Kickin' Flanks

by Xtralife

First published

You see them saving Equestria. You watch them learning about friendship. You might even worship one as your immortal royal sun goddess. You think they're ponies just like you. You're wrong. Dead wrong!

When Twilight Sparkle is imprisoned after a heavy-hoofed ponyhunt on the direct orders of Princess Celestia, Rainbow Dash takes it upon herself to rescue her egghead friend from prison. Unbeknownst to her, things are not as they seem in Manehattan, or anywhere in Equestria. As she uncovers the mystery piece by piece, the rest of the famous Elements of Harmony and a few other familiar friends come to her aid. Who controls the strings, and can they be cut in time... or is it already too late? Will friendships of the Mane Six dissolve as they struggle through their greatest trials yet? And just where the hay is Princess Luna? Wake up! It's time to kick some flanks!
Loosely based on the John Carpenter film "They Live". Chronologically between Season 2 and 3.
As featured on EQD!


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The library door was burst wide open as a purple blur streaked through, and then immediately slammed shut. As quickly as she had entered, Twilight skidded to a halt in front of a hastily constructed surface. It took up half the size of the main room, composed of books stacked a foot high and a cloth draped over them all to prevent wear and tear. “Spike!” she cried out in exasperation as she threw off a pair of cheap sunglasses. “Fetch me ‘Faunae of Equestriae’, seventh volume!” Her hoof struck the makeshift table to emphasize her point, and miraculously not a single tome was shaken loose.

“Woof, woof. I’m not a dog, Twilight,” her faithful assistant countered. He approached the banister, a pile of scrolls in his chubby little arms and a cup of coffee grasped firmly by his tail. With zero enthusiasm, he dropped the parchment, downed the coffee, and leaped onto one of the ladders attached to the bookcase. “Can’t you do this by yourself, anyway?”

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times that they’re tracking my spells!” She nosed aside a large box obscuring a map splayed across the improvised table and began scribbling out areas with a pen.

Spike had already located the book. It was easier now to find any kind of reference material, seeing as how all of Twilight’s fiction novels had been used for their unintended purpose in the center of the room. He threw the book down to the unicorn, who caught it in her mouth. “But wait,” he asked, “if you don’t do any magic, doesn’t that make you look suspicious?” He dismounted the ladder, skipping over some of the steps, and sauntered over to his companion.

“And therein lies the problem. If I go outside of the shield I put up around the library and don’t do any magic, they notice a unicorn acting atypically. So in other words, I can’t go long without casting a spell. But the second that happens, they pop out of the shadows.”

The little dragon hopped onto the edge of the “table” and scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Isn’t there a word for this sort of thing?”

“You’re thinking of a ‘Catch-22’, Spike. That’s almost what this is, but I’ve worked my way around it.” She opened the book and flipped through to the index, running a hoof back and forth across the pages. “I’ve calculated that they notice me after twenty minutes of not doing magic. They then triangulate my position after another thirty. Within ten minutes afterwards, they’ve found my position. So when I leave the library, I set a timer on my watch for fifty minutes, and I make sure I’m back before it rings.”

Spike had curled up into a ball. A loud snore, clearly false, rang out. His unicorn employer and compatriot looked up from the book and stared, clearly annoyed.

“I’m sorry, it’s just you’re such an egghead.”

“Ha. Ha. I’m splitting my sides with laughter.”

“Aw, come on, Twi, I’m just foolin’. But in that case, you were only gone for half an hour… so did something happen?”

The unicorn opened her mouth slightly, about to fully reprimand him for his smart mouth, and decided instead to not waste the time on a fruitless endeavor. Instead, she opened the book to another page and answered her assistant’s question. “I promised I’d drop by Applejack’s place and feed Winona while she was gone, but when I couldn’t lift the bag I foolishly tried to levitate it.”

“And that’s when you were caught! These guys think of everything, I swear!” The dragon clenched a fist and dropped it into his other, opened hand. A quizzical expression suddenly came over his face. “But wait… if you’re being tracked, and you have a magical shield over the library, shouldn’t they be…”

In a flash, Spike bounded across the room and threw open the curtains on the window, but there was nothing suspicious there. He stared dumbfounded out at the view of Ponyville, which was now dotted by a number of advertising billboards.

Twilight giggled slightly. “An invention of my own,” she said with a slight hint of pride. “It’s a stealth magic shield! Not only does it hide where we are, but the traces of magic used to make it are hidden too.” She coughed a little, and examined her hoof. “And the magical traces used to hide the magical traces are concealed within themselves, and so on, and so forth.”

Spike froze. Trying to comprehend the infinite loop of magic was taking a toll on his young mind. He rapidly shook his head and trotted away instead of attempting to figure out the logistics. “Let me know if you need something, Twi. I gotta grab another coffee, and I can’t levitate the cups.”

The studious unicorn rolled her eyes in exasperation, but continued reading. The minutes turned into hours. A small pile of books rose up over time in front of her, opened to specific passages or otherwise set aside for potential research purposes. Spike carried cardboard boxes up and down the staircase, intermittently grabbing mugs of Coltlumbian Roast for himself and his partner. The shield bubble encasing the tree flickered faintly, though it seemed to go unnoticed by anypony outside. As the day turned into evening, their activities continued in much the same way, though now much slower.

They had finished a fifth pot of coffee by this point. Spike replaced the filter and poured another quart of water inside, and stared out at Ponyville through the window. The stars were rising high in the night and he could see lanterns being lit up one by one in the town, mirroring the lights above.

“Hey Twi, I’m gonna open the window,” said Spike. “It’s getting stuffy in here.” He flipped the latch and pushed it open, and a cool breeze drifted its way in. The dragon sighed in content, feeling it dry the sweat on his scales. His eyes closed, and he savored the moment; and without warning an owl flew in, hitting him in the face. The tips of its feathers were slightly singed and a scroll was grasped in its claws.

“Crazy bird!” cried out Spike as he reached out for the owl, but it had ricocheted off of his snout and barreled into the coffee maker. It was now lying still, but with its grip on the scroll still firm.

“Owlowiscious!” Twilight shoved her book aside and galloped to her pet. The bird raised its head slightly and made a faint hoot as the unicorn examined it. “You’re hurt! What happened?”

Spike gingerly petted the top of its head in apology. Owlowiscious hooted again and lifted a leg, handing the scroll over to Twilight. She grabbed it in her mouth, and flattened out the parchment on the kitchen counter amongst the empty coffee mugs. Her face blanched as she read the note to herself.

“Spike, get everything,” she said.

“What do you mean, everything?”

“I mean everything, Spike! By Celestia, they’re coming!

1 - Eight O'Clock in the Evening

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As if rising from a hypnotist’s trance, Rainbow Dash opened her eyes and woke from her slumber. From her little fluffy cloud patch miles above Ponyville, she could see the moon shining full and bright, and the stars sprinkled liberally in all corners of the heavens. Yawning audibly, she stretched her legs and smiled in content, then slowly rose to her hooves and continued to stargaze. As she stared at the sky, she felt like she had forgotten something. Suddenly, she realized what that was, and her jaw dropped as she swung her head over the edge of her cloud. A humongous gray raincloud spread from one end of town to the other, and off in the distance smaller ones were threatening to attach themselves to it.

“I overslept!” she cried out in horror and shock. After kicking the little cloud she stood on out of existence, she dropped downwards in a free-fall towards the gargantuan cloud. “Why did it have to be my turn for weather control tonight?”

She spread her wings and dove through the cloud, tearing out a hole in it. The pegasus began speeding in and out of the cloud, kicking portions of the fluffy substance as she went. “This—is—pony—feathers!” she shouted with each blow.

Within minutes, all that was left was a small amount of pure, white clouds, and not a single sign of rain anywhere. She exhaled in relief and coasted back up to her own cloud from before, and looked across the sky with satisfaction. Again thanks to her, the town was safe from an unwelcome rainstorm. She lay back down and turned her head towards the ground, examining Ponyville as she languished. There was Sugarcube Corner, the locally famous bakery, temporarily free of the usual line of customers looping around the block. Carousel Boutique was equally as quiet, lights out and tranquil. Rainbow felt her eyes began to droop.

A loud bang sounded in the stillness and Twilight kicked the door of the library open, carrying over-loaded saddlebags and a box on her back. As she ran, a massive pink shield flickered into sight, and then back out as she passed the border. However, Rainbow noticed nothing except her friend. Her eyes widened with joy for a moment, but then squinted in anger, and she soared down to greet her, skidding into the ground below directly in front of the unicorn.

“Twilight Sparkle!” she exclaimed, positioned well within her personal space. “Where in Equestria have you been? I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for weeks! None of us went to the Gala because we didn’t want you feeling left out—“

Twilight raised a hoof and lowered a pair of sunglasses slightly, and peered over the edge at the cyan pegasus. “Rainbow Dash, I am only going to say this once,” said the unicorn, firmly, with clear hostility. “Stay out of my way.”

Dash immediately lowered her head and spread her legs apart into an aggressive stance. “Are you kidding? We’ve all been worried sick about you! Put up or shut up, you—”

Abruptly in the distance, a voice screamed in terror, and a series of loud bangs were heard. Rainbow’s ears perked up, and she whirled around in anticipation of danger. Twilight gasped loudly and took a couple of steps backwards. At the far end of town, a pillar of smoke rose from behind the line of buildings.

“It’s started!” yelled the unicorn. “They’ve found me!”

“What’s started, Twilight? What do you mean?” Rainbow looked closely at her. “You’re makin’ it sound like you’re—“

Twilight tightened the straps on her saddlebags. “I am, Dash! You can ask questions later, but right now we need to get out of here!”

Rainbow nodded, putting her queries to the side. “Wait right here, I’m going to check things out!” The pegasus flapped her wings and kicked off the ground, soaring towards the sky for a better view. Twilight gritted her teeth but said nothing, opting instead to run inside and head for the balcony. She dropped the saddlebags down next to her telescope and peered through, out towards the source of the smoke. It had now blocked out the moonlight, and in the haze she could see figures at the far edge of Ponyville marching abreast through the surrounding fields.

Meanwhile in the air, Dash was speeding up towards the darkening cloud. She took a deep breath as she approached, and felt herself hit a solid surface well before the smoke. Groaning, Rainbow nursed a fresh bruise on her head and looked at what she ran into, but there was nothing there. She reached out with a hoof, and scraped it against an invisible wall, temporarily bewildered. Dash briefly considered hitting it again, but figured her skull would give in first. Instead, she stopped flapping her wings, and dropped back down again.

“Twi? Where are you?” She swung her head around a few times looking for her, but couldn’t see the unicorn. Suddenly, the purple pony ducked out of the front door and locked it behind her, sans saddlebags or box. Her sunglasses, however, were still on.

“Sorry I ran off, I had to see things for myself. I think there are Canterlot Guards out there, but—”

“Wait, wouldn’t they be able to help us?” asked Rainbow. “They could fix—“

“Rainbow, I hate to tell you this, but I’m pretty certain this is their idea of fixing things. Were you able to see anything up there?”

Dash shook her head. “No, I flew into something invisible up there. Can we get past it?”

“No time. We just need to gather everypony and hide, or run.” Twilight pointed with her hoof, across the grassy open patch that her library stood in the middle of and towards the rest of Ponyville. “We can go down that alley and reach Pinkie Pie in minutes, and I know a way from there to Rarity’s. But then we’ll have to backtrack to Futtershy’s cottage…”

“Not a problem, sister! Fluttershy is sleeping over at Carousel Boutique right now!”

Twilight briefly went silent, losing herself in thought. Dash looked around at the scene, watching other pegasi attempt to flee the same way she did. She turned back to her friend and was about to ask again what was going on, but the unicorn snapped her head back up with a renewed fire in her eyes.

“We’ll just have to try it.”

Dash nodded, and set off at a brisk gallop, Twilight close behind. The library shrunk behind them slowly as they ran down the alleyway, splashing through muddy puddles. As they exited from the other side, the pair turned to the right in unison. Citizens were exiting their homes and apartments, staring at the sky with confusion or apprehension. Some of them were conversing in hushed tones, spreading rumors made on the spot. Dash slowed down and turned her head back, but Twilight stopped her.

“If we concern ourselves with them, it will just make things worse. It’s bad enough I’m involving you girls, but we don’t need anypony else. Trust me Rainbow, it’s better this way.”

Rainbow snorted with disapproval, but pushed onward. The confectionary loomed ahead, and the proprietors, Mr. & Mrs. Cake, were nearby in the square amongst a small throng of neighbors. They were carrying their two young babies on their backs, which were miraculously still asleep during the entire hubbub. The unicorn and pegasus skidded to a halt, and peered around the corner of an apartment at the group.

“Do you see Pinkie with them?” asked Twilight, slightly winded. Dash said nothing, but instead flapped her wings a couple of times to reach the top of the apartment. The unicorn ducked further into the shadows and hid behind a trashbin, while the cyan pony trotted towards the chimney and flattened against it.

“Where are you, Pinkie?” hissed Rainbow Dash. She closely examined the crowd, scanning across the tops of everypony’s heads for Pinkie’s trademark poofy pink mane. “You’ve got to be here somewhere!” However, the harder she looked, the more she had to admit that she couldn’t see her.

“There’s no way she would be inside right now,” thought Rainbow aloud. “She’s not the sort of pony to hide under her bed, so she must be here. But I can’t find—“

Rainbow’s eyes widened.

“What if she is scared?”

The pony briefly looked again and saw a perfectly straight, darker pink mane next to Mrs. Cake, who moved aside for a moment and gave Rainbow an unobstructed view of a dismal Pinkie Pie. Dash exhaled in relief, then bounced lightly into the air and floated back. Suddenly she froze in mid-air and her eyes grew as she looked off in the distance. Twilight raised an eyebrow.

“Rainbow?” The unicorn stood up from her hiding spot. “What is it?”

“They—they’re fixing things, Twilight.”

At the other end of the street, a platoon of Canterlot Guards were marching down in their direction, and pairs of ponies split off from them to move down alleyways instead or wait by a door. Non-armored civilian ponies were closer to the back of this marching force, with another line of guards making up the rear. Suddenly, all at once, the guards by the doors bucked their way in and entered forcibly to the sounds of screams and yelling. The crowd around Pinkie Pie cried in shock, with some ponies dispersing immediately and others huddling together for protection. Pinkie herself was frozen in place with fear.

Twilight turned the corner and galloped towards her friend. “Pinkie!” she screamed. The earth pony didn’t seem to notice at first, but when she skidded to a halt in front of her with Rainbow Dash hot on her hooves, Pinkie’s mane inflated back to life with a sound not unlike a high-pitched kazoo.

“Twilight? OhmygoshohmygoshOHMYGOSH I haven’t seen you in forever!” she squealed, hopping in place with excitement. “You missed at least 8 parties, 5 after-parties, free cake and ice cream at the shop—“

Twilight coughed and stared reproachfully over her sunglasses.

“Oh, right. Later?” asked Pinkie.

“Uh, girls?” spoke Rainbow Dash, pointing across the square. The platoon of guard ponies were amassing at the far side of the plaza, with metal shields gripped in their mouths. The front line advanced a few steps, and Rainbow gritted her teeth. Pinkie tensed up, her eyes narrowed into slits.

“Okay, it’s okay, I’ve got a plan,” said Twilight, with deliberation.

“I’m all for plans right now,” responded Dash through her clenched jaw.

Twilight nodded slightly. “Follow my lead on the count of three.”

The guards treaded forwards again.

“Anytime now, Twilight?” asked Pinkie. The pony’s mane began to slightly un-poof itself. Twilight took a deep breath and bit her lower lip.

“Three!” screamed the unicorn, and the friends bolted in unison. Without a pause or any direction, the guard ponies charged across the square after them. The shields carried by the soldiers in the lead dragged on the cobblestones, generating sparks as they gave chase.

The friends pushed onwards, not daring to look behind. Twilight led the way, with Pinkie close behind and Rainbow hovering inches above them. They passed out of the district, leaving the apartments behind them but not the guards. As they broke through an intersection, a few more guards joined the main group from the side streets, increasing the force pursuing them.

Rainbow glanced around at her surroundings, panting slightly. They had entered a higher-class shopping section of Ponyville, and it showed. Colorful banners streamed from every streetlight and the street signs were ornately decorated with vine-like flourishes. She looked back down at her friends. “How you holding up, girls?”

Twilight was breathing very heavily. “I’ll… I’ll be okay when we see Rarity is safe!”

Pinkie just grinned. “I’m fine, Dash! I haven’t had a good workout in a while!”

The pegasus couldn’t help but burst into laughter. Twilight giggled as well, but with some difficulty. As they chuckled louder, they seemed to carry on a little faster, and the space between them and the guards grew somewhat wider. The friends grew silent, but with renewed resolve and vigor. Ahead, Rainbow could just make out the tip of Carousel Boutique.

“I see it!” she cried aloud. “But is she—“

Further away in the intersection before Carousel Boutique, the mares could see a veritable wall of crates and barbed wire blocking every street. Soldiers were stationed at intervals along the top, and in the center of the blockade kneeled two mares: a white unicorn with an immaculately curled but clearly un-brushed purple mane, and a yellow pegasus weeping into her baby-pink tail.

“No!” screamed Twilight. “Rarity! Fluttershy!”

The two mares in the intersection looked up in unison, and tried to yell through their gags. The pegasus felt a scowl creep over her face, and snarled loudly in infuriation. She barely noticed how Twilight’s eyes widened with horror, or the way Pinkie ducked her face out of sight. At their rear, the soldiers chasing them took advantage of their slowed pace and began closing the gap between them. Twilight’s stride grew lengthy, and she fell to the back of the group, sweating bullets as she attempted to keep up. Rainbow suddenly realized in a flash she was further ahead of the pack, and turned back towards the exhausted unicorn.

“Get to Rarity and Fluttershy!” she yelled at the pink earth pony. Pinkie nodded in approval, and then rapidly galloped ahead to the bound and gagged pair. Seeing that she had the situation handled, Rainbow turned her attention to Twilight, who had fully collapsed from exhaustion. The line of guards chasing them slowed down to a crawl, as they now had the friends pinned between their blockade and themselves. Twilight wheezed, and attempted to push herself back up on her hooves.

“Steady there, Twilight!” encouraged Dash. “We’re gonna be okay, understand?”

Pinkie untied the gags from Rarity and Fluttershy, and the mares spat them out immediately. “Better?” she asked.

“Oh, much better Pinkie Pie,” said the yellow pegasus.

“I couldn’t be happier to see you girls!” exclaimed Rarity. She began running her hoof through her mane, trying to flatten out the errant unkempt hairs. “I just wish it was under better circumstances. These ruffians have no concept of civility.”

Fluttershy nodded. “I wanted to be assertive with them, but...”

“It’s okay, we understand,” said Pinkie, putting a hoof around Fluttershy. “It wouldn’t have turned out well to stand up to them. It’s been hard enough running away.” She then looked behind at the advancing wall of Canterlot guards, and at Twilight where she was laying. Dash had brought her to her hooves, but she was very unsteady and kept stumbling to the side.

“Is she okay, Rainbow?” yelled Pinkie.

“Yeah, she’s fine!” Dash shouted back. Then she turned to Twilight. “You get back with the rest of the girls. I’ll try to hold them off.”

“Are you crazy?” asked Twilight. “I wanted to get everypony together so I knew you were all safe, not to get involved!” She poked Rainbow with her horn, emphasizing the point. “You need to find a way out now! They’re only after me!”

“Honey, not only is your plan null and void by now,“ started Rarity, but Fluttershy cut in.

“But we wouldn’t run away without you!” said the timid pegasus. “We just couldn’t live with ourselves if that happened!”

“They’re right, sister! These brutes want to do this the hard way? Then they’ve got it!” Rainbow slammed her hoof into the cobblestones, striking up pebbles from between them.

“Besides, aren’t we already involved now?” asked Pinkie. “And where would we run to anyway? I mean, I don’t want to get technical here or ruin the moment, but I’m just sayin’.”

The five ponies backed into the center of the intersection. The line of guards now had blocked off the way they came from. Twilight bowed her head to her friends.

“I’m so lucky to have you girls,” she said faintly, “And I’m happy Applejack is safe, at least.” She raised her eyes again from behind her sunglasses. From off in the distance, a bright light rose into the air and slowly made its way towards them.

“What’s that?” stammered Fluttershy. The others murmured in agreement. As the object floated closer to their street, the guards observed but did not seem to be apprehensive or confused. In fact, they seemed somewhat relieved. The girls collectively raised their eyebrows or murmured louder, and backed closer together.

“You are surrounded, Twilight Sparkle,” boomed out a voice. “Come quietly, and you will not be harmed.” The globe of light touched the ground, and dissipated. Twilight gaped in shock as Princess Celestia stepped forward, but unlike her companions did not bow in reverence.

“Wait, what’s going on, Princess?” asked Rainbow Dash as she got up. “Is Twilight Sparkle in trouble?” She shook her multi-colored mane out of her face, and looked behind her at her friends.

“I’m afraid so, loyal Rainbow Dash,” Celestia said, a tone of superiority and pompousness in her voice. “Twilight Sparkle here has been working for the past few months to overthrow me as ruler. Isn’t that right?” She turned towards the unicorn, now with a somber and disappointed expression on her face.

“Is this true, Twilight?” asked Rarity.

“I’m confused, Princess,” said Pinkie. “Isn’t she your student? Why would she do that?”

Fluttershy nodded. “I just can’t imagine her doing anything like that.

Twilight Sparkle did not answer.

Princess Celestia closed her eyes. “Cuff her.”

Dash leaped in front of Twilight Sparkle, and pointed a hoof at Celestia. “I don’t know what’s going on, but Twilight is my friend, and I know she wouldn’t try to hurt you! And… and…” Rainbow sputtered for a moment, but then steeled herself. “And you’re gonna have to go through me!”

She barely heard her friend’s cries of disapproval, but noticed a hoof being placed on her shoulder. Twilight had taken off the glasses, and was now standing next to Dash. Rainbow opened her mouth, about to say something else in her friend’s defense, but something seemed different about Twilight now. Only moments before, she was defiant and belligerent. Now she seemed defeated and resigned instead, and Rainbow couldn’t say anything at all. Twilight brushed past her in the calm, and purposefully crushed the sunglasses under her hoof as she strode forwards to Celestia. The Princess looked over at Rainbow Dash, who was still trying to come to grips with what just happened.

“Rainbow, I could arrest you indefinitely for your insolence. Were you aware of this?”

Rainbow’s mouth dropped open.

“Indeed, it would be very easy for me to put you and everypony else into custody. You are all known to be affiliated with Twilight, and could be potentially in league with her. I could also take Applejack in for questioning, even though she is not in Ponyville and therefore has even less of a connection. Again, were you aware of this?”

“You wouldn’t!” shrilled Pinkie Pie. “We know you wouldn’t do that!”

Celestia smiled softly. “This is equally true. So would you like to know why I won’t?”

The mares mumbled a little amongst themselves, wondering aloud whether the question was rhetorical or if their princess really wanted their opinion.

“Yes, Princess Celestia. We would like to know.” Rarity strode forwards.

“I… I also would like to know, Princess,” said Fluttershy, and moved up as well. The five friends were now standing in a line before Celestia, side by side.

Celestia’s face took on a frown. “Because to seize the rest of my most faithful students would break my heart,” she said. “And to ruin your friendship this way is already straining me.”

There was a long silence. The mares gazed over Celestia, except for Twilight. She was looking down at the cobblestones with disgust, as if she couldn’t look at the Princess without being sick.”

“And so,” said Celestia, “I think I’ll let Twilight go this time.”

Rainbow leaped into the air with excitement. Pinkie Pie gave Twilight a hearty embrace, not noticing that she was clearly in no mood to be touched. Rarity squealed aloud, drowning out Fluttershy’s attempt to do the same. But after a few seconds of this, Celestia raised a hoof, ordering silence.

“All she has to do is bow to me.”

The four ponies looked towards Twilight, mouths open in anticipation.

“You’re no princess of mine.”

Time slowed to a crawl. The ruler of Equestria fluidly strode back into the throng of her soldiers as they closed in on the unicorn. Rainbow watched, torn between honoring Twilight’s silent request to not defend her and wanting to defy her own god and monarch as they cuffed her friend. A pony in a trench coat and a fedora began unwinding a roll of crime scene tape as the guards dragged Twilight, who refrained from any struggling or violent behavior, towards a prison transport carriage and threw her in roughly. Dash jumped forward, snarling and spitting curses, but Pinkie Pie grabbed her by the tail with her teeth, and Fluttershy and Rarity leaped onto her wings to pin the furious pegasus down to the ground.

2 - Too Long, Not Reading

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Dash gritted her teeth, speeding across the fields and meadows between Fluttershy’s cottage and Ponyville. Her trademark rainbow streak carved a path through the dandelions, leaving them bare in her wake. Under normal circumstances she might have considered the whole scene picturesque, or possibly “straight-up awesome,” but her mind was elsewhere.

“I told myself I would stay up!” she yelled aloud. “How could I have overslept two times in a row? Am I losing it, or what?”

After her friends had pinned her to the cobblestones, Rainbow recalled that the royal guards surrounding them had split up and fanned out into Ponyville. Once they had gone, her friends warily let Dash get up again. Rainbow felt a pang of humiliation as she saw in her mind’s eye the faces of her companions change. They had been determined and ready to tackle her again to prevent Dash from lashing out and making the situation worse, but when the cyan pegasus merely sat there, even Pinkie became crestfallen.

From there the rest had been kind of blurry. Rainbow didn’t remember how her friends got her to get up and walk with them back to Fluttershy’s place or much of the conversation between them during the trek. There had been a lot of things like “I do hope Spike and Owlowiscious are alright,” and “Twilight couldn’t have actually done anything, could she?” and “We have to visit her as soon as we can,” but nothing truly concrete had been discussed. What she did remember was that by the time they reached the cabin a note had been tacked to the door, signed by Princess Celestia. It was full of apologetic comments and some complicated language to fully express her regret (at this, Dash couldn’t help but snort loudly and mutter some obscenely foul language, the least of which was something to the effect of the Princess eating horse-apples). What she did recollect was a few lines at the bottom outlining some specific regulations, stating that they could not visit Twilight before she boarded the nine o’clock train to Manehattan Correctional Facility, but instead only after she arrived at eleven. Furthermore, the library was entirely off limits. The princess ended the letter by commenting that breaking either of these rules would not only disappoint her, but be grounds for a permanent expulsion into Everfree Forest for Twilight and whoever was spotted violating these commands.

However, it was now at least seven, and Rainbow Dash had many unanswered questions.

The pegasus made a sharp curve upwards into a cloud bank and wriggled inside, snug amongst the clumps. She then dug with her hoof at the bottom of the cloud, and poked her head through. Beneath Rainbow Dash lay Ponyville, strangely devoid of most regular inhabitants, but amongst the streets Canterlot guards marched with precise timing in pre-planned patterns. Dash wriggled her wings loose and thrust the cloud in the direction of Twilight’s library, then pulled them back in to let inertia take over.

“These guards are everywhere!” she whispered to herself. “I get that the library is a crime scene, but why is all of Ponyville locked down?” Dash cursed again at her tardiness, but stopped herself as a pair of guards flew past her little cloud. She gulped and thought they surely had heard her, but neither of them noticed and continued onward. Rainbow considered that perhaps the cloud muffled the sound. After the two guards were well out of sight, Rainbow stuck her head back out to survey the scene again. The library was closer now, but the patrols seemed to be thicker there, both on the ground and in the air. She pulled herself into the cloud and continued to float onward.

After some time, bored of scratching out games of tic-tac-toe against herself on the inside of the cloud, the pegasus pushed her face down through the base and found herself a few feet above the top balcony of Twilight’s abode. Unfortunately it was also manned by a Canterlot guard, peering intently through the ornate telescope bolted to the railing. Dash noted that the telescope belonged to Twilight.

With a sickening crunch, the guard’s face smacked right into the wooden bar, propelled by Dash’s hooves slamming down on the back of his helmet. The stallion’s head ricocheted backwards and he fell to the deck, passed out and unaware of what just hit him. Rainbow’s multi-colored tail swept over the unconscious guard as she strode purposefully to the trapdoor into the library, hooked her hoof into the iron handle, and pulled up. To Rainbow Dash’s surprise, it actually opened.

“Ha! These idiots didn’t lock the doors! I guess all the security is for show, right?” She nodded in the direction of the stallion, who did not respond. “Oh, right, I knocked your flank out, didn’t I?”

Dash let the trapdoor fall down on its own, entering the library for the first time in weeks. Her face scrunched up as she scrutinized the situation, and she floated out into the center of the main room. Although it wasn’t completely unrecognizable, it was definitely uncharacteristic of Twilight’s home. A large portion of the books that adorned the shelves were missing, and as Rainbow glided by the remainder to read the titles, all that was left were texts with dry names like “Principa Friendshipica,” “The Key of Salerno,” and “The Biography of Marecom X.” The confused pegasus did not dare to open any of the tomes, fearing excessive boredom and un-coolness.

As she lightly moved away from the bookshelves, she turned her attention to what looked like a makeshift table. It was covered partially by a tablecloth so that a very neatly stacked rectangular pile of books was visible. Dash dropped down and lifted the sheet a bit, then recoiled in horror as she saw the cover of a Daring Do paperback.

“But—but—but Twilight takes care of her books!” she sputtered, incapable of processing what lay before her. The pegasus pulled the novel off of the stack with her mouth and turned it over and over in her hooves, scrutinizing every inch. “Why would she do something like—!” Rainbow Dash gasped loudly. Running through the entire book was a giant coffee mug stain, soaked from the top page through to the bottom. She groaned in exasperation, dropped the book, and shoved it aside. “I was going to borrow that one! Twilight has a lot to answer for!”

Rainbow took a couple of deep breaths to compose herself, and then looked at what was on the surface itself, wondering why her friend would ever sacrifice her precious books (even if she had a clear preference for non-fiction) for the sake of a temporary table. Strewn across it was a scale map of Ponyville marked with circles of various colors. Dash noted that the most circles were on buildings in the shopping district, with some structures having more than one. What the circles and their different colors meant, however, the pony was incapable of determining. Growing tired of this particular oddity, she decided instead to investigate a heap of parchment nearby. Dash pulled a random sheet from the stack.

“Spotted five in all today,” Dash slowly read aloud. “To my shock and horror, I discovered that Lyra was amongst them now. I was forced to speak with her at great length on the upcoming cider season… Luna help me, I had to look into her eyes! Those terrible, soulless—“

Dash chucked the note over her shoulder. “Too long, not reading.”

As she discarded the paper, she strode away to find something easier or shorter to investigate, and hit her snout against something hard. Falling back on her haunches and rubbing her face, she opened her eyes and looked upwards.


The culprit had been one of Twilight’s chalkboards, scribbled across from corner to corner with calculations and formulas, as was typical of the unicorn. However, the center had been wiped away, and something had been written in comparably neat text in the leftover space.

"All we see and all we seem is but a dream within a dream… Edgar Allan Pony,” she whispered, and clutched the sides of her head with her hooves in frustration.

“I don’t get it! I just don’t get any of it!” growled Rainbow, squeezing her eyes shut again. “I just have to find Twilight and ask her what the deal is with all of this… this stuff myself!”

Dash got up slowly, jumped into the air and floated back towards the staircase, vastly annoyed. She passed by table, the bookshelves, and another pony. The pegasus halted mid-air, then whirled back around to see just a wooden bust of some unnamed stallion.

The pegasus stretched out her bottom eyelid and stuck out her tongue. “What’cha lookin’ at, huh? You and your, uh, your face, and your neck halfway off— wait, neck halfway off?”

Dash flicked the bust and the head folded back, revealing a giant red button underneath. Smiling gleefully, Rainbow pressed the button with her hoof.

“Oh, this is gonna be good.”

One of the bookshelves began rumbling, and slowly slid to one side. Dash’s grin grew as the opening widened more and more, until she just couldn’t help herself and she charged right in, giggling uncontrollably.

“Twilight, you crazy filly! You had a secret room all this time and you never told us about it? This is like, the coolest thing you’ve ever done! I gotta see what kind of rad stuff you have in—“

The mare stopped herself and the smile slid right off her face.


The room, though massive and most definitely secret (which Dash admitted to herself was awesome in its own right) was entirely empty except for a small cardboard box. It had tipped to one side and a pile of cheap sunglasses was strewn around the opening. The pony sighed in disappointment. She had thought that Twilight would do something awesome with a secret room, or at least have a clue to what was going on hidden inside it. What Rainbow Dash did not need heaped on top of her extra questions and utter dissatisfaction was a pair of low-grade shades.

“That’s it, I’m out of here. This is getting lamer by the second. Stick a fork in me, because I am SO done with this.”

She turned around to leave, strode a few steps, and paused.

“And I’m taking these stupid things with me for my trouble.”

She grabbed a pair of sunglasses with her teeth and flew back to the staircase, slamming the trapdoor behind her. The pegasus tucked the shades behind her ears and under her mane, then jumped into the air. However, something seemed off. She hung there above the balcony for a few moments until suddenly it hit her, and she fell back to the wooden terrace in surprise.

“Dude! Where’s my cloud?”

The cloud in question was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the sky was now entirely clear. The mare continued to gape for a few seconds, not capable of wrapping her brain around the situation. She had broken into and entered a crime scene (though Dash wondered whether it was “breaking in” when the entrance was unlocked), tampered with evidence, and to top it all off she had assaulted an officer of the law. She paced back and forth, thinking aloud.

“Oh pony feathers, I’m really in hot water now! There’s no way I can get out of here without being seen if I don’t have that cloud! Did the wind blow it away?” Dash licked a hoof and held it up in the air. “Okay, yes, it was the wind, but now what?” She looked across town to the clock tower, a magnificently tall structure visible from every corner of town, and subsequently squealed.

“Ohmygoshohmygoshit’seightforty!” she cried out. “There’s no way I can get to the train station without being seen! Oh, what am I going to do? I can’t just walk in there—“

Rainbow Dash spotted the unconscious guard out of the corner of her eye, and smirked.

“Or maybe I can!”

With some effort, the mare rolled the guard over onto his stomach and yanked off his helmet. A small dust cloud erupted from underneath, and Rainbow wheezed as she placed it on her own head.

“Sweet Celestia,” coughed Rainbow, “do they ever take these things off?” She waved away the lingering filth in the air and set to work on the chest armor, loosening the straps on the side. After rolling the guard over a few times to reach each set of clasps and to get him out of the breastplate itself, Dash wriggled into the armor and tightened the fastenings back up with her teeth.

“Oh, this is just too gross,” she moaned. “It’s all sweaty inside.”

Fighting the urge to retch by imagining what Rarity’s reaction would have been, Dash leaped from the top of the library tree and landed safely before the front door. Without looking back, or even acknowledging the library’s existence at all, she began to trot stiffly down a nearby street. Windows that she passed by closed immediately and any ponies out in the open ran for cover when they saw her coming. Dash nearly broke character to reassure them that it was just her, but she quickly inferred that blowing her cover would be detrimental to her goal. After a fifth filly had ducked behind a trash can to hide, Rainbow figured that perhaps they wouldn’t have believed her anyway. The populace was far too scared to listen to reason.

Rainbow reached an intersection, but instead of striding directly through, it looked around to either side. At first it seemed to be clear, but she heard the clacking of hooves against the cobblestone and flattened herself against a wall just in time to see a guard barreling down the lane. Dash compared the likelihood of being caught in her disguise by any of the jumpy townsfolk versus any calm and collected sentry, and thanked her lucky stars as the guard continued down to the next intersection without noticing the cyan pegasus. She peered around the corner and watched as the officer that nearly spotted her met up with two more guards, who then galloped away back in the direction of the library. Although she had to gulp down the fear in her throat when she saw which way they were going, Dash readjusted her helmet and proceeded through the crossroads, putting extra stiffness into her pace until she goose-stepped her way through.

“See?” said the pegasus to herself reassuringly, “This is easy! It’s a piece of cake! A… a cakewalk!” She giggled in spite of herself. “Now all I have to do is get on that train, and I’m home free!“

“Hold it!”


“I said hold it!”

Having been lost in self-congratulatory glee, Rainbow didn’t notice that she had finally made her way to the train station. While the security there was far lower than she had expected (Rainbow surmised that the majority of the guards had instead absconded to the library tree), she had not hidden herself in time and was now being spoken to by one of the guards. This one was stationed in front of the entrance to the train itself, and he did not look pleased.

“Ma’am, you need to clear out of here. This train is set to carry a prisoner from Ponyville to Manehattan Correctional Facility in the next ten minutes, and… and are you wearing a guard’s uniform?”

“What?” asked Dash, looking side to side. “Oh, yeah, right. I’m reporting for duty, sir!”

The officer looked over her quizzically. “I haven’t received any orders for new recruits, and even if you were, you should have arrived hours ago. Furthermore, you’re clearly not adhering to our rigorous mane and coat dyeing regulations. I’m going to need you to come with me to speak with the captain.”

Dash froze. “The… the captain?”

“That’s right. If you’re lucky, he might give you a citation instead of janitorial work, if you are the pony you say you are.”

The cyan pegasus gulped. A fleeting thought occurred to her to simply knock out the stallion and whoever else might come running, but she had already done that once and didn’t want to push her luck. For reasons she couldn’t put her hoof on, she also had the strange feeling that this was not going to turn out as badly as she expected. Opposing her fight-or-flight urges, Dash found herself being escorted by the guard into the train station’s office. It was a rustic, wooden building, reminiscent of Appleloosa in some ways, like the horseshoes hung above the entryway and the iron bars meant to separate the ticket booth from the rest of the room. The guard opened a door in the back, motioning for Rainbow to enter first. This room was furnished in a similar way, but in the center was a weathered solid wooden desk, and a green executive chair turned backwards.

“Sir, this mare says she’s been assigned to protect the prisoner transport train. I’m not buying it. It’s fairly obvious that she’s lying and has some kind of ulterior motive.”

“Ah, my new recruit has arrived! Welcome aboard, miss!” said Shining Armor as he turned around in his chair and held out his hoof. “And your timing is punctual! I would expect nothing less.”

Dash shook his hoof awkwardly. “You’ve been expect—“ she started, but Shining Armor winked clandestinely, and the mare’s eyes widened. “I mean, of course! I’m a loyal soldier of Princess Celestia, and it’s an honor to serve!” She pulled her hoof away from Shining Armor and raised it in a salute.

“But she’s… she can’t… just look at her!” blurted the guard. “Her coat hasn’t been bleached and her mane and tail are every color of the rainbow! Sir, she can’t possibly be a new draft!”

“What are you talking about? She’s closely followed our dress code to the letter!” said Armor, closing in on the overwhelmed and very confused guard.

Rainbow snickered, but held her salute as best as she could. “I read the code front to back for hours until I memorized it, sir!”

“And you have done a fine job, ma’am.” Shining Armor nodded in the direction of the mare, but quickly turned his attention to the guard, whose bewilderment had been steadily growing. Armor looked into his subordinate’s eyes. “As for you…” he began, then backed up a couple of paces. “It’s clear what the problem is.”

“Sir, what is it, sir?” asked the guard, now quivering in place.

“Isn’t it obvious? You’re colorblind, soldier!” yelled out Shining Armor. “What’s the color of that chair?”

“Green!” screamed the guard. Shining Armor shook his head reproachfully and turned to Rainbow, who was biting down on her tongue to keep herself from guffawing.

“Sir, that chair is red!” responded the mare through a mile-wide grin.

“Captain, you’re—you’re messing with me, right? You have to be!” the guard stammered, digging into the floor with his hoof nervously.

“The color of this pen, private?” asked Shining Armor, grabbing a pen off his desk with his magic.

“It’s blue, right? Tell me it’s blue!” The guard was now frantic and entirely distraught.

“Tell him, ma’am,” responded Shining Armor.

“It’s yellow!” yelled out Dash ecstatically, still saluting for no reason.

“That settles it! Get yourself to the medical tent, private, on the double!” commanded Shining Armor. The guard sped off as quickly as he could, so fast that his own helmet fell off during his retreat. It rolled into the office, stopping at the hooves of Rainbow Dash, who exploded with laughter and collapsed onto the floor.

Shining Armor levitated the helmet off the floor and set it aside on a shelf. “Are you done yet?”

“I… I think so,” said Dash, getting back on her hooves. “I can’t believe that worked. But what’re you doing here? If you’re the commander, doesn’t that mean you’re the one who—”

“Yes,” said Shining Armor, “unfortunately, it does. Sort of.”

“Wait, ‘sort of’?” Dash snorted aggressively. “You just arrested your own sister and now you’re gonna backpedal like this?”

Shining Armor stepped a little closer to Rainbow. “That’s enough. Now listen to me, Rainbow. I just saved you from being dragged before Celestia by your mane, and Twilight is going to be boarding that train very soon.” Dash gulped at this, but Armor continued on. “You’re concerned and confused right now, so I understand. Regardless, I suggest you show a little respect, and you can start by giving me that uniform you clearly stole.”

Rainbow nodded, taken aback by how intimidating Shining Armor truly was. Now that she was on the receiving end of his ire, the pegasus realized just how uncomfortable that guard had felt. She found herself taking off the breastplate she had stolen, not solely out of fear but also to fulfill a sudden need she had to follow the command.

Armor smiled understandingly. “Leading and giving orders is my special talent, Rainbow. That vacant expression can be an unfortunate side effect.”

The mare became painfully aware of her blank stare, shook her head vigorously, and proceeded to remove her disguise as speedily as she could. “Sorry for yelling earlier. I’m just way too stressed out right now with what’s been going on, and I’m super worried about Twilight.”

“You’re not the only one, Rainbow.” Shining Armor slumped back down in his chair. “It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this at all, and we even knew this was coming.”

Dash pried the helmet off her head and made to set it on a shelf, but paused. “Wait, what?”

The stallion looked up at the pegasus. “I don’t have much time to explain, but essentially my sister is guilty.” Dash opened her mouth to say something, but Armor held up a hoof patiently and went on. “And Cadance and I are almost as guilty as she is. There are a lot of changes happening, not just here in Ponyville, but also back in Canterlot, and all over the rest of Equestria. We’ve been helping Twilie get to the bottom of this for weeks, but the arrest threw a wrench into our plans.”

“But she’s your sister!” cried out Dash. “Why would you do that to Twilight? And what do you mean by changes, anyway?”

“Again,” said Armor, “she was supposed to escape. We warned her ahead of time, but that was the best we could do. Twilie told us to always stay above suspicion no matter what happened, so Cadance stayed behind in the Crystal Empire, and I led the guards. If I had refused or fought back, that would have drawn suspicion to me and everything we’ve been working for could have been wiped out. As for what’s been going on, some things just have to be seen for yourself.”

The mare flexed her wings a bit, mulling over this new information. “Alright, so neither of you guys could have stopped it, but what about Luna? Was Spike in on this, and where did he go? And why can’t you just tell me what’s happening?”

Armor raised his head, counting mentally. “Luna hasn’t been seen in a month, and we’re certain she’d just side with Celestia. Spike has been helping out, and he managed to escape successfully. As for what we were helping Twilight with, not only would you not believe me, but my sister told us to keep quiet.”

“No way! Twilight wouldn’t leave us hanging like that!

“She did want to tell you and the rest of your friends, but she thought you’d all do something rash if she was caught. You know, like galloping off to save her without a plan.”

“Oh, yeah…” Rainbow looked down at the floor and scratched it a few times with her hoof.

Shining Armor smiled. “Don’t worry about that, Dash. It’s good that you’re here now. If there’s anypony Twilie would want rescuing her, it would probably be you.”

Dash snapped her head back up. “You mean you’re totally cool with this? Seriously?”

“If there was enough time to get the rest of you girls together, I’d prefer that.” Armor got up from his chair and paced a little behind the desk. “But they’re going to load Twilie onto that train in a few minutes, and there’s not a moment to lose. So when you get into Manehattan, stay out of sight for a while. We’ll send an agent to contact you, and he’ll explain everything, from what Princess Celestia has been doing, to our plan to break Twilight out.”

Rainbow threw a sharp salute, this time earnestly. “You can count on me, Shining Armor!”

“I never doubted it, Rainbow.” Suddenly his eyebrows rose. “Wait, what’s that behind your ears?”

“Oh, these?” Dash pulled the sunglasses out. “I might have broken into the library, and I might have found these sunglasses. Hope ya don’t mind too much.”

The stallion grinned. “Twilie always said her friends were smart, but I never thought you’d find those on your own! They’re an important part of our plan, so keep them safe.”

“Gotcha!” Rainbow tucked them back behind her ears. “What do they do?”

Shining Armor frowned and turned away. “They’ll explain what I meant by ‘changes.’ You can keep them and use them, and it’ll save a lot of time our agent might have to waste to clear things up. Just promise me something, will you?” He turned back to Rainbow and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Don’t put on the sunglasses until you get to Manehattan, and don’t do anything stupid. You’re going to want to react, but I need you to keep calm.”

“Okay, Armor, I getcha. You can let go of me now, okay?”

Armor let go. “I trust you.”

With another salute, Dash turned around and was gone, through the door and out to board the train. Shining Armor exhaled slowly and dropped back into his seat. After a few moments, he pulled open a few desk drawers, grabbed a pen and parchment with his magic, and began to write.

“If my sister can trust you,” he said aloud, “so can I.”

Fluttershy winced. She had a splitting headache, and it had been pounding away at her skull for the past twenty minutes. Instead of giving in to the pain, she had decided instead to ignore it and hope that it would go away and let her sleep. The only problem was that it showed no signs of letting up, and indeed seemed to be growing stronger. Realizing that she would not be able to get any further rest, she opened her eyes in time to see a large white foot repeatedly slam down into her forehead. Fluttershy moaned in agony as Angel glared daggers, nose-to-nose with her.

“Now, Angel, we talked about this, didn’t we?”

Angel crossed his little arms and tapped one of his feet menacingly.

“We went to counseling for those violent tendencies, and you know that you won’t be getting any more carrots—oof!”

Angel thumped Fluttershy’s chest as hard as he could, then pointed a finger towards an empty sleeping bag. The pegasus looked at the bag, and then back to Angel again.

“I don’t think I follow.”

The rabbit gestured again at the bag, and then ran in place while waving his hands at the door.

“Still not getting it, sorry.”

Angel threw his arms up in exasperation, then hopped over to another sleeping bag and pulled it open. A mess of curly pink hair flopped out, and the rest of Pinkie Pie followed suit. Angel bounced to the next bag to reveal Rarity, whose hair had been rendered just as curly as Pinkie’s was. Fluttershy’s mouth slowly opened as Angel unzipped the bag he had originally pointed to, and an almost inaudible yelp erupted from her as she realized that Rainbow Dash was gone. She awoke her friends, and within minutes the three mares were galloping down the pathway into town, breathing heavily and pulling the straps on their saddlebags.

By the time they entered the edge of town and reached the library, the entire block was closed down by the police. Canterlot’s guard force was patrolling the perimeter, and it seemed like the library itself was wrapped in at least three layers of crime scene tape. While on any other day this would have drawn a crowd, the draconian occupation of Ponyville was clearly keeping most of the folk indoors.

“This is ridiculous! Absolutely absurd!” cried out Rarity. “First they send Twilight to jail, and now these ruffians are searching her home! What could they even be doing in there? I must know! We must know!”

“It’s unreasonable! It’s ludicrous! It’s… hang on—” Pinkie Pie reached into a hole in the side of a nearby tree, fished out a thesaurus, and opened it up. “It’s also probably outlandish, nonsensical, could be preposterous or silly, and most definitely bizarre.”

Rarity stared.

“I keep thesauruses and other language references stashed around town, in case of synonym emergencies… or disasters, tragedies, predicaments, and crises. Crisisisises. Crisisi? I have a dictionary in here somewhere.” Pinkie took the book in her mouth and enthusiastically dove headfirst into the hole of the tree, somehow making it through the opening and fully fitting inside.

“Ouch!” came a soft voice from inside the tree. “Your hoof is on my ear, Pinkie.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Fluttershy? Is that you?”

Pinkie’s voice echoed out loudly. “Oh hi there, Fluttershy! Lemme squeeze around you here.” The tree shook violently for a few seconds and then came to a standstill. “I didn’t know you had extra tree disguises!”

“Of course I do! Sometimes I just climb into one and sit very still for a while. Being a tree is very relaxing once you get the hang of it.” The mare giggled a little. “And nopony could suspect a tree of eavesdropping or spying.”

“Or snooping, overhearing, and prying!” added Pinkie.

Rarity squealed aloud and galloped over to the tree, then stuffed her head in the opening. “Make way, girls! I’m coming through!” With a mighty effort, she pushed her back hooves off the ground and disappeared into the hollowed fake tree, which shifted around even more than before as the ponies struggled to readjust themselves inside. Slowly the tree moved forward, sliding along the grass in a most un-plant-like fashion. It ground to a halt as a guard passed by, but as soon as he had taken his eyes off of the mares’ hiding place, it continued on its way. It finally stopped at the window, much closer to any other tree than a tree should be.

“Well? Do you see anything inside?” asked Rarity. “I can’t see past your hair, Pinkie.”

“Well, there’s a few guard ponies and one stallion in a trench coat and fedora.”

“Oooh! That look is coming back, I just know it! Does he pull it off nicely?”

“No, he’s still wearing them. Wait, he’s got something in his mouth. It looks like a plastic bag—“

Pinkie Pie covered her mouth with her hoof.

“What is it?” said Fluttershy. “Is there anything in the bag?”

Pinkie Pie could only watch as the stallion picked up a cyan feather and placed it inside.

3 - All Out of Hay

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Rainbow Dash slumped against the inside of the closet, using a mop as a makeshift pillow. The train’s wheels rattled loudly as it sped down the tracks, providing a perfect cover for the pegasus’ snores. Every now and then the whistle blew, but Rainbow only rolled over in her sleep. It was in this way that the entire trip into Manehattan passed: passed out.

Suddenly the whistle blew sharply three times, bringing Dash back to consciousness. She shook her head to clear the fog from her mind and counted the number of whistles. She faintly recalled the last time she was on the train, and it seemed to her that it was some kind of signal.

“Three, huh?” she whispered to herself. “What was that again...?”

As she gave it some thought, she noticed the train begin to slow down. There was a screeching sound beneath her cupboard, and Rainbow abruptly realized what those whistle blows meant.

“Oh no.”

With a resounding crash, the cleaning solvents and rags on the shelf above her toppled forward and she was peppered by spray bottles of air fresheners. The train continued to judder, throwing Rainbow across the closet. As she slammed into the other wall, she felt the sunglasses slip from behind her ears and clatter against the bottom of the closet. Rainbow twisted around to catch them in her mouth, but the train finally came to a stop and she was tossed one more time. The rest of the janitorial supplies rolled off the shelf, and both Rainbow and the sunglasses were effectively buried beneath them.

A single hoof rose from the pile of bottles, and the rest of Rainbow Dash followed. She gulped for air as her head broke the surface, then dove right back under. Plastic containers flew around the cupboard until finally the pegasus found the sunglasses. They had miraculously survived the train’s abrupt halt, entirely unscathed. Sighing with relief, Rainbow tucked them into her mane again and put an ear to the door. When she heard nothing, Dash pushed it open and scrambled out.

The pegasus stretched her wings, then flapped them in place a few times. She grimaced as she rotated them, but she got the cramps and stiffness out. With that matter over, she trotted over to a window of the train’s car and looked out.


While Ponyville could hustle and bustle with activity during peak market hours, and events in Canterlot drew some big crowds, Manehattan was busy round the clock. Ponies of all professions and social status galloped through the streets with somewhere to be, and carriages hurtled past even faster. The few ponies that were still were either waiting at the train station with hooves tapping in impatience, or young toughs at street corners, acting as cool as they could with facial acne. What was clearly missing from this mass of ponies, though, were all of the guards that had been aboard the train.

In seconds, Dash was out of the car and on the platform, looking around wildly for any sign of Twilight and her captors. It wasn’t until she had traveled the length of the train three times on the ground and in the air that she had to conclude that they had left while she was extricating herself and the sunglasses from the storage closet. The pegasus kicked at a lamppost in frustration and walked away, treading a little lighter on her hoof but satisfied that the pole was dented.

Rainbow Dash trotted away from the platform and followed the sidewalk alongside an iron fence, broken every now and then by an ornamental brick pillar. As she passed through the gate she was immediately cast in the shadow of the high-rise apartments and office buildings. The pegasus followed a veritable pony herd moving through a street crossing, which was swallowed by the rest of Manehattan’s population as she entered the city itself. In the shade the temperature was still a little too warm, with the concrete and sheer number of ponies generating body heat. In an attempt to get a little more room, Dash jumped into the air to hover about, but stopped herself after a few feet.

“Shining Armor said to lay low for a while, didn’t he?” she said aloud. She came back to the sidewalk gently and continued onward. “This sucks,” she added, slowing her pace. “How is this ‘agent’ gonna find me, anyway? And how are we supposed to break into a jail?”

Dash continued to worry as she made her way down the sidewalk. Her mind cycled through the same thoughts again and again, and in the back of her mind she wondered whether she would be able to stop herself. Finally the pony ocean thinned and Rainbow spotted a small carrot-dog stand from the corner of her eye. Realizing that she had skipped breakfast and it was now lunchtime, the pegasus slid into the line of other ponies, drooling with anticipation. After a few agonizing minutes, Dash was next to order.

“Two dogs, everything on them!” she blurted out.

The portly, gritty-looking cook gave her a weird look, but complied, lifting a carrot from the grill. “New to town, kid?” he asked, dripping relish from one end of a bun to the other.

Rainbow Dash nodded. “Yeah, how’d you know?”

“Ya just got this look about you, if ya don’t mind me sayin’ it. Glassy eyes, slack jaw, all o’ that. Seen it a million times, but you’ll grow out of it after a while.” The vendor squirted a line of ketchup down the dog, and proceeded to start on the second. “It’s nothin’ ta worry about, of course. Manehattan will do that to a new pony, old an’ young! They come in lookin’ fer some answers, can’t think straight and their life’s a mess, then bam!” The street cook rapped his hoof on the tiny counter, startling Rainbow. “Manehattan just makes you forget it all! But I guarantee you’ll remember my food!”

“Er, heh,” said Dash at length, trying as hard as she could to not look at the stallion while he was laughing uproariously. “You really sound like you know this city, man.”

“Well, I’ve been here for years, miss! Ya know, back when this place was all made out of bricks and it was, whaddaya call it, rustic.” The stallion finished with the second carrot-dog and dropped both into a paper bag, which immediately began to leak grease. “But now I’m just an old stallion. What do I know, eh? Anyway, that was my two bits, but now I’ll need some bits from you, too.”

The mare dropped a few coins and took the bag into her mouth. “Fanksh… I fink.”

“Just fuggedaboutit, a’ight? Enjoy the franks, and don’t worry about my being frank. Oh, and welcome to Manehattan, kid!”

The pegasus grinned and trotted off through the crowd to find a place to sit and eat. Eventually she came across a bench at the edge of a decorative planter filled with flowers, and she plopped the bag down on an empty spot. After swallowing both of the dogs whole (and rubbing her stomach when it gurgled in protest), she felt a little more relaxed than before, and her mind finally was in a state of relative peace and quiet.

Now that she had a moment to spare, Rainbow Dash’s eyes began to wander around Manehattan’s concrete scenery. From the smallest restaurant to the largest office building, the pegasus was dwarfed by the advertisements strewn across them all for fashion lines, upcoming movies, and vacation getaways to exotic locales such as Neighcaragua and the Palomino Canal. Every boutique along the street had a glass window showcasing items and their sale prices. The streetlights were draped with banners touting cultural events, like the museum’s collection of Ponyolithic-era artifacts or Octavia’s upcoming performance at the Hoofodrome Theater. Dash craned her neck, wishing to see the city from an aerial view and restraining the urge as best she could.

“This place is huge! Applejack told me it was big, but Manehattan must have been built up since the last time she was here. I wonder if there’s anything fun here to check out. I don’t have anything else to do until that ‘agent’ finds me.” The pegasus sighed and stretched her wings out.

“And coming up next is the merchant square, where the fine and fashionable ponies of Manehattan do their daily shopping!” buzzed a loud voice from behind her, and many noises of wonder and a few shutter clicks immediately followed. Dash whirled around and leaped onto the planter, just in time to watch a bright red trolley race down the center of the street. A stallion with a microphone and a fancy conductor’s cap was operating the vehicle, accompanied by a throng of tourist ponies with cameras and souvenir drink mugs. Rainbow felt a grin spread across her face as she read the words “MANEHATTAN TROLLEY TOURS” emblazoned on the side, and she burst into exuberant laughter as she ran to catch up with it.

Soon enough she boarded the trolley and dropped a few bits into the conductor’s open hoof, who responded with a smile and offered her a bright lime green baseball cap with ‘I Love Manehattan’ emblazoned on it. Adjusting the hat, Dash grinned broadly and grabbed herself a nice window seat, then stuck her head through the window to look around. As the trolley made a turn, the pegasus’ mouth dropped open at the sudden, abrupt change of scenery.

To their left and right ran a series of decorative trees, planted in small circular pits of dirt and protected by little iron fences. The sidewalk had been replaced with marble, and the skyscrapers were no longer visible. Instead there were rows upon rows of shops, with glass doors and huge window displays with revolving dummies draped in upscale fabrics and shimmering jewelry. High above the four floors worth of these shops was a glass ceiling, arcing in a half-dome and segmented into small triangles. The merchant square was effectively a district crossed with an indoor mall.

“A recent addition to Manehattan, this new merchant square has replaced the old and tiresome shopping center from days gone by,” said the conductor. Again on cue, the ponies around Rainbow flocked to the best windows to take their photos and point at one marvel after the next. Dash couldn’t help but be equally enthused, and found herself wanting to get closer looks at every passing store.

The trolley braked gently and came to a complete stop, and the conductor stood up. “Fillies and gentlecolts, Manehattan Trolley Tours is pleased to offer you chance to stretch your legs and the opportunity to explore the merchant square on hoof!” He pulled a lever and the doors swung open as he continued speaking through the microphone. “We thank you for joining us on a tour of our lovely city, and if you wish to see more, please return in precisely one hour!”

Rainbow Dash and the tourists veritably exploded from the trolley and scattered across the floor. Some were gone in seconds, clearly knowing what they wanted to see. Others stood around near the trolley, boggling at the ceiling’s magnificence, taking even more photos, and searching their fanny packs for extra bits. Still captivated, Dash began to saunter deeper into the mall, her hooves clacking against the floor as she brushed past shoppers, bored colts in black coats and studded bracelets, and fellow tourists.

If being outside the shopping center was like a stream consisting of billboards and posters, the inside was where the dam burst and subjected ponies to a bombardment of consumerism. The advertisements hanging from every shop’s sign weren’t about upcoming events and new locations in town, but things occurring right then and there. Percentages off clothing racks, deals for card-carrying members, and once-in-a-lifetime sales ending by closing time were the order of the day, and Rainbow Dash found herself observing one and then the next with great interest. But out of the blue, a familiar symbol caught her eye far up on the third floor: a lightning bolt with wings.

“A-a-a Wonderbolts shop?” she stammered, and squeezed the sides of her face. “I-I-I’ve gotta see this right n-n-now!”

She kicked herself off the ground and rocketed up to the floor, barreled into the shop front and ground to a halt, floating directly in front of the huge Wonderbolt logo above the door. She descended to the floor slowly and entered the store with great reverence and respect, as if she was trespassing on the holy ground of a Coltholic church.

“Do you need some help, miss?” asked a mare by the entrance, clad in a Wonderbolts t-shirt.

“No,” squeaked Dash, “I’m alright. I’m more than alright.”

The employee smiled at her. “Well, just let us know if you need anything, alright?”

Rainbow didn’t hear her. In her mind it was like the entire mall had closed, and she was the only pony inside the shop. The walls were painted in the colors of the uniform, and the logo was emblazoned on everything from the “SALE” signs to the cash register. She drifted further inside and approached a wall covered in shelves of t-shirts, from re-prints of what had once been sold at early shows to designs exclusive to the store. She took the cap off her head and slowly brought it over her heart in respect.

Fifteen minutes later, Rainbow Dash exited the store wearing a shirt with the Wonderbolts team posing dramatically on it. In a bag firmly clasped in her mouth she had a poster depicting all the current and old members in a fly-over above Canterlot and a set of socks with their logo scattered across them. Grinning from ear to ear, she strode down the pathway and continued onward.

As her shopping spree continued, the hour came and went, and so did the trolley. When she finally decided to take a break, she had visited countless stores and blown a staggering amount of bits on things for herself, her friends, her family, and even ponies she barely knew. In her extra bags were necklaces for Rarity, work boots for Applejack, books for Twilight Sparkle, and other such gift items. Struggling under the weight of the various goods her shopping spree had wrought, Dash took a seat on a bench and spread the bags next to her. The pegasus began to search through them, pulling out products and smiling broadly at the purchases she had made.

Her hoof brushed something cheap and plastic, and she paused briefly. Rummaging around further, she eventually found the item and brought it out. It was the pair of sunglasses.

“Huh,” she said, turning them over and over in her hooves. “Why did I hold on to these things?”

Rainbow Dash was silent for a few minutes and then stood up. After gathering up her bags again, she strode to a large modern fountain with a wide pool and jets of water arcing from side to side. Placing all of them down beside her, she located the sunglasses one more time. The pegasus looked at her reflection in the water and smirked.

“Maybe I’ll look good in these.”

She flicked open the sunglasses with a whipping motion of her hoof and slid them over her nose.

“Awwww yeah!” she exclaimed. “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

Dash froze. “Wait...”

The pegasus smoothly removed the sunglasses, blinked a few times, then placed them back on.

“These things make everything look black and white! That’s so rad!” She jumped on top of the short marble wall and reared up on her legs, sneering and jabbing her front hooves. “You’ll never take me alive, coppers!” she said in a nasally faux-Manehattan accent.

“He-heh, I bet I look ridiculous,” she giggled, and turned her neck to view her reflection.

Rainbow Dash inhaled sharply, and with the grace of a rock, fell in the pool. A splash accompanied her descent, as well as many confused looks from shoppers. Ignoring their stares, the pegasus scrambled out as quickly as she could, then pulled off her water-logged shirt and examined it. The Wonderbolts were missing. Instead, in thick black lettering, it read one word: “OBEY.”

She raised a hoof to her face and lifted the sunglasses. As they were removed, the color in the world burst into being and the Wonderbolts came back into view, just like they had never been gone. Carefully she lowered the sunglasses again to watch her surroundings gray out once more, and the Wonderbolts faded away under the simple text.

The shirt slipped from between her hooves and fell to the floor as she grabbed the cap off her head. Dash fidgeted with the hat and turned it around to see the front. The slogan instead said “CONSUME.” She frantically ran her hoof over the text, tracing the letters and feeling the embroidery. As she pulled the sunglasses off, the original statement returned, and she tried touching it again. The stitching was back to “I Love Manehattan.”

“Excuse me, ma’am, I saw you fall into the fountain. Are you hurt?”

Rainbow jumped and turned around, tossing the cap behind her. “What? Nah, I’m fine—“

Dash gulped hard and quivered. Standing before her in broad daylight was a changeling. Its wings flicked about and a clear strand of saliva was strung between a top and a bottom tooth, but it was wearing a white polo shirt and a baseball cap that said “SUBMIT.” Nopony around seemed to question this, let alone be scared or even acknowledge its presence as being abnormal.

“I said, are you hurt?” asked the changeling again. It licked one of its huge canines absentmindedly and scratched at one of its leg holes.

Rainbow slowly removed her sunglasses, her hoof shaking slightly. The changeling now appeared to be a green pony with brown eyes, no leg holes, and the cap now read “SECURITY.” Dash opened her mouth and tried to say something, but all that came out was a drawn-out, barely audible squeak.

“Okay, I think you’re fine. If you need anything, ask us, alright?” The security guard walked away, rolling his eyes. As soon as his back was turned, Dash donned her sunglasses again and saw the thin wings of the annoyed changeling buzz.

The pegasus burst into a canter away from the fountain and soared up to the glass dome, stopping just short of shattering the ceiling. As she flapped in place and scanned the mall, she felt the squeak rise up, and her breath was suspended painfully with no signs of release. No matter which way she turned, the view was the same. The words were everywhere, impossible to escape from. The jewelry shop she had bought necklaces for Rarity from gave an explicit decree to “MARRY AND REPRODUCE”. The mall’s directories shouted at her to “WORK EIGHT HOURS, PLAY EIGHT HOURS, AND SLEEP EIGHT HOURS”. Shoppers descended upon the bags she left behind, shredding them apart, and then ran to their signs, gazing at them in idolatrous worship with Rainbow’s purchases clutched tight in their hooves. She saw an order to “LOVE YOUR QUEEN” stationed above the Wonderbolts store and felt herself fight and reject the command on physical and mental levels, but only just barely.

With a piercing crash, Rainbow burst through the glass and the aching squeal exploded into a primal scream. Her lungs deflated as she roared in anger and frustration until there was no air left in her, but the need to let it out remained. She continued trying to yell, but nothing came out and she wobbled around above the dome as a sudden dull pain in the back of her head reminded her she was out of air. Dash forced herself to take a breath, but it came in much too fast and she coughed violently.

It took a few minutes for the feelings of hacking up a lung to subside. Shoppers below gathered around, scratching their heads and tip-hoofing around the edge of the pile of glass to get different views. The pegasus looked down through the hole and stared at the mall, holding back the feelings of revulsion as best she could. It was like she had been forcefully and swiftly cured of a deadly toxin she hadn’t even known she’d had, and now seeing the world anew was bringing back the symptoms.

As fast as an electrical pulse from a switch to a light, Dash snarled and dove back through the hole, her trademark rainbow following behind. The shoppers scattered and ran for safety or their precious bags as she plunged. Inches from the ground, Dash shifted her wings, contorted her body and flew parallel to the tiled floor. The glass was kicked up into a dangerous glimmering cloud and then fell again as Rainbow made a beeline across the mall to the Wonderbolts store.

The pegasus skidded to a halt just inside the entrance, panting and wheezing.

“Welcome back!” said the greeting mare at the door. “Do you need any assistance?”

Rainbow glanced over through the sunglasses and saw a flittering wing.

“Maybe,” said Dash. “I need to make a return!”

“We’re sorry-“ was as far as the greeting changeling got before Rainbow slammed her hoof into its face. The few other employees screamed and dove for the storage room in the back as Dash kicked down a cardboard display that said “NO THOUGHT.” Dash briefly peered over her sunglasses and grimaced at Spitfire’s likeness, then shoved it aside.

“See, your merchandise is defective!” she yelled as she grabbed a rack of jackets and toppled it over. The clothing spilled everywhere as it clanged against the floor, and Dash immediately leaped onto the counter to sweep off the cash registers, which burst open and shot bits everywhere. “I demand a refund!”

The pegasus grabbed a coin from under her and examined it closely. Around the edges, she could see the words “THIS IS YOUR GODDESS.” Scowling, she gathered up the coins into a pile and flicked them as hard as she could at a row of hat racks, knocking off their caps and embedding the money deep into the foam display heads. Still not satisfied, she jumped up and began to scale the wall of shelves, dumping out t-shirts and breaking each row as she climbed to the top.

Suddenly the storage room door slammed open and a portly, cream-colored earth pony burst through. He immediately spied Rainbow in the middle of her vandalism and his jaw dropped wide as he clasped the sides of his head with his hooves.

“STOP!” yelled the stallion. “What are you doing to my inventory, you crazy mare?” He saw the scattered shirts, jackets, and other damaged merchandise, and then grabbed at his balding mane. “Do you know how much those cost?

Rainbow paused. She removed her hoof from the last pile on the top row of shelves and turned her head ever so slowly towards the shop’s manager. Dash saw his wings buzz frantically and his pupil-less eyes expand. There was a moment of silence, and the pegasus’ eyes narrowed.

The manager changeling raised its leg as quick as it could and pressed a button on a golden watch around its hoof as Dash rocketed from the top shelf. Inches away from tackling it, Dash was blinded by a bright flash and then slammed into the wall. She turned around, but all she saw were little dancing sparks in the air that fizzled out. The changeling was gone.

“Where’d you go, you rotting Swiss-cheese bug?” panted Dash. “I’ll grill you into a motherbucking sandwich!” She fell back onto her haunches and surveyed the veritable warzone she had left in her wake. “You’ll be sorry!”

There was a squeaking noise from behind her. Dash leaped off the floor and whirled around in time to see two of the cashiers coming out from the back room. They froze and squished together as the pegasus lifted and dropped her shades a few times, viewing them with and without their filter. Sure enough, neither of them were changelings.

Rainbow exhaled with relief and pushed her sunglasses up onto her head. “Hey, you’re safe!” She stood erect and began polishing a hoof on her chest. “No need to thank me, I was just doing what anypony would have done.”
Neither of them responded.

“Don’t worry! You’re both safe now! That manager guy was a changeling in disguise. He would have sucked out your love if I hadn’t shown him who’s boss. Ha, boss! Get it?”

The cashiers stayed mute. One of them raised an eyebrow.

“Okay,” said Dash, flicking her mane out of her face, “fair enough; I guess I’m just too impressive. But seriously, I’ll need you to put on these sunglasses. It’ll clear this up.” She lifted the sunglasses off her head and offered them to one of the workers. They bit their lips and stared wide-eyed at her, quivering harder as she extended her hoof.

“Really,” uttered Rainbow with some annoyance, “they’re not just cool-looking.”

“Just… just go away!” yelled out the other cashier. “Leave us alone, you weirdo!”

Dash recoiled at the insult. “I’m a ‘weirdo’? Oh no, you’re the weird one!” She stepped forward, and the cashiers inched away the exact same distance. “How did you not notice that guy was a changeling? I mean, duh, right? And you’re calling me weird? As if! I mean, really, what’s so weird about saving your lives? Oh, right, nothing!”

Dash felt her head being forcibly pulled back by her mane as she was thrown to the floor. She grit her teeth in pain as she was dragged off by her unseen assailant, and she flailed around trying to land a punch. As the pegasus slid across the fake wooden floor, she saw a stallion in the navy uniform of a police officer waltz over to the cashiers and flash his badge. As soon as they were placated, the cop turned around and grinned wide. Dash slid her sunglasses on and caught a glimpse of his shining, drooling teeth before she was pulled out the door.

Her captor rounded the corner and dragged her for a short distance down a small tiled hallway between the Wonderbolts shop and the store next to it. There was a loud slamming noise, and Dash was pulled again for a few feet. She felt a metal object scrape her wing and winced. Through her squinted eyes she could see an open heavy door leading back to the mall as she was dragged farther away. Suddenly they stopped moving. Rainbow felt the slack in her mane and immediately pulled herself back. A chunk of hair was torn away as she skidded backwards, but before she could get away the sunglasses were removed from her face.

“Think you can answer a few questions for us, Rainbow Crash?” asked the police mare. She removed her aviators and replaced them with Rainbow’s pair. “Like where you got these, for example?”

Dash snapped her tail angrily. “Don’t call me that.”

“Or what?” asked a voice from behind her. “You’ll hit an officer of the law?”

The pegasus whirled around and saw the first officer. It began to close the door slowly as magical bands of green fire formed and swirled slowly from the bottom up, shining light down the plain concrete corridor. The bug-like wings appeared first, fluttering about with excitement. Holes in its legs spread wide apart, and its fangs grew down from his upper jaw. Dash shook in disgust as a green mass began covering its eyes and turned away, but saw that the second police mare was going through the same process.

The door closed and the fully transformed changelings looked at each other quizzically.

“Huh. We were hoping you’d cry out for help or something as we left that door open. Then we were gonna pull it closed and laugh at your pitiful attempt to attract attention to us.” The changeling at the door scratched its small horn-like protrusion absentmindedly.

“Then we were going to toss your sunglasses back and forth in a game of keep-away as we grilled you until we found out where you got these.” The other changeling took off the sunglasses and rubbed its eyes. “Man, those things give me a headache,” it grumbled.

Dash grinned wide. “I don’t need to call for help when I can take you chuckleheads on myself.”

The second changeling stuck out its lower lip and its eyes widened. “What’s wong, Dashie-washie? Isn’t fwiendship magic?” It continued to pout as Dash ogled blankly.

“I… uh… what the heck are you talking about?” asked Rainbow. “Why would I be your friend?”

“See? See?!” shouted out the first changeling emphatically. “The first thing out of her mouth is either a threat of violence or something hurtful!” It turned to Dash, closing in swiftly. “Can’t you form a sentence that isn’t mean or intimidating, Rainbow Crash?”

“It’s not a threat, it’s a Celestia-damn promise!” snarled Rainbow, wings raised in anticipation of a brawl. “You and your queen aren’t welcome in this town, or in this kingdom!”

“Oh, but we already are!” the first changeling exclaimed, lifting into the air on its gossamer wings.

“Aaaaa-men! Preach ‘er the truth!” The second changeling pumped a hoof in the air with gusto.

Dash’s eyelids lowered. “Yeah, I know. It’s an expression.”

“Your ignorance and your capacity for hiding it are truly astounding,” said the first changeling. “If you know so much—”

“I never said I did,” butted in Dash.

“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted,” continued the first changeling with a feigned hurt look, “We’ve already made ourselves at home here! We’ve brought business to this community, and we keep the streets clean from trouble-makers such as yourself!”

“Of course,” added the second changeling, “what he means by ‘trouble-makers’ is ‘those who make trouble for us’.”

“And look! You’re all so happy and satisfied! Well, almost all of you.” The first changeling dropped back to the ground and looked Dash in the eye. “You know who I’m talking about, right?”

Rainbow gasped. “You don’t mean… you can’t mean her!“

“We’re talking about Twilight Sparkle!” yelled out the second changeling with annoyance.

“You know,” said the first, “She doesn’t actually have to say it out loud.”

The second changeling fell back onto its haunches. “Oh yeah. Never mind.”

“But that doesn’t make sense! Celestia wouldn’t be in league with…” Dash stopped herself in mid-sentence. She stared at the concrete floor with wide eyes as the changelings looked on.

“And there’s the epiphany,” said the second changeling. “You’re right; she didn’t have to say anything at all. It’s actually more fun this way.”

“Isn’t it just lovely?” asked the first changeling, holding a hoof over its mouth. “Ha! Get it? Lovely? Love-ly?”

Dash barely heard them burst into uproarious, derisive laughter. She wasn’t even aware of the concrete. Twilight’s face was all she saw in her mind, and the last words Twilight had said before she was arrested echoed again and again.

“It was a warning,” Rainbow whispered. “She tried to tell us… ‘You’re no princess of mine’ was a warning…”

“What’s that?” asked the second changeling, hoof to its ear. “Speak up, we want to hear every detail of your breakdown and suffering!”

Dash clenched her jaw tight, spun around on her front hoof and bucked the second changeling in the stomach. It wheezed as it hit the wall and slid down it while Rainbow tackled the first changeling, then pinned its arms to the sides. It strained under the pegasus’ strong hold, trying to reach the gold watch on its arm, but it was too far away. Rainbow smiled big and raised her head up, preparing to head-butt its lights out.

“Wait! Wait!” screamed the changeling. “You can’t do this! If you hurt us, you’ll have a whole army on your tail! You can’t fight us all off!”

Dash paused for a second. “You mean you freaks weren’t already after me?” Her voice squeaked as if punctuating the question.

“What? No,” said the changeling. “What gave you that idea?”

“Nobody knows?”

“Nobody knows what?”

“Nobody knows I broke into Twilight’s house and looked for—“

“Ah-HA! You’ve been tampering with evidence!” The changeling giggled frantically and glowered into Dash’s shocked face. “These watches have been recording our conversation since we caught you, Rainbow Crash! Now you and your friends will really get it if you don’t surrender, you aging nag!”

Rainbow smirked and closed her eyes, but didn’t loosen her grip.

“Didn’t you hear what I said? I said you’re screwed! Now let me go or you’re dead meat!” shouted the changeling, with some panic in its voice.

“I guess I just gotta rescue Twilight first, don’t I?” thought Dash aloud.

The changeling suddenly snarled. “Too late, pony!”

Rainbow heard a crackling sound from behind her and turned her head to look. The second changeling was raised up on a front leg, straining to keep its body straight. There was a bright green glow around its horn, and it extended to a silver snub-nosed revolver floating in the air. The hammer pulled back. Reacting instantly, Rainbow grabbed the changeling she had beneath her and pulled it up. It screamed in shock as the bullet hit it, and the pegasus felt its body slump to the side. The second changeling gasped and pulled the hammer a second time, rotating the chamber once.

Dash’s eyes snapped to a black leather satchel on the back of the first changeling. Her teeth tore it open and her eyes widened as she pulled out a shotgun with a wooden stock. Her jaw grasped it by the pump and she ripped it from the case, tossing the body away as she hurled herself to the side just as the second changeling fired again, hitting the wall where she once had been.

The pegasus skidded to a halt and violently shook her head, using the momentum of her swing to pump the shotgun. She jammed her hoof into the large trigger guard and slammed it back as the changeling screamed and pulled the hammer a third time. Rainbow winced as the shotgun bucked, shooting pain through her neck and forcing her to drop the weapon

She stood there and panted in exhaustion with her eyes closed for some time. Eventually she came to realize that she was still alive, and relief washed over her in an awesome wave. Then it hit her that being alive meant she was the victor. With much effort, she picked up the shotgun in her mouth once more and made her way to the body of the second changeling, trying not to look at how it had landed on the floor or where she had hit it.

The pegasus closed her eyes again and pulled off its belt, then reached about blindly for the revolver. Once she had acquired both, she went in the direction of the first changeling. Dash knelt down and felt around for the sunglasses it had taken from her earlier. She felt something wet on her hoof, and opened her eyes. Teal blood was smeared across it, and she quickly shut her eyes again, pretending she never saw it. Dash reached out once more and found the glasses, then set about the task of getting the shotgun’s satchel removed from the changeling’s body.

Once she had finished the repugnant task of looting their corpses, she stood up and immediately turned away to open her eyes again. The fluorescent lights blinded her for a moment, but Dash recovered quickly. She fastened the belt to her own waist and under her wings, making sure that the holster wasn’t in the way of her ability to close them. She then swung the satchel over her back, checking that it didn’t hinder her movement. Suddenly she saw the teal blood smeared over her hoof, and grimaced.

“So,” she said, gazing at her stained coat, “you geldings die just like we do.”

Without looking behind, she broke into a canter and sped down the hallway. Her hooves clopped against the concrete, echoing up and down the corridor. It diverged to an offshoot on the right, and she took it without thinking. The lights above flickered a little, darkening her path for a moment, but as the hallway was empty and clear of obstructions, she didn’t falter or stumble. When they flicked back on, Dash noticed that the walls now had three lines painted on the concrete: red, blue, and green. They stretched on before her, and then went diagonally downwards until they ran before her on the floor. Up ahead the passageway and lines diverted; this time straight forward was red, to the left was green, and to the right was blue.

“What the hay,” said Dash, “green means ‘go’!”

Rainbow turned the corner, using her wing as a counterbalance, and sped off to the left. It went on and on, and as she went further, she went through areas devoid of any light but had no options to turn in other directions. The green line continued to run forward.

After a long time running through a particularly lengthy dark section, Dash saw a light ahead. As she neared it, she slowed to a stop. Here was where the hallway ended, at a metal door with a push bar and a big glowing sign above that said “EXIT.”

She shrugged, put a hoof to the bar, opened the door and walked through.

The light here was much brighter than the sporadic fluorescent bulbs from the maintenance passageway. Rainbow shielded her eyes and wondered if she had made it outside, so she unfolded her sunglasses and placed them on her face. Figuring that she could see now, she brought her hoof down again and looked about properly.

Ponies were standing in lines clearly marked out by red velvet ropes, leading up to a brown marble counter. Some of these velvet ropes blockaded staircases leading up to a second floor with short walls accented in wood around the sides, and the lights attached to the ceiling were bright enough to illuminate both floors.

Suddenly one of the ponies in line looked over and his jaw dropped. He tapped his neighbor in line, who did a double-take and gulped in shock. Very quickly, everypony fixated on Rainbow standing in the corner, framed by a pair of fake decorative plants and the words “FIRST MANEHATTAN BANK” in gold lettering on the wall behind her.

Rainbow looked around at the crowd. She saw a black curved horn here, a translucent wing there, and many watches stretched over cavity-filled hooves. The pegasus narrowed her eyes, and in one fluid movement undid the snap on the satchel on her back and removed the shotgun with her mouth. Ponies and changelings alike faintly stammered swears or stepped back a pace in dread.

“I’m here to eat hay and kick flanks, and I’m all out of hay.”

4 - The Weakest Link

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The second of frozen terror boiled over fast. Patrons scattered as they saw Dash fire off a shot at a businesspony, but the vigilante smiled as she saw its bug-like eyes widen in shock from behind her sunglasses. With a snap of her neck and a twirl, the shotgun ejected a shell. Her tail drifted behind her as a lazy counterpoint to her assault. Rainbow planted her hooves hard as she saw another changeling dive for a large fake potted plant. Another round shattered the ceramic vessel and the impostor was sprawled flat against the wall, just as the alarm began to ring out through the bank.

An officer-changeling behind the teller’s counter peeked over, pistol floating beside his head via magic. Rainbow pushed herself to the right as a bullet whizzed through her mane, and she slid into the safety of the check-writing desk. The pegasus grunted and reinserted the shotgun into her satchel. When Rainbow attempted to sneak a look from the left, the officer-changeling fired again, then two more times. It didn’t see when Dash slid out from the right with her revolver in her mouth, and it didn’t know it had been shot until it was too late.

“Blue pegasus! Rainbow hair, female, armed!” Another suited changeling was huddled in a corner, speaking into his watch and glancing up at Rainbow. The vigilante snarled and lifted her revolver right at its forehead.

“Drop the watch or eat lead!”

The changeling stayed still.

“I said drop the watch, motherbucker!”

The wall behind the changeling was peppered with buckshot as it vanished in a flash of light. Rainbow Dash barely noticed her voice turn raw as she screamed in fury. Her stomping hooves cracked the marble tiles, and she flew up to the ceiling for a better vantage point. While most of the patrons had evacuated and left their personal effects behind, there were still a few cowering behind the teller’s counter, yet Dash was unable to tell whether they were changelings from that distance. Some gasped, some muttered prayers, and a couple ran for their lives.

Sirens screamed out over the alarm bells. Dash could see a pair of black and white police carriages screech to a halt outside the glass doors. She snorted, dropped to the ground, and darted back through the emergency exit she came from, just as a group of officers burst inside.

Rainbow ripped off her sunglasses and clipped them to the strap of the satchel. Her eyes did not immediately adjust to the dark, but she knew that the path was straight for a while. The way back was still quicker than she expected, and she soon found herself at the three-way fork. The pegasus scratched her head for a moment until she heard the sound of hoofbeats coming from along the green-lined hallway. There was no time to deliberate over which way to turn, so she arbitrarily picked the right corridor with the blue line.

It was a shorter passage than the green path, and Rainbow exhaled in relief when she came to the door. Gently she pushed it open, and she peeked around the side. It was an alleyway outside, full of trashbins and graffiti. Daring to expose herself further, she stuck her head out, seeing the mall in the distance far to the left and more of Manehattan to the right. With no cops in view, Rainbow strode out and dropped herself onto an abandoned couch. It was dirty and a few springs were poking through the tattered cloth upholstery, but she didn’t mind at all. Lying back, she stared at the sky, an unobstructed view for the first time since she had entered the city.

“Hey, I still don’t know where Manehattan Correctional Facility is!” she shouted out, kicking at the armrest of the couch. Her hooves thrust through the fabric, and the pony groaned as she tried to remove them.

“Great! Just freaking great! I can’t believe this!”

“I can’t believe this!” said Rarity, stamping a hoof on the wooden platform.

The three friends had felt the same panic and adrenaline-filled determination the moment they had seen the feather. There was a moment of deliberation as to what to do next, but the general consensus was that Rainbow Dash was most likely about to escape Ponyville. No time was wasted after that. It was a brutal and extensive run to the train station at the edge of town, punctuated by brief glances at the clock tower. But by the time they reached the station, nine o’clock had come and gone, and so had the train. They spent a few minutes there, shuffling awkwardly and inwardly brooding.

“Maybe she went back to the cottage,” Fluttershy offered, but with the waver in her voice, it was clear she had no strong conviction in the possibility.

Rarity turned on Fluttershy swiftly, mane whipping around inches in front of the startled pegasus’ face. “Rainbow Dash wouldn’t do something as level-headed as that!”

“Girls, calm down!” yelled Pinkie, a few feet ahead of them. “Sure, we’re behind, but the race isn’t over yet! Look!” She pointed a hoof at the ticket booth, where a graying pony was opening the shutters over the window. In seconds, the mares had lined up, with Pinkie first in line.

“One ticket for the soonest train you’ve got, mister!” said Pinkie enthusiastically as she plunked down some bits. “We’re on a rescue mission, and there’s no time to spare!”

“How can she say that so spryly?” wondered Fluttershy aloud. Rarity nodded, one eyebrow raised in wonder of yet another new way Pinkie Pie could surprise them. However, the ticket pony’s expression remained flat and unchanged.

“You’ll have to wait, miss. The next train’s at eleven. Next, please.”

“You think we’ll catch up to her at all?” asked Fluttershy, with a slight sense of renewed hope.

Rarity paused a moment. “Well, I don’t want to be negative about our chance here…” she mused.

Pinkie Pie walked back on the other side of the line, ticket clutched firmly in her mouth. “I think we can– ” she said, but the ticket fell out of her mouth, and she bent down to pick it up. “We can do it if—pony feathers—” She went to grab it again, but stopped herself. “We can do it if we try!” Pinkie grinned as she retrieved the ticket successfully, and then bounded over to a nearby bench. She was soon joined by the others once they had bought their own tickets, and they plopped down beside her in relief. Rarity gently removed the tickets from Fluttershy & Pinkie’s mouths with her telekinetic skills and gathered them together.

There was a brief minute of silence. Pinkie Pie stared at the tracks with anticipation. “Does anypony know what time it is?” she asked.

Rarity scanned her eyes over her hooves and then exhaled sharply in irritation. “The one day I forget to bring a watch with me and somepony asks what time it is.” She stretched out her legs and attempted to get up, but immediately collapsed back onto the bench.

“Girls,” said Rarity, “I’m too tired to get up right now.”

“Me too,” whispered Fluttershy. “My wings ache and I haven’t flown at all today.”

“Can I say ‘me three,’ or is that gag played out?” asked Pinkie.

Time wore on. The station, usually bustling with ponies, was mostly quiet, with the exception of the occasional passing Canterlot guard. The mares initially talked about them and the recent happenings for a while, but when the conversation grew stale and depressing, they moved on to general water-cooler chat. Eventually they just fell silent and closed their eyes to rest. A few whistling sounds echoed in the stillness, but all three of the mares barely noticed it.

“Mmmf.” Fluttershy batted her hoof in front of her face. “Please stop poking me.”

“I would, sugarcube, but I really wanted to say ‘hi’ to y’all,” said a voice.

Rarity looked up, blurry-eyed. “I’m sorry, did you just say—“

“APPLEJACK!” screamed Pinkie Pie, leaping from the bench and tackling the orange pony standing in front of them. Rarity and Fluttershy followed suit with equal enthusiasm, and the four mares giggled, caught in a hug long overdue.

“Where have you been?” asked Rarity, attempting to catch her breath. “I’m sure you told us, but I mean, you know what’s happened to Twilight, right?”

Applejack frowned, and everybody backed away slightly. “I’ve been at an orchard farming convention in Manehattan for the last couple days. It’s alright, though; I wouldn’t expect y’all to remember under such duress. When I heard the news I went right to the train station, but they halted all the trains comin’ into Ponyville. This was the earliest one I could take.”

“And we’re going to take it right back!” said Pinkie, bouncing past the rest of the group and onto the train.

Applejack made a noise of annoyance and turned to grab her tail, but Fluttershy held out a hoof. The orange earth pony raised an eyebrow at her friend’s sudden relative brashness and then looked to Rarity, who was already boarding the train. The unicorn turned around.

“No, no, she’s right.” Rarity hesitated for a moment. “Fluttershy, would you kindly buy AJ a ticket back to Manehattan? I’ll go find our seats.”

Fluttershy nodded, and trotted off to the ticket booth with one very confused Applejack in tow. Now there was a slight line, and it seemed there were fewer guards around as well. The pair slid in at the back of the queue and awaited their turn.
Applejack whistled low. “There sure are a lot of Canterlot soldiers around here, aren’t they?”

“Oh, it’s not that bad. There were more here earlier, really,” said Fluttershy.

“You’re kidding? They stuck around this long after…” Applejack brought her voice down to a whisper. “…After Twilight was arrested?”

“Well, a little more happened,” said Fluttershy, also quieting down. “There’s a teensy-weensy chance that…” Fluttershy turned away. “I don’t think I want to talk about this right now, Applejack.”

“Come on, sugarcube, you can say it. You know you can tell me anything, right?”

“There’s an itty-bitty likelihood that Rainbow Dash went after Twilight.”

“’Scuse me?” Applejack perked up an ear.

"Rainbow Dash went after Twilight.”

“Shy, you gotta speak up so I can hear you.”

“Rainbow Dash went after Twilight!”

“WHAT?” yelled out Applejack. Most of the train station turned to look towards her, but Fluttershy turned the opposite direction, her face reddening in embarrassment.

“AJ, ponies are looking,” she whispered.

The earth pony whinnied and snorted, stamping the ground irritably. “And ah just don’t care! How could she have done something like that? We’ve gotta get her back, right now!”

“That’s what we’re doing, Applejack.” Fluttershy pawed at the ground and shrunk behind her friend. “Now, please, please stop. It’s not good for anypony to hear about this.”

“Excuse me?” a gravelly voice asked from behind. The pegasus froze up and emitted a barely audible squeal, but Applejack turned around immediately. The voice had come from a gruff-looking earth stallion standing along with them. He was clad in a brown tweed suit, and his reddish mane was swept to one side as if he had only taken a single brush at it. The stallion opened up a thin black wallet in his mouth to reveal a badge and identification card.

“My name’s Inspector Callahoof, and I’m in charge of investigations in Ponyville. Do you mind—“

“Howdy, Inspector! Boy, it’s one heckuva rush hour, isn’t it?” Applejack grabbed ahold of Callahoof’s hoof and shook it vigorously as she grinned wide. “Nice ta meet’cha, you bet’cha!”

Callahoof’s face was an absolute blank slate as his hoof was waved about forcefully. “Do you have the time for a few questions?”

Applejack’s grip on the officer’s hoof tightened, and so did her smile. Disarming ponies with openness was something that came naturally to her, but it had yet to affect the inspector. She dropped his hoof and adopted a casual stance, with both right legs crossed over the left ones. “Shoot, Inspector! We’ve got the time,” she asserted.

Callahoof made a strange jerking motion with his hoof towards the inside of his coat pocket but stopped himself. “Wait, we? Who’s ‘we’?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Fluttershy involuntarily squealed a little louder. She whipped her head forward, covering her face with her extra-long mane. Applejack gently rubbed the top of the pegasus’ head. “Sorry, you mustn’t have noticed her. She’s real timid, sir. Don’t worry about it.”

The line began to move but Fluttershy stayed in place. Callahoof looked on as the cowpony tugged gently on her friend’s mane, dragging her forwards bit by bit. Fluttershy’s hooves did not move at all, but she made a faint high-pitched noise with every pull.

Applejack spat pink hairs out. “My stars, I really didn’t think that would be difficult. Again, I’m mighty sorry.”
“I frequently have that effect on the fillies,” said Callahoof, brushing his mane back.

“No way in Tartarus, you nut.” Applejack dug out one more hair from between her teeth. “So what didja wanna know? Like I said, we’re in no hurry.”

Callahoof cleared his throat. “For starters, the two of you are part of the Elements of Harmony, am I right?”

“Seems like it,” said Applejack. “I’m Honesty and she’s Kindness.”

“Then you could probably tell me a few things about Twilight Sparkle.” Callahoof’s voice was a little terser than before.

“Purple unicorn, ridiculously brainy, Element of Magic- gimme a second—” Applejack dragged Fluttershy up again much the same as before. They were now at the front of the line and the ticket pony stared through the glass at them.

“C’mon, Shy, you gotta move now.” AJ smiled. “This Callahoof character can’t be good news, but we can deal with him.”

Fluttershy nodded gently and plinked a small stack of coins onto the ticket window’s ledge. A ticket was passed under the glass. She grabbed it in her mouth, and the two friends made their way to the train with Callahoof close behind.

“Right, right, that matches her description. She lives in town, right?” Callahoof trotted ahead of the mares, blocking their path.

Fluttershy strode forward. “Excuse me, sir… can I ask you something first?”

Callahoof was taken aback. “Well, I-I suppose—“

“Are we being detained?” The pegasus inhaled and looked Callahoof directly in his eyes. Applejack raised a hoof in protest but Fluttershy brushed it away.

“Now see here, pal,” said Callahoof, stepping closer. “I’m just trying to get to the bottom—“

“Are we being detained, sir?” Fluttershy did not back off, but Applejack saw her wing twitch.

Callahoof snorted loudly. “I just want to know if you know who Twilight Sparkle is.”

Suddenly, a loud and dramatic gasp emanated from the train car. A conductor stallion was flung out the doors and Rarity burst through. Holding a handkerchief to her muzzle, she darted towards Callahoof, weeping openly and at a high volume. Applejack and Fluttershy’s ensuing eye rolls went unnoticed.

“Twilight? Twilight?” sobbed Rarity as streams of eyeliner ran down her face. “We’ve been absolutely devastated! Have you seen her, sir? Is she alright, sir?” She blew into the handkerchief again, raised her hoof high into the air, and daintily flicked it into a nearby trash can. It landed with a gushy splat.

Callahoof bit his lip forcefully and stared down at the ground. Rarity sniffled audibly, and the inspector made what sounded like a muffled scream. Finally he looked back up at the unicorn. “Thank you very much for your concern,” he said blandly, as if reading off a form letter. “As per department regulations, I must question you in regards to this investigation. Your cooperation is appreciated.”

“We’re glad to be of service, mister.” Applejack put on her widest smile. “So what were you saying?”
Callahoof coughed. “Well, I’ve been in Ponyville since this morning, and we had something of an incident happen. Looks like somepony tried to rob the local library. I’m told that Twilight Sparkle was staying there by order of the Princess herself, up until last night of course.”

“Twi-Twi-hi-hi-light’s home was ra-hai-hai-aided?” Rarity blubbered, and more tears welled up in her eyes as she pouted. Callahoof didn’t see her kick at Fluttershy, who winced, then turned it into a pained and concerned expression. Applejack shook her head and covered her face with her hat.

“Need another, Rarity?” Pinkie Pie was standing next to the unicorn with a box of tissues. Rarity barely acknowledged her as she pulled one out with her magic and dabbed at her eyes. It was soaked in seconds.

“Wait a moment, pal!” shouted Callahoof. “Who’re you and how’d you get here?”

“I’m Pinkie Pie! And well, I guess it all started when my parents decided they wanted to have another child. You see, when a stallion and a mare love each other very much, they—“

“I think we can spare him that story, Pinkie.” AJ had lifted her hat off again. “So was anything taken or damaged at the library?”

“That’s classified information, sorry. But seeing as how you’re all her friends, I thought somepony would know a thing or two.” Callahoof looked over them all quizzically. The friends shook their heads.

“Not me!” said Pinkie, just a tad too bubbly for the occasion.

“Gosh, it’s so awful,” said Fluttershy, scratching at the dirt with a hoof.

“Let us know when you catch the creep that did it!” Applejack snorted. “That low-down, dirty sneak thief can’t run from the law.”

Rarity just bawled again, and buried her face in the entire box of tissues.

The stallion stood up straight with an officious manner. “Of course, I’ll keep you all very well informed. But, you know, something’s felt off this whole time.” Suddenly Callahoof grinned wide. “Oh, I know what it is! Where’s Rainbow Dash?”

Rarity inhaled sharply and her lower lip quivered. “Rainbow Dash?”

“No! No you don’t!” barked the inspector. The unicorn shrunk back, more than a little perturbed.

Callahoof stroked the stubble on his chin. “That’s better. Now then, I know you know where Dash is. You were all seen with her last night, and she has been gone since the morning. What do you say to that?” He looked over their faces, taut and unchanging. There wasn’t a response this time.

“I see. I get it. That’s touching, really. But I already know where she is, where she was, and where she’s going, okay? Even though none of you are piping up, my guess is that all of you do too.” Callahoof pointed to Fluttershy. “You saw the letter from the Princess, correct? Don’t answer, that was rhetorical. It was on your door, of course you saw. I hope you read it carefully, because it was very clear about the consequences for defying Her Majesty.”

The inspector shrugged. “Sure, none of you have done anything wrong. But if I have to detain Equestria’s heroes until they spill the beans, that’s fine by me. I shouldn’t have to, of course. You’re all fine and upstanding citizens, and the Princess rewards cooperation.” He turned around and trotted off in the direction of town, but paused and looked back. “You can find me at the library if you change your minds. Of course, you still can’t actually enter.”

All of the friends watched the stallion leave, tense and silent. They stayed that way for some time until suddenly the train’s whistle blew, and the ponies calmly filed into the open car. Wordlessly they found their seats and dropped into them. The car rumbled, a bell clanged, and the train began to slowly chug forwards.

Applejack leaned forward in her seat. “This is just too much, y’all. I know the Princess said we could visit, but shucks! Now that Rainbow Dash has gone M.I.A., I think we’re in for some trouble.”

“You can say that again,” said Fluttershy, who was looking out the window as trees rolled by. “I was doing my best to be brave, but if that inspector said we were being arrested, I don’t know what I would have done.”

“You had me convinced!” Pinkie looked over at Fluttershy and offered a high-hoof, which Fluttershy gladly returned.

“Did any of you know that Rainbow busted into Twilight’s house?” asked Applejack.

Rarity nodded. “We all did. When we noticed Rainbow was gone, we went over there to check. It seems the police have found one of her feathers, too.”

Applejack fell back into the seat cushion and closed her eyes. The hat slid over her face. “Girls, what are we going to do? I care about Dash as much as anypony here, and we’ve got to do this. But everything about this is just so strange.”

Pinkie’s ears perked up. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” said Applejack, looking up at the ceiling in thought, “We’re all Celestia’s pupils, right? We’ve sent letters of our own to her for quite some time now, and we’ve been invited to Canterlot for the Grand Galloping Gala.” The mare leaned forward again. “So why is the Princess being heavy-hoofed about this instead of trying to talk with us and hash things out properly?”

Rarity’s eyebrows rose. “She should have spoken with Twilight in person before arresting her, too! This is the second time that she’s acted strange.”

“I don’t think that Twilight would have wanted to talk in the first place,” mentioned Fluttershy, now focused fully on the group. “It didn’t sound like she trusted the Princess at all anymore.”

Pinkie dropped one hoof into another with decisiveness. “Twilight must have seen Princess Celestia do something even stranger! She might even have noticed some kind of pattern in this!”

“Exactly, but now this makes everything complicated.” Applejack cocked her head to the side. “We’re not just going to have to talk with Twilight Sparkle. In fact, I think she’s been right all along, and somehow I don’t see the Princess letting her walk away from this.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked Rarity pointedly.

“That maybe you should part your hair to the other side, just to see how it looks?” responded Pinkie. The group of friends shared in a brief giggle.

“Well, besides that, Pinkie. But how are we going to help Twilight escape, find Rainbow Dash, and get to the bottom of all this?” said Rarity.

“Well, Twilight should know everything that’s going on. In fact, I would be really surprised if she didn’t have a plan.” Fluttershy stretched out a leg. “We’ll know what to do next when we find her.”

Applejack spoke up. “I think I know where the prison is, too. I took a sight-seeing tour around the city before the convention opened up, and they passed right by it. Wasn’t mentioned in the tour, of course, but I was looking out the window.”

“And you know what? We’ll probably find Rainbow Dash on the way there. I mean, it’s why she’s in Manehattan and all.” Pinkie nodded spryly.

“Then it’s settled!” said Applejack with a determined grin. “We can’t stand by and let our friends be put through all this!”

“Mm-hmm!” went Pinkie Pie in a high tone, and her mane bobbed in unison. “We have to keep our chins up! Sure, it’s harder right now, but that makes it even more important!”

The unicorn sat up straighter. “Don’t forget, darling, we’re taking a huge risk with this. We’ve been given an ultimatum, and we’re choosing to ignore it. But Rainbow Dash is putting herself in danger for Twilight, and I know both of them would do the same for any of us!”

“We’re doing the right thing, I’m sure of it.” said Fluttershy. “If we backed off because we were being bullied around by that Inspector, we’d be ashamed of ourselves.”

The four friends each stuck a hoof out and placed them one by one on top of each other as a stack. They smiled at each other, full of confidence and renewed resolve.

“One, two, three… friendship!”

“Twilight Sparkle, there is no sleeping in class.”

The unicorn opened her eyes ever so slowly. She was lying flat on a solid, dark green surface, and there was a prickling sensation where her muzzle was squished against it. With much effort, the unicorn turned her head to the right, where she perceived the voice was coming from. The movement made her head pound and she closed her eyes, wincing.

“I’m assigning you a research paper on gravity. First, have a practical demonstration.”

The unicorn felt herself leave the surface in a jerking motion and she opened her eyes with shock. It was a large, floating, translucent cube, and outside the walls of the cube was a cobblestone room. She noted a few items: a small barred window on the wall, a large control panel covered with lights and buttons, and a white pony behind the controls. Twilight sparked her horn in preparation to teleport, but it fizzled out immediately and she slammed down into the cube’s wall. The impact stung harder than before, and Twilight got up on her hooves immediately, rubbing her snout with a foreleg.

“Princess... wait, no.” Twilight shook her head vigorously, attempting to clear the throbbing in her head and the burning on her face. “I know who you are.”

“Very good, my little pony!” Not-Celestia’s mane waved dramatically, as if on cue. “That’s worth five extra credit points. It’s a shame it won’t help you, though, as your behavior in class has been reprehensible and your baking soda volcano science project is overdue. Perhaps you’ll think twice before talking back to your teacher or slacking off.”
Twilight stepped forward. “Let me guess. I’m in Manehattan Correctional Facility.”

“It’s just one question after another with you, isn’t it? Geographical knowledge notwithstanding, I’ll make you wear a dunce cap if you interrupt my lesson again.”

Twilight felt herself recoil internally at the insult, but she held her composure. “Just change already. I’m sure you have a long, gloating monologue for me.”

“If you insist, but I’ll be seeing you after class.” The counterfeit Celestia strode out from behind the control panel majestically, blew on a hoof, and polished it on her coat. With a grin, she leaped into the air and slammed back down again on all fours. Upon impact, a circle of green flames spread around her, starting from the front and working its way behind from both sides. As the small fire walls touched, a pillar of energy erupted and shot up to the ceiling. Gossamer wings sprouted, and a jagged horn rose high from her skull as her body faded to black, starting from her hooves. The tail and mane darkened to blue, and gaping holes grew in her forelegs. Her eyes went from blue to green with a dramatic closing and re-opening of her eyes.

The pillar and the flames dissipated. Queen Chrysalis stood erect and proud.

“It’s not as striking when you’ve seen it before,” mused Twilight.

“Hmpf. Aren’t you special,” cried Chrysalis. Her voice echoed and filled the room. “But look who’s imprisoned, and who’s on top! I’m queen of the changelings and queen of Equestria!”

Twilight groaned and rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, yes, I know and I get it. Can we skip to the part where I ask you questions and you answer because you’re secure in your belief that I can’t escape?”

“Very well.” Chrysalis flourished a hoof around in circles. A pair of changelings came out from a side room with a red chaise lounge on their backs. They slid it forwards onto the floor, and with a smart salute, left the way they came. The queen smirked and gracefully laid herself on her side. She kicked her legs out and around for a moment, and then stretched them out along the length of the sofa.

Twilight thought for a moment. She had not expected Chrysalis to actually agree to speak. The statement was meant to be insulting and a general jab at cliché villains in media, thereby implying that the queen was no better than a fictional character. The unicorn reasoned that either Chrysalis had some ulterior motive or she was denser than she looked. The simpler possibility couldn’t be reached logically following Occam’s razor, as the queen had shown many signs of intelligence before.

“I’m waiting,” said Chrysalis impatiently.

“Well, alright then. So,” began Twilight as she tapped a hoof at the inside of the cube, “What’s this prison for? Don’t you usually use those…?” The unicorn paused and shuddered slightly. “Those cocoon things? Why am I in this instead?”

Chrysalis rolled onto her back. “Can’t have too many precautions, you know. This magical cube is more resistant to magic than my usual chrysalises. They might be something of a trademark for me, but hey, look what I can do now!” Her horn glowed and a lever was pulled on the console. The cube spun around, and Twilight ran to try to stay on the bottom. Suddenly the queen released her magical hold on the lever, and Twilight bounced about inside the cube like a ball of rubber bands. Chrysalis shook with mirth, wiping away involuntary tears.

Twilight stopped recoiling off the walls and came to a hard stop at the bottom. She struggled to lift herself up again, and winced as she accidentally touched a bruise. “Will you stop it?!” she yelled. “This isn’t funny!”

“Of course it is! It’s even better than Canterlot’s crystal caves! You just don’t have a sense of humor, Night-light.” The changeling leader pouted at the unicorn. “Think of it from my perspective, can’t you? I’ve finally beaten my greatest adversary! Sure, I can beat that high and mighty sun goddess with ease. But why couldn’t I take care of you?” She looked over at Twilight, who was shaking her head in disbelief.

“I hope that question was rhetorical.”

Chrysalis pointed a hoof with gusto. “Of course it was! The answer is in your elements. If one is gone, the rest are utterly useless. A puzzle requires all the pieces.”

Twilight mulled over the last few sentences from her jailor. It had led her to two more inquiries. “Well, you just said that you can defeat Celestia. If you’re in power, then that must mean you’ve done it again. How’d you do it a second time?” Twilight raised an eyebrow.

“Ah,” went Chrysalis, and she stroked her chin thoughtfully. “A great magician never reveals her secrets. But I suppose I can tell you this: it wasn’t done twice.”

Twilight grumbled. The changeling queen was not about to give up all of her secrets. This was just a way to rub the failure in harder. She made a mental note to herself to trust Occam’s razor more faithfully in the future.

“Fine. I suppose you won’t tell me where my tiara is, either.” The unicorn turned away.

Chrysalis gasped, and her eyes widened in shock. “Now why would you think that?” The queen sneered. “Oh, right. You figure I’m just here to lower your morale.”

“You’d be correct.” Twilight rolled her eyes. “Looks like you’re a victim of all the standard antagonist tropes.”

Chrysalis clapped her front hooves together. The changelings from before (or so Twilight guessed, as they all looked the same to her) re-entered the room. The queen didn’t get up from the couch, though. Undaunted, the changelings attempted to push, lift, and drag the sofa anyway. Chrysalis snickered mockingly when they soon gave up, panting and sweating. She pointed to the door and her subordinates trotted off slowly. Once they were gone, Chrysalis removed herself from the furniture, and without looking back, gave it a zap from her horn. The chaise lounge detonated with a small mushroom cloud, which startled Twilight enough to spin around.

“Well, that’s enough fun for me. Pleasure may come before business, but you can’t let work stay incomplete. I’m definitely here to make your life miserable, but I’m also here to uncover who your fellow conspirators are. By force, if I have to.” The queen blew a stray mane strand out of her face. “Well, with force, because I want to.”

Twilight felt like dancing but she kept herself still and poised. This was precisely the best case scenario she was hoping for. It was now all in the delivery. With the right words she could turn the tables on Chrysalis and take the fight out of her. She knew that the queen would retaliate, but Twilight felt strangely glad about the possibility. It was better her than anypony else, she rationalized.

“Very well, you overgrown beetle! But it’s a waste of your time, Queen Viciousness!” The unicorn braced for another spin of the cube, but nothing happened. Instead, Chrysalis merely stared and raised an eyebrow.

“Was that the only rhyme you could think of?” the gangly changeling asked. “That wasn’t even the slightest bit insulting. It was actually kind of cool.”

Twilight stammered. “N-n-no way, Queen… uh… Photosynthesis!”

Her adversary slapped a hoof over her own face. It would have been more effective if the queen didn’t have holes going through them. “That’s the best you can do? Your weird pink friend’s random humor is better by miles. Don’t quit your day job, alright?”

“Well, there are only two more words that rhyme, okay? One of them is ‘dissonance’ and that makes even less sense, and the last one’s a medical term, but I’m not mean-spirited enough to say it!” Twilight’s face was tinted bright red with embarrassment. “I’ll bet you’ve got it, though!”

Queen Chrysalis mused. Suddenly she sputtered. “Oh, you’ll get what’s coming to you for your disrespect, you little brat!” Her mouth foamed as she screamed. “Just you wait!”

“It doesn’t matter!” yelled Twilight defiantly. “You can’t make me talk, and you can’t figure this out on your own! I’ve run this rebellion without any of the Elements of Harmony involved. Didn’t you see the way they reacted during my arrest? They had absolutely no clue!”

Twilight took a deep breath. Chrysalis stayed silent and pensive. When it was apparent the queen wasn’t about to respond, the unicorn continued, a little slowly and thoughtfully. “Maybe I’ve done it single-hoofed, and maybe I haven’t. Maybe you have an idea, or the wrong idea about who to target next. I could have involved family members, or I’ve kept them out of the loop like my friends.” Twilight puffed up her chest with bravado. “You’ll never know until it’s too late, or you’ll wait forever and live out your life in paranoia.”

“On the contrary,” said Chrysalis, dripping with malice, “I know exactly how to find out.”
Twilight snorted. “I know you’ve got holes in your legs, but I didn’t expect you to have a hole in your head. Try me.”

Chrysalis’ horn burst a bolt of energy at the control panel. A wall of the green cube faded solid, and an image was splashed across it, suddenly spreading out from the center with a flash of white light. The image showed what looked like marble tile. A green triangle in the center pointing to the right blinked with a little beeping noise.

“Go on. Touch it.” Chrysalis grinned. “I know you want to.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow and tapped at the triangle. The triangle disappeared and the image of the tile began moving, and the unicorn could hear a faint noise. It sounded much like a crash or a door being slammed open.

The changeling queen strode toward Twilight a few paces. “Our surveillance cameras picked this up a few minutes ago. Care to guess what it is?”

The security video sped up, and the shot was suddenly angled over a group of ponies. Twilight saw a wall with gold lettering that spelled out “FIRST MANEHATTAN BANK”. Suddenly a voice rang out that chilled her to the bone. As the patrons of the bank scattered, Rainbow Dash came into view, disheveled and wild-eyed. Twilight stumbled backwards onto her flank, stuttering softly while she watched Dash unload shot after shot into the crowd.

“Maybe she wasn’t involved, but we now know she broke into your stupid tree library. Maybe you didn’t say a word to her for weeks, but Rainbow Dash wanted answers. Perhaps she found the truth, but discovered she just needed an excuse for revenge.” Chrysalis burst towards the magical cube in a flash and laughed mockingly. The unicorn gasped, scooting herself backward to the far wall of the cube.

“See, you little poindexter? You couldn’t keep your friends from nosing about in your little schemes!” Twilight could see the flames in her eyes burn, and she squinted to block out the sight but the changeling queen’s visage was etched into her mind. “I know there’s no way she found out on her own. That rainbow freak isn’t clever, just hard-headed and stubborn. Somepony ruined the riddle for her, and we’ll soon know who!”

Twilight thrust herself as close to her adversary as she could, and ignored the burning sensation from her face pushed against the cell wall as she screamed. “Don’t you dare touch a single hair on my friend, you witch! I'm the instigator! You’ve got what you wanted!”

“It doesn’t matter.” Chrysalis closed her eyes. “I don’t even have to lay a hoof on Rainbow Dash. Your precious Elements followed her into Manehattan, and according to my underlings, refused my generous plea bargain.” Chrysalis growled fiercely at the prisoner. “I’ll break them one by one until I find the weakest link!”

5 - Start Eating That Trashcan

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“There’s something I don’t understand,” mused Fluttershy aloud.

“Oooh!” Pinkie Pie bounced up and down in her seat. “Is it why Angel is so resistant to his anger management therapy?”

The ride so far had been moderately uneventful. All four friends had put their heads together and compared what little knowledge they had, but they made absolutely no further headway. All they could tell was that somehow Twilight Sparkle held all the answers. The conversation mostly dried up after that, and even more so when Rarity got up to use the bathroom. Fluttershy’s interjection was a welcome breath of fresh air.

“I don’t think that’s what she meant, sugarcube.” Applejack leaned in very close to the pegasus. “So, what’s on your mind?”

“Well,” began Fluttershy, looking about somewhat nervously, “where is Princess Luna?”

Pinkie Pie’s ears pricked up. “Wow, you’re right! She wasn’t there during Twilight’s arrest. Does that mean she doesn’t agree with Princess Celestia?”

“They probably make major choices like this together, being family and all,” stated the farm mare.

“Then what happened to her?” Fluttershy stared out the window again. “I don’t think Princess Celestia would… you know… I really don’t want to think about that right now.”

“Of course not,” said Applejack comfortingly. “I don’t think she would either.”

The pegasus turned back to the group. “But what you said earlier was right, Applejack! Princess Celestia isn’t acting like herself right now. We can’t tell what she’ll do next.”

“I got it! We’ll ask Twilight when we get to her!” Pinkie squealed slightly, and dropped one hoof into the other in a decisive manner.

“And the list of questions just keeps on growin’,” said Applejack. “But I’ve been thinking about something. I didn’t want to bring it up, but I can’t shake this feeling that we might not be allowed to see Twilight at all.”

Pinkie Pie shuffled awkwardly in her seat. “I know. That mean inspector guy couldn’t pin anything on us, but he probably knows we know about Rainbow Dash.”

“Then what do we do first? If Rainbow is heading to the prison, she’s not going to carefully knock on the door and ask for a visitor’s badge.” The pegasus blew a tuft of her mane out of her face. “She’ll try to tear that place apart with her bare hooves.”

Applejack nodded in agreement. They were all familiar with Rainbow’s short fuse. “We might have to find her first, before she digs herself any deeper. But if we show up to see Twilight and Dash is with us, we'll really be in for it then.”

“Speaking of ponies that aren’t here, where in Equestria is Rarity?” Pinkie turned in her seat and looked down the length of the car. “She may take a while in bathrooms, but this is ridiculous.”

As if on cue, the unicorn slid through the doorway and trotted lightly down the center, with her nose in the air and her mane looking a tad shinier than usual. At first she looked around as if she was lost, but the others smiled and waved congenially, and she immediately made a beeline for them.

“I’m dreadfully sorry about that, girls,” Rarity said as she delicately took her seat next to Applejack. “The line was just massive.”

Suddenly the train’s whistle blew three times. Pinkie Pie gasped, and leaned over Fluttershy to get a better look outside, causing her to wheeze as she was pinned against the seat. “Girls, we’re here!”

The train began to slow down, and it shuddered slightly as the brakes ground against the wheels. Other passengers immediately got up and began filing out of the car, stepping outside into the light. When there was a break in the stream of ponies, the four friends entered the queue and trotted with them. Suddenly they were outside, standing on the concrete platform.

The train had come to a stop underneath a giant metal awning, lifted up on huge iron beams. Benches were lined up between two sets of tracks, and on either side were huge stairways going down to the city streets. All four ponies peered over a railing at the edge. Beneath them they could see taxi carriages rolling along, and massive crowds migrating through crosswalks. Manehattan’s daytime hum was in full swing.

“This is gonna be harder than I thought,” commented Applejack.

“I’ve heard that Manehattan has a lot of different train stations, too.” Fluttershy looked away from the edge, being easily unsettled by heights. “Rainbow Dash could have gotten off at a different point entirely.”

Pinkie Pie had descended halfway, skipping and hopping along as she went. “Then we’ve gotta hurry! This isn’t a game, you know.” The pony continued to make her way down the rest of the staircase by going backwards and counting steps aloud, and the others followed close behind.

The ponies stopped at the bottom, right at an intersection’s corner, but not out of tiredness. A crowd had formed along the street, making it impossible to move forward. They waited there, unsure of what to do next. Suddenly the pack marginally shifted. A taxi rolled up and a passenger entered it, making a minor amount of room for the rest of the herd. Fluttershy audibly sighed in relief as the equine wall surrounding her was alleviated.

“What’s the matter? Can’t you, like, fly over the group?” Rarity pulled her locks back behind her neck and puffed them up with her hoof.

Applejack looked over. “I hope you’re kidding, sugarcube.” There was a tinge of restraint in her voice. “You know she won’t fly if she can help it.”

The unicorn quit messing with her mane and turned away. “Sorry. I suppose I’m just annoyed right now.”

“So am I, but we’ve got to keep it together right now.” The orange mare put her leg around Rarity, who initially jumped at the sudden side hug, but took a deep breath. “Anyway, I figure we can take one of these here taxis to the prison,” continued Applejack. “But what do we do about finding Rainbow?” she said, bringing her voice down to a whisper.

“I know!” responded Rarity. “We should split up. Two of us will look for Rainbow and two of us will visit Twilight.”

Fluttershy sidled in close and kept her voice low. “That should be fine, but we should swap, too. When the two of us that are visiting Twilight are done, they’ll find the two that are with Dash. That way we can all see both of them."

Pinkie Pie was much further ahead than the others. She stood and waited with the surrounding ponies, and watched the first cart pull up with wide-eyed fascination. But when nothing different happened a second time, she lost interest. Instead, the mare grabbed a pony next to her.

“Excuse me,” she trilled, “can I ask you something?”

The other pony was an aquamarine mare with a gold harp cutie mark. She was about to step into a taxi, but when Pinkie stopped her the carriage was subsequently taken and sped away. The potential passenger sharply exhaled and turned to Pinkie. “What is it?” she spat.

Pinkie grinned in an open and friendly manner. It was her go-to method for dealing with grumps, as well as everypony else. “I was just wondering if you’ve seen a friend of mine! She’s a blue pegasus with a rainbow mane. Does that sound familiar?”

The other mare froze. Her drooping saddlebags slid off completely. “Do… do you mean Rainbow Dash?”

“That’s right!” the pink pony exclaimed, nodding vigorously. “I’m looking for Rainbow Dash!”

The street corner suddenly came alive. Ponies screamed in alarm and dove into taxis, cramming themselves in as they took off, their legs kicking around outside the windows. Those with wings soared into the sky, cutting through clouds and blindsiding birds. Everypony else settled for galloping hard in all directions. Whether it was back up the stairs to the train station or down the street, they fled in sheer panic and terror. In mere moments, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Applejack found themselves alone.

“Was it something I said?” asked Pinkie Pie to nopony in particular.

With the crowd dispersed, a row of newspaper dispensers were now able to be seen. Fluttershy casually trotted over for a closer look. Suddenly she stopped and gasped loudly. A sketchy and not very well-defined image of a blue pegasus with rainbow colored hair was plastered across the visible top half of the front page. The pegasus plopped a bit into one and grabbed a copy of the Manehattan Today through the unlocked clear plastic door with her mouth. Seeing this, Rarity sparked up her horn and cast a levitation spell on the paper. Applejack and Pinkie Pie edged in close as the daily periodical was opened. Now that the rest of the photo could be seen, it was clearly an artist’s rendition of Rainbow Dash – in effect, a wanted poster made from a facial composite. The group drew back in shock, but curiosity took hold quick, and they began to read the article silently to themselves.

Mall Melee Becomes Bank Butchery

A pony employed at a Wonderbolt Outlet in Manehattan’s scenic and Equestria-famous mall was violently assaulted this morning. The Manehattan P.D. has now identified the suspect as Rainbow Dash, known member of the Elements of Harmony and wanted in Ponyville on charges of breaking and entering. The pugnacious pegasus then stormed the First Manehattan Bank, and slaughtered five ponies before disappearing.

Eyewitnesses to the initial incident stated that Rainbow Dash managed to shatter the glass of the merchant square prior to bursting into the shop, where she assaulted the door greeter and proceeded to wreck the establishment, citing “defective merchandise” as her reason for damaging property.

“I don’t know what punching me in the face had to do with returning a product,” stated Grape Delight, the unfortunate first injured party of the one-pony violence spree, who is now in the care of Saint Marey’s Hospital. “And none of our items are flawed or imperfect. You can directly check each of our many shirts, hats, mugs, pencil cases, and other Wonderbolts paraphernalia for the Official Seal of Quality.”

Rainbow Dash proceeded to terrorize other staff members before two officers, Lone Star and Brass Badge, captured her. The details are unknown at this time, but somehow the mare managed to escape and steal their weapons. Following her escape, the pegasus blazed a trail of murder, starting with the policeponies.

“Two members of our force were gunned down today in the worst episode of carnage in our fair city since the prohibition of apple cider,” stated Commissioner Hoof Cuffs in a press release held shortly thereafter. “The Manehattan Police Department will not rest until this hero turncoat is dragged through the streets and thrown before Princess Celestia.”

The pegasus ended her warpath at the First Manehattan Bank, breaking in through a service door. Video surveillance captured footage of Rainbow Dash gunning down two innocent bystanders and a security guard, who at this time have not yet been named. Survivors of the tragedy recall the attacker’s focused ferocity and mad mumblings.

“She said something about gum, I think,” commented Tourist Trap, who was caught in the crossfire when she unloaded a shotgun into the crowd. “I have no clue what she meant by that. But when she began firing, she almost had some kind of clarity. It was like she knew which ponies to aim for.”

Although Rainbow Dash’s current location is unknown, sources say that the Manehattan’s full police force is being mobilized to find her. It is believed that she is still somewhere within the city limits. Citizens are encouraged to call 1 (555) 876-4824, or (555) U-SNITCH, if she is sighted.

Through the duration of the reading, the sound was faint at first. A snuffle here or there was audible. As the friends finished, Fluttershy had been reduced to staring at the concrete, her mane draped over her face. Drops spattered against the pavement amidst the cracks and the leftover chewed gum. Then there was a stifled inhaling sob when the yellow pegasus stamped her hoof as hard as she could into the ground, again and again until she couldn’t summon the strength to do it any longer.

Pinkie Pie sat backward, and much like a balloon losing air, her mane deflated flat and droopy. The pony’s ears followed suit. She began biting her lower lip subconsciously as she laid herself down. All of the mare’s legs curled up, and her tail draped over the curb of the sidewalk as she pulled herself into a small and protective ball.

Rarity buried her face deep into her arm. Her horn flickered on and off with magical power, causing her to drop the periodical for a moment, and then it was grabbed again mid-air. The unicorn began to shake and heave silently until she dropped to the ground. As she fell, she finally let go of the newspaper. It fluttered down softly next to her.

Applejack had been glaring the illustration of Rainbow Dash square in the eyes, as if waiting for a response. The earth pony finally broke contact when the newspaper fell and blinked as she stared off into space, entirely unaware of anything around her. She gritted her teeth as she felt herself begin to breathe heavily. Something was rising up from inside her chest. It culminated in an ear-splitting scream that she could barely feel.

Their hooves clopped against the pavement as they got up from the ground, they sniffled away their last tears, and they gathered together in a calming embrace around the fallen newspaper. For a while they continued to not say a word.

Applejack inhaled deep and slow. “I… I say we stick to the plan.”

“There’s no guarantee we can see Twilight now. Are you sure we should do this?” asked Rarity. “And if we’re seen with Rainbow Dash, we’ll most definitely be labeled criminals.”

Pinkie Pie nodded. Her mane was still straight and drooping. “We’re friends.”

“That’s all that matters,” said Fluttershy, faint but with conviction. “Just let them try and stop us.”

A pair of taxi carts slowly pulled up to the curb, the drivers being confused by the lack of a crowd. The friends let go of each other as they heard the turning wheels and turned towards the carriages. It was easy to see that there was only room in each taxi for two passengers.

“I want to go look for Rainbow,” Applejack stated. “I could use your help, Pinkie. Maybe your Pinkie Sense will point us the right way.”

The pink pony shrugged. Her hair was still very straight and limp. “You know I can’t turn it on or off at will, Applejack. But I guess it’s the best idea I’ve heard.”

Rarity and Fluttershy looked at each other and nodded, understanding that this meant they were paired up together to meet Twilight. Silently they all clambered into their respective taxis, which then pulled away and headed into Manehattan. Behind them, a sudden sea of ponies washed into the waiting area. The activity resumed as quickly as it had ceased.

“Well then, where do you fillies want to go?” The stallion pulling the taxi occupied by Applejack and Pinkie Pie was relaxed and trotting along, smoothly weaving his way between fellow carriage drivers. He was somewhat overweight and his mane spilled everywhere from underneath his driver’s cap.

“We’re—well, it’s going to sound mighty strange, but we don’t know yet.” Applejack’s voice warbled slightly.
“No problem! More fare for me, you know what I’m sayin’?” The driver guffawed hard, making the cart vibrate. “But seriously, I’m gonna need an idea of where I’m headed.”

Pinkie Pie spoke up. Her mane was still deflated, and her voice was just as flat. “We’re looking for a friend. I think she might be near the First Manehattan Bank, actually.”

Applejack made a general “hmm” noise of approval. “I guess we’ll try there first, and we’ll let you know if we see her, alright?”
The driver nodded as he slowed down for a stoplight. “The First Manehattan Bank, eh? Well, okay, if ya really want to. But ya heard about what happened there today, right?”

Applejack gulped, and Pinkie Pie let her mane hang over her face, but both grunted noncommittally. It would have looked highly suspicious to the driver, if he wasn’t busy passing through the intersection.

“Crazy stuff, ya know? It’s all over them newspapers. My brother said he talked to that lunatic!” The cabbie snorted. “Ha! That guy’s a chump. I love him, and I wouldn’t say this to his face, but a chump is a chump, if ya catch my drift.”

“So your brother’s lying?” the farm pony asked, as nonchalantly as she could. “What makes you think that?”

“Ah, he said she wasn’t acting crazy or nothin’! I can’t believe that a crazed killer like Rainbow Dash would just go up and talk to him without going bananas, ya know?”

Pinkie Pie nudged Applejack gently, and they both looked at each other in minor relief. It was somehow comforting to them to know that Rainbow Dash had, at least at some point since her escape from Ponyville, been her usual self.

“He’s just sore that I couldn’t get him a gig doing this, so he pretends he sees celebrities at his food stand. Ya know, to make me jealous or somethin’.” The driver merged a lane over. “I think he sells carrot-dogs. Or was it chimichangas?”

Pinkie Pie’s hair re-inflated incredibly fast, like a pink puffer fish made out of cotton candy. “Ooh! Tell him to sell cherry-flavored ones! I thought it up a long time ago but I never tried making them! He could call them cherrychangas, or chimicherries!”

“Or chimicherrychangas, I reckon,” interjected Applejack, quivering from holding back a strong fit of the giggles in spite of recent revelations.

“Cover them in chocolate,” said the driver offhandedly, “and you could call them chocochimicherrychangas.”

“Oooooh, that’s a good one—ouch!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, grabbing a foreleg with a hoof and massaging it gently. Her opposite hind leg suddenly kicked out and bumped into the front of the cart, startling the driver.

“Hey! What’s going on back there?” the cabbie asked with some audible annoyance.

“Nothing, sir!” said Applejack a little too loudly. “Everything’s fine!”

The driver, clearly placated, continued on. “Ah, never mind. So anyway, what would it be called if something else was added to it? It’s gotta start with a C…”

Applejack turned to Pinkie Pie and began whispering hurriedly, using her cowpony hat as a means to muffle the conversation. “Was that your Pinkie Sense? What did that mean?”

Pinkie Pie stopped rubbing her knee. “Well,” she breathed, “the pinchy knee means something scary, but I don’t know about the single leg twitching. And nothing’s happened to us yet…”

“So if it’s not about to happen to us, then who?” responded Applejack. “It could be Twilight, Rainbow Dash, or Rarity and Fluttershy, right?”

Pinkie nodded. “Right!” She turned to look out and behind the cart, and then turned back. “If it’s happening to Twilight, then Rarity and Fluttershy should be able to take care of it. But if it’s happening to Rarity and Fluttershy, I’d better go and find them. You keep looking for Rainbow Dash!”

With a slight hop, Pinkie Pie threw herself from the side of the cart and landed in a cab passing by the other direction. Applejack couldn’t stop herself from gasping, and the driver was alerted again.

“What the hay is going on? You sure that everything’s okay, ladies?” The cabbie still couldn’t look back as he was controlling the cart, and now it was even more apparent that he was displeased.

“Everything’s fine!” said Applejack, and then she cleared her throat. “It’s all okie-dokie-lokie!” she trilled as high-pitched as she could, in a barely passable impression of her friend.

“Well, if’n youse say so,” said the cabbie with a snort, “but quit your jumpin’ around or whatever. So anyways, with coconut, plus cookie and cake flavoring in them, they could be called cocochocochimicookiecherrychangacakes. Whaddaya think?”

Applejack’s mouth dropped wide open.

“Oh hey, we’re here!” The taxi slowed down before a large white stone building. It had three glass double doors outlined in wood and plastered in yellow crime scene tape. The frames of the windows alongside the first story of the building were also wooden, and Applejack could see police officers swarming about inside. Ornate, smooth and cylindrical columns sprouted up from between each gargantuan glass pane, and they culminated in arches. Above the three doors, in gold serif capital letters, it read “First Manehattan Bank.”

The cabbie parallel parked between some other carts. “So how do you girls want to do this? If ya want, I can wait outside while you check inside for your friend.” Now that he wasn’t focused on directing the cart, he turned about.

“Wait a minute,” said the cabbie at length.

The cowpony was frozen to her seat, with a forced nonchalant grin plastered on her face. “Yes?”

“That pink mare’s not there.”

“…I suppose she ain’t.”

“When did she get out?”

“I have no idea.”

“How did she get out?”

“I don’t know, either.”

“Did she hear about cocochocochimicookiecherrychangacakes?”

Applejack’s silence was deafening.

“Well, maybe you should find her,” suggested the cabbie. “I’d like to tell her again.”

Applejack opened the door and gingerly stepped out onto the sidewalk, looking back at the cab driver, who nodded expectantly. The mare turned around and slowly walked away, as the cabbie continued to watch until the pedestrian pack obscured her from sight. She was now alone in her search.

She roamed in the shadows of skyscrapers, and watched the sky for any signs of Dash in flight. Applejack navigated through grassy parks, joggers galloping down winding pathways lined by trees. She watched every customer in restaurant patios that was hidden by a newspaper. The mare leaned up against trees, their roots cracking through the concrete, and watched the traffic for a rainbow mane. And again and again she took alley after alley, without result.

With much effort and cursing, Rainbow Dash freed her legs from the sofa’s armrest. The upholstery was ripped to shreds as a result. She rolled to her side off the cushions, and stood upright again. The pegasus grabbed the satchel and the revolver in her mouth and strode over to a nearby trashcan. As slowly as she could, Rainbow lifted off the top with one hoof and gingerly stuffed the weaponry inside, between the tied garbage bags. By accident she got a huge whiff of the can’s contents, and her face bunched up in disgust. The lid slipped off her hoof and back onto the bin as she began coughing.

“Rainbow? Rainbow Dash, is that you?”

The pegasus snorted absentmindedly. “Applejack, you should know what I look—Applejack?” Dash whirled around and hopped back a pace, eyes wide. “Wh-wh-what are you doing here?”

The farm pony was walking down the alleyway with resolve, from the direction of the humongous glass dome that marked the Manehattan Mall. Her tail swished back and forth like a haywire polygraph needle. Applejack stopped just short of the ruined couch.
Rainbow straightened up and inhaled a fresh breath of air deeply, not just to rid her nose of the garbage smell but to calm her nerves. “So,” she said, kicking at a pebble casually, “is it just you?”

“It’s just me right now, but the others are in town too.” Applejack grabbed her hat and pulled it over her face a little as she turned to look back. Nopony was there. “You have to tell me what’s going on, sugarcube. We know you’re angry about Twilight, but…” The earth pony turned back. “We didn’t think you’d do anything like this!”

The cyan mare focused harder on the pebble instead of her friend. “So you heard, huh?” She knocked it back towards her again. “I know. I blew it.”

Applejack stared as best she could at Rainbow’s face, but couldn’t lock eye contact. “That’s all you haf’ta say for yourself? You ‘blew it’? What’s gotten into you?”

Rainbow whipped her head back up and stared back at her. “I can fix this!” She bit her lower lip and smacked away the pebble. “I know I was supposed to be quiet, and sneak around, and not attract attention, but… how could I?!”

Applejack was silent as the pegasus sniffled and sputtered, on the verge of tears. The earth pony started to say something, but quickly stopped herself. Another few seconds passed in contemplation, and she tried again.

“Rainbow,” said Applejack purposefully, “what’s going on?”

Rainbow Dash froze, and her eyes dried up in surprise. “You’re not the agent?”

“Agent?” Applejack queried. “What agent?”

“Oh horse feathers, I’ll never find them.” The pegasus turned around and swiped away the trashcan’s lid, then dug a hoof down inside. “I guess I have to bring you up to speed before you can help me out. It’s crazy, but you know, we’ve dealt with crazier! Now, if I can just… yeah!” Her hoof brushed against the satchel’s strap, and she unclasped the sunglasses she’d hooked to it.

Applejack stamped her hoof. “Rainbow, you’ve killed ponies! You… you shot them! This isn’t a game, you—”

“They weren’t ponies, AJ. There aren’t many ponies left at all.” The pegasus turned around, sunglasses in mouth, and strode up to Applejack. “I could explain, but it’s really, really long and I don’t get how it happened, so just put these on real quick.”

“Now look, sugarcube, you’re actin’ crazy! None of this can fix whatever’s wrong with Princess Celestia right now, or free Twilight from prison!” Applejack shook her head in disbelief. “I’m as mad as you, but I ain’t about to go on a rampage over it!”

Dash stared right into Applejack’s eyes, mere inches away. “You don’t understand. I can’t make this any clearer. Put on the sunglasses and you’ll get it.”

The orange mare leaned further in. “Look, you crazy motherbucker, I ain’t puttin’ on no glasses. You’re sick. You need help.”

“Oh, I’m the one that needs help? Look around you, AJ!” Rainbow pointed away towards the mall. “We’re all in danger and nopony knows it at all! The wool’s been pulled over their eyes, and they love every second of it. Not me!”

Applejack gritted her teeth. “Did you even read the letter on Fluttershy’s door? They’re looking for any excuse to get rid of her, or any of us. Maybe it didn’t include ‘murdering ponies,’ but if anything’s going to destroy our one chance at this, it’s that!”

The pegasus blew a loose tuft of her mane out of her face. “That’s it. I thought you’d listen to me! I thought you trusted me!”

Rainbow Dash paused for a moment, and then snarled, “I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses, or start eating that trashcan.”

Applejack flicked her head, throwing off her cowpony hat. It drifted a few feet and settled down on the pavement. “Not this year.”

The two ponies backed off a little. Dash spat out the sunglasses and they clattered away, stopping when they hit Applejack’s hat. Rainbow began to circle to the right, but the earth pony started moving left, and they stared each other down in determination. Suddenly, Dash swung out with a foreleg, but Applejack didn’t let the strike connect. She pulled herself back, pivoted on her front hooves, and rapidly bucked Rainbow straight in the jaw, once with each leg. Luckily for the cyan mare, the hits did not have much force behind them. Rainbow was knocked down, but she rolled off her back and onto her hooves immediately.

“Trying to go easy on me?” yelled Dash. “You’ll regret that!”

Applejack swiveled around to face Rainbow again, but she didn’t move quite in time. The pegasus had advanced up and to her left. She instinctively moved right, but Dash had other plans. Rainbow leaped to Applejack’s right, and slammed a hock into her back as she dropped. Applejack screamed out and stumbled, but propped herself up with her own tail. Dash landed and whirled back to face the earth mare.

Applejack grunted as she righted herself and advanced on her adversary. Dash kicked at the ground and snorted in response, but Applejack continued moving, even when the pegasus charged, head down and forward. The earth pony slid her right hooves back, smoothly turning on the spot, and hooked up into Rainbow’s stomach as she passed. The force of the blow stopped her in her tracks and made her sputter for breath as she hit the ground.

“No, I just think you ain’t as strong as any of the trees I buck,” Applejack countered.

Rainbow Dash was already up on her hooves and racing towards a wall of the alleyway. She jumped towards it, using her wings to twist herself backwards. The pegasus kicked off the brick wall, back at Applejack. There wasn’t much time for the cowpony to react, but she managed to get a foreleg up to block her face. Hoof scraped against hoof as Applejack’s guard was broken. Rainbow slammed her forehead into Applejack’s face as she landed, and the earth pony crashed hard into the asphalt.

Dash calmly stood over her friend and watched her spit out gravel. “Let’s work this out, Applejack. I don’t want to fight you.”

“Well, you’re gettin’ one now!” Applejack kicked up with her back legs with as much force as she could muster. The winged mare was left reeling as the hooves got her in the cheekbone, and Rainbow Dash had to shake her head to clear out the stars exploding in her skull. Before they could subside, a solid and hefty weight buffeted her in shoulder, and she fell to her knees. Applejack had swept her legs out from underneath her by whipping about her sizeable tail. Rainbow opened her eyes as her knees cracked against the pavement. She had ended up directly in front of the dropped sunglasses. Only one pair of orange legs was visible, though. Dash lifted her head and saw Applejack rearing up, aiming a stomp that threatened to hit both her and the shades.

“No!” yelled the pegasus. As hard as she could, she pushed herself up with one hoof, spun on it, and kicked up. Her back leg hit Applejack in the chest with a sickening crunch. With the flap of a single wing, she ascended in a corkscrew spiral. Dash grunted as she struggled with all her might to keep herself from losing control. Suddenly she spread both her wings to halt her momentum, but Applejack continued to rise. The earth pony’s legs flailed uselessly as her body arced in the air, and a cloud of dirt sprung up as she made impact with the street. Rainbow landed safely, albeit carefully, next to the sunglasses. A cursory glance told her they had been spared. She grabbed them in her mouth and looked back at the veil of dust.

A hole burst in the cloud and Applejack charged through, smudged all over with mud. Rainbow leaped left out of the way, worried again that the glasses would get damaged. In her haste to protect them, she made her move much too soon, and Applejack capitalized on the mistake. Instead of heading directly for the other mare, the farm pony skidded into the sofa and bucked it as hard as she could. The furniture hurtled into Dash like an upholstered freight train, and it plowed her into the side of the alleyway. Rainbow cried out as her back made contact with brick and the armrest knocked the wind out of her. The cyan mare was left slumped against the wall, and the sunglasses hung from her mouth by the frame. She could see Applejack advancing slowly through her half-closed eyelids, but she couldn’t manage the strength to push away the couch. Rainbow forced herself to breathe deeper and longer. Each inhalation of air was like being stabbed in the lungs, but she didn’t let herself slip into unconsciousness.

Applejack was now breaking into a light, steady trot. Rainbow felt one of her hooves move slightly, accompanied by excruciating pain, but she cheered inwardly. The mare tried moving her wings, and a couple of feathers flaked away as they shifted. Now the orange pony had sped up into a canter, heading straight for the couch. Dash bit her lip hard. One more pounding against that wall from the sofa would knock her unconscious. She bit harder and blood flowed down her chin in a thin stream. Applejack was crouching down as she bolted for her, preparing for the tackle. With a cry of sheer agony, Rainbow Dash pulled herself up with the armrest and jumped forward across the length of the couch. The farm mare was taken by surprise at the sudden movement, but misinterpreted the move as a dodge. She didn’t stop her momentum, opting instead to leap into the air too. Rainbow suddenly opened her wings wide and flapped for a burst of speed. The pegasus caught Applejack from slightly underneath and curved up into the air, holding the farm mare tight around her chest, even as she struggled and punched her in the neck. They rose into the air, but halted just before they broke past the height of the surrounding buildings. With a wrenching motion, Rainbow Dash aimed the earth pony’s head back towards the ground, and then snapped her wings in tight. Gravity took over from there, and they plummeted down back to the alleyway. Held in place for the entire drop by Rainbow Dash, Applejack collided into the pavement.

The cyan mare’s head was spinning. Her combat against the changelings earlier and the physical abuse her body had taken during the fight had added up. Rainbow didn’t think she could have felt any worse than after she took the full force of that sofa, but there she lay, Applejack on one side and the sunglasses on her other, with just adrenaline keeping her from going out cold. The earth pony already had a hoof moving about, trying to gather the strength to get up. Dash knew that she didn’t have much time to act. She rolled over and onto her stomach, immediately regretting the decision as the gravel dug into her scratches and bruises. Fighting every urge to collapse, she pushed up onto her hooves, and her legs felt like they were filled with jelly. Rainbow grabbed Applejack by her mane with her teeth, and the farm mare moaned in protest as she was dragged up. The orange pony immediately dropped to her knees when Dash let her go, but it was only for a moment to retrieve the sunglasses. Rainbow unceremoniously shoved them onto Applejack’s face and slipped back down to the ground.

“Look! Just look out there, you stubborn mule!” cried Dash, exasperated.

Applejack blinked as the color was filtered out of her vision. A pair of figures strolled past the alleyway, and the mare gasped in shock when she saw their bug-like wings flutter idly about. The changelings, instinctively aware of being watched, looked over in shock and trotted away with worried expressions. Ignoring the aching in her side as best as she could, Applejack ran to the edge of the alleyway and looked down the way they went. Both of the changelings were entering a taxi cab, but across the sides it read “OBEY” instead.

Dash had managed to lift herself back off the pavement and was now standing next to the farm pony. She cautiously tapped at Applejack’s shoulder, who turned around with a start. The pegasus shied away for a moment, but stopped herself and looked down at the concrete. Applejack raised her head towards the sky and just stared off into space. Neither of them made eye contact for minutes.

When the mares finally left the alleyway, arms over each other to prop themselves up, the throng of ponies had swelled to grand proportions. They went unnoticed and silent, crossing streets and dodging newspaper stands, avoiding any of the changelings that Applejack saw pass by in the crowd. It was many blocks before they finally stopped in front of a comparatively small three-story hotel. Turning as one, they pushed their way through the door, which knocked against a small bell. An elderly pony sat at a desk covered in coffee cup stains, smoking a large wooden pipe and watching a small television with an antenna. He didn’t react to the dirty and blood-stained mares signing fake names to the check-in list, nor when they grabbed a loose key and made their way upstairs themselves. Together the ponies made their way down the hallway, hooves clacking on old tile. Finding the room listed on the key, they opened its creaky wooden door and tumbled inside.

The green threadbare carpet was riddled with cigarette stains, and neither of the twin beds had a pillow. Applejack opened one of the three windows to let in some fresh air. The sun was beginning to set, and its orange light faded into the blue cloudless sky. But the farm pony was much more focused on the billboards scattered across the concrete jungle, commands where slogans once were. She placed the sunglasses on an end table and rubbed her smarting eyes.

The pegasus wandered into the small bathroom and stared at her reflection. It was hard for her to recognize herself under the bruises and caked dirt. “Well,” she said softly, “now what?”

Applejack curled up on one of the beds. “I guess we got separated. They could be on the other side of town for all I know.”

“Oh no,” said Rainbow. “If I have to fight everypony else and make them look through those sunglasses, count me out.” She turned on the faucet and splashed herself with water a few times.

The farm pony lightly chuckled. “So it’s just the two of us now, huh?”

“Looks that way.” Rainbow didn’t bother to dry off and instead just flopped onto the other bed. A cool breeze filtered through the window’s screen, making her sigh in minor relief.

They lay there for a while and watched the sun drop below the horizon. The glinting light bouncing off nearby skyscrapers dissipated, but their glass faces were then suddenly tinted by neon lights everywhere. Horns honked. Somepony yelled. The nightlife had come to Manehattan, exuberant and proud.

“Isn’t that just crazy?” wondered Applejack aloud.

“You’re going to have to narrow that down a bit, AJ,” commented Rainbow. “There’ve been a lot of crazy things lately.”

The orange mare smiled in spite of her contemplative mood. “No, I mean this noise. Some ponies out there are actually changelings, and they’re just acting, pretending to be happy, keeping the illusion going.”

Dash nodded. “They must have fun hating us, laughing as we stare right at their signs. Every time we do that, they must think we’re complete idiots.”

Applejack rolled over onto her back. “And Twilight saw it all for what it was.”

“Yeah,” said Rainbow. No other comment came to mind.

“I should’ve said this earlier, sugarcube, but… I should have just put on those sunglasses and trusted you. I’m sorry.”

The pegasus stretched out her wings. “No, it’s okay, really. I should have explained first. I don’t know why I thought you’d just put them on and roll with it. Maybe I was hoping things would get easier with you there.”

“You’re right, it should have.” The farm pony got up. “I can’t believe we let anything like this get in the way of our friendship.”

Rainbow also stood up. “What was that acronym you said a while back? P.F.F., right?”

“Yup. Pony Friends Forever. That’s us.” Applejack beamed, and opened up her arms for a hug. She was bowled over by Rainbow’s energetic tackling embrace, and they both landed on the floor, yelping with pain as they hit right on their bruises.

“Ouch! That hurt, Rainbow!”

“Oh, you think that hurt? My ribs are killing me right now!”

“They do? I thought you could take it. ‘Iron Pony,’ my flank!”

“That’s it! You’re getting the ticking of a lifetime, AJ!”

Just as Rainbow began to administer the first tickles, the room’s door burst open, and a small wooden crate was unceremoniously thrown in by a blonde-maned bluish-gray mare in a mailpony’s cap. Dash and Applejack froze. The mailpony stared at them in their compromising position, individually with each golden eye.

“Did you lock the door?” whispered Rainbow.

“No, I thought you did!” hissed Applejack.

The crate suddenly began to wriggle furiously. It hopped in place, spun around, and then the top shot off with a loud crack. The lid was followed by a veritable volcano of packing peanuts, and Spike leaped out before them triumphantly, claws on hips and grinning wide.

“Hey Applejack and Rainb—oh! Oh.” Spike furrowed his brow. “Derpy, this was a waste of time.”

“How come?” Derpy’s eyes crossed the other direction.

Spike threw on a pair of sunglasses. “Because they can ship themselves!”

6 - The Noise and the Neon

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Twilight Sparkle was lying on her back. She had been in the dead center of the green, translucent cube for what felt like forever. Simultaneously, her solitude was a welcome reprieve from the eternity she had just spent listening to the maniacal laughter of Queen Chrysalis. The cackling had been pronounced by the changeling bouncing about the room in mean-spirited mirth as the surveillance footage of Rainbow Dash’s rampage looped repeatedly, and the torment only ended when both of them had become bored and indifferent. The unicorn was entirely unsure which situation she preferred to endure.

Her mind had been strangely blank afterwards. The first mental process that Twilight was able to make was tackling why she felt this way, or rather, why she didn’t feel at all. The mare eventually came to the conclusion that her vacant, thoughtless state was a byproduct of shock, but couldn’t bring herself to mentally tackle the underlying reason. Instead, she took to counting the cobblestones.

Twilight was on her third round of calculations.

“Seven thousand, five hundred and ninety-two,” she said, staring at a corner of the ceiling. That meant it was time to roll over and count the cobblestones on the floor. With much more effort than it should have required, she rolled slightly back and forth like a turtle on its shell, and eventually flipped onto her stomach. A low, bored groan emanated from her reflexively.

“Seven thousand, five hundred and ninety-three,” she continued. The unicorn briefly wished she could look out the iron-barred window, or bare minimum, multiply the number of cobblestones on one wall by six to get the total with much less effort. But this was killing time. Twilight Sparkle was certain she had all the time in the world.

“Well,” said Derpy, with an eye fixed on Spike and the other avoiding Rainbow and Applejack altogether, “that happened.”

“Nothing happened,” growled the blue pegasus, low and deliberate. “Nothing happened at all.” She was still lying parallel on top of AJ, who had frozen in place like a paranoid deer. The physical arrangement and social situation were both terribly uncomfortable for them.

“Nothing sure sounds like fun!” The mailmare reared up on her hind legs in delight. “Actually,” she mused at length while slowly lowering herself back down, “it really doesn’t. That’s more like boring.”

The baby dragon casually removed his sunglasses and threw them back into the crate. “Thanks for the delivery, Derpy. Sorry that was so last-minute.”

“Now hold on, sugarcubes!” said the cowpony, as firmly as possible given her awkward positioning. “How did the two of you find us?”

One of the blue-gray mare’s eyes snapped to the pair of prone ponies. “Clutching each other on the carpet, of course!” she squealed, tail flapping much like an excited puppy. “It’s so adorable! You two make the cutest couple. I could watch the two of you in that passionate embrace for hours and days and weeks and years and helloooooo there!” The other eye caught sight of her tail, and Derpy began to chase it in a counterclockwise circle.

Completely ignoring the easily entertained mailpony, Spike stepped towards the pegasus and earth pony on the floor, but tried to keep his eyes at least somewhat averted. “I’m the agent, Rainbow. You know, the one Shining Armor told you about?” he said matter-of-factly. “Derpy did a fly-by of Manehattan and saw you two enter the hotel. Now will you two get up already? You’re making this super weird.”

Both of the mares managed to peel themselves off of each other and stand upright. They brushed down their coats and looked away from each other, whistling as if it somehow canceled out everything. Spike exhaled with relief, and then turned to the circling pegasus in the doorway.

“Say, are you sure you can’t stick around?” the baby dragon queried. “We could really use some help.”

Derpy immediately halted. “Can you pay me in muffins?” She giggled excitedly and cocked her head. The cap shifted to the side haphazardly.

“What?! Don’t you remember the town hall incident?” exclaimed Rainbow Dash. “Get bucked, you sideshow—” was as far as she could continue before the orange farm mare forcibly covered her mouth.

Spike folded his arms. “No, seriously, I’m gonna need an answer on this.” He stared at Derpy keenly and raised an eyebrow.

“Well…” Derpy sounded oddly pensive. “Can you trust these two?” She tilted her head the other direction, which made the cap slant again.

The baby dragon nodded. “They’ll keep it quiet, I promise.”

Without warning, Derpy stepped over the threshold, used a back leg to kick the door closed, and strode over to a window in one fluid motion. “Sorry, I can’t help you out this time,” she stated tersely. There was no longer any squeak in her voice. “Looks like I’m going to have to work harder now. They doubled my shift length and imposed a correct delivery quota after I began intercepting those communiqués last week. I may have to let more of them slip through so that changeling in the sorting department doesn’t detect a pattern.”

“Shining Armor’s not going to like that.” Spike sighed heavily, and flicked off a packing peanut that was lodged behind one of his head spikes. “Alright, do what you gotta do.”

The mock mailmare looked about through the window. “Thanks, Spike. I might just be too good at playing a ditz. Can’t help that it’s fun, you know?” She pulled a string to drop down a plain roller shade, and moved to the next window. “But I can stick around for a little while. I’m curious about what these two have been up to, and I don’t mean whatever the hay we just interrupted.” Derpy dropped the roller shade over the other window, turned about, and squeezed her eyelids tight. When she reopened them, her golden eyes were properly aligned.

Applejack and Rainbow Dash manually pushed their jaws back up.

“What…?” managed Applejack, feebly.

“Oh! Right!” Spike extended an arm triumphantly at the gray pony. “AJ, Rainbow Dash, this is... you see... she’s actually… well, you won’t say, will you?”

The mare slowly stumbled across the room to one of the beds, shaking her head rapidly and breathing heavily. She fell forwards onto it, her mailpony’s cap flying off as her muzzle collided with the mattress, and she lay still for a minute. Eventually she managed to sit up. “Motherbucking screwy vision,” she muttered. “I should’ve straightened my eyes after I sat down.”

“What…?” Rainbow squeaked.

“You’ve both asked that,” the gray pegasus said offhoofedly, “but I still don’t know what you mean by it.” She unstrapped her saddlebags and tossed her mailpony cap onto the side table with her teeth. “Anyway, Spike’s right. I don’t give out my real name, but you can just stick with calling me ‘Derpy’ as usual. It’s worked for so long. ”

“So was there ever a real Derpy?” inquired the farm mare. “Our mailpony isn’t hogtied in a warehouse somewhere with a gag in her mouth?”

“No, no, I’m her,” said ‘Derpy’, shaking out some tangles in her mane from the hat. “It’s all just a gig, a performance, you know? Check it.” ‘Derpy’ raised a hoof to her eye and popped out a golden colored contact lens. Immediately she closed that eye so none of the others could see the real hue. “My mane is bleached too, and I cross my eyes on purpose. I actually can’t walk normally anymore when they aren’t pointed opposite directions.”

“So when you demolished the town hall, you were just messing around?” asked Rainbow, with much annoyance in her voice. “You’ve just been pretending to be dumber than a bag of rocks?”

With a little wincing, ‘Derpy’ re-inserted the lens into her eye. “That’s right. As I said, I’ve been at it for a while. The town hall, though, was completely an accident. But it really sold that image of me being the town dunce, didn’t it?”

Dash was about to retort vehemently when Spike interrupted. “It’s crazier than Pinkie Pie on an energy drink, but it’s true. Shining Armor needed a spy, and apparently ‘Derpy’ was under our noses the whole time.”

“That’s about the long and short of it. They got in contact with me as I was finishing up a real long-term job under this cover, and I figured I’d just keep it up, right?” The gray mare casually spread her arms. “Now I do some delivery for the cause, tail suspicious changelings, that sorta thing. I’ve been in Ponyville so long, and I’ve got such a rep for being an airhead, so nopony watches where I’m going or asks any pointed questions.”

Suddenly, more rustling came from the crate. A few more packing peanuts were ejected, and a small brown owl poked its head over the lip, hooting softly. It perched on the edge and spun its head around a few times, viewing the entire room.

“Hey Owlowiscious,” said Spike. “Caught enough sleep?”

“Who?” hooted the bird.

“Right, because I’m clearly talking to one of the many other birds we smuggled in that crate, or maybe I’m asking the packing peanuts.” Spike rolled his eyes. “This owl,” he said to the others, cupping aside his mouth conspiratorially. “I can’t take this owl’s lip.”

‘Derpy’ raised an eyebrow. “Owlowiscious doesn’t have lips. He’s got a beak.”

“Now hold on,” said Applejack, “I’m just confused why Twilight’s owl was in that crate when he’s got wings. Couldn’t he just fly here?”

Spike hopped up onto the edge of the end table and kicked his legs back and forth. “He delivered a message from Shining Armor to Twilight about the raid on Ponyville, but they zapped him out of the sky.” Seeing Applejack and Rainbow’s faces of concern and sympathy, he waved his claws reassuringly. “No, no, he’s okay now! He just can’t fly super long distances for a while. Plus, the ‘Princess’ probably has it in for us, too.” He looked over at Owlowiscious, who had begun preening himself and generally ignoring the group conversation.

“So it’s really true…” said Rainbow, eyes fixed on the floor. “I can’t believe it.”

‘Derpy’ chuckled hollowly. “Who were you expecting?”

The orange mare shook her head in answer to the rhetorical question, and also in sheer confusion. “But how in tarnation did she take over? Chrysalis would’ve had to bust into Canterlot to tussle with Celestia again, and there’s no way that could’ve been kept under wraps.”

“Plus, the only reason the Princess lost that fight is because the Queen was powered from Shining Armor’s love,” added Rainbow. “Chrysalis can’t have tried the same thing twice, you know?”

The faux mailpony shrugged and tilted her head. “You’re both right, but changelings are still spread across Equestria now. Whatever she did, it worked.”

Spike groaned dejectedly. “Part of why we don’t have all the answers is because none of us can get into Canterlot Castle. See, Shining Armor was there, but when he was told to lead the attack on Ponyville, he was also transferred.”

“We think Chrysalis knew she couldn’t remove Shining Armor from the castle,” continued ‘Derpy’, “without a logical reason and without drawing suspicion. Her raid to capture Twilight gave her that opportunity. And Princess Cadance dug up some dirt, but her duties in the Crystal Empire began to really pile up on her. She’s had to focus on protecting her citizens.”

“So you’re saying neither of them put up a fight? They just rolled over and took it?” asked Rainbow Dash, glowering and shaking. “At least I tried to do something.”

Spike exhaled in exasperation. “Rainbow, neither of them wanted to do that. But it’s literally just been me, Twilight, Owlowiscious, Princess Cadance, Shining Armor, and ‘Derpy’ fighting back. We’ve all been in real danger, and if any of us were caught… well, I’ll bet you know what we lost when they took Twilight.”

Rainbow just looked over at the sunglasses she had taken from Twilight’s library. For a moment, she was silent. “But it didn’t have to be just you six, you know,” the pegasus breathed.

“Honestly, I didn’t get that either,” remarked ‘Derpy’, whose eyes had crossed again, completely involuntarily. “But the way I heard it, she didn’t want any of you other Elements of Harmony in on this. I guess it was bad enough that her family, her live-in assistant, and pet were involved. She actually refused to design those sunglasses if we contacted any of you, except in the case of an emergency.”

The baby dragon nodded. “None of us agreed with her, but we needed her help.” He crossed his arms again and looked over at Rainbow Dash. “So, does that answer all of your questions? Because we’ve got a few of our own – like why you didn’t listen to Shining Armor when he said to keep your head low,” he said flatly. “Or why you’re here too, AJ,” he added, eyeballing the earth pony.

Applejack and Rainbow Dash had been much invested, but suddenly took interest in the ceiling.

“It’s only fair,” ‘Derpy’ pointed out. “We’ve answered what you asked, right?”

Dash began to slowly pace about the room, and Applejack heavily sat down on the unoccupied bed. The cyan mare launched into her explanation of how everything unfolded, and for Applejack’s benefit, she started from when she broke into Twilight’s library and included her subsequent meeting with Shining Armor. Then she filled in the entire group on her arrival in the city, to her wild rampage through the mall and bank, to the fight in the alleyway. The cowpony was able to expound on some further occurrences that Rainbow hadn’t been present for, such as how they watched the Royal Guards discover evidence of Rainbow breaking into the library, the surprise visit from Inspector, and how Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Fluttershy had all split up in search of both Dash and Twilight. The pair interrupted each other a few times with gasps and questions, trying to piece together details. Spike frequently asked them to backtrack and explain sections, but ‘Derpy’ stayed silent and contemplative. Whether it was because she cared and was attempting to soak in as much of their conversation as possible, or whether it was because she had to repeatedly force her eyes to aim the same direction, no pony or baby dragon could tell.

When their exchange of information had clearly wound down and reached a conclusion, the gray pegasus snapped one eye over to Spike and the other eye to the wall, where a cheap plastic square clock hung at an irregular angle. “Ugh. It’s getting late,” she commented, rolling her eyes opposite directions and reaching for her mailpony bag. “Here’s the deal. Shining Armor wants Twilight busted out tonight. I brought you Spike and Owlowiscious, but I’ve also got a couple of other surprises. This one’s courtesy of Princess Cadance.” When she finally brought the satchel in close enough, she began rummaging about the inside of it with a hoof until she pulled out a thick square-shaped fold of blue paper. ‘Derpy’ grabbed it in her teeth and effortlessly swung her head, chucking it to the baby dragon, who caught it by impaling it on a claw tip.

“Wait up,” said Rainbow. “We should find the others first, right?”

Applejack nodded. “We need all the help we can get.”

“I wish we could do that, but we don’t have the time,” Spike observed. “It took ‘Derpy’ ages to track both of you down.”

The cyan pegasus scowled. “So we’re going to abandon our friends?”

“That’s not what we’re saying.” The gray mare stared pointedly at Rainbow. “Anything could have happened since Twilight was transferred to the prison. We have to act fast, we have to use the resources that we have on hoof, and Shining Armor thought up this plan with just the two of you in mind. And besides, who says you won’t bump into the others? They’re probably looking for you two right now.

“I brought a few more sunglasses in the crate,” continued the mailmare, who was rising to her hooves. “If your friends find you, there’ll be enough to go around. But right now, it’s up to you from here.” She swiftly snatched up her saddlebag from the bed and swung it over her body, and strode over to the side table where Spike was waiting with her cap in claw. “Oh, and by the way,” said ‘Derpy’, turning back to the other mares, “You’ve got to promise me something, both of you.”

“Sure…?” responded Applejack warily, while looking over at Rainbow. The cyan mare just shrugged and nodded.

Spike offered the mailpony cap to ‘Derpy’. She grabbed it in her teeth and flicked her neck back, making the hat land perfectly atop her head. “You’ve got to preserve the secrecy of my act. Next time you see me out in public, just play along like you don’t know anything at all.” She began heading for the door, stretching her wings and making their joints crack. “Wave, say hi, offer to hug me, you know? If somepony starts talking about me, tell them about something silly I did. It helps me keep the charade going a little longer.”

“No problem,” said Rainbow. “Just don’t demolish the Town Hall again, alright?”

“Fair enough,” the mailmare responded, snickering slightly as she put a hoof on the door handle. “But I’m not done talking yet. There’s one other little favor I’d like to ask.”

“Yes?” Applejack and Dash replied in tandem.

“Whatever you do,” said ‘Derpy’ as she turned the handle, “never, ever give me muffins. I don’t care what flavor they are. I don’t care who made them. I’m absolutely, positively, undeniably sick to death of muffins.”

With that, she opened the door, giggled manically at a pitch normally only reachable through helium inhalation, and hopped out. She continued to spring down the hallway, and managed to click her front hooves and back hooves together in mock merriment before she tumbled down the staircase beyond, punctuating every hit against a step with either “ow,” “pain,” or “yay.” The door slammed shut behind her with a thudding noise before the flabbergasted cyan pegasus, dumbfounded orange earth pony, or oddly indifferent baby dragon could see whether she endured the excruciating cartwheel unscathed.

Rainbow Dash and Applejack carefully and casually stepped into the hotel’s dingy foyer, each with saddlebags strapped to them. Dash was clad in a very baggy and hooded sweatshirt that naturally covered her trademark mane. However, she had to stuff her tail inside the jacket. The aged stallion hadn’t budged from his TV set, but he was slouching asleep in the chair and his pipe dangled precariously from his lip. As quietly as ponies with hooves could do across hardwood parquet, the mares snuck across the lobby and up to the door, but shuffled outside a little quicker when the little bell it knocked against briefly startled the snoozing pony.

In unison, Dash and AJ each fished out a pair of sunglasses stuffed in the locks of their manes, slid them onto their faces, and set off down the street. For such a late hour, it was incredibly bright and cacophonic outside. Horns that had been muffled and low were comparatively raucous. The vivid signs they had glimpsed from the hotel room seemed much more dazzling. Thanks to their sunglasses, the lighted advertisements were arranged to read “CONSUME” and “SUBMIT.” The pair did their best to ignore them as they walked.

While there were fewer ponies around than during the day, Rainbow sensed the herd was composed of legitimate Manehattan inhabitants as opposed to the tourists. These ponies were a mix of the real trend-setting crowd and the hints of an underground and urban lifestyle. Two unicorns, a bucket drummer wielding multiple sticks and a long-maned guitarist with a tiny practice amp, belted out “Trottin’ with the Devil” by Van Haylen while onlookers bopped and sang along. Applejack and Rainbow danced casually along the edge of the partiers as they passed by. The noise and the neon were working together as something more cohesive than the sum of their parts, but still much unglued – the nightlife was almost literally in full swing.

Up above, the moon shone, but maybe not quite as bright as the streetlights did. The two friends stared up at it for a few moments, doing their best to not make eye contact with a changeling walking the opposite direction. Once it had gone they continued forward, and Applejack shuffled closer to Rainbow.

“Hey Dash!” she said, trying to keep her voice low-volume but still audible.

“Yeah, what’s up?” asked the cyan pegasus, her ear wriggling slightly.

“You didn’t find anything about where Princess Luna could be, did’ja?”

“No…” Rainbow sighed. “I asked Shining Armor, and he didn’t know, either. I’ll ask Spike, I guess.” Calmly, Dash turned to look at her pack. “Yo!” she muttered into her saddlebag. “Do you know what the deal is with Luna?”

A green serpentine eye peeked out from Dash’s pack. “Sorry, but nothing’s changed,” the baby dragon whispered. “It’s like she was here one day and gone the next.”

The cowpony whickered low but said nothing.

“By the way, when Derpy said she hated muffins, was she serious?” continued the weathermare. “I swear she goes into Sugarcube Corner three times a day for them.”

Spike thought briefly. “Actually, that’s the first time she’s ever said that.”

Dash pulled her muzzle out from her saddlebag, and Spike disappeared from view. The ponies continued to walk a little farther, passing some minor boutiques and a newsstand, until they reached the mouth of the alley. They turned casually around the corner, and as soon as their hooves hit the grittier pavement, they hurried farther in until they found the leftover signs of their brawl – a ruined sofa with one side crumpled like tinfoil, cracks and dings in the asphalt, and a very dusty Stetson.

“Why, it’s still here!” exclaimed Applejack, immediately picking up her hat and slapping it on her head, a tiny dirt cloud ejecting from underneath as it hit her mane. “I’m happy as a pig in mud!”

“And your hat is almost as dirty,” countered Spike, clambering out from Rainbow’s saddlebag. The cowpony snorted in response, clearly failing to see why this was a problem.

Dash trotted over to the trashcan, held her breath, and lifted the lid. She placed it gently to the side so it wouldn’t clatter, and thrust her head inside. The mare gasped, and the sound noisily echoed inside the metal bin.

“What’s up, Dash?” asked Spike.

Rainbow pulled her head back out. “My guns! They’re gone!”

The orange mare stomped a hoof. “You’ve gotta be yankin’ my rope! Somepony took the trash, but they didn’t take my hat or get rid of the sofa? That don’t make a lick of sense.”

“This bites,” Spike groaned. “Alright, let’s get going.”

Rainbow Dash cantered over to a wall where a metal fire escape was mounted alongside an apartment building. The flights stretched from roughly the second story well up to the top, and a small ladder hung partially from the lowest platform. The pegasus hopped up, flapped her wings a couple of times, grabbed the bottom rung of the ladder with her teeth, and used her body weight to drop it down. Spike scrambled on top of Applejack and up her neck as she ran to the ladder and flicked her head forward. The baby dragon leapt off and took hold of the ladder as Dash let go. Spike ascended to the first platform fairly fast with the help of his ability to actually grip objects, while Applejack had to place her hooves between each rung and do small pulls to climb. Rainbow noted that the design was incredibly impractical for ponies.

Once the cowpony reached the first platform, she allowed the baby dragon back onto her back, and they continued up the fire escape’s staircases. The pegasus merely floated alongside them, as there wasn’t enough room. Soon the ponies reached the roof. There was a much clearer view of the glass-domed mall from here, which now had little lights glimmering between the glass panes. It was like half of a gargantuan disco ball, blinking different colors and patterns. Even at this distance, they could see a construction crane rising over the hole that Rainbow Dash had punched in the top, making the necessary repairs. Clearly the shopping center was to remain open to cater to the needs of consumers.

The ponies inhaled the muggy night air and set off at a gallop in the direction of the mall. It loomed closer and closer as they hopped the gaps or vaulted ledges between the buildings, moving straight until the rooftops ended, at which point they skidded and ran to the left. Now to their right, all that separated them from the massive glass dome was a circular street where taxi cabs and trolleys jockeyed for position in traffic. At this much closer distance, the friends could hear thumping electronic beats blaring from speakers somewhere at the edge of the shopping center, and they saw the lights pulsating to their rhythm. The crane was surrounded by construction pegasi in hard hats and reflective vests, who were all engaged in the lifting of heavy glass panes and steel bars. None of the workers noticed the two ponies and baby dragon dashing perpendicular to the road, behind industrial air conditioning units and stairwell entrances, casting long and flickering shadows whenever the lights flashed.

They did not follow alongside the boulevard and ostentatious blinking dome for long. Instead they passed it by and headed for the edge of the city. The border of Manehattan on this side was against the ocean, but away from a majority of the docks. Instead, a long segmental bridge spanned the distance from the waterfront and extended far out to a pony-made island. A bleak hexagonal concrete wall lined its edges, and towers were erected at each of its points. Searchlights at their tops swept from side to side in slow and methodical patterns. Barbed wire was stretched across the tops of the walls, and a solid steel gate blocked the entrance with two more guard posts at either side. In the center of this gargantuan barricade was an equally unwelcoming slab of a building, square and smooth with the corners lopped off.

This was Manehattan Correctional Facility.

Applejack whistled low. “Now how do we get in there?”

The baby dragon reached into the cowpony’s saddlebags to procure the blue paper ‘Derpy’ had given him earlier. He unfolded it carefully, and the ponies gathered in close to get a better look. Now that it was open, the friends could see that it was a set of blueprints. Aerial views of the prison, side cutaways, and floor plans were all stapled together. But the front most sheet was a very small white slip, no bigger than a sticky note. Spike tore it away and read it off.

“Melody Lane and Firefly Street,” he said, scratching under his chin. “I think that’s over here!” Spike hopped onto the ledge of the rooftop and jogged back to the other end away from the jail, and closely followed by Rainbow and Applejack. Together they peered down at the intersection below. Here the buildings were plainer and there were no pedestrians in sight. Furthermore, the traffic was surprisingly almost nonexistent, save for a long white cart stopped at the light. The large rectangular vehicle was manned by two ponies in the front wearing navy police uniforms, and along the side it read “CONFORM.” With the sunglasses removed, though, it said something that made much more sense – “Manehattan Correctional Transport.”

Suddenly, a brown ball of feathers careened out of nowhere and slammed into one of the guards. He sputtered and swung his hooves around, attempting to batter it away from his face. The owl instead fluttered slightly over to the other cop and began raking his face with its sharp talons. Both ponies emitted blood-curdling screams of terror and abandoned their bus, with Owlowiscious flapping about them, tearing away their shirts. In their fear the police ponies let their uniforms and hats drop, not willing to face the avian assault. But when the officers had galloped for about a block, their assailant abandoned the chase and instead turned back to perch atop the vehicle.

Spike gaped. “Now that’s what I call an angry bird.”

Spike folded up the blueprints, hopped atop Applejack again, and pointed at the entrance to the rooftop access stairwell. The weathermare shoved the door aside, and the group sped down the flights as fast as they could until they reached the exit on the ground floor. They darted across the empty street and stopped at the deserted bus. It had metal grates on the sides in lieu of windows and looked entirely empty inside. The baby dragon hopped off Applejack’s back, coughed a little, and blew a tiny jet of green flame at the lock on the door. The metal melted, and Spike swung the door open.

Both ponies shifted and shimmied until their saddlebags came off, and Applejack passed them with her mouth to Spike, who threw them onto one of the seats and began exploring the inside of the bus. Dash used that moment to run down to where the officers dropped their uniforms and retrieve them. When the pegasus returned, she pulled off her hoodie in a flash and began to put on her disguise. Owlowiscious had ripped it in some places, but the gashes in the fabric were all in areas that wouldn’t be noticeable. The farm pony also changed into the other uniform, but looked at the officer’s hat with hesitation.

“Do I hafta wear that?” she asked. “I just got this back, and I don’t ever wanna lose it again!” She removed her Stetson and stared at it fondly. “I’ll bet this is what Rarity feels like when—”

In a flash, Rainbow grabbed the Stetson, chucked it unceremoniously inside the bus, and dropped the officer’s cap on top of Applejack, who sighed in resignation.

The baby dragon stuck his head out of the bus. “You ready?” he asked.

Both ponies nodded, now fully dressed in their disguises, with manes tucked under their caps and tails thrust into their shirts. Together they hitched themselves to the front of the bus and began to pull. Spike dropped into one of the seats and watched through the grate as the prison transport rolled into the intersection and down the street onto the bridge. Owlowiscious took off back into the city, his end of the job finished.

The ride was tense and devoid of conversation. As they progressed closer to the prison, they could smell the saltwater as the ocean waves crashed against the supporting pillars. The city grew smaller and smaller behind them. Spike started examining the plans again with the occasional help of the streetlights. There was a section on one page marked by a red circle – a high security ward on the highest floor at the opposite side.

Suddenly a searchlight illuminated the bus. Although both mares were startled, they silently continued onward, knowing that any strange movements or sudden stops would ruin their cover. Spike shoved the blueprints into one of the saddlebags and roughly threw those underneath his seat. The beam followed them every step of the way until they reached the gate, which they could now see was painted with a horizontal yellow and black caution line. The ponies slowly came to a halt and stood stiffly at attention at the iron monolithic door.

“Now what?” hissed Applejack from the side of her mouth.

Perfectly on cue, two horn-shaped loudspeakers mounted just below the tinted windows of the small gate towers blared out a siren that rose and lowered in tone rhythmically. A red strobe light above the entryway flickered on and spun about in time, and the gate shuddered. Along the middle of the line the door cracked apart with a grinding noise, showing heavy metal teeth-like protrusions. Rainbow watched its long, drawn-out movement and felt a bead of sweat trickle down the back of her neck and wondered how long the surprisingly searing searchlight would stay. And then, the gap in the door widened, and widened, and widened until both the top and bottom slabs were away and out of sight.

The ponies took a few initial and apprehensive steps, but gathered up their courage and passed through. As the back of the bus passed over the threshold, the gate rumbled again, and it slammed shut like a trap. With that, the strobe, the siren, and the searchlight simultaneously cut out.

Between the massive walls and the prison itself was a hallway constructed of chain-link fencing, lined at the top with rolls of barbed wire. Every now and then a small lamppost illuminated the concrete path. The segment the ponies stood in was fairly short, and it led to a small guard booth and a boom barrier blocking the way. Beyond that, the fence passageway wrapped around the center building, but followed the shape of the outer hexagonal wall. With nowhere to go but forward, the mares advanced, pulling the bus along with them. They briefly paused at the boom barrier, but the chubby officer pony posted at the booth only gave them a cursory glance before letting them through and continued savoring his doughnut.

Dash shifted about in her harness uncomfortably as they stood at the split in the path. “We’ve gotta ditch this thing, AJ.”

“You’re just bein’ lazy again,” the farm pony teased, making Dash snigger good-naturedly in spite of their situation. “But I reckon that’s a good plan.”

Spike hopped out of his seat, went to the front of the bus, and pulled himself up to peer through the grate in the front. “Hey!” he muttered. When the mares turned about, he pointed a claw to the right. “The prison’s designs show a parking lot that way. We should leave the bus there.”

Nodding, the ponies followed his direction. From here they could see the inner building of Manehattan Correctional much better. It was five stories tall, and had incredibly small windows along every side. The end of the building facing the main wall’s gate had no entry. However, they saw that the fence hallway split into an intersection up ahead that went left towards that prison itself. Spike clattered his claws against the grate to attract their attention and pointed right instead, which led to a dirt expanse filled with more buses and police carts.

The wheels bumped against pebbles and a small dust cloud emanated from behind them as they pulled into the lot. The two ponies backed the bus into a parking space as carefully as they could, and out of the way of the streetlights. Spike grabbed the saddlebags, stuffed Applejack’s cowpony hat into one of them, and then snuck out into the open to help the mares out of their harnesses. Once they had strapped on their packs, the group set out along the edge of the lot. The small hoofful of guards that were among the buses were too engrossed in either vehicle repairs or minor water-cooler small talk to notice.

The perimeter of the parking area was enclosed by more fencing. Rainbow looked through the wire at the prison, and then over at the very well lit passageway that they had entered the lot from. She stretched her wings out and lifted a hoof, but then snapped them back in tight, and instead turned to the farm pony.

“I guess I shouldn’t just fly over this thing, should I?” Dash asked rhetorically.

Applejack poked at the fencing with a hoof. “I could probably buck our way through, but that’d really cause a ruckus.”

Spike coughed a little.

“Well, maybe we can just walk out there,” Rainbow offered, but she didn’t sound too convinced of herself. “I mean, that’s what we did just a few minutes ago.”

“Right, but we were drawing that bus around. Spike was in there, and so was our saddlebags,” Applejack pointed out. “Spike ain’t got a disguise, and these saddlebags ain’t part of these uniforms.”

Spike cleared his throat.

“What do you want me to do? Get the bus again, roll it up to the door, and bring it inside the jail?” Rainbow’s eyebrow twitched. “Call me crazy, but—”

“Oh, for pony’s sake, move!” Spike hissed, striding up to the fence. The mares hopped aside in surprise at his brashness. The baby dragon inhaled deep, and then began to blow tiny jets of green flame at the chain-links. He lightly tapped the fence with his claw, and a portion fell out onto the dirt on the other side, with only the slightest clinking noise.

“…Well then,” Rainbow said, scratching the back of her head. “I forget you’re a dragon sometimes, you know that?”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, I’m cutesy and adorable,” Spike grumbled as he walked under the gap.

The ponies ducked down through the hole, assisted Spike with clambering onto Applejack’s back, and began to cross the region between the lot and the prison itself. The lights from the parking area behind them and the fenced passageway to their left didn’t illuminate this area, so the mares quickly removed their sunglasses and stowed them away in their saddlebags. Eventually they reached the prison and pressed themselves tight against its cold and clammy exterior.

Spike hopped off the cowpony, snatched the blueprints from Rainbow’s saddlebag, and then examined them with the help of the faintest fiery glow he could muster. He began to pace along the wall, his feet tapping lightly in the dust. Just when the ponies were about to ask him what he was doing, the baby dragon stepped on something flat and metallic.

“Here we go!” Spike whispered. “There’s a drain over here!”

With another small set of green bursts, Spike melted away the screws holding in the drain’s cover, moved the grate to the side, and carefully lowered himself in. Rainbow Dash and Applejack had to squeeze themselves very tight inside, but they managed to slip through. Spike folded up the prison’s designs again and was carefully helped onto Rainbow’s back.

The concrete tunnel was dingy and poorly lit by flickering fluorescent bulbs. A deep rut ran along the center where they stood, and it was slightly moldy and slippery. While Rainbow was easily able to help Spike get up the ledge on the left side and fly out of the ditch, Applejack had to step carefully, lest her hooves slip. But soon the cowpony clambered up with them and they set off down the passageway. Initially the pegasus attempted to make some general small talk, but discovered that the sewer had incredible acoustics. It was bad enough that their hoof beats echoed. Instead they opted to continue their walk in silence. They did this for an indeterminable amount of time as Spike continued to pore over the plans, flipping from page to page, examining marked areas, and scratching his chin absentmindedly.

Suddenly, there was a maintenance door to the left. They slowed down before it, but Spike shook his head and pointed onward, so Applejack walked on by and quickened her pace instead. But the weathermare paused and turned to look. She slowly stepped towards it, put a hoof against the handle, and pushed forwards slightly to peer through the crack. Inside was another tunnel that looked just as concrete and dank as the one they were in, though this one looked marginally cleaner. However, the biggest differentiation was a red line painted on the floor.

Applejack stopped, sensing that Rainbow wasn’t behind her. The cowpony turned about to see Dash gesturing wildly at the door, pulling at her face in exasperation, and doing her best to not scream or stamp her hooves about. Applejack poked Spike to get his attention, and they watched her wave about for a few minutes. Neither the earth pony nor the baby dragon was able to formulate a response. Finally the pegasus took a long exhalation, stopped flailing, and morosely stumbled forward to join them. The group continued on their way, but the orange mare and Spike eyed Rainbow uneasily every now and then.

Finally the friends came to a metal ladder built into the side of the wall. Dash merely flapped her wings a few times to reach the top of the corridor and pushed a heavy iron trapdoor aside. Again, Spike and Applejack had to physically climb up, and they slid the cover back over the entrance.

They were now standing in a very tiny room. It was concrete, much like everything else they had seen since arriving at the prison, but here there was a sense of sterility. The walls had been painted white and there was an unnatural chemical cleaning smell coming from bottles lined up on the shelves. Rainbow peered outside apprehensively through a thin vertical window in the door, and saw a white hallway running left and right, as well as extending forward. Nopony was visible.

“What was all that about earlier, sugarcube?” Applejack whispered. “We thought you had gone plum crazy.”

“You know what?” Dash hissed. “I’m not in the mood to talk about it right now.”

Spike rolled his eyes and looked over at the cowpony, who shrugged noncommittally. As neither one of them were willing to press the issue, Spike instead took out the blueprints and spread them out neatly on the floor. Together they gathered around the pages.

“Okay,” said Spike, exhaling to calm himself, “here’s the plan.”

A square of sixteen monitors in rows of four illuminated the faces of two changelings, who were sitting in short ergonomic swivel chairs. Their hooves flicked at a panel of buttons, switches, sliders, knobs, and a single red phone headset. With high-pitched clicking noises of excitement, one changeling picked up the phone with a glow of its magic, and the other changeling snapped a few switches down. All the security feeds coming through the closed circuit system cut out. There was nothing displayed for a few moments, but suddenly, imposed across all of the screens like they were one massive television, a dark and grinning face loomed out of the black.

“Yessssss?” rustled Chrysalis, visibly nothing more than eyes, teeth, and the hints of her mane.

“They’re inside, my Queen,” said the changeling on the phone. “We’ve let them through and into the interior of the prison, just as you’ve requested.”

“Very good, very good! Now, to move on to the next stage of my plan—”

“Hey! Heeeey! What’s she sayin’, what’s she sayin’?” asked the other changeling, poking the first one with a hoof. “C’moooon, let me hear her!”

The first changeling tried to parry the annoying prods away. “Stop it! The Queen is giving orders, you numbskull!”

Chrysalis sighed. The changelings could barely see her hoof rubbing at her temple. “Is that Steve? That’s Steve next to you, right?”

“Yup, that’s Steve,” confirmed the first changeling.

“No! I’ve told you, call me Frank,” the other said, planting a hoof down with resolve.

The first changeling snorted. “Oh, buck this! Queen Chrysalis, can you talk some sense into him?” Seeing the Queen nod, he levitated the headset over and leered. “It’s for you, Steve.”

Reluctantly, Steve lifted the headset to an ear with his magic.

The Queen moved in very close, until only her eyes, her snout, and the bottom of her horn could be seen. “Steve, take a look, okay? See this?” She rolled her eyes incredibly slowly, from one side to the other. “Did you catch that? I’m going to do it again.” Chrysalis rolled her eyes the other direction and somehow even slower. “You get it?”

Steve nodded slowly, doing his best to look anywhere else.

“There are literally thousands of you changelings. Thousands.” Chrysalis drew back and resumed massaging her head. “Besides, you try being the mother of an entire brood, okay? Let’s see you come up with that many original names. So if I say you’re Steve, then you’re Steve. Now pass me back to Steve.”

Sighing softly, Steve magically gave the phone to Steve again. “But I like being called Frank,” he muttered.

“As I was saying,” Chrysalis continued, now in conversation with the first Steve, “it’s time to commence the next stage of the plan. I am correct in assuming you’ve kept our new guests separated?”

The other Steve, who had been leaning over and listening intently, bolted upright and nodded. “That’s right!” he yelled at the headset, making the first Steve wince and rub his ear. “The ponies are never, ever in the same room at the same time!”

“Perfect. Now, listen very carefully. We’re going to let our little intruders find their friends.”

Both Steves looked askance at each other, but said nothing.

The Queen made a chirping noise and placed her hooves together. “Steve, and Steve, do you know when it is best to destroy a pony?”

Neither of the changelings responded. They were smart enough to never actually answer a rhetorical question from the Queen. Instead, they turned back to the screens and waited.

“The best time,” Chrysalis said at length, “is when a pony is trying to hold on to hope. When you shatter the willpower of one of these emotional equines, they attempt to fall back on the remembrance of friendship. The pony’s mind focuses on every positive time they’ve ever had with their friends, and they’ll be cured in minutes. But when you take that last bit of love they’re clinging to, it cancels out this defense mechanism. They are left hollow inside.

“I am certain, beyond the shred of a doubt, that Twilight Sparkle’s friends were involved in her little insurrection. But before I forcibly extract their secrets, I want those ponies to feel like they’re going to win. I want them to experience the magic of friendship one last time.” Queen Chrysalis’ eyes glowed, and the light shone through the holes in her hooves and reflected on the orbs on her crown. “And when they spring the trap, and their dreams are crushed beyond dust, I will personally drag them all by their manes before that pathetic purple pony… and they’ll never feel love ever again!

7 - You're My Hero, Rainbow Dash

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The walls inside Manehattan Correctional Facility were a sickly cream color, and the hallway was lit with a yellow tinge. The floors were pale blue linoleum that squeaked when stepped on the wrong way. Periodically along the corridor were doors, all white, with small vertical windows. Spike, who was sitting on Applejack’s back, counted them on his claws as they strode as calmly as possible. Finally, one with a small placard that read “STAIRS” came up on their left. Rainbow casually backed up into it, pushed the door open by a crack with her rear leg, and then they all swept inside. The metal grating clattered underhoof as Applejack ran up the winding stairwell, craning her neck to the floors above them. Rainbow opted instead to stretch her wings through her stolen uniform’s rips and flap vertically to the top.

The pegasus’ mind began to cycle through what Spike had said, back in the cramped storage closet that reeked of artificial scents. Manehattan Correctional Facility was five stories high, and its top floor was devoted to the prisoners that were deemed the most dangerous, and also was divided into three sections for each form of pony. Of course, Twilight Sparkle would be in the unicorn wing. However, between how long it took Princess Cadance to find any information on the prison, Shining Armor’s strategizing and logistics, and the last-minute special delivery by ‘Derpy’, they had absolutely no idea which cell she’d be in, let alone which hallway.

Applejack paused at the top of the staircase, right at the fifth floor, and Dash gently landed next to her. Spike hopped off and began to detach both saddlebags from both ponies, who wriggled about not only to help, but to shake out the tension in their backs. Once removed, the baby dragon swung them over his own back and hopped up onto Rainbow’s back. Gently, she lifted herself into the air as Spike clung on, until she reached the ceiling. Here along a wall was a vent, small and expelling cool air into the room. Dash kept herself as steady as possible as Spike extended a claw and began to twirl one of the screws counterclockwise. While he worked away, Rainbow used her vantage point to watch the staircase for anypony, or any changeling, heading up.

According to Spike, Shining Armor had a brief stint in the police force, and had been involved with penitentiary security. Apparently, each prison was outfitted with magic detectors at various checkpoints. Manehattan Correctional Facility was no exception. They had done very well in bypassing the initial ones on the first floor when they snuck through the sewer system, but upstairs was another story—there was no way further into the prison without going through them. As the sunglasses were magic, and there weren’t many of them left to use, having any of them taken away would have grave and unforeseeable consequences. Thankfully there was an exploitable flaw in the system.

The baby dragon finished unfastening the vent and passed it to Rainbow, who took it in her mouth. Spike hefted both saddlebags inside the opening and hopped in after them. A pony would definitely not have fit inside, but he was able to stretch all of his limbs out. Spike shifted himself around to face the gap again and grabbed the vent from Dash. As he pulled it back into place, Rainbow trotted back over to Applejack, who was listening intently at the door. She immediately pushed the door open, but the farm pony stuck out a hoof and blocked her. Above the entrance to the stairwell was a security camera, slowly panning from side to side, bleeping at each sweep and blinking a little red light.

Applejack and Rainbow Dash would have to pass through the magic detectors, and head for another supply closet in the hallway ahead. Spike would then crawl there, pass the sunglasses through the vent, and then they’d at least know which of their foes were honest ponies and which were dangerous. But between having to wait like a sitting duck for Spike, the many cameras around the floor, their sheer lack of precise direction, and the likelihood that a majority of the officers in Manehattan Correctional were changelings, they didn’t have much time at all. In fact, they had a limit: Shining Armor estimated they’d only have an hour to spend combing the top floor before the guards would compare their employee records against security footage and notice that they weren’t supposed to be there. If that were to happen, regardless of whether they had found Twilight or not, they were instructed to put the escape plan into action. Unfortunately, that part of the scheme was dubious at best.

When the camera swung fully to the side, Rainbow shimmied out and trotted forward down the three-way intersecting hallway, with Applejack hot on her hooves. Spike, watching from the ventilation shaft, grinned grimly and twisted himself back around. Grabbing the blueprints from a saddlebag, he opened his mouth wide and lit a small fire inside, just enough to see by the glow. He scanned the page dedicated to the air ducts, wound the straps of each bag around his other arm, and began to crawl his way through.

Spike didn’t divulge much about the breaking out part of breaking out, which made the ponies incredibly nervous. All he would say is that they had to reach the exercise yard, and then from there they would just have to wait and see, and he seriously didn’t want to say anything more, and “Please, please just let me have this one moment of mystery and coolness!” None of those statements did anything to persuade Applejack or Rainbow. However, they eventually just figured that if they had this much of a plan already, then there had to be a conclusion. The squabble was dropped, even though they didn’t have a satisfying answer.

Rainbow and Applejack fell in step with each other and trotted forward through the passageway as casually as possible. Ahead of them seemed to be two small lines of officer ponies (or officer changelings, but who could tell) waiting in front of a magic detector. They slowed to a halt at the end and both sidled into the back of the queue. A few more ponies entered the line behind them, and they were effectively boxed in between the cops and the walls. Every few seconds the line advanced as a cop passed through the detector. Both of the mares shuffled forward inch by inch and didn’t dare to look to either side. The wait only lasted a minute, but it was agonizingly long for Rainbow, who wanted nothing more than to plant her hooves in every pony around and make a break for it.

“Next!” said the completely green-hued unicorn officer at attendance, who was sitting inside a small booth along the wall. Through the windows they could see a pen hovering tentatively in his magic field over a clipboard, and he looked back and forth between Rainbow Dash and her list. Ahead was an intersection of hallways, with the same drab walls and the same pastel floors.

Dash stiffly strode through the magic detector. The light on top didn’t flash and no alarms were rung, but the officer held out a hoof. The pegasus glanced back at Applejack, who stayed silent but shrugged as minutely as possible.

The cop pushed at a small button at the counter on his side. “Officer… Light Bright?” he asked, his voice crackling through a speaker situated in the middle of the glass pane. “It doesn’t look like you’ve been assigned to a morning shift up here. Do you have some business on this floor?”

Rainbow’s eyes drifted to the nametag on her stolen uniform, golden and shiny with black lettering. It read ‘Light Bright’, just as the policestallion had stated. She began wracking her brains for something to say, some kind of excuse, but came up entirely empty. Instead her mind flashed back to just the day before, when Shining Armor had bailed her out of a very similar situation. It didn’t help.

The officer sighed and flipped through a number of pages on the clipboard. “Don’t tell me that they updated the schedule without telling me again,” he muttered.

Dash swallowed a hard lump in her throat. “Yeah!” she choked out.

Again the officer scanned some more pages, and then looked at Applejack next in line. “It figures. They didn’t put you on here either, Officer Ginger Snap.”

The farm pony also checked her own nametag and looked back as she walked through the magic detector. “Well, I can’t reckon why that’d be,” she commented, but her voice wavered slightly.

“This always happens,” said the officer, rolling his eyes in what looked like a well-practiced motion. “It’s not like this is the most dangerous floor of Manehattan Correctional, with the greatest need for security, and therefore requires the utmost care in escape obstruction or infiltration prevention.” His tone was dripping with sarcasm.

Applejack and Rainbow carefully nodded in agreement.

“And it’s not like communication is essential to running an entire prison, right? I mean, why, it seems completely unnecessary!”

Applejack and Rainbow made an “mm-hmm” noise together.

“You know what? I don’t have time for this nonsense.” The officer tossed the clipboard and pen to the side, which clattered against the counter. “You’re both going on full morning shifts, okay? Light Bright, you take the west side to the left here, and Ginger Snap, you take the east here to the right,” he instructed tersely, jabbing with a hoof at each pony and then the indicated hallway. “Find the supervisors on duty and they’ll tell you what’s to be done. Just mark it out on your timecards, it’ll get sorted out later.”

Both mares froze and their eyes locked to the ceiling. Somewhere up there, Spike was crawling through the air vents, preparing to meet them up ahead and pass them their sunglasses. Splitting up would delay their search, or worse. Dash instinctively began to unfurl her wings, her fight-or-flight response bringing itself to the forefront of her mind.

The officer reached underneath his desk and pulled out two small black pouches with silver metal hoofcuffs inside. He then slid them through a gap under the window. “Well? Get going!” The officer tapped his hoof on the counter impatiently. “There’s a line here, you know!” He then turned back to the line and directed the next pony through.

Applejack shook her head at Rainbow, and the weathermare quit spreading her feathers. No words were needed—their plan was already hitting complications, and they just would have to deal with it. They each snatched a bag with their teeth, affixed them to their belts, and plodded to the center of the intersection as a handful of other officer ponies passed around them. Rainbow pointed ahead down the center hallway, the direction Spike had told them to head first. The earth pony nodded, and took a few tentative steps towards her hallway.

“Hey, uh, ‘Light Bright’?” Applejack asked, turning about and winking.

Rainbow chuckled weakly. “What’s up, ‘Ginger Snap’?”

“Stay out of trouble, you hear me?” The cowpony tipped her pilfered police hat. It didn’t have quite the same physical or symbolic weight her Stetson had. “I want y’all comin’ back in one piece.”

The pegasus raised a wing to her forehead in a salute. “You got it. Let’s, uh, meet up after work’s done, okay? We’ll get all our friends together. It’ll be nice to have a break.”

Smirking at their little coded jokes, they turned around and began to take their separate pathways. A small number of officers grouped around them both, and they found themselves following their own crowds, farther and farther away. Soon, neither of them could see each other when they glanced back.

Applejack followed the other prison guards down the hall, watching as they individually split up and headed down various branches. When nopony seemed to be bearing towards one particularly short corridor with double doors at the end, Applejack held her breath and began to trot in place. The herd entirely swept past her, and the moment they were a safe distance away, the farm pony stopped and exhaled. Wiping the sweat from her brow, Applejack took a left into the hallway and pushed the doors aside to peek through.

The room beyond was square and filled with small round tables and stools bolted into the floor, where ponies in orange jumpsuits sat, faces nibbling at oatmeal and apples on plastic trays—the unicorns too. Spinning fans and florescent bulbs alternated across the ceiling. Along one wall were frosted glass windows that allowed light inside; Applejack reckoned it must be morning by now. The other wall had a stainless metal counter with small troughs of food, and ponies in aprons and mane nets doled out ladles of slop to a line of prisoners slowly inching past. Behind that counter was a steel door, and as it swiveled open, more ponies bustled back and forth with pots to be washed or serving dishes to be filled. And striding up and down between the tables were more prison guards, watching their charges idly.

“If these inmates are already filling up on breakfast,” Applejack softly whispered to herself, “then it stands to reason Twilight could be in here.”

Slipping inside as quietly as she could, Applejack began to walk along the edge of the room, towards the food servers. When she got a reasonable distance away, she flattened against the wall and began checking out both the line of waitponies and the latecomers to the meal line out of the corner of her eye.

“Let’s see… no, those two are earth ponies. That one’s a unicorn, but she ain’t the right color. No, no, and that one’s Fluttershy, and…”

Applejack’s head jerked in a double take and she briefly forgot how to breathe. Sure enough, there was a yellow pegasus with a massive pink mane and watery teal eyes, serving tray gripped tight in her teeth as a heavily tattooed inmate shoveled a mound of oatmeal into her bowl. The farm pony had to slam her hoof into her chest to get herself to inhale again. As soon as she had caught a gulp of air, Applejack inched along the wall, attempting to get closer. Luckily, Fluttershy soon reached the end of the line and morosely plopped down at an empty table in the nearby corner.

“Fluttershy!” Applejack breathed, sidestepping her way towards the pegasus. “What’re you doing here, sugarcube?”

The yellow pegasus looked up, blinked, and choked out a sob.

“Shh,” said Applejack soothingly, giving her a one-legged hug and muffling her sniffles. “It’s alright, it’s alright.”

After a moment, Fluttershy pulled back and took a deep breath. “I never, never expected to see you here, Applejack. I mean, I knew you’d be coming to visit Twilight, but I didn’t think you’d find me… and especially not in a police uniform!”

“The feeling’s mighty mutual,” Applejack responded, looking about carefully and taking a seat. “And I’m not here to visit, really. We’re breaking her out.”

“You’re doing what?” Fluttershy asked, eyes widening. “But that’s dangerous! That’s really, really dangerous!”

Applejack nodded. “I know. But we ain’t got a choice in the matter anymore. And besides, you’re coming with me.”

For a moment it looked like Fluttershy was about to protest, but she shook her head. “…Alright. I know you won’t listen to me, anyway.” She sighed and finally dipped her muzzle into her oatmeal. After a deep gulp, she continued. “And the others are somewhere around here, too.”

The cowpony bolted upright. “Hold on a moment, ‘the others’? You mean Rarity and Pinkie Pie are here? How did you even all get thrown in the big house in the first place?”

Fluttershy shifted her wings about awkwardly. “The taxi cab Rarity and I were in was pulled over by the police, and suddenly we were pushed into their cart and brought here. They didn’t read us our rights, or let us make a phone call, or even tell us what we did wrong,” she murmured. “And I don’t know how—oh!”

The pegasus looked back at the breakfast line and Applejack followed her gaze. Coming out of the queue was a perfectly pink pony with a straightened mane, blue eyes cast down at her hooves, and a food tray clutched in her mouth. She raised her eyes to scan the room for an empty spot and saw the nearby corner where Fluttershy and Applejack were seated. Like a balloon slowly inflating, her mane began to naturally curl and poof bit by bit as she started to trot their way. By the time she reached their table, it had completely expanded to full size, and Applejack swore she could see her eyes turn to the size of dinner plates.

“Oh my gosh… oh my gosh… oh my goshohmygoshohmygoshohmygoooosh—” began to exclaim Pinkie Pie, but not before Applejack raised a hoof to her own lips. Pinkie nodded, and settled instead for sitting down and vibrating in her seat with pure excitement.

“Perfect timin’, sugarcube,” Applejack whispered.

Pinkie Pie continued to jiggle.

“…You can talk, you know,” Applejack stated. “You just can’t get all wildly jumpy and make a ruckus.”

“Oh!” the party pony said. “That’s a relief! I haven’t been talking to anypony since I got here! It’s all rules and hoofcuffs and silence and nopony wants to talk to me because they’re all gruff and hardened and there’s no parties going on and if I had a few streamers or something the place would look much nicer and maybe they’d stop asking me to join a gang—”

“I think we get the picture,” Fluttershy commented.

Applejack took one more look around. The guards hadn’t noticed her sitting there yet, but there was no guarantee that would last for long. “We can’t stay here much longer,” she said. “Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, do either of you know where Twilight or Rarity would be right now?”

Pinkie Pie nodded. “Mmm-hmm! I heard somepony say Twilight’s in solitary confinement. And I passed by the block where Rarity’s cell is, but they were being led downstairs. I think they’re headed for the exercise yard.”

Applejack scratched her chin. “I reckon we could do this. We’re s’posed to meet down there anyways. But we’ve gotta find Spike, too. He’s got…”

“What?” Fluttershy asked, noticing the farm pony pause.

“It’s a long story, sugarcube, a mighty long story.” Applejack shook her head, wondering where she’d even begin explaining the situation when they got the chance. “We ain’t got the time for it, but we still have to meet up with him.”

Pinkie’s hair slightly compressed again. “But we don’t know how long Rarity will be in the exercise yard, Applejack!”

“She’s right,” Fluttershy admitted. “We can’t lose this chance to help her escape… even though it’s going to be very, very unsafe.” Her eyes widened. “There is an escape plan, right?”

Applejack closed her eyes and took a deep breath. They were expected to head for the exercise yard once they had found Twilight Sparkle anyway, and they had agreed to meet up there whether or not Spike had handed off the sunglasses. And with the other friends locked up inside Manehattan Correctional, something definitely had to be done. It was just complicating the situation further than necessary. The mare exhaled. Slowly, Applejack got out of her seat and put her back to the wall again.

Rainbow stifled a grumble as she trotted down the hallway, guards around her heading for their posts and locked in casual morning conversations. She had done absolutely nothing since her fight with Applejack except hiding and sneaking through an entire city and the prison. Furthermore, she hadn’t had much flight practice. Floating vertically upwards was about all she had done recently, and that didn’t count at all. Bare minimum, she wanted to slam one of these officer ponies (or changelings, she secretly hoped) right into a wall and really cut loose.

Everything was taking too long, she thought.

Dash saw one of the guards diverged down a hallway out of the corner to her eye, waving to a coworker as he went. The pegasus briefly wondered if she could get away with following him and administering a serious thrashing, but shook her head to clear the thought away. The cyan mare suddenly looked up, squinting at the florescent lights. Spike was still up there, crawling, with no idea that she had been separated from Applejack. Rainbow wondered if maybe he’d go looking for them once he realized that they weren’t there. Maybe, she thought, that baby dragon would try to search the prison himself. The pegasus exhaled and stood back up straight. She’d have to stick to the plan, even if it would be less satisfying. Spike definitely wasn’t capable of handling himself.

Another guard swept away from the herd. Dash’s ear twitched in his direction as he opened a door and disappeared from sight. Maybe, Rainbow considered, she could get one of these guards to talk. After all, she couldn’t just politely ask one of them. Sure, Spike was adamant about not blowing their cover, but time was even more important. Even though they only had an hour, Rainbow was certain there was no way she’d leave Manehattan Correctional without Twilight.

Rainbow watched with bated breath as one more officer, a silver-coated male earth pony with a salt-and-pepper curled mustache, paused at a door and took out a ring of keys. The guard had it slid over a hoof, and was using his muzzle to idly flip the small metal keys one at a time. His back was turned as all the other policeponies trotted on past… except for Dash, who had slowed down to a stop. The pegasus stared, biting her lower lip, boring a hole into the back of the guard’s head with her eyes. Rainbow shuffled around her wings and inhaled sharply. Slowly she slid her back legs into a charging stance and lifted a front hoof in preparation.

But Rainbow didn’t move. Somehow, the image of Applejack floated into her thoughts, galloping through the prison, wrestling off changelings as they jumped on her. Dash fleetingly considered whether any brash actions would put the farm pony in danger, too. If she acted impetuously, and an alarm was sounded, that cowpony would also be caught in the crossfire. That train of thought didn’t last very long. Rainbow knew, and especially from first-hoof experience, that Applejack was a strong scrapper. However, she felt herself stand back up again. Somehow, whether or not Applejack could fight off any attackers wasn’t the real underlying issue; it was that it wouldn’t be right to potentially put her in that sort of situation at all. And yet, it seemed to her that the earth mare would gladly welcome a brawl.

Dash briefly wondered why the door was open and the guard was walking through it, right in the middle of her dilemma.

“Oh no, you don’t!” the pegasus yelled, eyes narrowed and ears flattened. “I’m still thinking!”

The policepony spun around, key ring in mouth, an eyebrow arched. “What the… who the hay are you?”

Dash kicked off the ground, punching a dent in the linoleum. The pony guard attempted to scream, but the wind was knocked from him and his eyes widened to the circumference of dinner plates as she met the full force of Rainbow’s tackle, trademark multicolored trail streaking behind. The door whipped aside and banged shut again as the pegasus shot forward with the velocity of a rocket, scraping the officer along the floor until they came to a violent stop against cell bars.

“Ahhh…” Rainbow sighed contentedly, as if she had scratched a hard-to-reach itch and massaged a swollen muscle simultaneously. “That feels so much better now.”

The guard shifted uncomfortably and winced, held down in place by the weight of the gratified pegasus. “I… I landed on my keys,” he moaned.

Realizing her opportunity, Rainbow leaned her face in until she was snout-to-snout with the officer, who met her piercing stare with almost equal fervor. “Alright, talk!” Dash’s eyes narrowed. “Where the buck is Twilight Sparkle?”

The officer wriggled again, but this time his eyes drifted down to the walkie-talkie pinned to his chest. In a flash, Rainbow swung her head back and then slammed her skull right into the officer’s forehead. The guard’s eyes rolled up and he slumped over, knocked out cold. Dash tilted her neck from side to side, letting it crack a few times, and stood back up.

Suddenly the hallway erupted in a raucous cheer. Rainbow’s wings extended in surprise and her ears shot up. All around her, ponies clad in orange jumpsuits, locked in their cells up and down the aisle, were hollering and roaring with glee and disbelief. But none were screaming more than the cocoa unicorn stallion with a white short mohawk in front of her, who couldn’t stop gaping at her disbelievingly, or more accurately, behind her. Dash craned her neck back and saw that her multicolored tail had slipped out from under the uniform, and the hat had fallen all the way at the other end of the hall.

“Holy Luna in stockings, it’s Rainbow Dash!” the prisoner screamed.

Rainbow felt herself involuntarily grinning, and she flew up to the ceiling and pulled off the remnants of her stolen uniform with gusto. She thought the racket couldn’t get much louder, but the inmates amped up the volume with hoof stomping and clanging stolen spoons against their cell bars. As they yelled and cheered, she spun around slowly in the air to get a better view of her jailbird admirers.

“You’re my hero, Rainbow Dash!” called out the unicorn ecstatically around a pencil in his mouth. “You’ve gotta sign my leg!” He thrust his foreleg through the iron rods, his sleeve already pulled back in anticipation.

“Sure thing,” the pegasus responded, dropping down again and peeking through the bars. The cell wall was covered in scratched tally marks and choice profanity, and a particularly chubby gray earth pony with a magnificent purple beard lay on the top bunk, covered by a blanket and somehow fast asleep in spite of the din. “Anything for my fans, you know? I didn’t know so many ponies knew about my awesomeness.”

“Aw, righteous!” the convict exclaimed, passing Dash the pencil. “I can’t believe I’m getting to meet you!” He quivered in excitement until Rainbow finished scribbling down her signature, which unfortunately came out very shaky. Unfazed by the sloppy result, he trotted in place like an excited filly, and when Dash gave back the pencil, the pegasus had to suppress a snort of laughter when he squealed at a high-pitched tone.

“Oh man, oh man, oh man! You’re just, like, the best ever!” The inmate gazed at the signature longingly, completely starstruck.

“Yup! Yes! It’s true.” Dash tittered a little. “So what’s the coolest thing about me, huh? It’s gotta be my sweet moves,” she asserted, rearing up onto her back legs and boxing the air. “I mean, the Sonic Rainboom is the best thing ever, isn’t it?”

“Your what? Oh, sure, I guess it’s decent or somethin’. Hey! Hey!” the unicorn yelled at his snoozing cellmate, jumping up and poking him with a hoof. “Do you still have that needle? I want Rainbow Dash’s signature tattooed so it stays forever and ever and ever!”

The pegasus blinked, dropped back down on all four hooves, and slowly backed up a couple of steps. “Oooooookay then, you’re weird.”

Dash immediately took to floating in the air again, passing by more cells, each with two ponies inside. As she drifted along, every eye followed her and every hoof waved about, trying to catch the attention of their celebrity.

“Don’t let the system bring you down, Rainbow Dash!"

“Never have, never will!” the mare said.

Another pony with foreleg tattoo sleeves thrust a rusty metal cup through the bars. “Hey Rainbow Dash, try my prison wine! It’s the best in Manehattan Correctional!”

The pegasus just kept on flapping. “Sorry, I’m more of a cider fan,” she apologized. She felt a pang in her chest when she saw the felon’s dismayed expression, until the mare saw him turn away and dip the cup into the toilet. All of her repentant feelings were immediately squashed and her lower eyelid twitched in revulsion.

Suddenly her ears swiveled to the side. A soft sound had somehow caught her attention. Somepony was, of all things, almost whispering underneath the clamor.

“One of you ponies needs to cheer louder!” Dash said, continuing to float down the hall.

“Rainbow Dash!” The same faint tone came again, but this time at least she could hear it. It was definitely her name. Still, it wasn’t loud enough.

“Okay, better,” she conceded. “Now really put your lungs into it!” Dash pumped a hoof into the air. “Aaaand… now!”

“Let me try it this time! Hey! Rainbow!” a very high-pitched voice squealed over the din.

Applejack looked around at the patrolling officers, brow furrowed in thought. It had been a complete stroke of luck that she had strolled in without any resistance or questions. It would be much harder to walk out of the cafeteria with two prisoners in tow. The earth pony scanned the walls until she found a clock. It was 7:20. Knowing that the sun must have fully risen above the horizon by 7, Applejack reckoned there was only 40 minutes to somehow find Rarity, Twilight, and Spike before their ambiguous escape plan had to be put into motion.

One guard stood a few tables away, surveying the now dwindling breakfast line. Applejack straightened her police hat. That policepony was much too close, and something had to be done about that. But, she thought, maybe she could be used to their advantage.

“Do either of you know if there’s a bathroom around here?” she asked.

Pinkie Pie nodded. “It’s super-duper close! Why, is nature calling? I think it has everypony’s number on speed-dial.”

Applejack scratched the back of her head, choosing to ignore the quip. “I’m going to distract one of these cops, and you’ll slip through the doors and head over there. Just follow behind me, and stick to each other like molasses, okay?”

Fluttershy looked at Pinkie Pie a little askance through her mane, but she was still grinning wide as usual. “We can certainly try,” the pegasus conceded. “Just be careful.”

Walking briskly, the farm pony moved away from the wall and towards the policepony. “‘Scuse me,” she said, albeit a little faintly.

“You’re Ginger Snap, yes?” asked the officer, trotting over. She was a pale blue earth pony and her dark mane was bobbed short above the collar of her uniform.

The orange mare opened her mouth to say something, but found that her throat had tightened and run dry. Instead, she pointed right at the nametag affixed to her chest.

“Perfect, we were told to expect you. Have you worked the cafeteria before?”

Applejack felt her esophagus loosen up. “No,” she admitted.

“Well, we’re about to wrap up here and bring these inmates back to their cells. Just hang tight for a few minutes, okay?”

“Actually,” Applejack said at length, “is there a bathroom around here?”

“Oh, sure,” the policepony said. “It’s out the far door on the other side, down the hall to the left, and it’s the fifth door on the right. You’ll have to jiggle the key a bit too; it doesn’t quite work right the first time.”

“Uh…” Applejack murmured.

“Sheesh, you really haven’t worked the top floor, have you?”

“Well, not exactly,” Applejack replied, forcing a grin.

Sighing, the officer started to walk towards the door and motioned to follow with a head jerk. Applejack stiffly strode between the tables, and snuck a peek backwards as the policepony exited, catching just the top of Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie’s manes as the ducked underneath the table. Satisfied, the cowpony turned forwards again and followed her escort into the hallway and to the left.

Applejack and the other mare stopped at the fifth door, labeled “MARES (Staff Only).” The officer yanked a key ring off her belt, selected one, jammed it in the lock roughly, and pushed the door open with a hoof. Looking inside, Applejack saw it was a general run-of-the-mill bathroom, with tiled floors, mirrors and sinks to either side, and stalls in the back.

“Okay. Go ahead.” The officer coughed. “Just make it quick. I’ll be in the cafeteria.”

“Uh…” Applejack looked up. There was a security camera situated directly above the door. The cowpony crossed her front and back hooves and leaned against the wall.

The officer continued to stare blankly.

“Why don’t you mosey on in here with me?” Applejack asked.

“Excuse me?” The policemare’s voice was monotone.

“Well, erm, you know… aaaah…” Applejack felt her lips dry up, and her eyes drifted over to the side. “I’m just, well…”

The policemare smirked. “You make an interesting proposition, Officer Ginger Snap.” She winked and began to sidestep slowly into the bathroom.

Applejack forced herself into a grin and winced as her chapped lips cracked. Her eyes snapped up to the camera as she slowly plodded forward. They were now fully out of view of it, but the officer was still looking directly at her as she swung her head and flung her cap off, which landed right on a faucet.

Letting the door slam closed behind her, Applejack lightly stepped into the bathroom. The officer was backing up slowly and unbuttoning her uniform with her teeth. The cowpony tried to look anywhere else, but unfortunately with the mirrors to either side, avoiding seeing anything was entirely impossible.

The moment the officer had fully stripped her uniform away, the cowpony took her chance. Whirling on her front hooves, she rammed both of her back legs into the policemare, who wheezed as she sailed through the open door into the handicap stall. Applejack charged in after the unsuspecting cop and whipped one of the sets of hoofcuffs from her belt pouch. They were four hinged metal circles, one for each hoof, with chains leading to a much thicker but smaller center ring.

The officer attempted to roll over off of her back, but she wasn’t quite fast enough. In a matter of seconds, Applejack had snapped one of the bracelets to her back leg. The cop scrambled and twisted about, and Applejack had to bite harder into the chain and yank. Straining to pull the weight of her quarry and avoid her frantic panicked kicks, the farm pony looped the chain around the handicap rail and slapped the rest of the braclets onto the cop's other legs. Suddenly the bathroom door creaked open.

"Howdy hi, Applejack!" echoed Pinkie Pie's voice. "Everything come out okay?"

"Heavens to Betsy, Pinkie Pie, I didn't need to use the bathroom!" Applejack wheezed, exasperated and exhausted.

The cop wriggled about on the floor and struggled to remove her hooves. "Help! Help! She's trying to--" she yelled, until she was muffled by Applejack ramming a toilet paper roll into her mouth.

"Goodness," exclaimed Fluttershy, as she and Pinkie trotted into the handicap stall. "Is she alright?" She placed a hoof on Applejack’s shoulder. “Are… are you alright?”

Applejack slid past them and snatched the guard's shirt and hat from their resting places. “No, sugarcube. I’m pretty bucking far from okay. This went from weird and foolhardy to..." The farm mare paused. "I'm plum out of words."

Pinkie and Fluttershy just stared at the restrained cop, who was hopping around in furious frustration and attempting to scream vulgarities through a jaw full of two-ply.

"She sure isn’t,” Pinkie Pie said. “In fact… she’s a total potty mouth!”

Rainbow sputtered and looked over to the side. Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy were locked inside one of the cells, both clad in prisoner’s uniforms. The pink party pony had her face shoved into the bars, the fat of her cheeks squishing around and through them. Fluttershy was hiding behind her, trembling with anxiety, but as soon as Dash galloped up to the bars, her eyes almost shimmered with hope and relief.

“Wha—wha—what the hay are you doing here?!” the pegasus stammered. “Just… seriously, what!?”

“Well, we followed you into Manehattan to try and calm you down a teensy bit,” Fluttershy explained, fiddling with her sleeve cuffs and stepping out from behind Pinkie. “But the police pulled our taxi over.”

Pinkie pulled her face away from the bars and pouted slightly. “I was in another taxi with Applejack, but I got one of my Pinkie Senses and I knew they were in danger. But when I found them, the police said I was ‘obstructing justice’ and took me away with them. Some help I was.”

Fluttershy inhaled as she delicately put a leg over Pinkie Pie in a side hug, who was staring at the floor. “I don’t think I would have been much help, either. That is… had I done something.”

Rainbow briskly performed a loop in the air. “Okay, stand back girls. I’m gonna kick this down!”

Pinkie and Fluttershy quickly stepped aside, giving the cell gateway a wide berth. Dash dropped to the ground again, took a few paces back, lowered her head, and scraped at the ground with her hoof.

“Jiminy Hearth’s Warming Eve! Rainbow Dash is putting somepony on jackrabbit parole!” screamed a prisoner somewhere nearby. Dash seized up and spun around on the spot, looking for whoever ran their mouth. She didn’t know the precise definition of ‘jackrabbit parole,’ but something told her it meant a breakout. Yet somehow the entire block had quieted down in a millisecond. It was, in fact, completely silent.

And then, like an angry and excited choir, the local prison population exploded in a roaring symphony of statements of disbelief, Rainbow’s name, and a plethora of expletives. Fluttershy cowered and covered her face with a wing as Pinkie wriggled her head into the cell bars and looked about, almost excitedly, but more in wonder. Dash just fell backwards on her flank and groaned.

“This is actually starting to annoy me,” Rainbow stated, eyes up at the ceiling. “I never thought screaming, excited fans would get on my nerves.”

“Horseapples, he’s wakin’ up!” the strange cocoa-colored unicorn yelled, his voice echoing from his cell. Almost instantaneously the entire block calmed down again, though there were a few murmurs of confusion and gossiping.

“One second, girls,” Rainbow said, excusing herself and flying back down the hallway to where the unfortunate guard had been laid out. Sure enough, his eyelids were slowly cracking open, and he was attempting to roll onto his stomach.

“Oh yeah, the keys!” Rainbow gave the cop a good shove, turning him over a little farther. Grunting, she placed a hoof on top of the key ring, pulled them out from under him, and grabbed them with his teeth. “There’s gotta be one that’ll work!”

Cantering back, keys in her mouth, Rainbow skidded to a halt in front of Pinkie and Fluttershy’s cell and began to try key after key. It only took a few tries, but soon she was able to slide the door open. Pinkie Pie took a few tentative steps outside and gave the pegasus a hoof-bump, but Fluttershy had skittered to the back of the room.

“Oh… oh dear,” she said, voice trailing off. “I’m sc-sc-sc-scaaaaared.”

Rainbow lifted her wing up and buried her face in it. “Oh brother. What is it, Fluttershy?”

“That officer!” Fluttershy said, kneeling on the floor and trembling. “He’s still out there!”

“That’s it!” Pinkie Pie swung a front hoof and it made a snapping noise. Dash wondered how the hay that was possible. “He’s out there, so let’s put him in here!”

Fluttershy slunk to the cell door very slowly and nodded. “Well, I-I-suppose that’ll keep him from doing anything, like calling for more policeponies.”

The group trotted back to where the officer was continuing to stand, but he was struggling very feebly. The tubby bearded earth pony that had been sleeping before had finally woken, and had a heavy hoof placed on the cop’s cranium. It was just enough to keep the weakened guard from getting up. Simultaneously, the prisoner was holding a small sewing needle covered in what looked like ink in his mouth, and was slowly dragging it over the cocoa-collored stallion’s leg, right on top of the signature Rainbow had made on his coat. The cocoa stallion kept wincing during the tattoo process. Rainbow did, too.

“Thought we’d keep an eye on him, you know?” The unicorn grinned.

“That’s not an eye, that’s a hoof,” Pinkie commented.

The chubby earth pony released the cop, who was now breathing very heavily. Pinkie Pie bit at his shirt collar and began to drag him away, with Fluttershy following behind but keeping at a fair distance. Dash watched them for a moment and turned back around.

“So, like what’s the deal, huh?” Dash asked, swinging her tail from side to side. “Nopony’s asked me about the secret to a Sonic Rainboom, or what it’s like to save Equestria, or about being an Element of Harmony! I mean, what do all of you love about me?”

“It’s simple,” the fat pony stated. His voice was a rotund and deep bass. “You’re the real deal.”

“Well, duh,” Rainbow replied. “But what exactly am I the real deal for?”

The unicorn prisoner thought for a second. “It’s like this, okay? You’re like a symbol to us. You don’t let the law push you around, man.”

“Oh, okay then! I’m just such a rebel that you look up to me, right?” Rainbow reared up on her back hooves and flapped for balance. “That totally makes sense now.”

“Somethin’ like that.” The unicorn inmate looked down at his leg as the fat pony pulled the needle away. “Whoa! Like, totally excellent!”

Dash dropped back down to her hooves and looked closer at the prisoner’s leg. The signature had been tattooed on, but there was also a small profile of Rainbow Dash’s face next to it, grinning wildly. For a job done in jail, it didn’t look too bad.

“You know what?” said the unicorn. “I’d like you to have something.” He walked over to the bunkbed, stuffed his muzzle underneath the bottom mattress, and pulled out what looked like a neon pink toothbrush in his teeth.

“I’ve had this for a while, and been in many a dance on the blacktop with it, if you know what I’m sayin’. But it’s high time I passed it on… to you!” The unicorn strode over and pushed the toothbrush through the bars, offering it to Rainbow.

The large stallion’s eyes widened. “Are you certain about this?”

“Yeah, are you certain about this?” Dash asked too, but for completely different reasons. Now that she could see it up close, she could see that its torn and messy bristles rendered it useless. Furthermore, the handle was covered in bite marks and the tip was roughly filed down into a very sharp point. The unicorn wriggled it slightly, and Rainbow gingerly snatched the toothbrush in her teeth.

The cocoa stallion did his little trotting in place thing and squeaked. “Oh man, oh man, oh man! This is like the best day ever!”

“Uh-huh,” Rainbow said around the brush. “So… what is this thing?”

“It’s called a shiv,” the chubby pony said.

“And why would I want this?” Dash asked, still completely lost.

The unicorn grinned wide. “You’re pullin’ my leg, right? Of course you want it! You’re a hardboiled killer just like us, Rainbow Dash!”

The shiv clattered to the floor as Rainbow’s jaw dropped open.

8 - Gotta be Kidding Me

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“That’s right!” shouted Pinkie Pie, letting go of the cop’s collar and rapidly pogo-bouncing back to the pegasus. “Why’d you kill those innocent ponies, Dash?” She leaned forward hard as she stopped and her back legs lifted off the ground.

Rainbow swiveled to face her, leaving the crude knife on the floor. “You can’t be serious, Pinkie! You’re gonna listen to them,” she said, jabbing a hoof at the sparkly-eyed prisoner and then back to herself, “and not me?”

“We know you did it, Rainbow.” Fluttershy had followed Pinkie back, and her face was hidden behind her mane.

“This is the worst possible moment you could pick to rag on me for this!” Rainbow’s eyes rolled high. “Can we just get the hay out of here? Please?”

“No way, Ms.-Rampage-Killy-McKill-Pants!” Pinkie Pie’s front legs vibrated and she briefly lifted into the air.

“Look, you’re not going to believe me! I know you won’t, and I’m not going to talk about it until we’re outta here!” Dash snatched up the shiv and stomped off to where the officer was attempting to come to his feet and gave him a swift kick in the jaw. Immediately he was out like a light again, and Dash continued to drag him into Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy’s cell. “It’s either that or beat some sense into both of you,” she said around the knife, “and believe me, I tried that on Applejack already!”

Pinkie Pie turned about and trotted along after her. “Hold on, you’ve seen Applejack? Why aren’t you with her?”

“Yeah, you could say I ran into her earlier.” Rainbow put a hoof against her ribs and winced a little. “She’s here too, ‘cause we’re getting Twilight and blowing this popsicle stand.”

Fluttershy caught up to Pinkie as she slowed down in front of their cell. Rainbow had begun unceremoniously rolling the officer over and over until he was just inside the open door. Without giving him a second look, she kicked the bars and the cell slammed shut.

“I’m… I’m not so sure that’s a good idea,” the yellow pegasus said. “In fact, I’m not sure this is a good idea either.”

“But Rainbow said there’s a popsicle stand! We’ve got to try it! Oh, I hope they have strawberry-banana!” Pinkie gave her a huge one-legged squeeze around the neck and waved the other hoof in a spanning motion. “Popsicles, Fluttershy! Popsicles everywh—”

The yellow pegasus was shrinking away. “Do… do you just always have to do that?”

“Do what?” Rainbow asked. The combination toothbrush-knife hung casually from her lip.

“Oh, okay.” Pinkie let go. “You know, maybe this isn’t the right time.”

Dash looked at Fluttershy askance. “No, seriously, ‘do what’?”

Pinkie Pie exhaled and scratched her foreleg with another hoof. “No, she’s right.”

Thoroughly confused, Dash opted to turn around and go down the corridor instead of pushing the question. Pinkie and Fluttershy followed behind closely. The prisoners had calmed down significantly, not just because they nearly woke up the sleeping guard, but their curiosity had been fully satiated. With them turned away, going back to sleep, or otherwise returning to their normal lives, it was comparatively quiet for the first time in a while.

Dash reached the end of the hallway and pushed a cream-colored door open, not even bothering to look through the offset vertical window as she trotted through. Pinkie took a few seconds to cross the threshold, looking left and right and left again. Fluttershy recoiled and had to take around ten deep breaths before even touching the door. Dash wondered how she could even leave her house in the mornings.

They started walking to the left down yet another passage, this one devoid of inmates and as bland as all the other areas Rainbow had been in. More doors and their little placards were spaced along its length on either side. The weathermare tilted her head back to the earth pony and the pegasus.

“Any chance either of you know where that egghead is?” she asked.

Fluttershy blinked rapidly. “No… well, I know where a pony is, but you only wanted to know where one pony is, you see, and I think you mean, well…” Her voice trailed off as her mane drooped over her face.

Dash readjusted the crude weapon in her mouth so that it would stop poking her in the gums. “Come on, is Twilight around here or not?”

“We haven’t seen her at all,” Pinkie admitted, scratching a hoof under her chin. “Didn’t you say you saw Rarity, though?”

“Oh!” Fluttershy’s face reappeared from behind her massive locks. “Yes! That’s who I saw! She was pushing a laundry cart… the other way, actually.”

Coming to a complete stop to briefly groan, Rainbow turned around and leapt over Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, flapping in the air for a few feet until she landed again and started to go back. Suddenly, hoofsteps echoed from both directions. Dash and Pinkie Pie stopped mid-step and backed into each other instinctively, but it took a few seconds for Fluttershy to notice.

“Pony feathers!” Dash swore. Swinging her head about, she spotted a nearby door and threw her weight into it. It didn’t budge at all.

The hoofsteps grew closer. Pinkie Pie pushed in next to Rainbow and began to shove the door with her. The lock rattled as they struggled, but it showed no signs of opening. Fluttershy squealed and looked constantly between the sweating pegasus and earth pony, and the ends of the hallways where the approaching officers were just out of sight.

With a cracking sound, the door swung inwards and Pinkie and Dash tumbled inside, landing on the linoleum. Spurred to action, Fluttershy squealed and ran in after them, closing the door behind her. Together they huddled away from the small vertical window and held their breath as two officers met on the other side.

“What’s with the prisoners in Block D, eh?” one asked.

“Not sure,” replied the other. “They get rowdy sometimes, you know. We’ll sort them out soon enough.”

The friends exhaled when the guards turned away. Dash hazarded a peek through the window and watched them enter the cell block she had just exited from.

“Oh great,” she muttered. “We’d better move.”

For the first time, the three ponies took a good look at their surroundings. The room was fairly large and dimly lit by florescent bulbs hanging from a ceiling of metal roof rafters. Along the left wall were large washing machines and prisoners were either stuffing dirty sheets into them or extracting wet ones. The back wall was similarly lined with industrial-sized dryers, also in various states of being filled or emptied. The center of the room had ranks of massive canvas laundry carts. They were clearly sorted by their contents, such as whether they were clean or not, and the sheets were separate from the orange jumpsuits. Every now and then an inmate would take one of the carts and wheel them away, over to the washers, or the dryers, or out a metal gate to the right that was mostly raised up. However, that was only done under the close and careful supervision of a nearby officer.

Rainbow Dash slunk forward and splayed herself behind a cart directly in front of her. “This must be where Rarity was taking that cart,” she hissed.

“Actually, now that I think,” Fluttershy whispered as she pressed against the cart to the right and peered over the top, “Rarity should be in here for her shift.” She dropped back down quickly and squeaked, covering her mouth with her hooves.

“What is it?” Pinkie had hidden against the cart left of Rainbow.

“She is here! Rarity’s near all the washers in the back!” Fluttershy looked again around the side. “I-I-I don’t know if we can get close to her, though."

“Well, we still have to try, right?” Pinkie asked rhetorically.

Dash raised an eyebrow. “Do we really have to?”

Pinkie looked at her with an equally quizzical expression as Fluttershy began running her hooves through her mane, almost panicky.

“Duh, she’s a unicorn.” Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Why’s she hanging around here?”

“It’s because of those magic detectors around the prison. If you were a unicorn when you walked through them, the warden there can turn off your horn,” Fluttershy explained.

Dash started looking around at the walls. Hung above the door they entered from was a clock, reading 7:40. They were cutting it very, very close, and they needed a plan straightaway. The pegasus chewed at the toothbrush idly, wishing she could just tackle somepony again. But clearly Rarity wasn’t able to get out herself. It was time to take action.

“Maybe you could get close if you were hiding?” Fluttershy wondered aloud.

Pinkie winked. “What, like in a giant fake hollow tree?”

“Um… no?” Fluttershy responded. “Maybe… what about inside one of these carts?”

Dash suddenly turned around and jabbed the shiv into the canvas of the cart. She jerked her head down until she ripped a vertical gash into it. The drenched sheets inside partially fell through the cut, but she stuffed a hoof inside to stop them from escaping. Rainbow clambered through and was swallowed up by the laundry, her colorful tail being the last to go. Fluttershy looked around the side of her cart, and when it was clear that she wasn’t being watched, she lowered to the floor and inched over. She then thrust her front hooves into the gap, taking care not to rip the canvas any further. Fluttershy disappeared into the mass of sheets as Pinkie Pie rolled over and also squeezed herself inside. The top of the laundry pile shifted and bumped as all three of them struggled to keep the wash from being tangled around their hooves.

Rainbow twisted around a few times until she was satisfied that she was right side up, naturally capable of determining her position from years of flying and pegasus instinct. She swiped a front hoof side to side to push more sheets aside until she found the other end of the cart. Taking a deep breath, she cut at the canvas there too, and then peered out the slit. More saturated sheets were on the other side – she had effectively made a hole between their cart and the next. Dash wriggled through, closely followed behind by Pinkie, who was doing the backstroke. Again they writhed through the cloth until they reached the other side, cut a hole, and passed through. It took them a few times, but finally Rainbow squirmed her way through a pile of sopping wet orange jumpsuits, made a tinier slice in the canvas, and could see the dryers. And directly in front of her, a white unicorn prisoner with an impeccably styled purple mane was dragging a bundle of jumpsuits out in her teeth.

Dash fidgeted a little. The soaking laundry weighed heavily down on her back and the water dripped into her eyes. “Rarity’s like right there!” she whispered back at Pinkie. “But we can’t get any closer to her like this!”

The earth pony was slowly kicking her hooves as if she was treading water. “Maybe she’ll come over here,” she suggested. Somehow she wasn’t moving the laundry around when she moved, and her hair had straightened from getting wet.

Rainbow groaned at the mere thought of waiting longer and looked through the hole again. Rarity had turned around and was carrying wet laundry on her back. The washing hadn’t done the job so well—there were large faded red stains all over them, but she was walking towards their cart.

Dash looked back. “Pinkie, you’re right! She’s coming this way!”

Pinkie’s eyes widened. “Da-dum. Da-dum.”

“Wait, what?” Rainbow asked, raising an eyebrow.


Pinkie’s hooves shot downward and she rocketed up through the laundry. As Rarity came up to the cart and began dropping her wet jumpsuits one at a time inside, the party pony broke the surface of the wash and squeezed Rarity around the neck with her arms. Snapping backwards, Pinkie lifted the unicorn in a flash and dunked her under the laundry, both of them disappearing before the guards could even notice her.

There was now even less room in the cart. Rainbow displaced a couple of uniforms outside of the bin as she rolled about to exit back the way she had come. Pinkie let go of Rarity, who looked absolutely frazzled but was doing a surprisingly admirable job keeping calm, even with her newly soaked mane. All three of them began crawling their way back through the carts.

The weathermare’s hoof hit something solid, and the solid thing whimpered slightly.

“Fluttershy?” Dash looked down. Sure enough, she had accidentally hurt the other pegasus, who was wincing and rubbing her head. “Sorry ‘bout that. I thought you were with us the whole time.”

“No, I couldn’t even move at all,” Fluttershy admitted. She was indeed tangled by her hooves in the sheets.

Rainbow cut the sheets from around Fluttershy with her shiv and pushed aside even more laundry. All four ponies unceremoniously flopped out of the cart one at a time, landing on the floor and bringing much of the contents with them. Kicking themselves free of the wet clothing, they hurriedly made for the door, but not before Pinkie Pie shook out her mane like a dog to bring back its trademark puffiness. Dash flung the door open and held it for her friends as they darted out, and immediately followed close behind as they all broke into a canter down the hallway.

Applejack opened the door just a few inches to check the hallway. The metaphorical coast was clear. She looked up. The camera situated above her was panning left. She quickly straightened her cap and trotted out, followed immediately by Fluttershy, who was in hoofcuffs but moving as fast as she could, and Pinkie Pie, who had taken the other guard’s uniform. The cap was neatly balanced on top of her curly mane. Together they fanned out into the hallway and walked side by side in step.

Applejack turned to the others. “Alright girls, I don’t think we’ve got much time.”

“I wouldn’t think so either,” Fluttershy agreed. “But if that guard back there is found, or if somepony recognizes any of us…”

Applejack nodded. “Pinkie Pie, you said earlier that Twilight’s locked up all alone, if I’m rememberin’ this right?”

“You bet!” Pinkie made a couple of her strange vertical hops. “Caged up… like a jailbird!”

The cowpony looked away. “A-anyway, sugarcube, do either of you know where Twilight is?”

“Well, I hope it’s not this way,” Fluttershy commented, pointing with a hoof as best as she could.

Much farther ahead in the hallway was a rectangular arch structure – Applejack recognized it as another magic detector. It was also helmed by an officer in a security booth, a black pegasus, who was leaning back in his chair and idly staring at the ceiling. He hadn’t noticed them at all yet. The farm pony looked around. For once, the hallway they were in didn’t have any other doors. It was either turning around to wander some more or bypassing this magic detector.

“I… I think we should go for it.” Applejack said, slowing down a little.

“Oh!” Fluttershy squeaked. “Are you sure? Because it doesn’t seem like we should. I don’t think we should try this at all.” Her hooves seized up, and she was rooted to the spot.

Pinkie began repeatedly poking the petrified pony in the posterior. “Aw c’mon, Flustered-shy! We can’t stop now! What if I told you a joke?”

“…I su-su-suppose that would cheer me up,” Fluttershy conceded.

“Okay, you’ll like this one! What did the beaver say to the tree?” asked Pinkie.

Fluttershy and Applejack waited a moment.

“It’s been nice gnawing you!” Pinkie’s face was splashed with a massive grin.

Applejack stared down at her hooves. “I… I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… well, that ain’t the best gag I’ve heard out of you.”

“And one of the beavers I take care of has told me that one already.” Fluttershy sighed. “I’m sorry, Pinkie. But I’m… this isn’t… I know I have to, but I can’t.”

The farm pony looked over at the yellow pegasus. “Sugarcube, yes you can. You’ve got your animals to feed and take care of. Why, don’tcha want to go home?”

Fluttershy just nodded.

“I want to go home too, Fluttershy. I was out here at that orchard farming convention, and the moment I got home, I wanted to see all of us together. I wanted to see Granny Smith, and Big Mac, and Applebloom, and Winona. But I haven’t. Now, I know they can take care of each other. But what pony in Ponyville can feed and love those pets of yours like you can?”

Fluttershy dabbed away some dampness at her eye with her mane and shuffled forward a little. “It’s really up to me, isn’t it?”

“Wait!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, holding out a hoof.

“Huh?” Fluttershy started, involuntarily whinnying in surprise.

“What kind of pet…” Pinkie began, “…makes the most noise?”

Applejack sighed. “Pinkie, you already tried cheering her—”

“A trum-pet!” Pinkie Pie did a little jig in place and her cap bounced up and down.

“…You already tried cheering her up, sugarcube.” Applejack stepped over to Pinkie Pie and gave her a little hug. The cowpony felt her friend tense up in surprise. “I know you’re trying to make light of everything that’s goin’ on, but what she needed was encouragement.”

Applejack let go of Pinkie and went back to Fluttershy’s left. Together the three ponies trotted down the hallway and lined up. The officer inside the booth looked down from the ceiling and casually waved a hoof, motioning them through. One at a time, Applejack, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie passed under the magic detector.

Suddenly, the officer poked at a button on his counter. “Aaaalrighty then,” the officer said, his voice grainy as it came through the speaker. “I’m gonna need the three of you to step over here.”

Applejack and Pinkie Pie tugged lightly at Fluttershy, who took a deep breath and followed them over to the security booth. Her hoofcuffs rattled with every shaky step.

“One sec.” The stallion paused to flip through some papers on a clipboard. “You’re making a transfer, right?”

“Uh, yep! Mmm-hmm. It’s a transfer!” Applejack nodded rapidly, thankful that she had essentially been told how to lie.

The cop scrutinized his list. “Strange. This inmate here isn’t scheduled to be sent to solitary confinement.” He looked up, back down, and then up again. “She doesn’t even really look like a violent criminal,” he commented, eyes squinted as he stared into Fluttershy’s eyes. She was doing her best to meet his gaze, even if her legs were slightly wobbly.

Fluttershy gulped and looked up at the officer. “It’s-it’s actually for my own protection—”

“That’s because she’s the most dangerous one here!” Pinkie Pie hopped in place, throwing her hat loose from its precarious position. “I heard she killed a mare in Reino just to watch her die!”

Applejack dropped her face right into her hoof. The last thing she wanted to hear from Pinkie Pie was a Johnneigh Cash reference.

The officer’s eyebrows jumped and he leered over at Fluttershy, muzzle nearly compressed against the glass. “You make me sick. Lock her up.”

Applejack glared at Pinkie as she picked her hat off the floor in her mouth, but she didn’t notice at all. The cop slowly pulled back to relax in his chair as the three mares slowly stepped her away and down the corridor. A sign caught Applejack’s eye and she turned her head to read it—“SOLITARY CONFINEMENT”. She nodded and kept walking, satisfied that she had made the right decision. Meanwhile, Pinkie Pie was skipping along as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Applejack reasoned that Pinkie was just being Pinkie. She then inhaled deep and looked over at Fluttershy. It occurred to her that the pegasus had been surprisingly brave, considering not only her situation, but her disposition. In fact, she recalled it had taken far less cajoling or argument to help Fluttershy along than usual, ever since she had found her in the prison’s mess hall.

“Sugarcube…” began Applejack, thinking of the right way to say it, “have you been alright?”

Fluttershy looked askance at the cowpony. “W-w-what do you mean?”

“It’s just… well, you ain’t as scared as I reckoned you would.”

“Oh my goodness. I suppose I’m really not. Should I be?”

“What? No! Uh, I mean, yes?” Applejack whickered. “I guess I should be proud of you, but…”

“But what?” Fluttershy’s eyes widened.

Applejack turned straight forwards. “Fluttershy, let’s just say you’re not acting like yourself.”

“Wait a second…” Pinkie interjected. “I think I heard something!”

Spike turned the map around and around, and then stared out through the vent next to him.

“I don’t get it,” he mused. “Why’s this here?”

It had taken quite some time for the baby dragon to crawl through the ducts. While he was definitely able to fit, moving on claws and knees was a much slower process than he had anticipated; his progress was so minimal that he hadn’t even reached the meeting place. Besides, he had found something not present on his blueprints.

On the other side of the metal grate was a small and mostly empty concrete room, which was strangely not marked on the blueprints. All that was inside was a set of monitors lined along one wall four by four, two office chairs, and a control board covered with dials, knobs, and little flashing lights. The other walls were completely devoid of anything. In fact, that included doors. From what Spike could see, there was absolutely no way in or out of this room, save for the little vent.

The baby dragon extended a claw and began to pick at one of the screws holding the grill in place. He had just had it nearly out when a bright light flashed in the center of the room. Spike covered his eyes and wriggled rearward to hide farther back in the duct, but when the light fizzled away, he pulled himself forwards again and peeked from the corner.

There was a changeling standing there, fiddling with a golden wristwatch around his hoof. This was particularly strange to Spike. At the moment, the baby dragon was not wearing his shades. Suddenly the changeling looked up at the chairs and he moaned with exasperation.

“Steve!” the changeling yelled into the watch. “Steve, it was my turn to go on break, not yours!”

Another blinding flash burst next to the changeling, and when that one was gone, another changeling stood next to the first one, presumably Steve. It also had a wristwatch, but it was also holding two small bright orange chip bags in its mouth.

“Look, I’m sorry, okay? I just got a craving for something spicy, and I thought I’d pick up a snack for you too.” The other changeling walked over to the console, dropped both bags down, and ripped one open with its sharp fangs. Chips popped out, and ‘Steve’ began picking up the fallen ones in his mouth.

“What… what do you think you’re doing?” The first changeling had trotted over to look at the other bag, making chirps and clicks of annoyance. “Chips? Why would you ever want chips? You know we subsist exclusively on love, right?”

“Aw Steve, lay off!” exclaimed the other changeling through a mouthful, crumbs spraying everywhere. “They’re tasty, alright? And I said I got you a bag too.” Steve lifted up his open bag with his magic, extracted one of the chips, and waved it about. “Try one! They’re ‘Xtreemly Fiery’!”

Cautiously, the angry Steve bit at a corner of the chip and gave it a tender nibble.

“Well? What do you think?”

“…You know, that ain’t half bad. Just tell me next time you leave, alright?”

The first Steve-Changeling sat carefully in the left chair as the other one plopped into the free one. They began to flick at switches, bags held by their magic, occasionally dumping a couple of chips into their mouths.

“Hey, I see something moving.” The left Steve pointed at one of the upper monitors.

Spike looked where the changeling was pointing. The screen showed a birds-eye view of a magic detector in the middle of a hallway. Suddenly two ponies walked into view from the left side. The baby dragon nearly gasped aloud, but covered his mouth just in time. Even from the strange perspective, he could tell that it was Applejack in her stolen uniform, leading Fluttershy along with the help of Pinkie Pie. They walked through the detector and stopped in front of the guard station.

The right Steve leaned far back in his chair for a better view. “Oh dang it, that’s not good.” It dumped the remnants of the chip bag into its mouth and belched.

“What do you mean?” The first changeling purposefully moved one of the console’s sliders. “This is exactly what we want.”

“Well, I bet Steve twenty bits that the orange one would catch on.”

“Oh you’ve got to be kidding, Steve! That one’s the something-or-other of Honesty. She’s a total sucker!”

“Man, I told you to call me Frank!” The second changeling magically crumpled his chip bag into a ball and chucked it at the other Steve.

“Chrysalis Almighty, don’t start on that again, alright?” The first changeling snorted as the bag missed by a wide arc.

The other Changeling-Steve turned away, clearly annoyed. It then flicked at a couple of switches, and a screen on the bottom row flickered. This monitor showed a completely different hallway of the prison, going at an angle that showed its entire length. Spike began biting into his claws when four ponies cantered from the bottom up—a disguise-less Rainbow Dash with Rarity in tow, plus Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie again.

The right changeling looked over at the monitor with Rainbow Dash. “Aw, yes!” He pumped a hoof into the air and spun around on his seat cheerfully.

“What is it this time?” The first changeling finished off his own bag of chips and tossed his trash aside.

“I bet Steve twenty bits that we’d dupe that blue pony! I broke even!”

“Nah, Steve will never pay you, man. I mean, seriously. We’re talking about Steve here.”

“Pfft!” Steve-Frank flopped a hoof in dismissal. “This time it’ll be different! He’ll pay me after I loan him the bits. Don’t be so hard on the guy, bro!”

The left Steve rolled his eyes. “Made any bets on how this’ll end?”

Spike shakily withdrew his claws from his mouth and began heating up a small fire inside his throat and aimed for one of the bolts holding the grate in. He spat but couldn’t form a firey jet, instead feeling his esophagus cool back down.

“No, no, no! Why am I so nervous?” the baby dragon hissed to himself.

Spike grunted and attempted to relight the flame, pushing his stomach a little harder as a way to force it to happen. His throat warmed back up again, he pursed his lips, and then finally blew out a flaming spurt. It hit the screw but wasn’t as hot as he had expected it to be – the bolt had only melted partially. The baby dragon gave it another shot and fired out a couple more jets, which immediately destroyed the screw.

“Nah,” said the second changeling, reaching for a plastic box on the control panel, and lifting it up to reveal an imposing red button. “I spent my last bits on snacks.”

It slammed its hoof right into the button, spun around in the chair one more time, and stood up. The first changeling also got up, but with much less enthusiasm. Spike held his breath and slipped back into the ventilation shaft a little more to hide.

“Right, let’s get down there,” the Steve on the left said, tapping at his watch. “We have to be present for the finale.”

In two more subsequent light flashes, the changelings disappeared from the room.

The three ponies stopped, right at the edge of another bland and empty hallway intersection. Applejack’s ears pricked up. Pinkie Pie was right; there was indeed something making a rumbling noise. The cowpony dropped flat to the ground and laid an ear to the linoleum. It was vibrating rhythmically, from the passageway in front and to both sides. She looked up at her friends. Pinkie Pie had her usual smile a mile wide, and Fluttershy was visibly sweating bullets. Applejack stood up and reached for the key ring on her belt, deciding that it was best to unlock Fluttershy’s hoofcuffs, just in case.

Keys in mouth, Applejack lifted her head just in time. It was like reality had gone sluggish and needed something caffeinated. An alarm bell began blaring as a ridiculous multitude of policeponies swarmed from the left and right corridors, gripping plastic shields in their mouths. They lined up horizontally and crouched to face the forward hallway as another row carrying shotguns stood behind them. The absolute moment they had finished their formation, Applejack heard a voice she hadn’t heard in days yell out her name, and her mouth stretched open in shock.

“Applejack! We’re leaving, now!”

The keys that were in Applejack’s mouth dropped to the floor, and that’s when all of existence chugged the coffeepot.

The cops with the shotguns fired as Twilight Sparkle herself charged down the corridor, clad in a prisoner’s jumpsuit and her head angled forward. Something glinted near her hooves, but she suddenly jumped and disappeared in far brighter flash of light. The buckshot ripped into the side walls of the hallway, managing to briefly overpower the sound of the siren, as the same white light re-announced the appearance of the unicorn. Her hooves clacked against the floor and she kept running towards the pony blockade.

Applejack reacted immediately. She cantered forward and skidded to a halt in front of the nearest officer. Whirling around, Applejack reared up on her front hooves and bucked him with both legs. He tumbled forward, firing a shell straight up into the ceiling. The other officers closest to him jumped in surprise and pivoted to meet her, while the others froze briefly, not sure whether to block Twilight or fend off Applejack. Capitalizing on their indecision, Twilight raced ahead, clearing the gap between her and the guards. She leaped again, landing on one unfortunate officer’s shield, pushing him to the floor and springing off it. The unicorn landed on the other side of the blockade and continued cantering away, speeding right towards Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, who skidded slightly on the linoleum as they broke into a canter to follow her. One cop lashed out at Applejack with his shield, forcing her to jump back and run as all the other guards attempted to reposition themselves. The cowpony ducked just in time as her stolen officer’s cap was blown to shreds by a well-placed shot.

“What the hay are you doing here, sugarcube?” Applejack shouted, running faster to catch up. She easily passed Fluttershy, who was struggling as best as she could in her hoofcuffs.

Twilight kept galloping and didn’t look back. “I’ll tell you later! Right now we have to reach the exercise yard!” Her voice was strained and labored.

“I don’t understand! Why are we going there?” Fluttershy suddenly squealed as another shotgun fired. It missed them by a wide margin.

“You’ll see when we’re outside!” Twilight yelled back.

The magic detector and the guard booth came back into view, and all four ponies cantered through it, not bothering to give the cop inside a glance as he frantically pointed and shouted at them. Suddenly, Twilight took a sharp left and slammed her weight into a door. The other mares shoved in behind her, and they all entered a stairwell. As they descended, their hooves clashed against the metal steps, but it wasn’t loud enough to mask the sound of another shotgun firing. Applejack turned back briefly and saw that this time a slug had been used, leaving a massive hole where the door’s handle had once been.

Reaching the bottom of the staircase, Twilight ran for the door and thrust a hoof at it, banging it open right as their pursuers entered the top en masse. A couple of pegasi broke away from the horde to drop down and block them, but they were just a few seconds too late. Fluttershy had exited the stairwell and closed the door.

The bottom floor of Manehattan Correctional was marginally nicer but it was impossible for Applejack to really take notice. Tables, chairs, and a couple of soda machines whizzed by as they charged through the mostly open room. Suddenly, the cowpony heard a crashing sound. She skidded to a halt and looked back, just in time to watch Fluttershy trip over her own hoofcuffs, slide across a table, and collide with a chair on the other side.

“Fluttershy!” Applejack screamed, hooves pounding against the floor as she turned around and ran to where the pegasus fell.

“Apple—aah!” Fluttershy cried out as she tried to stretch a leg. She was sprawled out on the linoleum, lying on one side and a back leg wrenched at an awkward angle. “I’ll be okay… just go!”

The orange mare thrust her muzzle underneath Fluttershy’s body, attempting to help her to her hooves. “No way in Tartarus, sugarcube! You’re walkin’ out with me, or both of us ain’t!”

Another shotgun blast rang out over the blaring klaxon. Fluttershy winced as she allowed Applejack to push her up. She struggled to stand, having to put all of her weight on her other hooves. The cowpony put an arm around her and began to half-guide, half-drag Fluttershy away from the toppled chair. Applejack squinted. There was a bright light coming from the other side of the room. Twilight and Pinkie were holding a set of double doors open and the sun was flooding through.

“Look! We’re gonna be outside, okay!? We’re breaking out!” Applejack began pulling at Fluttershy even harder, who had also started moving faster and less gingerly. She could hear Fluttershy’s little whimpers of pain grow louder.

“Come on! Hurry up, let’s go!” Pinkie Pie shouted. “You have to run!”

Fluttershy gasped with anguish as she pushed herself harder, the hoofcuffs digging right into her injured leg. Applejack tried to not pay attention and focus on supporting her, but found that it was impossible, especially with the siren at full volume. The mares were moving at a jog now, heads turned away to block out the light. Applejack heard more yelling from all around, outside, back inside, and from her friends. Screaming herself raw, the cowpony heaved Fluttershy forward through the double doors and closed her eyes tight. As she passed over the threshold, Pinkie Pie and Twilight followed close behind, allowing the entrance to Manehattan Correctional Facility shut behind them.

Rainbow, Pinkie, Rarity, and Fluttershy had booked it out of the laundromat as fast as possible without taking a look back. But soon they slowed down a little in the corridor, just enough to allow themselves to catch their breath. Rainbow had opted to get her hooves off the floor and fly, which was most welcome after being in the soppy piles of laundry.

“Oh-emm-gee, it’s so great to see you!” Pinkie Pie bounded alongside Rarity. “We haven’t seen you since… well, you know.”

Rarity snorted “Pinkie Pie, this isn’t the right time. I’ve been waiting far too long in there for somepony to rescue me.”

“I know what that’s like.” Fluttershy commented. “Helpless, alone, afraid… it’s terrible, isn’t it?”

Dash rolled her eyes. It was just her luck that she had to help the two ponies that were incapable of lifting a hoof for themselves. And now she still had another three friends to meet up with, wherever they were.

“It’s a good thing Rainbow Dash was here for us. Isn’t that right, darling?” Rarity flicked her mane to the side.

Rainbow's ears pricked up immediately and she twisted in mid-air to face the others. "Yep! That's right. I'm way awesome." She rested her head back in her front hooves, all of her annoyance completely forgotten.

As the pegasus began making some very slow rolls, watched enthrallingly by Pinkie Pie, Dash noticed something odd. It was hard to tell because of her rotating perspective, but it almost looked like in the intersection ahead of her, a familiar purple unicorn in an orange jumpsuit had turned out of a hallway on the right and began running away from them. Rainbow rotated herself until she was upright again and peered even harder. The unicorn in question definitely also had a navy blue mane and tail.

“Twilight…?” Dash said slowly.

“Ah!” Rarity gasped and stumbled to the side, kneeling and leaning against the wall. Pinkie Pie immediately came to a full stop next to her, and Fluttershy also slowed down, panting from exertion. Rainbow landed quickly and ran to her as well, but looked back for just a moment. Twilight, if that was her, was gone.

“Oh, just give me a moment,” Rarity said at length, attempting to get back up on her hooves but using the wall for support. “I’ll be fine in a moment.”

Dash sighed and wriggled her wings. “Fine, fine. But we need to hurry—”

Pinkie Pie and Dash simultaneously twitched in shock as a loud alarm, inconveniently located right above where they were standing, blared out and echoed in the hallway. Rainbow swiveled around as hoofbeats and guns rang over the existing din, coming from back where the pegasus was certain she saw Twilight, just in time to see a door farther down open up and an officer walk through--the graying bearded stallion Dash had knocked out twice, holding an icepack to his cranium.

“There they are!” the cop yelled, and simultaneously winced.

Doors down the hallway were kicked open by booted hooves, and two policeponies exited from each, one crouching in front with plastic shields and one behind them gripping shotguns in their teeth. Pinkie Pie began to back away, and Fluttershy cowered as if to minimize the size of her body. Rarity was slowly pushing herself even more. Dash reflexively took a confrontational stance with her legs and wings spread apart, ready for anything.

“Rarity, you’d better get up now…” Dash said, gritting her teeth.

“No, don’t rush!” Fluttershy retorted, looking down at Rarity. “Take it easy!”

The policeponies had now shuffled into the hallway, evenly spaced apart from each other. Dash stepped forward and growled aggressively as she set a firmer bite into her shiv.

Rarity was still leaning against the wall for support. “I think we can… we can escape through the laundry room!”

“The other door is for the freight elevator!” Fluttershy added.

Rainbow swung the shiv threateningly. The officers had all moved closer together and had made a slowly advancing, thick wall of policeponies and shields. “We’re not leaving yet, girls!”

Pinkie Pie began pushing at Rarity with her muzzle, which seemed to merely startle the unicorn into getting up faster. “Rainbow’s right! Twilight is still somewhere in the prison!”

“Oh, Twilight? Why, she’s out in the exercise yard!” Rarity said, now standing shakily upright.

Dash backed off slowly, coming closer to her friends. “Are you sure she’s there? I could have sworn I just saw her a second ago!”

The sound of more doors being kicked open resonated, and Pinkie Pie swung around to look. More officers had exited behind them, but not only were they farther down the hallway, but none had exited from the laundry room. “Rainbow, they’re coming the other way now!”

Dash ground her teeth into the shiv. She knew what she saw, and if that was Twilight earlier, there was no way the cops didn’t see her. Spike was also completely missing. Rainbow knew that maybe he could hide, but there was no chance he could run. Plus, taking the slow-moving freight elevator would mean they could get cut off by more policeponies when they reached the bottom floor. With the riot officers closing in from both sides, though, she didn’t have much of a choice.

“…What’re we waiting for?! Let’s go!”

Using a wing as a counterbalance, Rainbow Dash kicked into the floor, pivoted on a hoof, and broke straight into a gallop. Fluttershy, Pinkie, and Rarity followed close behind her as the lines of officers began to charge, their plastic shields clacking together. Grunting with exertion, Dash skidded right into the door to the laundry room and held it open for the other mares. She briefly noticed that there weren’t any other ponies inside anymore, but she didn’t have the time to wonder. Pinkie Pie leapt through the doorway, followed by Fluttershy, and then Rarity who was only trotting at half their speed.

As soon as the unicorn was in, Dash let go and ran between the cloth carts, easily coming up behind her friends. It was just in time—some of the officers had broken formation and ran ahead. But the rest weren’t fast enough, as the single door acted as a bottleneck, preventing more from pouring in all at once. Rainbow thrust a back leg into one of the carts, which toppled it and a few others with a resounding bang. Most of the officers were either able to leap out of the way, but a few unfortunate ones either tripped up in the spilled laundry or were knocked to the floor.

Pinkie Pie slammed her hoof into a button next to the rusted freight elevator gate. It shuddered violently and began creaking as it sluggishly rose in meager increments. “C’mon, c’mon-c’mon-c’mooon!” She began repeatedly poking at it with her forehead, but it didn’t move any faster.

Fluttershy and Rarity looked at each other, and then backed up slowly until they stopped against the elevator gate. The officers that had been trapped by the fallen laundry carts were being pulled up by their comrades. Using hoof signals, they directed each other to form a semi-circle surrounding the four ponies and began to tentatively move nearer. Dash hovered slightly above the floor, shiv in mouth, chewing hard into the worn bristles. Pinkie turned around, abandoning the button to leap into the ever-shrinking space between the officers and the elevator and snarl like a wounded animal. But even with Rainbow bobbing back and forth in air and Pinkie Pie foaming at the mouth, the policeponies were tightening the gap, seemingly determined to not let the mares slip a second time.

“It’s open!” Fluttershy suddenly yelled. She and Rarity lowered themselves all the way to the floor and just barely squeezed themselves under the gate, which was continuing to groan noisily.

The officers were now close in enough to have no openings between them. Pinkie Pie and Dash were pressed to give ground, hoof by hoof and wing beat by wing beat. Rainbow took a chance and looked behind her. Both Rarity and Fluttershy were inside and huddled in the back corners. The gate was also slightly wider open now, and she saw on the elevator’s far wall a rusty control panel. The pegasus nodded at her friend, who responded with just a wink, but that was more than enough.

Bounding backwards, Pinkie Pie dropped to her side, sliding underneath the gate. Dash simultaneously blasted forward as if to charge the line but made a wide sweep at the last second along the entire length of the formation, forcing the policeponies to retreat a few steps. The pegasus twisted in air and turned to the freight elevator, put on some speed, and easily cleared the gap.

Dash landed inside the elevator right in front of the control panel and her eyes skimmed over it rapidly until she found a button marked “CLOSE”. She hit it, and a little fake bell sound chimed, but it didn’t seem like anything was happening. She turned around in time to see that not only was the gate still widening, but the officers had regrouped and pushed all the way forward up to the gate. As the cops began to try to duck under the gap, Pinkie Pie began smacking them with her hooves, springing from side to side to beat them back. Fluttershy and Rarity were still in the corners, cowering and trembling.

“A little help, girls!?” Pinkie Pie asked screechily. “And what’s—aah!” She drew back her hoof as one cop attempted to grab at her from under the gate. “What’s taking so long, Dash?”

Dash turned around again to the panel and hit a button labeled “GROUND”. There was another ding, but the gate continued to open very slowly. The pegasus screamed in frustration and began smacking all the buttons. The elevator sounded off with more dings and more squealing from the gate, and Pinkie Pie was shouting at the officers to get back, while the other mares made whimpering noises. None of the buttons worked and the door was rising and rising higher and higher. Hyperventilating, Rainbow Dash jammed the shiv into the edge of the control panel, used it to rip away the cover, and yanked out a hoofful of wires inside.

The gate immediately halted its rise and the elevator began to quake. One officer that had halfway stooped underneath it began slowly stepping away. Dash’s eyes fixated on the flashing connections, the electrical sparks arcing up and bouncing down onto the elevator’s floor. Pinkie Pie looked up at the ceiling, back at Dash, and up again. Even Rarity and Fluttershy quieted down, glancing around at all the other equally confused ponies.

With an ear-splitting screech matched only by the mares, the elevator abruptly plunged down, leaving the fifth story of Manehattan Correctional Facility behind. Rainbow felt her hooves involuntarily lift, and she hurriedly looked about at her friends. For a brief moment they were all weightless together. Suddenly, the squealing noise declined and the elevator lurched to a sudden stop before hitting the end of the shaft, throwing all four ponies back to the floor with a simultaneous thud. Dash barely had the time to shut her eyes tight and brace for the impact. She landed on her stomach and felt the wind escape her lungs, as well as her prison-made knife leave her mouth and clatter on the ground. Coughing and gasping, the pegasus pushed herself up halfway with her front legs and opened an eye. Bleary through tears, she saw the sun streaming through the gate from the ground floor. The bell sound chimed and it rapidly opened up.

“You… you girls okay?” Grunting as she fully stood to her hooves, Rainbow then shook her head to clear it and opened both eyes.

The other three mares were rising similarly, with Rarity and Fluttershy using the side rails as support. All four of them had managed to survive intact. Dash slowly strode over to where Pinkie Pie was struggling.

“Heh, sorry about that,” Rainbow said, pushing underneath the earth pony with her muzzle. “I guess I got a little frustrated back there.”

Pinkie smiled. “It’s not your fault, Dash. The elevator really got the drop on us.”

“We may not have been killed by the elevator,” Fluttershy began.

“But that joke might do it,” Rarity finished haughtily.

“I hear them!” yelled a muffled and echoing voice, way above them from the top of the shaft. “They’re still alive! Get down there, now!”

Another creaking noise came from above, and then the sound of hoofbeats stomped above them. Rainbow looked up and jumped aside as a cutting torch flame shot through the ceiling and spat sparks everywhere. The ponies yelled, scrambling to escape the elevator. As Dash turned, her hoof stepped on something and she looked down—it was her fallen shiv that had clattered away. She immediately snatched it up in her teeth and left with them.

The elevator had brought the ponies to a concrete loading dock, which had forklifts and a couple of large metal wagons but was surprisingly devoid of any workers. The far side had a large aluminum shutter that was wide open, and they could see fencing and then the outer wall of Manehattan Correctional farther back. The ponies broke into a canter down a gently sloping ramp into the room and began to cross it. Dash experimentally circled her wings; realizing that they weren’t in pain, she jumped up and flew just above the floor with them. Fluttershy smoothly leaped to join her in the air too.

“Okay, so they’re on our tails now. Does anypony know where the exercise yard is from here?” Rainbow asked urgently.

“It’s really, really close!” Fluttershy said, flying to the elevator’s exit. “Let’s go!”

The ponies reached the end of the loading dock, Fluttershy and Rarity in front, and Pinkie Pie plus Dash close behind at their hooves. At the exit the unicorn and the yellow mare pulled a hard left, and they squinted at the sudden change in the light. Though Dash didn’t completely recognize the area, she knew that this was another section of the same pathway she and Applejack had taken the bus down in the wee hours of the morning. But here the barbed wire and chain-link continued in a massive length, stretching from the main building to the outer wall and a rolling gate in the dead center. There was also fencing above the area behind the gate, effectively enclosing it from the top like a chicken coop. Fluttershy and Rarity pointed to a metal post and its square locking mechanism. The blue pegasus angled the shiv forward with her tongue, stabbed it right into the lock, and twisted her neck. While the toothbrush did ply and bend, the lock clicked.

“There they are! Get ‘em!”

Fluttershy and Rarity gasped. Policeponies spilled out from the loading dock, armed with their shotguns and shields. They only took a moment to group together into a tight wedge formation, leveling their guns forward and advancing. Dash yanked the prison knife away and hooked her hooves into the chain-links. Seeing this, Pinkie followed suit, and the two of them started sliding the gate right. As soon as it was just wide enough, Rarity and Fluttershy shoved their way through the opening. Dash pushed just a little more as Pinkie Pie sprang left and then around the gate, and Dash followed just behind, not bothering to close it up after her.

The exercise yard was paved over with asphalt, fresh and pungent, with white lines designating the borders of a basketball court. Their nets were missing. Two of the prison’s towers situated on the outer wall to their right marked those corners of the yard, and tin metal benches lined up in the shade. Rusty barbell benches were at the far fence with free weights strewn about. To their left was one entire side of Manehattan Correctional’s center building, with a pair of heavy-looking double doors. The ponies came to a halt right in the middle of the enclosure.

“Now what?” Dash asked herself aloud.

As if on cue, something made a banging noise, and somepony yelled. Dash whirled around to her left and came face-to-face with Applejack, still in her policepony’s garb and one front leg over a hoofcuffed Fluttershy, with Pinkie Pie and Twilight Sparkle just behind her.

“Applejack!” Dash cried, eyes widening. “Where the hay have you been?!”

Applejack hefted Fluttershy a little, who squeaked almost like a rubber ducky. “Sugarcube, I could say the same about you!”

Rainbow’s ears pricked up at the Fluttershy’s peep and she looked to her, who pushed her mane from her face and beamed. Her eyes then drifted to Pinkie Pie, who was standing behind Applejack and grinning much wider. Applejack peered behind the blue pegasus and saw Fluttershy, afloat in the air with firm wing beats. The cowpony cocked her head and saw Pinkie Pie, trotting in place hyperactively.

“Hey, you found Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie!” Applejack and Dash said in unison.

There was a pause.

“Wait, you found Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie?!” they yelled, eyes dilated and locking in on each other.

“Hmph. Looks like the jig is up,” said Rarity composedly.

Rarity and Twilight Sparkle strode away from the other ponies and stood aside as the double doors opened again and the gate squealed again. Policeponies scrambled in, shields and guns aloft, quickly filing the yard around its borders. The unicorns smirked as the Fluttershy next to Rainbow landed to their left and the Pinkie Pie next to Applejack stalked over to their right. They grinned even more darkly as the earth pony and pegasus were enveloped in green flame-like bursts of magic for just a brief moment, accompanied by shouts of confusion from the remaining ponies—two changelings stood before them.

“You’ve gotta…!” Rainbow faltered for a moment, almost raising her hoof to point but dropping it again. She looked back to see her friends. Applejack’s face had contorted with panic-tinged bewilderment, but was still gripping tight to Fluttershy, who had buried her face right into the cowpony’s neck to cry. Pinkie had fallen back onto her haunches, involuntarily deflated her hair, and adopted a thousand-yard stare somewhere past the walls of Manehattan Correctional. Dash slowly turned around, teeth grinding into the shiv’s plastic handle.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Dash screamed.

“What? What is it, Rainbow Crash?” asked ‘Rarity’. Her voice was markedly different, lower and hissy. “You confused? You a little, say, cross over our caper?”

Fluttershy pulled away from Applejack, letting her walk forward. “There ain’t no way this just happened!” said the cowpony accusingly. “What the hay did you pull on us?”

‘Rarity’ winked and straightened herself up. “We pulled the wool right over your eyes, hayseed. Allow me to explain. See, the two of you waltzed in here not because you’re clever or something. You’ve been set up from the get-go, before you even got to the front door. But let’s handle this one problem at a time so your tiny horsey brains get it.

“We knew you were coming from a mile away. So we planted these two in the prison, made you split up at the magic detector, and waited until you found them. And it’s crazy you didn’t comprehend that you were dealing with fakes. I mean, did you hear some of those jokes, Applejack? Steve had to write some ahead of time and hope he could ad-lib the rest.” Rarity pointed at Pinkie’s old changeling, who fluttered its wings and nodded. “But isn’t that what you do, Pinkie Pie? Crack one-liners all day and never get serious?”

“I felt I had to over-do it, too,” Pinkie’s old changeling copy said, scratching its neck spines. “None of us can do Pinkie’s physics-breaking visual gags, the freak.”

Pinkie didn’t break her gaze.

“Steve here just had to be incompetent.” ‘Rarity’ continued, motioning to the ex-Fluttershy changeling. “Remember how she wouldn’t even leave her cell? Rainbow, did you even wonder how she could’ve been stuck in the sheets? Maybe you didn’t, because that’s just par for the course for Fluttershy.”

The left changeling was licking one of its fangs absentmindedly. “Oh, and I started flying at the end. I thought I blew it, but no, Rainbow didn’t even notice.”

Fluttershy simply bowed her head.

Applejack snorted. “Let me guess, both of y’all are changelings too.”

“Quit trying to fast-forward,” ‘Rarity’ chastised. “We’re getting to that next. Anyway, there’s one more thing that really should have tipped all of you off: all four of us told you what to do, where to go, and how to get there. Honestly, that should’ve been the only red flag you needed.

“Now let’s see if you can wrap your heads around this one. Dash, do you recall how you rescued me?” ‘Rarity’ continued.

Rainbow’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah. What about it?”

“Nothing seemed off to you? Nothing, say, caught your eye as being strange?”

The pegasus didn’t respond at all.

“Think about it. Would Rarity have stopped cleaning those prison uniforms while they were still dirty? Or know exactly what was happening when Pinkie Pie grabbed me? Plus, like I just said, Steve and I convinced you to get down here.”

Rainbow shook her head defiantly. “We were already coming to the exercise yard, horseapple-brains.”

“And didn’t we use that against you?” ‘Rarity’ retorted. “But I’m not joking here. You keep trying to skip ahead, and I’m trying to keep things dumbed down for you. Stop it.” The white ‘unicorn’ paused for dramatic effect. “Maybe you’d like to know how you almost ruined our con near the end—‘almost’.

“Remember when you saw your friend here?” ‘Rarity’ jerked her head to ‘Twilight’, who grinned and nodded. “Had you followed her, you would’ve found Applejack pretty quick, so I had to fake an injury to distract you.” ‘Rarity’ held up a hoof limply and pouted mockingly.

“I’m sick of this!” Dash’s ear twitched. “Get to the point already!”

‘Rarity’ seemingly ignored the comment. “This part’ll blow your skulls wide open, you two. ‘Twilight’ here has a little surprise.”

Reaching a hoof to her horn, ‘Twilight’ gave it a little push. It fell off with a pop and bounced on the pavement like a rubber ball. She watched it bounce away with only her right eye as the left eye stared at the ponies, and then she wiped at her face and muzzle. Purple streaked away, revealing a gray undercoat, and her eyes had now changed color to a golden yellow.

Applejack and Dash stole a glance at each other and looked back.

“…‘Derpy’?” Rainbow asked, voice wavering.

“This ain’t right,” Applejack said. “This ain’t right at all.”

“The one and only, motherbucker!” ‘Derpy’ crossed her eyes and circled them opposite directions. “And you bought my act hard!”

“Who?” wondered Fluttershy, looking over at Pinkie Pie, who still hadn’t moved or changed expressions. “Isn’t that Ponyville’s mailmare?”

“Oh yeah, you weren’t there for all that, huh? Lemme lay it down for you.” ‘Derpy’ unzipped her jumpsuit and hopped out, revealing that the majority of her coat was still gray beneath, and she had a gold wristwatch fixed to her hoof. “Twilight’s underground uprising hired me to pass messages and such. At least, that’s how it worked for a while. But this Steve,” she said, nodding her head at the center changeling, “caught me in the act and gave me a better offer from Queen Chrysalis. So I pretended I couldn’t help you get into Manehattan Correctional and I alerted the changelings to your arrival.”

‘Rarity’-Steve nodded. “You wanna know how we’re paying her, ponies? Guess! Just bucking guess, you’ll love it!”

An officer trotted out from the crowd, carrying a steaming metal tray in his mouth. He stopped in front of Derpy, who eagerly squealed and planted her face into it. Making noises of enjoyment, she pulled out a single, fresh blueberry muffin and fit its entirety in her mouth, spraying crumbs everywhere. She then balanced the tray on her hoof and the policepony hurried back into the formation.

“Free muffins, whatever flavor, whenever she wants them, and as many as she can pack away in her stomach,” said ‘Rarity’. “We’re gonna feed her addiction for the rest of her life.”

“That’s… you said you don’t like muffins!” Dash said, nearly dropping the shiv.

Applejack whickered. “And how the hay did you do that magic trick?”

Dash glanced over. “She did what now?”

“You mean when I teleported?” ‘Derpy’ swallowed a huge chunk of muffin and lifted her other hoof, which had the gold watch strapped around it. “I used this. It’s the coolest thing ever, right Steve?” She looked over at ‘Rarity’ for a moment and returned to chomping down the baked goods.

The white ‘unicorn’ chuckled and was enveloped in the green rush of changeling transformation flames, revealing the bug creature as the magic subsided. It chittered as it rolled back its jumpsuit sleeve and held up a black cavity-filled hoof, also with a golden watch strapped to it. “You got that right.”

Dash’s pupils contracted immediately, but Applejack stared at the changeling’s watch apprehensively. “What’s it talkin’ about, sugarcube?”

“Ah, yes. Dash is very familiar with these. Remember, when Steve got away from you in the Wonderbolts shop when you tried to tackle him? The same watches Steve and Steve tried to use when you gunned them down in the mall’s access hallway?” The ex-Rarity changeling’s eyes were little more than slits.

“Woah, back up.” Fluttershy’s old changeling suddenly looked over. “Steve and Steve are dead?”

The changeling that had been Pinkie Pie held a hoof to his mouth in shock. “I just saw Steve like two weeks ago!”

“Yeah. She shot them,” hissed the center Steve. “I didn’t know mammalian blood ran cold.”

Fluttershy raised her head. “Rainbow… you really killed them?”

Dash chewed more at the shiv and beat her wings harder, but said nothing.

“Well, we’re nearly done here,” the ex-Rarity changeling commented, turning to Applejack. “But there’s one more thing that I have to touch on. You haven’t just seen ‘Derpy’ before, you hick.”

In another emerald eruption of magic, its neck spine was replaced by a reddish mane, its horn and fangs were gone, and its face had become a little squarer and rougher.

“Is it coming back to you yet, pal?” the ‘pony’ said gruffly. “Don’t answer, that was rhetorical.”

Applejack sputtered and shied away. “Wh-wh-wh-what?”

“Who’s this supposed to be?” Rainbow asked, turning back to Fluttershy.

“That’s Inspector Callahoof. We… we met him in Ponyville before we came to Manehattan,” uttered Fluttershy disbelievingly. “But… but you walked away! You questioned us, and walked away!”

“That’s right Fluttershy, that’s exactly bucking right! I boarded the train car behind you ponies when you left Ponyville to search for Rainbow Crash!” The ‘Inspector’ leered wildly, thrusting her watch at the ponies. “I replaced Rarity the moment she went to the bathroom, hid this in my mane, and the boys here in blue locked onto its signal. I thought I’d only bag Fluttershy when I did that, but Pinkie Pie’s ‘Sense’ played right into my hooves!”

Pinkie Pie was still mute, but her pupils dilated.

“Oh, and for the record...” The ‘Inspector’ planted its hooves firmly, sneered, and scanned its eyes over Applejack, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie in turn. “Do you three remember when you found the newspaper? Do you remember that soul-crushingly somber, weepy moment we shared?”

There was silence.

“I just want you to know… I was laughing.”

The three changelings chittered and rasped lowly, looking at each other and at the four friends. The ‘Inspector’ was immediately engulfed in a short bright green inferno, and one by one, policeponies in the circle around them followed suit, becoming the members of the insect-like horde. Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy turned around again and again, only able to watch as all the policeponies shifted their forms. ‘Derpy’ was preoccupied with the tray, licking up mere muffin crumbs from each hollow. The peals of mirth rang out louder and louder, each changeling adding to its harsh cacophony, a victory gloat of malicious enjoyment.

“Wait! Steve, wait!”

The laughter waned immediately and every changeling and pony looked to the source of the shout—Pinkie Pie had gotten to her hooves, but her hair was still straight and flat.

“WHAT?” shouted most of entire changeling mass in chorus.

“It’s Frank! My name is Frank!” yelled a changeling in the back, jumping up and down over the crowd before being unceremoniously shoved back down.

“None of this makes any sense at all!” shrieked the cerise mare. “How would the four of us not know our friends were replaced? Why didn’t we catch on? We know what our friends are like!”

“Because you’re blind, stupid pony!” said the center changeling.

“It’s so obvious!” Pinkie yelled, eyes darting about. “Don’t you see why it happened this way?”

“… Because the magic of friendship is a lie?” the ex-Rarity Steve asked quizzically.

“No! It’s because…” Pinkie Pie inhaled and her mane poofed back into shape again.

“The author of this story is a complete hack!”

9 - Pop the Bubbles

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“Rise and shine, pony!” came a loud, authoritative mare’s voice. “Oh wait, that’s my job now.”

After an excruciatingly mind-numbing eight and two-thirds rounds of counting cobblestones, Twilight Sparkle had managed to lull herself into a fitful sleep. She was lying on her stomach with her front hooves crossed, her chin resting on the bottom hoof, and her nose buried into her top hoof. The unicorn’s eyes opened just a fraction, the light coming through the barred window too bright for her. From behind her mane she recognized a blurry white form—ostensibly her alicorn mentor, complete with gold adornments and pastel flowing mane, all slightly tinted green by the floating cube she had to look through.

Twilight shakily pushed herself up to her hooves and stared down the form of Celestia. “I… I know it’s you, Chrysalis. There’s no point in this charade anymore.”

“Hmph, very well. I’m done with this form for now, anyway.” A circle of green flames burst from the floor and rose up as a massive pillar, and Queen Chrysalis’ wings, horn, and holes materialized all at once. It was almost as if she was fast-forwarding through the entire transformation sequence to get it out of the way faster, like she was doing the bare minimum of being impressive or theatrical.

“How the buck are you even raising the sun anyway…” Twilight murmured. She still couldn’t fully open her eyes.

Chrysalis snickered gleefully and flicked her wings. “Now, now, Nightlight, what makes you think I’ll tell you everything you want to know? It’s my choice what you get to see or not. But I do have something special to show you today, equine.”

The unicorn rolled her eyes. “I don’t want to see your ulcers, Queen Syph—“

“SILENCE!” cried Chrysalis, eyes burning and physically quivering with rage. “I’m going to make you regret making that little comment, and you will stay silent—as dumb as your intellect, or I’ll backhoof you straight into Tartarus!”

Twilight stared down the likeness of the Princess, who was equally meeting her gaze with eyes like daggers, breathing heavily and still trembling. There was a moment of calm, as calm as could be between adversaries.

“Now then… you recall Rainbow Dash’s little stunt she pulled, yes?” The Queen scowled. “I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that nearly threw a wrench into the works.”

Twilight lifted an eyebrow. “Glad to hear it. When do I start regretting things?”

The changeling queen tilted her head to the control panel and fired a green bolt of magic. To Twilight’s left, the wall of the green cube turned opaque and briefly flickered white before an image was splashed across it.

“This is video footage, recorded, oh, yesterday afternoon.” Chrysalis sighed. “I couldn’t show you it then, of course. It’s just three of your friends. You’d still have been full of sappy emotions like hope and optimism, knowing Applejack and Rainbow were still out there.”

Twilight watched the wall of the cube as it looped the brief recording a few times. It was a silent, birds-eye view of Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity. They were walking down a cream-colored hallway with blue linoleum flooring, hoofcuffed and flanked on either side by policeponies.

Chrysalis began tapping her front hooves together “You see, I left a note saying you’d be in Manehattan Correctional Facility. I had intended to snatch all of your friends the moment they got off the train, but with Rainbow on her rampage, apparently Applejack and Pinkie Pie went to track her down.” The changeling queen looked up briefly to the ceiling. “Who knows how that weird pink one returned and fell into the trap anyway, but that still left the Technicolor wonder and the hick at large. Your pathetic herd separated and … I was forced to settle for less.

“But then, we received inside information that changed everything!” Queen Chrysalis shouted as she reared triumphantly, kicking about with her front hooves. “The mindless mares had met, and they planned to pay a visit to the prison… for you!”

The changeling queen’s horn lit up again, and she gave the control panel another zap. This time an image appeared on the wall of the cube to Twilight’s right. The unicorn completely turned around, ignoring the clip playing to the left. It was also a top-down angle of a room filled with washing machines, dryers, and rows of laundry carts. Other than that, the room was entirely empty, but not for long. A small door burst open and four mares galloped inside. Twilight gasped and lifted a hoof to touch the cube’s wall, leaning in for a better look as the camera zoomed in on Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash. Three of the ponies, with the exception of the blue pegasus, were dressed in orange jumpsuits. A colossal swarm of officers gripping riot shields and shotguns in their teeth stormed through right behind them, bottlenecked by the door, pushing past each other as fast as they could.

Twilight furrowed her brow in thought, scanning over and examining the scene. “Where… where is this? You said I’m in Manehattan Correctional!” Twilight yelled, turning back to Queen Chrysalis. “You’re making me watch for a reason—tell me!”

“Where indeed are you, my little pony?” Chrysalis said patronizingly.

Twilight snorted. “You’re about to show me something else, aren’t y—“

“Let me show you!” the queen crowed triumphantly.

Chrysalis’ looked back and shot a third beam to the controls. This time the brief white flash came from behind Twilight and prompted her to whirl around again. The camera was pointed down a metal staircase. Suddenly four ponies cantered out of nowhere. Twilight froze still as she watched herself in the footage run down the steps, followed by Applejack wearing a policepony’s uniform; and hot on their hooves was somehow also Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, both dressed as prisoners but the former was hobbled by a set of hoofcuffs.

The unicorn slid back onto her haunches and she felt her coat stand on end.

“Oh no,” she whispered softly.

“That’s right, Twilight Sparkle! You were in Manehattan Correctional—at least, that’s what your friends thought!” Queen Chrysalis’ eyes were blazing manically. “But it doesn’t stop there!”

Chrysalis blasted the controls yet again and Twilight could barely bring herself to look up at the top of the hexahedron. A fourth clip was now playing on that wall of an outdoor, paved area with an immense ring of policeponies around the edge. In the center of the high angle view were some of her friends: Applejack still in a uniform, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie clad alike as inmates, and Rainbow Dash holding in her mouth what looked like a pink toothbrush. To the side were Rarity, another Pinkie Pie, an additional Fluttershy, and Twilight’s doppelganger. The unicorn could only watch in horror as the second Fluttershy and Pinkie lit up in green flames, turning into changelings before her eyes.

“Isn’t that just magnificent?” Chrysalis sighed contentedly. “I didn’t want to use the same tactic of swarming your friends with changeling copies of themselves, they’ve seen it already. Besides, I wanted to hurt them on an emotional level, and how can you be…” Chrysalis rotated a hoof absentmindedly, as if searching for the right word. “…How can you be magical friends with yourself?”

The unicorn was silent as the footage suddenly sped up, fast-forwarding with a high-pitched whine. Twilight watched herself on camera knock off her own horn and smear a hoof at her face to somehow wipe away the purple and change her eye color to yellow. The recording slowed back down in time for the unicorn to witness this pony, a gray pegasus mare with ostensibly a wig or mane dye, be offered a tray of muffins and voraciously dig into them face-first.

“Oh! Oh that’s my favorite moment, right there!” Queen Chrysalis pointed and sniggered mean-spiritedly. “She’s called ‘Derpy’, right? I don’t understand it, really. We caught her ripping apart some dispatches and interrogated her. She told us something about it being a fake name, being ‘undercover’, I don’t know, it bored me to death.” The queen looked again at ‘Derpy’ in the footage and snorted again. “Too easy, if you ask me. She spilled the beans and did this for us, all for… muffins.

“But I’m still not finished, Twilight Sparkle! One hundred percent of their effort to free you is for nothing! Of course, that’s partially because I’m about to capture them. But you were indeed on the right track earlier—you’re not in Manehattan Correctional at all. The letter was a red herring they chased, hook, line, and sinker! And to think… you could have been saved if they only searched a little closer to home.”


“Think, pony, think!” exclaimed Queen Chrysalis derisively. “What’s near Ponyville and is made out of stone?”

Twilight looked down through the floating cube at the cobbled floor underneath. “I… I counted them for hours…”

The changeling queen’s face had contorted into a maniacal grin. “Say it! I want to hear you say it, unicorn!”

“…This is the Castle of the Two Sisters. You’ve locked me in the Castle of the Two Sisters.”

Chrysalis howled in delight and reared up again. “Ah-ha-ha-ha-haaa! I win, Twilight Sparkle! I motherbucking win!”

Twilight Sparkle felt a burning sensation somewhere deep inside her chest, like a miniature ball of molten metal. She rose to her hooves and slowly stepped towards the edge of the cube to look the Queen right in the eyes.

“You… how could—no, how dare you?!” she choked out, a lump rising in her throat. “Turning a pony’s addiction to your advantage? Fabricating information under the name of the Princess? Exploiting the trust my friends have in each other—and me when none of them, I repeat, none of them were involved until you dragged them into it?!”

Chrysalis blew on her hoof and polished it against herself. “You’re making it sound like a bad thing, Twilight. It’s called ‘using your wits.’ Try it sometime.”

The unicorn felt the heat spreading through her body from the center outward and her legs began to shake. “There’s nothing clever about you!” she screamed. “You’re just a deceitful, cheating liar!”

“Ha! Gah-ha-ha! Oh, that’s rich!” Queen Chrysalis turned away briefly, giggling and snorting into a hoof. After a moment, she regained her composure with a good deep breath and turned back to the unicorn.

Twilight had started hyperventilating and her pupils had contracted to little more than pinpricks.

“Of course I lied to them, stupid pony. I’m the queen of all changelings, and I’m the ruler of Equestria. Why, oh why, would I ever tell them the truth?”

The searing sensation had spread into Twilight’s head, pushing against her skull from the inside out, threatening to burst. Screaming and stomping her hooves, the unicorn threw herself into the wall of the green cube. Chrysalis withdrew a step in surprise as Twilight made contact.

The changeling queen leaned forward and raised an eyebrow. “Wh...what are you do—”

In a sudden blinding flare that made Chrysalis cover her eyes in surprise (albeit ineffectively due to her hoof holes), Twilight’s coat had changed to an off-white color. Her cutie mark had vanished without a trace. In fact, her pupils were also gone, leaving just her irises, now a bright and striking red. But what was most noteworthy of all to the changeling queen, not to mention distressing, were her mane and tail. They were on fire.

“Oh, buck me,” Chrysalis swore.

With another ear-piercing shriek, Twilight leaped up and her flaming mane erupted, filling the green cube from corner to corner. The changeling queen barely had enough time to spark up her horn and surround herself in an emerald-colored bubble before the fire consumed the magical hexahedron and massive oval holes opened in its sides. Chrysalis watched in fear as the flames ripped through the holes, melted away the cube, and blazed over her shield, blackening and chipping away the outermost layer. The control console behind her exploded into a fireball. And as abruptly as it had burst, the fire subsided by retracting back into itself until became a single dot, which fizzled out into nothingness.

Howling with rage, Queen Chrysalis’ horn flashed off and her shield bubble dissipated in a cloud of green smoke. The inferno had left none of her magic prison cub or its console. She stomped over to where Twilight had been standing, but stopped just short before she walked into the only thing left—a red circle of superheated cobblestone.

“TWILIGHT SPARKLE!” she shrieked, stamping a hoof into the floor. “This isn’t over yet, pony! You hear me?! I’ll siphon the love from you and your little friends, if it’s the last thing I do!”

Miles high above the opposite cliff side from the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters, a purple ball of light streaked with flames flashed and disappeared again, leaving a still-smoldering Twilight Sparkle to plummet downwards. She felt her skin itself burning and fire was streaming from her mane and tail. Shrieking and flailing her legs, the unicorn charged up a white spark at the tip of her horn for another teleportation spell and dematerialized in the same way she had appeared.

“Nonononono!” Twilight squeaked out, completely panicked and still descending. “That’s not supposed to happen!”

The unicorn had managed to teleport much farther away, but was in free-fall somewhere above the Everfree Forest, and was also turned around to face the crumbling castle. Suddenly a scream echoed from the ruins, indistinct but clearly angry. Changelings began to stream from the windows and regrouped above the castle, and buzzed about in rings for a few moments until they spotted Twilight plunging again. The unicorn gasped and twisted herself around in mid-air, hoping to catch sight of somewhere she could safely teleport to. Spotting a small section of the Everfree Forest’s canopy covered in vines, she squeezed her eyelids tight and attempted another teleport. Her hooves floundered for solid ground a second time, but all Twilight felt was rushing air. Opening her eyes again, the unicorn saw that this time she had merely teleported forwards instead of down.

“Oh, come on!” she groaned, a tinge of exasperation mixing into her fear.

The unicorn had returned into a nosedive over Ponyville’s town hall. The rush of air somehow felt colder now, and Twilight was beginning to feel drained. Her coat was fading back to its normal purple coloration in tiny spots. The mare twisted about to look back at the pursuing changelings—she had managed to outstrip them, but they were still giving chase doggedly, and their chattering noises could still be heard at her distance. Twilight sparked up her horn once more and felt it fizzle out. She gasped in shock, realizing that not only would she soon be completely unable to teleport at all, but that the changelings would soon be upon her… if she didn’t collide with the ground first.

All of a sudden, a purple orb drifting east away from the town caught her eye. The unicorn recognized it immediately as Ponyville’s hot air balloon. It was beneath her elevation for the moment, but Twilight mentally made a few hurried calculations, concluding that in mere seconds she and it would match altitude. As the unicorn began to prepare one more teleportation spell, she scrunched up her brow in concentration—reaching it was likely her last chance to escape and survive.

Behind her, the small gathering of changelings screeched and rasped louder as they condensed themselves into a tight pack. Twilight began to count the seconds. The wind whipped her blazing mane about her face, irritating and drying out her eyes, and she could see that some small tufts of hair had become blackened and burnt out.

Twilight Sparkle held her breath.

“But I don’t understa-ha-ha-haaaand!”

For hours heaped upon hours, Rarity had sat in her prison cell, completely inconsolable and sobbing uncontrollably. Initially her cellmate, a chain-smoking older earth mare, had attempted to comfort her. When that didn’t work, she tried to distract her with casual conversation. She then resorted to insults, implorations to keep her mouth shut, and bargaining for a mere second of peace and Celestia-damned quiet.

Rarity’s cellmate asked to be transferred after only thirty minutes.

The water bubbling from her tear ducts had formed a puddle around her that just couldn’t go away, no matter how many gallons had poured down the drain in the center of the room. However, she had miraculously been able to keep her orange jumpsuit completely dry. Two members of the staff were standing outside the bars: a mustachioed pegasi officer in blue aviators who had developed an unfortunate eyelid spasm, plus a buck-toothed earth stallion in a stained v-neck shirt and a green trucker cap with a turnip emblazoned on it, who was mopping up the water threatening to cause a safety hazard in the hallway.

“Ma’am,” said the officer at length, “We’ve explained the situation to you multiple times now, and I’m asking you for the sake of my sanity to please cease and desist.”

The janitor spat out his mop and let it rest against the wall. “What he said, Miss Rarity! I can’t stand ta see ya boo-hooing all over the place like this!”

“It’s… it’s… it’s just not fair, Hillbilly Radish Cart!” Rarity wiped away at an eye with a hoof. “Why did nopony read me my rights? Where are all of my friends? How come I can’t use my magic? Why haven’t I gotten my phone call?”

“Aw, I don’t know, Miss Rarity. But how’s any of this gonna help you out of this jam? You’re ruinin’ yer purty mascara with the waterworks!”

Rarity looked down at the black makeup smudged on her hoof, inhaled sharply, and resumed her blubbering. Sighing, the janitor reached out for his mop again, wrung it out into a nearby bucket, and set about wiping up the fresh onslaught of tears.

“And it’s Hayseed Turnip Truck, Miss Rarity. We met at the big Ponyville hoedown last month? Ran into you again in Canterlot at the tea shop?” He nudged at the officer with an elbow. “Why, we’re practically best pals by now, hyuck-hyuck-hyuck!”

The officer glanced askance at Hayseed over his sunglasses. “…Sure. Cool.”

“Bumpkin Carrot Wagon?” Rarity sniffled and absentmindedly began running her hooves through her mane. “Can… can you help me?”

Hayseed let the mop clatter to the floor and practically threw himself against the bars. “Why, sure I can, Miss Rarity! Whatever ya need, whatever ya want, you got it!”

“Well,” Rarity replied, still squatting in the center of her miniature pony-made lake, “I’m starting to feel a little chilly in here—can you get me a blanket? It has to be cashmere. It absolutely has to be cashmere, and can you find one that matches my eyes? And I’m now—I suppose I’m a tad peckish now, but I’ve been on the Maretonia Diet and if I eat more than fifteen hundred calories today I’ll have to start all over again, so I’ll have a garden salad with avocado and mushrooms. And… oh dear, I’ll need to reapply my makeup now. I prefer Neighbelline, but I suppose Hayvon will do in a pinch.” She blinked rapidly and her watery eyes ejected a few more tears. “Can you please, please tell somepony all of that for me, Yokel Parsnip Carriage?”

Hayseed whirled around to the officer. “Hey, mister! Rarity’s askin’ fer some kind of blanket made outta cash or somethin’, and a real fancy-pants salad—”

“I heard.” The officer’s other eyelid began twitching instead. “And no.”

Rarity’s lower lip extended and she held her front hooves to her chest. “Whu-whu-what do you mean, no?”

“Sweet Celestia on toast,” the officer swore, feeling an artery in his head inflating to an abnormal size, “If this lady breaks out and I never see her again, it’ll be too soon.”

Spike dared to peek around the corner of the vent, one green eye flicking about rapidly from one end of the room to the other. He could see neither wings nor holes of either changeling. Scrambling to pull forward, the baby dragon’s claws clattered against the duct, and he immediately seized up in shock. But remembering that both Steve and Steve were gone, he breathed a sigh of relief and wiped some sweat off his brow. With another gasp of air, Spike torched a hole in the metal grate that left a hole in the center. He twisted about to face back where he had come from, snatched both Applejack and Rainbow Dash’s saddlebags, and slid out the opening he had just made.

It was only halfway through the drop that Spike realized he probably couldn’t get back up again.

Spike landed on all fours, dropped both of the saddlebags, and whipped around to attempt scaling the wall back. His claws scraped frantically at the concrete and dug little scratches, but weren’t able to dig deep for a proper hold. Sighing, he turned again, snatched the saddlebags with a little irritation, and trod over to the monitors.

He unceremoniously pitched the saddlebags onto the left seat and scrambled up into the right chair, then gave it a spin until he faced the control panel. Up close, Spike thought it was a much more complex piece of electronic equipment, even flashier and strange than the device Twilight had built to calculate Pinkie Pie’s patented premonitions. He craned his neck to look at the monitors themselves and squinted to get a better look. Suddenly he gasped and stood up on the chair. One of the screens was showing a stretch of asphalt outside at an angle. Bordering the edges of the camera’s view was a massive collection of changelings.

“Oh, crud!” he yelled. “What’s going on?!”

He grasped the edge of the control panel and leaned in for a closer look. In the middle were two groups: one composed of four familiar colorful mares, and the other of three changelings and another recognizable gray pony.

“Hey, wait a second…” Spike said aloud to himself, scratching under his chin with a claw. “That’s definitely Rainbow Dash, and that’s gotta be Applejack… and is that Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie? Why are they here? Why isn’t Twilight with them?”

Something white moved on another screen in his peripheral vision. He instinctively glanced over and his jaw dropped. The camera was aimed at a cell with a guard and a janitor outside, but inside was clearly Rarity, bawling and splashing her hooves in a puddle of tears. He slumped back into the chair and clutched the side of his head.

“What… how the… ah, forget it Spike, you can ask questions later! You’ve gotta do something right now!”

The baby dragon looked frantically around at the control panel, looking for anything helpful. He reached for a random switch, held his claw over it for a moment, but pulled back at the last moment. Suddenly, a small pane of glass in the center of the console caught his eye. Spike scrutinized it for a moment. The glass was surrounded by a small border of black and yellow stripes. Above it in red text said “EMERGENCY RELEASE”, and underneath it said “DO NOT BREAK”. He leaned in closer. Underneath the pane was a tiny little button.

“Well, that’s convenient,” Spike quipped.

“Oh my,” Fluttershy muttered under her breath.

A moment of silence had fallen over the gathered changelings and ponies in the exercise yard. Pinkie Pie’s eyes were wild and darting about, waiting to see if anypony else had reached the same epiphany as her. Dash’s toothbrush shiv was dangling at the edge of her mouth as she gaped. Applejack had dropped her face right into her hoof in vexation. The three Steves snuck brief glances at each other, and even ‘Derpy’ had paused in the middle of licking up the tray.

“What… what does that even mean?” the leftmost Steve inquired to nopony in particular.

“You know something?” the changeling on the right said. “I watched her swim in a basket of laundry, but this? This is…”

Applejack looked up. There was a small indent in her cheek from her hoof. “Yup.”

“Well, that was fascinating, but we’ve got a convoluted ambush to wrap up if we’re going to give these ponies over to the Queen.” The center changeling bared its teeth. “And just for that outburst, Pinkie, you’ll be tortured first.”

“Wait a second!” ‘Derpy’ spat out muffin crumbs, wiped away the rest of her lavender paint with the jumpsuit, and shook her mane and tail, leaving behind a purple wig and tail extension clips as she strode over to the changelings. “Chrysalis said nothing about torture! That was not in our deal!” The pegasus jabbed a hoof into the middle Steve’s chest.

“Oh, just shut up.” The changeling slapped away the hoof and stared ‘Derpy’ in the eyes. “We lied. You’re a sucker. Now go back to your tray like a good little filly, or we’ll withhold your muffins and watch you go through withdrawal symptoms for the fun of it.”

‘Derpy’ eyed the tray for a moment, and then looked back to Steve. “You—you’re gonna have to take these ponies… over my dead body.” The squeak had returned to her voice, making the threat a little less intimidating.

The center Steve whistled, and the other two changelings moved in closer. “Are you volunteering? That’s fine by me.”

Suddenly an earsplitting alarm started blaring from every siren inside and outside Manehattan Correctional. The changelings collectively winced as they shouted at each other and shifted about, with some trying to close in on the ponies and others facing the prison. Pinkie Pie took a few steps backward closer to Applejack, who had begun stomping down on one of the chains of Fluttershy’s hoofcuffs to break them. Dash gnawed at her shiv apprehensively and felt something churn in her gut.

“Holy hoof holes, it’s a jailbreak!” shouted another changeling, hurriedly trotting up with a steaming fresh tray of muffins held by levitation. His legs were shaking and the magical field holding the tray flickered on and off.

“Dammit,” the center Steve swore, lighting up his own horn and snatching the muffins from their platter. “How many guards are still inside?” it said, addressing the new changeling.

“I dunno, but they’re all real ponies!” it shouted back. “It’s not looking good!”

“How long can they hold off the riot?”

The left Steve started performing arithmetic by counting his foreleg holes and was about to respond, but the changeling on the right lightly tapped the center one and pointed to ‘Derpy’. The pegasus was ogling the floating muffins as best as she could with her lazy eyes, and there was a small stream of drool dripping from the corner of her mouth.

“Okay, here’s a new deal,” said the middle changeling, grinning and flicking his wings. “You help us make these four ponies suffer, and you’ll get these banana nut muffins. I think that’s a fair trade… wouldn’t you agree?”

The pegasus’ pupils expanded rapidly. She stepped forward, her snout nearly touching one as the muffins were floated before her. ‘Derpy’ gently inhaled.

“Don’t do it!” Rainbow shouted.

Fluttershy trembled. “You… you can’t… we know you can’t!”

The steam rising from the muffins was drawn into the gray mare’s nostrils.

“We don’t wanna fight you, sugarcube!” Applejack said sternly, turning around.

“What’s the point of free muffins if you can’t eat them with friends?!” Pinkie yelled.

Screams and gunshots could now be heard even with the wailing siren. ‘Derpy’ was standing perfectly stock still now, seemingly unaware of anything but the muffins.

The middle changeling turned to the additional, excited one. “Steve, I want you to listen carefully, alright?”

“Sir, my name is Frank, sir!” yelled the additional changeling.

“Whatever! There has to be another pony in the secret guard station that hit the emergency release button! Find them, and stop them!”

Still vibrating with fear, Frank attempted a hurried salute, tapped at his gold watch, and disappeared in a burst of light. As the three remaining changelings in the center of the exercise yard squinted to block out the flash, ‘Derpy’ swung out her right front hoof at the tray, dissipating the magical field holding it in the air. It was swept aside and all the muffins were sent flying. In the same motion, she planted that hoof into the pavement, pivoted on the spot, and kicked out with her back hoof into the middle Steve’s jaw. The changeling reeled and dropped to the floor, spitting up teal blood.

“Oh no!” ‘Derpy’ giggled and her eyes spun in opposite directions as she pogo-bounced in place. “All I wanted was a muffin, but I just don’t know what went wrong!”

The two other changelings rushed to pick the center Steve back up as the circle surrounding the ponies shouted in dismay and shuffled to readjust themselves into a much denser formation. A hoofful of them pushed to the forefront with clear plastic shields. The pair of Steves, unable to get the third off the ground, settled for dragging him off. They were quickly out of sight, hidden by the changeling ring slowly advancing.

Rainbow dropped to the ground in front of Fluttershy and immediately jammed her toothbrush shiv into one of the locks of her hoofcuffs. The tip of the knife was sharp, but not quite thin enough to enter. She jabbed at the key post repeatedly to no avail.

“Rainbow, I know you’re trying your best, but I really don’t think—aah!” Fluttershy looked over at Pinkie Pie, who again was giving a thousand-yard stare.

“Ha-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh!” The pink mare’s entire body began to vibrate.

“Hey, ain’t that your Pinkie Sense for a doozy?” Applejack shouted, tearing off her prison guard uniform with her teeth. “No offense, but it seems a little late to me!”

“None taken, AJ, you’re right! I mean, we’re being a-a-a-a-a-tttttt-a-a-a-a-cked by changelings, and the author actually updated for once—what gives?!” She exhaled in relief as the jittering subsided.

Dash snorted and gave up on opening the hoofcuffs, instead swiveling around to confront the oncoming changelings. Instinctively, all the ponies backed into each other and faced outward, with the exception of ‘Derpy’, who was now running circles around them and giggling manically. Suddenly, a number of changelings farther behind the front row lifted into the air, gripping shotguns in their teeth.

“Look alive, girls!” she shouted. “Here they come!”

Spike watched the monitors, slack-jawed and wide-eyed. Seconds after he had shattered the glass and tapped the surprisingly accessible emergency release button, the prison had erupted into sheer chaos and mayhem, marked with flashing red lights and a siren. On one screen an unruly mob had dragged a prison guard that had somehow been shackled by her own hoofcuffs to a stall railing out of a bathroom and were forcibly shaving off her mane. Three displays over, some enterprising stallions had managed to develop a small trebuchet from bedposts and were flinging flaming bottles of prison wine down the entire length of a hallway. And on the camera that was showing the exercise yard, ‘Derpy’ had just kicked one of the changelings in the face.

The baby dragon whooped approvingly and looked over to the screen with Rarity. Her cell door had slid aside along with the rest of them. The mare trotted forward confidently and stepped over the threshold. The prison guard in front of her immediately galloped away in a veritable cloud of dust, but the janitorial stallion stayed behind.

Spike glanced at the controls, spotted a thin microphone, and a button underneath it. He pushed it and it lit up green as the microphone crackled to life.

“Rarity?” he said into it. “Rarity, can you hear me? It’s me, Spike!”

A number of ponies on other monitors looked about for a moment and went back to their rioting, but Rarity looked up intently at the ceiling and was clearly shouting something.

“You gotta get out of here! Hold on, I’ll give you directions!”

The baby dragon let go of the button and began rummaging through one of the saddlebags. All of a sudden, a burst of light came from behind Spike, shining bright against the monitor glass.

“Gah!” he shouted, falling off the chair and hitting the concrete, taking both saddlebags with him. He pushed himself up and wildly swung his head about, but all he could see was white.

“Hey, you!” yelled a voice. “Quit touching… that?”

The whiteness began to subside and Spike could see the blurry form of something black, horned, and bug-winged. He yelped and flattened himself against the panel. The baby dragon blindly shook out a pair of the sunglasses and whipped them on. Now that it was dark enough for him to see, he could tell it was definitely a changeling that had appeared in the room. Spike took them off again and rubbed his eyes. The changeling was still there.

“Ah sheesh, this was a waste of time.” The changeling groaned and shifted his wings in annoyance. “I’m gonna get my head bitten off for this—literally.”

Spike squeezed the saddlebag close to his chest. “Stay back, you creepy bug!”

The changeling looked surprised and stood erect. “Hey, that’s not nice! I’m not creepy! I’ve got feelings and a name just like anybuggy else.”


“Well, I am an insect. I dunno about you, though. You sure don’t look like a pony.”

The changeling took a couple of steps forward and stretched out a hoof. It had a gold wristwatch wrapped around it. Spike drew back and held the bag in front of his face.

“I’m Frank, the changeling. Howya doin’?”

Spike slowly lowered the bag and blinked. The changeling had what he could only assume was a good-natured grin plastered across his face. Holding his breath, Spike reached for the hoof, grasped his claws through one of its holes, and gently shook it.

“…I’m Spike,” he said, voice wavering. “I-I’m a dragon. A baby dragon.”

“Hey, that tickles!” Frank squealed, shaking slightly and giggling.

Spike quickly let go. “Sorry, my bad.”

“Nah, it’s okay! There’s just a lot of nerve endings there. Anyway, it’s nice to meet you, but you’re not who I was expecting to run into.” Frank turned around a few times. “There’s no one else with you in here?”

“…No?” Spike said, questioningly.

Frank sighed. “Yup, that’s what I thought. My boss told me to find and stop any pony in here that hit the emergency release button, y’know? But, well, no ponies up here. And it doesn’t matter, because they’ll chew me out anyway. And they’ll probably chew me up, too.”

The changeling sat on the empty chair heavily. Spike pushed aside the bag on the other chair and scrambled up. Frank began spinning the seat in circles morosely, as if he was trying to cheer himself up but wasn’t enjoying it.

“Well, how come?” Spike was still a tad wary of the changeling, but the fact that one was making casual conversation with him instead of being threatening and malicious was too intriguing.

“Ah, I dunno, Spike. That’s how it always works out with changelings, I guess. For starters, they really don’t like my name. I mean, I just wanna be me, but noooooooooooooooo, ‘Steve’ is what’s proper for a changeling!”

Spike gave it some thought. “What… what’s bad about Steve?” he finally said at length.

“Everybuggy is named Steve, man!” The changeling stopped spinning and leaned way back in the chair. “It’s like, so unoriginal, you know? But we’ve gotta be a swarm as one or whatever.”

“Even girl changelings are named Steve?”

“Nah, there’s no girl changelings. Queen Chrysalis doesn’t like competition.” Frank stuck out his tongue in displeasure. “And yeah, even my own mom calls me ‘Steve.’ I wish she’d support my choice.”

“So wait…” The baby dragon scratched behind one of his head spikes. “The Queen’s your mom? And what does your name have to do with being yelled at later for this, or whatever?”

Frank sighed. “Yup, she’s everybuggy’s mom. And boss, too. So it’s like… a good changeling’s gotta do what the Queen says, and do it right, you know? Like I said, it’s not my fault there’s no ponies up here, but I know she won’t hear me out. There’s no excuse for a drone that she thinks is a buck-up, and being, like, an individual? I’m gonna get squashed.”

The baby dragon raised a claw and was about to respond, but he slowly lowered it again. He wasn’t entirely sure what to say. Seeing as how the topic was becoming incredibly awkward and personal, he thought it best to change the subject.

“So what’re you going to do now, Frank?” he inquired.

Frank leaned back in the chair and kicked his hooves up onto the console. “Ehhh, I dunno. I’d kill some time and go get a snack first. But I spent my last bits earlier, and payday is next week.” He rested his head back in his front hooves. “I really don’t wanna report in on this yet.”

Spike froze. “...You’re not… h-h-h-hungry, are you?” He remembered that changelings survived by eating love. He also wanted no part of that.

“What? Nah, not really. I just like snacks, you know? Can’t actually digest them, but dude, I love those ‘Xtreemly Fiery’ chips they sell in the first floor break room.”

The baby dragon thought for a second and looked down at his stomach. It rumbled slightly. “You know, I could use a bite.”

Frank floundered in his seat. “Aw, don’t remind me, man! I ain’t got a red bit to my name!”

Spike fished a claw about in the saddlebag he was clutching. He felt a few metallic things clinking about in a small inner pocket and pulled them out.

“…Is this enough?” Spike opened his claws, showing four bits.

The changeling uninterestedly looked over, and then recognizing what Spike was holding, suddenly gasped. “Yeah dude, that should do it!”

“Well, okay. But, uh… how do we get out of here?”

“Oh yeah.” Frank hopped out of his chair and stood in front of Spike as it fiddled with his watch. “Well… I don’t know if it’ll work, but try climbing onto my back.”

The baby dragon felt his heart skip a beat as he eyed Frank’s neck spines, his translucent insectoid wings, and the strange slick blue thing covering his back. Spike began trying to think of the politest possible way to say “never in a million years.”

“Uh… never in a million years?” Spike said, less like he was sure of himself and more like he was asking Frank if that was a rejection that would fly.

“Well, of course not in a million years!” Frank trotted in place. “I wanna get a snack nooow!”

Ever so slowly, Spike grabbed the straps of both saddlebags and stood up. Frank was grinning and holding very still. The baby dragon gently laid the saddlebags over the changeling’s back first, and then swung a leg over. He sat down, eyes closed and wincing.

“S-s-so, uh, what do I hold on to—”

Before Spike could finish his sentence, Frank pressed his watch.

“Buck this!” Rainbow said, snorting. “We’re getting outta here!”

As three of the changelings eagerly dive-bombed at the pack of ponies, Rainbow kicked off the ground and swung out, twisting her neck to slash the shiv downward. She felt it carve effortlessly through a wing and heard the changeling scream as it crashed at the edge of the horde. Dash kept going, heading straight upward for the fencing above the exercise yard. The other two changelings did not fare much better. Applejack wound up a back leg and thrust it into the one’s chest to send it flying again, while ‘Derpy’ gave the other a headbutt in the muzzle.

Rainbow reached the top and began to saw her shiv straight into the chainlinks. Suddenly she heard Applejack shout something, and she looked down to see three barrels pointed her way. Dash tucked in her wings and dropped away just in time as the changelings fired the rounds.

“Hee-hee, not bad!” giggled ‘Derpy’, watching the changeling she had just hit snort out teal blood and shake its head. “I thought you two only knew how to give loving hugs to each other!” She shoved the changeling back into the front row of the crowd, which staggered under its weight and swallowed it up.

Rainbow landed again back on the ground. “Looks like they’re not gonna let us out that easily, girls. And nothing happened, alright?”

“That was a whole lot of nothing, wasn’t it?” ‘Derpy’ rolled her eyes about in figure-eight loops. “Uh-oh!”

Two more changelings dove out from the other side, piled immediately on top of Fluttershy, and forced her to the pavement under their weight. Screeching, the real Pinkie Pie tackled one and rolled it off the yellow pegasus, whose squeals of pain were muffled by the impostor Applejack as she struggled to pull away. Pinkie went for the other next and battered it off. The first started to stand back up, but ‘Derpy’ had a hoof on its throat before it had the chance. It flailed and made strangled noises to no avail.

“You okay-dokay-lokay, Fluttershy?” Pinkie gave Fluttershy’s second attacker a swift backhoof to the jaw. It lolled with its tongue hanging out and she tossed it aside.

Fluttershy was struggling to her hooves and wiping some of the dirt from her face. “I’ll… I’ll be fine—but what are we going to do now?”

The tight formation the ponies had arranged themselves in had now been forcefully widened. Seizing the opportunity, some changelings took to the air above them, and even more jumped into the opened circle, pushing past the ones carrying riot shields.

“I wish Spike had actually told us about, you know, how we’d escape!” Dash jabbed out with her shiv at another changeling trying to close in, forcing it to jump back. “I mean, it probably would’ve been helpful!”

“What about you, ‘Derpy’? You know somethin’ about this?” Applejack ducked and whipped her tail at two changelings coming at her from either side, striking them to the pavement.

‘Derpy’ took her hoof off the changeling, who had ceased gurgling and struggling entirely. “I have no idea what’s going on! Whoo!”

Suddenly, Pinkie Pie wheeled out her famous party cannon from absolutely nowhere and gave it a swift kick, tilting it upward. With a sound not unlike a party horn, the entire neck contracted and expanded again, shooting confetti and streamers at the changelings hovering above them, and it rolled back slightly from the blast. Most of the flying bugs swooped out of harm’s way, but two screamed and retreated, their hard carapaces gashed with the worst paper cuts imaginable.

“You know what’s really weird about this fight scene? Why aren’t these changelings transforming to confuse us?” Pinkie scratched underneath her chin as she thought aloud. “It’s kind of their thing!”

“Pinkie Pie, what I wanna know is where in Equestria you got your dang party cannon from!” Applejack exclaimed, wrestling against another changeling leg-to-leg.

“Well, that kinda has the same answer, doesn’t it?” Pinkie started pacing in circles, narrowly but not purposefully avoiding a changeling attempting to tackle her. “This fracas has to be different from ‘A Canterlot Wedding, Part Two’, because otherwise the readers would be bored, right? But the party cannon’s here because it’s more important that I’m in character then the changelings be in character.”

Pinkie whacked the cannon again and it fired off another blast as it rolled closer to Fluttershy, who squeaked slightly and hopped back into three changelings creeping up behind her. Two were whipped in the face by her hoofcuff chains as she instinctively brought her forelegs up in protection. The third was hit by the falling victim of the party cannon.

“I don’t care if they look like us or not, I’m still scared!” Fluttershy admitted. “Did Twilight know about any of this?”

Rainbow Dash skidded to the side as a changeling with a riot shield attempted to bash her with it. The pegasus jabbed the shiv into its neck as it passed by, and it screeched as it stumbled, dropping the shield to grab at its gash in vain.

“Yeah, she knew everything, Fluttershy. ‘Derpy’ said she didn’t tell us to protect us, or some lame excuse like that. But I guess she could tell just about everypony else!”

Dash made a point of giving 'Derpy' a dark look, who crouched and swept out with her leg at a changeling in a full-tilt run, tripping it over. The gray mare snatched a fallen and mashed muffin, and crammed it forcibly into the changeling’s mouth before stomping on the back of its head.

“Woah-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh!” Pinkie shouted, using her sudden bout of wild shaking to bounce over to ‘Derpy'. “What’s the ma-a-a-a-a-tter with you?”

“Sugarcube, she’s right! You’ve been taking this too far!” Applejack shoved aside the changeling she had been fighting and cantered over.

‘Derpy’ wiped her hoof on the changeling’s wing, smearing it with muffin crumbs and teal blood. “Oh? I’m sorry, I didn’t know any better.” Her lower lip drooped. “The next time I’m forced to betray good ponies and I’m taken advantage of, I’ll just lighten up! I promise!” The pegasi’s voice was still bubbly and sweet, but it was also slightly shaky.

Fluttershy hobbled over as best as she could. “We know you must feel terrible about all that’s happened to everypony, and we’re grateful you’re helping us now—”

Another changeling struck at Dash, and she pinned its leg by thrusting her shiv through a small hoof hole and into a crack in the pavement. “Speak for yourself, Fluttershy! We’re in this mess because of her, and I’m not buying her act a second time!”

The ponies had now drawn closer together again, and the changelings reacted by packing in even tighter. Pinkie swung the cannon down to fire it at the edge of the horde, but her aim was thrown off by another bout of uncontrollable vibrating, and the strips of confetti were blocked by riot shields. Dash gave another experimental stab with her shiv at Fluttershy’s hoofcuffs, yet the blade just struck off. A changeling breaking away from the line stormed their formation, only to be met with both of Applejack’s back hooves to the face and horn. But ‘Derpy’ just stared at her watch with one eye, and with the other looked at a crushed muffin.

“Hey, seeing as how you know so much,” Dash said, grinding her teeth into the knife, “where the hay is Twilight, anyway?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t know, Rainbow Dash.”

Rainbow snorted. “Oh, I’m suuure. You’ve been a big help, you know?”

“Girls, this isn’t going to solve anything!” Fluttershy looked like she was on the verge of tears.

“You know what fixes problems? Violent rampages across entire cities!” ‘Derpy’ did her little tail-chasing spin. “Somepony here knows a thing or two about that!”

Three more changelings dove for them at once. Fluttershy leapt out of the way as Pinkie Pie caught them in point-blank range with her cannon. Dash and ‘Derpy’ were no longer focusing on the fight, staring each other down nose-to-nose while Applejack tried to push them both apart. Rainbow looked significantly angrier, but only because ‘Derpy’ was having difficulty directing her eyes.

“Okay, sure, I didn’t get anything done, but I’ve been loyal since they marched right into Ponyville and dragged Twilight to jail! And that’s way more than you can say, sister!”

“Oh, you think Twilight’s actually here? Ha!” ‘Derpy’ snickered. “I electrocuted myself with a thundercloud once, and even that isn’t as dumb!”

“You do know where she is, you lying sack of horseapples!” screamed Rainbow. “I’m giving you to the count of three before I pop the bubbles on your flanks!”

Applejack shoved even harder, grunting as she tried to separate the two mares. Around them the changelings actually stopped moving, choosing instead to watch the situation unfold. They nudged each other and pointed, laughing derisively and mocking Rainbow and ‘Derpy’ by repeating their statements in a sing-song fashion. Fluttershy and Pinkie ran to Applejack’s side to help her, and they finally made a space between both of the ponies, who finally quit pushing to get at each other.

‘Derpy’ focused her eyes forward, even though it was clearly taking a significant amount of effort. “I sure know she’s not here, and guess what, I don’t have to be here either. I’ve done what Shining Armor asked me, and I held up my end of the Queen’s deal.” Her voice had become even and strained, and she whipped her tail about, clearly in an irritated and incensed way. “Far as I’m concerned, I’m done.”

‘Derpy’ tapped her watch and the blinding light that erupted from it made all the ponies and the closest changelings wince or cover their eyes. The pegasi snorted and gave her surroundings one more look, allowing each eye to rotate individually again.

“Good luck. You’re all gonna need it.”

And as the light faded out, the gray mare was gone.

“Great! Run!” Dash stomped her hooves angrily. “Who needs ya anyway?”

“Rainbow, you hurt her feelings!” Fluttershy said, choking back a sob.

The other pegasus scoffed. “Oh, I’m sure I did, Fluttershy. I’m sure she wasn’t just acting again and that she’s seriously like upset or whatever. What if that was just some new part of these changelings’ crazy scheme, huh?”

“Well, one thing’s for sure,” Applejack said sternly, “that watch let her cut and run, and we sure could’ve used that. Now unless Spike can show us how we’re making our break, we’re bucked. Thanks.”

“Good luck!” squealed a high pitched voice. “You’re gonna need it—ooh, muffins! Yaaaay!”

One of the changelings at the edge had transformed into a living caricature of ‘Derpy’, with a tongue hanging out, both eyes bugging out in a cartoonish way, and dancing a jig. The changelings in the immediate vicinity burst into raucous laughter, pointing and leaning against each other for support. They guffawed even harder when the fake ‘Derpy’ tripped over its own hooves into a pratfall.

The changeling didn’t last long. Dash was there in the blink of an eye to stab it up through the jaw and into the head. It quivered and foamed at the mouth while the others around suddenly ceased their cackling. One of them threw a punch that landed square in Rainbow’s muzzle and the fight exploded again with ferocity. Dash stumbled back to the group of ponies, who were each immediately caught in their own little battles, and avoided all eye contact with them as they glanced over.

Pinkie raised a hoof. “Well, that’s gotta be the do-o-o-o-zy! Wait. Nope. Still a-comin’.”

“Spike!” Rarity shouted for the fifth time. “Spike, can you hear me?!” The unicorn waited for a few more seconds, but there was no response.

“Who’s Spike? Do ya know him?” Hayseed breathed.

Rarity nodded before putting a hoof to her chin and thinking silently. The prisoners from other cells were also entering the hallway, some very confident and high-hoofing each other and others suspiciously peering around corners.

“It looks like I’m going to have to make my own way out of this place. I do hope nothing terrible has happened to Spikey-wikey.”

“Gosh, Miss Rarity, I-I-I don’t know if that’s a good idea!” Hayseed dropped the mop and moved closer to the wall.

“Nonsense!” Rarity said, dismissing the thought with a hoof wave. “I have been detained against my will without due process of law, and I’ve been separated from my friends. I can only hope that leaving posthaste will lead me back to them. Besides, the ruffian that struck me has left a lump on my cranium, and I’m longing to give them the same in return.”

“But this ain’t noplace for a lady, Miss Rarity! You were just cryin’ a river a second ago—”

Rarity’s eyes narrowed. “Hayseed, please stop talking.”

Hayseed abruptly did so.

“I truly wish I wasn’t able to say this, but this is not the first time I’ve been locked away. The last time that occurred, I was able to demoralize my captors with an assortment of annoyance and wailing until they simply gave up. I admit that the results were fun,” Rarity said, tittering slightly, “but I can’t say I recommend it. The point is, I’m not going to apologize for being dramatic, but I am sorry if I annoyed and worried you.”

The unicorn trotted off down the hallway, and Hayseed followed close behind. Hayseed shied away from a group of prisoners sitting around the remains of a shattered toilet and fashioning knives from the ceramic, but Rarity walked directly through them. Nopony batted an eyelash.

“Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute, does that mean you worked all this out yourself?” Hayseed said reverently, and his eyes widened. “You’ve gotta be some kinda genius!”

Rarity frowned. “Thank you, Hayseed, but I absolutely had no idea this would happen. Honestly, it really shouldn’t surprise me at all anymore. I’ve had too many unexpected events occur lately to ignore as mere coincidence.”

The ponies had paused at an intersection while a veritable horde of prisoners charged from the right to the left, stumbling over each other and screaming like wild beasts while others sped through the air like winged bullets. Hayseed looked back down the hallway they had been walking in. Directly behind them was another mass of inmates waiting very impatiently and seething with rage, much like the passing crowd. He twitched and turned around again to inform the mare, but Rarity was thinking and tapping a hoof.

“Um, Miss Rarity, we should probably, y’know, mosey on outta here,” Hayseed said anxiously.

“Hmmm. Well, which way should we go?”

The thin stallion adjusted his hat and pointed each direction in turn. “Well, I reckon we take a right and pass through the library, seeing as the stairs are that way!”

Rarity turned to Hayseed and grinned. “Manehattan Correctional has a library?”

“N-n-now’s not the time to check out a book! We’re caught in the middle of—”

“Hush darling, I’m not going there to read. But there’s a very good chance that a close friend of mine will be doing just that. Now are you coming along, or not?”

Once the pack crossing in front of them subsided, Rarity and Hayseed rounded the corner. The mob that had been behind the pair howled as they stampeded off and away to somewhere else. This was a very short hallway with a set of double doors at the end.

Hayseed scratched the back of his head. “So what kinda stuff comin’ out of the blue do ya mean? Sounds like you’ve had a rough day.”

“Well, the last thing I remember was being on board a train to Manehattan with a few of my friends; Applejack, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie. I left my seat to go to the bathroom and reapply my eyeliner. It’s quite a hassle, especially when the facilities are in the last car and every bump and sway of the train means you keep having to pause, but I digress.”

Hayseed pushed one the double doors open for Rarity. She strode through and then Hayseed followed much slower and cautiously. They were now inside what looked like the remnants of a small library. A few wooden tables and chairs that had once been placed neatly were now upturned. The shredded pages of books carpeted the carpet and the spines were heaped into mounds. The right wall had wide windows, or rather, had had wide windows until they had been shattered. Most prisoners were tossing tomes off the shelves recklessly and hurling them at the walls, but one group sat in the corner rolling something up in the leftover sheets. Another set of double doors were at the far end.

“So I ended up with this smudge down my face and I was on the verge of soaking my head in the sink and being done with it when a hoof passed me a washcloth. I grabbed it, thanked them, and started wiping up the smudge. But then I thought to myself—how could that even be slightly possible?”

One pony carried a stack of books on his back to the group in the corner, which hooted with glee, snatched them up, and flung them with gusto. The air was thick with them in seconds. Hayseed whipped an arm in front of his face to block a few, but Rarity neatly sidestepped all incoming airborne tomes one at a time.

“If you’ve ever been in a train’s restroom, it’s meant for just one pony at a time. So I looked over, the same hoof from before struck me... and then I woke up in that cell. I vaguely recall that the pony was all black, but that’s not exactly helpful.”

The unicorn paused in the middle of the room, lost in thought. An errantly lobbed chair flew a hair’s breadth from Rarity and crashed, splintering into fragments and demolishing an already fragile-looking table. Hayseed dove for a paper pile and buried himself inside.

“Well then,” she said, moving a hoof off a mangled book, “Twilight’s not in here. I’m certain we would hear her reaction to this… this meaningless literature destruction.”

Hayseed gasped, extricating himself from the paper. “Twilight Sparkle? The mare they locked up for treason against Princess Celestia?! Miss Rarity, it ain’t like you to mix with a dangerous criminal!”

“Hayseed, darling, not only is Twilight Sparkle very near and dear to me, but I’m of the belief that there’s no possible way she could have done anything. And now that I’m completely out of ideas, barring the impossible task of searching this entire prison from top to bottom, we seem to be back where we started from.”

Rarity purposefully trod to the far exit and stood there for a moment, waiting for her horn to spark up. She made an involuntary grunting noise of frustration, opened them by hoof, and hastily strode ahead, so fast that Hayseed had to run to catch up with her.

The hallway was lined with more cells up to a T-shaped intersection, but not a single prisoner or officer was in sight. It had been thoroughly trashed and completely deserted. The wreckage of beds, pieces of hoofcuffs, and shreds of both jumpsuit and police uniforms were strewn across the floor. Hayseed pointed directly ahead to a door hanging off its hinges. A small placard beside it read “STAIRS.”

Rarity broke into a canter. The unicorn briefly stopped on the landing to look about and count the flights—she was on the fourth floor. Blowing an errant curl of hair from her face, she turned left on the landing and began hastily descending, followed by a slightly slower Hayseed. The metal grating of the stairs clattered with every step. Soon Rarity reached the bottom and waited a moment for Hayseed to catch up again. Once he had touched the bottom step, panting and gasping for air, the unicorn strode for the exit door and gave the handle an experimental pull. Realizing that it was turning, she flung the door wide open.

The lobby on the first floor had a number of chairs, tables, and a couple of soda machines that were all scattered and broken. A massive set of double doors to the left were being blockaded by police officers wielding batons in mouth, in a shoving match against a massive pack of prisoners similarly carrying roughly hewn blades. From the far right more escapees streamed into the room from a hallway, but guards kept entering from doors alongside the passage and holding them off in one-on-one clashes. In the center atop a soda machine lying on its side was a cocoa-coated unicorn stallion with a white Mohawk and a tattoo of Rainbow Dash on a front leg, and he had a graying cop in a headlock to whack him with an icepack. Standing next to him was a tubby earth pony with a vast purple beard, gripping a table leg in mouth, swinging out at a throng of guards trying to clamber up and drag them down.

“Well, that’s just too dangerous for me and you, Miss Rarity,” Hayseed whispered. “Let’s get outta here before they take a gander at us, okay then?”

“Excuse me?” Rarity shouted, managing to raise her voice above the chaos. “Excuse me? May I have your attention?”

Nothing happened. Nopony paid her any attention. The purple bearded stallion swung his table leg and sent an officer flying to the other end of the room. Rarity fumed and stamped her hoof down.

“Cease this roughhousing IMMEDIATELY!”

Hayseed held as still as a statue and entirely stopped breathing as one by one, each of the fighting ponies paused mid-swing or quit stabbing and turned about to look. Even the few officers entering from the side doors had frozen in place. In the calm moment, the unfortunate officer in the headlock slipped away and collapsed behind the soda machine. Outside the faint sounds of more screaming and bedlam could be heard. The mare ran a hoof through her mane and blinked rapidly. She now had their full and complete attention.

“That is much, much better. Thank you. Now then, I need to leave the premises of Manehattan Correctional, and I need to do it as soon as equine-ally possible. I can assume this is the exit? ”

The unicorn on the soda machine nodded slowly. “You… you got it, ma’am.”

“Good, very good! Now… hold on a moment, is that…?”

Rarity galloped over, leaving a paling Hayseed behind to stand with his knees wobbling, pushing aside beleaguered escapees and battered officers alike. She stopped right at the vending machine and closely examined the stallion’s inked arm.

“…I’m sorry, but your Rainbow Dash tattoo is magnificent! I’d never get one myself,” she commented, “but I just had to express my approval! However did you get that?”

The male unicorn laughed nonchalantly. “Oh, this? Yeah, ponies have been asking me about it all day. It sounds crazy, but dude, she was here!”

Rarity raised an eyebrow at ‘dude’, and she automatically lifted it even higher at ‘here’. “We are talking about the same Rainbow Dash, yes? As in, blue pegasus with a mane and tail that by all accounts should have taken her hours to dye?”

“Can we start fighting again?” a voice yelled from the back.

“No noise, if you please!” Rarity shouted. “We’re trying to have a conversation!” She coughed politely. “Anyway, would she still be in the vicinity?”

The wide stallion chimed in. “It’sh poshible,” he said, with the table leg still in his mouth. “She wash breaking two maresh out of a shell when we met her.”

“Two ponies? Not one?” Rarity asked herself. “I suppose I can add that to my growing list of questions. Now then, I don’t intend on staying here a moment longer, so if you could all excuse me and my friend for a moment, we’ll be on our way.”

“Hold it!” An officer next to her turned about and lifted a hoof. “We can’t let you do that.”

Rarity blinked. “But why?”

“Well, can’t you see we’re in the middle of a fight?” the officer blustered.

“That’s no excuse at all, sir. Why does that have to prevent me from leaving?”

“But… but…” The officer hesitated, trying to find the right words. “We’re fighting to stop you and these other prisoners from escaping!”

Rarity shook her head. “No, you’re fighting these prisoners. My companion and I,” she said, motioning a hoof to Hayseed, who squeaked and became even more ashen, “have not been involved in your skirmish. I propose that while we make our way outside, you and your fellow guards continue to stop these prisoners from leaving, thus fulfilling your obligations and allowing us to carry out our own. It’s a win-win compromise, if I do say so myself.” She added some eyelash fluttering for good measure.

“Well, I suppose that you’re not wrong,” the officer said, scratching his head.

“Splendid!” Rarity trotted back over to Hayseed. “On the count of three, you may resume your barbaric scuffling. One, two, three!”

Shrugging and grunting noncommittally, both prisoners and police alike started throwing half-hearted punches. Rarity smiled satisfactorily, lightly stepped over to the door, and waited for the line of officers to move aside. They shuffled to part for her and watched quizzically as she turned around to Hayseed and motioned for him to follow. The lanky stallion took slow wobbling steps to get there.

“Now then, I’m going to need you to handle the lock on this door.”

“Um, Miss Rarity, I’m not comfortable with tampering with government property —”

“Pleeeeease?” Rarity’s eyes were wide and sparkling.

Sighing, Hayseed extracted a screwdriver from under his hat and slipped it into his mouth. He then inserted the screwdriver into one of the bolts holding the door handle in place and began to crank his neck. All present in the room were now observing his progress with even greater interest. By the time he had removed the handle, they were barely taking any swings at each other at all.

The two changelings and their superior that they had dragged away stood a small distance from the back of the horde, directly in front of the door to Manehattan Correctional. The center changeling wiped a stream of blood from its lip and hissed menacingly.

“That damn nag hit me and ran with our motherbucking watch! She signed a rental agreement on that thing!”

While the three changelings couldn’t see many details of the fight from their viewpoint, they had been able to make some educated guesses. They overheard the shouting match between Dash and ‘Derpy’, mentally connected the flash of light to her having teleporting away, and watched the party cannon lacerate changelings left and right.

“That’s it. I’m not going to bother taking them alive anymore.” The center changeling spat up another teal blob and sneered.

“But we have to!” the Steve on the right exclaimed. “If we just keep at it, we can tire them out, round them up, and present them to the Queen—”

“It’s not working, Steve! This is where they planned to escape from, and it’s just a matter of time before they slip away! Orders or no orders, we’re delivering these ponies as corpses to Chrys—”

The doors slammed open, sweeping the left and right changelings aside and whacked the middle one in the back of the head, knocking them all out flat and cold as Rarity marched outside, followed closely behind by Hayseed.

“Did we hit something? Hayseed, I feel like we just hit something.”

Hayseed gibbered inaudibly and incoherently.

“You’ll have to speak up, darling, I can’t hear…”

Rarity also stopped talking and gawked slack-jawed at the exercise yard, filled from one end to the next with changelings, packing and shoving closer to the center. Behind her, all of the escapees and police had entirely abandoned their fight, opting instead to slowly step over and watch. They stood side by side, equally confused.

“Changelings?!” Rarity finally blurted out. “Wha… what?”

Suddenly a changeling somewhere in the center of the horde was flung vertically. It was chased by a multi-colored streak that easily caught up and slammed into it. The changeling was sent back down again, and even at a distance the teal blood could be seen spurting. For a brief moment Rainbow Dash hung in the air with a single flap of her wings, pink toothbrush shiv dripping with gore, and then she dove as multiple shotguns fired, punctuated by all of the gathered prisoners whooping and hollering.

“Did you see that? Did you all SEE THAT?!” the tattooed stallion screamed, pointing and trotting in place. “That’s my knife! You guys, she’s using my knife!”

The control room, its chairs, and its monitors all flashed away in the blink of an eye. Spike jolted upright, feeling a tingling sensation from his tail and shifting up through his spine. And as quickly as that feeling passed, the white light dissolved away. Frank and Spike were now in a much better lit room that resembled the rest of Manehattan Correctional. It was roughly the size of a cell, but it had a door to the left and the right, a cheap backless plastic bench along the back, a trash can next to that, and a snack vending machine directly before them. Spike also noticed that this room had been left untouched and unmarred, which was strange considering the rioting he had watched on the monitors.

“Oh man, oh man, oh man!” Frank drooled, pointing to an orange bag in one of the center rows. “It’s that one! You’re gonna love it, I promise.”

Spike dropped all four of the bits in the coin slot, hit a few buttons on the panel to make his selection, and the machine pushed the snack bags forward ever so slowly. The moment they dropped out of sight from the row, Frank bent his neck down, pushed the little door open with his muzzle, and pulled them from the trough behind. The changeling wandered leisurely to the bench and allowed Spike to slide off before plopping down next to him and passing the baby dragon his chips and both saddlebags.

Frank tore open his bag with a fang, sparked up his horn, and tilted the bag over, letting some of the chips fall into his mouth. “Mmmmm.”

After stashing the saddlebags underneath the bench, Spike slashed open his chips with a claw, picked out just one chip, and nibbled experimentally at the corner. He smiled.

“Hey, that’s pretty good. ‘Xtreemly Fiery’ flavor, huh?”

The baby dragon ate the rest of the chip in one bite, and then grabbed a clawful.

It wasn’t long before the pair polished off their chips and chucked the bags in the trash. They stayed comfortably and quietly on the bench for a few moments. Spike could hear muted yelling and shouting from the door to their left, but neither he nor Frank paid it any attention.

“Hey, thanks again,” the changeling said quietly. “I really appreciate it.”

“No prob, Frank. It wasn’t even my bits in the first place.”

“Heh. Heh! Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh!” The changeling began to snicker loudly and he wiped a few tears from his eyes with a hoof.

“What?” asked Spike, completely clueless, but feeling the laughter’s infectiousness. “That—he-he-he—I wasn’t trying to be funny!”

Frank smiled and took a deep breath. “Ah, never mind. Hey, hold out your claws, dude.”

Spike raised an eyebrow, but brought both of his hands out and cupped them. “Like this?”

The changeling nodded, then shook his hoof with the watch wrapped around it over Spike’s claws until it slid off. It landed with a slight clinking noise. It was surprisingly heavy, had a flat threaded crown ostensibly for winding, and a curved clasp to lock the strap in place. Spike was about to say something, but Frank shook his head, clearly not about to take ‘no’ for an answer.

“You’ve been pretty cool. Nobuggy calls me Frank around here. And they’re already gonna yell at me for not having, you know, stopped any ponies. They’ll just give me another one, I’m sure. ”

Frank stood up and grinned. “Well, I made a couple bets, so Steve owes me twenty bits, and I owe Steve twenty bits. Catch ya later, Spike!”

Before the baby dragon could fully process what had just happened, the changeling trotted to the right and exited the room. The door swung closed with a click. A few moments later, he heard somepony outside scream and hysterically blather something about changelings, followed by Frank loudly whispering apologies and pleading the pony to stop, and then the sound of hooves galloping away.

Spike suddenly jerked out of his stupor. He took the saddlebags from under the bench, placed the watch into an inner pocket, and felt around for the blueprints. Once he had retrieved them, he quickly scanned through them, flipping between pages until he found the room he was in.

“If I’m here… then the yard’s that way!” he said aloud, looking at the left door.

Awkwardly hefting the saddlebags over his back, Spike walked to the door, stopped beside it, and cracked the door very slightly. He couldn’t see anypony outside, but he was definitely able to hear the shouting much better. With a deep breath, he pushed it all the way open and walked through.

He was now in a gray concrete loading dock with various vehicles scattered around it. The door he had come from was partially hidden by a row of crates. To the left was the remains of a destroyed industrial elevator, and the wide open exit was to the right, which he immediately ran for. Outside he could see a dirt path, the metal fencing, and the gargantuan outer wall even farther past that; Spike easily recognized that it was the ring around the center of Manehattan. The sounds of fighting swelled even greater than before.

As the baby dragon passed under the garage door and into the light of day, he skidded to a stop, driving up a small cloud of dust.


The view beyond the gate into the exercise yard was one of utter chaos. Orange-suited prisoners alongside the uniformed officers and black changelings shoved and kicked at each other. The changelings with shields were hastily trying to regroup, but as one would block a rioter’s knife, another would tackle them from outside their line of sight. Pegasi swerved in wide arcs to dodge both shotgun blasts, and changelings and ponies alike being forcibly sent flying into the fencing. The baby dragon suddenly saw a cloud of confetti soar skyward from dead center in the melee, and he focused his attention there.

They were only visible for mere seconds at a time through the battling throng, but Spike could see the ponies he knew. Pinkie Pie, of course, was picking targets with her party cannon and dropping them from the air. The few that managed to survive were flogged by Fluttershy with her chains, though she squealed and looked away every time. Rainbow Dash whirled in tight circles, shiv gripped tight in her teeth, a self-propelled equine buzzsaw that no changeling could touch. The majority of her fatalities were provided by Applejack, who was bucking them directly into her path. And galloping directly through the mayhem in an attempt to reach them was Rarity, who had also somehow managed to keep her mane in perfect and pristine condition.

The baby dragon inhaled deep, jogged right to the gate, and blew a fireball directly into it, melting a huge hole in the wire. He scrambled through the gap and burst little jets, forcing changelings to dive aside out of the way. Something made a mammoth roaring noise, but Spike ignored it, running straight for the fighting mares. As he broke the edge of the line, an orange hoof came from his peripheral vision and stopped short of his face. He stumbled back in shock, but was suddenly grabbed by it and dragged into the center space where the ponies were holding their ground.

“What the hay have you been doin’ all this time, sugarcube?” Applejack admonished, giving Spike a quick hug but glaring at him. “We’ve been stuck between a rock and a hard place down here!”

“Girls!” Rarity shouted, shoving aside a changeling and entering the cleared area. “For the love of Celestia, can anypony tell me—Spike! Where were you? What happened?”

Rainbow Dash skidded to a halt, shook her head to clear some of the dizziness, and darted over. “Hey Spike, are you gonna tell us how we’re escaping now?”

Fluttershy moved in closer, her chains clinking. “Oh my goodness, what about Twilight Sparkle! Spike, do you know where she is?”

“This is so exci-i-i-i-i-ting-g-g-g!” Pinkie Pie screeched, undergoing another fit of full-body shakes. “The doozy’s coming! The do-o-o-o-o-zy-y-y-y-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-!”

The rumbling increased in volume, and it was now clearly coming from behind the closest section of Manehattan’s outer wall. Spike and the five mares turned to look, just in time to see the purple hot air balloon flying over it, enveloped in a translucent purple bubble of magic. Little ripples appeared on the surface as gunshots rang out from the wall’s guard towers. It was also moving much faster than it had ever done before, bypassing the border unscathed and still rising. The mares and the baby dragon could now see it had two occupants inside the passenger basket: Shining Armor and Princess Cadance, horns alight, clearly casting the shield. But the most incredible detail was the flame. Standing on the balloon’s burners was a cream-coated and red-eyed Twilight Sparkle, propelling the balloon forward with her blazing mane and tail.

Spike grinned at Applejack and Rainbow, whose eyes were just pinpricks. “I told you we have a way out. And all this time you thought I was just full of hot air.”

10 - Absolute Deceit

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There was an immediate drop in altitude from the balloon as it reached the exercise yard. Spike and the five mares, completely ignored by all the changelings fighting off prisoners or attempting to shoot down the balloon, watched open-mouthed as it sank. The fire from Twilight’s mane was dying off, leaving her hair blackened by soot. They gasped—suddenly the unicorn closed her eyes and tipped off the burners, falling inside the passenger basket.

“Twilight!” they shouted in unison.

The magical outer bubble fell right onto the top of the cage protecting the yard, which squeaked under the strain of the sudden load as it bowed inward. Shining Armor and Cadance looked over the edge, stood up on the lip of the basket, and aimed their horns. Beams of light shot through the purple shield and carved a wide swath in the chainlinks. The five ponies and the baby dragon scrambled backwards just as the balloon and its bubble dropped into the exercise yard mere hooflengths away. The shield flattened underneath to let the basket rest on the blacktop, and a gap fizzled away in the side of the bubble.

“Come on!” shouted Shining Armor. “We don’t have much time!”

Dash was first through the opening and she dove inside, followed close behind by Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity, who was carrying Spike on her back. Fluttershy’s jump into the basket was too short, thanks to her hoofcuffs, but she was pulled over the lip of the basket by Applejack and Rainbow Dash. The bubble closed up behind her and the mares squeezed in to what little space was left inside the hot air balloon. They were all forced to stand on their back legs to accommodate Twilight Sparkle, who was lying in the center, eyelids barely open and mane singed black at the tips. Spike lifted her head slightly and placed the two saddlebags underneath as a makeshift pillow.

Shining Armor nodded to Cadance and the glow around his horn receded. The bubble flickered for a moment and then changed colors to baby blue as the princess closed her eyes, taking full control of the shield. The burners roared to life with a quick jet of fire from the stallion and the balloon started to slowly rise off the ground. A few changelings took notice and fired off a few rounds, but the shield merely rippled where the pellets made impact. The majority of them were still embroiled in the fighting, which had reached a fever pitch below, leaving ponies and changelings alike sprawled on the pavement and trampled underhoof.

The stallion grunted and yanked on a dangling cord, making the burners spew out an even larger jet of fire. “We’re not… hnggg… we’re not rising fast enough!”

Turning her head and lifting it just barely, Twilight looked up with bleary eyes at him. “Let… let me help, brother…”

“Twilight, no! You have to rest now!” Spike was kneeling in front of the unicorn, holding her head in an embrace.

Applejack leaned over to nuzzle her. “He’s right, sugarcube. We can’t let anythin’ happen to you now!”

Cadance was concentrating on keeping the bubble intact, the bright glow around her horn pulsating and sparking. “I’m afraid the balloon wasn’t meant for this many passengers...” she said with distinct alarm. “We haven’t even cleared the hole in the fence yet!”

Fluttershy looked down at her chains. “I suppose I could get out and just fly… but I wouldn’t be able to stay airborne with these on.”

“You’re still in those? Darling, how did you even get hoofcuffed in the first place!?” Rarity pointed her horn down at the cuffs and attempted to cast a spell, but her horn just fizzled, and she screeched in frustration. “And this stupid thing’s not working right now!”

Rainbow Dash immediately wriggled her wings free, pulled herself up onto the edge of the basket, and jumped. With a couple of flaps, she was floating to the side of the balloon and between the shield. “Hey! Is this help—gaaah!”

With the removal of her weight the balloon had risen halfway to the hole. But its ascent had not gone unnoticed, as more changelings had extricated themselves from the battle and gathered around underneath, shotguns and rifles gripped tight in their jaws to take potshots. In a brief moment the shield had phased out of existence as Cadance struggled to keep it going, sweating with the strain. A shower of pellets grazed alongside Rainbow’s face, narrowly missed her eyes thanks to a quick wing tuck and roll, but the shiv dropped from her mouth as she screamed and it disappeared into the throng below. As the shield flickered on again, the pellets ripped into the fabric of the balloon. A gasp emanated from Spike and all the ponies in the basket, with the exception of Twilight, who barely was able to make a squeal.

Shining Armor quickly turned to Rarity and a purple arc of energy jumped from his horn to hers. A cone of blue light appeared around her horn, fractured as if it were a solid object, and shattered in large chips that dissolved into the air. The stallion whirled back and charged up his horn, turning the bubble shield purple. Cadance sighed with relief and gave him a quick nuzzle.

Gasping, Rarity tried casting another spell on Fluttershy’s chains. The cuffs were bathed in a blue aura before flashing white and transforming into satin ribbons, neatly but loosely tied around each of the pegasi’s hooves. The unicorn clapped her hooves ecstatically as she watched her friend slip easily from the cloth and jump out of the basket. Picking the ribbons from the floor with her magic, she scrutinized them for a moment, and floated them up to the holes in the balloon. Rarity whinnied with delight as the fabric stretched across the tears and melded directly into the balloon, effectively stopping any more hot air from escaping.

“Rainbow! Oh my goodness, are you okay?” Fluttershy said, flapping hard to reach the other pegasus.

Dash had a foreleg held tight against her cheek. She took a deep breath and pulled it away. “How bad is it?”

Fluttershy winced in sympathy. The gashes in Rainbow’s cheek weren’t deep, but they had bled profusely, and her coat was stained around the cuts.

“That bad, huh?” Dash clapped the hoof back again and clenched her jaw as she felt the sting.

“No, no, you’ll be fine—oh!” Fluttershy gasped. “We’re moving!”

With the removed weight of both Rainbow and Fluttershy, plus the mended rips in the balloon, it had resumed its upward trajectory. The pegasi flapped a little faster to rise with it. Below, even more changelings had gathered and were peppering the shield now with bolts of green magic, but it was holding fast. As the balloon and the passenger basket passed through the hole in the fencing, Dash couldn’t help but cheer, and the others joined in with gusto. Twilight was only able to smile weakly.

“I’ve heard of flying the coop, but this is ridiculous!” Pinkie shouted, leaning over the side.

Suddenly a black shape barreled into the side of the shield right next to Rarity, causing massive spidery cracks to form around the point of impact. The unicorn shrieked and hopped back a pace before daring to look. The thing was a changeling splayed out and flattened against the bubble, shaking its head as it gripped on for dear life, and its horn was shining bright. It was immediately joined by more and more of its kind, who were catapulting directly into the bubble and cracking their skulls against it.

“We can’t hold the shield anymore!” Shining Armor shouted through gritted teeth.

Dash tucked in her wings, dropping down to be level with the basket. She had removed her hoof from her jaw and the blood on her face had begun to dry. “Then we fight ‘em!”

“You’re crazy!” Applejack said, trotting over. “How the hay would we keep Twilight from comin’ to any harm?!”

More changelings collided violently into the shield. Twilight grimaced as they hit, and she rolled over to look at the baby dragon. “Spike… Spike, help me up, okay? I have to do something… I can do it again!”

Spike’s lower lip had been trembling, but suddenly he stopped, and thrust his claws into the bag to grab the watch, accidentally ripping out one of the pockets in the process. "Wait, Twilight! Maybe we can use this!"

"Spike, this… this…" Twilight gaped at the watch. “How did you—where did you—”

The unicorn’s horn cast a faint light as she took the timepiece from Spike and held it with her magic, even as he gasped and tried to protest. She rotated it around and examined the edge carefully. The outer bezel was lined on both sides with jutting crowns. Holding her breath and narrowing her eyes, Twilight started slowly pressing and turning them one at a time, which only made Spike blather more.

“Hush, Spike… I’ll be fine. I’m trying to concentrate.”

Fluttershy was now also floating level with the basket. “Twilight!” she exclaimed. “No, no, you really shouldn’t over-exert yourself!”

“Darling, she’s right! Here, let me help with, oh, whatever it is you’re doing.” Rarity had turned to Twilight and sparked up her horn, and the blue glow of her magical field was wrapping itself around the watch.

“…Stop…” Twilight said, breathing heavily between words, trying to push away Rarity’s magic. “…I want… I want to… do this…”

Even more changelings slammed into the shield all at once. The rifts now stretched across every square inch of the bubble. Cadance and Shining Armor were slumped over the side of the basket, breathing heavily with their eyelids squeezed tight. Suddenly as Twilight twisted two crowns on either side, a bright green light burst from the watch. Black cavity-riddled hooves punched through fissures in the shield, making the balloon shake and causing Twilight to lose her weak grip on the timepiece. It clattered against the edge of the basket, bounced off, and landed underneath Rarity as the light expanded into a circle on the floor. Squealing and scraping at the floor, Rarity was immediately drawn in and mostly disappeared from sight, but not before Applejack was able to leap over and snatch her tail by the teeth at the last second.

“I gotcha!” Applejack shouted through a mouthful of hair, pulling back.

All of a sudden, a loud, authoritative voice emanated from the circle of light. “Steve, your wristwatch has malfunctioned… again. Please report immediately for repairs.”

“Chrysalis!?” Twilight’s eyes shrunk to pinpricks. “Applejack, get her out of there, now!”

“Ah can’t!” the cowpony yelled. “She’s bein’ sucked—ack!”

Applejack lurched forward and her head sunk through the light. In a flash, Rainbow dropped inside the basket and yanked on her tail. Soon only Applejack’s bottom half of her body was visible as Dash resisted the pull of the opened portal. Twilight could only watch as Fluttershy followed suit to help, but she was dragged helplessly along on her stomach. As the pegasus kicked and squealed, the strength of the light’s force seemed to grow, and Twilight began to slide towards it. Both of the saddlebags whisked past her and flew inside. The unicorn howled as Fluttershy disappeared and flailed as the light loomed nearer, threatening to swallow her up too. Hearing her cry out, Spike, Cadance, and Shining Armor simultaneously piled on top of the unicorn. They were drawn in, a thrashing mass of hooves and claws.

The shield shattered like glass and every shard gave off sparks as they vanished into thin air. Changelings tore away the pieces haphazardly and focused their attention on the sole pony left inside the balloon, who was hurriedly scrambling onto the edge of the basket.

“Hey, wait for me!” Pinkie Pie jumped off the lip, curled up into a cannonball, and dropped straight into the light.

Dash tumbled out through the other side of the emerald portal and felt the force that had pulled her in dissipate. She saw for a fleeting moment the rest of the ponies, Spike with the watch in his claws, and two saddlebags spill from the light before it shrunk inwards to a dot and vanished. Before the pegasus could stop herself, she plunged into something viscous and hot, which stung at the gashes in her cheek and washed into her mouth as she screamed. Rainbow was only vaguely aware of the muted sounds of eight more bodies splashing.

Spitting out the liquid and gasping for air, Dash broke the surface and beat her wings until she was hovering just over it, a deep shade of green that bubbled like boiling water and with no bottom in sight. Doing so was surprisingly stiff and even painful for her in the joints. Applejack was swimming determinedly through it to the edge, where Rarity was already sitting on her haunches and sniffling as she wrung the curls of her mane out, and Pinkie Pie was helping Fluttershy climb ashore by pushing her up. Strangely, the party pony’s unkempt hair had managed to stay impeccably clean and frizzy in its trademark fashion. Cadance and Shining Armor were paddling slowly, looking haggard and worn as Twilight Sparkle flung her forelegs over their shoulders to keep afloat between them. Her eyes were gaunt, sunken, and wide open. Spike drifted behind, watching worriedly with his claws latched around the saddlebags and the watch strapped to his wrist.

Once Fluttershy had gotten out, Dash joined her in lifting Twilight from the liquid and onto solid ground, while Pinkie Pie and Applejack each lent a hoof to Cadance and Shining Armor, and Rarity abandoned squeezing the gunk from her tail to levitate Spike and give him a hug. With all ponies and one baby dragon accounted for, they lined up at the border of the strange lake and took in their surroundings.

The edges of the massive circular pool were roughly hewn into deep purple and white checkered and cracked tile. Craning their necks up they could see that they were indoors, and that a large hole had been knocked into the high ceiling to allow a continuous cascade of the liquid to flow like a gelatinous waterfall into the center of the pool, its base gurgling like a stomach. Where the fluid originated from beyond that point couldn’t be seen. The edges of the chamber were lined with white marble pillars, coated in the dried foreign substance, which had puddled on the floor and was draped in thick wide sheets from one to the next. Between the columns were thin stained glass windows, with pointed tips and formed into geometric shapes. But the sunlight that would have streamed through them was harshly subdued. Only little beams managed to make it through little holes in the stretches of sludge.

“What in Equestria is this place?” Spike asked softly. Even though he asked the question just barely above a whisper in volume, it managed to echo.

“Call me crazy, but… I reckon we’re in Canterlot,” Applejack replied.

Twilight shook her head. She was resting on her haunches and staring down at the floor. “This isn’t Canterlot anymore. Not to me.”

Shining Armor was watching the falls intently. “We can’t stay out in the open and in enemy territory any longer. We’re all tired and some of us are even hurt.” He looked back down at Twilight. “What do you want to do?”

The unicorn mare was focusing intently on the green lake. She sparked her horn up and tried to splash aside some of the liquid, but the magic fizzled away and she winced. “…We need to… hide…”

“Darling, I sincerely hope you don’t mean hiding in… in whatever that is,” Rarity commented, eyelid twitching. “We don’t even know where it’s been.”

Applejack turned around and dipped herself back into the mire. “I ain’t seein’ nowhere better to lay low.”

Rarity’s jaw dropped. “Oh come on—fine, you can bathe in that muck for all I care, but I won’t touch another drop if I can help it.”

Putting a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder, Rarity’s horn lit up and the liquid began to part aside, held in place by a small amount of her magic. It washed back slowly until a dry circle was formed a few ponylengths down into the pool’s bed. The glow of Twilight’s horn faded, but she didn’t acknowledge Rarity’s gesture, instead staring at the clean space she had made. It was also tiled like the floor they were on and the elevation was sloping downward.

One by one, the ponies lowered themselves in. Pinkie Pie was first down by jumping, but the look on her face of forced cheerfulness showed she was tired too. Dash attempted to lift her wings to simply glide down, but they refused to rise all the way, so she opted instead to climb. Applejack swam into the circle and splashed through the wall as Shining Armor dropped in with a grunt, Twilight laid out across his back. The alicorn had to encourage Fluttershy to come with her, and they were able to drift down slowly together. Spike was able to use his claws to dig into the wall when he climbed down. By the bottom, though, he was panting heavily.

Rarity took a few deliberate steps towards the center of the pool and her horn shone again. The edge of the barrier of sludge pushed forward, the rear end began closing in, and together the friends walked forwards. After a minute of staggering on hoof the liquid washed overhead, placing them inside a half-circle of air with the floor as the base, and a small hole at the top for air. Rarity gave one last flash of her horn, the fluid dried out into a solid wall, and she slumped to the floor.

“Well then, now that we’re all thoroughly exhausted,” Rarity observed, her mane partially uncurled now, “maybe we can have a moment of Celestia-forsaken reprieve.”

Applejack smeared away some of the liquid on a hoof, crouched down, and prepared to shake the rest of it off.

“One mere shiver,” Rarity hissed, “and I’ll crochet your mane and tail together.”

Applejack eyed her slantwise as she slowly rested back on her haunches instead. The other ponies were doing much of the same. Rainbow Dash had also joined her in the same fashion and was looking intently at Twilight. Meanwhile, Pinkie Pie had opted instead to lie down on her stomach and splay out her legs, watching Spike step over Fluttershy’s curled up hooves to also take a seat. The baby dragon plopped down next to Twilight, who was laid out on her side between Shining Armor and Cadance, sitting up and facing the rest of the friends.

Twilight’s eyes were closed. “We can’t stay here for long,” she muttered.

“No, Twilight.” Rainbow’s eyes narrowed. “We’re gonna stay here as long as we have to. It’s about time we got some answers outta you.”

Shining Armor’s ears flattened back. “Rainbow Dash, I don’t think that’s fair of you to demand—”

“Oh, it’s not ‘fair’, you say? Excuse me, but we deserve to know what’s going on!” Rarity tapped a hoof repeatedly for emphasis. “Twilight conceals herself in her library for weeks, we entirely fail to attend the Grand Galloping Gala, and suddenly she’s thrown into prison while I’m attacked on a train and replaced by a changeling, which by the way, Equestria is just swamped with! And you’re talking about what’s ‘fair’?

Applejack and Pinkie looked over at Rarity and nodded with conviction at her statement. Fluttershy was less convinced, choosing to stare down at the tile instead.

“Excuse you, but Twilight’s in no state to be interrogated!” Cadance placed a hoof on her sister-in-law’s heaving chest protectively. “She’s too exhausted from… from… whatever she just did in the balloon!”

“I’m sure we can wait a while down here until Twilight feels better,” Fluttershy suggested. “She’ll tell us everything after a nice, relaxing rest, and there’s no reason why she wouldn’t.”

Spike sat forward a little. “You know, I can tell you guys anything you wanna know about.”

“Sugarcube, we know you can explain everything—hay, you and… and ‘Derpy’ told us a lot a while back in Manehattan. But what both of you said ‘bout Twilight not wanting us to be involved… well, it was mighty hard to hear. And it’s only right we get an explanation from her.”

“Besides, Twilight’s about to say something anyway,” Pinkie said off-hoofedly.

Everypony’s eyes shot to Pinkie Pie and then over to Twilight, who was pushing herself from the floor very slowly on both front hooves. She waved away their immediate protests, and finally sat up on her side, her tangled bangs hanging over her face. Her friends, brother, and sister-in-law quieted down and waited for her to speak.

“I’ll talk, girls. You’re right. I owe all of you an explanation.”

Twilight closed her eyes for a moment and inhaled deeply. “It was… well, it had to have been a couple of months ago, right after Applejack had told me about the upcoming farming convention and asked me to feed Winona,” she said, nodding to the cowpony before continuing, “that I noticed I was being followed. Every day there were more of them, in line when I was grocery shopping, sitting a row or two away at the theater… one of them watched me from behind a tree as I ate lunch at the Hay Burger. So, naturally, I wrote Princess Celestia for advice, or help, or just to do something.

“When Spike received a letter back from her, telling me to come to Canterlot right away, I didn’t think twice about it. I took the train there that evening. But not even halfway before we arrived, all the passengers in the car stood up, and that’s…” Twilight’s ears laid back. “…That’s when they changed. I don’t know how I managed to cast a teleportation spell out of there in time. It took me until midnight to walk back home.”

Soft sympathetic sounds rose from her five friends, while Spike, Cadance, and Shining Armor listened unobtrusively. Twilight waited and smiled softly, but as soon as they had quieted down, she continued again.

“But the instant I stepped hoof in Ponyville, I knew something was very wrong. There were too many ponies still awake and about in the streets. I’m just glad Spike didn’t torch my mane off when I snuck back inside; or when I shook him awake, for that matter.”

Spike nodded, passing her one of the saddlebags. “And she was talking so fast, I didn’t catch a word of it. But she finally slowed down and told me everything.”

“Sitting there in the dark with all the lights off,” the unicorn continued, digging a hoof inside the bag and feeling about, “I started wondering if it was just a coincidence that I was attacked after contacting Princess Celestia, and if somehow Chrysalis was involved. It was a thought I couldn’t ignore. So, we spent the rest of the night working on these.”

The unicorn pulled out one pair of the sunglasses and held them up to show her friends. Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity all leaned in for a closer view. Rainbow Dash briefly glanced at Applejack from the corner of her eye, and quickly looked away when she saw the cowpony was doing the same thing. However, Shining Armor and Cadance were alternating between quizzically staring at Twilight, and then at each other to silently mouth words.

“I magically modified these old sunglasses to make them reveal changelings in disguise. When the sun rose in the morning, I made sure the coast was clear, and gave them a trial run out on the balcony. What I ended up seeing is… hard to explain, so I’ll just try to show you instead.”

The unicorn let a soft whimper pass as she lit up her horn and drew out a neon turquoise grid, suspended in front of her friends. Suddenly, five glowing shapes popped up across the lines in a row; a vertical purple rhombus, a pink butterfly, an orange apple, a red lightning bolt, and a blue balloon. Twilight attempted to float the pair of sunglasses towards the mares, face scrunched in concentration, but Rarity picked them out of her grasp with her own magic and smiled kindly, seeing the purple unicorn look a little more comfortable.

“Go ahead,” Twilight said. “Put them on.”

Rarity examined the sunglasses a little as Twilight took more sunglasses from the bag by hoof and slid them to Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Applejack. She hesitated, looking to Dash for a moment before passing her a pair. In unison, they all slid the sunglasses on over their muzzles. With the exceptions of the weathermare and cowpony (who silently nodded in understanding), the ponies gasped, looked over the frames, and then back through the sunglasses.

“Darling, I don’t think I understand,” Rarity asked at length. “Why does everything look black and white? Why does it say…?”

“’Obey,’” Twilight finished for her softly. “Every advertisement, sign, or billboard that I saw across Ponyville from the balcony looked just like that. There are other words, and some phrases, too. I wrote them all down. Some say ‘CONSUME,’ and I’ve seen ones that read ‘MARRY AND REPRODUCE.’ And… well, there’s this one.”

The mares sat there for a moment and watched as Twilight gave the grid a tap with her horn. Applejack and Dash took their sunglasses off almost immediately, but the others were transfixed, staring at the grid with mouths open and eyes wide. After a few more seconds, they removed their sunglasses too.

“‘Love your Queen’,” they all murmured.

Twilight gazed at the glowing symbols. “For a moment, when I saw them, I thought something was wrong. I considered whether somehow I had messed up the spells, or if I was delirious from fatigue. But eventually a changeling wandered into view and I had to concede that what I was seeing was real, and... and… it could have meant anything!

The shining grid fizzled out as Twilight bit her lip, shut her eyes tight, and took a single slow breath, quivering lightly as she did so. “Th-this was a conspiracy!” she stammered out. “Widespread, absolute de-de-deceit, across all of Equestria! How long was this happening under our noses? Was I somehow the first to discover it? Or was there somepony else out there that stumbled across this… horror? And were they silenced in the middle of the night, taken and substituted with some chitin-winged fiend, to walk among us as wolves in sheep’s clothing?

“Everypony I cared about was suspect! Any mare, stallion, or Celestia forbid, a foal could be a hidden agent of the Queen! And if you girls weren’t changelings, there could’ve—no, there definitely was somepony that you saw every day that was! The ponies that had the greatest possibility of still being themselves were Shining Armor and Cadance, and even that was a slim, infinitesimal chance because I just had some kind of… gut instinct that they’d be harder to replace! And what if, even though they were prepared from being captured and from being mind-controlled before, they were still caught off guard?”

Twilight took a deep breath before she continued. “I was spending the rest of the day building a magic shield around the library, rendering it invisible, obscuring my presence with it, trying to keep my mind off of everything, when I remembered a… it was this silly little cipher I had come up with as a filly. I had cut a pair of disks out of paper and wrote letters along one and symbols along the other. At some point I just committed it to memory. Shining Armor used to tease me for writing my school notes in it, but he’d kept it for years. So I wrote him a letter about the time he taught me how to fly a kite, coded with what little I remembered, hoping he’d respond because if he could connect emotionally to me, then I’d know he hadn’t been taken away!

“And when he wrote back more old memories in the same way the next morning, with Cadance having even included an encrypted letter of her own, I felt a little more comfortable—just enough to tell them that I suspected foul play, not that I had proof or the means to see it! But they pressed me to tell them what I knew, and not just to them, but to all of you!”

“It was sheer, complete torment just to wait for a return letter, knowing if I was wrong, I’d be foalnapped immediately, and who knows if anypony would have found me or found out?” Twilight looked across the row of mares, wild-eyed and hyperventilating. “Or what if the Queen had decided to make me suffer by taking them away instead? I couldn’t go through that nightmare five more times! And if you weren’t changelings, that was an entirely separate set of dilemmas! What if even just one of you reacted immediately, choosing to throw caution to the wind and take some uncalculated risks?! I had to flat-out refuse to allow any of you to know!”

The unicorn stamped a hoof into the tile. “Don’t you see? I couldn’t bring myself to even check if any of you were still ponies! If I never saw you, I’d never have to face that possibility! I tried to tell myself that I was just being clever, th-th-that keeping all of you in the dark would perplex Chrysalis!

“But nothing I did to protect you girls mattered, because you all had to bucking care about me!” Twilight let her head drop between her forelegs and she shook weightily. “I couldn’t take it!” she cried, but her voice was muffled. “I didn’t have a Celestia-damn choice!”

The ponies and Spike sat there, hushed, watching Twilight heave and sniff. A couple of seconds passed, and the baby dragon slowly squeezed in closer to her. Fluttershy was next, crawling up to her, and Rarity followed behind too. Pinkie Pie scooted forwards and motioned to Applejack and Dash, who nodded to each other and stood up to walk over. Both Cadance and Shining Armor turned inward to lay their forelegs over the whimpering mare. Soon all the ponies were huddled together in one mass, with their heads bowed, eyes closed, and a hoof placed comfortingly on Twilight. They lay there for a while, breathing softly, until every inhalation was in time to her slowing trembles.

After she had finally stopped moving, they shuffled aside to allow the unicorn some breathing room. They were all still very compacted, but no longer flank to flank. Twilight lifted her head, sniffling and blinking a little, but she was still looking down at the tile.

“I understand if it’s… it’s not enough, but I’m s-s-so sorry.”

The unicorn looked up in time to see a wave of smiles sweep over everypony’s faces.

“Twilie,” Shining Armor said, ruffling his sister’s mane, “that’s enough for family.”

Twilight half-heartedly tried to stop him with a hoof, but just let it drop to the floor. “Don’t say that, big brother. I lied to you about the sunglasses. I should have trusted you from the start. And I should have sent you a letter too, Cadance.”

“Twilight, I understand it would have been a huge leap of faith for you to blindly share your concerns with me. We knew you wanted to talk to them so badly, too. It took a great deal of courage to take any action at all.” Cadance held Twilight’s hoof supportively.

“I wouldn’t have called it that,” Twilight muttered. “It wasn’t courageous, especially involving Spike like this, making him swear secrecy and not letting him talk to anypony.”

Spike snuggled in closer, eyes shut. “It’s really not a problem,” he said, yawning. “It’s kinda my job to get roped into your schemes. Besides, I figured they’d forgive you once they found out.”

“But… but I’ve treated you all so awfully!” Twilight exclaimed, looking to her friends. “I made you worry and you all missed the Gala!”

Applejack shook her head in disbelief. “Shucks Twilight, we don’t care anymore! Heck, if we had actually shown up to the shindig, I’ll bet you an apple to an orchard that there’d be more changelings there than we could shake a stick at!”

Twilight gaped incredulously. “You-you can’t be serious, Applejack! I wasn’t keeping anypony safe! I just couldn’t face my fears!”

“It’s never easy confronting them,” Fluttershy acknowledged. “It’s difficult for me to think sensibly when I have to do something I’m scared of. I’ve even been frozen in place with sheer terror.”

“Fluttershy, it doesn’t matter if you understand, I still put you all at risk!” Twilight’s pupils were contracted. “I know what happened at Manehattan Correctional!”

Pinkie Pie giggled. “Twilight, you’re making it sound like it’s your fault! It’s not like you went up to Chrysalis and said, ‘Excuse me, Ms. Queen-of-all-Scary-Bug-Things, I’d reeeeeeeeally appreciate it if you’d abduct all of my friends and throw them in jail!”

Twilight couldn’t help but snicker with her. “That—hehehe—that doesn’t change the fact you were all concerned about me, Pinkie. I don’t deserve your kindne—”

“Darling, please cease this at once, will you?” Rarity was in the process of magically combing through her mane. “You’re forgiven, and that’s that.”

“...I… I just don’t understand why,” Twilight said at length.

“We’re your friends, Twilight!” Dash shouted, completely exasperated. “We care about you and stuff, okay? So what if the past few days have been, like, a drag or whatever? You’re totally fine and you’re not hurt and…” She flopped over onto her back. “Aaaah, now you’re makin’ me get all sappy!”

Twilight smiled wide and wiped at her eyes. “Thank you. All of you are the best friends and family I could ever ask for.”

All at once, the whole group squeezed in again for an embrace, aww-ing and giggling. Twilight’s face was the picture of content, her eyes shut tight and her mouth in a wide beam. Even Spike was making small sighs of satisfaction. The laughs died down slowly, bit by bit, until it was replaced by a comfortable silence.

“So…” Spike drawled, squirming. “This lovey-dovey stuff is getting real thick, and I’m not up for sticking around here. What’s the plan?”

Dash let go of Twilight and nodded briskly. “Yeah Twilight, you’re the egghead here. What do we do next?”

Murmuring with assent, all the ponies slowly let go, shifted back a little, and looked to their informally selected de facto leader. Twilight sat quietly, lost in thought.

“Actually, I’m not too sure,” Twilight admitted after a moment. “Every now and then I’d wonder how I’d get inside Canterlot without being spotted. But I never thought it would actually happen, so I never considered what I’d do next. Now that we’re here, and everything’s changed so much... it might be too risky to stay.”

“But we hafta do something,” Applejack insisted. “There ain’t no way, nohow that we can mosey on outta here and turn a blind eye!”

“And there is no guarantee we’ll get a second chance, either,” Rarity added.

“No! No, absolutely not!” Twilight said firmly, shaking her head. “We just went over this! What if one of you—”

“Helps you save Equestria from a secret plot to control the nation?” Pinkie interjected. “Or saves your tail from Queen Chrysalis and her changeling swarm?”

“Twilight, we know it’s dangerous. Very, very dangerous, and quite possibly even… oh gosh, I don’t want to do this either.” Fluttershy hid behind her mane. “But you need our help.”

The unicorn turned to her brother and sister-in-law. “I suppose I can’t convince either of you, can I?” she asked reluctantly.

“Twilie, what did I just say about family?” Shining Armor leaned in to nuzzle her cheek.

Cadance nestled against Twilight’s other side. “There’s no way we’re leaving our sister behind.”

Twilight was silent for a few minutes. Her eyes were closed and she began rhythmically tapping a hoof in thought. A smile slowly crept across her face as the other ponies and Spike looked on. Suddenly the unicorn’s eyes snapped open.

“I’ve got an idea, and it’s so crazy it just might work!”

Bubbling and swirling, the green viscous liquid parted directly down the center, divided by Rarity, Princess Cadance, Shining Armor, and Twilight. Their magical fields swept the liquid aside and held it at bay, glowing and twinkling bright. Taking advantage of the fluids washing aside, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash flew up and out of the pool. Applejack and Pinkie, who were galloping right behind them, jumped to meet their outstretched hooves and were pulled up the ledge. The alicorn and unicorns moved at a slower pace, eyes closed and focused on keeping the substance from rushing over them all. Spike slung both saddlebags over his shoulders as he strode alongside them. One at a time they were also lifted up, and the parted fluid rolled back in bit by bit, until when Twilight was the last to be helped up. The gap filled and gurgled under her.

All of the ponies were now facing away from the lake. A thin and threadbare red carpet covered the wide gap from where they stood to a tall set of heavy wooden double doors, which tapered to a point at the top and was carved with ornate spirals and swirling patterns. In the great amount of space between them and the door were strewn toppled and broken furnishings; chairs and tables with legs missing, floor candelabras bent into convoluted angles, and a thoroughly splintered bookcase.

Spike set the saddlebags down and began rummaging through one. “Oh, I almost forgot this, AJ!” he said. With a little difficulty, he pulled out a brown cowpony hat and flung it to Applejack like a flying disc.

“My hat!” Applejack reared up, snatched it in her teeth, flipped it onto her head, and kicked her hooves elatedly. “This is like Hearth’s Warming Eve in Juuuly!”

“Is everypony ready?” Twilight asked firmly, looking across them all.

Underneath the lake, she had postulated that they were likely somewhere in the east wing of the castle. It was hard for her to tell with the changes the changelings had made, but she was fairly confident. She then further inferred that Chrysalis would likely have returned to the castle, considering that she would naturally want to protect her hive after she had broken free, but also the assets she suspected she had left: Princess Celestia, the Elements of Harmony, and what she called the subliminal signal system. In order for her idea to succeed, they would have to navigate the castle swiftly, locate every trump card in the changeling Queen’s hoof, and then combat the Queen herself, all in one shot.

All ponies present lifted their sunglasses up in response before tucking them away in their manes or behind their heads. After waiting for Spike to sink the emptied saddlebags into the green substance and clamber onto Fluttershy’s back, Twilight took the forefront of the group and coolly headed for the door. The carpet did little to mute their hooves as they walked, and they had to carefully watch their step to not tread on any of the scattered debris, with the exception of Dash who was hovering as usual. Behind them, the sound of the gushing sludge falls began to fade away, and was overlapped by their own hoofbeats and wingflaps.

“Hey Twilight,” the weatherpony suddenly said. “What’s the deal with Princess Luna? I’ve talked to Shining Armor, I’ve asked Spike, but nopony knows where she’s gone to!”

Rarity looked up to her and gasped. “Princess Luna’s gone?! Are there any clues? Has this been reported in the papers?”

“I’m sorry girls, but we have no idea,” Twilight admitted. “I kept a log the past two months of the sun and moon’s movements, and contrary to what I expected, their typical patterns were and are in effect. My best guess is that she is alive and being kept with Princess Celestia. If she’s not there… well, Chrysalis already has a lot to answer for.”

Twilight’s theory was that a signal was being transmitted across Equestria, and that its source could only be coming from Canterlot. Whatever was sending the signal would have to be destroyed. Secondly, she rationalized that if Chrysalis had imprisoned anypony that resisted or could be a threat, she had done the same with Princess Celestia. And lastly, all six Elements of Harmony were likely still in the castle and in their proper resting place. While Chrysalis had revealed she had knowledge of the Elements to Twilight, the unicorn wagered that if they weren’t involved in her plot, she didn’t know how they worked.

The group finally came to the door. Every curving etching into the wood had at some point been carved with accuracy and real craftsmareship, but dried green muck had stained the wood, caked into the carvings, and had coated the brass hinges. Twilight sparked up her horn and pulling both doors open before striding through, and stopped on the other side until all the ponies had crossed the threshold. Once they had all exited, she closed them again and continued onward.

Twilight looked about and nodded to herself. They were now in a hallway with tattered red textile banners hanging vertically on the walls. The carpet still ran over the tiles, bunched up in places, and the trail of wreckage followed it. Not far ahead was an archway opening to a staircase leading up, and another hall extended off to the right. The ceiling rose very high and disappeared into pitch black shadow. As they approached the intersection, close enough to see the slime dripping off the staircase’s banisters, Twilight suddenly turned around to look back.

“Fluttershy,” she said, addressing her directly, “Are you absolutely certain you want to do that? I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time when we’re done.”

The pegasus ruffled her feathers awkwardly and took a deep breath. “I really, really have to, Twilight. I don’t know if I could live with myself if I didn’t.”

“Just promise us you’ll be safe, okay?” Pinkie Pie’s eyes were wide and watery. “Cross my heart and hope to fly…”

“…Stick a cupcake in my eye—oof,” finished Fluttershy, right as Pinkie heavily swung a foreleg over her in a tight embrace.

Twilight had described how she and her friends would blaze a pathway straight through Canterlot Castle, intentionally raising Tartarus to attract as many changelings as possible. But she clarified that their main objective was to reach the last stop on the way: the throne room. Meanwhile, Shining Armor and Cadance would take a winding route through the castle, staying out of sight on the way to Canterlot’s cave system, and then return to the vault where the Elements of Harmony rested. If they were successful, Twilight had affirmed, everything they were in search of would be in those locations. What she hadn't been expecting was Fluttershy politely asking if she could go to the garden to visit the animals. Twilight only acquiesced when Spike offered to accompany her there.

“Well, we’re here.” Twilight said softly, stopping at the fork.

In unison, the group began to separate. Shining Armor and Princess Cadance walked over to the entrance to the side hallway. Twilight and the rest of her friends gathered next to the banisters. Rainbow slowly lowered herself down to the floor as they all lingered there silently, looking off down their different ways, or at each other.

“I suppose this is it,” Cadance said, rubbing a hoof awkwardly. “To be honest, I’m not looking forward to returning to these caves.”

Shining Armor sidled closer to his wife. “It’s going to be okay, honey. We can look forward to seeing Twilight again once this is over.”

Cadance nodded slowly. Together they both turned around and began walking down the diverging corridor. Twilight watched them go for a moment, biting her lip, looked to the stairs, and then back to her departing brother and sister-in-law.

“Wait! Cadance, wait!” the unicorn said, doing her best to keep her voice low as she took tentative steps their way.

Shining Armor stopped and turned, but Cadance trotted right back up to her. They looked at each other in the eye for a second and broke out into wide grins.

“Sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs awake!” they sang softly, skipping in place and covering their eyes, touching hooves and wriggling their rears. “Clap your hooves and do a little shake!”

Impulsively, all the ponies rushed together to the center of the fork and packed together in for another quick cuddle. There were a few muffled giggles and soft squeals of approval before they slowly pulled apart one more time, waving animatedly to each other’s groups as they all stepped away from the junction and headed for their separate ways, unfolding their sunglasses and putting them on.

“Keep my sister safe, okay?” Shining Armor stated. “We’ll see you soon!”

Rainbow hopped slightly above the ground with an effortless flap of her wings. “Hey Applejack, betcha I can take down more changelings than you can!” she hissed, pointing at her.

“Is that a challenge, Dash? ‘Cause you’re on.” Applejack spat into her hoof and bumped it against Rainbow’s.

“Say Applejack,” Pinkie squeezed right between the two of them, “I totally had a changeling carbon copy in the clink, right? You’ve got to tell me about her!” she insisted, eyes popping out and back in again.

“Oh my goodness,” Fluttershy said, trotting a little to catch up with her friends. “This is… certainly a little exciting. Maybe it’s a little too exciting.”

“Excitement is my middle name, Fluttershy!” Spike whispered. “Spike Excitement… um… uh… sheesh, I actually don’t know what comes next.”

Their whispers trailed off as they quieted down and moved farther away, the distance separating them growing greater and greater. Soon, even the faintest hints of sound faded away, and the intersection was silent again. The ponies were now long gone, heading deep into Canterlot Castle, off to undertake Twilight’s gambit.

Above in the blackness, chitin wings rustled, and bright teal eyes snapped open.