If You Weren't Afraid

by MyHobby

First published

Discord's illness is tearing him apart. He must join Fluttershy and two young stowaways on a journey to his birthplace in order to find the cure.

Discord has been sick for a long time. It's getting worse by the day. Equestrian medicine can't help him. He can't heal himself.

There is one hope: The fruit of a tree from his birthplace, the Garden of Elysium. Fluttershy takes it upon herself to make the journey with him, dangerous though it may be. On top of that, two young stowaways have joined the party. Pumpkin Cake is prepared to do anything to help Discord, and Pound Cake is frantically scrambling to keep his twin sister safe.

Monstrosities await them as they find that not everybody in Equestria wants to see the Spirit of Chaos well. Fairies, immortals, and ponies converge on Elysium, each with their own plans.

In the end, it will take courage to find the cure. But holding it together becomes more difficult as Discord continues to fall apart.

Rated Teen for

Scary Imagery
Perilous Adventure

A Tale of Fairies and Wishes

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Tirek the Demon King—Devourer of Magic, Conqueror of Equestria, Exile from the Far Side of the World, and Keeper of the Rainbow of Darkness—let his head thump against the iron bars of his cell. His ruddy hands clenched tight around the enchanted, super-strong metal. His scrawny, magic-deprived chest muscles heaved as he endured his extended imprisonment.

Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo!

In the next cell over, there sat a bubbling cauldron of green ooze. Steam rose from its surface. It wriggled and roiled as though it had a mind of its own. Mouths opened and then vanished. Eyes appeared to stare at nothing and everything. Through it all, a constant, eerie voice floated out of the arcane brew.

Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo!

Tirek’s eyelids twitched. He ground his teeth together, glaring at the only other sane occupant of Tartarus. “He’s doing it again. Again!”

One of Cerberus’s three heads looked up from his midday meal. A beefy paw removed a waxy earplug. “Woof?”

Tried to eat, tried to move
Then I went and lose-ed
Guess it wasn’t totally true
That nothing can stop the Smooze!

“Again with the sadistic so-called music!” Tirek smashed a fist against the ground. “The blasted blob of toxic mucous can’t even rhyme properly!”

Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo!

“This is worse than being eaten alive by fire ants!” Tirek howled. “I would know! I inflicted that particular punishment for lesser crimes than off-tune singing!”

All three of Cerberus’ heads rolled their eyes. The giant mythical dog gestured to the box of enchanted, noise-cancelling earplugs within easy reach of the centaur.

“You can’t ignore that hideous melody any more than I can!” Tirek’s four hooves drummed against the rocky ground. His horns tapped against the roof of the cell as he leaped in impotent rage. “As warden of this prison, you shall be the one to experience the daily horror! It is you who will witness unspeakable pain! It is you who will pay the price for your inaction!”

Cerberus’ middle head snickered.

“Don’t laugh at me!” Tirek screamed. “I shall feast on your magic, and your soul along with it!”

Cerberus huffed. He stood up and made his way steadily into the depths of the ancient prison, where he could find some peace and quiet devoid of megalomania.

“I’ll see you bow before me, Cerberus!” Tirek shook a fist. “And one day, your pups!

Tirek slumped to his equine belly, his strength spent. He stuffed two magical plugs into his ears, which hummed with a soft instrumental. The Smooze’s song faded to a background murmur. Only the slightest hint of its lyrics rose above the orchestra.

Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo!

The Demon King slapped himself in the face. “I hate you.”

Here is the Smooze
Bubbling on
Making up a stinky-winky song!

A rock zipped across Tartarus to clang against the Smooze’s cell. Tirek glowered at it, scratching an itch on his flank. “If I wasn’t immortal I could just die.”

“That’s… a pretty profound truth, actually.”

Tirek’s black eyes widened. He turned his head, swiveling his ears for the source of the words. The voice had broken through the plugs as though they weren’t even there. “Who’s there? Show yourself, denizen of Tartarus!”

Shadows surrounded the short reach of the torchlight. Pebbles clattered down the walls somewhere within the bowels of the prison. The Smooze fell uncharacteristically silent as the air stilled.

A pony stepped out of the darkness, wearing a black business suit and a similarly-colored boater hat. The only flash of color was his red tie, which stood out against his gray coat. “Oh. Oh, no, I don’t live here. I’m just visiting.”

Tirek took a moment to study the new arrival, indulging his itch with deliberate scratches. It was a very little pony, with a small voice and a smaller stature. It was an earth pony, lacking anything truly distinctive about its build or face. A nopony. A wimp. Easily cowed.

Tirek rose to his full height. Though he was a far cry from the furious force of nature he had once been, his centaur physique still cut a terrifying figure for the laypony. “Why do you dare to come near the almighty Demon King Tirek?”

The pony smiled. He let out a faint, bubbling giggle. “Yes, you are just as impressive as I had been led to believe. Very amusing.”

Tirek felt his cheek twitch. The itch in his flank intensified, but he forced the feeling from his mind. “You mock me, equine?”

“No. No, no, no.” The pony removed his hat with a flourish. “I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry; this is no way to begin a business meeting.” It held the boater hat over its heart, offering the centaur a friendly sort of smile. “You can call me Jeuk.”

Tirek’s lips parted in a sneer. “Yolk? What need have I of a chicken farmer?”

Jeuk’s teeth bit into his lower lip as he held back a snort. “No, no, nothing to do with hens. Jeuk, not Yolk.” He placed the hat on his head and pulled a suitcase out of the shadows.

Tirek drew discolored nails across his gaunt chest. “What sort of business?”

“I’m… something of a lawyer, you might say.” Jeuk set the suitcase on its side. He unclipped the latches, one by one, with a satisfying snap. “A bit of a collections agent, as well. I’m here to call in old debts.”

“Tirek is indebted to no one!”

Jeuk broke into light, hiccupping chuckles. “Really? Amusing; most very amusing. Tell me, Tirek, do you call yourself the Demon King because you lead the demons, or because you are a demon?”

Before Tirek could come up with a properly-snide response, Jeuk spoke into the silence. “Because I can assure you that both are quite false.”

Tirek punched the enchanted irons bars of his cell. A shimmering blue shield reverberated like ripples in a pond. “I am an immortal! I have lived for thousands of years! I have toppled empires from the griffon tribes of old to Equestria itself! I have devoured civilizations! I have cowed heroes and imprisoned the one who raises the sun!”

Jeuk’s mirthful expression faded away into blankness. He raised dispassionate eyes to the Demon King. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The proud ruler who has forgotten his place; who knows no longer of his humble beginnings. Who remembers not his friends.”

Tirek pointed a gnarled finger at the little pony. “I will not be mocked by you, worm!”

“Indeed you will not.” Jeuk laughed once in the back of his throat. “We—we haven’t the time!”

He pulled the briefcase open. It lay completely empty. “I have come to collect the gift you received from my clients. A gift given with a promise that you, Tirek, Demon King, have not fulfilled.”

Tirek wrinkled his nose. “I have been given no gifts.”

“No, no indeed.” Jeuk nodded. “Not for the last thousand years. But you remember. The ability to eat magic is not natural born. You were given the Rainbow of Darkness in order to do one thing…”

Tirek’s eyebrows leaped up. He took a step back, away from the little pony. “Is this some sort of joke? I was granted this power. It is mine to wield! To control!”

“You promised my clients that you would use the power to destroy Equestria.” Jeuk lowered his eyelids. “Equestria still stands. We have given you more than enough time. Millennia worth of time. And here you rot.”

Jeuk walked through the enchanted bars as if they weren’t even there. “The Unseelie Court of Fae wants its magic back.”

Tirek stumbled. He fell to his rump and scrambled back. “No! No, you foal! None can stand before the Demon King!”

Jeuk shook his head. He lifted his eyes to the cage’s ceiling. “I don’t have time to argue. Fairies are ever such impatient creatures, myself included.”

He raised the open briefcase and pointed it towards the centaur. “The fair folk have come to collect.”

An irresistible force gripped all of Tirek’s limbs, forcing him to be still. A sickening churning warped his stomach. Black-hued magic poured through his throat and fell from his mouth. It scrambled along the floor as a possessed fog, before rising to settle inside Jeuk’s case.

Tirek collapsed to the floor, clutching his chest and wheezing. He clawed at the air. “Yolk…”

“No, no, no. Jeuk.” The fae clasped the briefcase shut and shunted it away to Nowhere. “Honestly, how you ever got anything done, I’ll never understand.”

“One more chance,” Tirek said, hefting himself to his knees. “Set me free and give me one more chance!

“Ah, yes, yes, that’s what they all say.” Jeuk walked backwards through the bars, turning to mist as he touched the iron. “You’ve had two already. This isn’t baseball, and you are no longer amusing.”

Tirek pulled himself along the dusty floor. “Fairies cannot use the Rainbow of Darkness! You need flesh and blood! You need me!

“Ah, aheh.” Jeuk tipped his hat back. “My clients have already selected a far more appropriate candidate to replace you. Most improved.”

“Who?” Tirek gasped. “Who could possibly replace the Demon King Tirek?”

“Oh. Oh, I haven’t met her yet.” Jeuk shrugged. “Her name is Fluttershy.”

Tirek’s eyes bulged. His teeth clenched. He pounded his forelegs against the ground. “What?

Jeuk sighed. He rubbed his forehead and groaned. “Most very unamusing. I believe this concludes the meeting.”

“No!” Tirek shouted at the top of his lungs. “You cannot defy me! I am forever! I am infinite and indestructible! I am all-knowing and all-seeing! I am—”

Jeuk pointed at his hooves. “You are covered in fire ants.”

The itch in Tirek’s flanks grew maddening. He looked down to see thousands, millions, of the tiny insects crawling over his black coat. He tensed up and swatted them.

They burst into flame beneath his hand.

Tirek rolled as they swarmed. They bit, they sparked, they crawled. The itch turned into fiery pain. Jeuk smiled and faded into the shadows, his ears poised to listen to Tirek’s screams, leaving no trace of his passing.

Silence filled the cavern, broken only by the whimpers of a defeated, singed, mangy centaur. All at once, agony piled atop Tirek’s pain.

Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo!


The Ponyville Schoolhouse’s bell rang and signified the end of the last day of the year. Not only that, but it was only a half-day; they were getting out early. Fillies and colts literally tumbled out the doors, pushing and shoving to break out into the summer air. The playground was the first target of the horde, but the town was sure to follow.

Only stragglers remained in Cheerilee’s classroom. Pound Cake stuffed his backpack full of the art projects he and his sister had put together over the year. He could already tell a few works would be hung proudly in the windows of Sugarcube Corner, while others would be quietly stored in the basement. He held a zebra-style mask over his face and stuck out his tongue.

“Pound Cake, may I speak with you for a moment?”

“Yes, Mrs. Cheerilee!” he said, putting the mask away. He passed Lackadaisy in the aisle, who whispered that she’d meet him at the front door. Soon enough, he found himself before the desk, looking up at his teacher.

Cinnamon, Cheerilee’s little daughter, peered down at him. “Round! Zeb’a mask!”

Mrs. Cheerilee stepped away from the chalkboard, carrying an envelope in her mouth. “Your sister ran off and left her report card on her desk. Would you mind delivering it to your parents?”

“Yeah. I can do that.” Pound took the envelope and looked it over. It hadn’t been opened. “It’s not bad, is it?”

“Oh, no, of course not!” Cheerilee lifted Cinnamon off the desk and set her on the floor. The filly toddled around, poking her nose where it probably didn’t belong. “I am very proud of the progress you have both made this year. Pumpkin just needs to do a little review on division.”

The teacher chuckled to herself. “And don’t we all?”

“I guess so.” He stuffed the card into his backpack and zipped it up, just before Cinnamon got her hooves on his mask. She pouted at him and muttered something unintelligible. “I wonder why she left it?”

Cheerilee set about packing up pencils and rolling up papers. “She’s been looking out the window all day long. I’ll bet she just forgot about it. She was in such a hurry to leave!”

“Oh.” Pound glanced at the window. Ponyville could be seen in the distance, just down the hill, but off to the side was a particular, lonely structure. The town windmill stood tall, aged and dilapidated, having fallen out of use many years ago.

He sighed through his nose. “I think I know where she went.”

Cheerilee looked over her shoulder. She stepped a little closer and let her daughter fiddle with the crayons. “Is something wrong, Pound?”

“I don’t know.” Pound spread his wings. “Not really. Probably not. I’ll see you later, Mrs. Cheerilee!”

He trotted through the door, his tail flicking back and forth. Cheerilee called out after him. “Alright! Have a good summer, Pound! And happy birthday to the both of you!”

“Thank you!” he said. He pushed the door open and stepped out into freedom. He sent a glance at the old windmill, then flew up to meet Lackadaisy and their friends in the branches of a nearby tree.

Still, his sister’s destination niggled at the back of his mind.


Pumpkin Cake hurried herself through the field between the schoolhouse and the windmill. She had to be quick to avoid her schoolmates and any questions they might ask. That would just bring up uncomfortable answers.

Ponies generally gave the windmill a wide berth. The inhabitant was a weird one, no beans about it. Not even a full decade of reformation was gonna change that.

Pumpkin stuck her hoof in her backpack and felt around out of habit. Her rubber chicken, Chewie, was still safe, sound, and silent. His squeaker had broken again. Her mother kept making comments about how she might not need the chicken anymore. How it might be okay to not sleep with stuffed animals. How it would be a big step up in maturity.

She turned her nose up and mimicked her mother’s accent. “Oh when I turned ten I was already workin’ in the local bakery; it’s a yokel bakery, don’cha know.”

Pumpkin grasped Chewie’s foot with her magic and stretched it up to her mouth. She gnawed on the rubbery surface as she mulled over her thoughts. She always thought better when she was chewing something. It was probably bad for her teeth, but certain prices were worth paying. Braces could be cute, right?

A green leaf made its home in the tangled mess of her mane. Her curls were barely restrained by blue ribbons. Twin pigtails bounced just behind her head, beside her alert ears.

She grinned as she arrived at the entrance to the windmill. The dilapidated wooden door jiggled on its hinges with every breeze. The windows were dark and empty. For all appearances, the building was completely abandoned.

Pumpkin, of course, knew better. She pulled the latch and stepped inside.

The windmill became a world of complete chaos.

Her hooves sank into the sticky carpet, which appeared to be made of colorful molasses. Lampshades fluttered around her head on bat wings. The coat rack reached down to pull her backpack from her shoulders. She ducked as a firework sprinted past, trailing candy canes.

She stuck a cane into the side of her mouth. She grasped Chewie with a bubble of telekinesis and trotted deeper into the mill. “Discord! Diiiscooord!

She glanced into the kitchen to see the plates beating the spoons in a game of euchre. There was no sign of the Spirit of Chaos—aside from the zaniness of the entire mill, but that wasn’t really helpful.

“Discord, I need your help again!” She wiggled Chewie as she marched around his living room. The fireplace bubbled and the armchair hummed a cheerful tune. “Chewie lost his squeaker and Pinkie can’t replace it!”

“I’m not seeing callers nowadays, Little Miss Cake.”

“The heck you aren’t!” Pumpkin curled her upper lip. “I’m calling and you’re answering!”

Discord appeared before her in a puff of green smoke. He turned yellowed eyes downward; they were tinged at the edge with red. “I’m tired.”

“You’re always tired these days.” Pumpkin gave him a tight smile. “Help me with Chewie and I’ll get out of your mane.”

Discord scoffed. He picked her up by the scruff of her neck. Her eyes widened; did she even have a scruff?

“I’m afraid I’m indisposed at the moment.” Discord shrugged. “Indecent, you might say.”

Pumpkin tilted her head. “Huh? What does ‘indecent’ mean?”

“It means they would pull me from prime-time radio.” He opened a door that wasn’t there a minute ago. “Hasta luego.

Pumpkin hit the ground with a thump. Her backpack and Chewie followed close behind. She rubbed at her rump and glared at the creaky old windmill. She tried the latch and found it locked. “Creaky old Discord, that’s what he is.”

She smirked to herself. She lit her horn, calling on a super-special spell saved just for the occasion. She had come to think of it as her special talent, blank flank notwithstanding. The magic spread across her whole body, from her horn to her tail. She held Chewie close and walked through the door.

She saw Discord sitting in the humming armchair. He was flipping through a book with large pictures; probably a scrapbook. As he touched each picture, it moved on its own, replaying a few seconds from his life.

She propped herself on the armrest and got a closer look. “What’s that?”

He slammed the book shut. He narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips. “How did you get in here?”

“Magic.” She crossed her forelegs and leaned on them. “What’s in the book?”

“Magic,” he said. He tossed it into the fireplace. It exploded with a violent bang! “And none of your business. You may go now.”

“You promised you would help me.” She wiggled the rubber chicken’s head in Discord’s face. “Aren’t you supposed to keep your promises, Mr. Reformed?”

“That would be true. If I actually promised I would help.” Discord nodded firmly, his eyes closed. He popped his leftmost eye open. “I didn’t, did I?”

Pumpkin did her best to keep her face neutral. She kept a snarky comment on the backburner. “You did. You totally did.”

Discord sighed. He cracked his knuckles, his neck, his back, and the lamppost beside him. “Alrighty. Let’s see the little delinquent.”

The room faded away to pitch-black. A single light clicked on in the middle of the windmill, illuminating a white operating table. Discord pulled on flower-themed scrubs and snapped a glove onto his paw. “What seems to be the matter with Chewie this time?”

Pumpkin placed the rubber chicken on the table. “Same as always. His squeaker got loose or busted or something.”

Discord pulled forth an enormous, nearly house-sized, magnifying glass. He held it over the chicken and muttered to himself. He scribbled nonsense onto a notepad. “Hmm. Hmm. Nurse! Bring me anesthetic!”

He put on a pair of glasses, just so that he could look over them. He coughed. “That means you, Little Miss Cake.”

“Oh. Okay.” Pumpkin Cake swiveled around in place, but all she could see was shadow. “Where is it?”

“Right behind you. Yes. No, over to the left. Forward three steps. Back five. Twenty degrees north… there. That’s it.”

Pumpkin picked up a large rubber mallet. She passed it to Discord with her magic. “Seriously? This old gag?”

“I’ll have you know that it is a cliché, but it still works.” Discord took the mallet gingerly in his talon. He opened a hatch in its head and removed a flask before downing its contents.

Pumpkin lowered her eyebrows. “What’s in that bottle?”

“Blended orange juice, chocolate milk, and anchovies,” Discord said. “A wonderful pick-me-up. Want some?”

“I’ll pass.” Pumpkin tilted her head to the side and looked off into the distance. “But if you happened to have cookies, I couldn’t possibly say no.”

“Can’t argue with that.” Discord snapped his fingers. A legion of brooms marched out of the darkness, bearing plates full of chocolate chip cookies. One by one, they dumped their payloads beside Pumpkin. Discord stretched his arm long enough to snatch one. “Something’s wrong with the cooks. Beware of cookies bearing raisins.”

Pumpkin took a huge bite. “I like raisins.”

“Then you may have as many shriveled grapes as you desire.” Discord wiggled his talons over the soundless chicken. Magic sparks drifted from the tips of his nails. “Hmm. Hmm, we could try a placebo. That has potential…”

He squeezed Chewie. A klaxon rang out with an “Awooga!” He shook his head and cupped his chin. “Nope. No, it just isn’t the same.”

“Back the way he was, please,” Pumpkin said with her mouth full. “With a squeaker that actually squeaks.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Little Miss Cake!” Discord chuckled to himself. “No improvements? I could do such wonderful things with him! He can walk, he can talk, he says ‘Momma!’”

“No!” Pumpkin stomped a hoof. “No. Not even.”

Discord pinched his talons. “Just a little animating of the body?”

“It’s my chicken.” She rolled her eyes. “You can take over Ponyville with an army of your own rubber chickens.”

“You wound me, Little Miss Cake.” Discord put a paw on his chest. “I haven’t tried to violently overthrow any governments in… Well, it’s been a few years by now, hasn’t it?”

“Uh huh.” Pumpkin propped her chin up on the operating table. “Can we get some more light in here?”

Discord reached up, flipped a switch, and brought a pair of welding goggles down. The darkness became light in a flash, causing Pumpkin to cover her eyes. She rubbed them and blinked. “Ow.”

The windmill had shifted. Bronzed gears and dials lay all around her. Wires trailed up, up, up to the top of the mill. Rain poured down everywhere except onto her. “What the—”

“Eye Gore, bring the electro-emitters!” Discord hovered over Chewie, rubbing his gloved hands eagerly. He cackled. “Lightning shall strike soon enough!”

Pumpkin Cake looked down to see that she was dressed in sackcloth. She snorted. “Beige is not cute.”

“The electro-emitters, Eye Gore!” Discord twisted his goatee with a talon. “We shall bring this squeaker to life!”

Two hefty metal prods hung on the wall beside her. She blinked and looked around. “Hay. Where did the cookies go?”

“What cookies?”

“Never mind.”

Her horn glowed blue, and the prods leaped from their hook to his outstretched hands. The draconequus laughed, throwing his head back. “It’s alive! Alive!”

Lightning streaked between the tips. Energy flowed throughout the entire windmill. The wind kicked up, the rain washed, and thunder crashed. The “electro-emitters” touched together, and then lowered to Chewie’s rubbery little heart. There was a pop and a flash.

The light vanished with a tiny squeaka.

The fireplace bubbled behind Pumpkin. Discord leaned back in his armchair, putting up the footrest. “Well, what do you think?”

Pumpkin took Chewie in her hooves. After a moment’s hesitation, she squeezed. Squeaka! “He’s perfect.”

“Surprising absolutely, positively nopony!” Discord lifted his finger into the air, pointing at the ceiling. He let his arm fall beside him. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have important business to take care of.”

The door opened behind her. She took Chewie in her mouth and walked slowly. She spoke around the chicken. “Like what?”

“Important stuff. Magnitudes above stuffed-animal repair.” A bubble floated out of the fireplace and drifted up to Discord. He reached out a talon and popped it; the scrapbook fell out. “Head and shoulders. No comparison, really.”

“Uh huh.” Pumpkin backed out the door, her brow furrowed. “Thanks, Mr. Reformed.”

The door slammed the instant she had cleared it. She looked at the windmill, watching it slowly turn in the breeze. She glanced both ways down the path. Seeing no one, she lit her horn and stuck her head through the wood.

She saw Discord hunched over the scrapbook. Magic poured from his open palm. Fairy dust and light danced through the air, coming together in one shining cluster. It shifted its shape, slowly becoming a solid gold rectangle. An image appeared on its face; that of her, leaning on the chair’s armrest.

“How did you do that?”

“Magic. What’s in the book?”


“One more memory for the vault,” Discord sighed. He placed the photograph on an empty page. He closed the book and slumped over. “They’re just making this harder.”

Pumpkin withdrew her head from the mill. She looked at the dirt road and mulled over her thoughts. Discord wasn’t well, that was obvious enough. But why? What sort of sickness would make Discord so… gloomy?

She turned around, shouldered her backpack, and came face-to-face with a pair of brown eyes.

“Yah!” She tripped backward and fell to her rump. “Quit sneaking up on me!”

Pound Cake rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t. I was just walking.”

“Then quit walking so creepy!” Pumpkin turned her nose up. She peered at him out of the corner of her eye. “What do you want?”

“I was just making sure you were okay.” Pound’s eyes trailed up, up, up the windmill. “Visiting Discord again, huh?”

“Chewie’s squeaker was busted.” Pumpkin pouted. “Discord’s the only one who knows how to fix him right.”

She pressed her snout against his. “And if you tell Mom and Dad I was here, I’m gonna—”

“I’m not gonna tattle, Pumpkin.” Pound scratched his neck. He blew a long breath through his nose. “But you know what they’d say.”

“Yeah.” Pumpkin widened her eyes and stuck her chin out. She clenched her throat a little to approximate her dad’s nasally voice. “Now candy button, Discord is weird, and we don’t like weird stuff despite the fact that Pinkie Pie lives with us.”

“Dad doesn’t sound like that.”

“He totally does.” She tossed her curly mane. “Whatever. Discord’s funny. He’s funny, and cool, and…”

Pumpkin chewed on Chewie’s foot. “And he’s a really sad for some reason.”

“Sad?” Pound spread his wings and hovered beside his sister as they made their way into town. “What’s he got to be sad about?”

“I dunno. Maybe he’s worried about something.” Pumpkin looked out over the town. She could see ponies leaving work to go to lunch. “He acted like he didn’t want me there, but I think he was having fun.”

Pound tapped his hooves together. “Maybe he wasn’t, and you were just being—”

“Come on, I know what a happy person looks like.” She reached up and grasped Pound’s cheeks with her magic. She stretched until his teeth showed. “It looks like that.”

Pound swatted her horn. The magic dissipated. “Ow! Don’t!”

“Don’t be a baby.”

“I’m not a baby.” Pound grinned. “I was born first.”

“Were not!”

“Was so!”

“Were not!”

“You know I’m right!”

They continued down the road to Sugarcube Corner, bumping and shoving each other. They left the creaky old windmill and its occupant behind, quiet and peaceful.


“Happy birthday to both my favorite twins!” Pinkie sang, hauling a massive cake on her back. “Now is the time when your tenth year begins!”

Patty Cake and her little brother Rice ran around Pinkie’s hooves as she hauled her payload. Cup Cake raced to scoop them up before they could trip her. “Now, now, kids. Let’s give Pinkie some room to breathe!”

Pound gritted his teeth behind tight lips as his little sister and baby brother bumped against Pinkie and, by extension, his birthday cake. Pinkie was not to be deterred, and danced around the children with something between a waltz and a samba. She tossed the cake to the tabletop, balancing on one leg. “Ta-da!”

Pumpkin clapped her hooves, a half-smile on her face. “Bravo. Bravo. Encore.”

Carrot Cake held a slow-burning match between his lips. He lit the candles one by one, until ten flames danced above the frosting. The light illuminated the words “Happy Birthday,” lovingly scrawled by Cup, Carrot, and Pinkie.

“Okay, kids,” Cup said from beside a camera tripod. “Make a wish and blow out the candles!”

Pound’s eyes widened. He hadn’t thought about his wish. Not that it was really all that important, but it was a nice thought. The wish could be granted, assuming there was some sort of… “birthday magic” at work. Even if that was a little silly.

He glanced at Pumpkin. She glanced at him with a twitch of her ears that said “Hurry up, slow poke!” He blinked at the candles. No time to think. He sighed and resigned himself to a half-baked wish.

‘I wish,’ he thought to himself, ‘that I could… make a new friend, I guess. Sometime soon. Maybe. If it’s okay.’

He took a deep breath, and his sister took one to match. They blew together, each taking out five candles. The applause from the rest of the family was immediate.

“Yes!” Patty said, her wings fluttering. “Now we can finally have cake!”

“Blurshaga!” Rice said.

Pumpkin leaned on her forelegs. “Yeah. If somepony hadn’t been dragging their hooves, we would already be eating.”

“Hay, wishes are important. Kinda.” Pound leaned to the side so that his dad could ease in next to him. “It just caught me off guard. I didn’t really know what to ask for.”

“The way I’ve always seen it—” Pinkie Pie passed Carrot a knife to start slicing their dessert. “—the birthday wish should be the thing you want to most. The thing that’s laying heaviest on your mind. If you have to think hard about what to ask, you haven’t been wishing often enough, dude!”

“I guess.” Pound accepted a plate. He licked his lips in anticipation of the approaching chocolate. “I don’t really think I have a lot I need to wish for, though.”

Pumpkin took a bite a little too big for her mouth. She chewed as she desperately tried to keep crumbs from escaping. “What’s that thing Sweetie Belle always says?” She lowered her eyelids and curled her lips at the tips. “‘Apple Bloom, you lead quite the charmed life.’” She added a tiny squeak to the end of the sentence, just enough to set “life” apart.

Cup Cake fixed her daughter with a strong stare. “I’m not sure Miss Belle would appreciate you makin’ fun of her.”

Pumpkin swallowed. “And I’m sure Miss Belle would find Miss Cake to be Misstaken.”

Pound cringed. He looked to both his parents, who held similar expressions. That classic low-eyebrow, thin-mouth look.

Pumpkin smiled, shrugging her shoulders. “Not funny?”

“Near miss, Pumpkin,” Pound muttered.

“It was a little disrespectful,” Carrot said. “Please apologize to your mother.”

“Sorry, mom.” Pumpkin lowered her ears. “I’ll be more careful.”

Cup scratched her eldest daughter’s mane. “It’s fine, dearie. I know you mean well.”

Pinkie sucked her lips in. She folded her forelegs behind her plate. “So. Now seems like a good time to go over plans.”

Carrot raised an eyebrow. “What plans?”

“Well, tomorrow’s the town meeting.” Pinkie waved a forehoof. “You guys gonna attend?”

“It’s been a while since we did,” Cup said. “What do you think, sugar snaps?”

Carrot Cake nibbled the tip of his hoof. “This is the meeting where Ponyville officially becomes a recognized city, isn’t it?”

Pinkie’s curls swirled as she nodded. “Yep! It’s taken in a lot of new citizens after—”

Pound let their voices fade into the background. Politics seemed to be the one thing that could put him straight to sleep. It was all money that was already spent, ponies that never got along, property lines that seemed to move every year… Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb—

“—so we’ll need to get Scootaloo to babysit.”

Pound’s head shot up as his ears stood erect. “Huh? What about Scootaloo?”

Pinkie got a sly sort of grin usually reserved for cats and small sharks. “Oh, just that since I have to be at the meeting, we’ve got to get you guys a sitter. We were thinking of asking Scootaloo, but I’ll bet Diamond Tiara would—”

Patty Cake threw herself into the air and hovered over the table like a bumblebee. “Scootaloo! Scootaloo! Scootaloo!”

Cup Cake hopped up to grab her daughter just before she crash-landed into the cake. “Easy, jelly bean! You’ve got to watch where you’re fluttering!”

Carrot Cake snickered. “I think the ‘aye’s’ have it, Pinkie. I’ll speak to Scootaloo tomorrow and see if she’s available.”

“Don’t bother.” Pinkie scooped up her plate and Cup’s, both of which were empty. “I have an early-morning delivery to Quills and Sofas. I can ask her after that.”

Pound smiled as he rested his cheek on a hoof. If politics meant that Scootaloo was gonna hang out, maybe they weren’t so bad.

The chair beside him squeaked. Pumpkin barely said anything as she excused herself, her rubber chicken riding on her back. Pound watched her walk to the front door.

He was brought back to the table by a comment from his mother. “So, Mrs. Cheerilee said you guys were in a hurry to get out of class today. Any special plans?”

“Uh…” Visions of Discord’s house jumped into Pound’s mind. “Not really special. Just fun stuff with Lackadaisy and stuff. We played a couple of games of treetop tag before coming home.”

Carrot Cake made a grumbling noise in the back of his throat. “I didn’t think Pumpkin could play that game.”

“Where there’s a will,” Pinkie said, “there’s a way.”

“She wasn’t playing with us.” Pound plastered a grin onto his face. “She was doing something with her rubber chicken. Fixing his squeaker. Probably planning on ways to torment me. Something like that.”

When nobody else at the table spoke, he added, “Something a heck of a lot like that.”

Carrot made that distinctly dad-ish grumble again. “Okay. Good. Except for the whole ‘tormenting’ thing, but that’s sort of what sisters are for.”

Pinkie squinted one eye. “I find that statement highly disputable.”

Pound shuffled in his seat. Mom was playing peek-a-boo with Rice. Pinkie and Dad were talking about family politics—only slightly less boring than real politics. Patty was digging through Pumpkin’s presents to play with them while her older sister wasn’t looking.

Pound Cake chowed down the last of his slice of cake and excused himself. He tossed the plate into the dishwasher before making way for the front door.

It was a starry, warm night. The purple sky caused the surrounding buildings to become a black silhouette of a skyline. The dark was broken up by porch lights and streetlamps, set at regular intervals. Those, and also the blue light of his sister’s horn as she trotted down the street.

He fluttered after her, floating a meter and a half off the ground. “What’cha doing?”

She looked at her hooves as she walked. Chewie flew beside her, guided by a telekinetic glow. “You ever get the feeling like ‘I need to do something right now’? Like, you think something is a good idea, and you keep thinking about it harder and harder… until you can’t think about doing anything else?”

“I guess.” Pound tilted his left wing down to flit to her opposite side. “Sometimes. Why? What do you wanna do?”

“It’s stupid.”

Pound lowered his eyebrows. “Oh yeah? Prove it.”

Pumpkin pulled a coin from Chewie’s beak. “I wanna make a wish at the fountain.”

Pound dropped to the ground. “Huh? But you just made a birthday wish!”

“It just feels important, okay?” Pumpkin sent a frown his way. “I really want this wish to come true.”

He tilted his head to the side. “While you’re at it, why don’t I go ahead and look for a shooting star? Three-for-three. And maybe a four-leaf clover? How about a nice, fuzzy rabbit’s foot?”

“Those are lucky things, lint-for-brains.”

Pound hurried to catch up with his sister. “You’re lucky I’m immune to name-calling.”

“And you’re lucky I’m smart enough to keep coming up with better ones.” Pumpkin looked ahead and frowned. Pound followed her gaze to the town square, where a pony was rummaging around in the middle of the fountain.

Pumpkin rested her forelegs against the wall surrounding the currently-dry basin. “What gives? Who turned off the water?”

“Hmm?” The unicorn maintenance pony hiked up her overalls and peered at the children. Her headlamp shone in their eyes before she switched it off. “Sorry, kids. Fountain’s shut down for repairs. Something’s clogging the pump.”

Pound looked into the dry fountain bed. The coins ponies tossed into the water had already been collected, used to fund the upkeep of the town’s attractions. Not very magical, if you asked him. “Figures, huh, Pumpkin?”

Pumpkin Cake pouted. She held the coin in the center of her hoof. “It’s still a fountain, isn’t it? It’s still a coin, isn’t it?”

She threw the bit. It clattered to the marble and rattled before settling down.

The maintenance pony smiled. “A bit’s as good as a bar when it comes to wishes. I should know.”

“Yeah.” Pound rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry to bug you, Miss…” He read her nametag. “Ribbon Wishes. Have a good night.”

“You kids keep safe.” Ribbon Wishes flicked on her lamp and stuck her head back into the fountain. “The town’s not as cozy as it used to be.”

Pound hopped back into the air. Wary of the mare’s words, he kept a close eye on the surrounding houses, searching for ponies of ill intent. He continued to keep his vigil until they got within sight of the bakery.

“So,” he said, angling close. “What’s got you in an all-fire hurry to make a wish again? It’s gotta be something big, right?”

Pumpkin wrinkled her nose. “If you say a wish aloud, it won’t come true.”

“But tossing money into a puddle will help?” Pound sucked in his cheek when he saw the skin around his sister’s eyes tighten. She blinked rapidly and pressed her lips together.

Pound sighed. He folded his wings against his back. “Maybe if you tell me what your wish is, I can help make it come true.”

She frowned. She flicked her tail and hopped onto the single step leading up to Sugarcube Corner’s rear entrance. “You first.”

“I didn’t wish for much,” Pound said. “I just kinda wished to meet a new friend. I think it’ll come true whether I say it out loud or not.”

Pumpkin hugged Chewie close. She rested a hoof on the door handle. “I wished that Discord wouldn’t be sick anymore.”

With a flash of magic, she slipped through the door without ever opening it.

Pound stared at the spot she had been a moment before. He hung his head, tapping his hoof against the step. He blew a breath through tight lips before pulling the door open. “Some big brother I am.”

A Word to the Wise

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Luna flicked her horn, and a portal was opened. She stepped through, followed closely by Mi Amore Cadenza. Tartarus loomed around them, dark and craggy, dim and gray.

Cadence wrinkled her snout. “Last time I was in here, we were prisoners.”

“Not the most happy of returns, no.” Luna spread her wings slightly. She felt goose bumps rise on her skin in the chilly air. “Rest assured, it is not us who wear the chains this time.”

They travelled through the cavernous tunnels, passing shadowy creatures and malignant terrors, all secured behind bars. Luna felt her hackles prickle every time a leering eye blinked at her. Some of the beasts had been prisoners since before the founding of Equestria, forgotten by all save for the warden that kept them.

A bony hand grasped Luna’s ankle. She gave the creature a cold, calm look. It was a gaunt—nearly skeletal—ape-like being, with glowing red eyes and dripping fangs. “Come close and let Munchy taste…”

“I would rather not.” Luna shook the creature free. She trotted on, doing everything in her power to keep from curling into a ball and shrieking. ‘I will most certainly be taking a long, warm, bubbly bath when I get home,’ she thought.

Cadence’s hooves clattered against the stone floor as she hurried to catch up. “What in the name of all things beautiful and good in the world was that?

“I… believe it is called a morlock. A distant relative of the yahoos.” Luna clicked her tongue. “Just as ill-mannered and thrice as bloodthirsty.”

“And…” Cadence scrunched her muzzle. “Immortal?”

“Well, dearest Munchy over there isn’t dead yet, is he?” Princess Luna shone a light down a dark hallway and found it empty, much to her relief. “I think the infirmary is that way. We should hurry.”

“Hurry up and leave; that’s what we need to do.” Cadence kept her wings tight against her sides. A many-tentacled mollusk reached through the bars of its cell, only to be halted by a slap. “Have you told Aunt Celestia about the attack?”

“Ah, no.” Luna unrolled a map from beneath her wing. She twisted it sideways before turning down another corridor. “I felt it prudent to withhold a report until we had something to report.”

Cadence rolled her eyes. “Luna. Luna, Luna, Luna. How many times are we going to have the same conversation about you two being open? We can’t help each other unless we’re in the know. Does Celestia even know we’re here right now?”

“Unless she has suddenly developed the gift of omniscience,” Luna said, “I would think not.”

“You’re a humongous hypocrite, you know that?” Cadence glared at an impossibly ugly squid-monster. It skittered to the far side of its cage and cowered. “Give me one reason—one darn good, really good reason—that you couldn’t tell Celestia. Just the one.”

Luna stopped before a strong, studded, iron double-door. She folded the map and hid it among her feathers. She gave Cadence a deep sigh. “Because she would have wanted to do something about it. Personally.”

Cadence frowned, her forehead wrinkling.

Luna smiled. “The old mare is going to work herself to death one day if I do not step in now and again.”

Cadence put her hoof on the door handle and gave it a turn. “Be careful you don’t follow her example.”

Luna’s smile turned sideways as she watched her adoptive niece stride into the infirmary. If Celestia didn’t know about Tirek yet, she would soon. She wasn’t a mare who was kept in the dark easily. ‘She will probably have a few pointed questions when we return,’ she thought. ‘Once she wakes up from her rest. The Creator only knows I shall have need of her counsel.’

Tirek lay on an L-shaped bed, his body strapped down with ropes strong enough to anchor seafaring vessels. They shimmered faintly, having been enchanted to have an extra iota of unbreakability. His black coat was a patchwork mess of singed hair and ashes, while his red skin was a sea of welts. He ground his teeth and looked her way.

“Princesses.” He snarled and kicked his hooves. The ropes held him still. “Micromanagers, it seems, with your hooves in everything. Have you come to laugh at me? Or perhaps you wish to add to my injuries.”

“A tempting offer, centaur.” Luna loomed over him, spreading her wings and darkening the room just enough to give herself an air of authority. Her star-sparkled mane shimmered around her head. “But I have not come to bring harm. I have, ironically enough, come to your aid.”

“That is a new one.” His feeble muscles strained. “I don’t suppose you have any intention of setting me free?”

“I would sooner invite Sombra to a tea party.”

Cadence spread her wings and put a little volume into her voice. “Last night, you were a victim of assault in one of the most secure prisons in the entire world. Your attacker left no trace that it was even here. This is not a thing that happens.”

Luna nodded. “We are here to listen to your first-hoof account of the story, and learn the identity of the creature that injured you.”

Tirek sneered. “Why should I help you?”

Luna shrugged. “Perhaps because if the attacker could do it once, it stands to reason that they could do it again. I would like to prevent that, if at all possible.”

Cadence turned her eyes to the ceiling. “Unless you enjoy having the snot kicked out of you. You do have a history of that.”

“Cadence, please,” Luna said. “Do not make fun of the deposed tyrant. It is not civil.”

“It seems I’m in good company.” Tirek lay his ears flat against his scalp. “Very well. I shall tell you what I know. In exchange for certain… privileges.”

Luna wrinkled her nose. She stomped a hoof and leaned close. “You lost access to any privileges the instant you turned the old kingdoms to rubble and ruin. How many people died because of you? No. There will be no concessions.”

Tirek bared his fangs. “How many people have died due to your actions, High Princess of Equestria? How many murders did Nightmare Moon commit in her short, short rule?”

Luna folded her wings against her back. She turned away from the table. “Come, Cadenza. We are leaving. I did not come here to be lectured on bygone days.”

“If you leave,” Tirek said, “you will lose your best chance to catch an attacker who could leave me in bed rest.”

Luna held her smirk in check. She was close to unleashing a monologue. Tirek couldn’t help himself. “I believe that if I wish to catch him, I merely need to wait for him to return to Tartarus and finish the job.”

“You are mistaken,” Tirek snarled. “He already has what he came for.”

‘Now we are getting somewhere.’ Luna raised an eyebrow. “To embarrass you in front of your peers? To leave you a writhing husk on the floor? To make your already ugly features—”

“They stole my power!” Tirek roared. “They stole the Rainbow of Darkness from me!”

Cadence lit her horn. A small whisper of a voice jumped straight from her lips to Luna’s ear. “So the magic scans were correct. He no longer has access to his greatest power.

No chatter until we leave,” Luna whispered back. “Never interrupt a villain’s monologue unless it’s with an arrow to the forehead.

Luna flicked a hoof at Tirek, turning her nose up. “You were hardly a challenge even with the ability to eat magic. All it took was one solid friendship to leave you a gnarled husk—”

“I destroyed Equestria!” Tirek thrashed beneath his bonds. “I should have slain you and your sister!”

“But you did not.” Luna flicked her tail, gazing around the room as though she held no interest in the conversation. It was a fairly well-stocked medical room, she saw, pony-sized tongue depressors and all. The doctor had spread salve over Tirek’s wounds a few hours before, and would return soon enough. “Still, this is not the first time you have been pushed around by those deemed weaker than you.”

Tirek growled deep within his chest. His snarl turned gleeful. “I see what you are doing. You are trying to make me slip up and reveal something. It will not work. I am far too wise for that.”

“I can see that you are flowing with an overabundance of wisdom, Tirek.” Luna picked up a cotton ball and stared at it. Her ears turned toward the centaur. “That’s why you hide the identity of your attacker from us.”

The centaur drummed his fingers. His beady eyes examined the younger princess from hooves to crown. “See reason, Cadenza. You know you won’t get anything out of me without… boons.”

“Please, tell me your requests,” Luna said. “I am in need of a good laugh.”

Tirek pouted. He angled his head to face her. “First, I want a soundproofing spell over the Smooze’s cell.”

“Impossible, for the same reason we cannot put one over yours.” Luna sat down beside the table. “If we cannot hear you screaming, we cannot help you when something goes wrong. The earplugs will have to do.”

Tirek squinted at her. He clenched his jaw. “Second, I want to be able to request meals.”

“Indeed?” Luna hopped to her hooves and skipped to Cadence’s side. “Oh, how darling! Perhaps with fine china and silk napkins? Caviar and shrimp? I shall immediately hire a Maître d’Tartarus to wait on you hand and hoof!”

She bumped her hip against Cadence’s. “He really is a sweetheart once you get to know him.”

Cadence’s mouth hung open as she watched Luna prance. Her eyebrows came close together. Her lips curled. Her ears hung askew.

Tirek’s face trembled as rage boiled over. “Third, I want—”

“A real softy!” Luna continued. “A delicate flower who must be babied!”

Tirek shut his eyes tight. “I want a blasted—!”

“I am certain that we could import some vases from Giraffrica, to beautify your cell some.”

“I want your head on a silver platter!

“Does wittle Tiwek want his booboos kissed?”

“You will get nothing!” Tirek screamed. “Nothing! You will have nothing to help you when the Unseelie come for you!”

Luna smiled wide. She slapped a hoof against Tirek’s wrinkled shoulder. “There. Was that so difficult? That is all we wanted to know.”

Tirek’s face fell. His stare could have bored a hole in her head. “I hate you. So much.”

Luna patted his cheek. “I hate you, too, honey.”

She took a step back to survey his injuries. She allowed herself a satisfied smirk. “Was there anything else you wished to share?”

Tirek’s teeth ground together. “For peat’s sake. A candy bar. That’s all I ask. Apparently.”

Luna brought her eyes to the craggy, rounded-out ceiling. She tapped a hoof to her chin, then rubbed her cheek, and finally nodded. “Cadence, do you suppose it would be alright to give the mangy creature some sweeties?”

Cadence snapped her mouth shut. She shook her head and brushed her mane back. “Uh. I, um, guess if giving him candy will make him do what we want…”

Tirek’s face went blank. His eyes tilted back, the speed of his thoughts mirrored by his twitching ears. His lips parted, revealing drool-soaked fangs. “The Fae that assaulted me, his name had something to do with eggs. He said that they had already chosen another creature to give the Rainbow of Darkness to.”

Luna felt the mirth evaporate from her face, replaced with cold stone. She leaned against the table. “Did he say who?”

Tirek rubbed the tips of his fingers together. “No. No, he didn’t so much as leave a clue.”

Luna stepped back, eyes locked on Tirek’s. “I will send somepony to find out just what candy bars this information was worth. In the meantime…”

Her horn flared as she opened the door behind her. A short, pudgy diamond dog lumbered in, pulling a rubber glove over his paw. His coat was long and shaggy, flowing over his eyes. Hair hung from his muzzle like a massive, white moustache.

Luna bowed her head. “Doctor Methuselah. You may tend to the prisoner now.”

“Good. Time to change poultice.” The diamond dog doctor made a slow journey to the counter, where his instruments of healthcare waited. “This patient noisy. Very stupid. I don’t like him.”

Tirek sputtered. “I should not have to endure your prattling—”

“Shut up or I take temperature.”

Tirek remained very, very quiet.

Luna tilted her horn towards Cadence, a smile on her lips but iron in her voice. “Shall we?”

Cadence lowered her eyebrows, taking Luna in. She shifted her gaze to Tirek before speaking. “By your leave.”

They shut the door behind them. They walked back the way they came, headed for the portal to Canterlot Castle. A hideous screech echoed through Tartarus, somewhere in the bowels of the cavernous prison.

“I don’t like it,” Cadence said. “We found out what we came here for, but I still feel like we’re missing something.”

“I will concern myself with that…” Luna swallowed hard. “Right after I process the fact that the Unseelie Court of Fae has struck again.”

“It is kinda a big deal.” Cadence shuddered. “Do you want me to tell Aunt Celestia?”

“Be my guest.” Luna rubbed her forehead. “Did you know that Spike still suffers from nightmares after their last attack?”

“Twilight said something about it, yeah.” Cadence licked her lips. She angled away from a cell with an especially nasty smell. “Luna… how are we supposed to fight something that isn’t flesh and blood?”

Luna touched a hoof to the wall. Etchings were carved into the stone, depicting the marble spires of Canterlot in its prime. She lit her horn, and the lines glowed to match. The magic flowed around the stone until it was hidden behind a sparkling window into the city itself.

She extended a wing to rest it against Cadence’s shoulder. “The same way we always have. To fight the incorporeal, we must use weapons that are not physical. Weapons such as Kindness, Generosity, Honesty, Loyalty, Laughter, and just a hint of Magic.”

Cadence stepped through the portal. She lifted a wry eyebrow. “Never mind the friendship lasers?”

“Friendship lasers are, of course, very welcome.” Luna laughed. “When the time comes, I intend to make full use of them.”


Fluttershy took a seat in the back row of the auditorium. The folding chair squeaked beneath her with every movement. Ponies milled all around, ranging from good friends to complete strangers. Fluttershy returned friendly waves and smiled at anypony who made eye contact.

‘I’m going to need a whole day to myself to recover from this,’ she thought, taking in gentle, deep breaths. Laughter from the far side of the room caught her attention. Spike and Apple Bloom were going over the previous meeting’s minutes, but from the looks of things, they weren’t paying much attention to the notes. Fluttershy tilted her head and giggled.



A hoof landed on Fluttershy’s shoulder. She craned her neck to get a glimpse of the pony, and let out a sigh when she saw a layered, colorful mane. The sensation of touch turned from horrifying to comforting. “Hello, Rainbow Dash! I didn’t know you were going to be here.”

Rainbow Dash took a step back and spread her wings to their full length. She hopped a half-meter into the air and hovered beside Fluttershy’s seat. “I was in the neighborhood. Figured I ought to be here to see Ponyville become an honest-to-goodness city. See my best friends. That sort of thing. I think I’m more surprised to see you come out of your shell.”

Fluttershy shook her head lightly. “I’ll be fine, so long as the shell is still there to go back to.” She turned around in her seat and placed her hoof on the backrest. “I wanted to support the town. But mostly Applejack. I think she needs us here.”

Rainbow Dash rubbed the back of her head. “Yeah, don’t I know it. Do you think she’ll make a speech or let Twilight handle it?”

“Whichever one, I’ll be leading the applause.” Fluttershy felt her cheeks heat up. “I hope.”

“I’ll be right there with you.” Rainbow Dash glanced to the pegasus-specific bleachers bolted to the ceiling. A couple ponies pointed at her, their expressions ranging between disbelieving and ecstatic. “I’m gonna sit with the Cloudsdale refugees tonight. You’re welcome to join us. I think. Maybe. It’ll be cool if you’re with me.”

“I think I’ll stay down here, thank you.” Fluttershy sucked in her lips. She followed a pony with her eyes as they flew around the auditorium. “I wouldn’t even know what to say.”

“That’s fair.” Rainbow Dash brushed her cheek against Fluttershy’s. “One last thing before I head up: I was gonna have a few of the old weather team buddies over for a movie tonight. I just got a new projector installed, so it’s gonna be pretty wicked. Wanna come? I mean, I understand if you’re gonna be too worn out, but—”

“Oh, no! I’d love to!” Fluttershy hopped, fluttering her wings. “Who’s coming?”

“Cloudkicker, Thunderlane, Fluffy Clouds, Sassaflash, Raindrops…” Rainbow Dash tried and failed to contain her grin. “And I think I can convince Bulk Biceps to come, if you’re lucky.”

Fluttershy bit her bottom lip, holding in a giggle. “It sounds wonderful, Dash. I’ll see you then.”

“Yep!” Rainbow Dash shot up with a single stroke of her wings, leaving Fluttershy’s mane flowing in the breeze.

Fluttershy plopped back onto her seat, a small smile etched onto her features. ‘That’ll be fun,’ she thought. ‘Good, simple fun. No worlds to save. No villains to fight. Just me, Dash, and a few friends. I almost feel like singing aloud. Almost.’

She pony-watched for a while, taking stock of who showed up for the town meeting. The usual suspects were there, from business ponies like Filthy Rich and Silver Spoon Sr., to long-time citizens like Matilda, to a few conscious youngsters like Dinky Do. Beyond them, the announcement of Ponyville becoming a nationally-recognized city had drawn in a larger crowd, most of whom Fluttershy couldn’t recognize. It was nothing near the full population, but it was a good portion.

‘And…’ Fluttershy sighed. ‘Yep. There she is. Oh, Merry.’

The former Mayor of Ponyville, Merry Mare, walked down the middle aisle surrounded by her supporters. They filled up a row in the center of the room, waiting quietly for the meeting to start. Fluttershy thought about greeting Merry, but then thought better of it. She wasn’t in the mood for an argument; and that’s all that would come of it.

A hush fell over the room as Twilight Sparkle walked onto the stage, carrying the Equestrian Flag in a bubble of telekinesis. She set it into a slot in the floor and nodded to the doorway. Applejack trotted into view, tightening her cravat and brushing down her mane.

A herald, dressed in a ridiculously poofy outfit and holding a horn larger than her body, gasped before shouting across the seats. “H’announcing Her Honor, Lord Mayor H’Applejack of Ponyville!”

Applejack cleared her throat. “All rise for the Pledge to the Equestrian Flag.”

Fluttershy stood and placed her right hoof over her heart. She locked her eyes on the flag and spoke in time with everyone else.

“I pledge allegiance to my flag
From the bottom of my heart
And to the kingdom it represents
Of which I am a part

“I pledge myself to Harmony
To friendship’s shining light
And thank Celestia for the sun
And Luna for the night”

A gray pony beside her coughed behind his hoof. He placed a black boater hat atop his head and took the seat next to hers, adjusting his red tie. Fluttershy sat, keeping her eyes forward, a blush burning her cheeks. ‘When did he get there? Why did he have to take the seat right next to mine? I should move. No, that would be rude.’

She kept her wings close by her side her hooves on her lap. She swung her ears forward and focused on Applejack as she talked.

She spoke softly and quickly, downplaying Ponyville’s new status and focusing on her hopes that the new citizens would continue to feel welcome. That they would be able to consider the city their home. She had barely spoken for five minutes before she sat down, allowing Spike to take center stage.

The young dragon read off the previous meeting’s minutes. Aside from yet another reconfiguration of the town’s road budget, there wasn’t much to report.

The vote for Ponyville to become a city was cast and passed, nearly unanimously.

Applejack cracked her back. She and Fluttershy met gazes briefly, during which Fluttershy saw a hefty dose of apprehension.

“We would now like to open up the floor to anypony who has a concern,” Applejack said, her voice heavy, “so that we may discuss it in a public forum.”

Merry Mare stood up and raised a hoof. Applejack glanced desperately around the room for somepony else to call on.

“Um…” Applejack pointed at a street musician. “Lyra! What can I help you with?”

The mint-coated unicorn shook her golden lyre. “When are the fountains going to come back on? I’ve run out of good places to play, and if I can’t play, I can’t earn a living!”

Applejack wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. “I’ll let Miss Wishes handle this question—if you would?”

Ribbon Wishes sent Lyra a wide smile. “Don’t worry, Miss Heartstrings! I’ve found the issue and should have the pipes cleaned out by the end of the week.”

“Cool.” Lyra sat down and crossed her forelegs.

Fluttershy turned her attention to Merry, who remained still, waiting patiently for Applejack to run out of excuses. ‘It isn’t fair, Merry,’ Fluttershy thought. ‘Applejack’s doing as well as any of us would.’

Sweetie Belle asked when the next talent show would be held; the answer was autumn. Cloudkicker made a public complaint about the “addle-brained” weather team she was given to work with. A pony Fluttershy didn’t recognize asked what was being done about the rising crime rate. The guard barracks being built on the south side of town would help with that.

The only speaker left was Merry.

Applejack laid her ears against her mane. “Miss Merry Mare, what is your current complaint against my administration?”

Merry tapped her glasses, pushing them further up her snout. She leaned on the back of the chair in front of her, raising her above the crowd. Her grayed mane bounced in time with her head movements. “People of Ponyville, much has been said about how I feel about Applejack’s policies. You know what you believe. You have heard enough to make a decision for yourselves whether you agree with her or not. Therefore, her handling of the budget is not what I wish to talk about today.”

She gave the room a long, slow look, hovering on Fluttershy for an almost unnoticeable instant. “Over the past year, Equestria has seen more pain, and suffered more injury, than it has experienced in many decades. First, there was the attempt on Princess Celestia’s and Princess Twilight’s lives. Then, Cloudsdale itself was torn apart by a vicious attack. Now, there are rumors that a criminal from another world lives among us.”

Fluttershy rubbed her hooves together, waiting for the other horseshoe to drop.

“Truth be told,” Merry said, “I respect Lord Mayor Applejack a great deal for how she has handled these trying times. How she opened up Ponyville as a place of refuge for our Cloudsdale brothers and sisters. How she works day and night to make Ponyville a better city. How she stands tall, proud, and steadfast through it all.”

Fluttershy felt her shoulders relax. ‘Maybe I was being too harsh on her. She just wants—’

“But mark my words, Ponyville.” Merry walked into the aisle, putting herself in the center of the auditorium. “The greatest tragedy is not that these events took place, but that they were completely preventable!

Fluttershy’s eyebrows shot up. Her ears fell. She felt her jaw clench against her will. ‘No. No, no. Merry, don’t you dare. Don’t you dare accuse Discord—’

“Discord could have stopped all this before it began.” Merry turned her face towards the bleachers. “He could have prevented Cloudsdale from crumbling. He could have saved the princesses from their injuries. But instead, he sits in his windmill doing nothing. All his powers, all his abilities, and he hides away with the excuse that he is ill.”

The crowd murmured. Ponies leaned to whisper to their neighbors. A diamond dog growled in the back of his throat. The Cloudsdale refugees were the loudest of all, some of them with tears in their eyes.

Fluttershy’s chest tightened. She ground her hoof into her seat. ‘Merry, stop. Merry.’

Applejack sighed. “Merry, I don’t rightly know that that’s entirely fair.”

“I am not asking for much, Lord Mayor Applejack.” Merry spoke each word with venom, her voice shaking. “I just ask that Discord steps forward and takes responsibility. For once in his life. And moves to make things better.”

Fluttershy shut her eyes. Her heart hammered in her ears. Her tail thrashed behind her.

“I want Discord,” Merry said, “to actually do his job!”

“Excuse me!”

With the force of a hammer strike, every eye in the room turned to Fluttershy. She stood on her chair, her wings flared. Her knees knocked as she lowered her face. “I have something I need to say.”

Applejack stood up a little taller. She gave Fluttershy a small smile. “Go on, sugarcube. Say your piece.”

Fluttershy swallowed. She shivered from the tips of her hooves. “W—well, D-Discord is sick.”

“Yes, Fluttershy, dear.” Merry Mare let out a strong exhale through her nose. “That’s what he told us.”

“B-but…” A prickling sensation danced across Fluttershy’s back. Her lungs burned. “But…”

“What matters are Discord’s actions!” Merry turned away to address the other side of the room. “He let these horrible things happen to us!”

“No he didn’t!” Fluttershy shouted. “Would we expect Ribbon Wishes to work on the fountains if her leg was broken? Would we expect Apple Bloom to applebuck if she had a fever? Did you expect Celestia to raise the sun while she was recovering from the attack? No! Nopony would ask that of any of them! It would be wrong to ask that of anyone!”

She felt the tips of her hooves tingle with energy. Her feathers released magic into the air that carried her upward. She looked down at Merry with a powerful stare. “Now Discord, who lives to have an audience, is too sick to leave his own home! Why do you expect him to fight your wars for you?”

Somewhere across the room, Pokey Pierce dropped a pin.

Fluttershy’s heart caught in her throat. She looked across a sea of stunned faces, all looking at her, all judging her. She sank back down to her chair and huddled into a ball.

A clatter came from the bleachers. Rainbow Dash pounded her hooves against the metal seat. “Woo-hoo! Go, Fluttershy! You’re so totally awesome! Woo!”

Fluttershy’s stomach lurched. She leaped over the back of her chair and charged out of the room. She slammed shoulder-first into a wall before thundering down the hallway towards the little mares’ room. She pushed past a very confused earth pony, kicked open a stall door, and leaned over the toilet.

When it was over, she slumped to the floor and rested her cheek against the cool, marbled wall. She shut her eyes tight to hold back her tears, but damp streams rolled down her cheeks all the same.

The door opened behind her. Soft hoof steps made way for her stall, followed by soft words. “Fluttershy?”

Fluttershy wiped her nose. She sniffled and said nothing.

Merry Mare peered around the corner. She rubbed her temples. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you, I just…”

She leaned against the door of the stall. “I’m an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot,” Fluttershy whispered. “You’re just scared.”

Merry removed her spectacles and wiped them down. “I guess that makes two of us, huh?”

Rainbow Dash burst into the bathroom in a flurry of feathers. She zipped right up to Merry and jabbed her in the chest. “Hay! Vamoose, jerkface! Leave Fluttershy—”

“Rainbow!” Fluttershy snapped.

Rainbow Dash’s ears shot up. She sent a glance Fluttershy’s way. “Huh?”

“It’s alright.” Fluttershy wiped off her mouth with a tissue. She separated Merry and Rainbow with a wing. “She’s fine. I’ll see later, okay?”

Rainbow glared at Merry Mare, who gave as good as she got. Dash pointed at her eyes, pointed at Merry, and then zipped into the hallway.

“And don’t be mad at Rainbow, either.” Fluttershy eased past Merry, who stood rooted to the spot. “You know she means well. She just wants to protect me.”

Fluttershy faced Merry. She searched the older mare’s face. The former mayor’s eyes jumped to the ground. Her ears twitched between facing forward and falling to the sides. She clenched her jaw, hissing through her teeth.

“I know,” Merry said.

“And I need to protect Discord.” Fluttershy lowered her head to meet Merry’s gaze. “He is receiving the best care I can give him. He wants to get better. He wants to help. He promised he would.”

Fluttershy turned the sink on and splashed water on her face. She dried with a paper towel. “I hate it when my friends fight. Can’t you choose something else to be the cornerstone of your reelection?”

Merry pressed her hooves together. Her tight muscles relaxed. Her chest expanded with a calming breath. “Yes. But... I can’t promise that it’ll be something you’ll like.”

Fluttershy frowned. “I guess that’s too much to ask nowadays, isn’t it?”

Before Merry could say another word, she flew through the halls and out the front door, leaving City Hall far behind.


Fluttershy tiptoed across Rainbow Dash’s porch. The night was warm, but a cloudy sky hid the light of the moon. Warmth spilled from the windows of the cloud mansion, alongside muted conversation. The trickling rainbow-fall to the right of the entrance dissipated halfway to the ground below.

She sucked in a breath, let it out slowly, and knocked.

The door was answered by a blonde mare in her ninth month of pregnancy. She wrapped her forelegs around Fluttershy’s neck and held her close. “Och! Ye gave us all a fright, lass! Are ye well?”

“I’m alright, Cloudkicker.” Fluttershy sighed and patted the mare on the back. “I need to speak with Rainbow Dash.”

“Ye’ll have a time findin’ her, an’ nae mistake.” Cloudkicker eased herself away one step at a time, a hoof on her belly. “She an’ Bulk Biceps went flittin’ around the town lookin’ for ye after ye disappeared from the meetin’. Where’ve ye been?”

Fluttershy winced. “J-just walking around, I guess. I didn’t want to talk to anypony.”

“Dinnae fret, sweeting.” Cloudkicker wrapped a wing around Fluttershy’s shoulders and pulled her into the cloudhouse. “We’ll let Rainbow Dash know ye’re safe. In the meantime, ye can eat somethin’. Dash has oodles of fritters if’n it pleases ye.”

“Um…” Fluttershy decided not to say anything. She allowed herself to be dragged around, towards Rainbow Dash’s rec room. Several couches and chairs, enchanted to sit atop clouds, circled around a projector screen. A table full of snack foods sat off to the side, hounded by Thunderlane and Fluffy Clouds. The projector clicked as it rolled through its film, a synchronized soundtrack playing over it.

For the first time in recorded history, pony and griffon armed forces are collaborating in the defense of the Saddle Arabian border—

Sassaflash leaned her head against the back of a couch. “The least Dash could have done was put the movie on before she left. I can’t take much more of these news reels.”

Raindrops’ head popped out from behind a headrest. “You left just before it got good, Fluttershy. Between you and Merry, the whole town got split right down the middle! It was awesome!”

Fluttershy hid behind her mane as her face burned. It hurt just to look at anybody. ‘I started an argument? That’s awful.’

Cloudkicker slapped Raindrops on the back of the head with her wing. “How dare ye burden the poor lass with such talk?”

Raindrops squinted. “Hay, I’m just saying—”

“An’ I’m just sayin’ ye should put a cork in yer mouth afore I shove one up yer—”

“Darling,” Thunderlane said, “mind the baby.”

Clouckicker shot Thunderlane a pointed glare. She patted her belly, then turned back to Raindrops. “Keep yer smarmy thoughts tae yerself, Drizzle.”

“Please stop fighting,” Fluttershy whispered. She brushed her mane from her eyes. “I don’t want anypony to fight.”

Cloudkickers’ ears fell back. “Aye, lass. Dinnae mind me; I’m just runnin’ on hormones.”

She took Fluttershy’s hoof and tugged her into the air. “Perhaps now’s nae the time for small-talk. Come along, we’ll let Dash and Bulk know ye’re here.”

“Okay.” Fluttershy followed Cloudkicker’s lead through the sprawling hallways and airways of Rainbow’s home. Most of it was familiar to Fluttershy—the core of the home remained unchanged from the time it was first built—but much of it was the product of Dash playing around with the architecture. There were trophy rooms, guest rooms, bathrooms, even something of a shrine for her Wonderbolts memorabilia. Fluttershy spied Tank the Tortoise snoozing in his terrarium, fuzzy slippers over his wrinkled feet.

Cloudkicker stepped onto a balcony, at the very top of the mansion. The clouds made shushing noises beneath their hooves. She grinned and sucked in a greedy breath. “Bein’ this high up reminds me of home in the mountains. Nary a spec of ground beneath yer hooves. Naught but rocks and clouds as far as the eyes can see.”

Fluttershy leaned on the railing. Ponyville was still awake, glittering with little lights from windows and street lamps. “It’s very pretty, Cloudkicker.”

“Aye. But nae without purpose.” Cloudkicker touched a wooden pipe hanging from her neck. A round knob sat on the end, beside a long, narrow sheet of metal. “This here is me Da’s boatswain’s call. He was a sailor, ye ken. Spent months away from home at a time, he did, but always came back. Always made things special for us and Mum.”

She snickered. “An’ that last one’s probably why I ended up with fourteen siblings.”

She blew through the pipe. Three notes sang out over the city, and could be heard clear to Sweet Apple Acres. Two pegasi rose above the rooftops, one with a many-colored mane, the other bulging with muscles. They made a bee-line for the cloudmansion.

Fluttershy rose to meet them. “I’m sorry. I just had to be alone.”

Before she could say anything else, Rainbow Dash hugged her tight. Fluttershy returned the embrace, a sting in her eyes.

Rainbow Dash put her hooves on Fluttershy’s shoulders. “What you did was really brave, you know that? I’m proud of you.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “I was awful. I said things I shouldn’t have. There had to be a better way to say it. There had to be somepony who could say it better.”

“Mizz Fluttershy,” Bulk said, “even if there was a better pony to say something, they weren’t there. But you were, so it worked out.”

Cloudkicker rolled her eyes. “It’s always exercise with ye, innit?”

“Funny.” Bulk rested a hoof on Fluttershy’s back. “The fact is that before you said something, Discord didn’t have any supporters. Now, who knows? Maybe something will change.”

Fluttershy nodded. She settled down on the balcony beside Cloudkicker. “Rainbow Dash, the only reason I came was to tell you I couldn’t… um… come.”

“Ye came to say ye cannae come.” Cloudkicker bumped her hip against Fluttershy’s. “Ye really are a silly filly, sweeting.”

“Oh, hay, that’s cool.” Rainbow Dash’s ears drooped. “I kinda figured after what happened. You heading home?”

Fluttershy smiled softly. “Yeah.”

Bulk Biceps puffed his chest out. “I’ll walk you home to make sure you get there s—”

“Actually—” Rainbow Dash nudged him aside with an elbow. “—I’ll walk you home, Fluttershy. There… there’s something I ought to tell you.”

Clouckicker snickered as she watched Bulk’s face deflate. “Come along, Casanova. Mayhaps ye’ll be in luck an’ me husband will save ye some of the buffet.”

Fluttershy floated into the air to make room on the balcony. She hugged herself tight and gave him a wink. “Thank you very much for the kind offer.”

Bulk grinned. He and Cloudkicker flew into the house, leaving Fluttershy and Dash alone.

Rainbow Dash spent most of the flight in silence. The edge of Whitetail Wood wasn’t far; just a couple of minutes away. Fluttershy’s animal friends had already tucked themselves in for the night, save for the nocturnals, which pranced around in the shadows.

Fluttershy touched down on her welcome mat. She sucked her lips in and looked up at Dash. “What was it you wanted to tell me?”

Rainbow Dash rubbed her hooves together. She glanced this way and that, avoiding Fluttershy’s gaze. “Well… you see…”

Fluttershy rose up with a single down-stroke. She nuzzled Rainbow’s neck. “You know that you can come to me with anything, right? It’ll be okay. We can work through it.”

“I know, but it’s not about me.” Rainbow Dash let out a frustrated moan. “You remember last year, when Scootaloo and I went to Cloudsdale?”

“Oh, yes.” Fluttershy put a hoof over her mouth. “Is Scootaloo—?”

“She’s fine. It’s not her.” Rainbow Dash flew back and forth, pacing above Fluttershy’s garden. “But around that time I had a… talk with Discord. About a lot of things. He’s…”

Rainbow Dash sank to the dirt. She hung her head, letting her mane fall loose. “He’s not telling you the whole truth. He’s a lot sicker than you think.”

Fluttershy felt her heart plummet. She thumped to the ground and took Rainbow’s hoof. “What? What’s wrong?”

Rainbow Dash licked her dry lips. “I woulda told you sooner, but I was giving him the chance to tell you himself. But—but cuss it, you deserve to know! After everything you’ve done for him? You deserve that much.”

Fluttershy held her breath, her eyes locked with Rainbow Dash’s. She pushed everything else out of her mind, intent only on her friend’s words.

Rainbow Dash leaned over to rest her forehead against Fluttershy’s. She spoke with a hissing voice. “I think… I think Discord is losing his memory.”

In Which Conversations Go Badly

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Pumpkin Cake snuck out of her room, letting Patty snooze through the morning. She tied her saddlebags tight and stuffed Chewie into the bottom of the left sack. She walked down the hall, passing the room Pound and Rice shared. Both her brothers slept soundly.

Once she reached the ground floor, she poked her head into the kitchen. Her mother was pulling doughnuts out of the oven for the breakfast rush. “Mom, I’m heading out.”

Cup Cake hid her mouth with a hoof and yawned. “Sorry, dearie. I didn’t hear you. It was… the meeting went long.”

“I’m gonna spend the day at the park. I’ll be home for lunch.” The dim sky shone purple through the window as dawn approached. “I want to draw the sunrise. So, I’ll see you later.”

“Sounds fun, sugarplum.” Cup Cake bit back another yawn. “Mind you don’t talk to any strangers. And stay out of dark alleys.”

“Okay, Mom.”

Pumpkin trotted through the town. The misty air tickled her skin. The smell of coffee stung her nose as ponies brewed their main source of energy. The purple sky shifted to red, then orange, as the day reached its true beginning.

Pumpkin smiled. She pulled a pad of paper out of her bags and lifted a cloud of colored pencils. She drew as she walked, each color moving independently, each shape taking form from the depths of her mind. When she was done, she pulled it back from her face.

It was… passable. Almost fridge-worthy. Almost. The sun was more of an egg yolk, and the sky was a complex garble of reds, yellows, and a little lavender. Not her best work.

She looked over her squadron of hovering pens. Try as she might, they refused to paint the picture she saw in her mind. ‘But I’m practicing,’ she thought, ‘and that’s the important part. I just gotta build up my magic and refine my control. That’s what Mrs. Cheerilee says.’

She flipped the pad. On the other side of the page, she scribbled out a few magical equations she’d found in one of Princess Twilight’s spell books. Being written in colored pencil meant they didn’t exactly look academic, but even without casting them, she could feel the power behind them. ‘Even if it’s gonna take me a few years before I can transmogrify a frog into an orange…’

Ahead, she could see her ultimate destination: Discord’s windmill. A grin crossed her face. ‘Maybe I can guilt him into playing a game. Or showing off his chaos magic. Or maybe make some more cookies. Those are some darn good cookies. Maybe he knows what sort of awesome things Princess Twilight is doing around Equestria…’

She stopped short. She wasn’t the only pony headed for the windmill. Fluttershy was walking up to the door, her wings spread and shaking.

Pumpkin hid behind a tree and glowered. ‘Fluttershy doesn’t visit on Saturday. She has animals and cleaning and stuff. Now she’s just gonna want a dumb tea party or… or… What is she doing?’

Fluttershy didn’t move. She just stared up at the windmill, her knees knocking. On closer inspection, Pumpkin could see damp tracks running down her cheeks. Her eyes were red as cherries and puffy as marshmallows.

Pumpkin Cake crouched. She waited for Fluttershy to make a move, but the pegasus seemed rooted to the spot. Just when Pumpkin’s patience wore thin, Fluttershy reached up to knock.

“Discord!” Fluttershy knocked again. “Discord!

She lifted herself up a few inches. She hit the door with more force than before, her voice a touch louder. “Discord, open up!”

No answer came. Pumpkin edged closer, keeping out of sight in the long grass. A change took over Fluttershy; her teeth clenched, her back arched, and her ears lay back. She flew back and slammed her hooves against the door. “Discord, you open up right now!

Pumpkin winced. This wasn’t like Fluttershy. Fluttershy was quiet, and boring, and nice, not scary.

The door swung open, and Fluttershy slammed it behind her.

Pumpkin hopped up from her hiding spot. She scampered to the door and pressed her ear against it. As usual, no sound came from the mill aside from the ancient gears creaking. She lit her horn, cast her spell over her whole body, and slipped through the wood.

Fluttershy was shouting, downright screeching. Pumpkin could barely make out any words, but she suspected the words weren’t important. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.

There weren’t any plates dancing in the kitchen. The coat rack didn’t move to take her bags. There wasn’t any music coming from the fireplace, or lamps spouting free verse poetry. Discord sat in the middle of an empty living room, his face turned downward, his hands clutched.

Pumpkin knew that expression; it was the one she wore when she found out she was grounded. Like the time she pinched Patty, only worse.

Fluttershy finally stopped to take a breath, but Discord didn’t hurry to fill the silence. He sat still, sighing quietly.

“Why?” Fluttershy shouted. “Why would you lie to me for so long? What did you hope to do? What were you even thinking? I thought I was helping you!”

Pumpkin ducked into the kitchen. A flash of magic brought Chewie’s foot to her mouth. She gnawed away at him, shaking under the force of Fluttershy’s voice.

“Everything I did, everything I worked for, was in the hopes that I was making you better!” Tears poured from Fluttershy’s eyes. “Did I do anything that mattered? Do you even remember the things I did?”

“Yes,” Discord said. “I do. You know I always look forward to spending time with you.”

“But why?” Fluttershy held her hooves to her chest. “Why would you hide this from me? Why wouldn’t you tell me you were losing your memory? I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong!”

Discord rubbed the bridge of his nose. His hand slid down his face, stretching it out a few extra inches. “Because if you knew, you’d think there was hope to cure it. I didn’t want to do that to you.”

Fluttershy’s jaw dropped. A vein bulged on her neck. “Are you kidding me? You didn’t want me to know because I’d try to cure you? That’s the stupidest, most brain-dead thing I’ve ever heard!”

“No, I didn’t tell you because you would think that you could cure me.” He wrapped a roll of duct tape around his wrist, but it slid uselessly to the floor. “It would be cruel because you can’t. It’s… it’s not a sickness, Fluttershy. I can’t be fixed.”

Pumpkin gasped, then snapped her mouth shut. She held her breath for a long moment, but it didn’t seem like they heard her. She sat down and rested her cheek against the wall.

Discord brought his hands together. He pulled them apart, revealing a cloud of shifting colors and muted sounds. “It’s my magic. I’m imbalanced. I’m holding in all this chaos, all this confusion, and it has nowhere else to go.”

“But…” Fluttershy drifted to the ground. “You do let it loose. Your windmill. Your silly little jokes. You use magic all the time.”

Discord waved his paw through the magic and transformed it into a flower. He held it by its delicate stem. “This? This is nothing. This is a sneeze compared to my full power. You’ve seen what I can really do.”

Fluttershy shuddered. She looked at anything but the draconequus before her. “Couldn’t you do it somewhere else? Just for a moment?”

“No.” Discord shook his head. “With the sort of chaos I can create? It would be awful. It wouldn’t go away when I was done with it. I’d have to pull it back, and it would just create the same problem all over again. I couldn’t do that to my friends, Fluttershy. I love you guys too much.”

Fluttershy sniffed hard. She stomped a hoof. “What’s going to happen? What are you going to do?”

“The chaos is building up inside of me, a little at a time.” The flower’s petals fell off. They drifted to the floor, where they melted like ice cream in the sun. “I’m trying to hold myself together, but it’s not working. I’m falling apart from the inside out.”

Fluttershy gulped, resting a hoof on his knee. “Are you dying?

Pumpkin pressed a hoof over her mouth and slid back. Her legs gave out. Her chest felt numb.

“I don’t actually think I can.” Discord cupped his chin. “My body will weaken, and my mind will be gone, but then the magic will just… escape to somewhere else. Harming nopony.”

He slumped into a roll of snake-like coils and rubbery limbs. “And I guess that’s the important part. Nopony will get hurt. My friends will be safe. You’ll be safe.”

Fluttershy shook her head. She rose into the air and flew for the door. “I’m going to help you.”

Discord reached out a stretchy talon and snagged her rear leg. “Fluttershy, I’ve looked into it. There’s nothing that can save me. Not Zecora, not Twilight, and not you. Don’t waste your—”

“It’s not a waste of time!” Fluttershy crossed her forelegs and lowered her eyebrows. “And you should be ashamed of yourself for thinking so. You’re my friend, and I’m going to do everything possible to keep you safe and well.”

With a deceptively powerful flap, she yanked her leg away from Discord and returned to the door. She opened it and stepped into the early morning light. “I mean it, Discord. We’re going to help you.”

She shut the door, and quiet returned to Discord’s home. He stared after her, his fists clenched. “This is exactly why I didn’t tell you! Ugh!”

Pumpkin Cake walked towards the entrance. She kept her eyes on Discord, but he never so much as noticed her. He lifted his arms and burst forth magic, transforming the inside of the windmill to a large, open auditorium, filled with big band instruments bellowing out a cacophony of sounds. Frogs tap-danced onto the stage, waving their top hats.

She ran into something soft. She found herself staring into two large, yellowed eyes.

“Where do you think you’re going, Little Miss Cake?” Discord said.

She released Chewie’s foot and let it snap somewhere inside of her bag. “I dunno. I just don’t feel like I should stay here.”

“Oh really?” Discord’s voice became bouncy. Mocking. “You must need something. You only come here when you need something.”

Pumpkin frowned. “How would you know? It sounds like you don’t remember anything.”

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong.” A cloud of sparkles poofed into existence. Discord’s scrapbook lay open; the page held several moving pictures, all showing Pumpkin’s visits. “I don’t remember very well, no, but that’s why I have my book to remember for me.”

Pumpkin Cake blinked, partially in surprise, and partially to clear the dampness from her eyes. She saw dozens of variations on her face, all looking directly at her, all speaking at the same time.

“Hay, can you fix Chewie’s squeaker?”

“My roller skate lost a wheel.”

“I broke my brother’s kite.”

“You need to fix my rubber chicken.”

“So I kinda dropped my dad’s pocket watch in the lake.”

“Chewie can’t squeak anymore!”

Discord slammed the book shut. He lowered his eyebrows and gave her a fake grin. “So what’ll it be? What’s your all-important request this time?”

Pumpkin couldn’t hold it in. Tears ran down her face. Her nose dribbled. She let out a sob. “I want you to get better!”

Discord’s mouth popped open. He stumbled for something to say, but all that came out was a weak “Oh, uh—”

Pumpkin covered herself with her special spell and ran through his body. She kept running until she had gone through his door and into the field. The wooded pathways of the park lay ahead; quiet, and warm, remote and still.


Fluttershy saw her destination drawing close: the Seeds of Friendship Public Library. After the battle with Tirek ten years ago had demolished the original tree, and Twilight’s friends had moved the dead root system to the throne room, the town had set about rebuilding. Earth pony magic modified the tree, carving out rooms and shelves without harming the plant itself. Before long, a library to rival the original had been grown from the ground up.

Twilight Sparkle was grateful that her private collection of first editions was once again private.

Fluttershy pushed the door open, nearly unaware of the jingling little bell announcing her presence. Her heart pounded. ‘Where do I even start? Super Naturals? Would that have something in it about curing memory loss? Maybe I should look at the history of draconequuses and find a clue there? There’s so much that could go wrong!’

Spike lumbered into the foyer, rubbing his eyes. His large, strong frame sat a head taller than Fluttershy, even on all fours. He yawned and peered at her. “Fluttershy? I didn’t expect you to be around after… you know. What can I help you with?”

Fluttershy sniffed, wiping the edge of her eyes. “I… I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.”

Spike’s brow furrowed. He drummed his fingers against the floor. His eyes lit up as an idea sparked behind them. “Tell you what: Why don’t you have a seat in front of the fire? I’ll brew up some tea and you can tell me what’s wrong. Does that sound nice?”

Fluttershy nodded and limped over to the sitting area. The fire crackled in a merry, lively way. She slumped, doing the best she could to relax, even a little bit. It was slow coming.

A hoof thumped against the door. “Come in!” Spike hollered. “The library’s open!”

The door jingled as the pony stepped over the threshold. Fluttershy peered around the chair to see who it was. It was a pony that she’d never met before.

‘Wait, no, haven’t I?’ He had a gray coat, and was wearing a red tie. There wasn’t much noticeable about his features, but there was something about him—‘Oh, the pony that sat next to me during the meeting. I hope he doesn’t recognize me.’

“I’ll be with you in just a second, sir,” Spike called from the kitchen.

“Yes, yes. Thank you.” The pony glanced her way.

She hid herself in the folds of the cushions. ‘Who am I kidding? Everypony in town knows me after last night. I was so stupid.’ She turned her eyes upwards. She had stuck her neck out for Discord, and now the guillotine was coming down. ‘Yay.’

“Pardon me.”

Fluttershy opened her eyes. She hadn’t noticed that they were shut, but she supposed it made sense. “Yes?”

The pony pulled his black boater hat off and held it over his heart. “I couldn’t help but be most very impressed by your speech last night. It’s clear that Discord means a lot to you. How is he? Any better since you saw him last?”

Her cheeks burned. She looked into the fire, trying not to let her exhaustion show. She couldn’t help the tremor running through her legs. “No. He’s not.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so terribly sorry.” He cleared his throat and popped his hat back on his head. “And how rude of me; I know your name but you do not know mine. You may call me Jeuk.”

Fluttershy resigned herself to a conversation, at least until Spike got done. “Yolk as in the egg, or Yoke as in the farm tool?”

“Oh, neither, neither. It’s a foreign word.” Jeuk sat in the seat beside hers, a book tucked under his foreleg. “I’m just visiting Ponyville on business. I’m something of a lawyer, or… Oh dear, I am boring you.”

‘I wouldn’t say this is boring so much as it’s just uncomfortable.’ “Oh, no, of course not. I’m sure you’re very good at what you do.”

“Of course, of course.” Jeuk set the book on his lap and chuckled quietly to himself. “I ought to be after how long I’ve been at it, oh yes.”

He tipped his hat back, a thoughtful look on his face. “You know, Discord has always been a point of interest to me. All draconequuses, really. An odd little hobby I indulge myself in. Have you read much of their history?”

“Um, no actually.” Fluttershy brushed a lock of mane behind her ear. “I can’t say I know much about them, except what I’ve learned from Discord.”

Jeuk smiled. It was a friendly sort of smile, but its presence still caused a prickle to spider up Fluttershy’s spine. She resisted the urge to scratch an itch under her left wing.

“There’s not much to tell, really,” Jeuk said, his head tilted back. “No real effort has been made to… compile their history, and nopony’s bothered to ask Discord himself. Most just assume that he’s the last. They’ve passed into legend. Myth. Most very mysterious. Yes, most very mysterious.”

He showed her the cover of his book, which depicted a detailed sketch of an apple tree. It wasn’t quite the same as those on Applejack’s farm; the roots were more pronounced, the midsection was made of a series of smaller trunks, and the leaves were shaped more like hearts. “The only thing any scholars can agree on is that they had their start in the Garden of Elysium.”

He sighed and set the book on a small wooden table between them. His ear turned at the sound of Spike carrying a tea tray. “But I suppose it’s all nothing more than a fairy tale as far as the present day is concerned. A shame he’s ill; there’s so much we could learn from the Spirit of Chaos.”

Spike cleared his throat, subtlety interrupting Jeuk. He flashed Fluttershy a tiny wink. “Excuse me, sir, was there anything I could help you with?”

“Yes, yes indeed.” Jeuk giggled as he stood up and faced the dragon. He loosened his tie and gestured to the bookshelves. “You wouldn’t by chance have any books about fairies, would you? Such strange creatures.”

Spike’s cheek twitched. He plastered a smile onto his face and nodded. “Sure. We’ve got just about everything you need to know. Are you looking for fiction or nonfiction?”

“A little of both.” Jeuk turned back to Fluttershy. He tapped his hoof against the cover of the book with the strange tree. “I hope you find what you’re looking for, ma’am.”

Fluttershy sat alone in the reading room, staring at the steaming tea pot. She hoped Spike wouldn’t take long to help Jeuk; she wanted to talk to somepony. Do something besides fret about things she didn’t know. Do something besides angst about things she did know.

She filled her teacup and sniffed deep. It was a simple, light brew. Effective at calming the nerves and easing the muscles. Barely any flavor besides “chill out.”

She glanced at the book. On a second look, the apples among the branches were a shiny yellow, much brighter than the same color would be in Golden Delicious apples. ‘I wonder if it’s an artist’s interpretation. It makes sense, since it’s all mythical. At least, that’s what… Mister Jeuk said.’

Fluttershy lifted an ear. She could hear Spike and Jeuk going back and forth in the other room. ‘My, but that stallion could talk the ears off a rabbit.’ She stuck her tongue in her cheek. ‘If Angel were with me, he’d probably say to stop moping around and do something. But what? Where do I start?’

She scratched an itch on the tip of her right ear. Her eyes trailed back down to the same darn book. She read the title: Elysium and the Tree of Life.

‘Elysium.’ She blew a breath through her nostrils. ‘Maybe I should start at the beginning.’

She picked the book up and turned to the first page.


Pumpkin threw a pebble into the small lake in the center of the park. She wiped snot from her nose and selected her next victim. It was a sparkly rock, with little veins of color running through it. It was gorgeous.

She threw it as hard as she could. It made an unsatisfying plink against the water’s surface. She dragged her hoof through the dirt and heaved a scoop into the drink. The shoof that resulted was even lamer.

She let her chin thump to the ground. The scattered stones scraped against her skin. “Ouch.”

Pumpkin looked at the saddlebags she’d dropped a few feet away. She lit her horn and dragged Chewie to her forelegs. She squeezed the rubber chicken tight.


Chewie rose on a current of magic. Pumpkin prodded his core, feeling past the little foam/bead thingies that made up his stuffing. She found the squeaker and gave it a squeeze.

In a flash of power, she pulled the squeaker out with her special spell. She turned it around and looked it over.

“You only come here when you need something.”

Her eyes stung. She returned the squeaker to its place in Chewie’s chest. “Yeah. That’s the only reason.”

Her teeth closed around Chewie’s neck. She sneered at the lake and kicked a rock into it. “Well… Well screw you, Discord.”

“If Mom heard you, she’d wash your mouth out with soap.”

Pumpkin jumped. She squinted at her brother and flicked her tail. “What do you want?”

Pound lowered his eyebrows. He hefted a rock in his hoof. “I wanted to make sure you’re okay. When I didn’t see you hanging around the windmill, I went here.”

He flicked the stone. It skipped three times before it sank. “I guess it didn’t go so good.”

“No, really?” Pumpkin rolled her eyes. “Me and Discord are just such great pals! I can’t wait to see him again! It’s like we’re two peas in a pod, sharing brainwaves.”

She spat Chewie into his usual spot in her saddlebags. “Discord’s nothing but a big, fat butt!

She marched past her brother and headed for the center of town. She heard Pound’s wings flap as he took to the air and followed her. ‘Please don’t say anything,’ she thought. ‘Please don’t ask—’

“What happened?” he said. “Yesterday you were all ‘I want him to get better,’ and today you’re all ‘He’s a total moron!’”

Pumpkin stopped in her tracks and whirled. “I don’t want to talk about it, Pound! That’s why I’m walking away from you!

Pound’s lip curled back as he raised himself a few inches. He crossed his forelegs with a huff. “Sorry. I just want to help.”

‘And I want you to go away,’ Pumpkin thought. ‘Best way to do that… Get you mad at me.’

“You’re not helping!” she snapped. “You’re just being a dummy sticking your nose in places it doesn’t belong! So leave me alone!”

Her brother flinched. ‘Bingo.’ Tears pooled at the corner of his eyes. With barely a mumble, he fluttered away to wherever.

Pumpkin felt a cold jab in her heart. She watched her brother until he disappeared behind the branches of a nearby tree, then continued on her way. The park was even quieter than before; her screams had probably scared away the woodland creatures.

‘Just one more thing I did wrong.’ She plucked a wildflower and chewed on its stem. ‘I probably deserve to be grounded. But Pound never tattles on me.’

The further she walked, the heavier her hooves became. She plodded on until she reached the edge of the wooded path. The western half of the park was open and sunny, with just a few trees dotted around for shade. A bench sat a short distance away—Lyra Heartstrings the street musician was already there, setting up shop.

Pumpkin slumped against a birch tree. She sat on her saddlebags, eliciting a small, wheezy squeaka.

She sighed, tilting her ears to catch the first few notes from Lyra’s lyre. “Yeah, Chewie. I know how you feel.”


Fluttershy flipped the page. Most of the book was recounting tales passed down through the generations, hearsay and bedtime stories. All the stories revolved around Elysium, and all had something to do with a certain tree at the very center.

A tree that grew golden apples.

There was a story of a pony being forced to choose between his love and the fruit. There was a tale of three ponies discovering the tree and tricking the local draconequus out of a bushel. There was a half-finished parable about how the draconequuses had been banished from the garden and scattered by some unknown force.

It always came back to the Tree of Life and its apples. A niggling little itch tickled the tips of her ears every time they were mentioned.

‘I’m sure a golden apple would be very pretty,’ Fluttershy thought. ‘But I’ll bet the gold makes the fruit taste terrible.’

Spike lowered himself into the couch. He poured himself a small bit of tea and took a sip. “Sorry about that. I didn’t expect him to stay so long. He must’ve walked away with every book on fairies we own.”

Fluttershy shrugged and set the book aside. “You can’t help what you love.”

“I know that for a fact.” Spike let out a huff of laughter. He rubbed the scales on his upper arm. “So what’s the matter? Is there something I can do about it?”

“I hope so.” Fluttershy fiddled with her teacup, staring at the tiny little dribble that she hadn’t managed to slurp up. “Somepony… somepony is losing their memory.”

“Who?” Spike leaned forward, his eyes widening. “Is it like… amnesia?”

“No. Not amnesia. It’s worse. It’s—” Fluttershy clicked her tongue. ‘I might as well just get it out. Beating around the bush is what got us here in the first place.’ “Discord. He’s losing his memory because of his chaos magic. I need to find a way to cure him.”

Spike pressed his lips together, forming a tight line. “You might’ve come to the wrong library. I think Twilight would be better at dealing with something like this.”

“I—well—maybe.” Fluttershy kicked herself mentally. “I just, um, oh…” Her hoof came down on the tea tray with a force that shocked her to the core. “I just wanted help, and I didn’t want to bother Twilight if I didn’t have something to bring her! I don’t even know where to start! I just came here, and I still don’t know what’s wrong, and there’s nothing I can do to fix it!”

She brought her hooves to her cheeks to find them dripping. ‘Look at me. I’m such a wimp. I’m always so weak—’

“Fluttershy.” Spike reached out and touched the joint of her wing. “You’re not alone, alright? You’ve got friends who can help you through this. Discord’s sick? Fine. We’ll look for a cure. As a matter of fact—”

Spike stood up and shuffled his way over to a shelf beside the fireplace. He thumbed through the books until he found one in particular. “—I can think of several places to start. First, whenever there’s some sort of magical malady, I always take a look at Super Naturals. Just in case. Next, there’s dozens of medical books here and there. Nothing in-depth, but a good place for a general look. Then, I’ll shoot Twilight a quick message. She’ll pop down here, say hi, and we can really get to work.”

Spike stood proud and placed his hands on his hips. “Trust me. We’ve got this.”

“Thank you. So much.” Fluttershy fluffed out her wings. She tapped her hooves together before rising to her feet. “Are you sure Twilight will have time to help? She’s been awfully busy lately.”

“She’s got the whole next week free, actually. She was mostly planning on researching a project she’s been working on.” Spike waved a hand and tossed another book onto the table. “Barring something really catastrophic happening, you’ll have her full attention.”


Tirek snarled at the guardsponies, all assigned to escort him back to his cell. They paraded in full armor. Magic laced throughout the metal glinted with every movement. They leveled spears and crossbows at his heart, leaving him with no question as to who was in charge.

Stonewall, Shining Armor’s successor as Captain of the Royal Guard, took point as they made their way through the bowels of Tartarus. Monsters leered at them, their fangs dripping, their stomachs rumbling, their tentacles and/or other disgusting appendages squirming.

“I see Celestia spared no expense this time,” Tirek said. “I suppose I should be honored at the sheer terror you all seem to feel in my presence.”

“We are not afraid of you, prisoner.” Stonewall sent a steely glare his way, accompanied by a glimmer from the sharp claws attached to her boots. “In fact, I would say we welcome any attempt to escape, brief as it will be.”

Tirek favored her with a rictus of a smile. His thin arms flexed as he pulled against the cuffs around his wrists. “If I still had the ability to eat magic, you would not be nearly as flippant.”

“But you do not.” Stonewall faced forward and took the right fork of the tunnel. “You have been stripped of magic completely. Devoid of offensive capabilities. Lacking strength or intimidation.”

Each of Tirek’s steps was cut in half by the bonds tying his four legs together. He shuffled along, his eyes flicking from side to side, seeking the faintest hint of an opportunity. “Devoid, you say?”

‘Continue believing that, you pompous thickhead.’ He had but a few minutes until they reached his cell and the magic-suppressing bars that kept him locked up for centuries at a time. He had one chance, and one chance only, before he was once again sealed away and forgotten.

He heard the faint growl of Cerberus somewhere on the far side of the prison. The overgrown puppy had the annoying ability to move to anywhere in the prison nearly instantaneously. Even at full power, Tirek would have difficulty overcoming the mutt, but in his current state, it was impossible.

The faintest hint of the Smooze’s tune tore at the tips of Tirek’s ears.

One of the soldiers started humming along with the blasted song. Tirek’s fangs ground each other into points. Then, a thought hit him. ‘He’s humming. He’s comfortable.’

He glanced around at the other guards. Their spears were still at the ready, but not aimed his way. Their crossbows lay slack on their leg mounts. Even Stonewall herself stared ahead, more wary of the other prisoners than the horror that was Tirek.

“Pride has and always will be your downfall, ponies.”

Stonewall turned her head. “Are you speaking from experi—?”

The space between Tirek’s horns glowed a brilliant orange. A ball of pure, violent power conjured itself from thin air. An eruption of fire laced out to strike Stonewall between her wings, sending her flying.

Tirek kept the flame burning hot. He spun in a circle, pushing the other soldier back with his beam of heat and magic. Spears snapped in half, crossbow strings melted into ash, and armor plating became lumps of hot gold.

A blast tore his handcuffs apart. Another lance of flame removed his leg restraints. He squared his shoulders and stood over his foes, allowing a bellowing laugh to rise from his chest. “Powerless? You think Tirek the Demon King powerless? Foals! I have inborn power greater than that of the mightiest—!”

Stonewall flew through the air and tackled him to the ground. A rib in his upper chest protested with a cry of pain. “Take him down!”

The other soldiers leapt into the fray. Tirek saw dozens of hooves headed straight for his face. In a panic, he let loose a flurry of attacks, striking indiscriminately.

Some soldiers broke off, while others trampled him with metal-shod hooves. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Tirek realized that gloating wasn’t the most effective of strategies.

‘So why not try a different tactic?’

His next beam of hatred-given-form streaked towards the nearby cellblock, where an abomination of tentacles and mouths awaited its doomsday. The attack hit the lock dead-center and melted it into oblivion. A howl from beyond time and space rent the air.

Stonewall halted her assault for a critical instant. “Aw, horseapples.”

Tirek bucked with all four hooves. Stonewall tumbled, catching herself with a flap of her wings before she could crash into the wall. A tentacle grasped at her rear hooves. The other soldiers came to her aid. Magic flickered and blades clashed.

Tirek bolted down the hallway. He couldn’t escape in the same way as his last prison break—they’d know exactly where to look for him. He had to take a chance. Several portals led out of Tartarus, but most were under heavy guard and watched constantly. Canterlot’s exit was out, as was the one near the hated town of Ponyville.

He slid to a stop mere meters away from a massive, muscular, black-furred chest. Cerberus had found him. The three-headed dog growled at him, revealing teeth with the power to bite him into tiny little pieces.

‘It worked once before…’ Tirek swiveled his head. The orb of magic between his horns fired bolts at as many cages as he could see. Five, six, seven cells were unlocked before the dog knew what was happening. Mad laughter surrounded them on all sides as the greatest villains and darkest creatures in all of history were set free.

Tirek was forgotten as Cerberus entered the fight of his life. Prehistoric bugs, ghouls unwilling to die, and living shadows cackled and cried, itching for the chance to get revenge on their captor. Cerberus barked with nearly enough volume to stop Tirek’s heart.

The centaur scrambled past legs that could crush him underfoot. He charged down the hallways at a full gallop, his head tilted forward, his shoulders braced to knock obstacles aside. He knew from memory that there was a portal ahead, at the end of the corridor. To get there, he just had to outrun the violent melee that was spreading through the halls of the prison.

‘There!’ He reached the dead end; the wall was carved with a relief of a smaller town, half mountainous and half in the clouds. A pegasus town, then. And it was little—barely worthy of the attention of the Royal Guard. There was likely no more than a small outpost along the edge.

A hand wrapped itself around Tirek’s rear left hoof. He shrieked and kicked out.

A mangy, apelike creature held fast. “Munchy grateful! Munchy thank you always!”

‘Morlock.’ Tirek would have spat the word, but his throat constricted at the sight of the creature. “Be gone, foul one! I have no room for hangers-on!”

“Munchy will be your servant!” the morlock groveled. Its fur—sparse as it was—clung to its body in grimy clumps. Its tiny nose wrinkled with each simper. “Munchy do whatever you ask! Munchy good minion!”

Cerberus’ enraged barking struck a nerve in Tirek’s chest. The centaur hoisted the pitiful morlock to its clawed feet. “Congratulations, you’re hired. Now shut up and stay close!”

Energy flowed from the base of Tirek’s horns to the tips. An orb of magic, glowing like a miniature sun, sparked with shimmering waves of heat. He focused on the wall and the etched pathways within it. The portal resisted his spell, but was unable to hold back his awesome might. The wall caved in on itself, revealing a pathway made of a swirling, fiery whirlpool.

Munchy hopped on Tirek’s back and peeked over his shoulder. The weight of the morlock strained every muscle in Tirek’s body. “Is it safe?” the morlock asked.

“No,” Tirek said. “Of course not.”

He jumped through. The portal vanished behind him, leaving a pile of molten rubble in its wake.


Tirek regretted every decision he’d ever made up to that point.

He overlooked a sea of ponies buying, selling, betting, screaming, laughing, dancing, singing. Colorful clouds hovered overhead, constantly spitting multihued, attention-grabbing lightning. Neon signs depicted ponies winning games, or promised saucy shows, or advertised big-name stars. The constant cha-ching of slot machines jingled on, and on, and on, and on.

Munchy nodded from his perch. “Las Pegasus nice this time of year.”

Tirek gulped. ‘If I am discovered, it will likely start a stampede that would leave me a pancake.’

There was nowhere to hide, of course. Not in the loudest, most obnoxious city-state in Equestria. Even the darkest alleys had gangs of ponies marauding through them, picking fights with anypony who dared show up in their territory.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no way to fight. ‘Well, horseapples.’

“Look mommy!” a little pegasus filly chirped. “Look at the costumes!”

Tirek squinted. He glanced around, but unless the filly was referring to the hotel busboys, there weren’t any costumes—

“It’s a centaur in authentic Tirek-style garb!” The filly hopped towards him, much to her mother’s dismay. “And look on his back! A Lesser Lightning-Galian Yahoo, commonly mistaken for the ferocious morlock!”

Tirek looked at the earnest filly, who couldn’t possibly be older than five. He glanced at the mother, whose nose was turned up in disgust.

He ventured a smile. “I, um, do cuteceañeras.”

“Unlikely.” The mother scooped her daughter up and deposited her on her back. “Come on, honey. Let’s leave the nice… cosplayers alone for a while, okay?”

“But mooom!

Tirek watched, his mouth agape, as the two ponies calmly walked away from him. He tilted his head, letting an ear droop.

Munchy rested his chin on Tirek’s shoulder. He slobbered as he licked his lips. “Both ponies look tasty. Lots of tasty ponies everywhere.”

“Get off me!” Tirek shook himself until Munchy tumbled from his back. “No eating ponies until we get to safety. It’s only a matter of moments until the guardsponies get here, and I don’t want to be around when they do!”

He drummed his fingers. “We must be crafty if we are to evade the authorities this time. Wise as serpents. We shall make our way down the mountain and hide ourselves away. Then, only when we are certain of our target, can we strike!”

A passing griffon gave him a bemused look. “Dude, who are you talking to?”

Tirek growled. “Can’t you see I’m conversing with my minion?” He gestured with a hand.

The hand met empty air.

He snapped his head around. Munchy was crawling through the crowds towards a savory-smelling hot-dog stand, run by a diamond dog. Tirek hustled to catch up with him and grasped the morlock by his cheek.

“Ouch!” Munchy squealed, drawing altogether too much attention. “Munchy hungry!”

“Munchy will eat later!” Tirek dragged the morlock down the street, his eyes scanning the heavens for soldiers in sparkling armor. “For now, we must get away from prying eyes. Only then can I have my revenge.”

“Revenge?” Munchy cackled. “Revenge is tasty! Who do we venge?”

“The pony most to blame for my problems, of course.” Tirek chuckled as he took a ramp to a lower portion of the city. “I will retrieve my Rainbow of Darkness from Fluttershy.”

Angels in Disguise

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Pound’s hooves settled against the crunchy shingles of a random rooftop. The building was a home business combo, with the shop on the first floor and living space on the second. Most houses in the center of town were like that, and you only got to the solely domestic homes as you reached the edge of town—or the richer neighborhood. It was a symptom of how the town started, Mrs. Cheerilee said once; the Apple Family built their farm, and merchants arrived to trade their goods for quality grub.

‘Speaking of quality grub,’ Pound thought, ‘I think I hear a caramel apple calling my name.’

He wiped his eyes and dried his cheeks. It was embarrassing enough that he was crying at all, but to have anypony see him do it? He’d never live it down. He’d get no sympathy from his friends or his twin sister. He’d get sympathy from his parents, yeah, but that would be even more embarrassing.

‘And then Pumpkin would get in trouble for it and she’d hate me forever.’ Pound grimaced, patting down the mussed-up mane that his mom always said reminded her of chocolate frosting. ‘She’s always mad at me anyways, but…’

He spread his wings and felt warmth run through his fairy strings; the little vessels that brought magic from his heart to his limbs. His magic grabbed the air and lifted him on the wind, carrying him from the rooftop to the street below. The breakfast rush ended about an hour before, so there wasn’t much of a crowd to push through. Pound clomped along at a steady pace, his mind on the treat that was only a bit away.

He set the gold coin on the Sweet Apple Acres market counter. “One caramel apple, please.”

Mrs. Cheerilee leaned over, her signature bright smile shining. “Pound! It’s so good to see you!”

Pound blinked once. “It’s nice to see you, too, Mrs. Cheerilee. I thought Apple Bloom ran the stall today.”

Mrs. Cheerilee waved a hoof, using her other foreleg to take a wrapped apple out of a cooler. “Oh, you know how it is in the off-season. I guess you could call this my summer job; part-time while I look over next year’s curriculum. I need to pull my weight somehow.”

She gave him a close-mouthed smile, which puffed up her cheeks until she was squinting. “I don’t suppose you plan to ruin your supper with this apple, do you?”

“No, Mrs. Cheerilee.” Pound felt a sinking sensation at the thought of going home. His ears drooped before he could get a hold of them. “I… um…”

As Pound watched, a change took over Cheerilee’s face. She smiled as brightly as she ever did, of course, but something happened with her eyes. They grew softer, as if a light behind them shifted from noon to dusk. Her right ear tilted, and her voice grew lower.

“Pound, is something bothering you?”

‘Yes, but how do I say it without getting Pumpkin in trouble or sounding stupid?’ Pound gulped. “I dunno,” he said at last.

Cheerilee shuffled back, making room behind the stall. She held the caramel apple towards him. “Would you like to tell me about your day while you eat?”

Pound shuffled to the far side of the stall. He noted that somepony, most likely Apple Bloom, had scribbled “Employees only” across the wood. He leaned his chin on the countertop. “Sure. Why not?”

He pinched the treat’s stick between his hooves and munched on the fruit. Pitch-perfect. “Pumpkin left early, so I wanted to find her and make sure—and hang out with her. When I found her she was all mopey and told me to go away.”

Cheerilee’s hoof on his shoulder and a gentle smile prompted him onward. He nibbled at the gooey caramel. “I didn’t mean to make her mad at me, but I guess she is. Why does it always feel like I just annoy her?”

“Wait until she’s a teenager,” Cheerilee muttered, just loud enough that he caught it with the tip of his ear. In a voice he was actually meant to hear, she said, “Do you really think she was upset with you, or is there something else bothering her?”

‘Holy cow is there something bothering her.’ “She’s been upset for a couple of days, I guess. One of her friends isn’t feeling well.”

“Hmm.” Cheerilee tapped her chin. “Knowing Pumpkin like I do, I don’t actually think she’s upset with you.”

Pound bit off an especially large bite, filling his cheeks in exactly the way his dad said not to. “Huh?”

“Well, when some ponies get upset…” Cheerilee tilted her head back. A shadow of a frown crossed her muzzle. “It get really easy to say and do things we don’t mean. I know that Pumpkin loves you, Pound, so I don’t think she meant to hurt you on purpose.”

Pound snorted. “If we don’t mean things, then why do we say them?”

“Well, any other time, we could actually think about it and realize that what we’re saying isn’t true.” Cheerilee nibbled her lower lip. “But when we’re upset, it gets harder to remember all the things we like about the person.”

She looked both ways down the street. She let out a small nod and leaned in close. “Can you keep a secret?”

Pumpkin nodded, his chin dripping with apple juice.

“Sometimes, my sister and I fight.”

Pound blinked. His left ear tilted down as he lowered his eyebrows. “What? But you’re one of the nicest ponies I know!”

Cheerilee shut her eyes in a sage nod. “Truer words have not been spoken, but the fact remains. Sometimes we even yell at each other.”

Pound took a moment to imagine Cheerilee shouting, her magenta face growing a nice shade of purple. He couldn’t decide if it was silly or scary.

“But we still love each other.” Cheerilee tapped Pound on the nose. “The trick is to apologize and make up afterwards. The trick is to remember that we still love each other very much.”

Pound looked down at his now-sticky hooves. “But what if she doesn’t want to make up?”

“In your situation…” Cheerilee stood up and brushed dust from her coat. She gestured towards an incoming pony. “Just keep being the nice boy I know you are, and she’ll come around. Don’t let it get to you, Pound. Some people just need to be left alone for a while.”

She grinned wide at her latest customer. “Hello, Scuttlebutt! Can I interest you in some apple-related products today?”

Pound sucked on his hoof. ‘I guess I shouldn’t have bugged Pumpkin when she was upset. But I want to do something! I wanna help her feel better! But it didn’t work. But, but, but, but, but…’

“Thank you, Mrs. Cheerilee,” he said, spreading his wings for takeoff. She gave him a smile and returned to her customer.

Pound glided lazily over Ponyville, giving the other pegasi a wide berth. He could go home and play with his younger siblings, or he could head for the park to hang out with Lackadaisy, or he could see if Scootaloo was doing any awesome tricks…

He sighed. ‘Or I can fly over and beat my head against the brick wall of Pumpkin’s mood. No thanks.’

He sailed towards the opposite end of the park, where Lackadaisy and a few other pegasus foals were pushing the recess equipment to the limit.


Pumpkin lay on her back, all four legs hanging in the air, as she savored her sour mood. She frowned and stared into the middle distance, daring it to come any closer. She held her own little corner of darkness in the birdsong-filled, sun-kissed day.

Lyra’s lyre did its best to drag her out of her funk, but it was a losing battle.

Voices came from across the field. Pumpkin focused on the ponies, straining her ears to listen. A unicorn mare had approached Lyra, and was speaking to her in a chipper voice. Too chipper for Pumpkin’s liking.

Lyra replied, her magic never halting on its course through the strings of her instrument. A happy grin—too happy, of course—broke out across her face. She finished her melody and set about packing up her lyre.

Pumpkin narrowed her eyes to bring the other mare into focus. It was a familiar face, but not one she’d spoken with much: Ribbon Wishes, the local plumber. Ribbon must have noticed she was being watched, because her head turned in Pumpkin’s direction.

‘If she’s smart,’ Pumpkin thought, ‘she’ll just move right along.’

Ribbon Wishes walked towards Pumpkin’s bastion of blueness.

‘Yep. She’s an idiot.’ Pumpkin rolled her eyes. She briefly considered pretending that she was asleep, but didn’t actually think it would work. She could just stay silent and rude, but…

‘She doesn’t really deserve that, does she?’

“Hello, Miss Cake!” Ribbon Wishes said. She kinda looked pretty without the overalls and grease stains, Pumpkin mused, with a curly blue mane and silky pink coat. “Just thought I should let you know that the fountains are in perfect working order again, ready for wish-making.”

“Thanks,” Pumpkin muttered, trying to add a little lightness to her voice. It didn’t come across. “Neato.”

Ribbon’s smile deflated. She rubbed her knee. “Wish taking a while to come true, huh?”

“It was a stupid wish, anyway.” Pumpkin rolled onto her belly and glowered at a passing ladybug. “It doesn’t even matter.”

Ribbon blew a breath through her lips. She sat down just outside of Pumpkin’s bubble of gloom. “It looks like it matters a lot.”

“I don’t even care.” Pumpkin shifted herself so that she faced away from the older unicorn. “Whatever.”

There was a shuffle of hooves on pavement as Ribbon stood back up. “Sometimes wishes take a long time to come true. Sometimes they never come true. Sometimes they don’t come true the way you think they will.”

She walked away, looking over her shoulder. Her eyes met Pumpkin’s. “Sometimes, wishes don’t come true unless we do something about them.”

Pumpkin scowled. She took Chewie’s neck in her mouth and chewed like a timberwolf taking down whatever timberwolves ate. ‘What’s that supposed to mean? What does she know about what I wished? What does she know about wishes? Stupid fairy-godmother wannabe. Stupid Discord.’

Discord probably wouldn’t even remember that he was a big butt to her.

Pumpkin growled and flopped onto her back to stare at the cloudless sky. Lyra headed for town, taking her songs with her. The park became a hollow space of tweeting birds and chirping frogs.

She sat up, Chewie dangling from her lips. ‘Discord’s a big butt, but it’s mostly because he’s sick, right? If he wasn’t sick, he would have to be nice.’ Her eyes turned up to watch a squirrel hop from branch to branch. ‘And if I was the one who cured, him, he’d have to be nice to me.’

She stood up and tossed Chewie into her saddlebag. ‘But Discord isn’t like ponies—regular medicine won’t work on him. The cure would have to be something big, and powerful, and magical… And who’s the most magical pony I know?’

She ran through the woods, taking the quickest path into town. There was one building that was visible from every part of Ponyville, just because of how stinking tall and blue it was. It was the home of the most magical pony in the city and maybe all of Equestria: Princess Twilight Sparkle. If she didn’t know something that could cure Discord, she could find one.

She plowed past ponies in the roadway, skipping through legs and dodging wagon wheels. A few shouts followed her, but she outran them one by one. She bypassed most of the business by taking the back roads, and soon found herself at the steps to the castle.

Right behind a certain butter-yellow pegasus.

Pumpkin nearly screamed. What was it about today that made Fluttershy keep showing up? This wasn’t coincidence, this was the universe actively teasing her. She hunkered down behind a market stall and watched.

Fluttershy was accompanied by Spike, who lugged enough books to tire out two full-grown stallions. They hustled to the door, gave a brief nod to the guards, and slipped inside.

“I don’t suppose you’d be interested in buyin’ some yellow cherries?”

Pumpkin Cake looked over her shoulder with a glare. The pony running the stall plastered a grin onto his face. “Imported straight from Jubilee Farms!”

“Yeah, no. Hush up.” Pumpkin examined the guards. Getting past them would require great cunning, and a meticulously planned approach. The one on the right especially—a purple crystal pony with a jagged scar running across his chest—looked crafty enough to see through the slightest falsehood.

Pumpkin practiced fluttering her eyelids in the cutest way she knew possible. She fluffed out her mane and pulled her lips back in an innocent, saccharine smile. She scrambled as fast as her legs could carry her and stumbled to a stop right in front of the massive stallion. “Excuse me, mister!”

The guard shifted. His scar had the appearance of a chip cut through a gemstone. “Yes? Can I help you with something, citizen?”

‘Who does this guy think he is? The Power Ponies? Who calls people “Citizen”?’ “I borrowed a magic book from Princess Twilight!” She made sure to add a squeak to the first half of Twilight’s name. “Would you let me through so I can return it?”

She noted the exact moment where the guard’s stern demeanor fell away. He pressed his lips together, his eyes sparkling like pearls. “I’m sorry, but the princess is very busy right now. You’ll have to come back later.”

‘Darn. He means it, too.’ Pumpkin pouted and looked at her hooves. “But I promised I’d give it back.”

She lifted her ears, as if an idea had just occurred to her. “Hay, I know! I just saw Mr. Spike go in! Maybe I can give the book to him?”

The guard furrowed his glistening brow. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea either. Why don’t you give the book to me, and I can make sure it gets to the princess.”

Pumpkin drew back and clutched her saddlebags to her chest. “I can’t do that! What if you’re a robber?

The other guard, a pegasus mare whose coat was disguised by her armor’s enchantment, burst out laughing. “Yeah, Coldstone!” she guffawed. “What if you’re a big, bad robber?”

Pumpkin almost snorted, but managed to stay in character. “Please, Mr. Coldstone?”

Coldstone sighed and pushed the door open. “If you get in any trouble I can always blame it on my partner.”


“Thank you mister royal guard, sir!” Pumpkin trotted into the castle like she owned it. “Maybe you aren’t a robber!”

“Nicest thing anybody’s said to me all day!” he shouted as the door slammed shut.

Pumpkin Cake craned her neck back. She’d been in Princess Twilight’s castle before, but it always looked amazing. The high-vaulted ceiling was flawless crystal, having been grown rather than carved. The flooring was polished until she could see her face in it. The windows were made from triangular, multihued crystal shards. “Wow.”

She snapped her mouth shut. She could hear voices further down the hall. She crept forth, keeping to the wall and ducking behind random tables whenever she could. The crystal shimmered from within with the Fires of Friendship, warming the otherwise cold surface. ‘I don’t have time for sight-seeing. I’ve got a draconequus to cure.’

The central room of the castle was the map room. The Cutie Map was deactivated, leaving a blank, blue-colored table surrounded by seven thrones. The voices came from a corridor to the left, which angled downward. Seeing nopony nearby, Pumpkin galloped her way through the hall.

She’d never been to this part of the castle before. School field trips had avoided it, and any other time she’d seen Twilight was in the map room and library. She had an inkling that she knew where the road was headed, though: Princess Twilight’s private laboratory.

She rounded the final corner and found that she was completely right. Massive machines chugged out information. Work benches lay scattered with all sorts of trinkets, baubles, and tools. Potions bubbled and elixirs hissed. In the center of it all stood a lavender alicorn. A cloud of scrolls and pens flew around her, each making a different note on her experiment’s progress.

Pumpkin’s knees jiggled and a silly smile scrawled across her face. ‘That’s so awesome.’

“I’ve long suspected there was more to Discord’s disease,” Princess Twilight said, “but never had the evidence to support my supposition.” The purple gemstone hanging from her neck glimmered as she spoke. She hovered a vial before her face and studied the contents. “From your description of the mind and body breaking down, it sounds a little like a sort of… um… Chaos-Induced Dementia.”

Pumpkin spotted Fluttershy nestled in a chair a short distance away. The pegasus hid behind her flowing mane. “That sounds bad.”

“It is.” Twilight Sparkle poured the liquid into a bottle. The coloration shifted from green to clear. “Hmm. There isn’t much in the way of cures to dementia. It’s a serious roadblock we have yet to overcome. About all we can do is hold it back with memory enhancers.”

Fluttershy slumped in her chair. “I figured as much. Oh, Twilight, I have no idea what I’m going to do! There’s nothing I can think of. I just feel so… stupid and helpless.”

“You’re not stupid, and you’re not helpless.” Twilight set down her swarm of notes and flapped over to Fluttershy. She gave the pegasus a strong hug. “We’ll think of something, okay? Even if we can’t fix it right away, there’s gotta be something we can do.”

“Okay,” Fluttershy whispered.

Pumpkin scooted beneath a table while they weren’t looking. A few of the books Spike had been carrying lay just over her head. She lit her horn, picked one off the top of the pile, and slid it to her waiting hooves. Super Naturals. Lame.

Twilight let out a long groan as she trotted across her lab. “I think the first place to start is with a few proven techniques, though I doubt they’ve been tested for a draconequus physiology. Still, I think we’re at the point where nothing we do can hurt our chances.”

Fluttershy lay her ears back and whimpered.

“I didn’t mean it quite like that.” Twilight pulled a fresh page out of her pile and drew her pen across it. “I can contact the dean of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns and see if she can’t refer me to any specialists.”

Pumpkin shoved the book aside and pulled a new tome from the bottom of the pile. ‘Grimoire Alicorn? I don’t even know how to pronounce that. Next.’

“Other than that…” Twilight cast her friend a soft look. “You’re the most—I guess I wanna say ‘medically inclined’—of the six of us. Do you have any thoughts?”

Fluttershy leaned her foreleg on the table, shifting the books. Pumpkin pressed herself back to keep out of sight. “Not really. Just faint little feelings. Nothing scientific.”

“If Pinkie’s taught me anything, it’s that I don’t understand everything yet.” Twilight rested her wing across Fluttershy’s shoulders. “What sort of feelings?”

“When Spike and I were researching…” Fluttershy shrugged, swishing her hoof across her coat. “The one thing that kept popping up was the Garden of Elysium. It’s… said that the draconequus species first appeared there. There this itch in the back of my mind telling me it’s important.”

Twilight brought her eyebrows together. She paced beside Fluttershy, chewing the tip of her mane. “The garden is a folk tale. A collection of folk tales, really, that date back to the First Age. Earliest recorded history, if ‘word of mouth’ can count as a record. It’s all hearsay and myth.”

They were turned away. Pumpkin swiped another book, this one titled Elysium and the Tree of Life. Pumpkin gave it a double-take. ‘Eli… see um? This is what they’re talking about. Maybe I can see something they don’t?’

Twilight rubbed the side of her head. “They don’t even agree on much. Sometimes it’s the draconequuses that own the garden, sometimes it’s the fairies. Sometimes it’s closed off to mortals, sometimes they’re freely welcome.”

As Pumpkin scanned, she had to agree with Twilight’s thoughts. None of the stories linked together; they all had a different hero, and a different antagonist. They might as well have taken place in different worlds. One pony sought the Tree of Life, while another bartered her firstborn for a set of golden apples, while a third hid within the garden to escape imprisonment. It just kept going.

Twilight’s head popped up. She narrowed her eyes at Fluttershy. “Was there anything specific that stood out to you about the stories? Anything that consistently drew your eye?”

‘That’d be hard to believe,’ Pumpkin thought. “The only thing that gets mentioned more than once is the—” She focused on an illustration. Three mystical creatures stood around the Tree of Life, each holding a golden apple. A pony knelt before them, its hoof reached out, begging.

“I don’t know, Twilight.” Fluttershy spread her wings with a sigh. “Every time I think I know the answer, I second-guess myself.”

Pumpkin read back. The pony’s daughter was ill to the point of death. The only thing that could save her was a legendary apple that could mend the body and strengthen the mind. The pony journeyed to Elysium to find a cure.

‘A cure.’

“A cure!”

She slapped her hoof over her mouth. Fluttershy leaped into the air, while Twilight snapped her head towards Pumpkin’s hiding spot. The table moved in a strong telekinetic field.

Pumpkin lay bared to the world, surrounded by three books and a rubber chicken. She waved. “Haaay, Princess Twilight. Fancy seeing you here?”

“Pumpkin Cake.” Twilight brought a hoof to her necklace. “To what do I owe the honor of your visit to my private laboratory? Twilight Time doesn’t start up again until next Saturday.”

“It doesn’t?” Pumpkin backed away and rubbed the back of her neck. “Gee. Ooh. My whole calendar is messed up now. I guess I’ll just have to come back then. Sorry about the whole ‘invasion of your privacy’ thing. Lips are totally sealed. Glued, cemented, the whole works.”

Twilight nodded. “You’re still holding my books, Pumpkin.”

“Er—” Pumpkin glanced at the three textbooks held in a bubble of her own blue magic. “Well, you see, these are actually from the public library, so anypony can borrow them—”

“Not this one,” Twilight said, neatly slipping the Grimoire Alicorn out of Pumpkin’s grasp. She focused until the book disappeared in a flash—shunted off to Nowhere, her extra-dimensional holding cell. “And I would appreciate honesty, Pumpkin. Why are you here?”

Pumpkin winced. She scuffed her hoof across the floor. ‘Might as well rip the bandage off.’ “I wanted to see if you knew how to help Discord. I think he’ll stop being a butt if he gets healed. Maybe kinda.”

Twilight nodded slowly. “From the sound of your outburst, it seems you found something. Would you share it with us?”

Pumpkin flipped through the pages of Elysium. She stuck a hoof out at the begging pony. “It says here that golden apples are, like, super-awesome at healing and stuff. It can stop a pony from dying, even. Maybe Fluttershy needs to go to Elysium to get a golden apple for Discord?”

She bowed her head. “It’s the only thing that’s mentioned in all the stories.”

Fluttershy pressed her hoof against her mouth. She laid her other hoof on Pumpkin’s back. “Oh, sweetie. Golden apples are just a myth.”

Twilight Sparkle looked from Pumpkin, to Fluttershy, and back again. She tilted her head, wrinkling her muzzle. “Some myths are worth believing in.”

She strutted through the lab, picking up little odds and ends and setting them in their appointed places. “We should speak with Discord about the garden and see if he remembers anything. Maybe there’s some epic poem or another about somepony’s journey to find an apple. Something to help us locate something that’s been lost for several millennia.”

Twilight spread her wings and lifted a regal foreleg. “Don’t worry, everypony. I have a feeling that everything is going to be just fine.”

Pumpkin lowered her ears to her scalp. She could hear Spike running at full speed down the hallway, his draconic breaths heating the air. “You just had to say it, didn’t you, Twilight?”

“Say what?” Princess Twilight met Spike halfway down the hall. He leaned over, his hands on his knees, trying desperately to catch his breath. Twilight rested her hoof on his shoulder. “What’s wrong, Spike?”

“Message… Luna…” He gasped, holding a sheet of paper in the air. “Important… Bad guys…”

Twilight took the note and scanned it. Her face grew a brighter shade of purple. Her frown etched itself deep into her face. Her hackles rose.

Fluttershy sat down and shook her head. “Do I even want to know?”

“Not especially,” Twilight said. “Tirek escaped.”


Luna let a grin take control of her face as the portal activated. A very special pony stepped into Tartarus from her home in Ponyville. “Princess Twilight. Welcome to the madhouse.”

Twilight Sparkle grumbled under her breath. She gave Luna a quick squeeze of a hug. “How are things?”

“For one, it is very good to hear your voice again.” Luna’s grin became savage. “And for another, it is nice to return to the good old days of kicking copious amounts of buttocks.”

Tartarus looked like battlefield. Royal Guards marched in time through the halls. Legions of troops soared through the cavernous rooms. Unicorns cast every type of tracking spell imaginable.

“We locked down the portals, save for the one you just came through.” Luna gestured at the ceiling with her horn. “Unless the monsters are able to dig through several miles of solid stone, they are effectively trapped. The problem is keeping them all corralled.”

Twilight nodded, taking notes as Luna talked. “Who were the escapees?”

“Besides Tirek, just one other.” Luna extended a wing and led Twilight through the bowels of Tartarus. At least one shadow-monster shied away from their presence. “A morlock with the self-given name of Munchy. A pathetic little thing with a taste for sapient flesh.”

Twilight shuddered. “That is disgusting!”

“It is not as bad as it could seem.” Luna opened a door and brought them into a well-lit cave. Tables scattered around the floor, holding maps of the prison and arrangements of figurines. Stonewall, Captain of the Canterlot Guard, saluted.

“You got the missive I sent you about Tirek’s magic situation?” Luna asked.

“Oh, yes.” Twilight gave her a shy grin. “I may have silently cheered. Just a little.”

“I will consider it a boon that we do not have to worry about the centaur taking control of Equestria once more.” Luna sat before the largest table and gestured to a seat on the far side. Once Twilight was situated, she picked up a figure in her magic. “We have an issue with the prisoners. It is an ongoing riot. Every time we capture a creature, two more get set free by its fellow inmates. It is madness, Twilight, and it must stop. We need every available pony tracking these creatures down before they find a way to escape en masse.”

Twilight looked over the map of Tartarus. As Luna watched, she saw her friend’s heart fall. “But…” Twilight gritted her teeth. “That means…”

Her chin slumped to the map. She let out a huff. “I don’t have time for a prison break. Discord is going nuts, Luna.”

Terrifying images of the Crown Prince of Chaos at work flew through Luna’s mind. Singing crocodiles, slimy trees, smelly grass. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head. “The sort of nuts that requires a friendship laser to the head?”

“No… Not yet.” Twilight Sparkle leaned on her hoof. Various little bits of plastic stood around her, standing in for various troops or known monsters. “He’s losing his memory, though, and the end of that makes me think he might revert.”

Luna folded her hooves. “If I may, Twilight…”

Twilight focused on her.

Luna bowed her head in respect. “Discord is a very powerful individual. But then, so are we. He is not currently a danger to others. Tartarus is.” She swept a wing around the room. “If the riot continues, many, many ponies and other beings will get hurt. If we are to stop it, it requires our full attention.”

Twilight covered her head with both forelegs. “So Discord is a priority, but Tartarus has to be a higher one.”

“Pretty much.” Luna smirked. “You are our only hope, princess.”

“Don’t call me that,” Twilight groaned. “It makes me feel important. Important ponies don’t get to have fun and make their own decisions.”

“Sometimes, our decisions are the only ones that matter.” Luna lifted a hoof and signaled for a pony to bring them refreshments. “That’s the long and the short of it. Shall we set about taking back Tartarus?”

Twilight drew herself up. She set her jaw firm. “I need to tell Fluttershy, first.”


Fluttershy read over Twilight’s letter for the dozenth time. Called away on princess duties. Again. This time, right in the middle of a crisis.

Angel Bunny sat in the middle of her back, massaging her slowly, as though he was kneading dough. He eyed the note and scowled. He blew a raspberry for good measure.

Fluttershy couldn’t exactly blame him. ‘What rotten luck. It’s not fair. It’s not fair to Discord.’

Her couch was cozy, as usual. Her cottage was secure and safe, as always. Her animals friends were ready to help, as ever.

‘To help with what?’ Fluttershy thought. “There’s nothing we can do.”

Fluttershy thoughts were mercifully interrupted by a knock at her door. She slid across the floor, almost too exhausted to walk. It was more self-consciousness than confidence that lead her to stand before opening the door.

Rainbow Dash stood on her doormat, her saddlebags bulging at her sides. The rainbow-maned pegasus kicked the dirt, refusing to meet Fluttershy’s gaze. “So, I wanted to say goodbye before I headed back to Cloudsdale. I volunteered to help with the rebuilding efforts, so… Hi. Bye.”

She almost raised her eyes, but turned away at the last second. “So, I guess Discord is really bad, huh?”

Fluttershy bobbed her head, unwilling to commit to anything else.

“I wish I could help you.” Rainbow flicked her mane. “But I can’t.”

Her voice cracked. She pulled Fluttershy into a hug and backed away just as quickly. “J-just don’t give up hope, okay?” Rainbow said. “Just keep on hoping and maybe things ’ll work out. There’s still time for Discord, right?”

“I don’t know,” Fluttershy said.

“No? No, I guess not.” Rainbow Dash spread her wings, but didn’t take off. “What are you gonna do?”

“I don’t know.” Fluttershy blew a whisper, her mane dancing in a chilly breeze from the east. “I just don’t know.”

“Well, you know…” Rainbow Dash grinned. Her eyes didn’t quite match the rest of her face. “If you get into a tight spot, just ask yourself ‘What Would Rainbow Dash Do?’ That’s WWRD… D. Totally awesome and unique motivational exercise.”

Fluttershy’s shoulders went limp. She rested her side against the door frame.

“Hay.” Rainbow Dash reached out and touched Fluttershy’s cheek. “Have I ever steered you wrong before?”

Fluttershy managed a giggle. “Do you want me to answer that honestly?”

“Heck no.” Rainbow Dash shook her head. She held her forelegs wide. “Come here. Real hug this time.”

Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash squeezed each other tight, holding on until their emotion was spent. Dash waved a goodbye as she sailed off into the sky, leaving Fluttershy to her own devices.

‘I guess I’m hungry,’ Fluttershy thought. She trotted to the kitchen and went about whipping up a meal for herself. Carrots and potatoes were chopped up and tossed in a pot alongside broth. The stew simmered as she stirred. ‘“What Would Rainbow Dash Do?” Now that’s a scary question. Charge in head-first and clobber whatever villain was in her way. That’s what she’d do.’

A sip told her that it was coming along nicely, but needed a little pizzazz. A couple herbs and a twist of pepper would do the broth good. ‘Rainbow can do things without being afraid. She can do things even when she’s afraid. But me? It’s hard. It’s always been hard, and it’ll always be hard.’

Angel Bunny tapped his foot. Fluttershy glanced his way. “No, Angel. I fed you and everybody else an hour ago. You had a nice salad, and this stew wouldn’t be good for your tummy.”

Angel clearly didn’t believe her, but hopped off all the same. She smiled and watched his fluffy tail bounce behind him.

Fluttershy set her table with a single bowl, a single spoon, and a single napkin. Stew was ladled into her dish. She pulled a book off the shelf and held it open with one hoof while the other hoof held her spoon. She read as she ate, the same as she did most every night.

She rolled her eyes. ‘Come on, Kabuki, you know he loves you. Just kiss him already. You’ve been going through this same story for five volumes now. You literally have nothing to worry about…’

She let the spoon sink into her dish. She stared at the book with a frown. ‘You’re afraid, but what would happen if you weren’t?’

Her house grew quiet. Soft bunny snores slipped in from the other room. The last light of the sunset shimmered through the back window.

She licked her spoon dry and looked at her reflection. A rounded, silly face looked back. “What would happen if you did it anyways?”

She kicked up a slice of carrot and mashed it between her teeth. ‘What Would Rainbow Dash Do? She’d do what’s right, even if she was scared out of her wits. Should I do what Rainbow Dash would do done zippity dop wow?’

Fluttershy snickered. “Suddenly I’m singing scat.”

She hopped from her seat to scribble a quick note. Next Ponytones Song: What Would Rainbow Dash Doh Wop Diddy Doo? Discuss with Sweetie Belle.

She grabbed a Sweet Apple Acres apple from a sack she kept in the kitchen, rounding out supper with fruit. She bit deep and slurped up the juice before it could dirty her coat. She stared at the red apple, which matched perfectly with the sky outside.

‘Rainbow Dash would get that apple.’ Fluttershy looked into the sunset as it burned distant clouds over the Undiscovered West. ‘She would get that apple and save Discord before Twilight ever got back from her mission.’

She stared at the apple with as much determination as she could muster. She brought it to her mouth with a decisive chomp.

‘I’ll get that cure, Discord,’ she thought, ‘even if it’s the last thing I ever do.’

Night fell over Ponyville. Its citizens went to sleep, or headed for the Keen Bean, or started up evening hobbies, or visited friends. In one little corner of the city, on the very edge of its outskirts, a butter-yellow pegasus softly serenaded her animal charges from the bottom of her heart.

“Dooby do zoot dee da wah… Dippidy dot zara doo dun doo… Wah wah haha doradda dee…”

Moving in a New Direction

View Online

Tirek peered at the secluded building from behind a tree. He narrowed his eyes, scanning for sentries, auxiliary entrances, and other sources of danger. The sign hanging over the door consisted of an approximation of a braying stallion, above the words The Bucking Bronco. “This is the place.”

Munchy parted a wall of tall grass. He licked thin lips. “Munchy smell food. It sizzles and it wriggles.”

“Would you please think on things besides food?” Tirek’s long, black nails dug into the bark. “There are more important things to worry about, such as ultimate revenge, or not getting captured by the princesses.”

“Sheesh,” Munchy muttered. “You think Munchy have one-track mind? Always blah blah ‘stay away from guards,’ blah blah ‘stop drawing attention,’ blah blah blah.”

Tirek’s hand jumped out to close around Munchy’s neck. The centaur glared daggers of untimely death at the morlock.

Munchy grinned. “And Tirek can blah blah all he want! Please blah blah more! Munchy likes it so much! Munchy want nothing more than—”

“Laying it on,” Tirek said, “just a little thick.”

“Munchy shut up now.”

“Indeed.” Tirek crept closer to the building, a black cloak pulled around his shoulders. He had pulled it from a dumpster somewhere back in Las Pegasus, and it still smelt of old hay. It did nothing to obscure his appearance, but it did add just that touch of mystery and malevolence to his appearance. He pulled the hood over his horns until only his yellow eyes were visible. “We have an appointment to make.”

Munchy looked at his empty wrist. “What time?”

Tirek slowly lifted his hand to rest it against his forehead. He drew his fingers down his face, leaving white scratches in his red skin. “You are an imbecile.”

Before Munchy could decipher his insult, Tirek pushed open the front door.

The musty atmosphere of the tavern wafted around his head like clouds around a mountaintop. Diamond dogs, donkeys, chimeras, minotaurs, and a horde of other miscelanious sapient species huddled around tables, or clutched cards to their breasts, or guzzled mugs of murky brown fluid. Muted music played in the background, hissing from an old phonograph.

A Clydesdale-sized cat-thing leaned over the counter, polishing a glass with a dirty washcloth. She extended a claw from her paw to indicate Tirek. “Close the door, hexapod. I ain’t payin’ to heat the outdoors. Heck, I ain’t payin’ to heat the indoors neither. Move your caboose.”

Tirek scowled with an expression known to curdle cheese. He suspected her cheese was long past curdling and well into becoming fossilized. He kicked out with a hind leg and launched Munchy into the room, then used the same leg to shut the door. “I thought Grogar ran this tavern.”

“Grogar’s dead. Dragon ate him. Left his will to whoever could find it.” The female cat-person reached into the bosom of her dress and pulled out a dirty scroll, scrawled in haphazard writing. “This here’s my bar now. Name’s Catrina, former witch and currently the chick mixing your drink, so tip well.”

It only took one look to tell Tirek that the seats around the bar were not built for his body type. He leaned his elbows on the countertop and rubbed his forefinger and thumb. “I’m not here for a drink—”

“Munchy is!” The morlock hopped onto a stool and grinned at Catrina. “Munchy likes chocolate milk!”

“I’m sure you do,” Catrina said through clenched teeth. She turned narrow pupils on Tirek. “Is this thing with you?”

“Barely.” Tirek pinched the bridge of his nose, not slowing the coming migraine in the slightest. “I’m here for information. And to hire somebody.”

“Hire?” Catrina tossed the cup across the room, where it made a tremendous crash in the sink. “I suggest you try Equestrian Unemployment. Though I’ll bet they turned you away, too.”

“My job description is not exactly…” Tirek rolled his fingers through the air. “I hesitate to say ‘legal.’ I require more discrete employees.”

Tirek flinched at a cacophony behind his back. He turned to see the aftermath of a minotaur dropping a oak table onto a diamond dog’s head. It was gonna leave a mess.

Catrina’s ears tilted back. “Discrete isn’t the word I would use.”

“Unprincipled, then.” Tirek slapped his hands onto the counter. “I don’t know. Just tell me where I can find someone!”

With a sigh, Catrina leaned her back against the counter. She crossed her legs and brushed her long hair over her shoulder. “Alright. What’s the nature of the work?”

Tirek rubbed his hands together. “Murder.”

The tavern grew quiet. Tirek perked his ears. Pulling away from the counter, he saw that there were fewer sapients on display than before. Nearly half the patrons had scooted out the door. “That’s one way to narrow down a job opening.”

Catrina nodded. She rolled her paw at the wrist. “Come on, details. What species, where are they, who are they—”

“It’s an Equestrian.”

Another large chunk of people vanished from the tavern.

Catrina raised her eyebrows. “Dang. You’ve gotta be payin’ a large chunk of change to try and hire a hit on a pony. Who’d you say you were?”

“They live in Ponyville,” Tirek snarled.

There was a quiet patter as more creatures made themselves scarce.

Catrina straightened up. She dug her claws into the countertop. “Okay. At first it was cute, but now I see you’re just suicidal. Look, buddy, if I knew you were that sloshed I wouldn’t have offered you a drink.”

“I’m serious.” Tirek pressed his forefinger into his opposite palm. “I have compensation well worth the deed. All I need is a willing participant.”

A low cough came from somewhere on the other side of the room. A diamond dog whimpered.

Catrina reached her paw beneath the countertop. She swallowed hard. “Please tell me you’re not stupid enough to say—”

“The pony I want murdered is named Fluttershy.”

The only creatures left in the tavern were Tirek, Catrina, Munchy, and the diamond dog struggling to dig himself out from under the table. As soon as his leg got free, he limped through the front door, sipping from random cups as he went. The door slammed with a great deal of finality that wasn’t quite lost on Tirek.

Catrina’s jaw plummeted. “Celestia’s blisterin’ buttocks, you went there.”

“Crude,” Munchy said.

“Shut up, skeevy.” Catrina spun away, the end of her tail flicking back and forth. “Get out of my tavern. You’ve cost me enough business today. Ain’t nobody in their right mind gonna help you murder a pony. It’s roasting yourself at the spit, you darn rocking horse.”

Tirek picked up a cup and slammed the bottom against the wood countertop. “Are ponies so terrifying that the darkest scum of the earth flees in terror at their mention? What happened to the greater days of old, when the foals cowered beneath true power?”

Tirek threw his hood back. He reared up and shouted at the top of his lungs. “Is there no one who will join Tirek in fighting the light that so readily pushes back the darkness?”

A cricket chirped from the bottom of a jug of ale.

Tirek lowered himself and let his shoulders droop. He glanced at Munchy, who was busy gnawing at a table leg. “I suppose I should have expected as much.”

He sat on two chairs, one for his back half, one for his front half. He ignored how very awkward it was. “Grogar would have known somebody crazy enough.”

Catrina poured herself a tall drink. She threw back a long, slurping gulp. She tottered to her cash register and started counting coins. “It’s your fault, you know.”

Tirek snapped his head around. He clenched his fists. “How do you mean?”

“You came tromping around, tall as a mountain, breathing fire and farting thunderbolts…” Catrina finished off her pint with a burp. “And they still whooped your equine hindquarters.”

She scratched her ear with her pinkie’s clawtip. “And the only ones willing to mess with them now are those who’re a heck of a lot sicker in the head than their sense of self-preservation can counter.”

Tirek drew his cloak tight around his torso. Munchy hopped up and gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. Tirek shrugged him off and stared into the murky lantern light.

“Aw, c’mon, Reena.” A voice slid like silk from one corner of the room. “Ain’t as bad as all that.”

Tirek looked into the corner, but saw nothing but wooden walls and busted chairs. He rose from his chairs and broadened his shoulders just a hair. “Who’s there? Show yourself.”

“It’s my house, horse man.” A long, white grin materialized out of thin air. Two purple eyes, slit down the middle with sinister pupils, blinked. “I don’t gotta do a thing you say.”

The grin moved closer to a lit lantern. A body formed from shadow, becoming starker as it neared the light. It was a lithe feline body, coated in black fur. First two legs appeared. Then four. Then six. A long tail snaked through the air behind it, accompanied by two trailing growths from behind its shoulder blades. It picked the lantern up in its two front paws and became, for all appearances, completely solid.

Tirek looked down at the creature. He tilted his head to the side and ran his fingers through his beard. “What manner of creature are you?”

Catrina dropped bits down the front of her dress, disinterest dripping from her face. “His name’s Lacer. He’s my brother. He’s nuts.”

Lacer extended a paw and gave Tirek a friendly sort of smile. “Lacer the Displacer to my pals and business partners. Now, I hear you’ve been givin’ my sister a hard time. Got a hard sell to get across?”

Tirek shook the paw, his eyebrows coming close together. “A displacer beast? I thought you were extinct.”

“Nah, man. Nah.” Lacer’s grin hardened. “Just real good at hiding.”

He took a step back and shrugged with his four front legs. “Now I hear along the grapevine you’ve been searchin’ out some bad dudes who ain’t afraid of a little killin’. Sounds fine by me, but you might wanna sweeten the deal a little.” The middle limbs crossed his chest, while the upper limbs looped behind his head. “What chance do we have of not gettin’ our assets thrown in the dungeon for eternity?”

Catrina threw her head back with a prolonged, roaring groan. “Lacer, stop being an idiot!”

Lacer moved faster than a blink, quieter than a whisper. He was at his sister’s side in an instant, sliding his forelegs around her shoulders. “Reena! Sis! Ain’t a problem! Look at it this way…”

He pulled her up to the cash register and clicked it open. A moth flew out before being promptly devoured by Munchy. Lacer ran his paw over the empty space. “If he’s on the up an’ up, we can kill the pony and escape long before the princesses go pokin’ around. These immortal types are crazy, don’t even know the worth of gold. Just trust me on this. Our problems? Poof. Gone in a heartbeat.”

Lacer turned his shiny teeth on Tirek. “One final, stutterin’, gaspin’ heartbeat.”

Tirek stood tall. He threw an arm out to allow his cloak to flow suitably dramatically. “I intend no offense, though I had wished to hire more than just one able-bodied creature. The deed I intend requires numbers and strength.”

“Ain’t no issue, there,” Lacer chuckled. He snapped two paws in synch. Shadows flowed around the room, shifting and weaving through the lantern light. Wide, white smiles leered at Tirek from every corner of the room. “If you don’t got family, you don’t got nothin’.”


Fluttershy fluttered up to Discord’s windmill with a smile on her face, determination in her eyes, and hope in her heart. She knocked with a firm hoof, shaking morning dew from her tail. “Discord! Discord, I need to talk with you!”

A yellowed eyeball popped out of the keyhole. “Tee chuta hhat yudd?”

Fluttershy jerked her head back. She raised a hoof, gnawing at her lower lip. “I, um, don’t think I get that reference.”

“Typical.” An eyelid slid halfway around the eye, lidding it. “What do you want, Fluttershy? I’m tired.”

“I have good news!” Fluttershy fanned her wings and beamed. “We think we may have found a cure for you! Maybe. But it’s good enough to try.” She felt her mouth slack ever so slightly. “It’s better than the alternative.”

The eye blinked. It retracted back into the keyhole.

Fluttershy landed. She kicked her hoof through the long grass. “Discord?”

The door swung inward. Fluttershy took a good, long look at the hinges, which were designed for the exact opposite direction. She shrugged and moved inside.

Her first step ended with a light, tangy musical note. Her second step was of a lower pitch, as was the next. She trotted forward, forming a song with her gait. She let a mild smile settle on her muzzle. ‘It sounds nice. Maybe he’s feeling a little better.’

Heavy, deep piano notes crashed from the kitchen. A plate rolled through the archway and rattled to a stop at Fluttershy’s feet. Discord tromped out after it, each of his steps leaving a sour, grumpy blat in the air. He stomped on the plate, shattering it. “I’m busy.”

“I can… see that,” Fluttershy said. Discord was wearing a pink apron, which depicted Princess Celestia wearing a dunce cap. “But… but we think we’ve found something that could save you! Can you tell me anything about the place you were born?”

Discord rolled his eyes. He pulled a toilet plunger from nowhere and stalked over to the sink. Blat, honk, blat, honk. “Born? As far as I know, I’ve always existed. Eternal and immortal. I like it like that.”

Fluttershy hurried to keep up. Ding, ting, ding, ting. “You of all creatures should know that everything has a beginning.”

“And you of all creatures,” Discord said, “should know that everything has an ending.”

He plunged the plunger into the sink, which shook with groans and dog-like barks. Fluttershy jumped onto the counter and pushed him away. “That doesn’t give you an excuse to give up!” she said. “And I won’t give up so long as there’s a hope.”

“Oh, really?” Discord leaned his elbows on midair and cupped his chin in his paw. “Tell me then, oh marvelous one, what’s this amazing, unforeseen cure?”

She puffed her chest out. “Golden apples!”

Discord smiled. He reached down and yanked his goat leg from its place on his body. He held it out to her and wiggled his snaggletooth. “Go ahead. Pull the other one.”

Fluttershy frowned. “I’m serious! I think that a golden apple will help, if not cure you completely. Legend has it they can turn back the clock, restore a body to whole! Isn’t that just what you need? A little more strength?”

“I could eat apples for days and never regain an iota of control.” Discord let his leg pop back into place. “Made of precious metals or not. Fluttershy, please, let me go and stop wasting your time.”

“No.” Fluttershy jutted out her chin. “No. I’m going to go right on wasting my time. No matter what you say, I’m going to keep searching for a cure. I’m not going to stop until you can be well again. Until you can be happy again. And that’s final.”

Discord held her gaze for a few seconds. He looked away, clicking his tongue. “Oh, I know there’s no arguing with you. Well, lay it out for me. What makes you think this is a good idea?”

Fluttershy reached into her saddlebags and pulled forth Elysium and the Tree of Life. “I know it’s just old legends, but so was Nightmare Moon. So was Sombra. So were you. There has to be some truth in there. They say that Draconequuses came from this garden, Elysium. There’s supposed to be a tree that grows golden apples there. Oh, even if we can just find one apple, it would be so helpful.”

Discord yanked his apron off. He flipped it through the air and let it drape over nothing. It hovered like a round table between Discord and Fluttershy. “So,” he said, “your magnificent plan is to find my birthplace, drag me there, find some fruit that probably doesn’t exist, and then hope it cures me.”

Fluttershy’s mouth went askew. “It sounds silly when you put it like that.”

“Everything sounds silly the way I put it.” Discord snapped his fingers. A plate of cookies dribbled onto the middle of Princess Celestia’s dunce-cap-bedecked face. “Nourishment? Perhaps libations? Something to get your mind off of my troubles?”

Fluttershy hovered over the table, paying the food no mind. “Discord, do you have a better idea?”

“Mm…” Discord leaned his paw on the table and touched his talon to his lips. “Nah.”

“Then come on.” Fluttershy reached down and took his hand. “Come with me. Help me find Elysium and the apples. It can’t hurt.” She blinked up at him with the biggest, wettest eyes she was capable of conjuring. “Please? Pretty please with a cherry on top.”

Discord recoiled. “Oh, dear, no. Please, not the cherry on top. I can’t handle the cherry on top!”

Fluttershy pouted. “So you’ll do it? Please say you’ll do it.”

“Ugh! Of course I will!” Discord flung his hands into the air. They tumbled to the ground in a shower of confetti. “If only to preserve my own sanity. Ironically enough.”

He snatched the book from under Fluttershy’s wing and breezed through the pages. “I am curious, though. I can’t remember a wit about this place, and it seems to be utterly lost to memory. How do you intend to find Elysium, a wholly mystical, mythical place?”

“Well…” Fluttershy tugged his wing and leg him towards the door. “We ponies have their ways. I’ve already set up the appointment.”

She kicked the door open. Discord’s eyes popped. He shrieked and slithered away through the tall grass.

Fluttershy’s mouth dropped open, her head tilted to the side, and one eyebrow climbed. She moved through the grass, pushing it aside and searching for any sign of the stray draconequus. She lifted a small rock and found two yellowed eyes peering up at her.

“When did the sun get so bright?” Discord hissed.

“You haven’t been outside for the last four months.” Fluttershy sighed. “Have you?”

“What’s that got to do with the way the sun is stabbing my eyes with its searing heat?”

She bent low and took Discord’s mane in her teeth. She walked steadily backwards, tugging him out of the ground with small, gentle motions. “Just blink your eyes a little bit and it’ll get better. Goodness, I don’t remember you being this skittish.”

“You think I remember?” Discord’s body went limp as she continued to drag him across the landscape. “You know, most ponies don’t remember where they were born. They don’t remember much from before they were four.”

‘That’s probably a mercy, considering.’ Fluttershy glanced at Discord out of the corner of her eye. His long body followed the contours of the ground, rocks and grass and all. “Why do you say that? Do you think you’re just maturing and the memory loss will go away?”

“No, no, that’s not it at all.” Discord waved a floppy talon. “But it is my excuse for not knowing where I was born. I’m not alone in that regard.”

“Most ponies don’t spend their whole life in the hospital, though.” Fluttershy took to the air. Discord trailed like a kite tail behind her. “They don’t remember the place because they don’t get the chance.”

“Maybe I didn’t get the chance?” Discord sighed. He slipped himself out of Fluttershy’s mouth and floated along beside her. He nudged her side. “So. Where are we headed? Someplace stuffy and boring, no doubt. Twilight’s library? Spike’s library? Or worse, Celestia’s library?”

He rolled his eyes. “What is it with royal types and ginormous libraries?”

“Actually, I know someone with knowledge and skill in magic that Twilight…” Fluttershy shrugged. “She doesn’t quite get it yet. I think Zecora will know how to find your home. Do you remember Zecora?”

“Oh of course. How could I forget the most rhythmic zebra I’ve ever met?” Discord chuckled to himself. “I think it’s been a few years since I’ve seen her, though.”

Fluttershy dipped her head down. The warm, beautiful trees around Ponyville gradually grew darker, dimmer, hungrier as they entered the Everfree Forest. “You saw her at Apple Bloom’s nineteenth birthday party.”

“Oh dear, little AB’s nineteen!” Discord burst into giggles. “That must have been—what?—midspring?”

Fluttershy laid her ears back. “The end of winter, actually.”

“Oh.” Discord twiddled his thumbs. “Oh, yes, well, I can’t be expected to remember everypony’s birthday. That’s Pinkie Pie’s gift.”

“I know.” Fluttershy rubbed his shoulder. “I know it is.”

Zecora’s hut became visible in an open clearing, though “Hut” was a loose word to describe the actual home. It was crafted from a living tree, much like the Seeds of Friendship Public Library. Unlike Spike’s home and place of business, it was grown with potions and careful cultivation, rather than earth pony arbormancy. Light shone through the windows, predominantly yellow, but tinged with green.

Discord fluffed his mane up into a cascade of curls. He spoke with a high, squeaky voice. “She’s an evil enchantress—

“Discord,” Fluttershy said, her voice firm, “be nice.”

He shrunk himself to the size of a breezie and pinched his forefingers together. “Just one eensy-weensy song and dance number? I’ll be quick about it.”

“Not if it’s going to be about Zecora.” Fluttershy batted him towards the ground with a wing. “Best behavior. We’re her guests.”

She bopped her hoof on Zecora’s front door, barely heard above the boiling cauldron the zebra kept in the center of her house. ‘It’s a nice feature,’ Fluttershy thought. ‘She gets to cook and heat the house all at the same time. I wonder if I could get a stove installed like that.’

Zecora opened the door and bowed her head to Fluttershy, wearing her usual small, assured smirk. She took a step back and swept her hoof into the hut. “Fluttershy, my quiet friend. My home is always free to lend.”

“Thank you, Zecora.” Fluttershy bent her knee before entering the home. A shiver run down her spine. Masks imbued with power hung from the walls. Various hides of non-sapient animals covered windows and the dirt floor. The cauldron roiled with glowing green liquid. ‘Oh my. Coming to Zecora’s is always frightening. And exciting.’

“Now let us see our time well spent.” Zecora chuckled to herself. “Where is your strange delinquent?”

Fluttershy twisted her ears. She swiveled her head, but caught no sign of the draconequus. The door had shut behind her, and the hut consisted of a single room. There was nowhere for a pony to hide, but for Discord… “Discord, please show yourself. Now’s not the time for games.”

“Games?” one of the masks on the wall said. “I’m merely admiring the cultural treasures straight from Zebrabwe.”

Zecora scrunched her muzzle. “I am from Sheepbaa, truth be told. A Giraffrican province since days of old.”

The mask detached itself from the wall and grew a snaking body with six mishmashed limbs. Discord removed the mask and replaced it, giving it a dusting with the tip of his tail. “My, my, this is quite the intriguing landscape you call home. What sort of magic do you employ? Necromancy? Thaumaturgy? Hearth’s Warming Miracles?”

Zecora gave him a long, even look. “My magic comes from potions, incense—and occasional bursts of common sense.”

“Ooh.” Discord danced his fingers. “Dangerous stuff there.”

Fluttershy placed herself between her friends, clearing her throat. “Zecora, would you be so kind as to help us locate Discord’s birthplace? Is it something you can do?”

Zecora circled around Discord, examining him from tail-tip to top. She looked at the bottom of his hoof, scuffed out some dirt, and shook her head. “It will be a trial, you see. His biology is unknown to me. But with a chip of his hoof, or a clip of his hair, we shall get you from here to there.”

“But au contraire, my stripy mare,” Discord said. “I forgot my lucky underwear.”

Zecora lowered her eyebrows. She walked over to the cauldron with a small sack in hoof. A bit of powder was tossed into the mixture and stirred in. She beckoned Fluttershy closer. “You friend here is quite deranged, but with a sample, his fortune is changed.”

Fluttershy took a clipper between her hooves. She fluttered up to Discord’s eye level. “You get to chose. Hair, nail, or hoof?”

Discord crossed his arms. “I thought the point of this little exercise was to keep me in one piece.”

Fluttershy allowed herself a severe frown. “Do you want to chose, or should I?”

“Pfft.” Discord tugged a lock of his mane. He bowed his head to let Fluttershy reach without rising higher. He gave her a snaggletoothed grimace. “You’ll owe me a musical number, though.”

“Oh?” Fluttershy took the smallest clump she could get a hold of. It was the matter of an instant to free the follicles from Discord’s head. “Just don’t make it about Zecora.”

A chuckled rumbled up from Discord’s belly. “Don’t you worry your little heart.”

Fluttershy held the lock close to her chest as she descended. She moved slowly, unwilling to let the hairs float away. She stretched her forelegs out for Zecora to take them.

They hopped across the empty space and danced on the tip of Zecora’s hoof. Fluttershy let out a tiny, strangled yelp.

Zecora smiled wide, gritting her teeth and straining her jaw. “I make no promise.” She turned to the cauldron, but reared back, glancing at Fluttershy. “Would you grab me that hummus?”

She pointed to a bowl of paste within easy reach of Fluttershy. ‘Hummus sounds good,’ Fluttershy thought. ‘Maybe I can invite Zecora to lunch as a thank you.’

“Allow me!” Discord nabbed the bowl with his talon. He swung it up and over, nearly clocking Zecora in the head. “I feel as though I should contribute something to this endeavor aside from my curly locks.”

Zecora diplomatically said nothing, and instead merely dropped Discord’s clippings into the paste. She stirred with a wooden stick, humming to herself.

Fluttershy wandered around the room while Zecora worked her magic. It was bigger than it appeared at first: Several closets and cubbyholes were carved into the wood, containing tools, ingredients, plants, and all manner of victuals. Behind one hanging hide, Fluttershy caught a glimpse of a powered-down Famicolt 64 game system. It got a double take before she registered it. ‘Everypony has their hobbies, I suppose.’

“Oh, Fluttershy?”

She tilted her head towards Discord’s voice. “Hmm?”

“Would you step outside for a moment?”

Fluttershy turned, but Discord had vanished once more. She hunched her shoulders and fluttered her wings. “Do you need more help, Zecora, or can I go see what Discord wants?”

“I’ll be peachy, without a doubt.” Zecora scooped the hummus into the boiling brew. A bubble floated out, almost but not quite taking the shape of a pony skull. “It is you I am more worried about. This Discord fellow is just not right. Are you sure you’ve chosen the correct fight?”

Fluttershy steeled her hooves. “I have to fight for him. He’s my friend. And we need you, too.”

Zecora took a sip of the cauldron’s contents, then added a sprig of parsley. “I did not say I would not help. If you have need of something, give me a yelp.”

“Thank you. Again.” Fluttershy bobbed her head and walked backwards, opening the door with her rump. “And don’t worry. I think I can keep Discord—”

She turned around and found herself standing before a sound stage. Spotlights waved. Microphones thumped. Dancing hippopotamuses in leopard-spotted leotards wobbled around with intricate motions.

“—under control,” Fluttershy sighed.

“Aha!” Discord descended from the overhead rafters, wrapped around a disco ball. “You’re just in time for my big number! I do so adore the quaint way you ponies engage in musical antics.”

‘Quaint, he says,’ she thought with a climbing eyebrow. ‘That is perhaps a good and proper word for it.’

With the disco ball at the proper height, Discord touched down and spun in a blur. A sparkling white suit coat wrapped itself around his trunk, while purple-tinted glasses dropped over his eyes. “You like? It’s on loan from Vinyl.”

Fluttershy’s eyes trailed down to the multi-hued gemstone rings adorning his talons. ‘The question is, will she want them back?’

Discord snapped his fingers. “Hit it, maestro!”

A rockodile—pulled from the murkiest depths of the swamp—gave Discord a thumbs-up. Rockodiles didn’t have thumbs. Or musical capabilities. Or any talents other than dragging their prey to a horrifying death in the depths of the sludgy grime they called home. ‘I think I shall give him a lot of personal space.’

A lone trombone wheezed into the forest. It was an almost mournful tune, and Fluttershy felt the music wrap around her, bringing warm fuzzies to the cockles of her heart.

That was when Discord signaled the other trombones, drums, and heavy bass to start. It wasn’t jazz, Fluttershy thought. Not quite. Still, it was bouncy and bumpy and as zany as Discord himself. He shook his hips and hopped around the stage, the hippopotamuses jiggling in time.

“I been a-fallin’ apart each day
Gettin’ a little more gobbledygook
Although that’s normal for most, I’d say
Cuz I’m a real ca-razy, nutty kook!

“It didn’t stop with the chaos craze
And it left me in a bind
My whole a-body was a-tumblin’ down
’Til I thought I lost my mind!

“I said to you, ‘Hey girl, it’s cool
There’s no cure to be found’
You wouldn’t listen to a word I said
You said ‘I’ll bring that apple around’”

A glistening red dress flashed around Fluttershy’s body, its tassels swaying with each movement. Discord grinned, and held out a paw.

Fluttershy swished her skirt and hopped onto the stage. “Oh, why not?” she giggled.

Discord spun her right round, a microphone hovering next to his head.

“Look at you
You’ll never stop a-helpin’ out ol’ Discord
Look at me
I’ve been touched with your kindness like never before

“Cuz you are the best friend I’ve ever had
You are the best friend I’ve ever had
You are the best friend I’ve ever had
You are the best I’ve ever had!”

The mic lowered to her level. “Care to add a bar or so?” Discord asked.

Fluttershy flicked her mane. “Don’t mind if I do.” She took the microphone in one hoof, hanging from Discord’s talon with the other.

“We all were thinking way back in the day
That you were a little odd
Using pancakes for your wagon wheels
Flossing with a fishing rod

“But you have grown on us every day
It’s something we can’t deny
You’ve taught us all a lesson or two
And on this I tell no lie

“How could I turn away from you
With our friendship going strong?
There’s only one thing left to do
Though the road is very long”

Discord tossed her in the air and looped around her, performing aerial acrobatics around, above, and below her. The hippos climbed atop one another to build a leopard-spotted pyramid. The rockodile honked his trombone for all he was worth. Although she still held the microphone, Discord’s voice came clearly through the speakers.

“Look at you
You’ll never stop a-helpin’ out ol’ Discord
Look at me
I’ve been touched with your kindness like never before

“Cuz you are the best friend I’ve ever had
You are the best friend I’ve ever had
You are the best friend I’ve ever had
You are the best I’ve ever—!”

A blast like a thunderbolt shook the stage, causing the speakers to crackle and pop. Fluttershy covered her ears and dove for cover underneath the collapsed pile of hippopotamuses. The rockodile hissed and retreated into the forest, the trombone crinkling up in its jaws.

A dark cloud of smoke rose from the windows of Zecora’s hut.

Discord threw his hands in the air. “Aw, come on! Is one uninterrupted musical number too much to—?”

“Oh no!” Fluttershy lifted her head. Her hooves were moving before her mind could register the danger. She reached the door and pulled with all her strength. The hinges groaned before finally giving way, releasing a billowing miasma of jet-black ash. “Zecora! Zecora, can you hear me?”

Zecora appeared in a window, hacking and spitting, her mane charred black and her coat sizzling. She didn’t so much climb out as slowly slump to the forest floor. She gave Discord a cockeyed glare. “I’m afraid your hair is quite contrary. It seemed regretful to even spare me.”

Discord ran his talons through his scraggly beard. “Hmm. Hmm. Must be a bad hair day.”

Zecora gaped. “You think that I merely joke and jest? Let’s see how you fare in the midst of a blast!”

“Now, now. Let’s not put the lion before the gazelle.” Discord conjured a hat just so that he could tip it to her. “We knew that something like this was possible.”

“Yes, it needs to be said.” Zecora blew a breath through tight lips. “Though any closer and I’d be dead.”

Fluttershy coughed as the smoke rolled over her. Tears ran down her cheeks to combat the sting in her eyes. She waved it away with a strong beat of her wings. “I’m sorry, Zecora. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

“Of course not, Fluttershy.” Zecora wiped her face with a handy fern. The soot came away easy. “I’m willing to let bygones go by. I just have the wish… that more could have come of this.”

The sound stage collapsed, hippos and all, into a pony-sized suitcase. Discord picked it up and slid it neatly down his gullet. “It figures. We finally get a big break and it goes kaboom kibosh right in our faces. Or just yours, really.”

“Well… Well it’s not the end!” Fluttershy stomped her hoof, swirling the fog of cinders. “We’ll keep looking until we find another way. We’re not giving up—”

Zecora pressed her hoof against Fluttershy’s mouth. “Shush! Please, hush. Listen and learn.”

Fluttershy closed her eyes. She turned her ears with slow, steady movements, searching for an out-of-place sound. She caught it somewhere behind her—a low, steady hum, like a tuning fork. She opened her eyes and found herself staring at Zecora’s hut.

“Discord,” Zecora said, “it’s your turn.”

Discord scratched the top of his head. A light bulb appeared over his head, before crashing to the ground. An industrial-sized fan appeared with a snap of his fingers. Rather than blow, it sucked the caustic air from the house. In a moment’s time, the darkness was gone, leaving the home mostly unmarred.

The cauldron was empty, surrounded by a charred floor. Above it, floating on air and trailing shimmering pixie dust, was a green arrow.

Fluttershy swallowed. “Was that supposed to happen?”

“Not in so many words.” Zecora shrugged. “Chaos magic is for the birds.”

Discord snaked to the arrow. He let out a titter. “I want to touch it.”

Fluttershy reached out to snag his tail. “Discord—”

“All should be well, my quiet friend,” Zecora said. “The foulest bit came from Discord’s head.”

Discord touched the tip of his talon to the back of the arrow. It swiveled in place, before righting itself on its original course.

“To homeward bound, this arrow stays. Keep it close and you’ll find your way.” Zecora dragged her hoof along a nook to find it covered in black dust. She stuck her tongue out for a brief second. With a wizened smile, she placed her clean hoof on Fluttershy’s back. “Now go, make haste, your work’s not done!”

She raised her head to look Discord in the eye. “Find that apple before this one’s time has come.”

Fluttershy cupped her hooves. She plucked the arrow out of the air and tucked it beneath a wing. It hummed and tingled against her skin. “We will. Thank you, Zecora. We need to spend some time together when I get back.”

“It’s always a joy to hear you sing.” Zecora bowed at the knee in the Equestrian way. She jerked her head at Discord and eyed the door. “Now on your way, you silly thing.”

“Aye, aye, aye, Mon Capitan!” Discord threw a mock solute. With the wrong limb. He gave her a chilling grin. “When you and Fluttershy hang out, I’ll be sure to be on hand.”

Fluttershy tugged on his elbow, pulling him out of the house. “I’m sure you’ll be a proper gentlepony. Right now, we’ve got some packing to do.”

“Oh, ho, ho.” Discord intertwined his fingers and let out a deep, crackly chuckle. “I think I smell a road trip.”


‘Princess Twilight’s magic won’t help,’ Pumpkin thought. ‘Even Princess Twilight can’t help.’

She lay sprawled out on her bed, unwilling to get up but unable to sleep any longer. The sun glared through her window. Patty was already stirring in the bottom bunk.

Pumpkin rolled onto her side and hugged Chewie with a faint squeeka. ‘So what good will I be? What can I do?’

Rice cried from her brothers’ bedroom, indicating that he was awake and ready to be fed. Pound never slept through it. He couldn’t.

‘I could tell Pound I’m sorry.’ Pumpkin pulled her blanket over her head. ‘I should tell him. Maybe later, when it doesn’t still hurt.’

She opened her eyes and looked out the window to the street below. ‘’Cept it’s just words. He’s not big on words. Actions are what matters.’

She pulled Chewie through the blankets to look him in the face. “What do you think?” she whispered. “What should we do?”


“I can’t help Discord. Nobody can.” Pumpkin pressed her nose against the pillow. “Princess Twilight won’t. Fluttershy won’t. The town won’t. He’s all alone.”

Pumpkin lifted her head and kicked her blackest to the foot of the bed. “And that’s not fair, even if he was a butt.”

She glanced at the red walls of her room. Building blocks lay in one corner. The other had a small bookshelf with easy picture books for Patty. Pumpkin’s saddlebags sat next to it, open and waiting.

Pumpkin nodded. She hopped off the bed and started gathering stuff as she walked. Scarves, blankets, a sleeping bag, Chewie. She tucked them into the sacks, doing her best to keep them balanced.

Patty sat up, her curly mane a thick fuzz atop her head. “Pun’kin. Whatcha doin’?”

Pumpkin Cake’s teeth clamped around Chewie’s neck. Squeaka. “I’m making my wish come true.”

Don't Trust Anyone

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Applejack pulled her nearly ever-present hat from its perch. It flopped to her desk with an unsatisfactory pliff. “Nothin’ I can say will stop you, huh?”

“Not really.” Fluttershy shuffled her front hooves and glanced around the mayor’s office. The signature Apple Family style shone from every homey photo and apple-centric bauble—right down to the rocking chair Applejack sat behind her desk. “I need to go. Discord needs his friends right now.”

“Couldn’t you wait just a little?” Applejack drew near her friend, her tail lashing like a snake with indigestion. “Just until Twi gets back from Tartarus. Then she can help you out. Heck, maybe we can call Rainbow Dash back from Cloudsdale. Even better, let’s get the Royal Guard on the case! There’s gotta be somethin’ we can do that doesn’t mean feedin’ you to the nearest hydra!”

A swift kick from Bucky McGillicuddy moved her desk a couple inches. Applejack waited for her pencil holder to stop rattling before speaking. “I’d come if I could… This stupid city thing has the entire office workin’ overtime.”

“I know.” Fluttershy rolled her upper lip back. She turned away before Applejack could see her expression. “Ponyville needs its infrastructure.

“Besides,” Fluttershy said, resting her wing across Applejack’s back. “Discord’s going to be with me the whole time. His chaos magic will keep us safe.”

“Ain’t the chaos magic the whole problem?” Applejack lidded her eyes for a pointed glare. “Are you sure you can trust somethin’ with chaos in the name?”

Fluttershy shrugged. “I trust Discord.”

Applejack chuffed. She eased herself out of Fluttershy’s embrace and moseyed over to her overflowing inbox. “I feel like that was our first mistake.”

“It wasn’t a mistake.” Fluttershy leaned her forelegs on the desk and spread her wings. “Really, Applejack. Who do you know with more knowledge of magical creatures than me? I’m not going out into the world unawares. I befriend grizzlies, manticores, river serpents. I’m in no more danger than if I was just taking a walk through Ghastly Gorge.”

Applejack‘s head snapped around. “You ain’t goin’ to the gorge, are yah?”

“Well…” Fluttershy sucked her lips in. Her ears shrank back. “Just over it.”

“Good gravy, next you’ll tell me this Jelly Museum place—”


“—is in the heart of a dragon’s lair.” Applejack slapped a few letters together to even the edges. “To put it plainly, I don’t like it.”

Fluttershy frowned, swishing her mane back with a swipe of her hoof. “You don’t think I can do it.”

“I think it’s gonna be downright dangerous, an’ it’s foolhardy to jump into it without help.” Applejack all but stabbed an envelope with her letter opener. “How’re you even gonna call for help when you need it?”

“Spike offered to lend me a bottle of dragonfire.” Fluttershy swished a hoof through the air. “If I light a message, it’ll shoot right to his mouth. Just like Celestia’s letters.”

She gently laid a foreleg across the desktop to touch Applejack’s hoof. She favored the mayor with a smile. “I’m not going in unprepared. I’m packing up all the supplies I think I’ll need. Even a few I might not. I’ll have Discord with me at all times. We’re just traveling to find his birthplace, Applejack. There’s no monsters, no lost artifacts, no ancient evils rising from the grave. It’s just us.”

Applejack chucked the letter in the garbage, but didn’t pull away.

Fluttershy tilted her head. “Do you trust me?”


“Do you believe in me?”

Applejack eased herself into her rocking chair. Her hat found its place atop her head. “To a point, I guess. There’s just some things a pony shouldn’t take on alone.”

“And I’m not alone.” Fluttershy let a giggle bubble up from her core. “Anyone who wants to hurt me has to go through Discord and a million woodland critters.”

Applejack barked with laughter. “Who needs the Guard when you’ve got your own personal army, huh?”

“Exactly.” Fluttershy trotted to the saddlebags she’d left by the door. She fished around until she came across an itemized list. “You’re sure it won’t be too much trouble—?”

“Your cottage is in good hooves.” Applejack accepted the list with a dismissive wave of her foreleg. She popped a gumball in her mouth and offered another to Fluttershy. “I’ll have Scootaloo check on the animals, and I’ll personally make sure everything’s shipshape on my way home each night. Don’t you worry ’bout nothin’.”

“I know I won’t have to.” Fluttershy bobbed her head and backed towards the office door. “Thank you so much, Applejack.”

“You stay safe, you hear?” Applejack leaned against her knees, her eyebrows low. “Y’all gotta come back in tip-top shape, or no more solo adventures for you.”

Fluttershy wrinkled her muzzle with a tiny smirk. She turned the handle and pushed. “It’s not solo.”

A flurry of papers blew into the office. Outside, in the main room of Ponyville City Hall, the cubicles and workstations of the various bureaucrats were a mess of disorder and disorganization. Earth ponies ran for cover. Pegasi flocked away. Unicorns cast invisibility spells. Fluttershy walked through the pandemonium with as blank an expression as she was capable of concocting. ‘Just a normal day at the office,’ she thought. ‘Just a normal day.’

A notable face was missing from the fray. She turned to a random pony, whose glasses were bizarre swirls of color, and asked “Excuse me, this may seem a strange question, but have you seen Discord?”

“I haven’t seen him.” The pony vibrated as his bowtie constricted his words. “Not since she got her hooves on things.”

Fluttershy sucked on her lips. “Um…”

“Shy!” Pinkie Pie bounced up from under the assistant mayor’s desk and gave her friend a quick hug. “I’m so sorry I can’t come with you, but I can do you one better! I’ve taken it upon myself to make sure you’re fully stocked for the trip! I was just giving the supplies to—wait, where did he go?”

A faint bubbling came from a nearby coffee mug. Fluttershy glanced at it long enough to catch two yellowed eyes peering over the rim. “I assume you mean Discord?”

“Yeah! That’s the guy!” Pinkie Pie reached beneath her desk to bring forth a towering stack of bags and containers. “I just said, ‘hay, hold this stuff for me,’ and he vanished!”

Fluttershy looked up, up, up, and still had trouble seeing the top of the pile. “You keep that all in your desk?”

“No, of course not! That would be silly!” Pinkie held the stack in one hoof while she half-covered her mouth with the other. “I keep a few things stashed around town hall. For ‘Epic Journey into the Unknown’ emergencies. You’d be surprised how much use this stuff gets.”

“Help me!” Discord whispered loud enough to be heard across the room. “She’s going to suffocate me with supplies!”

Fluttershy blinked as the various dry goods rocked back and forth. “Dare I ask what’s in that?”

Pinkie rubbed her chin, jutting out her lower lip. She set the payload on her desk, which groaned with the strain. “Well….”

She pulled one item from the stack at a time, naming them as she went.

“A can of beans, some hiking boots
A twenty-footer parachute
A wheel of cheese
A plush to squeeze
And here’s some eye of newt

“A compass for if you get lost
A heaping dose of apple sauce
A handy map
A critter trap
It’s at a thrifty cost!”

‘Well, that’s one I haven’t heard before.’ It took all of Fluttershy’s willpower to keep a straight face. “I’m not sure we need a twenty-foot parachute, exactly. Both Discord and I can fly.”

Pinkie tossed the folded fabric into the air and caught it with her tail. “Oh! I get it! You want the deluxe package!”

Discord’s coffee mug rumbled with a suppressed moan.

Fluttershy’s mouth moved, but it took a while for her to find the right words. “That’s not necessary, Pink—”

Pinkie grasped Fluttershy around the shoulders and led her through a suspiciously-empty city hall.

“A traffic sign, a bag of sleet
A chocolate-covered parakeet
A set of keys
A hive of bees
And nine-piece cookie sheet!”


“The town sheriff’s ten-gallon hat
The cravat of a diplomat
Bug repellant
And Rainbow’s welcome mat!”

“What are you doing with Rainbow Dash’s welcome mat?”

“That’s what I wanna know!

“Fifteen bags of phoenix down
Philomena gets around
Telescope to see the stars
Eighteen tons of chocolate bars”

Discord leaped out of the mug and threw his hands in the air. They clattered to the floor a second later. “She’s a madmare, I tell you! Mad!”

Pinkie grinned over her shoulder. “You’re just jealous that I’m cuter than you. Also, you’ve used that joke already.”

“No, I haven’t!” Discord turned up his snout. One eye popped open. “Have I?”

“It’s possible…” Fluttershy fluffed out her feathers and brought her head below Pinkie’s. “Really, we want to travel light and fast. If we hurry, we might be there and back again within a month. And, believe it or not, I am a good forager.”

“I know.” Pinkie gnawed on her tongue behind her lips. She looked from Fluttershy, to Discord, to the pile of stuff. “I just wanted to feel like I was helping.”

Fluttershy pulled Pinkie into a tight hug. Pinkie leaned into it, putting most of her weight on her friend. “And they’ll especially need me to stay if everypony keeps taking the day off like this! Where the heck is everybody?”

“If things keep going like they are,” Discord whispered, “that big helium canister in the sky.”


Pumpkin Cake peered out of the kitchen. Her parents were busy with customers, but she only had a few minutes at best before they’d get curious. That only left time for about three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Not awesome. That would barely last her a day on the road. A growing filly like her needed more sustenance.

Her horn flickered as a knife slid across bread. ‘It’ll have to do for now. I’ll figure out something later. Right now, I gotta… do what exactly? I know I need that book. Fluttershy probably still has it. Should I ask her for it, or—’

“Mornin’, Pumpkin,” Pound said, slouching his way through the kitchen. His bleary, half-opened eyes searched for cereal and milk. “Whatcha doin’?”

“I’m doing…” Pumpkin spoke slowly to allow her mind to catch up with her lie. A specific appliance provided a way out. Kinda. “Toast.”

“Cool.” Pound found a bowl despite himself. He stumbled up to the countertop to fill it with sugary puffs and marshmallows. “I like toast.”

Pumpkin grimaced, but kept her voice light. She wrapped the sandwiches in her magic quickly. “I know, right? Super crunchy and the peanut butter’s good and I’ll see you later.”

With the sandwich bags in her saddlebags, resting beside Chewie, she trotted her way out the back door. The alleyway was blissfully empty. ‘Maybe the library has more than one copy? Spike’s on the way to Fluttershy’s, so it can’t hurt. I won’t get in trouble for stealing that way…’

With her destination chosen, she sped up to a gallop. Ponyville went by in a blur, a kaleidoscopic muddle of faces and colors. She was breathing heavily as she stomped up the path to the library’s front door. She didn’t bother with the door handle, instead lighting her horn and stepping through the wood.

“Mr. Spike, are you home?” She glanced back. The lock was firmly in place, preventing ponies without her super-special talent from entering. ‘Whoops. Library’s closed. Maybe I can back out slowly—’

The stairs creaked. Spike lumbered down, each heavy step of his hind legs sending little jolts through the floor. “Don’t bother, Pumpkin. It’s only five minutes until we open.” He scribbled across a sheet of paper, then lit it afire and sent it flying through the air. “Really, I’ve come to expect this from you.”

‘Ouch. Brutal honesty from the local dragon.’ “Oh, cool. Listen, could you help me find a book?”

“Sure…” Spike bared his teeth in a cheesy grin. “I can.”

Pumpkin’s jaw tightened. “Will you?”

“That, too.” Spike lowered himself to all fours and moved with a lighter step. Her perused the shelves, checking that they were in order. “What’s the book?”

Elysium and the Tree of Life.” Pumpkin saw the exact moment Spike’s back scales locked together. “It, um, really spoke to me.”

“Oh yeah?” Spike stood beside the fantasy section, running his fingers across the book spines. “Sorry, Pumpkin, but we’ve only got one copy of the book, and Fluttershy needs it right now. I can maybe find you something similar—”

He slapped his forehead. “Except somebody checked out all our books on faries.”

“Oh.” Pumpkin Cake plopped to her rump. “Well, that sucks.”

“It’s not so bad. Just check back here in, like, a week.” Spike clicked the latch on the door and flipped over the “open” sign. “Meanwhile, is there anything else I can help you with?”

‘You can help me right off a cliff.’ Pumpkin gathered her wits for an assault on Fluttershy’s fortress. “No. I’m fine. I’ll show myself out—”

The door jingled. Ribbon Wishes entered, carrying a sack full of books. “Hi, Spike. Stopped by before work to drop off a load. Figured I’d give the librarian something to do.”

“I’d be lost without books, Miss Wishes.” Spike smiled and gripped the bag’s straps in one hand. “I didn’t think these were due for another three days?”

“I eat books, practically.” Ribbon laughed in that sort of way people laugh when they aren’t as funny as they think. The plumber winked at Pumpkin. “Getting any closer to making that wish come true?”

‘Get off my back and out of my business.’ “Of course. Heck, the wishes are just lining up, waiting to come true.” Pumpkin gave her a look that she hoped spelled “shut up” with a capital S.

Ribbon ignored it. “I’d browse a bit, but I gotta run. City hall’s backing up. Something about confetti clogging the system.”

“Pinkie?” Spike said.

“Pinkie.” Ribbon gave them both a smile that had no place on somebody who was about to stick their head in sewage. “See you later! Have a good one!”

“What an obnoxiously happy person.” Pumpkin managed to keep that one under her breath. In a speaking voice, she heaved a sigh. “See you around, Mr. Spike.”

“See you later, Pum—” He lowered his eyebrows as he sifted through the books. He held up a claw. “Wait. I think I’ve got… huh?”

Pumpkin propped herself against the front desk. She watched him scramble through a black spiral-bound notebook. “What? Did a dog chew on the glue again?”

He tapped a date with Ribbon Wishes’ name next to it. “Well, that lines up, but… It makes no sense.”

Pumpkin rolled her eyes. “Context, please?”

Spike glanced at her. He ground his teeth together and lifted a hefty tome. “This is the Seeds of Friendship Public Library’s copy of Elysium and the Tree of Life.”

Pumpkin furrowed her brow, peering at the book. It was the same book, even if the pages were dog-eared and the cover was chipped. “Doesn’t Fluttershy still have her copy?”

“Uh huh?” Spike scratched his head. A gray scale flaked loose. “But, I mean… I was pretty sure we only had one copy.”

He laughed in the back of his throat and stamped a new date on the inside cover. He scribbled Pumpkin’s name in the notebook. “I guess I need to recheck our stock. Are you familiar with the term ‘serendipity?’”

“Do I look like a dictionary?”


Pumpkin grasped the book in her magic and practically yanked it out of Spike’s grip. He grunted and raised an eyebrow. “So,” he said, “are you gonna say goodbye to Discord today?

“What do you mean goodbye?” Pumpkin snapped. “He’s not going anywhere.”

“He’s…” Spike rolled his hand. “Going on a trip. To Elysium. To get an apple.”

“They’re—they’re actually going?” Pumpkin lowered her head to look at the tree engraved on the book’s cover. “They decided to take the trip after all?”

“As I understand it.” Spike leaned his elbows on the desk and frowned. “Hay. What’s up? Something I can help with?”

“I think you already did.” She slipped the book into her saddlebags. “Um. Thank you.”

“No problem.” Spike would have said more, but he was interrupted with a belch of flame. The magical smoke swirled and reformed itself into a scroll with the royal seal. He cut the seal and scanned the letter. “Sorry, I’ve gotta go. Tartarus is going nuts and Twilight’s being… Twilight.”


Spike lifted the scroll and let it hang slack. It flipped and flopped until it reached his feet. “Meaning I have a list five pages long of research she needs on the prisoners.”

Pumpkin smirked and lit her horn. She stepped through the wall with a quick hop. “Have fun with that.”


‘Okay,’ Pound thought. ‘Pumpkin seemed pretty chill this morning, so maybe she’s ready to make nice.’

He flew through Ponyville at slightly above head-height for a full-grown stallion. High enough to get a little elevation, low enough that he wouldn’t break his legs if he fell. He liked flying above the rooftops, but his parents fervently denied him permission unless accompanied by an adult. Scootaloo, mostly. It was pretty awesome.

It made searching the midmorning market for his sister an ordeal. The sheer amount of manes and yellow coats was exasperating. Everywhere he turned, there was another bob of curls, yet another blue ribbon tied in yet another bow. “Pumpkin! Puuumpkin!

Not a wink.

Pound gave the crowd a good, long look. ‘That’s weird. They’re all walking the same direction. Why’re—? Oh.’

Above the heads of the crowd, towering like a snaking pillar of kookiness, was Discord himself. Ponies were making a hasty, yet polite, effort to put as much distance between him and them as possible. ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’

As Pound got closer, he saw Fluttershy and Cloudkicker walking alongside Discord. He couldn’t hear everything Cloudkicker was saying, but he caught a few choice phrases, such as “—Cor blimey, Fluttershy, are ye tryin’ tah die—” and “—most foolhardy, misplaced courage as I’ve ne’er seen—” and “—for the love o’ Equestria herself, stop while ye’re ahead—”

The bushes rustled beside Pound. He chanced a glance down and saw a pair of matching blue bows amongst the leaves. “Pumpkin?”

He was yanked tail-first into the bush by the blue glow of magic. Pumpkin’s hoof clasped over his mouth, followed by a hissed “Shut up!”

Pound shoved the offending foreleg away. “Wha—? Why are we in a bush?”

She pressed down on the top of his head and pulled him out of sight. She peered through the leaves with a fierce glare. “I’m spying. Now shush!”

Pound nudged her with his shoulder so that he could have a look. Fluttershy and Cloudkicker walked right beside the bush, with Discord on their heels. Cloudkicker’s tirade continued unabated, without so much as a pause to catch her breath.

“—nae weapons, nae a map, nae even an idea o’ how far ye’ll be goin’! I’ve seen sailors who wouldnae blink at a storm o’brewin’ o’er the horizon, but this is a thunderin’ hurricane!”

“Too soon, Cloudkicker,” Discord said.

“Clam it, ye warblin’ ijit.” Cloudkicker raised herself into the air, her wings working overtime to heft her swollen belly. “I’ll hold ye personally responsible for e’ry bruise, cut, an’ likewise other injury Fluttershy sustains durin’ yer expedition! An’ I’ll take it outta yer hide, too!”

“Duly noted.” Discord crossed his arms. “Never argue with the pregnant mountain mare wielding a wooden spoon.”

“I’m not holdin’—” Cloudkicker lifted a long, hard wooden spoon that had not been there a moment ago. She shook it at Discord. “Ne’er arm the enemy, or ye have only yerself to blame for the pain.”

Pound shifted a branch so that it was no longer poking his butt. “I don’t get it. Why are we—?”

Pumpkin pinched his lips shut with a spell. “I wanna know where they’re going.”

Pound would have asked why if he could talk. He settled for shrugging.

“Because I wanna know, that’s why.” She pushed him down again and nestled deeper into the leaves.

Fluttershy was right next to them, inches away from Pound’s wingtip. She breathed softly through her nose. “Are you done?”

Cloudkicker flittered down, dropping the spoon on the way. It vanished with a soft Arooga! “Aye. I’ve said my piece. I think this is ridiculous, Fluttershy. The world itself is against ye on this. Cannae ye see it?”

“I see that my friend is hurting,” Fluttershy said. “And I know something that can help. Simple as that.”

Cloudkicker swiped a wing, which batted at the bush. Pound bit his lip to keep from shouting.

“Ye’re a braw pony,” Cloudkicker said. “A good friend and a bonny lass. But I’m scared for ye.”

She looked down at her chest and touched the whistle hanging there. She looped the cord over her head. “Here, take me Da’s boatswain’s call. It’s loud enough that it’ll startle predators an’ the like. It’s a cry for help in any language.”

Fluttershy’s wings snapped open as her eyes widened. “I can’t accept this—”

“Ye’ll accept it an’ like it, ye barmy fuzzball!” Clouckicker tried to laugh, but it came out as a sober groan. “Consider it a rental an’ a promise that ye’ll return. Can ye promise that, at least?”

Fluttershy nodded. She let the necklace slide past her ears and around her shoulders. “Thank you.”

She pulled a glowing green arrow from her bags and let it float upwards. “This is showing us the way, so don’t worry about us getting lost. We’ll be fine.”

Pumpkin climbed on top of Pound. She stood on his back to get a closer look at the magic. Pound’s legs shook under the combined weight.

“Splendid!” Discord spread his wings as wide as they would go. And then some. “Now that the goodbyes are taken care of, shall we be on our way?”

“Of course.” Fluttershy patted Cloudkicker’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. Don’t.”

Cloudkicker shook her head. “I always worry about ye, lass. Always.”

She walked one way, and Fluttershy and Discord walked the other.

Pound grunted. ‘This is so weird. Why am I hiding in a bush eavesdropping on Fluttershy? It’s wrong. What does Pumpkin want with—’

It hit him like a ton of bricks. ‘Oh no.’

He twisted his neck to look his sister in the eye. “Pumpkin, you know you can’t go with—”

She leaped off his back and charged through the marketplace.

“Pumpkin!” He clawed his way out of the bush, his mane tangled with leaves and branches. He shook his wings out and strained to get airborne. “Pumpkin, stop! Don’t!”

She paid him no mind, running full-tilt, slipping around, under, and through anything in her path. He hopped up and flapped as hard as he could, flying a good head taller than the biggest stallion. “Stop, wait, wait, wait!”


The shout pulled his ears to the left. Fluttershy stopped, as did Discord. When Pound looked again, Pumpkin was nowhere to be seen. He kicked himself and settled down on a nearby rooftop.

Merry Mare strode through the marketplace, her face wrinkled with worry lines. She yelled again, her voice softer. “Fluttershy, wait.”

A chill ran down Pound’s spine. The breeze blowing across his back played with his mussed mane. He hid himself from sight until only his eyes and ears could be seen from the street, and only if one was looking.

Merry Mare placed her hoof on Fluttershy’s shoulder. “I’m not going to try and stop you. I know how much this means to you. But just do me one favor.”

Fluttershy rested her hoof on Merry’s outstretched foreleg. “Of course. What?”

Merry took in a deep breath. She gritted her teeth, like she’d swallowed something bitter. She stared Fluttershy dead in the eye. “Whatever you do, wherever you go, don’t trust anyone. Understand?”

Fluttershy let her leg drop. She eased half a step back. “I’m not sure I do.”

“Me either!” Discord said. He covered his heart with his paw and turned his nose up. “Why should she not trust such an upstanding citizen as myself?”

Merry let her ears droop. “Because there are dangers out there that no amount of friendship can thwart.”

Fluttershy pushed her chest out and held her head high. “I have yet to meet one.”

Quiet hung over the little intersection on the edge of town. Fluttershy turned to Discord, but kept her head facing Merry. “Thank you for the advice. Take care of yourself.”

Merry sat down and let them walk. “You, too.”

They crossed the park that sat at the between Ponyville and Whitetail Wood. Pound lifted himself up, ready to launch himself at the first sign of Pumpkin.

There! In the grass! A blob of orange and yellow charged towards them. Pumpkin raced for the tree line, apparently to move out of sight. Pound spread his wings. He wouldn’t be able to catch up with her before she reached the woods. She’d get away. She’d hide.

‘This won’t work,’ he thought. ‘I should just get Mom and Dad. They’ll know what to do. They’ll organize a search party. I can—’

“I can catch her.”

He re-judged the distance. Pumpkin was slowing down. He scratched at an itch on his flank. ‘I’ve got better endurance. If she slows down, then I can catch her at the trees. If I can convince her to come back, then she won’t get in trouble. She won’t blame me for getting in trouble. It’ll be better for both of us.’

He gnawed his lip. ‘But I should just tell Mom and—’

“She’s getting away.”

The itch beneath his wings grew worse. He launched himself from the rooftop, careening far higher than he was ever allowed to go. He zeroed in on Pumpkin and followed her towards the woods.

They disappeared into the trees, a few feet away from Discord and Fluttershy. The two of them followed the arrow, taking an easy walk down the Whitetail Wood trail.


Jeuk slithered across the rooftop, out of sight. He watched the pegasus colt race for his sister’s life. The fae let out a chuckle. “Awfully distractible, that one. Amusing; most very amusing.”

He leaned over the side of the roof and watched Merry Mare retreat back to her home. Maybe even the pub, if she was feeling especially upset. She never drank a drop in her life, but there were friends to be found. Jeuk considered heading there himself, but thought better of it.

“Celebrate when the business transaction is successful,” he said to himself. “It offers the opportunity to gloat.”

He conjured up a pair of ears and set a black boater hat between them. A red tie was next, beneath a black suit coat and above four hooves. All his pieces were set in motion; he only needed to wait for Tirek to make a move.

“Yes, yes. Most very, very amusing.”


“There it is,” Tirek said. He stretched his hand over the hill overlooking the settlement. “The hated Ponyville.”

“Slick digs, horsebutt my man.” Lacer the Displacer gazed through a pair of binoculars, his muscular torso fading in and out of view as clouds loomed in front of the sun. If Tirek stared at the shadows, he could see faint outlines swirling like smoke on the wind. “Looks dicey, though. Too many guards for my liking.”

Munchy climbed up onto a rock. He gnawed on some unspecified bone. “Munchy has plan.”

Tirek frowned, and wished to do much more than merely that. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“Munchy can go down. Sneaky-like and spooky.” Munchy crouched, his hands spread, as if he was telling the most intense story he had ever heard. “Then Munchy eat all the ponies! Munchy has very good plan!”

“Scintillating.” Tirek’s pointy, rotted teeth clashed together. “Lacer, what is taking your scout so long?”

“It’s reconnoitering, man.” Lacer lowered the binoculars and leaned two forelegs against Munchy’s rock. “It’s to see and not be seen. It’s to know and be unknown. It’s slow work, man. Subtle.”

“In my day, if we required information we needed only take it!” Tirek’s fist found his opposing palm. “Ponies would fall over themselves to spare their loved ones. Princesses and kings bowed to my whims!”

“Ancient history, horse man.” Lacer and Munchy shared a glance. “Ancient history.”

Tirek laughed, a harsh, wheezing sound. “Not for long, my critical minion. Not for long.”

Lacer sputtered with suppressed laughter. “Where did you find this guy, matey masticator?”

“Tirek save Munchy’s life!” Munchy gave Tirek a wide, terrifying, oh-so-charming smile. “Munchy thankful for all eternity.”

Tirek’s eye twitched ever so slightly.

A leaf swayed on a breeze that went unfelt. Sunlight broke through the cloud cover, revealing a displacer beast climbing the hill. “Lacer, dude. The pony ain’t in town no more. She up and left.”

“What?” Tirek shoved Lacer to the side and knocked Munchy from his perch. He grasped the displacer beast by the shoulders and lifted him. “Impossible! She would never leave this village! Where has she gone?”

The beast squirmed in his grip, breaking free with a sudden kick. For its credit, the creature continued its report. “She’s gone on some sort of quest. That Discord dude she hangs out with got sick, so they’re headed for a cure.”

“Blast!” Tirek paced on the hilltop, his arms akimbo and awry. “We’ll never catch up! She could be leagues out by now! She could be anywhere! She could be—”

“They left ten minutes ago.”

Tirek settled down. He swept his cape around his knobby body, pulling the hood low over his eyes. “Well… That does change things, doesn’t it?”

He rubbed his chin, his grin growing wider by the minute. “In fact, this could be even more perfect than I possibly imagined. Which direction are they headed?”

“West by northwest, sir.” The displacer beast pointed in the indicated direction with a long, snaking tentacle. “Through Whitetail Wood.”

Tirek set out at a fast march. “Lacer, ready your beasts. We strike by the light of the moon, when we are far away from the village. We must take Discord by surprise first, then we can do as we wish with the pony.”

“Discord?” Lacer scowled. “No way, horselegs. I didn’t sign up to face a draconequus—”

Tirek gripped Lacer by the throat. Mad, beady yellow eyes glared into the displacer beast’s soul. “You assumed we could slay Fluttershy and completely avoid the ire of her friends? Are you that small-minded, or merely naïvely hopeful?”

A trickle of sweat slid down Lacer’s forehead. “The thought had crossed my mind.”

“Banish such weak thoughts from your head.” Tirek released his throat, looming over him as a horned silhouette. “My task shall be to deal with Discord. Yours is to destroy the one called Fluttershy. Together, we shall exact my revenge, and you shall have your reward.”

A suave smile, slightly insincere, made its way across Lacer the Displacer’s muzzle. “Alright, big hoss. I gotcha. You take the lead.”

Tirek clenched a fist and raised it to the sky. “Tonight, blood shall be spilt!”

Munchy hopped onto his back. “And Munchy will have food! Lots of food!”

Tirek bucked the offending morlock off. “Be quiet, Munchy, or I shall have to hurt you.”

The Unwelcome Discovery

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Branches cracked beneath Pumpkin’s hooves as she tramped through the woods. A stray sprig snagged her mane, but she brushed it aside. Her legs burned from walking so long. Had it been three hours? Four? Whatever it was, it was a darn long time. The sun set before her, bathing the forest in orange light.

She could hear Discord and Fluttershy talking about something a decent ways away, though their words were fuzzy through the yellow-green leaves. Much louder, and more annoying, was her sibling flying along behind her.

“Come on, Pumpkin!” Pound swished his forelegs to the rear, his face purple with rushing blood. “This is dumb! You’re gonna go off and get killed! Let Discord and Fluttershy do their thing, and let’s go home.”

The volume and frequency of his complaints had varied throughout the day, but his words had not. Neither had her answer.

“No.” Pumpkin shoved the word unceremoniously out of her mouth.

“Yes!” Pound landed right in front of her face and stood his ground. “Yes, yes, yes! We are going home right now.

Pumpkin growled. She stepped to the side, and her brother hopped to match. She weaved through to the left, but Pound was ready and waiting. “I swear, I’m gonna punch you.”

“Oh yeah?” Pound plastered his best war-face across his muzzle. “Try it. I dare you.”

Pumpkin smiled. She lifted her foreleg and wound for a strike. At the exact moment her brother flinched, his eyes closed, she ducked beneath his legs and crawled past.

She heard Pound moan behind her. “That’s cheating.”

“It’s called ‘Pumpkin is smarter than Pound.’” She thrust her nose in the air and gave him an especially proud sniff. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a friend to save.”

“What’re you even going to do?” Frenzied flaps shook the air. Pound hovered overhead, his glower sizzling against her curls. “You know the instant they know you’re here, they’re gonna send you home!”

“That’s why I’m following at a distance.” Pumpkin rolled her eyes. She took a measured step to the side to avoid her brother’s grasping hooves. “I won’t let them know I’m following until it’s too late to turn back.”

“It’s never too late to turn back.” Pound got in her face again, his lower lip jutting out. “We’re kids. We take precedence where danger is concerned.”

Pumpkin wiggled her eyebrows. “Look who’s using his big boy words. Buzz off.”

Pound’s purple face became more of a nice magenta. “I’ll show you big boy words if you don’t come back right now!

“La, la, la, can’t hear you!” Pumpkin cantered forth, her eyes closed, a spring to her step. “Deedle dee, I’m on an adventure and you can’t stop me.”

All of Pound’s frustration erupted in one prolonged moan. He smooshed a toadstool before running to catch up. “You’re in so much trouble and I don’t care!”

“You think I care?” Pumpkin barked a phony laugh. “I care about making Discord better, and if Mom and Dad don’t like that, tough! If you think I shouldn’t go, who gives a darn? I’m going and nopony can stop—”

She ran face-first into a mountain of brown fur. She scrambled back and looked up to see two yellowed eyes. She grinned. “Hi, Mister Discord.”

“Little Miss Cake.” Discord crossed his arms and nodded at her brother. “Little Mister Cake. I do believe we have almost the whole set.”

Pumpkin swallowed hard. “Hi. How did you know we were here?”

Fluttershy stepped around Discord, a severe frown spelling certain doom. “We could hear you shouting. Really, really loudly.”

“Oh.” Pumpkin kept the smile bright, her mind racing almost as fast as her heart. “We, um, were just going for a walk—”

“They could hear us,” Pound said. Pumpkin wanted to slap the smug look from his face. “Now we can turn right around and go back home, right?”

His question met silence as Fluttershy and Discord glanced at each other. The pegasus spoke first. “As much as we need to get you home, well, there’s a teensy little problem.”

“It’s getting dark,” Discord said, his voice far too cheerful. “Pretty soon, all the nocturnal aminals will be out and searching for bad little fillies and colts to devour.”

Discord.” Fluttershy blew a sigh through tightly-pressed lips. She lifted her head and spread her wings, giving her voice a gentle, yet strong, tone. “Pumpkin, you know how dangerous it is out here. What possessed you to come?”

Pumpkin’s teeth showed through her smarmy grin. “Because Discord’s a big fat butt who can’t take care of himself.”

“Hay, now!” Discord said. “I’ll have you know that butts are like opinions. The differences get a little hairy.”

“Whatever.” Pumpkin narrowed her eyes at Fluttershy. She set her four hooves tall and strong. She was still only half Fluttershy’s height. “I’m coming. I’m helping. You can’t make me go back until Discord is healed.”

Discord cracked his knuckles. He reached down and picked Pumpkin up by her barrel. “An interesting assertion, Little Miss Cake.”

“Put me down, dummy!”

“Perhaps it deserves a test?” Discord threw Fluttershy a mock salute and snapped his fingers. “I should be back in a flash.”

Pumpkin’s eyes popped. She kicked and scrambled to escape, but Discord held fast. “Leggo of me! I don’t have to take this! Stop being stupid! Leggo!”

Her coat tingled as magic surrounded them. Light flashed and air crackled. Discord’s teleport gained momentum, ripping a hole in the very fabric of reality. Her body was stretched, rolled, and rearranged all at once. Thunder struck, and she was once again set on her feet.

She kicked Discord in the shin. He didn’t seem to notice. “You idiot! You moron! You butthead! I just wanna help you!

Discord stared straight ahead, his portal still roiling behind him. His mishmashed features creased into a deep frown. “Uh oh.”

“What?” Pumpkin turned and beheld the side of a mountain. Not Canter Mountain, or the Smokey Mountains, or even the McIntosh Range. No, it was completely unfamiliar; completely alien to anything even remotely close to Ponyville.

“You teleported us to the wrong place.” Anger boiled in Pumpkin’s chest, but it simmered to a stop as a cold chill rattled down her back. “You forgot how to teleport.”

“I… um… wouldn’t say that, exactly.” Discord’s draconic foot scraped at the sandstone ground. His cloven hoof tapped an unsteady rhythm. “I’ve just misplaced Equestria; that’s all. So… Let’s hop back through the portal before it closes. Okay?”

“Yeah.” Pumpkin shoved past him and leaped through the ring of chaos magic. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

One gut-wrenching trip later, she lay in the grass, breathing heavily, staring at the deepening purple in the sky. Her brother hovered into her field of vision with that annoying “I told you so” expression all brothers knew. She stuck her tongue out and rained spittle.

Discord slipped through the portal, folded it up, and packed it into a blender. It whirred behind his back, becoming a sort of weird milkshake. “That was a bust. Do we have a plan ‘B’?”

Fluttershy lowered her ears. “We need to get these kids home, but it’s just too late tonight. We’ll have to set up camp here.” She tried to hide it, but Pumpkin still detected a little hint of bitter herbs in her voice. “We’ll just try to make up for lost time tomorrow.”

Discord batted the glowing green arrow away from his head. It spun around and clocked him across the ears. “I suppose this is the part where we send them to look for fire wood?”

“Whoa, whoa,” Pound said. “Wait. Wait, wait. We can’t stay in the woods tonight! Our parents are gonna be worried sick!”

“I’ll send Spike a message for them.” Fluttershy dug through her saddlebags and brought forth a glowing, green vial. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure to tell them everything.”

Pumpkin sat up and raised an eyebrow. ‘Fluttershy’s getting sassy,’ she thought. ‘That can’t be a good sign.’

Fluttershy picked up a wood pen with her lips and set to scribing out a letter. “In the meantime, please do as Discord said. The fire usually keeps monsters away. They’re afraid of light, you know.”

Pound’s throat bobbed. “‘Usually’?”

“For the most part.” Fluttershy might have smirked, if she was at all capable of smirking. “For everything else, there’s Discord.”

Discord polished his talon along his coat. “I am a highly competent monster swatter.”

Pound edged away from the draconequus. “I’ll take your word for it, Mister Discord.”

“Darn tootin’,” Discord said, shooing them off with his hands. “Now get scootin’!”

Pumpkin sneered. She flicked her tail and trotted off, her nose as high as it could go. “Go kiss a cactus.”


Pumpkin Cake sat away from the fire; close enough that she could read by its light, far enough that she didn’t have to see anybody else’s stupid face. ‘Screw them. Screw them and their dumbness.’

The book that lay before her was Elysium and the Tree of Life, naturally enough. She perused the stories, rereading a few that she’d stumbled upon before and searching for anything new she could glean. ‘Draconequus, fae, golden apple. Over and over again, in one big loop. The only things that get repeated even once.’

She came upon the story of the stallion begging for apples to save his daughter. The three mares who guarded the tree were reluctant, but gave him the fruit all the same. For a price: the performance of several epic challenges. ‘And then there’s this story, where there aren’t even any fairies or draconawhatsits. Just apples.’

She flipped through the pages at abandon. ‘And this other one, where there are fairies, but no apples or draconadummies. And this one, where the draconequuses and the fairies are fighting over the garden. And this one, where they’re friends. Nothing makes any sense!’

She slammed the book shut and pushed it aside. She lay her head in the grass and stared into the dark woods, seeing the flicker of a lightning bug, or catching the hoot of an owl.

‘This is dumb.’ She reached her foreleg out to tug the book closer. ‘I’m dumb—’

Something scratched the side of her leg. She moved her hoof along the edge of the book and felt it again; something small and plastic. It was rectangular, laminated paper, stuck between two particular pages. ‘A bookmark? It must’ve belonged to Ribbon Wishes. It’s mine, now.’

She flipped to Ribbon’s stopping point and checked the story. It was one she’d glanced over, along with dozens of others. ‘“The Last Draconequus.” Sounds kinda weepy.’

She leaned on her hoof and started from the top. Once upon a time, long before the formation of Equestria, the draconequus people called Elysium their home. They were tasked with the caretaking of the garden, from the tallest oak to the smallest insect. They loved the garden and guarded it jealously, forbidding any but the draconequui to enter.

‘Oh yeah, I remember this one,’ Pumpkin thought. ‘It’s the one where the fairies and draconacusses go to war. Meh. Buncha screwballs.’

The fairies, likewise, were the guardians of the outside world, bringing order to the lives of the peoples that walked the earth. One day, the king of the fairies grew envious of the bounty of Elysium, and wished to eat of its fabled fruit. The chief draconequus refused, and told the fairy king a lie that only draconequui were permitted to eat of the produce of the garden.

‘Blah, blah, blah, lying is bad. Blah, blah, blah, sharing is good.’ Pumpkin Cake flipped to the next page. ‘Heard it all before, buster.’


Pound Cake tapped his hooves together, chewing on a peanut butter sandwich Pumpkin had brought. He gazed to his left, where Discord sat munching a bag full of little black kernels. The draconequus jiggled the bag in his face. “Want some?”

“N-no thanks,” Pound said.

Discord snarfed a handful of the stuff by tossing it into his mouth. Several little bits fell to the ground. “Suit yourself.”

To Pound’s right was Fluttershy, who stared glumly into the embers of the fire. The magical arrow floated over her head, casting a sparkling green pallor over her. She lifted her eyes above the flames and called out to Pumpkin. “Come closer to the light. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Pumpkin grumbled, but shuffled half a meter closer.

Pound fluffed his wings behind his head. He sucked his lips in and considered what to say. “Are you okay, Miss Fluttershy?”

Fluttershy’s ears lay back. “Do you realize how dangerous what you did is? How would you feel if Pumpkin got hurt and you couldn’t do anything? How would she feel if something happened to you? What you did was very irresponsible. Wouldn’t it have been better to just get your parents?”

“Well, yeah…” Pound sank against the tall tree they were nestled beside. “But I wanted to make sure she didn’t get hurt—”

“And what could you do?” Fluttershy snapped. “Honestly, what did you think you were going to do?

Pound didn’t know what to say to that. He curled up before the fire, wrapping his wings around his torso and bringing his mussy tail up around his legs. He tried to ignore the sting in his eyes, but drops collected at the corners all the same. ‘This is so dumb,’ he thought.

He looked Pumpkin’s way and saw that she was totally absorbed in her book. ‘I’m dumb.’


The light of the moon shone overhead, fighting a losing battle against the rumbling fire. Pumpkin’s hoof trailed across the words as she read. The war between the draconequui and the fae was in full swing, causing great damage to Elysium and the surrounding countries.

It came to pass that a certain young mare, who was called Softly, traveled from her home to Elysium, having heard of the legends of the Tree of Life. She sought to escape from the ravages of the war and build a new home, backed by the power of golden apples.

During a pitched battle between the armies, in which storms raged and earthquakes shook the mountainside, the mare called Softly snuck into the garden under the cover of the stars. The golden apples shone in the night like lanterns, piercing the cloak of darkness the draconequui had cast.

A voice called out to her from the branches. “What do you want here, mortal? Why have you come to the realm of the great and powerful?”

“I come to cast away the hardships of mortal life,” she replied. “We have only pain and drudgery to look forward to, in order to survive. I wish to no longer work for a morsel of bread and yet starve. I wish to no longer fear the illnesses of the fae, nor the whim of a draconequus’s gale. In eating these apples, I seek to become immortal.”

“Well,” the creature in the leaves replied, “that sounds amusing, true enough, but why should I allow it?”

He showed himself to her as a draconequus, whose body took its form from many species of animals. He floated around, always moving, never remaining as he was.

“I am called Disagreement. I am called Antagonism and Conflict.” The draconequus held an apple out to her, but kept it just out of reach. “I am myself in disagreement. To allow you an apple would be to break an oath made to my chieftain. He has decreed that only draconequui shall eat of the fruit of these trees.”

“I care not,” the mare replied. “Only look the other way and I shall bother you no longer.”

The draconequus withdrew the apple and fastened it to the branches of the Tree. “Alas not, for my oath in full is to guard the tree from fae who would abscond with its bounty. I am duty and honor bound to prevent its harvest.”

“Do I look as a fae would?” the mare called Softly asked.

“Nay, but perhaps that is the key to your trickery.” The draconequus curled itself up at the base of the tree and gave her a simpering smile. “Prove to me that you are not a fae and I shall consider giving you an apple. I make no promise, however, as my mood may shift as the hours grow bleaker.”

“As bleak as these hours are,” the mare said, “I find my own mood amenable. For lack of a better idea, I accept your challenge, though I know not how to convince you.”

“That is for you to decide, if you are clever enough.” The draconequus snapped his fingers and a plate of candied fruit dropped into his waiting talon. “I tell you the truth, it is a dull duty they have given to me, and I find the prospect of a challenge exciting. That the challenge lies on you and not me is an added boon.”

“I am not here for your entertainment, but it cannot be helped.” The mare called Softly considered the terms of their agreement closely. “Would you accept my words if I were to prove that I use a magic a fairy could never replicate?”

“That would be a feat indeed, and one I find ever more intriguing.”

“A fairy’s magic concerns the spirit realm; the heart and the health.” The mare called Softly scuffed her hoof along the ground, which sent magic into the nearby grass. It grew before their eyes and seeded as grain. “But an earth pony’s magic concerns the physical. It is the magic of a farmer, or a stone carver, and its effect is felt in the land.”

“Ah, but a fairy is also capable of great illusions.” The draconequus tossed the plate of fruit away, where it fluttered as a butterfly into the stream. “If that is in fact real, it should last into the morrow. If you seek to prove to me your equinity, you will come back after the sun rises. If the grass remains seeded, then perhaps you are a pony.”

The mare called Softly did not wish to leave the Tree, but knew that if she did not agree, she might never see her prize. “Then I bid you a good night and return to what remains of my home. If the wars have not taken my life, I shall return in a day.”

She returned the following day, as she had said, and the draconequus was waiting, just as he said. Still, the grass was seeded.

“There is your proof,” she told him. “Am I not a pony?”

“It is a small thing to keep an illusion going for a day.” The draconequus hung from the branches of the Tree like a vast snake. “I feel as though your proof is weak. Surely there is yet something else you can use to showcase your magic.”

Anger rose up in the mare called Softly. She raised her hoof to him and smote the seeded grass. “You speak falsely to me, draconequus! Why should I believe that you will ever see reason?”

“You have little evidence that reason much matters.” The draconequus smiled. “And less evidence that you are an earth pony.”

“Then I shall prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt!” The mare glared at the Tree of Life with a fiery scowl. “I shall carve my name into the Tree and yet not harm it! Perhaps then you will be forced to believe!”

The draconequus laughed, loud and long. “If such a thing were possible, it would be disallowed by my chieftain. Such vandalism is well frowned upon in these parts. If you were to do so, I might allow you an apple for sheer audacity! Be warned, if the tree is harmed, you shall become much less than a slug.”

“That of a slug is a less pitiable existence than mine.”

The draconequus became suddenly silent and thoughtful. He gazed at the tree for a long while, before finally coming to a decision. “I care little for my chieftain, only fearing the power he wields. This war has become stagnate and uninteresting at every interval, and shall see little in the way of an end in a millennium’s time. If you are caught, you shall bear the brunt of the blame and the extent of the punishment, only I shall be reprimanded for neglectfulness. Carve your name in the Tree, and also mine, and I shall give you as many apples as you desire. On my word as a draconequus.”

The mare called Softly shook her head. “The word of a draconequus is that of a liar and a madman.”

“You speak well, yet it is all I have to give.”

“Then by the boldness at my disposal and the desperation in my heart, I shall carve our names.”

Pumpkin yawned. The moon was directly overhead, full and bright, its surface marred by several gray splotches. There was a time, she knew, where it was overshadowed by a literal shadow, up to a few months before she was born. It was a strange thing, knowing something in the world had changed so significantly.

She looked to Discord, who rested against the oak tree with his fingers crossed. ‘Did Discord change just as much? And how many times?’

She moseyed up to him. Pound snored beside the fire, a bound blanket preventing him from rolling into the flames. Fluttershy lay a meter away, her feathers shielding her from the light chill of a summer night. Pumpkin set the book between herself and Discord, nudging it with a spark of blue magic. “I think you’re in this book.”

Discord blinked at her. “How do you mean?”

“Check it out.” She pointed out the scene she’d just read, specifically the part where the draconequus named himself Disagreement. “This is totally you. He’s quirky, and random, and generally disinterested unless he finds something funny.”

“That does sound very much like me.” Discord picked up the book and squinted. The words inflated until they bulged from the page, the perfect size to be read. “I can’t recall ever having met this ‘Softly’ pony. And putting me on guard duty seems like the worst possible idea ever.”

“Maybe it says something about how bad the other draconequuses were.” Pumpkin rubbed her foreleg. She glanced at Pound, who whined in his sleep. “You sure you don’t remember her at all?”

“It’s hard to remember what I had for lunch last week, let alone acquaintances from two millennia ago.” He let the book float into her forelegs, light as a feather. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, I figured.” Pumpkin rested her forehead against the cover. “Maybe it’s just another dumb story.”

Discord twiddled his thumbs; impressive, since his paw didn’t have one. “For what it’s worth, I appreciate the conceit.”

“I’ll admit, I’ve never been called conceited before.”

“I have, but that’s beside the point.” Discord waved a hand. Flower petals fell from his talons and turned to dust on the wind. “I mean the idea behind what you’re doing. I appreciate you wanting to help. It’s just… the timing could have been better.”

Pumpkin sighed and lay down along the grass. “But we didn’t have any time.”

“Maybe not.” Discord said. “But now you’ve upset Fluttershy, and Pound, and probably your parents. Do your parents spank? Is that too personal a question?”

“Focus, Discord.”

“Right, whatever. The point is, as much as you’d like to make up for treating me like a personal repair business, charging into the wilderness wasn’t the solution.”

Pumpkin snorted. She hefted the book with a telekinetic spell, shoved it into her saddlebags, and walked away. “Have you always been this clueless, or did you have to work at it?”

“It’s a gift,” Discord said, kicking himself with a disembodied foot. “A gift with no returns.”

“Great. Awesome.” Tightening her bag’s straps, Pumpkin turned away from the firelight and towards the shadowed woods. “You can take your gift and shove it—”

A pair of eerie purple eyes stared back at her. Glistening teeth shimmered orange. Muscles rolled beneath a black coat. Whatever it was, it had too many legs, and too much hunger in its eyes.

She screamed until her throat burned.

Fluttershy jumped into the air, wings beating erratically, haphazardly. Pound sat up with a yelp, his bleary eyes blinking at the fire. Discord curled himself in a ring around Pumpkin, a stick grasped in his talon.

The black-coated creature stepped out of the firelight. Its head remained visible, but its body melded into the shadows. “Well that’s a fine way to say ‘hello.’”

Pumpkin retreated until her back lay against Discord’s winding chest. The creature seemed to appear and vanish at will as it weaved around at the edge of the light. She let out a whimper, the only sound she could manage.

“Who are you?” Fluttershy said. “What do you want?”

“Don’t worry none.” The creature’s voice was smooth as butter sliding around on a hotcake. “I’m just a traveler lookin’ for a place to rest for the night.”

Pound rubbed his eyes, pointing a wing into the darkness. “And what about them?”

Pumpkin gazed around. The shadows had come to life, prowling at the edge of her vision.

“You’re displacer beasts,” Fluttershy whispered. “Creatures that are only visible under a direct light source.”

“You know your critters, ma’am.” The lead displacer beast chuckled in a friendly sort of way.

“This is our campfire.” Discord cracked his knuckles, his neck, his back, and his tail, all the way down the line. “Get lost.”

“Rude much, crazy man?” The displacer beast grinned, a frightening showcase of teeth and drool. “We’ll just have to take it out of your hide!

The displacer beasts leapt. Pumpkin screamed again, covering her head with her forelegs. Pound shot straight into the air beside Fluttershy.

Discord rolled his eyes and snapped his fingers.

Black vines exploded form the ground. Long, snaking growths tangled between legs, thorns stabbed rumps, and a web of plant matter encircled the campsite. The displacer beasts were held fast, unable to do much besides blink.

“Plunder Vines,” Discord said, popping a seed into his mouth. “They do a body good.”

A lance of pure malice thundered through one of the stalks, tearing it in half. The condensed hatred turned the splintering vine into a cluster of flaming shards, raining down on the four campers. Fluttershy swatted at her wing, brushing embers away.

Pound pushed Discord’s head down. “Duck!”

They hit the ground just before the beam tore through the space above them. Vines fell like wheat on harvest day, and the displacer beasts landed easily on their six feet. Pumpkin found herself surrounded by fire on all sides, with monsters surrounding that. Her knees shook, her heart pounded in her ears, her mind raced with one thought: ‘We’re dead. We’re so dead.’

Raspy laughter scratched at her ears. A cloaked form—taller than any pony, slimmer than any skeleton, with horns rising high above beady yellow eyes—waltzed into view. “Discord, old friend. How long has it been? A decade?”

Discord’s fingers gripped the grass tight. “Tirek? What’s the matter? Prison food not good enough for you?”

“You are as amusing as you are clever,” Tirek said, his teeth bared. “That is to say, not at all.”

“Ooh, did it take you all night to think of that?”

“Silence!” Tirek raised a gaunt hand. “There is yet a chance most of you walk free. I only want what was taken from me.”

Fluttershy’s wings shook against her sides. She kept Pound beneath her, guarded by her legs. “Somehow, I feel like that’s a lie.”

“Astute.” Tirek pointed his gnarled finger. “Give me the Rainbow of Darkness, Fluttershy! Return what was stolen!”

Fluttershy shook her head, her mouth dipping open. “I… I have no idea what that—”

“Do not play games with me!” Tirek strode forward until the crackling Plunder Vines licked at his cape. “Where have you hidden it? Where is my power?

“For Peat’s sake, she doesn’t have it!” Discord rolled up the fur along his arms. “But if it’s a whoopin’ you’re a-wantin’, we’ve got plenty of those.”

Tirek barked a laugh that hurt Pumpkin’s neck just thinking about it. “Then I shall retrieve my Rainbow of Darkness from Fluttershy’s corpse!

A ball of energy glowed between his horns. Red magic boiled forward to strike Discord in the chest. The draconequus snapped his body to the side, spinning around the incinerating blast. The oak trunk erupted with shivers and plasma, sending the ancient tree tumbling.

“Run!” Discord shouted, and threw Pumpkin over the flames. Pound followed soon after, with Fluttershy in hot pursuit. Discord paused to punch a displacer beast right in the snout before scrambling along.

“After them!” Tirek screamed, his eyes blazing as bright as the magic between his horns. “Destroy them utterly!”

Pumpkin ran, her wits having completely failed her. She couldn’t see anything except for what was right in front of her. Ferns were trampled underhoof, flowers kicked into pollen and dust, and insects sent scattering. Shadows lunged at her, but she barely registered them. Something long and sharp snagged her rear leg, but Discord swatted it away. Pain stabbed through her nerves, but she pressed past it.

A jolt in her tail pulled her legs out from beneath her. She flopped to her stomach with a winded “Gwaugh!”

Discord dug in his heels. Fluttershy yelped and spread her wings to catch the air. Pound spat Pumpkin’s tail out and breathed a sigh of temporary relief.

Pumpkin looked down, down, down into a black abyss. The far side was a good thirty meters away. The ground was invisible to the naked eye, though the faint rush of a river rose above the ratta-tat-tat of her pulse.

They’d made it to Ghastly Gorge. Yay.

“On my back,” Fluttershy said breathlessly. “Pound and Discord can fly, but you need to get on—”

Menace took the form of a murderous pillar of fire, slicing through branches and turning leaves to ashes. The edge of the spell singed Discord’s mane.

“He’ll see you if you fly!” Discord pulled a bottle from nowhere and dumped its contents into the gorge. “I’ll hold them off; you three scamper across.”

Discord stood tall, a scabbard in his left hand. He drew the weapon with his right and pointed at the approaching attackers. “Have at thee!”

A bouquet of flowers hung limp from the end of Discord’s hand. He sucked his lips in. “Probably not the best time for a joke.”

The displacer beasts swarmed out of the tree line and into the light of the moon. They bit and snarled, their six legs moving at a frenzy, the tentacles on their backs grasping. Discord pounded them with boxing gloves, but they continued to come.

Fluttershy ducked beneath a claw swipe. “Stop it! Stop it!

Her voice became hard, loud, and clear. “I said stop.”

Several displacer beasts halted in their tracks, their eyes wide, their mouths agape. They sat transfixed, unable to move, unwilling to breathe. Fluttershy’s Stare bored into them, straight into their blackened souls.

“Don’t you dare hurt my friends,” Fluttershy said. “You need to go home and think about what you just did.”

Discord pounced and batted aside a displacer beast that was circling around her rear. “You think you can do the convincing a little faster?”

Tirek’s hatred sliced the air beside his head. “Please,” Discord whimpered

Pound grabbed Pumpkin’s shoulder and shook her. “Snap out of it! Let’s go!

Pumpkin’s head whirled. There was nowhere to go. Displacer beasts in front of her, a sheer cliff behind her, and Tirek’s rage above her. Her stomach twisted and her balance failed.

Pound caught her before she could collapse. “Get up! I’m not leaving without you so get up!

“Why little pony want to run?” a skeevy voice said. “All fun stuff already here!”

Pumpkin opened her eyes and beheld the single ugliest thing she had seen in her entire life. It walked on two legs, dragging oversized knuckles. Its head was oblong and its nose was stubby, barely visible over its sharp teeth. Scraggly little white hairs took the place of a proper coat. Its red eyes glowed in the low light. “My little pony, my little pony, what flavors will Munchy taste?”

It reached for them, its grimy fingers tipped with dirty claws. “My little pony, my little pony, feasting is ma—”

Pound drew back, scrunched his muzzle, and punched the creature with all his strength.

The thing that called itself Munchy tumbled head over heels. It grasped its face, wailing like a foal.

Pound didn’t stop there. He leapt onto the monster, thrashing it with as many punches and kicks as he was able to slip past Munchy’s meager guard. He paused just long enough to take a breath.

That was long enough for Munchy’s hands to close around his throat. The monster rolled, pressing the young colt against the ground. A grin split the creature’s features. “Ponies screaming, ponies dying. Ponies roasting, ponies crying!”

Pound gasped, his eyes rolling back.

‘No, no, no!’ Pumpkin thought. ‘Do something, do something, do something!’

“Hay, buttface!” she shouted.

Munchy looked up, his grip slackened, his expression puzzled.

‘This is such a dumb idea,’ she thought. “Was your mom the warthog or the ugly tree?”

Tears burst into Munchy’s eyes. He rose to his feet and ran at her, his arms outstretched. “Mommy Munchy was lovely!

Just before he hit her, Pumpkin’s horn flared. He slid right through her. There wasn’t any ground on the other side. “Oh cruuuuud!!!

She hoisted Pound to his hooves. He struggled to catch his breath as coughs rattled his chest. “Quit fooling around,” she said. “What are we gonna do?

“Cross the gorge!” Discord shouted, still protecting Fluttershy from an onslaught. Tirek could be seen just inside the first few rows of trees. “Go now! Move your caboose!”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Pound shouted. “I can’t carry Pum—”

“Use the bridge!”

“Bridge?” Pumpkin leaned down and peered closer into the darkness. Several round, transparent shapes glistened into view, bumping up against each other.

“You made…” She tilted her head, one ear falling limp. “A bubble bath? In the gorge?”

“Don’t question it, just move!” Pound hopped onto the first bubble, his wings ready for a quick takeoff. The surface tension held. “It’s fine—come on!”

Pumpkin landed hard. The bubble jiggled beneath her hooves like a giant bouncy house. “You couldn’t make a bridge out of—I don’t know—sticks?

“Pressed for time!” Discord blew air into a long balloon and used it to bat a displacer beast aside. “You try to be clever on such short notice!”

Pumpkin wobbled forward a few steps. “I don’t need clever, I need sturdy!”

Discord grasped Fluttershy by the tail. “I’d like to apologize in advance for this.”

She frowned, breaking her hold over the displacer beasts. “What are you—?”

She squeaked as she found herself tossed over the edge of the cliff and onto the bubble bridge. She wobbled for far too long to be comfortable before finding her footing. “A little warning next time!”

“I’ll remember that the next time we’re fighting for our lives!” Discord tripped a displacer beast as it tried to follow her. “Nope, nope, nope.”

Tirek plowed through the last of the trees and aimed straight for Discord. He missed by a matter of inches. “You’re slowing down, Discord! How much longer can you—?”

Discord stepped on the tip of a garden hoe. It came up to slap Tirek across the nose.

Pumpkin hopped to the next bubble in line. Every time she looked down, her stomach wanted to upchuck. She glanced back. Her breath caught in her throat as Tirek clawed at Discord, before the draconequus shrunk to a speck. Her attention soon shifted to the displacer beasts joining them on the bridge. “Fluttershy! Behind you!”

Fluttershy’s jaw set. She about-faced and glared at the approaching monsters, her eyes bright and piercing. “Stop! Go back! Go home!”

The Stare struck the displacers to their core. A few at the back of the line were able to avoid her glare, but they struggled to shove past their fellow beasts.

Tirek whirled around, seeking a sign of Discord. The orb of wicked power raged between his horns. The whip-like muscles in his arms stretched taut. His beady yellow eyes settled on one particular pegasus mare, focusing all their rage. “Fluttershy!”

Fluttershy twitched, her eyes meeting the centaur’s.

“Consider this,” Tirek said, charging his spell, “payment in full!

The head displacer beast, freed from the Stare, turned around with wide eyes. “Wait, big hoss! Don’t shoot the br—”

Discord cannonballed onto Tirek’s back. The centaur’s aim went wide, missing Fluttershy but slicing through the wall of the gorge and several bubbles.

The bubbles continued to pop, right beneath Pumpkin’s hooves. She ran as fast as she could across the uneven, unstable bridge. Pound was ahead of her, urging her on, reaching for her. With a final leap, she grasped his foreleg and hoisted herself onto the ledge.

Fluttershy covered her mouth, her wings carrying her aloft, as the entire contingent of displacer beasts tumbled into Ghastly Gorge, howling all the way. She flew at top speed for the far side, tears in her eyes.

Pumpkin fell to her stomach. A gentle hand touched the side of her head. “Come on,” Discord said. “We gotta move.”

She glanced up into mishmashed, yellowed eyes. To her right, Pound was stumbling along, trying to catch his breath. To her left, Fluttershy was cleaning vomit from the side of her mouth. They all scuttled along, keeping low, rushing through the woods to whatever destination they could find.


Tirek flailed at thin air, roaring sounds without meaning. He gazed around the empty cliff side, down into the gorge, and across to the other side. His gang lay at the bottom, most assuredly no longer among the living. His greatest prize and his greatest enemy both turned tail and escaped into the woods.

A disgusting little hand appeared over the cliff. Munchy’s head popped up soon after. The little morlock shivered as he wandered up to Tirek’s side. “Whoo. That was super-close one.”

Tirek lashed out with a hind leg and sent Munchy flying. The morlock groaned, his broken nose pressed against the soil. “Munchy okay.”

Tirek turned back through the trees. He would have to find another way around the gorge if he wished to continue his chase. But then, how would he find his hated foes again? He no longer had a hunting party. He no longer had the stink of draconequus to follow.

His answer hovered over the fiery remains of the camp: The glowing, green, magical arrow the fools had been following. It would no doubt lead Tirek right to them. Or, at the least, he could reach their destination before they did.

Tirek rubbed his chin and scowled. He no longer had an edge, but the battle was not over yet.


Lacer the Displacer lay face down in a puddle of soapy water. Three of his legs were broken, as well as several of his ribs. He could tell just by trying to stand. He wasn’t going anywhere.

His fellow displacer beasts were similarly injured. The bubbles had broken their fall on the way down, but they had still fallen a great distance. All because of Tirek and his stupid vendetta.

“Oh dear.” A shape materialized out of the misty gorge. It was a small pony, with a gray coat and a black business suit. The pony tipped a boater hat to Lacer. “It seems you are in something of a pickle. Most very distressing.”

“What… what do you want, pony?” It was strange to Lacer that a pony would hang out in the gorge at all. It didn’t seem very important, though. More pressing was the itch working its way down his back. “Look, we’re kinda half-dead down here, so why don’t you go off and get us some help?”

“Because I am the help.” The pony set a briefcase beside Lacer’s head. “I wish to hire you, in exchange for a great reward.”

“Been there, done that, pony bro.” Lacer groaned, which only served to pain his ribs further. “Just got done with a job that went south in a hurry.”

“Yes, yes. Tirek and his promises of gold.” The pony smiled. “I’d like to sweeten the deal, so to speak.”

He kicked the case open. Gold and jewels sparkled in Lacer’s eyes.

“Consider this a… nonrefundable down payment.” The pony dumped the gold beside Lacer. The briefcase vanished. “My gift to you. If you take this job, your reward will be many times what you see here.”

Lacer the Displacer lifted a good leg. “I’m… a little wounded here, pony bro.”

“Oh yes, of course. Yes, yes.” The pony placed a golden vial in Lacer’s paw. “Perhaps a bit of ambrosia will go a ways?”

Lacer took a sip of the curative potion. “Who did you say you were?”

“You can call me Jeuk.” The pony took a step back as the other displacer beasts got to their feet and wandered closer. “I’ll be your business partner for the foreseeable future. And trust me when I say the future is bright.”

Lacer looked at the pile of gold that was already his. It was enough to pay for all his and his sister’s debts. A couple times over. It was a new life. It was all their troubles over.

He wanted more. “What’s the job, Jeuk my pony?”

Jeuk giggled.

Look Back to Look Forward

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Pumpkin Cake huddled beneath a beech tree. It was an old, wizened thing, with far-reaching branches and full, lush leaves. Early morning mist hovered over the ground cover, while dew collected in her coat. Birdsong stabbed at her ears as she looked for wretched things crawling through the wilds of Whitetail Woods.

Discord sat a short distance away, his head held like a periscope, swiveling this way and that. A short branch balanced in his crooked elbow, while a round helmet with a single spike sat on his head. “It’s noisy,” he said. “Too noisy.”

A bitter retort about him not helping faded long before it could leave her lips. She sighed and lay down in the damp grass to watch ants crawl across the forest floor. They paraded single-file, not a care in the world except to eat and build.

‘Do ants get sick?’ she wondered. ‘Do ants have doctors? Does anybody care about them?’

Fluttershy flew in, with Pound close behind, a woven hemp basket hanging from his side. It was piled high with berries, roots, and other edible goodies found throughout the woods. Seemed they had good luck foraging. “Eat up,” Fluttershy said. “We need to keep moving.”

Discord popped a raspberry in his mouth with a kaboing!

Fluttershy rolled her eyes. She nibbled on a wild chive and waved at the kids. “Hurry. Just get something in you so we can walk.”

Pound glanced at his sister before just as quickly looking away. “I found some blackberries if you want them.”

Pumpkin’s heart thrummed too quickly. Too lightly. Her eyes never left the dark, mottled bruises on Pound’s neck. His voice was raspy and pained. She found herself too upset to speak, so she just brought a hoofful of berries to her mouth. They tasted like ash.

‘That’s my fault. I did that.’

Discord hovered overhead, juggling radishes. “You’re all acting awfully dour for a group of ponies who just escaped with their lives. We should celebrate! He who screams and runs away lives to cower another day!”

“Discord.” Fluttershy’s words came like the snap of a whip. “Shut. Up.”

Pound grimaced as he tried to force air past his vocal chords. “We—we don’t know if the creatures are still after us. We know Tirek still is. Wh—we have to get home.”

“We can’t.” Pumpkin blinked. An ant might have looked her way, or it may have been a trick of the light. “Tirek will be waiting for us.”

“We have to move forward.” Fluttershy spread her wings, shaking a bit of dew into a rainbow-filled spray. “I don’t care where, but forward. Your parents were expecting us today, so when we don’t show up they’ll send a search party.”

Pound tried to cough, but barely managed a hiccup. “Hopefully one with lots of Royal Guardsponies.”

Fluttershy put a hoof to his chin to shut his mouth. “You should stop talking. I’m not saying you’re not right, but you aren’t going to heal if you keep hurting yourself.”

Pound nodded. He chewed his berries well before swallowing as gently as possible.

Discord raised a talon. “May I ask something?”

Fluttershy frowned. “No.”

Discord rubbed his hands together, staring into the distance, pressing his lips tight. “I’m gonna ask anyway. Which way is forward?”

Pumpkin’s ears rose as she lifted her head. “Aren’t we still going to the garden?”

“We lost our only way of finding it.” Fluttershy paced beneath the tree, gesturing with her hoof at whatever caught her ire. “If we pick the wrong direction, we could be hundreds of miles off. We’re going to have to start all over again.” She narrowed her eyes at Pumpkin, laying her ears back. “Without you two.”

She fluttered up to a low branch to gain a better lookout position. “So we pick a direction and keep moving, until the guards find us or Tirek does.”

Discord held his talon across his heart and fluttered his paw. “My, my, the day is just filled with possibilities!”

“Discord, please.” Fluttershy held her hooves to her chest, shaking her head. “Please, please stop talking. It’s not funny. Not right now. Creatures just died.”

Pound rubbed his mussed mane. “We don’t know that. They might’ve—”

“Pound.” Fluttershy stomped her hoof and turned. She walked into the woods, booking no room for argument.

Pumpkin looked from her brother’s bruises to Discord. “I think we’re supposed to follow her.”

“Prudent.” Discord lowered himself to his feet. “Shall we carry on?”

The walk was quiet as the grave. The sun rose and banished the mist, carrying the dew away to an early morning elsewhere. Insects came out in force; buzzing bees and katydids and ants everywhere. Pumpkin was tempted to swat a few away, but she dreaded upsetting Fluttershy.

The terrain shifted as they moved further west, growing less a wooded plain and more a rocky, craggy landscape. Vast boulders overgrown with moss stood like ancient ruins. Steep hills and wide valleys were coated with thick trees. The sun shone yellow through the chlorophyll-filled foliage. The warm summer air was accompanied by a cooling breeze, gently tugging at their manes.

Any other time, Pumpkin would have been amazed and awed. She probably would have taken her notebook out to try her horn at drawing something. But every time she thought about it, she would stumble on an exposed root, or catch a glimpse of Pound’s bruises, or hear Discord mutter something just out of earshot.

If you hadn’t been there, they could’ve just flown over the gap.

Her thoughts sounded strange to her, but she couldn’t argue with them. The whole fiasco at the gorge… The creatures falling, Fluttershy almost getting killed, that thing choking Pound… that was on her.

It’s your fault for wanting to come. That’s why everybody is hurt.

Pumpkin scratched an itch behind her ear. A moth flew from its perch and flapped its wings in her face. “Son of a—”

“Pumpkin!” Pound glanced over his shoulder, giving her an evil eye.

“—gun…” Pumpkin let her head dip down. A half-restrained, curly pigtail flopped over her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

He’s hurt because of you.

Pumpkin bit her lip. Her eyes stung as a flash of sunlight broke through the branches. “I’m sorry.”

Discord will lose his memory because of you.

“I’m sorry.”

People are hurt because of you.

“I’m sorry!”

She wanted to curl up on the ground. She wanted to cover her ears and say it was all lies, but it wasn’t. “I just wanted to help!

Her face was sticky with tears. Her hooves were too damp to dry her cheeks. She felt the strength leave her legs and cause her to flop down, shaking and sobbing. “I’m sorry.”

“Hay.” A hoof brushed a tear away. Pound nudged her shoulder, trying to get her to stand. “It’s gonna be alright.”

“No it’s not.” Pumpkin sniffled, burying her muzzle in her forelegs. “I screwed up and now everybody’s hurt. I just wanted to make things better, not worse.”

“Everything happens for a reason.” Pound rested a wing on her back. “That’s what Mrs. Cheerilee says, right? That’s what Mom and Dad and Pinkie always say, right? Maybe there’s a reason you came?”

“Yeah.” Pumpkin shifted herself in the moss to turn away. “Reason is I’m a big doody-head.”

“No, I mean for a good reason.” Pound looked to Fluttershy, his brow furrowed. “There has to be a good reason for this. Right?”

Fluttershy scrunched her muzzle, her eyes lidded. “We don’t have time for—”

“Fluttershy,” Discord said, touching her shoulder. “I don’t think Tirek will find us if we just sit here for the next ten minutes. Do you?”

Fluttershy opened her mouth, but nothing came forth. She flicked her tail and walked to the edge of a nearby clearing. She sat down with her back to them, her long, soft wings touching the tips of the grass.

“Now you listen hear, Little Miss Cake.” Discord popped a monocle in each eye, swishing a pointer back and forth at nothing. He walked in a circle with Pound and Pumpkin at the center. “I’ve lived a good many lifetimes and can remember at least a couple of them. I’ve seen this side of eternity and more. And with my long, long life and great, great experience, I can tell you one thing.”

Pound narrowed an eye. He spread his wings and croaked, “Which is?”

“That the entire world is on a crash-collision course with cataclysm!” He slapped a palm with the stick. “But you ponies don’t seem to care.”

He bounced a monocle like a yo-yo, spinning it around and around. “You see the world crumble around you, all your hard work going up in flames and burning to the ground! Yet you still march on, waving your little flags and singing your little songs. Joyously going about your day as if it would never end, even though the end is just around the corner.”

The objects in his grip disappeared. He curled himself up in coils, slipping to the ground, bringing his head to their level. “I never understood it. For centuries and millennia I never understood it. I knew cataclysm was coming, so why not embrace it? Why not charge wholeheartedly towards it and meet it in the middle?”

Pumpkin felt the sobs recede, little by little. She watched Discord talk, with his exaggerated movements and his loud voice. Always seeking to entertain. Always fighting for an audience. He had one.

“And then… then I met Fluttershy and I started to get it.” He gazed at the Pegasus, his eyelids low, his snaggletooth digging into his chin. “I started to understand why you mortals clung to life so desperately. What you wanted to hold onto. And that’s…”

He rubbed his neck, fluttering his decidedly nonsymmetrical wings. “It wasn’t until I started caring for the mortal life that my own mortality showed its big, ugly face.”

He held out his hands, giving Pound and Pumpkin a shrug. “I don’t know if everything works out for good, but I know it’s in your nature to never stop trying.”

He booped her nose. “And that, Little Miss Cake, is all you ever needed.”

Pound huffed. He hopped into the air and hovered, bopping tree branches aside. “I’m not convinced.”

Discord touched a finger to his lips. “Oh, you. Stahp.”

“I mean, there’s more to life than just ignoring all the bad things that are coming.” Pound thumped one hoof against the other. “There’s a reason and a purpose for all of us. A good one.”

“Hate to break it to you, Sport,” Discord said, his voice low, “but not everybody lives as charmed a life as Pinkie Pie. It’s easy for her to say, but—”

“Discord.” Fluttershy tugged on the tip of his tail, dragging him a few inches back. She jerked her head towards the west. “It’s time to go.”

Discord pressed his lips together. He shot a glance at Pound out of the corner of his eye. “You’ll be happy, Pound. Oh, ho, ho, yes, ecstatically so. But don’t be surprised when you’re not.”

Pumpkin lifted herself off the grass and moss, picking little blades out of her coat with a flash of magic. She adjusted her saddlebag straps, rolled her pigtails behind her shoulders, and looked to the others, who all made their way west with plodding, uncertain steps. Some of it had to do with the terrain, but not all of it.

Fluttershy’s wings dragged at her sides as her ears swiveled, searching for something.

‘Probably listening to the birds,’ Pumpkin thought. ‘Looking for a friend?’

Fluttershy let her head droop, and stared at her hooves as she carried on.

Pumpkin did the same.


Fluttershy rested against a tree trunk overlooking a deep valley carved from stone and soil. Trees grew sideways from the walls, reaching for the sunlight as it passed overhead. Caves pocketed the otherwise sheer walls, hosting endless unknowns.

“We’ll camp up here for the night,” she sighed. The warmth of the sun faded as it sunk beneath distant hills. She chewed on a spare sprig of dandelion she’d found on the way there. “We’ll find some peace.”

“Unlikely,” Pumpkin piped up.

“We will!” Fluttershy blew a hot breath through her nostrils. “We will. Some. Discord, would you—”

“Make a fire?” Discord held a stick above crackling flames, cradling a bag of marshmallows. “Roast some weenies? Sing camp songs?”

Fluttershy felt anger rise in her chest. She bit it back, along with the retort she’d summoned from the depth of her heart. “Please, just keep a lookout.”

She walked off, staying within earshot but gaining enough distance to clear her head. It was wrong. Everything was wrong. The trip was spoiled. The guide was lost. Now she had two children to take care of on top of Discord? ‘It’s too much. It’s too much! How could everything have gotten so twisted? How could everything have come apart so quickly? I don’t know what to do.’

She looked to the setting sun, wishing for the slightest glimpse of the pony lowering it to its rest. ‘I don’t know what to do. Is there anything I can do? There has to be something.’

“What can I do?” she whispered.

“I, um, was about to ask that.”

Fluttershy snapped her head around. She beheld the same sturdy, cream-coated colt that had been following her for two days now. “What?”

“I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help.” Pound shuffled his hooves, letting his wings twitch unfettered. “Anything. G-gather food again? Keep watch? Um, make a shelter, I dunno.”

Fluttershy tried with all her might to keep her expression neutral. She was as weak as she’d ever been; her face grew dour as the edge of her lips turned up in an unmistakable grimace. “I think you’ve helped enough.”

“No I haven’t.” Pound tried to clear his throat, but it came out as a scratchy whine. “I haven’t done anything right since we followed you. I wanna do something to help.”

“Believe me, Pound,” Fluttershy said, her ears low, “there’s nothing you can do—”

“Teach me what to do!” His voice broke at the last word. “Teach me how to do it right. I tried to protect my sister and it sucked, so teach me how.”

“Don’t run off into the woods!” The words escaped before Fluttershy could blot them out. “Don’t throw yourself in danger when you know it’s irresponsible! Pumpkin knew better and so did you!”

“I know!” Pound took in deep breaths to ease his throat. Judging by his strained face, it had the opposite effect. “I know. I know we did it wrong. So how do I fix it?”

“Some things you can’t fix.” Fluttershy felt her eyes pool. She wiped her face with a wingtip, flicking the water away with a gentle wing beat. “Sometimes there isn’t a magical cure, or a final puzzle piece, or a lost prophecy… Sometimes you just have to live with your mistakes.”

Pound looked her right in the eye, sniffling. “Then what?”

“You try again.” Fluttershy drew to the edge of the cliff and looked down. A stream trickled across the boulders and crags, reflecting the orangey light. “And you choke down the pain.”

She sat at the brim of the valley, letting her legs dangle over the side. A bird soared from the sky to perch on a long, thin branch. Its twig-like leg bent as it tucked its head beneath its blue wings.

Pound nestled into the moss a short ways away. “I don’t want to always hurt.”

“It doesn’t always hurt.” Fluttershy filled her lungs with fresh air. She reclined and watched the wildlife shift, from the bright cheerfulness of day, to the soft tranquility of night. Raccoons peered from dens, while snakes slithered from burrows. “But it can always hurt again.”

She shut her eyes and listened to the call of a barn owl. “Do you remember the story of how my friends and I got our cutie marks?”

“Yeah.” Pound swung his hoof in an arc. “Rainbow Dash soared through the sky and made the biggest rainboom ever!”

“That’s right.” Fluttershy folded her wing beneath her to act as a makeshift pillow. “Shortly after I fell from Cloudsdale, once I was saved by the animals, I met a boy. A young colt named Happy, just my age.”

She reached her foreleg out to allow a ladybug to perch on her hoof. It crawled around in circles, fluttering its four wings. “I was still too young to live alone, but when my parents saw how much I loved it down here… well, long story short, I stayed with his family over the summer. Miss Merry Mare is his mother. You remember her?”

“The lady that runs the anti-Applejack protest rallies.” Pound offered her a lopsided grin. “Hard to forget a mare with a megaphone.”

“Maybe so.” Fluttershy giggled lightly. Happy memories played behind her eyes, overlapping with the peace she found in the valley. “We had so much fun just discovering the world. Me, Happy, Merry and her husband.” She wrinkled her snout. “Since her name was Missus Mare, I always called him Mister Pony.”

Pound batted aside a falling leaf with a swipe of his wing. “I didn’t know she was married.”

“She’s not.” Fluttershy felt that old, familiar ache slide into the groove carved into her heart. “At least, I don’t think so. Not anymore. I don’t know if they actually got divorced, but…”

She glanced at Pound. Hesitated. Did he need to hear this? Didn’t he already feel bad enough? Could it help him? Hinder him? Was this a harsh kindness, or a bitter cruelty?

“We were all very happy. Mostly because of Happy. His love of life was…” She pressed ahead before she could doubt herself further. ‘The harshest lessons can have the greatest impact.’ “He was always cheerful. Always had something nice to say or do. Always encouraging me…”

She looked him right in the eye, her brow furrowed. “Until I made a big mistake.”

The ladybug flew behind her ear and nuzzled her mane. “I’ve always loved animals so very much. I wanted to meet as many as I could. And… and I’d read about the manticores that live in the Everfree Forest—they’re such gentle creatures, you know, just big—and I wanted to meet one.”

She saw it in the way Pound deflated; he could see where it was going. She saw the very moment it dawned on him what might have happened. What had to have happened. He said nothing, though, and tilted his ears to catch her words.

“Happy promised to protect me, to accompany me through the forest.” Fluttershy bit her lip hard. “We were younger than you. We packed a couple of snacks and slipped away from the mare babysitting us. We traveled through the woods all afternoon. We met the nicest creatures. Manny the Manticore is still one of my best friends…”

Tears trailed through her coat, feeling warm against her skin. “But it was the night the Everfree earned its status as an evil place. The day the legend became harsh reality.”

The ladybug flew away to whatever leaf it called home. Fluttershy gazed as it went, bobbing its carefree way across the landscape. “We crossed a log that stretched across the river. We’d gone over it four times that day without any trouble. It was sturdy, strong, steadfast. But—but I must have been bitten by a bug, because a terrible, terrible burning itch spread across my wing. I reached to rub it and… and my foot caught and…”

Heat spread across her face as her throat tightened. “I had never learned to swim. They don’t have pools or lakes in Cloudsdale. I fell.” She let her head droop under the weight upon her shoulders. “I fell and he jumped in after me. He kept my head above water until I could grab a branch. I—I climbed onto the bank and he was gone.”

Fluttershy sat up. The last of the light vanished behind distant trees and mountains, leaving the sky a deep purple. “They said they found him three days later. He never had a chance. They took me back to Cloudsdale and… and Ponyville fell apart. For a long time, it was just broken. So many horrible things happened after… after my mistake.”

She reached out to touch Pound’s shoulder. He stared into the middle distance, barely breathing. “Pound,” she said, “you are one of the most responsible colts I know. From what I saw yesterday, you’re one of the most courageous and noble brothers, too. You have a beautiful heart.”

She rubbed his back gently, her voice quiet. “You need to temper that courage with wisdom. Learn when to act. How to act. When to tell somebody no. Pumpkin didn’t need you to go after her, but to tell her she was wrong and then get your parents. I needed somebody to tell me no. To stop me. But nobody did. And someone very important to me was caught up in the consequences.”

Pound was quiet for a long time, mulling over his response. When he spoke at last, it was with a waiver. “I… I don’t understand how that could work out for good. P-Pinkie says—”

“Pound.” Fluttershy blew a breath through her nose. ‘Pinkie’s gonna hate me.’ “Not everything has a happy ending.”

Dampness trickled down his face. He sniffled and rubbed his nose.

Her heart broke. She pulled him into a soft hug, covering him with her wings. “But I learned from my mistake. I learned how to move through life with careful caution. I learned that though there are hardships, they can be endured.”

She pressed her teeth tight behind closed lips. “And I decided that I will never lose a friend ever again. Not if there’s anything I can do to save them.”

Pound rested his head against her downy feathers. “So… so next time Pumpkin goes crazy I know what to do, right?” He laughed, just a little bit.

“I suppose so.” She gave him a squeeze before letting him go. “And you are a brave colt, Pound. That’s something to be proud of.”



Pumpkin Cake arose in the deepest of night, her ears filled with a small buzzing. She scratched an itch at the back of her head, beneath her impossibly tangled mane. As she scratched, it niggled all the more, soon adding a slight burning sensation atop it.

No crickets chirped. No owls called. No creature stirred in the depths of Whitetail Woods.

Discord curled around their little campsite, where all three ponies huddled together. Pumpkin moved carefully to step around the others, never so much as nudging them. Never disturbing them. Never waking them. The spell of stillness over the forest caught her up in its grasp, hushing her footsteps against the moss.

She sighed. Fog rolled from her mouth. It hung before her in a clump, wafting and swirling, unworldly and spectral.

She cinched her saddlebags around her barrel, hefting the weight of her art supplies and that stupid book. She’d never finished that story. It didn’t seem important anymore, though. Nothing much did.

Her ear twitched at the tug of a sound more felt than heard. She looked up to find a perfect path cut through the trees, overhung by branches and dangling vines. A light hovered up and down the road, fading in and out.

‘A firefly?’ Pumpkin wanted to wake Fluttershy, or Discord, or anybody. But she didn’t. She walked towards the bobbing light. She reached for it, again and again, but each time it pulled further down the path.

It wasn’t a lightning bug. There was no buzz of wings, no telltale black carapace in the midst of the glow. It was bodiless, formless, void of all but luminescence. Yet still it led her on, step by step, inch by inch.

She tried to speak, to say “What are you?” but her thoughts were muddled by an incessant itch in her mind. Her throat was stopped up by a weight upon her tongue. Her eyes were drawn unstoppably towards the guiding light, her hooves having stopped obeying her long ago.

“Hello, little girl,” the light said at last. “Do you know the way to the Tree of Life?”

“No,” she said automatically. She scratched at the infernal itch. “We’re lost.”

“I’m sorry. So terribly sorry.” The voice sounded genuinely remorseful. Pumpkin almost felt bad for it. “I know you wanted to find the tree ever so badly. Yes, yes. A horrible creature stole your heart’s desire away from you.”

Pumpkin fought to say what she wished. Words fell from her open mouth, though not the one’s she’d chosen. “I want to heal Discord, but now we can’t.”

“Dear child, fear not.” The light twinkled, as if it was capable of smiling through sheer brightness. “I can show you the way to the Garden of Elysium. There, you will find a way to free Discord of his worries.”

‘Convenient,’ she thought. ‘Way too convenient. It’s a trick. It’s a trick and this is some weird forest spirit that wants you to wander forever.’

“I do so hope you’ll follow my advice.” The light dimmed. It lowered itself towards the ground, changing hues from plain white to an odd, darker red. “You know what will happen to Discord if you don’t.”

A fire struck in the midst of Pumpkin’s heart. She clenched her teeth tight, pointing her horn at the apparition. She forced the words past the fog behind her eyes. “What do you mean? Nothing’s gonna happen to Discord! We’re gonna cure him!”

“But what if you don’t?” The light faded into dust and blew away. “All you need to do to see forward… is to look back…”

“Back?” Pumpkin threw her head around to see the path. “That doesn’t make—”

What once were woods was a forest of candy canes. What once was a mountain was a pile of green mucous, humming a merry little tune. What once were clouds were vast clumps of landscape, hung upside down, where ponies clung to the grass for dear life. The dirt was checkerboard and the river was salami. The sun and moon flew across the sky in an arcane tennis match.

Over it all, a throne sat, holding a familiar mishmash of a creature. Discord tilted his cup to her, letting the fish within slosh around. “Aha! I’ve been expecting you, my dear! I… huh?”

He put on eyeglasses. They slid down his nose, growing bigger by the inch, until his eyes were magnified to astronomical proportions. “My, my; these virgin sacrifices are getting younger every year.”

Pumpkin’s pupils shrunk. “Oh, eeew!

“Oh, hush. I’m just tossing you into the gelatin volcano with the others.” He picked her up by the scruff of her neck and held her over a vat of goo. “Here comes another one, girls!”

Pumpkin chanced a look down as she fell. Dozens and dozens of mares were encased in solidified blocks of gelatin, like mosquitos in amber. She saw familiar faces, every one, from Princess Twilight Sparkle, to her filly scout leader Twist, to even Scootaloo.

Scootaloo stared at her, her eyes pleading for help.

Pumpkin hit the goop with a flat plunk. She stood up, her legs wobbling beneath her. “Discord, stop! We’re your friends!”

“Hmm? What was that?” Discord stuck a pinkie in his ear and pulled out a Pinkie. He flicked her away like a booger. “I must have misheard you. See, I don’t need any friends. Why have friends when you can have breakable playthings?”

“What about Fluttershy?” Pumpkin tripped when her hooves stuck fast to the slime beneath her. “She’s your best friend! Your first friend!”

“Shutterfly? Never heard of such a thing.” He tapped the tips of his claws together, giggling bright. “Ooh! Ooh! Can you do the thing where you hold your hoof up so that it’s the last thing that sinks? It’s a gut-buster every time!”

Pumpkin gasped. She was up to her chest in the stuff. She struggled to pull something, anything, out of the mire, but every tug was met with a squelching sound from the ooze. “Help! I’m gonna sink!”

“Spoilers!” Discord pressed a finger against his lips and shushed noisily.

“I’m your friend, Discord!” Tears burst from Pumpkin’s eyes, streaming down, down, down to the muck. “You’re my friend! We hang out after school, and you do funny things, and you fix my rubber chicken! You’re my best… my best friend.”

Discord lowered his eyebrows. He scratched his chin, swinging a silver pocket watch with his paw. “Ah! I remember a rubber chicken… Yes, I do remember.” He laughed straight from the bottom of his belly. “I brought that thing to life years ago! It was hilarious the way it devoured that entire family alive!”

Pumpkin felt the sludge collect around her cheekbones. “Wh—what?”

“All of them lived in the bakery, you see, and—” He guffawed and slapped his knee. “Oh, their screams were delightful! You’ll see what I mean in a minute. Here he comes now!”

She looked to the right. A rubber chicken shambled bonelessly towards her, its painted eyes wide with a silent scream. It stretched its mouth out to the size of a pony, revealing row upon row of sharp, hungry teeth.


Pumpkin screamed and shut her eyes tight.

“Oh dear. That was so very upsetting.”

Pumpkin gasped. Her limbs were free of the weaponized dessert. Her breath came in quick spurts as she patted herself down. No sign of the horrendous things she’d seen. She reached into her saddlebags and felt her hoof bump against Chewie. Normal. Squeaky as usual. Safe.

“Oh, no, not safe. Not at all.” The light bobbed before her eyes, a cheerful green. “Not yet.”

“What was that?” Pumpkin snatched at the odd thing, but her hoof went right through it. “What did you do to Discord?”

“Nothing. I’ve never even met him.” The light wobbled in an approximated nod. “And all I did was show you one of many, many possible futures.”

Pumpkin scratched until her itch was red and raw, sizzling like fire. “It’s not true. It’s not! We’re gonna save him!”

“Yes. Yes, I know.” The light fell, flying close to the ground, illuminating the stone. “And I will help.”

A sparkling, shimmering, glistening, rich something appeared. It sparkled in the light of the wisp, almost shining with a light all its own. “Wh—what is it?”

“Look closely.” The light waved and wobbled, carrying down the path, showing that the precious something carried on down the road. “Follow the vein of gold, Pumpkin Cake. Follow it as it winds and weaves through the hills and valleys. It is the roots of the Tree of Life, and all strains will collect at the source. There, you will find the Garden of Elysium, and help for Discord.”

Pumpkin touched the gold. It tingled to the touch. “I don’t trust you! You’re a creepy forest sprit, or an evil will-o-the-wisp, or something weird like that!”

“Don’t trust me?” The light slipped between the trees, zipping away, its voice growing faint. “I’ve done nothing but tell you the truth. Is not trusting me worth what could happen to Discord… and all Equestria?”

Pumpkin closed her eyes, scuffing her hoof against the ground.

“Follow the riches of the earth, Pumpkin Cake!” A breeze blew through her tangled mane. The itch reached a fever pitch. “They will guide you to your heart’s desire!”


“Pumpkin! Pumpkin!” A hoarse voice scratched her ear as someone shook her awake. “It’s time to wake up!”

Pumpkin lifted her head. Her mane clung to her cheeks in damp strips. Chewie hung from her mouth, squeaking weakly.

“Come on.” Pound shook her shoulder, rubbing his neck with the joint of his wing. “Fluttershy’s already moving.”

He looked awful. Two full days of running through the woods with no baths to speak of? Barely anything to eat? A freaky monster clutching at his throat? Nope. He wasn’t winning any beauty pageants.

‘Of course,’ Pumpkin thought as she caught her reflection in the stream, ‘I look a bajillion times worse.’

She splashed herself with water, if only to get the top layer of dirt to run off. She rubbed black rings of soil from her eyelids.

“Pumpkin!” Pound’s voice sounded as painful as ever. He shouted to her from the other side of the valley, standing beside Fluttershy and Discord. “Come on!

“Oh, screw this,” Pumpkin whispered. A bit of grit scratched her eye. She blinked to get her tears running.

A glistening gold something lay at the bottom of the stream, shining in the light of the sun. Pumpkin’s breath halted entirely as she followed the vein, watching it stretch into the west, all along the bottom of the water.

She scratched a minor itch somewhere along her left shoulder. “Hay, guys! Isn’t it true that hunters can lose you scent in water?”

Fluttershy hovered above the ground. She glanced at the meager stream before turning a stern eye towards Pumpkin. “Yes, but I very much doubt Tirek has a bloodhound—”

“It’s not gonna hurt anything to follow it.” Pumpkin crossed her forelegs, raising an eyebrow. “Is it?”

“Oh my gracious!” Discord pressed his hands against his cheeks. He bent way, way, way over until his nose nearly touched the surface of the stream. “This is perhaps the most delightful stream I’ve ever seen! Can we follow it, Fluttershy? Please, please, pretty please?”

Fluttershy’s mouth twitched. “Fine. I don’t see why not. Let’s go.”

They ambled along, Fluttershy in the lead, Pound second, and Pumpkin and Discord at the rear. His lips popped off his face to hover beside her ear.

“You owe me,” he said in a hushed voice. “This is the single most eye-searing stream that’s ever seared my eyes. What’s so important about following it?”

Pumpkin thought for a minute, choosing only the choicest, most aggravating words. “Because suddenly I begin to see—” She touched the golden strain in the cool, summer-warmed water. “—a bit of good luck for me. Get a load of this stuff…”

The Garden of Elysium

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“A forest spirit?” Discord took a long draft of dew he’d collected in a leaf. He waltzed along on the surface of the stream, leaving little ripples behind every step. “Sounds suspect if you ask me. Downright worrisome, and I say that as a friend of Fluttershy. I know worrisome when I see it.”

“What choice do we have?” Pumpkin stumbled along the bank of the creek, kicking stones into the drink with every step. Moss clung to the bottom of her hooves as dirt snuck into every cranny. “We’ve got no way to message anybody back home, no idea how to get anywhere, and nobody really looking for us. At least, nobody that knows where to find us.”

Discord nodded, rubbing his goatee with a plucked fern. The beard giggled demurely. “Is that what the forest spirit told you? Is that how they phrased it?”

Pumpkin rolled her eyes. “Kinda, yeah.”

“You’re trying to convince yourself that the spirit is right.” He bumped her chest with the fern, nudging her back a few inches. “Stop doing the evil creature’s job for it.”

She glared at the surprisingly firm plant. She shared the glare with Discord himself. “It might not be evil. Maybe.”

“Little Miss Cake… How do I phrase this lightly?” Discord hemmed and hawed, twirling the fern branch this way and that, his horns spinning wildly. “Most things in the forest want to eat you. Or send you running in circles until you go crazy and then eat you. Or take everything from you that you’ve ever loved, throw the emptiness of the world in your face, show you the depths of your despair… and then eat you.”


“Glad you agree.” Discord bit the fern and crunched it between his teeth. “Following this glowy goldy thingy is bad mojo, mark my words.”

“You got a better idea?” Pumpkin pulled Chewie from his seat in her bags and stuffed his neck in her mouth. She nibbled as she walked. ‘And now I’m gonna wear my teeth down to nubs. Awesome.’

“Not a better idea, per se.” Discord drummed his fingers together. “But I think you might ought want to tell our peerless leader about your reliable sources.”

‘Because one Fluttershy freak-out a day isn’t enough,’ she thought. Out loud, Pumpkin muttered around Chewie’s rubbery body. “What good’s that gonna do? She already doesn’t wanna listen to what I have to say.”

Discord swung his arms wide and sported a grin to match. “Honesty!”

Fluttershy turned her head, her eyelids low. “What?”

“Honesty!” Discord placed his hands on Pumpkin’s shoulders and shoved her forward. “The best policy!”

Pumpkin swallowed as she looked at Fluttershy’s eyes. She was certain that any moment they’d glow red and fire laser beams at Discord’s face.

“Honesty!” Discord said. “I remember that friendship report! It was great. Good stuff. Yay.”

“And…” Fluttershy’s breath came as a hiss. “And what way… does that tie in… to running for our lives?

“Don’t worry.” Discord sent Pumpkin a wink. “All shall be revealed.”

Pumpkin let out a halfhearted wheeze of laughter. “Yeah. What he said.”

Pound fluttered to the ground and sat by Pumpkin’s side. He reached up to rub his neck with his feather tips. Silence settled upon the forest, save for the hesitant caw of a distant crow.

Pumpkin spat Chewie out. “So, like, last night I had this dream, and there was this forest spirit, and he was all glowy and stuff, and he said to follow the trail of gold veins in the ground, and they’d like lead us to Elysium, so we could find the Tree of Life and we could all be happy and stuff so… yeah.”

Fluttershy’s neck swiveled to look into the stream. The gold glistened along the bottom, shining in the evening sun. She gritted her teeth behind pursed lips. “No. No! We are looping back east starting now. We’re heading back for Equestria right now.”

Pumpkin stood up and raised a hoof. “But—”

“No!” Fluttershy shut her eyes, rubbing her forehead and flaring her wings. “I refuse to go anywhere near where this thing wants us to go. If it had good intentions, it wouldn’t have come to a child in the middle of the night.”

“This might be the last thing that can save Discord!” Pumpkin threw a hoof out to splash the stream. Chewie almost fell in, but was saved with a flicker of her horn. “Whatever happened to that? Whatever happened to the Tree of—?”

“You happened!” Fluttershy pointed with a hoof, right at Pumpkin’s chest. “Everything was going fine until you happened!”

Anger squeezed through Pumpkin’s eyelids and left two streaks running down her cheeks. “I just wanted to help—”

“You didn’t!” Fluttershy bit her lip and halted her tirade. She continued at a subdued volume, shaking her head. “We’re not saving Discord today, or tomorrow, or anytime soon, because you were irresponsible and—”

“Now hold up!” Discord snaked in between Fluttershy and Pumpkin, holding a talon aloft. “It’s not Pumpkin’s fault Tirek decided to attack a couple days ago! In fact, if not for her, he might have killed us in our sleep.”

Fluttershy’s mouth dipped open. “He might not have caught up to us if we weren’t slowed down.”

“Well I happen to find Pumpkin’s assistance endearing.” Discord crossed his arms over his chest, tilting his ears back. “Bumbling, yet endearing.”

“It’s not assistance!” Fluttershy flapped her wings to tower over Discord, matching his cross pose. “Stop encouraging her behavior. She’s just going to misbehave again and things’ll end up even worse.”

“Maybe her behavior encourages me!” Discord struck a thumb against his chest. He expanded his ribcage with a huff and raised one eyebrow. “Maybe I’m tired off everything being doom and gloom and it feels nice to know that people care enough to do something.”

I care enough!” Fluttershy placed her hooves over her heart. “I did something! I’m doing something. But I can’t finish it until the children are safe.”

“Who says they have to be mutually exclusive?” Discord shrugged, fluttering his tiny wings. “Why can’t we keep the kids safe while we go forward on our—”

“It’s irresponsible and stupid!”

“There we go again!” Discord clapped his hands and turned around, stepping over Pumpkin and Pound. He kneeled at the edge of the stream and dipped a stick into the water. “Following the same old logic loop over and over. ‘It’s so dangerous!’ Live a little, Fluttershy. We’ve only got the one life.”

Fluttershy shot across the stream to face him with a fierce frown. “We might not even have that if we aren’t careful!”

“Oh no?” He flicked water at her with the tip of the stick. The droplets turned to tiny ice chunks as they bounced off her face. “If it were up to you, everybody would stay in their little cottages, sipping tea with their little friends, and never ever having any fun. Isn’t that right? Yet here’s Little Miss Cake, having committed the crime of being proactive.

“I just want everybody to be safe!” Fluttershy sobbed.

Discord jerked his head up. The stick fell limp from his hands.

Pumpkin cowered behind him. Fluttershy stood trembling, her knees knocking, snot pouring from her nose. Her voice was stilted, halting, gasping.

“I j-just want everything to be alright.” Fluttershy wiped her muzzle, choking with every pause. “But everything’s not alright. Everything’s terrible and it just keeps getting worse. I want everybody to be happy but they can’t be because everything is horrible.”

Discord reached over. “Fluttershy—”

“Don’t.” Fluttershy turned her back on him and held up a foreleg. “Just don’t. Let’s just get these kids home as fast as we can.”

Pumpkin’s heart tightened. She took careful steps away from Discord, her horn glowing faintly. ‘Why can’t I ever do anything right?’

Pound glanced at her, then gave her a double-take. “Pumpkin, what are you—”

“Nothing.” She shook her head, letting her floppy curls jiggle leaves loose. ‘Everything I touch breaks. Everybody I try to help just hurts. I can’t help.’

An itch ran up and down Pumpkin’s rear leg. Her eyes drew to the stream, to the glistening gold promise beneath. ‘I can’t help. But maybe…’

“Pumpkin.” Pound’s voice hissed. He cleared his throat and tried again. “You’ve got that look in your eye. Don’t try to—”

“Shush.” The glow in Pumpkin’s horn intensified. She turned her hooves to face downstream. “I’m not doing anything.”

“Haven’t you been listening?” Pound swallowed hard, his bruises bringing a wince to his face. “Don’t you get the point? This is what Fluttershy’s talking about. This is why she’s upset. We can’t keep screwing things up like this.”

“So what?” Pumpkin bumped noses with her brother, lowering her eyebrows. The itch in her legs was driving her nuts, pushing her to jump forward, to leap into action, to run. “I’m just supposed to let Discord be sick and go crazy?”

Pound backed away. He rubbed the back of his head, lowering his eyes to his hooves. “I dunno. Maybe?”

Her answer came as an explosion from her chest, rising up from the deepest depths of her soul. “No!

She ran right through him. She didn’t stop for Pound’s crackling shout, or for Discord’s yelp, or Fluttershy’s shriek. She didn’t stop for branches, or rocks, or pits. She kept the gold vein in sight, running headlong with magic pouring from her horn. The vein left the stream behind and veered left, between rocky crags and massive boulders.

‘This is dumb.’

“You don’t have a choice.”

The voice sounded like hers, but strange. Like a different part of her brain was thinking.

‘I’m just making things worse again.’

“You could make a difference.”

‘I’m hurting Fluttershy, Pound, and Discord all at the same time.’

“They’ll forgive you when they see you’re right.”

‘How do I know if I’m right?’

“Look up, Pumpkin.”

She looked up, taking her eyes off the ground. The groundcover fell away in a rush of leaves, ferns, and rocks. She hit the dirt hard as her horn winked out.

Discord peered down, down, down the hole she’d fallen into. He grinned. “Look, Pa! I caught a tiger in my trap!

Pound leaned over, his mouth shut tight. His forehead wrinkled as he sighed through his nose.

Fluttershy’s head appeared beside his, fuming and crying all at the same time. “What were you thinking? What were you doing?”

Discord rolled his eyes. “Well, obviously, she felt inspired by your stirring leadership skills—”

“I’ve had just about enough of—!”

“Everybody shut up!” Pumpkin gripped the edge of the shallow pit and pulled herself out. She raised her forelegs and pointed at the trail of gold just between their legs. “Look!”

Pound looked first, and his eyes became wider than she’d ever seen them. He nudged Fluttershy’s shoulder and pointed.

The trail of gold disappeared between two boulders sitting close beside each other, only a crack separating them. It was not alone, as all across the surface of the stone, other veins snaked and spidered their way over and around.

The gold seemed to all but shimmer in the shadows.

Pumpkin gritted her teeth. “I can go alone and get eaten, or you can come along and protect me.”

Fluttershy thrust a wing out to grasp her. “Don’t you dare!

The wing passed through Pumpkin’s body. She stood up and, without a second glance at the others, marched through the opening. Her horn made for a decent light as she climbed through the crag. Bugs and rodents skittered away at her approach. Dead vines crunched beneath her hooves. A light shone ahead, past the thick stone and debris. A spider web waved in midair as she phased her way through it, leaving the inhabitant undisturbed.

On the far side, the ground lay rich with gold. Dozens of veins cut through the rock, all trailing towards the same spot. Ancient trees loomed overhead, covering the valley completely with branches and leaves. Brambles choked smaller plants and stole nutrients from their fruit. Ferns were nonexistent, as life-giving sunlight only reached the tallest of the trees. What little fruit there was reeked of over-ripening. The caw of scavenging birds echoed against the mossy stone walls.

Pound thundered in behind her, his wings tangled with leaves. “You’re gonna be the death of me.”

“Stick close,” Pumpkin said, easing herself deeper into the garden. “Maybe we’ll go together.”

He landed and shuffled his hooves. He gazed around, his nose wrinkling at the rotting fruit. “Is this the garden? Elysium?”

“I think so?” Pumpkin stepped around a bramble bush, which was riddled with thorns. “I think this is it.”

“Fairies and draconequuses fought over this place for years.” Pound glanced behind and grimaced at the approach of Fluttershy and Discord. “Not much worth fighting for, if you ask me.”

Pumpkin scraped her hoof along a trail of precious metal. She could see her reflection in the mystical root. “I guess you only need one thing worth fighting for.”

“This is so, so stupid,” Fluttershy said. She glanced over at Discord, her face softening. “Does it… feel familiar?”

“I…” Discord shifted weight from one foot to the other. He licked a finger and held it aloft, then wiped the spittle on his coat. “I don’t know. It just feels… dead. Wrong, somehow.”

Pumpkin turned from face to face. She frowned, suppressing another surge of tears. “Well… well come on! The apples are right over there! We have to hurry!”

“We’ll go together!” Fluttershy reached for her before drawing back just as quickly. “Please, let’s stick together. Please.”

“Yeah. “ Pound nodded, spreading his wings to hover a meter above the ground. “Yeah, that sounds good. Pumpkin?”

Discord cleaned his teeth with a toothpick out of Nowhere. “What say you, Little Miss Cake? You’ve lead us this far.”

Fluttershy frowned at him, but held her tongue.

Pumpkin hiked her tail. “Try to keep up. I’m not waiting around for you guys to decide if we actually wanna save Discord or not.”

She kept her face stern. Determined. Something niggled inside, though. The garden wasn’t exactly what she would call a garden. It was more like a swamp without the water. Or a mausoleum for plants. ‘But it’s just old, right? Just kinda old and lame.’

The gold veins looped closer together, weaving a pattern through the rock. They grew more root-like as she drew closer to the epicenter, rising out of the ground and creating stumbling blocks for her hooves. She stepped lightly, but carefully, her eyes examining the trees for any sign of golden apples.

She broke through an ill-defined tree line and stood at the foot of a hill. The lines absolutely covered the mound with trailing gold. The color darkened as it reached the top, tarnishing and dimming. She saw hefty roots, and a sturdy, thick stump.

There it ended. No trunk. No branches. No leaves. No fruit. Nothing but broken, golden deadwood.

Pumpkin fell to her knees.

Pound gasped behind her. He rushed up the hill, nearly tripping on his own hooves. “What? What’s going on? The Tree of Life is dead?

Fluttershy covered her mouth. She said nothing as she stood stock-still.

Discord blinked. He rubbed his eyes. He blinked some more. “But… Apples?”

“It’s a garden,” Pumpkin whispered. “It’s a garden and there was nobody to take care of it.”

Pound climbed up the dead stump. He peered inside, his head disappearing. “It’s all hollow! There’s nothing left!”

Fluttershy coughed hard. She shut her eyes tight and looped her wings around her body.

Discord rubbed his upper arm with his paw. He glanced down at Pumpkin. “So… that’s it then. No more apples?”

Fluttershy broke into deep, unstoppable sobs. She ran into the trees, snapping branches and brambles alike.

Pound’s head popped up to watch her go. He spread his wings to fly after her. “Wait! Miss Fluttershy!”

“She’ll be fine.” Discord stepped forward into the clearing, his eyes glazed over. “She’ll come back. I guess.”

“We have to stick together!” Pound said. He grabbed Pumpkin by the shoulders and shook her. “We have to stick together!”

Pumpkin spoke, but she couldn’t find it in herself to put much effort into her voice. “I led us here, and it’s already gone.”

Pound opened his mouth to say more, but paused. His lip twitched as he switched what he wanted to say mid-breath. “Just stay here. I’m gonna find Miss Fluttershy. And I’ll do… I dunno, something.”

He left in a whoosh of air. Pumpkin lay her head down against a vein of gold. She stared as Discord eased his way up the hillside and ran his fingers across the decayed bark. Heaviness settled into every limb, dragging her down. Pressing her against the stone.

Discord sighed. He tilted his head back and spoke. “Hi, Daddy.”

He cupped his hands behind his back. He rocked on his heels, letting his tail flick back and forth. “I haven’t talked with you in a while. Silly me. Totally my fault. But… but then I don’t really hear back from you all that often.”

He stuck a pinkie into his ear and twisted it around. “Is that my fault? Am I just not listening hard enough? Are you practically shouting at me and I just forgot the sound of it?”

He kicked a pebble and watched it clatter down the hillside, bouncing to a rest beside Pumpkin’s head. “I didn’t listen to you for a long time, when I was making Equestria my playground. Good times, those. Lots of fun. I wasn’t very happy, though. Not really. My fault. I never listened when you told me to make friends.”

He clenched his fists at his sides. His muzzle scrunched up as his ears lay back against his head. “Well, I’ve got friends now, just like you said. So what’s the point?

He whipped his skinny body around, waving his talon, shouting at the top of his lungs. “What’s the point of making friends if they’re just gonna be taken away again?”

Pumpkin didn’t have an answer. She covered her head with her hooves, squeezing tears from her eyes. Chewie fell to the side with a soft squeaka.

“Well?” Discord picked up a rock and tossed it at the sky. It clattered back to earth with a disappointing tap. “Why don’t you do something? Why don’t you help? All you ever do is watch! Sitting on your butt and taking notes! Ho, hum, if only they knew the right thing to do, they’d be so much happier!

He punted the pebble across the garden. He sent a final glare blazing through the heavens. “Do something!

He sat down, curling his arms around his knees. He faced away from Pumpkin, keeping his thoughts to himself. Pumpkin didn’t blame him. She did the same, shivering as the sun vanished completely from the sky.

No garden. No tree. No apples. No cure. No more Discord. There just wasn’t much else left to do.


Fluttershy couldn’t stop crying. She splashed her face in the stream, sucking up what little water she could get around the hiccups. That was it. Her last hope. The last chance to stave off Discord’s illness. She was going to watch her friend degenerate until either he collapsed in on himself, or he lost all memory of her.

She was going to have to break her promise. Her first promise.

Something around her neck got caught on her hoof. She yanked on it and found Cloudkicker’s little whistle. The boatswain’s call. Her cry for help.

‘There’s nobody to hear it,’ she thought. ‘Nobody who can actually help.’

Yet here’s Little Miss Cake,’ Discord said, tearing through her memory. ‘Having committed the crime of being proactive.

“There’s nothing to be proactive about!” She let the whistle fall to the stream bank. Her chest ached as she shrunk in on herself. “I’m going to lose my friend and there’s nothing I can do.”

“Nothing, my dear? Oh, now you don’t really mean that.”

Fluttershy lifted her head at the sound of a faintly familiar voice; one she couldn’t quite place. She rubbed a mild itch in the crook of her foreleg. “But I do—”

“Nonsense, child.” Hooves loomed into view on the far side of the stream. A small pony smiled down at her, wearing a pressed suit, red tie, and black boater hat. “If you’d lost all your faith, I couldn’t be here.”

He removed his hat with a flourish, bowing at the neck. “And here I am.”

Fluttershy eased back from the strange stallion. She spread her wings for a quick escape. “Who are you?”

“Please don’t be alarmed.” He set the hat back in place between his ears. A suitcase materialized at his side in a twinkle of light. “I am not a pony. I am a fairy. A fae. A magical creature. We met back in the Ponyville library.”

Fluttershy’s lip trembled as her eyes widened. “Jeuk?”

“That’s right.” Jeuk smiled a pleasant sort of smile, bobbing his head. “You see, I gave you that book to bring you here.”

“I-I don’t understand.” Fluttershy scratched the itch on her leg, backing away step by step. “You—you knew the Tree of Life was dead. You had to.”

“Oh, Fluttershy. I’m sorry.” Jeuk hovered above the stream, moving without taking a step. He let forth a sorrowful sigh, pinching his eyebrows together. “I, too, wish to see Discord well. But the solution I have… I was afraid you wouldn’t take it until you saw that it was the only way.”

Fluttershy’s heart thundered. She looked to the briefcase, which followed him across. “What solution?”

“Discord is not sick, Fluttershy dear.” Jeuk clutched the case by the top, holding it close to his chin. “He is suppressing his natural urge to create chaos and it’s tearing him apart. His body is working exactly as intended. Exactly as created. His magic is the very thing that is hurting him.”

He opened the case to reveal a dark cloud, a roiling morass. “The only way to protect him is to take that magic away.”

He turned his head away, lowering his ears. “I would use this myself, but I am a fae. A spiritual being. I cannot cast magic as a flesh-and-blood creature can. I need a willing friend.”

Fluttershy felt her heart sink deep into her stomach. “If someone takes his magic away, he’ll be alright?”

“Of course.” Jeuk giggled lightly. He nodded his head with fervor. “The chaos cannot destroy him if there is no chaos.”

His merriment faded in a heartbeat. “I must warn you, though. In order for the chaos magic to be successfully removed, it must be contained in another’s body. Otherwise, the magic will escape and cause untold destruction. It must be chained to a physical… vessel.”

He sucked in his lips. “Essentially, to save Discord, one must take his burden on as their own.”

He laid the suitcase out before her. He took a step back, holding his hat over his heart. “Fluttershy, will you do whatever it takes to save Discord?” He leaned his head forward, looking her right in the eyes. “Will you give your life to save Discord’s?”

The itch crawled up her leg to rest in the joint of her wing. It was a fiery, burning itch, clouding parts of her mind while bringing others into sharp focus. She saw Discord, sitting in his windmill home, gently turning the pages of his scrapbook, gazing at memories he no longer held. She saw him withering away as his body decayed under the influence of his own magic. She saw him vanish, bit by bit, until only a sad little pile of dust remained.

“Of course I will.”

Jeuk grinned, tilting the suitcase towards her. “Then take a deep breath.”


Pound Cake groaned as he flew through the westernmost parts of Whitetail Wood. He lost Fluttershy. She was fast. Faster than he had ever suspected. She could be anywhere, really. And he was just going in circles.

“Circles.” He slapped himself in the forehead. “Circles, circles, circles! Why am I always going in circles?

The trickle of a stream tickled the tips of his ears. He swooped down through the branches to find the same stupid stream they’d been following. He shot the horizon a quick glance. The twilight sky shone a deep purple, and brilliant stars lit the way. They’d probably have to camp out in the Garden of Elysium. Or, at least, what was left of it.

There she was; a splotch of butter-yellow against the green moss. She stood close to a strange pony, whose coat was a dull gray, and whose suit was black and well-pressed. The newcomer smiled his way, winking at him. “Good to see you again, Pound.”

The stranger vanished in a puff of smoke. The hair on Pound’s back prickled.

“Who was that, Fluttershy?” He put his hoof to her shoulder, leaning his whole weight against her for whatever measure of comfort she could provide. “What was it? I mean, there’s some weird things in the forest, but…”

“Find Pumpkin,” Fluttershy said. Her voice shook almost as hard as her feathers. She nudged him away with a light touch. “Take her far away. Just start running and don’t stop.”

“What?” Pound turned to face her, his muzzle scrunched. “What happened to ‘stick together’—?”

Fluttershy’s eyes, normally such a lovely blue, were black with tiny, glowing yellow specks in the middle.

Pound screamed as long as his lungs would allow. He took a breath just to scream a little louder.

“Just go!” Fluttershy leaped into the air and flew towards the garden. Black smog hung from her wings. “Just start running and don’t look back!”

Pound’s thoughts jumped to the ready answer of “Yes, ma’am,” but he halted his hooves.

He danced in place, his already sore throat driving him crazy. He stared breathless as Fluttershy’s tail disappeared among the foliage. He wanted to run. With every fiber of his being he wanted to run. He half wanted to start speeding away without Pumpkin, too.

He ran after Fluttershy instead. Every breath came as sandpaper in his neck. Branches clawed at him. Bugs flew into his eyes. Shadows deepened as the sky became a dark, lightless blot.

“Fluttershy, stop!” His hoarse voice didn’t carry beyond the boulders. “You have to stop right now! There’s something really wrong!

The Garden of Elysium reeked. His hoof squashed a round, red fruit that splattered against his leg. He kicked it aside, his ears perked as Fluttershy called out.

“Discord!” She touched down just inside the tree-line, her wings twitching. “Discord, come here!”

No!” Pound’s cry was nothing but a squeak. He stumbled over a raised root and smacked nose-first into the ground.

Discord slumped. His wings hung slack as he flew towards her, his eyes lidded and his forehead wrinkled. “What is it now, Fluttershy? Come to say goodbye?”

Fluttershy nodded, swirling her tail around to rest against her flank. “Y-yes. Yes I am.”

Discord clutched at his face with his talon. He bent his back around until it crackled like popcorn. “Then let’s get this over with. I hate long goodbyes, and I hate waiting to be encased in stone.”

He threw his arms out. “And all of Equestria breathed a sigh of relief that the big, bad Discord isn’t going to annoy them anymore! And all his friends shed a single tear and went about their lives! And Donut Joe never paid me back those five bits!

“I’m not going to turn you to stone,” Fluttershy said. “I promised I wouldn’t, and I meant it.”

Pound stumbled to his feet. He trotted towards them, a hoof covering his bleeding snout. He could barely see around the swelling.

“Really?” Discord glared over his shoulder. “So what’s it to be? Simply abandoning me, or banishing me… to… the moon?”

Pound saw Fluttershy open her mouth. Fierce, dark magic flowed out, striking its way towards Discord. The draconequus had time for a gulp before the Rainbow of Darkness found its mark.

Pound rammed into her side, hoping to knock her off-balance, but light exploded outward and cast him across the garden. Impossible colors swirled and heaved, from white to black, from red to blue, from orange to octarine. It poured from Discord’s open, gaping mouth to Fluttershy’s horrified scream. Her eyes filled with magic, glowing brilliant, blinding white.

Discord slumped to the ground with a wheeze. He reached upwards with a shaky arm. “Fluttershy…”

Fluttershy fell backwards, but never reached the ground. She hovered in midair, her wings spread but unmoving, her legs running but never connecting. Lightning ran jagged across her coat, taking with it a swirling, heaving mess of chaos.

Pound lifted his head. Pumpkin skittered across the clearing with Chewie in her mouth. She reached Discord and tugged him away by the tail. She said something, but the magic tearing its way through Fluttershy was just too loud. A din, a cacophony, an awful row.

Fluttershy tried to shut her eyes, but the magic poured through all the same. “I’m sorry!”

Magic blasted its way from Fluttershy’s body, straight towards Discord and Pumpkin. Pound didn’t have time to think. He shot forward like a round from a volleygun, forelegs held outward. He hit Pumpkin with all the force he could muster and sent her flying. She rolled and bounced to land at the foot of the hill.

The chaos hit Discord and Pound with the might of a runaway freight train. His heart beat at an irregular rhythm, like a toddler on a set of toy drums. Every hair stood on end, and every feather flew out of place. His eyes met Pumpkin’s and he reached for her. To tell her to run, to get help, to find home.

The Garden of Elysium turned inside out.

Dealing with the Devil

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Pumpkin Cake ached all over. She felt weightless, her limbs waving in midair. She winced as she coughed herself awake. A scratch clawed at her tail and snaked around her hind leg. Salt fell from the corners of her eyes as she blinked them open.

She looked up and saw mossy ground.

She brought her hoof to her face to wipe it. Her head pounded. Her cheeks felt hot with the blood rushing through them. Her lungs were stiff and shallow, working against her breath. Something sharp struck her skin, near her hoof. She looked down to see her tail tangled up in a tree branch. A thorny vine wrapped around her leg.

They moved with a mind of their own.

She squealed, kicking her free legs. The tree’s grip tightened. She was lifted higher, towards the trunk. A gap appeared in the bark. A hissing noise echoed all around.

Her horn flashed, and she fell through the tree’s grip. The moss hid a bed of hard stone. She rolled across the ground, her muscles screaming with every dull thud. The tree’s branches curled back, and the gap vanished.

She rested on her belly, praying for the slightest moment to rest and recover. The air was filled with yellow haze and dusty wind. The sky was black, billowing clouds, broken by a single harsh light piercing through the smog. A single grimy curl of mane fell over Pumpkin’s eye.

She hauled herself to her feet and took a step. She nearly fell when the ground ended in a sheer cliff. She scuttled back, taking in the small, elevated island she shared with the carnivorous tree.

“Help!” Pumpkin choked as the caustic wind burned in her nostrils. “Help me, please!”

She walked the perimeter of the island and found a thin stone pathway leading downward. It curled in a helix from the base of the tree, down, down, down to vanish in the haze.

She glared at the arboreal menace. “I hope you starve, you stupid pony-eating tree!”

The vines grasped for her, but she was already picking her way down the ramp, far out of reach. Pebbles tumbled into the ether as she scraped past. Slick sand coated the stone pathway, leaving every step treacherous.

Before long, she couldn’t see the island anymore. She couldn’t see anything below, either. There was pale yellow, stinging wind, and a harsh scent, like burning paint. Pumpkin felt along her back to find her saddlebags missing, only an indent in her coat where the straps once lay.

“Hello!” She covered her eyes, but the acrid wind still scoured at them. “Pound! Discord! Pound!

Nothing answered her but the hiss of sand on stone. “Please be okay.”

“I think you should be more concerned about yourself.”

Pumpkin whipped her head around. She lit her horn, ready to run for it. “Who’s there?”

A smallish pony stepped out of the haze. There was no land for his hooves to step on, yet he walked all the same. He tilted his black boater hat and smiled at her. “It’s nice to see you again, Pumpkin.”

Pumpkin Cake scowled at him, even as she inched her way down the path. “I don’t know you and you’re too happy to be here. I don’t like you.”

“But we’ve spoken so much!” The pony eased itself closer, its smile growing by the word. “We’re just… such good friends.”

“I don’t…” Pumpkin felt like she was about to hack up her lunch. Not that she’d eaten. “The forest spirit.”

“Will-o’-the-wisp, actually.” The pony fell into step beside her, at least a meter from the path. “One of my favorite methods of communicating with mortals. Most amusing. Most very amusing.”

“It’s your fault we came to this stupid garden!” Pumpkin thrust her hoof out, to punch him if she could. He shrugged and carried on his downward spiral. “It’s all your fault! You tricked me—!”

“Pumpkin Cake.” The pony rolled its eyes. “Don’t give me so much credit. None of this would be possible without you.”

He halted in front of her, blocking the path. “At first I was annoyed at your insistence. Annoyed that you wouldn’t be kept from joining this little expedition. I even goaded your brother to stop you. But then, oho then I saw the possibilities.”

He laughed in the back of his throat, favoring her with a smile that reeked of stranger danger. “My dear sweet little filly, you wanted to be tricked.”

Pumpkin’s horn glowed at full power. Nothing but nothing was gonna touch her. “That’s stupid! I wanted to help Discord. That’s all I wanted.”

“And it was that single-minded determination that made it so easy to show you the way.” He prowled towards her, his feet making nary a sound on the shale. “You wanted the shortest distance between two points, and here we are. Discord is cured of his malady. Freed from his chains. Liberated of all pain.”

He stopped a hair’s breadth from her, his eyes dark and cold. “You were so afraid of losing him. I appreciate that level of loyalty. I find it most very amusing indeed.”

“Leave me alone!” Pumpkin dashed through him, and immediately slipped on the loose ground. She tumbled from the path, careening through space on her way towards a meeting with the ground.

The hot sand she landed was a poor pony’s cushion. She stumbled around, brushing her face off, fighting the itch that pervaded her entire body.

“Without your actions, it wouldn’t have been nearly as simple to persuade Fluttershy.” The pony floated down like a feather on the breeze, shifting in and out of sight in the stench-filled atmosphere. “I intended to use Tirek as the catalyst, but it seems his usefulness has reached its end.”

“Who are you?” Pumpkin scrambled away, but she never seemed to gain any distance. “What are you?”

“You may call me Jeuk.” The pony’s smile briefly dipped into a scowl. “Before you ask, no, it is not an egg yolk, nor a farmer’s yoke. It’s a foreign word.”

Pumpkin glanced over her shoulder. He was within foreleg’s reach. “What’s it mean?”

“You’re a smart filly. Look it up.” His eyes turned upward. “If you get the chance.”

He held a hoof over his heart. “I am a fae. What you ponies call a fairy. A being of magic, of pure spirit. Unchained by a body or mind. I come from a realm far outside your own. I am often merely an observer sitting on the fringe.”

The itch in her skin was overridden by a chill through her bones at his next words. “But I couldn’t bear to pass up such a golden opportunity.”

“A fairy…” She glared at him, though it was difficult to put the proper heat behind the stare. “You stole the garden from the draconequuses! From Discord!”

“Ah, you’ve done your research!” Jeuk threw his head back with a spatter of giggles. “Even I couldn’t keep that Creator-condemned book from your hooves, could I? It’s all lies, of course, save for where it’s true.”

“You’re just a thief!” Pumpkin shouted with more anger than she actually felt, hoping that the energy surging through her horn would keep her safe. “You’re just a thief and a liar and—!”

I! Don’t! Lie!

Pumpkin’s heart skipped a beat. For the briefest of instances, Jeuk had changed. His grey coat became pitch black. His featureless face wrinkled and warped. His cold eyes burned like embers. His suit coat was black wings and his tie was a snaking tongue.

She blinked, and the monster once again assumed an unassuming form.

“It’s bad for business,” Jeuk said with a humorless giggle. “No, I aim to speak truth, Pumpkin. It can be far more misleading than lies.”

She cowered behind a small dune. He waved a hoof and parted the sands, walking through the gap. “Sorrow is more inspiring than joy. Anger is more driving than courage. Fear is more motivating than hope.”

“That’s stupid!” Pumpkin said through tears. She spun around on her rear hooves to face the other way. “You’re stupid! I’m leaving this stupid place and finding my brother!”

Jeuk was there, inches from her face, his mouth a deep frown and his eyelids low. “But Pumpkin, your brother is gone.”

Pumpkin waited for the punch line. For the explanation. For the moment it all made sense. “Huh?”

“Don’t you remember?” Jeuk shook his head and shut his eyes. “When Fluttershy took on Discord’s magic, it was simply too much for her feeble mortal body. She had no choice but to let a portion of it loose. Discord just so happened to be in the way.”

Pumpkin’s knees knocked.

“It would have hit you, too, had you brother not selflessly sacrificed himself.” Jeuk clicked his tongue and draped his foreleg across her shoulders. She was too numbed to move. “Now he’s gone and you’re here. There truly is no justice in Equestria.”

He held out his hoof to point deep into the mist. “Pound is gone, Discord is blasted, and Fluttershy has been carried off to who-knows-where. All thanks to your efforts. I really must find some way to make it up to you.”

Her vision swam. Her legs failed her. Her knees hit the sand with a skin-scraping chuff. Pound’s voice echoed from a distant mountaintop. Jeuk’s laughter overpowered it and brought her back to the desolate remains of the garden, the captive audience of the ersatz forest spirit.

He sang to her softly, a teasing giggle behind his words. He walked around her, his eyes never leaving her kneeling body, his ears perked to catch her soft sniffles.

“Ages ago I was Prince of the Fairies
Caretaking nature and weather
Draconequui lived happily and unwary
Thinking themselves far more clever

“Thus we would battle
Through darkness and shadow
The garden we would win
Conquer the rabble
And nab us an apple
I fell to my sin”

He grasped her chin and jerked her head up. She looked into his eyes, callous and coarse, and saw the war between Discord’s people and the fae. Draconequui were torn apart. Fae were banished into nothingness. The world died around them as it went uncared for.

“That’s why
I bring you unending itching
You’ll find me cloying, bewitching
When you see
Just how loveless you can be

“It’s true
Failure is always behind you
There to faithfully remind you
Who you hurt
When you journeyed through my murk
My work”

The yellow haze swirled before her, casting shadowy shapes across the sand. A tree grew tall, its fruit glistening gold. Long, snaking bodies surrounded it, but were pushed away by an assault of ghostly images.

“We crept upon the Tree of Life
The guard had gone away
The fruit was ours, much to their strife
It was a grand melee!

“We brandished the sword
Left them maimed and gored
The Wild Hunt was so fruitful
For the world to see
And it ended with all of them dead”

Pumpkin jerked away and trotted through the haze. She didn’t care where she was going. She just had to get away. Away from the monster, away from his voice, away from the unending itch.

“Shut your face, you big bully
Isn’t it a little late for a stinking party?
I think you missed just a little fact, Mister Smarty
Discord’s still alive!”

Jeuk’s face flashed into existence before her, surrounded by a cloud of hateful smoke. He gritted his teeth and spoke around them, hissing his response.

“You think that you’re so brilliant?
Just because you read that ridiculous story
You can’t ignore the fairies’ unmitigated glory
I lived it!
I lived it!
And they’re mortified!
I’m alive”

Her hooves sank into the sand. She kicked out to free them, and returned to running as best she could. The terrain hobbled her every move as she was hounded by Jeuk’s unending cackles.

“Discord had left his kin behind
To be at Softly’s side
He later returned but to find
He’d lost his ruddy mind!”

A burst of wind knocked her to her side. Jeuk stood over her, his legs growing long and skinny, wrinkled and black. His mouth widened to allow his red tie to form a long, snaking, forked tongue. Vast wings opened wide on his back, and the itch in her flesh became a maddening, burning rash.

“That’s why
I’ll always be your distracter
You’ll be the grand reenacter
Of my crime
We’ll be punished for all time!

“Cast out!
Thrown from the Creator’s presence!
Down to live among the peasants
For my killing
So I’ll take the ponies willing
To the depths of the abyss
And you’re next!”

Pumpkin crawled across the sand, desperately raking her hooves through the grains. Jeuk leaned his grotesque face near, showcasing rows of jagged, uneven teeth. “Cast out. Thrown from the Creator’s presence. Can you even imagine?”

“Leave me alone!” She screeched. She didn’t dare look at the horror. She didn’t dare let the sight of the thing haunt her mind any more than it already did. “Go away and leave me alone!”

“But, you see, this is my reward for a job well done.” The freakish creature flipped his boater hat end-over-end and set it between scarred, tattered ears. “I get to see the fruit of my labor. Sweeter than any golden apple is the knowledge that even for the briefest instant…”

His tongue snaked around her neck and lifted her into the air. Her eyes met his and churned her stomach.

He hissed in her ear. “For just the briefest instant, I’ve made a mortal just as miserable as I am. I find it most very amusing.”

The haze vanished. The wind stilled. The air cleared up and was breathable once more. The darkness overhead became the twinkling light of stars. Jeuk’s eyebrows lowered as he twisted his head, swinging Pumpkin this way and that. “What nonsense?”

“You are a fool to lay a hoof on one of the Creator’s chosen, Jeuk.”

Pumpkin turned her head to find the source of the voice. There, a scant few meters away, stood a unicorn mare. A unicorn mare wearing overalls. Overalls with wrenches, screwdrivers, and hammers at the ready. “Ribbon Wishes?”

Pumpkin looked to Jeuk and shrugged. “The plumber just came to my rescue. You’re no longer the weirdest thing I’ve seen all day.”

Jeuk scowled at her. He stalked towards the mare, his wings spreading to their full span. “Who are you, then?”

Ribbon Wishes brushed a lock of her mane behind her ear. “I am Ribbon Wishes, a Herald of the Seelie Court of Fae, and chosen Emissary to the Equestrian People.”

Jeuk raised an eyebrow. His smirk returned, backed by a seething growl. “You speak as one with authority. Whose authority?”

“I am but a messenger,” Ribbon Wishes said, “but the message comes from the Lord of the Seelie Court.”

“By all means, share it.” Jagged teeth ground together. “Miss Wishes.”

Ribbon Wishes held her head high, her hooves shoulder-width apart, and her tail hiked. “You have no right to the fate of this child. Not in mind, body, or soul. She has been spoken for. Her condition is guarded.”

“Well, then.” Jeuk giggled, lifting one of his misshapen hooves. “Guard it!

The hoof impacted with enough force to send dust and debris flying. Hammers scattered as wrenches were torn in half. Jeuk spoke in a steady, harsh whisper. “I am Jeuk of the Unseelie Court of Fae. I am the Princeling of Equestria, given authority to oversee its peoples, its crops, its wellness or lack thereof. I am the itch of failures never forgotten. I am unyielding obsession; the steady slope to despair. I control the land upon which you lay, broken and bleeding.”

Pumpkin’s horn flashed as she slipped from his grasp. She skittered away as he towered over Ribbon’s crumpled form. “And I,” he said, “will be shown the proper respect by a mere herald.”

Pumpkin tripped over burlap. Her saddlebags lay at her feet, one side holding her drawing materials, the other holding Chewie and the book. She slipped it on with a flicker of magic and continued forward. She was in the garden, just as it had looked when she first entered. Had her hellish surroundings been an illusion, or had she been taken to another place?

“Leaving so soon?” Jeuk’s bouncing, bubbly voice carried over the distance to tickle at her ears. “And here I had only started to gloat. You’ll miss the best part, Little Miss Cake!”

“You’re not allowed to call me that!” she screamed. She glanced down to see two outlines in the stone floor, shaped like a Pegasus colt and a draconequus. She was at the clearing, where Fluttershy had her freak out. A glance upward brought her to the stump of the Tree of Life, standing on its hill. The trees shushed behind her as Jeuk came closer.

With nowhere else to turn, she climbed the hill and slipped within the hollow of the tree. It wouldn’t hide her for long, if at all, but it gave her time to think. To breathe.

The stars grew dim as Jeuk entered the clearing. “Why carry on when you know I’m right? You’ve caused such pain and anguish, Little Miss Cake. That is Discord’s little pet name for you, isn’t it? Is it a sign that he cares for you, or that he doesn’t bother to remember your name?”

Pumpkin lay her head against the wood. She blinked. The was an oddity on the other side. Something other than deadwood. It was swirling, indented, almost carved.


Pumpkin held her breath as Jeuk’s wing flapped over the stump. Tiny black feathers fell loose before vanishing in a cloud of soot. “You and I, we’re two of a kind. We both wished for something so desperately that we were willing to do anything. Anything. I wanted control. Dominance. Rulership of a people who would not be tamed. When I didn’t get what I wanted, well…”

Pumpkin worked as quickly and quietly as she could. She pulled a crayon and pad of paper through the side of her saddlebags and floated them over to the writing. A sheet of paper was laid over the script, and the crayon was rubbed over the entire surface. As she rubbed back and forth, the shape of the symbols formed on the page.

“You wanted Discord to be well. And where is he now? Gone. Vanished in a torrent of the same magic that was tearing him apart. Your own little road to Hell.”

His tongue snaked into the gap first, followed by his wrinkled, scarred, tooth-ridden face. “There’s no forgiveness for our selfishness, Little Miss Cake. There’s only agony, and the abyss!”

She grabbed the paper and phased through the stump with a powerful leap. She heard Jeuk’s head bump against the dead bark, followed by an unearthly howl. She glanced back and saw wriggling limbs, horrid wings, a snaking tail lit with fire…

And a flash of green on the pale bark.

She slid to a halt despite herself. The tree was dead. Deader than dead. It was decayed, hollowed out, devoid of life, and yet there was a small sprig of green hanging from the side. A twinkle of gold peered out from beneath the leaf, almost invisible with Jeuk’s thrashing.

She let the page drop. Killer demonic fairies be darned, if there was any chance that she could get a golden apple, she needed to take it.

She ran up the hill. Her horn sparked to reach for the gold, but she couldn’t get a good grasp. She stretched her forelegs out, cupping the tiny golden apple between them.

Her hooves went right through it. It vanished in a sad little gasp of soot and shadows.

Jeuk’s hoof pressed against her back, maddening her itch to something akin to Poison Oak. His horrid face twisted into a triumphant sneer. “You think you’re the only one who can play this game, Little Miss Cake? I’m a fairy. I live and breathe trickery!”

His tail whipped overhead. Cinders singed her mane. “Moth,” Jeuk said, “meet flame.”

The clearing lit up with daylight. Jeuk winced away, covering his eyes with a malformed wing. Bright as it was, Pumpkin’s eyes didn’t hurt. She looked directly at the source, her heart thundering.

A pony hung in the air. But not a pony. Not quite. In addition to four hooves, six massive wings flapped from its back. The mane was long and flowing, and the tail sparkled to match. Pearl-like orbs covered every inch of the creature’s coat, shimmering and shining.

Pumpkin wasn’t really surprised when Ribbon Wishes’ voice issued forth. Almost surprised, but not quite. “Jeuk, you were warned! This child’s condition is guarded!

“Flame…” The Seelie Fae smirked. “Meet hydrant.”

A beam of light, of the purest white, struck Jeuk in the chest.


Pound Cake stared at an open, blue sky. He hung his forelegs over the sides of the small rowboat he found himself in. It was relaxing, in a completely perplexing sort of way. Just the gentle rock of the sea beneath creaking boards. He fanned his wings out to catch the sun’s rays.

“I wouldn’t have chosen this locale, personally,” Discord said from the prow. “I probably would have gone with, say, a tropical isle. With palm trees. And a soda bar.”

Pound leaned his head over the side of the boat. Water, water, water, as far as the eye could see. No wind, no oars, no current. Just a dead stop in the middle of the ocean.

Discord folded his hands over his chest. He twiddled his thumbs as he stared into the unbroken sky. “Something with a little life to it, you know? Maybe a sea monster or something, just to spice things up.”

Pound sighed. He’d done it. He’d finally saved his sister from certain doom. Yep. Just in time to be put into some other sort of doom. And where did it leave him? Lying in a rowboat, in the middle of nowhere, with the creature responsible for all of it.

“Shut up, Discord.” Pound covered his face with a foreleg. “Nopony cares what you think.”

“Now I hardly think that’s true,” Discord said. “Fluttershy more often than not will lend an ear, and I can usually con one of the others into helping me out—”

“I’m the only pony here!” Pound sat to his haunches. He splashed water at the motionless draconequus. “And I don’t give a hoot! Not about you, not about your stupid magic, and not about your dumb ideas!”

He flopped back to the bottom of the boat, crossing his forelegs over his chest. The boat bobbed from the motion, but soon became still.

Discord tapped his claws. “You know, I think things are starting to come back to me. Like, I totally remember what I got Fluttershy for her birthday last year. Of course, I can’t remember what color the silly dress was. Was it white and g—?”

“Unless you’re going to figure out a way to get me back to my sister—” Pound spoke around gritted teeth. “—then please shut your flappy yap.”

Discord tilted his head back. He ran his fingers through his goatee. “I’ll consider it, but as far as I’m concerned, every word from my mouth is an overflow of wisdom gained over the course of several lifet—”

Pound socked Discord in the jaw.

Discord’s body wriggled from his head to his tail. He crossed his eyes to look down at the colt. “Huh. So that’s what pain feels like.”

“It’s your fault!” Pound reeled back for another blow, and Discord ducked. “You’re the whole reason Fluttershy came to the garden! You’re the whole reason Pumpkin ran into the woods! To save your sorry butt! You don’t deserve it, you ungrateful moron!”

“Please, give me a moment.” Discord cupped his chin, working his jaw back and forth. “I need to savor this sensation. Really wrap my mind around the—”

A hoof to the gut knocked the wind out of him.

Discord’s cheeks bulged. He leaned forward, his arms curled around his middle, until his chin touched the bottom of the boat. He looked up at Pound with watery eyes.

Pound sniffed. He wiped his nose with a wing. “You can just sit there and be stupid for all I care. I’m gonna find my sister. I’m going home.” He leaned over the side and stuck his leg into the water. He paddled as smoothly as he could, but it was pretty obvious he wasn’t going anywhere. “Come on. Make yourself useful and row.”

Discord slithered up to the side. He dipped his paw in and wiggled it through the unwavering water. “Seems if I want to keep my guts in one piece…”

“Quit bellyaching… No pun intended.” Pound scowled and stared straight ahead. “The sooner we find land, the sooner we can get back to Equestria.”

“You seem so sure we’re even on the same planet.”

Pound glared at Discord. If he could have set fire to the draconequus—perhaps with laser vision—he would have then and there. “Blah, blah, blah. Nothing’s worth doing if it doesn’t entertain you. Right? You don’t do anything unless it’s fun.”

Discord gave him a cheeky grin. “Fun makes life worth living.”

Family makes life worth living!” Pound thrust a hoof at his chest. “Friends make life worth living. In the good times and the bad.”

He resumed his slow, shallow paddle, the sprinkling of the water dusting his coat. “That’s how Pinkie put it. She’s usually right.”

“Oh yeah?” Discord narrowed one eye and widened the other. “What if the only family you ever had has been dead for over two-thousand years? What if the only real friend you ever had just went gonzo bananas on chaos magic? What then, Punchy Hooves?”

“You still think Fluttershy’s your only friend?” Pound stomped a hoof, rocking the boat from side to side. “What about Pumpkin? What about my sister, who risked her life and getting grounded just so she could make sure you were okay?”

“Cry me a river.” Discord stuck his snaking tongue out. “She probably just needed her rubber chicken fixed again.”

“That’s enough!”

Pound pounced on Discord. The boat rolled beneath them, its sides nearing the surface of the water. Salty seas dripped aboard.

Pound held Discord down by the shoulders. “My sister doesn’t need you to fix Chewie, you dingus! She can do it herself! It’s her special talent! She just goes to you because she wants to hang out with you!”

Discord blinked at him. His mouth worked quietly for a heartbeat. “She doesn’t need to come to me?”

Pound bopped himself on the head as he climbed off. “Now he gets it.”

“She just…” Discord swallowed hard. He wrung his hands together and looked to starboard. “She just wants to come to me?”

“She thinks you’re funny.” Pound flicked his tail. He sat with his wings spread and his back to Discord. “She thinks you’re funny, and weird, and cool, and nice, and all that other stuff. Too bad she didn’t know you were just stupid.”

He rested his head in his hooves. “Stupid like me.”

Discord ran his talons through his mane. He slumped over and rubbed his sore belly. He pressed his lips together to suppress a sigh. “I really messed up, didn’t I?”

“Yeah.” Pound rested his forelegs against the side of the boat. He splashed the water, for all the good it did. “We messed up.”


Pumpkin was witness to the battle of the ages. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. Rainbows of living color spiraled betwixt the two warring fair folk. Squeals of anger and words in otherworldly tongues were exchanged.

Jeuk fell back from the latest assault and scrambled to his hooves. Ribbon Wishes used the free moment to fly to Pumpkin’s side. She pressed the crayon rubbing into Pumpkin’s hooves and whispered in her ear. “Head for the stream. You’ll find help there. I’ll hold him off.”

Pumpkin reached for Ribbon, but her hoof couldn’t make a connection. “But—”

“I’ll explain later!” Ribbon spread her six wings, coating the garden in a masterwork of light. “Run!”

‘If there’s one thing I’m good at…’ Pumpkin pounded her legs against the mossy stone. Jeuk’s voice shouted behind her, coaxing her to look back for even the faintest of moments. She refused. She had a goal—whatever that goal was. She had a hope. She had a freaking Fairy Godmother at her side.

Or whatever Ribbon was. Fairy Godmother sounded pretty good, though.

The route was familiar, or at least straightforward. She retraced her steps to get into the garden, past the rotting fruit and the narrow gap in the boulders. A tree collapsed somewhere behind her, fading to dust under Jeuk’s influence. The crazed itch lessened the further away she got, teasing a slow sense of relief.

Her hooves splashed in the shallow stream. The golden roots seemed dimmer in the night, as if tarnished. She looked around for the promised help, but found herself alone. “Hello! Hellooo, magical fairy army of helpers! There’s a little girl here that needs you!”

The silence was only broken by the distant sound of Jeuk smashing Ribbon’s metaphysical form into the ground.

“Yeah, I didn’t think that’d work.” Pumpkin turned her gaze to the stream. What sort of help was she supposed to be looking for? Help drowning? Help sitting quietly while “mommy” and “daddy” had a “discussion?” Please. Like she was gonna wait around for those two to work out their issues.

She looked up. The forest was dark and uninviting, but it seemed devoid of magical monstrosities. For the most part. She could run off and leave the fairies to their scuffle.

‘No. Running off without thinking is what got us into this mess.’ She paced in the water; it splashed cold against her skin, raising goose bumps. ‘Charging in got everybody hurt. I gotta slow down. Gotta think. Gotta hold tight and…’

She examined the crayon rubbing. The words were older than Equestria. Written in a whole other language. Maybe it was some sort of clue. Some way to locate a cure. Some way to fix everything.

“More likely it’s somepony’s idea of ancient… graffiti…” Pumpkin’s eyes popped. The book. The story. Discord’s challenge to Softly: Carve their names in the bark of the tree. Of course the carving would still be inside the bark. Of course it would be visible in the hollow.

‘So—so the story’s true? At least mostly?’ Pumpkin flinched at a shrieking curse from Jeuk. ‘Softly wanted golden apples. Did she get them? What does the story say? Did she take the apples somewhere? Did she hide them? Eat them?’

A bright ball of light flew overhead, crashing through trees and showering her with leaves and bark. Lightning flickered as Ribbon Wishes came to a crushing halt in the stone. The Seelie Fae rose to her hooves, her legs shaking. Her face was awash with the purest of lights, though marred with dirt and grime. Her eyes were two solid orbs, flickering with inner fire.

Pumpkin looked closer. The other orbs bedecking her body had the same shape. The same fire. The same—

“Oh gross, you’re covered in eyes.” Pumpkin backpedaled away from the fairy. “That is super-gross.”

Ribbon Wishes frowned. “I’m not too fond of the whole ‘body-odor’ thing you mortals have, either.”

“Says the town plumber.”


The itch in Pumpkin’s back climbed in intensity. Jeuk was getting closer. Too close for comfort. “So,” Pumpkin said, “are you gonna beat him, or what?”

“Ah. No.” Ribbon Wishes tilted her head to the side. She looked over Pumpkin’s shoulder with a grimace. “No, he’s at least three orders of magnitude above me. In rank, power, influence. It’s a decided match.”

“Oh.” Pumpkin’s stomach sunk as that little blip of hope faded away. “Then why are you here?”

Ribbon opened her mouth, but hesitated to speak. She spread her six wings and gave them a strong flap. “I’m here to hold him off until you find the help I spoke of. All I know is that it’s by the stream.”

“That’s all?” Pumpkin raised a hoof as Ribbon took to the sky. “But you could die! I mean, can fairies die?”

Ribbon let out a humorless laugh. “I suggest you find what you’re looking for, or we might just find out.”

Jeuk descended through the foliage like a vast, predatory bird. Ribbon rose to meet him.

Pumpkin splashed into the stream, the rubbing caught up in her magic. She puzzled through the words she couldn’t read. The story she hadn’t finished. The chaos magic. The missing apples. The garden at the center of it all.

Her hoof bumped against a little metal pipe at the bottom of the stream.

She picked it up with a flicker of her horn, setting the page in her saddlebags. It was Fluttershy’s little sailor whistle thingy; the gift from Cloudkicker. The “boss-man’s call” or something. What had Cloudkicker said? Something about it being a cry for help? Or did she just say it’d scare away large predators?

Pumpkin scrunched her muzzle. She had a need for both on hand, she supposed.

She puckered up and gave it a good, solid blow.


Pound blinked as his ears stood up. He tilted his head back. “Did you hear that?”

Discord lay across the bottom of the boat, an arm over his face. “Hear what?”

“A whistle.” Pound hopped onto the side of the boat, his wings keeping him balanced. “Like what they use for sailing. For issuing orders and stuff.”

“It’s pirates,” Discord said without looking up. “It’s pirates and they’re gonna swab the deck with us, or keelhaul us, or skin our gizzards or some such nonsense.”

Pound jumped. The boat swayed. “There it is again! Can’t you hear it?”

“All I hear, lately, is ‘You’re stupid and this is all your fault.’”

Pound rolled his eyes. “That’s beside the point. The point is that somebody’s close. Probably somebody with a boat! We’re saved!”

“Are you aware, Dear Muffinhead—” Discord sat up and glared at Pound with wide, yellowed eyes. “—that sound can travel for miles across the ocean? They’re most likely on the other side of the world, far away from us. We’re going to either dehydrate or drown out here.”

Pound hovered over Discord, his eyebrows low. “What? And we’re just gonna let Fluttershy get torn apart by your chaos magic?”

“You’ve got a better idea? I’m all ears.” Discord’s hands flopped to the deck. “Not really, though. Kinda have a magic deficiency.”

Pound flew to the rear of the boat and pushed. They moved a scant few inches as he flapped for all he was worth. “We follow the whistle. We find whoever’s blowing the whistle. We get back to Equestria and save our friends!”

“Do you see a boat?” Discord hopped to his feet. The boat wobbled beneath his weight. “Do you see land? We’re hopeless!”

“We’re not hopeless!” Sweat spread across Pound’s brow as his sore throat grew dry. “We’re not hopeless because everything works out for good!”

“No it doesn’t!”

“It does, too!”

“Prove it!”

Pound slumped against the wooden planks. He let himself slide back onboard, his wings and legs sore. “I can’t.”

“No evidence.” Discord fluttered his wings and turned his back on Pound. “No point.”

“The point is that I’ll keep fighting.” Pound’s leg muscles protested for all of their worth. They felt like jelly after his exertion. It didn’t make sense. There shouldn’t be that much friction holding the boat still. It wasn’t even that heavy. Pound could have pulled it along on a wagon and never broken a sweat. On the water, it should be a literal breeze to move.

Pound rubbed his forelegs to get them ready for another try. “I’ll keep fighting until I win or I fall apart. Like Fluttershy would. Like Pumpkin would.”

He pointed at his misshapen shipmate. “Like Pumpkin thinks you would.”

Discord blew raspberries with his forked tongue. “You have an overabundance of faith in her faith in me. She’s wrong about me, you know.”

“Do I?” Pound hovered behind the boat. He pressed against the side until the lumber creaked. “Are you really willing to give up on Fluttershy?”

Discord’s head snapped around. He worked his jaw back and forth, testing the placement of his snaggletooth. “Why do you have to phrase it like that?”

“Because that’s what you’re doing. You’re giving up hope. You’re giving up on your friend.”

Discord sneered. “I’m being realistic.”

Pound gritted his teeth and wheezed. “Since when has that worked out for you?”

Discord blinked. He grasped his tail with his talon and swung it around. “Huh. I suppose not once in two millennia.”

“There’s the whistle again.” Pound sucked on his lips as his wings let out a strong magic oompah, to use the technical term. “It sounds louder, too. Like we’re right…” He looked down as his ears tickled again. He studied the rippling water beneath the boat, showcasing a blue-tinged reflection of himself. “Like we’re right above it?”

His reflection tilted its head, giving him a look that reminded him a little too much of his father. One that said “What in the hay were you thinking?” He had a feeling he’d be seeing that particular expression in the near future. He hoped so, in any case.

The whistle blew, more insistent than ever.

Pound crossed his eyes. He looked past his face, past the familiar colors and lines and faint pimples. He looked into the water, to the murky depths. He saw darkness, unmarred by anything living or dead.

Then he saw a flicker of movement. “Oh horseapples.” Was it a whale? A shark? Something worse? No, it was small. Or far away. It was orange. And curly. And familiar. It was running.

He saw the bottom of Pumpkin’s hooves as she ran across the depths, blowing frantically on a small whistle as a big, dark something chased her.

“It’s Pumpkin.” Pound snapped his head to Discord, his breath coming out in a whoosh of words. “It’s Pumpkin and she’s in danger. We gotta get to her.”

“What?” Discord leaned his head beside Pound’s. He shook his head as his goatee dipped into the drink. “I don’t see—”

“You gotta look past yourself.” Pound put his hoof to the back of Discord’s head and yanked him closer. “You gotta look past yourself and see what’s really there.”

Discord gave him a long glare, one that softened as Pound held his grip. The draconequus looked back down and crossed his eyes, trying to decipher the water beyond his reflection.

He jerked out of Pound’s hold as he sucked in a harsh breath. “It’s a fae. A powerful, monstrous, bad-news fairy. This thing is the real deal.”

Pound’s heart rumbled in his chest, threatening to burst with magic energy. “W-what else do you know about it?”

“That’s about all that’s stuck with me, honestly.” A talon found its way between Discord’s teeth. It twisted and squirmed to remove some unseen—probably nonexistent—food particle. “Big-time bad news for anybody. They rarely show themselves as it is, and for one to be chasing Pumpkin…”

He swallowed hard and licked his lips. “She’s doomed without help.”

“Then we gotta reach her!” Pound grasped Discord’s shoulder and shook. “How do we reach her? How do we get from here to there?”

“I dunno!” Discord swung his hands out in a wide shrug. “Swim for it?”

“That’s—” Pound raised an eyebrow, tilting his ear downward. “Actually not the dumbest thing I can think of.”

“It’s the dumbest thing I—” Discord choked on his own spit. “Don’t you dare—!”

Pound flew straight up. He hovered over the scrambling image of his sister and tucked his wings in.

Discord reached out. “Wait!”

Pound fell butt-first into the ocean. His eyes stung in the salt water, and the sickening flavor slipped past his lips to coat his tongue. He snorted water from his nose and held his breath tightly.

His wings flapped, scooping the water and shooting it past. He propelled himself as a tiny pony torpedo through the brine. His sister’s image wavered the father down he got, growing bigger and distorting to unnatural proportions. His chest screamed and panic gripped his legs. He wanted to kick, to lash out, to go back the way he came. A bubble escaped but did not rise. It hovered before his face, another mirrored surface to capture his sorry figure.

Discord slithered past like a sea snake. He grasped Pound by the hoof and dragged him along at a far faster clip than he thought possible. As they closed in on the scene of Pumpkin and the fairy, they saw a final, overwhelmingly large mirrored surface standing between them. The sun shone behind them, casting an eye-searing glare across it.

Pound pressed his mouth tight. There was no time to go back. There was no breath to take. No respite to seek. There was only going forward or dying. ‘Not much of a choice, if you ask me.’

He pressed his hooves against the rippling film and pushed through.

He splashed from the stream, soaking wet and shivering. Pumpkin ran face-first into him, and they collapsed in a heap. Discord popped up right behind him, gasping for precious, precious air.

Pound untangled his legs from Pumpkin’s. She leaped to her hooves and wrapped her forelegs around his neck. “You’re okay!”

Jeuk halted a scant few meters away, his face twisted into a hideous rage. “Discord!”

Discord jumped as a jolt shot down his spine. “Now’s the time to enact your master plan, Pound!”

“Uh.” Pound gripped his sister tight. He wasn’t willing to let go. Not just yet. Not until they were safe.

“What are you waiting for, you little putz?” Pumpkin released him. She stood at his side with her hooves squared. “Do the thing!”

Pound’s legs refused to respond. Jeuk met him eye for horrible eye. “Um. Yeah, the thing. That thing. That one particular awesome thing…”

Pumpkin sighed as her eyelids drooped. “You didn’t have a plan, did you?”

“Of… course I did.” Pound racked his brain. What did the old stories say about fairies? The good ones granted wishes, right? The bad ones… The bad ones also did that, but for a price. “I’m here… I’m here to make a bargain!”

Discord swallowed. He swallowed very, very hard. “You are an imbecile.”

Jeuk squinted his fiery, charcoal eyes. He grinned. “I’m listening.”

He shrunk himself down. His legs regained their short, unthreatening length. His eyes were pale gray, rather than Gehenna incarnate. His face smoothed out as his tongue tied itself in a Windsor knot. The black boater hat on his head slid aside for two sharp ears. Jeuk adjusted his business suit and produced his briefcase. “What business have you come to conduct?”

Pound hiccuped. His tongue twisted itself to rival the tie. “I-I-I want to bargain for the safety of—of Pumpkin, and Discord, and Fluttershy.”

Jeuk laughed, halfway between a giggle and a chuckle. He clipped his hoof against a smooth stone.

Sharp, splintering fractals sliced through reality. Pound found himself inside a bubble with hard edges. A dodecahedron of air and crystal. Pumpkin struck the walls, her voice muffled to a whisper. Discord scratched at the sheer surface. A bright light ignited behind Jeuk, but was barely discernible beside the dark fairy.

Jeuk tipped his black boater hat. “I don’t think you quite understand what you’re asking. Guaranteeing the safety of three lives is quite the undertaking. It requires hefty collateral.”

“I-I…” Pound felt an awful dose of sick rise up in his belly. “I have myself to bargain with.”

“There’s only so much I can do with one able, willing body, Pound.” Jeuk giggled lightly to himself, placing his briefcase on the ground. He paced back and forth, keeping his eyes trained on the young colt before him. “For a business transaction to work out, both sides need to get what they want. Both sides need to come away satisfied. You’re far more boring than your sister. Far less attractive to my purposes. You’re so sure of what you believe, yet so unwilling to actually stand for it. Honestly, it’s dull; most very dull.”

Pound shut his eyes. ‘More attractive? What a creep. He can’t get his hooves on her. No matter what, she’s got to get away. I’ve got to get him to leave her alone somehow. She’ll get back home. Find ponies who can help Fluttershy. Pumpkin’s the priority.’

“Just my sister, then.” Pound opened his eyes. He set his jaw and stomped a hoof. “Look at it this way: If she’s more interesting, what’s the fun in hurting her? It’d just end your time tormenting her, or whatever you’re doing. Let her live her life, stumbling through it, being a pain in everybody’s rear. Enjoy the show.”

Tears collected at the corners of his eyes. Snot threatened to overflow from his nose. “B-but me, if I’m as boring as you say, then what good is it to let me go? If you have me, you can do whatever you want. Take out your frustrations. Make me do stupid, dangerous, hurtful stuff. Let me know how dumb I am. Show me over and over again that I’m a failure. Show me that nothing I ever do in life means anything.”

Pound pointed at the blurry, shattered outline of his sister. “What do you want? A broken toy to toss aside, or a toy that you can break again and again and again?

A slow, small smile snuck its way across Jeuk’s face. “For as long as you live, Pumpkin will come to no physical harm.”

He held his hoof out, covering his heart with his boater hat. “For as long as you live, you are my plaything. Beholden to my every word. Beholden to my every whim. Is that clear?”

Pound looked at the plain, gray hoof. His own foreleg itched from the pad to the knee. “My other condition is that I’ll never hurt another creature. Nobody besides myself.”

Jeuk’s eyes turned up and back. His attention returned with an added burning rash across Pound’s wing. “I accept your condition, under the clarification that you shall cause no physical harm to another.”

Pound’s lungs burned more fiercely than they had beneath the sea. “To any other. You won’t order me to hurt any creature alive now, in the past, or in the future.”

“Well.” Jeuk’s eyebrows hopped. “How can I refuse such a well thought-out bargain?”

They shook.


The gem-like bubble vanished, leaving a shallow, scored crater. The stream bubbled to fill the empty space. A small puddle formed, before the stream once again found its proper path down the hillside.

“Pound!” Pumpkin jumped into the pool and splashed, grasping for any sign of her brother. “No! No, please, no.”

She shouted at Ribbon, her voice cracking, nearly shattering. “What happened? Where is he?”

Ribbon Wishes’ lips flopped. She let out several false starts before crafting the proper words. “H-he made a bargain with the Unseelie Fae. I am… I am not allowed to interfere with free-will bargains. I am… I am so sorry.”

“Why?” Pumpkin wept, great tears melding together and streaking down her cheeks. “Why would he do something like that?”

“To save you,” Discord said, barely at a whisper. He knelt down to his haunches, resting his arms on his knobby knees. “He did it all to save you.”

“I didn’t want to be saved!” Pumpkin sat down in the puddle, her throat tightening, her breath painful, her sobs coarse. “Not… not like that.”

“You…” Ribbon Wishes descended to stand at Pumpkin’s side, her magnificent glow fading. She rested her hoof on the filly’s shoulder. “You found your help at the stream. Just as was promised.”

There were no words. Pumpkin cried out, her strength spent.

“Goes to show.” Discord rubbed an ear, turning his head away from the sight. “Be careful what you wish for.”

Countermeasures and Double Measures

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Pound stumbled to his knees as the world remade itself around him. He was still in Whitetail Woods, but it was an area he hadn’t been to before. Still, between the oaks, pines, and craggy, loamy ground, it was fairly unmistakably the same forest.

Unless he was somewhere on the opposite side of the world that looked exactly the same. That was a possibility.

“What gives, chief?” A shadow wibbled into view, small tufts of fur becoming visible in the dim light. “I thought you were gonna pick up the girl pony.”

“Slight alteration of the plan, Lacer.” Jeuk’s near-featureless form trotted past Pound, grinning from ear to insidious ear. “One that may just make our lives a bit easier. You see, this fellow has a greater connection to Fluttershy.”

Jeuk’s ear tilted down to point at Pound. “Even if the entire relationship can be summed up with ‘Pity.’”

Pound stomped a hoof and ground it into the moss. “Remember the deal. I won’t be used to harm anybody.”

“Pity, pity, pitiful pony pity.” Jeuk’s eye—the one closest to Pound—became black and glossy. “Physical wounds heal. Even death brings an end to pain. No, but emotional scars go a fair bit deeper, pity pitiful pony. They take far longer to heal. If they ever do.”

Pound’s neck hair stood tall, but then, so did his legs. “What do you want, fairy… fairly fairy freak?”

“Already with the pet names!” Jeuk slid a foreleg around Pound’s neck and dragged the colt’s face close to his deadened eye. “My boy, I like you. I think we’ll get along swimmingly, provided you be a good little slave and do as I say.”

“That was the deal.” Pound glanced around and saw more shifting shadowy shapes. He couldn’t make anything out, but he really didn’t need to. His imagination filled in the blanks to showcase unspeakable horrors. “So spill it.”

”As I told your sister,” Jeuk said, licking his suddenly-sharp teeth, “I don’t lie. On general principle. I usually let the ponies do the lying for me. You’re so good at that, what with the whole ‘Free Will’ business you have going on. The things you think up are so much more interesting than reality. Most very amusing.”

“The point, Jeuk.” Pound gritted his teeth. His knees trembled, and his skin crawled at the fairy’s touch. “You had a point.”

Jeuk smirked. His necktie slithered over to wrap itself around Pound’s bruised neck. “Impressive. You’re trembling in your horseshoes, but you still find the unction to disrespect me. Most very, very amusing.”

The tie tightened with a snap. “Listen well then, so that neither of us forget this… conversation. You shall tell Fluttershy that Discord and Pumpkin are dead. Unalive. Deceased. Released from their mortal coils. A tragic occurrence, considering it was her fault. ”

Pound wrinkled his forehead. “I don’t get it. What good does that do?”

Jeuk released the colt. He skipped merrily towards a series of tall bushes, which he parted with a wave of his hoof. “Oh, Pound, you kidder. I believe your sister would have it figured out by now. Such a shame she isn’t here. But then, you get what you pay for. And you were practically free.”

A small fire burned in the midst of the clearing. Displacer beasts reclined around it, licking paws, or munching on snacks, or warming their hideous tentacles by the flame. They kept a wide berth, however, from the one pony in their company. She hovered in midair, her wings folded close to her sides, her eyes blazing white with magic barely kept at bay.

“I’m impressed she’s held it in this long,” Jeuk said. “Most ponies would have simply popped. There’s something special about this mare. Something almost… Elemental, wouldn’t you say?”

Lacer’s face materialized beside Pound’s as he neared the fire pit. “So, like, she’s not gonna blow or anything, right? She’s just gonna hang? You know, until we get to Las P—”

“Unless you want fire ants eating your brains—” Jeuk clamped Lacer’s mouth closed with his tie. “—shut up!”

‘Las Pegasus? Unstable Fluttershy filled with chaos magic? A lie that could end her?’ “Uh oh.”

Jeuk’s head twitched Pound’s way. A slow smile crawled across his jagged mouth. “I see a light of dawning realization. It’s quite the sight on your dull face.”

He pressed his nose against Pound’s, and Pound found himself unable to break away. “You needn’t spill the proverbial beans all at once. Savor it. Let the lie mature like fine wine. Think of the best ways to mislead and misuse Fluttershy’s trust. I’ll let you know when I need you.”

Jeuk turned to Lacer with a growl. “Watch him.”

The fairy vanished in a cloud of dust.

Pound swallowed hard. He tried to look at Lacer, but his eyes kept sliding off of the shadowy fur. “So what’s your part in all this? What’s got you working for the fairies?”

“Cash money, honey.” Lacer shrugged. “Gotta pay the rent somehow, Cuz. Ain’t a lot of places willing to hire displacer beasts around here.”

Lacer slapped Pound on the back, sending him stumbling forward. “So no hard feelin’s when I say we’re probably gonna eat you in the morning.”

“If you eat me, you’re gonna have to answer to Jeuk.” Pound rubbed his wings with a foreleg. He eased himself towards Fluttershy, moving step by cautious step. He nearly fell when he stumbled over a tentacle. He suspected they tried to trip him on purpose.

He found himself face-to-face with the beautiful mare. The chaos inside her caused her coat to glow a soft midday yellow. Her feather shivered as particles of pixely magic flaked away. Her face was pained, worried, concerned. He waved a hoof in her face, and she flinched.

“Wh—who’s there?”

“It’s Pound.” He raised his hoof to touch hers, but stopped when he felt a stinging sensation zap at him—like static electricity, but with a bit more of a burn. “It’s Pound Cake. I just wanted to say we’re safe.” He glanced at the displacer beasts. “Kinda safe. More or less.”

He rubbed the back of his head, pressing down the mussed, chocolaty mane. “I, uh. I wanted to tell you that… You can’t keep the magic bunched up in you like that. It’s just gonna blow you apart, and then a whole lot of ponies will be in danger. You gotta… You gotta give it back to Discord before it kills you.”

“I can’t.” A tear ran down Fluttershy’s cheek. It sizzled and turned into a sugarcube before dissolving into orange steam. “If I give him back the magic, he’ll lose his memory. Of his friends, and family, and me. Sacrificing myself is the only way to help him.”

“Yeah, I know that feeling.” Pound jumped when a toothy tentacle wrapped around his middle. Lacer dragged him backwards, tail-first towards the fire. “Look, I gotta go, but just don’t freak out okay? It’s gonna be okay. I’ve got a plan!”

“A plan, huh?” Lacer growled in his face; a set of fangs surrounded by inky blackness. “You talkin’ to Flutters before you’re due, huh? Sounds to me like Jeuk’s not gonna like what you’re doing.”

Pound’s heart leaped into his throat at the sight. He forced himself to speak around the lump, causing his voice to warble. “W—well, do you w-want Fluttershy to explode right here in camp?”

Lacer’s mouth shut. His eyes blinked as twin stars in the night sky. “Guess not. Watch yourself, colt. Watch yourself.”

He released Pound and was nowhere to be seen. Pound scooted back to Fluttershy side and curled up beside where she was floating. He thought maybe he should grab a cloud to sleep on, but with the present company, it wasn’t gonna be feasible.

Was he gonna do what Jeuk wanted? Heck no. Did he manage to buy a day or so for Pumpkin and Discord? Heck yes. In the meantime, he had to take care of Fluttershy. He had to convince her to give up the magic, or send it away, or something. He’d have to think about that. Was there anything they could do besides give it a new host?

He didn’t sleep much that night.


Pumpkin shivered beneath her saddlebags; a poor pony’s excuse for a blanket. The night was long and cold, but dawn had peeked above the horizon. The nocturnal cacophony died down bit by bit as the wild animals returned to their dens.

Pumpkin blinked her eyes open. Discord sat against a tree a few meters away. He was safe. He was well. There was no longer a horrific magic tearing through his innards, removing the very thing that made him Discord. He could live out the rest of his days as a friend.


Pumpkin stretched her legs out, pushing her hooves through the loamy soil. Ribbon Wishes—the plumber-turned-mystic guardian—sat at the edge of their tiny campsite, looking out over the brightening landscape.

“As long as Pound’s bargain holds true,” Ribbon said, “no harm will come to you.”

A haze of light surrounded the fairy. Her wings twinkled with starlight as they covered her body, hiding her excess of eyes from view. Her expression was serene, save for the tightness around her eyes. It was an adult expression, Pumpkin decided. The same one her parents wore around tax season, or when a heavy order came due. The one that surfaced when Mrs. Cheerilee had a meeting with the school board. The one she saw on Celestia’s face in every picture ever taken of her.


“So…” Pumpkin tapped her forehooves together, grinding her teeth lightly behind her lips. “So that means we’ve got time to figure out how to save him. We’ve got time to work something out. So what are we going to do?”

The fairy heaved a sigh. “I have been called away. Somewhere you cannot follow.”

“Excuse me?” Pumpkin hopped up and stalked her way to Ribbon’s side. “You just showed up out of the blue to help, got your plot busted, and now you gotta leave again? What was even the point?

“The point was keeping you away from Jeuk.” Ribbon frowned, looking down at Pumpkin through her pearl-tinted eyes. “The point was to keep him from achieving his goal of tearing you apart. For now, you are safe, and there are other things that require my attention.”

“Those ‘other things’ better include Pound!” Pumpkin stomped a hoof and waited an entire, excruciating half-second for a reply. “Well?”

“To a point.” Ribbon spread a wing to encourage Pumpkin to give her some space. Pumpkin didn’t move. “He, too, is safe at the moment. Jeuk is not one to break his tools until it has performed its purpose, and Pound has now very much made himself a part of the plan.”

She raised a hoof to her heart. “My mission is to help stop Jeuk in any way possible. Right now, that means two things. One, that I will answer whatever questions you have to the best of my abilities. Two, that I must face Jeuk again to still his forward momentum.”

Pumpkin nodded. She pressed her lips together and scraped her hoof against a rock. ‘I don’t like it,’ she thought, ‘but if we can actually get some answers out of this yahoo, then heck if it’s not something.’ “Okay. First question: What the heck are you? And who is Jeuk?”

Discord stirred at last. He propped his arms on his knees, lowering his chin until his beard brushed at his wrists. “This ought to be good.”

Ribbon Wishes nodded to Pumpkin’s saddlebags. “Bring me the book. It will help illustrate.”

Still unmoving, Pumpkin reached out with her magic. The book slid from its confines and floated across the campsite to land at Ribbon’s feet. The fairy waved a hoof, and the pages flipped to a picture: One of the Tree of Life. Golden apples dangled from its branches, while draconequui danced around its trunk. On the outskirts, amorphous shapes writhed in the shadows.

“At the dawn of creation, there were three realms. The realm of spirit, the realm of thought, and the realm of matter. Each realm was inhabited by creatures who exemplified their individual characteristics. The fairies were beings of spirit, undying and unchained by the world, but also alienated from it. The draconequus were beings of thought, for whom imagination was the only limit, but whose influence would slip away the instant they were elsewhere. The mortals were at first beings of matter, living only to breed and die, but soon gleaning a connection to thought and spirit.”

Ribbon’s hoof touched the page, tracing the outline of a golden apple near the center of the tree. It was being picked by a draconequus, whose claws were summoning forth the life-giving juice within. “The fairies would guide and guard from madness, sickness, sorrow, and pain. The draconequui controlled the weather, the seasons, the tides, and the landscape. Mortals would caretake the plants and animals, making them all the more fruitful and filling the world.”

Pages flipped until they came to a bleak image. It was shadow and fire and screaming, feeling creatures. The hulking outline of a beast of immeasurable size and might was backed by towering flames, obscuring all save for horns, a spear, and an unforgiving, green glare. “This balance was shattered when the chief of the fairies, the Lord of the Sky, grew jealous. He wished to rule the world, not care for it. He took an army of fairies and waged war on the Garden of Elysium.”

Ribbon licked her lips. Her wings slumped at her sides. “Those who followed him, like Prince Jeuk, were called Unseelie. Those who refused, like myself, formed the Seelie Court. We were unable to stop him, and in the end, they wiped out all draconequui.”

She pointed across the small glade as light poured in from the foliage. “Except for one. All except for Discord.”

“Hold up.” Pumpkin glanced at Discord and noted his furrowed brow. “If you and Jeuk are spirits, how in the heck was he able to almost throttle me? How can you even touch me?”

“You were formed from the earth, Pumpkin Cake,” Ribbon said, “but that does not encompass the whole of you. You mortals are luminous beings bound by flesh, thinking and feeling. Much like Discord can touch the world, despite being a being of thought, you too can touch the spiritual. And likewise, we can help or harm you.”

Pumpkin scratched behind her ear. “I don’t know if that answer actually helped me understand, but whatever. How do we stop Jeuk?”

Ribbon shrugged. “I assume by exhausting his resources until he has no one left to manipulate. Save your brother, rescue Fluttershy, re-imprison Tirek, scatter the displacer beasts, and contain the Rainbow of Darkness.”

“Rainbow—” Discord snaked up, his eyes popping. “So that’s it! That’s how Fluttershy took away my magic! But that’s… that means…”

He gripped Pumpkin by the shoulders. “Fluttershy’s got a metric ton of chaos magic in her body! If we don’t get it out of her right the heck now, she’s not gonna be able to control it! She’ll lose her mind, lose her life, and the life of anypony around her!”

Pumpkin swallowed hard. How would they manage that? Fluttershy ate magic thanks to Jeuk’s trickery, but there was no way for Discord to eat it back, was there? If they can’t eat magic, could they eat—?

“Golden apples!” Pumpkin flipped through the pages until she found one she’d dog-eared. A golden apple, crisp and clear, sat proudly on a table. “It’s what we were hoping would save you, so maybe it’ll keep Fluttershy alive long enough to figure out how to get your magic back!”

“But we’re already at the place where golden apples were supposed to grow!” Discord gestured towards the desolate garden with limp wrists. “It’s just kinda… yeuch.”

“There’s gotta be more!” Pumpkin looked up to Ribbon, her throat tight. “Tell me where there’s more!”

Ribbon Wishes touched the book. She moved to another dog-eared page, a story Pumpkin had planned to go back to. “Did you ever finish ‘The Last Draconequus’?”

Pumpkin lowered her eyebrows. She slid the book closer and took a cursory glance. War between the fairies and draconequui. Softly and Discord’s bet; carve their names in the tree for an apple. Pumpkin slid the unfamiliar writing from her bag.

Jeuk’s story. The Last Draconequus. They had to be the same tale.

Pumpkins head swiveled around to face Discord. Her mouth dipped open as she choked out. “Discord. You were supposed to guard the tree. But… but you weren’t there. So—so Jeuk and his goons swept in and destroyed everything.”

“Mind where your thoughts take you, Pumpkin.” Ribbon touched a hoof to the filly’s shoulder, until Pumpkin jerked away. “Had he been there, he too would have been wiped out.”

“Sure, whatever.” Pumpkin picked the rubbing up in a bubble of magic. She held it under Discord’s nose. “You were away with Softly, or, or whatever her name was. That’s how you survived! But if you were with Softly, I’ll bet you had already given her a golden apple.”

She let the page fall and threw her forelegs out. “But if she ate the apple, there’s not gonna be anything left!”

Discord caught the page before it could fall in the creek. He narrowed his eyes and brought the crayon-etched text closer. “This is my name?”

Pumpkin dug into the story to find it played out exactly like she thought. Discord and Softly became friends. They shared apples and spontaneity. One day, when they were away, the fairies came and destroyed the garden and its inhabitants, leaving him alone.

Just when Pumpkin was starting to wonder how this helped her, she came upon the last lines. “Softly took the seeds from her apple and planted them in her garden. They grew fruitful and produced, and she shared the apples with her family. To this day, it is said that she tends to her trees, with the Last Draconequus by her side.”

“Well, they got that part wrong.” Pumpkin held the book out towards Discord, her heart ready to burst with energy. “But—but maybe there are still trees somewhere else! Or seeds somewhere else! Maybe if we find this Softly person, we can find the fruit. If she’s even still alive…”

Pumpkin’s horn sparked as she spun on Ribbon. “Where is she? Where are the trees?”

“Though many lie in locations far too dangerous for you to go…” Ribbon nibbled her lip, turning her reflective eyes upward. “There is a possibility… Discord, can you read it?”

“Never was no good at book-learnin’, ma’am.” Discord held the paper towards her, showing the name. “I remember what my name looks like, but as far as I know, I’ve never heard of this Softly pony.”

“That is possibly because of a minor mistranslation.” Ribbon Wishes glanced at Pumpkin and took a deep breath. “The name etched upon the tree does indeed mean softly, but in relation to musical instruments. It refers to a piece that is to be played softly. Slowly. At ease.”

Ribbon Wishes lowered her ears. “The name of the pony you seek is Adagio.”

Discord smiled. He giggled. He stuck a talon in his ear and wiggled it around. “I’m sorry. I must have been mistaken. Surely you don’t mean—”

“Adagio Dazzle.” Ribbon Wishes nodded shortly. “Yep.”

Pumpkin blinked. “Who?”

“You gotta be joking!” Discord chuckled, tossing the rubbing over his shoulder. “She’s crazy! Evil! I don’t think she even lives in Equestria anymore! I’m sure I’ve never met her personally—”

“You said yourself that your early life is a blank slate.” Ribbon waved a hoof, and the page floated across the grass to her side. “Bring the words to Twilight Sparkle and she will give you the same translation.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” Discord paced around the campsite, his hoof and claw digging into the dirt with each stomp. “Comb Equestria for this mare? Look beyond the portal? Hunt down every nook and cranny until—”

“She lives in Fillydelphia.” Ribbon pointed towards the sunrise, and a little to the left. “A day’s journey north-east, if you hurry.”

Ribbon looked between Pumpkin and Discord, her wings spreading to their full majestic length. “She will help you. She has no choice in the matter. I will go ahead to tell Twilight Sparkle where you will be. She will arrive at Fillydelphia and lend you aid. You will know what to do by then. Meanwhile, I will slow Jeuk and find out where he intends to let Fluttershy loose. We still have a hoof in the fight. We still have a chance. We still have an advantage over Jeuk.”

Pumpkin Cake gathered the book to her chest. “What advantage?”

“When Jeuk’s followers find out his promises are ashes and dust,” Ribbon said, “they will turn on him like rabid wolves.”

Ribbon lifted herself into the air with a downward stroke. “Do you have further questions?”

“Zillions.” Pumpkin shoved the book into her saddlebags and strapped them on tight. “But I know we’ve gotta hurry.”

She reached up and gripped Discord’s paw with her hoof. “You know we’re gonna rescue Fluttershy, right?”

He looked down and met her eyes. There was that weight again. A bite of the lip. A furrowed brow. A tear collecting in the corner of his eye. “I… I’ll try.”

“Good, because Pound needs us, too.” Pumpkin watched as Ribbon Wishes faded into dust, bit by bit. “Hay, you better not get your butt kicked this time.”

“I’ll do my best.” Ribbon bowed at the neck. “Godspeed.”

Pumpkin looked out over the landscape. Mountains hovered in the distance, covered by dense fog. At the edge of Whitetail Woods, small buildings could be seen, hidden if not for Ribbon Wishes’ direction.

“The next leg of the journey begins,” she said, her voice hushed. “You ready?”

“No.” Discord rubbed his hands together as his tail flicked behind him. “Let’s go.”

They walked forward, their steps in synch. They carried on a ways, easing themselves down hillsides, over boulders, around ponds. The landscape shifted from rocks and cliffs to rolling hills and healthy trees. The moss became grass in places, lending Pumpkin the opportunity to eat.

She munched down on a stalk, hating the taste with every fiber of her being. “Discord?”


“I’m sorry.”

Discord rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It’s my fault, Pumpkin. Apparently, it’s been my fault for thousands of years and I never knew it. Just had to go and leave my post, didn’t I?”

“You heard Ribbon.” Pumpkin bumped against his side, speaking words she wasn’t sure she believed. “You woulda just died with the rest of them. Softly—or whatever her name is—probably saved your life.”

“For what?” Discord plucked a dandelion and munched on the head. “I think I know why the draconequui took care of the garden. It’s because without golden apples, we just… implode, after a few years. I went crazy before, and I’ll go crazy again.”

“But you don’t have the magic anymore.” Pumpkin reached up to tug on his tail. “You’re free.”

“The magic has to go somewhere,” Discord said. “And that somewhere can’t be Fluttershy.”

“We’ll find another place for it.” Pumpkin nodded to herself, pulling ahead of Discord. “We gotta find another place.”

‘Because,’ she thought, ‘I’m not letting this whole thing be pointless!’


Twilight Sparkle stood within the darkest, dampest bowels of Tartarus. Today, she had the unavoidable pleasure of going toe-to-toe with a living suit of armor by the name of Terra Nort.

Metal slid against metal as the sapient suit circled around her. Purple magic glowed between the seams, shining the brightest from the two eye-slits in the mask. “Thou art a fool, Princess! The return of the Crystal Empire is nigh, and Sombra’s darkness shall envelope the land!”

Twilight threw her head back, feeling the stress of several days of constant fighting collect right between her shoulder blades. “Ugh! The Crystal Empire’s been back for ten years, now, and Sombra was defeated. Can we please come to the part where you yield?”

Large chunks of the armor detached and reformed themselves into twin blades, carried aloft by Nort’s magic. They circled around him in the lamest shield Twilight had ever seen. “Come, open your heart!” Terra Nort said. “Embrace the darkness!”

The blades spun in an inscrutable pattern, striking high, low, everywhere in between. Laughter issued from the dark helmet, a howl of triumph at a foe vanquished.

Twilight Sparkle yawned from behind her shield barrier. She blinked tired eyes at the magical abomination. “Sorry. I just can’t get into the whole ‘fight to the death’ thing today. I just got done returning the Mutanic Masticator to its eternal slumber. Yesterday it was the Girded Golem and his army of Golemites. And don’t get me started on the thirty-five variations on the whole ‘Living Armor’ theme I’ve fought leading up to you. So, would it be alright if I just sorta… skipped you?”

The helmet tilted. The swords lowered ever-so-slightly. “I don’t under—”

Twilight spoke before his response could fully form. “Yeah, okay, thanks.” Her horn charged with magic until it glowed pure white.

The purple eye-slits widened. “Come guardia—!”

The spell struck with the kinetic force of a freight train. It drove Terra Nort deep into the rock wall, leaving a slightly pony-shaped impression in its wake.

The helmet rolled out, a smoking shard of metal. A weak voice hissed from the face-plate. “Nothing… is… eternal…”

Twilight sighed and slumped to the ground. Dozens and dozens of prisoners returned to their cells, and still there were more. The Royal Guardsponies came in shifts, always able to go back to their families at the end of a battle well fought. But the princesses didn’t have shifts. Just long, long hours spent underground.

Centurion Stonewall flew up behind her with a fresh troop of guardsponies. She surveyed the battlefield and let out a low whistle. “Looks like we arrived just in time.”

Twilight could do nothing but groan.

“Biggs, Wedge, clean up the armor and stick it in confinement.” Stonewall marched up to Twilight’s side, removed her helmet, and stood at attention. “This quadrant of the prison looks to be mostly cleaned up. Princess Luna just sent word that the grue has been contained in the light cell, and the eye-bats are generally getting stuck in the fly-traps we set along the corridors.”

“Good.” Twilight Sparkle laid her head sideways, getting dust all over her cheek. “With any luck, we’ll have the riot contained… sometime next year.”

“It… is still summer, Your Highness.”

“Early next year, then.” Twilight rubbed the gemstone necklace she always wore. It shimmered faint purple as she spoke. “Unless the fights are all as easy as this one was. Which I doubt.”

Stonewall eyed the deep, deep indent in the wall. “You call that easy, huh?”

“I call it pent-up emotions.” Twilight Sparkle stood and brushed herself off. “I’m taking lunch. If he moves, tell him I know where he lives.”

Terra Nort whimpered.

Twilight walked down the long, dark hall. She’d long since lost track of the day-night cycle, and just sort of went with whatever her body told her it needed. At the moment, it needed a good daisy sandwich and some cheese. Pepper jack, to give her a little pep, perhaps.

“Ha,” she said. “Pep, pep, pepper jack.”

She wasn’t the only pony looking for a meal, it appeared. Princess Luna turned at the sound of the door opening and waved from across the makeshift mess hall. “Twilight! I saved you a seat!”

Twilight glanced around at the otherwise empty room, taking note of the countless empty chairs. She giggled. “I’m truly touched, Luna. I’ll be right there.”

A quick sandwich building session later, she took the chair opposite Luna. “How are you? I hear you caught the grue.”

“Aye.” Luna slurped up spaghetti, both with and without the help of her fork. “I merely entered a dark room I knew it to be inhabiting, and blinded it with the light of my horn. It shall be a long while before it ever again sees pony flesh as appetizing.”

“Good.” Twilight covered her eyes with her fetlocks, leaning heavily on her knees. “I’m so tired.”

“You should get some rest.” Luna reached across the table with a wingtip and brushed the feathers across Twilight’s cheek. “You do yourself no favors if you are dead on your hooves. I’d rather you be very much alive, thank you kindly.”

She said all of this with her cheeks bulging with pasta. Twilight held back a snort. “Thanks. I appreciate the thought. I guess some of it is physical tiredness, but there’s also… I’m worried about Fluttershy.”

“She is with Discord,” Luna said, probably to remind herself of the situation. “I would be worried, if I did not think the buffoon was capable of handling any untoward situation. I think that if they were in any sort of danger, we would have heard of it by now, audibly, as the earth was shattered in twain.”

“But that’s what worries me.” Twilight Sparkle mulled over her thoughts and munched a bite of sandwich. “We haven’t heard anything from them. Spike said he was gonna keep me posted, but there hasn’t been anything from his end.”

She muttered as she slid a crumb of cheese back and forth in her mouth. “No news is good news, but it’s also no use.”

Luna swallowed and said nothing. She looked across the table at Twilight Sparkle, a small smile on the side of her mouth.

Twilight leaned to one side and tapped her plate. “What’s that look for?”

Luna rolled her eyes. “I am just enjoying your company, that is all. We rarely have time to spend merely hanging out, since the little adventure we had last year.”

“One that I’d like to forget.”

“There were parts that were less awful.” Luna twirled her fork like some ancient, magical weapon. “Working alongside each other, battling for a single cause, solving problems and taking names! There were difficulties, yes, but I shall cherish the moments where you pulled me from the mire.”

She folded her hooves atop the table and gave Twilight a curt nod. “And despite the tiresome nature of this ordeal, there are few others I would rather face it with.”

Twilight lifted the sandwich in a telekinetic bubble. She tore a piece free and floated it to her mouth. “One of those others being Celestia?”

“Well, yes.” Luna traced circles on the tabletop with her hoof. “She has not been the same since her injury. Despite efforts to rebuild, we are all still very much hurting from that.”

She furrowed her brow, granting her remaining spaghetti greater scrutiny than merited. “But you above all else give me hope for a better tomorrow.”

Twilight would have replied to that, but her words were forgotten in a rush as Luna tore her from her seat with a strong magic grasp. The table flew across the room and clattered against the wall as Luna stood tall, her wings flared, her horn shimmering with fractals of ice. “Who are you and what business do you have in Tartarus?”

Twilight righted herself with a steeling breath. The tension returned to her muscles in an instant; specifically, she felt strain just beneath her horn. She readied herself for another full-power blast, aimed right at the center of the new arrival.

The thing was almost, but not quite, a pony. It shimmered with light from every hair on its body. Its six wings flapped in tandem, but far too slowly to generate lift. Pearls covered its body at irregular intervals.

Those pearls seemed to be looking at her.

“Do not be afraid!” the apparition said, raising a sparkling hoof. “I mean you no harm, but your friend Fluttershy is in grave danger!”

“You have one chance to save yourself!” Luna shouted at the top of her lungs. “Who are you, and what is your business here?”

“I am a fairy.”

The breath hitched in Luna’s throat. Her voice lowered to a dark, dangerous level. “This does not necessarily help your case.”

“I am a Fae of the Seelie Court.” The fairy touched down to the ground and lay low, spreading her wings out flat to show that she hid nothing among her feathers. “I am a friend of Equestria, and I seek to save the life of Fluttershy.”

A twinkle of familiar magic touched Twilight’s ear. A trail of smoke, guided by dragonfire, swirled before her eyes. While Luna kept watch on the fairy, she touched a hoof to the ash and let it reform into a scroll, sealed with Spike’s signature claw mark.

“A letter from Ponyville,” the fairy said. “Then they’ve realized it as well.”

“Your name, fairy spirit.” Luna towered over the both of them, her mane sucking up the light in the room and replacing it with star-swirled darkness. “Give me your name.”

“I am Ribbon Wishes, of the Three Wishes.” The pearls swiveled towards Twilight and narrowed. “Read Spike’s letter, Princess Sparkle. It will show you the urgency of the situation.”

Twilight sucked in a breath and glanced at Luna. When the elder alicorn said nothing, she broke the seal and unscrolled the letter.


Fluttershy and Discord are missing, along with Pound and Pumpkin Cake. There has been no contact for several days, and the search parties have found nothing. I know you’re busy with the whole Tartarus riot, but I really think we need your help.

Okay, I was wrong. The search parties found a burnt-out campsite and several fallen trees. I think they’re in real trouble. Reply ASAP.


Luna’s breath carried fog as the air chilled around her. “What does it say, Twilight?”

“The fairy is right.” Twilight lowered the letter, rolling it along her hoof. She stuffed it in a small bag slung over her shoulder, alongside several writing utensils. “Fluttershy’s in trouble. And that’s just the start.”

Luna bobbed her head as light and warmth returned to the room. “You have earned the right to speak, Ribbon Wishes of the Seelie Court. Choose your words wisely, for time is short.”

She grimaced, turning her sight from Twilight. “Far, far too short.”

Ribbon Wishes bowed at the neck and stood up. “What I have to say is for your ears alone, for every turn holds a servant of the Unseelie Court…”


Tirek followed the floating green arrow, his hooves making soft little shushing sounds in the mossy ground. It was a welcome change of page from the unavoidable clippity-clop of rocky ground. He felt the slightest bit stealthier, the slightest bit more prepared to take his opponents by surprise.

Then there was Munchy. “Munchy tired. Can Munchy please pretty please ride on Tirek’s back?”

Tirek felt a flash of annoyance, one that could very well end with Munchy trampled to a pulp beneath his hooves. It was the third such flash that hour. “You didn’t have to come.”

“Yes Munchy did!” Munchy raised a gnarled hand, coated with white hair in a single, repulsive patch. “Munchy indebted to you for forever! Munchy always your servant!”

“Then serve me,” Tirek snarled, “by being silent!”

He shoved a finger beneath Munchy’s face, the ungroomed nail inches from the morlock’s throat. “You wish to eat those pitiful little pony children, do you not?”

“Munchy’s only dream!” Munchy nodded his round, lumpy little head, grinning wide with sharpened fangs.

Tirek nodded in an understanding sort of way. “If they hear us coming…”

His hand reached out to grip Munchy around the neck. He shook the little creature violently, until he could almost feel the morlock’s meager brains rattling inside its skull. “Then they’ll run away!

He let Munchy slump to the ground, and resumed his trot behind the strange floating arrow. “Now hurry. We may catch up with them before the sun sets.”

He crossed the stream with a small hop, his eye catching a glint of gold at the bottom. The green arrow hovered above the vein, tracing it like a child might trace a drawing. Tirek sniffed the air. The trees were old in this area of Whitetail Woods. Ancient. If they were not large enough to sustain themselves through any storm, then they were long dead and rotting. The stench of mud and foliage assailed him all at once, even as forest gave way to sheer stone walls and craggy outcroppings.

Before long, the arrow led him to a crevasse, just wide enough for a pony to slip through. For him, it was more of an ordeal. He turned his upper half sideways, walking hoof-over-hoof, his flank leaning against the stone for support and balance. A new scent touched his nostrils; that of discharged magic. A magic he had tasted at one point in his life. Spicy and exciting, yet bitter and harsh. Chaos.

When he emerged from the far side, he beheld an overgrown, decayed set of trees, all vying for sunlight, yet never receiving enough for all. Several trees were felled, but the breakage was not natural. The wood was still green, leaking sap in a sticky mess all along the stony floor.

He swiveled his ears. No sign of life.

Tirek raised his head as the green arrow came to a stop above a hollow stump at the center of the grove. It pointed downward, bobbed twice, then vanished in a shower of dust.

He approached the stump with caution. No monsters lurked in the shadows save for his dimwitted companion. No magic stung his horns. No voices reached his ears. He reached out to touch the deadwood, fingers outstretched to grasp whatever lay within.

An ant skittered its way out of the bark. Another followed, and another, and then many others. The stump practically exploded with ants, all red, all biting, all eating.

As one, the ants burst into flames.

Tirek squealed and backpedaled as fast as his four legs were able.

“Marvelous creatures, fire ants. Are they not?” Jeuk was beside Tirek with no preamble. He looked up at the centaur with an utterly unremarkable, generic smile. “On their own, their bite causes one of the greatest itching sensations known to the animal kingdom. In a group, their sting can kill.”

Tirek swiped at Jeuk, but his fist made no contact. Jeuk was elsewhere, sitting atop a nearby tree branch. “Their innards are flammable with the slightest exposure to oxygen. Crack the shell, and you get a conflagration fit to fell any mortal foe. You, of course, survived this once.”

Jeuk giggled lightly, resting his cheek against the tree’s trunk. “Can you survive it again, I wonder?”

“What do you want, Chicken Farmer?” Tirek extended a finger, focusing his rage upon the fairy. “Why have you lead me to this place?”

“This place? Oh, no, I never needed you to come here.” Jeuk tapped his hooves together. “I needed you to chase Fluttershy and Discord here. And you did. So thank you.”

Tirek climbed a nearby fallen log as the ants crept close to his feet. “What do you want with me? If you wanted me dead, you’d have done more than attack me with insects!”

“Smart guy.” Jeuk walked through the swarm of burning ants, allowing them to crawl across his legs. “I wish for you to continue your pursuit of Fluttershy, of course. We can’t have loose ends running around the forest. And here’s something to sweeten the deal…”

He lifted an ant to his snout and let it sit between his eyes. “If you do slay Fluttershy, I’ll allow you to keep the Rainbow of Darkness, free of charge. It’ll be yours forever and ever. And I’ll leave you be, free to live out the rest of your miserable days.”

Tirek clenched his fists and kicked at the approaching army. “That would have been much easier if you’d let me keep the Rainbow in the first place!”

“But then you’d have less reason to wish Fluttershy dead.” Jeuk clicked his tongue, shaking a hoof. “Did you even know her name before our little encounter? You see, there’s so much going on that you’re just not privy to.”

Jeuk laughed in the back of his throat. He stepped back, retreating towards the stump. “You will find Fluttershy and the Rainbow of Darkness in Las Pegasus. If you hurry, you may be able to beat her. The choice is yours. Regain your lost power…”

Jeuk’s smile turned jagged, his face splitting apart as horrific teeth jutted from his jaw. “Or die in obscurity!”

The Fae and the ants vanished without a trace.

Munchy popped out from behind a bush. He grasped for Tirek’s hind leg, his eyes wide and his breath coming in short bursts. “Bad idea. Bad, bad, bad idea! Bad!”

Tirek kicked him off. He glared at the misshapen little stump across the small clearing at the center of the grove. “Of course it is. Of course it is.”

He growled deep in his throat, picking Munchy up by the scruff and setting the morlock on his back. “But a fairy always keeps its promises.”

Munchy leaped up and grabbed Tirek’s horns. “It’s a trap! A trap!”

“Indeed you are correct.” Tirek drummed his fingers together, squinting his eyes at the clouds overhead. “But is it a trap for me, or for Fluttershy?”

A Roundabout Form of Apology

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Fillydelphia rolled into view over the next hill. Pumpkin Cake’s legs ached like crazy. She wanted more than anything to just lie down in a bathtub and soak for forever. Just to get the top layer of dirt off. Something to eat besides grass would have been a close second. She looked up at her draconequine traveling companion, and frowned at the worry lines etched into his scraggly face.

“Getting mighty used to pain,” he muttered. “Had my fill. Ready for it to end.”

“Welcome to life, enjoy your stay.” Pumpkin sucked on her lip, peering out across the outskirts of town. Small, one-room houses stood alongside barns and silos, while ranch-style homes could be seen just up the dirt road. In the distance, a built-up city was just peering over the horizon, a few skyscrapers short of being as impressive as Manehattan. The checkerboard pattern of the farms revealed a steadfast pattern to the crops being grown, and the food being produced.

Discord sat down at the top of the little hill, resting his chin in his hands. “So where do we start? Do we just wait for the princess to get here?”

“I’m not waiting around.” Pumpkin trotted onto the main road, pointing with her horn. “Let’s ask around. People will know her, right?”

“I was her best friends or something, and heck if I know her.” Discord threw his hands up and slouched towards the path. “Lead the way, Little Miss Cake. I am at your beck and call.”

“You realize you’re taking orders from a ten-year-old?”

“Could be worse,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “I could be taking orders from Celestia.”

A short ways down the road, a yellow-red maned mare trotted beside her daughter, a saddlebag jingling at her side. Pumpkin could see pencils and paper bulging from the top. “Excuse me! Ma’am! Can you help us find somepony?”

The mare made a funny gargling noise when she caught sight of Discord. She pushed her daughter behind her back with a hoof. “Stay behind me, Stardust.”

“But Momma!”

“Shh!” The mare swallowed hard and tried to share a friendly grin, which had all the joviality of a pack of rockodiles. “Who… who can I help you nice beings find? Mister… Discord, I presume?”

“Puddin’ and tame, one and the same.” He cracked his knuckles and bowed at the waist. Something in his back popped. He held that pose for a long moment, before he let out a little whimper. “Help.”

Pumpkin Cake narrowed an eye as she looked over his back. She picked out one spot in particular and gave it a whack. He jolted upright, his jaw hinging out of alignment.

Thank you,” he said. “Truthfully, we two are seeking out a local troublemaker, a source of malcontent, as it were. One Adagio Dazzle. Is she still a resident of these parts?”

The wind whistled through the gap in Stardust’s teeth as she laughed. “He talks funny, Momma.”

“Adaj—” The mare’s ears drooped as a tremendous sigh wheezed from her chest. “She’s not in trouble again, is she?”

“No, she’s supposed to help us.” Pumpkin Cake stepped forward, sucking her lips. “Please tell us where she is.”

The mare glanced between Pumpkin and Discord, her ears twitching. She picked up a stick to draw a map in the dirt. “She lives in a little house at the edge of the field. She’s home right now, I think.” She snapped the twig and let the branches tumble in a bubble of magic. “You’re sure she isn’t in trouble?”

“No more trouble than we are,” Pumpkin mumbled. “Thank you.”

Pumpkin and Discord carried on down the road. Pumpkin tilted her ear back to catch the little filly speaking. “Momma, why didn’t Discord do any magic tricks?”

“Magic tricks,” Discord said. “Now there’s a funny way to put what I do.”

“I dunno.” Pumpkin scratched her neck, flicking a tangled stone into the ditch. “It kinda sums it up. I mean, they’re pretty fun to watch, and you never hurt anybody, and it’s all just silly.” She shrugged. “It was, at least.”

“Ah, but Chaos Magic has the most destructive potential out of all the magic types.” He tapped his chin. “But really only if you think about it. It tends to be designed to break things. To tear them down. And when I’m not tearing things down, it tears me—” He waved his hands, cutting off his own sentence. “It’s that sort of thing. A cockamamie cacophony of criminally uncontaminated chaos. And it’s all in Fluttershy’s hooves.”

They came to the indicated house, a small, one-room homestead at the base of a tall hill. The thatched roof gave it the same cozy, old-timey feel Pumpkin saw on the outskirts of Ponyville. She raised an eyebrow at Discord and knocked.

“Urgh. Hold your horses! Ha!” Rustling came from the far side of the door, like a dozen sheets of paper being jostled by wind. “Wasn’t expecting visitors, so don’t go asking for tea and crumpets. I’d say there’s water in the tap, but I don’t think these rubes ever heard of indoor pl—”

An old mare opened the door, her gray-streaked orange mane framing a face speckled with dignified wrinkles. She had an easy smirk on her muzzle, and her words flowed with an uncanny smoothness Pumpkin usually only heard from ponies in Filthy Rich’s profession. The smile faded when it landed on her, replaced with a dubious frown. “Huh. Hay, kid. I think you’re on the wrong end of town…”

The old mare’s eyes widened. They trailed up in a wavy motion, following the haphazard contours of Discord’s body. The frown became a scowl, then a yawning chasm of disbelief.

Discord’s fingers danced. “Hi, there. Apparently, we’re best friends.”

The door slammed in his face. He held his muzzle tight, muffled curse words spilling from beneath his bleeding nose. “Crffer frker gooooz!”

Pumpkin cocked her lip in the beginning of a sneer. “Care to repeat that, master of charisma?”

“Shut up.” Discord sat heavily, daubing his schnoz with the fluffy tip of his tail.

Pumpkin knocked again. She pressed her ear against the wall beside the door, well out of range of a rage-fueled swing. She heard wood against stone, a shuffling carpet, and then silence.

“I’m going in.” She scuffed a hoof absentmindedly against the dirt road. “I’m kinda hard to kick out, so maybe she’ll break down and listen.”

“Suit yourself.” Discord leaned against the little house, his tail tuft shoved up one nostril. “I’ll be here, bleeding out, going gently into that good night.”

“Sounds great.” Pumpkin narrowed her eyes and focused on her horn. Magic thundered from her heard, traveling along her fairy-strings in a direct path to her forehead. Blue light flickered and danced, coating her body in the spell. She stepped into the wooden door, slipping between molecules, phasing through matter.

It was a pretty pathetic house. She knew it wasn’t polite to think so, but that was that. Two rooms, one an obvious bedroom and the other a combination dining room, sitting room, and office. A desk sat against the wall, piled high with papers. Unfinished sequences of musical notes scrawled across the pages in a jumble of frenzied mouthwriting. The sink overflowed with dirty dishes. The lamp above the desk trailed a tiny smidge of smoke, having been blown out in the last few seconds.

The house was, for all appearances, empty.

“Hello!” Pumpkin walked in a wide circle, glancing around and hoping the mare wasn’t gonna spook her. “I’m invading your privacy with a petulant disregard for your property!

She tripped over a fold in the carpet. Her hoof landed heavily and struck with a hollow thump. She tilted her head as she peered where the carpet ended and the wood floor began. She saw a seam that didn’t line up with the grain of the planks. A flash of magic tugged the rug completely away. A hidden hatch! It was rectangular, with no visible handles or hinges.

Heck if that was gonna stop her. She activated her spell and stepped downward, groping around until she found a step. She sunk in, one hoof at a time, and pushed her way into darkness.

She found herself descending a spiral staircase, built into the ground with wood and stone. A clatter of machinery and quiet grumbling greeted her ears from below. She snuck as quietly as possible, lowering her legs with soft, smooth movements. Light peered around a final corner, and she tilted her head to see the far side.

The old mare leaned over a workbench, her tongue hanging out one side of her mouth. She wore enormous goggles with revolving lenses, able to swivel out of the way for one color or another to be used. Yellow and red lenses covered her left eye, while her right held blue. She gripped a needle with one hoof, which she used to carve tiny indents into the face of a hoof-sized mirror.

There was little else of note in the small workshop. Dirt walls, writhing with roots. A chest behind the mare; locked, though with the key still in the tumbler. A blanket covered something along the far wall, round in shape, almost like a full-length mirror.

The needle in the mare’s grasp stopped whirring. She looked up, her frown threatening to split her face in two. “How the hell did you get down here?”

“Magic.” Pumpkin shrugged. “It’s a thing I can do.”

“Clever girl.” The old mare shoed her away with a limp hoof. “Now magic yourself out of here before I call the cops.”

“Yeah, no, that’s not happening.” Pumpkin trotted up to the worktable and leaned her forelegs on it. “Discord and I need your help.”

“Screw Discord.” The old mare pointed the needle at Pumpkin, shaking it and scowling. “And screw you if you don’t get the heck out of my house.”

“You’re Asiago Dazzle, right?” Pumpkin tilted her head, lowering one ear in that irresistible way she did when she wanted an extra cookie. “You and Discord used to be good friends—”

“It’s Adagio, numb-nuts.” Adagio returned to the tiny mirror, flipping a purple lens down to peer at its hidden intricacies. “And that was a heck of a long time ago. I barely even remember the nitwit. I couldn’t possibly care less—”

Pumpkin let out a huff. She lifted the rubbing from her saddlebags and spread it out across the worktable. She waited, her breath held, while Adagio Dazzle gave it a good, long look.

“Where did you get this?” Adagio whispered.

“Elysium. The tree was dead, but this was still in the stump.” Pumpkin Cake rolled a hoof, rolling the rubbing up simultaneously. “It led us to you.”

Adagio removed the goggles to rub her eyes. She snatched the paper from Pumpkin’s grip and scanned it. She glared at the filly, her voice a hiss. “What were you doing in the garden?

Pumpkin Cake tapped her hooves together, resting them on the table. “Discord was dying.”

Adagio jolted in her seat. Her eyes darkened as a stark contrast to her slithering smirk. “Dying, you say?”

“Yeah.” Pumpkin sneered. “You don’t have to be so broke up about it.”

“Now, now, here me out.” Adagio Dazzle leaned back on her stool, using it as a fulcrum to rest her hind legs on the worktable. “Let me take a wild gander. You noticed him acting strange; stranger than usual. You saw him forgetting little things, like a birthday here or there, or a little appointment, or somebody’s name. You didn’t even think about it. It’s just Discord being Discord.”

She tossed the goggles to the table. They landed with a clatter beside the mirror and her needle. “Until one day it wasn’t cute anymore. One day you realized he was having real troubles. He couldn’t remember right. He forgot how to use his own magic. He lost his way more than once. He probably locked himself away, moping around and making a nuisance of himself. You looked for a way to save him, but before you could do anything, he up and burst…”

Pumpkin choked. She tried with all her might to hide the sting behind her eyes. Tear pooled, but she refused to let them flow. “I… I guess…”

Adagio patted her cheek with slightly less force than a slap. “Ah, sweetcheeks. Lemme clue you in. Discord isn’t dying. He’s resetting. Pretty soon he’s gonna lose any memories of you, or the princesses, or any other annoying little friends he’s picked up along the way.”

She stood up to kick the stool. It spun and slipped beneath the worktable. “Pretty soon, he’s gonna be same-ol’, same-ol’, chaotic, destructive Discord. It’s his nature. It’s what he does. Its who he is.”

She jabbed Pumpkin in the chest with a scuffed hoof. “And ain’t nothing you or I could ever do to change it. Trust me…”

The scowling smirk fell away for the briefest of moments. Pumpkin caught a glimpse of weight and weariness behind the old mare’s violet eyes. Adagio hesitated, taking in half a breath. “I tried. And I still lost him. So don’t go whining when it turns out he’s gotta be turned back to stone again.”

Pumpkin wrinkled her forehead. She watched Adagio reach for the goggles, chewing on her lip. ‘That can’t be all,’ she thought. ‘It isn’t all. It’s not just another dead end that leaves us more lost than before. Darn it, she’s gotta listen!

With a flash of magic, Pumpkin swiped the goggles from the table and dangled them over her head. Adagio leaped up—spritely for an old geezer—and reached for them, her teeth clenched.

Her hoof phased right through the optical enhancers.

Pumpkin shook them in front of Adagio’s face before tugging them away. “Are you done being mad for something that happened two-thousand years ago? Am I allowed to speak? Will you just listen to me?

“It was three-thousand!” Adagio growled. “If you weren’t a kid I’d whoop you good!”

“We never gave up on Discord!” Pumpkin jerked the goggles away as Adagio swiped. “We studied, and we guessed, and we did everything we could. We traveled all the way to the Garden of Elysium to get a golden apple!”

“The golden apple trees are all dead!”

“I know!” Pumpkin wiped her face, smudging mud across her cheeks as dirt mingled with tears. “I know. So one of Discords friends did the only thing they could think of to save him. She took his magic.”

Adagio snapped her eyes to Pumpkin. She lowered her hoof and backed off the warpath. “How?”

“Heck if I know. Some freaky fairy gave her the power or something.” Pumpkin squinted at the mare. Her little game of keep-away didn’t do much for the elder’s mood, but heck if it didn’t get results otherwise. “Fact is, his friend’s overflowing with chaos magic, my brother’s some sorta fairy slave, and we can’t save either of them without your help.”

Adagio sat down with a thump and threw her forelegs out. “What the hay am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know.” Pumpkin trotted back and forth at the base of the stairs. “You were the last pony to see the golden apples. Maybe you know where they’re at?”

Adagio rubbed her mouth, hissing between clenched teeth. “You didn’t happen to catch the fairy’s name, did you?”

“Yolk. No, wait, Jeuk.” Pumpkin swirled the goggles on the tip of her hoof. “Why? You know him? He was one of the fairies that attacked the garden in the first place.”

Adagio Dazzle exhaled heavily through her nostrils. She patted the stool, raising an eyebrow. “Okay, kid. I’ll bite. Sit down and I’ll tell you a little story.”

Pumpkin made a point of waving the goggles again before taking her seat. Adagio ran a hoof through her overwhelming mountain of mane. “Just after the garden was kaput, Discord moved in with me. We tried to keep him all secret and stuff, so the fairies wouldn’t catch and kill him, too. He couldn’t use his magic. He couldn’t so much a peek outside without some kinda disguise.”

Adagio scowled, flicking her tail and laying her ears against her scalp. “By the time I realized what his magic was doing to him, well… We tracked down what few seeds we could find in the rubble. Turns out, though, that golden apple trees take a lot longer to grow than regular ones. A lotta lot longer. By the time an apple sprouted, I was an old mare and Discord was off in crazy-town.”

She locked eyes with Pumpkin, her voice backed with venom. “His first act as the new king of the world was to turn my home into a giant aquarium. So don’t think, just because you’re friends now, that it’ll make a lick of difference down the road.”

Pumpkin shook her head. “I think our problems now are a little beyond yours. You had the apple, so why didn’t you just give it to him?”

“Because it wouldn’t have fixed anything!” Adagio kicked a hind leg into the wall, raising a cloud of dust. “His memory was gone, and nothing can make memories come back!”

“So you kept the apples to yourself?” Pumpkin asked. “That’s how you stayed alive this long?”

Adagio tilted her head. She regarded Pumpkin, scrutinizing her every inch. “No. I just used them until I could invent something better. A siren’s sigil. Heard of it?”


“Look at Princess Twilight’s neck sometime.” Adagio put a hoof on the steps and motioned for Pumpkin to follow. “Point is, I never took care of the new apple tree, and it died. So there are no more golden apples, and no more apple trees.”

Pumpkin stood up and draped the goggles around her neck. “What about seeds?”

“Beg pardon?”

“Seeds.” Pumpkin stood tall, or as tall as she could. Her puffy rat’s nest of a mane bounced against her shoulders. “I’m pretty sure you’d know where to find golden apple seeds.”

Adagio shook her head slowly. She dismounted the steps and sauntered over to her trunk. “You know what you’re asking for, right? Centuries of growth. Discord would lose his memories long before—”

“I know.” Pumpkin fought to hide the warble in her voice. The ache in her chest threatened to drive her to her knees. “But I promised I’d help him. And until… until we can find somebody besides Fluttershy to hold the magic—”

“Whoa, whoa, wait.” Adagio rubbed the side of her head. “Fluttershy? Like, as in the Bearer of the Element of Kindess? That Fluttershy?”

Pumpkin rolled her eyes. “You know another Fluttershy?”

“Yeah, but that’s not the point…” Adagio swore. She swore again for good measure. “Listen, kid—”

“The name’s Pumpkin.”

Adagio smirked, a sour expression filled with sizzling disgust. “Pumpkin. You think you’re hot horseapples, but you’ve got a lot to learn. Your friends got in bed with a fairy, an Unseelie Fae, and there ain’t nothing a little seed’s gonna do to help them. You can grow the blasted plant, but by the time it buds, Jeuk’s plan’s gonna be over and done with. Alongside your buddies. It’s gonna be, like, way over and done.”

Pumpkin swallowed hard. “Then what can stop the fairies?”

“Only two things ever put a hold on those freaks.” Adagio glanced from side to side, chewing the inside of her cheek. “The Draconequui always used their time-space manipulation to tear holes in reality, send them packing to some far-flung corner of the multiverse. After they died, the only thing to ever put a dent in them was the Elements of Harmony.”

“The El—” Something in Pumpkin’s head clicked. “That’s why he wanted Fluttershy! He wants to destroy the Elements!”

“Well, duh.” Adagio turned the key and flipped open her chest. “She’s a hottie with a body, but that body wasn’t built for chaos magic. I give her a week before she up and explodes.”

She picked up a tiny speck from the bottom. It glittered in the low light, barely bigger than a grain of wheat. “This… this is a golden seed. It’s not much by itself, but given a little water and sunshine…”

Adagio winced as she held it out. She turned away, averting her eyes. “It’s not gonna fix your problems, Pumpkin.”

Pumpkin exchanged the seed for the goggles. She held the tiny thing close to her chest, pursing her lips. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. Ever. I—” A floorboard creaked. Adagio’s ears shot up as her head snapped to the staircase.

Discord stood on the bottom step, his hands behind his back and his head bowed. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Adagio glared at him from beneath heavy brows. “How the hell did you get down here?”

“I brought him down.” Twilight Sparkle’s face appeared from behind Discord’s back. She glanced between Pumpkin and Adagio. The gemstone hanging from her neck glistened with every word she spoke. “Sorry about your lock.”

Adagio crossed her forelegs. “No privacy amongst sovereigns, huh?”

“I’ll get you a new one.” Twilight glanced behind Adagio, to the heavy blanket at the back of the basement. “Right now, we’ve got more important things to think about than private property. Lives are at stake. A lot of them.”

Adagio groaned. She waltzed to the back of the room, threw the blanket aside, and examined herself in the simple wood-rimmed mirror she kept there. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to go to the other world for this one, huh?”

Twilight sighed. “I think we all need to have a long, long talk.”


Pound Cake was kicked awake by a rough paw. Lacer the Displacer walked past him, looping a rope through his tentacles. “Get up. Jeuk wants to get a move on.”

They slid the rope around Fluttershy’s torso, her fur shocking them with sheer power any time their paws slipped. With an experimental tug, they dragged her along like a pony-shaped balloon.

‘Today’s plan,’ Pound thought, ‘get word to the others where we’re going. I gotta get word out somehow. But how?’

“Aha”—the slithering voice of Jeuk sent creepy-crawlies running through Pound’s guts—“I see the gears turning in that pathetic little pea-brain of yours. Already regretting your decision? I can see to it that once you go free, an unfortunate fate shall fall upon poor, sweet Pumpkin.”

Pound recoiled as the fairy draped a foreleg across his shoulders. He spread a wing to nudge him off, but Jeuk’s grip tightened. A maddening itch tore at his skin, the bite of a million stinging insects. “N-no. I haven’t changed my mind.”

“Amusing. Most very amusing.” Jeuk patted his captive before shoving him along. “Keep up the pace, sad-sack. Wouldn’t want you to get left behind.”

Pound scratched the soon-to-be-sore on his shoulders. The fairy’s touch was poison. Hot and biting. Sudden and—

He choked on the phlegm in his throat. Fluttershy’s story! The wood bridge she and her friend crossed dozens of times! The insect bite! The swirling, deadly river! The colt that had sacrificed himself for Fluttershy’s sake!

It was a stretch, but it made sense. It made too much sense. It was just the sort of thing a murderous little weasel like Jeuk would do.

To what end? Could he really have set all this up that long ago? Or was there a piece missing from the puzzle?

Pound’s blood boiled at the sight of the wicked fairy. He stomped his foot into the dirt, wishing with all his might that he could grind Jeuk into dust.

“Come along, bird-brain,” Jeuk said. “We’re wasting daylight.”

Pound shut his eyes tight. Getting mad never helped anybody. Shouting at the fairy wouldn’t save Fluttershy. Trying to jump the evil, evil thing might even get him killed. He had to find a way to send a message to the princesses. Or reveal where they were going. He had to think of something. Anything!

He looked to Fluttershy. Her coat shimmered bright, even in the morning light. Her ears twitched this way and that as birdsong twittered from the trees.

His ears shot up. Birdsong. She was responding to it. Maybe he could use the grapevine of Fluttershy’s forest friends… somehow. Maybe. Worth a shot.

He matched pace with the displacer beasts and came alongside Fluttershy. “Hi, Fluttershy. Good morning.”

Lacer rolled his eyes and kept pulling. Jeuk’s smile became a decaying frown as he nudged Pound’s wing with a bitter itch. “What do you think you’re doing, gormless one?”

“K-keeping Fluttershy calm.” Pound lowered his ears, bowing at the neck and grinning in the most unconvincing manner possible. “Your plan is ruined if she blows up before we reach the city, right?”

Jeuk giggled—a laugh something akin to a rockodile’s smile, or a dragon’s yawn; a great deal more menacing than the standard fare. “Let’s not fool ourselves, Ounce Cake. Please, what do you think you can do for Fluttershy? She’s barely aware that she still exists.”

Pound wanted to knock the phony teeth from his grinning maw. “So what can it hurt to make her comfortable?”

Jeuk rolled his eyes. “You’re adorable. Like a blind, deaf puppy that keeps running into walls.”

‘Oh I am gonna rip his freaking ears off!’ Pound thought. He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Please. I hate seeing her like this.”

Jeuk touched his lips. “Appealing to my better nature? You sly dog.”

Pound looked up at the fairy, his shoulders tensed. He skewed his muzzle to the side and turned his back on Jeuk. He reached for Fluttershy’s hoof, bit his lip, and grasped her.

A jolt of energy ran through his foreleg. He hissed, holding on with all his strength. He’d been struck by lightning once, during flight training. It was a small strike, but still caused every muscle in his body to seize. This was similar, but didn’t have the burning sensation. It was tumultuous, like a hundred horns blatting a hundred notes in a hundred different directions through his heart. His mane stood on end as his tail fluffed.

But it didn’t hurt. It was just strange, alien, unfamiliar. Shocking in a whole different way. “F-Fluttershy?”

Her ear twitched. Her head shifted, like she’d heard something from far away. “Hello?”

Pound tried not to look her in the eye. There wasn’t much to see besides overflowing magic. “Fluttershy, it’s Pound. Are you okay?”

“Pound… I know a Pound.” Fluttershy frowned, her mane framing her face like a vast, pink cloud. “He’s such a nice colt.”

‘No! No, no, no, don’t lose your memory!’ “I’m Pound Cake. I’m right here. I wanna help you.”

“He’s the best of us, really.” Fluttershy didn’t miss a beat. She continued talking, right over Pound’s voice. “He’s so strong and courageous, but still so kind and caring. He’d do anything to help us.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do, but—” Pound looked up to see a blue heron flying overhead. He resisted the urge to flag it down with his wings. He felt the eyes of Jeuk itching at the back of his neck. “Fluttershy, tell me about your animal friends.”

Fluttershy sniffed. “If there’s anybody I trust to do the right thing, it’s Pound.”

“You can talk to animals, right?” Pound tightened his grip, tugging her leg in an effort to getting her attention. “You can tell them to do stuff.”

“I… guess? I can understand them, and they understand me…” Fluttershy blinked, briefly cutting off the flow of magic. “They aren’t always willing to listen.”

“They’ll listen if they know it’s important.” Pound glanced back. Jeuk’s eyes never left him for an instant. A slow grin was worming its way across the Unseelie Fae’s face, full of teeth and ill intent. “Wh—why don’t you sing to them? You like to sing. What’s your favorite song?”

Lacer bared his teeth at Pound, his six legs prowling in the tall grass. “Boss, I think we oughta—”

“Let him be.” Jeuk raised a hoof. “I want to see where this goes.”

Lacer gave the fairy a double-take. “He’s up to somethin’!”

“Call it an exercise.” Jeuk chuckled. “Let’s see how far he takes it.”

Pound laid his ears across his head. “Please sing, Fluttershy. Please tell them how you feel.”

Fluttershy shook her head. “I… I don’t remember…”

Pound’s heart sank. Birds fluttered overhead. A squirrel skittered off through the branches. A damselfly buzzed by his face. There were creatures everywhere! If Fluttershy couldn’t see them, or hear them, then—could he get their attention?

He pressed his lips together. ‘Worth a shot.’

He cleared his throat and hummed a note. Wrong key. He tried again; this time it just went flat. ‘Sing talking it is.’

“What is this place, filled with so many wonders?” His voice squeaked. He turned to Fluttershy’s blank expression and let his wings droop. “Casting its spell tha-at I am now under?”

She might have hummed, or it might have been his own ears buzzing.

“Squirrel and the trees and the cute little… uh… bunnies. Bird flying free and bees with their honey—”

There, at the edge of her muzzle, a word emanated from Fluttershy’s mouth. “Honey…

A tear trickled down her cheek, turning her yellow coat a light shade of green. “Oh, what a magical place… and I owe it all to the pegasus race…”

“If I knew the ground,” Pound said, his voice gaining strength, “had so much you could see—”

Light radiated from her coat, blanketing the forest with a golden glow. The displacer beasts cowered behind trees, peering out with their beady eyes. “I’d have come here sooner, and never leave.”

A smile found its way to her face. “Yes, I love everything…”

Pound joined in with her final crescendo. He grinned as he took in their small audience of squirrels and chickadees. ‘Finally, something went right. So far.’ “That was fun, Fluttershy. You know what’ll be more fun? Going to Las Pegasus!”

Lacer grasped for him. Pound yelped and ducked his head down to avoid the stinging, toothy tentacles. The instant Lacer contacted his body, the displacer beast yelped. Lacer wobbled back, clutching his tentacle to his chest. “What kinda wacko magic is that?

Pound seized the initiative with all due gusto. “Were going to Las Pegasus and we’ll be there in a couple of days and if you guys would tell the princesses that’d be awesome so just fly off now because otherwise you’re all gonna get eaten by fire ants.”

The animals looked at him the way animals are wont to do: Trying to decide if he was food, shelter, or something to avoid.

Jeuk laughed. It was a crooning cackle, a rigorous titter, a vilely gleeful bark. He walked past the dumbstruck displacer beasts and pointed the way towards the elevated city-state of Las Pegasus. “You never cease to amuse me, Ounce Cake! Most very, very amusing.”

Lacer bared his teeth, careful to keep his distance. “Get a move on, ponies. We don’t have all day!”

Fluttershy began bobbing along again, tugged forward by some hapless displacer beast or another. Pound never left her side, keeping her hoof tucked beneath his. He let his head hang, his ears drooping.

“Please, Fluttershy,” he said. “We can’t help our friends if we’re dead. Or enslaved. Or if we’ve forgotten. They… they need us as much as we need them. Discord won’t survive without you. Pumpkin won’t survive without me. They need to know we’re here. Please, tell them where we’re going.”

One by one, the animals lost interest. They fluttered off or climbed away according to their kind. Pound stared after them. “Please, Fluttershy. I know you’re not finished yet.”

She whispered something. He strained his ears, giving her every bit of his attention. He chewed his bottom lip until he was sure he’d bleed.

“Viva… Las Pegasus… Viva… Las Pegasus…”

A squirrel tilted its head. A bird chirped in tune. They stared at the pegasus mare floating on a bed of chaos.

Fluttershy’s song was a soft breath. “Viva… viva… Las Pegasus…”

The two remaining animals blinked. They nodded in unison, and turned to leave. They moved quickly and quietly through the trees, vanishing in the leaves long before they became specks on the horizon.

“Thank you,” Pound whispered.

“Be careful,” Fluttershy said, nearly imperceptibly. “Tell Pound to be careful. He’s so brave, but I’m always so worried about him. Please tell him I want him to be safe.”

Pound looked at the ground. He stepped over a stone poking its way out of the soil; the first signs of the mountain region. “I’ll try, Fluttershy.”


Cloudkicker rested in the main room of Princess Twilight’s castle: The throne room. She’d taken to sitting in the throne marked with a pink butterfly, gently rubbing her belly. The baby kicked; a rambunctious little troublemaker if she had any say. She definitely had the genes for it.

Spike T. Dragon leaned against the magical map central to the open circle of thrones. He placed a marker in another section of the illusory Whitetail Woods. “No sign in the east region. No sign around the Smokey Mountain. Nothing since we found the wrecked campsite. We’re running out of woods.”

“Atch. Ye’re startin’ to sound like Thunderlane. Ye always worra about what ye dinnae know.”

Spike rolled his eyes. “If I know for sure about something, I don’t have to ‘worra’ about it, do I?”

“Ye know for sure an’ certain Fluttershy and the Cake kids are vanished, don’t ye?”

“Point to mommy pegasus.” Spike rubbed his eyes. Green smoke trailed from his nostrils. “Twi rubbed off on me. If I don’t worra about something, I’m probably dead.”

Angel Bunny bounded into the room as fast as his little bunny legs could carry him. He’d been getting on in years, so the spring in his step wasn’t as bouncy as he’d preferred. He wheezed as he rested against the wall, his tiny frame heaving. His eyes rose to the map, and to the two beings sitting beside it. He would deliver his message, if it took everything he had to give it.

“Keep the glum and the grievin’ for the proper time and place.” Cloudkicker flicked her tail, though she was too far away to actually strike the dragon. “They’ll bring news home at the end of the day, an’ then we’ll move on to the next area. There’s plenty o’ world to get lost in, ye ken?”

“Yeah, but—” Spike waved his hands across the map. He phased briefly through a mountain range on the edge of Fillydelphia. “There’re only so many places they could go! We lost the train at the Ghastly Gorge! If they dove in, their tracks probably got lost in the rubble. If they crossed it, Creator forbid, they could have come out at any point. We’re sunk until we get some sort of clue about where they’ve gone!”

Angel Bunny puffed his chest out. He made a mighty leap for the top of the map. He landed flat on his skut. Another try got him a pawhold on the lip of the map, but his grip weakened long before he could haul his little bunny butt over the edge.

Cloudkicker nodded to a nearby stained glass window and noted the dimming light. “Dash and the crew’ll be back before long.”

Spike sighed. He leaned against the smallest throne, the one that had once been his seat. He could still fit if he made the effort, but found the crystalline floor much more comfortable against his scales. “I’m not even sure I want the team to find them. Aside from Rainbow Dash, I’m not sure if any of them would know how to handle Fluttershy with all that magic in her.”

“Aye, but me Da always said, ‘Any port in a storm.’” Cloudkicker crossed her forelegs. “Ye gonna tell’em not to go out?”

“No.” Spike let his chin thump against the back of his throne. “But heck if I don’t wanna.”

Angel Bunny’s little toenails scraped against the crystal map. He rose slowly over Equestria, an enormous king of monsters, a great beast to the diminutive kingdom. He lumbered his way across, breathing heavily, his eyes bloodshot from effort.

Cloudkicker frowned. “What’s the ijit bunny doin’ here?”

“Angel?” Spike narrowed his eyes. “We’re out of salad. Go away.”

Angel Bunny thumped his foot and pointed. He very clearly indicated a certain region, specific to the south-east portion of Equestria, lying just outside Whitetail Woods.

“Go’wan, shoo!” Cloudkicker tossed a nearby empty plastic cup at the rabbit, almost knocking over one of Spike’s markers. “Take yer monstrosity and malcontent elsewhere, ye flea-bitten mongrel!”

Angel moaned. He cast a glance around for any communication device. There! A pad of paper and a pen sat on the edge of the map. He raced over to grasp it, and then began to scribble across its surface.

“Wha—my stuff!” Spike hoisted himself from his resting place. He moved along on all fours to get the most speed out of his body. “Gimme that, carrots-for-brains!”

Angel ripped the page from the pad and placed it beside Las Pegasus, standing tall with his ears erect in triumph. A clawed hand scooped him up in a vice-like grip, whisking him from the map. He squeaked in protest, but was silenced by the sight of two rows of razor teeth.

“Keep this up,” Spike growled, “and I’m making soup.”

Spike blinked. He shook his head and set the rabbit down. “Well, not really, but I’m just saying I could. It’s an option.”

Cloudkicker shrugged. “I wouldnae stop ye.”

“Yeah, you would say that.” Spike leaned his fists against the map and let out a whoosh of air. “Okay, then. Let’s see what was so important that you needed to vandalize… my… stuff?”

Cloudkicker furrowed her brow, lifting her head to see over his shoulder. “What’s got ye all in a kerfuffle? Somethin’ oop?”

Spike tilted the page towards her. It held a crude outline of three objects. Three objects with long bodies and four leaf-like wings, two on either side. To top it off, each had two antennae waving at the head of the increasingly obvious creature.

“Butterflies. Fluttershy’s cutie mark.” Cloudkicker’s eyes popped. “Do ye think the vermin knows somethin’?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Spike turned to the rabbit with an eyebrow raised. “Okay, you lapin of a demon. Where is Fluttershy?”


Pumpkin Cake stepped into the light, coming out of Adagio’s little hovel. She was instantly assailed by a blindingly pink blur embracing her with the force of a thousand birthdays. “Oh my gosh, it’s so good to see you, I was so worried about you, are you okay, are you hungry, are you thirsty, can I—?”

Pumpkin’s lips trembled. She hugged the poof of pink back, gripping with all her might. “Hi, Pinkie.”

Pinkie Pie held her for a long time, not speaking, just squeaking little sounds of joy and… and probably a week’s worth of worry. Pinkie pulled back, but didn’t let go. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

“I am, but—” Pumpkin cleared her throat. “But Pound is—”

“I know.” Pinkie touched her forehead to Pumpkin’s and closed her eyes. “And we’re getting him back. I promise. I’d carry a mountain across Equestria if I thought it would help him.”

“I hope,” Twilight said, “that it doesn’t come to that.” She raised a wing, and for the first time, Pumpkin was able to take in her surroundings. Countless guardsponies surrounded the home, all alert, all armed, and all armored in that enchanted metal they wore. They snapped to attention, eyes on her.

“Skyhook, Coldstone, the three of us are gonna have a talk in the house with Adagio and Discord.” Twilight nodded towards Pumpkin, her all-business demeanor softening just a touch. “The rest of you, keep an eye on Pumpkin Cake.”

Pumpkin sighed and leaned against Pinkie’s chest. It felt good to be with friends again. To be with people who wanted to protect her, and keep her safe. She frowned as she thought about it. Just a few days ago, really, she hadn’t put much stock in these people being able to help, or even wanting to help. Now, though, after trying it her way, she wanted all the help she could get.

Even if it didn’t seem like there was much any of them could do.

Twilight Sparkle got close to Discord, a ready notepad encased in her lavender glow. “Alright, I’d like to hear it from the horse’s mouth: What exactly is going on, Discord?”

He ran his fingers through his beard. “Well, when we got to the garden—”

“The tree was dead.” Twilight spread a wing to lead him into Adagio’s home. “Yes, but I want to hear what the chaos magic is doing to Fluttersh—”

Her horn sparked with another color, a sort of greenish-yellow. She crossed her eyes and turned her head up. “Hold on. I’m getting a message.”

Adagio leaned against her doorframe. “Picking up radio signals with that pig-sticker, Your Highness?”

“Har-de-har.” A trail of smoke swirled down from the sky. It flashed and popped in front of Twilights face, becoming a scroll sealed with Spike’s wax emblem. She cut the seal with a spell, unrolled the scroll, and muttered underneath her breath. “Didja have to write a book, Spike?”

She shrugged her wings. “This is gonna take a while. Adagio, you and Discord hold tight while I look this over.”

“Whatever you say, Your Worshipfulness.” Adagio folded her forelegs behind her head. “Got nothing but time, now.”

Discord folded his hands as Twilight walked away, her guards in tow. He flashed a glance at Adagio, sighing through his nostrils. “I’m sorry.”

Adagio opened one eye. “Excuse you?”

“I’m sorry. For leaving you behind. Which I’m sure I did.” He waved his hands, like a wizard trying to conjure visions of the past. “I mean, I don’t remember anything, but I think that’s the problem.”

He gave up his impromptu sign-language and dragged his knuckles in the dirt. “I don’t want to hurt anybody. Not anymore. I just wish I could make it up to you.”

He opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, then spoke anyway. “What happened to you after I left?”

Adagio shook her head. Her ears drooped as she examined the soldiers milling around. “Well… I guess… I just gave up. Left the tree in the little cave I’d been growing it in. Left you to whatever shenanigans you were getting up to. Left my home and what was left of my life. Got involved with a real bad crowd. It was almost some kinda afterschool PSA, you know?”

She gestured to her cutie mark; a G-clef overlain with a jewel. “I went to work with my special talent; enchanting gemstones. Worked for years on getting just the right mixture. Never really got it perfect, but… I guess it was enough to get me and my friends in trouble with Starswirl the Bearded. Boom! Shot us off into another world and forgot about us.”

She looked off into the distance, her aged face taking on a few more decades of weariness. “By the time I got back here, I decided ‘screw ’em!’ But… they’re gone now. Both of them.”

She met Pumpkin’s eyes for the briefest of instances. Adagio looked away with a huff. “Guess it took me too long to realize I missed the losers.”

Discord nodded. He sat down and bumped his head against the house’s wood wall. “I wonder how many other people I did that to over the millennia. How many other friends I made and then left. How many times I’ve… ‘reset.’”

He curled up, clutching his tail to his chest. “How many people wish they’d never met me.”

Pumpkin stood up, sliding out of Pinkie’s hug. She walked up to Discord and put a hoof on his leg. “I don’t wish I’d never met you.”

Adagio smirked. “Give it time, kid.”

“I mean it!” Pumpkin pulled Chewie from her saddlebags. “Look. I know I’ve been a butt. I know I’ve been terrible. I’m sorry. I just… I really care about you, Discord. I like you. I think you’re funny and cool. I break my toys just to have an excuse to visit you. And I don’t want you to be hurt.”

She lowered her head and let her rubber chicken rest on her back. “You’re my best friend. I want you to be okay. But I’ve been pushing my friends and family away. Especially Pound, who’d do anything for me.”

She looked between Adagio—whose smirk had soured into a frown—and Discord—who chewed his lip with his dangling snaggletooth. “We’ve all made mistakes in the past. But maybe if we work together, we can start to fix them.”

Discord smiled; a little uncertainly, but no less happily.

Adagio shook her head slowly. “You’re like a miniature Sunset Shimmer, kid.”


“Never mind.” Adagio kicked a clod of dirt away from her doorstep. “Look, I’ll help you, kid. But I’m not sure what use I’ll actually be. It’s not like I’ve got a history of fighting fairies.”

Twilight Sparkle stepped between them, rolling Spike’s message up and stuffing it into one of her saddlebags. “Adagio, we need your help.”

“So I hear.” Adagio winked at Pumpkin. “But come on, I’m just an old crone. You need the big magic guns for this one, not—”

“Listen, I know it sounds crazy—” Twilight Sparkle breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth. She grinned—the sort of way crazy people did when they were trying to be reassuring. “A fairy told me you were important to saving Fluttershy. A Fae of the Seelie Court. I think I just figured out how you can be of help.”

Adagio scowled. “Watch it, Princess. Seelie Court or Unseelie, they’re all only concerned with their own agendas. They’ll say anything if they think it’ll give them what they want.”

“I’m well aware of that possibility.” Twilight Sparkle rested a hoof on Adagio’s shoulder. “But I’m taking any help I can get to save Fluttershy and Pound Cake. And, if the fairy’s right, an entire City-State. Tell me something…”

Twilight pulled Adagio into a half-hug and walked with her down the road. Soldiers fell into step, flanking them. “Do you suppose you could create a gemstone that could contain a certain type of magic? Say, chaos magic, perchance? In a way so that it could be transported without bringing harm to those around it?”

Adagio gaped. She stuttered out a sentence, her voice wavering. “M-maybe with a full lab. And, like, six months of research. And two years of t-testing.”

“Uh huh. Uh huh.” Twilight Sparkle laughed, her cheeks taking on a faint pink. “What can you do in the back of a train car in the six hours it’ll take to get to Las Pegasus?”

Adagio squinted. “How long we known each other?”

“Ten years, give or take? Eight of those as mortal enemies.”

“Sounds right.” Adagio grimaced. “I’m still trying to decide if you’re impossibly brilliant or completely gonzo-bananas.”

Pumpkin rapped a hoof on Adagio’s flank. “You’re still gonna try, right Asiago?”

Adagio, you little cretin.” Adagio let loose with a downright devious, significantly sinister, perilously lopsided grin. “Let me get my carving tools.”

If You Weren't Afraid

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Pumpkin stared out the window as the train raced across Equestria’s landscape. The whir of a crystal drill tickled the edge of her ears as Adagio worked. Several gemstones took shape beside the earth pony, ranging from blood red to lime green. Different minerals for different effects. Pumpkin couldn’t begin to understand them all, but one of them had to work, right?

She wasn’t so sure.

She chewed on her rubber chicken’s neck, hugging him to elicit the familiar faint squeaka. Discord was in the next car over, snoring to beat the band. It seemed losing all one’s magic, then trekking several miles across hill country, really took it out of a fellow. Maybe he deserved a little rest. A little recuperation. Maybe he had it coming to him; just a few minutes unafraid of tomorrow.

Would that they could all be so lucky. “So how’s it work?”

Adagio paused and looked over her shoulder. She flipped up the lenses of her goggles and gave her a cold stare. “Do I bug you when you’re blowing snot? No. Then don’t bug me when I’m carefully crafting a gemstone with facets by the thousand, designed to hold chaos magic of all things.”

Pumpkin propped her cheek on a hoof. “I think if I could blow my nose and pop out a magical enchantment, I’d brag a little about it.”

“You’re a menace to society. I think I like you.” Adagio Dazzle clicked one lens in place and returned to examining a pathway carved into the gem. “But seriously, this is delicate work. Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”

“Discord’s napping with a capital ‘Do not disturb.’ Princess Twilight and Pinkie are busy messaging back and forth with Canterlot. I was kicked out of the dining car for excessive pastry abuse.”

“Bit of a sweet tooth, huh?”

“Worse. I was critiquing the chef.”

Adagio held a blue gem up to the light. A strange line of etchings loomed into view, spider-webbed all throughout the core of the jewel. “How old are you again?”

“Just turned ten.”

“You’re a peculiar ten-year-old, Pumpkin Cake.” Adagio scratched her chin before adding the enchanted gem to the stack. “Friend of draconequi, fighter of fairies, judge of delicacies. Is there anything you don’t do?”

Pumpkin wrapped her forelegs around Chewie. Squeaka. “Heal.”

She nudged the rubber chicken aside and lay her chin against the bench’s cushion. “I can fix things, like my chicken. But I can’t heal other people. Or myself.”

“I take it you’ve tried?” Adagio said.

“It’s what got us here.” Pumpkin waved a hoof. “Discord lost his magic, Pound’s kidnapped, Fluttershy’s gone nuts, my parents are worried sick… You had to meet Discord again…”

When Adagio didn’t say nothing, content to work on her devices, Pumpkin skewed her lips to the side. “You really never wanted to see him again, didn’t you?”

“Three thousand years and it was half-a-dozen millennia too soon.” Something popped and caused Adagio to drop a gemstone. A jagged line ran across the surface of the stone, splitting it in two. She muffled a curse and pulled another gem from a nearby bag.

Pumpkin moved from her bench to stand beside the worktable. Fine, multicolored dust coated the area around Adagio’s seat from the drilling, grinding, and other processes she used. “You two were really good friends, weren’t you?”

Adagio grunted an affirmative.

“Which means…” Pumpkin lay her ears across her head, pushing down her messy curls. “The better a friendship is, the worse things are when it ends.”

Adagio grimaced. She held up the cracked stone. “The stronger a friendship is, the harder it is to break. So when it does break, it shatters.” Her eyebrows turned upwards as she sighed. “I’ve had a few of those, over the years.”

Pumpkin squinted. “You and Discord weren’t, like, boyfriend and girlfriend, were you? ‘Cuz that’d be weird.”

“Hay, we were close, but not that way.” Adagio Dazzle chuffed and let the broken gem clatter to the floor. “It’s not like we ever made lo—” She glanced up at the ten-year-old girl, her voice hitching. “Uh… Lava cakes. We never made chocolate lava cakes.”

Pumpkin tilted her head. “Lava cakes are romantic?”

“Oho ho, very romantic.”

Pumpkin’s gaze found the shattered gem. A few similar-colored shards lay beside it. “If a friendship breaks like that, can you heal it?”

“Only if you want to.” Adagio pressed her tool against a green stone, pushing a metallic needle through the hard mineral. A tiny glimmer of magic sparked from within, much less violently than before. “And even then, you might not pick up all the pieces.”

She blew dust from the new hole and admired her handiwork. “It’s much easier to start over with a new one.”

Pumpkin fought the sick feeling in her stomach. It wasn’t right that friendship could die like that. Just from a little mistake that nobody could change…

“So,” she said, her voice forcefully chipper, “how do these work?”

“Persistent little nit, aren’t you?” Adagio drilled a new line that crossed the first. A third channel through the stone revealed the beginnings of an etching. “It works on the principle that most magic is ambient.”

Pumpkin furrowed her brow and got a closer look at a gem she’d set aside. “Meaning it’s not directed at anything, it’s just hanging around?”

“In not so many words.” Adagio hummed a little ten-note ditty. The gems twinkled, one by one. “All magic is driven by emotions. They lend power, push, purpose to the spell. But it’s not something you can turn off. All emotions have power. All emotions give off an excess of unused magic.”

Adagio smirked, cocking an eyebrow. “The so-called ‘negative’ emotions tend to be the most… forceful.”

Something nasty clicked in Pumpkin’s head. “Like anger?”

“Anger, fear, jealousy…” Adagio chuckled. “They tend to flare up the fastest and hottest. Not necessarily the most powerful, but definitely the most exploitable.”

She turned a gemstone end over end, admiring her reflecting in the polished surface. “My original design would ‘suggest’ a negative emotion, and then draw in that excess energy as the people around me threw fits. The trick was getting my returns big enough to justify the investment of my own magic.”

An ear tilted down. She snapped the goggles into place and added a new channel to the gem. “Thought I was invincible for a while there.”

Adagio pressed her lips together as the device took the shape of a ten-sided jewel. “These, though, they don’t have the power of suggestion. That was the hard part, see, getting the hypnotism and the absorption spells to intermingle. But they can’t be passive, either. They need to actively suck up the chaos magic from the very core of Fluttershy. Right from her heart. Still song-activated, just with a new boost to the absorption.”

Pumpkin grinned. “So what you’re saying is that they suck harder than ever?”

“Filly after my own heart, you are.” Adagio nudged Pumpkin away with the tip of her hoof. She pressed a button on the side of her goggles, causing a green lens to extend from her eyepiece. She examined the finished gemstones, either nodding to herself, or tossing them into her junk pile. “The trick’s gonna be getting close enough to Fluttershy to use it. If it’ll even work.”

She stood and flicked her tail. She pushed the goggles up just enough to rub her eyes. “There isn’t exactly time or opportunity to test these properly.”

She blew a sigh and coughed up faint traces of gem dust. She glanced over her shoulder and chewed her lip. “Hay… How much do you know about Jeuk?”

“I spent some time running from him while he tried to strangle me with his tongue.” Pumpkin rocked back and forth on the bench, swallowing hard. “Not the best memory. He teased me the whole time. He was super-creepy.”

“No… kidding…” Adagio turned away; probably an attempt to hide the hitch in her voice. “What sort of stuff did he tell you?”

“That he was at the garden when the fairies killed Discord’s family.” Pumpkin watched the way Adagio’s tail lashed. The way her shoulders hunched and her ears drooped. “It’s pretty much all his fault, I think.”

“Yeah. Pretty much.”

Pumpkin smirked humorlessly. “Is that where you first met him?”

“It’s when I first learned about him.” Adagio rubbed her foreleg, staring at nothing out the train car’s window. “Him and his cronies. He’s one of the big bads, second only to… eh. That’s in the past.”

“Sure.” Pumpkin pawed at a modified siren’s gem. Sigils, she’d heard Adagio call them. “But history repeats itself.”

Her eyes lit up. “Hay, since fairies are pure magic, and these hold magic—”

“Won’t work,” Adagio said. “Fairies are too much. They’d overload the crystal and blow you straight to Hell.”

She smirked an almighty, Adagio-class, self-satisfied smirk. “Trust me, I tried it. Still got some of the scars, too.”

Pumpkin bit her lip. “Then what makes you think they’ll hold Discord’s magic?”

Adagio shrugged. “Blind optimism.”

Princess Twilight strode in, a bustle of feathers and purple hair. She tossed a notepad onto the table and looked over the results of Adagio’s labor. Her eyes were red, and her throat was scratchy. “So, what do yah got?”

“The modifications you suggested worked great.” Adagio gestured to a page of paper she’d taped to the wall, moving out of the way to let Pinkie walk in. “But you forgot to retain the activation spell.”

Twilight frowned, rubbing the corners of her eyes. “Right. Sorry. My design—” She tapped her purple necklace. “—has to be active all the time. Guess I got my wires crossed.”

“No prob. Worked out fine.” Adagio rubbed the back of her neck, pulling her goggles from her head with her other hoof. “I’m still not sure if this’ll actually, you know, work.”

“We’ll try. We’ll try until we either make it or break it.” Twilight sighed through her nose, casting a glance at Pumpkin. “Pumpkin, would you please step out? We’re going to be doing a little testing, and I don’t want you hurt.”

“Sure.” Pumpkin Cake headed for the door, stopping to get a firm hug from Pinkie Pie on the way. “Don’t blow up the train.”

Adagio chuckled. “No promises.”

He made her way through the cars, passing soldiers and rail workers on the way. Most didn’t notice her, save for the captain of Twilight’s guard. Skyhook waved to her in passing, caught up in a conversation with Coldstone. Before too long, she found herself in the observation car; its four walls filled with windows to watch the world roll by.

Discord sat on a couch in the corner, reading the Elysium and the Tree of Life. He balanced the tome in his right paw, while his left talon cupped his cheek. He glanced up when she opened the door. “Hello, Little Miss Cake.”

“I thought you were sleeping.” Pumpkin took the seat opposite his. Canter Mountain could be seen in the distance, covered in clouds and flocks of pegasi.

“I was. Then I wasn’t. I tried to help Twilight, but she said I should stay out of it. Rest and let her sort things out. So I thought I’d catch up in ancient history.” He toyed with the fluffy tip of his tail. “I also realized I needed to apologize.”

Pumpkin laid her head on the back of her couch. “To who?”

“You.” He lay the book across his lap and drummed his fingers on the cover. “I’ve not been the best of friends. I didn’t really understand you, or what you were trying to do. I was being my usual know-it-all self. But…”

His shoulders slumped. He slid out of the chair and placed the book on a table in the center of the car. “Pound told me you didn’t need me to fix your toys.”

Pumpkin’s heart sank in time with her ears. She looked down at her hooves, unsure of what to say. Maybe she shouldn’t say anything.

“Which I really should have guessed. The ability to phase through walls tends to have a variety of uses.” He ran a paw through his mane, scratching at the salt-and-pepper hair. “And now I’m useless to you, but you still care.”

He groaned, letting his arms hang slack against his sides. “You deserve better friends than me.”

Pumpkin swallowed hard. She stood up and walked over to the draconequus, fighting the lump that refused to leave her throat. She wrapped her forelegs around Discord’s middle and hugged him tight. “I don’t want better friends, I want the friends I have to feel better.”

Discord hugged her back, blinking away tears.

“And I wanna help you get better,” she choked, “but every time I’ve tried, it just makes things worse. I’m scared what’ll happen when I try again.”

Discord shook his head, giving Pumpkin an extra squeeze before he released her. “I know what I have to do to fix things, but I’m scared of what’ll happen if I succeed. And if I fail. And anything else that could happen. So I don’t know what to do.”

She looked up at his worn, weary, yellowed eyes. Too old, too tired, too unsure. Too much like a mirror. “I don’t…”

She reached into her saddlebags and rested a hoof on the familiar form of Chewie. She listened to the soft squeaka of an old friend lending comfort. “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Discord coughed in the back of his throat. “What would you do?”

She took a deep breath in and made her ears face forward. “Find Pound and stick by his side; for once in my life.”

Discord crossed his arms. He coiled his snake-like body and sat on the floor. “There’s only one way to save Fluttershy, and Las Pegasus, and Pound, and stop Jeuk once and for all.”

Pumpkin’s voice shook as she powered through the words she knew she had to speak. “I know. B-but you gotta promise me something.”

She pressed her hoof against his arm and shook. “Afterwards, we’re gonna keep looking for a cure. We’re gonna get golden apples, even if it takes a hundred years. Even if it takes the rest of my life.”

Discord raised an eyebrow. “Others have tried and failed.”

“I’m not Adagio.” She pressed her lips together in a tight smile. “I’m Little Miss Cake. And I’m scared enough to do something about it.”

“Well then,” Discord said, cracking his knuckles. “What say we make some noise?”


Pound splayed his wings to keep his balance on the edge of the cliff. The displacer beasts clung to the rock wall, their eyes wide in the bright sunlight illuminating their bodies. The trees were thinner at this altitude, though quite hearty to be able to survive where the soil was this barren.

Dozens of meters above, he could see the entirety of the Las Pegasus strip. It began from a cave in the mountainside and spanned across a road paved with clouds. Rainbow bridges joined cloudscraper buildings, while streams of enchanted water carried boats filled with tourists. Homes and businesses were carved into the mountain, or held aloft by clouds, or some combination of the two. Brilliant neon signs advertised c-list celebrity appearances, casinos, high-priced hotels, and the odd replica of a famous landmark.

At the far side, the cloud city encircled another mountain top. A bridge spanning a mountain range. A massive feat of magical engineering. A wonder of the world.

Today, Jeuk’s target.

“Now isn’t that lovely?” the fairy said, resting an itch-inducing hoof on Pound’s shoulder. “They look like ants from where I’m standing. Most very amusing.”

Pound rolled his eyes. They looked like ants to Jeuk no matter where he stood. He glanced over his shoulder at Fluttershy, who remained still as she floated above the mountain, buffeted by wind. Pound brushed his mane out of his eyes and bit his lip.

“I think now’s as good a time as any, boss,” Lacer said. He tugged on Fluttershy’s rope, the thin whites of his eyes appearing at the edges of his lids. He licked his lips and gulped a breath of the thin air. “We’re in the perfect position for her to launch some sort of magic attack.”

Jeuk sighed. He tilted his head back—too far to be natural. “Lacer. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps his mouth shut.”

The fairy’s neck cracked as he brought it back into position. “We need to get closer. We’re too low. They might escape the effects of Fluttershy’s upcoming outburst.”

Lacer clawed at the rocks in an effort to gain the slightest bit of a secure hold. “Outburst, boss?”

“Does she look like a willing participant, you mental catastrophe?” Jeuk snapped. He jerked his head down the makeshift pathway, gritting his teeth. “Follow me, and keep your head down. I don’t want you spotted by the populous. And you—”

He pointed to Pound. Every muscle in the young colt’s body tensed simultaneously.

“You keep your eyes open.” Jeuk giggled in his maddening way. “You may learn something about life. And death.”

‘Kiss my cutie mark,’ Pound thought. He crept carefully towards the city-state above, keeping half an eye on Fluttershy. What was Jeuk waiting for? A certain time of day, when everybody was unable to respond to emergencies? A new minion? Some high official he was specifically targeting?

All of them at once?

“Fluttershy?” he said quietly. “Do you know where we are?”

She smiled, her eyes hidden behind a brilliant white glare. “Las Pegasus is such a lovely city.”

“Yes it is.” Pound nodded, his brow firmly set. “Yes it is.”


Twilight Sparkle walked down the line of Royal Guards stationed at the Las Pegasus train station. Each one of her squad wore a specially-designed gemstone necklace with the power to absorb magic with the hum of a simple tune.

Coldstone saluted with a glistening blue foreleg. “Ma’am, we’re all equipped and prepped.”

“Good.” Twilight Sparkle shot a look at Skyhook, who gave her a nod of agreement. “We are entering one of the more dangerous missions we’ve undertaken. Fluttershy will not have control of her magic, and she will be guarded by a member of the Unseelie Court. Do not—I repeat—do not use the sigils on Jeuk. He will overload them and it will hurt. It might even kill you. We have very few spares, so take care of those necklaces.”

Skyhook spread his bat-like wings, his purple armor glistening in the noontime light. “The Las Pegasus garrison is already shuttling civilians to secure locations, but it will take some time. Time we don’t have. Our priority is shutting down the chaos magic before it can spread to the city. To do that, we need Fluttershy unharmed.”

Twilight turned to Pinkie Pie and wrapped a wing around her shoulders. “If you see Pound Cake, keep him out of harm’s way. I’ll try to find a way to defeat the fairy, but for now, our main goal is to thwart the plan.”

Pumpkin pressed her ear against the far side of the train car’s door. She gritted her teeth. “He’ll just escape and come up with a worse plan.”

“Hay, them’s the breaks.” Adagio munched on a bag of chips, reclining on a bench in the dining car. “Until they can bring the Elements of Harmony to bear, he’s out of our league.”

Pumpkin narrowed her eyes and stuck her face through the door. There were two ways into Las Pegasus: The hot air balloon rides, and a long, snaking pathway through the mountains. One was an arduous journey through unstable terrain, the other cost bits. She muttered darkly to herself when she realized which one she was equipped for.

Pumpkin pulled back and regarded Adagio with a cool stare. “So you’re gonna just sit back and let things play out, huh?”

Adagio crunched noisily. “Duh. I’ve done my part.”

Pumpkin waited until Princess Twilight’s hot air balloon took off. Once the guardsponies were out of sight, she allowed herself a confident grin. “Good. See you around, Asiago.”

Adagio growled. “It’s Adagi—”

Pumpkin vanished through the door with a twinkle of magic.

“—Oh crap.”

Pumpkin prowled around the loading platform. No adults in sight. She knocked three times on a nearby barrel. “All clear.”

Discord popped out of the top, wearing the lid like a wide-brimmed hat.

Pumpkin leaned against the barrel with her legs crossed. “Did you get the thing?”

Discord produced an amber-colored sigil. “I don’t think this is gonna be much help.”

“Better to have and not need.” Pumpkin pushed off and trekked towards the mountain path. “How else are you gonna get your magic back from Fluttershy?”

“Good point.” Discord craned his neck to look way, way, way up the mountain. “Ugh. I just got rested up from our last rigorous climb.”

“Think of it as an incentive.” Pumpkin winked. “If you get your magic back, this is the last time you’ll have to climb anything.”

Discord wrinkled his forehead, giving her a long, quiet look. “I think that was more morbid than you intended.”

The train car door slid open and Adagio tumbled out. Her hooves skidded on the wood floor of the platform as she raced for them. “Hay, kid! What do you think you’re doing?”

Pumpkin increased her pace up the mountain. “Going on an unsupervised adventure! With my draconequus best friend! We’re gonna save our friends and family, so see you!”

“No, you dummy!” Adagio scrambled over a rock, her breath short. “Argh! Twilight’s gonna kill me if I let you wander off!”

“Then try to keep up!” Pumpkin’s hoof slid on a damp stone. She carefully maneuvered around a tiny waterfall cutting its way through the mountainside. “And we’ll see you at the top!”

Adagio let her chin rest against the path, glaring after the two of them. “One of you is a child, the other is a freak. Right now, I’m not sure which is which!”


The air chilled Pound to the bone. His breath spread from his mouth in a tiny cloud, vanishing in the breadth of a moment. Two-o’-clock in the afternoon, judging by the position of the sun. He looked back at the tree-line far below, the last vestiges of Whitetail Wood, the end of a long journey.

Jeuk paused, holding up a hoof. He scuttled around to face his subordinates. “This is the spot. Create a perimeter around Fluttershy, if you would.”

Pound could look down over the Las Pegasus strip, now. Glints of gold herded great swaths of color to the buildings: Soldiers evacuating the civilians. His message had gotten through!

Pound smiled. “Wanna give up now, or wait until after the Royal Guard beats you senseless?”

Jeuk giggled. A fire ant crawled its way up Pound’s hoof until he kicked it off. “The Royal Guard will be my audience, Ounce Cake.”

He grasped Pound by the cheeks and pointed his head northeast, towards Canterlot. Pound could just see Canter Mountain through the cloudy mist. “Remember last year’s horrendous tragedy between Canterlot and Cloudsdale? How both cities found themselves embroiled in a conflict that left them mere ruins and rubble? It was a tragedy that united Equestria in sheltering refugees. Coming together to rebuild. To defy the forces that would see them hurt.”

Jeuk smiled, his jaw unhinging just the slightest bit. His ears flicked to pick up the displacer beasts’ nervous shuffles. “No such tragedy shall befall Las Pegasus.”

He patted Pound’s cheek and let the colt scramble away. “Because this tragedy shall be wrought by one of the greatest heroes in Equestrian history.”

The fairy approached Fluttershy, who blinked as if trying to see clearly in low light. “Las Pegasus will watch as one of the vaunted Element Bearers wreaks havoc on their homes, their businesses, their petty frivolities! Their prideful engineering and crumbling economy shall collapse beneath the weight of dark matter and entropy! Their lives will be snuffed out by the very one they look to for safety!”

Jeuk sighed, grinning at Fluttershy like a proud father. “Five bearers cannot call upon the Elements of Harmony. Lacking their protection, lacking the might of Discord and Celestia, Equestria will not survive.”

He removed his hat with a flourish and bowed to Pound. “All that’s left is for you to pull the trigger. Tell her how both Pumpkin and Discord died horribly due to her antics. Go on. Tell her, Ounce.”

Pound shivered from head to tail. He spread his wings as he stalked towards Fluttershy, his head low. “Fluttershy? Fluttershy, can you hear me?”

Fluttershy shook her head, her ears swiveling.

“Fluttershy, it’s me, Pound.” Pound reached up to touch her shoulder. His hoof tingled with the might of her magic. “I have something important to tell you.”

The glow in her eyes dimmed. The faintest hint of her pupils focused on his as her forehead creased. “Is that you, Happy?”

“No, it’s Pound.” Pound Cake gritted his teeth. He inhaled, let it out in a whoosh, then spoke breathlessly. “Discord and Pumpkin are both safe and they’re getting our friends and they’ll rescue us before you know it so just hold on!

Fluttershy smiled, her voice airy and dreamlike. “Discord’s okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, he is.” Pound growled at Jeuk, laying his ears flat. “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, fairy.”

Jeuk simply smiled at Pound. His ear twitched. “I was hoping you’d say that, Pound Cake.”

Pound lowered his eyebrows. “Wha—?”

The rope around Fluttershy came to life. It unraveled like a tatzlwurm, zipping along the ground to loop itself around Pound’s middle. It burned as it slid across his skin, scuffing his wings and scraping along his belly. It cinched tight and knocked his legs out from under him. He hit the mountainous ground hard.

Fluttershy gasped. “Happy! Are you alright?”

“Ow. Ow. Ow!” Pound found himself dragged to his feet. Jeuk’s grinning face hovered over him. Pound sucked in a deep breath, reeled back, and threw a punch right at the dark fairy’s jaw. He connected with a bone-rattling crunch, and was rewarded with a piercing, unearthly squeal.

Jeuk stumbled back, a hoof on his chin. He worked it back and forth, his eyes flickering between Pound and the ground. “Well. Well! You have quite the strong spirit, boy.”

“I’m alright, Fluttershy!” Pound stood tall, though the rope grew tighter by the second. “I’m alright, and there’s nothing this monster can do to hurt us!”

Fluttershy hiccupped. “Please be okay, Happy.”

The skin around Jeuk’s teeth cracked and split. His mouth opened far, far too wide as he leered at Pound. “You think it’s that easy, boy?

Lacer reached a tentacle over to a fellow displacer beast. “Yo, let’s scram before things get too real—”

“You!” Jeuk’s hind legs stayed in place as his fore half twisted around to point a hoof at Lacer the Displacer. “You stay where you are! You’re on a contract job.”

Jeuk’s body completed its loop, bringing Pound back under his scrutiny. “We also have a contract. You do as I say, and Pumpkin comes to no harm.”

“The deal’s broken!” Pound stomped a hoof. “Pumpkin’s with Princess Twilight now! She’s way too smart to fall into your traps!”

Jeuk pointed into the ether. Pound followed the hollowing hoof to see a distant, purple dot coming from the far mountain. “Princess Sparkle’s over there.”

The hoof curled downward, towards the tree-line. “And Pumpkin’s down there.”

Pound choked as he leaned over the edge. Pumpkin trotted along at a brisk pace, followed closely by Discord and some old mare he couldn’t recognize. The old mare shouted, but Pound couldn’t make out the words.

Jeuk let the hoof drape across Pound’s shoulders like a dried up, dead leaf. “Keep watching, Ounce Cake. This is where things start to get amusing. Most very amusing.”


Adagio’s breath came up short in the thin air. “Oh my gosh, would you please just listen to me?”

Pumpkin continued to ignore the old mare, plodding along on her trek to the top of the mountain trail. “Are all your friends this obnoxious, Discord?”

Discord snickered. “Just the ones with orange manes.”

“Okay, I walked right into that one.”

“Are you two screwloose?” Adagio quickened her pace just enough to catch up for the moment. “Jeuk’s out of your league! He’s Pro, see, and you’re batting with the Pee-Wees! He won’t even notice before he squashes you like one of his stupid little fire ants!”

Pumpkin rolled her eyes. “Keep back a few meters and at least you’ll get a good show.”

“Screw you, brat!” Adago threw her hooves up. “You know what, I’m just gonna lay it all down. If you keep going up that mountain, you are dead!”

Pumpkin whirled on her. “Says who—?”

Pumpkins eyes popped as she caught movement behind the tree-line. A brilliant glow shone even in the midday sun. Piercing yellow eyes glared out from underneath a fireball set to devastate.

“Look out!” Discord tackled her from the side. They rolled head-over-tail down the mountain, trading a batch of bruises for a slightly extended lifespan.

A pillar of heat and rage boiled a hole in the rock they’d been standing on. A centaur strode froth from Whitetail Woods, discarding his cloak to expose his nigh-skeletal chest to the open air. “Discord! This is the end for you! I, Tirek, Demon King, shall retake my Rainbow of Darkness and cast your ruin upon the mountainside!”

Discord picked himself up. He pressed a talon against Pumpkin’s flank to shove her behind his back.

Munchy peered out from behind Tirek. He clapped his hands and jumped down. “Munchy help! Munchy take care of little filly!”

Tirek pressed his forefingers against his temples. “Why thank you, Munchy. I had so hoped that I wouldn’t have to deal with the small child.”

He glared at Adagio, who stood with her mouth closed tight, rooted to the spot. “You there! What business have you with Discord?”

Adagio threw up her hooves and screamed, racing for the trees.

“Coward.” Tirek turned back to Discord with an imperious raise of his eyebrow. “Now Discord, we shall see who is the better…”

Discord ran side-by-side with Pumpkin, their legs pounding as they made their way towards the peak. Tirek sighed as he watched Munchy hobble after them. “Nobody properly fears smiting anymore.”


Pound gasped out as he saw Pumpkin narrowly avoid being incinerated. “No! Pumpkin! Run!”

Jeuk laughed, slapping Pound across the back. “I’m afraid I can no longer ensure her safety, Pound. Seems today’s not her lucky day.”

“You freak!” Pound thrust his hoof Jeuk’s way, but the fairy ducked. “You had this planned all along!”

“Most of it!” Jeuk giggled and waved his limp hoof at the displacer beasts. “It helps to have multiple plans, one for every potential result.”

“Hay, boss.” Lacer cleared his throat. “We never signed up to destroy Equestria. I like sticking it to the man now and again, but this is—”

“Shut! Up!”

Jerk shook his head. It flopped limply on his neck. “Fluttershy. You want Happy to be well, don’t you?”

Pound stepped forward. “I’m not H—”

“Shh!” Jeuk shoved a hoof in Pound’s mouth. “Shh, shh, shh.

He turned back to Fluttershy, concern tracing his torn, toothy smile. “You want Happy to be well, don’t you, Fluttershy? You want to see him alive, with his family.”

Fluttershy’s eyes widened. The light faded enough to where Pound could make out the baby blue irises gleaming at him. “Of course I want him well.”

Jeuk gripped the rope around Pound’s middle, giving it a little tug. “Watch… carefully.”

He shoved Pound off the mountain, into open air.

Pound’s legs pinwheeled. Up became down as he scrambled to open his wings, shout for help, grab onto a ledge, anything! Razor-sharp rocks raced up to meet him halfway. The rope cut into his wings, a noose tied too low.


Fluttershy’s scream filled the space between the two mountains. An explosion of color and light blasted forth from the peak, radiating chaos magic. It struck Pound right in his heart—a cry for help from him and Fluttershy, both. He shut his eyes and whispered a silent prayer that somebody, anybody, would help Fluttershy and Pumpkin.

He bounced.

His eyes popped open to see a pile of green gelatin break his fall. He sprung into the air, twirling out of control. What were once deadly crags were now bouncy-houses of various foodstuffs.

That and open space. He continued his plummet towards the valley.

The magic did not stop at him. It rolled across the landscape, swallowing the mountain whole, wobbling through the Las Pegasus strip, and ending with a kiss on the far peak. Clouds became taffy, rocks turned to pillows, trees uprooted themselves and braided their branches together. The strip bowed and warped, the buildings collapsing under their own weight as they became cheese blocks.

Strong forelegs wrapped around his middle. He found himself carried across the shifting landscape. The mountain melted underhoof, taking the form of wool comforters, then papier-mache, then a roiling ocean suspended in midair. He was set down on a less volatile portion of the mountain, stable enough to stand.

He found himself standing face-to-face with Ponyville’s plumber. “Miss Wishes?”

“Stay here,” she said. “You’ll be safe.”

“Who the heck are you?” Pound sucked in much-needed air as she cut the rope and tossed it aside. “What are you doing here?”

Ribbon Wishes smirked. Her body glowed white, shifting aside overalls for six impossibly huge wings. “You are under the Creator’s protection, Pound Cake. I would have helped you sooner, had you not been bound by word to the Unseelie Fae, Jeuk.”

“One, I didn’t understand a word you said.” Pound tested his wings, giving them an experimental flap. “Two, I can’t stay here. I’ve got to save my sister and Fluttershy.”

Ribbon Wishes might have frowned. It was hard to tell with the pearl-like orbs covering her face. “But you’re safe here. You could die if you go up that mountain.”

“I’ve already died once today.” Pound leaped into the air, his wings aching but otherwise ready to fly. “Thanks for that, by the way. Gonna help out or what?”

“Yes, but…” Ribbon Wishes grew quiet. She stared up at the bright light at the mountaintop, where Fluttershy lay in the midst of her own spell. “Not the way you might suppose.”

Pound frowned. “Well… Well, I guess I’ll see you around. Later.”

He raced off with wings buzzing, his chest heaving as he searched for his sister. He found her ducked beneath an outcropping that was rapidly becoming a plate of limp spaghetti. Munchy closed in, his sharp deep dripping with ichor. He reached out his clawed hands for her, each swipe sliding right through her glowing body.

Pound hit him at top speed. Munchy rolled across the ground and slammed against a tree made from chocolate bark. He slumped with a groan.

“That’s for my neck, you stupid little gremlin!” With that, all the twisting and turning finally got to him. He bent over and faced away from Pumpkin. “Oh blech.”

“Pound!” Pumpkin wrapped her forelegs around him before he was quite done. “Oh my gosh, you’re okay!”

“Uh huh.” Pound blinked as his leavings were swallowed up by the churning mountain. “We need to keep moving before—”

The spaghetti slapped him in the face, ending his sentence. He brushed it aside with a grunt. “We need to get to Fluttershy.”

“I know! Discord’s gonna take his magic back.” Pumpkin glared upwards. “And then he’s gonna take care of Jeuk.”

“Where is he?” Pound stepped out from under the spaghetti before it could smother him. “I just saw him with you.”

“We got separated.” Pumpkin squared her hooves and swiveled her head, looking for the clear and present danger just beyond sight. “We were both running from—”

A beam of hatred and malice turned the spaghetti into charcoal. Pumpkin cast a spell and ran, dragging Pound with her. She stopped with a scream and fell, her hoof gripped to her chest.

Pound dragged her away from the flames, his wings beating back the heat. “Are you okay? What happened?”

Pumpkin sucked on her hoof. Just first-degree burns, Pound could see. Painful, but not too serious. “I burned my hoof. I don’t get it! I was phasing and—”

The tree collapsed beside them, tearing a hole in the soft, soapy landscape. It flared green and filled the air with smoke. They ran away, choking on the toxic fumes of burning paint.

Pumpkin stared wide-eyed as the flames rose, blocking their route upward. “I can’t phase through fire. It’ll… It’ll still hurt me.”

“Fire burns. Duly noted.”

Her response was a sarcastic sing-song, but her smile was sincere as they come. “Shut up.”

A crunching footstep drew their ears. Tirek stumbled as his hoof was swallowed by a cream-filled cookie. He pulled the leg out with a growl. “Curse Discord and all his trickery!”

He glared at the children, a light of recognition entering his eyes. “You two! You were there at the gorge! You humiliated me and defeated my army!”

Pumpkin patted her curls, her horn sparkling. “Mostly we humiliated ourselves and defeated your little gremlin.”

The crack of twigs and faint giggling came from behind them. They swiveled to behold Munchy as he climbed through the flames. The green light lent him an unhealthy, demonic pallor. He grinned with all his teeth as he spread his arms. “Munchy! Is! Morlock!”

“Oh.” Pumpkin bobbed her head, grasping Pound’s hoof. “My mistake.”

They ran towards Tirek, slipping between his legs and hopping around the fire. He roared as his legs tangled up beneath him. “No one mildly annoys Tirek! No one embarrasses Tirek and lives!

Munchy danced on the burning log before leaping off to commence pursuit. “Clever little ponies having climbed so high!”

The Most Noble Sacrifice

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Fluttershy stood dumbfounded as the taste of green music slithered across her hoof. Trees screamed in pain as squirrels sprouted from their buds. Clouds congealed from iron shavings spiraled around gelatinous rock formations. Flocks of pidgeons danced with a hungry honey-combed lion. A parade of childlike oysters followed a posh walrus to their doom.

She had long since stopped trying to make sense of it.

She tried to fly and met a windfall of razor-sharp feathers. She attempted to climb out of the pit she’d made for herself, but the top kept rising higher, and she continued to sink. She took a breath of red-hot cinnamon and hacked it up. The water swallowed her, froze around her, turned to steam at her touch.

The mountain swallowed her up, surrounded her with its crumbling caverns and drizzling stalactites. She tried to scream, to so much as hear her own voice, but all that issued forth was the cacophony of a thousand animal calls.

She entered inky blackness and silence.

She swallowed hard and breathed out. The hiss of her breath was loud and clear in her ears. Her skin felt warm, like a comforting blanket had been spread over her. She blinked into the darkness. The air was refreshing, clean, unmarred. The ache from chaos violently seeping through her limbs faded. Her ears perked at a faint sound: A small voice, singing. Several voices, now that she focused. Too faint to be understood, but beautiful all the same.

“It’s starsong,” a distantly familiar voice said.

Tiny pinpricks of light appeared at random intervals. One hovered in front of her face, and the song became clearer for a note or two. It zipped off at lightspeed, joining a cluster an uncertain distance away. Fluttershy smiled. She wanted to join in the chase, to prance and sing with the friendly little lights. But something kept her back.

She turned to where she’d heard the voice. Nopony was apparent, but she did notice a glimmering outline of a six-winged creature. “Who are you? A-and where am I?”

“I am a Fae Creature. One of the Fair Folk. A messenger of the Seelie Court.”

“O-oh.” Fluttershy frowned and tilted her head. “I’m… I haven’t had many good experiences with fairies.”

“We get that a lot, recently.” The creature’s voice rolled with resigned frustration.

With a strength-gathering breath, the fairy continued. “You are in the realm of the stars, Fluttershy. The place where dreams never die. I have brought you to the open heavens, to Dreamland itself.”

Fluttershy walked towards a cluster of lights. They danced around her, flying beneath her wings, spiraling around her legs, tugging gently at her mane and tail.

“Though a pony’s body may fail, and its mind fade, its spirit lives on.” The fairy held out a vague hoof and allowed a light to rest on it. “I guide them here for safekeeping, and fill your night sky with hopeful dreams.”

“These… are really stars?” Fluttershy gazed around with wide eyes. Constellations loomed into view. Clusters and nebulas radiated rainbows of living color. A meteorite grazed her flank, tickling her. “They’re… they’re ponies who’ve passed away.”

“Nothing passes away,” the fairy said. “They only pass on.”

Fluttershy’s heart sank as a dizzying feeling floated through her stomach. “Am I dead?”

“No, Fluttershy, you are very much alive.” The fairy’s voice became soft, careful, with a tremor running just beneath the surface. “I brought you here so that your mind and spirit would gain respite from the chaos tearing your body apart.”

“That’s… kind of you.” Fluttershy spread her wing and allowed several stars to rest along its length. “I suppose it saves me the trip, doesn’t it?”

The fairy paused for a long moment. “Already given up, have you?”

Fluttershy bit her lip. She looked away from the lights gathering around; an assembly of pinpricks of joy that seemed so foreign to her. “I’m not giving up. I’m seeing this through. Discord can’t handle this burden by himself.”

“Then what makes you think you can handle it by yourself?”

Fluttershy almost spoke, but cut herself short. She brushed her flowing mane from her face. “Did you just bring me here to point out my mistakes? Or to tell me what’s wrong?”

“No.” The fairy flickered in the starlight as it shook its head. “I brought you here to give you a gift, that it may be your salvation.”

Fluttershy’s ears drooped. “Unless it’s a golden apple, I don’t know that it’ll do much good.”

“I am not allowed access to golden apples.” The fairy’s six wings spread to their full length, completely translucent, allowing the starlight to pass through. “But I have something far more precious.”

One star in particular halted in its movement. It separated from the flock it’d been following and zig-zagged its way towards Fluttershy. It twinkled joyously down its meandering path, careless and flighty. Stardust trailed in its wake, sprinkling the cosmos with a pathway of gossamer and gold. It hovered before Fluttershy’s face, bobbing to and fro.

It leaped up, like a foal hopping with excitement. It moved at lightning speed around Fluttershy’s body, covering her with sparkling dust. It returned to its place before her and touched itself to her nose.

It was then that she saw the star, the dream, the tiny spirit, for what it truly was. Two green eyes stared at her over a handsome muzzle. A charcoal mane hung from the top of the head, with one stripe of light gray trailing through the forelock. The tan coat was simple, but far from ugly. It lent focus to the brilliant eyes, bright as the star he now was, staring at her with the same familiar smile he had so many years ago.

“Fluttershy,” he said, “it’s really you?”

Her breath caught as she looked away. She collapsed at the knee, falling down with tears in her eyes. He caught her with a strong foreleg and brought her into a tight hug.

“Happy?” She sobbed. “I don’t… I don’t understand!”

“It’s okay,” he whispered. He leaned back to look her in the eyes again, bringing warmth to her heart. “I’m here. I’m safe.”

He was real, no doubt in her mind. The same gentle face, the same strong limbs, the same boundless energy. His voice was deeper, and his face was more mature, just how he would have been had he lived. He was a grown stallion here among the stars. Unbelievably, downright impossibly handsome. But still so intrinsically real, and present, and true.

‘Realer than real,’ thought Fluttershy. She couldn’t speak, and she felt as though she didn’t even want to. Instead, she leaned against her childhood friend, letting her tears spill down her cheeks.

“Don’t cry, Fluttershy—” His laugh was a rolling chuckle as he raised her chin with the edge of his hoof. “—hold your head up high, and you can reach the sky.”

She hadn’t thought it possible for her heart to break further, but his words shattered her to the core. She blubbered, fighting to speak through aching pain, bewildering disbelief, and head-spinning joy. “H-how is this possible?

“Dreams never die,” he said with a grin. “Our stars never burn out. Inside each one of us is a light so bright, no darkness could hope to hide it. It’s inside you, it was inside me…”

He blinked, his smile weakening at the edges. He took on a far-off expression as his ears drooped. “It’s inside my mom, too. But I think she’s forgotten that.”

Fluttershy pressed her lips together and bobbed her head.

“Will you…” He swallowed, and his voice grew faint. “Will you remind her, when you get back?”

Fluttershy hiccupped. She nuzzled her cheek against his chest. “You should tell her yourself.”

Happy held her at foreleg’s length. He looked her up and down, his smile transforming into a deep, serious frown. “Fluttershy, she wouldn’t be receptive to it right now. There’s something… very broken inside her that needs healing before she can see me again.”

“But—but if you come back to Ponyville—” Fluttershy reached for him, to hold him close and never let go. He accepted the hug, though his eyes tightened. “—if you come back to live with us, then everything wrong will be fix… fixed…”

She shuddered as reality came crashing back to her. “Except that to save Discord, I’ve sacrificed my own life. And… and there’s no going back, is there?”

“Not now.” He shook his head slowly, easing her away from himself. Not far enough to alienate, but enough to have a touch of breathing room. “Not yet.”

He took her hoof and gazed at it, speaking in a soft, deep voice. “When a child is conceived in the womb, it is surrounded by a protective body, and grows a guiding mind. When the baby is born, it passes to a new stage of life. It cannot return to the womb. It can no longer live in the womb.”

His lip trembled. “The same thing happens when a star is born.”

Fluttershy wiped her eyes with the edge of her downy feathers. She caught his brilliant, beautiful green eyes and smiled. “But at least that means we’ll be together.”

“Together?” His cheeks went red. “Well, not together-together. I mean, stars don’t—they can’t—there’s no—um—”

Fluttershy closed the gap between them and pressed her lips against his. She brought her hoof to his cheek and sighed, wrapping her wings around his shoulders. Nearly two decades of pent up sorrow and should-have-beens ignited at once, tugging at her heart and pounding through her head.

The kiss ended too soon. She wanted to come back for another, until she felt dampness in her hooves. She saw tears streaming down Happy’s face, his shoulders hunching and his tail swishing limply.

“I’m sorry…” Fluttershy ducked her head, her face burning bright enough to light up a room. “I, um, maybe that was presumptuous, and uncalled for, and a little too forward, but, um, I really, really needed to—”

“Fluttershy.” Happy sucked in a deep breath. His chest shook as he let it out bit by bit. “I need to tell you something right now.”

She faced her ears forward, turned her eyes intently to his face, and folded her wings across her back.

“I need to tell you,” he said, “we brought you here so… so I could tell you… you can’t come to me yet. You can’t.


The clouds shook beneath Pinkie Pie’s hooves. One minute she was atop a towering hill. The next minute saw the same patch of cloud become a rapidly-descending valley. “Of all the days to not have wings.”

A lesser mare would have barfed immediately. Pinkie Pie, though, had a stomach of steel. Steel surrounded by a tiiiny layer of fat to keep her body nice and cozy, true, but steel nonetheless.

Ground-bound guardsponies surrounded her on every side. They shouted to civilians, herding them towards the safer middle portion of the city. The place least likely to pitch an unsuspecting bystander into the drink. Luckily, nopony had fallen off Las Pegasus yet, but it was only a matter of time.

A four-story building pitched and yawed. It careened closer and closer, ready to crush both the ponies racing through the road and the hapless tourists clutching slot machines inside. Pinkie’s eyes widened as she headed for the oncoming accident. “Twoflower’s Luggage on my mark! Now!”

The dozen-odd earth ponies, herself included, pressed their mighty shoulders against the nearest side of the building. They stepped in time, their muscles bulging, their hearts straining with magic. Nothing could stop the combined might of their power, and the building was no exception. It righted itself with a bewildered groan.

Pinkie Pie punched a hole in the cloudcrete and shouted through the new opening. “Get your booties out of here and to the middle of town, pronto!”

The sight of several ponies lifting a building shocked the tourists out of their panic and into a different sort of panic. At least the new stampede was headed in the proper direction.

“Oh good,” Coldstone said, wiping his crystalline brow. “Just a hundred more buildings to move. No biggie. No problem.”

Pinkie Pie giggled despite herself. “I hope you ate your wheat this morning, people. We got our work cut out for us.”


Lacer the Displacer balanced precariously on his six legs as the world rearranged itself around him. The mountain was a gelatinous mess, the trees chocolate and licorice, the clouds a rapidly-disintegrating sugar clump. The displacer beasts, his kinfolk, all shared the same expression: Barely-repressed horror.

He lifted a paw and watched the sticky gelatin peel away. He looked over his shoulder, past his shivering shoulder-tentacles, to see a dark hole in the mountain where Fluttershy once was. She had sunk into the goop, and the air had chilled around her as she descended. Where once was dessert was now a cold collection of ice shards, arrayed like teeth rising from a gaping, cylindrical mouth.

He'd seen that movie, and it had given him nightmares. The same was likely to happen again. Katrina couldn’t afford the therapy.

“So—so what now, Bossman?” He turned to Jeuk, and immediately turned away. The little pony’s—no, Fae—the little Fae’s mouth was a jagged little rip across his face from where Pound had punched him. His eyes were little dark pits hiding embers. His skin crawled with burning little ants. Lacer began to seriously regret his choice of employer. “We gotta skedaddle before the whole thing goes kerflooey, right?”

Jeuk heaved a grunt from the bottom of his chest. “Lacer. Lacer, Lacer, Lacer. We have to protect Fluttershy from interference. She can’t complete her good work if her friends come along to talk sense into her.”

Lacer looked at the city, where hundreds of thousands of ponies had their life on the line. The itch between his shoulder blades intensified to a frenzied burn. “Dang, man. This ain’t right.”

“I’m following Fluttershy into the mountain.” Jeuk patted Lacer’s tentacle, allowing a fire ant to climb aboard. “You’re staying here and preventing them from following.”

Lacer followed Jeuk’s hoof into the sky. He could see them, rising above the clouds: A phalanx of Equestrian Royal Guards, led by an alicorn princess. “Wha—? We can’t fight a princess!”

“You can, and you will.” Jeuk smiled. It was like a corpse’s death grimace. “Quite frankly.”

Lacer growled and turned on the fairy. “I’m taking my kin and—”

“You are going to fend off Twilight Sparkle.” Jeuk gripped Lacer’s neck, lifting him into the air. The Fae Creature stood on his hind legs, backed by shadows, while Lacer’s paws dangled. “You will do as I say, or I will eat your soul!

“O-okay!” Lacer shut his eyes, kicking with all eight limbs. “Okay, man, you win. Just put me down. Nobody has to go eating no souls.”

“Excellent.” Jeuk dropped him, becoming the image of a twisted, tiny little pony once more. “Now if you will excuse me, I have a power to unleash, a city to destroy, a pony to murder, and Fluttershy to blame for it.”

He tipped his hat and fell backwards into the open maw of the mountain.

One of the displacer beasts blinked at Lacer. “You put that down payment into untraceable credits, right?”

Lacer whimpered. He stared at the approaching princess and her cadre of guardsponies, awaiting the assured beat-down.


“Princess Twilight,” Windblown shouted, clutching his helmet by his ear. “I just got word from Lady Pinkie Pie! They’re asking for reinforcements in the city. It’s all coming down!”

Twilight Sparkle shook her head. “We’ve got to stop this at its source! Fluttershy needs to be rescued and shut down!”

Skyhook glanced back at the crumbling, deformed city. He muffled a curse. “We could split up. Have our best weather-manipulators tend to the cloudstuff while the remainder accompany you.”

Twilight chewed the edge of her mane. She glanced between the city and the mountain, her brow furrowing. “No. It needs as many hooves as we can manage. All of you, go and reinforce the city. I’ll save Fluttershy.”

“Alone?” Skyhook drew up beside her, his leathery wings silent even at the speed he was travelling. “Princess Twilight, with all due respect, I cannot allow you to go alone. If the Cloudsdale Incident taught us anything—”

“The Cloudsdale Incident taught me two things.” Twilight looked him straight in the eye, her face set like flint. “One; that it is never, ever going to happen again.”

Skyhook’s neck muscles tightened. “And the second?”

Twilight nodded at the dozen-odd displacer beasts awaiting her. “When it’s life-and-death, hit as hard as you can.

Skyhook hissed through his teeth. “Keep the channel to Windblown open. Call us if you need us.” He blinked, and his slit pupils widened in the growing overcast. “Stay safe, Princess Twilight.”

“You, too.” Twilight narrowed her eyes and closed her wings against her body. She shot like an arrow towards the mountain, her horn glowing pure white.

He muffled another curse. He turned to the soldiers under his command and spread his wings wide. “You heard her, people! Las Pegasus needs reinforcements on the double! Move, move, move, move!


Lacer watched the guards approach. He watched them break off and head back to the city. He heaved a sigh of relief.

The princess yet approached. Faster than ever.

He gazed around at his fellow displacer beasts. Each face mirrored his own for stark, abject terror. One beast in particular said what they were all thinking: “Aw, horseapples, here she comes!”

She hit with a flash of blinding light. The shockwave rolled through the pliant ground and set several beasts flying. Several more fell to kinetic blasts to the chest. A few brave souls leaped to assail her physically, but were stuck down by precisely-aimed bucks.

She caught two beasts in her telekinetic grip and tossed them bodily into those recovering from the initial shockwave. A lucky idiot snagged her hind leg with a tentacle, which only served to direct her next kick at his face. A beast was swatted away with a powerful flap of her wings, while another was frozen from the knees down by a quick spell.

Three attempted to tackle her at once, but met with a face-full of magical shield.

The surface of the mountain gave way. The lot of them tumbled into the green-colored mire, sliding through the half-solid/half-liquid mass. Twilight’s blasts sliced through the gelatin, but the mixture sealed itself an instant later. They swam as best they could through the morass, Twilight for escape, and the displacer beasts for a slight chance to actually defeat her.

Lacer poked his head around a rock, having sat out the entire fight. He wiped his forehead and skittered off, his six legs moving at a frenzy. She hadn’t killed anybody, even if it was obvious she could have. Easily. She would lock his kin up for assault. Maybe they’d even make bail in a couple thousand years. They were fine. No harm, no foul.

Of course, he would have full access to Jeuk’s payment. Once he paid for renovations to Katrina’s tavern, they’d be livin’ on easy street. Everything was looking up.

Until he heard the song.

“Ah, ah-ah. Ahh-ah. Ah, ah-ah. Ahh-ah.”

His spine tingled. His pupils dilated. His stomach sank. It was a song he hadn’t heard since he was a little cub. The song came with a warning: Stay away from anybody who sang it. They were certified Bad News.

He blinked and rubbed his forehead. The song grew louder, deeper, more enticing. His mind clouded. He felt like he was in a fog. Lost. Confused. Alone.

“We see you running like a coward
We see you fleeing from the fight”

Lacer the Displacer drooled as the songstress came into view. She was an old mare, with a billowing orange mane. She had a red gemstone necklace, which pulsated with every note.

“We understand you’re underpowered
But we can use your meager might”

Adago Dazzle touched the displacer beast’s chin, shutting his gaping mouth. She gazed into blank eyes and smirked an almighty smirk. “Come on, big boy. You’re not getting out of this that easily.”


Pumpkin’s legs pounded. Pound’s wings pumped.

Tirek’s hate-laser burned holes in the gelatin one step behind them. Always one step behind them. He couldn’t lead a shot worth beans.

‘Small miracles,’ thought Pumpkin. ‘We sure could use another miracle right about… now!’

No miracles were forthcoming. She settled for ducking around a boulder made of cheddar cheese and pickles. “What is it with all this food?”

Pound shrugged. “It’s been a while since Fluttershy ate. Maybe she’s got grub on the mind.”

“Makes as much sense as anything. Which is nonsense. Or chaos or whatever.” Pumpkin brushed an unruly curl behind her ear. “I don’t think we can outrun him.”

“And his creepy little minion could pop out at any second.” Pound bumped his hooves together. “We gotta stop them somehow. Like, before he actually catches up with Discord or Fluttershy.”

“What are we gonna do?” Pumpkin peeked around their hiding spot. Tirek seemed to have lost them completely, firing at random into the mutated foliage. “He’s got firepower times a million.”

“Tell me where to find Discord!” Tirek screamed into the blaze. “Or I shall blast you to atoms!

“But he’s kinda out of it,” Pound said. “His voice is getting kinda squeaky, like Dad’s gets on deadline day.”

“So if he’s stressed, he won’t be thinking too hard, but if we run out there—” Pumpkin held her head in her hooves, hissing out a whispered shout. “Ugh! Every time I try to slow down and think things through, things go screwy!”

Pound skewed his mouth to the side. “Funny. Every time I try to jump in and get things done, everything goes kerflooey.”

Pumpkin gave him a double-take. She squinted her eyes. “It’s ‘cause that’s not you. You’re a thinker. You plan things out. You’re always worried about, you know, consequences and junk.”

“Unlike you.” Pound peered over the top of the former rock. Tirek was off screaming at a divot in the gelatin. “You just rush right in and get things done. You’re good at it. Way better than me.”

Pumpkin hugged herself. She looked up to see Las Pegasus twisting and turning on its axis, barely holding on to its two tenuous holds on the twin mountains. She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Thinking and worrying about consequences… without doing anything… that’s what got Discord where he is right now.”

Pound glanced at her and chewed his lip. Tirek’s ears swiveled as he searched for them over the roar of flames and the stench of burnt food. “But rushing in without thinking… that’s what got us into this mess. It’s what got Fluttershy where she is right now.”

Pumpkin shuffled to the side as the ground melted into a puddle of chocolate syrup. “So if we can’t rush in, and we can’t sit and think… what are we supposed to do?”

“Neither?” Pound said. “I dunno, Pumpkin. I wish we could steal his magic.”

Pumpkin Cake stuck her tongue out the side of her mouth. She gave Pound a tiny, daring grin. “Maybe we can.”

Pound’s head snapped around, one eyebrow skyrocketing. “Huh? How?”

“All the soldiers are wearing specially-enchanted necklaces, built to store magic.” Pumpkin poked her head through the cheeserock to see Tirek edging too close for comfort. “If we can get our hooves on one of those, pow!”

“But they’re all in the city.” Pound waved a wing at the undulating cloudstuff. “I can’t fly all the way there, and none of them would listen to me. They’re too busy.”

“But Discord also has one.” Pumpkin grabbed his shoulder. “You can catch up to him and get him to come back. We can take down Tirek and then…”

She smacked her forehead. “And then watch Fluttershy tear the mountain apart. No, we gotta give Discord space to work. Maybe you could get a necklace from Princess Twilight.”

“You can see her from here; she’s stuck!” Pound’s ears swiveled at a loud snap. Munchy’s oval-shaped head popped over the rock, his teeth glinting in the firelight.

“Over here, Tirek!” The morlock rubbed his hands together. “Munchy win at hide and seek forever!”

Pound’s hoof shot out and slapped the morlock in the schnozzle. Munchy tumbled away, but Tirek was already galloping at them. Pound grabbed Pumpkin’s hoof; his wings lent him an extra burst of speed, but she was still dragging him back.

“You have to go, Pound!” Pumpkin chanced a glance back and regretted it, seeing nothing but flames and a ticked-off centaur. “Find one of those necklaces and bring it back!”

“But you—”

“They literally can’t touch me!” She yanked away and ran right. “I’ll distract them! Go!”

“Pumpkin!” Pound shot straight up. A hatewave followed in his wake for a few seconds, before it diverted towards his sister. “No! No, no, no, no!”

Pumpkin rolled underneath a fallen trunk. It melted to goo the instant she left its cover. Tirek was getting closer. Munchy seemed to duck in and out of sight at will. She had no awesome combat spells, no projectiles, no real way to defend herself aside from phasing and staying away from fire. She sighed to herself; nearly the entire mountainside was boiling with flames.

She tripped. Fire singed her hoof as she barreled into a fallen branch. She chanced a peek upwards.

There. Right in the middle of her path. A boulder made from crusty bread sat precariously over an outcropping. With the right stuff, she could knock Tirek down and buy herself and Pound a few seconds.

A burning branch smashed down in her path, its leaves sending sparks flying into her mane. Munchy leaned over the side, his weight keeping it steady. “Little pony not like fire? That’s okay. Munchy likes meat rare!

Tirek’s hoof came down beside her tail. “You will lead me to Discord, or I shall turn your blood to steam in an instant!”

Pound struck from the rear. He collided with the back of Tirek’s head and diffused the hateray spell between the centaur’s horns. A vicious bite to the ear yanked Tirek’s head to the side, throwing his aim for a loop.

Pumpkin rammed shoulder-first into Munchy, tossing him from the branch. It leapt up to smack Tirek across the face. Pound flew off as the centaur’s hooves tangled up beneath him.

Pumpkin ran as fast as she could, her brother keeping pace. “I told you to go!”

“I’m not going without you!” Pound sent a snarl back at the monsters. “Don’t you get it? We keep messing up on our own, but that’s because we need to work together!”

“Fine!” She pointed briefly, running on three legs. “That boulder’s big enough to knock him over! Let’s push it!”

“Better idea!” They rounded the boulder, but he stopped her from pushing it. “That way, where the mountain’s the steepest.”

She looked over his shoulder. The mountain’s natural steep slope became even more precarious when made of bouncy dessert. She followed his wing to a place where the mountain parted. Where once was a massive crevasse in the side, there was a neat slice in the gelatin’s surface.

“Aim him towards that.” Pound fought to catch his breath. “When he comes charging, we nail him with the boulder and send him tumbling. No more Tirek.”

Pumpkin spun around. Tirek argued with Munchy, brushing cinders from his face. “He’s coming from the wrong direction. We need to lead him on.”

Pound nodded. “I’ll fly up and—”

“I can phase right through the boulder when it hits.” Pumpkin pushed him back against the hard crust. “You’re stronger than me. I don’t know if I can move it by myself.”

Pound looked between her and the centaur, his muzzle scrunching more with each glance. “I don’t like it.”

Pumpkin smiled. “No time to think.”

She charged towards Tirek, but halted several meters away. “Hay, buttface! Can’t catch me ’cause you’re old!”

“Insolent brat!” Tirek waved a fist, charging up his most vile spell. “I shall have your guts for a belt!”

“Gross.” Pumpkin moved quickly but carefully over the slippery terrain. Her hoof sank into the goop for a brief, horrifying second, but a yank set her free. Close examination of the greenish surface saw that the more solid portions were of a lighter color. She moved quicker with her pace assured, but the centaur and his cruel minion were hot on her heels.

Tirek hoof stuck. He sank to his knees with a shout. He pressed his palms to raise his heft and let a sudden burst of heat shoot from between his horns. The goo in front of Pumpkin erupted, showering her with food coloring and gunk.

Pumpkin’s heart sank. She was too far from the gap. Pound would have to roll the boulder before Tirek was in place. There just wasn’t enough time!

Munchy gripped her tail between his teeth and gave a shake. She slid onto her stomach before she had the presence of mind to phase free. The morlock bounced against the mountain, cackling with all his might.

Tirek was above her, fire in his eyes and hatred in his magic. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, no more plans to make—

“Pumpkin!” An older voice shouted at her from behind Pound. “Pumpkin! Run towards us!”

With nothing else for it, she obeyed. She caught sight of her brother with his hooves pressed firm against the crust, with a familiar older mare behind her. Adagio Dazzle prepared to lend him her strength, a cruel smirk tracing across her mouth. “When you see a beast, duck!”

“When I see a—?” No time to ask the question before it was answered. A displacer beast right out of her nightmares bared down, its toothy tentacles waving in its wake. She dropped to her knees and screamed just before reaching it.

Lacer the Displacer leaped over her head and pounced on Tirek. Six sets of claws and two grasping tentacles struck at once, and the centaur had no defense. The centaur grappled and tripped, howling in pain and outrage. “Traitor!”

Munchy grasped Lacer’s tail and bit down hard. The displacer beast yelped, slacking its grip for a critical moment. Tirek flung him across the mountainside. He stalked close to the fallen beast, his horns smoldering with power. “I’ll add your corpse to the pile, you misbegotten flea!”

Lacer steadied himself on the edge of a long plummet, his forepaws swiping at the centaur and the morlock. He leaped for another assault, but was batted aside by Tirek’s fist. Tirek steadied himself to throw Lacer from the cliffside, grinning with yellowed, chipped teeth. “So fall all of Tirek’s foes!”

Pumpkin ran through the crusty boulder and pressed her back against it. “We’re not gonna get a better chance!”

“Got that right!” Pound hefted with all his weight. “Push!”

“I am Tirek the Demon King!” Tirek howled, strangling Lacer with both hands. “Devourer of Magic! Conqueror of Equestria!”

“Um.” Munchy tapped Tirek’s flank. “Um, boss?”

“Exile from the Far Side of the World!” Tirek laughed, summoning his magic reserves in preparation to melt Lacer’s face right from his head. “Keeper of the Rainbow of Darkness!”

Munchy leaped onto his back and pulled at his mane. “Look out!”

Tirek looked up, but it was far too late. The boulder shot forward, building momentum, unstoppable in its movement. Tirek was able to let out a single “Meep.”

The boulder collided with the force of a runaway carriage, taking the three monsters with it on its one-way trip off the cliffside. They screeched as they tumbled head-over-tail, grasping at the mountain, the cloudstuff, anything that came within reach.

They soon vanished into the fog, and their voices faded a moment later.

Pumpkin gripped Pound in an embrace. “We did it! We’re alive!”

Pound rubbed his sore neck, but returned the hug as quickly as he could. “We… we actually did it! Yeah! Whoo!”

Adagio bopped Pumpkin on the head. “Not bad, kids. You might’ve even done it without me if I’d let you stumble around a little more.”

“Hay, yeah.” Pumpkin gave her the stick-eye. One of her special-brewed-for-adults variety. “I saw you run off in a panic. Where’d you get to?”

“I had a stop to make.” Adagio narrowed her eyes at the both of them. “Now are you coming with me back to the train depot, or do I have to drag you down?”

“We can’t.” Pound stood tall, nearly coming up to Adagio’s shoulder. “Fluttershy and Discord are still in danger.”

“We can’t leave without them,” Pumpkin said. “We won’t.

Adagio growled in the back of her throat. “This isn’t your fight! You’re gonna get yourselves killed just on account of working above your paygrade. Fighting above your weight. Steamrolled by a freaking psychofairy!”

“Because they’re our friends,” Pound said. “They need us, and we need them.”

Adagio shook her head. “And if I say no?”

Pumpkin gripped Pound’s hoof, lit her horn, and phased the both of them through Adagio’s body.

“Whaaaa—!” Adagio spun, shaking her hooves. “Shows me for sticking my neck out for you! You two wanna get yourselves killed, do it on your own time! Jerks! Featherbrains!”

Pumpkin watched Adagio pace back and forth, looking between the pathway down, and the road upward. Once they’d gotten a good distance ahead, the older pony threw her head back and followed, always keeping them in sight.

“So what’s her story?” Pound said.

“A long one.” Pumpkin sucked on the inside of her cheek. She looked to the top of the mountain, where static filled the air and clouds consumed the peak. “She’s an old friend of Discord’s.”

Pound shrugged. “It’s nice to have one of those on our side.”

Pumpkin shivered as the air around her chilled. “I don’t think she agrees.”


Tirek’s arm ached. His hooves dangled over nothingness. He opened his eyes and was greeted with Munchy’s annoying face. “What happened?”

Munchy strained, and the ache in Tirek’s arm intensified. “Any help would be nice.”

Tirek looked down. Nothing much was beneath him. Not for several thousand more meters. Above him was a thin ledge, on which Munchy was braced. The little morlock’s entire meager strength went towards keeping Tirek from plummeting to certain doom.

Tirek reached out and gripped the ledge. Between himself and the morlock, they were able to haul him to relative safety. A glance to the side saw Lacer the Displacer’s six legs wriggling around. His front half was stuck deep into the strange gelatin-like substance that made up the mountain. Tirek decided not to free him just yet.

“You saved me…” He glared at Munchy, his teeth bared. He didn’t have the strength to light a spell, so intimidation tactics were limited. “Why?”

Munchy gripped the mountainside, testing a foothold. It gave way, leaving the three of them completely stranded and immobile. “Because Tirek is Munchy’s friend. Munchy give life for Tirek.”

“A friend, huh?” Tirek’s brow furrowed. He pressed against the mountain and did his best not to look down. “How utterly revolting.”


Discord tiptoed over the craggy ground of crystalized sugar. His breath came in clouds of fog. A gaping cave appeared out of the mist, brimming with magic oh-so-familiar to him. His destination, Fluttershy’s soon-to-be grave.

Not on his watch.

It was quiet as he descended into the darkness. Nothing but the dull thrum of chaos to keep him company. His footsteps echoed as he accidently kicked a razor-sharp crystal down into the depths. He held his breath, waited for the moment to pass, then carried on.

An itch ran across his talon. He swatted it, causing a sudden spark to erupt. He patted the fire out before it could burn too badly.

He swallowed. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all crawling with ants. Fire ants, of course. Specifically, fire ants directed by a certain wicked Fae Creature. He stepped more carefully, clutching his hands tight together.

He stopped up short. There, not three meters in front of him, was Jeuk. The fairy stood still, his back to Discord, still in his diminutive pony form. With nothing for it, Discord marched forward and hoped bluster would be out the odds. “Well, well, well. Fancy meeting you at a swanky joint like this, Itchy. I really don’t remember you, but I do know you’re a complete twit.”

He grasped Jeuk’s shoulder and spun him around. The brim of the fairy’s boater hat fell over the creature’s face. Discord knocked it aside with a flick of his wrist. “Now be a good little fairy and give me Flutter—urk!

Jeuk was empty, for lack of a better word. His body flopped like limp fabric and sagged to the floor. Fire ants crawled from among the folds, disappearing into the darkness.

A wavering chuckle came from everywhere and nowhere at once. “Amusing. Most very amusing.”

Discord put up his dukes. “Come out and fight like a mare! I’m here to kick butt and save Fluttershy, and I’m all out of butts!”

“You faltered, Discord.” The faint voice shifted to the front, then behind, then overhead. “You waited too long. You failed to act.”

“I’m not done fighting yet!” Discord pointed at the darkness, narrowing his eyes and wishing fervently for a flashlight. “Not so long as Fluttershy’s still alive! And you can’t afford to kill her, or else who’s going to be your precious time-bomb?”

“Discord, you old fool!” Two red eyes shined from where the shadows were deepest. “This battle was won years ago! When the other Draconequi fell. When Fluttershy’s little soul was crushed. When you decided friends were worth the heartache.”

Discord’s paw found the enchanted necklace hanging from its chain. “I have an ace up my sleeve.”

“You’re going to be playing fifty-two pickup.” Jeuk’s body formed from darkness. Thin, spindly legs carried a gaunt torso. Vast wings filled the cavern, dripping black feathers. A flare sparked from the Fae’s long, snaking tail. “You can’t take chaos with that spindly little trinket. The Rainbow of Darkness was forged by the Unseelie Court for the explicit purpose of eating chaos.”

He clicked his tongue. “How did you think we were able to destroy Elysium’s inhabitants so utterly? A few dissatisfied mortals is all it takes. And, of course, of course, if a plan worked so well once…

He moved a wing aside; Fluttershy came into view. Her glowing eyes stared at nothing as lightning sparked from her wings. The mountain shook with each breath that wheezed from her chest.

“You won’t get the chance to reason with her, of course,” Jeuk said. “Because I’m about to kill you.”

The ground fell from beneath Discord. He reached out and snagged a ledge just before the ether swallowed him whole. He flapped his now-vestigial wings fruitlessly. It took some doing, but he was able to scramble aboard the ledge.

The air was filled with floating boulders and pebbles, carried aloft on currents of magic. Jeuk perched on a stone overhead, looking for all the world like a vulture examining a carcass. “Watch your step.”

Discord braced himself and took a flying leap. He landed haphazardly on a platform closer to Fluttershy, his nails scraping the loamy stone.

“You were always a black mark on my record, so to speak.” Jeuk chuckled, swatting the walls to send a shower of fire ants down on Discord’s head. “The one that got away. Oh, you have no idea how most very amusing this is!”

“So this is your big plan?” Discord steadied himself on a rotating rock, readying another leap of faith. “A little obstacle course? You certainly have it out for gymnasts, don’t you?”

“Hmm…” Jeuk rubbed his chin with a cloven hoof. “Good point.”

Several million fire ants combusted simultaneously. Discord shielded his eyes from the sudden light, and just as quickly shielded his body from the flames cascading towards him. He jumped out of the way of a plummeting fireball and yanked his tail-tip clear.

A flap of Jeuk’s wing flattened Discord against the boulder. The fairy laughed as he held Discord down, squeezing him bit-by-bit. Discord’s cheeks bulged. He squirmed free, but only when Jeuk allowed it.

“You know the truth, Discord.” Jeuk batted him around like a cat’s yarn ball. “You’re unloved, underappreciated, despised by the populace. They regret making you a citizen. They refuse to acknowledge your history. You’re the last of your kind, holding on to a reality that no longer applies.”

Jeuk’s breath caused a burning itch to trace its way down Discord’s spine. “Just close your eyes and accept the sweet embrace of nothingness.”


Discord and Jeuk looked back, towards the entrance to the dark cave. Pumpkin Cake stood tall, calling into the darkness, her horn shining a bright blue. “Discord! Get up! You’re not done yet! We need you, Discord! We need our friend!”

Pound landed beside her, his eyes widening at the sight of Jeuk’s true self. “You can do it, Discord! We believe in you! Pumpkin trusts you to do the right thing, so I do, too!”

“You don’t have to do it alone!” Pumpkin grinned, staring Jeuk right in his stupid face. “Your friends are right here with you!”

Jeuk hissed. “Rodents.”

He spread his wings and flew towards the children. Discord stood up to pat himself free of crackling fire ants. “Look out!” Discord said. “Get away from him!”

“Yes, run little children!” Jeuk’s horrible tongue trailed out of his jagged maw. “Run from your nightmares!”

Pound took to the air and flew into the cave. “Run!”

“Run, little ponies!” Jeuk’s hoof impacted where Pumpkin’s body was a moment before. She leaped from stone to stone, picking a zigzagging path towards Fluttershy. “Run until your spirits are crushed!”

“Spirits?” Pound halted in midair. His eyes crossed as the gears turned in his head. “Spirit. I have a strong spirit…”

Jeuk’s smile curled down at the edges. “I beg your pardon?”

“You said it before…” Pound puffed his chest out. His wings flapped up a frenzy. “I have a strong spirit.”

“Poorly-chosen words, I agree.”

“And you…” Pound gritted his teeth. “You’re just a spirit.”

Jeuk rolled his burning-ember eyes. “And your point is—?”

Pound barreled hooves-first into Jeuk’s stomach. He flew up at a sharp angle to clock the fairy across the jaw. He rammed his hooves into Jeuk’s face, punctuating each blow with an adrenaline-infused scream.

Jeuk crashed against the wall, his legs curled up to his chest, his wings shedding feathers like snow.

“The point is I just punched out a fairy!” Pound shouted, his heart beating fervently. “You—um—jerk!”

Jeuk’s wings swept aside. He glowered at the colt as he rose into the air. “Strong of spirit, indeed. But weak of mind.

He batted Pound aside, and the colt crashed back-first into the wall. Pound groaned, brushed himself off, and flapped back into the darkness. “Gonna take more than that, you… you… creep!”

With one final leap, Pumpkin reached Discord’s side. She looked up at her brother trading blows with the fairy. Her heart sank. “He’s not gonna last long without help!”

Her eyes fell on Discord’s gemstone necklace. A terrible, hopeful thought struck her. “I—I know that thing won’t hold Jeuk… but maybe it can distract him? Long enough for you to save Fluttershy?”

Discord held the gem tight. “I can’t ask you to—”

“Don’t.” She lit her horn and slid the chain right through his neck. “We can do this together.”

She hopped towards the clash between Pound and Jeuk, each jump carefully placed. “We’re counting on you!”

Discord found himself standing on a straight shot to Fluttershy, unfettered by fairy or pit. He eased himself towards her, reaching out with his hands. “Fluttershy? Can you hear me? It’s Discord.”

He touched the side of her face with a tender talon, hoping against hope that she would respond. “Fluttershy, please. I need my magic back. It’s the only way.”

He shook his head and looked down at his feet. “It’s the only way to save you.”


Fluttershy opened her mouth, but held her breath. She refused to speak her gut reaction, which would have been to deny Happy’s words both loudly and angrily. She also refused to simply fall blubbering to his hooves to beg him to reconsider. When all else failed, she spoke the truth. “I don’t understand.”

“Fluttershy, do you understand what’s going on?” Happy put a comforting hoof to her chest, his eyes still watery. “Your body is being torn to pieces by the chaos. You won’t be able to contain it anymore. It’ll be unleashed upon the world with no intelligence to control it. You’ll hurt everyone around you. Everyone you care about.”

Fluttershy shook her head slowly, side to side. She tore her eyes away from her childhood friend, walking away in the open space. “I just… I wanted to honor you, Happy. All my life, I’ve been trying to live up to your example. You were… you were the most selfless, loving, strong…”

She looked over her shoulder, her heart breaking. “I couldn’t do less. I have to sacrifice myself for Discord, because he’s my friend.”

Happy came alongside her. They looked out over the infinite expanse of eternity, filled with blazing splendor and ever-changing color. Stars—no—dreams spun webs of light as they danced and sang. Dreams of ponies both living and passed, united in those few precious hours of sleep.

“The moment when I jumped in,” he said, “when I saved you… I would never, ever take that moment back. Not for the world. I know it was the right thing to do. I know it every time I see the mare you’ve become. The lives you’ve changed. The wrongs you’ve righted. The mercy you’re willing to show even the most vile of creatures. Mercy has always been your greatest strength.”

He touched her chin and drew her eyes to his. “But this sacrifice you wish to make… It’s one that you cannot shoulder. You were not designed to carry this weight. You are simply not able to bear the brunt of chaos. That is Discord’s duty, and his alone.”

Fluttershy wiped her nose to disguise a sniffle. “But he can’t hold it either.”

“Not alone.” Happy smiled. “You can’t carry his burden, but maybe you can carry him.”

He nuzzled her in the neck, and she returned the gesture. “Pumpkin Cake has the spark of light in her saddlebags. Where there’s light, there’s life. Find that light. Nurture it. Bring Discord back to health.”

He stepped back, his smile smaller. “And I’ll be here, waiting for you. But not until after you’ve lived a good, long, full life.”

Fluttershy choked. She rested her hind legs and sat, wrapping her wings around her body. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“I miss you, too.” Happy raised a hoof. Fluttershy nearly cried out when she saw right through it. “But I’m safe. I’m alive. Heck, I’m thriving.”

His eyes were the last thing to fade into the star-sparkled night. “Tell my mother I love her. And I love you, too.”

“I will,” Fluttershy said to an empty sky. “I love you, Happy.”

She opened her eyes. Pain coursed through every limb. Her stomach churned with energy unknown. Focus was hard to come by, so she latched onto the only real thing in sight: Discord, making his way towards her, calling out to her.

“Fluttershy, please,” Discord said, holding her hoof, his face more frightened than she’d ever seen him. “Please give me back my magic. I need to fix this. For once in my life, let me fix things! You can’t handle this on your own!”

Fluttershy blinked away tears. “I know.”

Discord jolted. His mouth quirked at the corner as his wings spread. “Y-you do? You’ll give me back my magic?”

“Yes.” Fluttershy nodded as hard as she could, through the pain in her neck muscles. “I’m sorry, Discord. I didn’t want to hurt—”

Discord placed a talon across her lips. He grinned at her, his maddened yellow eyes glinting. “Say no more, Fluttershy. Let bygones be bygones and let’s be done with this mess. If you’ll do the honors?”

Fluttershy opened her mouth, took a deep breath in, and let the magic pour out in waves.


Pumpkin sang the five notes in quick succession, and felt the gem latch a successful hold on Jeuk. The fairy slipped towards her, his incorporeal body drawn to her like a magnet to iron. His burning eyes glared holes in her head.

“I’ll break you! You refuse’s refuse!

Before he could contact the gem, before he could shatter it and cut her to ribbons, Pound dove in and clobbered him with a staggering blow. Pumpkin took off, hopping from platform to platform, while Pound kept the fairy from coming too close. It was a game of keep-away, a tetherball of terror.

“You dare strike,” Jeuk said between beatings, “a Princeling of the Unseelie Court?

Pound flexed his sore foreleg muscles. “I’ve got some stress to work out, so yeah.”

Jeuk flapped his wings with the force of a hurricane. Pumpkin felt her hooves being dragged across her fragile foothold as he fought the effects of her gemstone. “Aw, crudbuckets! Whoa!”

Jeuk’s tail whipped Pound across the face, sending the colt sprawling for the umpteenth time that hour. He pressed against the ground in a vain attempt to lift his own weight. “Pumpkin!”

Pumpkin’s luck ran out. She rose into the air, dragged towards Jeuk by the force of her necklace’s spell. The wicked fairy hovered above her, his jagged smile leering at her. He swiveled his long, crooked neck. “It seems I have a choice to make, Little Miss Cake. Shall I enter the necklace only to shatter it with my sheer might? Or shall I simply—” He gestured to the black emptiness beneath them. “—cut my losses?”

He let loose with a mad little giggle as Pumpkin struggled to remove the gem. “Oh,” he said, “both choices would be so very, very amusing.”

“Hay, Chucklehead.”

Jeuk raised an eyebrow. The other trailed a millisecond behind.

Discord hovered in midair with shimmering fists held akimbo. His eyes lit up with mirth, and his smirk was absolutely glorious. “You said something about accepting the cold, sweet embrace of nothingness? Cute line.”

Jeuk probably choked on his own profanities, if his oddly gurgled answer was any indication.

He fled with all the speed of a lightning strike, but was halted short when Discord’s magic, at its full output, tore a hole in the very fabric of time and space.

“Isn’t that where your fairy friends are imprisoned, Jeuk?” Discord held out his talon, which crackled with blinding purples and whites. He widened the gap in reality, warping the very mountain with his power. “The unfathomable Abyss? The empty dimension? The matterless, lifeless, unfeeling prison designed for you and yours?”

“Curse you, Discord!” Jeuk screamed. He tried to flee the staggering tear, but it pulled him in as assuredly as a snake devouring its prey whole. Air flew into the vacuum, decompressing the room with a thunderous roar. “Curse your entire race to the deepest pit of Gehenna!”

Discord scratched his goatee. “Mm. No. No, I think you’ve got that backwards.”

Jeuk grasped for a foothold, but found nothing. A fleeting, murderous grin trailed across his face. He looked down at Pumpkin Cake, to the gemstone lashed to her neck. It lifted towards him, dragging her bodily through the air. “Then I’ll not go alone!

Pumpkin gasped for breath, unable to so much as shout. She clawed at the necklace, trying to find the latch, her mind scrambling for some way out. Some way that didn’t involve closing the portal and setting Jeuk free.

Jeuk spread his wings and crowed with laughter, allowing himself to be dragged into the Abyss. Discord froze for a vital second, his mind torn between Pumpkin’s life and that of his mortal foe. “Pumpkin! Let go!”

Pumpkin’s eyes locked with Jeuk’s, a deadlock as sure as her gemstone’s grip on her neck.

“Pumpkin!” Pound screamed at the top of his lungs. “Phase! Now!”

The triumph left Jeuk’s expression, transferred firmly to Pumpkin’s. She lit her horn and plummeted down, down, down to the darkness below.

The gemstone leaped to Jeuk and pulled him tight. He struggled against its grip, cracking the fractal-covered surface of the enchanted siphon. One leg got free, then a wing, then his tail.

Pound swept in on a gust of wind, swung on his wingtips, and bucked the necklace through the portal.

The princeling’s panicked whinnies followed him into oblivion, and his final imprisonment was heralded by the gemstone shattering in the void.

Discord closed the portal with a snap of his fingers.

Pound and Discord held their breath, staring into the emptiness below. Before long, a sound came forth; that of flapping wings. A glimpse of butter-yellow feathers appeared, followed closely by a raggedy orange mane. Pumpkin held tight to Fluttershy, the both of them smiling up at their friends and family. The four of them met at the cave entrance to look over the tumbling, tumultuous city.

Discord laughed. He cracked his knuckles and stretched his arms. “Boy, have we got some work to do. I think first thing’s first… Voila!”

The mountain parted, allowing Twilight Sparkle and the displacer beasts to climb free. A rope crafted from black licorice swirled around the beasts, restraining them in a handy bundle. Twilight turned wide eyes to Discord, but followed it up with a joyous whoop.

“Now then,” Discord said, whipping up a storm of chaos magic. “Reverto alakazoot!”

At a snap of his fingers, the mountain became stone underhoof. Foodstuff once again sat firm and strong as bedrock and bramble. Jiggling gelatin became sedimentary and igneous. Chocolate grew to mighty trees, and breadcrumbs became pebbles.

“And for my grand finale!” Discord flew into the sky, in plain view for all to see. City-goers and soliders alike beheld the mad chaos spirit hovering overhead, working his magic in his own special way. Wind whipped his mane as magic tickled his ears. Clouds parted, heating the valley with the light of the sun. “This game of Unseelie Roulette is over!

Buildings stood upright. Loose change jumped back into slot machines. Neon signs flared with advertisements and third-rate celebrities. The cloudcrete stood unmoving at last, holding the Pegasus city aloft.

Discord sank to the mountainside and curled up at Fluttershy’s feet. “Okay… maybe I should have stretched first.”

Fluttershy smiled and hugged him tighter than was comfortable. “You did fine! Thank you so much!”

She looked from Discord, to Pound, to Pumpkin, her eyes lighting up at the sight of them. “Thank you all so much. Thank you so much for helping Discord. And…” She turned her eyes down, a little life leaving her smile. “Thank you for helping me.”

“We’ll always be there when you need us,” Pound said, puffing his chest out and lifting his head high. He almost reached her shoulder, but not quite. “’Cuz we’re awesome.”

Pumpkin Cake took a tiny step forward. She looked from Discord, to Pound, to Fluttershy. She reached into her ever-present saddlebags and pulled out a tiny, sparkling piece of hope. “This… this is a seed for a golden apple tree. It’ll take a long time to grow it, but I’m willing to start.”

“And I’ll help,” Pound said with a wink. “You need somebody to water it. Might as well be a pegasus.”

“We—” Fluttershy coughed, wiping her eyes relatively dry. “We’ll plant it in my garden. It’ll be safe there, protected by my critter friends.”

“And I won’t give up hope.” Discord drew them together in a group hug. “Not so long as I have friends.”

He gave them a half-grin, his eyebrows turning upward. “But you’ve just gotta remind me now and again.”

“We will,” Fluttershy said. “Just as long as you remind us, too.”

Pumpkin nestled back. Soldiers crested the cliffside, converging on Twilight Sparkle’s flaring horn. “You know, I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson.”

“Oh yeah?” Pound nudged her with his wing. “What’s that, sis?”

Pumpkin Cake brought her hooves behind her head and lay in the moss. She stared up at a clear blue sky and took in a deep breath.

“Fairies suck.”

Be the Better Mare

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Twilight Sparkle took a small moment to breathe. Just a little. Not enough to slack off, or even really to unwind, but just enough that the oxygen in her bloodstream continued to work its magic on her metabolism. Just enough that her body didn’t succumb to the unconsciousness it so desperately demanded. Just enough so that…

“Princess Twilight,” Skyhook said. “Your eyes are crossing again.”

“Right!” Twilight blinked the cobwebs from her brain. She looked out over the city of Las Pegasus, once again righted and secure. For once, it seemed they’d beaten the Unseelie to the punch. For once, it looked like everything was going to be just fine. It was a strange feeling.

“Everyone lives,” she said to herself. “Just this once, everyone lives.”

Twilight turned her attention to her current duty: Observing the capture of Tirek the Centaur, Lacer the Displacer, and Munchimonious Masticator the Morlock. The three of them followed the Royal Guardsponies with little resistance, all of them as worn out as she felt. Tirek himself seemed confused, as though he could not fathom that he had been defeated once again. “I guess I’m a little tired.”

“You? Tired?” Skyhook shook his head. “All you’ve been doing is near-constantly fighting, only to be called to support a collapsing city and defeat an army of displacer beasts. You do this sort of thing in your sleep.”

“I’m too tired to appreciate sarcasm, Commander.”


Skyhook glanced to either side, his ears swiveling. He chirped once or twice and read the soundwaves as they bounced back. Finding no sign of eavesdroppers, he grimaced. “I had something to bring to your attention. Lacer the Displacer is exhibiting some side-effects of mind-altering magic.”

That got Twilight to sit up and take notice. “What? How? None of our necklaces had the enchantment required. There would have to be a third party, unless—”

Twilight Sparkle glanced across the way. Near the train station, Adagio Dazzle attempted to flirt with a very-uncomfortable Coldstone. She batted her curls and fluttered her eyes as the muscular crystal pony bustled away as fast as possible.

“Unless the former siren isn’t as former as we thought.” Twilight Sparkle’s hoof went to the gemstone around her neck, the one designed to allow normal speaking to those without a voice. “And since the sirens are suspected allies of the Unseelie…”

Skyhook’s tail swished as his legs tensed. “Would she have helped us if she was working with the Unseelie?”

“Did she have a choice?” Twilight Sparkle stood up to pace. She soon sat back down when her legs nearly gave out beneath her. “There’s still so much we don’t understand.”

Skyhook hoisted himself to his feet. He pawed at the sharpened claws attached to his greaves. “Do you want me to take her in for questioning?”

Twilight Sparkle rubbed her eyes. Adagio Dazzle blew a raspberry at the departing Coldstone, then commenced a search for more a more promising fishing spot. “I’m tempted. But I don’t think it’s wise.”

Twilight spread her wings and lit her horn. She traced a pinprick of light through the air, writing a quick list in the air with in shimmering shorthand. “She saved Pound and Pumpkin Cakes’ lives. She equipped our entire force with magical siphons—I’m still not sure how those things work, by the way, the design’s completely genius. She agreed to help Discord even though she clearly hates his guts. She is, unbelievably enough, a friend.”

She erased the list from her vision. “But I also don’t want to risk eliminating our best lead.”

Commander Skyhook lowered his eyebrows. “So we watch her.”

“Closely.” Twilight Sparkle swallowed hard, a sick little feeling welling up in her stomach as Adagio gunned for Windblown. “Very, very closely.”


Discord, Pound, Pumpkin, and Fluttershy descended the mountain together. It wasn’t long before they found a more solid, smooth path; a carefully-paved road leading to the train station. Yawns were shared as they bumped into each other on the way down.

Pumpkin Cake reached into her saddlebags and gave Chewie a faint squeaka. Beside him lay the tiny golden seed. She lingered on that tiny speck of hope, feeling the warmth enter her hoof. Like a little buzz of ambrosia, a miniature hearth fire. She glanced to Discord to see him watching Fluttershy limp forward. He caught her eye and sent her a wink.

Pound stopped in his tracks, patting Pumpkin on the shoulder. She gave him her best bemused look, before taking in the shock in his eyes. She turned to see what had caught his attention, and quickly shared his expression.

Princess Celestia, High Princess of Equestria, stepped out of the train, her wings glowing with sunlight. Her mane and tail waved in the wind, not quite as radiant as in the pictures, but close. A predominant pink shade trailed through her hair, intertwined with rainbows of living color. Her raiment glittered alongside her coat, dazzling the eyes without quite blinding.

Pumpkin Cake bowed as soon as her wits could react. Pound bowed so fast he nearly face-planted, but a quick flap of his wings set his balance straight. Fluttershy bowed at a far more sedate pace, while Discord merely curtsied.

“Hello, My Little Ponies,” Princess Celestia said. “And Discord.”

“Your majesty.” Fluttershy raised her head, her eyelids low. “It’s good to see you.”

“It does my heart good to see all of you well.” Celestia smiled. A weighty smile, Pumpkin noticed, but no less happy. “I hear it has been quite the struggle these past couple of weeks.”

“You can say that again,” Pumpkin said. Pound shook his head, warning her off, but she figured she’d earned her piece. “Sneaking off into the woods, chased by displacer beasts, attacked by Tirek, hounded by an evil fairy, teamed up with a siren, and then we climbed a mountain.” She rolled her eyes, letting her muddled curls bounce against her shoulders. “I’m bushed!”

“Not to mention,” Pound added, “being kidnapped, tortured, and brainwashed.” He shrugged. “Just as a general thing.”

“But we’re finally safe from Jeuk.” Pumpkin bounded forward, fishing through her saddlebags. She produced the seed and held it out to the princess. “And we finally, finally, have the thing we need to save Discord once and for all! Right?”

Fluttershy’s ears drooped. She covered her body with her wings, hiding behind her mane.

Pumpkin glanced around at the four faces around her. “Right?”

Celestia turned her weighted smile to Discord. “Discord, Spirit of Chaos, how do you feel?”

“Better than ever,” he said, flexing his noodle-like arms. “I could box a manticore for ten rounds and never break a sweat. Because of the mini-fan I keep in my pocket, see.”

Celestia’s nose turned down as her wings drooped. “I see. That is what I hoped to hear.”

“Then—” Pumpkin chanced a step closer, her heart dropping to her stomach. “Then why’re you still sad?”

Celestia looked Discord eye-to-eye, frowning quietly. She turned to Pumpkin with a sigh. “The chaos magic built up inside of him… it was ravaging his body, tearing him apart from the inside out, breaking down his very memories. Using that magic, expelling the excess, has slowed that process…”

She bit her lip, folding her wings across her back. “But it never stops it.”

She flicked an ear and pointed her horn at Pumpkin. “He needs that tree. Now that we are so close to a cure, the need to keep him… himself is greater than ever before. But that requires great use of his magic.”

“But—” Discord sat beside Fluttershy, running his talons across her wings. “But the whole reason I’ve been keeping it bottled up was so that I never hurt ponies. Not my friends, not the ponies of Ponyville, not anybody. Even the most minor thing can spiral out of control. A stream becomes a dam, a shower becomes a deluge, so on and so forth.”

He held his paw and talon out to her. “It’s the nature of chaos to be unpredictable and destructive.”

“And yet.” Celestia pointed a wing to the city overhead. “Las Pegasus stands before us. Thanks to you.”

Discord looked up at the flickering lights and vast crowds. Many ponies cheered his name. Flowers and balloons were thrown in celebration. At least one pony was trying to light fireworks.

“Your powers are a gift, Discord. Capable of many great and mighty things.” Celestia touched a wingtip to his shoulder. “Dangerous, yes, but still so very good. They just need the proper time, place, and aid.”

“So to keep himself complete,” Fluttershy said, “he needs to use his magic more often.”

“But in a safe place.” Celestia pursed her lips. “And that is why I’ve come to you today.”

“Wait…” Pumpkin shook her head. She waved a hoof, warding off unthinkable thoughts. “Wait, you can’t be serious. You can’t!”

Celestia raised her head, half-spreading her wings. “What do you—?”

“You can’t send him away!” Pumpkin leaped between Discord and the princess, holding her tiny legs out as far as she could. “You can’t just send him away to some far-off city, or desert, or anywhere he’d be alone!”

Celestia clicked her tongue. “It’s just until the tree bears fruit—”

“The tree’ll take hundreds of years to grow!” Pumpkin’s breath hurt. She fought off the sobs aching to burst from her chest. Her weariness meshed with her heartache in a violent mess of emotions and adrenaline. “Adagio said so! He can’t be alone for hundreds of years! He’ll forget us! He’ll forg—me—”

She buried her head in her hooves, dropping the seed and letting it roll away from her. Celestia took a step back to watch it halt a meter away, glittering faintly. Her forehead furrowed as she brought a hoof to her chest.

Pound Cake touched his sister’s shoulders. He turned her face up until she looked him in the eye. “Pumpkin. No. Don’t you understand? They’re doing this so that he can use his magic without hurting anybody. So that he can keep his memory longer. Long enough for the tree to grow. Long enough for the apples to bloom. Long enough so that he can finally be himself without being afraid.”

She hugged him tight, unable to speak without making a fool of herself. Hiccups joined her tears as the pain lessened.

Pound nodded to Discord, his voice carrying the faintest shiver. “J-just think of all the good you could do if you weren’t afraid.”

Discord scrunched his muzzle, twiddling thumbs Pumpkin wasn’t sure he naturally had. “Where did you have in mind, Princess?”

“As far as possible,” Celestia said, “but not as far as you think.”

Fluttershy held Discord close, nuzzling him lightly as the four of them listened.

“There is a place on the far side of the world,” Celestia said, “the land where the sun sets. It was long ago abandoned by Tirek’s people, and has only recently become inhabitable these last few thousand years. Luna and I traveled there on our quest to attain the Elements of Harmony, and there encountered many strange and wonderful things.”

Celestia smirked. “It seems only fitting that you return to the place where I first met you. When you were not an enemy, but a strange creature lost and alone, frolicking without a care through the fields.” Her smile faded into dreariness, clouded over by memories long grayed with time. “Perhaps it was our meeting that hastened your madness. And perhaps it was my negligence that forced us to turn you to stone.”

She reached down and lifted the seed. It twinkled in the pad of her hoof, like a star in the morning. “A negligence I see no sign of here.”

She leaned over to press the seed into Pumpkin’s grip. “I see no negligence in you, Pumpkin Cake. I see strength, determination, and love. I see wisdom, fortitude, and perseverance in Pound Cake. And truly, there is no match for Fluttershy’s kindness, mercy, and patience.”

Celestia blinked. She may have wiped her eyes with a spell, but it was too quick to say for sure. “And you, Discord. I see in you a larger heart than anyone else, capable of so much love, and such a great love, that words cannot describe it.”

“Beggin’ yer pardon, ma’am.” Discord tipped a cowpony hat, one with a pretty little flower stuck to the brim. “But I ain’t seen hide nor hair of this big love you done spoke of.”

“Yes, well—” Celestia laughed lightly. “—we often overlook our own best qualities.”

Pound craned his head back to stare at the sky. “Boy, that’s for sure.”

Fluttershy whined in the back of her throat. “Wh—when does Discord move to his new home?”

Pumpkin Cake rushed over to hug Discord, an embrace he returned immediately.

“As soon as possible.” Celestia pointed her horn to the draconequus. “Time is always of the essence.”

Discord looked to the young friend in his arms. He sniffled and cracked a shaky grin. “Well… thank you, Pumpkin.”

“It’s not fair!” Pumpkin choked. She looked away, but couldn’t bring herself to let go. “I was supposed to save you. I was supposed to heal you.”

Discord swallowed hard. His wings fluttered slowly in their mismatched, haphazard way. “But you did, Pumpkin. You saved me in the only way that mattered. You healed me in the only way that’ll last.”

He picked the seed up between his talons and brought it close to his face. He grinned at her. “And now you’ll help me in the best way possible.”

He reached over to add Fluttershy to the hug. He looked between his two best friends in all the world. “Of all the lifetimes I’ve lived, this is the one I want to keep the most.”

Celestia’s horn sparked, summoning diagrams and equations in the air. “Discord, if you would open a portal to this location…”

Discord stood up and studied the symbols, cupping his chin in his paw. He nodded occasionally, sounded out words, or muttered incoherently to himself. Once a period of time had passed, he snapped his talon.

A hole appeared in the time-space continuum, much less violently than the portal to the Abyss. Through it, Pumpkin could see a warm sky, filled with oranges and reds. Rich grass and vibrant flowers dotted a majestic landscape. Water continued on in the form of an ocean with no opposite shore in sight. A bunny popped his head through the portal, before leaping completely through.

“I hope he’s not related to Angel,” Discord mumbled.

He stood at the cusp of a new land, the Far Side of the World. He paused, rubbing his hands together, sucking on his lower lip. A warm breeze hailed from the direction of the setting sun, brilliant in all its glory. He tapped a foot, shuffling back and forth.

“A place to call my own,” he said quietly. “A place free of any dangers, or fetters, or pain.”

He looked back over his shoulder. “Or friends.”

Fluttershy flapped up to rest her hooves on his back. “Oh, Princess Celestia! Please say we can visit him! He needs an audience as much as we need food! He lives for it!”

“And… and life without Discord…” Pumpkin Cake reached up to grasp his paw. “Well, that’d just be boring.”

Pound Cake rose into the air, coming almost-but-not-quite to Celestia’s height. “Yeah, I mean… It’d be silly to not let him see his friends, right? We don’t want to give him even a single chance to forget.”

Celestia smiled. A bright, genuine smile, free from heaviness. “Of course, my friends. Of course he can have visitors. It will take a great deal of magic and preparation, but any time he wishes, he can open a direct portal to Equestria. To Ponyville, even. There will always be room for Discord’s friends in his new home.”

“Good.” Discord gazed intently at the Far Side of the World. “Good, because I don’t want to leave for real without saying goodbye to all my friends. And frenemies, in Twilight Sparkle’s case. Nothing like a good rivalry between science and hilarity, that’s what I say.”

He turned around to face them, one paw holding Fluttershy’s hoof, the other talon holding Pumpkin’s hoof. “I love you both. You are the best friends I’ve ever had.”

With that, he stepped backwards through the portal, danced his fingers in a little wave, and vanished from view.

Pumpkin’s legs lowered her gently to the pavement. She stared at the warm seed in her care, blinking back a fresh wave of tears.

Discord’s head materialized beside her, his neck sticking through a small hole in the fabric of space-time. “Hi, there. Just checking this whole ‘portal anytime’ thing. Using up a little chaos magic here and there. That whole song and dance.”

He winked at Fluttershy, who giggled. “No goodbyes,” he said. “I’ll see you later.”

He blipped out of sight, blowing a kiss at Las Pegasus for good measure.

“Now, My Little Ponies,” Celestia said, “it is time for you to return home as well.”

Pumpkin Cake eyed the small capsule of life in her hoof. She slid it into her bag for safekeeping, right beside Chewie. She, Fluttershy, and Pound walked in step towards the train, and slipped into the passenger car.

“Boy,” she muttered. “We’re a long way from Ponyville.”


Celestia breathed in cool air in the light of the setting sun. It was Cadence’s turn to put the celestial object to rest. Even so, Celestia couldn’t help reaching out with a faint, feeble spell to touch the warmth and magic of the sunset.

“They’re gonna fail, you know.”

Celestia’s ears twitched at an unfamiliar voice. She looked down to see an earth pony mare, aged, with graying, curly locks. “Adagio Dazzle, I presume?”

“You know it, babe.” Adagio leaned on the back of a nearby bench. The train’s whistle called out from a distance as it crested a hill at the horizon. “Former siren, one-time most-wanted, attempted winner of the battle of the bands.”

A sly, slimy smirk trailed its way across Adagio’s muzzle. “And currently, a citizen of Equestria.”

Celestia nodded halfheartedly, gazing absently into the distance, her shoulders as tense as a ship’s sail in a hurricane. “Congratulations. It’s always a treat to see someone embrace friendship and harmony.”

“Sure is.” Adagio popped a gumball in her mouth and chewed nosily. She blew a bubble as large as her head. It popped without ever touching her messy mane. “You know they’re gonna fail, right? Golden apples will never materialize, Discord will go crazy, and the Elements of Harmony will blaze their way to petrification.”

She blew a bubble in her mouth and chomped down with a resounding snap! “Another friendship gone kerflooey. The dummy just wasn’t made for lasting relationships.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Celestia said. She narrowed her eyes, spreading her wings to catch the last glimmers of orange from the sky. “But I don’t think so.”

“Oh, no?” Snap! Pop! “Look, Princess, if a thousand years haven’t knocked the stars from your eyes, I don’t think a couple more will do the trick. What makes you think this time’ll be different?”

Celestia pursed her lips and sucked in a deep sigh. “Because I believe Fluttershy is a better mare than I ever was.”

She raised an eyebrow to glance down at the shorter mare. “And I believe Pumpkin will become a better mare than you’ll ever be.”

Adagio scowled. She stuck the used gum to the bottom of the bench and rounded the train platform. She came as close to eye-to-eye as possible. “Izzat so? You makin’ all these assumptions without even meeting me. Well I got you one better, your worshipfulness.”

She prodded Celestia in the chest, right atop a deep scar earned from painful memories. “At least I tried to cure him. That’s a heck of a lot more than you ever did.”

Crow’s feet appeared around Celestia’s eyes as she frowned. “My point exactly.”

Adagio’s hoof clattered to the wooden platform. She tilted her head, her forehead furrowing. With a click of her feet, she turned to walk to a nearby snack machine. “You’re a weird mare to figure out, Princess.”

“As are you, Adagio Dazzle…” Celestia returned her attention to the vanishing point; the place where the horizon met the sky. “As are we all…”


The train chugged into Ponyville station in the middle of the night, having finished its princess-commissioned route. Only family was there to meet the passengers; family, and the closest of friends.

Rainbow Dash was the first to scoop Fluttershy up in a hug. She was closely followed—and overpowered—by a horde of woodland creatures headed by a particular bunny and a passionate bear. Fluttershy smiled as she offered a kiss on the forehead to each creature who greeted her.

Pumpkin and Pound Cake yawned in concert as they stepped off the train. A squeal of delight flew through the sky alongside their younger sister, Patty. The little blue-maned pegasus threw her weight at Pound, knocking him to his rump. Their younger brother, Rice, followed at a more sedate, wobbly pace. The toddler nuzzled against Pumpkin with a gentle coo.

Pinkie Pie scooped all four of them into a bear-hug to make Fluttershy’s friend jealous. In the next breath, Cup and Carrot made the family hug whole, tears of joy and relief pouring down their faces.

Carrot Cake tried and failed to look stern even as he held them tight. “N-now… now, no more adventures until you’re older. Understand?”

“Listen to your father,” Cup said. “Also, you’re grounded.”

“Figured that was coming.” Pumpkin said. She nuzzled into her mother’s mane. “I missed you.”

Pound bit back a tear as he squeezed his family. “I love you guys so much.”

Pinkie Pie pouted. “Does this mean I’m grounded for unsupervised adventuring, too?”

“What?” Carrot Cake shook his head. “Pinkie, you’re twenty-five.”

“But I’m a kid at heart.”

“Do… Hum.” Carrot rolled his eyes with feigned resignation. “Fine, you can be grounded, too.”

“Yes! Wait—darn!” Pinkie plucked Pumpkin and Pound from the folds of the embrace and plopped them onto her back. “I guess the three of us are gonna have to hang out and swap adventuring stories! Did I ever tell you the one about Cheese Sandwich, Braeburn, and the Tatzlwurm?”

Pumpkin smirked as she leaned on the back of Pinkie’s head. “Is it the one where the sweat runs down their flanks in a dreamy fashion as they race to the rescue?”

Pound gaged and pointed his hoof down his throat.

Pinkie clicked her tongue. “I might have embellished that one just a little.”

Fluttershy blinked owlishly as the last of her animal charges received their gesture of affection. She looked up at the midnight moon, the pressure from the day pulling at her back. “I think I need to nap. Maybe for a week. Or a year.”

“Sure thing,” Rainbow said. “You can crash at my place tonight. I mean, it’s better than walking to the edge of town at this hour. The bar just got out and… yeah.”

Fluttershy twitched her nose in Harry the Bear’s direction. “I don’t think I have much to fear, Rainbow.”

“Well, no, but…” Rainbow Dash opened a wing and scooped Fluttershy up in a half-hug. “Do it for me, then, okay? I’ll feel better if I know you’re okay.”

Fluttershy smiled and leaned against Rainbow. “If it’ll make you feel better.”

“We can try out this awesome new thing I discovered.” Rainbow Dash hovered a meter aboveground, leading Fluttershy by the hoof. She swung her free foreleg out, encompassing what was visible of Ponyville. “So, you put on a movie, right? Easy to do with my home theater. So then, while the movie’s going, you take a nap!

Fluttershy shook her head lightly. “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of watching a movie?”

“No, no, see, because it’s like having white noise. It totally lulls you to sleep.” Rainbow Dash grinned, giggling in the back of her throat. “It’s like peoplewatching while you nap over Mane Street, except the stallions are hotter and the mares are prettier.”

Fluttershy bumped shoulders with her childhood friend. “How can I resist the temptation?”

“You can’t, so don’t even try!” Rainbow Dash let go of Fluttershy to loop-de-loop through the air. “We don’t even have to watch a movie I’m in. I’ve got Ben Furr, the new Space Trek movies, some goofy romance flick with Russet Crow, The Mummy Wraps Up, The Fungus That Walks Like a Pony, all the Frankenpony films starring Bor—”

“I’m sure they’re all wonderful,” Fluttershy said, placing a feather over Rainbow’s mouth. “But I’m sure I can sleep through all of them right now.”

“Perfect!” Rainbow Dash covered her mouth as her voice echoed throughout downtown Ponyville. The dead of night answered back in its usual way, safe from angry sleepers. She continued at a whisper. “I’ll get the popcorn ready just in case you’re hungry. How long since your last meal?”

Fluttershy thought, and came up with no answer. “Being possessed by chaos really doesn’t lend itself to a three-meal schedule.”

“Popcorn and candy. Got it!” Rainbow smiled as her mansion loomed into view, its rainbow falls sparkling with color and its crystalline ice pillars radiating moonlight. “I’m really glad you’re safe, ‘Shy. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Fluttershy shrugged, following Rainbow Dash to the porch with flocks of her winged friends flanking her on either side. A small snack, then rest; that’s what she needed. Safe, secure, satisfied rest.


It was the noon hour before Fluttershy could bring herself to greet the world once more. A lengthy shower eased the grime from her coat, and a delicious meal (with a little more sustenance than popcorn) gave strength to her limbs. She sat at the window for a while, watching ponies taking their lunch hour, just breathing in a taste of serenity.

Rainbow Dash scratched herself as she popped her head into her living room. “Hay, you doing okay? Need another carrot dog? I can heat some coals on the grill out back.”

“No thanks,” Fluttershy said. She leaned on her knee, pressing her cheek against the cool pane of glass. “I’m just getting myself ready for what I need to do today.”

“Oh yeah?” Rainbow flopped upside down, her wings spread and motionless, her magic keeping her aloft. “What’s up? Kinda thought you’d earned yourself a vacay.”

“It’s not much.” Fluttershy sucked on her lips, her wings drooping. “I have a favor to do… for an old friend.”

Rainbow raised an eyebrow. “Discord?”

“No.” Fluttershy brushed her mane from her eye. “Happy.”

“Whoa.” Rainbow flipped over to land on all four hooves. “You mean that colt you totally had a crush on until—”

“Yeah.” Fluttershy nodded. “Him.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. She glanced around the room, searching for an anchor point. She found none. “So… you wanna talk about it?”

“No,” Fluttershy said. “I’ve got to… save my emotional strength. It’s a long story, but… I’ll tell you some other time.”

“Fair’s fair.” Rainbow rubbed the back of her head. “You want company when you talk with Missus Mare?”

“I’ve got to do this alone.” Fluttershy swallowed hard. “Thank you, but this is something just between Merry and me.”

“Alright.” Rainbow leaned against her doorframe, grinding her teeth lightly. “You headed home afterwards?”


“Cool.” Rainbow Dash’s tail swayed behind her. “Let me know if you need anything. Absolutely anything.”

Fluttershy trotted to her side and gave her a warm hug. “Thank you. I will.”

Rainbow Dash led Fluttershy to the front door and waved her off. It wasn’t long after she made landfall that she was surrounded by a pack of woodland creatures, all eager to see her to safety. The ponies and assorted other creatures of Ponyville gave the wildlife a wide berth, most looking on with something between bemusement and annoyance.

She arrived at a particular office in downtown within a few minutes of walking. It was located off a side-road at the end of Mane Street, not far from Twilight’s castle. Fluttershy requested that her animal friends remained outside, and they scattered out of sight. She placed her hoof on the familiar-feeling handle and pulled.

The office was stuffy, but in a manner that was more homey than clinical. The receptionist plucked away at their typewriter, never bothering to look up. “Do you have an appointment?”

“No, Truffles.” Fluttershy took a seat near the front door, beside a table overflowing with out-of-date magazines. “I’m just here as a friend.”

Truffle Hunter glanced away from his work, the light of recognition sparking in his eyes. “Oh, hay, Fluttershy. Merry was hoping you’d stop by. We were all real glad when we found out you were alright.”

“Thank you, Truffles.” Fluttershy smiled at the young stallion. “I really appreciate it—”

A door on the far side of the lobby clicked open. Roseluck peered through the crack, squinting across the way until she caught sight of Fluttershy. “Fluttershy! You’re alright!”

She rushed up and was met with a quick embrace. She pulled back to get a good look at the butter-yellow pegasus. “Oh, heavens above! You’re looking well, especially after all we’ve heard! It does my heart good to see you up and about, Shy.”

“I’ll second that,” Merry Mare said. She let the door shut behind her, offering a brilliant smile. “I suppose we’re set up for the same time this Friday, Rose?”

“Absolutely.” Roseluck bobbed her head. “I’ve got to get back to the shop, but I’m very happy to see you, Fluttershy.”

She left in a flurry of flowers, leaving Fluttershy alone with Merry and Truffle Hunter.

Merry Mare tapped on Truffle’s desk. “No more appointments until two, Truffles. As far as this mare’s concerned, the doctor is out.”

“I hear you loud and clear, Counselor.” Truffle Hunter threw a mock salute and returned to typing.

Merry locked eyes with Fluttershy and jerked her head towards the back room. “Come on, we’ll have some privacy in my office. I suspect you’ve got a story or two to tell, after everything that’s happened.”

“I do have that,” Fluttershy said, following her in, “but there’s something more important I need to share.”

She took a seat in the long couch Merry had in the office. It was sparsely decorated, and what was there was mostly to add to a serene, comfortable atmosphere. Pictures of flowers, warm colors, pristine wood trim. Professional to a fault.

“Well, you’ve caught me on my lunch break, so let’s have at it.” Merry latched the door behind her and took a seat in a comfy chair beside the couch. “What happened that’s important enough for you to visit little old me just after such an arduous journey?”

Fluttershy craned her neck to look at Merry’s oaken desk. There, right by her typewriter, was a tiny photograph of a happier time. A small colt, a young filly, and a joyous mother leaned into the picture being taken by a proud father.

A tear snuck out from beneath Fluttershy’s composure. “I saw him, Merry.”

Merry’s smile melted. She followed Fluttershy’s gaze and found the photo. “Saw who, Fluttershy?”

“Happy.” Fluttershy fought to keep her voice stable enough to talk. “I spoke with him.”

“H-how?” Merry stood, her eyes wide, her mouth twitching. “How is this possible? When did this happen?”

“When I was… when I was in the throes of chaos.” Fluttershy wrapped herself in her wings, smoothing an odd feather down with her hoof. “I was carried away by a fairy, and… and she brought me to him.”

Merry paused with a raised hoof. She shook her head, backing away, returning to her chair. “Oh, Fluttershy. You couldn’t have seen him.”

Fluttershy’s head popped up. “But I did—”

“No, Fluttershy, you couldn’t have.” Merry’s teeth tightened behind a neutral expression. “You were overrun by chaos. In a terrible mental state, not in control of yourself—”

“I saw him, Merry.” Fluttershy sat up, reaching across the space with her wings. She touched Merry’s hooves, sending comfort her way. “He was as real as you or I. He’s all grown up. He’s so handsome. You’d be so proud. So kind and gentle…”

Merry shook her head, but couldn’t look away from Fluttershy. Not for a moment.

“He lives in the night sky, now.” Fluttershy blinked salt from her eyelashes. “He’s safe where he is. He’s glad to be there, where dreams never die. Where creatures laugh and play all day long. Where you can hear starsong, Merry. Starsong. He loves us. He loves me, and you…”

She choked, but powered through the meat of her message; the core of truth she had to share. “He told me that we each have a light burning inside us. One that’s so bright it can never burn out. It was inside him, it’s inside me… and it’s inside you. He’s afraid you’ve forgotten, Merry, but he wants you to remember it so bad.”

Merry pulled from Fluttershy’s touch. She removed her glasses and placed them on her desk, beside the photograph. She held her breath and her tongue, but only for a moment.

“If he was able to speak with you,” she whispered, “why can’t he speak to me?”

“He’s afraid that—” Fluttershy cleared her throat. “—that you wouldn’t be receptive. That you wouldn’t listen. That… his pleas would fall on deaf ears.”

She looked away, towards the simple carpet. “But I know you needed to hear it. Like I needed to hear it.”

Merry pinched the bridge of her nose. He looked over her bookshelf, stuffed with tomes of psychology, interpersonal relations, and medical diagnoses. Her throat was strained. “Fluttershy, you were not in your right mind. You were hallucinating. Experiencing a mild psychotic break; your mind’s way of interpreting, or perhaps ignoring, the pressures on your body.”

Merry.” Fluttershy put a little more force into her voice than she intended, but she meant every word. “I saw him. I touched him. I kissed him goodbye. He was unmistakably, undeniably real.”

“If he was capable of speaking to anybody,” Merry snapped, her tone hushed, “he would have spoken to me by now.”

Fluttershy spread her forelegs, her heart breaking. Shattering. “I can only tell you what happened.”

Merry placed her hooves on Fluttershy’s shoulders. She looked right into her eyes, their foreheads nearly touching. “Fluttershy, it wasn’t real.”

Fluttershy shuddered at her longtime friend’s touch. It was cold, hard, terrified. Pain flashed in Merry’s eyes, desperate for the world to make sense. Fluttershy longed to ease Merry’s pain, to agree with her, to reassure her she was right. “Merry… he was real to me. Maybe that’s what counts.”

Merry backed away. She nodded, her eyes red. She brushed past Fluttershy and kicked open the door. “Truffle Hunter, reschedule my appointments today.”

Truffle Hunter glanced up. “What? All of the—?”

“Please.” Merry glanced back at Fluttershy, but just as quickly pushed her from sight. “I need a personal day. Please.”

“O… kay…” Truffle Hunter rolled a new sheet of paper into his typewriter. “So the counselling session with Cloudkicker—?”

“Wednesday.” Merry waved him off, already headed for the doorway. “Or whatever. Just work it out with her!”

She slammed the door behind her, leaving Fluttershy with her stomach swimming.

She tiptoed into the lobby, barely daring to let her heart beat at all. Truffle Hunter took one look at her, then showed an expression that said he wanted nothing to do with the drama. “Can I get you something, Miss Fluttershy?”

“No, Truffles.” Fluttershy sighed. “I think I have all I can deal with right now.”

She left the office and stopped mere meters from the entrance. The world moved around her, a sea of pastels and grays, faceless and uncaring. She plodded through the mass, her eyes hollow, her breath a constant sigh.

“Ach, and ye’re lookin’ like ye found a rock in yer plum puddin’.”

Fluttershy lifted her eyes to see Cloudkicker waddling down the street, having grown very pregnant indeed. The rambunctious pegasus mare stopped to take a breath, shaking her head. “Ye’re a difficult mare tae track doon, ye ken? Soon as I heard ye were back in town, none the worse for the wear, I set aboot huntin’ fer ye. Tae see ye wit me own eyes.”

Cloudkicker wrapped a foreleg around Fluttershy’s neck. “So then I hear ye been all but kidnapped by Rainbow Daft of all ponies! Fittin’ tae say the least. Ye look fit as a fiddle, if nae fer the storm cloud hangin’ o’erhead.”

“I-I had another argument with Merry.” Fluttershy rubbed the end of her snout. “I don’t think I’m getting through to her.”

Cloudkicker frowned. She clicked her tongue and subtly led Fluttershy down the road. “Some people dinnae want to be happy. They’re afraid that they’ll forget.”

“Forget what?”

“What made them happy in the first place, I ken. Pregnant mare walkin’!” Cloudkicker shoved a particularly annoying pony out of her way none-too-kindly. “But dinnae let that bring ye doon. Ye do what ye can, and ye more than most.”

Fluttershy let her head droop. “I’m sorry I lost your father’s whistle.”

“Dinnae fret.” Coudkicker sighed, giving Fluttershy an added squeeze. “After what I heard o’ Las Pegasus, I supposed as much. An’ it nae harm none.”

Fluttershy glanced around, taking note that they were headed towards the southeast side of town, rather than towards her home. “Where are you leading me?”

“Pay nae mind,” Cloudkicker said, waving her free hoof airily. “I’m just an ol’ hormone-infused lunatic lookin’ tae stir up some trouble.”


“An’ this be where I part ways.” Cloudkicker winked, booting Fluttershy’s rump with a soft punt. “Don’t get yerself intae too much trouble, ye ken?”

With that, the formerly ponderous mare vanished from sight. Fluttershy rolled her eyes and took stock of her location. She stood before the Silver Spoon restaurant, whose patronage was light for a lunch hour. She rubbed the back of her neck, shrugged, and turned towards home.

She ran face-first into Bulk Biceps’ muscular chest. She backpedaled, her face heating up like a wood-burning stove. “Snowflake! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there!”

“Uuuh…” Bulk’s normally pale white face turned a pretty shade of peach. “Likewise, Mizz Fluttershy. I mean, I saw you, but I figured you were going to stop a few steps sooner than you did, and so I just kinda waited there like a big lump.”

Fluttershy twisted her hoof in the road. “I guess if I had to bump into somepony, I’d rather it be a friend like you.”

“I’m, uh…” Bulk Biceps reached up to twist his tiny bowtie in knots. “I, um, I’m glad to see that you’re alright. We—we looked all over for you, but—”

He shrugged, and it was like a mountain moving. “I’m glad you’re okay. I really didn’t want you to be hurt.”

“I’m alive.” Fluttershy tilted her head until her cheek rested on her shoulder. “Despite everything, it turned out mostly okay.”

Bulk grinned halfheartedly. “Mostly?”

“There’s always something.” Fluttershy waved a wing at the Silver Spoon. “You’re headed to your shift?”

“Oh, shoot, yeah!” He coughed, straightening his tie alongside the rest of his waiter’s outfit. “Gettin’ in early today ‘cause Featherweight’s got a job interview tonight. Says he wants my help gettin’ ready. Makin’ his way in the world; that’s my boy…”

Fluttershy giggled. “Working at the newspaper?”

“Got it in one.” Bulk Biceps glanced at the entrance to see Silver Spoon tapping a watch, her eyes narrowed. “I should get to work. I guess it was nice seeing you.”

Fluttershy fluttered her eyelashes. “It was nice seeing you, too.”

Bulk held his breath. He danced on his hooves just outside the restaurant. “F-Fluttershy—”

Fluttershy looked over her shoulder. “Yes?”

“I… I just wanted to…” Bulk Biceps wiped sweat from his forehead. “I’ve been thinkin’, since you’ve been gone…”

Fluttershy pursed her lips, her wings spreading ever so slightly. “What is it, Snowflake?”

“I’m just… It’s silly…” Bulk let his head droop, letting it shake side to side. “I’m practically twice your age.”

Fluttershy couldn’t help but laugh. “You are not twice my age. You’re only thirty-eight.”

Bulk snorted. “Practically a spring chicken.”

He looked her in the eyes for a brief instant. Long enough for Fluttershy to catch them. They were strong, like his body, but in a different way. Not a harsh strength, nor a quiet one. A proud strength, that fought to be sure of what it wanted. Certain of its intentions. Aching for boldness.

“Fluttershy, would you…” Bulk only hesitated for a moment longer. “Would you like to have dinner with me sometime? You’re a lovely mare in every sense of the word, and I’d very much like to… to know you better.”

Fluttershy ducked behind her mane. “Of course I would.”

“You…” Bulk Biceps’ mouth made a little “O” shape. “You would?”

“Yes.” Fluttershy bit her bottom lip. “Definitely.”

“Well—” Bulk glanced back at Silver Spoon, who had upgraded her glare to an over-the-glasses heat ray. “Well great! Yeah! Is, uh, tomorrow okay?”

“I’ll be ready,” Fluttershy said. “Maybe six?”

“Six in the evening. I can work with that.” Bulk rose up on his tiny wings and did a slow, plodding loop over the hedges surrounding the restaurant. “Yeah!

Fluttershy tottered on her legs. She pressed a hoof against her cheek, smiling through the rosy tint on her cheeks. “I said yes. I can’t believe I said yes!”

She danced through the air on her way home. The old, familiar cottage waited for her in its sunny glade, surrounded by woodland and expertly-tended gardens. She floated over her carrots and pumpkins in a bumblebee’s flight path towards the front door. Angel Bunny opened it before she could knock, and ushered her in with a triumphant squeak. Things were running smoothly. At long last, though, he was ready to let her take the reins again.

A bouquet of flowers waited on the table in her living room, of a species she’d never seen before. They rose tall, with a strange, bulblike flower on the end, split down the middle. A note was taped to the stem:

Flowers from the Far Side of the World. I think I’ll call them tulips, because they kinda look like two monkey lips puckering. See you for tea on Thursday.

Your Chaotic Friend,

Fluttershy clutched the note to her chest and lay back on her couch. Her wings enveloped her as Angel rested in her flowing mane. The warm sunlight left a fuzzy feeling in her coat, and all around, animal calls came together to create her favorite song in all the world.

She would live a full, long life, just like Happy wanted. And perhaps, with a little gumption, she’d be able to live it without fear.


“Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo!”

Tirek the Demon King—Devourer of Magic, Conqueror of Equestria, Exile from the Far Side of the World, and Keeper of the Rainbow of Darkness—let his head thump against the iron bars of his cell. Children. He’d been defeated by children.

“Bo, bo-bo! Bo, bo-bo!”

He raised his horned head and grimaced. The Smooze bubbled in its cauldron a mere single cell away from Tirek’s. Fitting, for the single-cell organism. At least he thought it was single-celled. It seemed rather amoeba-esque.

“Lord Tirek
Has returned
Beaten down and bruised”

“Should have stayed
In his cell
Hanging out with
The Smooze!”

He let his head meet the bars once more, a little more oompah added to the bludgeoning effect. A dragon by the name of Smog had once told him that once his plans were foiled by children, it was time to retire. There was no coming back from that. There was only embarrassment and pain.

A tart little piece of hard candy skidded to a stop before his cell, within arm’s reach. He raised his eyes. “Hello, Munchy.”

Munchy removed an earplug, hanging from his cell’s ceiling by one arm. “Eat before Cerberus finds!”

Tirek picked up the morsel. Watermelon, his favorite. “You can’t have come by much of this. Why give it to me?”

Munchy grinned in his unsettling, hungry-for-pony-flesh sort of way. “Because Tirek is Munchy’s friend. Friends share with friends.”

Tirek glared down at the teensy-weensy confection.

Munchy popped a bit of solidified sugar and corn starch in his mouth. “Plus, Munchy is morlock royalty, so Munchy sometimes feels need to act on Munchy’s noblesse oblige.”

Tirek ground his teeth. “I’m touched.”

Munchy shrugged, then swung down to the floor. “Also, Munchy knows Tirek never got candy after last time we escaped. Munchy thought it might help Tirek feel better.”

Tirek popped the watermelon-flavored treat into his mouth. He sucked slowly, drawing out the flavor for all it was worth.

Munchy stuck his face through the bars. “Is it working?”

“Maybe it would,” Tirek growled, “if you weren’t so pushy.”

Munchy shrugged, then stuck the earplug back in its proper place, blocking out the continuous Serenade of the Smooze. He sat with his back to Tirek, one leg propped up on the other, humming a tune without words.

Tirek licked his fingertips, one by one, just to be sure he’d tasted all the candy had to offer. He stuffed two plugs of his own into his ears, and the Smooze’s overly-jolly lyrics faded into silence. He yawned as he stretched out his full length on a small cot at the rear of his enchanted cell.

“Curse you, Luna. Curse you, Celestia,” he muttered. “Curse Twilight and Cadence as well. And especially curse those two brats who dared oppose me.”

His eyes popped open to stare at the ceiling. “I’m pathetic.”

He glanced over at the far cell, where Munchy pranced a pathetic little jig. Something clicked in his chest as he observed this creature who had followed him through thick and thin, who had pulled him from certain death, who even now sought to make his life better.

Together, the brats—Pumpkin and Pound—had defeated him.

“Maybe friendship…” He winced, even as the words left his mouth. “Is magic?”

Munchy turned to him, an earplug half-pulled from its place. He and Tirek shared a look, pondering the thought, until they arrived at the same conclusion.



“Now just hold on a moment,” Applejack said. “You gotta move it over here before you put it in the ground.”

Adagio glowered at the mayor. “Believe me when I say I’m the expert on growing golden apples.”

“Nopony’s doubting you had your day some three-thousand odd years ago.” Applejack reached around Adagio and plucked a marker stake from her grasp. “But here and now, I’m the subject matter expert in growin’ apples, period.”

Pumpkin Cake glanced up at the sun, almost pleading for it to vaporize her on the spot. They’d been at this for an hour, in Fluttershy’s little garden. Too much water, not enough, colder, warmer. Soil’s too acidic, or not enough, or just too average. The sun won’t be in position to give it enough light. It’ll get too much light and burn up. Blah, blah, blah, blah…

Fluttershy wiped her brow beneath her light sunhat. “I’m sure it’ll be fine either way, you guys.”

“Oh, ho ho ho, no.” Adagio ground her hoof into the soil and stood tall. “I’m not budging from this spot. This is the bare minimum of what you want.”

“And I say you need it closer to the house.” Applejack shuffled a pile of dirt towards her with a clean sweep of her foreleg. “It’ll be tender while it's young, and you need to be on hand to keep it safe an’ healthy.”

Pumpkin moaned and plodded her way across the soil. “Those spots are literally within one meter of each other. The tree’s gonna be three times as big when it’s grown. It does. Not. Matter.”

Applejack snorted, pushing her hat higher on her forehead. “Yeah, if’n you wanna listen to a mare who hasn’t touched a plant since the Fae Folk walked the earth.”

Adagio sniggered. “This coming from the mare who hasn’t done serious farm work for almost three years? The office life is showing around your midsection, hun. Might wanna look at that.”

This time when Applejack snorted, it came out as steam. “Well, ain’t you just plain funny? I can make you look as funny as you sound, if’n you keep it up.”

“Perish the thought of us coming to fisticuffs,” Adagio said, placing a hoof on her chest. “I wouldn’t dream of mussing up that adorable little cravat.”

Fluttershy pushed them apart with her wings. “Alright, cool off, both of you! This is about Discord, not about who’s the better apple grower.”

Applejack threw her head back and rolled her shoulders. “Alright, alright. Your pick, Fluttershy. Where are we puttin’ the seed?”

Fluttershy took a step back to assess their choices. She drew a little “X” in the dirt between them. “How about here?”

Pumpkin smirked, pulling the seed from its hiding place in her bags. “Count on Fluttershy to pick the compromise.”

Applejack grinned wide as she started the hole with a small trawl. “Good thing, too, ‘cause I’m not the type of mare to do things halfway.”

Pumpkin lowered the seed into place and covered it with soft, displaced soil. She held her breath as she stared at the seed, almost hoping for it to sprout then and there.

Adagio stretched a foreleg behind her head. “Alright, punks. I’m outta here. Got a train to catch and a princess to blow off. You got that list of recommendations?”

“Yes,” Fluttershy said. “You’ve been very helpful, Adagio.”

Adagio Dazzle paused on her way off the property. She smirked over her shoulder, gritting her teeth. “Least I could do. Rock-bottom least.”

She rounded a corner and vanished from sight.

Fluttershy touched Pumpkin Cake on the shoulder and smiled a friendly sort of smile. “Well? How do you feel now that we’ve come this far.”

Pumpkin thought for a moment. “Tired. Just a lotta bit tired.”

“Me, too.” Fluttershy tilted an ear down as she watched Applejack baby the planted seed with her signature Apple Family style. “I want to say thank you. I don’t think we could have come this far without you or Pound.”

“Yeah. The same for you.” Pumpkin shrugged, causing Fluttershy to move her hoof away. “We’d be dead without you.”

She tilted her head to glance at the sun, which hung low in the sky. “I’d better get home before supper. Still grounded and all that stuff. I’ll come by tomorrow to check on the seed.”

“Alright,” Fluttershy said. “See you then.”

“See yah.”

Pumpkin trotted the long way through Ponyville, passing stores as they closed up shop, market stalls as they closed down sales, and restaurants as ponies packed away food. She meandered mostly, avoiding the most direct route. She heard the last few strings of Lyra’s harp as the mare strummed away in one of the town’s squares, near a familiar fountain.

She strode a bit closer and peered in. The same bit she’d tossed in was still there, these few weeks later. The relief image of Celestia smiled up at her as gold glinted. She touched the water, and the image rippled.

“Well,” she muttered. ”Looks like some wishes do come true.”

“Most of them,” another voice added.

Pumpkin Cake looked up, and only just stopped her jaw from dropping. Ribbon Wishes stood on the far side of the fountain, checking pipes. Pumpkin cantered around, her eyebrows high. “What the hay are you doing here?”

“Checking for leaks.” Ribbon pulled a wrench from her overalls and gave a bolt a twist. “The mayor’s gonna be on my butt if these aren’t ready for the summer sun celebration.”

“The mayor?” Pumpkin Cake hurried after the plumber as she trotted across the square. “Ten days ago you were shooting freaking lasers out of your eyeball things, and now you’re… what?”

Ribbon scrunched her muzzle. “These pipes aren’t gonna flush themselves, you know.”

“Oh for—” Pumpkin rounded Ribbon and halted, causing her to screech to a halt. “You’re this super fairy with cosmic powers, and here you are cleaning toilets!

Ribbon Wishes smiled in a totally-not-patronizing fashion. “I don’t clean the toilets, I just unclog them.”

“You’re here swimming in—” Pumpkin made an indicative motion with her hooves. “—when you could be out fighting evil fairies, or warning the princesses about the bad guys, or spying on evil creatures! What are you doing here?

Ribbon’s eyes turned down, growing dimmer. “I’m here to watch silently. To guide quietly. To lead those with no direction, and save those without hope.”

She stuffed the wrench into its assigned pocket. “I’m limited in my ability, Pumpkin. I wasn’t even able to hold Jeuk back. So I do what I can, where I can.”

“And what about Pound?” Pumpkin stomped a hoof. “What about when the Jeuk had him?”

Ribbon sighed from deep within her chest. “A good warrior counters his opponent’s moves, but a great warrior uses his opponent’s moves against them. I work around the Unseelie, giving them just enough rope to hang themselves.”

She tilted her head to the side, letting her curly purple mane dance beneath its cloth covering. “When he was captured, there was nothing I could do to help him. His help came from you. When you were in trouble, he was your help. I can only do so much, but the power lies in you to do something far greater.”

She pointed her horn at the fountain. “You made a wish and followed through. A fairy godmother woulda just been pushy.”

Pumpkin narrowed her eyes. “You’re still pretty pushy.”

“Takes one to know one.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Pumpkin moved out of the way. She allowed Ribbon to take a few steps before speaking again. “So, what? You’re just gonna keep going on acting like you’re not a fairy in disguise?”

“Ask me no questions,” Ribbon said, “I tell you no lies.”

Pumpkin’s mouth skewed to the side. “I though fairies couldn’t lie.”

“It helps that we mostly keep our mouths shut.” Ribbon raised an eyebrow, narrowing her glare at the filly behind her. “Something you could stand to learn, Pumpkin Cake.”

She moved at an easy pace down the street, headed to her home on the west side of town.

Pumpkin rubbed her nose. “I can only keep my mouth shut for so long, you know.”


The midsummer day was perfect for play or rest. Or some combination of the two, in Pumpkin’s case. The sun was warm, but not burning, with expertly-placed clouds dotting the sky at regular intervals. She scribbled away at her crayon drawing, etching in details with the side of the point. She rubbed blue with her hoof, giving a shadow to the structure she was representing. Giving it weight.

The windmill sat empty and decrepit at the edge of the field. Dark windows sucked up warmth from the sun, and let show none of the life and energy that once inhabited it. The wooden door flopped in the breeze, its rusty hinges creaking. It came to life on Pumpkin’s paper, surrounded by lively flowers and flourishing, untrimmed grass.

She bit down on Chewie with a faint squeaka. A finishing scratch with white finalized the drawing. She compared it with the real thing, giving it side-by-side scrutiny.

The windmill was set to be demolished. It was completely empty without Discord’s presence, and its use to the City of Ponyville was long since dried up. Fancy-shmancy city-style mills took its place, upping production and lowering cost. The old magic was no longer necessary. Not with automation.

Pumpkin signed her picture. It was the last proof that the windmill had ever existed. The last half-remembered outbuilding to a farm that had vanished years ago.

The once-home of her friend.

She sighed and stuffed the paper and her rubber chicken into her saddlebags. Pound flew above the grassy field, playing disk golf with Lackadaisy and his other friends. He glanced her way and waved her over, narrowly dodging a poorly-aimed shot. “Pumpkin! Join us for a round! You can use my driver!”

She wrinkled her nose and smirked. “I’m too good at this game. I’ll totally embarrass you in front of your friends.”

“Yeah, well…” He hovered over and set foot in the tall grass. “They can be your friends, too, you know.”

“I know… I just…” She tipped her head back and forth, humming noncommittally. “I wanted to say goodbye.”

Pound raised his head to take in the windmill’s towering height. He nodded softly. “That’s fair. Take all the time you can get.”

“Yeah.” Pumpkin chucked his foreleg. “But save a frisbee for me, will yah? I have a reputation to cultivate.”

Pound grinned from ear-to-ear. He flipped his discus onto his back and soared back the way he came. “Don’t be too long!”

“I won’t!” Pumpkin waved. She rubbed her foreleg, her curly locks waving easily in the wind. The windmill’s arms groaned, the internal gearwork completely stopped up. She took a deep breath in through her nose, let it out through her mouth, and trotted away.


She halted, her hoof in mid-step. She craned her neck around, her eyes popping wide open.

Discord peered out from behind the door, glancing this way and that, searching for interlopers and finding none. “So I totally got this new place set up. It’s pretty ritzy. I’m thinking of calling it Discworld, but I think that’s copyrighted.”

“Discord!” She raced across the short distance between them and threw her forelegs around his neck. “Ohmygosh! You’re visiting already?

“A socialite of my caliber must keep up appearances.” He ruffled her mane and chuckled. “But then, one cannot crash parties without setting up a few of one’s own.”

He hunched over and placed his hands on his knees. “So how’s about it, Little Miss Cake? Wanna see a place that’s completely and utterly ruled by unadulterated chaos magic?”

Pumpkin Cake placed a hoof over her heart. “I see no possible way this could ever be a bad idea.”


Pound threw his driver, and it piffed to a landing mere meter away from the target. “Nice! I’m gonna get under par!”

Lackadaisy fluttered above his head, judging the distance with her hooves. “Just a little to the left, and you’d have a hole-in-one! Gotta work on that.”

She looked over his shoulder, her brow furrowing. “Hay, didn’t you say your sister would play, too?”

“Yeah,” Pound said, easing his putter disk up for a quick toss into the basket. “She’ll come by when she’s good and ready. Why?”

Lackadaisy pointed at the rickety windmill. “’Cause I don’t see her anymore.”

Pound glanced over. The faintest glimmer of magic flashed in the door, and then was gone. “I think I know where she went.”

Lackadaisy blinked, eyes flickering between him and the mill. “Is something wrong, Pound?”

Pound rubbed his chin. He fixed his aim, released the disk, and watched it jingle into the goal. “No. Nothing’s wrong. She’s alright.”

He ducked out of the way to let another of his friends make a shot. He smiled at the windmill, tousling his windswept mane. “I have a feeling that things are gonna be better than ever.”

The Aftermath

View Online

Scratch the Itch

A chill wind blew across the bare mountainside. Fog drifted from the peak, coating everything with a thick layer of frost. A whinny ripped through the sky, hollow and raspy.

Windigoes raced through the mountains. They hovered just above the ground, their pounding hooves unable to meet earth. Plants withered and rotted at the sight of them. Animals scurried, but were unable to escape the murderous ice. The phantasms tore the life from anything that caught their eyes, bringing death and silence in their wake.

Still, their ghastly howl echoed.

The lead windigo swam through the sky, its ethereal mane wafting about its long, narrow head. Blistering blue eyes narrowed as the creature moved forward, taking a secret pass in the sheer cliffs. She left the others behind to freeze the valley, leaving it uninhabitable for years to come.

Darkness surrounded the windigo as it traversed the narrow crags and damp cavers. Living shadows peered at her, their red eyes blazing with equal parts hatred and fear. She ignored them, for why should she bother herself with the lower echelons of the Unseelie Court? No, she had far more important matters to attend to.

The central room dripped with the ichor of mineral water and algae. Stalagmites and stalactites came together like a broken jaw, making the room nearly impassable to a mortal through sheer danger of impalement or crushing. To a being of magic, to a Fae Creature, it was child’s play.

“Bean Sidhe…” A voice like a repressed cough hissed her name as a shadow trailed up a pillar of quartz. “You have come at last. I feared you could not leave the Frozen North for the more temperate climatesss…”

“The curse of the Hearth’s Warming Spell does not travel this far west, Bête Noire.” Bean Sidhe curled her lip at the thought of the ponies’ powerful weapon. “We were forced to skirt the edge for some time, but I felt this meeting was worth the risk. It is not often a Princeling of the Unseelie Court is… indisposed.”

“Deposed, you mean.” The shadow coalesced in the coiled form of a great, gaseous snake. Two embers of light glowed at either side of its head, as a long, forked tongue tested the air. “Discord sent him straight to the Abysssss. He will not return until the Lord of the Court is freed from imprisonment.”

The snakelike fairy, Bête Noire, grimaced as it crossed over to another pillar. It proceeded to coat the entire room with its essence, crafting a web of nightmares.

Bean Sidhe spat. “That leaves the whole of his principality outside our influence! Without a Princeling to rule them, the Fae will scatter to the four winds! We’ll be reliant on our mortal minions to merely contain them!”

A pebble clattered into a pool some short distance away. Bean Sidhe and Bête Noire turned to see what had made the noise. A tiny pony, its coat gray and its cloak dark, eased itself from the shadows. “I wouldn’t say it’s as grim as all that.”

He tilted his wide-brimmed farmer’s hat up to reveal a gaunt, skeletal face. He leered at them with teeth barely covered by skin. “After all, my brother-in-arms taught me everything I know.”

“Merimna.” Bean Sidhe grimaced. “Who invited you?”

“I set the meeting up.” Merimna limped his way towards them, leaving a damp trail behind his raggedy cloak. “When news of Jeuk’s imprisonment broke, I made sure everyone knew about it. I try to keep my fellow fairies in the loop.”

Bête Noire hissed beneath its breath. “He has volunteered to take Jeuk’s place as Princeling of Equestria.”

“That is a rank that cannot be assigned save by the Lord of the Court himself!” Bean Sidhe sent a chilling glare at the tiny fairy below her. “You dare presume to speak for him?”

“Don’t be foolish!” Merimna said. He sat down with a heavy thump, his legs practically falling apart beneath him. “We have lost one of our most powerful warriors, one of our most vicious schemers. It is a position we cannot allow to be empty for long. The Lord of the Court agrees.”

Bête Noire narrowed its eyes. “My wondering is thus: How can we be certain this instruction hails from the Lord himself?”

“Would I lie of such a thing,” Merimna asked, “when a visit to his mountain would so quickly dispel the falsehood?”

“Perhaps,” Bean Sidhe said, “if you had some purpose to accomplish whilst we are still locked to our assigned regions.”

“Well.” Merimna hung his wide-brimmed hat on a stalagmite, allowing a long, stringy mane to flow around his shoulders. A noose hung from his neck, the rope severed a halfway down his chest. “That is what I wanted to bring up. Your little borders, your little restraining orders. They’re holding us back.”

“Of course they are.” Bean Sidhe stomped a hoof on a stone pillar. It shattered like ice, throwing one of Bête Noire’s coils off. “That’s the very crux of it. We windigoes were cast aside by the Hearth’s Warming Curse, and Luna herself guards the night against the Nightmare Forces. As of now, every crusade to destroy these defenses has ended with imprisonment or banishment!”

“We long to return to the moon.” Bête Noire slithered its way to Merimna’s side, dwarfing the small, pony-like fairy. “As the windigoes wish to prowl the living lands. But we are as shackled as Jeuk at the moment.”

“Exactly.” Merimna rubbed his chin. Skin flaked away. “This is something I want to change, my friends.”

He stood laboriously to his feet. He stumbled his way to a pool to splash murky water into his face. Streams ran through gaps in his hollow cheeks. “Jeuk was a master manipulator. He played the long game, working through painstaking plans, fruitless for years before their eventual climax. We haven’t the same luxury of time.”

Bean Sidhe scowled, blowing frosty, foggy air in Merimna’s face. “Make your point, skinthief.”

“Jeuk used memories to great effect.” Merimna waved a hoof in front of his face to dispel the cloud. “Recalling a pony’s greatest loss to bring them pain. Unbearable, inescapable pain. Fluttershy’s dead friend. Spike’s uncontrollable strength. Caution’s failed affair. Scootaloo’s disability. Applejack’s relationship with her citizens. He nearly brought them to the point of death on several occasions. But most of them have grown. Moved beyond their past. Gained strength from their victories.”

He scuffed his hoof along the ground, gritting his teeth. “The strategy no longer works. We have to modify our attack. If their past no longer holds sway over their lives, then we must look to their uncertain future!”

He pointed to Bean Sidhe. “Your windigoes cannot enter Equestria, but the ponies need not understand that. Increase your presence at the Yakyakistan border, and threaten them with being overrun. The threat of eternal frost will plague the ponies day and night!”

He swung on Bête Noire, who drew back with a hiss. “Bring nightmares to whoever sleeps. Double the assault. Triple it! Bring Spike terrors of a romance that shall go nowhere. Bring Scootaloo threat of losing her precious wings. Give Rainbow Dash the horror of completely failing her friends! Whisper doubts to Twilight. Assure Applejack of her ineffectuality. Night comes each day, and Luna cannot defend them all.”

He placed the hat upon his head. His eyes shone like midnight moons. “Jeuk tried and failed to rot the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony from the inside out. We shall tear them apart at the seams.”

Bean Sidhe and Bête Noire glanced at each other. The windigo whinnied quietly. “This requires further discussion. We shall reconvene at a later date, when all the princelings can meet.”

Merimna backed away, his eyes squinting. “I expected nothing less from the Ancient Princelings.”

“We have lost too many for a full frontal assault, you see.” Bête Noire produced a certain number of tendrils from its coils. “First, we lost the last of the grotesquessss. Then Shadowfright fell to the Elementssss. Now, even Jeuk, the greatest of us, has been vanquished. We must retreat. Regroup. Recoup our lossessss…”

Bean Sidhe nodded. “It is unfeasible. We shall allow the sirens to continue their work in Equestria and bide our time.”

Merimna flicked his tattered tail. “Now is the time for action!”

“Action will cause more loss.” Bean Sidhe nickered at him as snowflakes descended from her mane. “We must plan our next move, not react to theirs.”

She rose higher, reaching eye-level with Bête Noire. “I shall send messengers to the principalities in Felaccia and Giraffrica.”

“And I will spread the word to the Badlands and Saddle Arabia.” Bête Noire opened its mouth wide, and a small, wormy nightmare trailed out. It slithered through the air, in search of a hapless flunky to deliver its command. “In the meantime, Merimna, it seems you have a principality of your own to wrangle. I suggest you get to work, if you seek to fill Jeuk’s horseshoessss.”

Merimna bowed his head. He smirked a halfhearted smirk, his leathery skin cracking. “I bow to the whim of the court.”

He vanished into the darkness.

“He’s going to be trouble, that one,” Bean Sidhe said. “And believe me, I say that as an established harbinger of doom.”

“Still, he has the mental capacity to bring havoc to the mortal realm.” Bête Noire shrugged. “Was Jeuk so different?”

“Yes.” Bean Sidhe moved for the exit, leaving icicles hanging from the ceiling. “He laced his princeship with the murder of children, not the tantrum of one.”

Bête Noire leaned back and chuckled. “An act that still yet pays dividendssss.”

“Dividends, he says…” Bean Sidhe muttered as she froze an unfortunate sparrow solid, preparing to bring winter to the Undiscovered West. “How great a dividend can one madmare be?”


The Best Mother

Merry Mare tiptoed through a grove of trees, picking her way through a heavy darkness. The gemstone necklace she wore was the only light, which cast a pale yellow glimmer over her path. She hummed softly to herself, just enough that her enchanted gem continued to throw magic forward.

She tripped on a root that rose just above the dirt floor. She bit back the curse that so readily leaped from her chest, and carried on her way. Her breath grew quicker and shallower without her direct consent. She paused, took several deep breaths, and slowed her heartbeat.

She came to the largest tree in the grove: A towering apple tree, with deep, golden veins snaking through the bark. Buds dotted the branches, ready to bloom into beautiful flowers at the appointed time. It rose up, up, up until the branches grappled with the stony roof of the cavern. Sunlight poured through the veins, giving the tree its much-needed nutrients.

A mirrored surface lay embedded in the bark of the tree, at perfect height for a pony to look into. Merry stared into her own eyes as she approached. She saw shock. Pale complexion, stuttering breaths, wide eyes, shrunken pupils. Textbook diagnosis. Her throat bobbed as she finished her song, and the light became dim save for the amber-hued magic coursing through the tree.

“Did Fluttershy speak with my son?”

The mirror did not answer. Water dripped from somewhere on the far side of the cavern, feeding the grove with fresh-fallen rain.

“Did Fluttershy,” she shouted, “speak with my son?

She dared to open her eyes. Her reflection refused to follow her. It moved of its own accord, placing its hooves on the mirror’s surface. It pushed, found itself unable to break through, and growled from the back of its throat.

The voice that came from the mirror was not her own. “You are no longer amusing, Miss Mare. Most very unamusing.”

“Jeuk?” Merry slammed her hoof into the mirror, startling the reflection into jumping back. “What the Hell are you doing in there? Where is the Master? Where is the Lord of the Court?”

“While I’m here, I have been given a new title by our Lord and Master,” Jeuk said. The mirrored image of Merry adjusted its glasses officiously. “Since I’m stuck here with him, I’ve been named Majordomo. I speak for the Master exclusively.”

Jeuk grimaced, shivering and clutching his forelegs to his chest. “It’s so cursed cold in here.”

Merry gritted her teeth. She nearly gnashed them at the sight. “I told you to leave Fluttershy alone.”

Jeuk coughed. He leaned against the mirror, floating in an endless emptiness. “We all have our sacrifices to make, don’t we? Perhaps yours is your young friend’s life.”

“I told you,” Merry hissed, “that her condition is guarded.”

Jeuk snorted. “Then guard it.”

Merry wanted so much to tear his head from his incorporeal body. Her stomach swam, churning her breakfast and throwing her balance. She steadied herself against the tree and found her bearings, but only barely.

“Then tell me this…” Merry pounded the surface of the mirror once more for good measure, just in case Jeuk missed the seriousness of the situation. “Did Fluttershy speak with Happy? The real Happy?”

Her reflection curled its lip in a dismissive sneer. “You’ve come all this way for such a simple question? I thought you were a dear friend to Fluttershy. Why don’t you ask her—?”

Merry’s voice broke. “I need to know!

Merry’s twisted image leaned its head back, glancing into the shadows behind the far side of the mirror. Its ears twitched as it listened quietly. With a nod, it turned back to face her, speaking with Jeuk’s wavering, humorless giggle. “The Master wishes to assuage you of any doubts. She did speak with Happy. But she is confused, conflicted, seeing what she wished to see. She is content to leave the poor boy in the nether realm. Alone. Abandoned. Confused. She will not rescue him. Nor does she have the means to do so.”

Jeuk smiled, an expression Merry felt was so very foreign to her. “But there is yet hope. If he can speak, perhaps we can truly reach him. We just need more time for the apples to grow. More time to develop our magic mirrors. Then, only then, can you rescue those who have become lost to you.”

Merry let her mouth fall into a neutral expression. She would not give Jeuk the satisfaction of seeing her in distress any longer. “As you’ve said. As you will keep on saying for as long as our alliance lasts.”

“For a good long time, then,” Jeuk said, his eyes becoming dangerous slits. “For your sake.”

“For both our sakes.” Merry backed away, her jaw firm. Jeuk stepped away in sync with her, as if dancing a macabre waltz. “Lest you forget which of us is free, and which of us is trapped.”

Jeuk grinned, and the flesh on Merry’s reflection melted away to take the shape of his wrinkled, blackened, horrible visage. “Be careful lest you forget, Mother of the Sirens.”

He vanished, leaving the face of the mirror completely blank.

Merry shook her head. She cantered through the underground grove, past budding trees, leaping over gnarled roots. She forced a hot tear from her eye, coughing up phlegm as she plotted her next move. The gemstone around her neck sparked to lend new life to her limbs.

Perhaps, she thought, it was time to leave the treacherous fairies to their own devices.


Tales of Derring-do

The purple gemstone necklace around Twilight Sparkle’s neck flickered as she cleared her throat. She trotted quickly through the halls of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, Fluttershy hot on her heels. She read the room numbers as she passed them, until she finally arrived at the proper lecture room. “Aha! This is the place.”

Fluttershy looked both ways down the hallway. No one was in sight, but she still hunched over with her ears facing back. “Shouldn’t we wait to go in until the lecture’s over? I’d hate to interrupt.”

“Not at all. This happens all the time.” Twilight Sparkle put her hoof to the door handle. “Nobody will even notice—”

“Sparkle!” A.K. Yearling waved a hoof from the front of the hall. Everypony in the room turned to look. “Take a seat! I’m almost wrapped up!”

“—us.” Twilight Sparkle rolled her eyes and let the door close behind Fluttershy. “Well, at least we didn’t disrupt her.”

Twilight scratched the skin beneath her necklace’s cord. The two of them took seats at the rear of the classroom, settling back to relax while Yearling went about her business.

“The dagger’s location was never found,” she told her students. “Although, most historians agree that it was buried in the far reaches of the Northern Equestrian Wastes. To this day, a few adventurous individuals still seek it out.” She brushed back her grayscale bangs and gave the audience a winning smile. “Not that I’d know anything about that.”

Some students chuckled, others shrugged, and a few lumps on a log grumbled that their informative lecture was interrupted by a lame joke. Twilight Sparkle spread her wings across the empty seat next to her, wondering just how Yearling was able to get away with stuff like that.

Her popular novel series seemed to indicate that she took refuge in audacity.

“Alright, that about sums it up. Powerful dagger, pony sacrifice, harvesting hearts, sun-controlling devices. The normal ancient empire shtick. Since there are no more questions—” She sent one unicorn in particular a pointed glance. “—we’ll reconvene tomorrow for the last part of the lecture series on magic-stealing devices. I’ve got an appointment I can’t miss, so scoot.”

The students moved quickly. Chairs scraped against floors as ponies—mostly unicorns, considering the school they were at—stood up and cantered out. Before too long, Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy were alone in a room with A.K. Yearling herself.

“Alright, Sparkle.” Yearling held her forelegs out. “Come here and give Ol’ Aunt Yearling a hug.”

Twilight smiled and galloped to the mare. They gave each other a quick embrace, then took a single step back. “Aunt Yearling, you’ve met Fluttershy.”

“Been a while, Kiddo.” Yearling removed her glasses and stuffed them in her shirt pocket. She held a hoof out to bump. “You’re looking pretty good for somebody’s who’s gone through a small-scale Ragnarok.”

“Um…” Fluttershy met the hoofbump with a small, uncertain smile. “Thank… you?”

“Don’t mention it.” Yearling unbuttoned her shirt to a comfortable level, halfway down her chest. “I swear, if I ever see a fairy, I’m gonna bop ’em right on the schnozzle. Right in the kisser, pow!”

She walked around her desk to start erasing the chalkboard. Maps and artifacts vanished into a fine, white dust. “The Sparkle family doesn’t usually visit unless there’s something horrible going on, so let’s get right to it. What’s the deal with your friend here, Twilight?”

Twilight smiled at Fluttershy with about as much sincerity as she could muster. It was a little muted by the pained frown she received back. “Well, seems that even after everything that’s happened, Fluttershy, well…”

Twilight let her ears droop. “She still has the Rainbow of Darkness inside her.”

“Holy horseapples!” Yearling jumped, folding her wings tight across her back. She winced and rubbed at the joints, muttering expletives about sudden movement. “When you guys have issues, you don’t kid around!”

Fluttershy covered her mouth. “Is it bad?”

“Only if you intend to steal the magic of the entire country.” Yearling rubbed her temples. She hopped over to the desk and began to stack textbooks and research notes. “Look, I’m all for it being in the hands of the good guys. I’m just not sure you’re the good guy for the job.”

“I um…” Fluttershy blushed bright red, her shoulders hunching. “I don’t intend to use it at all. Ever. For any reason.”

“No? Sweet.” Yearling pulled a specific book free: A Treatise on Magic-Stealing Devices. “I’ve read up on the thing, but there’s not much to go on. As far as we know, Tirek’s the only one who’s ever used it.”

“Not according to what the dark fairy told Discord.” Twilight grabbed the book in her telekinetic bubble. She flipped through the pages until she reached the pitiful single-page entry on the Rainbow of Darkness itself. “According to Jeuk, it was what allowed the fairies to overthrow the entire draconequus species.”

She gazed at Yearling over the textbook. “It’s not something we’re taking lightly.”

“No, of course not.” Yearling shoved the rest of the books into a pair of overstuffed saddlebags. “I’m not sure why you came to talk to me about it, though. I’m not exactly a magicologyst.”

Twilight felt her lip twitch. “The study of magic is called wizardry.”

“You’re the one with the doctorate in that stuff, Sparkle.” Yearling leaned on the desk, propping her hoof on her hip. “I’m just the historian.”

“Yes, but where you can help is with the story of magic-stealing devices.” Twilight shook the book, but didn’t let it leave her grasp just yet. “I was hoping you could give us some idea of what to expect, based on its past. What sort of uses it has, differences with other magic-stealing devices—”

“MSD’s, Sparkle.” Yearling smirked. “We’re gonna be here all day if you spell it out every time you gotta say it.”

“M… S… D’s…” Twilight grinned with a smile that nearly broke a tooth. “Got it. Anyway. Differences, what the outcome is, what the effect has been on sapient creatures. All stuff you’ve had to look at, right?”

“Pretty much.” Yearling tossed a piece of chalk to herself. “Though you guys probably remember the outcome the last time it was used. I was there, too.”

Fluttershy’s feathers ruffled as she hid behind her bangs. “Complete exhaustion. I didn’t have the strength to stand when Tirek stole my magic. And flying was completely out of the question.”

“Got it in one.” Yearling drew up a crude sketch of a pony. She drew an arrow to the legs, to a dotted outline of wings, and to a dotted outline of a horn. “The Rainbow of Darkness seems to completely drain a pony of its magic stores, siphoning it right from their fairy strings. No one has dared to see if a pony can build the magic back up, because having your resources that low is pretty similar to having several pints of your blood drained. Very, very deadly.”

“I—” Fluttershy gulped. “I don’t want to kill anybody.”

“Fair enough.” Yearling drew a heart in the center of the pony’s chest. “The Rainbow of Darkness doesn’t seem to do anything to a pony’s heart except deprive it of the energy it needs to work. Theoretically, if you can fill a pony with magic faster than the RoD drains it… Well, you ain’t got no problems.”

Twilight Sparkle placed her hooves on the desk, setting the book down. “Dooo… you think the Rainbow of Darkness will interfere with the Rainbow of Light?”

“Your Rainbow Power stuff?” Yearling shrugged. “Search me. Rainbow Power’s pretty clearly able to undo the effects of the RoD. On a country-wide scale. I don’t think you’ll have any issues with that little godsend.”

She scratched her cheek with the tip of her chalk. “The RoD’s effect on the individual using it is kinda funky. It’s obvious that different magic types have different effects—you’ve got your baseline pegasus magic, your earth pony magic, your unicorn magic… But for the most part, eating it just seems to augment existing abilities.”

Fluttershy peered at the book and flipped pages aimlessly. “I don’t normally have the ability to turn a mountain into gelatin.”

“Well, actually,” Twilight said, lifting her head officiously, “I have a theory that you were not causing those changes to the environment, but they were merely the result of the chaos magic leaking from your body. The more stressed you were, the more it forced itself out. Thus, the craziness at Las Pegasus.”

“Yeah, what she said.” Yearling etched a picture of a small knife next to the pony. “Contrast that bundle of side-effects to the dagger I’m looking for: The Spade of Hearts. It has the power to pull the heart right out of a pony. Kinda. It just rips out all the stuff in the heart that produces magic.”

“That’s horrible!” Fluttershy sat down in Yearling’s chair, her wings sliding around her shoulders. “Does… does it kill the ponies right away?”

“That’s the crazy thing. According to the texts, the ponies don’t die.” Yearling pointed out a book mark, which Twilight flipped to. The dagger showed up in intricate detail near the top of the page, sporting a curved blade and a glistening pommel stone. “The dagger has the power not to pierce joints and marrow, but soul and body. Legend has it that a pony’s soul is contained in the heart, and that when they’re separated, it leaves the pony a barely-functioning zombie-vegetable. A waking coma.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at a nearly-comedic illustration of a pony lumbering around and drooling. “You know it’s thriller, thriller night?”

“Cool it. I’m just telling you what the sources say.” Yearling hefted the book onto her back to carry it to her bags. “It’s kinda interesting when you look at the differences here. While the Rainbow of Darkness uses a pony’s body to store the energy, the Spade of Hearts contains the nucleus in a shell of solidified magic; ie. crystal.”

Twilight Sparkle nodded. “Easy transportation. Genius.”

“Dreadful,” Fluttershy said. “I suppose I just have the one question: How do we get the… RoD out of me?”

Yearling glanced at them, her lips pursed. “Until now, I assumed it was a genetic ability that Tirek’s people have. Since that’s not the case, I have no idea. How’d you get it in the first place?”

“I was…” Fluttershy puffed her cheeks out, as if eating the answer so that she didn’t have to say it. After she swallowed it down, she related the condensed version. “A fairy gave it to me.”

“Simple, then. Give it back.”

“The fairy is gone, now.” Fluttershy pressed her fetlock against her mouth, breathing a soft sigh. “Very, very, very, very gone. And good riddance.”

Yearling threw a hoof out. “So much for the easy solution, then. Nothing in the texts say anything about removing it. It’s beyond me.”

“We’ll figure it out, Fluttershy.” Twilight hugged her friend with an outstretched wing. “I’ll make sure of it.”

“Thank you,” Fluttershy whispered.

“As for you, Sparkle.” A.K. Yearling waved Twilight closer. When they were nearly touching, Yearling lowered her voice. “How’s your throat doing?”

Twilight Sparkle moved the gemstone aside. A prominent scar appeared; a jagged, hairless white mark across her neck. She removed the necklace entirely and set it aside.

She cleared her throat a time or two, and then spoke in a weak, rasping voice. “I can force out a few words… But it’s still hard.”

Fluttershy nuzzled her friend’s shoulder. “Oh, Twilight…”

“But it’s something.” Yearling lifted the corners of her mouth. She patted Twilight shoulder, pressing the necklace into her hoof. “It’s more than most ponies can say. And I’m grateful for that.”

Her eyes took on a distanced glaze. “Not everybody’s lucky enough to come back from the dead.”

Fluttershy lowered her eyebrows as she looked at Yearling. Twilight watched her move slowly to the older mare’s side, then touch a feather to her back. “At least it doesn’t end there.”

“Death seems pretty final to me.” Yearling hoisted the saddlebags onto her back with a grunt. “Dang. Shoulda waited for Martial.”

“Well…” Fluttershy sat down as Yearling moved past her towards the exit. “I mean, when a pony dies, they’re born as a star. And those never go out.”

“Sure, if you believe that sort of thing.” Yearling pulled a silver pocket watch out of her pocket to check the time. “Still got time before—”

“I only believe it because I’ve lived it.”

“Lived it.” A.K. Yearling twisted around to smirk at Fluttershy. She turned to Twilight with a bit more sincerity in her grin. “What about you, Sparkle? You believe the story that stars are the dreams of ponies living and dead?”

“Our family was always pretty traditional, so…” Twilight shrugged with her wings. “Yeah, I guess. Science is kinda ambivalent on it since you can’t exactly measure and-or track a soul. But Fluttershy does have a story about it.”

Fluttershy gave Yearling her brightest, most earnest smile. “If you wanna hear it.”

Yearling clicked her watch shut. “I’ve got time, so shoot. What’s the big revelation?”

“When I was in the middle of going crazy because of the chaos magic,” Fluttershy said, “a fairy from the Seelie Court whisked me away to the land of dreams. I met somepony who had been dead since I was a little filly.”

Yearling met Twilight’s eyes with a narrow, straight-mouthed expression. “Izzat so? How do you know it wasn’t just you going gonzo bananas?”

“I suppose I don’t, really.” Fluttershy tilted her head downward. “I don’t know if it wasn’t some hallucination, or imagination, or misremembered stress… I just remember that my friend and I spoke with each other. It was so lovely. He told me things that I desperately needed to hear. Things that I had to learn, or everyone would suffer for it. He was so undeniably real, and good, and solid.”

She flicked her tail to the left and sighed, deeply and warmly. “Maybe I did imagine it, but it doesn’t really do me any good to think of it like that. Not when the whole experience was so real to me. If it was fake, then it doesn’t matter if I believe it or not. But if it was real, then it matters more than anything.”

Her smile faded into a serious frown. She caught Yearling’s eyes with her own and held them with all her love. “I know I’d rather live believing I’ll see him again, even if it’s not in this life.”

“I know the feeling.” A.K. Yearling nodded, pulling the bun out of her mane. Her voice was low and even, her words carefully chosen. “I appreciate you telling me. It’s… pretty obvious you care a lot about that stuff.”

“I really do.”

“Yeah.” Yearling chucked Twilight in the shoulder. “I’m gonna bounce. I’ve got a lot to set up for my next adventure and stuff.”

Twilight gave her a brief nuzzle on the neck. “See you later, Aunt Yearling.”

“Be safe!” Fluttershy waved with a wing. “Or at least take care of yourself!”

“Ha! Advice I should probably take.” Yearling gave them a salute, flipping a pith helmet onto her head. “And Fluttershy… Don’t stop believing, okay? Maybe you can believe enough for both of us.”

Fluttershy stood up and brushed herself off. She rubbed one foreleg with the other, trying to smile but failing. “I’ll try.”

Yearling laughed. She whistled a jaunty, catchy tune to herself as she skipped down the hallways of the illustrious school. “Adventure’s out there, and I’ve got it running scared.”


Solitaire with Friends

Lacer the Displacer found himself led by chain down the halls of Solitaire, the most secure prison in Equestria. More specifically, the most secure prison designed to house mortal creatures. While the undying went to live out their life sentences in Tartarus, the shorter-lived inmates were taken to an island east of Canterlot.

Gray stone and iron bars waited him. He tugged at his restraints, almost tripping with his middle pair of legs. The Royal Guard escorts barely paid it any mind, just nudging him back to the proper pace with an armored foreleg.

“These guys creep me out,” one of them said. “You know that they disappear when they’re not under direct sunlight?”

“Yes, Checks, I read the report, too.”

“And then they can throw their image like a ventriloquist throws their voice?”

“Cut the chatter, Checks Position.”

The guard leading the procession halted. They stood before an empty cell, bare except for a cot bolted to the wall and a drain near the back of the room. “All the comforts of home. Clean linins will be by before bedtime. Breakfast is at six sharp. Complementary deck of cards is on the cot. Enjoy your stay, Lacer.”

Checks Position unclipped the chains from Lacer’s six feet. He glanced at the cell behind them, nibbling his lower lip. “Congratulations landing yourself in the worst section of the prison. This is where they put attempted assassins. You tried to kill Lady Fluttershy? Well, the guy across from you tried to snuff Princess Celestia herself. The guy next to you? Poisoned an interdimensional diplomat.”

“Both failed,” the other guard, Footnote, said. “Just like yours. Have fun living out your sentence, bucko. All three-hundred years of it.”

Checks Position’s voice couldn’t fade quickly enough as the three guards trotted back the way they came. “Do displacer beasts really live that long? Do you think they might let him out someday?”

The third, Addendum, rolled his eyes. “Not a chance. The multiple life-sentences will make sure he stays a good, long—”

Lacer crawled to the cot and lay down, opening the pack of cards and starting a game with himself. Echoes of his sister's voice came to him, as loud as they were the last day of his trial.

“Good job getting caught, Butt-munch.”

“Love you, too, sis.” He sighed. At least he was filthy, filthy rich. Caged in the middle of nowhere with no way to spend it, but still rich. Maybe he’d get out on good behavior someday. Maybe Catrina could pay to bail him out somehow…

He glanced across the hall and saw his fellow prisoner peering at him. He was a bulky earth pony, with one eye cloudy white behind a painful scar. “This ain’t a free show, buddy. Pay for the ticket or leave.”

The earth pony rolled his massive shoulders. “No offense intended, mate. Just curious. It’s been ages since oi seen a displacer beast. Saw a few in my days as a Royal Guard. Never had the chance to meet friendly-like.”

“Friendly, huh?” Lacer flipped a card over and found an ace. He moved it into position on one end of the cot. “I guess you meet all kinds of folks in prison.”

“Yeah. That’s right. Name’s Caution.” The earth pony leaned on the bars of his cell, grinning with pristine teeth. “Heard you were in for tryin’ to kill Fluttershy. Who ordered the hit?”

“If you talked with me a month ago, I’d have said Tirek.” Lacer glowered at the king of clubs and flipped the draw pile over. “Once that fell through, though, I took a job with a fairy named Jeuk.”

“Jeuk, eh?” Caution grimaced, resting his snout against cool iron. “Yeah, oi’ve had dealin’s with that ol’ so-an’-so before. Pleasant chap, as long as it suits him.”

Lacer the Displacer let his ears jump up. He looked at the earth pony with renewed interest, stacking a few cards together. “Really? Ain’t the best boss I ever had, man. Most rich folks threaten to take your home, not eat your soul.”

“Doubt oi really had a soul to eat, all things considered.” Caution paced back and forth in his cell, chuckling mirthlessly. “All the trouble in moi life pretty much tracks back to the blasted Unseelie Court, you know. Even now.”

He winked at Lacer. “Oi see your three life sentences and raise you twenty-one. Tryin’ tah kill Celestia ain’t without repercussions.”

“Dang.” Lacer sucked on the inside of his cheek. The scar on Caution’s eye was healed, but it looked fairly new. Probably injuries sustained in the assassination attempt. “Look, I’m no friend of Equestria, but ain’t killin’ Celestia kinda dangerous? There’s the whole ‘raise the sun’ thing.”

A weak voice warbled from the cell next to him. “You’d have thought that’d be the first thing on his mind.”

Caution waved a hoof. “Never mind him. Aspen’s been a nervous wreck ever since Jeuk paid us a visit a year ago.”

He lay down on his cot and rocked back and forth on its weak connection to the wall. “The Unseelie Court’s got plans for the sun. That ain’t really what’s important.”

“No?” Lacer drummed his paws on the metal surface of his bed, wishing desperately for his pillow and sheets to arrive a little faster. “What is?”

“Family, mate.” Caution lay back and stared at the ceiling. He curled his forelegs behind his head to cradle it. He breathed quietly as his tail waved lazily to and fro. “Ain’t nothin’ more important than family. Even the family you don’t know.”

Lacer flicked a card across the room. His game of solitaire was over, having come to a screeching halt with no more legal move available. “You got that right, man. I get the feeling I let mine down.”

Caution looked up. A grin grew across his mouth, white breaking across a red coat. He closed his blind eye in a wink. “Got the feelin’ you’d like the chance to fix your mistakes, right?”

Lacer shrugged with two pairs of legs. “Sure, but I ain’t exactly got a key to Solitaire, know what I’m sayin’?”

“Stick close, mate.” Caution chuckled, kicking a hind leg in the air. “We ain’t stayin’ in here forever.”

Lacer’s ears stood straight up. His shoulders hunched as every muscle in his back tightened. “What makes you say that?”

“I know some people.” Caution Tape shut his eyes. “Friends on the other side, you might say. Folks with interest in seein’ us cut loose.”

Lacer gripped his bars. He felt a lip curling in a sneer, letting his fangs show. “An’ you’re sayin’ I’m invited?”

“That’s it exactly, mate.” Caution turned his attention to a letter-sized sheet of paper taped to the wall, covered in incomprehensible scribbles. “’Cuz ain’t nothin’ more important than family. Nothin’ at all.”


Pumpkin Patch-up

Pumpkin Cake opened the door slowly, keeping her movements hushed in the hospital hallway. She leaned into the room, glancing around for any sign of life. “Psst?”

“You can come in, guys.” Thunderlane leaned over the back of his chair, hanging a foreleg above the ground. “Just be quiet. The babies are asleep.”

Pumpkin and Pound walked in together, balancing a cake box on their backs. It was a lovely little package, done in Sugarcube Corner’s signature yellow, tied with a lovely red string. A tag hung from the top listing Thunderlane’s name, alongside Cloudkicker’s.

Pound held the package up proudly, grinning from ear-to-ear. “A congratulatory cake for you guys, courtesy of Sugarcube Corner’s newest chef!”

Pumpkin pulled her cheeks back in a tight-lipped smile. “So if it tastes like dirt, blame Pound.”

Pound responded by simply sticking his tongue out at her.

Thunderlane waved them further into the room. He couldn’t have repressed his smile if he tried. He pointed to the hospital bed with a tiny whinny of delight. “Meet the new arrivals.”

Cloudkicker blinked her eyes open, cradling a baby filly in each foreleg. She gave the Cakes a tired, yet undeniably mischievous smile. “Ach. So the twins meet the twins. ‘Tis a fated day, then.”

Pumpkin laid her hooves on the bed as Pound set the cakebox on a nearby wheeled table. “Oh my gosh, they’re so precious.

The newborn twins lay against their mother, curled up in fuzzy little balls. The one on the left yawned and batted at something in her sleep. The one on the right nuzzled against Cloudkicker, her wings stretching to their full length of ten inches.

Pound hovered over his sister. He balanced his hooves lightly on her head as his wings kept him aloft. “What are their names?”

Thunderlane cracked open the cakebox and licked his lips. He set it aside and folded his wings across his back. “The one with the charcoal coat and yellow mane is Dovetail. The one with the white coat and blue mane is Summer Wind.”

Pumpkin chanced a glance at Cloudkicker. The new mother held her children close, their bodies rising and falling with her breaths. She saw weariness in Cloudkicker’s eyes, behind the contented smile. “You all look super tired.”

“Aye.” Cloudkicker raised an eyebrow at Pumpkin. Her lip quirked up at the corner. “I never fought so hard for anythin’ in me life. Not as much as for these wee ones.”

She kissed her little ones on the forehead. “A big challenge, is bein’ a mother. Only the strong need apply. Almost didn’t think meself strong enough for a bit there. But Thunderlane helped me pull through.”

“Now I’m a daddy!” Thunderlane said with a hushed giggle. “This is literally the coolest thing ever.”

Cloudkicker blew him a kiss. He caught it and stuffed it between his feathers for later.

She sighed, resting her head against a large pile of cushy pillows. She winked at the Cakes. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell ye some sacrifices are far and away worth it?”

Pound hopped to the ground. A distant look entered his eyes. “Yeah, I’d say so.”

Pumpkin Cake glanced away from the fillies long enough to see the enchanted heart monitor. All three inhabitants of the bed were beating away, powering their bodies with normal amounts of lifeblood and lifelight. Healthy and hearty. Tired but strong.

“I’d love to coo over the babies some more,” Pound said, “but we should probably let you guys sleep.”

“Aye, I’d thank ye for that.” Cloudkicker yawned, and Dovetail joined in. “Ye’ll have plenty of time to see them. Especially once the two of you are old enough to babysit.”

Pumpkin held up a hoof. “In the meantime, Scootaloo comes highly recommended.”

Thunderlane scratched behind his ear. “You think that if we set her up with Rumble, she’ll babysit for free?”

“Ach, ye spendthrift.” Cloudkicker shoed the Cakes away with a wing. “Off with ye, then, or I’ll not get me beauty sleep.”

Pumpkin closed the door as quietly as she could and whispered a goodbye. She and Pound shared a smile and headed for the elevator. Quiet bustle surrounded them as they made their way through the maternity ward of Ponyville General Hospital.

Nurse Redheart paused in reading a clipboard. “You kids find Cloudkicker okay?”

“Sure did,” Pound said. “Thanks.”

Pumpkin Cake held her breath and stared at Redheart. Medical information surrounded her at the nurses’ station. Muffled doctors’ conversations whispered from a nearby room. An IV ambrosia drip rolled past as an orderly cantered towards their patient.

Pumpkin’s ears drooped. ‘I want to heal.’

Redheart looked up, twisting a pencil between her lips. “Do you need somethin’, hun?”

Pound glanced back. He waited for his sister beside the elevator and pressed the button with a wingtip.

“Say I wanted to do something medical.” Pumpkin shuffled her hooves. She swished her tail side-to-side. “Something to help people. Where would you start?”

Redheart gave her a shallow smile. “Hope you like school, because you’re looking at eight extra years of it.”

Pumpkin shrugged.

Redheart bobbed her head. “You should check out the Ponyville Fire Brigade. Big Mac teaches a first-aid class to those guys. See if you can join for a class or so. That’ll give you a good base.”

Pumpkin smiled at Redheart, spinning on her rear legs and running at a reasonable pace towards the opening elevator door. “Sounds great. Thanks!”

Redheart shook her head, jotted down a note, and returned to her rounds.

Pound shuffled to the side to give Pumpkin space in the small room. He twisted his ears and scrunched his muzzle. “So, you wanna be a doctor now, or what?”

“Dunno yet.” Pumpkin leaned against the wall and felt magic energy course through the elevator shaft, lowering them to the ground floor. “I just had a funny feeling. Like this was something I wanted to do with my life. A little glimmer.”

She booped him on the nose and laughed. “I guess I’m just starting to figure out what kinda person I want to be.”

He rubbed his nose and giggled. “Yeah. I kinda got that feeling, too. Must be Scootaloo’s pep talks.”

They both blinked. Simultaneously, they raised their hind legs to look at their bums. Blank flanks stared back.

“Eh.” Pumpkin Cake tossed her curls as the doors opened. “It was worth a shot.”


Scandalous Vandalism

A little colt and his mother sat in a tiny park outside one of Las Pegasus’ many casinos. The colt sucked on a watermelon-flavored popsicle, dribbling all over the place. The mother cleaned him up as best she could, but it was a war of attrition. Before long, entropy would set in and the popsicle would be discount fruit juice.

The colt looked up at the centerpiece of the park: a statue commemorating the salvation of Las Pegasus from utter destruction. It was made in the likeness of Discord himself, his arms raised triumphantly, his mouth open with a wide smile full of laughter.

The top half of the popsicle crumbled off and plopped right onto his mother’s purse. His mother fussed and fidgeted with the dropped dessert, cleaning it off as quickly as she could with rapidly-dissolving tissue paper. The little colt looked back at the statue.

Where once was marble and stone, there stood a flesh-and-blood draconequus. He put a finger to his lips, shushed him, and handed him a fresh popsicle. The colt grinned at him.

Discord vanished, and in his place the statue had claimed the new addition of a ridiculously-wide sombrero. The colt giggled and sucked on his brand-new treat.