Cultural Artifacts

by Dan_s Comments

First published

A little piece of Earth arrives in Equestria, a human and it's home. The citizens of Ponyville and Princess Luna struggle with this newcomer, as it struggles with them.

TVTropes page yay!A human arrives with a house in Ponyville. The Mane Six, and Princess Luna must deal with this new arrival. But not everyone agrees how it should be handled, not everyone agrees on what danger it represents, or the benefit it can be to Equestria.

The inhabitant must also deal with the new rules and conventions of this new world it knows nothing about, as well as the mystery of its appearance, and the incongruities of its arrival.
TVTropes page yay!

1) Arrival

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Dan's Comments

Cultural Artifacts - Arrival

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Despite what people say, anywhere can have earthquakes, he thought as he picked himself out from under the bed after the shaking stopped. After two years in Los Angeles, he knew the proper routine after an earthquake. Shut off the gas, shut off the water, and check for collapsed buildings in the area. Got more than enough food to last a . . .

"While." He stopped in front of the French doors as he looked out onto his backyard. The tomato plants, the roses, the apple and cherry tree were still there, but the back fence wasn't. And what was there instead, convinced him he'd hit his head harder than he thought. Not only were the colors all wrong, the overall shapes were all wrong.

He shook his head and continued to the gas meter. It seemed intact, but he shut it off anyway. Circling outside the house, he was glad to see it hadn't suffered any real damage. The next problem was that the in-ground box that let him shut off the water was apparently left behind. Where it used to be, was part of the technicolor landscape. Then it occurred to him. The lights were still on inside, he thought as he returned back inside. The security system status lights were on, and no 'no power' alarm was lit. He flipped on the switch for the living room, and the concealed fixtures bounced light off the white ceiling and flooded the room with light.

Something's not right here, he thought.

The terrified scream made things even less right.

Little girl, he thought and moved towards the door. Then stopped. This isn't home, and there may be no cops here for hours. If there even are cops. He ran back into the house to get some boots, and something more than moral authority to deal with the problem.

He selected the SKS for two reasons, one, he could drive tacks with it at 50 yards, and two, it had a bayonet on the end, giving him more options. The .45 in a holster at the small of his back gave him a back up. An old binocular case around his waist held some 10 stripper clips for the SKS and five magazines for the .45. If I need more than that, I'm in trouble, he thought as he tied the steel-toed work boots. Them giving him another option if he needed it.

Locating the source of the scream took surprisingly little time. Understanding the source of the scream added some. The creatures involved look like they were out of Wizards crossed with Bakshi's Lord of the Rings: gray skin and fangs, ragged clothes and misshapen limbs. Their victims were even weirder, two little unicorns, both blonde manes and pale-violet bodies with yellow eyes. One had a horseshoe mark on its flank, the other was blank. The blank-flank's rear leg was twisted at a painful angle.

Probably broken, he thought as he approached. Stopping about twenty feet from the trio of 'orcs', he leveled the rifle at the one making gestures of command with its hands.

"HEY!" he announced, getting their attention.

The trio looked at him in astonishment. The two non-leaders argued with each other, their language a garbled mess. The leader stood and made a gesture. He then kicked the wounded one, making her squeal. From the brush, broke three more orcs. These in armor, and running on four legs.

Okay, I'll accept your ignorance of what a rifle is, but with the bayonet extended, you should at least recognize a spear, he thought as the running trio had come into sight.

"Call them off," he ordered and raised the rifle to point it at the leader's head, "NOW!"

The orc crossed his arms and grinned. The bullet hit him just above the eyes. The noise, and their leader's head exploding took the two off-guard.

"You!" he called as he shifted to the larger of those remaining, but watching the trio approach. "Call them off!"

The big guy proved he had the brains to make a conclusion. He shouted something, and the trio halted and looked around worriedly. Skulker has detached and was moving around to the flank.

No, I've got more shots, he thought, But I'll let you think I don't. He turned and charged, screaming at the Skulker. He'd aimed for the throat as he'd been taught, but Skulker's parry drove the bayonet down, and it landed in the orc's belly. A new high-pitched wail added to the whimpers of the two unicorns. He stepped smartly back, out of reach of the limbs of the mewling orc who clutched his belly.

"Take him and get out of here!" he ordered, gesturing with the rifle towards the new leader and Skulker.

The new leader grabbed Skulker by the collar and dragged him away quickly. The armored trio cast worried glances over their shoulders as they withdrew.

Okay, he thought as he glanced at the corpse, and the two shivering little unicorns, You may have given this guy a Darwin Award, but that still leaves the problem of where the heck are you, and what is going on. He slung the rifle and drew the pistol, scanning the area for an ambush. But with nearly a hundred yards clear terrain in all directions he doubted they could ambush him.

The two little unicorns were tethered to the ground with a choker chain around their necks attached to basically a large corkscrew screwed into the ground. I used these on my dogs, he thought as he unscrewed it, and unclipped the two unicorns. The one with all four legs working, bolted immediately. The other stared up at him fearfully, unable or unwilling to move.

"Easy, I'm not going to hurt you, unless you hurt me," he said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. It/she whimpered a bit as he lifted her up, and slung her across his shoulders. "You're a heavy, little thing," he said as he trotted back to his house.

Problem, there is no way in hell I can fortify that place. A pick axe could come through the walls and I can't cover enough area with just me to fend off a multi-pronged attack, he considered, Face it, if they want her, they can get her. He noted the other unicorn filly had come back, and was running alongside and talking, to the one he was carrying. Both the statements, and the replies sounded desperate. 'Run away, it's taking you home to eat you.' 'I can't run, my leg's broken. Save yourself.' 'I won't leave you', he thought, I may cry. At the top of the ridge he'd crested on his way to the fillies, he spotted signs of a town in the distance. Signs he'd been facing the wrong way to see before.

"Okay, if that is what I think it is," he considered the red-cross adorning a building nearer his place than the town, "Someone is definitely messing with me."
[hr /]

Spike opened the library's door at frantic knocking. "Hello Derpy, hello Carrot Top," he said, "Uh, Twilight's not feeling well."

The groan of agony from upstairs punctuated the message.

"Well, if you see Dinky Doo or Dinky Hooves, please tell us," Carrot Top said, "They went out to collect some rocks together, and they haven't come back."

"Well, they aren't the Cutie Mark Crusaders," Spike reassured the two distraught mares. "If I see them, I'll tell them you're looking for them."

The pair left. Spike finished filling the ice bag and headed back to Twilight. Don't need to replace the bucket, he thought as he proceeded to the stricken unicorn's bed.

"Feeling better Twilight?" he asked as he removed the previous ice pack and replaced it with the new one. He felt the heat coming off what had been solid ice a few minutes before.

"Ulugh," she replied and raised her head, the bloodshot eyes regarded him, "Yes, now I'm afraid I won't die."

"Any idea what that 'magic bursting' was about?" he asked carefully.

Twilight flopped back down, her head over the bucket in case she needed it, again. "No, Spike. No idea, and right now, I think I am going to let my headache go away first."

"That's okay." He retreated quickly, leaving her to her misery. He poured the hot water out of the ice bag and started refilling it with ice.

He came in through the back door, and carefully laid the filly on the coffee table. Since I know essentially zero about how to splint a horse's leg, and the old shotgun joke doesn't seem funny right now, he thought as he collected a heavy blanket, and a pan of warm water. Still have water pressure, this cannot be happening. He took the pan, and several kitchen towels with him. The other filly, with the horseshoe mark, had slunk in and was standing near her almost-twin. The twin pairs of fearful eyes regarded him as he knelt next to the stricken one. He folded one towel and showed her he wanted her to take it between her teeth. She shook her head, he nodded in return, getting both fillies to stare at him. He carefully washed some of the deep scratches. She whimpered, so he offered the folded towel, and pushed her near-twin closer. The unmarked one hugged the marked one and whimpered while he worked. He used some hydrogen peroxide on the cuts, then did the same on the marked one who had a deep cut near her spine. She bore up a little better, but hugged her friend with gusto while he cleaned and bandaged her wound.

"Okay. I'm going to take her to the hospital," he told them in his best 'fatherly' tone. Neither showed any comprehension. Although they whimpered to each other when he wrapped the blank-flank in a blanket and carried her through the house to the garage.

"Car? No, use those when I get a source of fuel. The bike it is," he told himself and carefully loaded the foal into the large basket on the front of the bike he sometimes used when grocery shopping. "That's assuming the garage door opens," he thought and hit the control.

Both fillies gasped as the door opened normally. He took the opener with him and started riding towards the red-cross-topped building he'd spotted earlier. The filly with the horseshoe mark had to run to keep up.

He saw the road would run through part of the town, but he decided to brazen it out. If you act like you belong, and nothing is going wrong, they'll usually ignore you, he thought, Okay, that architecture is just weird. It looks like Dr. Seuss or the Smurfs. At least the hospital looks reasonable. He parked the bike, and noted he'd left the other filly far behind. He picked up his precious cargo, and ducked to get in the front doors. Many of the ponies in the entryway stared at him in utter shock. He ignored them all. The trio of ponies, each wearing a nurse's hat, each with a modified red cross on their flanks caught his attention. He set the filly on what he took to be gurney near them.

"Her leg was broken by some orcs," he said authoritatively, as they stared at him, "I'm afraid that's beyond my capabilities. Please take care of her." He turned and felt the waiting room all staring at him as he held the door for the exhausted filly who'd not been able to keep up.

As he rode away, he heard the screams of terror coming out of the hospital.

Twilight was feeling marginally better, and was even able to walk without falling over, when a pink ball of energy stormed into the library.

"Twilight!" Pinkie hugged her ferociously. "I'm so glad the house didn't land on you. Not saying you're a witch or anything, but when I saw that new house with the monster living in it, I had to wonder. 'OH! Did that hit Twilight?' So I'm so glad you're safe! Do you suppose monsters like cupcakes? And what kind of party games should we have? I remember that dragon didn't like my party games."

" 'House', 'monster'?" Twilight asked as she struggled to pry the pink party-purveyor loose, "What are you talking about?"

"The big house that appeared outside of town!" Pinkie exclaimed. "Oh no, we haven't found out if it's eaten anypony! Bye!"

With that, Twilight was left with a worsening headache, and a new series of questions. Spike's burp and the flash of colored flame heralded what she desperately hoped were some answers, not more questions.

"It's from Princess Luna," Spike said, "They felt the magic bubble burst too, and she's bringing a detachment of soldiers and scholars. She wants you to coordinate with them anything you've found."

"About what?" Twilight demanded.

"Ah, whatever landed outside of town."

Derpy held 'her muffin' tightly as Dinky Doo and Dinky Hooves related their experience to Applejack and Rarity. "The Diamond Dogs said we were bait and that they were going to get revenge for you tricking them, and then this big monster showed up. The Diamond Dogs just laughed at it and it hurt two of them, and freed us, then it carried me back to its house, and bandaged up my cuts, and brought me here."

"His house is huge! Rooms ten-ponies high and doors a dozen ponies could walk through all at once," Dinky Hooves said from the protective embrace of Carrot Top, "He's like a cross between a bear and a dragon. He shoots fire, and walks on two legs, and has hands, and he had this thing with wheels that was faster than a pony!"

"Yeah! The wheel thing had a basket on the front. I rode in it upside-down, even though I was going fast, I wasn't scared."

"What about this - creature," Rarity said, "What did it do?"

"When the Diamond Dogs had us, he fought them. Hurt two and scared the rest away," Dinky Hooves said, with Dinky Doo nodding in agreement, "Then he carried Dinky Doo back to his house and cleaned up her cuts, and mine, then took her to the hospital."

"I can vouch for that," Nurse Redheart said, "It walked in."

"It's a him," Dinky Hooves insisted, "He's got a deep voice like a stallion, he's got to be a him."

"He, walked in, and had to crouch to get through the halls. It, he came straight to Nurse Coldheart and Nurse Tenderheart, said something in a language I've never heard, and laid poor Dinky here on a gurney. It then held the door for Dinky Hooves, and left. We all panicked a little at that point."

"I do not blame you one bit," Rarity said, "Imagine a monster traipsing in here. I'm surprised it left peacefully."

"He's not a monster!" Dinky Doo insisted, "He's nice! Those Diamond Dogs hurt me! He never did, well, maybe when he cleaned up my cuts, but that always hurts."

"Ah think we'd better get Twilight and Rainbow Dash," Applejack whispered to Rarity, "And go have ourselves a look at this monster."

"Agreed," Rarity whispered as they pair moved away, "Still, what kind of 'monster' rescues a pair of foals, and takes one them to the hospital?"

"The real scary kind Rarity, the smart kind," Applejack replied.

He watched the clothes' washer fill with hot water. He'd turned the gas back on, after he'd come back, and after digging at the line and found it severed too, like the water line. "Someone is definitely screwing with me," he said as he added a little detergent and left the machine to run. All the windows which had once lent the place an open feel were now serious vulnerabilities. He briefly considered relocating to the attic. "No, they could simply burn the place down around my ears," he reminded himself.

"So, afterlife, hallucination from earthquake injuries, psychotic breakdown, or all of the above?" he asked himself as he returned to the kitchen and started cooking dinner. "There is no way that all of this can be happening." He noted that the sun was setting. "They'll probably come at night. Five on one, not good odds." He looked around, feeling he was being watched.

He turned suddenly. "I could have sworn I saw a flash of pink."

Fluttershy leaned over and looked through the windows into the kitchen. She sat back up on the roof and stuffed her hooves in her mouth to prevent a squee from escaping. "It so, so, so cute!" she had to say.

Rainbow Dash plucking her off the roof at speed made her squeak a different way. The cyan pegasus dropped her at the makeshift observation post she and Applejack had set up.

"What the hay are you doing?" Rainbow Dash demanded, "That thing is dangerous."

"But it's cute," Fluttershy whimpered, and let out a little squee of joy. "It acts just like a pony."

"Tell that ta the dead Dahmond Dog," Applejack said, "That critter didn't shoot it, he exploded it. Never seen nothin' lahke that in mah life."

"Dead?" Fluttershy asked, "Did he eat some of it?"

"No, jist killed it," Applejack said, "Though, they had a couple of fillies they'd hurt."

"He rescued them?" Fluttershy gasped.

"Awfully gallant, for a monster," Rarity asked as she arrived, Twilight trailing behind, "Wouldn't you say."

"Maybe it was just trying to show it has a good heart. We all know how mean those Diamond Dogs are," Fluttershy said.

"They kidnaped Rarity," Rainbow Dash insisted, "They didn't kill her."

"They didn't break my leg so my cries would draw the rest of you in either," Rarity replied, "I agree. It overreacted, but I can admit, its heart was in the right place." She stepped aside and let Twilight walk up to the binoculars.

Applejack sighed. "That's kinda not th' point. What's it doin' haere? What's it want? Even if it is friendly, and ah ain't sayin' it is, what the hay do we know about it?" Applejack looked over, and frowned at Twilight's stunned expression. "Twi? Twilight? Twilight Sparkle?"

"Books," came the strangled sound, "Hundreds and hundreds of books!" the unicorn nearly shrieked.

"Get her Dash!" Applejack shouted, as their friend made a break for it.

"It has to be intelligent! We have to make friends with it! Look at all those books!" Twilight shouted as Rainbow wrestled her down to the floor of the observation post.

"Yeah," Fluttershy added, "The big wall at the center of the house. It has book shelves on both sides."

"Fluttershy," Rainbow Dash said as she struggled with the unicorn, "Not helping here."

"All those books, no one's ever read before!" Twilight announced.

"And you can't read either, darling," Rarity said, "It doesn't speak our language."

Twilight stopped wrestling with Rainbow Dash. "Can't read them?" the little unicorn whimpered, "All those books, and I can't read them."

"I'm sure if you asked nicely," Fluttershy suggested, "Or traded. It might want to learn about -"

"That's not important rahght naw," Applejack insisted, "This critter mahght be dangerous ta Ponyville. Ha'd we keep it penned up?"

"Why don't we have Rainbow go beat it up?" Rarity offered.

"Are you kidding? I'm the one who found that Diamond Dog!" Rainbow insisted, "If it's a creature, let Fluttershy talk to it."

"Could I?" she asked, only to have Applejack catch her tail and reel her back. "Have alla you gone loco? Naughty or nice, that thing is plumb dangerous."

"Oh," Spike said as he arrived, "We got another letter from Princess Luna. She and her team are arriving tonight, and they'll be taking over." He trotted up and handed the letter to Twilight, who rolled back onto her feet and pulled it before her. " 'Do not attempt to make contact, do nothing threatening, do not invade its territory. We will be there before midnight. Keep it under observation. Princess Luna.'"

"Okay, naw we got orders," Applejack said, "And ah feel a lot happier with a Princess haere ta give that thing what fer."

"Have any of you seen Pinkie Pie?" Spike asked, and looked at the sea of horrified faces around him.

He ate a surprisingly large dinner. For one reason, he was absolutely famished after the events of the day. For a second, he had no idea how long the magic fueling the refrigerator and freezer would last. Then he would be down to the stash of dehydrated food. He also ate in the dining room, which he rarely did. Not for a special occasion, since he usually ate in the small breakfast nook at the other end of the kitchen, but because he could close off this part from prying eyes. Curtains covered the windows and a pocket door separated the kitchen from the dining room.

Considering I'm having a large steak, I think the local herbivores would rather not know it, he thought, I'd rather them not know it. He looked at the pistol within easy reach. He had all the clips he owned loaded and on his person. The SKS and the pouch for its clips also stayed with him. He'd dispersed the loose rounds to various places around the house so he could resupply, if his enemy gave him the chance.

"Now I know how the men at the Alamo felt," he said quietly, "All that's left is the waiting. Although given a few days, I could probably fortify this place. Until they realized they could just cut through the ceiling. I don't think me buying enough concrete to put a coffer dam up there would go unnoticed, let alone the wood for the forms."

He idly ran his finger over the table and looked around. He'd bought the place, furnished it with his own earnings, and finally hauled all his crap out of storage so he could sort through it and put what he kept up on shelves, and throw the rest away.

"So much for that plan," he said quietly, "A good idea while it lasted."

Melancholy rose in him as he looked around. "My house, my home." Gave way to purpose. "Those bastards aren't getting out of this without a good fight. There are a few booby traps I can put together." He eagerly finished his dinner and set out to make any invasion uncomfortable.

Big Fido looked at the odd house. He'd had to go back to Rover Bill and explain the trap didn't work, and worse, that Rex wasn't coming back. Rover Bill had yelled at him, then had given him 20 more soldiers and told him to wait until dark, then teach this newcomer a lesson.

Now he crept through a darkness so thick he was having trouble seeing. He crept up beside one of the soldiers who was still wearing his helmet. "What do you see?" he asked the soldier.

"It's ready for us," the soldier replied, "And they're their pony soldiers out there."

"Ponies is stupid, we get past them easy," Big Fido said.

The blue glow of an alicorn horn illuminated the area as the soldier turned towards Big Fido. "Just how?" Luna asked.

"What do you think, sergeant?" Shining Armor looked through the binoculars at the structure. His coat, at night, was worse than a beacon. So he stayed back at the observation post, looking through the tripod-mounted binoculars.

"Two days, a few lads, some sandbags and a couple crew-served weapons, and I wouldn't hit that place with the whole of the 3rd Guards," Sergeant Mile Stone said.

"Sergeant, if I gave you that, I wouldn't want to attack an ant hill you were defending," he replied, "A hole a little over a bit wide, and the hoof-sized hole in the back of the head blown out. I don't think it needs crew-served weapons."

"I'm just thinking, how frightened it must be," the sergeant mused.

Shining Armor stared at him. "That telescope must let you see things hidden from these binoculars."

"Captain, if it had been your sister screaming in pain, I think you would have thrashed those Diamond Dogs until they couldn't crawl away. But he saw six-on-one, and panicked. Yet he risked it all to get that filly to the hospital, and came back here. He has to know somebody is going to come looking for him."

"Sergeant, are you feeling all right?" Armor asked.

"Captain, those Day Guards you brought, do they have dress uniforms, or just camouflage?" the sergeant asked.

"Both, why?"

"Let us let it/him see what he needs to see. Us setting up a perimeter, and holding it. No one in, no one out. I'll bet if we move it out say fifty paces, and your nice, shiny, easily seen guards walking around, he'll feel more secure."

"He'll be trapped."

"Not until and unless he wants to cross the boundary. That may take several hours, or even days. Until then -" The sergeant stopped and returned to his telescope as the lights of the house came up. The monster walked out into the light. It pulled a heavily laden cart along, then hoisted the load up so it hung from one of the heavy beams that supported the patio's roof.

"Damn," the sergeant cursed.

"No, I think your idea will still work," Armor said as he watched, "In fact, I think it may work better now than before. But take a couple Night Guards with you. Let him see more of our cards."

"Sir," the sergeant nodded and headed off to collect his vedettes.

Shining Armor focused on the patio and grinned. "Monster after my own heart," he said quietly.

Sergeant-Major Mile Stone walked towards the illuminated patio. The struggling figure, mouth tied shut with streamers and ribbons, hogtied and hanging feet up from the rafter, was solid pink, and had been a significant and alarming part of their briefing on Ponyville. "I see the creature has some common sense and taste after all," he commented on the struggling, pink mare.

Many of the soldiers chuckled.

"I'll take a section of Night Guards forward, the rest of you, stay in formation. You represent their Highnesses and Equestria."

"Sir," they said.

He checked his own uniform, making sure it was immaculate and that the lads looked like they were ready for a parade. If this thing isn't hostile, this should be easy, he thought, I hope that little filly was right about it understanding standard gestures. He noted the sign taped to the mare's back. A close-up of Pinkie Pie's face, surrounded by a red circle with a single, red stroke through the middle of it. That bodes well, it thinks we can understand symbols as well.

"Get her down, but don't untie her until she's with the Princess. Off you go," he said, and approached the large glass doors, alone.

You could fly a sky chariot through those things, he thought and noted some movement at the smaller window that looked out over the patio. The scale of the place was unnerving. In Canterlot, the much higher ceilings were to emphasize the grandeur of the place, and to give some of the flying populace more room to move, and the unicorns a way to carry things out of the foot traffic lanes. Everything here is functional. This thing is just that big. He kept any sign of fear from his expression or movement. He walked up to the door, and knocked. Then stood there as if ready to wait all night.

His night-enhanced vision caught the creature aiming what looked for all the world like a camera at him. But no flash. It waited, so did he, and the light off the back of the camera illuminated its face. The face seemed expressive, and as mobile as a pony's. If that expression is what it would be on a pony, I was right, it, he's scared. The sergeant gently knocked again, and waited.

The creature seemed to debate with itself. It also seemed to think it was concealed in the dark interior. Once it decided, it set down the odd spear it wore on a strap around its shoulder, and approached the door. The salute it gave would have earned a severe dressing down to any recruit who'd received even a day's training, but to the sergeant it was a blessing from Luna and Celestia themselves. Of course he returned a proper salute, held for the proper interval. He turned slightly, and pointed a hoof at the lads in formation.

"Set the perimeter!" he ordered, and the lads broke formation and began setting wire rods in the ground and stringing reflective tape from one wire to another. Several of the Day Guards, resplendent in their armor and coats glowing in the light, marched behind the tape.

He looked back. Please understand, please understand. The monster nodded, and gave a barely passable salute. The sergeant nodded back, then gestured at the lights, and slowly lowered a hoof.

The creature's mobile face screwed up in confusion, but it touched the wall inside and the lights went out. The sergeant nodded, and made a stately withdraw across the perimeter that would soon encompass the entire house, and a short cleared zone beyond.

Her Highness, oddly invisible against her night, seemed to loom up out of the darkness. "Report."

"Highness," he said and saluted, "We are establishing a no-go zone, and the creature seems to have no problem with that. Considering his earlier invader, he may welcome his isolation."

"We will speak to Miss Pinkie Pie, very harshly," her Highness assured him, "But she was not harmed. Admirable restraint." She grimaced at memories of her second meeting with the pink, party patron of Ponyville.

"Yes ma'am. It also knows a fair amount of ordinary gestures. It recognized I was military on sight, and even gave a salute, barely. I think we may have a basis for at least limited communications."

"It recognized the hospital's markings, and that the nurses were medical personnel. It may not be able to speak, but it understands symbols. What of the bookshelves my sister's student cannot be silent about?"

"I couldn't read the titles, distance, and darkness, your Highness, but there was a similar set of shelves behind the exterior door perpendicular to the main one. I suspect it is nearly the bibliophile Miss Sparkle is."

"Speak of Discord," Luna said as the purple unicorn practically bounced out of the darkness.

"Princess Luna, I am ready and eager to help get all that vital knowledge for Equestria!"

"We will call you if you are needed," Luna said politely, "We believe our forces in the field are sufficient."

The mare's happy facade cracked a bit. "But books," she managed, while smiling in a way that gave Luna pause.

"Let it get some rest, lass," Mile Stone said. "It's had a hard day, and if we scare it, it may do something foolish."

"It wouldn't burn them, would it?" she asked in horror.

"I was thinking it might eat them, to keep them away from us."

The unicorn's eyes opened wide at the horror he'd painted. "You're right, can't endanger it, can't endanger all those books, all that knowledge, it'll still be there first thing in the morning, bright and early, that's the ticket, bright and early."

"Some hot cocoa for you I think," Mile Stone suggested quietly, and caught the princess' gaze. So many sedatives could be disguised by the taste of cocoa.

Lieutenant Peaceful Solitude stood in the squad tent and watched the purple mare pace the floor in and around the bunks. She'd already downed enough drugged cocoa to fell a hydra, but she kept pacing, practicing the speech she would give the creature to convince it to relinquish to her its library. I am not going to tell the Captain's sister that she has completely lapsed into incoherence, the young, Night Guards officer thought, Time for a flank attack.

"Ma'am, I think none of that may work," she said, attracting the on edge unicorn's full attention.

"Work, of course it will work!" the disheveled creature said as it advanced, "They're depending on me, her Majesty is depending on me, all of Equestria is depending on me, all the future relation between our species is depending on me, so how can it not work?!" The smile was bad enough, the twitching eye and ears made the sight infinitely worse.

The wild-eyed unicorn had managed to back the officer into a corner. Now is not the time to remind her that her Highness Luna effectively ordered her to butt out, Peaceful Solitude thought.

"Just that, well, it may want to trade for them," she said, and gave the mad librarian a saucy wink, "And we know what stallions really want, don't we? Big, fierce, lonely stallion. Saved a bunch of fillies, and pretty, young mare comes, to ease his loneliness. He won't mind a few books just happen to wind up in the Ponyville library. Besides, gives him an excuse to . . . check them out, and make the librarian pay her late fee," she said as lewdly as she could.

The mare's eyes had shrunk to pinpoints as whatever thoughts she'd had, had never included that particular option. "That's," she began, only to have the massed sedatives spring a surprise counterattack. The lieutenant barely caught the mare before she collapsed to the ground unconscious.

"Please let her have been thinking that was disgusting," the lieutenant said, "I'd hate to have her think that was brilliant."

"What was brilliant, lieutenant?" Shining Armor asked.

The lieutenant looked around nervously. "Oh, distracting her Majesty's student, so she could get some much needed sleep."

"Drugged her cocoa?" the Captain said tiredly, "I hope there's enough left for her Highness."

"What happened to her Highness?" the lieutenant asked, alarmed.

"She tried to contact the creature through its, no, definitely his, dreams. Her control was not what it should have been. Good news is, it has learned the Equestria national anthem and some of our more popular songs, and seemed to enjoy them, as much as circumstances permitted."

"Good news, sir," she said as she moved Twilight to a bunk, and tucked her in.

"Yes. As an important note, Lieutenant, anyone who mentions melting rocks, electrified lobsters, singing mice, or peach candy canes around her Highness, ever, is going to get a buck to the head, from the entire command cadre."

"Understood, clearly, sir. How did she learn it's definitely a male?" the lieutenant asked as she walked with him out of the tent.

"In the dream, Pinkie Pie bit him. In a place you wouldn't have to worry about, ma'am."

"Peach-colored candy canes. Dreams are out," she agreed.

"Dreams are out," Shining Armor agreed.

Fluttershy fluttered over the barrier. High overhead, Rainbow Dash and some of the weather patrol were keeping watch, and keeping other pegasi out of the area. But the Princess asked me to go see him. Fluttershy felt her heart pounding in her chest. Unlike what others thought of her, she knew enough about how predators and prey acted in the Everfree. It wasn't nice, but she knew about it. She knew, and the Princess understood, that a harmless approach was better than coming on strong. Like approaching a mother bear with cubs, she thought, Don't get between her cubs and her. Don't do anything that disturbs the cubs. She thought of her many critters, and the wilder things in the Everfree, And they leave me alone, mostly, she thought as she approached the big, glass doors. The spotters had seen it was up and around, so now was a good time to try to communicate.

"Fluttershy, wait!" Twilight shouted as she charged over the barrier, "I'm glad I caught you. I hope I'm not too late."

"Oh no, I was just going to knock on the door and introduce myself. I'm sure you'll be welcome too."

Their presence had attracted his attention and he walked towards the glass doors. Rather than open one of the wide doors that both ponies could have walked through abreast, it opened a smaller much narrower door that was fronted by a screen.

It can see and hear, but we can't come in, Fluttershy realized, I mustn't be nervous. But it's so big, and so cute. She felt a squee coming on as she gathered herself to actually talk to it.

"Hello, my name is Twilight Sparkle, I am Princess Celestia's student, she is our ruler and you have landed in her country."

"Um, Twilight," Fluttershy tried to interject.

"We all understand that you're a newcomer here, but as a show of good faith, we would encourage you to share."

"Twilight," Fluttershy said.

"And as you may or may not know, we all benefit from an open exchange of information."

"Twilight, I don't think it understands what you're saying," Fluttershy said, and smiled at the creature, who was beginning to lose patience. "Twilight, I don't think it likes what you're saying."

"Since you have information and we have information. I propose that you transfer all that information to the Ponyville library where it can be accessed by all."

It shrugged its shoulders at Fluttershy, closed the narrow door and turned away.

"Oh, I never got a chance to give you the tea I, was, supposed, to, give you . . . as a present," Fluttershy said. She hung her head as she flittered away.

"Where did it go?" Twilight asked as she'd dropped out of lecture mode. "Fluttershy?" Twilight raced back to her friend. "Was it something I said?" She looked at the tin of tea she carried. "Weren't you supposed to give it that?"

"It never opened the door, so it was kind of hard to," Fluttershy said despondently.

"I guess I should have waited until you'd done that, before I started talking to it." Twilight grinned nervously.

"It's all right," Fluttershy said quietly.

"I'm sorry, Fluttershy. I just can't stop thinking how important it is to make the right impression."

"Yeah, I know," Fluttershy said, "First impressions mean a lot."

"That could have gone worse," Luna said from the observation post, "It could have started shooting." She sighed, and watched the creature eat its breakfast. There were more trained people, with more powerful telescopes trained on the target, and every inch of the house that could be seen from the outside. They didn't yet have the spare ponies or telescopes to watch the areas the creature had kept closed off. That worried Luna.

If they could provide me one simple piece of data, she thought, But they just don't know. It can be unspeakably violent, yet tender as the gentlest of us. Luna smiled.

"I think we learned something else," Sergeant Mile Stone said, "It doesn't like motor mouths."

"That is our sister's prized student you refer to," Luna said, "And your captain's sibling."

"My analysis stands, your Highness," the sergeant replied, "And I presented no opinion of my own on the subject, just my analysis of the creature's behavior."


"Send the pegasus back in, and have her get his attention and just leave the tea."

Luna nodded. "And have Nurse Redheart report to us. I think we need to show our concerns for it, his health."

"Highness," Mile Stone said and bowed.

"But, it can't read," the nurse pony said helplessly.

"Then give it the brochures you give children about immunizations. They are mostly pictures and diagrams," her Highness said, trying hard not to make it an order, "It knows you, it trusted you with something it was willing to fight for. It will understand your natural concern for the health of others."

"But I work on ponies," the nurse said, "Maybe you need to talk to a veterinarian."

"We are not asking you to provide medical treatment, ma'am," Captain Armor said, "Just show it how we do business. How we treat one another. You would do the same if a new resident appeared in Ponyville."

"Of course, if they are a pony. But when young Spike arrived, I don't think anyone checked up on him."

"We are aware how well that omission went," Luna muttered.

"Ma'am!" the sergeant called, "She's delivered the tea."

They rushed to the telescopes and binoculars to watch the reaction.

"I just hope whatever it brewed for its dinner really was tea," Mile Stone said as he relinquished the powerful tripod-mounted binoculars to his sovereign.

"It has retrieved the box. YES! It's trying to read the characters. It recognizes language," Luna said with tremendous enthusiasm. "What's it doing? Can't it open a box?"

A technical officer at a telescope replied. "Highness, it's opening it, as if it were booby-trapped."

"Why would we go to the trouble of booby-trapping a gift?" her Highness demanded.

"It doesn't know it isn't a trap, Highness," Mile Stone said, "A quite understandable caution. It might rightly assume we mean it no harm, while wrongly assuming we mean to render it unconscious, so we can separate it from it's base and weapons. We want it to be cautious."

"It opened it," Armor reported, "And it seems to recognize what's inside."

"What is that, it looks like a ball of the same screen that cover the house's windows?" Luna said as she watched.

"It's a tea ball," Armor said, "They must be able to make stuff out of that screen."

They watched in silence as it put a glass jar of water in a strange cabinet, stroked the face of the cabinet and waited.

"It can't have heated water to boiling that fast," Armor commented, "That box must have the heat of a forge in it."

"It's certainly hot enough to make tea," the technical officer said, "And in goes the tea ball."

"We are all watching," Luna said, "We have no need for Hoofball-style commentaries."

"Apologies, Highness," the stallion said, "I'm just a little excited."

"Feel the same way about my morning cuppa," Mile Stone said.

"Did he take the tea, is he making some?" came the soft but breathless question.

Mile Stone hooved over the binoculars to Fluttershy, and let her watch.

They all watched in rapt fascination as it steeped the tea, and then took its first sip. Then a larger drink.

"Oh no!" Fluttershy exclaimed as the creature crashed to the floor of its kitchen. A hand or foot would spring into view as it seemed to be having the granddaddy of all grand mal seizures.

"Nurse, get your supplies," Luna ordered, and watched the nurse race away.

"It's back up!" Fluttershy, who'd been near tears, announced.

They raced back to their telescopes and binoculars. It had pulled itself back up to the counter and stared owlishly at the cup of tea. Before drinking the rest in one gulp and going through the same exercise.

"It likes doing that?" Fluttershy asked.

"I think we've learned two things," Armor said quietly. "First, it knows it's being watched, big surprise. And second, it thinks it's a comedian."

"Captain. You have my permission to go down and kill it," Luna said.

"Highness," Mile Stone interjected, forestalling Fluttershy's protest, "Think about the first meeting between him, and your beloved sister. After you'd properly briefed it of course."

Luna stood in thought. "The order is rescinded, Captain. But have tickets to that meeting printed up. We'll have a charity auction."

"Yes, ma'am," Armor said, "I rather think her Majesty would enjoy that meeting."

"It's some members of court that deserve the apoplexy," Luna said as she headed back to report to her sister.

Derpy had just heard the news that school was canceled. As long as Princess Luna was in town, the school was closed. "Miss Cheerilee says we'll have school somewhere else in a few days," her little muffin said excitedly.

"Well, I was told not to deliver the mail," she told her foal, "So we can spend the whole day together."

"Yay!" she said and Derpy hugged Dinky. The sound of frantic knocking on the door distracted her. On her doorstep was Twilight Sparkle, pacing and muttering to herself as if the end of the world was approaching. While Derpy deeply respected the mare, like most in Ponyville, they wished she'd either switch to decaf, or start hitting the harder stuff. "Yes?"

"Oh, good Derpy you're home. I was afraid you'd gone to work, but I guess you heard that the military will handle the mail for a while. But her Highness needs messengers and your name came up and I'm sure you understand how important it is to make sure their Highnesses have what they need to do their jobs."

"I was going to stay home with my little muffin," Derpy said shyly, "I'm sure there are others."

"Oh, I'm collecting them too!" Twilight said, "After all can't have too much help for the Princesses on a mission that may make the difference in the history of Equestria."

Before she could respond, Derpy felt her foal nuzzle her. "It's okay momma, we can play after you get off work."

"See, then it's all settled!" Twilight said, "Just remember, it's for Equestria."

Derpy didn't frown, but the most important part of Equestria was right beside her. She'd almost lost her, and now Twilight's crusade was dragging her away again. She normally felt a little pity for the mare who assumed books were as important as ponies. She'd never have a special somepony, or a foal of her own. But Derpy couldn't manage any sympathy for her just now.

"It's okay, momma," Dinky said, feeling her mother's mood.

"It's not 'okay'," Derpy said as she nuzzled her back, "But it is what the princess needs."

Derpy wondered where she could get a reliable foal-sitter on short notice, especially with the town in a turmoil. The answer was instantly obvious.

"Pack a lunch, and your school books and help momma whip up some muffins," she said happily. The princess could wait until Derpy had seen to her daughter's well-being.

"So, you are prepared?" Shining Armor asked Nurse Redheart.

"I guess," she admitted, "I'm really not used to being an ambassador. What if I fail? What if I offend him?"

"I think it's rather tolerant of failure," Armor replied.

"Captain, the Wonderbolts have been briefed and are taking station," a lieutenant reported.

"Good," Armor said, then concentrated on the nervous mare, "It's just to get him used to us. I don't think he'd be overly concerned about someone taking an interest in his health and well-being. Just deliver the fliers, show him the x-rays of Dinky's leg, and leave. Simple."

"If you say so," the nurse said.

"Spitfire." Fleetfoot swung in close. "Mare coming in fast." She pointed to the target.

"It's okay, she's on the list, messenger pony," Spitfire said.

"Isn't she gonna miss the camp?" Fleetfoot commented on the mare's dive angle.

"There's the mailbox," Derpy told Dinky, "So that's gotta be the front door, I don't know why nobody is watching this side." She landed easily, and saw the scale of the covered walkway. "It really is big."

"There momma, there, a doorbell," Dinky said excitedly from her perch on her mother's back. "It's about as big as one of their claws."

"Well?" Derpy said, and let Dinky use her horn magic to press the button. They heard the ringing inside.

"See, see, it rang a bell."

The door opened, and the monster was every bit as intimidating as people had said, until it smiled seeing Dinky.

"Uh, I know you might have something else planned, but I need a foal-sitter and you took care of her so well yesterday." Derpy held the foal up towards the creature.

He smiled and nodded. He pointed as the cast on her leg.

"It's okay," Dinky said and wiggled it.

He carefully picked her up and set her on the rug he was standing on.

"I have her school work, and her lunch," she said as she handed over the pack, and the small bag. Then she handed over a large bag of muffins. "I really am sorry about imposing."

It said something, which sounded sympathetic, and patted Dinky.

"Be good, momma will pick you up at five!" Derpy said and walked back down the walkway as the door closed behind her. The two pegasi who landed were nearly bowled over as Twilight came tearing around the corner.

"Derpy, what did you do? Did you talk to it?"

"I needed a foal-sitter, thanks to you, I couldn't get one in town," the pegasus said crossly, "So I came out here." She recognized the two confused pegasi. "Oh wow! You're Fleetfoot and Spitfire! I should introduce you to my foal, have you met Rainbow Dash, she's your biggest fan!"

"You mean the weather captain who squeaks half the time, before spitting it out?"


"How did you know to come to this entrance?" Twilight interrupted, "How did you even know it was here?"

"The mailbox is right there," Derpy said as she pointed to the column of bricks. "Everyone knows the mailbox is always near the front door." She took off and headed towards the main camp.

He looked at the eager filly and carefully collected her lunch and her school books. He set the books on the coffee table before the French doors, so everyone could see what they did.

Okay, is the society this trusting, or is this some kind of test, he wondered, and heard a squawk of outrage come from the front of the house.

The foal said something that sounded a little like what the purple unicorn had started her lecture with.

Must be the purple one's name, he thought, and tried to duplicate the sounds. Several attempts later had reduced the filly to giggles, and he gave up. It could be their vocal range is different than a humans', and I'm leaving some parts out. It all sounds like whinnies and other horse noises to me.

He set her lunch on the kitchen counter, and returned to the table. And immediately spotted one of the school books was missing. He looked at her, and innocence beamed from her very soul. He snapped his fingers and extended his hand. She shook her head and made an ashamed admission. He tapped the top of the table, and her horn glowed and the book floated down from the top of the book shelf. She made another ashamed mumble as he collected it.

He smiled and carefully opened the book. And for an instant, he felt God himself had smiled upon him.

"These are equations," he mumbled as he looked at the unfamiliar symbols, but they had dimly recognizable patterns, "This is math." He smiled, and tapped the book, before standing and indicating several dozen books on math he had kept from his university days.

She asked a question, then remembered he didn't understand her language. He took a piece of paper and made a column of tally marks, one to fourteen, and wrote the arabic numerals for each beside them, then slid the paper over. She looked at him as if he were playing an elaborate joke, then shrugged and wrote the local numbers beside the column.

They use base-ten, he thought, I'm not even going to consider how that happened. Okay, that's their symbol for multiplication, and that's division. I wonder if they even have the concept for different number bases. Too bad they don't use a Romanesque system, introducing them to decimal systems would have gotten me fame and fortune, or burned at the stake. Okay. Homework time.

He watched the filly work through a few problems, and realized why she was having such a hard time. Who developed the algorithm they use for solutions? Someone who hates kids. Yes it'll work, but if these critters follow Piaget's development cycle, they won't get why that works until they're adults.

He set up some problems using the standard algorithm of multiply two digits and carry. The filly tried it and in a few minutes was delightedly speeding through the work. She laughed and hugged him happily as she felt the troubles slip away. But then her expression fell. She pointed to the division problems. And he grinned at her. Then grinned at the book, this time showing all his teeth. The filly laughed and cheered him on.

"If I had any doubt of whose side the creator is on," Luna said as she sat back on her haunches.

"I am also pleased with this development," the chief scholar for the team said. "This shows not only it is eager to learn and adapt to our systems, but that it is willing to adapt our systems, and teach us. I must emphasize this in the strongest terms, there are also those who will see this as a threat."

"That it's willing to learn our ways?" Armor asked, "How can that be a threat?"

"That it is willing to learn ours, and teach us its ways, which may seem better. If we didn't discover its better ways, they may see us as inferior, and seek to emulate its ways. There will be others who see its way as contamination and resent them. Its learning and advanced methods have undoubtedly come at a price. The violence to the Diamond Dogs may be endemic to the species. While this one may be well-behaved, the history of this species may be very violent. As you've pointed out, it seems distinctly unmilitary, yet it had the wherewithal and the weapons to confront and defeat six Diamond Dogs. How much training would a recruit have to achieve the same?"

"About a year," Armor said, "Basic and advanced infantry, plus a little seasoning. I don't see that as a problem."

"Ponies, some of my colleagues included, who view any form of violence as inherently 'evil' will not see it so, and anything with an 'evil' source, should be avoided," the scholar warned.

"That's ridiculous," Armor countered.

"If Discord gave us the cure to some suite of maladies?" Luna asked, "I think even Celestia would be hard pressed to trust it completely. This is only a lesser version." She noted Armor's frown. "It is terrible that we must have caution about something, because of the opinions of our fellow ponies, is it not?"

To his credit, Armor got the reference. "With respect your Highness. This isn't the same."

"The sentiment is. You have been trained, and forced by circumstances to see clearly what serves and what doesn't, and to embrace what serves. For your sacrifice, others are permitted stupidities which have been weeded out of your ranks. You must let ponies be ponies, even when it is stupid, even when it hurts you personally. Or you will find yourself on the same road I foolishly walked, ages ago. And it will be your beloved sister on the opposite side, opposing you. That is a pain beyond bearing."

The captain sighed. "So we do what?"

"We 'filter it'," the scholar said, "We keep the raw data, and let some of it slip out as ponies are ready, and we can freely release anything we derive from it."

"I understand," Armor said. He came to attention and saluted. "Permission to hate it? Highness."

"Granted," Luna said, "Just remember, for your fellow ponies to reach your state, they would first have to endure all your hardships. Would you wish that fate upon them?"

"I almost would," Armor said, "I almost would."

"They you are wiser than I was," Luna said, "Congratulations."

"He's making the tea!" a technical officer still observing called out.

"Please no repetition of earlier events," Armor said.

"I think that was meant for us," Luna soothed as she watched events unfold.

The break was called for. We'd breezed through long division, and onto fractions. Adding and subtracting them required an understanding of factoring. Which had taken some time. With the break was an explanation of how a human toilet worked, and much laughter about it. Then some time out on the lawn to run around.

What the heck does she need scissors for? he wanted to ask as the filly trotted outside, carrying the implements in the glow of her horn.

She carefully cut some grass from the lawn, and held it up to him, she made some motions he couldn't decipher.

Let's get a container and then see what she wants, he thought and signaled her to stay put. When he returned, she'd located the end of the hose and was pointing at it. Ah ha! Another short pause as he'd grabbed the pasta strainer from the kitchen, and they washed off some of the grass and let her taste it. Fortunately, she didn't like it one bit.

"We have tested that for safety?" Luna asked with alarm.

"Yes, perfectly safe, but quite bitter," the scholar said, "Although some more sophisticated palates might find it a pleasure in a larger salad."

"That's something more we need to worry about, invasive plants," Armor warned.

"Oh, we have a native species very similar," the scholar said, "It's a desert variety. No one ever thought to plant an entire field of it."

With the leg in a cast, she can't really go running around, and the addition of a sock over the cast to keep it clean had her giggling at the crazy monster foal-sitting. She yawned widely, and he carried her inside, tucked her into the day bed in the guestroom, in clear view of the observers, and left to get lunch ready.

Applejack listened to Fluttershy's wistful sigh. "Fer a monster, he ain't half-bad."

"For a pony, he isn't half bad," Fluttershy said, a trifle sharply.

"I didn't mean nothin' by it."

"Are my animal friends 'monsters' because they aren't ponies?" Fluttershy asked.

Applejack could hear how loaded that question was. "Yer animal friends don't live in houses that suddenly appeared. Yer animal friends ain't as smart as that critter is. Jist sayin' don't getcher hopes up on bein' more than a pet or a toy. It don't understand us, and we cain't understand it."

"Yet," Fluttershy said carefully. Then looked at Applejack. "But even you think it's cute."

Applejack sighed. "Yes, it's a sweetie."

"Fer a monster," she said only to herself.

Her call pulled him from his lunch preparations. The filly was staring down from the height of the day bed. Not anything for a human, but a daunting jump for a small filly with a broken leg. He picked her up and carried her through the house, to set her on the kitchen counter. There she stared in bewilderment at what he was doing.

"I wouldn't have thought a grilled cheese sandwich would be alien technology," he said as he assembled the last sandwich, from the buttered bread and put it in the pan. He'd already made a few others, as well as a sampling of apple slices, oranges, and a rather brown banana. For some reason, the apple excited a stream of happy chatter.

"I hope you realize that I haven't the ability to understand a word you're saying," he told her, then grinned, "And I may have a surprise for you as well."

The sandwich finished and the stove turned off, he set her on the ground, collected her lunch and what he'd made in a picnic basket, and stepped outside. There were a few benches in his yard, and he set the basket on one of them. She followed him around the side where the tomato plants grew. He found a few fruit that were ripe and picked them, then washed them with the garden hose. He held them out and she encircled them in her horn-field to carry them back. As they passed under the apple tree, he picked a few of those as well.

"Let's hope these don't have worms in them," he muttered as he brought them to the bench and their lunch.

He was surprised to see the mother pegasus there, carrying her own lunch. Although she seemed very nervous about something, and her response to her daughter's query sounded evasive even to him. He excused himself briefly, and went back into the house. Now the reunion was more what he'd expected. He returned with a telescope and a camera, both on tripods. He set the telescope up and aimed it at the main observation post, then invited the two to look through it. The daughter's awed tones told him that he had some serious VIPs as part of the observation group.

When he pointed the camera, he discovered one of the unicorns he'd spotted earlier was missing, the dark blue one. He ignored it, and set the camera to display what he was focusing on through the backplane, not the eye piece. The two were very interested in the power of the camera, and that it's 'film' was a tiny cartridge. Not an actual roll.

Okay, they have cameras, but not digital ones, he thought. At the querulous sound, he turned to see mother and daughter staring at the plate of grilled cheese sandwiches. I was able to survive their food, he thought and cut a small piece off the sandwiches he hadn't taken a bite of yet and cut it in half.

"If you like it you can have more," he said after they both looked at him askance at his parsimony.

They both sampled and enjoyed what they had. The mother said something he interpreted as 'more?'. He began cutting a larger piece, when the pegasus wobbled and collapsed. The little unicorn screamed, and suddenly began chasing her own tail shouting the same something over and over. The pegasus flopped around uncoordinated as she tried the stand, her wing flapping uselessly. He set the unicorn on the ground, and ran for the perimeter.

"GUARDS! GUARDS!" he shouted as he ran, then stopped at the sound of pony laughter. The guards had dashed to his call and approach, and now struggled to hide their mirth at his sudden chagrin. "Okay, turnabout is fair play," he said as he walked back to the giggling mother and daughter.

He endured what was probably a lecture on teasing with good grace. He had a perfect comeback. He pointed to them. "You thought it was funny." Then at himself. "When you did it to me." The guilty smiles and slight snickers told him he'd made his point.

Lunch completed with only a few giggles from the mother and daughter, and a sampling of the other sandwiches, the tomatoes and apples. For some reason, the mother kept the apple cores and asked to take another one, both she wrapped up carefully to take with her.

Are they that good she wants to eat the cores later, or is she taking samples back to her bosses? he wondered, but had another piece of intelligence he wanted. He headed in, and brought out a few different types of clothes to show the mother. I'll need these repaired or replaced eventually, he thought.

From the observation post, there's a scream of outrage, and when he looked there through the camera, the large white unicorn was half-in half-out and clearly unconscious, the smaller, white unicorn was standing in a pose out of a Kung-Fu movie. An orange pony tried to jump her, only to be levitated away, while a rainbow maned pegasus received a punch in the snout that crumpled it in a heap beside the unconscious unicorn. Only a cobalt blue beam striking the unicorn caused it to crumble. It fell as if its joints had suddenly become unstuck.

Somebody's got phasers, he thought and looked away from the scene at the mother and daughter who were sitting behind the telescope with identical, painful grins, and in an anime show would have had identical sweat drops. Please don't ask us about crazy Aunt Mildred who needs to have her medication checked.

"Why do I think having complete fluency in your language would do me no good in getting answers?" he asked as he pointed at the distant observation post.

Mother and daughter, still painfully smiling, glanced at each other and shrugged. He held up his hands. They relaxed as the matter dropped. The little unicorn became excited and tapped his watch, speaking quickly to her mother. She'd earlier thought the idea of 24 hour days with 60 minutes and second as division was hilarious. The two of them, based on his watch, the mothers and some calculations, came back with her mother picking her up at 1617.

With her mother's return about four and a half hours away, and the filly full of energy, he decided to show her some things about his own world. Inside, on the wall was a floor-to-ceiling poster map of the whole world. He showed her the nation that he lived in, and the city, then got down an atlas and a map booklet that showed the details of the city and street he had lived in. The little girl seemed excited about a whole other world with such huge numbers of people in them.

"Well, let's show you something really amazing." He said and took her into his study.

"Applejack!" Derpy called as she landed at the observation post. "You might want to try this." The mail-mare hooved over an apple and the apple cores. "It's different from yours, and he has a tree growing in his yard."

The commotion attracted Princess Luna's attention. Both mares bowed.

"Please continue," Luna said quietly.

"He had tomatoes, apples and some other food growing in his yard," Derpy said, "Dinky didn't think much of the grass, but the tomatoes and the apples are really good."

"This is different," Applejack said after tasting the apple. Luna moved a knife over and cut a small section, and tasted it herself.

"Have you considered hiring it, him?" Luna asked. "It obviously uses tools, and it may have some solutions to problems. There is also the question of what are its food requirements."

Applejack stared at her Highness. "Yer not seriously suggestin' I hire that thing, and then take it shoppin'!"

"I hadn't considered you escorting it on a shopping trip. Excellent suggestion," Luna said happily. "After all, with you there, no one would dare cheat it, and you could see what it buys for food."

Applejack stared at her Highness.

"Come now, aren't there any tasks on your farm that you haven't had the resources to perform?" Luna asked.

"Yeah, and mosta them would take a dozen ponies," Applejack countered.

"Then show him the problem, and let him see if he can solve it for you," Luna said. "Applejack, we need to know how clever, how strong and how helpful it is. If Derpy Hooves hired it as a foal-sitter, it will understand about currency, and may realize it will need a source of bits. And despite young Twilight's assumptions that it will gleefully hand over the only thing of value it has, it's knowledge, if it has no other way to earn a living, it will hoard that knowledge as the only way to survive."

"Highness, I, don't trust that thing," she admitted.

"Then take Fluttershy with you," Luna commanded, "She has naught but praise for him."

"She jist thinks he's cute. A rattlesnake is pretty, but I wouldn't want one in mah bathtub."

"Do not think we are unaware of the danger. Yet I think the danger is mirrored. If you need help, he will extend it. If you attack, he will warn, then stop the attack," Luna said, "Your friend Pinkie Pie did not suffer the fate of the Diamond Dogs, despite invading his home and confronting him directly."

"Yes, ma'am," Applejack said begrudgingly.

"We are not asking you to do anything we will not perform ourselves," Luna said and assumed the form she'd had when the Elements had first wiped away Nightmare Moon. "Someone must get close enough to scan him, without his notice. And a poor scared filly lost in a storm, that is the risk I shall take."

"No," Applejack whispered as Luna resumed her normal state.

"Yes, as we have said, we ask of you no risk we will not take ourselves," Luna said, "We will need your help in securing Ponyville and the surrounding areas, and will need a storm of great severity. Where is Rainbow Dash?"

"Highness, I must protest!" Armor said, "You cannot risk yourself."

"Ah agree, at least take some guards with ya!" Applejack said.

"Very well, two, of the softest, smallest you have. We are poor, paper-pushing fillies caught in the frightful storm."

"Ya'll might want to take some lessons from Fluttershy on the meek and helpless part," Applejack said.

"The one who frightens dragons?" Armor asked.

"She's got you fooled," Applejack replied.

From her expression, this was the cave of wonders, he thought as he fired up the computers and hooked up the USB microscope. With it booting, he carefully snipped a few hairs from his head and put them on a slide on the microscope stage. The bright colors of the computer screens attracted her attention as she sat in the chair and watched the fingers fly over the keyboard. Then the stage light of the scope came on, and the image of the hairs appeared. He showed her the controls, and how to properly focus the microscope. "Always move the tube away from the stage," he said and she stared in amazement at the huge image on the screen, and that a movement on the microscope stage was translated onto the screen.

This is magic, he thought to himself, This is the real power of science, the power to inflame curiosity.

She asked for him to cut a bit of her hair and he did so, putting them beside his on the slide and then zooming in. Then he increased from the x10, to x60, and she gulped at the similarities and the few differences. Then came the slides of various microscopic creatures, and the results on a slide when I didn't move the tube away from the stage. At some point during the afternoon, the purple unicorn had stationed itself outside the study, and stared in forlornly, like a puppy who'd been kicked and wanted to know why.

This one can't take a hint either, he thought as he retrieved his camera and took a photo of it. The odd colorfulness of the creature against the normal coloration of the brick patio made the photo look like a particularly bad example of photo shopping. I'm almost glad that the screens face away from the window, so it can't see what has the little one so excited, he thought, as he fired up the second computer, and the CAD program. The reason for the two computers was that the CAD/CAM program was such a resource hog that effectively nothing else would run on the machine when that ran.

While the girl was using the 'little filly's room', reinstruction and adaptation on that eliciting some serious hilarity on both sides. He downloaded the picture from the camera, used the CAD program to add a red circle and slash, denoting 'no', then he printed the picture. The unicorn could see the printer, and that in moments he could produce an entire page of text. He carefully didn't let her see what was on the page.

She's more determined than ever to get in here. With that horn, she could punch through any lock on the house, I wonder why she hadn't. Before the filly returned, he also created a special message for the unicorn. When the little one returned, he pointed at the purple unicorn. The filly dutifully gave the creature's name, which perked up the creature considerably. His absolutely butchering any attempt to pronounce the name sent the filly into hysterics. He managed to get the filly to write the name on an envelope and he placed the message he had for the purple unicorn inside.

He checked his watch and realized he had enough time. So they moved back into the living room. The unicorn had its nose pressed against the glass, as he opened the doors that had concealed the big screen TV. Now the mightiest magic of all, the sorcery of Yen Sid and Fantasia, he thought as he put the classic on, and the speakers arrayed around the room played the music along with the images.

The filly stared in rapt amazement, or hysterical giggles at the scenes displayed on the screen. The purple one's frustration grew as it could only see faceted reflections of the event reflected from the bookcase doors.

I never realized, the narration portions are as alien and wonderful as the animated segments. An alien presenting an alien world, he thought as she stared open-mouthed at the images accompanying Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

Occasional giggles interrupted her fascination during Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. But Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice reduced her to hysterics as she pointed at the purple unicorn and laughed even harder. The target turned its puppy dog eyes up to maximum, to no avail.

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring got him a lap full of shivering pony. But when he shut it off, she complained. "It's gonna get worse before it gets better," he explained. She indicated she wanted to see more. She was back to giggles and amazement for the Intermission/Meet the Soundtrack. Beethoven's The Pastoral Symphony had her excitedly giving names to the pegasi and unicorns, and laughter at the other characters' antics.

She doesn't approve of Zeus spoiling the party, he thought as the filly shouted something at the screen, Probably somebody powerful to deal with the party wrecker.

Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours had her laughing again. The knock on the door before the narrator could finish the introduction to Night on Bald Mountain was welcome. He shut the machine off and went to answer the door, the filly at his heels.

Her mother was there, all smiles, and apparently apologies. She looked around as he invited her in. He noted she wiped her hoofs off on the rug that was there for that purpose. As the filly excitedly circled and regaled her mother with stories about completed school work and wonders, he turned the big screen around, so the purple unicorn could watch, he opened the jalousie windows so she could hear better, and hit play on the disc.

You want information, enjoy, he thought as he collected the books, papers and cloth lunch bag. That's rotten trick to play, but maybe you'll quit trifling with what you don't understand. He programmed the multidisc unit to play Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 and Stravinsky'sFirebird Suite from Fantasia 2000 next. Enjoy, he thought and tried to keep from laughing malevolently.

"And then we watched funny moving pictures," Dinky told her Derpy, and tried not to bounce with enthusiasm. "I guess he's letting Twilight watch them now."

The monster arrived with a large envelope that he put some papers in.

"Oh! He showed me a new way to do the math!" Dinky said happily, "Maybe Miss Cheerilee should see those. Can I come back tomorrow?"

"Miss Cheerilee has the school set up at Sweet Apple Acres, but if you ask, maybe she can get a field trip here." Derpy thought for a moment. "Maybe we should tell Princess Luna about all this."

Then the monster handed over a letter clearly labeled for 'Twilight Sparkle'.

"I wrote than, he made something especially for Twilight," Dinky said.

I plan to have a few words with Miss Sparkle myself, Derpy thought, then caught the monster's expression,I think it's not a surprise that Twilight will like, so I'll make sure she gets it.

She collected the bits she would normally pay a foal-sitter, plus a little extra for his inconvenience. He frowned and shook his head.

"Please, I know she's a delight, but you deserve something," she told him. He nodded and accepted. Then he leaned down so Dinky could hug him. She hugged both of them. He waved to them as they headed out.

He returned to the big screen, and briefly considered adding the Sorcerer's Apprentice, but decided against it. The unicorn sat there, slack jawed, ears flat against her head, her eyes wide and teary. He shut the machine off, and seemingly released her from its spell. She looked at him, and trudged away slowly. The headed towards the kitchen to make up his dinner.

"Your Highness," Derpy said as she stood before Luna. "I think you might want these. He helped Dinky with her math homework, and you all seemed pretty excited about that."

"Indeed, we are," Luna said as she took the papers. "Such a small thing, to have such meaning." She looked at the papers. Tick marks, alien numbers and the familiar Equestrian forms. On another, a completely new way to solve multiplication problems. On another, new long division methods. She shook her head. "It is a wonder we do not all fall to Twilight's mania. What this offers . . . "

"There's also the box that shows moving pictures," Dinky said happily. "And the tube that makes everything bigger." She pulled the print out of her bag, and horned it to her Highness. "That's my hair, and his."

Luna stared at the image. She knew of microscopy, and taking pictures through microscopes, but it was a very technical field. One this 'monster' can teach a foal in an afternoon, with his equipment.

"Twilie!" Shining Armor cried.

"Hi, Shining," the mare replied flatly.

"You okay, sugarcube?" Applejack asked.

"No, not really," Twilight said quietly, her usual spark seemed completely extinguished. "Your Highness, I'd like your permission to return home."

"Ponyville, or Canterlot?" Luna asked worriedly.

"Ponyville," Twilight said quietly.

"Sugarcube," Applejack said more forcefully, "Are you okay?"

"No," Twilight said, "I've got, a lot to think about." She looked up at Luna. "I think you're right. We shouldn't push. I was wrong, and I hope you'll all forgive me."

"What happened?" Derpy asked, putting the letter to Twilight back in her pouch.

"I saw, it was beautiful, it was terrible," Twilight said, and smiled, "And it was - him, whatever his people are. I, need to think, alone."

"Applejack, go with her. But your mission tomorrow is now paramount. You too need rest."

"Yes'm," Applejack said. She bowed and led Twilight way.

"What did he do?" Shining Armor demanded, "My own sister barely recognized me."

"What our scholar warned. Some of their ideas bring delight." She indicated Dinky. "Others bring an epiphany that borders on madness. Your sister will recover. He did to her, what he did to the Diamond Dog, yet he left her alive to grow from the blow he struck."

"I don't understand."

"Neither did your sister, now she does, and must think deep and hard on what she must do next," Luna said.

2) Settling in Adjustments

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Cultural Artifacts - Settling in Adjustments

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

'Dear Princess Celestia,' Twilight scratched that out, and began, 'Dear Princess Celestia and Princess Luna,' she put on a new page.

'Today I,' she struggled to admit it, even to herself, 'failed. And only because of the goodwill of my friends, and the understanding of a creature we have never seen before, did this failure not become a disaster.'

She sighed again, and considered the words she would put on paper. 'I assumed I knew what was best, for everyone. But what I saw, what this creature showed me, shows that I had less understanding of it and what shaped it, than a mouse understands magic. If its homeworld is anything like as terrifying and violent as the images it showed, even in the abstract'.

She scratched out violent and replaced it with 'dangerous'.

'Then pressing it, before it fully understands that Equestria is nothing like that, was a mistake that I and'.

She considered the other interloper.

'Pinkie Pie have made, and that every other pony to encounter the creature have worked hard to avoid. Normally, I would strive to correct my mistake. I think I should adopt a more passive tack, and allow others to educate it about the wonders of the joyous and peaceful world it has suddenly been thrust into.'
'Your chagrined and humbled student, Twilight Sparkle.'

She made the corrections, and noted Spike had been silently staring at her the entire time.

"Are you all right?" he asked carefully.

"No, Spike," she admitted, "I think, everything changed, and I wasn't prepared for it. I need to do better. I wasn't a very good representative for Equestria, or Princess Celestia today. That hurts. What hurts worse is the one who shouldn't know how badly I did, was the one to make it clear. The monster, who's been here a day, knew I was failing Celestia, probably without even knowing who Celestia was."

"Twilight, that doesn't make sense," Spike said quietly.

"It means I have to do better," Twilight said, "But doing better, means doing nothing. Which while it's right, doesn't make any sense to me either."

Spike nodded and sent the letter, while Twilight trudged up the stairs to her bed. He waited until she was out of sight to ruefully shake his head.

"Sergeant," one of the Night Guard saluted as Mile Stone entered the small observation post overlooking the side of the house, "We think it may be trying to escape the cordon. It entered the bathroom, with dark clothing and a cap to cover its head. But first it mixed up a batch of something to blacken its face."

The sergeant stifled a sigh. "It did this, in front of the largest single window pane in the entire house?" he asked politely, "Did it adjust the blinds so you could see what it was doing before or after it started?"

"Um, before," the soldier said, mystified.

"Thank you, soldier. Tell Captain Armor to get four good trackers, two teams of two. Tell him that the monster is probably going to slip into Ponyville, so the populace doesn't know it's there, but that it wanted us to know."

"Sir, how can you know that?" the remaining soldier asked in awe as the other rushed off to relay the message.

"Because when you prepare to be sneaky, in the full view of the ponies you might have to sneak past," the sergeant explained, "It's because you want them to know you're being sneaky."

The monster slipped out the front door with its two-wheeled vehicle.

The full moon must give it more than enough light to see by, Heaven Spectre thought, How did it spot me? she wondered as it waved to her and its other tail, Zephyr Winks. Then it proceeded straight towards Ponyville.

Or did it just assume, and is messing with us? she considered. Despite her endurance training, she had a bit of a time keeping up. Wonder if the feather brains are considering getting that thing as an advantage.

Very quickly, it became clear. It was headed towards the town library. Is it after Miss Sparkle? the ranger thought, then it spotted the librarian gazing out at the stars and the monster darted down an alley to avoid detection by the librarian. Zephyr stayed overhead as the ground member of the second team picked up the monster up. Heaven Spectre watched the librarian muse for some minutes, while she watched on the off chance that the creature might double back. Then she headed back toward the house.

Princess Luna and Shining Armor were debriefing the team in the command center as she arrived. "It didn't come back to the library," she reported.

"Because it returned to its home," her Highness said, "Are you certain?" she asked Zephyr.

"It seemed kind of angry that the library was occupied."

"Or who occupied it," Shining Armor admitted, "I think it and my sister have rubbed each other the wrong way."

"Your Highness, I suspect this was a scouting mission," Feather Soft, the other pegasus tracker said, "It has a watch, and I think it was timing the travel from its home to the library. Or, from the library to any of our command posts."

"Explain," Luna said.

"I think it was trying to figure out how much time it would have to get to the library, and do something there, before we would be alerted and could respond."

"We tracked it the entire time," Armor pointed out.

"Because it wanted us to. It may be able to slip through the cordon and move where it wishes. I suspect it wanted to get to the library. But once it saw that was also Miss Sparkle's home, that plan was scrapped," Zephyr said.

"It also indicates it doesn't know any of us can teleport," Heaven Spectre pointed out, "Or it does and wants us to know what its next goal is."

"Uncertainty and paralysis lay down the road of guess and counter-guess about its motives," Luna said, "It is intelligent enough to know to telegraph its actions to us, and cunning enough to change those plans with circumstances. If Miss Sparkle hadn't been present, it may well have entered the library proper. We will not speculate on a plan to lure it to the empty library. Let it plan its next move. Speculation on why it would seek a library full of unreadable books would be welcomed."

The only member of the scout/tracker team who hadn't spoken was Twilight Strider. "I think it was after information. It has a huge stash of books. And it's clever. It may be looking for a mate to a book it already has, and it wanted to look through the library to find it."

"What kind of book?" Luna asked.

The tracker shrugged. "Anything that would have information similar to one it has."

"It's trying to learn our language through some kind of touchstone?" Armor asked.

"It's what I'd do. Every speaking thing on Equestria knows our language," Strider said, "We'd have to guess how it learns a new language. But with all those books, that's what it would rely on. It already figured out our math through our books and its, seems like if something works, you keep at it."

"Reasonable," Luna said, "I begin to wonder about keeping it isolated, and keeping it here. At Canterlot, it might have a richer feeding ground."

"How many arrogant princes and princesses are you willing to let it shoot for barging into its home?" Zephyr asked a bit too loud, so it was heard.

"Point taken. Although a few might be a welcome change," Luna said very seriously, then chuckled, "No, the noise would disturb the good citizens. And it might break Derpy's heart, if it started shooting the postmares." They had a chuckle about that.

Ah hate this, Ah hate this, Ah hate this, Applejack thought as she approached the door. The spotters had said it rose early, so before breakfast was the best time to approach it. Ah don't care if Princess Luna ordered this, and paid for its wages, and promised to rebuild whatever it damaged around the farm, Ah hate this. She had earlier admitted to herself that part of what she hated was begging help from anypony else, let alone a monster.

Ah think Granny Smith is gettin' worse. 'It'll be right neighborly to bring him a fine breakfast', Ah swear she thinks this is a stallion Ah'm courtin', she thought, and knocked on the door, a good deal harder than she'd meant to.

"Oh that's great, break down its door," she thought as she looked close to see if she'd damaged it.

The door opened suddenly, then the monster took a side step so she wasn't staring directly at it. Then she looked up, and up. And took a step back. You'd thought watching it for two days I'd realize how big it is, she thought as she looked at its face.

"What the hay?!" she gasped. About a quarter of its face was covered with soap suds, and where the soap suds weren't it had removed the fur it had been growing. She fell back on her haunches as she stared.

It took a menacing, hands-upraised pose. Claws extended. All fangs displayed. Applejack felt her fear rise. And it said something very softly. Applejack nearly bolted. It stared at her a moment, then closed the door. Applejack tried to unfreeze herself.

Ah bucked timberwolves, and gone up against dragons, she thought, Why's this varmint got me spooked? Before she could answer, the door opened again. The critter took off her hat, she was just about ready to swat its hand away, when it put an ice pack on her head, put her hat back on, and closed the door. Applejack gritted her teeth as she almost felt the ice turning to steam in the pack.

"Oh, um hi Applejack," Fluttershy said as she landed beside her, "I was watching, and you were having such fun, I didn't want to interfere. But I think you need to actually talk to him."

Applejack stared at her. "Ah know that."

"Don't worry, I think he's cute too." Before Applejack could respond, Fluttershy quietly knocked on the door.

Fluttershy couldn't help herself. She let out a little squee at seeing him up close. The monster's look of alarm nearly matched what Applejack's must have looked like. Its eyebrows practically disappeared into its scalp as it looked at the grinning pegasus.

"Oh, sorry, you're just so adorable," Fluttershy apologized, "This is my friend Applejack." She hugged her. "And there's this big storm coming." She made thunder sounds, and waved her hooves like rain coming down. "And she's got a farm and could really use another pony - person to help get her farm all fixed and ready for the storm." Fluttershy grabbed the basket Applejack had brought. "They make all kinds of apple products, so she'll feed you breakfast and lunch, as well as pay you." Fluttershy held up a few bits, then nosed his hands. "With those I'm sure you could help her." Fluttershy rose up to move eye to eye with the monster and grinned broadly. "She's not usually this embarrassed, but I think she thinks you're cute, like I do. She's kind of embarrassed your first date is her begging for help."

"This ain't a DATE!" Applejack shouted, "And what are you, Pinkie Pie in a Fluttershy suit?"

The monster's apprehension with Fluttershy's behavior was now replaced with an expression of absolute neutrality, which Fluttershy nearly matched. The monster took Fluttershy's hoof bowed his head against it and vowed something. He chuckled and stood aside to let them in. Fluttershy followed. When Applejack didn't, the monster took her hat and the ice pack, and set her hat on a door knob inside.

Grumbling, Applejack walked in and retrieved her hat, then closed the door behind her. "Where's the light comin' from?"

Fluttershy flew up to the top of the bookshelves. "There's a couple of big boxes up here that glow." She moved to the windows opposite the shelves. "You can't see them from anywhere in the room. Except up there."

"We're lucky Twi didn't see these too," Applejack said of the filled bookshelves, "She would've gone more loco than she did."

The monster set a large box down, and opened it. Inside were all manner of tools. Some Applejack had never seen before.

"Yes," Fluttershy said and nodded enthusiastically, "That's exactly what we need."

The monster nodded back, and directed them to sit on the couches, while it got some tea for them from the kitchen.

Fluttershy sighed when it left again. "I am willing to share," she said, and hid her smile behind her mane.

"Just cause ya think he's cute and harmless, that don't mean Ah do," Applejack said, and sipped her tea, "Ah'm only doin' this for the Princess." She looked at the teacup. "How'd it get Equestrian teacups so fast? Ya don't suppose its look like ours? Never mind, that's just silly."

"Maybe, you should be doing it for your farm. He seems willing to help, and maybe there are things you need done that he can do better."

"There's nothin' on the farm I cain't do," Applejack countered sharply.

The loud clap brought them both around. The monster waved a finger at them, its expression stern.

"I apologize," Fluttershy said.

The monster cupped a hand by its ear.

"I apologize too," Applejack muttered.

"I didn't say you can't do something," Fluttershy said, "He might have a way to do it better."

"Fluttershy, it's mah family's farm. If I can't do it, then it means it might not get done," Applejack said in a reasonable tone. And glanced over at the hall the monster had disappeared down.

"Are you afraid to ask for help, or ashamed?" Fluttershy asked quietly. "The Princess needs to really push him, his intelligence, his strength, and his willingness to do work. She isn't picking on you. She's depending on you to give it a try."

Applejack sighed as she frowned. "What does she expect outta that? Barn raisin' with one finger? Plow the fields with a wave? Maybe the next monster that rears its head, we send our monster against that monster. 'Shy, we know nothin' about this critter. Look around. Other than the books, I don't know what half this stuff is. Look, three marbles. Or are they. A bunch a wires that look almost like a buildin', but are they?" She trotted over to the glass-fronted cabinet. "I doubt even Twi, or Celestia herself could tell ya what half of them doodads is."

"But if he's our friend, all these doodads will be working for us," Fluttershy said as she hovered behind her friend, "That's what Twilight was saying."

Applejack considered, and tried to put into words how uncomfortable the creature made her feel. "Fluttershy, you all are saying it's a pet bear, that don't make it less a bear. Bears got teeth and claws, no matter how many bows you got tied in her fur."

"Maybe, maybe it's not a bear. Maybe it's a lost dog. If Winona got lost, wouldn't you want nice ponies to take her in? Maybe you're worried that it might be something you care about, and the Princesses will take it away."

Applejack rolled her eyes at that, but looked over at all the trinkets and books and pieces. A whole life here. But what is it really?

The monster reappeared, and signaled them to follow.

"One thing, it changes clothes more'n Rarity," Applejack said and walked down the corridor. Then into a small room that smelled of soap, and had metal boxes in it large enough to hide a couple of ponies. Then down some stairs. The shed was big, and had two carts in it. The monster headed to the white, open-topped one.

"Hold on stranger!" Applejack insisted, "If you think I'm pullin' that monster, you got another think comin'." The cart, loaded with tools and other equipment was open like a wagon in back, but had a closed cab like a fancy, Canterlot, hansom cab.

Why'd they put a nose on this thing? Applejack wondered, Ta keep the rain off the pony pullin' it?

The monster waved them over, and to the cab.

"It's gonna pull us?" Applejack asked in astonishment, "Even Big Mac couldn't pull that monster too easy."

Fluttershy landed on and sank into the padded bench seat. She looked at the complicated buttons, levers and the wheel stuck in front of one of the seats. "Maybe it's magic, and doesn't need ponies."

"Maybe," Applejack climbed in and sat next to Fluttershy, leaving the seat behind the wheel unoccupied. The monster got in, grabbed a strap and pulled it in front of and across them, and clicked it to another. Then did the same to itself.

"I don't like this," Applejack said she looked at the strap across her chest, that doubled back across her hooves.

"Uh, it probably strapped us down, for the same reason it strapped down all the tools," Fluttershy said as she looked into the back of the wagon.

"What for?" Applejack asked, then the wall in front of them pulled up to the ceiling, and the machine let out a growl. "OH NEILLY!" Applejack held Fluttershy, who held right back as the horseless wagon drove across the ground and out onto the road.

"It's so we can't escape!" Fluttershy wailed in terror.

Applejack looked around. " 'Shy, you and Dashie can fly faster than we're goin'," she told the panicking pegasus.

"But we're in the air! Not strapped into a steel wagon with a monster at the reins!" she wailed.

The monster looked over at the two ponies. Applejack patted its arm. "She'll be okay," she said, and then was pushed against the straps. She looked at the sign post outside of town. "Uh, oh, that way," she said and pointed to the road the sign cleared marked 'to Sweet Apple Acres'.

"Oh no!" Fluttershy wailed as they took off down the road.

"So, what about this mister Applejack's got her eye on?" Granny asked as she set the dishes to dry.

"Not 'mister', granny, monster," Applebloom offered. "He is taller than Celestia, and has a house and all kinds of magic!"

"Well, if he's got a house near here, I guess Applejack can still help at the farm."

"Granny, he's not a pony. We don't know rightly what he is," Big Mac said.

"If he grows apples, he's our kinda folks," Granny said, as if that were final. "Applebloom, you git off to school. Miss Cheerilee is using our barn. So you make sure it's presentable."

"Wait, does Applejack know about that?" Big Mac asked.

"Nope," Granny said, "Useful to see if her beau is good with kids." Granny wandered to the sitting room.

"Big Mac, you remember how you think us Crusaders are always gittin' in trouble?"


"I think this is gonna put us all to shame," Applebloom said.

The wagon came through the open gate at the farm, and Applejack pointed where the first project was. A long string of 'volunteers' little shoots of trees that were too bitter to pull up with teeth, and gave a painful rash. Not an impossible problem, but a difficult one. The monster stopped the wagon, then stopped the rumbling noise it made, and released the strap that held Applejack and Fluttershy in place. Fluttershy showed no evidence of releasing Applejack though. Then he went around the other side and with Applejack's help, carefully lowered the pegasus to the ground.

"Okay, let's see what you make a' these," Applejack said and pointed at the collection.

The monster returned to the wagon, put on some heavy covers over its hands, and came back with the biggest set of tongs Applejack had ever seen.

"Those are as tall as you," she said. Then the monster drove them in the ground a few times, turning them as he went, until he'd cut a circle around a shoot, and pulled it out of the ground. "We didn't need to save'em for replantin', but that works." Applejack retrieved a large, sealable, metal container to put the plants in, and watched in amazement as at least three hours' careful digging and handling was finished in twenty minutes.

"Okay, maybe the Princess' idea wasn't so crazy after all," Applejack said, then looked around, "What the hay am I gonna use you for?" she asked.

Unfriendly eyes regarded the farm work. "Tell Rover Bill that we have it, and two who humiliated us. And it doesn't have the stick that blasts."

The armored Diamond Dog disappeared into the underbrush. The one left behind grinned.

"Rainbow!" Rarity said in alarm as she trotted into the observation post, "What are they doing? We didn't send Applejack away with it, so we could break into its house, did we?"

"Naw, they want to measure it. See if there are any places inside that we haven't seen yet. There's windows we can't see through, and some piece in the middle they think is enclosed. The Princess was real strict that no one goes in." Rainbow laughed. "Pinkie found out what happens to snoopers."

"Well, I am glad. Breaking a 'Pinkie Promise' is one thing, but using Applejack to trick a creature like that while we rifled its home. I think the creature might have help when it punished us."

"Aw, I think we could take it."

"Says the pony who found the Diamond Dog," she said teasingly. "Uh, Rainbow. Is that gallant Captain Armor around?"

"Gonna apologize to him for knocking him cold yesterday?" Rainbow teased.

"I also remember knocking a certain pegasus cold, yesterday," Rarity said darkly.

Rainbow rose up, out of range. "Lucky shot. I think he's down with her Highness, measuring."

"Thank you, Rainbow Dash." Rarity tossed her mane. "I still don't see why you all objected. I was merely going to offer him my card," Rarity said.

"Yeah, and Pinkie just wanted to throw it a welcome party," Rainbow replied, but stayed out of reach.

Cheerilee had led the entire class out to see 'the monster'. Applejack was staring in amazement at the collection of foals approaching. For its part, the monster had taken one look at them, and gone back to work. It was a stump that had resisted even Big MacIntosh's attempts to remove it. The monster currently had a drill that screamed like a scared filly, with a bit as long as a foreleg. But it cut through the hard wood with ease. What the monster was going to do with a stump full of holes, Applejack couldn't even guess.

"Okay kids, stay back! We're workin' here." Applejack flipped up the face shield the monster had insisted she and Fluttershy wear if they stayed close to the work, while it wore a set of goggles and ear coverings. The clear shield flopped right back down, muffling her voice. Most of the fillies and colts started laughing at her predicament.

"I don't see what's so special," came a too familiar voice, "It's just like a trained bear."

"It is not, Diamond!" Dinky Doo shouted, "He's nice, and he can do things not even Twilight can do!"

"Oh really?" the filly commented. "Like kill? It killed a Diamond Dog, who hadn't even hurt it. Something like that should be driven back into the Everfree Forest, where it belongs."

"Ya gonna drag its house back there too?" Applejack asked.

The filly snorted with contempt.

I hate ta admit it, Applejack thought, But that doesn't sound too bad an idea, if we could move its home and land there. But then somepony would say it was too close, and want it moved past Appaloosa, then it would be the griffin's problem, and I don't like the idea of them gettin' half the stuff we saw in that house, or what he'd do ta them ta keep it.

The monster returned, trailing a set of wires to the stump. All the blue ones it was winding together, and all the green ones in a separate braid. It reached into the cab of the wagon, and there was a loud clunk from the front.

"What're you doin'?" she asked, and immediately regretted not remembering the language problem.

It made a hissing noise and waved its fingers in the air.

"It almost looked like fireworks," Applejack said and looked to Fluttershy, who raised the mask. Only hers stayed in place.

"It put a powder in the deepest holes, so maybe it is fireworks," Fluttershy said.

"What are fireworks gonna do to a stump? Lift it outta th' ground? Blow it up, with all these foals here?" she asked, but the amazement at what lay under the metal sheet that covered the nose of the wagon drew her attention. "It's a machine?" she asked as the foals gathered round the new device.

"It smells awful," Diamond Tiara commented.

"It does that," Applejack agreed, "Like hot metal and oil."

The monster had attached the blue wires to a box with two knobs on it. He shouted something, pointed to his eyes, and pointed almost exactly opposite of the stump.

"He doesn't want us to see his trick," Silver Spoons said.

"I think he doesn't want us . . . " Applejack said and looked towards the stump, then tugged on the monster's sleeve. "You got any bright ideas to deal with them?"

He could tell the orange pony didn't like what she was seeing. Great, more orcs, he thought as he looked at the stump, then looked at the bundle of wires still in his hand, and that the bulk of their formation would take them straight at the stump. Better them than me, he thought and gestured for the little ones to get behind the truck, and turn away. The three adults corralled the panicking little ones and got them out of sight. The pegasus had taken refuge in the bed of the pickup.

I hope they aren't watching, he thought as he shielded his eyes and touched the other collection of wires to the ground terminal of the battery.

"Can he control the sun?" Cheerilee asked as the brilliant illumination threw every shadow into sharp relief. The light reflecting off the Diamond Dogs was painful to look at. Some of the fillies and colts whimpered at the brilliant light, but it only lasted a moment. But unlike any fireworks, there was no accompanying noise. Instead, Cheerilee and Applejack heard the thunder of hooves as a dozen of Celestia's soldiers charged across the orchard towards the Diamond Dogs.

Applejack looked under the wagon and saw most of the Diamond Dogs were on the ground, and the few who were upright were wandering as if blind.

"I don't rightly know what that was," Applejack said as the soldiers corralled at least fifteen Diamond Dogs. Most were just realizing they were blinded. "What did you do?" Applejack shouted at the monster, who seemed almost as confused as she was.

He pointed at the sun. Applejack sat down heavily. "He did use the sun against'em," Applejack told Cheerilee, and the kids. Applejack shuddered at the idea of using the sun as a weapon. Then she saw the stump. Some smoke rose from it, but otherwise it looked intact. "Even if it didn't work, please don't do that again," she said carefully, keeping the visor up with her hoof.

He looked at her with confusion, but nodded. The soldiers were escorting the Diamond Dogs away.

A few seconds ago, they were gonna hurt th' younguns, Applejack thought, Then poof, they're the ones needin' help. She looked at the monster, who had gone around and was helping Cheerilee and Fluttershy calm the scared ones. It's like a faucet, on, off, hot, cold, nasty, nice, and it's like nothin' changed. She looked at the whimpering Diamond Dogs, blinded, she hoped temporarily, but the monster had simply seen a target. So how safe are we, and what happens if it turns on us?

"It's got to be pretty stupid, if it can't even speak Equestrian," Snails said.

"You're stupid if you can't figure out how to ask him a question!" Dinky Doo shouted back.

"Well, how would you ask why it wears all those clothes?" Featherweight asked.

The unicorn thought a moment. "Okay." She motioned for him to bend down, and when he did touched the work shirt. "One." And the white shirt underneath. "Two. Why?" she asked.

Its face screwed up with confusion for a moment.

"See, it can't even figure that out," Snips said.

"He knows the answer, but he's gotta figure out how to tell us," Dinky replied.

"It's gonna draw a picture?" Applebloom said, as he held up a pencil and looked around, waving for the others.

"I got one," Diamond Tiara said, and gave him a whole package of colored pencils.

He motioned Diamond forward.

"Uh, you speak monster better than I can," Diamond said and moved back into the crowd. This seemed to amuse the monster. Cheerilee moved up instead.

He took off his shirt, and the smaller white shirt underneath.

"He doesn't have any fur!" Scootaloo said from behind it, and laughed.

"It's cold?" Sweetie Belle said, then looked around, "In this weather, it's cold?"

"Why's it only got hair on its head and under its forelegs?" Twist asked.

He pinched the skin on his arm and held it before Miss Cheerilee.

"I don't understand," the teacher admitted. He smiled and held up one finger.

He rubbed his hands together very fast, and put them on Dinky's cheeks.

"That's warm," she said happily.

Then it put some of Diamond's pencils between its hands and rolled them very fast. Then it touched Dinky's cheeks with his hands.

"That isn't warm at all."

He pointed to the hair under his arms, and held up the pencils.

"It's to prevent its skin from chafing," Cheerilee said, "We have fur all over and it does the same thing. It only has fur exactly where it needs it."

He returned the pencils to Diamond, and motioned her forward. She came, reluctantly. He rubbed his face on the white shirt, and held it out for her to do the same. She did. Again, reluctantly.

"It's soft," Diamond said. Then she did the same with the offered work shirt. "And that's pretty rough."

He made a rolling motion with his hands, and started dressing.

"It wears the outer one to protect its skin, and the inner one to keep the outer one from chafing!" Diamond said, she looked at it, "It's smarter than I thought."

"That answer your question?" Dinky asked Featherweight.


Dozens of other questions were shouted. Some students calling one after another.

"Where's it from? Does it eat ponies? What did it do to the Diamond Dogs? How did it get here? How long is it gonna stay?" came in and even Cheerilee felt overwhelmed.

"Ooo. What does this do?" came a question from the other side of the wagon.


The monster hadn't thundered any actual words as it had shot to its feet, at least not in Equestrian. But that tone, the angry gaze, the gesture, and that delivery were instantly recognizable across any barrier of language, or species. Every colt and filly instantly and guiltily flattened on the ground.

Pinkie, wide-eyed and hair dead-flat, replaced the device in the strange cart, and left post haste.

Big Mac let out a breath as he trotted up. "Yep, he's a serious one."

Miss Cheerilee and the kids stared at him wild-eyed as he checked the device, then put it in the cab of the wagon and locked it up.

It said something that sounded like an apology, and it sat down.

"Um, what was that?" Dinky asked, and pointed at the device.

He shrugged and pointed at the lunch that Big Mac had brought.

"Can we see it first?" Dinky asked, and looked to Miss Cheerilee for support.

"If you wouldn't mind," the teacher said and nodded towards the device.

He shrugged and unlocked the cab, set the case before the foals and opened it. Applejack walked over to look at it. "Mean-lookin' thing." Heavy box with handles, and a weird knife blade-looking piece stuck to it.

He flipped down Applejack's face shield, and replaced his own goggles, before walking over to the stump. He motioned the others to stay back, allowing only Fluttershy and Applejack close. The pegasus having replaced her face shield before venturing out. The machine let out a noise like a swarm of bees, and he applied it to the stump. He easily cut into the stump with the machine.

"No wonder," Applejack breathed, then shouted back, "That thing is dangerous."

"No more dangerous than the plow," Big Mac said to the kids, "If you know how ta work it. That's why it has the goggles or that face mask to protect its eyes."

"But the stump's still there!" Applebloom complained. Said stump had resisted the best efforts of the 'Cutie Mark Crusaders Stump Remover's' plans. Now it had won again.

The machine fell silent, and he locked it back in its case in the cab of the wagon.

"Can you imagine Pinkie with one a those?" Applejack asked Big Mac as she set the visor aside.

"I kin imagine Pinkie with a couple of those," Applebloom said, "I kin imagine Pinkie trying to juggle a couple a those, while they're runnin'." Everyone shuddered at that.

He pulled several long, thick metal rods from the wagon and carried them out to the stump, and waved for the others to follow. Big Mac grinned and pulled a set of ropes from the pack he carried.

"Maybe you need to get another horse collar," Big Mac suggested as the monster set the rods into some holes it had dug in the stump earlier.

It looped the ropes around the one set of rods, and fitted them to Big Mac's harness. Then another from a second set of rods to Applejack, and a third to the class's set of rods. It made a rotating movement with its arms.

"We're gonna unscrew a stump?" Applejack asked, and looked at Fluttershy. "Yeah, let's see how smart it is." She muttered, "Nopony payin' attention ta how crazy it is."

The three teams pulled. The wood held, for a little while, and then they heard cracking.

"Ease up!" Applejack said between clenched teeth, as they did exactly that, unscrewing the stump. They completed a half circle before the top of the stump came away from the rest. The stump which had been Applejack's and Big Mac's bane for years was cut flush with the ground.

"It's all burnt in the middle," Scootaloo said of the center of the stump.

"Maybe that's where it put the sun?" Fluttershy offered.

Applejack stared at the chunk of charcoaled wood. She barely heard Big Mac and Cheerilee calling her to lunch.

Rainbow Dash saluted even before she'd finished landing before Luna in the command post. "We've got clouds all set, and ready for that storm, your Highness," she said, "The Ponyville Weather Team is ready to deliver it tomorrow night."

"Excellent," Luna said. "Spitfire, please accompany Rainbow Dash, and see to the preparations in Ponyville for the storm." She ignored the wide-eyed eagerness of the Element Bearer.

"Yes, Highness," Spitfire said, and took to the air. "Now, rookie, can you keep up?"

"I'm the best flier in Ponyville!" Rainbow countered,

"I'm the best in the Wonderbolts," Spitfire shot back as they headed off towards town, zigzagging around each other.

"Glory Bell, has your team completed their measurement?" Luna asked the engineering expert from Canterlot.

The royal white unicorn nodded. "There's two areas we haven't been able to see. But the fillies passed through one of them, and if reports are accurate, Applejack and Fluttershy passed through it this morning. We can talk to them about it later."

"What of the last area, it's as large as a decent apartment," Luna pointed to the area.

"It's got a window we can't see through, and it leads straight into the - his bedroom. We have no idea what it is. But if it went through this door, and returned with clothes, it may be some kind of storage. The actual space is similar to the bathroom here. It could just be another bathroom and a closet."

"Even Rarity wouldn't need that much space for just clothes," Luna commented, "Well done. I assume this door is the only access?"

"Unless it goes into the attic." Glory lowered her voice. "Highness, it would be a lot easier with scrying spells."

"Would we like strangers scrying our domicile?" Luna asked.

"I don't have anything to hide."

"There is a difference between hiding things, and trying to keep your neighbors safe from what you have stored. Miss Sparkle was quite, disrupted, by some moving images, like a living picture or a home cinema screen. And the weapons have not been accounted for either. Good enough reasons to keep things away from prying eyes, and ignorant hands."

"Maybe. Highness. I must protest your plan to go in tomorrow. If this storm is as powerful as you want, the creature might do things to you and the team, before help can arrive."

"So you do not wish to accompany me?" Luna asked carefully.

"Me, I mean, me?" the unicorn stammered.

"You are trained, and are 'soft and cute', perfect for the nonthreatening role." Luna smiled carefully. "You are also a keen mind, so are well-suited as a spy."

"'If I can't use scrying spells outside, what makes you think I can use them inside, Highness?"

"You will use your eyes, and your brains. Ask him questions. He seems to have a soft spot for the young and curious. You still qualify, do you not?"

"Yes, Highness," Glory said, "Although I can control myself."

"Admirable. I hope I can. There is so much I wish to learn. But I have a primary mission, and must accomplish that."

"Yes, Highness," Glory said, bowed and left.

"Captain Armor, how did this creature harness even a fraction of the power of the sun, and inflict it on those Diamond Dogs? Celestia has felt no contest to her suzerainty of that orb."

"Fireworks, your Highness. He used some kind of powder. He probably intended to burn up that stump with it. The Diamond Dogs, charged straight into it."

Luna glanced around. "Another worrying weapon. At least it didn't explode the stump and let them run into the splinters."

"I'm more worried about what kind of creature keeps that kind of material in its home. We have powders that will do the same. But most alchemists who brew them have workshops with solid, stone walls, and roofs of sheet tin, for a reason."

"And a distinct lack of manes and eyebrows," Luna agreed.

"Yes, Highness. I also think we may need to talk to this 'Rover Bill' of the Diamond Dogs. If he keeps sending soldiers after our guest, things could get more ugly."

"I have considered that. You and Sergeant Mile Stone will 'visit' him, tomorrow afternoon. And 'explain' our deep concerns," Luna said, "And plead that I will not have to become, personally involved."

"Yes, your Highness."

Applejack looked at the charred piece of wood that the monster had cut from the stump. Cheerilee had asked for it, to make a table out of it. Big Mac had agreed. Applejack kept pawing through the stump, and the charcoal at the center.

He burnt a hole in it, and then just cut it up, Applejack thought, Then what're all the metal bits there now about? His buzz saw thing didn't loose any teeth off the chain, and these're too big to have been mixed in the powder. So what happened?

The monster had wandered over and stared at her pawing. Then it took a piece of the charcoal and drew a math equation on the remains.

"That's fancier math than Ah know," she admitted. It pointed to the triangle over the equal's sign and made the same hissing noise and fireworks finger moves. "Still don't make no sense to me," she told it and walked away. "What kinda math let's ya do things like that?"

The lunch was typical Apple family fare, and the kids seemed fascinated by the idea that the monster had no trouble eating most of it.

"Look at its teeth, those sharp ones," Sweetie Belle said, "They're a little like a dog's or a cat's, do you suppose it, eats meat?"

"It eats cheese," Dinky Doo explained, "And it cooks. It cooked a sandwich of cheese, and it was good!"

"You ate what this thing cooked?" Diamond said, "You're braver than me." Dinky turned to face Diamond.

A hand and a hoof appeared between the two. Applejack pulled hers back quickly. "No fightin' durin' lunch," she said, "Besides it hasn't et nobody who could ask it not ta. Even if it couldn't understand the question."

"You'd better introduce it to Lulu Belle and the others," Applebloom warned, "If they get excited, they don't talk real good."

Applejack nodded at her little sister's wisdom. "Maybe we can get it ta install the gutter, finally."

"It can fly too?" Applebloom asked. Fluttershy 'eeped' as Applejack smiled at her.

"Hello Twilight," a very subdued Pinkie Pie said as she entered the library.

"Are you all right?" Twilight asked, and was immediately engulfed in Pinkie Pie.

"The monster hates me!" she wailed.

Twilight weathered the fountain of tears that instantly soaked her to the skin. "Pinkie Pie."

"He hates balloons."

"Pinkie Pie."

"And parties."

"Pinkie Pie."

"And fun."

"Pinkie Pie!"

"And cake."

"Pinkie Pie!"

"And party games."

"Pinkie Pie!"

"And, and, and you're right, ME!" Pinkie wailed and sobbed on Twilight's shoulder.

"I think he hates surprises," Twilight said as she patted her friend's shoulder, "Or he's getting all the surprises he can stand. Don't you think it's a little weird that somepony comes to a new place, meets all new people, gets dragged into a whole bunch of crazy situations, and they don't completely freak out?"

"You didn't," Pinkie pointed out, her tears instantly forgotten.

"That's what you think," Spike said as he wandered in, "In the middle of the welcome party, she . . . I'll go check the fiction section." Spike departed under Twilight's piercing gaze.

"I think he doesn't like all kinds of parties. Maybe he'd actually like something like the Grand Galloping Gala. You know, talking, soft music, and just being with a few friends." Twilight smiled hopefully at Pinkie Pie.

"I'd never throw a boring party like that for my friends!" Pinkie insisted.

"How 'bout your enemies?" Twilight grumbled.

"Thanks Twilight, I've got to plan the super-duper-duperest party Ponyville has ever seen!" Pinkie shouted as she disappeared through the door.

"I think I finally understand how Luna became Nightmare Moon," Twilight said, "Okay, warn the Princess, and warn the monster." She paused and considered the puddle she was standing in. "After I get dried off. If Discord shows up, I'm locking the three of them in that house." Twilight headed over to get a towel, then a parchment.

Big Mac retrieved Applejack's hat from atop the stick poking up out of the nose of the monster's wagon. He dropped it on Applejack's head as she lay panting, sprawled out on top of the monster. "Ya wore it down and pinned it," he teased, "Can't you say you won?"

He stepped back and stood near Granny Smith. After the kids had left, he'd watched Applejack playfully bullyrag the monster, who'd taken it in good humor. Until she'd knocked it down. Then it had taken her hat and put it on the highest part of its wagon.

"It's good to see Applejack playin' like a filly again," Granny Smith said, "She's been too serious lately."

Big Mac nodded. "I was a little worried, until he started ticklin' her." He looked at his hooves. "Them fingers is good at gettin' places." He laughed as his nearly exhausted sister clambered to her feet.

She nosed the monster, who said something that sounded exhausted even to Big Mac. Another nose and he just lay there silently.

"I think you won that one," Big Mac said, and enjoyed Applejack's reaction that Granny had watched the entire 'fight'.

"Granny," Applejack said as she trotted up, "That wasn't what it looked like!"

"Looked like two foals havin' fun, 's what it looked like. If it weren't no fun, why'd ya do it?" Granny asked. Big Mac took the hint of Granny's sidelong gaze and went to see if the monster still lived.

"I guess, I guess." Applejack hung her head. "I didn't like how it just did all that hard stuff, like it was nothin'," Applejack admitted, "Ah get my tail in a knot about Rainbow Dash's braggin', and Trixie's too. Ah just thought," she trailed off and looked at the monster still lying face down on the ground. "Ah thought it was doin' it too."

"He," Granny said, "Mighta been trying to impress a pretty mare. Or a new friend. Fear does silly things. Hides as somethin' else, and makes us try an' buck all the apples alone. Makes us try and impress ponies who already like us. Makes us fight against what we should be fightin' alongside. He scares ya. Good, he scares me too. But he's tried ta be neighborly, while everypony takes advantage. He can't talk, but maybe somepony needs to stand beside him and teach him the word 'no', afore somepony pushes just a bit too hard." She looked over at the stump. "That stood up to all you and Big Mac could do. Your ma and pa before that. I half-expected Applebloom and her friends to blow up all of Ponyville trying ta git it. Now it's Miss Cheerilee's new table." Granny looked at Applejack. "Zap apples don't grow themselves, and there's a powerful lot we just have ta accept about 'how'. 'Why' sometimes don't matter."

"Thanks Granny," Applejack hugged the old mare.

"Now git. If you're gonna take him shoppin', and get back for when Miss Cheerilee should be done with that barn, you'll have to hoof it fast. But come back, we need the roof fixed," Granny said, "If you kin toss him around like a rag, he won't put a hoof through the roof. Like yer brother did."

Applejack winced at memory of Big Mac stepping through the roof of the old barn, and his less than happy landing. "Yes'um."

Fluttershy smiled at Applejack walking back to the monster Big Mac was helping sit up. Then she jumped and squeaked as Princess Luna appeared beside her. "Element of Kindness, we need your teaching."

"Uh, okay, we aren't going to be yelling, like last time?" Fluttershy asked.

"You may scold us if we do," Luna assured her.

Fluttershy's whimper hung in the orchard after they had vanished.

It gits better the second time, Applejack thought as the wagon slowed on the approach to Ponyville, No wonder it kin do all that, ya need four hooves just ta drive this thing. They stopped the wagon outside the market. The monster opened the door for her, and collected the large basket from the back. He held out the collection of bits, and looked uncertain.

"Trust me," she told him and smiled.

He looked around. Applejack did the same. Many of the ponies stood frozen, staring at the newcomer. He appeared to ignore their fear.

"It hurts, don't it?" Applejack said and leaned against him, "Being away from friends, family? Ya cain't even talk about it."

He smiled, understanding her expression of sympathy. Then it put on the smile she was more used to seeing: tolerant and amused.

Cain't fool me no more, Applejack thought as she headed through the market.

It stopped at the cabbages. "Four bits!" Applejack said, "That's outrageous! They was three bits last week."

"Well, if you don't like it, go somewhere else."

Applejack stared at the clerk. "No counter?"

"Not for that," the pony said, not looking at the tall figure standing beside Applejack, "Besides, they say it eats ponies."

Applejack then leaned close. "Then that's a better reason to sell those cabbages," she whispered, "Maybe we kin git it ta stop." Bits and produce exchanged hooves.

"They think you - you cain't understand. Right now, that's probably a good thing."

Green beans were next. "So this is the newcomer. Always willing to see a new pony in Ponyville."

Applejack smiled worriedly.

"Ah, has it seen a doctor about it's ah, gland condition?" the seller whispered, "I mean it's so, tall."

"It's a mite skinny too," Applejack said, and noted a few more beans than paid for went into the bag the owner hooved over to the monster.

At the end of the chain of stalls, a scream rang out. Applejack was on the monster's heels as it charged towards the scream.

"Oh for Celestia's sake!" Applejack said of whom they found unconscious at the beet counter. "Sweetie Drops, ya better take her home." Applejack considered Lyra's 'weird obsession' for a moment. "When she wakes up, take her ta the Princess." Applejack looked at the monster. "You're not a human, are ya?"

The monster shrugged.

"Ask a silly question, Applejack," she shook her head and told herself.

In her quarters, 'Woona' crouched low and stared fearfully at Fluttershy.

"I think I may faint," Glory said as she entered with another 'soft and cute' pony. "Fluttershy, your Highness, this is Wind Listener, she's your third trainee."

"Uh, why did you pick her?" 'Woona' asked quietly, "If you don't want to say, that's all right too."

"Good," Fluttershy said, "Too much, and they get nervous."

"She meets the criterion," Glory said, as the new mare crouched beside her Highness's 'cute and cuddly' form. "And she's the chief instructor for all the guards' hand-to-hand combat instructors."

"Eep!" 'Woona' squeaked, and managed to bounce away from Wind Listener and under her bed, without getting out of her crouch.

"I'm not that bad," Fluttershy muttered.

The large basket was full, and the stash of bits was seriously diminished as they stopped before the house, and the monster carried the food inside. Applejack tried to unlock the control for the strap that held her, but a hoof was a poor tool for the job. As far as she leaned, she couldn't get her nose, or even her tongue next to the button without choking herself. She fumed a bit, until the creature returned, carrying a tiny box.

"Kin ya let me outta here?" she asked. He shook his head and slid the box into a slot in the wagon she hadn't noticed before. Suddenly, the inside of the cab filled with song. "Wagon with a music box, what'll they think of next?" She wasn't a big fan of the slow Canterlot stuff, or the noisy mess someponies liked. But this was different from either.

Singer sounds a little like pa: sad, worn, but not broke, not by a long shot, she thought as she let the music carry her away. She didn't need to understand the words, the sound and the tone told her more than the words would have. She sniffled a little as she listened. She was almost sorry to see him come back.

"Leave it on, please," she said, putting a hoof against his hand. He nodded and handed her a little box that the other box might fit in. It had lots of tiny words on it, and a picture of another monster like the one beside her. The weathered face, dark hair and all black clothes made her think of her pa again. She wasn't ashamed to keep crying.

"I know bows look adorable," Rarity said politely as she circled her 'trainees', "But the point is to be adorably dishabille, rather than disheveled opulence." She fearfully combed out her Highness' mane. "I'm sure you appreciate Fluttershy's natural cuteness. That's what you should strive for. Too much artifice and a wrong cloudburst will completely spoil the effect. You have to be heart-wrenching even if you are completely drenched."

"Thank you," 'Woona' said, as she nodded to Glory and Listener.

"Now Applebloom's bow makes her adorable, but on an older mare, it would just be immature." Rarity moved the adornment. " However, having that bow down at the middle of your mane, Glory Bell, and that makes you the ingenue. Too busy with her studies to follow fashion. And thus so in need of the kindness of others, when everything falls apart."

Glory glared at her fellow infiltrators who were snickering at her.

"Oh, I wish you'd let me take you to the spa. We could make this perfection. No stallion could resist you."

"We're trolling for monsters," Glory pointed out, "We have no idea if this stuff will have any effect, or he even finds ponies attractive."

"How couldn't he?" Rarity exclaimed in shock, "For the right pony."

"That's disgusting," Listener said. "This is all intel. We get in, we get info, and we get out. Her Highness has her mission, and we have ours."

Rarity frowned sympathetically. "You must live a very sad life, to never want to get out and impress," Rarity said woefully, then added, "And my ranking is three levels above yours. And while I am accused of being 'too dance-like', I am not impressed by appeals to ruffianism."

"She was willing to charge Nightmare Moon, to save her friend. We'll have no 'marshmallow' comments," a full-grown Luna said politely.

"Yes, Highness."

"Of course, your Highness. I was perhaps a bit strident," Rarity said and considered the soldier, "Perhaps a more tomboyish look. Not all the way to Rainbow Dash, but along the lines of an Applejack." Rarity paused and removed her glasses. "Oh dear, I'm advising a member of Canterlot society to willingly dress like Applejack. What is the world coming to?"

"We can accidently drop your card in his house," Glory said.

"Would you?!" Rarity said excitedly, "I really do appreciate it. His unEquestrian geometries must speak to bold lines and forceful presentation. You have no idea what a thrilling challenge that would be."

The three other mares exchanged worried glances.

Rarity noticed their discomfort. "Well, other designers would get their chance, later. But they would all be trying to catch up to ground Rarity had already trod, and masterfully so," Rarity said. "Oh, have you considered a cape to disguise your wings, your Highness, or a darling chapeau to disguise your horn?"

"I really think rassling with him was a bad idea now. Almost as bad as this idea," Applejack said as she looked up at the figure dangling in Fluttershy's grip, "If he's that big, and that light, he must break awful easy."

"He would've said," Big Mac said as they watched the team carefully nailing the gutter into place.

They'd used all of Miss Cheerilee's class to run the twenty-odd rachet straps to lift the rather delicate and unwieldy piece of metal to the edge of the barn. Then Fluttershy carried the monster aloft, while he fitted the gutter into the brackets, undid the kinks that the last three attempts to lift it had put in it, and nailed it in place. The yellow pegasus didn't seem to be straining at all. Some of the kids had remained behind to watch the operation.

Soon the job was done, and he began releasing the straps for the Cutie Mark Crusaders to pull down, and coil up. Fluttershy didn't seem to be coming down.

"Aren't they done?" Sweetie Belle asked as she looked up at the pegasus, "All the straps are back in the wagon."

"Uh, why didn't you ask Twilight and Rainbow Dash to do this?" Scootaloo asked, "Rainbow Dash could've done it easy!"

"Remember that birdhouse?" Big Mac said and escorted the fillies away from Applejack. "I think they're, inspecting," Big Mac said nervously, and avoided looking at his sister, whose orange color was heading towards burnt umber.

Before Applejack exploded, the pair headed down. Fluttershy looked like she was cuddling a pillow, not holding him aloft. She set him down and let go with an embarrassed squeak. Only the monster's confused expression cooled off Applejack.

"Mare thinks he's a bunny," Applejack said.

"Have you ever met Angel?" Applebloom asked.

Big Mac decided not to comment. The monster looked around, as if to ask 'what next'? Applejack looked to the threatening clouds, which had been getting worse all afternoon.

"I think Rainbow Dash went overboard on mixin' up a storm," Applejack said, then looked at the monster.

"Kin I hire him ta clean up mah room?" Applebloom asked, then looked at her siblings' expressions. "Or maybe not."

"Once we get those shingles in, I think we're done," Applejack said, "Except to introduce him to Lulu Belle and the others. And where is Winona? I ain't seen hide nor hair of her since this mornin'."

"Maybe she'sa scared of him," Applebloom offered. "He does smell kinda funny."

Applejack nodded. "Well, let's get that done, and get him paid, and see him home safe."

"Can we ride in the back of the wagon?" Scootaloo asked.

Applejack considered the ride, Scootaloo's normal scooter habits, and that they'd be riding with all the tools. "Maybe next time. Ya saw how he reacted to Pinkie playin' with his stuff."

"Aw." The Crusaders tried to cute Applejack into relenting. She looked at him, and he shook his head, pointing to the cab.

"Sorry, he's gotta place for folks up front. And it's not big enough for all three of you," Big Mac said, rescuing his sister from the onslaught. "Maybe after a while, or when the back's not full of tools."

"Like tomorrow?" they asked.

"Maybe," Big Mac said.

He pulled the truck in and hit the button on the remote that closed the garage door. If I don't get a hot soak tonight, I sure won't get anything done tomorrow. The only reason he didn't pour out of the cab was ride back had been enough to stiffen up his muscles. Note to self, quit showing off to creatures that are two- to four-hundred pounds of solid muscle. Got to get in better shape, he sighed and collected the keys and the cassette tape out of the player.

So the farm pony likes Johnny Cash, is that irony, cliche or coincidence? he thought, And pigs can't talk. I think I nearly killed the little ones by trying to talk to the pigs. Their laughter sounds almost human, like the other little ones' screams yesterday, but the speech, all I can get is the tone of voice, nothing intelligible.

In the bathroom he adjusted the blinds to obscure the constant observers' view and peeled off the dirty clothing while the bath ran as hot as he could stand. "Great, if they do this all the time, I'm gonna die by the end of the week. I don't think I'm going out tomorrow, even if their rulers show up."

Sergeant Mile Stone checked his watch as the last of the lights in the house went off. "He's turning in rather early."

"I doubt either one of us would be so different," Shining Armor said, "After working a day on a farm pony's ranch."

The sergeant looked up at the sky. "I do wish the weather team had shown less enthusiasm. I rather like this town. I'd like it to still be here day after tomorrow."

"From what they said, they needed all those clouds for the lightning and thunder. The rain shouldn't be too bad," Armor said.

"Says the captain with the defense shield," Mile Stone said, "Some of us only have our issue gear to keep us dry."

"You can go back to Canterlot, wonderful sunny weather there."

"And who would keep all you shiny, young officers out of trouble?" Mile Stone added, "Some shiny new Prince/Princess-lieutenant would march down there 'we're here to haul you before Celestia', drag the poor creature out of his home, and in front of her Highness. I think we can imagine how well that would go."

"But you'd have to follow the orders of that shiny, Prince/ess-Lieutenant," Armor pointed out.

"Not if the monster obviously drove the dear lad insane. Poor thing, put a cordon around it until their Highnesses can deal with it. Send the poor, deranged royal to the country to count pigeons, until he's all better."

Shining Armor stared at him. "I'm not letting you in the same room as Cadence, without an armed guard."

"I am an armed guard, sir." He came to attention and saluted. "She's also one of the few who'd actually listen to her soldiers. But that isn't what's bothering you."

"What is it, how did it get here, what does it want, why isn't it demanding to go back?"

"Hard to demand anything when you can't really ask. It wants to survive, like the rest of us. The first two, I have no idea, but they're the least important. For a soldier. We have to deal with what it can do, not what it is doing. It is also painfully aware that the full might of an alien nation is poised above its head, like a sword hung by a hair. It will behave itself."

"But how will it look at us for doing this?" Armor asked.

"For letting it decide who comes and goes from its home, for letting it go escorted where it needs to. You've been the one guarded, Captain, how did that feel?"

"I hated every second of it," Armor answered, "But I learned to live with it. I think that's why Luna was so eager to take the field. Get out where things are really happening, instead of where you sit on a padded cushion and let ponies bring reality to you."

"Hence you standing in the mud, staring out at a creature, wondering what is it going to do next."

"So that's what it's thinking?" Armor asked Mile Stone.

"That's what I hope it's thinking. If it isn't, how strange the Elements of Harmony are so close at hand."

"Their Highnesses think of everything," Armor said sardonically.

"He's late," Luna said. The scholars had drawn up an approximate activity schedule based on their limited observations. It had slept most of the day, and its late afternoon start had destroyed the accuracy of that schedule.

"It skipped breakfast and lunch," one of the technical officers reported as another station reported the shed doors were opening. "Trackers are ready, it looks like it's headed into Ponyville."

"Keep an eye on it. I think the storm will break soon, and we need to be ready," Luna said. "Have Armor and Mile Stone gone to 'talk' with Rover Bill?"

"They leave in two hours, Highness," Lieutenant Peaceful Solitude said, "Shouldn't be a long talk."

Spike was reshelving the books that Twilight had removed during the last night's study binge when the door to the library opened and closed. Spike trotted over to see who had arrived, and froze. "You, you, you're the monster everyone's been talking about?" he managed.

The creature stared at him as it straightened out from the crouch needed for coming through the door. It considered, then shrugged. Spike looked around.

"Are you here to steal our books?" he asked fearfully.

The creature advanced towards Spike, who put the main table between himself and the monster.

I wonder if I could get a letter off to Celestia, Spike thought as the creature opened its jacket, and reached inside. Please help, somebody! he thought.

Then it set a book on the table, and opened it so Spike could see the contents. It set a collection of bits beside the book, and gestured at the library.

"I don't think that's enough to buy the whole thing. At least not if Twilight's being reasonable."

It pointed at the shelves again, more insistently. Spike touched the open book. "You want one like this one," he said, but only saw confusion. "Okay, hang on a second." Spike trotted over to the reference section and collected a picture dictionary like what he was guessing the book the monster had was. The smile told him he'd guessed right.

The creature pointed to the bits, then a map of Ponyville hung from the wall.

"You don't want to check it out, you want to buy one," Spike realized, then a thought occurred to him.

Where's that bow? he thought as he searched the odds and ends Twilight kept.

"Ah ha," he said as he found it. He touched the book, and pushed the bits away, placing the bow on top of the picture dictionary. When the monster pointed defiantly at the bits, Spike growled, pointed to himself and pointed at the bow. "Take your present or take off," he said.

The monster held up his hands and relented. He scooped up his book and the bits, then paused and handed over two bits to Spike, before leaving. Spike grinned and raced over to the counter. "Let's see, Dear Twilight Sparkle," he said as he wrote.

The door of the library burst in as Twilight ran into the main room. "The monster was here! Did it take any books? Did it talk to you?" She didn't stop as she circled through the main room, looking from Spike to the books in panic. "How could I have been so foolish to leave at such a time?!"

"Twilight," Spike said as his friend looked at the shelves.

"What if it saw my library wasn't good enough?"

"Twilight." He glanced over at Owlicious who was watching Twilight run around checking things.

"Maybe it doesn't understand how the library is organized! Maybe it left despairing of getting any help from us!"

"TWILIGHT!" he tried for the Royal Canterlot voice, to no avail.

"A second chance and I completely failed! Luna will banish me back to Canterlot! Celestia will send me back to my parents!"

He pulled the scroll he'd prepared earlier, and made a belching sound. "Oh look, it's a letter, maybe from Princess Celestia."

"Oh no!" she shouted and pulled it out of his hand. "DearTwilightSparkle, sincethemonstercameinandwaslookingforapicturedictionary, I thought we could go find a couple of the best ones, and perhaps some books on teaching the deaf to read.

Then give them to the monster as a present.

It will show him that no one in all Equestria knows more about books than my friend Twilight Sparkle.

Your Number One Assistant, Spike."

She blinked away the tears and walked over to nuzzle the dragon. "Thanks Spike, I can always depend on you."

"Why are you so nervous about this?" Spike asked.

Twilight sighed. "I'm Celestia's student, and here's this huge opportunity to study friendship, magic, all kinds of things, and Princess Luna basically told me to go home and wait."

"Don't you think Princess Luna knows what she's doing?"

"Oh course she does. But lately, I've been the one who solves things for Princess Celestia. And the biggest thing to hit Ponyville since Discord, and I'm supposed to stay out of it?"

"Discord wasn't a good thing," Spike pointed out, "And you fought Discord, and Nightmare Moon. I don't think fighting is the best way here. And don't you think Princess Luna deserves a chance to prove herself to Celestia?"

"I hadn't thought of that," Twilight admitted, "I guess I was being pretty selfish. Saving the World is Twilight Sparkle's job!" She hung her head. "And we made fun of Dash being arrogant."

Spike patted her head. "You made a mistake. Now we can make things right. Twilight, it's been here a couple of days. That house isn't leaving. Luna will start the work, and not let you, but expect you, and the others will finish." He triumphantly held up a parchment. "I have a scroll here, ready for Princess Celestia, explaining what happened. All it needs is the list of books the monster needs. I bet she can have the books delivered within the hour." He handed the scroll over to Twilight. She unrolled it.

"There's only seven lines here," Twilight gasped, "What about -"


"Kidding!" The mare smiled. "Let's pick seven, and I can come up with a list for follow ups."

"Right," Spike said.

"Spike, how did you meet Sergeant Mile Stone?" Twilight asked as they walked through the cordon, Twilight's saddle bags heavy with books.

"He was always around the palace. Gave me some tips on being a proper batmare. 'You must correctly guess what your officer needs, before she knows she needs it'," Spike mimicked the noncom's accent. "He's pretty reasonable."

"Yeah." She looked around worriedly. The monster was sitting there, in one of the large chairs facing the glass doors. Spike waved. The replying wave was a bit subdued.

"Remember, Twi, just hoof over the books. Then the map to the library. I attached a library card to it."

"He knows where the library is," Twilight whispered, "And we never bother with the library cards." She nervously smiled at the monster.

"Twilight, humor me. A non-pony, explaining to a pony."

"Hello," she said as he opened the door.

"Hi, we've got your books," Spike said happily and began unloading Twilight's saddle bags. The monster accepted the first two books, but held up one finger.

"I never agreed to that," Spike said, and put the bow on the next book he pulled out. He soon transferred all seven Twilight had picked, plus the two Celestia had added herself. The monster set them back inside, and returned carrying a book that would extend over the tops of most of the tables in the library.

Twilight froze at the sight of it, and memories of the images and music she'd seen. The monster opened the book to show them. Twilight found herself afraid of a book, for the first time in her life.

"Wow, pictures," Spike said, "Pictures of pictures. Um, this is a loan, right?" Spike asked as he tried to fit the huge book into Twilight's saddle bags, it was much too large.

"Thank you," Twilight managed, and got a smile and nod in return.

Spike heard the first rumble of the thunderstorm Rainbow and the weather team had spent days constructing. He glanced around the library, and at the list they'd prepared. "Twilight, is everything ready for the storm?"


"Twilight?" he called and headed down the stairs.

In one of the rooms off the main hall, Twilight stood before the book the monster had lent them. She appeared to be making funny faces at it. Owlicious stood on a perch watching her.


"Oh, hi Spike, is everything ready for the storm?"

"I think we should take one last look around. What were you doing?"

She looked at him and stepped away from the book. "There's this picture in the book. It's just a portrait of a monster, but . . . there's something about that smile. What was it thinking, smiling like that?"

Spike looked at the picture. "When it learns to write and read Equestrian, you can ask. I bet that printing down there explains all about it."

"Maybe, it might just be the painter's name. I found that set of characters all over this book. Including one of a naked monster and all kinds of other nearly scientific diagrams. I think this is a picture book about an art museum. A record of what's there."

"Well, it's a start."

The thunder sounded outside. "We'd better do a last check of the library," Spike and Twilight said together, and laughed.

Luna appeared in the observation post, and looked around. "Where is everypony?"

"Your Highness," the mail pegasus said as she entered the roofed over post. "Did you get your invitation to the party at the monster's house?"

"My WHAT?!"

He'd ridden the bike to the signpost and back several times. Trying to work the kinks out and getting some time outside to think, before the brewing storm made it impossible. That storm is going to dump a truckload of rain, he thought as he headed back to the house, and noted many of the observation posts were dark. Guess they know weather better than I do, he thought as he saw the first strokes of lightning flash from cloud to cloud. The thunder was near deafening. He ignored the garage and headed right to the front door. Great time for the power to quit working, he thought as he walked the bike up the darkened walkway, Well, when all that meat thaws, the buzzards are gonna get a healthy lunch pretty soon after.

He unlocked the door and pushed it open. The lights came on and dozens of ponies standing in his living room shouted.

He slammed the door, feverishly relocked it and raced away.

Pinkie managed to get the door open. "Hey! When we yell 'surprise' you aren't supposed to surprise us!" She looked around and wondered where he'd gotten to so fast.

"WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?" sounded, followed by a huge thunder clap.

Pinkie turned. "Ah, surprise?" Pinkie offered to Princess Luna, who seemed about 90% of the way back to being Nightmare Moon. The team of three mares the princess had teleported in with glared at the crowd. Pinkie fell back on her haunches and tried to draw away from the furious princess.

Luna spoke calmly, several inches from Pinkie's face, letting the mare alone see the fury that boiled in her eyes. "Wind Listener, find Shining Armor and Sergeant Mile Stone, I wish to know what insanity has suddenly afflicted my troops. Derpy Hooves, contact Rainbow Dash, have them cancel this thrice-damned storm immediately. Glory Belle, assemble the observers and sterilize this place. Anything the observer teams did not see, have it removed. Anything that has been moved a hair's-breadth, have it replaced, every scrap of paper, every stick of furniture, every goblet, plate and trinket."

"Yes, your Highness!" the three mares shouted and set to their tasks.

"Pinkamena Diane Pie, you will return to Sugarcube Corners, by the most expeditious route. And you will remain there as the other Element Bearers assemble. You will not leave there without my express, personal approval, even if the sun and moon explode." Luna put her mouth near Pinkie's ear and whispered, "And if you think Nightmare Moon was a source of fear and terror, you have forgotten I stood with Celestia as we battled Discord, alone."

Pinkie had backed up to the wall, and now vanished.

Luna reined in her anger and turned to the assembled ponies. "Return to your homes, before the storm worsens, go," she said far more calmly than she felt.

Luna stepped out in the walkway and looked at the approaching wall of pouring rain and the lightning. She could extend her power, and see the trail he'd left, but she looked back into the house as the Ponyville ponies scrambled to leave, and the observation teams filed in to restore what had been disturbed. She allowed herself a single tear of helpless, infuriated frustration, before schooling herself to be the austere leader her troops needed.

All right 'Tia, I failed, but perhaps you can succeed, she thought, and sent the message off to her sister.

"You over did it Dashie?" Applejack finished toweling off as she asked the weather pegasus, who laughed nervously and ran a hoof through her drenched mane.

"Where's Twilight?" Rarity asked as she looked around Sugar Cube Corners. Pinkie was hiding in a corner, doing a credible Fluttershy imitation.

"I had to cast the spell to find him. And to track which way he went," Twilight said as she entered, she began removing her rain-gear. "He started towards Everfree."

"Oh no!" Rarity swooned.

"Fortunately, he saw the storm and turned around, and headed down the road to Canterlot," Twilight continued, "Unfortunately, that's where the storm is heading. He stopped, but what that means, I don't know."

"So, are you going out in this storm?" Fluttershy asked, and received a thunder clap as an answer. Fluttershy whimpered from under a table.

"No, Twilight Sparkle," Luna said as she entered, seemingly untouched by the rain pouring down outside. "I will find the lost one. You will decide on your friend's punishment."

"What did Pinkie do?"

"Stripped away the last skein of normality our visitor had, before a new web of bonds and friendships could be woven," Luna said tiredly, "You have wondered why I languished in Canterlot a year, before I ventured forth. Because I could not face the world that had become, and because I grieved for the world I had lost. Even as Nightmare Moon, I had friends and loyal servants who sought to return Luna to whom she had been. All are dust now, and even Celestia does not know their names or their deeds. Isolation was for his salvation, not his damnation. That has been violated, and without a dark deed, he is lost."

"What dark deed is that?" Twilight asked.

"Our original plan, was to make him think we three fillies were caught by the storm," Luna explained, her slow, careful delivery and the fatigue etched on her features worried the others. "So we could trust him with our lives, when we were apparently totally at his mercy. Now my sister and I must cause him to think that what happened, was just a nightmare caused by the storm. That the loss of his last refuge was a mirage, and not reality."

"Ah don't like lyin'," Applejack said.

"We need not your approval. Only your silence," Luna said sharply. Then she explained, "In the days ahead, when he stands on steady ground again, we will permit you to reveal the deception and your opposition, and the blame will fall on us. But he will be whole, sane and alive to condemn or forgive."

"I don't understand," Rarity said.

Luna smiled briefly, and seemed to warm with the tale. "The forgiveness you offered, so freely, so honestly, now is a balm to my soul, and I treasure every moment of it." Then the weariness returned. "But in the weeks following my return, even my sister's love was like vitriol, burning at my soul and my memories. I would have welcomed an ending, no matter what agonies, my pain was so great. Now, I can see that I survived, that I am loved. That is what we must do for him. He has been here but a few days, and can dismiss this all as a fever dream. It was a week before I fully accepted what had befallen me, and my descent into a different madness than Nightmare Moon began in earnest, and not even Celestia could arrest my collapse." She smiled happily. "Perhaps if Celestial Dill or Shamrock Dasher had been with me, I would not have despaired so deeply. You have forged bonds with him already. When he falls, you must bear him up. He may cry, he may rage, he may quietly turn his fury on himself. He may do all of them, or something else. Be afraid of him, but be afraid for him. Even I, remembered ponies, and had my sister. He will be alone in ways none of us can even conceive. You Twilight and you Applejack, have seen as I have, a taste of the darkness he may unleash. Some of it creates great beauty and cunning tools, some creates only death. It is a tension in his soul, and he believes, the soul of all his kind, that the 'monster' can be tamed to do good, to fight injustice, and to bring beauty into the world. Or it can ravage and destroy. In some few ponies, that same spirit exists. Some fell afoul of 'the alicorn sisters' in ancient days. Some stand in this room, even now."

Each of the Bearers shuddered as Luna's eye fell on them.

"You have your orders." Luna faced Pinkie Pie. "When your punishment is assigned, my ban shall be lifted," Luna said and stepped out into the storm.

"Well," Rarity said, "I actually think I have the most appropriate punishment for our dear Pinkie Pie." She laughed at Pinkie's terrified expression.

Luna paused only long enough to hear the cry of torment torn from a distraught soul, before she took a form she rarely used. This form most resembled Celestia and she thought it her most beautiful, but too many would see only Nightmare Moon. She found the cave where he had fled from both the loss of his home, and from the weather that had seemed to have pursued him like a ravening beast. The white and pink alicorns who waited outside nodded to her. She nodded back, and they followed her inside. No fire. No light. Just a creature too much like herself to abandon. He didn't even react until she practically touched him.

He turned suddenly, but Luna was too quick, her horn touched his forehead. "Remember dreams," she said and caught him as he crumbled. She stepped aside for the others.

"Remember sanctuary."

"Remember new friends." Then Cadence smiled and touched her horn to Luna's.

"Break the storm up, now we need it," Rainbow complained as she and the weather team raced through the skies of Ponyville, and tried to corral the last clouds with any real reserves of lightning.

"Quit complaining rookie," Spitfire told her, "At least the Princess told you why we're performing this insanity. All I got were orders." The Wonderbolt captain raced after a cloud that had just zapped Derpy, and would give a few more, good shots.

The screams woke him from a sound sleep. Though he wasn't sure what had jolted him awake, he was glad of it. "First she bites me, then she invades with an army, that pink one is a menace. I hope the others keep her at a distance when I'm awake, or in small doses. What kind of maniac weathers a deadfall, then gleefully leaps into not one snare, but two? She'd probably clear a minefield by jumping on each one." He looked around and suppressed the shudder. "Okay, I know it's hard to tell dreams from reality in this place, but it was just a dream."

Another thunderclap, louder than before, and another cry. He walked through the house, stumbling into walls as he moved. The lightning flashes had destroyed his night vison and the rude awakening had disrupted his balance. He looked through the small door in the door at three fillies, and the soldier from the first day. The white one was comforting the smaller blue one, while the `tomboy-pony` was trying, and failing to look tough and unaffected. The soldier looked disheveled and a tad disgusted.

A flash of lightning revealed all the observation posts on that side were unroofed.

"Well, if you have to spy on me, it might as well be from inside," he told them through the door. "Just wait there a second." He headed to the garage and opened the door, while he laid out some carpet scraps he used to wipe his feet after working in the yard. The four ponies ran into the light, and he closed the garage door behind them. He stepped on the carpet, and mimed wiping their feet. The three fillies dutifully wiped their feet, and walked into the laundry room. The solider wiped his hooves, but sat down on the steps.

"Come on Sir Galahad, you can be noble by not giving me a sick pony to deal with." He jerked a thumb towards the entrance.

The pony gave what sounded like an apology as he walked in. The four ponies crowded in the small space all looked at him.

"You know, I think I realize what you remind me of. Those awful OVAs that Hasbro put out in 2006," he said as he pulled some large rags from the cabinets, "Somehow I don't think having somebody under military surveillance would fit in with constant tea parties." Their horns glowed and they were quickly drying each other off.

He sighed and headed off to get the guest room ready. The storm was getting worse. He pulled the mattresses off the beds, none of the beds were stressed to handle the weight of a pony, let alone several. Then he walked to the family room to shove a couple couches together to give the soldier somewhere to sleep.

"Okay, ladies in here," he pointed to the guest room with the mattresses on the floor. "You, sir, follow me." He led the officer into the family room. A particularly loud thunder blast shook the house. He looked back and the soldier was seated, eyes wide and trembling.

"It's just thunder. You'd think with the ability to move stuff, someone would have come up with a way to control the weather." Then it hit him. "You can, but some storms are just too big, aren't they. This thunder boomer comes out of the ocean, like a Pineapple Express, and dumps on you." He looked around the room. He shuddered, remembering the balloons and streamers and all the party paraphernalia that had filled it. "Okay, no more of their tea before sack time." There was another blast, and the thundering of hooves, and now four terrified mini-horses were staring at him.

"Okay, this is ridiculous. I'm going to bed." As he walked back to his room, the ponies followed, carrying by mouth or magic, or both, the bedding he'd laid out for them. The fillies kept staring, the soldier stood near the door way and tried desperately to be 'stiff-upper' lip.

"Look, several hundred megawatts of weapons-grade cute aren't getting you to sleep on my bed. You ponies are just too heavy."

The stares continued. "Okay, fine." He barely touched the mattress before it glowed and landed on the floor. "I swear, tomorrow I get rid of all the soap and shampoo I brought from Earth. It's got to have pony-nip in it or something." He lay down and had all the ponies crowd in around him. "I just hope it isn't the laundry detergent," he said as he pulled the covers over him and went to sleep.

Luna smirked as her charge slipped beyond the walls of sleep, and she began a deep and intense scan. Every pathogen, every allergen was compared and cataloged. She sighed with relief that there was nothing too serious that would threaten either her people, or him.

Wind Listener detached herself from the mare's nest of bodies, and nudged Mile Stone awake at his spot near the door. The sergeant silently followed her out of the room, and into the kitchen.

"Sergeant, what does that thing smell like to you?" she asked.

"If we're playing a riddle game," the sergeant replied, "I'm having a cuppa." He reared up, and carefully pushed and turned the knob on the stove. Then quietly dropped back down.

"Please answer the question," she repeated.

"Like the sea, after a storm, I guess. Is this relevant?" he asked.

"It smells to me like a field of blooming clover," she replied wistfully, then shook her head. "Sergeant, I've smelled the sea after a storm. It and a field of clover blossoms smell nothing alike."

"We are still in riddle territory," the sergeant said as he considered how to get some mugs.

"You grew up in a fishing village I'll bet."

"What of it?" he asked

She grinned. "That's what it smells like. It smells safe."

"Some trick?" he asked with alarm, "To get us off our guard?"

"Exact wrong direction. I don't think it realized it, until now. But I'm saying we use that. Get all the Canterlot bigwigs down here to meet it. Not the fluff and feathers, the real powers, the movers and the shakers."

"Still in riddle territory, I'm afraid." He opened the box that seemed to clean the dishes, and extracted two tea mugs.

"It's been mirror-imaging what we do. I use it all the time to teach students how to fight Griffons, and Diamond Dogs. I have to move and act as they do, so the students know how to react. So they know that a flat stare from a griffon means something completely different from the flat stare of a pony. Besides, half the game is using body language to say 'I'm in charge and you aren't'. That prevents the fight."

"It's been nice, because we've been nice. It's seemed clever, because it solves a problem in a way we wouldn't. Not that the problem is difficult, but we didn't see how it did it."

"Exactly. We get them here, to see it's safe, and it will start acting safe, because we expect it to be safe. Both of we and it will remember it can be dangerous, but it'll be more like a guard dog than a timberwolf. That's why it's isolated, let it feel safe," she said and grinned, "It uses tools, not magic. It's been trained to think in terms of 'what tool solves what job'. It can't use magic. It's a weakling and a lightweight. I could teach a foal how to beat it in a fight. It depends on devices for everything. So we're all amazed that this 'earth pony-like' creature can spin magic like an alicorn. That's because it has had to. Machines for everything, and with more machines comes more skills you have to learn."

"With more skills come more options. You can't go over a wall or around it, you go over. If you can't do that, you go under."

"Or through," Wind Listener said, "The first thing it did when threatened was kill. But Applejack did a lot more physical contact than the Diamond Dogs did, yet it tickled her, why?"

"Because it knew she was just playing, and that someone, either soldiers or her brother would intervene if it was hurt."

"And she'd stop," she said. "That's what the Princess has been doing." She saw a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "I'm not telling you anything you didn't already know."

"A few connections her Highness hasn't made. But overall, what we have trained for." He looked at the hot black, coiled rods of the stove. "Their Highnesses have considered it. Windigos, Draconequi are legends that everyone knows about. Dragons, griffons, and even pegasi and unicorns were the same." He poured them each a cup of tea and shut off the stove. "The plans and lessons-learned may have been hoof-deep in dust, but they were there."

Wind Listener nodded and opened one of the cold boxes. She shut it a moment later, very gently. She stared at him, and in a very controlled voice explained, "I think I can confirm it is a meat-eater."

"Is there somepony in there?" he asked.

She blinked. "Yes, Prince Blueblood."

Mile Stone bowed his head. "Terrible tragedy, will be sorely missed. If only we'd explained things in time." He raised his head. "But, mustn't let one, small cultural misstep get in the way of true interspecies friendship and cooperation."

"It's just, I'm pretty sure they are cuts of meat. Packaged and frozen." She steadied herself. "Kind of a shock when you were looking for milk for your tea."

He carefully placed the empty teacup beside the sink. "You want a mystery, figure out: how this is running? Where's the water coming from, and, where is the sewage going?" he asked.

Wind Listener looked horrified.

3) Disasters in the Offing

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Cultural Artifacts - Disasters in the Offing

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 5

"Captain," Sergeant Mile Stone said, his helmet in his hoof, and was holding his salute. "I believe I've made a bad situation worse."

Armor was instantly awake. "You released Discord and she's fallen in love with Celestia." He focused on the building he was waking up in, and the early hour.

"That might be more controllable," Mile Stone said miserably

"Didn't you just leave the monster's house?" Armor asked as he put the timeline together in his head.

"I lagged behind, and encountered Miss Pie, as we moved past the first observation posts."

"What happened?" Armor said calmly.

"Ooo a flashback!" Pinkie said happily, "You're going to tell somepony about this later?"

Sergeant Mile Stone decided he was going to stay on message. "Miss Pinkie Pie, the reason that her Highness punished you, was that our new guest needs to feel secure." He pointed to the house in the distance, now dark since their host had given his guests some morning tea, a bit of toast, and verified the storm was over, before letting them out and returning to bed. "On that first night, he set up those traps -"

"They were so fun!" She bounced eagerly. "And so hard to win! I got my back legs caught in a lasso. Do you how hard it was to get my forelegs caught in another?" She sniffled. "Then, when I didn't even see the third one, he didn't give me another turn before he set me up outside. Is that fair?" she asked, her eyes watering.

"Miss Pie, he was hoping to catch the Diamond Dogs, before they hurt him," the sergeant said reasonably.

"But, weren't your soldiers already here?" she asked curiously.

"He didn't know that," the sergeant said, "He also didn't know he could rely on us."

He saw comprehension dawn. "So, I shouldn't have tried to throw a party while he didn't know," she said carefully.

"Exactly. Once he feels more secure, both with himself and with the ponies around him, he might feel more amenable. Although a party within his home would undoubtedly be forbidden for the foreseeable future."

"So we need to prove he can trust us to protect him?" She saluted. "Got it! Roger dodger over and out!"

"Yes, but -" the sergeant realized he was addressing the open air. Then the pink blur returned.

"Are you gonna end this with a wipe or a dissolve?" she asked then looked around. "Ooo, now that's new!" she added as she disappeared again.

"That doesn't tell me anything, sergeant," Captain Armor said as they entered the main observation post.

"According to the notes she left Peaceful Solitude, she used Applejack's 'Baked Bads' recipe to prepare, well, you'd better look." He pointed a hoof at the tripod-mounted binoculars. The other observers were as rattled as the sergeant by what they were seeing.

"Sweet Celestia's mercy," Armor said as he swung the optics around. Scattered all over the grounds outside the house were platters of something like cookies. Only a couple per plate, but the plates were on every possible line of advance where a flat space existed. There was a clear cover or clear wrapping over each. Attached to each one was a sign clearly stating 'Free Cookies for Diamond Dogs' and it was signed with a smiling Pinkie Pie face.

"That, that, that," Armor stammered as he waved a hoof at it.

"- looks like a minefield, sir?" Sergeant Mile Stone said, "I do believe it is. And is intended to be."

Armor stared in horror, then said, "You've got sappers out dealing with them? Then we'll need to test them."

"Princess Buttercup was out with 'an' team from the capitol soon after Princess Luna and her group had their dawn pick-me-up and almost immediately after the placement. Her Highness Buttercup sampled one, turned each color of the rainbow, individually and distinctly, and vented a considerable amount of steam out of her ears. Twenty minutes later, Nurse Redheart informed her Highness Luna that Princess Buttercup was going to live. Upon hearing this, Princess Buttercup's lamentations were vocal, interestingly foul, and covered all manner of physiological and, ah, recreational proclivities of the maker of the cookies. Some of which were physically impossible prior to the arrival of our friend out there."

"Sir! There's one INSIDE the house!" an observer called as the lights marked the inhabitant's movements within.

They stared in horror as their 'guest' approached the plate sitting in the breakfast nook. He took one look at the sign and gave the plate a wide-berth.

"She built a monster-proof minefield," Mile Stone said in admiration.

"Just leave them?" Armor asked, "Except that one."

"Just leave them," Mile Stone agreed, "I'll call on him in a bit and get approval to send a sapper in to remove just that one."

Armor looked at Mile Stone. "Sometimes I wonder who is the alien around here. The Element Bearers, or our friend out there."

Luna stood quietly. The morning had gone well, despite the earlier 'cookie mines' panic. And it was about to get infinitely better. All right, her heart is in the right place and I will forgive her, Luna thought of Pinkie Pie's carefully placed and marked defense system, Especially since she's given me back control of the situation. She directed a bored stare at the royal white unicorn stallion before her. Because stomping him into the ground would be politically unwise.

"Your Highness, I must protest this action in the strongest possible terms."

Calling this officious officer a jackass is a slur again jackasses, Luna thought of the nobles' chief spy who'd been thrust upon her.

"Your protest has been noted and logged," Luna said, "In the two days you and your troops have been here, you have abandoned your posts, on the word of a civilian."

"Your own troops also abandoned their posts," the officer said.

"My own troops will be reeducated on the proper chain of command," Luna said, "It would clearly be wasted on the officer who led them into error, Major Grass Lights." Luna forced herself not to grin as the idiot shied as if she'd struck him. "Then another officer leading a contingent managed to poison herself on a clearly labeled set of defensive emplacements. I am therefore sending you back to the capital. For your own safety. Any further troops will either be vetted by me or my designee, or I will personally feed them to the monster to ensure his carefully husbanded supplies of animal protein do not fall below safe levels. Good day to you Major."

Don't let my hoof hit you on the way out, she thought.

"Captain Armor, assemble a detail to ensure the major and his troops don't injure themselves on the way to the train station. Then see to it that they all are tucked in safely aboard the train when it leaves. That is a direct, royal order."

"Understood your Highness," Armor said, saluted and glanced to the detail he'd already picked out. Some of whom were on punishment detail for the debacle of the party. "After you, Major."

"Don't grin too much, Armor. Celestia still rules this land," the Major said.

"That is correct, sir, but we both have our orders," Armor replied. He followed the major and his despondent 'help' back through Ponyville and out of Luna's mane and tail.

The Carousel Boutique rang with the cry of, "But Rarity, why?!" Pinkie Pie hugged Rarity's legs as the mare drew up the guest list and the design for the invitations.

Applejack distracted herself by looking at the manikins in Rarity's shop. She kept silent on her opinion of the fashions displayed there. She was staring at the bipedal manikin that Rarity had called her in to advise on.

"Well, darling, I'd never want to burden you with having a hand in creating such a dreadfully boring party," Rarity said, "Hmm, how does one say 'Royal Command Performance', without saying it."

"Put both crowns on there, Celestia's and Luna's, and circle'em," Applejack offered.

"Can't I do anything?" Pinkie wailed.

"Certainly, you can accept your punishment like a good mare and wish us well on a proper, extremely boring welcome party."

"WAHHH!" Pinkie offered.

Rarity looked at Applejack, who nodded, and took pity on their friend. "Besides, aren't you going to be too busy organizing the 'After-cleanup' party today?" Rarity asked.

"Ooo! I forgot." Even the departing speed lines were pink. "Thanks Rarity!" Pink again. "If I can be any help?"

"No, darling. Princess's orders."

Pink speed lines. Door closed.

Door opened. Rainbow-colored speed lines.

"Pinkie Pie! Oh, Rainbow Dash, problems?" Rarity asked.

"Why aren't I invited to this shindig? Aren't I good enough for your fancy-shmancy party?" Rainbow accused.

Rarity smiled. "You weren't invited, because the Wonderbolts didn't want to be invited and courtesy demands one of us should be their guide around town. Oh dear, and I so thought you'd like the job. I'm sure Derpy or Fluttershy -"

"Nope, sorry, just needed it explained," Rainbow said as she raced off. "Wahooo!"

"I think I know who the Princess was talkin' about last night."

"She was talking about all of us, Applejack. We had no idea what the Elements would do against Nightmare Moon, yet we used them. We knew what the Elements did to Discord, and if he was aware all that time, we imprisoned him again in unmoving stone. It's why she tasked us to watch him. Because we have a taint of that too."

"I never killed nopony."

"Then what happened to Nightmare Moon, if she and Luna are separate beings?" Rarity asked, "It's something we need to be aware of, not dwell on."

"So do I have to attend this fancy shindig?" Applejack asked.

"Well, you are his friend, and you and the Cakes are providing all the food. So you should be there to accept the accolades."

Applejack rolled her eyes, but left Rarity to plan. Applejack stared at the manikin again. "Ah, Rarity, he don't bend like that."

Luna had assembled the observation team and the Element Bearers for a 'working brunch'. They sat in Sugarcube Corners and heard Wind Listener's theories. It ruined almost everyone's appetite.

"That is an excellent deduction," Princess Luna said. The soldier grinned at her Highness's approval.

"That low-down," Applejack started to grumble, then noted Luna's smile and healthy appetite, "You knew."

"I apologize," Luna said as she dabbed at some crumbs, "Princess Cadence warned me that I was too tense. That I would never carry off the necessary, impetuous attitude. So she placed a spell not on him, but on me, so I would feel safe, that I would smell what I remembered in my heart was safety and love." She smirked at Pinkie. "If you ever tasted my sister's blueberry muffins, you'd swear off cupcakes forever."

"Never, your Highness," Pinkie insisted respectfully.

Luna frowned. "Of course, the bakers and functionaries of Canterlot would never allow her to indulge her passion that way. A treat, lost a millennium past." Luna sighed happily. "But it spoke to me of my sister's care, to me, and those few she loved that way." She bowed her head. "I apologize. If I'd known it would have affected you as well, I wouldn't have risked it. But he did need us that night. To know that we could be at his mercy, and that we knew he would not hurt us."

"So, if you knew, and you wanted him to know you knew, but did you know that he didn't know you knew, or did you know he knew that you didn't know you knew he didn't know?" Pinkie asked.

Little swirlies replaced the eyes of the entire group, save Luna. "Yes, in the fullness of time."

"Okay," Pinkie replied, "Now I'm confused."

"Applejack, your feelings, and Fluttershy, your feelings, are completely your own. No ponyelse's. No magic elixir to wipe away your responsibility for feeling the way you do."

"Beg pardon, your Highness," Applejack said, "But I don't rightly know how I feel. He's friendly, useful, and determined, but after what happened, I don't know."

"And what exactly happened?" Luna said. Applejack chewed her lip and couldn't answer.

"Isn't anyone nervous that after the pony team left, he disappeared back into the house and hasn't come out?" Fluttershy asked. She smiled uneasily at the others.

Twilight and Luna began discussing, with Applejack and Fluttershy occasionally interjecting.

"Wait a minute," Rainbow insisted, "He arrives from wherever, with his house. Rescues two fillies, kills one Diamond Dog, wounds another, bluffs his way into the hospital, and then has a run in with Pinkie here, when he's expecting Diamond Dogs."

Pinkie giggled.

"Then the next day, he has to play foal-sitter all day, with occasional bursts of Twilight. Then the next day, he works for slavedriver all day, and fights off another package of Diamond Dogs. Takes the morning off to rest, runs his little 'peace-offering to Twilight' gambit, and then, has a very bad experience," Rainbow said the last in Pinkie's face. "Runs his machine half-way to the Everfree, then a third of the way to Canterlot, in the stormiest storm any weather team has ever constructed, and you eggheads are amazed he might want to just sleep in?" Rainbow Dash scoffed. "All that would be a stretch even for me. I'm surprised he isn't dead after all that."

"He might be sick," Derpy suggested. "We should check on him."

"No, Princess Luna would have fixed that. That was the whole point of sneaking in there," Rainbow said, "After all they said, just give him a day off, if he wants to take one. Ponyville didn't suffer any serious damage. The school's running. Just let the poor guy sleep."

"Ah thought you didn't like him," Applejack said.

"Just 'cause I think he's weird and creepy, that doesn't mean I expect him up and kickin' flank every single day. If the Princess says he needs to feel safe, give the guy a day off."

"I hate to agree," Glory said, "But while you did deal with the anxiety and any diseases, your Highness. You haven't mentioned just plain, old fatigue, sore muscles and general 'what is this insanity' nervous exhaustion."

"I could give him a massage," Fluttershy offered, "I did feel how his muscles worked."

"What's gotten into you, girl?" Applejack asked, "Around ponies you'd, well, you'd never."

"He's not a pony. He's lost and scared," Fluttershy said quietly.

"This isn't a lost bear cub, Fluttershy," Twilight pointed out.

"It is like a lost mother bear, knowing her cub can't be found. Sometime, you just have to be near her. Just to be there if she needs, anything."

"Plus you think he's cute," Rarity teased, "I will freely admit, I don't see it. But I do think that at least the offer should be made."

"We gonna break in there?" Applejack asked, "Hardly neighborly. He didn't exactly give us permission ta just traipse in there."

A key dropped on the table. And a nervous looking Big Mac looked around. "He left that," he said, "I think he wanted someone to be able ta get in and look after him, if he needed."

"Schedule a visit for Nurse Redheart tomorrow," Luna told a functionary, "Get what you need, Fluttershy. And the nurse should drop off the brochures on getting his shots today. Derpy, is that mailbox any different from our standard ones?"

"No difference, Highness. He's going to need an address, but I already contacted Canterlot for the paperwork," the postmare said.

"That'll take a year," Luna complained quietly.

"No, your Highness," Derpy said, "I did it under the Invasion Act provisions. And had Captain Armor declare this a military outpost. It should go through in a week." She looked around at the surprised ponies. "Hey! Maybe I'm not Celestia's student like you, Twilight, or a fancy pony like you, Rarity, but I know the mail!" Derpy looked at the ponies around her.

"Never thought otherwise, Derpy," Rainbow said, "So other than the delivery of the brochures today, we give the guy the day off. Right?"

"Agreed," Luna said, "Thank you all. Tomorrow, if he orders you out, leave, but it's medical. Don't get too involved." She walked out into the sunlight and was airborne a moment later.

Fluttershy stared at the others wide-eyed. "What did she mean?"

Applejack snorted. "She means you playin' monster-huggin' flyin' pack," she explained, "I told her all about it."

"You think that I?" the rest was merely a set of embarrassed squeaks. She shook herself. "That was Princess Luna's idea, and yours!" Fluttershy insisted, blushing furiously, "You said to carry him up there, and Princess said it was a good idea to help him understand we could keep him safe."

"You mean you weren't . . . ?" Applejack stammered.

"Weren't, what?" Rarity asked and raised an accusatory eyebrow, "Weren't taking advantage? Weren't seducing it, him, whatever?" Rarity waved her hooves. "Fluttershy would never do that."

The tongue-tied pegasus nodded.

"Where you had to wrestle with him? Who was taking advantage?" Rarity grinned at Applejack.

Twilight noted that Big Mac, Derpy, all the soldiers, and the key had departed, without anyone noticing their actual departure.

"I think the pot is calling the kettle black," Rarity said.

"I wasn't doin' anythin'!" Applejack insisted but was blushing.

"Aw Rarity," Rainbow Dash said and put a leg over Applejack's shoulders, "She was just showing the monster who's boss. That she was the tough one. Like what you'd do if you found out it made all its own clothes."

"I'd hardly resort to hoof-to-hoof combat," Rarity said and tossed her mane.

"Of course," Applejack said darkly, "Ah don't have pins ta stab a party with."

"I would never!" she insisted, but the others were all looking askance at her.

Major Grass Lights had been watching the approaching spires of Canterlot with growing satisfaction. Toss me out on my ear, he thought happily, We'll see about that.

His expectation turned to confusion as the train only slowed as it passed through Canterlot station, then accelerated again once it was clear. He pulled the emergency cord to signal the engineer to stop. Nothing happened.

He started trotting through the cars towards the engine to find out what had happened, when he spotted Bulwark, chief of Celestia's own security detail, coming towards him down the cars.

"Major," the stallion said quietly.

"Lieutenant," Grass Lights replied. "Why haven't we been permitted to detrain?"

"Because her Majesty decided that after all the trauma of your encounter with the monster, your entire force needed to recuperate. At Happy Meadows."

"That's an asylum for crazy ponies! There's nothing wrong with us!" the major insisted, "There's especially nothing wrong with me."

"Don't yell at me, Major. Captain Armor and I agree, you weren't' afflicted with alien mind-control, or pheromones, or any such nonsense. We think your decisions were made rationally and with your full cognisance."

"Thank you."

"Which makes you a pack of saboteurs and completely outside the protection of Equestrian law," Bulwark said sharply. "But her Majesty thinks otherwise. So enjoy your stay. You'll be up for review of your case in six months."

"Six months!" Grass Lights squeaked.

"That's the incubation time for rabies, it should be enough to show up any diseases that you were infected with. Be glad we aren't telling the monster where you'll be. They say he eats ponies. Slowly, while they are still alive. And you gave him plenty of reason to seek you out as an entree. Sleep well, Major," Bulwark slipped past him and moved deeper into the train.

He's telling the rest of my troops the 'good news'. Does that thing really eat ponies? Is he coming after me? Maybe I can let the others take the blame. It's not as if I actually gave orders. I just failed to countermand the pink one's demands.

Shining Armor looked at the clear, night sky. The stars were painfully bright, and he was certain they were singing.

"Quite a party," Peaceful Solitude said. Princess Luna had to nudge the smaller mare occasionally, or she'd walk in a circle. "Not like back home."

"So what are the 'congratulations for fixing all the storm damage' parties like back home?" He stopped and stared. "Your Highness. Are the stars supposed to be laughing at me?"

"That would not be my intention," her Highness said, "But with my sister controlling the night sky. Anything is possible."

"Just asking," he said as he started walking again. "I somehow think those were not 'authentic monster' recipes."

"Cider was good though," Peaceful Solitude said very carefully, as if the words were slippery, "I just cannot imagine that any other species would invent fruitcake."

"Why not?" Luna said, "The dragons invented it."

"Wasn't it a cruel practical joke?" Shining Armor asked.

"Like the griffons and 'fashion'?" Luna said, "Although, I think I did Miss Rarity an injustice by not telling her."

"No, no, no," Peaceful Solitude exclaimed, "Bad idea. Bad idea, your Highness. See when you tell her that, then she becomes a recluse, and next time we need all the Elements. The other have to drag her whole house with them."

"Very astutely considered," her Highness said.

"Thank you, your Highness, I think you're pretty astute too," Peaceful Solitude said then giggled.

"I suspect that my command staff is going to be hors d' Pinkie tomorrow, if it isn't tomorrow already," Luna said.

"That would be a horse of a different color," the lieutenant said and giggled.

Day 6

The day passed without incident, and while everyone else in the observation teams relaxed or recovered from the previous night's party, Luna felt a gnawing worry she had to control. She sought out another who specialized in more cerebral worries.

"Trouble, your Highness?" Twilight said as Luna entered the library.

The princess glanced around and saw that only Spike was in the library with them. "How do you control your curiosity?" she asked.

"I had orders from someone," Twilight said flatly, "I also made a rather serious misstep, which my assistant managed to set right."

"You think," Luna amended. "That Cadence's spell twisted as it did, makes me wonder whether my and Celestia's spells did what they were supposed to, or more, or less. I have looked into his dreams. They are confused, chaotic and filled with images neither I nor Celestia can understand. If a pony dreamt those dreams, she would be a candidate for a mental hospital. But with his people, are they normal?"

"Have you looked into the dreams of dragons and griffons?" Twilight asked.

"They dream much as ponies do. Same images, but not wholly different than normal life or the images from stories. These would have made Discord turn in his resignation. But are they images of his life and world, or abstractions? Dinky saw a mouse assisting a human wizard, but I doubt that was a true representation. Especially if the mouse was an actor."

"I have the art book that he gave me. I can only guess it's a more realistic set of images, but even then, many are particularly bizarre," Twilight offered and led her to a room in the library. "This is it. I'm relatively certain this is some kind of catalog to a major art museum. Something you'd buy to remind you of what you saw." Twilight let Luna page through the book in silence as she waited.

Luna noted Twilight's page of notes beside the book. "You think these glyphs are the artists' names?"

"Yes, the painting styles are similar and they are often the only characters the same in the text. They appear in the same place at least once, even if they are repeated in the text again. But they are still just a sign, not words to me," Twilight said. "He had that ready for me, well Spike, when we delivered the picture dictionaries and other books. Strange that he'd want that to be our view into his world."

"Picture dictionary," Luna mused, "That was on his desk, with the binding shorn off."

"He cut up a book?" Twilight screamed.

"Twi, they are his books," Spike said as he entered, "They were a present. He can eat them, if he wants."

"But, he destroyed a book!"

"He did not. He merely removed the binding," Luna said to soothe the agitated unicorn. "He did the same on one -" Luna fell silent as she felt the mare's eyes boring into her. "Perhaps he took them apart, so he could put them back together again," Luna said. She noted Spike urging her for more, but carefully. "If you had two picture dictionaries, with two languages. Wouldn't you put the pages of like and like together?"

Twilight calmed down. Spike relaxed and wiped the sweat from his brow. "I suppose that would be all right."

Luna decided not to mention how he'd scribbled in the margins.

The red bow poking above the bushes, and the small scooter concealed in the underbrush marked their presence to an expert better than names and signed affidavits.

"Y'all are gonna see," said Applebloom, "They're all in a tizzy 'cause he's not come out."

"But if we get to see what he's really doing, that'll get them all better," Sweetie Belle added.

"And we're sure to get our Cutie Marks!" Scootaloo concluded.

All three fillies took a breath.

"Cutie Mark Crusader Monster Watchers?" Lieutenant Peaceful Solitude quietly asked, effectively stunning the trio into silence.

The three fillies guiltily looked behind them at the officer, who was older than them, but younger than their sisters.

The lieutenant grinned. "It's so good you want to volunteer. It's so hard to get ponies through the training. They're always complaining it's long and boring."

"Training?" Applebloom asked.

"Of course. Why do you think we shipped those other soldiers out? They hadn't received the proper training. So they got hurt."

"But, we were there with the monster at school," Scootaloo said.

"And you weren't observing the monster. You were interacting with it. The soldiers who charged the Diamond Dogs were the observers," Peaceful Solitude said, "But if you want to be observers, then there's six months of training."

"Six months!" Sweetie Belle exclaimed.

"Well, there's kitchen duty in there. Mucking out latrines," Peaceful Solitude said with her hoof on her chin. "And lots of exercises. Learning to keep an entire barracks clean. I'm sure one of those activities will get you a Cutie Mark. There's one recruit who got a Cutie Mark from always peeling potatoes."

"Uh, excuse me ma'am, I think I hear my sister calling me," Sweetie Belle said, "Thanks anyway!" She ran away.

"Yeah! I think I hear my sister callin' me too!" Applebloom said and she scurried after her friend.

Scootaloo looked around, and then at the officer and smiled nervously. Applebloom was back. "She might be callin' her too!" Applebloom said as she dragged Scootaloo away. There was the sound of buzzing as the trio retreated at high speed.

"Cutie Mark Crusaders retreaters," Peaceful Solitude said, and sighed, "Was I ever that young?"

"You were younger." Nearly made her jump as Mile Stone 'happened' to walk by. "I'm afraid we've misplaced our commanding officer. Never a good thing to let commanding officers out of their sergeant's sight. They run out of resources and common sense so quickly."

"Captain Shining Armor is one of the most level-headed officers I've met," Peaceful Solitude said.

"Then the resources apply to him. Good officers tend to feel so bad when they tell their superiors they have their heads up their, you know the rest."

"Last I saw him, he was heading for the library. To check up on her Highness."

"Oh, dear." The sergeant broke into a canter.

Shining Armor walked backwards out of the library into the late afternoon sun and closed the door carefully to both shut out Twilight and her Highness discussing problems. And to avoid alerting them he'd left. He wanted lunch. He really wanted breakfast. That would have been easier to arrange than what bothered him.

"Trouble, sir?" Mile Stone asked.

The Captain started, but relaxed. He glanced around nervously. "Not here," the Captain said as he led the sergeant away from the library. "Sergeant, while I might be completely comfortable telling my sister her ideas are insane and she's being ridiculous. I have very serious reservations about telling her Highness the same thing. At the moment, the two of them are feeding each other's paranoid, and I can see no good result from that synergy."

"What is the kernel of their concern?" the sergeant asked.

"A reasonable concern that the creature hasn't stuck its head out for two days, and there has been absolutely minimal activity."

"And they are attempting to analyze a problem without precedent. Guess what a completely alien creature is doing," the sergeant said.

"And how it is their fault. Frankly, I'm not sure it is a problem. I agree with Rainbow Dash, if I got sucked into an alien world with all this heavy-duty weirdness, there'd come a time I'd want to crawl into bed and hide. I suspect Luna did something she really shouldn't have. Twilight knows what it is, and they are trying to pin all the problems on the incident. And how to make it right. All in the hopes of resuming progress on the socialization of our friend there."

"Ah, a very officer way to handle such a problem," Mile Stone said, "Since sergeants are less interested in secondary and tertiary consequences, and if what you want it to break things loose, then there's a perfect `sergeant` solution."

"I'm all ears."

"There are two individuals that our friend specifically sought out and contacted. It would hardly be unreasonable for them to attempt to contact him on a matter of their interest. There is an activity he took part in twice, once at his inception and the other at other ponies'. It would be reasonable for our 'called upon' to repeat the activity."

Shining Armor nodded slowly. "Sergeant, please excuse me. I have to see a dragon about a picnic."

Spike considered the problem Shining Armor had given him. I need the invitation, he thought, and briefly considered Twilight and Princess Luna discussing/arguing on the main floor of the library. The immense mass of books floating in the area meant a massive reshelving effort later. They only need me when they want to include Celestia in their discussion, or she wants to reply. So I don't think they're going to be of any help. But I'd better get her Highness's permission before I actually send the invitation.

He belched out a letter, and it was snatched from the air by Twilight the instant it had formed. He grimaced that the two mares read these letters over each other's shoulders, but didn't read them aloud so he could participate in the discussion.

"Okay, Dinky said he knew numbers, and time, so that's not a problem. Besides, it's lunch. Show the date how?" He scribbled a Celestia sun symbol, then a Luna moon symbol, then smiled as he added another sun symbol. He put an arrow to the first sun symbol, and circled the second. "That's today, that's tomorrow."

"Spike!" Twilight called, and levitated a scroll to him. He sent it off to Princess Celestia.

"Picnic basket, and the time," he realized and quickly added the drawings. "Not the greatest, but they should get the idea across."

He belched out a letter, and it was snatched from the air by Princess Luna the instant it had formed. "How do I leave long enough to deliver it?" he asked, "I guess I can give it to the postmare." He grinned at the thought.

Luna took a deep breath. "Celestia, I do not like this," she said. Despite being in her specially prepared place of power back in Canterlot Castle. She felt uneasy.

" 'Celestia'," the coruler of Equestria said, "If you are being that formal, Luna, in this place, something must be up."

"Taking someone else into a pony's dreams is difficult. The more determined, magical, and forceful personalities are more 'unwieldy'."

"So I'm a big, fat dragon butt?" her sister asked with a smile.

"Essentially yes," Luna said, "Celestia, please take this seriously. I've been extremely careful to remain invisible and just observe, but even I've felt like a angry minotaur in a china shop. There are currents and eddies in these dreams. As you approach the source, it's as if a riptide is dragging you in. Trying to maintain your distance, physical and emotional, is extremely delicate and difficult. There are traps that do not exist within a pony's dreams. There is also the bizarre imagery and any rules I may have taught you about navigating pony dreams are worse than useless in his dreams."

"I have to know if he is a threat to my, our ponies. You have a scientist's curiosity. I also have my requirements."

"Until we can communicate, you aren't going to get a direct answer. I am also afraid that we may be creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. We press him to see if he's dangerous to strange, alien creatures, and he is going to react how he did when pressed by the Diamond Dogs. We press him with creatures who befriend and love him, and I suspect he will react with the tolerance he had when suddenly pressed into service as a foal-sitter."

"There is a fundamental difference, that he was unobserved the first time, and was pointedly under observation the second. Two aspects to his personality, or a mask he puts on and has carefully worn?" Celestia said. "I cannot afford to be wrong in my guesses about this."

Luna nodded. "Very well. But I am true to myself, that is all I can be. Beware, his dreams are not easy to manipulate. While we are there, he may manipulate them without knowing. Those changes will be real, and as impossible to ignore as solid rock. So we will meet on equal terms at least."

Luna focused on herself and her sister to the exclusion of all else. "I am Princess Luna, sovereign of dreams. I have looked within, and for all the terrors, there is nothing here that can harm me," she said as they made the transition into the realm she shared no dominion with her sister.

But this time, it sounds more like a plea than a statement to me, she thought.

Celestia cried out as she stepped into madness. The field of columns like a mad forest reached into the cloud-filled skies. Each shaft had pony faces pressing at the 'surface' of the columns. As she watched, the faces twisted in fury and terror, screaming in inarticulate rage and hair-raising agony. She shied back but could make out no words, feeling only the hostility from their tone. At the base of these pillars, ankle-deep water clung to her legs and hooves. It swarmed with the faces of Diamond Dogs and creatures of the Everfree. The faces appeared, seeming to bite and claw at her and, left dissolving back in the water.

"This, this?" Celestia asked as she shied and circled.

"It's worse," Luna said, "And has been getting steadily worse since I first looked in. Is it getting worse because I looked in, or because our magic affected him more, or didn't adjust his memories at all?" Luna gestured towards the surroundings. "Maybe you'd care to interpret this. It is beyond even my experience. But touch nothing. Contact with even the ground draws you into this reality."

Celestia took to the air, and tried to ignore the hands, legs, and other appendages that tried to drag her down to the water. She shook off the effects of her horror and the clinging feeling of the water as she advanced. "How do we get through there, if we cannot walk, and there's not enough space to fly? We are not physical, so teleportation would move our physical bodies."

"Trust me, but I still advise you to go back. This is only the outside. In every case, what lies beyond each barrier is worse. If it means to keep out rescuers, or because he wants it hidden, I do not know."

"You talk as if he could be at war within himself."

"I talk of one consumed by their irrational beliefs, because they cannot understand the facts," Luna said.

"I apologize that was thoughtless," Celestia said.

"This place is disturbing. More so for its familiarity than its alienness. Discord would play like this. Give ponies impossible choices and watch them tear themselves to pieces. Think on it that because of us, or our ponies, he does it to himself," Luna said. "Perhaps you should consider a darker truth. Are our 'little ponies' destructive of him?"

Before Celestia could answer, Luna moved them to the center. Even she gasped at what she saw. In the center, like a clearing in a forest, stood the stairway which the monster climbed. The structure had an insane geometry or perspective that looped back on itself in an eye-watering manner. Four staircases formed a square, yet somehow forming one surface that managed to climb to a zenith that met the nadir without breaking, yet remained only varying feet above the lake of faces.

Luna ignored the physical impossibility of the structure that her own eyes reported, and concentrated on the interaction of three figures occupying it. "The structure I can understand as impossible. What madness spawned this macabre dance?!" she desperately wanted to know.

The bloodied creature was crawling 'up' the stairs on all fours as fast as it could. Never pausing to look back at its pursuer.

Pinkie happily sprang from stair to stair and randomly shouted, "Do you like parties!?" Each call seemingly lashed the creature, lending a feverish air to the exhausted scrambling up the stairs to escape.

Celestia's student would randomly appear on the stairs in a manner more reasonable of Pinkie Pie's appearances. She would materialize or peek out from below, or 'open a stair', call out "Hi, I'm Twilight Sparkle!" Before she vanished to appear elsewhere.

When she appeared in front of the creature, he would shy away from her for a second, before climbing again, but those seconds added up, until Pinkie caught up to him. She would gleefully land her bounce on top of him and continue on. Battered and bleeding from the new wounds inflicted, he scrambled on. He fled endlessly, as Pinkie circled relentlessly.

"They are speaking Equestrian," Celestia commented, as if this mundane fact could dampen the insanity laid out before them.

"But he only knows the words as if they were familiar bird calls," Luna replied as the two stood in horror at the tableau.

"Repeated perfectly but without understanding," Celestia said and shook her head, "The calls of his tormenters. But they are not. They are not."

"I warned," Luna said. "Are the ponies even aware they were inflicting this? Will you tell them? I won't. All the characteristics you find so charming could be a lash for him. And if you are afraid of what he is when no one watches, he stands bloodied and at bay, and no wound afflicts his tormentors. A glimmering of good nature, or that he has tried to no avail and been punished for it. That is the danger of the monster's dreams and the monster himself. Entire worlds, internally consistent, woven out of whole cloth in moments. I will have to be here for apparent hours to discover the rules here. And once I do, I will be no closer to understanding him than I was before. Because the rules of this nightmare are real as the waking world's. But which are imaginings, and which are borrowed from his native reality are indistinguishable."

"But this is where he has hidden it all," Celestia said. She bowed her head and cried. "Do you also fear we would hate you if you showed us?" she breathed, then added fondly, "Fool, to turn trust and love into some thing darker."

"That is the dilemma," Luna admitted, "I know one who would be very concerned if this appeared in public. But if not showed, it rests here. As horrible as it sounds, perhaps we need to let him be afraid."

"Something needs be done," Celestia said firmly.

"Certainly, advance through the water and leap onto the stairs. At Pinkie's approach, bend our power and attempt to drive off the Pinkie simulacrum. If ignored, it will trample him again making the same insipid cry. And you will have trapped yourself in the illusion."

"There are rules here. His rules, and I may use them," Celestia said angrily. Then calmed herself. "And be ensnared by them," Celestia said. She bowed her head. "You asked if this was our doing, from the spells we cast. Did these become noticeably more worse after the spells?"

"Did the descent accelerate?" Luna asked. She considered deeply. "I believe it jumped, then returned to its level of decline."

"Then it seems I must deal with the fears of our guest, and my sister." Celestia ignored Luna's warning and leapt across the stairs. She plunged her horn into the heart of one simulacrum, then the other as it appeared and announced itself, destroying both utterly. She felt sickened by the deed.

" 'Tia! Get out of there, he's coming around!" Luna shouted a warning.

"I must take the risk," Celestia said and stood firm as their guest crawled up the stairs towards her. "They are only images," she reminded herself and Luna.

"They are real," Luna said as she hovered just out of reach.

"You are free," Celestia told him as it looked up at her. She lowered her head, but kept her horn pointed up and away from him. She kept her tone and expression as gentle as she could, "You are safe. All the monsters are only in your imaginings. All the enemies are reflections of your fears." She approached to heal the wounds that still bled.

He jumped back. His distrust and hostility manifest on its face. He tumbled down the stairs in his haste to retreat. On the landing where staircase met staircase, he scrambled back to a corner nearest the descending stair. Celestia took one step, then another. He looked at the descending stair with loathing and terror. But even as she advanced, he would not break down the waiting stair. "Can you not see your tormentors are gone?" Celestia asked as she paused slightly between steps. "But there is no reasoning with dread, is there? Do you believe salvation is just a trick, to make you pause for greater horrors to catch up?" she asked more for herself and Luna than for him.

"This face you refuse to show us in the waking world," Luna said, unseen and unheard by the monster, "The good little martyr, finest of your kind, while we tear you apart piece by piece. You refuse to bleed where we can see, do you enjoy this role? Or is this what you really think of us? Are you seeking to suffer or be punished, or are so removed from love and trust that you cannot see it when it is freely given? Or since it is 'freely' given, do you think this is all a trap?"

"What do you want from us?" Celestia asked in confusion, then she moved forward onto the landing, within arm's reach of him, inviting a strike. "What do you expect of us?" she asked as she crowded it to the edge of the landing.

Despite the less than a pony-height fall, it looked to the edge with a dread it never showed in the waking world. Luna regarded it from inside her anonymous shell. Celestia's pause only made his anxiety worse.

"What do you think we'll do?" she asked softly from a hoof-width from him.

The slap she was braced for, but not that he'd drive his palm down over her horn. She froze as the blood ran down her horn and dripped on her face. She stared in horror and confusion. "Is that what you want? Is this what you expect?" she asked in revulsion. "Or is all this what you fear?" she asked, then she steeled herself.

" 'Tia, your temper," Luna warned, "You wanted to learn what it would do if pressed. You just did. Your 'prank' came a cropper and you must deal with the consequences."

Celestia swallowed, and remembered her mission, not her revulsion that something would willingly mutilate itself. "If you must see what we will do when we have all power, and you none. THEN SO BE IT!"

His expression of acceptance and even expectation tore at her heart. The faces in the water below them mocked her, and urged her with gestures to end it, but slowly. Carefully, gently, she let her healing magic fill him. Erasing the wounds, restoring the lost blood, and changing his expression to confusion. The water became a clear sheet of featureless glass, the sun shone down on her and him. She pulled back, freeing his hand, the wound diminishing as he raised it, and disappearing as he pulled it free. He fell to his knees and looked around. He seemed surprised he was alive. He bowed his head in shame.

"Luna," Celestia said as she stepped back, "Go to him. It seems he is infinitely more dangerous than I thought. He is too much like me," she said with a smirk, "And needs to trust in my sister to guide him."

Luna appeared on the landing and knelt near as Celestia withdrew to the next higher landing. Luna extended her wings, and brought him close. "Please trust us. Let us help you. We cannot replace what you've lost." She told him. "But we are not your enemy. We are not your enemy." He leaned against her most fearsome form. She felt his body shake, and his arms went around her neck. But there was no attack, only the sob of one too broken to go on. "You don't have to be brave for us anymore, just be out friend," she soothed as she nuzzled him and held him with her wings, "Just be our friend. That's all we want. That's all we 'demand' if you must."

Day 7

"All she said was 'catharsis', and 'let me sleep'," Emerald Light, Luna's chamberlain said, as the green unicorn blocked Shining Armor's entry into the royal tent.

Something Twilight had mentioned in passing occurred to the Captain. "You are in contact with her Majesty?"

"Of course, we will send a status report before breakfast, in fifteen minutes."

"Please inform her Majesty that the monster is holding her Highness hostage, and is demanding a ransom of blueberry muffins, prepared by none other than Celestia. We are negotiating on the quantity. Numbers being one of the few things it fully understands."

"But, her Highness is within," the chamberlain explained.

"Is she awake, is she out walking around? Celestia has gone weeks without a full-night's sleep. It is obvious to me what has happened."

The chamberlain considered, then showed he too knew the secret. "I doubt very much the creature fully understands what it is doing. You are a military pony and have a trouble with nuance and diplomacy. Providing such a distraction for the creature, and an incentive for her Highness to slip free is no doubt what you actually meant, if you weren't a completely bloodthirsty militarist."

Shining Armor and Emerald Light shared a chuckle.

"Okay, send the message as you wish," Armor said, "Just remember before you embellish it too much, I'd like to keep my job as Captain of the Guard."

"Of course," Emerald Light said, "Just one question. Why should they be delivered to Her Highness Princess Luna, and not to the monster himself?"

"A few will go there. He'll be picnicking with friends, but the bulk will go where the exchange will take place."

"I understand and apologize for my lack of insight." The green stallion bowed slightly.

"Excellent." Shining Armor trotted away, knowing the mission was in good hooves.

Luna groaned. The late morning start had her off kilter. Untrue and thrice-cursed, the rumors that mine own sister's student Twilight Sparkle subsists on naught but caffeine. Fie that they prove unfounded. The swill the camp's mess hall declares coffee, aye it has the taste to shock even the dead to full and exuberant wakefulness. But only the fouler aftertaste to keep her there. I have pissed stronger beverages than the sacrilege they do name tea. Fie on all of them! she thought as she marched determinedly towards her goal, Curse my eyes for betraying their mistress by letting in such light that my brain is scourged by it. Yet if I close them down, my vision departs. Traitors, blasphemers! Know you not you break faith with your princess? They do not listen.

She entered the Carousel Boutique. The thunderous clamor to announce the arrival of royalty she understood, but could have lived without.

"Coming!" came a call like white fire across her ears and brain. Too white, too bright, came the unicorn she sought.

"Good proprietress. These garments I have need. To wit, a saddle of good leather."

"Oh course, one needs a change occasionally, and to feel pretty."

"All rest has been shorn from the sleep I have managed. Nightmares most harrowing have gildriged before the sleeping, royal eyes for seeming months on end. And a dragon has voided its bowels in the royal mouth," Luna said, and stared at the stunned mare until there was only one of her again. "Pretty is not a best potion, option!"

"Perhaps you need to lie down," the mare suggested.

"What we need is a bridle, well-fitted and sparingly apporinted, appointed! Lo, even my tongue, faithful servant all these centuries, even it betrays me."

"Yes," Rarity said carefully.

"Were it not for its long and faithful service. I would have it dragged out and nailed to a barn door."

"Your Highness might have need of it, later."

"There is no 'later', my good mare. Because I am willingly walking into a colossal prank by Seabiscia, Solestia, my exalted sister! That might just be the solution to all iteedale prosblems, things."

"Perhaps some coffee?" Rarity offered warily.

"Coffee has already betrayed the crown this day!" Luna shouted, "No further chance for treachery will be offered!"

"I assure you, your Highness. My coffee is quite loyal."

"Ah," Luna said wisely, "Then show me to this last bastion of royalismistics."

Celestia burst into the Royal Kitchens. "Out out!" she called, as the kitchen staff filed out. They had heard the rumors, and prepared what they hoped were the ingredients their sovereign needed. If they couldn't help, they could still serve to the best of their ability. Only one griffon remained, Gustav Le Grand.

"No one may interfere," Celestia said grimly.

The griffon pastry chef held up a clipboard, "I shall in no way interfere. But a treat lost this long millennium? My government, and my colleagues would pluck me naked if I were to let such a chance go. So, unless you call your guards, I am here."

"A copy of that -"

"Shall go in next months issue of The Pastries Extraordinarie," the chef assured her, "Friendships have been lost over far less." The normally ebullient griffon appeared downcast. "I have also heard rumors of the 'representative' who will arrive 'unannounced' at the welcome party."

"Who?" Celestia asked as she laid out the ingredients.

"Steel Feather."

The revelation was nearly enough to ruin her good mood at the joke she was playing in.

"You are disappointed? I am proud of my nation. To think that lifeless, sour husk will appear before your visitor, as the example of the entire griffon nation. That sour ball with feathers will ensure 'le monster' will never speak to another griffon as long as he lives," the chef complained.

"His cooking skills have appeared to be rudimentary, at best," Celestia said.

"Ah! I know you, and you know me. Even the mistakes that he makes will be different. Viva la difference. We can correct, and learn. I look to it eagerly."

Celestia nodded, and began to prepare. Her audience remained silent, but noted everything and every nuance.

"Feeling better?" Rarity asked of her Highness, and considered how large a crowbar would be needed to pry her royal hooves from the coffee mug.

"No, but the hideousness of my condition now displays itself in absolute clarity," Luna articulated precisely as she stared at the mug. "If circumstances permit you an opportunity to view our monster's nightmares. Avail yourself instead of the quickest transportation away from the offerer."

"Bad?" Rarity asked.

"No vitriol in existence will efface the images from my mind, yet I am sorely tempted to try them all." Luna let out a long, slow breath. "I thank you for your patience, and the coffee. I suspect I was babbling like a madmare."

"You did request a saddle, and a bridle," Rarity said as she sat at the table beside the princess.

"The order is genuine, but not complete. I also require a bit."

"A bit of what?" Rarity asked nervously.

"I am no longer addled, so please play no games with me. Saddle, bit and bridle."

"Your Highness, the saddle is no problem. The bridle, well, the avant garde wear them to show their contempt for classical styles. But the bit." She paused to consider. "Highness. It is only commonly used by certain ponies, for certain types of play. Adult, intimate play."

"Miss Rarity, I am not so unaware of the proclivities of ponies beneath my moon. I am aware of how Equestria views these 'garments'. I am also aware, that our monster recognizes us, as species he is familiar with. And that these tools are the means to ride creatures much like alicorns, or larger."

"Lying on a pony's back?" Rarity asked.

"For a pony, perhaps, but for an alicorn." She released the mug, and stepped away from the table. "Especially one full-grown." She took her fully mature, Celestia-like form.

Rarity to her credit didn't turn away or run screaming from what seemed almost exactly Nightmare Moon returned.

"We rarely use this form, for reasons you could innumerate quite well," Luna said.

"Yes, your Highness."

"But this is the form I wish to have the tools fitted to, as soon as possible."

"But isn't our monster supposed to be going on a picnic with Dinky, Derpy and Spike?" Rarity asked.

"How swiftly can you procure these, items?"

"Well, if you'll settle for a wooden bit, I have them in stock. You aren't so large around the barrel that I'd have to modify anything. As I said, the ponies who, play, want these on a fairly regular basis. If he is to, ride you," Rarity said very cautiously, "Then I should probably include the stirrups. I never thought they had a practical application, until I saw our monster. They're for his feet."

Luna nodded. "Take your measurements. A few days will be satisfactory."

"Your Highness," Rarity asked carefully, "What exactly are you trying to achieve with these items?"

Luna sighed and rested her chin on Rarity's head. "Celestia has cast herself as the villain, and I, and this form which terrifies most ponies, are to be the fluffy savior."

Rarity nodded, and glanced at the coffee, and the stairs. She weighed her chances.

"He looks better than he did yesterday," Derpy whispered to Spike as Dinky bounced eagerly and told their confused fourth all about what she'd learned in school and how grateful she was for the math help.

He nodded and pulled a number of cloth bags with straps up onto his shoulders. Spike already had the blanket out, and they'd left their lunches on it.

"Oh cookies!" Dinky said happily. Spike and the two adults stopped her.

"Remember the 'baked bads'?" Spike asked the unicorn, "That made everybody sick?"

"Yes," Dinky said.

"Well, Pinkie made these the same way. Except she added something to make it worse," Spike said.

"Why would she do that?" Dinky asked as they passed the inner defensive layer of 'mines'.

"Because she knew he wouldn't eat them, and anything that slipped past the guards would eat them, and get very sick before they could hurt our friend," Spike explained.

"So he won't have to shoot any more?" Dinky asked.

"Exactly," Derpy said, "So nopony has to get hurt."

"Okay!" Dinky accepted it.

Spike and Derpy relaxed. Their guest was already setting out several, large, multi-compartmented plates and was putting collections of different foodstuffs in the depressions of the plates.

"Oh, I almost forgot!" Spike announced, and pulled the muffins from the bag and began handing them out. The smell of cinnamon and blueberries filled the air.

"These are - them?" Derpy sounded almost religious.

"It would be an insult not to eat them," Spike said, heading off what he too often encountered with his best friend.

"Of course, but, her Majesty," Derpy breathed.

"They're delicious!" Dinky announced on demolishing one.

Spike gave her another, and ate one himself. Only then did their guest eat one, and smiled.

Luna looked up from her notes, to her chamberlain. The green unicorn had burst into her tent as if time were of the essence, but hadn't addressed her directly.

"Quickly, bring them in, bring them in!" he ordered to someone outside, "While the monster is distracted, we shall rescue her Highness's soul from torment!"

She was about to remonstrate her chamberlain that today was not a day for such games, when Peaceful Solitude cantered in, and she smelled them. For the entire tray piled high with those treats that the lieutenant carried, Luna would have put up with Discord himself, for a few moments.

"Get one under her nose, let her smell it," Emerald Light urged, "Careful she'll be disoriented and may bite."

"You hold that still or I'll bite off your leg at the shoulder," Luna told the smirking lieutenant. The lieutenant practically stood at attention as Luna bit. And chewed. Both Emerald Light and Peaceful Solitude watched with rapt attention. "Please leave the tray," she said, on confirming that a thousand years had dulled her memory of just how delicious these were. "Emerald Light, just what was that pantomime in aid of?" she asked as the lieutenant hurried out.

"Her Highness was despondent and listless. Captain Armor believed that the monster had captured part of her soul. I insisted that our guest would never had done such a thing maliciously, but agreed with his plan to distract it, and to give her Highness the impetus to escape whatever iron bands, or velvet clutches he held her in."

"Would you believe that there are nobles in Canterlot who think the two of you are far-too-serious, rigid mossbacks."

"With respect your Highness, that is impossible. Anyone who would believe that, I suspect is incapable of thinking," he said with a perfectly straight face, "It will send a message to her Majesty that the Captain's daring plan went swimmingly."

Luna glanced at the tray in front of her. "Light, I can share these. I really shouldn't just gobble them down myself."

"Highness, you should. Her Majesty delivered two barrels full. They are being disseminated to your troops, and many of the locals in Ponyville. Those who might actually eat one, rather than make a shrine out of it."

"So, none for Twilight?" Luna asked and raised an eyebrow.

"No, her brother wanted to give her a bag full, and only tell her the source after she'd eaten the first."

"Secure the breakables and prepare for an explosion," Luna suggested, and ate another muffin, savoring every bite, "And put Pinkie Pie on protected watch, she may do something drastic."

"She's already trying to develop a cupcake version, Highness," Light said as he withdrew.

Dinky was asleep under her mother's wing, and Derpy herself was drowsing on the blanket, enjoying a full stomach and Celestia's sun on her back.

The monster carefully removed several pages from the satchel it had brought with the food. He handed the pages to Spike.

The dragon's blood ran cold as he looked at what was printed, and what it represented. "This is only thirty pages," Spike whispered in awe, "But it's a beginning." On each sheet was a copy of a page of an Equestrian picture dictionary, and a corresponding copy from the monster's book.

"Lilac, rose, pegasus, unicorn," he said as he paged through them. Then looked up at the monster. He pointed to the pronunciation guide. "Li-la-c." He pointed to each separated syllable. "Li-la-c."

The monster's pronunciation was utterly unintelligible, but he pointed to a similar division of the title word, and duplicated Spike's performance.

"Sorry, I'm not even gonna try, but I get the message. That's how the word is broken down. That's how it's pronounced. If anyone on Equestria besides you could pronounce it." Spike thought a moment, and drew a picture of a pile of books, an arrow, and a sheet with two facing pages. "How?"

The creature spent several minutes puzzling out the diagram of how the pages were produced. Many of the items were simply fancy boxes with strange additions. But one caught Spike's eye, the one that produced the finished pages.

"You have ink for that?" Spike asked.

If that press needs ink, getting the right kind is going to be nearly impossible, he thought, remembering his own trials in getting the exact, right color of inks for Twilight's researches. Spike held up an ink bottle and pointed to the printing box.

"Don't take it hard big guy," Spike said of the monster's despondency, and scratched out a dragon figure with one ink bottle going away, and an arrow to the figure returning with a wagon load of the stuff. "I don't know of anyplace else to get them."

The figure smiled, but shook his head. He seemed to think the idea laughable.

"Can I at least try?" Spike asked. When the figure looked at him in confusion Spike muttered, "Why is it you can read a pony's expression and tone, but not mine?"

The monster circled the ink bottle the departing Spike-figure carried, and drew an ink bottle in the hand of the returning Spike.

"Oh, you want the original back undamaged," Spike realized and nodded vigorously.

He nodded, and returned to the house. He came out carrying two small boxes as if they were Equestria's own honor.

No, that's the future. If that's how to get the magic out of that collection of boxes, then you better believe I'm going to take care of it, Spike realized. He accepted the brightly colored, cardboard boxes reverently and wrapped them carefully, before putting them away.

"Say, how about another muffin?" Derpy said quietly.

"Why not," Spike replied. "I'm glad you can't understand words," Spike said to the happily chewing guest, "No telling how you'd react to these if you know."

Pinkie stood in the darkness and held her triumph over her head. "They said it couldn't be done! They scoffed when I said I'd do it, but BEHOLD!"

There was a crash like thunder.

"I have created the ruling cupcake. All others will bow to this, the Master Cupcake!" The mare's mad laughter signaled another peal like thunder and the brilliant light.

"Pinkie, can we start baking some of them?" Mrs. Cake asked.

"And can I quit rattling this piece of tin?" Mr. Cake asked, "It hurts my ears."

"Sure, I wrote the final recipe down and we should be ready to start our first batch." Pinkie let out an insane cackle. "Oops, sorry."

"Why are you laughing?" Twilight shouted at Shining Armor as Spike returned to the library.

"Because it was funny. You were enjoying it, right up to when I told you who made them." Armor said, "Then you completely panicked."

"Of course I panicked!" Twilight shot back, "Celestia made these, with her own hooves! We shouldn't be just casually -"

"Eating them?" Spike asked, "But that's what these muffins are for. That's why Celestia made them."

"But we shouldn't just gobble them down," Twilight moaned.

"After the first, she devoured four, before I could tell her," Armor whispered to Spike.

"Why do I think Princess Celestia would be delighted by that reaction?" Spike whispered back.

"I shall just have to apologize to Celestia. Spike, take a letter."

"No," Spike replied, "I have something more important to think about."

"Spike, I have insulted my tutor, Princess Celestia. What could be more important than that?"

"The big guy made thirty pages of an Equestrian to monster dictionary, and needs more ink to continue," Spike said, stunning both unicorns.

"Ink!" Twilight exclaimed, "Of course. He'll need special ink, only the very best. But will our ink be what he needs, and will it work?"

"I have a sample for duplication," Spike said, "You just need to run a duplication spell, and we can give him all the ink he needs."

"Twilie, there's a rock outside we can use as base material. It should give us all the mass we need," Armor suggested excitedly.

"Yes!" She dashed outside. Armor and Spike exchanged a worried glance and strolled after her. Twilight had cleared the area around a rock bigger than Spike. "Where's the ink?"

"Right here," Spike said and set the two packages on the ground. "But I think you should know -"

"Spike, I need absolute silence. This spell has to be perfect."

"But Twilight!" Spike warned,

"Not a word!" Twilight said as her horn glowed brilliantly.

Then darkness descended on all three of them with a thundering roar.

"Spike? Twilie?" Armor said.


"I'm okay," Spike replied.

"Spike, I'm guessing those ink boxes aren't very heavy," Armor said, "And we turned that entire rock into them."

"Yep, pretty light," the dragon replied. "How long are we going to be here, before someone digs us out?"

"I think my sergeant is going to get nervous when he can't find me," Armor assured the others, "In about five minutes."

"That I can live with," Spike said. "I was going to suggest we use a smaller rock next time. But we have a lifetime supply, so I don't think anyone has to worry about it."

Twilight moaned at that.

The delivery of a full wagon load of ink boxes stunned the monster. He opened several of the boxes to verify the contents. The bags inside, and the boxes inside those seemed to meet his approval. Although his amazement didn't cease.

"I don't think he understands that we can exactly duplicate what he has," Twilight said as he transferred the loose containers into other boxes, "But we might not understand what it is."

"Can you tell me how to draw a picture of that?" Spike asked as he returned the two originals.

Twilight stared at the wall of books with a feeling of determination. "Soon. Soon," she promised.

The Diamond Dog burrowed up from beneath the ground. He barely raised his head out of the hole, seeing whether he remained undetected.

"Ponies is stupid," he said as he slunk out of the hole. "Oh, cookies for Diamond Dogs. But a bribe will not stay our wrath." He sniffed at it, then grabbed the plate to take back to his boss. "Maybe he share with me. Maybe me tell him only two on plate," he said as he dropped back into the hole.

Several minutes later, the hole was filled up, and the quiet darkness reigned over all the area.

Day 8

"I'm doomed," he said as he looked through another book and returned it to the shelf. "Entire rooms full of books, and not one stinking book on proper fashions," he lamented. "Baseball I could understand. Soccer I could believe, but clothing?"

He picked up a book on the American Civil War. "I am not wearing a Zouave uniform. Hell, they don't know our customs. Maybe I should show up wearing only a hat. One with a great, big ostrich or peacock feather."

He snapped his fingers. "Birthday presents," he said and headed to that cabinet. He pulled the book out, and mockingly, it fell open to the page showing front and back, exactly the style he wanted. "I am not taking my niece's Sailor Moon Art book in for an alien pony to make a swallow-tail tuxedo." He looked down at the picture and the diagrams beside it and sighed.

Still holding his finger to mark the page, he walked through his house, looking at the collection of literature, science and engineering texts, books on history and philosophy, and the rest of his eclectic collection. He sighed. "Unless I have absolutely no other rational alternative. And the encyclopedias are out." He put a bookmark in the book and he began searching again.

"Coming!" Rarity called as the shop's door chimes rang. She stopped as she saw who had entered, and was automatically moving towards the 'monster-manikin' she had in the tallest part of the shop. She watched it move, how the clothing it wore moved with it.

I think I understand Applejack's and Fluttershy's fascination, Rarity thought as she made her approach, This is a predator, it moves like a predator and watches like one. But strangely gentle and skittish. Applejack could hardly ignore the challenge, like driving off the Timberwolves from cows. Poor mare probably didn't even realize what she was feeling. Rarity suppressed an elegant shudder as it turned to face her, and stared. Then it's expression softened.

Fluttershy saw only its meekness and care. By Celestia, it's twice as tall as I am. She looked up at is and smiled her winningest smile.

"How may I help you?"

He held out the invitation to the welcoming party, set a suitcase on the table and opened it. Rarity forced herself to remain calm.

They do have fashions, she thought as she looked at the suit, shirt, vest and tie he carefully laid out. It is elegantly austere, she thought, Different enough from the daily work clothes, but hardly as ostentatious as our formal wear. Of course, Rarity, they wear clothes all the time. So the formal wear is only a step up.

Then it opened the book, and the dashing figure wore clothing that made an odd confluence of pony flamboyance, and monster solemnity. The obvious admiration of the smaller figures around him, clearly his herd, marked this as a monster-stallion of power and gravity. The myriad bows and ribbons of the monster-mares showed a more pony-like festivity.

"Ah, the stallion wears the solid clothing, and the mares have all the bows and color," she said, "But black, does it really have to be black?" She pointed a hoof at the brown and dark blue of the two sets of clothing he'd brought in.

He puzzled for a moment, and brought out a white handkerchief. Solid white.

Rarity cleared her throat, and considered. How do you tell someone that white is generally considered a royal color? And that even her Highness Princess Celestia breaks it up with adornments? she wondered. I can't, of course, and I would never offend a customer by implying otherwise.

He seemed ashamed that he had only a handful of bits to pay her. Rarity accepted what he'd offered. Just the costumes she'd seen on that one page would fuel her 'idea!'s for a month. And the book was thick, and apparently full of illustrations. More than adequate, she thought happily as she directed him over to the monster-manikin to get the measurements.

Pinkie watched the monster come out of the Carousel Boutique. She dashed out and was standing beside it the moment it started walking. Although bursting with questions, she kept silent. Just walking. Not moving ahead, not falling behind. She wrestled down her desire to ask all the things she wanted to know about this creature.

But Sergeant Mile Stone says we have to make it feel safe, she thought as she walked alongside, looking where it looked, keeping the same distance apart, and not doing anything that might scare it, or even draw its attention.

When she could barely stand it, she walked down an alleyway between two building, then turned and galloped away.

"Who are you? Why are you here? What's your favorite flavor of ice cream? Who's buried in Star-Swirl's tomb? Is eating meat as weird as it sounds? How many VanHooverians does it take to mail a letter? What's seven times six?" she shouted as she ran back towards Sugarcube Corner. "AUUGH!"

Peaceful Solitude looked after the retreating pink mare, and over to the other rear guard the monster had. "Do you have any idea what that was all about?"

The guard's stoic expression never wavered. "Ma'am, these ponies willingly live a stone's throw from the Everfree. I quit trying to figure them out the minute I learned that."

"The curse of being an officer. I suppose I could ask," Peaceful Solitude said.

"Yes ma'am. I'll alert the medics, and I'll have to ask you to hand over any sharp objects you're carrying," the soldier said.

"I swear Twilight, it's no wonder he was violent," Rarity said as she showed the book to Twilight in a private room in the library. "This poor herd is fighting these, well monsters it seems, all the time. Even the little ones have to fight. I would have thought with the weapons it has, his people would have cleared their whole planet of monsters."

"Rarity. 'Their whole planet', that's it!" Twilight exclaimed. "That's why it's here! That's what it's been doing! It was a scout. Probably one of hundreds or thousands, sent out by its government to find the home planet of these monsters and -" Twilight stopped and considered the implications of what she'd been thinking. That one being with its house had been considered adequate to destroy an entire planet's population. Or a large portion of it. And it was sitting just outside of Ponyville. Her eyes grew wide and her ears drooped.

"Twilight," Rarity said calmly, "Twilight! It stopped. As soon as it realized we weren't its enemy, it stopped. It isn't going to blow us all up, and slit our throats in the night. We aren't the monsters who have been attacking his home, he knows that now."

"Yes. I can just imagine what it would have been like if he didn't realize that," Twilight said worriedly and chuckled nervously.

"Twilight," Rarity chided as she hooved through the book. "None of these creatures look anywhere near the same. That stallion's herd are all similar, with those two looking nearly alike except for clothing color and mane style. As soon as he saw Dinky Hooves and Dinky Doo, he knew we were not the enemy."

"Yeah, scary possibility," Twilight laughed nervously.

Rarity flipped the page. "Scarier that this might actually happen to these poor dears." She shrugged. "Or this may be tied to a Daring Doo-type adventure story. A brave group of mares with their dashing stallion protecting their world from the monsters of the void."

"And I thought I read too many books," Twilight teased. Then she caught the glint in Rarity's eye. "You have an idea! Don't you?" She grinned as Rarity giggled.

Twilight looked at her Highness, her brother and the observer corps cadre. "It's really just a question of bits. I don't think we can expect Derpy to hire him as a foal-sitter every day, and I doubt the Apple family has enough work for a regular hired, ah hand. Eventually, he is going to run out of money, if he already hasn't, and there has to be some means to provide for his needs."

"If nightmares were saleable, we could bottle his and have the scariest stories imaginable." Luna rubbed a hoof on her forehead.

"I take it you want something that will keep him producing that Equestrian-Monster dictionary," Shining Armor said. Twilight nodded.

"We could formally arrest him," Mile Stone said. He looked around at the stunned gazes from the others. "We essentially have him under house arrest as it is. Wherever he goes, he's under guard. He will not be permitted to leave Ponyville unless one of the princesses orders it. He hasn't tried to press that barrier except the once, and her Highness went after him. Call it protective custody if you want. It's a political fiction with real roots to the conditions that exist. He will be provided the necessary sustenance from the crown."

"I can't imagine he'd be too happy with finding this out," Peaceful Solitude said, "Suddenly finding out you're a prisoner."

"He's a prisoner even if he has the run of Equestria, lass," Mile Stone said gently, "This isn't home. And while we aren't standing in the way of his return, this isn't home."

"It would give him the food he needs," Shining Armor agreed, "But what about spending money, and freedom to travel?"

"At the moment, he's an illiterate deaf-mute," Mile Stone said, "He strikes me as the type to want to bend his efforts to ameliorating that condition first. Even if it is part of a greater plan to escape. He has access to alien tools, but with a very limited set of resources and they mostly depend on that building for power. Those two vehicles cannot have tremendous range, and any pegasus can catch the monster-powered two-wheeler. There are odd-jobs he can do around Ponyville to allow him exercise and a degree of socialization. And to get him the spending money he needs."

"How do we explain?" Twilight said, "And what if he wants to go exploring?"

"Smart lad like that will ask the first time, and get approval from her Highness," Mile Stone said and bowed to Princess Luna, "After a while, once he understands the language she can extend the boundaries. He'll still need a guard. The last thing we need is him wandering into the Everfree, and choking some poor monster to death when it eats him. When he's literate enough to protest, he's literate to extend the boundaries."

"I don't like doing this to somepony," Twilight said, "He's done nothing wrong."

"Technically, Twilie, his house is here squatting on land he doesn't own. He's killed one person, and wounded another. His very person is here without documentation of any kind. And if you really wanted to be paranoid, why did he land outside the town where the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony all live?"

"It's not fair," Twilight said.

"That's true, but it is essentially what we're doing now," Shining Armor explained, "This way we can help him. If you feel really bad, bake him a cake with a file in it. Or buy him a harmonia." The glare from his little sister was worth it.

"You were extremely quiet, your Highness," Shining Armor said as they walked under the night sky. "If it isn't prying, is there something troubling you?"

"Beside that creature, beside the games my sister plays balancing its needs with our ponies', beside the fact that I have an extreme dislike of captivity and yet I am in charge of holding another being more isolated that even I was? Not a thing," Luna said. "Captain, while I look the same age as your sister, I am ancient. Time has erased the record of what Celestia and I had to do, and what we paid to defeat Discord, and others. All of you are innocent, in ways neither Celestia nor I can truly be. In there is a monster, who is oddly like us. Alien, alone, hooves stained with blood, yet striving to do what is right. Do I understand it, or have I deluded myself that I understand it because of the apparent similarities? If we are comparable, and it is a danger, that it has buried its deadliness deep, am I also a threat? Celestia faced a choice of her ponies, or my freedom. Possibly my life. She chose her ponies, and I languished a thousand years. Would it be more merciful to smother that creature in its sleep, so it may at least rejoin those of its kind who have gone before? Or keep it here until we tire of its tricks, or it lashes out and we banish it to afflict some future?"

"Highness, I'm not sure I understand. If it is a threat, then deal with it then. If it isn't, then the plans are for the next problem. Second guessing yourself and the universe doesn't help." He rolled his eyes. "Believe me, I know. Deal with it as it is, not as you hope or fear it will be. Plan for the worst, and enjoy being pleasantly surprised. If all else fails, go bullyrag it like Applejack did. It seems to have a childlike streak of fun in it. If it turns savage, then deal with it at that point."

"Captain, I understand your position, but from my experience, that is a terrible idea," Luna said, "But thank you for it anyway."

4) Redactions

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Day 8

"So you thought you could just use the Elements and I would go away?"

Luna heard the voice, a voice that had tormented her for over a millennium. "The Elements banished you back into the dark hole you crawled out of!" she growled her reply, but searched the darkness around her for any clue to her location or her opponent.

"But there are cracks and folds I could hide in. Even all the scrubbing of your soul can't wash away where my talons left their mark."

"Then I name you, Nightmare Moon. You are just a children's story now. An excuse for pranks and eating candy," Luna spoke to the darkness all around her.

"But I have a new place. I have a new dwelling. It isn't as fine as my old shell. But it will resist you far longer that I could alone."

"Reveal it, and I shall put your boast to the test," Luna called out. The darkness lifted. The monster's house stood revealed. "I have seen his mind, and his fears," Luna told her tormentor, "You would have no chance. They would run you down and crush you."

"I, take possession of that apelike meatbag?" the entity who had made Luna into Nightmare Moon laughed. "The house I possess. And I brought a ready defender. You will destroy all he has worked for to root me out? You will destroy him?"

"I think once we explain it," Luna said, "He will do the job himself." She looked around. "Did you honestly expect to hide from me in a dream? In a dream of my own?"

"I never left," the voice taunted, "What you became will always be me. But so much of it was also you. The Elements cannot deny that there are things that Celestia has, which will never be yours."

She caught the flawed logic. "And there is something Celestia herself has seen which I alone have. It balances out." Her horn blazed, and lying on the ground were bits of armor, and a long, sharp, alicorn horn. "If you were anything except my own anxiety, I would harry you to the ends of the dream realms."

"Bury me away, lock me in symbols that you never touch, exile me to the darkest places in your mind, but you cannot deny that you first invited me in."

Luna ignored the laughter and marched into the house through the glass doors without opening or damaging them.

Luna woke from the dream and glanced around. She lay on the carpeted floor of the monster's house, a blanket over her, and a black, stuffed toy clutched in her hooves. "I think I am not yet free of the effects of last night," she said quietly. She looked around again. "I just hope Captain Armor has an explanation of how I arrived here if this isn't just another dream. I would dread to think I had become a sleep walker, or worse, a sleep teleporter."

She looked at the details of the carpet, and her hoof. "And if this too is just a dream, how deeply am I enmeshed? Luna, in retrospect 'borrowing' much of his psychosis so he might heal himself of the rest was an extraordinarily bad idea."

Luna stood in the main square of Ponyville. Life went on around her with an air of total normality. "This is not Ponyville," she growled, "They were preparing for the welcome party. There was controlled chaos everywhere. This is yet another dream."

"Hiii!" Pinkie said as she bounced around, "This is great! Don't you think it's great? We can have a party before the party! A pre-party party! And then when the other guests arrive, we can invite them here and have a post-party party!"

"And you think you can escape this place?" Luna asked.

"Sure," Pinkie said and raced for the horizon.

Luna heard the scream and watched the pinkie blur descend from directly above and crash into the ground.

"That wasn't supposed to happen," Pinkie Pie explained. Her voice distorted by her face being flattened. Pinkie shook her head, returning it to normal. "Hmm, something's not right about all of this."

"Do tell?" the Princess asked.

"Princess Luna!" Twilight arrived. "My books! They're all talking! Well, complaining. They're accusing me of hoarding them, and wearing out their words by reading them and -"

"If I'm right corporal, you are in a lot of trouble," Shining Armor told the terrified soldier as he Glory, Mile Stone and several other guards arrived. "We're asleep. Aren't we your Highness?" Armor glared at the corporal who visibly wilted.

"Unfortunately, yes," Luna admitted.

"Isn't it great?!" Pinkie shouted. "We can play and have fun all night, and then wake up and play so more."

"Assuming we can deal with the insanity," Twilight said as she looked back at the library and shuddered.

The arrival of a black, horseless wagon containing the monster and the Apple family stilled talk for a bit as the family extricated themselves with the monster's help. Applebloom seemed the most enthusiastic to have ridden in it. Granny Smith had slept through it.

"If we're asleep, how did she fall asleep during a dream?" Twilight asked.

"Ah'd like to know when Discord got loose," Applejack said. "We got zap apples big as hoofballs growing on the cornstalks, muffins growin' on the apple trees, the timberwolves have been deliverin' written apologies to the cows, and this you have to see." She waved Applebloom forward. The filly was carefully carrying a basket that was lined with a doll-sized quilt. She set it down. Inside were seven, tiny Rainbow Dashes. Cyan body and mane a different, single color of the rainbow.

"What's happening!?" the chorus of Dashes asked.

"It's a dream!" Pip said as he and several other foals trotted up. "Princess Luna will set it right!"

His loyalty warmed Luna's heart. "We'll get out," she assured him.

"This is fascinating. I've never heard of ponies all sharing a dream," Twilight said. She was immediately surrounded by a swarm of Rainbow Dashes.

"If you think this is 'wonderful'," the chorus complained. "I just want it to be over."

"Well, someone got up on the wrong side of her basket," Rarity said as she arrived. "I think someone should check up on Fluttershy. She was dozing in my spare room, but she wasn't there when I woke here. And if I can't find Sweetie Belle, she is going to be in trouble for being up and about at this hour."

The sound of a trumpet fanfare drew Luna's attention. The monster was looking rather chagrined and irritated at having made the noise.

"Do it again!" Pinkie said as she bounced next to him, "Do it again!"

He stuck out his tongue and made a noise like the rapid fire of party cannons. Then frowned and scowled at Luna.

"At least someone is having a worse day than I am," Luna admitted. "Spitfire, take a local pegasus and go to Fluttershy's cottage. Stay in sight of each other at all times." She rubbed her forehead with her hoof.

Before the Wonderbolt could leave, Fluttershy arrived, with the mayor, Derpy and Dinky, several more Ponyvillians, and a second Luna.

"There she is," Fluttershy said. She stood beside her Luna and pointed to the Luna beside Twilight and Rarity.

"Now I see where this is going," Luna said despondently.

The other Luna ordered, "Seize the imposter! She is Nightmare Moon revived!"

The ponies gasped and backed away from Luna. Several of the guards charged their horns, as did Twilight and Rarity.

"Yes, I am Nightmare Moon!" the Luna beside Twilight announced, "I am going to mine the moon and give free cheese to everyone until the griffon cheese manufacturers are driven out of business!" Luna shouted and cackled, "Then I am going to change all the tablecloths into doilies and make brass the next flavor of ice cream! Because I am EVIL!" She laughed and rubbed her hooves together. "Then I am going to draft every able-bodied stallion into my personal harem, and make them feed me peeled grapes all night long!" She sidled up to Rarity. "Clothing will be banned!"

"Oh the horror," Rarity said and rolled her eyes.

"Everyone will wear decorative moustaches! Hats will henceforth be called head rockets, and -" Luna sighed. "I just want this to be over," she said and hung her head.

There was a very unfunny bang. Fluttershy stared at the monster as he lowered the smoking carrot he'd 'shot' the other Luna with. The horn with the smoking base and bits of armor were all that was left of that Luna.

"That's Nightmare Moon's armor!" Twilight gasped.

"Yes, darling," Rarity said, "We shall have an end to it. Lotus Blossom, Aloe, take her Highness to the spa. Full treatment."

"I don't think a spa treatment is going to help," Luna said.

"Oh, I think it will. And we're going to have a little chat while we're at it," Rarity said. Outwardly all smiles and silk, with sharpened steel beneath. "Oh Fluttershy, would you mind accompanying us. I think the Princess could use a bit of a massage while Lotus and Aloe are making her all wonderful."

"Ah, okay," the yellow pegasus said and followed.

"What are we supposed to do?" Twilight asked.

"Why don't you go reread all your books? Or have a reshelving party?"

"Ooo! I can test my new party cannon!" Pinkie announced, "The one I just thought of!"

"Of course, dear." Rarity looked at the spot where Pinkie Pie had been as the Pinkie- shaped cloud dissipated. "Then the rest of you can spend the rest of this nightmare scooping cake frosting off the buildings," Rarity said.

"Oh, and you, Mister Monster, please accompany us," Rarity said. When he didn't move, Rarity smiled. "Fluttershy, please escort our guest to the spa. I'm sure he is simply bursting to help."

"I don't think a facial and a bath will help matters," Luna said, "For either of us."

"Oh, I'm sure they will." Rarity smiled. Then the grin changed, becoming dangerous. She said quietly, "I'm equally sure our affable, high-strung monster's carrot is still loaded. Now move, your Highness." Rarity bowed, but never stopped smiling, and never took her eyes off Luna.

Rarity's horn magic carefully lifted the near-puddle that was the princess out of the hot tub, and onto a massage bed. The shampoo and wing wash had done their work, aided in no small part by Lotus and Aloe's eager and inventive new assistant. If he ever needs a job, those two will be able to charge premium prices for a short treatment with him, Rarity thought and hid her eager grin before she frightened somepony, But the hot, herbal soak reduced her Highness to pudding. As planned.

"Fingers," Luna said drowsily as Aloe applied the facial and Lotus Blossom began a hooficure. The monster, under Fluttershy's careful instruction, managed to combine toweling off Luna with a massage.

Oh, they'd better hire him. If he goes into business, he'll drive them out of it, Rarity considered.

"I am so glad we can communicate," Rarity happily said to him.

Malevolent grins being universal, and the more the princess demurred, the more eager he was to help, she thought as she watched her plans come together, She enjoyed the shampoo and wing wash. Good to know he'll know how to do it later.

"Now your Highness. I hope you're feeling very relaxed," Rarity said as she stood near Luna's head, "Because there's only one being in Equestria who could draw an entire town into a dream. And it isn't Nightmare Moon."

"You accuse me?" Luna said, but the tension drifted away under the combined ministrations of Rarity's coconspirators.

"I make the logical deduction," Rarity said cheerfully. "You were quite disturbed about how you were going to save our friend. You spoke of specific items and instances I won't go into here. I think you want to blame someone, anyone else, for what you did. You can't forgive yourself, because you haven't asked him to forgive you."

"How do I ask forgiveness? In a few months I might be able to write a note. Right now, it is impossible."

"Put yourself in his hands. Show the consequences of what you did and how it hurt you. I think that's been demonstrated rather clearly. Everyone seems to forget an important part of Dinky and Dinky's story. The Diamond Dog who called off his fellows and didn't attack, escaped unscathed," Rarity said, "You were right about the Bearers of the Elements. But I think you were wrong about one thing. Something we've all been wrong about for centuries."

"What's that?" Luna said languidly as the relaxation worked its magic.

"There is a 'social' species on Equestria. One who doesn't need a herd to feel comfortable, but does desperately need others."

"What species is that?" Luna asked sleepily.

"Alicorns," Rarity replied softly. "Someone did something awful to save a life. Now she wants to be punished. You are punishing yourself. But you also need to be forgiven so the punishment can end." She leaned close and whispered to Luna, "I think if you are going to go trotting along everywhere, someone is going to need to know how to properly comb and curry a mare."

Luna bolted to her feet. "What?!" She'd scattered her attendant and their tools. Fluttershy was hiding among the ceiling rafters.

"Do you really want me to repeat it?" Rarity asked. She smiled at her Highness.

Luna bowed her head. "I hate this."

"If you want to be forgiven, you have to humble yourself. I think someone wants to forgive you almost as much as you need to hear it." Rarity looked at the others who were listening intently. All of them. "Now ladies, our new friend needs to know how to curry up a mare so she gleams like a showpony." As Rarity grinned wickedly at Luna, and she saw the answering grin on the monster's face.

Luna seated herself back on the table and braced for all the horrors of a clumsy brushing.

Rarity closed the door once the others filed out into the hallways of the spa. Leaving Luna and the monster alone.

"What was that secret you and her Highness were talking about?" Lotus asked eagerly.

"A lady never gossips," Rarity said primly, "About ponies who can lock you up for the rest of your life."

"Will they be all right?" Fluttershy asked as she tried to peek under the door.

"You seem to trust him," Rarity said.

"Oh, I meant Princess Luna, with him. She seems to get angry very easily."

"Well girls, I will say this," Rarity whispered. She had the trio's complete and undivided attention. "Someone desperately needed a special somepony."

"With him?" Aloe squeaked.

"Don't be so crass," Rarity scolded, "To brush and curry her. To listen to her complaints and sympathize. But she is a Princess. Immortal. A god among ponies. What stallion could she trust who would be there for her, and not for her position?"

"A monster, who cares nothing for those things," Lotus said. "But when he learns?"

"My dear Lotus, he shan't care then either. As that charming Captain Armor said, the poor dear walks as if a bright blade hovers over his head restrained by a single hair. That the blade has a name would not matter."

"They would - kill him?" Aloe said and gulped.

"If he is as dangerous as Discord, or Nightmare Moon, the pony-sisters would deal with him. Not easily and not gently. But we all know he isn't. You saw. Now we shall -" Rarity looked out the window at Ponyville and her eyes widened at what had half-covered the town. "We shall hope Pinkie runs out of ammunition. Before she buries all of Equestria in cupcakes."

Luna woke. The words she'd been forced to utter burned her pride. Worse, the only answer had been a pat, and the soothing stroke of the brush though her coat, her mane and her tail.

"This is the waking world," Emerald Light said as he glowed with his namesake.

"A dream could say as much," Luna replied. The languid feeling of the dream persisted. "Am I a nice pony?" she asked quietly.

"You and her Majesty are good ponies," Emerald Light said, "It is not necessarily the same. If my hoof was infected, you would cut it off immediately, and perhaps without my agreement, to save my leg. That is not a comfortable place to be. But it is very necessary for anyone who commands. I do not like firing any member of your staff. Especially one you have come to know. But while they can be your friend. Their first task is to do the job they were hired for. Charming ponies are common. Charming ponies who can still work are the ones you need. I dare say, the situation is greater with you and your sister."

"Yes," Luna replied.

"Once the party is over, and the guests have returned home, I suggest a quiet canter in the country. Perhaps a single stallion, properly armed, to jaunt through Everfree to the old castle. I'm sure you will have no end of enthusiastic volunteers," Emerald Light said as his light dimmed and the light of the moon brightened.

"You have been talking with Rarity," Luna accused.

"I have been serving my liege, as has she. A true friend will give a pat on the head in public, and a kick in the flank in private, if that is what is necessary," Emerald Light said, "And you have many friends, your Highness."

"Thank you," Luna said as she rose to start her very early day.

Day 9

Rarity moved among her friends in her shop. Her idea! had gone over well, and all she needed was a few details from each of them. "None of you seem the worse for your experience, and I'm certain her Highness was quite satisfied by the outcome," she said happily, "Applejack, have you picked yet?"

Applejack hooved through the book the monster had dropped off for Rarity. "I kinda like the green and pink one. It's like plants or somethin'. And I don't have to change mah mane-style."

"Ooo, Rarity! Can I be the little, pink one? And have a hat like her mane?" Pinkie asked excitedly.

"Pinkie, you don't have an invitation. I will make you the dress though. Maybe we can prevail upon her Highness," Rarity said. "Fluttershy, I shall certainly need your help." She smiled at the pegasus' nod. "And to think, I assumed their clothing was boring."

"Rainbow, have you decided?" Twilight asked.

"Yeah, that one with the short, yellow mane and the yellow and blue dress. She looks tough." Rainbow looked at the drawing in the book closely. "Are you sure these are even the same species? They look way different from the stallion."

"Sexual dimorphism is not uncommon in species," Twilight said as she looked through the book.

"I know that!" Rainbow said, "But are they the same species?"

Twilight facehoofed.

"Rarity," Sweetie Belle asked, "Are you gonna dress Opal up like the cat in these pictures?"

Opal roused herself to explain with perfect clarity what she thought of that idea.

"I'll get some disinfectant for that," Applejack offered to Sweetie Belle. The filly stood blinking as the claw scratches across her face reddened.

"I like the one with the red hair bow and the orange," Applebloom said.

"Twilight, have you picked one out?" Rarity asked.

"I'm kind of torn," Twilight admitted, "I like the purple and maroon. But I also like the one with the two shades of blue."

"I think the purple and maroon would show off your mane far better," Rarity said.

"So you want the blue on blue?" Twilight said seriously, then grinned.

"No, I want the fine lady of the group. The black and garnet will be just stunning. Although I shall do without the fancy club," Rarity said.

"Can I have the blue and red?" Derpy asked.

"Of course dear," Rarity said.

"Can I have the blue on blue, Twilight?" Sweetie Belle asked.

"Okay, if you want it, that solves my indecision," Twilight said.

"Hey Scoots, there's the red and purple, and the green and blue left," Rainbow said.

"I kinda like the green and blue, besides, she's always hanging out with the yellow and blue one," Scootaloo said.

"Can I have the red and purple?!" Dinky asked excitedly.

"Of course you can," Rarity said then looked over. "Oh Fluttershy, I'm sorry. We didn't save one for you."

"That's okay Rarity," Fluttershy said as she hovered over and turned the pages. "This is the one I want." She hoofed through the book. "I just love the pearls, and I love her long hair."

"Fluttershy, I may be wrong, but that's one of the villains," Twilight said.

"So?" Fluttershy asked, "We're just getting dresses, not playing roles."

"You have a point," Rarity admitted, "Besides, you don't actually think they left any of the real villains alive do you?"

"No, you're right." Twilight suddenly chuckled. "What about that cat in the picture makes me think of Princess Luna?"

The boutique rang with the friends' laughter.

Princess Luna was overseeing the arrival of numerous movers and shakers from all over Equestria. Lodgings had to be found, additional food supplies procured, and of course their sycophants demanded much of the Princess' time. This had trapped her inside the command post rather than being able to walk Ponyville and examine the situation herself.

I thought these were the less self-important, she thought, then reminded herself, The ponies are less self-important. Their staff members however.

There was also the parade of VIPs trooping out to the observation posts, but no closer. The monster was obliging the VIPs and their staffs with a bit of a show. It was photographing them as they arrived to stare at it.

"Makes one wonder who should be throwing the peanuts to whom," a shipping magnate and patron of the arts said. "No chance to go down and talk to the creature ahead of the party?"

"I'm afraid our language is unpronounceable to it," Shining Armor said, "As is its native tongue to us."

"So you figure out what sounds you can make together and make a code," the another older mare who drove the fashion scene more often not said. "Three longs and a short make one letter, two longs and a short make another. Whatever the most common letters are, those get the quickest codes. With lips like that on it, if you're telling me it can't whistle, I'll call you a liar to your face, young stallion."

"If you wouldn't mind repeating that to the unicorn mare in the library, I would be most appreciative," Shining Armor said, instead of facehoofing.

"I shall," the mare tottered away with the help of her bevy of assistant.

"How did we miss that?" Armor asked Wind Listener and the Princess when they were alone.

"Until we had that dictionary, it wasn't important," the solider said.

Armor nodded. He put on his tour guide expression as another group of VIPs trooped into the command post. "Welcome. Please hold your questions until after our short briefing," he said, "Then we'll go out and let you have a look at our guest and his native habitat."

Celestia's mercy, it sounds like a zoo, Luna thought and forced herself to smile at another self-important flunkey.

Twilight gently knocked on the creature's front door. Derpy and Spike were with her, but she felt extremely nervous about their assignment for the party. The monster opened the door. He immediately looked at Derpy. The mare nodded, and he stepped aside to let them in.

Twilight looked at the huge shelves of books, the cabinet full of mysterious objects, and heard Spike clear his throat.

"Focus Twilight," Spike warned.

"Of course. It just that," she said as her breathing sped up along with the racing of her thoughts.

"Focus," Spike reminded her.

"You're scaring him," Derpy warned.

"Right!" Twilight insisted and closed her eyes. The children's picture book of etiquette drifted out of her saddle bags and over to the table between the couches. Twilight took a seat on the couch with her back to all those books.

Yet I still feel their presence, she thought, shivering a little at the image, Like a predator waiting to spring, to rip my skull open and pour their alien knowledge within.

Twilight cleared her throat and opened the book. "This is the proper, formal way to greet royalty, and other honored guests." The diagram showed a basic hoofshake. "I don't think we'll need to go over the terms of address. But there are nuances to the hoofshake, and they differ from species to species. In fact," Twilight said.

The snoring sounds from the creature alerted her that her discussion was not being received in the manner she'd intended.

"Right," she said, "Sorry."

Derpy extended her hoof. The monster glanced at the book and extended its hand and touched her hoof.

"Not quite," Twilight said. She pointed to the nuance the creature had missed. "Let's try again, shall we? Spike demonstrate the difference."

"Okay." Spike hopped up on the table and extended a hand.

Mile Stone looked at the poor sentry and smiled. He'd watched the assembly at the perimeter around the monster's house, and moved to support the lone soldier. The VIPs had been cycled through the observation post, and now he had to deal with the consequences and dross of having important ponies around. Like a pile of road apples attracted flies. Reporters, he thought and directed a stern frown at the collection of featherheads who'd tried to barge through the perimeter. One who slipped by was now carried away on a stretcher after eating a cookie. The others steadfastly refused to take the hint.

"This is clearly a military cover up to prevent the ponies of Equestria from knowing what life exists elsewhere in the cosmos. The military doesn't want this newcomer's message of love and tolerance to sweep through the public consciousness since it will undermine the royal stranglehold on our culture."

Dear Princess Luna, the creature engaged in some target practice and there were several deaths. Most excellent shooting, but I do think we should set up a proper archery range with range safety officers to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy., Mile Stone thought, No, she'd never buy that.

"Mares and gentlecolts."

In name only, Mile Stone did not add.

"Our current arrangement precludes letting you all besiege the creature with questions it will not be able to answer," Mile Stone repeated the line the communications and public relations officers had drilled into every trooper.

"Are you hiding that the creature is toxic?" a reporter shouted.

"Are you covering up that the monster eats souls?" another one asked.

You'd be completely safe if it ate brains, Mile Stone thought.

"There are rumors a contingent of troops was sent to isolation after encountering the creature," another reporter shouted.

"Ah, our public relations officer. I'm certain he will be able to say more than I can," Mile Stone called. Then whispered, "Sorry, lad." He stepped back and let the harried officer field the questions.

Mile Stone glanced up to see Derpy and Dinky leaving the creature's home. A moment later Twilight Sparkle trudged towards the perimeter. The reporters saw her and raced around the perimeter to get to her. The mare had a panicked look. Then she and her dragon vanished.

"I must learn that trick," Mile Stone said. Then turned to the PR officer. "Buck up lad, here's round two." The reporters were heading back.

"Sergeant," the PR officer whispered in horror.

"Oh dear," Mile Stone said as the monster came out of his house with the two-wheeler. The herd of reporters raced toward the point on the perimeter the monster approached. They barraged it with questions as it set a green, water-filled bottle on a rock and waited. After a few moments, it lifted the bottle and shook it. It recorded the results, put the bottle back in the basket on the front of the two-wheeler and raced off to another point on the perimeter. The herd baying at his wheels. He exactly repeated the performance.

"Odd he'd come out and distract them precisely at lunch time," Mile Stone noted and indicated the detail approaching to relieve and feed the sentries. Then he watched it head to a third post. There were eight stops in all. It then reversed course, shook the bottle before placing it on the rock and waiting to record the results. Then the first circuit was exactly duplicated. Then the second, and so on. After nearly two hours and all the sentries had been fed and allowed to relieve themselves, the creature carefully went through its readings. It let out an absolutely terrified/terrifying shriek that stood even a soldier pony's hair on end. It raced back into its house and slammed the door.

"Interesting. It seems we're not the only one to see patterns in the 'other'," Mile Stone said, "Peaceful Solitude's detail brought food from mess to the sentries, who were able to eat in peace while the relief she'd brought stood guard, and the pack of whinnycompoops chased a will'o wisp. Most thoughtful."

The footsore, often limping reporters trudged back towards the PR officer's tent. They stayed outside the perimeter and ignored the sentries completely. Some were missing shoes and others were not longer perfectly coiffured.

"Important difference between a good officer and a reporter, Lieutenant?" Mile Stone asked Peaceful Solitude.

"I'd station one soldier at each rock and have them record the results. With one pegasus to look at any difference in the actions taken."

"Or his reaction to the data recorded," Mile Stone added, "Very good."

"What was he doing, ma'am?" the sentry asked as he retook his post.

"Determining if reporters are the same here, as on his homeworld," Peaceful Solitude said. "And to anticipate your next question soldier. I'd say they are."

"Frightening, ma'am."

It was two hours after the moon had risen. The preparations were essentially complete and all was ready. For the first time in her long life, Luna actually resented that there were ponies who were up at night and enjoying themselves. Maybe if they hadn't spent the entire day making my life miserable, she considered as the entered her tent. Too late she realized the stoic looks of her guards and of Emerald Light had been a bit too stoic.

He sat there, in her tent. On her entry he stood. He'd obviously been waiting for her.

"What do you want?" she asked, "I appreciate the help with the set up. Fingers and climbing like a monkey do have some advantages. But I have neither the time nor the patience for games." She transferred the papers she'd finished to her writing desk, and looked at him as he stood there.

He unwrapped a small package. In it was a curry comb, brush and a finishing cloth. Not the overly begemmed and filigreed assets an idiot would think a royal would use. They were good quality and workpony like.

She looked at them and frowned. "It's time you learned the word 'no'."

He just stared at her. His expression neutral with a soupcon of triumphant.

"You think you can win this?" she accused.

He yawned, and it was all she could do to avoid yawning herself.

She wanted to bite him or just poke him out of her tent. "Of course you can win this. You can sleep all day tomorrow," she managed through gritted teeth, "You didn't have to deal with self-important, unthinking fools all day. With more tomorrow."

He just stared at her. Then 'seemed' to realize, and put his hands together, put his head on his hands and made snoring sounds.

"You just want to insure you get a good night sleep!?" she growled in his face with her hooves on his shoulders.

He smiled and nodded. She was one hoof away from breaking him in half.

"I could have said chickens lay eggs and you would have nodded. You just want to see me angry," she growled in her most furious tone.

He smiled and nodded.

The tension burst like a balloon. "All right, you win." She dropped down and climbed onto her bunk. She glared at him as she exhaustedly laid down. "You probably have a point anyway."

The gentle, rhythmic strokes seemed to carry the upsets of the day to the tips of her hair where they evaporated into the wind.

"What do you get out of this? Humiliate me a bit by playing servant? Just an uninterrupted night's sleep? I don't believe that. Or is the humiliation really my penance, and your service shows that you forgive me?"

Emerald Light and the 'close' guard had been on tenterhooks as the monster soothed her Highness. When she finally drowsed off, the monster silently packed his tools and left. The guard slipped in to check on her Highness, while Emerald Light trotted alongside the tall creature.

"Sir, I want to thank you. She is a good pony, person, and I am glad you could find it in your heart to help her. We are all very grateful." He bowed and rested the side of his head beside the creature's knee. "I read Miss Rarity's note to us, but I have to wonder what motivated you."

The creature pulled a page of paper out of the dark jacket it put on, and handed it over. Emerald Light scanned the page of small pictures. Miss Rarity's face replaced the salutation. A picture of an absolutely bawling Princess Luna had two arrows going from it. One arrow had the grooming supplies arranged atop it. It led to a drawing of her Highness seated and head bowed before the monster. The figure the very essence of the penitent. The other had the collection of tools all thrown together and overlapping, encircled with red and a stroke through it. That arrow led to the monster curled up in a ball surrounded by four, happy, jabbering Pinkie Pie faces, and four, triple-sized, furious and screaming Pinkie Pie faces.

"Miss Rarity certainly knows how to bypass a language barrier," he said as he hoofed over the paper, "I suspect a simple invitation would have been sufficient."

The creature had pulled on a watch cap, and covered its face with a dark gray scarf before mounting its two-wheeler and disappearing into the darkness. Neither the monster, it's guards nor Emerald Light noted the two unicorns watching intently.

Day 10

"Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!" The sound of Twilight happily 'Pinkie bouncing' around the library woke Spike from his early slumbers.

"Twilight?" he asked sleepily as he looked down at his friend doing exactly like what it had sounded like she was doing. Spike recognized the paper, and by the thickness of the sheaf, there were easily sixty new pages to the Equestrian-Monster dictionary.

"Good morning, Twilight Sparkle," Luna said as she entered the main hall.

She looks more relaxed than I remember her being since she arrived, Spike thought as he headed downstairs.

"Oh, your Highness! Look! Look! Look!" Twilight bubbled. "More pages, and a couple of books!"

"Very delightful," Luna said, picking up on the librarian's good mood.

Twilight levitated a book and opened it. "Just think, he must -" The sudden end of the happy bounce and the stricken expression on Twilight's face alarmed both Spike and her Highness.

"Twilight!" Spike cried out.

"Twilight Sparkle!" Luna nearly shouted.

"No, no, no, no, no," Twilight muttered fearfully. She replaced the book and lifted another one. "Oh no, no, no, no, no." She shook her head fearfully and backed away from the books.

"Twilight, what's wrong?" Spike asked as he stood before her.

"These books," she whispered as she levitated them towards the Princess.

"What alarms you?" Luna asked. She gasped as she looked into the book.

"What?!" Spike shouted, beside himself with worry.

"I don't recognize any of these characters," Twilight murmured as she moved a book before Spike, "Even accounting for different type faces. And this. These aren't even letters. These are pictograms. It even shows how to write them."

"So?" Spike asked.

"Spike. The monster's people may have as many as three languages, with different ways of writing each one! Our dictionary only scratches the surface. In fact these two other books may be dictionaries between the first language and these two other languages!"

Spike blinked. "And this is a cause to panic, why?" he asked sardonically.

"Who," Owlicious added.

"That too," Spike agreed.

"Spike, everything we know about the monster's language and culture may be wrong," Twilight tried to explain reasonably.

"What you really know about it could be relearned in an afternoon. Once it can write Equestrian," Spike pointed out. Luna seemed to have been calmed down by this. Twilight was still radiating terror.

"I don't think Celestia will send you to the moon over guessing with no real basis for your analysis," Luna assured her.

"But your Highness," Twilight pleaded, "With three languages, so many more variables open up. I'm going to have to completely reschedule . . . "

Spike quit listening at that point and went to the kitchen to make breakfast for the three of them. "This is going to be a long day."

He was enjoying the fit and feel of the suit. She did a wonderful job, he thought as he heard the admiring noises from the other guest, the attending Ponyvillians, and even some of the guards. The tuxedo was striking and would have been acceptable on Earth at any 'white-tie' event, right down to the tailored gloves. And it's comfortable, even washable, he thought as he moved towards the town hall. The shoals of reporters shouted questions at him and for once, he was glad of the language barrier.

That's the fashion designer's hail, he thought, Recognize it like the note of an engine. He turned as she and her usual portfolio of friends and family approached in a group. He couldn't keep the shock from his expression. The fashion designer gloried in it. The others obviously thought themselves quite fetching.

Okay. I have completely lost touch. I gave a fashion designer a book on Sailor Moon and never once considered this possibility, he thought.

The pale, unicorn mare hadn't done a straight cosplay. She'd retained the practical body suit as a base and each character's color scheme, but the flamboyance of the accessories exceeded what had ever appeared on screen. Considering how gaudy the other mare's dresses are, I guess that's a plus, he thought, They're not even horrible. They're actually kind of cute and imaginative.

"You all look very striking," he managed.

The fashion designer accepted the indecipherable compliment with a Southern Belle's charm. The others looked extremely pleased with themselves. The other mares chatted to the fashion designer after pointing to his suit. She simply drank in the adoration.

The yellow pegasus suddenly hid behind everyone else. The pony that approached didn't look too formidable. The fashion designer was reduced to sheepish bleats in response to this pony's gushing comments.

He stood there politely silent.

The purple unicorn made nervous excuses for his inability to reply to the questions thrown at him. The newcomer made great sweeping pronouncements, as if the world would turn on its ear at its whim.

Temper, temper, he reminded himself, This is only your party in that you are supposed to make a good impression. Eating one of the guests is not acceptable. Unless it's one of the supercilious, white ones. He smirked at the memory of the obvious/oblivious noble eating a 'pink mine', and having its useless entourage ineptly helping, versus the swift rescue by the regular soldiers of the reporter-pony who'd done the same.

Guards now rescued the entire group by ushering them in to the hall ahead of the scheduled time. The Guard Captain accepted the thanks of the purple unicorn.

Working relationship, or apprenticeship? I don't know, he thought of the close relationship between the guard commander and the purple unicorn, as they were ushered into a small waiting room. Except the pink one, who hugged the other mares, and was escorted out. I hope I didn't do that, he thought as they waited.

The farmer held up a hand, so he could practice the hand/hoof clasp the unicorn had thought so important. The others joined in and he got it right for each of the ones he tried it on.

Twilight and Rarity stood in the Ponyville town hall, tastefully redecorated for this party. The gentle sounds of the string quartet added to the feeling of sophistication.

"Rarity," Twilight whispered, "I'm so excited!"

"Gently Twilight," Rarity said, "Today we show the world that we are the creme de la creme." Rarity then let out a filly-like squeak.

The three princesses entered: Celestia, Luna and Cadence. They took their places just inside to welcome those who stood in the receiving line.

"This is going to be the best party ever," Rarity whispered to Twilight as they watched their alien protege at the head of the line to greet their Highnesses. "So cultured, and so genteel!"

"Easy, Rarity," Twilight said breathlessly, "They are so gorgeous."

"Doesn't he look dashing?" Rarity said, "I had my doubts, but that formal suit looks so good on him."

"Yes, everything is going to be perfect," Twilight said as he approached Celestia, exactly as they researched, explained and rehearsed. He removed a glove and reached out, as Celestia raised her hoof to shake his hand. "The most momentous inter-species greeting in modern history," Twilight nearly squealed.

He touched Celestia's nose and made a sound like a buzzer.

As Twilight's eyes widened. She saw Rarity's ears go up so fast and so far, she worried they'd come off.

Celestia dropped her shoe, and with great decorum and gravity raised her bare hoof to touch the alien's nose gently. "Beep." Both politely smiled and the receiving line advanced.

"Twilight," Rarity asked as she stared in stunned horror, "Did he?"

"Yes," Twilight said as she felt her world coming unglued, "And Rarity, did her Majesty?"

"Yes, Twilight," Rarity replied.

"Has her Highness?" Twilight asked.

Luna gave Twilight and Rarity a murderous glare. Then she concentrated on the dignified smile on the figure before her, he'd even crouched slightly to not inconvenience her. Celestia's faint yet expectant grin did nothing for the moonlight mare's mood. The other elites in the line were agog at what she would do. It rankled even more.

"Not yet, Twilight," Rarity said and waited if this would be a faux pas, or a new custom.

Luna removed her shoe and touched his nose with a bare hoof. "Beep," Luna said, and was beeped in return.

Cadence could barely contain herself. She dropped a shoe, and let her wings lift her high enough to touch his nose. "Beep," she said with a giggle, and was gently 'beeped' in return.

"Beep, your Majesty," Fancypants said, lifted to a proper height by Fleur de Lis's magic.

"Beep to you too, Fancypants," Celestia said as she touched the stallion.

"Remarkably intimate greeting. Very hard to 'beep' one's friends, with one's nose in the air."

"I hadn't considered that," Celestia said delightedly as the unicorn landed gently.

He lifted Fleur de Lis as she beeped the sovereign of the land. "Beep, your Highness," Fancypants said to Luna.

"Beep to you too," Luna said, "I hope you find this little party enjoyable."

For an instant, the unicorn's cultured expression had a trace of ferality to it. "I wouldn't have missed this new discovery for the world."

"Beep, your Highness," Fleur de Lis said, touching Luna's nose.

"Beep to you too, Fleur de Lis, and welcome," Luna replied.

During this exchange Rarity had fallen over sideways, as had Twilight. The only reason both remained off the ground was they had fallen against each other.

Rarity could only stare in horror. "The elite-of-the-elite of Canterlot, Manehatten, and the other cities, all personally selected by me, have to climb atop one-another, or beg help of total strangers in line to lift them to prevent Celestia from bowing to beep them, and so they can beep her," Rarity said in utter disbelief, "My reputation in Canterlot is ruined," Rarity moaned.

"I think Princess Luna is going to make that not a problem, very shortly after this party is over," Twilight replied bluntly. She tried smiling at the moon princess. "I don't think Nightmare Moon glared at me that way."

"I think one of you two girls better go out and console Pinkie," Applejack said as she ambled over, "Poor mare is outside, beating her head against a post. And her head is winnin'."

"You go help Pinkie Pie," Rarity said, "I'll go have a private word with her Highness. Applejack, find Fluttershy, I'm afraid we are going to need Rainbow Dash and the Wonderbolts, at least for a little while."

"With that line?" Applejack asked incredulously.

"Trust me," Rarity said and grinned.

"Ah wouldn't trust a bear around the cows wearin' that expression," Applejack said quietly.

"Applejack, you wound me so," Rarity said with a grin. "Besides, Pinkie Pie has got to have step ladders stashed in here, in case of a step ladder emergency."

Rarity had contained the disaster and had said her thank yous to Rainbow and the Wonderbolts. Now she searched for where Pinkie Pie had disappeared to after she'd delivered the step ladders.

"Beep, Miss Rarity," Fancypants touched her nose with his bare hoof.

Rarity slipped off her shoe. "Beep to you too Fancypants," she said as she touched his nose.

"I was commenting to her Highness on the remarkable intimacy of the custom. Although having tool legs, and separate, walking legs may make it more reasonable."

"Oh yes, I'm sure," Rarity replied, while wishing for the floor to swallow her up.

"Tell me the truth," Fancypants whispered, "You were as shocked as anyone. You weren't expecting him to beep her Majesty."

"Oh of course," Rarity exclaimed, "With the language barrier we must have confused the poor dear. We schooled him on proper hoof-shakes, but it was always just his friends."

"So when in the presence of her August Majesty," Fleur de Lis said, and beeped Rarity, "He reverted to the most noble and honorable greeting he could think of. Most thoughtful."

Rarity beeped Fleur de Lis, and laughed nervously. "Yes, of course. That must be it."

"I do hope this custom spreads. Those ridiculous lace-up boots are a puzzle box, not a hoof cover," Fleur de Lis said.

"Well, with the elite of all of Equestria's cities here," Rarity said and laughed nervously, "I'm sure it will spread like wildfire."

Fancypants leaned close. "Tell the truth. You knew he would do this, and let their Highnesses in on the joke," he whispered, "Just so you'd have their Highnesses and all your friends in those easily removed shoes. You'll have half the country demanding them by week's end. Very shrewd."

"Shrewd, yes, but I deny everything. I think her Majesty had a greater hand in it than I," Rarity offered.

"She's always hated those lace-ups," Fleur de Lis confided.

"Beep, y'all," Applejack said to her friends. Touching Rarity's then Twilight's nose.

"Applejack, you are not helping," Rarity complained.

"Come on, you and the princess picked these folks 'cause they got a sense a humor. A little thing like this ain't gonna throw'em." Applejack patted Rarity's shoulder. "Most of'em can't wait ta git back home and show their friends."

"That does not fill me with great joy, Applejack," Rarity replied.

"Beep," a well-known matron of the fashion world from Manehatten touched Rarity's nose.

"Beep, ma'am," Applejack said on touching the matron's nose.

"I must thank you again for helping stamp out that ridiculous abomination to hoofwear everywhere."

"Heh, heh, ah, beep," Rarity managed.

"You must be the founder of the feast. Beep," the matron touched Applejack's nose. "The Oranges should be bursting with pride. And finally, some canapes that won't have me up half the night with indigestion."

"Thank ye kindly, and you're very welcome ma'am."

The matron drifted off. Applejack looked at the paralyzed Rarity.

"Maybe you need something ta drink," Applejack offered.

"Yes, Applejack, you're right," Rarity said, "Maybe they serve something in containers large enough I can drown myself in!"

Applejack sighed and guided her friend towards the cider. Twilight headed off to find Fluttershy and the Princesses.

"Your Majesty," Shining armor reported, and saluted.

"No 'beep'?" Celestia asked sounding genuinely hurt.

"I'm on duty ma'am and bound by the codes of conduct and the manual," he replied automatically.

Celestia gave him a salute that would have had any DI weeping tears of joy. "Report, Captain."

"The griffin ambassador has arrived, with a single 'bodyguard' and is, well demanding entrance," Armor reported, "I suggested that this is a private party, but you might prevail on the hosts to add two other guests. And I think Pinkie Pie overheard he's here looking for a party."

"Oh dear. Decisions, decisions," Celestia said and made a show of thinking with her chin on her hoof.

"Might I suggest we let his guard in, to sweep for potential dangers?" Armor offered.

"No, I don't think we want a war on our hands," Celestia said, letting a tremendous prank go to waste. "I'll 'prevail' on them as quickly as decorum permits." Her face screwed up. "Luna, you said that he had meat in his home?"

"Yes, sister . . . alien meat."

Celestia frowned again. "No, that would be asking far too much of our guest of honor. Better to let him greet the Ambassador and get on with the evening," Celestia said, and walked towards the griffon ambassador. Then Luna trotted off to find the monster. Armor was left wondering how he could be shivering when he was covered with sweat.

Ambassador Steel Feather was already complaining as Celestia and Luna approached. The bodyguard was Colonel-General Glorious Sunrise, a griffon who was effectively the dictionary definition of phlegmatic for the griffon lands.

"Ambassador, you missed the receiving line," Celestia said happily, "I know how you enjoy those."

The ambassador offered no greeting and vented her spleen immediately. "There is no excuse for Equestria to monopolize this experience. What this monster brings should be shared with all civilized beings."

"At the moment, confusion, fear and miscommunications are the only things that could be shared. As the language barrier is overcome," Luna promised and watched the ambassador snub her offered hoof, "Things of value will be made public. Unless you believe grilling rather than baking a cheese sandwich is absolutely necessary for the advancement of civilization."

The griffon regarded her as the griffons of legend regarded any horse. "You have already inculcated it into your pitiful customs," the ambassador said and thrust out a hand to the monster as he approached. Shining Armor and Peaceful Solitude bristled at the situation.

The monster carefully extended his arm not touching the ambassador's. The Ambassador seized the monster's forearm just below the elbow, and the monster closed his hand on the griffon's arm. The monster was clearly not happy about the amount of force being applied to him, but emulated enough of it to satisfy the ambassador.

"That is a proper greeting among equals," Steel Feather announced as she released his arm.

The monster stared at Luna in confusion and pointed to his open mouth.

"No, you cannot eat her," Luna said and shook her head.

The monster raised his hands and nodded.

"What outrage is this?!" Steel Feather demanded.

"I believe you surrendered the griffon nation. Or you surrendered yourself, as food for him, so he wouldn't eat the griffon nation," Shining Armor said. "With only pantomime and a few written words, we aren't completely clear on this."

"You are not to eat any griffons, and I have not surrendered to you!" Steel Feather announced, stilling conversations all around the hall. The ambassador marched off in a high dudgeon Rarity would have wished to emulate.

The Colonel-General had taken the opportunity to sheathe his claws as far as he could. He reached up and touched the monster's nose with the pads on his fingertips. "Beep."

The monster beeped the Colonel-General's beak, and the two solemnly exchanged nods. The officer hurried after the ambassador.

"Intelligence says that griffon officer has no sense of humor," Peaceful Solitude said of the departing Colonel-General.

"I think they're wrong," Luna replied.

Twilight was feeling more and more mortified by the moment. While searching for Fluttershy, she'd been 'beep'ed by every Canterlot bigwig she'd suggested Rarity invite. She had watched the skit the Cutie Mark Crusaders had put on as 'light' entertainment. Now she'd finally found Fluttershy, all the scholars, and discovered that the monster seemed to be doing some kind of dance around Celestia. The effects of which had Luna in stitches and Celestia glaring at her sister.

"Hello your Majesty," she offered. She ignored Fluttershy hiding behind her.

"Beep," Professor Strudel touched Twilight's nose and inclined hers for Twilight to reciprocate.

"Beep, Professor," Twilight said nervously, "So, are you enjoying yourself?" The smile was physically painful to hold.

"Our friend here seems to be implying that their sun is the center of their system," the professor said.

Luna's sudden giggle and Celestia's glare at her sister did nothing to lighten Twilight's mood nor eliminate the 'Pinkie Sense'-like feeling of doom that gripped Twilight. The whimper from Fluttershy didn't help.

"That isn't possible," Twilight said carefully.

"It is." Luna snorted and covered her mouth with her hoof, "If the sun weighs 300,000 times more than the whole planet." Luna snorted again at Celestia's glare. "Perhaps their cake is 300,000 times harder to resist than ours."

Professor Strudel glanced at the corulers, then smiled at Twilight. "It seems their moon is huge, roughly a sixth the size of the planet."

"Perhaps their waffles were equally hard to resist!" Celestia puffed out her cheeks at Luna, who was immune to the insult.

"Our friend was demonstrating how the moon-planet combination orbit each other, and the pair orbit the sun," the Professor said to Twilight, trying to ignore the royal tiff occurring next to them.

Luna giggled into her raised hoof. "They'd have to, wouldn't they?" Luna said as if it was the funniest thing she'd ever heard.

The Professor continued, "While the masses and distances are all based on the planetary diameter, and the planetary mass." The professor levitated over to Twilight a parchment she'd been taking notes on. "The math apparently does hold up." The professor considered the two monarchs, frowned and laid out her conclusion, "It would also mean they wouldn't need anyone to raise and lower the sun and moon because the planet's orbit and rotation would accomplish the same effect."

"What?" Luna asked at the same time Celestia did.

Twilight looked up from the calculations. "Uh." Twilight looked at her sovereign and mentor nervously. She bowed her head. "For the right range of planetary masses, the math does support that."

Fluttershy whimpered again.

The monster was fully aware of, but completely confused by the hostile glares he was getting from both monarchs.

He looked at the clearly recognizable podium as the white, winged unicorn walked behind it to speak. The smaller one who'd introduced this one got up on its hind legs to rest its forelegs on the podium, he thought as the crowned equinoid began to give a speech. There was a spattering of polite hoof stomps at the applause points. He politely applauded at those points as well and nodded when it/she directed attention his way. There was much 'applause' at the end.

After a few minutes, the dark blue one also gave a speech. Briefer, fewer applause points, and obviously more direct as many ponies shied from the delivery as applauded. Then the pink one ascended the dias, she got up on her hind legs. Her speech had more laugh lines than the other two combined.

Okay, the white one is the ruler/carrot. The blue one is the ruler/stick. And the pink one is the one for everyone to love. Got it. Also there seem to be only four types: horns, wings, neither and the rare both. Unicorns, pegasi, ponies and rulers, as good a set of names as any. I wonder if rulers are born, or if they promote from within?

He noted the pink ruler waving him forward from the dias, and much enthusiastic hoof stomping and expectant looks from the crowd.

A speech? What the heck am I supposed to say? Especially to a room full of creatures who don't understand a word I'm saying? he thought as they waved him forward to great hoof stomping and cheers when he advanced. Rather than any stage fright, he felt a great sense of the absurd. Okay, you want a speech, I'll hold the MacArthur speech for when you can understand me.

He stood away from the podium, to let them see him. "Be seated." They fell silent. "Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country." He tapped his chest. "He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."

Applejack watched the monster walk back and forth on the stage. She couldn't get the image of a pacing tiger in a cage out of her mind.

"He's really, enthusiastic," Applebloom said from right beside her sister.

"He won't hurt nopony," Applejack said, "I think he's just determined. He wants to help, see how he's smiling?"

"You know, by God, I actually pity those poor bastards we're going up against. By God, I do. We're not just going to shoot the bastards. We're going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We're going to murder those lousy Hun bastards by the bushel."

He was stunned by the massive hoof stomping applause and enraptured looks on even the rulers.

I'm definitely going to Hell for this, he thought as he let them applauded for a while.

He began gently. "Now, some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you'll chicken-out under fire." He waved away the concern. "Don't worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty." Then he grew more strident, "The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's face, you'll know what to do."

Fluttershy sniffled happily. "He's like a proud poppa," she told Scootaloo, "All bark, but he loves his kids."

"Yeah, he gets all scary, then catches himself," the younger pegasus added. "It's almost too bad we can't understand the words."

He marched purposefully across the stage. "We are advancing constantly and we're not interested in holding onto anything -- except the enemy. We're going to hold onto him by the nose, and we're gonna kick him in the ass. We're gonna kick the hell out of him all the time, and we're gonna go through him like crap through a goose!" he said, and then waited as the applause washed up over him.

"Why do you keep smiling," Cadence whispered from her position directly between the two corulers. The two would smile and nod to various movers-and-shakers as the monster's speech continued.

" 'Tia's prank sense is going off," Luna said, "And the poor thing doesn't know why."

"I think my little sister is in love," Celestia replied teasingly. "Maybe I need a potion to turn him into a pony," Celestia offered happily and nodded to another pony.

I wonder if I can get Shining Armor over here to put these two in separate force fields, Cadence thought as she managed to keep smiling.

"Alright now you sons-of-bitches, you know how I feel," he said. He smiled then saluted. "Oh, I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle anytime, anywhere. That's all." He broke the salute and stepped down from the dias to thunderous hoof stamps and several of those closest his path patted him on the back.

Somewhere along the line, he thought, I am going to pay dearly for that little joke.

Rarity was skirting the various groups at the party. When hailed she would wave, but not close so she couldn't be 'beeped' and humiliated further. She spotted the griffon ambassador surrounded by a group of ponies. She certainly is showing that Gilda wasn't too far out of line for her people, Rarity thought. Then stopped and looked forward along the path she'd walked.

She finally focused on something that had simply refused to register when she'd spotted it initially. The other griffon, the officer was sitting and watching the ambassador and all those around her with an aura of purposeful menace. Sitting next to the griffon was Pinkie Pie. Despite the disadvantage of her cute dress and her utterly preposterous hat, the mare was managing to match the severity of the griffon officer's posture and gaze.

"Yes, strawberry frosting could be used. If butterscotch cannot be obtained," Pinkie said in a tone of bland portent.

"Yes, that would work," the griffon said, and gave a glimmer of a smile colder than a VanHoover winter.

For an instant Pinkie's eyes widened, then she clamped down on that ebullience with a force approaching violence. "If sugar causes problems. Addition of cinnamon reduces the need for sugar. There are other 'sweetening spices'," Pinkie added, as if discussing a death long past but still painful.

The griffon nodded.

"Pinkie Pie, Colonel-General," Rarity said tentatively as she approached, "I hope you are enjoying the party."

"Strangely yes," the griffon said. "Usually, no one wants to talk baked good, only politics and war."

Rarity was certain she heard something in her head snap. She suspected it was her sanity.

"Baked goods?" Rarity asked.

The general grunted and nodded.

"And Pinkie Pie, are you having a good time?" Rarity asked. What little hold she had on reality slipping away.

"Good party," Pinkie said curtly.

Rarity laughed. "Well, don't overdo the fun, heh, heh, heh," she said, "Must go mingle." She raced toward the nearest cluster of fashion mavens, beeped each one of them and talked a mile-a-minute about the monster's book she'd gotten the idea for his suit and their dresses from.

"Too serious that one," the general commented.

"We still love her for it," Pinkie replied grimly.

The griffon general smiled for perhaps two-tenths of a second. "Good to have friends."

"Hmm," Pinkie grunted and nodded. When he looked away, she gave a grin.

Day 11

Two hours after midnight, the friends stood in the town square to watch the lights go out in the town hall. Luna and Celestia were with them. The two Alicorn sisters seemed to have given up on the 'does this orbit make me look fat' jokes. Dash landed by herself.

"The Wonderbolts had a great time," she said proudly. "You all look terrible."

"Thank you so ever much, Rainbow," Rarity said.

"Beep," Rainbow said on touching Rarity's nose, and yanking her hoof back from Rarity's snap at it. "Best joke ever." She held up a hoof to the monster. He stared at her blearily.

"He's probably tryin' ta figure out which Dash to hoof clap," Applejack said, "Applebloom and the other two pooped out over four hours ago."

"It was a good party," Pinkie said, then announced, "And it doesn't have to be over!"

"Can I send her to the sun?" Luna exhaustedly asked Celestia.

"Actually," Twilight said, "I kind of agree with her. Do you want to go back to my place? It'll be like a slumber party."

"I suspect none of the other guests will awaken before noon," Luna said wearily, "Onward to fun."

"That's the spirit!" Pinkie told her as she patted Luna's head. "Ah, being quiet now." She smiled at the glaring Princess.

"Ah, do you want him along?" Rainbow noted the monster was walking back towards its home in the distance.

"I'll," Pinkie announced, then Applejack and Twilight tackled her.

"Come on Fluttershy," Rainbow Dash said, and the two pegasi headed off after the tall creature.

"I'll head over to the library," Rarity said, "With their Highnesses. I hadn't intended these outfits to be used for roughhousing."

"Last one there kisses Discord," Celestia said and raced off. Luna was hot on her sister's heels.

"As if I wouldn't have had Twilight train me," Rarity said and vanished. A moment later she opened the library door for the racing alicorns.

"I don't know what fun this guy is going to be," Rainbow Dash said as she and Fluttershy escorted the monster towards the library, "He's really out of it."

"A little tea might help," Fluttershy suggested. The creature suddenly ducked out of the pegasi's grip.

"What the hay?" Rainbow Dash asked as she turned to pursue.

Twilight and Applejack had gotten back up and were both glaring at a smirking Pinkie Pie.

"I just wanted to have fun!" Pinkie complained. Then the monster landed on Pinkie's back. She reared up, neighed loudly and the pair took off into the darkness.

"I thought he was a scared a her," Applejack said.

"I think we should be more scared that they're working together," Twilight said, then ran for the library, "Last one in kisses Discord!"

The pink blur raced past Twilight and set her spinning as the others trotted past.

"I'm sure Rarity's got the perfect lipstick for that," Rainbow said.

"I'm just going to lie here for a moment," Twilight said, "I'm sure the library will come around eventually."

The monster had a miniature of the system with which he'd shown the images to Dinky.

"Music?" Luna asked as he loaded the small record into the side of the machine.

"How is it working away from his home?" Rarity asked. The screen was not large, and the image was black and white. The booming noise and the roar as the cinema began shocked all of them. What terrified them more was the image of absolute devastation of a city reaching nearly to the horizon.

Struggles of an obviously wounded monster to free himself from the wreckage had Luna staring at the images. The eerily disturbing music did not help Luna's equanimity. The creature on the screen tenderly checked the condition of another victim. His careful abandonment seemed to indicate death clearly.

The scene change showed monsters uniformed in medical and military garb. Images of row on row of wounded, stretcher bearers carrying yet more shocked all the Equestrians. Cries of anguish were recognizable despite the alien creatures making them. The monsters moved with a purposeful tenderness, seeing to the wounded and the survivors of the dead.

Luna looked at the monster who seemed more interested in the reactions of the appalled Equestrians than the images on the screen. The Element Bearers stared at the horrifyingly comprehensible images. Despite the alien creatures and language, the scenes of destruction by an unseen force were clear enough.

"What is this?" Celestia asked, as mesmerized as all the others.

"The costume book was full of images of his people fighting monsters," Rarity said, "This must be a documentary or recreation on the subject. Maybe the first attack. They don't seem to know what's happening. Look at the expressions of confusion on their faces. They are eerily pony-like."

"That panic is certainly pony-like," Celestia said, "What is the smoke coming out of that one's mouth, are they part dragon?"

"EEP!" Fluttershy squealed as a ship, larger than the largest operated on Equestria, burst into flame and sank immediately.

The monster watching the cinema with them patted Fluttershy. Her response was to crawl into his lap.

He watched as even the rulers stared at the tiny screen, enraptured by the movie. If it is a slumber party, then I needed a ghost story. I knew if they liked Sailor Moon so much, he thought as he watched their whispered discussions, They'd just love Godzilla.

Once the monster had gone to sleep, Twilight had puzzled out the controls on the machine. Luna had collected the cadre of the observer group, and replayed the documentary for them before the machine's power faded. Her brother had been particularly moved by the creature-scientist who'd created the monster-killing weapon taking his own life.

"I'm guessing that he was sufficiently horrified by his discovery that while he could countenance it being used once, he would not let it be used again," Armor said, "So he destroyed his notes, and the only other place the knowledge was stored. If the weapon did that to the city-killer, the weapon's creator could hardly have escaped."

"Why would he show us this?" Peaceful Solitude asked, disturbed by the images especially the destruction of a city greater than all the cities of Equestria combined.

"He's been trying to be very clear about his motives and trying to pre-indicate his actions." Mile Stone sat and glanced to the room the monster slept in. "I think Miss Rarity is correct that he was sent to fight monsters. Except there are no monsters. It could be a resume. Offering to fight our monsters. He's shown no indications that he is anywhere near as dangerous to us."

"Sister?" Luna asked.

"He watched us, rather than the images on the screen," Celestia said, "He wanted to see how we reacted."

"Your Majesty," Twilight said, "I don't think he wanted to know what he could do to horrify us."

"I'm not sure what his reaction was. He didn't seem all that affected by it," Celestia said thoughtfully, "And he was not surprised when Fluttershy reacted as she did. I think he knew we'd be shocked. And that some of us would be more shocked than others. He approved of us being shocked."

"Seeing how we'd react to the greatest disaster in their history?" Peaceful Solitude asked, "Seeing if we'd empathize with his people?"

Luna and Celestia nodded. "We've been worried whether he saw us as 'people'," Celestia said, "It's no wonder he might want to know the same."

"Very clever," Luna said.

Rarity yawned as she approached. "Talking about that dreadful cinema again?" she asked and shook her head, "I'm just glad their instincts seem to have an 'off' switch. The clothing of the people was different from the fashions in the book. I would have to guess they are from slightly different times."

"But the pictographs in the cinema are similar to the pictographs in the book," Twilight said, "He gave me a dictionary. I can deduce which pictographs are used, but not what they would mean in Equestrian."

"Wait a moment, you said that the cinema and book pictographs are the same?" Armor asked.

"Yes," Twilight replied.

"That could be it," Luna said, "The main nation fell to the monster assaults. His country was what was left. Like Discord destroying Equestria, but leaving the griffon lands and dragon-home untouched."

"Fascinating." Rarity said and yawned. "What does that mean for us?"

"I . . . don't know," Luna admitted.

"Could he be a scout for a colonization group? Evacuate their homeworld to Equestria?" Twilight asked.

"I'm not sure I'd like such a militant force arriving here. Even if they did bring their own homes with them," Celestia said. She shook her head. "You should all get some sleep. The sun will be up in a few hours, you can think about it all then. Just keep him away from any full-grown dragons."

"Yes, your Majesty," they all said.

He'd risen early, soon after sunrise. Most of the others, save the rulers, were still sound asleep. He'd decided to return home, get some breakfast, and sleep the rest of the day. I have no idea why the ponies keep giving me looks I can only guess are sympathy. I didn't think the party was that bad, he thought as he walked and encountered a few early risers, Unless the rulers have decided to punish me for the little joke. Maybe they're going to send me to an alien planet where I'll never see my own kind again. Oops, already done.

He pushed aside the faint melancholy and continued towards his house. He ignored the purple-eyed, azure unicorn and the magenta glow that surrounded its horn and them. Probably a practical joke.

"Guards!" Mile Stone shouted as he watched the two, odd unicorns approach the monster and Peaceful Solitude. The officer had been felled by the magic burst, while the monster was whisked away by the two unicorns. "Guards!" the sergeant shouted. Throughout the square early-rising ponies were looking around or opening their windows to see who was raising the ruckus.

The three princesses came charging out of the library along with Shining Armor.

"Someone stole our guest," the sergeant told them. "Walked up and teleported away with him."

"That's impossible," Luna said, "I had an anti-teleport charm on him. Only someone far stronger than an ordinary unicorn could teleport him."

"What about two powerful unicorns?" Mile Stone said, "Is it safe to approach her?" he asked of the fallen Peaceful Solitude.

"Yes," Celestia said after a moment of intense concentration. "I don't feel him anywhere near. Whoever stole him took him to the edges of our kingdom."

"Who?" Cadence asked. "Who would do such a thing?"

"Someone not content to wait for our researches to bear fruit," Luna said, "Or one who didn't trust that we would share."

"Or felt if they had him, they wouldn't have to share," Shining Armor pointed out. As he watched the medics carry the fallen officer away.

He glanced at his sister and her friends as they sleepily exited to watch the activity. "Put a lid on this," he told the sergeant, "We've got a pack of VIPs who'll assume that they are next."

"Leave them to us," Celestia interjected. "Find him and get him back here," she spoke carefully, "You saw, now he may be in the hands of enemies. I shudder to think of what shall happen."

Armor nodded.

"You don't actually believe that, do you sister?" Luna asked as the pair walked. She spoke in an ancient dialect of Equestrian she doubted even Twilight Sparkle had ever heard of, let alone was fluent in.

Even Celestia took a few moments to remember the forms. "I think someone is playing a very dangerous game."

Luna forced herself not to smirk. Don't like a challenger to the cup? she considered her own sister's webs of subtle manipulations and games.

"Because they have succeeded in making me angry," the master of the sun said quietly.

Okay, not going to talk about it, Luna realized. They completed their walk in silence. The griffon ambassador was their first stop.

He materialized out of the teleport, and immediately screamed in pain. Finger-thick rods seemed to have appeared through his feet. The knee-high rods were topped with three barbless fish hooks to prevent easy removal. As he started to collapse, he had to avoid dozens of similar rods that lay in rows and columns all around him.

His two `travel agents` hovered over him. The pale green unicorn with the blue mane and tail grinned at him and the azure unicorn with the cornflower blue mane and tail. The azure unicorn glared back at the green. The pale magenta aura surrounding the green one's body and the azure one's horn mirrored the red-orange glow surrounding the azure unicorn's body and the green one's horn. The auras had held them out of the field of spikes he'd been dropped into.

I think this is the first time something in this world successfully hurt me, he thought as he managed to sit among rods, avoiding being pierced or scratched by the clusters of barbless fish hooks that grew at the top of the rods, or at their base. This is an antipersonnel field. Like barbed wire, he thought muzzily. He looked up at the two unicorns as they hovered over him, discussing with each other.

A red-orange glow surrounded him and pulled him up off the ground. His feet slid up the rods until they caught on the hooks on the top. The green unicorn didn't hesitate and pulled him up, digging the hooks into the tops of his feet until it pulled the rods out of the ground. Darkness took him as the pain overwhelmed him.

The azure unicorn spared a glance at the metal object their captive had dropped somewhere along the process. Her 'senior' was enjoying the pain she'd inflicted on the captive too much to notice the glow surrounding the device that sent it winging towards the azure unicorn.

Laugh all you wish, she thought of the laughing, green unicorn, Trixie will be free.

"It is clear that it must speak Equestrian," Tear Twirler told the crystal ball linked to their 'tutor'. The green and blue unicorn looked at Trixie with contempt, "She is too stupid to realize this."

" 'She' believes we should have let the Alicorn-sisters do the difficult job of teaching it Equestrian, and -"

"Coward," their 'tutor' proclaimed, and the tiny golden ring at the base of Trixie's horn glowed ominously.

Trixie just bowed her head. "Trixie asks forgiveness for her unworthy doubts and fears," she said to forestall pain and terrors given by the ring.

The glow faded and their mentor chuckled through the crystal ball. "Persuade it to speak. If it will not speak, let it scream, but it shall learn to act on our command."

Trixie hid her smile and bowed. "I will do my best, but I bow to the expertise of Tear Twirler in that realm."

"You will learn," the green and blue unicorn said.

Trixie bowed again. "Trixie will do her best," she said as she walked as despondently as she could to where he was being held.

Fools, Trixie thought, But in saving Trixie, she will also save you.

"She is weak," Tear Twirler told their tutor so Trixie could also hear.

"She amuses me more than you do," their tutor said.

Trixie entered the large closet where the creature was being held. She lit the magic lamp, and stared at the creature. The hate-filled look she got in return filled her with an odd glee. Soon my fellow prisoner, just play my game, and we shall both be free, she thought as she approached and his expression became one of vague pleasantness. Nothing to alert me when you spring. I have walked the wilds too long to be surprised. Just barely in reach, she transferred to his hand the little rocket launcher he had dropped on arriving here. A tiny thing, concealable between two hooves. But it would stun a unicorn with a hit on the horn, she thought, and pointed at her own horn.

He looked wary, and Trixie grinned. She moved to his feet where two spikes of the teleport trap still stuck. She bowed and tried to look apologetic. I know this will hurt, but you have the means to strike back, and both of us know it, she thought and used magic to slice off the ends so only a short stub protruded from his feet.

She braced herself for the blow, as he writhed silently at the agony using magic on the teleport trap pieces caused. I too saw your little 'show', she thought, You can be ruthless, but you try curious first.

As he calmed and focused on her, she raised a hoof over his foot. She watched him tense. She brought it down sharply away from his foot as she silently pantomimed screaming in agony. She looked at him and nodded, then shook her head. He slapped the floor, and let out a bloodcurdling ululating scream. Her ears pinned back in terror, she nodded.

"You speak Equestrian, don't you?" she shouted, and stamped.

The answering scream was everything she hoped for. For the next 20 minutes, she'd shout a question, stamp, and he'd let out a scream of pain and terror.

Finally she finished. She'd learned something else from the odd cinema he'd shown the others. She kissed him on the lips, and hugged him. Then grinned at his confusion.

We will save each other, Trixie thought, If you continue to be an excellent assistant. She nodded to the door, and touched her hoof to her horn, and then cast a minor illusion of Ponyville. The grim nod told her that they would soon be free.

She left the closet and walked back to main lab. She took on a defeated air and let herself cry as she entered. The large crystal was dark, meaning their tutor's attention was elsewhere.

"You failed," Tear Twirler said.

"It was an impossible task," Trixie replied as she scrubbed her eyes dry, "Pain cannot overcome the impossible."

The mad pony stared down at Trixie. "You just didn't know how to apply it. Ponies have achieved great things, when properly motivated."

Trixie bowed, but inwardly seethed. And that is why you are hiding out here, playing servant/slave to a dragon who also lives on the fringes, she thought, Trixie will soon be free of both of you. She followed the green and blue unicorn to the closet.

"Should Trixie hold it down?" Trixie asked, "Your play-toys thrash about so."

"Trixie can do as she wishes," Tear Twirler said contemptuously.

He'd drawn up his legs and covered them with his coat. Disguising the shortened trap rods.

"He thinks that will protect him," Tear Twirler said as she drew close, but stayed out of reach of those arms. Trixie hugged his chest from behind, so he couldn't leap up to close the distance.

"Ready?" Trixie asked them both.

Tear Twirler closed her eyes to summon magic, as did Trixie. The huge bang and flash covered the fade out. Trixie heard Tear Twirler's screams clearly as they transited the distance.

He was screaming in earnest as they reappeared just outside the Ponyville hospital. Despite her exhaustion, she grabbed his shirt collar and dragged him in the doors. Orderlies were already reacting to the sounds they'd heard just outside their doors. "His feet have been pierced with metal," she told the first nurse-pony, "There is a solvent on the metal that burns on contact with magic. Some has gotten into his blood, so use magic only as a last resort," she told the nurse, who relayed the order in medical jargon.

"How do you know this?" the nurse asked pointedly, "And how did you find him?"

"Trixie has seen the effects, and the second is not important. If you have medical questions?" Trixie asked, and received a head shake. "Then Trixie must report to Twilight Sparkle." She ran toward the town's library.

I both have to keep her away, and admit my guilt, Trixie thought as she galloped through the town that resembled an overturned beehive more than anything else.

Coming out of her destination were the Alicorn-sisters themselves.

Might as well die with my head held high, Trixie thought as she blocked them.

"Please hold," she called, "His injuries are tainted with something that reacts badly to magic. Your mere presence may be sufficient," she said quickly to allow no interruption, "He is at the hospital and they are aware of that problem."

"And how do you know this?" Luna asked.

"Because I am one of the foalnappers," Trixie admitted.

Luna growled and raised a hoof. Celestia watched without reaction. Luna stamped her hoof down. Not on Trixie's skull.

"Guards!" Celestia called as she satisfied herself Luna was not going to dispense justice here and now. "Why would you do this?" she asked.

Trixie pointed to the ring at the base of her own horn. "This magnifies my power. In return, my tutor has geased me to serve her to the best of my abilities and to follow her commands. Or I will be punished."

"And this is her order?" Luna asked angrily.

"No," Trixie admitted as three guard unicorns approached. "But returning him as swiftly, and as unharmed as possible, then begging their Highnesses' mercy on my tutor seemed to be the best service Trixie could offer."

Celestia touched the gold ring with her hoof and it shattered. "Put her under guard," the sun princess said, "Luna shall be in charge of the pursuit if she attempts to escape."

A glance at the moon princess. Trixie would prefer to be pursued by Nightmare Moon, Trixie thought and bowed. She let the guards lead her to wherever they would hold her. I would have preferred not injuring him to free him, Trixie thought, But I am free. She hadn't expected to be warmly welcomed by the Ponyville citizens as she was escorted through town, but the furious glare by the pink pony she hadn't seen before had Trixie more than a little concerned.

"Your Highnesses," the doctor said as he entered the town hall where the two alicorns were 'holding court'. "We've completed the operations, and other than a prolonged recovery, the prognosis is excellent." He ignored the expressions of the ponies he'd cut in front of, but he was a doctor.

"Why prolonged?" Luna asked.

"Because we tested a blood sample and the effects of that material are quite unpleasant. The effect of teleporting him here affected his entire cardiovascular system, and that's part of what he needs to heal. There wasn't much there, but until it is gone, we cannot use magic that we'd normally use to speed the healing process. As soon as we can, it should hasten his recovery. I'd recommend a full body procedure. He might need it. Blood does get nearly everywhere."

Celestia nodded. Luna stifled a growl with some effort. The two sisters turned to the next in the long line of petitioners. Their Highnesses' chamberlains, Emerald Light and Feather Stockings exchanged glances and rolled their eyes at yet another request for reassurances that somepony's principle/boss/employer would be safe from this teleporting foalnapper.

Shining Armor charged in. Another pony bucking the line. He raced up to Princess Celestia. "Your Highness, I'd like you to order a certain Pinkie Pie to stop trying to slip cookies to the prisoner, Trixie."

"So ordered," Celestia said and facehoofed.

"Why am I locked up with her?" Pinkie Pie demanded from her cell across from Trixie's.

"Because you disobeyed a royal order," Mile Stone said, then whispered, "Ingenuous plan, now you can keep an eye on her yourself, and nopony's the wiser. As long as you don't misbehave and we have to move you." He winked at the pink mare, who winked back and settled on her bunk to stare at Trixie. No mouse was ever watched by a hawk that intently. Only the pink mare's bottlebrush tail gave any indication of her true feelings.

Mile Stone walked out of the makeshift cells and out into the guard post.

"How did you do that?" Shining Armor asked.

"I've dealt with overeager lieutenants given orders by generals before. I mistakenly ignored that she'd take any order in that context," Mile Stone admitted, "Since I created the monster, it was my duty to channel and curb its enthusiasm."

"Where's the sergeant school and when can I sign up?" Peaceful Solitude asked.

"The curriculum is twenty years, lass," Mile Stone admitted, "And a good officer goes through it as well."

"Alert me if either starts a ruckus," Shining Armor said.

"What about a fracas?" came from the cells.

"Any disturbance," the corporal of the guard said.

The officers departed.

"I'm just glad he didn't actually meet the dragon," Shining Armor said. "I know he's met Spike, but after last night's cinema, I'd like to keep the existence of big dragons away from him as long as possible."

"Agreed," Peaceful Solitude said. She looked up at the beginnings of twilight. "This has been a long day."

"The VIPs have expedited their departures. Tomorrow should be less strenuous," Mile Stone said, "But I'm off to check the guard around the hospital, and the mages who've cast the wards. Nothing should get in or out except if it's an emergency."

"Did the medics accept moving it back to its house?" Armor asked, "Oh, sorry, power for their equipment. I forgot."

"That and keeping that as a refuge will help." Mile Stone headed off to make his rounds.

"So, I heard that Princess Cadence hid behind you for easily half the cinema," Peaceful Solitude said quietly.

"I was the largest object in the room, aside from their Highnesses," Armor said stoically, but he was blushing. "Overturning tables is not Princess Cadence's style."

Peaceful Solitude let the matter drop. But she kept grinning in a somewhat disturbing manner.

5) Succor in Perfidy

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Cultural Artifacts - Succor in Perfidy

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Day 11

Twilight paced the library floor. "What kind of pony or dragon makes a material that makes using magic on somepony dangerous?" she asked the open air. Spike having retired hours earlier, and Owlicious being incapable of answering beyond the obvious 'whoo'.

"Go to sleep, Twilight Sparkle," Luna said as she entered the library, "Take it as advice from a friend. Take it as a royal command. Either way do it." She walked over to Twilight. "Thoughts racing to no purpose distract us from what we do have." She lifted the pages of the Monster-Equestrian dictionary. "That is what should consume your thoughts. He is beyond our help at the moment. Nurse Redheart and her staff are safer for him that either of us. They have projected 12 days until it is flushed from his system. Fewer, if he regains consciousness and can be convinced to ingest large cisterns of water or tea. And the answer to 'why' is to punish any intruders and to destroy them when they left. If you teleported into such a defense, you would try to leave immediately. The multiple stakes in your body would consume you completely. For a raiding dragon, the spikes and the vengeance would be worse." She nuzzled the agitated mare. "Go to sleep, tomorrow will be better."

"Yes, Highness." She smirked. "Beep," she said as she touched Luna's nose.

"Beep to you too, Twilight Sparkle," Luna replied and left.

Twilight trudged up the stairs towards her bed. Owlicious had already arrived on his quiet wings and turned down the bed for her. "Thank you," she said and settled in for what she hoped was a dreamless sleep.

Day 12

Slightly past midnight, Luna walked into the command post where Celestia waited. Stacked around the outside of the command post were numerous large chests.

"Queen Tiamat 'Thanks us for bringing this to her attention'," Celestia said to Luna as she arrived. "She sent this as recompense for the trouble of enslaving two ponies, and inflicting harm on our visitor."

"That certainly stifles any concern about bits for supplies. Properly invested, that's enough to live on forever," Luna said.

"There's also a number of magic items included. I suggest we keep those out of the settlement, until we can determine what they are," Celestia said.


"Then Queen Tiamat asked if either of us wanted a rug," Celestia offered deadpan, "I think she was joking. And I think she was joking because they hadn't located Tear Twirler."

"Where does such a mad unicorn come from?" Luna asked, "King Sombra I could understand. He enslaved his subjects to build his empire. Only Discord inflicted pain for his own amusement."

"Bullying is not unknown, and physical violence is the ultimate expression," Celestia said, "It is the description that worries me. I know of only one unicorn that fits that description. A young researcher from Baltimare. He was always delving into the darker magics. Supposedly to find ways to redeem them. He left Equestria after too many investigations into his dark dealings that found nothing. But he headed away from the dragon lands."

"And you have not tracked someone who never understood that the dark magics were avoided because of their dangers and side-effects?"

"Despite what my critics think, neither you nor I can see everyone and everything on Equestria and catalog it. Besides, what I do remember is he never found anything of any use. He was a bungler, to put it mildly, who went looking where wiser heads wouldn't, to prove he was different."

"And by extension, better," Luna agreed. "That sounds far too much like our prisoner, rather than the mad unicorn she described. But even she wouldn't mistake a stallion for a mare." Luna paused and weighed breaching the next problem. "Sister. Have you ever dreamt of Nightmare Moon? Recently?"

"I rarely sleep, so I rarely dream," Celestia said thoughtfully, "But after that horrible vision of the stairs, I dreamt of her once. She was coming after me, she was coming after you, and she was coming after all of my, our ponies."

"What happened?" Luna asked.

"I remembered my sister's training. I turned her into a cupcake and fed her to a dragon I had in my saddlebags."

"You had a full-sized dragon in your saddle bags, you don't wear saddle bags," Luna exclaimed, "Your staff would all have apoplexy if you seriously considered wearing saddle bags."

"Not commenting on the dragon?" Celestia teased.

"It was a dream, I'm surprised you didn't pull out the Element Bearers with the Elements." Luna considered. "I have been bothered by her showing up in all my dreams. I fear that I may encounter her while dealing with a more mundane nightmare."

"I think you'd have an ally who could frighten even Nightmare Moon," Celestia said, "And since you need to exorcize his demons, let them expend themselves against Nightmare Moon."

"What if they are stronger?" Luna asked.

"Then invite them for tea and muffins. They should be as mannerly as their master," Celestia said. "Beep." She touched Luna's nose. "I can't wait to get back to court."

Luna grumbled at that, but couldn't keep from laughing.

Trixie was not expecting to see her Majesty, especially not at this hour. Trixie was aware that while the pink one was feigning sleep, that mare was awake and watching.

"Your Majesty." Trixie bowed low. "How may Trixie be of service?"

"It seems that Queen Tiamat counts Trixie among the victims, rather than the perpetrators of the actions of your tutor." Celestia seemed to look through the unicorn into her very heart and soul. "That leaves us the problem of what to do with Trixie," Celestia said primly. "Trixie told us that Trixie gave him his weapon, and then injured him. Yet he took no action."

"That is correct, Majesty. Tear Twirler sought to hurt him, and he fired his rocket against her horn. Tri - I think she was very surprised."

"I am surprised she isn't dead," Celestia replied, "He has used similar weapons against Diamond Dogs, and they died. At the very least he would have destroyed her horn."

Trixie gasped at that.

"Do not think you did anything other than escape a most horrific death at his hands," Celestia said, "But that is the use I have for you. Nurse Redheart was in here earlier. She had a sample which had the solvent in it. Evidently, your magic is not strong enough to cause a reaction."

"If my lack of strength will serve her Majesty, Trixie is ready to serve." The unicorn bowed.

"Since the injuries will deny him the use of his legs for at least two weeks. You will be them," Celestia said.

"WHAT!" the pinkie mare shouted as she practically threw herself against the bars. "She kidnaps him! She hurts him! I only played a game with him! And she gets to be his helper?!" She sniffled and burst into tears.

"Pinkie Pie, Trixie is being punished, not rewarded," Celestia said.

The pinkie mare stopped crying. "Okay. Down with Queen Celestia! All hail Luna's New Lunar Republic!" the pink mare shouted and waved NLR banners.

"Luna and I started that organization to let ponies express themselves," Celestia said in a bored tone. "And I'm not going to make your punishment working with him. You still worry him. Trixie does not. Besides. My sister will be watching her very closely."

"Yes, watch her like a griffon!" the pink one exclaimed, "And if she steps one hoof out of line! Straight into the freezer!"

"Freezer?" Trixie asked.

"It eats meat," Celestia said, "And she's supposing that it would eat you."

"Trixie doubts he would take that step," Trixie said carefully.

"You are rather taken by him?" Celestia asked.

"He trusted me," Trixie said, unable to keep up her usual facade with Celestia's gaze falling on her. "For so long I have been either a joke, despised, or both. I gave him a little proof of my intentions, and he trusted me. Maybe you can take ponies' trust for grafted. But I cannot. It was pleasant to be trusted. And to be able to be worthy of that trust."

Her Majesty nodded. "In the morning you'll be released from your cell, report to the Captain of the Guard. You will be assigned your duties at the moment by the presiding physician. Once he is able to make himself understood, you will take direction from the monster." Celestia noted Trixie's faint disapproval. "Monster is the technical term for a creature of abnormal shape or size, and this one has both. It does not have to be something horrifying."

"It seems inappropriate for someone who has done little harm to Equestria," Trixie said carefully.

"It is what everyone has called it. If you can make a different name stick, then by all means attempt it. If you can discover the creature's actual name, even if it cannot be pronounced in Equestrian, then share it with us," Celestia said.

Trixie bowed. Her Majesty Celestia left. The pink mare still stared at Trixie.

"I haven't forgotten you," the mare said.

"Trixie was hoping her fame would last," she replied and returned to her bunk.

The briefing, and the stern warnings by the captain of the guard, Shining Armor, were what Trixie was prepared for. The purple unicorn who 'happened by' the command post before the sun had risen, and immediately after the lecture was delivered, Trixie had been hoping to avoid.

"Hello Trixie," Twilight Sparkle said nervously.

Trixie had dreaded the expression. Trixie does not desire to be pitied, Trixie thought.

"You know, Trixie, if you needed help. . . . There, ah, were other ways," Twilight stammered, blushing the entire time.

"Twilight Sparkle. I would not be you for all the world," Trixie said calmly. The purple unicorn stared in shock. Even the captain of the guard watched. "Magical powers to rival any living unicorn, trained by her Majesty Celestia herself, and one of the key Elements of Harmony. Battles and victories that would make you a legend thrice over before you've had your first foal. And Trixie is merely a strolling player, living on the margins, with no roots, no home and few who would miss her when she goes. Yet I would not trade places for all the world. For you have seen only the love of a goddess, I have seen only her anger, and still you fear her. You could command even the captain of Celestia's Guard, yet you fear the world. You read and study more about magic than any has in living memory, yet your mentor and now your friends must drag you kicking and screaming to face the world. Something Trixie has done without fear, without world-shaking powers and without friends, for years."

Twilight stared at her in stunned amazement.

Trixie shook her head and continued. "No, I would not be the great force that the goddess Celestia trusts and dispatches to face demons and monsters galore. I will never cross your path, unless some trinket of fell and mighty magic falls into my hands. Even then my chances of victory would be slim. I will never be even a shadow of what you are, yet I am happier being me, than you are being you. There is peace in that, and I will take the punishments for my actions and still be Trixie. You seem most frightened of being consumed alive and screaming by Twilight Sparkle. Is she really somepony to be so feared? Or is her power what you fear? She has a good heart, she has friends who love and trust her. If you cannot trust her, then trust them, they will keep her from harming you." She turned to the guard captain. "Trixie is ready to begin serving her sentence."

The captain led Trixie away. The traveling player felt the eyes of Celestia's favored student on her for quite a while.

"I've never heard it put quite that way before," the captain said.

"Trixie does not desire to be pitied, by one so afraid. Trixie does not know why she fears, but somepony had to tell her that her fears were there."

"Well, thank you in any case. That's her big brother saying that."

Trixie almost choked. "You are Twilight Sparkle's elder sibling?"

"To quote one of the locals, 'Yep'."

They walked in silence for a while. "What are my duties?"

"Initially, don't cast any magic. Beyond that, whatever the nurses tell you to do," the captain said. "I have never spent much time in hospitals, so I don't know the routine."

Trixie nodded.

Luna hadn't expected to see Glorious Sunrise in the command post. The griffin waited patiently for Luna to acknowledge him. "Colonel-General, I thought you would have returned home with the rest."

He placed a parchment on the writing desk. "The agreement needs your signet as well," the Colonel-General said, "The basic stipulations are an increase in certain imports and exports between the Griffon Lands and Equestria. An exchange of foods he'll need to remain healthy as well as cheeses. A few restrictions on imports that will be quickly reversed when our 'Prince Bluebloods' realize they have been improved by what you discover. And, one griffon observer. As a spy for the griffon lands, you'll find my nephew quite useful. He's one of our finest codebreakers. Note, I said codes, not ciphers. For an alien language, you'll need a codebreaker, not a deciphering expert."

"Most generous," Luna said quietly as she noted the griffon's signature alongside Celestia's official mark. Two copies of the document. One for the griffons and one for Equestria. Luna scanned the entire document, verified the copies were exact, then added her own mark to both, making the document binding.

"Our peoples have not been enemies for centuries." The griffon collected one of the papers. "But as rivals, we have made each other better. This is too large for even the alicorn-sisters to carry alone. The dragons will allow us to do the hard work. While they stay out of our way. The chick knows what is expected, and will answer to me only. Both through the chain of command, and the ties of blood. We have crawled forward on these." He held up his claw and closed it. "We cared nothing for the boring teachings that would let us truly use them. Your people too often look to others to lead. And suddenly, here someone else has paid in time, and tears and probably blood to enable us both to leap ahead a thousand years. Only while he lives will we have full access and expertise. Even if they are walking, breathing examples of what not to do, we can still profit by seeing those mistakes and the first steps on the paths that led to them."

Luna nodded. "My thanks. This cost you, personally."

The old griffon shrugged. "There are things we both do for our nations, and our world. Prices we pay. I will let history decide if I am a shallow opportunist, or a visionary." The griffon gave a brief, wintery smile. "I have the advantage of not having to listen to all the picklocks of historians who seek to open my long-dead heart and fill it with their own prejudices. I sympathize with you that you have not this buffer."

"Most kind," Luna said and watched the old griffon depart.

Derpy hovered outside the window of the hospital, looking in. Dinky rode her back as she often did. The figure took up two, normal, hospital beds, and the tubes that ran from both his forelegs indicated just how dire his condition was.

"He'll be all right, in a few days," Derpy said, "You'll see. And in a few weeks, they'll be able to get him back to normal."

"He's alone," Dinky said quietly, holding back the tears. "I had Dinky Doo with me that day. He can't know he has friends around. We can't tell him."

Derpy noted the azure unicorn who entered and stared at them hovering outside. "The unicorn who brought him back is there. He knows she's there," Derpy said, "We should trust in that."

"When he gets better. Pinkie will want to throw him a party," Dinky said with a touch of dread.

"Well, I think Princess Luna will have something to say about that," Derpy said as she watched the unicorn mare open his shirt and begin washing him. She smiled at that, knowing how important having Dinky close was to her and that this simple act would tell him there were others there for him. "We just have to trust them."

Trixie accepted the menial chores foisted off on her by the nurses. They were her penalty, but being the one who watched him most closely was worth it. So, the monster slayer, and when I was at your mercy, you stayed your hand. Despite me injuring you, by all accounts worse than any others have, the thought made her stomach knot up. If I have proven unworthy of that trust, forgive me, she thought as she watched and listened. If this is the role Trixie must play, she thought, She shall play it with all her skill and abilities.

The doctors and nurses came and went, while they looked at her with vague disdain, but she never failed to carry out their instructions. And she watched, closely. It was mid-afternoon before anything interesting happened.

"Doctor, I think he's waking," Trixie called out the door as she heard the faint noises.

His speech is little more than noises, she thought as the doctor and two nurses raced in past her. She moved to the other side of the bed. Her heart skipped as he opened his eyes, let them rove across the unfamiliar scene, then locked onto her face.

He smiled and made a soft, interrogative noise.

"We got out, we're back in Ponyville," she told him and stepped close enough he could touch her.

Moment of truth, Trixie thought as the trained, medical ponies chattered, she placed her head next to his hand. He'll either crush my skull, or . . .

The feeling of those fingers digging through her fur until the soft nails reached her skin, and the feeble scratching behind her ears. It's almost better than the applause of an audience, she thought as she forced herself to hold where he could reach her. Too soon he tapered off and stopped. She nuzzled his hand in return.

"So I'm forgiven," she said, "I do apologize."

His eye lids were drooping, and he laid his head back on the pillow. He let out a long breath and faded back to sleep.

Trixie returned her attention to the conferring medical ponies. "Is there anything I should do?" Trixie asked.

"Stay with him, and keep an eye on him," Nurse Redheart said, "We weren't expecting him to awaken for several days."

"The chemical is still in him?" Trixie asked.

"Yes," the doctor said, "If he remains awake, push fluids. If he drinks more, he'll flush the chemical out of his blood much faster."

"I understand, fill and empty," Trixie said. She ignored the looks from the nurses, and considered her next task.

How do you convince someone of something, who doesn't speak your language? Trixie considered. Pictures will have to do, she thought.

"I need some paper and a pencil."

"No horn magic," Nurse Redheart admonished.

"Yes, do it Earth Pony style," Trixie said, "Understood." She considered the images to draw. "The pegasus who was outside this morning. Would it be safe? Having her and her foal closer?"

Luna dreaded this. Nightmare Moon is only my own anxieties, she told herself as she delved into the realm where she held sole sway over Equestria.

"And of course I go tramping straight to the one dream space I have neither control nor understanding." She stepped into the monster's dreams, and was instantly face to face with her dread.

All right, so it's my anxiety, powered by the effect of his fears, she thought, So if I don't touch his dreams, I won't face it again.

"So the little one comes again to face the big, bad shadows you thought you'd buried," Nightmare Moon told her, taking the form of a horse half-again taller than Luna's form.

"I have buried you, unless you are now claiming to be prophesy," Luna said, "I should warn you, that he is even less tolerant of your intrusions that I."

"You have so little sway here, and are wrong about so many things," Nightmare Moon said as she approached, and laughed as Luna stepped back. "So afraid. I will rule here and nothing you do can stop me. From here, all of Equestria."

"Oh, I don't know. That metal lump over there might be some indication of his preferences," Luna said of the oversized, metal wagon using some kind of metal bands encompassing all the wheels, instead of tires. The huge upturned sauce pan topping the metal wagon swung its 'handle' around aimed clearly at Nightmare Moon.

That almost looks like a tank, Luna thought, What would they need a tank that size for? What it sprayed was very disappointing to Luna.

"My eyes!" the Nightmare shouted as the sticky liquid that smelled of lamp oil covered the evil mare.

As Luna's private shame became a miasma again, the machine spat a bolt of fire that completely consumed the cloud that was Nightmare Moon's natural form. Luna noted that there were several much smaller weapons that dotted the wagon's body. One had started pointing at her during the destruction of Nightmare Moon.

Oh wonderful, now is really the time to realize you don't know the gesture for 'I surrender'. It's changed often enough over the centuries I wouldn't even hope to guess right with an alien.

The machine backed away over a ridge, then sprayed an arc of the foul-smelling liquid at the top of the ridge, and set it aflame. The resulting wall of flame blocked the way between Luna and the path the tank had taken to withdraw.

In a pony's dream I could will this way. Here, that is very dangerous, Luna thought as she trotted up to the wall that burned fiercely, But why that machine, and not put the monsters to use? She prepared to step through the wall when she realized, That may only be a sentinel. A piece of dream stuff set to a specific task. He may not be operating it himself. If that's the case, it may attack anything that crosses the perimeter, rather than react with judgement. Luna drew back and considered.

"Who are you?" Luna shouted over the noise of the flames, "What do you want? What do you want of us?"

Trixie heard the faint whimpering as her charge rolled from side to side. Outside the window and the door were only darkness, the faint conversations at the nurses' station had long ago faded away. She smirked as she threaded herself through the sideboards where his arms were restrained to prevent him from pulling the tubes out. She carefully slid her head and neck under his neck before telling him. "It's all right. Trixie is here. Trixie will protect you," she'd said it like a mother to a foal, and his agitation diminished. She pulled the covers back over both of them with her hooves then wrapped her legs around him. "Trixie is here. Trixie will protect you."

Luna watched in amazement as the flames faded. They didn't burn out, they slowly vanished. I thought only Celestia dreamed that way, she considered as she approached where she could look over the crest of the ridge. She concentrated every sense she had as she moved the last few paces. This could be a trap that metal flame thrower could be laying. Get me close and incinerate me, she worried, No, that 'beep' seems to be more his style of trap. Something you either play along with, or you can look small and petty by fighting it. Those cookie mines would be his way of setting a trap.

She crawled the last few dozen steps on her belly with her head down and peeked over the ridge. The dark gray-violet eyes of the azure unicorn stared back at her. The grim determination of the strolling player gave Luna a moment's pause.

That's who is . . . no, that's the avatar of what I'm facing. I'm still facing that metal monster, and its cousins. This Trixie is a projection, Luna thought, then inwardly seethed, He drives me off, and accepts that, that, that! Pony who rescued him from being kidnaped. She's a symbol, nothing more. Luna stood and faced the apparition. So she doesn't know anything more than he knows.

She formed the saddle, bit and bridle that Rarity hadn't yet delivered in the waking world, put them on and followed the humbug down the ridge. The look of absolute confusion on his face was worth any bit of humiliation.

So, you wouldn't expect us to know about this? she wanted to ask, You'll never guess what this gear is supposedly for, but all you'd care about is what it implies in your world. She looked at the blanket spread on the ground, the basket and the collection of mason jars, wrapped trays and other picnic paraphernalia.

The only clue to his real feelings was the huge, metal hill moving far in the distance. It threw blots and bolts of pure light at the diminishing purple miasma that tried to get past it. Luna could see that each time a shot clipped Nightmare Moon's miasma form, it was diminished.

"Couldn't happen to a nicer horror," Luna commented. She paused at the edge of the blanket. Trixie backed across it, never taking her eyes off of Luna. Neither did the monster. Neither showed any hostility, but neither smiled or seemed in any way welcoming. The performer knelt down beside him.

Luna looked rather pointedly at the edge of the blanket, then at the monster. "Are you going to give me permission, or not?" Luna asked, then shook her head. "I don't even know why I am bothering." She turned and cantered away, vanishing into the dreams of other ponies.

Day 13

Luna trudged out of her bed and towards her wash stand. I believe Twilight's statement that the ponies of this town are all crazy, she thought as she looked in the mirror, There was not one who was not having nightmares of one sort or another.

She hadn't realized the cause of all the dreams until she'd watched Cheerilee dreaming of having scalding water poured on her back as she shielded her students beneath her. A drop of water had hit a filly and she screamed, mockingly similar to the monster's cries on returning in front of Ponyville General. "It was the scream," Luna told her reflection, "It sounded like a foal's shriek. Wrong timbre, but the pattern of sound was correct. That's probably why he reacted to those fillies, they made a sound similar to his own people's young."

"So they all heard that horrible sound generated by an adult," Emerald Light said as he entered with a sheaf of communications, "And it gave them all nightmares. Reasonable."

"What is all that?' Luna asked, "As if I didn't know."

"Various protests from the staffs of -"

"I can't simply tell all of them to stick their heads in a bucket and yell real loud?" Luna asked.

"The echos would be detrimental," Emerald Light suggested. "There are a few communiques from her Majesty, and some from your sister."

Luna nodded at the subtle difference those two sets of messages conveyed.

"And three dossiers on our griffon codebreaker. One from our intelligence, one from the griffons, and the last from Queen Tiamat's intelligence troops. That should make interesting reading." Emerald paused to consider his words carefully. "Why are the dragons, who've never taken a serious interest in we 'lesser beings' suddenly so interested in this situation? It can't be that they feel the least remorse that an outcast of their own was doing something despicable."

"Queen Tiamat is nearly as old as Celestia," Luna explained, "I suspect that she is simply planning ahead."

Emerald Light accepted the answer. But his eyes told Luna he wasn't satisfied with it.

"My friend, I don't know what she's planning. But dragons don't do favors for no reason, and they let you know there are strings attached very early on. If she hasn't let us know by now, then there are no strings later."

"Giving more weight to the idea that there is something not quite right about this entire scenario," the unicorn said.

"I'm more worried about where our elusive unicorn has gone. I tried to locate her, and I'll bet so has Celestia," Luna said, "If we can't, then there's something seriously wrong. She shouldn't be able to hide this effectively."

"Unless she isn't hiding," Emerald Light said, "What are the chances that Miss Trixie was mistaken, and so possibly was her mentor?"

"That 'Tear Twirler' was really a dragon?" Luna asked.

"Or, that our friend here really was chasing something. Something able to take a pony's form. Those monsters could shape-change, and there are legends about shape-changing monsters in our history as well," Emerald Light said.

The Lunar Diarch shook her head. "You always know exactly what to say to make my day infinitely worse," Luna said and smiled.

"With respect, Highness, my job is to make your life more organized. Not easier," Emerald Light admitted.

Luna nodded. "Then what is waiting for me out there? Success, failure, just the unknown, or something none of us can even conceive of?"

"Yes," her chamberlain told her. "The important thing is telling one from another."

Nurse Redheart entered the monster's room to let in the morning light, and nearly facehooved. Trixie replacing the pillows she could almost understand. Derpy Hooves cuddled up beside him and Dinky Hooves' horn peeking out of the covers around the monster's feet was almost unbelievable. The monster's put-upon expression made the whole things so funny she raced back to the nurses' station so none of them would hear her laughing like a madmare.

She managed to get her mirth under control as she reentered his room and opened the curtains. He stared at her with vague irritation as she carefully took a blood sample and made certain nothing had disturbed the IVs going into his forelegs. She left, prim and proper, and only gave into the giggles after she was back at the nurses' station.

As the day continued on, he watched the entire medical staff troop through his hospital room. First they gave him a battery of shots, with three of the burliest guards they could find standing by. All the while, the azure and cornflower unicorn trying to be placating. Then was a full range of motion test on every joint he had, except his feet.

I hope they don't take me as a baseline, he thought, Nobody my age should be flexible enough to look at the top of their own foot close up.

As a joke, he'd let them bend his pinkie until they'd dislocated it. It had hurt like Hell and still did, but the utter panic and chaos of the reaction from the doctors at that little but completely recognizable pop had been hilarious.

The unicorn reacted by launching into a blistering lecture on his little joke.

What's with the tears? he wondered.

The tone of the lecture hadn't changed, but she now had tears streaming down her cheeks. Her voice cracked as she shouted at him and stamped her hooves. The doctors and the nurses were sheepishly slipping out.

Okay, I'd better apologize, he thought and moved over in the bed, then patted empty space beside him. A moment later, he had a lapful of shivering unicorn.

She continued her lecture, but more quietly. She wrapped her forelegs around him and her tears soaked through his shirt. A nurse slipped in, popped the joint back into place, and attached a splint. Her expression screamed 'I know something I won't tell'.

I just wish I knew whether she was sharing a secret with me, he wondered, Or if she was telling me that she agrees with what the unicorn is saying. The unicorn eventually ran out of steam and fell asleep lying on his stomach, her forelegs wrapped around his waist.

Day 14

"The tests still show a dangerous amount of the material in his system. We've been monitoring for blood in his urine which should be an early warning that the poison is again causing damage," Nurse Redheart reported to her Highness and several of the Element Bearers. "And I think if Trixie urges more water or tea on him than she has been, we're going to have an insurrection on our hands."

Twilight and Pinkie giggled at that. Even Applejack smiled. Her Highness seemed the grim note to the place.

"Are you all right, your Highness?" the nurse pony asked.

Luna focused on her. "Another night of bad dreams. Both my own and the Ponyvillians," she replied, "Your own you well know, and they are not atypical."

The nurse shook herself to free her memory of last night's nightmares. She'd let her romantic feelings for another pony be known. Rather than accepting, she'd been ridiculed and eventually hounded first out of Ponyville, then the entire medical community. Then it had happened in her next dream, with a 'safer' choice. And again with a pony who actually helped the hounders. The nurse had been quite shaken when she'd managed to wake up.

She saw that Twilight, Pinkie and Applejack had similar expressions to her own. The Princess just looked more tired. "Looks like I wasn't the only one."

"It's as if his scream gave you all license to be consumed by your fears," Luna said, "Containing them has been exhausting."

"Think happy thoughts!" Pinkie insisted.

"Yours have been particularly disturbing," Luna replied sharply. " 'Giggle at the Ghosties' does have its limits, does it not?"

"Yeah," Pinkie admitted quietly.

"We'll soon have the source located, and under control," Luna assured them. "Until then, your Princess will guard your dreams."

"Question, Princess. Last night, Ah had a couple where this big, metal hill came through and sorta dealt with them afore you showed up. Coulda used it the night before. Rarity started makin' dresses outta apple slices."

"Why in the world would that be a nightmare?" Rarity asked.

"Parasprites?" Twilight offered.

"More like folks not stoppin' at the apple layer," Applejack replied, "Yer Highness, is that new?"

Luna smiled. "It is an attempt to extend myself further. It was not too disturbing I hope."

"Only in how big it was," Applejack answered.

"Thank you, nurse, please return to the patient," Luna said, her demeanor more friendly.

Redheart nodded and left.

"No, Applejack, that was not me. The previous night, I attempted to enter his dream, and that creature, and Trixie were his chosen defenders against a manifestation of Nightmare Moon. Whether the hill is a manifestation of my role as protector, or his fear of me, I do not know. That last night it was able to enter other dreams is a concern, but you were not harmed by it?"

"Seemed polite, even respectful," Applejack admitted, "Apologized for shakin' all the apples loose as it drove down the road. Saved me a ton a work, and the road ain't never been so smooth."

Luna smiled at that. "I am concerned that all these nightmares, and all the associated problems are not as detached as I hope. Both Celestia and I have received bad dreams. You were all caught up in one, and with Miss Rarity's help I broke out of the cycle of waking from one nightmare into another."

"Princess," Applejack said, "What if those movies weren't real? I mean documentaries. What if they were like vaccine?"

"Vaccines?" Twilight asked.

Applejack seemed to be struggling with the thought. "Ah know that vaccines are weak versions of the disease. Ta build up immunity. What if those cinemas are the same? Little bit a nightmares so the kids don't get scared a other things."

"So, they aren't real, but the dreams we've all been having are?" Luna asked.

"Yeah. So y'all show foals those cinemas, git them used ta fears, and so they don't look at nightmares like we do." Applejack shook her head. "That hill woulda been a real nightmare, 'cept I kinda knew the monster wouldn't hurt nopony. No offense Princess, you and Princess Celestia don't think that big."

"The idea that those were to train children not to be afraid of their own dreams is in some ways a more frightening idea than them being documentaries," Luna said, "Or did you mean it got them used to fear. To be made afraid in small, controllable doses, so when they were adults, fewer things would frighten them?"

"No, but they'd work fer that too," Applejack said.

"The more we think about that creature, the more I wish we could just send it home," Luna admitted.

"I've got the going away party planned!" Pinkie offered.

Luna rolled her eyes. "Why does that not surprise me?" Luna asked.

The tea had collected all that it could of the poison the ponies were concerned about, and it wanted to leave. NOW! He cleared his throat and swung his legs out of the hospital bed. The first time I tried this yesterday, she nearly killed herself getting over here before my feet could touch the floor, he thought sardonically, I don't think I'll die if I touch the ground, but somebody is not willing to take the chance.

The careful process of getting on the back of an animal whose eye-level was below his waist, to keep his feet off the ground was a delicate one. It would have been impossible with the IVs. This was is going better than the first time. I thought I'd break my neck, he thought as the unicorn solicitously let him fumble around, trying to keep his balance, while she moved as if carrying a delicate object. The two most obvious 'handles', her horn and tail were out. She'd tolerate him grabbing them, but she clearly wasn't happy with him yanking on either to prevent a fall.

"Sorry about this," he told her, "Maybe, if I knew how, I should tell the docs to let me get back to my house. At least the toilet there is human-sized."

She still maneuvered with a care and precision he doubted he could have reciprocated. Then came the embarrassing part.

"You know, an alien female, with eye-line just under waist level, having this great an interest in a male peeing is a bit on the creepy side," he said.

She proved immune to his bitterness, and when he was done, she happily carried him back to the hospital bed.

"I wish I understood you better," he said, as he sat back, and looked at the urn of tea, and the flask of reddish liquid that tasted like a sports drink. "More electrolytes to balance, and more tea to flush my system. I swear a chelation treatment might be a better idea." He drank a fair amount of each and settled in to go back to sleep.

Her response was to put her chin on the bed and smile at him.

"You know a creepy grin would be less unsettling," he remarked. She still looked at him like a happy cocker spaniel.

"What do you want?" he asked quietly. "Every one of you critters has some goal or need. Some want what I know. Some just want me to play their games. Some I can't figure out for the life of me and I just have to go with their behavior. Which are you? Or are you something different?"

Her response was to smile more and put her head where he could scratch behind her ears. She loved it, and he found it remarkably soothing. Especially her utterly contented expression.

"I don't believe you're only interested in my fingers."

Trixie felt his grip slacken as he relaxed back to sleep. She enjoyed the aftereffects of the contact, and the feeling of mutual needs being satisfied. It nearly broke my heart to hear you speaking that way. I wish I could have answered your questions. I wish I could have understood them. Are you like me, so separated that you look on others, as the 'other'? Or were you afraid of me? I hope not.

She looked over the medical arrangements and found he was not in danger of harming himself. I'm glad he's making a recovery, she thought as she laid down on a blanket on the floor. They warned me of the danger of blood in his urine. And to alert them immediately. So far, none seen, she thought as she settled and dozed. In her dreams Twilight Sparkle received the accolades for discovering an entirely new civilization, rules of physics and energy sources undreamed of and then cowered in her room weeping, while Trixie knocked audiences all over Equestria flat with escapes and magic tricks that none of them could explain. She smiled happily at the images.

Big Mac carefully unlocked the front door. Behind him, Derpy and Rarity followed. "I don't feel right about this," he said.

"He needs something to do," Derpy said, "And he trusted you with the key. So if you help deliver the clothes and books. It should be okay."

"Sweet Celestia," Rarity gasped as she saw the book case in the living room, "Twilight mentioned it, but . . . "

"There's another one in here, and a third in the bedroom," Derpy supplied from the family room, "It's really amazing. He's got almost as many books as the library."

"No wonder poor Twilight wanted to get in here," Rarity said and shook her head. "We have a job, and if we do it well, we can be invited back later."

"Yep," Big Mac said.

"Why hasn't Shining Armor and the team swept through here?" Derpy asked, "If they are worried."

"A bit of courtesy," Rarity said, "That and they suspect there may be more 'Pinkie' traps. I don't think we need to be afraid though."

"Big, little or medium-sized?" Derpy asked as she examined the book shelves.

"I'd look for a couple small and a medium-sized," Rarity offered, "Look for the more worn ones. He's probably reread those."

"What about the book shelf in the office?" Big Mac said from down the hall. "More books in here, and if it were my office, I'd keep the ones I'd read and reread in there."

Rarity headed towards the office Big Mac was talking about. "The color scheme could use some sprucing up."

"What's wrong with white and dark wood? Looks like mosta our buildings." Big Mac had selected a thick, medium-sized book whose dust jacket was very worn. "This book must be important, else you'd throw away the cover. And all the bookmarks."

"Yes, we'll take that one." Rarity looked around. "I was rather hoping to find the collection of sheets for the dictionary. Put I don't know if it's locked in one of those boxes, or if it's somewhere else."

"Best not mess with those," Derpy said from out in the corridor, "One of them was where the microscope was hooked up. Who knows what they can do."

"Undergarments," Rarity said firmly, "I suspect that some clean, familiar clothes will help his morale." She trotted into the master bedroom. "You weren't joking," she said of yet another large bookshelf, "Once Twilight has an adequate dictionary and understands the language, she'll be harder to pry out of here than a barnacle."

"Clothes," Big Mac reminded Rarity.

"Yes, of course, just wondering what other wonders lurk in here," she said and laughed nervously.

The underwear was found in a very Equestrian chest of drawers.

Big Mac had been looking around, now he had to ask, "Why does all this look like it could be Equestrian-made. It's only a little different from what we have at home."

"I have been wondering that myself," Rarity admitted, "So much of their devices are similar. But for them some of the items make sense. Door handles better suited to hands not hooves, tools that are not designed for the best use by ponies. Odd that an alien would have tools, which are designed for them, that look so much like ours."

"We got our tools from them?" Derpy asked.

"I think we would have heard about creatures like these dropping their tools all over the place," Rarity said, "They are rather hard to hide."

"Not from Discord's time," Derpy pointed out, "From what I saw in Ponyville, he could have arrived and no one would have even noticed. But that was a thousand years ago."

"Twilight would be the expert on time travel, and Discord," Rarity said and shuddered. "She could tell you if Discord could pluck someone from this monster's 'present' and take it back to our past. Although I suspect that the disruptions would be considerable." She considered, then added, "That would be a bonus for Discord."

"Ah don't want ta know," Big Mac said and looked around nervously, "Are we done?"

"Problems?" Rarity asked.

"Feels like it does before the timberwolves start howlin'. Like something's watching we'd rather not face," he admitted.

"We've got a week's worth of clothes," Rarity said.

"I've got about fifteen books," Derpy added.

"That's enough," Big Mac said as he glanced around nervously, "Let's go."

"You don't normally spook that way," Rarity said as they headed back to the front door, "Bad dreams about this house?"

"No, just a bad feeling in general. Like the house knows we ain't supposed ta be in here," Big Mac replied as they left. He carefully locked the door and tested it to make sure he'd done a proper job. Once outside, he relaxed. "Sorry about that."

"After dealing with Pinkie's 'Pinkie Sense' and enjoying your family's Zap Apple jam," Rarity offered, "I am willing to leave others to their hunches. But I didn't feel anything, except wonderment."

Big Mac nodded and they headed towards the hospital.

The monster seemed overjoyed at the addition of reading material and clean clothes to its hospital stay. When the ponies stood around waiting for it to change, the enthusiasm drained away.

"Trixie thinks he'd be more comfortable if left alone," Trixie explained somewhat apologetically.

"What's the problem?" Derpy asked, while Big Mac headed towards the door.

"I think it's uncomfortable with being stared at."

"We're his friends," Derpy replied.

"Then understand that someponies are frightened of things that make no sense to us," Rarity explained from outside the room and waved for the others to join her, "Like you being away from Dinky. I'm quite happy when Sweetie Belle is off playing with her friends," Rarity said and closed the door behind her.

Trixie looked at him. He pointedly looked at the door and she shook her head. She marched around proudly, gesticulating and giving orders. "Peasant do this, flunky do that." She took her own demeanor and pointed to herself, and then him. "I have to keep an eye on you. Besides, they've got a tub for you to wash up in, while they change the sheets so you'll feel much better."

I'm sorry for getting you into this, she thought, You try and show how in control and strong you are to the others. She hopped up on the bed, and rubbed her cheek on his chest. But thank you for showing me your apprehension. Thank you for trusting me.

She didn't press. I know it's just a matter of you getting comfortable with this. You know you have to do it as well as I do. After a little while he sighed, and slid towards the edge of the bed. She was under him in an instant.

"Trixie wishes she were taller," Trixie admitted, "This side to side business is comfortable for neither of us." She made certain he was settled, and his feet were off the ground before she started out. As they entered the bathing room, he placed one set of the fresh clothes on a shelf where he could reach them from the rim of the tub. Then Trixie maneuvered so he could slip off her back and onto the rim of the tub. With that done, Trixie locked the door to the room and let him strip off the white, short-sleeved shirt he's been wearing. The short, tight pants of similar material were all that was left and he seemed very embarrassed about removing them.

"Trixie has seen what's underneath," she told him, then looked at him more closely, "It isn't the bits and pieces that bother you so much as the whole thing?" She snickered and turned her back. A moment later the last garment hit the floor beside the other and the water for the tub came on. She turned around and selected a second wash cloth. He was mostly in the tub, with his long legs dangling outside over the rim, keeping his bandaged feet dry. The moment she stepped into the tub behind him, he tensed up.

Someone needs to lighten up, and if the pranks played at the party a few days ago are any indication, he can take a joke, Trixie thought as she moved up directly behind him, which oddly relaxed his anxiety. She grinned as she ran her tongue across his back.

He yelped and turned his head to gobble what was probably a protest. She was deep in thought, 'deciding' if she liked the taste or not. Kind of a salty, smoky flavor, she thought, then licked him again and considered. That brought another protest, louder and more strident. Trixie pinned back her ears and tried to look as guilty as possible. Then she shrugged, pushed him forward so his chest was against his legs, and she began washing his back with the cloth. She smiled at the grumble rumble he made. Complaining about 'crazy ponies' no doubt, Trixie thought as she worked. He soon relaxed again as she finished with his back and signaled him to extend his arms to let her clean them. She also looked for any telltale signs of bruising. You always resist initially, then come around, she thought as she rinsed the cloth and continued her work, I guess it's not in your nature to give in easily. Or you dig in when it is safe to. Considering the ponies you're facing here, I can understand why you'd be leery of everything.

When she'd finished with his arms, she stepped out of the tub and worked on his lower legs while he washed his front and upper legs. Something else to report, besides the clothing need. A great deal of privacy about certain areas. I wonder if its cultural shame, or a more practical reason. Probably both.

He drained the tub as he toweled off, but it was clear he had something in mind. Once he had the fresh clothes on, he patted the side of the tub and crooked a finger towards her. Trixie froze for a moment. This is it Trixie, the demand made that he accept Trixie meant him no harm. Now the situation reverses. 'Anything you can do, Trixie can do better.' Accept the kindness and ministrations of an alien you can barely communicate with. This was not an expected challenge. But Trixie will meet your challenge.

She stepped into the tub and let him sluice her down. Then he began working the shampoo into her coat and she nearly dissolved. That feels so good, she thought as she felt her legs quivering as his fingers worked the shampoo into her coat, and he used the warm water and slipperiness of the shampoo to work away tension she hadn't realizes she'd been carrying. She was lying on the bottom of the tub when he finally started working on her mane and tail.

Interesting, Trixie thought sleepily, He was as reticent about washing some parts of me, as he is about letting anyone touch corresponding parts of him. I think it is a cultural thing.

He opened the door and looked out. "I think I need a bucket or the nurse's aide," he called. He'd stayed on his knees to keep from getting yelled at incoherently by the medics.

The familiar nurse with the red cross and hearts mark on her rear hip entered, her face a mask of curiosity. The azure unicorn mumbled something, which set the nurse giggling. She called for a gurney to carry her back to the room. He got a four-wheeled furniture dolly.

"Suits me," he said as he knelt on the dolly and pushed himself along with his hands on the floor. The orderlies stared worriedly at him. "Oh, was I supposed to be offended at your little joke? I'm a bit too pragmatic for that. I'd walk, but you'd sedate me," he replied to their stares.

They arrived back in his room and he made sure that the unicorn was properly bedded down before he climbed back into the bed.

"Enjoy," he said as he pulled the covers over himself and went back to sleep.

Day 15

Nurse Redheart was in the command post giving the morning report to her Highness, the observer corps cadre and the Element Bearers. "Our analysis indicates the chemical's concentration is low enough to risk close proximity to magic users. If that goes well, we might consider the use of the healing spell. It should be able to counteract any damage from the chemical, and remove the chemical completely."

"I've researched the spells we'll need," Twilight replied, "It should be easy with the number of unicorns with experience we have."

Luna nodded. "There is the first experiment," Luna said, "And frankly, I think we should start smaller. An earth pony."

"But Highness, all the staff who've have contact with him are earth ponies," Nurse Redheart said.

"As well as a unicorn filly and pegasus mare who spent the night with him early on to no ill-effect. I have one rather more magical pony in mind," Luna said as she smiled at Pinkie Pie. "And a test of her restraint."

"Actually Highness," Applejack said, "It should be two ponies, with Pinkie havin' to make some otherpony hoove the mark."

Pinkie's eyes widened at Applejack's grin. "Ah, Applejack, not a good idea," Pinkie said desperately.

"Please explain," Luna said.

"Y'all need strong unicorns for the spell," Applejack said, "But if Twi's right, if all you are is helpin' the spell, wanting to help is a good way to make the power really flow." Applejack smiled. "There's one unicorn, aside from Trixie, who'd desperately want to make this critter all better."

Pinkie was shaking her head so hard it sounded like a cow bell. "Bad idea. Bad idea."

"Applejack," Rarity exclaimed, "You're a genius."

"Pinkie, are you all right?" Sweetie Drops asked the normally irrepressible, pink mare as she disheartenedly carried a tray of muffins, cupcakes, breads and cheeses atop her head through the corridors of the hospital.

"Just nervous," Pinkie said, and laughed apprehensively, "Now Lyra, remember, calm. It's easily frightened, and if you scare it too much, it can get - dangerous."

"But it's so wonderful," Lyra said dreamily.

"Focus, Lyra," Pinkie gently insisted. "If we scare it, Luna will take it somewhere 'safe', and we'll never see it again." She growled as the green unicorn ignored her.

"Now you know how most of us feel," Sweetie Drops complained quietly.

Pinkie growled at that too.

"Do not distress yourselves," Trixie said as she stepped out into the corridor. She wore her hat and cape this time. "Long before you have a chance to cause permanent harm, Trixie will fling you through an open window."

"And how did you get so privileged?" Lyra replied heatedly.

Trixie scoffed. "Their Highnesses' intervention," Trixie said and tossed her mane.

"They arrested and sentenced her," Pinkie replied and got in the mare's face, "You weren't rewarded."

Unperturbed Trixie replied, "Believe what you wish." She stepped aside to let them in. Still she watched them very closely and seemed more a predator ready to pounce than the monster ever did.

Lyra gasped. Pinkie didn't even need her Pinkie sense to predict that. The monster looked at them all very suspiciously. Pinkie smiled, forced it not to become a grin and carefully slid the tray of goodies onto a table where the monster could reach them. Then she stepped back, where she could help Trixie tackle Lyra if needed. Fortunately, Lyra was still paralyzed with amazement. Sweetie Drops closed her friend's open mouth and looked at the monster.

"Hasn't he been here for a couple weeks, and hasn't he been through town a couple dozen times?" Sweetie Drops asked, then gently shook Lyra.

"Of. Course. I'll. Help. Him. Get. Well," Lyra said, and started shivering. Then she jumped out the open window.

The monster rushed to the window to see if she was all right. He reeled back, as if from a bad smell, at the sight of Lyra dancing like a madmare shouting 'they're real!', 'I was right!', and 'FINGERS!'

"Good thing we're on the second floor," Sweetie Drops commented as the monster heel-walked back to the bed.

Pinkie couldn't stand it anymore. She raced back to the nurse's station and began shouting all the questions she had for the monster before they burned a hole in her brain. As her tirade wore down and the world came back into focus, she saw the frightened nurses. More importantly, she saw the glass of ice water. "Excuse me," she said, and dumped the water over her head. As the ice cubes sizzled away to nothing, she squared her shoulders. "Pinkie Pie, you can do this. You have to do this." She determinedly marched back towards the hospital room.

Inside, she saw Trixie carefully guarding, one of the two of them, the monster or Sweetie Drops. The monster seemed to be digging its fingers into Sweetie Drops' skull, while Sweetie Drops ear-flattened, knees-shaking pose showed she was loving every instant of it.

"No wonder she was so obsessed with fingers," Sweetie Drops said, "That's wonderful!"

"Imagine having your coat shampooed with those," Trixie said. She lifted a thick slice of bread adorned with several pieces of cheese to the creature's mouth. Her magic touched only part of the bread she levitated. It frowned at her.

"It lets you feed it?" Pinkie asked as she approached.

"He hates it," Trixie replied, then grinned, "That's half the fun." The monster snapped at the bread like a timberwolf, biting through it easily. The action in no way distracted him from scratching behind Sweetie Drops' ears, which threatening to reduce the mare to a blissful bag of mush.

That's it in a nutshell, Pinkie realized, Violence on one hoof, gentleness on the other, and more a mirror of what it sees in us, than a plan of its own. The Princess was right, it is very dangerous, because it magnifies what it sees in us. She walked over very carefully, and while the monster took notice of her, it was Trixie's eyes that filled with malice and warning.

When Sweetie Drops rear haunches collapsed like an old barn, the monster stopped. Then the mare collapsed completely. "I'm dead," the mare moaned happily, "I've gone to the promised land."

"Trixie, would it be all right if he sent me there too?" Pinkie asked, looking from one to the other. He'd obviously enjoyed pleasing the stranger, and after a short exchange of glances with Trixie, he motioned Pinkie over.

The place he'd been scratching Sweetie Drops didn't have much effect on Pinkie. So he changed. Pinkie felt her face slacken and her back legs collapse, but she didn't care!

"This isn't as good as a party, but it's okay," she said happily. She focused on Trixie who'd moved to sit in front of her.

"That's why he likes the quiet," the mare explained to Pinkie. "A friend or two, not a thousand things flying in all directions. Remember that, and you'll get along. Forget it, and he will make a polite round of the guests, and slip away. That 'welcome' party for the upper crust of Equestria exhausted him. Yet he found the energy to be with a few select friends afterwards. You feel the power of being the pony he concentrates on. Divide that too thin, and nobody smiles."

"Yep," Pinkie said, not wanting to nod. "How do you know?" Pinkie asked, her rapturous feeling preventing the venom she'd wanted to put in the question.

"I watched him soon after he arrived. I don't know how Tear Twirler knew he'd come. And before you ask, I told Princess Luna."

Lyra pushed the gurney carrying a half-asleep Sweetie Drops and Pinkie back down the corridor. The mint unicorn was happily skipping, and the two 'cargo' seemed to be 50-percent grins by weight.

"I am going to have to declare 'fingers' a restricted substance if this continues," Luna said as she entered the hospital room with most of the rest of the magical team.

"I am wondering why you don't have any more problems with Pinkie Pie," Twilight asked as she brought out the papers she'd assembled on the Equestria language. She held up a drawing of Pinkie Pie to the monster.

It considered and carefully sketched out a drawing of it's own. He handed it to Twilight, and the near triptych made no sense whatsoever.

"I think that's a misconception we're going to let him keep," Shining Armor said and stepped aside to let Mile Stone see the explanation.

"I'm glad you understand it," Twilight said with some irritation, "Care to explain it?"

"He thinks she's a new lieutenant," Mile Stone said as if it were patently obvious.

"I get the lieutenant's insignia on the second Pinkie Pie, but what about the commode?" Twilight asked.

"Simple, lass. First drawing: Pinkie, second: Pinkie's got her lieutenant's commission yesterday that's what the single sun symbol over the arrow means. Third, we should have her toilet trained in twenty-one suns or three weeks," Mile Stone explained. "He assumes she's a new, very junior officer. New officers tend to be a bit . . . "

"They act like Pinkie Pie?" Twilight asked. Shining Armor and Mile Stone nodded.

"A bit," Mile Stone added, "Very, enthusiastic."

"About everything," Armor added and rolled his eyes.

Twilight carefully folded the paper and placed it in her saddlebags.

"Very well, how do we explain about the healing spell?" Luna asked as she stepped close.

"Why not a simple demonstration?" Trixie offered, "A slight cut, and you heal it. He will understand the greater spell is to heal him."

"Trixie, I don't think he really trusts us," Twilight pointed out.

Trixie gave her a bored stare. "Whatever your relationship, he trusts Trixie. Once she has explained it, and given her approval, then he may only require the muffin maven to also pronounce it acceptable."

"Derpy?" Twilight asked incredulously.

"Yes," Trixie said haughtily, "Or are you uncertain your fellow Ponyvillian trusts you and your magic sufficiently to risk her friend's well-being in your hooves?"

The purple unicorn's furious expression made her look like she was ready to chew diamonds. "Fine," she said.

The chalkboard was filled with complicated mystic formulae and a simplified anatomical diagram of the monster's circulatory system.

"So with the flux vector in resonance, the auto-chelation function will separate the invasive species from the native substrate by binding all active sites, and inducing a homolytic cleavage instead of the hetrolytic cleavage, creating a temporary free-radical intermediate changing to neutral, multimeric subchains instead of acid-base monomers, which do not truly become amphoteric in vitro, because they function as electron pair receivers and donors, rather than exchanging protons. The chains are easily removed through the various excretory systems." Twilight turned to the assembled audience in the library's main hall. She looked to the monster, Derpy, Luna and Trixie. "So, what do you think?"

The monster had been examining the diagrams and scribbling down notes hastily.

"I won't let you," Derpy replied.

"Very good, now I think, wait, you won't let us?" Twilight asked.

"If my vote says you don't do this, then I vote no," Derpy said firmly.

"But," Twilight stammered and gestured at the chalkboard and diagrams.

"I asked if it was safe for him, and you talked about what the spell does. For an hour and a half. I know enough to know if someone can't make it simple, they don't really know what they are talking about," Derpy said, "I wouldn't risk Dinky's life on that explanation, I won't risk his." She nodded to the monster and smiled.

Twilight stared at Derpy in stunned silence. She turned to Luna and Trixie.

"Twilight Sparkle, I would be hard pressed to synthesize an answer to Derpy's question from your explanation. Other than 'maybe'," Luna admitted, "It is perhaps too ambitious and makes too many assumptions into its biochemistry."

"But, this spell will do everything we need, all at once," Twilight said, "It's perfect."

"Trixie suggests a simple purgative and emetic spell," Trixie said, "Then concentrate on the healing. Electrolyte balance can be restored orally."

"Uh," Derpy began.

"Vomiting and laxatives, then putting back the minerals he needs to stay healthy with sports drinks," Trixie explained.

Derpy looked apologetically at the monster, then nodded. "Yes, that sounds fine."

Twilight's jaw hung open.

"Never forget your audience," Trixie told the stunned, purple unicorn. She then drew a diagram of what the spell would do. The monster rolled his eyes and hung his head, then nodded his agreement.

The green, hornless unicorn nearly laughed with joy as she stepped through the barriers and befuddlements that had driven her back the few other times she had tried to make this pilgrimage through the depths of the Everfree. Perhaps I should thank that fool for blasting off my horn. And my so trusting mirror duplicates for believing what I was seeking could be shared, she thought of the fading wisps of magic the mirror pond now recovered after she had driven her doubled, redoubled, and reredoubled shadows over the defenses. Only a few remained, and their doubled, redoubled and reredoubled eagerness for the prize had erased any idea of self-preservation.

The last two were erased by the magical dampening field that opening the ancient doors had released. She'd never made it this far, but there were stories of fools trying to use Earth ponies for the task. Even Earth pony magic would leave the user weakened, terrorized and disoriented, she thought of the faint, shimmering aura around the ragged remnant of her horn that brought only the barest of headaches. Legends tell that this would drive ponies mad, as if they weren't already thought mad for seeking it.

She stepped into the temple proper. The roof had caved in from the last Equestrian to have left this place. She caught her saddle bags in her teeth and set them on the ground. She was aware of the pressure on her mind, but without magic to resist it, it passed through her without affecting her.

"So, now I know what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object, they don't interact. The force isn't resisted so it proceeds, and the object isn't touched, so it doesn't move. Brilliant." She drew the chalk from her pack and held it in her teeth as she began filling the temple floor with sigils.

And to think, Tear Twirler thought, I kept worrying how Nightmare's horn would replace mine. She glanced at the jagged stub jutting out of her skull. Problem solved, she thought and chuckled.

"Trixie will clean him up," Trixie told Nurse Redheart, "Please prepare the electrolytes." She grimaced as he moved clumsily away from the filth the spell had spewed from his body. Derpy flew over the noisome pools and lifted him directly. He seemed very fatigued by his body's efforts to expel the caustic poison. The room in the hospital had both steam hoses and open grates to dispose of what was expected to happen in this room. And to resterilize it after it had.

"You can use magic," Twilight said quietly, "And we should heal his wounds as soon as possible." She took a step towards the recipient of her magical efforts, then drew back in shame.

Lyra, Luna, Glory and several other unicorns of the observer corps were trying not to look at the effects of the spells they had cast, or the person they had cast them on. Derpy and Trixie moved up to steady him. Trixie's horn magic ran a cloth over his face. He rinsed his mouth with a cup of water, before gulping down the drink the nurse gave him.

"Slowly, slowly," the nurse urged.

"Smaller doses," Trixie said, "He only knows he hurts." The nurse nodded.

While Twilight and Luna prepared for the next spell and several others hosed down the floor, Trixie and Derpy washed the filth off him.

"Would Twilight's spell have worked better?" Derpy asked quietly.

"If it worked, it might have been cleaner. Doubtful it would have been easier," Trixie said. She looked at his face. He grinned tiredly.

"The next one will be easier," she assured him as he eagerly drank the small sips the nurse provided him now. "Soon you'll be well." She nuzzled his face and drew a faint smile from him.

"We're ready," Twilight said, sounding none too enthusiastic.

"Medical magic is never as neat and tidy as a classroom," Nurse Redheart warned. "Hurt ponies are always messy. It's when they walk out ready to return to their life that you judge your actions and success."

Twilight gulped and nodded.

Alarms of mystical portent blazed in the brains of both alicorn-sisters. Even Cadence and Twilight felt the stirrings.

"Guards!" Celestia called in the middle of a day at court, "Assemble plan 'R' immediately." She scribbled a quick note to Twilight and Luna to return with Captain Armor to Canterlot, then she raced to the vault where the Elements awaited.

Nightmare Moon? Celestia thought of the trace she had detected, Impossible, I destroyed the temple and the fool would hardly return to the place of her first imprisonment.

The guard had formed, along with members of the Academy, and they were already at the statuary 'guard'-ens. Discord's statue remained untouched. Even as she deployed the wizards and troops, a young guard raced up to her.

"Majesty, a winged unicorn appeared, freed Tirek and Nistag, and the three left with several other statues!" he shouted as he halted, only then did he salute.

Celestia felt her stomach clench, while she gave no outward sign. I'd almost prefer Discord, those two have no such need to announce themselves at every turn, she thought as Armor, Twilight and Luna appeared. All three sets of eyes locked on the Discord statue.

"Your Majesty?" Armor asked.

"Someone has found the Nightmare, Nightmare Moon lives again," Celestia told them, "But she does not hold my sister in thrall. So her power is much weakened."

Celestia caught Luna's frown. The only real expert on the Nightmare is the one most loathe to talk about it, Celestia thought, Forgive me my sister, but we must know.

"Other than this, how did the spell casting go?" Celestia asked trying to lighten the dark mood.

"Other than the mess, it all went well. He's home recovering," Twilight said, and shuddered. "The actual side-effects of Healing spells aren't accurately described in most text books."

Luna and Celestia shared a nod.

We can kill him? whispered in Tear Twirler's mind. A voice that had once been Nistag, now was part of her.

And his knowledge, Tear Twirler thought as she ran her mental hooves over the huge knowledge of magic and potions that were now hers. And the fool doesn't know it, yet.

No, the voice of their sovereign rang through her head and Tear Twirler stifled a wince. Nightmare was not pleased at having to repeat herself. Luna wants him, so we must take him away from her.

Foolishness, Tirek said inside their shared mind, We had Celestia alone and afraid, we should have struck.

You are the fool, the Nightmare replied, then whispered to Tear Twirler alone,We shall strike unexpectedly, force them to protect too much and too weakly. And most important, we will grow strong. Strong enough that Discord's madness will not overwhelm us. For that, we need chaos of our own.

Tear Twirler was beside herself with rage at the sight of this thing that had dared attack her.

Be at ease my pet, her sovereign cooed, Without him, how would you have gained me? Do you think I had no hand in guiding his steps? Did you alone have the strength to do what you would have had to do?

I had not thought of that, Tear Twirler worshiped as she glanced up at the long horn that grew from her forehead.

Yes my pet, but when we are done, but only when we are done, you two may play together, Nightmare soothed.

The monster stepped out the glass door and approached, apparently unarmed. The compulsion spell they'd laid on the area meant none of Celestia's guards seemed ready to deal with her or it. The only weakness in the spell occurred when he spared a glance back to the two who had tried to guard him. The unicorn and pegasus mares were unconscious. A side-effect of the disunited mind dissipating the force of the attack and their magic.

So brave, I had hoped to drag it kicking and screaming from its bed, the Nightmare thought. Your first lesson in truly creating obedience, she added to Tear Twirler, who gave a little squeak that her goddess was taking such an active part in her education.

Nightmare's got a boyfriend. Nightmare's got a boyfriend, Nistag chanted.

What are you, three? Tirek asked, trying to maintain an illusion of aloofness.

We also need an experienced foalsitter for our childlike friend, the Nightmare added. Both Tear Twirler and Tirek chuckled at that. Like a lamb to the slaughter, Nightmare told Tear Twirler, Let it come to you.

Tear Twirler couldn't quite banish the image of the bright flash, the noise and the mind-splitting pain. She and Nightmare forced their body to remain still, and seemingly nonthreatening.

The creature approached alone, and apparently more curious than fearful or mastered. The Nightmare touched her horn to his head far more gently that she wished. The body crumbled away to nothing. Tear Twirler froze at the sight of the much larger metal weapons it had been carrying to use against them. She willed the body to vanish and retreated within their shared mind.

The monster stood before them in the mental amphitheater. "So, are you the welcome wagon?" the monster asked, unimpressed by all the trappings and staging of the mental amphitheater that would have had a pony trembling with fear.

"We are your new masters!" Tear Twirler shouted, her voice breaking as she did.

"Boo hoo, I shall never see my family and children again," it shouted, "Who do I have to kill to get a seat up there in the bleachers?"

"I," Tirek said as he landed. His armor drank in the light, and his Rainbow of Darkness stood ready.

The monster cocked his head and stared. "You're kidding, right?" the monster asked, "My kid sister made me watch this when I had to babysit her. She drooled through most of it. I already know how you go down like a chump. You might have had a chance in the real world." It gestured around. "But this is a dream, I can do anything I can think of. And I've got a lot more experience with 'darkness' than you do."

Tear Twirler grinned at the lesson the monster was about to learn regarding the nature of this place.

The monster continued, "As for your vulnerability to rainbows."

Tirek screamed as he was surrounded by a rainbow of light. "Make it stop, make it stop!"

Tear Twirler was stunned by the monster's control, as were the others. The rainbow faded. The monster picked the recumbent Tirek off the ground and set him back on his feet. "Look," the monster said, "Let's all be reasonable. I don't want to be here, this mind, this planet, and if I can get home, that's a win for me. What happens here, doesn't matter." He stepped away from Tirek and had the audacity to ignore the others and address the Nightmare directly, "But I've already learned Celestia cares only about 'her ponies' and ferociously so, everything else can go howl. Now, there's a whole other un-i-verse for you to play in. One without Rainbows of Light and Elements of Harmony. Full of people you wouldn't be able to corrupt because they're already past the point you'd put them at, and sheep for you to terrorize who'll expect the corrupt ones to save them. So, let's make a deal. You lay off the 'we are the big bads, fear us' and I'll show you pastures full and ripe for the picking. But I do think we're going to need more help."

"You look at all those who Celestia and Luna imprisoned in stone in the Royal Gardens, save one," the Nightmare said.

"Come on. You were in Luna's head for years," the monster said as Tirek leapt back into his throne in the amphitheater's seats. "They have to have stashed some ponies, demons, dragons or others somewhere else. We get them, and then we will be strong enough to convince Discord we're equal partners."

The Nightmare nodded. "It is acceptable. There is one to start with, but you and Tirek will be hard pressed to deal with him."

Tirek snorted.

"With me backing Tirek here, there's nothing he can't beat, even Celestia," the monster said. He nodded to Tirek. Who begrudgingly, nodded back.

"Talk!" Nistag shrieked, "Talk, talk and more talk!" The pony wizard jumped up and down. "He show nothing, he prove nothing, and he offer candy tomorrow! Let him prove hisself now. He stay his hand when he has Tirek's throat. He is not one of us!"

"Nistag!" the Nightmare shouted, but the pony wizard was beyond calming.

"Highness, he's right," the monster held up a hand and said, "I have not proven myself. He is wrong about why I stayed my hand. For my plan to work, I need all of you and more. But if proof he needs, I will show him, and all of you that I have what it takes. But I use it as a scalpel, not a club. The smile gets you close, and the sharp knife gets you what you want. You need to see how devastating subtlety can be."

"Show us," Tirek said.

"Can you send a letter to Celestia, and make it seem it came from Twilight Sparkle?" the monster asked.

"Easily," the Nightmare said.

The monster gave a feral smile as it materialized a pen, parchment and writing desk. "Time to prove the pen is mightier than the sword."

The letter appeared.

"From Twilight," Celestia said eagerly at the welcome distraction for the panic surrounding her. She opened the letter and found half the page covered in the strange runes the monster used, beside it was clear but stilted and archaic Equestrian.

Dear Princess Celestia,

There are many who have worried what I would do, once I discovered what you and the others did to me on that rainy night. Your sister has been punished for it, and is forgiven. Cadence matters nothing to me. But you, I will endeavor to pierce your heart with a blade so sharp none will see the wound, and were your self-delusions true, you would bleed for an age from it. But do not worry, I suspect my thrust will miss its mark, or be dismissed with the morning coffee. Your callous disregard for my safety and even sanity has been proven many times. I doubt my opinion will carry any more weight than my life. But I owe the few benefactors I have had in this place an end to their worries. So for my part, this will be the end of it.
The stroke:

I have been on your peaceful world for a short while, and have come to an inevitable deduction. I have seen only a handful with the moral courage to ignore 'what would Her Solar Radiance think' and live up to your supposed creed of reaching out to the other instead of wallowing happily in all-encompassing fear and groundless suspicions. Three are decried as too stupid or shallow to know any better. Three were the vaguely unacceptable 'rough men' who guard you all as you sleep. Two of respectable position only put on a seeming out of fear for their station or avarice for what they might gain. Only one was seen to do so out of love, and the whispers around her are filled with ridicule. That is your legacy, your Majesty. That honestly caring about someone 'uncomfortable' must be explained away.

That is hardly your only legacy or your most destructive. When your people grow into adulthood, if they ever do, they will curse this thousand years as time wasted. With your blessings, they had peace, but few achievements. With your tolerance, they had harmony, because they lacked a great vision. And they will rightly lay that on your doorstep with all the maledictions that go with it, and you will deserve each and every one. Because all children want to please their parents, and all loving parents want their children to exceed them. And you did not love them enough to let them risk failing in that pursuit. If I were to die tomorrow, having lived among your people less than a month, I will have done more to inspire your people to walk the demanding and arduous road to the stars than your entire thousand-year reign.

In this I am content. For you cannot comprehend the dreams I have dreamt, the worlds created in my mind. When your people outgrow you, they will. And you will become what you should be: a pablumized tale of virtues for the young, and a cautionary tale for those of maturity.

Fair ye well, and long life,

Celestia bowed her head and began quietly weeping.

From inside the mental construct, the others watched the scene.

"Impossible," the Nightmare whispered.

"Hardly," the monster said dismissively, "Just my skill. She will shake it off and soldier on, but we have a brief window of opportunity. Let us use it."

"Agreed," Tirek said.

"Now Nistag, you create potions," the monster approached the pony-wizard, "I have a very special one in mind."

Celestia felt the presence of Nightmare withdraw, but still she wept.

"Sister?" Luna asked as she entered her sister's 'sitting room'.

Celestia dried her eyes and floated the paper over to Luna. "It seems we were right, about everything."

"So, what next?" Luna asked.

"Send out guards everywhere? Where will they strike next? Sombra, Niklojack, the Three Harpies, too many enemies lost to legend who bother us no more out of fear or the strength of their imprisonment. Nightmare is recruiting an army. One she hopes to be strong enough to add one last force to her side."

"Discord," Luna breathed. "Then that is what we must guard. That one piece they must have to succeed."

"Agreed, but they will seek to divert us, alarums and reports of tragedy. They will spread us thin, so we cannot guard everything." She sighed. "And 'Heartless' Celestia will ignore all the cries of her ponies, to guard the true goal."

"They will forgive."

She indicated the paper. "For some, the forgiveness hurts a great deal," Celestia said.

Day 16

The one-time Unicorn king foamed and screamed and snapped at those around him. Tirek had his form pinned, while the monster conjured chains that held both smoke and matter. Tear Twirler blocked the spells of crystal the madthing cast about.

"He is insane," the Nightmare pronounced, "Of no use to us."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," the monster said as they finished the bindings and he drew Tirek away to see to the demon's many wounds. "You can always fling a mad dog into someone's backyard while you work elsewhere. My letters may disturb Celestia, but Luna is another matter."

"So, we deliver him to Luna, while your missive disrupts Celestia," Tirek said. He laughed and ruffled the monster's hair. "With you, I could have conquered the world."

"With respect, you would have had me killed, for fear I would take your position," the monster replied. "As one of a half-dozen, you tolerate me. I do not want your place. But as liege and servant, you would fear because you wouldn't believe that."

"And what of you, do you fear nothing?" Tirek asked sharply.

"The Princesses think nothing of going into my mind and twisting it their way. It is their right. Alone, stolen from my world, with even my mind open to their violation. What is real, what is an illusion they have placed there? I learned, and placed defenses." The monster faced Tear Twirler. "That is how I block you out. A maze of illusions and mirrors as bewildering as this world is to me. It works. Even if you or she found my innermost heart would you know it to be the true one? And I too have nightmare traps set up. You would not enjoy them. I have already been damaged enough by the 'good' side, there is little you could add that I do not already fear."

"That does not answer my question," Tirek pointed out.

"Do you think I tiptoe around Celestia for my health, you better believe I do it for my health," the monster said pointedly, "She controls the sun, do any of you understand what the really means?"

None of the figures around him even hazarded a guess.

"My people have weapons that can incinerate entire cities with a single blast. That is vaporize the people and the metal, burn the stone and wood to ashes, and winds to flatten anything left. Those weapons basically generate a very small sun, and drop it into the target city. Now Celestia doesn't have to limit herself to making them big enough to bust cities. She can make them as big or as small as she wants. If you think I'm staying where she can blast me with one of those, you are out of your mind."

"She hasn't done that to us," the Nightmare said.

"Because you were in her sister. Tear Twirler and even King Sombra have no worries. Because you are all ponies. I have no such defense. A small one, not even enough to rumble the windows in Ponyville, would kill me. Not instantly, but assuredly. That is why I have been urging caution, and suggesting a new path."

"You are a coward," Tirek said.

"When it comes to no defense against instantly getting my head blown off, I'm downright craven and proud of it. You think it's bad that she hates most of you? She doesn't, she hates what you've done. She wants all of you to be good, little ponies, then she can love you again. Me, I'm a tool she can plug in and make some pony's life better. If breaking part or most of me is needed, eh. That pony needed a tough jigsaw puzzle to put back together. Believe me, apathy and indifference are more dangerous than hatred."

The others exchanged glances as the monster stalked away.

"I think we will need Discord," Tirek said, "To deal with him, not the other way around."

The others agreed.

He'd managed to keep the others from probing his mind too deeply with the intricacies of the plan he'd laid out and had Nistag and Niklojack working on. A few wisps had tried to penetrate further, only to encounter a few tamer horrors of human/Earth history. Natural disasters and their aftereffects satisfied their curiosities, he thought, I'm keeping the purely human disasters in my back pocket. Stupid letting slip that the link goes both ways by mentioning Discord by name. The less they realize that they are transparent the less they'll be ready. Although I wish language was more accessible instead of the 'automatic' translation function of this link. And the history they know seems to be 'there's no beer in the fridge, the surfing was lousy, nobody loves me for the speshul person I am, my life is over, NO I'll take revenge on the world!' Time to meet the quieter neighbors. And find out their story.

When they'd broken open Niklojack's statue, the madmare who would have made Twilight Sparkle look like Oscar Madison to Niklojack's Felix Unger, had immediately set to the logistical task of setting up the plan for the attack. The other eight statues yielded results which disappointed the maniacs. Three had simply faded to nothing. Three of the ghostly figures clustered together and muttered to each other, ignoring everything. The remaining two, ghostly as they were, could interact with the mental world, but refused to throw their lot in with the 'usurper'.

"What do you wish of us?" the powerful, warrior mare stood, guarding the smaller, more bookish mare behind her.

"You names, and perhaps a little intelligent conversation. I've been dealing with angsty teenagers, and would relish speaking with adults. Even if only to hear a better grade of insults," he told them.

The smaller mare chuckled at that. "I am Shamrock Dancer, loyal servant to Princess Luna."

"I am Celestial Dill, chief of her bodyguards," the warrior ghost-mare responded.

"Then you have gathered that she is freed of Nightmare Moon?" he asked and waited for the nods, "And she is restored, again Diarch of Equestria, master of dreams and it seems de facto chief anthropologist."

"She is restored?" the warrior asked, as if fearing a lie.

"The Elements of Harmony wielded by six commoners healed her. She assists Princess Celestia in ruling, although lately, her job seems to be figuring me out. She seems well-adjusted though a bit out of place for the comparative paradise Equestria has become."

"For that news, stranger, we will speak with thee," Celestial Dill said.

"Or use only our most cunning insults," Shamrock Dancer added.

"Then I ask you to tell me what you know of Discord. He is the ultimate goal, and I intend to drag him off planet, or stuff him back in his hole," he said.

"You should see a doctor about that ego. They don't build doors that wide anymore," Shamrock Dasher offered and grinned.

"Oh, I stay outside mostly, give it lots of fresh air and sunshine, make it grow," he replied, "Let's just say that my plans are grandiose, but I don't feel like shouting them on every street corner."

Day 17

He was again tending Tirek's wounds after subduing the last of the 'great enemies' as Nightmare had begun calling them.

"Why do you insist on playing servant, and why do you help me in our battles with these madthings?" Tirek asked.

"You alone seem to have learned my lessons, that a mix of pain and kindness goes so much farther than either alone. Besides, if I'm in here, I don't have to listen to their scheming. Nightmare will tolerate them as long as she needs to get Discord. Once he is mastered, she will begin feeding him the threats to her. To appear harmless, I play servant, as do you playing the good soldier. Discord will be very entertained with what happens. Nightmare will overplay her hand and be smashed. Neither of us will have to do anything other than stay loyal, and switch our loyalty to the winning side."

"You are a coward," Tirek said, "Your secret is safe. I too grow weary of Tear Twirler and her talk of tortures inflicted for little hurts. As if any justification is needed." The demon stared at him. "You disapprove?"

"I prefer to let people be the instrument of their own destruction. To offer salvation and forgiveness at the key moment, and let them sweep it aside, is to truly damn them by their own hand," he replied as he checked his work, "Isn't damnation what you work for?"

"It is."

He nodded and descended into the alchemical pits to check on Nistag's and Niklojack's progress. I can feel his suspicion and betrayal oozing out of his pores, he thought, letting Tear Twirler see the thought, But when I side with Nightmare against him and Tear Twirler, then she will reward me. He felt the thread withdraw, but he kept his face stoic. In truth he was exhausted from showing a different face inside and out to each of these sophomoric schemers.

He was quite surprised to him Nightmare in Nistag's lab.

"This is a nightmare almost as great as I," Nightmare said, keeping her voice down as the mad pony-wizard puttered. "You would do this to your own people?"

"Those who'd volunteer, are not my people and deserve what they get. I find it more satisfying to destroy by giving the weak their heart's desire, and forcing them to accept the consequences," he replied. "If you've checked up on Niklojack, I'd better not. 'Chaos, disruptions, to my beautiful plans!' I somehow think that banishing her to the moon wouldn't have been a punishment."

Nightmare chuckled. "She would not welcome a close association with our new guest." The chuckled stopped. "How do we deal with the Elements of Harmony, oh schemer behind my back?"

"I want to get home," he replied, "That's the depths of my scheming. If the others demand lip service to treachery to stay moving towards that goal, then I ante. As long as you stay on that goal, we are in full accord."

"The question still stands unanswered," Nightmare said, a whisper for her.

"I can give you them, and a show of loyalty at the same time. Are you willing to trust me with a little spell power?"

"I can cast the spell," Nightmare replied.

The pony-wizard watched, silently.

He's probably the instigator, he thought, She would just dig through my mind and look.

"No, if you cast it, then Celestia will see your strike as a threat to her ponies and move. If I cast it, she has hopes she can withdraw or unravel the bumblings of an amateur. A locked door, rather than a burial alive. She will concentrate her forces to guard Discord, and ignore anything she can fix later."

Nightmare nodded.

"Pinkie, what's this 'doozy' you've been feeling?" Twilight asked as all the Element Bearers stood in the monster's yard just outside its house.

"I don't know," Pinkie admitted and adjusted her Element, "I just know it's gonna be a doozy of a doozy."

Twilight shook her head. "There has to be a logical -"

"Sugarcube, last time a hydra wasn't doozy enough," Applejack reminded her. "If the Princesses are worried about all kinds of monsters like Nightmare Moon, and the others, then that's probably it."

"All right, was the monster's arrival a doozy?" Twilight asked.

"Nope, just the twitchy tail for a falling object," Pinkie said, "That's why I knew it wasn't as dangerous as everybody thought it was."

"You never considered we'd be the ones doing the endangering," Rarity commented.

Pinkie turned to confront her, then her expression lost all its heat. "Yeah. I never meant to hurt anyone."

"I never said you did," Rarity soothed, "Just that the first time someone new comes into town, a gentler approach might be warranted. You should find out a little about them, and don't assume one type of 'welcome to Ponyville' party is appropriate."

Pinkie stared at Rarity. "Right," she said dismissively.

Rarity shook her head. Fluttershy gave her a slight smile as she glanced around.

"Who the hay was this 'Cassandra' the Princess mentioned?" Rainbow asked, "Do you suppose that's the monster's real name?"

"No," Twilight said, "Cassandra would be Sand Castle in modern form. She was a prophet when Discord was spreading his power across all of Equestria. She was famous for never having her prophesies believed. Some ponies think Discord himself gave her the power of prophesying, and the curse that no one would believe her."

"Gee, how could that happen," Pinkie said pointedly.

Before Twilight could answer, the doozy appeared. The Element Bearers wordlessly agreed that was a good name for it.

"Fie, they were waiting," Tirek commented.

"So now you prove your loyalty to our cause and no other!" Nistag shrieked, "I demand -!"

A blue glow surrounded the house and in an instant, it was utterly gone. As the Element Bearers stared in stunned amazement, a second glow of green-white enveloped them and turned them all to stone.

"You were saying something?" the monster turned to Nistag.

The pony-wizard stared back in stunned silence. The monster pounced, twisting the unicorn's head up and back, straining its neck to the breaking point. The wizard's back legs folded, but the monster only increased the pressure. His knee pressing hard against the pony's throat threatened to crush his windpipe.

"Your horn glows I twist your head off," the monster threatened. "I have your throat, should I stay my hand? I have had enough of your little tests to distract us all from the fact you haven't delivered a damn thing. Now if you demand another test of my loyalty when you haven't produced, I'll knock all your teeth down your throat and break both your back legs. You can do your job from a wheelchair. And sucking all your meals through a straw for the rest of your life might give your mouth something to do beside whispering poison to everyone in earshot."

The pony-wizard noted that not even Tear Twirler had risen to his defense, and that his vertebrae were making a most alarming noise.

"Enough," Nightmare said quietly for her, magically removing the monster from his grip on Nistag, "Nistag, get back to your lab and deliver on your promises and boasts. Monster, none now doubt you will sacrifice all for the cause."

The pony-wizard coughed unmanageably as the monster glared at him.

Nightmare motioned Tirek to stand by. "Do you have the letter?"

The monster shook himself. "Right here," he said as he held up the parchment, "But we should let the baby dragon's letter precede ours. The effect will be more devastating."

"Delivering Sombra to Luna will also distract them," Tirek said as he directed the monster away from the others. All the others were nervously glancing to one another and considering their 'allies'. Most realized that only Nightmare had allied herself with the two most dangerous of their company.

Celestia reread Spike's brief note. The facts seemed unwilling to lodge in her mind.

'Princess Celestia,

When the Nightmare appeared at the monster's home, they tried to fight it. They and the Elements were turned to stone, and the monster's home was destroyed. There's just a shallow pit there now.'

She shook her head and considered, Where did it all go wrong, or has it? The second letter brought her out of her revery. It was the same two columns, one of alien text, the other of archaic, stilted Equestrian.

Dear Princess Celestia,

I bring you glad tidings of great joy! Something I'm certain will render you stunned and speechless. I have managed to convince these fine people not to take their vengeance on you and your ponies. Isn't that wonderful? In fact, I've convinced them to increase the ranks of your kingdom. They couldn't imagine millions of people, so desperate for a benevolent dictator, or so full of hate for their own gender and species that they'd willingly give it up their lives, their homes and even their whole identities and go to another land. But new beginnings are what Equestria's all about, right?

Nistag has developed a marvelous potion. It will free the humans of all the things about me that terrify you so: bipedalism, aggression, and physiognomy. They will become ponies, body and soul. And not run-of-the-mill ponies, they'll be kinder, gentler and incapable of violence in word or deed of any kind. Perfect ponies for your world, although I'd keep them away from the Everfree. We wouldn't want any of these lovely presents we've given you damaged unnecessarily. I suspect I needn't worry, you do love your ponies so. As their savior, they'll worship the ground you walk on. Willing to sacrifice anything they have to your greater glory. What better gift could we possibly give you?

By the time you've read this far, we'll have gotten the last piece: Discord. With him, we can then destabilize the critical infrastructure on target worlds. With technology failing, and magic reliable, more people will willingly and eagerly become your subjects. Some holdouts will cling desperately to their species-integrity and failing technology. I have to give my new friends some interesting toys to play with. They aren't ponies, so don't worry your head about them. As soon as they are, we shall swiftly deliver them, and they'll be yours to protect and love.

And yes I said 'worlds'. We'll proceed to other planets. Our science has discovered several dozen planets capable of supporting life. A suitably harsh but fruitful world will be the new home of the most deserving and determined hold outs. As for the others, if they already have sentient species on them, we can adjust the potion, and spread your wings of love across planets, then the entire galaxy. With more followers and greater magic, we can jump to the next galaxy and begin again. Worlds without end, venerating the solar goddess in pony form. Forever and ever.

I know you'll love your new subjects and the limitless vistas opened up. It will also have the advantage of giving your more adventurous and scholarly subjects whole new worlds to explore, both in topography, and science, art and literature.

Congratulations, and you're welcome.

"Highness!" Bulwark shouted, sounding like he'd been doing it for some time.

"Yes," Celestia replied as she tore her attention away from the very concept of what she had been reading.

"They've stolen Discord's statue. They didn't free him, but they have his statue," he said, "Are you all right?"

"I think I've received a rather serious rebuke," she said as she focused. "Where is Luna?"

"Someone delivered King Sombra into her chambers." The guard struggled to deliver the next message. "I think she was rather pleased to deal with him on her own. I don't think the screams disturbed too many outside the castle."

"Destroyed," Celestia said, "Tell Luna they will perform the ritual to free Discord at the monster's home, it is not Equestrian soil, and she should be ready to confront them there."

"Majesty?" he asked, then focused, "I can have the entire plan 'R' force in hand and ready to travel in a few minutes."

"That will be fine. Assemble them there," Celestia said pensively. She looked at the letter, reread it, and cried.

The lines drawn into the dirt brought from an alien world were sufficient to contain the power wielded, though nothing remaining on Equestria could still contain what the statue released.

"Tada!" the draconequus announced as fireworks filled the air. "Oh dear," he said of the stone statues and the manticore-sized, royal-purple alicorn facing him. "Someone is certainly compensating for something."

"Discord, we have a deal for you," the alicorn said in oddly stilted tones.

"Wouldn't it be easier to come in there and talk face to face? It sounds like the committee is having trouble speaking with one voice, and I do so hate 'consensus'."

"If you wouldn't mind," came a subtly different voice.

"I'm sure I can squeeze inside." He jumped into the creature's eye, and the beast expanded to the size of a large shed. The unicorn horn moved to the creature's nose and Discord's horns adorned the area over its eyes. The tail became a scorpion's with a stinger.

"I think we need a softer and fluffier image," came a voice and the tail grew long fur, concealing the stinger within.

Discord looked around the amphitheater and the collection seated in the bleachers surrounding him. He snapped a finger and a throne appeared. He stuck a book under one leg and as he sat down, the book expanded until it was tall enough so he could look down on the collected ponies and a few other creatures.

"So, what fun are we to have here today?" Discord asked, tapping his finger tips against each other.

"A very simple plan." The monster said as he appeared to the Chaos spirit. "We leave Equestria, on this other world are hundreds of thousands if not millions who'd throw away their freedom and even their will to a benevolent dictator."

"They'd want to serve under Missy Grimplot?" Discord asked incredulously as he craned his neck all the way down to face the strange creature.

"I never said they were particularly bright," the monster responded, "But that's not the fun."

"Didn't sound like fun," Discord said.

"The first fun is knowing how Celestia will react to these new ponies who are so good, they can't be unkind, they can't use violence, even to protect themselves, and they will worship her ceaselessly."

Discord laughed. "She'll hate the last part!" Then he sobered. "What's the second part?"

"You sabotage the basic infrastructure. Make their machines go haywire. While the magic we use remains stable. More will flock to us to be converted to ponies simply to avoid the fate of others, and some will flock to be converted to ponies so they can preserve their people. We can spread rumors that magic comes from the worship of Celestia, and that will start religious riots, endless debates about 'giving up ones species to preserve their species' and so on. Not to mention the effect of having critical items many people depend on just randomly malfunction."

Discord giggled at this. "Surely Celestia would step in to stop this."

"Not with an influx of loyal, worshipful, perfect ponies coming out of it," the monster said. "While all the native Equestrians will have to deal with an influx of these new ponies, all willing to work and help in any way, all just amazed at living in peace and harmony, and all without the usual vices of the regular ponies. Ponies being ponies plenty of them will bully and take advantage of the newcomers when it's learned they can't really hit back in word or deed. So either Celestia steps in, or she lets a victimized underclass get abused on her watch. The amount of bullying that takes place will guarantee there will be problems."

Discord was holding his sides laughing at the vision of two worlds in chaos from giving people what they thought they wanted. "But you have to leave some of these other people alone."

"Of course, we let them develop space travel, and once the first world is either in total chaos or overrun by perfect ponies, we go to the next world. And the next, and so on. This new place has billions of stars and possibly millions of planets. The potential for chaos is literally astronomical."

"I love the way you think," Discord said and patted his head.

"Thank you."

"Not that twaddle you spewed out to these morons," Discord said and gestured at those in the bleachers, "Celestia might relish more ponies, but Luna would chase you down and kill you for besmirching her sister's good name even second hand."

The assembled scoundrels began shifting in their seats. Looking at one another.

"What I love is how you lured all these reprobates here, and concealed the Elements right next door," Discord said, with tears running up his forehead to hit the ceiling, "Then trapped us all in here."

"WHAT?!" Nightmare thundered.

Twilight watched the ersatz triceratops wipe its tail over her and the other Bearers. The spell that held them as statues vanished. The creature seemed to be having something of a seizure. Dancing around as if dozens wrestled for control of it.

"All that power and all the problems it could solve," the weird creature shouted, "Why don't you help someone with it? No, you want darkness, you want evil, you want people cowering before you. FINE! You want darkness, you want evil and suffering? HERE! You're gonna wear that filth! Eat that horror! Sleep in that misery! Drown yourselves in that despair! And you'll never escape so you'll die in it! You like that you puerile fakers? That's death, that's misery, that's atrocity! Kill dozens, how about millions!"

The creature began 'dancing' randomly, as if trying to run away from itself.


"Stop, stop, stop!"

"Eternal night, how about burning whole cities to the ground?"

"This isn't happening!"



"Experiments, here's some experiments!"


"Make it stop! Make it stop!"

"Forgive me please!"

"And here what the planet does! So much for pure and loving Nature!"

"But, the Mother Goddess loves us."

"Why are they doing that?"

"TWILIGHT SPARKLE for the love of God open fire!"

The six mares summoned their power and fired into the twitching creature. The rainbow surrounded the creatures. The screams from the unknown were replaced by cries as the Elements worked their magic against the creatures that composed the monstrosity. Dozens of statues rolled out of the mix. The most disturbing was Discord himself. He was hunched over, hands on his knees, and laughing uproariously.

"Why do I think he went along with this, merely to change his pose?" Luna asked as she, Celestia and dozens of guards and wizards arrived at the battle site.

"Princess Celestia!" Twilight ran over to greet her mentor.

Luna looked at two wisps she'd mistaken for smoke that wrapped themselves around her head. Her combative expression went slack as she heard the whispers from the smoke before it disappeared. "Fair well, my old friends," she bowed her head and whispered.

"Big guy!" Spike shouted as the smoke cleared somewhat.

The two princesses' advance was blocked by the guards as Mile Stone and two troopers moved forward to investigate the battle site. The smoke continued to dissipate, revealing the monster's fallen form. Covered in small burns, cuts and scratches, and the foreleg-long unicorn horn jutting out of its head drew the gasps of the others. The Princesses and the Element Bearers pushed forward.

He seemed to focus on Celestia. "You are fortunate that you are not truly a god," it said in clear Equestrian. From the horn came faint pleas for understanding and mercy, and promises of power and loyalty.

The Princess' stoic expression could have been graven in stone like the Elements' multiple targets.

"Not an inch, not even now," he said, then smiled, "Well played, well played." He turned to Luna. "I hope my tenure has not been too taxing for all of you. This one needs the final lesson." He gestured to the horn that still made pleas and promises.

He grabbed the horn with both hands.

"No wait!" Twilight shouted, but was restrained by Celestia and her brother.

"I. Die." The last word was gibberish as the horn came free, leaving only a bloody spot on his forehead. The sizzling as the hot horn burned his hands ended when he broke the horn in half. The inhuman scream as the purple stream from the horn halves raced straight up and out of sight. Luna glared at the stream as it didn't arc back to the ground.

When no one seemed to do it, Glory ordered, "Get him to the hospital." She looked around mulishly at the other officers who still seemed to be coming up to speed.

Derpy looked around the room. "Trixie, where are we?" she asked. "There doesn't seem to be much outside. But it is pretty, like a geode."

"I think we should stay inside," Trixie said as she lifted herself off the monster's bedroom floor. "I would like to know what hit us."

"I just don't want to get hit again," Derpy said, "And to get back to my daughter."

6) Chaos-Ra Sera

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Cultural Artifacts - Chaos-Ra Sera

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 17

Rainbow looked at the collection of statues, the site of the missing house, and the collection of ponies she'd come to respect. "Twilight, your Highnesses, I'd like to know one thing," she said as she hovered above statue after statue.

"Certainly, Rainbow Dash," Celestial said.

"WHAT THE HAY IS GOING ON HERE!?" the anguished pegasus cried, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Rainbow," Twilight chided.

"Twilight, let her go," Celestia said, "Go ahead."

The distraught pegasus looked around. "Okay, a creature we've never seen before just happens to land when the Diamond Dogs are getting ready to lure us out with two fillies. This monster-killer just happens to have hands so it sets up traps to catch Pinkie."

"They weren't games?" Pinkie asked, "But they were fun!" She bounced up and down.

"Then everybody has weird dreams, and only Princess Luna can fix them. Then on the very night of the big party to show all the big-wings that the monster is tame, he gets foalnaped right out from under all three alicorns and all the security. What kind of coincidence is it that it shows us a cinema about a dragon leveling a major city, that a dragon's two students show up to foalnap him? Only Trixie isn't foalnaping him for the dragon, she's foalnaping him so she can get free of the dragon. But there's really an evil unicorn. So while he's healing from the booby-trap; because he screamed, we get more weird dreams, with the princess helping us out, but it might be him too."

"Then, right after Twilight heads away to make sure some new monster doesn't rescue Discord, he gets foalnaped again, while the security forces are all watching, by a fourth alicorn! Who completely disappears. We get the Elements to fight this new monster, who just happens to show up right where Pinkie's Pinkie-Sense says it would. But instead of fighting, it blows up the monster's house and turns us to stone. Except we aren't stone, we're just statues. So that when it does show up with Discord, it merges with him, and frees us. So we can blast all of them. Including the monster!" Dash seemed to run out of breath at that point.

"You aren't confused, you have events well described," Celestia said.

"I don't even know what the hay I'm talking about!" Dash shouted back. "And why did Discord of all ponies tell Twilight to shoot!? Does that mean he can still affect things even when he is stone? Do the Elements really work on him anymore?!"

"And why in tarnation does he look so happy about it?" Applejack added of the heartily laughing Discord statue.

"What you have missed, Rainbow Dash," Luna began as she gathered the frenzied pegasus into her wings and mane, "Is ancient history. Nightmare Moon was a composite of myself, and something else. We thought it destroyed or banished by your use of the Elements of Harmony. We were wrong, and it waited, until it could find a follower, and a host."

"Him?" Twilight asked. "That makes no sense, his whole purpose is to fight monsters."

"Ah, we don't actually know that," Fluttershy offered. "Rarity guessed that, and we all agreed, but that doesn't make it true."

"Sugarcube," Applejack offered, "He took on and beat, all the really big monsters in Equestria."

"I never said he wasn't good at it," Fluttershy offered, "I said that isn't all he was for. And technically, we beat them. He only helped."

"Okay, so this Nightmare sent its followers to collect him, so he could be her host?" Rainbow offered as Luna released her to hover over to her friends, "That still doesn't make any sense."

"The Nightmare was never the wisest creature in Equestria," Luna said, and gave a look to Celestia.

The other Royal sister just pursed her lips.

"So this Nightmare was sending all those bad dreams, as a cover for sending it bad dreams?" Twilight said, "Makes sense. Of course it helped that we thought it was the cause of all the nightmares."

" 'Cept it didn't work," Applejack pointed out. "It was seriously angry, but not scared."

"Well, Trixie reported it did have occasional nightmares," Fluttershy said.

"If this parasite trying to get her claws in it didn't cause all those nightmares," Rarity wondered aloud, "What or who did? I mean what could scare it enough?"

Both Luna and Celestia had coughing fits at that point.

"Hello!" Discord shouted at the prone figure at his feet, and the incredibly boring cluster of copses of trees surrounding him. "Oh no you can't die," he said in a damsel's tones.

"You'd think someone able to arrange a massacre like that wouldn't just curl up and die simply for pulling off a false unicorn horn." Discord looked around. "Okay, show of hands, who says I just let him die?"

Discord cringed. "You aren't too popular with your fans. Okay, show of hands, who wants me to 'help' him survive, and teach him the ways of chaos? That technically is a hand, but I don't find you that interesting." Discord rubbed his hands together. "All righty then, I think ole' Grimplot has a vacation coming on. Considering the only truthful thing about dear Celly he told that peanut gallery he had Twilight Snorfle and the five Moronsketeers zap was about her blowing him up with a mini-sun. She's got to be given the chance to save him. I get to be the 'good guy' and she can get the lesser of two evils. Isn't that a great, fun idea?" he asked. His ears drooped and his eyes narrowed. "I can break that and then you'd learn that you aren't nearly as funny or clever as you think. Oh, if you were wondering why I gave away his little plot, not that plot you weirdos, I just had to have the fun all to myself. After all, they thought they were strong enough to hold me and make me a 'team player'. BLEAGH! I couldn't let his plot unravel, and could I let this upstart claim he put one over on moi? Wouldn't be fun, and wouldn't be sporting. So hey ho! Here we go! All the monsters are lawn ornaments. Except one itsy-bitsy piece of Discord that I stored someplace safe." Discord frowned. "In his head, stupid. If he'd ever seen the show, he would have never let me pat his head like I did."

"Too bad with the link lost, he won't know Equestrian any more, and all the magic he was stealing from Nightmare, all used up. Of course Tear Twirler won't really need her magic, and I just happened to snatch it from her in passing when she was getting sucked up by the Elements of Boringness. As well as Nistag's potion knowledge, and, well you get the idea. I certainly need them more than they do, and it's amazing that simply being able to make things happen doesn't give knowledge of how they have to be done by you pathetic weaklings. And I seem to understand his language, so I can provide a translation." He stared. "What's that? 'Mess up the translations to make it funny.' Oh, I never would have thought of that myself. And the message was written in crayon, how appropriate. Enjoy living in your parent's basement?"

He sighed. "Well, I need to contact ole' Grimplot, and have the other two rubes show off the other little present I left him. You don't think they'll actually go through the door with all the scary warnings do you?" He looked around. "Fine, I'll add a 'please' that oughta stop most everypony."

Twilight was absolutely furious as she read the letters, copies, even Celestia wouldn't trust Twilight's self-control with the originals. "That, that, that!" she exclaimed as she stomped around the slight depression where the monster's house had been.

"Genius?" Celestia asked, before Twilight could ignite. "Imagine getting Nightmare's help to compose a message, and its perfect translation into Equestrian. Quite a help for the later translation work."

Twilight stared at her mentor. "You intend to keep these?" she asked as she shook the letters.

"Of course," Celestia said and smiled. "The first is a good warning that I have been letting my feelings for my ponies hinder their development. And the second is a hilarious concept. Imagine, a potion that turned the monster's people into mind-numbed ponies, and that anyone would think this was a good thing."

"I think the idea would have scared Nightmare," Luna admitted.

"But administered only to those who want it, by the all-loving Celestia?" the Solar Diarch asked innocently, then noticed Twilight grinding her teeth. "As long as it was just an idea to scare the others, it was a good idea."

"How can he think you'd ever accept that?" Twilight growled.

"Darling," Rarity interjected, "He didn't. He just wanted some idea so horrifying that the others would follow along. After all, no 'artiste' wants to admit there is another more talented than she, and Discord wanted others to believe he was an artist. Nightmare and the others were no doubt the same."

"That is really horrifying, Rarity," Rainbow said

"That's rather the point, Rainbow," Rarity replied.

"Has anyone found Trixie or Derpy?" Fluttershy asked, "They were in the house when it went away."

They all stopped. "You don't suppose, he actually killed them, do you?" Rarity asked.

"Oh, yes, we're dead," Trixie said and helped Derpy out of the hole the mage had climbed out of. Her horn glowed and the door set into the ground closed. "That was quite strange."

"You closed the door?" Twilight asked as she rushed over.

"Yes, we opened and closed it several times from the other side, and even waited. It always arrived back here," Trixie explained, "The other side, I don't know where it is."

"So we thought it was better to come back to this side," Derpy added, bowed to their Highnesses, "Excuse me, I want to see Dinky, and him."

"I think that mare has the right idea," Applejack said, "This is makin' my head swim. Let's jist dig up the monster's front door and stand it up somewhere safe."

"Magic doesn't work that way," Twilight explained.

Applejack stood by the door and looked straight back at the Discord statue, it was pointing right at her. "Sugarcube, I think Discord had a bigger hand in this than we thought."

"He couldn't have affected anything, while encased in stone," Luna assured her.

"We could ask him ourselves," Cadence said as she approached with Shining Armor and Glory. She wobbled a little and the two unicorns steadied her. "Yes, Discord, I can hear you. No, I am not calling my aunts that."

Discord watched a smoky ball showing all the others clustering around Cadence. "Oh very funny, they'll be wondering for years what I said. Very good. But I am here, inside his head."

"There's a piece of Discord inside the monster," Cadence told them.

"Why can't you people use his name, if 'monster' is all you're going to call someone, why couldn't it have been me?" Discord complained.

"Jealous?" Cadence asked.

"You will vacate him immediately," Celestia commanded.

"Or what? You'll kill him, to get me? He's already dying because of her Solar Majesty," Discord replied nonchalantly.

"What?" Cadence asked, then turned to Celestia.

"Yes, a week, two at the outside," Discord said, "And I had hoped for longer."

"Discord said he'll be dead in a week or two." Cadence looked around. "And he said Auntie Celestia has something to do with it."

"Celestia?" Twilight asked.

"Oh, Twilight Spackle, always ready to put her mentor on a pedestal," Discord said, "I didn't say she was killing him, at least not directly. Ask Luna what her advisors told her about solar bombs."

"Auntie Luna, what did your advisors say about solar bombs?" Cadence asked, and the Luna Diarch paled.

Luna glanced guiltily at Celestia. "Celestial Dill and Shamrock Dancer survived well enough to interact with the mental world. They explained that he thinks if he steps too far out of place, you'll put a piece of the sun in him. BOOM."

"He WHAT?!" Celestia asked, "How could he possibly think that?"

Luna stared at her, sending the message 'because you could, if you'd ever seriously considered doing it.'

"Discord, why would he think I would do that to him?" Celestia demanded, "I apologize Cadence."

"You get really scary like that," Cadence said, and waited.

"Because he hurt your ponies, even second hand," Discord said, "His letter spelled it out very clearly."

"He hurt ponies, and the letter explains it," Cadence told them, "Auntie Celestia, are you all right?"

"He just arranged the defeat of most of the villain of Equestrian history and prehistory," Rarity asked, "Why would he think Celestia would want vengeance on him?"

"Because he hurt ponies," Rainbow said, "He turned us to stone for one thing."

"I kind of liked being stone," Fluttershy said, "Now that I know I got out of it. It was peaceful."

"Rainbow didn't like the idea of Tank being faster'n her," Applejack joked.

"Ah, good friends enjoying a friendly spot of chaos and argument," Discord said, "Anyway, he's got no reason to return there, so he's quietly slipping out the back door."

"He has no reason to come back, Discord said," Cadence added, "So he's slipping away."

Celestia rolled her eyes. "What would convince him to come back?"

"Well, Celly could play Red Shetland, and lose the fight," Discord suggested.

"Who's Red Shetland?" Cadence asked. When Celestia turned as pink as she was, Cadence decided not to pursue the question. "I think you'd better come up with another way."

"If needs done, showing him that he has an ally and defender, Trixie stands ready," the performer said quietly. "I am also his friend."

"Why do I think this is a game of yours, Discord?" Celestia said, trying to tone down the sharpness in her voice.

"Because it is, but I learned something," Discord said.

"It is, but he learned something," Cadence told them, and rolled her eyes.

"It's called a positive sum game," Discord said excitedly, "It's a game everybody wins!"

"He says this is a game everybody can win," Cadence said.

"It's just you win more," Twilight accused, "Sorry Cadence."

"It's all right Twilight," Cadence replied.

"Of course I'll try to win more, but think, the more you give up, the more you win," Discord said happily, "Is it any wonder I want to keep this guy around, he has such wonderful ideas!"

"I think Discord's in love," Cadence said and giggled.

"Iz, keml regurtsz femherk!" Discord stammered, "I am not!"

"He says 'I am not!'" Cadence said.

"Oh, he found a friend," Fluttershy said as she approached, she smiled happily. "It's so nice when someone lonely finds a friend. And if he can speak his language, they'll be able to be such good friends."

Discord watched Cadence grinning, as if she could feel him vibrating with revulsion. "This is about me spreading Chaos! Not Friendship you ninnies!"

Cadence repeated the phrase, with all the gestures she could almost feel. The others giggled.

"Sounds like a filly with her first crush," Applejack agreed, "All blushes and stammers."

"Oh, don't tease poor Discord," Fluttershy scolded, "He's feeling frightened and embarrassed. His first friend is in danger, and he just doesn't know how to ask for help."

"Then why don't he?" Applejack replied, then looked at the guardedly neutral expressions on everyone around her. "What?"

"No comment," Discord said. Cadence repeated it, and then there was a chorus. Applejack grumbled about that.

"I am willing to risk it," Luna said, "As much as I distrust Discord, I think he's correct that we do owe a favor to the two who helped set this up." Luna looked at Celestia.

"Very well," she sighed, "I don't think we'll be in too much danger. Very well, Discord, what do you have in mind?"

Discord explained. Everypony besides Cadence and Celestia fainted.

"That's what I thought he'd have in mind," Celestia sighed.

"It is, innovative and direct."

"It is." Celestia carefully collected all the fallen ponies. Cadence walked up and leaned against her, both for support, and to offer it.

"Going into his mind is something you've done before," Cadence said, "All three of us have touched it."

"But not as monster-mares," Celestia said. "Is Discord still listening?"

"I think he's too busy laughing himself sick," Cadence said, "His voice cut off in mid-chuckle. I think he really can't reach out here for very long. He seemed in an awful hurry to get his message out."

"Yes, he normally boasts a lot more," Celestia agreed, "He may be limited severely, or his power builds only slowly."

"Or he needs our monster healthy, to channel more of his power," Cadence said.

Celestia glanced back at the statuary garden that had sprung up from the Elements of Harmony. "I think he knows better."

"Dig it up?" Glory asked as she stared at the door that had once been the front door of the monster's house. "How deep do we go?"

"Until you get to the other side," Shining Armor told her, "The door can't be that deep. Then we get a frame to stand it upright, and only then do we explore."

"So why are we in full blast armor, and why are you enclosing it in your force field?" Glory asked.

"Lieutenant, just dig," the Captain said.

Glory manipulated the garden trowel and gently, carefully, fearfully dug at the edge of the door. Moving down one inch. Two inches. Three. Then four. "I think that's the bottom," she told Armor.

"Don't get cocky, remember who we're dealing with."

Even as he spoke, the door jumped up. Just enough to clear the hole and turn slightly sideways to rest on the ground. The echos of filly-like shrieks died away only mockingly slowly. Armor looked at Glory, who looked back. They disentangled themselves from each other.

"Trick of the door that made those noises," the Captain said to the Lieutenant.

"Oh, absolutely, sir," Glory said and saluted. "Can I keep the shovel? I have something I'd like to bury."

"Remember, he's encased in stone, not turned to stone," Armor said.

"Oh, I meant bury," Glory said.

Celestia left Luna to her concentration on preparing the monster and the hospital room. Cadence remained behind to deal with any intruders. She was pleased to see Rarity was up and around, and not giggling about Discord's suggested course of action. If the hospital staff, Ponyville or the rest of Equestria found out about it, she'd be facing years of giggles from the lowest pony to the highest. I may just let it out, she thought, After we get him back. If they are going to put me on a pedestal, they should still be able to laugh around me. Better I spill the beans.

"Your Majesty, may we speak, privately?" the fashionista glanced at the two bodyguards, "Very privately?"

Celestia nodded to the two guards, and the two mares walked into a small storeroom filled with racks of clean linens. The guards took up positions outside to ensure their privacy.

Rarity composed herself. "Your Majesty, please understand this is question I don't need an answer for, but I think you do need to understand it better."

"Ask," Celestia said with a smile.

"Why do you keep picking fights with him?" Rarity asked, as if charging her with heresy. "You are too mature, I mean astute, to be in the grade-school mode of buck the colt you like in the flank to get him to notice you."

"Go on," Celestia told her, and watched her struggle to get the next out.

"Majesty, I sell clothes, fancy frippery. While I'll deny it with my dying breath, no one actually needs what I sell. It makes them feel better. It makes them feel pretty and special, but other than a good set of boots, a rain coat and cold-weather gear, no pony needs fashion. I have to understand what is troubling them, and give them the fashion that makes up for the loss. I am completely satisfied daily going without, because creating is my joy. Wearing is as much advertisement as pleasure and custom. So I can guess remarkably well what a customer wants and needs by just observing."

Rarity continued respectfully, "Trixie keeps going on about trust, I can explain why it struck her so hard. He came in, asking for a formal suit. He specified the color, the austere style, and without any words or further interferences or input, trusted that I would perform miracles, which I did I'm not ashamed to say. That feeling of being absolutely trusted, warmed my heart. You seem to be undermining that between the two of you at every step. Even your puckish sense of humor doesn't explain things. I can't imagine why he'd think one hoof out of step would have you boiling him alive in his own juice, unless he had a good reason."

"What if he does?" Celestia asked quietly.

"Then with all due respect Majesty." Rarity took a deep breath, and said, "Let him die. Let him die a hero who collected all the enemies of Equestria for the last thousand years, and helped banish them. I cannot see why you would be afraid of him."

"Change to 'last three thousand years' and repeat your question," Celestia said.

"The creature 'who collected all the enemies of Equestria for the last three thousand years, and helped banish them' why are you afraid of him?" Rarity said.

"Is that not worthy of fear?" Celestia said, "He fit in with them, gave them a plan that horrified even them while it intrigued them more. He recruited Discord in a matter of moments. You are responsible for yourself and your friends. I am responsible for all of Equestria. Shouldn't I be concerned about such a creature?"

"No," Rarity said, and took advantage of Celestia's stunned expression to continue, "I think Fluttershy may be right. We assumed from what we saw that it was for fighting monsters. Maybe because the only problems it ran into were fighting monsters. Except teaching a foal arithmetic, taking out a stump, putting up a gutter, translating an alien language, and finding the fancy dress to a high-class party." Rarity smirked. "And out-pranking the planet's most experienced prankster. I think its job back home was solving problems. A difficult project would have such people, who had to know machines and people, and how to get them to work. Especially to work together. You no doubt have ponies like that in your employ. His job, and his life may have been all about solving problems. I don't think he'd include 'hurting the people he cares about' in solving problems. He'd only become a problem, if there were no problems to solve, and there are always problems to solve, either in Ponyville or across Equestria."

"What if he decides that I'm the problem?" Celestia asked.

"He'd send a strongly worded letter, which still has you rattled," Rarity replied. "You wouldn't react that way to it, if you weren't afraid it was true. But it does answer your question. He'd call you out on it, and tell you exactly how to fix it. You don't have to ask, your Majesty, he did it, twice. I rather think that's the real reason he sent those letters." She paused and gathered herself. "So when he's still tried to be a friend or at least a loyal subject, why are you getting ready to fight another bout?"

Celestia had no answer.

Twilight walked through the hospital corridor. "Nurse Redheart, any news on our patient?" she asked.

"The patient seems," the nurse stopped as she remembered who she was talking to, "His white cell count and blood pressure are down below what they were when he was brought in. The white cell count is worrying, because we assumed his standard level was what it was when he came in. The blood pressure, considering he was in shock, is also a bad thing. Whether one or both are going into the 'very bad' territory is anypony's guess."

Twilight looked down the corridor at Trixie who was pacing angrily outside the observation room. "Thank you, I think we will be able to help."

The nurse nodded and continued her rounds. Twilight approached the prickly unicorn.

"If you are going to lecture Trixie, Trixie has nothing she wishes to hear," the azure unicorn said.

"I was going to say I'm sorry that your friend is hurt," Twilight offered, "And that he's in the best hooves in Equestria."

"And obviously mine are not," Trixie said, "Thank you." Then she stopped. "Trixie, I apologize, that was uncalled for."

"I can understand you are worried," Twilight offered.

"Unless that was both your brother and Celestia in there, and you unable to help them, I don't think you can understand," Trixie said quietly, "If Celestia sets an impossible task for you, you can at least assume her test is offered out of love. For me, it is a way to earn my supper. I doubt you thought one moment about me once I'd left. You had your friends, possibly a special somepony. I was alone. From all my research on you, you never cared about silly things like friends. I was denied them. There is a great difference between not eating because you aren't hungry, and starving because there is no food to be had."

"And suddenly, someone gave you a banquet," Twilight said.

"I wasn't simply a trick pony. Someone needed me. Someone who trusted me, who rescued me from a stupid, possibly fatal, mistake now needed me." Trixie smiled. "It was more than a banquet. It was warmth and softness, and feeling fed full for the first time in so long. And everything any pony said about how dangerous he was, only strengthened how special I was to him. I wasn't afraid. He trusted me, and I trusted him."

"I didn't realize," Twilight admitted.

"Because you still see mainly the books he brought. Not that there is a person involved with those books. Because the person frightens you," Trixie said, "I was made his servant, until he is well. And I do not deny that I will be fed, housed, clothed, and may even have the wagon I lost here replaced. But none of those things competes with the simple warmth of a touch, of a smile when I come into view, or the feeling of his nightmares and bad dreams departing at the sound of my voice, or with my touch."

"I can imagine," Twilight said, "But that's all I can do. I never had that. Ponies relied on me, but never like that."

"You should think about your mentor," Trixie said, "I think she is as lonely as I am. You note how eagerly she joined in your slumber party."

Twilight blushed and tried several times to counter Trixie's statement. Finally, she just shook her head.

The doors opened and Luna stepped out. "We are ready." Celestia came down the corridor with Rarity. Rarity waved and departed. Her Majesty seemed lost in thought.

Twilight gulped and nodded, then admired Trixie's poise as she walked in, seemingly without a care. She's going to rescue her friend. How would I feel on such a trip to save Applejack, or Shining Armor, or Cadence? Probably just that way, Twilight thought as she followed. Inside the room, to keep her mind off the eye-watering sigils on the walls, Twilight stared at her mentor, Luna and Trixie. The trio took their places in a set of carefully drawn mystical circles. Cadence stood guard to prevent anyone from disturbing the ritual that would let Luna carry Celestia and Trixie into the comatose creature's mind.

"Last chance to withdraw," Celestia offered.

"Trixie is quite tired of being compared to your apprentice and being found wanting. Trixie shall go, stay behind if you wish, your Majesty, but Trixie shall go on," she said politely.

Twilight noted the smirk from Luna and the raised eyebrow of her sister. Trixie matched the alicorn stare for stare.

"You two can have a staring contest later," Cadence said, "There's a rescue to be done, and I think some kinder words that need to be said."

Twilight watched her mentor 'break off ' the stare and give Twilight a wink that Trixie couldn't see. She stifled her laugh, and watched Luna begin her spell. Her jaw dropped as Luna broke at least six rules of basic spell casting with her opening incantation, and another seven before she was done.

"Ah good, you're awake," he heard as he opened his eyes. He didn't see anyone, unless the trees and the clouds were talking.

"Oh joy, my recursive psychotic episode has a narrator. I was wondering when I'd go crazier," he said as he looked around. The colors were Earth normal. Except the sky. The single shade of brilliant blue went from horizon to horizon. Yet the trees, and grass and the clouds were all normal. "Okay, I'm out, or I'm deeper in."

"Oh, a guessing game," he heard, and looked a full 360, seeing no one and nothing that could obviously speak. "I guess, deeper in, what do I win?"

He vaguely recognized the voice. "Look, maybe I'd better tell you. I never thought you were that funny in Next Gen. Menacing, dangerous, yes, but not funny. The only time you were funny in that role is the CD where you got absolutely pawned by Spock. That was hilarious. You were also pretty funny as that medic in the Six Million Dollar Man. I also liked you as the Central European inventor who was helping MacGyver become Jack O'Neil, that was hysterical."

"And people call me random," the voice said, "Ah, one of you out there want to throw ole' Discord a bone? What is he talking about?" There was a pregnant silence. "You'd think somepony out there would know. Look, we're stuck with each other, I put myself in your head because I was bored."

"Boy are you in for a disappointment," he replied, "Actuaries think I'm boring. My whole career was boring. Of course when you're working with red, fuming nitric acid and various hydrazines, with a few, hundred-million dollars riding on it, boring is good."

"Ah, not a clue," the voice said, "Anyway, that fun little trick you dropped on all those losers, comedy gold!"

"Thank you, and I appreciate your assistance, after you blew the lid off it," he said and looked himself over, "I guess clothing was optional on this trip."

"What is this fascination you have with clothing anyway?" the voice asked, "You're the only member of your species on Equestria. It's not like one of the locals will fall desperately in love with you. Most of them would only be vaguely interested. Oh, there's a birch tree over there, you should be able to strip the bark off in - hey, I was kidding!"

"I wasn't," he replied as he started walking. "If you were trying to depress me, you succeeded. So, how come you understand my language?"

"I read it out of your evil, little mind," the voice said happily, "I just realized, I can translate for you!"

"Terrific, I land in Gotham City and the Joker is my translator." He pulled a large section of the bark off and considered how to make a breechclout. "Will the blessing never cease?"

"Who's 'the Joker'?" the voice asked.

"Let's see, a trepaning spoon shouldn't be that hard to find," he said.

Celestia looked down at herself and sighed. I knew I was facing Discord's rules, and I should have expected his, she thought as she gave herself a good once-over. Okay, if I assume the hero monster-mares in Rarity's book are considered generally to highly attractive, and many of the villainous monster-mares are attractive, then the bumps, curves and symmetry I have make me a fairly attractive monster-mare. The mane, wings, tail and horn probably are enough to make me exotic, rather than hideous. Terrifying, I seem to have achieved without regards to my appearance, she thought sadly, then grimly added, Knowing Discord, I'm probably as comely to monsters as most ponies consider my natural form. She frowned at the next thought, So, since I read all of Trixie's reports on monster customs, taboos and reactions, do I charge down to confront our monster, traumatize and antagonize him, in hope that Discord dies laughing? No, I think approaching him, let alone confronting him wearing only boots, vambraces and my tiara is a bad idea. Even if I went the 'Red Shetland' route. 'No stallion shall have me unless they can defeat me in battle.' And I'd only consider that if I was sure his breed followed the bonobos and not the chimpanzees.

She drew her wings in tight, craned her neck, and saw that her 'mane' lapped over her tail. At least he left me that, she thought, I guess I've always been a little vain about those. Then she smiled. Okay, that's the answer, to both problems.

She cut away a large part of her tail, so it stood at knee-length rather than brushing the ground. From the hair she let her magic weave a tight, short-sleeves shirt and short pants like the monster often wore under its outer clothing. All right, that works, it even feels kind of nice. She smiled and set off in pursuit of her 'prey'.

"Look, I just want to learn about chaos, you seem to be so innovative in its application. I would have never thought to 'beep' Missy Grimplot at a high diplomatic function. I can feel the ripples of that, and do you have any idea how good that feels? Ponies, eagerly spreading chaos!" the voice explained, "I just had to see who was doing it, and how."

The voice paused. "What, no response? I pour out my heart to you, and you can't even cheer?"

He looked around the forest, searching for food, shelter, and a source of clean water. The buzzing in his head was only vaguely annoying.

"Look, I want to be your apprentice, your helper, your wingman, and learn all I can about what you know about chaos."

A running sapper outranks a field marshal, he thought, since ignoring the noise hadn't worked yet.

"That's a good one, what's a sapper, and what's a field marshal?"

So much for that, he thought, then dove into a gully.

"What, did you see something?" the voice asked worriedly.

Right there, he thought, And can you keep it down? She nearly heard us.

"Only you can hear me, until my strength returns, and that may take a while," the voice explained, "Oh, she's just delivering your clothes. I knew you'd want some, so I arranged a delivery. Better than what you tore off the tree."

He felt an eyebrow twitch and could only hope it was an impending stroke.

"Ah, why are you hiding?" the voice asked.

It may not be on all fours, but a winged unicorn with that color scheme has not exactly been friendly, he replied.

"You actually think she'd stick a sun in your guts to watch you boil up and pop?" the voice asked incredulously, "She isn't that vicious, believe me, I know."

He answered the voice with silence as he watched the creature running for a short sprint, then resting and looking around. Great, I tried to run a distance and nearly collapsed, even if I run, it'll easily chase me down. I don't stand a chance.

"Look, far be it from me to sing the praises of the Grand Imperial Harumph, but she isn't like that. Believe me, I know."

You might just be unkillable. None of the rest of those monsters were adults, they were kiddie terrors. How do you think I played them so well? I can be the real thing. She knows that, and I've got the hoofprints in my brain to prove she's been stomping around in there. An 'accident' while I'm in here, and suddenly her problem is solved.

"Look, while I am deeply jealous of the amount of screaming paranoia she's managed to instill in you in such a short time. Even I have to admit, it's uncalled for. She isn't going to kill you, and she isn't going to hurt you."

Experience points to the contrary, he replied.

"Why are all the interesting ones completely crazy?"

Luna looked herself over and only managed to avoid screaming 'Discord!' at the top of her lungs. Trixie seemed less put out being a monster mare with a mane, tail, and horn than she was. The rest of the dream/mindscape was lightly forested, colored like the monster's yard, and very pleasant. Trixie did spot the one thing Luna had wrongly dismissed.

"We're naked," the show mare exclaimed.

"That's a problem?" Luna asked as she checked to see her tail and wings still worked. "I prefer it to all the ridiculous clothes the stuck up snobs of Canterlot prefer.

"Did you read my reports, or just forward them to your sister?" the unicorn exclaimed, blushed and turned away.

"I get enough paper across my desk every day to choke a dragon," Luna explained crossly, "Why don't you tell me what's so important, and why are you changing color?"

"Mutual nakedness is the next to last step in their mating dance. We show up like this, and he's going to assume only one thing," Trixie explained miserably, "Like taking the last step."

"It is easily remedied," Luna assured her. "Why are you changing color, are you blushing?" she repeated.

"You, you are naked, and so am I," Trixie stammered, "And you are, quite lovely."

"How would you know?" Luna asked, then proclaimed, "And we are not in a mating dance!"

"I don't know how I know, I just know," Trixie exclaimed.

"I thought you were interested in stallions," Luna said carefully as she stepped away from the show mare as she was also noticing geometries and structures on her fellow Equestrian that drew her eye unbidden.

"Trixie can appreciate beauty, especially uncanny beauty," Trixie said, her back still turned and her coloring still darkening from a light azure to a deep indigo.

Luna considered the back, and the blush were quite lovely. Then she focused on the matter at hand. "Very well. We shall be properly clothed," Luna said, gestured with her horn, then looked around. "This may be more difficult than I thought."

Fluttershy had gotten worried about Rainbow Dash's sudden departure from the hospital and headed to Rainbow's cloud home. She discovered that Derpy had been heading that way as well, so she silently followed. Until Derpy ignored the door and flew straight in an open window.

"Derpy! No!" Fluttershy called, looked around guiltily, and followed her in.

Derpy was standing in front of Rainbow Dash. The normally dynamic pegasus was lying on her floor, her forelegs extended in front of her, and Tank resting on her hooves. Her fur was matted where she'd been crying. The cyan pegasus and her pet tortoise were exchanging worried looks.

"Rainbow Dash, are you okay?" Derpy asked before Fluttershy could.

"We're sorry we didn't use the door," Fluttershy offered.

"I knew you wouldn't open it," Derpy said.

"It's okay guys," Rainbow said quietly.

"When you left, I got worried," Fluttershy said as she slowly approached.

"I'm okay Fluttershy, just confused," Rainbow said, still staring at Tank. "I mean, did Nightmare bring the monster here?"

"Yeah, to distract us from what it was doing," Derpy said cheerfully, "You see that's its sinister plan. It failed with her Highness, so it sought out a brave, fearless stallion without magic to bond with him. And only the love of a single-mother pegasus for her coltfriend can redeem him from the lure of absolute power. Sarah Selene wrote it all out a few months ago, The Nightmare's Return! I've got all her books! Well, both of them. I wish I could meet her someday. I know it's just a nom de plume, I mean who names their filly 'Sarah'?"

Sarah Selene? Fluttershy thought, then giggled.

"What's so funny?" Dashie asked, finally showing some spirit.

"Well, I think someone else is feeling more put out than you are," Fluttershy managed between delicate giggles.

Rainbow Dash checked Tank's propellor then set the tortoise in the air. "So you're telling me that all this happened in a book, and you think it's all fine because you're a character in a book?"

"Oh course not," Derpy countered, "I'm not dumb. It just that Princess Luna must have read the book, and when she sticks to the plot in the book, everything works out."

Rainbow facehooved. Obviously frustration trumped depression. "Look, what I really want to know is who are all those guys? Discord and Nightmare I got, but all the others? Why were they teaming up with Nightmare, and why would Discord side with us against them? He's got to have a scheme, and we've got to be ready, or someponies are going to get hurt."

"They were in the statue gardens. When Dinky went with Miss Cheerilee's class, she got a brochure on all the names. I'm sure Twilight can look them up for you."

"Okay, how many more monsters like this are out there?" Rainbow asked.

Derpy smiled and shrugged. "But you and our monster will deal with them."

Rainbow sighed and shook her head, then started at the still giggling Fluttershy. "Do I even want to know?" she asked her.

"Thank you again, they're beautiful," Trixie told Luna as she examined the leotard and skirt combo Luna had made for both of them from shortening up their manes and tails.

Luna sighed as they walked along. "You gave up lots of your mane and tail to get them," Luna said as she looked over her own outfit, and looked away from the blushing unicorn. Then she realized Trixie was looking at something else, and she nearly blushed herself. "Is that Celestia?" Luna breathed.

"She's so . . . " Trixie said.

"She certainly is," Luna agreed as she moved up beside Trixie, and noted how nice she smelled. "I am going to KILL Discord for doing this."

"The monster's people must go in for more visual cues than ponies," Trixie explained distractedly, just watching Celestia walk, perfect in grace and form. "Like a sunrise after a long storm," Trixie offered.

"Like forgiveness after loneliness and nightmares," Luna agreed dreamily. "Uh, do we stay up here and watch, or go down and, ah, Trixie? Trixie? Equestria calling Trixie!" She waved a hand in front of the unicorn and got no response. "Oh wonderful."

Shining Armor's sapper team carefully slid the frame over the door to hold it upright. Where to secure the frame to the ground was the next question. Leaving it in the middle of the now disconnected grounds was not recommended, at least in the short run. "It has to be somewhere where people won't knock it over," Shining Armor said. He'd already fended off his sister's 'puppy dog eyes' and her suggestion to place it inside the library. Inside or outside Sugarcube Corners was also nixed for similar reasons, and rejected under similar duress.

"I'm almost tempted to take it out to the old castle of the Pony Sisters and bolt it to a wall out there," Armor admitted to the team. "But then the creatures of the Everfree might wander in uninvited."

"I'm more worried about the back," Glory said as she circled the door. The back of the door was there, sort of, but it wasn't a door. It wasn't a flat surface, just a clearly defined boundary layer that couldn't be penetrated, and didn't react to anything. "I had them swat the back with a sledge. Nothing transmitted through to the front, but taps on the side did."

"If Discord had a hand in creating this, I think we should leave the 'hows and whys' to their Highnesses. Our job, once it is secure, is to discover where on Equestria the house actually is," Armor said, "Then the fun really begins."

"I can't wait," Glory said, "Derpy said it looked like the inside of a geode. There's only one place I know of that description fits. If it is where I think it is, we may have to keep where the house resides a serious secret."

"My lips are sealed," Armor said.

Celestia had approached slowly, letting the monster watch her. I felt Discord the instant I scanned for him, a little triangulation and I had him. I just wish I knew why they haven't moved. Is it a trap? Without any tools, could they build a trap? she wondered, and entered the gully they were hiding in some distance away from their actual location, and picked her way along. Okay, now they run, but not very fast, lure me into an ambush? she thought and smiled, Not likely. She jumped up and ran along the raised ground beside the gully, overtaking the cantering monster, and calling down into the gully to him.

His eyes went wide as he scrabbled to a stop before colliding with the wall at a sharp dog leg. He looked up at her, his expression a mixture of fear and determination. She began noticing things. Things that hadn't draw her attention before. His little pout. All his nervous uncertainty.

She shook off the list of traits and returned to the original plan. She collected the long trail of her mane and sliced it off. The remains fell just to mid back. She felt his eyes on her, a curiosity with near physical force. She steeled herself against the Fluttershy-level preciousness and completed the garments woven from her own hair. She tossed them down to him: a short shirt and shorts. He turned his back on her to change into the shorts. She silently slipped into the gully. She found his movements and skin held an odd fascination, especially the slight clumsiness and uncertainty of his movements. She approached as he pulled the shirt over his head. She was just out of arms reach and grinning when he turned back to face her. His shocked look was the most delicious vision yet.

DISCORD! he shouted within his own head as he backed away from Celestia's human form, her very human and very goofy grin, and whatever she was saying to him. Discord! he mentally shouted again. Only a sound like cabinets opening and closing answered his summons.

"You wouldn't want to tell me where the brain bleach is, would you?" came the voice, in a slightly pleading tone.

Brain bleach, what's going on, what's she saying? he demanded, I'd take even a warped translation right now. He was carefully stepping away from her, and she was carefully keeping the distance constant, just out of arms reach for both of them.

"I'm not listening to her," Discord replied in a sing-song tone. "Where is the brain bleach?"

Brain bleach doesn't really exist. Is she dangerous, can you answer that? he mentally shouted. He'd been backing up from the seemingly inebriated creature, who'd kept just out of arm's length. Pausing in her pursuit when he dashed and ran out of breath, but never close enough to grab or touch him.

There was a sound like someone dumping over a barrel full of pots and pans, and glasses. It ended with the yowl of a cat.

"Ah, a flamethrower! Perfect!" the voice shouted happily. A loud whoosh later, he explained, "No, she's perfectly safe. You could probably bite her on the, er, nose, and she'd think it was delightful. But I must admit, I made a teensy mistake. You'll laugh I'm sure."

Spill it, he thought. He realized he was at the end of the gully, but the steep sides prevented an easy climb out. Celestia was still keeping a minimum distance, and seemed completely content to watch him struggle to climb the crumbling walls. When he slipped suddenly, a strong hand planted on his butt and pushed him up and over, accompanied by a fangirlish squeal from Celestia. She jumped up easily, and kept her distance.

"Well, you see, you two were so highly strung, I thought it would be fun to say, direct all that energy to a more amusing goal. After all, I could control the way you all appeared here. So is she beautiful?"

An absolute knockout, give her a dark wig and she could star as the next Wonder Woman, but she's also seven-foot-nine, not counting the horn!

"She assumes she'll tower over others, I can't change things held that strongly. But I could change little things. I wanted to ensure you both found each other utterly fascinating."

You put a love spell on her? he thought.

"Don't be gauche! Aside from not working, it would ruin the mood when she broke it. No, I knew you'd find her wonderful and once you weren't afraid of her killing you, you could let her natural warmth get to that rocky stone you call a heart."

What. Did. You. Do? he repeated as he moved back and the transformed creature smilingly kept pace.

"I made certain parts of you, more attention worthy. Not warped or enhanced them, just little tweaks that catch the eye. I knew what caught Celestia's eye and it was easy. But I left out the passage of time, and your human psychology. Silly mistake really. It's a simple explanation."

Ex - plain, he said as clearly as he could. He'd backed against a tree to catch his breath. She put one hand on either side of his head and leaned close. He could look at her grinning face, or her generous cleavage. He ducked under her arms and ran as fast as his winded condition allowed. Her bell-like laughter was a lash to keep moving despite the stitch in his side and the stiffness of his legs.

"What she used to find very virile and arousing, ah, she now thinks is cute. Ponies aren't into cute like you humans, so I over did it. Thus, you're very cute, adorably cute, cloyingly cute -"

I get the message, he thought as he'd stopped trying to retreat, and Celestia just stared at him from out of reach. He sagged to the ground and tried to catch his breath. So, you tried to turn me into a stud muffin, and I wound up a tribble, he thought calmly, That's what you're saying?

"If I understand the words, basically yes. You're in no danger. She's hardly the type to step on an endearing puppy, even if it nips at her."

Thank you, he thought as he watched her sit down and watch him with mesmerized expectancy, See, all you had to do was explain it.

"You aren't mad?" the voice asked hopefully.

I just needed to understand the problem, he thought calmly, Then I can put myself in the proper state of mind to deal with it.

"Oh good, I'm glad you aren't angry," Discord said.

Anger and vengeance serve no purpose. Now I have to prepare for a moment, he thought as a feeling of culmination filled him, The right frame of mind. I'm ready.

La la la-la la la, sing a happy song.

La la la-la la la, Smurf it all day long.

"AUUUGH!" Discord screamed.

Celestia nearly laughed with joy. Patience, she thought as he moved slowly closer to her, she tried hard not to fidget or betray any signs of her anxiousness. She couldn't keep from grinning however. She tried to tone it down, but then he'd do something so adorable and she just wanted to throw royal decorum to the wind. You two have to make peace, she reminded herself sharply, reduced her grin to something less idiotic and let him move closer again. Inch by nervous inch.

Sitting down, scooting across the ground, he looks so little, and so cute, she thought. Patience, let him come to you, she reminded herself. He'd been in range of a wing-grab since she'd entered the gully, at the tree she'd wanted to pinch his cheeks so bad she could have tasted it, now he was easily in arms' reach. Still she didn't give into her impulse to just reach over and grab him. Tempting as it is. I wonder, is it my 'monster-mare' perceptions that are letting me see him this way. Or that I'm bigger than he is and he's dropped the pretensions to power. She briefly considered making herself seem smaller by lying flat on the ground. No, don't move, he's all right. This isn't an animal, it's a person. She remained sitting cross-legged, and forced her wings to stay at rest instead of shifting with her hidden laughter and delight.

He finally stopped, barely a quarter foreleg's length away. He stared at her. As if ready to accept whatever dire fate she had in store. She reached out to him, and he froze and briefly closed his eyes. Helpless, but determined to meet his fate bravely, she thought as her hands closed on his arms. His expression showed he assumed she'd tear him limb from limb. Instead, she collected him and put him in her lap. She let her wings and arms encircle him, then she leaned down. I feel a little like a clam, she thought, missing being allowed to cuddle and protect somepony, like this. When Twilight got 'too grown up' for this, I don't think she realized how much that hurt. Nor did I, she thought as he slowly unclenched.

"You big silly," she said fondly.

Trixie watched from their little hill top, her elbows on her knees. Tears of joy trailed down her face. "It's so wonderful," she said quietly.

Luna felt like beating her head on a rock, but she'd been unable to find one bigger than a pebble. "It's not supposed to work that way. This has to be Discord's work."

"If they get to be friends, finally," Trixie asked, "What does it matter?"

Luna briefly considered a more attractive head-to-rock option. Instead, she sighed. "It's got to be a trick some way."

Discord lay on the floor, bleary-eyed, with little nervous twitches. "La la la-la la la, Now you know the tune. La la la-la la la, You'll be Smurfing soon! Ha, ha ha," he said quietly.

Trixie looked at the two of them, sitting companionably side-by-side. Her Majesty's slightly proprietary look didn't detract from Trixie's own joy. Luna, marching along behind looked ready to chew glass.

"Are you all right, my sister?" Celestia asked.

"Am I all right?" Luna asked tiredly, "I was just wondering if my sister had gone mad. Or if I had. I've never seen you act that way. Towards anyone."

Celestia smiled as she smoothly stood up. "I can remedy that."

Trixie took the opportunity to sit beside him. He smiled at her, then pointed from her mane to her clothing.

"Yes, we cut them off for cloth," she replied, "They'll grow back."

He seemed tired, but kept glancing at the two sisters. Luna was backing away, and now Celestia started chasing her. Soon both were at a dead run, then they took to the air. The two of them dodging and weaving over the sky. Then came the cries, screams and screeches. Trixie stood, ready to intervene, when he pulled her back down and made a dismissive sound and gesture.

"They sound like they're killing each other," Trixie said, then realized how long the sound had been going on, and she leaned against him to wait.

After nearly half-an-hour, the elder sister, victorious, triumphant, and afflicted with giggles carefully carried her limp and gasping younger sister back down. Trixie and the monster held Luna's head as the trio lowered her to the ground.

"I am not defeated," Luna insisted in a blurred mumble. "Just, catching my breath."

Trixie caught the monster's eye movement towards Celestia, and the smile. Her Majesty was too tired to catch it. Trixie shook her head slightly, and received an evil glare. Only when he started walking to the still-winded alicorn did Trixie scramble to keep up.

"Princess Celestia, I think that's seriously lese majeste," Trixie said carefully.

"Oh, and who will know?" Celestia asked, then remembered the two biggest imps, not her, in Equestria were sharing a brain. She never made it off the ground.

Twilight had watched her mentor rouse herself. Celestia looked happier and more carefree than she'd seen her before. And not the 'oh nothing is bothering me' mask she always wears, Twilight thought.

Twilight and Cadence listened with delight about some very foalish activity between the two sisters. Chases, and tickle fights, and slumber parties and just hugging each other. Twilight sighed. Cadence sighed. Rarity sighed. Applejack sighed. Pinkie Pie sniffled happily.

"How long have you been standing there?!" Twilight shouted.

"Easy, Sugarcube." Applejack made placating gestures. "Y'all are gonna throw a shoe."

"About the point where he started a splash fight between their Highnesses, and then got out of the way," Rarity said. "I'd say you two had a lovely time. Although the idea of Discord being the genesis of such a lovely outing seems oddly out of place."

"It seems he is 'studying' chaos under the tutelage of our friend here," Celestia explained, "Controlled chaos. When our friend here started 'beeping' ponies, and they took the joke to every corner of Equestria, poor Discord was shaken to his roots. It seems that when he felt ponies actually embracing chaos, he had to adapt, or die. Literally."

"Couldn't happen to a nicer fella," Applejack said. "Ah still don't trust him after all he did 'round here."

"I agree," Celestia said, "But I think he's up against someone a good deal more random, and a good deal more organized."

"Twilight?" Pinkie asked, then giggled.

"I am not random!" Twilight said.

"She wouldn't have teased you about it, if she thought you were," Rarity said, "But you can get so organized and meticulous, you sort of break through the wall and wind up on the other side."

"That's always fun," Pinkie said, "Except when there are lobsters. Ooo! Lobsters! Do you think he likes lobsters," Pinkie briefly paused, "Somepony cover Fluttershy's ears."

"Animals eat each other," Fluttershy said quietly, "Just because I don't like it, doesn't mean I don't know about it, and why. He eats meat, dogs and cats would get sick if they didn't."

"Okay, then he might like eating them?" Pinkie said with some trepidation.

"Perhaps," Celestia said.

Luna roused herself, and stretched like a cat. If she'd had claws, she would have extended them. Trixie seemed to be awakening with the same predatory characteristics.

"Trixie would enjoy doing that again," the performer said happily. "Especially the nights."

"Yes, I too enjoyed our night time activities," Luna agreed as she stretched out her wings and gave a sensual growl.

"Night. Time. Activities?" Twilight asked, her eyes wide and ears laid flat against her skull.

"Sometimes we did it several times," Luna said.

"Three, four times a night," Celestia said.

"More like six or eight, if you count everypony's," Trixie suggested. "If I was with him, you were with Luna doing the same. Or I with you and Luna with him."

Celestia nodded. "That night we were all together, how many times did we do it?"

"Twelve," Luna said.

"Twelve!" Twilight squeaked and looked worriedly at the unconscious monster.

"Twilight, only a few times that night were we all together. Mostly we paired off and compared afterwards."

"Compared?" Twilight asked in strangled tones.

"Maybe we could ask Twilight to participate," Trixie suggested, "No, she would have to unlearn all that those books say."

"Yes, but all her friends, add Shining Armor, Big MacIntosh," Celestia mused as she considered.

Twilight looked on the verge of apoplexy.

"And then the Cutie Mark Crusaders, with Derpy and Dinky as well, maybe Cheerilee and the entire class," Luna said, "It would be educational."

"NOW HOLD IT!" flaming Twilight insisted as she hovered over the floor, "My friends are adults, but children should not be included in such, such, games, even if it is educational!"

"Darling," Rarity said and frowned at her Majesty, "This is Princess Celestia after all."

"Your mentor, and the prankster," Celestia said, "I would apologize, but assuming we would start acting like bunnies or minks in heat after just knowing each other a few days is rather insulting, to us all. We were referring to star gazing and coming up with new constellations. With a different star-field every night, we did it every night."

"Oh," the non-flaming Twilight settled to the floor. "I thought you meant . . . "

"We did that too," Trixie said, "But mostly during the day."

Twilight caught on this time. "What exactly?"

"Snuggled together as we slept," Trixie said, "We adopted a nocturnal existence when the regular, full moon provided sufficient light to see by, and for some reason the bad dreams were less intense under the sunlit sky."

"I apologize," Twilight said, "I thought . . . "

"They sure made it sound like they did," Applejack offered, "Had me fooled."

"I never said we didn't do that," Luna said, "But I will neither confirm, nor deny which, what and who."

"Oh, no," Rarity said as she shook her head, "We aren't falling for that, you could be talking about a fish fry, or mutual massages, or giving each other rides on your backs, or thumb wrestling for all we know. With respect your Majesty, your Highness." Rarity bowed to each and waited for Celestia's nod. "But what you went to deal with, did that occur? Or should I start on funeral bunting for the entire town?"

"No, he and I have not quite eliminated our differences, but I don't think he'll expect me to blast him into sizzling bits any time soon. And just to tell you the truth, Discord attempted to alter each of us to ensure exactly the results Twilight suspected. He was too much of a gentlecolt to take advantage, despite ample opportunities. And with me, Discord made him too cute rather than conventionally handsome."

"I think you enjoyed cuddling him at every opportunity," Luna accused, "But knowing he was safe from your wrath was no doubt healing."

"I apologize your Highnesses," Twilight said, "With what Discord did to all of us, I mistakenly thought anything and everything he touched would be tainted and degraded." She turned to Trixie. "And I apologize to you as well."

"There is no need," Trixie replied a hint sharply, "What we did or did not is immaterial. It was a dream, and all in this room have had those kinds of dreams. To answer your prurient curiosity, if the matter was ever raised, Trixie would have assured correct understanding, and said 'yes'. We trust one another, and understand one another better than their Highnesses. There would be no question of issue, only that vulnerability emotional or physical would not be taken advantage of. In fact, would be guarded. Cuteness, handsomeness would play less a part than we were for once the same species with the same needs and desires."

"Okay," Rainbow landed between the two unicorns and pushed them apart, "That's enough of 'let's wind up Twilight' for one day. I think you're all talk, and that slap and tickle is as far as you went. You keep going on and on about trust, well trust also means letting the guy say 'thanks, but no', and respecting his decision and not turning away from him for that. And if Discord suddenly gave me a pack of gorgeous stallions and a place on the Wonderbolts with them, all I'd be is suspicious."

"Believe what you wish," Trixie said.

"Yeah, I will, thanks," Rainbow said as she led Twilight away.

"I didn't think you'd get into a situation like that," Twilight whispered.

"Yeah, first, adult, mare-stallion thing, he said wait, so I dumped him," Rainbow whispered back, "Stupid."

"Sorry," Twilight said.

Rainbow shrugged. "Besides, you can ask your brother and that sergeant what they'd do in the same situation. I bet it'd do the same thing they would."

7) Half-Moon with a Twist

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Cultural Artifacts - Half-Moon with a Twist

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 17

The friends left the hospital, walking through the late evening together. Rainbow and Applejack had placed themselves between Twilight and Trixie. Although the glares were mostly Trixie to Twilight. Twilight was too busy giggling at the antics of her normally staid mentor.

"Y'all didn't!" Applejack insisted, and chuckled, "If the Cutie Mark Crusaders did that, I'd tan their hides."

"But it was a dream, Applejack," Celestia explained, and smiled, "Besides, who'll know?"

"You told us," Pinkie pointed out.

"A Discord-adjusted dream?" Luna explained as she walked along with them. "We could be playing mumbley-peg with the towers of Canterlot, and no one would care."

"Not the most dignified way to pass the time," Rarity admitted, "But, without the weight of your crowns, perhaps more high spirits were in order." She laughed into her hoof. "Besides, it must have driven Discord mad you four having fun like that."

"There is that," Celestia admitted sagely.

The approach of a griffon out of the darkening skies caused them all to grow serious. The young male landed, and gave a salute. He handed a satchel to one of the guards, but addressed the group. "Glorious Mystery, I've been sent from the griffon lands to help with decoding the visitor's language." The eager, young griffon scholar looked among the pony faces. "What did I miss?"

"Is he kidding?" Rainbow insisted.

"I say we head to Sugarcube Corners, and give him a full update," Celestia said.

"Not about the, uh," Twilight said. Twilight's eyes twitched towards Luna and Trixie.

"Especially about stealing everyone's bathing suit and dumping crushed ice in the swimming hole," Celestia insisted, "If he's a spy, and he reports that, they won't believe a word he says ever after."

Twilight thought the only one sweating more than her was the young griffon.

Big Mac trotted up to the wall of the town hall where the Royal Observer Corps had temporarily attached the monster's front door. The shadows from the lights of the town concealed the two others until he was practically on top of them. "Howdy," he said carefully.

"Ah, Big Macintosh, I'm glad to see you again," Shining Armor said. "I'm afraid we'll need the key, and I'd feel better with the caretaker looking over our shoulder." Glory stood at his side.

"Ah heard it was gone," Big Mac said.

"We think it's on the other side of his door. And that doesn't mean in the middle of the town hall," Armor said. "If it's where we think it is, we'll have to swear you to secrecy."

"Then don't tell me. I'll watch you, you figure out where the house is," Big Mac said as he produced the key, and unlocked the door. "Look, but don't touch," the stallion urged as he opened the door, and stared. "That wasn't there." The corridor looked like the covered walkway to the monster's front door. The garage wall was duplicated on the other side of the walkway except it had two doors inset into it. The faint illumination seem to come from no discernable source.

Armor and Glory let the stallion step inside and they closed the door behind them.

"That's modern, classical, and ancient Equestrian, and they say essentially the same thing. 'Don't open this door,'" Glory said as she examined the letters cut deep in the iron-banded, heavy door.

"I guess the last is the monster's language," Armor said.

"Why's 'please' so tiny?" Big Mac asked as he peered closely at the door. The door flared with light and opened inwards. Big Mac grabbed it and pulled it closed with a dolorous boom. He looked at the two unicorns. "I don't think that's his house."

"Agreed," Armor said, "How'd you know it was a trap?"

"Discord did it," Big Mac said as they walked a little ways down the corridor and found a door that said 'To Canterlot Bypass'. The trio looked at each other.

"Someone is going to do this anyway." Shining Armor extracted a stephscope and set it against the door. "Sounds like traffic noise." He removed the earpieces and let Glory listen. Big Mac just shook his head.

Glory and Shining Armor exchanged glances as they removed several wands from their saddlebags, and a collapsable 11-foot pole. While Armor unfolded and locked down the pole, Glory carefully ran the wands over the surface of the door.

"If there's a magic trap here, it's so low-powered there's no leakage on this side," Glory said.

"Then it could be right on the other side of the warp, if it really is Canterlot through there," Armor said and positioned the pole. "Stand clear and open it." The faint glow of his force field appeared between them and the door.

On the other side was ordinary, Canterlot traffic. The narrow alleyway was not well traveled. Armor wasn't taking chances, he moved the rod ahead slowly. The end of it began taking on a reddish hue as it passed the boundary layer. Armor withdrew it, and the red didn't spread from the area that had been affected. He looked at Glory, who nodded and the entire length passed through the barrier. This time it turned orange as it passed through. It encountered no hidden tripwires or other traps as he waved it around and then, just as slowly, and carefully, he brought it back. The orange color faded as it came through, but the red that had stained it initially was revealed and remained.

"Captain, I recognize this alley. It's on South Street near the edge of the city. This doorway is set right into the mountain," Glory said. "There's a nice Zebra bakery just around the corner."

"So, if you're in Ponyville, and you don't mind changing color, you don't have to hop the train to Canterlot," Armor said.

"What happens when you run out of colors?" Big Mac asked. "Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. What happens next?"

"I think we nail this one shut unless we need an emergency evacuation route," Armor said. Glory and Mac nodded. "There's where his front door used to be," Armor said and indicated the last door that appeared to be unchanged from it's setting on the house. "Anyone notice that neither Derpy Hooves, nor the Great and Powerful Trixie were color-shifted or otherwise damaged?"

"They didn't touch either door, they said. I think that proves them out," Glory said.

Big Mac hooved over the key, and they inserted it from a distance, safely behind Shining Armor's defense shield. Then he turned the key in the lock.

"Sounded normal," Big Mac offered.

Armor touched the latch and opened the door, slowly. The only thing that flooded the corridor was light from inside the house. The trio approached and looked around.

Armor whistled. "No wonder Twilie was obsessed," he said as he looked around, " 'Open Sesame Seeds' indeed.

"There's two more just as big, and a couple little ones," Big Mac said, and started looking around. "Funny. Last time I was in here, it's like the house wanted me out. Just feels normal now."

"Probably Nightmare was watching this place. Another clue we missed or ignored," Glory said. "Big Mac, stay in there. Captain, come look at this."

Armor trotted forward. It did look like a geode, crystals softly glowing in greens and blues and yellows, making a soft, omnidirectional white light. Glory pointed up at a column of crystal set in the wall. The huge, quartz column glowed softly with refracted light it seemed to carry to the rest of the structure. The two guards silently nodded to each other, and headed back to where Big Mac waited.

"We were out of your sight, search us," Glory said sharply.

"Ma'am, your word," the stallion began.

"No, you want to be able to honestly say we didn't take anything. It's important." She carefully unpinned her hair and opened her saddle bags.

She smirked as he carefully pawed through her long mane and tail, as if searching for burrs or parasites, which was close enough to find anything gross. He emptied her saddle bags, and shied when she pointed out things he should rifle through. He left repacking to her and checked Shining Armor's, mane, tail and saddlebags.

"Please stay in here," Glory said, "The captain and I need to discuss a few things. Please be patient."

"Yes, ma'am," Big Mac said, obviously embarrassed at the search he'd just done.

Armor closed the door and evoked a privacy shield. "What was that about?"

"Two things, we're going to have to be above board, and I don't want him moving from that spot. So he can't eavesdrop, or look through any windows. That was the Crystal Vein, or I've been smoking Poison Joke."

"Yes. He's about a three-quarters of a mile out of Canterlot. The first half is straight-down. There's plenty of mine shafts and tunnels through the mountain. I agree, the monster and the translation team are better off being way out in plunky Ponyville, than an air chariot's ride from the capital," Armor said. "That bypass will be tempting enough, if there is a door into the mountain there. Getting him besieged by the nobles might be amusing to think about, but having him actually shoot some would be a nightmare. And that's just explaining to their Highnesses, I'd also have to face my sister and my mother." Armor shivered at the thought.

"Especially if they burn those books," Glory agreed. "We tell their Highnesses and no one else." She waited for him to nod. "How did he even know about this place?"

"Nistag had a lab down there, er, down here, while their Highnesses were in the Castle of the Pony Sisters," Armor said, then looked at the two confused expressions, "Don't be surprised, I knew who was stashed out there, and their history."

"There's still one door, and I think we'd better examine it too," Glory said and knocked on the front door, "Please join us." Big Mac had the door open before she'd finished.

The red stallion locked the door behind him and headed for the exit.

"I'm afraid we have to go through the first one," Armor said.

Big Mac stared at him. "It's a trap."

"Maybe so, but we still have to go through," Armor said.

Big Mac sat on his haunches and shook his head. "Bad idea."

"This may take a while," Armor said.

The griffon drained the last drops of melted ice cream from the sundae and placed it with the cluster of others while he rested his head on the table. Inducing an ice cream headache had not made the other headache any better. "Majesty, Highness, I can't report that, they'll think I've been drinking!"

"But you have," said the fourteen, small Pinkie Pie faces refracted through the sundae dishes.

He started away from the collection and saw only a single mare on the other side of the wall of dishes.

"You drank out of each of these when the ice cream got too melted," Pinkie said.

"I think they will assume I've been drinking something from Sweet Apple Acres," the griffon amended.

"We did promise full disclosure," Celestia said, "And you may encounter something similar. Now that Discord is involved."

"Your Highnesses, there are a lot of people in the government who believe Discord is a pony-myth. Part of the legend to support your claim to the throne. Even his recent actions did not reach into the griffon lands," the young griffon said. "I think I will keep the tale as a dream you had, that might have had some bearing on the ease of translation."

"Now they're blamin' the monster fer things someone else done," Applejack said angrily. "That bit us real hard."

"I am aware of the truth, Miss Applejack. I am also aware of the facts that my fellow griffons expect," he said, "Like regurgitated meat fed to chicks, my leadership likes a very stable, calm world. Without great shocks, like monsters dropping out of the sky, and Chaos Spirits changing butterflies to glass, and creatures threatening to invoke eternal night. Yes, I was in Baltimare when Discord 'improved' the city. The consulate security and 'residents' were the only force able to keep that swarm of flying monkeys away from the hospitals."

"How did you, oh," Fluttershy said.

"Cheer up, we do have those two examples of the alien writing," Twilight said, "That's good news."

"Yes. The first brick out of the wall. That is always the most difficult, and we have a willing helper. I understand it has mastered our numbers, and some of our mathematical notations."

"Yes, but it is physically unable to speak out language," Twilight said, "Even with a native speaker coaching it, it comes out a barely recognizable jumble."

"That could be overcome with the universe maritime code used by blinking lights between ships," the griffon said, suddenly all business, "It does limit who he could 'speak' with but that can't be helped. Also, we should stop calling it 'monster'. While technically correct, if it is a partner in our investigations, we need to reinforce that it is intelligent, and not a dangerous animal."

"How about Meatball!" Pinkie said.

"Good choice," Rainbow said and frowned, "He's probably got some in that cold box."

"Why not 'Big Guy'?" Spike asked as he pulled himself up on to the table, with a little help from Twilight. "It fits, and it's different enough from pony and griffon names that nopony is going to mistake it for one."

"It is rather bland for so dashing a champion," Rarity said, "I know, Tuxedo, something."

"He's only in the tuxedo one night, and they had ta cut him outta it," Applejack said and grinned at Spike who was caught between his point and wanting to assist Rarity.

"Lofty, towering, major, high, massive, alpine, vital, outlandish, substantial, eminent," Pinkie offered rapid fire.

"Where's Trixie?" Rarity said.

"She went back to the hospital to keep an eye on Big Guy," Luna said.

Big Mac was backing up the stair way as rear guard. Armor stood in the center and Glory took point. The stone corridor was wide enough to walk two abreast, the stairs were wide and shallow. But the ceiling was well above their heads.

"We should not be here," Big Mac said quietly, as if breaking the silence would bring disaster.

"We are here," Glory said as they arrived at a large door. No handle on this side, but no huge reinforcement either. "This is a stout door, but it's an interior door."

"Check it," Armor ordered as he pulled out the gear to check for magical tricks and traps.

Glory was taking out her gear. Big Mac was looking every which way, seeing nothing to explain his worry.

After several moments, Armor began packing the gear away. "I can't believe it, no defenses," Armor said.

"Believe it," Glory said, "I can't find anything either. Ah, okay, maybe the corridor is shielded, and the rooms at both ends. So, don't let the door close."

"Let's get their Highnesses," Big Mac said, "This worries me."

"Yeah, well, we're professionals," Armor said, "And we're scared too. But I don't want to endanger the princesses. If Discord is faking his redemption, this is going to put a big exclamation point on it."

"I want to go home alive either way," Big Mac said as he looked around.

"It's just a latch," Glory said of her examination of the door, "An old unicorn trick, the latch is completely inside the door."

"Open it," Armor said and looked around. "It's okay Big Macintosh, I think he's enjoying how scared he gets us, over nothing."

"Yep," the stallion replied.

"Ah, Captain, Mister Macintosh, I think you need to see this," Glory said as she peered around the door.

"What is it Lieutenant?" Shining Armor asked as he headed forward. The red stallion backed into the room, and stood in the open doorway. What was in the room and the sheer size of it made him turn around.

"There are more stuff toys in here than even I've got," Glory said as she looked around. The shelves reached into the darkness above, and a pair of chairs and a tea set stood in the center of the large room.

Armor walked over to a collection of stuffed toys he recognized. "These are the ones that were sold for charity after Elements defeated Discord."

"I've still got mine," Glory said as she walked up to Big Mac, "I'll hold the door." He nodded and walked inside, looking around carefully.

"Yeah, Twilie has hers, still in the original packaging, so she can offer them for charity herself later, much later," Armor said and chuckled.

"Some of these are old," Big Mac said as he looked closely at one that had the fur worn off and had pearl buttons for eyes. "But none have dust on them." Big Mac walked to the far end of the room. Glory sent a light after him to illuminate the area he walked in. "Captain," Big Mac called, "Please come here."

"What is it?" Armor asked as he headed over.

"These have been played with recently. Take note," Big Mac indicated a few hairs caught under one of the button eyes. "And this one," he said and the very different color of those hairs.

"Captain?" Glory asked.

"Stand fast, Lieutenant," Armor ordered as he carefully collected the hairs in a clear vial. "I should have listened, but I had to make sure it was safe."

"I could have tried to stop you," Big Mac offered.

"What's going on?" Glory called from the door.

"We're leaving, and we are in big trouble," Armor said as he walked out the door, closely followed by Big Macintosh.

"What did you two find?" Glory asked as the two spooked stallions passed through the door, and she closed it after them.

"These look like body hairs, not mane or tail, do you agree," Armor said as he showed vial with the hairs. Some were white with a faint pink tinge, and others were dark sapphire blue.

"Oh," Glory said, "It's been a pleasure to serve with you, sir."

"We could always use a few good farmhooves," Big Mac said, "You have references?" the farm pony said and smiled.

Glorious Mystery was not certain, in the service of the griffon lands, he'd dealt with a lot. Outside of this experience was one Twilight Sparkle, the sister of the Captain of the Royal Guard and personal student of her Majesty Celestia. The mare was so forcefully polite, but he wasn't certain that bunking with her in the town library was a good idea. "I'm sure that I can find somewhere. No reason to put you out."

"Nonsense. The Equestrian to Monster dictionary is here. All the reference works are here. If one of us gets an idea and needs the other's help, it's better than running all over town."

He decided to go for the embarrassing truth. "Miss Sparkle."

"Twilight," she said happily.

"Miss Sparkle. Have you ever heard a power saw called a 'griffon snore'?" he asked. "It applies."

She snickered. "Yes, I heard, and I shielded that room."

"Oh, thank you. If you have anything you want the paint removed from, you might want to just leave it in there," he said, feeling more relieved. "Do you mind if I copy the two letters?" The two pages floated over. "This should make things easier."

"Too bad there's not a code book," Miss Sparkle said.

"Codes aren't that easy. The other element we have to work on is an audible code. And of course explaining it." He briefly considered. "What happens if his hearing doesn't let him detect all the tones of Equestrian? We've been assuming that he can eventually understand us. There are plenty of animals who have different hearing ranges."

"He's tried to say my name, and he butchered it, but we can ask the nurses to run a hearing test," Miss Sparkle said, "I guess the math is the other element I'm interested in. How advanced is their math?"

"Better question, how thorough is our unified coverage? Things we couldn't make work, or things they couldn't cascading one on the other. The danger is, that people, yours and mine will object to using 'alien science'. Ironically, the more successful we are at discovery, the more likely they are to pull that card. Not a pleasant thought."

"I'll let the Princesses deal with that. We don't have the data yet," Miss Sparkle chided.

He nodded, accepting her hope that thing would go well.

It was well into the night when Armor walked to the command post where both Princesses were waiting. The small vial of hairs felt like it weighed a ton in his saddle bags. He'd let Big Mac return to his farm, and let Glory to return to the barracks where she would remain. I alone have to do this, he thought.

"We found where the door goes. There are actually three doors. One goes to the house, which is behind the Crystal Vein. I think we keep that one secret. The second goes to an alleyway in Canterlot. Although further tests on the safety of that route need to be performed." He steeled himself. "The last, goes to a room I believe both of you are familiar with, and I apologize for invading your privacy." He horned over the vial. "That room is a cenotaph, isn't it?"

Her Majesty looked at the hairs, then horned the vial over to Luna. "Yes," Celestia said, "A memorial to many who have gone before."

"I admit, finding my sister and her friends represented was rather unnerving," Armor said. "Until I realized what it was. I apologize for intruding on your memories." He bowed.

"Thank you," Celestia said, "And thank you for your discretion."

"If I may say, from what Trixie said about your vacation, you are lonely. Aren't you, your Highnesses?" Armor said cautiously, "Like mayflies, we intrigue you just enough, that you desperately miss us when we're gone."

"Yes," Luna said wistfully.

"I'll have a crew secure those other two doors. I think the monster would be discreet, but someone else might not be." Armor bowed and left.

As he walked away, he wondered. What would it be like, to know I'd still be there, when everyone I cared about would be gone? he considered, I don't think Discord will get away Scott-free for his part in revealing that secret. But I may have a word with Twilie, about letting her Majesty be a little more affectionate with her. I think she needs it.

Day 18

Twilight heard the scratching at her window, and spotted the yellow and pink pegasus. Fluttershy? she wondered why the usually timid pegasus wouldn't simply walk through the front door. Probably saw we were closed, but this makes no sense.

"Fluttershy," she said quietly although the 'snore-proofing' had a limited effect both ways.

"Please come to my house as quickly as you can," Fluttershy said and was headed away in an instant.

And people think she can't fly well, Twilight thought as she searched the sky for the now-vanished pegasus. She took a little time to write a note to her guest, and run a brush through her mane, before teleporting to Fluttershy's home.

She heard the faint sound of snoring, and wondered if there was a gap in the spell on the griffon's room that let the rest of Ponyville hear it. She smirked as the fast moving pegasus shied when she saw Twilight already waiting for her.

"Oh, hi Twilight, you teleported, didn't you?" Fluttershy said as she landed beside her.

"You said 'quickly'," Twilight replied, "What's the emergency?"

"Be gentle," Fluttershy said as she entered her house as delicately as she usually entered a stranger's. Sleeping on her couch was Rainbow Dash. Angel, with a large and badly dented pan, and a spoon stood on the couch waiting.

Fluttershy nodded. Twilight braced for the racket, but Angel managed a quiet, but fair approximation of the Wonderbolt's theme song. Rainbow was instantly awake and eager, rather then her usual post-awakening condition.

" 'Shy, I said not to tell anyone," Rainbow said and visibly drooped.

"You said 'not just anyone', Twilight isn't just anyone. I could tell Applejack, or Pinkie Pie," Fluttershy offered, "Or Rarity."

"No, no, Twilight's fine," Rainbow said desperately. Then all the bluster and bravado bled out of her.

"Are you all right, Rainbow?" Twilight asked as she trotted over.

"I'll get the tea," Fluttershy said, "Come on, Angel."

Rainbow spared a glance at Fluttershy and sighed. "I guess this looks pretty pathetic."

"That depends why you're here," Twilight said, "Fluttershy seems to think there is a problem."

"Yeah," Rainbow said and sat on couch, "But I don't think talking about it is going to do any good."

Twilight glanced around the inside of Fluttershy's home, and realized her usual impulse to organize wasn't there. As always, the place was perfectly in balance. "Why don't you tell me what's bothering you."

Rainbow Dash mumbled something. The scene reminded Twilight of her first meeting with Fluttershy. "Should I get Spike?" Twilight asked.

Rainbow sighed. "What good are we Twilight? Us, as ponies, not us as the Elements of Harmony?" Rainbow heaved another sigh. "I mean, everything that just happened. Why didn't we see it, why weren't we ready for it, and why did someone else have to help us fix it?"

"That's what friends do," Twilight offered, "And I don't think anyone really expected all that to happen. Not the Guards, not the Princesses, and not us. But that it wasn't expected isn't what's bothering you, is it?"

"I, hate, losing," Rainbow said bitterly, "The guards and Princess Luna managed to threaten Pinkie into protecting the monster. Then even they couldn't protect him, somebody snatched him out from under their noses, and ours. Suddenly we couldn't do anything right. The bad guy was one step ahead of us, and always had us looking in the wrong direction. There were only two people who seemed to have a handle on things. The monster, who we were supposed to be protecting, and Discord, who is supposed to be a bad guy."

"Maybe they attended the club meetings," Fluttershy offered as she set a tea tray on an end table near Rainbow Dash. "Tea will be a little bit." She walked off.

"You don't believe that and neither do I," Rainbow whispered to Twilight.

"You're taking this awfully hard," Twilight said, "We won, in the end. Discord's plan, if he had one, couldn't have worked without us. I don't think the monster planned this, he was probably like Daring-Do, making things up as he went."

"He got those two papers you and the Princess were so excited about," Rainbow said, "And that was no fight, it was an ambush. He couldn't trust us enough to do our job, so he turned us to stone until he needed us. That wasn't 'making it up as you go'. Doesn't it bug you."

"Not really. Well, not much," Twilight said, and enjoyed Rainbow's perplexity, while Fluttershy poured the tea. "I was happily studying magic with my mentor, with no ambition beyond increasing my magical knowledge beyond what it had been the day before. Then I got a busy-work assignment to check on a festival I hadn't even planned to attend. Before I could be rid of all the crazies and weirdos I had to deal with and get back to my studies, I had to collect a selection of the creme de la crazy, and go face something so powerful that even Celestia couldn't defeat it forever. Those same crazy, wonderful ponies kept me from dying, and we didn't destroy the Nightmare, we rescued her Majesty's long-lost sister. And now I can't think of ever being without those same frustrating, wonderful friends again. This has been another disaster, no one could have expected it, and no one could have been ready for it. We all were distracted by the obvious, and missed the other ways things could have worked. Just like now."

"Now?" Fluttershy asked as she poured the tea.

"Yes. The Big Guy didn't kill any of them, not even Nightmare. He let us deal with them our way," Twilight explained, "That's the victory we should be proud of. As hard as he fought, he let us and our laws and customs deal with those villains. Bad guys come and go, making a friend understand that something is important no matter how silly you might think it is, that's a victory."

"Yeah, I guess," Rainbow admitted, and accepted a hug from Fluttershy. "I guess I've been moping all this time because I can't help. I'm no egghead, and when it came to the fight, the Big Guy and Discord handed it to us mostly done."

Twilight considered. "Actually, do you have any books on aerobatics?"

"Twilight, Rainbow Dash here, books for eggheads," the cyan pegasus reminded her.

"Actually, I thought you could write to the Wonderbolts' leader Spitfire, and ask for her recommendations on books full of diagrams of aerial moves. I saw a big, thick book the Big Guy had, with that kind of diagram on the dust jacket. Just think," Twilight mused while ignoring Dash's wide-open enthusiasm, and Fluttershy's delicate giggling, "You could catalog all the aerial maneuvers his people know, and be the first one to tell the Wonderbolts about aerial maneuvers nopony has ever heard of."

"Yes, yes, yes, yes," Rainbow said as she hugged Twilight fiercely, "Sorry, gotta go, letters to write." And she was gone.

"Thank you, Twilight," Fluttershy said as she gave her a more gentle hug, "She was pretty depressed."

"I was feeling pretty bad about all this myself," Twilight admitted in the depths of the pink mane, "But it all turned out okay, and we'll be ready for it next time."

"There's be a next time?" Fluttershy whimpered. A moment later they were both under Fluttershy's bed. The whimpering pegasus hadn't let go.

"Gee, and I thought only unicorns could teleport," Twilight observed.

Celestia entered Sugarcube Corners, and with all the dignity of her age and office raised a bare hoof to Pinkie Pie. "Beep."

With a gravitas none one would have believed she had, Pinkie hopped onto the counter and touched the sovereign's nose. "Beep."

The Cakes and most of the customers were staring so hard they were in danger of setting the place on fire.

"So, cupcakes, muffins, cookies?" Pinkie said, then with a leer, "Triple-chocolate, fudge-iced seven-layer cake with raspberry filling?"

"Fifty-six should do, and have the guard prepare the royal wheelbarrow," Celestia said. Celestia continued as Mr. Cake fainted, "I have sent to the capital for a larger support staff. Including a cook/nutritionist for Big Guy and our griffon. The medical staff warned us about certain flowers we eat all the time. So I thought you wouldn't mind showing them the town, where food can be bought, and welcoming them."

"Your Highness," Mrs. Cake offered to not offend either participant, "Ah, shouldn't they get settled in, before the welcome party?"

"After the last few days, I want the welcome party, before they are settled," Celestia said, "A full Pinkie special. But load the confetti in the cannons, and the cake batter in the oven. I'll have Twilight check on that personally."

"Understood, I'll give them a real Pinkie Pie Welcome to Ponyville Welcome!" the pink mare saluted, Celestia returned it and walked out.

Mr. and Mrs. Cake considered the effect of a full blown Pinkie Pie on the newcomers. "She's either a sadist, or a genius," Mrs. Cake admitted, "I can't figure out which."

Sir Eagle Bell, the head of the Equestrian civil service had always agreed that the grit must be removed from the gears of government to ensure things ran smoothly. What he disagreed with was that grit was always unuseful. The three before him were a prime example.

Holly Hock was the first. A brilliant chef and nutritionist, but while the leaf on her flank was holly, the hock was ham. "Holly Hock, your brilliance with meat dishes is well noted. Your absence from the staff preparing for a griffon diplomatic event conveys Royal displeasure more clearly than would a team of commandos landing in their capital, and burning it to the ground. However, the guests in Ponyville require your talents far more that we at the capital."

"I shall do my best, sir," the chef said.

"I'm sure you will," the bureaucrat said, "And I thank you for the salad recipe. It seems it's completely dealt with my anemia. I just wish my niece didn't think that me eating it somehow made me 'wicked cool'."

"Just a salad, with a few ingredients most would rather not think about. Your niece has learned to prepare it for you," Holly Hock said, "I should say your younger niece."

"Yes," he said, then glared at the next one in line, a guard pegasus whose squeaky voice and slight build often had her mistaken for a filly. "Corporal Forget-me-not, you are being sent away from the glittering jewel of Equestria: the elite ponies, the stage shows, the night scene, the opera, the ballet, and the sophisticated restaurants to tantalize the most jaded pallets. To be banished to pedestrian, podunk Ponyville where the only entertainment once the sun goes down is reading a book, where the chance of finding fine cuisine is minuscule, and you'll be tasked to both guard and help translate the library of a monster who happily eats flesh and apparently kills to defend ponies. You could at least have the decency to act like you're being punished."

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Won't happen again!" The pegasus' grin vanished and she saluted.

The old bureaucrat looked at the third member, the one he regretted sending. "Glory, I know you 'want' to go, but you have nothing to prove. Not to anyone who cares about you."

"Except to myself," Glory Belle said, "I want to be there when the engineering discoveries are made, Sir Bell."

He frowned at that. "Of all the family, and the entire military, you're one of the few I'd tolerate being 'Eagle', you insist on 'Sir Bell', why?"

"Because all those false faces who insist on using it without having the right have diminished it. Better to do what I do instead," the unicorn mare said, "And a little formality keeps the game going a little longer. Don't be worried. And if Aunt Marigold decides I need a 'proper' coltfriend, there's a major land holder out there, one of a family closely associated with her Majesty that I will be 'consulting' with."

"And when she demands to meet this pony?" Eagle asked.

"I shall have her coordinate with Miss Pinkie Pie to plan the welcome party," Glory said deadpan. She looked at her favorite uncle with an starkly stoic expression.

The first crack was Eagle's snort. Both broke up in guffaws, leaving Holly Hock to smile and Forget-me-not to look on worriedly.

"Think Prince what's-his-face and polo," Holly offered, and was rewarded with horrible comprehension.

The niece and uncle's laughter faded to occasional spurts. "I think I would like to be present when that meeting occurs," Eagle said, "And their Highnesses too far away to save them."

"Agreed," Glory said as she looked at her troops. "I think I'd better warn them about the more colorful citizens."

"Ma'am, that Twilight Sparkle and her magical hiccups fit in, is a good warning," Forget-me-not offered."

"True," Holly agreed.

The good, night's sleep had left the young griffon famished when he rose. The dragon had simply stated that the mare of the house was off studying something for Princess Celestia, and that their subject was still unconscious. That had left him time to evade the dragon's attempts to 'keep him safe' in the library, and go explore the town. First observation, most of these ponies are not early risers, he thought a hint smugly, as he wandered over to one of the few eating places open at this hour. Yep, it smells like a bakery, but I'd rather get a few biscuits and some coffee on my own, than stay inside. I'll get to get the locals used to seeing me wandering, and I need to see if I can place a dead drop or two for my findings.

The small number of patrons, and the couple who ran the place seemed only slightly confused to see a griffon. "Do you have biscuits, and Blue Mountain coffee?" he asked, and watched their expressions turn to horror. "Muffins are okay in a pinch," he offered desperately.

The sound of someone blowing bubbles through a bubblepipe drew his attention. "We take pinching muffins very seriously here," the pink mare in the deerstalker cap told him.

"I wasn't going to steal them, Miss Pie," he replied.

"Pinching steel muffins is even worse," she pronounced and blew more bubbles through her pipe.

He remembered his briefing from intelligence, and realized they hadn't been kidding. Maybe they are right about the rest, he thought desperately.

"Oh feathers, a wild Maguffin! I must get my paint!" he shouted as he pointed, then dashed out of the store. Three alleys and a short flight to the top of the town hall later he glanced around, then in a fit of irrational paranoia, looked into the bell at the center of the tower.

"How ya gonna do that, you don't have any paint?" the bell clapper asked him, and blew more bubbles through her bubble pipe.

An insane dash of speed and he was on a cloud. "It was an earth pony," he breathlessly reminded himself, "It can't get me up here."

"You spook pretty easy for a spy," came a voice from behind him, and again the bubble pipe.

"Who says I'm a spy?" he asked, trying to turn the tables on his pink pursuer, who couldn't possibly be hanging from a baby alligator wh owas floating suspended by a bakers dozen of balloons.

"Your uncle," she replied and blew more bubbles.

Luna watched the forms for the concrete going up. The mayor had come up with the eminently practical solution of building a small shelter and insetting the door into one of the walls. The picnic tables were also going up, the small piece of ground being somewhat park-like. In the distance, all the observer corps' bunkers were being filled in and the grass trampled to death in the weeks of activity being replanted with flowers and other plants to generate a garden maze.

It gives him a little privacy, and gives the Ponyvillians a reason to stay somewhat close, Luna thought as she watched the work. And I should try harder not to think about the possibility of the aristocracy finding out where the house really is. Ponyville also is a layer of armor that all the bits in Equestria couldn't buy. Most of the nobles look on this place with a horror that matched whatever our monster showed those other villains. That should keep them at bay. If they learn they can stay within a stone's throw of Canterlot, he'll never get a moment's peace.

She walked the short distance to the command bunker. There she saw a sight she had grown used to, but the member of the family was different. "And you accuse your sister of studying too hard?" Luna asked Shining Armor as the stallion hunched over a desk overflowing with diagrams only he could possibly understand.

"Highness," he said and bowed slightly, sending a few papers drifting, "Rainbow Dash brought up a very good point. We were taken completely by surprise, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. I was diagraming the decisions we made, and where we went wrong. It does us no good if we don't profit from our mistakes." He directed his horn at the escaped papers and they returned to where they belonged.

"You may be taking things too personally. Neither I nor Celestia saw through the deceit," Luna admonished, "And if we were fooled, you have no shame in being fooled."

"It's being fooled again that I'm objecting to," Armor replied. "Highness, we had more than enough evidence for Nightmare's return. But we got ourselves into thinking about everything in terms of the monster. Bad dreams, must be his fault. A foalnapping, can't be connected."

"That Nightmare was directing us in that direction also has to be taken into account," Luna replied. "You could not have known that beforehand."

"It was still sloppy thinking on our part," Armor replied. "We all reacted as she wished, and we shouldn't have."

"Don't study it too hard, or you'll be thinking Cadence is a monster in disguise," Luna said.

Armor smirked at that. "I already checked her out," Armor replied in a parody of his serious and on-duty manner. "It's the secondary aspects of this that bother me. We have a somewhat unusual individual. One trained in problem solving. Rather than accept that rather mundane reality, which fits the data rather better, we assume he has to be some kind of Batmare or Mare Do Well character. I could probably do tricks of logistics and tactics that would seem supernatural to a junior officer or civilian. But that comes from almost a decade of education and experience. You and your sister spin webs that leave me in the dust. Political acumen is not an alicorn power, but having experience with what works and what doesn't from pure longevity is. We don't know how old our friend is. If he'd a spry oldster, he could simply have a huge life experience to drawn on. He also could be smart enough to confront every problem with his strengths. The only time he pitted brute strength against brute strength was against Applejack, who was trying to tickle him. He lost, but gave as good as he got because of using his advantages."

"He also tried that against Celestia in the dream. She was nearly two heads taller than he was and almost as strong as her native form. Which is considerably greater than even yours or Big Macintosh's strength. He lost, but I suspect it was the unwillingness to give up that he was displaying."

"That's the other frightening possibility. That he's been losing, where he loses, to divert us," Armor added.

"If you are assuming he's a threat," Luna said, "Allow me to assure you that he is a good deal more fragile than any pony. Granny Smith is less rickety than he is. A big part of why Fluttershy is so enamored, was she saw this fragility, his attempt to set it aside, and she was drawn to it. I got to see and discuss a similar situation myself."

"Highness, what you, her Majesty, and the player did or did not do is neither my business, nor of any interest to me," Armor said carefully. "And considering what the nobles talk about when they think the guards are deaf statues, no answer will be good. If you did, you are a pervert. If you didn't, you are a prude." He swallowed and proceeded carefully. "If you didn't on his request, you should have forced yourself on him, and possibly intentionally hurt him in the process. To either show him who is boss, or so he might be more receptive when they use him for 'political' purposes."

Luna hadn't felt this angry in a long time. "I should force compliance, and wound a partner, simply so when they try to force themselves on him, he might be more malleable?" she asked as carefully as he had offered what he had heard. "Discord isn't that foul. I'm almost glad that - thing- lodged himself in the Big Guy's mind. To watch his back."

"Highness, I have had to listen to 'Molestia' comments about her Majesty and my own sister, for several years. I think I can understand exactly what you feel. But those same fools who would think nothing of talking like that, would faint if someone accused them of using a dessert fork to eat a salad. They aren't the majority, but no one silences them, so they feel free to chatter like that without fear," Armor said, "That is why I advise you to not discuss what actually happened even among yourselves."

"Thank you," Luna said and marched out of the command post before she started demanding that the officer name names.

The young griffon had given up. Everywhere I go, somewhere there is either a deerstalker cap poking out of concealment, or the sound of a bubble pipe. And so far, every likely spot for a dead drop already has something hidden in it. Medical kits I could understand, but who hides eyepatches and rubber balls in the knot of a tree high in the air?

He sat on the edge of a cloud, the deerstalker cap behind him and the two eyes peered out of a fold in the cloud. Mentally he began to compose the message that he could send through ordinary channels. To my commanding officer, I have already met the local station chief who is incredibly persistent and resourceful.

'Dear Uncle, the people here are very friendly.'

The existing dead drop plan will have to be scrapped and all sensitive messages passed face-to-face or through the diplomatic bag.

'The food here is barely acceptable, I wouldn't mind an occasional care package of granny's home cooking.'

They have only restricted my access to the monster due to his present medical condition.

'I have done some sightseeing, but there aren't too many sights to see.'

I will continue my mission.

'Affectionately, your nephew'

He glanced back and the small alligator was gumming the hat seated on the cloud.

All the ponies here are crazy.

'P.S. The weather is as described.'

He saw three pegasus had surrounded him, and all seemed to be watching him as if he were the only interesting thing in the world. All the ponies here are totally crazy.

He mentally scratched out his postscript and added, 'P.S. The weather was exactly as described.' He wrote the letter quickly and dropped off the cloud. He dove straight for the post office. The two pegasi tried to keep pace. One pegasus not only tried to keep pace, but actually outran him to arrive first.

Two bits says she's behind the counter, he thought and opened the door. I won.

"Which is cheaper, posting this to the griffon mission in Canterlot, or straight to the griffon lands?"

"The griffon lands, but I'd post it to the mission," the gray pegasus explained, "We don't guarantee delivery in the griffon lands. Some of the locals like spooking the letter carriers and eating the mail," the gray pegasus said. "Maybe you could put a word in, seeing as you're gonna be sending supersecret stuff back to your bosses in the griffon lands. You being a spy and all."

"Why does everyone think I'm a spy?" he asked.

"We had a 'welcome spies' party for you and your friend last night while you were asleep. I delivered your invitation myself," the pegasus said, "Twilight didn't let Pinkie collect you, saying you needed your sleep. So you've been invited as a guest to the 'welcome spies' for the Canterlot bunch coming in a few days." She slid an invitation over to him.

Dear uncle, what have I done to offend you so? he wondered.

Bored, bored, bored bored, bored, Discord thought as he languished. I seriously overplayed it with Celestia. I never knew she was such a cuddle bug. He dismissed the faint jealousy. Although, it was amusing watching those other two. That braggart was so terrified of falling under his spell that she never let herself be alone with him, and she acted even more skittish than he ever did. Even when 'Molestia' was chasing him around. And he thought she was gonna kill him and defile his corpse, or the other way around. He giggled at that thought in the silence of his host's mind. Then memories that disturbed even him rose up unbidden. Back! Back! he mentally shouted and cracked a whip, but on they came. Those 'trust exercises' he insisted on, and Celestia at first thought were so wonderful. Guiding the poor, blindfolded dear safely across the landscape I can understand. Luna carrying him aloft while Celestia stood ready to catch him if he fell. Those I could understand. He shuddered as the next memory foisted itself off on him. Letting her hold him at the bottom of the swimming hole, with only her magically restored breath allowing him to breathe, Discord remembered and shuddered again, That goes beyond insanity. Of course once Celestia understood the basic rules, she had to maximize things. Tickling him until he blew out his breath, and restoring it instantly with her own. Extending the time far beyond the proposed ten minutes. Those were all classic Celestia. Of course I nearly died laughing when he explained that drowning is one of his kind's most primal fears. The closest thing in Equestria to what they'd been doing would be to set some pony on fire, and backing up telling her that it would not hurt or burn. Discord shuddered again at the idea that anyone would face their deepest fear, with only the good will of an enemy between them and death. Well, I did tell him Celestia wasn't like that . . . and he actually listened to me? He trusted both of us? No, he couldn't have! It's impossible. They must have told him about me. They must have explained. He's not stupid. But, he believed me and acted on what I told him. Discord considered. All right. I have to do something completely and totally rotten to redeem my reputation!

'Discord,' he heard from outside his prison. Sounds and smells being the only senses that penetrated the comatose mind. And the monotony of both had been maddening.

Ah Celly, so lonely, come to see me, he thought, and then realized he couldn't respond. I'm going to have to do something about that.

"Discord," he heard, "Before I return to Canterlot, I just wanted to say a few things."

Yes, I'll be good, and wash behind my ears, gag me! he replied.

"If you hurt him," Celestia said.

Oh, she actually feels something for him, and I was so hoping to kindle something. Poor Luna, always the bridesmaid, never the bride, Discord chuckled.

"If you hurt him, Discord," Celestia continued, "I won't save you."

Oh threats, Celestia, huh, what? Won't save me? Discord thought.

"Whatever he does to you, will be on your head," Celestia told him, "I might plead with him to keep you alive, but others will see in retrospect, it will not be one of my most merciful actions." She chuckled happily. "Enjoy yourself."

Oh very droll! he wanted to shout, I'm not afeared of this upstart! Who came up with the plan that held those maniacs enthralled. Who thinks the atomic bombs were the lesser of two evils. Who actually read and compared Mein Kampf and Rules for Radicals. Discord looked around his not so empty dungeon. Celestia! Don't go! Don't leave me alone in here! Please. He mentally stuffed himself in a corner, and tried to watch every shadow. They moved, when he wasn't watching. And somehow, he knew, they were laughing at him.

Twilight looked at the mages of the Academy who'd come to help, to Princess Celestia, and to the monster's friends. "Part of his recovery is a lack of life energy, we will donate a tiny part of ours, and he will recover more swiftly." The chanting began, and the spell wrapped itself around the monster. As the power built, a glow surrounded the monster.

The spell wound down, and the glow faded. To her horror, a male alicorn sat up from the bed. His mane was a horribly distorted version of Rainbow's, especially in that each band of color clashed horribly with the bands near it. His coat wasn't a single color either.

"I've never seen a paisley stallion before," Celestia said, trying desperately not to start laughing.

The stallion in question woke, hale, hearty, paisley coat and clashing-rainbow mane. He fixed Twilight with a look of vague resignation. "Twi, wake up. It's time for the party, those folks from Canterlot are here and nopony's seen hide nor hoof of Pinkie."

Twilight opened her eyes and looked around the inside of the library, then at Applejack standing beside her. "I didn't turn the monster into a paisley alicorn."

Applejack carefully sniffed the half-empty teacup standing on the desk near Twilight. "Yeah, it was a dream."

"Very funny. I just wonder where our griffon friends went," Twilight said, "You don't suppose . . . I mean the last griffon Pinkie met, they didn't exactly hit it off."

"This one's a boy griffon. Not like the lady griffon they had a party for last night," Applejack said. "She seemed well-behaved, and I ain't seen her since last night neither." Applejack shrugged. "Maybe these are Canterlot folk you met when you lived there."

"I wasn't exactly social," Twilight admitted and blushed.

"These are palace folks, maybe you ran into them there," Applejack said and headed for the door. There she paused to look back at Twilight. "Come on," she urged, as if to a nervous animal.

Twilight sighed at her friend's grin. "I'm not that bad," she complained to her grinning friend.

Mystery had finally had enough. His pursuer, whom he'd mistakenly assumed was a pink court jester, had provided him enough details on Svetlanna's appearance that he knew she'd been tagged. So he set out to relieve her of duty. I'm sorely pressed to scrub the entire mission. If they know what I'm really here for, there'll be too much security. And I was looking forward to this, he thought as he walked to the last of the rally points, the one where they could escape from any pursuit.

His heart skipped a beat when he saw her again. She was everything a griffon was supposed to be, and more. Not the least reason I would have liked working with her, he thought. Everything about her, from her feathers, to her stance, even her scent screamed 'powerful female'.

But not now, he thought, She looks beaten. He had the irrational urge to give the poor griffon a hug, then suspected his evisceration would follow.

The hay bale with the deerstalker cap and tiny alligator was still in sight. He decided to give the ponies an explanation they would happily buy off on. "Sveti!" he called out the code phrase.

She looked terrifically hopeful, and ran to his side as the hay bale and alligator watched. "Oh Mystery, this can't work. I know you convinced your uncle to let me help, but they discovered me." She threw herself on him and hugged him tightly. "I know this can never work. You're a noble family, I'm just a poor griffon living out a schoolgirl fantasy."

This isn't part of the 'Sveti' script of starcrossed lovers, Mystery thought of the beautiful griffon in his arms sobbing her heart out, And this is far too elaborate for an improvisation.

"Carry out your mission for our people. I will return, and accept my punishment," she told him nuzzling her face into his shoulder.

"Ah," he managed, trying to separate mission and cover from what was obviously going on here.

Adding the pink forelegs and a second, sobbing female around his neck didn't help matters. "WAAH, I didn't know you were sneaking around to see your special some, griffon! WAAH!"

Mystery looked from one to the other, felt breathing becoming difficult but not impossible with the limbs around his neck. The insanity of this place must be contagious! he concluded.

"Oh, Pinkie, great party," a white unicorn mare in guard's armor called to the trio. "We all enjoyed it."

"WHAT!?" the pinkie mare gasped and nearly teleported to the unicorn's side. Fortunately she left both griffons behind. "The party already started?" she asked, right in the unicorn's face.

"The party already ended, all that -"

"AAAUGH!" And the pink mare vanished.

The unicorn looked up at the moon just peeking over the horizon. "Glory Belle, I'm in charge of the investigation into the 'Big Guy's' knowledge. You must be Glorious Mystery, and you must be the famous Sand Cobra."

"If such a spy were famous, they must not be very good," the female griffon said.

Despite the rescue, she still hasn't released her grip, thought Mystery, I don't know if I should be pleased or worried.

"You are that good. You forget, everything that happens under the sun Celestia sees, and everything that happens under the moon Luna sees. But that's beside the point. The government of Equestria, and we'll get official concurrence from your people's government, requests that you stay on. We've gotten fooled, and an expert on not getting fooled would be helpful. You can also teach him a little of that meditative fighting art."

"Iron Willows?" the female griffon said. She finally relased Mystery and stood on her own.

"Exercise, mental focus," Glory said, "And a way to bribe him to help the griffons. He seems to figure out that he's being manipulated. And ironically, he seemed extremely suspicious when he isn't."

"Wait a feather-pickin' minute," Mystery interjected, "He doesn't mind some blatant manipulation, but gets suspicious when there isn't any?"

"Maybe he figures it's the cost of doing business," Glory replied, "I'm only reporting what we've seen. He doesn't have a problem with us being blatantly curious, but gets edgy when we've tried to be clever about it. Better to be up front about it or something that gives credible deniability to the effort and his response. Also, what better job for a bodyguard?"

"You want a close-in guard, don't you ponies have one already?" the female griffon asked.

"Not a professional, and she is an entertainer, not a fighter. He lacks the brute strength for any of the pony martial arts. So giving him a way to defend himself, without his rather lethal toys, would be to all our benefit," Glory said.

"Aren't you afraid I'll steal some special knowledge?" the she-griffon asked.

Glory shook her head. "I don't think he'll play favorites. His home is still in Equestrian territory, and I think his feelings about the alicorn sisters trumps any tie you could bind." Glory smiled. "Besides, I think Holly Hock will appreciate three customers rather than two."

"Holly Hock has been sent here?" Mystery gasped.

"Yep, to keep you, now you two, and our friend healthy. I think that you'll find this close to the Everfree, your meals will take on the aura of more home cooking," Glory said. She braced herself and breached the subject she'd been dreading, "I also need you to keep an eye on our friend, because I can't get a handle on whether he thinks this is all unreal, and therefore doesn't matter, or if he's suicidal and doesn't care if he is wounded or dies. Older griffons who can't hunt will sometimes come down with the same fatalistic attitude." She saw she needed to explain. "He was captured by Nightmare, of Nightmare Moon fame, Tirek who your people know well, Nistag and several others. They were planning to release Discord, which they did. Our friend managed to manipulate all of them into a set-piece battle with the Elements of Harmony. And stood right in the middle of the effect. First, Princess Luna has told us that isn't the most pleasant experience in the world. Second, considering several of the people he was dealing with faced it themselves, he had to know what would happen to him when it hit."

"And third, what are we supposed to do?" Mystery asked, then noticed the stare between the unicorn and the she-griffon. "I think I don't want to know," he concluded.

"Nothing dirty," Glory said, "But definitely manipulative. Our governments want what he knows, and want his input on certain sensitive programs that are stalled. We need him alive and cooperative for that."

"Agreed," Sveti said grimly, "So aside from being a loyal dog, what are my duties?"

"I wouldn't dream of placing myself inside your chain of command. But I think just generally keeping him on an even keel would serve all of us."

Sveti nodded. "Agreed. What of the spy hunter?"

"Pinkie Pie?" Glory said and looked shocked. "I hate to tell you, she's not part of the security service. She's just local color. She saw you skulking around and in her world view, you had to be a spy. We knew he was being sent as a spy, you were just the first griffon she saw. And as for the greeting you both got, talk to Cranky Doodle Donkey about the greeting he got. She incinerated a 40-year-old photo album in an effort to befriend him. I could live a long time avoiding finding out what she'd do to an enemy."

"Pinkie," Mystery said, "I've heard about this place. I thought it was propaganda, until now."

"Believe me, she isn't the weirdest thing in Ponyville," Glory admitted, "Not by a long shot. And that was true even before the monster came."

Pinkie charged into the town hall as Twilight, the Cakes and Fluttershy cleaned up the last of the streamers. "Did they have fun?" Pinkie demanded of Twilight, then raced over to Fluttershy. "Did they have fun?" Pinkie asked Fluttershy, then raced to the Cakes. "Did they have fun?" she demanded, and raced towards Twilight. She stopped this time, because Twilight was holding her off the ground.

"Yes, everypony had fun," Twilight said, then added, "Not as much fun as if you'd been here, but everypony had fun."

"And I missed it?!" Pinkie Pie said and sniffled.

Twilight got her umbrella up before the torrent began. She waited patiently for Pinkie's tears to die down. "Where were you anyway?" Twilight hadn't expected Pinkie's tears to resume, but she was prepared. Her umbrella got another soaking, and Fluttershy began sweeping all the water out the door.

"The griffon spy we spotted yesterday was really the second griffon's marefriend, and she's only here to be with him. Only my catching both of them means that they'll be separated and miserable! And it's all my fault! WAAHH!" Pinkie announced.

Twilight sighed and patiently waited for Pinkie to unwind. Glory poking her head in drew Pinkie's attention, but Twilight still held her off the ground. The pink, party mare still managed to turn around.

"Are they going to stay, are they still friends, have I ruined their lives, can a swallow still carry a coconut while migrating, and where did all this water come from, does the roof leak?" Pinkie asked.

"She sounds like the DI I had the first day," Glory replied, "Yes, by royal arrangement. No, but I don't think they were exactly friends to begin with. Like her Majesty Celestia and Twilight aren't friends. No, they still have that in their claws. Zebafrican or Equestrian? When hydrogen and oxygen love each other very much, and there's nothing out here to leak through the roof." Glory sighed and grinned. "I still got it. She's staying on as a body servant, and close-in guard. After our lapses of the last few days, we're going to have to keep someone closer."

"Closer that Trixie?" Twilight asked, "She was sleeping in his hospital bed. As his pillow, when last I checked."

"Does she know what to look for?" Glory replied, "If we were out on the road, and worried about highway ponies, she'd be the expert. But for fixed problems, I think Sveti's the way. Besides, she is also a fully-trained raven."

"I thought she was a griffon," Pinkie said.

Twilight was blushing too much to correct her friend. Glory saw Twilight's reaction, and realized as the sister of the Captain of the Guard, she would know exactly what a 'raven' was. "Uh, why is that an advantage? He still doesn't speak or understand our language. And I don't think the that he's, uh, vulnerable to her primary attack."

"She's going to attack him?" Pinkie said and burst free of Twilight's grip, "And I was feeling sorry for her! ARRRR!"

"Pinkie Pie," Glory said. "The raven is a special kind of agent trained to make her subjects, ah, comfortable, and willing to talk more openly. They're only bad griffons, if they're trying to make someone give up secrets they promised - "

"Pinkie Promised," Twilight interjected.

"Not to divulge. He wants to divulge some of his secrets, and we want to learn them," Glory said.

Pinkie's eyes were aflame. "They train griffons in how to make ponies break Pinkie Promises!?" Pinkie shouted.

Twilight had a flashback to the huge firebird she'd seen on the monster's home cinema.

"No one breaks a Pinkie Promise!" the pink balrog thundered from dozens of feet above them.

"Yes they do, and they are punished," Glory said firmly, facing the panting, pink mare without flinching. "But she's here to use her skills to help us. The difference between you invading his house that first night, and setting up your pinkie mines after you talked to Sergeant Mile Stone. That's the difference between stealing secrets, and helping people pass them around who want to."

"All right," Pinkie panted, "But I'm gonna watch her like a pony really watching someone!"

"That's fine," Glory said. She let Pinkie by to march off into the night. The Cakes also departed. "Fluttershy," Glory said as she walked towards Twilight, "I need to know, what made you so certain he wasn't dangerous. Pinkie's 'Pinkie Sense' is one thing, but you have a different set of instincts."

"Oh, he is dangerous, very," the yellow pegasus said happily, "Just not to ponies who don't try to hurt him. He's like a papa wolf with no cubs, and no shewolf. I was kind of hoping that Derpy would get closer. Dinky could use a father, even a nonpony, and he seems to like her too."

"Fluttershy," Twilight said, "When we were talking about ravens, you do know what we meant, don't you?"

The yellow mare sighed. "Twilight, I have a bunny in my home and he visits lady bunnies. I do know about those things. I just never thought that would work on ponies."

"It doesn't exactly. Everybody in Canterlot measures themselves against everybody else. Even the filly who snubbed me at my own Cutesenara," Glory said and raised an eyebrow at Twilight.

"Sorry, I guess I thought you were monopolizing Princess Celestia," she admitted.

"It was my party. For a brief few hours, I had every right to," Glory replied, "But that's my point, Fluttershy, in Canterlot proximity and time of interaction with their Highnesses and other powerful people is how they measure their importance. Having an alien flatter you, and urge you forward to meet the 'right' people can be very stimulating. When you're very stimulated, you don't think as carefully about doing the things you really should be doing and the things you shouldn't. That emotional manipulation is what we need, to make him feel safe, and to give him someone to vent with."

"That's assuming we can get him to talk," Twilight pointed out.

"They don't necessarily need to be able to talk, but to emotionally support him," Glory said. "Fluttershy, that's where you come in. You seem to have an uncanny ability to read his moods. I know it's easy, but none of the rest of us can do it. Would you be willing to teach Sveti, that's the she-griffon's name, some things to watch for?"

"I guess," Fluttershy managed, tried to hide in her mane. "I didn't have a good experience with Gilda."

"I assure you, Sveti is a professional. She won't be like Gilda," Glory said. "I think you'll find she's a good student, and you might like to learn a few things from her."

Fluttershy blushed and shook her head.

Glory whispered something to the cowering pegasus.

Fluttershy perked up. "She could, really?"

"If you're willing to learn. It's part of her most basic training, being polite," Glory said.

"I don't think Fluttershy has a problem with that," Twilight said sardonically.

"Oh no, she might help me be more, assertive," Fluttershy offered the last as if ashamed. "I sometimes can't tell ponies what I want to. Someday it might really hurt somepony."

"I think an exchange of lessons might be the ticket," Glory said. She shook her head to stave off a yawn that came anyway. "Well, that's enough playing Celestia's junior spy master for one day. I'm off to bed."

"I hope you don't mind bunking with Rarity," Twilight offered.

"We'll get the house for the newcomers set up, then I'll get my stuff moved in," Glory said and yawned.

"There's room in the library," Twilight offered.

"Not with a couple of courting griffons in there, there isn't," Glory said as she left.

"Good night Twilight," Fluttershy offered, "Uh, and tell your brother, what happened isn't his fault."

"Okay," Twilight said, "My brother?" She shut off the lights and headed for the former command post. The door and the concrete structure stood within the wooden forms. But the light from the command post drew her on. She saw the sight that more likely would have been her when her brother came to check on her. Shining Armor was asleep on the writing desk, his notes covering every table and flat space available. She smiled as she used her magic to lift him up without waking him or disturbing the papers.

How many times did he do this for me, before I became Celestia's student, and he started again after he was an officer of the guards? she wondered as she added a slight warmth to the field carrying his sleeping form.

The two griffons were awake, staring at each other. When she entered, Mystery headed upstairs to turn down the guest bed. Twilight slipped her brother between the covers and the pulled them over him. All without apparently disturbing him.

"Thanks," Shining Armor offered, and smiled, before settling into the bed.

The griffons withdrew into the sound-shielded room and closed the door. Twilight put aside the urge to eavesdrop and let her own weariness drag her to bed.

Day 19

Luna shuddered as she closed the door to 'the mausoleum'. Shining Armor called it a cenotaph, but I remember some of those ponies. Looking at them, I keep having the awful feeling that my sister turned them into stuffed animals before they could die, to resurrect them all later. I know that's not the case, but it seems wrong to let your memories dominate you like that. Or is it because she doesn't want those memories to fade? I think Discord knew exactly what he was doing putting access to our Royal chambers right through that room. The equipment securing the door to the corridor was easily disabled and removed from her side of the door. Why do I think he's laughing at me? the Lunar Diarch wondered as she walked down the corridor to the front door of the monster's house. She took a deep breath, and magicked open the locked portal. Inside were the book cases, the curio cabinets, the furniture shaped for his people and not ponies. The eerie similarity to pony-fashioned objects still bothered her. Did they create us? We use their tools. Are we a figment of their imaginations? The sharp contrast between good and evil in our society seems out of kilter with their more nuanced approach that each situation requires a new approach. Is that why Discord sided with him? To discover a way he could do what he wanted, and not receive punishment for it. To frustrate us with his antics, yet make himself the hero? If that's the case, how will we know if he's reformed, or is simply playing a more devious game. And to the ponies, will it matter?

She let her hooves take her to the bedroom and thoughts of their time in the recent dream. "Ha," she laughed at the awkwardness of the first night. "With only each other for warmth, and only our wings to avoid laying on the dirt, that was a comedy of errors, embarrassment and, it was surprisingly fun. Harkening back to when Celestia and I would cuddle. So many centuries gone. When did we become so serious that we fear what others would say about us sharing a bed? Or just sharing a private evening together?"

She put aside her wool-gathering and concentrated on what she'd broken in here to do. There's no place in Canterlot or Ponyville that I could get away with this, and not face endless questions, she thought, Thank goodness he's still out cold in the hospital. If he walked in, that would really be an embarrassment. Then she grinned. Or I could 'bribe' him to accept my transgression, she chuckled at that, then cleared her mind. I have Discord's template, and my own shapechanging powers, so this. Should. Be. Easy.

She looked over her transformed body, and noted the similarities to Discord's work. The first headache hit her. I thought as much, she considered as she walked into the once great mystery, which was simply a private bathroom/dressing room and a clothes closet. She looked in the bathroom mirror at herself. I suspect that the horn, tail and the other 'heroic' aspects aren't standard. So the change is neither stable, nor permanent. She felt a wave of weariness pass through her. All right, but I need to be able to hold this form. For at least a little while. He needs to be able to relate to at least one being like himself to - The wave of fatigue nearly drove her to her knees. Okay, the headache is fading, but I'm going to fall asleep on my feet if I stay here. The weariness and fading headache made her distracted and giddy.

Her eyes fell on the obvious solution. The sheets in my own room would be rough against my skin, and I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I took a small liberty.

The sheets are as soft as I imagined they would be, for beings whose exposed skin would report any scratch or itch, She thought as she sat on the bed, I bet they still smell like him. I bet - The sudden sneeze and the massive head pain were followed by the sound of splintering wood and groaning metal.

Luna looked at her pony form, and the wreckage that was never designed to handle a being of her weight. "Well Luna, that was stupid," she told herself as she carefully climbed off what had been a very comfortable bed. The metal bolts had torn right out of the wood in places and the frame was badly bent where her pony-form had 'landed' on it. "All right, I can blame the damage on the teleport. Or I can give him a replacement. Where am I going to get a replacement this big, if he wakes up today, or tomorrow? Or in a week?" She leaned down and surveyed the damage. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!"

"Isn't that supposed to happen when he's in there with you?" Celestia asked from the doorway to the bedroom.

"I suspect you're going to keep reminding me of this for the next two centuries," Luna said as she stood and faced her sister and her sister's impish grin. "So punishment can come later. How am I going to fix this?"

"The royal artisans could duplicate it, and then everyone in Canterlot will know what happened. Or," Celestia said, then took a thoughtful pose, with her hoof on her chin.

" 'Or'?" Luna said, dreading every second that Celestia dragged it out.

"There are three immediately available replacements," Celestia said, "My bed."

"Which would make this your sleeping quarters," Luna replied, "I thought you didn't have any interest in him. That he terrified you."

"Tastes can change," Celestia said so innocently, Luna knew she was being teased.

"The second is mine, and the sudden disappearance of my bed would cause endless speculation."

"I think you and he will make the most adorable centaurs," Celestia said happily.

"If I had something of my own to throw at you, I would," Luna said darkly.

"Well, if you don't want your older sister's advice," Celestia backed out of the bedroom.

Rather than panic, Luna held her ground. She won't be able to resist teasing me, Luna thought, I just have to wait.

Any minute now, Luna thought. Right about now.

She'll be cracking now, just now, Luna thought as she stared at the corridor. Wait a second, I know exactly where to get one! Luna grinned and dashed out of the bedroom.

Celestia was waiting in the entry hall. "Ready to apologize and get my help?"

"Nope, got it, need to take him to see Zecora anyway," Luna said as she cantered out the door. "Lock up and don't steal all the cake mixes," Luna called over her withers as she headed back to the Ponyville exit.

Luna saw Celestia pout as she locked up the house behind her. As luna headed down the wood forms fo rthe Ponyville struncture she heard Celestia relock the door that led to the cenotaph and thence to their quarters. "You guessed," Celestia told her sister, "That's no fun."

Shining Armor awoke before dawn. He smirked at his 'little' sister tucking him into bed, which he'd had to do for her for years. I guess her Highness is right, Armor thought, Twilie's not the only one who can get obsessed with a job. And I'm still no closer to tracking down the failure than I was before. 'Blame the monster' is hardly the best root cause for this. Well, I'd better transfer my notes to Glory, and pack my things to head back to Canterlot. Her bed was empty, and he heard nothing from the griffons' room. Spike is still asleep, he thought as he picked his way downstairs, Doesn't she have another helper?

Outside, Luna's moon was still above the treeline, but a light burned in the command post. I thought she would have doused it, he thought as he cantered in that direction. Inside, he stifled a scream as the papers he'd carefully arranged, were casually flying about. With Twilight in the middle of the maelstrom.

"I diagramed where they were and even their orientation before I started," Twilight said, while her face was full of rapt concentration, he could hear the cocky smirk in her tone. "I wanted to see how much we were duplicating effort."

"What have you found?" he asked from the doorway, fearful of treading on a paper flying low.

"That we haven't, much," Twilight replied. "You concentrated on the military and security aspects, I was concerned with the psychological and civilian aspects. We did overlap a few places, but only where the Element Bearers overlap security. It's a surprisingly large area, but we seem to have covered it, without overlapping too much."

"And what is your conclusion?" he asked.

"That we have to quit blaming every weird thing that happens on the monster," Twilight said as she looked at him. The papers fluttered into the array he'd had them in. Perfect in order, position and orientation, as if his scattered brainstorming had been some preparations for a spell. Twilight shook herself.

"Should I carry you back to your bed?" he teased as she yawned.

"No, but I think I will be taking a nap. It still bothers me that we missed it. Nightmare was practically dancing in front of us, and all of us said 'it must be the monster'. Embarrassing," she said and yawned again. "I'm also worried about our griffons. I know they're supposed to be spies, but they sure weren't acting like spies."

"And you know how spies act?" he asked.

"I wasn't blind to what was going on around me at Canterlot. Everyone wanted to 'be my friend' because it got them closer to Princess Celestia. Even as a filly, I could see through a lot of it. That was one of the main reasons that I became such a hermit. Only you and the Princess were your real selves around me. Everyone else was playing the nose game. Who can stick their nose up higher because they know someone you don't." She shook her head. "Here it's different. Ponies actually have accomplishments they can compare and challenge each other over. And I still don't think Rarity has really put together how connected our family is to the Princesses, or at least she's decided to let our natural friendship get her the contacts that she wants and needs, rather than making it the basis for our relationship."

"And I think she sees you as someone who should live up to Canterlot standards," Armor replied. "Rather than the rather bookish adventurer you seem determined to be."

She snorted in frustration at him getting under her skin, again. "What about you and Cadence, were you two planning on keeping that a secret?"

"We kept it a secret for quite a few years," he said thoughtfully, "Why not up until the wedding?"

"WEDDING?" she screamed, "When were you planning on telling me? In the invitation?"

"Actually I was planning to tell you about a week ago, but Cadence wanted to, then everything hit the fan and we have been looking for a less crazy time," Armor admitted.

"This is Ponyville, this is a less crazy time," she told him. "Okay, I forgive you. With all that's been going on, you could have told me I was on fire and I wouldn't have paid attention."

"Now that you mention it," Armor said thoughtfully.

"Ha," Twilight replied, "Brothers!"

"I could tell you some crazy sister stories," Armor offered.

Luna storming in supplanted Twilight's reply. "Good, you're both here. If the monster wakes up, don't let him go back to his house. There's been, an accident."

"You had an accident in his house?" Armor said, "Isn't that why he won't let Twilight in?"

"Oh, funny," Twilight said, "You know, I bet he has some military history in there that would curl your hair."

"Then I'd look like your friend Rarity," Armor said and shied.

"Did either of you hear a word I said?" Luna asked.

"If the monster wakes up, don't let him go back to his house," the siblings said in perfect unison.

Luna stared at them. "I'm beginning to believe I have the only sane sibling in Equestria."

"What about her Majesty?" Armor asked.

Luna shook her head. "No, her relatives are all completely gaga." She walked out of the command post.

"What kind of accident could she have had in the monster's house?" Twilight asked.

"Do you really want to know?" Armor asked.

Twilight considered.

Glory was quite intentionally up before either Sweetie Belle or Rarity. She'd heard rumors about the young unicorn's ability to burn foods that normally didn't require applying heat as part of their preparation. She'd easily located the oatmeal and had a fair-sized 'stir-about' going when Sweetie Belle appeared.

"I would have cooked," the youngster offered.

"Army life, up before dawn, and straight to work," Glory said. She put a large bowl in front of the filly, and served up one herself. She made sure that the stove was off before she headed over to the table.

"This is good, not boring like regular oatmeal," the young unicorn offered.

"That's because I studied with Holly Hock. There's a secret ingredient," Glory whispered.

"Don't tell me," Sweetie Belle said, "I want to enjoy this." She happily dug into the oatmeal and Glory simply watched her.

She'd been the 'black sheep' of the family, along with her uncle. Nobles who actually did something instead of either buying or blustering their way in. That's why I'm 'only' a lieutenant, and not a captain or major. Because I'm trying to earn it. So here I am commanding one of the most difficult and important missions in recent Equestrian history, rather than those captains or majors.

The sound of slow hoofsteps coming downstairs brought her back to here and now. Then those same hoofsteps galloped back up the stairs.

Sweetie Belle was frowning.

"I don't know what she's worried about. I've seen natural disasters, even a battle," Glory said, "Your sister can't look that terrible in the morning."

Sweetie Belle giggled at that, then grew serious. "When did you see a battle?"

"The griffons tried to forcefully remove a dragon," Glory replied, "The dragon refused, and there was a fight. It wasn't pretty."

"I don't think I'd like that," the young unicorn said.

"I didn't either," Glory admitted, "I couldn't understand why they didn't start with talking. So, have the Cutie Mark Crusaders gone Monster Hunting?"

Sweetie Belle's eyes went wide. "Ah, thank you, but I don't want to peel potatoes and wash latrines. I hear my teacher calling me, bye!" With that, the unicorn, and school supplies vanished. The sound of the door closing echoed through the emptiness.

"That was interesting," Glory said, and collected the dishes and washed them. She transferred the last of the oatmeal to another bowl.

"Good morning!" came the cheerful tone, "I." Rarity looked around. "I thought I heard Sweetie Belle."

"I mentioned Cutie Mark Crusaders Monster Hunters, she said something about peeling potatoes and washing latrines, and left for school."

"This isn't a school day," Rarity pointed out.

"That's what I was thinking," Glory said, "When I didn't see a lunch for her. I think you might breech the subject a bit more safely than I."

"Thank you," the immaculately coiffed and made up fashonista said. "So you must tell me about Canterlot."

"Bullying until they figured out who my uncle was, and fawning over me to get to him when they did," Glory replied tartly, "My memories of being there as a soldier are much more pleasant then as a civilian. Once they think they know who you are, they stop looking for anything more."

"Why would you being a soldier change anything?" Rarity asked.

"Aren't you the one who says 'the clothes make the pony'? If all they see is a guard's armor, that's all they see."

"I'm sorry, I think it's exciting," Rarity said quietly.

"For someone making their reputation, it is exciting. You can see how high up you can go. For somepony who's nearly as high as you can go, you wish they'd treat you as a pony, instead of a ladder."

"Certainly you had friends, family?" Rarity asked carefully.

"I'm not angry about you asking. I just think that you should know the downside of it. If they knew you were an Element Bearer, they wouldn't care how stunning your clothes were. They'd only see buying and wearing them as a way to ingratiate themselves to you or to her Majesty. You've made the right choice staying in Ponyville. If you create a sensation, like with those shoes, then the snobs can say 'By Celestia, someone from Ponyville created these, by Celestia!'"

Rarity laughed at that. "I have met a few decent ponies."

"Next time you get a chance, you must introduce me," Glory said, "I'll introduce you to my uncle." Glory leaned close. "He says he's not a clothes horse, but that suit you gave the Big Guy, in a demur charcoal grey, would wow him in an instant."

"Arrogant in its simplicity and austerity," Rarity said regally.

"Exactly." Glory grinned.

"Oh, when Sweetie Belle asks," Glory explained, "I put some tangy cheese in the oatmeal, that's why it tastes so good, without all the sugar."

"Thank you," Rarity said, then sampled, "It is rather good."

"Something I learned from the griffons. We like things a little too sweet. They like things with far too much bite. A little of each makes it different."

"Where are you off to?" Rarity asked.

"Check up on Trixie, and the Big Guy. Then see to it that Holly Hock hasn't completely driven every home rental and seller mad with her demands for 'the perfect kitchen'. Then I need to figure out why her Highness is racing around like she's flying obstacle races with Rainbow Dash."

The princess in question raced by again. Well above the citizens' heads, but still flying nearly flat out.

"Stretching her wings?" Rarity said hopefully.

"Leave the worrying to me," Glory told her as she left.

Once outside, she looked up and waved as the Princess raced in from another direction. Luna halted easily and settled to the ground. She really is lovely, Glory thought as the Princess smiled.

"Is there a problem?" Glory asked low, trusting her Highness' superior hearing to pick it up.

"Well, after the last few days, everyone expects that there must be so many important things happening. I wanted to show that their Princess is looking after all of them, and has all those concerns well in hand," Luna said regally.

Glory nearly bit her tongue to keep from smiling. "So you've been racing around like a barrel racer, having fun, and letting everyone see you," she said very quietly.

"Exactly," Luna said and smiled. "I have no official appointments until late morning, and I will be able to correctly report I surveyed the entire area, and found nothing amiss."

Glory bowed. "I will not delay your survey further," she said. When she looked up, Luna was practically at the horizon. "I think I may recommend that her Majesty do a surprise inspection of the windows of Canterlot, or better, estimated time to mount a rescue of a distressed window washer."

Rainbow Dash looked up at her Highness racing around, and couldn't quite push herself to join her, or challenge her to a race. She walked along the ground, staring at the pebbles and stones in the road. Occasionally she paused, and glanced back at her wings, then would walk on along the road a little more.

She'd been up at dawn, when Fluttershy had started feeding her animals. She'd taken care of all the weather team's work for the day in just a couple hours. I should be bragging about it, but it just felt like a job, for the first time, she thought as she walked, I should be chasing the Princess around, but that wouldn't be fun either. She noticed someone had been walking along beside her for a while.

"Oh, Big Mac, I didn't see ya there," she said.

Oh, does that sound pathetic, she thought.

"Not enough Rainbow Dash ta do the job?" he asked quietly.

She was in the air confronting him. "There's no job I can't do!" Then she saw the smile. "Okay, yeah, I'm not feeling too good. About myself."

"Apple buckin', remember?" Big Mac asked.

"Yeah, I guess you're used to head-strong mares trying to prove themselves," Rainbow chuckled. "It, I didn't do anything. I stood where I was told. I waited, like I was told."

"Ya won, like it was planned," Big Mac said and stared at her.

"Yeah, but I felt so helpless the whole time," Rainbow said. "Like nothing I did mattered."

" 'Cept the last, where you won it all," Big Mac said. He looked at the apple trees all around them. "Not enough rain. Too much rain. Bugs get into the trees. Timberwolves get into the fields. Me or AJ get hurt apple buckin'. Maybe pears or oranges catch folks eyes this year." He looked at Rainbow. "We're still here. You're still here. The Big Guy's still here. The bad guys are not." He tousled her mane. "And you need to be better than who you were yesterday, nothing else."

"Yeah, I guess," Rainbow said, "Thanks." She looked around nervously. "You won't a . . . tell anypony? Will you?"

Big Mac looked around carefully, then shook his head. "Nope." He smiled and jumped the fence to go back to tending the fields.

The dark blue figure raced overhead.

"Okay, Princess, let's see what you can really do," Rainbow said and leapt into the air.

Holly Hock, out house-hunting, spotted Glory when she entered the house Holly Hock was looking over with Forget-me-not. Thank Celestia, I was afraid no one would rescue me, the chef thought.

"Glory, I don't seem to be getting through to this pony that I don't care about view or spacious bedrooms, I'd sleep on the floor in a pile of rags if that got me a decent kitchen," Holly Hock said.

The real estate agent looked at them with confusion. "But, you're from Canterlot."

"I told you they'd hide the best from us if they found out we're from Canterlot," Forget-me-not said. The pegasus mare flared her wings in mock-aggravation.

Glory took pity on the real estate agent and walked over to him. "Which of your buildings has the largest kitchen?"

"There's a restaurant that's been used as a warehouse," the young earth pony stallion said nervously.

Holly Hock grinned. "Then show us." She whispered to Glory, "I thought he'd never get the clue."

Glory nodded.

Holly Hock watched the ponies of Ponyville glance and glare at them. Some seemed to be uneasy about any 'foreigners', others were more curious. I wonder how many of them actually know who and what they're looking at, she thought as she walked along. At least Glory can chat up this moron. I simply cannot understand why a simple declarative sentence 'this is too small, show me a larger one' never penetrated.

The Princess raced overhead, swiftly pursued by a cyan and rainbow pegasus.

"Running away from her fan club?" Holly Hock asked Forget-me-not.

"Element of Loyalty, theoretically the fastest pegasus on Equestria," the small guardsmare said, "Rainbow Dash."

"Fastest at ground level. There's a mare a lot faster at altitude," Holly Hock replied.

Forget-me-not nodded. "Nice mare. Weird, but nice."

The building they'd been led to was in decent shape. The windows weren't even boarded up, although they had been painted over. Inside there was some trash on the floor, which needed a good mopping, but Glory and Holly Hock ignored that to look at the kitchen.

"It's not -" the real estate agent shouted as he tried to block their approach. He discovered that though Forget-me-not was small, she was a fully trained guard, and blocked his approach.

"This is perfect!" Holly Hock announced with delight.

"After we burn off the first layer of bird dropping!" Glory replied with disgust at the accreted layer that covered every horizontal surface.

"Ah, it's steel and stone, that'll be fine!" Glory said. "I wonder if the birds will keep coming here. Be convenient to have ingredients that volunteer."

The real estate agent made the connection, and fainted.

"Can you not talk like that in public?" Glory warned.

"Ah, he won't remember anything except he made a sale," Holly Hock opened the cabinets, "Make sure that we get to keep these." She indicated the pots and pans in the cabinet. These at least had been protected from the bird privy the rest of the kitchen had become.

"Are kitchens all you think about?" Forget-me-not looked around the mess that was the kitchen. "As for this one, I'll wait for a fire hose to wash it out."

"That's brilliant!" Holly Hock announced, "Get the weather team to flush this place out, and then we can heat it up to drive off any extra water."

"What's this 'we' stuff earth pony?" Glory asked peevishly.

"Let's check out the cold boxes. If the magic held, we can still use them," Holly Hock said as she approached the large doors.

"WAIT!" Forget-me-not called. "There might be something in there."

Holly Hock sighed. "I think all this monster talk has gotten to you," the chef pony chided. "If some birds got in there, they would have frozen to death already. If a cow or pony got in there, there's another latch on the inside to let you escape." She pulled the latch.

Earth Ponies can't teleport, so Holly Hock didn't teleport clear across the room. "AAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!" she still screamed after moving to the farthest point from the door it was possible to achieve.

Forget-me-not trotted up to the door and looked into the cold box. There a cardboard cutout of Nightmare Moon hung and bobbed. "Very good likeness," Forget-me-not said, "Wouldn't you agree Holly Hock?"

"Don't open the other one," Holly Hock gasped as she tried to control the fading panic attack.

"That rainbow pegasus," Forget-me-not said, "Also a practical joker."

Glory nodded as Holly Hock trotted over. "Okay. I think we can convert that open area to sleeping quarters, and the bar around the corner can be the dining room for our guests," the chef said.

"How'd you know there's a bar?" Forget-me-not asked.

"I saw it through the pass through near where I landed. Small for a restaurant, but enough to let twelve to twenty eat. More if they eat in shifts, and a couple of booths if somepony doesn't like sitting at the bar on a stool."

"Speaking of stool," Glory said of the floor covering, "I think we should quit walking on this stuff. Let's get washed up."

"Let's buy, not lease," Holly Hock said, "It's a good place for a base camp near the monster's home."

Glory nodded.

"You suppose that we could ever convince him to come to Canterlot?" Forget-me-not asked, "After all we've all had such a wonderful time there."

"I don't see what your problem is," Holly Hock answered peevishly, "You stay to the working-stiffs and you don't deal with the snobs. Most of those 'sophisticated palates' wouldn't admit to drinking piss if you gave it a fancy enough name and the right garnish."

"You didn't!" Glory exclaimed.

"Nope, of course not. That didn't stop me from starting a rumor that somepony did," Holly Hock said. "Fastest way to separate the leaders from the followers."

"That's really disgusting," Forget-me-not said.

"Believe me, that's a lot less disgusting than some of the things some ponies think of as 'high-class' food," Holly Hock said as she picked up the unconscious real estate agent and started out the door.

"Name one," Glory said incredulously as she held the door open.

"Peach seed sauce," Holly Hock replied.

"Aren't those poisonous?" Glory asked as she followed Holly Hock down the street to the real estate agency.

"Yes," Holly Hock replied, "But some idiot got the idea to replace the almonds in an almond sauce with peach seeds. So if you're snooty enough, you can use a sauce that'll kill you if you have too much or it isn't prepared right. All for a little tongue tingle that a decent breath mint could generate. Crazy as the griffons and even the Diamond Dogs are about eating things, they don't have a snooty sauce that can kill you."

"I could have lived a long time without knowing that," Glory said.

"You could have asked me," Forget-me-not said.

Twilight hadn't expected to see Lyra in the library. The mare was staring at the two letters the monster had delivered to Celestia. Why won't she just burn those? Twilight wondered of her mentor.

"Hello Lyra," Twilight said, "Don't believe what's written there, Princess Celestia said it was just to lull all the villains into trusting him, so he could set them up."

"Clever," Lyra said distractedly, "But I wasn't looking at the words. I was looking at the letters."

"The letters?" Twilight asked.

"Yes. Why are so many of our devices better suited for humans with hands, than for the ponies who have to use them."

"Please, not that 'we're some lost colony of lost toys' speech," Twilight pleaded.

"It would serve you right for your counter argument about evolving those things ourselves from some universal ideal," Lyra replied, not taking her eyes off the two pages. "Just because that's the 'latest thinking' doesn't make it right."

"Excuse me," Glorious Mystery said as he walked out of his room, "I haven't heard your theory, miss."

"Lyra Heartstrings, I'm a musician, but I am also one of the local eccentrics," Lyra said and gave the griffon a hoofshake. "Your people aren't the tool-users we ponies are. But the tools we do use would make more sense if a creature like you or the dragons, or the Big Guy invented them and gave them to us. Also we ponies have the ability to do magic, control the weather, and raise and lower the sun and the moon. It wasn't until I went to an amusement park in Manehatten that it all made sense. I looked at all the ponies working there dressed as silly characters, selling refreshments, and just generally keeping the place spotless, and I realized that's what all of Equestria is, or was. We were created to work the park, keep it clean and entertain the guests. From what I read in the Equestria to Monster dictionary, there are at least five instances where races from Equestria have monster analogs. They made us, all of us, from their history. And then, for some reason, they let us go."

Lyra seemed to be warming to the accepting audience, while Twilight was practically biting her tongue. Lyra continued, "Sentience is awareness, including the ability to experience pleasure or pain and make predictions about the future. Sapience is the ability to think and solve problems; intelligence in the strict sense. Sophonce is sentience and sapience with metacognition: self-awareness, including self-reflection and the ability to think about one's thinking. Most animals are sentient, to a greater or lesser degree. Even Timberwolves can think and plan. Sapience may have been given us to help deal with day to day problems at the park. Maybe we developed sophonce out of our sentience and sapience, and they couldn't keep treating us as toys or servants and they, well, pushed us out of the nest to be our own people."

"That certainly explains things better than the 'latest thinking'," Mystery offered, "So how will looking at the characters on those letters help you?"

"I wanted to see if they looked anything like the characters in Equestrian," Lyra said, "The closest they come is the pictographs in that big dictionary. The other lists of characters only have a few similarities, and not many in any of one list,"

"Now you're going to tell me they made up a language just for us?" Twilight asked.

"That is what a code is, and ciphers use alternate characters," Mystery said thoughtfully.

"Those are to conceal information, not to communicate," Twilight replied.

"If you make them easy to learn and obvious, they can be used," Mystery said. "Like the images on signs, or the international maritime codes," Mystery said as he walked over and pulled a book from the shelves. "These are one, two, up to four flags or patterns of lights to signal all kinds of messages. Every mariner and most professional fliers have learned and memorized them. I was planning on concentrating our translation on these codes. That'll let the Big Guy communicate audibly. Once we can communicate the basic meanings of each code, he'll be able to have rudimentary communications."

Lyra grinned. "Will we be able to find out if he is human? He seems like he might be," Lyra said.

Twilight shook her head at the grinning mare and the chuckling griffon.

8) Discordalude (Feel free to skip this one)

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Cultural Artifacts - Discordalude

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Day 19

Discord looked around at the dead flat, completely barren landscape. Only a sign broke the monotony.

The sign said, "I'm sorry you're bored, but a little, light entertainment. Dramamine will be available." The sign read 'Eat at Hop Sing's Mexican Borscht Buffet. at exit e^i except faster than c'.

Discord was puzzling this out when a spotlight illuminated a very strange, green creature walking towards him with a cinema camera over one shoulder and a large folding chair over the other. The felt-covered, green frog with the spiky collar set down the chair and camera. The camera he fussed over seemed pretty standard, the chair he ignored looked like the most convoluted piece of furniture Discord had ever laid eyes on. "I love it."

Discord found much to his delight that the 'chair-in-name-only' fit him perfectly. "So whatcha doin'?" Discord asked.

"Roll'em!" the frog shouted.

Rarity got a spotlight. She was wearing a guard captain's armor. Another spotlight illuminated Shining Armor, also in armor, but his mane and tail styled to curl like Rarity's. The two of them walked towards each other, looking more like brother and sister than Twilight and Armor ever did.

Rarity began a rather catchy tap dance front hooves accompanying the rear hooves' tap.

In time with the tap, Shining Armor began to sing, "I am the very model of a modern Major-General, I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral."

Armor started tap dancing, while Rarity sang, "I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical."

They both sang, "From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical."

Rarity tap danced while Armor sang, "I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical, I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical. About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news."

Rarity sang while Armor tap danced the accompaniment, "With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse." She gave a bawdy wink.

Discord's jaw dropped. He picked it up and examined it. The drop had been silent. Then he noticed the sign the frog running the camera held up. 'Any noise and we have to do it again in ADR.' Discord looked at the two dancing unicorns.

Armor sang while Rarity tapped, "For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury."

Rarity sang while Armor tapped, "Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century."

Armor sang, "But still, in matters vegetable."

Rarity sang, "Animal."

Armor sang, "And mineral."

They sang and tap danced together, "I am the very model of a modern Major-General."

"Oh wonderful bravo! Bravo!" Discord shouted and clapped as the lights came down.

When the lights came back up a moment later, Discord took his chair. On a theater stage, Celestia, with Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash flanking her, confronted Luna with Trixie, Derpy Hooves, and Dinky Hooves flanking her. In the background was a backdrop painted with bushes and a tower that looked like the Cutie Mark Crusaders had done it, after forgetting what bushes and buildings looked like.

Trixie and Twilight took a step forward. Trixie sang, "I'm superior, you're inferior. I'm the big attraction you're the small. I'm the major one you're the minor one. I can beat you singing that's not all. Anything you can do, I can do better . . . I can do anything better than you."

Twilight's horn glowed. "No, you can't."

The newt with the wizards hat sang, "Yes, I can."

Twilight's horn glowed. "No, you can't."

The rocking chair with the magician's cape sang, "Yes, I can."

Twilight's horn glowed. "No, you can't."

Trixie sang, "Yes, I can, yes, I can."

Twilight sang, "Anything you can be I can be greater . . . Sooner or later I'm greater than you."

Trixie conjured an image of her banishing an Ursa. "No, you're not."

Twilight generated an moving image with sound of her confronting Nightmare Moon, "Yes, I am."

Trixie was surrounded by cheering audiences from across Equestria. "No, you're not."

Twilight stood under a 'Twilight Sparkle Fan Club' banner, with Celestia and Luna, "Yes, I am."

Trixie brandished a 'Great and Powerful Trixie Limited Edition number 1 of 500' figure. "No, you're not."

Twilight pulled the same figure, numbered 0 of 500. "Yes, I am, yes I am."

Trixie sang, "I can shoot a partridge with a single cartridge."

Twilight countered, "I can get a sparrow with a bow and arrow."

Trixie sang, "I can live on bread and cheese."

Twilight was amazed as she sang, "And only on that?"

Trixie replied proudly, "Yes."

Twilight sang, "So can a rat."

While Trixie grimaced, Twilight sang, "Anything you can dig, I can dig deeper. I can dig anything deeper than you."

Trixie challenged, "Thirty feet."

Twilight replied from the bottom of her hole, "Forty feet."

Trixie shouted down to Twilight, "Fifty feet."

Twilight replied, "Sixty feet."

Trixie's horn glowed and dumped all the dirt back in the hole. "Yes, she can! Yes, she can!"

Trixie sang, "I could be a racer, quite a steeplechaser."

A filthy and furious Twilight appeared next to her and sang, "I can jump a hurdle even in my girdle."

Trixie boasted, "I can open any safe."

Twilight asked, "Without being caught?"

Trixie preened and sang, "Yes."

Twilight nodded. "That's what I thought."

Trixie frowned, but sang, "Anything you can wear I can wear better . . In what you wear I'd look better than you."

A cloud of Rarity engulfed Twilight for an instant. "In my coat."

A cloud of Rarity engulfed Trixie for an instant. "In your vest."

Rarity whirled around Twilight's hooves. "In my shoes."

Rarity completely pimped out Trixie's hat, "In your hat."

Rarity put both Trixie and Twilight in elegant gala dresses. Twilight sang, "No, you can't."

Trixie and Twilight raced over and caught the tottering, eyes-spinning Rarity. "Yes, I can, yes, I can," Rarity sang before collapsing.

As Armor retrieved Rarity, Trixie sang, "Any school where you went I could be master . . . I could be master much faster than you."

Twilight asked, "Can you spell?"

Trixie admitted, "No I can't."

Twilight asked, "Can you add?"

Trixie admitted, "No I can't."

Twilight asked, "Can you teach?"

Trixie proclaimed, "Yes, I can! Yes, I can!"

Discord quietly picked up the pieces that had been falling off during the performance. He realized he'd gotten the assembly wrong, and decided to leave it as the next act came on.

Rainbow Dash stepped out, as did Derpy. They two of them circled each other. One would jump at the other, and the target would take a defensive stance. Then they started circling again.

Rainbow Dash stopped and took a deep breath. Priming herself. "A horse is a horse, of course, of course, and no one can talk to a horse of course. That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Derpy Hooves."

Rainbow continued while Derpy danced in time with the song, "Go right to the source and ask the horse. She'll give you the answer that you'll endorse. She's always on a steady course. Talk to Derpy Hooves."

"Ponies yakkity yak a streak and waste your time of day, but Derpy Hooves will never speak unless she has something to say," Rainbow continued, "A horse is a horse, of course, of course, and this one'll talk 'til her voice is hoarse. You never heard of a talking horse? Well listen to this." Rainbow gestured to Derpy.

She bowed and with her front hooves began to tap danced faster and faster, while her back hooves tapped out a flamenco-rhythm speeding up as her front hooves did. Faster, faster, until the taps became almost a continuous sound.

She finished, took a bow and blew the smoke off her forehooves. She and Rainbow returned back to their lines.

Luna gave a nod to Dinky Hooves. Celestia nodded to Pinkie Pie. Pinkie took a deep breath, covered her mouth and nose with her hoof and blew out, changing her into a large pink balloon. Her tail was split into three, and a familiar droning sound started. Dinky Hooves did the same, except her horn glowed and the droning was higher pitched.

A phone appeared beside the frog-cameraman and rang. "Yes," the frog said as he answered the phone, then shouted, "Cancel the Dueling Banjos on pony-bagpipes number, they filed an injunction against it."

"WHAT!?" Dinky and Pinkie put all their breath into that very bagpipe-like shout.

"Aw man!" Rainbow announced and walked off stage. Celestia and Luna grumped and walked out together a wing draped across each other's backs.

Trixie approached Twilight. "I want this fixed!" she angrily shouted and looked at her hat.

"Slitherin!" Trixie's hat shouted. Twilight gave an embarrassed smile.

Derpy and Pinkie Pie were pushing a upright grand piano onto the stage. Pinkie was in a swallow-tail tuxedo. Pink of course. Derpy adjusted the piano stool for Pinkie. Then pulled it away as the mare was about to sit on it. Pinkie straightened up in time. Derpy seemed to finish her adjustments, slid it back under Pinkie. As Pinkie was about to sit down, Derpy snatched it away and adjusted it again. Pinkie stared at her with growing impatience. Derpy set it back in place.

"Done?" Pinkie asked.

"Done!" Derpy tried to give a thumbs up. Then stared at her hoof as she realized she lacked thumbs.

Pinkie back kicked the stool clear off the stage. Pinkie listened to the crash it made, then hit a key. "Perfect!" She announced. Derpy collected Dinky and left Pinkie alone in the spotlight.

"Attack of the killer pianos! Attack of the killer pianos!" Pinkie sang as she played, "They'll beat you, bash you, squish you, mash you, chew you up for brunch and finish you off for dinner or lunch!"

The key cover slammed down trapping Pinkie's hooves on the keyboard. The front of the piano opened and bent down to swallow the trapped mare whole. The spotlight faded as the very discordant chewing sounds continued. It was dark when the sound of a chainsaw firing up was heard.

"What in the name of Celestia's Intangible Moustache was that!?" Discord shouted to the frog who was handing him a disk he'd taken out of the camera. There were dozens more such discs in the cartridge where the film would normally go.

"He couldn't keep you company himself," the felt frog replied, "So I said I'd put on a little show for you." The frog shrugged as he collected the film cartridge. "It actually went better than these things usually go." The frog started walking away. "It's time to play the music," the frog sang, "It's time to light the lights." He faded from sight and sound.

The sign reappeared. This time it didn't say anything, it simply read, 'And I did that in my sleep.'

"I'm going to kill him with my bare hands," Discord said. He sat in his new chair, looked at the disk and hugged it to his chest. "Or have his children."

With sincerest apologies to:
Gilbert and Sullivan, and their estates
Jim Henson and his estate
Irving Berlin and his estate
Jay Livingston
John De Bello

9) Anniversaries

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Cultural Artifacts - Anniversaries

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Day 19

"You see Miss Twilight, there's just one little problem that makes this all less than perfect," Holly Hock explained as she led Twilight through the doors of the restaurant the Canterlot team had just purchased.

"Oh, I'm always willing to help," Twilight told her happily, "But who were those workponies?"

"They were from the fireworks company. There was a lot of nitre they needed and we had a large supply. We just need some help cleaning up the rest," Holly Hock said as she opened the door to the kitchen.

Twilight's ears went flat as she saw the absolute and utter mess on the floors, the counters, on any line or plane with even a slight horizontal projection. Even the broom leaning against the far wall still had a crusting of bird droppings. "What am I supposed to do about this?" Twilight said in strangled tones, "I'd need a fire hose and a dozen tiny ponies with shovels and scrub brushes."

"You can conjure that?" Holly Hock asked, then shook her head, "Well of course you can. Silly question."

Twilight turned to stare at her. "This is disgusting!"

"It was worse before the crews came in a scraped down everything," Holly Hock said, "So what's it need fire, water, or something else?"

"How about we just bury this?" Twilight said as she looked around the mess.

"The floors are stone, and there are drains?" Spike asked as he trotted in. He whispered to Twilight, "You always wanted an excuse to try out that tornado spell."

Twilight steadied herself. "Yes, and a thunderstorm to start things off," Twilight said as she took a deep breath. "Thanks Spike. You two better get out of here. The last time I tried this spell, it sort of got away from me."

"In here it wouldn't matter," Holly Hock said and left the kitchen for the converted living quarters. "I need to go catch some ingredients."

Twilight grimaced at that. "I wish you wouldn't. Fluttershy is friends with most of the animals around here. While she accepts that animals eat each other. I don't think she'll be too happy with you hunting her friends."

"Oh." Holly Hock looked around and leaned close. "Can you keep a secret?" she whispered.

Spike and Twilight nodded.

"The meat I get the most compliments for, that really pleases a griffon-palate. Is Parasprite." Holly Hock straightened up. "Now don't tell me your friend wants to make pets out of them."

"She tried," Twilight explained.

Holly Hock stared for a moment. "Well, I usually have to keep a small stock in Canterlot. I had them released in the Everfree when I came here, so they wouldn't escape and eat Canterlot out of all its supplies. But I can hunt them up here, fresh."

"Can I just cast my spells?" Twilight asked, "This talk is making me a bit queasy."

"Be my guest, and thanks," Holly Hock said as she left, "I'll cook something pony-style for you later."

Twilight watched the mare happily trot away. "I think she'll fit into Ponyville perfectly."

"Then why do you sound worried?" Spike asked.

"Because it reminds me how well we fit in here," she replied with a nervous grin. "Okay. Thunderstorm and tornado. That should do the trick. And if it doesn't, we'll think of something else."

Fluttershy hadn't been expecting any guests, and especially after lunch. She opened the door and saw Rainbow Dash draped over her Highness Luna, like a rug.

"Good afternoon," Luna said quietly, formally.

"Hey 'Shy." Rainbow raised a hoof as if it were painful.

"What happened?" Fluttershy gasped and stood aside as her Highness walked inside.

"Guess who's the fastest pony in Equestria?" Rainbow Dash asked as she raised her head, then flopped it down again.

"Uh, you are?" Fluttershy said as she helped Luna move the nearly boneless pegasus to the couch.

"Guess who also forgot the Pony-Sisters can teleport? A serious advantage in a steeplechase," Luna asked.

"I still beat you on the straightaways," Rainbow Dash mumbled.

Fluttershy smiled slightly, but let her Highness see it when Luna also grinned.

"I think she needs a bath and a nap," Luna said regally. Then the shier filly peeked out. "I know I do."

"Ha!" Rainbow Dash exhaustedly exulted, holding a hoof of triumph in the air, before letting it flop down and fell asleep.

"You can take a quick wash upstairs," Fluttershy offered.

"Thank you, but I have a meeting in five minutes, that has already been twice postponed," Luna said, "If they are going to have me running over to see that they are unready, they will get me as I am." She stood proud and tall, glaring down at her subjects, and smelling vaguely manky. Luna relaxed.

Letting Fluttershy observe, "Wouldn't 'straight from the shower' be a better approach?"

Luna thought and nodded. "I think I saw a hose outside," Luna said.

Fluttershy squeaked at the implication someone would just hose off a princess. She raced upstairs to get some scented shampoo as Luna walked out the front door.

Fluttershy hovered out the door with her cargo. "Uh, this might be better," she offered, "You could be, ah, fashionably late." She smiled hopefully.

"Thank you," Luna said as she used her magic to hose herself down. Fluttershy squeaked with embarrassment at the entire affair.

Mystery glanced at the famous 'Sand Cobra' and couldn't fit the image of the despondent she-griffon Svetlana with all the stories and rumors. It'd be like finding out Daring Do was actually a dumpy actuary, he thought as she walked a few paces behind him.

"You can act like we're the same rank," he said quietly, "You are on a mission after all."

She guiltily moved up until they were walking side by side. "You don't have to do this," she said quietly.

"What has you so spooked?" he asked, "You've been acting like a scared filly."

She glanced at him. "They know," she whispered earnestly, "They know all I did."

"They evidently knew while you were doing it," he replied, "So what's the difference? Now you know that they know." He shook his head. "I'm not doing that joke. The pink one would show up for sure."

She smiled. "But why the charade? Were they waiting until I was out of Canterlot to make their move?"

"I don't think they're going to 'move'," he said. "I think they are playing a much longer termed game than that. I think that you stealing secrets they essentially were letting you take, won't have them tearing you to pieces."

"What about our rulers?" she asked, "Imagine if they think that everything I've done was at Celestia's behest, and with her approval."

Things fall into place, he thought, and grinned at the idea.

"Then we'd better do our best to get all we can from the Big Guy. And I suspect that it may take quite a long time. By the time we get back, tempers may have cooled," he said, and enjoyed her hopeful grin.

This smells like the hospital, he thought as consciousness returned.

"Come on, you can do it!" he heard Discord urging.

Someone wants me awake more than I do, he thought. He opened his eyes and glanced around. His guardian unicorn sat on the floor, with the youngster he'd rescued seated opposite her. Between them was a game board resembling a traveling chess set.

"Your guardian's name is Trixie, or 'The Great and Powerful Trixie'. The little one is called Dinky Hooves, her pegasus-mother is called Derpy Hooves . . . but you knew that much, or you couldn't have had Rainbow Dash name her," Discord said in the confides of his mind.

Trixie's horn glowed and one of the pieces lifted, moved and the tab at the bottom fitted into the hole on the board.

Oh course, you don't think I beat that bunch without being able to read their minds too. Little Miss Evulz knew everyone in Ponyville from her scouting missions. How are their names pronounced in Equestrian?

Discord made a series of noises. He tried and failed to duplicate them in his head.

Dinky closed her eyes and concentrated. A piece glowed a slightly different color, lifted, but didn't land in a hole. Dinky was straining now, while Trixie spoke quietly, obviously encouraging the youngster.

I almost think you're making fun of me, he thought, But I can almost recognize some of the sounds from the purple unicorn's name. What was it? Twilight Sparkle. He watched the scene for a while. Very different from her public persona, he thought as after several attempts, Dinky finally got the piece in the hole, but not the right hole and so had to start over again.

"Ah so sweet, so cute, gag me," Discord said grumpily within his mind.

Well you better hope they're sweet and cute, or they'll start trepaning to get you out, he thought back, then spotted the book he knew he owned, Okay why'd they pick this one of all the books. He silently collected it.

"Maybe they picked your rattiest and most worn books, figuring you'd use them," Discord replied.

That would explain the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics being alongside this one, he thought as he silently paged through it. He glanced at the two unicorns for any sign he was disturbing their lesson.

"Aren't you going to slow down and actually read it?" Discord said, "Principia Discordia, Steve Jackson Games 1994. A book about . . . me?" Discord's smile was quite audible.

Got to find the right passage and not exactly, ah, here it is:

'The Aneristic Principle is that of APPARENT ORDER; the Eristic Principle is that of APPARENT DISORDER. Both order and disorder are man-made concepts and are artificial divisions of PURE CHAOS, which is a level deeper that is the level of distinction making.

With our concept making apparatus called "mind" we look at reality through the ideas-about-reality which our cultures give us. The ideas-about-reality are mistakenly labeled "reality" and unenlightened people are forever perplexed by the fact that other people, especially other cultures, see "reality" differently. It is only the ideas-about-reality which differ. Real (capital-T True) reality is a level deeper that is the level of concept.

We look at the world through windows on which have been drawn grids (concepts). Different philosophies use different grids. A culture is a group of people with rather similar grids. Through a window we view chaos, and relate it to the points on our grid, and thereby understand it. The ORDER is in the GRID. That is the Aneristic Principle.

Western philosophy is traditionally concerned with contrasting one grid with another grid, and amending grids in hopes of finding a perfect one that will account for all reality and will, hence, (say unenlightened westerners) be True. This is illusory; it is what we Erisians call the ANERISTIC ILLUSION. Some grids can be more useful than others, some more beautiful than others, some more pleasant than others, etc., but none can be more True than any other.

DISORDER is simply unrelated information viewed through some particular grid. But, like "relation," no-relation is a concept. Male, like female, is an idea about sex. To say that male-ness is "absence of female-ness", or vice versa, is a matter of definition and metaphysically arbitrary. The artificial concept of no-relation is the ERISTIC PRINCIPLE.

The belief that "order is true" and disorder is false or somehow wrong, is the Aneristic Illusion. To say the same of disorder, is the ERISTIC ILLUSION.

The point is that (little-t) truth is a matter of definition relative to the grid one is using at the moment, and that (capital-T) Truth, metaphysical reality, is irrelevant to grids entirely. Pick a grid, and through it some chaos appears ordered and some appears disordered. Pick another grid, and the same chaos will appear differently ordered and disordered.

Reality is the original Rorschach.
Verily! So much for all that.'

"Is that profound, or insane?" Discord asked, "Wait, asking that question is an Eristic Illusion and an Aneristic Illusion, respectively."

Very good, you are learning. Which is what you hung around for. A few more passages, he thought as he paged around, revealing the Curse of Greyface, and the Doctrine of the Original Snub to the chaos spirit.

"This Book must be translated into Equestrian!" Discord announced with a fanfare of bullfrogs, and mooses.

Oh course, he agreed, But only one person understands both languages, and he can't write or set type. He's going to have to fix that.

He heard the clang, and the sound of a hammer dulcimer being eaten with chopsticks.

"You tricked me," Discord said, sounding wounded.

Of course I tricked you. You came to learn, how else would I teach you? It isn't trickery or even Chaos that are the problem. It's that as you employed them, they were neither creative, nor life-affirming. Once you can switch around to approach Chaos from the creative and life-affirming angle, you may drive some stuck up Greyfaces to drink, but Celestia isn't going to encase you in stone again. He yawned, attracting the instant attention of the two unicorns and the mother pegasus who been under the bed.

The little one, Dinky Hooves, was in the crook of his arm, happily chattering away. The two adults had their forehooves on the bed and were likewise peppering him with comments and questions.

"Seals are grounding her's turn. Paleodentures and Occidental. In school we learned, the drefnimere. Sorry, even I can't keep up with all three of them," Discord admitted.

Not a problem, he told Discord enjoying the happy faces. He beeped all three of them, and was beeped in return. He then pointed back to the half-finished board game.

"You need to finish your homework, young lady," he said in a fatherly tone.

The little unicorn frowned, but hugged him and hopped down to work. Trixie grinned and sat back down opposite.

He settled down to watch them as his eyelids grew heavy. Someone, Derpy presumably, pulled the covers over him and settled beside him.

"If the apple said 'for the prettiest', and one was the god of beauty, wouldn't that one automatically win?" Discord asked.

Actually, considering Zeus's wife was the god of marriages, he should have given the apple to Themis, as all brides on their wedding day are the most beautiful women in the world. His wife may have grumbled, but she would have supported that decision. The gods were never known for being deep thinkers.

"Like all your, our recent victims," Discord realized.

He was asleep before he could answer.

Glory and Forget-me-not ran into the restaurant that would be their home. Spike was flanking Twilight, as the unicorn backed out of the kitchen levitating an axe. She noted the other two.

"Uh, you're going to need a new broom," Twilight said, "The spell, kinda got away from me." She tried to grin, but saw they weren't buying it.

"What happened?" Glory asked as she pressed past Twilight into the kitchen. The place was spotless, except for the occasional scorch mark on the walls, ceiling, counters and the cabinets. And the rather subdivided broom laying on the ground. "What happened?"

"The metal of the broom caught on fire from one of the lightning strikes," Twilight said, "I couldn't put it out, so I cut off the burning part from the rest. I didn't know the inside was hollow and was on fire too." She laughed nervously, then fell silent.

Forget-me-not looked around the kitchen. "Do I even want to know where all that stuff went?"

"In fireworks, silly," Pinkie Pie said as she entered and looked around. "This is bigger than the Cakes'," she commented.

"And completely clean," Glory said happily, "You do good work."

Twilight smiled.

"So! What's on the menu? What's on the menu?" Pinkie asked as she bounced excitedly.

"Parasprites!" Holly Hock announced as she entered.

Pinkie became Greenie, and joined Twilight's dash for the front door.

"Well, I didn't ask them to eat any," Holly Hock said peevishly. Then looked around at the nearly spotless and completely empty kitchen. "Griffons who like sausages should never watch them being made," she said as she opened her saddle bags and removed the jar now filled with Parasprites. She put two drops from an eyedropper through the holes in the lid, then put the jar in the cold box. "Got to scrub off the walls and floor. Or come up with a good story to explain them." She happily began investigating what all the cabinets held, and to organize them her way.

Mystery watched the four, rather-pale mares covering over the hole they'd dug. How a white unicorn could look even paler was beyond him. "Is this a pony-thing, or a mare thing?" he asked carefully.

"It's a running into a carnivore's kitchen thing," Pinkie Pie, still greenie, explained as she wobbled, "I would invite you to Sugarcube Corners, but eating, doesn't appeal to me right now."

"I think teasing them would get us beaten up when we slept," Sveti said, "So I say we look around the Apple farm. Apples are one of the few things griffons enjoy as much as ponies. They may also have some cider for sale."

"Cider season's starting?" Pinkie Pie asked eagerly.

"Hard cider, Pinkie," Twilight said. She looked around. "Where's Spike?"

The little dragon walked out of the former restaurant. "There'll be sandwiches soon," he said quietly, "And Twilight, can we go home?"

"Sure Spike, are you okay?" Twilight asked.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said quietly. "I'll never think of 'cold cuts' the same way again."

"Ah," Twilight said and started putting the little dragon on her back.

"Twilight, that's probably not a good idea," Spike said carefully. "Walking is just fine."

The mare nodded and she headed towards the library.

Forget-me-not raised her head. "I think getting our stuff from our temporary quarters might be a good idea."

"Are you all right?" Sveti asked and small pegasus nodded.

"I will be. It's the eagerness I'm troubled by," the pegasus admitted, "Glory, let's go."

"Enjoy your lunch," Glory said as she hurried away.

"What's eating them?" Mystery asked. Sveti shrugged.

Rarity entered the library. Twilight and Mystery were staring at the pages of the Monster-Equestrian dictionary and the two bicolumn letters. Rarity smiled to Sveti who was watching with bemusement. Rarity's target was also there.

"Your Highness," Rarity said timidly, she looked back at the monster's book in her saddlebags, "There is something you should see. Privately."

Luna looked at her with some concern, but indicated the hallway to the kitchen. Rarity followed, and she carefully laid the book on the kitchen table, and opened it to the book-marked section.

"They know about alicorns," Rarity said as she indicated the picture of the winged unicorn. The figure was reminiscent of Celestia. "Judging by the little, pink monster-mare's reaction, he's a male. And I think there is some precedent for dealing with a shapechanger," Rarity said carefully and opened the book to another book-marked page where the little, pink monster-mare cuddled with a monster-stallion with a horn. "I admit I don't fully understand all the implications. But you shouldn't give up too easily." She felt the Princess's glare. "Highness, I apologize, but you and Celestia are conflicted on your feelings. And I don't believe you should be."

"My feelings are my business," Luna said carefully.

"True." Rarity bowed. "And I apologize. But you should decide what you are going to do. For his peace of mind, if not your own."

"Why are you acting as matchmaker?" Luna asked neutrally.

"Not matchmaker, Highness," Rarity said, "Just trying to see friends not hurt each other. I have painful experience with letting what I thought versus what actually was affect my decisions."

Luna nodded.

Applejack entered. "Highness, Rarity. Have ya'all seen Applebloom?" the farm mare asked, "She finished her mornin' chores, and I ain't seen hide nor hoof of the filly since."

Rarity considered. "That's odd, I haven't seen Sweetie Belle since this morning either."

"The Cutie Mark Crusaders?" Luna asked carefully.

"Well, yes," Rarity admitted apprehensively.

"They are known. Even in Canterlot," Luna explained. "But what of them, are they not with their third member, almost always?"

"They can get inta a heap a' trouble on their own," Applejack said, "Since I ain't seen columns of smoke on the horizon. I don't think they're in too much trouble."

"Speak for yourself, Applejack. Sweetie Belle usually comes home covered in tree sap, or honey, or mud, or . . . well, pick anything sticky and tenaciously difficult to clean."

"Better'n being skunked," Applejack said. Both she and Rarity were surprised by the princess's guffaw.

"Sorry, remembering Celestia getting skunked. And her utter bewilderment at suddenly being shunned," Luna admitted. "We should set up a search for them, and I think myself and our two griffons will be ideal."

"I'll talk to Rainbow Dash, maybe they headed into the Everfree," Rarity said, then turned back to the princess, "Please consider what I said, and take it as a warning."

"Thank you," Luna replied before heading out towards the door.

Night had fallen when he awoke again. Discord was surprisingly quiet within his head. He glanced around the darkened hospital room. Can't see the unicorn, he thought as he craned his head to try and spot her. Giving up he slipped out of the bed, verified he wasn't going to step on her as he put his feet on the floor. He found her at the foot of the bed. He leaned down and nudged her gently. She made a dismissive noise. 'Mom, just five more minutes', he thought of her reaction. He turned back and arranged the pillows to simulate his body in the bed. Then abandoned the notion. I'm going to back out of here upright. With all the things that have happened lately, I'm not going to disappear anywhere.

The nurse at the nurse's station was asleep. He removed the clipboard and drew a simple picture of him going to his house. He duplicated it and left the copy with the unicorn, who still resisted his gentle attempts to awaken her. He didn't see anyone walking the floors as he left the hospital and headed toward where his house had been.

There was some activity at the edges of town, but nothing near enough to affect him. So he proceeded. The odd structure near the center of where his house had been drew his attention. He walked around it until he found the door that resembled his front door. He pulled the key from his pants' pocket. It fit the lock and let him open the door. He closed and locked the door behind him and let his eyes adjust to the light levels inside the corridor.

Okay, funny joke, he thought as he examined the door with the words carved into it. The other two doors were only vaguely interesting. He continued to the door that also duplicated his front door, save that it had more of the house apparently attached than the other door. The key opened this door as well. Inside was his home as he remembered it. The lights worked, and nothing seemed out of place. He walked to the glass doors and looked out into the darkness. He couldn't see the stars, which had been clearly visible in the original landing site. So far so good, he thought as he headed deeper into his house. Other than the books that were beside his bed back at the hospital, everything seemed in order.

"Oh, that's just peachy," he said sardonically as he saw the wreckage of his bed.

He was down on his hands and knees examining the damage when Discord spoke up. "Someone had a good time."

Real good time, not only did they tear the frame out of the wooden posts, they managed to crack the frame itself. I can guess what the springs on the frame, and in the mattress are like now. He sighed as he stood up. Figures, well, we'd better get back.

"Aren't you bothered?" Discord asked.

No, once I realized the situation, I knew I'd just have to - live - with it, he thought with a chuckle as he headed for the front door.

"Are you going to tell me?" Discord asked, and considered the silence, "I'd like to know, please."

I died in that earthquake, and this is Hell, he replied as he locked the door behind him.

"That's not funny. It doesn't even make sense," Discord replied.

Walking through chin-deep, flaming shit while encased in a lead bell is Dante, not the Bible. There's no specific recipe for what happens. He passed through the corridor and locked the 'front' door behind him. Under the local skies, he saw the stars again.

"A world full of, ugh, colorful, friendly ponies?" Discord said, "Disturbing, yes. Hell, no."

Oh sure, food is available, the people are friendly, and the weather is pleasant. Even a chance for a humanoid wife or three and offspring, although what they'd be is up for grabs. Everything a person could want. Except privacy, he thought as he jogged through the moonlit grounds, For someone who has lived a life with the phrases 'company proprietary' and 'need to know' that's not a pleasant time. Add that even within my own mind, I can't get away, that really makes it Hell.

"So tell them to quit it," Discord said.

You don't understand, they aren't doing it to just me, it's a part of their culture. As soon as the sun is up, a closed door becomes merely where you announce yourself before entering. And if someone enters, unless you have a compelling reason not to, you are expected to cater to their needs, whatever your desires are. And there's even a pony who can walk around in your dreams, just to pound home there's nothing that someone can't peer into.

"Surely not," Discord said.

Oh I had a plan to deal with it. Adopt a nocturnal schedule. Then except for a brief period in the early morning, and a brief period in the evening, I would have been inaccessible for the best reasons. I was asleep, or they were. But no, out of nowhere comes Nightmare and her coterie of nincompoops, and suddenly, I have another complication that eliminates the plan.

"So now I'm one of the demons tormenting you?"

Good grief, no! Look at the people around you. The purple unicorn.

"Twilight Sparkle," Discord offered.

Thank you, is so petrified that there's this great big ball of knowledge denied her, I'm surprised she hasn't had a full-blown, psychotic episode. Princess Celestia, who could kill me ten ways from Sunday, and has no legitimate reason to fear me, is so terrified of what I'll do to her ponies that she's irrational. Princess Luna can't figure out if she should kiss me or kill me. The show mare.

"Trixie, or 'the Great and Powerful Trixie'," Discord thundered.

Thank you again, loves being the center of one person's attention. Yet she obviously wants to go out traveling and performing in front of audiences. So she's in a vice there. The pegasus mother.

"Derpy Hooves, and her unicorn daughter Dinky Hooves."

Thank you, he thought, The mother would love to have a male to help look after her daughter, and she doesn't seem to mind my appearance, but she still gets teased about her unusual traits, so she won't push for fear of the backlash. None of you are demons, you're all tormented souls, like me and you. You want to be the life of the party, specifically Celestia's party, but no one's ever taught you restraint.

"Can we change the subject?" Discord asked.

No, and a please won't work this time. Look, if she's anything like the lady you had running around that other world, I can see why you're drawn to her. But chaos is the leaven in her life, a bit of seasoning, not the whole course. And the safety of her ponies is the raison d'etre of her life. If you or I threaten that, she'll come down on with all four hooves, with cleats, he said, That's your torment. You want the Alpha mare, because she's very like you, but the exaggeration of those similarities drives you apart from each other.

"So I need moderation, and so does she?" Discord asked. "I won't give up what I am."

Just trust me, there will be places you can moderate, and other places you can apply full force. It's the same with me, I need to accept these ponies will never appreciate what I value highly. But reacting to it is the wrong thing to do. Looking for the way out, that's the real answer. He'd arrived back at the hospital, and slipped in through the front door. A rather worried looking medical pony was waiting for him.

"What's the way out?" Discord asked.

Overcoming whatever put you here, he replied, It's just a matter of finding out what it was, and growing beyond it. He let them lead him back to his bed.

"Uh huh," Discord replied carefully, the realized, "Then what were all those 'trust' exercises about?"

That's easy, they were a way to maneuver her into a position where she could easily kill me or not, and blame an unforeseen accident. Sure she took ruthless advantage, but never in a way that would even approach causing lasting harm. She'd scare me, or try too, but it turns out that she doesn't have the guts to finish it, if she only has vague worries about her ponies. I'd actually have to act in a threatening manner for her to act.

"That's a lot to bet on a hunch," Discord said.

What are you worried about? I get killed, you go back with the rest of you. I'm already dead, so I get to find out how they recycle people here, or that I'm effectively immortal. Either way, it wouldn't be permanent. I think she and the others don't realize the situation. Probably part of their anxiety. They are part of what they fervently believe is a thriving community, and suddenly they have a virus, me, affecting their lives. For creatures for whom stability to the point of tedium is a near obsession, my presence is a torture that grates. That I am not an obvious, physical threat, but a huge existential one makes it worse not better. If I came in roaring and trying to eat them it would be easier, but that I am mostly peaceful and friendly, and a sensual and esoteric delight for others makes it even more deeply and indeterminably disturbing for them. I need to figure out what I need to do to get out, and they have a catharsis to get moving on their own redemption. It's brilliant. I just hope I'm not screwing up yours by telling you. He reentered the room, and noted the now wide-awake Trixie, who looked worriedly at him.

"My redemption?" Discord asked, offended to the core, "What fears and phobias do I have."

Being alone, and being unappreciated, he replied as he let them tuck him back in bed, You keep doing these things, first to get Celestia's attention, then Twilight Sparkle's. It's why you didn't go after her directly, and you let all her friends explore the downside of their personalities, rather than just dropping them and their Elements into a volcano somewhere. You want to be chaotic, and you want to be admired. But you never encountered anyone random enough to gain your respect, or powerful enough to hold your feet to the fire. Diminished as you are, and locked in here with me, you have both.

"You think you could punish me, even here?" Discord asked, eager to change the disturbing subject.

Well, yes, but you've done nothing to deserve it, he thought as Trixie cut the lights, and positioned herself in front of the door, Punishment without purpose diminishes its effectiveness later.

"What if I were to say I'd tell Luna all of what you told me, and urge her to tell everyone in Ponyville?" Discord asked.

I'd reply, 'and you really think she'd trust your word? Or would she think you were teasing her?' he replied, We haven't built up your trust level with her or her sister yet. It wouldn't matter what you told her, she'd filter it through her preconceptions. Remember that passage on grids? Trusting your word isn't part of her grid.

"Surely if - and don't say 'don't call me Shirley', if I told her, she'd at least react," Discord said.

Certainly she'd react. If you told her water was wet, she'd rush off and look it up to make sure it was still true. Be patient. I can teach you enough so you can be your old random self, and Celestia won't hate you for it, he told the Chaos spirit to soothe him, I don't hold your presence here against you. You are as much a chess piece in this game as I. We've both been moved to a place where our punishment or redemption moves that much closer.

"But the punishment aspect . . . " Discord said.

Look, don't go looking for things that will make me invoke it. There are things even my people are terrified of. Little things, that stop being so little when they've happened to you, he replied.

"I have to know," Discord warned, "I'll keep looking, you know that and so do I. It's my nature to push any boundary."

Okay, a mild one, for not believing your teacher, to his face, he replied.

"Thank you."

It's a world of laughter, a world of tears. It's a world of hopes, and a world of fears. There's so much that we share that it's time we're aware, it's a small world after all.

It's a small world after all. It's a small world after all. It's a small world after all. It's a small, small world.

There is just one moon and one golden sun, and a smile means friendship to everyone. Though the mountains divide, and the oceans are wide, it's a small world after all.

It's a small world after all. It's a small world after all. It's a small world after all. It's a small, small world.

"All right, that is rather irritating isn't it. You can stop singing." Discord waited, then said, "Please, stop signing."

I already stopped, he thought ominously.

"But I can hear you," Discord replied. He took off his ears and shook them violently, they sounded like cow bells. "I can still hear you!" he said before replacing his ears.

Yes, you can. And that one will persist for several hours, he warned.

"HOURS?!" Discord replied in distress. "I'm going to listen to you sing it for hours?"

No, after a while you'll hear it in your own voice, he replied.

Discord disintegrated in pieces, little Discords ran around the ground. "Make it stop. Make it stop! Please make it stop. It's coming to get me. It's going to take over my mind I can feel it! If I sleep," the Discords clamored in abject terror, "It'll eat me!" He reformed on his knees. "Please. I'll do anything!"

First, promise to quit challenging me without cause. If I tell you something is dangerous, don't ask for a demonstration, he insisted.

"Of course, done, Pinkie Promise Small World in my eye - CUPCAKE in my eye!" Discord promised.

All right, listen. Infinite bottles of beer on the wall, infinite bottles of beer, take one down pass it around, infinite bottles of beer on the wall, he told Discord, Keep repeating that when it gets too bad. But don't over use it. It loses effectiveness over time.

"Thank you, thank you. Infinite bottles of beer on the wall, infinite bottles of beer, take one down pass it around, infinite bottles of beer on the wall," Discord walked off singing.

Poor kid, but he's gotta learn, he thought as he drifted off to sleep.

"In here," Cheerilee said, as she stood smirking at the doorway to the school house. Inside were the three Cutie Mark Crusaders, looking especially worried at the cloud of concerned adults.

"I told Glory where I was going," Sweetie Belle offered as she looked at her sister's angry and concerned expression. Applejack was outside, quietly trying to get her temper under control.

Rarity sighed, "Yes, she did mention you were going to school. But I thought you were joking."

"Are we in trouble?" Applebloom asked.

Rarity looked outside at Applejack. "I'm afraid so."

"Only we could get in trouble spending the entire day doing nothing at the school house," Sweetie Belle complained, "We just didn't want to spend the day peeling potatoes and cleaning latrines."

"What?" Cheerilee asked.

"The other officer said if we wanted to join up the Royal Observer Corps, we had to peel potatoes and clean latrines while we were going to school for it," Scootaloo said, "I don't want to have to do more chores, and go to school on top of going to school and doing chores."

"Whatever would make you think that the Royal Guards would take a bunch of fillies?" Rarity asked, "That officer was teasing you, so you'd leave our guest alone. And considering how things shake out around him, I can't blame her."

"I think we better get them all home," Applejack said as she entered the school house. "Tomorrow is a school day after all."

"Are we in trouble?" Applebloom asked.

"Yes you are," Applejack said so calmly everyone knew the trio were in a lot of trouble. The trio looked forlornly at each other and two walked after their respective guardians. Scootaloo proceeded to her home with nary a look back to her friends.

Day 20

Luna was not eager to find Discord standing guard at the portal to their guest's dreams. The featureless expanse continued to the horizons. Only a monotone gray floor, and Discord himself broke the emptiness.

"I think we need to talk," the draconequus said far more politely than she remembered him being in their previous dealings.

"What have you to say?" she asked coldly. And was surprised that Discord seemed to take no offence, despite a history of being thin-skinned about disrespect.

"I think you have all pushed him over the edge," Discord said, "I know you won't believe me, but I guess I have to try."

"Speak," Luna said, "I will listen."

"He thinks he's dead, and this whole world is a place of eternal damnation," Discord said.

"Equestria?" Luna asked, and couldn't keep from smiling at the thought. "Under your rule, perhaps, but under Celestia's?" She nearly chuckled at the thought.

Discord continued morosely. "He thinks it's punishment, because he can't get any privacy. He knows you or someone broke into his home and broke the bed. He's had to tolerate you, and me, traipsing into his mind, and he can't keep you out. He had 'friendship' he doesn't want thrown at him by everypony who doesn't stare at him in terror. I think he finally cracked."

"And you know all this how?" Luna asked, not quite able to keep from smiling at the cleverness and apparent candor of Discord's act and story.

"He told me, when I asked him why having his property destroyed produced not even a sigh. It also explains his recklessness against those ancient enemies. If you are already dead, what happens when you are 'killed' in the afterlife?" Discord shrugged.

"This no longer amuses me," she told him and moved.

Discord moved to block her. "Like I said, I don't expect you to believe me," Discord said, "But can you put off your excursion, to investigate whether what I'm telling you has even a grain of truth?"

"The only way to verify, would be to go in there and look," Luna said and pointed a hoof into the featureless distance. "And I am disinclined to believe you."

"Another reason why he told me everything. Better to be damned by your own hand." Discord stepped aside. "Go, rummage, find all the things he wants to keep hidden, drag all his embarrassments and sinister impulses before Celestia. Be ruled by your paranoia against one who has never raised a hand against any of your ponies no matter how they attacked him, or seemed to. Who even let one who tortured him live. Either he's right, that this is the afterlife and Celestia's irrational fears, Twilight's desperation on organizations and your sister's approval, and your terror that you'll fall again and your sister won't be able to forgive you, are all what brought us here. Or this is Equestria, and he'll continue acting as if he can be hurt, but not truly killed, until he does something a saner person would stand away from and it kills him. I gave you my warning, I urged you to investigate if you could not trust. His death will be on your head and yours alone."

"He's gotten to you, hasn't he?" Luna said.

"I could say the same," Discord countered darkly, then smiled, "I never had anyone willing to teach me. Who would hold up a standard I could meet and demand I live up to it."

"Celestia did." Luna glared at him.

"Celestia said one thing, and did another," Discord riposted, "She cannot and has not lived up to the standard she set for me. I can't live that way. But I might be able to find a way to still be me, and be acceptable to you," Discord said. "If you want him, offer him something of yourself than no one else has ever seen or had. He sees all that the ponies are demanding, and giving back little he values. Celestia is playing the trickster, and setting you up to be the lonely one who draws him out. But he is no pony. And you have no real idea what he thinks and feels, because you keep thinking he's a funny-shaped pony. Magic, flight, all the things he can't do himself, that's what would interest him."

"I already had plans in those directions," Luna admitted. "And what do you gain?"

"I get to walk under the sunlight again without having to worry about the Elements. Maybe I can fix some of the problems this world has. Maybe I can show you all things you've never heard of before."

"Something hidden from Celestia's and my eyes? I don't believe it," Luna said dismissively.

"You see the darkness, Celestia the light. Who looks into the twilight and the shadows? Sparkle and her friends? Shining Armor? Cadence? Or no one?" Discord asked angrily, "Don't play the omniscient card to one who knows better. There's a difference between seeing all, and knowing all. If you don't know what you are looking at, you are as blind as anypony."

"Keen enough to see through you," Luna said.

Discord slowly faded. "Except when I'm being transparent. Then you see what isn't there."

Luna looked around after Discord had completed his vanishing act. The maddening thing is, he might have given me good advice, specifically because he knew I wouldn't take it from him, she thought, So he gets to laugh at me either way, so be it. I had my own plans. I just push them forward. I hope Rarity has had time to complete the ensemble. Luna returned to the dreams of ponies. And to soothe the nightmares of three silly fillies in particular.

"Is there any pony food?" Forget-me-not asked as she rose, and noticed Glory was already awake.

"There's plenty of Parasprite-salad left," Glory said as she sat in one of the few booths and went over a stack of papers. "And I think Holly Hock invited the griffons over for Fancied Toast."

"That's bread dipped in eggs then grilled?" Forget-me-not asked, as she noted a stack of papers in another booth. "I have a sneaking suspicious those papers are mine."

"Probably," Glory said. "Her Highness dropped them off last night. Evidently our target slipped past the entire hospital staff and got to his house without being spotted. Her Highness was not happy about that failure of security."

"I thought 'The Great and Powerful Trixie' was a stage act, not a security expert," the small pegasus said as she leafed through the papers.

"I think the implication is that we should have had a guard there ourselves," Glory said.

"What is that thing made of, anyway?" the pegasus asked, "They haul him in there at death's door, and about two days later he's fine? For something supposedly so fragile, he's got the recuperative powers of a dragon."

"Several," Glory agreed, then snickered. "Maybe he absorbs more than nutrients eating once living things, maybe he absorbs their souls to fuel his incredible powers?" Glory said in a spooky voice and began stalking Forget-me-not.

"Yeah, right," the pegasus said, ignoring the looming unicorn.

"And he's coming to get you," Glory said.

"I think that position is already pretty crowded," the pegasus replied.

"Eww!" Holly Hock said as she exited the kitchen, "And you think the food I prepare is bad. That's a disgusting thought."

"I'm sorry, Parasprite-salad sandwiches for the griffons helping the search?" Glory exclaimed, "That is disgusting."

"Not for griffons," Holly Hock replied, "So do you want Fancied Toast, or are you going to eat out?"

Glory laid her head on the pile of papers. "It's my diplomatic duty to make them welcome in Equestria, it's my intelligence duty to keep an eye on them, and it's my duty as an Equestrian not to feed any of them my colleagues." She raised her head. "Yes, I'd love to have breakfast with the griffons."

"Then stay away from the fried sausage, stay with the boiled," Holly Hock said she returned to the kitchen.

"What's the difference?" Forget-me-not asked.

"The boiled is apple, garlic, cabbage and flour. The fried isn't," Holly Hock called.

"Thanks!" Glory and Forget-me-not called back.

"I was drafted, what made you take this job?" Forget-me-not asked.

"Stupidity," Glory answered.

Rarity had barely had time to get breakfast underway when she heard the knock on the shop door. Sweetie Belle was at the table, fast asleep, so Rarity headed towards the shop and the early morning customer. "Coming!" she called as she hurried and tried to make herself at least presentable.

That the customer was a seemingly nervous Princess Luna did nothing for Rarity's sangfroid. Her schadenfreude was piqued by the alicorn's nervousness. "Can I help you?"

"Is it ready?" Luna asked quietly, nearly dancing on her hoof tips.

"Yes," Rarity said and led her to the wrapped parcel. With her back to the princess she briefly let a grin escape. It was well hidden when she offered over her shoulder, "You might fly him to see Zecora. She seems a good alchemist, and that might be a type of magic he can employ."

Her Highness stared at the parcel. "That sounds remarkably like the advice I got recently. I just don't know if I should trust it or not."

"For those who can't fly, and those who can't do magic, being able to experience it is always welcome," Rarity offered, "Who advised you?"

"Discord," Luna replied as she unwrapped the package and looked inside.

Rarity had been unwilling to make the gear actually plain, but it was far more austere than her usual generation of such things. "Then be very careful. He will often give you exactly what you think you want. But not in a way that does you any good."

"So, take the advice, with a grain of salt, and watch your flanks," Rarity said. "Or, he may have told you exactly the truth and given you the best advice possible, simply to make you too nervous to use it."

Luna looked pained. "That's so wonderful to hear," she said. She collected the parcel. "Thank you, and wish me luck. It seems either way, I have some fences to mend."

"Good luck, your Highness." Rarity watched her depart and wondered what was going to happen. "No, Rarity, everyone deserves some privacy." She sighed. "It's not as if anyone can meet their princess."

He was aware of the unicorn, Trixie, being one tiny step away from giving him a lecture. For some reason I think Discord and she would double team me if one started, he thought as he walked back to the odd structure that led to his house. He picked an apple off the tree and offered it to Trixie.

She frowned slightly, but accepted it. The ponies still either looked and hurried about their business, or stood stock still and stared at him until he was out of view.

I guess after what I did, they're even more spooked now than they were before. But good grief, I was reading the villains minds or what passes for them. How hard is it to win a poker game reading all the cards and knowing your own? he thought. The silence that answered was welcome, but disturbing. I really should be working on learning their written language. More silence.

He unlocked the door and held it open for Trixie. He noted the faint aura on the other side of the door coming from the handle. "You don't trust me," he said, "After last night I don't blame you. But I did try to wake you up."

Trixie refused to take the bait, or was willing for her lecture to be private. Then she stared past him with a concerned expression.

She's above petty tricks, besides I still have the key, he thought as he turned to look at what Trixie was staring at.

I want to lecture him on sneaking off, Trixie had thought as she walked beside him, But I don't think he'd know anything except I'm disappointed, and he seems to already get that.

She watched him finally perk up as he opened the door. Strange, it seems the closer he gets to home, the better off he is, Trixie thought, then had a twinge, And I've been hoping he could come with me on the road. Go or stay. Whichever way it happens, one of us is going to be miserable. She held the door for him, then caught Princess Luna approaching. He was soon staring at the alicorn.

What's she so nervous about? Trixie wanted to ask.

"Are you going in?" Luna asked, bowing her head slightly, in what Trixie recognized as a submissive gesture.

"I think we were," Trixie replied. Her horn glowed and showed an image of the three of them going into the house.

He frowned, but nodded and gestured for Luna to follow. Luna looked sheepish. "Generate pictures to communicate," her Highness said, "Why didn't we think about that?"

Trixie smiled. "Am I not the Great and Powerful Trixie?" she asked quietly as she followed him.

Luna fell in behind them, after closing the door.

She locked it, what's happening? she thought then moved back to where he stood staring at the middle door.

"He shouldn't go through there," Luna warned, "It'll change his color. Permanently."

He rotated several pieces of the door frame, and opened the door. Trixie caught his hand before he could go through. He grinned at her and shook his head. He pointed to bit of the carvings in the doorframe.

"Discord wrote the instructions of how to pass through safely in his language," Trixie realized. "Anyone else who tries will be dyed, and easily tracked. I'll bet that the keys change. Until we can read his language, we need him to pass through."

Luna shook her head. "More games," her Highness said, "We either play along, or we lose." The alicorn fixed Trixie with a glare. "What are you going to do? Stay at his side and deny your wanderlust, or drag him along and have him unhappy?"

Trixie gritted her teeth. "Neither. I am required to be here right now. When my sentence is over, then I'll think about it." She stepped back and nuzzled his leg. "Or, it might be nice to give him a friendly face in foreign places. And for me to have a home to come home to."

He scratched her behind the ears for a moment, then closed the door and restored the door frame keys to their unobvious positions. He proceeded to the actual front door and unlocked it. The light from wherever the house had landed filled the corridor. Trixie blinked away the spots before her eyes and tried to keep up. Luna followed.

He closed the door after they'd come through and locked it. Trixie's stomach turned as he glared at Luna. Whatever is going on, she's still a princess, and very powerful, Trixie thought then stepped between the two and nuzzled his leg. It seemed to calm him down a little.

"Let me guess, you broke in here while he was in the hospital, and he found what damage you did before you could fix it?" Trixie said carefully. Her Highness looked embarrassed at the accusation.

"Yes. I was practicing a spell, and it didn't work as expected," Luna admitted.

"Maybe I can help," Trixie offered as she pressed back against him, to make him either jump aside, or sit on the couch. He chose to sit.

Luna seemed horrified by the thought. "Um, the side effects are quite bad, I wouldn't want to put you through them. The truth is the headache and delirium from the spell resulted directly in the damage."

"So where is the damage, I don't see a bookshelf out of place, all the furniture in these rooms is in once piece." Trixie felt despair. "You damaged the office boxes!" She dashed towards the office and the machines that would make the dictionary possible. They were still intact. Luna was pursuing nearly as fast. He seemed content to simply stroll after. Trixie came out of the office and noted the Luna had positioned herself to block entrance to the bedroom.

"What exactly were you casting, and why were you casting it in his bedroom?" Trixie growled. She was horrified when the Princess's expression went from defiant to mortified. "What kind of sick stunt were you planning?" Trixie asked as she approached the Lunar Diarch, but she was beyond caring. "What kind of . . . ?" She saw the broken bed and it all clicked. She stepped back until she ran into a tall pair of legs. She sat down at his feet and stared at the shamed Princess.

"Your Royal Lunar Highness," Trixie said in a controlled tone, "Is it now the practice of the Diarchs to shoot off fireworks in a powder magazine? Or have the rigors of first-contract driven you insane?"

"I am, still a Princess," Luna warned.

"Respectfully, your Royal Highness, anyone but you who performed an act like that would rightfully be denounced as an idiot," Trixie said through gritted teeth, "If the spell would have worked, what pray tell would you have done if he didn't comply? More magic?"

"You forget yourself," Luna told her and approached.

"And so have you, your Highness," Trixie said as she stood and confronted the alicorn, "I am just a nothing, a stage performer drafted into this world of intrigues. But you are supposed to be an example for ponies. I at least understand why there's such a thing as back stage, to let the performers rest away from the crowds. But you are above that, able to break and enter, destroy someone else's property, and whatever else, so you are above the law."

Trixie scowled at the glaring Princess. Then she felt a tug on her ear. He signaled for her to move away. He bowed low to the Princess and walked back down the hallway, keeping between the two mares.

Trixie let him lead her outside into the geode-like formation that was house's new resting place. The air was warm and dry, and the crystals glowed with different colors. With Trixie at his side, they circumnavigated the house, and noted the large fissure in the crystalline wall. Trixie rushed to block that before he approached and went exploring. He tried to go around or over her, but to no avail. He walked to the kitchen side of the house where there were few windows, and sat down against the house. Trixie approached slowly, sensing his odd mood, and laid down beside him. After a few moments, she put her head in his lap and waited with him.

Luna briefly considered pounding her head on the wall. No, I've done enough damage in here as it is. I was going to tell him, explain it all as best I could, but that mare - who would have understood perfectly what I was saying and leaving out, Luna realized. I wasn't going to tell him, I was going to provide a believable explanation. What would I have done if he didn't comply? What would I have asked him to comply with? She shook her head violently. I was willing to admit wrong doing, but not in front of one who would understand what I was saying. And even I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't stopped when I did. She looked at the parcel containing what she had been planning to wear. If I am a princess, I shouldn't care what she thinks, or what she says about me. What's she going to do? Gossip about me, tell him what it means in Equestrian eyes? Neither he nor I should care. She picked up the parcel, took two steps and then stopped. She set it on the floor and opened it, staring at the fine workponyship, and considered what it would mean to him, what it would mean to most Equestrians, and what it really meant to her.

Spike and Sveti were maintaining the steady supply of books, quills, hot tea and blank parchments to the two decoders working on the collection of words they had from the dictionary, and the complete sentences and phrases they had from the letters, and now rubbings from the door in the Big Guy's entry way. At the moment Spike and Sveti were refilling the large containers of tea their respective scholars were consuming in vast quantities.

"Miss Svetlana?" Spike asked as he put on yet another kettle to heat.

"Please, Spike, Sveti. 'Svetlanas' sit around all day ordering functionaries around," the very un-Gilda-like griffon said as she did an inventory of the available, and dwindling tea supply.

"Sveti then, have you seen the Big Guy, when he was conscious?" Spike asked as he checked the kettle and laid out the tea for it.

"No, not yet. Something troubling you?" the griffon asked.

"Yeah. Everypony seems to be able to read his facial expressions like a large-type book, ditto his gestures. And he seems to be able to read theirs. Him and me, nothing. Blank slate. And I don't think he can read me either."

"I'll keep an eye out and report my findings. Thank you. If griffons labor under that same disadvantage as dragons, it could make our job considerably more difficult," Sveti said.

"Thanks, it's been bugging me." Spike added the tea to the pot.

"And instead of analysis you get a lecture that it's not something anyone else has a problem with," Sveti said, "Those are always useful and uplifting. 'I know you'd like help, here's a speech that you're an idiot instead.'" The griffon shrugged.

"I take it you've gotten a few of those as well," Spike said.

"I've been in government service since you were hatched," Sveti said, "I've gotten several. They're always painful. So when I see I'm about to launch one, I always hold back."

"Thanks." Spike considered. "Is anyone looking into his familiarity with our math?" Spike asked, and exchanged a raised eyebrow with the griffon.

"Well, I happen to have some rather advanced training in math," Sveti replied, "If you'll excuse me. I think I need to order some books." Sveti started towards the entrance to the kitchen.

"Give me the letter, I can get it directly into her majesty's hands," Spike assured her as he poured the tea into a large thermos.

"All right," Discord said, actually sounding tired, "The next one starts with a loop, counterclockwise, with a long tail at the beginning."

All right, he thought as he started the figure, and ignored Trixie's astonishment as she watched over his shoulder. What does this one sound like? he mentally asked.

Discord made a sound that while obviously different from the previous ones, wasn't quantifiably different. "Aren't you glad you asked?"

Why does Equestria sound like severe borborygmi? he asked Discord, I have the horrible idea that if I eat too many beans with boiled cabbage, I'll either insult someone's mother or make lewd suggestions to a stallion.

"That would be interesting," Discord giggled, "Or you'll get a reputation as a ventriloquist. The rest of the letter is like a U, with the arm coming up level with the top of the loop."

Terrific, eight minutes to write two words, he thought, And Trixie thinks I've lost my mind.

"With those two words I can hardly blame her," Discord replied, "Why 'Disaster Reports'?"

Simple. The way to get to Celestia is through her ponies. If you can do something about one of these, you'll definitely get on her good side. It's all a case of stage management.

"For instance?" Discord asked.

Let's get the report first, he replied, Then once we've got the proper disaster in hand, we can create or at least assist the solution. He stood, and Trixie was on her feet looking somewhat worried.

"Are you going to try to go through your front door?" Discord asked, the tone was pure innocence.

When I have a week to explain to the Dragon Queen how I arrived in her personal treasure vault, or the harem of the griffon emperor. I'll probably appreciate it more if I'm not pressed for time. But lets get your help in hand first. He jogged around the house and in through the glass doors. He heard Luna shout something, but he was past and out into the corridor.

"What I'd really like is some way to make myself heard outside," Discord said as Trixie followed the Big Guy down the entry hall to the Ponyville door. "Are you going to leave Princess Luna behind in your house?"

She can break in and destroy the furniture whenever she likes, what good would closing the doors do? he thought, Royal prerogative and all that. I'll lock the Ponyville door though. Have to keep it a Royal prerogative after all.

Discord was strangely silent during the entire jog to the town library.

Arriving at the library, they found the familiar door-dragon, and a griffon. Curiouser and curiouser, he thought.

Trixie sidled up and took the paper from his hand and presented it to the dragon.

"She's explaining what you want," Discord said inside his head, "The dragon is called Spike, unimaginative name. Makes him sound like a watch dog. The griffon is one of two, her name's Svetlana, but she goes by Sveti."

What's got Trixie so agitated? he thought of the showmare arguing very pointedly with the griffon. To the point where the griffon extended its claws.

He slipped his hand into his pocket and closed on the small pistol he'd picked up in his home with the discovery of the destruction. Trixie had seen the claws and her horn glowed faintly, making it clear the fight would not be as one-sided as the griffon expected.

"The griffon informed her that she'd been assigned by Luna to be a new bodyguard," Discord reported, "And she is evidently foreseeing the anger coursing through you and has told the griffon and Spike about the break in and property destruction. And that another interloper, especially a Luna-mandated one will end in you say, burning down the house around your ears to keep anyone from getting your secrets."

The gasp of horror indicated the arrival of Twilight and a second griffon, who looked at the two nearly ready to come to blows, and the very tense monster standing in what promised to be ground zero.

Luna stared at the figure in the large bathroom mirror. I know what I see, I can guess what the Equestrians will see, but what would he have seen? she wondered about the saddle, bit and bridle she wore. Rarity had managed to make them more workponylike than the typical fetish gear she'd seen some ponies wear. She made them look like tools, instead of toys. And they are comfortable enough to wear, although a little padding under the saddle might be welcome, she thought as she looked at the sad pony in the pretty clothes in the mirror. How am I ever going to admit why I did it? I barely understand myself. No, I know one person who might explain it to me. It was intoxicating after Discord changed us. So many new thoughts and feelings, so many drives ponies don't get. And the mind racing in all directions. No wonder they seemed mad. But, I wanted to be like that again. It was like being drunk and lucid, being completely out of control and having the universe at my finger tips if I'd put out the effort.

Luna used her magic to replace the tools in the parcel. She carried the parcel out of the house and through the door to Canterlot Castle leaving it on the steps, rather than taking it all the way to her room where any maid might walk in and find it. Once back in the corridor with all the doors firmly locked, she proceeded to the Ponyville door and out into the sunlight.

All right, number one, gather intelligence; number two, make my apologies and damn anyone who thinks otherwise; and three, practice that spell where it won't make me do stupid things in someponyelse's house.

Twilight smiled nervously as she explained the situation to him. The second griffon was trying to defuse the staring match between Trixie and the she-griffon.

"And after Celestia and Luna have licked off all the whipped cream, I'll make Applejack untie you, and get Rarity to give back your clothes," Discord 'translated' Twilight Sparkle's explanation.

He stared at the nervously grinning mare, watching the sweat bead on her forehead despite the fur there.

Are you sure that's that she said? he mentally asked Discord, Because she never once mention the books, and during Fluttershy's 'activity' with her feathers, that would have been a perfect time to get me to surrender the books.

"I don't think she'd want to get them under duress, it would give you grounds to get them back," Discord replied.

Interesting point, he thought. He smiled to the purple unicorn and nodded. He took a deep breath, and let out an ululating roar. When he stopped, all the ponies and griffons were plastered against the wall staring at him in terror. He walked over and patted Trixie on the head. Then he retrieved the paper and spindled it on Twilight's horn.

The mare focused on the paper and made an interrogative noise. He made a c-shape with the thumb and index finger of each hand, touched the thumb tip of one to the index tip of the other and flapped the fingers while circling Twilight's head.

The mystified mare whinnied something.

"I don't look anything like that, oops," Discord said.

Funny how a long, skinny, warped thing is instantly recognizable as you, he thought in reply, Odd, don't you think. Now, I thank you for the more entertaining translation of Twilight's speech, it was probably vastly more interesting than what she actually said. I must jot it down and translate it for her sometime. But I need an authentic translation, this is for your benefit.

"She asked 'Disaster Reports?'" Discord said.

He nodded and poked the paper with a finger. Trixie had taken up station beside him, and looked one step away from restarting the fight with the griffon. But the truce held for the moment.

Twilight slowly walked towards a series of papers, occasionally glancing back over her haunches to stare at him with a quizzical expression. Spike was whispering something to the griffon Trixie had been arguing with, and the griffon was whispering back. The magic surrounded a large book, and Twilight set it at a desk. Inside were newspaper pages.

Well, it's a place to start, he thought, I was hoping to get intelligence or action reports. I guess that's too much to hope for.

"So I get to read about all the lost kittens and puppies? What have I ever done to you?" Discord asked.

You intrigued me, that's cause for punishment enough. I don't want everything. Concentrate on disasters: fire, floods, crop failures, things of that nature. Once you've got one, slow down and we'll go over it.

The heartfelt sigh sounded like a man being sent to be drawn and quartered, or a teenager sent to clean their room. "Next page, please. Next. Next. Next. Next."

He paged through the archived newspaper at Discord's speed. While the pictures he could decipher, the words were just squiggles on the paper.

Lyra had to magically pick up Sweetie Drops, to see who was at the door who had petrified her friends as effectively as a cockatrice. "Your Highness," Lyra gasped at the Lunar Diarch looking very distressed, standing on her doorstep like a petitioner, rather than a ruler.

"May I come in?" she asked softly.

Lyra could only nod and step out of the way. She closed the door behind the quiet Lunar Diarch and awaited her Highness's pleasure. The wait was long enough that Sweetie Drops partially recovered, and set about trying to straighten the place up slightly.

"You know of humans, at least the tales and legends. What are they like?" Luna asked quietly.

Lyra gulped, and tried to ignore the sound of Sweetie Drops pounding her head against the wall. "I will tell you what I've uncovered. Do you think our guest is a human?"

"I don't know, but at this point any information would be helpful."

"Lost kitten, starlet's heartbreak, boring," Discord complained as they went through the third book of newspapers.

Sorry, I would have thought the papers would have something, he apologized, Back home, they'd be full of the stuff.

"What? Earthquakes, volcanoes, meteor strikes, riots, wars, mass murders, serial murders, arson, forest fires? Now do you understand why I wanted to spice this place up? Bucolic doesn't begin to destroy this place."

I think you meant describe.

"I said 'destroy' and I meant 'destroy'," Discord peevishly replied, "Boredom is the main crop and the dietary staple. Someone lives on the fringes of the town for years and nopony has the guts to keep their shops open to sell to her? If Applejack hadn't escorted you that first time, you could have cleared the entire town market in seconds."

So much for love and tolerance, he thought, Wait, what's that one with the picture of the farmer?

"Heavy, early rains, on top of a large, late snow fall caused some serious crop failures," Discord commented, "So much for the weather service, storm probably got too big for the locals to handle and they had too much pride to call in outside help."

That's perfect, he thought happily, Just perfect.

"How is that perfect? I am not going to teach these ponies how to properly irrigate their farms. That is not what I do."

No, but the flooding also means the bridges and roads are undermined. As the winter weather rolls in, some settlements and people in the outer fringes are cut off. With a smaller than expected harvest, about late winter the food starts running really low. Big storm rolls in. Say at the Solstice, when the sun is low on the horizon. Everyone is already mourning those possibly lost to the storm as icy conditions ground all the pegasi rescue flights.

"Sounds great, but other than sit back and enjoy it, what do I do?" Discord asked.

The isolated towns and farms awaken after the storm has passed to tall drifts of, muffins, cupcakes, bottles of chocolate milk, and cans of frozen concentrated orange juice. Celestia will love it. And everyone else will drive themselves crazy trying to find your ulterior motive that isn't there. Chaotic enough for you? he asked.

"Yes," Discord said happily.

And heroic. No one else could possibly have done it, but you just shrug and ask if that sounds like the kind of thing you'd do, he told the Chaos Spirit, Chaotic, but life-affirming.

"Yes," Discord said happily.

So, food for thought? he asked.

"Yes," Discord said.

What's the square root of 27? he asked.

"Yes," Discord said.

Maybe Celestia will have some whip cream left for you, he told Discord.

"Yes," Discord said.

"You do understand that these are just legend, theories of mine based on observations of other creatures native to Equestria?" Lyra said as Luna poured over the collection of news clippings, heavily annotated books and a few items of her own researches spread on a table in the sound-dampened practice room.

"It is information," Luna replied, "I can test whether it is correct or incorrect." She stopped and stared at Lyra. "Why are you not following him around barraging him with questions and documenting his every move?"

"Oh." Lyra selected another book from the shelves in the closet and set it on the overburdened table. "They are fiercely territorial. Staking out areas of their own, and even limiting entry into the area around them. Privacy is also very important to them. It would be a shame to alienate him, if he is a human, by being too forward. I let him see me around town. I wave, and smile. I had a plan in place to have a little concert near his home, to see if he liked the music. Get him used to me in small steps, better still to draw him to me rather than force myself into his presence. If these books are correct, it is the best way."

Luna sighed sadly. "Yes, the best way."

"Highness, if I may be so bold, don't you have all this information at the palace?" Lyra asked carefully.

"Not concentrated like this, and not correlated and annotated," Luna said. "It would have prevented so much," she added sadly.

"I'll leave you to your studies," Lyra said and backed out of the room and closed the door.

"What's going on Lyra?" Sweetie Drops said quietly, glancing at the practice room.

"It is wrong to see a Princess cry," Lyra said quietly. "Let's brew some of that awful tea you like so much. She can join us when she's ready to."

"She thinks all that crazy stuff is true?" Sweetie Drops asked.

"If it isn't, it's helping her to," Lyra said.

"Okay, what was that letter I just sent to Princess Celestia?" Spike asked as Trixie, Sveti and the Big Guy left.

"I think it was an invitation to a cinema," Twilight said with some trepidation as she stared at the copy she'd been given for herself and Spike. It was exactly the same as the one given the two griffons. "I saw one, so did Dinky. She was delighted, I was terrified. The other one before the foalnapping was even worse."

"I don't think he'd be inviting all of us to something that would intentionally terrify us," Mystery said, "Just yelling was enough to do that."

"Why did you react that way?" Twilight asked. "Griffons are hunters too."

"The quarray eels have a relative in the griffon lands. It makes a sound a lot like that. You don't want to hear it, if you can't fly away," Mystery admitted and shivered. "It's also quite a noise to hear in a closed room."

"Uh, considering what happened last time," Spike began, "Do you really think that's a good idea?"

"What, every time he shows a cinema, there's a disaster?" Twilight asked, and considered. "Short of the sun exploding, or Celestia becoming an evil tyrant ready to lead Equestria in a campaign to turn the Big Guy's people into ponies, I think we've had all the disasters Equestria holds already."

"This is the WORST! POSSIBLE! THING!" Rarity announced as she entered.

"Miss Sparkle," Mystery said, "You really need to quit saying that."

She grimaced at him, and the giggling Spike.

Blinds, shades and curtains had been drawn over most of the windows. Derpy had arrived with Dinky, and brought along a tray of muffins to share.

"It's incredible mama!" Dinky enthused, "Like a cinema, but in your own house. No projector!"

Derpy grinned at her foal's enthusiasm. Does he seem a little down? she wondered as he arranged chairs and couches for all the guests. Derpy had delivered all the invitations.

"Trixie is he all right?" Derpy asked as the magician arranged the last pieces of furniture for ponies. Only one chair remained, his seat presumably.

"He's feeling a little fragile, I think. He's been hard to read lately," Trixie admitted. "I think the events, and a few people being too pushy about getting close. I think this is also a 'don't call us, I'll call you' announcement. He might withdraw a bit to rest and heal."

"Is it something I've done?" Derpy asked sadly.

Trixie shook her head. "You're one of the few who haven't been pushing. I think he likes that."

Derpy nodded. Lyra arrived next. "Sweetie Drops declined, out of sheer, stark terror," Lyra said and snorted in disgust, "He isn't going to eat us." She shook her head and chuckled.

Twilight, and the other Element Bearers arrived as a group.

"Dark in here," Applejack said. Then the lights came on. "Whoa!" she exclaimed as she looked around for the source. "It's like the walls glow," Applejack said awed.

"Naw," Rainbow Dash explained, "There's glowing panels up here. That's what lights up the room."

Twilight shook her head. "And that doesn't inspire anything?" she asked.

"Not really," Rainbow admitted.

"I really am not properly dressed for this," Rarity said, as Pinkie pushed her in the door. "I mean a meeting with their Highnesses. I should be in a proper gown."

"I think you look fine Rarity," came a warm voice that froze everyone.

"Princess Celestia!" Twilight recovered, then noted the lack of regalia. "Princess?"

"When in Ponyville," Celestia said, got an odd smile, and took over Pinkie's job of pushing the paralyzed Rarity across the hallway. "We should go to the palace after this," Celestia whispered to Rarity, "All those long, polished, marble floors. Wonderful for sliding on."

Rarity emitted a nervous laugh.

"Is that popcorn I smell?" Spike asked.

"Oh would you listen to them chatter?" Discord complained, "I don't see why you're punishing me with this. And the griffons act like they've never seen a cinema."

With the weird technological levels of this place, I wouldn't wonder, he replied, Besides, this is a reward for you.

"Reward?" Discord exclaimed, "If I save you life, what do I get? Thumbscrews?"

I thought yours were riveted on, he replied as he sat in his chair. His lap was filled with a foal and Trixie's head. The female griffon sat on the other side. Celestia had claimed the large ottoman, and had Twilight snuggled up amid her legs.

"Of please, the cuteness is enough to make me gag," Discord complained. "If the movie isn't worse, can we start it?"

Done, he said, I just had to get past the commercials.

'Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.

When the wind's from the east and the sun's from the west and the sand in the glass is right. Come on down. Stop on by. Hop a carpet and fly. To another Arabian night.'

"Oh sand, wonderful, a documentary," Discord said. "How about we go back to going through papers?"

Patience Iago, patience, he thought and mentally chuckled. He tuned out Discord and started watching the audience. He'd realized that odd as it seemed, Luna had been trying to get his attention with her clumsy actions, as if she were a teen ager trying to court him as a grown up, or close enough. Well, Disney isn't the best in that regard, I think it will at least steer her into some more productive avenues than breaking in and trying to sleep in my bed.

The action was obvious enough without understanding the words. The expressions of the cartoon protagonists guided the others. Dinky cowered against him at the scarier parts. He stroked her coat and told her it would be all right. The most frustrating thing for the ponies seemed to be their inability to sing along with the songs. So that's how you torture a pony, he thought. He briefly tuned into Discord's grousing.

"Oh look, the carpet wants to be his friend. Bleech!" Discord complained, "Oh, the monkey stole the lamp! Wonderful lesson to these innocent creatures. Can we do something else?"

Whatever you do! Don't watch the next part! he told Discord as Aladdin rubbed the lamp.

"They knew about Discord!? And he's blue?" Rainbow Dash exclaimed as she fluttered next to the screen, and was shushed by the others. Lyra magically yanked her out of the way.

"Interesting," Mystery whispered.

"Shush, I'm taking notes," Trixie whispered back.

"Cadence," Celestia whispered to her fellow alicorn, "When you, you know, you'll have to get yourself an evil vizier. It looks like it makes ruling so much more entertaining."

"Is that why?" Cadence asked and glanced over at the Big Guy.

"In a way," Celestia replied.

"Not the core message of the cinema I think," Cadence whispered back.

"You two don't need to learn it," Celestia whispered, and pointedly glanced at Luna munching popcorn, seated as far away from the Big Guy as was possible. "So concentrate on the other lessons."

Cadence snorted her amusement.

"Egad what a horrible looking horse!" Rarity gasped and was shushed.

Celestia glanced down at Twilight who was watching with rapt attention. She nodded to Cadence, then at the Big Guy. He was, like the previous cinema, watching the ponies more than the cinema. Celestia was also aware of another pair of eyes watching them, but she could wait to deal with that.

It will be for the best to let that unroll properly, the Solar Diarch thought, My attempt was less than successful.

The rest of the cinema about daring escapes, true love, and freedom unrolled. Her Ponies' frustration at the eminently singable songs they couldn't duplicate seemed their only dissatisfaction. The monster seemed to be cataloging the others' reaction for his own analysis.

Dinky had fallen asleep in his lap the instant the credits rolled. Making all the ponies go 'aww' at how cute she looked. It reminded Celestia of how gentle he could be, to those inside his walls. And what a monster he can be to those outside, she thought, Poor Discord. I bet never saw it coming.

He carefully collected the mental fragments of Discord, and wrapped them in a cerebral blanket, before placing them in a warm, safe place in his mind. It worried him a little how quiet the Chaos Spirt had been once the movie started unrolling, but he also knew that Discord was still 'alive'. Getting Dinky out of his lap and onto her mother's back was an exercise in delicacy that Derpy appreciated. Somewhere along the line, Rainbow Dash let out a yelp and raced out of the house at top speed. As he and Trixie prepared to say their good byes, being 'beeped' by both Princess Celestia and Princess Cadence, Rainbow Dash zoomed back in. She dodged clobbering Celestia head to head, and rather than go head-first into a wall, was caught by the tail by her almost-victim.

"There's a bolter, missed the four-wire," he said of the absolutely mortified pegasus dangling from her sovereign's teeth.

Celestia set her down, and the mortified pegasus stood staring at Celestia in fear until Twilight said something about the parcel Rainbow had clutched to her chest.

Haven't seen much of her, he thought as the pegasus looked at Twilight, Twilight's expectant expression, and the amused expression of her sovereign. Poor thing is wilting, he thought as he fought not to add his laughter to the general amusement. Okay, enough's enough.

He carefully took the parcel from the unresisting pegasus and just as carefully opened it. He pointed it at Celestia as he pulled open the last wrapping, and acted as if he expected an explosion. When it didn't explode, he looked at Celestia's rather imperious expression, and the mortification on the other ponies. Cadence had left. Luna was practically growling at him.

"Hey, I've heard about your reputation," he accused the pegasus and pointed at her. There was general noise making and the pegasus wilted even more.

If Discord can be believed, he thought as he removed the book from the parcel. He opened it to a series of illustrations on aerial maneuvers. Okay, he thought as he reached for an encyclopedia of flight, then spotted the game instruction book. No, better, he thought as he pulled the book down and waved for the pegasus to follow.

Twilight heard Rarity gasp and looked over. From the machine the monster sat at came the 'chunder-chunder' sound, and from Rarity's came the sound of hail on a metal roof. The image on the screen shook, and Rarity pulled the little stick on the base in front of her sideways.

"Oh, Mister Monster, it is on!" Rarity growled.

"Hey! How come you didn't blow up!" Rainbow asked as she stood up from studying the little book the monster had set before her earlier.

"Some of us learn from other's mistakes," Rarity said as she growled at the monster, who responded with an 'all-teeth visible' grin back.

"I think he's saying there aren't any rules," Twilight said as she returned her full attention to her screen, and that Trixie hadn't spotted her. After the others had been enthusiastic enough at Rainbow's antics, the monster had set up the movie cinema machine to play the game, and hooked it into one of the boxes. So a pony could play against him, while two ponies played against each other.

Some of us watched how the Big Guy won, Twilight thought, And how he blew up Rainbow four times in a row, before bringing another screen and setting up the second pair of machines. And then he blew up Rainbow twice more before Rarity insisted on a turn. You come out of the sun. It's so simple. Twilight used her horn to touch the keys that let her look right, left and behind, before concentrating on the small dot that was Trixie. It would also help Rainbow if she bothered to look behind her occasionally.

"You know Trixie. I talked with Mystery, and my brother, and even Spike about it. While Spike's a little young, even he agreed."

"Agreed with what, Sparkle?" Trixie asked, as she stared intently at the screen.

Rarity's machine chundered, but the monster's had no corresponding hail on metal sound. Meaning she didn't affect him. "Oh I may have picked the prettiest one, but I am no pushover!" Rarity warned, but chundered again to no effect. "Grr."

Twilight tapped the keys and swung into a dive on her target. A little distraction, Twilight thought, All's fair.

"They all agreed that a mare who spreads stories about him being with her is the surest way to hurt him and turn him away from her. I know it was just boasts, but others won't. And he'll feel very betrayed."

"Huh!" Trixie gasped.

Twilight pushed a key, and her machine chundered. Trixie's machine sounded an explosion and Twilight touched keys so her aircraft climbed over the fireball where Trixie had been. Trixie's expression looked like she'd been in the explosion.

"Dirty pool, Sparkle!" Trixie said.

Twilight only gave an all-teeth showing grin. "Just a little truth."

The monster's machine 'fwooshed' and Rarity gasped. Twilight looked over at the monster's screen and saw two objects seem to race towards Rarity on the screen. Her evasive actions avoided the objects, but left her vulnerable to more standard weapons. He followed immediately with by monster's machine chundering and Rarity's machine sounding hail on metal, then an explosion.

"Speaking of dirty pool," Rarity said as she sat back. "I don't care if the game's rules do allow it, it's still not the way a gentleman fights."

"Is if he wants to win," Applejack offered.

"Okay!" Rainbow looked up from the tactical books. "I know what I did wrong."

"I'm sorry, but Fluttershy gets a turn," Rarity said, "You already died enough for one evening."

"Thank you Rarity," the yellow pegasus moved up to the keyboard and the little, movable stick set in a base. The monster came around and began cycling through the various choices.

"He'll take that upside down gull again," Rainbow complained, "You should take that one."

"That one," Fluttershy said and pointed to the image on the screen.

"It's rather ungainly," Rarity said.

"It's the only one with two windmills, instead of just one. I'd rather have two," Fluttershy explained.

The Big Guy stepped behind Twilight and his fingers flew over the keyboard. Making some arcane changes in the game.

"Whoa! This one's got four windmills," Twilight said.

He flipped open a small notepad and showed a whole set of controls the other planes hadn't used. Twilight tapped the controls and discovered that there were almost a dozen different ways to look out of the plane, and most had one or two sticks pointing out of them and a sight.

Ah, this one had lots of chunderers, she thought delightedly as the Big Guy familiarized Trixie with whatever he was setting her up with. She discovered the views could change as she swung the chunderers around, and the views were all over the aircraft. Ah ha! Each position only has one or two, so the real game will be how to approach so most of yours bear, and only a few of your opponent's. It should be easy to keep the arcs in my head.

The game started and Twilight tried out the controls. "No wonder this had chunderers all over its body, this thing maneuvers like a drunken hydra."

"You'll also notice all the status boxes have three digits," Trixie said, "Not like the four guns of our last planes, which only had two. No instant kills for either of us."

Twilight growled at the arrogant mare, but continued cycling through the views of left, right forward. I'm an idiot! she thought as she switched to the top chunderers, which swung in a complete circle, and the bottom, which did likewise. She'd occasionally return to the flight controls to keep the plane maneuvering.

"Fluttershy, aren't you supposed to blow him up?" Rainbow asked.

"You play the game your way, I'll play the game my way," Fluttershy said.

Twilight stole a glance at Fluttershy's screen. The blue, upside-down gull aircraft was maneuvering like a mad thing, but Fluttershy would follow it through the maneuvers and wind up slightly behind and to the left or right. Like a dog heeling it's master.

"She's already lasted longer than you ever did," Rarity teased Rainbow.

"He just knows the game better, that's all," Rainbow replied, but watched 'weak flier' Fluttershy keep up with the Big Guy with ease.

Twilight returned to watching her own screen. Then she spotted her target. All right, get above, dive and attack her belly, Twilight thought, That'll put only two against eight of mine. She spent a little time familiarizing herself with the sluggish characteristic of this new plane. I'm sure he set this up on purpose.

Twilight ignored Fluttershy's pleased giggling as she met her contest objectives, staying in formation through the Big Guy's frantic maneuvering. Twilight positioned herself and lumbered down on Trixie. She saw that Trixie's plane was the same as hers.

"Showing yourself at last, Sparkle," Trixie taunted.

Twilight stuck to her plan, diving below Trixie, then climbing. Before she switched from the flight control position, the little display began lighting up. Ha, they fire automatically, she thought happily, Better. She heard the hail sound from Trixie's machine, and watched little pieces fly off the aircraft. Twilight grinned, as smoke came from Trixie's aircraft, until several large objects dropped out of the center of it. And seemed headed straight at Twilight. Suddenly the lack of maneuverability was very important. She exploded, then heard Trixie explode.

"What were those things?" Twilight demanded.

"I don't know," Trixie said, "I just hit the attack button in the pilot seat, and you blew up."

"You dropped garbage cans on me," Twilight responded, then yawned. "I think this night has gone on as long as it can for me." The sudden ending of the fighting, and Twilight was feeling as tired as she had in a while.

Applejack yawned too. "Ah think ah'd better git back ta the farm. Early day today, or is it already tomorrow?"

"Wouldn't it be yesterday and today?" Pinkie asked from beside Applejack.

"Where have you been?" Twilight asked.

"Watching everybody play," Pinkie replied and grinned.

Twilight looked around the crowded room, with Applejack only able to get her nose in the door and Spike asleep in the bathroom. "From where?"

"Inside," Pinkie said and pointed at the collection of machines.

Within the air space between them, inside the machines, hanging from the ceiling, or . . . ? Twilight considered, then abandoned further consideration as bad for her mental health.

"Oh, I made these, and a message," Pinkie said and put down a couple of bookmarks. On the bookmarks was a drawing of the monster, a sketch of bookshelves, and a picture of the monster doing a 'You broke a Pinkie Promise' scene to a pony whose skeleton had been scared out of them and stood trembling beside the terrified pony.

"That's an interesting 'Ex Libris' comment," Twilight noted and looked at the other paper that had a picture of Rainbow Dash and a stack of books with arrows pointing to a picture of Spike and the library. Twilight's ears flattened as she stared at Pinkie. "I am the librarian."

"Naw, Capricorn, both of you, I'm sure," Pinkie replied, "Oh Twilight, hold still."

"O - kay," Twilight said and stared worriedly at Pinkie.

Pinkie held the other paper in her hooves in front of her and stared at Twilight pathetically, her eyes nearly tearing, her lip quivering and a look of abject misery on her face.

"GAA!" Twilight said and shied away, "I forgive you. What every you want!"

"Good," Pinkie said returning to her normal ebullient self, and stepped outside to a pile of books, and gave the monster the same treatment.

He picked out the two largest books, but put the 'Ex Libris' in the others and pointed at Pinkie.

"Oh," Pinkie said and held up a hoof. "Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye," she promised. Then stared at Rainbow and Twilight, "You'd better keep his books in good shape."

"Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye," Rainbow and Twilight both promised fearfully.

The monster seemed dubious of the whole affair, but put the seven books in a bag for Pinkie to carry.

"Thank you!" Pinkie said happily.

"Why didn't you take a turn on the game?" Fluttershy said.

"After Rainbow Dash got shot down," Pinkie began.

"Six times," Applejack said.

"I thought it would be more fun to read his library," Pinkie said.

"You read all those books in just a few hours?" Twilight gasped, "You can read his language?!"

"No silly, I just looked at the pictures." Pinkie happily bounced down the hall.

Twilight dashed after her, afraid of what she'd see. The bookshelves were undamaged and seemingly unaffected. All the books were in the shelves where they belonged. "What do you mean looked at the pictures?" Twilight asked, "These books haven't been touched."

"On the spines, all the funny lines. That one is about snakes going home to their grandmothers. That one is all about rulers and plumb bobs getting fat. That one is about scissors beats paper, or is it cigars beat moustaches?" Pinkie said.

Twilight looked at the titles on the spines, and the few pictures on the dust jackets and decided to let Pinkie think whatever she wanted.

"There's also a bunch of cookbooks over there!" Pinkie pointed to another set of shelves in what appeared to be a dining room. Along with cubbies filled with large pots, pans, and some machines were a collection of books in one cubby.

"How'd ya'all figure that one Pinkie?" Applejack asked.

"They're with all the other cooking tools right outside a kitchen," Pinkie said happily.

Applejack's eyes crossed. "I must be tired, that actually makes perfect sense."

Pinkie giggled.

10) Crystal Leather

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Cultural Artifacts - Crystal Leather

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 21

Trixie watched as he closed the door after the last of his guests left. The gentle smile he'd worn the entire time vanished like an ice cube on a griddle. Trixie considered as she followed him to the guest room where a hoof-thick, heavy pad served as her mattress. He changed the sheets and made sure she had a blanket or two, he gave her a soft smile which she returned, but as soon as he thought she couldn't see, his expression returned to weariness. He didn't even approach his own bedroom, instead returning to the living room to look at the couches and chairs.

Is he going to sleep out here? she wondered as she followed. But he just looked at the couches, seeing some detail Trixie missed, which made them unsuitable. As he moved from the cinema room to the living room, she took a moment to examine the couches and ottoman closely. They look, and smell fine to me . . . they shouldn't. They shouldn't have pony hairs, and pony smell all over them, she realized as she moved to follow him.

He stared at the chair in the living room. It and the coffee table were the only furniture that didn't bear the obvious stamp of ponies. Even the recliner in the cinema room had her and Dinky's scent and hairs on it. His calm deliberation frightened her. It's like that earth pony high-wire walker, she remembered the clown who'd act so terrified on the platform, then would do the most incredible stunts on the wire above the crowd. Then, she stumbled during a performance and fell into the net. Once her leg healed, she climbed back up, but couldn't make herself step onto the wire. After a week of crying jags, and self-recriminations, she went to her wagon to sleep, and never woke up again. I don't want him making the same decision, but what. 'Inviting' him to my mare's nest isn't what he wants. And I'm not strong enough to just fix the bed. She deeply considered what to do to help her friend.

From her own room in Canterlot, Celestia watched her 'prisoner' watching her self-appointed charge. And what do I do? she wondered, My every step has made it worse. But not everyone has made it worse. Do I risk what he could do to the ponies of Ponyville, and hope they can act without direct support? Or do I keep them safe, and keep misstepping? I didn't like them enjoying 'killing' each other, but they saw it as a game of skill, not violence. Perhaps aggression is acceptable in a controlled way.

Celestia looked around her bedroom and rang for the night maid. "Nicety Meadow, do you remember the accident with the jasmine and rose petal soap?"

The Earth pony mare cringed slightly. "Yes, Highness."

"Have my bed remade with those sheets," Celestia stood up, "Immediately."

"Didn't it make you sneeze, Highness?" the maid asked.

"Yes, but please do it immediately," she said, making the order absolute, but as gentle as she could manage. "It's important."

The maid left and Celestia walked through the cenotaph and into Luna's room. She smirked at the idea of the latest 'royal' intervention. I have trusted Twilight and her friends to do so much, Celestia thought, then considered the letters the monster had sent, Perhaps I should learn to trust my ponies. To offer some help, and let them solve the problem their own way.

Trixie felt not a compulsion, but a set of instructions and that they would lead to her solution. Inspiration, but . . . she thought, then looked at her exhausted, despondent friend, All right, perhaps Discord gave us more resources. She carefully took the tip of his sleeve in her mouth and tugged.

He woke up enough to follow her. She collected the bedding from her room and then returned to the front door. He was growing confused, but she stopped and nuzzled his leg and looked up at him smiling. Trust me, she prayed, Please.

He seemed too tired to argue. It hurt that he seemed so defeated, but she knew that soon things would be better. He followed her out to the hallway and locked the door behind him, then closed in where she waited beside the door with the messages written on them.

"Please," she said quietly to the door, trying to keep the 'poniness' to a minimum. When the door opened, she found herself following him.

She grinned at his cautious advance. Curiosity seems to have enlivened him.

He stepped over the parcel, and advanced in a crouch. There was a door at the bottom of the stairway they'd entered the middle of, but he climbed towards the one at the top. Then he reached the door, and ran his hands over the featureless structure. Trixie recognized the 'unicorn door' and found the latch buried within the door.

No lock, she thought, as the door clicked, and she let her horn glow illuminate. Oh Celestia?! As she and he looked at the cabinets full of stuffed animal ponies. She recognized some were historical figures.

Celestia walked into her sister's room through the private passage that she'd slowly filled with her memories. She ensured the door closed silently, giving the monster and Trixie a clear route the other way.

"Troubles Luna? I thought the movie had sad moments, but wasn't worth tears," she said quietly to her sister as she lay on her bed.

"I think you know what troubles me, sister," Luna said as she raised her head from where it had rested on her forelegs. "I despise fools, and I find I have been a bigger one than any before me." She raised her head and looked at her sister. "When Discord changed us, you felt different?"

"Yes, and not just physically," Celesta admitted and blushed. "In my mind . . . no wonder he seems mad."

"Yes, did you want to - be with him, that way?" Luna asked tremulously.

Celestia sighed, "At times, during those 'trust exercises', especially when he depended on my very breath to survive underwater. The need was almost physical. But even the most velvet seduction would be little better then rape, as he was certain I held his life in my hooves. That realization was almost physically painful," Celestia said softly, then smiled and nuzzled Luna, "It did let me understand my sister a little better." She stepped up to the bed and sat down beside Luna, draping a wing over her. "How could someone not wish to appreciate the beauty I had created? Or how could someone not see the beauty I was, and my gentleness and love? It hurt. It hurt in ways I understood as a one of them, but have difficulty grasping now."

Luna nodded then dropped her head back to her forelegs. Celestia waited for her sister to speak. She sensed the pair entering her room. Trixie led him in, and checked the obvious places for guards or traps. She almost smiled as he checked out the huge bed, and found the mattress unacceptably soft. Of course he stripped the sheets and found the quilts they insist on placing there, she struggled not to laugh as he reduced the bed to the way she dearly wished she could: mattress, sheet, top sheet, a few blankets, and two pillows instead of the dozens that always cluttered it. As if her Highness was fragile and would break without egregious padding. I wonder what they would think if they knew that Luna and I slept on the open ground under the sky for years. Trixie had spared a glance at the bed, but resolutely set her bedding in front of the door to the main hall, to block his egress through that portal. I guess back to Ponyville is acceptable, Celestia thought, listening to Luna breathe quietly, while in her mind's eye she watched the scene unfold in her room, And the gentleman sees to the lady's comfort before his own, she thought as both she and Trixie watched him use the discarded quilts and pillows to give Trixie a soft, warm place on the floor. He did steal one of his own sheets. The Royal sheet makers will be scandalized to find that royal sheets are too rough for a monster's hide.

Cadence heard the arguing nobles despite the closed door, and slipped into the throne room.

"Princess Mi Amore Cadenza," the herald at the door announced. Part of the attention and derision directed at the figure on the throne was redirected at her, but she just laughed at the morose ponies, and especially the unicorn regent who looked to be having the most dreadful day of his life.

"Princess Mi Amore Cadenza requests permission to directly address his Illustrious Serenity, the Regent of Equestria, Shining Armor," Cadence said formally and bowed to cover her just barely avoided bursting out laughing at Shining Armor's put upon expression. She straightened up and approached the throne, the glares of all the nobles fazed her not a bit. She bowed to the regent, resplendent in Celestia's usual regalia, "I wish to report that the mission seemed to be a complete success."

"Wonderful," Shining Armor said dejectedly.

Cadence considered. "Celestia did make you regent, that means you have absolute power of life and death over everypony in Equestria."

There was a brief pause as Armor visibly brightened, then the sound of a stampede headed for the door. Cadence glanced around and realized only the guards, the usual staff, and two of the more reasonable nobles remained in the room.

"We know there's only one pony he'd be interested in using it on, and if he did, he couldn't give the job back to her," Eminent Sardonyx explained, "Now, back to question at hand, your Illustrious Serenity. All we need you to do, Regent Armor, is order one of us to make the division, and the other to select which piece they want. I'm afraid it'll take a royal order to make the idiots go along with the plan."

"Fine, pick a number between zero and ten," Armor said.



"Six it is," Armor said, "Sardonyx, consult with whoever you wish, except me, and draw your dividing line. Fructus Torus, you shall select the section your family wishes to possess. Thank you."

"Thank you, your Illustrious Serenity," Sardonyx said.

"Beep, your Regency," Torus said.

Armor watched them leave. He sighed. "The real answer is, if I started with one idiot, I would never finish," she said quietly, "Did they at least enjoy themselves?"

"Yes, I think Celestia also enjoyed that Discord was probably spinning in frustration that he didn't think of half the things the star of the cinema did," Cadence said as she approached up the stairs and stood beside him on the throne. "Looks different from up here doesn't it?"

"Like a gilded cage," Armor said, "Absolute power, and second guessing everything you do and say, either yourself or someone else."

"Well, is there an opening for your Captain of the Guard? I can shout orders and growl with the best of them," Cadence said trying to look fierce.

"It's keeping your cool in the face of absolute stupidity that you have to master," he replied, "You tend to giggle too much. That and standing in one place for eight hours without once thinking how much you need to go to the bathroom."

Cadence crossed her hind legs. "Oh, I think I'm underqualified," Cadence said suddenly.

"Back there, the green door."

"I couldn't," Cadence gasped.

"You should, just once," Armor assured her.

"Well," she walked through the curtain at the back of the platform, and in through the green door. She retreated a moment later. "I can't believe she'd have a bathroom decorated that way!"

"Why not?" Armor asked innocently, "If you cover it in gold leaf and have it done by a famous sculptor, isn't it art?"

"I will not have those in my bathrooms," Cadence said, and shook her head, "That's just creepy."

"To each his own. I thought they were there for target practice."

Cadence looked at her stoic fiance and his absolutely neutral expression. She broke first and giggled. "I can't see . . . no, I can, why do I have no trouble imagining Celestia flying around the room and . . . acting like an incontinent pigeon. She'd never really do that."

"Yes, but you can think about doing exactly that," Armor said, "A stallion would have other options."

"You didn't!" Cadence gasped.

"Of course not. But I certainly thought about it," he said quietly, "Oh how I thought about it."

Cadence leaned close and whispered. "I wonder if the nobles know."

"I think a few of them are aware, because the fixtures are occasionally changed out," Armor whispered back, "If she asks you to pose for a statue, consider if you've offended her recently or not."

Cadence burst out laughing.

The gentle knocking had drawn Sveti's attention as she'd slipped out of the 'griffon room' to get a drink.

The mint green unicorn at the front door looked very worried.

"Are you here to see Twilight?" Sveti asked, "She returned very late. Lyra wasn't it?"

The unicorn nodded. "I know, I thought Twilight would be best, but I think you're a better choice. Pack a bag for a few days. We need to go to Canterlot, in a hurry."

"Why?" Sveti asked as she let Lyra in and closed the door. The unicorn set her saddlebags by the door.

"A good animal behaviorist does certain things, like tagging her subject. He's in Canterlot, somehow, in the palace. How do you think the guards who've only heard stories are going to react to that?"

"Oh boy," Sveti said and rolled her eyes, "Do we fly, teleport or risk the doorway?"

"I had actually planned on taking the train. There's a doorway all the way to Canterlot?" Lyra asked.

"There are three," Sveti said, "But I don't think any of them are particularly safe. The train is probably a good idea. I'll go pack some things." Sveti rushed back to her room.

Luna sighed. "I discovered a nonmagical way to determine if charge carriers are positive or negative, I realized that the cello notes and the orbits of electrons are both ponthagorian intervals, I realized that using a dam's turbine instead of the reciprocating motion of our trains will vastly reduce the maintenance times, and I realized how and why he overreacted to what is to us such simple interactions. It was like having my mind open and naked to the universe. Wanting desperately to take it all in, or to hide from everyone and everything." Luna raised her head and looked at her sister snuggled against her. "Was it like that with you?"

"Yes," Celestia said softly, "And wanting to fight the others to have my sister's attention all to myself, or drive you away to be with one of the others without distraction. Sometimes both at the same time." Celestia laughed. "They accuse Twilight Sparkle of 'catasptrophizing' I could have jumped off a dozen slippery slopes, but the thoughts vanished as soon as they arrived. I wasn't sure if I'd become the goddess they paint me as, or if I'd gone mad. Or if there was a difference between the two conditions. Discord did us a great favor, letting us see the world through his eyes, the way the monster sees us and our world. I'm honestly surprised he hasn't gone mad. What?" Celestia reacted to Luna's expression and posture of alarm.

"Discord said, the Big Guy told him that he thinks this is an afterlife of punishment, that he died and this is what follows. And that all of us are also victims of our fears, keeping us here," Luna said.

Celestia smiled. "And you think the Big Guy wasn't just playing with Discord?"

"I think he's being honest with Discord, to gain his trust. I think he actually believes it. Or after all that's happened, he's come to believe it."

"That is disturbing," Celestia admitted and considered, a hoof on her chin. The thought of teasing her sister flitted through her mind, and left unacted on. "I think you should tell him, tell him all you told me. Let Discord translate. The chaos of the event and the distress it caused will probably force an accurate translation from him."

Luna looked shocked and covered her head with her hooves. "I can't."

Celestia nuzzled her again. "Yes, you can. He forgives, but you must be honest with him. If Discord is right, he probably thinks part of his job is to help us grow out of our 'damnation'. If you are open, honest, and in pain, he will try to help you."

It's the implication that if he is dead, then death has no importance that worries me, Celestia didn't say to her younger sister.

"I can't," Luna moaned.

"He's over in my room enjoying a nice nap. It would be perfect," Celestia told her increasingly stunned sister.

"He's sleeping in your bed?" Luna gasped.

"Well, I wasn't using it," Celestia responded. "You should just pop in for a moment while he's still awake, and let him know about things."

" 'Things'?" Luna asked and was trembling.

"Not those things, although that's your business," Celestia said thoughtfully, "You can try that shapechange again, that would help explain things."

"I couldn't," Luna said and cowered.

"Oh, my bed can handle it. And other things."

Luna stared at her. "You mean you've . . . "

"No, but I caught a few guards in there once," Celestia said and smiled, "They should finish counting the penguins in a few more years."

"That's cruel," Luna said with a snicker.

"They could have asked permission," Celestia considered then whispered, "And you have mine."

Luna paled to almost Cadence's color.

The train rumbled along towards Canterlot. The car was nearly empty and no one else was awake. Lyra concentrated as she tried to localize exactly where in the palace 'the monster' had located himself. Sveti sat quietly opposite her and watched. Her failure brought a sigh.

"There are plenty of shielded areas of the castle. Especially the living quarters," Sveti said, "After all, where most ponies have magic, and all ponies have secrets, there are places you don't want anypony to look into."

"It doesn't help that his interactions with their Highnesses have not gone well," Lyra said and grinned, "You could be a very good animal behaviorist."

"I'm a griffon studying ponies," Sveti said, "I already am."

"But this one is definitely not a pony," Lyra said, "I'm not quite ready to say definitely it is a human, since the few contraindication are very strong."

"Like what?" Sveti asked.

Lyra looked up from her spell casting. "It hasn't bonded with the pony most like it," Lyra said, "The old pony tales say that like attracts like. Trixie and Derpy Hooves are as unalike as you can get. So I'm left with, are the old pony tales just that, or is this not really a human. It also hasn't led a group of ponies on an adventure. Adventures either come to it."

"At him," Sveti corrected.

"Yes, or it, he stays at home, or adventures alone. Again, a strong contraindication, or the facts aren't passed down properly. Maybe young females are that way, and older males stay home and keep the house and raise the children." Lyra snorted in irritation. "I just wish I could ask. I understand how frustrated Pinkie Pie gets with him." She reached out a hoof. "The answer is right there, just out of reach. And straining will just push it farther away."

"Be patient. You haven't irritated him the way Pinkie and Sparkle have, and I don't think he's as frightened of you as he is the Princesses," Sveti said. "So, if I'm supposed to guard him, how do I do that without intruding."

"You just stay near without being as close as Trixie is, or Pinkie Pie tried to be. You also might want to practice your art where he can see. Maybe I could play a cadence and that will get him curious about both of us. His own curiosity is our best tool. By making him investigate us, it invites us to return the interest."

"Interesting," Sveti said and preened a wing to hide her grin.

Sleep had been avoiding him. He felt more exhausted than sleepy, and somehow that weariness kept the sleep that would relieve it at bay. That his mind raced endlessly in all directions about trivial worries wasn't helping. He was aware of Trixie watching him. She was nearly dead on her hooves but seemed unwilling to sleep if he wasn't. She's afraid I'll run away again, he considered.

The sight of Princess Luna entering the room drove any thought of sleep from his mind as he sat up. Trixie bowed and tried to burrow into her covers at the same time. The pony princess seemed alarmed at the panicked reaction of the two others. Her transforming from a mare to a beautiful, human female, one retaining horn, wings, and ethereally-blown hairstyle did nothing to reduce his adrenaline-fueled panic, and Trixie was staring open-mouthed at the figure.

"Someone is putting two and two together and coming up with three's a crowd," Discord said in his head.

She's talking, can you give me a translation, or a precis? he replied.

Luna had started speaking, but the words came faster and faster. Then a tear trickled down her cheek, then another.

Discord? he asked his 'head-guest'.

"Just hug her," Discord said quietly.

Excuse me? he asked.

"Just do it!" Discord shouted, "I'll explain later. Just trust me for once."

He looked at Trixie, who looked a bit like a beaten dog expecting another beating. He looked at Luna, whose words seemed to be tumbling out without rhyme or reason, and her tears had become a steady stream. He waved her towards him.

He was looking up at the ceiling, Luna still talking a mile-a-minute into his stomach, and he had the brief memory of barely avoiding a disemboweling with the horn on her forehead. The rest of Luna, legs, arms and wings were wrapped around him like a strangler fig around a tree.

I should be enjoying this, but her hysterical tone doesn't help, he thought.

"Hysterical might be apropos, in the original meaning," Discord provided.

Oh crap, he replied.

"No, relax," Discord told him, "It's more an apology and explanation that a declaration of war. I'll explain it, but I'm trying not to enjoy it too much right now."

That really doesn't help, he replied. He looked over at Trixie, and nodded towards Luna. The mare's eyes grew wide and she shook her head slightly. He glared at her and she slunk out of the safety of the bedding and over to the edge of the bed. She gave one last plaintive look, before carefully climbing onto the bed beside Luna. She stroked the princess's back and spoke softly. Luna quit speaking, and began to sob hopelessly instead. Then she returned to pony form. Her cries didn't diminish, but she quit shuddering with her sobs. Trixie looked a mix of apologetic and apoplectic, but continued offering comfort and reassuring tones to the princess.

He lay on his back ignoring Discord's occasional titter of laughter, followed by a door slamming and presumably, muffled guffaws, before the chaos spirit returned to listen further.

This is not shaping up to be a good day, he thought quietly.

Celestia noted the return of her sister, who lay down beside her and fell asleep immediately. She laid a wing over her and rested her head where she could watch her sister's dreaming face. It did her good, Celestia thought, Although I have no idea how even Discord could translate what she said at the end.

Luna snuggled against her, and made soft cooing sounds as she dreamed of better, simpler days.

She was drunk on being human? he asked as he lay staring up at the ceiling. Trixie had returned to her 'nest' and buried herself in the covers as soon as Luna had left.

"Intoxicated is a better word," Discord replied, "Look, ponies have no impulse control."

I've noticed that, he replied.

"They don't need it. If a pony seems random, it because they are a little more mentally active than the standard. But nopony will willingly walk up to the edge of a cliff they've looked over a dozen times, to look over it again just because. And nopony will even briefly consider jumping off that cliff, unless they can already fly. You would, and then you'd squash the impulse instantly. Ponies aren't like that. The randomest pony can't hold a candle to your brain. And if your memories are correct, you're considered steady and dependable. More Applejack than Twilight or Pinkie Pie."

Not that I think you're lying, but prove it, he replied.

"Okay, easy. When between the time Luna transformed into that beautiful female of your type, and her starting to speak, you had eight-hundred and twenty-three thoughts that went through your mind. Most were fully-formed plans of action. Leaving off those that involved sex, violence and escape, we're left with one-hundred seventeen. Taking a moment in that situation to actual consider where's the best Reuben sandwich in Canterlot is a bit random even for my tastes."

That's one, he replied.

"Okay, why the sudden interest in potassium permanganate and peroxide?"

Rocket fuel, he replied.

"I am not going to ask why the sudden interest in rocket fuel," Discord admitted, "You also considered the Equestrian Internal Revenue Service, whether her hair was powered by electrostatics or real 'aetheric winds', and the stress calculation on the horn growing out of a human skull. Enough examples?"

And that's huge difference between me and most ponies? he asked quizzically, So what was her problem? he asked.

"Luna isn't the randomest of ponies ordinarily, she's a bit more introspective, but she catastrophizes like Sparkle. If she didn't, she might have, well, asked someponies what they were doing sleeping through her 'beautiful night'. Their responses might have cured the problem. But she stayed with what she was 'supposed to do' and her doubts ate her alive."

Literally, he said, So a shapechanger didn't go 'down to the shop floor' and ask? Good grief!

"Are you seeing her problem? When she's human, it's like flying in a hurricane instead of walking. She's tough enough not to be terrified, but that makes it intoxicating. Thinking so many things at once."

Being Human, the ultimate acid trip for ponies, he said, Don't get any ideas.

"Oh, like making a plant that when eaten paralyzes your extremities and makes you think like a human for ten minutes. I'd never even consider such a thing. Should they be red, or blue?"

Good Lord, I've corrupted Discord, he replied, Make them black and white. Dull, like an old cartoon. Then they'll really stand out.

"I wish I could say the same," Discord said. "Speaking of weird thoughts, what is with you?" Discord asked disgustedly, "She comes in, beautiful, shapely, near totally human, wonderfully female, and so emotionally vulnerable and needy, and you play the eunuch uncle. 'There there my dear.' Why didn't you take the opportunity presented, no, thrust in your face? I watched. You discarded those impulses faster than the ones to jump out the window."

Why didn't you? he asked angrily, Twirl your moustache, no the other way, 'heh, Celestia my pretty, give yourself to me body and soul, and I'll leave your ponies alone.' 'Oh Discord, you are too cruel, but I will surrender myself to your foul despoilment if it spares my ponies.'

There was the sound of a bear trap snapping shut. "I'm no rapist, it's no fun that way," he heard Discord muttering as he stomped off.

Same here.

The maid entered and looked around quizzically. He noted that Trixie was not present. He looked to the Earth pony in the maid outfit, and emitted a stentorian belch. "Excuse me," he apologized to the wild-eyed mare. She stepped back out of the room, and closed the door. A moment later a dozen guards poured in and while some tackled him, others tried to drag him from the bed. The result was confusion, angrily shouted commands he was unable to interpret, and because of conflicting actions by the guards, unable to follow.

He weathered their panicked overreaction as best he could. As some pulled, some pushed and some just twisted whatever they got their hooves on. They settled on dragging him down the hall with his arms and legs at full extension and in joint locks.

That wasn't the smartest thing I could have done, he confided.

"You think?" Discord replied.

You're just jealous, he replied.

"Jealous? You just got beaten up and they're dragging you to the dungeons," Discord replied.

Yes, for eating Celestia or Luna, I'll bet, he replied.

"Oh course, that's what the maid shouted to the guards," Discord replied.

So, you had the power to do that, I only have a vague reputation and the maid thought it was the only explanation, and the guards instantly bought into it. Not that I was a bedwarmer that Celestia had exhausted and left while she was washing up, oh no. I overpowered and ate her. The idea that there was no blood or evidence of a struggle, and no evidence I have a belly full of 1000 pounds of horse meat, bones and feathers certainly adds to the story. It also doesn't say much about the judgment and logic of the Canterlot maids and guards, he thought.

"I think you're crazy," Discord replied.

You're entirely welcome to think like that, he mentally replied, I wonder if it's summary execution, or imprisonment and a trial. Can you imagine how Celestia would flip out if her ponies exterminated me for killing her?

"Aren't you worried about the 'killed' part?" Discord asked.

I'd be more worried about what leads up to the actually dying part, he thought, That could get really painful. I mean if they were going to kill me, they would have cut me open on Celestia's bed, not dragged me off to the dungeons. You know, there were instances where people didn't tip the headman, and he took a couple of strokes to chop off somebody's head. Can you imagine how painful that would be? I do wonder what happened to Trixie.

"I think you've completely lost it," Discord said.

No, this isn't dangerous, just ridiculous, he replied, So far.

Lyra exited the train and cantered down the nearly empty streets of Canterlot. Dawn was not even a hint on the horizon. Sveti flew easily behind her.

"We have to hurry," Lyra urged.

"Why, the rush. He's under the Princesses' personal protection," Sveti said, and reminded herself that this was not a friendly city for her.

"I don't look at what I want something to be," Lyra said, "I look at what is. And their Highnesses having had a good record dealing with him is not what is. Whatpony knows what could happen."

Sveti shrugged and followed the unicorn.

"I wasn't expecting this," Trixie said of the group in the red, hooded robes arrayed around her.

"No one expects the Stallion Inquisition!" the first hooded figure proclaimed, only to have the hood slip and cover his face, "Amongst our weaponry is -"

Trixie bucked all three figures. "Intelligence?" Trixie asked the unconscious Inquisitors and trotted back to the bedroom. "Canterlot Castle," she realized, "Has to be. Nowhere else in all Equestria has enough stupid ponies who'd steal a routine from 'Mountgomery the Oracle of Delphilly' and treat it seriously."

She paused as she saw the massive increase in the guard force and a number of detectives in and around the entrance to where they'd been sleeping. There was one guard and he was asleep. What happened? Trixie wondered and carefully wandered away from the scene, I know exactly where to get some information. She headed for a maid's cupboard she'd passed earlier.

"Regent! Regent!" the panicked functionary raced into the throne room, along with dozens of nobles. "We've captured a monster! He broke into Celestia's royal chambers!"

"Celestia must have been feeling down. The last assassin she captured, wound up as a footstool."

"No, sire, the monster subdued and consumed the Solar Diarch!" the functionary exclaimed. Behind him, the nobles began muttering in fear.

"Has Princess Luna been located?" Shining Armor asked, finding the entire story a little hard to believe.

"No, sir, but our first job was to alert you," the functionary exclaimed.

"Guard, find Princess Luna and alert her about this," Shining Armor told the soldier who'd arrived with the nobles, who stared back in fear. "Yes, private, now!"

"Sir," the guard saluted and dashed off

"Take me to see this monster," Shining ordered, but none of the guards moved.

"Shining," Cadence said quietly, "Even if it isn't true, you are the standing ruler of Equestria. They will not let you go into that kind of danger."

Armor glanced at the tiara on his head and nearly threw it across the room. "I want the condition of Princess Luna verified, I want the officer in charge of this creature's detention brought to me. And I want a good diagram or drawing of the creature in my hooves in ten minutes, or their will be dire consequences. Not as regent, BUT AS THE COMMANDING OFFICER OF THE SOLDIERS WHO LET DOWN THE RULER!" He found himself again nearly alone with the guards, a few staff and Cadence. "Hmm, the nobles think there's a draft. Interesting." He turned to Cadence. "Aren't you afraid of me?" he asked teasingly.

"Someone has to guard the Regent," Cadence said fiercely and saluted, then beeped him. "I seriously doubt that anything could have snuck up on my aunt and eaten her. Not without her leveling the building first. Relax, you didn't fail her."

Armor nodded. "I agree she wasn't eaten, but the nobles are going to be stirred up for weeks over this. And she'll have to live through that. That will be definitely be my fault."

Lyra cantered through the halls, the general chaos looked like Discord had escaped, and so blending in to the panicking crowds was easy. Sveti had put on a sash and a few accouterments from her luggage, explaining that she was now part of the griffon security service and therefore had diplomatic access to certain places.

"Then what am I?" Lyra asked as she let her tracking spell lead her toward the monster.

"Hired mercenary guard," Sveti said.

Lyra nearly laughed at that. Then she stopped and triangulated the locator spell's results. "Bad news, he's in the dungeons. The deep ones. I don't think even you can bluff your way past that."

"Fortunately, I won't have to bluff," the sergeant behind them announced.

Lyra whirled and then grinned. "Milestone, you old crazy," she said and hugged the stallion. "I wish we'd had time to have some tea in Ponyville."

"I'm afraid I have to draft both of you. Lyra, 'Svetlana', you both are a deft hand with a sketch pad, and I've got seven minutes to get a sketch in the regent's hooves."

"Regent?" Lyra asked as she galloped alongside the stallion.

"Their Highnesses wanted to be 'off' for the cinema, so they picked a unicorn to look after things. I think he'll gladly abdicate when the sisters are located."

"Regent of Equestria?" Sveti asked, "What poor sucker got stuck with that job?"

The collection of functionaries stood in a cloud before the door to Luna's quarters. As Trixie adjusted her purloined uniform and carefully swept her way towards the door, she heard brief bits of conversation. He didn't eat Celestia, she considered the murmurs, And these idiots are more worried about telling Luna than they are of the monster who ate their ruler. Whom does that speak worse of, Luna or the palace functionaries?

She pushed the broom along the baseboard, and these high-class ponies who wouldn't have looked at 'The Great and Powerful Trixie' twice, or let her through the press, parted to avoid close contact with a janitor. Trixie reached the door, pulled it open and to everyponies' shock, went inside.

Princess Celestia was on Princess Luna's bed comforting her younger sister. Both Diarchs raised their heads at Trixie's approach. Celestia recognized her in the maid outfit and began to smile.

Trixie cut off her greeting. "Highness, I deeply appreciate the loan of the bed for a night," Trixie said as she bowed, "But I think you'd better see some people before they execute the Big Guy for having eaten you alive in your own quarters."


The stunned expression on both sisters' faces almost made it all worth it.

I wonder if those ponies understand what they've done, he thought as he hung from the four ropes tied tight to the rings set deep into the walls. Two on his wrists, two on his ankles and all in serious tension.

"I think they know they tied you up," Discord replied, "Although with a pony on each rope, I was half expecting them to draw and quarter you."

They still may, he thought and considered the metal 'hockey mask' they'd hastily cobbled together and strapped to his face, after they took all his other clothing. I was thinking more about what they actually achieved. This is a form of execution, one so painful and humiliating that they had to come up with a new word for it: excruciating.

"Do you have to discuss such maudlin things?" Discord asked, "I get that being hung by your wrists, with your arms at full stretch is pretty close to crucifixion. I think they did it, just like the mask, to keep you from eating one of them. And can we change the subject? You're getting extremely weird."

Sorry, I get distracted and mine mind wanders. I'll just clear my mind, he said,

"Thank you."


"Back! Back! BACK!" Discord shouted, cracking a whip. "Okay, let's stick with creepy maunderings and keep you nice and distracted."

Glad to. This is an excellent opportunity. There's a great disagreement whether a person dies of suffocation or dehydration. You see when they broke the legs it sped the death, so people assumed the legs supported the victim, allowing them to breathe. But some say you can breathe easily in this posture, and the broken legs sped death by fat embolism, and wound trauma. Here, I have tension pulling my legs down, so the weight factor is magnified. Not only can I get no support from my legs, they are pulling me down.

"Fascinating," Discord said, "Are you missing the whole 'execution ends in dying' part of this. And don't tell me that because you're in Hell, you will come back. I don't think you want to go out this way."

Certainly not. But this way usually took hours to days to kill. It was perfect to give everyone in a vicinity to go and see the suffering and death. I figure they'll have this all straightened out in a couple hours tops. Enough to give a good scare, but not enough to kill, he thought, And I would rather go another way. Much too painful. Okay, you want to change the subject?

"Absolutely," Discord replied.

What's with you and Celestia? he asked.

There was a long pause. "Can we change the subject back?" Discord asked.

Not as distracting, he told the Chaos Spirit in his head.

"You know, just for this, I'm getting you some powers," Discord said.

If that's a threat, it doesn't come across as a very good one, he replied, And it isn't a good distraction. I already have powers. How else would I be in this mess? You yourself said they think I ate Celestia. Speaking of Celestia, do you just like her or more intense feelings?

Discord growled. "You remember the humanoid who was playing chase that first day? That's what she looks like to me. There happy? I admit it."

I seriously doubt it's just on appearances, he replied, She and you are designed along a completely different aesthetic.

"All right, it isn't just that. Like you, she tried to actually convince me. Like you are, that there was a better way. But order like she wanted isn't just, yeech, boring, it's physically and existentially painful. But neither one of us considered chaos the way you described it. Even her high and mightiness couldn't exist in the world she was trying to . . . you tricked me again."

Like I said, there are good and bad tricks, and good and bad chaos. With 'good' and 'bad' being arbitrary points in a continuum, he replied.

"Like Sveti and Lyra suddenly bursting into the room, with sketch pads? Where's that in your chaos continuum?" Discord said of the sudden addition to the room, "Have you been messing with them too?"

I doubt it, he replied.

"Hi ladies," he called and tried to wave, "Hi sergeant, long time no see. Fun's fun, but I think this is stretching things a bit, don't you?"

"They can't understand you," Discord reminded him.

They can't see my face either, just the rest of me that is normally covered with clothes. I hope they recognize my tone of voice, he replied, And that I'm trying to communicate.

"Then why are they frantically sketching you, instead of cutting you loose?" Discord asked.

You're the one who is the expert on insanity, here it is, he told Discord, Either explain it, or enjoy it. I'm going to go back to speculating on strange words. You know, words themselves are a funny thing. English borrowed words from everywhere, so they have letters with so many different pronunciations. Gee aych oh tee eye, you know how that is pronounced?

"Ghoti?" Discord asked, seemingly only half-listening, concentrating on the low murmurs among the three Equestrians.

I'll stop if they're saying something important, he offered.

"It seems the current ruler wants a sketch," Discord said quietly, "And your friends think a good enough sketch will set you free."

I'm all for that, he said, And there goes the griffon. Godspeed. God this hurts.

"Yes I think Celestia is beautiful!" Discord shouted.

Is it breaking loose? he asked.

"I prefer you distracted," Discord admitted.

Good job. So what makes her prettier than other ponies. Slim lines, height, mane and tail? What?

"What did you find so attractive?" Discord replied.

Breasts, long legs, long hair, voluptuous figure and a cheerful, playful demeanor, he replied, Your turn.

"Aren't you supposed to stammer and be embarrassed?" Discord asked.

I'm hanging naked in front of a bunch of horses, one who was so excited on our first meeting that jumping out a second story window was the restrained reaction. Besides, anything you wanted to know you could go look for. And you already knew my standards for beauty, or you wouldn't have made the altered Luna, Trixie and Celestia look the way they did.

"Ah," Discord admitted, "What's happening, those two suddenly became gray. The whole room became gray."

Either blood loss or oxygen depletion. The color vision goes before blindness and unconsciousness. What it really means is I'm in worse shape than I was guessing I was.

"Bad?" Discord asked.

Could be. I don't know what's wrong, he replied, Or if it's just fatigue. Could be I'm need something or I have too much, there's lots of possibilities.

"Let's discuss them shall we?" Discord offered.

Anything to prevent you admitting Celestia is cute? he asked.

"She's not cute!" Discord said. The silence of his chagrin was quite audible.

'Not cute' leaves only two polar opposites, he explained.

"Remind me to cast a 'want it, need it' spell on you and throw you into a hall full of Canterlot's finest," Discord growled.

If they don't string me up, he thought, It'll be an improvement. Hey, how about a song.

"I'm not sure this is the right - "

"Nonsense, the ponies are always singing," he said aloud, startling those in the room, "I think it would be wonderful if in fifty years people get Convoy and Rocket Man conflated so they think they're in the same genre: the aloneliness of the long-haul hauler, wouldn't that be nice?"

"I think you're scaring the ponies," Discord said.

"She packed my bags last night, pre-flight. Zero hour, nine A.M. And I'm gonna be high as a kite by then."

"Random's normally good, but less is more right now," Discord told him.

"I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife. It's lonely out in space, on such a timeless flight.

And I think it's gonna be a long, long time 'til touch down brings me round again to find I'm not the man they think I am at home. Oh no, no, no, I'm a rocket man. Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone."

"Okay the color is back, but it's completely different and there's halos around everything," Discord observed, "I get the feeling that's not an improvement."

"And I think it's gonna be a long, long time 'til touch down brings me round again to find I'm not the man they think I am at home Oh no, no, no, I'm a rocket man. Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone."

"You're really scaring the ponies," Discord warned.

I finally understand why she sends Sparkle off on all those missions, Trixie thought as she dashed ahead through the corridors of Canterlot, then stopped to wait for the Princess. If she had to wait for all the bowing and scraping to end after she giving instructions, no one would be saved from the monsters. All we needed was a set of flipping directions. She glanced back to see if Her Celestial Highness had disentangled herself from the most recent set of nobles and functionaries who couldn't reconcile the princess standing there, and the rumors she'd been eaten by a monster. If I never come back to this castle, it'll be too soon, Trixie thought as she headed in the direction that last batch of soldiers had directed.

She had to wait at the next checkpoint, until Celestia caught up. Then the fawning over her began anew. Trixie took the opportunity to go through and race to the next point. Finally the cellblocks, she thought, These places don't look like they've been used for years. I wonder if the rumor she turns the incorrigibles to stone is accurate. If that's the case, Nightmare should have had a whole army to summon.

"Sorry," the Princess whispered to Trixie, once the fear, trembling and jumping up and down with joy among the guard force had ended. "Let us in," Celestia commanded.

"Highness, it's not safe," the soldier said, a mix of fear and respect.

The air was already dank, and the fear smell of many ponies was not helping.

"I must insist," Celestia said patiently, "Now."

The soldiers looked at each other, and reluctantly opened the gates to permit their sovereign access.

"Wouldn't a teleport be a better idea?" Trixie asked as they entered the cell block proper.

"It's well shielded," Celestia explained. "We could wind up inside the walls."

"Good reason," Trixie agreed.

They arrived quickly enough, and the sound was noticeable.

"They're torturing him," Celestia said in anguished tones.

Svetlana ignored the masses of ponies beneath her as she soared outside the walls of the palace. She spotted a walkway just outside the throne room and landed. The guards converged.

"Sketch for the Regent!" she shouted to them and brandished the drawings, so instead of arrest, she was hustled into Shining Armor's presence.

"You?" he asked quizzically.

"He's the Ponyville monster. His face was covered but the shading on the skin of his arms and the scars on his hands is the same," she told him as she passed the sketches to the officer who ran them up the stairs to Shining Armor and Cadence. "I'd suggest expediting his release."

"Do it," Armor ordered the guards. "Where's Luna?"

"Here," the Lunar Diarch said, as she slammed the door behind her to prevent the jubilant hosts following her from entering the already crowded room. "Celestia was with me. One day off and this happens?"

"You have my sincerest apologies and my immediate resignation," Armor said.

"No, you get to deal with them, Celestia and I will deal with the crisis," Luna said, then grinned, "Enjoy. Oh, you have a week's leave with full pay after your term ends. Ponyville sounds quiet about now."

"Yes, Highness," Armor said, "I may just stay there." He watched as Luna flung open the door and soared over the crowd that tried to surge in. "Both Diarchs have been located and are well. They are dealing with the current crisis personally. We should allow them to do their work unimpeded," he announced loudly to the nervous masses. He did the best service he could think of, as the influx of panicked functionaries was ebbing, allowing the chance that some would get out. He signaled the doors be closed and locked. "I assure you that you are all safe here with me." He raised his shield to prevent any of them from escaping to get under the Diarchs' hooves while those two actually solved the problem.

"Cut him down," Celestia ordered.

"No, Highness," Lyra shouted in alarm, then bowed, "Lowering him carefully will be better."

"When did you learn veterinary medicine?" Milestone asked.

"Talking with Fluttershy," Lyra admitted, "Highness we should get him on his feet, then Trixie and I can support his arms and let him settle. While a pony might not be harmed by an hour being strung like that, he's half our weight and half-again our size. The square-cube law definitely applies."

"Very well," Celestia's horn glowed and the knots untied themselves, but the ropes slackened then set him on his feet. The glow of Lyra's and Trixie's magic surrounded his arms as the ropes fell slack. The two let him drop to his knees as they lowered him, letting him rest his weigh on their support. He continued to collapse until he looked like he was prostrating himself before Celestia.

The Princess looked very uncomfortable at the display, and his ragged breathing. Once his arms touched the ground, he tied to fold them down. Instead he emitted a gut-wrenching cry of pain. Followed by some intense babbling than was clearly not hostile, and wasn't quite pleading. Celestia shied back slightly at the sight.

"Get the Royal Veterinarian in here, contact the griffon doctors, and the specialist who helped with Spike's raising. Don't delegate, do it yourself, and get then down here now," she told the guard commander. The mare nodded and galloped off. "Is it safe to move him?"

Lyra touched the side of his throat with a foreleg and concentrated. "Very iffy," she admitted, "Maybe Fluttershy or Zecora?"

"Trixie, you know the way," Celestia said.

"Teleportation would be quicker," Luna said as she stuck her head around the corner of the doorframe. Celestia looked back, then up.

"Too many ponies on the floor, and not many on the ceilings," Luna explained as she hung upside down, looking more like SpiderMare than a Princess. "Trixie, come with me." She levitated the mare and disappeared down the corridor galloping on the ceiling.

"Make him comfortable," Celestia said, she took a step forward, then shied back again. Her uncertainty over the situation playing on her face.

"You did nothing wrong." Celestia had never expected to hear those words directed at her, let alone by her sister.

Celestia hung her head. She was again in Luna's room, her own bed was the monster's resting place and she left the experts to work. "Then why with certain ponies do my best efforts turn in my hooves. A simple night's sleep." She spread her wings. "Under the benevolent aegis of the Pony Sisters." She furled them. "And this happens. Would we have been better off rubbing him with honey and garlic and throwing him into the middle of the Everfree Forest?"

"Perhaps you should take Discord's approach," Luna said.

Celestia saw Luna's smile before she raised an eyebrow to encourage her to continue.

"Stop helping. Let the currents take him where they will. The Everfree is a good example. He's capable of, even used to living in a much less controlled and protected environment. But that same control and protection has to be understood, or he runs into walls. The only time he really resented the other ponies' presence was when they were inside his house. That crazy comment from Discord shows that he needs a place to be himself, and then he can come out and play the off-kilter pony for the rest of us."

"Are you saying he doesn't need help?" Celestia asked, "He thinks Equestria is a punishment."

"Have we done well to prove that wrong?" Luna asked archly. "I threaten the one thing he desperately needs, your simple plans fly to pieces, and the few ponies who have been most welcome are the ones we all pass by, while we treat him as 'The Great Work.'"

Celestia chuckled at Luna's pompous tone. "Very well, what do we do?"

"Delegate. We let our best expert on the subject solve the problem for us," Luna said.

"Lyra?" Celestia asked.

"No, the Big Guy. He does understand he's a problem, and is already working to solve it. If he doesn't like something, he's shown himself quite capable of expressing his displeasure and resistance," Luna commented and mimed driving her hoof onto Celestia's horn.

Celestia winced at the memory of him driving his palm down on her horn, and glaring at her while his blood ran down her face. "Nightmare proved that as well," Celestia agreed.

Luna grinned. "I think Fluttershy guessed it, his task in life was solving problems. Most of the problems have been monsters, but now he's got another one. Now he knows he is one, we should let his expertise deal with it."

"Agreed." Celestia steeled herself. "Now I have to go and 'be disappointed in' the maid and the officer who caused all of this."

"Wouldn't it be more merciful to just shoot them?" Luna asked and shuddered.

"Pinkie hasn't built the party cannon big enough for them to load inside," Celestia said.

Cadence walked through the hallway towards Celestia's quarters. Shining Armor was waiting until Celestia 'had a talk' with the ponies who started this. When last seen he was practicing his icy stare. I finally understand why that mirror is polished steel instead of silvered glass, she thought as she saw Rarity trying to calm two Ponyvillians who were nervously pacing in interlocked figure-eights around several baskets of coat, mane and tail care products.

"Hello Rarity," she called out, and beeped the nervous fashionista. She was glad Rarity could unwind and beep her in return.

"Your Highness, I am so glad we could be of assistance. Although I admit, I never thought my talents would be put into practice this way."

"Trixie noticed it, and Lyra figured out the specifics. It makes sense that a creature without a coat would want soft, smooth bedding. I imagine that what we consider acceptable would seem like burlap would to us," Cadence said and looked at the nervous ponies, "I apologize, I haven't made your acquaintance. I'm Cadence."

"Aloe," said the light blue with a rose mane.

"Lotus," said the rose with the light blue mane.

"They helped, well, make the ponies softer," Rarity offered.

"Softer?" Cadence asked.

"Yes. Derpy and Trixie pointed out, and Fluttershy and Lyra agreed, that while he might not want people traipsing through his home, he always enjoyed having a group of ponies to look out for him in another venue. Typically when recovering in a hospital. I added that if he was so sensitive to the roughness of the fabric, he might appreciate a softness of the ponies. I also think the scent of the sheets, jasmine and rose would help calm him. Scent can be a very powerful memory trigger."

"It's good to know, and I'm sure much appreciated that he has such friends looking out for him," Cadence said, "What was the cause of his troubles this time?"

"Dislocated knees. He was fine when they were being pulled on," Rarity said, "But when he put weigh back on them, they must have hurt terribly."

Cadence grimaced. "Well, are you staying the night? I'm sure you'd be happier in quarters, rather than pacing the halls."

"Thank you," Lotus said.

"But we might be needed," Aloe added.

Rarity grinned and shrugged.

Cadence nodded her understanding and turned to head to her own quarters. Still one person to talk to.

"I need to check something," she said as she sat down beside the door and concentrated. She was overjoyed to see most of the relationships in the web of feelings around the Big Guy were strong. Trixie even allowing Lyra the position of bolster/pillow while she concentrated on a few low-powered healing spells on the wounded legs. The relationship she'd been most worried about seemed strong, if strangely convoluted.

"Hello," Cadence called in the oddly empty mental architecture. It looked like the inside of a normal pony house: rugs on the floors, plenty of windows, pictures and cabinets hung from the walls, even a set of stairs leading to the upper floors. The problem was, there were no walls, no floor and no ceiling, but everything acted as if there were. She walked over to the windows and one looked out at a very pleasant meadow. The one right next to it looked out at the sea amid a terrible storm. The windows on the opposite wall looked out on what she guessed was the moon, and the sun. The glass was rather warm on that side.

Discord walked out wearing matched slippers, which were jarring on his mismatched feet, a smoking jacket that was still smoking, and a beret hanging from one horn. Behind him was a table that used it's multiple legs to walk. On it was a very elegant tea service. "Hello, welcome to my home away from home. The neighbors are scary, but once I made friends with the artillerymen, they don't give me much trouble."

The table walked up beside her and the teapot and cup did a dance that wound up with tea in a cup.

"I'm stealing from Yen Sid, sue me . . . strike that," Discord said. "What did I do to invoke your attention?"

"I wanted to see how you were doing," Cadence said, and sipped the tea, it was strong but sweet.

"Oh, he terrifies and intrigues me in turns. How much of what I told Luna filtered down?" Discord asked. He added a bit more sugar to the tea. A pink mushroom cloud exploded over it. Then he sipped it and made a face. He put that face over his own, fortunately it was smiling.

"That he needs some privacy, and thinks he was damned here," Cadence said. "I'm not sure if that's a persecution complex, or just crazy. But after what happened today, I can't say he's absolutely wrong."

"Well, today taught me why someponies don't adore chaos," Discord admitted, "And highlighted why he was harping on 'life-affirming' chaos. It's tedious, but terrifying." Discord considered. "How is Celestia taking the incident?"

"Blaming herself," Cadence said.

Discord snorted disgustedly. "Some people are beyond her control," he said flatly, "She needs to learn that."

"I think she is," Cadence said, then grinned, "Should I tell her you asked?"

Discord blushed, then seemed to gather himself. "If you think she needs to hear it."

Cadence raised an eyebrow at that, but continued, "Any advice for Luna, she's taking it rather hard as well."

"Yes, drag that bed out of the Pony Sister's castle and put it in his house. It doesn't get any simpler than that. Half the guards saw him naked, and figured out he's of interest to all the alicorns. So no surprise there." Discord considered. "Can you do me, and Celestia, and Big Guy a favor?"

"I'm certainly willing to hear it," Cadence replied.

"Just to really quash any rumors about exactly what was going on in Celestia's bed while he was sleeping in it alone. He did eat Celestia. At her request, and she cut her way out with her horn. Combat training."

Cadence tried to just snicker, then guffawed. "Oh, that is infinitely worse that some of the rumors kicking about. And I think I can get Shining Armor to officially deny it. That'll give it even more weight. But how do you explain no damage, and no blood?"

"They cleaned it up," Discord said. "He was just resting after the events and she was showering up, or bathing, whichever. He went along with the guards because he thought it was another test. You know, master of escape and unpony-magic, slayer of Tyrants. Celestia just wanted to be sure if she ever went 'Nightmare' somepony could stop her."

Cadence was still snickering. "I think I will drop that information in a few appropriate ears. Better than that the alicorn sisters are in season. You can imagine what the nobles are terrified of if Celestia has more offspring."

"Puts them further down the power ladder. Not that any of them would ever get more than a sniff of the throne. You, Luna, and a half-dozen others have better claims, and worse, you could work it out without a full-fledged war. The nobles would fight each other for a dozen years. You've got all the factions you need for a very messy, very ugly civil war. The Three Kingdoms period has nothing on the factions now," Discord said, "If I'd really been on my game in my 'evil' phase, I would have eliminated the Windingos and let the ponies keep going the way they were going."

"I'm glad you didn't." Cadence considered. "Where are the old kingdoms any way?"

"Out of easy reach," Discord said, "You have enough things to worry about."

Cadence nodded. "Is he going to get better?"

"I will do my best. A few days with no excitement may not do me any good, but they might do him some good. As well as a few ponies who might miss him when he's gone."

"I thought he thought he wouldn't stay dead," Cadence said.

"He still might not come back here," Discord pointed out. "That's my leverage."

"Good luck," Cadence said, and meant it.

Cadence shook her head as she returned to herself. My link with Discord is a little worrying, she thought, He seems to have changed from what my aunts described, but how much is real, and how much is him playing games with me? she wondered as she nodded to Rarity, Lotus and Aloe and continued to her quarters.

Celestia stood with the maid and the guard lieutenant who'd instigated the incident. Shining Armor stood impassively in the corner, letting her begin the work. She'd decided she needed to make an example of the two of them.

She bowed her head low, almost to the floor. "Again, I'm very sorry for having put you both through such a traumatic experience, by just going off for a single night to see a movie. If I'd know this would happen, I would never have considered such a reckless and selfish course of action," she said in a truly apologetic tone.

The maid mare looked like she'd have to be put on suicide watch, and the soldier stallion looked like even if Shining Armor recommended a firing squad it would be better. To Celestia, it was proof they were worth saving.

"I am glad to tell you that my guest also forgives you this little misunderstanding," she said sadly and dug her hoof into the carpet nervously, "He's wonderfully tolerant, but is very disappointed in my promise that he would be safe under my own wings as it were, after all the trials and troubles he so nobly strove against. Imagine facing all of Equestria's greatest foes alone and unafraid, then being dragged from your bed in Canterlot Castle of all places. But he took it in stride." She shook her head. "What a sad life he must have lead to accept a such failing by a friend and not hold it against her." She raised her head and looked at the two who stood there miserable and nodding. "He actually thought it was funny, that he'd attack me in my own quarters, and that my subjects would actually think he could win." She shook her head. "What a lack of trust and friendship he must be used to. And I was hoping to show him Equestria was different." She sighed despondently. She looked up. "I am sorry, I shouldn't burden you with my problems. I sincerely apologize."

The two just nodded miserably.

"I shouldn't take up any more of your time," she said and nodded to both of them. The stallion was openly crying and the mare looked like she was ready for the world to end.

Shining Armor knew applauding would have undermined everything the Princess was trying to accomplish. She'd also looked so disconsolate as the walked out trying to 'act brave'. I thought I could do the 'you've disappointed me' to break even a veteran soldier. That act of hers would draw tears from a stone, he thought as returned his attention to the two victims of the performance. And it is a vast improvement over just screaming at them like a mad thing. It also quickly sorts out those you want to keep from those you ought to throw away.

"Ma'am, report to the chief steward," he said, and the maid let out an anguished wail before running from the room.

That idiot will just scream at her, she'll cry, and then her friends will all cluster around her, Armor thought, This one is mine to finish. He noted the tears streaming down the stallion's face from essentially being told her Solar Highness couldn't take a day off, or invite a friend to her quarters because of him and her.

"Corporal, I have just a few questions," Armor asked in a controlled tone. The former lieutenant didn't bat an eye at his sudden demotion.

"Sir." The stallion saluted, but couldn't get his tear ducts to obey.

"Are you aware that you violated long-standing orders that upon discovering anything unusual in their Highnesses quarters, the officer of the day is to be informed?"

"Sir, yes, sir."

"Perhaps I should have made the order more clear. Posting it outside the day room in hoof-high letters was perhaps insufficient? Or is it that you assumed your soldiers would follow the rules so you didn't have to delegate? That's the way a corporal acts, leaving the sergeant and the officers to do the thinking. A lieutenant is paid to think. While a sergeant is there to point out where that thinking has led in the past." Armor faced the defrocked lieutenant. "How were you thinking? Like a lieutenant, a sergeant, or a corporal."

"Sir, corporal, sir."

"Now if something that could have taken on the Solar Diarch had been in there, what would have happened to your squad? Would any of them have survived long enough to warn the rest of us?" Armor asked reasonably.

"Sir, no, sir," the despondent corporal said.

"You're learning. When you learn to stand back and think for a moment, then you can try to be an officer. Now, go move your gear from the bachelor officer quarters, to the noncom barracks."

"Sir, yes, sir." The stallion saluted and dashed away.

At least he gets to be punished, Armor thought, I have the most disastrous regency in recorded history, and it was only for one day. I think I will go to Ponyville. Maybe Twilie needs another assistant. Maybe something in the Everfree will eat me.

Rocket Man
Songwriters: Elton John, Bernie Taupin

11) For Services Rendered

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Cultural Artifacts - For Services Rendered

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 22

I'd really like to know why I'm always waking up in hospital amid a pony pile, he thought as he heard the quiet conversations and felt the soft fur on most pieces of his exposed skin.

"They know you need to feel safe," Discord provided, "Mares tend to take the initiative in defending their families. Besides, they think you make funny noises when you sleep happy. Big scary monster plays the cuddle bug and makes sounds like a happy puppy. They love it."

He kept his grumbling low so neither the ponies, nor Discord heard it.

As soon as he moved he was surrounded by happy voices with noses and hooves touching him. He ignored Discord's laughter at his slight discomfort at this devotion.

Discord looked down at the piece of mental debris and kicked it across the room. It didn't make an amusing sound, it didn't start bouncing around like a superball, it flew a distance until it hit the ground and then rolled a little ways farther. He glared at it and it vanished. He stalked around the area. It wasn't rotating through all three axes because he didn't want it to. It wasn't full accordion snakes, because he didn't want it to be. It wasn't full of government bureaucrats being strangled by red tape by gleeful taxpayers, because he didn't want it to be.

"I should be enjoying this!" he shouted. "His mind is slowly disintegrating, the pressures of the place have finally cracked his shell and he's going slowly mad," Discord shouted happily.

"BUT I DIDN'T DO IT!" he wailed disconsolately.

After several minute of crying, followed by monkeys shoveling all the corn flakes into baskets, Discord sat in his favorite chair. It was the first, unsolicited gift anyone had ever given to him. He'd extorted things from ponies, griffons, dragons, and others. Even Celestia had asked first. "But no one ever just gave me anything," he said of the chair, then looked around the environs. "He even gave me a private place in his head, so I could be alone if I needed to me. The one thing he treasures, that is denied him, and he makes sure I have a place I can be alone if I need to be." He looked around.

"But I don't want to be," he shouted, and a second Discord appeared.

"You're just jealous that Celly has pushed him over the edge, and by trying to help," Discord II said.

Discord snapped his fingers and was alone. He snapped them again and faced a crystalline being, perfect in plane and radial symmetry. "Oh, hello Tom," Discord said, "Or are you going to go 'Me Bizzaro Discord'?"

"I fail to see how that would benefit you or your cordial host," Tom said. "The problem is twofold. First, professional, you were bested, by an amateur who wasn't trying. Second, you don't really want him to go insane. A small amount of crazy was good. Completely off the rails is bad, and it interferes with your shtick."

Discord raised his hand.

"I can only tell you the truth," Tom said.

Discord dropped his hand, reached down to pick it up and considered. "So, I have to save him. That's almost not possible. It'll void my warranty. I'll have to tear up my Villains Unanimous membership card!"

"No, you aren't saving him," Tom said calmly, "You are making sure that he provides a small but steady stream of chaos that is palatable to the ponies, and therefore sneaks in under their radar."

"You realize the readers are already complaining there's no radar here in Ponyland," Discord said.

"To quote General Pierre Cambronne: 'Merde'," Tom said, "He knows it, therefore we know it. You are assuring maximum absorption of chaos by the ponies. Nothing more."

"Not telling me, I might miss my widdle fwiend?" Discord heckled.

"No, sir. Just the clear and practical reasons," Tom said, "You can save your friend. You can save an entertaining source of chaos. Or you can allow a golden opportunity to slip through your fingers."

Discord set his legs to pacing while the rest of him remained in the chair. "All right," he said, and snapped his fingers. A book labeled 'Culture Shock' and another labeled 'PTSD' appeared. Before they floated over to Discord, Tom intercepted them.

"Perhaps you should let me do the reading, and planning. You should concentrate on something not in these books."

"What?" Discord asked.

"An equalizer, and more importantly, a way for you to touch the outside world," Tom said, "And you'll have to spin quite a tale to get him to go along with it, even addled and off-kilter as he is."

"True," Discord tapped his fingers together, sounding like a xylophone. "So very true."

"Don't forget, we are also trapped inside here with him. That door will hold against most threats, but if his madness creates constructs, they will be as real to us as real objects are outside."

"I already considered that. Which is why I knitted a tank, and asked the artillerymen for help," Discord said, "Never thought I'd owe my safety to being able to make baseball plates. Baseball cups and saucers yes." Discord stared at Tom.

"Out of steel wool, I already guessed. I suggest you forge the outer plating with an MCHammer. That will deflect the attacks away," Tom said, "I'm more personally worried about that Rupert Antilles fellow, I doubt I'd merit the Greater Antilles."

"It would drive a wedge in their family." Discord tried to look cute, "He wouldn't hurt me, would he?"

"There is the off-chance he might not be able to tell, or he might not be able to control those aspects of himself," Tom said.

"So it's self preservation, that's the best reason yet," Discord said. He looked at the crystal. "What do you get out of this?"

"He wants to be a good officer," Tom said, "A good officer needs a batman, and a good Batman needs an Alfred."

There was the sound of a set of tubular bells being kicked down a flight of stairs.

The throne room was everything he'd expected. Should I be terrified or overjoyed, or both, he thought as he sat in a chair at the far end of the throne room while Princess Celestia sat on her throne discussing events.

Three lines, he considered the defensive layers, So who is being protected from whom? I wouldn't last ten seconds against her. So is it the crowd who are 'the other'? Or is it all theater?

The doctors had made it clear he wasn't well-healed enough to walk any distance. So Trixie had proudly played steed to bring him to the throne room. Got to hand it to her, she managed to turn a servile action into pride-worthy privilege. She sat on his right, with Lyra on his left. The temptation to scratch them behind their ears was almost too much to take. But reducing them to moaning puddles in the middle of a Royal Ceremony would not be a good idea, he reminded himself. Derpy and Dinky were ahead. Just beyond them in a rough semicircle were the Elements of Harmony. Then a line of guards. The crowds of functionaries and shining lights of Canterlot were beyond them.

Are you listening? he asked.

"Not particularly interested in the 'brave battle' you already lived through. So far, she's got most of the facts right," Discord said, "I'm having more fun watching the nobles freak out about how close things came."

If I haven't thanked you for your help, let me do it now, thanks for taking the risk and helping us.

"I never did like Nightmare," Discord said, "But when we get a chance, there's a few things you need to know about Nistag. But not when the others are around."

Celestia revealed a stained glass window. On it were the Elements facing a collection of the villains. All the villains looked mesmerized, and he was on the window 'gesturing hypnotically' at them.

"That's not quite the Medal of Honor, but it's above a DSM. Sparkle and the others got one for taking me down. And I wasn't playing then," Discord said with a trace of pride.

The Element Bearers watched the crowd surge towards the line of guards. While they kept smiling, they were clearly not eager to be mauled. Trixie and Lyra watched the area compress as the crowd pressed forward.

Would climbing out of here like a monkey be considered out of character? he asked.

"I think Luna and her guards are here to rescue us," Discord said as the Lunar Diarch landed behind the guards with a dozen additional pegasi guards of her own.

A moment later, they were in another room. The nervous mares thanked Luna for the save. He nodded his own agreement.

"Don't get too happy, the party will be held in here, and the crowd will be thinned a bit, not eliminated."

Let me just hobble over to the window and jump out, he replied as waiters and others escorted them all to their places at the table. He took the opportunity to scratch both Lyra and Trixie behind the ears until the two nearly liquified.

Rarity was where she truly belonged, among the elite of Canterlot society, at table with the Princesses, although one was ten paces away and the other a hundred and fifty, and Rarity was talking eruditely with the creme de la creme of Equestrian society. Why then am I so miserable? she wanted to ask somepony.

"Look at that, actually touching the food with his hooves," the society matron beside her scoffed at the Big Guy as she levitated a spoon full of soup to her mouth. She didn't slurp it, but the lip smacking afterward was most irritating.

"Well, he doesn't walk on them, and he washed them before eating," Rarity offered to make conversation.

"Barbaric," the matron replied, "Those pegasi have the decency not to touch the food. Unlike that yellow one."

She just praised Derpy's and Rainbow Dash's table manners over Fluttershy's, Rarity realized and had some trouble squaring it in her mind.

"You should set your sight higher, dear," the matron on the other side of her said. "He might be fearsome, but such stallions are rarely fearsome where it counts," she said and both matrons on either side tittered.

Rarity looked around for her friends, scattered along the ridiculously long table. She smiled at the jokes, but kept wondering, Do they know who I am? Would it make a huge difference?

The ponies sitting across from her seemed as thoughtless as the two she was sandwiched between, and just as sharp tongued. Rarity prayed for strength not to have a blow up like her experience at the gala. She also heard several not too delicate slurs about the Big Guy and his physical form, as well as his distant ancestry.

"They throw poo at ponies, I'm just glad he hasn't done that yet," the hinny on her left said.

"Probably because he was too busy destroying some of our people's greatest enemies," Rarity said sweetly, "After all, why mess around with throwing poo, when you could be going hoof-to-hoof against Discord?" She grinned knowingly at the two noticeably green matrons. "And don't worry, if Twilight Sparkle and her team can get the translations, you should be able to ask him to refrain from that behavior yourselves," she added happily. "Of course you have to do it gently. I heard that the reason he swallowed Celestia whole was she made some disparaging gesture at his friends. Of course Celestia wasn't going to stand for that, so she - "

"Yes, we heard," the right hinny gasped.

"Can't be true," the left-hand hinny added, "There would have been remnants of a fight."

"Perhaps," Rarity said, and seemed to consider, "Or they could have cleaned it up before the discovery." Satisfied she'd shut up the gossipy hens, Rarity enjoyed the meal the royal kitchens had produced.

Twilight looked around the table, and felt alone. Look at Rarity, chatting with the nobility and having the time of her life. Rainbow's just enjoying the food. Am I the only one who thinks it isn't over? That there's new dangers ahead? she wondered. She glanced down the table and Applejack had remembered enough of her 'Orange' training not to embarrass herself, and Fluttershy what being demure and alluring near the far end of the table where Luna sat. The Big Guy is tolerating all of this, she thought, The smile never reaches the eyes, which are a predator's. He's expecting trouble, and half the asides I've heard are not good for him.

She glanced over where Shining Armor, Cadence and her mother and father were all chatting happily. But she was too far away to participate. I'm surrounded by the very kind of ponies who convinced me that 'friendship' wasn't worth pursuing, she smiled as best she could at the fool across the table who was holding forth on his own theories of why the 'Ponyville Monster' had blundered into the collection of Equestria's greatest villains, and the Elements of Harmony had to save him.

I wonder what that blowhard would say if he knew I was an Element of Harmony, Twilight thought, And to think, I used to feel terrible about 'ruining the dreams' of the ponies at the Grand Galloping Gala. She listened, smiled, and wondered how she could apologize to Celestia, so she never had to go through this again.

"Then I told Margaret, next time you eat that handbag, bring the tuba player with you," Discord provided a translation. From the hopeless expressions of several of the Element Bearers, and the 'eating ground glass' expression on Trixie and Lyra's faces, he suspected he was the only one of the guests of honor having a good time.

Too bad you can't broadcast this on a subchannel, he told Discord, I think that might make things more bearable for the others. Although, if they started laughing like loons at these stuck up ponies, it might require a lot of explanation.

"You should be glad you can't understand this. You'd be swinging from the chandeliers and firing a machinegun at them," Discord replied.

Could be worse, he reminded the Chaos spirit, You still have a refuge, the others don't even have that.

"True, or if you could write better, you could laugh at some poor schlub's jokes, and then write that the way he tells the joke is funny," Discord replied.

What I really wish I could tell them is that I enjoyed the salad course, but when's the entree being served? he replied.

"Horses, remember, the 'entree' was two courses ago," Discord replied.

I wish I thought you were teasing me, he replied, At least Applejack seemed to be enjoying herself way down in the military section of the table.

"Armies march on their stomachs, and businesses are as much logistics as campaigns are," Discord added, "Oh krenets! It's speechifying time! Those walls are soundproof?"

Both ways, he replied, and heard a slam as Discord retreated to his scheming, planning, 'whining, moaning and complaining' room.

He waited for the next two hours and forty-five minutes for the tedium to end, and wondered how he could apologize to Celestia, so he'd never have to go through this again.

"That was a party?" Pinkie Pie shouted in utter frustration, as she returned to the suite she was sharing with her friends. "The rock farm was more fun than that!"

"You behaved yourself admirably," Rarity said, "Now if you'll excuse me, I want to go soak my head."

"We might be of some help," Aloe said, as she and Lotus stepped out of the large bathroom. "It seems the Princess knew that you would be in the need of some care." The two spa ponies laughed.

"Please tell me you two dears were not in attendance," Rarity said sympathetically.

"Oh, we were. There's a gallery above, where the chief butler and steward keep the events running smoothly," Lotus said, "Such juicy gossip."

"Next time that's the part of the party I want to attend," Rarity said, as she let the pair guide her to a soothing of the evening's frazzlement. She nearly hit the ceiling when Twilight squealed.

"An invitation to a sleep over with her Highness!" Twilight yelped as she Pinkie bounced around the room.

Trixie burst into the room, holding a suspicious piece of paper. "A sleep over with her Highness," the showmare wailed, "Whatever shall Trixie do?"

"Come with me," Twilight said happily, "I've got one too."

"Why do you two get a sleep over?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"Because you got something else?" Fluttershy offered, "I got a tour with the Royal Groundskeeper tomorrow morning." She displayed her paper.

"Huh?" Rainbow Dash asked, went into her room, and raced out, "This, this this, this!" she stammered as she held out the letter.

"Better than a sleep over?" Applejack asked.

"An entire day flight clinic with the Wonderbolts!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed. She sobered. "Why a flight 'clinic'?"

"Maybe so the Big Guy won't blow you up next time you play against him," Fluttershy offered, and smiled.

"He just knows the game better," Rainbow exclaimed.

"But Fluttershy didn't get blown up," Pinkie Pie pointed out.

"What did you get?" Rainbow asked.

"Hmm, should I tell, or shouldn't I?" Pinkie considered, "Nope, it's a secret, good night!" Pinkie was through the door to her room and closed it behind her.

"I gotta know!" Rainbow Dash tried to push the door open, and kept struggling.

"What about you Applejack?" Twilight asked.

Applejack headed to her room and returned. "Arborist, shouldn't this go to Rainbow?"

"Arborists handle trees," Twilight said, "Maybe more varieties of apples."

"Maybe," Applejack said, then she caught Rainbow's flashing tail and dragged her away from the door.

"I gotta know!" Rainbow demanded.

"Then you can give up your Wonderbolt clinic, and follow her all day," Trixie offered.

"NO!" Rainbow said as Applejack dragged her into her room.

"Well, do you have any pajamas? I think I have an extra set," Twilight offered Trixie.

"What about Lyra?" Applejack said as she walked back into the common room from Rainbow's.

"She, Dinky, and Derpy are cuddling," Trixie said.

"You'd rather be there?" Twilight asked.

"Trixie," she started haughtily, then finished hesitantly, "Does not know."

"He'll be safe," Twilight assured her, "Lyra isn't exactly weak in the magic department."

"That was not the entirety of Trixie's concern, Twilight Sparkle," the showmare said.

Lyra watched the two of them stare at each other. Luna transformed into an alien form, and the Big Guy. I guess the legends were all about immature ones, I don't remember anypony mentioning curves like that, Lyra noted and watched the tentative approach of two omnivores, I wonder if that they are such effective killers is why the mating dance is as careful and hesitant as a pair of spiders. Maybe they do eat each other, no that wouldn't make sense, the female has to birth the young, and the male raises them? That doesn't make sense either. The mating dance, and it didn't seem to be anything else, hadn't progressed to a point where Derpy needed to remove Dinky. At its current progress, it won't be until she's old enough to have foals of her own. I wonder if our presence is helping progress by setting an obvious upper limit, or hindering. Neither has indicated we should leave, so do we stay or go. If we go, would they interpret that as disgust, or approval for the mating to go to completion? Ah! Let them tell us what they want. Neither is shy about that! Lyra thought and settled into the 'bolster' position Trixie had taught her, ready to receive whatever happened.

She watched them stand together, start with touching hands to hands, shy smiles, some blushing from the princess. Then they progressed, she touched his short hair. Lyra noted her interest in the way his interest focused briefly on the movement of her breasts. Sight cue for the buttock? she wondered, Or is their size and fullness some indication of fertility and health?

He'd trailed a finger down her hair then ran a knuckle along the cheekbone, which the princess enjoyed. And so it went, touching, and slowly moving closer together. A brief brushing of their lips, which really made the princess blush and not just on the cheeks.

That's handy, color change lets you see they are interested. That's why the clothes! So you don't advertise that you're interested if the other person is not. Lyra forcibly stifled a squeal of glee at having so many theories dashed and confirmed just by watching. I can't wait to ask questions about this! No, privacy, stay calm, stay professional and - idiot! He's probably got books on the subject!

Then a hand trailing down Luna's side made her wince and giggle. That seemed to be the signal. And both of his hands found that weak point on either side. Luna tried to push the hands away, but was laughing at the enjoyable contact.

So, it's not unpleasant, but it is slightly incapacitating, giving him the advantage. Luna can't have that, Lyra thought as with typical pony directness, Luna got one arm behind his back, and another under his upper legs to avoid the still-weakened knees and picked him up. She seemed to be throwing him on the bed, but slowed the motion so she set him there, cradling his head between Lyra's shoulder and barrel. She was on all fours over him, with a smile that would have looked better on a Timberwolf. When he smiled back, she settled atop him. He touched his lips to hers as she wrapped herself around him: arms, legs, even her hair. Strangler fig is right, she thought as she watched the kissing grow longer and more passionate.

When Luna suddenly looked alarmed, she scrambled back. All of them looked worriedly, then she suddenly transformed back to her pony form, albeit with Celestia's proportions. The Princess looked around worriedly, her similarity to Nightmare Moon in form undeniable. Lyra was so frightened, she could barely look away.

Bless him, Lyra thought as he waved her over. Luna again approached tentatively, for good reason, she was much stronger and heavier than he was. She settled on carefully laying her head on his chest. He wrapped his arms around her neck and she nuzzled him. Derpy let Dinky take up the foot cover position, while she snuggled up behind him and draped a wing over him. Luna took the hint and extended a wing over both of them. There were a few settling adjustments as he preferred sleeping on his side, and Luna tried to get closer without risking spearing, crushing or kicking him if she moved during the night. But once everyone stopped, Lyra doused the room's lights and settled into sleep. She took advantage of the faint light from the moon and stars to kiss his forehead. Thank you, for all you've done, she settled in to nap, so if something interesting happened, she could observe.

Luna approached Discord guarding the entry to the Big Guy's dreamscape. Discord seemed horrified. "Quick! Change!" he shouted worriedly, and threw a blanket over Luna. When she pulled if off, she was in her bipedal form, and Discord stood in an open doorway that seemed detached from anything. He pulled a somewhat disheveled, bipedal Luna figure back through the doorway.

The figure seemed to be half wearing a dress that while opaque left little to the imagination. Before the real Luna could complain, Discord tossed her a similar dress, which formed around her.

"What is the meaning of -!?" Luna demanded, only to have Discord shove her through the door and shut it behind her. From the other side she heard Discord say, "He's having one of those dreams."

Luna gulped, looked at the surroundings, looked at what there was of her dress, and looked around for a place to hide.

Twilight ran into Luna's room. Celestia waited. "Princess!" she said happily, then noted the lack of regalia. "Princess?"

"Well, I had to punish Shining Armor for the failure to keep my previous guest safe and secure," Celestia said as she nuzzled Twilight.

"Huh?" Twilight asked as Trixie poked her head around the corner and looked in.

Armor looked over at Cadence. "Yes, this is my punishment," Armor said quietly so the entire throne room couldn't hear him, "A half-day, a night actually, as regent," he said so dejectedly Cadence just wanted to hug him.

"You poor dear," Cadence said and successfully suppressed a giggle.

Armor glared at her. "Don't 'you poor dear' me," Armor warned as he tried to find a comfortable spot to sit on the throne that still managed to look dignified. "She's thinking of taking one day off a month, and getting somepony some training."

"I'll get a plan to pad all the gardens and have nets installed outside the windows," Cadence said glibly.

"Not this 'someone'," Armor said and grinned, "Someone with wings."

Cadence was aghast. "Not, you can't mean . . ." She bore up stoically. "And a plan to remove all sharp objects, as well as anything that could be used as a sharp object from the throne room."

"That'll leave Earth pony guards, and most of the nobility," Armor told her.

"Horns?" Cadence asked and looked at her own.

"Near brains," Armor explained, "Dullness travels."

Twilight was giggling, and even Trixie managed a shy smile as she stood just inside the closed door. She looked like she wouldn't need to open it to flee.

"I believe the punishment fit the crime. Although he did personally pick and brief the guards tonight," Celestia said as she sat on Luna's bed. Twilight eagerly climbed up and snuggled beside her. Trixie still stayed at wing's length.

"I don't bite," Celestia said, "Despite what Discord says."

Trixie only nodded from her position near the door.

"Do you sleep standing up?" Celestia asked.

Trixie only shook her head.

"Well, come on over, there's plenty of space," Twilight urged, "The bed's tough enough you can stand over here."

Trixie shot Twilight a withering glare, but didn't seem eager to move.

"Please?" Celestia asked.

Trixie bowed her head and walked over as if she was walking to her own execution.

Centaur Luna stumbled through the door. She spotted Discord and marched towards him. But about every three steps included one sideways, so her approach was more serpentine. Her tiara remained on her head only because it was tangled in her hair. One of her hoof shoes was tangled in her tail. Another flopped ill-fitting on her wrist. Only one remained on her legs.

She tried to wipe the cake frosting off her flank, or tried to untangle the rack of antlers from her mane.

Discord did his best not to snicker. Luna managed to get the antlers loose and then the hoof shoe. She returned to her pony-form.

"It was just a dream," Luna insisted as she set her tiara straight. The weight of her mane pulled it back off, then she frowned and turned to stare at the cake still decorating her side.

"Of course," Discord agreed solemnly, "Stag party?" he asked between ruthlessly stifled snickers.

Luna's fury boiled to the surface.

"I didn't watch," Discord assured her.

"It was only a dream," Luna angrily insisted.

"I didn't watch your Lunar Sensuality," he said, "You must have jumped out of the cake, right?"

"It was just a dream," Luna insisted between firmly clenched teeth.

"I agree totally, only you and he know what happened," he said, "So did you become a centaur to keep up, or keep away?"

"It. Was. Only. A. Dream!" Luna persisted.

"I didn't even peek," he said innocently.

Luna seemed satisfied with that and unwilling to accidentally provide details. She faded from the area.

Discord waited for several minutes before he put the headphones on. "Didn't say anything about not having the whole place wired for sound," he said, mimed selecting a track and hit 'play'.

'WhiNEIGHeee,' blew the top of Discord's head off.

"Hmm," Discord said as he picked up his brain and scalp, "That sounded like him."

Day 23

For once, Rainbow was up with the sun. She briefly considered dragging a comb through her disheveled mane, but discarded the idea. Moments later she raced out of the suite and towards the Wonderbolts' training area.

From the garden path on her way to her own reward, Fluttershy watched her friend, as she made her way to the Groundskeeper, and her tour of the Canterlot gardens and all the animals. She squealed happily at the thought.

Luna had slipped out early, so she could raise the sun and let Celestia spend more time with her student. Luna also knew that Twilight would have to quit looking on 'godlike' Celestia a lot sooner than the unicorn would have liked. If Celestia's plan worked out. She also relieved Shining Armor, and interestingly, Cadence from their stint looking over the royal court and all the tedium that accompanied it.

Lyra slipped out after her Highness. She had to make a report to the Royal Cryptobiological Society, and get some of their research. She'd sensed that things were at a delicate stage and a major misstep would be a disaster.

Pinkie stuck her head out of the keyhole and looked around. Seeing nopony was about, she opened the door, backed up in surprise as the keyhole held her neck. She pulled her head back through the keyhole, and slipped out of the room all the while displaying a level of stealth and self-control most Ponyvillians would have been amazed she could produce. Once outside, she consulted the map she pulled from her deerstalker cap, put her deerstalker cap on and cantered through the palace. Humming a happy tune.

Applejack came out of her room yawning. She facehoofed and walked back inside to climb back into bed and return to sleep.

Celestia watched Twilight and Trixie asleep under her wings. She was proud of her student, and also proud of her 'prisoner'. She knew it was an illusion. That both of these mayflies would be gone in an eye blink, but she was learning to accept that she no longer had to defend them from everything, that some harshness made them better. A harsh road leads to the stars, she thought and relaxed returning to a near doze while they slept soundly beside her.

Rarity had woken late, even for her. She heard very little noise coming from the suite of rooms that she and her friends had shared. "Oh Fluttershy! Applejack? Twilight? Rainbow Dash?" she called into their rooms. Even the inveterate napper was no where to be found.

"Oh dear," she thought as she considered her day. After that disastrous banquet, I have no intention of hunting down Equestrian 'society' for the chats I'd always dreamed of, she thought and sighed sadly.

She stepped out of their suite, noted the stoic guards, and proceeded towards the other occupied room. The pair of guards recognized her, and allowed her entry. Rarity paused, and reverently entered Celestia's own chambers, ceded to the Big Guy and his attendants. The austerity of it stunned her. No wonder those two alternate between getting along, and at each other's throats, they are too alike, she thought of the room that was decorated more along the lines of a public library than of a mare who could afford anything, Then again, who would she have to impress here. Anyone here would already be past the 'I am impressed' stage.

The Big Guy nodded to her, but seemed alone. Rarity didn't see any guards within, nor any of his usual companions. She recognized all he wore on his torso was the soft cloth, inner garment. But he seemed unwilling to put on any of the outer shirts laid out on Celestia's bed.

"That one matches your eyes," she indicated one.

He frowned, shook his head and mimed dragging his fingernails across his skin. Rarity shuddered at the idea.

Like a pony wearing a pretty, sandpaper suit, she thought. She glanced out the window. Rainbow had mentioned off-hoofedly that the local weather team had a major thunderstorm scheduled for late morning to the midafternoon, and the clouds looked like they were nearly ready to start. Well, if Applejack left any ropes behind, I could drag him along for a quick bit of shopping before the rain, she thought and giggled. He seemed to sense something and backed away making a crude + sign with his fingers.

Spitfire landed quickly beside the fallen pegasus. "Rainbow Dash, are you all right?" the Captain of the Wonderbolts wondered if she'd accidently killed one of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony.

"Yah," the rainbow-maned pegasus said as she climbed to her feet. She chuckled nervously. "I guess I got a little carried away."

"Look, Dash, moves are fine, but you have to be able to do moves in formation. The move has to be one that five and sometimes more ponies do at once," Spitfire said quietly. The nervous Wonderbolts' captain didn't understand the Bearer's laughter.

Fortunately Rainbow explained, "The Big Guy had a flying game. I lost. Six times," the Bearer blushed nervously. "But Fluttershy tried to fly in formation with him. He didn't beat her, couldn't, but she wasn't trying to beat him. And she's supposed to be the weak flyer." The admission put Spitfire at ease that the Bearer respected her, and would listen.

"Maybe we should have both of you here," Spitfire offered, testing if that lever would work on the young flier.

"Naw, she's happier with her animals," Rainbow said, "But I think I understand now." She looked up. "Maybe we should practice above those clouds."

Spitfire nodded.

Rarity firmly believed that a lady was judged by her poise and elegance. That a true lady never lost her cool, except when it would help a friend. Which was exactly why she had Hoity-Toity pinned to the wall in his own boutique. "I had assumed,sir, that in your shop it would be different. That you of all ponies would see someone a bit rough around the edges, but seeking the more genteel trapping and ways of Canterlot and the elites, and in the manner of Celestia herself, would guide them to that exalted state," she hissed, "That there would be none of this 'oh the monster let's run' nonsense. Has he overturned your counters? Has he eaten the furnishings? Has he in any way threatened your staff or customers?"

"No," the fashion maven's eyes were still on the tip of the horn that could easily be far, far closer.

"And yet not even a polite request to leave, just running and screaming," Rarity said disgustedly, "And you looked so cute, trembling under your desk." She smiled, which relieved the tension not a whit. "I vouchsafed your reputation, your quality and your ability to serve. And he trusted me. For clothing, a rare and singular honor," she whispered, "If you make a liar of me, sir, I shall be very upset."

The stallion nodded ever so slightly.

"Good," Rarity said happily as she backed off, "I'm sure you have some workers who consider themselves a cut above the rest. I suggest you summon them, and we can begin. Now." The ice on the last word would have sunk the Titanic out of pure malice.

She turned back to the Big Guy, all cheerful smiles. "See, all handled."

The Big Guy frowned and pointed back over her shoulder. Hoity-Toity was gone, not into the back room, but out the window and was running down the street.

"Oh bother," Rarity said and stamped a hoof.

Applejack looked at the various apple trees and the huge amount of research the Royal Arborists, Alchemists, mages and scholars had done on growing apples. She felt her eyes cross as the diagrams of weather displayed by the mages were explained.

"The reason for the thunderstorms is to create nitrogen, which is in the air, into a form that can easily be absorbed by the plants as fertilizer," the scholar said in a tone Applejack had heard from Twilight often enough.

"So, thunderstorms are like the pig and cow manure we spread around the apple trees?" Applejack said, trying to make sense of what she was being told.

"Yes," the scholar said happily, "It's the nitrates in the manure that are also formed by the thunderstorms."

"So, yer helping the farmers around Canterlot," Applejack said.

"Of course," the confused scholar said.

Applejack shook her head. "Never thought just growin' apples was so complicated," she admitted.

"Oh course, none of us have figured out how you managed to work out how to grow Zap apples," one of the arborist-ponies said.

"Family secret," Applejack said firmly, but politely.

"Well, we have been ordered to show you how to grow these," the arborist indicated the Golden Apples of Canterlot, "But we can't get them to grow as reliably as your family can with the Zap Apples." She stepped beside several large pots with Golden Apple saplings in them. "Maybe you can."

"Whoa Nelly," Applejack whispered.

"Why did you bring the Marshmallow?" Discord raged in his head, while Rarity supported a tarp that kept the rain off them, although at times they needed a tent as a gust blew the rain sideways. The cart carrying the bolts of cloth was kept dry with a tarp tied over it.

Because my legs aren't all the way up to snuff, and if I go down, I'll need someone to carry me back to the palace, he replied, Besides, why are you so nervous. You said this gizmo would act like a transistor, boosting the signal of your powers, but giving me the ability to cut you off if you abuse it. If your plan is so above board, why shouldn't someone have some clues about it?

Discord signed. "Look, they don't know the full story about it. Haven't you wondered how Nistag went from a legendary potion master, to someone who couldn't rub two herbs together with oil to get a salad dressing?"

It did occur to me that his reputation was overblown. But so was Nightmare's, he replied.

"What about me?" Discord said.

You are not as random as they said, but only because I was taking their calibration and applying it to my standards, he replied.

"Politely put," Discord complained.

By you own admission, I'm rather random. So they were saying you were 50 out of a possible 20 on the Hope/Burns scale. But I set zero at their 75, and go to a possible 200 on the Williams/Winters scale. Not a cut on you, just a different standard, he explained, placating the Chaos spirit. Besides, how do you know so much about this thing?

The silence after the earlier accusatory tone was highly suspicious.

"I am an expert on ancient magics," Discord said after a pause pregnant with missing data.

Yes, he said dryly, Well, I don't think Rarity will think anything special about this, if you let me distract her after we've got the thing.

"How?" Discord said.

That wagon load of bolts of cloth, what happens after you go through the seven colors of the door? The writing on the door frame is noticeably lacking in details on that fact.

"It will suck all the color from whatever passes through," Discord said, "It'll turn it white, not clear."

Good, that'll do it, he thought as they entered the small shop.

Rarity made a disgusted noise Discord didn't need to translate. What they sought was behind the counter. The shopkeeper had raced out, and fell into near-paralyzed stuttering at sighting him. He pointed to the odd pewter and cinnabar looking jewelry. That panicked the owner into another string of stammering comments Discord didn't translate. He poured the contents of a bag of money on the counter in front of the terrified shopkeeper. The owner stopped being terrified and became positively sycophantic.

"He's asking if you want it wrapped up," Discord said, "You better nod. The fewer ponies who know, the better."

He nodded. No offense to your artistic side, but that thing is plain ugly, red eyes, gaudy red gem and red leading edges, he said.

"No offense taken, I - " There was a little grumbling as Discord retreated to the 'safe room' he'd provided, and slammed the door.

He nodded to the shop keeper and smiled at Rarity. Outside, the storm was going from cloudburst to frog strangler. Rarity looked at him worriedly, but she reestablished their rain cover, and followed him out into the storm.

Pinkie lowered her field glasses, and watched the Big Guy and Rarity move away from the shop. She smiled. "So, that's what her Highness meant. I hope he gets some good use out of it. And I'm glad no pony ever found Nistag's Alicorn Amulet." She headed back to the Castle to report her mission was successful.

I wonder why Twilight never heard about my Pinkie Sense from Princess Celestia? Pinkie wondered, She seemed to know all about it. And that was a doozy. Imagine if Trixie had found it, that would have been a doozy of a doozy!

Lyra watched Trixie walk back towards the room they were sharing, Celestia's own personal quarters. "Trouble?" she asked the showmare.

Trixie looked up and then glanced around. "Why am I here?" she asked quietly, "I am not an 'honored guest', a Bearer of the Elements, or a friend. I am a prisoner, sentenced here because I was part of a criminal conspiracy."

"And if you and Twilight Sparkle stood in a room, which of the two of you would he go to?" Lyra said. "Don't assume you're here on your merits, but your service. Her Highness has been disastrous in her handling him in all but one thing, 'punishing' you into his service. Even when your term is over, you will still be welcome. Celestia is regarded with fear, Twilight with contempt, and many others with concern. Not you or Derpy and Dinky. You've managed what her Highness can't manage. I think that should be a good boast when you go back out on the road." Lyra stood on her back legs and announced, "The Great and Powerful Trixie served alongside the great Ponyville Monster when he singlehoofedly overwhelmed Discord, Nightmare, Tirek, Nistag, and others. She alone stood at his side while others ran away, or stood as stone, The GPT stood beside reminding him of his duty to Equestria and to prevent his fall into despair. What even Her Solar Highness Princess Celestia could not do, was accomplished by the Great and Powerful Trixie. No other mage could keep him firmly on track during the battle and the aftermath. Cue fireworks."

"Perhaps," Trixie said quietly.

"Are you worried you will want to stay and have to leave after your sentence is discharged, or that you won't be able to stay?"

"Both," Trixie admitted. "I have heard Discord has warned the Princesses that he sensed that I want to go traveling to be before the crowds, and that I want to remain. It is true. I enjoy the crowds, the traveling, and the hardships of the road, but I also desire that someone might miss me if I left the world."

"You'll fine somepony," Lyra said.

"My family thinks I shouldn't be doing what I do," Trixie said sadly, "A somepony would be icing on the cake. Trixie would settle for her daily bread."

Lyra nodded.

"This is a dead end," Rarity said as she, the Big Guy and the cart entered the alleyway.

He either didn't hear or didn't understand. He continued drawing the wagon after him. Rarity trotted after him, trying to keep the tarp over them. The rain had driven most ponies from the streets.

"I still don't know why you bought that cloth. I was soft, but it's such a hideous color," she said, trying to keep up her end of the conversation. Especially since she'd utterly failed to provide what he was actually after, comfortable clothes. He hadn't pressed, but she'd seen him picking at the shirt, like a pegasus molting her feathers.

When he touched the rock wall and a door appeared, Rarity gasped. He opened the door and began unpacking the bolts of cloth. The pale mustard, off-white cloth still offended her sense of style. He held up his hands, and put them through some odd motions that would have been more appropriate for Trixie to do, if she had hands. He then picked up the first of eight bolts and threw it through the door. Rarity gasped and only an interposed leg prevented her from following it, and likely getting the same treatment. The cloth that landed was a rich, red color. Even the tube at the center of the roll. Orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and pure white were added to the pile. Rarity stared at the collection, then at the Big Guy. "How did you do that?"

He gave her an infuriatingly smug grin, and shut the door. He moved several pieces of the door's molding, before he opened it again and stepped through, without being color changed. Rarity risked a hoof tip. When it didn't change, she stepped through and drew the cart after her. She looked herself over and was glad nothing had happened. He closed the door behind them.

"All right, you can go through, but the rest of us can't," Rarity said. She made an image of the shirt. He nodded. "Well, these are much better colors. I'll have one or two done shortly. After a shower and brushing." She lifted all the cloth bolts, loaded them in the cart and continued to the door leading to Ponyville.

"And then you dip the apple in the caramel," Applejack said distractedly, as Twilight, Pinkie and her Highness Celestia watched. They stood in one of the minor kitchens.

"Are you okay, Applejack?" Twilight asked.

"Oh, sure, Twi," Applejack said and smiled, then the smile faded. "I just think of what Applebloom'll do with six Golden Apple saplings ta deal with. She picked up the Zap Apple tricks better'n Big Mac or me ever did."

"Maybe she'll cross them," Pinkie suggested.

Applejack stared at Pinkie in horror. "Bite yur tongue!" Applejack gasped.

"That would be interesting," Celestia suggested.

Applejack whispered to Twilight, "Discord's still locked up, right?" She smiled at her Highness. "Tell me ya checked," she whispered to Twilight. She smiled at her Highness.

Twilight smiled nervously, because Celestia grinned widely with wild, wide eyes.

Her Solar Highness let out a mad giggle and rubbed her hooves together. "Golden Zap Apples!"

"Caramel Apple?" Pinkie asked as she offered one to her Highness.

"Thank you," Celestia said sweetly.

Applejack looked over at Twilight, and saw only her twitching hooves in the air.

He'd had to get away from the hustle and bustle that was Canterlot for a time. I haven't been this humiliated since the G-G-gala, he thought bitterly as he marched through the caverns deep beneath Canterlot. It could have been a wonderful evening off in a corner somewhere talking about gems, precious stones, cutting and setting them. Instead, I get another gold-digger after me for my title who won't take 'no' for a hint applied with a mallet. He spotted a tourmaline that had escape his and everypony's previous attentions. Well, aren't you a pretty thing. And perfect. No, my dear aunt had to play another of her pranks. 'You must learn not to judge a book by its cover.' Ha! If she thinks I need to learn that lesson, she needs it worse. I've been using that ever since my 'coming out party', when I stopped being teased about my 'silly rock collection' and started being a rung to let those same fillies who teased me climb up the Canterlot social ladder. He worked carefully not to damage the gem as he worried away the rock holding it. I didn't judge a book by its cover, I judged it by the first chapters that read just like every other social climber who wanted to finish the book 'How I became The Doyen of Equestrian High Society', by marrying Prince Blueblood.

He carefully removed the gem from the rock around it. He sneezed at the rock dust that had silted down on his muzzle and forelegs. "Oh dear, I've gotten dirty," he exclaimed in a tremulous voice most in Canterlot would recognize.

Dichroic, he thought as he turned the crystal, the deep azure that had first caught his eye faded almost to nothing. It would have to be those colors, he thought hopelessly as he carefully wrapped the stone and placed it in the chest he'd levitated along with him on his trek.

He continued towards the one place he could think and be at peace. He stopped and stared in amazement. Someone finally had the guts to do what I haven't, he thought of the house sitting right in the middle of the spot. A bit garish for anywhere but Canterlot and completely underdone for there, he thought as he started to approach. The storm over the city kept the normally well-illuminated spot dark, or brilliant, depending on the position and intensity of the lightning.

He froze at the sound of a mechanical click. It wasn't loud, but it carried an authority to it. And it happened only after I was clearly going towards the house, he thought and felt his knees trembling. He would have admitted it to friends, if he'd had any, that he was a terrible coward. The only completely unscripted act of the gala was using her as a pony shield. I'm also not stupid, he thought as the chest, and especially the pick axe settled on the ground well away from him, before he turned around. Then he pissed himself.

I don't believe he really ate Auntie Celestia, or that she cut her way out of his belly with her horn. Or if they did, it was just being kinky. But I do know he went up against most of the monsters of Equestrian history, including Nightmare and Discord, and not only survived, but won, he thought quickly on seeing the famous 'Ponyville Monster' sitting on an outcropping holding a dull, metal object as if it made him the equal of a war-trained unicorn.

"Hello," he offered carefully, moving sideways to get away from the spread of the puddle he'd just created.

The creature nodded slightly. A distinctly friendly gesture, to counterpoint the malevolence in his hand, aimed right between the unicorn's eyes.

"I didn't know anyone else ever came down here," he said, realized he was babbling, but couldn't help himself. "If you are staking a homestead here, I will gladly leave and inform - no I won't inform anyone, your secret is safe. I won't tell anyone, and no one would ever believe me anyway."

The creature whistled sharply. He shut up, and waited. The creature touched his head.

"Oh my helmet?" He took it off with a hoof, aimed the light at the ground and flicked it on, then off. "Keeps me from bashing my head on the rocks. Or losing my way in the dark." He chuckled nervously, something that irritated most of the upper crust. Fortunately, the creature took it in stride.

The creature made a horn sign on his forehead, then pointed to Blueblood and shook his head. Then he tapped the metal weapon, and tapped himself between the eyes and shook his head. Then looked at the terrified Prince.

"If I don't hurt you, you won't hurt me," Blueblood said very carefully. The creature's nod lifted the weight of the world from his shoulders. "Thank you, I'll agree to that." He held out a hoof. The creature beeped him, and Blueblood carefully beeped the Ponyville Monster in return. "Sorry about the rock dust."

The creature did something complicated with the weapon, before returning it to a pocket/pouch on his belt. He picked up the pick axe, but signaled Blueblood to pick up the chest and follow him.

" 'Dear Auntie Celestia, on encountering the Ponyville Monster, he invited me for tea and we talked about rocks. A far better outcome that my arranged encounter with your friend Rarity. I think that proved random chance does a better job with my life than you. Prince Blueblood'," he muttered as they walked. The house was everything the rumors said it was, disregarding exaggerations, but all the scale was due to the inhabitants being half-again as tall as even a large pony, and having a capacity for reaching and climbing most ponies lacked.

The great monster house is build for function, he thought as he entered and saw the famous bookcases filled with alien lore. But the creature gestured him in, once he'd wiped his feet, and had him set the chest in the front hallway. There was another set of bookshelves and the monster was already picking several books out, and setting them on a coffee table. Those are all books on gems, he realized, Alien stones, alien crystals! He felt a twinge of excitement.

The creature opened one of the small ones and showed him words and pictures. He then wrote what was presumably the name of the stone on a sheet of paper. Blueblood returned to the chest, opened it by touching his horn to it.

I could have done this across the room, but let's not be scary, he thought as he extracted a guidebook on gems, paged through it until he saw a similar stone.

"I think this is it," he said and carefully wrote the name beside the alien squiggle.

The creature opened several of the much larger books, and arranged them on the table, then put the paper on a clipboard. He put the names of the stones displayed, and handed the clipboard to Blueblood. The unicorn began going through his guidebook to find similar stones.

"I can't guarantee this will be completely accurate, but I'll do my best," Blueblood told him as the creature got up and headed towards the kitchen, presumably to make tea for them.

I can't believe I'm going to be helping with the Equestrian to Monster dictionary. Auntie will be stunned, he considered, So to spare her, I just won't tell. He smiled at that and found another decent match.

"Your Highness, how goes your investigation?" Lyra asked as she bowed to Princess Luna.

" 'Investigation'?" Luna asked.

"Yes, the mating dance," Lyra said, "I realized that while you wouldn't have consummated in public, you can enter dreams. I was just wondering if it was attraction, or just academic curiosity."

"You overstep yourself," Luna said quietly.

"Attraction then," Lyra said happily, "You might want to study the mating practices of spiders then. It's the closest Equestrian analog to what you two were doing. The Royal Cryptobiological Society heartily recommended the Appaloosan Box Cave Spider. It builds extensive burrows, and the male allows the female to take over the burrow after he's fertilized her. They have an absolutely beautiful and delicate courtship dance, so neither will revert to instinct and think the other is prey. One false step too fast and boom, lover becomes lunch. It's also interesting because both are normally independent, not living in communities. So it really is a meeting of dangerous equals. I'm glad I could help," Lyra said, bowed and trotted off.

Luna shook her head and looked around. "Where does jumping out of a cake in a torn dress fit into that? The rest doesn't fit into anything."

"I'm back!" Rarity announced as she arrived back at the Big Guy's house. She heard the squeak and what sounded like scrambling hooves, hung the shirts on the doorknob and dashed in to protect her friend. "You!" she shouted with more venom than a barrel of rattlesnakes, "You!" She advanced on this invader into her friend's home with baleful intent. "I won't kill you, because that would be too easy," she hissed, "But you'll be amazed at the things you can live through. And there are so many wonderful places to dump your body."

The Prince, the bane of her dreams, squealed frantically as he scrambled into the kitchen. Rarity stalked after him. She found him in the kitchen, clutching the Big Guy's ankles as he trembled behind him. The Big Guy looked completely perplexed at the prince's reaction to Rarity.

"Stand clear," Rarity said, "We'll finish this like proper ladies and gentlecolts!" Rarity said, only to have the Big Guy interpose himself between them. Made more difficult by the grip Blueblood had on his ankles.

"He invited me," Blueblood yelped suddenly, "He wanted the Equestrian names for some precious stones!"

"You?" Rarity asked, "Why you? He asked you? What would you know about stones?"

The Big Guy whistled and made a motion with his hands reminiscent of scissors cutting.

Rarity calmed down slightly, and watched the Big Guy disentangle himself. He led Rarity back to the coffee table where many books were laid out. Rarity recognized some as Equestrian guide books on gems, others were clearly in the Big Guy's native tongue. The surprise was the sheet on the clipboard. Some words were clearly in Equestrian, but next were word from the Big Guy's language, but both were written in the same hoof.

Rarity looked back and saw a terrified Blueblood nervously peeking around the corner. "You did this?" she asked.

He nodded, glancing at the Big Guy hopefully.

"Then come over here and finish," Rarity ordered, "I can correct any errors you've made later."

"I am a member of the Royal Academy's Lapidary Society," he said indignantly, but got no closer.

"How many bits a year does that cost?" Rarity said.

Both froze as the Big Guy stood and opened the trunk that stood in his entryway. He pulled out a tourmaline as long as her leg, and carefully set it in front of Rarity. She turned it, seeing it's dichroic nature. "You collected it without damaging it. Not difficult, but you may show some skill."

Blueblood took a seat across the table from her. "Aren't you going to grade my paper and tell me that I shouldn't be 'wasting time playing with rocks'?"

Rarity growled but kept her outwardly calm demeanor. "I don't think working with gems is playing with rocks," she said icily.

"Neither do I," he replied heatedly.

"You ready for some real formation flying, newbie?" Spitfire asked as she and Rainbow soared down through the dissipating clouds. The storm was over and the clouds could be dispersed.

"Right on your wing!" Rainbow exclaimed.

"Enthusiasm is fine, but this is precision," Spitfire replied and went into a shallow dive with Rainbow's wingtip practically glued to hers. Below a familiar purple unicorn and an orange Earth pony waved to their friend.

"Remember, it's not how close we come, it's how close they think we're going to come," Spitfire reminded Rainbow. "Safety of the audience and your teammates is paramount, but that doesn't preclude giving them a good scare." Spitfire looked at the gleaming city, and lamented that her charge was more interested in flying, than the other joys that flight brought.

Maybe that makes her a good Bearer, but not a good Wonderbolt, Spitfire thought sadly, Have to love flying for what more you can do, not just what tricks you do.

Rainbow chuckled as the happy smiles on the two ponies become concerned, and then horrified as the two pegasi dove on them line-abreast. The earth pony tackled the stunned unicorn to the ground as the two pegasi missed them by a yard.

"Rainbow Dash, I'll gonna teach you a few tricks on flying," the earth pony shouted after them, "When I kick your flank to Appaloosa!"

Rainbow Dash laughed at the emptiness of the threat her friend had made. "As if she could catch me."

"I hear tell you're just a room or two away," Spitfire retorted, "More important, if they hadn't ducked, how far would we have missed them by?"

"A few inches I guess," Rainbow said.

Spitfire shook her head. "We would have missed them by a yard, or more. A Wonderbolt controls her flight, she never lets flight control her."

Rainbow considered. "I understand."

"Good, now, since they're standing up again, let's do it again and you lead," Spitfire said and grinned.

"Miss'em by a yard, or more. Got it," Rainbow said as she started her dive.

Fluttershy was enjoying the peace and tranquility of the palace, until a dozen guards thundered by, followed closely by Rainbow Dash and Spitfire.

"Move! Move! Move!" Rainbow shouted as she raced to try to find an opening that would let her escape.

Applejack chased after the entire group whirling a lariat mumbling something about Appaloosa not being far enough. A little ways down the corridor, Trixie was trying to untangle Twilight from a rope.

"That knot usually has to be cut to separate it," Trixie explained to her fellow unicorn, who looked like she had wrestled a knotted octopus.

"Just hurry, Applejack is getting away!" Twilight insisted.

"And you were going to keep her pinned with a rope?" Trixie asked as she worried the end loose and untied another of the tangles that bound Twilight.

"It looks like everyone had such a good time today," Fluttershy offered. She didn't understand why Twilight growled.

She looked around. "Oh, do you know where Rarity is, I think we all ran off and left her."

"She was shopping with the Big Guy," Pinkie Pie said as she hopped up. "Ooo! Party games." Her hooves blurred and Twilight was properly hogtied and her mouth tied shut with the rope all the knots topped by a big bow.

"Did I win, did I win?" Pinkie asked as she bounced happily.

As Twilight gritted her teeth, the ropes began to smolder.

"Oh, wrong game, bye now." Pinkie vanished. She rematerialized and collected Fluttershy before vanishing again.

"That's a good look for you Sparkle," Trixie said, then was illuminated by the flames of Twilight, "Oh not good for Trixie." She backed up hastily. "Say, why didn't you do that before?" Trixie asked the flaming spectral creature.

The exhausted and slightly singed Twilight reappeared and dropped to the ground. "I give up."

"Let's get you a nice nap, and you'll feel all better," Trixie said as she levitated Twilight, "At least you aren't working with a knife thrower when you are all tied up. Before I was the Great and Powerful Trixie, I worked for others. The act had Trixie tied to a spinning wagon wheel. So he'd know where to throw. But once the axle seized, but the act had to go on so he kept throwing. Fortunately missing Trixie."

"That's terrible," Twilight said muzzily.

"Then it happened again and Trixie quit. Trixie has never really trusted wheels after that," Trixie admitted and chuckled, "Silly isn't it?"

"My mane?" Rarity stammered as the Big Guy held out a hair clip, "But I just had it styled."

"I don't think he's going to hurt it," Blueblood said, "Just a different look."

Rarity glared at him. "And just how do you know?" she asked icily.

This time he stood up to her. "I have been hunted like the prize at a steeplejack race by the most persistent and clingy gold-diggers in Canterlot society. Mares who would crawl through a muddy puddle full of broken glass to stand by the glory that is Prince Blueblood. Of course I know when they 'adopt a new look'."

"And was I one of those gold-diggers?" she asked angrily.

"It took getting hit in the face with a cake to get through to you," he replied with some anger of his own, "Most of them would have cracked at least a little when I insulted their friends. No insult to you, or even your friends dislodged you."

Rarity growled in fury.

"I am sorry about the cake," he shamefully admitted, "That was ungenerous."

"It was," Rarity agreed quietly. She walked over to the Big Guy and offered her head.

He carefully collected her mane, made a ponytail, then doubled it over to shorten it before clipping it. He took a mirror off the wall and showed Rarity the effect.

"I can't say I like the look," she admitted, "But I can see the point of keeping one's mane out of the work, or off the ground."

"Looks sporty, like your friend Applejack," Blueblood said. He flinched at her glare, but the smile didn't depart completely.

"Well, that was informative," Rarity said to the Big Guy, "Now, if you wouldn't mind?"

He removed the clip and smoothed out her mane. He carried the clip deeper into the house.

"Sometimes I don't understand that . . . " Rarity said.

"Curiosity," Blueblood said, "Insatiable curiosity. Now, this book clearly shows that the rose quartz can't be the translation. Those stones are the wrong color."

"You can read that?" Rarity asked.

"No, but I can puzzle out that the words are similar. Ignoring the serifs and other variations the words seem the same," Blueblood said.

Rarity nodded, and noted the tray of sandwiches and tea the Big Guy delivered. "This smells of peanuts and raspberries," she noted.

"When in Stalliongrad," Blueblood offered and levitated a sandwich, took a bite while Rarity looked dubiously at it. He gasped.

"What!?" Rarity demanded.

"It's rather tasty," Blueblood said offhandedly, "No, it's truly awful." He began moving the plate away from Rarity. "No one should subject a lady such as yourself -"

Rarity picked a sandwich off the retreating plate and bit it. "Yes, they are rather good. Although I do wish they had ground the peanuts more."

"I rather like it, it's also a good reminder to watch out for the raspberry seeds," Blueblood replied. He sighed. "I wish I hadn't met you at the gala. It would make this easier."

"Make what easier?" Rarity asked.

"This translation, maybe we could have gone off to a corner and talked about stones," he said, "But it did turn out interestingly. For a week, all anyone could talk about was 'that mare who finally told off Prince Blueblood'. I had such fun playing the wounded peacock. 'Oh, she shouted at me so coarsely, and that dress, she designed it herself.'"

"You insulted my dress?" Rarity asked quietly.

"Of course, if I insulted it, it must be good. After all, I'm just a spoiled child with no taste in art or literature. No real culture or learning. If I wasn't a near royal, I'd starve to death. I was so glad your friend Twilight was in my classes at the School for Gifted Unicorns, no matter how well I did, she was so far out ahead of the pack it was frightening. No one remembers I got three upper firsts in advance placement, not with Twilight practically rewriting the curriculum and magical theory as she went along. No matter how well I did, all everyone remembers was how much I trailed your friend Twilight. In a way, it was the kindest thing anyone has ever done. For once I didn't have to hide. Other ponies' expectations colored the results marvelously."

"You seem proud of that," Rarity said.

"That even dear auntie Celestia sees me as a disappointment?" Blueblood said bitterly, "I am. If I lived in Ponyville, I could be someone. Like you. But Canterlot? All that matters is my family, and their connections. I joined the military, and they browbeat poor Captain Armor into stationing me in Canterlot. I try to leave, they'll use their power and influence to sweep me up and drop me back into their 'loving embrace', to have to sit through one more tea party listening to them talk about 'when we rule Equestrian', as if Celestia were going to drop dead any time in our grandchildrens' lifetimes." He stood up and began pacing. "You sat between my mother and my aunt at the banquet, how would you like to live with that and twenty other know nothings all bleating about 'the old days'. As if they wouldn't have pissed themselves and run away facing Discord, Sombra, Nistag, and all the others." He faced Rarity. "Don't try to become Canterlot high society. Your friend Applejack is close to the Oranges of Manehatten, your friend Twilight is already minor nobility in Canterlot. You're a Bearer of an Element of Harmony. You can be whomever you wish. You can be heralded as a fashion designer, or a hero of the realm, you can write books on gems, or, or whatever you want. Canterlot is the capital, but it's more insular than Ponyville. It's a jumped up guard outpost that Celestia set up after her battle with Nightmare Moon wrecked her and Luna's home. But because she was there, because she wanted some culture all the sycophants and hangers-on crowded in and built a beautiful city. But it's more beautiful from Ponyville than if you grew up or lived there."

"Twilight seems to have liked it," Rarity said cautiously to the agitated, rapidly pacing unicorn.

"Twilight Sparkle lives her life in her own head," he said sharply, "You rarely saw her without her nose in a book. She disappeared into books because she thought some of her 'Canterlot friends' weren't trying to use her to get close to the Princess, and she couldn't tell the false from the real. She could tell. She couldn't bear to believe that nearly all her friends saw her as a stepping stone in the grand political games. Except Spike, and that crazy lizard played the political game better than most adults, just never with Twilight. I don't think there's a mover and shaker in the entire city who doesn't know and trust him."

"I never thought about Spike that way," Rarity admitted.

"After he got Hoity-Toity to travel out to Ponyville, after he got you a second chance to show your dresses?" Blueblood scoffed, "If I may say, you don't know how connected your friends really are. That you haven't dug that up does you credit," he added.

"Thank you, for the warning. It is good to know I can pull strings, and that I shouldn't demand what my friends can give me," Rarity said. "You should take some time to discover who your real friends are."

"I don't have any. Any worth having wouldn't have stayed," Blueblood said.

"There are doors, just outside that one." She nodded to the front door. "One leads to Ponyville. Another that leads to a Canterlot street has a side effect, it colors whatever passes through it, and uncolors it once it passes back. Unless the Big Guy gimmicks it somehow. But you want the color change. Big, bright-red stallion comes in looking for a little work while he does some rock collecting. You'll be back in Canterlot at night, back to your original color, and no one the wiser."

"I can't see how that would work," he admitted.

"You are a member of the Royal Academy's Lapidary Society. I assume you can get some token that doesn't have you name on it." Rarity stood next to him. "Go after what you want, and to Hades with them. If you really want to escape, then escape. I had to. After all, if the Big Guy has books on rocks, wouldn't they send someone?"

"Perhaps." He rubbed his chin with a hoof.

"The voice is a give away though," Rarity admitted.

"If'n yew kin do an accent, so kin ah," he said.

"Puleez, even Applejack's isn't that bad," Rarity said.

"Zen ze how you say, fancy accent, it makes me popular with discerning ladies, no?" he offered.

"I think you're giving Discord tummy troubles," Rarity said, "Something less."

"How this?" he asked.

"Different enough that anyone who hasn't heard you won't know it's you," Rarity admitted, "So you'd better let Twilight and Sveti in on the ruse."

"Agreed. Won't that be interesting reading for the griffons. The Prince of Canterlot hiding out in Ponyville under an assumed name, with assumed hair."

"Better than the alternative," she said.

Rarity noted the much larger number of guards outside the suite of rooms she and the girls shared. "Exciting day?" she asked her friends, and the small guard force inside the room. "Everyone have a good time?"

She noted the half-hidden smirk from Rainbow Dash, and the answering death glares from Applejack and Twilight. "Well, I brought someone along to raise all our moods," she said, and stepped aside.

"Spike!" Twilight said happily, dashing over to hug her assistant.

"Twilight," the dragon replied, happily hugging her.

"Since Spikey-Wikey had such a wonderful itinerary planned out for us on the night of the Gala, I decided now would be a wonderful time to let him show his insiders' tour."

"Sounds great," Twilight said, "If you're sure it wouldn't be too much trouble."

"No trouble at all," Spike told them happily, "Should we get the others? Lyra and Trixie?"

"I'd certainly like to come along," Celestia said as she entered, and bowed her head to let Spike nuzzle her, "It's not often I get a chance to see Canterlot through the eyes of another."

"Your Highness," Rarity said, "Aren't you kind of conspicuous?"

Suddenly Rarity was looking down at the Crusader-aged alicorn. "Celly doesn't think so," Celestia said. "Besides, crime has been on a downturn lately, I can take a night off from being Batmare."

Twilight snorted at the very old joke.

Celestia enjoyed her time incognito with her student's friends. Although I almost feel like I'm stealing them, she thought guiltily, But what 'friends' do I have? My sister is a friend, but she's also my sister. The diplomatic corps is full of people who would gladly be my friend, but they are working for their country's best interests, and around them, I have to work for mine. She looked at the people. An alien, a griffon, a dragon and a collection of ponies, all enjoying each others company, and she felt like a tag along.

She glanced up at the wizard's hat she wore over her horn. Was that the Big Guy's decision, or Discord's suggestion? she wondered, At least it eliminates the question of an additional alicorn.

The others wore similar hats, including Spike and Applejack, although she wore hers on top of her Stetson. Spike was telling the history of many of the more famous of the crown jewels, and managing to do a more interesting job that the usual tour guides.

He's also not trying to eat them, Celestia noted with a snicker.

Too soon the tour was over, the group headed out to the gardens. It amazed Celestia that Spike simply vouching for the group seemed to let him gain access to places she thought were heavily guarded. Although they always asked him an odd question, so they might have a prepositioned plan if he's being forced to take someone through, she thought as they entered the grove of golden apple trees.

"These are what Applejack got her briefing on," Twilight said happily and looked back to Applejack.

"I don't want ta even think about them apples. I'll have a hard enough time explaining it all ta Applebloom and Big Macintosh," Applejack said wearily.

"So how are these any different from regular golden delicious apples?" Rainbow asked as she circled the tree.

"These are golden apples, not golden delicious," Celestia said, "They are, very different."

Spike explained the difference, including some of the reputed magical properties.

"Why aren't these more widely known?" Sveti asked.

"These are all there is. And the fruit is replaced only very slowly, perhaps one every few years," Celestia admitted, "We don't have enough to do all the experiments ponies want. With more trees, we should be able to get more apples to test."

"How do you know about all this?" Twilight asked Spike, "I've read dozens of books on the subject and none of them have half that information."

"I talked with the gardeners and the guards," Spike said, "Books are good, ponies are better."

Twilight looked a bit exasperated, but took it good naturedly.

After some discussion on the 'help' Applejack would need for the apples, Applejack finally came up with NONE! They laughingly left the trees behind and walked out into the streets of Canterlot. Ponies were coming and going, to restaurants, performances, clubs of various kinds.

"Is she happier with ponies being more active at night?" Twilight asked.

"Very much so, but they still don't look at the stars much," Celestia said, "That still hurts, but then if funny faces appeared on the sun, I doubt most ponies would notice."

A group of street performers were putting on a farce. Trixie led them over to watch.

"That's one thing I don't think I can ever forgive him for," Celestia said as an Earth pony in a white suit stood on his hind legs and used a pair of sparklers to defeat other performers dressed as Discord, Nightmare and others.

"Not the Big Guy," Fluttershy said, "You mean, him."

Celestia nodded. "Yes, he created mimes."

The pony in the suit had defeated all the villains, and other ponies celebrated, but he seemed exhausted. A white pegasus wearing an artificial horn hugged the weary figure. As she stepped away, all the players who were formerly villains reappeared wearing mismatched guard uniforms. They began to beat the earth pony in the suit with slapsticks labeled 'knockwurst', 'salami' and 'pepperoni'.

Celestia felt her heart curdling inside as 'her' kept smilingly waving to the crowd, and that the crowd were laughing uproariously at the spectacle. Applejack seemed more than ready to do more than cringe, but the Big Guy had a hold of her mane and seemed unwilling to let go.

So Applejack can injure him to get loose, or accept the parody, Celestia thought, She won't hurt him, so she must abide.

The guards dragged off the 'human' and 'Celestia' returned and earnestly looked for him on the floor. The guards who remained behind never volunteered what happened. The crowd laughed more at the scene that somehow absolved Celestia of wrongdoing and put all blame on the guards.

While that is true, it isn't fair. I should have kept a better eye on him, Celestia admitted to herself as citizens tossed a few bits into the sack the players had set up to accept them. The Big Guy walked up to the sack. The actor minding the sack suddenly realized this paying customer was a lot taller than average, then the Big Guy took off his cloak and essentially voided the spell that made eyes slide off him. The actor vanished while the Big Guy poured a handful of bits into the sack. Most of the customers ran off in terror, as did most of the other players. Only a colt remained behind as he was too terrified to run. The Big Guy approached with the sack, while the colt's knees knocked. The Big Guy poured the sack's contents into the colt's saddle bags, patted him on the head and walked away.

"MOMMY!" the colt screamed in mortal terror.

Trixie and Rainbow kept Fluttershy from trying to soothe the colt as the group moved away. Applejack chuckled.

"Okay, that was better than jumpin' in and kickin' flank," the farm pony admitted.

They continued to Pony Joe's for a late night doughnut and some conversation.

"That one!" Applejack insisted, pointing at the bottlecap on the left.

"No way, it's the one in the middle," Rainbow countered, "His hands are fast, but they aren't that fast!"

Lyra just snickered, enjoying just watching him.

The Big Guy turned over both caps they had indicated, and predictably the bit of pocket lint wasn't under either.

"Aw man, I was so sure," Rainbow complained.

The Big Guy slid the unturned cap into the center, and then began shuffling the caps around in a seemingly random manner. Celestia watched the game and considered if she was quick enough to catch which it was under.

"It's in his lap, Highness," Trixie whispered, "That's why he turns over the other two, so he never has to show it isn't there. There are similar cons I've seen."

"I see," Celestia said, "So he's cheating."

"No, he's entertaining. If it was for money, then it's cheating," Trixie said.

At another table, Pinkie Pie was staring at a doughnut from all sides. Sveti watched her fascination with the pasty.

"Are you going to eat that, or prepare a doctoral dissertation on it?" Sveti asked.

"How do they know to put the hole in the middle?" Pinkie asked, "Some ancient cabal of baker-wizards?"

"Probably they just saw that the centers didn't get cooked so they cut a hole in the center," Sveti said.

"Naw, that's too easy," Pinkie said, and ate the doughnut.

Sveti stared at Pinkie, as if trying to figure out if she'd been insulted, or if Pinkie was normally this way.

Twilight was at a table with Rarity. "I believe we may have a few more pages available for the dictionary," Rarity said, "Our friend caught a member of the Royal Academy's Lapidary Society and nearly press-ganged him into translating. Until he saw the books. At that point, he became a willing helper. I think we'll be seeing more of him."

"The Royal Academy's Lapidary Society?" Twilight asked, "That stuffy club barely exists, if not for Prince Blueblood's patronage, and the gem guide books by Encage Sangbleu they wouldn't exist."

" 'Encage Sangbleu'," Rarity said and raised an eyebrow, "Good guide books?"

"Oh, the best, I gave you your set for your last birthday," Twilight said, "Not cheap, but better than the twaddle they convince most amateur rockhounds to buy. Of course they are written for experts, so starting with eh twaddle books may be the only option."

"Interesting, Twilight," Rarity said, "Well, as I said, he'll be coming here and speaking with some of us while he putters about. I think he may be wondering about the possibility of stones we don't have, and samples that the Big Guy's house may have brought along."

"Really!" Twilight asked excitedly.

"I doubt there is, every stone I saw in the 'monster' gem books looked to be some type I recognized," Rarity said, "So I'd be very surprised if he finds something."

"Rarity, maybe you could join the Society, it would put you closer to Prince Blueblood," Twilight teased.

Rather than rise to the bait, Rarity said earnestly, "Twilight, I had a conversation about people using relationships for social climbing." Rarity added sternly, "As you are a former victim of it, I would advise against recommending it as a course of action. If I'd understood that 'my widdle Spikey-Wikey' could open every door into Canterlot I ever wanted to go through, I might have abused our friendship rather mercilessly." She paused, hoof on chin. "I wonder if Prince Blueblood became the way he is because he didn't have books to hide in, like a unicorn filly who had to be thrown onto the wider world by no less than Celestia herself."

"I am nothing like him," Twilight said, "He was a slacker, always behind me on tests, never doing extra-credit, always hanging out with his feckless friends, and the laughing about putting in a weekend of studying."

"So, absolutely useless in the lab?" Rarity asked.

"Not useless, just no great shakes," Twilight said dismissively.

"At your school, a triple first, rare? Hard to get?" Rarity asked.

"Rare, yes. Hard, no. I got a Quintuple, first time in history. Someone scratches out a triple every couple decades," Twilight said and rolled her eyes, "They could do better if they really applied themselves. Why the sudden interest in my schooling?"

"Met a classmate of yours, Twilight 'nose-in-a-book' Sparkle. He said you live your life inside your head. I had thought he was just being insulting. He was, but it's also pretty accurate," Rarity said and smiled, "I'm glad you let the rest of us in there occasionally."

Twilight huffed, which made Rarity laugh.

She looked around the shop, and at the finally-sleeping city beyond the windows. "I was just wondering how this shining beacon could be so lonely to so many ponies," Rarity said, "And how I always envied the ponies who grew up here. Now I realize that I may not have had the experience, but I think I am better wanting to be better, rather than wanting to be admired for how good I am."

"I could have told you that," Twilight said sarcastically.

"Then why didn't you enlighten me earlier?" Rarity pouted.

"You didn't ask," Twilight replied defensively.

"Twilight, Twilight, Twilight, a good fashion designer knows their customer's needs before they walk in the front door," Rarity said haughtily, then giggled at Twilight's expression.

Twilight started laughing as well.

Fluttershy was looking after Spike and Dinky, who were peacefully sleeping after a long exciting night. Derpy was trying to learn a griffon dance step from Sveti.

The 'Sand Cobra' is a good teacher, Celestia thought as she watched the pegasus go through the steps again, slowly. Then she repeated then slowly, then at full speed. Derpy grew more confident as she worked.

"Don't look at your feet, feel where your feet are," Sveti said, "Close you eyes if you have to."

"Okay," the pegasus said, and closed her eyes, but kept her face pointed at her feet.

The griffon looked at Celestia and shrugged. Celestia nodded, but Derpy's performance was better not watching than watching.

She sighed at the little groups and that she was welcome in any of them, she wanted to be with all of them at once. So pick one, she thought, You have to make those kinds of decisions all the time. She walked over to join in the girl talk with Rarity and Twilight. Dawn coming too soon, then I'll be back to the serene ruler of Equestrian.

"Rarity, would you like to hear a few stories about Twilight?" Celestia said.

"Certain, your -" Rarity asked as Celestia raised an eyebrow, "Certainly, Celestia."

"Well, she was always inquisitive, but I hadn't gotten her a laboratory yet. My mistake," Celestia said.

"I thought you said you'd never tell the jam story!" Twilight complained.

Celestia stared. "I was going to tell about you dissecting that fireworks rocket," Celestia said, "But if you want to tell Rarity about the jam, I won't correct you."

Twilight looked like the doughnut had gone to war in her stomach.

" 'Jam'?" Rarity asked and grinned at Twilight, "I can imagine about dissecting fireworks. Sweetie Belle and the Crusaders got one of the big ones. They discovered why you don't handle rocket filling by candlelight."

"Was anypony hurt?" Celestia gasped.

"No, but it was a month before their club house smelled like anything but spent fireworks," Rarity admitted, then looked at Twilight and smiled. The purple mare's ears flattened. "But Twilight, I never thought your safety lecture was based on actual experience."

Twilight whimpered a little. "Ah, uh, yes. Much, ah, safer experience later."

"Not like jam?" Rarity asked.

"No that was - " Twilight looked at her friends slowly clustering around. She sighed. "Okay, I didn't know about superheated liquids. So the juice was just sitting there, when it was supposed to be boiling. So I dumped the chopped up fruit in anyway. It all flashed to steam in an instant."

"And you're embarrassed about that?" Rainbow asked.

Celestia had her mouth clamped shut and she was humming a tune.

Twilight sighed. "I was making the jam for a tea I was going to have with Celestia and Shining Armor. They'd arrived and I didn't have the jam ready. Raspberries don't really go with white coats very well," Twilight admitted.

"The raspberries thought they went with white coats very well," Celestia said, "And were very persistent in that belief."

Twilight laid her head on the table and moaned.

"Well, I reckon that's why Shining Armor got so good with shield spells," Applejack said, "All thanks to his little sister Twi." She patted Twilight's head.

Twilight moaned again.

"It could have been worse," Celestia said, "I thought I could befriend anything. And I could. Except for this one skunk. Then none of my friends would come anywhere near me." She laughed, giving permission for the others to do so. Although they did it nervously.

"You could tell them about the Raw Alfalfa Monster," Sveti suggested.

Celestia put her head on the table and moaned. The laughter was less forced this time.

12) Adjacent Event

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Cultural Artifacts - Adjacent Event

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 24

A very blue stallion stepped out of the door in the middle of the darkness occupying Ponyville's newest park. He looked around, then trotted through the nearly empty streets. As early as the Ponyvillians rose, not many were awake at this time. One of the few who was, was coming out of the town library to get his breakfast when he encountered the stallion.

"My card," the stallion said politely, the faint Vanhoover accent only confused Mystery a bit more. "I sent a letter through her assistant requesting a meeting with Miss Sparkle, I thought she was an early riser."

"She's in Canterlot," the griffon said, as he tried to place the infuriatingly familiar pony, "So is her assistant. I don't know when they'll be back. I'm Mystery, part of the translation team."

"Oh, splendid." The stallion extended a hoof to shake. "I'm Sangbleu, Encard Sangbleu, with the Royal Academy's Lapidary Society."

"That's where I know you from," Mystery explained, "You publish those books. Must be nice to get a pack of royals to pay you to do what you love."

"I still have to justify myself to the budget committee. At least I've made them keep me out of the limelight," the stallion said and smiled. "I'm here to do a survey on any unusual stones our visitor may have brought."

"Not 'brought by the Ponyville Monster'?" Mystery asked and shared a smile with the stallion, "Sugarcube Corners has a good breakfast, join me?"

"Certainly. The advantages of an expense account. As for monster talk, I visited the statuary gardens to look at the last people who pissed him off. I don't intend to be among them," Sangbleu said and took on a horrified, cowering pose.

The griffon chuckled. "Then don't hurt any foals, he killed some fool who did that," Mystery said as he continued towards Sugarcube Corners.

"Where are you staying?" Mystery asked.

"Sleeping on his back porch. Some of the ground went with the house when it moved," the stallion said.

"You sure are being thorough," Mystery said as Sangbleu opened the door for him, "Thanks."

"I have to earn my bread and flowers," the stallion looked around, "Darn, no apple fritters, I love those."

"When Applejack gets back, you can probably order them by the barrel," Mystery said. "So, has he managed to burn down the capital yet?"

"Nope, they threw him in prison, on the day before he was getting a stained-glass window in the Great Hall. I think that's a first," Sangbleu said. The pair shared a chuckle.

"You okay?" Discord asked.

Why wouldn't I be? he replied, careful not to move and wake up the pony pile.

"That dream was, rather intense, even for you," Discord said.

You get caught up in it, I'm sorry, he said.

"Uh, no, you didn't. I was just wondering about the reality of the dream, was it based on some event?" Discord asked.

Not one I recall, he replied, Why the sudden interest?

"You seem kind of depressed lately," Discord said, "And less willing to take some of the ponies' behaviors in stride."

Well, they have been bothering me. Especially the really creepy ones, he admitted.

"Creepy?" Discord asked.

Now we're getting somewhere, Discord thought.

Yeah, like Applejack, he replied.

Or not, Discord thought.

"Applejack?" Discord exclaimed, "The boringest of ponies?"

Yeah, gives me the shivers, he replied.

"Applejack?" Discord said.

Yeah. It's like she shifts between realities. First she's standing there, freckles and hat. She starts walking or running and the freckles disappear, or the hat. I don't think she flushes or pales so you can't see them, or her hat flies off. I mean they flat out vanish, freckles or hat. Then a little ways on, they reappear. I thought you were doing it, but then I remembered she was doing that while you were still in stone. And she's not the worst.

"There's worse?" Discord asked.

Yeah, Rainbow Dash, he said, She's so proud of her wings. You'd think she'd be upset, or even notice if they suddenly vanished. But no, as long as they materialize again after a little while, she's fine with it. I'm just glad I never saw her do that when she was flying. That would really freak me out.

"Freak you out," Discord said, glancing around nervously.

Yes. I mean, if this was a movie, or some animated cartoon, I could put it down to continuity errors. But with living creatures, and no one seems to notice or care if a big piece of furniture, or one of their limbs randomly blinks in and out of existence. That's really upsetting.

"Upsetting," Discord answered, his eyes wide and staring.

Are you all right? he asked.

"Me, fine, just checking on you," Discord said, "Ha ha." And walked, not ran to his private place. "Tom, why have I noticed none of that, until now. It's like we're all trapped in a children's animated cartoon."

"You are trapped in a childrens' cartoon. Fortunately, I reside in a cartoon for adults with young children," Tom said loftily.

"And that makes you feel better?" Discord asked.

"Better than your phase of existential dread," Tom said, "None of this helps him however, that dream was clearly a replay of when Tear Twister did to him, what she did. That he either didn't clearly remember or was in denial. It also reveals a deeper aspect of the culture shock. How everyone around him accepts facial features, body parts and furniture materializing and dematerializing must play into some serious fears on his part." Tom paused. "It seems we have another victim."

"How could I not have seen it, how could I not have realized. The skin of reality must be stretched taught over this world. It gives ever so slightly, and things vanish, and it draws together a moment later, and things reappear. It's my doing," Discord whispered, and faced Tom, "This is my fault. I wanted chaos, I never wanted the world to just go away. How will I stop it? How will I beg forgiveness? How will I warn them? Is it already too late, is this world doomed and spinning down to die? What'll happen if I can't save everypony?"

"The Newberry people called, and unless Fluttershy dies of a horrible, wasting disease, you aren't getting one of their medals," Tom said.

"Darn," Discord said and stood up. "What do we do, tell him he really is in a kiddie cartoon?"

"Oh yes, sir, and then we can scrape what's left of him off the walls and ceiling, and see that it's fed and watered for as long as it survives," Tom said sarcastically. "Can you at least try to turn some of that masterful, corkscrew intellect to solving the problem? We can't tell him the truth, lying is a bad idea, so . . . "

"Use it as a wedge to really get him to talk about his problems. He's as much as admitted he's going nuts. The fact he sees such things, and nopony reacts to them, is prima facie evidence. So we talk about him using his intellect to distract him from real problems."

"Just remember, never out and out say it doesn't happen. Just point out that 'wouldn't somepony notice', or wouldn't physics take a hand in it. You can honestly deny that you had a hand in it, and that you can ask him to describe it in detail so you can use it," Tom said.

"Thank you Tom, I have a mind to save." Discord put on his Stahlhelm, over his horns, pulled the goggles down out of the visor and rode his invisible Harley out of the room.

"Watch out for the -!" Tom winced. "Chicken coop, it's full of ferrets. Oh dear, that's going to sting. Poor Quinn."

"It's too early for it to be morning," Rainbow Dash complained as she finished leaving her bed. The others had gathered to make the trip back to Ponyville. There had been the sound of duct tape coming from the room they were going to pass through, once Trixie and the Big Guy had gone in hours before the scheduled time.

"So, there's a path straight into their Highnesses' boudoirs from the Big Guy's house. Won't the gossip columns have a field day with that one?" Rarity commented dryly.

"Better than what they used to say about Celestia and Twilight staying up late to study," Shining Armor said, "There were times I wished I wasn't a responsible member of the Royal Guard, and could give them the thrashing they deserved."

"Ya mean . . . "Applejack asked, and simply looked horrified.

"While she was a filly," Cadence replied, "You thought happy, filly Twilight became the recluse she did when she discovered books?" The pink alicorn shook her head. "There are times even my patience was stretched."

Twilight had remained silent during the discussion.

"I am sorry Twilight, discussing your life as if you weren't even there," Rarity said.

"Why would I want to discuss that part of my life?" Twilight asked, "A bunch of people with no lives, deciding to live their life through mine? The idea that nopony in the royal court would raise a fuss about it also bothered me. Either in the stories that it was happening, or in real life that they were lying. 'We're above such things Miss Sparkle.'"

"They quit when Twilight started showing her magical prowess, and accidentally blew up a few buildings," Spike added.

"The Alchemy buildings are designed to blow up!" Twilight replied defensively, "That's why the walls are reinforced concrete and the roofs are sheet tin. Boom." She mimed an explosion going straight up.

"I hope she's gotten better with the explosions," Armor said.

"Not really, it's just that nopony notices anymore," Pinkie Pie said, "Or we just stand back and watch the pretties."

While Twilight grumped, everypony else laughed.

The Big Guy and Trixie reentered the room.

"What the hay is so special secret about that room?" Rainbow demanded.

The Big Guy rubbed his hands together and let out a laugh that had every hair and every feather of everyone in the room standing on end.

"Ya really want ta know there, Sugarcube?" Applejack asked, and glanced at her hat dangling from her erect mane.

"NO," Rainbow squealed, "I'm good."

They stared at Fluttershy nuzzling his leg. "It's so good you're feeling better."

"Fluttershy," Sveti asked, as she tried to preen her hackles down, "That didn't frighten you?"

"It certainly frightened Trixie," the showmare added.

"He's just being a big silly," Fluttershy responded, flittered around behind him and gave him a happy hug.

"She is the one who has tea parties with bears," Lyra pointed out, "It's going to take mousse to get that to stay down," she said of her forelock that was standing as straight as her horn.

"It's going to take a moose," Spike said and snickered, pointing at Cadence and Armor.

"I think that's where they got the idea for the helmet crests," Cadence offered, trying not to giggle.

"I think it makes me look rather fierce," Armor replied and posed.

"That it does, sir," Milestone said as he stuck his nose in. "Her Highness Luna will join you shortly, but her Highness Celestia would like you to go to the throne room first, to say goodbye."

"She's going on vacation and sticking me with the Princess job!" Cadence panicked, and pranced in circles, "Whatever shall I do?"

"Close your eyes and think of Equestria," Armor said solemnly.

"Oh course," Cadence took a regal bearing and walked out with Armor flanking her.

"Why is everybody in this city either boring or crazy?" Pinkie asked.

"No comment," came the chorus of replies.

Celestia detached herself from the collection of nobles and diplomats as the group entered. Even the Royal Poise had a difficult time with the sight that greeted her. She blinked, then blinked again.

"Interesting fashion choice," she managed. Rarity, Armor and Cadence managed the nonchalance to pull off the new look. The others were too nervous. Even Pinkie Pie sticking her hoof in her mouth and blowing couldn't get her hair to poof properly. It would poof, then with the sound of an arrow hitting a target, would go straight up again. The mare whined a little at that.

"I apologize your Highness. We - asked a question, and got an answer," Twilight said.

"Must have been quite the question," Celestia said, and covered her laugh with a hoof.

Twilight sighed. Armor gave a salute. Cadence gravely beeped her Majesty. Rarity more timidly did the same.

Then she came to the Big Guy. The alicorn looked a little sheepish. "I wish you could fully understand me, or that I could trust that Discord is properly translating. But you have my apologies for the miscues and misunderstandings. I think I need to let you be yourself, and let my ponies see to your care and well-being. I am glad you're well enough to resume your duties." Celestia smiled.

The Big Guy got right in her face and roared. Teeth bared and an utterly ferocious sound. Celestia pulled her head back, but he pressed forward. The little twitterings of the knots of nobles and diplomats fell silent and stared. The Ponyvillians and guards glanced worriedly at each other. Celestia roared back, pressing her head against his forehead and making him retreat a step or two.

He took a breath and raised his arms. The ululating terror he released, the mad eyes and hands in raised claws had the guards raise their weapons. Celestia's head and neck formed a question mark as he pressed forward.

Celestia's face contorted in rage and menace, her wings flared and she let out a furious trumpeting that shook the palace walls. She stomped her forehooves as she pressed him back until he was nearly teetering back on his heels.

He hugged her around the neck and rested his head on her withers. She wrapped her wings around him, rested her head on his neck and raised a leg to stroke his back.

"I'm glad you forgive me, and you're feeling better. But you don't have to defend my ponies from everything by yourself, you silly colt. I have guards and the Elements to help you," Celestia chided gently. She broke the hug and kissed him on the forehead. She looked at the collection of stunned ponies and foreigners. "So that's how your manes and tails got that way."

"I can't believe you did that!" Discord raged inside his head. "I can't believe she did that!"

What? he replied, I got to scare the entire royal court and the best of the best in Canterlot, and she gets to prove to the same that she's no slouch in the whole 'I am a badass' rankings herself. Lets her be more than the pampered pony-princess.

"I'm just pointing out that with everyone else there, it was not a good idea," Discord replied.

For someone with a real 'get out of death free' card, you're awfully nervous. Besides, ponies social norm like crazy, and nearly always defer to authority. The only one I had to worry about was Celestia, and if your translation was accurate, I had nothing to worry about. He looked at the chaos spirit. Your translation was accurate, wasn't it? You didn't intentionally lead me down the garden path into humiliation, did you?

He glanced around the seemingly empty space. Discord? his voice echoed off the insides of his mind, That's what I thought. Ahem. I love you, you love me! We're a happy family, with a great big hug and a kiss from me to you!

Tom found Discord hanging from a chandelier in his private place mumbling something incoherent. The collection of singing, blue, bipedal creatures fell victim to a single beehive round fired in through a window. "Yes, thank you gentlemen, spot on target as always," Tom said over the radio. "Yes, I am a crystal radio."

Tom watched in disgust as one of Discord's tears fell to the floor and became a small, blue, singing dinosaur. His disgust and the creature grew as a second tear hit it. "Well, that's enough of that." He removed the floor and let the creature and the next tear fall forever. "Say hello to Lucifer when you hit bottom."

Tom looked at Discord, still shivering and crying. Tom shook side to side. "When will you ever learn?"

"I can't believe you did that!" Twilight shouted at him as they walked back to their temporary quarters.

He just stared at her uncomprehendingly as he walked.

"You 'RARRR' at Celestia!" Twilight said.

"Reroarrahroarreroar," he politely replied and shook a finger scoldingly at Twilight.

"It hardly makes a difference," Twilight countered.

"Well Rarrr is so common, and reroarrahroarreroar has a more musical tone," Rarity said thoughtfully, "Quite an important difference to the well-brought-up gentlecolt."

Twilight stared at her friend, then at the rest of the snickering group.

"He still thinks she kin stick a little sun in him and roast him inside out," Applejack pointed out, "He wouldn't a roared or reroararoared if'n he didn't reckon it was a game Celestia would play."

Twilight stared at all of them in utter amazement. "You don't understand."

"With respect, Sparkle, you don't understand," Trixie said, "I seriously doubt your mentor likes the pedestal you and others insist putting her on. He seems the only creature willing to play with her. So he played, she played back, and everyone accepts it was something else. Do you honestly believe the sudden increase in 'beeping' was for any reason other than Celestia did it, and all those movers and shakers suddenly could play a fantastic joke on all the trend followers?"

"You mean he might have played a joke on alla Equestria, and their Highnesses helped?" Applejack stammered, and took off her hat and held it over her heart, "Mah faith in pony nature is plumb shattered."

Twilight glanced around from one mirthful face to another with growing amazement. "But he made fun of her."

"Not without her full knowledge and consent, darling," Rarity said, "She could have thrown him into, well back into a dungeon. She didn't, because she figured the other ponies would either get the joke, or deserved to be confused."

"Poor Twi." Rainbow Dash patted Twilight's head. "Such an egghead, to be in the 'deserve to be confused' camp."

Twilight groaned and bowed her head.

"I think she doesn't like being on a pedestal," Fluttershy said.

"Yeah, not much room to walk, and that first wrong step is a doozy," Pinkie Pie added.

"Like I didn't like being a model," Fluttershy said.

"Or Trixie's dream," Derpy added.

"No . . ." Trixie gasped, then fell silent, as every eye fell on her, she sighed, "Very well. Trixie is tied to a wheel, and he tied her there." She glanced at Dinky, who was following alongside her mother. "It's clear he's excited, Trixie is equally excited, and things are apparently going to get very exciting," Trixie said and blushed, then frowned, "Then who should appear but Bearer of the Element of MAGIC!, Twilight Sparkle, complete with Heroic Glow! 'I am here to rescue you!' Well, Trixie has absolutely no interest in being rescued from her special somepony. And in this last one, while she was giving the heroic speech, he grabbed her tail, picked up her back end, so her she her back end was running in place and the front end was squealing that 'this isn't how it happens in books'. I've been 'rescued' from that dream eleven times by different Bearers, Princesses, and even BatMare, and Trixie never wanted to be rescued even once!"

The others chuckled about that.

"But, why not? If he tied you up?" Dinky asked.

"If a stranger started tickling you, would you be nervous?" Trixie asked.

"Yeah," Dinky said.

"But on Nightmare Night, you come home from school," Trixie said in spooky tone, "All the lights in the house are off, and all you can see are these glowing, orange fangs. And you hear your mother's voice, 'I am going to gobble you up little foal'. Then your momma pounces on you and starts tickling you, completely different, right?"

"Yeah," Dinky said, "Oh, you know he's not gonna hurt you, so a little scary is good."

"Exactly," Trixie agreed.

"Then why did everypony start blushing when you said you were excited?" Dinky asked.

"Oh look, we're here," Trixie said and pointed to the door to Celestia's room.

"Yay!" Dinky shouted and raced ahead, with Derpy right behind.

"Cheater," Applejack accused.

"A showmare knows when to run down the curtain and get off the stage," Trixie said.

"I thought you didn't trust wheels," Pinkie pointed out.

"Oh no, you'll miss the snipe hunting party!" Trixie gasped.

"Where?!" Pinkie gasped.

Trixie pointed to the door and Pinkie dashed after Dinky and Derpy. A second later she was back. "It got canceled on account of dough."

" 'Dough'?" Trixie asked.

"Yeah, the door is closed, so no dough," Pinkie said and grinned. "So, when I rescued you, did I bring cupcakes, or muffins? Or did I bring doughnuts? If it was late evening cupcakes are better, but in the morning doughnuts are better."

"Pastries did not enter into it," Trixie said.

"Well then it must have been an imposter," Pinkie said firmly, "If I'd been rescuing you, I would have brought pastries."

"I'll keep that in mind," Trixie said.

"I mean duh, even Discord started with chocolate rain, and he was just rescuing himself," Pinkie explained.

Trixie noted that the other Bearers had beat a quiet, but hasty retreat, leaving Trixie alone with Pinkie. "But you didn't bring pastries to rescue Princess Luna, now did you?"

Pinkie teared up. "You're right. I lost such a chance for a little party!" she wailed. Then she sobered. "That's why I've got party supplies stashed all over Ponyville, for just such an emergency."

"But we're in Canterlot," Trixie pointed out and started walking towards the door to her Highness' chambers.

"But it would take months to stash all the party supplies around here. Do you think the Princesses would mind?" Pinkie asked as they entered.

"You can ask," Princess Luna said.

The painstaking examination of the former location of the Ponyville Monster's house came to one conclusion. "None of the stones here can be distinguished from native Ponyville stones," Sangbleu commented, and then wrote down that conclusion in the notebook he'd brought. Other than the three fillies who seemed to have been watching with vague anticipation, and the recently returned, baby dragon who'd been taking his own notes, nopony shared in this Equestria-shattering revelation.

"So what now?" the dragon, Spike, asked.

"I get permission to examine the grounds where the house now lies. Then I get a blinding headache that the stones of a completely alien planet have chemical composition and mystical resonances exactly the same as Equestrian analogues," Sangbleu explained, "From a planet that has a different or nonexistent mystical tradition, that's just frightening."

"So what's next?" Spike asked.

"Brunch," the unicorn said, "And planning."

"Sugarcube Corners," Spike began.

"Had that for breakfast, and would like something other than bake goods for the rest of today," Sangbleu said and yawned, "And a nap."

"There's a couple of good restaurants in town," Spike said, then whispered, "Some are better than Canterlot, if you don't mind a second-rate presentation."

"Lead on, I always thought of food as being tasted, not looked at," Sangbleu said.

"You remind me of someone," Spike said absently, "Someone from Canterlot."

"Prince Blueblood," Sangbleu said. Then in a perfect copy of Blueblood's tone and manner, "If you didn't have such an, ugh, monotonous color scheme, you and I could be brothers."

"That's scary good," Spike said in wide-eyed amazement.

"Just takes practice and proximity," Sangbleu said in his normal tone, "Besides it's fun at parties. Of course people forget I'm there, and think they actually met him."

Spike nodded. "Well, you won't have to worry about running into him here. If Rarity catches him, she'll turn him into a throw rug."

"That might be interesting to watch," Sangbleu said, hoof on his chin, then he laughed, "No, who'd pay me to examine rocks, then?"

Luna opened the door to a room with high cabinets, all with covers blocking what they held. Luna gave a sigh of relief. At least Celestia's little secret is safe, Luna thought.

"Ooo! What's -?"

Spoke too soon, Luna thought and turned.


It wasn't the Royal Canterlot voice, it wasn't even Equestrian, but it was perfectly clear and brooked no defiance. The pink mare removed her hoof from proximity to the sheets covering one cabinet, the one concealing the 'Elements of Harmony' plushes, and fell into close formation between Rainbow Dash and Rarity. Occasionally glancing over her shoulder at the stern figure pointing at her.

Luna tried very hard not to smile at the change between 'touch everything, no personal space respecter' and 'nervous, follows the rules' Pinkie Pies.

The Big Guy brought up the rear with Trixie, and Trixie used the unicorn lock to seal the room. Luna led the group to the door to Ponyville. She briefly considered the danger of the door at the bottom of the stairs. No, we've got them controlled, and you'd need a key, or explosives to get in there. And what harm could they do, except to themselves? Luna considered, Talk to Celestia about covering that door over with a hoof-width of reinforced concrete. 'Nothing bad could happen, they could never get in,' who am I kidding?

The hallway that led to all the destinations was the same as Luna remembered, including the box she'd left there. Pinkie, predictably approached the box, then looked over her shoulder. The Big Guy stared at her, one eyebrow raised. Pinkie patted the box and put her friends between herself and the box as fast as possible, moving herself and them. She grinned back at the Big Guy, whose expression hadn't changed a bit.

Being one of the few people who'll yell at her seems to have its advantages, Luna considered as she headed towards the door to let Dinky and Derpy out. The others would stay for a moment.

"I'll be back in a bit," Derpy promised, and raced off with Dinky.

She's smarter that ponies give her credit for. A rock is smarter than ponies give her credit for, Luna amended.

"We going in, or going out?" Applejack asked, looking at the dim light and close quarters.

"Responsibilities, or claustrophobia?" Rarity asked quietly, not teasing, but wanting to know.

"Both, I reckon, always feel better in the open. And this place feels like a tomb outta a Daring Do book," Applejack admitted as she glanced around.

"Aw, there's nothing to be scared of in here," Rainbow condescendingly assured her, "It's all -"

"Woohahaha!" echoed off the walls.

"Who says he doesn't understand us," Trixie said, as Twilight tried to peel Fraidybow off of her and Applejack.

"I wasn't scared, I was just playing along," Rainbow said as she released the other two.

"Yeah, Rainbow Dash wouldn't lie, she was hugging you two and shivering like a filly to make it seem more real," Pinkie Pie came to Rainbow's 'defense', "And the rest of us weren't really scared either of a big spooky laugh echoing off the walls so you couldn't tell where it was coming from so it could be coming from everywhere and it was coming for you and AHHH!" Suddenly Pinkie was hugging Rainbow Dash.

"Pinkie, you scared yourself?" the pegasus asked.

"Nope, just a little demonstration, luh la luh la," she said and plonked away, stopping before the box, and following a square path to avoid it.

"Before someone hurts themselves," Luna said, "I think I'd better tell the secret."

"Back!" Derpy said as she closed the door behind her.

"As numerous people have told me, I broke his bed, I should get a replacement. I also need to face a few ghosts of my own," Luna said and looked at the others, "I would appreciate the help of a few ghost hunters on my trip."

Applejack stuck a hoof in Pinkie's mouth as she inhaled. "Not the kind ya'all kin giggle at Pinkie." She looked at Luna. "Yer talkin' about the castle, and yer old room," Applejack said.

"Yes. Celestia's magic preserved it, and I have not had the heart to return to the site of my two defeats, although I welcome the outcome of the second." She opened the box and removed what was there.

Pinkie gasped and covered Fluttershy's eyes. Trixie gasped and covered Twilight's eyes. Applejack gasped, and was growled at by Rarity. The farm pony just waved at her.

"Caught up in the moment," Applejack said and waved nervously.

"I made those." Rarity pointed out and looked over.

"I've seen those before," Twilight said as he picked up Trixie and moved her out of the way. "But aren't those a little inappropriate?"

"She's given him her bed . . . " Applejack said and fell silent.

Rarity sighed. "They are riding gear for creatures like the Big Guy, the styling is similar to something I found in the book he lent me. Although I could have made them much less, utilitarian," she said the word as if it were dirty.

"Uh, what is it?" Rainbow Dash asked, "It looks like a . . . " Then she got it. "Your Highness is going to wear that?"

"For a pony to wear it for another pony, it is exactly what you surmise," Rarity said primly, "For a pony, especially a winged pony, it is to keep a rider from falling off."

They realized the Big Guy had slipped away, because he was returned with a blanket that he carefully set on her croup rather than Luna's back.

"Shouldn't that go further forward?" Rarity asked.

"We tested it, if we placed it where it would go for pony play, it would interfere with my wings," Luna said as she moved them.

"Beg pardon, 'tested it'?" Applejack said.

"He, we had a dream. That he rode my back as we escaped by flight is all I shall reveal," Luna said, "Damn fire-breathing mice."

"Okay, that's enough for my curiosity," Twilight said, and watched as the Big Guy carefully saddled her Highness. Adjusting and tightening the straps.

Luna could see that were all getting more uncomfortable by the minute. "I want the pegasi to accompany us. My luck when being alone with him has been only slightly better than my sister's luck when she plans something for him."

"I think I have a way all of us can go," Twilight offered, "If I can get some help from Rarity and Trixie."

"Proceed, if you wish," Luna said, she looked away from the ponies and at the Big Guy who held the bit in one hand and the bridle in the other. "I am committed, am I not?" she said quietly, and took the bridle with her magic, and fitted around her muzzle. "Your hands are cleaner than my hooves," she told him, and opened her mouth. She was aware of the ponies staring, and that while it would not give him the level of control it might on a non-sentient animal, it was still a tremendous showing of submission.

Maybe I should suggest this to Celestia, get ponies to quit worshiping at her feet, Luna thought as he carefully and apprehensively approached. No, if she plans it, she'll get a wild hair to fly high and the heat of the sun will make him burst into flames, or the thin air will kill him. She held still as the wood slipped into the spaces between her teeth. Or he'll just fall off, she thought as he reached inside and adjusted it. She carefully clamped just her lips down hard on his hands, not touching his skin with her teeth. Both to remind him of her strength, and so the others couldn't see what her tongue was doing with his fingers.

His frustrated grin made it worth it. He pulled his hand out and mimed wiping it on her coat, but wiped it on his shirt, before setting the bit into the fittings on the bridle. He didn't take the bridle, or lead her by the reins, but collected the long weapon and small pack he'd brought along with the blanket.

How did he move so quietly, or are we ponies so inattentive he can move among us without being noticed? Luna wondered as she walked towards the door.

He held the door, but Derpy took that position and nudged him toward Luna. There would scarcely have been room in the hall to mount Celestia. I'm, short enough for this, she thought as he climbed aboard and with Rarity's help got his feet in the stirrups. He leaned down low to avoid bashing his head on the door frame as Luna leapt through the door and was airborne.

She immediately discovered one advantage of being pursued by a horde of fire-breathing mice. Immortality means I don't really have to breathe, she thought of the death grip he had on her throat, I think he could strangle a dragon.

She squeaked a noise, and repeated it. He relented, giving her enough slack to breathe, and made an apologetic noise, but still held on for dear life.

I wonder if Discord was 'translating', she pondered as she decided to keep the maneuvers down to the minimum. I should have let Derpy explain how she carries Dinky. She doesn't even have a saddle.

Derpy and Rainbow Dash took up positions alongside, but Luna couldn't spot Fluttershy. Then she caught a glimpse of a pink mane and a butter-colored wing. She's directly behind, and I didn't feel her. Maybe that 'weak flier' just doesn't cause the disturbances other pegasi create as they fly. She craned her neck for a moment, and saw the smiling pegasi had a hoof on the Big Guy's back, assuring him that even if he fell, someone would instantly catch him. While he kept a tight grip with his legs around her barrel, a sensation she found oddly sensual and enjoyable, it wasn't the death grip he'd had with his arms around her neck a few moments later. She nodded to Fluttershy, who smiled back.

The cloud that rose, and was now following them, contained the rest of the friends. Sveti was pushing the cloud along more like a pegasus would than a griffon. Lyra's and Trixie's horns glowed softly, leaving Rarity and Twilight to watch their progress and step in if needed.

The convoy turned towards the Castle of the Pony Sisters. Luna felt only trepidation as they flew over Everfree. We overthrew chaos, then took one of the most naturally chaotic places in Equestria as our home, Luna thought as they flew, Sometimes I wonder if we were thinking clearly, or if we wanted a barrier around our home from the very ponies we had saved. I was there and I still don't have answers.

She briefly considered a detour to Zecora's, but decided against it. Stay on course, keep it simple, she reminded herself.

Sangbleu looked up at the sight of the collection of fliers. All right, someone else likes to operate against type, he thought as he concentrated on the soil of Sweet Apple Acres. Interesting. So much crushed stone, mixed in with the organic material. No wonder this place is so successful. But it won't last, eventually they'll have to spread more minerals for the trees. Say in forty or fifty years.

He politely ignored the three fillies who'd been stalking him. They are curious about a stranger acting weird, he reminded himself, They have no idea who I am. I doubt they'd know if I told them.

The stallion working the fields had passed him twice, but since he wasn't on the family's land, he'd only been mildly curious. The farm stallion had spoken with the fillies, and continued on to his chores. Sangbleu decided not to get close to the fillies. Like you don't get between a bear and her cub, he thought as he collected a sample of the minerals, And I'll forward the results to the botanical group. If the minerals are the source of the magic, that may be what makes the Zap Apples possible.

"Celestia's mercy!" he shouted and pointed.

The fillies gasped, looked and missed him fading from sight. He carefully picked his way down the road as they searched for him. He knew they could track his hoofprints, but that would take time and he'd be in a position to drop the spell and walk away. As soon as he broke line of sight, he dropped the spell and trotted back towards Ponyville.

As the force arrived in the interior courtyard of the castle, Luna felt both exultant, and terrified. She also was disturbed by her reaction to the sensual pleasure of weight pressing against her back, the legs wrapped around her barrel and the arms around her neck as she flew. I'll have to tease Twilight about how she carries her assistant, she briefly considered. She turned and shook her head as he tried to dismount.

He looked curious, but kept his seat.

With my luck, you'll trip and split your head open, she thought as Fluttershy stayed close, fluttering around to ensure he stayed safe, letting Luna concentrate on where she put her hooves, the loose rubble and possibly weaknesses over the underground portions of the castle. I doubt that anypony has thoroughly examined this place since Celestia abandoned it for Canterlot, she thought as she walked through the halls.

The Bearers and the others landed and formed up. None strayed too far from the others. Their uncertainty worked in her favor.

I don't want them getting lost, or out of position where they could help, she thought. Then a roar of something large and angry sounded through the hall. She smirked that the Big Guy had the long weapon in hand and was scanning the area, as if the small weapon that was fine against Diamond Dogs would affect something the size of a hydra or even a manticore. Or it might have an effect, she realized, If he hits it in the eye. Then that projectile will be in the brain. It might affect a large creature.

None of them made a sound as they listen for whatever made the noise. Luna watched them all, and the differences between the species were laid out before her. Fluttershy stays near the Big Guy looking every which way. Twilight and Rainbow Dash search for targets, while Rarity and Applejack form a second line to rush forward or be the rally point for the more aggressive pair. Pinkie Pie watches and listens. Derpy and Lyra looked about nervously, but unconsciously move to extend Rarity and Applejack's line. The mares had unconsciously formed to defend the stallion. Sveti watches everywhere, but conceals herself to pounce upon an interloper. And the Big Guy has the long weapon pointed in the general direction he is looking, but held loosely so tension wouldn't slow his reaction.

It's like a pack of ants trying to defend an elephant, Luna thought of the collection, As if anything could really threaten me.

Trixie was facing the exact opposite direction of all the others, scanning the area intently.

Ah, she assumes misdirection, Luna thought. He slipped off her back and advanced with the long weapon, the spear tip extended, on a cabinet. The roar sounded through the hall. Derpy joined Trixie as they flanked the Big Guy as he advanced across the floor.

Luna watched as he knelt, aimed his weapon at a cabinet, and nodded to Trixie. The roar began again, and the door wrenched open, revealing a fat, old woodchuck, who glanced around nervously. Whether it was the Big Guy with the weapon, and his 'you are lunch' expression, or Sveti moving up to reinforce him, the woodchuck ran from the hall and leapt out a window.

The others sighed and chuckled. The Big Guy shook his head. Luna let them relax slightly then pointed at the staircase. "We still need to head up there," she told them and headed up the stairs.

Rainbow raced ahead, and discovered the doors wouldn't open no matter how she strained.

"Not feelin' yer oats?" Applejack asked.

"Okay cowpony, you try it," the pegasus exclaimed and stepped aside to let her friend try.

Luna watched her strain, and even kick the door to no avail. Then Twilight tried her magic. The doors briefly glowed with the characteristic tone of Twilight's magic, but even after a millennium, the magic binding the doors and their contents held firm.

"Why do I feel you are amusing yourself with our antics?" Trixie asked, "You could have opened that door at anytime, and we wouldn't gain entry if we blasted through the walls."

"Correct," Luna said, "But it was fun you all presuming yourselves stronger than Celestia."

Chagrined, the ponies stepped away from the doors. Luna touched them with her horn, and the doors swung inward, as they had for years, but not for the last thousand. Derpy led the Big Guy inside, there they began pulling sacks from the mailmare's saddlebags.

"You want all your stuff, don't you?" Derpy asked as she pulled out newspaper to wrap the various items and brick-a-brack that occupied spaces on the tables and other furnishings.

"I hadn't considered that," Luna admitted as she looked around at her room. The only sign of what had happened all those centuries ago was the smashed mirror. Everything else was exactly as she'd left it that fateful night.

She wasn't aware of her collapse, or her tears until the ponies closed in around her. The Big Guy sat before her, scratching her behind the ears. She seized him in a hug and began sobbing uncontrollably.

Tom floated above the floors through the corridors of his host's mind. He spotted a pony that looked like King Sombra having a bad hair and horn day. The creature's two horns and unkempt mane and tail, as well as the way it skulked down the middle of a pathway wide enough for a four-lane highway told Tom quite a bit.

"So, you are . . . ?" Tom asked as he maneuvered over the creature.

"I am the pony devil, here to offer life, love and happiness, at the cost his immortal soul," the creature said and attempted a horrifying laugh. It wasn't a patch on their host's. "And what do you want? I have spare contracts."

"Friends recently gave me what I want, but I am Tom. Long Tom to my friends."

"Pride is a sin you know, LOOONNG Tom. Long Tom because you're popular with the ladies like Rarity?" the creature asked and thrust his hips forward.

"Not really," Tom said, and fired the 155-mm M2 rifle at his target. The smoking heap of fried grease seemed incapable of further exposition, so Tom floated away. "All right, this psychosis has gone from juvenile to infantile, so it's time to rouse my other self from the dinosaur-induced, diabetic coma, and start dealing with this problem." He passed a crude graffiti of 'Yankee Go Home' undersigned with better workmanship with 'But I'm Canadian'. "I think I have had just about enough of this."

Derpy had pulled out all the canvas bags the Big Guy had brought in his pack. She arranged them with the newspapers and other sacks she'd brought, and now she and Rarity were carefully packing all the Princess' gewgaws and knickknacks. Some were clearly grooming aids, and some Derpy couldn't figure out at all.

She glanced back at her Highness, still sniffling a little, and directing the disassembly of the massive bed that was to be a gift to the Big Guy to replace the one that Luna had destroyed. Derpy smirked. It's large enough for all of us to cuddle around him, she thought happily. Then looked at haughty Trixie and aristocratic Princess Luna, and at erudite Lyra, and wondered, What does he see in me? Does he pity me, or is there something about me he really likes? She forced the thought aside. He loved teaching Dinky math, he loved the picnic we had, he's been happy to see me when I arrive. Maybe a simple, ordinary pegasus can't understand what he sees in simple, ole me. I can understand he likes it, whatever it is, and trying to be more of what it is has messed up even Princess Celestia. I guess just being me is the best I can do.

She continued her work as the others carefully disassembled the large piece of furniture.

"Uh, how are we going to transport that back to the door in Ponyville?" Derpy asked, "The cloud will never hold it, and we didn't bring a sling to carry it, or pads to keep it from bumping and breaking itself."

Everyone froze as they looked at each other. After a moment, the Big Guy snickered. He walked over to the room's linen closet and removed several blankets and began wrapping the parts. Twilight facehooved.

Derpy only smiled, Clever, but simple. Maybe that's why I like him too, she thought as the others wrapped up the bed. He collected several of the canvas bags onto a blanket. He also pulled some of the wash clothes and smaller towels to help them pad what they were packing for her Highness. He walked to a chest of drawers and began to pull one open, when Luna galloped over and kicked it shut. She grinned nervously at him.

He shrugged and returned to the linen closet to get sheets and blankets to start wrapping the chest of drawers as it stood.

"What do you suppose is in that drawer?" Rarity whispered.

"Something we're better off not knowing about," Derpy replied firmly as she continued packing, now using the content of the linen closet to help pad the breakables for transport.

Rarity snickered, but Derpy didn't want to anger the very touchy Princess.

Tom returned to Discord's private room, pulling a rack of fish behind him. Tom turned slightly. "Some of these can't be seen, but they could be smelt, by the hard of herring. Some are slightly off note, so they need to see a tuna fish. But I need the right one." He scanned the rack. "It would be easier if this was a rack of lamb, 'he said sheepishly.' Haddock? No, he's enough of a haddock as it is. AH!" He grabbed a fish and held it above him. "There can be only one!" he shouted, then lowered his voice and the fish, "And it primarily benefits the fish as well. I always want to smack him just for the halibut." Tom looked over. "It's not my fault that I have to remind some of you that I am a piece of Discord. Blame that guy in his grandmother's basement in Pasadena for sending the hate mail." He swatted Discord across the face with the fish.

"Clam Chowder!" Discord shouted as he looked around.

"Manehatten or Neigh England style?" Tom asked.

Discord looked at him with wild eyes, wilder than usual. "It was terrible."

"You do need to learn not to force the issue," Tom reminded him.

"Oh I learned that! I assure you I learned that . . . can you put the floor back?" Discord asked.

"Certainly," Tom replaced the floor in the room, and ran a vacuum cleaner over it. Pulled by a sled-bunny team, each one in his own color-coded parka.

Discord dropped down from the chandelier. No humorous noises sounded and the chaos spirit seemed vaguely paranoid.

"Sir -" Tom began and stopped as Discord jumped.

"Oh, yes, you," Discord said and chuckled nervously, "I have learned my lesson. Play it straight, he gets very vicious when he thinks someone is trying to hurt him."

"I rather think the roaring contest and the subsequence siege of the blue dinosaurs was unpleasant," Tom pointed out, "But hardly worth that description."

"Oh, I left that behind after you removed the floor," Discord said as he began examining the furnishings, looking under them for hidden dangers or listening devices.

"Then what?" Tom asked patiently.

"Someone tried to break in here," Discord said, finishing his examination by checking over his beloved chair.

"Here, as in this specific here, or the more general here," Tom asked, gaining a measure of worry himself.

"They didn't find your stash of Wonderbolts memorabilia," Discord said disgustedly, "Or your Cadence wedding dolls."

"They are action figures," Tom said primly, "And getting the prerelease version of the Tuxedo Shining Armor took a most dogged bidding war."

"Fine, 'action figures'," Discord said dismissively, then sobered, "At least neither of us has a blowup Celestia." He shuddered at that.

Tom was equally disgusted. "This story is rated for Everyone, perhaps we should change the subject."

"Not much of a change, the intruder snuck in here, into his mind, disguised as Celestia, bold as brass," Discord said.

How does one sneak in as bold as brass? Tom wondered, picked up the wad of paper flung at him.

" 'Iz easy dude sneekz by bolding as Cleesta,'," Tom read, then crumbled up the note. "Either get a bloody spellchecker on your smart phone or a real keyboard."

"I take it you dealt with the interloper," Tom said, and noted how frightened his counterpart was. "He dealt with it, then what is your concern?"

"He pierced her belly with his -"

"Rated for Everyone," Tom reminded him.

"Okay, fine, then cut her/him/whoever was masquerading as Celestia from sternum to crotch, while the ersatz Celestia screamed and begged for mercy. But rather than bleed and be filled with things requiring the Gore Tag and a Mature rating, she was filled with air. She started deflating once he punched a hole in her, and he didn't cut her open until she was nearly done, nearly empty. Of course, she was terrified by the experience, the helplessness and the fear of death."

"I suspect that was rather the point," Tom said disparagingly.

"Yes, I guessed that too. Still, when facing an opponent with no imagination, imaginative punishments are an order of magnitude more terrifying," Discord offered, still agitated by what he'd seen, "Then, after he made the hole big enough, he pulled himself inside her empty skin. It stretched a few places, was loose in others. All the time her eyes were moving, you could see the whites as her terror grew. Trapped, a suit for another creature, unable to move, unable to affect what happened to her."

"Disturbing," Tom agreed, "Did he parade around in his new clothes?"

"No. He picked up a cylinder with some weird hoses and gizmos attached, and strapped it on himself, but only after he fitted the mouthpiece over her horn and inflated the suit a little. Then he dove into the ocean."

Where'd he get the ocean? Tom wanted to ask, but kept listening.

"So he caught a couple of lobster, a few abalone, and some crabs, and returned to the surface," Discord continued in his haunted tones.

"Terrifying, seafood for lunch, what horrors have been released on Equestria?" Tom said, earning a glare from Discord.

"Yes, seeing the terror of someone looking just like Celestia as she failed to understand what was happening, and the only movement she could manage was the rather pathetic flapping of her half-limp wings. It's what he did next," the draconequus said coldly, "After he climbed out of the ocean with the seafood, he took the skin off, and sealed it back up. Then he put the mouthpiece back on her horn, and blew her up, just enough to let her flop around helplessly, no strength and no coordination."

"Like a beached fish?" Tom asked.

Discord stared at him. "I am at least trying to give this story some gravitas. Do you have to sneer at everything? You have completely ruined the mood!" Discord complained.

"Perhaps because I find the method of death ridiculous, and even I can guess it," Tom said, "You have a pony balloon and a high-pressure gas cylinder. I assume he let her helplessness terrify her, then offered to inflate her, inflated her to immobility, and them ever so slowly took her to the limits, with the associated creaks and groans of an overstretched balloon. Perhaps each feather on her wings forming their own little bubble to squeak and threaten imminent explosion."

"Well, yes," Discord said, "But I would have made it properly spine chilling."

"There are almost too many characters in this story for most readers to keep track of. Unless you learned the identity of this intruder before his/her/its dream manifestation went kablooie, I seriously doubt they care."

"Even if he fed the scraps to lions and tigers?" Discord said.

"Even if he flew them straight into their mouths like sailcats, Rest in Peace Mr. Winters," Tom said solemnly. Discord produced a chocolate cake and blew Taps.

"Okay, so he applied a rather terrifying and unusual torture to someone who broke into his mind in the guise of Celestia. I hardly think that's really what's bothering you," Tom said.

"You think I think that he thinks that I think he'll do that to me?" Discord said.

"No," Tom said dryly, "I am very sure he would not attack you that way. You have embarrassed him at most, and even when Luna and Celestia, and Pinkie Pie caused him injury, he realized they had no malice so he did not respond to that. But that actually is secondary."

"Secondary?" Discord asked, "What's primary?"

"I think you're jealous," Tom said.

"I'm jealous about being terrified, cut, stretched past my breaking point and being thrown in shattered fragments to lions?" Discord asked, "I think you've finally cracked."

"What you are jealous of, is the attention, not what the attention consists of," Tom said, "You aren't jealous about being terrified and tortured, you are jealous about the intricate attention. You've been poking at Celestia, and would appreciate her driving her horn into your guts almost as much as pleasant chat, as long as it's all focused intensely on you."

"That's ridiculous," Discord said and turned his back on Tom, although the rest of him still faced the sphere.

"Oh, then look at your mentor. He's afraid of Celestia, but he can play with her in front of all the others, as long as he remembers to give her a way out. You know as well as I do that he didn't have to let her win the 'roar at each other' challenge, but doing it let him keep playing."

Discord glowered at the crystalline entity.

"Haven't you wondered what he sees in Derpy?" Tom asked, "It is the quality of her attention. He can be quiet around her, and she knows that despite his ferocious reputation and capabilities, she protects him. She doesn't have to do anything, but they both know they are happier together sitting quietly than separate."

"You act like she's some kind . . . of security blanket," Discord said and his jaw dropped, followed by his eyes, horns, eye sockets and color.

"That seems like an impressive idea?" Tom asked, "When you've pulled yourself together, would you care to share?"

The aerial procession drew the attention of everyone in Ponyville as the massive collection of cargo-carrying clouds and their flight-capable neighbors headed towards the door in the park. They also saw Princess Luna among the group, flitting here and there among the cargo bundles. As nervous as a filly with her first ribbons.

The entire assembly settled down outside the door, and had an immediate and interested audience. The Big Guy clambered out of the cloud he'd been riding on and stepped onto the ground. Zecora was among the observers of the arriving collection.

"Seek you near and seek you far, in Ponyville and there you are," Zecora said to Twilight, "So this is the Monster of Ponyville, losing that title was quite a thrill."

Twilight grinned nervously at that. She glanced at the Big Guy, who was arranging the loads to pass them through the door, while the others rested after their long trip.

"We were considering passing by your home, but having this collection suddenly descend on your doorstep might not have been a welcome surprise," Twilight explained.

"The surprise would be yours, I in fact was out of doors," she replied, "Rumors aplenty I have heard, what real magic have you observed?"

"Machines, that do incredible things, and he somehow can do something that paralyzed all the ancient villains of Equestria, and keeps Discord fascinated," Twilight said, "I think he's crazy."

"Frightened you, did he not? Hated that, quite a lot," Zecora warned, "Underestimated foes, knock you out, not keep you on your toes."

He walked up to the door and rolled up his sleeve. His whistle brought everyone's attention. Twilight nodded and watched as the Big Guy tapped on the front and sides of the freestanding door with a long stick.

"Who is the student and who is the master?" Zecora asked and indicated Trixie watching the performance with interest.

He gestured for Luna to come forward. The Princess did, among the gasps from some of the more religiously royalist community members. He held the stick next to Luna, measuring her length, and then beside the door. His pantomime of confusion seemed to say 'I don't think she'll fit.'

Luna regarded the histrionics with growing disdain. The Big Guy picked up on this before most of the audience, and opened the door, letting Luna and most of the parcels pass through. The bed notably remained behind. He closed the door and walked around it, tapping with his stick and reciting an almost musical line of patter about something.

Once he finished circling, he held the stick against the edge of the door, and indicated Luna's length in comparison. The ponies laughed at the display. He shouted what might have been a charlatan's 'magic words' as he tapped the door. Then he flung it open.

"Hello, my little ponies," Celestia said as she stuck her head out the door.

The Big Guy threw his hands in the air and fell down in 'surprise'. The crowd loved it. He hit the stick against the ground a few times, carefully listened to it, and waved Celestia back through the door. Twilight and a few others gasped at the audacity as Celestia compiled, closing the door after her.

He walked around the door, tapping it with the stick, and shouting words that sounded a good deal harsher than the first 'incantation'. He yanked the door open.

"Hello, my little ponies," Celestia said as she stuck her head out the door.

The Big Guy stared at Celestia, stared at his stick, stared at Celestia, then broke the stick in two over his knee and flung one piece one way and the other the opposite way. He slunk over to Trixie and gestured at Celestia, who still stood grinning in the door way.

Trixie stared at him in utter horror. Celestia blew a raspberry at him. He turned and charged the door screaming. Celestia closed it 'at the last moment' so he crashed into it. As he fell slowly to the ground, the crowd laughed at their antics. Lyra and Derpy ran up. They were joined by Dinky. Dinky's horn glowed as she walked around it, giving it a delicate kick here and there. Lyra and Derpy dragged the 'corpse' away as Dinky performed her circuit. The little unicorn strained to use the door latch.

"Hello, my -" came out sounding natural for Celestia, then came the most defective Luna impression in living memory, "I am Princess Luna! Fear me!"

"Worst imitation of an Alicorn's tones, hearing it shivers straight through my bones," Zecora said.

"But that is Princess Luna," Twilight gasped, as the rest of the crowd burst into laughter.

The Lunar Diarch had taken her 'Celestia-size' form, and occasionally shook a back hoof to dislodge the moon cutie mark stencil that drying paint had glued to her hoof. The overall effect looked like a Luna impersonation even the Cutie Mark Crusaders would be ashamed to own.

Once Lyra and Derpy began laughing at the ridiculous scene, the rest of the citizenry joined in. With the notable exception of Twilight and Trixie, who still viewed the entire event with a level of utter disbelief. Somewhere along the line, Celestia had taken the bed pieces inside, presumably to set them up. Luna looked around at the laughing citizens, she stood in her Celestia-like, 'Nightmare Moon' size, shape, but not appearance, and the citizens only laughed.

Celestia joined her sister, and whispered in her ear. The Solar Diarch nodded to the Big Guy, who nodded back and headed through the door with Derpy, Lyra and Dinky in tow. Twilight didn't miss the absolutely venomous look Luna gave to the Big Guy as he left, or his apologetic nod. Acknowledging his misstep. Luna's expression returned to bemused as the ponies surrounded her and Celestia.

"It's like whatever, whenever they get together, all rational expectations just sizzle away to smoke," Twilight said as the Ponyville ponies actually laughed with their Highnesses.

"Life passed before your eyes, because of this delightful surprise?" Zecora asked Twilight, "A sense of humor your mentor has got, although you were certain she had not? And the Big Guy's punishment for Les majesty, Luna will be quite harsh, are you eager to see?"

Twilight looked at how delighted her mentor was. "I can't understand why she lets him do that, to treat her so . . . "

"Like a playful friend?" Zecora asked.

Twilight grimaced at that. "Why does it sound like a rebuke?"

"No one wants to be just one thing to everyone," Zecora replied and walked over to the crowd surrounding the Princesses.

I want to go yell at him for affronting Princess Celestia's dignity, but Princess Celestia didn't have a problem with it. Or the roaring contest, Twilight realized, She seems to accept, and even like the games he plays with her. Luna clearly doesn't, but she understands fun and modern ways so poorly, she might not understand that the games actually elevate Celestia's status. Pony calling the mule hooved. I didn't realize that until just now. She gets to be who she really is for a moment, instead of the soft, gentle pony she always portrays herself as. Today, she got to prove she was fierce, fiercer, than the nastiest thing to hit Equestria. And she got to prove she was clever, by doing something nopony would ever ask her to do, and doing it well.

Rarity had walked over. "If you keep making that face, it might stick that way," her fellow unicorn said.

"Just having something rubbed in my face, and really not liking it," Twilight admitted, "You all tease me about 'worshiping' Celestia. I just never realized how limiting my vision, and many ponies' vision of her was. Our friend elevates her too, but while I put her on a pedestal."

"He has her walk across the ceiling?" Rarity asked, "Twilight, even I don't want to be seen as only a fashion designer. Yes I want to be recognized as one. But I also want ponies I care about to know there's more to me than a pretty face and a deft horn."

Twilight smirked. "Yes, I've noticed that neither Applejack nor Rainbow will 'roughhouse' with you, and not just because you'd turn them down."

"Why Twilight, what ever could you mean?" Rarity asked, a hoof on her chest.

"I think they aren't sure they'd win," Twilight said.

"Ah, I've never been so insulted," Rarity said and flipped her mane, "I'm going to take you over where your mentor can punish you." Rarity's magic lifted Twilight slightly off the ground, and despite her hooves going the other way, she headed towards Celestia.

Lyra watched him measure the area in the room, and compare it with the measurements he'd taken of the bed frame. She'd been glad to assist in moving the furniture around to accommodate the much larger structure. She desperately tried to keep the glee from her expression as she thought, He'll have space for a 'pony pile' any time he's home. She sobered herself, Don't push. And I may be counting my chickens before they've hatched. That look her Highness gave him after the little magic show may mean she'll take her toys and go home. Human, if that is what you are, you have got to quit enjoying living so dangerously.

She watched Derpy and Dinky also watch him, and briefly wondered where his 'official' guard was. She should be here. Although the danger is minimal, Lyra thought as heard a knocking at the door. The Big Guy accompanied Lyra to the front door.

Sweetie Drops was there, looking very chagrined and nervous. She nodded to the Big Guy, and greeted Lyra with a simple hello.

The Big Guy stood aside for her, then glanced outside before closing the door.

"Aren't you going to say 'I told you so?'" Sweetie Drops asked.

Lyra hugged her. "No," she replied, "I still haven't proved they are native to Equestria. And if they aren't, why does this place look like a scaled up version of our homes. Scissors, switches, chairs and benches, why do they all look like they'd fit him perfectly, and are awkward for us?" she asked as they followed the Big Guy back to the bedroom. "Tell me there's anything in here that would look completely out of place in a pony home, or a university? It doesn't make sense, unless they developed them. How we got them? That's theology."

"Have you told him any of your theories? Or can he still not talk?" Sweetie Drops asked.

"He can communicate, but I think there are things that set off stable ponies." Lyra grinned at her skeptical friend. "I think we need to get him stable here first. I mean it's only been three weeks. And with all the weird stuff that's happened to him, having some nice, normal, slightly boring ponies around is probably more welcome."

"My momma isn't boring," Dinky replied loyally.

"Compared to Pinkie Pie, even Celestia is boring," Sweetie Drops replied.

"Next week?" Trixie asked as she, Twilight and Celestia stood in the library.

"Your service has been exemplary," Celestia said, "Three weeks is sufficient. It is clear you've learned your lesson. Tomorrow would be the last day of your second week. After that, you may stay or go as you please."

"So, I could stay?" Trixie said, barely trusting all the differing emotions raging through her.

Stay or go, she thought, I could return to the stage. With the 'recompense' from the dragon queen, I could buy a new wagon, with all my props and supplies restored. How will I explain it? Do I even want to? Do I even want to go?

"That's wonderful, you can be back on the road, entertaining adoring throngs, and you'll have exploits you won't even have to brag about," Twilight said happily, "In fact, if you tell the truth about them, some people may not even believe them."

"Trying to get his library all to yourself?" Trixie asked and raised an eyebrow.

"I'll leave you two to discuss it," Celestia said and stepped outside.

"You've been pushing the limits quite a lot with me," Twilight said patiently, "But I realized that it isn't important. You aren't my friend, but you seem to be his. Whatever you decide is your decision. I won't try to influence you," Twilight said, "The translation has been ordered by the Princesses, and I'll do it. The griffon team will also be working on it."

"So whatever I decide is on my head," Trixie said, "You play the game well, when you finally decide to play." Trixie walked out of the library into the growing darkness.

"You need to have a little fun, sister," Celestia said as she entered the hallway that led to both their home, and his.

"We didn't do fun when we were young," Luna replied quietly.

"We don't have Discord now, except one little piece that our friend keeps enmeshed in webs of fascination," Celestia said, "It was play, but neither body nor mind was hurt. And a bruise to Royal Dignity will heal quickly enough. You hurt him when you refused to play."

Luna sighed. "Why does he have to be so frivolous?"

"Because he is a masterful killer and destroyer, who is trying to step lightly on a world not his own. And in his own way, he is trying to help both you and me. Seeing things we don't, or have shut out of our lives when we were more like him. Discord, Sombra, Nistag, they did not fall to persuasion or a gentle word. We struck them, hard."

"And Nightmare Moon?" Luna asked, "She, I, deserved my fate. And I remember and put away that part of me."

"Put it away, but do not deny it is part of you. That is part of what he is trying to point out. That what I have done, is cling to things too long because they became what ponies expect, and after Discord they needed that stability. That stability is becoming something our ponies could do with less of. We are not absolutely needed. Unicorns once raised the sun and moon themselves. Pegasi controlled the weather, without direction from Cloudsdale or Canterlot."

"And ponies made war on each other," Luna pointed out, "Do you wish to return to those days?"

"No," Celestia said and nuzzled Luna, "But to a different world than we occupy now. But I don't know how. He does. It will be a delicate act, balancing what we think is good for our ponies, what the ponies think is good for them, and whatever crazy ideas he puts forth. Don't turn away from him because the early steps of this dance have been clumsy. We've trodden on his feet a time or two with our missteps."

"I do not like to be mocked," Luna ground out.

"Have a care sister," Celestia warned, "Having absolutely no one who will play with you, is the loneliest life you can imagine. You know that from your imprisonment within the moon. I know it, surrounded by adoring ponies. Would you care to fill bushels with our pain and see which overflows more?" Celestia headed through the door to their apartments. The parcels had already been removed. Only the bed and its fixturing remained in the hall.

Luna sighed and lifted it with her magic. She rang the doorbell and waited to be allowed entry. She hid her glare at him as best she could, but his little game still rankled.

Inside his bedroom, the space for the bed was clearly laid out, and apparently, the others had been waiting. The mirth in the room effectively vanished as she arrived. The ponies were respectful. The Big Guy seemed chagrined.

Celestia wouldn't understand, but I prefer it this way, Luna thought as she assembled the bedframe in midair, Respectful, but not frightened. I'll let Celestia be the 'fun' one.

She set the completed frame in place, put the mattress and sheets in place as she lowered them onto the completed frame. She enjoyed their amazement at her skill.

Derpy glanced around. We were 'pony piling' the Big Guy, she thought, So the dark I understand, but why can't I move? Why can't I talk?

The sudden burst of light, dim as it was, made her squint. The Big Guy looked at her, then unzipped her belly and took her off the hanger and carried her out of the closet. He laid her on his new bed and carefully brushed her off.

She giggled inside as the brush passed through her fur and caressed her skin. She wanted to smile and tell him not to tease her. He turned her over and brushed out her wings. She silently giggled more.

He carefully stepped in through the unzipped opening, putting his legs inside her legs, his arms within her arms. Once he'd zipped her up, which made her giggle, she hugged him tightly for a moment.

He stepped outside and looked at her wings. She extended one, and he checked the joints and the feathers carefully. Then he looked at the other and she extended that one. He checked it just as carefully.

She hugged him carefully as she extended her wings and lifted him into the air. Their target was Canterlot some distance away. But she knew he trusted her to get him there safe and sound.

Fluttershy glanced around. Where am I? It's so dark! she thought worriedly, What's happening, is this a dream? Where are my friends? she wanted to shout, but couldn't make even the slightest noise. The Big Guy opened the door and reached towards her. She silently giggled as he unzipped her belly and pulled her off the hanger. She tittered silently. Oh, this is one of those dreams. I really should take him flying again, and take Derpy as a safety pegasus. I guess this is a reminder that I should just do it. He liked it, and I think he likes flying.

She enjoyed the gentle brushing out of her coat and then he turned her over to brush out her wings.

She laughed inwardly at it all. I'd never have the courage to ask, but maybe I should talk to Derpy, she laughed inwardly.

He stepped inside her through the zippered opening. She felt the faint chill of his skin.

Don't be worried, she wanted to soothe him, It'll be all right. I won't let you fall. You've trusted me before, you can trust me again, she thought as he zipped himself inside.

He stepped outside, glanced back, and carefully tugged on her wing. She extended it, and blushed as he checked her feathers and the joints of her wing. The heat of her blush warred with the decreasing chill of his skin. She extended her other wing automatically when he turned his attention to her other wing. He stepped away from the house and took a few jogging steps, and let her lift him into the air. She carefully circled the house, checking its condition.

Rarity opened her eyes, and felt something inside her. Oh know, I can't be clothing! I can't be off-the-rack! she thought in horror, Oh Rarity, calm down, you can never be pret-a-porter, you will always be haute couture.

He opened the closet door.

He looks awful, she thought as she looked at the tiredness he wore like a cloak. The poor thing, she thought as he unzipped her and carried her to the bed. There he gently brushed her out.

Well, he knows how to treat a lady, she thought, This must be one of the dreams they talked about. I hope this isn't Nightmare's return. We should be ready for the unusual, and we'll have to remember to talk about our dreams.

He turned her over and was especially careful with her butterfly like wings.

Oh wonderful! she thought happily. He carefully stepped into her, and she admired herself in the window's reflection. Well, I do make a striking fashion statement, but I must admit the wings make me spectacular, she thought as he stepped outside.

She extended her wings and took to the air.

He aimed towards Canterlot and she eagerly carried him towards it. Such a chance to show them what it means to be Rarity! she thought eagerly.

Discord was transforming himself into the Big Guy as he approached Rainbow Dash's dream space. "What are you doing?" Luna asked as she stood between Discord and his target.

"Just learning a lesson about friendship," Discord admitted, "Something you really need to do."

"I?" the alicorn exclaimed.

"Yes," Discord said, "They should have reacted with horror at being reduced to a mere suit of clothing, until they saw whose clothing they were and that they were still his protectors and trusted allies when he did something dangerous for him and trivial for them. Even Fluttershy exulted in that role." Discord leaned close. "Imagine, holding him safe and warm inside you as he flew where he willed, on your own wings."

Luna pawed the ground, looking uncertain, then grimaced. "I won't be tricked by you! You were the invader of their dreams, not him! There is nothing you can say or do that will let me pass you to warp the dreams of other ponies."

"Never say never, Highness," came a cultured voice behind her.

Luna looked around the darkness that surrounded her. Okay, I have to learn that even a fragment of Discord is powerful. And my own desires can thwart my duties, she thought as she felt the light fall on her.

He peered at the odd clothing hanging in his closet. She inaudibly whickered nervously as he ran a finger over her soft fur. Then he yanked his hand back and stared in horror.

No! No! No! Luna wanted to scream, You didn't skin me! I'm fine! Her fear became anger. Discord! If you scare him away with this stupid 'test', I'll turn you into solid stone, smash you to gravel and feed you to every chicken in Equestria!

Either he found it, or Discord rapidly provided to find a sales tag. While he didn't understand the writing, he recognized the Carousel Boutique's symbol on the tag. He seemed to quiet as he considered that while Rarity would make some odd clothing, she would never lay claim to having flayed a Diarch, and turned her into a suit.

He took her off the closet pole, then realized she had a hanger inside. He found the zipper and she would have squealed at the tickling the unzipping gave her. He smiled at the construction, checking the floppy wings and horn before removing the Luna suit from the hanger. His gentle touch on the soft, inside lining made her want to shiver, it didn't tickle. But it was new and exciting. Then she saw his rueful expression.

He held up the costume so he was eye to eye with it. He made sounds like badly butchered Equestria as he rocked the shoulders side-to-side, then he raised one of her 'hooves' and slapped himself across the face, then again, and when his head was back from the slapping, he mimed stabbing himself with her floppy, felt horn.

No! I wouldn't do that! she desperately wanted to tell him.

His sardonic smile nearly broke her heart as he carefully replaced the hanger, zipped her back up, and replaced her in the closet.

Please, I'm not like that! Luna wanted to shout, I know what fun is! I can be less stuffy with friends! I want to show you the joy of flying, flying with me! Please, turn around, come back. I won't hate you. Don't leave me alone.

He paused halfway through the bathroom, and glanced back at her. Luna let her hope return. She waited for him to come back.

He gave out a half-hearted chuckle, then another.

That doesn't sound right, Luna thought as she hung there and watched.

He burst into despairing laughter, and slid to the floor. Clutching his knees to his chest he laughed desperately, hopelessly, and slowly fell over sideways and began beating the floor. The laughter was replaced by screams of rage. Luna cringed at the sound, and at eavesdropping on such a private and vulnerable moment.

After a short mortifying and agonizing interval, he fell silent. The blows stopped falling and he lay there, unmoving, barely breathing. The faint rasp of his breathing a clue to how far he'd stressed his vocal cords. Luna watched as he lay there as the minutes dragged on.

As abruptly as it started, he stood. His expression composed and placid. Other than the bruises on his hands and the puffiness of his eyes, there was no evidence of the lapse of composure and control. He walked out of the bathroom/dressing room, and closed the door behind him.

Luna wanted to close her eyes and weep, but that simple action was denied her by her current form.

13) The Fiddler's Fee

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Cultural Artifacts - The Fiddler's Fee

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 25

Derpy woke up first, she chuckled as she found herself wrapped around the Big Guy, with Lyra opposite, duplicating her all-encompassing grip. We'd better be careful or we might strangle him, she thought, then smelled something. In the dim light it was hard to make out, but she'd smelled them on Dinky too often not to recognize the scent of tears.

Derpy glanced around. Her Highness hadn't slipped back in during the night. I guess he really does care about her, Derpy thought, This isn't a hurt that'll be distracted by a muffin.

She considered the weird dream, and how happy he'd been. I should ask Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy if they had that dream too.

She looked around and found Sveti lying on the floor. She waved the griffon forward. There's plenty of room, in fact there's less room on the floor.

Sveti shook her head and rubbed a cheek on the carpet.

Okay, the beds aren't good, but the slight give of the carpet she likes. I understand, Derpy thought, and looked around, spotting the small horn peeking out from the covers. I need to ask Dinky what she finds so fascinating about keeping his feet warm. Maybe it's like Lyra and hands. Maybe it's something different.

Derpy settled back, careful not to wake him, or any of the others. She froze when his arms went around her and held her close. He wasn't making the happy sounds he often did. She snuggled close and held him, hoping somewhere she could feel that she and the others still loved him.

Discord could hardly believe it. He and Tom had been up the entire night discussing and unsuccessfully trying to find fault with their theory. It was so simple, it defied description. "Tell me I'm wrong," he pleaded with Tom.

"Sorry, it is what it is," the crystalline being said.

`"Okay, communication becomes our priority," Discord said quietly, "That means the amulet. And as you've pointed out, I've got to play it straight - er. He will keep me in fun, as long as I don't let him get too far a field."

"Good plan," Tom said without the faint condescension that usually accompanied such statements.

"It's so obvious, once you know what to look for," Discord said.

"What did you find?" Cadence asked as she trotted up behind him.

"When did you get here? How did you get here?" Discord asked.

"Tom, my lady Cadence," the crystal introduced himself, "Please to make the acquaintance of anyone who makes Discord so nervous."

Discord grimaced at his correlative.

"Aunt Luna was in a particularly bad mood tonight, and everyone was very formal around her. While Auntie Celestia seemed in high spirits. I thought that I'd ask someone who'd seen it from the inside. And please hurry, it's a strain to hold up over these distances."

"We discovered very simply that our host is intrinsically lazy," Tom explained, "And rather militantly so, except when something was important."

"Then he'll bend heaven and earth, bring all his formidable powers of computation and cunning to bear and directing them again whatever target there was," Discord said.

"Let me guess," Cadence said, "He hates that about himself."

Discord and Tom nodded quietly. "And hates even more when others invoke it," Discord added, "But especially when they invoke i