As Twilight's starting to learn, being a Princess comes with certain responsibities. Ceremonies to attend. Functions to host. And of course, being properly kidnapped, on schedule, as contractually obligated -- wait. What?
There are certain responsibilities which come with being a Princess, and Twilight's still learning about most of them. She's slowly adjusting to meeting diplomats, attending ceremonies, and hosting functions. However, being on the receiving end of the scheduled, contractually-obligated kidnapping came as something of a surprise. And she really doesn't understand why she's supposed to cooperate with it.
Her kidnapper's starting to become a little frustrated.
The good news, as far as such things went, was that Twilight was only obligated to be present for the first three hours of torture.
There were many dangers involved in political dealings with the various buffalo tribes, and the typical #1 entry on the fear-twisted checklist was the eternal possibility of Death By Boredom. A species which knew (but seldom openly admitted) that they possessed a collective tendency to act on impulse had designed most of their society in an attempt to force themselves into slowing down. As such, the general rule for setting up anything with one of the Chiefs was to figure out how long it would take for dealing with anyone from any other nation, then field-toss a dart at the nearest board: whatever number it landed on would be reluctantly attached as a temporal exponent.
In this case, Chief Kaizo had arrived in Canterlot three days prior to the meetings, mostly because it took three days for the embassy to properly consecrate itself for his stay and he had to personally oversee all of it, generally while leading the extremely loud cleansing chant which continued under both Sun and Moon before starting all over again at the moment anyone dropped a note. (Property values tended to be rather low in the vicinity of that embassy, and anypony who was hearing-impaired took happy financial advantage.) And in a few hours, he would be arriving at the Day Court to open the negotiations which would -- if they went well -- grant Equestria shared water rights to the Carabao River. Negotiations which would begin after the Chief, his backup chanters, and a full charge of dancers had performed the ceremonies which welcomed all parties to the meetings, asked the spirits for the blessings of peace, patience, and understanding upon said meetings, made sure the entire Day Court itself was temporarily consecrated and since any form of politician-hosting government tended to desecrate something just by existing, that was going to take a while...
The short form was that before anything real could be done, there would be four days of stomping, chanting, dancing, and invocations of every sort, all of which would be just barely visible within the shifting multi-hued smoke from the peace pipes. And under the rules imposed by the original ancient treaty between Equestria and the Tribes United, Princess Celestia (or the current acknowledged ruler of Equestria, but that bit of treaty language could have but a single interpretation) would have to be present for all of it -- otherwise, the negotiations could not begin at all.
Twilight, however... a mere three hours, and she hadn't even learned about those until the morning before the ceremony began. Buffalo also were known for drawing up some fairly comprehensive contracts, and so chiefs who had been in the shadowlands for centuries had provided for the modern day: in the event that there were ever living successors for the throne, their attendance would be required. Just long enough for introductions, the insertion of their names into the chants, plus some time for the peace pipe smoke to truly saturate itself into their lungs and make them wonder if the grand painting along the ceiling had always been talking to them and they just hadn't heard it until now.
She was making her way from the train station to the palace, on hoof. (Sun was just beginning to touch the sky: deep purples and blues beginning to phase into lighter pinks and surprising streaks of orange as the formal moment of raising approached.) And she was doing so alone.
Alone seemed best. Twilight had done some research immediately after receiving the letter, just enough to learn about exactly what she was in for, along with deciding that the best way to keep her friends was through not subjecting them to any of it. Spike had taken over the library for the day, and as for having anypony else accompany her -- she didn't understand the need for that. More than a few ponies had asked her about Guards: when hers would be arriving in Ponyville, what the armor would look like, and (for the restaurant owners) if they were expected to offer any discounts with presentation of proper ID. Twilight hadn't understood most of the questions. She was a librarian. A librarian with wings and horn both, yes, but a librarian, and the central things which needed guarding in a library were the books. She could manage that on her own. Besides, a bunch of ponies moving through the aisles while in full armor were not only going to crowd the place to the point of making serving patrons just about impossible, but they were pretty much guaranteed to scuff something important.
Still... technically, she was in line for the thrones. Cadance's assuming custody of the Empire had taken her out of the direct succession, and so her former foalsitter was happily avoiding the whole thing in the far North. But Twilight -- should something happen to one of the sisters, it was possible for the Diarchy to continue with a substitute occupying one of the seats, and if both somehow fell...
(She shuddered at the thought. She couldn't help it.)
Twilight was in the line of succession, was in fact now occupying the very first link. It was something she tried not to think about too much or preferably, at all. But in this case, it meant she had to subject herself to three hours of dancing, chanting, spirits, and herbal smoke which her fillyhood imaginary friend generally insisted wasn't all that bad, especially since it allowed said friend to directly make the comment about thirty minutes in.
She sighed to herself, something which was noticed by only a few citizens. There weren't many ponies on (and above) the capital's streets at that hour, and they nearly all had something in common. Those coming off the Lunar shift were too tired to fully reconcile the presence of an alicorn trotting all by herself, while the ones heading for the first stage of the Solar hours hadn't been awake long enough to manage the feat. As such, she wasn't getting stares so much as sleepy blinks, most of which were initiated in the name of finding out whether she would still be there on the fourth viewing. Compared to some of the reactions she occasionally collected on a first sighting, it was actually a refreshing change of pace.
Meet the Princess at the palace. Travel to the Day Court meeting together, with full buffalo honor guard. Three hours of trying to sort out reality, and then maybe my hearing will recover on the train ride home...
The obligations -- the duty -- of being a Princess. But it was only for three hours, and then she would be a librarian again. For as much as anypony would let her be.
The outer wall was getting close now, looming ahead in her sights, the shadows intensified by the transition from night to day. She automatically straightened out the dip in her spine, brought her head up and twitched her ears in a futile attempt towards a last-second grooming of the fur around them.
The wall -- but not the gate.
I came in on the wrong approach path. Well, that was what she got for trotting while distracted. She'd arguably been lucky just to have wound up steering for the palace. This is... She glanced up, compared the rather rare outer viewing angle to her memory of the interior. ...actually, I'm almost directly below her tower, aren't I? Her bedroom's somewhere up there. I can just about see the balcony. So I just turn and follow the wall in this direction. I'll still get there on time.
She turned, started to follow the curve. The sounds of wings drifted down to her on a current of carefully-crafted morning breeze: more citizens on their way to (or from) work.
The flapping noises seemed to be descending. She made a mental note to review Canterlot's laws for airborne commuting, which was generally expected to maintain a minimum altitude above the hoof traffic, in order to prevent accidents. (Ponyville had a reason for no longer possessing any such regulations, and it was named Rainbow Dash. Not only was accident prevention effectively impossible at any altitude, but there had been a discrimination suit filed after the weather coordinator finally realized she'd been personally collecting ninety percent of the tickets.)
...all right, now it was getting ridiculous. It sounded as if there was an entire flock overhead, and their altitude was audibly at a value where every pegasus in the group was practically right on top of her. Twilight looked up.
As it turned out, the lowest of the flying minotauroid turtles just happened to be looking down, and so the first thing Twilight did was make direct eye contact. Blue orbs blinked at her, and the yellow scales around them shifted to suit.
The second thing was an immediate, instinctive count, one which wound up being partially disrupted by the gasps which were now sounding from the few other ponies on the street. There were at least forty of the turtles. The scales were dominated by yellow, with a few bursts of orange here and there. Shells were red, green, or blue, while the wings which didn't seem to have any joints going through the natural armor were universally white. Their hovering posture seemed to indicate a bipedal design, as did the stubby appendages on what would have otherwise been the forelegs: a short-reach cross between claws and fingers. There was intelligence in their eyes, but not much of it.
And the third thing was the natural one.
...flying -- turtles?
It froze her, if only for a moment. It kept her from acting. And as a special side bonus for the new arrivals, it also completely prevented her from noticing the net until it dropped on top of her.
Twilight yelped, and wings flared on an instinct she hadn't learned to control. It just provided two more limbs to get tangled up in the weave.
"Good morning!" the lowest of the flying turtles half-chirped. "This is your kidnapping! Please note that we've recently switched to a linen fiber. We find that it not only helps to prevent rope burns and chafing, but it's rather friendly against the fur and so is perfectly suitable for long trips. We've had a sixty percent drop in emergency post-kidnapping grooming services since instituting this change."
Twilight spared exactly enough time for one blink, and then her horn ignited --
-- just as the heavy (and rather oversized) cone of jewel-encrusted metal was slammed onto her skull. Stubby fingers quickly fastened the straps of the restraint under her chin.
"For our casting victims," the turtle went on in the practiced patter of someone finally getting to unleash a long-practiced speech upon an unsuspecting world, "who require having their magic shut down during both kidnapping and transport, there has been a certain tradition of steel. But we're always making progress! In the time since your last kidnapping, we've been experimenting with an osmium alloy. Again, this smooths out the edges rather nicely and keeps your grooming intact! -- oh... Roy! Watch your speed on those swoops! You're going to give her a headache!"
"But she's restrained!" something protested from behind her. "That was my part of the King's plan! Come in from the back and make sure her casting was negated!"
"Not that hard!" the low-altitude flier refuted. "She's wincing! You can see she's in pain! How is that going to look on your official victim review?"
"I..." She heard the creature behind her swallow. "Um... I'm still in my training period, Princess, and I would hope that you'd understand a certain degree of -- learning on the job?"
Twilight, her head still ringing, could hear hooves starting to pound, moving towards her. Citizens mobilizing themselves into a spontaneous rescue effort. And she tried to fight back, but her horn was restrained: unicorn workings had become impossible. Pegasus magic required movement and her wings were wrapped in linen loops, her legs tangled in soft white threads. The third casting possibility meant getting everything past the cobblestones of the streets, she couldn't focus and there were more turtles coming down, those stubby fingers were reaching for the strands of the net, pulling them under and around her, closing the confinement into something very much like an airy saddlebag, lifting --
-- and then she was in the air.
They were carrying her. It took four of them to do it: they didn't seem to be capable of managing much weight -- but they did seem surprised that it had only taken four.
"Weren't we supposed to use sixteen on this? Isn't that why we brought so many porters?" a green-shelled one questioned.
"Maybe she's lost weight," a red decided.
A burst of deep blue field went past that one, and also came within a hoofwidth of Twilight's snout.
"Don't!" somepony screamed from below. "You might hit the Princess!"
The kidnappers continued to ascend, quickly getting out of casting range.
"Sixteen to four," the green turtle continued as if nothing important had happened, "is a lot of weight."
"Well, they don't have shells," someone commented from out of her sight. "You can't really lose weight on a shell. Maybe their diets are easier."
"You look very pleasantly slim, Princess," the trainee complimented her, voice heavy with worry and the stumbling tones of a new hire desperately hoping for another day on the job. "For a pony. If you're into ponies. Which I'm not. Because I'm not a pony. But still. Slender. Um... svelte?"
"So who's dropping off the pipe?"
"Let's hope he puts the right end in this time."
Laughter all around her.
"All right," the supervisor said, and flew down to her, keeping pace with her trap. "Now in order to prevent enduring what we've been told is a rather boring trip, allow me to introduce you to another new addition into our package." It held out a liquid-soaked square of silk, worked it through the net and pressed it against her snout.
The last words Twilight heard before going unconscious were "We're all looking forward to hearing what you think about our choice in floral scent."
The crime had been committed just outside the castle walls and technically, that put it into the jurisdiction of the Canterlot police. But it also involved a Princess, which meant the Guards felt they had to investigate and since it was the time of shift change, that meant the Solar and Lunar corps were currently in the middle of becoming tangled with both local law enforcement and each other. A confusion of armor and badges was quickly developing. Witnesses were interviewed multiple times in rapid, head-spinning succession. Shed feathers were bagged and sent off to exactly the wrong departments. And nopony knew what to do with the pipe.
There were arguments, and there were many of them. But the breeze was moving down, exactly as scheduled, and so practically none of those sounds drifted up to the alicorn who was pacing around her Royal Bedroom, with occasional disgusted glances towards her rather empty balcony. Disgusted glances which would then move to the nearest clock before returning to that balcony, with each volley carrying an ever-increasing amount of concern.
"They're late," Celestia softly muttered to herself. "They're never late..."
And that was when the first Guard to get his priorities fully sorted pounded his forehooves against her door.
An unconscious pony returning to the waking world generally responds to the last thing they heard before everything went dark, and so Twilight's first coherent thought was The rose is a nice touch, but you should really take out most of the citron.
Her eyes slowly opened. A thin sheet of translucent gold fabric rustled some distance overhead, shifted by the light breeze produced by a nearby ceiling fan.
It took a little while to get out of the canopy bed. For starters, the thing was huge: it could easily hold at least eight ponies of Twilight's size, and that distance was being traversed by a pony whose legs weren't quite under her full control. Additionally, the mattress offered full and firm support while still being remarkably plush and divoting under her shifting weight. It was a remarkable achievement in sleep technology and one which tripped her up no more than three times, with the added benefit of each tumble leaving her partially embedded in a plush, firm, and remarkably comfortable mattress.
Eventually, she had all four hooves planted against the carpet, and was relatively sure of how all her wing joints were currently folded. (She generally avoided thinking about those joints, because it was much like accidentally focusing one's attention on their own snout: you tended to spend the next day aware of just about nothing else.) A few more blinks cleared what she was hoping would be the last of the drug's fog, and she looked around.
In the years before Ponyville, she hadn't done a lot of traveling: home, school, some very short family vacations, and going along on Spike's yearly health trip to the volcano, just to make sure he came back in one piece. But in the time since the Elements had been rediscovered, she'd visited a fair amount of the world, and even some of the missions had seen the palace paying for temporary accommodations at the destination site. It gave her memory a basis for comparison, and so her mind quickly came to a rather confused conclusion.
It's almost like a hotel room...
A very regal hotel room. The sort of thing which most Equestrian facilities would designate as the Princess Suite while silently praying that no actual Princesses appeared to evaluate it.
The carpeting was refined: a short cut which offered comfort and a degree of natural bounce on each step while preventing static electricity from building up. The bed was the bed, at least until somepony tried to adjust the canopy towards the vertical and turned it into a rather refined sailing raft. There was what she recognized as a food storage cooling device off to the left. An open door showed the way to the bathroom and the gigantic sunken pool which awaited her within. There was a nightstand, a closet (currently closed), several tasteful paintings, a balcony which could be accessed via what appeared to be a huge panel of sliding glass, and -- another door. One which, based on what Twilight knew of hotel rooms and was currently applying to one of the world's most comfortable cells, had to be locked. The door which just about had to lead out.
Twilight took a deep, slow breath, followed it with another. There was no one else in the room with her. She couldn't feel any magic as currently being active upon her form: there were enchantments in the room -- the cooling device, the lighting, more than a few thaums had been dedicated to flash-heating the pool -- but nothing had been cast on her. It was possible that she was being watched through means magical or mundane, but if so, the viewers weren't giving themselves away. It meant she had time, to think and plan. Because the kidnappers had done something very strange...
A few more deep breaths, and she paid a little attention to the nightstand. There was a small pile of papers on it, topped off with a rather large card, one which stood next to a waiting quill and tiny bottle of ink.
Welcome To Your Kidnapping!
Before you begin to explore all the activities your abduction has to offer, we'd appreciate it if you'd take a few moments and fill out this card. (By doing so, you will help us to improve not just your own future snatchings, but you'll be providing a service for kidnapped dignitaries everywhere.) It's just seven simple questions and won't take more than a few minutes of your time, we promise! And after that? Get ready for the kidnapping of your life! Until the next one, which your feedback will help to make even better!
#1. Did your abduction happen on schedule?
#2. Do you feel as if you were treated with courtesy and respect reflecting your station?
#3. Were there any flaws in our technique? (Be honest! This is the only way we find out how we can improve!)
#4. As the victim, can you think of anything we might have done differently?
#5. (Repeat business only) On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate this against other kidnappings you've experienced? Please provide a baseline average for all prior abductions, then a number for the current one.
#6. Are there any individuals you'd like to indicate for special merit or fault?
(This line had a small, claw-written addition: 'Dear Princess, I hope your head feels better. It's my first abduction and I'm worried sick that I might have hurt you. Please accept my apologies for anything which might have happened. Sincerely, Roy.' All on one line, with none of the proper formatting required for a letter: something which nearly brought Twilight's headache back all by itself.)
#7. Based on first impressions alone, how likely are you to recommend our abductions to all your friends?
That's all we want to know right now! Enjoy the rest of your kidnapping!
Twilight stared at the card for a while. There didn't seem to be much else a sensible individual could do with it, especially as the room contained nothing suitable for setting it on fire.
After that, there were priorities. For starters, they had provided her with a bathroom, and so she used it. Then there was the food storage device: she found it mostly held snacks and while they were of rather high quality, there wasn't exactly anything suitable for long trips. Still, it was resources, and so she went back into the bathroom, took a few of the towels which were far too large for her use, and then folded them carefully into the interlocking pattern Rarity had carefully taught her. It left her with two loaded quasi-saddlebags, ones which wouldn't fall apart without the jostling of repeated vibration -- something mere movement could easily qualify for. She'd have to check them for integrity every so often.
There were bottles of grooming product. She dumped them out, cleaned them thoroughly, filled them with cold water and resealed.
And then she went to the sliding glass panel.
It might have been locked. Or perhaps she was meant to go on the balcony, stare out across the world which no sane pony would have ventured into, think about the dangers involved and the sheer level of insanity required to create such an environment in the first place. Something which would have sent so many trembling their way back to the bed, feeling it was easier to confront the madness within than without.
But she had faced down Nightmare. She'd been in the presence of true insanity during every encounter with Discord. She had attended Pinkie's parties, and every one from the second on had been of her own free will.
Twilight stared through the glass, and thought about the madscape.
Okay. This clearly isn't Equestria. This couldn't be less Equestria if it tried. That means I'm way out of teleport range for getting home, but I had to expect that. And it isn't an illusion being projected onto the glass to scare me, because I can't feel any magic -- a small wince as she remembered the other option -- and it can't be a movie projector putting that picture there, not with so much depth. I don't know what's holding all of that up and with the lava underneath it, I'll have to keep an air purification spell running constantly along with shifting heat at all times just to stay alive. And I can't trust myself to fly across all of that: maybe Rainbow could keep the shift going and stay up at the same time, but I'm still in training. So that means trotting and short-range travel from safe zone to safe zone.
There was a way to get here. That means there's a way back. It could be somewhere out there. But it's more likely to be in this building. So -- go out, get the view from there, and then find another route in, one which doesn't involve the risks of a blind teleport to whatever's on the other side of that door. One glass panel implies more, and as soon as I see anything promising...
Twilight's kidnappers had done something very practical during the abduction, just about the first thing anyone had to do if they were thinking about capturing a pony: they'd shut down her magic. They'd even done so triply, although that last aspect might have been accomplished unawares: cover the horn, immobilize the limbs, get her out of range. But they had also done something very strange.
They'd brought her into the room, left her on the bed to wake up on her own, with no open supervision. And at some point while doing so, they had taken the restraint off.
It was possible that she was about to bring a lot of anti-magic measures crashing down on her horn. Or somewhere within her prison was a turtle who'd just been exactly that stupid. Either way, she had her next move. She was either going to find out just what kind of subtle workings were waiting to attack her -- hopefully something she could counter -- or she was on her way out.
Her horn ignited. She put on the improvised saddlebags, and then the glow intensified, portions of her field went angular as her effort increased --
-- and then she was outside.
Also, utterly confused.
(Which really didn't represent much of a change, but at least she was doing it outside.)
Twilight looked at the outer walls of a new castle, stone illuminated by something she could not find. Stood on a strange surface under a pure black sky, breathed in translucent black air, and tried to think of what to do next.
"So this is the pipe," the armored Lunar staff member said. There was more than a touch of yawn within the words. "Like you can see. The pipe. Right there."
"It's hard to miss," the dark blue, middle-aged unicorn said, and that statement bore more than a touch of sarcasm.
"What with it being a pipe and all," the other pony continued in what seemed to be agreement. "Sticking out of the street."
"What's your name?" the recently-arrived unicorn asked.
"How long have you been awake, Moonquake?"
The younger stallion thought about it. "Um..."
"Right," the older cut off the thought, at least for what little thought there was. "And why am I here? Why did the palace summon me to the kidnapping site?"
"Because there were turtles," the sleep-deprived pony replied. "Flying, talking turtles. Talking means sapient. Turtles means other species. And you're the head of the Immigration Department. You deal with more sapient species than anypony, every day. So somepony thought we should bring you out here and ask what you knew about turtles. Who flew. And talked. And left behind giant green pipes. With a sheet of paper taped to the side."
Crossing Guard closed his eyes and mentally reviewed everything he knew about Equestrian criminal law before coming to the regretful conclusion that even this level of provoked murder was still illegal, then opened them again and went back to looking at the pipe.
There had initially been more than a little confusion involved with the summoning, and part of that had involved the type of pipe. He'd originally been half-pulled out of his office while under the impression that he was being brought out to see a giant smoker's pipe, especially after having spent days making sure Chief Kaizo's ceremonial ones were set up in the Day Court under proper buffalo standards. However, this pipe had turned out to be of the plumbing variety, only considerably larger than most such specimens ever became. It had been jammed into the cobblestones in such a way as to leave it sticking straight up. It was about twice the height of the average pony, and the open mouth on the upper end was three times as wide.
"We can't see the dirt," a nearby Solar pegasus told him. "We went up for the overhead view, and -- it's dark. No matter where we look from or what kind of illumination we use, it's just -- dark."
Crossing, who was still putting his soon-to-emerge speech together, simply nodded.
"Also, there's sounds," the pegasus added. "Occasionally."
"Occasional sounds," Crossing tried.
"Well..." The pegasus visibly considered his words. "Have you ever seen a carnivorous plant? Like the ones with the cupped leaves and trigger hairs on the inner surface? An insect lands inside it, and the leaves sort of -- slam shut?"
"It's like that," the pegasus concluded. "Only bigger."
Crossing took a deep breath.
"As the head of the Immigration Department," he began, "this is my official opinion on the matter: during my time on the job, there has never been a talking, flying turtle who's applied to become a citizen of Equestria. I haven't been part of any cultural contact with flying, talking turtles. I've never heard of a nation which hosted sapient turtles, flying or otherwise. The most I've done with turtles is take one down from a fence post when somepony put it up there for no reason. A bog-standard turtle and incidentally, also a bog turtle." And with one last desperate invisible jaw lunge, hoping against hope to clamp down on common sense, "Has anypony tried contacting the Canterlot Archives to see if they know anything about this?"
"Yes," one of the youngest mares said. "I went there immediately after none of the witnesses recognized the species involved. One of the senior historians I woke up thought the situation sounded vaguely familiar, but she also said she was going to need a few hours to find the right references. Plus wake-up juice. Lots of it. So we're just sort of reaching out to anypony who might hear more other-species legends and stories than usual, sir, and one of those ponies is you."
Crossing sighed. Yes, there were times when the ID was the court of first resort: a few exceptionally intelligent ponies who were looking to avoid a cultural kerfuffle would seek advice on what they shouldn't do. (More commonly, others would race in screaming for help and protection from the consequences of the horribly offensive action they'd just stumbled into with all four legs.) Looked at from that point of view, it did make some sense to call him in. But...
"The Princesses have been briefed?"
"Yes," that young mare nodded. "As much as we know. But we could barely talk to Princess Celestia: she got the basics, but then she had to go to the ceremony. You know how that is, sir: even with what happened, there's so much to lose if we have to start all over. But she was very unhappy. She didn't want to go, but..." A soft sigh. "And we got to Princess Luna before she went to bed, and she doesn't know anything about the turtles, or this pipe. But she's furious, sir. She nearly went down the pipe, even after we told her what was written on the paper. But she's agreed to wait and see if we can learn more about this, or find somepony who'll volunteer to go down. Plus we have a speed flyer on the way to Ponyville, to contact the Bearers and Princess Twilight's brother. We have to wait on Princess Celestia before we can send anything to the Empire and her older brother. And that's -- as far as we've gotten. So if you could give us any help, even an expert guess..."
Crossing sorted through the speech, then went for what seemed to be the currently important parts. "Go down the pipe."
The mare nodded, swallowed. "Somepony... has to. It could be a trap, but -- it's the only communication we've had with the kidnappers, and... that's what the paper says. That somepony needs to go down the pipe. And..." Another gulp of saliva made its way down her throat. "I think -- you'd better read the sheet, sir."
Crossing looked at the white notice, still taped to the green pipe. He trotted closer, squinted.
"'Only one pony may enter,'" he slowly read aloud. "'One pony will have the chance to save your Princess." And then the next sentence registered, forcing his words into a softer tone as the impact hit them. "One pony... will die, again and again, until the Princess is found and returned.'"
He had to squint a little more to read the next line, which was in rather small print.
"'No deaths final. All perishings guaranteed painless. Current pipe configuration and the Lands Beyond designed under open source. Frustration, bouts of cursing, angry invocations of local deities, and attempts to rage-quit are hereby contractually agreed by whoever enters to be entirely the fault of the visiting pony and as such, no emotional damage lawsuits will be honored.'"
The -- platform? -- was readily supporting Twilight's weight. It was about six times her body length from back to front, but only two-thirds of that from side to side: she had the option to fully extend her wings without having them protrude past the edges, but only just. It had an excellent view of the castle in one direction, allowed her to get a glimpse of some of the other platforms if she looked to the back, and at the sides, there was... nothing.
The air was black. She didn't understand how that was possible. A black sky, yes: the darkest of a too-long night, shadows created by Nightmare trying to steal even memories of Sun. But to have that hue within the air itself, along with a total visible lack of both Sun and Moon, and still be able to see...
Technically, the lava offered more than sufficient illumination, all bubbling up from far too close beneath her, the length of a dangled tail strand away. (It had been the closest platform available and, not knowing what the local realm might do to her magic, she'd gone for the shortest possible jump.) But the flowing fire-reds and oranges only seemed to brighten the lava itself. Directly above that -- black. And to the sides of her platform, that darkness thickened. She could see straight ahead, all the way to the castle. There was some vision available when glancing back, at least until the shadows seemed to cluster well before the horizon. But while the castle itself was of impressive breadth, easily competing with the combined mass of Solar and Lunar wings, and all of that was perfectly visible as long as she stared straight ahead, any attempt to look to the side only found -- black.
Twilight's wings had been shifting ever since the teleport had brought her onto the platform: a surface that wanted to be rock and brick at the same time, deeply cracked in oddly regular patterns. She'd fully expected to have her legs moving from the moment of arrival, desperately trying not to keep her hooves against what had to be a hot surface until she'd managed to shift enough heat to do some good -- a technique she wasn't all that good with yet. But the platform seemed to be oddly heat-resistant for something hanging in black air so close to lava: there had been no threat of burn, and she only found out that her inexpert heat-shifting attempts were doing any good when she began to shiver.
She stopped moving. Wings, legs, everything, risking a momentary cessation of all attempts to perform pegasus magic. With the technique ended, the local temperature quickly evened out to its natural level: a pony-comfortable warmth which didn't even threaten to put the lightest drop of sweat in her coat, let alone froth.
Twilight slowly trotted to the forward edge of the platform. She looked down at the lava, and it placidly bubbled at her.
It was lava. She could see the heat there, at least when she managed to focus enough to briefly bring pegasus sight into play. But the heat drifted up for about a hoof-height -- and then stopped. There was an ocean of boiling rock, and then there was air, with no interaction between them.
It could be argued that she couldn't help her next actions and because it was Twilight, she didn't even make an attempt. She twisted her head at the same moment she swished her tail, bringing the full length of the pink-streaked mass into view. Her field exerted...
"OW!" And then her field instinctively clamped itself around her mouth, cutting off the rest of the yelp. Desperate eyes went over the castle for the third time, trying to spot any indications that the outburst might have been heard.
It was much the same as the other times. There were many windows available, along with still more sliding-glass panels and balconies. If she interpreted each such viewing perch as a potential victim storage area, then the castle would easily accommodate -- she rechecked her original count -- at least sixty sapients, and that was just for the rooms she could see from this side. But either the majority of involuntary residents were sleeping or the place wasn't all that filled up at the moment, for nearly every room was dark. There were but five illuminated windows on the cell levels, and only one indicated a possible occupant -- something Twilight couldn't even be sure of: there had been a brief glimpse of dull, unreflective, and somewhat familiar-seeming black -- then nothing.
The lower levels had a little more activity. One window allowed her to see what had to be a stovepipe, with a grill some small distance beyond. A kitchen, and an active one: at least two turtles were busy puttering about, too wrapped up in their work to look outside. Another small light indicated what seemed to be a janitorial supply closet, and she was briefly amazed that one of those would even bother with a window. Elsewhere --
-- that light hadn't been on before. Twilight looked and for a too-long moment, couldn't look away.
There was a -- form -- lying on what seemed to be a padded surface. A species she'd never seen before, one which was resting face-down (if it even had a face) and so was that much harder to classify. It had no tail, a complete lack of fur, and the mane refused to extend down the back of the neck. It wore no clothing, although there was what appeared to be a towel draped over a portion of the back half.
There was a turtle standing next to that odd shape, height boosted by a stool. It was holding a pair of tongs, which were being outstretched towards a group of smooth stones. Minerals which were being heated on a grill.
The turtle selected a stone, carefully moved it until the tongs were just above what appeared to be the small of the creature's back, and set the mineral down.
The creature made a strange sound. Twilight shuddered, and quickly looked away.
She had to make a rescue attempt. No matter what the creature was, she couldn't just leave it to suffer. But by the time she looked back, the window had gone dark again, and to teleport into a darkened space which might have moving creatures within was to beg for all sorts of disaster.
I'll come back for you. For however many of you there are. But...
Her field was still active, her horn's corona glowing at the partial level from manipulation and air purification, something which would make her that much easier to see. She should have been moving, trying to find some form of concealment or looking for another way in. But the single most dominant part of her mind had been triggered. It was an aspect which had been gently moderated by layers of emotional development, understanding, and friendship -- but in those moments when she wasn't actively looking out for the thing, it was very much still in charge.
Twilight crouched down until her belly and barrel were resting against the strange (and strangely cool) platform, head just peeking over the edge, and slowly lowered the plucked tail hair towards the lava. Six hoof-heights, and nothing happened. Ten, and there wasn't even the faintest hint of smoke. Twenty --
-- the dangling end breached the invisible wall, and the entire hair instantly turned into ash.
Twilight stared at the little gray fragments as they drifted down. None of them caught fire until they were just over the lava.
There was no magic at work, at least none which she could feel. It was just -- physics. Fundamental laws which, prior to taking custody of the local realm, had undergone some degree of rewrite.
"This place," she whispered, "is weird..."
No danger from convection, and she was starting to wonder if she even needed the air purification spell. But with curiosity momentarily satisfied, she straightened up and surveyed the castle again. A small purple pony standing proud and brave under black sky.
Find a way in. Somewhere without a current occupant. This just became a rescue mission.
After all, no matter how the instinctive utterance might have initially come across, there was no way anything other than a dragon would react to the placement of a hot stone on its back with a sound of pleasure.
For those who were seeing the unicorn for the first time, the word generally used to describe the stallion was 'regal'. Those at a somewhat closer distance who possessed a little more in the way of insight and refused to allow their judgment to be clouded by a fog of hormones might have gone with 'self-absorbed.' (The two states were often mistaken for each other.) He tended to move as if he was the most important thing in the world, mostly because he truly couldn't perceive anypony else as being anywhere close to his level. Those few who managed to temporarily break through that carefully-constructed illusion were generally forgotten, at least until the nightmares which kicked in around three in the morning within a nightscape which Luna could never be bothered to visit -- something he would, upon waking, talk himself into seeing as just one more demonstration of his perfection. After all, when even his dreams were too perfect for a Princess, then just how magnificent was the waking reality?
He was white, and felt it was the only color which should be allowed for the worthy, which naturally just meant him. He felt he had Privileges, and that was a belief system which generally led to Rejections, all coincidentally performed by those he'd been just about to kick aside anyway. A partial list of the things he was completely immune to included shame, regrets, acknowledgement of fault (for of course he had none, or so he kept saying over and over to ponies who had stopped listening years ago), most of reality, and golddiggers, for it turned out that even those generally willing to put up with near-endless demeaning in order to gain access to some level of wealth had their limits.
The stallion had decided, based on the evidence provided by any available reflective surfaces, that he was the pinnacle of Equestrian civilization. (None of the other nations qualified for any consideration, in small part because he wasn't entirely sure what any of them were and would have been hard-pressed to locate his own homeland on a map.) He believed this on the level of the mark he'd managed to spend his life carefully, completely, and openly misinterpreting. He was the most important pony ever. After all, what was raising Sun and lowering Moon compared to giving the orbs something perfect to gaze upon?
The Most Important Pony Ever, who generally didn't rouse himself out of bed until at least noon, was currently rather frustrated with his inferiors. This was a natural and near-constant state. When you were better than everypony in a way which nopony could ever hope to measure up to, you never expected (or wanted) to have equals: after all, possessing those would mean you were tied in importance with somepony, and that was a concept he never wanted to entertain for long. Additionally, to regard anypony as being close to his level would risk descending to theirs. But when inferiors didn't openly and constantly acknowledge just how very inferior they were... well, that was annoying. And when those obvious lessers asked (or told: in this case, it was told, but no part of the stallion could ever admit that) him to do something...
At the moment, he had been asked to read and because it seemed as if no one would let him get back to his beauty rest until he'd finished, he was rather reluctantly doing just that. Those who had met him before were able to track exactly where he was on the piece of paper by the way his lips were moving, which also allowed the sharpest-eyed spectators to note his attempts to skip past virtually any word he didn't understand. ('Invocations' gave him quite a bit of trouble until he ultimately decided to ignore it.) Most of the spectators -- quite a few now, as ponies were more than a little prone to the lure of street theater -- who hadn't had the dubious benefit of previous experience were busy with simply watching the stallion, and more than a few had already swooned.
He finally finished, or at least decided the rest of the thing could be skipped in one go. Light blue eyes briefly surveyed the contrast of white paper on green pipe just before he derisively sniffed at the sheer artlessness of it all.
"And what," he sniffed again, "does this have to do with me? I'd certainly hope that you didn't summon me away from my very important duties --" something he claimed to have many of and in reality, they mostly seemed to revolve around pillow testing "-- in order to read this for you. Surely some of you must be capable of reading. Especially you..." He visibly fumbled for the older stallion's name, and then couldn't be bothered to recall it. After all, to do so would be recalling a failure. (Not the stallion's. His. He generally forgot those as quickly and cleanly as possible, only bringing those memories back for something truly important.) But still, in the name of getting home all the faster... "...who are you, exactly?"
"Crossing," the older unicorn said.
"And what is your position?"
"I run the Immigration Department."
Another sniff -- and then those elegant eyes widened. "Your supposed occupation is to allow undesirables residence in my country? I shall write a letter!"
Two ponies spontaneously unswooned.
"You already did," the stallion replied. There was an odd smile crinkling the dark blue fur. "Several times. Or dictated, possibly. Either one would explain most of the grammatical choices. Vlad --"
"-- Vlad, isn't it obvious why so much of the palace staff, Guards, and incidentally, myself, would summon you here? After the Princess has been kidnapped? After you've seen, and of course, thoroughly understood the message which her captors left behind? I know that after everypony here read it, you were the first pony we all thought of!"
The white chest puffed out, expanded by the pressure of swelling pride. "Of course I am!" he beamed, temporarily putting aside the insult of having been addressed by his other name so he could bask in the recognition to which he was eternally due. "I'm the first pony whom anypony should think of!"
"And we did," Crossing smiled. "Immediately. And in bulk. So since you clearly understand the situation and agree that you're the most suitable party available --"
By all rights, the younger stallion's ribs should have been cracking from within.
"-- here are your supplies." A nearby horn ignited, and a full set of saddlebags was deposited in front of that younger unicorn. "We'll expect you back in a few hours. Or minutes, given that it's you." And with that odd smile now occupying the majority of his face, "In you go!"
Blueblood stared at him.
A "...what?" slipped out, mostly due to lack of other vocabulary.
"Did you need a boost?" Crossing checked. "I'd just assumed that somepony as talented as yourself would be capable of self-levitation, but --"
"-- you expect me," the other pony failed to interrupt, because interruption implied that somepony else's words might have been important enough to say, "to go in there."
"Well, yes," Crossing agreed. "And rescue the Princess. Who else could possibly do it?"
The younger stallion truly thought of himself as being The Most Important Pony Ever.
And so he really didn't understand why bad things generally happened at the exact moment somepony began to openly agree with him.
Crossing waited as the other unicorn tried to put a few thoughts together, some of which involved the summoning of memory. It took a while. Getting things past the wall of denial generally did.
"I know her, don't I?"
"I would expect that you'd know the Princess," Crossing calmly replied. "From her coronation, if nothing else."
"...no," the distracted pony absently replied. "I tried to get into the coronation, but some stupid Guard was under the impression that I'd been uninvited. By name. Which she had on a list. In giant letters. A rather crude and amateurish prank. I would have bothered to correct the matter if it had been something important. No, I think I saw her... before..."
Three temporarily-aligned neurons flashed and, their work done, shut down for an appropriate six-moon rest.
"...there was a party," the suddenly-shaky pony said.
"Was there now?" Crossing inquired, the smile still there.
Sweat was starting to appear in the white coat, and the ends of the golden mane seemed somewhat frayed. "And then there was a -- statue..."
"Do go on," Crossing happily encouraged.
"Columns," the white unicorn considered -- quickly followed by "A COLUMN COULD HAVE FALLEN ON ME!"
"She was there! She walked in right after it all happened! There was cake, cake in my coat when I'd just had myself groomed, and there were the columns, the statue could have fallen on me, and then there were animals! The animals just burst in, and somepony was screaming about how they were going to love her, and that meant she felt somepony should love her instead of me! After I'd nearly been crushed!"
"Which would have been a grave loss for all of Equestria," Crossing solemnly stated. "Also a considerable dip in the revenue for both Canterlot's groomers and the local postal service alike. So if you're quite ready to go down into the dark --"
"-- it was a riot! Of animals and falling things and icing sticking in my fur for hours, when I hadn't done anything to deserve it! And on the way out, I got some shards of glass stuck in my hooves! What was glass doing on the Grand Stairway?"
"I'm sure I don't know," Crossing calmly replied. "I missed the whole thing. Generally, I spend the Gala enjoying the gardens with my wife. It's much more open. Not to mention a lot less stuffy."
"You're a commoner! How does a commoner attend -- but they let the animals in, and you've allowed so many -- so many..." Three mares snorted and turned away, just as the shudder collapsed most of his rib cage from the outside in. "...and she was there, at the riot, and she didn't save me..."
"The superior stallion," Crossing regally stated, "will set an example for the commoners. So would you prefer having a pegasus drop you in?"
The white stallion temporarily forced his hyperventilation to a more normal pace, giving his brain the oxygen it didn't know how to work with.
"It's a pipe."
"It's probably dirty in there." More shuddering occurred.
"Could be," Crossing amicably agreed.
"And there was something about -- dying..."
Crossing mentally noted the ordering of priorities, then considered that the younger stallion might not have entirely minded leaving behind a good-looking corpse. "Repeatedly. However, that's with no deaths final and all perishings painless. Really, there's no consequences whatsoever for the bold stallion who goes in. Excepting fame, glory, and the gratitude of Equestria's newest Princess."
"They could... they could be lying..."
"Now why," Crossing gently inquired, "would a perfectly adept group of professional kidnappers ever do something like that? We can also bring in a ramp if you'd like to trot up."
The stallion's eyes desperately went from side to side. Several ponies watched that movement, and he didn't care to remember any of them.
"HEY!" the younger unicorn screamed, pointing a trembling left foreleg. "ISN'T THAT A DEMONIC DUCK OF SOME SORT?"
Just about everypony, in spite of their better judgment, looked. The others were distracted by the sudden flash of the stallion's corona. And then everypony, whether turning their gaze back to center or blinking away dazzle, got to listen to four hooves desperately pounding their way down the road, incidentally kicking up enough dirt to require an emergency grooming seizure of somepony else's appointment anyway.
"That's strange," Crossing shrugged as the last of the floating dots faded out of his vision. "I really thought he would have wound up as a cowering bundle at the base of the pipe before trying that. So now that we've --"
"Sir?" a young mare carefully cut in. "...what was all that about?"
"We were told," Crossing replied, "to send somepony who deserved it. Have you ever met Vlad before?"
"Well," Crossing stated, "for some odd reason, everypony who has, when they thought about a pony who deserved the chance to die repeatedly, thought of 'Prince' Vladimir Blueblood first. And since we'll be waiting on the actual rescuer for a little while, it seemed like a good time to get a little group revenge. In my case, it's for the series of rather offensive letters he had sent into my office when a zebra family moved in at a distance which violated his personal space. In case you're curious, that's a radius of twenty blocks."
Several hard nods within the group indicated memories of personal encounters, along with a certain degree of satisfaction regarding how things had just turned out.
"Prince?" the mare eventually tried.
"Only," Crossing said, "in the definition where some of the original Houses wouldn't formally join Equestria during the Unification without gaining some minor concessions. Like the right to keep and pass on their titles, no matter what those were, or how comedic they eventually became. To my knowledge, he's the last pony Prince standing on the continent: all the others got tired of the giggles. He usually tries to claim he's entitled to it through being some kind of fiftieth cousin to the thrones. Well, technically, just about everypony of the same species is a fiftieth cousin to everypony else..." He shrugged. "So the true answer to why he was brought in is threefold: time to kill, a desperate need for a laugh, and popular demand. We're waiting on the Archives. The real rescue attempt --" and he glanced at a recently-returned Solar Guard.
"I got a moment with the Princess," that pony said. "Without disrupting the ceremony: I talked during the downbeats. There's been stories about this pony passed down through the Guards, and now -- well, there's different stories, and..." He took a breath. "As soon as they hit the water break, she'll send the letter. After that, it'll be an escort teleportation relay from the North. If we're lucky, he'll be here shortly after noon."
"We've also taken other precautions," the still-slightly-confused mare added. "I don't understand some of them..."
"Such as?" Crossing asked.
"Why are there three fillies in Ponyville who've been rounded up and locked in their bedrooms?"
Twelve Guards spontaneously shuddered.
"...oh," the mare slowly said. "Them. What about the Bearers?"
"On the way," a slightly-swaying Moonquake told them. "But we can't let them go in. We can't lose them, not after having Princess Twilight taken. Plus we could only have one try it to begin with. They're mostly coming so they can worry on the spot. It's going to be on him."
"There's a lot of stories," one Solar Guard reluctantly said. "Too many. I guess -- this is where we find out which ones are right..."
"Waiting on the Archives," Crossing ticked off. "Waiting on the Princess. Waiting on him. Sometimes waiting is the hardest part, everypony. So we'll wait together. Maybe that'll make it a little easier."
"Sir?" the mare tried.
"Yes? -- okay, what's your name?"
"Sunspot, sir. I have -- two questions. Why are you still here?"
"Because maybe I will remember something, and you need all the hooves you can get right now," Crossing reluctantly said. "What's the other?"
"Isn't... isn't anypony going to do something about that demonic duck?"
Everypony briefly glanced at the red-feathered waterfowl. Multiple eyes drifted over the horns and pointed reptilian tail. The duck quacked.
"Not really," Crossing shrugged. "It's Canterlot. We get them all the time. Okay, who needs a drink?"
"Buy it yourself," Crossing said. "And there's no swimming in the communal drinking trough." (The duck dejectedly wandered away, feeling completely unappreciated. It was as if all it was good for was distractions.) "We're sure the fillies are locked up?"
"That's what the last report said."
Crossing briefly considered the dubious benefits of prayer. "Then we wait. And we hope that Princess Twilight can hold on until we reach her."
"Excuse me," the lead flying turtle apologetically said to Twilight, "but we were all sort of wondering --" a brief nod backwards to the twenty who were hovering in a rather narrow line "-- exactly what you were doing out here?"
Twilight, who didn't have time to figure out how they'd all just appeared without the benefit of a teleport, instead noted the nature of that formation, flared her wings, and took off to the left. Her first intent was to get an angle from which she could attempt to cast something with a wide area of effect.
Her first result upon reaching the border of the platform was an abrupt headfirst impact and rebound.
She tried to recover as the turtles swooped in through that narrow corridor, got her head up and horn ignited in time to aim for the first. But even instinctive magic could be slowed by thought, and her reflexes were slightly blunted by the recognition of another twist to the local physics. For Twilight had just learned what was holding the platforms up.
It wasn't magic. It was pressure.
A vise grip exerted by the edges of the partially-hollowed void.
Rainbow had been Twilight's tutor in fighting anything airborne, and some of that instruction had been a little on the reluctant side: her friend wanted Twilight to be capable in a battle, but wasn't altogether happy about being on the receiving end of the sparring. It wasn't entirely because she didn't like being shown up: in the event of a Twilight win, Rainbow could always prank up some revenge later. It was the lack of commitment. Twilight had real trouble marshaling her efforts for something which centered around potentially hurting a friend. Even with armor donned and the world around them padded with density-adjusted clouds, getting her to launch a real attack against Rainbow was difficult, typically requiring that the pegasus push multiple emotional buttons before anything got started at all.
(Those were becoming less effective over time: there was only so many ways to trick Twilight into thinking somepony had just sold off her personal book collection. And with the lesser offenses, Rainbow emptying a pantry was just about a weekly event anyway.)
She had the basics, though, along with the central philosophy behind them: when you were up against a flying opponent, your first job was to get them out of the sky. But in this case, it wasn't dropping anything to the ground: it was potentially sending them into lava. She would fight if she had to -- but she didn't want to kill, and so she waited until the first turtle was safely above her platform before releasing a lance of field projection towards it. The intent was for the impact to disorient, followed by placing it in a field bubble and pressing it into the ground -- but this way, if she somehow knocked it out, the fall wouldn't send it into liquid death.
Her aim was true: the burst of energy hit the turtle. The result wasn't quite what she'd intended.
The shell, and therefore the turtle, dropped. The wings stayed behind, hovering in the air, flapping on their own, without a single drop of blood dripping from completely intact bases. The attachment points were, biologically speaking, perfectly fine. It was just that they were now detached.
A yellow body withdrew into its own center as it fell, and the red shell skidded to a stop against her forehooves.
"Now, really!" a muffled voice stated from within. "We have complaint cards!"
Twilight's eyes involuntarily went to the still-flapping wings. Back to the shell. Up to twenty rather offended-seeming turtles. The wings again.
Her scream echoed through the narrow corridor of the world, and a score of suddenly-confused turtles stared at her. The one at the very back lifted a small black rectangle to his mouth.
The response was inaudible to all but that turtle, especially with the scream still bouncing around.
"She's -- being weird."
A faint buzz of a growl reached Twilight's ears.
"Yes, I know she's a good client. We always give the best clients some leeway in their behavior. I'm sure I'd appreciate her a lot more if any of us had been in the squad which did the last kidnapping. Or the generation. But..."
She forced herself into focus, got ready to go on the offensive.
"...yes, King. Should we just treat it as a reset? -- yes, I know you have other things to -- all right, sir. King sir. Yes, we can think for ourselves. Sometimes. Should I think for myself now? King? Um..."
It slipped the rectangle into one of the shell's arm holes, then called out to the rest of the bale.
"All right, guys! Let's just start over! Kidnap her again!"
"You would think," the lead turtle huffed as they carried Twilight down a castle corridor, "no one reads the Terms And Conditions section of the contract."
(She was using the opportunity to check on rooms. There were definitely other captives on her floor: she could hear some of them moving. And based on the number of stairs they'd gone up within the Employees Only Access stairwell, there could be hundreds -- or at least, the castle had that kind of potential capacity.)
Roy -- she knew which one he was now, thanks to the way he kept trying to introduce himself while finding out what she'd written on the card -- blinked a little and held her hindquarters a little higher. "Um... was I supposed to..."
"The kidnappee has certain responsibilities," the lead turtle sighed. "Such as remaining kidnapped for the full duration of her stay. And when it comes to taking out any feelings you might be having about your perfectly lovely quarters on the staff, we have certain facilities for that. Also, a most excellent and well-regarded system for evaluating feedback. Honestly, Princess, if we did something wrong, there are established avenues to follow. You'll find the paperwork on your nightstand. Please fill it out. And should you require one of us to inflict bodily injury upon, may I recommend the track?"
Twilight blinked, mostly because it served as an alternative to screaming again.
"Do you know what it's going to take before we can get Carl's wings back on?"
The head shake was instinctive, and almost immediately regretted.
"Two of us," the turtle lectured, "have to stand next to him. One on each side, holding a wing. And then he has to step between us. Followed by having four additional staff members immobilizing him. One to each of the limbs he still has attached. To keep him from fleeing. From the torture."
"Um," Twilight tried, and instantly regretted that.
"Carl," the turtle sighed, "is extremely ticklish -- and here is your room." Two turtles got the door open. "Now. That is the complaint card. You can see it quite clearly from here: it's the pink edge. And just above that in the stack is the full list and schedule of activities which you can use to get rid of all this strange aggression." A slow head shake. "All right, set her down -- yes, be very careful when freeing her wings from the net -- Roy, that is a flight feather: release it at once! -- and now ease the restraint off..."
Twilight, now frozen with shock, watched as the turtles carefully restored her magical capabilities. This included the part where they gave her horn a quick polish, just in case the restraint's inner cone had produced any degree of scuffing.
"So once again," the lead turtle stated, "welcome to your kidnapping. Please fill out your complaint card. Once we've left the room, because we don't want to exert any undue influence on you." This with a side glance. "Roy..." Back to Twilight. "And of course, we'll see you at lunch. Assuming you wish to leave your room." A long pause. "Perhaps we should escort you. It has been quite some time since you were here last, and there's been any number of changes... well, I look forward to discussing the contents of your card with you. After you've collected your thoughts enough to put them in ink, rather than simply arguing here and now while you're still upset about -- whatever you're upset about. Don't you find it's so much easier to talk things out after you've already written them down?"
The group was starting to file out of the suite. She watched them go, right up until Roy, as the very last turtle to depart, paused in the doorway.
"...was it me?" he whispered, and fearfully shut the door.
Twilight stood perfectly still, her hooves caressed by the touch of truly expert carpeting, trying to get her thoughts in order without benefit of freshly-composed checklist. (The lead turtle's suggestion had merit, but she wasn't sure there was enough ink in all the world.)
...since I was here last?
All right, Twilight. Review. There's lots of purple unicorns in the world. There's even others with a pink stripe in their mane and tail. My mark is rare, but historically, it isn't unique, and somepony else in the current population could have the same icon. So it's possible that they could have been looking for somepony they kidnapped before, a pony who got away, who looks a lot like me --
-- alicorn. I'm an alicorn.
(She felt she was still allowed to forget that. It had taken her three years of puberty before she'd stopped thinking of herself as a filly.)
They came prepared for an alicorn. To stop all the magic as quickly as they could. And I was practically under her tower...
But alicorns are a little hard to mistake for anypony else. And there aren't enough alicorns to mistake any of them -- us -- for each other. None of us look anything like the others, for features, colors, and especially heights. Even if there was something so different about their vision that they could only see us all as silhouettes, they could still pick me out every time: I'm smallest.
They brought extra porters...
Rainbow had also made a point of telling her -- repeatedly -- that one of Twilight's biggest problems in combat was that she often spent all of her time thinking about her next move instead of simply making one, and so lost the chance to do anything at all.
Twilight shook her head. She was thinking, yes: that was what she did. But there were in fact times when she thought instead of acting, and there was a good chance this was one of them. She'd been put back in the room, had her magic freed a second time -- and for this placement, she'd been awake all the way down the corridor. It had given her a look at the door.
The door which completely lacked any degree of outer reinforcement. It didn't even have a outside lock.
Think later. The physics are crazy. They're crazy. The 'client' thing is just the insanity showing. Stay with the most important thing: I have been kidnapped and I'm not the only one. There are other victims in this place and this is the time before the turtles have all their defenses against me ready. Don't waste it.
I am not going to teleport into the corridor. There might be a turtle there. Teleporting to a spot which might be occupied is never a good idea.
Breaking down the door, however, will do no more than have it land on them. At which point they'll pull into their shells. So no problem.
And possibly their wings will fall off.
...don't think about that.
I'm an alicorn.
I'm a Bearer.
I am leaving.
Her horn ignited.
When it comes to the fading of emotions surrounding events examined in memory, embarrassment has a half-life of infinity.
She could, in some ways, argue that she'd been doing rather well. She'd gotten into the corridor without issues, and the wood rebounding off the door on the other side had served for her first attempt to rally the other victims. The full-fledged gallop through what had quickly started to feel like endless hallways had been performed while sounding the alert, she was escaping, she was getting out, she'd take everyone she could, those healthy enough to come needed to help those who might have been too hurt to move on their own, she was here to help, and she was also here to take out every turtle she saw along the way.
She saw more than a few. Two were pushing carts laden with cleaning supplies, which she treated as take-along ammunition. Several were carrying food trays. A burst of magic caused one of those to retreat into its shell and fall over right into her galloping path, which was how she both nearly tripped and learned that even the lightest contact against a fallen shell would cause it to skid all the way down the hallway until it hit a wall and executed a perfect rebound in the other direction, never losing the smallest amount of speed. It took her three seconds to stop cursing the physics which refused to respect friction in any way, followed by thirty more before she started using it as a weapon.
She called out, and doors opened. But they only opened by a crack. Eyes would stare out at her. Some of them were similar to pony eyes: others were faceted, or emerged on stalks. She never saw a whole face. Just a simple confused gaze which was afraid to open the door all the way, and it would be some time before she realized that it was because they didn't want to be part of what was so clearly a total nervous breakdown, one which was looking to recruit.
She didn't understand. But she galloped, and screamed, and fought. In all ways, she thought she was winning. The castle's defenses couldn't form a response to her. They didn't know how to deal with a victim who was truly fighting back. She just had to find someone who wasn't afraid, someone who wanted to be free, where Gotland Syndrome wasn't in play.
She could take on the entire castle if she had to. She kept telling herself that with every little victory. She had to keep going. They couldn't stop her.
Instead, they just kidnapped her for the third time.
There were two turtles standing in the corridor. (She could easily see them through the gap where the door had once been.) They didn't exactly look happy to be there. Taking care of Spike for the little dragon's lifetime had made her good at reading reptilian expressions, and these specimens struck her as being rather scared. But more than that, they were confused.
It made sense. In their world, victims weren't supposed to fight back.
Strategize. It's going to be more than two guards pretty soon. Maybe I need to try for the platform again. And I need to do something before --
There were footfalls in the corridor, and that was too weak a word for the sound. It was foot impacts. A very large body was making its way down the hall, at speed. She could hear deep huffing breaths, each exhale jarred loose by the impact of frustration.
-- they call in their leader...
She got into position, just as the turtles scrambled to clear the doorway. Got her head down, ready to charge if need be, started reviewing every offensive spell she knew, braced herself --
-- and then it was right in front of her.
It was something like a turtle, and more than a little like a dragon. The red crest atop its head made her think of Spike, and the utter exasperation in the red eyes made her wonder what a truly frustrated Snowflake might look like -- no, it wasn't just the eye color doing that, it was the size. It was bigger than every other turtle she'd seen. It was bigger than the doorway. It seemed too tall and wide to fit in the corridor, and the spikes which covered the shell should have been tearing up the wallpaper (it hadn't entirely sunk in that she'd been galloping past wallpaper) with every scraping step.
It wasn't happy.
It tilted itself, and then it was inside, having passed through a doorway which never should have accommodated the thing. It took a deep, angry breath. And then it yelled at a space several hoof-heights above her head.
"WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?"
The voice was that of a male. It was also extremely loud.
She took a step back, and her hindquarters bumped the edge of the plush mattress. She couldn't help it. She had faced down Nightmare, Discord, Sombra -- and this was still one of the most terrifying entities she'd ever seen. Twilight could feel its power, the sheer strength just barely being restrained, the anger...
"LEAVING THE CASTLE GROUNDS! ASSAULTING MY STAFF! ACTING LIKE YOU'RE SOME KIND OF HERO! AND ON TOP OF ALL THAT, YOU'RE ONE OF MY FIRST CLIENTS, JUST ABOUT THE LONGEST-TERM CONTRACT I HAVE, WE'VE ALWAYS BEEN GOOD FOR EACH OTHER AND NOT ONLY ARE YOU DAMAGING THINGS, ATTACKING PEOPLE, SCARING MY OTHER CLIENTS, BUT I HAD TO BE TOLD BY MY SECURITY STAFF THAT THEIR SENSORS SAID SEVERAL TOWELS LEFT THE BUILDING!" In rage-surging tones of ultimate offense, "SINCE WHEN DID YOU DECIDE IT WAS OKAY TO STEAL MY --"
Which was when it finally registered on the creature that he was screaming at a portion of air.
Words stopped. The red gaze slowly, slowly shifted down.
"...who are you?"
It wasn't a whisper. It was a simple, careful, and extremely powerful question.
"Twilight," she tried.
He was looking at her. Up and down, back to front. His eyes visibly paused at the horn, then stopped again at the wings.
"...excuse me," he said, and those words were soft. "There's something I have to do." The giant body did a quarter-turn, and the head faced the empty doorway. "I WANT KIDNAP SQUAD FOURTEEN SPAWNED IN FRONT OF ME WITHIN THE NEXT TEN SECONDS!" And then he was facing her again. "Look away."
"...I -- ...what?"
"Look away," he told her. "They don't spawn when someone's looking at them. Just glance to the side."
It was an order, and she didn't know why she obeyed it. There was just something in her that recognized the sound of royalty which wasn't completely happy, and a distant, unfaded post-doll mental echo of 'Twilight Sparkle!' forced her gaze to the right.
There should have been a sound, and there was not. Instead, there was a moment when it was just the two of them, pony and creature. And then when she glanced back, the space between was completely filled with turtles. Several of them had taken off and were performing a rather awkward foot shuffle in midair.
"Sir?" the lead one said.
"I just want to work out what happened here," the creature slowly said. "What were my original instructions? Repeat them back to me."
The lead turtle swallowed.
"We were supposed to -- head for Equestria. Specifically Equestria. Not any of the other nations on that world. And the capital --"
"-- you are," the creature slowly said, "adding words. Tell me exactly what I told you."
Another gulp. "'Go to the castle's eastern tower. You'll see a balcony. There's a pony there who's waiting to be kidnapped. In the event that there's somepony visiting her quarters, or you get multiple ponies in the area, you can't possibly confuse her with anypony else. She's the only one in the entire world with... a horn and wings...?'"
The creature took a deep breath. A huge right hand came up, briefly covered the red eyes, and then lowered again.
"...she was outside," the lead turtle helplessly tried. "We saw her when we were on the descent. Near that balcony. We thought she might have forgotten the schedule and gone for a trot, or wanted extra witnesses. And since she's the only one with a horn and wings in the whole world, it isn't as if we could have gotten -- the wrong pony?"
The creature sighed.
Twilight blinked. She hadn't been expecting the sound, much less to have it seem so normal.
"Disperse a little," he said, and the turtles moved to the side, creating a clear sight line between them. "Twilight, was it? I want to ask you three things. If you'd be so kind as to answer them, I think we can straighten this out."
She managed a very small nod.
"Are you a Princess?"
"...sort of." She didn't know why the words were so shaky. "I mean... I'm not a Princess of anything. A lot of ponies just automatically call alicorns Princesses. I did sort of have a coronation, but..."
"Yes," the creature interrupted. "I'll take that as a yes. Second: is this a joke?"
She blinked at him.
"Are you under any sort of illusion at the moment?" he partially clarified, and a giant arm poked at the space above her head. "No: I know her. She's horrible with illusions, she always has been, and it would still leave a pony of her height and mass standing there. And your species hasn't figured out basic size-switching, or hadn't the last time she booked. There haven't been any changes there? Nothing which would make somepony else appear to be you?"
A slow head shake.
"Which brings us to the important one." He took a breath. "How many alicorns exist?"
More than three dozen turtles simultaneously squeaked.
"Four," he repeated. The thick red spines which substituted for eyebrows curved.
"There's the Princess, and Cadance, and we just got Luna back a few years ago, and then I --"
"Not one. Four."
Somehow, this nod managed to be even smaller.
He sighed again. "Squad Fourteen? None of this is your fault. You, and everyone else affected by this, will find appropriate extra compensation in your next pay packet. I'll explain things in more detail after I finish with the Princess. Dismissed."
They filed out, on foot and wing. Three of them paused and straightened out the towel arrangement in the bathroom before leaving. And then it was just Twilight and the creature, who began to pace back and forth in a room which was too small to allow such frustrated travels, and somehow did so anyway.
"You know," he said to nopony in particular, "she really is one of my oldest clients. I don't see her that often, but I'm always happy to have her back, and I've felt that she's always been more than happy to return. She needs my services more than just about anyone and to that degree, I wish I got to kidnap her a lot more than I do. And me? I don't ask for much. The chance to fulfill my destiny in a way which actually does some good, that's all. A little smile and thanks when someone leaves. A moment of appreciation --"
He stopped, spun on one foot, leaned all of his bulk in just before the roar erupted in Twilight's face, sending her ears straight back as it flattened the fur across her entire body.
"-- AND MAYBE JUST A TOUCH OF UPDATE WHEN IT COMES TO CURRENT EVENTS!"
Her hindquarters were now trying to merge with the mattress. He didn't seem to notice, and the pacing resumed at triple-time.
"One alicorn! Century after century, one! And sure, it's been a while since we've spoken, it's one of those relationships which only renews when we have business to conduct, but we've always gotten along, haven't we? We had some good times together, she and I. Wrecked a few carts, stolen each other's stars, had a few laughs. Maybe we're not strictly friends, but we're certainly friendly with each other when we get together. And then finally a kidnapping after all this time, I was looking forward to seeing her on the track tomorrow and showing off all the improvements by firing them straight at her horn, and in the middle of arranging everything, she forgets to tell me that by the way, not entirely sure what happened, but it's one of those minor details you might need to know, there are now four alicorns! And because my squad doesn't know that, they get the wrong one!"
He stopped, breathing hard.
"Shells and spikes," he muttered. "It's the Daisy fiasco all over again."
Twilight decided it was a good time to risk a few very confused words, especially as memories of other recently-spoken ones were finally slotting into place.
"They were supposed to kidnap -- Princess Celestia?"
"By appointment," he verified, not looking at her as he spoke. He seemed to be inspecting the bathroom.
One of the two words failed to fully register, and it was the longer. "...why?"
"By. Appointment," he frustratedly repeated. "You're not supposed to be here. She is."
And the next sentence just slipped out. "...then I can go home?"
She hadn't meant to say it, and the implications were just barely starting to sink in when the creature turned to face her again.
Red eyes blazed. The mouth opened, and pointed teeth glinted in the suite's light.
"Home?" he half-whispered. "Oh no, Princess -- because you are a Princess, yes?" He leaned in a little closer. "Yes, there it is. I didn't see it at first, and that's probably because you're so new. But it's there. The weight. Pressing on your head at all times."
And pulled back.
"With Celestia, I forgive a lot," he continued, the words almost casual as his blasphemy readily discarded the title. "Because she's been a client for so long. She even helped me get started in a lot of ways: I was already going when she signed on, of course, but when it came to refinement... well, she's helped me, and helped so many others through doing so. But it's been a long time, Twilight. Long enough that I was starting to think she'd forgotten me. And to not bother updating me on something so fundamental as a population count, or the potential expansion of a client list, added to the damage you did to my castle and the near-loss of towels..."
His arms folded over his torso.
"She booked a four-day Princess kidnapping," he stated. "You are a Princess. Your stay has been paid for. Your Hero will be on the way soon -- I'm surprised that hasn't happened already -- and you don't get to rescue yourself."
A wide-eyed "But --" was all he gave her time for.
"No," he snorted. "You stay here until your time is up, your Hero arrives at the gates, and my old client remembers something about common courtesies. I'd hate to lose her -- but I can afford to drop one here and there. And besides..." The lips curled. "...now I just. might. have. you."
He turned away, took two steps towards the door -- then glanced back at her frozen form.
"Walk with me, Princess. Take a trot at old King Bowser's side. I think you need an education."
And Twilight, who had seen too much strangeness, who was filled with both confusion and questions to the point of overflow, with only one possible source of answers to consult -- followed.
She was walking within his shadow: it would have been hard to be in the hallway with him and not be occupying a portion of lesser light. He was huge, gigantic in a way which should have left him barely able to stand within the corridors, let alone navigate them. Wallpaper should have been tearing with every resounding thomp of a step, with the walls themselves threatening to buckle. And yet he moved normally (if somewhat loudly, with a solidity that matched his frame), never seeming to quite come into contact with anything, even when every basic rule which said two physical objects couldn't occupy the same space (at least without a phase-shift spell) seemed to be constantly, and happily, breaking itself.
There were moments when it seemed as if his size changed. There would be a chandelier (a magnificent specimen, of no style she'd ever seen before), his right horn was about to snag a section, potentially bringing the whole thing down, and -- he would walk directly under it without so much as the faintest rattle of crystal. He would turn a corner as they moved through the hallways, and the spikes on the back of his shell which should have been gouging trails along the curve would recede without moving. His proportions remained consistent, no part of his physicality could be caught in mid-alteration -- but changes had to be occurring, and Twilight would ultimately spend a significant percentage of her time in his presence in trying to figure out how they worked.
She had a few minutes to do so, as they moved down the hallways. To her, the creature -- the King -- had the air of a researcher in the middle of intensive internal review, someone whose first-ever paper had only gained the notice of academia several decades after its composition, and had naturally been asked to come before his peers to defend it. It made him look both thoughtful and slightly distracted: someone who had long-ago convinced himself that he was absolutely right and was trying to remember the exact reasons as to why.
There were things which paused him in that process. Doors would open, and the latest room's occupant would say something to him. There were inquiries about food, questions about future bookings, and more than a few sapients kept asking about carts. Every brief discussion took place in a language she knew, so many used terms she didn't understand, and none came from species she recognized. There were completely alien forms of intelligent life occupying the castle, and most of it wanted to thank him for the recent upgrades to in-flight sedation services. At one point, he pulled a small notepad out from the gap between shell and left arm, then jotted down a few things about scents. Twilight spent most of that time trying to figure out how some of the beings he was speaking with could even exist, and largely gave up after the grumbling purple cloud with the half-nasal, half-whining voice flattened her ears with badly-phrased complaints regarding blue shells: the poorly-constructed sentences mostly concerned how unfair and stupid they were, which seemed to mark the cloud as something of a bigot.
(Some of those beings would open the door and, upon seeing Twilight, start to close it again. He would quickly, softly explain that he was getting things in order, and that would be enough to keep them from shutting themselves in again. Most of them kept at least one eye on her at all times, which was somewhat easier for the thing which had eight.)
But eventually, they cleared that portion of the myriad hallways. The corridors widened, as did the doors: potential exits which now bore words she didn't understand, ones which rearranged themselves into Kitchen B and Spa: Heat Therapy as she watched.
Further along, as paintings began to appear on the walls, the ceilings raised, colors shifted towards peaceful hues -- and finally, the King stopped in front of a particularly large door, one which eventually labeled itself as Titanium Club, Lounge C: Oxygen-Breathers. He opened it, slipped inside, and a huge arm gestured for her to follow.
She did so, and found herself looking at plush couches. Chairs, suitable for bipeds. An irregular shape which shifted like slow-setting gel. A small group of shelves held books, and she resisted the urge to move directly towards them. Other walls bore panels of dark glass, and a nook in the corner had one which was currently lit from within: the angle wouldn't allow her to make out anything beyond glow.
There was also what would have been considered as an Equestrian-standard cushioned bench, at least once somepony scaled it down by Quite A Lot. It was made from dark wood and burgundy comfort. It radiated richness as it promised relaxation, along with up to five minutes of trying to climb in or out.
"That's hers," the creature said. "I had it made for her. Other clients use it now and again: it's been a long time since she's been here, so people forget. Some of the ones she used to see when she was here, who are still around... they might not fully associate it with her any more. And there are generations of Princesses who have no idea who she is, who would only see her as another head bowed low under its crown." A small shrug, especially for such a large body. "So you sit there."
It took a few wing flaps to get herself situated, and then the King sat down on an opposing high-backed chair. There was a moment when his spikes sank deep into the cushions, failed to tear them -- and then he leaned forward, looked directly at Twilight as short fingers steepled under the deep cleft in the reptilian chin.
"It's been a while since I had to explain this," the King began. "In person, from scratch. This generation of prospective clients generally knows enough to contact me. Plus I get referrals, and I appreciate every last one." A small snort. "Something else Celestia appears to have forgotten. But to start at the beginning..."
One more moment of long thought.
"I used to talk about this all the time, when I was getting started," the creature said. "I had to make people understand. And it wasn't all that long after this part of my life began, when she and I met. I had this talk with her. And it was actually a little easier, making an Equestrian understand. Because ponies know something about destiny. They accept destiny. It's easy to do that when you all trot around with a little piece of it on your hips every day." He pulled his torso back a little, separated his fingers: the left hand began to descend towards where the shell met the leg. "So I want you to imagine something, Twilight: the same thing I asked her to imagine, a long time ago. That one day, your destiny came to you in a blaze of light, and when that faded --"
He stretched the leg forward, enough to let a little more of the base slip past the shell, then raised the hard edge by a half-hoofwidth or so, allowing the light to reach it.
"-- this was your mark."
For what felt like a full horrible minute, Twilight stared at both the crown and the thick chains which surrounded it. The knot of metal links where they all came together and united into the grip for dragging everything away.
"...I..." she just barely managed. "I..."
"What," the King asked, with that powerful voice so soft, "would you do with your life?"
She wanted to cry. She wanted to find whatever had been responsible for inflicting that kind of future upon him and kick it into the lava, with her tears adding steam to the plumes of ash. "...I'm sorry... I'm so sorry..."
He simply moved his hand away from the shell, let the image fall back into darkness before leaning forward again.
"That was my talent," he stated in even words, the edges worn off by years of verbal flow. "The planning and execution of perfect Princess kidnappings. That was my destiny. And when you get a destiny like that... oh, I tried to lead a normal life, or as normal as I could. But the urge was always there. I would have dreams, Twilight, and some of them turned into motion. I would sleepwalk, wake up at my desk, find plans I'd sketched during the night. Get through security here, manage the extraction there. Some part of my mind was constantly thinking about it. I moved in my sleep, and I made it to my desk. I kept waiting for the night I would wake up and find myself standing in a royal bedroom. Or to open my eyes one morning and look at my prisoner through the bars of the cell door. Because when you get a destiny, it doesn't want to be denied, now does it?" Looking at her a little more closely now, "Your mark... I don't get anywhere near enough ponies to recognize what that icon stands for. What's your talent?"
"Magic," she half-swallowed, choking back the sob which had nearly emerged with it -- then realized it had been too general a term. "...an increased learning capacity for workings. I'm stronger than most unicorns, I'm good at research, there's been a few times when I've even figured out how to duplicate somepony's personal trick..."
Slowly, he nodded. "And what happens if you don't research for a while? A moon or more? What if you were in a position where you couldn't learn about magic, or even try to use it? If you were in a place where casting was illegal, forbidden, something no truly good pony would ever do..."
Ice wrapped itself around something very close to the center of her heart.
"...I would..." Her mind tried to grasp a waking nightmare, found intangible acid burning at the edges. "...I would start hating myself. I'd be going against so much of what I was, denying my core..."
"Celestia once told me," the King continued, voice somehow steady, his tones almost matter-of-fact, "that for a pony, 'the mark is the soul made visible to the world.' You would be going against your own soul. Fighting destiny is just about as bad. But I didn't want to be a criminal, Twilight. I didn't want to spend my life in prison. I'd gotten married, I'd had a son, and -- it just kept building. My wife found me standing over my night sketches. I told her I was writing a book. Then I did start writing one, because I thought it would be an outlet. Turned out I wasn't all that good at it or lying. Destiny kept pushing, it was pushing itself between us, and... then I didn't have a wife anymore. Just a set of divorce papers, and dreams which told me I could go out and get a replacement any time I liked. Dreams I was having every night. And for a king to be dragged away in chains of his own because you can only go so long before you do get caught, for his son to watch his father fall because destiny just kept calling..."
He took a slow breath, held it.
"Not my best days," he drastically understated. "Not even close."
"Your Highness --" Twilight weakly began.
"-- Bowser," he cut her off. "We're both royalty. Most of what titles do here is get you in the door."
"Bowser," she tried, and couldn't quite seem to make it fit. "How does that... lead to this?"
Quietly, "What's the central requirement for a criminal act against an intelligent being?"
She didn't understand. "The act has to be illegal --"
Which was when he grinned.
"-- the supposed victim," he cut her off, "has to be unwilling."
"One pony kicks another in the street: that's assault," he shrugged as he turned his hands palms-up, spread his arms. "Do it inside a springwire fence, in front of a paying audience, and it's combat sports. My talent is for kidnapping Princesses, Twilight. Perfectly. When I put my mind to it, there is nothing in all the realms which can stop me from making a plan that gets past every possible defense. And on the worst day of my life, just before it turned into the best, I finally asked myself the right question: what if there was a Princess who wanted to be kidnapped?"
Again, hard enough for the edges of her eyelids to sting. "But why would any Princess --?"
"Because it's not a job which comes with vacations," Bowser told her. "You can go to the beach, if your realm even lets you travel. You can tell everypony or everyone that you want a few hours to yourself. But the land always comes calling, Twilight. Or the sky, or the sea -- anything which can be ruled over knows who that ruler is, and it will always find a way to reach you. There are those around you who can't conceive of why you'd ever need a day off, even with everything arranged and people who'll cover for you. They sure won't understand why you might even have the occasional fantasy about quitting. And you can't take a true day off, you might get anger and rage and stupidity if you even mention it, accusations of not caring about your realm --"
The grin got wider.
"-- but who can ever blame you for being kidnapped?"
He leaned back into the cushions, pure satisfaction settling into his face.
"I reached out to a bunch of realms on the sly," he smiled. "Took a lot of time and magic, but I've got both: I made contact. And it turned out that if it meant getting a few days off, there were Princesses everywhere who would be perfectly content with a temporary kidnapping, because there's no part of my destiny, talent, or urges which says I have to keep them. As long as I'm snatching away royalty on a regular basis, I'm happy. I sleep well at night. I also happen to get paid. And those rulers come here and get a few days off, because that crown has a weight which doesn't go away and this is where they can try to take it off. They relax, because I've got games for them which release stress, and the people they play those games with are people they can talk to about the stress. People in the same position. They stay for a while, until their teeth, for the ones who have them, aren't on edge any more. Until they aren't having fantasies about using major attack spells when someone commits a minor etiquette breach, or just because the Princess in the neighboring realm got the best dressmaker first. Until they're fit to rule again."
Bowser took a slow, relaxed breath.
"I like to think," he told her with open satisfaction, "that I've prevented a few wars."
She was staring at him, and his smile would not fade.
"But -- !" There had to be something wrong with what he'd just said, there was an abomination against nature hiding in the center of his core philosophy and she was going to find the thing if she had to weave it out of whole cloth. "-- what about the realms? They've lost their leader! How are they supposed to --"
"Most realms," Bowser casually interrupted, "can manage themselves: they just don't want to. The royals arrange things before they leave, make sure someone can take over for the duration. For most of the kidnappings, there's even a person who knows what's really going on and covers for everything. But what most of the realm knows is that their Princess has been kidnapped, and a Hero can save her. The Hero always saves her, because that's what a Hero is for. So they find one, send them down the pipe -- and when the vacation's over, saving her is exactly what the Hero does. The realm gets some legends out of it, and maybe a big party when their Princess comes back. I fulfill my destiny without anyone ever getting hurt. And the Hero gets to be a Hero. I've even had a few Princesses who ran the whole routine just to see how much of a Hero they had."
His scales abruptly darkened. The chair groaned under his weight.
"Which does mean," he muttered, "getting the occasional sadist..."
"...huh?" There were other words she could have said, and she couldn't seem to think of a single one.
He sighed. "Personal matter. I've got this one client right now... it's at the point where I swear she's just coming here to see what her Hero will do to reach her this time. And the fat man is good. It's reached the point where I started recruiting extra help to design his courses, just to keep him from getting here too fast. Two more speedruns and I might even think about asking him for some obstacle ideas. And he just keeps rescuing her, and she smiles and thanks him and never, ever gives him so much as a single peck on the cheek because she's herozoned him -- but a few weeks later, I get the message, I send out the squad, sometimes I go in person because she pays extra for that, and they start all over again."
"Textbook abusive relationship," he announced. "Two more speedruns and I'd joke about consulting him. Five and I just might tell him the truth. But you know the worst part? I think he's into it. All the leaps of faith, every trick block which goes bad on him... maybe this started because he wanted to save her, but now there's something in him which just needs to see the lava. I keep thinking -- one day, when we're on the bridge together and he's expecting the fireballs, all that'll come out of my mouth is truth. And my biggest nightmare is that he's just gonna look at me with those big blue eyes, the mustache will twitch a little, and he'll say 'So?'"
Which was followed by a small sigh.
"You meet a lot of weirdos in this business," the professional kidnapper stated.
Twilight blinked again. (It seemed to be justified.) She could feel questions pressing against her lips, and tried to keep any of them from openly inquiring about the sanity of all parties involved. "How are there enough Princesses to keep you in business?"
"There's a lot of realms," he casually stated. "Plus I started out with Princesses, and that's what keeps my destiny happy -- but I'll take anyone who's in charge. Emperors, presidents, incarnates, avatars, the occasional queen -- just got one of those in two days ago, actually -- and when you add up all the titles, the total says profit. You've seen part of my staff, you've seen a section of the castle, and you know I've got at least fourteen kidnap squads. Think about what I've got to take in just to keep them all on salary."
"And --" it should have been the first question, but she'd felt an odd need to work into it "-- Princess Celestia?"
"Contacted me for the first time in you-don't-want-to-know, a few days ago," he shrugged -- then, disgruntled, "Without bothering to toss any kind of update into her scroll... anyway, she's one of the oldest accounts I have, even if she went inactive for a while. And she's always been a little more complicated to work with, because Equestria can run without her -- but your Sun can't. I had to find a way of leaving this tiny channel open at all times, so she could reach out to her home and keep things going. It's about the size of one of your coins, as ridiculously small as those get. Works fine."
"She wanted to be kidnapped," Twilight tried, because it seemed to be something which required a full explanation. "Four days' worth of it."
"Paid in advance," Bowser confirmed.
Which was when the outrage broke through, along with most of the decibels. "She was abandoning --"
The sound went off.
It was a strange sort of sound. There was a musical quality to it, but it was a note which had never known an instrument. It was a tonal song played by air and power, with a descending quality which made her picture a small metal object going through a very short plummet. It was also enough to cut her off, and that was before the creature raised his right hand.
"Hold up," Bowser told her.
Another grin. "Because your Hero is taking his first look at the pipe, and my spells know a Hero when they feel one. Since this is your first rescue, why don't we take a peek? Because personally? I'm kind of curious to see what you've got coming for you." And without waiting for an answer, he gestured at the closest panel of dark glass.
It lit from within. And then Twilight was looking at Canterlot.
She watched for a while, initially in shock, then in instinctive contemplation of the magic involved, and eventually in (temporary) silence. But before her own laughter finally began, there was a slow moment: one which allowed another question to reach the front of the queue.
"Does your species even have marks? Or did you just create an illusion, to help me understand?"
"No marks," Bowser confirmed. "But it wasn't an illusion, either."
"Nah. I adjusted my resolution. It's a lot more basic." He twisted his chair somewhat, leaned towards the screen. "Now hang on: I want to see what the rookie does with this..."