said. "You are in good hands, Rarity." Very good hands.

Twilight had this... weirdly naughty look. And triumphant.

Oh dear.

*************

"You were looking rather gleeful," I said to her as we headed upstairs.

"Nope, not gleeful at all," she said. "Nothing is going on, nothing at all. Let's focus on the here and now and not the future."

The future? What?

"Do you think..." She paused and looked at me hesitantly, though she kept moving and so did I.

"Sometimes, I think," I said and she laughed.

"I wish the others could tell if someone scried them. It could be a unicorn hunter." She grimaced. "Most of them pick off ponies outside Equestria, but... we are outside Equestria. And this place would have a huge number of horns."

"I think only a madman would attack this many wizards AND the Wonderbolts," I said. "And Ethengars can't fly."

"Actually, there's a group of Pegasi and other ponies who live with the Ethengars," Twilight said. "They've gotten large enough to carry small, wiry humans by selective breeding and magic."

...

Those damn things are SENTIENT? But they're normal horse colored.

"Their Great Khan has Celestia very worried," Twilight continued. "But he'd have to cross Darokin to strike us and I doubt he'd make it this far."

We now reached the deck and went and passed the message to one of the Wonderbolts, who took it to their leader, Blue Angel. He read it, then frowned. "Lady Twilight," he said. "I've been ordered to detach Spitfire and Soarin' to assist you. The rest of us will remain with the Duchess and escort her floating party to Canterlot."

"Oh, that's very nice of you," Twilight said warmly. "I'm sure he'll be honored that two of the Wonderbolts came with us."

Given the Wonderbolts have fought dragons and won, this may be an intimidation measure. Or just reinforcements.

I hope it doesn't come down to a fight. If we have to kill it... if we can kill it, it will hurt Twilight. I can tell she doesn't want to hurt it unless she has no choice. Ponies are like that. Though if we do fight it and win, likely Twilight will turn it into a potato and that's how.

I don't want to fight it because I fear dying horribly. I've seen too much of that already.

Why was Twilight being so happy and naughty at once earlier? WHY?

That bothered me.

"I just hope it's enough," Blue Angel said. He was a sturdy blue-coated pony with a purple mane with streaks of red. You couldn't see his cutie mark, due to his unusual full-body uniform. All the Wonderbolts dress like that, along with the goggles.

"Me too," I confessed.

"I'll tell Soarin' and Spitfire," Blue Angel said, and headed out.

"Let's dance," Twilight said to me.

So I took her out on the floor and we danced. I couldn't help but flashback to my days in Canterlot.

Dammit, I hate flashbacks, they're a sign of senility, I'm sure.

*************

INVOLUNTARY FLASHBACK WHICH IS PROBABLY A SIGN OF ENCROACHING SENILITY, DAMMIT:

I was surprised Celestia was escorting me personally to meet with someone. I had done some adventuring after having to flee Belcadiz, and for once, I had held onto some money. I decided to go to Equestria, which would be nice and peaceful. I had made some pony friends when I'd visited Ierendi, and they'd told me about how nice and boring Equestria was. I wanted to try and further my magical studies, especially how to avoid witches' curses.

For obvious reasons.

When I arrived in Canterlot, I fell down exhausted, having stupidly decided to walk up the stairs to save money.

I know, laugh at me, I was being an idiot.

I woke up in a special ward for idiots like me. Mostly human idiots. But there was, to my shock, a letter from Princess Celestia. It was very friendly and though I was very nervous, I went to see her despite the part of me which said I ought to flee somewhere safe, like the Broken Lands.

During the period between Belcadiz and Equestria, I had, among other things, helped to deal with an attempt by one of the Entropic cults (Orcus to be precise) to destroy the city of Akorros. Celestia had learned of this and asked me about it. Then, to my surprise, she asked me to teach at her school about humans to her students.

The pay was generous, I had access to the libraries, and no one was going to kill me. And honestly, ponies are not hard to teach. At least at Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. They are EAGER to learn. Most of them. Some are slackers, but I've been that, so it doesn't bother me.

Twilight had already taken the classes I taught, moved on to more advanced studies. But Celestia introduced me to her after I'd settled in; I had heard stories about her from the other students. A genius but obsessive and anti-social.

Typical wizard, in other words.

Her place... was huge. She had her own tower, multiple stories, lushly decorated... I was totally jealous, of course. Who wouldn't be? You could fit an entire Karameikan village in her tower and it was just her and Spike.

"Twilight, my little pony, this is my dear friend Erik of Vestland, the new Teacher of Humanics," Celestia said warmly to Twilight, who was busy reading three books and scribbling in three columns on a piece of paper, while Spike was busy searching a bookshelf nearby. Also, I did not invent the name 'Humanics'. Blame the ponies.

"It's nice to meet you, Erik," she said, without even looking up. She paused, then looked up, embarrassed. "Hello, Princess Celestia, it's so nice to see you. I... oh no, this place is a total disaster! Spike, start cleaning up! Celestia, let me get you some tea!" She ran frantically up the stairs.

"Wait, Twilight... oh dear, can you help her, Erik?" Celestia asked.

"Of course," I said, running up the stairs. I found Twilight in the kitchen, trying to fill a teapot, water going everywhere as she became too frantic to aim it accurately, ensuring more water and more frantic.

I turned the water off, took the pot, turned the water back on, and filled it. "Can you do Etienne's Swift Warming?" I asked her.

"Of course," she said proudly. "I can light a fireplace too, or several torches at once." She blinked. "You're a unicorn human?" She studied my head.

"I am a wizard like you," I told her, smiling. If not on her level, from what Celestia told me.

Soon, the kettle was warming up, floating in the air and wrapped in a simple but useful spell. Meanwhile, I had gotten out some black tea bags, ready for steeping.

"I thought you taught Humanics," she said as we waited and she got out snacks with her powers.

"I do, fair lady Twilight," I told her. "But magic is a deep part of our history," I continued. "I noticed you seem to be trying to synchronize some passages from two history books and an astronomy text. May I ask why?"

"Do you know what the Twin Sisters are?" she asked.

"Sixty-five year cycle today, first observed by the Alphatians shortly after they arrived on Mystara, roughly two thousand years ago, at which time it had a ninety three year cycle. It stabilized in its current cycle around... seven hundred years ago? Roughly," I said. "I think it last appeared two years ago." Which is why I knew any of this. It's a comet with TWO tails, one of which is green. I couldn't help but notice it. EVERYONE couldn't help it.

"Wait, it changed its cycle?"

"It was slowly speeding up, until, for some reason, it stopped."

The tea was now ready, so we headed down. "Aaargh, none of my books explained that! So you couldn't use it to reliably match dates of different countries."

"You can if you know the pattern, but you'd need Ar's Guide to Celestial Bodies, Volume III: Comets," I told her. My copy, acquired out of curiosity over that comet, was stolen in the Heldaan Freeholds, if I remember correctly. "It's been so long, I only remember the outline."

"Well, maybe you can help me deduce it from the records I have access to," she said hesitantly.

Curry some favor with Celestia's favorite student? HELL YEAH. "I would love to," I told her.

She smiled. "Thanks. Spike loves to help me but he's just a baby." I then got to hear the story of how she got Spike, and we rejoined Celestia and the others.

*************

I had never danced with Twilight before this. Except once, when we were drunk. We could have gone to the Grand Galloping Gala, but we had a conjunction to observe and then we thought we'd discovered a new planet. (IT WAS A BEHOLDER. By the way, if you run away under a fear spell in Canterlot, there are LOTS of ways to fall from a height. Just a warning to the traveler)

Working with Twilight was a totally different experience in my life than almost anything else. Carlotta and I had done some magical work together, but she wasn't driven to learn constantly like Twilight is. Carlotta and I spent a lot of time walking in gardens, going to restaurants, writing and reading love poems to each other, dancing, the usual stuff.

Twilight was driven. Some nights, we fell asleep in the library. Or among books on the floor of her study room. A lot of nights, she'd be studying three things at once, and I'd be busy correcting student papers or trying to plan out lessons, while Spike ran around helping us. Spike is a very good guy and I hate that he hates me now.

I hope I was a good teacher. It's the only time I've ever done it. I think I learned as much as I taught; I had to research constantly in order to avoid screwing things up.

I also got chewed out by the Philosophy teacher, Wise Precepts, because... well, you can't help it. I couldn't teach about humans without teaching how humans think and she didn't agree with me. On how humans SHOULD think.

Which led to her and Twilight having a big fight, to my regret.

Twilight is very loyal to her friends. Which at that point was basically Celestia, Spike and I, though the two of us sometimes managed to push her to actually do things with her fellow students. Our luck was limited. She was too driven.

"Marcus, are you having a flashback?" she asked me and I started and returned to the present.

"I am SO sorry," I told her. "I have too much past."

"There's never too much past," Twilight said. She sighed. "The Thyatians are telling lies about him."

"Who?" I asked.

"Erik," she said softly. "They claim he seduced an Ambassador's harem." She grimaced. "He wouldn't do that."

I set them free and helped them to escape, in fact. They didn't want to be his harem but he owned them. I know, disgusting. Slavery is really the worst aspect of Thyatis. "One woman should be enough for any man," I said. "I certainly wouldn't last long trying to have more than one."

"I know," she said. "You're a good man, like Erik was. But I understand better now why he left. But Celestia wasn't like that. She would have been happy for us." Her voice wobbled.

Every time, I think I have hit 'peak awful', the world cranks it up a notch. I knew this was coming the moment she met Carlotta. Deep down in my bones, I knew it.

She's convinced herself I only fled because I was afraid that Celestia would banish me to the moon. Or something similar.

I never realized she felt that way because we didn't do romantic things together. It was like... Well, Ivan would never ever in a million years do academic research.

But if he DID, then we would have done stuff like that.

Learning with Twilight was fun. And it made me feel like a real wizard, not just a dabbler.

Mind you, knowing what Carnelia could do to me, with a fraction of Celestia's likely powers, gave me extra incentive to run at lighting speed and never look back once I did panic.

"Celestia wasn't like what?" I asked her, though I knew the answer. But 'Samus Marcus' doesn't know what *I* know that Carlotta told her.

I need to find out if Carlotta has moved on because if she hasn't, I am going to have to knock myself unconscious before my inner guilt beats me to death.

PLEASE don't let her be waiting for me.

PLEASE.

"She wouldn't have tried to stop us being together, like Princess Carnelia did with Erik and Carlotta." Her eyes were heavy with sadness. Now I really wanted to die. Seeing people I like hurt hurts me. Stupid empathy.

I spun us around; Twilight is not as coordinated as Rarity, but she can cheat with her magic even better than Rarity, so we got a little fancy. I like getting fancy. We were now back to back, joined hand to hoof behind our backs. Then we came around to face each other again.

It was hard to see. I think I had sweat running down into my eyes. She looked at me and now she started to cry a little. "I know, it's terrible," she said. Then she told me the whole story I already knew.

It's fortunate no railing was nearby; I wanted to run. Run like the wind and not stop until I hit, say, Ylarum.

But I couldn't run. "You'll probably never see him again," I said softly. "I'm sure he misses you." No, no, don't feed her romantic dreams, dammit. "But you can at least look up at the same stars." DAMN YOU MOUTH SHUT UP!!!! "I don't know if he's much of a star gazer, though." Dammit, mouth, the goal is NOT to make her think about past times with him... with me. The him who was me. DAMMIT.

"I'm not... I'm not waiting," she said stubbornly. I wasn't so sure. "He has no way of knowing the truth. When I meet the right guy, I'll know. I'm just not... I'm very busy with my research and protecting Ponyville and studying Friendship and this quest and I'm not like Rarity who every stallion in the universe wants." She sounded jealous.

She paused and her eyes widened. "I'm not saying she's a tramp who just runs around with every man in sight! She's not like that, Marcus! That totally came out wrong!"

"Rarity is a woman of discretion and taste. I'm sure that only the very best will do for her," I told Twilight. "She could, though, teach you about flirting."

It would be for the best, really.

"I just... all the books have contradictory advice," Twilight said, frustrated. "I didn't even... I spent the whole Grand Gala wearing my horseshoes out shaking hooves."

"Celestia wanted you to greet the guests with her?" I asked.

"Yes. Like Sapphire. I hardly got to talk to Celestia at all until we kind of... wrecked the Gala," she said, deeply embarrassed.

I dipped her low, then spun her around and we spun out to where one hand and one hoof connected us. She wobbled, nearly falling but I caught her, aided by my own magic. "What? I can't imagine you wrecking a party."

She told me the whole story as I stared in shock. It was like the story of my life, compressed into a party. "I wish so much I could have seen that." I couldn't help laughing and now she laughed as well.

For now, I could just relax, enjoy the party, and forget everything.

**************

The music finished and now we saw Applejack. "Hey, Applejack," I said. She looked happier now. "How are you?"

"I think I just cut a SWEET deal with Don Diego," she said cheerfully. "He wants to come see my operation later, too."

"That's great. The Belcadizians love their fruit," I told her. "They make this dish with candied peaches, it's amazing."

"Twilight, mind if I take Marcus for a spin?" Applejack asked.

"It's fine but you have to ask him too," Twilight said.

"I would be happy to dance with you, Applejack," I told her.

Applejack ended up teaching me a Pony dance, done side by side. This made it harder to watch her and learn. But I was ready for a rest, anyway. Ponies are heavier than you'd think.

"Thanks for pointin' him my way, Marcus," Applejack said.

"Glad to help you," I told her.

"Even after I kinda chewed on you earlier," she continued ruefully. She side stepped and I did the same, thrice, then we went back the other direct, kicking with every other step.

"It's fine," I told her. "Friends never get along perfectly."

"Yeah, Rarity and I have some fights, sometimes," she said, shaking her head. "You like apples, right?"

"Doesn't everyone?" I said. "There's that crispness and they're easy to chew, but they don't just squish if you try to carry some with you," I told her.

She gave a happy sigh. "Don Diego really liked the apple I gave him too. I guess... you just hear some crazy stories about humans sometimes."

We now surged forward in a quick step, stopped, kicked, then surged back.

"Oh, they're probably all true. It's just... what defines humans is that we're not easily defined," I told her. "There are humans like each and every one of you and your friends and some who aren't like you at all," I continued.

I had trouble with the back rush and back kick, having only one set of legs. It's impossible for me to kick with both.

"Anyway, you get scared too easy and your weird nudity taboo is just kind of silly, but I hope I didn't hurt your feelings too much and I'm sorry," Applejack said.

"Well, I hope I didn't hurt yours either," I told her. "You fight bravely, you're hard working and you should be proud of yourself, whatever some aristocrats may think. I'm sure Celestia is proud of you."

"Thanks," she said, smiling. "I'm feelin' pretty good right now."

I could see Twilight dancing now with some stallion I didn't know. I felt a twinge of jealousy and stomped on it. Don't be stupid, brain, I told it. I was going to be happy for her if it killed me. And she'd probably never see the fellow again, anyway.

"GOOD," Applejack said, following my gaze, and I couldn't help but laugh.

"Is he handsome by pony standards?" I asked.

"Not bad. Looks kinda like one of those useless rich aristocrats, but he can dance and he's got his eyes focused on her, so she deserves a little fun," Applejack said.

That's when I got slapped in the face with a glove. "You disgusting Aalbanese bastard," the man said; he was a Belcadizian and quite drunk. "The last thing I need is for more of MY kin to die in one of YOUR wars!"

What the hell is... oh crap, I look Aalbanese in this body and I am dressed as one. "Sir, you mistake me for someone else. I swear on my mother's hat that I have not started any wars."

It does not count if it only involves goblins. And orcs. And gnolls. And... whatever those things were.

"YOU! You're all guilty!" He slapped me again. "I challenge you to a Duel Arcane!"

"Sir, I don't even know your name and I am willing to gamble that you do not know mine."

"You are the legendary Iron Count of Samuspolis! A notorious mercenary and despoiler of cities!" he said angrily. "One of Jagger's idiot warmongers!"

...

Applejack looked at me, then said to the man, "Did you escape from an insane asylum?"

"Shut your fat pony face!" he said pointing at her and now she looked mad.

"This body is all muscle," Applejack snapped at him, frowning. "I bet you can't even pull your own weight!"

"You're nothing but a pathetic *Earth* Pony. This is between wizards, so keep out!" the Elf said angrily.

Applejack actually growled and I saw her paw the ground once. This was going to get ugly if I can't defuse it.

Dammit, I don't recognize this guy but he is Belcadizian. "Who are you?"

"I am Don Carlos V, son of Don Carlos IV!," he said proudly.

I see his family doesn't know many names.

"We can duel another time," I told him. "I am on an important mission for Princess Celestia and so affairs of honor must wait." There's no point in trying to argue it out with a drunken fool who...

Someone is trying to use this fool against me for some reason. Why? I think Ukvarth saw through me somehow but how would this advance his goals? He clearly is trying to pressure Twilight to go crazy on the dragon. Why?

Dammit, I smell a mystery and I don't have time for a mystery!

On the other hand, the longer we stay on this ship, the longer I live before encountering the dragon.

Dammit.

"Yeah, what he said," Applejack said, backing me up. Though I could see she was still stiff and angry and probably wanted a fight.

"We can do it now or I can go to the Duchess and appeal to her authority to get what is MY RIGHT," he said.

Can he do that? Is this tech... I suppose as a diplomat, this ship is essentially under Glantrian law. I have no clue whether she can actually MAKE us duel. Make ME duel.

"Fine," I said. "Take it to the Duchess." Either she says no, or she says yes and then I am fucked.

"Can she order you two to fight?" Applejack asked, frowning deeply. "That ain't right."

"I don't even know, but he's drunk and he may just go straight to raining magical death if we don't play along," I said softly to her as he stormed off towards the Duchess.

Dammit, someone's trying to play me. Who? Why? Dammit!

We went before the Duchess and he rambled on about how I was trying to get everyone in Belcadiz killed in another of Jagger's wars, though he was kind of short on details about how this worked. The Aalbanese looked rather angry over his accusations, especially given he was short on details. Herr Sigismund especially looked displeased.

Was someone trying to get the two groups to slaughter each other? Ugh. Entirely possible. I tried detecting magic, but saw no sign of a charm spell. But of course, you don't need magic to plant ideas in the head of a bitter drunk.

"This man has NOTHING to do with my father, and we are not... whatever you think we are doing! This is a trade mission!," Herr Sigismund said angrily. "If you want a duel arcane, I will give you one!"

Twilight had joined us, but she looked a little overwhelmed. There's not a book for this and it's clear she's only studied politics abstractly.

Duchess Sapphire had a calm expression. Was she up to something? "Count Samus, you deny his accusations?"

"They're utterly ludicrous. I have never even seen Prince Jagger," I said. "Nor am I a warmonger. I am here on a mission for the throne of Equestria to deal with a marauding dragon. We only came up to the ship because Duchess Sapphire invited us."

"By unleashing it on US," Don Carlos said angrily. "You're going to buy it off to attack Belcadiz!"

Twilight frowned. "We are NOT. Equestria is the enemy of no nation!"

"Who told you that?" I asked him.

He looked flustered. "That's none of your business!"

"Given that someone lied to you in order to create a diplomatic incident, I think it is," I said firmly.

"Count Marcus, I need you to cast a spell," Duchess Sapphire said coolly, her cheerful party demeanor quite gone.

"What spell?" I asked.

"Any," she said.

I scooped a handful of change out, then made it dance in the air. "Tercinius' Invisible Hands," I told her. My telekinesis spell.

"You are an Arcaner by our law, and thus considered innocent until proven guilty. Further, you are part of a diplomatic mission," Duchess Sapphire began.

"He's not a registered part of their group," Don Carlos said. "And thus not covered by Diplomatic Immunity. Especially as he is not an Equestrian citizen."

"He IS part of our group," Rainbow Dash said, arms folded. Everyone was gathered around the dais, watching, though the band played on.

"I am quite sure that if we contact Celestia, she can fix the paperwork," Twilight said hesitantly.

"Diplomatic status does not radiate backwards in time," Don Carlos said. Okay, he is right on that one. Dammit.

Dona Carlotta now finally shoved her way through the crowd. "Don Carlos, stand down. You are here under father's authority and we are not here to fight with the Aalbanese."

"I am within my rights! And everyone knows you slut around with humans. Of course you're taking his side," Don Carlos said angrily.

I felt an intense surge of anger. I felt someone else's intense surge of anger. Several, in fact. Rarity and Twilight both looked ready to charge and trample Don Carlos.

Dona Carlotta's face went very cold and angry. "I am doing what my Aunt sent me here to do, which is to negotiate a trade agreement with Equestria. Something which will NOT be advanced by you forcing a member of an Equestrian diplomatic group into a duel over some stupid accusation you can't and won't prove," she said, her voice like ice.

Where is Don Diego? He ought to be here, but he isn't. Unless he plans to...

Oh, Immortals above, please don't let him do his usual crazy thing.

Dash was mumbling to herself about something, then glanced across the crowd at one of the Aalbanese, who I now saw watching this with huge concern. Why? He didn't look like the manipulator behind this but somehow this touched him especially. But he was just some guy with a mustache to me.

Admittedly, he did have a nice hat, though not a glorious one.

Blue Angel stepped up and began conferencing by whisper with Twilight.

Herr Ukvarth now began talking quietly to Herr Sigismund. The worried young man kept watching everything but kept looking at Dona Carlotta. Oh ho ho. Her new boyfriend. Good. I don't want her to wait for me. We can't ever be together and it's better she moves on.

But he really doesn't look worthy of her to me.

"My victory will be my proof," Don Carlos said.

The Duel Arcane cannot be forced on anyone, though refusing a duel may cause loss of status, if the foe was someone of equal status to yourself or fairly close or if the evidence is strong they are right. I could appeal to the court systems, but then I'd have to stay with them for the duration of the trial and there would be a ton of complications.

Given I am faking noble status, I can't afford that.

I studied Duchess Sapphire. She wants an out, ideally one which offends the least number of people. I think some of the Belcadizians agree with Don Carlos, at least on being angry at Dona Carlotta, and are looking for an excuse to beat up some humans. Why on earth are these three groups traveling together, anyway? It must advance some scheme of Sapphire or Princess Emerald.

Rarity suddenly exhaled with great force and her anger was gone. No, not gone. Contained. Hidden within a field of politeness. She still wasn't happy, but she was going to play the game.

"Don Carlos, are you bringing formal charges against a member of our delegation? Or merely pressing for a Duel Arcane, since your evidence is non-existent?" Rarity asked. "Unless you can provide actual evidence, you cannot levy a charge against an Arcaner. You can ask him for a Duel Arcane whenever you like, for whatever reason you like, but he has no obligation to accept it. Further, you might keep in mind that Libeling, Mocking, or Insulting an Arcaner is a crime and that if your accusation is proven false, there are dozens of witnesses to your crime. Perhaps you enjoy being whipped and beaten, however."

OOOH, burn. Go, Rarity, faster, kill, kill!

He scowled. "Of course not!"

"And, of course, you must have two witnesses. Do you, in fact, have two witnesses?" Rarity asked.

I suddenly wondered when and why she'd learned about Glantrian law.

Then I saw Twilight studying a book and her horn glowing softly and I smiled. Go, Twilight!

"She is indeed correct," Duchess Sapphire said. "I am certainly within my rights to dismiss your charges unless you can provide two witnesses. Do you have two witnesses?" She sounded relieved.

"You are a COWARD! Hiding behind ponies!" Don Carlos shouted at me. "Why won't you duel me?"

"In other words, you have no witnesses and no proof and no case that will last five minutes in court," Rarity said. She wasn't just talking to him but to everyone. Clearly, whoever set him up expected I would accept the duel or maybe even hoped a riot would break out over the accusations. If a trial date was set, the accusations would fester in people's minds, poisoning this trade mission.

But why wreck it?

Does someone want Belcadiz and Equestria to fight each other? Or likely Glantri and Equestria, as I doubt it would remain a private war. Not that either country could easily fight each other, given Darokin and Sind are in the way of them fighting each other. Belcadiz vs. Aalban? More likely, but why accuse an outsider? Is this pressure on me? Why? I don't exactly have much leverage.

Unless it's using me to get to Twilight, who is Celestia's favorite student. Is this someone's revenge? An effort to put pressure on Equestria?

Dammit, too many variables.

Don Carlos seethed drunkenly. "Quibbler! You're still a coward hiding behind others! Why won't you fight?"

Because only macho, retarded idiots fight pointless fights with people to prove their manliness, especially when it's pretty clear someone is playing the 'lets you and him fight' game.

"He's not a coward!," Rainbow Dash said angrily. Thank you, Rainbow Dash. "Kick his ass, Marcus!" Unthank you, Rainbow Dash. She began miming punching someone out.

"I have a mission which is more important than indulging your desire for violence," I said firmly. And I don't give a DAMN what you think. Ideally, I'd like to settle this in some way that doesn't end with the ship on fire and everyone falling and the Duchess swearing eternal vengeance on me.

I could tell that most of the crowd both thought Don Carlos was making stupid accusations but that I was a coward for not fighting him. This galled me.

Just not enough to be an idiot about it, especially since it was clear my current traveling companions mostly had little interest in seeing me fight this man. Other than Applejack, who clearly was angry over the fat pony and pathetic earth pony cracks. Which didn't make me happy but I am alive because you can't taunt me into things. And Dash, who clearly believes in me more than I do.

I am keenly aware that unless he just dabbled in magic to qualify as a gentleman, I am not going to beat him in a Duel Arcane.

Dona Carlotta whispered to Duchess Sapphire, then ran towards the stairs to below-decks, probably to find her father, who had better not be about to do what I think he is.

I can't see Pinkie anywhere. ANYWHERE.

I looked behind me quickly; no Pinkie.

UUUURGH.

Any Pinkie I can't see scares me more than one I can see.

"If you wish to satisfy your honor, we can satisfy you another time," Rarity said, her voice very calm in the way that always indicates control of emotions. Ironically, it can actually expose you aren't calm if you're *too* calm.

Yeah, life hates us, I know.

"So you're going to hide behind women and ponies," he said disgustedly.

FOOL. Did you notice WHO RUNS THIS SHIP?

Duchess Sapphire frowned deeply. "Do you have a problem with women and ponies, Don Carlos?"

He now realized he'd exposed himself. "No, of course not," he said firmly, trying to backpedal.

"As I would be happy to help you go home through the swamp if you do," she said coldly.

HAH!!!!!

"I just want this coward to face me, that the truth might be revealed!" he said angrily.

"The truth is that you're a drunken blowhard with too much clothing and a bad attitude," Applejack snapped at him. "I guess you hide behind clothing so no one can see how inadequate you are."

"Everyone knows Earth Ponies can't use magic! Shut your mouth and know your place, you lowly Earth Pony!" he snapped back at her.

Now a round of whispers went around, and Applejack looked even angrier.

Rarity whispered to Applejack intensely, while I began contemplating our options. A major problem is that by Glantri's definition, she's not a 'spell caster'. Earth pony magic is REAL, but it tends to be things like getting three times the yield of crops that a mundane farmer would or having the strength to pull tons of weight, and so on. It isn't spell magic or even Bardic magic. Pinkie qualifies, but even with the Element of Harmony...

Don Diego, finish showing up and turning this into a travesty already! We can use the chaos to escape before this all goes to hell. Mundaners have very few rights, and Applejack just engaged in what is technically 'mocking, libeling and... whatever the other thing is' towards an Arcaner. If she gets mad and attacks him, she could be sentenced to time in the Tower of Sighs, which is basically a prison haunted by the undead.

And of course, he'll want her to attack him so he can send her to jail.

"Earth Pony, Pegasus, Unicorn, it doesn't matter if you're all friends!" Rainbow Dash said, quite offended. "Applejack is my friend, and I trust and rely on her!" I heard a distant rumble of thunder; clouds were starting to gather. Oh this isn't going to be good. I could see the various Wonderbolts scattered around and none of them looked happy.

"You're nothing but a big mouthed snob," Ivan said hotly, surprising me. "Frankly, no one gives a DAMN what you think. You're nothing but a parasite who lives off other people's work while others work in the fields all day long so you can lounge around, sipping wine and cheating on your wives!" Ivan, this is not the time to remember your roots! We have to handle this delicately! You're going to antagonize an entire shipful of parasites!

"I only have ONE WIFE, I don't cheat on her, and you're not any different than this pony! Duchess Sapphire, are you going to stand for mundaners libeling arcaners?" Don Carlos demanded.

DAMMIT.

The crowd was frowning. They certainly wouldn't stand for it. Bunch of idiot snobs. Why is it that cultured refinement so often goes with being an arrogant bastard who lives off the work of others.

I suddenly realized I had my hand on Rarity's back to steady myself. Now, see, she is elegant and refined AND she works hard instead of living off others. I wish more people could be like that.

Unlike Ivan, I don't have fits of thinking I can change the world for the better, though. I can't even hold onto a DECENT HAT.

Do not covet Applejack's hat, I reminded myself. Not with everyone watching.

"Don Carlos, do you wish it to be known in Equestria that Belcadizians despise non-wizards? Do you think this will help you to get a good trade deal with a country mostly made up of non-wizards?" Rarity asked, shivering under my hand, but her voice calm, holding her position. "Is that what you all think of us? If so, why trade with us? Further, why should we bother to buy your goods if you do not respect us? If you are going to quibble about the precise paperwork of diplomatic immunity, you must expect us to do the same and we will not view your views on Ponies with any great favor. Perhaps you would like to learn the penalties for libel in our country. Do you think Celestia will view you and yours with favor for this? Or that she shares your views on who should rule? Might I remind you that three of the slots on the Royal Council are always reserved for Earth Ponies, because they are as important as we Unicorns?" It's a nine person council, three of each kind of pony.

I could see Twilight frantically working her way through several tomes and clearly still in mental contact with Rarity, while Spike assisted her.

I relaxed a little. Despite my growing terror, Rarity had things well in hand. I think my response to this would have been to scream and babble, though given time to PLAN, I could have done better.

Ivan was whispering softly to Applejack, who nodded to him, while Rainbow Dash looked ready to just explode. She clearly felt as tense as I did.

Duchess Sapphire paused, then had an odd little smile as she looked at Rarity. She now looked around like myself, assessing the crowd, which was now clearly unsettled. Had they not even thought about... of course not. Glantrians think they are the BEST of all societies.

Mind you, so do the Equestrians.

Every society thinks itself the best, but the Glantrians... It's like this. This is a country where the thinkers rule. Where the people who get kicked around and told they are 'weak' and 'nerds' and 'pussies' run the place by their arcane power. Where those who are strong of body don't rule the show like in so many countries. Glantrians often lack wisdom but they aren't stupid. (Mind you, the combination of low wisdom and high arcane power gets pretty messy.)

Unfortunately, a lot of them respond by turning into thugs and bullies who rely on *arcane* rather than *physical* might. They decide their brains make them destined to rule, etc, etc. You know how it goes.

They end up despising non-spellcasters and their laws enforce that. It's why I couldn't stay... okay, one of many reasons I couldn't stay. If a place craps on my friends like Ivan, I can't stay if they're going to be treated that badly.

Not that I have many close friends, but it's the principle of the thing.

Several other Belcadizians were trying to whisper to Don Carlos. Others were glaring at us angrily or at the ponies or at the Aalbanese. The various Glantrian Ponies looked pretty tense, though they all kept silent. I guess they were going to let Duchess Sapphire lead. Understandably.

Don Carlos drew a wand. SHIT. He's going to go axe-crazy now and given this place is full of people who can easily level this ship, we are all going to catch fire and die.

I could feel Rarity tense more through my hand on her back and everyone began reaching for implements. Wizards can heighten their powers through the use of wands, staves, rods, and other items. I could if I had one. I've had a fair number and lost them all. Helga has this really nice staff which amplifies her ability to do thunder and lightning magic.

Unicorn Ponies just use their horn for the same purpose. And their Cutie Mark. Given the Elements of Harmony seem to work like an implement, I expect...

And then there was a twang and the wand flew out of Don Carlos' hand.

Ahh, here he is.

There was a male elf clad in black pants, a black cake hat (a short cylinder, flat-topped, shaped like a cake) with a wide brim, a black buttoned shirt, black gloves and a black raccoon mask (the kind which basically covers the region around your eyes and noting else). The only thing on him that wasn't black was that he wore a badge which depicted a circle with a broad range of colors in it like a spectrum. It represents a planar portal, one of the type known as 'color pools'. He was dark skinned with short black hair and a nicely done mustache, and he had a rapier on one hip, a whip on the other and a crossbow in his hands with a quiver on his back. He stood upon... the pole things that jut sideways from masts and you hang the sails on them.

Next to him stood a pink pony with a wavy pink mane, wearing exactly the same outfit as him, except that she had a pie badge, had a spatula instead of a rapier, some sort of icing spreader thing instead of a whip and a pie balanced on each of her forehoofs as she stood unnaturally bipedally.

Words fail me.

"MANUEL OF THE PLAINS!" the Belcadizians shouted as one in utter shock.

See, here's the thing. As you probably have guessed, it's Don Diego in black, wearing a damn raccoon mask. And yet, NO ONE CAN TELL. No one. I have seen this man give Prince Innocenti di Malipietra a wedgie and somehow not die horribly by poison because di Malipietra couldn't find him to take revenge.

He puts on this ludicrous outfit and rides around on his Pony ally, Platinum, avenging injustices and righting wrongs and helping out oppressed peasants and basically twisting the nose of every noble in Glantri and GETS AWAY WITH IT.

Okay, maybe I am a little jealous.

But how on Mystara can they NOT RECOGNIZE HIM?

It's a freaking raccoon mask. You can see his mustache and his hair and...

I can't get away with a cheesy disguise like that, so how can *he*?

"And I am champion of justice Caramelita of the Pies!," the pink pony said. If that isn't Pinkie Pie, I would eat my hat if I had one. "Who stands for caring AND sharing!"

Every pony in the place stamped their hoof with approval, to my surprise. Some of them began cheering her.

Herr Sigismund began giving frantic orders to his men; he clearly knows what usually comes after this. Herr Ukvarth buried his face in his hands, clearly frustrated. And Duchess Sapphire... grinned. Oh dear.

"What a thrilling, well-dressed heroine," Rarity said, clearly admiring. She... surely she can tell it is Pinkie.

A quick glance showed that somehow, none of them could tell. Except Applejack, who had a hoof over her mouth to keep from laughing. She saw me and she winked at me. Are they putting on an act?

It wouldn't surprise me if Pinkie had done this before.

Of course she has.

Don Carlos started to reach for another wand and took a pie to the face and fell down.

"Someone needs a hug!" 'Caramelita' announced. "Platinum! HUG STRIKE!"

Platinum, a silver-coated, black maned unicorn pony wearing a raccoon mask and black boots (and nothing else, unlikely the heavily clad ponies attendant at the party), now rushed through the crowd and pounced on Don Carlos, hugging him and laughing loudly. His ACTUAL name is 'Silver Fork' and he is Don Diego's butler. He somehow turns his Cutie Mark into a platinum coin instead of a silver fork when he's 'in disguise'.

Another Belcadizian now went for a rod, only to get a pie to the face from 'Caramelita'. "Now, now! Someone else needs a hug!"

"Hug time now!" somepony shouted and rushed at him. It was a middle-aged mare I didn't know, wearing a fancy blue and green satin dress.

Then someone shouted, as I knew they would, "PIE FIGHT!", opening up with a barrage from the snack bar.

"YEE HAW!" Applejack shouted, opening fire with apples and then 'Manuel of the Plains' and 'Caramelita swooped down and food began flying everywhere. Once I saw Duchess Sapphire hurl a plate of candies at someone, I knew that chaos would inevitably ensue.

Was ensuing, in fact.

Rarity looked at the growing anarchy. "Oh dear," she said. "I think we've caused a diplomatic incident," she said, sounding guilty.

"No, you avoided one," Duchess Sapphire said, then passed her a plate of those Belcadizian swirlcakes. "Let's see your legendary archery skills, dear. I think the dry cleaning bill is going to be horrendous, but better cleansers than blood, right?"

...

Rarity smiled. "Of course. Marcus, will you be kind enough to mark my targets for me?"

Okay, I surrender. You win again, Diego, Pinkie. I picked the four snootiest looking aristocrats I could find, then I cast a spell, St. Tarastia's Fire. I think the Shadow Elves originally invented this one; it basically limns a target in totally harmless 'flame'. This makes it easy to find people in the dark and helps with hitting them with ranged attacks.

Rarity hit each of them in the face with a series of quick shots. This of course, led to counter-fire and we ended up drenched in wine with bits of fruit all over us and then someone lobbed MEATLOAF at us. NOT ON A WHITE SUIT!

I staggered, covered in red sauce, bacon, beef, and cheese. My suit. The beautiful suit Rarity bought me with her own money and now it's a ruined soggy mess. And Rarity's beautiful dress was now a soggy mess as well and there was a chunk of cheese-bread-meat mess on her tiara. I brushed it off and eyed the crowd.

Someone was going to PAY FOR THIS.

One of the Aalbanese had a MINIATURE CATAPULT; as I watched, he dropped chicken parmesan on Fluttershy, who was busy dodging attacks. "Please, stop the violence before someone gets hurt," she said, then got hit. Yelping, she fell down into the scrum.

"Rarity," I said, limning him in fire. He stared at himself, clearly knowing what this meant. He was, like most Aalbanese men, dark haired with a mustache, wearing a white suit like mine. "I think he needs a few splashes of COLOR to liven up that white suit."

"I agree one hundred percent, darling," she said. A dozen shrimp rose into the air, dipped themselves in the half a dozen dips which sat next to them on a now abandoned server's tray, and then they flew in a swarm at the man. I noticed an ENTIRE BOWL of dip... no, three... followed the same trajectory, and I saw Twilight concentrating. She gave me the hoof sign, grinning.

Whoever that man was, he went DOWN and went down HARD.

Fluttershy rose out of the scrum, wobbling, only to get hit by an entire loaf of Averoignese style bread, which had been split and buttered and covered with garlic, briefly turning her into a sandwich.

I could totally go for an Averoignese style soup and sandwich right now.

Not made of pony!

You know what I *mean*.

Determinedly, Fluttershy took to the sky again. "Violence is bad! Stop the madness!" She dripped food and sauces now and was a hideous mess.

She would have been hit by an entire pizza, except Rainbow Dash flew down and interposed herself, then hurled an entire tray of Belcadizian burritos at the perpetrator, a green pony who now went down.

"Sorry, Fluttershy," Rainbow Dash said to her. "But this is war! And war means..." A tomato to Rainbow Dash's face. "CHAAAAAAAAARRRRRRGEEEEEEE!" She zoomed at whoever did it, who I couldn't see.

Trust me, Fluttershy, we're getting off easy, except for our dry cleaning bills.

Fluttershy looked around, then got hit with a tomato in the face even as she opened her mouth. Then she saw someone's little yappy pet dog take a Belcadizian swirlcake to the face. Her eyes crossed and when they returned to normal, Fluttershy shouted, "ENOUGH! PETS OF GLANTRI! RISE UP! IT IS TIME FOR YOU TO BE FREE!"

ACK.

***************

Fortunately, the ship's actual PILOT was under decks in the control room, so the ship didn't crash, but wow, cleaning this thing up is going to be epic.

Fortunately, most of the pets of Glantri ran to their masters and hid, but the smarter ones had joined in on the anarchy, now at Fluttershy's command.

My suit was all the colors of the rainbow and Rarity and the other ponies looked like a buffet bar. I was utterly exhausted but it was a good exhausted. Rarity was flopped down next to me, both of us breathing hard. We'd used a lot of magic. I wanted a nap BADLY.

"Justice has been done!," 'Manuel' shouted. "Platinum, to me!"

Platinum ran over and 'Manuel' and 'Caramelita' got onto his back and then galloped across the deck, leaping off the side and vanishing in a spray of silvery dust. A rather flashy teleport, I assume, though given Don Diego's skills, they may have just plane shifted.

"Wow, Pinkie missed the whole fight," Rainbow Dash said. "She is gonna be SO unhappy."

...

"I know, it's her sort of thing," Rarity said.

"It's nice to see heroic ponies in other countries too," Twilight said.

"Uhh... that was Pinkie," Applejack said, cocking her head and looking at Twilight.

"I'm pretty sure that 'Caramelita' was Pinkie," I said.

"No way," Rainbow Dash said, shaking her head. "Pinkie never wears black."

"It didn't look like Pinkie," Ivan said. "You get some weird ideas in your head, Marcus."

Dammit, Ivan, not you too!

I caught Applejack's gaze, then shrugged. I gave up fighting on the whole 'your father is Manuel of the Plains, no really' thing a long time ago.

"Even I think we need a bath," Applejack said, looking at herself. She was a squishy, sticky mess. We all were.

"Everyone will, but I will see to quarters for you tonight; you can teleport back to where we got you in the morning," Duchess Sapphire said. "There is no way I can send you back to the swamp like this."

"Thank you," I said. "I am very sorry about this."

"We avoided the total wreck of the mission and it's clear some tensions needed deflating and lessons had to be learned," she said. "Like how Don Carlos needs to be sent back home accidentally on purpose."

I like how she thinks.

****************

This is how Ivan and I ended up having a nice hot bath, though oddly, though I could hear attendants in the other baths, we didn't have any. On the other hand, we were in a fairly small one, while the others were crowded with ponies, Belcadizians, or Aalbaneese.

I was busy trying to clean my back when to my surprise, someone began scrubbing it. I was fighting the urge to scream and flee when Don Diego said amiably, "It's just me, Samus Marcus."

"You missed the pie fight and two great heroes," Ivan said.

Dammit, Ivan, I just tried to tell you it was Diego and Pinkie!!!

"I always seem to miss Manuel of the Plains," Don Diego said sadly as he scrubbed my back. I twitched, wishing I could have beautiful elf maidens instead of a... okay, he isn't that old for an Elf but I'd rather have women.

That being said, a clean back IS important to me.

"Why does everyone else have attendants and we don't?" Ivan asked.

"I believe the blue-skinned pegasus told them you were easily embarrassed and needed privacy because you were human," Don Diego said. "So I thought I would be a good host and come tend to your needs." He sounded very amused.

DAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSHHHHH!!!!!!

Ivan laughed. "Marcus is easily embarrassed."

I began doing my hair with Diego's help. "Where's Silver Fork?" I asked.

"Helping to tend to the needs of your ladyfriends, the Elements of Harmony," Diego said amiably. "It seems he is always a big hit with the ladies. I keep telling him he ought to settle down, but he tells me he cannot marry until he outdoes the glories of the mighty Platinum."

"He should probably set more realistic goals, that's like saying you won't marry until you have the head of three Grand Wyrms," Ivan said. He was washing his hair now.

Is he fucking with me or does the universe just hate me?

Of course, the answer could be 'both'.

"I have arranged for fresh clothing for you tomorrow," Diego said. "Though I fear the swamp will muss it quickly."

"So do I," I told him. "And thank you."

We chatted amiably while my brain slowly worked on melting to slag.

***************

"Don Diego has been kind enough to put us up as an apology for Don Carlos' behavior," Twilight said. "However, we will have to go three to a room with one sleeping on a magical air balloon on the floor."

"A magical air balloon?" I asked, confused. I was wearing actual pajamas, thanks to Don Diego. Black with silver stripes. They fit me poorly, but I didn't care. I feel like a REAL PERSON now.

"They are like a flat, mattress shaped balloon. Don Diego assures me they are very comfortable," she said.

These must be new; I slept on a cot a few times in Belcadiz but never a balloon.

"Well, how about me, Ivan, and Pinkie," Applejack said. "Then you, Marcus, Rarity, Sp... no wait, that's four."

Twilight Sparkle looked at Ivan. "You fine with sleeping with Pinkie and Applejack?"

"Earth ponies forever," he said deadpan and high-fived Applejack and Pinkie at the same time.

...

"I can take Spitfire and Soarin'," Dash said. "Then... oh wait, that leaves five. Ummm..."

"They'll leave with us but they have quarters," Twilight said. "And I think they're going to pull a watch shift with some of the other Wonderbolts."

"So, me, Twilight, Rarity, and then Dash, Fluttershy, and Marcus," Spike said quickly.

"Marcus should be with the unicorns," Fluttershy said hesitantly. "If we're going by type."

Twilight paused and looked at me. "Marcus..."

"I can sleep with whoever will be most convenient," I said. "As you must have seen, I don't sleep naked."

"Twilight, why don't you take Marcus and Dash? I can use Spike and Fluttershy's help on something before bed," Rarity said.

"YES!" Spike said.

I put a hand over my mouth long enough to resist laughing, then Twilight said, "Okay. Marcus can help me with something too."

"Hah! We'll have the best slumber party!" Rainbow Dash said.

Twilight's eyes suddenly lit up.

Rarity and Applejack looked at each other and grinned and I felt my stomach curdle.

Rainbow Dash looked at me. I looked at her. For a moment, our minds moved as one. 'Uh oh.'

****************

In my long life, I can say that I have never actually done up a woman's hair with curlers. Or had mine done up. It's really not long enough for it, though it's not cut extremely short.

"I hope we're doing this right, I am going by memory because I didn't bring the book," Twilight said as she worked on my hair, while I tried to do Dash and Dash tried to do Twilight. This was difficult since she had to do it with her teeth and with clumsy hoof grips. Admittedly, Ponies have insanely nimble mouths and teeth. It was clear Twilight was the only one of us who actually knew how to do this.

"I am sure it will be fine as long as we have fun," I said. This is not, in fact, my idea of fun, but I owe Twilight and she's so enthusiastic about this, how can I say no?

Also, Spike cannot strangle me in my sleep if he's with Rarity and Fluttershy. Working on... whatever it is.

"Man, so humans even have special clothing for sleeping?" Dash asked me, studying my outfit.

"And it's different for men and women," I said.

"Why? It's not like it's not easy to tell which is which," Dash said.

"A woman's body is contoured differently," I told her. I now finished her hair, hoping I did it right.

Twilight finished mine, while Dash fumbled with Twilight's hair.

"Yeah, I noticed all the elf and human women have giant breasts. Don't those get in the way?" Dash asked.

"They make nice pillows," I said. "And typically a woman sleeps on her back or side if it's too much to be comfortable. Isn't that normally how ponies sleep?"

Twilight's eyes crossed and she mumbled.

"Sorry," Dash said. "I'm trying to be gentle."

I helped her with it. She would have been fine if she had fingers.

Dash sighed. "I'm sorry, Rarity could do this really well."

"We can't all be Rarity," I said. "Though it wouldn't hurt if more people were like her."

Dash grinned at me for some reason. "I...umm... you met Soarin', right?"

"Briefly," I said. "He seems a decent fellow."

Twilight nodded. "Okay... we've done each other's hair... oh yes, time for our faces."

"Faces?" Dash said nervously.

"Facial cleanser creams... which I don't have," Twilight said. "I already borrowed Rarity's curlers... I hate to keep taking her stuff."

"We can just wash each other's faces," I said. Though really, it's clean enough.

Dash looked slightly suspicious but relaxed when we carefully scrubbed each other's face.

I feel like I am twelve and someone's sister.

But Twilight basically skipped childhood. I can't help but want to indulge her a little when she wants to do this.

I could have had BEAUTIFUL ELF WOMEN doing this to me if not for you, Dash. But you were just trying to help me.

Dammit.

"We should shave your stubble," Twilight said.

Twilight, holding a knife next to my throat, and if she... and she... No, don't be afraid, she doesn't know, can't show fear...

"Okay, we'll leave it. You'll look good with a beard," Dash said quickly.

Damn my poor self-control.

"No, I trust you two to shave me," I said. "I didn't even realize I have stubble." It being hard to shave in a SWAMP.

Dash lathered me up and Twilight said, "Don't worry, Mother always helped Father shave and she taught me how to do this so one day... I could do it for... friends." Her voice choked up a moment.

"Did you ever... with Erik?" Dash asked, then put a hoof over her mouth.

"No, he always shaved in his chambers," Twilight said. "I mean, I would have, but he never asked and always kept his face carefully shaven and in general, he was well groomed, except the times he woke up on my floor or in the library."

She breathed in and out and began to shave me as I tried to avoid total panic, remaining very still. Dash put a hoof on my shoulder. I was sitting on the floor, by the way.

"Don't worry," Twilight said. "This is going to be fine." She was sweating, however, as the blade moved slowly along my face. Once it left contact, her control was better and she easily cleaned it off.

We all started when a maid said, "I can do that, senorita." We hadn't even noticed her enter in her black uniform; she was Belcadizian.

"No, no, I can do it," Twilight said. "I have to... I need to be able to do this." Her voice was tight and urgent.

The maid looked at me nervously; I was too paralyzed with fear to move. Finally, I tried to blink at her 'HELP ME'.

Dash cleared her throat. "If she... I mean..."

"It's fine," my traitor mouth said. "Her mother taught her how to do this," I told the maid, who looked dubious.

Had she... I guess her job is to be ready to serve. But I will have to remember that. I'd forgotten what it's like. The help ALWAYS knows more than you think.

"Rarity," Dash began.

"I can do this," Twilight said, determined, then began shaving me again. She nicked me once and looked mortified and the maid quickly applied a little cloth and held it until I stopped bleeding. "I... Marcus..."

"Go on," I said. "Make your mother proud."

My mother would probably beat me to death with a chair. I think. I haven't seen my parents in a very long time. Twilight probably should have seen her parents more than she does, but I know they're important to her.

Twilight's stance shifted a little, and now she shaved me with determination more than fear, which made things go smoother. When she was done, the maid cleaned my face. "Very smoothly done," she said to Twilight. "I will clean this for you," she said, taking the razor.

"Thank you," Twilight said warmly to her.

The maid smiled and left.

"Better," I said. "Thank you, Twilight."

She beamed brightly.

"Okay, now... I think ghost stories are next. Or is it brandy?"

"How about brandy AND ghost stories?" I said. "But not much brandy." NEVER getting drunk around Twilight again.

************

"And so he crept through Prince Brannart's tower," I said to Dash and Twilight, who were leaning forward, eyes wide, as we sat in the near-dark with only a small flame in the palm of my hand for light. "He could see an unholy blue light shining from under a door. Curiosity, greed, fear, all warred within him. It could be... it WAS powerful magic, but powerful magic can be DANGEROUS."

"The Second Precept," Twilight said breathlessly. "Use too much magic at once and you will destroy yourself."

My magical education was too informal to have any precepts beyond 'magic is useful.'

"Did he open it?" Dash squeaked out.

Of course, I did. FOOLISHLY.

"His curiosity drove him on. He had to know what laid beyond, what secrets of magic he might find beyond the door, so he studied it carefully; it was slightly ajar, and so he cracked it open," I said, gesturing as if opening a door and peeking through it.

Twilight said, "Was it tomes? I bet there were tomes." Her voice was excited and nervous at once.

"CURSED tomes," Dash said spookily. Twilight shivered.

"The lab was well appointed with a long array of beakers, vials, flasks, tubes, coils, oil lamps and candles, as well as every sort of chemical one might need, and powdered gemstones and rare metals and rare earths, finely ground. But at the heart of the lab table was a finely cut sphere of bluish-gray crystal, set with many facets on a golden stand; it sparkled, casting the eerie blue light. Near it, an aged tome, bound in leather with gold clasps, sat open, words of power on every page."

"Hah! Yes! Books!" Twilight said triumphantly.

"Does it turn him into a chimera?" Dash asked, shivering. "And then his heads turn on each other and he dies?"

...

That's actually better than my ending.

"He began to creep forward, but then a figure came out of the shadows," I said, rising up so I towered over them. The flame in my hand cast unnatural shadows up my face and they shivered. I now made my voice vibrate with a little magic. "He wore a finely made light blue tunic of cloth of gold, wrapped around him, with a belt of deep blue, and around his waist and down to his knees he wore a traditional red and black checkered kilt, and at his hip, a long blade of the Klantyre style."

"A what?" Dash asked.

"A skirt for men," I told her, though it weakened the build up.

"His skin was withered and dry like paper, his hands almost like claws as they clutched the vials in his hands, one with blue, the other with red powder. But his head... though he bore a regal golden crown set with opals and rubies, his eyes shone with the same unholy light as the gem, blazing like blue-litten flame in dark grottoes, and his skin was stretched so tight over his skull as to show it clear as day and his teeth were yellow and black. It was Prince Brannart McGregor, THE LICH OF KLANTYRE!"

They both howled and jumped into the corner, clutching each other, shivering, as I closed in on them relentlessly, making my eyes glow blue. "He opened his mouth with a feral grin and his voice was like dust."

"What did he say?" Dash said frantically.

"Would you like some candy?" I said, holding out my hand with two peppermints.

Dash hit me with a pillow and we segued into the pillow fight.

*************

"I wasn't scared, you know," Dash said, trying to look tough.

I was. Brannart scared me shitless. Enough that he just made me run naked through the streets and hocked my possessions instead of killing me. While I heard him LAUGHING the whole time.

Never taking a job in Klantyre again.

Twilight yawned. "We should sleep. We have a long day tomorrow."

"I want to sleep on the air mattress," Dash said.

"I was going to take it," I said.

"Please?" she asked. "I am REALLY curious if it's as nice as my clouds back home."

Sleeping in the same bed as Twilight seems... well, it's not nice to sleep in the same bed as someone you are lying about your identity to them.

But Dash... made these 'PLEASE' eyes at me.

"Okay," I said. Since I have no reason I can actually EXPLAIN for why I should sleep on the floor. Or in another room. Or possibly another continent. I hear Skothar is nice this time of year.

"You don't mind, right?" Twilight said. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable."

"I'm fine," I said. "It would be silly if you could shave me but not sleep near me."

She relaxed. "There's a lot worse than quicksand if you panic on this ship." She got on the bed on the far side by the wall.

I winced. "I know."

"Yeah, I think he'd have the Element of Fear if we had another one," Dash said, then looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry, that came out bad."

"I have had a scary life of facing monsters, seeing people die and sometimes thinking I would die," I said.

Dash stretched out on the 'air mattress'. "Okay, this is TOTALLY sweet." She paused. "Uh..."

"That's right, you have seen people die," Twilight said softly. "I hope..."

"I do worry about you all dying," I confessed. They're skilled fighters and Rarity... she and Twilight were *very* effective. But in some ways, they're still so innocent. "I've seen a lot of death. But I can't seem to ever settle down successfully. Something always goes wrong."

"Well, I'm confident this will go well," Twilight said as I now got into bed, under the sheets. "This is a nice soft bed," she mumbled, her voice going groggy.

Distantly, I heard Pinkie shout something about a naked pony party.

Twilight's eyes widened. "What on Mystara?"

"Let them riot, we need our sleep," I said.

"So is Ivan... an Earth Human?" Dash asked.

"We have different divisions but he would likely be one if he was polymorphed into a pony," I said. "I would be a Unicorn and..." Can't mention Helga. "I met flying humans in Floating Ar, in Alphatia."

I ended up telling them about Floating Ar until we all fell asleep. Or they did. I laid there, worrying somehow my tattoo would start shining with a blue, unholy light, revealing me.

Eventually, sleep took me. I dreamed about everyone setting me on fire and hurling me off the boat. Delightful.

***********

Dash got up early and went out to cavort with the Wonderbolts, I think. Or at least, when I eventually woke up, she was gone, but her bed HAD been slept in. Twilight was still clonked out, mumbling about ten more minutes.

I left her to her sleep and rose, doing some stretching. That had been a very comfy bed but I often contort myself into weird shapes.

Twilight now said something totally incoherent.

"What?" I said.

She floated a glass of water over, then drank from it and sat up and stretched. "So much nicer than sleeping on the ground," she said. "Or worse, my floor."

"Doesn't Spike usually ensure you don't stay on the floor?"

"Yes, but usually that's because he wakes up before me and puts me in bed." She flopped over, then made herself sit up "I... Spike..." She frowned, then sighed and fumbled her way out of bed, stretching as well. "I, look, Spike kind of...

"NO," Pinkie said, suddenly rolling out from under the bed.

HAS SHE BEEN THERE ALL NIGHT?

Twilight jumped. "But..."

"No, no, no," Pinkie said, now rising. "See you all at breakfast!" She trotted out of the room.

Twilight sighed. "Okay, then."

I don't get it.

"Let's go get some breakfast."

"I need to change into something other than pajamas," I told her. "You go ahead," I continued. "Thank you for the sleepover." Always thank people for everything, even if you didn't want it. Not that I...

I enjoy spending time with Twilight and some parts of it were fun. But every moment I spend with her is a moment where my secrets may come out and I may be buried in an unmarked grave.

"Oh yes, I don't want to violate your privacy," she said. "I know it's important to you." She stumbled towards the door. "You're braver than you think, you know," she said softly. "Don't be afraid. We'll back you to the end. Like Rarity did."

"I am VERY grateful to her, but I don't... I am rather poor at the moment, and it's hard for me to repay her," I told Twilight. "And you helped me too. I could see you feeding her information."

"It was very cool," Twilight said, sounding proud of herself. Then she frowned. "Glantri is really unfair to non-spellcasters."

"I know," I told her. "It's just... well, you know how it is for people who like books, like to study. People think you're weird, make fun of you, beat you up." I sighed. "And you know magic and the temptation to abuse it."

"I know," Twilight said. "It's hard to know when I should use my powers and when not. When people will like it and when they'll.. think I'm all snobby and full of myself and showing off too much." She studied the space under the bed; I glanced, but I didn't see anything there, not even dust.

"You should write a letter to Celestia. I'm sure she has that problem too. And she knows what Glantrians are like."

"I should," she said, smiling. "I would have sent one but Spike was helping Rarity." She frowned a moment, then sighed. "Anyway, thanks for listening to me talk."

"I've had the same problem, so I understand," I told her. "We can talk about it later."

She nodded and smiled and ran off.

I got changed. It is a huge problem. Too many people get jealous when others are different or better, but mock anyone who isn't the same as them or up to their level.

But what can we do about it?

I got changed and went out to have breakfast.

************

Twilight kept looking at Rarity, looking nervous, but Rarity, though utterly groggy, seemed in good spirits. So was Spike and Fluttershy. I decided not to pry for fear that Pinkie would somehow rise out of my waffle and stop me. Belcadizian waffles with honey and syrup, VERY good, by the way.

Don Diego pressed a clean set of armor and underwear on me; I was very grateful, though surprised. But the real gift...

Rarity now gave me an archer's cap, made of red felt with a green ribbon held in place by six emeralds. That's right, EMERALDS. A red feather was tucked into the ribbon. It was beautiful. "Rarity, that's wonderful," I said, putting it on my head. "Now I feel bad I have nothing to offer you."

"It's fine," she said. "I know how much you love hats."

She'd donned a stylish white and black hat herself, though I suspect the swamp will soon add green and brown to it.

"I will get you something nice once I am in a position to do so," I told her. I touched my hat and got that wonderful feeling. HAT.

I felt nerves de-tangling already.

"I can face the world!," I said proudly.

"But how will the world face you?" Rarity said, smiling.

How indeed. Nothing can stop a well-dressed man.

Book Two: Dragons of Swamp Glooming

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My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring
A D&D (Mystara) / My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic crossover

Book 2: Dragons of Swamp Glooming

By John Biles

***************

We got teleported back to the rock by the Duchess and several of her ponies. Rarity, Spike, and I all wanted to dig down and get the gems, but we got outvoted, since there was the whole Dragon problem still not dealt with. They promised we could come back afterward.

I wish, I think we can be sure that this will probably end with us falling from the sky into the Broken Lands. Though being there with Twilight and Dash would probably let us finally find that damn tower again, break back into it, and FINALLY get that crown.

Assuming the crown actually exists, anyway.

Long story.

Rarity and Twilight went off to one side and talked about... something. They were excited about it, anyway. I decided it best to assume 'girl talk' and just move on.

Ivan and Applejack were talking about fertilizer. FERTILIZER. What is with him?

I was just ambling along, listening to Dash and Soarin' clumsily flirt, while Spitfire scouted ahead. "So, you're like a unicorn human, right?" Soarin' asked me.

Close enough. "Yes," I told him.

"Aaah," he said sagely.

"And Ivan is like an Earth pony," Dash said.

Soarin' looked at him and nodded in agreement.

Oddly enough, there are three major groups of humans on this world, though they all have the same aptitudes and skills. It's all superficial. Ivan and I are both of Neathar descent; they're the dominant group on this continent, Brun. If Carlan of the Five Veils is right, humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and all other mammalian bipeds come from a common ancestor, though. Lizardmen seem to have been created by the Carnifex as a slave race; the Carnifex were basically... really huge lizard-men. All we know of them is myths and rumors.

Mind you, some Elves claim to be related to Dragons but I am VERY dubious.

Seriously, look at Spike. You get an Elf from that? No. Nothing against Spike, but he's no proto-Elf.

Suddenly, I wondered why Spike had no wings. Do they grow in later?

Very strange.

Curiosity suddenly hit me. "So where did Ponies come from?" I asked.

Soarin' stared at me in confusion.

Dash blinked, cocked her head, and said, "When one pony loves another pony..."

"No, I know what sex is," I said, feeling a little aggravated. "Where did the very FIRST ponies come from?" I asked.

Rainbow Dash scrunched up her face. "Dammit, all I remember is something about chickens and eggs, but there's no way a chicken gave birth to the first ponies."

"I don't know about origins. I know we first came to Equestria when Orcs enslaved our ancestors and forced us to help them wipe out the humans who originally lived there." Soarin' shivered. "It must have been terrible then, but eventually, Celestia led us to freedom. I'm sorry, I never studied history much; I was always thinking about flying when we were supposed to learn things." That's pretty much what I knew about it.

Fluttershy now dropped down and made an odd noise. "Hello," I said to her. "Going to weigh in on this?"

"Like humans, the influence of the powerful magics of Mystara gradually turned some Ponies sentient," Fluttershy said. "This gave them a huge advantage in surviving the monsters which were everywhere and still are. They had more kids than ordinary ponies and horses. The Blackmoorians sped this up with their magic, and created Unicorns and Pegasi from Earth Ponies. There are various other kinds of Ponies around the world as well, like the Sea Ponies who live underwater." She sounded oddly like Twilight to me. "And the deadly Shadow Ponies, corrupted by Entropy." She shivered and studied the woods.

We were slogging along muddy ground as we went through the woods. There were lots of rivulets of water and patches of rocky, dry ground, higher than the rest.

We then got into a discussion of the Elf-Dragon question which drew in Spike and Twilight and went on for a long time. I found it fascinating, but I will spare you the details beyond noting that Spike couldn't make up his mind if he wanted to be related to Elves or not.

And we kind of drove off Dash and Soarin', who went to go help scout, which I felt a little bad about afterwards.

Not bad enough to stop the discussion, though, which I greatly enjoyed.

"I think we're all descended from cupcakes," Pinkie finally said.

"You do not actually think that," Twilight said, a little chidingly.

Of course she believes that. I'm sure she has a chart which shows how cookies developed from gumdrops, then some of them turned into cupcakes, which led to cakes and so on.

"I know but I felt I had to contribute something," Pinkie said cheerfully. "We need to argue geology."

I was initially unclear WHY we needed to argue geology, but hey, why not? So we switched to discussing the question of what created the plateau which is at the heart of Equestria. To my surprise, Pinkie knew all about that and in fact basically was able to school myself and Twilight on the issue, to Twilight's embarrassment. Rarity pitched into this conversation, also knowing more than I would have expected, though in retrospect, I would think her talent with gems inspired her to study the issue.

"In conclusion, I'm pretty sure some Immortal intervened, because if you study the strata, the rock was pushed straight up in an unnatural way," Pinkie said very seriously. "There were earthquakes in the period of plateau formation, but the rocks should either be folded or one set of strata thrust upwards over another. There's no slopes and it's not due to erosion of weaker rocks, the way you'd expect with normal buttes or mesas. Normal buttes and mesas don't thrust up, rather, the ground level around them was worn *down*. But this plateau was clearly thrust up on a huge scale."

How does a baker and dancer know so much about rocks, anyway?

"But not Celestia," I said.

"Oh no, the plateau was around for hundreds of years before Ponies arrived and Celestia didn't show up for hundreds more," Pinkie said. "Today, Earth Ponies work hard to keep the plateau intact, because otherwise it will slowly erode away and that would get *messy*." Her voice returned to normal on the last word and her whole stance changed. She'd been a little tense the whole time, I now realized. But now she let herself go.

"Are your parents geologists?" I asked.

"Rock farmers," Pinkie said. "Hideously boring, though necessary. I left the farm in search of something more fun. My parents are Kagyar-worshipers and you know how that is."

Kagyar is the Immortal patron of craftsmen and workaholics and dwarves. He's solid, dependable, honest, hard-working, stern, and the polar opposite of fun. I can see why rock farmers would worship him, though.

There was a huge rumble of thunder and a massive wave of clouds came our way from the north; we were heading slowly into it, going northeastwards. Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire now flew back to us. "Want us to drive this storm off?" Dash asked.

"Let's camp and take refuge," Twilight said. "Trying to shape weather outside Equestria can have unpredictable side-effects, right?"

"Yeah," Dash said.

"Let's find a rock outcropping and camp on it. Time to break out our tents," Twilight said.

It was coming down in sheets by the time we found an outcropping. Then we had to carve some drainage lines so the water didn't puddle where our tents were meant to go. These tents held four, so we ended up with myself, Rarity, Spike, and Twilight in one, Fluttershy, the Wonderbolts, and Dash in another, and Ivan, Pinkie, and Applejack in a third. Dinner had to be fruit and dried meat. Twilight and I did some reading, Rarity did some sewing, and Spike half-helped her and half-helped Twilight and half-glared at me.

He was busy, but happy. Even the glaring seemed to make him happy.

"It's weird," Twilight said. "This reminds me of home. I mean when I lived with my parents. They'd be working on things they brought home and I'd either be working on homework or helping them like Spike helps me." She made a happy sigh. "Isn't it nice to work with those you care about?"

"Yes, it is," Rarity said. "Spike, thank you very much for helping me."

He smiled so brightly, the way little kids can. Adults like the rest of us get too old and too worn to be that happy. I remember too many bad times to ever fully accept anything good.

"I always helped Mother," Rarity said, pausing in her work. "Father worked with me and taught me archery, but I didn't want to be a warpony, so we never spent as much time together as I think he wanted." She sighed, clearly feeling guilty. "I also learned to sing from Father and so did Sweetie."

The rain hammered even harder, hitting irregularly in waves at random intervals. It was distracting and I could see Twilight had read the same passage twice.

"How about you, Marcus?" Twilight asked.

Hadn't I... oh, that was Pinkie and Applejack. "I was one son too many and got booted out the door as fast as I could be thrown out discreetly in the street and could defend myself," I told them. "I think I met Ivan shortly after that." It's hard to put it all together coherently, though.

They both sagged a little.

"My parents messed with the wrong red dragon," Spike said. "Which is how I ended up in Twilight's care. When I was really little, her parents helped Twilight take care of me, but now I can take care of myself."

Okay, 'my parents are dead' always wins.

I should go back and see my folks some time but I'm afraid of what they'll think of me. And... sometimes I'm not sure that's even the right history of me.

I tend to live in the present as my past is confusing.

Twilight put a fond hoof on Spike's shoulder and he smiled, then she said to me, "That's too bad. I was an only child because my parents realized they were too busy for more." She sighed. "But they loved me very much."

"I'm used to it," I said. "Probably their house would fall off a cliff if I did go visit them anyway." Rain always makes me kind of somber. Like it's trying to remind me of something I'd rather forget.

Rarity put a comforting hoof on my knee; I was seated on the floor, as was everyone else. "I'm sure it would go fine," she said. "I'm sure they'd be proud of you."

I hope so, but sometimes I'm not proud of me. Twilight...

I like being around her but every moment I do this adds to the DOOM CLOCK which is ticking.

"I'm sure too," Twilight said. "You're a good wizard and a good swordsman and you always stand by your friends."

I started... okay, I admit it, I was crying. The amount of trust they have on me is so... I can't stand to hurt Twilight again or Rarity or any of them, but when they find out the truth, they're going to hate me.

And I don't want them to hate me.

Spike made a noise at me which probably means 'CRY YOU EVIL BASTARD'.

Being hugged by two unicorns just made me cry more. It felt weirdly good to let it all out.

After a bit, Twilight let go, but Rarity held me until I stopped crying. Then Twilight said, "Spike, we have to go renew the wards."

"Can't I stay where it's dry?" he said.

"Spike, I can't do this without you," Twilight said very seriously.

He looked at Rarity, looked at me, then grimaced, then said, "Okay," reluctantly.

I heard Twilight say, "Blood of Odin!" as the rain hit her, and I laughed. I'd said that every time something went bad when I was pretending to be a Vestlander.

Then the depression hit me again. I am a homeless wanderer, apparently doomed to drift through the world forever. It seems like everything I touch ends up destroyed. And eventually, everyone I care about, I have to leave them or I panic and run or they settle down without me like Helga did.

Mind you, she's happy, and... well, I'm a little unhappy but mostly I'm happy for her. She got a happy ending.

All I get are unhappy endings.

I could hear Ivan busy laughing and Pinkie whooping it up about something. His life is as rootless and messy as mine, but he's happy and I'm here moping even though I'm with people I like.

People who all have other lives and would be there, safe and sound, but go out into this hellhole anyway in order that their other friends can stay in nice, safe lives. And if they didn't, I'd be dead. I owe them. But if I stay around them they'll be dragged down with me.

And if I go, the swamp will eat me.

The rain hammered the tent harder, making it shake. Damn, this is powerful rain. You could see the southern wall of the tent shake hard every time a wave hit it. "Marcus," Rarity said softly. "We have to go reinforce all the tents."

Bloody hell. "Okay," I said wearily, rising.

I was soaked to the bone by the time I finished helping to further secure and reinforce the tents. Rarity now summoned sheets from her shop with the ritual which Dona Carlotta had given her. I had to help her with it, as she's not used to using rituals; she's mostly stuck to honing her specialty of sewing and fashion and her other skills are related to artificing. Like her arrowheads.

Once we'd reinforced everything, we were both hideously wet. I was soaked to the bone, one big drippy mess. Dash came out and forced a microbubble of dry, though it was clearly hard, enough for Rarity to shake herself mostly dry.

"Hey, you okay?" Dash asked me softly.

"I'm fine," I told her. I was lying, of course. "I'm going to have to hang these up to dry and switch into... I guess I could put on my formal clothing." Having multiple outfits feels strange.

We went back in the tent and Rarity closed her eyes, smiling a little, while I changed into the formal clothing. I put a warming spell on the clothing, hoping it wouldn't catch fire. If I left it like that too long, it would.

Then I sat back down with Rarity next to me. Twilight had made some excuse about needing to give Pinkie a math quiz. I could hear Pinkie making sounds of horror in the distance while Ivan and Applejack were laughing and chanting something about plowing a field.

Don't know.

Don't tell me.

"The math, it burns, it burns!" I heard Pinkie shout.

Rarity laughed softly.

"You want to talk about it?" she asked softly.

I don't know how so many women can talk about it so easily. I mean if... I dunno. I wouldn't have a heart-felt talk with Dona Carlotta's new boyfriend about her. Especially since he's weaselly looking.

"Tell me about your sister."

"I have two. Snow Belle is the town doctor," Rarity said. "Sweetie is my younger sister; we take care of her while my father is stationed at one of the border forts. He's a warpony and mother is a weaver. Snow Belle is very hard working and kind; she loves to take care of people. Sweetie is also very kind and musically talented and loves to sew too. But she's... She often doesn't think things through. She and her two best friends are a little obsessed with growing up as fast as they can," Rarity said, speaking with strong affection, though at the end, she sounded regretful. "She runs with Applejack's sister Apple Bloom and with Scootaloo, who is a pegasus. You know about Cutie Marks, right?"

"Yes," I told her.

"It's not the only sign of moving to adulthood, but it's a transformational moment for Ponies. I don't even know what would be equivalent for humans." She sounded thoughtful.

"Humans never have that clarity," I told her. We sat next to each other on the floor; her presence was comforting and I could feel myself calming down. "A human never knows their place in the universe for sure."

"Never?" she said, sounding surprised.

"Never. Lots of people never figure out who they should be or where they are going or why they are doing it," I said. Like me. I just kind of drift, then run when the next explosion happens. Sometimes I like that, but seeing... they all know what they want and where they are going and who they are, and I kind of envy that. They all have a lot of naiveté, and I don't want to be naive, but they have a kind of certainty, a REAL certainty I don't have.

Well, maybe using the word 'certain' with Pinkie isn't wise.

Rarity knows her place in the universe and she's happy with it.

I can hardly even imagine... no, I know. The few times things held together a while, I felt that. But then it blew up anyway.

"So you're still trying to find your place," she said softly.

"Yeah," I said.

"Well, you should come to Ponyville when this is over. I would hate to see you go after this and never see you again." She smiled and said in a sing-song way, "I could make you more hats."

I laughed, smiling. "Twilight suggested that too," I said to her. If I didn't have this looming death apocalypse hanging over me... The longer I stay, the more chances to reveal too much. And then I will die. But I can't come clean or I will DIE.

I can think of a half-dozen things... more really, I'd like to try that they'd be such a big help with.

Like that damn tower in the Broken Lands.

Wherever exactly it is.

She studied my outfit. "I bet I could make these more cheaply than they do." I could see a calculating look in her eye which made me smile. I like crafty people when they're not crafting on me.

So to speak.

"I think you definitely could. With fine Equestrian materials. And, of course, there will soon be a new trade agreement," I told her.

She smiled broadly. "There's also that huge market for Pony styles in Glantri, even fancier than what we wear." She began sketching out some ideas and I made a few suggestions and watched her work.

She'd come up with six outfits when she suddenly looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry, you need company and here I am working on my own projects."

"Watching you work cheers me up," I told her. She has drive, and I like that. I'd liked the way Twilight had drive too. I feel like I have drive just by being near her and helping her a little. It's faking drive, but I am good at faking things. "I like your ambition."

Rarity gave a kind of happy sigh. "You are a good friend, Marcus."

"You're a good friend too," I told her. "Did you have a good time at the party?"

"I had a grand time before it all turned into a food fight and..." She looked around, then whispered, "Even that was kind of fun."

I grinned. "I'll have you wearing lots of clothing soon," I said, then laughed. "Corrupt you completely."

"I hate getting messy but that was something exhilarating about an all out battle that couldn't actually lead to any killing," she said.

"I prefer cool elegance myself as well," I said to her. "But yes, some excitement sometimes is nice."

She patted my knee. "Feeling any better?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "Enough we could probably call Twilight back from torturing Pinkie."

"I CAN'T BAKE A QUADRATIC EQUATION!" Pinkie shouted and we both laughed.

"Well, give her a few more minutes," Rarity said. "I think..." She paused and looked thoughtful, then glanced at the door.

Yet another wave of rain and distant thunder now hit us.

And then the ground shook. I fell on Rarity. "I am so sorry!" I said.

"It's fine," she said. "No damage done."

The ground shook again and Pinkie shouted, "MEGA TAIL TWITCH WITH HALLUCINATIONS OF CHEESE!"

...

Rarity leaped to her feet. "That's bad, even if I'm not sure how."

"What?"

"Pinkie... has magical detection abilities which cause her body to convulse," Rarity said. "She can predict certain future events, though I fear that it isn't too far in the future."

Rarity now switched into a water-resistant cloak with hood and passed me another one. It didn't fit well but would provide at least a little protection.

Pinkie was out in the rain, bouncing around. "There's a problem... in the ground... I think... Owww...."

Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire took to the air and generated a small dry pocket for us with some effort, so we could all confer. Looking around, the marshy ground east of us was shaking and convulsing; it was a mixture of muddy 'ridges' (a few feet above water level) and rivulets of water.

And now, suddenly, it collapsed into a fifty foot across sinkhole.

There was a great gurgling blast and water exploded upwards in a huge muddy geyser, though our Pegasi managed to blow it around us.

The geyser quickly died down but now the area around our outcropping started to turn into a lake, water rising up out of the ground.

"That isn't natural, is it?" I asked.

"It's not impossible that the water that burst up has been eating away the limestone," Pinkie said. "And now has formed a cenote. But the water being under so much pressure seems unnatural." She frowned.

"Are we going to have to abandon this place while we still can?" I asked.

"I think we should," Twilight said. "Miserable as these conditions are." She grimaced.

This is how I ended up wading through waist-deep water, surrounded by swimming ponies. The water was oddly cold despite the time of year, even for night.

"I'm freezing," Rarity said, clearly feeling irritable.

"We're all freezing, sugarcube. This wouldn't happen in Equestria," Applejack grumbled as she swam along.

"It wouldn't?" Ivan said.

"Not without warning and the water would be the RIGHT temperature instead of this weird random unpredictable weather and whatnot you have out here," Applejack said. "How do you even farm with random rainstorms and suddenly cold water exploding out of the ground?"

"I've never seen that happen before," Ivan said.

"There's limited conditions where you can get cenote formation," Pinkie said. "That geyser was really too large, though, I think."

"Maybe we should go back and investigate," Soarin' said.

"I do have a waterbreathing spell, but we need our rest," Twilight said. "Also, we have to stay focused; there's too many distractions in this swamp."

"I agree with Twilight," I said. "Best way to die on an adventure is to treat everything you see as something to stick your head in."

What followed was FOUR MILES of wading through high water until we found high ground, a nice solid hill which rose a hundred feet above the water and sprawled over lots of space for us to set up tents. Trees helped soak up rain and the Pegasi kept it off us long enough to all get dry. We started a fire to warm up with, as Fluttershy was worried we'd all get sick.

"I really don't like this swamp," Applejack said.

"No one on this planet likes this swamp," I said.

"It's not that bad," Fluttershy said. "It's full of nice animals."

Disease, tainted water, miasma, STUPIDLY HUGE rainstorms, and me having to freeze myself to death. I shivered and Rarity threw another blanket on me and we pressed together for warmth.

Twilight was doing the same thing with Spike; I bet she is nice and warm.

Admittedly, Rarity is pretty warm too.

"I wish we could ask Luna to delay the night ending a few hours. We're going to be zombies tomorrow," Dash said. She was pressing close to Fluttershy and Soarin', who had Spitfire on the other side of him.

"Yeah, tomorrow is going to be lousy," I said.

****************

Can you say hail in the middle of summer at 3 AM?

I can now. Hail began hammering and puncturing our tents, LETTING THE COLD RAIN IN.

Fuck you, hail. Fuck you forever.

"Okay, this has to be magic," I said as I stumbled out exhausted and freezing to help reinforce the tents; our Pegasi flew skyward to attack the cloud; they destroyed it but now the other clouds began closing in to fill the gap.

"This frost doesn't go with my cloak at all," a tired and grumpy Rarity said.

"I don't even HAVE a cloak," Ivan said, shivering.

Then Rarity knocked herself out summoning more cloth to reinforce the tents with, so Ivan and I had to drag her inside one and Twilight tried to use her magic to help us reinforce the tents. But she's better at BIG than fine control.

Eventually, our shelters could take it; I stung all over from hail and I was exhausted.

Twilight flooded power into Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire with a great howl of irritation and they blew up all the clouds. And we all finally got some sleep.

*****************

Until a stampede of snakes ran over everything, waking us up early and forcing us to deal with snakes. Fluttershy eventually convinced them to go; their homes had all flooded. They went to the next hill over.

Temperatures soared when the sun rose and we all felt kind of sick and groggy. This was going to be a terrible day.

"More magic," Twilight said frowning. "And I think someone may have scried us. I think someone is trying to soften us up."

This made way too much sense.

We had a cold breakfast and slogged onwards with Twilight doing her best to back up our Pegasi Fluttershy was becoming more and more frantic as more and more animals displaced by the crazy fits of weather showed up. Soarin' seemed frustrated, Spitfire was increasingly jumpy and Dash just got more and more tired, not used to having to constantly work at weather control like this. It was a lot harder here.

At lunch, I said, "We should teleport and come at him from another direction. I don't think we can keep this up. What we really need is a dry cave."

"If I try to teleport this many people, I'll have to sleep," Twilight said.

I think we need sleep anyway. We found a place to pitch the tents and let our Pegasi scout for caves. Once we found one, the Elements all pooled their power to help Twilight, then we clonked out in a nice, dry cave.

************

Either the cave shielded us from his scrying or our foe needed a break too, as our rest was unmolested except for finding blind moles rooting through our tents for food when we woke up.

You know you're tired when you set up tents inside a cave before bed.

"It's drizzling," Dash said when we got ready to go. "We need a plan."

"Can you turn us invisible, Twilight?" I asked.

"I didn't bring anything for invisibility," Twilight said. "Spike, Dragons don't normally control weather, right?"

"He's using a spell or item. I think Blacks can breathe underwater, but that won't help us," Spike said.

"Could we go underwater at least some of the way?" Soarin' asked thoughtfully.

"Actually, that might be a good idea. Harder to scry and we'd be protected from weather fluctuation," Twilight said.

And so we ended up underwater. Some of the group had underwater gear, and Twilight put a spell on the rest of us. For much of the day, other than having to eat soggy food, things went pretty well. Unfortunately, towards the end of the day, we had to come out and find shelter for the night. Also, the river deep enough to hide us turned a direction not useful to us.

Our scouts found us a cave and we headed for it; it was hideously humid but there was no rain, hail or other dooms.

As we slogged along a stream through muddy fields and patches of rock or at least higher, dryer dirt, I felt the tingle of scrying. "Dammit, they found us again."

We reached the cave, but now I was worried that our foe would find the cave. At least he or she hadn't been watching when we went into it.

Fluttershy talked the bear who lived there into sharing with us. Druids are GREAT.

Except when they decide you're an abomination of nature and must be destroyed. The scars eventually faded.

We slept like rocks and got mail in the morning via Spike. A letter to Rarity from Sweetie Belle, one to Applejack from Apple Bloom, and one from Scootaloo to Rainbow Dash. There was also a letter from Celestia to Twilight.

I felt a little stupidly sad that I didn't get a letter. Of course, ironically, no one who isn't here... or on the ship I guess... knows this identity to send me one.

Then Spike fell over, coughing and choking. I grabbed him and gave him the anti-choking move. Everyone stared, but he coughed up a big gout of fire. It turned into FIVE letters. Another one from Celestia to Twilight Sparkle, one from Luna to Twilight Sparkle, one from Luna to Rarity, one from Celestia to ME and one from Celestia to Ivan. Ivan blinked, Twilight blinked and I tried not to panic and flee into the night.

My letter turned out to be diplomatic credentials marking me as an official part of the delegation. Not a hint of any indication that she knows who I really am, which relieved me a little. Ivan's letter was the same thing.

There was a short personal note with it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Samus Marcus,

At the recommendation of my dear student Twilight Sparkle, I have added you to this diplomatic mission. Twilight has said many nice things about you and Ivan in her letters. I am so glad to see her making a new friend. I am looking forward to meeting you after this mission is over; please come with everyone to Canterlot for a nice success party once you deal with Vermicoritax. Luna and I wish to welcome you personally; Luna will be organizing the party. Luna has asked Rarity to ensure suitable formal attire for you and Ivan.

I am very sad I missed the party on Duchess Sapphire's yacht; I can only hope you return before she departs, so we can give her a proper Equestrian reception in the traditional style.

Looking forwards to meeting you,

Princess Celestia of Equestria, Sister of Princess Luna and Jarl Sleipnir

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Huh, I'd never heard she was related to Odin's horse, though it would make sense, I thought.

I tried to figure out if 'Luna and I wish to welcome you personally' meant 'we wish to meet you' as one might think or if it really meant 'Luna will hold you down while I practice my back kicks'. The letter seemed to show she had no idea who I really was, but could I trust that?

"A party for our success," Ivan said. "Cool. I wish I was that certain myself." He laughed nervously.

"I know," I told him.

"C'mon, don't both be nervous nellies," Applejack said. "We'll handle Vermicoritax like we handled the other dragon, easy."

"Applejack, Grand Wyrms are the most dangerous dragons which exist," I said. "Except the four immortal dragons." The Great One, who rules the four, then there is one for Lawful (Metallic), one for Neutral (Gemstone), and one for Chaotic (Color) dragons. "Who are, thankfully, unlikely to show up." Strict rules restrict the Immortals from direct meddling in Mystara, except through a 'mortal identity', which is restricted to the power level of mortals. Or by giving orders to their priests but that's indirect meddling.

"Ain't nothing we can't handle, 'cept maybe this crazy Malpheggi weather," Applejack said.

"I think Vermicoritax or someone else is using magic to control the weather," I said. "Even for the Malpheggi, this isn't natural."

Rarity finished her two letters and put them in her pack, then started measuring me while we all discussed what to do next.

"Shouldn't we see them if they're controlling it?" Rainbow Dash said. "Pushing the clouds around and everything? I haven't seen a trace of any weatherponies or weatherdragons or whatever is doing this."

"Maybe one of Helga's in-laws is mad at us for some reason? The Aendyrs do weather magic, right?" Ivan asked.

"They do air magics, which can include weather control," I said. "This might be someone at that party's revenge too." I tapped my cheek. "Spike, do you have to know the person you're sending a letter to?"

"I need an accurate name," he said.

Well, Helga Aendyr should be accurate, I think.

I dashed her off a quick note and we made breakfast and discussed options while Rarity took measurements of Ivan and myself.

I was a little nervous; I'd put my real name... I think it's my real name... inside the letter but told her to address it to 'Samus Marcus, care of Spike'. That should get it to Spike to hand to me.

"I've got an idea," Rainbow Dash said. "Twilight, bulk me up and I'll carry Marcus up into the storm so he can look around with his magic eyes."

"Bulk you up?" Soarin' asked, confused.

It's probably a good idea, but I REALLY do not want to go out in that.

"Make me BIGGER," Dash said excitedly. "Big enough to carry a human! Anyway, all three of us can go, but someone's got to be big enough to carry Marcus."

I couldn't protest without looking like a loser, but I can't say the idea excited me.

Try the OPPOSITE.

But I had to outvote myself in order to retain some vestige of not being called nervous nellie every five minutes. (I can handle ten.)

I hate outvoting myself.

**************

Soarin' was kind enough to loan me his spare goggles, which Twilight made big enough for my head. Then we left the cave and took off into the roaring thunderstorm now raging outside. A thought hit me. "Tell me about how you make it rain," I said.

"I don't think ponies did this," Dash said. "It's too freakishly random and damn, it's cold again." She frowned.

The Wonderbolts were clearly plenty warm in their outfits. I applied my warming spell to Dash, though I was surprised she felt it more than me. I'm pretty sure Pegasi usually have good cold resistance.

"Indulge me," I said as I tried to study the clouds; we were flying just below cloud level, dodging lightning bolts. "Also, are those bolts random or is it aiming at us?"

"I think it's random," Spitfire said, but now she frowned at the clouds.

"Many clouds are manufactured at Cloudsdale," Rainbow Dash began. "Oooh, that feels nice, Marcus."

Easily distracted, check. Didn't want to distract her, check. But I kept up the warming spell, trying to make sure I didn't overdo it.

"They're usually small and we push and blow them together to make bigger rain. It's important, though, to be careful or you will rain out the cloud and then you either have to go back and get more or else make one by hand, which is harder. Either you have to consolidate rain particles in the air or else use a river or lake to draw up moisture," Dash continued as we soared through a low cloud. Lightning arced towards us and the Wonderbolts kicked it aside to hit another cloud.

"So these clouds must be pulling moisture from somewhere," I said slowly, trying to be sure. "Pulling it up out of the swamp or pulling in clouds from adjacent areas, right? However this works?"

"I guess maybe there's some way to make water from nothing, but normally, ponies push water together to make clouds, then froth it up," Soarin' said. "I'm more an acrobat than a weather specialist, though."

"I think Minrothad has human magic for this kind of thing," Spitfire said. "I talked to... well, maybe Elf magic, given an Elf told me about it when were recovered that stolen artifact for the Water Elves."

FUCK ME.

"Careful, Marcus," Dash said. She sounded worried.

Spitfire frowned. "I was thinking we should tie him on. If he falls, we can catch him but if we all get hit by lightning or something, we might not react in time."

DO NOT CRY.

Fortunately blinding rain hides tears VERY well.

"I'm good," I said, continuing to cling to Rainbow Dash for dear life. I know she won't drop me. I know I can rely on her.

But I also have to rely on my 'holding onto Rainbow Dash as she loops around in a blinding storm while dodging lightning' skills.

Which are not so hot.

I could see great ropy threads of magic through the clouds, pushing them around. Unfortunately, I haven't studied much weather magic.

"Are your eyes normally purple?" Soarin' hesitantly asked me.

"No, I'm using a detection spell," I told him. "I'm hoping Twilight can decipher what I'm seeing." I kept trying to puzzle it out. "So with the amount of rain we're getting, this must be sucking up water..." I don't want to say this AT ALL. "We need to find the edge of the storm."

This meant LOTS of flying through howling wind and rain and dodging lightning and at one point, dodging unhappy frogs too.

Eventually, the rain slacked and we found the edge of the clouds. They formed an irregular circle twenty-four miles across by Soarin's estimate. Water was being sucked skywards in a thick ropy cord of water from one of the many Malpheggi rivers.

"So if we cut this, it should eventually run out of water," Soarin' said.

"If they can't re-establish it," I said, then frowned. "No sign of whoever or however they're controlling it."

An alligator got sucked up the 'cord', which was about ten feet across. Poor thing. I felt bad for it.

Not bad enough to get near an angry alligator, mind you.

"Maybe it tracks us," Spitfire said, circling it.

"It's not tracking us three," I said. "Or the clouds would have moved when we did. It may be tagged to Twilight or it may be moved manually."

"Let's break it," Soarin' said.

"Yeah, time to kick its ASS," Rainbow Dash said.

"We shouldn't rush into things," I said.

"Let's see if someone's hidden down by the ground," Spitfire said.

A quick dive revealed that unless some fish or the riverbank was controlling it, it wasn't being controlled here. The threads of magic reached down from the cloud to here. Maybe I can trace them.

The three of them attacked and disrupted the suction chute, destroying it with their hooves. The water fell back down; the clouds continued but now they would eventually run out of liquid. Or so I hoped.

Then we wandered around for what was likely hours as I tried to trace through this to figure out how it was being controlled. We finally went back for lunch, wet and tired. The rain was starting to slack some, the clouds looked less potent. Go Pegasi! AND ME!

***************

Lunch was soup. Fluttershy had gone and caught us some fish with Ivan. It was so warming and filling and good and it had carrots in it.

"Thank you, Fluttershy," I told her as I tried to dry off.

"You need your protein," she said.

I nodded and ate vigorously.

To my surprise, in my absence, I got letters from Helga, Darien Aendyr (her husband), Samantha (their daughter), and someone named Lorban who I had never heard of but uses the Aendyr seal. Everyone was looking at them, clearly curious but unwilling to violate my privacy by opening them without me.

Ivan also got a letter from Helga, which he'd already read.

Spike sat by Twilight, making grumbling noises and holding his stomach. Too many letters too fast, I guess; Fluttershy mixed up a little brew and fed it to him. I expect he could do it himself but he let her do it anyway. Twilight patted his shoulder comfortingly.

The letter from Darien was quite brief:

~~~~~~~~~~~~

To the Dishonorable 'Samus Marcus',

If you drag my wife into another one of your insane schemes, I will feed your entrails to the undying souls of the Wind Dukes of Aaqa. If it somehow involves my daughter, I will scatter bits of you from Borea to the Tanagoro lands. You are a blight on everything which has ever existed or will exist. I feel sorry for whoever you've dragged into this, but they will have to learn the hard way. Please, die horribly and never darken my door again.

Your obedient Servant,

Lord Darien Aendyr

P.S.: You are a lousy excuse for a wizard.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

He's not very fond of me, but really, this was more cheerful than usual.

Helga's letter was ten pages long and most of it was a long account of our mutual friends and acquaintances, what is going on in her life, asking if I will be around this 'Spike' long term, nagging me for not writing more often, asking if I am still teaching Humanics in Equestria, gushing about how wonderful her daughter is and how much she loves her husband, asking if that was me who stole that harem in Thyatis, and asking for a picture so she can recognize me next time she sees me.

It also included a two page discourse on weather magic and that she'd asked a friend to write me.

I then read Lorban's letter. It was very technical and I had to get Twilight to help me decipher it; as I have mentioned, my 'training' was pretty informal once I finished my Glantrian school primer.

With his notes and some discussion with the Pegasi, we determined this was likely a ritual Lorban had noted. As there had been no sign of air elementals or other active maintainers of the storm. We could knock it out entirely by hitting certain key points in the lines of magical energy holding it together.

My worry was that whoever did this would, in fact just do the damn ritual again, though apparently it's expensive in components.

I then turned curiously to the letter from Samantha, who I haven't seen since she was a baby. I'm not even sure what she looks like now.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Uncle Sammy,

I hope you are okay. Mommy says you get in trouble a lot, and she worries about you. Daddy doesn't like you for some reason, but he's kind of mean anyway. I want to be a great wizard like you and Mommy and Daddy one day.

I have a talking Pony friend named Sugar Sparkle. She has a wand stuck to her head. We both like candy. Mommy says you live in the land of the talking Ponies. I hope they are nicer than Daddy. My butt still hurts.

I didn't even do it!

I blame the Jinn.

He's always stealing things and blaming me. It's so unfair.

Daddy says to tell you there is candy inside the Dragon but he didn't say which kind. Do you like peppermints or licorice more? I like peppermints like Daddy.

Could you send Sugar Sparkle a brother? She is jealous because Tina has one.

It's nice to meet you. I drew a picture on the other side.

Your daughter,

Samantha Aendyr, Future Queen of Glantri.

P.S: Daddy says I am not your daughter, so I don't know how to end the letter. What am I?

P.P.S: Mommy says she's not your daughter either.

P.P.P.S: You didn't actually kill Prince Etienne, right? He isn't dead, so I don't understand what Daddy is saying.

P.P.P.P.S: Mommy wants to know if you have a girlfriend.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The other side had a crude picture of a blonde little girl holding hands with a tall, dark haired man in white robes and a tall blonde woman in white and green robes. Helga was also holding hands with a question mark, labeled 'I don't know what you look like but Mommy likes you'. A crudely drawn green pony with a white mane was standing on Darien's head for some reason, and was labeled 'Sugar Sparkle'. I don't think she was to scale.

I showed everyone the picture feeling an odd mix of sad and happy. Everything seems to be going well for Helga. Darien hates me but that's a given. And Samantha is doing well. But I felt kind of melancholy she had the kind of thing I didn't have. Couldn't have.

"Hey, Ivan, can you draw me?" I asked him.

"Sure. Hey, Dash, can you pose too?"

I sat astride giant-sized-Dash; pretty soon everyone wanted in and Ivan drew himself into the picture from memory, then carefully labeled everyone. This took a while but I needed a break from rain anyway.

I sent Helga a thank you with the picture for Samantha.

We all laid our plans and I went over some sketches for formal attire with Rarity, then stretched. "Much as I hate rain, I think it's time to... get wet again."

Pinkie studied the picture. "So she's never seen you?"

"I haven't been back since she was a baby," I told her. "I'm going to have to send Helga a big catchup letter later." Once I know how I'm going to get out of this alive.

I touched my hat and felt better. "Okay, Dash. Time for us to SAVE THE DAY!"

Dash cheered, Spitfire laughed and Soarin' grinned, then we took off.

****************

These goggles are a blessing. I don't think they're magic but they keep the rain out of my eyes, which is a big help. On the other hand, this means seeing exactly how many lightning strikes Dash has dodged in the last five minutes.

We took out two nodes... okay, more like I pointed it out, then clung desperately as ponies struck at it and broke it up.

At the third, though, a Dragonfly dropped out of the clouds, opening fire on us with fire and lightning. The Wonderbolts dodged off in two directions, Dash in a third. Dragonflies are Glantrian flying vehicles which look like giant dragonflies, complete with transparent wings. They're very maneuverable and usually armed with wands and staves. This one was a six-man one, used for scouting, so it had extra speed. The most powerful ones, you can take on several dragons at once and win.

Unfortunately for the Dragonfly, Pegasi.. are damn fast. They came down in a weaving formation and as it tried to rise to meet them, the Pegasi (and me, clinging for dear life) split and came it from three directions, dodging lighting and fire. Then we crashed right through the wings, sending it spiraling out of control. Spitfire, Soarin', and Rainbow Dash whipped up winds and guided it to crash into into a bunch of trees and bushes.

My contribution was to scream like a child being beaten the entire time.

Once it crashed, though, I fried one of the wand mounts with fire and Soarin' simply bit onto one of the others and ripped it off. Then I fried a third mount and Spitfire drove a tree down on the other, snapping it off. Rainbow Dash circled, dodging their counterfire.

Six battered wizards piled out of it, then Soarin' and Spitfire came down on them, grabbed one and sent the others flying with their wake. Then we headed back towards our cave, with our captive's head inside a tiny cloud so he couldn't see the way.

His name was Luigi Verrazno. He was from Caurenze, one of the Principalities of Glantri. "We serve the Dread Vermicoritax," he said firmly. "He sent us to trap you with bad weather so he could swoop in and eat you all once you were weak and sick. 'Cause that's how he rolls."

"Hah! Well, he blew it and we're gonna KICK HIS ASS!" Rainbow Dash said. "No storm's gonna bring US down."

I frowned. Not impossible but would a Grand Wyrm really employ a group of thugs from Caurenze? Even a really well equipped group of... dammit, that thing was valuable! We could have hauled the whole group in it! Dammit! "Is there more than one of you?" I asked.

Now that I think about it, the ponies would have had a hard time sitting in chairs. I've only met one pony who could actually sit like a human... I suppose Pinkie probably could do it too.

"Well, we weren't expecting you'd find us before the weather softened you up," he said, frowning. "Only we lost you for a while; you aren't easy to find."

"Looks like talkin' ain't gonna work," Applejack said, sighing. "If he's already trying to kill us."

"I don't want to fight a dragon head on if I can help it," Ivan said, frowning.

"Some dragons only respond to violence," Soarin' said, then sighed. "I've never fought anything as big as a Grand Wyrm, though. And usually it's with the full Wonderbolt squad."

Fluttershy shivered a little and cuddled up to Rarity, who put a comforting hoof on her leg. I see through your fear act now, Fluttershy. I've seen you go berserk. I bet you covered that other dragon in angry, yappy dogs, like that one poor Aalbanese guy.

I can still hear him screaming in my dreams.

I can see better why they think she can take out a Grand Wyrm, though I don't think we'll have enough animals around even in the swamp for something that big.

"We fight only if we must. We still may be able to talk him around."

Luigi frowned at that. "He's determined to DESTROY you."

"Why?" I said.

"Who knows, I just do what I'm told and get PAID," he said. Luigi shrugged.

So I turned him upside down until a bag of gold coins fell out. Glantrian money.

"So he paid you in Glantrian coins," I said, frowning. I smell a TRICK.

Hey, TREASURE! Sweet!

Dammit, we can't shake the other ones down for money if they're lost in the jungle!

"Hey, Glantrian money's as good as pony money!" he said.

Rarity looked at me. I looked at Rarity.

She slinked forward and as he sat surrounded by all of us, he stared at her warily. Soarin' was staring at her, eyes wide, until Dash frowned and elbowed him, which made Spitfire laugh softly.

"Good sir," Rarity said, fluttering her eyelids at him. I could see him getting nervous. I, on the other hand, grinned broadly, knowing some sort of impressive social maneuvering was about to ensue.

For some reason, Twilight was staring at Rarity, eyes wide. What was she worried about?

Hmm. I put up magical detection but I couldn't find any failsafe bombs or the like on him. What's Twilight worried about?

Rarity began to circle him, swaying gently, her voice a purr. Soarin' was covering his eyes for some reason. Dash kept rubbing her forehead. "I know, times are hard, and you take whatever jobs you can to get by. I'm sure you have nothing personal against us," she said.

"Nothing personal," he said, eyes crossing, trying to not look at her.

She kept moving to intercept his gaze. "And we have nothing personal against you."

"He tried to zap me with lightning!," Rainbow Dash said, but Spitfire put a hoof on her shoulder and whispered to her.

"Well, Rainbow Dash might," Rarity said, "But I just see a hard working man trying to keep him and his together in a difficult world." She put a hoof on his shoulder briefly, patting it.

"Uh, yeah," Luigi said weakly. He looked slightly dazed.

Now Twilight was staring at me, looking worried. I don't know why.

"And I'm sure that will be much harder if we have to hand you over to Celestia to be banished to the Moon," I said.

Twilight jumped. Okay, I wasn't thinking about that, but at least this time I know why she got jumpy.

"The moon?" Luigi said nervously.

"The invisible one, full of cat-people," I said sadly. They're known as Rakasta and they're all bat-shit insane. Blah blah, honor, now I must kill you because you looked at my sushi, blah. Also, eating raw fish is a good way to GET SICK YOU KNOW.

Sorry, I'm still bitter.

I leaned forward and began batting something invisible back and forth between my hands, back and forth, back and forth. "It's a long way from home."

Good cop, bad cop, oldest trick in the book.

Rarity smiled. "I'd hate to see you cut off from your family and friends, your favorite bar. Celestia is very merciful to the repentant, everyone knows that. Can't you be a dear and tell us what is really going on?" She patted his leg now and he jumped.

"The moon is very cold and dark," Twilight squeaked, shivering. "You're all alone and in the night, the ice weasels come."

...

Spike patted Twilight sympathetically.

"We, uh..." Luigi said nervously.

Rarity dropped down before him in that weird pose thing I don't know the name of, hindquarters down, front up... dogs do it sometimes too. "Go on," she said encouragingly, stretching her legs.

"We got hired by a guy from the Guild of Spokesmen to do this and to drive you off from seeing the Dragon and to tell you we worked for him," Luigi said frantically. "Don't banish me to the moon!"

Rarity patted his knee. "That wasn't so hard, was it?" Then she returned back to sit down by me and Fluttershy, still doing that swaying walk, while Luigi continued to look both panicked and dazed.

"Who at the Guild hired you?" Spike asked, frowning.

"It won't matter," I told Spike. "Guild members are conditioned with magic; they can't give up an employer's secrets no matter what. Even if it would save their life." I stroked my chin. "Whoever it was, though, they wanted us to capture him and 'find out' he worked for Vermicoritax. This was not an adequate attack to take this group out. Unless they under-estimated us." Admittedly commonplace in the world of adventure.

"Hey, we're pretty good," Luigi protested.

"A third of the group took you down by themselves," I said flatly.

"Hell yeah!" Dash said and high-hoofed the two Wonderbolts.

"You didn't even fight us! You just grabbed me and ran!," Luigi said, sounding angry. Too bad.

"Why fight you when the Malpheggi will do it for us?" I said. "Frankly, you're the lucky one, Luigi."

"It's best to avoid unnecessary violence," Fluttershy said with an almost normal tone of voice. "I mean, if you don't mind," she squeaked and retreated.

"What do we do with him?" Applejack said. "We can't just haul him around with us and we can't just turn him loose."

"I dunno, why not?" Rainbow Dash said. "No one got hurt and I think trying to get home alone through this place is punishment enough."

"But what if something eats him?" Fluttershy said, worried.

Only Ponies would worry about that. And a well-fed halfling, I suppose. The thin ones are the DANGEROUS ones.

"He's a mage, he can take care of himself," I said.

"We could dump him with his friends; they can eventually make their way out," Soarin' said.

"Yeah, that works," Dash said.

Of course, dumping him with his friends increases the risk they'll take another crack at us.

Twilight put down a book she consulted. "We can't take him back to Equestria because this is Darokin; we'd have to turn him over to the authorities. Elstrich or Fort Nar would be closest."

"That's way out of our way," Spitfire said, studying Twilight's map.

"Probably the best solution, though," Applejack said.

"Unless the Pegasi haul him there, it's something like five days there, then five back, if I read the map right," I said, looking at it.

"*We* could do it lickety-split," Rainbow Dash said.

"We can do it in three hours," Spitfire said. "Since we have to carry him, maybe a little longer."

I frowned. Rule 1. NEVER SPLIT THE PARTY. I made my uncomfortable zone noises.

"If the dragon finds us while they're gone, we'd be down a third of our fighting strength," Ivan said, clearly thinking like me.

"I think it's the best idea," Rarity said. "We don't have a prison and the Pegasi can do it quickly."

"But what if something happens to them?" I said to her, frowning.

Pinkie Pie, for some reason, smiled very brightly. Hopefully not hoping they'd die.

"They're not children, Marcus," Rarity said carefully. "They can take care of themselves."

"I'd rather go back to my friends," Luigi said.

"You don't get a vote, sugarcube," Applejack said to him flatly. She turned back to the rest of us. "Much as I am kinda worried that something will happen, I know how fast Dash is and the Wonderbolts are just as fast. You three think you can do this?"

"No problem AT ALL," Dash said confidently.

I could not shake the image of them being eaten by a dragon. I'd known too many confident people who rushed off to a beating or worse.

I'd been those people a few times.

I have no idea if Vermicoritax actually has even a clue we are coming. I suspect whoever scried us hired the Glantrians, but it could be someone on the boat.

The Wonderbolts nodded confidently. "We haul prisoners sometimes. We should be fine. There's hardly anything other than air elementals that can keep up with us," Spitfire said.

"I say we go with airmailing the prisoner to Fort Nar or... the other place," Applejack said.

"I agree," Rarity said.

"I'm worried they'll get picked off somehow," I said, frowning. We can't afford to lose three people when we haven't even reached Vermicoritax's lair yet. "We don't even have a way to be sure if they're okay or not."

"I'll go with them," Spike said. "If something goes wrong, I can send a help message." He looked at me defiantly.

Great, now I'm sending Spike off to his death. Twilight is going to hate me forever EVEN MORE now.

"I kind of agree with Marcus, divide and GET conquered," Ivan said. "Better to just dump him with his friends and move on."

Fluttershy hesitated, looking at Dash and company, at Luigi, then at me and the others. "I...umm... abstain."

"C'mon, you gotta vote yes or no," Dash said chidingly and Fluttershy shrank in on herself a little.

"It's okay," Rarity said to Fluttershy. She looked at me. "Don't you believe in Rainbow Dash?" Being chided over my effort to keep someone ALIVE did not sit well with me.

"I wouldn't go whipping around through storms with her if I didn't believe in her skills!," I said hotly, trying not to lose it. Why am I even getting so angry?

"Then why can't you believe in her NOW?" she asked, doing something I assume is equivalent to a woman crossing her arms across her chest but which looks awkward and kind of uncomfortable on a pony. There's balance issues, even sitting down. "We can take care of ourselves, you know."

I'm the one who can't take care of himself. Or anyone else, it seems sometimes. "I didn't say she couldn't!," I said, trying to push my voice down as it fought me. "But there's a DRAGON out there and I don't even know if all of us together can deal with a Grand Wyrm, let alone three of us!"

"It's gonna eat you all," Luigi said cheerfully. "Grand Wyrms kick the shit out of anything short of a Prince."

"Shut up," Ivan snapped at Luigi, who looked amused.

"C'mon, it's a Grand Wyrm. Even Jagger is careful with Grand Wyrms," Luigi said. "You think it's gonna play nice? If it notices the three of you, you're gonna get eaten. And so will I." He shivered. "You'd be better off taking me to Fort Nar all together, then going back to Equestria. Where it's SAFE."

"We may be small but we are not children," Rarity said firmly to him, sounding irritated. "I am sure the three of them can handle themselves."

"I've seen lots of people who could 'handle it' get in over their heads," I said urgently. If more people die... I just can't take it.

"We'll be fine," Dash said to me. "Come on, trust me, I know what I can do." She sounded confident and pleading at once.

"We'll be fine," Spitfire said. "We're professionals."

"Yeah, we only got singed a little on Honor Island," Soarin' said proudly.

"Not helping," Spitfire whispered a little too loudly to him.

"Look, I can't stop you," I said. "But I'm going to be sitting here panicking until you come back."

Applejack made a noise I think means 'ack'.

"Hah! We'll show you, Mr. Nervous Nellie!," Spike said defiantly. "I'll kick that dragon's ass if it shows up!" He began miming punches and kicks.

"Don't take any excessive chances, Spike," Rarity said, then took out a blue and gold scarf, which showed a sunny sky, and wrapped it around his neck. "You may get cold in the wind."

"Thanks, Rarity!" he said, looking like KING OF THE WORLD.

Twilight looked at Pinkie. "What do you think?"

Pinkie started. "I'm not sure if that scarf goes with the color of Spike's scales."

Twilight now fell down in surprise. I buried my face in my hands.

"I could bust out my... well, I'd have to rebuild my gyrocopter. Herr Sigismund and I figured out how to make it better," Pinkie said, pulling out the blueprints. She now began pontificating to Twilight, who now totally forgot what we were discussing and began talking about how to make it work better with Pinkie.

...

"Look, Marcus, it's gonna be okay," Dash said. "We'll take Spike, and we'll be back lickety-split." She came over and patted my shoulder. "Don't worry, we are the GREATEST."

Everyone thinks that until they get EATEN.

I sighed and sagged a little. "Be careful." I told her. Dammit, I really hate CARING. It mostly is useful for bringing you pain.

"It's gonna be fine," Dash said to me.

Fluttershy looked at me, looked at Dash, then said softly, "Good luck, Dash."

"Thanks. Uh... we'll just go before Pinkie tries to come with us," Dash said. "Come on, Luigi."

Rarity got Twilight to throw the enlarging spell again and they tied Luigi onto Dash while I pouted. Twilight went back to helping Pinkie with her engineering.

Soon, they took off and I lurked by the wall, worrying and feeling my gut churn as the rain slowly slackened outside.

Ivan and Applejack hung out, drawing maps of a farm on the floor and talking shop. Rarity lurked near Twilight and Pinkie, working on some clothing and calling Ivan over at times. And I sat by the wall, shuffling my deck of cards over and over and drifting off into a frustrated, worried haze.

At some point, Fluttershy sat down next to me and said softly, "You can pet me if it makes you feel better."

...

It did, in fact. I don't know why.

"It triggers buried instincts from the days when your ancestors groomed each other. It's the same reason your pets like it," she said. "Ponies like nuzzling and hugging too."

"You're not a pet," I said, trying not to remember how Corin got eaten by that damn dragon-turtle. Which isn't really a dragon but it's way too evil and friend-eating to be a true turtle either.

I've seen a lot of people die. Most of the time, the pain's gone... too many competing for time in my head. But now I can't help but imagine Dash dying and I don't like that image.

But caring means it hurts MORE if you lose someone. It's easier to not care if it just means pain.

"People like touching each other too," she said, touching my knee just for a moment. She glanced at Rarity, who did not seem to be paying attention.

"I've seen a lot of people die, Fluttershy," I told her softly. "I don't... I don't want Dash to think I think she can't handle it, but even the best get hurt," I said. Every time I let myself care, I get burned. Or I have to leave.

At least Helga is happy and Twilight is pretty happy and Dona Carlotta is pretty happy too. That makes me feel better even if Twilight is remembering me...old me too much. And Ivan's alive and on his way to getting suckered by a fake immortal, which reminds me, I have to steal those lock picks to keep him out of the trap.

"I know," Fluttershy said softly, patting my foot as I sat cross-legged next to her, back to the wall. "Animals die, faster than us," she said, and sighed. "It's sad, but we have to go on. I'm kind of hoping to be a tree in my next life." She smiled brightly at the idea.

A tree?

"I don't know what I'd want to be if I wasn't human," I told her. "Something that could fly, maybe." EASY to run away with wings.

She smiled brightly at that; I hadn't actually PLANNED currying favor, but hey, take all the curried favor you can get. "Anyway, I know it's not easy," she said kindly to me. "But Rainbow Dash is very strong and so are her friends and it's mainly just flying."

I probably would have freaked out without her comforting presence. Ivan seemed totally relaxed after a little while and I felt very annoyed with his casual palling around with Applejack when a third of the group was off risking their life for a dimwitted Glantrian we should have just dumped in the Malpheggi.

Risking their life for someone who had specifically tried to KILL them or at least injure them. For reasons which still remain unclear. And which we don't have time to investigate.

And I had a fight with Rarity. At least it was a fight over something of substance; Dona Carlotta and I once had a fight over... I'm still not sure but apparently I didn't like her dress enough or something and we had a three hour argument over everything humans and elves ever did to each other, then eventually we made up and had mad sex.

I'm not looking for mad sex with Rarity, she is a Pony, after all, but I don't like fighting with her. Does she think I don't trust HER to carry her weight? What did I even say?

Fluttershy was kind enough to lurk comfortingly while I brooded, which was a big help. Of course, it just illustrates that Ponies are nicer than people. They can meet someone and pretty quickly, they'll go to great lengths for them. I can't bond to people that quickly.

Dammit, Dash, if you get killed I'm going to throw up.

I can just see the dragon diving out of the sky and just... a dragon that size can bite a pony in half with one chomp. Damn my imagination.

I forced myself not to curl up in a ball, and Fluttershy now began a wordless song, sung very softly. I felt it more than I heard it. I began humming it as well, and we continued for what felt like forever.

I could see Rarity and Twilight talking quietly, while Pinkie was busy trying to make a model of some weird machine that looked gnomish in style to me. They build really crazy devices. She was using modeling clay, I think.

Eventually, my nerves kept jacking up higher and I wanted to DO something but I had nothing to do. I was about ready to explode when suddenly, I started choking, apparently just for fun.

Everyone's head swung around as I keeled over, trying to cough it up, and now Fluttershy began trying to thump my back, but her blows... were way too gentle.

Applejack, on the other hand, and Ivan grabbed me, pushing in front somehow and I suddenly coughed up green flame and spat a letter into Applejack's face. "Sorry," I mumbled.

"I guess his aim is off," Twilight said, catching it and opening it. "He says they made it to Fort Nar and they handed over Luigi."

'His aim is off'. I doubt that was an accident. Spike wouldn't try to kill me, but make me sick, yeah. "I will make you some tea," Fluttershy said.

"Thank you," I said and just kind of laid there, letting her take care of me and feeling fairly frustrated. I'll be... well, better once I know they're okay.

I hate caring about people. It makes it a lot easier to hurt.

****************

Twilight eventually pulled me aside. "You okay?"

"Do I look okay?" I said miserably. I had reached the point of being sick of my own shit, which meant that now I was worrying about worrying. As well as worrying. Given an hour or two more, I would reach the point where I would worry about how much I was worrying about worrying and either become all-powerful or go mad from recursion.

She touched her forehead with a hoof. "I never know what to say." She glanced at Pinkie, who was still working on her gyrocopter model and had made a tiny clay Pinkie to pilot it. "Normally, Pinkie handles cheering people up but she's kind of distracted, I guess." She sounded surprised.

She probably senses my fear. No, wait, predators LIKE fear.

How can she be so happy in a world like this?

Twilight, at least, knows what sorrow is. I felt a sudden sense of kinship there. "Me neither," I confessed. "I am good at being gracious and courtly but not good at talking about my feelings."

"I've noticed," she said. "But I'm not good at it either. I spent a lot of time trying not to have any because they got in the way of my studies." She settled down into that sphinx-like position, next to me.

I kept shuffling my cards nervously. I suddenly wondered if she'd recognize the deck, but clearly she didn't. I didn't get much use for it when I knew her. "Have you read Didymus' Machina Explicata?" I asked.

"Of course," she said. "His chapter on organizing was a big help to me."

"Chapter twelve is my favorite. 'Never Split the Party'. It's why I'm so worried. Dividing force in the face of danger is dangerous itself," I said.

"It's where he said, 'The best friends are different from you; their strengths cover your weaknesses, their weaknesses, you cover with your strengths. Everyone can't be good at everything, but the sum is more than the whole of its parts.', right?" she said softly.

"Yes," I told her. "It's key to a good adventuring party."

"Or friendship," she said, looking fondly at her friends.

"Well, that's the same thing," I said. "A really good group will become friends. The stress of battle either forges you together or you fail and..." I couldn't bring myself to say 'die'.

"You really should come back to Ponyville with us for a while, at least, after this. You don't have any big plans, right?" Twilight said hopefully.

"I didn't know where I would be going once the dragon was gone," I told her. "I'd love to see Ponyville," I told her. I will die if I go to Ponyville. If I stick around. Only now it's quite obvious to me I won't be too happy if I just leave, either.

DAMMIT.

"Good," she said warmly, then got nervous. "I... look..." She looked at Rarity, then at me. "There's... I read a book. About... Umm..." She grew steadily more agitated.

I blinked, wondering what was going on. "What book?"

"I... it..." Her face was red. "I mean... she... thing..."

Weirdly, watching her disintegrate helped me to integrate. "It's okay, new topic, so you don't have to be embarrassed."

Does she have a thing for Rarity? Rarity has a great deal of charm, so I'm sure she has many admirers and Twilight is the type, I think, to get swept along by charm under the right circumstances. Or maybe Rarity just gave her some advice on pursuing boys she finds embarrassing? Or teased her, maybe?

"Having a fight with a friend is terrible, right?" she finally squeaked out.

"Yes," I said, and sighed. "I didn't mean to come off as if I didn't think Dash can do her thing. But no one but me seems to take this dragon seriously."

"I'm not even sure why Rarity is so jumpy. She's hiding something," Twilight said, then looked at Pinkie and mumbled for a few seconds. "Well, see... we..." She sighed. "I can't talk about it. But basically, we've faced something stronger than this dragon and won."

...

"Seriously?" I said, amazed.

"I swear I am telling the truth," she said, hoof over her heart. At least I assume Ponies have their heart on the same side as us.

But Twilight wouldn't lie. "Okay, then," I said, though I wondered what on Mystara they'd faced down. A really elder beholder? Some Immortal's super-potent mortal form that only barely qualifies as 'mortal'? A demon?

"Don't worry, it's going to be okay," she said comfortingly. "Can I get you to help me with an experiment?"

"Of course," I told her. It beat sitting around slowly going mad.

Soon, we were knee deep in balls of lightning and laughing as they zipped around. Sometimes, all you need is a good distraction, I guess.

**************

We were still manipulating ball lightning together when Dash suddenly shouted, "It's a lightning storm! I'll save you!"

"No wait!" I said, and then got swept away along with Twilight and now the Wonderbolts were kicking the balls of lightning into non-existence

"There went that experiment," Twilight said weakly and I was on the ground with Dash standing over me.

"See, I'm totally okay," Dash said. "Touch me."

Confused, I touched her shoulder.

"Not undead or anything. But... umm... You okay?" she said, trailing off.

"I'm fine; we were studying how to manipulate ball lightning with magic. Twilight was trying to teach me."

"..."

"It's fine," I told her. We can start over. "So it went okay?"

"It went okay AND we bought you some salt beef from a guy hauling shipments of it down the Arbandrine River to Port Tenobar," Dash said. "Soarin' has it."

"It's very beefy," Soarin' said and Spitfire snickered. "What?" he said and Spitfire snickered more.

I got up once Dash got to where she wasn't in the way. "I'm glad you're okay," I told her.

She laughed nervously. "I told you I'd be fine." She smacked my shoulder. "No reason to worry, Marcus."

"Okay," Twilight said, and got them to report on the trip. They encountered a bunch of merchants going up and down the Arbandrine in fortified barges. Tenobar has gotten a lot more trade since the Equestrians ran a train line to it. Darokin keeps talking about building train lines, but a train to Tenobar would have to run pretty close to the Malpheggi.

And the Everfree Forest too.

They successfully handed over Luigi and came back. No problems at all.

This clearly meant the universe was saving up for a BIG problem.

We decided to scout our route forwards today but make our next move tomorrow, when it should be done raining and safe to go forwards.

Pinkie, having finished her model making, put it away and threw a 'cave people' party in which we all pretended to be primitive rock chuckers and ate pastries which resembled rocks. I felt somewhat better by the end, though still a little melancholy. My worries wouldn't stay away, though Twilight seemed to have reason to feel competent.

I laid down to sleep, hoping everything would go well tomorrow.

*****************

We set out into the muck and the heat of the very humid swamp, though right now we were passing through relatively high land which was fairly dry and solid, densely forested with fungus everywhere. This made me nervous, especially anything purplish in color.

Our goal was to cross the range of hills, cross a river, cross a large marsh, then reach the fringe of the next range and camp there. The next morning we'd have a short trip to where Vermicoritax is thought to dwell. Twilight and I talked shop, while Rarity and I glanced at each other, but neither of us could quite muster the strength to breach the silence.

For me, it was my natural cowardice. I don't know what held her back. She doesn't seem the type to be afraid to talk to someone. I just didn't want another fight. I still owed her too much.

The day was pretty miserable; lots of long walking and my legs were stiff. Then we had to cross a river, which meant tying ourselves together and swimming. For some of us, like Applejack or Dash, this was easy. For me or for Rarity, it didn't go as well.

Then we had to cross a marsh; by the end, I was a filthy, stinky mess and so was Rarity and well, everyone else.

When the land finally rose, we soon found something interesting; there was a crumbling, vine-covered complex of buildings, probably hundreds of years old. We cleared off some vines and found a holy symbol. For some crazy reason, Ixion (Immortal of the Sun) had apparently commanded his followers to build a monastery here.

There was no clear sign of what happened, though one of the walls of the main building was blown inward in three locations with blackened, pitted bricks. And there was a ten foot wide staircase descending into the darkness; cool air rose up from it.

"We should see if it's safe, then camp down in the nice cool air," I said.

There was a well, so we drew some water and took a little rest in the ruins, then descended down the stairs; the walls were lined with devotional images of Ixion doing things like raising the sun and smiting undead and making out with Valerias (Immortal of love and war). "Hey, Celestia raises the sun," Dash said, frowning.

Actually the rotation of the planet raises it, though I expect Ixion or Celestia does have influence over it. But I only argue with believers when there is a point. "Pine Cone argued in his fourth book, Comparative Theology, that Ixion was an effort to humanify Celestia. Notice the similarity of many of these images to the ones found at l'caveurn d'Poni," Twilight pointed out.

I have no idea what l'caveurn d'Poni is. Sounds vaguely like the weird language they use in New Averoigne, though. Apparently the Averoigneans in Glantri came from another plane and brought their own weird language.

"Ixion is one of the oldest immortals," I replied. "He's one of the handful who predate humans and Ponies alike. Also, given that Celestia is sister to Sleipnir, she can't predate Ixion. Though she is pretty ancient if that's the case."

"Why the similarity of imagery?" Twilight asked. "This is much more sophisticated art, but the poses are the same, just better executed here."

"Why are you two standing on the stairs blocking me getting down them?" Applejack asked.

We both laughed nervously and Rarity made a noise. Now what? Then we moved down the stairs into the room at the bottom; it was thirty foot square with a fifteen foot high ceiling, the walls made of smooth stone painted with now long faded and damaged and often moldy devotional art of Ixion. Hallways ran off west, south, and east; we'd come down from the north.

Twilight ran a hoof along the wall. "Carved from the bedrock, rather than this being cut stone dressing."

"They probably hired dwarves," Pinkie said. She tapped the wall. "It's solid. Plain old reliable granite. Long ago, magma thrust up into weaker rocks, forming these hills; all this rain gradually eroded away the other rocks, leaving these hills."

She then hopped around the room. "Cold air is coming from the east and south. Stagnant from the west; it must lead to a dead end"

I had put a glowy spell on my hat and Rarity and Twilight were shining their horns. A quick check showed the hallway west ran twenty feet to a door, the eastern hallway ran thirty feet, then turned north, and the southern hallway ran south more than sixty feet, going beyond the light of my hat or the horns.

"I wonder how big this place is," Twilight mused.

"We should probably just make sure we're safe here and not go too deep," Rarity said. "We need to save our strength for the dragon."

"I have to open that door," Pinkie said. "I made a *promise*."

"To who?" Fluttershy asked.

"Myself! To leave no door unopened, no stone unmossed, no cake uneaten!" Pinkie said.

"Hold on," I said. "Twilight and I will make sure it isn't trapped with magic."

"And I'll look for any mundane traps," Ivan said.

"Why would there be a trap on the cellar door?" Applejack asked.

"There is ALWAYS a trap on the door underground," Ivan said.

"Trust us, we deal with this sort of thing all the time," I said.

This is probably some crazy twenty level dungeon run by a mad wizard and if we didn't have to deal with the dragon eating us soon, I'd want to explore it, because mad wizards give the best toys if you win.

But they also tend to think that it's a good idea to put a barrel in a room, mark it 'sugar', then fill it with BEES.

Bees which somehow spit up cockatrices.

Who are on fire.

First Twilight and I studied it. It had been crudely locked with magic, which intrigued me. Not a very good wizard, though. We easily broke the spell and let Ivan in.

He tinkered with the lock. "Classic poison needle in the lock trap," he said. "Now here's the interesting thing. Notice those hinges?" He pointed to the perfectly ordinary hinges.

"Do they spit fire or something?" Applejack said, frowning.

"No, they're on THIS side, and you know what that means," Ivan said as he tinkered with small tools and listened with a cup to the door; the cup had a fine mesh over the mouth; it stops ear burrowing worm monsters and the like.

"It means someone liked OAK leaves," Pinkie said.

"Maple," Fluttershy said softly.

They were made of brass and shaped like maple leaves, yes.

"It means the door opens towards us and was meant to keep something on the other side out of here, not those on this side from crossing over," Ivan said, pouring a little oil into the lock. Then he stuck his lock picks in. Click, clock, click and the door opened a tiny touch. "Okay, Applejack, swap with me; if something nasty is beyond the door, we need to kick its ass."

"Oh NOW you want me," Applejack grumbled.

"Hey, fingers are MADE for this job," Ivan said. "And hooves are made for kicking someone's ass."

"Kicking a don... oh," Twilight said. Most of the rest of us laughed, Fluttershy patted her comfortingly and now Applejack bucked the door open.

This room was rough, natural stone, about fifty feet long north to south and twenty five, east to west. By the west wall, a stream ran into the room, ran south, and formed a large pool by the wall; sacks with something yellow and purple spilling out stood near the pool, still neatly stacked, and the water rippled in a way that made me nervous. There was a large stone box against the north wall, lined with tile and half-full of stagnant water. The water in the stream was fresh and sparkling. "Be wary of that weird stuff over there," I said, pointing to the yellow and purple... I'm not sure what they are. Small hunks of yellow and purple planty kind of stuff.

"That's GRAIN, but it's moldy," Applejack said, frowning. "Hey, Fluttershy, got a face mask?"

Fluttershy passed her a kind of breathing mask thing and helped her strap it on. We all lurked just inside the room as Applejack slowly approached it.

"It may try to fire spores at you," I said.

"Only an idiot stores grain in a room with an underground river. It's like asking for it to rot," Applejack said, frowning "Either this is a mold trap or somethin' weird's going on." She studied the room warily.

"This may well be a dungeon now, with some mad wizard moved in and forcing everyone to dance for his amusement. Just remember, in a dungeon, everything is deadly. Rewards are high, but it's very dangerous."

"We should get out, then," Applejack said. She paused. "Something's in the water."

"Retreat!" I shouted.

It was too late as the giant crayfish rose out of the water and snapped at Applejack, who leaped up and landed on its head and began jumping up and down. It hit the sacks and moldy grain and spores went everywhere.

This thing had better be rich, or Fluttershy had better be loaded up on curing disease, I thought.

Fluttershy now began a song, and the spores began to change color. Some of the spores came towards us, but Pinkie batted them away with a giant spatula. The Wonderbolts and Dash sprung into action; they hit the spores and whipped them up with winds and dumped them into the water where the current took them away. Rarity now raised an arrow and shot the giant crayfish at the point where its right claws came together and it howled and now its claws were stuck open and she smiled.

"Anyone got butter?" I said, then dumped my flame spell on its tail; it howled at that and tried to turn around to face a non-extant foe as Applejack bounced on its head.

"I do!" Pinkie said, somehow producing a cauldron and a huge slab of butter. "You and Ivan will eat on this for WEEKS."

"I got this," Applejack said; leaping around, kicking and pushing, she drove it down the length of the pool and underwater to flee from us.

Twilight and I then set the grain on fire while the Wonderbolts and Dash kept the spores from escaping. Unfortunately, this filled the room with smoke, forcing us to escape.

"Dammit, there was probably treasure," Ivan grumbled.

"I got a mask on, I'll check," Applejack said "It had better be WORTH IT."

She returned with fifty gold coins, two hundred and twelve silver, and three large topazes. "Some crazy pony put all this in the grain." She shook her head. "And this." She carefully plucked a purple potion out of her pack. "Any idea what it is?"

"Ooh, potion of Polymorphing," Ivan said. "I like to carry some on me but I lost all of mine in the swamp when we got stuck in the river."

"What does that do?" Rarity asked, her voice a little tight.

"Basically, you take on the form of whatever you want of the same kingdom, so you can't be a tree or a fungus but you can be a dog or a pony or a elf. And you keep your own magical abilities if you have any but gain the physical abilities of your body. And if you stay changed too long, it kind of messes with your mind some. Usually, though, it wears off before *too* much of that. And you get the physical instincts to use your new form," Ivan said.

Rarity studied it curiously. "Do you drink the whole thing?"

"The more you take, the more it lasts," he said. "I guess you should take the gems since you can make something pretty with them."

Rarity nodded and took them, looking thoughtful. I wonder what she wants to turn into.

"Polymorphing can be fun but kind of scary if you're not used to it," I said.

Twilight said, "I didn't know you knew any shapeshifting magic, Marcus." She sounded curious.

"I don't but I've used it or been transformed by items in times past," I told her. "This could be a big help; we could turn Applejack or Dash into a dragon and have her kick some ass with it, if we need to."

"Hey, I already AM a dragon," Spike said.

"I'm not sure if it could change your age or you'd just turn into another kind of baby dragon," I told him.

"I'm not a BABY," he fumed. "I'm a young adult."

He's a baby. Or he wouldn't be shorter than me. Dragons are big.

"I'll carry the potion for now," Ivan said. "Who carries the party treasury?"

"That's Rarity," Twilight said. "Wow, a real dungeon. So you think this place has a mad wizard, Marcus?"

"Or something equivalent. Mad druid, mad cleric. They're all mad and they enjoy making us jump through hoops for their amusement," I told her. "But the pay's good."

"We should just make sure nothing's going to jump on us," Spitfire said. "I know the temptation but we need to save our strength."

"I like mad wizards," Pinkie said cheerfully.

Of course you do, Pinkie.

I wanted to explore this place so bad, even knowing it would be full of mad wizard crazy stuff. "Oh yes, the second rule of dungeons. If you see someone you love or who is really sexy or attractive, they're probably covertly a monster."

"What if you hate them?" Pinkie asked.

"Monster."

She circled me widdershins. "And if you don't care about them?"

"Monster. If it moves and isn't part of the party, it's probably a threat. Except when it isn't," I said. Too much paranoia will get you too. "Also, sometimes monsters will disguise themselves as members of the party, which is one of the MANY reasons to NEVER split the party."

I just want the mad loot, damn it.

"That sounds dangerous," Pinkie said thoughtfully.

"High risk, high yield," I told her. Weirdly, knowing everything is deadly makes me less nervous. It means no surprises. Oh, the mad wizard THINKS that making something that says 'drink me, totally safe' actually turn you into a turnip is a surprise, but if you're experienced like me, you already knew it was a TRAP.

Because everything is.

"Best we not take too many chances," Twilight said. "Let's just scout quickly. I would love to go through this place and study it, but I don't want to risk us getting hurt before the dragon."

Hopefully the mad wizard is taking his beauty rest and won't notice and lock us in.

Though at least I'd be locked in with a good group this time. Last time I got locked in a dungeon, the group was made up of all greedy, foolish people except me. I'm not even sure HOW I got out alive.

I must have, or I'd be dead, but my last clear memory is a giant metal cow breathing on me. Some kind of weird mist. I would think I turned to stone, but I am not, in fact, stone.

Ergo, somehow I got out of that. I'd ask Ivan but he wasn't there.

It all started going to hell when the idiot monk decided to MOON a line of hobgoblins who had formed a line of pikemen.

Yeah, it went downhill from there.

*************

The southern hallway was painted with pictures of Ixion blessing crops and priests and villages, all faded and sometimes defaced. One painting, someone had put a mustache on EVERY single person. In a giant crowd scene. Men AND woman alike.

Eighty feet long, leading to a fifty by fifty room with a high ceiling and crumbly bits of wood on the floor. There were more devotional paintings in faded, peeling stucco. One of them, however, caught our attention; at the far end of the room, Celestia was depicted kneeling before Ixion as he patted her head. He was also drawn to be maybe twice her size. Which would make him HUGE.

The ponies stared, eyes wide. "I think that's blasphemy," Applejack muttered.

"It's probably propaganda to assert Ixion's primacy," Twilight said, frowning.

"It's a super-cute picture of Celestia when she was younger! Look at how awkward she looks," Pinkie said, running over and touching it, stroking her wings.

The floor suddenly rotated under Pinkie, and the wall too and now she was on the other side of the wall and now you could see an image of a purple and blue pony who was an alicorn like Celestia. An eight-legged pony alicorn with dark blue coat and white star speckles and a grey mane was snuggling up to Celestia and the other pony. Ixion and Odin stood nearby, conversing. Was that Sleipnir? The eight-legged pony, that is.

"It's Luna!," Twilight said.

Wait, that's Luna? This place is so old... what is going on?

Dammit, did I somehow miss the existence of a second God-Pony the whole time I lived in Canterlot? Has someone erased some of my memories? DAMMIT.

"We've got to rescue Pinkie before she does something foolish," Applejack said. "We can study made up wall paintin's later."

Pinkie said something muffled through the wall; Ivan got his mesh cup. "I think she's moving away from the wall," he said.

I tried pushing the wall, but neither Ivan nor I could get the wall to move.

*Dammit*.

"Let me try," Applejack said. She moved to where she could aim at the right edge of the segment which must be on a pivot and she kicked. Nothing happened and she stumbled away from the wall, having pushed herself instead of it. "Dammit."

Twilight now used St. Tarastia's Fire to limn the edge of the wall segment. "Ivan, try touching Celestia's wings."

"I get a slight tingly feeling but nothing happens," Ivan said.

Twilight tried touching it with her horn. "There's definitely a triggering spell but for some reason, I can't make it go off." She sounded frustrated.

"Try Luna's wings," Dash said.

All three alicorns gave Ivan a slight tingly feeling when touched them.

"We'd all best get in close," Twilight said. "Then, Ivan, try touching Ixion and Odin."

We all crammed into the rotating segment, bumping and poking each other, then Ivan touched Ixion and suddenly the wall spun, depositing us in a ten foot wide corridor that ran south more than our sixty foot light radius. Distantly, Pinkie shouted, "Haha, you'll never catch me!" I heard galloping and the sound of loud clanking, like someone in armor chasing her.

We ran down the corridor, which ran a total of seventy feet, then opened into an east-west corridor that was twenty feet wide. Thirty feet west of us, it turned south and east of us, it turned north after fifty feet. Across the hallway and just a little east of us, another twenty foot hallway ran south.

Pinkie noises came from west and south of us, so we ran off that way past paintings of many of the immortals. Ivan stared at one of them, which showed Asterius riding on Luna across a... well, lunar landscape, both of them laughing.

"That's Princess Luna, right?" I asked Twilight as we ran.

"It looks like her, but..." Twilight looked confused. "Let's catch up to Pinkie first."

The hallway forked; one part went west, then shrank to a narrower corridor; another branch went south, doing the same and a broad corridor ran southeast, with the sound of Pinkie down it. We kept on running.

We could see Pinkie now, being chased by a fifteen foot tall humanoid in plate armor. Pinkie was laughing. "Hi, everyone, chasing is fun!"

Golem? Frost giant or Fire giant, maybe? Probably a golem as it didn't talk and it moved jerkily and it didn't dress like a giant.

Which would make it an iron golem. SHIT.

Those things breathe poison and sometimes pull other crazy tricks. "I think it's an iron golem! They breathe poison and I think... dammit, something about lightning," I said.

"I didn't bring my guide to golems!" Twilight said frantically. "I've got six books on DRAGONS and more on swamp monsters!"

"He doesn't like pie!" Pinkie said.

Well, that narrows it down.

"We'll take him down!" Dash said. "Pegasus CHARGE!"

A triple Pegasi charge sent him tumbling through the air, over Pinkie, who crashed into him and fell down dazed. The Pegasi vanished out of sight down the tunnel which narrowed to ten feet ahead. Ivan rushed up, picked up Pinkie, then collapsed under her weight. "So much for being the hero," he mumbled.

"Sorry, I'll start a diet tomorrow," Pinkie mumbled.

It's not that Pinkie weighs more than the average Pony, it's that ponies are, in fact, heavier than they look. I'm stronger than Ivan and I wouldn't want to carry a pony very far. Also, he picked her up badly so he had to sustain all the weight with his arms.

The golem started to rise and Applejack leaped over Ivan and Pinkie, spun and back kicked it, knocking it back down, then jumped onto it and began kicking it all over.

Fluttershy looked around, looked a little frustrated, then began a soft song; I soon heard the scurrying of rats.

The hallway turned straight east here and dwindled down to a ten foot hallway further east; the Wonderbolts and Dash had vanished down it; I expect once they get to high speed they can't stop easily. Another tunnel ran off northeast, but it was only ten feet wide. The walls here showed a great feast of the immortals. Celestia was flanked by Luna and Sleipnir, themselves flanked by Asterius and Odin. If there's some sort of Asterius-Luna connection, then why hadn't I ever heard of Luna before this? Not that I'm a great scholar of religion, but I expect the average kobold knows about Odin and Sleipnir.

Maybe Ivan knows something.

I tried dumping my fire spell on the golem but the fire skittered off his armor like I had thrown marshmallows at him. Spike breathed on him, but it didn't work any better for him. "No lightning... no fire..." Twilight began to sweat.

"Save Pinkie and Ivan," Applejack said, still pounding dents into the golem. When it tried to get up, she knocked it down again, grinning. "Stay down, buckaroo, you won't buck ME off," she said to the golem.

Twilight evacuated Pinkie and Ivan, who now stumbled to their feet.

I heard bashing and shouting noises to the east. Oh bloody hell, they ran into another monster!

I limned the golem with Saint Tarastia's Fire. THAT, at least worked and would hopefully help Applejack aim.

Fluttershy now began talking to some rats, who had tiny squeaky voices. Twilight began paging through a book frantically while Spike consulted another one for her.

The golem now rotated its head 180 degrees and spat fire at Applejack, who dodged out of the way, bounced off the wall, and landed between us and the golem. "Okay, didn't expect it could turn its head *that* much," Applejack said. She busted out her lasso. "Pinkie, Marcus, I need a distraction."

Why ME?

Pinkie took my hands... somehow... then began to sing and we began jitterbugging around, dodging golem fists and fiery blasts, while Applejack darted about, apparently waiting for the perfect moment.

Distantly, Rainbow Dash shouted something about her ass.

Twilight sketched a map of the room, overlaid a circle on it (it was too big for the room), frowned and then went back to her book. "This would be so much easier if I could use the lightning balls," she said grumpily.

"I know, this sucks, golems SUCK," Spike said angrily.

I suddenly realized I had totally lost track of Rarity in this mess. Where was she? Had she fallen into a pit trap while we were running or something?

Dammit.

I lifted Pinkie up high briefly (I could only do this briefly), then dipped her low to avoid a burst of flame.

"And now," Rarity said to my surprise. She'd snuck behind the golem and now she fired arrows into the back of his elbows and knees. They broke through his shell and hit hard enough that they came out the front. He struggled with his joints locked.

Applejack struck, lassoing around his head and sealing his mouth shut and pulling him down. "Pinkie, two pony pull!" Pinkie ran up and with Ivan and I helping, we quickly secured rope around them and they took off running, dragging the golem by his head after them, crashing and banging. He couldn't get Rarity's arrows out as he couldn't focus on trying to snap them or pull them out. So he careened around, smashing into the walls, as they ran along laughing.

"Remind me not to piss off Applejack," I said weakly, watching this.

"Thank you for the fire, Marcus," Rarity said. "It helped me aim."

"It's about all I could do," I told her, sighing. "Very well done, my fair lady."

"I... Marcus..." she said a little nervously.

"We've got to go help Dash and the others while they dispose of the golem," Twilight said, Spike leaping onto her back. "CHARGE!"

I wish they were a little larger. As it stood, they charged off ahead of us, with Ivan and I lagging behind, though now Fluttershy came flying after us, having been so busy talking to rats, she'd not noticed the order to charge at first.

"The rats told me that there's a clay statue that sometimes moves around that way," Fluttershy said. "And a bronze statue that also moves. And a big, beautiful female rat, but she eats anyone who tries to hit on her."

...

Ivan laughed. "A were-rat?"

"Just a rat, but big," Fluttershy said. "Probably a Dire Rat. They're awfully mean." She clearly did not approve of this.

I saw a distant flash of light and heard more shouting and a loud THUNK I hoped was not a Pony.

"And this goes into a maze of small tunnels and hallways," Fluttershy said. "Some of the tunnels are only for rats."

"The rats can have their privacy," I said and Fluttershy smiled. I had been joking but I think she took it as kindness to rats.

That's Fluttershy.

I heard distant crashing and shouting far behind us; hopefully it's an iron golem working on dying. Not... I need to be less morbid.

The maze was actually easy to follow; just head for the sound of chaos. We ended up in a dead-end room; it was painted to resemble a storehouse, though anything stored in it had vanished long ago. The north wall had Ixion on it and the south wall Valerias; both were toting boxes.

I must admit that is NOT a theme I have ever seen before in religious art. I now noticed Luna and Celestia were on the east and west walls respectively, also helping to store things.

However, the actual content of the room was a giant clay statue of a monk. Dash and Soarin' were trying to fight its left and right arms respectively and Spitfire kept circling it and kicking it in the back. It had more balance than the iron golem, or maybe the Pegasi just don't have the same strength in their back legs as Applejack. They couldn't move very far to build up charging speed in here.

Rarity had shot a few arrows into it, but apparently its joints couldn't be locked up; it just fluidly flowed around the arrows. The Wonderbolts' blows didn't really hurt it either; it would just undent itself.

Fluttershy studied it. I asked her, "Can you make seeds sprout in it, maybe?"

"It's clay, not good for growing most things by itself," Fluttershy said. "It's too wet."

"Could we bake the water out with heat?" I asked.

"Oooh," Twilight said. "Rarity, I hate to ask you to do this, but I'm going to need you to keep it busy while I explain my plan to the Wonderbolts and Dash."

Rarity's eyes widened. She looked at it, but then she suddenly set her stance and pawed the ground with her left hoof determinedly. "I will," she said.

Spike looked panicked. "Rarity, that's really dangerous!"

She's going to get squished. I started to open my mouth and she looked at Spike and I determinedly. Is she trying... I don't know what she's thinking. Beyond being determined to show her strength. "Make your father proud," I told her. If she gets squished, I am going to be very unhappy.

She smiled at that. "I will." She turned. "Avaunt ye! I am Rarity, the daughter of Captain Keen Eyes and Silver Belle! The wrath of a unicorn is not something to be jested at!" She shouted at it and it turned its head to stare at her, and then she shot it in the eyes and charged, even as Twilight called the Wonderbolts and Dash back to our support. It rushed at her and she slipped between its legs, darting about as it tried to punch and kick her. It was clear its maker expected it to fight human-sized things, though; it couldn't easily punch something that low-slung and she managed to dodge its kicks, though every near impact made me wince.

Distantly, I heard crashing noises coming this way and hoped they weren't going to drag the iron golem in here.

Twilight and I now wove a huge fire spell, mixing it with a gout of flame from Spike and raising it up over the golem as Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire began to whirl around it, stirring the air. Unfortunately, it chose this moment to successfully connect with Rarity. She howled and went crashing into the wall.

Spike and I both freaked out and Twilight now got glowy-eyed and the flame roared up in potency falling down on the golem and warmed the air, which the Wonderbolts and Dash managed by rushing around it, forming a column of hot air which baked it thoroughly. It yelped and now it was baked stiff.

Rarity rose, studied it on wobbly legs, then shot four arrows into it. Cracks ran through it and it wobbled more, and then the Wonderbolts and Dash hit it and it shattered. Spike breathed fire on it and all the pieces vanished like...

"Spike, tell me you didn't just dump all the pieces on Celestia," I said.

Twilight looked horrified.

"Naah, I..uh... actually, I'm not sure where I sent it," he confessed.

I went over to Rarity, with Fluttershy following me. The Wonderbolts went over to Twilight and Dash joined us.

"You okay?" I asked Rarity. A stupid question; she got hit and it must hurt.

"You can help me treat her," Fluttershy said to me.

"It was nothing," Rarity said dismissively, then made an unhappy grunting noise.

Dash hovered over us, apologizing, while Fluttershy and I, along with Spike, who now joined us, worked on Rarity. She clearly enjoyed all the attention, sending Spike to get her a snack and a drink and then to fan her, while we worked on her. I felt better; she must be in good spirits.

The distant crashing was now replaced by distant shouting and Soarin' flew off with Dash. Spitfire now joined us. "So your father's a warpony?" Spitfire asked Rarity as she sipped from a straw in a cup of wine.

"Yes," Rarity said. "He's stationed at Grand Stalls and spends a lot of time dealing with orcs and goblins that come up from inside the plateau and handling merchants from Darokin. Mother is with him." There are three points on the plateau where train lines and merchant roads descend down to Darokin and up to the Plateau, to facilitate trade. (There's also a fair number which connect southern Equestria to the Plateau.) Stalliongrad, Grand Stalls, and Castle Neigh guard those three points.

"My Dad's in the army too," Spitfire said. "He's on the Elephant frontier." This is in southwestern Equestria on the border with the Empire of Sind. The Royal Elephant Corps of Sind lives on the other side of the border and sometimes pretends to be 'bandits' to test the strength of Equestria's defenses and the Equestrian military then 'pretends' to beat them up. Or sometimes 'pretends' to get whipped, admittedly. There used to be dwarves living in that region a long time ago, but elephant raids wiped them out, or so I hear. I just know if you say 'Boatmurdered' to a Dwarf, he kicks you in the balls and then whips your ass.

The Sindhi wobble back and forth between 'let's be friends who trade' and 'quadrupeds exist to serve those of high caste, KNEEL BEFORE THE RADHIRAJAH'. Oh, and 'don't mind us, we're killing each other'.

"I'm guessing the Elephants really hate him," I told her. "Given they are low mobility and can't fly."

"They carry archers on their back," Spitfire said. "If the humans there weren't such asses about insisting quadrupeds are lower caste than those with two legs, I'd be impressed by them."

I laughed softly at that. Rarity was carefully studying my knees, which seemed to be fine. Well, I'd worry about that later.

"Have you ever shapechanged?" she asked me. "Oh wait, you mentioned you had."

"Yes," I told her. "I spent several hours as a cat as part of an infiltration. I was amazed by how nimble I was." I held down the bandage while Fluttershy applied a little bit of something sticky to the ends to hold it on. There was some padding under it and a salve for the bruise now starting to form on Rarity's side. I hated to see her hurt but adventuring is dangerous. Honestly, it could have been MUCH worse.

"I've seen cats fall. They twist around in the air to always land on their feet," Spitfire said.

"Actually, it depends on how far they fall whether they manage to twist in time," Fluttershy asked, now singing softly with her hooves glowing. She gently stroked Rarity's injuries, which made Rarity shiver, but I could see her slowly relaxing.

"Did you enjoy it?" Rarity asked me curiously.

"It was kind of fun until they turned the dogs on us," I told her. "I've been a bird too. I nearly got shot with a bow but that time I dodged all the attacks. Flying is very cool."

"You thinking of something clever to do with shifting?" Spitfire asked Rarity.

Rarity blinked, then said, "Fluttershy, would it be natural for rats to be inside a dragon's cave?"

"If he left bits of food, yes. Rats can't steal treasure, so the dragon would pay them no mind," Fluttershy said. "And they're too small to be worth eating, any more than you'd eat a beetle or an ant."

I won't mention some Sindhi make candied beetles. As I'd rather not actually know that.

"So you're thinking you and Marcus should turn into rats and sneak in and spy it out?" Spitfire said. "Hmm, not bad idea.

...

"Actually, I was thinking Fluttershy could talk to the local rats and see if they knew anything."

I gave a sigh of relief at that proposal.

Applejack and Pinkie returned, then Applejack pulled an odd thing out of her bag. It was three dozen gems wired together with gold, silver, copper, and platinum wire in a complex pattern. "Golem brain, I guess," she said. "I figger Rarity can pick it apart."

She smiled. "Thank you, Applejack, I will later." She tucked it into her bag. "If the clay golem had anything valuable, it vanished with the fire."

"I'm sorry," Spike said, hanging his head.

"You were protecting me and that was very kind of you," Rarity said to him. She reached in her bag and pulled the weird thing back out, pried out a gem, and let Spike eat it. "Thank you," she said.

He smiled brightly. "Mmm, that was good." Spike watched her put the rest of the gems and the frame away.

Rarity rose. "I think I'm ready. We should go get some rest; I think we've had enough trouble for one day."

We decided to head back, even though I was rather curious to poke around this place more. I love exploring; I just hate the inevitable beatings which come with it.

*************

We set up camp in the room at the base of the stairs, put up wards, made dinner and relaxed and rested. Rarity spent her time sketching outfits for stallions and working with her new gems. Twilight and Spike and I spent a lot of time fiddling with that secret door.

Study showed Pinkie could rotate it by touching Celestia, Twilight by touching Ixion, Fluttershy by touching Luna, Ivan, Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire by touching Sleipnir, myself and Rarity by touching Odin, which surprised me. Applejack could open the door by touching it anywhere gently but not by force.

"I must admit I do not see myself in a one-eyed man with a spear," Rarity confessed.

"Nor I," I confessed.

"I only vaguely know about Odin, beyond him being a really ancient immortal and he put out his eye for wisdom," Twilight said.

"Sounds more like you, Twilight," Pinkie said thoughtfully. "Did he put a cupcake in the empty socket?"

"Probably not," Ivan said. "So this Luna is Celestia's sister?"

"Yes," Twilight said very firmly. "Her dear younger sister, who raises and lowers the moon."

I know Twilight has to know better than that. I guess she toes the party line in public, though, which disappoints me a little.

Not that I'm going to start a fight over it; not worth it. Pick your fights to have a point to them.

"Are they related to Sleipnir?" Ivan asked.

"I hadn't heard him mentioned but it makes sense," Twilight said.

"She said she was his sister in her letter to me," I said.

Twilight blinked and I wondered why she'd let that out. Had she known we'd come here?

My brain started churning on conspiracy theories, which kept me busy a while.

***************

We all finished dinner and were now quite tired.

"We should sleep," Twilight said. "In the morning, it should only be a short trip to the river and the dragon's lair."

"He lives in the river?" Pinkie asked.

"By it, according to Celestia's intelligence report," Twilight said. "There's a lizardman village and an underground river; he lives in a cave up the river, underground with the lizardmen guarding the entrance."

And then we get eaten.

Though maybe... aaargh. Can't flee. Probably can't survive not fleeing. If we succeed, eventually the truth will out.

Then Twilight will use her secret technique to turn me into a potato.

"I wish I could take a bath," Twilight said.

"I know," Rarity said. "That boat was so nice to stay on," she said dreamily.

"Agreed," I told her. "Nice soft beds."

"Nice comfortable baths," Rarity said.

"Fresh lemon scented soap and nice soft towels," I said wistfully.

For some reason, Dash was just GRINNING at me, so I grinned back and got a hoof up.

I am not sure why, but I don't argue with compliments.

"I like pie," Soarin' said. "Good pies on that boat."

Spitfire, amused, patted his shoulder. "Yep."

"Okay, here's the watch order," Twilight said and we all got ready for bed.

************

You may have noticed we gave up before we checked out the eastern hallway from the main room. We didn't notice, we were all tired and ready for bed. I counted myself lucky to be on third watch, as it meant hours of uninterrupted sleep. YES.

Until I realized this meant it was me, Spitfire, and Pinkie. Spitfire's cool, but this meant HOURS with a VERY BORED Pinkie.

I sat back to back with Pinkie, her watching the west tunnel, me watching the east and Spitfire idly zipping around but basically watching the south. "So what do humans do for fun?" Pinkie asked me.

"Play cards, dance, sing, make things, have parties. A lot of the same things ponies do. We do a lot of things Ponies have a harder time doing, though, like climbing things or sleight of hand," I said.

"What's that?" Spitfire asked.

I got my cards out and shuffled. "Pick a card."

Pinkie drew with her teeth. "Mrphl."

"Okay, that's the Four of Stones. Put it back."

She put it back in and I shuffled, manipulating the cards, then flipped the top card over. The Four of Stones. "Ta da!" I said.

I did it three more times; they couldn't keep up, of course. Then I did some simple tricks with coins and rings. "And none of it is magic, just dexterity with my fingers," I told them. I doffed my hat and now pulled a cupcake out of it, which I'd snuck out of Pinkie's bags when she wasn't looking. "Here you go," I said, handing it back to her.

"Wow, this looks just like one I would make!"

"You did," I told her. "Sleight of hand at work."

"Why learn all that when you can do magic?" Spitfire asked.

"I had a knack, especially with card tricks, from when I was little," I told Spitfire. "And I loved gambling with cards too." I'm a pretty good card player.

"I then learned some magic, but I'm not a great wizard like Twilight," I told them. "But I do a lot of things moderately well instead of doing one thing really well the way Ponies usually do. I do a little sword fighting, I can break into things but not as well as Ivan, I can dance pretty well, but not as well as a pro, and so on."

"I noticed you work with Twilight a lot," Spitfire mused, while now Pinkie was trying to duplicate my card tricks; instead, cards flew everywhere. Ponies without TK really can't easily duplicate sleight of hand.

Spitfire and I couldn't help but laugh as Pinkie rolled around in a mess of cards, trying to get them all together. "Come back here! Get along little cardie!"

"Not too loud, we'll wake the others," I said.

"The essence of spell levels, used to determine thaum consumption, is based on the frequency at which the spell vibrates," Twilight mumbled, gesticulating in her sleep.

I remember seeing her deliver a twenty minute lecture in her sleep once, one time we both fell asleep on her floor and then I later woke up when she started telling her elbow about acids. I smiled fondly at the memory.

Spitfire gave me an odd look. I instinctively checked my pants. Tattoo not showing. Surely me smiling at Twilight didn't make her remember something about that PEARL.

I'd forgotten she and Soarin' have their own reasons to kill me.

"Aaargh, this isn't the Three of Flames," Pinkie said, staring at the Six of Winds and looking frustrated.

"How long have you known Twilight?" Spitfire asked.

"She and her friends saved me from horrible death just a few days ago, which is when I met them all," I told her. FUCK she suspects something!

Spitfire nodded, then stared off down the hallway. "Pinkie, forget the cards, we should keep watch." She looked lost in thought.

Damn me, I thought.

I looked down the hallway just in time to see a half dozen giant spiders on the ceiling coming our way. "SPIDERS!" I shouted and everyone stirred. Dash began swatting them in her sleep. Swatting imaginary ones in her sleep, that is.

Applejack and Ivan were up in a few seconds, even if they were swaying groggily. Spike and Twilight somehow slept through that, and Rarity and Soarin' groggily began to get up.

The wards now went off, waking Twilight and Spike. As the spiders came on, Twilight hurled lightning balls at them; two went tumbling out of sight and the rest scattered. I nailed one of them with a lightning ball, feeling VERY proud of myself. Then Rarity nailed it in the eye and it ran off, though she pulled her arrow back out.

Applejack quickly punted one off down the hallway, and Spitfire collided with another, sending him tumbling. Ivan got pounced on by a sixth one, but Pinkie threw jelly at its eyes, blinding it, then back kicked it off him.

Pretty soon, they all fled, and Applejack said, "Crazy spiders roaming around at three in the mornin'."

"Oh, dungeons are full of roaming monsters, intended to make it hard to rest," I told her.

"'Cause of the mad wizards," she said, frowning.

"Yes. They enjoy watching panicked parties wake up," I told her.

"I need my beauty sleep," Rarity complained.

"He probably likes seeing you bedraggled, unlike me. But I know you are a true lady, whatever the circumstances."

She smiled weakly. "And you are a true gentleman, Marcus." She yawned. "So tired."

"Sleep well, fair lady, knowing we are watching over you as you rest," I said grandiosely and she smiled.

"Goodnight, Marcus. Thank you." Rarity now curled up and I pulled her blanket over her and she went to sleep.

Spitfire was definitely watching me out of one eye. I let it slide; any discussion would just risk exposing secrets.

She kept eying me the rest of our watch, while Pinkie yammered on about spiders and kept trying helplessly to duplicate my card tricks until she got bored of that. THEN she wanted a sing-a-long (not a good idea when people are sleeping), and after that, she really started to spaz. Spitfire looked ready to just go axe crazy on her by the time we made breakfast for everyone and then woke everyone up.

Rarity and I helped each other assume some vague semblance of presentableness. I also got roped into brushing Fluttershy's mane by Rarity, and Applejack as well, though Applejack tried to resist it. But really, her hair needed a good brushing.

As I worked on it, Twilight came over to me. "Marcus, I need to talk to you."

"Fire away," I said.

She took me over to Ivan and sat us down.

"I have prepared something for you for an emergency, as I have a request to make," she said.

She handed me a shimmering red feather. "This is a phoenix feather," she said. "I've stored a flight spell inside it. When we actually approach the lair for real and try to negotiate, you, Ivan, Spitfire and Soarin' will remain concealed. If he attacks, they'll commit to the fight but you and Ivan will need to stay hidden. If it looks like he's going to capture us or... worse... You two will have to escape, then use the flight spell and go to Canterlot and tell Celestia we failed and need a rescue mission." She sounded nervous. "Ideally, it won't come to that, but I want to keep an 'ace in the hole', as I think you'd put it. And hopefully, he won't expect either of you two to exist or have reason to look for you."

Part of me said 'YES!'. I would have a Twilight-powered escape route and no need to risk battle. The other part knew that hiding the whole time would curry no favor and the third part didn't want to hide while my party was in danger.

CRAZY THIRD PART.

"I'd feel awful running off with the rest of you in danger," Ivan said, frowning.

Noble, yet suicidal.

"The same for me," I said. I'd actually feel awful (from fear) if I stayed, awful from worrying about them if I fled. Ugh.

"I know," she said. "But if all goes wrong, someone has to be positioned to escape."

I sighed. "I feel bad being the one but it's a good plan."

"Thank you," she said, smiling. "Hopefully, it won't come to violence, but we'll see." She rose. "Okay, let's get closer to them, then it's time to see if Fluttershy can get any rats to talk."

************

We all crept up to within half a mile of the lizardman village by the river. It was up on stilts, a town for maybe two, three hundred lizardmen, a total of eighty or so buildings on stilts connected by raised walkways with a large central plaza and docks for canoes on the river. It was pretty impressive for lizardmen, really.

There was a hill nearby the village. A stream flowed out of the cave, which was huge, maybe a hundred feet across with the stream filling about sixty of those feet. There were four lizardman guards, armed with spears on duty in front of the cave.

Fluttershy sang a song and some rats came. They paused and studied her, which made me wonder what was wrong. She kept singing, though, and they came up to her. "Hello, my little friends," she said, smiling cheerfully. Then she tossed each of them a scrap of fish and oohed and aahed over them as they ate.

"Can you tell us about the dragon and his cave?" Fluttershy said cheerfully.

"Squeak, squeaaaak, squeak."

"But I didn't go into the cave," Fluttershy said in confusion. "This is the first time I've been here."

"Squeak, squeeaaaakkkk, ssssqueaaak."

"But I don't have a flying carpet," Fluttershy said, then flapped her wings and flew. "See, I don't need one."

"Squeak, SQUeak, squeaaaak."

"Okay, yes, most of my friends don't fly, but I promise you, I haven't gone in the cave," she said in confusion.

"Can you find out if there were duplicates of Ivan and I?," I asked, frowning.

"Was it just me?" Fluttershy asked.

More squeaking ensued.

"They say it was all of us," Fluttershy said.

"It has to be dopplegangers," I said, frowning.

"It could be...," Ivan began.

If it is the infamous doppleganger-elf-trolls, I am going to cry but I am quite sure that acid and falling into the elemental plane of fire should have killed them ALL.

"Maybe the remaining Glantrians disguised themselves as us," Rainbow Dash mused.

"They'd have to be hell of disguise masters," Spitfire said. "I guess they could polymorph."

"They'd have to get reinforcements for five people to impersonate... ten," Ivan said.

"Thirteen if you count my extra personalities," Pinkie said.

Fluttershy continued talking to the rats.

Twilight, Spike, and I started consulting her books for anything on dopplegangers. Pinkie began rooting around in Twilight's saddlebags, then overbalanced and fell in. (Remember, dimensional space.)

Rarity stuck her head in and pulled her out. Pinkie now clutched a book. "This is it! This will solve our problems!"

Twilight twitched. "Pinkie, there's no way..." Then she STARED at the book.

It was _Tales of Forbidden Pony Love_ by someone named 'Passionate Heart'.

Spike buried his face in his hands.

"Oh my," Rarity said, grinning in exactly the same way Rainbow Dash and Applejack were. Fluttershy turned red and hid her face. Ivan stared, eyes wide. Pinkie said, "All you need is love, right?"

"PINKIE!" Twilight yanked it and shoved it back in her saddlebags. "That's... I hadn't cataloged that yet," she mumbled.

"At least it's not stuff she wrote herself," Rainbow Dash pointed out.

"That's enough teasing," I said. I didn't like seeing her so embarrassed. "We have to figure out what is going on here and mocking Twilight for enjoying a love story or two won't help."

"Thank you," Twilight said gratefully.

"We all have our little foibles, Marcus darling," Rarity said to me.

"I know," I said, sighing. I don't like seeing her hurt AND I don't want people to poke the magical volcano with a stick until it goes off.

Pinkie hugged Twilight. "You know I love you."

"I love you too," Twilight mumbled, smiling embarrassedly.

"Obviously, they are alternate universe versions of us where we never became friends and so all of us are twisted parodies of ourselves!" Pinkie said.

"But why would we be working together if we were not friends?" Applejack asked. "I'd be in Manehattan."

"I'd be on a rock farm," Pinkie said gloomily.

"Probably Nightmare Moon would rule the world and everyone would be dead or zombies or something," Rainbow Dash said.

"Nightmare Moon?" I asked.

"We can't talk about it, state secret," Twilight said, sounding very guilty.

"Does this have something to do with that eclipse?" I asked. The Summer Solstice of 1000 AC had been marked by a several day long lunar eclipse over Brun. It was completely unnatural and had triggered a massive panic. Then it just kind of stopped.

I'd heard a million crazy rumors about it.

"I... maybe...," Twilight mumbled.

Pinkie waved a hoof in front of her mouth, then shut it tight.

"It was Nyx, wasn't it?" Ivan said, frowning. "One of her crazy plots to snuff out the sun, right?" Nyx is a female Immortal of Entropy; she wants eternal night so her undead can flourish. From her perspective, turning everyone into undead would be GOOD for us.

"Something like that," Applejack said.

Twilight looked thoughtful, then shook her head. "We are going to have to confront them."

"Wait... how did they get past the guards?" I asked.

"The guards let them in," Fluttershy said after a rat consult.

We got all the rat clues we could. The group looked exactly like us, including Spike too. EXCEPT they flew up on a flying carpet, which other-Pinkie then stashed in her bags. The lizardmen just let them in after other-Fluttershy asked them nicely.

"Flying Carpets usually come from Ylarum or Alphatia, though the Ethengars also like them," I said thoughtfully.

"Maybe someone wants a Dragon-Equestria war," Ivan mused.

"Maybe it's us, time-traveling!" Pinkie said.

"Sugarcube, there ain't no such thing," Applejack said.

"Actually, people who quest for immortality in the Sphere of Time ALWAYS time travel as part of it," Ivan said. "And have to find a time travel artifact."

We all stared at him.

"Hey, I...uh... have an interest in that," Ivan said weakly. "I CAN read, you know."

"But why would we even time travel to now?" Twilight said.

"To stop ourselves doing something TERRIBLE," Pinkie said.

"But that would mean we would have no reason in the future to time travel back and so we would do something terrible," Spike said. "Then go back and stop ourselves. Lose motive, don't go back in time, so we DO something..." He was starting to wobble.

"Enough loopin'," Applejack said. "I think someone's planning to..."

KABOOM.

There was a huge explosion and the sound of chaos down the tunnel.

SHIT.

************

We took off running towards the cave entrance. The four lizardmen guards stared at us in confusion, and then I heard distant maniacal laughter; it sounded like Rarity if she was really drunk and gleeful.

And then people who looked JUST like us came zooming out of the cave, riding on a huge flying carpet piled with treasure. 'Pinkie' was driving the carpet, perched in front with her hooves on a golden eye shape woven into the front of the carpet which flickered with a spectrum of colors. 'Marcus' and 'Twilight' were gloating over a pile of books together. 'Rarity' was busy decking herself out in jewelry and laughing like a MANIAC. 'Spike' was busy helping her bedeck herself. 'Applejack' was chewing an apple; she spit the seeds like... something that spits seeds. Anyway, they hit the guards and 'Fluttershy' sang a song that caused the seeds to turn into vines... vines? From apples? Anyway, the vines tangled up the guards. 'Ivan' was twirling lock picks in his hands and grinning. The 'Wonderbolts' and 'Dash' were flying alongside instead of riding, executing fancy maneuvers and showing off.

"Stop! What are you doing?" Twilight shouted at them.

"I'm RICH!" 'Rarity' screamed at the top of her lungs. 'Spike' gave a double thumbs up and continued covering her in jewelry.

"Spike, I am not like that, right?" Rarity said weakly to Spike.

"I am totally like that," he mumbled.

"What?" she said.

"STOP!" Twilight shouted.

I could hear chaos and doom coming and now the Wonderbolts and Dash simply launched themselves at the carpet without waiting for orders.

They went flying off over the hill and across the swamp in pursuit as the rest of us now got to face AN ANGRY DRAGON which had just emerged. Vermicoritax was dozens of feet long and had a huge long tail and a black spiky head, with opalescent black scales and sharp, pointy claws. He is probably one of the most... no, actually, I think he IS the most hideously dangerous thing I've ever faced, not counting the Roaring Demon, since it was actually an illusion.

For which I am very grateful.

Okay, Celestia is actually more dangerous, but I ran for the hills, rather than 'faced' her.

And Brannart. I would expect Brannart could, at least if he planned ahead, take this. Possibly with the help of an army of undead and his weird glowy magic, but he'd do it.

The fact I wish Brannart was here is a sign of how BAD this is.

Vermicoritax was about to spit a huge gout of acid at us; Twilight had used her acid-protection ritual on us but I feared it might have been stretched too far protecting this many, though I'd helped her.

"WAIT!" Spike said. "That wasn't us! We've been impersonated! I swear on my honor as a dragon!" He put his hand over his heart.

"I am an envoy from Princess Celestia and Princess Luna!" Twilight said frantically, pulling out and displaying her credentials. "I am Twilight Sparkle, her disciple!"

"That's what the one who JUST ROBBED ME said," Vermicoritax said angrily.

Instead of killing us all.

I live five more minutes. YES!

"I assure you that it's true," Fluttershy said urgently. "My rat friends saw it all!"

"I can't be sure you're telling the truth about what they say," Vermicoritax said.

"Fluttershy ain't no liar," Applejack said hotly. "I am the Element of Honesty and I tell you, Fluttershy is tellin' the truth!" Her element flashed and Vermicoritax jumped slightly, then his eyes widened. His gaze flickered across...

Only now did it hit me that Twilight was not actually wearing a necklace like the others. What did her Element look like?

There was a distant rumble of thunder and now we could see a huge storm tossing down lightning and rain pouring down north of here, where our friends had gone to chase our evil twins or whatever they are.

"The Elements of Harmony," he said softly, then looked at Twilight.

She looked nervous, then concentrated and a tiara appeared on her forehead. I could feel the POWER. Twilight's stance shifted, growing more confident. I bet she could make him a potato with that. Though Dragons do tend to resist magic well.

"I am the Element of Magic," Twilight said, eyes glowing with white light. "We come not in war, but in peace."

"Then swear to recover what is stolen from me. And I will wait and see," he said. "If you recover it, ALL of it, then we can talk. I will wait one month, and then I will invade Equestria to make up my losses."

You know, there's no way these doubles have their own Elements... right? So once we catch them, there's gonna be a beating tonight.

"We will swear," Twilight said.

Because I am an idiot, I didn't think about how this oath would be MAGICALLY BINDING until I felt huge amounts of power course through me. SHIT.

Well, at least it's mainly an oath to clobber some people who are less powerful copies or dopplegangers or something of us. And not to, say, steal Vanya's underwear or something. (For those unfamiliar, she is an Immortal of War and Conquest. Robbing her would be dangerous to say the least.)

I hope they're less powerful.

"We WILL recover your stolen treasure," Spike said very seriously.

Or die. Or die recovering it.

But hey, I live MORE than five minutes! YES!

The storm continued to rage north of us. This isn't going to be fun at all.

We took off as fast as we could towards it, though we could no longer see the doppleganger-pony-trolls or whatever they are. Or our friends.

They'd better be okay.

Book Three (White Plume Mountain): Part 1: I Have a Mouth But Never Speak

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My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring
A D&D (Mystara) / My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic crossover

Book 3: White Plume Mountain
Part 1: I Have a Mouth But Never Speak

By John Biles

***************

Have you ever wondered if Rainbow Dash could break a tree with her head?

The answer is yes. I can't actually prove it was her head, but that's where she had the bruise.

We found her knocked out next to a tree snapped in half. Soarin' was floating on top of quicksand on his back. Spitfire lay in a pile of broken rocks, mumbling about bad breath.

Ivan and I helped Fluttershy get them onto secure, dry land, then we helped her treat their injuries, with Spike also helping. Twilight began paging through several books frantically. Dash had something in her mouth... some of her own hair?

"Got her," Dash moaned. "Stupid fake me."

"You did well, you should rest."

"Give Twilight... hair..." she moaned.

G... OH. "It's from fake Dash?"

"Stupid Rainbow Crash," Dash said, then laughed weakly, making noises I didn't like. "Yes, give... Twi..."

"I will," I said, bringing it to her and explaining.

"Ahah! Perfect! Thank you, Rainbow Dash!" Twilight said.

"Tell Soarin', he can have my memorabilia," Rainbow Dash mumbled.

"You are not going to die," Fluttershy said firmly. "It just may feel like it."

Soarin' mumbled about how tall the cloud was.

"With this, I can make a tracking spell," Twilight said, triumphantly.

"Fluttershy, can you get them good to travel?" I asked.

"They're going to need rest," she said. "If we wait until tomorrow..."

"That ain't gonna work," Applejack said. "They're bookin' it. We've got to go NOW, storm or not."

The storm had actually moved north; I suspect they're using it as a shield, centered on themselves. It was only drizzling here now.

"Twilight, enlarge me. I can carry Rainbow Dash," I said. "We can make a travois and Applejack and Pinkie should be able to pull the Wonderbolts."

"'m good, I can fly," Dash said, flapping her wings weakly.

"Make a what?" Applejack said. "That sounds like that hoity-toity stuff they have in Prance."

Prance is the most pretentious of the provinces of Equestria, though Big Apple Province tries hard. Mareis is the capital of the Province of Prance; among other things, it's the center for fashion or even just ordinary clothing. Their wine is also excellent.

"Hoity-Toity is a very important designer!," Rarity said defensively. "And a travois is a kind of sledge for hauling things. I will make us one. Marcus, I need you to assist me. Spike, you too."

"Okay," I said. "You can enlarge me once we finish," I told Twilight. "I will carry Dash."

"I'm fine," Dash said stubbornly, but moved only weakly.

"You carried me," I told her. "Now I am going to carry you and that is that. Let me help you."

"Okay, fine, if you insist," Dash said, then went to sleep.

Ivan and Pinkie helped Fluttershy, while Twilight consulted her books and Spike and I helped Rarity make a travois. She looked VERY proud when she used the ritual which Dona Carlotta told her to summon some canvas to make it with. Being Rarity, of course, it got a nice soft down lining with silk topping it on the side they'd lay on.

"Spike," I told him. "Good job, man. You saved our bacon."

"Bacon...," he said, drooling for a moment. Then he gave me an odd look. "Uh, thanks." We were each basically holding the layers in place so that Rarity could stitch them telekinetically, since she didn't have her sewing machine and we had to hold it all up out of the muck. Though here, the land was dryer, thankfully.

Twilight borrowed one of Rarity's gems and somehow put the hairs inside it and enchanted it, then tried to wear it on a thread; Rarity forced her to make a proper necklace that would look nicer.

Soon, we were ready to roll. Twilight enlarged me and I hefted Rainbow Dash over one shoulder. "You sleep and get better," I told her.

"'m fine," she mumbled.

Fluttershy sung a lullaby that put her to sleep and nearly put me to sleep too.

"We could probably put her on the travois," Applejack said. "Pinkie and I could probably haul most of the group if it was big enough."

"I'm fine," I said. "I owe her a ride." Favor currying for the win and it makes me look better. Soon, she was asleep and mumbling about winning some race into my chest, which amused me.

Fortunately for us, our foes kept up their storm or at least, the storm, our foes, and us were all headed in the same direction. This took us for a while across thankfully dry land, but then everything sloped down and we had to slog through muck with a travois. The storm moved out of sight but we kept on following 'Rainbow Crash' and her friends, hoping they hadn't split up.

Unfortunately, the river we now came to was broad and about ten feet deep. Pushed up to nearly twelve feet high by Twilight's magic, I had to carry each of the sleeping ponies across while everyone else swam. Then we set our travois up again and made our way across the filthy mire.

We kept going relentlessly, stopping briefly for lunch and dinner, pushing on until exhaustion was too much. We found a higher spot and fell down on it. Probably something should have eaten us for not posting watches, though Twilight did put up wards.

We were filthy and still tired in the morning but we couldn't stop, much as Rarity and I clearly both were unhappy with being covered with filth. No one else looked too happy with it, but we pushed on. Fortunately, our three Pegasi were now recovered and took to the air to scout.

My shoulders ached from carrying a Pegasus all day. Ponies are MUCH heavier than you'd think. Rainbow Dash weighs more than me for all that I'm much taller.

I sat down kind of hard at lunch time and just flopped down. Never carrying a Pony again EVER.

"C'mon, Marcus, it's just walking," Applejack said, a little chidingly.

"My shoulders ache," I said.

"Lie down on your stomach," Fluttershy said.

I did so; I was already so filthy, I couldn't get more filthy. Applejack, Pinkie and Ivan began making lunch.

I felt very gentle pressure on my shoulders. I also could see Rainbow Dash lurking nearby. "Fluttershy, you can't massage him if you just gently tap his shoulders."

"But if I put my full weight on it, it'll hurt," Fluttershy said softly.

"Let me do this," Rainbow Dash said.

She took a deep breath... and then began battering my back and I began howling fit to wake the dead. Fluttershy said, "I don't think that's how it works," and looked horrified.

"It felt like that," Dash said hesitantly and kept pounding. I don't think you even can massage someone's butt. And it wasn't the problem here.

"Stop," Spitfire said to Rainbow Dash. "I'll do this."

"But..." Dash protested.

"I know what I'm doing. Assuming he isn't dead," Spitfire said.

"I just wanted to help," Dash mumbled. Fluttershy led her away and I laid there moaning as Spitfire worked on me.

"It doesn't hurt that much," Spitfire told me chidingly.

Kiss my ass.

"Easy for you to say," I mumbled.

Dash winced and Fluttershy continued to talk to her softly.

Rarity settled down next to me and began carefully cleaning my face as Spitfire worked on me and I made noises. "Thank you," I mumbled. "I'll do you when Spitfire is done."

"You're welcome, Marcus," she said warmly and I started to feel a little more human. "We have a wonderful spa in Ponyville," she continued, the cloth working my face with her power behind it. "I will take you and Fluttershy there when we get back."

"I might go with you if I have time," Spitfire said. "I love a good massage."

She was, in fact, good at it; my pain was gradually fading and now I felt a blessed lassitude.

I gradually sank into slumber.

****************

I felt much more alive when I woke up at dinner time; we were at the very verge of the swamp and the land was rising into drier hills. Off a little to the northwest of us rose the fearsome sight of White Plume Mountain.

FUCK. "We have to go there, right?" I said weakly.

"That about sums it up," Twilight said.

White Plume Mountain is about three-fifths of a mile across and eight hundred or so feet tall; a geyser shoots out of the top creating a stream that flows down the south face and then down into the swamp, yellow with sulfur and other effluvia. The slopes are home to scrub brush and strange fungi, and at places, there are cracks through which steam continually vents. There's a huge crevice on the south slope. I could see someone had erected a sign over it, but it was too far away to read.

"It says 'Evil Lair of Evil Pinkamena, Inquire Within. No Halflings with Hats Allowed,' on the sign," Dash told me.

"I am NOT a halfling," I said. Unless you count the time I drank that stupid shrinking potion.

"You, uh, feeling better?" Dash said.

"Yes," I told her. "Thanks for helping me."

"It didn't go so well," Dash said to a nearby bush.

"Yes, but it's the thought that counts," I told her. "I wouldn't even start to know where or how to massage a pony beyond the shoulders." I had to help Twilight out a few times back in the day. It seemed to help. "You're a good friend."

That made her smile. SCORE.

Which reminds me, gotta work on Applejack some on this trip too. Some ponies are easier to curry favor with than others.

Dinner was served. Fish again, but fish is good. They had stew and we had stew with fish added. Oh yes, this was tasty.

"This is pretty obviously a trap," I said. "We should circle the volcano, make sure they are actually inside."

"I'll take Twilight," Dash said. "Once my stomach settles."

"Hmm, if this one is named Pinkamena instead of Pinkie," I began.

"My full name is Pinkamena Diane Pie," Pinkie said, pausing from slurping stew. Watching Ponies eat is a weird thing. Rarity and Twilight eat with a spoon but the rest just slurp it out of the bowl. Of course, with no hands, what else are they going to do? They could use a spoon with their hooves, but it's a lot easier to do it this way. It's one of those reminders they are Ponies, though.

"We can probably assume they've activated the old traps and things, but haven't had much time to install new ones," I said. "Unless their boss has been setting this up a long time, but then..." I scratched my head. "I don't know. I've never visited the place but from the stories I've heard, it's pretty dangerous."

"Didn't someone kill Keraptis a few years ago?" Twilight said, frowning and trying to remember. "The Company of the Silver Spear?"

"They're Ponies, right?" I said. I'd heard of them vaguely. "I think Keraptis has been reported dead at least eight times."

"Yes," Twilight said. "Largely retired now."

"Or dead," Spitfire said flatly. "We're going to have to do better this time or we'll join them." She looked at Pinkie. "No going off to play tag with Iron Golems."

"Sorry!," Pinkie said, clearly not at all sorry.

"She's right," I said. "Keraptis is your classic insane wizard who does things like build giant clocks that turn people into cheese."

"Why cheese?" Applejack asked, frowning.

"Too much staring into other dimensions and trying to replace every inch of his body with shadow-stuff. Why shadow-stuff? Because no one's done it yet," I said. "Really powerful wizards tend to either become immortals, become insane dungeon lords, or turn into something freaky. Or a combination of two or more of the above."

Twilight licked her lips nervously. "Any idea what's in it?"

"Weapons," Ivan said. "Keraptis liked stealing weapons, then watching people who tried to recover them die in his traps."

"The dragon's...we did get an actual LIST... no, we didn't," I said, facepalming. "Spike, can you mail Vermicoritax and ask him for a list of stolen items?"

We got the list before bedtime. He had listed EVERY coin separately with a TWO LINE DESCRIPTION. Things like 'Darokinian Double Crown, minted 983 AC, three scratches on the rim, rare error means both faces are the same, showing the Chancellor'. Or 'Bronze coin, unknown origin, over 1500 years old, shows pyramid on one side, man with two staves and ugly hat on the other face'.

"Wow, it's a Nithian coin," Twilight said excitedly.

"What's that?" Applejack said.

"They were an ancient civilization destroyed by the Immortals for some unknown reason, about fifteen hundred years ago," Twilight said excitedly.

"Blackmoor?" Spike asked.

"Blackmoor blew itself up," Twilight said. "I wish he'd included the inscription. I could probably... no wait, my book's back home." She sighed. "This was before the forging of iron became commonplace."

"So this coin could blow the mountain up?" Spike asked.

I certainly hope not.

"The Immortals destroyed them because they were entire deficient in fun," Pinkie said. "They were just trying to drop a giant pie on them for a nation-wide 'pie to the face' gag, but it got out of hand."

Sadly, it is not clear if Pinkie is right or wrong.

I *hope* she is wrong, though.

"Maybe we could use the Polymorph potion to psych them out by turning into doubles of them," Rainbow Dash mused.

"How would anyone tell?" Applejack said. "They're doubles of US."

"Maybe we're their GOOD twins," Pinkie mused. "And we've just imagined our pasts and none of us existed until we encountered Marcus and Ivan in the swamp."

"I really doubt it, sugarcube," Applejack said. "Why would someone go to these lengths?"

"Just guessing," Pinkie said.

We continued to speculate into the night as the moon came out and the stars. It was a half moon, fading towards the new moon, but the stars shine very brightly here.

Rarity and I went to the river and engaged in futile acts of cleaning. It felt good to be even a little cleaner. Fluttershy joined us and we both helped clean her up. "I will be so happy when this is done," Rarity said, sitting in the sphinx position as fish danced to a tune sung by Fluttershy.

"Me too," I said, brushing her coat. This takes FOREVER. An advantage to not having body hair all over... well, not so much you have to brush it. I'm not as hairy as I was when I was 'Erik' but I have a fair amount.

"And I," Fluttershy said softly. "But it's nice to be with friends."

"It is," I said, looking up at the stars. I pointed to one combination of stars. "There's the Sail," I said. "It's the symbol of adventurers like us, because it's connected to Sinbad." Who is the Immortal of sailors and adventurers.

"In Karameikos, it's known as the Northern Triad," Twilight said, and we all started. She was lurking behind us, looking up at the stars. "Representing Halav, Petra, and Zirchev." The three patron Immortals of Karameikos. When hordes of gnolls invaded two thousand years ago, they stopped the invasion and eventually went on to become immortals. Halav was a mighty warrior, Petra was a wise priestess, and Zirchev was a cunning hunter and wizard, friend to the fae folk of the forest. "The Ethengars see it as the Sacred Yurt, symbol of Cretia the Trickster, Tubak the Lawgiver, and Yamurga the Tentkeeper. The Northmen see it as the Shield, which represents Frey, Freya, and Thor."

"Not Odin?" I asked, surprised.

"Odin is a remote figure to be placated more than loved," Twilight said. "In the Northlands. Or so my books say. I've never been there, but Erik would talk about it, so I read up on it."

Twitch. Of course you did.

"It also can symbolize Vestland, Ostland, and the Soderfjord Jarldoms," Twilight said. "Or sometimes it stands for Freya, Sif, and Frigga."

"My goodness, it must be very busy," Rarity said. I think this was a joke, so I laughed and she smiled and I relaxed; if she'd been serious... well, Pinkie would probably say it represents pie, cake, and cupcakes or something.

"Maybe it stands for Sleipnir, Celestia, and Luna," Fluttershy said softly.

"I must admit I hadn't heard of Princess Luna before I met you," I said.

"She's... been on a trip," Fluttershy said weakly, scuffing the dirt with her hooves.

"Come to steal Marcus before he finishes?" Rarity said softly to Twilight.

"I hate to interrupt," Twilight said, sounding guilty. "We should practice some magic, though."

"I'll brush you," Fluttershy said.

"You are a lifesaver and a true friend," Rarity said. "I will brush you when you're done."

"Thank you," Fluttershy said.

"You two have fun," Rarity said to me.

I'll have fun; I'll just be wondering if I am going to die the whole time.

************

I ended up on first watch with Twilight, Spike, and Rainbow Dash. Spike went to sleep immediately after saying, "Don't worry, I can stay up if I want to."

Twilight put him on a blanket and the two of us practiced spells together, while Rainbow Dash bobbed about, keeping watch.

"This could really get ugly, you know," I said to her.

"I know," Twilight said, sighing. "But with no map and no idea what's inside, we can't even plan. All I can do is be ready and work on improving how many spells I know." She sounded frustrated.

We were both juggling lightning balls, trying to work on control. Well, control for Twilight, power for me. She has huge raw power but lacks control. I am the opposite way around. I think Rarity is the same way. As me, that is. VERY high control, more so than me.

Spike now coughed up a letter in his sleep. This reminded me. "Have we in fact told Celestia what's going on?"

"Oh no, I totally forgot, she's going to be so unhappy and... Spike's asleep!," Twilight said.

"Just write it now. We probably won't die overnight," I told her." I curiously examined the letter, which was from Princess Luna to me. I blinked. Well, time to read, I guess.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Samus Marcus,

My dear sister Celly tells me that you are a dear friend of hers, though I must confess I don't remember her ever mentioning you. She said, however, that I should write you and warn you that the notorious criminal Erik of Vestland is believed to be in the northern Malpheggi swamp and that Thyatian and Minrothadi hit squads are in the area, trying to find him and capture or kill him. So keep your eyes open. He is wanted for the theft of the Water Elves' Pearl, an affair with a Minrothadi ambassador, wearing an Augrist high priest's hat when unqualified to do so, stealing the harem of a Thyatian Ambassador, mocking the Thyatian Emperor, wearing the Sacred Hat of Valerias inappropriately, misleading youth, mocking the gods, failing to pay for 8 sandwiches, and 3 moving violations. Among other crimes.

Also, apparently, he broke Twilight's heart and for that, he will suffer tremendously. The heart of a young filly is NOT to be trifled with!

NOT to be trifled with.

Sorry, I normally don't get so angry with people, but Twilight and her friends are important to me, and I don't like to see someone I care about get hurt.

It makes me angry.

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

I don't like me when I'm angry.

Sorry, I got off topic. You must make sure everyone in the group knows about this. I'm not sure why Celly didn't have me also alert Twilight, but I trust her judgment

I suppose she fears Twilight will do something foalish.

Hehe.

Anyway, also tell everyone the Glantrians are here and things are going well, though I think several of them will have to be taught to stop looking covetously at everyone's horns.

Please inform us as soon as you reach the dragon; we haven't heard anything for several days and we're worried.

Anyway, a pleasure to meet you,

Your new friend,

Princess Luna of Equestria, sister to Princess Celestia.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Twilight was reading over my shoulder; I was sitting on the ground. "He's NOT A CRIMINAL," she said fervently.

TWITCH.

I'd like you to know, I would have paid for those sandwiches, except someone tried to kill me and I had to run for my life!

I hope those hit squads can't just zoom in on me; the last thing this mission needs is interruption by people trying to kill me.

Of course they will. Though...

AHAHAHAHA. If I can manipulate them into thinking the fake me is 'Erik'... oh hoh hoh.

They might make off with some of the dragon's treasure, though. Dammit.

"I'm still surprised you don't hate him," I said nervously to her. Flames were licking along her tail, which can't be a good sign.

She closed her eyes and counted to ten. The fire went out. "I understand why he ran away. I'm sure if I hadn't been too drunk to chase him, it would have been okay." She sighed. "There were times, I thought... It's just, when we were studying or working on things, even when we just were doing our own projects near each other, it was like when I watched my parents when I was a filly. That simple comfort from just being around someone you care about, even if you're both busy, it just..." She sighed. "I guess it sounds crazy."

I would kill myself but probably I would spontaneously rise from the dead because they don't want me in the afterlife. I should probably try; it would be easier than waiting for the truth to out. "No, I understand," I told her. "It looks like Celestia and Luna plan to kill him for hurting you, though."

"I'm sure they'll understand once I explain it to them. I can put it in the next letter," Twilight said. She sighed. "He probably has someone else by now, and I shouldn't keep thinking about him."

"You're better off moving on," I told her. "I doubt we'll encounter him." LIE LIE LIE.

She sighed. "I have to focus on important things," she said, then shook her head. "Let's focus on blowing things up. I'm going to have to face evil-me, so I need a counter-spell."

"Water," I said. "You need a water attack to turn her lightning back on her."

"Oooh, yes," Twilight said.

In three minutes, she found a water generating spell and started practicing it, while I stood in for evil Twilight, using an illusion of lightning so I wouldn't hurt myself for real. It was very cheesy looking; I can only do simple illusions.

We kept working on tactics, until, finally, it was time to get some sleep, for which I was grateful.

******************

I woke up in a nice soft bed, which was confusing to say the least. It had dark blue sheets with white stars on it, a Winter Solstice present from Twilight; the stars were, in fact, accurately placed, though many stars were missing; this was only the most prominent ones.

I got as far as taking a shower, making breakfast and starting to eat it when I suddenly realized I was somehow back in my old quarters at Celestia's School, which were apparently totally unchanged after more than a year, and wearing clothing I'd abandoned when I fled.

Nervously, I went back to the bathroom and this time paid actual attention to my body. Looking in the mirror, I saw Erik's face looking at me. I was taller, paler, more muscular, definitely blonder with longer hair.

I have to admit, I regret losing this body's good looks. 'Samus Marcus' isn't hideously ugly, but I'm not beauty contest winner either.

However, I can see why Ivan arranged for me to be shapeshifted; with so many lunatics after me, what else could I do?

"So long as you run without a patron, you'll always be hunted and it will only grow worse over time," a woman said to me. She was deep voiced but very smooth.

And I couldn't see her anywhere.

"Okay, voice in my head, who are you?" I said.

There was a gentle laughter, but something about it disturbed me.

And then it was gone.

I must be dreaming, I decided. It would make NO sense for me to be back in Canterlot and Erik otherwise.

Might as well see what happens if it's a dream. I checked the calendar. I should be teaching classes today; in fact, I'd better run.

Class went smoothly despite me only recognizing half the ponies present. Oddly, one of them looked somewhat like Applejack, except for the red mane and, well, the horn, and one of them... was she an Alicorn? She had an orange coat and purple mane and had a horn AND wings.

They and their friend, a white unicorn with a pink and purple mane were all VERY hyper and hard to keep in line. Also, the redhead kept touching her horn every few minutes for some reason.

The rest of my classes went well, I handed back homework and took more homework to grade and headed home. I could see Twilight's tower distantly; Spike was busy cleaning the windows.

I sighed, feeling that familiar clutch of guilt. After what I did to her, I can't, even in a dream. She deserves better. I enjoy her company. I like her. If she'd been human...

But I can't rewrite the past, even in a dream.

Okay, I could in a dream, but it doesn't feel right.

I don't have the right to go dream about happy times with Twilight as if I never messed anything up for her.

"She would forgive you, you know," the voice said. "She understands you better now."

I need... I don't want us to be enemies or hostile, but I don't... It wouldn't be healthy for her to just forgive me everything.

I'd be taking advantage of her good nature.

I remembered my fight with Rarity. She got mad at me; I didn't mean to make her feel that way but weirdly, it felt... I don't want to fight with people, but having an honest fight and then making up, that felt right. Overly easy forgiveness cheapens forgiveness.

But I guess that reflects me not thinking like a Pony.

She ought to get angry with me before we make up.

Much as that likely means turning me into a turnip.

"You really have learned nothing about the dangers of displeasing those of vast power," the woman said softly. "Do you intend to drag them down in the wreck of your ship? If you really thought what you just thought, you'd tell her the truth."

I'm too scared to. As usual, I'm following the path of least resistance. What keeps me alive five more minutes.

"Serve me and you won't have to be afraid. You will have whatever woman you want, and wealth and power too. I could make you the great wizard you've always dreamed of. Or you can keep on running, like a rat in a maze. Is that what you want?" the woman asked with her deep, smooth voice. Was this Luna? No, I don't think so. Nyx? No, she'd want me to be undead.

"I don't serve anyone," I said. "I have friends and I work with them, because we're friends, but I am no one's servant." Okay, I do work for hire a lot but this is clearly a 'swear to the glorious night or whatever and get power, wealth, etc' situation. NEVER swear to mysterious voices.

"Friends you lie to," she said. "Is there anyone in this group you've been honest with? You're just using them for your own benefit. I'll use you, but I'll pay you to do it. And protect you from your enemies. You have too many enemies to survive without a patron."

That's probably true. But I'm certainly not selling myself to a mysterious voice. "Why me?" I asked.

"You made your choices, not me," she said, amused.

"No, I mean, why do YOU want me," I asked.

"I need someone sneaky who has no one else to turn to. No one else to rely on."

The setting had shifted and now I was in the swamp. I could see the assassins creeping towards our camp and I was 'Samus Marcus' again. "Do you really think a bunch of ponies can stop the Thyatians? The Minrothadi?" she asked me.

Could they? The Minrothadi don't mess around and neither do the Thyatians. On the other hand, this group is a lot tougher than it looks.

They shouldn't have to. But I can't leave them now. I want to run. But I can't leave an evil clone of myself running around loose, getting me into even MORE trouble.

And leaving reduces my odds of surviving those hit squads, assuming they can find and recognize me. Which I have to assume the worst.

But if I stay, the truth will eventually out and I will be KILLED.

Can't run. Can't not run.

Dammit!

I hate this.

"I put my trust in them," I said. "They're tougher than you think."

Her voice turned harsh. "Then you are a fool and with them, you will DIE."

The air turned solid and I couldn't breathe. Literally.

I began choking; I couldn't even fall down because the solid air froze me in place.

"This time, you will stay dead," the woman said harshly. "You are a failure, discarded by your master as a failed experiment and now that experiment ends."

What the hell is she talking about?

Mind you, I now suddenly remembered meeting this dragon before. She had been named... Marquetta? She had a Belcadizian name? Maybe this is a shapeshifted Belcadizian? But I don't remember any Dona Marquettas.

But I do remember going into this dragon's lair for some reason and then Annika began casting a spell and the dragon spat fire at her and I shoved her out of the way and...

Something about being killed by an owlbear while carrying the dragon's treasure.

I survived dragonfire, then got killed by an owlbear???

Also, I was alone when I got killed by the owlbear, so how did I not stay dead?

Dammit, I need to find someone to catalog and sort my brain.

At least I am going to die with a hat on, so my corpse will have some dignity.

And better I be killed by someone I hate than someone I like.

I could feel myself getting weak from lack of air.

I'm going to regret this, because the last... of course, she already knows where I am.

CELESTIA! HELP!!!!! I'll do anything! Don't let me get eaten!!!!

There was a crackle of lightning behind me and a whirring noise and then to my utter shock, Pinkie went shooting past me at high speed and crashed into Marquetta's nose. She looked utterly stunned, especially when another Pinkie crashed into her cheek. And another one into her right shoulder.

What the hell?

She rose up and breathed fire, but her own spell around me deflected the fire. Further, the solidity of the air melted and though now I felt steamed, I could breathe.

I turned and saw Pinkie with a giant metal tube over one shoulder. Lightning crackled inside it as it rotated and as I watched, another Pinkie formed inside it and was fired at Marquetta at high speed.

WHAT THE HELL?

Nothing I have ever seen blew my mind more than this.

A veritable army of Pinkies was all over Marquetta, hitting her with pies, trying to sell her insurance, pulling back scales and trying to stick her head behind them, singing songs and dancing, kicking her, biting her, reciting poetry and staging stand up comedy routines.

When the hell did Pinkie get the ability to do THIS?

I started laughing. How could I not?

That really made Marquetta angry.

She gave a tremendous shriek and spread her wings, sending Pinkies flying everywhere. "I WILL NOT BE MOCKED!"

"Those who cannot take a joke will have to have one given to them," Pinkie said very seriously. "That's what Uncle Korotiku always says."

UNCLE Korotiku???

He's one of the high ranking Immortals of Thought. Basically a spider who turns into a man (or maybe vice versa), a trickster Immortal. Worshiped more on Skothar than here on Brun, though the Pearl Islanders worship him.

Surely he's not actually Pinkie's uncle.

Though it would explain a few things.

All of the Pinkies now imitated Marquetta's stance as best they could. "I WILL NOT BE MOCKED!" they shouted, then giggled and ran as she tried to fry them with fire.

"Thanks, Pinkie," I said. "Am I asleep?"

"Of course you are, silly. I couldn't do this if we were awake," she said as the chaos continued nearby. "She tried tempting me but I already have plenty of pie." She produced one from her saddlebags. "Pie?"

"Yes, it is," I said to her.

She blinked, then laughed. "Anyway, we need to all wake up to kick her out of our dreams."

The last thing I need is another player in this mess.

"How about a thin mint!," one of the Pinkies shouted as I woke up.

*************

Everyone, apparently, had dreamed of her trying to subvert them, which creeped us all out.

"Marquetta was a ~red dragon~ who laired in the Malpheggi for about fifteen years," Spike said. He said 'red dragon' the way one might normally refer to dung or urine or some other very nasty thing. Multiplied by about five. "She relocated for some reason about forty years ago from the Cruth Mountains to the Malpheggi; she beat up the other dragons and asserted her dominance but they resented her. Twenty five years or so ago, the Blue Eagle Company raided her lair and stole a bunch of her treasure. She hunted them down, killed them all, then vanished. Her fate is unknown but most people assume she relocated to some more remote location with less treasure thieves."

I would think I was in the Blue Eagle Company except that would make me a LOT older than I think I am. I'm pretty sure I am somewhere in my early thirties.

"My uncle Pieter worked for one of the Blue Eagles when he was young," Ivan said. "During his Shearing. He went back home before they all got killed off, though. The way he told it, the Dragon ate all of them but one who got away somehow. They were all Karameikan."

"Who was the one who got away?" I asked.

"Dmitri Ilyanovich," Ivan said. "He was from Kelvin and had to leave when Baron Kelvin took it over and renamed it from... whatever it was before. Because of the ban on magic users."

Baron Kelvin is a cleric of the Church of Karameikos and for some reason has a really inane law against arcane magic in his barony.

Ivan is from Novgorod, a little village about halfway between Kelvin and Penhaligon, about twenty five or so miles from each. Kelvin, with its mighty five thousand people, is 'the big city' to anyone from Novgorod, which has about eight hundred. Even though Kelvin only has about a city block worth of people in a real metropolis like Thyatis City.

Dmitri... dammit, that name sounds familiar and makes me think of death by owlbear.

I can't possibly be that old unless someone is feeding me longevity potions, though. When I'm not looking.

"How did you know to help me, Pinkie?" I asked.

"I got this weird twitch in my leg so I just started wandering around until I found you," she said.

So she just wanders through people's dreams because of leg twitches. ACK.

"The weird thing is that the other dragon didn't give me that twitch, so I guess this one means 'red dragon', though that other red dragon, I got a *different* twitch."

Twilight now twitched visibly. "We'll worry about that later."

"Maybe it is pretending to be Marquetta to confuse us," Applejack said. "Just 'cause a dragon claims one name doesn't mean it's true. It might actually be a blue or a green or something, in disguise."

"Given reds don't normally invade dreams..." Why did it call me an experiment discarded by my master? I felt all weird in my own body now.

"Ahah!" Twilight said, then did the hoof of triumph. "I found her! Marquetta has a FIVE PAGE entry in Jagger's Catalog of Dragons, Volume four!"

Oh man, I didn't even think about how Twilight had brought her dragon books.

"It says that after she ate a group of adventurers who tried to steal her treasure and got their artifact, she moved to the Malpheggi and took over White Plume Mountain as her lair."

We all paused and looked at the mountain and I twitched.

What's worse than a Grand Wyrm Black Dragon?

A GRAND WYRM RED DRAGON!!!

Damn you White Plume Mountain

"That was 959 AC. In 975 AC, the Blue Eagle Company raided her lair, forced her to flee, and stole her treasure. She survived, then picked them off one by one but the party's scout, Dmitri Ilyanovich, managed to hide from her. He hasn't been seen since and neither has she; her hoard vanished and it's assumed she's still trying to hunt him down."

"What was the artifact?" Rarity asked curiously.

I knew in my gut it would be the Lockpicks of Asterius and Marquetta and Vermicoritax would somehow be the same dragon and we all would DIE.

"The Falchion of Minroth," Twilight said.

"The what?" Applejack asked.

"I... don't know," Twilight said, then turned red.

"I think it's some kind of bird," Pinkie said.

"That's a falcon, and a falchion is not a bird," Fluttershy said.

"Well, it doesn't matter, then," Ivan said. "Though if we find something weird, we should check it out."

"Maybe Marquetta made the clones in order to trigger a war between Equestria and the dragons of the Malpheggi, so she could reassert her rule over the area in the aftermath," I said.

"And hired the thugs to maybe slow us down long enough for the dopplegangers to do their work and start the war since we would try to be peaceful?" Spitfire said, frowning.

"You know, it's possible that Herr Ukvarth was a shapeshifted Marquetta, infiltrating to urge us to trigger this war," I said, frowning.

Everyone grimaced at that.

"You mentioned a red dragon killed your parents, Spike? Any connection to Marquetta?" I said, frowning.

"Probably not; it happened up by North Marech Castle. A red tried to settle in after leaving the Adri Varna Plateau," Spike said sadly. "Celestia had to take the field herself in the end."

Twilight patted him comfortingly as he leaned on her. "I will send Owlicious a letter; he can look up what a 'falchion' is."

Spike quickly took dictation and burned the letter.

A thought hit me. "Keraptis used to steal weapons, right? And put them in the mountain to draw people to their doom?"

"So probably the Falchion was some weapon that Keraptis stole and then Marquetta added it to her hoard? Hell, Keraptis may have recruited Marquetta to come live here while he took a vacation and once he came back, she had to move out or something," Ivan said thoughtfully.

"Well, I think it's time for us to go in," Applejack said. "Ain't much we can do to get ready we ain't already done."

Unfortunately.

Time for victory or death, and I hope not death. Though I suppose Fluttershy can probably reincarnate us if we die.

With my luck, I'll end up a goldfish.

*************

Here's the problem. We climbed up the mountainside to the only entrance big enough for ponies, kindly labeled by our enemies. Now the problem is that we can be SURE it's a trap. The tunnel was hot and humid with a narrow crack at the far end; every few minutes, a gout of steam erupted, trying to roast everyone in the rough wedge-shaped tunnel. Ivan and I took the lead because we know how to find and eliminate traps. Fortunately, Ivan's keen hearing detected the oncoming steam buildup and so we hit the floor and avoided boiling.

We had to dodge it three times before we found the cunningly hidden trap door which opened onto a staircase, down into a long twenty foot wide tunnel. Everyone ran in and down the stairs and we headed up the tunnel, lined with cut, dressed granite with no decoration.

Hornglow and mage light lit our way. Applejack, Dash, Ivan, and myself took the lead, two ready to fight, two searching for the inevitable DEATH TRAPS.

Death Trap number one involved a marble ceiling panel, carved with runes and a trap door under it. Ivan triggered the trap and we looked down. Matching marble flooring sixty feet down. You fall, WHAM, then you teleport to the top and fall again WHAM. AGAIN. AGAIN. And so on.

Simple, elegant, stolen from second century Thyatian tomb designs, which they likely stole from the Nithians. If you've ever died in a horrible trap, the odds are good the Nithians or Blackmoor invented it first.

This one, though, was clearly a warning; the marble ceiling panel made it OBVIOUS.

The second one was a classic dart trap. If you don't follow the correct zig-zag pattern on the floor, which was marked with black and white titles, you got shot with darts. Again, the sudden decor switch said 'Hey kids, TRAP!'

Ivan and I carefully chalked the tiles they needed to step on. "Don't step on any other tiles," I said. "But honestly, this is easy."

"Hah!" Rainbow Dash flew to the other side. "Even EASIER!"

"Uhh, sugarcube, it ain't so easy as you say," Applejack said.

I demonstrated. "See, it's really not that hard if you go slow."

"You're forgetting a fundamental difference 'tween us, Marcus," Applejack said.

"Being a woman doesn't matter," I said.

Ivan punched me. "She has four legs."

I buried my face in my hands. "Okay, I feel stupid," I said.

"We could put boards across it," Pinkie said.

"If we had boards," Spike pointed out.

"We'll just fly everyone," Spitfire said.


Twilight teleported herself and Spike across. "That's one less pony to haul."

"I bet you could jump it," Dash said to Applejack.

Fluttershy flew herself across. Applejack backed up, nearly fell in the pit trap, then made a running jump and crossed it, looking proud of herself. "Yeehaw!" She reared triumphantly.

Pinkie now produced weird looking shoes and put them on and walked on the wall. "Spider-Pinkie, Spider-Pinkie," she sang. "Does whatever a spider can!"

Then she tossed them to Rarity; the shoes were red with black webbing and looked rather silly. Rarity licked her lips nervously, then walked on the wall quickly, now looking a little tired. "It's hard to fight off gravity," she said.

I helped her take them off and Pinkie put them back on, though now she made a really annoying popping sound every time she moved.

I was a little jealous, though the shoes were made for ponies, not humans and thus had no space for feet. They were like tubes, basically.

The third trap was more subtle. Classic mashing-wall trap. No tells, no obvious signs of trouble. You had to find a switch to shut it off, very subtly hidden. Fortunately, Ivan knows his stuff.

Then we reached an intersection. Tunnels ran left and right at angles and straight forwards. There was a semi-circular room here and in it squatted a disheveled, unhappy sphinx. Rarity made a cry of horror, then rushed up to her as she squatted on a pile of furs. "Oh, you poor darling. Let me guess, you have to guard this place and can't leave at all to visit a nice spa, right?"

The Sphinx blinked, ruffling her feathers. "I... oh yes. It's terrible! It's nothing but dirty adven... wait, didn't you already come through here?"

"Those were our evil twins," I said. "I take it you're a longer-term resident?"

"I was bound here for a century by Keraptis, and I have fifty-three years to go," she said mournfully. "I thought I got a good deal when the terms were until this flower bloomed again," she said, pointing to a potted plant which had a barren trunk and barren branches. "Only, it's a CENTURY plant."

This is why you NEVER bargain with mad wizards. "Did he keep his end of the deal?"

"Oh yes, he found my missing child. Who now has GRANDCHILDREN I HAVE NEVER SEEN," she said angrily. "Does Democritus ever visit? NO, he's too busy running around like a tramp."

Twenty minutes of bitching about her ungrateful children ensued. Rarity and Fluttershy made sympathetic noises, while the rest of us slowly went mad.

"I assume we have to answer a riddle to pass?" Twilight said hopefully.

"Oh yes. One for each tunnel. Fail and I have to devour you, which will only make me more of a filthy mess," the sphinx said mournfully.

I am very, very dubious this sphinx can actually eat us.

"Here, let us clean you up some," Rarity said. "I cannot allow a lady and a mother to remain in this condition. It would be dishonorable."

This is how I ended up assisting in giving a sphinx a makeover. We worked hard on grooming her, while Twilight did the riddle thing.

"Okay, left tunnel riddle," Twilight said.

"I have a mouth but never speak. I have a bed but never sleep. I run smoother than any rhyme. I love to fall but cannot climb," the sphinx said, sounding bored of even saying it.

"River," Twilight said.

The sphinx blinked. "Okay, you got that one but the next one is harder. Round she is, yet flat as a board, Altar of the Lupine Lords..." She didn't actually get to finish before Twilight spoke.

"The Moon," Twilight said.

"I didn't even finish it!," the sphinx said, clearly disappointed.

"Also, the phrase 'Altar of the Lupine Lords' comes right out of Mother Wyvern's Book of Poetry for Children, Volume Three," Twilight said.

"..."

"Third riddle?" she asked eagerly.

As I brushed fluff and dirt off one of her wings and Fluttershy followed up with a soapy brush, the sphinx licked her lips. "The other version of you had a hard time with this one."

"Evil is always weaker than good," Twilight said confidently.

If that was true, then evil wouldn't cause so much trouble. She's still kind of naive at heart. I've seen too much evil to expect good will always win. So I licked my lips nervously.

Pinkie climbed up with a broom in her mouth, and began twisting around unnaturally to dust off the sphinx's head. "My creator wants me not, And much in dread will I be bought. My cold embrace is fiercely fought, Most all who need me know it not."

This has to be some kind of death thing.

Pinkie looked down at me thoughtfully.

I am not the answer to this riddle. I hope.

How much did she hear?

Twilight rubbed her forehead. "Okay, hard one. Time limit?"

"Take your time; you can go north and northwest now since you answered the riddles for those, then come back and tell me," she said.

"What is your name?" Pinkie asked.

"Etrusca," the sphinx said.

"Okay, Etrusca," Pinkie said and finished sweeping.

Twilight was STILL trying to figure it out when we finished cleaning up Etrusca, who was now a nice golden-brown and gleamed. She cried with joy when Rarity showed her herself in the mirror. "Oh, it's wonderful," she said. "If only my boy would come visit."

"I can mail him a letter if you like," Spike said.

"PLEASE," she said, so she wrote out a letter and Spike sent it.

Then we headed northwest.

************

The hallway descended and now had a foot of murky water covering the floor. Rarity stared at it in horror. The Wonderbolts and Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy simply flew over it. Twilight grimaced too, while Applejack just splashed out into it.

"Sorry, Rarity, but we have to press on," I told her.

She sighed. "The things a lady must do." She shook her head and waded into the water. We were used to this by now, though Applejack looked rather amused.

There was a hidden pit trap, though I am not sure how effective it really would be given you'd gently float down a bit instead of plummeting. But we shut that down easily.

The hallway now bent north and had six ten foot long copper plates on each wall before opening up into a bigger room ahead. Ivan and I held up a hand. "What the hell is this?" Ivan said. "Is it magic?"

I studied it. "Yes."

"Is it a giant still?" Pinkie asked.

"There's probably a floor trigger," Ivan said. "But this murky water hides the floor so I can't look for it."

"I could scout past it," Rainbow Dash said.

"That could cut you off," Ivan said, frowning.

"We could try sucking up all the water into clouds, but there's not really room to disperse it and I think we'd end up shrouded in fog, never mind," Soarin' said. He sighed.

Twilight studied the wall panels. "They cause heat, I think."

"It IS a still," Pinkie said excitedly.

I do not wish to become brandy.

"Maybe the riddle for this tunnel has some kind of clue," Twilight said thoughtfully.

"We are standing in a kind of stagnant river, which was the answer," Spike said.

"The middle one, the moon, could also mean 'air'," Ivan said. "It may have air defenses, and then the last one is either fire or earth related."

"Hey, it could be earth and then this one has magic challenges for unicorns," Applejack said. "So unicorns go this way, pegasi the middle way, earth ponies the other one."

"I would hope unicorns are NOT expected to wade in filthy water," Rarity said, frowning.

"And someone trying to fend you off would make the route as filthy as possible," I told her. "Or fend me off. Remember, mad wizards want to see you flail, but always provide some sort of out if you are clever or determined enough. It's how they get their jollies."

Twilight thought hard. "Wouldn't it be easier to beat the challenges if you have another kind of pony's abilities?"

"Maybe," Ivan said. "We can expect a couple of things this way that only magic can beat, if the theory is correct. Given this place wasn't made just for pony-thwarting, there may be other thematic things going on. Mad wizards LOVE their themes."

"These traps are usually triggered by pressure, right?" Applejack said.

"Yes," Ivan said. "Unless they have magic sensors built in."

"I'm thinking Rainbow Dash should try to move through, see if she can get by," Applejack said.

"Hold on," I said and cast Saint Tarastia's fire on her. "Now she can see once she gets there."

Rainbow Dash said, "FORWARDS!"

She zoomed down the corridor, then said, "There's a big square room with a watery floor, but stairs go up out of the water!" Then she winced. "And my hooves hurt. My horseshoes feel hot."

A second later. "And...uh... really ugly, dirty humans are coming at me! Time to kick some ass!"

The Wonderbolts launched down the hallway to aid her, though both of them gave a yelp at the end.

"Forward," Applejack shouted.

"No, wait, it may not be..." I began.

Applejack and Pinkie rushed down the hallway; by the end, they were yelping about hot horseshoes too.

Rarity said, "Try and lure them to where I can shoot them from here."

"And the same for me!" Twilight shouted.

"I think maybe it's heating up metal like Fluttershy's spell. Fluttershy, do you think maybe you could turn this off?"

"I can try," Fluttershy said and she began singing a song, while Spike helped Rarity stow all her jewelry in her saddlebags. Ivan and I stowed our weapons in Twilight's saddlebags so she could pass them back to us.

Fluttershy began to glow. "Stand close by me," she said and she led us down the hallway, protecting us. We reached the far end, a large square room; there was a concealed door open in one wall and nine ill-kempt humans with sallow skin and dirty fangs and clawed fingers were rampaging. Three more had collapsed in the water, dead or unconscious. They were starting to crumble into dust. Applejack and Pinkie were both paralyzed and fallen down in the water. Dash was busy dodging them and looking frustrated. Spitfire and Soarin' kicked another one into the wall and then fell on him, battering him until he collapsed; their suits seemed to let them touch the creatures safely.

The first wave fell back when Twilight and I hammered them with lightning balls. Rarity shot three of them with arrows, piercing their hearts and they fell, crumbling to dust. Spike breathed fire on them; to my surprise, they didn't vanish but they DID burn, and two of them now stumbled away and threw themselves in the water, though they were now badly hurt. Twilight then passed Ivan and I our weapons.

Fluttershy said something I couldn't hear over all the shouting, then began flapping her wings like it was some sort of signal.

Dash flew over to us. "If you touch them or they claw you, you get paralyzed. I need a magic protection whammy."

Fluttershy laid her hooves on Dash and sang; Dash now glowed green as well as having yellow and red St. Tarastia's Fire. "This should protect you."

The Wonderbolts nailed another ghoul and beat him down, working together, even as Dash rushed into the fray and pushed another one through the concealed door and back into the room they came from. I heard a 'WHAM'.

Ivan darted at one, stabbed him, parried the counter-stroke with a dagger, stabbed him again, parried another blow and then finished him off.

Applejack made a muffled noise probably indicating her irritation with being paralyzed. Pinkie made gurgly noises and Ivan turned her head to get the water out.

Fluttershy now came over to Applejack and began praying and singing and laying on of hooves. Applejack suddenly snapped into action. "Hold on while I protect you," Fluttershy said, while Applejack waited impatiently.

By the time she was ready, the rest of us had blasted, burned, stabbed, and beaten our foes to death.

"Well, that was a fight," Twilight said.

"Warmup act," I said.

"..."

"Likely all these paths we'll get keys or something to reach the sanctum where our doubles will be waiting, rested up while we are battered and worn down."

Ivan began rooting through the dust piles. He didn't find much, but there was a chest in the secret room. Careful examination showed that it was linked to a trap to close the door and flood the room, so the Wonderbolts, Dash, and Applejack positioned themselves to hold the door open while Ivan disabled the trap with help from me. Several hundred each of silver, gold, and electrum coins, but the really valuable thing was a silver statuette of Nyx. It was beautifully made with tiny gemstone eyes and she held a little crystal goblet of 'blood' (actually ruby, according to Rarity). It went into Rarity's bags.

Rule 2 of dungeons, always look for hidden treasure. I checked for a false bottom but there wasn't one. Tsk, someone is slipping.

Time to go up the stairs and die.

**************

The stairs bent around up to a rather unusual room. It was very tall, maybe 120 or more feet tall in height; about five feet above ground level, a waterway flowed through the air, about ten feet deep with ten foot high above water level openings in the walls that it flowed in and out of. There were three more similar rivers above it. I suspect it's all one big river which flows up and down using magic and bent space. Eight rectangular rafts sat against the wall, each about five feet long and two feet wide; you could see the flow of the current and fish swam in the water. Probably they eat flesh.

I threw a small wad of paper; it didn't dissolve, so not acid.

"I guess we just raft to the end," Applejack said.

"It's going to be trickier than that," I said. "Soarin', try flying straight down the tunnel until you see us again. If you have to make a choice, go left."

He flew into the north wall and after three minutes, emerged from the west wall at the top level. "I passed through four other rooms but I stuck with my stream. There was a triangle shaped room, a pentagon, a hexagon, and...uh... a room with seven sides," he shouted down.

This room was a square. Bloody hell, this is some damn math-geometry puzzle bullshit.

"Simple progression of sides," Twilight said. "Spike, notes."

Spike began taking notes as Soarin' reported what he'd seen; he'd gone through the pentagon, then the triangle, then the septagon, then the hexagon. Each room had as many streams flowing through it as the number of sides.

"It's entirely possible this changes alignment based on something we're supposed to predict," I said.

"I hate this kind of thing," Ivan grumbled.

"I'm intrigued," Twilight said. "Rarity, take a look at this. This is supposed to be a challenge for unicorns, we think, so we should work together."

"If I was going to challenge me, it would involve making clothing," Rarity said, but she came over and began studying Twilight's notes. They began sending our pegasi through the tunnels, trying to map out more of it and find the pattern. I frowned. There has to be more to this than just a really complicated water maze.

We were all a little surprised when Rainbow Dash suddenly came flying back out of one of the tunnels at ground level. It looked like there was also an octagon, a nonagon AND a decagon, and then you ended up back here. Further, only about a third of the identified water roads were the one which ran at the ground floor here. In other words, you'd have to switch levels at least once in order to get through this, and I suspect, a bunch of times.

WE ARE GOING TO BE IN HERE FOREVER.

"How is anypony supposed to jump these rafts from one level to another?" Applejack said. "For that matter, without oars, how do we steer?"

"Teleport," I said. "Hmm, let me test something, much as I'd rather stay dry."

I leaped up into the water and stood in it; you could feel a kind of membrane, and though it swayed a bit under my weight, it held me up. "Depending on how far the distance is, we could throw rafts up to someone or down, then climb up and down with ropes or using those crazy jumping skills of yours," I said. "Probably something will try to kill us while we're in the middle of it."

"So it's intended to make us use lots of magic and get too worn out when we reach the next danger?" Rarity said.

"Most likely, yes," I said. "There may be re-directs and the like intended to split us up which the pegasi aren't triggering because they're not in the water."

"These rafts are so ugly," Rarity said, frowning. "I bet our evil twins cheated with their flying carpet."

That made sense. "Maybe there's some way to exploit your arrows."

"Maybe the fact we start in the square is some kind of hint," Pinkie mused. "Instead of the triangle; it's the logical starting point, right?"

"Yes," Twilight said. She studied our crude map, looking for a numerical pattern. "Three through ten. Eight rooms. Maybe they stand for something," Twilight mused.

"They stand for me hating math puzzles," Ivan said, leaning on the wall.

Fluttershy paused, then blinked and went over and began talking to the fish.

I slapped my forehead. SO DAMN OBVIOUS.

"They say there's an eleven sided room which has frost giants in it and a twelve-sided room with a trapdoor in the ceiling over the topmost river," Fluttershy said. "But they're not smart enough to know the room orders."

"Some of the others may do things when a unicorn enters, if it's keyed to unicorns," I said.

"And if you come in low enough, the frost giants don't notice you because they rarely look at their feet, but you likely have to make complicated moves to REACH that low-running one in their room," Twilight said.

That made sense.

"I hate to ask but we have to map the rest of this and you three can get around easiest," Twilight said to the pegasi.

"It's cool, threading the needle here is pretty fun, see how fast you can do in confined space," Dash said.

Rarity twitched. Pinkie said, "Oooh, I don't know that one. What does your Rarity twitch tell you?"

"Marcus, darling, can you try getting under the water and pushing up on it?" Rarity said, studying the water intently.

...

I tried doing so and the water actually rose; you could grasp the 'membrane' and push it. If you were careful, with slow and steady pressure, you could push the water down too without breaking through the membrane and entering the water. It required, however, delicacy.

"This is a test for both of us," Rarity said. "Your keen mind for geometry and my mind for sewing. Your power and my finesse. This is like a badly sewn garment with threads going wildly everywhere. What we have to do is to pick apart the tangle and rethread it so it moves smoothly through the rooms in an orderly way, and then we can get past here."

Twilight rubbed her forehead. "That's going to drain us both a lot."

"We shall all have to pool our strength," Rarity said. "With you and I leading the way, I think we can do it."

It was a lot of work; the rest of us did a lot of climbing around, mapping, guiding, and sometimes just hefting rivers and pushing them around slowly at Rarity and Twilight's guidance, while they moved others themselves; Twilight summoned her Element and everyone was busy using theirs. Fluttershy even got the fish to help us.

You could actually feel the rooms move as Rarity and Twilight wove them into a new configuration; we could push the rooms around, which Applejack was very good at it. Pinkie assisted Applejack and made us lunch and dinner; it was dinner time by the time we'd rearranged them all and rafted to the biggest room, then climbed up through the trapdoor, but we all felt pretty proud of ourselves. Even better, the room at the top had three spindles of thread: cloth of gold, cloth of silver, and cloth of *platinum*. We were going to have some fancy formal attire, I could tell.

"Twilight," I told her. "There is almost certainly going to be an evil trapped book which will try to kill you and will be whatever book you MOST WANT. I tell you this, knowing you will blow yourself up anyway, but I have to try."

Twilight frowned. "I'm not stupid enough to fall for that trap," she said, glaring at me.

I speak from painful experience, of course.

"I hope the other routes don't have anything that complicated," Applejack said. "Though pushing rooms around was kind of fun."

"There's going to be an evil library. I know this in my heart," I said apologetically to Twilight. "And there will likely be something to make me do something foolish."

"Not hard," Spike said.

"Spike, be nice," Twilight said firmly. Fortunately, she doesn't stay mad for long.

"Also, Spike, don't eat any gems. They'll probably be poison or acid or something," I said.

"We should probably sleep soon," Pinkie said, yawning.

"Let's try and finish this branch, then we can hit the others tomorrow," Twilight said. "And we need to make sure none of our treasure so far is on the dragon's list."

We set off down a hallway as I tried to contemplate my weaknesses.

Which would take a while to go through *all* of them.

*************

The next room was large, maybe seventy feet long and forty feet wide with a door in the far wall; everything was painted with historical scenes. To the left of the entrance was the primitive semi-human Brute-men, hunting mammoths in the snow. To the right was a picture of us coming into the room. Various major events were painted across the walls and the far door. The door itself showed the crowning of the first Thyatian emperor; in the sky above him, Celestia and a black coated, armor wearing alicorn did battle as the moon eclipsed the sun. I had known about...

BING BING BING.

This must be Nightmare Moon. The fact that every pony in the place's breath caught made me realize I was right.

My brain whirred several clicks. This fight had caused an eclipse. We just had an eclipse around the same time they got the Elements of Harmony. Princess 'Luna' shows up after that. Holy shit, did they some how get one of the Entropics to switch sides?

I thought about how Entropy had once been Joy... and might be again, Twilight hoped.

Celestia aims big, I see.

I suddenly wondered if there had been an eclipse around 1000 BC when the gnolls laid waste to Karameikos and the Alphatians arrived on Mystara.

Twilight said something garbled, and I said to her, "Celestia dreams big."

"Yes," Twilight said softly.

Pinkie made incoherent noises with her hooves over her mouth.

"It's okay," I told her. "I can pretty much figure it out now."

"Figure what out?" Ivan asked.

"Don't worry about it," I told him. "I think we can assume this is some sort of 'push the right historical events to unlock the door' puzzle.

"Shouldn't we try the door before we just assume it's a trap?" Applejack said.

"It's ALWAYS a trap or a puzzle," I said. "Mad Wizards love this sort of thing."

"If there's even one block puzzle in this place, I am going to kill someone," Ivan said.

We all fanned out to study the murals, while Ivan and Twilight and I studied the door. It had no key lock but was locked. No obvious traps.

Then suddenly the door in filled with glowy light. And now we heard a voice. Twilight's voice. "Welcome to White Plume Mountain, evil twins of us."

"We are not EVIL," Applejack said. "And who are you ponies?"

"We are the Elements of Power," the not-Twilight said. "I am Dawn Gleaming, and I represent Knowledge. For Knowledge is a form of Power."

"Know..." Twilight stopped. Knowledge IS power. There is no way Twilight could possibly assert it is not. She looked utterly stymied.

"So is CANDY," Pinkie said. "Sugar is the ultimate power."

"Sugar doesn't even come close to Dawn Gleaming's power," a man said. He was somewhat higher pitched than me in tone but not actually into the high pitched registers (for a man).

"Sammy, is that you?" Pinkie asked.

"It's me, yes," Sammy said.

"I don't sound like that," I said.

"You sound exactly like that, sugarcube," Applejack said to me.

What? But I have a deeper voice than that, though not as deep as Erik had. When I was Erik, that is.

I heard distant laughter, which then stopped and now Rarity's voice echoed into the room. "Hello, everyone, I am Clarity, the Element of Industry."

"You are INCREDIBLY undignified," Rarity said condemningly.

"I just do what you do inside your head and I make it look good, don't I, Spikey?" Her voice purred.

"You always look good, Clarity," Spikey, the other-Spike said cheerfully.

Spike buried his face in his hands.

I guess Applejack is Farming, Dash is Athletics, Pinkie is... Partying? Social Affairs? And Fluttershy is something like Nature or Druidism or something.

"Anyway, my snuggle-wuggums and I designed this room for you," Dawn Gleaming began, her voice so laden with sugar, you could almost get a rush off it.

Pinkie, in fact, began bouncing about and shaking, probably having successfully gotten a rush off it.

"You have a snuggle-wuggums?" Twilight squeaked out.

"It's pretty much inevitable that two wizards working together will fall in love," Dawn Gleaming said with her voice full of even *more* sugar. "Touching minds, weaving spells together, sharing books, long evenings of studying together." Her voice kept getting ever more dreamy.

Rarity made a grumbly noise. Spike made a grumbling noise and looked at Rarity, then we could hear Clarity and Spikey making happy noises at each other. Spike looked ready to die and it hit me.

SPIKE HAS A CRUSH ON RARITY. I feel like an idiot for not seeing this before.

"Uhhh...," Applejack said. "So you two looking to make centaur babies?" She sounded boggled.

"Don't be silly, we use shapeshifting for such things. We're not looking for kids, anyway," Dawn Gleaming said. "We're both very busy and killing you all is eating up a lot of time we could be spending on finally finishing going over Edalsam's gloss of Meister Arkhe's commentary on Darius IV's history of Early Alphatia."

"I still think he made a huge mistake summarizing chapter 28 down to just three sentences. You can't just dismiss economic history that easily," Sammy said.

"Well, he had to get it down to 128 pages so it would fit in that printing size. Otherwise, he would have had to go up to 256, pushing the price too high, really, and making it harder to get through in the usual time alloted," Dawn Gleaming said.

"That isn't true, is it?" Rarity asked me, her voice oddly casual.

"I'm not familiar with the gloss in question, but the basic laws of printing apply," I said. "Alphatian presses would print giant pages which would be folded and cut into 128 pages. This made multiples of 128 the ideal size for books printed that way. Smaller presses could print 32 or 64 pages. So you wanted 32, 64, 128, or 256, usually. Beyond that, you probably wanted multiple volumes. Mind you, if we get into the issue of folios, then the math changes."

Dawn Gleaming and Sammy continued to debate history loudly, while Clarity and Spikey made happy noises at each other and our Spike clearly contemplated just burning EVERYTHING. Twilight, of course, began arguing the topic with Dawn Gleaming and Sammy.

Everyone else listened and milled around, waiting for someone who knew what to do.

"I meant about wizards, darling," Rarity said to me.

"Actually, wizards are more likely to set each other on fire over some stupid argument than to fall in love," I told her. "Though I have a friend in Glantri who became a wizard and married a wizard. And I suppose a lot of Glantrians and Alphatians do marry other wizards. But it's not what you'd consider automatic the way those two think."

"It IS inevitable," Dawn Gleaming said firmly to me. "We were *destined* by the stars!"

Twilight mumbled to herself.

Rarity started. "The mice," she said.

"Mice?" I asked.

"Long story," Rarity said.

"Twilight turned mice into horses to pull us to the Grand Gala, but Rarity's cat chased them off before we could go!" Pinkie said. "It was HILARIOUS." She began laughing.

"You shouldn't embarrass Rarity like that," I told Pinkie.

"If I don't, who will?" Pinkie said very seriously. "Everyone needs their chains rattled every so often."

Rarity looked at me, opened her mouth, glanced around, then shut it. "Enough of debating love and history," she said. "Let's get through this, I have things to do and places to go." Her voice was very businesslike. "What do we have to do?"

"Well, ideally, I would have just set you all on fire, but Keraptis liked to play with his food, so I have to give you a chance," Dawn Gleaming said regretfully. "I could be working with my snugglewuggums if you all would just die and leave us be. Or even just go away and never come back."

"We promised Vermicoritax to get ALL of his treasure back," Rainbow Dash said firmly. "I keep my promises."

"Me too," Applejack said and they high-hoofed. "Come on, let's get this done."

"There are ten historical errors in the paintings," Dawn Gleaming said. "Touch them all and the door opens. Each time you fail, a trap goes off."

"Is there a unique trap for each possible mistake?" Twilight asked.

"Do you think I could accept anything less?" Clarity asked. "A job worth doing is worth doing right, down to the smallest detail. That's how you get rich!"

"You robbed a dragon to get rich!" Rarity said angrily.

"Yes, and the robbery was carried out with an eye for detail. Wealth is the fruit of industry and it doesn't matter how you work as long as you work hard." Clarity sounded quite cheerful about this.

"And wealth is power," I said.

"Exactly, darling," Clarity said.

"I don't do it just for the money!" Rarity said angrily.

"We all know how you act when you see pretty things for the taking, dearie," Clarity said to her. "Men, jewelry, fine cloth... I saw how you coveted those rolls of cloth you found earlier. It pleased me, even if you have to die."

Rarity cringed at that and I got mad, putting a hand on her back. "Everyone likes pretty things, but Rarity doesn't hoard them for herself! She gets them so she can make something even MORE beautiful for others! She uses her love of beauty to help others, and you just keep it all for yourself!"

"Because I am the most beautiful thing of all," Clarity purred. "Aren't I, Spikey?"

"Lady Clarity, there is nothing in this whole world which can match your beauty, the fine smoothness of your white coat, the gentle perfect curls of your purple mane, the very color of royalty itself," Spikey said warmly.

"This is what happens when you bathe too often," Applejack said, shaking her head.

"Yeah, exactly," Rainbow Dash said. "No wonder she's so full of herself."

I cannot understand any mindset which exalts being filthy.

I heard Rarity's teeth grind, and then she said, "Marcus, darling, I think it's time to get this show under way so we can shove their words back in their mouths, though it may be hard as they're clearly full of themselves." She sounded quite angry and it was kind of thrilling, really.

"Okay," Twilight said. "Everyone look for weird things to point out to us, but I guess Marcus and I will have to do the identifying."

Given I'd been little use on the previous one, I was eager to take the lead here. Though Twilight likely knows more than I do.

"Got one," Pinkie said cheerfully, four seconds later, pointing to a painting of a pony busy baking a cake in an oven. Pony ovens involve heating coals in compartments above and below the main body of the oven, the heat diffuses inside the oven, allowing for nice even cooking and the smoke rises out through a pipe, keeping smoke off your food.

Twilight and I studied it. "Looks fine to me," Twilight said. "I really don't know baking." She paused, then looked around. "Wait, this is a modern oven and if these are in order, this would be... a long, long time ago."

"Exactly," Pinkie said, feeling satisfied. "That cake looks so tasty, though." She poked the oven and it began to glow softly. We did not die, so that's ONE.

Ugh, nine more to go with a trap for each one wrong.

"Ooh, this one has to be wrong," Rainbow Dash said, pointing to another one.

It was, in fact a red-coated pony with an orange mane, carrying King Halav into battle against the gnolls. You could see Zirchev by his side riding... is that Twilight's father? You could sort of make out some sort of blue pony being ridden in the background by Petra, but they were up on a hill casting a spell.

"Trixie?" Twilight said in disbelief. "DAD?"

"That's your father?" Rainbow Dash said. "I just noticed Big Mac."

"Who?" I asked.

"My brother. He isn't actually that big, though he is big for a Pony," Applejack said. "I think he'd like this, though." She sounded pleased herself.

"Well, this is definitely a historical error," Twilight said.

"Wait, this is SO blatant, there must be a trick," I said, stopping her hoof.

"Unfortunately, I didn't bring my histories," Twilight said in frustration. "This trip has gone VERY off the plan."

"If you had a real power like Knowledge," Dawn Gleaming said, a little tauntingly, "You would have known to, like I did, which is why I'm in the control room and you're going to die. Or you could just turn back."

"Ain't no turning back," Applejack said. "We made a promise."

Spitfire tried to crowd in. "It's two Unicorns and an Earth Pony," she said. "If this is the Unicorn route, maybe they should all be Unicorns?"

"I don't think Halav, Petra, or Zirchev rode any sentient Ponies," I said. "Applejack, you know Big Mac. Anything wrong with him here?"

She peered at it closely while Twilight illuminated it with her horn. "His cutie mark is wrong."

She pushed him and he glowed softly. "Score," Applejack said proudly.

"Dammit, that was MINE!" Rainbow Dash said. She sounded frustrated.

"Yeah, but I had to finish the job," Applejack said teasingly.

"Come look up near the top with me," Soarin' said to her.

She zoomed up where the rest of us couldn't see well. Spitfire did the same on the other side.

"Of course, if you had my power, you'd already know," Dawn Gleaming taunted Twilight. "You haven't gotten any of these yourself. So much for your studies."

Twilight fumed, pawing the ground.

"Don't let her goad you," I told Twilight. "It's a common trick."

Rarity now sidled up to her and began whispering to Twilight.

Meanwhile, Soarin' now announced, "Hah! Look, Spitfire!"

Spitfire said, "That's an easy one."

We all turned; they were looking at a hidden grotto where a pearl sat on an altar with Water Elves chanting and pouring sea water on it. Twilight came over. "That's the relic of the Water Elves, right? Specially created for them by the Immortal Calista Starbrow?"

"Yes, but it's actually much bigger," Soarin' said. "It's three feet across and they allowed us to witness it being returned to where it is kept in a giant oyster shell, not on an altar," he said. "No one but the keepers and we, the Wonderbolts, know this." He paused. "And, umm... you now."

Spitfire said, "We saw other things too but we won't talk about them, right, Soarin'?" There was just a little edge in her voice.

"Uh, yeah, we won't talk about them," he mumbled. "But it was the only way to get this one, right?"

Twilight rubbed her forehead. "So if you weren't here, we might not have ever gotten this. All the books made it sound like a normal pearl if they mentioned it at all."

Soarin' now touched the pearl with his hoof. It glowed softly.

"Unless, of course, like me, you read Oran Meditor's diaries!," Dawn Gleaming cackled. "Acquired for me by my wonderful little Sammy."

He now laughed and I ground my teeth.

"I wouldn't steal someone else's BOYFRIEND!" Twilight shouted angrily.

Boyfriend? She said diaries. I don't think Oran Meditor has a boyfriend, I think he's married. To a woman, just to be clear. He's the head of the Minrothad Guilds, by the way. IE, he's out to kill me, but not for stealing his diaries.

At least, I don't remember stealing them.

Wait, does she think I have a girlfriend? Who? Surely she doesn't think I'm involved with Helga when she's married or...Dammit, I am missing something.

Rarity mumbled something.

"I didn't steal someone else's boyfriend!" Dawn Gleaming said angrily; I heard a punching noise. "Come on, you stupid machine, punish them!"

No punishment happened.

"As long as we play by the rules, you have to as well!," Pinkie said. "It's the first part of a fun game like this one! I'm just hoping my game will be this cool when we get to it!" She hopped around excitedly.

Keraptis must have some sort of arcane machine, probably tapping the plane of shadows, given his reputation, which controls and reconfigures White Plume Mountain. Interesting.

I could hear a distant laughter.

"Shut up, Keraptis!" Sammy said.

I hear a noise like someone being hit with a pie.

"Pinkamena Diane Pie, you clean up that mess right this minute!" Pinkie barked with a suddenly serious voice.

"Yes, mother," we heard very faintly. After a few seconds of cleaning noises, we heard, "Aargh, you're not my mother!" Whoever it was sounded like a cranky Pinkie.

Pinkie rolled around, laughing.

We all started laughing.

"Shut up, you stupid constructs! You're not even supposed to exist!" Pinkamena shouted.

I frowned. That's what the dragon in my dreams... Marquetta... said to me. Dammit. Though they seem to think we are all fakes and they're the real ones.

"Hmm, could be clone hatred syndrome," Twilight said.

"What's that?" Applejack asked curiously.

"Many wizards clone themselves and put the clone on ice; if they die, it comes out of cold storage and then takes up their life. But if you and your clone are out roaming around at once, eventually, the clone goes mad and wants to kill the original."

"You're the clones!" Pinkamena shouted.

"You wait your turn, this is our trap!" Clarity said.

I now realized Fluttershy had been trying to get our attention the whole time. "Fluttershy?"

"Desert Willow," she said, pointing to a tree in the picture of Brute-men trying to hunt a mammoth, which was standing protectively between them and a baby mammoth. Fluttershy said, "It grows in hot, dry climates. Not ones with huge amounts of snow."

"I agree," Twilight said, sounding relieved.

Fluttershy smiled and touched the tree, which glowed.

"Twilight," Rarity said to her. "Can you date this?" She pointed to a picture of Ponies and humans fighting a huge epic battle by a riverbank. Flags were flying and armies of humans in chain with shield, spear, and shortbows were fighting angry unicorns, earth ponies with spear rigs, and pegasi. It was going badly for the human army, though the carnage was immense on both sides.

"This is the Battle of the East River, 126 AC, in which Duke Swift Hoof Blueblood II led the forces of Whinneychester and the Big Apple province to thwart an invasion by Corin II Anselwind," Twilight said. "Yes, he is the ancestor of the current Duke," she said regretfully to Rarity.

Blueblood. I'd give him a piece of my mind if he was present and if it wasn't probably suicide. Well, I might do it anyway; I've survived worse than an angry noble.

"What about Prance, the Dacoatas, and Mane?" Applejack asked. "I can see why the West and North Marechs would have to guard their own frontiers, but if Darokin was invading..."

"The Duke of Prance was pouting because Celestia would not marry him, so he invaded Sindh to 'avenge an insult'. The Dacoatas each sent only a handful of men," Twilight continued, "arguing they needed the strength to defend against the Buffalo. And the Duke of Mane launched his own invasion of Darokin, hoping to seize Akorros while Darokin's forces were in Equestria." Twilight sounded rather unhappy about the whole mess.

"They INVADED DAROKIN? Why?" Applejack asked, shocked.

"More land meant you could support more Lances of warponies," Twilight said. "And beat up your rivals, take their mares, the usual feudal insanity." She shook her head. "Remember, this is the Dark Age of Equestria. In the aftermath of... that..." she said, pointing to the Alicorn vs. Alicorn battle on the door, "the warponies ruled Equestria, while Celestia was struggling to deal with both the Sun AND the Moon."

"She suffered a Stroke," Ivan said softly. You could hear the capital letter.

"I am not aware of any medical problems," Twilight said hesitantly.

"When one Immortal delivers a heavy blow to another Immortal's followers or to the Immortal's plans, they often suffer a 'Stroke', which robs them of some of their power. Some petty immortals, especially those of Entropy, invest a lot of effort into delivering Strokes to each other," Ivan said. "Everyone assumed it was Nyx trying to deliver a Stroke to Ixion when the sun vanished at the Thyatian Emperor's coronation, but it was that," he said, pointing at the exit door. "Celestia's power dwindled and likely she got censured for something connected to this and had to reduce her involvement in the mortal world."

I stared. It made good sense, but I didn't expect it to come from Ivan of all people. He's not... he's VERY smart about some things, but... oh wait, I guess he's been studying Immortality because he hopes to be one.

Everyone looked at Ivan and each other uncomfortably.

"So the warponies ran the place to suit themselves," Ivan said.

"My father is a warpony and he does not just run riot," Rarity said somewhat tensely to Ivan.

"Your father grew up in a peaceful society which taught him that he is a defender of the innocent and a champion of justice and that he serves the state and the common good," Ivan said. "Duke Blueblood II grew up in a time in which you learned to kick people's ass so you could have a big herd of mares. Young colts either became warponies and served one of the noble stallions in hopes of rising to have their own followers or else became a servant or got driven into the wilderness to die because the family had too many children, right, Twilight?"

She stared at the ground. "Yes."

Now all the other ponies really shifted uncomfortably and avoided looking at Ivan or each other.

"Don't feel bad," Ivan said kindly. "Karameikos was just like that until thirty years ago and even now it's still kind of like that. I could have stayed and been my brother's servant all my life, or I could have joined the army and hoped to rise in the ranks, or I could go out and seek my fortune, like many young colts did then and still do. There's a thousand Duke Bluebloods and Dukes of Prance and Dukes of Mane in my nation's history. Halav, and Petra, and Zirchev may have founded us, but they basically left us to rot while they did... whatever they're doing." He sounded rather bitter. "Wolves on horseback have ruled Karameikos for millenia and what have 'our' immortals done about it? Nothing. We had to be conquered by the Thyatians to get our act together. For all that Duke Stefan is too naive for his own good, he is trying to be a good leader, trying to help everyone. He fails sometimes, because he trusts the wrong people. But he is still better than just about every leader we've had for two thousand years. I don't think any of you realize at all how lucky you are." Okay, VERY bitter.

"Hey, man, I'm sorry," I said. I didn't even realize how frustrated Ivan was about all this. I clapped his shoulder, not knowing what to do.

Ivan basically went down in a tide of ponies trying to comfort him. I nearly got trampled, being in the way. Soarin' and Spitfire both stayed up in the air, but everyone else basically mobbed him.

"I'm sorry," Fluttershy said to him softly, hovering by his head.

"You're not the ones who have been grinding Karameikos underfoot all these years. We did it to ourselves. We fought off the gnolls but our leaders just went on to either ravage everything or fail, over and over and over," he said, sounding frustrated. Then he stopped talking, possibly because he couldn't actually breathe with that many ponies trying to comfort him. Then he started crying, which I could tell embarrassed him intensely.

"I guess I never paid no attention to history, really," Applejack said. "The turnin' of the seasons was all the history I needed, and I do know a few things about agriculture. Seems like history's pretty depressin'."

"It's not all bad," Twilight said. "But some of it can be."

For a while, everyone worked on cheering Ivan up, while I tried to think of something I could do to cheer Ivan up. He's not normally so bitter.

"How did you get out of it?" he finally asked Twilight when the storm of hugs and nuzzles died down.

"Wait... get out of what?"

"Less hugs, more dying!" Dawn Gleaming said. "I can't get back to my studies so long as you're all roaming around loose."

"Dammit, the pie turned into a monster!" I heard evil-Applejack shout. "A shadow monster!"

Keraptis was laughing and I laughed too. I heard an odd noise and we couldn't hear them any more. "There's reasons Keraptis is still around to screw with people after all these centuries," I said, feeling an odd satisfaction from it.

"How did the end of feudalism come in Equestria?" Ivan asked.

"As time passed, the cities grew more prosperous. They attracted those excess young men to work and become craftponies, merchants, and traders. They developed machines which made it much easier for them to do a variety of tasks. While the feudal nobility spent their strength fighting each other, they grew strong. Then, when better outside armies showed up, the disorganized feudal forces could no longer win wars. Peace with the buffalo also reduced the need for decentralized military forces which could respond quickly to buffalo stampedes. They would eventually be replaced by our modern army and the nobility now dwindled in power and became courtiers, waiting on Princess Celestia," Twilight said.

Now that, I basically knew. Though now I wonder how much of it was Princess Celestia's maneuvers and how much was shifts in economic power. Farm yields are harder to increase than industry in the cities if you have someone to sell to. I suspect craftponies like Rarity did as much to end feudalism as Celestia did.

I now realized I was patting Rarity's back, as if she herself had ended feudalism. She looked at me and smiled and I smiled back at her. I think we'd been thinking the same thoughts.

"Rarity, why did you ask about the date?" I asked. Best we get back to the puzzle before monsters get unleashed to up the stakes.

Rarity turned to the picture NEXT to it, which showed a human woman busy operating a sewing machine. If you looked carefully, she was making the banner which was flown by the human leader in the next scene. "The sewing machine was invented MUCH later than this, and few humans have them even now; they were invented to help earth ponies and pegasi sew, since they can't use magic for it like I do. And even I find some sewing easier with one." Some sewing machines are magical but most are operated by a foot pump. (Magical ones are becoming pretty common in Glantri.) Earth ponies especially love them because they can operate a foot pump until the cows come home without getting tired. Equestria is more mechanized than a lot of countries because it's hard for ponies to do a lot of things without hands. The Darokinians and Minrothad Guilds have bought up or copied a lot of Pony tech, though. And sometimes invented things useful for the Ponies. They both go where the money is.

Rarity touched the sewing machine and it glowed. She smiled proudly.

"Good job," Twilight said, though one of her eyes twitched a little. Ponies often handle being outdone in their specialty or having it fail... badly.

"I couldn't have done it without your help," Rarity said graciously. "I did not know when this might be."

"Is the battle laid out correctly? It may have something too," I told Twilight.

She began studying it intently.

Spike burped and coughed up a letter. He passed it to Twilight. It was from 'Owlicious', who seems to be another assistant of Twilight. I wonder how he and Spike get on.

"The Falchion of Minroth is a Nithian style weapon," Twilight said. "It's a kind of sword with a curve at the end of the blade. Minroth was a mighty warrior and he lead the colonization of what is now the Minrothad Guilds by the Nithians. He later became the Immortal patron of the Isles, encouraging the five races to cooperate: human, elf, halfling, dwarf, and pony."

"Sphere of Matter," Ivan said. "He watches over his people." Ivan sounded rather frustrated about this.

Man, it's like Halav stole his girlfriend or something. I patted his shoulder. "We can jack Halav's chariot one day, man."

"I'm surprised we haven't already," he mumbled and we both laughed.

"What does it mean to 'jack' something?" Applejack asked curiously. "In that sense? My name indicates I'm really good with apples, but you seem to use it different."

"Differently," Rarity said a little pedantically just before Twilight could say it.

"Short for 'hijack'," I said. "Halav has a sacred chariot from the gnoll wars."

Rainbow Dash laughed loudly and we all stared at her. "I'm just imagining Ivan cruising around in a holy chariot with Applejack pulling it at high speed while Halav tries to chase you on foot."

"He'd never catch us," Applejack said proudly. "Not that stealin' someone's chariot is a good idea. Living well is the best revenge, Ivan."

Ivan's thoughtful look made me suspect Applejack would end up helping him to steal Halav's chariot one way or another.

Damn, I bet she could make that thing... "Hey, they should have been in chariots in that picture."

"Maybe it has two flaws in it?" Ivan said.

"You can't touch the absence of something," Twilight said. "I think."

"We can come back to it if we can't find the others," I said.

Searching now resumed.

************

Spike found a problem with a dragon's head. Spitfire touched something and couldn't explain why but she was right. I wondered how many secrets the Wonderbolts have. Ivan found an Asterius with a duck on his head. (Don't ask.)

Twilight was vibrating, clearly frustrated that she didn't have the books she needed and people kept finding things before she could. I suddenly wondered if the real goal of this puzzle was to make her explode and make us all ducks on Asterius' head.

Dash suddenly darted over and touched a picture of a triumphant pegasus winning a race. "Midnight Clear never actually won a race, he always came second! It made him CRAZY," she said.

This resulted in a herd of shadowy horses and ponies suddenly conducting their race across the room. I got trampled. Ivan leaped onto the back of one and managed to ride it. Fluttershy, Pinkie, and Twilight all joined me on the floor. Applejack instinctively joined the race and... slammed into the wall when they trampled off into another painting. The Wonderbolts and Rainbow Dash all darted up out of the mob's way.

Damn you, Dash! If you set off a trap, have the decency to get crushed with the rest of us!

Twilight began to titter disturbingly. "You could have ASKED someone, you know! I could have told you that Midnight Clear DID win a single race, in 857! But the prize was lost in a storm, to her frustration."

"But I thought..."

"Thinking is not your strong point!," Twilight said angrily. "Of course, I read up on Midnight Clear because I knew you admired her, but you never read the book I got you about her! I spent a lot of time trying to find a good book for you!"

"I read most of it," Rainbow Dash mumbled. "But the last part was all words in tiny print."

"Hey, I would have already gotten mine, but Applejack STOLE MY... thing. Whatever we'd call it!" Rainbow Dash said angrily.

"Hey, I had to find the problem, you just pointed me the right way," Applejack protested.

"Ask someone before you jump in!," Twilight shouted at her.

"Twilight, dear, fighting each other won't help, even if it is practice for when we have to fight our evil twins," Rarity said.

"We're not evil, we're BETTER," Dawn Gleaming said. "Of course, a Twilight Sparkle is the sign the day is dying and on its last legs," she said gleefully. "You're too busy helping other people to keep up on your studies. Which you are GETTING IN THE WAY OF MINE."

I had to do something terrible.

And possibly suicidal.

Twilight mumbled something about helping people, eyes starting to glow. Everyone backed up and got nervous, though I could see Pinkie steeling herself to step in.

I am definitely going to die if Pinkie is worried about intervening.

I dropped to my knees next to Twilight as she gathered breath and I whispered to her, "I'm sure Erik loved it when you took time away from your studies to help him, and he loved helping you. Didn't you enjoy that? I know I enjoy studying with you too."

Playing on a young woman's feelings is a terrible thing.

But the alternative is blowing up.

She was still breathing hard, but she was listening.

"Remember, pony magic is about Friendship," I told her softly. "It's when you work with your friends that you are strongest. You have a right to be proud of your mind. But you're our leader. You have to be strong. You know how Celestia governs. She doesn't thrust herself forward and do it all. She knows when she has to lead, like you and the water. And when to find the right pony for the job. You want to be like Celestia, right?" THAT sunk home. Celestia rules with a delicate touch. I admire that.

Spike now simply silently hugged Twilight and I felt her relax.

She then did an odd thing with her tongue, like... she was using her teeth to count something off? I guess with no fingers, you have to do that. Her eyes widened, and then suddenly she looked triumphant.

"Dash, look at the picture again. Study who is in the race," she said. "Marcus..." She began studying the pictures.

And then I saw it. The owlbear killing a man who I dimly remembered being. Somehow. Thick beard, dark hair, olive skin. Dmitri Ilyanovich. You could see him, his legs tangled in vines in the Malpheggi as he stumbled out of quicksand, and now an owlbear flew down silently and attacked him from behind. I remembered that and I don't know how it could be me, but I cringed at the sight. Most owlbears can't fly but this one also had wings. Damn, that's ugly. Silent, deadly flight. He had hardly any gear and what he had was charred.

Twilight's gaze followed mine. Dash was now carefully studying the race picture very carefully.

"You know him?" Twilight asked softly.

It was me. I don't understand how, this man was not some kind of construct, but... right? He doesn't look like a flesh golem or anything.

To my surprise, Rarity was now at my side and I put a hand on her back. I felt my nerves unclench a little. "Shouldn't it not have wings?" Rarity asked.

"Certain rare ones have more owl in them and have wings," I said. "They're extremely dangerous because they can fly utterly silently."

"Yeah," Spike said. "You never hear Owlicious coming." He shivered.

"He's an Owl?"

"Would anyone not an owl name themselves that?" Spike asked me.

Okay, probably not. I studied it. This must be the one for me.

Twilight's shift of attitude was surprising. She'd gone from two inches from a nervous breakdown to a sudden confidence. She believed I would find the answer. Which, if Dash did her thing right, would mean all of us BUT her had solved one, though she'd helped many of us.

It's a Friendship test, I realized. I'd just been trying to calm her down, but, in fact, this was a test to put pressure on her to see if she snapped and had a freak out. With her power... that could be ugly.

And because I know how to manipulate people, I had been able to save her from herself. And because I wanted to help her, because she is my friend. None of the others study with her, except Spike. They know how important her learning is to her, but they don't share that love of it, except as it touches their own lives. Because they all have their own specialized knowledge. Twilight can't know everything, much as she'd like to.

Much as I would like to.

I understand her frustration. It's not easy to rely on others. But she is the Element of Magic which means the Element of Friendship. Which is why Celestia has her 'studying' it. The stronger her bonds to others, the stronger she is. She probably can't compete with Dawn Gleaming, if Gleaming really is tied to 'Knowledge' somehow. Not directly.

But then, only fools take people on in their strength. You find their weakness and then you hit them in it.

I can see what Celestia is doing; I just hope Twilight can handle it. That she likes it. I think she does, but...

Of course, I have no right to judge at all, after what I just did. Pushing her feelings around for my own benefit. Mind you, I think I have the right not to die horribly.

I tried to push away the angst. To remember this. Most of the group was watching me, though Applejack was studying the race with Rainbow Dash, talking to her quietly. They seem like good friends to me. Soarin' was trying to help her too.

"You might as well give up, you sad copy," evil me said. "You're just a construct. You're all just copies. Your minds full of holes. But you're more like a twentieth generation copy. It's all wearing out. Hard to remember, right?"

"Be silent, prattler," Rarity said angrily. "You are the copy, and you will be silent and leave Marcus alone."

"Ahah! Bluebonnet wasn't even BORN yet, let alone racing when Midnight Clear was at the top of her game!" Dash said and tapped. Nine glows now.

I tried to remember but my mind didn't want to remember, the claws, the screaming, Yalla screaming...

Yalla?

Someone else was there?

Someone... I could remember a hat. A very nice double-layered hat made from that manticore's hide. She'd feared the dragon's treasure was cursed and by that point, it was just us left.

But she had refused to take any of the treasure. I had finally, reluctantly discarded the last of the treasure and the two of us were trying to make our way down to Port Tenobar. We'd take ship to Thyatis; that would give us enough space.

And then the owlbear showed up. It would have caught her, but I attacked it and... I must have killed it or wounded it enough to drive it off and Yalla must have dragged me to Tenobar to have me raised or reincarnated or something. Had there been a druid?

Maybe. Yalla liked druids.

"He didn't die like this, he died saving his companion, a halfling named Yalla from the owlbear," I said firmly, then pushed the painting where she SHOULD have been. Her outline glowed and now there was a humming noise.

"How could you even know that? I didn't even know that one, the machine picked it out!," Dawn Gleaming said angrily.

"I knew that one," Sammy said.

Clarity laughed softly. "Well done," she said. "Hard work is rewarded."

"Don't CONGRATULATE them," Dawn Gleaming said angrily.

"But he knew exactly where to touch. That is precision, and I admire deftness and precision," Clarity said.

Spikey made a growling noise.

"You know you're my favorite dragon, yes you are," Clarity said and now they cooed at each other.

Spike's eyes crossed.

"Now you just open the door and come through," Dawn Gleaming said wearily.

"Once I disarm it," Twilight said. "I studied both of these incidents," she continued. "This is something I am an expert on." She touched Nightmare Moon's head. "Her helmet is wrong." Then she touched the priest behind the Emperor. "He's dressed in a sixth century style."

Now the door swung open. "Knowledge is power... but Friendship means I have access to the knowledge of everyone I know, not just my own," Twilight said. "Come on, everyone. This dungeon isn't going to defeat itself."

The sound of Dawn Gleaming pouting and Sammy trying to comfort her ushered us out of the room and off down a hallway towards our next doom... room.

*****************

Rainbow Dash pulled me back and whispered to me, "What did you say to her? Whatever it was, it calmed her right down."

"I just reminded her about how her element is Friendship," I said. "And how trying to go head to head with someone when they're better by definition isn't wise. Better to find a way where YOU are stronger."

Rainbow Dash said, "Yeah, but what if they're better at your strong point?"

"Everyone has weaknesses," I said. "Obviously, if you're playing a sport or something, you may not be able to exploit those weaknesses." This is why I don't play sports. "But the rest of the time, it's best to be like water and flow around obstacles." That was my favorite saying from my brief attempt to be a monk.

Hitting gongs with my head did not bring me to enlightenment, however.

I thought about Dmitri. How old am I? I don't seem to be getting any older, whatever is happening to me. Dammit, what IS going on?

"See, I know someone who is a really good athlete," Rainbow Dash began.

"I'm sure Applejack would be happy to help you improve your skills," I told her.

"..."

It was pretty obvious, really.

"See, she c..." Rainbow Dash looked at me, then sighed. "We never did quite settle which one of us is the better athlete."

"A good rivalry helps you both improve," I told her. "Anyway, I'm not a specialist like you ponies, so I have to be flexible and find ways to turn weaknesses on people because I never win head-to-head. Even at cards, which I'm good at, I have to outthink people to win."

"Doesn't that mean you're a specialist at out-thinking people?" Rainbow Dash said, grinning.

"I..."

Okay, she has me there.

"I never thought of it like that. Thanks, Rainbow Dash." I couldn't help smiling a little.

For some reason, Rainbow Dash looked at her Cutie Mark, then cracked up. "Is it really true humans never get any kind of sign what their place in life is?"

"Totally true," I told her.

"That must make deciding what to do with your life once you're not a kid hard," Rainbow Dash said.

"A lot of people just do what their parents did," I told her. "But some of us, like Ivan and I, spend our lives searching for it, and we may or may not ever find it."

"Well, I hope you do," Rainbow Dash said, patting my shoulder.

"Me too," I told her.

Right now, though, I'm going to worry about NOT DYING.

***************

I touched my hat, reminding me of how I now have the most awesome hat in the party, though Applejack's remains a work of simple elegance, well suited for her. I will not stare at it lest my hat grow jealous, of course.

Rarity made a happy noise as we went up the stairs together. I smiled at her. "Thank you again. It brings me peace of mind."

I heard Soarin' say to Rainbow Dash, "I think the hat is his girlfriend." My love for hats is PURE, not carnal, I will tell you!

But I just laughed and so did Rarity. She made a come hither gesture and I leaned down and she said softly, "I think they make a good couple, don't you?"

"Marcus can be a little weird, but I think he has a crush on me, actually," Rainbow Dash said to Soarin', thinking no one would hear, but I heard. "But we're not, you know, an item," she said very quickly. "I dunno what Twilight was thinking."

"Yes," I said softly to Rarity. Evenly matched in not understanding the universe, anyway.

What was Twilight thinking? Or maybe it was just because... I don't know.

Does she think...

I could see Spike glaring at me. I can see why, given he has a crush on Rarity. I can't believe I took so long to notice.

Rarity looked thoughtful.

"What's on your mind?" I said to her.

"We should talk, when this is over and we can get some privacy," she said to me.

"Okay," I told her. "Your company is quite delightful to me, fair lady Rarity."

She smiled a small smile. "You are a flatterer, Marcus."

"It's my nature," I said. "I think Marquetta must have told them we are constructs. She called me a failed experiment when she invaded my dreams."

"She didn't call me that but she did try to bribe me," Rarity said, frowning. "As if I was for sale. Admittedly, it was a very pretty pile of treasure." A single drop of sweat rolled down her cheek. "But I am not so easily bought," she said firmly.

I frowned. Why me? Dammit, what is going on? I'd just kind of settled into my rut of chaos, but now, I have the feeling I've been missing something. Like how I keep not dying.

"Anyway, I don't think you are an experiment, and if you are, I'd consider it a successful one," she said, then patted my leg.

"Thanks, Rarity," I told her. "You flatterer, you."

We smiled at each other. It's nice to know someone who knows how to play the game.

My brain chose NOW to suddenly put various pieces together. Twilight has shapeshifting magic. Dawn Gleaming and Sammy apparently use it when they want to bump rump, as Pinkie would put it. Twilight learned a rite which summons human clothing and probably others.

...

My brain then chose this moment for a DAMN FLASHBACK.

I still hate them.

**************

Lyra was one of my students, who had a turquoise coat and cyan mane. She was about to graduate from the school; she was a bardic specialist but she was also my best student. I'd noticed the bardics tended to have the most interest in Humanics, in part because I used a lot of music for my teaching. I'm terrible, but my students love to sing. And things like epic lays really seemed to hook them.

Lyra also was more bipedal than most ponies. Though she'd wander around on all fours out of class, in class, she went around bipedally and used an actual chair with her desk, which got a lot of stares.

"So how are things with you and Octavia, Lyra?" I asked her after class; I was about to head over to Twilight's place for the usual evening of work. Lyra was seeing one of the royal musicians, Octavia, an Earth Pony double-bass player.

"We're pals, Professor Erik," she said cheerfully.

"Just pals?" I asked; it was pretty clear Octavia wanted more than that. And I'd certainly seen them kissing, though Octavia got very embarrassed over such things in public.

"Yeah, it's nothing serious," Lyra said.

"I think Octavia thinks it's serious."

"We both know how it goes," Lyra said sagely, ambling along beside me. She began playing her harp as we walked, a marching song from Darokin.

"The Ballad of the Far Sellers," I told her.

"Yeah! I have a cousin, works for the Darokin Diplomatic Corps. He gets to see EVERYTHING." Lyra had a dreamy look in her eyes.

I knew where this was going. I'm sorry, Octavia. I think you're in love with someone who has the wandering bug. I was like that for a long time, but I think... I may actually stick around here a good while.

Having roots felt weird, and I missed seeing Helga and Ivan. But Helga was married now and Ivan was off on some 'secret important thing'. Also, Princess Carnelia can't kill me here when I am under Princess Celestia's protection.

I hope.

"Well, you should make sure Octavia understands, so you don't end up finding out how hard an Earth pony can kick."

Really damn hard, that's how hard.

There was a sudden glimmering around us and sparkles of light flew through the air. It was Moondancer, one of the advanced bardic students. Like Twilight, she hadn't been satisfied with the basic degree, but had stayed on to do advanced studies. She sometimes does... something or another with Princess Celestia which is top secret but which she cannot resist bragging about obliquely. Moondancer had a white coat with a black mane and the crescent moon on her flank. Her mane, however, had star-like flecks of silver in it.

Moondancer was dancing to the Ballad of the Far Sellers, leaping around us; her magic makes her as nimble as an Earth Pony and seems to produce star dust and moonglow when she dances. That's what she says, anyway.

"Hello, Moondancer," I said to her.

"Hello, Professor Erik," she said. "Don't mind me, I was inspired by Lyra's performance."

Lyra grinned. "Come on, Professor, sing."

"I might drive you deaf," I warned them.

I know a fair number of songs. BADLY. But for some reason, my students want me to sing.

I guess everyone needs something to laugh at.

o/~ Another day, another city,

o/~ Another horizon beckons to me.

o/~ Though home calls to me,

o/~ I must leave it behind.

Lyra sang softly, but I doubt even Moondancer could hear it; I had to carry it.

Unfortunately, given Lyra's singing voice is maybe ten times better than mine. But for some reason, Lyra wanted me to lead.

Moondancer circled us as we walked along, me singing, Lyra playing and singing faintly, wrapping a haze of moonglow and stardust around us. Other ponies turned and looked at us and I felt somewhat embarrassed.

o/~ Faithful wagon, carry me far

o/~ Faithful wagon, follow that star

o/~ You haul my goods and my fortune too

o/~ For I am a Far Seller

o/~ A traveler on the sea of fate

o/~ The needs of others beckon me

o/~ And I cannot be late.

Several of Moondancer's friends ran up and joined us now, dancing along with her, some of them singing as well, counter-point to my point, their high pitches to my low.

o/~ I've got twenty miles to go by twilight's gleaming.

o/~ Those distances can be deceiving.

o/~ The wheels go round and round,

o/~ Hauling me from town to town

Several of Lyra's friends joined us now, adding a flute, drums, and a violin to the mix. This song is usually played on the flute, violin, and drums, so this was perfect.

Suspiciously perfect. I smell a plot.

We reached the central plaza of the school with a fountain; classroom buildings ring it and beyond it are various dorms. Including the faculty building I live in. Tons of students were here, but now about half of them joined us to sing, dance, or play the chorus.

o/~ Faithful wagon, carry me far

o/~ Faithful wagon, follow that star

o/~ You haul my goods and my fortune too

o/~ For I am a Far Seller

o/~ A traveler on the sea of fate

o/~ The needs of others beckon me

o/~ And I cannot be late.

Then Octavia came out with the rest of the Royal Orchestra (which is remarkably small, consisting of a harpist, a double-bassist, a piano player, and a tuba player). Now we had everyone singing and dancing.

Okay, Lyra DEFINITELY planned this.

The next part was more complicated; the men would sing a line and then the women would carry the secondary chorus.

o/~ Rockhome makes machines

o/~ Haul them to Equestria

o/~ Equestria delves for silver

o/~ Haul them to Karameikos

o/~ Karameikos weaves the woolens

o/~ Haul them to the Northern Reaches

o/~ The Northern Reaches plunder some gold

o/~ Haul them to Rockhome

o/~ And then the circle starts again!

I half-expected to see Celestia come out and join us, but instead, Twilight confronted us all.

"STOP!" she shouted and we all fell silent.

"This is a school! People cannot study if they are singing and dancing! If other people are so loud no one can hear themselves THINK." Twilight was quite passionate about this. "Erik, what are you doing? Why are you encouraging this?"

"It's a lesson," I said, throwing myself on the bomb. "This is a classic human song which teaches all about trade routes and products in a fun way." And now Lyra owes me.

Twilight looked utterly flummoxed. "I... well..."

"Anyway, to continue the lesson..."

"You'd better come study with us," Lyra said deadpan to Twilight. "Or you might get behind."

Twilight yelped and leaped over to us, licking her lips nervously. "I will do my best," she mumbled.

"Of course you will," I told her. She always does.

o/~ Faithful wagon, carry me far

o/~ Faithful wagon, follow that star

o/~ You haul my goods and my fortune too

o/~ For I am a Far Seller

o/~ A traveler on the sea of fate

o/~ The needs of others beckon me

o/~ And I cannot be late.

There are ten more verses. Suffice it to say, we were dancing a long time. Spike joined us around the time the caravan reached Wendar; he'd put on a top hat and suit and had a cane and did his own dance routine, which everyone forced me to join him in. I'm not too comfortable dancing in public, though I can at least handle a formal dance. It's a great place for hitting on women.

But this kind of show routine, it's not my strength.

Twilight has a good singing voice for someone who says she hates to sing, I will note.

Finally, I fell down and Spike fell onto my stomach. I hardly felt it. "I am so tired."

Worse, the ponies were not tired, though they were kind of sweaty. Except for Twilight, who flopped down next to me.

"Erik, this lesson nearly killed me," she mumbled.

"Me too, but you'll never forget those trade routes now," I told her.

"And neither will I," Celestia said.

....

Twilight leaped to her feet, wobbled and had to be propped up by Lyra, who was grinning. Octavia now helped prop me up and Moondancer helped Spike. Mind you, we then all fell down when we tried to bow to Celestia.

She simply sat down by us, so everyone sat down. "My little ponies, it pleases me greatly to see you all so happy. Erik, I greatly enjoyed your lesson. I am glad to see so many happy students as well. And Twilight, my dear student, you performed very well. You too, Spike."

"I did my best," Twilight said, smiling goofily.

Spike said to the grass, "Thanks, your highness."

"It was everyone together," I said, trying to fake humility. I couldn't help but smile, though.

"Can you do the Saga of Ottar the Just?" Celestia asked. "It being a song of your homeland, I'm sure you must know it."

I am going to DIE. Ottar the Just was the founder of Vestland, overthrowing the tyrannical rule of the Ostlanders about three hundred and seventy-five years ago. The Saga of Ottar the Just is SIX HOURS LONG.

"We can do a selection from it," I said. "The full thing is so long, we'd all miss dinner and you would have to leave for the moon rise ceremony."

"Where are we starting, Erik?" Twilight whispered to me. "Maybe with his big speech to King Finnbogi's representatives?" Finnbogi, of course, was the King of Ostland who Ottar revolted against.

"Okay, I will be Ottar, Spike, I want you to be King Finnbogi's men, Twilight, you will be Inga, Lyra, you are the narrator.." I began assigning roles. Inga, as I'm sure you know, was Ottar's wife the rune-crafter. She it was who forged his mighty sword Rettsvesen and carved upon it the runes of justice, strength, and victory. Most of the ponies would be the chorus, but there were a lot of roles. Octavia began organizing the musicians more coherently. Moondancer got the dancers ready.

I do not actually know how I stayed functional; the second we stopped for Celestia to go to the moon raising ceremony (taking Moondancer with her), even the bardic students had to sit down and rest. I sprawled out under the sky as the stars began to come out. Twilight identified them all, one by one. Well, not all, but the major ones. This got harder and harder as more came out and by the end, she was panting for breath.

"Lyra," she said. "I need to collaborate with you on our project for a while."

I didn't know they had a project together.

"Sorry, Professor," Lyra said to me. "We have to go make out."

"WE ARE NOT MAKING OUT!" Twilight shouted and everyone looked at her.

Octavia just laughed and kissed Lyra, then rolled to her hooves. She got her double-bass. "We have to perform again in an hour, but it was worth it. See you later, dear."

"See ya, Octavia! You're still the prettiest pony in Canterlot," Lyra said with that winning smile of hers.

Octavia turned red, said something incoherent, then summoned her dignity. "Thank you, Lyra," she said, then her group headed out.

"Spike, wanna just lie here until we die?" I said to him.

"Sounds like a plan, Professor," he said.

"I'll make sure he gets to bed," I told Twilight. "At the usual time."

"I don't need to be tucked in! I am not a baby any more!" Spike shouted.

Yes, you are, Spike. But you're a good guy.

"He can only have three donuts or he will take forever to get to sleep, Erik," Twilight told me.

"I know," I told her. "I remember last week." He ate an entire box of donuts. He didn't fall asleep until dawn, then he was cranky for two days.

"Okay, see you later, Erik," Twilight said to me.

"See you later, Twilight," I said to her.

"Thanks, Prof," Lyra whispered to me, then cantered over to Twilight. "Come, fair Twilight, I will show you the wonders of the night life. We will make a song they will remember forever!" She swept her arms grandly.

Lyra is a GIANT ham who over does everything.

"We're just STUDYING," Twilight said urgently, glancing back at us.

"Have fun! I'll see you when I remember how to stand up!" I shouted.

When they were gone, Spike said, "It's nice having a guy to hang out with."

"Yeah, I know," I told him. Spike's kind of... dragons mature weirdly. Sometimes he's like a little kid and sometimes he is rather grown up. But he's fun to be around. "Any chance you could send a letter to have food delivered to us?"

"Best idea ever," he said.

*****************

"Please tell me I didn't zone out for too long," I said to Rarity.

Rarity started. "I'm sorry, I was having a flashback," she said, embarrassed. "I think. Well, I'm not sure what that was."

Pinkie was freaking out for some reason, bouncing upside down on her head, I think. "Why am I sensing singing and dancing when I can't hear or see any?" she said, agitated. "And why wasn't I invited?"

"No, Pinkie, WAIT," Ivan said.

Then Pinkie bounced onto a pit trap and fell in.

The rush of wind from Rainbow Dash in action threw us all against the walls, but she saved Pinkie from plummeting down into very hot water, a hundred and fifty feet down. Steam rose until Ivan closed and locked the trap.

I stared in surprise. She... has really good reaction time, I see.

Rainbow Dash was grinning.

"I'm sorry, I was... I'm not sure what it was but it had singing and dancing," Rarity said, sounding a little embarrassed and frustrated.

"I was remembering singing and dancing too," I confessed.

"Me too," Twilight said.

We all looked at each other.

"Well, I think there were multiple layers of trap," Ivan said. "The unicorns all get entranced, then walk right into the pit trap you were all headed for until Pinkie freaked out."

"It was strange, I was watching you and some... that must have been Erik," Rarity said. "He was blond, right?"

"Yes, it was the time we all performed part of the Saga of Ottar the Just for Celestia," Twilight said, eyes wide. "I was soo tired and Erik and Spike couldn't even move." She rubbed her forehead. "Did you see it all?"

I felt a little better knowing it was a trap and not creeping senility. Then WORSE, knowing that Rarity had seen... well, okay, she saw nothing to indicate that was ME.

"I saw it too," I said. "But I didn't see you, Rarity."

"I was watching from an upstairs window in... some building," Rarity said.

"I was on the east side; I think I was in a lab." I think that building had labs.

"Stupid trap, TRAP ME TOO NEXT TIME!" Pinkie said, shaking her fist at the wall. "I missed something cool!"

"That was Lyra as the narrator, right?" Rarity said.

"Yes," Twilight said. "She was dating Octavia at the time. I'm not sure what happened but shortly after I moved to Ponyville, she did too and I guess she and Octavia must have broken up as I see her with Bon-Bon all the time now."

Do not comment, I told myself.

Still, I suspect I know what Twilight's 'secret project' was.

Dammit.

Well, I can't change the past. And we have to focus or we'll fall in the next trap.

Ivan grabbed me. "Focus, Marcus! Unless you enjoy stepping into traps."

It was a dart trap this time.

I felt quite embarrassed.

**************

Applejack sat on me, smirking just a little. "No hat for you, sugarcube."

"It's so pretty," I mumbled, hating myself for wanting it so much, especially when I have this very fine hat Rarity made me.

The fact that Pinkie was sitting on Rarity helped. "It would look so nice on my head," she mumbled.

"Eight traps," Ivan said to Twilight. "Three magical."

They began slowly disarming the traps. "I think the hat is magical," Twilight said to Ivan.

"Oooh, can it make cakes?" Pinkie asked.

"The magic's probably a trap," Applejack said.

"It's bait," Ivan said, cutting open the pillar it stood on with my magic sword. He paused and studied it. It was not curved at the end; I'd thought about that too. But I am pretty sure I... got this... somewhere... DAMMIT.

"Hey, Twilight, any chance this thing is shapeshifted?" he asked Twilight.

"Command it to show it's true form," she said.

It shimmered and turned into a blade with a curved end. I could feel a flashback trying to come on. Damn you, flashbacks, I won't let you take me!

"I promise you, I won't go for the hat if you let me up," Rarity said to Pinkie.

"Can't take that chance," Pinkie said.

She tried to telekinese Pinkie and failed.

"Marcus, are you about to hallucinate singing and dancing?" Pinkie asked me.

"Not if I can help it," I said, gritting my teeth. Damn you, flashbacks!

"It might help to remember whatever your brain is trying to tell ya," Applejack said. "Lying to yourself isn't healthy."

I felt something... scrying... a moving eye...

"Turn it back," I said hastily to Ivan, who did so. "I think Marquetta might sense it if it isn't disguised."

He did so but he continued to use it to disarm the traps.

"So you were Dimitri," Ivan said to me as he worked.

"I guess I was, though I don't know how that's possible." I sighed. "Maybe I am some kind of construct."

"It doesn't matter," Rarity said. "To be the work of someone's hands is a good thing, not a bad one. And you are a fine work of craftsmanship." Her voice was firm. "Pinkie, PLEASE let me up," she said, starting to whine. Pinkie's eyes crossed. "I am scuffing up my coat and you're wrinkling my hair and I can smell the cupcakes on your breath."

Pinkie's eyes crossed.

"Hold on," Applejack said. "Don't let her buck you."

"I can smell the concrete and... achoo!" Now she sneezed.

"It's granite, actually," Pinkie said. "As you might expect. I'm hoping for some obsidian."

"So does this thing have any special tricks?" Ivan asked Twilight.

"If it can disguise itself as a mundane weapon, it probably can only use its powers when fully revealed, which would at the very least, draw Minroth's attention," Twilight said. "Which might not be a bad thing."

"I think we might get Marquetta in our face and on our case if we did that," I said.

"I'm surprised Minroth hasn't gone looking for it by now," Twilight said.

"Maybe he has but he can't find it," I said. "So what does the hat do, Twilight?"

"Hat of Disguise," Twilight said. "Limited shapeshifting, changes your clothing if you have any. I could look like any pony, you could look like any human."

"You should give it to Marcus," Rarity said. "He could..."

"You should give it to Rarity; I have a fine hat she made me," I said. I wanted that hat SO MUCH, but I didn't want to insult Rarity by rejecting the hat she made me by hand even if... dammit.

Rarity smiled. "Thank you, Marcus."

"Only once it's safe," Twilight said; I could see her picking the weaves apart around the hat, faster than I could follow or hope to accomplish. I am jealous of her skills, I have to admit.

It's easy to see why Celestia has chosen her for eventual immortality. I suppose she'll do the one where you have to convince all the other mages near you to kiss your ass. Or if Celestia is up to the crazy shit I think she is... something no one's ever seen before.

The Hat was soon carefully removed and placed on Rarity's head. "You can let me up now, Pinkie," Rarity said.

"What? I'm sorry, I was suffering song and dance deprival. Since no one invited me to their flashback!" Pinkie said, pouting.

"Fine, you can come to my next flashback," Twilight said.

"YAY!"

Hug time now.

I helped Rarity up and we adjusted the hat. Then she turned herself into Applejack. She laughed. "This is fun." Then she became... a sort of high society version of Applejack. Elaborately curled and coiffed hair, a fancy light blue ballgown and everything. "I can use this to test out dress designs!," she squealed, delighted.

"I bet that's what evil Applejack looks like," Rainbow Dash mused.

"I wasn't evil, just a naive kid," Applejack mumbled.

"You used to look like that?" I said, surprised.

"Well, like that but younger," Applejack said. "I tried the high society thing but... it wasn't me." She sighed. "It wasn't all bad, but there was a lot of faking that I didn't enjoy and I don't know how Manehattanites avoid starvin' to death."

"Hmm..." Rarity said. POOF. She now looked like Celestia. "Hello, my little ponies."

Everyone laughed and bowed.

"I will have to thank Keraptis, this is absolutely smashing," Rarity said. Her eyes widened. "I can look clean and tidy even when I am not!" Bling, instant clean.

"You look great, Rarity," Spike said. "Do your gala dress."

Bling, instant fancy red dress. "Thank you, Spike, an excellent choice. Hah. Hahaha!" Rarity began laughing happily and I couldn't help but laugh.

I just hope it isn't some kind of trap.

************

"I do not need to be sat on," Twilight said, irritated, as several ponies loomed over her, ready for sitting.

It was, in fact, a library, full of books, some of which I would have wanted for myself if I was sure they weren't all traps. Ivan and I were carefully checking everything. Twilight was as well.

"Oooh, chess puzzles," Soarin' said, studying several books.

"You're into chess?" I asked.

"It's a lot of fun and I like chess puzzles, though I'm not great at them."

"Chess puzzles?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"Yes, they usually involve deducing how the board got to its current state with a set of clues to help you," he said. "It's a lot of fun."

Rainbow Dash looked dubious. Spitfire bobbed about nervously. Spike was studying the books. "Ahah!" he said, pointing to one bookcase. "This is the most important one."

It turned out to have books about boating, rivers, waterways, and the like. "I agree," Twilight said. "Good job, Spike."

Spike smiled brightly.

The library had no exits; we suspected you had to do something with the books, which now appeared to be safe.

Safe if we solve the puzzle, anyway.

"Maybe they need to be in alphabetical order," Pinkie said.

They were rather jumbled up. Keyfus' Age of Sail sat next to Reynauld's Study of Nithian Canoes next to Anabaxius' History of Fourth Century Trade next to the The Little Big Book of Pretty Boats.

Unfortunately, without any clues, it was unclear what to do. "The theme is river," I said. "So there has to be some kind of clue in that."

"Build a raft out of the books," Applejack joked.

Fluttershy studied the books and made a hesitant noise.

"What is it?" Rarity asked her.

"There are no books on river or sea animals or plants. Maybe they have to be filled in from elsewhere?" she said.

We found twenty; adding them got us an audible click. Twilight also sent us looking for other river/water/sea books of which we found twenty two. Click.

Putting them all in alphabetical order got us a click but left some gaps.

A bell now chimed. "FINALLY," Dawn Gleaming said. "Have fun with the wandering monsters!"

Oh bloody hell.

"Say what?" Applejack said.

"Oh, I've never heard a chime announce they were coming but dungeons often have roaming monsters which show up for no good reason," I told her. "I guess this one has a timer."

It was... a giant flying brain with a huge beak and many tentacles. Holding lighting wands. Along with two huge shambling piles of leaves, vines, swamp muck, and for some reason, lightning. "Marcus, Spike, I want you two to finish looking for suitable books and solve this puzzle. We'll deal with the monsters," Twilight said.

Spike and I began searching, while Applejack charged one of the muck monsters. Unfortunately, kicking it got her legs snared inside it and she began getting electrozapped.

The Wonderbolts went for the brain, battering it around and dodging lightning; books began getting zapped but they had it in hand.

Rainbow Dash studied the muck monsters, then zoomed down and began flying around the one that had Applejack, twisting and bending the air. Its lightning began to bend in on itself.

Twilight lit the other one on fire with my spell. Which she'd clearly learned by watching me. I was jealous again. However, the muck monster was soggy enough not to burn well.

Rarity said, "Find what holds it together, and I will shoot it," she said, calling up arrows.

Pinkie now slammed a pie into the face of the other muck monster. It bumbled into a bookcase, knocking it down, then she kicked another bookcase down onto it.

Applejack now got loose and copied Pinkie, laughing she did so. "Sorry, Twilight but need does what needs must!"

What?

Dash now dove into a pile of books and whipped them into a whirlwind, chewing up the muck monster which had hurt Applejack. Including a book I was reaching for.

"Wait!" I said as the book came apart, slicing off the muck monster's limbs.

"Hah! Yes! Now it's time for the BONUS ROUND," Dawn Gleaming said.

The floor vanished and we plummeted towards an inverse step pyramid. Basically a terraced pit descending down to a small space with a door at the bottom. Half the terraces were water tanks full of giant crabs.

Dash grabbed me. Spitfire grabbed Ivan. Soarin' saved Spike. Twilight teleported onto a dry terrace. Pinkie formed into a diving formation and simply plunged laughing into the water. Rarity plunged into a tank, yelling loudly. Fluttershy saved herself and now began flying down to the rest of us. The great brain flying thing flew down after us. The swamp monsters fell into one of the tanks and began having an electrical punchout with some of the giant crabs. Applejack landed on her feet on one of the solid terraces to my surprise. She wobbled a little but was fine.

I wouldn't... well, I won't object.

The flyers deposited Ivan, me, and Spike by Twilight, then took to the sky after the flying brain. I could hear Pinkie thrashing in one of the tanks. Rarity was thrashing in another one, several tiers up from my position. Lightning crackled in another tank as the crab vs. muck monster fight continued.

"Fluttershy, can you take me to Rarity?" I asked.

She flew me over, though I could tell she wasn't great at carrying anyone this heavy. Then she sang a quick song and we both plunged into the water, where Rarity was trying to hold her breath and speargun oncoming crab monsters. I held off one of the creatures while Fluttershy enchanted Rarity. Go druids!

Then we drove back the crabs and clambered out of the tank. Fluttershy was a very fluid swimmer, I noticed, moving very freely and comfortably.

A crab was trying to climb out of its tank and down to Twilight, but she zapped it with a lightning ball and it fell back in its tank. Applejack now jumped down to my level. "Get on," she said.

"I don't think you're big enough," I began.

"Just curl up real tight," Applejack said.

"It was not comfortable but she easily leaped over the next tank and down to Twilight's level. Rarity nearly fell in and Twilight had to drive off a crab.

We actually had to force Pinkie out of the tank where she was trying to teach the crabs to dance. The Wonderbolts and Dash downed the floating brain.

I could hear Keraptis say something.

"This thing had better take pony agility and strength into account when it's time for the other paths or they'll finish in five minutes!" Clarity said, frustrated.

"I'll make it four minutes flat!" Rainbow Dash said.

"Oh really? It's ON," Clarity said to her. "This is going to be the best DEATHTRAP EVER!" She began to laugh.

Rainbow Dash high-hoofed Soarin'. "We are going to NAIL the next one."

I studied the setup. This would have been a pain in the ass for heavily armored humans and the like to get around. But I think our foes or more likely Keraptis' control devices under-estimated us.

That won't happen twice.

*************

I picked up the key and passed it to Twilight. Key number one, two to go. But it's now time for sleeping.

On a stone cold floor in a room close to evil crab tanks; those things click their claws for no reason ALL THE DAMN TIME.

We needed to sleep but were too wired yet to do so, so we basically set up our camp as best we could, posted Applejack, Ivan, and Soarin' as the first guards, then hung out and talked quietly. Rarity kept changing her outfit and accessories with the hat gleefully, with Spike egging her on. Twilight and I both read quietly, though my brain was surging.

"Hey, I'm sorry about your country," Applejack said softly to Ivan, thinking no one would hear.

I heard.

"Not your fault," he said. "I probably made it sound worse than it is, but it could be so much better. It's why I want to become an Immortal, to be a REAL patron to our land. I dunno what Halav, Petra, and Zirchev are doing now, but they left us to rot. I don't know if I can do it, but I have to try."

"What happens if you fail?" Applejack asked.

"Usually, you die trying. In which case, I am going to find Halav and punch him in the nuts," Ivan said.

"So what's Karameikos like this time of year?" Applejack asked. I could tell she was trying to cheer him up. I'll talk to him later.

I suddenly realized Rarity was watching me read for some reason. "How are you, Rarity?" I asked.

"Greatly enjoying myself, darling Marcus," she said with that wonderful voice of hers. "This hat is a marvel."

I smiled. "I know it is."

Twilight nudged me. "Go talk to Rarity," she said. "I'll hold down the book fort."

"You made me disassemble the book fort," Spike grumbled.

I laughed softly. "Was it mighty and strong?"

"It was awesome."

"It was made of all the books on farming, just when Applejack had to come get some," Twilight said. "Anyway, Spike, you can come help me."

"But..."

"Come help me," she said firmly and he grumbled and came over, though I noticed he soon was content with assisting her.

Rarity and I chatted about places we'd been and she told me about Ponyville and more about her family. It was a strangely... not the sort of thing I normally chat about in dungeons. But relaxing.

Then she stood up, which put her head above mine. She looked slightly frustrated, so I got on my knees, which put us roughly level, then looked at her quizzically. She looked around, then whispered in my ear, "What do you know about this Erik, who Twilight had a thing for? That was him in the flashback, right?"

"I don't know any more than you do," I lied. I lied SO MUCH. "Maybe less if you talked to Dona Carlotta, who I think was his girlfriend at some point."

"He cast her as his character's wife in the song," she whispered to me.

OH FUCK ME.

I just picked Twilight because Inga was about as close as a Northwoman gets to being Twilight. But since I was Ottar...

AND she already was thinking about the logistics of dating a human by that point.

Given Celestia's ancestry, she may well have been thinking 'let's see if Twilight falls in love with someone who will get her to go out and make some friends' when she introduced me to her.

"I couldn't figure out if that was deliberate or not," Rarity whispered to me.

ACCIDENT.

"Given he didn't plan that ahead of time, I have to assume that it was an accident, whatever he might have thought in his head," I whispered to her, feeling VERY nervous.

"I was also surprised to see Lyra was there, though I admit I don't know her well," Rarity said. "I knew she was into mares, as she's seeing Bon-Bon. Who you wouldn't know either."

"Some sort of candymaking pony?" I guessed.

"She's from the Province of Prance, yes," Rarity whispered, smiling a little. "She's a candymaker, but she makes her living as one of the ponies who maintains the town's plants," she continued. "Anyway, Lyra..." Rarity searched for words.

"Is very interested in humans?" I said.

"Not romantically... I think...," Rarity said very hesitantly, seeming quite nervous. "But in terms of... culture, history, how they move... Lyra actually uses chairs."

I fought the urge to laugh. "I suppose those benches were for sitting the way you were a minute ago?"

"Yes," she said. "But Lyra sits on them like a human." She was definitely nervous.

How exactly Lyra can do this, I don't know. Ponies don't have the right structure for it, really.

"I got the impression he taught about humans at the school," I told her. I prayed I sounded as calm and looked as calm as I think I do, as I was busy flipping out on the inside. "Which I guess is why he wrote a song about trade routes."

"He seemed far too comfortable with Ponies to run away though," Rarity whispered hesitantly to me. "If he didn't like her romantically, couldn't he have just turned her down? The fact that he ran away when she kissed him makes me think there must have been more to it." She looked thoughtful. "Though Twilight thinks he was afraid that Celestia would get angry and do something terrible to him."

That was among my reasons for fleeing like a screaming maniac, yes. Being drunk pretty much meant all my fears came out and once I had run, I was even more worried about being killed.

It seemed too late to turn back.

In retrospect, if Celestia had really wanted to catch me, I don't think I could have escaped. I'm not sure why she didn't stop me, but Canterlot is deep into Equestria. If she'd wanted a manhunt, I couldn't have made it out of the country.

Mind you, she may have thought I'd go get myself killed and that would be punishment enough. I've certainly... possibly died and reincarnated...

"What exactly did happen?" I asked. If I am not careful, I will show off I know too much.

"I don't know the details, but they got drunk for some reason and she more or less came onto him and he ran way," she said very softly.

I was totally blind and it came out of nowhere for me and I totally panicked. Magnified by being drunk myself.

"I don't think she's normally into humans, as I've seen her staring at stallions some times that she didn't think anyone would notice," Rarity continued.

I suppose from her point of view, though, I was pretty much exactly what she wanted except for being a human. I thought about her comment about how the four of us working on things together in the tent reminded her of being with her parents.

"Are there a lot of unmarried stallions your age in Ponyville?" I asked.

"No, there's a strong tendency for them to either get married and go into business or farming or else to leave town to seek their fortune elsewhere. There's a lot more mares our age than stallions," Rarity said. "And there's a definite dearth of the kind of intellectual I think Twilight wants, though it doesn't stop her finding some men physically attractive, I suspect." Her voice was oddly satisfied about that.

"I suppose Applejack or Big Macintosh will need to marry someone to carry on the family farm," I told her. "Or both. Who actually owns it?"

"Granny Smith owns it but Applejack is the heir," Rarity said, then sighed. "I tried setting up Fluttershy and Big Macintosh one time, but all they did was stare at each other, then Fluttershy panicked and ran away." She sighed dramatically, putting a hoof to her forehead, and I laughed gently.

"He's the shy type too?" I asked.

"Not so much shy as quiet. Uses the fewest words possible," Rarity said. "But he is kind and gentle like Fluttershy. And likes animals." She looked thoughtful. "I should have arranged a picnic, perhaps." She shook her head.

"Fluttershy strikes me as someone who would need a lively boyfriend," I told Rarity. "Like a male version of Rainbow Dash or Applejack. Who would pull her out of her shell. And whose most overactive tendencies she could moderate."

"So you think opposites attract?" Rarity asked me.

"You need common interests or else there is nothing once the physical rush wears off," I told her. "But I... well, I may be projecting."

"Project away," she said to me.

"My experience is that people who are very good at something are attractive and people also like those who have qualities they admire but don't have themselves. But that may just be me universalizing my own preferences," I told her.

Rarity smiled at that, looking pleased. "Flatterer," she said.

"I speak only the truth," I told her. "I'm surprised you don't have stallions all over you." I paused. "Figuratively speaking."

"Oh, I have a fair number of gentleman admirers," she said, smiling even more. I can tell she enjoys that. "I just..." She sighed, then stared at the ground.

"You don't have to talk about it," I whispered. I don't want to make her uncomfortable.

"It is a little too easy to become intoxicated by your own good looks," she said softly. "I very much had this dream of fairytale romance with a prince."

I thought about Dona Carlotta and I. "Doesn't everyone?" I told her softly.

She stared into my eyes. Then her gaze softened. "Well, you know enough to put the pieces together," she said, turning and studying my shoulder.

I scritched her behind the ears, hoping Ponies like it as much as dogs and cats do. Her happy noise made it clear this was so. "I understand," I told her. "Fairy tales gloss over all the difficulties and the realities of it all. Ivan would probably laugh at you, given what he said, but I won't. I would expect there are Pony princes less wretched than Blueblood, though."

"I've tried to focus on my work," she said, still talking to my shoulder, though she looked happier now.

I suddenly felt this death stare of doom. Like someone was trying to destroy my head with their eyes.

Hi, Spike.

I can tell Rarity likes Spike, but doesn't 'like' Spike, if you know what I mean.

My first crush didn't like me either, but at least Rarity is unlikely to soak Spike's underwear in poison ivy. There was a TON of it near where I grew...

Dammit, my brain is trying to tell me I used to be an Elf again.

Though if I was reincarnated from being Dmitri...

"Marcus?" she said softly, worried. Then she super-whispered, "Spitfire is staring at us for some reason."

She'd been eying me that other time, too. I don't get it.

Unless she suspects I am Erik, which is certainly possible and likely means my life will be very short.

"Probably just bored, since Soarin' is busy flirting with Rainbow Dash," I said softly to Rarity.

She nodded, then yawned. "I think I had better sleep."

"Me too," I told her, yawning.

She got us each a pillow and we laid down on the stone floor as best we could, then threw a blanket over us and tried to sleep, which wasn't easy as in the next room, several tanks worth of giant crabs kept clicking their claws ALL THE TIME.

But eventually, I passed out.

*************

I awoke from dreams of Celestia riding on Rarity's father trying to find me to kill me, when I heard footsteps near me. Only Spike can make actual footsteps or Ivan, but I could see Applejack, Ivan, and Soarin' at the door, keeping watch with a light spell in a box. Basically, you aim the open top the way you want the light to go, namely the door.

Enough of it reflected that I could see Spike had a top hat and a cape and a suit on, and was stalking towards me, vampire style, cape in front of his face, revealing only his eyes. And his stylish hat. He had something hidden behind the cape, so I let him get close to me. He kneeled down and produced a glass of water.

...

Then he began to slowly drag my hand towards it, glancing at the guards, who were oblivious to him and looked bored out of their skulls.

Oh, THAT trick. I assumed he was going to throw water on my face or something.

I turned, curling up facing the other way, forcing him to circle me. Then I rolled over, so he had to circle me AGAIN.

Pinkie's tail began twitching in her sleep.

This time, I cast a little spell and yanked his hat. He stumbled over me and... he's heavier than I thought. I oofed as he knocked the air out of me. The cup went flying and landed on Pinkie, waking her up with a wet face.

She began laughing as she wiped her face, while Rarity now started awake. The rest of the group now turned around and Applejack said, "Spike, what in tarnation are you doing?"

Spike mumbled incoherently.

I helped him up. "Better watch out when you walk around in a dark room," I told him.

Spike mumbled incoherently again.

"Go to sleep, Spike," Twilight mumbled. "I can sing you a lullaby if you need one."

"I don't need a lullaby!" he said, storming back over to Twilight while Pinkie cheerfully washed her face.

"Thanks for including me!" she said cheerfully.

Then we all got back to sleep.

***************

Book Three (White Plume Mountain): Part 2: Altar of the Lupine Lords

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My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring
A D&D (Mystara) / My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic crossover

Book 3: White Plume Mountain
Part 2: Altar of the Lupine Lords

By John Biles

***************

Eventually, we dragged ourselves out of bed so we could try the second section of the dungeon. We circled back to the Sphinx with some effort, then took the 'moon' route'. It began with a long hallway which showed the night sky. Twilight was pleased by its accuracy. There was a pit trap; Ivan was about to disarm it when Clarity said over the... whatever it is... "Oh, Rainbow Dash, clock's ticking. Four minutes flat, right?"

"Hah! THREE AND A HALF! CHARGE!" Rainbow Dash took off at high speed, while Ivan worked with me assisting.

"No, Dash, wait!" Twilight said.

The Wonderbolts took off after her and we heard distant shouting and smashing noises.

Once the pit was disarmed, we pursued them, but the hallway turned and we went through some doors into howling winds. We could hear them off beyond more doors, but the winds blew us all back.

And over it all, Clarity kept up a running countdown, second by second, which I found REALLY annoying.

"Okay, this time I will push forward and open the doors at the far end of the wind tunnel," Applejack said.

"There has to be something to shut the winds off," Ivan said. "But I can't get to it like this."

"I'm going to enlarge both of you," Twilight said. "Applejack can keep Ivan steady and he can disarm it."

We couldn't even watch them go in, just listen, while Clarity continued her countdown with Spikey. Thrashing noises slowly got more distant and I could hear every heavy step of Applejack and her grunty noises. Ivan kept mumbling and cursing and I felt my hair try to blow from the air spilling out.

And Spike kept glaring at me.

I'm sorry, Spike, I don't like hurting your feelings.

Okay, I enjoyed pulling the hat over your eyes WAY too much, but other than that, I'm sorry.

It's pretty clear that Rarity must know unless she's blind, and he's not what she's looking for. Sorry, man, happens to all of us.

You're going to outlive us all, anyway.

Except maybe me if I keep somehow dying and coming back to life and not getting older.

Worry later.

The winds finally stopped and we rushed down to where Applejack and Ivan were. Applejack broke down the next set of doors and what we saw beyond them was a long tunnel of silvery metal. It was round and had a round door at the end with a... one of those doors where you turn a wheel to open it.

"It's a trap," Ivan said. "I don't know what, but I instinctively distrust it.

"One minute," Clarity said cheerfully. "Looks like your time is running out, Dashie."

"She's not in this room, you know," Applejack pointed out.

"Yes, but everyone needs to know when she LOSES," Rainbow Crash said cheerfully.

Very softly, we heard Rainbow Dash shout "BITE ME, CRASH."

I think we heard them hearing her. So to speak.

"Maybe I can fly down and open the doors without setting the trap off?" Fluttershy said.

"It's worth trying if you think you can get that open," Twilight said.

Fluttershy nodded, took a deep breath and... very slowly flew down the hallway.

By the time she reached the end, we could hear our evil twins all laughing and mocking Rainbow Dash for being out of time. Applejack scowled. "You shouldn't make fun of her for doin' her best."

"Her best ain't half good enough," Rainbow Crash said. "By the way, Fluttershy, you're not strong enough to open that door."

This proved correct; she strained and made very oddly delicate grunting noises but couldn't open it.

"I'll help," Applejack said, but Twilight stopped her.

"Pinkie, use your Spider-Pinkie boots and go help her." Twilight said.

Rarity now touched her hat, looking thoughtful.

"Oke doke Loki!" Pinkie said, donning the boots and walking along the wall down to Fluttershy.

Loki? She casually invokes LOKI? Okay, he probably is Celestia's father, but...

Spike, Rarity, myself, and Twilight all got wide eyes. We felt something. Surely Loki hadn't noticed.

"Who has the best ears?" I asked.

"Well, I have the prettiest ears, darling," Rarity said.

Twilight laughed softly. "That would be Spike."

"Can you put your ear to the wall, see if you hear anything?" I said.

Spike did so. "I got nothing. Other than echoes of Pinkie feet."

The trigger must be on the floor. Ivan and I began studying it as Pinkie joined them. Twilight and Rarity also tried to lend help in turning the door.

"Pinkie, can you see any holes in the wall by where you are?"

"Yes, there's tubes going into the wall," she said.

Spouts which fire off something.

Wait, this is the pegasus route... we think... You'd want something triggered by a flying creature, right? No point in floor triggers but Fluttershy didn't set it off...

We couldn't hear Dash or the Wonderbolts, which worried me. Dammit, Dash, you'd better be okay. Don't make me have spent all this time getting on your good side for nothing!

Pinkie started singing as she and Fluttershy tried to turn the wheel.

o/~ Pinkie and Fluttershy,

o/~ Pinkie and Fluttershy,

o/~ Wheel of time keeps on turning,

o/~ Turning the wheel of... the hallway...

Pinkie sighed. "I need inspiration."

...

Fluttershy tried singing.

o/~ Pinkie and Fluttershy,

o/~ Pinkie and Fluttershy,

o/~ Fluttershy wants to be a tree,

o/~ Pinkie is a she...

She paused. "Wait, what are we sinking about?"

"Turning this wheel," Pinkie said. "Marcus, sing something!"

Sing WHAT? What good will this do?

o/~ Boldly stood Halav when came the dawn,

o/~ Cunningly concealed, Zirchev lay in wait,

o/~ Atop the hill, Petra prayed for those she loved,

o/~ For the day of doom long feared had come.

Ivan grimaced. Sorry, Ivan, I don't know, it was just the first thing that came to mind.

Fluttershy and Pinkie continued to try to shove the wheel along as it ground slowly, ever so slowly and they both began to sweat, while Applejack rocked back and forth restlessly on her hooves.

o/~ Come my foes, Halav shouted as they came

o/~ Ere comes the twilight, all shall fall

o/~ Who would feign right to pass into our lands!

o/~ All the invaders shall perish by my own hands!

Pinkie began to make really loud groaning noises and I wondered how exactly the pegasi had gotten this door open if it was so stuck. Sweat poured down her and Fluttershy's bodies and Applejack became more agitated.

"There has got to be some way to safely get me down there to help," Applejack said.

"Earth...pony...power..." Pinkie grunted out.

This didn't do much.

Twilight, however, sang the next verse of the Song of Halav. Spike began frantically digging through Twilight's saddlebags as she sang.

o/~ Come my forest allies, Zirchev sang that day,

o/~ Come satyr and dryad and cheval and pegasi

o/~ Come elven friends from your deep forests

o/~ Come stand with men until dawn comes again.

Spike now fell into the saddlebag with a yelp, vanishing from sight.

I winced in sympathy.

Fluttershy was vibrating and sweating. Pinkie... I could hear her muscles working and the wheel turned more. "Cookie, cookie, cookie, cookie," Pinkie began to chant determinedly.

"Dammit, dammit, dammit," Applejack began to mutter like a mantra.

Twilight now looked urgently at Rarity, who started.

"Darling, I don't even know this song," Rarity said to Twilight.

Twilight stared at her, horn glowing, and Rarity began hesitantly to sing, her voice wobbling a little.

o/~ Assemble the bandages and pile the herbs, Petra sang.

o/~ All things which heal and help are mine to command.

o/~ Ladies of Traladara, rally around me!

o/~ We too shall fight to defend our land.

Twilight smiled brightly for some reason and Ivan sighed, but he and Spike sang together now. Spike, I will note, was a better singer.

o/~ And the men sang and raised their spears together.

o/~ Come our foes, you will find us no easy meat!

o/~ Come our foes, my spear hungers for your blood!

o/~ Come our foes, the deeds we do will live on forever!

Pinkie gave a great shout and suddenly the wheel spun freely, pulling her along with it because she was operating it with her magically sticky boots. "WOOHOO!!!!" she shouted as Fluttershy fell back. "The deeds I do will live on forever!"

I wobbled, dizzy from looking at her.

Pinkie stumbled away from the wheel, then fell down. "Eeeeeee!" She sounded happy about it, though.

The door came open and immediately the hallway began to spin.

DAMMIT.

The tubes began spewing a clear liquid everywhere, all over Pinkie and Fluttershy. Pinkie tried to stand, slipped on the liquid, then went rolling around wildly. "Yes, slip and slide!"

Rarity concentrated, firing arrows down the hallway. Each plugged a dispenser, but the far end of the cylinder, Pinkie, and Fluttershy were now thoroughly greased. I was amazed she'd been able to hit the rotating targets.

"It's not so hard since the cylinder rotated at a regular speed once up to full," Rarity told me when I asked. "I just predicted it and then shot."

Twilight now concentrated and the cylinder began to slow down. The dispensers struggled but couldn't expel Rarity's arrows. Fluttershy fled towards us, making unhappy noises. Pinkie continued to slide around, laughing loudly and clearly totally enjoying her ride.

"You're not supposed to LIKE IT," Rainbow Crash said, sounding frustrated.

"And they're not on fire," Not-Spitfire said. She sounded disappointed. "I like fire."

"Everyone likes fire," Rainbow Crash said.

"Fire scares me," Fluttershy said.

"It's okay, you can be my minion anyway," not-Fluttershy said kindly.

Except for using the word 'minion', she sounded like Fluttershy, just slightly louder.

"My trap is much better than this silly machine," not-Fluttershy continued.

Crunch, tear, grimace, crunch, shake, bend. Mechanisms ripped and tore and destroyed themselves and the tunnel stopped spending, only now it was kind of bent and twisted and the end of it no longer lined up with the doorway to the next room, which was going to be problematic.

"That was AWESOME but now I am slimy," Pinkie said. "Rarity, help!"

"Me too," Fluttershy asked softly.

Spike and Rarity tried to clean them off while Applejack, Ivan, Twilight, and I tore open the metal wall with magic, blade and kicking very hard, in order to open the way to the next room; Rarity then recovered her arrows; it turned out they'd also blocked the fire that was going to ignite the grease. Ack, that's vicious.

Man, I hope the pegasi are okay because at this rate, they'll die of old age before we catch up to them.

*************

A short hallway led out onto a platform; the room was huge, and I guessed it had to be some kind of pocket dimension because it couldn't be inside a volcano. There was mist down below and huge trees grew up out of it, with large gaps between them. Coconuts hung from the trees and dozens of monkeys roamed around, swinging tree to tree with vines and beating their chests. Far off, you could barely make out another platform leading into a hallway.

"This is so pretty," Fluttershy said, then rubbed herself against the wall of the room, trying to get the last of the oil off.

"Okay, this is gonna take a mite of thinkin'," Applejack said, staring at it all.

"If we can reach that first tree, I think we can swing with vines," I said.

"Ponies ain't so great at clinging to vines," Applejack said. "I could probably jump tree to tree, but I don't think the rest of you can, though Fluttershy can fly."

"I can give someone wings," Twilight said, huffing and puffing from her earlier display of magic.

"I have the fly spell saved," I told her. "Maybe we should use that, as we need you to not be wiped out."

"Twilight, if you make me bigger, I can take Ivan and Marcus to the first tree, then they can go and I can start hauling ponies," Applejack said.

"What about me?" Spike said.

"You... okay, yer not a pony, but when I say 'ponies', I mean you too, Spike."

Spike smiled at that.

"If Spike rides in Rarity's saddlebag, you can take him and Rarity at the same time," I said. Here's my makeup present to you, Spike.

His eyes lit up. "Yes!"

"Hop in," Rarity said kindly and he clambered in. "You too, Marcus. Ivan can ride in Applejack's saddlebags."

"I can teleport," Twilight said. "I will teleport myself and Pinkie. Then Applejack can carry everyone else at once. And Fluttershy can fly." She enlarged Applejack, then we helped Rarity up to 'ride' on Applejack and then everyone got stowed.

Fluttershy began flying and Applejack leaped to the first tree. Immediately, the monkeys began pelting her with coconuts, while Fluttershy begged them to stop. Applejack was too busy dodging to make any headway and I started to feel a little motion sickness.

Rarity said, "Assist me, Marcus." She threw up several sheets of cloth and together, we used it as a shield to cover Applejack's advance.

Fluttershy began to sing and the trees came to life; we could hear not-Fluttershy also singing, trying to command the trees, but the trees ignored her.

"Trees, I am a grand druid! You have to do what Mommy wants!" Not-Fluttershy said, frustrated.

Keraptis said something I couldn't quite make out.

"I am not cheating! I am a druid, Mommy Nature gave me this power to be everyone's loving mother!" Not-Fluttershy said.

"I'm sorry, monkeys, but I can't let you hurt my friend Applejack," Fluttershy said apologetically as the trees began snaring the monkeys. "I promise you won't get hurt. If you're nice, I'll give you some bananas."

Several monkeys now defected when bribed properly, and began chasing off the other monkeys.

"Even a loving mother sometimes has to chastise the bad children!" Not-Fluttershy said vigorously. Shouting for her was about like trying to talk over a crowd for me.

Applejack continued to jump lithely from branch to branch, though I noticed the branches often broke when she jumped off them. This may make getting back harder than getting in.

We finally passed to the other side with not-Fluttershy continuing to gently freak out. Then we fled the room, though I got hit with a coconut in the back of the head on my way out. Oww.

*****************

We opened the next door and arctic winds rushed in, chilling us. The room beyond was terraced with ledges climbing upwards and forwards to a distant door, but snow and ice were everywhere and howling winds poured down.

"There may be ice monsters," I said.

Ivan shivered. "I may die by the time I reach the other side.

I put on my sweatervest. Rarity sighed. "I'm sorry, everyone, I just have some scarves."

Twilight summoned enough sweatervests for everyone and we wrapped up making blankets into ponchos as best we could. Fluttershy and Twilight and I also cast warming spells, enough that we'd all only get somewhat cold instead of dying horribly.

"Oh, those naughty pegasi could have fixed the weather," Not-Fluttershy said mournfully. "But they wanted candy before their meal and so they just rushed through and left you all to suffer. But if you all repent and obey me, I can protect you."

"No," Applejack said. "I only obey the Princesses."

Not-Fluttershy made an angry noise.

"I only obey Twilight, and only because I WANT to." Spike said. "And Rarity. And Celestia. And Luna. But NOT Owlicious or Marcus or especially not that bastard Erik."

We all made our statements of 'no luck for you."

That's when it started to thunder and freezing rain began falling.

Oh fuck me.

"Here, let me help," Rainbow Crash said.

"And me," Not-Soarin' said.

"And me," Not-Spitfire said.

Oh INFINITE FUCK ME!!!!!

We were up onto tier two of ten and now we were soaked to the bone. It was especially hideous for Ivan and I, as we didn't have nice warm coats. Spike kept breathing fire on himself to get the ice off.

"Fluttershy, can you break up the clouds?" Ivan asked.

"No, I didn't study weather control, I'm good with animals and plants, of which there aren't any here," Fluttershy said, shivering. She glowed with warmth and we tried to stay near her, though all she could do was make us miserable and not dead.

Then the lightning strikes started.

Fluttershy narrowly dodged one and Ivan and I put our weapons in Twilight's saddlebags, so they couldn't draw lightning. Thank the Immortals I wear leather armor.

Spike kept melting ice to help us go forward, though it refroze quickly. We slogged along slowly, miserably, shivering, while Fluttershy got more and more worried and cold, with the rest of us.

"I would say to huddle for warmth, but we can't huddle and move at once," I said.

"I'm sorry," Fluttershy said, sounding guilty. "I'm a lousy pegasus."

"You've been a huge help so far," I told her. "And our weather experts decided to race off without us to win a bet."

"And lost it!" Clarity cackled, laughing.

Applejack suddenly looked at me thoughtfully, then frowned and pressed forward, clearly not happy about something.

I don't get it.

"Something wrong, Applejack?" I asked.

"Later," she said. "Got reminded of something."

That probably bodes ill.

Clarity began singing a song about winning.

You know, mad wizards usually have the decency to keep their mouth shut while they watch you. This is starting to drive me crazy.

Rarity slipped and began slide back down to the previous tier. I turned and caught her, then began to slide myself. Ivan caught me and Applejack him and pulled us up.

"So cold," Rarity said, shivering. "I don't even have any boots."

"It is a mite cold," Applejack said, shivering.

An idea hit me. "Spike, you should ride on Twilight, leaning down to embrace her neck. It will give her some body warmth."

"I'm fine, you should help Rarity, Spike," Twilight said.

Fluttershy was becoming very agitated and kept flitting around, pushing against us to help warm us.

Pinkie said, "Can't remember... taste of pie..."

"Oh come on," Ivan said. "I can still remember the taste of pie, I just can't feel my tongue." He slogged forward, though the winds howled and sometimes we had to try to dodge lightning.

I helped Spike onto Rarity and she now began to press forward a little faster, her heat helping him out. He smiled brightly despite the cold.

Halfway up. UGH.

Fluttershy now pressed against me and I put my hand on her back, trying to soak up warmth. She was so nice and warm.

"Stupidly cold," Ivan mumbled.

"At least my hat is keeping my head warm," I said.

"And my ha..." Rarity winced. She concentrated, wham instant winter clothing. "I wish I could share these," she said apologetically.

Okay, VERY JEALOUS.

"Are you all done being bad children or is Mommy going to have to keep punishing you?" Not-Fluttershy said sweetly.

"You're the bad child," Fluttershy said. "You're hurting my friends!" She was quivering with anger. "They can't handle this weather!"

"Then they should either turn back or else submit to me. I promise to be a kind and gentle mother," Not-Fluttershy said sweetly. "But bad children must be PUNISHED."

"What is your Element?" I asked.

"I am Dragonfly, the Power of Mother Nature," not-Fluttershy said. "Who loves good children and destroys the bad."

"No good mother destroys her children," Fluttershy protested. "You need to stop doing this!"

"All you have to do is promise to obey your mother," Dragonfly said sweetly.

"No," Ivan said sharply. "I'd rather die."

"That can be arranged, dearie," Dragonfly said sweetly, making me shiver.

The cold was getting worth. We were shivering, even the ponies. Only my torso had any real warmth. Fluttershy was doing her best and Twilight's spell helped but it was cold, so cold...

I'm not sure why it was hitting Pinkie the hardest but she was raving about needing shortening and telling imaginary people to save themselves. "Run, Madame LaFlour, RUN!" she shouted.

Fluttershy pushed against her, trying to warm her up and Pinkie began talking to Fluttershy's shoulder about how gentle Mr. Turnip was.

She... I hope she's just faking madness.

I'm not sure how I would tell.

Rarity wobbled and Spike said, "Hold on Rarity, you can do it." He spat fire nearby, trying to warm her indirectly.

Applejack grimly slogged forwards. But even she was having a very hard time of it.

My feet slipped and I fell down. OWW. For a few seconds, I just laid there, but then Fluttershy pulled me up. "Don't give up," she said urgently.

Maybe I'm going to find out if I really do return from the grave. Whatever is happening to me.

Dammit.

Though at least this means Princess Carnelia doesn't get the satisfaction of killing me.

I don't want to freeze to death, dammit.

I think I tried to cry but my tears froze.

"So tired," Twilight mumbled, fell down in the snow, then struggled to her feet. "I want to sleep."

"All you have to do is surrender to me," Dragonfly said sweetly.

"Stop hurting them," Fluttershy said urgently, sounding desperate.

"Give her the Stare," Applejack mumbled.

"I can't see her! And it won't work on the storm!"

And then Rainbow Crash and the other two pegasi started laughing and laughing and laughing.

"Where the hell is Rainbow Dash, anyway?" I said, suddenly wondering.

"They're a little tied up," Rainbow Crash said, then began laughing more. "Since Fluttershy let them go ahead without her and they ran right into a trap meant for her, not that she can get you out of this one."

Fluttershy began to cry tears of frustration and looked guilty. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

"Easy for you to say when you're hiding in the control room like a coward," Ivan shouted angrily at them. "I bet you wouldn't last five seconds in this cold, Crash!"

"Yeah, you're all talk and no flying," Applejack said angrily.

"You big mouth!"

"You're nothing but an empty shell full of HOT AIR," Twilight shouted.

Oh yeah. "My hoard's bigger than yours!" Spike shouted.

"You have all the fashion sense of a herd of blind goats!" Rarity shouted.

Oooh, I like that one.

"You're a big meanie!" Fluttershy tried to shout.

Rarity now whispered to Spike, who dismounted. She now turned into Rainbow Crash and flung herself into a snowbank. "Look at me, I'm Rainbow Crash, the clumsiest pegasus in Equestria!"

"I am not CLUMSY!" Rainbow Crash shouted.

"I would kiss my boyfriend but I keep missing his lips!" Rarity now crashed into another snowbank.

There was a sudden wave of heat across the room, though it quickly faded.

"No, you're interfering with my storm of ice and snow!" Dragonfly said urgently. "Bad girl!"

"Rainbow Crash, hitting trees at the speed of LIGHT!" I shouted.

Rarity made groggy, out of control noises and 'crashed' again'.

"That's it, I'm gonna go KICK THAT FAKE'S ASS!" Rainbow Crash shouted.

Chaos ensued in the control room as some of her friends tried to restrain her.

Rarity turned back to normal, and now shivered even more intensely. "So cold."

"I'm going to have to use a lot of power but we can't take any more of this," Twilight said, shivering herself.

Spike and I both pressed against Rarity, trying to warm her. "You were great," Spike told her.

"I totally agree," I told her.

"I'll do it," Fluttershy said determinedly to Twilight. "Save your strength. I'm not much of a weather pony, but I'll do it." She straightened her necklace, and then she flew up into the storm and began to sing.

We all did our best to sing along, though it was hard to hear her. You could still hear fighting at their end, and now you could see a glow in the clouds and then the glow ripped through them, melting them, and they turned to rain and poured down and now Fluttershy shone like the sun, invoking the first dawn at the beginning of days. The warmth of her kindness melted the ice and the water flowed down the tiers, leaving them bare and the cold broke and fled.

Warmth, blessed gentle warmth that soaked into us, like the return of a long lost friend.

Her element shone like the sun and she guided us to finally escape that damn room.

Fluttershy, you are the best pony.

************

"I feel bad for making fun of Rainbow Crash," Fluttershy confessed as we headed down the next tunnel.

I didn't. They're trying to kill us or drive us away. All we did was mock.

"It was somewhat gauche, but I had to do something," Rarity said. "Marcus, I need your body heat." She shivered a little.

I came and put a hand on her back; I couldn't do a lot more due to the need to keep moving. She did feel cold.

The next door had a faint shimmering, and beyond, something like a night sky and a grey, dusty landscape. "The moon!" Twilight said, amazed.

We stepped through and... the air felt weird. I wasn't dying of lack of air but it almost felt like there was no air. Somehow.

The room was huge, pitted with craters. I turned to the others. I tried to say, 'I think the air is enchanted' but no sound came out.

Everything was utterly silent and eerie.

Maybe there is no air but the void is enchanted so you don't die?

Ironically, a group of snow monsters were trapped near the entrance by a bunch of metal rope traps. They must have chased Dash and company in here.

Twilight wrote a note with her powers. 'This is like the moon. But apparently we can breathe.'

The stars glittered overhead and we could see Mystara in the sky. Cool.

Ivan identified the next set of rope traps, but then we got to another set, where Dash and company were bound up.

Dash began struggling and mouthing words at us, but we couldn't figure out what she and the other two meant.

I immediately turned around on the principle 'they're always RIGHT BEHIND YOU.'

I WAS RIGHT!

Huge humanoid monsters, made of moon rocks, were looming at us from behind, having silently followed us over.

One of them loomed at Rarity, who like the others, had not turned around. I instinctively lunged at him and struck him with my sword, cutting out a chunk of his chest.

He then knocked me for a loop and I flew over the others, dropping my sword and crashing into some rocks. OWWW. This is why being a hero is STUPID.

But at least she didn't get maimed by a surprise attack. I was ready for it.

Sort of.

OWWWWW.

Rarity popped out four arrows and angrily fired; the arrows struck and veins of crystal now formed inside it, tearing it apart as they grew. Applejack turned, charged another and kicked it down and began jumping on it, trying to force it into submission.

Twilight tried some sort of spell and nothing happened. Spike tried to breathe fire. No fire.

Then they both got punted over by me and now metal ropes erupted up, tangling us all up.

Pinkie jumped away from her foe, letting him step on two pies. The plates stuck on his feet and he began to slip and slide until he fell down and she then poured jelly on his hands, making it hard for him to get a grip to push himself up.

Fluttershy began trying to get Rainbow Dash, Spitfire, and Soarin' free, but she couldn't untangle the ropes.

I began reaching for my sword; it slowly slid towards me, and... where was Ivan?

Ivan suddenly rose up behind the one which had attacked Twilight and struck it in the back, hitting what must have been a vital point as its torso shattered and then Pinkie kicked its bits into a crater.

Twilight glanced at me and yanked with her powers and my sword flew to me. I began cutting us loose.

Magic swords for the win!

The one which Pinkie had mauled now got shot by Rarity and broken apart and the one Applejack was beating on surrendered; she herded it into one of the many rope traps to tie it up.

I managed to cut everyone loose but now more rock monsters were forming. Rarity looked at me, worried, but I tried to look reassuring, though I now ached all over.

Rainbow Dash scribbled in the loose lunar sand with her hoof even as Twilight hurled lighting balls at the next rock monster to form, shattering it. 'Door, ceiling, square star thing, pole star'.

Fluttershy now nuzzled me and tried to sing a song but nothing happened. She looked frustrated, but I patted her back, appreciating the effort.

Twilight looked up and pointed to the Haywain, which does include the pole star.

Rainbow Dash flapped, jumped, showed she couldn't fly.

Man, this would be ugly for pegasi.

Ivan drew an arrow in the dust with a rope tied to it. Another rock monster began to rise and Applejack started fighting it with Pinkie's help.

He then drew a stick figure human hanging from the rope, with little arrows to indicate climbing.

She nodded and we got rope and an arrow and she shot it deep into the ceiling. He then borrowed Pinkie's boots, fitting them on hands and feet as best he could and climbed the rope, then jimmied the lock at the top.

The door flew open and air exploded into the room in a howling wind. Ivan plummeted, but as he fell, Applejack ran and leaped up to meet him. They tangled together in the air but it stopped him just enough for Dash, Spitfire and Soarin' to now roar into action against the wind and catch them, though all five landed in a heap together.

"Thank you, everyone," Ivan said.

"Earth ponies forever," Applejack mumbled and they both laughed.

We had to blow up a few more rock monsters and Twilight mumbled about being exiled to the moon, but then the pegasi got us flown up to the next room. It turned out to be empty, so we all flopped down and rested and Fluttershy and Pinkie treated everyone.

"Marcus, that was very brave of you," Rarity said, sounding guilty.

I think I had a fit of insanity, or maybe too much curiosity about whether I can somehow recover from death. But I know how to not express that. "A gentleman cannot allow a lady to come to harm," I told her. Then I grimaced and Fluttershy flinched. "No, no, it wasn't you," I lied to her. "Just other aches and pains."

O/~ Earth ponies forever...

Pinkie trailed off as she worked on Ivan and Applejack. "Umm... hmm, going to have to think on our theme song," she said.

Ivan said, "Well, something... picking locks doesn't go so well with baking pies and bucking apples."

"You can be the one who EATS the pies," Pinkie said, drooling a little.

Rarity fussed over me; it was rather pleasant. I enjoy being fussed over; it shows people care. She started to say something, then looked around and fell silent.

"You can just pretend I'm a tree," Fluttershy whispered, then giggled.

I laughed softly. Rarity now tried to strike a pose like a tree and we all laughed. Pinkie's ears twitched and she turned but Rarity had settled back down.

"I wish so much this place had a bath," I said.

"You and I both," Rarity said.

We chatted and I tried to ignore my pain, though now it faded away.

As I said, magical healing is the BEST healing.

**************

"Right, right, no racing off ahead," Rainbow Dash said ruefully.

"Someone lost the bet," Clarity said with a sing-song voice.

"Shut up," Rainbow Dash grumbled.

"You can tell her to shut up when you get some common sense," Spitfire said irritably.

"Hey, you came too," Rainbow Dash protested.

"Because I had to keep YOU alive," Spitfire said, pointing a hoof at Dash.

"I w...," Soarin' began.

"You stay out of this," Spitfire said. "Dash, if you ever want to be a Wonderbolt, you're going to have to learn some self-control! We have to do what Celestia tells us and we have to follow Blue Angel's orders. And that usually means having a plan and following it, not making bets with the enemy and rushing off like a coconut flung by a monkey!"

Exactly. That's how you end up with your head shaved and your pants on fire, otherwise.

I liked those pants, dammit.

"Spitfire's right," Rarity said.

"I have this," Spitfire said firmly to Rarity, who looked somewhat taken aback.

I blinked in surprise. Is there something I'm not seeing?

"I...uh... I can take orders!" Rainbow Dash protested.

"Uh huh," Spitfire said dubiously.

"I can!"

"Fine. Soarin', you're Dash's commander until we finish this. You do what Soarin' says and we'll see if you can take orders," Spitfire said, then elbowed Soarin'.

"I...uh... right." Soarin' saluted Dash, who saluted back.

"Umm... follow me," Soarin' said, and Dash grinned.

"I'm on it!"

Definitely missing something here.

*************

We ate lunch and then got in motion again, though Rarity sent Sweetie Belle a letter before we went. I don't know what she wrote; I had spent the time watching Soarin' give silly orders to Rainbow Dash. I couldn't tell if Spitfire was happy with this or not.

The wind tunnel we had to climb and/or fly up was relatively easy to deal with despite the high winds, with everyone working together. I have to say this group is pretty smooth compared to some groups I've adventured with. Though the Blue Eagles...

Someone sent us to get this sword. I'm not sure who. Minroth himself? Why did I keep it?

Dammit.

The next room was, of course, a giant chessboard. Which means chess puzzles. A theme MUCH overused by mad wizards.

Then we all got teleported onto the board, EXCEPT Soarin'. Damn you for liking chess puzzles!!!!

I was the White King and Rarity the White Queen, with Twilight as the Queen's Bishop, Rainbow Dash as the Queen's Knight, and Pinkie as the White Queen's Rook. Ivan was my Bishop, Applejack was my Rook, and Fluttershy was my Knight. Spike was the Queen's Bishop's pawn. I noticed Applejack, Rarity, and Dash had fillies as their pawns. Probably Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo. These were statues, mind you; Scootaloo was riding on a scooter, Apple Bloom was in a gi in a pose with a kick and Sweetie Belle, oddly, was riding on a cloud and singing. Even though she's a unicorn, not a pegasus.

Lyra was my pawn, some pony with a curly mane and candy on her flank was Pinkie's pawn, a female unicorn with a wizard's hat and a cape with stars on it was Ivan's pawn, and a small rabbit who looked angry was Fluttershy's pawn.

"TRIXIE?" Twilight said in disbelief.

Soarin' was up on a platform on one side, and Spitfire, to her clear annoyance, was hanging from the ceiling inside a cage over the board.

Statues of all of our side, but in black obsidian, stood as the pieces against us.

"Tell me that ain't Apple Bloom turned to stone," Applejack said in horror.

Not-Soarin' now appeared on the other platform. "It's only a model. People will only die if Soarin' cannot figure out the puzzle." He whirred over the board and people flew around.

Applejack, Pinkie's pawn, Trixie, Fluttershy, the bunny, and Spike were all out of action now, along with a half-dozen black pieces.

"What the tarnation? I just got removed?" Applejack said, but couldn't move.

"It's a puzzle, not a game," Not-Soarin' said. "Now, what you know..."

Soarin' rattled off the solution without even listening.

"..."

"I read that book, you know."

"I didn't even get to explain the rules!"

"Too bad, you lose! We advance!"

"Dammit!" Not-Soarin' said. All the black pieces now turned into a dozen opals each.

"Lovely," Rarity said, eyes glittering.

Also, we all now had a lot of jewelry and knick-nacks which persisted. EXCELLENT. I have a sweet crown of gold with rubies and emeralds inset into it now, even if it doesn't really go well with my hat.

"And finally, you get this," not-Soarin' said, handing him a really nice smelling pie.

"Yes, PIE." He began eating, even as I said, "Wait!"

Soarin' now passed out; before Dash could move to help him, not-Soarin' zoomed in on her and said, "Hey, babe, evil-you is as sexy as good-you, I see!" Then he kissed Dash.

Twilight managed to catch Soarin', thankfully.

Dash turned beet red, then slapped him. "Don't go stealing kisses!" she said, red-faced. Then he teleported.

....

"Hey, I'm still in this stupid cage, get me out!" Spitfire shouted.

"He teleported?" Twilight said in confusion.

"Thanks to MY power. If you actually STUDIED enough, you'd be able to teleport things TO you too," Dawn Gleaming said. "So I teleported Cruisin' to me, you know, the way you cannot." She sounded quite proud.

Twilight grimaced. "Dash, I'm going to make you bigger so you can carry Ivan up to unlock the cage."

"Sweet!" She paused and looked at Soarin'.

"Go ahead," Soarin' said and Spitfire nodded approvingly.

They soon got Spitfire free and we headed onwards, stashing our treasures for later.

*************

The next room had a bunch of stacks of blocks with handles. You could see an exit sign but blocks were in the way of actually getting to it, and you'd have to rearrange them, which could be tricky given that pushing some of them would push others around.

"KILL IT WITH FIRE," Ivan said to Twilight.

"But we..." Rainbow Dash began.

"KILL KILL KILL," Ivan shouted and Twilight shrank in on herself.

"Okay, okay," she said weakly and began blowing up blocks.

"But we...," Rainbow Dash began.

"KILL THE BLOCKS! KILL THEM NOW!" Ivan screamed fit to wake the dead.

I began hacking up blocks and soon we'd smashed all the blocks to bits, though this left everyone tired.

"I don't see why we couldn't fly over them," Rainbow Dash said. "Was there a trap?"

Ivan whimpered and fell down.

"Dash," I said, burying my face in my hands.

"Well, Spitfire wanted me to show I could obey orders," Rainbow Dash said to the floor. "Though it's really not my style."

"Blocks dead, I win," Ivan said.

Twilight toppled over, legs in the air.

Spike went to Pinkie. "Pie."

She gave him one and he threw at Ivan's face.

"Pie," he said, then started laughing. "The blocks turned into pie!"

If this gets us killed because we needed Twilight functional, I am going to KILL him.

*******************

The pegasi had to fly us across a chasm; steam vented upwards through it. Then we passed into a temple, and Ivan's breath caught. "It's a temple of Asterius," he said nervously.

There was a huge stained glass window over the altar; it showed Princess Luna and Asterius. He was solemnly blessing the viewer and she... was picking his pocket, his wallet in her mouth.

...

Pinkie Pie fell over laughing.

Ivan stared, mouth open wide.

"Don't laugh, it ain't polite," Applejack said to Pinkie.

"But it's so..."

"Do not laugh," she said very firmly, and then nodded at Ivan, who couldn't see her.

Pinkie covered her mouth but this made her laugh more and then Dash began laughing at her, and trying to cover her mouth.

"He's not her father, right?" Ivan said weakly.

"My understanding is that her father was a Pony," Twilight said. "But I only know the legend. But they're both Immortals, so they could be friends."

It didn't convey family to me, or romance, just a kind of teasing friendship.

Applejack studied the picture, then crept up on Ivan, who was staring at the picture, then tried to subtly pick his pocket. He noticed, they started wrestling around and then bumped right into the altar. He was laughing, then he looked mortified, then he looked nervous.

"I can't... I don't even know what to do," he mumbled. "I'm in over my head."

"You can do it," Applejack said reassuringly, and then she kneeled with him as he kneeled down and prayed. The rest of us just stood back quietly, though I could hear Twilight very softly saying some sort of prayer to Asterius. Rarity was doing the same, which makes sense given one of his aspects is trade.

The other is thieving. An odd combination, but I guess he had a very varied life.

And then the stained glass began to glow and everything changed. I realized what this was going to be, but at least it wasn't MY flashback.

***************

MAGICAL ASTERIUS INDUCED FLASHBACK THING:

Luna hid among the rocks; it was easy in the darkness; from here you could peer over the edge of the plateau; halfway down it, you could see ponies and orcs busy delving into the plateau, building some kind of fortress. Another pony was with her; he had a pitch black coat and a silvery mane and on his flank was the full moon in silver. She was a Pegasus, I realized, not an alicorn yet, and he was an Earth Pony. But she already had her cutie mark.

"She should be here by now," Luna said, clearly worried. "Where is she, uncle Full Moon?"

"She walks among them," her uncle said. "We must know more before we strike."

Distantly, you could see a pony stumble and fall and an orc began to whip it and I could see Luna tense. She started to move, but he restrained her gently. "Not yet. Kalibash is here and you are not ready to face him yet." His voice was heavy with regret. "Not without Celestia."

"Why do we even exist if not for this? If not for now?" Luna said, agonized by the sight.

I could tell the unfortunate pony was being made an example of. He had a white coat and a blond mane and I think he was a unicorn. He threw the orc off the cliff with his powers and began to shout and now a riot broke out, pony vs. orc, but the ponies... most of them were just fleeing. A few fought but the rest were scared and the fear was running through the herd, they wanted to defy the orcs but they were understandably scared.

"Fight! Rally to me!" the unicorn shouted. Several of the stallions and fillies rushed to his side and Luna made a choked gasp as they formed a circle. There were six of them, three stallions and three fillies. They were clearly scared, but they stood together as everyone else ran away from angry orcs or ran wild in a panic.

"Together! We must stand together!," the unicorn shouted.

"I must aid them," Luna said and launched herself downwards towards the small plateau below where the work had been in progress and now a revolt was underway.

"Luna, we... the plan... dammit!" Full Moon said. "I can't fly, you know!"

She arched up and let him clamber on and now she flew downwards, silver dust flying from her wings as they flapped and everyone, orc and pony alike, stared at the two of them as they descended. What I could see now was that while the ponies had the wild colors I expect of sentient ponies, they had no cutie marks.

But now, as Luna's dust fell upon the six, cutie marks appeared. Overlapping four pointed stars of gold and silver on the unicorn stallion, an hourglass on the flank of the blue coated unicorn mare, a constellation on the flank of a green coated pegasus mare, a musical note in red on the flank of a grey coated earth pony stallion and so forth. They looked a little taller as well; these ponies were not quite as large as modern ponies, which is not to say modern ones are large. They are, after all, ponies. Luna and Full Moon were larger than them, but not so much larger as Celestia is to ponies today.

"I am Luna," Luna said warmly. "I have come from the Northlands to stand with my sister Celestia and my uncle Full Moon against the darkness that infests this land!"

Full Moon, for a moment, had a worried look, but then he was 'on' and all fear was gone. There was only confidence and strength. An orc rushed at him and he casually spun and rearkicked it, sending it tumbling. "Ponies! You are stronger than you know! Come with us, we will lead you to safety!"

And then they charged down the long, rambling path which picked its way down the plateau towards the thick forest below, a great herd of ponies, being lead and guided by the six who had stood together, and by Luna and Full Moon.

"What do we do when they come for us?" a filly cried out. She still had a small wagon of rocks, bumping along behind her as she ran, until Full Moon chewed it loose so she could run full speed.

"We fight," Full Moon said. "Ponies were not made for war, but we have no choice." He grimaced.

Luna said, "I do not wish to fight, but sometimes, even the kindest heart must take up arms and do battle." Her voice was very sad.

"It's why I rose up," an earth mare said, one of the six; she had a red cross on her flank and her name was Gentle Touch. "I would rather heal than hurt, but we cannot live like this any more. It is too much." Her voice was heavy with sadness. "It is too much."

"Celestia should have the records by now," Full Moon said as they all continued to run. "We must find the Elements of Harmony." His eyes ran over the six marked Ponies.

"Assuming she can find us," he muttered, then sighed. It was too late now to turn back.

And now Full Note, the music-marked earth pony, began to sing and soon, the herd was running to the beat which he laid down, speeding them up.

And the vision faded.

***************

Pinkie's eyes were wide. "The Elements of Harmony. Were they the first?"

"I don't think so," Spitfire said. "Or they wouldn't be 'finding' them. I would assume some Immortals made the Elements and originally granted them to Ponies or whoever first held them."

"They're much older," Twilight said. "Very old," she said softly.

From before Entropy was corrupted, I thought, shivering.

"That one pony... North Star..." Rarity said hesitantly.

"Blueblood's ancestor, yes," Twilight said to her apologetically.

Rarity stared at the floor.

"Blood doesn't matter," Ivan said. "Each person makes themself, whoever their ancestors were. What matters is who you choose to be and what you do with what you have." His voice drifted; he seemed somewhat lost. He bent over and curled up, burying his face in his knees, silently, and I wondered what he'd seen. That was inspiring if it was anything.

Applejack sat by him and put a comforting hoof on his back.

Pinkie licked her lips. "Rarity, I need to borrow your hat."

Rarity blinked but handed it over, no questions asked.

Pinkie donned it, then went over to Ivan and whispered to him. He made an enigmatic hand gesture and she dug in his coat pocket and pulled out a bottle.

Why is she getting his polymorph potion?

She clumsily sipped a small amount, then made a strangled noise and nearly dropped it and then her body rippled and shone and she said something and when it cleared, she was a ruddy-cheeked human woman with fancy pink hair, clad in leather pants and a multi-colored blouse, barefoot and wearing saddlebags wrapped around her waist like a belt. Then she embraced him silently from the side and whispered in his ears.

I felt I had to do something, but what? I rocked back and forth on my feet. Ivan is my friend for all that we sometimes try to clobber each other. I couldn't let Pinkie do it all but I couldn't quite grasp the problem.

Unless he saw Asterius rejecting him but I don't think it's the case.

"I've never heard of them having an uncle," Rainbow Dash said to Twilight.

"The name is vaguely familiar to me, but he didn't take the lead like they did," Twilight said. "I'm not sure if I could have even told you he was their uncle. Though part of me wants to say he fought a minotaur for some reason."

"If Luna wasn't an Immortal yet, how did she give everyone their Cutie Marks?" Soarin' asked thoughtfully.

"They found their purpose at that moment," Ivan said softly from inside his crumpled up self. "Luna might have helped it along, but the strength came from their decision to fight."

I kneeled down by him; the urge to help was strong enough to surprise me. I'm not cruel or anything but I'm not a master of comforting. "Hey man, what's wrong?"

"You're not alone," Pinkie said softly, running her fingers through Ivan's hair gently, then staring at her fingers and smiling a little. She took a lock of his hair and teased his ear gently with it. "We are here for you always," she said.

It would be nice to live in a world where that was always true. Everything is fleeting; my life has made me keenly aware that everything ends.

Which sucks.

But it's easy, at a time like this, to forget that. "You'll succeed. It won't be easy," I told him. He's probably doomed, but you don't say that at a time like this. There is such a thing as too much honesty. "But you have to keep getting back in the saddle." I couldn't help but grin at that a little, given the company.

Twilight laughed way more than it deserved, looked embarrassed, then shut her mouth.

"Luna rushed off too," Rainbow Dash stagewhispered to Spitfire, then grinned, while Spitfire buried her face in her hooves.

"The odds don't matter," Pinkie said firmly to Ivan, continuing to cuddle him. "And sometimes, it's better to try and fail than not to have tried, right? They did what they had to, regardless of the odds and so will you. I'm rooting for you."

"Yaaay," Fluttershy said. Possibly the worst cheer ever but Ivan smiled at it. He now embraced Pinkie, and then Applejack, and then stood up.

"Let's go," Ivan said, trying to sound confident. "I haven't nearly died enough times today."

"That's the spirit," Pinkie said. She did a handstand. "Cool." Then she ran around and touched everyone with her hands, laughing. "Well, out of time," she said and turned back into regular Pinkie, then tossed the hat onto Rarity's head. "Thanks, Rarity," she said.

"How did it feel, Pinkie?" Rarity asked.

"Very comfy hat," Pinkie said. "Wow, I am HUNGRY." She now ate an entire cake in one bite, while I stared in surprise.

"I mean, being human," Rarity said.

"Hands are pretty useful," Pinkie said. "I think the potion makes it feel natural, though."

"Yes," Ivan said.

"I'm surprised nothing has tried to kill us yet," I said. "This doesn't quite feel like part of the dungeon, though I guess it does fit the 'moon' theme."

"That was Asterius in pony form, right?" Spike said.

"Who?" Rainbow Dash said.

"I suspect Full Moon was Asterius, yes," I said.

"Really?" Rainbow Dash said in surprise.

"He's very popular in Manehattan," Applejack said. "But they're a lot more human influenced there."

"Hmm, I wonder if the Elements of Power are all killing each other still or if they just can't hear us. You idiots listening?"

They didn't reply. Excellent. But I expect we'll have to face them again soon.

************

I stared in horror. Dozens of swinging blades swung back and forth, blocking the path to the door on the far end of the room. It looked insanely dangerous to try to run between them to reach the door.

"This one is for me," Spitfire said, stretching.

"I bet I could fly so fast I could to the other end before they could hit me," Rainbow Dash said.

"No, let Spitfire handle it. She's a precision flyer," Soarin' said to Rainbow Dash. "Not as quick but she can maneuver like no one's business."

"That looks really dangerous," Twilight said, wobbling a little. She was still pretty zonked from blowing up blocks.

"It is," Spitfire said. "But when you're a Wonderbolt, you have to handle this kind of thing, like when we had to rescue the Duke of Prance from kidnappers. They shrank him, put him inside a bottle, then hid him inside a giant clock and I had to fly through it while it was keeping time, before it hit 3. And I did it."

"I nearly died watching," Soarin' said.

I feel like I could die just watching those blades. And my hat... I can't let those things kill it. "If you think you can handle it, Spitfire, then you should do it."

"Wait!" Pinkie said. "SONG time!"

Of course it is.

o/~ Bravely, bravely, Spitfire flew into the blades,

o/~ Squealy, squealy, were the sounds that Marcus made!

"HEY!" I shouted.

Spitfire laughed. "Don't worry, Marcus, I'm a professional." She saluted Twilight, then turned and took a deep breath.

o/~ Tired, tired, Twilight wobbled on her feat,

o/~ Later she can rest once Spitfire turns up the heat!

o/~ Chop, chop went the blades

o/~ They think Spitfire tastes good with marinade!

"HEY!" Soarin' said, but Spitfire laughed, then closed her eyes.

I put a hand over my mouth. I normally would laugh, but I didn't want to laugh at someone about to risk DOOM.

Rarity pressed against my leg; I could tell she was nervous, so I patted her back. "Don't worry," I said softly. I have enough terror for every pony in this room, Ivan, myself, AND evil-me.

Though 'evil-me' doesn't seem to have much ambition beyond 'be Twilight's snuggle-wuggums.'

He hasn't talked much, though.

Also, I suspect evil non-Elements of Harmony were thrown in at the last second.

Spitfire took off, dodging blades, up, down and around them, timing her movements with great precision, anticipating the swings and following a jagged path; she even retreated at one point to advance later. I felt my nerves get more and more tense.

I could feel Rarity getting tenser and Rainbow Dash was half-watching, half-not. Pinkie continued to 'cheer' for Spitfire.

o/~ Freak, freak, the Rarity freaked,

o/~ As time went by, her tension peaked!

o/~ Tonight, many lettuce rolls

o/~ Will perish between her teeth!

"I am not going to overeat in response to this!" Rarity protested.

I could totally go for a nice lettuce roll with some tofu soaked in meat juices.

I suddenly wondered if ponies could actually handle meat juices or not. I don't know enough about digestion. And I can't ask Fluttershy when Spitfire may be about to get carved like a rump roast.

And that's when the jets of flame began shooting down from the ceiling. "Hope you've been practicing your fire swallowing!" Not-Spitfire said cheerfully.

...

"It won't matter if it can't hit me," Spitfire said defiantly, but now it was getting harder to advance without frying. Only extremely precision flying could do it, timing without room for error.

Rainbow Dash elbowed Soarin'. "Order me to make rain."

"W...oh. I order you to make it rain! I order ME to make it rain! You too, Fluttershy," he said.

"But I'm not good at making it rain," Fluttershy said.

"No time to learn like the present!"

"Hey, this is just for Evil-me!" not-Spitfire said.

"Yeah, Fire Swallow has been looking forward to this," Cruisin' said.

Tiny clouds began to form and they began bucking them into the blades which hit them and scattered water everywhere, countering the flame jets, though now there was steam everywhere. Spitfire pulled her goggles in tightly and kept going.

CHOP, there went her tail except for a tiny stub!

"Oh no, darling, your lovely tail!" Rarity said.

"A Wonderbolt cares nothing for looks!" Spitfire shouted.

"Hey, I care about looks," Cruisin' said.

"You're a FAKE Wonderbolt!," Spitfire said, dodging under a blade and rising just in front of another to go over it as it swung down.

"And my girlfriend has them!" Cruisin' said.

"You kissed Rainbow Dash!" Rainbow Crash said angrily. "I'm not going to...mmmm...." Pony kissy noises now mixed with Pinkie singing, rain and thunder going off, and Spitfire swishing along.

o/~ Kiss kiss, went the evil twins!

o/~ It'll save time; they're already down to just skin!

"Hey, I am wearing my UNIFORM," Cruisin' protested.

"At least we're not scared of kissing like Rainbow Dash! No one's ever kissed her!" Rainbow Crash shouted.

"LIE! I've kissed lots of stallions!" Rainbow Dash shouted, though I could tell she was LYING.

"They were all plushies!," Rainbow Crash shouted.

"At least I don't fall down getting into bed!" Rainbow Dash shouted.

"Less shouting, more cloudbucking! Spitfire needs you!" I shouted.

Dash struggled to ignore the taunts, but determinedly, she put more and more clouds into play and urged Fluttershy to work harder. Soarin' grimly kept kicking.

Finally, Spitfire reached the end, then she pulled out a bottle and drank from it. Then there was an odd noise and she spat fire at the door, which burned down. "Oh yeah," she said, then put the bottle away.

Oooh, nice.

Rarity relaxed and the blades stopped. "Let me see what I can do for your tail, darling. I know some nice bob cuts; at the least we MUST make it a nice even cut, not a raggedy one."

She was soon working on trying to turn this tail cut into an asset.

That's Rarity all over.

"Pinkie," I said. I had to stop her. "If you will stop, I will try to teach you the song from our flashback."

"YES!" said, hugging me. I immediately fell down, since Ponies are, in fact, heavy.

This kept her busy until Rarity finished and Fluttershy finished making sure Spitfire wasn't hurt. Rarity cut just a little off her own tail, extended Spitfire's magically just enough for it to be a cute bob instead of a disaster.

"So you can meld hair?" I said.

"Yes, though I'm not sure if it would work pony to human," she said. "You might look good with enough body to maybe curl your hair a little."

"Oh, I'm fine with how it is," I told her. "I was just curious."

I now got a lesson in hair magic as we headed out.

*************

The room looked simple; a big boxy room with a table full of pies on the other end. Soarin' drooled but did not rush to his death, thankfully.

That was apparently Pinkie's job. "FRESH PIE!"

DAMMIT PINKIE!!!!

Applejack lassoed Pinkie before she got far, then dragged her back. "Dammit, woman, it's just pie!"

"Wonderful, tasty pie. It smells sooooo good," Pinkie said, drooling.

"What a sad lack of self-control," Pinkamena, the not-Pinkie, said disapprovingly. "I didn't even realize you'd fall for this. Nicely done, Cruisin'."

She was so... calm.

Maybe even a little grim.

This disturbed me GREATLY.

"Thanks, Pinkamena. Your beauty inspired...ooof..." There was a sound like someone just started grappling Cruisin'.

"Eyes on the PRIZE," Rainbow Crash said.

"Someone needs to do something while I can hold out," Soarin' mumbled.

"We're on it," Ivan said and the two of us went forwards. He also got Rarity to come with us and started showing her how to pick a lock. She picked it disturbingly quickly.

"Pinkie, Pinkie, Pinkie, whatever will I do with you," Pinkamena said, sounding disappointed.

"GIVE ME PIE!" Pinkie shouted. She strained at the rope, her hair weirdly contorting and changing shape, eyes bulging, body quivering.

"What do you think, Madam LeFlour?" Pinkamena said to someone we obviously couldn't see.

"I think Pinkie will never have un boyfriend unless she and Soarin' date ze same pie," 'Madam LeFlour' said. She sounded suspiciously like Pinkamena trying to fake a Prance accent.

"Oh god, not again," Spike groaned.

Dammit, can't disarm traps and talk to Spike at the same time!

"Are you the Power of No Fun?" Applejack asked, clearly amused.

"Dammit, is that bastard Rocky there?" Rainbow Dash said angrily.

"You wanna piece of me? You wanna PIECE OF ME?" Rocky said angrily. Though he sounded suspiciously like Pinkamena trying to fake a Bucklynn accent.

"I am the Power of Influence," Pinkamena said in her normal voice. "I know what moves people and how they interact with each other, using it to my advantage. Unlike my evil twin the nitwit."

"Dammit, Applejack, those pies will not eat themselves, let me go!" Pinkie tried gnawing on the rope. "Ivan, give me some potion so I can turn into a snake and slither out of this!"

"You know, it's still our turn, Pinkamena," Fire Swallow said to Pinkamena.

Pinkamena's voice turned soft and apologetic. "I'm sorry, but I may not have this chance to get through Pinkie's thick skull again. Please forgive me?" She sounded close to blubbering.

My god, it's my soul in Pinkie's body, I realized.

Oh hoh hoh. A worthy challenger!

"Marcus, darling, why are you smiling so much?" Rarity asked me softly.

"Focus, man, or we'll set these traps off on us," Ivan said.

"Sorry, I have to defuse a verbal bomb," I told him. "Rarity, please help Ivan. I have to stop Pinkamena."

"Remember what happened the last time you forgave her?" I told Cruisin'. I actually have no clue but I suspect that he regretted it, yet she found ways to get him to forgive her again.

"I...umm... well, yeah, I still can't use that uniform... they say the stain will never come out..." Cruisin' said hesitantly.

SCORE.

"If Applejack REALLY liked you, she'd let you have the pie and not stop you," Pinkamena said with a third voice, vaguely noble and male in tone.

Pinkie hesitated, eyes wide.

"Don't listen to her," Rainbow Dash said urgently, coming over to Pinkie. "She's just messing with your head!"

"I'll give you a kiss if you forgive me," Pinkamena said to Cruisin'.

Dammit, I can't use that lever. Unless... "You know Rainbow Dash's kisses are better, Cruisin'." HAH!

"Damn straight!" Rainbow Dash shouted. "I mean... I didn't enjoy it AT ALL!" She looked worriedly at Soarin', then frowned when he was clearly too busy staring at the pies to even notice what she said. "I said, I WOULD RATHER KISS SOARIN'!"

Then she turned bright red.

"I'm sorry, did you say something?" Soarin' said to Rainbow Dash.

Rainbow Dash buried her face in her hooves. "Stallions are so DENSE!"

"We have more muscle," Soarin' said.

I would give him an obliviousness award if I had one.

"Your lips are only for ME," Rainbow Crash said. "Back off, Pinkamena!" I heard fast motion swishing.

Fluttershy now flew over to Pinkie. "You know we love you," she said warmly. "Won't you come play with me?"

"Of course!" Pinkie said, relaxing. She and Fluttershy now began playing some kind of clapping game. It seemed to involve clapping their hooves together in elaborate patterns.

I heard Pinkamena make a noise of definite disgust.

"Of course, Rainbow Crash, I just wanted to make it up to Cruisin', and you know how he loves kissing every woman in sight," Pinkamena said apologetically.

Damn, she's good.

"CRUISIN'!"

Now Pinkamena's free to turn on us.

Ivan and Rarity continued to work on the traps, trying to hurry.

Aaargh, I don't know Pinkie well enough to know what a twisted Pinkie's buttons are beyond...

"Pinkamena Diane Pie, go sort the rock harvest!" I shouted.

I heard her run off, then a distant "DAMMIT!"

Man, that's a button a mile wide... unless she's bluffing.

It could be a clever plan to make me THINK she has a huge weakness. I will have to be careful.

Oh yes, I am going to enjoy this.

"As long as it is disarmed, you don't have to perfectly reset it," Ivan said to Rarity.

"A job worth doing is worth doing right," she said, carefully oiling the mechanism.

Ivan rubbed his forehead and I laughed softly. "Okay, it's safe to approach the pies, I think, but they're probably all deathtraps but one."

"Deathtraps?" Soarin' said, frowning.

"Anything edible in a dungeon usually mutates you, or it turns out to have bees inside it," I said.

"Or small dogs which bark up bees when they howl at you," Ivan said.

"And the bees are ON FIRE," I said. Fortunately, I lost the burn scars when I stopped being Aristobolus, I think.

"I can handle dogs," Applejack said.

"Bees? That means honey! Come here, pie full of bees!" Pinkie said, rushing forwards.

Applejack reached for her lasso, then just sighed.

Pinkie scarfed down one of the pies. "Mmm, tasty apples, feels so good, oh yes, oh... dear."

I knew it.

Pinkie now began choking and it took Ivan and myself and Spike all cooperating to get her to cough it up. A RING!

It was a silver ring carved to resemble winds blowing. "Cool," Pinkie said, cleaning it off. She tossed it to Soarin'. "I ate your pie, so you can have the toy that comes with it."

"It's a magic item," I said.

"Yes, but it's clearly for him. I'm sorry," she said.

This ring would comfort him greatly when the next pie, the one he ate, turned out to be full of hermit crabs.

Then they would NOT STOP CLACKING EVERYWHERE. Damn crabs.

Having Pinkie running around with three crabs clinging to her tail saying it reminded her of Gummy did not help.

Though it made Ivan laugh.

Fluttershy soon rounded up the crabs and gave them instructions on how to get to their giant brethren

Once we got everything sorted out, Twilight figured out that the ring augmented a Pegasus' ability to generate and manipulate wind, as you might guess. Soarin' was quite pleased with it.

Rainbow Dash, on the other hand, looked kind of frustrated. Probably because of his romantic blindness. Going to have to do something to help her later.

*************

We now secured the next key from the next room and decided to camp and rest, since Twilight was pretty worn out and everyone else needed a rest too. The fact that none of the treasures we'd found so far had been on Vermicoritax's list made me partly happy (we would keep it all) and partly unhappy (as it meant we still hadn't recovered any of the treasure and we don't have infinite time for it.) But we needed a break.

I pulled Dash aside. "If you don't just make your move, it'll drag on forever, you know."

"Marcus, we can't... wait, what?" Dash said, now confused.

What? Now I'm confused.

"You like Soarin', right?" I said.

"I... like all of the Wonderbolts," Dash told my foot.

"Yes, but this is special, right?"

"I can't tell at all if he's even interested. Whereas my stupid evil twin HAS AN EVIL BOYFRIEND." Dash shook her hooves at the sky. Ceiling. You know what I mean.

"Who kissed you," I said.

"Yes," she said, staring off at the wall and fluttering about aimlessly.

"At least it wasn't YOUR evil twin kissing you," I told her.

"..."

"Look, I'm sure he likes you. Be bold. Isn't that your real self?" I told her.

"But... none of the rest of the couples among them are... dating... in our group," Rainbow Dash said nervously.

OH. I see why she's nervous now. "Well, if an evil Soarin' can love an evil Dash, I can't see why a good one wouldn't," I told her, trying to sound confident. "You're very lovable"

She gave me an odd look. "I... Marcus..." Now she was more nervous. What on earth... OH. She thinks I have a crush on her.

"I just want what will make you happy," I told her, but this clearly made her feel guilty. Dammit, find the right button... "Fortune favors the bold, right?"

"Hell yeah," she said confidently, then got nervous again. "What if he says no?" she squeaked.

"There's a ton of other handsome pegasi," I told her. "And you can't win the race if you don't run it. Be confident. Just imagine it's a race to his heart and go for it."

She closed her eyes, then looked more confident. "I'll go for it!"

She looked over. "Once he stops talking to Spitfire."

I rubbed my forehead. That could be a wait.

Well, I TRIED.

***************

Fluttershy made happy noises as I brushed her coat. Rarity was busy trying to clean her hair. I'd suggested this as I wanted to thank her for all the healing. And you always gain favor. Spitfire kept looking at me funny. I am just helping a friend, woman!

Dash was busy NOT confessing and I wondered what I would have to do to get her in motion.

"Angel Bunny normally helps me with this," Fluttershy said.

"Your boyfriend?" I asked.

"My pet," she said. "He's a cute little white bunny."

"He's a MENACE to all civilized folk," Spike said from over by Twilight. "Need any help, Rarity?"

"You can brush me if you like," Rarity said, then made happy noises when he did.

You're just encouraging him, you know. I could see how this had gone on forever, though. Rarity enjoys attention, he enjoys giving it.

But if they're both happy, I wasn't going to stick my head into it. I let him work and I worked on Fluttershy. Eventually I finished, then she brushed my hair. "You should grow your mane out some, since your coat is so faint and weak," she said.

"It would look nice," Rarity said.

"I'll think about it." I don't know if I will be around that long or if I will LIVE that long, though this is going well so far.

If you can't see your own bones, it is a good day. I'd taken my hat off, so I petted it as Fluttershy worked my hair.

"I guess that is your pet," she said.

"He is a good pet," I said, smiling. "I am very grateful to Rarity."

"I was glad to help you, darling," she said to me.

Ivan was trying to teach a reluctant Applejack and Pinkie a dance. Pinkie was loving it, Applejack had a harder time staying on two legs for it. "Come here," Ivan said to me.

"Hold on, being groomed," I told him.

He facepalmed but soon the four of us joined him in a fancy Karameikan style dance. You needed equal numbers of men and women, so Fluttershy just sang to give us a beat. It was a lot of fun, though Rarity wasn't any more used to two legs than Applejack. But falling down really just made it more fun.

Then the ladies went to talk, Ivan took Spike aside and I went and worked with Twilight for a while, though she was pretty tired and we mainly just read and talked a little. Finally, she said, "Dash thinks you have a crush on her."

I laughed. "I'm not sure why she thinks that. But I think she and Soarin' will do well if they ever get their act together."

Twilight studied my hands and said, "You know about Spike's crush on Rarity, right?" Her voice was soft.

"Yes," I told her. "He's mad at me, but he'll get over it. He's a good guy. But he's young and he has a crush and I expect everyone male who comes near Rarity makes him kind of freak out."

"Yes," Twilight said. "Just be patient, he's only a baby."

"You'd best conserve your strength tomorrow; likely we'll have to throw down with our evil twins and they'll be rested."

"I know, it worries me," she said. "I'm also a little worried about you and Ivan in an area designed to make it hard for Earth Ponies. Even I can probably jump further than you and so on."

"Yes, but we have hands," I said, showing them off. "We'll have to see. One thing, though, is we likely should try to avoid going head to head with our own evil twins, tempting as it is. As if they're the Elements of Power, they can likely take us in our strong points."

Twilight winced. "It's clear Dawn Gleaming has more time to study." She glanced off at Rarity. "I think she really liked helping you with the traps."

"She's got the right mindset for it," I told Twilight. "Working with her is fun. She thinks I should grow my hair out."

"You should," Twilight said. "A good mane is essential for a man's looks." Then she looked embarrassed. "I can't believe I said that."

"I could dye it pink and green to fit in better," I teased her and she laughed.

"Pinkie seemed to find it easy to be a human for a few minutes," Twilight said hesitantly. "To comfort Ivan."

"It was very nice of her. The potion gives you the instincts you need to function well," I told her.

She licked her lips nervously as if wanting to say something but not quite able to say it. I tried to intuit it.

She never did quite find the strength to say it and eventually, we went to bed, leaving me curious. I'd have thought it was related to the plans she'd had to try being human back in the old days, but she has no reason to experiment with that now.

Though I suppose she may just be curious what it's like, assuming she hasn't already tried it out.

I laid down to sleep under a nice warm blanket. With a nice soft pillow. And a cold, hard stone floor.

Well, you can't have it all.

Rarity said softly to me, "Marcus." She sounded rather guilty. This was probably about me getting mangled, I suspected.

"It's okay," I said to her. "Thanks to Fluttershy, I'm all better."

"I hate seeing you get hurt," she said, still guilty. I didn't want her to feel TOO guilty. Owing me is good but, you know, she would have done it for any of us.

"I couldn't let you get hurt, but I know you would have done the same." Hopefully this won't lead to doing suicidal things to try to pay me back.

"It was a very noble thing to do," she said.

Inspired by first my paranoia and then my practicality; I couldn't warn them, so I had to try to slow down the assault. And kind of warned them by getting mangled.

But I got better.

She licked her lips softly. "My parents will want to meet you," she said. "When Father gets some leave."

"I'd be happy to meet him and your sisters," I said to her. I have nothing to fear from him.

Maybe.

Less to fear.

I tried to remember my parents, but they're a blur. There were too many of us. I'm sure of that, but now... Dammit. What is my name? I had been Dmitri at one point, I could feel that for sure now, but before him... tunnels... halls... burrows?

I felt more and more agitated as I grasped at memories and they fought each other. The sword. I think... I'd found it. Several times. Somehow.

It had been a bow... an axe... a sword... something... a mace? Before it was a sword. Something about hornets...

I could see a ruins, layer after layer descending into the earth. Dwarves had dug too greedily, blah, blah, you know the drill. Some days, I'm surprised every dwarf hasn't been eaten yet.

I guess the smart ones take the mithril and run, leaving only the stupid to die.

I saw dead people, halflings, an entire adventuring party wiped out before us, which didn't stop us going deeper.

Because adventurers NEVER listen.

"Marcus."

Why was Rarity in the dungeon with us? Had I met her yet? Damn, I have huge hands...

"Marcus, snap out of it," Rarity said, worried. "Twilight!"

The entire dungeon smelled like ass. That's when I discovered something important. Do not light torches if it smells like rotten eggs.

It had found us, of course, when our cleric was busy praying to Kagyar to heal us. She had a huge beard, too big, really; it was kind of vain, and she was SO vain about it. As it stood, I had the BAD kind of face full of beard when she was trying to heal me and of course I started choking on her beard. This never ends well.

That's when it came through a wall, a three headed serpent made of adamantine, mithril, and rubies. It was a king's fortune, made to kill people. Fundin got eaten right off the bat, though I'm pretty sure we resurrected him after we cut it open and found his feet intact thanks to his AWESOME magical boots. They let him run like a crazy maniac and I envied them so much.

Dored raised his axe and charged berserkly forwards. "GIVE ME YOUR EYES!!!!" he shouted. Dored is a Sryklist; they're a mercantile and craft clan; he's a jeweler, but he's also a great warrior, which we are going to need to stop this damn thing.

"Marcus, snap out of it," Dash said urgently. She shaved her beard? Why? I don't remember her disgracing herself...

"What happened to your beard?" I asked her. "And look out for the snake!" I grabbed her and rolled as she yelped in surprise.

"Beard?" Dash said, confused. Someone stole her beard and is messing with her mind!

"Marcus!" Rarity said, agitated.

"Nothing but a copy wearing out," Pinkamena said mournfully.

"SILENCE!" Rarity snapped angrily and I could feel something magical. When did she start... she has a horn!

No, wait, she always has a horn. Why am I wrestling with Dash... dammit!

Now I felt Rarity somehow touching my mind. Or maybe it was Twilight. Or Twilight AND Rarity. I felt my mind shuffle.

And then the cards fell into place and I was just Marcus again, breathing hard. "I am really sorry, Dash," I said.

"That woman," Rarity said with acid in her voice, "Will pay for this. She is running up a large tab and I intend to collect every bit."

I let go of Dash. "I'm really sorry about that, I thought a giant three headed serpent made of mithril and adamantium was after you," I told her.

"Wow, that would be soooo tasty," Spike said. "Did it have gemstone eyes?"

"Yes," I said.

I looked at Fluttershy, expecting her to tell us copper is tastier but she didn't comment.

She came over. "Sit down, please," she said.

I did so and she checked me over, including getting Twilight to shine her horn in my eyes, leaving me seeing flashing lights. "He should be fine," Fluttershy said.

Rarity was pacing tensely, while Twilight checked me out as well. Ivan was watching me, looking worried.

"So you were hallucinating for no reason?" Dash said, sounding worried.

"It was her," Rarity said, angrily. "She will find it that it is unwise to try and take a unicorn by the horn."

"It's okay," I told her. "We'll get our chance to settle things with them later. If you don't relax, you won't be able to sleep."

"I don't want to relax," Rarity said. "I want to make her pay." She was shivering.

Pinkie now nuzzled her. "It's okay. Evil-me is evil, but I will deal with her."

"You can have Clarity. She probably just needs a hug. But I cannot allow her to do this to Marcus," Rarity said.

"I'll hug Clarity until she's all good and soft and cuddly!" Pinkie said, then said, "But getting so mad is going to give you wrinkles, Rarity."

"I'm sure she wants us to get mad and do crazy things," I told Rarity. "You have to play it cool."

"I can be cool," she said hotly and sat down next to me, sphinx-style.

Wow, she's really worked up. Of course, ponies can bond to people pretty fast. And I know I wouldn't be happy if this happened to her either.

She's strangely impressive when she's angry.

"I think you'll be okay now," Twilight said and yawned. "We should sleep."

Don't think about the past, I decided. Not when I have to hide everything.

Rarity carefully wiped my face with a lace handkerchief. "It will be okay," she said to me softly. "I will protect you as you protected me."

"Thank you, Rarity," I said softly to her, lying down and tucking my pillow in place.

I could hear her pacing again as I fell asleep; I hope she gets enough sleep. We'll need her tomorrow.

***************

The first stage of our return trek went smoothly until we reached the room with the trees and the mist and the angry monkeys. It was now night in that room; who knows what the real time outside was. Twilight enlarged Dash so I could ride on her, then teleported Pinkie and herself to the other side. Spike rode Applejack and Ivan rode in the saddlebags, looking quite silly with his head poking out. Fluttershy could fly herself and Soarin' carried Rarity, with Spitfire pacing him.

"I feel like a member of the Thyatian Air Force," I said as we started across the room.

Dash dodged a hail of coconuts. "And the monkeys are the Alphatians?"

I laughed at that.

Then dozens of bats on fire dove down out of the night sky. DAMN WANDERING MONSTERS!

"Hold on tight," Rainbow Dash said and I paled and bent down to hold on.

Then Soarin' grinned. "Hold on, Rarity."

"Let me do it," Spitfire said. "Maneuver 12-X."

Soarin' suddenly began to climb, higher and higher and I wondered where the ceiling of this room was. Some of the bats gave chase, clumping up and then Spitfire roared through them, flinging them in all directions, many colliding with others to knock them down.

"Bad bats, you should... oh no!" Fluttershy said. Normally fire bats burn plants and eat the ashes. But that would mean slaughtering the trees. No druid could go for that except maybe to make a firebreak to stop a forest fire that wasn't scheduled.

Ivan was throwing apples at the bats that swarmed Applejack, but now one of the trees caught fire with him, Spike and Applejack on it. Spike tried breathing fire but the bats, as you might guess, liked it.

Him punching them in the face... they didn't like that at all.

Or getting kicked by Applejack, though she yelped when she hit them.

Pinkie began some sort of song but I could hardly hear her with all the monkey shouting, coconut and apple flinging and being hauled around at extremely high speed which made me too terrified to do anything but hang on as Rainbow Dash zoomed about, slugging monkeys and throwing firebats hither and yon.

"Fire," I shouted, and she rose up and began whirling to form a cloud while the Wonderbolts skirmished with the bats, battering and tossing them.

Fluttershy joined us and they began forming a storm to put out the flaming tree, as Applejack tried to make her way through the burning branches, dodging monkeys, coconuts, firebats, and coconuts on fire.

I tried to both think of something to do and to focus enough to actually DO it. Everything was spinning so fast...I could hear snatches of Pinkie singing about rings of fire and...

Then lightning balls erupted through the flaming tree, nailing a dozen monkeys at once and sending them plunging into lower branches. Applejack made a break for the next tree and the rain started to come down.

"Hey Crash, you listening?" I shouted.

"I'm here, clone-boy," she said irritably.

"What are you the Power of?"

"Excellence!" Rainbow Crash crowed. "I am the fastest and greatest of racers in all of Equestria! And humble, too!"

"And very cute," Soarin' said. Kissy noises ensued and I regretted asking, though at least now I knew.

It would be useful later, when the real battle began. Very proud, a useful thing to know.

Firebats attacked us but I laid about with my sword, injuring and driving them off, letting Dash and Fluttershy focus on their work; they soon had lots of rain going and now the firebats fled. Dammit, they probably have gems in them or something and they are RUNNING AWAY WITH MY TREASURE.

Dash and Fluttershy finished saving the trees and now we all flew on out and headed back so we could try route three.

************

Book Three (White Plume Mountain): Part 3: Princess Marjorie, I Presume?

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My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring
A D&D (Mystara) / My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic crossover

Book 3: White Plume Mountain
Part 3: Princess Marjorie, I Presume?

By John Biles

***************


We had returned to the center section to start the third part of the dungeon. Etrusca was waiting for us. "Ready for the next riddle?"

"Ready," Twilight said.

"It's probably a hug from Marcus," Ivan said, amused.

I had to give him a manly whack for that. He just laughed.

"It's a coffin. No one wants to end up in one and the dead, of course, don't know they need it," Twilight said.

"You win," Etrusca said, then sighed. "You enjoy your trip. I'll sit here for the rest of my decades to go."

Fluttershy looked thoughtful, then went over to the century flower. She began to sing and the plant stirred.

But then nothing happened. Pinkie began providing musical backing.

And then Fluttershy's element flared to life and suddenly the plant flowered. "Go see your grandchildren," she said, smiling.

I jumped in surprise at the sudden burst of power, but seeing it was just a plant flowering, I managed to calm my fit of panic. I'd seen the Elements in action before, but this was a dungeon and anything here could kill you. Even nice things.

Etrusca stared, eyes wide. "You... thank you!"

Being hugged by a sphinx made Fluttershy very happy, though she also looked to be in danger of being squished.

Etrusca then said, "Thank you all! Enjoy the rest of the dungeon!"

I'll enjoy the treasure, anyway.

She took off and we headed off down the undefended hallway.

************

I patted Rarity's back. "Calm down, you'll make yourself sick," I told her.

We were headed down the tunnel into the third area, which I suspected would have wall to wall undead.

"I am fine," she insisted, but I could tell otherwise. It was kind of nice to have someone angry on my behalf, but anger leads to impulsive action which leads to PAIN and DEATH.

That being said, as the man who threw himself in front of rock monsters for her, I can't complain about impulsiveness.

"Wait, WHAT?" Dash said to Spitfire, who buried her face in her hooves. Then she glanced at me, eyes wide, then back at Spitfire.

If that's her telling Dash I was Erik, the whole world would soon know and then I will DIE HORRIBLY. Dammit, I do not need more things to...

Ivan stopped me. "Keep your foot in the air before you hit the trigger."

He and Rarity disarmed the pressure plate my foot was an inch above, and then we moved on; I determined to pay attention more. I have to make sure Rarity doesn't get hurt trying to keep me from getting hurt. I couldn't stand that.

************

The next trap was pretty slick. Basic pit trap goes off. Applejack, of course, easily dodged it, then jumped over it. Landing on ANOTHER pit trap and then she slid down a greased slide into a tank full of sharks.

Pinkie, of course, deliberately jumped in and not just to help Applejack, but because it was a greased slide. "WOOHOO!"

The floor turned transparent, so we could watch them. The Wonderbolts and Dash flew down and rioting ensued, water churning wildly. Fluttershy carefully flew down and began trying to ask the sharks to stop but they were apparently too mean to care.

Ivan and I wouldn't be much use, so we worked our way down the hallway, removing traps or disarming them. Twilight began using her power to grab sharks so her friends could slug them, while Rarity watched warily and worked with Ivan and I.

Finally, Fluttershy said, "Turn them upside down."

To my surprise, this knocked them out quickly. Dang.

We then helped them all clamber up, using ropes and telekinesis. Rainbow Dash soon dried everyone off. "That was easy," Dash said. "How does that work?"

"They can't get air if they are upside down as moving forces their gill slits shut," Fluttershy said. "And sharks have to always keep moving to breathe. Anyway, they should recover now."

I expect earth ponies on their own either wouldn't fall in if careful or could fight them all off enough to escape.

Maybe.

That's the thing about dungeons. You have a CHANCE, but it's not guaranteed. And sometimes requires you to more or less guess what the creator of it is thinking.

I'm kind of surprised the sharks weren't undead, really.

************

We moved through a series of twisty, bendy hallways which took us up and down ramps and around and around until our sense of direction was utterly gone.

Which is why Twilight carries a compass.

Things went slowly as she insisted on carefully mapping out the mess of hallways so we could return more easily. This meant, at times, having Ivan or myself lie down so we could be used as a measuring stick. Our hands got used a lot too.

Pinkie sighed. "This rock reminds me of Gummy. I hope he's okay."

Unless Gummy is an irregular ovoid of brown rock with flecks of silver, I am not sure how this works.

Maybe he is.

"I hope Opalescence is okay," Rarity said. "Given we took Ponyville's town vet with us."

"I'm sure Apple Bloom and her friends will make sure they get fed," Applejack said. "They won't get distracted." Everyone looked at her dubiously. "Okay, I can't lie. It's a good thing Winona can hunt her own food if she has to." She sighed. "Big Mac and Granny will take care of Winona, but he's got double work with me gone."

"You should hire a hand or two, darlin," Rarity said. "Until you or Big Mac or eventually Apple Bloom get married, you could really use some help."

"I got Snails handlin' the weeding," Applejack said a little stubbornly. "And Apple Bloom is supposed to help."

"Like when she tried to help turn the grain silo into an airship," Rarity pointed out.

"Sweetie Belle helped too, you know," Applejack said, sounding frustrated.

"I know some handsome fellows, they would be glad to help you out," Rarity continued.

"I don't need no boyfriend," Applejack said. "Not everyone thinks about romance."

"If someone in your family doesn't, the Apple family ends here with your generation," Rarity said flatly.

"We can argue over who gets bred together to produce the ultimate cosmic pony messiah later," Pinkie said. "Less talking, MORE MAPPING."

Rarity produces incredibly beautiful maps, but it takes forever, as she wants to put each room in a 3-d cutaway with all the details. Twilight finds this so great, she tends to encourage her.

As we slowly picked our way through, distantly, we heard, "Dammit, I know those ponies are around here somewhere. I can smell them!" The voices were rough and growly in tone.

"I know, but we just went round the same loop TWICE," another one growled.

"Dammit, we're supposed to be the wandering monsters, not THEM. Why can't they stand still so we can eat them?" a third complained.

I had to put my hand over my mouth not to laugh.

Twilight quickly wrote on paper, 'Let's hide and ambush. Dash, Soarin', you're designated bait.'

We tried to hide around corners; Pinkie put on her Boots of Spider-Pinkie and clung to the ceiling with Spitfire hidden next to her and Fluttershy lurking by her. Dash and Soarin' floated in the middle of a five-way intersection. "Oh, Dash, we're finally alone," Soarin' said, trying to be smooth. "We can do anything we want."

Rainbow Dash turned beet red. "Anything? Like... anything anything?"

"Anything you like," he said. "Even upside down."

"You wouldn't rather I was a pie, right?" she said, then clearly wanted to die.

"You're much better than pie," he said, "Fair lady Rainbow Dash." He took her hoof and kissed it. "Your beautiful hair... reminds me of the dawn. Your skin is... the sky on a fair spring morning."

Holy shit, he CAN be smooth. He...

Then I noticed Twilight had out her copy of _Tales of Forbidden Pony Love_ and was concentrating, horn glowing, hoof moving along the page and at times jumping around.

...

Dash was blushing furiously, and she tried to speak and it just came out squeaky.

"When you soar across the sky, there is nothing more I want than... to see you fly forever, to fly with you..." His voice wobbled, then became more smooth. Something about how he was hovering...

I could hear our foes creeping closer but my hearing wasn't good enough to tell exactly how many. I got ready to throw lightning balls or fire, depending on what these are.

PLEASE BE HURT BY LIGHTNING OR FIRE.

Rainbow Dash looked overwhelmed, and then I realized, she's about to RUN. No, don't run! You'll run RIGHT INTO OUR FOES. I just know it.

"Rarity, she's about to panic and run," I whispered.

Rarity had this goofy smile that surprised me and didn't even reply.

...

Then he kissed her and her hair tried to explode and then she grabbed him and then...

Down three tunnels, six half-man, half-wolf creatures armed with golden blades erupted into sight. They howled and I felt my blood chill. The urge to run for my life was very strong. I'd seen this really good place to hide a ways back.

But then Rarity fired a silver arrow at one of them, hitting him in the hand so he dropped his blade, and Twilight hurled lightning and Pinkie hit one of them in the face with a pie and Applejack and Ivan flanked one of them and began battering him and Rainbow Dash and Soarin' each back kicked one, then released the kiss and CHARGED, sending foes flying, even as Spitfire came down on them.

One of them rushed at us, howling and I moved to block him and guard Rarity, cursing my legs for moving me there, and we clashed sword against sword. He slowly pushed me back with his superior strength, until Ivan suddenly came up behind him and stabbed him in the back. Unfortunately, the wound immediately began to close up to Ivan's frustration. Applejack's magical horseshoes, on the other hand, left their mark on every foe.

"We need to get you a magic weapon," I told him.

"One that I can hold onto, yeah," he said, frustrated. Then he got slammed down by the werewolf, but now I stabbed it in the back and Rarity shot it in the leg. It fled, bleeding and she recovered her arrow.

I helped Ivan back up. "I hope you didn't get cut," I told him.

"I think Fluttershy should be able to treat it in time," he said nervously.

I hope so, as the last thing we need is Ivan going mad and trying to eat us in the middle of the night.

I suddenly wondered if Princess Luna sets off lycanthropes. That could get awkward.

The werewolves finally fled after some more beating and Fluttershy carefully treated us all; you can get infected if a werewolf hurts you, though the swords, hopefully, would not convey it.

We took the three they dropped; they looked valuable and weren't on the dragon's treasure list, thankfully. Then we headed on.

**************

We finally got out of the maze, but the next room made me very nervous. It was rough and irregular in shape with a series of hexagonal platforms hanging down on huge chains from the ceiling, over bubbling boiling hot mud, twenty feet down. You clearly had to jump from platform to platform in order to get across, while not falling in the boiling mud.

"Hah, this one is easy. If you're a PEGASUS," Rainbow Dash said, grinning.

Too easy. "Be careful."

"I'll just..."

Spitfire looked at her.

"Wait quietly for orders," Dash grumbled, then looked at Soarin' and got googly eyed. "Hahaha."

"What are you thinking?" Twilight asked me.

"If this is the Earth Pony route, I'd expect them to make it hard to just fly past things," I told her.

"The Unicorn route didn't," Twilight said thoughtfully.

"It will," Applejack said. "Assuming evil-me had a race with evil-Dash like I did, and that evil-Dash cheats as much or more as the real one..."

"HEY! You started cheating too!," Rainbow Dash protested.

"No cheating," Not-Applejack said with a remarkably... elegant... voice. "A lady does not cheat or break the rules and though my evil twin is a churlish boor, I know she plays by the rules."

Rarity made a happy sigh. "You sound quite delightful. What is your name, madam?"

"I am Apple Blossom, the Element of Elegance," she said with a voice like silk.

Applejack's mouth was wide open.

So was mine. ELEGANCE? Okay, I like Elegance, but you'd expect... what? Then I remembered what she'd told me... this version of her must have stuck it out and become a true Manehattanite lady of sophistication.

"What kind of POWER is Elegance, anyway?" Applejack said, still kind of stunned.

"Marcus darling, would you be kind enough to explain to Applejack, in words of one or two syllables?" Apple Blossom said sweetly.

Rarity snickered and Applejack glared at her.

"Is it Elegance specifically, or the whole complex of behaviors and wealth which gives the upper crust of society power?" I asked Apple Blossom.

"The latter, but I think Elegance is a more beautiful way to put it, and I appreciate beauty, unlike my poor hick clone."

"I am not a HICK! I take care of my family and live NATURALLY," Applejack said angrily. "And don't talk all frou-frou like you! You're living a lie!"

"You simply had no patience and no persistence You hit the slightest obstacles and gave up on your dream. I held to mine and grew into it as time passed. The lie is what you told yourself to convince yourself it was acceptable to give up," Apple Blossom said. "If you were real, anyway. As it stands, you just have implanted memories, sad shadow of me." She sounded very pitying. Then we heard drinking noises. "Glantrian peach wine. Not quite as good as what we make at home but you can't take your best wines to a dungeon."

"I agree completely," Pinkamena said with a Prance accent. "Ze smell of dung and sulfur and mud would ruin ze fine bouquet of your orange brandies. In zat case, zere is no point to opening them in the first place."

"I agree, Madam LeFlour," Apple Blossom said. "Still, if you all make it across this alive, there are two bottles of fine peach wine waiting for you, and glasses. Try not to break them, Applejack, they're expensive."

"I ain't no clumsy filly no more! I ain't spilled wine on myself in YEARS," Applejack said angrily.

"She's trying to rile you so you screw up," I said softly to Applejack. "Don't let her play you."

"You spilled wine on yourself? AHAHAHA!" Rainbow Dash began laughing.

DAMMIT, DASH.

"Be nice," Fluttershy said, then stepped back a step. "If you don't mind."

"I'll show you I can do this!" Applejack said. "And I don't need no damned Elegance to do it!"

"No, wait!" I said.

Too late, Applejack leaped onto the first platform, which swung forward, then onto the next. But soon they were crashing into each other and further, the platforms LEANED when you landed on them, so you started to slide off them. Applejack was crazily good enough to keep leaping around but now she was stuck and had to keep running to avoid falling.

"Spitfire, get under the one she's on, Dash, you and I will stabilize the chain," Soarin' said, and they took off together.

"I believe I said there would be no flying. You had fair warning," Apple Blossom said, then sipped more wine.

Huge spouts of boiling hot mud erupted up, forcing the flying ponies back; they were good enough to dodge it but had to retreat.

Spike now curiously held his hand out over the mud, looking thoughtful. It jetted up and hit his hand but he resisted it and then wiped his hand off. "I can take the heat." He began studying the situation.

"I'm fine! I can do this!" Applejack said, jumping again. "I can beat any test of athletics!"

"I'm surprised you didn't have a test of elegance," Rarity said hopefully.

"The machine does not allow no-win scenarios; there must always be a sliver of hope and Applejack would have no hope there," Appleblossom said, then sipped her wine again. "And it would be unlady-like and gauche to hit someone on their weakest point. Besides intelligence, anyway."

"I HEARD THAT!"

The clanging of the platforms was enough to make me nearly go crazy. I could tell Twilight found it hard to think and Ivan was covering his ears and studying the situation. He looked pretty pissed off.

Pinkie was studying the chains thoughtfully, while the Pegasi all looked frustrated, except for Fluttershy, who was studying the moss and fungi growing on the walls. Rarity kept studying the mud as if it might rise up and render her tainted forever.

"Applejack," Ivan shouted. "Buck the chains! This is just another herd, made of metal! Pinkie, if both of you are on the same platform, you can level it out."

Applejack got a grim smile on her face and now began kicking chains as she leaped around, beginning to impose order on the cacophony and chaos around her. Pinkie leaped out to join her, Spider-Pinkie boots deployed, and they worked on herding the platforms.

"I see your common attunement to foul-smelling farm animals enabled you to help her," Not-Ivan said. He had a bit of a Thyatian accent, which surprised me.

"Would you like some wine, my dear friend Niccolo?" Apple Blossom said gracefully.

"Niccolo?" I said in disbelief. That's a Caurenzian name. They're basically 'budget Thyatis' up in Glantri. Also, MORE crazy.

"Niccolo Aurelianus, at your service, 'Marcus'," he said, making my name wobble in his mouth. You could hear the quote marks. "Baron Niccolo Aurelianus to be precise."

Ivan stared like the world was now ENDING and he had to watch.

"Baron?" I said. Then I remembered the ship.

I wonder if 'Sammy' is a Count.

"Of Novgorod," Niccolo said. "Grand Duke Stefan is always willing to reward service to the realm." I heard an oddly liquid noise, then the sound of him drinking. "As always, your concoctions are superb, my fair lady Apple Blossom."

"Tres magnifique," Pinkamena said with the fake Prance accent. Or maybe it's meant to be New Averoignean. They're similar.

"And you became a Thyatian how?" I asked.

"I think you know all about that," Niccolo said.

FUCK ME.

TRIPLE FUCK ME.

Rarity now looked very thoughtful. Oh bloody hell.

"You can tell me," Spike said, frowning.

Was Twilight listening? She seemed to be watching Applejack carefully, but surely she's not deaf.

"Blood doesn't matter," Niccolo said. "Each person makes themself, whoever their ancestors were. What matters is who you choose to be and what you do with what you have." His voice was smooth and confident; he was clearly a man who had made himself into what he wanted to be and knew what that was. I had to envy him a little. I've remade myself a thousand times, it seems but it never sticks. And it doesn't... I have to always live in fear of being found out. Or those times I don't, it all blows up.

Twilight's breath caught. She's listening. And I remember it too.

"Precisely," Apple Blossom said. There was a bit of an odd liquid noise, then she said, "We looked in the mirror and saw we could be something better and made it so. You both looked in the mirror and ran away. Which is why you're sweating in a room full of boiling mud and we're enjoying mixed drinks and sitting in comfort, enjoying the fruits of our labor."

Ivan looked ready to choke someone. "Because you're parasites! You make me SICK!"

"We are high society. What you think of us does not matter," Pinkamena said with an effort at a deep male voice. There was just a trace of a Prance accent. "It is what we think of you which will shape your reputation and influence. Not that you have any, Ivan, son of Pieter. No one will remember your name." 'He' sounded sad, really.

"We'll remember," Pinkie shouted as she worked on helping Applejack to herd everything. "And I'll tell everyone else and they'll remember! Who cares if some rich snobs remember? They're all stick-in-the muds who wouldn't know fun if it BIT them. Come help us, Ivan! They're not worth it."

I'm not sure what exactly Ivan can do to help them, but he ran and joined them, leaping chain to chain at Applejack's command.

"True elegance exalts, it does not tear down," Rarity said firmly. "You should not look down on others if..."

"You hardly have any right to say that and you know it," Apple Blossom said and took another sip of her wine. "You think the same about Applejack as I do, and you've said it."

Rarity looked rather uncomfortable.

"Don't let her rile you," I said softly to Rarity, hands on her back.

"Perhaps I have," Rarity said softly. "But I can apologize and I know you will not." She now turned and went to try to help Applejack out, though Ivan was soon having to try to keep her from falling in.

So I went to help as well, and so did the pegasi, jumping instead of flying. Eventually, we calmed the swinging platforms and got everyone across.

Despite my irritation with them, I took the wine and passed it to Applejack. "You earned this."

"I am a mite curious," she confessed. "I was too young for alcohol when I was in Manehattan but some of the drinks sounded interesting." She sighed. "I'm glad I didn't grow up and turn into that."

Rarity gently nuzzled Applejack. "I hope I don't make you feel like that," she said. "I am very disappointed in their bad manners."

"Manners ain't about what kind of straw you use or how you do your hair, it's about takin' care of your own and being honest with yourself and others," Applejack said to her. She smiled at Rarity. "We fight sometimes, but you ain't like that. C'mon, we've got to finish this path so we can get the dragon's treasure and get our peace treaty, so we can head back home before Big Mac dies of overwork."

"Agreed," Rarity said, then looked at the hot mud and sighed. "Not a proper mud bath at..." Then she looked at herself. "I am utterly filthy." She sighed. "I could hide it but I would just FEEL filthy."

They all were, hot mud was wafting up in the steam and had stuck to them. To all of us. Ugh, I am going to feel nasty forever now.

Forever!

"Well, we have to press on," Twilight said. "Sorry, Rarity."

"Sometimes, a lady must get a little dirty," Rarity said. "I wonder who these other people with them are, though."

...

"It's Pinkie doing voices," I said. "Evil Pinkie."

"From some game she plays sometimes," Rainbow Dash said. "Damn that Rocky punk."

"You wanna piece of me?" Pinkamena said with a deeper voice and a Bucklynn accent.

Pinkie looked embarrassed for a moment, then said, "I think someone's been playing the game so long she can't stop," she whispered.

"As if you can," Pinkamena said in her normal voice.

Pinkie winced, but then she looked determined. Then her eyes widened. "Ooh, I bet I'll have to make a rock monster laugh or something next! Come on, I want to see what I'm going to do!"

As if she was 'discovering' it. But I laughed. "Let's go!"

************

I stared at the slope. UGH. It was like climbing a mountain INSIDE a mountain. The slope went up into steamy mists which did not look fun either. Further, I could hear movement inside the fog.

"Man, I wish I hadn't lost my climbing gear," Ivan said, then sighed.

"We'll have enough after this to restock," I said.

Twilight looked thoughtful. "Describe it to me."

He listed off his equipment and then she closed her eyes, horn glowing, sweat running down her brow. And then suddenly...

BEAR.

A huge bear appeared, rearing over Ivan and myself and Twilight, with dark black fur with streaks of blue, and with huge claws.

"Climbing gear, not climbing BEAR," Rainbow Dash said, laughing.

"Wait!" Fluttershy said and interposed herself between the bear and Ivan, though she looked scared. But then she collected herself and talked gently to the bear, which now agreed to let Ivan ride it, in return for Pinkie's three jars of honey. Pinkie waved goodbye to the honey sadly, then found a shiny rock and forgot the honey ever existed. "So shiney!"

Twilight looked at me.

"I think it best not to press our luck," I told her. "If I borrow some of Applejack's rope, I can rig something up."

In fact, Applejack was kind enough to let me rig a halter on her and basically secure myself to her with it. She'd help pull me and I'd pull myself as much as I could. "Thanks, Applejack."

"Hey," she said softly. "You were right to worry about Dash earlier. And everything. I guess you have good instincts for this kind of place."

"I know dungeons like you know apples," I told her. "I suppose if humans had cutie marks, I'd have a trap on my leg."

She laughed. "But then you'd have to go naked for us to see it."

"Yeah," I told her. "Okay, I'm ready."

Slowly, we picked our way up the slope. It was very tiring, though Pinkie, Applejack, Dash, and the Wonderbolts had no trouble with it, even on foot.

So we kept going, sweat pouring down us; it got hotter and muggier as we rose. I could not have done it without Applejack. At least not without a lot of stopping.

Once we were halfway up, Fluttershy flopped over. "Tired," she squeaked.

"Okay, five minute break," Applejack said. She'd taken the lead on this.

Twilight stumbled over to me. "So tired."

"Me too," I said to her.

Ivan, to my surprise, was doing stretches next to his bear, which was busy eating up the honey.

"You need more exercise, girl. You can't always book-learn your way through it," Applejack said, though she was breathing a little hard herself.

"I know," Twilight said. "I just have too much to do."

"OOOOOKKKK!!!!" something shouted in the mist. Then barrels began rolling down the slope at us.

...

Twilight fired a lightning barrage, and half of them blew up, then blew up again.

...

We all began dodging wildly and blasting at barrels with fire and arrows and apples and rocks and pies and really, just about anything. When something hit them, they exploded. The ooking noises continued. Stupid gorillas.

"I have a plan," Spike said. "I ride at the front of our group; any barrels that come our way, I mail them to our evil twins. Keep tight behind me and we press up."

"Good idea, Spike, but won't it wear you out?" Twilight asked.

"I can nap in your saddlebags," he said.

Ivan mounted his bear. "Let's go!"

With Spike clearing the way for us with gouts of flame, we rushed up the mountain and into the mists, which Fluttershy parted with a song. Go druids!

Gorillas. Dozens of angry gorillas and a huge stock of barrels.

"LIGHTNING STORM!" Twilight shouted and blasted them and that set off the rest and now there were howling gorillas raining from the sky and the mountainside shook.

Dash, Spitfire, and Soarin' took to the air, whipping up winds to toss the gorillas aside to tumble down the mountainside, then realized they'd broken the rules. But apparently, our foes were too busy snarking or something, and nothing happened.

Until we were nearly at the top; we could see the cave to go into.

And then a purple worm erupted from it. He was huge, maybe twenty feet across and dozens of feet long and he basically swallowed Dash, Spitfire and Soarin' in one gulp, then tried to tunnel away. Applejack lassoed his tail end and Pinkie hitched herself to it, preventing him tunneling back into the rock. Fluttershy tried talking to him but he didn't seem to care.

"The wine! Throw it down to them and Spitfire can use it to augment her trick," Twilight said, looking satisfied.

The wine went down its gullet, then smoke poured out and it now coughed them up and fled.

We now stumbled into the cave for a rest.

****************

It was impossible to get Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire fully clean, though they rolled around on the walls and Rarity sacrificed some cloth to wipe them up. We all had an apple for a snack and eventually managed to muster the energy to rise and continue. Spike was now napping inside Twilight's saddlebags.

Filthy and bedraggled as we were. We emerged into a great bowl, open to the sky. It couldn't be the main caldera or maybe something extradimensional was going on. But there was a huge cool lake of water and on the other side, the exit back into the mountain.

Fluttershy talked to the fish. "They say it's safe, just don't eat their plankton."

No danger of that. We all plunged gratefully into the water to swim.

And swim and swim and swim.

By halfway, the earth ponies were fine, the pegasi were getting by, but the rest of us were exhausted, though Ivan was doing better than I would have thought.

I wanted to sleep forever, but I pressed on, Rarity swimming alongside me.

"I wish I had my diving gear," Applejack said. "It looks interesting down there."

"We're on a time budget," Twilight said.

"What if some of the dragon's treasure is hidden down there?" Dash asked.

"I can let us breath water," Fluttershy said. She smiled brightly. "It helps me visit my fishy friends."

She cast the spell and we dove down and began searching underwater. Eventually, Rarity spotted a gold coin and then some silver and soon we found a patch of earth which had been recently disturbed. Applejack and Pinkie easily dug up THREE chests of treasure. Oh yeah, Dash, you are the best pony!

As we loaded them into saddlebags, the sharks came back for round two.

In freshwater?

Unfortunately for the sharks, the Wonderbolts and Dash are quite mobile in water, and while we all got more tired, it was not too hard to incapacitate this group as well. We climbed out of the water and flopped down, exhausted, on the far shore of the lake and by a group decision, took a group nap.

A decision which consisted of lying there until we fell asleep.

*************

In our sleep, someone installed a nice wooden platform overlooking the lake and three nice soft chairs with attached fishing rods, so you could sit and fish in comfort.

"Why three if only two of us can sit?" Spitfire asked.

"Ivan has enough potion we could all sit!" Pinkie said. "Or we could turn into monkeys, then sit. Hmm... I wonder if I would still have a pink bottom?"

...

"Much as I'd like more fish, it's probably a trap," Ivan said. "I'm too tired to fish."

THAT is tired.

*************

Eventually, we got our butts in motion into the cave, heading downwards gradually. Slowly, it got cooler, which helped and we were a little less filthy from the lake, though I would have liked a full bath. But not an option yet.

I had this horrible feeling we were going to have to schmooze someone while utterly filthy and disgusting.

We stopped in a cave of fungus for lunch, and Rarity, Spike, Twilight, and I ran inventory on the treasure from the lake floor. ALL OF IT belonged to the dragon. If we hadn't gone looking for it, we couldn't have returned it.

"Dash, how did you think to look?" I asked her.

"Just a gut hunch," she said.

"Did your gut wiggle or squiggle?" Pinkie asked.

"We are not going to start looking for twitches in my gut," Dash said flatly.

"But it worked," Pinkie said.

"Yes, but only I can feel my gut anyway," Dash said. "Also, what the hell is going on with Pinkamena and her voices and your game thing?"

Pinkie said, "Pie," and got out a pie and stuffed it all in her mouth.

"Come on, Pinkie, we need to know," I told her.

She licked her lips nervously. "When I was a kid, I didn't have any friends, just my sisters. Sometimes, I'd make up friends to play with. When I get lonely, they come back." She licked her lips nervously. "I don't know if Pinkamena's ever left."

"So it's just ventriloquism," I said.

"And puppetting," Pinkie said, embarrassed. "It's just..."

"She's good with people, though," I said. "I wouldn't think she'd need the imaginary friends."

"She uses them to help her move people," Rarity said, startling me. She'd been busy eating and I'd forgotten she was there. "Like the way 'Rocky' can make Dash get angry."

"He's a CHUMP," Dash said, then slapped her forehead. "Aaargh!"

"Rocky is a teamster from Bucklynn," Pinkie said. "Mr. Turnip sells cabbages city to city."

Why cabbages?

"Madam LeFlour is from Mareis in Prance and she's a high society lady. Sir Lintsalot is a warpony and minor noble from Prance. He has pledged to defend all women," she continued.

Pinkie rambled on; her imaginary friends had long detailed histories, and an idea hit me. "You should write a book, Pinkie."

"Me?" she said, stunned by the idea.

"It could star your imaginary friends and then they'd be busy and happy with promoting themselves and making new friends every time someone reads about them." Rule one, find out how people think.

"Oh that would be wonderful for them. They're good people but don't make friends easily," Pinkie said.

Rarity blinked.

Dash buried her face in her hooves.

"I'm sure Twilight can help you with getting it published," I told her. I know Darokin sells printing presses to Equestria and they probably make their own but I don't know how the printing business is organized. But Twilight either knows or can easily find out. "It would make a great birthday present for Twilight too, if you can get it written in time."

Pinkie squealed happily. I smiled. Favor, curried, check. Info useful for dealing with Pinkamena, check. Now to eat and let my brain begin brewing.

I feel the first throes of a plan coming on.

****************

"You sure that's wise?" Dash asked me once we got going again.

"Maybe," I told her. "Some people write stories so the story will get out of their head and onto the paper. If nothing else, she'll make some bits off it which she can use to throw better parties."

Dash looked at Spitfire, who was upfront with Ivan. "She's a bit of a hardcase, you know."

"I know," I said. "But the Wonderbolts need hardcases too. People who make sure things get done. It's why they're so effective."

"I..." She paused. "You weren't telling Soarin' what to say, right? 'Cause it was kind of the way you talk."

"I promise it wasn't me, though I would have done it if he asked." I put my hand over my heart. "He's a good guy and really likes you. He's just not smooth like I am."

"I'd rather it be his own words, but the smooth language... he thinks I'm beautiful." Her eyes glazed over and she flew gently into the wall. "Oww."

"It's a man's duty to make his woman feel special," I told her. "If you love someone, you use every tool you have to make sure they know how your heart sings when you are with them, how you catch your breath when they walk by, how touching them makes you feel all shivery inside."

Dash was red and shivering a bit herself. "You really are a smooth talker." She paused. "So it wasn't you."

"It wasn't me," I told her. "I swear I am telling the truth. I'd confess if it was me."

"But no one else in this group is smooth like that. I guess Rarity is but she's... elegant instead of poetic." Dash frowned. "Is that right?"

"I'm sure she could be poetic," I told Dash as we still tromped along, slowly descending. Thankfully, there were few traps so far on the downhill run.

Dash nodded, then looked a little nervous. "You're not trying to romance Twilight, right?"

...

"Does Spitfire think that?" I asked.

"I... no, of course not," Dash said frantically.

So yes, she does.

"I am not trying to romance Twilight," I told her. If she was human... though there is the whole possibility of shapeshifting...

But I'd have to tell her the truth and then I would DIE.

"I... umm..." Dash laughed nervously. "You had many girlfriends?"

"Yes," I told her. "Some of them want me dead, some of them... well, family and other things got in the way. Anyway, I hope you and Soarin' will be happy together. Good luck."

"Thanks. That's pretty big of you," she said.

Because you think I have a crush on you.

My brain suddenly clicked. Spitfire must have thought I was trying to chase Dash AND Twilight at the same time. Ahah! Well, this should relieve her fears.

Which reminded me of something. "Dash..." I made a 'come hither' gesture.

Dash hovered close to my head. "What's up?"

"At some point, there will almost certainly be a fake Erik who will try to take advantage of Twilight but will actually be a doppleganger or incubus or some other horrible thing. We have to be ready to stop it."

"What if it's the real thing?" Dash said.

"If we beat up the real Erik, we can apologize. I'm sure he'll understand why we did it."

I hope there's not a Dona Carlotta. I don't want to play the fool but I probably would.

Which means we'll probably find 'Erik' and 'Dona Carlotta' busy making out or something.

Then Twilight and I will rush forward and die together.

Dammit.

**************

We now came round several bends and reached a bridge over a chasm. A single pony in full plate armor with lance rig, stood on the bridge, wearing livery which was golden with a black lance on it. You couldn't be sure if it was male or female, and it spoke with a hollow, echoing voice. "I am the Black Knight. One of your number must joust with me if you are to pass."

"Oh come on, this kind of thing has been old-hat in Equestria since hundreds of years ago!" Applejack protested.

"Nonetheless, none shall pass until one of your number defeats me," he said. "Whoever I defeat will become my servant."

"We don't even have any lances," I said.

"You certainly do not by pony standards," the Black Knight said.

...

Ivan began laughing, even though he's human too.

Most of the ponies just looked confused, but Soarin' and Rainbow Dash both began laughing hysterically and Rarity and Twilight both looked at each other's heads... oh, horn, right.

"Do any of us know how to build a lance rig?" I asked.

"I could do it if I had a hammer and nails and wood and everything," Applejack said, frowning. "Ain't exactly fair with him being all armored up."

"Well, if we had an actual LANCE, we could enlarge someone and Marcus or I could ride them and carry the lance," Ivan said.

I really do not want to face a warpony when wearing leather armor. REALLY. I shivered at the thought.

"Maybe the potion could turn one of us into a lance," Pinkie said.

"It can only make you into something alive," I said. "Unless it's a lot more potent than normal ones."

"What exactly are the terms of this joust?" Rarity asked the Black Knight. "How do you win?"

"We joust on the bridge. Whoever falls off the bridge loses."

"How exactly does the loser survive to serve the winner?" I asked, looking down into the chasm, which plunged into steaming mist.

"The..." The Black Knight paused and looked down into the chasm.

"I can catch the loser," Dash said.

Dammit, Dash, I was going to try and maneuver him into some other kind of contest!

The Black Knight relaxed a little.

"Enlarge this," Rarity said determinedly to Twilight, presenting an arrow to her.

"Wait, you're going to joust him?" I said in surprise.

"I am going to equip Applejack, since she's our best pony for this," Rarity said.

Twilight enlarged the arrow to the size of a lance.

Rarity then took Applejack off around the corner and a lot of clanking noises ensued. When they returned, Applejack was clad in a suit of plate armor which she moved awkwardly in, complete with lance rig.

Where did Rarity get a suit of plate armor? Surely she doesn't carry material to make plate armor. Then again, those saddlebags can hold a LOT of stuff.

It suddenly struck me that you could set up a really nice little bedroom inside one of those things, for camping on the road.

I'll stash that idea for later, I thought.

The Black Knight saluted her, and she saluted back, then they both pawed the ground. I shifted back and forth nervously on my feet. I don't know what we'll do if Applejack fails, though if any of us can take down a warpony in a joust, it's her.

Then it hit me. Rarity wasn't wearing her hat. THAT was where the armor came from. But would it be good enough for a real fight?

It even had Applejack's cutie mark inscribed on the flanks with cut crystal. Nice.

I really hope that armor can take it, or Applejack is going to get badly hurt. And I can tell she knows it but is trying not to show it. I'm pretty good at reading people, though ponies are harder, because only some of their body language is the same. Thankfully, they tend to have fairly human facial expressions. But I can see the tension in how she is moving.

"Everyone sing!" Pinkie shouted.

o/~ Applejack the Fair stood bravely before the Black Knight.

o/~ Applejack the Fair knew it was time for a fight!

o/~ She would strive with all of her might!

o/~ For in her heart, she knew her cause was right!

We all tried to sing along; given Pinkie was making this up as she went along... it wasn't easy.

Applejack pawed the ground, but she seemed to draw strength from our show of support. "You'd better keep your promise," she said to the Black Knight.

"I always keep my promises," he said. Or she. It was hard to tell.

Pinkie suddenly faltered in her song. She stared at him intently. "Show your face."

"I never take off my helmet when battle is immanent," he said firmly.

"Are you Sir Lintsalot?" Pinkie asked, hand on her hips.

Rainbow Dash made a strangled noise and I said, "Isn't he someone you made up?"

"Just because I made him up doesn't mean he's not real," Pinkie said patiently.

...

"Yes, it is, the brave Sir Lintsalot. I've come to save you from those horrible ponies who mistreat you, Pinkie," he said boldly.

...

"You look so dashing in your armor," Pinkie said, smiling.

"Thank you, Pinkie," Sir Lintsalot said boldly.

"So... there's nothing but lint inside that armor," Dash said hesitantly.

What? Okay, the name is connected, but surely Pinkie wouldn't imagine a knight who was made of lint.

Not even Pinkie.

"I AM NOT MADE OF LINT!," Sir Lintsalot said angrily.

However, I now could see that someone had engraved a pile of lint with a lance on it on the flank of his armor.

...

Maybe he's the weirdest golem ever. And I have seen a golem made out of children's toys and squirrel bones.

Damn Glantrian child wizards.

NEVER EVER agree to babysit in Glantri. Not pets, not children, not ANYTHING.

Darien laughed at me for three hours after that.

Bastard!

"C'mon, Sir Lintsalot, you can let us pass for old time's sake, right?" Pinkie asked, with big puppy eyes.

He shuffled his feet nervously. "I'm sorry, but the Princess has ordered me on my honor to defend this bridge."

"What Princess?" I asked curiously.

"Princess Marjorie the Wise," he said.

"You're supposed to serve Princess Celestia!" Pinkie said, clearly outraged.

Sir Lintsalot shrank back a bit. "I serve Countess Pinkamena and through her, Princess Marjorie the Wise, who the Elements of Power serve."

I have never heard of a 'Princess Marjorie'. The name sounds vaguely Glantrian. Isn't it an herb or something?

Then again, if Sir Lintsalot is made of lint, maybe she's made of herbs.

Maybe they're ALL golems. We've only actually seen Cruisin' with our own two eyes.

"Princess Marjoram?" Twilight asked in confusion.

Marjoram! That's the herb.

"MarjorIE," Sir Lintsalot said firmly. "She is beautiful and wise and strong. Now, Sir Applejack, we must joust."

"But... I can't stand to see two of my friends fight each other," Pinkie said, agonized.

The showdown with the Elements of Power is really going to be ugly for her, I see.

"I cannot break my oath," Sir Lintsalot said, pained.

Pinkie began vibrating and her tail shaking and her hair going crazy. This didn't bode well.

"He's just a pile of lint, Pinkie," Rainbow Dash said.

"Piles of lint are people too!" Pinkie shouted.

...

We're all going to be in trouble if piles of lint have the rights of people.

Spitfire said, "Pinkie, if we don't get past him, we can't recover the dragon's treasure. Then we break our promise to him and he will start raiding Equestria again. What do you expect us to do?"

"I am honor-bound to joust anyone who uses this bridge," Sir Lintsalot said firmly.

"Do we have to use the bridge to cross this chasm?" I asked. Always think outside the box.

Because the box is full of scorpions.

"DUH," Rainbow Dash said, slapping her face. "We can just fly across it."

"There will be no flying anywhere," Pinkamena said. "You do this the Earth Pony way or you fail. Namely, you fail, because you're a failure, Dash."

"I won the Junior Flyer competition! I AM NOT A FAILURE!" Rainbow Dash shouted.

Pinkamena's failure to reply made Dash and Soarin' grin broadly.

Pinkie studied the chasm. "I think we can jump it."

"I'd have to take the armor off, but yes," Applejack said.

"I can jump it," Dash said.

"Me too," Soarin' said.

"Ivan and I are unlikely to make that jump," I said, frowning.

"Or me," Fluttershy said weakly.

"I think I can do it," Twilight said. "But I'm not sure."

"If Rarity shot arrows across and... I guess rope bridges wouldn't work well for ponies, though," I said, frowning.

"Or Pinkie could walk on the ceiling with her boots to carry rope across," Applejack said. "But yes, some of us couldn't handle a rope bridge any more than they could handle jumpin' it."

"We could maybe rig a winch and swing people across," I said.

"You all are even more a pack of cowards than I thought," Pinkamena said. "Running away from one pony."

"I am not runnin' away," Applejack protested. "I just ain't getting in a fight if I don't have to."

Pinkamena began making chicken noises; Pinkie began making chicken noises, until she saw Dash glaring at her and stopped, laughing nervously. "But it's fun," Pinkie mumbled.

Applejack frowned. "I ain't no chicken!"

Suddenly it hit me. There's some way to make monsters with this place. Pinkamena made her imaginary friends into REAL beings. But they're shaped by her imagination which is why they sound like her doing funny voices. Or in this case, sound weird and hollow. Or maybe they're shadow creatures, half-real, half-illusion. That would fit quite well.

I sidled over to Pinkie. "Who is Sir Lintsalot's greatest enemy?" I whispered to her.

"Sir Malfeasance the Sockasen," she whispered. "He once kidnapped me and tried to force me to marry him, but Sir Lintsalot rescued me and he swore revenge on Sir Lintsalot."

"What does he look like?" I whispered.

"He's a black stallion with eyes of flame and he laughs evilly all the time. And he wears dull red socks like Father likes to wear when he has boots on."

"With his boots?" I asked.

"Sir Malfeasance just wears the socks because Father got mad if I played with his boots," Pinkie whispered.

"I have a plan," I told her.

I got everyone to huddle, then told them about Sir Malfeasance. "So Twilight disguises herself as Malfeasance with the hat, lures him away, the rest of us cross the bridge, she teleports to us," I said.

"That's pretty dangerous for Twilight," Spike said, frowning. "Let me do it."

"The hat won't turn you into a pony and you can't teleport yourself," I said.

"I could try and mail myself," he said stubbornly.

"I can probably disguise myself better, I know Sir Malfeasance the best," Pinkie said.

"But you can't teleport," I told her.

"I can run on the ceiling where he can't reach me to get back," she said.

"I can just joust him," Applejack said. "Pinkamena is likely to see through any clever tricks, anyway."

I slapped my forehead. "Twilight, you need to send Celestia a letter to send HIM a letter saying she needs his help defending Canterlot. He's pledged to the defense of all ladies, right?"

"Oooh," Twilight said. "Spike, take a letter."

We came out of the huddle once it was sent and Applejack got in position.

Wink the letter appeared by Sir Lintsalot, who read it. "Oh no! I must immediately go to the defense of Canterlot!" He charged off the way we came. "Celestia, I am coming!"

"What are you doing? Come back here!" Pinkamena shouted.

We ran across the bridge before she could summon him back, and headed off hurriedly down the hallway, Applejack changing back to normal. I carried Rarity's giant arrow for her until the spell on it wore off.

Trick won't work twice, but we'll probably have to fight him again later anyway, which worries me.

If Pinkie's four friends are real, or even just strong shadow creatures, then they will give our foes an edge I'm not sure how to counter.

Dammit.

************

"I could have taken him," Applejack said.

"Maybe. He's a stallion and an Earth Pony, so he is likely so strong it makes me feel pain just to think about it," I told her. Four, just FOUR Earth Ponies is enough to pull a train that must weigh tons. "And we don't know how strong that armor was."

I imagined Applejack getting impaled and felt my lunch try to come up. I took a swig from my waterskin and my stomach settled. Dammit, caring about people sucks.

It just makes you worry endlessly, as if I didn't have enough to worry about, like how Celestia is probably going to turn me into a new star for the heavens.

"Twilight, you'd know this. Has anyone verified whether the Procopian or Vellustian theories of stellar origin are true?" I asked her. Procopius, a Thyatian philosopher believed stars were giant burning lumps of what he called 'Procopian matter', a substance which burns forever for poorly explained reasons. Still, his flawed theory can explain planetary motion. Vellustia argued that ALL stars are like the 'sun' of the Hollow World, namely tiny gateways to the Elemental Plane of Fire, through which fire and light spill out. Pure fire, however, cannot exert enough gravity to keep planets from just flying off in a straight line. It would, however, explain why they normally don't go out, except for unusual things like supernova, which are when the gate blows up.

"You left out Thyrsus of Millenia's theory," Twilight said pedantically.

"I didn't know that one," I told her.

"He believed they were monuments erected by the Immortals to honor those who strove for Immortality and either succeeded or failed. This led him to speculate that the destruction of Blackmoor happened due to a failed attempt at Immortality, as a star appeared in the heavens as the Great Rain of Fire began," she continued. "Since no known Immortal exalted at that time, he concluded it a sign of a failed immortal, who was honored anyway."

"Honored for setting the planet ON FIRE?" I said in disbelief.

The Great Rain of Fire is poorly understood. The Blackmoorians found some sort of 'ship of space' which had secret technology they combined with magic to create a really powerful civilization. Then one day fire rained from the sky and the planetary axis shifted, burying them under the polar ice cap. This is the Great Rain of Fire.

"Also, didn't Anibaxus of Haven establish that it was the detonation of Utherite near the surface or in storage which caused the Great Rain?" I said. Or at least, it's the leading theory. Utherite was a shiny black rock which contained magic. Once you took all the magic, it turned into Sablestone, a dull black rock you can burn; it's a very powerful fuel. Dream Valley has a lot of Sablestone which they extract and sell. They also pick out small bits of Utherite that didn't detonate; it sells for REALLY big money.

"And it could be treated as a subset of the Vellustian theory, explaining why the gates are created," Twilight said. "But I did spend a while trying to line up stellar data and Immortals. But I couldn't get enough data." She sounded very disappointed.

"I would think you'd know where stars came from, Twilight," Rarity said, sounding surprised. "Given your interest."

"Celestia is not allowed to talk about it, and nopony has ever gone out to see for themselves," Twilight said. "We do know they have planets and that some of those planets have green humans."

"Really?" I said. "I thought the Blackmoorians found a non-human ship."

We continued to banter as we made our way down the hallway as Ivan looked out for trouble up ahead with Rarity and as I kept distracting myself.

The tunnel opened up into a huge greenhouse, probably several acres across. Holy cow, this is big. It was full of orange trees. Big, juicy oranges. I felt my mouth water. High above us, there were several dozen tiny crystal spheres, hanging on chains from the ceiling; they glowed with sunlight, enabling the trees to grow here.

At the far end of the room was a huge gate of stone with an elaborate mechanism connected to huge empty buckets high in the air. If you filled them up, the gate would open. Classic pony engineering. Or dwarven.

By the entryway, there were two dozen large baskets, suitable for fruit carrying.

"So we have to buck the oranges and fill the buckets in order to go on? That's EASY," Applejack said.

"Even for an unlettered country hick, it would be easy," Apple Blossom said.

'Would', she says. I smell trouble.

"Of course, La Cosa Nostradamus also wants your oranges, and they won't take no for an answer," she said sorrowfully.

Two dozen bulldog-like humanoids now entered from the north entrance, armed with bats, chains, silver knuckles, and maces. "Youse ponies had better move along, see, these oranges are ourses and we're gonna take 'em and sell 'em for BIG BUCKS," the biggest said.

"You're going to buy deer with them?" Pinkie said.

...

"He means bits," Applejack said to Pinkie. "It's Bucklynn slang."

"They're gonna murderize you all!" 'Rocky' shouted over the intercom. I noticed he was not among the... well, maybe he IS a Bucklynn Bulldog.

"Rocky!" Pinkie shouted. "You're not supposed to cheer for criminals! You're a good boy!"

"Sorry, Pinkie, they're old pals from the old days, see, and seeing them, I just kinda got overwhelmed and all." 'Rocky' sounded apologetic.

"Don't feel bad," Pinkamena said to him. "Pinkie's not your real friend, I am. I won't abandon you to go run around with mares." Her voice was soothing and 'Rocky' made happy noises. This was not as creepy as it would have been if I wasn't sure 'Rocky' wasn't ENTIRELY her talking to herself.

Still creepy.

"I am your friend, Rocky!" Pinkie said. "You should come to my parties! You know you're welcome!"

Rainbow Dash buried her face in her hooves.

"Sorry, ma'am, we have to rough up your friends," the big bulldog said to Pinkie. "I'm Barky Bark and these are my boyz, the Munchy Bunch. Boyz, leave the lady alone. We're here for the hillbilly, anyway."

"I am not a HILLBILLY," Applejack said angrily. "I am a farmer!"

"She's a GREAT farmer," Pinkie said.

"Applejack, Pinkie, Ivan, you three buck oranges," Twilight said. "The rest of us will keep the Yancy Street Gang off you."

Apple Blossom laughed very softly. "This should be entertaining, Madame LaFlour."

"Thugs versus thugs? It is beneath us, really," Madame LaFlour said. "But this is your soirée, so I bow to you."

"Cabbages are better than oranges OR apples," Mr. Turnip said.

"So many tasty cabbage recipes," Pinkie said, then got a basket and she and Applejack started bucking.

Ivan got some rope, made a sling for a basket and began climbing a tree.

"What?" Apple Blossom said, sounding surprised. "What on earth are you doing, Ivan?"

...

"Picking oranges! You think I'm up here for fun?" he said irritably.

"But..."

We could hear whispers but not what was said clearly.

"Oh. Carry on. Humans are strange."

"Says the half-assed fake Applejack," Ivan said as he started picking oranges.

"She is the fake!"

While they bickered over who was fake, the rest of us formed up to defend them. Fluttershy began a song and I positioned myself to cover her, then detonated my flame spell, sending several scurrying. Twilight hurled lightning balls at them, and they got blasted, tumbling across the grass.

Spike jumped up, kicked a gangster in the face, then grabbed his chain and swung him around with it and threw him. I remembered the chair. Oh help me, the CHAIR.

Rarity arced an arrow around to nail one of our foes in the ass and he now ran away yelping like a puppy.

The grass now grew up, grabbing several of the gang in place and holding them fast as they struggled. "Be nice," Fluttershy said to them. "Violence is bad."

Pinkie and Applejack were working hard, kicking oranges into baskets. To my surprise, Applejack wasn't any faster than Pinkie and it seemed to anger her a lot.

"Apples and oranges as they say, my evil twin? Of course, you probably can't read to know that," Apple Blossom said cheerfully.

"I can READ, dammit! I went to school same as everyone else!"

"I didn't get to go to a school," Ivan mumbled.

Applejack and Pinkie both faltered at that, staring.

"So you're actually stupider than my evil twin, how sad," Apple Blossom said. "I am versed in fine literature and the classics, thanks to graduating with honors from Madame Silver Fountain's School For Young Fillies of Distinction."

"Madame Silver Fountain is a stuck up old bat," Applejack said angrily. "And that school was boring."

"Because you didn't take it seriously like I did. But then, you ran away without even hardly trying," Apple Blossom said. "Better buck faster, it's all you can do."

Applejack and Pinkie had to kick their oranges up into the big weight baskets; the gate now opened just a little bit. Ivan was still trying to fill his basket. "Dammit, this is taking forever," Ivan said.

"Just do your best, Ivan," Applejack said. "I know you'll do your best for us." Then she ran back to bucking.

Dash, Soarin', and Spitfire swooped through the enemy ranks. Thankfully, there was no 'no flying' rule for this fight. Or if there was, our foes forgot to enforce it.

Two Bulldogs rushed at us and Rarity leaped up and kicked him in the chest, knocking him down, then hit him in the ass with an arrow and he ran away, yelping. She looked satisfied.

I was less satisfied because I was being attacked by Barky Bark. Worse, he was chanting some song about how awesome he was.

o/~ Bad Vibrations is what youse guys gonna feel,

o/~ When I kicks youse with my heel!

I cannot deny it felt bad when he kicked me in the face, but I cannot deny that he felt bad when I turned my sword into a mace and smacked him in HIS face. I would have just hacked him up but, you know, sentients, ponies, you know the drill.

Plus, there was a certain satisfaction in seeing him howl.

There was much less when he pushed my mace aside with his own, then knocked me down, then hefted me and threw me at a tree.

However, I had a certain satisfaction in then literally setting his ass on fire. Unlike the others, he knew to stop, drop, and roll, or maybe he just fell down in pain.

Ivan grimaced, then said, "Well, fuck, desperate times, desperate measures. If Asterius can do it..."

What?

Ivan dropped out of the tree, then closed his eyes for a few seconds, while fumbling in his pocket. "Please don't let me regret this," he mumbled.

"Live life without regrets!" Pinkie said, though she managed to buck two oranges onto her head. "But with better aim!"

Ivan muttered something, then poured some of the polymorph potion into his palm and stoppered the bottle and stashed it in his pocket. Okay, that's a weird way to drink it. Then he drank it clumsily; a little of it got on his shirt. He howled, stumbled, and then turned into a pony stallion.

...

He was a palomino: golden coat and a white mane and tail. I would have expected him to have brown hair, though his white mane was as curly as his hair normally is. His eyes were still brown. He was noticeably bigger than the mares present, though still within the range you'd call 'pony'.

Applejack stared at him in surprise. Pinkie said, "EARTH PONIES FOREVER!" and ran to hurl oranges into the buckets.

Pony-Ivan tried to give Applejack a thumbs up but managed to knock himself down instead. He got up, laughing ruefully, then turned and KICKED the tree.

The good news: he harvested the whole tree at once.

The bad news: oranges went EVERYWHERE and only about a third fell in his basket.

"Damn, nice power, poor control," Applejack said.

"I doubt the potion understands the finer aspects of bucking," he said.

Twilight said, "I'll come help you if we can ever get these dogs to give up!" She blasted more with lightning. They fled, but after a bit, they came back stubbornly.

"Once a bulldog sinks his teeth in something, he never lets go!" Barky Bark said. "Pulverize 'em, boyz!"

"Marcus, WHY DO YOU SMELL LIKE BACON?" Ivan asked me as he tried kicking the oranges back to his basket.

"I do not smell like bacon!" I protested.

"Oh, is that what he smells like?" Rarity said. "That's... It's some kind of meat thing humans eat, right?" she said. Then she shot another Bulldog in the butt, sending HIM scampering.

And yet they come back for more. Amazingly stubborn creatures.

"Yes, it is; it's typically eaten with breakfast," I told her. Barky Bark and I bashed each other with maces AGAIN and both fell down, though he got up faster, until I whacked his foot.

"What do I smell like?" Fluttershy asked. She now came over to Pony-Ivan and the grass began herding his oranges, helping him recover them.

Pony-Ivan sniffed. "You smell gentle, but I'm not sure how I know what gentleness smells like."

She smiled brightly and continued urging the grass to herd oranges.

Applejack ran over to Pony-Ivan. "Here, watch." She bucked a tree. "Try it like that."

He got a little better on the next one but this clearly was not something easily picked up. He also struggled to get the oranges up into the basket, though Fluttershy helped him.

Barky kicked me into a tree, though now he was limping, and was about to brain me when WHAM, Rainbow Dash hit him from behind and sent him flying. "Thanks, Dash," I said warmly.

"You're welcome!" Then she charged two more.

Rarity clearly wanted to help me but basically, as fast as she sent one running, another would come at her. Damn, these things are persistent.

Spike was busy defending Twilight, and doing a good job of it, punching and kicking any of them that got too close.

Pony-Ivan and Fluttershy were busy herding oranges, Applejack was making good progress, and Pinkie was doing well too. Things were looking up.

Pinkie sang cheerfully as she worked, about sending the oranges to see the king. I am not sure WHAT king. But if it works, it works.

"Barky, Barky, Barky, you have to do better than this, or Uncle will not be very happy at all," Apple Blossom said with her sweet, silky voice. "And you know what happens then."

Sweat now poured down his face. "I am trying to murderize this stupid human, but he ain't dying so easy as you said he would."

"He does seem tougher than Princess Marjorie thought," Apple Blossom said. "I suppose beating a pile of garbage to death with a blunt instrument is not ideal."

"I am NOT garbage!" I shouted.

"I will have to upgrade you to trash," Apple Blossom said. I heard drinking noises. "I can't see what she sees in you."

What who sees in me?

"What I see is a loudmouth with pretensions of grandeur who sends others to do her work for her, while she sits around getting drunk," Rarity said angrily. "You may have an elegant exterior, but there are worms inside your core."

Angry Rarity has such a lovely turn of phrase. I couldn't help but grin broadly, while Barky tried to figure out what Rarity meant. This let me bash him in the shoulder, though he now backhanded me into a tree. Dozens of oranges now fell down.

"Thanks, Barky!" Pinkie said.

He took his bowler hat off and bowed to her. "Yer welcome, Lady Pinkie."

Then he tried to beat me to death but I threw myself at his knees and knocked him down.

"I am not drunk; ladies do not get drunk," Apple Blossom said tightly. "Neither do I roll around in the hay with people I just met, unlike you."

What on earth is she talking about? No one has had sex on this mission.

Or if they have, I didn't notice and I am GLAD.

"They just hide like cowards while others fight for them," I shouted at her. "But then, you've always been good at running away. You ran away from working on the farm so you could be a lazy parasite in the city, living off other people's work! And now you're too lazy to come down here and fight your own fight!"

Apple Blossom made a noise, but then she cleared her throat. "Ladies do not get into brawls unless they have no choice." But it was clear my words had stung.

"And it's easy to cook up an excuse when you're a fake lady. You might muss your hair, you might chip your horseshoe, you might scuff your dress. Rarity is a real lady who stands by her friends instead of sending them off to get a beating without her! She's more of a lady than you will EVER be."

Rarity smiled brightly and kicked down a dog who charged her, then punted him across the field. She can be elegant and hand out a beating. I appreciate that.

I could hear Apple Blossom's teeth grind. Oh yes. Barky hit me again; I couldn't fight on two fronts at once well, but it was worth it.

"Sammy!" Apple Blossom shouted. "I need you."

"Sorry, I'm busy helping Dawn Gleaming compare star births with the raising or failure of Immortals! We'll be done in an hour or so, though! But I can't let my cuddle-huggums down by running off!" Sammy shouted.

Twilight twitched and nailed more Bulldogs with lightning balls.

'Cuddle-huggums'? Is he brain-damaged? If I was dating Twilight, I would call her something smooth, like 'maiden of the night sky' or 'genius of ancient lore' or 'regal as...' Okay, dammit, you can't call her regal, even though her coat color totally sets her up to be compared to imperial purple. Though in Alphatia...

ANYTHING other than 'Cuddle-huggums'. If anyone is a bad copy, he is.

I got smacked by Barky again. I can't focus because of that idiot and his terrible, terrible terms of endearment!

I finally understand why there are so many stories where clones can't stand each other.

A chime went off. Oh bloody hell.

The ground began to tear open and now shambling human corpses began to rise from their graves.

OH FUCK ME. I was starting to wonder why this path wasn't 'marathon' or 'get filthy and exhausted' as its theme.

There is, however, one good thing about the undead. No one is going to get mad if I go apeshit on them.

"Take him apart, Barky!" Rocky shouted.

"You want some? Come down and GET SOME," Rainbow Dash shouted.

"Dash, cover me so I can use a spell on the dead!" I shouted.

She powerdived Barky; they crashed into a tree which broke in half, dropping all its oranges, then on across the room; she peeled out, letting him slam into the wall. WHAM.

He feel down, then put his hat back on. I applaud that. "The little girl wants to rumble? Barky Bark is happy to oblige you, girly! But these claws are sharp!" he said, swinging his mace.

"It's BLUNT," Rainbow Dash said, oddly pedantically.

"Whuteva!" he said and began trying to smack her as she dodged him.

"Rarity, join your abilities with Twilight," I told her. "Twilight, the fire spell!" I now engaged the bulldog which was attacking Rarity, giving her cover to join Twilight.

Vanderhoven's Spiraling Fiery Burst causes fire to spiral outwards from the blast point you choose, dodging you but not necessarily your friends. Unless you combine someone with huge precision (Rarity) and power (Twilight). Together, they sent fire snaking through the ranks of our foes, dodging allies and trees and spiraling out to set all the undead on fire.

Fire with a pattern oddly like pretty lace.

Oh yeah.

That was enough for the dogs, who could see they escaped burning by Twilight and Rarity's grace only. Throwing that much fire tired Twilight but with the undead burning and the bulldogs fleeing, we were victorious.

"As always, ladies, you were magnificent," I said to them.

Why is Spitfire giving me funny looks? Going to have to figure that woman out.

"Nice job for a first timer," Applejack said to Pony-Ivan, cantering over to him. She sniffed his nose for some reason. "Like everything, it's practice, practice, practice."

"Thanks," he said. "I just didn't have time to do it the human way." Pony-Ivan sighed.

So much for asking me if I want to make centaurs, I see. Hah!

"So humans smell like bacon," Applejack said thoughtfully.

"Well, he specifically smells like it to me. I can hardly smell him at all normally. I can smell your confidence."

Applejack grinned. "That's me all over."

"Dash smells like that too," Pony-Ivan said, pointing at her with his head.

"Because I AM confident!" she said, grinning.

Pinkie now jumped on Pony-Ivan, knocking him down. He staggered to his feet and she said, "Now we must sing our song!"

"We never FINISHED our song," Pony-Ivan said.

"Improvisation is best!"

They soon began all singing a different version of the same song, which I had to laugh at.

Rarity sniffed my hand. "So that's bacon," she said, as if recording the idea.

"I haven't had bacon since the ship," I mumbled, then scritched her behind the ears as she made little happy noises. "I must admit I like seeing you can be elegant and hold your own in a scrap," I told her. "Don't listen to those fools."

"You look good in a fight too, Marcus," she said. "I wish I could take a bath and a nap, though." She sagged just a little, and leaned on me.

I worked behind her other ear. "Yes, so could I, but there is no rest for us until we finish this."

I hope Twilight will have enough strength for the last throwdown. As I am... dog-tired. Heh.

She was smiling at us, though she turned to Spike when she noticed me noticing her noticing us.

Spike, on the other hand, glare of death.

I'd better guard my hands tonight.

"So how long until you turn back?" Applejack asked.

"I'm not sure. I drank about a palm-full... Hey, Twilight, you have any idea?"

"Depends on the power of the wizard who made it," Twilight said.

Which we don't know because we found it in the dungeon.

"I expect Keraptis made it, so it would be strong," Pony-Ivan said.

Twilight nodded. "Though it may have been made by someone who raided this place and lost it or died here."

We all frowned at that thought.

Pony-Ivan thought for a moment, then said, "Marcus, you're going to have to take point. I can't do anything about traps except look at them with no hands."

"I will be your hands," Rarity said. "Twilight, isn't there some trick for magnetizing a needle?"

"I have a compass if you need one."

"I need you to magnetize a couple of my needles for use with trap disarming."

"Sure," Twilight said. It's a very easy spell.

Rarity soon had her kit assembled and we got going.

***********

"You all have a distinct smell in addition to your temporary ones," Pony-Ivan announced as we made our way down the next tunnel. He now closed his eyes. "I can tell where you are, even like..." Bump. "But not the wall."

This got many laughs and Applejack said, "Eyes open, Ivan," though she laughed.

"And I have a broader field of vision, I think," he said.

It's like he's driven to comment on everything he does now.

There is probably going to be a party where we will have to liven it up or something, for one of the challenges. And given we haven't had an evil thing pretending innocence yet, that's definitely going to be happening.

We came around a corner and came to where the hallway ceiling soared up to sixty feet. And then it deadended, with the hallway continuing fifty feet up. "Oh bloody hell," Pony-Ivan said, looking at his hooves. "I hope we don't have to retreat quickly."

Rainbow Dash flew up and secured a piton for me and a rope. I climbed up, then the Pegasi began ferrying everyone. We were able to head on, but now I was nervous. More nervous, okay? This clearly meant we'd have to run from something but wouldn't be able to.

Distantly, a bell chimed five times. FIVE TIMES? If once is a horde of wandering monsters... EEEEE!!!!!

"It's just a bell," Applejack said. "If you turn into a pony at some point, your name is definitely going to be Nervous Nellie."

"Once is a horde of wandering monsters. Now multiply by FIVE," I said.

Applejack grimaced. "Okay, good reason for nerves."

We pushed down the hallway to a four way intersection. "Another maze, I suspect," I told them.

We went left. Always go left. This went fifty feet, hooked another left, then widened out into a forty foot wide room with pictures of Ivan dying horribly on the walls. Human-Ivan, that is. Pony-Ivan grimaced.

There was a staircase up in the middle of the far wall, ten feet wide, which climbed forty feet to double doors. To the right of the staircase, there was a pile of miscellaneous garbage tucked into the corner, about eight feet across and two feet high. On the ceiling over it was a set of arcane runes.

"Okay, no one move," Pony-Ivan said. "Marcus, creep up and check the stairs. Twilight, check the rune. Rarity, stand by me. Spitfire, can you fly up by the doors but don't touch them?"

"Of course," she said, flying up and hovering.

Twilight said, "It's a teleportation receiver You teleport to it. But of course, you'd fall unless you can stick to it, which makes it seem weird. Maybe it's for pegasi?"

"On the Earth Pony path? I doubt it," Pony-Ivan said.

I moved up carefully. "The stairs turn into a slide, there's a pit-trap at the base." I triggered it and it dropped sixty feet onto a teleport sigil. Twilight carefully moved up. "It links to the one on the ceiling."

She lifted the garbage with her magic. "And that has another teleporter which ALSO connects to the one over it, so you fall, hit, teleport, fall, hit, teleport, ad infinitum." Twilight rubbed her forehead. "Vicious."

Twilight said, "Spitfire, I will catch you if something makes you fall. Open the doors."

Huge winds now tried to slam Spitfire down but with Twilight's help, she made a controlled descent. The wind erupting out of the tunnel beyond also would have pushed people down the stairs, which now turned into a slide.

"Marcus, you're going to have to climb up and disarm it, given I can't climb these smooth walls," Pony-Ivan said, frowning.

"Twilight, you'd best be ready to catch me," I told her.

She nodded and I clambered up. I got blown out three times before I disarmed the trap. Then the Pegasi helped everyone up, though Applejack was able to just trot up the slide.

What followed: pit trap, dart trap, pit trap with arrow trap, spear trap, fire trap, acid jets trap, and then...

Applejack had to simply kick open a door to get us through it. Beyond was a thirty foot cube of a room; there was a staircase which rose ten feet to the middle of the right wall, and a tunnel exiting the room in the middle of the far wall, ten feet off the ground. A shimmering violet curtain hung down in front of it from the top of the room. Violet fungi, hideous stuff, it rots your flesh when you touch it. At ground level, under this, there was an archway but it only went a short distance before hitting solid stone.

In the center of the room was a ten foot circle of stone with a series of poles four feet high sticking up along the edge. A similar set projected down from the ceiling.

Twilight saw the fungi. "That is VERY dangerous, do not get near it. Marcus, help me burn it."

Burning didn't work to my annoyance. Neither did lightning or even Twilight's water blast spell.

"Gotta solve this the Earth Pony way," Applejack said. "Ivan, got any idea?"

Pony-Ivan paced around the poles. "Oh, I get it. We rotate the room with the poles. Top tier with the top poles, bottom tier with the bottom poles."

"How would earth ponies get to the top tier to rotate it?" Applejack asked.

"Lasso them and pull?" he said. "Let's try that first as it's probably the hard one."

With a lot of effort, they slowly rotated the top into place. With the ropes, we could all help. This moved the violet fungi away from our exit. Then we did the ground level.

It was easier, but it also meant the alcove on the bottom now opened into a tunnel. A tunnel full of hungry spectral undead, who now charged out to meet us.

Pony-Ivan, unfortunately, had to fight with his hooves, which left him vulnerable to their powers. He quickly ended up paralyzed to his frustration.

I changed my sword to an axe and began hewing undead, sending spectral body parts flying. It was quite satisfying.

Twilight chewed through their ranks with lightning and Spike with fire. Applejack began lassoing them and throwing them around to people who could safely hit them.

Pinkie now began a song and soon had a dozen of them dancing with her. She then led them off into the traps, which we now heard going off on them.

Soarin' and Spitfire's uniforms let them safely attack the undead and they began kicking them around. Dash had to be more cautious, whipping up winds to fling them around into each other and break up any groups which threatened the rest of us.

Fluttershy slowly dragged Pony-Ivan to safety and cast a spell to unparalyze him.

Finally, we carved down the last of them; they had no hope of beating us, but now we were all more tired and worn down. Which is what our foes are hoping for.

I am NOT looking forwards to encountering the Elements of Power when we're all tired and exhausted.

The good news: A large chunk of the dragon's hoard was tucked into a room behind here. We now had half of it. Half of the stolen part of the hoard; I expect he has a lot more at home.

I just hope we didn't miss some earlier in the dungeon.

***********

We now passed down a staircase and through a door labeled 'Servants' entrance'. Now the hallway was tiled in elaborate geometric patterns of the kind they like in Ylarum and in parts of Thyatis. Everything was very clean and indeed, it was like we'd wandered into the back areas of some Thyatian villa.

I could smell rose-scented perfume. The ponies all paused and looked overwhelmed. If I can smell it, it must be really strong for them.

Then Pony-Ivan made a noise and said, "And now the potion is wearing off." He yelled loudly, stumbled, fell down and turned into himself on the floor. His human self. "Well, that was a lot different than I expected," he said, then rose, wobbling.

"You made a good pony, Ivan," Applejack said warmly.

"How do you focus with all those smells?"

"You get used to it," she said, then looked around. "You were thinking we might have to go to a party, Marcus?"

"Something social, as I expect Pinkamena will want us to look like idiots in a social situation."

"Sounds fun!," Pinkie said cheerfully.

We now came to three doors, though the hallway went on. One was labeled 'humans', the second 'ponies' and the third 'dragons'. They turned out to be bathing areas with fluffy towels, bathrobes, soap, and a series of rooms for bathing.

"Dammit, this has to be a trap with sea monsters in the soaking tub," I said. "But I want a bath SO MUCH."

"A little dirt never hurt anyone and we can't trust it," Ivan said.

Rarity stared longingly at the pony bathhouse.

"Well, if we all bath together, instead of some people HIDING," Applejack said, "It ought to be safe."

"I smell donuts in the dragon baths," Spike said.

Ivan looked at me. He doesn't care if they see him naked, but I will DIE.

"Well, at the very least, we ought to snag those donuts for Spike," I said, stalling for time.

Spike looked at me, clearly suspecting I was up to something, yet wanting *donuts*.

"Look, you can just wrap a towel around yer groin and join us," Applejack said. "As if we'd never seen someone's groin before."

Twitch, twitch, twitch. If it falls off... DEATH DEATH DEATH.

Spitfire was giving me the eye and my heart considered whether to just explode and get it over with.

"Look, Spike and I can bathe with them," Soarin' said. "Then there won't be any need to panic, right?"

There was no excuse I could give which would not end in fire.

Soarin' may or may not know about Erik's tattoo. I do not know for absolute sure Celestia knew and Twilight would have no reason to tell the Wonderbolts.

But he's likely to say 'Hey, guys, Marcus has a sweet tattoo.' But if I use a little caution...

"Really, they should be with us, just to be sure," Rarity said. "Not to denigrate you of course, Soarin', Spike."

Applejack looked at Rarity, then snickered for some reason. "Well, well, I see someone can change their opinion when it suits them."

"What?" Rarity said, a little flustered. "It's for safety's sake. I greatly appreciate Marcus' desire for propriety but given we heard five wandering monster bells and none of them have shown up, and well, when are we more vulnerable than when taking a bath?"

"I'm thinking maybe we should skip the bath, tempting as it is even for me right now," Applejack said.

"I could really use a bath," Fluttershy said. She sounded quite worn out.

"How about if we search all three for traps, monsters, death, and so on together," I said. "Because these might be full of DEATH."

We did the 'dragons' one first. It was HUGE. Big enough to hold even a grand wyrm. In fact, I was disturbed by evidence of recent use; wet towels, used soap, turned over buckets, water splashed on the floor. The soaking tub was practically an artificial pond.

"There's a dragon around," I said.

"Probably Marquetta," Spike said angrily.

"No bath," Applejack said. "We search them for anything else we need to know but no bathing if there are dragons about."

We found a box in the corner with Sablestone in it. There was a hidden dumbwaiter next to it and a secret door to stairs down. "Ain't no dragon bigger than Spike gonna fit down this," Applejack said.

A little bigger. Anything ogre sized or smaller could use this tunnel. We carefully descended and found that there was a set of furnaces; you could burn sablestone and heat the water in the giant tub above. Further, we found a chest down here; once Ivan disarmed it, it had more of Vermicoritax's treasure, including his complete collection of Darokinian Chancellor coins; the Darokinians issue a new gold coin design each time a new Chancellor is elected; he had every single one plus all the major weird variants, like the one which was half copper and half gold and ended up kind of orange.

"I'm wondering how the dragons get down here to turn their hot water on," Applejack said.

"Probably servants," Twilight said.

Spike nodded. "Or any children."

And then I felt a powerful pulse of magic. "Erik of Vestland, now you di... no one is here," a man said loudly; we could hear him only dimly.

...

"Nice accuracy on that teleport, now we're stuck in the middle of White Plume Mountain and there is no sign of our target!" another said angrily.

Six bells now chimed in quick succession.

A woman said, "What the hell is that?"

"Erik? They're looking for Erik? He's here?" Twilight said frantically.

I put a finger to my lips, pointing up, then making a throat slitting gesture.

"We can't kill them," she said, stunned.

I gave up. "No, I mean they may kill us, depending on if they want witnesses," I whispered. "And don't talk loudly, or they'll hear us."

She looked relieved. "I'm sorry, Marcus, I know you wouldn't advocate that, I just misunderstood." She sounded very embarrassed.

"If they're looking for Erik of Vestland, Soarin' and I should talk to them, given he is the one who stole the Pearl of the Water Elves of Minrothad."

"Is Celestia looking for him?" I said nervously.

Twilight frowned.

"We're under orders to bring him to her alive if we encounter him," Spitfire said, studying me in a way that made me want to immolate myself.

Which she could help with, I now knew.

"Anyway, we can talk to them, find out who it is, and since we're not Erik, either it will be fine or we can outrun them," Soarin' said.

"I could...," Dash began.

"You're too recognizable," Spitfire said. "Stay here, we'll talk to them."

We waited nervously, while they went up.

"Hey, I met you at the embassy. Corporal Cufen, right?" I heard Spitfire say.

Ivan and I both goggled.

"You know him?" Twilight asked.

"I knew a Cufen," I lied. It was the name I had when I met Ivan and Helga. A long time ago.

"Everyone, this is Spitfire and Soarin' of the Wonderbolts," Cufen said. "You guys looking for Erik again too?"

"We never did find him. But we got reports he was here."

"We had a tracking spell but it malfunctioned and told me he was in two places at once, so I tried to land on one of them and missed both," another man said. "What's down the stairs?"

"Just the access for heating this tub up. By the way, this is a baths for dragons."

"Well, shit," the woman said. "Doran, can you teleport us out?"

"Not unless you want me utterly exhausted," the second man, Doran, said.

"I don't want to waste time trying to search the dungeon," Cufen said. "Teleport us."

I felt magic build and...

"OH SHIT," Doran shouted and then there was silence and a feeling of something messing with the spell.

"Damn, they're not dead, right?" Soarin' said weakly.

"I hope not," Spitfire said, grimacing.

They reunited and Twilight said, "They got intercepted. I don't think teleporting out is an option." She scratched her head. "There is two of Erik?"

AHAHAHAHAHAHAH.

"You can be sure there is some trap here with a fake Erik," I said. "And likely anyone else any of us have ever liked, loved, hated, etc."

I am SO FUCKED. But I can't confess now, though I should.

DAMMIT.

******************

We found two more hidden, trapped chests. Ivan and worked with Rarity, showing her how to disarm them; her fine motor control of her telekinesis makes her well suited to this. And I think she enjoyed it as a puzzle exercise.

"I bet you boys would make marvelous tailors," Rarity said with a wink. "Your fingers are very nimble."

"I have no experience," Ivan said. "But I will take your word for it. You have a definite knack here."

I really ought to learn to make hats, but then I would probably do nothing else BUT make hats.

Combined with our other wind, we now had seventy-five percent of Vermicoritax's treasure. Excellent. Hopefully, we'd find the rest soon, though I suspect a fair chunk of what's left is all over Clarity.

There had been six people and six chimes. Which led us to the theory five people had entered White Plume Mountain the previous time. This was rather a relief.

Though I feared the five were the Thyatians sending a group for me. Also, Twilight kept trying to figure out the two Eriks thing, which worried me. I fear the man detected myself and 'Sammy'.

Dammit.

We now took off down the hallway and came to a small room with two doors, each with a mask etched into it from the Thyatian theater On the left was a comedy mask, on the right, a tragedy mask. Over them was carved 'The Talking Gates. One always lies. One tells the truth. Down one path is a howling army of undead, down the other your fortune. You may ask only one question of each.'

"A logic puzzle? What the hay is a logic puzzle doing on this path?" Applejack asked, frowning.

"This one is EASY," Pinkie said. "So easy it must have a hidden trap."

"It's easy?" Applejack said dubiously.

"Oh come on, the Lay of Marethian has this one, and so do roughly twenty or so other old lays," Pinkie said. "It could be treasure or your girlfriend or boyfriend or your child or a Celestia-in-a-box, but it's always 'DEATH' or 'TREASURE'."

"Ooh, bardic test, then," I said.

"Yes, but anyone who knows this would know I would know it," Pinkie said. "Therefore, there has to be a trick. The howling undead army actually wants to give us pie and the fortune is 'bad fortune'."

"So we reverse it," I said.

"But then, they'd anticipate that I would think that, so they would double reverse it, counting on me psyching myself into the wrong path," Pinkie continued.

"Or it could all be a lie and they both lead to death," Spitfire said.

"This is a mad wizard's dungeon. There's always an out but we have to be cunning," I said.

Pinkie stared at her tail. "Pinkie sense... ACTIVATE!" Nothing happened at all.

Pinkie grimaced. "Pinkie sense SUPER ACTIVATE."

Nothing.

"Search for a third door," Twilight said. Careful study showed that if there was another door, we couldn't find it.

"It could be that the howling undead army is guarding some of the dragon's treasure, so we have to face it. Whereas, treasure for *us* is down the other route," Ivan said.

I find this theory plausible.

"Well, I choose comedy," Pinkie said. "In which case... Doors! Tell me where the rest of Vermicoritax's treasure is!"

The masks moved slightly and looked at each other. "But... we don't know about that," the Comedy mask said. "We're supposed to answer questions about things around here."

"Wrong! The rules don't say that. They say to ask one question and each of you will answer it. It lays NO restriction on the question!" Pinkie said. "Are you CHEATERS?"

"But I can't lie if I don't know the truth!" the Comedy mask said.

HAH!

"I'm going to have to report you to the Better Dungeon Bureau for cheating," Pinkie said. "Spike, take a letter."

He produced pen and ink.

"Dear Princess Bureaucracia, I have encountered two doors who are NOT doing their jobs," Pinkie began.

"I'd do it if I could!," the Tragedy door said.

"I would... wait, no, I... aaargh...," the Comedy door said. "I think I'm supposed to say that I don't want to do my job? That I won't do it? Damn, lying about everything is hard."

"You should say it's easy, I think," the Tragedy door said. "To lie about it."

"Dammit!"

"I need your names, so I can turn you in," Pinkie said sternly.

"We don't have names," the Comedy mask said. "No, wait, I have to say we do have names." He paused. "Right?"

"Yes, while I say we don't have names," the Tragedy mask said reassuringly.

"You're not very good at this," Applejack said to the Comedy mask.

"I can't seem to think clearly for some reason," the Comedy mask grumbled. "Dammit, I needed to say I can think clearly for no reason. Some reason. Urgh, you handle this... no, wait, I have to tell you not to handle it. AAAAAA!!!!"

Applejack paused, then suddenly buried her face in a hoof for a few seconds. "OH."

I blinked. "Wh... OH."

"Element of Honesty, that's me," Applejack said, feeling embarrassed. She concentrated, studying the sign. "It's all a lie. Both paths lead to death."

Man, that's a sweet power, except insofar as it might reveal the truth about me, leading to my death. DAMMIT.

"How do we move forward, then?" Dash asked.

"It's a dead end," I said. "We got the dragon's treasure, though."

Careful searching revealed we'd missed a secret door, which we now opened and headed down this new tunnel.

**************

As we headed down the new tunnel, Spike coughed up a letter. Twilight read it and frowned. "Two pieces of bad news."

"Go on," Spitfire said.

"One, someone stole my balloon from Ponyville," Twilight said.

"Oh man, that was such a fun thing to ride in!" Pinkie said, frowning.

"What's the other news?," Applejack asked.

"The Cutie Mark Crusaders are missing," Twilight said. "The only clue is that they tied a note to Opalescence and she ate all of it except for their names."

"Great, they've decided to become balloon riders," Applejack groaned. "Probably going to try to circle Mystara or something, like in that book." She looked accusingly at Twilight.

"I loved that book as a child! It's why I have a balloon!"

"The Forbidden Island?" I asked. "Where the guy crashes on the island of strange creatures and becomes their king?"

"That's the sequel," she said. "I gave them the first one where he visits the South Pole."

"So now they're Cutie Mark Crusader Polar Explorers," Rarity said flatly.

"It... seems plausible," Twilight said, laughing nervously.

"Do they do this often?" I asked.

"They've never gone this far," Rarity said, sighing. "Scootaloo gets some crazy idea, Apple Bloom convinces herself it's a good idea, and then Sweetie Belle goes along for the ride."

"Except when it's HER idea," Applejack said flatly.

"Spike, take a letter for the Cutie Mark Crusaders," Twilight said. She dictated a long letter basically telling them to go home. Then she sent Celestia a progress report.

"Really, though, they can't go to the South Pole unless they had a pegasus, an adult one, to blow the balloon there or some other kind of magic, right?" Rarity said.

"You need adult level magic to power its magical steering," Twilight said. "Fillies should be stuck just drifting with the wind. Which means they probably would actually head towards Canterlot or Fillydelphia or maybe Mareis."

Everyone relaxed a little with that.

We then came to a door. Ivan disarmed it with Rarity watching. A classic poison needle trap. Also, the door was designed so if you broke it open, blades would try to chop your leg off.

No bucking this door.

It opened into a long line of crypts. Huge niches held coffins big enough for ponies. "Even though this place is probably full of pony undead, we have to check every coffin," I said.

I could tell the idea of tomb robbing did not enchant the ponies.

The coffins were full of ponies, preserved to a degree which was likely a sign they were undead. However, Twilight didn't want to just blow them up unless they did threaten us. This was probably a mistake.

The first ponies looked like normal, non-sentient ponies. As we moved along, they changed, taking on features more like modern ponies. Then suddenly, they started having pony-coloration and totally modern features, but no cutie marks. Then there were ones with cutie marks.

This place was huge and seeing all these dead ponies was pretty morbid. Also, if they are all undead, we are going to be screwed. But none of them had the treasure we wanted.

The coloration of the ponies on one side began to trend towards dark colors: blacks, grays, dark purples. On the other side, it trended to reds, greens, and oranges. And then Applejack's breath caught. "Great-Grandma Apple!"

"Great-Grandma Pie!" Pinkie said, mood suddenly deflating; she'd already been kind of grim, but now her hair wobbled and she stared with sadness. "She died trying to help prevent an earthquake, but it was too much for her."

Spike patted her shoulder. "Your parents and grandmother are still alive, right?"

"I have one Grandpa and one Grandma left," Pinkie said sadly, staring at her.

"Trying to prevent an earthquake?" I said.

"This rock monster caused an earthquake that wasn't scheduled and it threatened to take out the rockface over a town built at the base of the plateau. Her team of Maintainers saved the town but the stress was too much and she was too old. I was born three years after she died, so I never met her." Pinkie shivered. "It's what caused Father and Mother to become Mane-ionites. They felt they'd been wasting their lives, so they settled down and got married."

"Great-Grandma Apple just lived a quiet life, working hard. She had lots of kids and eventually, she got old and died. It's one of the things you learn on a farm. Everything dies and returns to the soil, so new life may be born of it. But what's her body doing here?" Applejack asked, then frowned. "Someone dug up all our ancestors? Is that it?"

"They're likely shadow creations," I said. "Your ancestors would all... be dust by now." I shivered at the sight of them.

There were three empty coffins in Pinkie's line but Applejack's side had her mother in the middle of two empty coffins. Applejack shivered. "Mom," she whispered.

Ivan put a hand on her shoulder, but didn't say anything.

Pinkie shivered, her hair wobbling, and Fluttershy nuzzled her silently.

"What happened?" I asked Applejack, unsure if I should ask.

"They died protecting fillies from the school from a monster that escaped from the Everfree," Applejack said. "This giant puddle of black slime."

I winced. Black Pudding. Dangerous, dangerous, mindless, but dangerous.

So why this? Unless it's an effort to make us so morose we kill ourselves or something... but that seems unlikely.

The crypts ended in double doors with an inscription. "To be an adventurer is to laugh in the face of death." No handle, no latch, no way to open them. Except, I am guessing, to laugh.

"I can't laugh at my dead great-grandmother," Pinkie said weakly, shivering. "I don't like this room."

Who would?

"We'll find another way," Twilight said. Going back, though, the door we came in through was gone.

We were sealed in.

"What, no ha ha now?" Pinkamena said harshly to Pinkie. "It's easy if you don't think about the future, but every story ends the same. With death."

Except mine, maybe.

Pinkie leaned on Fluttershy, twitching.

"Of course, your parents could be dead right now, and you wouldn't know, since you abandoned them," Pinkamena continued.

"So did you or you wouldn't be here," I told her.

She made teeth grinding noises instead of replying.

Dash licked her lips nervously. "I suppose it doesn't help if I laugh."

"You're not smart enough to know what death is," Pinkamena said.

I've defied death, but I don't think I can laugh at it. I never WANT to end up on fire and slowly sliding down a greased rope into a sea of broken glass.

It just happens somehow.

"When I was a filly, Mom used to tell Apple jokes. She married into the Apple Family. So she tried to be more an Apple than anyone else," Applejack said. "One of her favorites was this. What do you get if you cross an apple with a shellfish?"

"You can't cross an apple with a shellfish unless you're some kind of mad wizard," Twilight said, sounding confused.

Spike sidled up to Twilight and whispered loudly to her, "It's a JOKE."

"A crabapple," Ivan said, smiling a little.

Pinkie's ears twitched. "Even I don't make fun of the dead," she mumbled.

"I'm not making fun of the dead," Applejack said somberly. "I'm making fun with the dead. Here's another one. Silver Lining came rushing in to see his dad, Copper Lining. 'Dad,' he said, breathing hard. 'Is it true that an apple a day keeps the doctor away?' Copper Lining angled his head, a mite worried about his son. "Yes, it is, son. That's what they say.' His son looked relieved. 'Give me an apple quick! I've just broken the doctor's window!'" She smiled now, remembering her mother, no doubt, and Rainbow Dash began laughing and laughing and laughing. Soarin' chuckled and I couldn't help but smile. Rarity giggled, then put her hand over her mouth.

Twilight blinked twice, then laughed, then looked embarrassed. Pinkie smiled, then frowned at herself.

"C'mon, Pinkie, let it out," Applejack said. "You told us to laugh at our fears, right? Ain't no bigger fear than this. Here's another one. Two colts were eating lunch at school. One had an apple and the other told him to watch out for worms in it. The first one said, 'Why should I? They can watch out for themselves without my help.'" She grinned at that, and Pinkie laughed.

Rainbow Dash was STILL laughing, and now Spitfire laughed too, then looked a little embarrassed and Soarin' gave a great guffaw.

"How do you make an apple puff?" Applejack said, grinning.

"You chase it around the garden," Apple Blossom said, surprising us. "What can a whole apple do that half an apple can’t do?"

"It can look round," Applejack said, and Pinkie laughed, then tried to stop herself, though it was hard. She glanced over at the body and sighed.

"How do you make an apple turnover?" Applejack asked.

"Push it down the hill," Apple Blossom said, laughing. "A colt asked his father, 'Do you liked baked apples, Dad?' He blinked and replied, 'Everyone likes baked apples, son.' The son gave a sigh of relief. 'Good, because now the orchard is on fire.'"

They kept going relentlessly, Pinkamena trying to stop Apple Blossom, but nothing could stop them. Joke after joke, a barrage of jokes about apples and farming. Ivan threw in a few as well.

Everyone was laughing but Pinkie, who was struggling and twitching and trying not to laugh. "I can't, I can't," she said over and over.

"Wouldn't your great-grandmother want you to laugh? She died so people could be happy. You should be happy to honor her," Fluttershy said very seriously.

"Go ahead, mock death too," Pinkamena said grimly. "We both know there's nothing you consider sacred."

Fluttershy stood up, staring at the ceiling. "That is enough."

"She thinks life is a joke, but the only joke is the one on her. So much potential, but she wastes it all on being silly and trying to make people like her. So she gets used and she doesn't even know it. What a sad, sad pony," Pinkamena said bitterly. "But she's just faking it."

"That's enough," Fluttershy said more firmly and took to the air, staring at the ceiling. Can she see how they see us? "Pinkie is my friend. I don't care who you are. You think she's a fake. If she's fake and you're real, I would rather have the fake."

BURN.

"You don't really like her. You just want someone to laugh at," Pinkamena said bitterly. "No one really likes us."

"Pinkie is my friend," Fluttershy said firmly, trying to stand taller.

"Ahh, yes, the tender love of a coward. That's really useful," Pinkamena said.

Pinkie struggled to her feet. "Fluttershy is not a coward. She's kind and gentle."

"Sometimes I'm jealous of her because Pinkie isn't afraid of anything," Fluttershy said. "But I admire her because she overcomes her fears."

"Yes, you see how well that's going," Pinkamena said harshly.

"Death is very scary," Fluttershy said. "I take care of animals. Do you know how long a mouse lives? I've taken care of the great-great-grandparents of some of the mice I care for right now," she said softly. "But from death, new life comes. Death is not the end, only a change. We will always be reborn in new forms. And our families will continue. Death scares me, but I face it and I will face it in the future. I... will not let it rule me." She sank down and stood by Pinkie Pie. "Laugh with me. Laugh for your great-grandmother."

"I need something to laugh at," Pinkie Pie mumbled.

I jumped up and down making faces and waggling my arms. "BERUEIWLUEREL!"

Pinkie Pie stared, then tried to imitate me. Soon, she, Fluttershy, and I were jumping around, acting ludicrous.

Goodbye, dignity.

And then slowly, with creaky voices, the dead began to laugh. They laughed and laughed and everyone was laughing and jumping around and the gates swung open.

"You are hopeless," Pinkamena said bitterly.

"No, I have hope," Pinkie said. "If even the dead can laugh, then I have hope." She smiled brightly. "Come on, I want to meet Princess Marjorie and see if she likes cookies!"

I have a bad feeling what she likes is us getting an asskicking.

But we'll see.

***************

The next room had the final key. When we took it, a door appeared with three keyholes. Convenient. We took a short rest break, but much as I would have liked more rest, we were pretty sure our foes wouldn't just let us rest. And we had a time limit.

But we took a short break to relax. Pinkie Pie and Applejack traded jokes the whole time, which was pretty entertaining.

"I wish we could have bathed," Rarity complained. It was just a little whiney. But not a lot whiney.

"Me too," I said. "But probably some wandering monster would have shown up for Ivan and I."

"I'm sure we could have worked out something for you to bathe with us," Rarity said.

"We could blindfold you," Dash began, sitting sphinx style next to Soarin'.

"The problem is me being seen, not me seeing ponies naked, when I already see you naked," I said.

"It seems silly," Dash said.

"It's just a human thing," I mumbled.

"I'm surprised Ivan didn't have a cutie mark," Dash mused. "I thought he has a pretty strong purpose."

"Yes, but it was just a potion. I don't think it could grant a true cutie mark," I said. "Any more than I would gain Twilight's magic if I drank it and turned into Twilight."

"You could turn into a woman?" Dash said, surprised.

"Yes," I said. "I have no reason to but I could."

"I prefer you as a man," Rarity said.

"I prefer me as a man too," I told her, then scritched her behind her ears; she was sitting Sphinx style next to me. She pulled several thimbles out of her bags and began manipulating them to scratch my back gently. Ooh, that felt good.

"Damn, that looks good," Rainbow Dash said.

I was a little embarrassed now. "Yes," I squeaked.

Soarin' looked at me and I tried to hint to him to do that for Dash.

He clearly didn't quite get it, and Dash said, again, "That looks really nice."

Now Rarity and I were BOTH trying to signal him and he looked really confused.

Spitfire now whispered something to Soarin', who now said, "Want a back rub, Dash?"

"Yes," she said firmly, sounding a little aggravated.

He began working on her; pony hooves are really not hugely well suited for this but he did his best and she soon was quite happy.

Why am I so embarrassed? Damn, this feels good, though.

"We should think about how not to just walk into a giant trap," I said. "They know we're coming. We need something to catch them by surprise."

"We could all take a little sip of the potion and turn the ponies into humans and the humans into ponies," Pinkie said. "That would confuse them!"

"None of us would be fighting the way we're used to," Twilight said.

"Also, we need something to clearly mark our evil twins," Rainbow Dash said.

"Oh, THAT, I am ready for," Twilight said, smiling impishly.

"I smell a praaaank," Pinkie Pie said cheerfully.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I can't say yet. A joke is funniest the first time, according to my primer on jokes," Twilight said. "But you *will* laugh *and* it will clearly identify them as our evil twins." She giggled. "I can hardly wait to do it."

"That's the spirit!" Pinkie said. "I'm proud of you, Twilight. You normally never pull pranks!"

"Oh man, I am TOTALLY curious now," Spike said. "Are you going to give them all duck heads?"

"If I thought that would work, I would turn them all into cactus," Twilight said. She looked thoughtful. "We could use reinforcements. If we knew some way to find Erik, I'm sure he'd help us."

"I have orders to take him to Celestia," Spitfire said and Soarin' nodded.

"C'mon, surely you could wait until we got out of the dungeon," Pinkie said. "What are you going to do, lock him up in your saddlebags?"

"Celestia wants very much to see him," Spitfire said stiffly. "I know you like him, Twilight, but I can't let him roam free once I'm sure where he is."

FUCK ME.

"I'm sure she'll understand once I explain everything!," Twilight said frantically.

There's going to be a fake Erik somehow and everything will GO TO HELL.

"Relax," Rarity said softly to me. "You're getting tense again."

Her ministrations did make it easier to relax and I suddenly wondered if she suspected. But surely she wouldn't be this nice to me if she did. But there is the other thing, which they all have to suspect...

As if on cue, Dash said, "Marcus, I have to ask you something."

Fuck me. Can't be good. "Go on?"

"Why are you so scared all the time?" Dash asked. "You know you're safe with us."

I relaxed a little, which I could tell confused her. "I have had a long and turbulent life, full of adventure but also danger. Often, running for my life was either the best or the only solution," I told her. "Right now, here, I feel fairly safe. With all of you around me. But dungeons, they especially require paranoia."

"Yeah, but you ran right into the quicksand," Dash pointed out.

I laughed ruefully. "Built up instincts don't always work."

"I... don't know if I should ask," Dash said, suddenly studying the ground.

Soarin' continued to work her back silently, though now he looked curious.

I had a feeling I didn't want her to ask.

"Is it urgent?" Rarity asked, sounding a little nervous herself.

"Maybe I shouldn't ask," Dash told Rarity's foot.

Now I'm curious AND scared at the same time, a combination which usually ends in FIRE.

"Just ask," I said. Dammit, why did I say that? "You're a good friend. I know you wouldn't ask if you didn't think it was important."

Dash said, "I'll be right back, Soarin'."

What?

He blinked and nodded and we went off to the corner. Very softly, she said, "Did something... bad... ever happen to you when bathing with others?"

...

"Because you totally know we wouldn't do anything... you know... to hurt you." Dash sounded very worried.

"I've had people try to kill me when I was naked or at least come at with intent to do me harm," I told her.

Her eyes widened and she grimaced. "We wouldn't... you can trust us," she said urgently.

"But everything I said about humans generally not bathing with the opposite sex also applies. I didn't make that up. I know you won't do anything to me," I told Dash. "I trust you. But you're a woman. It's just not done, generally. Even in Thyatis we segregate our baths by gender." And I have to avoid being KILLED.

"But I'm naked all the time," she mumbled.

"It's a human thing," I told her.

"Most of the human things seem to suck," Dash said. "Though hands seem pretty useful."

"Very," I told her. "A human without hands is pretty much helpless, though you can still walk, at least."

"I..." Dash licked her lips. "Okay. You just have to know you're safe with us."

"I know," I told her. "Thank you."

We came back and settled in where we had been before, though now Dash tried to give Soarin' a backrub. "You two good?" he asked.

"We're good," she said, though she sounded a little sad.

Sorry, Dash, it isn't you, but I have to hide my naked ass.

Or I will surely die.

I now took Rarity's thimbles and worked on her back, while she made happy noises. Always repay a favor.

It now hit me there had been a distinct lag of magical weapon swag. Though apparently Keraptis isn't running the show, so maybe they all took his weapons and are doing it their way.

Though I have this shapechanging sword which may well be the Falchion of Minroth.

Even though this is going to unlock uncomfortable questions, I have to know. So I asked Twilight to come over; she did so with Spike tagging along. He sat down on the other side of Rarity from me.

"Did Owlicious say anything about the Falchion of Minroth's powers?" I asked her. "If Marquetta is behind all this... and I suspect 'Marjorie' is actually her... then she may be after my sword. Though on the other hand, when she invaded my dreams, she didn't actually say anything about my sword."

"Well, I think it hides from her when it is not in falchion form," Twilight said. "Which is also probably why Minroth hasn't reclaimed it."

"Making a weapon that can hide from you seems foolish to me," Spike said.

Twilight licked her lips. "I didn't want to raise this in the middle of a mission but since we're on the topic... Dmitri was you, right?"

"I think," I said. "I'm not sure what's going on. I have bits of memory relating to him... I recognized that death... but it's like he died. And there's other times I thought I was dead and then I wasn't, but... my memories are full of holes and I can't even remember where I was born or who I was at the time." Just thinking about it creeps me out. I stared at the floor. "I might have even been an elf at one point," I told her. "And it's like... That thing when I freaked out and grabbed Dash, I think I was a dwarf."

"Maybe the sword reincarnates you when you die?" Spike speculated thoughtfully.

Rarity nuzzled me comfortingly and I ruffled her mane. "It's okay," she said softly.

"Thank you," I said softly.

Spike resumed Marcus-hate-o-vision. Sorry, man. But everyone needs a hug sometimes.

I got a pony hug from Twilight as well, and then Dash too. I felt better if crushed after that. Ponies are not as lightweight as you'd think.

"I think Spike's theory has merit," Twilight said. "It's as good a guess as any. You've had the sword ever since, right?"

"Yes," I told her. It was an axe when I was Erik, I now realized.

Twilight tapped her cheek. "Any memory of being a pony, a gnome, or a halfling?"

I was afraid to find out but I cleared my mind and asked it for a damn flashback.

Glimmers of thought. Twilight trotted over again and touched her horn to my forehead. Oh crap. And then there was light.

***************

TWILIGHT-INDUCED FLASHBACK:

Boats make me nervous despite living on an island. Open Isle was originally barren, but our ancestors made it suitable for halflings like us and now it's a mixture of grains, vegetables, and orchards. We live in nice burrows, though we keep some surface buildings for the tall folk and on the fringes of the island where the water table is too close to the surface.

We were on our way to a very dangerous place. The Isle of Dread. Home to crazed monsters extinct everywhere else. Mostly various kinds of homicidal lizards. But we can handle them, I think.

Once I am no longer on a boat.

I may be a halfling, but I can kick anything bigger's ass, so long as I have something stable to stand on. If this boat sinks, I will die in the ocean, as even I can't swim 300 miles back to Minrothad.

But I'm sure it'll be fine. I've got a good group of companions.

I glanced over at Sildil, who was staring at her hands for some reason. She's our break-in expert and a little flighty sometimes. She also seems rather confused. "Sildil, what's wrong?"

"I have hands," she said.

This is going to be a long trip, I see.

"And they're exactly where you left them," I said.

"What?" Delune asked; she was seated in the captain's chair on the upper deck; she's trained in the secret Minrothad arts of weather and sailing wizardry. With her, we don't need a big crew for this ship, or even winds. She can MAKE our winds. Her curly black hair whipped about in the wind; she has a single pink stripe for some reason down one side of her hair. "Did Sildil forget her tools? Dammit, I told her to pack them! I made a list of all of my supplies! Sildil, if you don't plan, you can't complain when you don't have something. Am I going to have to turn this boat around?" She put her hands on her hips. "Jacob!"

The hold door soon opened and Jacob stuck his head up; he's our token human, big and strong and smarter than he looks, with short brown hair and a thick mustache Like me, he's in charge of stabbing things. Though he uses a claymore; they're a kind of giant two-handed sword from his homeland in Glantri, Klantyre. "Some things got loose, I was tying them down, Delune," he said.

"Sildil forgot some of her equipment," Delune said, frustrated. "Tell me you packed it for her."

"I've got it all!" Maela said, startling us all. Wasn't she back on Open Isle? Her boyfriend had wanted her to perform for some of his clients; Joam is involved in selling oranges to the Thyatian navy, which uses them to fight scurvy. You can't trust Thyatians but you CAN profit off them. She had her weird instrument; it's half bellows, half piano, half... something. However, she now threw a backpack at Sildil's feet. "Here's all her stuff she forgot! Good thing I remembered! I finished helping out Joam, so I borrowed a boat and came after you." She smiled, making her long brown hair flop about in its fancy style she favors.

We were now towing a small sailing boat. Well, that could be useful, though our failure to notice her arrival doesn't bode well for any pirate encounters we may have.

I patted my short sword. It's enchanted, but not very impressive. However, if all goes well and the map is accurate, then soon I'll have a much better one.

"Hey, Spiira," I shouted up to the crow's nest. Spiira was, in fact, busy mending and improving our sails instead of keeping watch. She had her long red hair pulled back in a white kerchief decorated with embroidered blue gems.

"Can't talk, working," Spiira said. "Be with you in a minute."

"Thanks, Maela," Delune said to her. "Sildil, are you okay?"

Sildil wobbled slightly, then looked at Jacob. "Big!"

"Yes, I am," he said amiably. "Booga wooga!" He faked being a ghost and she jumped, then got mad.

"Don't make fun of me!"

"Is Rafe down with you?" I asked Jacob. Rafe is our cleric; he worships Minroth and has been a big help to me in our adventures.

"Rafe is busy purifying the food and water again, just to be sure," Jacob said. "I don't think doing it every day is necessary."

"I am taking no chances," I told him. I'd rather be careful than rush into disaster.

But really, with this group backing me, I can't go wrong.

"Why are we all barefoot?" Sildil asked me.

"Because we have hairy feet that keep us warm and we're more sure-footed and silent without shoes," I said.

"Technically, since Rafe and I have boots on, we're not all barefoot," Jacob said cheerfully.

Delune now launched into a lecture on why halflings are normally barefoot which really was more than we needed to know, given we're all halflings except for Jacob and he's been around us so long, he already knows.

I dunno what is up with Sildil.

"Time for oompa-dancing," Maela said, starting up her thing... I need to find out what it is one of these days.

Spiira begged off due to the 'need' to make the sails 'better'. Somehow.

The rest of us were soon whiling the hours away with a dance.

**************

We all stared mindlessly at each other, then Dash stared at her hooves. "I have hooves," she mumbled.

"Okay, that answers one question," Twilight mumbled.

"I hope you don't mind I cut in," Pinkie said from behind me, making me jump. "But you said I could come to the next flashback."

...

"I used to be tiny with hairy feet?" Dash said, confused.

"I think Twilight's spell kind of inserted you into people from the memory; I don't think those people were you," I said. Though now I wasn't sure. "I think in the actual events, Maela was not able to just suddenly catch up to us."

"Being bigger than Twilight was kind of cool," Spike said. "And I had a GREAT mustache"

I felt a lot braver than I normally do, though. That one must have been a long time ago. Now I felt kind of jealous of him for not being so worried and having a good group of friends to rely on.

Though this group is pretty good.

"Now I'm going to worry about those sails," Rarity said, sighing.

Soarin' laughed. "Being a cleric was kind of cool. So what happened to them?"

"I guess we succeeded," I said. "But I don't remember clearly."

"We could try again," Twilight said.

"It's probably better not to probe too deep right now as if something attacked while we were all locked in a flashback, then the others would be without our help," I said. "And knocking us out of the spell might cause trouble."

"Ho, ho, Pinkie to the rescue!" Pinkie said cheerfully. "That was Odo the Quick and his friends. They had a bunch of adventures around seventy five years ago," she said.

"But that would be before I was Dmitri," I said hesitantly.

"Yes," Pinkie said. "Unless you time-traveled! I could tell you all about how Khoronus became his own grandfather and his own sponsor for immortality! Thanks to time-travel!"

"You didn't have the sword either, right?" Dash said.

"Yes, I was off on a quest to find some weapon."

"The sword, maybe?" Spike said.

"But Dmitri got the sword from Marquetta," I said.

"Yes, but maybe you were in the group she took it from. Then you reincarnated and came back for it," Twilight said. "Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, Human... I bet you were a Pony at some point too."

"I'm sure Marcus would be a very handsome stallion," Rarity said, smiling.

Probably but it means NAKED ASS and that means DEATH TO MARCUS.

Really, this whole conversation is treading on dangerous ground. If they had seen me since... when did I get the tattoo? Dmitri did NOT have it, I know that. I think I got it when I was Cufen, after I stopped being Aristobolus. Then I became Erik, then Marcus.

Hey wait, that guy was named Cufen? Well, it is a common Minrothadi name, I think.

If he turns out to have the face I had...

I stupidly didn't even ASK. And I'm not sure how I can subtly ask.

"You would be a very beautiful human, I'm sure," I told her. Get off topic of me as pony and on topic of complimenting her and not the topic of how I might be Erik because I AM.

"You've known Ivan for years, right?" Twilight said.

"Yes," I said. "At least a decade, I think. He was on his Shearing when we met."

"Do you know how Odo died, Pinkie?" Twilight asked.

"He went on a quest and never came back," Pinkie said. "Beyond that, I don't know."

"We should probably get going and worry about this later," I said. Much as I want to know. "As the longer we wait, the more time our foes have to get ready."

Twilight nodded, though I could tell her curiosity was up. Aaaargh. She's probably the only one who can solve this but...

We got everyone together, then headed through the door.

**************

We passed down a hallway and into a large room. It was tiled with geometric art and paintings of swirling voids of shadow and creepy red and dark blue points of light. Someone had improvised chains made of adamantine... okay, no one just 'improvises' chains made of adamantine, but it was clear the actual tying of Keraptis to the wall with mithril stakes and adamantine chains had been improvised and showed signs of melting things into place. Probably thanks to Spikey.

One wall was covered with levers and crystal panels and buttons and switches and shining lights and little crystal balls which held various messages. You could see the mouth of the volcano in one of the crystal panels, though nothing interesting was happening unless you happened to really like steam.

Keraptis was human-sized but hidden inside his purple and black robes, and seven stars shone inside his hood, which was kind of creepy. You could see his hands; he had pale flesh with black veins. UGH. However, he had a guest we had not anticipated.

A god-pony.

She was off-white, a kind of creamy, shiny color, not the same as Celestia's white coat, but not that far removed. Buff? No, that's totally not it. There's something more precise than off-white, I think.

Anyway, her oddly shiny coat was matched by a black mane, elaborately coiffed into curls and piled up on her head, under her fancy crown, designed to work around the hair, made of gold and set with opals. She wore... it was like her hoof-guard-things were made of a smoothly polished solid version of her coat. Like jade, but the color of her coat. Something like that.

Probably enchanted, the way I assume Celestia's are.

Her eyes were green like fine jade and she was an alicorn like Celestia. Could this be Luna? Though if that pony in that one picture had been Luna, she'd changed appearance a lot as Nightmare Moon. The alicorn's cutie mark was three smaller stars orbiting a larger one. One of the three smaller ones shone a little brighter than the other two, though not on the level of the larger star.

Then I remembered who Sir Lintsalot served. 'Princess Marjorie the Wise'. Who is probably Marquetta transformed into a god-Pony.

She was accompanied by the Elements of Power but also by three Ponies we had not met yet. One of them was an Earth pony with a gray mane and a coat which was an odd grayish purple, hitched to a cart of cabbages. His cutie mark, however, was a turnip. The second was an elegant unicorn pony with a coat which was a grayish blue and a mane of grayish dark-green. Her hair was elaborately coiffed and she wore golden glasses hooked to her ears by delicate gold chains and a fancy black and white dress. Her cutie mark was a very elegant bag of flour. The last one was a young pegasus stallion, wearing a leather jacket and brass fittings on his hooves for fighting, grey-coated with a black mane. He had a pile of rocks for a cutie mark.

Pinkie stared at them, mouth wide open, unable to actually speak. Applejack gave them an odd look and frowned.

Twilight bowed, so we all bowed to the god-pony. Was she really a god-pony? But we would have heard of her. This was likely Marquetta. But we'd have to see.

"Princess Marjorie, these are the Elements of Harmony, the evil clones of your servants the Elements of Power," Mr. Turnip said. He sounded just like Pinkamena trying to sound male.

Madam LeFlour, on the other hand, sounded like Pinkamena trying to fake a Prance accent. "Zey are a gang of unlettered barbarians with no fashion sense, who steal ze oranges from poor, hard-working dogs and rob and pillage everything in sight."

Ivan gave a thumbs up, grinning.

I now noticed Rarity had donned her fancy dress, thanks to the power of HAT. This is why hats rule.

I touched my hat, reveling in its benevolence. And its toting of an emergency escape spell. I quickly checked for exits. Four tunnels led out of here; none had obvious wards or traps or even doors.

"We have hats, and thus cannot fail to be in fashion," I said. "And Rarity is an expert fashion designer."

"And Fluttershy is a famous model," Twilight said quickly.

Fluttershy said, "I retired from modeling though, to pursue hugging bunnies and feeding ferrets." She paused. "But I can model if you really want me to." She licked her lips nervously.

"I am Princess Marjorie the Wise," Princess Marjorie said with her very smooth, gracious voice. It reminded me of Apple Blossom or Rarity, except she took it to the next level up. Utterly smooth and charming and calm and collected. "I command the stars themselves."

That does make sense. I think the Draconic immortals also line up to a sun/moon/stars triad, with the Great One as the boss. The Sun Dragon commands the metallic dragons, the Moon Dragon commands colored dragons, and the Star Dragon commands gemstone dragons. Which I assume Spike hails from that line, though I'm not sure.

But I've never heard of this 'Princess Marjorie' either. She is probably Marquetta.

Twilight studied her a few seconds, then smiled a little. "I am Twilight Sparkle, Princess, a student of the stars and disciple of Princess Celestia."

"You believe that," she said sadly, "But actually you were made through the wicked magics of this fool Keraptis, mere shadows of my Elements of Power," she continued. Her words held so much conviction, you wanted to believe them, though I knew this wasn't true.

"We are NOT shadows," Applejack said firmly. "Sorry, Princess, but somepony's garbled something somewhere, 'cause that ain't true. We got born in the natural way, and we grew up the natural way and I guess one day we'll die the natural way and go back to the soil. I think that Pinkamena's pulled a fast one on you."

"I would never lie to Princess Marjorie," Pinkamena said. "I am her faithful servant." She sounded angelic but her eyes were angry.

I could see Pinkie's eyes taking in her imaginary friends made real and putting it all together for herself. Her eyes widened, and then she looked worried.

Keraptis tried to speak but nothing came out of his mouth. Yeah, he knows the truth, so she silenced him.

"They're the ones who robbed Vermicoritax, Princess," I said, bowing. "I am Samus Marcus of Thyatis."

"You believe that, but you are just another shadow of the real thing," she said sadly with such conviction, I could almost believe it. But I remembered what Twilight had shown me. I find it hard to believe I was once a Halfling but it feels right.

Unfortunately.

I prefer being a human, but then, I likely thought the same of being a halfling then.

Sammy looked at me and had the GALL to look sad. Bastard.

"You all have stolen items which belong to my servants. But I am merciful as a princess should be," Marjorie said. "Bow to me and swear fealty and I will allow you to live. Any who will not swear must be destroyed."

"Hell no," Spike said.

Twilight looked at the odds against us. Not good at all. A god-Pony who may be a red dragon, our evil twins AND Pinkie's imaginary friends, short one who is on his way to Canterlot.

Pinkie turned to her imaginary friends, "You wouldn't really attack us, would you?"

They all looked intensely uncomfortable. "I could never attack you, Pinkie," Rocky said. "But these other ponies, you know they don't care about you. We're your real friends. You should join us."

Madam LeFlour nodded. "We love you, Pinkie, but we don't like these rude, vulgar ponies who just come around when they feel like it and leave you alone too much."

"That's not true," Fluttershy protested. "We care about Pinkie."

"We have cabbages," Mr. Turnip said with a sing-song voice and I could not help but laugh. So did Rainbow Dash.

Pinkie said, "They are my friends. But you're my friends too. Do we really have to fight?" She winced.

"If you swear fealty to me, you won't have to fight your old friends," Marjorie said smoothly.

"But I can't fight my new friends either," Pinkie said frantically, looking back and forth.

"We'd be happy to have you," Twilight said warmly to Pinkie's imaginary friends.

"You can't leave me," Pinkamena said urgently. "You know they're bad ponies, anyway. You know how badly they treat Pinkie."

"They don't treat me badly!" Pinkie protested.

"Pinkie's our friend, we don't mistreat her," Applejack protested. "We even threw her a surprise party for her birthday!"

"It was fun too!," Pinkie said. "We're going to have a big victory party in Canterlot after this! You should all come," she said hopefully to her imaginary but now semi-real friends.

"A party with Princess Celestia, zat would be wonderful," Madam LeFlour said.

"Oooh, I bet there will be some fine grub," Rocky said gleefully.

"I bet I could sell a lot of cabbages," Mr. Turnip said. He sounded elated.

"I... uh... I don't know how much they go for cabbages," Applejack said to Mr. Turnip. "They can be kinda snooty."

Applejack, don't undercut Pinkie's effort to sway them!

"You should all come!" Pinkie said to the Elements. "We can settle this better with a party!"

"I like parties," Keraptis said with his creepy, creaky voice. Just listening to him made my skin crawl.

Soarin' now whispered to Dash, who looked utterly shocked, but he, to my surprise, looked firm and she nodded, though she didn't seem happy.

"Later," Princess Marjorie said. "All of you must bow to me and swear fealty or you will be destroyed and there will be no parties at all." Her voice held a tone of impatient command. "KNEEL."

"No," Twilight said. "We bow only to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, not to you. Your servants have stolen items we must recover. We are willing to negotiate but we will not swear fealty."

"Then you will DIE," Princess Marjorie said.

Well, shit. I may end up using that feather, only I doubt I can escape here on my own.

Princess Marjorie spread her wings and shouted angrily at us. Then she shone in a great aura of sparkling stars. It hit us and we all stumbled, the force of her mind hammering at us. Pinkie and Fluttershy fell down and Ivan and I collapsed onto our hands and knees before her power. Rarity stumbled back, as did Soarin', and Spike fell down like Ivan and I. But Twilight stood among the stars as if born to do so, and Applejack planted her hooves, driving them into the stone, and Spitfire, though she was pushed back, now managed to push back to her starting point.

And Dash?

To my utter shock, she flew off down one of the hallways, vanishing from sight. I couldn't believe it.

"We will not kneel," Twilight said determinedly.

Pinkie and Fluttershy both rolled away from Marjorie, then recovered and tried to stop rolling more. Soarin' ended up pressed to the wall. Spitfire tried to advance, but couldn't do it. I fell onto my back like a turtle, tumbled, and caught myself. Damnation.

Ivan cursed like a sailor, catching himself, even as Rarity now stumbled over to me and tried to roll me over.

"Anyone who relies only on their strength to get their way is no princess, nothing more than a bully," Twilight said calmly, as if whatever the hell this is happened all the time.

I tried to focus, but I could feel memories flipping through my mind. I remembered the dragonfear, so powerful, tearing apart our plans. We got some of the dragon's treasure but we fled, possessed by fear and died, screaming, afraid.

I was so afraid. I could see my deaths. Too many of them. Not as many as I had feared, but it held me down, paralyzed me. This was Marquetta and she was going to kill me again and there was nothing I could do. I envied Twilight so much, her certainty and strength.

I always afraid, always torn, always running away. When I do try to commit to something, it blows up. All I wanted to do was to flee again and it made me sick.

Not sick enough to stop wanting to run.

Marjorie turned the full strength of her gaze on Twilight, who gritted her teeth and made her horn glow and stood defiantly.

Applejack got her lasso and snagged Fluttershy, starting to pull her back up by herself and Twilight.

"Marcus, come on, get up," Rarity said, wobbling herself. "You can do it."

I clutched her leg. It helped a little, though she nearly fell on me.

She was shaking, but she stood and I felt even more embarrassed.

Keraptis' eyes were moving around, disturbing me more. The Elements of Power and Pinkie's imaginary friends just watched, waiting for a command. The aura didn't touch them, somehow, though it shone around them.

"I am divine," Marquetta insisted. I hope she's lying and she's just faking being a god-Pony, but who knows. She's got a hell of an aura, just a dragon or an Immortal in mortal form. "You are mortal and you will BOW to the one who is better than you."

"You might be stronger," Twilight said, concentrating, "But you are not better. You misuse your strength instead of using it to defend others. I will not bow. None of us will bow."

Ivan stumbled and then he rose, stumbling forward a step. "I will not bow!" he shouted. "I am sick and tired of wolves like you!" He swept his arm across all our foes as if to somehow smite them with his hand. Slowly, he stumbled over to Pinkie and began trying to help her up.

For some reason, Soarin' started smiling, though he was still pinned to the wall.

Slowly, I climbed up, with Rarity's help, using her to stabilize me, though I had to cling to her to do so. I felt the strength of her mind twine with mine, calming my fears and enabling me to hold out against Marjorie's incredible amount of power.

But I doubt I looked very impressive leaning down and clinging to her like a life preserver.

Fluttershy began rolling forwards; it was stupidly cute to watch her go, and I actually smiled a little. Seeing her trying helped me to try harder.

Spitfire was stuck, unwilling to retreat, unable to advance, Soarin' still stuck to the wall, but Spike crawled over and we stood together, except for the missing Dash, though some of us (Applejack, Twilight) were rather more impressive than the others.

I cannot believe Dash ran away!

On the other hand, I would have run if I hadn't been too scared to run. I'd be on the floor without Rarity.

"You can't break us," Twilight said confidently. I think she's so thrilled to take on Marjorie and hold her own in an aura battle that she hasn't thought about us being severely outnumbered. "We can still discuss this like rational adults."

"Do not talk down to ME, mortal," Princess Marjorie hissed angrily. "You will KNEEL."

The aura came on stronger and we wobbled. Especially me. It was growing unbearable.

And then Soarin' surprised everyone by flailing, shouting and generally carrying on ridiculously. Everyone turned to stare at him, wondering what was going on, even Marjorie.

"He's finally snapped, which you'd expect of anyone crazy enough to kiss a coward like Rainbow Dash," Pinkamena said sadly.

"What a zad fate for a Wonderbolt," Madam LeFlour said.

"You are pathetic," Princess Marjorie said harshly.

This is when I learned something important.

If you fly fast enough, you can actually fly faster than sound. This means no one can hear you coming because you outrace the sound you make.

Which means, crazily enough, that you can sneak up on someone at EXTREMELY high speed.

None of us saw it coming until suddenly, BOOM, a giant rainbow exploded through the room, shredding Marjorie's aura like a knife driven through toilet paper. THEN we heard it. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and at the heart of it was Rainbow Dash. My face got wet somehow as I stared at it, feeling the strength finally come back into my limbs. She came back.

I should have known she wouldn't run away.

She came back for us.

I nearly fell down from the removal of the pressure. Princess Marjorie went tumbling past Keraptis, who began laughing. "Marvelous, marvelous," he said, his light dots forming into a huge inhuman grin.

"BOO YAH!" Rainbow Dash shouted. "Like a dream, Soarin', like a DREAM."

Soarin' began laughing and I realized... he'd planned this.

I had to give him a thumbs up for that. Nicely played, Soarin'.

I should have known she'd never abandon us.

The Elements of Power stared, eyes wide, as tiny fragments of rainbow fell down on everything. They looked utterly stunned. I'm sure I did too.

When Marjorie rose back up, she was the angriest thing I have seen in a very long time. Smoke came out of her mouth and her eyes burned with rage. "You dare. YOU DARE!"

"I always dare," Rainbow Dash said, striking a cocky pose. "You ready to stop talking smack?"

Princess Marjorie's wings stirred dust as she rose and now her horn grew into a long spear. "Let's try that again. KILL THEM ALL!" she shouted and charged at Dash, who fled before her.

"Dash!" Twilight shouted, but she now had to counter Dawn Gleaming's lightning barrage with a burst of water. She then cast a spell and...

Goatees appeared on our evil twins. Their onrushing attack was briefly stalled by sheer shock at what Twilight had done.

Pinkie fell down and rolled around. "HAHAHAHAH! Good one, Twilight!" She crashed right into her evil twin and now they were both rolling around, Pinkamena yelling angrily.

I expected Sammy to come at me, but he charged at Twilight, then had to dodge when Spike breathed fire at him. He kept trying to come at her, but Spike held him off. "I won't let you hurt her!" Spike shouted.

Apple Blossom now slid on gloves from under her dress. Or boots. Whatever is right for a cloth covering of her forehooves. Then she slinked towards Applejack, who said, "Don't make me ruin your frou-frou dress, fake me."

Applejack was quite surprised when a glowing cord appeared between Apple Blossom's forehooves and then she moved to tangle it around one of Applejack's legs and throw her. "Even a lady must learn to defend herself," she said to Applejack. "Have at thee!" And now the fight really started.

Rocky looked off towards the missing Dash, then at Fluttershy, then at Soarin' and then nodded. He and Cruisin' both came at Soarin', who whipped through the middle of them, tossing them aside; he began dodging them both, keeping them busy.

Spitfire drank more of her potion and she and Fire Swallow began circling each other in the air, spitting fire at each other and dodging each other's shots.

Mr. Turnip rushed over and helped Pinkie and Pinkamena get up. "You okay, Pinkie?" he asked, worried.

"I'm fine! You okay?" she asked Pinkamena.

"I'm fine." Beat. "Mr. Turnip, you have to capture her for her own good! She has to learn these other ponies don't care about her!"

Mr. Turnip laughed nervously, clearly not wanting to do this but also clearly not much of a fighter.

Spikey rushed at me; he wore a red cape and was armed with a golden sword. I parried the blow, but then he breathed fire on me; my sword parted the flames and Spikey's eyes widened. I grinned a little at that. "Do we have to fight?" I asked him. "Surely you wouldn't attack fair Rarity, would you?" I asked.

He faltered, staring at Rarity.

Rarity was locked in an arrow duel with Clarity, arrows arcing around wildly and knocking each other out of the air. I couldn't tell who was better, though I don't think either was going all out yet.

Ivan tried to run over to free Keraptis but was intercepted by Niccolo; the two of them began to fight, sword to sword, but Niccolo began to be forced back. The Elements of Power are copies, but they're clearly strong copies... but Niccolo was just a copy of Ivan. He had no metaphysical weight behind him.

Unfortunately, Rainbow Crash now charged at Spitfire, nailing her and sending her tumbling and she and Fire Swallow began driving her back.

Dragonfly was busy cackling and hurling lightning at Fluttershy, who dodged desperately, trying to avoid being blasted. Without any animals or plants to work with, her powers wouldn't be much use. I felt terrible for her, but I was pinned down.

Twilight now hurled fire at Dawn Gleaming, but Madame LeFlour dumped a huge cloud of flour on her, and now she was inside her own fire storm and she ran around yelping. Spike wanted to help her but was busy with my evil twin. "Sorry, Spike," Sammy said, "But once I set my mind on something I cannot be stopped and I never give up!"

I winced at that.

"I love Dawn Gleaming with all my heart and I won't let her evil twin hurt her!" Sammy said, dodging and weaving, trying to get past Spike's fire blasts.

All your heart. That's a good way to get your heart broken. I fought the urge to flashback to when I was with Dona Carlotta. Too dangerous under the circumstances.

"I won't let you hurt Twilight! Now stand still and BURN UP!" Spike shouted.

I wanted to do something to help Twilight but what could I do? Dammit! I tried to remember how the water spell went.

But I couldn't remember while fighting Spikey, even with him stroking his goatee and being pleased by it. I slowly pushed him back, feeling quite pleased I could at least handle someone. Arrows whizzed around us as Clarity and Rarity continued their arrow duel.

I had to do something; we were outnumbered, many of our people were on the run or getting clobbered. Though seeing Applejack lasso her evil twin and throw her at Rocky did cheer me up a little.

"Boys! Get her!" Apple Blossom shouted and now a squad of ten Bulldogs ran in. Oh bloody hell! They all rushed at Applejack and started chasing her, while Apple Blossom looked satisfied.

I had an idea. It was dangerous. "Rarity, you could manipulate a lot of levers and switches at the same time, right?" I asked her.

Twilight had washed herself off and was now chasing Dawn Gleaming angrily, hurling lightning at her, but now she got a faceful of flour again, leading to her getting zapped.

DAMMIT.

"If I wasn't being shot at," she said.

"I will guard; you need to hit every button, flip every switch on the controls. It doesn't matter how, we just need a source of chaos," I told her.

"I can't let you do that!" Spikey said, rushing at me.

Rarity nodded, parrying another shot; they were firing each other's arrows at each other now, an intricate, beautiful dance of arrows. I would have enjoyed watching it if I hadn't been fighting so hard.

A bulldog now flew overhead, thanks to Applejack. Even better. I reached out and PUSHED with magic, dropping him on Clarity, whose arrows fell as she fell. "Thanks, Applejack!" I shouted. Unfortunately, this got me knocked down by Spikey, who then kicked me in the groin. OWWW!!!!

Rarity reached out with her power and hit every kind of control she could. Keraptis began laughing and we could see the walls moving and pits opening in the floor and rooms realigning and rebuilding. The ceiling now opened, there was a flash of light, and a half-dozen... no, just five... fillies fell on me.

OWWW!!!

Rarity said, "Sweetie Belle, WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?"

"Thanks for breaking our fall, mister!," the yellow and red filly said to me; she, like all the others, wore a maroon cloak with a golden lining. Three of them (including her) had a blue shield on it with a pony rampant. The other two (a purple and blond unicorn and a grey and red (curly) earth pony) had a white shield with a blue ice cube on it.

"You're welcome," I mumbled as the rest hopped off me. The third one with a rampant pony cloak was an orange pegasus with a purple mane.

"Holy cow, it's a human!" the pegasus said. "Two! THREE! FOUR!"

"And look, two of Spike!" the red-maned yellow filly said.

This must be the Cutie Mark Crusaders, but what are they doing HERE?

BAD BAD BAD BAD.

"Sweetie Belle!" Clarity said, getting up. "This place is dangerous!"

"I... I am seeing double!" Sweetie Belle said, panicked

"And me," the curly haired redhead said, looking around frantically. "My glasses aren't helping!"

"We're all seeing double!," the blonde unicorn said. "All the adults have split in two!"

Keraptis maniacal laughter didn't help. Neither did having a half dozen trolls drop into the room out of another ceiling panel. Madam LeFlour turned and dumped flour on them, blinding them, but now we had blinded trolls roaming around, trying to claw anything they could hear. Fortunately, this meant two of them started trying to eat each other.

Another troll rushed at Pinkie; Mr. Turnip began firing cabbages at him, and he began eating them. "I am going to run out! Think of something!" he said frantically to Pinkie.

Pinkie pulled out a hideous twisted monstrosity of a cupcake; worms were crawling around in it, it smelled like vomit and it was grey and puke green. "Distract him," she said to Pinkamena as she balanced it on one hoof.

Pinkamena drew herself up, mimicking a troll, then began roaring at him and shaking her butt.

...

He stopped and began doing the same thing.

...

As they did this, Pinkie crept up and shoved the cupcake of doom in his mouth. He turned purple, fell over and began vomiting, then she, Pinkamena, and Mr. Turnip fled his presence. "Great job, sister!" Pinkie said as they ran.

"I am not your sister!" Pinkamena protested, while Mr. Turnip laughed. "And if I was, I'd be the ELDER sister!"

Spikey clutched his head. "Kids, what are you doing here?"

"Hey, you're a BABY," the yellow and red foal said irritably. "Don't call me a kid! I'm a BIG pony!"

If Applejack hadn't been so nimble, the dogs would have pulled her down by now, but as it stood, she was barely keeping free. "Apple Bloom, you are in all the trouble in the WORLD!"

"Princess Luna sent us to rescue you!" Apple Bloom said. "And get our cutie marks!"

Unless she's crazy or they are more badass than they look... no, they got conned by something or someone.

"Can any of you make a distraction?" I asked.

"Young lady, what are you doing?" Clarity asked Sweetie Belle.

"Sweetie, you were supposed to stay home!" Rarity said.

Sweetie swung back and forth like she was mounted on a pivot and was clearly overwhelmed by events.

A ceiling panel opened up, sucking up Soarin' and Cruisin' and Rocky; you could hear chaos in progress as they got sucked out of sight.

Distantly, I heard Rainbow Dash shout something about raisins.

I don't know either.

A Troll now rushed towards us and the Cutie Mark Crusaders.

SHIT.

Lightning crackled from a painting at Ivan and Niccolo, but they both dodged and Keraptis kept laughing, clearly pleased by the utter anarchy.

I am starting to think my idea was not the best one I have ever had.

Rainbow Dash now came zooming into sight. "Hah! I lost her! Hey, get off Spitfire!" ZOOM. WHAM. Rainbow Crash and Dash tumbled, locked in combat, and Spitfire exploited the surprise to knock Fire Swallow into a Troll. Who she promptly set on fire and he fled screaming, dropped into a pit trap, which flung him into the ceiling; he fell down in the pit, bounced up and continued bouncing, while on fire.

"If any of you fillies can make flame, BURN THE TROLL," I said and stepped up to fight it.

Good news, my sword took its left arm off.

Bad news one, the arm began crawling towards Apple Bloom.

Bad news two, it cut me on the chest despite my armor. OWW. Fortunately, it wasn't deep but I screamed like a child being beaten.

Low pain threshold is me.

"I can make bubbles and mist!" the purple and blond unicorn filly said. Mist now shrouded the entire hall, hiding most of the chaos from us. I don't know if this was good or bad.

The curly haired redhead threw licorice whips at the troll; it stupidly bent over to grab them and I turned my sword to an axe and took its head off. OH YEAH.

Mind you, troll, this meant the head began rolling around trying to find its body.

Rarity shot the crawling arm, then fired the arm off across the room into the mist.

Clarity said, "Spikey, BURN IT."

He set the Troll on fire and I hacked it up while trying to tell my chest to not bleed too much. Then Apple Bloom pulled out a bottle and hurled it at it; it went up in more flames. "Lantern oil! HAH!"

The troll collapsed, burning; we could still hear, but not see, the chaos still going on.

"Marcus, hold on," Rarity said and very quickly bandaged my wound, while Clarity and Spikey moved to defend the fillies.

"My dear sister," Clarity said to Sweetie Belle, "Stay behind me, I will protect you."

Damn, they... I remembered Apple Blossom. They must have some memories and bonds.

Probably more like neutral twins, then.

A thought hit me. "You two have Cutie Marks already?" I said to the blond unicorn and the curly redhead. That's why they have polar expedition patches instead.

"Yes," the curly redhead said. "I'm Twist and this is Dinky Doo. I'm an expert candymaker and Dinky is the mistress of fog and mist magic!"

They brought an expert candymaker to try to rescue the Elements of Harmony from something.

Filly logic all over.

Children... just a little crazy. In every species.

"Clarity, is there somewhere safe we can take the children?"

"My quarters WERE safe," she said. "But now everything's going berserk." She frowned.

"I could go check," Spikey said.

"Please," she said and he ran into the mist.

Fluttershy now ran up to us. She was breathing hard. "She's so relentless," she said. "S... Scootaloo? Sweetie? What are you all doing here?"

"They came to rescue us," I said deadpan.

Fluttershy blinked in surprise, then took a licorice stick from Twist and began munching on it.

Distantly, I heard Dragonfly cackling maniacally and shouting about lightning, then thunder boomed.

"MY CABBAGES!" Mr. Turnip shouted somewhere.

"Who are you, Mr. Human?" Sweetie asked me.

"My name is Samus Marcus, and I am a diplomatic envoy for your Princess Celestia, among other things," I told her, smiling.

"Marcus is a unicorn human. We are close friends," Rarity said to Sweetie warmly.

Sweetie Belle blinked and looked at my clearly hornless forehead. "Do you have a cutie mark?" Sweetie Belle asked.

I knelt down by her, then ruffled her hair with my magic. Her eyes widened. "Humans usually don't have cutie marks. We spend our whole lives searching for our special purpose and some of us never find it before we die."

She looked stunned, then started crying and I felt horrible for making her cry. "I'm sorry," she said.

"It's not your fault," I told her, then stood back up.

Fluttershy was busy fussing over the other kids and trying to help keep them from wandering off into the mist and into the chaos around us.

Rainbow Dash flew by over us, Rainbow Crash by her side; only the goatee on Rainbow Crash let you tell the difference.

"Hi, Dash!" Scootaloo shouted, but Dash just kept going and vanished into the mist again.

And Keraptis KEPT ON LAUGHING.

"Don't cry, little sister," Clarity said kindly to Sweetie Belle.

"Why are there two of you? And why do you have a goatee?" Sweetie Belle asked, confused.

"Twilight put a spell on me," Clarity said, clearly irritated. "And someone made these clones of myself and the rest of our group."

"Made clones of US," Rarity said firmly.

I was starting to worry something picked off Spikey.

Now Sammy lunged out of the fog. "I have you... oh, it's you, my evil twin." He stroked his goatee, clearly pleased by it.

I will note the real sign of his evil, though was that he had NO HAT AT ALL.

"Kids," I said urgently as he got ready to charge me.

"Oh, hi, kids, how's the crusade for cutie marks coming?" he asked them cheerfully.

"Does everyone who comes here get an evil twin?" Scootaloo said hopefully.

"He's the one who made the evil twins," Sammy said, pointing at me.

"We still don't have our cutie marks and we had to postpone our polar expedition to come rescue people but now everyone wants us to just SIT HERE," Apple Bloom said.

Clarity grabbed Dinky, who was about to wander into the mists, and pushed her back gently into the child mob.

"It's extremely dangerous," I told her. "It's our first priority to keep you safe."

"No battle to the death, then," Sammy said.

"Later, when kids aren't in danger," I told him, hoping he'd go for that.

"Damn, I had a big speech and everything," he said. "Well, I expect Dawn Gleaming needs me right now."

Dammit, I can't let him reinforce the attack on Twilight but I have to protect these kids in case any more...

"ROAR!"

"Was that a lion?" I asked.

"I think so," he said, frowning.

Distantly, we heard lightning crackle and then a lot of howling about tentacles.

...

"So why aren't you dating Twilight?" he asked me. "We've been together several years."

...

"We just met a few days ago," I told him.

"Well, true, you just came into existence recently," he said.

Sweetie Belle was looking more and more confused.

"You just came into existence," I said firmly. Or had he? For all I know, they have all been around, but why is he Samus Marcus now if that's the case? I wish I could find out the history he thinks he has.

Fluttershy said, "Sammy, you are the clone. I can tell, as a druid."

Sammy frowned at that. "My druid says otherwise."

"ROAR!"

"But I had best go protect Dawn Gleaming." Sammy then cast a spell and FLEW off into the mists.

...

I guess he's picked up more wizardry from Dawn Gleaming.

Dammit.

"C'mon, we can help!" Apple Bloom said urgently.

"Clarity, can you contact Spikey? I think something's happened to him."

She frowned deeply. "I will be quite wroth with anyone who hurts my cuddly little Spikey." She began concentrating with her horn, which glowed.

Rarity was gently nuzzling Sweetie Belle, who finally calmed down.

"Face me you coward!" Dragonshy shouted out in the mists. "I can't blast you if you hide in the fog!"

All five Cutie Mark Crusaders stared, then looked at Fluttershy.

"I'm sorry," Fluttershy said to their hooves.

The floor suddenly began to move, a crack opening with Fluttershy, Clarity, Dinky, Scootaloo on one side, and myself, Rarity, Apple Bloom, Twist, and Sweetie Belle on the other. I could hear grinding noises and saw the ceiling moving and something coming down.

"Everyone regroup!" I shouted and we all got on one side as a platform rose up with two vaguely humanoid figures; they were made of black rock, obsidian, I think, glowing from the inside at times, eyes shining red. Rockfire Dreadnoughts. I hate Elementals.

Dinky hid behind Clarity, while Scootaloo stood defiant, rearing up. "Bring it!" she shouted.

Crazy pony.

Apple Bloom stood next to me. "Cutie Mark Crusader Elemental Tamers, STRIKE!" She reared up defiantly.

Twist looked rather more nervous but stood her ground, legs shaking.

Sweetie Belle started to hide behind Rarity, then saw her friends and stood by them. SWEETIE BELLE, YOU FOOL! "We're ready!"

One of them lunged at Scootaloo, but Fluttershy suddenly reared up, eyes widening. "No! You won't hurt these children! Bad elemental, BAD!"

It stumbled back, confused and she advanced on it, berating it for scaring the children.

The other one, though, now rushed at me, only to get shot by Rarity and Clarity in the eyes. It howled and I stabbed it; it bled magma, though the magma on my blade burned away. Oh yeah, magic artifact sword is the best sword.

Apple Bloom ran around behind it and headbutted it in the back of the knee. Sweetie Belle did the same.

"No, stay behind us!" I shouted, but now it fell backwards.

ON THEM.

"OWW!!!"

I quickly attacked it as they got loose.

"Get behind us!" Rarity said urgently to them.

Dinky concentrated and a stream of bubbles hit where my foe was 'bleeding' and now ice spread through the hardening magma into it and it howled. Dinky now curled up in a ball behind Clarity and tried to hide. "If I can't see them, they can't see me!" Dinky announced.

I wish.

SO MUCH.

I struck the frozen spot and it shattered and now it was howling and I pressed my advantage, while Fluttershy now forced the Elemental to back into the mists, blubbering before her wrath.

That must be 'the Stare'.

My foe cupped some of its magma and got ready to throw it at the ponies; I managed to parry most of it but got some on me. OWW!! I stumbled, yelping. DAMMIT.

It got shot again, but got ready to attack me again. Sweetie now threw a roll of cloth in its face and as it stumbled, I stabbed it and it fell apart into rocks.

I'm going to need a new leather jacket. "Oww, oww, oww, oww!"

Spikey came up. "The bedrooms have reconfigured into some sort of elaborate puzzle where you have to move rings between towers."

"But I had a lot of things in there!" Clarity said frantically.

"Marcus!" Rarity said, and then took my jacket off and started bandaging me. "Sweetie, get the burn cream. Apple Bloom, get him a drink. Dinky, can you make an ice pack? Twist, get him some candy. Scootaloo, keep watch but do NOT go very far."

They all sprang into action and I was soon topless and being treated, trying not to cry and whimper in front of the fillies. Those burns did not look nice AT ALL.

By the time Fluttershy returned, they had me bandaged up. We have to get these kids somewhere safe so we can help our friends. Dammit.

At least I have licorice.

Tasty.

"I think at this point, we'd best try and get things under control, assuming we can even find the controls in this anarchy," Rarity said.

"That sounds reasonable, since we have no haven to retreat to," Clarity said, frowning.

We began to slowly... advance? Retreat? Move, anyway, with Scootaloo keeping watch.

"This is the best trip ever," Scootaloo said excitedly.

Because you are INSANE.

"You said Princess Luna sent you?" Rarity said, frowning.

"We all dreamed she came to us and since we all dreamed the same, it had to be true," Dinky said.

I buried my face in my hands for a few seconds. Then I wondered WHO and WHY. Marjorie? I could see her luring them in.

"There you all... MY FACE!" Marjorie shouted distantly and I laughed softly.

"Marcus," Rarity said. "Spikey and I will guard, you and Clarity can support me."

"I'm not that hurt," I said. "And you're a better archer than you are a melee fighter."

"Yes, but I don't want to see you get hurt like that again," she said urgently.

"I'll be fine," I said.

She licked her lips nervously, then nodded. "If you're sure."

I'm more likely to come back from the dead for no reason than you are, but saying that will worry her more.

"Who is taking care of our pets?" Rarity asked Sweetie sternly.

"They're all here in my saddlebag!" Sweetie said. "Playing together nicely!"

A dog, a cat, an alligator, and a bunny.

I'm sure that is going well.

A bunny now stuck his head out of Sweetie's saddle bag and made bunny noises. Fluttershy nuzzled him. "Have you been a good boy?"

Bunny noises.

"You've been chosen king of the saddlebag? That's nice."

....

"I'm going to need you all to help, so come out," Fluttershy said.

"Is that wise?" I said.

Fluttershy nodded and now the four animals clambered out. The alligator was... smaller than I expected. The dog was nearly the size of the fillies. It now began herding them, keeping them from wandering off. The cat was a white Alphatian, right down to being dressed up a little; she licked her paws. Angel Bunny, the rabbit, was a little white rabbit with a stern expression.

Fluttershy now began singing and they began GROWING.

...

Soon, they were the size of adult ponies and glowed a soft gold and pink. "Guard the fillies," Fluttershy said and Angel Bunny nodded and made animal noises at them. The alligator, now the size of a real one, promptly ran off into the fog, but the rest helped us herd the kids. Fluttershy also introduced them all to me.

Keraptis, by the way... STILL LAUGHING.

"My sword! I sense it!" Marjorie shouted.

I looked down and saw that at some point I had transformed it to falchion mode. I quickly turned it back into a gladius.

"NO!!!!!"

Hehe.

"Magic sword?" Twist asked me.

"Yes," I told her.

"No, Gummy, don't eat Mr. Turnip's cabbages!" Pinkie shouted distantly.

"MY CABBAGES!"

"I know they make you big and strong, but he needs them to support his family and his dog!" Pinkie shouted urgently.

"Do you have a boutique?" Rarity asked Clarity curiously as we tried to find where the controls had run off to.

"Darling, I have a line of twelve boutiques, including branches in Dream Valley, Darokin City, and Shireton," she said. "Running them all from Canterlot isn't easy, but it keeps Spikey and I busy and of course, he can communicate with any of my managers with just one cute firey breath."

She began buffing some of his scales with a cloth, which caused Spikey to make happy noises. "I'll get this soot off you," she told him.

"Thanks, dear."

"Stupid fog, Dinky, you're stopping me seeing Rainbow Dash being cool," Scootaloo grumbled.

"But it hides us from our enemies and from the Oards," Dinky said urgently.

"Oards are a myth," Rarity said wearily. "How do you have time to design things for all your customers with twelve boutiques?"

What is an Oard? Beyond something Rarity is clearly tired of hearing about.

"Oh, darling, that's only for the small circle of platinum circle customers," Clarity said. "Who can afford my personal services. I spend some time on them, some on managing and the rest on periodic updates of my four seasonal lines. Gold circle get to have adjustments made on their off-the-rack and get one outfit a year personally designed for them. Silver circle get discounts."

"And copper?" I asked.

"They are allowed to browse without someone watching to make sure they don't steal anything," Clarity said.

...

"You would not believe how many parasprites there are in Pony society, darling," Clarity said, hoof to her face and striking a pose of anguish. "Some ponies do all the work and the rest just feed on their labors without wanting to work themselves. Outrageous."

"They're just so greedy and selfish," Spikey said, frowning.

"Exactly," Clarity said.

"That sounds like something from Atlas Hugged or the Fountainhoof," Rarity said, frowning.

Works I am not familiar with.

"But of course, marvelous books, changed my life for the better when I was a young filly. Everyone should read them," Clarity said.

"They're MEAN," Fluttershy said condemningly. "Mean, mean, mean."

Twist sang, o/~ mean, mean, mean o/~

Pretty soon, all the fillies were singing that and Clarity looked first embarrassed, then annoyed. "It is not mean, merely realistic. A pony must EARN what she gets. That's why I work so hard instead of relying on others to just give me what I need. And I expect the same of them. Of course, you have to reward hard work. My Spikey works very hard and I reward him with my love and vice versa." She smiled goofily and he hugged her.

"Love isn't a reward for work," I said. "It's a burning passion inside you for someone, the willingness to give up anything for them if you have to, in order to help and protect them. The need to be with them, the need to help them, to be part of their life and you part of theirs. Love is giving without asking in return." I was getting heated up. "Even if they don't love you back. Though of course, it's better if they do."

"That just gets you taken advantage of," Clarity said, then held up a hoof and pointed.

Pit trap! Rarity and I began disarming it while Clarity and Spikey stood guard. Apple Bloom watched the two of us intently. "Can I help?" she asked.

"Stand here," I told her; she put her weight at a key point, keeping the trap shut while we disarmed its trigger.

"You have to risk that in love," Rarity said. "And love can die, will die eventually if it is one way. But you can only find love by risking getting hurt, by giving without asking, in the hope the other will give without you asking as well. It's anticipating what your loved one needs, so you can act as one without need to plan your cooperation." I pried open a floor segment and she reached in and worked the mechanisms with some guidance from me, feeling it out and then sliding in the safety pins.

"Exactly. Love, like trust, is a leap in the dark to an unknown shore," I said. "But if you don't make that jump, you'll always be alone."

"People often fail you," Clarity said softly.

"I know," Rarity said, sighing. "And it's hard to keep trying, but you have to persevere to become good at what you do, right?"

There was a click. The trap was disarmed and we could advance.

"I agree completely," Clarity said.

"That's how I got Clarity's love; I kept trying and never gave up," Spikey said, smiling.

Rarity paused. "Ahah!" She began concentrating and her horn glowed. "It works, and I wish I had thought of this sooner."

Clarity studied her. "How is gem detection going to help us now?"

"Detecting the direction the controls are in," Rarity said. "They include gemstones."

A swarm of stirges flew at us and then vanished in Spikey's flames. Heh.

We reached the controls just in time for the mist to suddenly vanish in a wave of power. Worse, Marjorie was coming our way.

Shit.

**************

The whole place had turned into a chaotic mass of traps, monsters, and people fighting each other. Rainbow Dash and Crash were flying around overhead, duking it out, while Rocky chased them, trying to catch up. Cruisin' and Fire Swallow were dueling with Soarin' and Spitfire as well, dodging flaming hoops which kept shooting at them all.

The alligator, Pinkie, Pinkamena, Mr. Turnip, and Madame LeFlour were making a stand around Mr. Turnip's cart against a swarm of angry giant crabs. The alligator had clamped onto the claw of one of them and was being waved around, while Pinkie shouted frantically.

Niccolo and Ivan were still dueling through a mess of traps: blade traps, dart traps, pit traps, falling block traps.

Dawn Gleaming and Twilight had both been caught by a mass of black tentacles; I recognized that spell; Spike and Sammy were trying to cut them free but now they got grabbed as well. "Dammit, that spell is dangerous!" Dawn Gleaming said. "You should have been shooting acid arrows at me!"

"I haven't learned that one," Twilight said, embarrassed.

"And this spell is so stupidly strong we're gonna be stuck until it finishes!" Dawn Gleaming said. "How are Sammy and I going to finish our new paper if we're stuck here forever?"

"We can at least discuss the problem of dating Nob Nar," Sammy pointed out.

Oh god, Nob Nar date debates. You fool, don't go there, you'll never escape the argument!

Nob Nar was one of the Halfling High Heroes, their patron immortals. He fell in love with a human woman from Halag, but the Baron of Halag wanted the woman, heroism, love, tragedy, blah blah, you know the drill. Nob Nar clearly existed, but it's hard to tell which stories are true and when he was alive, as some later tale-teller seems to have added aspects of other heroes' tales to his.

Anyway, I could go on about this until we die, but I need to FOCUS.

Or death will come soon.

Applejack and Apple Blossom were circling each other, but their fight kept getting interrupted by monsters attacking them. Then Apple Blossom saw Apple Bloom; her eyes widened and she began charging our way with Applejack chasing her.

"There you are!" Dragonfly shouted and charged towards us.

And then there was Marjorie, who was coming our way. She looked utterly enraged. "Dragonfly, blast them all!"

"But... there are fillies there," Dragonfly said hesitantly. "They've been foolish but not that foolish." Then she saw our giant animals and she blinked.

"That bastard has my sword," Marjorie said. "It was stolen from me and I will HAVE it."

Fluttershy began another song, adding another layer of glow to her animal friends.

The fillies stared at Marjorie. "She's like Princess Celestia," Twist said.

"If Princess Celestia was a thieving, arrogant bastard," I said. "This sword is mine, earned with my own blood," I told Marjorie. Very softly, I said to the fillies, "Run to the controls and reverse them all if this turns into a fight."

Apple Bloom nodded and Scootaloo now pulled a scooter out of her saddlebags.

...

"Then you ARE him," she hissed. "I don't know how you have eluded me all these years."

"Hello, Marquetta," I said. "I'll confess I don't know either. But if you really want this, give us back the treasure stolen from Vermicoritax and I'll give you the sword." I love this sword but if it can get us out of this mess, I'll give it up. Also, knowing a grand wyrm is hunting me for it means it paints a target on me too.

Clarity clutched at her jewelry. I don't know what she's going to do about that.

A giant snake fell onto Marjorie; she flung it across the room, horn glowing, and it landed on Keraptis and began crushing him as he howled. Oww.

"Boss, no, don't do that!" Pinkamena shouted. "He'll mutate it somehow!"

Marjorie quickly pulled it off him and Keraptis cursed.

"Pinkamena, you are a good and faithful servant," Marjorie said. She flapped her wings and the crabs were blown away from the group rallying around the wagon. This also sent the alligator tumbling.

"GUMMY!" Pinkie shouted, running after the alligator.

...

Pinkamena smiled a goofy smile for a few seconds before reverting to usual.

"You are the thief," Marjorie said. "Hand him over to me or you all will die."

"No, not the children," Clarity begged.

"They're innocent of any theft," Dragonfly said. "Let me kill the thief for you!"

"You want a piece of me, you fake Princess? BRING IT," Scootaloo said, making a come hither for a beating gesture with one hoof.

"I will NOT let you kill him," Rarity said angrily, then looked at the fillies and grimaced.

I know, I know.

"Let's not be hasty," Clarity said. "My sister is in the line of fire!" she said urgently.

Marjorie flapped her wings and the fillies tumbled away from us, over to the controls. "Clarity, Spikey, back up. Now you have a clear shot, Dragonfly."

"With pleasure! Especially against..."

Winona, now the size of a pony, pounced on Dragonfly, snatched her staff and ran towards Applejack, who was running towards us.

Opalescence now flashed her claws at Marjorie, clearly trying to scare her. Angel Bunny ran up and pulled Dragonfly's hood down over her face.

Clarity and Spikey now ran over to the fillies to check on them, even as Marjorie brushed Opalescence aside, even enlarged; she tumbled across the floor as Pegasi dueled above her.

Marjorie rose up over Rarity, Fluttershy, and I. "Flee, ponies, or die with the THIEF."

"No," Rarity said, arrows hovering by her head. "Back off now," she ordered.

"I won't let you hurt him or Rarity," Fluttershy said firmly, standing by my side. "You shouldn't be so mean."

I felt the urge to cry for a moment. I am not used to having people standing up for me, though Ivan and Helga always did. Also, I was scared shitless. Once again, I stood bravely because I could not muster the energy to actually RUN.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders began flipping switches and jamming buttons and now everything began changing more. Clarity said, "Don't just randomly hit buttons!"

A giant duck now leaped down and swallowed up Rainbow Dash and Rainbow Crash and ran off with them.

...

"Okay, maybe not THAT button," Apple Bloom said thoughtfully.

"Then, you all will..."

The floor opened under Marjorie and she dropped out of sight. "YES!" Scootaloo said, then pulled the lever back and it closed up. "I WIN!" She quickly checked her flank.

No cutie mark yet.

I stared. It couldn't be that easy.

We were all thrown back even as I saw Applejack and Winona playing keep-away with Dragonfly's staff as Apple Blossom tried to help her fellow Element of Power to recover it.

The ground began to shake.

"Rarity, you have to free Keraptis," I told her. "Before Marjorie breaks back out."

"But you..."

"We need reinforcements," I told her. "If he is in command, hopefully we can drive off Marjorie."

She closed her eyes, then nuzzled me quickly. "Fluttershy, protect him."

"Of course," she said, rallying Opalescence and Angel Bunny to our side.

Then Rarity galloped off and I prayed she could get him free before Fluttershy and I die horribly.

While we got ready to die, I looked up and saw Spitfire and Fire Swallow still sparring, so I yanked Fire Swallow's tail as much as I could with magic. Spitfire scored a hit, knocking Fire Swallow down into the middle of the crabs. I gave her a thumbs up.

Then Marjorie exploded up out of the pit trap, and then she hurled chunks of floor at the tentacles holding Sammy and Dawn Gleaming and pulled them over to her, even as the Cutie Mark Crusaders ran rampant on the controls while Spikey and Clarity futilely tried to stop them.

Sammy stroked his goatee again, smiling. I touched my hat. "Hello, evil twin," I said to him.

"You're the evil twin," he said. "Or you'd be with Twilight."

Uuuurgh. "Twilight has someone else on her mind," I told him, and he grinned at me. Dammit, he knows. DO NOT SAY IT. "Anyway, we're not here to talk romance," I said. "Marjorie, I don't even remember for sure why I wanted this sword, but it's mine now and even though I could give it up, I'm not going to let you kill me. You already slaughtered all my friends," I continued. "I'm not letting you do that again, Marquetta."

Spikey paused. "Wait, she's not Marquetta, she's Princess Marjorie." But he sounded unsure.

"I am not Marquetta," Marjorie said.

"Liar! You are Marquetta," Applejack said, her Element glowing. "I am the Element of Honesty! Now, tell the TRUTH!"

She planted her hooves and stared intently, even as Winona ran around trying to dodge Dragonfly and Apple Blossom.

Marjorie made gurgling noises and then simply spat lightning at Applejack, knocking her back into the tentacles, which tried to grab her; she began beating them around.

"FREEZE RAY!" Dinky shouted and now a wand came out of the ceiling and froze Marjorie in a block of ice, but she shattered it.

Marjorie now rose up over us and...

Twilight set her tail on fire. "I won't let you hurt them!" she shouted.

Winona now dodged everything and brought Dragonfly's staff to Fluttershy, who hooked a leg around it, then parried Marjorie's lightning when she spat it at us. "I am a druid," she said. "Do not abuse nature's power," she said urgently.

Apple Bloom said, "Hey..." She suddenly began fiddling with the controls and part of the room now began turning itself into a living room. "I think I'm getting the hang of this," she said excitedly.

Marjorie flapped her wings and put her tail out and now looked even angrier. "All of you will pay for this indignity!"

"If you think that's indignity," Pinkie said, "You haven't seen anything YET."

She popped up and hit herself in the face with a pie. "See, THAT is indignity!"

Marjorie stared at her in frank disbelief.

"And here's double indignity!" Now she hit Pinkamena in the face with a pie.

"Hey!"

"TRIPLE!" Madam LeFlour now was pie'd.

"Tasty punishment!" Twist shouted, running over and 'whipping' Pinkie with a licorice whip.

"Whip it good!" Pinkie shouted.

Pinkamena stared at Pinkie. "How can you stand to be so ridiculous?"

"Because it makes people laugh," Pinkie said. "Dignity is overrated."

"I am NOT laughing," Marjorie said angrily.

"Try it, it's fun!" Pinkie said to Pinkamena, handing her a pie.

Pinkamena hit Pinkie in the face with it and everyone except Marjorie began laughing. Pinkie laughed the loudest of all. "Well done!" Pinkie said to her.

Pinkamena stared at everyone looking at Pinkie. She seemed baffled. Even Opalescence was laughing a kitty laugh.

Apple Bloom now hit a button and a blade trap swung down and cut Applejack free. "YES!"

"Show me!" Scootaloo said. Fillies crowded around the cackling Apple Bloom.

"Come on, laugh, you can do it," Pinkie said to Pinkamena.

Pinkamena made an odd, dry noise.

Fluttershy laughed, a quiet little titter. "Like this!"

Pinkamena laughed weakly and Pinkie applauded; Pinkamena now looked embarrassed. "It wasn't very good," she said weakly.

"It's a good start. Now for my next trick..." Pinkie began.

"DIE!" Princess Marjorie shouted and now she spat fire at us. I grabbed Fluttershy and jumped, and then Fluttershy frowned at Marjorie.

"I was trying to help Pinkamena," Fluttershy said. "That wasn't very nice at all."

"I am not here for nice but for revenge! On Celestia and on HIM," Marjorie said. "Now DIE." She spoke a horrible syllable and I felt my body start to shut down, but Fluttershy began to sing and my body rallied; the air hung with power but Fluttershy's Element glowed. Slowly, though, she was losing ground.

"No!" Twilight shouted and power exploded out of her, shredding the tentacles. "I've tried to be nice but I won't let my friends get hurt!" She unleashed a barrage of glowing arrows, a veritable storm of magic missiles. Dawn Gleaming shot many of them out of the air with her own barrage but enough got through to hit Marjorie somewhat, making her howl in anger.

"Wrecking BALL," Apple Bloom said cheerfully and a huge ball on a chain swung down and hit Marjorie, tossing her across the room.

"Pinkamena, which side are we on?" Madame LeFlour asked Pinkamena urgently.

"I... don't know," she mumbled, studying everything and looking worried.

"I'm on your side," Mr. Turnip said firmly to her and she smiled a little. "I'll always be your friend."

Pinkamena looked embarrassed by that. "Your wagon is wrecked," she said sadly.

"I can get a new one but I can't get a new you."

Pinkamena began to cry with Pinkie comforting her.

Marjorie flapped her wings and Twilight went tumbling, then she tried turning back to us, with Opalescence and Winona and Angel Bunny all growling at her. I did my best to move to protect Fluttershy as best I could.

Then Keraptis shouted, "I AM FREE!"

I could see Ivan standing by him, while Rarity chased Niccolo around with arrows. GO RARITY AND IVAN!

"Apple Bloom, hit the green and red buttons together!" Keraptis shouted.

WHAM she hit those buttons like the wrath of an angry immortal.

A force cage sprung up around Marjorie.

"Take your people and go," he said, striding up to her. "You've given me a good show but I will not be used as a pawn in your games any longer, Marquetta. And if you try again, I will call the Council of Intrusion and see what they think."

...

"You wouldn't dare," Marjorie hissed.

"I am THE TRAP MASTER!" Apple Bloom said, then quickly checked her flank. Still no Cutie Mark. She cursed.

"Do you really want to find out? You are pushing things, 'Marquetta'," Keraptis said angrily.

"Celestia has been 'pushing things' for centuries, and who are you to judge, MORTAL?" Marjorie hissed at Keraptis.

"I'm the mortal whose home you invaded and whose machines you perverted! I have to say, though, I'm impressed by the results." He studied the Elements of Power. "But the best creations are those that take on a life of their own beyond what you intended. Now, go or I will make you regret staying."

"Fine, but this is not the end. Tell Celestia, she will regret this. And you, 'Samus Marcus', you will die your final death soon and I will have my sword BACK. There is no one who can protect you from me, Marcus. Your luck cannot protect you forever. I know you now and I will find you. Enjoy your final days, for soon, they will END!"

And then she vanished with the Elements of Power, though I noticed Clarity's jewelry was left behind.

"What a good girl you are," Keraptis said to Apple Bloom. He produced a silver necklace which showed an Earth Pony rampant, hanging it around her neck. "You'll be a great trap maker one day, I think."

"Thank you!" she said, then checked her flank. No Cutie Mark yet. "AAAAHHH!!!"

He now worked the controls to turn off the chaos. "I'll secure the remaining treasure for you. You had best go see Celestia; I expect Marquetta will try something."

"Her name isn't really Marquetta either," I said, frowning. "She talked like she was an Immortal, though maybe she was just arrogant."

"I leave that as an exercise for Twilight's powerful brain," Keraptis said. "I can see why Celestia favors her." He sounded like he was talking about an old girlfriend's daughter.

Surely not.

"Sir, I will probably regret asking, but do you know what I am?" I said. If he says 'Erik', I die, but if he knows...

"Isn't it obvious?" he said.

"You were a candidate for immortality on the Path of the Polymath," Ivan said, coming over. "I don't know what went wrong, but I think everyone getting killed by Marquetta caused you to fail but for some reason you keep coming back now."

"That fits what I know," Keraptis said. "I'm sure Celestia can tell you more if you want to know."

I don't know if I want to know. "Was I abandoned by my patron?"

"Well, you... oh hoh," he said. "You definitely should see Celestia," he said after studying me.

"... Why?" I asked weakly.

"Her mark's on you. Interesting."

...

"She gave him a Cutie Mark?" Scootaloo asked jealously.

"There's a kind of tag on your soul which says 'MINE' in Celestia's handwriting," he said. He finished operating the controls and the control room was all cleaned up now, monsters and traps gone.

How did...

Then I remembered my cry in the dream. 'CELESTIA! HELP!!!!! I'll do anything! Don't let me get eaten!!!!'

Ahahahah.

Rarity now came up by my side; I put a hand on her back and smiled nervously.

"I will make a tunnel back to the balloon," Keraptis said. "It will be crowded, but you can head to take Vermicoritax his treasure. Apple Bloom, when you are old enough to live on your own, if you would like to come study with me, I think you have talent."

"COOL," she said. Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle looked dubious.

Applejack looked dubious.

I can't blame her.

"We're going to go see a dragon? Cool!," Dinky said. "Can I drive again?"

"Oh, you operated it, Dinky?" Twilight said in surprise.

"Yes," Dinky said proudly. "I linked into the controls with my horn, just like you!"

"Well done, Dinky, but NEVER EVER take my balloon without asking!," Twilight said.

"Keraptis, did you somehow summon the Cutie Mark Crusaders?" Rarity asked him.

"I could not reach beyond the mountain while bound," Keraptis said. "Oh yes. My machines were used to make your evil twins. They need a patron of power in order to live beyond this mountain. If they lose Marjorie's favor, they may well evaporate unless they find another patron."

"Am I...," I began.

"You are real. You merely need a patron because many, many people want you dead," Keraptis said.

AHHAHAHAHAH.

"But Celly will take good care of you, I'm sure. As long as you like itching powder in your underwear." He laughed a little; Pinkie laughed a LOT.

"Wait," Pinkie said. "Is Marjorie patron to my old friends too?"

"Yes," Keraptis said.

Pinkie frowned, looking worried.

"I have gifts for a few of you," he said. "I wish I could reward you all but the Elements of Power and Marjorie looted most of my stock." Keraptis sighed. "Ivan, you freed me and I am grateful." He gestured and now he held a warhammer. "For you, the hammer Whelm. It will guide you to gold and silver and gems."

Rarity now studied it with interest.

"And it will help you to cast down evil humanoids," he continued."

Ivan took it; not his normal kind of weapon, but with those powers, likely quite useful.

"For Applejack..." He gestured and tiny shadows flowed from his hands along with purple sparkles into Applejack's horseshoes. "These horseshoes will never break or wear out and will let you safely kick anything, even things like lightning or fire."

"Thank you, sir," she said, smiling.

"For Twilight, two books of lore," Keraptis said. Twilight's eyes lit up. "They're an introduction to shadow magic."

"Oooh," she said, taking them.

"For the Cutie Mark Crusaders," Keraptis said. "And their friends..." He gestured and their cloaks flew off and floated over to him.

"Hey!" Scootaloo said.

Light and shadow fluttered across the cloaks. "Let these be your first steps on the road to glory," he said. He gestured and sent them back. "Now you have magical cloaks."

"AWESOME," Scootaloo said.

"For you, Fluttershy, a box of magical seeds. You need never be void of plant allies so long as these last." He whisked that over to her and she took it, smiling and thanking him.

"For you, Rainbow Dash, special goggles." He gestured and they flew onto her head. "They will protect your eyes and you will be able to see even in the darkest night."

"Sweet," she said. "Thanks, mr. Wizard!"

"For the rest of you, I'm afraid all I have left is these gems," Keraptis said apologetically. The rest of us got a bag of gems and coins. Which included ME, who needs money. So I was pretty happy. I have a magic sword, anyway.

A door opened. "Okay, there's a road to safety," Keraptis said. "I'll make sure you get all the treasure. Good luck with 'Marjorie'."

"Thank you sir," Twilight said, bowing.

"I suppose I have Asterius' mark on me," Ivan said thoughtfully.

"Oh yes, you do. Good luck with your quest."

Oh man, how are we going to get the lockpicks?

Ivan laughed nervously.

"Don't worry, we'll find a way to get you what you need, Ivan," Applejack said seriously to him.

"Man, I never got to show that idiot Crash I am the BEST," Dash grumbled.

"You are the best," I told her and she smiled brightly.

"Okay," Twilight said. "Round up the kids and let's go! We have a ton of things to do! First stop, the lair of Vermicoritax."

*****************

It took endless hours of Vermicoritax, Rarity, Applejack, and Twilight going over the hoard, item by item, to settle it all; the rest of us ran herd on the fillies to avoid trouble.

These children want to touch EVERYTHING, go EVERYWHERE, try EVERYTHING. I know human children are this hyper but they aren't as FAST.

Ivan was looking agitated. I can't blame him. We certainly can't rob Vermicoritax at this point; it would bring down retaliation on Equestria, not just us.

Finally, once the kids finally wore out and laid down by the pond which is inside Vermicoritax's underground lair (it's connected by a stream to the swamp and to underground rivers), we all could rest too. I flopped down next to Sweetie Belle and took a nap myself.

When I awoke, Applejack was standing over Ivan with something in her mouth which she dropped on him. "There you go," she said.

It was a set of platinum lockpicks, each inscribed with one of the phases of the moon. "We traded him the Cauldron of Blackflame for the lockpicks. He's the only one who isn't a halfling who has one now. He's quite proud of it."

Ivan's eyes were wide. "Thank you."

"Measure for measure," Applejack said. "You helped us out, so we helped you. So what happens next?"

"I don't know," he said, staring at them. "I guess Asterius will contact me when he's ready, as I just realized I don't know if I was supposed to take them somewhere or what. As I've been so focused on *getting* them."

Applejack laughed. "I know a few people more focused on the trip than the destination." She glanced at the Cutie Mark Crusaders, who thankfully were still asleep.

I didn't even have a destination, really. I just kind of survive. Part of me hopes Celestia knows more about what's going on with me and part is afraid she knows more.

Rarity nudged me gently. "Wake up, sleepyhead, it's time for us all to be massively overcrowded again." We'd had to have the CMC ride in Rarity's saddlebags when we ballooned here; it was just too crowded.

I sat up and now realized Sweetie Belle's head was on my legs. I patted her gently. "Wake up, little one."

"Five more minutes," she mumbled, but soon, she and her friends were up and we herded them along. The plan is to go to Ponyville, drop off the kids, rest, then go to Canterlot and see Celestia about all this.

The idea of a BATH and a NICE SOFT BED appeals to me more than you can imagine.

BED!!!

Book Four: Trust is a Leap in the Dark

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My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring
A D&D (Mystara) / My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic crossover

Book 4: Trust is a Leap in the Dark

By John Biles

***************

Twilight's balloon can be piloted by anyone who can cast spells (and any unicorn); I got to take a turn piloting it, which was fun, but also tiring; we had to take turns. Dinky seems to be a bit of an airhead, but she was a very good pilot, more precise than the rest of us who could pilot it (Twilight, Rarity, myself, Fluttershy, Pinkie, Sweetie Belle). Apparently her mother is a pegasus and her father is NOT TO BE TALKED ABOUT.

But must be a unicorn.

We could see Ponyville in the distance when a gray-coated pegasus rose out of the town and came zooming towards us. She had a blonde mane and googly eyes, but she looked VERY determined. "DINKY, YOU ARE IN SO MUCH TROUBLE!" she shouted.

You could hear rumblings from the saddlebag the kids were in.

Man, having a billion little dimensional pockets is very handy, I have to say.

We got Dinky out and Rarity told me, "That's Dinky's mother, Ditzy Doo."

"Hi, Mom, you look great," Dinky said cheerfully, though her body was shaking.

"Young lady, you are in SO MUCH TROUBLE," Ditzy said, eyes wandering all over. It was very distracting. She turned her head to point just one eye at Dinky. "And your friends who talked you into this! I am going to give them a piece of my MIND."

"You can chew them out tomorrow," Twilight said. "It's too crowded here to take them out."

Ditzy now noticed Ivan and I. "Humans?"

"Yes, we are," I said.

"This is Samus Marcus, a unicorn human," Rarity said. "And this is Ivan, who is an earth human."

Ditzy looked really intently at me, probably noticing the lack of a horn. She looked confused.

"A pleasure to meet you," I said, shaking one of her hooves.

Ditzy soon took Dinky and flew off with her; poor kid.

You know, we need to find out what caused them to have that dream. We never did find out.

*************

Soon, we landed in the middle of Ponyville; there was a huge mob of people and I noticed Lyra among the people; she was busy playing her harp and a bunch of ponies were singing.

"Lyra is our town bard," Rarity said, following our gaze. "She provides music for all festive occasions Ponyville has some other local musicians, but she's paid by the city government. She and Pinkie generally organize local festivities."

I'm surprised she hasn't gone wandering around more like I expected. But since I can't admit I was Erik, I can't ask her about it, more's the pity.

The tune now changed to one I knew.

o/~ Another day, another city,

o/~ Another horizon beckons to me.

o/~ Though home calls to me,

o/~ I must leave it behind.

What the hell???

Rarity's eyes widened as did Twilight.

o/~ Faithful wagon, carry me far

o/~ Faithful wagon, follow that star

o/~ You haul my goods and my fortune too

o/~ For I am a Far Seller

o/~ A traveler on the sea of fate

o/~ The needs of others beckon me
o/~ And I cannot be late.

Twilight licked her lips and began to sing along as we descended.

o/~ I've got twenty miles to go by twilight's gleaming.

o/~ Those distances can be deceiving.

o/~ The wheels go round and round,

o/~ Hauling me from town to town

Ivan to my surprise now began to sing as well, and Rarity joined in.

o/~ Faithful wagon, carry me far

o/~ Faithful wagon, follow that star

o/~ You haul my goods and my fortune too

o/~ For I am a Far Seller

o/~ A traveler on the sea of fate

o/~ The needs of others beckon me

o/~ And I cannot be late.

I surrendered and joined in, and then the other ponies with us all tried to sing along as well. Lyra looked VERY happy and I noticed a yellow earth pony with a blue and pink mane who had three candies as her Cutie Mark. Must be Bon-Bon.

By the time we finished the song, we had landed and tons of ponies flooded forward to say hello to everyone. Ivan and I were greeted by the Mayor of Ponyville. "Welcome to Ponyville," she said. "Celestia told us you were coming. She wishes for you all to come to Canterlot tomorrow, along with the Cutie Mark Crusaders."

"Oh dear," Rarity said. "They don't need that much punishment."

"I'm sure she'll be gentle," the Mayor said. "Should I arrange housing for our guests?"

"Marcus can stay with Sweetie and I, and I think Ivan will be staying with Applejack," Rarity said.

"Okay," the Mayor said. We shook hand-to-hoof. "Nice to meet you, Samus Marcus. Celestia told me about your human customs, so you can be sure you'll be left alone when bathing."

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

She knows, she knows, I am going to DIE.

I kept my face blank. "Thank you. I hate to be an inconvenience."

"I understand," she said kindly. "We have a feast ready! Come and dine!"

It was quite good; they had some fish for Ivan and I, which was very nice and while some of the food was not edible for humans (like hay salad), a lot of it was (the tomato salad was very nice and I like cucumbers a lot.)

Eventually, I approached Lyra because I had to know. "Interesting choice of human music," I told her. "Why that song?"

"I needed something human that wasn't a love song," Lyra said. "Nothing wrong with love songs, of course, but I wanted something that evoked travel and wasn't a love song. Also, there's some nice choral things you can do with it."

"It was a good choice," I told her. "Ivan and I knew it, though neither of us is Darokinian."

"I heard something about my old professor being at White Plume Mountain?" she said.

"You studied with Keraptis?" I said, feigning confusion.

"No, Erik of Vestland. I dunno, apparently he's wanted for a bunch of crimes, but he was a good teacher and didn't do anything wrong while he was there," she said, frowning. "Was he there?"

"We heard he was there, but Keraptis said he didn't know when Spitfire asked him about it. They tried searching the dungeon but didn't see him anywhere," I told her. Thankfully, it was a visual search.

Damn that tattoo.

The feast finally wound down and I was utterly zonked, so I was glad when it was time to go home and SLEEP.

***********

I took a bath so I would not have to sleep filthy. It was just a shower but that was fine. Rarity quickly improvised me a nice robe to sleep in; it was simple but felt wonderfully soft. I left my feet barefoot; I wanted to stretch my toes.

Shut up.

Sweetie Belle stared at my toes. "What use are those?" she asked.

"Not much any more, though they can help when you climb," I told her. "Our distant ancestors had smaller feet and bigger toes to help them climb and grip things. Once we started walking upright all the time, they got less useful and shrank. The same way our claws turned into toenails and fingernails."

She touched one of my toes hesitantly with her hoof. I wiggled them and she smiled. I then showed off my hands to her; she sniffed them and then studied them. "That must make picking things up easy," she said.

"It's what they are for," I told her.

She nodded and touched them. "It's not so hard for us Unicorns when we grow up but I know Pegasi and Earth Ponies... well, they can kind of pick things up but they have a harder time of it."

"Still learning to use your magic?" I asked.

"I haven't found my cutie mark yet," she said mournfully.

"I'm sure you will soon," I told her. "I didn't have your kind of ambition when I was little. And humans never get a cutie mark."

"But you can do magic and everything I do always goes wrong," Sweetie said mournfully. "I can't even help out my sister. And Apple Bloom figured out the controls when the rest of us couldn't."

"Those cloaks you made were very nice," I told her. "I can tell your friends love them."

She smiled a little at that.

"Here, let me show you a trick you can show off to your friends," I told her, getting my cards.

I then carefully showed her one of my simple card tricks. She can't do much with her horn yet, but she can move cards, which is enough for this. We went over it again and again, until she learned how to do it.

Finally...

She spread the cards and I picked one. The Jack of Flames. Then I put it back in and she 'shuffled'. Knowing the trick, I could see how she manipulated it to the bottom of the deck, but it should fool other fillies and the uninitiated.

Then she faked shuffling while keeping it on the bottom, then turned it up. "Is this your card?" she asked nervously.

"Yes! Perfect!"

She smiled brightly and I smiled back, ruffling her hair.

Then she rushed off to find Rarity, who was busy making the bed. "Rarity, Rarity, I'm going to show you something cool!"

She began showing off the trick to Rarity, who looked suitably impressed when it worked. I tried not to nod off against the wall, where I was sitting.

It suddenly hit me. "Where am I sleeping?" I asked. I was so tired, I couldn't even remember how many rooms Rarity's boutique had or how I had gotten into her bedroom.

"Sweetie has a room at my sister's place, but when she stays here, she just sleeps with me. I have a very big bed, so there will be plenty of space for us as long as everyone sleeps on their back." Rarity paused, suddenly nervous. "If that's okay."

"It's fine," I said. "I'm close to falling asleep right here." My head lolled and I forced it back up.

"Why do humans wear clothing all the time?" Sweetie asked me.

Here we go again. I gave her my standard spiel.

"I guess you do laundry a lot," she said thoughtfully.

"Yes," I told her. When we can. I often end up living in filth, unfortunately.

I am so clean. I feel like I could do anything.

Right now, though, the main thing is SLEEP.

Bedtime was a demonstration of the ability of Ponies to be more flexible than ponies. I'm pretty sure non-sentient ones sleep on their sides, but Ponies can comfortably sleep on their backs. Sweetie was, as Ponies usually are, naked, while Rarity donned a fancy silken pink and crimson robe. (My own was sky blue, if you care.) Sweetie slept between us; it felt oddly like being a father sleeping with his child.

Or so I would imagine, as I have no kids to my knowledge.

"I need a bedtime story," Sweetie announced, just as we settled into bed.

Rarity made 'not again' noises. "Big ponies don't need a story before bed," she said.

"It's fine, I'll tell her one," I said. "You get the glass of water."

"Glass of water?" Rarity asked. "Oh, right."

Kids always want a glass of water before bed. Or a snack. Or to pet the dog or whatever.

Okay, story time.

**************

Once upon a time, there was a young pony who wanted to buy her mother a present. But she had no money, so she had to go get a job. Mr. Wall needed his house painted, so she took the job and started working hard, but it was taking FOREVER.

Then two of the town bullies showed up and started mocking her painting and this made her mad. So she said, "I'd like to see you do a better job of it!"

They each painted a swathe of the wall, and she had to admit, "You did a better job." It was really embarrassing BUT...

It meant she'd gotten them to do some of the work for her, so she didn't mind. She knew it didn't matter what other people thought about her, she liked herself. And if she could use their illusions about her to get stupid mean people to do what she wanted, EVEN BETTER.

{Rarity now interrupted storytime.}

**********

Rarity had returned with the glass of water. "Marcus darling, you shouldn't tell Sweetie a bedtime story about conning people."

"But it's better than using violence to deal with bullies," I told Rarity as Sweetie took the water and began drinking.

"But..." Rarity paused, standing by the bed, holding the cup up with her powers for Sweetie. "Okay, that is true, but you shouldn't encourage children to trick people."

"Not everyone," I said. "But some people don't deserve better treatment." Like the kids I have heard harass Sweetie and her friends. "Sweetie has to learn when to be cunning."

Sweetie said nothing, busy slurping down water.

"Sweetie is very charming and kind," Rarity said, smiling a little. Then she sighed. "But cunning isn't her style."

"Well, for humans, anyway, you have to decide what you want and work for it. No one starts out cunning, you become cunning. It's all about discipline and focus," I said. Let's see her protest discipline and focus!

Sweetie continued drinking and Rarity said, "Well, of course discipline and focus are a good thing. Dedication to my craft got me my cutie mark and it's continued to improve me. But ponies aren't supposed to trick each other. Even if the other pony is mean."

"It's better to trick your enemies than to hit them," I said.

Sweetie was now pretending to drink and looking nervously between us.

"I wasn't saying to hit them! You just have to ignore mean things bullies say," Rarity said, frowning. "Or throw a few zingers their way. But trying to trick them into doing your work is going too far. If someone pays you to do work and you get someone else to do it for you, you're ripping off the person who paid you." Her voice was VERY firm about this.

"But he's still getting his wall painted," I told her.

"The worker is worthy of his hire," Rarity said. "The person who *does* the work ought to get paid."

"Does that mean businesses that hire out workers are ripping off someone?" I asked. "The wages get paid to the boss, who only pays the employee who did the work part of the profit."

We now got into a long discussion of business ethics which Sweetie continued to pretend to be drinking the whole time and looking uncomfortable.

It made me wonder what exactly was the point of divergence of Rarity and Clarity. There was enough similarity to make the differences more stark. The clones seem to have full sets of memories, they know their own kin and the friends of said kin... what exactly makes them different?

I think we had reached discussing bonds and investment depreciation somehow when Sweetie made a huge yawn and said, "I'm finished and sleepy."

Rarity said, "I'll be right back."

She headed out with the glass.

"I'm sorry I made you fight," Sweetie said weakly to me.

"It's okay, no matter how close you are to someone, sometimes you're going to disagree," I told Sweetie. "You make up your own mind about how to deal with the bullies. But now you've heard a couple of ways to do it."

"You're a stallion, right?" Sweetie asked, yawning.

"Yes, I am," I told her. "I guess you don't see many humans here."

"Humans either come to the ports or border forts or ride the Canterlot-Manehattan line up to Canterlot," she said groggily. "We're kind of off the beaten track, unless you want to go up to Castle Neigh. Daddy sees humans a lot, though. He's in Grand Stalls."

"Sleep," I said softly to her. "You can tell me about him in the morning."

"He's the best Daddy ever and I miss him so much," Sweetie said groggily. "But he says Grand Stalls is no place for a filly. I wish he could stay here with me."

I felt jealous; I can't even remember my father's name clearly... there's a half dozen different names and faces are jumbled and I just know there were too many kids, so I had to seek my fortune. "I bet he's telling your mother how much he misses you right this minute."

"I miss Mommy too," she said softly, then her eyes closed and she fell asleep.

I heard Rarity climbing into bed as I passed out as well.

*****************

I dreamed of Canterlot and my days there. I lived in a sort of hotel/dorm for professors. About half the teachers lived off campus but each of us who did not had a nice suite of rooms. It was some of the plushest living of my life. So nice.

I awoke to the smell of fish and fried tomatoes Mmm, good. I also was being crushed by Sweetie Belle, who had grappled me in her sleep. "Sweetie, wake up," I said.

She mumbled into my shoulder.

I tried to rise and failed. "Sweetie!"

Mumble, mumble.

Ponies really shouldn't trust strangers so much as to hug them in their sleep. But...

Opalescence came in and jumped on my face.

I made an incoherent, strangled noise and Rarity ran in. "Opalescence, get off Marcus and Sweetie!"

Opalescence ran down my chest, then jumped off.

Sweetie stirred. "Mrwwwe?"

I rose from the bed now, disentangling myself. "I'm going to go shave," I said.

"I can shave you, I've seen how Mom does it for Dad," Sweetie said.

Rarity licked her lips nervously. "Sweetie, it's a dangerous job."

"It's okay," I said. Sweetie needs some self-confidence. "You can help me."

I was rather nervous. The part of me which is kind to children thought this a great idea. The part which is wary of a wobbly child-unicorn holding a blade to my throat was rather less enthused.

But she needs some confidence, I can tell. So we went to the bathroom and I lathered up. She had to stand on the privy to see well, which was a little amusing to me. Then I lathered up and she took the razor and very slowly, she moved it over to my face, looking nervous.

I used my own power to steady the blade and guide her. "Someone's helping me," she said, confused.

"It's me," I told her. "I am a unicorn human. We'll do it together."

I guided her; slowly, I felt her control get more steady and sure and so, bit by bit, I released my grip. By the end, it was all her doing it, while I just watched.

It was not the greatest shave ever but it was good enough. "Good job," she said, smiling.

"Why can't I see your horn?" she asked.

"It's invisible," I told her. I should not have said that but I couldn't help myself. "There was an accident."

"Oh," she said.

Too trusting for her own good.

But she was smiling. "You're a nice unicorn," she said.

"Thank you," I told her. "You're a very nice unicorn too."

She smiled even brighter.

I suddenly wondered if our evil twins still had the goatees. Hehe.

I now washed my face to get left over lather off.

We came out for breakfast, which we ate in the kitchen. Rarity's shop seems to basically have a storage room, a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen, and the front store. You can tell it's a single person's home, even with the box of toys in the bedroom.

Sweetie and I came out and dug into the food. Rarity looked a little nervous. "The fish is great," I told her and she relaxed. You know, she's probably never cooked fish before.

In fact, I suddenly wondered how she even had fish. But that wasn't worth worrying about.

"We will have to hurry," she said. "You two slept in."

"You should have woken me," I said. "I'm sorry."

"I would have, but you two looked so cute sleeping there and when I did try, you just mumbled about grades."

FUCK ME.

Rarity and Sweetie were having fried tomato and fruit slices on a mix of kinds of lettuce. I had some of that with fish. SO GOOD. "This is really good," I said. "Fresh food, home cooked, I am clean, I am wearing clean clothing, I feel alive again."

Rarity smiled brightly and Sweetie said, "Thanks, sis. I'll cook breakfast tomorrow."

"We'll be in the castle, dear," Rarity said. "They'll cook for us."

"I am SO EXCITED," Sweetie said urgently. "I've never been to Canterlot! Surely we'll discover our Cutie Marks there!"

"Luna wants us to see the Moon Raising tonight," Rarity said. "I have never seen it myself. Apparently, it will be something extra special tonight."

Only now did I think... "Wait, did I sleep through us cutting a deal with Vermicoritax? Because we had to get the treasure for him to be willing to talk, let alone negotiate."

"He is going to come meet with Celestia and Luna; he is rather cross over 'Princess Marjorie' trying to set him up for a war with Equestria," Rarity said.

Hah, your plan bit you back, Marjorie! Or Marquetta, or whoever you are.

I hope she doesn't invade my dreams again.

"I forgot to ask what my magical cape DOES," Sweetie suddenly said, then sighed.

"Show me," I told her. "I can try and figure it out."

I ate and studied her cloak when she brought it. "Very strong protection against cold," I told her. "And if you pull the hood up, it'll help you sneak around. Also, it has some mild help in avoiding getting hurt by magics and poisons and the like." Basic protection enchantments. "It won't make you invincible, but it ups the odds of avoiding being hurt."

"COOL," she said and put it on, then started sneaking around. Your vision glanced off it unless you really concentrated hard.

Rarity buried her face in her hooves.

"What's wrong?"

"They're hard enough to herd already," Rarity mumbled.

...

"I have to go tell everyone!" Sweetie said.

"Finish your breakfast, then pack for the trip, THEN you can go," Rarity said.

"But I might forget by then!" Sweetie said.

I touched her forehead and used a little magic. It didn't actually do anything but she would feel it. "There you go, a memory spell. You won't forget."

She just shoved her face in her food and grazed at high speed instead of eating delicately as Rarity did.

"Sweetie, show some manners! You don't see Marcus grazing!"

"Apple Bloom grazes and so does Scootaloo," Sweetie said stubbornly. "It's natural for ponies."

"We are ponies of refinement," Rarity said. "Civilized people do not just shove their face in the punch bowl or their plate."

Sweetie grumbled, looking frustrated.

"You should be glad you're not a non-sentient pony," I told Sweetie. "You'd be spending hours and hours a day eating, more if you just had grass to eat."

Sweetie stared at me. "Are they all hideously fat?"

"Small stomachs and grass isn't very nutritious, even for a herbivore. If they have things like oats and rye and apples, they don't have to eat as much. I'm guessing that probably you all have more efficient stomachs and may well be partly fed by magic." Then I held up a piece of fish. "One of the reasons humans eat meat is that it conveys a lot of energy in a small package."

I think there's some business with a second stomach or something but I don't know horse biology in that level of detail.

Sweetie ate as fast as she could with any pretension to dignity. It was a weak pretension; she then ran off to pack.

"I wish I had more time to make you some nice outfits," Rarity said.

I jingled my coin and gem pack. "If we stay in Canterlot long, I can buy an outfit or two," I told her. I suddenly wondered what happened to all the clothing I had when I was Erik; I abandoned most of it in my flight. "Though I'd rather have something nice made by you, fair Rarity."

"Flatterer," she said, but she smiled.

"Is Apple Bloom's necklace magic?" Sweetie shouted.

"I don't know," I shouted back.

"Don't shout between rooms," Rarity shouted, then laughed softly, shaking her head.

"Best not to give orders you violate by giving them," I said.

"Are human children difficult?" Rarity asked me.

"Oh yes. We have to tame our own children and guide them. It's a huge amount of work," I told her. "Also, human children get into ANYTHING very easily, thanks to hands."

She looked off towards the bedroom door, then at me, then ate some more of her breakfast. She started to speak, then fell silent.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Later, when we can have privacy," she said. "We have to assume Sweetie can and will appear at any time while she's under our care."

I scratched my head, then nodded and worked on breakfast. She told me about Ponyville and her family and various friends.

Distantly, I now hear the sound of a pony laughing maniacally. And knocking at the back door, which goes straight into Rarity's bedroom.

"Look what I can do with my tail!" Apple Bloom shouted in the bedroom. "I bet I could even carry an axe and chop wood now!"

"Oh wow, that's great, Apple Bloom," Sweetie said. "Can you help me pack?"

"Sure... WITH MY TAIL!"

I couldn't help but laugh.

Rarity looked curious. "That's new."

"I noticed Applejack has a prehensile tail. Is that common with Earth Ponies?"

"Usually only for things relating to their Cutie Mark," Rarity said. "Which can be pretty broad. I'd be surprised if she somehow got her Cutie Mark after coming home, though."

"Here, let me get that... with my tail!" Apple Bloom crowed.

I laughed softly. Rarity smiled.

"Oh, one other thing from yesterday," I said. "What is an Oard?"

Rarity buried her face in her hooves. "Oards are imaginary creatures that Ditzy and Dinky both think are real. They're supposedly time travelers who are trying to change Mystara's history using super-technology. They feature in the kind of crazy conspiracy theories you find in the Hoofington Inquirer," she said. "Where they claim Duke Stefan's been replaced by a clone made of snow and that's why he doesn't move against the Black Eagle Baron or that the Thyatian Emperor is addicted to cheese and thus is controlled by cheese-makers from the Heldaan Freeholds, and so on."

"AHH," I said. It's probably for the best I haven't the resources to disguise myself as one or I would find myself unable to resist the impulse to go do it and freak them out. "I assume we are going to catch the afternoon train to Canterlot?"

"I think so," Rarity said.

If we leave by noon, we can be in Canterlot before dinnertime on the train. It'll be nice to relax on the train.

And less crowded than the balloon.

"Here, I'll get that down for you with... MY TAIL!" Apple Bloom crowed.

"We're all going to want to kill her by sunset, right?" I said.

"Oh yes," Rarity said, laughing a little. "But it's important to celebrate their learning new skills, so try to be patient and hold me back if I snap, darling." She took a drink of milk. "Marcus darling, about last night, I'm sorry."

La.. OH. "It's okay," I told her. "Everyone disagrees sometimes. I hope I didn't get too heated. I just didn't know any stories suitable for pony children, so I had to improvise."

I heard weird noises from the bedroom. Springing and shaking noises.

o/~ With my tail,

o/~ I will help you without fail!

o/~ I can even send mail,

o/~ With my tail!

...

"Don't jump on the bed," Rarity shouted.

I laughed softly.

"I can shave people now," Sweetie Belle said proudly now.

"Oooh, magically?" Apple Bloom said excitedly.

"Yes!"

"Maybe you'll get a grooming Cutie Mark soon!" Apple Bloom said excitedly.

"You need to PACK," Rarity shouted. "They're so easily distracted," she said to me.

I finished my food. "I can run herd on them while you clean up."

"Thanks," she said and I went to try to restore order.

Foolish me.

**************

I never, EVER should have told them about the sneaking thing. Foolish me. By the time it was time to go, Ditzy, Rarity, and myself were chasing all five crusaders around Rarity's house as they tried to hide from us and laughed like maniacs.

This might well have continued until we all died of old age, except that Applejack showed up with Ivan and her brother, Big Macintosh, and they helped us herd the kids. Pretty quickly, we trapped them all and stopped Apple Bloom trying to pick up Opalescence with her tail.

"Leave the poor cat alone," Applejack said sternly to Apple Bloom. "I know you're proud of yourself, but Opalescence is not a toy. And don't abuse your cloaks, or we'll have to take them away until you're older."

"I am older! I'm a BIG PONY," Apple Bloom insisted. "Look at my tail!"

"I can shave people now!" Sweetie protested.

Scootaloo looked kind of frustrated, possibly because Apple Bloom and Sweetie couldn't resist mentioning tails and shaving every five seconds, roughly.

"I'm proud of you," Applejack said. "But you don't have to mention it constantly." She sounded a little worn out of it already.

I laughed softly.

"Marcus, you got a minute?" Applejack asked me.

"Sure," I said.

"Big Mac, make sure they don't decide to go find another dungeon before we get back," Applejack said.

"I can shave you!" Sweetie said excitedly.

His eyes widened and I said to Big Mac, "It's fine. She shaved me this morning." As I passed him, I whispered to Big Mac, "As long as she believes she can do it, she'll be fine. Just reassure her and she'll do great."

He nodded and I went outside with Applejack. "Need something magicked?" I asked.

"Can you take a look, make sure Apple Bloom ain't got nothing magical in her head? Somethin' tricked her and her friends into comin', and I'm pretty sure it ain't Luna. I don't want to see her and her friends rush off on some other damn fool dangerous thing again in the future."

"Of course, though Twilight would do a better job."

"The more what look, the safer," Applejack said. "And check the amulet, make sure it's safe."

The amulet turned out to augment an Earth Pony's fine manipulation abilities; this was likely why she'd so quickly gotten so proficient with her tail. There were no signs of continuing enchantment, but I had to agree with Applejack that someone had played them. Why and to what end?

Ditzy was talking urgently to Rarity as I studied the kids, who had basically overborne Big Mac and were busy trying to pretty him up. "I totally have nothing to wear for this," Ditzy said. "And neither does Dinky and I am supposed to work today and they gave it off but I don't know how long I have to stay there and.." She was growing ever more frantic and her eyes ever more googly as she panicked.

"I don't have time to do a proper job, darling, but of course I'll see what I can throw together before we have to catch the train," Rarity said. "Sweetie, are you packed?"

"Sort of."

"Sweetie, get packed. Children, are you all packed? Do you have your bags?"

A chorus of yeses broke out.

"Do you have your permission slip, Twist, Scootaloo?"

"I have mine!" Scootaloo said.

"I..um... oh no, I left it at home!" Twist said in a panic.

Rarity magicked some bits over to Scootaloo. "Scootaloo, run Twist home, then go by the grocery store and get six boxes of raisins."

Raisins?

They took off.

"Sweetie, get your bags packed. Apple Bloom, you can come assist me with... your tail," she said with a dramatic flourish. Rarity is a bit of a ham. "Dinky, Ditzy, come, you will need to be fitted. Marcus darling, come, I'll see what I can do for you too. Applejack, Big Mac, I hate to ask, but I could trouble you to clean up my kitchen? I can't leave it like this but I am going to be very busy."

"Glad to help, Rarity," Applejack said.

With Apple Bloom and I assisting, Rarity threw together an extra outfit for me, Ditzy, and Dinky. She was extremely not happy with any of them, though they looked fine to me. "I'm so sorry, you all deserve better, but I simply don't have time to give these the care they deserve."

I had a nice green suit to go with my hat, and Dinky and Ditzy each got a golden dress with green trim. Apple Bloom looked as proud of herself as if she'd done all the work on her own, her tail swishing everywhere.

We all assembled at the train station, dressed up and fancy looking. "Nice tux," I told Spike.

"Thank you," he said curtly.

I don't know what to do at all. I'd like to be on good terms with Spike, but he's really unhappy with me, unfortunately.

The Wonderbolts had already flown to Canterlot, but to my surprise, we were joined by Lyra and Bon-Bon. "Hello, everyone," Lyra said cheerfully. "Celestia's summoned us."

I blinked. That's unusual. "Maybe she wants you to join her orchestra."

"She already has a really good harpist," Lyra said. Then her eyes widened and she started to sweat.

"I already know about Octavia, dear," Bon-Bon said, though there was just a touch of... cracking the whip to it.

"Who?" Applejack asked curiously.

"She's the double-bass player for Celestia's orchestra," Twilight said. "She used to be Lyra's girlfriend, but something happened." She looked meaningfully at Lyra.

"Ha. Ahaha. HAHAHAHA," Lyra laughed nervously.

I felt a mix of sympathy and amusement that someone OTHER than me was freaking out.

"She wouldn't come to Boasttown?" I said adding the appropriate lyrical lilt to it. It's an allusion to one of Lyra's favorite songs. Which can be roughly summed up as 'Man: Woman I love, please come to where I am now living and chasing my dreams. Woman: Stop faffing about and come home to me'. The song ends unresolved whether he's coming home or not.

I had meant to tease, but Lyra looked like I'd punched her in the face, and now I felt guilty. Bon-Bon glared hate at me and I stumbled back a step. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that to come off mean."

"No, you're right," Lyra said, and sighed. "I didn't quite realize how serious she was, and then when I did finally get off my ass and got moving... it was messy. She had a steady stall, and I was ready to travel and..." She studied the platform. "It was kind of ugly. I hope she's not still mad at me."

"She was very, very cross," Twilight said. "You might want to avoid her."

"I have a clever plan," Pinkie said, and got out several things. Lyra now had a blue wig on, glasses, a fake nose, and a mustache attached to the nose. "She will NEVER recognize you like this."

...

"I will NOT let her do anything," Bon-Bon said firmly. "Pinkie, please take that ludicrous thing off Lyra."

Pinkie looked disappointed, and now Apple Bloom removed them from Lyra and handed them to Pinkie. "There you go," she said proudly.

Bon-Bon blinked. "Nicely done, Apple Bloom."

"So you're a musician?" Lyra asked me curiously.

"I'm an envoy of Celestia," I told her. "I do a little of everything. Magic, history, music, swordsmanship, and so on."

I prayed this wouldn't remind her of Erik.

"Humans do seem to dabble in everything," Lyra said. "Twilight and I knew a guy like that."

LET'S NOT DISCUSS HIM.

"Erik of Vestland?" Applejack asked curiously. "Some people we encountered at White Plume Mountain thought there were two of him there."

"Marjorie must have cloned him," Twilight said, frowning. "I expect the evil clone is the one who committed all those crimes he's been accused of."

Lyra and Bon-Bon looked at each other with the 'Twilight is rationalizing' look. Lyra, however, softened. "He seemed like a good guy to me. You had to kind of trick him into having fun sometimes, but that did make him a better match for you, Twilight, as you're the same way."

"You don't have to trick me into having fun!" Twilight said. "I can be LOTS of fun!"

"We just DRAG you into having lots of fun," Spike said, grinning.

I did NOT have to be dragged into having fun! I am all about FUN.

"He loved to sing and dance but he'd pretend he didn't," Lyra said. "So you had to trick him into it or make him think it was educational."

...

"That song WAS educational!" Twilight protested.

"But you're the same way," Lyra said, clearly back on steady ground.

The train now pulled into the station, and we all boarded, and got ready to go.

**************

I ended up designated Sweetie and Twist wrangler. Twist wasn't hard to keep under control; all you had to do was talk to her. But Sweetie wanted to wander all over the train car, and so did the rest of her friends. It didn't help that Sweetie kept trying to go show her new card trick to everyone on the train car; some were amused but others were annoyed and I got a lot of confused stares every time I had to herd her back. And Apple Bloom had to show off, and Scootaloo was grumping and Dinky kept trying to explain to every adult in sight about what they had to do to keep their timeline from being changed.

We were halfway to Canterlot and I was already worn out and had apologized to what felt like hundreds of ponies. Fortunately, I am smooth and gracious, so we didn't have a riot.

One gentleman, old with grey coat and grey mane, studied me after I got Sweetie out of his face. "Who are you?" he asked.

"Samus Marcus, envoy of Celestia. We're on our way to report on a diplomatic mission."

"With children?" he said curiously.

"Sweetie is Rarity's sister," I said.

"And you are?" he said curiously, after glancing at Rarity.

Didn't I already say my name? "Samus Marcus, envoy of Celestia," I said, hoping he wasn't asking something else I didn't get.

He gave me an odd look. "I am Silver Lining," he said. "I was just visiting my son and his children in Ponyville."

"Are you related to Silver Fountain, by any chance?" I asked, remembering where Apple Blossom had gone.

He brightened. "Why yes, I am. My sister runs a school for young fillies and colts in Manehattan. A finishing school." He studied the rampaging children. "These kids could use such an education."

My brain now clicked. He's the grandfather of one of the brats who gives Sweetie and her friends trouble. Stay calm, show no anger. "I'm surprised your granddaughter doesn't attend there."

"She should," he said, frowning. "But my son doesn't want her to leave home. It would do her good to see a proper city."

I carefully plied him for information about his family. I don't know when or where I'll need it, but information is power and leverage.

Eventually, though, I had to go chase down Sweetie again when she tried to wander into the next train car.

I'm sorry, everyone else on this train, we're doing our best.

***************

Canterlot was as beautiful as I remembered, though I did not remember it smelling so much like cinnamon. Cinnamon typically comes from the Divinarchy of Yav, southwest of Sind, which is west of Equestria. It's not super-expensive, but it isn't super-common either, due to the transport costs.

Ditzy cocked her head. "Someone must have dropped an air shipment. It's filtering down from above."

It seemed to be boosting sales of cinnamon rolls. I bought some for all the kids when they asked, though Ditzy more or less forced me to take compensation from her for the one I bought for Dinky. This kept the kids quiet as we herded them through the streets.

Score!

I also got some for myself and Rarity; nice, warm, tasty. They love their treats in Equestria.

We were most of the way to the castle, when Scootaloo said irritably to Apple Bloom, "Looks like you've got icing and sugar... on your tail."

"Oh man," Apple Bloom said in frustration. "I'm gonna have to go to the castle with ICING ON."

"On your tail," the other kids chorused, laughing.

"Pinkie to the rescue!" Pinkie said, then licked it all off Apple Bloom's tail until it shined.

...

Umm... problem... solved.

Applejack's eyes crossed. I don't blame you. "Pinkie, that's kind of tacky."

"Sweet and cinnamony!" Pinkie said.

I slid over to Rainbow Dash. "Hey, Dash," I whispered. "I think Scootaloo could do with some cheering up and you're the one to do it."

She looked at Scootaloo, then nodded. "I've got just the idea."

She came over to Scootaloo. "Want to ride ahead to the castle with me? I'm gonna go make sure Soarin' is doing okay."

"SURE!" Scootaloo said excitedly; she clambered onto Rainbow Dash's back and they raced off at high speed.

A little while later, we heard alarms going off at the castle.

...

"Hurry!" Twilight said and everyone took off at high speed.

More precisely, the adult ponies left the rest of us behind while the fillies and Ivan and I tried and failed to keep up to ponies running full tilt. Apple Bloom and Twist pulled ahead of myself, Dinky, and Sweetie. Then Ditzy came back, grabbed Dinky, and flew ahead.

Sweetie looked quite frustrated and now I lost Apple Bloom and Twist in the crowd. Well, crap.

"I'm sorry," Sweetie said to me.

"Sorry for what?" I said.

"That I can't run faster, so you have to stay back and watch over me," she said.

"We can't run faster either," Ivan confessed and now Sweetie looked a little happier.

I could fly but I'd best save it.

Everyone was panicking due to the alarms, and finally, I picked up Sweetie and tucked her into her own saddlebags, then slung those over my shoulder. She stuck her head out which looked pretty amusing.

"Aaah, help!" I heard Apple Bloom shout.

Oh bloody hell. I ran like a madman, pressing myself in time to see a blue maned, green coated earth pony stallion wearing a hat rather like a thimble with a rim, trying to drag Apple Bloom and Twist along; he wore a copper medallion shaped like a star with a school inscribed on it.

"Time for you two to go to school!" the stallion insisted. But he couldn't grip both their tails with his teeth and he kept trying to talk, which turned them loose.

I flashed my diplomatic papers at him. "Queen Celestia has invited them to see her," I told him. "The rest of the delegation ran ahead."

He studied us suspiciously "On a school day?"

School was out for the summer in Ponyville, I think. I guess in the city you don't need a summer break. "Yes, sir. School is out in Ponyville."

"I TOLD YOU," Apple Bloom shouted.

"Be respectful to the officer," I told her. She blinked at me, then grimaced.

"We're sorry, sir, the Queen needs to see us," Twist said respectfully. "Have some licorice." She tossed him a length and he took it and ate it.

I herded them along. "Be respectful to your elders," I told Apple Bloom. "If you mouth off, it puts their back up and they will resist what you want. But if you push their buttons, they'll be more inclined to be merciful."

Apple Bloom looked thoughtful, and Twist said, "I tried to be respectful, but he wouldn't listen."

"Well, not every tactic works every time." I sighed. "Anyway, don't run ahead. We'll catch up to the others soon."

The alarms stopped and I relaxed. Probably the party took down the threat. Which is good as children shouldn't be herded into danger. But I couldn't leave them behind, either.

We soon arrived at the gates, where my diplomatic credentials got some stares but let me in. The royal orchestra was in the courtyard performing, while Moondancer led a group of ponies in a dance. No one was singing but I recognized the tune. It was a song about a man who abandoned the woman who loved him and DIED HORRIBLY as a result.

Ahahah.

Everyone else was here; Dash and Scootaloo looked rather embarrassed. I don't know why, given they haven't... Dammit, Celestia.

I let Sweetie out of the bag now and gave it back to her. I've taught most of the ponies who were dancing. They're all from the bardic program, of course.

Please, no one, recognize me!

Lyra had a smile on her face, but I could see her tension. Bon-Bon was studying Octavia and looking cranky. I prayed there would be no big explosion.

And now Luna came out when they finished. "Welcome to Canterlot, Elements of Harmony, Cutie Mark Crusaders, and other friends. I am happy to see you all and I welcome you here. Celestia and I want you to dine with us tonight, and then attend the Moon Raising Ceremony. But Moondancer will show you to your quarters first. We will all meet in private after the ceremony." Her voice was musical and cheerful and soft.

I bowed to her, as did Ivan and everyone else.

"Marcus, if you would come with me, I would be grateful," Luna said.

Oh FUCK ME.

"I attend you eagerly, Princess Luna. I live to serve." I gave my voice its best courtly flair.

The fact that Applejack looked amused by this undercut me a bit, but I tried to ignore that and prayed this was not DEATH TIME.

**************

We passed various offices in which ponies were hard at work, until we came to a large one with an actual secretary in front; we went to the back and she told the secretary not to let anyone else in.

If this is where I die, at least I have a HAT on.

Her secretary poured us each a glass of a silvery liquid and laid out a small plate of donuts with white icing. Then she darted out to wait in her office in front.

Luna sat down behind her desk and I plopped down in a nice comfy chair, then suddenly wondered why she had a chair for guests when most of her guests couldn't sit in a human style chair.

She pushed a large piece of square glass on her desk to one side. It was odd, like she'd erected a window on a crystal stand in the middle of her desk.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," she said. "Celly speaks very well of you, and I see she's put her mark on you."

AHAHAHAH.

"What exactly does that mean?" I said. "I sort of... begged her for help against Marquetta, but I didn't know I had a mark until Keraptis told me."

"Is he still as crazy as ever?" she asked.

"Yes, definitely. Maybe more," I said.

"Celly has placed you under her protection," Luna said. "To certain kinds of beings, it is a beacon to back off. For most creatures, it won't matter, they can't notice. Given my suspicions about 'Marquetta', I expect she can tell."

"Is she a Draconic Immortal?" I asked.

"She is probably a mortal identity of the Moon Dragon," Luna said, eyes flashing. "We have had several past clashes with her." She ate a donut fiercely and sipped her drink.

I tried mine; it was definitely alcoholic with a bit of a minty tang to it. And very smooth. "What is this?" I asked.

"Liquid moonlight, fermented into wine," Luna said.

...

"She is not the person I most hate, but I certainly hate her," Luna said, acid in her voice.

I shrank back in my chair and she looked embarrassed, her voice reverting to its usual gentleness. "I am very sorry. I have a bit of a temper, though usually I can control it."

"It's okay," I lied, trying to soothe my nerves. "You told me in the letter about your wrath."

"Oh, Luna is very kind and gentle, so don't worry," Celestia said, startling me. She had somehow snuck in and now she draped herself over me from behind. Absolute terror time, my whole body shaking and feeling strange.

"Hello, Celly," Luna said warmly. "Would you like a drink?"

"I would love to have some," Celestia said and Luna poured her a glass. She sipped it. "I have missed seeing you, Marcus," she said. "You left so hastily last time."

FUCK ME.

SO MUCH.

"This was while you were gone, dear," she said to Luna. "Which is why you hadn't met him."

Luna nodded and sipped her drink. "There is many a pony who would kill to be where you are, Marcus. Know that you are greatly honored by such intimacy." She was grinning, clearly amused by my embarrassment. I doubt she could sense my full terror.

"I am greatly honored," I squeaked out.

I felt like I was about to shapeshift but my body didn't actually change. I could feel magic inside me, though. CELESTIA!

Luna studied my forehead. "I... Celly, there is something on his forehead." Her voice was gently chiding.

...

"It's an invisible unicorn horn, he being a unicorn human," Celestia said. "I hid it so no one would know he was one of my agents."

This is what I get for lying to children.

CELESTIA!!!

"So how long have you been in the business?" Luna asked. "Of adventuring. I had never heard of you before."

I was afraid to confess, but I want to know.

Trust is a leap in the dark.

Celestia is benevolent but her enemies tend to end up ground to dust. And she's very protective of Twilight.

Urrrrgh.

Rarity, I hope you don't have to make me a winding cloth.

Pretty as it would be, like you.

"I don't know," I confessed. "I think I've been reincarnating for some reason, over and over. Ivan thinks I may have been a candidate for the Polymath path." I took my sword and put it on the desk. "This is an artifact." I turned it to its original falchion form. "Marquetta had it and wants it back."

Celestia looked quite surprised, while Luna looked intrigued. Surely Celestia knew about this at least somewhat. In fact, Celestia seemed lost for words, which really surprised me.

"I think I was Dmitri Ilyanovich when I got the sword but when everything really blew up," I told her. "And I was probably Odo the Quick."

Celestia now recovered. "I will make discreet inquiries," she said.

"Also, did Asterius help you two to found Equestria?," I asked. "Ivan is a candidate under him. Or maybe someone is rooking him," I said, frowning. "He was given a rather difficult task."

"Quests for immortality are never easy," Luna said. "Or the world would be overrun with Immortals."

"And he has achieved it, by means acceptable to his patron," Celestia said. "For he watches over trade, among his duties."

"Is Asterius literally or symbolically your uncle?" I asked curiously.

"It is complicated," Luna said.

Celestia sipped her drink, then left it floating in the air. "He freed our ancestors during the fall of Blackmoor," she said. "And he guided us in our youth." She studied me now. "So you do not know why you keep being reborn?"

"I'm not even sure how many times," I told her. "It's all a blur with flashes of terror and screaming."

I would be screaming right now if I wasn't too frozen with fear they'll figure out... no, Celestia KNOWS but for some reason hasn't told Luna. But if I get her mad, she'll tell Luna and then I will DIE.

I am your bitch, Celestia. I get it now.

Luna looked very sad. "It is a terrible thing to be burdened with memories which only give you pain." She came over and nuzzled me gently. It was comforting despite my absolute terror.

"I'm not some kind of construct, right?" I said hesitantly.

They both studied me intently, making me VERY nervous.

"Let's go to my lab," Luna said.

"I must attend to work," Celestia said. "Luna will take good care of you."

Ahahah.

*************

Luna, Twilight, and Moondancer loomed over me as I was strapped to a table with all sorts of machines, wands, crystal balls, flasks, piping, clockworks, and other things all around me, flashing lights and making words and grinding on ever forever and ever. Spike lurked nearby, assisting them.

"Ectoplasmic phase inducer," Luna said and Twilight passed her a crystal rod, which she waved over me as I sweated and tried not to panic.

"Don't worry, only one in ten mutate into a hideous beast and have to be killed," Luna said to me.

...

Twilight stared, mouth open wide. Spike looked hopeful.

"Princess, you shouldn't tease him when he's always so scared," Moondancer said, a little chidingly.

"I'm sorry, Marcus, I was only teasing," Luna said. "It was very foalish of me." She and Moondancer both laughed softly at the pun while Twilight tried to calm her breathing.

"Rarity would be very unhappy if you turned Marcus into a rampaging monster," Twilight finally managed to say.

"Don't worry," Luna said. "Hmm, yes, you've definitely been reincarnated a lot."

I laughed nervously. "How?"

"Your sword has been tampered with by an immortal other than it’s creator," she said. "Some sort of..." She frowned. "I'm not sure who did this or why, but if you live long enough between deaths, it will reincarnate you."

"Live long enough between deaths?"

"It takes time for it to regenerate its power. Several months. You've died recently, so you'd best avoid dying."

...

"Wait... I did?" I said in surprise.

"Yes," Luna said. She blinked. "You didn't notice?"

When the hell did I die?

"Do you have a day?" I asked weakly.

"I don't have a precise day," she said.

Going to have to talk to Ivan.

"I will be careful," I said, while Moondancer looked intrigued and I looked worried.

"Don't worry, we won't let you die again," Twilight said.

"Celestia and I will make inquiries. Something strange is going on," Luna said. "You should go rest before dinner. Moondancer, show him to where he is staying. Twilight, I have business to take care of, but I am looking forward to seeing you at dinner." She smiled shyly.

Twilight said, "I am very honored you let me assist you." She pony-bowed. "Moondancer, it's good to see you again."

"You've changed," Moondancer said flatly and Twilight cringed a little. "For the better." She smiled now.

"Thank you, Moondancer," Twilight said to her. "I had a lot to learn about Friendship." She turned to Luna. "Do you think Fluttershy could charge up his sword?" Twilight asked thoughtfully.

"An interesting idea. I will think on that," Luna said. "Marcus, it is nice to meet you. Don't worry, you are safe here."

Until Celestia tells you everything and I die.

We all bowed and headed out. "Where am I staying?" I asked.

"With Rarity and Sweetie, I think," Moondancer said as she walked along. "You are a nervous stallion," she said to me.

"Well, you can see why," I said.

She paused and looked sad. "Yes, I can."

"Don't worry, we won't let you die more," Twilight said to me.

I'm as worried about you all dying as me dying myself.

Stupid bonding instincts.

We heard odd noises and squealing as we reached Rarity's room. "My goodness," I said.

"Sounds like she's having a tumble in the hay with someone," Moondancer said, looking surprised.

Surely not.

Twilight's eyes got wide and she opened the door. "Rarity, what are you..."

The kids were rampaging and jumping on the bed and the chair and climbing on the furniture and Rarity and Ditzy were desperately trying to get them in check.

Moondancer said, "Oh."

Twilight looked relieved and so was I. The last thing in this universe I want is to walk in on pony-pony love-love, not that Rarity is the type to just randomly sleep with the help. "Children, stop rampaging!"

"I'm flying like Mom!" Dinky shouted as she bounced.

"Unicorns don't fly!" Ditzy said, trying to grab her and failing; Apple Bloom now landed on her, knocking her down on the bed. "Where did you come from?"

I put a little magic in my voice. "STOP!" I shouted. Teacher instincts now rose up inside me.

They all froze, and now Scootaloo landed, rolled over and trailed her legs in the air like a fainting goat.

"Students, fall in line," I said sternly.

They all lined up on the edge of the bed.

"In order, by name."

They shuffled quickly. Twilight, Rarity, and Moondancer stared at me.

"Scootaloo, why did you encourage everyone to jump on the bed?" I said.

She tried to feign death again.

"Scootaloo, that may get you out of chores by panicking your parents, but it won't work on me. Why?"

"I was bored," she mumbled. "And I want to fly like Rainbow Dash but my stupid body won't let me." She looked very frustrated.

"I hear you're very good on your scooter," I told her.

"I'm AWESOME," she said.

"You should show me later," I told her. "I've never ridden on a scooter before."

"You'll get a GREAT show," she said confidently.

"I'm sure I will," I said. "But right now, you all need to rest before dinner so you don't embarrass your family and friends by falling over and landing your face in your food, like I did one time in Alphatia."

I told them the whole embarrassing story; it was a victory party thrown by someone who hired us to recover some bits of undead he needed for a magic item. I was so drained of energy I fell asleep in the middle and ended up with fish stew on my face.

They were all laughing by the end of it. Rarity had straightened out and made the bed while I kept the kids busy; Ditzy was listening to the story, Twilight whispering to Rarity and Moondancer had bid us farewell and taken off. And Spike, he was listening and laughing too.

"Okay, kids, it's naptime," I said. "Before dinner."

"I'm too old for a nap! I can pick things up with my tail!" Apple Bloom said.

Don't make me use a sleep spell on you, kids. "I'm going to nap too," I told them. "Even big people need a nap sometimes."

Pretty soon, I had them all lying down on the bed with myself in the middle. "Wake us up in time to freshen up for dinner," I told Rarity.

She nodded and soon blessed sleep engulfed us all.

***************

Dinner was excellent; Canterlot entertains a lot of ambassadors and merchants from human countries, so it's a great place to get human styles of food; the food today was based on the Principality of Blackhill's food. In Blackhill, they like food which has a strong smell. So all the various human guests had mutton, anchovies, carrots, and peppers, in a garlic-blue cheese sauce on rice. The ponies had the same dish without the mutton and anchovies.

The smell could knock you out but it was very tasty. The Belcadizian guests looked a little wobbly, but the Aalbaneese quite enjoyed it. I saw Dona Carlotta but made myself not stare. That chapter of my life is over.

Sweetie kept her table manners up, with only a few reminders from Rarity and myself. Pinkie, on the other hand, was busy sucking down food like it might escape and Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were both in that category. Despite Rarity giving them the gaze of disapproval. I kept my mouth shut; they weren't under my care. Twist had good manners and Dinky was strongly supervised by her mother.

The kids and some of the adults at our table (we sat with both Princesses and Moondancer) got a lot of stares from other ponies present; the Glantrian ponies all had very formal manners.

"So you didn't send us a dream?" Sweetie Belle said to Princess Luna, confused.

"No, after the ceremony, I'm going to talk to all of you about that," Princess Luna said. "Someone tricked you."

"But they needed us to save them," Apple Bloom said, confused.

"We have to figure it out," Princess Luna said kindly. "You were very brave, but you should have told your parents."

"We thought you told us not to," Scootaloo said, frowning.

I hope they can figure this out; kids shouldn't be used as pawns.

"You should only do what *I* tell you to do in dreams," Pinkie said cheerfully.

Ahahaha.

"I should show you my magic trick," Sweetie Belle suddenly said.

"Finish your dinner," Rarity said.

"You can show her later when you meet with her in private," I told Sweetie.

"It's AMAZING," Twist said, clearly impressed by it.

Princess Celestia looked at me with an odd smile. I felt my forehead tingle. Invisible horn indeed. "Have you ever had any children, Marcus?" she asked, then took a sip of her tea.

Her phoenix now flew down and landed on her head, then looked over at me suspiciously. Given I wasn't wearing my hat (not socially acceptable at dinner, sadly), I don't know why.

The kids stared, wide-eyed, at the phoenix. "So pretty," Sweetie said softly.

Twilight, on the other hand, laughed nervously for some reason.

Fluttershy nervously waved at the phoenix which now flew over to perch on her head. She smiled more brightly now, clearly happy with her new hat.

Now that's cheating.

"I have not had any children, but I have been a child," I said. Then I felt ignorant for having said that.

"Well, everyone starts as a child," Twist said hesitantly.

"I am not a child," Apple Bloom insisted.

"You seem good with children, though, like a father or a teacher would be," Celestia said.

DAMMIT CELESTIA!!!!

I hid my terror and the urge to RUN RUN RUN. "Children are much easier to deal with than salamanders," I said.

"That's what I thought," Fluttershy said ruefully.

...

"I'd like to hope I'd be a good father," I told her. "But you can only find out by doing it. You've had children, right?"

"Many children," Celestia said. "Is that a proposition?"

...............................

Rarity stared, mouth wide, and Twilight... tiny tendrils of steam came out of her ears. She tried to speak but only incoherent noises happened. Fluttershy blinked, Applejack began laughing, Ivan laughed and laughed and laughed, and Pinkie giggled.

The kids all stared at me and Sweetie Belle looked oddly nervous.

Celestia began laughing and Luna said, "Don't tease people like that, Celly," though she was laughing herself.

"You'd make a fine stallion, I'm sure," Celestia said, smiling that tiny 'gotcha' smile.

"Ivan certainly did," Applejack said.

Everyone looked at her and now she looked a little flustered. Ivan quickly stuffed his face and I grinned a little.

"Why don't you tell us about it?" Celestia said, then ate some of her dinner.

"Sister, you can't just tease everyone," Luna said.

"I'll tell you about how *I* turned into a human and got to touch EVERYTHING." Pinkie said, then began a long rambling discourse on her brief sojourn on our side of the fence. Lyra, I noticed, listened with great interest.

I hoped other ponies could not hear the conversation at this table. Or anyone else. Or...

Scootaloo looked at me. "Are there humans who fly?"

"Yes," I told her. "In Alphatia." I gave her a little discourse on Floating Ar while Pinkie rambled on and everyone ate. "And my friend Helga can fly now." She's a better wizard than me, I must admit to my embarrassment. "She's married to another flying wizard in Glantri. They have a daughter, but I don't think she can fly yet. She has a unicorn pony best friend named Sugar Sparkle."

"Does she have a cutie mark?" Scootaloo asked, looking oddly thoughtful.

"None of the three of us have one," I said. "I'm pretty sure only ponies get cutie marks."

Scootaloo now looked very thoughtful which really was the scariest thing I'd seen all day and I'd been tied to a table with people joking about me mutating into a hideous monster.

People who will kill me if they find out who I actually am.

That being said, I was feeling... mellow by the Marcus scale, which would probably be a fair amount of fear by the measure of people with less panic-inducing lives.

Dinner was winding down; dessert was cinnamon rolls and a kind of fruit-jam pastry apparently popular in Aalban. I rather liked it. Dinky tried to eat one of each at once and had to be saved from choking; it didn't help that her mother had done the same thing and they were flailing in unison.

...

"Not as good as a muffin but pretty good," Ditzy said afterwards.

I heard Rarity whispering something about examples to Ditzy, who looked embarrassed.

"Is there anything a pony can do to get a cutie mark around here?" Apple Bloom asked Celestia.

"Well, I would like each of you to help with the Moon Raising Ceremony," Luna said kindly to them. "Dinky, I will need you to make sure the sky is clear. Scootaloo, you will do the ceremonial dance with Moondancer. She will show you what to do. Sweetie Belle, I will want you to sing with me." Sweetie gasped at that. "Twist, you will recite the sacred verses. And Apple Bloom, I will need you to pass me the sacred mirror at the right time."

"Of course!" Apple Bloom said proudly. "I can pick things up better now!" she said excitedly. "I bet I could juggle now!"

Okay, Luna, I salute you. You'll have them eating out of your... if you had hands, they would eat out of your hands after this.

"Do you need us to do anything?" Twilight asked hopefully.

"You are our honored guests. You need merely watch. It wouldn't hurt to keep an eye out for portents, though," Luna said smoothly.

If I am going to be Celestia and Luna's little bitch, at least I will get to study with two masters of maneuvering people around the board of life.

*****************

We got to be in a viewing stand; it was a bit tricky for Ivan and I because it was basically designed for ponies to sit sphinx-style. I scrunched up between Rarity and Twilight, with Ivan between Dash and Applejack. Then I realized I could sit cross-legged, with a hand on Rarity's back for balance. She looked like she was contemplating something, then decided not to, whatever it was, and just adjusted her hat, which was currently feigning being a tiara; she was in her fancy red dress and I wore my red suit. Different shades, though.

Lyra had been drafted up to play with the orchestra; she and Octavia were carefully NOT looking at each other, but you could feel the tension. Bon-Bon was watching them intently.

Applejack looked a little nervous, probably because Apple Bloom was waving the sacred mirror (platinum with a silver frame that resembled lunar surface) around like it was a toy. Twist looked very serious at the podium and Dinky was running around behind everything set up for the show, busy making her horn glow. Wisps of cloud were vanishing as she worked, clearing the sky.

I assume normally weather ponies would have cleared it by now, but Luna had them relent so as to give Dinky a job. She was good at it, though, and her mother looked VERY proud.

Dash was sitting by Soarin' (as well as Ivan), and they now intertwined two of their forelegs, which I assume is the pony equivalent of holding hands. I smiled and pointed it out to Rarity, who smiled at them as well.

Scootaloo now came out with her cape on; they all had their capes on, in fact, though the hoods were down. They WANTED to be seen. Moondancer had put on a cape herself, with the night sky and the moon and stars on it.

Twilight grumbled about stars and Spike laughed at her softly, making her embarrassed.

"Have you ever seen this?" I asked Rarity.

I've seen it, but not with Luna.

"I have not seen it with Luna," Twilight said. "I have seen it with Celestia."

"Never, darling," Rarity said. "Have you?"

"I've never seen it," I lied. Dammit, I hate having to lie to her. And Twilight. And everyone.

"Since time immemorial," Twist said solemnly, "Ponies have dwelt here atop, on the sides of, and below the great plateau we call home. But when first we came here, we were slaves to the Orcs."

And now the song began, a song of mourning for the time of the suffering of ponies at the hands of the Orcs. Sweetie Belle looked to be on the verge of crying as she sang and her voice had a power I did not expect. Soon, everyone was crying or at least sorrowful. I could see Dash struggling not to cry; Soarin' was the same way and I could feel Rarity vibrate and tears ran down her face.

There was a very faint cloppety-clop of hooves and a pony sat down at the far end of the viewing stand, getting in among the foreign guests. But I had seen him. Black coat and a silver mane with the full moon on his flank. Full Moon. What was HE doing here?

Ivan didn't notice, too busy trying to avoid crying. He looked kind of silly, really but I was too busy crying to care.

"And then they came from the north, as had we, our liberators, Celestia and Luna, who led us to freedom, aided by the Elements of Harmony," Twist said.

Lights shone around Luna and Celestia and Moondancer and Scootaloo, who now somehow was black and blue in color, danced together, and I realized they were representing Celestia and Luna. Scootaloo looked utterly ecstatic as she danced and Moondancer smiled brightly.

I glanced at Full Moon, who apparently didn't care about not being mentioned. Was it really him or just a coincidence?

Sweetie sang a rousing marching tune now, one suitable for leading ponies to war, and the dance matched them and I could see the ponies rouse from sorrow to strength around me.

"They had many adventures," Twist said, "But when all was done, they had grown into their power and it was time for ponies to rise up. And the signal was prepared. The Orcs lived in the dark, thrived in it. So they would change that. They would bring LIGHT."

And now Apple Bloom held up the sacred mirror and it began to shine. Luna mounted the platform in the middle of this, as Scootaloo and Moondancer continued to dance; lights now twined around the two of them and Sweetie continued to sing powerfully. She sang of the night, the moon and the stars, its comforting embrace and its joys. Sweetie was glowing as well and lights danced around Apple Bloom and the mirror, the stars forming and converging on the three youngsters.

I could see Dona Carlotta and her boyfriend holding hands. I told myself not to look; they both looked so happy, though, and her father was right by them, watching with rapt attention. Silver Fork sat by them as well, looking fascinated, and I suddenly wondered if he was related to the Silver I met or the Ponyville Silvers.

"The day came and the signal was the rising of the twin lights," Twist said excitedly. Dinky stood with her now, reading with her, their voices blending together. "The sun and the MOON."

And now Apple Bloom stepped onto the platform and threw the mirror into the air and it began to shine brighter and brighter and Luna rose into the air with it, and the horizon glowed and then the moon rose as the dancers danced and Sweetie sang and the orchestra played and now everyone broke into song, singing up the moon together as Luna rose and the mirror overlapped the moon and shone brightly, then vanished.

Even the guests were singing now; you could hardly not sing, and I heard Full Moon's baritone most powerfully of all.

Moondancer leaped skyward, holding Scootaloo, spinning together, leaving a trail of sparkling dust and they 'flew' over Luna as she descended. Luna blew and the dust flew onto everyone, settling on us and sparkling; you could feel the power coming from the moon, almost see its light shining across Equestria, bringing Luna's blessing. I stared; I'd never seen this before after an Equestrian moonrise. It was different. I could feel something. Something good.

No one else seemed to be having any kind of reaction to this except Ivan, who was staring wide-eyed at the moon. It wasn't a human thing; the other humans here were oblivious. Had Full Moon / Asterius done something?

But the fillies, they were staring at the moon too. They felt it. And Luna and Celestia were smiling at each other and the moon.

And Full Moon, he knew. And... Twilight. She could tell something, though it pleased her.

The other Elements, though, seemed oblivious. If cheerful.

Scootaloo, Twist, Apple Bloom, Sweetie, and Dinky glowed softly with moonlight, as did Moondancer and Luna, as the ceremony finished and everyone scattered. Sweetie ran over to us. "Look!" she said, twirling around.

"You were magnificent," Rarity said, rising and nuzzling her. "I am VERY proud of you."

I gave her a hug when they finished. "I won't be surprised if you get a cutie mark for singing."

She checked, but no, not yet, though if she's that good without a cutie mark... "You should consider bardic training," I said. "Lyra can tell you about it. Scootaloo too."

Scootaloo... I didn't think that even a pony could be that happy. She was bouncing up and down in front of Rainbow Dash, who was smiling at her brightly.

That's when I saw a pony I recognized from descriptions. Duke Blueblood. I felt the immediate urge to wipe the smirk off his stupid looking face. He was talking cheerfully with some Aalbanese fellow; they were enjoying their conversation but I wanted to make him cry for what he did to Rarity.

Bastard.

I am not the violent type, though, and pony society doesn't favor violence. But if I can get in a cheap shot or ten on him, I will.

He must have felt my hate-gaze, as he turned and looked at me and his eyes widened and then he grimaced and turned back.

Fuck you too, Blueblood.

I heard Rarity make a noise.

"That's him, right?" I said softly.

She sighed. "Yes, it's him. Just ignore him, Marcus darling. He's not worth our time."

Amen to that.

I pointed out Full Moon to Rarity; her eyes widened. "What is he doing here?"

"Hopefully just here to see Ivan," I told her.

When he went over to Ivan and Ivan went off with him, that was confirmed.

The two of them slipped out, followed by Luna; Celestia rounded up the rest of us and took us to a large hall which had been turned into a party zone. A private party, just our mob and Celestia, though I expected Luna, Full Moon, and Ivan would join us soon.

Celestia came around and congratulated everyone and we all wandered around, talking, eating, and relaxing. And trying to run herd on the CMC. Who were hyper as all get out and Luna, who was supposed to talk to them, was absent.

I ended up organizing a card game with Applejack, Apple Bloom, Twist, Sweetie, and Pinkie. (Dinky wanted to play but her mother said no.) I studied my hand. Five of Flames, Six of Flames, Eight of Flames, Eight of Stones, Ten of Winds. I felt ambitious, so after the first round of bidding, I threw in the Eight of Stones and the Ten of Winds. Applejack threw in two cards, Apple Bloom four, Twist three, Sweetie four, and Pinkie...

Pinkie turned her cards upside down, then sideways, then lectured them sternly and threw all but one in.

Then she dealt out new cards to everyone. I now had the Five of Flames, the Six of Flames, the Eight of Flames, the Two of Flames, and the Jack of Flames. Not bad, but not awesome either.

Applejack studied her cards, then bid three silver bits. We were playing with silver and copper because, well, half the players were kids. I suspect she underbid to be careful. Probably has three of a kind again.

Apple Bloom studied her cards, manipulating them with her tail as her sister did. "Hmmm. I bid four bits."

"Raise four or you bid one over your sister?" I asked.

"Oh, umm... Actually, I raise by six... four. Four silver bits," Apple Bloom said, pushing her money out with a hoof.

"I...," Twist hesitated. She looked at Apple Bloom. "Fold."

Sweetie looked at me, her cards, Apple Bloom, Pinkie, her cards, me, her cards, Applejack, Rarity, Celestia, her cards, her hooves, her stack of coins, and then her cards. She took a drink of apple juice, then said, "I... I raise by three." She pushed her coins out.

Should have folded, I thought. I suspect she has garbage.

"I raise twenty," Pinkie said confidently.

The problem with playing poker with Pinkie is that she may, in fact, have anything whatsoever. I do not at all understand how she thinks.

IF she thinks.

I studied my cards. Who the hell knows what Pinkie has? But I feel confident. "I see Pinkie."

Applejack grimaced. "Fold."

She'll regret that.

"I see but don't raise," Apple Bloom said.

"FOLD," Twist said urgently.

Sweetie studied everything on earth, including her cards eight times. She looked at Pinkie. Finally, she flipped a coin. Celestia side up. "I see the bet," she said.

"Okay, betting's over, then," Pinkie said. "Show your STUFF."

I laid down my Jack high Flush.

Applejack cursed, though having folded, she didn't have to show her cards. Then she put a hoof to her mouth. "Sorry, kids."

"Damn! Shit!" Apple Bloom said, giggling. "I'm a big GLOWING pony now!"

"Don't go cursing 'cause I slipped up," Applejack said, embarrassed.

Apple Bloom sighed, laying down her cards. Three of Flames, Three of Winds, Three of Stones, Jack of Shadows, Ace of Shadows. "I had a three of a kind, but you beat me, Marcus. Dammit!"

"Stop cursing," Applejack said urgently.

"Since big ponies swear," Apple Bloom began.

"We shouldn't swear either, right, Marcus?"

"I keep my language as clean as the fallen snow, as perfect as Celestia's shining coat," I said.

As Sweetie laid down her full house, I stared, wondering why exactly she'd been so worried. "I lose, right?"

"You beat both of us," I said, and then Celestia settled down over me, catching me by surprise.

"Oh wait, this isn't a flush!" Pinkie said, then threw her cards down. Four Shadows... and one Stone. "Here you go, Sweetie."

"I WON!" Sweetie said excitedly.

Having won the three previous hands, I shouldn't mope.

Also, Celestia.

"You are such a flirt, Marcus," she said cheerfully to me. "Of course, *I* know you say that to all the girls."

DAMMIT CELESTIA.

"I was just being metaphorical, not flirting," I said quickly to Celestia. The last thing I need is everyone thinking Celestia and I are having an affair or something.

"So my theoretical, allegorical coat is pure, but not the real thing?" she said sadly.

"Don't make the Princess sad," Apple Bloom said sternly to me.

Sweetie was panicking for some reason, as if her oxygen had been cut off. Pinkie began shaking her. "Breathe! Breathe! Push! Push!"

Push?

"You have a beautiful, pure white shining coat, but I am not saying that in some sort of effort of seduction!" I said to her frantically.

"Well, how am I supposed to tell?" she said to me cheerfully but pointedly.

I don't get it. It's not like I've been going around seducing pony women. Or men. Or whatever.

"I'm a human," I mumbled.

"Which doesn't matter to me any more than it did to Father and Mother," she said cheerfully.

I was about to ask something, then realized fillies present. In Elvish, I said to her, "Fillies are present and probably should not be encouraged to get ideas in their head which would lead to trouble. Or their parents wanting to kill us." I hope I got it right, I haven't spoken Elvish seriously since I fled Belcadiz.

" 'Us'," she said cheerfully in Elvish. "It has such a lovely ring to it."

DAMMIT CELESTIA.

"Sweetie, are you okay?" I said to Sweetie.

"Princess, people might get the wrong idea!" Sweetie said frantically.

"We're just friends," Celestia said. "This is perfectly normal between friends, right?" She looked at me with one eye.

CELESTIA, DAMMIT!

What is she getting at? I haven't been... Okay, Rarity and I do play the game of ladies and gentlemen, but I don't think she's serious about it. She's a pony, I'm a human and we're just good friends. Now if she was human...

Though with shapeshifting magic...

Even with that, I certainly can't date someone when I'm hiding things from them. Which I wish I didn't have to but once it comes out, I die.

Dammit.

It would help if Applejack looked less amused.

And if I wasn't worrying about Ivan.

I am being drawn into a trap and I don't even know HOW. Or what it is.

My body solved this with its usual solution: abject panic. However, with Celestia on me, I could not actually run, I just made incoherent noises as my brain spun in place.

I tried to think coherently but the feeling TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAP was inescapable. TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAP TRAP.

Want to run so much.

Can't run.

Can't BREATHE.

"Princess, you're embarrassin' him," Applejack said hesitantly. "Marcus, Princess Celestia is just very affectionate. She don't mean nothin' by it and she won't banish you to the moon or nothin' if you say no."

BREATHE.

Apple Bloom for some reason, decided the solution was to tickle my nose with her tail. This caused me to sneeze, which oddly restored breathing.

I mumbled something incoherent about something. Who knows, my brain was trying to right itself.

"I'm fine," I said in a way clearly not fine. "I expect many in your court would get the wrong idea, though," I said. "Or others."

Applejack's eyes flared slightly. "Well, that's true."

Sweetie made incoherent panicked noises, while Apple Bloom said, "What's got you all shook up, Sweetie?"

No one else seemed to be paying us any attention. "Do you know when Ivan is going to be back?"

"Soon," Celestia said. "I should probably be with them, but I couldn't leave you all on your own. And we need to discuss serious business, anyway."

Sweetie ran and stuck her head in the punch bowl for some reason.

...

"Sweetie!" I said, rising and running over. "Use a glass. Everyone has to share that."

"I'm sorry," she said in a panic.

I began wiping her head. "Also, if you do, don't stick your head in completely."

"Okay," she mumbled.

"Sweetie, what's wrong?" Twist said, clearly worried.

"I'm okay," Sweetie said weakly. "I just got thirsty."

Okay, I am just a teacher, not a parent, but even I know something's going on.

Rarity now came over. "Sweetie," she said, sounding frustrated. "Don't do that."

"I won't do it again," Sweetie said. "I wasn't thinking." She sounded a little evasive. "I'm sorry."

Was she trying to get me out of something that embarrassed me? I think so. You are very kind, Sweetie. I'll get you something nice later in thanks. "It's okay," I told her. "It's late and you should probably be in bed."

"I have to talk to Luna!" she said urgently.

I am starting to worry about that.

"Why don't you sit with me and we'll play some hands together?" I told her. "And you should apologize to Rarity too."

"No pooling your winnings!" Apple Bloom protested.

"I'm sorry, big sister," Sweetie said to Rarity, who nuzzled her.

"It's okay, you're tired," Rarity said, then poured her a glass of the punch. "Celestia, if Luna doesn't return soon, we're going to need to put the fillies to bed."

"I'm fine!" Dinky said, then yawned.

"I can put them to bed," Ditzy said.

"We'll help unless you need us, Celestia," Lyra said.

"You should stay," Celestia said, which made them both nervous. "Luna can talk to them in the morning. Ditzy Doo, if you would put them all to bed, I would be grateful." She whistled up two servants to assist and the three of them now tried to hustle the children.

Good luck there.

Hustling children is hard to do.

**************

Once they were gone, we went over everything that happened on the trip with Celestia. I continued to fret.

"She will likely strike at us," Twilight concluded. "Trying to get revenge and to get Marcus' sword. She can't find it, however, unless it's in falchion form, we think."

"Which means probably the best way to draw her out is for me to carry it around in falchion form," I said, wincing at the thought of painting 'EAT ME' on myself.

"We can't ask you to be bait," Twilight said, frowning.

"Unless we can find her lair and take this to her, finding a place we can turn into our own trap and luring her and the Elements of Power into it is probably the best plan," I said. "Much as I would rather not be bait. But she wants me and my sword." I remembered her words and I shivered. 'Fine, but this is not the end. Tell Celestia, she will regret this. And you, 'Samus Marcus', you will die your final death soon and I will have my sword BACK. There is no one who can protect you from me, Marcus. Your luck cannot protect you forever. I know you now and I will find you. Enjoy your final days, for soon, they will END!'

She's probably an immortal and she wants me dead and I want to just scream and run until I fall off the plateau. Even knowing I won't come back this time.

I have a patron, but she enjoys fucking with my mind and she knows everything and is probably going to keep pushing until I go stark raving mad and DIE. And I have to put myself in danger, anyway.

DAMMIT. I had mostly managed to shove aside what she said, but now... I wanted to scream.

"Marcus, you don't have to do this," Twilight said urgently.

"She told me she is going to see me dead," I told Twilight. "I could..." I shivered. "She will come for me anyway, so better I be bait with a chance to stop her than be bait anyway."

"I won't let her have you," Dash said hotly. That's how she is. She'd follow a friend into the five hells of the five fiends.

"Thanks, Dash," I said.

"You will not stand alone," Rarity said firmly. She sat by me, sphinx-style, but she now patted my leg. "We will protect you."

"Thank you," I told her.

"You can do it," Applejack said firmly to me.

Do what?

Not die horribly, I hope.

"I have an idea," Celestia said. "It is, however, dependent on us finding where she is lairing."

"Those lockpicks Ivan just got would be a huge benefit to a break-in," I said.

"I am thinking we could exploit your resemblance to her servants by dressing some of you up as your evil twins to infiltrate her base," Celestia said.

...

"Ooooh, sounds fun," Pinkie said. "I like costumes."

"It would, of course, require Marcus and Twilight to pretend to be in love and Rarity and Spike to do the same," Celestia said. "Which might be too much to ask."

DAMN YOU CELESTIA!!!!!!

"I'll do it! I can fake being Rarity's boyfriend totally," Spike said excitedly.

Spitfire looked at me and I contemplated self-immolation.

"I...ummm..." Twilight laughed nervously. "I'm not a very good actor... and I wouldn't want to... umm... ahahaha." She was completely ungluing.

Rarity said, "An interesting idea, but I don't know if we could pass muster with someone who knew them well." Her voice was smooth and calm, while my insides churned like the raging sea.

I envied her that.

"Well, we can think about it. We'd have to find their base, anyway," Pinkie said. "Is she really a dragon or an alicorn or what?"

"We have to figure that out," Celestia said. "I expect there is more to her anger with me than just all of you, though she may be that petty." She looked thoughtful. "If she is the Moon Dragon, we have had some past problems with her, though I think the office has actually changed holders since then."

"Office?" Applejack asked.

"Draconic ascension to Immortality is different from that of the other sentient races; there are certain 'offices' which convey Immortal status on the holder. The Moon Dragon watches over the Colored Dragons, who tend to be chaotic in nature. Luna and I had trouble with the previous holder of the office many, many years ago," Celestia said, frowning. "But several hundred years ago, it changed hands. I had understood that the new one was still getting used to her power and spent much of her time out in the planes. But if she is Marquetta, then she must have turned her attention finally to the Prime," Celestia said, frowning. The Prime is the plane of existence which is for mortals only; Immortals are forbidden to enter except in mortal form or when allowed by the Council of Intrusion. It is the plane we dwell on.

This doesn't stop them meddling, mind you.

"She has," Full Moon said. "I don't know exactly when, but she is still young and naive, powerful enough to take her office but not yet wise enough to know either how to serve it responsibly or to abuse it sensibly." He shook his head, then came over to Celestia and they nuzzled each other gently. "It is very good to see you, niece."

Lyra and Bon-Bon made noises; I'd forgotten they were here and I still don't know why Celestia summoned them.

"It is wonderful to see you, Uncle. Your follower was a great help to my dear friends, the Elements of Harmony and their friends," Celestia said warmly. There was an oddly shy look to her which I was stunned to see. "You saw the moon raising, right?"

"Yes," he said. "It was beautiful and working well now, I see. Good luck on that."

"Without my sister, I was much less than I could be," Celestia said simply. "And I owe it all to my dear friends and my dear student, Twilight."

The Elements all turned a little red and Twilight made a happy noise like a filly.

Wait, where's Ivan and Luna?

Luna answered this by surprise-nuzzling me. I was caught off-guard, but then relaxed; she was very gentle and I could tell... had she been crying? And I still didn't see Ivan, which worried me. "We must talk," she said softly.

"Where is Ivan?"

"In a practice room," she said. "He'll be back soon."

In a practice room?

"Luna, come over," Celestia said and she did and the three of them cuddled for a short time.

"I must go again," Full Moon said. "I will send you whatever I may find out."

"Thank you, uncle," Celestia said warmly. She glanced around. "Where is Ivan?"

"He went to a practice room to get a little exercise," Full Moon said.

At this hour?

I could tell the ponies knew something odd was up, but what?

"I could use some exercise," Dash said, rising and running off.

I should go check on him but I can't just run out of this meeting. Dammit.

Lyra finally said, "Your highness, umm... Why are we here? Bon-Bon and I?"

Celestia sighed. "Certain agents of Minrothad have been looking into you two. I do not know why but I prefer you to be here, and safe under my protection, then where you might fall into danger unexpected."

Lyra stared, eyes wide. "What?"

She looked at all of us. "I know agents of Minrothad showed up looking for Erik of Vestland at White Plume Mountain. This was not that group, I think, but do any of you know of any reason why Minrothad might have taken an interest in Lyra and Bon-Bon?"

Not because of me, I hope. I had a ton of students at Celestia's school. "Is it just them?" I asked.

"Apparently," Celestia said.

Bon-Bon certainly has no connection to me.

"But I'm just a candymaker," Bon-Bon said weakly.

"I want it to appear you just tagged along for fun," Celestia said. "I'm sure they won't try anything in the palace, but I do not wish them to know I know."

"I honestly can't imagine why they would care about me," Lyra said, baffled.

"Your harp isn't made in Minrothad, right?" I asked.

"It's fine Heldaan craftsmanship," she said. The Heldaan Freeholds are WAY in the back of beyond, north of the Northern Reaches, but south of Norwold. A crazy order of cleric-knights who serve Vanya (Immortal of War) rule it.

"While you are here, I'd be glad if you could play with our royal orchestra," Celestia continued.

Lyra twitched. "But... you already have a harpist."

"He is eager to work with you," Celestia said, smiling.

You poor bastard.

"Bon-Bon, you can stick with Twist and I and we'll make BEAUTIFUL candy together," Pinkie said to Bon-Bon.

"Thank you," Bon-Bon said. "Twist has been studying with me." She sounded proud. "She will be a great candy-maker one day."

"Oooh, this is a chance for one of my best candy ideas ever. We'll need Rainbow Dash to help, though," Pinkie said.

"She makes candy?" Bon-Bon said in surprise.

"We will need her if we're going to candify a RAINBOW," Pinkie said. "Ever since I tasted a rainbow, I wanted to make a candy out of rainbows."

...

"Interesting," Bon-Bon said.

We began discussing ideas for how to trap the Elements of Power and/or Marquetta/Marjorie. Ivan and Dash returned, very sweaty; Ivan looked fairly relaxed now.

It eventually got late enough that everyone was ready for bed. Luna, however, took me with her, back to her office. "If Celly sneaks into your bedroom tonight, just punch her lightly on the nose," Luna told me.

...

She laughed softly. "I'm joking. She won't take it that far, I think."

I sank down into the nice padded chair, yawning. "What happened?"

"Ivan tagged along with us, hidden, while we did some investigations," Luna said, then frowned. "She had forgotten. I knew Bastet was flighty, but..."

"Go on?" I said, frowning. Bastet was a Nithian immortal, but of late, she's been more concerned with the rakasta (cat-people). "Was I a Rakasta or something?"

"I am not sure. Bastet was not very cooperative. Also..." She grimaced. "Bastet saw you as an experiment and I get the impression, she engaged in... tampering." Luna frowned deeply. "She was rather uncooperative, but after you got killed when you were Dimitri, she lost interest in you. But her experimenting has something to do with the chaos which tends to surround you and you returning from the grave. Bastet has an interest in chaos, very unusual for a Matter Immortal," Luna continued, frowning more.

"Is this office secure?" I asked.

She blinked and nodded.

"Was she trying to create an uncorrupted Entropy immortal?" I asked softly.

Her eyes widened.

"Twilight has a gentle heart and a big mouth and trusts very easily," I told her. "That is not to say I am flawless. Too much trust is a better flaw than being easily scared shitless." I sighed and slumped in the chair. "So I was a cat's plaything."

"Tell me what you remember of the owlbear incident."

I told her what little I remember.

"I couldn't get the full story yet. Uncle is going to look into it," Luna said, frowning. "That sounds to me like you died protecting her."

"Yes," I said softly, staring at the floor.

"Good for you," Luna said. "If that counted as failing for Bastet, then she is a fool," Luna said hotly. She paused and took a sip of liquid moonlight from a half-empty glass which had been on her desk when we arrived. "I'm sorry, would you like some?"

"Just a little," I said and she poured it for me. "I don't remember her at all," I confessed. "So much of it is a blur."

"Typically, all memories are removed and only regained when you finish," Luna said. "But you never actually 'finished'. I believe Bastet tampered with the sword so it would do the work of reincarnating you and she could claim no connection to her experiment if she had to. Whatever exactly it was. You may well be right."

I licked my lips. "You know what we saw, right?" I said to her desk, nervous about looking right at her.

"That I was Nightmare Moon," she said.

"Yes," I told her. "But Twilight and her friends brought you back."

"I was young and foolish and proud," Luna said. "I made many mistakes and I will be atoning for a very long time. You have things you regret, don't you?" She clearly knew I did. I'm not sure if that means she knows about me being Erik, as I got the impression she'd kill me for that.

"Yes," I told her. "I do." Like running away from Twilight. Blowing everything in a moment of panic. I didn't even say goodbye. She's going to hate me for that when she finds out the truth.

"The two important things are to apologize and atone for what you've done," Luna said. "I will be doing that for a long time."

I nodded. "I tend to panic before I can even think of that," I confessed.

"I noticed," she said and I winced. "But with time, you will get over that. Now that you have less reason to fear."

"Beyond an Immortal determined to kill me," I told the floor.

She sipped her drink and I sipped mine. "She will not have you," Luna said. "May I mark you? I wish to place you under my protection as well."

"Yes," I said softly. I felt... a certain kindredness of spirit. Her passion on my behalf... it touched me.

NOT LIKE THAT.

She smiled and came over and kissed my forehead. I felt a tingle, then she sighed. "I can remove that, you know. The horn. Celly should have asked."

"She was covering my stupid flapping of my mouth and I need a reminder to *shut up* sometimes," I told her. "And she came to my aid when I was lost." For all that she wants me to repay her by going insane with fear.

"In the long term, we will have to clean up your messes, you know," she said to me. "In the short term, though, we will deal with Marjorie before we worry about any of that."

I rose and bowed to her, going to one knee. "As milady commands."

"And you are not allowed to set Duke Blueblood on fire," she said.

Damn.

"As milady commands."

"He considers her to have sinned against him, you know," she said, then sighed. "I know it was necessary but to see his line come to this..." She shook her head. "I knew his distant ancestor who founded the line. *He* was a man," Luna said.

"I know, I saw him," I told her. "What you did was very risky."

"I was young, foolish, invincible," she said to me. "I burned to avenge my people and buy their freedom. And I am glad I did. But now I am older and wiser and more cautious, like you. We have both passed through fire. A lot of fire." She sighed and finished her glass. "I know fear now," she said, and sighed. "As do you. I will do my best to guide and protect you," Luna said to me.

"You trust me much to tell me all this," I said softly.

"Trust is a leap in the dark," she said. "And I am the queen of the dark. But I have stars to light my way and I trust them." Her lips quirked into a smile. "And you know how I am when I get angry."

"Ahahaha," I laughed nervously.

"Let this begin a new era for you," she said. "As I have begun one myself." I yawned and she said, "I should let you sleep. Rarity and Sweetie are probably worried about you."

"Sweetie is, I pray, completely unconscious and blissfully unaware," I told Luna. "Rarity, on the other hand, may still be up."

"We will talk more tomorrow," Luna said.

"Wait," I said. "There is another thing." I yawned. "The Elements of Power. I think it possible we may be able to bring them around but they will need a patron or they will evaporate."

"Just what I was thinking," Luna said to me. "I am willing to take them under my wing."

I gave a sigh of relief. "They fought to protect the children. And it will make Pinkie very happy."

"Even more incentive," Luna said. "Let us get you to bed, then I have to go see my ministers."

We rose and headed out.

***************

I walked into our suite; Sweetie was asleep in the middle of the bed with a cloth over her eyes. Rarity was in the corner, sitting sphinx style, quietly sewing a cape and humming a little tune; she'd already dressed for bed. "Hello, Marcus darling," she said softly. "How did it go?"

I came over and sat down by her. "Close your eyes," I said softly.

She blinked and did so and I gently took her hoof and brought it up to my invisible horn. Her breath caught, and then I slowly lowered her hoof to the ground once more. "Celestia and Luna have marked me as theirs," I whispered to her. Best we not wake up Sweetie.

She licked her lips nervously. "Earlier..."

"That was Celestia just trying to make me die of embarrassment," I told her. I should ask her, but now I'm afraid to. I should tell her everything but I'm afraid to do that too. But I have to. Especially...

We are close, but... I don't even know how to tell with a pony, really. Or whether... AAAARGH.

Too many questions, no answers, can't go forward, can't retreat, can't run away.

"We should go to bed," she said.

"I'm going to get clean and change; I'll join you soon," I told her.

I now made a surprising discovery. I now had my tattoo on BOTH buttocks. What the hell? I'm pretty sure I just had it on one before.

Dammit, this will make it even HARDER to hide it.

"Is something wrong?" Rarity asked from outside the bathroom.

I'm externalizing my internal monologue again. Crap.

"I'm fine, I just dropped the soap," I told her.

I heard hoof shuffling noises and my eyes crossed.

Do not run screaming away, I told myself.

I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around myself, then opened the door a little. "Are you okay?" I asked. Towel, STAY UP.

She licked her lips nervously, looked back at the bed, where Sweetie was flailing. "Sweetie kept kicking me," she said and sighed.

"I'll be done in a minute," I told her. "We can... umm... something. I have no idea what to do about that."

"We'll figure out something, darling," she said, smiling. She seemed to have her footing back.

I closed the door and finished bathing, dried myself off, and then came back out. We ended up having to wake Sweetie... then get her back to sleep, which took FOREVER.

Sleep finally ate me alive and it was a BLESSING.

**************

Rarity shaved me in the morning; I like to be clean shaven. "Luna and Celestia have a busy morning but we will meet with Luna to make plans this afternoon, which means we have the morning to ourselves."

"Well, we could go see Canterlot," I told her. "I could do with more clothing and I have money."

"Since there isn't time or materials or all my tools here, yes," she said. "And I should check on new fashion."

"Sounds fun," I told her. "We should probably get Sweetie more formal clothing too. Or does she have plans?"

"Dash is going to take the kids hang-gliding," Rarity said. "So we can have a little time alone without child-wrangling."

Good. I like Sweetie, but those kids... you have to wrangle them all the time or they run riot. "I'd take your arm, but it would make it hard for you to walk," I said.

She laughed and then looked thoughtful. "It would be hard for you as well." She put on a purple dress and donned her magical hat. I donned mine and we headed out. Breakfast was at a pastry shop she recommended. The fruit tarts were VERY good, I have to say.

We then went walking around what I assume is the noble and wealthy merchant shopping district, with me doing a lot of commentary on how various outfits looked. Rarity also picked up some expensive fabrics for outfits and spent some time studying fashions for male stallions as well. Logical, given I'm sure half her customers are men.

I got a lot of odd looks, understandably. You have humans in Canterlot, but most stores here either cater to ponies or bipeds but not both. One exception was Five Horse Hitch, which actually had outfits for humanoids and ponies. Rarity wasn't too happy with their pony fashions, but I got to show off in several outfits. "I like this black one a lot," she told me, when I got to suit number four.

So I bought it. I love having a bag full of coins and gems. It's like having infinite potential. I just have to be careful not to blow it all.

I wore said black suit out and stowed my red suit in Rarity's saddlebags. You know, you could shoplift like crazy with those. Not that Rarity ever would.

Gives me ideas, but I'm not going to do anything to get Rarity in trouble.

We passed a jeweler and I saw something I had to get. Not for me; for Rarity. Earrings of the constellation the Archer with fine platinum chains holding little topazes in place to act as the stars. And each topaz glowed softly. Simple magic, but effective. "I have to run in here," I told her.

"So tempted," she mumbled, then shook her head. "I had best stay out here," she said, though her eyes clearly coveted most of what was on display.

"Be right back," I told her, then went in. The jeweler was a green coated, blue and red maned earth pony stallion wearing a jeweler's loop and one of those collars that ponies often wear to indicate formality, professionalism, or rank. "Good day, sir. I would like to sell you two jewels and buy something from your window."

I laid out two rubies. He studied them, then said, "Elvish style but human made. Nicely done. White Plume Mountain?"

I started. "How did you know?"

He showed me one of the facets. It had a tiny 'K' on it. "Keraptis has gnomes who dig up gems inside his volcano," he said. "Very high quality. What are you looking for?"

I pointed it out and he got it. He also looked outside at Rarity, who was very clearly staring down the street and NOT looking at the window AT ALL. I smiled a little and so did he.

He studied me assessingly and I made the earrings dance in the air. I could feel... I think I was sensing my own magic with the horn Celestia stuck on me. Very strange feeling. His eyes widened slightly, and he said, "Interesting. Well, this will definitely please her."

"I hope so. She has been very generous to me and I wish to repay her."

We haggled, set a price and I got some change back. Then I brought them out to her, in a small box. "For you, fair lady Rarity."

Her eyes widened. "For me?"

"Of course," I said. "A doubly apt gift, for the fair lady and archer."

She smiled brightly and put them on immediately. "Thank you, Marcus darling. I hope they're accurate or Twilight will complain."

I laughed. "She will no doubt try to fix them if they are not but they look right to me. She's the expert, though."

"I will have to buy you something, darling," she said thoughtfully.

"As you like, fair lady," I told her. I really can't tell if she fancies me or if she just plays the game well. Or decide what I want. Celestia could have been hinting about her or Twilight.

Dammit, she is going to kill me so much when I tell her. But I'm going to have to.

For a moment, the urge to run away was intense, but then Rarity asked, "What's wrong, Marcus?"

"Let's find a cafe. I could use a snack and a drink and I have to tell you something." Before I lose the guts to do so.

***********

We stopped at a nuts and coffee cafe. They had a bunch of kinds of nuts and nut-derived goods and they had coffee and tea. I got some Sindhi coffee, nice and black. Rarity got a coffee with so much fruit juice, milk, special blending, chocolate, etc, that it was hardly even coffee.

And I had a nice bowl of cashews. Rarity got mixed nuts. I would have gotten it but it had almonds in it, which I hate.

"It would appear I've been reincarnating for a century or so," I told Rarity. "I was seeking immortality on the path of the Polymath, which requires reincarnation and repeating the same quest over and over in a series of lives. But something went wrong when I got killed saving Yalla after we raided Marquetta's lair. My patron, Bastet, abandoned me and I kept reincarnating, due to my sword. But it only works every few months." I sipped my coffee. I need to talk to Fluttershy.

She sipped her drink and ate some nuts, frowning. "She abandoned you?" Her voice was taut.

"Yes," I told her. "Luna talked to her, but she wasn't very communicative." I sighed. "Anyway, much of my past is still a blur but Luna and Celestia have put their mark on me and I serve them now."

"And gave you a horn," she said softly.

I laughed nervously. "I can feel magic through it."

"Yes," she said. "I wonder if this means you can get a Cutie Mark now." She looked thoughtful as she raised her cup to her lips, drinking delicately.

"I can join the Cutie Mark Crusaders," I said, then we both laughed.

"I think they'd be thrilled," Rarity said. "Thank you for being so helpful with Sweetie."

"She's a good girl," I told her. "Kids are rambunctious but they can't help it."

"Anyway, I can teach you about using it," Rarity said. "Your horn. I wish I could see it."

"Hmm, Twilight probably has a spell for seeing invisible things she could teach you," I told her. "Or cast for you."

"So you've turned into many different kinds of creatures?" Rarity said thoughtfully, then worked on her nuts.

"Yes, but I'm not sure what, though I think definitely Elves, Humans, Dwarves, and Halflings." I told her. "Most of my recent memories are all human, I think."

"Ever been a Pony?" she asked lightly.

I sipped my coffee thoughtfully, waiting to see if I was going to flashback.

No flashback, but that could just mean I am no longer going senile due to a soul-patch from Celestia and Luna. Or that having twice the tattoo is warding my mind. Which would mean my mind is in my butt. Sadly, that wouldn't surprise me too much at this point.

"I don't remember being a pony but I hardly remember a lot of it," I told her.

"You should try it," she said.

Is that flirting or is it just her thinking being a pony is cool because she is pony the way I am wondering what human Rarity would look like. "I would need some proper pony clothing," I said. "Or I'd get embarrassed"

"That can be arranged," she said, making her scissors come out and fly around.

I couldn't say no now. "I will give it a try some time," I said, knowing I was setting my DEATH SENTENCE by doing so.

She smiled brightly. "If there is a costume party, we could each go as the other's species."

I laughed. "I fear it would be hard for me to pass as you, without the use of your hat, anyway."

"Tell me what you know about the reincarnation," she said and I told her what I knew as we snacked and drank.

"And Marquetta simply is angry over the sword and you taking it," Rarity said.

"Yes," I said.

I hope she can't attack us here, though Rarity fights well.

"Anyway, you and Luna and Celestia are the only ones who know the whole thing," I told her. "Twilight knows a fair amount; she helped to study me. I think I was starting to wear out by now, though." I frowned at the thought. "If I seem afraid, it's because I've seen too many friends and acquaintances get hurt or die."

"It's okay," Rarity said, patting my hand with a hoof. She took a sip of her 'coffee' and then said, "It makes you gentler than many humans and I like that."

"Thanks," I told her.

"I've met humans before, but I know you and Ivan the best," she said, then finished off her coffee. She studied the inside of her glass and ate more of her mixed nuts.

I munched on cashews and said, "I've met lots of ponies. I think even Odo knew ponies, as he came from Minrothad."

"I've noticed you seem quite comfortable with us."

"Is that unusual?" I said. "Ponies are quite easy to get along with as long as you have basic manners."

"A lot of humans have a hard time treating us as adults," Rarity said. "In my experience and the stories I've heard." She paused. "Those of us who ARE adults, that is."

"I'm a big pony!," I said, imitating Apple Bloom and Rarity laughed. "Look at my TAIL."

Rarity laughed even more. "Yes."

"Only a fool would not treat you as adults after what I've seen," I told her. "You are a magnificent archer, mighty in your wrath, and a brilliant fashion designer, insightful and generous."

She smiled. "You are such a flatterer Marcus, you are very gracious and charming and a pleasure to spend time with. And also quite intelligent."

I wish I was quite intelligent. "Thank you, fair lady." I finished my coffee. "Ready to go?"

She paused, looked nervous, looked around at the many ponies present, then said, "Let's go."

We then hit up a pair of fashion places which catered to bipeds. One of them was an extension of a Thyatian chain of boutiques, the other run by a mix of ponies and bipeds.

The first one made me rather nervous because there was a picture of Erik of Vestland with the offer of 50,000 Thyatian gold coins for my head, posted just inside the place. Rarity bought me a nice black and gold outfit as a thank you for the earrings. But I got out of there as quickly as I could, discreetly.

The second one, we browsed endlessly without buying anything. Or at least I didn't. Rarity was busy wandering around through the women's section, studying things while I lost myself in clothing.

Lots of things I would have liked to buy but I am trying to be cautious and not just blow everything in an orgy of purchases like I usually do. Having someone with me helped.

We were about to go get lunch when a letter fell on my head. It was from Twilight, inviting us to meet her and her parents for lunch at a cafe in town. I was a little nervous, though surely they won't recognize me, but I couldn't say no.

So we headed off to The Oak Nook, which was inside a huge oak tree. To my surprise, Fluttershy was with Twilight, though I soon saw it was because the place had a lot of animals who assisted the staff. There were platforms on some of the branches of the tree or you could eat in the main dining; we were out on a branch over the street. Twilight's mother, Night Shining and her father, Crescent Moon, were here, dressed for work (admittedly this meant a formal collar, a tie for him, a starry cloak for her, and semi-conical hats for both of them). Her father is an astronomer and her mother is a diviner. I suppose Crescent Moon probably answers to Princess Luna now.

Stay calm, no fear, they can't know who I am.

As we approached, down in the street, there was a thunder of hooves and some crazy dark haired Northman roared down the street in a black chariot pulled by black stallions.

Wait...

Oh great, that lunatic Magnus is here.

Magnus is from the Soderfjord Jarldoms, but acts as security officer for an estate of a wealthy Alphatian down in the Ierendi islands. This leaves him a lot of free time during which he gets in trouble. I had an encounter with him which ended with me throwing myself off a ship to get away from him because... okay, I DID do it.

But I wasn't going to let a crazy Northman take me captive.

I still don't understand why he rides around in a chariot but hopefully, I won't have to find out.

Twilight's parents watched him go, surprised. Fluttershy was too busy cuddling the squirrel who brought her menu to care. Twilight blinked.

"Hello, everyone," Rarity said. "I am Rarity Belle, a friend of Twilight's, and this is my dear friend, Samus Marcus of Thyatis, special agent of Celestia and Luna, a unicorn human."

"It's a pleasure to meet you," I said, bowing. "Your daughter is both intelligent and wise, a strong combination. You raised her well." Kissing parent ass, something I am good at as long as they don't hate me on sight.

I decided not to go for the formal hand... hoof kiss, given they're more academic than aristocratic. I would have pulled up a chair for Rarity... but no chairs. Which will make this tricky for me.

A badger now brought me a bean bag, which will have to do. Hopefully, there's some things edible for humans here.

"Thank you," Crescent Moon said, studying me and especially my sword.

Night Shining smiled, but said, "There are human unicorns?" She looked understandably confused.

The salt shaker, shaped like a cute bunny, now danced at my command. "My horn is invisible, so I can do covert operations," I told them.

Their eyes widened for a moment, then they relaxed. I then realized Twilight didn't know about the horn, but didn't seem surprised. I guess Celestia told her.

Fluttershy finally looked up from animal cuddling. "Hello, Rarity," she said, smiling. "Hello, Marcus."

"Marcus, this is my father, Crescent Moon, and my mother, Night Shining. Father works for the Star Ministry as an astronomer and Mother works for the Information Ministry as a Diviner," Twilight said.

"It's nice to meet you," Night Shining said. "Do you live here in Canterlot, then?"

"I live wherever the Princesses choose to send me," I told them. I wonder how much Twilight has told them about our mission.

"Some of it is classified," Twilight said apologetically.

"Are you involved in the Erik of Vestland case?" Night Shining asked.

STAY CALM. I'd likely break a leg if I jumped from this height, anyway.

"Which case?" I asked. "There are a lot of open ones, I think." TWITCH DO NOT SHOW TWITCH.

I studied the menu. It was a mix of pony-only items (like hay salads), human edible vegetarian (the bean soup looked pretty good, in fact), and several items that were expensive but had MEAT (STEAK TIME!!!!)

"Fluttershy, is this place run by druids?"

"Yes," she said. "One of the cooks is an Elf, so I recommended it."

"Thank you," I told her.

"Apparently he stole the harem of a Thyatian Ambassador and mocked your emperor, AND wore some sort of sacred hat," Crescent Moon said. "And a lot of other things, but that was the main incident I'm involved with."

"The Sacred Hat of Valerias," Night Shining said. "And something about a sandwich."

"A criminal sandwich?" I said, trying to sound amused.

"He was in White Plume Mountain along with a double of some kind," Fluttershy said.

DAMMIT FLUTTERSHY!!!!!

"I'm currently dealing with the aftermath of our trip to the Malpheggi," I told Night Shining. "Is the Information Bureau looking for him?"

"They were slaves," Twilight said. "Thyatian harems DESERVE to be free." Her voice was firm.

"I agree," I said. "How did a sacred hat and a sandwich come into it, though?" The sacred hat was, in fact, a much older incident.

I think.

Rarity studied the menu, listening quietly. Fluttershy was now busy talking to a raven.

"The list of accusations are rather long and confusing and some of them seem unsubstantiated," Night Shining said. "But some of them are clearly his fault." She sighed. "He seemed like such a nice boy but it's clear he needs to go to jail."

"He does NOT need to go to jail! I'm sure there's a good reason for all those FALSE accusations," Twilight said, clearly annoyed.

"Dear, I know you liked him but the evidence is pretty strong that he committed crimes, even if some of them would not be considered crimes in Equestria," Night Shining said. "And you will likely never see him again, so you really ought to move on."

"He was at White Plume Mountain, but we missed him," Fluttershy said.

The waitress now arrived, a chestnut pony with a green mane in pig-tails. She had glasses on and a silver torc. "Hello, everyone," she said. "Welcome to The Oak Nook." She put down glasses of black tea for Twilight's parents and apple juice for Fluttershy and coffee with cream and sugar for Twilight. "I can take your orders and the drink orders for the new guests."

"I'll have some apple juice," I said. Best not to have too much coffee.

"Orange juice for me, dear," Rarity said, still studying her menu.

Everyone began ordering; I ordered the bean soup and the steak. Elven steak is very good.

Once the waitress was gone, Twilight said, "I am NOT waiting for him! I have lots of things in my life and I do not mope about it! But I don't like people badmouthing him."

Hello, guilt. Hello knife in gut. Twist, twist that knife, guilt. Damn you, guilt.

"Rarity, I like your earrings," Fluttershy said, smiling. "They're very pretty."

Bless you, Fluttershy.

"Marcus bought them for me," Rarity said, turning to show them off to Twilight and her parents.

"Ooh, the Archer," Crescent Moon said. "An excellent choice. The archer is focused and insightful, striking to the heart of the matter," he said. "A good match for you, from what Twilight has told us."

"They're very lovely," Night Shining said, approvingly.

"I agree, they really suit you," Fluttershy said.

"Thank you," Rarity said, basking in the praise like a cat in the sun. "I bought Marcus the suit he's wearing as a token of my appreciation."

I rose and turned so they could see it all.

"The glows do not match their orders of magnitude," Twilight said.

I glared at her. TWILIGHT!

"But it's very pretty," she said hastily. "It looks wonderful, Rarity."

Now, though, Twilight's parents studied me assessingly. Urk. I hope I didn't just remind me... remind THEM of Erik.

"Thank you, Twilight," Rarity said.

"Anyway, there's a large price on his head now," Night Shining said. "Which means some lunatic bounty hunter will likely catch him and turn him over to the Thyatians."

ACK.

Rarity frowned. "We saw a posting. Fifty thousand gold is quite a lot."

RARITY!!!!

Twilight grimaced, clearly unhappy. You and me both!

Our food came now and we all began eating, while Twilight fumed and her mother continued to natter on about how Erik was being hunted and Twilight needed to forget he ever existed, while her father looked embarrassed but didn't DO anything about it.

My steak was perfect, the beans were okay but not awesome. Fluttershy's tomato salad looked much better, though I wouldn't have fed half of it to various small animals.

I could tell Rarity wasn't happy with listening to Twilight's mother beat her point to death with a hammer, but wasn't going to stick herself inbetween a mother and a daughter. I kept my mouth shut for fear of somehow giving myself away.

Magnus zoomed past the place again but now a dozen city watchponies were chasing him and I couldn't help but laugh. Twilight's father laughed as well. He now said, "I understand you do some wizardry, Marcus?"

"Of course," I said, tapping my invisible horn. Play to those prejudices! "Twilight has been helping me to work with electrical magic." I called up a single small lightning ball and tossed it to her. She spun it on the tip of her horn, then passed it back to me. We showed off while Fluttershy's head bobbed back and forth, following it.

I could feel the magical flows in a way that is hard to explain in words. I normally have to cast a spell to get more than a vague sense of magic in action but I could feel it, the way I hear or see or... like a new sense. I could feel Rarity using small amounts to work her spoon and cup, could feel Twilight working magical fields; this helped us work together even better than before.

Twilight's parents were smiling, clearly proud of their daughter.

Rarity said, "I think you're scaring the animals, Twilight, dear."

Fluttershy was trying to reassure some of the servitor animals and the manager was now coming our way. Ack.

We got a strong 'request' not to throw such things around, however good we are at controlling them, and now we both looked embarrassed.

"Hi, sis!" Sweetie shouted from above us.

"..." I boggled openly (most of the time I can hide my bogglement. Or so I think).

We looked up and saw the CMC and Dash in the air above us along with Ditzy Doo, flying around. I think Ditzy and Dash were generating updrafts to help keep the CMC in the air.

Sweetie tried to throw something down at us, but the updrafts caught it and now paper hearts went flying all over the neighborhood, raining down on confused ponies and a few bipeds.

I blinked. What on earth is she doing?

Rarity looked embarrassed, then began plucking hearts out of the air. "Let me help," Twilight said. They wove their abilities with Rarity guiding Twilight's power and sucked up all the falling hearts into a small pile by the table.

"What is Sweetie doing?" Twilight asked Rarity.

"I don't know," Rarity said. "I'll talk to her later."

Ditzy now flew down to us. "I'm sorry about that," she said. "I'll talk to Sweetie."

"It was very sweet of her," Fluttershy said; she was clearly amused.

"She's a good girl," Rarity said. "But children are hard to run herd on," she said to Twilight's parents.

"When Twilight was little, she read this really scary story, so she built a fortress out of most of the books in the house to hide inside," Night Shining said, grinning in that parent ratting out their child way.

"MOM!" Twilight said, embarrassed.

"I will have to tell Spike that story," I said.

"No, please!" Twilight said.

"If the monsters can't see me they can't eat me," her father said, and laughed. "But then she tried to read one of them and it fell on her."

"Daaaaad!"

The rest of the meal was eaten up by embarrassing childhood Twilight stories.

************

Rarity went to see Sweetie before the meeting; I went to see Ivan. He was in the practice room, with one of Celestia's warponies trying to show him how to fight with a hammer. Unfortunately, said warpony used his own hammer with his mouth, which is not the Ivan way.

I came and sparred with them a little, then stole Ivan to get him cleaned up before the meeting. "You feeling better now?" I asked him. "You looked pissed last night."

"I am pissed," he said. "Bastet is an ASS. I'm surprised you're not pissed off."

"Remember the Thyatian job?"

"WHICH one?" he said, then shook his head. "You're not really Thyatian, though." He paused. "I think."

"If I could even remember being abandoned, I'd be angrier," I said, then sighed. "You're a good friend, Ivan."

"Oh, Helga is going to chew furniture when she hears about this. You know how she is."

I smiled. Yes. "She's a good friend too. I wish she wasn't out of the business."

We reached his room, which I now realized he had to himself. "You going to bathe?" he asked.

"I'm fine, just going to wash my face," I told him. "I... Look, Ivan..."

"I won't say anything," he said. "But the longer you hide it, the more you will die when the truth outs."

"How did I get this face, Ivan?" I asked him urgently. "They think I died recently."

"That's how you got your current face," he said.

"I thought the people at Franich House arranged it as part of my payment," I said.

"You'd changed bodies when I found you drunk and bitter and dragged you off on my quest. I don't know exactly what happened," he said, frowning. "You thought Franich House did it?"

I slumped down by the wall. "Now I wonder how much of anything in my head is reliable." DAMMIT.

"I'm sorry, man," he said. "Do you remember anything?"

I thought hard. "Maybe... something about a woman... who turned into a monster..." Damn me.

Ivan laughed briefly, then sighed. "Anyway, I'm gonna bathe." He got up and finished stripping. "I've never seen you die but I never knew how you survived a few times, but I guess now I know."

"Could it have been Marquetta?," I speculated.

"She would have had no reason unless she knew it was you and then she would have taken the sword," Ivan said. He headed off to take a bath.

Dammit, unless...How much does Luna know? She never said 'I know you are Erik', but if anyone can fix these holes in my memories....

Well, we'll have to see. Dammit.

I went and washed my face, then once Ivan was clean, we went to join the others.

***********

"I'm sorry I made a mess," Sweetie said to me. She sounded embarrassed.

"It's fine," I told her.

We had reached the meeting room but Luna was delayed by a meeting. So everyone was snacking and waiting.

"I just wanted to help," she said to my knees.

By raining down hearts?

"We had a good time with Twilight's parents." Part of the time. "So thank you," I told her. Then I handed her a can of mixed nuts. "You can save these for when you're hungry. I know your sister favors them, so I hope you do too."

She smiled and took it, putting it in her saddlebags. "Thanks, Marcus." She paused. "That's the right thing to call you, right?"

"Yes," I told her. "If we have time, I'll teach you another card trick tonight."

"Cool!" she said. That finished perking her back up.

I noticed Luna watching me; she'd come in without me noticing, but she was smiling, so I relaxed as Sweetie bobbed off to huddle with her friends and plot... something.

Maybe she was trying to matchmake with Rarity and I. I wish I had a spell to tell what people are thinking.

But then, I'd get mad if someone did that to me, so I shouldn't want it.

WANT IT SO MUCH.

Surely she'd be more overt about it if she was romantically interested, though, right? Rarity strikes me as the type who goes for what she wants.

Celestia seems... or was she talking about Twilight and I? I know Twilight's mind well enough to know what she considers romantic, but not Rarity. I need to find out.

I don't know what I will do if she is interested. Beyond probably running screaming and jumping out a window or something.

I like her, and if we were both the same species, I think I could really go for her. But she's a pony and I'm human and... aaargh.

"What's wrong?" Luna said softly. Everyone else was getting ready now that Luna was here.

I whispered to her. "Apparently, I died, totally forgot about it, shortly before heading into the Malpheggi. I think some woman turned into a monster to kill me." I sighed. "But she didn't rob me, which is weird."

Luna frowned. "That is strange."

"I'll let you know if I remember more," I told her.

She nodded and then I went and sat down by Rarity.

Celestia now entered, to Luna's surprise. She came over and nuzzled Twilight. "Did your meeting with your parents go well?"

"About half well and about half them talking about how Erik is the most terrible person ever to walk the world," Twilight said, irritated. She quickly calmed down from Celestia's cuddling, though. "Someone's put a price on his head."

Celestia frowned. "That is most certainly not allowed in Equestria. I will see about ensuring no one advertises that price here."

Twilight looked greatly relieved.

Celestia now loomed over me and descended on me for a hug. "You're so cuddly, Marcus."

"..." Brain blowing out now.

Rarity blinked, then said, "No hug for me?" sadly.

"Of course," Celestia said and embraced her. "I just have to get Marcus adapted to pony-embraces. Since I'm sure he'll be getting lots of them."

CELESTIA!!!!!!

"Like this!" Pinkie said, jumping on me.

"PILE ON!" Rainbow Dash shouted.

I was soon buried and laughing but struggling to breathe. Even Twilight piled on, though Rarity was still being held by Celestia; she was smiling and laughing gently.

Sweetie stuck her head in. "Princess Celestia, are you free?"

"I have to go to a meeting dear, but we could talk as we walk," she said very seriously to Sweetie, as she let go of Rarity.

"The Princess is very busy," Rarity said to Sweetie. "I can probably take care of whatever the problem is."

"No, no, this is for her," Sweetie said urgently. "Okay, I'll walk with you."

Celestia said her goodbyes and went with Sweetie.

"Tonight, after the moon raising, I will attempt a scrying," Luna said. "Twilight, you and Marcus and Moondancer will assist me."

"Of course," Twilight said.

"And the orchestra will play, so you will need to be there, Lyra," Luna said. "The rest of you may come if you like."

Lyra laughed nervously. "Okay."

"I have a crazy idea," Rainbow Dash said.

"Go on?" Luna said curiously.

"See, one of us could pretend to be a bounty hunter who captured Marcus to bring him in to Marquetta, hoping for a reward, and that would enable one of us to infiltrate the base and maybe even lure her into a trap to make an 'exchange'," Rainbow Dash said.

"She knows what we look like, Dash," Applejack said.

"One swallow of Ivan's magic potion and we look like anypony we want," Dash said. "I could be... Shining Star. I always liked that name. You'd be my partner and we'd offer to trade Marcus for money, but she has to come to the Vale of Traps or whatever, and then when she comes, AMBUSH TIME."

"We have to find her first," Twilight said. "And it's a big risk for you too. How would you explain you know she wants him?"

"It's... umm... damn," Rainbow Dash said. "I don't know."

We discussed some more plans, but we have the problem that until we find her, we can only plan vaguely. So it was not the most productive of meetings. Twilight, Rarity, Spike and I went to the library to do some study of scrying magic, so we could make an effort ourselves in addition to tonight's scrying. If nothing else, it would be a good area to develop for the future.

Though Rarity hadn't been there then, it felt like the old days of my time in Canterlot. Rarity had her glasses on... I didn't even know she wore them. But at least for this she donned them and the two of us worked with her, as she wanted to help but she basically hasn't engaged in broad theoretical study of magic. Admittedly, I've only done it in a half-assed way, so Twilight had to teach me some things as well.

"Treat it like a loom," Spike said to Rarity at one point. "The cystillic lines are the weft and the daristic lines are the woof. Except this loom, you can pluck the threads like a harp, then you 'feel' the vibrations. The intersection of the two threads with the vibration you want is where your target is. I think."

Rarity's eyes widened and she smiled warmly at Spike. "Thank you. That's a very good metaphor and I see it now."

"That's great, Spike," I told him. I don't know which one is woof and which one is weft, but I know enough about weaving to see what he means.

"Thanks, Marcus," he said, forgetting to hate me, though he made sure to glare AFTER that.

Twilight gave a happy sigh. "Even studying is better with people you care about."

Spike looked embarrassed. "I like you too," he mumbled.

"Sometimes you need some solitude to really focus on something," Rarity said. "But I find company makes most burdens lighter."

"Exactly," Twilight said. "Remember the time we tried to analyze the gorgon blood, Spike?"

He groaned. "I TOLD you it had already been done."

"I know, I should have listened," she said ruefully. "It would have saved me a lot of work. But you were very patient with me."

"I was so hungry by the end," he mumbled.

That reminded me. "Rarity, why did you have Twist buy you those raisins?"

She looked embarrassed. "I forgot I had them; they were to be snacks for the kids on the train."

"You forgot to give us snacks?" a stack of books said nearby. "Oh man!"

"..."

"They weren't supposed to notice we're here, Scootaloo!" Apple Bloom said urgently.

Twilight and Rarity laughed. Rarity laughs like a babbling brook, Twilight like a gentle rain. Spike laughs like an avalanche. He marched over and plucked back cloaks. "Where's Sweetie?" he asked.

"Nowhere," Apple Bloom said.

"She's not doing anything at all," Scootaloo said. "Plan B!"

They both ran for the door.

Twilight plucked them off the ground. "Young ladies, what are you up to? You're supposed to be under Ditzy's supervision."

"She and Dinky are taking naptime but we all had things to do," Scootaloo said. She laughed nervously. "Not that we're doing anything at all and certainly no one left the castle or anything."

Well, crap.

"Where did they go?" I said sternly.

"Nowhere AT ALL," Scootaloo said.

"Perhaps we can use the scrying magic to find them," Rarity said. "It would be a good test, yes?"

"Great idea," Twilight said. "We'll have to go to the lab and borrow the ritual components."

The scrying ritual required various components; it wasn't something to use super-lightly. But being agents of the Princesses has its advantages.

And we needed a test. So Spike and I herded Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, following the ladies. "Why were you two spying on us?" I asked.

"We were not spying on you," Scootaloo said. "At all."

"We just wanted to read some books, that's all, perfectly innocent!" Apple Bloom protested.

"And you were hiding because?" I asked.

"We didn't want to disturb your important work!" Apple Bloom said.

Now, see, this is in the right direction; make the other person feel more important by praise. But it doesn't work if you're clearly GUILTY unless your target has a really easily pushable button.

"It is important but you could have just been quiet," Twilight said. Okay, Twilight has some button. "But you were watching us for some reason. Why?"

"Probably to keep watch because they're setting up a prank on us," Spike said.

"It's not a prank! It's very important!" Scootaloo said.

"What is?" I asked.

"NOTHING!"

We went round this mulberry bush all the way to the lab.

************

Rarity carefully mixed the chemicals as Twilight read off the formula to her; Spike and I kept the two fillies under control. I herded Apple Bloom, Spike handled Scootaloo.

Once they were mixed, Twilight took a brush and used them as ink on paper to inscribe a series of runes, then placed a mirror in the center and they both began chanting; I could feel the flows of power through my horn, though I didn't know how to interpret it. Scootaloo and Apple Bloom now watched, fascinated.

The mirror fogged over and then you could see Sweetie and Twist in a fashion store, studying men's fashions for some reason. With some effort, Twilight panned around to get the name of the place 'High Spirits For Him'. In fact, it was men's fashion for ponies only, so why were Sweetie and Twist there? I suppose Twist might have a brother, but why sneak out?

"Why this charade?" I asked Apple Bloom.

"Ponies aren't good at charades," she said.

I suppose not but that's not what I meant.

"Are Sweetie or Twist planning to dress as men for some reason?" I asked.

"That wouldn't work well at all," Scootaloo said. "They couldn't fool anyone."

We then went to wake up Ditzy so we could hand over our prisoners and head for the store.

************

'High Spirits For Him' was still standing on our arrival. A half dozen customers were busy checking out outfits or being fitted by the clerks, while one of the clerks was busy talking to Sweetie Belle and Twist, who thankfully didn't seem to be causing trouble except for sneaking off when they were supposed to be NAPPING.

But when they saw us, they took off running, crashing into a rack which fell into another rack, which set off two racks... You know how it goes.

I managed to reach out and stop part of the cascade with a spell and Rarity stemmed the tide by seizing several and once Twilight got over her shock, she saved about half the store, leaving the other half fallen down.

The chestnut maned clerk made unhappy noises and fainted at the mess.

"Sweetie!" I said.

"Twist, you know better than this," Twilight said, then sighed.

"It was fine before you scared us!" Twist protested.

We began helping the clerks to straighten everything up. How do parents not go insane before their children grow up?

I do not know.

Sweetie and Twist helped as well, though it was easier for Twist, who could use her tail as well as her mouth. They worked together, looking guilty.

"What are you two doing here, anyway?" Rarity asked, once we'd made apologies and herded them out the door.

"Umm...," Sweetie said, sweating.

"We were going to get something nice for Sweetie's dad," Twist said with a quick smoothness I both admired and suspected was a well-practiced lie.

"If you had told me, I would be happy to have taken you," Rarity said. "But you two need to lie down so you don't fall asleep tonight too early."

They seemed horrified by that prospect and I smiled a little. Find the lever and push, as they say.

"I thought you were busy studying," Sweetie grumbled.

"Studying how to see people at a distance," Twilight said.

"DOH," Twist said, slapping her face, which I would think would hurt with hooves.

"We saw through your spies with our Unicorn Vision," Twilight said. She had a quirky smile; I think she's teasing them.

"I don't have any Unicorn Vision," Sweetie grumbled.

"When you're older," Rarity said.

We really shouldn't tease them like this but it's too much fun. "You lie down and I'll teach you another card trick when your nap is done," I told Sweetie.

"Yaay!"

As we walked down the street, we saw some of Celestia's warponies tearing down the bounty notices. Good for them. They saluted Twilig