An attempt by Luna to update the Tantabus to spread good dreams has a few unexpected results. Self-aware ones.
Trying to patrol the dreams of every pony in Equestria can be stressful. To ease her burden, Luna retools the Tantabus to turn nightmares into good dreams instead of vice versa. Aware of her mistakes from last time, she tests it out thoroughly, making sure there are no unexpected behaviors. And as far as she can tell, there are none.
Except that it's started calling her "Mom".
Faced with the prospect of possibly creating life, Luna seeks out Twilight's advice and assistance. With a little luck, they can get this all sorted out before the sun rises.
Of all the things Twilight expected Luna to say to her, that was most definitely not one of them.
Luna had popped into her bedroom at around four in the morning, ripped away the sheets, and woken her up. Loudly. She was constantly jumping from one hoof to the other, flicking her tail every which way, and her wings were twitching uncontrollably.
“Uh… wha’?” mumbled Twilight. She rubbed some sleep out of her eyes.
“I have been a mother for the past moon and I was unaware of it!”
Twilight yawned. “How can you not know something like that? I think you’d remember giv-”
“No! No, not like that,” said Luna. She took a few deep breaths and her twitches slowed. “Do you recall the Tantabus?”
“Well, last moon, I set about creating a new one for the opposite purpose. To spread good dreams to all instead of simply making me relive bad memories. It seemed to be working. But… just a few minutes ago…” Luna swallowed. “It started talking. It called me ‘Mom’.”
That purged the last vestiges of sleep from Twilight’s system. “What?”
“I know! It- I do not know how it happened! It is not supposed to be self-aware! It is not even supposed to be intelligent!” Luna started flicking her tail again and her voice sped up. “But if it is, then I cannot, in good conscience, force it to keep spreading good dreams; I have no desire for it to be a slave. But is letting it out safe? I do not know what its mind is like; is it young, old, adolescent, adult, what? How much does it know? If it leaves dreams, what c-”
“Please, can you calm down for a second?” asked Twilight. She pulled herself from the mattress and rolled her shoulders. “And why are you coming to me for help? I’m going to be aunt, not a mom, and the baby’s so far off, Cadance and Shining haven’t even named her yet. Or him. Whichever it’ll be.”
“You are the Princess of Friendship,” Luna said. “You ought to be able to help me reason with it. I know that, yes, Princess Cadance is the Princess of Love, but your assistance with the Tantabus previously gives you vital experience that Cadance lacks.”
True, maybe, but setting precedent for the personhood of constructs was not something Twilight wanted to do tonight. She frowned. “But if all you want me to do is talk to it, can’t you bring Celestia with you? I know you said she doesn’t have power in dreams like you do, but this doesn’t involve power. Right?”
Luna opened her mouth, held it that way for a moment. Suddenly she closed it and ducked her head down, her ears folded back, as she rustled her wings. “I…” She looked back up at Twilight, and when she finally spoke, her voice wasn’t more than a whisper. “My sister did not know of the previous Tantabus, so her understanding of this would boil down to mere parental issues. Can you imagine what she would say if I came to her with parental issues? I’d never hear the end of it — never — and I doubt that she’d treat the situation with enough gravity.”
Luna looked away from Twilight as she rubbed the back of her neck. “I apologize for jumping on you like this, truly, but I simply do not know anyone else who can deal with this problem the way you can, and I do not want to simply sweep it under the rug for tomorrow. I want to either be sure of its safety now or nip it in the bud. Please.”
Part of Twilight wanted to say no, that it was too late in the night for this sort of thing. But it was a very, very small part. It was impossible for her to just sit by like that. Besides, who else could help Luna? She was more or less the only pony in any position who could provide assistance. “Of course,” she said. She yawned. “So does this mean I get to go back to bed?”
Luna’s height dropped a full inch as the tension fell from limbs in relief. “Yes. Thank you.”
Twilight rolled back into her bed. “Any time.” She quickly fell asleep and started dreaming, but only had the vaguest glimpse of a library before it collapsed in front of her, falling apart to reveal a small valley in the middle of the night. She and Luna were standing next to a calm pool in a depression, surrounded by plants of all kinds — trees, vines, mushrooms, the works — every single one of them glowing softly. The colors were mostly cool ones, ranging from blues and violets to subdued reds and oranges. Lit by a full moon, it felt tranquil, meditative.
Twilight whistled softly. “Nice place,” she said, looking around.
Luna nodded. “When you go through countless dreams of others, sometimes you simply want some peace and quiet in your own. I worked on the new Tantabus here over several weeks. I used the template from the old one, but put in restrictions to prevent it from escaping like last time or behaving in unwanted ways. As of yet, it can’t enter others’ dreams unless I allow it.”
“But it can manipulate yours?”
“Again, only if I let it. I desired to see how it would behave in a controlled environment. So far, it has turned all my dreams pleasant, no matter how they started out, but… then it…”
“…started calling you Mom.”
“Yes. And I do not know how it feels about any of this, or if it feels at all.”
“Have you tried asking it?”
“Asking it is probably useless. It will say what it needs to say, a-”
“Have you tried asking it?”
Luna blinked and looked to one side, her ears folded back. “…No.”
“We should ask it,” Twilight said. “When you want to know somepony’s feelings, it’s a good idea to ask them.”
“I panicked!” Luna protested. “How would you feel if a foal was dropped on your doorstep and started calling you ‘Mom’?”
“Fair enough.” Twilight began looking around the valley. “So, where is it?”
“I do not know; it does not just ‘hang out’. It likes to hide. Not to scare you, but purely for the sake of hiding. We’ll need to find it.”
“Why don’t we just call for it?” Twilight asked. She turned to the pool and yelled out, “Tantabuuuuuuus!”
Luna sighed and rubbed her forehead, just below her horn. “I do not think that a being such as the Tantabus will respond t-”
She was silenced when Twilight nudged her in the ribs and pointed at the pool. A small cloud of night sky pulled from the surface of the water. It drifted to the edge of the pool, where it swirled and coalesced into a ponylike shape.
The first thing about the Tantabus that struck Twilight was how small it was; the one she and her friends had fought had started large before growing enormous, but this one was barely larger than Twilight herself, and definitely smaller than Luna. Maybe even smaller than Cadance. It looked like an alicorn-shaped hole had been carved out of space and replaced by a slowly-shifting field of stars. But shadows still fell on it properly, and it still cast a shadow of its own. Small lines where the stars didn’t match up quite right or bulged in and out resolved into well-defined visible and physical features; eyes, a nose, a mouth, wings, a mane, a tail, a horn. But even with those, even if you took out its surreal coat color, it looked… generic, for lack of a better term. Typical. Nondescriptive. It looked like everyone in general, but no one in particular. A few tiny luminescent plants and mushrooms sprouted from the ground around its hooves.
It stared curiously at Twilight. “Hey. You’re new. Did you call me?” Its voice was androgynous and weirdly mixed different ages; it had the characteristics of the voices of a foal, an adult, an elder, and all the rest combined into a single voice. It was too young to be old or middle-aged, too old to be middle-aged or young, and too middle-aged to be young or old.
Twilight glanced briefly at Luna before addressing the Tantabus. “Yes. My name is Princess Twilight Sparkle.”
“How come you’re here? Mom doesn’t want me to talk to strangers, but she brought you here, so you must be important.” The Tantabus turned to Luna. “What's she doing here, Mom?” Its voice wasn’t accusing or angry, just curious, the same way you might ask someone what their favorite color was.
Luna shivered a little. “Twilight and I have… work to do. Special work.”
“Oh. Okay. Can I go back to swimming?”
“O-only if you come when I call.”
“‘Kay.” The Tantabus dissolved back into smoke and rushed back into the pool. A moment later, iridescent, sparkling fish began leaping out of the surface of the water, each one trailing the Tantabus’s mist.
“Well,” said Twilight, watching the fish jump, “if nothing else, it seems happy enough.”
“Yes, but is it truly happy or is it faking?” murmured Luna, also watching the fish. “The fish are… beautiful enough, but you can hide sadness behind beauty.”
Twilight managed to hide a sigh. “Like I said before, we need to ask it.”
“It could lie.”
“You created it! Can’t you take away its ability to lie or something?”
“I do not know! I never gave it this much intelligence in the first place! If I tried to alter it now, I… I might kill it. And if it is truly sentient, I cannot bear the thought of killing it.” Luna rustled her wings and her voice dropped a little. “I know I created it as a tool. But if it’s become something more, then simply dismantling it would be reprehensible.”
“I know,” said Twilight softly. “I know. But you really think it’s become a person, then you’ve got to start treating it like one. You can’t assume it’s this manipulative monster just because it might be.”
“You are correct,” sighed Luna, “but… I do not want to risk it escaping and potentially attacking Equestria.”
She sucked in a breath between clenched teeth. “But it is of no use to beat around the bush.” She cleared her throat and tentatively said, “Tantabus?”
A column of water gathered up, forming into the Tantabus’s head. “Yes, Mom?”
“Could I talk to you for a moment?”
The water splashed onto shore and coalesced into the full shape of the Tantabus. “Yeah?” it asked curiously.
Luna swallowed. “Are… are you happy here?”
The Tantabus cocked its head and thought for a moment. “Happy enough. But I’d be happier if you let me out once in a while. You always keep the door closed.”
“Door? What door?”
“Oh, you know. The door you use to come in and out of here.” Its mane reached out towards a rock and pulled. The surrounding landscape crumpled like a curtain being thrown aside; behind it sat a rather plain door, not much more than knob and frame and hinges. “You and Twilight came in here through it just now, and whenever you’re done working with me, you go out through it. But you don’t want me to open the door, so I don’t touch it.”
“Ah. Yes.” Luna was silent for a moment, then added, “You can go back into the water if you want. We are done.”
“Okay.” The Tantabus gracefully jumped towards the pool, performing a backflip as it did so, and slid into the water with nary a ripple. A second later, surreal plants began fluorescing underwater, just barely visible.
“Well?” Twilight asked. “Do you think it was lying?”
“I do not think so,” said Luna, “but…” She stared at the door. “I did not imagine it knew how to leave dreams. I never taught it that and was planning to do it once I was sure it was safe.”
“But it hasn’t left this dream yet.”
“Or so it says. But I am inclined to believe it.” When Luna turned to Twilight, she looked a bit happier than she had before. “And if it is not lying, then that means the safeguards I put into it work. It has not even tried to force the issue, considering it said it has not touched the door.”
She began pacing, although she didn’t look worried. “Although we still do not know what its mind is like. It seems to have one, perhaps right on the cusp of growing out of childhood. And it seems sane. But we have not an inkling of what it feels, how it thinks, ho-”
“Have you tried asking it?”
“Hush, I was just about to do that.” Luna turned to the pool and said, “Tantabus?”
Reforming back on the shore, the Tantabus huffed, “Mom, if you want me to stay out, just tell me to stay out. I don’t mind if you don’t want me swimming, but then tell me to not go swimming, don’t let me go in and keep calling me back out.”
“Don’t go swimming again,” said Twilight. “We have some questions we want to ask you.”
“See? Like that.” The Tantabus settled down on the ground, wiggling its body a little to get more comfortable, and turned to Luna with big eyes.
Luna cleared her throat. “How do you feel about this place? Not just now, but in general.”
The Tantabus looked around and shrugged. “It’s pretty, but like I said, I’d like to get out at least a little. I’ve been here my whole life, after all.”
“And how long do you think that is?” pressed Luna. Twilight knew the answer already, but she was curious to see how much the Tantabus knew. Could magical constructs get infantile amnesia, so to speak?
The Tantabus frowned and scratched its head. “Erng… I dunno. I think a moon, I can remember stuff about that long ago. But that’s hard. It gets easier a week ago, but that’s not the earliest. So I think a moon.”
Luna blinked. “And you don’t think a life that short is unusual?”
“Why would it be? It’s when you made me, Mom.”
Twilight twitched slightly and Luna recoiled, flaring her wings. “How do you know that?” Luna gasped.
The Tantabus tapped the side of its head. “It’s one of the things you taught me: that you made me to make good dreams to keep the stress off of you. That’s what you’ve been working with me for, isn’t it? And I want to, but you keep the door closed and want me to stay here.”
Twilight and Luna glanced at each other; they’d never considered that the Tantabus would be aware of its artificiality. But at the same time, Twilight thought, it doesn’t seem all that perturbed by the fact.
“So does this mean we’re going out?” the Tantabus asked hopefully. “I know how to work dreams really well here, but I don’t know what it’ll be like in other places.”
Luna motioned Twilight aside, so the Tantabus wouldn’t overhear. “What do you think?” she asked quietly. “Should we permit it to leave?”
“We’ll have to let it out eventually,” said Twilight. “And if we do it now, we can keep an eye on it for the first few dreams.”
Luna chewed her lip for a moment. “You’re right. We might as well do it now.”
She turned back to the Tantabus. “Tantabus, I think you are ready to start spreading good dreams-”
The Tantabus jumped about ten feet into the air. “YESSSSS!” It lunged towards Luna and didn’t hug her so much as hang off her neck with all legs and wings wrapped around it. “Thank you, Mom! Thankyouthanky-”
“-but,” interrupted Luna, struggling to stay upright, “Twilight and I will go with you, at least for the first few dreams. We do not want you to get into any trouble.”
Twilight heard the unspoken, Or cause any.
The Tantabus didn’t, though. It unraveled from around Luna’s neck. “So what? I’ve never been outside before! Can I open the door now?”
Its giddiness was infectious, and the corners of Luna’s mouth began curling upwards. “You may.”
The Tantabus practically smashed the door down on its way. Twilight quickly followed, worried that they wouldn’t be able to catch it. But outside, on a starry road flanked on either side by an infinite row of doors, the Tantabus was just flitting about, rapping each door with a hoof, occasionally making sounds of delight or disgust.
“Um, what’re you doing?” Twilight asked.
“Feeling the dreams,” the Tantabus said without looking at her. “I gotta know which one I want to work with first. It’s kind of a big night for me.” It poked one door and cringed. “Ugh. That one’s so sappy. Nuh-uh.”
Luna appeared behind Twilight. She watched the Tantabus for a second, then said, “You may open one — but just one — of those doors.”
“I know. But you said you were going to come with me, so I wasn’t going to head on until you could catch up.” The Tantabus touched a door that looked like it was made out of clouds. “Ooo. This one feels good.” The Tantabus yanked the door open and plunged into it.
“Do you still believe this is a good idea?” Luna asked.
The moment Twilight entered the dream, even before she got anything more than a brief impression, she knew something was wrong. Smoke clogged the sky and the entire place stank of dark magic and smog.
“My word,” Luna said quietly.
Twilight got a good look around, and was inclined to agree. They were hovering over the Crystal Empire, but it wasn’t Cadance’s Empire; this was Sombra’s Empire. All of the bright colors and smooth surfaces had been replaced with dark ones and jagged spikes, much like the ones she’d seen in the last minutes before Spike and Cadance retrieved the Crystal Heart. Standing in the square below the Crystal Palace was row upon row upon row of Crystal Ponies, each and every one of them wearing the same helmets she’d heard about in the first alternate timeline when chasing down Starlight. They stood with an unnatural stillness and moved with an unnatural synchronicity.
And on the balcony of the Palace, standing tall and arrogant, was King Sombra himself. His mane, tail, mustache, and cape were flapping dramatically in the wind as his crown glinted from the few rays of sunlight that managed to break through the clouds. Flanking him on either side were Celestia and Luna, helmets suckered on their heads, acting as bodyguards. With a cold, borderline serpentine eye, Sombra looked over the assem-
Wait. Sombra had a mustache?
Twilight looked again. It wasn’t just a mustache, it was the handlebar mustache to end all handlebar mustaches, beyond compare of any before or any to come. It was impeccably groomed, with not a hair out of place, a glossy sheen coating it, and ends that turned up in just the right ways. Quite possibly one of the biggest, curliest, most fabulous mustaches Twilight had ever seen, it seemed purpose-built for twirling while cackling villainously.
And twirl it while cackling villainously Sombra did. “Yeeeeeesssssss,” he said, rubbing his hooves in between twirling his mustache. “With this unstoppable army at my command, with even the Princesses themselves under my hoof, all of Equestria shall be mine! Mwa ha ha ha haaaaaa!” He wasn’t even properly cackling, Twilight realized; he was clearly enunciating “mwa ha ha”.
Twilight gave a sidelong glance at Luna. “I’m… not sure this is quite as dire as it seems.”
Luna stared at Sombra slightly slack-jawed. Or, to be more precise, at Sombra’s spectacular mustache. “…No. Perhaps not.”
Twilight twitched and turned around. The Tantabus was hovering next to her, holding forth a bag of said popcorn. The kernels were thoroughly drenched in butter, enough to make Twilight nauseous. The Tantabus was chewing loudly.
Luna leaned around Twilight and scowled at the Tantabus. “Do not chew with your mouth open.”
“And do not speak with your mouth full! Honestly, did I forget to teach you manners in between enabling your control of dreams?”
The Tantabus scowled, swallowed, and licked its lips. “But the popcorn?” It shoved the bag in Twilight’s face again.
Twilight lightly nudged the bag and its butter-sodden contents away. “Eh, no thank you.”
The Tantabus shrugged. “Suit yourself.” It turned back to the scene and continued devouring popcorn.
Twilight pulled Luna aside. “So what now? Do we try to take the Tantabus out of here or see what happens?”
Luna rubbed her head, muttering nothings under her breath. “I do not know,” she whispered. “On the one hoof, the situation looks horrific, like it could be anypony’s nightmare. On the other, we cannot be sure it is the Tantabus’s doing, and… Sombra. He’s… that… overacting… thing.”
Twilight nodded and looked back at Sombra. “He’s beyond cliche. He’s not just comic-booky, he’s all melodramatic and Silver-Agey.”
Luna blinked. “You know of the Silver Age of Comic Books?”
“Yeah, Spike likes comics, and he was talking about it one day, so I- Wait, you know about the Silver Age?”
Twilight and Luna stared blankly at each other for a moment. Then Twilight coughed and said, “So, um, as we were saying, Sombra’s an over-the-top pantomime villain. With a mustache.”
“Well, duh,” the Tantabus interjected through a mouthful of popcorn. “If you’re gonna go with a cheesy villain, they gotta have a twirlable mustache.”
“Do not speak with your mouth full!”
The Tantabus swallowed and pouted. “You know, for someone who doesn’t seem to want to admit she’s my mom, you sure act like my mom.”
“I think it suits you,” Twilight said. “Have you tried using the Royal Canterlot Voice?”
“That would… not… be…” Luna’s voice trailed off as she considered. “That would be rather enjoyable,” she admitted. She began drifting off into deep thought.
“So the mustache is your fault?” Twilight asked the Tantabus. She’d tried to find a better word than “fault”, that implied she didn’t like it, but she couldn’t find one.
The Tantabus nodded. “And the brainwashed Princesses.”
Luna didn’t say anything, but she looked quite peeved.
“Sorry, Mom,” said the Tantabus, shrugging, “but it’s the kind of thing this dreamer would want. If you don’t like it, you can go and make good dreams.”
Twilight looked around the Crystal Empire. “And how much of the rest did you make?”
“Not all of it. A lot, like the basic idea, was already here. I mostly just amped it up a bit. Like the mustache. He was going OTT anyway, so I figured a mustache wouldn’t hurt.”
“But you couldn’t make the whole dream a little better?”
“No! Not for the kind of dream this pony wanted.”
“They wanted a hellish landscape where the Crystal Empire is doomed?” asked Luna.
“And Sombra being hammy enough to require a mustache, don’t forget that.” The Tantabus nodded sagely.
“…True.” Luna looked around the Crystal Empire, at all the brainwashed ponies. “But perhaps this is not the best place to see what sorts of ‘good’ dreams you can make. We ought to try another dream. One where a happy dream involves less enslavement.”
It was amazing how, in spite of barely having normal eyes, the Tantabus could still make a sad puppy-dog face. “But we’ll miss the best part! This is the bit where everything turns around for the good guys and the bad guy gets beat up. I set it up myself. Please? Pretty please? With sugar on top? Everything before is just backdrop.”
“Not everypony’s idea of a good dream is yours,” Twilight said to Luna. “We should stay a little longer, just to see what this turns into.”
Luna rubbed her forehead. “Very well. Five or ten minutes.”
The Tantabus grinned and bounced on the air a little. “Yay!”
“And once Equestria falls,” said Sombra (either his speech had paused as the trio talked or he was ludicrously long-winded), “the world shall be mine! Mwa ha ha ha ha! Nothing can stop me now!”
“Aaaaand…” whispered the Tantabus.
A rainbow-colored missile cannoned through the clouds, blasting them aside and letting the sun shine through. It smashed into the square in front of the Crystal Palace; a rainbow shockwave radiated and bowled over the Crystal Ponies assembled there. In the middle of the space stood Rainbow Dash, staring up at Sombra. A purple cape flapped around her neck, and her hooves were encased in boots of some sparkly violet metal. The boots left behind trails in the air where they passed, like some kind of afterimage. She looked a bit larger than usual, about the size of Cadance, but didn’t have a horn.
The Tantabus preened. “Like the costume? The cape was her idea, but the trails are all me.”
“You talked to her?” gasped Luna.
“Well, no. I just get impressions of what she likes and shape it that way. And she likes capes.” The Tantabus ate some more popcorn and, after a brief glare from Luna, swallowed before talking again. “But honestly, before I came in, she wasn’t wearing anything, and that’s boooooring.”
“Sombra!” Rainbow Dash yelled, her voice booming and echoing through the entire dreamscape. “King of Shadows and Tyrant of the Crystal Empire!”
“Rainbow Dash!” hissed Sombra. “Elite Celestial Knight and Awesome Badass!”
“Sombra!” bellowed Rainbow Dash.
“Rainbow Dash!” screeched Sombra.
Twilight had to stuff her hoof in her mouth to suppress the giggles. This was Silver-Agey, all right.
Rainbow Dash began hovering just above the ground and pointed at Sombra. “Your reign ends today, by my powers of awesomeness!”
“Not so! You may have survived my last attack, but you cannot stop my master plan! Today, you are going down!” The Princesses flanking Sombra stepped up to the balcony, their wings spread, ready to take off.
“No! It is you who are going down, chump!” Dash was off in flash, sonic-rainbooming circles around the Empire. She kept slowing down and speeding up again, rainbooming repeatedly and sending more and more rainbows cascading through the Empire.
Even by dream logic, Twilight was confused — what would multiple rainbows do? — but then she saw what happened when the rainbows hit the Crystal Ponies: their helmets glowed for a second, then shattered in a cascade of multicolored sparks, freeing the pony inside. As Rainbow Dash kept circling the Empire, the amount of soldiers still under Sombra’s control quickly dropped to nothing.
“No!” yelled Sombra. “No! Noooooooooooo! My helmets! My soldiers! It’s no use! She’s too awesome!”
On either side of him, Celestia and the copy of Luna shuddered as their helmets exploded, then collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily. Sombra turned tail and tried to run back into the Crystal Palace, but Rainbow Dash dropped on him from above like a heat-seeking ton of bricks, smashing them both through the balcony. Rainbow Dash opened her wings, stopping her fall halfway, but Sombra dropped all the way down and left a crater. He was just staggering over the rim when Rainbow Dash tackled him into the still-empty square, every single pony in the Crystal Empire watching them.
“Who’s the mare?” Rainbow Dash yelled in his face. “Whoooo’s theeee maaaare?”
“Y- you are,” blubbered Sombra.
Rainbow Dash smirked. “Damn straight.” She gripped Sombra by the tail and, with a single mighty heave, flung him into the stratosphere, where he vanished with a visible, audible twinkle. Ting.
There was half a second of silence, then the crowd exploded into cheers. Confetti and streamers began falling from nowhere, and as the crowd began chanting “Rainbow Dash! Rainbow Dash!”, a band somewhere began playing triumphant music.
Rainbow Dash, of course, lapped it all up. She didn’t say anything, but she grinned widely and began to hover above the square, making motions like she was some kind of rock star, trying to get the crowd to chant louder. Twilight could hear some nearby stallions swooning. “She’s so awesome…”
“Yeah,” Twilight said to Luna, “this is definitely the sort of dream Rainbow Dash would want. Beating up bad guys and getting showered with praise? She’s in heaven.”
Celestia and the copy of Luna flew down from the balcony and fell at Rainbow Dash’s feet. (Real Luna looked somewhat put out.) “Thank you, for saving our lives, O great and noble Rainbow Dash,” said Celestia. “Is there anything we can do to repay you?”
“You don’t need to do that,” said Rainbow Dash. “I’m just happy to help. I don’t need any thanks.” She turned to the crowd, waved, and got another roar.
The Princesses crawled forward and wrapped their forelegs around Rainbow Dash’s legs. (Real Luna looked a bit miffed.) “But please,” said dream Luna, “there must be something, anything!”
Rainbow Dash turned her head towards the sky and tapped her chin. “Well…”
The dream blurred for half an instant, and there was a parade through the square. It was big, elaborate, one of those parades where everypony goes all-out. Bands played, dancers danced, singers sang, firebreathers firebreathed, and at the center of it all was a float carrying Rainbow Dash, still in her regalia and still with Celestia and dream Luna grasping her legs. (Real Luna looked rather incensed.) The crowd was cheering louder than ever.
As Rainbow Dash waved, she greeted the surrounding ponies by name. “Hi, Ivory! Hi, Bright Smile! Hi, Rose Quartz! Hi, Twilight! Hi, Luna! Hi, Crystal Arrow! Hi-”
Rainbow Dash did a double take. She looked at the Luna next to Twilight, then down at the Luna clinging to one of her legs, and her face turned bright red. She chuckled nervously as she tried to shake the second Luna off. “Heh heh. Um, this… totally wasn’t my idea, Your Highness.”
“It was mine!” the Tantabus said brightly. “You wanted to save some ponies. And what better ponies than the Princesses?”
“Well-” grunted Rainbow Dash, still trying to get rid of the dream Luna, “the least- you could do- is not- do it- when- there’s- an actual- princess- here!” She finally managed pulled herself out of the dream Luna’s grip, who slunk into the crowd and vanished. Rainbow Dash glanced down at Celestia, who was staring up at her with big eyes. After a moment, she began shaking her off, too. “Who are you, anyw-”
Then she got a good look at the Tantabus. She tried to back away, pushing against the float with her hooves and beating her wings, but Celestia was too heavy. “Tantabus!” she yelled.
“Calm down, Rainbow,” said Twilight, flying to her side. “It’s not the same one we fought. Luna made this one to make bad dreams good.”
“I gave Sombra the mustache!” the Tantabus said proudly.
Rainbow Dash finally pulled herself from Celestia’s grip, but she didn’t fly away. Instead, she looked at the Tantabus for a few seconds, tilting her head this way and that, then said, “I don’t think you needed to. Sombra looked so evil that a mustache like that would make his evilness less obvious.”
The Tantabus pouted. “I like villain mustaches.”
“I apologize for interrupting,” said Luna, “but would you say that this was a good dream for you? Just to be sure.”
Rainbow Dash smiled and jumped into the air. “Heck, yeah! I got to beat the stuffing out of Sombra, save a bunch of ponies, and have a parade! Why wouldn’t it be great?”
“See?” said the Tantabus proudly. “I can do good dreams.”
“True,” said Luna. “But you said you simply amped things up here, which implies that this dream was already going to be good. We should start within a nightmare and see what you can do then.”
“Mom?!” said Rainbow Dash. She chuckled. “Okay, wow. I gotta hear the story behind this.”
“As Twilight said,” said Luna, “I created this one to turn bad dreams good. It removes some of the stress from me if I am not required to patrol the dreams of all of ponykind every night. Then one night, it suddenly started calling me ‘Mom’, and… Well, I want to be sure it’s safe and behaves correctly.”
“I’m right here,” mumbled the Tantabus.
“The original Tantabus attempted to escape dreams and turn Equestria into a living nightmare. Forgive me if I am a tad anxious over the prospect of that happening again and want to avoid it.”
Rainbow Dash grinned. “I think it’s great. There’s nothing like a little rump-kicking bad guys to make me happy. You’re all right, Tantabus.”
“For this dream. But what about others?” said Luna. “There are many other types of dreams, and we have only examined one. We need to cover our bases if I say the Tantabus is safe.”
“Yeah,” added Twilight. “We need to get a little more data before we can say anything. One might be a fluke. I don’t think so, but we need to be sure.” She turned to Rainbow Dash. “It was nice to see you, Rainbow, but we have to-”
“Wait!” yelled Rainbow Dash. “Hey, Tantabus, if you’re going to go, any chance you could change my dream? I mean…” Rainbow Dash swept a hoof over the Crystal Empire. “This is great, don’t get me wrong, but I’d like something different now.”
“Sure.” The Tantabus’s form collapsed into smoke and puffed up immensely, obscuring Twilight’s vision for a moment. When it reformed, the Crystal Empire had been replaced by a sunlit field of happy flowers singing a song. We are such happy flowers, we will now sing for hours…
Rainbow Dash screamed. “What’re you doing?! This isn’t a good dream! This is a nightmare! This-”
And then she noticed the flamethrower nozzle strapped to her hoof.
The cackle she released as she ignited it would’ve rivaled the Mane-iac’s.
The Tantabus opened a door out of the air. “Let’s leave her to it.” And it was gone.
As Twilight left the dream, the last thing she heard was Rainbow Dash yelling, “Burn, you stupid flowers! Buuuuuuuuurn!”
In the collective dreamscape, the Tantabus was already looking at another door before Twilight and Luna had gotten their hooves under them. It reached out for one door, but the moment it touched the knob, it looked at Luna and said, “You wanted me to start with a bad dream, right? So you could see how I make it go from bad to good? Because this one doesn’t feel bad enough.”
“Yes, that would be ideal,” said Luna. “Creating a good dream better is all well and good, but turning a bad dream good is much better. Do you require help finding one, or…?”
“Nah, not yet.” Quick as a whistle, the Tantabus flitted from door to door. It pressed its hoof against a plain brown half door that looked vaguely familiar to Twilight, and its face lit up. “Ooo. This one’s good. I mean bad. I mean good for being bad. I mean do you two want to go in first so you can see what the dream’s like before I change it?”
“Not a bad idea,” said Twilight. “Wait here about… twenty seconds?”
The Tantabus nodded. “Twenty seconds.”
Twilight looked at Luna, who nodded, and the two of them flew through the door.
Something roared. Deep, blood-curdling, throaty, vicious, layered. A predatory roar. Far away, but loud nonetheless. A big roar. A big, big roar.
Boom. Everything shook.
Another roar. Closer.
They were in Fluttershy’s cottage. She was racing back and forth, shuffling small animals through a trapdoor in the floor. Small rumbles, steadily getting larger, shook the house every few seconds. Twilight raced to the window and looked out. A large dragon was slowly advancing on the cottage, practically slavering at the mouth, and it looked angry.
Gazing through the window from behind her, Luna said flatly, “Yes, I think this might possibly be a proper nightmare.”
Twilight gulped. “Yeah. Maybe.”
“Told you,” said the Tantabus.
Twilight twitched at its sudden arrival, but Luna’s only reaction was to whisper, “I hope you can end this nightmare quickly. It might not end well for our friend if you do, and while being caught in a dream when it collapses is never dangerous, in and of itself, it is never pleasant.”
The Tantabus looked at the dragon outside, at Fluttershy, and nodded. “Actually, yeah. I think I can.” It dissolved into smoke and raced under the door.
Fluttershy put the last of the animals in the space beneath the trapdoor; there wasn’t any room for her. “Now, I know you don’t like it in here,” she said, lowering down one last rabbit, “but you’ll be safe in here, okay? No dragon’s going to eat you. I’ll come get you when it’s safe.”
Several of the animals made anxious chittering noises and tried to climb out, but Fluttershy lightly nudged them back in. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Don’t worry, I’ll be okay.” And she slammed the trapdoor, hiding the crawlspace. “No, I won’t,” she whispered.
Even though it was a dream, seeing Fluttershy like this made Twilight start slowly shifting her weight from one hoof to another and flicking her tail. Even Luna seemed to be chewing her lip nervously. She wanted to reach out to Fluttershy, to tell that it’d all be okay. But that would be interfering, and it was always bad to interfere with experiments. This was the Tantabus’s job, now, and Twilight could only hope it did its job well.
Fluttershy took a few deep breaths. “Okay, think, Fluttershy,” she squeaked to herself. “How do you stop a dragon? You don’t. They’re too strong. Too big. Too everything.” She swallowed.
Abruptly, the Tantabus slid back into the room beneath the door, and flew right into one of Fluttershy’s ears and out the other. It reformed next to Twilight and Luna.
“What did you just do to her?” whispered Twilight.
“Nothing major, just planted an idea,” the Tantabus whispered back. “Watch.”
“But those scales have to be flexible, right?” continued Fluttershy. “Or else it wouldn’t be able to move. So maybe I can hit it with something. Right in the throat. That can stun it.” She giggled nervously. “Oh, listen to me. Trying to stop a dragon? I don’t sound like myself.”
Twilight glanced sidelong at the Tantabus, who shrugged helplessly. “Hey,” it muttered, “I’m still new to this, okay? I have to work with what I can.”
The dragon roared again, and the windows rattled, almost cracking. Fluttershy looked like she’d enjoy nothing more than flying away as fast as she could, but she braced her hooves over the trapdoor. “Okay,” she whispered, “stand tall. Your friends are counting on you.”
A gigantic, razor-sharp claw ripped through the front wall and tore it away. The dragon jammed its head through the gap; rage was in its eyes and smoke was pouring from its nostrils. Its breath was hot, sticky and reeked heavily of unmentionable things. Any one of its teeth, its yellowy and stained-red teeth, was as long as a pony’s legs. In spite of the unreality of the situation, Twilight wanted to run, and she kept flexing her wings in preparation for flying away as fast as she could.
Shaking, Fluttershy drew herself up very small, but stayed where she was. She tried smiling. “Um, hello, Mr. Dragon. D-do you think you could leave the little critters alone? Please? Pretty please?”
The dragon responded by roaring in her face.
Fluttershy gulped. “I-if that’s the way you feel… I’m so sorry about this.” She darted forward, rolling under the dragon’s head, and gave it a good, solid kick in the middle of the throat. Which, considering this was Fluttershy, was the equivalent of Twilight bucking her whole castle clear across the horizon.
The dragon’s roaring stopped and became closer to retching. After a moment, it coughed up a large, spiky hunk of some dark purple metal. Then, in the poshest of posh accents a dragon could muster, it said, “I say, thank you for that, old bird.” It pulled its head out of the cottage and hacked up several clouds of smoke to one side. It might’ve just been Twilight, but from the few brief glimpses she got, the dragon’s teeth suddenly looked a lot whiter and less dirty. “I must say, I am dreadfully sorry about all this, but having a blasted hunk of metal lodged in one’s larynx is not only quite painful, it rather inhibits the ability to speak properly and request help.”
Twilight and Luna both turned to the Tantabus, who was grinning proudly. Twilight was holding back a little smile herself.
“Um… sorry?” asked Fluttershy. She was still drawing herself up very small, but she wasn’t shaking anymore. “I thought you were trying to eat my animal friends.”
The dragon chuckled softly, which in its case meant it felt like a small earthquake. “Oh, heavens, no. Nothing that severe.” It nudged the metal gently towards Fluttershy so she could get a better look at it. “Just a few hours ago, I was enjoying a rather spiffing meal of gemstones donated by a colleague of mine. Unfortunately, they’d come from his private horde of treasure in general and he hadn’t quite sorted out all the non-gems from the gems, That meant that this blighter-” It tapped the hunk of metal again. “-was still in there, and in the middle of lunch, I suddenly had the most unfortunate occurrence of getting it jammed quite tightly in my throat.”
It shuddered. “Very painful, as you might well imagine, and just large enough to keep me from speaking properly. Knowing of your expertise with animals, I came down here to seek your help, which you just provided, and for that I am forever grateful.” The dragon bowed deeply.
Fluttershy perked up almost immediately. “You know how good I am with animals?”
“Oh, yes, quite, yes indeed,” said the dragon, nodding. “You are, shall we say, quite famous throughout the animal kingdom for your positively sublime skills. Most every creature across Equestria has heard about you.”
“It’s just what I do,” said Fluttershy, smiling and looking to one side to hide her blushing. “I didn’t think I was famous.”
“Oh, don’t speak down about yourself, luv,” said the dragon. “What you do is rather smashing.” It looked around at the surrounding landscape. “And I must say, I feel the need to repay you for your assistance. I can’t just leave you and your home in a bend like this.”
“Well, um, why don’t you get started with cleaning up the debris? I need to get the animals out from their shelter.”
The Tantabus was bouncing on the tips of its hooves. “Well? What do you think?”
“You touched nothing before we arrived?”
The Tantabus rolled its eyes. “Mom, I already told you, I can’t do anything unless I actually enter the dream, and you went in before me. So the rampaging dragon was already there, and originally, it was going to eat her.”
“In that case, I have to praise you for your improvisational skills, considering how little time you had before you changed things. And the Trottingham accent was a decent way to defuse the situation, but you may have gone a bit too far with it. I’m amazed you didn’t throw in a ‘by jove, wot wot, toodle pip’ somewhere.”
“I wanted to make it as nonthreatening as possible. Can you see a bad guy with that accent?”
The Tantabus blinked and looked away, its ears back. “Well, she can’t,” it muttered.
Luna turned to Twilight. “You know Fluttershy better than I do. What do you think she thought of this dream?”
Twilight groaned a little. “No offense, Your Highness, but how come you always ask me about this? You should talk to Fluttershy about it.”
“Talk to me about what?”
Everyone twitched; Fluttershy had somehow inserted herself into their circle. She was looking around at them with big, curious eyes and was in the middle of calming a jackalope down with repeated head-rubs. The animals she’d just let out of the crawlspace were swarming around her legs, a few clinging to her tail or mane.
Before anyone could respond, Fluttershy said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m interrupting, aren’t I?” She backed up a little and turned her head away from them. “I heard my name, and I noticed you, and so I thought-”
“No! No, you’re fine,” said Twilight. She cleared her throat. “Fluttershy, you remember the Tantabus, right?” The Tantabus smiled and waved.
Fluttershy shuddered. “Oh, yes. That thing that caused nightmares? It was simply dreadful.” She looked the Tantabus up and down. “But this one looks different, and you don’t seem too worried about it-” (Luna looked away and coughed.) “-so I’m guessing there’s something different about it.”
“I created this one to end nightmares rather than cause them,” said Luna. “We are currently testing its capabilities and behavior, and we were wondering what you thought of this particular dream.”
Fluttershy suddenly looked nervous (moreso than usual, anyway) and began running her hooves through her mane. “W-well, um,” she whispered, “I, I suppose that… it wasn’t that b-”
“The angry dragon wasn’t my fault!” said the Tantabus. “That was totally there before I got here. I got rid of its aggression by making it spit out that metal, thankyouverymuch. Just talk about the stuff after that.”
“Oh!” said Fluttershy brightly. “In that case, I think you did a great job. I like dragons a lot more when they’re not trying to eat you.”
“Don’t we all?” asked Twilight.
“And he’s so polite,” continued Fluttershy. “Aside from Spike, most of the dragons I’ve met have been gruff and aggressive and nasty… Not at all like this.”
“Begging your pardon, old gel,” piped up the dragon from outside, “but where do you want me to put the, ah, the whole entire front wall of your lovely little home?” It sheepishly held up said wall, which looked rather intact for being messily ripped off by its claws. “It seems such a shame to just abandon it all and let it go to waste.”
“Just put it right next to the cottage, will you please?” asked Fluttershy. “I should, um…” She glanced at Twilight, Luna and the Tantabus. Twilight could see her thoughts: this was a dream, it didn’t really matter. “…should be able to get it fixed soon. Oh, and do you think you could clean up the ground a little, please? You’re a big dragon, and you left a lot of big piles of dirt everywhere. I don’t think a pony could clean it all up.”
Gently setting the wall aside, the dragon adjusted its monocle. (When did it get a monocle?) “Yes, indeed so, most indeededly. I was just about to get on that, actually. Well, as the old saying goes, great minds think alike and all that.”
As the dragon started smoothing out the ground, Fluttershy said, “I know he’s hardly a dragon-y dragon, but a dragon-y dragon isn’t always the nicest dragon. And that-” She pointed outside. “-is a very nice dragon. So, um, yes. I think you made my nightmare into a very nice dream. Thank you.”
The Tantabus made a face at Luna that was somewhere between a grin and a smug smirk. “Seeeeeee? I told you I could work with nightmares. Why did you ever doubt me?”
“I never doubted you,” said Luna. “I just wanted to be completely sure of your abilities. And now I am.”
“Thank you. You know, Mom, I don’t know why you’re so wo-”
“I, um, hate to interrupt,” interrupted Fluttershy, “but, um, do you need me anymore?”
“I don’t think so, no,” said Twilight. “Thanks for your help, Fluttershy.”
“…But I barely did anything…”
Before Twilight could respond, the dream popped like a multitude of bubbles and the group, sans Fluttershy, was back outside of the latter’s dream.
“As I was saying, I don’t know why you’re so worried, Mom,” said the Tantabus. “You made me exactly for this, and you worked with me a lot so that you could be sure of it, but I start talking to you and you immediately get all nervous about it?”
Luna shrugged. “I do not know, either. By all rights, I should have faith in your abilities, but for some reason, I want to be sure.”
“But now you’re sure, right? I can make good dreams better and turn nightmares happy, so are you gonna let me go?”
“Not quite. I still have one more test.”
The Tantabus groaned. “Oh, come on, Mom, what else is there? I don’t want you looking over my shoulder my whole life!”
“And I have no desire to have to do that.” Luna crouched down in front of the Tantabus and looked up at it. “The more I see what you do, the more I trust you. But on the slim chance I am mistaken, if you do not want to just spread good dreams-”
“But I do!”
“-if I am mistaken,” continued Luna, “the results would be catastrophic. I do not want you to run wild, creating dreams as you see fit and inflicting pain on ponies just because you can.”
The Tantabus blinked. “But I… I’d never… Mom, do… do you really think that… that I’d do that?” it asked quietly.
“I am ninety-nine percent certain you would not. I am merely attempting to add the remaining one percent to that. I am deeply sorry if it feels like I have no trust in you, but this is not about just you; this is about all of Equestria. And with that many ponies involved, I cannot afford to take risks. Not even with you.” Luna’s voice dropped a little. “I’m sorry.”
The Tantabus stared at the ground, lightly kicking at it. Eventually, it muttered, “Okay.” It looked up and said, “So what’s your last test?”
Luna stood back up. “Creating dreams from scratch. If you find yourself in a situation where you cannot find a way to turn a dream good, you ought to be able make a new, more pleasant dream without any reliance on what came before.”
The Tantabus rolled its eyes. “Oh, that’s it? Pfft. I could do that in my sleep.”
“Wah wah waaaaaaaah,” whispered Twilight.
“No pun intended. Now, eeny meenie miney moe…” It stepped up to a random door and pulled it open. “If you would.”
Lyra was shopping at the Ponyville marketplace, and it was a positively absolutely perfectly normal day in each and every single possible way a day could be positively absolutely perfectly normal.
No, really, it was.
Twilight looked around, up, down, everywhere she could think. There were no aliens in the sky, nothing was threatening to flood Ponyville, no monsters were attacking, the sky was blue, the grass was green, the grass was growing, the birds were flying, the sun was shining, every sound sounded right, all the colors looked right, everything was right-side-up… There seemed to be nothing out of place. Everything was normal. And this was a dream, so that wasn’t normal.
She looked again. Nothing continued to be out of place.
She closed her eyes, opened them, looked again.
Nothing continued to be out of place.
She closed her eyes tightly, rubbed them vigorously, hit her head a few times, opened them, looked again.
Ponyville obstinately persisted in its mundanity.
“Not every dream needs to be dreamlike, or even slightly unusual,” said Luna, noticing Twilight’s behavior. “Improbable as it may seem, dreams can, on occasion, be perfectly ordinary.”
“Doesn’t that defeat the point of dreams?” asked Twilight. This was kind of disappointing. She’d been hoping for… she wasn’t sure what, but something more.
“Dreams do not necessarily have a point. They are flighty things, going wherever their whims take them.” Luna looked around and frowned. “I will admit, though, that whatever whim would take a dream here is a rather odd whim.”
The Tantabus fell out of a hole in the sky and picked itself up. “So,” it said, “what kind of…” It started looking around and its jaw dropped. “…of… of… of…”
“Yeah,” said Twilight. “Not very exciting.”
The Tantabus blinked a few times and hung its head in its hooves. “It’s so…” it whispered, “…plain. So dull. So simplistic. So… inane.”
“Oh, hush,” said Luna. “You’re going to change it anyway. Stop whining.”
“I know,” sighed the Tantabus, “it’s just… look at it.” It shuddered. “Anyway…” It looked at Lyra (who was in the middle of buying some oranges) for a few seconds, then grinned a little. “This should be interesting.” It blurred, briefly covering the whole area, then reformed.
Everything looked exactly the same.
Twilight looked around, then at the Tantabus. “You want this to be a surprise, don’t you?”
The Tantabus nodded. “I’m working on my transitions.”
“Thanks, Cherry Berry!” said Lyra. “I’ve been waiting to get these oranges for ages.” She turned away from the from the stall and put a hoof on the cobblestones.
The road caved in beneath her, revealing a black hole beneath. It expanded rapidly, quickly swallowing everything in sight as Lyra fell, shrieking. Everything gradually got darker and darker, quieter and quieter. Eventually, Lyra’s scream vanished and she faded into the darkness.
Then the music came in.
Unlike the previous ones, this particular dream had a soundtrack, with a main melody played by a guitar that managed to be ominous and swinging at the same time and backed by a large orchestra. It started up even before the environment had fully formed: Dun duhduhdun-dun, dun dun dun dun duhduhdun-dun, dun dun dun dun-dun… dun-dun-dun…
In time with the beat, lights started coming on. They illuminated a colossal missile silo, filled with all the catwalks and control panels and beeping lights you could imagine. Technicians were milling around the place, checking clipboards or wires or vents, frequently flanked by guards. The silo doors were closed and very, very far up; they must have been deep inside a mountain. Everything in the silo was cradling a giant missile, proudly emblazoned with the symbol of Equestria. And strapped to the side of the missile, right below the warhead, was Lyra.
Twilight cocked her head. “This… is a good dream?”
“It will be,” said the Tantabus.
Twilight stared at Lyra for a few moments, then said to Luna, “You know, the ponies we’ve run into tonight have some very weird tastes in happy dreams.”
The three of them were standing on a catwalk near the peak of the missile. Lyra was only a few feet above them, cuffed to the missile by riveted strips of metal across her hooves. Not ten feet away from them was a panel that had, among all the other things, a Big Red Button, glowing and everything.
An Earth pony mare, tall and thin and drawn, stood near them. She was dressed in a purpley uniform that was almost like the dress uniform of the Royal Guard, but looked to be a bit more elaborate, with some extra filigree and more medals than were strictly necessary. She looked over everything with a contemptuous, authoritative eye, and carried with her an air of superiority; anypony simply walking into the room would she was the leader. She pressed the Big Red Button; above her, the silo doors slowly groaned open.
“So, Onatrott,” said Lyra in a remarkably blasé voice, “remind me again how attaching me to this missile is going to help you devastate Griffonstone.”
The mare, Onatrott, laughed lightly. Her voice was surprisingly alluring. “It von’t, actually. Ze missile vill launch vith or vithout you. Vith you is just a bonus.” She pressed a button next to the Big Red one, and a calm voice echoed through the silo. “Missile launch in T-minus two minutes. Please exit the silo.”
Luna shuffled on her hooves and looked up. “Technically,” she muttered, “I have seen enough. I know where this is liable to go, so we ought to simply finish up and leave. But…”
“…you still want to see what actually happens because your interest’s been piqued?” said the Tantabus happily.
“…Yes,” said Luna, almost guiltily. “Which I suppose is a good mark on you as a storyteller.”
The Tantabus pumped its hoof in the air. “Yesssssss. You won’t regret it. This one’s good.”
Lyra strained against her bonds, but they were too strong, and an inhibitor ring had been placed on her horn to prevent her from using magic. “You’re making a mistake, you know. A big mistake. Now that you have me, she’ll come after you all the more. And nothing’s going to stop her.” Lyra smirked. “You might’ve actually won if you’d let me go.”
Onatrott sighed. “No. I’m sorry to say zat your friend von’t be comink to rescue you anytime zoon. She’s suffering a bit from burnout at ze moment.” She sneered. “No vun is comink to save you. No vun.”
“You know, you should never say things like that when you’re a megalomaniacal supervillain. It’s just asking for trouble.”
Right on cue, a vent exploded above them, the grating flying out and banging loudly on the catwalks all the way down. Steam spewed everywhere; everypony not strapped to a missile turned away, shielding their eyes. Under that cover, the figure of a mare leapt out from the vent. At the same time, the music picked up, turning triumphant and brassy. DAH-DUN! Dun. DAH-DUN! Dun. DAH-DUN! Dah DAH-DUN!
The smoke soon cleared, and everypony turned to look at the vent, but they only saw a grappling hook wedged in there, a cable leading down. They followed the cable down, and there, not three feet above the floor, hanging from the hook strapped to one of her forelegs, was-
Luna blinked. “Sweetie Drops?”
Twilight cocked her head. “Sweetie Drops? Her name’s Bon Bon.”
Luna blinked again and coughed. “Oh, um, she simply, um, looked like somepony I knew, who, um, worked for me once. But I, ah, I was mistaken. They look similar, but they’re, they’re not the same. I don’t know her. Nope.” She shook her head.
Twilight shot a long glance at Luna, then turned back to the events unfolding in front of them.
“Missile launch in T-minus one minute, thirty seconds. Please exit the silo.”
“You!” yelled Onatrott, horrified.
“Hey there,” said Bon Bon, flashing a grin. “Thought I’d drop in.” She flicked her hoof; the flick traveled up the cable, dislodging her grapple and depositing herself neatly on the catwalk.
“Boooooooo,” said Lyra. “That one’s obvious. Why don’t you add ‘hanging around’ in there, too?”
“How in ze vorld did you escape?” screamed Ontatrott, slowly backing away.
Bon Bon winked. “Sorry. Trade secret.” She began whirling the grappling hook threateningly. “Now, I’ll give you one-”
“Guards! Guards! KEELLLL HEEER!”
“-aaaand you’ve wasted it already,” sighed Bon Bon. “Of course.” She released the grappling hook, sending it flying at Onatrott. At the last moment, Onatrott ducked — and right behind her in the hook’s path was Lyra. Bon Bon yanked back at exactly the right moment; the hook stopped dead right at just place to smack into the inhibitor around Lyra’s horn and shatter it without harming her.
Bon Bon turned towards Onatrott, but before she could make a move, the guards Onatrott had summoned finally arrived and attempted to dogpile her as Onatrott hopped in place on the sidelines, egging them on. Meanwhile, Lyra began undoing the rivets with her magic. The music became low, fast-paced, tense.
“Missile launch in T-minus one minute. Please exit the silo.”
“I never really asked,” said Twilight as she watched the fight. “How do you know what to change dreams to? You said something about feeling it, but that wasn’t really clear.”
The Tantabus frowned and scratched its head. “I get… sensations of what they like and don’t like. Feelings. Just a kind of… general likes and dislikes list, I guess. Like, this pony, she liked that pony, and for some reason there were really strong feelings of super-spying or something attached to her-” (Twilight never noticed Luna suddenly staring very hard in the opposite direction.) “-so I just stuck them together, and voilà: spy thriller, starring the two of them.”
“And she’s okay with being the damsel in distress?” asked Twilight as she ducked a guard Bon Bon had just dropkicked.
“Oh, sure,” said the Tantabus, waving a hoof. “I mean, look at her. All it took was for her to get her magic back and she started freeing herself.” Indeed, Lyra’s back hooves had already been freed and she was well on her way to way to releasing another one. “There’s the damsel who tries to escape her predicament, and then there’s the damsel who just screams and lets herself get captured. She’s being the former, and they’re a lot less annoying.”
“Was that something you knew from your feelings of her, or did you just guess?”
“Half and half, to be honest,” shrugged the Tantabus. “I noticed some things, put two and two together, and hoped for the best. It seems to be turning out alright.”
Twilight turned to Luna. “Out of curiosity, do your powers work the same way? Where you feel what ponies do or don’t want?”
“In essence, yes,” said Luna. “It is a touch more complex than that, but the generalities are similar. And while I don’t agree entirely with the Tantabus’s assumptions, it is not a bad idea for Lyra to play the part of damsel in distress for a dream like this, being an average pony in a situation where average ponies tend not to last long.”
Lyra’s final restraint dropped away and she fell to the floor, panting.
“Although at this point, ‘damsel out of distress’ might be more appropriate.”
Lyra rolled her hooves, trying to get circulation going again. After a moment, she lunged at Onatrott, who was still engrossed in Bon Bon’s fight (which seemed to be going in Bon Bon’s favor, but Onatrott made no attempt to help her guards). Lyra hit Onatrott in the side with all of her might, and-
-dropped to the floor, Onatrott completely unmoved. “Ow,” Lyra muttered as she got back up, rubbing her nose. “You were supposed t-”
Onatrott struck Lyra hard across the face; she staggered back and fell back down onto her back. Before she could roll over, Onatrott had planted a hoof on her chest, keeping her from rising, and was glaring daggers at her. Onatrott began pushing down, squeezing the breath out of Lyra. “You,” she hissed, “haff been a torn in my side zince-”
Bon Bon, having just won her brawl, dropkicked her in the face. Onatrott flew across the catwalk and slammed into the missile next to the main control panel, hitting her head particularly hard. In the moment she was stunned, Bon Bon sprinted over, grabbed her head between her hooves, and smashed her head into the Big Red Button.
Far, far above them, the silo doors began grinding shut, blocking out the sun.
The sliding sound of metal-on-metal was enough to shake Onatrott alert. “No,” she mumbled. She blinked the confusion away. “No!” She threw Bon Bon away and dove for the Big Red Button.
With her magic, Lyra grabbed one of the beams that had held her to the missile and threw it at Onatrott. It hit her in the foreleg and smashed them both into the missile before she could hit the Button. A little more magic, and the beam was bonded with the missile.
Onatrott was trapped.
“NOOOOO!” she shrieked. She reached out for the control panel, trying to at least hit the Big Red Button one last time and let the missile launch, but it was in vain; the controls were yards away, well out of reach. The music blared a final, triumphant blast, and then went silent.
Bon Bon picked herself up, looked at Onatrott and grinned. “Nice one.”
“Thanks,” gasped Lyra. “Can we disarm the missile?”
“Missile launch in T-minus thirty seconds. Please exit the silo.”
“Not enough time,” said Bon Bon, already hooking her grappling hook over the edge of the catwalk. “Gotta just run. Climb on.”
Lyra wrapped her forelegs around Bon Bon’s neck, and the two of them jumped over the edge. Bon Bon let the line play out as fast as she dared, rappelling them down the silo. Whenever they risked hitting something, Bon Bon would just kick out and push it away. Twilight’s group followed them without ever actually moving, simply being on lower and lower catwalks as Bon Bon and Lyra passed them. They reached the bottom floor soon enough. Lyra dropped to the ground, and with a flick of her hoof, Bon Bon recalled the grappling hook.
“So,” Lyra asked, still panting a little, “how did you escape? I always knew you would b-”
“Less talking,” said Bon Bon, “more getting away from the missile that’s going to explode in here! Move!” She pulled Lyra down one final walkway towards a door out of the silo.
But before they were halfway, the door suddenly slammed shut. “Missile launch in T-minus fifteen seconds. The silo has been sealed.”
“Crap,” muttered Lyra.
Bon Bon kept pulling. “Oh, don’t you worry, I got this. We just need to keep moving.”
By the time they reached the door, low rumblings were coming from the missile. “T-minus ten seconds.”
“You sure you got this?” asked Lyra.
“Positive,” said Bon Bon. She leaned in to the control panel next to the door and quickly wiggled it away. When she saw what lay beyond the panel, she blinked and gulped. “…Okay, wow, that is a lot of wires.” She reached into the gap and began fiddling with them.
“Eight.” The rumblings were louder, slowly growing and overpowering weaker sounds.
Twilight leaned in next to the Tantabus and stage-whispered, “Did she really just do all that in one second?”
Sweat began dripping from Bon Bon’s brow. “C’mon, c’mon,” she muttered.
“What’s taking so long?” yelled Lyra.
“Five.” They could barely hear her; the rumblings had grown to roars.
“There’s a lot of wires in here! Shut up, I’m working!” snapped Bon Bon.
“I think this might be the longest minute in the history of minutes,” said Twilight.
Bon Bon snorted and stepped away from the wires. “Frak this,” she muttered, and drove a hoof straight through the delicately-arranged array of wires. Things broke, sparks flew, and most importantly, the door opened, revealing a long, straight hallway behind.
“Two.” The rocket engines were glowing.
“And now we run,” said Bon Bon. And run they did, pelting down the hallway as fast as their hooves could carry them.
The hallway was empty; all staff had nowhere to be that was around here. Plenty of halls branched off the sides, but Lyra and Bon Bon just kept heading straight. The other end of the hallway, a rectangular patch of light in the distance, seemed miles away. But they kept running, galloping towards that white speck like their lives depended on it.
Mostly because they did.
The roar from the firing rockets was indescribably loud, eliminating all other noise in favor of itself, and that was before the walls caught it and bounced it back on itself, doubling and redoubling it over and over and over. Behind them, massive balls of fire flew from the rockets, the heat washing down the hallway like water down a funnel. The flaming exhaust built up on itself and began filling the silo. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem; everything inside the silo had been sufficiently heat-proofed against this.
Ordinarily, one of the containment doors wasn’t open.
As Bon Bon and Lyra ran like they’d never before, the fire from the silo escaped the only place it could: the hallway right behind. It was faster than them, but they had a good head start on it, and the exit to the hallway was much closer than it had been.
“When we jump,” panted Bon Bon, “grab on to me.”
“Jump?” asked Lyra. “What do y-”
They exited the hallway into an underground harbor, a plethora of patrol boats moored inside it. On the opposite side of the harbor was a large opening, leading out to open ocean. A catwalk on Lyra and Bon Bon’s level, several stories above water level, ran around the three remaining walls, and lights hung from girders embedded in the roof of the cavern. There were guards around, but none of them had noticed the two yet.
Twilight whistled softly. “Wow. You really went all out on this.”
“It’s what I do,” said the Tantabus. Its voice was humble, but Twilight could tell it was barely concealing a smirk.
“Do you ever get tired?” asked Luna. “I know that I can sometimes feel strained when repeatedly changing dreams. This is a rather complicated one, so if anything would stretch the limits of your abilities, it would be this.”
“I suppose I feel a little achy,” said the Tantabus, rolling its shoulders, “but not too bad. Besides, making ponies happy is more important. Now, quiet, I want to see where this goes.”
“JUMP!” Bon Bon yelled, and jumped. Lyra remembered to jump, too, and wrapped her forelegs around Bon Bon’s neck again. With a quick twirl, Bon Bon threw her grappling hook forward and up; it caught on a girder, and their plummet turned into a swing.
Briefly. Not a second after they’d dropped below the catwalk, the fireball blasted out of the hallway behind them, shooting all the way across the harbor and scorching the opposite wall. The line of the grappling hook was in the way, and was quickly disintegrated under the intense heat.
But though it’d only served them for a few seconds, it’d done enough. They’d swung a little, some of their vertical momentum converted to horizontal, and were heading straight towards a boat that was conveniently heading out for some kind of patrol duty.
They landed on the roof, still moving fast. Bon Bon turned it into a skid, sliding down the windshield and using her momentum to kick the front guardspony out of his turret. Lyra just kind of flopped down, face-planted, and counted herself lucky to not have any broken bones.
Bon Bon began wrestling with another guard. “Get to the wheel and punch it!”
“Um…” Lyra looked at her somewhat small hooves, then at the big stallion manning the controls. He, on the other hand, took one look at Bon Bon dropkicking his comrade across the deck, and simply left the boat. He climbed onto the railing, saluted Lyra, and did a magnificent swan dive into the water. Some ponies just know when to fold ‘em.
“Okay, cool,” Lyra muttered to herself. She climbed behind the controls. Fortunately, they weren’t complex, and the throttle was even conveniently marked. She pushed it all the way forwards, and the boat jumped like a tack had been stuck in its behind.
The jolt shook Bon Bon and the pony she was wrestling with. Bon Bon wrapped her forelegs around the railing, but the other pony couldn’t get a grip and tumbled off the boat. By now, the guards on land had managed to recover from their initial shock and were firing on the boat. Spray kicked up around them as magic missiles and enchanted crossbow bolts impacted the water around them, hitting them only rarely.
“Don’t try to dodge them,” Bon Bon yelled above the wind. “Just keep heading straight! We want to be as far away from here when the missile explodes!”
“Speaking of which,” Twilight said to the Tantabus, “it probably should’ve actually detonated now. Missiles don’t take that long to launch.”
“Yeah.” The Tantabus nodded. “But then they’d be dead, and she’d be awake, and we wouldn’t be here, and that’s no fun.”
The boat broke free of the harbor and was out in the sun. They were on an island, dominated in its center by a volcano (of course). There wasn’t much in the way of security; Lyra’s and Bon Bon’s boat skipped over the waves of open ocean without meeting any sort of resistance. Twilight, Luna, and the Tantabus stayed level with it by simply standing on the water.
Lyra was still panting (although it was a bit less than before) as she carefully angled the boat to avoid the choppiest course. She looked behind them at the rapidly receding island. “Well? Are we good?”
The volcano exploded.
There were small fireballs at the peak of the mountain (probably where the silo doors were) and the underground harbor, but they were soon dwarfed by the way the volcano simply shattered, blown apart from the inside out. The entire thing was consumed in an immense conflagration, shooting high into the sky and turning the day orange. Large chunks of mountain soared through the air, and when they landed in the water, they kicked up splashes the size of cities. A shockwave, visible by the waves it kicked up across the water, blasted out at near the speed of sound. And then there was the sound, an unearthly slam so loud, so impactful, so deep, that Twilight could only imagine some angry god smiting some poor mortal.
But Lyra and Bon Bon were safe. The shockwave rattled their boat a bit, and they hacked a lot on the dust it carried, but they were far enough away to avoid any other damage. Even the largest waves thrown up by the rocks weren’t much more than ripples by the time they reached the boat.
Bon Bon smiled, sighed, and dropped to the ground. “Yeah,” she said. “We’re good.”
The dream blurred, the sun jumped forward. When everything settled again, the sun was only half over the horizon, tinging the sky a rosy orange. Far in the distance, Twilight could see land of some kind, but she didn’t recognize it. She and the others were standing on the water, which was mirror-smooth, right next to the boat.
Lyra and Bon Bon were basking on the rear deck in the fading sunlight. It was small, just barely large enough for both of them to spread out, but the managed. The boat was on autopilot, its motor quietly puttering as it headed toward land.
“So, um,” Twilight said, “should we ask Lyra what her dream was like?”
Luna shook her head. “We don’t need to. I can tell she enjoyed it. We shouldn’t interrupt her.”
“She starred in her own action movie!” crowed the Tantabus. “Or co-starred, anyway. How could you not like that?”
“By not liking action movies?” said Twilight. “Or getting shot at and all that jazz?”
“Well, she likes it. And I think she’s happy.”
Lyra opened an eye and looked towards Bon Bon. “So how do you feel?”
Lyra rolled over, climbed to her feet, and stared over the railing at the sun. “You finally took down Onatrott for good. We took her down. What’s it feel like?”
Bon Bon joined her at the railing. “Well, satisfying. There’s one less psycho in the world now. But also a little empty, in a way. There wasn’t anypony like her. I’ll miss the thrill of the chase with her. And I have to admit, once you get past the whole ‘genocide the griffons’ thing, this plan wasn’t that bad. After all, she was blown away by it.” She grinned the stupid grin of somepony who knows they just made a stupid joke and doesn’t care in the slightest.
Lyra laughed. “Oh, you.” She moved a bit closer to Bon Bon. “So, now that you’ve rescued me -- again -- we need to find some way for me to repay you.”
“You don’t need to do that,” said Bon Bon, feigning innocence. “It’s just what I do.” But she moved a bit closer to Lyra.
“You can do what you do, but I can’t do what I do?” asked Lyra, faux-scandalized. “Come off it.” She lightly nudged Bon Bon, who fell over-dramatically to the ground.
Bon Bon looked up at Lyra, smiling. “I suppose that all depends. Is what you do to me as good as what I do to you?” She made no attempt to get up.
“There’s only one way to find out. Should we?”
“I think we should.”
“Then let’s.” Lyra rolled Bon Bon over and started deeply kissing her, moving down her body. Her face, her chest, her belly, her-
Oh. Oh. OH.
Twilight’s eyes widened and she turned her head to one side. “Okaaaay,” she whispered, mortified, putting up a hoof to block her eyes. “I think this is a happy dream for her and we’re done here.”
The Tantabus wasn’t happy about that. “But-”
Luna seemed to agree, for the words had scarcely left Twilight’s mouth and they were gone.
“Did you really need to include that?” Twilight yelled at the Tantabus.
“It’s,” babbled the Tantabus, “it’s a perfectly normal th-”
“It is, but that doesn’t mean I want to see it from out of nowhere! Sweet Celestia, if I saw any more, I’d have to take bleach to my eyes and scrub out my retinas! Ten whole gallons of it!” Twilight shuddered. “Seriously, that’s private. The least you could’ve done is warn us.”
“I don’t have complete control over dreams,” said the Tantabus quickly. It shuffled backward a foot. “I can affect them in certain ways, push them in certain directions, stick objects here or there, but, but it’s not like I’ve got a control panel to affect every single aspect of one, especially with the dreamer herself. I didn’t know that would happen.”
“You are a month old,” mused Luna, “and yet you react to that like… this.” She squinted at it. “I can only imagine where your intelligence came from in the first place.”
The Tantabus shrugged. “Dunno. I just know that once upon a time, I… was. And before then, I wasn’t. Don’t ask me when that time was, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it was when I finally realized you were my mom.”
“When you were working with it,” Twilight asked Luna, “exactly what kinds of magic did you do on it? Maybe you, I don’t know, put some of yourself into it?”
“If I did, it was unintentional. But magic is a strange thing. It is possible that my magic carried some… imprint of intelligence that the Tantabus filled. It obviously knows things that I never taught it directly.”
Memo to self, Twilight thought. Does magic carry signatures of some kind beyond the obvious?
“Or perhaps it is some combination of what went in,” muttered Luna. She began pacing. “I gave you the capability to see someone’s pleasures and pains, to sort through them, to identify what would work best, and that is merely the start… I suppose that could cause something to happen to give you a mind, theoretically. And I worked with you for your whole development, while I simply cut the previous Tantabus loose and gave it free rein within the bounds of its instructions. If you were even remotely impressionable, that would likely influence you.”
“Are you trying to psychoanalyze me?” asked the Tantabus. It shuffled its hooves. “Please don’t psychoanalyze me.”
“This is important,” said Twilight. “We don’t want to have any more surprises. You’re good so far, but is that something in your creation that’ll always come out, or did we get lucky?”
“Oh.” The Tantabus looked down at its hooves. “Okay, I can see that.” It paused for a moment, then looked back up. “Are you sure this isn’t just some wild goose chase? That you won’t just be running around in circles trying to figure out what makes me me?”
“This question has not been properly solved for ponies, to be honest,” said Luna. “There are many, many arguments on both sides of nature vs nurture. And I am not even certain which side you would fit on.” She rustled her wings in thought. “I cannot remember every precise step I did to create you, so I cannot replicate the process or record it. The broad strokes, certainly, but not exactly, and even the smallest differences can yield immense results.”
“So it is a wild goose chase,” said the Tantabus flatly.
“Perhaps. Unless I rip open your head to see what kind of magic is stewing in there.”
The Tantabus gulped and backed up. “Please don’t.” it squeaked.
“I was not planning on it,” said Luna. “But you could be right. We may be able to trace the general paths, based on how magic works, but without any sort of specifics, this is ultimately an exercise in futility.” She cleared her throat. “Then I suppose we should just get to me telling you what I thought of your latest dream.”
“Yeah, we should. So, what’d you think?” The Tantabus wasn’t quite bouncing, but it kept standing up on tiphooves and then dropping back down. “I put a lot of work into it.”
“Well, it was good, in its own way,” said Luna slowly, “as were the others, but on a larger scale, maybe you could do with a little more variety.”
The Tantabus stopped not-quite-bouncing. “Variety?” it asked. “But I’ve got plenty of variety. You did see the dreams I made, right?”
“Not in content, in tone. It is small,” said Luna, “but it’s just… in making dreams… you tend to have an awful lot of…” She paused, searching for the right word. “…camp.”
“C-camp?” sputtered the Tantabus. “Camp? I do not do camp!”
“You kind of do,” said Twilight, rubbing her neck. “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, I can see the appeal, but… yeah, you do camp.”
“After all,” said Luna, “you gave Sombra a fancy mustache and a dragon as stereotypical a Trottingham accent as you could muster.”
“What about the last dream? Spy thrillers aren’t camp.”
“Not inherently so. A ballistic missile is one thing. But for the villain to strap a victim to the outside of said ballistic missile simply because of spite…”
“Fine. Be that way.”
“So tone it down. Learn to be slower, more mellow. Not everything needs to be loud and attention-grabbing. But aside from your…” Luna picked her next word carefully. “…flamboyance… you do appeared to have a knack for knowing what ponies want in their dreams.”
“Well, duh. What kind of a dream weaver would I be if I didn’t?”
“And I have not seen anything to imply any malevolence. You just want to make ponies happy.” Luna sighed. “I suppose I had nothing to worry about in letting you go.”
The Tantabus’s ears shot up and its eyes grew big. “So this mean you’re going to let me off the leash? Let me spread good dreams?” it asked quietly. “I can stay in your dream if you want, but I reeeaaally want to get out. I want to make more mustachioed villains and posh dragons.”
“Well, it is…” muttered Luna. “You know I made you, right?”
“Yeah. We’ve been over this a lot in the past hour or whatever.”
“So that feeling you get of wanting to help others…” Luna stared at the ground and shifted her weight. “It, it is not genuinely yours,” she said quietly. “It is only in there because I put it there. I do not think you truly have a choice in the matter.”
The Tantabus blinked and cocked its head. “So?”
Luna looked up at the Tantabus, brow slightly furrowed. “So if I let you out, spreading good dreams will be all you want to do, and not through any choice of your own. You will only want to do it because I force you to do so. And I- I want you to be free, not released to do some job that I make you do, whether through magical compulsion or otherwise. I do not want to give you freedom only to have you brainwashed.”
“…I’m… I’m not sure why this is an issue,” said the Tantabus after some hesitation. “This is what I was made to do. Literally made. I don’t see why I shouldn’t be fine with it, especially because I like it. You’re fine with moving the moon for all time, and the main reason you’re drawn to it in the first place is because you’ve got a picture of the moon on your butt!”
“It is called a cutie mark,” huffed Luna, “and it signifies a pony’s special talent. Mine happens to be caring for the moon. It tells you what one’s talent is, not the other way around.”
“Mom, that doesn’t make it not a picture of the moon on your butt.” The Tantabus turned the side of its rump towards Luna. “Look at my butt. It’s blank. Is that what you’re worrying about? That I won’t like taking care of dreams because I don’t have a picture of a dream on my butt? I don’t need any pictures on my butt to tell me what I’m good at.”
Luna pawed slightly at the ground and flicked her tail. “And that is all well and good,” she said, “but that is not the only thing at issue here. The previous Tantabus attempted to escape into the real world. Do you want to do so?”
“No!” laughed the Tantabus. “Don’t you remember what you told me just a few weeks ago? It’s tight and restrictive out there. It’s too…” It turned to Twilight. “I need a word that says that something stays the same a lot.”
“Static,” said Twilight.
“Yes! Perfect. The outside’s too static.”
“And how do you know that?” asked Luna. Her voice was growing forceful. “Have you ever witnessed the real world for yourself? Or do you just believe what I’m making you believe?”
The Tantabus rolled its eyes. “Mom, you taught that to me so I wouldn’t want to escape. I don’t see why you would lie, so I believe you. And I don’t like the sound of the real world, so I don’t want to get out there. Simple as that. And why would I want to? It’s much more fun in here, and I can’t hurt anypony.”
“It is not that. It’s… I never taught you a single thing, I simply pushed the ideas directly into your head. Had you been a normal pony, I would have been horrified with myself.”
“Yes, but I wasn’t a normal pony. Well, okay, I’m not really a pony now, but you get the idea.”
“But if I ma-”
Twilight cleared her throat. “Luna,” she said, “you need to stop fretting about this one thing. You made it, yeah, but it’s not a thing anymore. It’s a person. But at the same time, it’s not a normal pony, so we can’t judge it only by our standards. You say you forced the idea of staying in dreams into its mind, but it says you taught it to it. Is there really a difference to it?”
The Tantabus wiggled a hoof at Twilight. “What she said. You formed me out of nothing and decided to take the quick route for giving me morals. But now I’m here, and I can think for myself, and I don’t want to hurt anypony, so I don’t see what the big deal is.”
“But the ideas I gave to you,” said Luna, her voice tensing, “they are not yours. You should have your own reason to want to stay in here, not something I artificially planted in your mind!”
The Tantabus groaned and facehoofed. “I really don’t think you’re getting this, Mom.” It turned on Twilight. “You’ve got a house, right?”
“Castle, but yeah.”
“And if you wanted to, you could demolish it and build a new one, right?”
“Yeah.” Twilight began to see where the Tantabus was going.
“So why don’t you?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“And why don’t you want to?”
The Tantabus turned to Luna. “See, Mom? Sometimes ponies don’t want to do things just because. You don’t always need a reason to do things and you don’t always need a reason to not do things. You may think your magic is compelling me to stay in here, but the way I see it, I want to stay in here just because I want to stay in here, and not because of something else.”
“So you accept the methods by which you learned,” said Luna. She said it slowly, as if it was more to reassure herself than to make sure the Tantabus got it.
The Tantabus stared at her for a moment. “Yeeeessss! What do you think I’ve been saying this whole time?”
For several moments, Luna was silent, simply staring at the Tantabus. Then she sighed. “If that is truly how you feel…” Her horn sparked and the star fields on the Tantabus shifted slightly. “You can go now. You’re free.”
The Tantabus’s jaw dropped slightly, and it looked around at the doors, twitching a little. Then it yanked its jaw back up and grinned. “You mean it? I can go through any door? Into any dream?”
“Yes. You no longer need my permission to travel. You can go where you wish.”
“Th-thank you,” said the Tantabus. It stepped forward and hugged Luna. “You’ll see, Mom. I’ll make you proud. I’ll make the best dreams anypony’s ever seen.”
Luna hugged back. “If you don’t, you’re grounded.”
The Tantabus ended the hug and pouted. “Mooooooom…”
“If you insist on calling me that,” said Luna, smiling, “I shall act like it.”
“Well, there’s a downside to everything, I guess.” The Tantabus rolled its eyes, but it was smiling as well. It turned to Twilight. “And thanks for helping me with this.”
“I don’t feel like I actually did anything,” said Twilight. She could feel her face getting warm at the thought. Luna had come to her for help, and all she’d done was hang out and watch the Tantabus do its thing.
“You were a second opinion,” the Tantabus responded. “Well, a third one, actually. The tiebreaker. An unbiased look at this.”
Okay, thought Twilight, that doesn’t sound so bad. She still kind of disagreed with it, but she didn’t want to drag this out.
“Either of you, just call if you need me. Now, if the two of you don’t mind, I’ve got some dreams to enhance.” The Tantabus saluted, then flashed through a door and was gone, leaving Twilight and Luna standing alone.
Twilight glanced at Luna. She was staring at the spot where the Tantabus had been, taking long, deep breaths and blinking a lot. Every now and then, she would rustle her wings or flick her tail. “Well?” Twilight asked. “How do you feel?”
“I am not sure,” said Luna quietly. “It is like I have… lost something. I know I haven’t, it is still in here, but… I am letting go of something I’ve cared for for the past month. I watched it grow, Twilight. I watched it grow and learn, and I was never aware of it.” She paused. “I’ve never had children, and I do not think I ever will. Then along comes this, and before I realize what’s happening, it grows up and is gone. And…” She sighed. “I do not know, Twilight. I feel terrible for having treated it like a thing, but I never knew it was anything more.”
“If you feel like that, then you probably made the right decision. Can you imagine keeping it locked up?”
Luna pondered that for a moment. “True,” she said eventually. “It may have enjoyed my dreams for now, but seeing it then as I do now, I do not want to ponder what it may have felt years down the line. Still, I can only hope it keeps its word.”
“You taught it to, right? It will.”
“We shall see.”
“Plus, if it doesn’t, you’ll ground it.”
Luna grinned slightly. “True. Quite true.”
The next night, Twilight dreamed.
She was in a city. Not any particular one, just a city. In front of her stood a library, or the remains of one, to be more precise. It wasn’t a big loss; it had been demolished due to being old and unstable, and all the books had been moved out in preparation for the move to the new building.
Next to her, the librarian was leafing through papers, mumbling as she tried to find something. Then she found it and groaned. “Oh, come on. You gotta be kidding me. No. Not that.”
“Oh, it’s just… somepony dropped our book catalogue in the mud.” The librarian held up a thick, dark purple book and, sure enough, mud was dripping from it. “Most of it’s fine, but the last part was completely ruined.”
Twilight gasped. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah,” said the librarian sadly. “All the books in there will need to be reorganized. But no one will want to look at them, because those’re the history books on magic.”
Twilight’s ears perked up and she whirled to face the librarian, grinning widely. “You need someone to organize books on magic?” she asked.
The librarian nodded. “Yes, and lots of them, from Neighton to Maristotle to Rutherfoal to Copernicanter to Gallopleo to a bunch of others I’m forgetting. Every single one will need to be catalogued and sorted.”
It might’ve just been Twilight, but she thought she heard a heavenly choir singing.
“And whoever does it,” continued the librarian, “will need to read all of them cover to cover, to be properly sure of their contents. But who’s got the time or patience to read, analyze, and organize dozens of books on the development of magical theory across history from all the masters of old?”
Yes, there was definitely a heavenly choir singing.
Twilight was about to volunteer. But before she could, a soft wind blew. In it, she could hear the Tantabus’s voice.