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CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter One: Inception

 

To my most faithful student, Twilight Sparkle,

Surely by now you have begun to sense the strange magical force coming from the Everfree Forest. At first I suspected it was nothing more than some of my more ambitious subjects, practicing their spells in a place where they could use their full power without fear of harming others. But now, the energy levels there are beginning to approach or possibly surpass even that of the Element of Magic. You, my most treasured pupil. Further complicating things is the nature of the magic itself. It feels somewhat chaotic in essence but I am not completely sure, so I cannot precisely determine just how much of a threat it may be. I regret being unable to look into this personally.

I must ask for a favor from you and your friends, the wielders of the Elements of Harmony, as I have done on many an occasion in the past, and it is with a heavy heart that I must do so once again. I wish for you to travel into Everfree, and uncover the source of this strange anomaly. If the Elements of Harmony are indeed required, inform me so that I may retrieve them from Canterlot Tower for you. If they are not required, and if at all possible, I give you permission to do something about it as well, but please do not put yourself in any undue danger for my sake. If you feel it is beyond your ability, please, just return home and contact me. I will handle the rest. I have the utmost confidence in you, my faithful student.

Yours sincerely,

Princess Celestia

 

Twilight Sparkle hummed as she finished dictating the letter. “Well, everypony, what do you think? Are you all up to the task?”

        She stopped pacing back and forth on her rug and turned to her friends, who had all gathered together in her library to discuss the situation. Fluttershy and Rarity sat together to the side, whispering to each other in anxious tones; Rainbow Dash lounged lazily on the nearby sofa while Pinkie Pie bounced in place beside her; Applejack stood dutifully near Twilight, scratching her head and visibly pondering what to do about the letter.

Twilight felt an odd mix of anxiety and pride as she rolled the letter’s contents around in her mind. Princess Celestia’s tasks were always a joy to complete, but they were typically very straightforward and intuitive, or at the very least contained useful clues. This new task laid before Twilight and her friends was pretty much mud.

“I reckon if the Princess needs our help, it's our job to do so, ain't it?” Applejack said, replacing her hat. “As users o’ Elements of Harmony an’ whatnot? If this were somethin’ anypony else could do, she wouldn’t’ve asked us.”

“Well put, Applejack.” Twilight walked over to the nearby bookshelf and pulled out the familiar copy of The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide, and immediately set to flipping through it. “Let’s see... the Princess mentioned the magic feeling ‘chaotic’. That sounds familiar. Hmm... chaotic... chaotic...”

Rarity jerked her head up sharply, causing Fluttershy to squeak in alarm. “Twilight, you don’t think this has anything to do with Discord, do you?” she asked. “I’d really rather not go through all that again.”

“Chaotic... Discord. Hmm... you might be on the right track, Rarity,” Twilight said, pulling her nose out of the book. “Still, I’m certain if the Princess knew that this was somehow related to Discord, she would’ve mentioned that specifically. It must be something else. But what?”

“How do you know for sure it’s not, though? This really could be dopey ol’ Discord, trying to escape or something.” Rainbow Dash yawned and crossed her hooves behind her head. “Maybe he learned his lesson, and this time he isn’t blowing his cover with a bunch of cotton candy clouds and exploding corn and stuff.”

“A possibility. Still, if it isn’t Discord...” Twilight tapped her chin. “Changelings, maybe? I didn’t think they’d try anything again so soon. No... this doesn’t seem the type of thing they’d be involved with. King Sombra? No... it’s unlikely he’d come all the way down here to the heart of the Princess’s power.” She sighed, out of ideas. “Perhaps this is some new threat to the kingdom. That just makes me more uneasy.”

Pinkie Pie hopped over to Twilight's side and proceeded to bounce around in tight circles, accidentally shoving Applejack away in the process. “What are we arguing about what it is for?! This is a call to adventure! To excitement! Ooh ooh! Like the time when we had to go throw that cursed ring in a volcano! Or when we had to go looking for the seven pieces of the evil wizard’s soul to destroy them! Or when the Princess asked us to find that Golden Fleece! Or—"

Twilight sighed and stuck a hoof out, causing Pinkie to run into it and stop moving. “Pinkie Pie, I don't recall any of those things. At all. In fact, those sound made-up.”

Pinkie rubbed her nose, then instantly perked up again. “Oh... well maybe I just read those stories and imagined they were staring us... but it sounds the same! Epic adventures, starring the greatest heroines in all Equestria! Doesn’t that sound neat? That is what we’re doing, isn’t it?”

“We're just going to investigate a strange magic disturbance, Pinkie,” Twilight said. “It shouldn't take us more than a few hours to look into things, maybe a little longer if I think we can fix it without involving the Princess or the Elements of Harmony. It’s all right next door in the Everfree Forest, not on the other side of the world or anything. This isn’t an ‘epic adventure’. It’s a little job.”

“Aw phooey.” Pinkie pouted and swung her forelegs down in dejection. “I'll never get that Vorpal Sword...”

“Riiight...” Twilight lifted her book back level with her nose. “Well, if it’s not Discord, and it’s not Changelings, what could it possibly be?”

“Anomalous magic with a chaotic nature... hmph. Is that all the information we have to work off of here, darling?” Rarity tapped her chin. “I should think that the Princess would have given you more information than this.”

“All I know about it is what's in this letter,” Twilight said. With a faint glow of her horn, she added, “And, what little I can sense about it from this distance. I can’t get a really solid feel of what it is, but I at least know where it is. We should get moving though. The longer it's there, the more likely it's going to cause some damage or attract curiosity. We shouldn't need supplies, since it’s only a few hours away. So if everypony's ready?”

“Do... do we really all need to go?” Fluttershy gulped and began to nervously inch towards the door. “I mean... it doesn't sound too dangerous... but... well, you know... if you don't need me I'll just—"

“The Princess insisted we all go. She mentioned our Elements of Harmony.” Twilight gave Fluttershy a reassuring glance. “Perhaps she thinks that our Elements may prove useful? I wouldn't want to find out they are necessary and not have one of them along with us. You should at least come to investigate with us, just in case.”

“R-right... I guess then... if that's what you want...”

“Well then, let's get going!” Twilight stamped her hoof and grabbed her handy map of the Everfree Forest from the nearby desk. “This shouldn't be too hard, and if it looks like it is, we can just contact the Princess and everything'll be just fine. No problem at all.”

***

“This... might be a problem...” Twilight gulped. “Oh dear.”

The giant circular vortex of flowing energy encompassed the vast majority of the tiny clearing, roughly a mile from Zecora’s home. Rivers of golden magic, each wrapped in bands of green or blue, streamed their way through a vast, ethereal void. The deep expanse of black and purple was pin pricked with glowing white stars, all faintly twinkling in and out of existence. No matter what direction they looked at it from, the same view followed: total chaos.

“This is inexplicably bizarre,” Twilight said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m going to need to run some calculations, try and figure out exactly what it is I’m seeing here.” She lit up her horn and set to work.

Pinkie pulled a camera out of her mane and snapped a few pictures, giggling between clicks. “Neat! I bet I can sell this to the National Equinerer! They dig juicy supernatural stuff like this!”

“It certainly is a most intriguing sight,” Rarity cooed. “It's so... beautiful. Why, I'm getting all sorts of inspiration for some new outfits for when we get home! Hmm... though the colors will be dreadfully hard to manage. I wonder if—" She trailed off, muttering to herself about things that none of the others understood.

“What in tarnation is this here thing, though?” Applejack circled around the anomaly. “If y’all ask me, it looks kinda like a... window? A window inta... somethin'. What’s all that weird stuff on th’ other side? Magic?”

“It doesn’t look very inviting...” Fluttershy gulped from behind the nearest boulder she could find. “All that magic... it looks... scary...”

“A window, filled with magic. An astute observation, and it brings to mind descriptions of strange phenomena I’ve read about before. If anything, this thing is a ‘portal’.” Twilight frowned and dimmed her horn. “Whatever this portal is, it's what's causing the magical disturbances. Rarity, I'm sure at this distance you can feel the magical radiation too?”

“Beg pardon? Oh! Y-yes, of course darling.” Rarity skewed her eyes and nodded in understanding. “It's making my horn feel... tingly. Not really in a bad way, just... strange. I feel like my magic is being amplified, or altered, or something, but it doesn’t feel dangerous. Where do you think it leads? Just into that void there? Heavens, that doesn’t look at all pleasant.”

“I don't know where it goes exactly, but I'm not too eager to find out, either,” Twilight said. “I’m going to close it off with a sealing spell, nothing fancy. I can’t really tell what kind of energy this thing is made of, but I think I can handle it by myself. Everypony should probably stand back, though.”

Pinkie groaned. “Awww. Do you have to? I was thinking of setting up a booth and charging admission! 'Come see the mystery window into the WORRRLD OF TOMORROW!' Five bits to look, ten bits for pictures, twenty bits to stick your hoof in! And I’d have a banner and sign posts and a concession stand right over there and—"

“I doubt it's a portal into the future Pinkie Pie,” Rainbow said, rolling her eyes. “That’s science-fiction junk. This is magic. It’s completely different stuff, right Twi?”

“Girls, please,” Twilight said, as she channeled her magic through her horn. “I need to focus. This might not seem too difficult, but one little errant calculation and I might break the portal, instead of sealing it. I don’t know how much damage that might cause to the surrounding area... or to us, and I’d rather not find out.”

A soft purple glow formed on Twilight's horn as she concentrated. She grit her teeth and hardened her expression as the the magic took shape. After a few seconds of focus, a brilliant flash, followed by the blinding light of a sealing spell backed by all the magic Twilight could muster, shot from her horn. The shining bolt of magic struck the portal and engulfed it in a deep lavender glow. Slowly, the portal began to shrink.

“See? No problem at all,” Twilight said, smiling and sticking her nose in the air. “It's all in the—"

The portal exploded outwards, destroying the seal in a blinding flash of purple and blue and knocking everypony to the ground.

Before, it bathed the clearing in a dull grey glow. Now, it brimmed with a prismatic sheen that coated the entire area in the full color spectrum and then some. With startling speed, the anomaly steadily began devouring the surrounding area with a increasingly more powerful gravity field that had sprung up from nowhere. Everything it touched was yanked towards the portal's surface and into the void beyond. Dirt. Twigs. Boulders. Ponies.

“Who-ho-hoooa!” Pinkie shouted as she, the closest, began to get sucked in. She tried to gallop out of the field, but the portal’s pull was too strong, and despite what was clearly her best effort, she inched towards it. “Ahhh! I don't want to see the future yet! Heeelp!”

“Hang on Pinks!” Rainbow charged forward and grabbed Pinkie's hooves. She beat her wings in an attempt to force herself backwards. For a moment, it worked, but as soon as she had any headway, the portal increased its suction, pulling the two hapless ponies in. “Oh... not good!”

“Hold on!” Applejack snagged Rainbow's tail in her mouth. “I gotcha, sugarcube, just hang on!”

Applejack dug her hooves into the ground as she tugged against the pull of the portal. Slowly, but surely, the gap between Pinkie and the surface of the portal widened, causing Rainbow to sigh in relief.

“Phew... thanks AJ,” Rainbow said.

The portal pulsed. Applejack’s hooves cut grooves into the dirt as she was once again yanked forward by gravity.

Applejack tripped and lost her footing. “Aw, horseapples!

“Rarity to the rescue! I've got you, darling!” Rarity grabbed Applejack's tail in her magic and started tugging.

“Oh my goodness... oh my goodness!” Fluttershy exclaimed as she attempted to help by grabbing Rarity's tail with her mouth. “Oh... I just knew this was a bad idea!”

“Girls! Hang on!” Twilight used her magic to grab Fluttershy, pulling her as hard as she could outwards and away from the portal’s grip.

The ponies all breathed a sigh of relief as the group slowly exited the grip of the field. Twilight was thankfully far enough out of its pull to concentrate fully on her spell and getting her friends out, rather than worrying about getting sucked in herself.

The portal quivered, and absorbed Twilight's spell. Its gravity doubled in strength.

Twilight’s jaw fell. “Oh by Celestia, you've got be kidding—"

The portal pulsed with light, and in the process, sucked Pinkie past its inner rim. Rainbow was unable to keep her grip without the risk of getting pulled in too, but she loyally held firm to Pinkie. She gave a panicked shout as she too began sliding forward into the portal. The two opened their eyes and looked into the abyss that awaited them. From up close, the rivers of gold resembled pure energy, not liquid or vapor, glowing all the colors of the rainbow. It would’ve been a beautiful sight were it not threatening to suck all the ponies into it.

Consarnit!” Applejack blurted as she too fell into the vortex.

Rarity panicked. In a futile attempt to strengthen her grip, she wrapped her magic completely around Applejack, but that only seemed to fuel the portal’s energy field. She followed Applejack into the portal against her will.

“Waaahaahaha!”

Fluttershy whimpered as she was pulled along by Rarity's tail and into the darkness. “Oh d-d-d-dear...”

Only Twilight's magic prevented the five ponies from falling into the abyss. The portal fed upon this energy, sucking it into the abyss like thousands of fireflies drifting down on a breeze, adding to the splendor of the magical rivers below.

Twilight tugged as hard as she could, but her friends were too far into the field to get out without risking serious injury to her steadily depleting magic force. For a fleeting second, she thought that if she stopped trying to save them, maybe she could get away. Maybe she could find Princess Celestia and let her know what happened, and she could help. Twilight dashed those thoughts aside and stood firm, and with a fierce pull that made her horn sputter and fire off errant sparks into the wind, Fluttershy's tail lifted back out of the portal's rim.

“Almost... there...”

Using all the magic she could muster, she heaved upwards, digging her hooves into the dirt and grass beneath her as her horn blazed with magic. More of Fluttershy appeared. A purple tail, followed by a panicked Rarity, emerged from the portal.

“Just a... little more...”

She locked her jaw, making it ache - there was Applejack! The pain in her horn was bordering on unbearable, and it was glowing with such intense fury and firing off so much rampant magic that she worried about a possible explosion. She could just see Rainbow's tail.

The portal pulsed once more.

Oh come on!

Twilight could handle no more. With a weak flicker, the light of her horn died out. With a final, powerful pulse of energy, the portal ripped the six ponies down into the abyss. Aside from the magical fluctuations of the vortex, the clearing was silent.

***

 

A dirt brown earth pony with a chocolate-colored mane galloped towards the Everfree Forest, cursing to himself the entire time. His pace was brisk and erratic, as if fleeing a predator. He was exhausted and not able to run as fast as he would like. His breath was heavy as he swung his gaze around in a panic.

He chanced a glance behind him after he cleared a small hill, then said to himself, “Blast it, she's still following me! Of all the bloody annoying—"

“Heeey! Wait up!” A wall-eyed gray pegasus trailed behind him in the air, saddled with a pair of drooping saddlebags and carrying a brown package in her hooves. “Come on, I've been trying to give you this package all day! Stop running away!”

“It's not mine!” he shouted back. “Sod off!”

“But Mister Turner, I—"

Doctor!

“But Doctor Turner, I—"

“It's not my package! It's not my package! I didn't order anything from the Muffin of the Month Club! It’s not mine!

She’d been at his tail the entire day, quite literally since he had awoken. That had been a rather disturbing experience. Ever since then she’d been enough of a distraction that it was beginning to affect him more than just mentally. It had taken him a great deal of effort to get far enough ahead of her that she couldn’t barricade his path and attempt to get him to sign for a delivery that wasn’t his no matter how much she insisted it was.

“It’s not?” She blinked, one eye at a time. “Why didn't you say so before?

“I did say so before! At least a full hundred times, you bleedin’ featherbrain!”

“Heeey, that's not very nice! Fine! I won't give you your package then, if that's the way you want to act! Jerk!” she said, sticking out her tongue.

“It's not mine!” But, the pegasus was already fluttering off. “Blast it all, bleeding mailponies... fantastic, now I'm late, and now I’m talking to myself. I do hope that portal hasn't caused any damage...”

Time Turner came to the clearing where he detected the space/time distortion, and as he caught sight of the pulsing portal his face became an incredible scowl.

“Oh brilliant. Brilliant. Somepony has been tampering with this portal, and now it's just gone all sorts of haywire. Doesn’t anypony these days know how to just walk away from really strange fields of magic that can tear you apart at the molecular level? Honestly! Blast it all, if I hadn’t been late none of this would’ve happened. Ugh... when I get my hooves on that bloody mailpony...”

He pulled a plain-looking silver stopwatch out of his saddlebag, then carefully balanced it in both hooves as he sat on the ground. With a click on the top, the portal stopped churning, its magical energies frozen in place. He wound the watch counterclockwise, and the portal shrunk bit by bit with every turn until he got it down to a manageable size, safe from any errant gravitational forces.

Satisfied that the rift was safe to observe, he approached it, with his watch held between himself and the portal. The watch began to glow a bright neon green, and now instead of displaying a clock face on the front, it displayed a set of wavelengths, numbers, and a tiny list of objects that had been sucked into the portal. Time Turner was glad the list seemed small at first. Animals could sense Void magic pretty well and typically tried to avoid it, so it was usually only stationary objects that got caught up, or poor critters that happened to be right in precisely the wrong spot the tear appeared in when it manifested.

“Let's see... tree, rabbit, badger, mushroom, snake, rock, yadda yadda yadda. Phew, nothing too—" His face contorted in concern. “Oh bugger, looks like some ponies did get sucked in. Fantastic. Six of them as well! This just keeps getting better and better. That will not be, in the least, an easy situation to patch up.” Time Turner sighed. “Well, not much I can do for them from this end, sadly. Better find out where they ended up...”

***

 

Twilight Sparkle and her friends screeched through the ethereal flow of the strange void they had fallen into, desperately seeking a way out and coming up short. They found that they could not directly control their path through physical force, and were merely drawn along by the currents of magic as they flowed around them. Twilight discovered she could use her magic to steer them, but wasn’t sure if they’d fall off the river if she tried to steer them out of it. Considering that “off the river” meant “into a bleak, endless abyss where no light shone forth”, she felt it really wasn’t worth testing that theory.

They had managed to huddle together, clinging to one another in desperation. Wherever they ended up, they were confident that at the very least they’d end up there together.

“Hey guys, look up ahead!” Pinkie pointed further up the river. “Betcha never seen a river do that!

The others followed Pinkie's outstretched hoof and instantly noticed it: the river cascaded upwards. And, to top it off, the flow veered back into a loop that ended in a sharp downward spiral. Twilight was immediately reminded of the roller-coaster she and her friends went on during their visit to the new amusement park outside of Fillydelphia. She also remembered not being able to walk straight for nearly an hour afterwards.

“Aw horseapples...” Applejack gulped and gripped her hat tightly.

“This won’t end well, I can feel it.” Rainbow clung tightly to Pinkie. “Normally this would be no biggie, but normally I’m in control!”

“Hang on, everypony!” Twilight shouted.

Pinkie cheered and lifted her hooves in the air. “Yaaay! Everypony put your hooves up! It’s so much more fun!”

They hit the bend and soared up and through the magical field. At the apex of the climb, they flipped backwards along the river, and they found themselves falling upside down at a breakneck speed through the rest of the flowing aether.

“Aaahhh!”

“Wheee!”

The magic careened off the side, slowing the riders down enough for them to collect their wits, and their lunch. Applejack seemed almost tempted to remove her hat, but decided against it and replaced it upon her head. Rainbow didn’t seem too much worse for wear, but was clearly not eager for a repeat performance.

Pinkie giggled and snorted into her hoof. “One more time! Let’s go again! That was so much fun!”

“Oh I think I’m going to be ill,” Rarity mumbled, holding her stomach. “Yes... definitely going to be ill... oh dear...”

Fluttershy trembled in a terrified panic, clinging desperately to Twilight’s legs, while Twilight in turn was holding onto Applejack for dear life. This would be no time to fall overboard and become separated.

As they bounded through the river of magic, Twilight looked out alongside and saw other windows zooming past. Each appeared to vent out into other worlds, though most of them went by too quickly to make anything out. One thing was for certain though: if she and her friends wanted to escape, they'd have to get into one. Twilight only hoped whichever one they picked led back home. Using her magic to latch onto another fork in the river's path, she and her friends found themselves flowing directly towards a tiny ripple in the distance, barely large enough for them to fit through and growing smaller as they got closer. Wherever it led, Twilight thought, it had to be better than here.

***

“Oof!”

“Eep!”

“Ah!”

“Ow!”

“Ugh!”

“Wheee! Let's do that again! Can we, can we? Huh huh huh?”

The ponies dropped unceremoniously out of the aether and into a pile of garbage. Above them, the portal slowly faded away until it disappeared with a faint hiss.

“Ohhh... my aching head.” Twilight coughed as she warily got to her hooves and looked around herself for her friends. “Is everypony okay? Where are you, girls?”

“Over here!” Rarity called from nearby. “I’m alright, darling. I think I landed on something, though.”

“Yeah, that’d be me,” muttered Applejack. She shifted herself out from under Rarity, sending the unicorn sliding down the pile of trash to the concrete below.

They cleared themselves out of the garbage, Twilight being the last to get to solid ground. She peeled a damp newspaper off of her flank, and glanced at the front page headline:

SMOG LEVELS REACH RECORD HIGH!

“Well that’s.... wait, ‘smog’? Huh?” Twilight blinked in confusion and flipped the paper over, searching for the “smog”. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, she glanced upwards. Her pupils shrunk in alarm. “Oh dear.”

The others in the group followed Twilight’s gaze skyward, and their jaws dropped.

A dark haze filled the few parts of the sky that could be seen through the crisscross of clotheslines and metal railings. Buildings covered in strange, unrecognizable metal colored in dull shades of brown, gray, red, and black, reached for the light above, their tips disappearing into the smog. The bright glow of the city filtered in through the occasional gap in the skyscrapers, contrasting with the relative darkness of the alley.

“Pfh, see Dashie, told you it went to the future,” Pinkie said. “This is just like that movie where the stallion drove a car really fast and ended up in... no wait, he ended up in the past. Um... hey Dashie, which movie was it where the pony goes to the future?”

“The hay if I know. You’re the movie buff around here, not me,” Rainbow said. She shook her head in disgust. “I'm stickin’ with my opinion though. I still don't think this is future, Pinkie, at least not our future... I hope.”

Fluttershy poked her head out from behind Rarity, who was busy shaking garbage out of her mane. “W-w-where... are we?”

“I don't suppose anypony has any theories as to where we are?” Twilight asked.

Pinkie raised a hoof into the air.

Other than Pinkie Pie? It's obvious where we're not at least.”

“Not a clue.” Applejack stepped forward and adjusted her hat carefully. “Reminds me of Manehatten though, just... grittier and a whole heck of a lot bigger. Golly, even I’ll admit this place needs a bit of sprucin’ up, though. I couldn’t imagine livin’ ‘round all this here junk.”

Applejack swept her hoof around, emphasizing the grime and garbage that littered the alley surrounding them: broken bottles leaking oddly colored fluids; scraps of rusted metal; shards of old, discolored cement. The one remaining wheel of an old, tattered stroller squeaked as it spun haltingly in the foul smelling breeze.

Speaking of which.

“Oh my.” Rarity covered her nose and waved a hoof in front of her face. “It smells like somepony's been burning... something out here, too. Who burns garbage, really? Ugh... how horrible.”

Fluttershy shuddered and huddled in closer to Rarity and Applejack. “It’s so... dirty... I don’t like this new place...”

“Aw don't be silly! It’s always fun to be in a new place!” Pinkie laughed and threw a big hug around Fluttershy, causing the pegasus to yelp in surprise. “Oh, just think of all the new ponies! Ooh, ooh, I bet I could throw a million new parties! Oh gumdrops, but I don't know where there's any party supply stores around here. Can we look for one of those? Ooh! And I’m starving! We need to find a sweet shop or an ice cream parlor or a bakery or something! I need three hundred cc’s of chocolate and sugar, stat!”

“Pinkie, we’ve got more important things to worry about than if there's enough balloons for a party,” Rainbow said. She dejectedly looked skyward again and shook her head. “Ugh... Rarity’s right though, this place is a dump. Look at all that. Don’t they have any kind of weather patrol here? You can barely even see the sky!”

A murky orange, not like a sunrise or sunset, but rather a menacing glare, showed itself through the sparse breaks in the smog layer. It churned with an angry agenda, seething back and forth like a stormy sea.

Fluttershy sniffed and shuffled her hooves. “Oh... I do hope the little birdies up there are okay... if there even are any...”

Rarity coughed and continued to wave her hoof in front of her nose. “Heavens, let's just get out of this dreadful little alleyway and into the streets, at the very least. Perhaps if we ask around, we can find out where we are?”

As they rounded the corner, they could see neon lights adorning large billboards, advertising goods and services they’d never heard of. Something called “Dolor” was prominent on most of them, with each billboard advertising a different color. The closest one had a slogan reading: “Introducing new Dolor Black! Great for a meal, or even a snack! It’s hip, it’s cool, it’s not wack! Better than White, it’s Dolor Black!

Down at street level, a chaotic stream of ponies swarmed along the busy street. Higher above, a good hundred yards up, oddly straight formations of pegasi flew, orderly avoiding each other despite their sheer number. Rainbow and Twilight each shook their heads in disbelief. There were enough pegasi in the sky alone that Cloudsdale’s population paled in comparison. How many ponies could possibly be in this city?

Twilight moved ahead, seeking out a pony that hopefully wouldn't be distracted too much by their own tasks. She found a dark blue pegasus mare that was taking the ground route, likely to avoid the heavy air traffic high above, wearing a bright green jacket adorned with the same image as her cutie mark, a white cup with a big, red scoop of shaved ice.

Twilight cleared her throat and introduced herself. “Um... excuse me, but—"

“Yeah, what do you wa-aah!?” The pegasus leaped back in surprise mid-turn and nervously scooted away in obvious panic. “G-get away from me! Help! Police! Poliiice!”

She flew off in a rush, leaving Twilight stunned and confused. Had she said something wrong? Did she startle her? Was it her breath? She didn’t think she smelled funny, even if they had all landed in garbage earlier. And even so, police? What would warrant that?

Rainbow came over and patted Twilight on the shoulder, while glaring upwards at the retreating pegasus. “Well what the hay was that about? Rude much?”

“Hmm...” Twilight tapped a hoof to her chin. “Very peculiar. Was it something I said?”

“Ya didn’t even get ta say anythin’, sugarcube,” Applejack said. She shifted her hat forward a little. “I already don’t like this place. Ain’t got no sense for welcomin’ visitors.”

Rarity brushed a hoof through her mane. “Let’s try another pony. Hmmm... aha!” She pointed her hoof across the busy street. “There, that dashing unicorn.” Twilight made to start towards him, until Rarity coughed rather too loudly. “Ahem. Perhaps we should let me do the talking? A little charm goes a long way. Leave it to Rarity, dear.”

She trotted over to the stallion, a reddish-black unicorn wearing a tuxedo vest and a matching tie. He was busy reading a newspaper as he waited beneath a sign with the word bus written on it in big, bold letters. Rarity fluffed her mane and tail, checked her coat, and brushed off any traces of dirt or grime she could see. Seemingly satisfied that she looked her very finest, she cleared her throat and introduced herself in a rather sultry tone..

“Pardon me, my good sir. So sorry to interrupt, but my friends and I seem to be in a bit of a bind.” She gave her very best pout and fluttered her eyelashes. “Would you be so kind as to—"

“Ugh... get away from me,” the stallion said, scowling. “Have you no shame at all?”

“I beg your pardon?” Rarity exclaimed. “Oh! Of all the ways to greet a lady! Well, I never! You should be... ashamed of yourself? Hello? Are you ignoring me now? Hmph!

She decided, perhaps wisely, not to pursue the matter any further. With a huff, she returned to the others, disgruntled and slightly dejected.

“Any luck?” Twilight asked, despite knowing the answer.

“Not at all. That stallion clearly has some grave vision issues.” Rarity snorted and double-checked that she was totally clean. “No manners amongst these ponies, none at all. You’d think someone dressed so dapper would be a little more courteous. Even... ugh... Prince Blueblood at least had the decency to act polite at first.”

“Aw, don’t get discouraged, sugarcube.” Applejack patted Rarity on the shoulder. “Maybe the stallions ‘round these parts just ain’t affected by that patented Rarity charm?”

“Yeah, maybe you’re just not his type,” Rainbow said.

Pinkie bounced up and down excitedly, pushing the three out of her way to address Twilight. “Ooh! Can I try next? Huh? Can I? Oh please oh please?”

“I don’t know Pinkie,” Twilight said, hesitating. “I mean... Rarity and I couldn’t get any answers, what makes—"

Pinkie held her hooves together in a pleading gesture, sank to her knees, and forced her eyes to widen and fill with tears.

Twilight stared for just a minute, her mouth curling into a nervous smile. She balked. “Fine...”

Pinkie immediately leapt back to her hooves. “Yaaay! You’ll see, I’ll get some answers! Sherlock Pie is on the case!”

She began scouring the nearby crowd, then snapped her hoof towards an off-white earth pony with a curly orange mane. She wore a simple blue blouse.

“Aha! My first suspect!”

The pony in question was focused on fumbling with something in one of her saddlebags, so she didn’t notice Pinkie’s approach.

“Hi!” Pinkie had somehow had made the statement from the interior of a nearby ponyhole cover.

“Ahh!” The other pony jumped, not seeing where the source of the voice came from. “W-w-who’s there?!”

“Hey now, no need to get all jittery. I just wanna ask you some questions,” Pinkie said from the far side of a nearby lamppost. A lamppost that happened to be no more than six inches thick.

The other mare nervously twirled in a circle, trying to find the source of the voice. “W-who’s there? Show yourself!”

Pinkie's head popped out from inside of a covered trash can. “I just want to know where we are!”

The profoundly disturbed mare curled up into a tight ball, her eyes darting around in panic as she stroked her tail with a hoof. “Oh no... this is just like that one dream! Make it stop...”

“You’re not being very helpful you know,” Pinkie whispered into the white pony’s ear, leaning in from out of one of her saddlebags.

“AAAHHH!!”

The mare leaped into the air and shot off down the street in a cloud of dust, leaving Pinkie to tumble around in the air before landing in a heap on the ground.

“Pinkie, how was that supposed to help?” Rainbow asked as Pinkie bounded back over with a pleased grin on her face. “You scared that pony half to death!”

“Aww, no way Dashie. I can’t scare anypony! Scaring isn’t my thing. She was just surprised is all! Glad to see everything still works, though. I was worried that maybe being a totally new place would ruin all my fun!” Pinkie shrugged. “It’s okay, she probably wouldn’t have helped either. I just wanted to make sure I was still me!”

“Pinks... you... you are so random...” Rainbow sighed and patted Pinkie’s shoulder.

The group continued their fruitless trek through the city streets. Every so often, they would try to ask any passing strangers, but they were always greeted with one the same three reactions: a scream followed by mad dash in the opposite direction, a cold shoulder, or perhaps worst of all, absolutely nothing. Eventually, even these three responses died down and were replaced by a new and slightly unsettling response: open staring.

Now that they were in a much busier part of the street, it was becoming difficult for the group to not be the center of attention. Ponies with young colts or fillies present shielded their children’s eyes. A few odd ponies ran off, away from the offending mares. Others pointed in earnest, and either muttered amongst themselves or chuckled at the sight. The six mares of Ponyville shrunk a little under the judging gazes of everypony in their immediate vicinity.

“Does anypony else feel as if, well, everypony else is watching us?” Twilight asked.

“Why’re they all starin’ at us?” Applejack whispered back. “We don't look that outta place, do we?”

“It’s giving me the creeps though, that’s for sure,” said Rainbow. She sneered in the direction of a pair of large earth pony stallions that were pointing in their direction with wide smiles on their faces. “I don’t trust these ponies. Something’s up.”

Rarity huffed at a random catcall from nearby, and shot a sharp glare in the sound’s direction. She defensively moved herself in front of Fluttershy to protect the pegasus from the gazes of as many ponies as she could. “For once, I’m with Rainbow Dash. There’s something rather unscrupulous going on here. I’m used to attracting a lot of attention, but this is ridiculous!”

Twilight shook her head. “I don't know, but I- oof!”

As Twilight rounded the nearby corner, she slammed into another pony that had been doing the same thing going the opposite way.

“Owww...” Twilight groaned.

“Twilight! Y’all okay?” Applejack rushed over to Twilight and immediately began helping her up.

“Yeah... I’m fine,” Twilight said. “Thanks.”

“Oi! Watch where you’re walking!” said the other pony.

She was a mint green unicorn with a sky blue mane and magenta eyes. A beige sweater vest over a white, long-sleeved shirt and a tiny blue bow tie covered her upper torso, leaving her cutie mark, a plain-looking silver stopwatch with actual ticking hands, exposed. She gasped, and hurriedly lifted a stopwatch identical to the one on her cutie mark off the ground that had been knocked aside when she’d bumped into Twilight. She carefully scrutinized it for damage, and after a brief moment of examination, she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” Twilight said. “We’re all in an awful hurry. Oh! Maybe you can help—"

The other pony snorted and brusquely swept right past Twilight and her friends. “I don’t have time to be buggering about with a bunch of... nudists! I’m late! Bloody tourists.”

“Sheesh.” Rainbow sneered in the departing pony’s direction. “Somepony’s got their tail in a knot.”

“You okay there, Twi?” Applejack asked. “Y’all look like ya seen a ghost.”

Twilight’s eyes shot open in realization. That pony had just called them something. It was a word she hadn’t heard used before in conversation, but she did know its definition.

Nudists.

As she looked around at the crowd of ponies surrounding them, she noticed something she hadn’t really taken notice of before: all of the ponies were wearing clothes. Except, of course, for her and her friends.

“Oh dear...” Twilight’s face turned a bright pink as she nervously shifted in place. “Girls... perhaps we should try and find someplace a little less public to discuss our situation?”

“Whatever for, darling?” Rarity asked. “I know these ponies so far have been rather rude, but—"

Twilight hurriedly whispered her discovery to the others.

Rarity's face turned brighter pink than Twilight’s, and she frantically began to look about for something to cover herself. “Good heavens! Scandalous! Oh goodness, I knew I should’ve packed... well, something!” She grabbed a nearby newspaper with her magic and hastily set about trying to mold it into something wearable.

“What’re we gonna do, Twi?” Applejack asked. She removed her hat and started trying to use it to cover up what she could.

Twilight gulped. “I... I don’t know. C'mon, before we get into any... trouble...”

Twilight's worry turned to panic as a siren roared to life off in the distance. It was close enough to a fire alarm that she knew it meant trouble, but given the reactions they’d been getting she had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t firefighters coming this way.

“Aw man, beat it! It’s the fuzz!” Rainbow grabbed Pinkie and tried to fly off, but was caught by Twilight’s magic.

“Hold on, Rainbow,” Twilight said. “Running away isn’t going to help us any.”

Within moments, the six ponies found themselves surrounded by police ponies—pegasi, unicorns, and earth ponies alike—all dressed in neat black uniforms and sporting bright gold badges.

Fluttershy crowded herself into the center of her group of friends. “Oh... d-d-dear...”

“Halt! New Pandemonium City Police! You are under arrest!” called one unicorn, a white stallion, who was levitating a megaphone in front of him.

With a flashy wave of a hoof he signalled to a few of the other officers to move in. The six Ponyville mares were soon surrounded by a few earth ponies menacingly wielding their batons with their mouths, and a pair of unicorns that levitated what appeared to be hoofcuffs.

Twilight sighed and stepped forward, offering her hooves in surrender.

“Twilight...” Applejack murmured.

“We should just cooperate,” Twilight said, turning to her friends. “I wouldn't want this to get disagreeable. Besides, they're authority figures here. Police? They can help us...” She gulped. “Right?”

Author’s Note: The older chapters of the story have been getting heavy doses of revisions to improve the writing quality. We have an up-to-date list of what changes have been made here, for your viewing pleasure. WARNING: SPOILERS!


A Comprehensive List of CRISIS: Equestria edits

Overall and Upcoming Changes

Changes NOT Being Made

Currently Implemented Changes

  1. Chapter One changes:
  1. Improvements made to the ‘letter reading’ scene to set the tone better
  2. Trimmed down the flowery speech in the ‘Everfree’ scene
  3. Improvements made to the introduction to Pandemonium to set the tone better
  1. The mare that runs into the party is Tick Tock. This has been made more obvious, as it wasn’t clear before
  2. There is the addition of a new Dolor flavor complete with a slogan
  1. Chapter Two changes:
  1. Focused the ‘interrogation’ scene more on Smokestack
  1. Expanded the scene’s previous shout-out to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Rainbow is Will, Twilight is Carlton
  1. Flathoof’s personality is more consistent with the rest of the fic, and the Snapshot scene has been expanded
  2. Tick Tock’s official introduction has been greatly improved to be in-line with her character, and to properly introduce her name sooner
  3. The ‘Belt of Tranquility’ scene was trimmed by several hundred words. Concise, to the point
  4. The Silvertongue scene has been improved
  1. Silvertongue’s speech is more direct, but still perfectly flowery as intended, rather than purple
  2. Silvertongue yelled at Shroud before, and was angry with Shadowstep without provocation. This has been changed to him being more affable towards his employees unless they do something that legitimately angers him
  1. Chapter Three changes:
  1. Trimmed the entire ‘cityscape’ scene up to Lockwood’s introduction to make it flow more smoothly.
  1. Condensed the descriptions of the Mane Six’s outfits. They’re important as a plot device to let them live in the city, very little else. Their introduction before made them seem too important
  2. In relation to the above, their outfits will be referenced more often in the story, because they still are important
  1. Improvements to the ‘Snapshot murder’ scene to read more smoothly
  1. Chapter Four changes:
  1. Expanded the ‘Archimedes’ scene slightly. Archimedes is a dick, by the way
  2. The ‘room cleaning’ scene:
  1. Added bits to explain why Lockwood leaves Rarity and the others alone
  2. Tremendously trimmed the argument and streamlined it, and added humor to it to lighten the mood. Rainbow Dash is still argumentative, because she is still paranoid about the situation
  1. The ‘T.A.R.D.I.S. exposition’ scene has been trimmed tremendously and reduced to its basic principles
  1. Following that, Tick Tock’s depictions of the Mane Six have been modified to be shorter and more concise
  1. Chapter Five changes:
  1. The ‘breakfast’ scene has been trimmed of fluff, but given more atmosphere. Magmaberry fluff has been streamlined, as it is still important (and will be given more importance later)
  2. The ‘news report’ scene has been clarified
  1. Chapter Six changes:
  1. Lockwood’s description of the charity organization he founded is expanded
  2. The ‘Keeneye’ scene has been given more character, particularly between Rarity and Lockwood
  1. The importance of how much real passports cost, and even false ones too, is made more clear, as is the fact that airship tickets are even more than passports and why they can’t be falsified
  1. Removed the argument between Rarity and Applejack while under Twilight’s shield spell. Girls, you almost died. This is no time to bicker - leave that to Tick Tock and Twilight as that is part of their character arc together
  2. Added more emotion to the scenes following the explosion before Flathoof and Tick Tock leave for the NPPD station
  3. Flathoof’s anger at Firecracker is given greater emphasis
  4. As Flathoof is generally considered very Genre Savvy throughout the fic, I made it clearer that Flathoof and Tick Tock did in fact go to check Shadowstep’s body after the fight, but it happens off-screen between chapters
  1. Chapter Seven changes:
  1. The entire chapter’s dark atmosphere has been drastically improved, both by trimming fluff that took away from it, and adding descriptions that added to it
  1. The ‘new wings’ scene includes more vivid descriptions of how Shadowstep’s wings work and feel to him; when we meet him again in Chapter 20, we’ll see what’s different once he’s become a zombie-mutant
  2. The connection between mutants and the zombies is made clear in the ‘Blood Mire’ scene, which serves as foreshadowing for the following chapter (where the heroes discuss the topic of mutants) and for Chapters 19 and 20
  1. Chapter Eight changes:
  1. Flathoof’s home is given more detailed description, and his family is better characterized
  2. The ‘Gate approach’ scene, up to meeting Jetstream, has been expanded, and how the Outer Wall and the Gate work given more clear descriptions
  3. Added scenes showing the personalities of Inner District and Gate District ponies. One word: posh
  4. Added a debate between Twilight and Tick Tock about the nature of magic. This topic will pop up a lot, as Chapter 19's revelation on the matter is what sparks the bond between these two
  5. The fight scenes in the Gate corridor have been very-slightly expanded
  1. Jetstream becomes more of a threat. Dude’s got a gun! Flathoof is still a boss though
  1. Chapter Nine changes:
  1. The ‘Eye Reveal’ scene is being padded and modified to better express Silvertongue’s anger not just at Jetstream, but at his condition
  2. The ‘Mean Six introduction’ scene is being expanded:
  1. Jetstream will be more of a threat to the Mean Six so that his being defeated actually comes as a challenge and therefore an acceptable test for the Mean Six as a whole
  1. Grayscale Force still makes him look pathetic - this shows her position as one of the strongest of the Mean Six, as intended
  2. Havocwing gets in more trouble because of her aggression, and we actually get to see her fight this time
  3. Insipid gets distracted and gets in trouble for it, but shows off her impressive ability to bounce back
  4. Red Velvet takes a real beating this time - that she fights back while mortally wounded and then instantly recovers enhances her fear-inspiring powers
  5. Starlight Shadow still makes him look pathetic, as she is completely and totally overpowered, as intended
  6. Curaçao of course is unthreatened the entire time, also as intended
  1. More elaboration on how the Mean Six’s powers work
  2. As in the overall changes, there will be additional lines for the Mean Six, and their current lines will be expanded to better show their characterizations as they appear throughout the story
  1. Starlight Shadow did not possess her massive vocabulary in this chapter. This appalling dilemma has been exhaustively rectified
  2. Curaçao’s speech is more consistently formal
  3. Insipid’s talent for accidentally doing amazing things with her powers is shown much earlier
  1. Chapter Ten changes:
  1. The ‘Arguing over Redblade’ scene has been completely removed. It was superfluous, as all of the information given in this scene can be given naturally via dialogue
  1. The major bits of narrative exposition have been moved to Applejack’s ‘Campfire’ scene to open the chapter, as these are still important and relevant to the scene
  1. The ‘Campfire’ scenes are all being expanded for extra character development
  1. Applejack’s scene, part one, includes more tension between Flathoof and Applejack, as the pair has grown closer over the past two days
  2. Applejack’s scene, part two, is being given extra character-building bits:
  1. Twilight’s rivalry with Tick Tock is developed more
  2. Tick Tock’s personality on its own is developed more
  3. Zenith is officially introduced here, though is not mentioned by name. Tick Tock’s map plays a key role in beginning to understand him
  1. The Rainbow/Pinkie scene is being hit with the general notes that make Rainbow less abrasive against Flathoof. Expanding on the added events in Chapter 8, she is beginning to respect him at this point, which further contrasts her dislike of Lockwood
  1. Her dislike of Lockwood is given more reasoning without going into detail
  1. The Fluttershy/Rarity scene is being expanded to include more characterization between the two and more hint-dropping about Lockwood
  1. Chapter Eleven changes:
  1. The ‘Arguing’ scene from the previous chapter was deleted. Most of the information was transferred to Applejack’s campfire scene, but some of it is being moved to this chapter (see below for specifics)
  2. The entire chapter is being properly divided into scenes now, as before it read as one long sequence
  3. Ironically, everything done to this chapter actually ended up shortening it by a few hundred words! So it reads better, and is more concise, but despite expanding some bits, others were trimmed. Funny how that works out
  4. The ‘Chasm Crossing’ scene is being edited to be more concise, and more dramatic
  1. The mountain range itself is getting some extra details to help visualize the area better (see above)
  2. The description of Twilight’s temperature-adjusting aura will be detailed here
  3. Rarity boosts Twilight’s aura spell for the crossing now, not Tick Tock’s. This makes more sense
  1. The ‘Lunch Break’ scene is being left mostly untouched, but will have the humor boosted to help lighten the mood before the volcano scene
  2. The entire volcano scene is being spruced up to be more dramatic and descriptive
  1. Chapter Twelve changes:
  1. The ‘Bubble’ scene is having its humor expanded to relieve the tension a little bit more, and more physical happenings are... happening, such as the bubble moving around and the ponies moving with, hamster wheel-style
  2. Expansions are being done to the Mean Six’s individual scene, as mentioned in the general notes. This is the shortest Mean Six scene in the fic; that needs to be remedied
  3. The entire ‘Gargantuan’ scene is being spruced up to increase the tension
  1. The description of Gargantuans is given better detail to bring them out onto the page better, and to explain their habits better. Mind you, this is hard for me to do because of my phobia of anything creepy-crawly
  2. Fluttershy’s injury is given more impact, mostly by having some of the other characters begin to think Tick Tock’s warnings aren’t ill-advised; as-is, Twilight brushes them off and then the sting happens
  3. The rescue in particular is getting spruced up because we’re including Insipid! Like, hooray!
  1. Chapter Thirteen changes:
  1. All of the scenes are being made more coherent and better flowing in general
  2. Twilight’s curiosity about Havocwing’s ability to use magic is expanded upon here
  1. In addition, Starlight’s methods of corrupting Twilight’s thoughts are much less vague, but much more subtle. In other words, it’s easy for the reader to see what she’s doing, but Twilight herself will be less likely to question it
  1. Added some extra dialogue between Applejack and Curaçao to liven the scene up better
  2. As Insipid was given a scene in the previous chapter to display her powers (which are currently assumed by the Mane Six to be her ‘lightning gun’ power from Chapter Nine), some of her dialogue with Rarity has been altered to fit
  1. Rarity’s assessment of both Insipid’s and Curaçao’s appearances have been spruced up a little
  1. Rainbow Dash and Grayscale’s scene has a bit more input from Rainbow with proper reactions from Grayscale. There is now more to see of Grayscale’s method of corruption
  2. Pinkie and Velvet share more screentime and the scene’s humor has been upped
  3. The remaining scenes have been expanded to allow more room for Tick Tock’s opinions on the Mean Six, and to improve Pewter’s introduction
  1. Chapter Fourteen changes:
  1. The ‘Antivenom’ scene is being tweaked a lot:
  1. Tick Tock is given more proper thanks for her actions in keeping Fluttershy alive
  2. Lockwood’s past both as an impoverished foster kid and his relationship with Blackburn are given additional foreshadowing here
  1. In addition, his desire to watch over Fluttershy is toned down a tad, as it feels out of place
  1. Rarity is less hostile towards Twilight at the end of the scene
  1. A new scene is being added, showing the traveling party (minus Fluttershy and Lockwood) at dinner. I will give no more detail than that; you’ll have to read the scene yourself!
  2. Applejack’s scene outside is getting an overhaul to improve the tone and flow, and to link up better with the new scene so that Rarity’s arrival is better justified
  3. The ‘Recovery’ scene is getting attention to better improve the connection with Fluttershy and Lockwood. As above, he is just as friendly as before, but he is less aggressive about wanting to watch over her
  1. In addition, Rarity and Lockwood’s argument over who gives Fluttershy stew has been cut entirely, as it was out-of-character for both of them
  1. Tick Tock and Pewter’s scene is getting an overhaul to improve Pewter’s character, Tick Tock’s relationship with him and more details of her past both on her own and involving him, and to improve upon Zenith’s posthumous character
  1. A retcon has been made to Zenith’s Timekeeper insofar as how it comes into Pewter’s possession. It has been changed to being left in the care of Pewter’s father, Obsidian, to give to Tick Tock as a gift, as the checkpoint was the last place he visited before heading off into the Goldridge Pass. Obsidian died before Tick Tock passed through and never told Pewter about the Timekeeper, but Pewter eventually found it on his own, cleaned it up, and presents it as his own gift (though Tick Tock knows that Zenith is the original giver)
  1. Chapter Fifteen Changes:
  1. The ‘Secret Meeting’ scene is getting some minor extensions and development between the characters
  1. Red Velvet’s “dream-hopping” ability is given more relevance, as I plan on utilizing it a little more. Check out the humorous addition to Havocwing’s reaction
  1. The ‘Morning After’ scenes are being given better pacing by being split into three separate scenes:
  1. Tick Tock’s scene involves the preparations for the hike, and her observations and suspicions of the Mean Six, specifically how quickly they’ve bonded with everypony
  2. Rarity’s scene involves hiking through the Goldridge Pass. We are strengthening Insipid’s attempts to corrupt Rarity, as before it was rather weak and went nowhere. This makes Rarity’s subtle rejection of the corruption stronger in turn, as before, Insipid’s corruptions were so weak that it was obvious why Rarity was the only one not to suffer any ill effects
  3. Rainbow’s scene involved her continued discussions with Grayscale and some observations of the Goldridge Pass as a whole. This scene is being completely removed as it had very, very little to add in way of character development, so the majority of its exposition is being added to the first scene of Chapter 16 where it can be given relevance to the entire cast
  1. Fluttershy and Havocwing’s interaction between one another is being tweaked so Fluttershy is more trusting of Havocwing’s opinions, but is intimidated by her. Before, Fluttershy seemed to have a mild dislike that felt out of place. However, Fluttershy does have an outburst as before, but it is toned down slightly
  1. Chapter Sixteen changes:
  1. Tick Tock’s scene is being given more depth and inner turmoil as Tick Tock grapples with her continued distrust of the Mean Six and the feelings of inadequacy they make her feel because they’re serving as better guides
  1. A bit more foreshadowing to Tick Tock finding out about Starlight’s Void magic is being included here
  1. The cave intro scene is being given more character interaction overall, and the argument between Rarity and Havocwing is being modified as it goes contrary to the purpose of the Mean Six trying to befriend the Mane Six. It is, however, still there in a minor capacity insofar as the two of them debate over Fluttershy’s chosen “animal inspiration” (the wolf/peacock bit)
  2. The description of the caverns has been made more clear to present a better visual, and to provide a more apt location for the fight that takes place. The available space needs to be made more apparent, and there were a few points where it seemed hard to imagine certain events taking place (such as the entirety of Havocwing and Rainbow’s duel)
  1. In general, the cavern has been widened as a whole into less of a catacomb-style cave and more into a vast underground cavern, complete with a lake, plateaus, winding paths, etc. The gryphons geo-formed the whole region, after all (hence the abundance of gems), so it would logically follow that they’d construct a cave system that was easy for them to fly in, but for those who need to walk, it’s a maze
  1. The party takes a nighttime break this time around; this provides a better foundation for Velvet scaring Fluttershy in her dreams using her dream-hopping power that she mentions in Chapter 15 that we never see. Here, we get to see it twice: the first time is when she hops into Starlight’s dreams, kicking off the conversation where Velvet begs to be allowed to trade targets with Havocwing; the second, she hops into Fluttershy’s dream to frighten her. The latter decision retains the context of the group splitting due to Velvet frightening Fluttershy, but alters the circumstances
  2. The fight scene is, as a whole, being improved in its pacing. The logic behind entering the fight is also better clarified, as are the reactions to and reasons for entering the fight in the first place
  1. Primarily, Starlight’s party has been under the guise that they are traveling into the Gryphon Ruins as an archaeological expedition. Starlight’s party will be getting some additional lines throughout the chapter to show that they are willing to escort Twilight’s party as far as the coast, as before that was something Twilight just throws in
  2. Twilight’s decision to split away from Starlight’s party, and her own party’s opinion on the split, is trimmed down and relies on much less talking to get the point across. The majority of her group still agrees, but the decision is made with much less debate and discussion
  3. The fight itself gets started right away, minimal yapping in between. Basically, after Twilight refuses twice, Starlight just orders the attack. This increases the frantic nature of the battle and dramatically improves the pacing
  4. Starlight starts the fight by blocking the path to the proper exit to the caverns the party was taking, which plays into next chapter forcing them to head into the Gryphon Ruins. She still does not actively participate in the fight, because she does not need to
  1. Chapter Seventeen changes
  1. Making a few modifications to the attitudinization and massive death ray scenes to make them flow more smoothly
  2. Removing all instances of Pinkie being chipper; she is supposed to be traumatized by Red Velvet’s actions at this moment
  3. Expanding Shroud’s scene to add more depth to her character and more proper foreshadowing
  4. Altering Silvertongue’s two scenes to be from his point of view and adding more proper foreshadowing about both his knowledge on gryphons and the Mean Six’s growing relationship as sisters. Removing a great deal of tidbits about him enjoying inflicting pain, as it felt out of character with some developments he’s had and will reveal in later chapters
  5. Because of fan interest, Red Velvet is being given a full name. This increases the similarities between her and Pinkie Pie; Pinkie’s full name is Pinkamena Diane Pie, Red Velvet’s is... well, you’ll have to read the chapter to find out her name!
  1. Chapter 18 Changes:
  1. It would take too much to explain exactly everything that was changes in the first two scenes; a quick go-over is as follows:
  1. Rainbow gives an extra apology to Twilight about her actions, but retains her attitude about the situation. She is legitimately sorry for hurting a friend, but not sorry about why she did, only that she uses her hooves instead of her words
  2. Rainbow and Pinkie’s relationship is ‘officially’ revealed here to better allow Rainbow to segue into why she’s so mad about Pinkie getting hurt, which Twilight doesn’t understand.
  3. As the fight sequence starts under different circumstances, the argument Rainbow has with Twilight is greatly reduced and streamlined. Rainbow is mad about the circumstances of the fight, though she is still mad that it initially happened because of Twilight’s actions. She is more willing to forgive the fact that the Mean Six would have attacked them eventually anyway, but now is angry that that situation was jump-started much sooner than it needed to be, hence their predicament
  4. Applejack had a brief discussion with Rainbow about not trusting Tick Tock and wanting to keep an eye on her, but this plot point never gets picked up on. It has been removed and altered to Applejack keeping her own eye on Tick Tock at certain intervals, which will happen throughout the next set of chapters
  5. The ‘joke and game’ scene has been fiddled with in its layout to flow more effectively. The comic relief feel is diminished so that is more dramatic
  6. The entire scene has been broken up into multiple scenes to allow the passage of time and the shifting of viewpoint characters
  1. More references to Daring Do throughout the chapter, as it allows Rainbow to participate more readily with the discussions around her
  2. Lockwood’s presentation of his arguments is given a much more pronounced importance, and it flows more smoothly, and it becomes much more analytical in tone and flow. This serves as yet another clue as to his connection to Blackburn, when she is first encountered
  3. A few plot inconsistencies regarding the gryphons were fixed to be more accurate. Any further inaccuracies are purposefully left confusing, so they can be resolved in Chapter 19
  1. Chapter Nineteen Changes:
  1. The Chapter as a whole has been trimmed immensely; we managed to cut out over 7k words
  2. All of the Mane Six scenes are entirely from Twilight’s perspective now. This required the removal of some of the inner monologues from the other members during Gilderoy’s scene involving their powers. This is the main cause for much of the cut in length, but it prevents head-jumping and allows the characters themselves to explain their powers via dialogue; the only characters not affected by this are Pinkie and Rarity, who did not have any internal monologues, so this gives all the mares equal treatment; Twilight retains her monologue, as the scene is still from her perspective
  3. Related to the above, Gilderoy’s viewing of the Mane Six’s memories to catch up to this point is done entirely through Twilight, providing more interaction between the two
  4. A modification was made to the third OC3 scene to make Lockwood’s and Tick Tock’s time together more natural, and shows off a bit more of the one-sided animosity to their relationship
  5. A modification was made to Gilderoy’s memories, expanding on the scene where Silvertongue unleashes the Red Death upon the gryphons
  1. Chapter Twenty Changes:
  1. Added a lot more detail to the Blood Mire descriptions to refresh the readers as to what the place is; they haven’t seen it since Chapter Seven, so a fresh take is always a plus.
  2. Pinkie’s schtick throughout the zombie battle has been altered, either by moving and/or improving the situation, in three instances:
  1. Her costume change and explanation occurs before the fighting starts, during the brief period of safety while under Twilight’s barrier spell. This gives more room for interaction between the cast as, since they’re safe, they can afford to be distracted
  2. Her entire combat prowess has been improved to be more accurate to the Resident Evil game series, specifically the original. She uses actual weapons from the games now. It just makes sense that, since she uses real guns for her Halo costume, Iron Man costume, and Metal Gear costume, she should use them for her Resident Evil costume
  3. The “sword joke” scene has been combined with her combat scene, allowing the entire sequence to take place in a focused environment. It has also been expanded to include a bit more referential material, and the weapon’s name, Wallbreaker, has been changed to Ragnarok, because that is the name of the actual sword she is seen using in Chapter 16. It still adds plus fifty to Awesomeness, though, just because. It also uses the originally intended joke of the scene involving die rolls a la MMORPGs
  1. Applejack gets a bit more depth given to realizing her powers’ extent, as the sequence where she, Pinkie, and Rainbow return from scouting is shown to some degree as a separate scene
  2. The zombie combat scene has been divided up into multiple scenes to help condense the emotions and actions to the viewpoints of certain characters without head-jumping. Rainbow’s scene, notably, gets cut in half by this and is witnessed entirely from Twilight’s perspective, since Rainbow adds nothing to any of the scenes afterwards until she rescues Tick Tock from Shadowstep and thus does not need further involvement
  1. Chapter Twenty-one Changes:
  1. Modified the order of the fight scenes to improve flow
  2. Removed three of the fight scenes to reduce clutter: two of the Curaçao/Rarity scenes, and one of the Pinkie/Velvet scenes. These scenes added nothing useful and helped considerably shorten the chapter
  3. Havocwing swears a lot more while fighting Rainbow this time, especially when she crashes at the end. Not for the faint of heart
  4. Changing the scenes so they all have a focal point character made for more streamlined narration and less confusion (or more confusion, in the case of Insipid talking out loud to Curaçao, when seen from Fluttershy’s POV)
  5. Flathoof and Lockwood’s small dialogue has been cut, as it too added nothing. Applejack keeps her hat the whole time because of this, and their whereabouts are given more detail in Chapter 22
  1. Chapter Twenty-three Changes:
  1. Removed the entire password-guessing bit as it detracts from the serious feel of the chapter
  2. Cutlass and Barnacle, the Snips and Snails expies, are properly named in this chapter. Before, only Cutlass was ever named, and wasn’t named until Chapter 26
  3. As Time Turner’s name was changed, the Derpy/Muffin joke had to be modified. It’s now a simple mix-up of addresses because Derpy’s eyes made her see the address upside-down. It’s not as good, I’ll admit, but there it is
  4. Rainbow’s introspection has been tidied up to look neater and more readable
  5. Discord’s taunts to both Shining Armor and Celestia have been given more sting, bringing up points about the two of them in regards to the events of the royal wedding to make them sound worse than they make themselves out to be

CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter Two: Imbalance

Police Chief Smokestack grumbled as another pile of papers plopped down onto the podium in front of him. He stared at it as if it were an unwholesome pest, his face making a pretty decent impression of a disgruntled dog. With a sharp grunt, he shooed away the intern that had delivered the annoyance. After a moment of deep consideration and puff of his cigar, Smokestack resigned to his task, and after removing his cap with his magic, he ran a kerchief across his brow. This case load was heavier than usual, and considering the leaflets hanging out the sides, it was a great deal messier too.

This was going to be a long day.

Smokestack lazily ran a comb through his mane and replaced his cap as he took a brief look throughout the empty courtroom, which lacked many of the proper necessities of a courtroom: there were no chamber seats for the public or interested parties; there wasn’t a jury box; instead of two tables meant for the attorneys and parties of the defense and prosecution, there was just one long table meant to hold all of the accused in the case. He still had a bailiff, a thick, cherry red earth pony stallion with a short, golden blond mane that stood just below the podium he himself sat behind.

At least, Smokestack thought, this wouldn’t take too long even if it was a rather large casefile. In New Pandemonium City, the police upheld the law, carried out the law, served as both judge and jury, and even provided attorneys that worked for the police department and had an obvious vested interest. It made things quicker and easier for all parties involved. So, the accused would come in, he’d charge them, question them, deliver them a verdict, and finally sentence them. They’d be done in time for lunch.

He took another puff from his cigar and gestured to the bailiff. The bailiff nodded, adjusted his own cap, straightened his uniform, then signaled to the other officer standing near the door. This one opened the door and signaled to another pony outside, then held the door open as three other police ponies led in a group of six mares they'd arrested only an hour before.

All six mares were now wearing gaudy bright orange jumpsuits, typical for all ponies the police arrested while they awaited their speedy trials. Chief Smokestack noticed that the white unicorn in particular did not look pleased with the outfit, but honestly, none of them looked all that content to be in this situation.

The other officers all left the room so that the only ponies left were the six jumpsuit-clad mares, Chief Smokestack, and his bailiff, the latter of which remained at firm attention just below the chief’s podium. The bailiff looked very imposing compared to Smokestack, who was rather chubby and out of shape. His cutie mark, a pair of hoofcuffs, only added to the image of a stern, hard-working pony.

             “Right then.” Smokestack stroked his bristly mustache with a hoof. He lifted the stack of papers and began to read. “Let’s see here. Case File dated the twenty-eighth of winter quarter, year three thousand and fifty-nine. Case File labeled: The People of New Pandemonium City versus...” He squinted at the paper in front of him. “Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, and Pinkamena Diane Pie. The honorable Judge, New Pandemonium City Police Department Chief Smokestack, which would be me, now presiding. How do you plead?”

             “We don't even know what the charges are!” Twilight said. “We were just walking about, minding our own business, and nopony explained anything... your honor. We don’t even know what we did wrong.”

Smokestack raised an eyebrow and hummed thoughtfully to himself. He wasn’t used to accused parties actually taking the time to ask any questions. He was supposed to be asking questions. They did usually plead Not Guilty though.

Smokestack shrugged and shuffled through the papers again to get to another page. “Hmph, I suppose if you’re that interested, we may as well do this one professionally. It’s been a slow day, so I could use a break in the monotony. Let’s go through these one at a time, shall we? Maybe you can explain to me what excuses you have. Oh, I can’t wait to hear these.” He breathed a dreamy sigh. “I hear that some of the patrol officers are making a game of the most creative excuses they hear. Isn’t that right, Flathoof?”

        The bailiff continued to stand at attention, and shook his head. “Wouldn’t know, Chief. Haven’t been on the beat since you promoted me.”

“Yes, yes, that’s right,” Smokestack mumbled. He put his hoof under his chin and rested his elbow on the podium. “I suppose that even if you were, you wouldn’t have been invited. Well anyway, let’s hear these excuses.

“Okay ladies, we’ll start at the beginning.” He read from the papers again. “First charge. Public Indecency. That is, wandering around city limits without proper attire as stipulated within New Pandemonium City bylaws. The orange one, Applejack?” He glanced over at Applejack, causing her to gulp. “Her charge on that count is reduced by half because she is at least wearing a hat.”

Rarity groaned.

“Second charge,” Smokestack continued. “Disturbing the Peace, as a byproduct of your public indecency. The station got enough phone calls in the fifteen minutes leading to your arrest that I swore we were running some kind of telemarketing service in here.” He glanced over at Pinkie Pie. “One call in particular was from a mare that said she had been psychologically harassed by a pink earth pony mare.” Then, he glanced at Rarity. “And another from a stallion claiming to have been propositioned by a ‘snow white concubine’.”

Rarity slapped the pastern of her hoof to her forehead and over-dramatically fainted.

“Third charge. Failure to Provide Identification. You were not carrying any form of identification on yourselves at the time of arrest, nor could you attest to the whereabouts of your identification. Those are the charges against you six. So, how do you plead?”

Twilight looked around to her friends and shrugged. “Uh... guilty? We didn’t know we needed any of those things. Clothes and identification, I mean. So... I guess we don’t really have an argument there.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes and groaned. “Geez Twilight, just confess to everything why don’t ya?”

“Well, what would you like me to do, Rainbow?” Twilight asked. “He presented the charges, and we did do all those things. Intentionally or not, we’re someplace new and we have to abide by their laws.”

             Smokestack smiled and shuffled his papers back into order. He took another long draw from his cigar, and blew a ring of smoke off into the air. “Excellent. At least we have an understanding. My officers don't just arrest random folks off the street, you see, so I’m glad we can at least get this started off without that accusation again. Now, if you’d be so kind as to explain why you say you didn’t know you needed them?”

             Rainbow sauntered over to Twilight and said, “Let me do the talking, Twilight. You gotta keep all your answers short and sweet.”

             “Rainbow, I know how to handle this. I did study law.”

        “Well?” Smokestack asked.

             “We're not from around here,” Rainbow said.

            “Actually—" Twilight started, lifting her hoof.

Rainbow slapped Twilight’s hoof away. “Next question, please.”

“Now now, let’s hear what your friend has to say,” Smokestack said. He took another puff of his cigar and leaned back in his seat, putting his rear hooves up on the podium.

Twilight briefly shot an indignant look at Rainbow, then turned back to Smokestack and explained. “Actually, we’re from a town called Ponyville, to be exact.”

             Smokestack and Flathoof both gave each other confused looks. “Ponyville?” Smokestack asked, sitting back upright. “What an utterly ridiculous name for a town. Let me guess, ponies live there? That’s a good one! Flathoof, have you ever heard of a place named Ponyville before?”

             Flathoof shook his head. “Nnnope. That’s a first, Chief. It might be someplace in Utopia though, sir. I’m not too knowledgeable about their town names down there.”

        “And what leads you to think that, Flathoof?” Smokestack asked, resting his chin on his hoof and elbow again.

        “They were arrested only two blocks from the NPRD building, sir,” Flathoof explained, giving the six ponies a quick glance. “Seems to me they made the mistake of forgetting to register before they came into the city. Seen it before.”

             “Yeah, that's it,” Rainbow said. “We’re from Ponyville, Utopia. Wanted to register, but we got lost.”

             Smokestack furrowed his brow. “Convenient excuse... almost believable. Flathoof, you think their story has merit?”

“I see no reason to doubt them, sir. They didn't cause any property damage or harm anypony, so I don’t think they’re a danger. Plus, this is the first time I've ever heard ‘we’re not from around here’ as an excuse for... well, anything. I’ve heard a few good ones in my time, sir.”

He laughed. “It’s usually ‘it's at my friend’s apartment’ or ‘it’s in my other jacket’ or some other tired, old excuse. Not a shred of creativity. So I figure either these mares are very, very clever, or they’re telling the truth.”

“And considering they got caught I highly doubt the former.” Smokestack stroked his mustache and rapidly puffed his cigar. “Very well. I’ll trust your judgment on this, Flathoof.”

Smokestack returned his gaze to the mares. “That explains why you weren't carrying identification.” He shuffled his papers around and stamped a part of one of them. “I’ll modify the charges to reflect your status as undocumented residents. That’ll reduce the severity of the whole case by a pretty large amount. Now, care to explain why you were wandering around naked though?”

Smokestack stared at them, and the corner of his mouth curled up slightly. “A shame I haven’t been on the beat for such a long time. I would have loved to be the one to take you all in.”

Rainbow shrugged. “Same thing. We’re not from around here.”

“Actually—" Twilight said. Rainbow hung her head. “Where we’re from, we don’t usually wear clothes, so truth be told it came as a rather uncomfortable surprise to learn that everypony here does.”

             Smokestack raised an eyebrow, then leaned over and whispered to Flathoof, “Is Utopia going hedonist nowadays? It's been awhile since I've been. If it is, I might consider taking a little vacation next summer quarter. The beaches might have just gotten more fun.”

             Flathoof coughed uncomfortably and shook his head. “Wouldn’t know sir. Never been myself, obviously. I’ll admit I’m not accustomed with Utopia’s... customs...”

Smokestack took another long draw from his cigar, then grunted and put it out in the ashtray on his podium. “Hmph. That certainly would explain that bit too. So, you’re undocumented residents and therefore are treated with leniency on your identification requirements. You’re also Utopian natives, which means that we have to acknowledge our cities’ cultural differences.

“However! There is still the fact that your antics, however justifiable they may be under the law, did indeed disturb the peace around you and caused widespread havoc. Don’t have a fancy excuse to get yourselves out of that one, do you?”

        Rainbow stared forward and crossed her hooves over her chest. “Yeah we done it! What of it?!”

“Rainbow!” Twilight exclaimed.

Smokestack casually pulled another cigar out of his uniform pocket, lit it, and took a long draw. He blew out another smoke ring and chuckled. “Well, glad we’ve gotten that all cleared up. So, guilty of one count each for Disturbing the Peace, with minimum charges for Public Indecency and Failure to Provide Identification. Verdict has been delivered. Let it be noted, Flathoof.”

Flathoof stared at Smokestack and shrugged. “Okay, sir. Noted.”

“Under the circumstances, you six have two options,” Smokestack explained. He lifted up his left hoof and tilted it left. “Either we toss you in jail and let the system weed you out, or—" He lifted his right hoof and tilted it right. “You can get yourselves documented and be released on parole. You should all be so lucky that Flathoof is taking your side. He’s not an easy one to convince.”

“You’d release us? Just like that?” Twilight asked.

Rainbow nudged Twilight hard in the ribs.

“Ow! Rainbow—"

“Geez, Twi, shut up, before he changes his mind!”

             Smokestack grinned and waved his cigar around in the air. “Just like that? Why, our little city is always looking to get a few more taxpayers into the system. Your crimes were not violent or damaging. Well put, Flathoof,” he added, nodding down at the bailiff. “And you all cooperated with the arrest and legal proceedings. So, I see no need to deny you the opportunity to increase my salary. Of course, if prison time sounds more appealing, I'd understand. Taxes are pretty high these days.”

             The six mares from Ponyville instantly gathered in a huddle. Twilight spoke first, loud enough that everypony in the room could hear. “I think it’s pretty obvious what we need to do here. No sense in not cooperating, right?”

             “Duh, and get ourselves thrown in jail?” Rainbow shook her head. “Fluttershy wouldn’t last two seconds in there! Poor filly would fall to pieces.”

        “I don’t like dungeons...” Fluttershy muttered.

“That Flathoof fella seems on the level,” Applejack said, glancing out of the huddle towards the mentioned stallion. “Maybe he can help us? I sure wouldn’t mind askin’.”

Rarity’s nose scrunched up as she ran a hoof along the collar of her jumpsuit. “Ugh... and I simply must get myself out of this awful thing, and into something a little more... me.”

        A few moments passed in silence. They all turned to Pinkie Pie.

Pinkie blinked and looked around the huddle. “What are you all looking at me for?”

        “Aren’t you going to suggest anything?” Twilight asked. “I did ask for everypony’s opinions... though I guess at this point majority rules, doesn’t it?”

         Applejack chuckled. “Yeah, ain’t ya gonna suggest a party or somethin’?”

        Rainbow quickly covered Applejack’s mouth. “Don’t give her any ideas!”

Pinkie rolled her eyes. “A party? Pfft, c’mon Applejack I can’t always have parties on my mind. But now that you mention it... a prison break party! Oh I have the best ideas! We could have nail files in the cake, and instead of fancy cookies and candies we’d have gruel and—"

Rainbow groaned. “Pinkie Pie you are so... ugh...”

             Twilight broke the huddle and turned back to Smokestack. She cleared her throat and nodded. “Well, I guess we’re taking the second option then.”

            “Excellent! Most excellent.” Smokestack rubbed his hooves together, then snapped a hoof towards Flathoof. “Flathoof! Please see to it they all get properly documented as quickly as possible. I'd like to see that salary increase on my next paycheck, if I can.”

“Right away, sir,” Flathoof said, saluting. He turned towards the six mares and stepped forward. “Come along, ladies. Time to join the herd, as they say.”

             Flathoof gestured for them to follow him through the double doors out into the hallway, and gave a noticeable sigh as Twilight came up beside him, matching his stride with the others not too far behind her. Many other officers in the white halls of the police headquarters were beginning to stare at Flathoof and his new entourage. He felt and knew he looked quite odd leading six mares dressed up in prison uniforms along like a clutch of ducklings.

He was glad to have some reprieve when the group arrived at the elevator leading back to the ground floor. He pressed one of the silver buttons; it turned gold. Now they just had to wait for the elevator to come to them.

Five seconds. Ten seconds. Fifteen. Flathoof was getting impatient. He turned towards Twilight when she gave a tiny cough to draw his attention. “Yes, Miss Sparkle?”

             “I wanted to thank you for helping us in there. I'll admit, our story might seem a little... odd,” Twilight said. She smiled and nodded appreciatively. “So, thank you.”

             “You can spare the pleasantries with me, Miss Sparkle,” Flathoof said. “Our prisons are filled up enough as it is with all sorts of real criminals. I don't feel like seeing precious space wasted on a troupe of nudists. Not the most dangerous of crimes, y’know?”

        

        “Wait... so you don’t believe us?” Rainbow asked.

        

        “Nnnope. Now, I don't know where exactly Ponyville is, but it sure as hay isn’t in Utopia as far as I know. Sounds like a made-up town, if you ask me. Most likely scenario? You’re all refugees from the Wastelands, just looking for food and shelter. That isn’t a crime in and of itself. So think of this as killing two birds with one stone.”

Fluttershy grimaced at the poor choice of metaphor.

“I’m helping you get on your hooves, while keeping our prisons open to criminals who actually deserve to be there.” Flathoof shrugged. “You’re all lucky the Chief is willing to look the other way when he sees an opportunity to get a few bits out of it.”

        The elevator arrived with a soft ding and all the ponies shuffled inside at Flathoof’s lead. The inside of the elevator car was stuffy, since they had to get uncomfortably close together in order for them all to fit. Rainbow, Pinkie, and Applejack were squished together on one side of Flathoof, while Twilight, Rarity, and Fluttershy squished in on his other side.

“Well, regardless of why you did it, we appreciate you doing it.” Twilight cordially offered her hoof towards him. “I'm Twilight Sparkle. It's a pleasure to meet you, Officer—"

“Captain,” he corrected.

Captain Flathoof. I know you already know our names, but I feel a proper introduction is in order, if you don't mind? Seeing as we kind of owe you our freedom and all.”

             “Hmph.” Flathoof took her hoof and gave it a very light shake. “If you insist, Miss Sparkle. Go ahead then, get on with it.”

             “Splendid!” Twilight clapped her hooves together and listed off her friends, starting from her left. “These are my friends, Rarity—"

             Rarity nodded pleasantly. “How do you do?”

             “Fluttershy—"

             

“Um...hi...” Fluttershy muttered.

             “Rainbow Dash—"

             

Rainbow tilted her head. “Hey.”

             “Pinkie Pie—"

             

Pinkie tried to bounce in place, but she was hindered by the lack of space to both Applejack’s and Rainbow’s relief. “Hiya! It's so cool that you're our new friend. I should throw you a party to celebrate! Oh, I just need supplies... and a place to hold the party... this plan isn’t working out so well yet, is it?”

             “And Applejack—"

Silence.

             “Applejack? Hello?”

             “Wha? Oh!” Applejack blushed and rubbed the back of her head. “S-sorry, Twilight. Kinda got... distracted. By somethin’. Um... howdy!”

             “Right. You’re a... colorful group.” Flathoof shook his head and muttered to himself, “Sometimes I wonder why I get myself into these things. Why I don’t just look the other way like everypony else.”

        The elevator dinged again, and the elevator doors opened to reveal the bustling lobby.

It was a madhouse on the ground level compared to the relative calm of the upper floors. Ponies of all kinds were everywhere in the building, interacting with the police officers that were on duty down here. Some ponies were at the front desk talking with the officers there, reporting crimes or asking questions. There were other ponies being led through the station, their hooves in hoofcuffs; most of these ponies gave the six mares coy smirks as they passed by. Many officers themselves were working at desks all across the floor, answering phones or filing papers.

Flathoof led his entourage through the first hall past the main lobby, past several offices labeled Internal Affairs, and towards the second hallway on the opposite side. Twilight’s curiosity was piqued, as this had caused them to skip past the lobby doors entirely.

             “So we’re not headed for that NPRD place you mentioned?” Twilight asked. “I thought we were getting registrations taken care of?”

“The NPRD building isn’t necessary. The NPPD has all the same forms and equipment, if you know where to look and who to ask,” Flathoof explained. “Besides, I can't exactly imagine any of you want to go walking out around town wearing those jumpsuits, looking like a group of convicts. If you thought you got odd looks before, well...”

             Rarity grimaced at her jumpsuit again and stroked her mane in an attempt to at least keep some part of herself looking fashionable. “Please tell me we're going to be getting something to replace these soon. And a place to get some proper grooming done? I don’t know about you girls, but I could really use a bath.”

             “Well, something like that,” Flathoof said. He pointed off towards a hall to their right as they passed it, but kept going. “There’s a storage room down that way were we keep all sorts of confiscated clothing. We normally just donate it all to our annual auction, but I’m sure we can find something in there for you to use until we get you all sorted out.”

             Flathoof turned right down a narrow hallway lit by several flickering florescent lamps. Near the halfway mark, he stopped and gestured to a set of double doors marked Clerk Office. The mares filed past into the room and looked around.

Unlike the rest of the police building, this room was near empty, save for two clerks seated behind a pair of dull metal desks. The nearest one, a unicorn mare with a jet black coat and bright red mane, stealthily attempted to fix her mane and adjust her thick, round glasses as Flathoof strode up to her. She wore a wide grin on her face, which she tried to hide behind a hoof, poorly.

             “Oh, Fla- Captain Flathoof. Always a pleasure to see you. How can I be of assistance for you this fine afternoon?” She glanced over at the mares that had been following him, but did not drop her smile.

             “And a fine afternoon to you too, Snapshot,” Flathoof said, tipping his hat. “I need to get some identification and citizenship forms, and if you could make it snappy, I’d appreciate it.”

Flathoof cringed a little at his own horrible, unintentional pun and tried to ignore it, but Pinkie had begun giggling into her hoof, breaking his concentration. He quickly added, “Oh, and some domicile registration forms as well. We’ll need to find these six a place to live.”

        Snapshot nodded and got out of her seat. “I’ll have those rounded up for you in just a minute.”

             “A place to live? Finding that is that part of your job too?” Rainbow asked after Snapshot had turned to a large bank of filing cabinets placed behind her desk. “Man, they make you guys do everything around here.”

Flathoof sighed. “Well, it is my job as your parole officer,” he said.

             The six mares all blinked at once. Twilight voiced her curiosity. “Did... I miss something? When did that happen?”

             “When the Chief assigned me to take care of your documentations, that was his code for ‘Flathoof, you're their parole officer now’.” He removed his hat and stroked a hoof along the captain insignia. “This isn’t exactly what I wanted to do. I'd really rather be back out on the streets trying to catch real crooks, but orders are orders. Even if I don't like them, I follow them. Times like this make me think I was promoted for reasons other than seniority.”

             “B-but... does that mean you don’t like us?” Pinkie frowned and started sniffing back tears.

             “I never said that,” Flathoof added. “I’d just prefer if I was actually out there doing my real job, instead of being a babysitter. No offense, but this sort of thing isn’t exactly what I signed on for. But such is the life of a police captain, I guess. Too much desk work, not enough hoof work.”

             Applejack grunted and adjusted her hat. “Y’all make it sound like we're imposin’ on ya. If y’all don't like it, why don't ya just find somepony else ta take over, an’ let us do our own thing?”

             Flathoof hesitated, then sighed. “Your little troupe here looked like a bunch of fish out of water. Like I said, I don't know where exactly in Equestria you're from. But, you sure aren’t from around here, and I’m not about to send a bunch of know-nothing mares out there to try and brave this city. You obviously already tried that once, and look where that nearly got you. If this were Utopia, I wouldn’t be that concerned. I can’t blame you for not wanting to travel all that way. Now, if you don't like my attitude, that's your own problem, because I’m not changing it. Nnnope. Not. At. All.”

             Applejack stared at him for a brief moment, then shook her head and let the others get back to talking.

Snapshot returned from the filing cabinets behind her and produced all the paperwork everypony would require. Twilight volunteered to have hers filled out first, and sat at the other side of the desk as Snapshot organized all the paperwork together.

 Snapshot adjusted her glasses and hovered a pen over the form. “Okay let’s see... name?”

             “Twilight Sparkle.”

             Snapshot nodded and filled out the corresponding space on the form, then skipped ahead to the next one. “Coat color, purple—"

             “It’s... more of a lavender, really,” Twilight said, her smile incredulous. She expected a pony like Applejack not to care about specific tones of color, but this was a police officer filling out a very official document.

             “Purple,” said Snapshot, giving an irritated sigh. “Hues and shades aren’t important for the forms. Your photograph will take care of that just fine. I’d like to just get this quickly without having to pick out specifics, okay?”

Twilight wrinkled her nose and nodded. “Alright then.”

“Good. Now then, mane and tail, purple with a pink streak. Eyes, purple.” Snapshot adjusted her glasses and stared at Twilight. “Should I just fill out everything on here ‘purple’, dear? I’m just noticing a pattern is all.”

             “Hey, it's not my fault you don't use shades and hues,” Twilight said.

             Snapshot shrugged and moved down to the next section of the form. “Next, talent?”

             “Magic.”

             Snapshot gave Twilight Sparkle a look of disbelief and confusion. “Okay... sweetheart, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but... you're a unicorn. Magic isn't a talent, all unicorns can—"

             Twilight laughed. “No, I mean, Magic itself is my talent. I can perform almost every kind of magic there is. I just need to see it used or have it described, and I can usually duplicate the spell. Sometimes not as well as the unicorns who specialize with specific types of magic, but for most generic stuff I'm better at it than the average unicorn.” Twilight caught herself at the end and added, “Not to brag or anything...”

             “Well... okay, if you say so, O Magic One.” Snapshot rolled her eyes as she jotted it down, then flipped the page and headed for the next section. “Former residence? Be specific this time.”

             “Ponyville. Uh... Utopia.” Twilight smiled, and crossed her forelegs. “Ponyville, Utopia.”

             Snapshot raised an eyebrow and stared at Twilight again as if the other unicorn was insane. “Ponyville? There isn't any—"

             “We've been over this already, Snapshot,” Flathoof interrupted. “Just put it in there and save yourself the headache. If anypony asks, say it’s a new village or something.”

             “Right, okay.” Snapshot sighed, and pointed her pen lazily at Flathoof. “You’re lucky it’s you asking me for all this, Captain Flathoof. I’m gonna have to make sure this story stays straight or they’re gonna come after me. Moving on.” She turned back to Twilight and set her pen back to the paper. “Former occupation, if applicable? Again, be specific, since this part actually matters and it’ll likely affect your tax bracket.”

             Twilight thought for a moment, then settled on, “Librarian.”

             Snapshot smiled and jotted the answer down. “Finally, something simple. Since Captain Flathoof would want me too, I’ll add a recommendation here for Central Database Holdings. Should help you find work quicker. Okay, that just about settles it. And Captain Flathoof is author—"

             “Aha... nnnope, d-don't put my name there,” Flathoof said. He replaced his hat on his head, as it had fumbled in the sudden interruption. “The Chief would kill me if he found out I took one of his commissions. Put his name on there, please.”

             “Commissions?” Twilight asked. Snapshot was busy scribbling other notes on the form that she didn’t seem to need Twilight for anyway, giving her a chance to ask Flathoof a question or two.

“The pony in that authorization box gets the salary increase, since they're the one responsible for increasing the city’s tax flow. That’s why the Chief assigned me to take care of this, rather than do it himself. I’m practically the only pony around here trustworthy enough not to try and take a cut. It stinks, since I could really use that pay increase...” Flathoof sighed. “It’s tough being the one of the only honest cops around here.”

             “Aren't ya worried ‘bout gettin’ in trouble, talkin’ like that in front o’ yer fellow officers?” Applejack asked. Her eyes flickered to Snapshot, then back to him. “Can’t imagine anypony’d take too kindly ta bein’ called crooked.”

             “Oh don’t worry about Snapshot. She’s a good egg.” Snapshot didn’t lift her nose out of the pile of papers she was working on, but Flathoof could see her smile. “Now, everypony else around here? They know ol' Flathoof is the most honest, most dependable police officer in the whole dang city, and that he always speaks his mind. They also know that if they don't like it, they can always try and get me to stop. See how that works out for 'em. I didn’t get promoted to Captain just for my good looks.” He pounded his chest with one of his large forelegs and gave a hearty laugh.

Applejack’s mouth curled up in a small smile, apparently impressed with such a robust answer.

             “Okay... and check, check, double-check, stamp here... done.” Snapshot neatly straightened the pile of papers and turned them around to face Twilight, drawing her attention by tapping her pen against the bottom. “I just need you to sign this here—" She flipped the page and pointed at the bottom again. “And here—" She flipped to the back page and pointed in three separate locations. “Here, here, and here.”

Twilight signed each with the pen provided.

Snapshot smiled and straightened the papers again, then shuffled them neatly into a small folder. “Wonderful, now we just need to take your photograph and you're all done. Over here please.” Snapshot stood up and trotted off towards a small booth on the side of the room.

             Twilight nodded and followed Snapshot over, then promptly hopped into the seat that Snapshot provided for her. She then must have realized she was still in the tacky prisoner jumpsuit. “Uh... do I really want to be wearing this when I take my picture? Everypony I show my identification to will think I was a convict.”

             “Sucks to be you.” Snapshot shrugged and adjusted the camera without looking at Twilight directly. “Look, if you're going to make this difficult, I'll just draw in your frame. I warn you, I'm not a very good artist. Your choice, really.”

             “Fine, fine.” Twilight sighed. “Is Flathoof the only courteous pony around here? Yeesh.”

She sat in front of the large poster frame that would serve as the backdrop, and waited as Snapshot took the picture. Twilight made to speak, when there was a bright, unexpected flash that made her shut her eyes.

Within a few moments, Snapshot produced a tiny card out of the machine attached to the camera, passing it over to Twilight after the latter had finished rubbing her eyes.

Twilight sighed when she saw her identification. She was half-blinking in the middle of the shot and her mouth was half open in the process of asking a question. She didn’t take much effort guessing that Snapshot had done it on purpose, and now her ID picture made her look like some sort of drunk they just pulled off the street for a photo shoot.

             The other five mares sat with Snapshot and filled their forms out and had their pictures taken as well. Now, everypony had their ID cards and were ready to be properly indoctrinated to life here in New Pandemonium City, at least as long as it took for them to find a way to get back home.

They all felt a little anxious about that fact, though. Thus far, they hadn’t seen anything that could be of any help in getting them home. Other than Flathoof, they didn’t have a single pony they felt they could ask for help either, and he didn’t seem the type to believe their admittedly fanciful entire story. They could hardly believe it themselves.

             “Well then, you girls are all settled in as far as registration goes,” Flathoof said, looking over the ID cards. “Good. See? Snapshot got that taken care of in no time flat. Now, I’m going to get your lodging taken care of, so you all go take a seat over there,” he added, gesturing to the seats against the wall.

        “Thanks again, Captain Flathoof,” Twilight said.

Twilight led her friends over to the seats, and took the opportunity to discuss things out of Flathoof’s earshot. “Well girls, we may as well make the most of this, at least for now, right?” She sighed and dejectedly looked amongst her friends. “Mostly though, I wonder where that portal even came from, what it was doing there, and why the portal on this end was closing when we came through? It looked like somepony managed to seal it... but who could have that kind of power, if I couldn’t do it?”

             “Hmph, if y’all ask me, we should just be glad nopony got hurt,” Applejack said. She adjusted her hat and leaned back in her seat. “But you’re right, Twi, we may as well try an’ get used ta bein' here, at least fer now. I just hope everything’s okay back at home. Hopefully Big Macintosh’ll be able ta handle the crops fer a lil’ while, an’ be able ta look out fer Apple Bloom at the same time.”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah, I’m worried about Spike and Owlowiscious. Spike knew we were leaving and all, but I don’t think he could have anticipated all of this. I know I sure didn’t. I’m sure he’s okay, but...”

“Well, I’m not too worried about Gummy,” Pinkie said. “I’m sure the Cakes can take good care of him. I feel bad that they don’t have me around to help with the twins though. They’re gonna be super tired by the time we get home!”

Fluttershy gave a loud sniff. “Oh... my poor little Angel Bunny...”

             “Come on, girls, this is no time to get discouraged.” Rarity patted Fluttershy on the shoulder. “We might be in a bind, but at least we’re in it together. Worrying about things like this won’t get us any closer to solving the problem. We should just have faith that things back home will work out. Right?”

             “Right!” Pinkie Pie cheered, throwing her hooves into the air dramatically. “We need to stay focused on the here and now! Like, finding a place to live! When we find a place, I’m gonna throw us a huge house-warming party! I'm gonna need streamers, balloons, cake, ice cream, soda pop, candy, cookies, cupcakes, music, banners—"

             Rainbow sighed and leaned back into her chair. “There she goes again. Even when we're stuck in a jam like this, the first thing on her mind is her next party. Typical Pinkie Pie...”

            “Aww, don't complain, Dashie!” Pinkie giggled and gave Rainbow a big hug. “You love my parties! More than anypony, I bet! And besides, the last big party I threw was two weeks ago, and that’s like a new record for me! I gotta have another party soon, or I might just explode, maybe twice! And with this whole new world to explore, I want to get started off on the right hoof. Ooh ooh, I bet Mister Flathoof would love my parties too!”

        “Well, ya might as well ask him,” Applejack said.

        Flathoof approached them with a smile on his face. “Well, that’s all taken care of. You ladies have a new place to live. We’ll head there immediately and get you all settled in. Hop to it.”

Pinkie bounded out of her seat and got face-to-face with Flathoof. “Hey Mister Flathoof—"

Captain Flathoof, if you're going to insist on adding a title.”

“Okay, Captain Flathoof!" Pinkie took a deep breath.

Rainbow chuckled. “Here we go.”

♫Ohhh

             You are our newest bestest friend and that is just so great!

            You’re invited to a party where the fun will be first-rate!

             You'll get to spend some time with us and share our company!

             And maybe when we’re done you’ll find we are the best ponies!

Flathoof stared blankly at Pinkie for several moments, his eyes glazed over between blinks. Then, he turned to the nearest pony he could ask, Applejack. “Does... she do that often?”

Applejack smirked and patted Flathoof on the shoulder. “Oh, you’ll get used to it. Trust me. You’ll have ta.”

He sighed and adjusted his hat. “What have I gotten myself into?”

***

A mint green unicorn grumbled to herself as she rounded her way up the flight of stairs leading to her apartment. She hated being on the hundredth floor for two reasons: one, there wasn’t an elevator, so she had to climb the full hundred floors stair by stair; two, her window frame was broken and let outside air in, all of it unhealthily smoggy and dirty. But, this was where she had to live to do her job most efficiently, as it wasn’t worth the risk to let the city go without her being there.

The apartment complex wasn't particularly well-kept, but it was cheap. Really cheap. Which was good, since her job didn't actually have much in the way of monetary compensation. Her superiors ensured she would have a place to live and plenty of food to eat, but she had almost no spending money for use in her free time, not that she ever had much of that anyway. She often wondered, daily in fact, if any of her counterparts had this sort of difficulty working in their worlds.

              She grudgingly opened her apartment door with a rusty set of keys, walked in, and took a deep breath to calm herself after the climb, regretting it as she got a mouthful of filthy, smoggy New Pandemonium late afternoon air. She shook what felt like dust and cobwebs out of her sky blue mane and tail, as they had a habit of clinging to her on the climb up, then dropped her keys on the nearby table.

With a cough, she went to her kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and prepared a snack for herself. Prepared, of course, meant just taking a packet of Dolor Red out and opening it, then squeezing it out of its little tube directly into her mouth. It wasn’t anything special, as those sorts of things were hard to come by, but it wasn’t bad. Straight out of the package like this, it actually tasted like overly ripe cherries.

She kept the packet aloft with her magic as she moved out into the den to take a load off. It had been a hard day at work, and she delighted in taking this chance to lounge on her sofa, loosen her bow tie, remove her sweater vest, and just plain relax. Fifteen cases today, the last of which was interrupted by a pack of nudists, which could have been bad. Really bad. She flicked on the television set in the corner, hoping to lose herself in the latest gossip that she didn’t actually care about. It was calming, and living in a city like New Pandemonium meant she needed all the calm she could get.

              Then, she noticed it. There was neon green glow coming from her antique grandfather clock in the other corner. She hastily fumbled in the pocket of her sweater vest and pulled out a plain-looking, silver stopwatch. She clicked the top with her hoof, and the grandfather clock stopped glowing, opened wide, and let in a fresh breeze of sterile air with just a hint of minty freshness. Despite knowing she was alone in the apartment, she followed protocol and double-checked the room for intruders, then entered the grandfather clock’s tight entrance shutting the door behind her with a click.

The clock was much bigger on the inside, almost as big as the den she'd just left from. It was filled with all sorts of gadgets, tools, monitors, levers, knobs, and other assorted technological wonders that looked nothing like the technology outside. Its size meant it wasn't directly attached to the world she'd just left, either; if it were, she knew she'd be standing in her neighbor's bathroom right this moment, probably in the bathtub, or worse, the toilet.

One particular monitor drew her attention. It was glowing a bright red, as opposed to the soothing greens and blues of the others. She trotted over to it, clicked a few buttons, and adjusted the screen's focus until she could make out the image of a familiar face, a light brown stallion with a spiked chocolate-brown mane.

“Time Turner?” she asked. “This is unexpected.”

              “Oh, thank Celestia, I thought you'd never answer!” He wiped his brow and gave her a look of sympathy. “Ruddy portal storms. How are you holding up over there, Tick Tock? You look proper knackered.”

              “Been up all bloody day trying to calm everything down. Finally get a chance to rest up, and now here you are.” She shook her head and sighed. “You’re on the emergency channel. Is something the matter?”

              “Well that’s just it. There is, but I’m not sure exactly what, yet.” Time Turner sighed and wiped his brow again. “I mean, there shouldn't be anything wrong, but here I am contacting you because I fear that my last case had a bit of an error somewhere, and I can’t figure out what exactly went awry.

        “I had a pretty standard tear here, and according to all my readings it started out rather small. Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary, just totally a dull, normal, day-to-day tear. Unfortunately, it appeared a little too close to civilization this time, as in within miles of an actual town. I usually don’t have that sort of trouble, not like you do. The locals don't usually see the tears before I get to them, but I got distracted by that bloody mailpony and—"

        “Distracted? Mailpony?” Tick Tock asked, eyebrow cocked.

Time Turner waved a hoof. “Nevermind. Anyway, somepony did something to it. I don't know if they tried to absorb the magic like some madpony, or if they were just throwing spells at it, or if the ruddy fool was actually trying to seal it without proper equipment or know-how. Whatever the case may be, six ponies got warped from my world to yours. That’s the long and short of it.”

              Tick Tock tapped her chin. “Doesn't sound too problematic. We have this kind of thing happen often enough that it's practically routine. I get them to another portal, give my Timekeeper a little click—" She mimed clicking her stopwatch. “Wind it up, send the poor blighters home. What's the big problem? You’re acting like this is serious. Look at you, you’re sweating and everything.”

              “That's just it, I can't explain it!” Time Turner blurted. He took out his own Timekeeper and frantically pointed at it. “These past few hours, I've been getting some bizarre readings from all over my end. I can't be certain just yet, but most are similar enough to Chaos signatures that for now, I'm going to make the assumption that they are.”

        “Chaos magic?” Tick Tock rubbed the side of her head in thought. “You’re right, that makes no bloody sense at all. You think they’re connected?”

“Naturally. I need you to find these ponies and let me know who they are, so that I can try and figure out if any of them are of enough importance that it would cause this. Luckily, all the readings are pretty small right now. Honestly, I’m hoping that it’s just an errant glitch from sealing a portal with that much energy, but... well, I have to prepare for the worst, you understand.”

              “Righto then, sounds simple enough.” Tick Tock frowned. “Oh bugger. I probably won't be able to send them home for a while, though. That portal storm just finished passing through, and I already finished sealing everything up. The portal report says I'm not expecting any more tears for at least another month. That won’t be a problem will it? You are making this sound awfully urgent.”

Time Turner sighed and wiped his brow again. “Well of all the rotten luck. Hopefully it won’t matter, but we'll worry about that after we find out who they are. If it’s serious, you can always fall back on emergency measures. Hopefully this is just a minor glitch and we can fix it and be back to our merry little usual business, eh? I’ll send you my dimensional data so you can track them. Thanks again, Tick Tock. Always a pleasure. Cheerio.”

Tick Tock smiled. “Not at all, Time Turner. Always good talking to you, too. Stiff upper lip and all that.”

Time Turner pushed several buttons, and a sound behind Tick Tock signaled that the information he was sending was being transferred over to her database. She waved him farewell, grabbed her Timekeeper, and tapped it to the central core, copying the data into the more portable device. She then opened it and clicked the top several times, until it glowed a dull green with a single dot near the center with a line making circles around it. Finally, she exited the grandfather clock and ventured back out into her apartment, adjusted her bow-tie, put her sweater vest back on, and began the arduous descent back down the stairs to the city streets.

        A Chronomancer’s work was never done.

        

***

Thousands of miles south of New Pandemonium City, beyond the great expanse of the arid desert that bordered the city’s mile-high walls and across the great, churning ocean, there was a place altogether wondrous. A place filled with magic that lived and breathed of its own accord, spurned on by the relentless power that fueled it. A place where one could watch as lightning danced for an eternity, and where fire smoldered yet never burned out.

The Belt of Tranquility.

The Belt stretched precisely along the equator, in the center of the massive ocean that made of one-third of the planet’s surface, separating the other two-thirds, the northern and southern continents. To its north, the sky was filled with a veil of churning magic colored a murky orange, generated by a massive tower in the center of New Pandemonium City, sitting precisely at the planet’s northern pole. To its south, the air was clear and bright, kept clean by a veil of invisible magic generated by a similar tower at the southern pole, itself sitting at the center of a much smaller city deep within the snowy tundra. Where these two fields of magic collided, the Belt of Tranquility was formed, a massive wall of magic that caused the seas and skies along the entire equator to thrash violently about.

Today, something was amiss at the Belt of Tranquility.

A consciousness floated tenuously in the rift between dreaming and reality, poised near the points where the magical energies were at their fiercest but staying firmly on the northern side. The entity could feel that something was out of place. The Belt of Tranquility was very slowly shifting, and Light was becoming the dominant force. This would not do, the entity mused to itself. This would not do at all. The entity willed itself to fully enter the state of dreaming, that it could contact the one pony that would see to it that this dilemma was resolved.

***

Lord Silvertongue looked out the window of his private study, out into the cityscape of New Pandemonium far, far below. Here in the highest reaches of Pandora, Pandemonium's tallest skyscraper, he could see the entire skyline of the city. The study was elegant and richly decorated with varieties of items that Silvertongue held dear to him: the banner of New Pandemonium City, a flaming red sword thrust through a shining golden disk against a black void, decorated the far wall; an old portrait of himself was posted with esteem on the nearest wall, just above the mantelpiece; a record player, an antique from times long forgotten, rest upon the table in the corner and played his favorite ballad.

The ballad was an old opera, sung in a language that he knew very, very few in Pandemonium could ever hope to speak. The singer, a mare with a high falsetto, filled the lyrics with her soul, bringing the scene to life as her character was confronted by her lover, the opera’s villain, who asked her to give up her life as a princess to run away with him. It was meant to be the climax of the opera, but Silvertongue played it because it brought him peace of mind, something that he, as the shadow ruler of this great city of darkness and chaos, felt was crucial to his sanity.

The powers of Dark magicks were at their strongest here in this city, as Pandora Tower was where the great Beacon had been built, generating a veil of murky orange magic that blocked out the sky. The Beacon was fueled by and influenced evil thoughts in the minds of ponies, and while not every single citizen in the city was an avid follower of these ideals, and in fact few of them actually were, there was enough corruption and easily-overlooked “laws” in place to make chaos and evil a typical day-to-day activity even if the ponies were unaware of it. To the average onlooker, nothing in the city made sense. He’d designed it that way in order to keep the Beacon running.

And all the while, the citizens had this grand illusion that the chaos of the city was still a better life, a better existence, than the complacent, high-cost, constrictive, and exclusive society of Utopia’s gleaming crystal spires and gold-paved roads. The people of Pandemonium weren’t good enough for Utopia. Utopia was much too strict and much too expensive for them. That was what the unwashed masses all believed. They were easy to deceive. Easy to exploit.

The record finished. Silvertongue tore himself from the window and his inner thoughts. His horn glowed a grim red as he lifted the record from its place, returned it to its sleeve, and replaced it in the nearby cabinet, where it would remain until he wished for it again. He turned back to the window, his horn aglow, and flicked a number of switches alongside it. The window darkened until it was completely black, then became a perfectly reflective surface, bouncing the image of the room back at him.

He carefully gauged himself in the reflection. His pristine silver coat was as pure and radiant as ever. Not a single bright golden hair in his impeccably-styled mane was out of place. A monocle rested upon his left eye, and was spotless enough that it enhanced the luster of the sea-blue color. His fanciest dress uniform was immaculate and covered him from neck to flank, the shiny black leather polished and gleaming in the single light of the room, the red trim glistening like freshly-picked cherries, or more appropriately - freshly-spilt blood.

His appearance was absolutely perfect. It had to be. Nihila's prized Warden wouldn't allow otherwise in her presence.

You were expecting me.

Silvertongue did not turn to face the source of the voice, that of Nihila, the Goddess of Disparity. There would be no point. It spoke directly into his mind. There was no physical thing to even look at. In all things Silvertongue knew, he knew this: Alicorns were the most exquisite creatures in existence, blessed with such incredible magicks that they were above a mortal form. A mortal body was not worthy enough to contain their elegance, their raw power. Physical beauty, even of the absolute highest caliber, was not even worth the slightest fraction of what Alicorns appeared like to one’s mind’s eye.

“I am always expecting you, milady.” Silvertongue bowed, even though his was the only physical body in the room. “It would be of no benefit to me to be in any less than flawless physical condition, lest you visit me in dire straits and become dissatisfied with my dedication.”

Well spoken, my Warden,” Nihila cooed.

Silvertongue shuddered at the way her voice touched the deepest recesses of his mind. It would be alarming were he not used to it.

I come to you with urgent news this day. Troubling news.

Silvertongue’s curiosity showed on his face for the fleetest minuscule of a second, and he briefly touched upon a thought of concern that his intrigue would be mistaken for worry.

She spoke again. “The balance between Light and Darkness. It is waning.

He raised an eyebrow. “Waning? Harmonia would never indulge herself in such an action. It goes against her very nature.”

I have seen it first-hoof, my Warden,” Nihila said. “Do you not trust my claims?

Silvertongue smirked as a spark flared through his mind. She loved to tease his devotion. “It would be folly of me to trust you unquestioningly, milady. Deception comes as naturally to you as fish take to water and birds to the sky. I did not mean to sound as though I doubted you. I merely state the obvious: Harmonia is not to blame here. I am accustomed to as much, knowing far too well that she would never threaten the balance on her own whim.”

Nihila’s fiery anger left him, replaced by an icy calm that filled his being in a soft, gentle manner. “That is a valid observation. If not Harmonia, then what is causing this imbalance, my Warden? I would have you investigate the issue and discern the cause. You are most efficient in these matters.

“Investigate, milady?” he asked. “I cannot fathom a guess as to where to begin. If it is the Light that has shifted, then I would need to investigate that Beacon, and I have not the resources to gather information in such a timely manner as you seem to require. That would perhaps take months to accomplish, assuming the best conditions.”

Troubling indeed. But, perhaps you don't need to,” Nihila cooed. The spark returned in his head. An idea. “Has anything suspicious occurred in your city lately, my Warden? I could feel many disturbances in the magicks of the Void this day. They did not linger long. A new Chronomancer has taken to your city in recent years. A shame, wasting all of that delicious energy.” Her voice became sultry. The feeling was both terrifying and enticing all at once, and made Silvertongue’s skin crawl and heart melt.

“Yes, I’ll admit that I do recall murmurs of an event like that. The first time in decades that the city has seen that manner of portal. A moment, milady.” Silvertongue strode over to his intercom system and tapped one of the buttons. “Shroud.”

Yes, sir?” came a mare's voice over the intercom.

“I need a report of all suspicious activity that may have occurred in the city in the last, say... twelve hours.”

Of course, milord, I'll have the report on your desk in thirty—"

Now, Shroud, if you would? This is a delicate matter.”

He could hear her nervous gulp. “O-of course sir, my apologies sir. L-let's see...” A shuffle of papers and clicks of buttons came from the other end. “Here we go. There were numerous sightings of strange energy spheres around the city, but they all disappeared soon after being spotted.

“Yes, yes, I'm already well aware of that, Shroud. Anything else? Perhaps something I wouldn’t find on the news?”

Oh... right. Let’s see... oh! Here’s one from the NPPD and NPRD Census Bureau. Apparently they registered six new taxpayers from Utopia today, and Police Chief Smokestack put in for his pay-raise application rather suddenly. The Committee thinks—"

Silvertongue slammed a hoof next to the intercom. “I’m not concerned with what the Committee thinks!”

He hated the Committee. Their jobs were so meaningless and contradictory to everything the city stood for, but he needed them to ensure that all of the day-to-day ruling was taken care of. He’d long since sunk into the shadows of maintaining the city, but could not become too involved himself. And, when they made mistakes and too much order returned to the city? Well... that rarely ever happened anymore, he’d made sure of that.

Silvertongue hummed to himself. “Deliver that report immediately. That’ll be all, Shroud.”

Y-yes sir! Of course sir! If you need anything else, pl—"

The intercom shut off. Silvertongue waited for only but a moment, before the folder containing what he was looking for teleported in front of him, falling neatly onto his desk. He opened it and removed the files, then flipped through the pages. As he read, his face contorted in cemented concentration, and he probed the pieces of this particularly peculiar puzzle.

Something amiss, my Warden?” Nihila asked.

“I am not accustomed to getting new citizens from Utopia,” Silvertongue said. “Even when I do, it’s always temporary. Nopony ever comes here from elsewhere to stay.”

I can think of one exception,” she said, sending a teasing spark through his soul.

“Only one exception, milady.” Silvertongue tapped his chin. “It is most suspicious that six new visitors from Utopia would arrive today, all at the same time and even in the same place. The Committee, small-minded fools that they are, believe the story a fabrication and that these six are in actuality refugees from the Wastelands. A minor detail in this report about them being apprehended on charges of... Public Indecency? I’d almost forgotten we even had that law. Ah, and lack of identification... hmm. They’re more concerned with the Chief of Police taking a rather large cut of the allotment of funds these new citizens will generate, and think that he is covering for them.”

And? Is that all, my Warden?

Silvertongue thought for a moment before responding. “These... fluctuations milady, you posit the belief that a Chronomancer was involved in sealing them?”

That I did, my Warden. Do you see some connection here?

“Then perhaps these new citizens truly aren’t from Utopia, but are from someplace more... alien. Quite a coincidence, is it not? For there to be multiple distortions on this precise day, and for six new ponies to appear with no knowledge of our customs, claiming to be from across the sea? We know little of what it is exactly that Chronomancers do, but perhaps this is somehow related.”

Nihila stayed silent for a moment, then responded with the icy calm from earlier. “My Warden, uncover more about these creatures you have found. I await a swift response.

He bowed. “As always, milady.”

Silvertongue felt her leave, and at last felt at ease again. While Nihila’s essence was in his mind, he found it difficult to avoid having his entire series of thoughts laid bare for her to peruse like a book. Even after all these years he found it discomforting.

He pushed the button on the intercom again. “Shroud.”

Y-yes, milord?

“Summon Shadowstep for me, if you would?”

O-of course sir, I'll notify him right away.

Silvertongue lit his horn and darkened the room, then patiently waited. One minute. Two minutes. He sensed a presence with him, a physical one at that, and lit his horn again to re-illuminate his study.

Sitting in the chair that had been empty before on the other side of his desk, was a lithe pegasus stallion. He wore a black, form-fitting uniform, with deep purple gradient as it approached his head and dark blue trim around the eyes. It covered him from head to hoof, hiding any sort of identity. All that could be used to distinguish him were his bright green eyes, the slightest bits of a pale blue coat, and his short and tidy midnight blue mane and tail that stuck out through slips in the fabric.

Silvertongue did not bother himself with the effort of turning to face the new guest. He could sense his presence just fine, and see him clearly in the reflection on the window screen.

Silvertongue nodded. “Punctual as always, Shadowstep.”

“Of course, milord,” the pegasus said, getting out of the seat to bow before sitting back down again. “You called me? That means you have a job for me, yeah? What is it? Ooh, is it poisoning the drink of some stallion on the Committee again? I do so love assassinations. Please tell me it’s an assassination.”

“Not this time. No, this is one occasion where I can’t imagine any violence will be necessary. At least, for now.” Silvertongue’s horn glowed as he tossed the portfolio neatly onto the desk behind him. “There. That portfolio holds your initial targets.”

Shadowstep pawed at the folder, opening it warily. Inside were the identification pictures and file information on six newly registered ponies from Ponyville, Utopia. He’d had been to Utopia on numerous occasions and found it a dreadfully boring place, nothing like Pandemonium. But, he had never heard of a place called Ponyville, which to him sounded like the most ridiculous made-up name for a town he’d ever heard. Their names seemed normal enough, and they certainly looked normal enough, even if some of their ID pictures were somewhat odd: the purple unicorn looked intoxicated, and the orange earth pony appeared somewhat brain-dead.

Shadowstep placed the portfolio back on the desk, then leaned back in the chair and crossed his hooves. “What’s so important about them? They don’t even look like anypony’d miss ‘em if they were to suddenly... disappear.”

“That's not really any of your concern, Shadowstep,” Silvertongue said. “But it is what you're going to find out. Find them. Follow them. See if they do or mention anything suspicious. If you happen to notice anypony else tailing them around, follow them instead and if at all possible, ensure they won’t interfere with any further plans. If you follow my meaning...”

Shadowstep pumped a hoof. “Yes! I knew there was murder involved somewhere here, otherwise why call me? Oh, thank you milord!”

Silvertongue grunted. “You have your orders, carry them out.”

“Aye, sir.”

Silvertongue flicked the lights off and on again once more, and in the brief matter of seconds that the lights flickered, Shadowstep had vanished. If there was one pony good, perhaps perfect, at his job, so long as that job was sneaking around through the darkness and being a spy or assassin, then Silvertongue knew nopony more qualified than Shadowstep and nopony more loyal to him.

Alone at last and not expecting any more company anytime soon, Silvertongue placed a new record on the player and started it. Eyeing the contents of the folder once more, he stared thoughtfully at the pictures of six ponies that he was absolutely certain were going to be very interesting.


CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter Three: Investigation

 

The Mid-South District had probably the best conditions out of all of the Mid Districts in Pandemonium City. It wasn’t as nice or as fancy as the Inner Districts, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the slum-like conditions of three-fourths of the Outer Districts. Its skyscrapers were smaller and dirtier than the gleaming skyscrapers of the Inner Districts that towered over the rest of the city. Those were composed of high-rise lofts and penthouses, high-class office buildings and corporation headquarters, the homes of the rich and famous, and where most of the ponies that worked for the government lived to avoid mingling with the ‘common rabble’ that made up the Mid Districts.

Central Plaza, the busiest sub-sector in Mid-South, was as close to those kind of conditions one could hope for. It was very expensive to live here, even though it was ridiculously cheap compared to Utopian prices and much cheaper than trying to make it in the Inner Districts.

What made it so expensive was that all—not some, allof the most important necessities had their headquarters, their best-equipped centers, or even their only locations, in this sub-sector. The New Pandemonium Police Department’s Central Station was here, as was the main Building for New Pandemonium Registrations and Documentations. There was also the Central Database Holdings, which at Flathoof’s description sounded an awful lot like a library to Twilight Sparkle and was where she’d be going to look for work, and for research. New Pandemonium Medical had its largest clinic here, the Central General Clinic, and the same could be said for General Goods and Groceries and the New Pandemonium Fire Brigade. All of them were conveniently within relative walking distance to anypony that happened to live in any of the four domestic complexes that made up the borders of Central Plaza.

If you didn’t live in Central Plaza? Well, good luck to you. The horrendous travel time to get to the best medical treatment in the city, Inner District excluded, was bad enough.

Exacerbating the issue were the police and fire brigade response times, which were simply atrocious. As Flathoof escorted his group of parolees through the city streets, he explained that on average, it took about fifteen minutes or less for officers from his department to respond to a call from within the Central Plaza itself. Considering that the sub-sector was a few miles square, this was a typical expectation, if slightly slow. If you lived elsewhere in Mid-South, anywhere between thirty and fifty minutes could be expected even in a severe emergency, perhaps sixty minutes if you lived near the Divider Wall. If you lived in either Mid-East or Mid-West, the NPPD Central Station’s record time for responding to an emergency call was ninety minutes, and they’d been known to take twice that long on average. Mid-North? Two hours, minimum. The NPFB was just as bad, and entire neighborhoods had burned down in the past because of similar pathetically-slow response times.

Luckily, NPM did not have the same problem. Their only issue was whether the Clinic in your sub-sector had the proper equipment or experienced personnel that you needed to handle whatever your health issue was. Otherwise, you had to make the trip to NPM Central General. If you were going on your own, this was fine. In the case of a severe emergency, this meant that you’d have to take the time the NPPD or NPFB would take to get to you, and double it.

Back when he'd just been a rookie, Flathoof remembered getting to the scene of a riot in Mid-North nearly thirty minutes after it had ended. Some twenty ponies had needed to be hospitalized, and because of the severity and nature of their injuries, they had to go all the way to Central Plaza to get treatment. Several of them died en route. It was an event that completely changed his outlook on the way the city worked, or rather how it didn’t. It made him rethink the way he would need to work to try and change that.

“The more I go over it in my head, the more I realize that the system just doesn’t function right at all,” Flathoof said. “It baffles me to no end. It’s almost like the city doesn’t want to be organized. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve submitted petitions and suggestions and applications to get things fixed up a little bit, and never got a response.”

“Why don’t they have any smaller stations in the other districts?” Twilight asked. “Surely that would help, wouldn’t it?”

“Oh, they do have other stations. But they’re so understaffed and overworked that Central often responds to more calls from their districts than they do. I’ve considered transferring to another station, but that wouldn’t do any good in the end. I’d be just as overworked as they are and wouldn’t be able to contribute enough to make much difference. Yeah, I know, every little bit counts, but I’m nearly the only officer in this District that seems to have any sort of real moral code. I think I’m doing more good being here than anywhere else. I can’t just up and leave that... not without a really good reason.”

“How ‘bout that other officer that helped us with all that there paperwork? Y’all seemed to trust her,” Applejack asked.

She still seemed slightly miffed as she looked at her ID photo. How that pony had been able to take the picture at just the precise moment needed to make Applejack look like a country bumpkin without half a brain in her head must have boggled her. That kind of precision timing seemed impossible, but if there was one mare that could do it, it was Snapshot.

“Snapshot? She’s a good mare.” Flathoof smiled at the incredulous looks Twilight and Applejack were giving him, and shook his head. “Okay, she’s a bit testy, I’ll admit, but she means well, plus she’s reliable, trustworthy, and knows her way around paperwork. That’s why I went to her instead of going to the other clerks, or worse, the NPRD. It would’ve taken days to get through all the roundabout nonsense they’d put you through. I typically try to avoid working the system to my advantage, but well, you six needed help, and Snapshot knows all the loopholes to go through in order to ensure your files get registered by tonight. You’ll be official citizens in only a few hours, I’d imagine.”

“Is there any particular reason for the rush?” Twilight asked.

Flathoof gave a concerned frown and shook his head. “If you all didn’t have a place to live and such by the end of the day, and with no official documents? Well, the Outer District is mostly ignored by the NPPD, see, so policy is to escort you out there and set you loose until your documents clear. When that happens we’d go looking for you for maybe a few hours, and if we can’t find you, you’re presumed dead or missing. Most of the time the assumption turns out true.”

“Good heavens, you’d just... abandon ponies looking to become citizens here? Atrocious!” Rarity snorted with disgust and stuck her nose in the air. “How does your department live with themselves? And you work for ponies like that?”

The accusation made Flathoof wince. “Look, I don’t make the rules and I certainly don’t like a lot of them. If I had the ability to ensure that everypony that didn’t get their affairs in order quickly enough was still taken care of, believe me, I would. But I only work out here in this District. I don’t work at the Gate District, which is where most of that stuff takes place. I don’t have any authority there either, only the knowledge of what goes on. It’s rare for anypony to end up in a situation similar to yours. I’m still confused how you managed to get all the way into the Mid-Districts looking like you did, without anypony noticing you.”

The six mares shared nervous glances, but let him continue.

“Only in the Inner Districts does anypony really care what happens to one another, and that’s because they have the money to afford the luxury of that. Even then, from what little I’ve seen of the upper crust personally, I think it’s all for show and social bravado. It’s frustrating, being one of the few who has genuine concern.”

He sighed with a great deal of dejection. “Sorry if I’m worrying any of you. I really don’t mean to. It’s hard to see at a glance, but this city is difficult to live in. I’m going to do the best I can for you while you’re under my care, but after that... well, hopefully that’ll get taken care of too. At any rate, we’re here.”

Flathoof gestured to the massive domestic complex that would hold their new home, the Southeast Point, so named because it marked the southeastern corner of the border that surrounded the Central Plaza. It was a great metal building, one hundred stories tall and covering the entire city block. The six mares accompanying him looked up in awe at the sheer size of it. They’d all thought it was other buildings they’d been walking alongside for the past minute, not part of one.

While the place certainly looked habitable, it didn’t look like it was in the greatest shape, and had a lot of things that detracted from the image of a “decent place to live” as they’d been promised: the rust-colored metal looked more like rust; several of the windows were cracked; all the awnings were faded and some were even a different color. It didn’t look dilapidated, but it didn’t look high-rise either, by any means.

Considering the size of the place, Twilight calculated quickly in her head that this building, already at least as big as Canterlot Royal Palace, even if organized differently, likely housed as many ponies as the entire city of Canterlot, if not more. If this was just one building, Twilight thought, how big was the rest of the city? The sheer magnitude of such a population, far greater than she had first predicted from walking the streets of what had turned out to be the outskirts of this large sub-sector, made her head spin. More ponies living in this one city than lived in all of their own Equestria?

Impossible.

The large double doors leading into the building were tinted green, so it wasn’t until they entered that they could see just the kind of place they’d be living. Twilight frowned as she quickly tried to readjust her calculations. If the rest of the floors were organized anything like the lobby, then perhaps more ponies lived here than she initially thought. It was packed tight, and there was barely enough breathing room for everypony in the group as they walked down the main corridor past tiny crowds of other ponies coming and going from the building.

Flathoof directed them to follow him single-file, and at his guidance it didn’t take long to locate the management office. At the reception counter sat an aged earth pony mare with a graying mane and tail. Her large, horn-rimmed glasses reminded Twilight of Rarity’s pair back at home.

She barely bothered to turn her head up from the book she’d been reading to look at the newcomers. “Can I help you?”

Flathoof removed his hat and nodded. “Yes, I phoned earlier to see about speaking with Mister Lockwood. I spoke with a Spring Blossom.”

“That would be me, sonny.” She sighed and put her book down. “I’m assuming you’re Captain Flathoof then? And these are the parolees you mentioned?”

The aging mare eyed the newcomers with mild aversion. The six mares looked like they’d just picked their clothes out of a bin and walked out the door. Not much style or grace at all in the lot. They seemed all fitting enough but none of them looked particularly fashionable. The white one, perhaps, but that was probably neither here nor there.

The orange one wore some sort of cowpony hat and a plaid, brick red work shirt. She looked like she’d just wandered in off the set of a western they were filming out in the Wastelands, or that she worked on one of those “farms” they had down south in Utopia. It was certainly dirty enough that she looked like she’d been working in it.

The blue one had picked out what looked like a flight jacket. It clearly wasn’t originally hers either, so perhaps a hand-me-down or something borrowed or stolen. It was a size too big for her and the sleeves nearly dragged along the floor as she stood there, let alone if she were walking. She was even wearing goggles with brown frames and slightly-cracked, dirty, blue glass.

The purple one was wearing a cape and a sequined vest. The cape wasn’t even fancy or decorated, just a dull blue like the vest, and it was much too short. Like the blue one’s jacket, it probably did not originally belong to her either. Perhaps she was merely a former assistant to a stage magician?

The white one had picked out a frilly, pale pink dress and accented it with a lilac ribbon that at least made her look the most well-dressed in the bunch. It would possibly even be considered elegant were it made of a nicer material. It almost looked like she’d used that unicorn magic of hers to put the outfit together from the scraps of an entire wardrobe.

The yellow one looked not at all keen on being here, and how could one blame her when she was wearing the much-too-attractive baby-blue blouse and skirt? Attractive was probably the wrong word here, actually. Certainly it would attract attention, but perhaps promiscuous would be a better term? The skirt was much too short, as her cutie mark was peeking out almost completely. It was odd, considering she did not seem to like the attention she was getting from the numerous stallions in the room, or the occasional mare here and there.

The pink one was the most unique, which was really the only way to kindly describe her. She looked like she’d literally just set a box on the floor labeled Clothes, filled it with random articles of clothing, leapt in, and wore whatever she came out with. The green propeller cap did not mesh with the black denim jacket with the collar popped much too high, which did not work together with the bright, gaudy yellow t-shirt she wore underneath that had printed on it the logo from a children’s program she probably didn’t even watch. Or worse, actually did watch. Imagine the prospect of a full-grown mare like that watching a show meant for little foals. She wore red roller skates too, which did not help complete her ensemble in any possible way.

Spring Blossom cleared her throat and turned her attention back to Flathoof. “I spoke with Mister Lockwood earlier. He’s just finishing up a meeting with another associate and should be done in a few minutes, then he’ll be right down. He asked me to inform you that he regrets any inconvenience caused by making you wait.” She pointed off to the side, towards a room with a glass door with plenty of seats inside. “You all can wait in the reception area until he gets here. Thank you.”

“Much obliged ma’am.” Flathoof turned back to his entourage. “Come along, ladies. If I know Lockwood, he’ll be down before too long.”

Flathoof held the door to the reception area open for the six mares to enter, then followed them in.

“So, this Lockwood fellow?” Rarity asked as she fluffed the cushion of the seat she was taking. “An owner of this establishment perhaps? He must be a friend of yours, yes?”


        “We go back a ways, yes,” Flathoof said. He tugged at his collar and straightened his uniform again for the second time since they’d entered the complex. “We went to school together a long time ago, and he’s been pretty close with my family since then. Anytime I’ve ever needed a favor, he’s been the pony I went to see first. I don’t know how much help he can give me here, but if he can’t do anything directly he’ll at least know somepony who can. Hopefully. He’s usually pretty good about that sort of thing though.”

“He sounds decent enough,” Twilight said. “Any friend of yours can’t be too bad, right?”

Applejack snorted. “Pfh, tell that to Snapshot. I ain’t never met a pony with... with such an attitude before, but if ol’ Flathoof says she’s on the level, well, I s’pose we ‘pparently owe her some thanks.”

Pinkie bounced rapidly up and down next to Rainbow Dash, who was trying to take a nap on a pair of seats since Pinkie obviously wasn’t using hers. “I just hope he’s not all super stuffy and a fuddy-duddy or anything! Then we’d have another guest for the party! Ooh! Does he like chocolate cake, or vanilla? I prefer strawberry myself, because it’s pink and super duper tasty, just like me! Right, Dashie?”

“Yeah yeah, right Pinks.” Rainbow paused a second, then bolted upright. “I mean, right, it’s pink! You’re pink!”

“I just hope he’s... nice...” Fluttershy mumbled. “I... I’ve had my fill of the other kinds of ponies... for more than one day, I think...”

A few moments passed, then a knock came at the reception room door and a pegasus with a rich gray coat walked in. He wore a dull brown rain jacket of a lighter shade than his mud-brown mane and tail, which were neatly combed and short, making him look neat and tidy. He wasn’t particularly well-built, a little on the lanky side actually, but had good posture and a gait that made him look more fit than weak. The one thing, two things, really, that they all noticed most were his golden eyes, mostly because it was a rather odd shade. He certainly looked kind enough.

“Ah, Lockwood!” Flathoof smiled, trotted over, and greeted his friend with a sturdy hoof-shake. “So glad I was able to get a hold of you. I’m sorry I was so hasty on the phone, I was—"

“Yes yes, Flathoof,” Lockwood replied, his smile wide and friendly. “Don’t fret over it. I’m always willing to do a favor for you, you know that. Now then, these are the six mares you told me about?” He looked out over the six mares briefly, giving them each a polite smile. “Utopia, eh? Fancy stuff. I’m surprised they even wanted to come here of all places in Equestria. I suppose I should feel honored.”

“Yes, these are them,” Flathoof said. “What kind of options are we looking at here? Please tell me you’ve got some good news for me.”

“Hmm...” Lockwood tapped his chin, then gave a light-hearted shrug. “Well, you’re in luck. We have some vacancies right now, actually. A few ponies here and there failed to pay their rent... again, and there’s only so much I can do when other ponies aren’t willing to cooperate. Sad to say, but there it is. One of our larger rooms should accommodate them, but it wasn’t actually designed for six so it might be a little... cozy, but it’s all I’ve got on short notice. Now then, the issue of payment.”

Flathoof made to interject, but Lockwood stopped him with a hoof. “I wouldn’t ask right away, but I do have obligations to the owners. Gotta treat this completely legit, you understand. The building is only ten years old, so they’re really watching the numbers to make sure it’s a good investment.”

Flathoof coughed and tugged his collar. “Well... not only are they new in town, but they don’t exactly have any bits on them either. I always thought Utopia used bits too, but maybe I’m mistaken. I was hoping we’d be able to work something out here.”

Lockwood pat Flathoof on the shoulder. “Say no more. There are enough loopholes in the city’s paperwork and tax code that I can probably work out something to get them their first month rent free, or at the very least until they find work. I’d suggest they start looking for jobs right away though. Does that sound reasonable?”

“Incredibly.” Flathoof turned to the mares and grinned. “Right, ladies?”

“Oh, most definitely,” Twilight said. “Thank you for your help, Mister Lockwood. We really appreciate it.”

“Please, just Lockwood will do,” Lockwood said. “I’m only ‘Mister’ when I’m doing real business, and this is a favor for my good friend Flathoof. I always take great pride in helping those I care about, and there’s no exception here.”

He clasped his hooves together. “Now then, before I show you all to your new abode and let you get adjusted and all that, I believe some introductions are in order. Seeing as I’ll be your landlord for the next, well, however long you’re here, I feel it’d be good to get to know you all a little better. As has been established, my name is Lockwood.” He bowed politely and offered his hoof out to Twilight. “And you are?”

“Introductions, yes, of course.” Twilight nodded and politely shook his hoof in return. “I’m Twilight Sparkle, and these are my friends Applejack—"

“Howdy,” Applejack said, shaking Lockwood’s hoof.

“Rarity—"

        

“Charmed.” Rarity offered her hoof to Lockwood first. He smiled and gave it a very dainty shake.


        “Rainbow Dash—"

        

“Hey.” Rainbow shook Lockwood’s hoof very briefly.


        “Fluttershy—"

        

“Um... hello...” Fluttershy nodded politely, but did not offer her own hoof and instead scuffed it nervously on the carpet.

        

“And—"

        

Pinkie pouted. “Heeey, why’d I have to go last this time?” Then, the pout turned into a huge grin. “Wait, that means I’m the grand finale! Woo!” She bounced a few times and pointed at Twilight triumphantly. “Saving the best for last, I like your way of thinking, Twilight!”

Twilight balked. “Uh...”

“Hiya, super-cool new friend!” Pinkie said, grabbing Lockwood’s hoof with both of her own and shaking it, and him, vigorously. “I’m Pinkie Pie! I’m the bestest best party pony this side of the moon, and probably the other side too!”

As soon as Lockwood was back on solid ground, he straightened his jacket and laughed. “Such a colorful group. A pleasure to meet all of you.” He smiled and pushed open the reception area door to usher them out. “Now then, let’s go see your room, shall we?”

They followed Lockwood out of the reception area with Flathoof taking up the rear, and after a short trot down the entry hallway they entered the main stairwell and began the climb up several flights of steps to their new home.

Several floors later, the ponies were totally exhausted and didn’t think they could keep climbing. Stair, after stair, after stair, after stair, it seemed to go on forever and ever. The stairs were dusty, musty, and not at all pleasant, it was cramped and dry, and it was a long climb. Their appreciation for the generously given home was slowly beginning to diminish, as much as they all hated to admit those kinds of thoughts.

Eventually it got to the point where they could not hold their tongues and had to say something.

“Geez, what are we on, the eight-billionth floor?” Rainbow fluttered just barely above the stairs, and had been doing so for the past thirty floors. “I can’t believe we’re probably gonna have to do this every day. No wonder all the ponies around here look so fit.”

“Are we there yet?”

“It is good exercise,” said Lockwood, who seemed none the worse for wear. His stride hadn’t diminished at all, and by now he was several steps ahead of the rest of them. “You’ll get used to it soon enough. I know I sure had to, and I tell you, I used to live on a higher floor than this in a much bigger complex. At least once you know where your room is, if one of your friends is home you can always just fly up to the window and they can let you in.“

“Are we there yet?”

“Golly, I ain’t had this kind of a work-out in ages, easily not since last Applebuckin’ season.” Applejack removed her hat and briefly fanned herself with it when they got to the top of the next flight, losing her position in the line to Twilight. “I reckon this’ll be a mighty fine replacement fer buckin’ apple trees, at least fer now. Doin’ a lap or two up ‘n’ down should be the same as buckin’ near half o’ Sweet Apple Acres. How the rest o’ y’all holdin’ up back there? Heh heh, ya ain’t feelin’ tired now, are ya Rarity?”

“Are we there yet?”

Rarity panted, completely out of breath. “I hate stairs...” She’d fallen totally behind, with Flathoof purposefully trailing just behind her. “Hate... stairs... I’m going to... take out all the stairs... in my boutique... hate stairs... so many stairs... going to have nightmares about climbing stairs... so many cobwebs... dust... stairs are dirty... hate stairs...”

“Are we there yet?”

“Um... phew...” Fluttershy kept her response short not out of shyness but of desire to conserve breath.

“It’s not... so bad,” Twilight said, huffing and puffing with every stair. Applejack had caught back up by now and passed her again. “I know I need the exercise, that’s for sure. Maybe not this much, but Spike was always saying I should get out more. Though... I think I might chalk this up to filling out most of my weekly allotted exercise. Phew! I just wish there was better ventilation. Rarity’s right, it is a bit dusty...”

“Are we there yet?”

“I wish you’d told me they were this high up, Lockwood.” Now, even Flathoof began to complain. “I don’t get out as much as I did when I was on the beat. Haven’t had to do this much physical work on-duty in a while. I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”

“Are we there yet?”

“Me?” Lockwood chuckled. “I believe it was you who were calling in asking for a favor. You’d do well to appreciate the work I’m gonna have to go through to make this all turn out smoothly. Don’t tell me you’re getting tired back there, Mister ‘Toughest Roughest Lawpony in Pandemonium’. Heh heh.”

“Are we there yet?”

PINKIE PIE!” Rainbow belted, snapping her head around to face the pink pony that had been literally bouncing up every single stair and wasn’t showing signs of stopping. “If you ask one more time, I’ll—"

“We’re here!” Lockwood exclaimed as he held Rainbow in place. He pointed at their door, where he read from a little gold plaque that read 84-5:00. “Room eighty-four and five. Those first two numbers are your floor number, the eighty-fourth. The third is your room position on the floor, which means you’re in the five o’clock position, assuming the building entrance is at twelve o’clock and the hour hand is pointing at the plaque on your door.”

“Well that’s a pretty orderly numbering convention,” Twilight said. “Though it’s a little confusing with that last bit. You use a clock face to determine room numbers? Makes it easy to figure out your room if you forget the number I suppose.”

“If only all the rooms were as neatly positioned as yours.” Lockwood pointed at their neighbor’s door, which read 84-6:30.

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Eighty-four and... six thirty?”

Lockwood shrugged. “The landlord, that’s me, lives in room sixteen and eight forty-five. The superintendent lives in room two and four twenty-eight. Not four thirty, not four twenty-five, but specifically twenty-eight, because that’s where the door plaque is. Somepony made a mistake when they built it, numbering scheme stuck, so there it is. No rhyme or reason at all in it. I mean, we almost didn’t even come to agreement on how to decide the twelve o’clock position in the first place. Somepony wanted the room closest to the stairwell on each floor to be the twelve o’clock room. Can you imagine?”

Twilight shook her head in disbelief. “Well why don’t they just name the rooms by a simple numerical system?”

Lockwood shrugged. “Because nopony could agree on who got to be room whatever-whatever one, or if maybe it should be zero-one since there are more than ten rooms on every tenth floor, or if maybe we should start with zero-zero, or if we should call that double-zero, or this or that and something else blah, blah, blah.

“Nopony seems to take cooperation lightly, I tell you. I asked the same thing when I moved in. Half, no, probably most of the things in this city don’t make a lick of sense when you really look at it. So either you just gotta grin and bear it, or you learn to ignore it. Unless you think you’ve got the money to get a flight to Utopia, and if you can’t afford that then there’s at least Hope’s Point.

He looked at Twilight and raised an eyebrow. “Well now hang on, aren’t you from Utopia? Why in heaven’s name would you all want to leave? I’ve been trying to save up for a trip there for nearly five years.”

“My theory is they’re actually refugees from the Wastelands. We just used that Utopia cover story to get through the paperwork,” Flathoof explained. “Sorry I didn’t mention it earlier, but I didn’t want anypony to know. Didn’t want to have to start filling out criminal backgrounds and medical histories because some clerk thought they’d got some sort of mutation out there. They didn’t look dangerous or anything, and they seemed like they needed a good home. I had to help, you understand.”

“Hmm... they look a little too healthy to be refugees...” Lockwood said, running his hoof under his chin. Twilight gave him a nervous smile as he looked at her particularly. He then shrugged and waved it off. “Well, if they are refugees, I’m more than willing to help them get back on their hooves and into a relatively safe environment. If they’re not, then I suppose they have their reasons for their secrecy. But that’s all something to concern myself with later. You all look tired. So ladies, without further adieu, your castle awaits.”

He placed a key into the lock and pushed the door open, gesturing for them to enter. Their new home was... well, Lockwood had called it cozy, and he had said it wasn’t really built for six ponies. That seemed all the more accurate once they got in. It looked like it was built more for three or four at best. It was a fairly decent-sized apartment if two ponies were to share it, and even with four it would likely seem a little cramped but still very liveable. With six, it made it feel more like a hovel than a home.

But, it was free for now if Lockwood came through on his promises, and it was being generously given simply because they happened to meet the right two ponies. Luck was a finicky mistress, but sometimes she worked in mysterious ways.

“Ech...” Rarity blanched, still trying to catch her breath and shake cobwebs and dust from her mane and tail. “Ponies live in this filth? Please tell me this room just hasn’t been cleaned recently... or ever. At least then I’ll believe the mess I’m seeing here.”

“Actually, that’s true,” Lockwood said. He took on a solemn tone and gestured towards one of the bedrooms. “We weren’t allowed to clean up after the murder. The police wouldn’t let us. I mean, it’s already been a full day. We should be allowed to clean up, right Flathoof? Twenty-four hours is the policy, isn’t it?”

The six mares stared at him in disbelief, jaws dropped. Fluttershy audibly whimpered and hid behind Applejack, hoping the bigger, stronger mare would protect her from whatever might be lurking around the nearest corner. None of the six could believe what they’d just heard. Death was a natural thing in their world, and even though they knew there were bad ponies out there even back home that might inflict it upon others out of malice, they didn’t expect that to be a common occurrence around here.

“Kidding!” Lockwood chuckled, waving his hooves defensively in front of him. “Just... just kidding. A joke! Ha ha? Oh come on, as if I’d give you a room that somepony’d been murdered in only a day before. Ha ha! Ha?” He frowned. “Okay no really, why isn’t anypony laughing? Seriously, I use that same joke on everypony that has ever moved in and you six are the first ones not to laugh.”

Twilight gulped and tried to smile. “Is that something you have to deal with around here? We... aren’t really accustomed to... that sort of thing.”

“What, murder?” Flathoof frowned and adjusted his hat. “I wish I could say we never had to deal with it at all, but in fact it’s quite the opposite. I think we’ve had maybe seven equicide calls this week, and that’s a pretty low number. Sure, it’s not the weekend yet... but... I’m not helping things am I?”

Lockwood interjected, as the whole group was looking more and more distressed. “Listen, this is the safest District in the whole city apart from the Inner Districts, but that’s cheating to compare us to them. We haven’t had anything like that happen at Southeast Point in months. And it wasn’t anything like... wow, okay I’m not helping matters either...”

Fluttershy sniffed and huddled in closer to Applejack and Rarity. “T-this place is s-s-scarier than I thought...”

Rarity rubbed Fluttershy’s back and held the trembling pegasus close. “Now now, darling, I’m sure it’ll all be okay. Come on, let’s focus on getting our new home cleaned up a little, hmm? Take your mind off all those scary things...”

Pinkie bounced excitedly around the room, sending up clouds of dust wherever she landed. “Yeah! We need to get all the decorations set up for our housewarming party! Let’s see, I need streamers, balloons and... uh... hang on.” She reached a hoof into her mane and pulled out a small piece of paper. “Streamers, balloons, and... aha! A cake, some ice cream, soda pop... I think maybe like a dozen big bottles of soda pop since we’ve gotta get all super hydrated after that climb! Right, and then there’s the candy, and the cookies, and a jukebox, and—"

“Pinks, we’ve got more important things to worry about. Besides, this place doesn’t look like it would have room for one of your parties anyhow,” Rainbow said, gesturing around the room.

Pinkie tapped her hoof to her chin and bit her tongue. “Hmm... are we talking one of my Super Duper Awesome Big Birthday Bash Parties, or my Ultra Fun Best Friends Forever Parties? Because then well duh, I know we don’t have room for either of those, silly, but this isn’t one of those kinds of parties anyway. This feels more like a Welcome Everypony Welcome Party, but depending on the area of the room and the dimensions I have to work with, I might be able to fit in a Totally Amazing Radical Blast Party, assuming that the room is a perfect square and that we have enough pi to go around.”

Pinkie waggled her eyebrows at Dash, expecting a laugh. Rainbow groaned loudly instead.

“Did Pinkie Pie just invoke mathematics in party planning? And a math pun?” Twilight’s eye began twitching. “How would that... what could you... is there even...” Her eyes crossed. “Oh dear, I think I’m getting a headache...”

“Besides, where am I gonna find a break-dancing floor at this time of night?” Pinkie laughed as she sidled up close to Rainbow and gave her a big hug. “Anyway, even if I can’t fit in enough room for a Little Itty Bitty Teeny Tiny ‘Just Us Friends’ Housewarming Party, we can always have our own little private party later, Dashie! Always plenty of room for one of those!”

Rainbow turned red. “P-Pinkie Pie, geez!

Lockwood looked between the two of them. “What’s all this talk about parties?”

“The pink one’s special talent is throwing parties,” Flathoof whispered. “So, she likes parties. A lot. And singing. And dancing. And games. And parties, did I mention parties? Yes, we went over this a lot back at the station.” He subtly twirled his hoof in a circular motion around his ear, taking care not to let her or her friends notice.

“Ahhh...” Lockwood nodded in total understanding. “Well, ladies, what say we start getting your home all spruced up, hmm?”

***

Today had probably been the most stressful and tiresome day Snapshot had ever had to endure in her two years as a desk clerk for the NPPD. If Flathoof weren’t such an eligible bachelor, she’d have passed it on to her co-worker. All that work and hassle wasn’t really worthwhile, but doing little favors like that here and there for Flathoof? She hoped it might get her in his good graces, so that maybe he’d want to get in her “good graces”.

Snapshot sighed dejectedly as she eyed the clock on the wall. One more hour. That’s how much longer it was for her to finish her shift at this droll job. Then she could get back home, where she could relax, have some much-needed alone time, and try to get some work done on her reading. Specifically, a rather steamy novel she'd picked up down at Blazing Saddles—a completely reputable establishment, by the way—by the name of Fifty Shades of Hay.

She eyed the mare working at the desk to her right, a pink pegasus with a tacky dye job that gave her silvery white mane streaks of gold. Firecracker. Snapshot wished the blasted mare would just up and fly away and never darken these halls again with her bow-legged, hip-swaggering, eyelash-batting, obviously-had-a-wing-job self. The hussy was always stealing all the good-looking stallions in the department, letting them rut her, getting some good words in with higher-ups to get a pay raise, then leaving the saps behind.

It wasn’t fair. Snapshot knew that she had seen Goldenstar first, that she had been flirting with him so casually in the breakroom, and that she had asked him out! Firecracker had even been sitting just a table or two away in the cafeteria when she did it! And then the jerk went and broke it off at the last second, after Snapshot had gone through hours of making herself look presentable, attractive, and desirable. The next day, he was over there at Firecracker’s desk, playing with her mane and whispering sweet nothings in her ear. Just the first in the long line of stallions she’d seen at that desk, and it was always a different one!

Snapshot sighed in dejected disapproval. It was her own fault, really. Ever since she made it on the force she’d been trying to get the attention of one of the stallions around the department, and learned the hard way that most of them were really not worth her time: crooks, liars, cheats, sneaks, and perverts the lot of them! She was desperate, but not that desperate. There were only a few stallions left on the entire force that were worth any attention, at least physically and mentally, but they just had to be in relationships already. That was just the way things worked, wasn’t it though? That all the good-looking, well-mannered stallions were the ones taken?

Except one. And he didn’t seem interested at all in anypony, and hadn't been for as long as she’d known him. Of all the rotten luck, that the most good-hearted and certainly broadest stallion in the entire force was just not looking for a special somepony. Snapshot would give anything for Flathoof to look at her the way she looked at him, and cursed the fact that she’d probably drifted so far into the friend zone by now that she’d need a map and three weeks of supplies just to find her way out.

“Oh Captain, my Captain...” Snapshot muttered to herself, pressing her face into her desk.

As much as she wanted him to be hers, she knew that being hopeful and ignoring other opportunities was worse than noticing the little things in life and trying to find love elsewhere.

The doors of the office slid open, and a pegasus strode into the room, his steps measured and confident. With each stride, his lithe muscles pressed against his impeccable black suit. A perfectly straight, black tie tucked neatly into his jacket. His sleek, pale blue fur caught the light of the room just right, causing his coat to almost ripple in the glare.

With a single smooth motion, he slicked his dark-blue mane back with a hoof and flexed his long wings. He took one brief look around the room, eyeing the two mares in front of him especially. Then, by stepping forward towards Snapshot's desk, he quite literally walked into her life.

In an instant, Captain Flathoof sweeping her off her feet was a distant memory. Was her hair straight? No smudges on her glasses? Her breath was okay, wasn’t it?

“You must be Officer—" The well-dressed pegasus looked at a report file he had open, then glanced back at her. “Snapshot, correct?”

“Uh-huh,” she murmured dreamily. She quickly shook her head. “I mean... ahem... y-yes, that’s me. How can I help you, Mister...?”


        He showed her his badge, which had his name on it with a badge number and everything. Snapshot knew she’d recognized that uniform. If all of the CIA’s agents looked this good, maybe she’d consider applying sometime after she had more on her resume. She certainly had the broad knowledge of the system’s inner workings that she knew was one of their requirements. All she lacked was experience.

“Sparkwalker. Agent Sparkwalker,” he said. “I’m with the Committee Investigation Agency. I need to speak with you about a recent registration you filed in regards to some suspicious information.”

“Oh? Which one?

“Which six.”

Sparkwalker plopped the report file on her desk, allowing her to see all the contents. Snapshot’s eyes widened. Wow, the CIA sure works fast.

Those six mares that had been here only a few hours before. The paperwork had literally been teleported to the NPRD not more than three hours ago. Snapshot had never heard of anything that made the CIA this interested, and that worried her. What if Flathoof was in trouble, and these six mares were criminals? Terrorists? Spies?

“I recognize them, yes,” she said, mirroring his quiet tone. “What kind of information do you need?”


        “Is there somewhere more private we can talk?” he asked.

She couldn’t be positive, but she was certain he had darted his eyes to look at Firecracker to be sure she hadn’t heard anything. The sunglasses he was wearing prevented Snapshot from following his gaze clearly. Why was he wearing sunglasses in Pandemonium anyway, and inside as well? Maybe that was part of the uniform. But why was she worrying about that? He wanted the two of them to be alone. She got the feeling that this was going to be her lucky day.

Ah, opportunity, how loud your knock can be.

“Certainly. Follow me.”

She waved for him to follow her towards the back of the clerk office. The pegasus followed her into the staff room, and after making sure nopony was coming this way, she closed and locked the door behind them. Ah, privacy.

“So... what’s this all about?” she asked, taking a seat in the cozy chair on one side of the office.

Agent Sparkwalker remained standing for the moment, near enough that she could actively drink in all his features as he reached into his suit pockets. He took out a small notepad, set it on the table just out of her sight, then sat a pen upon that. Business before pleasure.

Sparkwalker took a seat directly across from her and picked up his notepad with one wing, his pen with the other. Snapshot found herself impressed that a pegasus could do something so delicate with his wings. Hopefully that’s not the only thing he can do with those.

“The Committee is concerned about the status of their case file,” he said, shaking her out of her thoughts. “It would seem that Police Chief Smokestack applied for a pay increase that arrived barely five minutes after these six forms came in. Normally, this wouldn’t be too troubling. Smokestack does this kind of thing all the time, does he not?”

She pointed a hoof at herself. “A-are you asking me? I don’t get involved much with the Chief’s business...”

“Hmm...” Sparkwalker nodded and jotted down a short note. Snapshot was suddenly nervous that that piece of information had been important. “No matter, this is about these six Ponies of Interest anyway. Our department is concerned with the speed at which their forms were filed and documented, and we suspect that perhaps the Chief was rushing things along just to get a wage increase, and may have... overlooked things concerning them. Now, your name is on the form as the Identification Photographer and as their File Clerk, so I believe it’s safe to assume you had some interaction with them?”

“Ah... y-yes, I did.” She was now extremely nervous that he would learn that she’d sped the paperwork along at Flathoof’s request, not the Chief’s. Would he get in trouble?

“If it’s okay with you then, I’d like to ask you a few questions about them. You can tell me some details about them, yes?”

“I... I hope so. What’s this all about anyway? I mean... n-not to pry...”

“Committee business. Classified.”

“Please? A... fellow officer I know is their parole officer. I want to make sure he’ll be okay, sir.”

Sparkwalker stared at her, but with those sunglasses on his face it was hard to tell. “His name?”

“Flathoof. Captain Flathoof.”

“I’ll make sure we take care of him should the need arise.” He cracked his neck before continuing, “Now then, let’s start at the top according to the order you filled the forms out, based on your time-stamps. First, Twilight Sparkle. What can you tell me about her?”

“Real bossy, seemed well-educated,” Snapshot said. She didn’t bother hiding a slight sneer. “Probably the brains of the group, if you ask me.” She put a hoof to her lips. “Oh... I’m sorry, I know I’m not supposed to figure my personal opinions into this...”

Sparkwalker smiled and nodded appreciatively. “While I didn’t ask, your information is invaluable and will help our investigation. Please, feel free to relax and speak candidly. I know we have a lot of information on these forms, but don’t feel like anything is redundant. Normally we don’t hold any interest in the personal opinions of those we interview... but we’re making a special case about this one. It may help us understand the psyche of these six, you understand?”

“Y-yes, sir.”

“And drop the ‘sir’ nonsense. Just Sparkwalker, if you please, Snapshot.”

She turned pink and tried to hide her smile behind a hoof. “R-right. Sparkwalker.”

They were already on first-name basis. She wasn’t used to the idea of a CIA agent being so informal. That was a major part of their job, being rigid and uncooperative. But, maybe this one liked her? Maybe if she played her cards right she’d have plans tonight.

Snapshot continued, more candidly as asked. “Well, she was kind of a busybody, asking all sorts of questions and trying to learn more about the city. I mean, sure I guess that makes sense if you’re not from around here, but still... the others weren’t quite as inquisitive or even interested. They just left the work to her. She said she used to work as a librarian, so if I had to venture a guess she’ll probably look for work at the CBH or something similar. I put in a recommendation at... the Chief’s request,” she lied.

Sparkwalker nodded and jotted down more notes. “Hmm... go on then, the next pony, Rarity. She appears to be posing for this picture?”

“Yeah, she insisted on making it a glamour shot,” Snapshot said. “I’ll be fair, she has a good look to her and if it weren’t for the stupid jumpsuit she might look pretty charming. Really snooty though, kind of gave me a hard time in making sure I was getting all her physical details right. Seemed like a neat-freak. Kept insisting she was a fashion designer back home which struck me as extremely odd, since they weren’t wearing any clothes when they got arrested according to the reports I attached. I mean, who ever heard of a fashion designer wandering around naked, not even like a scarf or a bow or anything? Contradictory, yeah? You’d think she’d be wearing something at all times even if we didn’t have that law. Self-advertisement, that kind of thing?”

“Observant. Let’s see... Fluttershy. She looks like she didn’t want to take the picture at all. Did she give you a hard time?”

Snapshot laughed and waved her hoof playfully. “Oh brother, it took me three times longer to get her form filled out. She was very uncooperative. I had to ask every question at least twice to be able to hear her. Really quiet, really shy, kind of spoke in peeps and mumbles and always tried to avoid making eye contact. Kind of cute in a way, so she probably gets a lot of lookers back where she comes from. Said she was a veteran-arian, whatever the hay that is. Something to do with the military? Veterans and all that? Does Utopia even have a military anymore?”

“Animals.”

“An army... of animals?” Snapshot raised an eyebrow and nervously smiled. “Please tell me you’re kidding...”

Sparkwalker blinked, then laughed. “Oh... no no, a veterinarian. They’re like doctors, but for animals instead of ponies. Common practice over in Utopia is what I hear. Moving on then. Pinkie Pie. Is she doing the crossed-eyes on purpose, or does she have some sort of condition?”

“Yes, on purpose. And what a mouth that one’s got. Just would not shut up.” She lifted a hoof and started shaking it around. “Yap yap yap yap yap. Gave me such roundabout, long answers to so many of the questions. She told me this ridiculous story when I asked her about her special talent. Some spiel about a rock farm and a party, then claimed it was like an origin myth or something! Not right in the head that one, but she made me a little suspicious, and not just because she seemed a few cards short of a full deck, either.”

Sparkwalker leaned forward. “Oh? Go on.”

“Well, while everypony else in the group said they were from Utopia right away, and Twilight Sparkle even added their ridiculous district into it. Pfft, Ponyville, still makes me laugh. Anyway, this Pinkie Pie character, she kind of hesitated a little. It was a really subtle pause, so I wouldn’t have noticed it if she hadn’t been such a motor mouth otherwise. Made me think she really, really wanted to say something else and realized her mistake just before she made it all in the fraction of, like, a second.

“Now that I think about it, so did that orange one, Applejack was it?” Snapshot asked. Sparkwalker nodded. “She didn’t say Utopia right away either, seemed kind of pained that she had to do it. Makes me think maybe their story isn’t as true as they claim. Nothing gets past my sleuth sense.” She smiled, crossed her hooves, and leaned back in her chair, feeling very proud of herself.

“Very astute. I’ll make note of your suspicions.” Sparkwalker gave her a polite smile. “You’ve been very helpful so far Snapshot, thank you.”

She frowned. “Oh... are we done?”

“Oh no, not quite yet, just thought I’d thank you for being so helpful to my investigation.”

He tilted his sunglasses down slightly so that she could see him wink. Snapshot turned red and coughed into her hoof. She felt rather embarrassed that he was pushing all the right buttons, and a little nervous that he knew what buttons to push. For half a second, she felt anxious about this whole thing. Was this the right thing to do?

“Now then, the next one. Rainbow Dash?”

“Really full of herself, big ego, took everything I said as a challenge,” Snapshot said, trying to regain her composure. “Fastest flier in Equestria? Really? That I find difficult to believe. When I said as much, she started getting a little riled up like she wanted to prove it right then and there. I’ve seen some pretty fast fliers in the NPPD, and she didn’t look like anything special. And her response to my asking about it was that she’s the only pony to ever pull off a ‘Sonic... Rainboom’? What the hay is that? Some sort of sonic boom mixed with a rainbow? How would you even do that? Seems physically impossible to me.

“Oh, and if you look under Alias I noted ‘Dashie’ as a nickname rather than a preferred name. The pink pony kept calling her that, and was the only pony doing it that I could see. I don’t know, I got kind of a weird vibe from the two, like maybe they’re... y’know... more than friends?

Sparkwalker nodded intently at that point and jotted extra lines. “Possible sexual interrelations amongst the group. Interesting. Hmm... well, one more then. Tell me more about this Applejack.”

“Don’t even get me started on her,” Snapshot said, sticking her nose in the air. “Urgh, I saw the way she was looking at Flathoof... n-not that that matters,” she added so that Sparkwalker wouldn’t get the wrong idea. Even if it was the right idea, she didn’t want him to think it was. “He’s my friend is all... so I don’t want to see him get hurt because some Utopian jezebel gives him that look and thinks she can just waltz in and flutter her eyelashes and land the most prized stallion of the NPPD in her bunk when I’ve been...

“Anyway,” she continued, coughing into her hoof, “she was honest enough. She didn’t have any problem answering everything straight away, except that Utopia bit I mentioned earlier. Had a real thick accent that I’ve never heard before, made it hard to get everything understood at first. Had to have her tone down a lot of the bigger words too. She must be the dumb muscle, that’s my guess.”

“Yes, very good.” He nodded appreciatively as he wrote down the last few notes, then glanced into the folder of reports again. “I understand they also filed domicile registration forms? You wouldn’t happen to have a copy of them anywhere, would you? There’s a note here about it, but the NPRD must’ve processed them separately.”

“Oh... sorry, I don’t have one.” She frowned and rubbed her temple. “Really? They didn’t get that to you yet though? That must mean it’s still in processing. Your department should get it in a few hours, I hope. I rushed it along pretty well. I’m surprised the other forms got to you guys that fast, really. I’ve never heard of paperwork being processed so quickly.”

“I was hoping I could get a copy sooner than that,” he said. “We are in hot pursuit of these mares, you see. I can’t tell you exactly why, of course, but I assure you that the faster I can find out where they are or where they may be headed, the faster I can catch up to them and find out what exactly they’re doing.”

Snapshot frowned. If Agent Sparkwalker was delayed, it might be putting Flathoof at risk, and she didn’t like the fact that she would be partly responsible. As much as she was attracted to this new pony, she still cared for the Captain, and wanted to make sure nothing happened to him.

She nodded. “I... I can remember some of the things on the forms I filled out. Not every detail, but I assume anything would help, right?”

“Most assuredly,” he said. ”Any assistance you can give me in my investigation will be greatly appreciated.”

“Well, hmm... I remember a name... um... Southeast... P-something. Park? Place?”

“Point?”

Snapshot pointed a hoof at him in acknowledgement.

Sparkwalker jotted the name down on his notepad. “Southeast Point. I recognize the name. Most suspicious that they would be able to get a room so quickly in the busiest, most expensive part of the District, and with a record even.”

Snapshot frowned again. She had to come clean on this one. “Well, Captain Flathoof is the one who helped them get it. He said he had a friend who was in well with the owners... Lock... something. He was just trying to help, I don’t think he suspects anything about them at all. Oh, I’m sorry, that’s all I can remember...”

“Hmm... perhaps they’ve fooled your good friend better than you thought. But I’m getting ahead of myself. A few more questions before we’re all finished here. First, apart from what you mentioned specifically about them each individually, did you notice anything suspicious about them as a group?”

“Well, like I said, their home sounded a little odd. I mean... Ponyville? Has to be a made-up name, and a really lame one at that. Next thing you know we’ll be hearing about vacations in Fillyberg, or celebrities living in Stalliontown and buying beachfront property in Colt City. Pfft...”

He gave her a knowing smile. “So you don’t think they’re from Utopia?”

She nervously tapped her hooves together. “Well... I mean... no, I don’t. But where else can they be from? The Wastelands? Like... like refugees or something? They didn’t look violent...” she said, though she was still suspicious and knew that appearances could be deceiving. “And, they seemed healthy enough, physically at least. No mutations or deformities or anything.

“Still, I mean, how could they be from Utopia? They’d have had to take an aerial route, and surely they would’ve been told they needed clothes here. Plus, I know we don’t just give out identification cards, but the NPRD has a station at the Gate. How’d they get past it and into the city without going through that? Seems odd. That’s really all I know.”

“Very valid observations.” Sparkwalker smiled as he wrote down additional notes, then replaced the notepad and pen into his pockets. “Our department was thinking much the same. We just needed confirmation of our information, and it is good to hear we are not alone in our suspicions. You’d make a fine addition to the CIA one day, were you ever so inclined,” he added with a wink. “I’d put in my personal recommendation, even. And, one final question, Snapshot.”

“Yes?”

Sparkwalker leaned forward in his chair and smoothly reached out a hoof to take hold of her own. She looked briefly at the point of contact, then swiftly back to him. He tilted his sunglasses, exposing his eyes fully at last, and gave her a smoky look and a flirtatious smirk. “When do you get off?”

“I... I beg your pardon?”

She must have misheard that. No, he still had that coy grin on his face, like he was trying to remove her uniform with his eyes. It made her feel anxious. Vulnerable. Wanted.

He leaned further forward and wheeled his chair along with him so that their faces were close together. “Must be lonely, working these late nights here at the police station day after day. Must be exhausting... you must crave the feeling of release when your shift is up. I’m afraid I’ve probably kept you well past your normal hours. I’ll make sure you don’t get in trouble with payroll over it.”

“I... s-suppose.”

She blushed a deep red, trying her best to keep her cool. Too fast. This was happening too fast. Should she feel worried? Relieved? She’d given up opportunities worse than this for dumber reasons, and she was not about to pass up this stallion just because she felt it was a little too impulsive.

Sparkwalker smiled and removed his sunglasses, neatly placing them into the jacket of his tidy black suit. She became slightly distracted by getting to see his eyes in full. A vivid green, very pretty. She almost didn’t hear him speak, but then again she wasn’t paying much attention to his words so much as his actions. Was she daydreaming again? All that flirting... it had been real? She was worried she was looking for signals that weren’t there, or that he was just using the advances to try and weasel more information out of her, a tactic she admitted worked even if it wasn’t intentional.

“You look so pent up,” he said, his breath hot on her neck. “You look so tense. Please, allow me to help ease that tension, even if for just a moment...”

Strong hooves on her shoulders, keeping her in place. A tender caress. This was so sudden... too sudden. But she didn’t want it to stop, he was so perfect and she was so willing. She chose to forgo any sense of worry. Any sense of wondering, “why would a stallion like this be interested in me?” was completely gone. She couldn’t care any less.

He was doing so much with those hooves of his that she’d completely fallen out of her reality and became entranced in this living fantasy, such that nothing mattered anymore. It was not her first kiss, but it may as well have been. He was so delicate, not at all rough, sloppy, or dulled like some of her previous boyfriends had been. She barely even noticed him unfastening his tie, or unbuttoning her uniform. Things were moving so fast. They’d only just met.

It was just like one of her steamy romance novels. The suave spy flies in and sweeps the maiden off her hooves, rescuing her from her tedious, bored life and bringing her to new heights. Right from beginning, to the now-middle, and she was hoping soon, the end.

“Mmph...” She moaned into his kiss. “B-but... I hardly even—"

“If you want to think of this as your dream come true, then by all means,” he whispered, giving a low laugh that made her heart flutter.

It’s like he knows.

Sparkwalker roughly pulled her out of her chair, and she found herself pinned heavily on the floor of the office on top of the rounded floral-patterned rug. She’d never been more glad that the door was locked and that the windows were tinted. Her glasses fogged at his hot breath, and for a moment she forgot herself and found she was unable to resist pleading for his advances, her own hooves gripping at his mane and chest. She could feel his smile on her neck. Taste his voice.

“One last thing, Snapshot.”

“Y-yes... w-what?”

“Have you told anypony else what you’ve told me here today?”

“N-nopony. Please... b-be gentle...”

“No promises...”

First, she felt the tenderness of a kiss upon her neck.

Then, a blade abruptly pierced her carotid artery.

Now, a severe, blinding pain. A hoof over her mouth silenced a muted scream. She looked up into his heartless green eyes, into his sadistic smile. His coat and mane colors dulled. No, that was her vision doing that. It started to fade into black. The blood loss was making her woozy. She tried to buck out of his grip, but she couldn’t find the strength. She tried to cry out for help, but no sound came. The agony was unbearable. It bled far beyond physical pain.

She felt like she’d just committed some great sin. And, by thinking she was helping him, she felt she’d likely just endangered the one pony she now wished she’d never been distracted from.

Flathoof... I...

“Shhhhh.” He cooed into her ear and stroked her mane. “It’ll allllll be over soon, my little shutterbug. Shhhh. Now, be a sweetheart for me, just close your eyes. That’s a good girl.”

Snapshot’s eyes dimmed as the last of her life drained away in a pool of blood on the rug, staining it a deep, dark red.

He smiled a toothy, maddened grin as he stood over her lifeless body, and cracked his neck as if a great load of stress flowed out of him. He enjoyed his work. The little twitches of the victim as they felt their life’s blood just drip, drip, drip away. The flickers of emotion that sparked in their eyes as their hearts stopped. To him it was like a beautiful mural, with himself the artist, his victim the canvas, and their blood the paint. It was an almost excruciating high, the knowledge that another soul’s flame had been snuffed from the world. He relished the particular taste of having denied her a great desire when it was mere inches from her grasp.

The euphoria passed after but a moment. His features hardened as he set himself back into his work, rather than his pleasure. What was important now was getting rid of the evidence. Snapshot had needed to disappear, lest she tell other ponies about a CIA agent asking her questions about those six new citizens they’d just registered. This would attract all sorts of attention, and perhaps the officer accompanying them, this “Flathoof”, would somehow catch word of it and try to interfere. It was easy enough to see that either he was in cahoots with the six mares, or he was as dumb as a sack of hammers for believing their story.

Worse, the CIA might get wind of it and, knowing they didn’t send an agent, would investigate the matter. After all, they’d been more interested in the case because of Chief Smokestack’s payroll increase, but if they thought the six mares were of some critical importance then that would greatly complicate matters. They wouldn’t question why a CIA agent was there in the first place. They worked so slowly they’d figure it was probably from a case several months ago they’d finally gotten around to.

Shadowstep laughed quietly to himself. The Committee sure had its priorities straight.

Well, one job finished. He’d gotten information on his targets that would likely be useful in the future, should they turn out to require his delicate hoofwork rather than just his ever-watching eyes. He even knew where they lived, and who they were with should that information prove useful as well. Anypony with them might try to stand in his way, and knowing how to remove them from the equation was always a boon. And with the little NPPD clerk a lifeless mass on the floor here, though he’d soon have to take care of that, easy enough, nopony would be able to warn them either.

As for whoever was supposed to be trailing them? Well, they’d be dealt with soon enough.


CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter Four: Inconvenience

Twilight and Flathoof stood in the hall outside Room eighty-four and five. They’d come out moments before, as the room itself had become much too cramped for them to bear, what with eight ponies trying to organize an apartment that was meant to house four at best. From outside, it was still easy enough for Flathoof to keep an eye on his parolees without bothering their move-in.

So, when Twilight requested a conversation with him, he’d obliged unhesitantly. Of course, Twilight hadn’t realized that her topic of conversation wasn’t going to be met with that same cordiality.

“Let me get this straight,” Flathoof said, sighing and holding the bridge of his nose. “You want to leave your friends here to tidy up your new home, because you want to go to Central Database Holdings, right now?”

“That’s right,” Twilight said. “I figured it would be a good idea to start looking for... work, and as soon as possible. I was a librarian back home, so I‘d wager I’d be just as good at it here. I want to take a look at their facility and get used to their system a little before I apply, though. Officer Snapshot was nice enough to put in a recommendation. Even if she only did it because of you, I plan to use it.”

“That’s not what I have a problem with. It’s that you seem to think I’m going to just let you go on your own.”

Twilight rubbed the back of her head. “Well, I just didn’t want to bother anypony else with my errands, is all. I can get a bit absorbed in my work sometimes.”

Twilight elected not to mention that she was going to spend most of her time at the library doing what libraries were intended for: studying. Specifically, researching this perplexing new location as much as she could. What little she could gather from talking with Flathoof and likely soon, Lockwood, was not enough to quench her curiosity, nor enough to make her think she knew what she’d need to know to get her and her friends home. She had planned to take as long as she needed, but hadn’t accounted for requiring an escort.

Flathoof shook his head and sighed. “While that is all well and good, Miss Sparkle, and I commend you for taking some initiative in looking for employment, I can’t just let you go by yourself. You’re on parole for one week, remember? Until then, all of you have to remain in my custody. So, if you want to visit the library, you’ll have to wait until after everypony here is done so you can all go.”

Twilight’s face fell. “Oh... I was hoping to get a head-start on it.”

Truthfully, she wanted to do it with as few distractions as possible. If she were allowed to “get in the zone”, as Rarity would put it, and start her research by herself without any interference from her friends, she hoped she would be able to get plenty of information in very little time. Not that she did not appreciate their company, but some of them weren’t exactly the best study partners. Rarity and Fluttershy might be of help, and if the right subject matter was involved she could probably rope Rainbow Dash into it too. Pinkie Pie could be either helpful or a hindrance, and Applejack, well, she just wasn’t the reading type. She didn’t want to force them all to go.

“I am sorry, Miss Sparkle, but rules are rules,” Flathoof said.

Twilight sighed. “I understand...”

The door fell open, and a gray form tumbled out onto the dirty carpet of the hallway. After shaking himself off with a slight huff, Lockwood got back to his hooves and addressed the two surprised ponies with a sheepish grin.

“Ow...?”

Flathoof narrowed his eyes at the new addition to the conversation. “Snooping as usual, Lockwood?”

Lockwood brushed off his jacket with a wing. “Now now, Flathoof, surely you don’t intend on keeping this young lady from trying to make her way in the world, do you?”

“I don’t think this is something you can help with.”

Flathoof looked at Twilight, who was still in a mild state of panic from the sudden intrusion. Her pupils were pinpricks, her eyes wide. Both ears were plastered down against her head.

“This is my duty as their parole officer. I have to keep them all in my sight, as much as I’d like to think I can trust them. I know it’s a two- or three-pony job, but I can’t expect any other officers to jump at the opportunity to babysit a bunch of new citizens. Not that I trust many of them to do the job anyway, or not to try anything fishy.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Lockwood said. He pointed his hoof teasingly at Flathoof. “But, you seem to be forgetting that there is somepony you can trust to keep an eye on them. Somepony who’s always willing to lend a helping hoof, and not just to his closest friends but to anypony in need.”

“You?” Flathoof said, his eyes half-lidded.

“Of course!” Lockwood grinned as he straightened his jacket collar in mock offense. “Sheesh, who did you think I meant? Some random passer-by?”

“Lockwood, this isn’t a game. I know you like to help and all, but rules are rules, and as much as the other officers wouldn’t have a problem breaking them, I do. I’ve got a reputation to uphold. And besides, that sort of thing goes against my own morals.”

Twilight took a deep breath and relaxed. Too many surprises today had put her on edge. “But didn’t you break some rules in getting us through all this?” she asked.

“Break? N-nnnope.” Flathoof nervously tugged his collar and glanced at Lockwood’s cheeky grin. “I mean, okay, NPPD regulations have so many loopholes and workarounds that, well, a pony with the knowledge of how it works could probably get around a few roadblocks here and there if they saw fit. That’s how Snapshot got your forms through so quickly. She knows just the right boxes to fill and marks to make.”

“Just like the tax code loopholes I’m going to be working around to get my new tenants a solid start,” Lockwood added. He playfully nudged Flathoof in the ribs. “And you know all about that too, don’t you? Don’t be such a hypo—"

“Right,” Flathoof interrupted. He took a deep breath. “Fine. I guess if I’ve abused a few loopholes here and there already, no harm in going the full mile.”

Lockwood beamed and gave Twilight a sly wink. “Precisely! I’m sure there is something you can conjure up to let somepony you trust be an additional caretaker for these lovely young ladies? Unless...”

Lockwood narrowed his eyes and his smile broadened. “Unless, you were planning on keeping them all to yourself?”

Flathoof stammered, “H-hey now, d-don’t accuse me of that kind of—"

“Aww, you sly pony you!” Lockwood placed his leg around Flathoof’s shoulder. “I should’ve figured it out from the get-go. I didn’t think you had it in you, after all these years. Which one is it then? I’m guessing... is it Miss Sparkle here?”

“What?!”

“What?” Twilight asked.

“Well, what with the whole ‘trying to keep her in my sights’ thing, I figured—"

“It’s not Miss Sparkle!”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “What’s not me? What are you two—"

Lockwood laughed heartily. “Oh ho ho, I see! Suddenly you fancy yourself a ladies’ stallion, and saw the opportunity to flaunt yourself in front of six eligible—"

“E-enough!” Flathoof blurted. He took a deep breath and straightened his hat. “Fine, what did you have in mind, if it’ll shut you up with these ridiculous ideas of yours?”

“Well I’m not too well-versed in NPPD rules, really. That’s supposed to be your department. But, there must be some sort of workaround that would allow a non-officer to assist you in tending to your parolees?”

“Well...” Flathoof mused. “I suppose I could list you as a third-party caretaker. It wouldn’t really be questioned either, seeing as you’re their landlord and all.” He rolled his eyes and sighed. “Fine, have it your way. You always do.”

“Excellent.” Lockwood nodded and closed his eyes. A content smile formed upon his lips.

“I’ll have to contact the station and get Snapshot to file the paperwork. I need to get a good signal, so I’ll be just over here.”

Flathoof pointed at the nearby window on the opposite end of the hall, then cantered over to it. He loosened the latch and opened it. Then, after a quick look outside, he began talking into the walkie-talkie strapped to his right foreleg.

While Flathoof was occupied, Twilight took the opportunity to converse with Lockwood. “Thank you... both of you. I don’t know what we’d do without your help. We were all in rather dire straits, and nopony else in this city—"

“Say no more, Miss Sparkle.” Lockwood gave her a wide smile and patted her on the shoulder. “Believe me when I say I know just how unhelpful most of my fellow citizens can be. We’re a rare breed, ponies like Flathoof and I. It’s why we’re such good friends! We share that common bond in knowing we can trust and rely on one another and that other ponies can feel the same for us. I’ve formed similar relationships with many of the ponies in this city and even some elsewhere, all of whom I feel I can give a similar level of respect and trust to.”

“How many ponies do you know?” Twilight asked. “My friend Rarity is quite popular where we come from. I don’t even know half the ponies she does.”

“Oh a great deal of ponies, believe me,” Lockwood said. He feigned exhaustion, as if knowing so many individuals was a physically exhausting endeavor.

Twilight pursed her lips in thought and tapped her chin. “This city seems so vast... how could anypony possibly hope to know so many?”

Lockwood beamed and flittered his wings proudly. “All it takes is one good friend, and you can move from there. You’d be surprised who your friends know, and who your friends’ friends know, and so on. So I know ponies from all walks of life, in fact. A few of the upper crust, like this building’s owners for example. It helps to have friends in high places, they say. And rich folk always appreciate a good, resourceful pony, so they’d be willing to look the other way when, heh, he gives away a vacant apartment to a bunch of parolees he just met.

“I have friends in lower places as well, and just the same it’s always helpful to have some there too. While some of them are less... reputable than others, at least in the eyes of the majority of the populace, you’d be surprised at the kinds of diamonds you can find in the roughest sands.”

Twilight gulped. “You mean... criminals?”

Her eyes nervously darted back and forth. It was bad enough that Lockwood had joked about murder earlier, but now he was claiming to be acquainted with criminals? Just who was this pony?

“Oh no, no no no, not at all,” he dismissed with a rapid wave of a hoof. He then stopped and hung his head. “Well, okay, technically some of my friends would be considered criminals by the system. But, I assure you that their crimes are not harmful in any way to anypony in any meaningful or personal sense. No murderers or thieves or anything like that, though I believe that goes without saying. But yes, they’re guilty of some crimes against our wonderful little city’s ‘government’,” he added. His mouth bore a sneer, and his eyes had narrowed at that one word. Government.

“You could say their crimes are trying to do as I do: helping others by getting around the way the city’s backwards and sideways and upside-down laws work. But, we can discuss that another time, if you’d like.”

Over by the window, Flathoof could be heard finishing his call, clicking his walkie-talkie with a hoof, and turning back towards the apartment door. Lockwood pointed off in that direction. “Oh, here comes Flathoof. Don’t mention my... other friends to him. He might not approve, you understand.”

Twilight nodded. “Um... right.”

She was sure Lockwood was on the up-and-up, but now she was slightly concerned about taking his offers for assistance. It wouldn’t get them in any more trouble, would it? No, surely not. After all, he was clearly somepony who worked around the system often himself, and he was still considered respectable enough that he was close friends with a high-ranking police officer. Right?

“So,” Flathoof said as he stomped over, “I just got off the line with the station. I’m a little disappointed we didn’t think of this sooner, because I could have asked Snapshot to take care of it while we were there and it’d be in the system by now. She got off duty maybe an hour or so ago, and the silly girl forgot to punch out again. Had to ask one of the night-shift workers instead. He’ll fill it out and get it done, because even the night-shift knows not to shirk on orders given from the higher-ups. But, I’m concerned about it being done right. I’ll have to call Snapshot tomorrow and have her go over it to make sure it got filed properly.”

“So then, we can go?” Twilight asked, a hopeful grin on her face.

“Yes yes, we can go,” Flathoof said.

Twilight excitedly clapped her hooves together. “Excellent! I can’t wait to see this library. I wonder if it’s anything like the one back home?”

Flathoof shook his head, but kept a smile on his face. “We’ll get leaving immediately. If you’re sure you can handle the rest of them, Lockwood?”

Lockwood looked into the apartment and watched as Rarity helped Fluttershy dust some of the cabinets in one corner of the room. Rainbow and Applejack helped one another rearrange the furniture, though the two were debating on where the couch they were carrying should go.

Lockwood shook his head, worry-free. “I don’t think—"

Pinkie tripped over a rug and dropped the dusty mats she’d been carrying. They flew all over the room, spreading dust over everypony and everything. Rarity squealed in horrified disgust, Fluttershy started to cry, and Rainbow began to scold the pink earth pony openly. Applejack just hung her head in disappointment.

Lockwood chuckled and tugged his collar. “Uh... I don’t think it will be too much trouble.”

Flathoof laughed and slapped Lockwood on the back. “I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into. Come on, Miss Sparkle. We’ll leave my good-mannered companion to tend to his new-found flock.”

The pair turned towards the stairwell to leave, but were stopped by a voice behind them.

“Now hang on just one doggone minute.” Applejack stepped in front of the two of them, her eyes darting between the pair. “If y’all‘re takin’ a little stroll, perhaps ya wouldn’t mind if I joined ya?”

“Join us?” Twilight blinked and gave Applejack a quizzical look. “We’re going to the library, Applejack. It’s not a place you’d usually volunteer to go... if you don’t mind my saying.”

Applejack narrowed her eyes. “You sayin’ I ain’t got no book smarts, Twi?”

“Do... do you really want me to answer that question?”

Applejack gave an aggravated sigh and shook her head. “Nevermind. I’m just worried ‘bout ya goin’ by yerself, Twi.”

“I’m not going alone, Applejack. I’ve got Flathoof with me,” Twilight said, patting the stallion on the shoulder. “And, he’s in law enforcement and all that. He’ll keep me safe. No need to worry or—"

Applejack stomped her hoof and gave Twilight an indignant look. “I know that, Twi, I jus’ wanna keep an eye on ya, that‘s all. And ta be honest, I don’t think I can take much more o’ Rarity’s complainin’ ‘bout the dust ‘n’ dirt. If she starts whinin’, well, I can’t be held responsible for what might happen.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow and nodded, beginning to get the idea that it might be better not to argue. “Oh, well okay then. If that’s alright with you, Captain Flathoof?”

“I don’t know why it wouldn’t be.” Flathoof shrugged and walked past Applejack towards the stairs. “Very well then, come along Miss Applejack. I suppose we could use the company.”

Applejack smiled. “Thank ya kindly.”

***

“That’s... a library?” Applejack whistled. “This place is—"

Huge,” Twilight completed.

Central Database Holdings was a large building, taking up not one, not two, not three, but four full city blocks. While not as tall as Southeast Point, it still towered over the ponies walking the streets below. Lines of pulsing, neon blue lights highlighted the contours of the building’s black metal exterior, from the edges of the structure to the indents that dotted it. Many of the lines flowed towards the largest indent on the front of the structure, indicating the entrance.

Twilight gulped. “If the dimensions are what I think they are, Applejack, then this building’s bigger than all of Ponyville proper. Excluding Sweet Apple Acres of course.”

The newer, shinier metals looked out of place compared to the buildings around it. Flathoof explained that this was because Central Database Holdings was a relatively new building compared to the rest of the area, and that most of the surrounding landscape had needed severe reconstruction to accommodate the structure’s needs. Specifically, the insertion of a massive series of wires and cables beneath the streets, needed to power the center and transmit information to and from it.

That last bit confused the two mares. They were used to letters and packages, and thanks to Spike were also familiar with the magicks of Dragonfire-fueled mail services. Transmitting information through cables and wires? How was that even possible?

Flathoof gestured at it with a hoof and addressed Twilight. “Expanding on what I briefly explained earlier, this is the central depository for every single piece of data and information the city has available to it. Research, literature, art, documentation, news recordings, public records, legal statements, etcetera. If you’re looking for anything in particular, this is the place you can find it.”

“They must have an absolute ton of information stored there,” Twilight mused, her voice tinged with awe.

Applejack nodded her head and removed her hat. “Dang, an’ all this here place does is hold books?

Flathoof tilted his head. “Books?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, books. You said this place is a library, and libraries hold books, amongst other things. Documents, newspapers, that sort of thing. Just like this place does.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Flathoof said. “The Pandemonium Database System is entirely digital. They copy down any written information they get into their computer system, then get rid of the original forms or whatever. Most ponies don’t even bother writing things on paper anymore, besides documentation forms since the NPRD insists on making things difficult.”

Twilight turned white. “W-w-what? No... no, you’re joking. You must be joking.”

His stern face said that he wasn’t.

”They don’t have books here, Applejack!” Twilight grabbed Applejack’s side and shook her friend in a fierce panic. “They don’t. Have. Books!

Applejack eased Twilight off of her and held the flustering unicorn steady. “Whoa there, sugarcube, ease up a bit. He said they still got all yer info stuff in there, just in a new way. What’d y’all call it again?”

“A computer?” Flathoof scratched his head. “You don’t know what a... huh. Well, what difference does it make anyway? Come on, let’s not dilly-dally around out here.”

He turned to Twilight and patted her on the shoulder. “Miss Sparkle, since you’re looking for a job, we’re going to talk to the Chief Librarian. That’s your best bet for getting in.”

Twilight murmured, “Right... yes, of course. I’m... just... trying to get over the whole ‘no books’ thing.”

The trio entered the building via the glowing blue door at the front. It slid open automatically at their approach. This didn’t surprise Flathoof at all, and it only caused Twilight a little surprise. Applejack, on the other hoof, had been spooked and nearly leapt onto Twilight in shock. After calming her down, they entered properly. Inside, they strolled down a long, black hallway that led to another door, which also opened at their approach, and led them into the main lobby.

It was then seen that it wasn’t anywhere near as big on the inside as the outside. The room was still very large, and blanketed with desk after desk. There were enough desks in the room that Applejack was certain that all together they could probably build a small town large enough to fill the room.

Upon these desks were the strangest things Applejack had ever seen. They looked like small windows, but instead of being clear, they glowed white. She could see little images moving on some of them, sometimes words, and the ponies at some of the desks were able to manipulate the images with their hooves.

True enough, there wasn’t a single book in sight.

They approached the central desk, where they requested the Chief Librarian’s presence. While they waited for the receptionist to fetch him, Applejack took the time to pick up and examine the shiny, crystal nameplate that sat on the desk.

“Oooh, fancy.”

An olive green unicorn stallion with a neatly-combed lime green mane popped up from behind the desk. Applejack, surprised, fumbled the nameplate, dropping it to the floor where it shattered. He wore a plaid tweed jacket adorned with a tag reading Chief Librarian, and large-rimmed glasses that were too big for his face, giving him every impression of a librarian.

“That’s alright, I have fifty more of those under here.” The unicorn promptly reached under the desk, grabbed another, and replaced the broken one. “Though I’ll say I’m used to only small foals breaking them.”

“Eh heh... sorry?” Applejack murmured.

His eyes remained narrowed as he spoke. His tone dripped with boredom. He didn’t even seem to be looking at any one of them in particular. “Greetings and welcome to Central Database Holdings. I am Chief Librarian Archimedes. How may I be of service to you on this extraordinarily busy day where my time would be better spent elsewhere?”

Twilight coughed into her hoof, then gave a pleasant smile. “Yes, hi... I’m new in town and was looking for some kind of opening position, if you have one available?”

The librarian rolled his eyes. “Our job openings are always limitless because nopony wants to work in a stuffy office building pushing buttons all day. Not when there are more exciting jobs out there like rent-a-cop, garbage stallion, or window cleaner. Who has time to bother sorting through all the information in the city? All the things that we have to send to everypony else that keeps them running? Yes, stars forbid anypony want to help with that.”

Archimedes ended his rant with a loud inhalation of air through his nostrils. “At any rate, do you have any qualifications?”

“I worked at the... Utopian... Central... Library. Yes. Utopian Central Library. In Utopia. Because that’s where I’m from,” Twilight added with a nervous, awkward smile.

“Utopia, huh?” Archimedes raised an eyebrow and looked at Twilight as if she were a bug. “Are they still using hard-copies over there or have they stopped being such barbarians and finally made the transfer over to digital?”

“What’s wrong with hard copies?” Twilight scoffed.

“It’s so easy to lose hard-copy material compared to digital data. Irresponsible, really. Not the case with digital. We have backups of our backups of our backups, and everything is encoded so precisely that only those with authority to access the information could possibly hope to do so in the first place.” He cleared his throat and continued to give her the same disinterested look. “But I digress. What types of materials are you familiar with?”

“Well... I’m used to hard-copy materials,” Twilight said. “B-but I’m—"

Archimedes rolled his eyes and waved a hoof dismissively. “All well and fine. You’re a librarian, so that means you can read, and that means you can learn. It’s not that difficult of a transition, really. You’re actually learning to use something easier. None of that decimal system garbage I’m certain you’re accustomed to.”

“Hey, what’s wrong with the decimal—"

“Before I consider your employment though, I’ll have to see how quickly you can adjust to using our database. I don’t need another brain-dead lout on my staff, not after that last idiot nearly deleted half the city’s registry when I asked him to change the name of the folder.”

“I can assure you, I’m not an idiot,” Twilight said.

Archimedes nodded his head, though clearly not really believing her answer. “Right, yes, certainly. First though, tell me why you’re being escorted by a police officer? Care to explain, Officer...?”

Captain Flathoof. She’s on parole,” Flathoof said. “New in town, didn’t have identification. You know how it is.”

Archimedes frowned in Flathoof’s direction, giving him a quick once-over. “I suppose I shouldn’t question why they were allowed past the Gate without identification?”

“Bit of a management mishap. Paperwork got messed up. They’re only on parole because their attempt to get ID later caused a ruckus downtown.”

Archimedes hummed, then shrugged. “Doesn’t sound like anything that might threaten my life or my work.”

He turned to Twilight again. “Now then, if you don’t mind, Miss... I didn’t get your name, either.”

“Twilight Sparkle,” she said, bowing her head slightly.

Archimedes turned back to Flathoof, and pointed at Twilight. “Miss Sparkle here is going to need to come with me to provide background information and proof of her capabilities. Dreadfully sorry, but I can’t allow anypony else into the Database Hub. We have a strict policy: two ponies at a time, no more, no less, one of whom must have a Librarian Database Keycard. If I go about making exceptions here and there then I may as well not have the rule in the first place. Rules are rules, you understand.”

“Right. Her parole says I have to keep her in sight at all times.” Flathoof stared at Archimedes, not budging an inch. “Surely you can do whatever it is you need to do within eye and earshot of me? Rules are rules, you understand.”

Archimedes stared right back. “My apologies, captain. I hate to sound uncooperative, but I can assure you your superiors wouldn’t have any trouble with my stipulations. I’ve done my share of research on the NPPD rules and regulations, and know that you can allow your parolee out of your sight if they’re going in for a job interview. I trust that won’t be a problem, will it?”

Flathoof balked and stood speechless for half a second. “Nnnope, no trouble. I understand. Rules are rules. But I suppose, then, you also know there’s a time limit imposed?”

Archimedes waved his hoof. “Yes yes, we have an hour before you come barging in and start barking orders. Come along, Miss Sparkle.”

Twilight gave a pleading look to Applejack as she was escorted away.

“Well, she’ll be fine for now then, I guess,” Flathoof said, breathing through his nose, clearly not used to having his authority challenged. “Today has just not been working out so well. I need a cup of coffee...”

He looked around, and saw the library’s mini coffee shop in the corner, with a sign over it reading CDH Café. He turned to Applejack and gestured towards the shop. “Come along, Miss Applejack. I’ll buy you a cup too. We might be here awhile.”

“Oh... r-right.” Applejack started following Flathoof towards the shop. “Well hang on, I thought y’all said she was only gonna be an hour?”

“Yes, but I suspect Miss Sparkle will likely want to do some private work on her own if she can. I think I can trust her not to go running off and leaving you alone.” Flathoof held the door open for her, and helped her pick out a table. “Besides, if she gets the job she’ll need to know more than just the basics. Even if she doesn’t, she’ll want to look into other records to find another job appropriate for her talents.”

“Y’all’d trust us that quickly?” Applejack asked, taking a seat at a corner table.

Flathoof chuckled. “I’ve learned over the years how to tell whether or not a pony is trustworthy. I tend to stick close to those who are.”

Flathoof left Applejack and headed up to the counter, where she saw him order two large coffees. He returned a moment later and set her coffee in front of her, before taking his seat and immediately sipping from his own cup.

“Oh by the stars that’s good stuff...” he said, breathing deep.

Applejack stared at her cup for a moment, unsure what to make of the thick liquid that Flathoof had called “coffee”. She knew what coffee was, certainly, but this didn’t seem like any coffee she knew. It was black, like any good coffee was, but it didn’t really have a smell to it. Applejack sipped slowly at first, then took a bigger sip before setting her cup back down and exhaling sharply. It didn’t taste bad, certainly; then again, it didn’t taste good either. A bland, flavorless, yet at the very least palpable, drink. But, Applejack felt a sense of emptiness as she drank it, noting how good it also wasn’t. They hadn’t been here in this new place for very long, but already she was feeling extremely homesick the more she thought about what she was missing.

She remembered Apple Bloom waking up early and making coffee for her and Big Macintosh one morning. Her stomach turned at the thought of it. Whatever that little filly’s cutie mark ended up being, it was not going to have anything to do with coffee. Still, even though it had been the worst coffee she’d ever tasted, it reminded her of home. She missed her brother, sister, and grandmother dearly.

Applejack felt nervous being alone with Flathoof, even if that had been the reason she’d come along to the library in the first place. Something about him piqued her interest, and it was more than just his honesty and hard-working mentality. When they’d been together in that elevator back at the station, she’d been squeezed next to him a bit too closely. She’d smelt a certain aroma on him that reminded her of home in a way. Nothing like apples, soil, or open air. This city didn’t have those things anyway. But, the scent was still somehow familiar. The smell of soot, metal, and hard labor. But where would he get such a scent working in the city like this? The police station certainly lacked any of those things.

Flathoof broke the silence. “I’m glad I get to spend some time with one of you one-on-one. Trying to focus on six ponies at once has been proving challenging. I can never decide which of you I should focus my attention on. You’re all so different. How did you all come to be such close friends?”

“Well, some of us knew each other before Twilight moved ta Ponyville,” Applejack explained, knowing there was no point in not mentioning Ponyville anymore. She couldn’t bring herself to say “Utopia” unless it was absolutely necessary, and Flathoof had at the very least humored her somewhat.

“Rainbow an’ I met ‘cause she’s with Ponyville’s weather patrol, an’ I run the biggest farm in town. Her patrol team had ta keep up a regular rainfall schedule, see? An’ Fluttershy, well she’s real good with animals, an’ we’ve got animals on our farm too. But we all got ta know each other better when Twilight moved in. I guess she’s kinda like our... glue, ‘cause she brought us all together. Weren’t until Twilight came inta the picture that I knew Rarity or Pinkie Pie outside of seein’ them in market every now an’ then.”

“Well, how’d she manage that?” Flathoof asked.

Applejack nervously took her cup in both hooves. “Well... she was sent in from the big city ta organize a big event, an’ our town was ta be the host. All five o’ the rest o’ us were picked fer big parts o’ the event, ‘cause we’re the best at what we do. So... yeah, there’s that. Kinda took off from there.”

Applejack elected not to mention the entire Nightmare Moon incident and the Elements of Harmony bit. There might be time for that some other day, but for now it seemed a waste to try and explain something that Flathoof would likely never believe.

Flathoof nodded and took another sip of his coffee. “I suppose I can understand that. Lockwood has been much the same for me. I can’t count the number of ponies I’ve met and had good relations with thanks to his involvement. That’s his special talent, building up these little social networks of his. He’s good friends with my family too. My mother just adores him. She tries so hard to get him to visit more often.”

“Y’all got family here?” Applejack asked.

“Of course I’ve got family,” Flathoof said, confused. “What, they don’t have those back in Utopia either?”

Applejack frowned. “That’s not what I meant. I mean, my friends never say a word ‘bout their families much. I was jus’ wonderin’ if y’all were the same.”

Flathoof took another large gulp of coffee. “So... you have family back home?”

“I do.” Applejack sighed. “I miss ‘em...”

Flathoof smiled warmly. “The way I look at it, your family is always with you, no matter how far away you are. Even if it’s across the world, they’ll always support you, right?”

Applejack nodded and gave a small smile. “I s’pose. I jus’ worry about ‘em, that’s all.”

“What are they like? Any brothers, sisters?”

“One older brother, Macintosh. We all call him ‘Big’ Macintosh ‘cause he’s... well, he’s a big guy. Hard-worker too, just like me. Good with math, but I ain’t never seen him open a book in my life so I ain’t got any idea how he does it. Who knows what he gets up to on his free time. One lil’ sister, Apple Bloom. She’s... well...”

Applejack hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and smiled broadly. “She’s Apple Bloom! Been a mite bit obsessed with gettin’ a cutie mark lately, an’ won’t listen ta reason ‘bout givin’ it time. Lots an’ lots o’ cousins, all part o’ th’ ‘Apple Clan’ as we call it. I won’t go through the whole list though. Time limit ‘n’ all. Grandmother, Granny Smith. She’s gettin’ along okay... but me an’ Big Macintosh‘re worried she don’t have long...”

Flathoof took another sip of coffee. “Parents?”

Applejack smile dropped, and she stared into her coffee like it was the only thing in the world to look at. “I... I don’t like ta talk about that. If’n y’all don’t mind...”

“I apologize...” Flathoof frowned and put his cup back on the table. “If... if I brought up any bad memor—"

“Don’t worry about it none.” She shook her head and took a sip of her own coffee again. “How ‘bout you? What’s yer family like?”

“Mine?” Flathoof blinked and scratched his chin for a second. “Okay, I guess I can tell you. I’ve got my mother and father, Shortcake and Stouthoof. Two younger brothers, Thickhoof and Shorthoof. One younger sister, Pattycake. The stallions on my father’s side have all been Foundry workers for generations. And, as my father says, ‘the Hoof line has always been attracted to great chefs’, so that’s what my family’s mares have all tended to be.”

Applejack found herself recalling something Pinkie Pie once called her, “best baker ever”. She shook her head. Why did she think of that at all?

He laughed and drained the last of his coffee. “Very traditional, you understand. I’m a bit of a black sheep, if you will. First stallion in over twelve generations not to want to work in the Foundry. Gave it a try out of high school, decided it wasn’t for me. Nearly broke my poor father’s heart.”

Applejack scratched her head. “What’s a foundry?”

“Oh, it’s the major factory center in Mid-West. They make just about everything in the city that gets used for construction purposes of all shapes and sizes: metals, tools, things like that. Not an easy job, I tell you. A lot of physical work, and there’s always a risk of serious injury. My father used to come home with cuts and burns all the time, always made my mother worry.” Flathoof was only barely able to hide the slight hint of concern in his own voice.

Applejack nodded. While she had only a vague idea what a factory was, it seemed like it was a lot like farm work, in a way: lots of physical labor, long days, and his family all did the same kind of work? Well, except himself, of course.

“Why ain’t ya there with yer family, if they all do the same kind o’ work?” she asked, remembering well her own younger days and hopes of being different by moving to Manehatten. “Sounds ta me like that’d be mighty supportive for ‘em. What made y’all change yer mind?”

Flathoof chuckled as he sheepishly ran a hoof through his mane. “You can thank Lockwood for that. He was always a wimp back in school. Got picked on a lot. He still is, sorta, but he knows how to take better care of himself these days. I didn’t like seeing my friend getting bullied around, so I stood up for him when he couldn’t do it for himself. Guess I kind of just ran with the idea of stamping out injustices like that, thought maybe joining the NPPD was my true calling.”

“Looks like ya made it big there,” Applejack said. “Still, y’all sound like ya ain’t too happy ‘bout it.”

Flathoof chuckled. “Oh you would not believe the grief my family gave me for that. ‘Not joining the family line’, ‘risking your life for strangers’, ‘working around all those crooked good-for-nothings’. That kind of deal. It took them awhile, but eventually they understood why I wanted to do it, and since then they’ve supported me all the way. Helped a lot that Lockwood had always been like another son to them. He’s very convincing.”

“D’ya still live with ‘em? I know my friends don’t live with their families no more. Far as I know, they don’t even write or nothin’. Twilight didn’t even know her brother was gettin’ hitched ‘til the week o’ the weddin’! Can ya believe it?” Applejack shook her head in disbelief.

Flathoof nodded. “I certainly do. It’s expensive moving out and living on your own around here.”

Well, now she knew where he got the smell. If he lived with his family and they all worked at that factory, then their whole house probably smelled like that at all times of the day, probably even overpowering the smell of whatever foods his mother and sister whipped up.

Flathoof shrugged. “Plus there’s practical reasons. My status as a police officer gets them a tax break, but only if I’m living with them. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but I manage. My family needs every bit we can get, ever since...” He trailed off, then gave her an apologetic look. “Well, it’s a long story.”

“We got time, sugarcube.” Applejack blushed when she realized she’d accidentally called him by the pet name she gave to all her friends. Where had that come from?

“Well, my brother, Thickhoof, got injured on the job about five years ago, when I was still just a rookie on the force. Lost the use of his hind legs. Has to use braces to get around these days...”

Applejack frowned at the dejected, faraway look in his eyes.

He sighed and batted his empty cup around between his hooves. “I’ve had to work extra shifts for three years, most of my family too, just to pay his medical bills and to make up for the tax payments that he still has to meet, but can’t since he doesn’t have work. Lockwood has been a big help, getting us breaks whenever he can.”

Applejack smiled. “Well now, that’s real nice o’ him.”

“Like I said, my mother adores him. Keeps trying to hook him up with my sister even when that’s... even though the two of them don’t see eye-to-eye.” He gave a little laugh and used his hooves to draw out a round shape. “She’s too big and loud for the poor guy, he likes a more... ah, graceful type, I think. Y’know, somepony like himself.”

Applejack nodded. “I’m sorry ta hear ‘bout yer brother. I know I worry ‘bout things like that all the time. My brother got hurt a year ago. Nothin’ big, but it kept ‘im outta work fer a whole week. I was worried sick, an’ that ain’t countin’ havin’ ta double my workload to make up his. I kept worryin’, ‘what if he don’t get better?’, and so I pushed myself a lil’ too hard, just ta prove I could do the work o’ two if that ever happened.”

“So you all work on your... uh... farm together then? What kind of food do you grow? Is it any good?”

“You betcha!” Applejack smiled, glad to bring the topic back around to happier things. “Best darn apple crop in all o’ Equestria, if I do say so myself, not to toot my own horn or nothin’.”

Flathoof scratched his head. “I’m afraid I don’t know what an ‘apple’ is.”

“Oh. Well... shoot, yeah, o’ course ya don’t. I can’t see how anypony could grow apples ‘round here anyhow. Well, we grow other things too, sure as shootin’! Carrots, celery stalks, corn, that sorta thing.”

“I’ll admit I’ve always kind of wanted to try real food someday.” He sighed in disappointment. “I’m kind of disappointed you didn’t bring anything with you.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Uh... real? What in the hay does that mean?”

“Well like you said, Pandemonium and the surrounding areas aren’t exactly the best agricultural centers,” he said, swirling his hoof around above him. “I mean, we live in a smog-covered city of metal and cement, surrounded by a totally barren wasteland that we oh-so-creatively named The Wasteland, since it’s the only one in all of Equestria. So, we make synthetic food. Well, the Dolor company does anyway. They’ve got kind of a monopoly on it, and frankly we’re all kind of glad for it. You don’t want to taste the knock-offs.”

Applejack eyed her coffee with extreme disdain. It wasn’t real coffee? Sure, she admitted it tasted a little funny, but she chalked that up to it just being an odd brew, not it being fake.

She gulped. “What... uh... what d’y’all use to make the stuff?”

“Ponies.”

Applejack turned white and was glad she hadn’t been drinking the stuff at that exact moment, but was horrified that she’d already finished half her cup.

Flathoof started laughing. “Sorry, sorry... just a joke. I’ve got to remember you girls don’t really have much of a sense of humor like we Pandemonians do. That whole ‘Dolor Green is Ponies’ thing is just a rumor. I’ve seen their facility myself, many times, and haven’t seen a thing that made me think the rumors were true.”

Applejack continued to tremble, and pushed her cup away from herself.

Flathoof tugged his collar and gave her an apologetic smile. “C’mon now, Applejack, you’ve just gotta relax. If you’re going to hang around Lockwood for any amount of time, you’re going to have to get used to some of his jokes. He’s much better about it than I am. Or worse, depending on your point of view. He’s just got that super serious tone of voice down so perfect.”

“R-right...” She gulped and eyed her coffee, deciding right then and there not to take another sip, just in case. “Heh... w-what a silly thought, usin’ ponies as food... heh... heh heh...”

As the two of them continued to talk, neither took much notice of a green unicorn mare in a heavy coat sitting several tables away, hurriedly scribbling in a notebook.

***

        

“Easy now... just a little more to the left... a little more... ah! Perfect. Wonderful work darling!” Rarity said to Fluttershy as she helped her straighten a cleaned set of curtains over a cracked window. “Oh it is so good to have an extra pair of delicate hooves like yours available, my dear.”

“Thank you...” Fluttershy blushed, her face obscured behind her mane. “It’s... nothing much...”

“On the contrary, darling! With your help, we’ll have this hovel looking spic and span in no time at all. Why, it might even just be liveable!”

Inside Room eighty-four and five at Southeast Point, cleaning had really gotten underway now that there was more room to move, even if there were less ponies to do the work. The few items of decor left in the room by a previous tenant, and not a murder victim they hoped, were enough to help them turn the cramped apartment into a comfortable home. It wasn’t anything particularly fancy or wondrous, but it was clean and presentable enough that it would serve them for as long as it was needed.

“And then we can begin decorating for the party, right? Riiight?” Pinkie asked. She started bouncing in a circle, giggling into her hooves. “Oh boy, I wonder when we can go start shopping for—"

Rarity interrupted, “Pinkie Pie, dear, that is really neither here nor there at this point. I think we should focus more on getting everything all cleaned up, then getting some rest. Maybe we can think about the party tomorrow, hmm? Besides, we don’t have any money for supplies like that just yet, and I’d feel rather awful asking for any more charity from our generous friends.”

From the doorway, Lockwood gave a light-hearted chuckle. “My dear Miss Rarity, with a face like yours, I’m quite surprised there isn’t already a line of stallions trying to give you gifts.”

Rarity smiled back at him. “Oh, don’t you think that just by doling out charm that you can get out of helping us tidy up, Mister Lockwood. Come on then, be a good stallion and—"

A voice came from the stairwell. “Mister Lockwood! Mister Lockwood!”

Lockwood turned around and stepped into the hall to find the source of the shouting. “By the stars, what’s all the commotion?”

A light purple earth pony mare bounded up the stairs and hopped into the hallway, landing next to him with a thump. Her sides heaved as she tried to catch her breath, and she put a hoof over her chest to calm herself. She rested a foreleg against Lockwood to steady herself.

“Thank goodness I found... oh... hold on... give me a minute here...”

She exhaled greatly. “Whew! Okay. I’m good. Mister Lockwood!” She grabbed his hoof and started dragging him towards the stairs. “You gotta come quick! There’s another gas leak!”

Lockwood chuckled dismissively. “Whoa now, what are you getting me for then? That’s Fixit’s job, you know that.”

The mare kept dragging him. “Mister Fixit’s on his way!”

“Okay, so?

“But Mister Lockwood, it’s in eighty-two and twelve thirty!”

Lockwood nearly tripped. “Aww, no, not those two again. Didn’t we tell them last time they had a leak that they’d used up their repairs for the month?”

She pleaded. “I know, sir, but you gotta—"

Lockwood held up a hoof to stop her from talking. “Fine fine, I’ll take care of this. Go on, I’ll be right down.”

He grumbled and turned back to the four mares in the room that had watched the whole thing unfold, then started pacing back and forth rapidly, his head slowly shaking back and forth in thought.

Rarity coughed into her hoof. “Trouble, I take it?”

Lockwood sighed and straightened his jacket. “There’s a pair of tenants down in eighty-two and twelve thirty that are real... basket cases. This is the third leak this month. We don’t know what’s causing it or if they’re even at fault, but they’re making a stink about it. I need to calm them down before they start trouble again, at least until Fixit shows up to... repair it.”

He took a deep breath. “Okay, this is going to sound really irresponsible, but I need to take care of this. Can I trust you all to just stay here and keep cleaning?”

Rarity and Fluttershy glanced at one another, then back to him and nodded. “Of course you can, darling.”

Rainbow snorted. “Pft, you guys are lucky we’re not real criminals, I’ll tell you that much.”

“I know, I know,” Lockwood said. He combed his mane back with a hoof and straightened his jacket. “Look, I’ve gotta get down there. Just hold tight, okay?”

He turned back around and headed down the stairwell, leaving the four mares alone in their room.

Rarity turned to Pinkie and tutted. “Well? Don’t stand around, dear. I’d like to have everything tidied up before Twilight and Applejack return. So—"

A loud crash sounded from the kitchen, causing Rarity to snap her head towards the violent clatter of flying pots and pans. “Good heavens, Rainbow Dash, what are you doing?!”

“I’m trying to clean up over here, what does it look like I’m doing?”

Wielding a duster in her mouth, Rainbow stirred up a frenzy in the small kitchen area. Small cooking appliances leapt away in fear of her rapid cleaning. Huge clouds of dust dispersed directly onto other mounds of dust, spreading the mess rather than getting rid of it. If Rarity had planned to give the kitchen a good once over before, now she was desperate to fend Rainbow away.

Rarity stomped over to Rainbow, and yanked the feather duster away from her with a contemptuous snort. Immediately, she set about the enormous task of repairing the damage the pegasus had caused.

“It looks like you’re taking a few big messes and turning them into a whole lot of smaller ones!” Rarity scolded, shaking the duster in Rainbow’s face and covering the pegasus with dust.

Rarity spun around in place, dusting the cabinets and the counter tops while she hummed a spirited tune. Rainbow gave her an exasperated look and snatched the duster out of Rarity's magic. “Pfft, what does it even matter, anyway? It’s not like we’re going to be here for that long.”

Rarity scowled, snatching the duster right back. “Regardless of how long we’re here for, this is our home for now, and it wouldn’t be right to—"

“This isn’t our home, Rarity.” Rainbow snatched the duster yet again, and batted it back and forth in the air above her head to keep it out of Rarity’s reach. “Have a little faith in Twilight. She’ll figure out something and we’ll be back home in a jiffy.”

Rarity looked offended, and grabbed the duster with her magic again. Rainbow held tight, tugging on it to keep Rarity from getting it back. Pinkie loudly chomped down on another hoofful of popcorn from her seat on the couch.

Rarity continued to argue even as she fiercely fought for control of the cleaning instrument. “Are you implying I don’t have any confidence in Twilight? I’m merely preparing for the off-chance that whatever solution she discovers isn’t going to just immediately whisk us away and take us back to where we belong. It’s called ‘preparedness’, Rainbow Dash.”

Rainbow pointed an accusing hoof at Rarity and started to speak, dropping the duster to the floor in the process. The chintzy wooden handle snapped in half as it hit the tile. Rarity and Rainbow gave each other nervous stares for a moment. Fluttershy cringed from her seat on the couch. Pinkie coughed, choking on a popcorn kernel.

Rarity rolled her eyes, grabbed the second duster from the nearby countertop, and got right back to her cleaning.

Rainbow huffed and pointed her hoof at Rarity again. “There you go acting like even if Twilight finds something that’ll get us home, we’ll be here long enough that we may as well—"

“Treat it like our home away from home, yes,” Rarity interrupted. She pushed her way past Rainbow and started dusting around their tiny stove.

“What exactly is your objection to being practical, Rainbow Dash?” Rarity asked, turning and jabbing the duster at the pegasus again. “If, Celestia forbid, we end up being here for a while, wouldn’t it make sense to at least be comfortable?

Rainbow rolled her eyes and, once again, yanked the duster out of Rarity’s grip. “It’s not that I’m not being practical, it’s that I want to have faith in my friend to figure this all out.”

She then stamped a hoof and jabbed the duster at Rarity for a change, getting dust all over the unicorn’s face.

“Ptth, ffth,” Rarity spat. “Rainbow Dash, really!”

A gasp sounded from the couch, followed by a quiet shush.

“I could ask you the opposite!” Rainbow shouted. “Why are you so determined to think the worst of the situation?”

Me? I’m just trying to make sure that if the worst does happen, we don’t get caught without a backup plan. Twilight would want the same thing.”

Pinkie popped up between the two arguing ponies and wrapped them together in a tight hug. “Hey, turn those frowns upside-down, you two! I’m sure Twilight’ll come through just fine. She’s always been super-reliable in the past, right?” She dropped the two ponies in her grip to repeatedly tap a hoof to her temple. “Well... I mean, except for that time with the Parasprites. That was all my work that fixed everything. Twilight just made it worse.”

Rainbow narrowed her eyes. “So you’re saying we should look to you for answers, Pinks? Because last I checked you were more concerned with throwing a party than with trying to get us home.”

Rarity tutted, shaking the duster she’d managed to snatch back in Rainbow’s face again. “Don’t get started on her, Rainbow Dash. She’s just trying to make this whole experience more pleasant for all of us, and to thank our new friends. It’s the least we could do to show our appreciation.”

“And that’s another thing!” Rainbow shouted, throwing her hooves into the air. “You guys are all so trusting of these two new ponies, who helped us for no reason whatsoever except to be ‘nice’. It all seems pretty suspicious to me. What if they’re up to something, huh?”

“And you think I’m the one assuming the worst? Listen to you!” Rarity turned her nose up. “I don’t even want to think about what you think they could be up to.”

“Yeah, I bet you wouldn’t.” Rainbow turned towards the den. “How about you Fluttershy? At least tell me you have some suspicions about ‘em.”

Fluttershy squeaked and tried to hide behind the couch. She thought she’d done a good job of not being noticed. “W-well... they both seem... nice. I can... um... I can tell when a pony is... really being kind to me, or if it’s just... an act. Rarity’s right... they don’t seem like bad ponies at all.”

“Urgh, whatever.” Rainbow grabbed the duster out of Rarity’s hold again, and started sweeping a pile of dust under the kitchen rug. “If it’ll shut you all up for a little bit I’ll just back to cleaning on my own.”

Rarity grimaced and put a hoof to her mouth. “Oh dear, you’re not really going to just sweep that all under the rug are you? Good heavens, that’s counter-productivity at its finest.”

Pinkie pulled a third duster out of her mane and passed it over to Rarity.

Rarity took it, paused, then shrugged. “Nevermind. Here, Rainbow Dash, at least let me help you.”

“Phew...” Fluttershy breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back against the couch. “Oh, if you girls don’t mind... um... I’m going to take a step out for some fresh air.”

“Go right ahead, darling,” Rarity said, keeping the rug aloft in her magic as she tried to prevent Rainbow from sweeping any more dust under it. “You deserve a break.”

With a soft smile and a nod, Fluttershy stood up from her spot on the couch, and walked out into the hallway. Looking around, she spotted only one other pony in the hallway with her: an old-looking janitor with a bushy gray mustache and wearing a thick, brown overcoat. He stood facing the corner, away from Fluttershy, busily doing something with one the wall panels.

Figuring that her friends were well out of earshot, Fluttershy let out another deep sigh of relief. She was glad the argument had settled down before it got any worse, more importantly that Rainbow hadn’t forced the issue of sharing opinions. She hadn’t wanted to share her own fears and tribulations about the whole situation.

Truth be told, she was actually somewhat glad to hear that she wasn’t the only one frightened at the prospect of being stuck here forever. That meant she wasn’t alone. She hoped that Twilight would come through, still. She knew she would, but how long would that take? How long would they be here?

In her focus, she almost did not notice the janitor busily sweep past her and head for the stairs.

Fluttershy gave a nervous peep just before the janitor got to the stairwell. “Oh, um... excuse me, I think you dropped something.”

Fluttershy trotted over and picked up a notebook that the janitor had misplaced. As she delivered it, she couldn’t help but notice what was in the notebook. Was that a sketch of her? She was used to that kind of treatment even back home, she had been a model after all, though she didn’t much like the attention.

The janitor grabbed it in a hurry. Fluttershy was mildly surprised to find that the janitor was actually a mare, wearing a false mustache.

“Bloody hell, how did I drop- oh, I mean, thank you.”

Fluttershy smiled. The other mare was nervous. “Um... a-are you some kind of... artist? In your spare time, I mean?”

The janitor glanced back and forth between her notebook and Fluttershy’s eager expression. “Well, uh... yes! Yes. You could say that. I’m taking... art classes!”

“Your drawing is... nice...” Fluttershy said. “You... really captured my image. It’s very lifelike. Oh... i-if you don’t mind my saying so...”

“No no, not at all.” The janitor tucked her notebook back into her coat pocket and started backing towards the stairs. “Sorry to run, but I’ve got other floors to tidy up. Pleasure speaking to you, miss. Cheerio.”

And just like that, the janitor was hastily down the stairs. She seemed to skip entire floors on her way down.

“Such a strange pony,” Fluttershy said. “Well... I’d better get back to the others...”

Fluttershy turned and headed back towards the apartment. Then, she stopped. There was a breeze coming from the window at the end of the hall. She coughed a little as the smoggy air started to waft in. Had the window just been opened? There wasn’t anypony around. Fluttershy trotted over and closed the window with a click, took a breath of cleaner air, then turned back towards the apartment again.

***

Tick Tock set her things down in her den and hurriedly removed her heavy coat. She took a deep breath, and opened her refrigerator to help herself to a snack, a thick tube of Dolor Yellow this time. It was not her favorite flavor by any means, but it was packed with nutrients that would re-energize her after galloping across the city in pursuit of a lead. And Time Turner had insisted that whatever was happening needed her urgent attention, so he was going to get her best work.

Once she felt relaxed and well-fed, she clicked her stopwatch and opened the door to her grandfather clock. A brief check around the room revealed nothing out of the ordinary. As she closed the door behind her, she noticed that it didn’t click just right. It was almost as if something had been caught in the hinge. She tried again and got the same result. She scratched her head, then shrugged. Bleeding door always has problems. I’ll have to fix it when I’m done.

She cantered over to her communications screen and clicked a few buttons to open up her emergency channel. That’s where Time Turner would most likely prefer to be monitoring the most, given the situation. It rang once. Twice. As expected, he did not take long to answer. His visage appeared on the other end of the monitor, and Tick Tock could tell he had been most busy these past several hours. It was nearing daybreak in this world, and thus likely in his as well. Had he been up all night?

“Oh good, you’re back already,” Time Turner said. “What’s the good word?”

“You alright there, Time Turner?” Tick Tock asked. “You look more knackered than I do.”

He rubbed his eyes. They were just a little bloodshot. “Don’t worry about me, Tick Tock. Something is definitely the matter on my end, so I’m hoping that you’re going to help me find out what, or rather, who, is causing the dilemma. Please tell me you have some news that may shine some positive light on this bloody mess.”

“Well, I decided to play this legit and go incognito, of sorts,” Tick Tock explained, fumbling with her bag to find her notepad. “I figured if I just came right out and started spouting all the timey-wimey rubbish, they’d just panic or get confused, or worse get excited. I certainly don’t want to get their hopes up or anything just yet. They’re not going home for probably a month anyway, yeah? If they start getting anxious they’re liable to break character and start sounding crazy. Might make it more difficult to get them sent home later on.”

Tick Tock shuffled through her sketchbook and opened it the most recent drawing she’d made first. It was a rough but accurate sketch of an earth pony with a curly mane and tail, and a cutie mark of three balloons. Tick Tock noted in the margins that the pony was, Pink. Very pink. Scribbled on the bottom were a few other choice words: Nutter, Bonkers, and Parties???.

Tick Tock read from her notes on the back of her paper. “This is... Pinkie Pie. Very energetic, kind of eccentric. None of the others really paid much attention to her rambling. She kept talking about getting a party set up, bugger all if I know why. Any bells?”

Time Turner tapped a hoof to his chin. “She looks familiar. I might have seen her around Ponyville, but I can’t put my hoof on it just yet. Just keep going, I’ll think of it. Who’s next?”

Tick Tock flipped the page over. This time, the sketch was of a dainty-looking unicorn with a curly, well-groomed mane and tail and three diamonds making up her cutie mark. Tick Tock’s scribbles said she was white with a purple mane, and included a big note on the bottom that read, Bleeding Posh.

“Rarity. She was a little... overbearing. Very prim, very proper, very tidy. Seemed the most practical of those four. She wanted to get settled in, just in case they couldn’t go home anytime soon. Anything?”

“Again, very familiar,” Time Turner mused. “I think I know these mares, but I can’t think of what would make them significant. I know I should, but blast it all if I can’t recall it.”

“Maybe you should get some sleep,” Tick Tock said. “We can continue this in the morning when you’re not so out of it.”

“No time for that,” Time Turner dismissed. “Just keep going, Tick Tock. My head’s a mile-a-minute right now, so I’m a bit fuzzy on the details.”

Tick Tock shrugged. “Well, okay then.”

She flipped to the next sketch, a short-maned pegasus that was noted to have a rainbow-colored mane and tail, a lightning bolt-shaped cutie mark, and a light blue coat. Her specific note was, Argumentative.

“Rainbow Dash. Very loud, kind of full of herself. She meant well, though, I could see that. She seemed like she was trying to be the courage for the entire group. Made a pretty big fuss about being here, and about accepting help from strangers. Gonna have to work out our story so she doesn’t assume we’re up to no good.”

Time Turner frowned and rubbed his temples. “That name sounds much more familiar. Rainbow Dash is a bit of a celebrity around town. Still... not seeing the connection yet. I know there’s something important about her, but I just can’t remember...”

On the next page was a timid-looking pegasus with a long, flowing mane and tail. Those were noted to be light pink, like the butterflies that composed her cutie mark. Her coat was noted as being yellow. Her note was, Adorable.

“Fluttershy. She was very quiet and didn’t seem to like seeing the other ponies argue.” Tick Tock gave a small smile. “She’s kind of cute. Really lived up to her name, too. Poor girl. I worry about what might happen to this one, Time Turner. My world’s... not like yours.”

“I don’t really recognize her,” Time Turner said.

Tick Tock nodded and flipped her notebook page again. “Well at any rate, those four were at their new apartment complex. I went there last, and I’m confused as to how they managed to get one so quickly. I found the other two being escorted through the CBH building by an NPPD officer. I guess they got in a little trouble before I found them, likely for not having any ID on them.”

Time Turner frowned. “That won’t prove a complication, will it?”

Tick Tock waved a hoof. “No no, not a problem. They’re likely only on parole or something, they won’t be escorted all the time.

“Anyway, back to work.” She pointed at her sketch of an earth pony wearing a hat, with a triple apple cutie mark adorning her noted orange flank. Her notes included, Farmer and Family: Big Macintosh, Apple Bloom, Granny Smith.

“Applejack. She looked like she was taking a liking to their police escort I suppose. Mentioned working at a Sweet Apple Acres?”

Time Turner sighed and ran a hoof through his sweaty mane. “Great... I recognize that name too. Everypony in Ponyville knows who Applejack is. Again though, not sure on the connection here. Hmm... I know they’re all connected somehow, but I can’t put my hoof on it.”

Tick Tock scratched her head. “Well, hopefully the last one helps you piece it together, because you’re right, I don’t see what’s so special about these ponies so far.”

She flipped the page to reveal a unicorn with straight-combed hair and a starburst cutie mark, her coat noted as being a light purple. Her note was, Books, books, books.

“Twilight Sparkle. Kind of a bookworm, which must be a huge blow for her here. No books and all that. Terrible shame. Time Turner, are you okay?”

Time Turner’s face had gone white on the other end of the line. “Okay... I recognize her for certain.”

Tick Tock brightened. “Oh? Good! But... you don’t look pleased to know that. Is something the matter?”

He pointed his hoof at the screen. “That would be the prized pupil of none other than our fair Princess Celestia herself. I knew they looked familiar, and now I remember where. Blast it all. I’ve been so stressed out lately I can’t bloody think straight. Now it all makes sense! Those are the representatives of the Elements of Harmony!”


        Tick Tock looked back and forth between the sketch and the screen. “The elements of what-now?”

He sighed and put his hooves under his chin. “Okay, it’s like this. In my world, we have six relics that exemplify individual aspects of the forces of Law magic, the Elements of Harmony. They used to quite literally just sit around and do their job passively, thanks to their connection to Princess Celestia. Now, I find it decidedly unfortunate that that is no longer the case, not since that Nightmare Moon debacle. During that event, these forces were transferred from the Princess into six mortal ponies. I don’t know which of them is which, besides Twilight Sparkle being that of Magic, but the others would be Honesty, Loyalty, Generosity, Kindness, and Laughter, at any rate.

“To balance that, our representative of Chaos is a powerful creature known as Discord. He’s been defeated twice now by the powers of the Elements of Harmony: once a very, very long time ago, when the Elements were under the power and control of both Princess Celestia and Princess Luna; the other was fairly recently. When the powers of the Elements transferred into those six, Celestia’s seal on Discord slowly began to break. It took about a year, but when it finally did, Discord was back to his old ways in a matter of minutes. Those six managed to defeat him again, using the same Elements of Harmony, but now the seal was powered by their connection to the Elements.”

“So that’s where the problem is, then. The seal is breaking.” Tick Tock leaned back in her chair and breathed deep. “Whew... that’s not good...”

Time Turner shook his head and took out his Timekeeper. He clicked it a few times, shaking his head at each display of figures he saw. “Oh, it’s worse than ‘not good’. When they were displaced, their seal weakened almost immediately. I suspect this is because their seal is not as powerful as Celestia’s. And worse, anything Chaotic near him at all causes that seal to weaken exponentially faster. Luckily, Celestia put his statue somewhere where he won’t be exposed to too much of that kind of thing, but I fear that won’t last long.

“At my rate of estimation, the seal may break within the next four weeks, and that’s being very generous,” Time Turner explained. “I’d say realistically you’re looking at three.”

“Bloody hell,” Tick Tock muttered. “You’re not giving me a lot of options here, Time Turner.”

Time Turner sighed and nodded. “Sorry, Tick Tock, but we can’t afford to wait a month until you get natural portals again. We’re in quite a pickle. I doubt anypony would mind if we took drastic measures here. Emergency Measure Five sounds appropriate.”

Tick Tock nodded and adjusted her bow-tie. “An artificial portal, huh? I’ll need a phenomenal amount of magical power to tear open a portal manually. One of our Alicorns. I suppose I’m stuck relying on Harmonia then. Fat chance getting Nihila to agree to stop Chaos from tearing apart another world.

“Bugger all, that means I’d have to get them all the way to Utopia. That’s not an easy trip to make. Three weeks, realistically? Then Hope’s Point is my only realistic option here... and that’s a two week trip by itself, including flight time and organization. Phew... you’re sure there’s no other way?”


        Time Turner sighed. “It’s the only choice we’ve got.”

“Remind me when this is over to petition our superiors for better options. Chronomancers shouldn’t have to run ragged like this. It’s exhausting.”

Time Turner smiled. “I’ll see what I can do. They like me more. Until then. you’re just going to have to... hmm...”

Tick Tock raised an eyebrow. “I’m... going to have to... what?”

Time Turner shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “Sorry, got distracted. I think my vision’s getting a mite tired. I haven’t slept since we last talked, been up all night doing my calculations and such. I thought I saw something moving on your end of the screen. It was probably...! Look out!

“What are you—"

A split second later, and Tick Tock would be just a bloody smear on her own video screen.

As luck would have it, she had very good reflexes.

The black-clad pegasus was deflected aside. His gleaming dagger bounced over Tick Tock’s head and embedded itself in the monitor, shorting it out.

Tick Tock breathed rapidly. She had felt the blade just nick her nose, and could actually feel blood begin to slowly clot there.

Her assailant did not remain disoriented for long, and was soon upon her again in a violent flash of blue and black.

“What in the bloody—"

Tick Tock was cut short by having to duck out of the way of an aerial buck.

“That’s the idea!” The pegasus laughed. “A Chronomancer, eh? I thought your kind were just fables. Well, sorry little clock cleaner, but your time has run out. Ha!”

Tick Tock sneered and steadied herself. “The puns just write themselves, don’t they? Sometimes I hate this job.”

The pegasus unsheathed another knife and barreled towards her with it, a maddened demon out for blood.

Her horn flared and fired a barrage of sparks.

He twisted out of the way and swept in to deliver a killing stroke.

She ducked, just barely avoiding having her horn sliced off. Then, she jabbed her head upwards and shot a fierce magical push through her horn.

He rocketed into the low ceiling. He shrugged it off, grinned down at her like a madpony, and licked his lips. “You’ve got some fight in you!” he growled. “I haven’t had to work for a kill in ages, darling. You’re making this fun again. I think I’m in love.”

Her horn flashed white. She fired another barrage of tiny sparks at him. “Oi! You picked the wrong pony to mess with, you bloody lunatic!”

He rolled out of the way and laughed. “Oops! Almost got me! I’ll make your death something exciting, as a reward. How does that sound?”

“Who are you? Why are you trying to kill me?”

“I’d go into it, but why waste my breath?”

He rushed at her again. She lit her horn to defend herself. He spat his dagger at her.

She had to block quicker than expected. The dagger reflected away. But, she was distracted enough for him to move in, and though he was without his weapon he didn’t seem to need it.

He tackled her. They rolled together and slammed into the doorway to the clock, then tumbled into the apartment den and crashed through the coffee table. Tick Tock’s head crashed through one of the table legs.

He managed to pin her when they came to a stop at the sofa. He was not in much better condition: blood dripped from his mouth; shards of glass were embedded around his eye; one tooth was chipped.

But, he was in no worse condition to keep the pressure on. She charged another spell to try and force him off, but he was able to resist the push. He gave a low laugh and set his hooves to her throat.

She sharply inhaled, and fired a blast of white hot energy into his face.

He sputtered. The spark singed his mask and caused it to melt, almost welding it into his coat. He lost his grip.

She blasted again at his abdomen. This forced him off of her enough to get out from under him.

She knew he’d only be in pain for a fleeting few seconds. She quickly got ready to defend herself again, but she did not get far enough to get to an upright position, only managing to crawl a few feet away.

He set upon her again, pinning her on the floor and smashing her face into the glass-strewn carpet. His breathing was ragged, and she could feel the rapid beat of his heart against her back.

She managed to buck out of his grip, and distanced herself some more.

But, not enough. He tackled her again.

She cried out in pain as her face smashed through the glass window.

Her vision was blurry. The sting of smoky, smoggy air burned her eyes. He still kept a tight grip on her, and she felt herself being pulled upwards through clouds of dust and smoke. She coughed and sputtered, and she panicked as she felt blood trickle over her lips.

He sneered down at her. “As much as I’ve enjoyed the witty back-and-forth, I’ve grown tired of this little game, Chronomancer.”

He spun, twirling up through the smog and into the sky. She fought the urge to vomit as the feeling of vertigo set in.

“I think it’s about time you and I took a little trip.” He chuckled as he broke through the last layer of smog. “Don’t mind the smoggy air. There won’t be too much of it when you hit the ground.”

Tick Tock kicked and squirmed. “Let me go you maniac!” she screamed. Then, her eyes widened. “W-wait, forget I said—"

“Poor choice of words!”

So, he let her go.

She flailed about in the sky, and frantically cast the only spell she could think of as she plummeted. There was a burst of light.

***

Shadowstep chuckled to nopony but himself. If that had been a teleportation spell, he would’ve recognized it. Besides, unicorns couldn’t teleport that great of a distance anyhow. No, that had been a totally different spell, but whatever it was, it wouldn’t work. In just a few more seconds, she’d be just a greasy pile on the pavement far below. He cracked his neck and flexed his wing. There was some slight pain here and there, but nothing serious.

He took the brief time up here above the smog to take a brisk breath of the much cleaner early morning air. Mmmm... perfect.

The dive downwards was short. He flapped his wings and slowed his descent as he came to the ground level of the city. It was a pretty lucky point that flying straight down led into a tiny alleyway and not to the roof of some many-storied apartment complex. She might have survived that fall if she were lucky. But oh no, not all the way to the ground level. It wouldn’t matter where else she’d landed, street or alleyway, so long as he could confirm the kill.

He looked about in the alley, trying to find some sort of hint to her landing spot, but there was nothing here. Assuming she hadn’t accidentally hit any flying pegasi on the way down, nicked a building edge or clothesline, or caught some freak gust of wind, she should be right here. There ought to have been an impact point at the very least. Even if she had collided with anything, she couldn’t have strayed too far from the projected landing site.

Where. Is. She?

Shadowstep spat on the ground, a little blood mixed in with his saliva. The Chronomancer had given him quite a fight, and now her lifeless corpse was playing hide-and-seek. It filled him with rage that he could not examine his kill, and one he knew would be absolutely imperative to confirm. He knew better than to assume anything until he could see the body.

Lord Silvertongue is not going to be pleased.

Shadowstep swore loudly and circled around again, determined to find where the fall might have deviated her to.

Had he looked up, he might have chanced the sight of a unicorn-shaped figure limping along inside of a cover of smoggy clouds, a slight shimmer of magic beneath her hooves.


CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter Five: Intermission

Shadows played across the massive expanse of the dining room floor, seeping into the corners and blanketing the walls. A series of dim lights, flickering in and out softly, did little beyond casting a faint glow across the central table. A solid black tablecloth covered the table, obscuring it in the darkness and giving the illusion that the rows of thin, wax candles floated in their golden holders. Plates, bowls, glasses, forks and spoons; the table was set for several dozen. This morning, as with every morning, it seated just one.

Silvertongue lifted a large berry to his mouth from a near-empty bowl, his fork steady and firm. He eyed it for consistency and color before eating it whole. For several seconds, he savored the bite, whisking the berry around in his mouth before swallowing. He pushed the empty bowl away and levitated over a plate filled with a great mound of the same berries, dripping in their own juices and topping a small stack of pancakes.

Magmaberries were his favorite, and as such made up the majority of his diet. The name was for a variety of factors that the berries had: the nature of their juicy interiors; their rich color, a deep, burnt red with bright orange and yellow splotches of which no two berries ever had the same pattern; and, their extremely spicy flavor, with a savory-sweet aftertaste. They were packed full with enough nutrition that, were one able to afford them, it was possible, even recommendable, to live entirely on them alone.

Magmaberries were also, like any berry, capable of being made into just about anything: they went well on their own as snacks, but were best frozen or deep-fried; they worked well as toppings or stuffing for pancakes, waffles, or any other baked goods, where the sugary sweetness helped overpower the heat; they even made delicious syrups, sauces, and dips, especially when roasted or blended.

As Silvertongue took a sip from his glass, he delighted in his favorite purpose for them: they were used for the best wines in the entire world. The flavor was so strong that it overpowered the alcohol content almost entirely. This only came through an excruciating process, substantially more dangerous than just picking the berries themselves.

The Redblade Mountains, a range of everlastingly active volcanoes just southwest of the Gate, were the only home to these berries, which required extreme heat to grow and even more extreme temperatures to flourish. The best crops grew right at the edges of dried lava pools and at the volcanic craters, and they needed to be pulped immediately after plucking, while their juices were still hot and bubbling like the magma from which they took their name. The fermenting process needed to begin within an hour afterwards, thus necessitating quick travel in a wildly dangerous landscape.

But, a properly-made bottle of the finest magmaberry wine was like sipping emotion itself, or so the enthusiasts would claim. It was as if it had been fermented with ecstasy and pleasure, agony and sorrow, and all the best and worst feelings and sensations one pony could ever hope to experience in one lifetime, let alone two or more. All of it, flavored to match the tastes of the pony drinking it. If you were sad, the wine could send you into a deep depression; if you were happy, it would fill you with an ecstatic elation.

Silvertongue enjoyed his remaining breakfast one piece at a time, thoroughly scanning the morning’s data report as he ate. Then, he felt another presence in the room with him. He did not shift from his position nor did he look up from his report or his breakfast. He simply levitated his napkin to his lips and dabbed three times.

He swallowed his mouthful of food. “Ah, Shadowstep. You have returned from your errands, though with a bit of a delay, I notice. I expected your arrival hours ago, when you wouldn’t be interrupting my breakfast. I do hope you have some good news for me.”

“Apologies, milord.” Shadowstep nervously bowed from the darkness, though only his eyes could be seen in the shadows. “Getting the information you requested took longer than I planned. But oh, milord, you will not believe the things I learned about our six little targets.”

Silvertongue gave a slight nod. “Deliver your report, Shadowstep.”

Shadowstep approached. As he did, he took a tiny device from his ear and inserted it into a socket near the table’s electronic display. Silvertongue noted that Shadowstep looked like he had been in quite a scuffle: his uniform had several burn marks and tears, and the young stallion’s face and wings and been nicked and bruised in several places.

The device that Shadowstep had inserted glowed a dull blue. Multiple notices and alerts flickered across the screen. Shadowstep batted them away with swipes of his hoof, and nervously chuckled.

“Apologies milord. It seems I haven’t updated my software just yet.”

Silvertongue continued to stare blankly ahead. “Do hurry up, Shadowstep.” He lazily floated another berry from his plate to his lips and took a bite.

Shadowstep pressed his hoof to the screen several more times, and at last his report opened up. It appeared as a black box with neon green text strewn about, and highly-detailed full-color images in the margins. Silvertongue gazed upon it, his eyes darting across as he began to read along. He noted that each section was divided neatly and everything tidily organized, just as he expected of any of his subordinates. He inwardly chuckled at the irony that he prefered everything neat and organized, yet the city he ruled was as disorganized as possible.

Each of the six ponies from the prior evening’s report had their own section with a wide multitude of notes; Twilight Sparkle’s and Applejack’s were noticeably shorter, though not so much so that it was a negative. There was more information here than SIlvertongue had initially asked for, or expected. Shadowstep could be forgiven for being a little tardy.

Silvertongue mused as he perused the individual report sections one by one. “Hmm... I see you spared no expense gathering intel on their personalities. That may be advantageous in the future. A commendable effort, Shadowstep.”

“Th-thank you sir!” Shadowstep seemed to swell with confidence and pride, puffing out his chest. “I interviewed the NPPD officer that was on the forms. Disguised myself as a CIA agent, and she didn’t suspect a thing. She answered every question and went into rather excruciating detail about them all. I couldn’t get their documentation forms, but got enough info from her directly to lead me to them.”

Silvertongue narrowed his eyes without removing them from the screen. “I certainly hope you were more thorough than that. If the CIA catches wind of this, the Committee may become involved.”

He knew full well that the Committee would stymie his efforts just by merely being anywhere within a hundred miles of the situation. The damned fools would draw too much attention, alert too many ponies, and probably actively involve themselves with these six mares, making it that much more difficult to continue with his own efforts covertly.

Shadowstep snapped to attention. “Of course, milord! I took care of her real neat and tidy-like. Killing her was easy, I just waited until she was about to... get-off.” He snickered at the double-entendre, even if the meaning was lost to his employer. “Nopony will have seen her leave the building, or not leave, for that matter. Had to get creative with the clean-up though. To avoid suspicion and all that. She didn’t have family, and had only one friend on the force itself that might be a concern, but he’s ever-so-conveniently these six’s parole officer, so I can easily deal with him directly, if need be.”

“Very good, very good.” Silvertongue’s eyes gleamed as he came to the second page of the report, which had the image of a minty green unicorn mare upon it, labeled Chronomancer. “Ah, now here is the information I was after.”

Shadowstep pointed triumphantly at the photo. “Yes, sir! I spied this pony trailing those six mares, and followed her as ordered.”

Silvertongue mused silently as he now perused the substance Shadowstep had obtained from the Chronomancer’s discussion. He was most pleased in seeing for himself in text and image that his theory had not only been correct, but that it was turning out better than he had imagined. These weren’t just any old average ponies.

“Intriguing... such fascinating information.” Silvertongue highlighted one section of the text. “Here. You mention that she was speaking with another?”

“Yes, milord. She was talking with another Chronomancer from what I could gather, from the home dimension of those six mares. I didn’t get much else out of it other than what they said, and I don’t really know what to make of it. It’s not my forte.”

Shadowstep gave a half-hearted shrug, and helped himself to one of the berries off of a nearby plate. Silvertongue glowered at him as he went to place it in his mouth. He reconsidered, giving Silvertongue a nervous smile and replacing the berry to its original position.

Silvertongue read more of the report, growing more curious about the mentioned Elements of Harmony, the six mares that wielded and represented them, and how the world they originated from worked. It seemed familiar, similar enough to his own world’s workings that he could quickly grasp the concepts.

Silvertongue glanced over at Shadowstep and gave the pegasus a quick once-over. “Judging from your appearance, you engaged the Chronomancer directly. What happened to your status as a master assassin, Shadowstep? Did you drop it?”

Shadowstep rubbed the back of his head. “The other Chronomancer, Turner I think his name was, spotted me from the other end of the video feed. Stupid girl has excellent reflexes.”

Silvertongue narrowed his eyes, and took another large bite of a magmaberry. “Did you ensure she would no longer be an obstacle, as I requested?”

Shadowstep hesitated for a mere second, not even long enough for a less-observant pony to notice. But, it was enough for Silvertongue to notice, and the silver-coated unicorn’s glare intensified, speaking many volumes of disappointment.

“That would be a ‘no’, then?”

Shadowstep gulped, and nodded. “N-no sir, I could not confirm the kill. I dropped her from a few hundred feet above the city, but I couldn’t find the body. I’d like to believe she’s dead, but I know better than that. I don’t know how she did it. It wasn’t teleport magic.”

Silvertongue leaned back in his chair and placed his hooves together, continuing to stare at Shadowstep with a fierce scowl. “So. You are unsure if she still lives and breathes, and thus is going to be an ever-persistent thorn in my side, or if she is dead, and we are just being overly cautious. A waste of time and effort. I do so hate wasting time and effort, Shadowstep.”

Shadowstep took half a step back. “M-my apologies sir, I—"

Silvertongue raised a hoof to silence the pegasus. “At the very least, you’re not stupid enough to assume she’s dead without the proof. You do not disappoint in that regard. I am displeased that the Chronomancer still has the possibility of being alive, especially since she will likely try to carry out this plan of hers much more abruptly. You’ve forced her hoof too quickly.”

Silvertongue’s horn flashed and Shadowstep found himself yanked across the table, sending plates and bowls of food flying every which way. Silvertongue sneered at Shadowstep as the latter came face-to-face with him.

“But—" Silvertongue released his hold, dropping Shadowstep onto the table with a thump. “That might work to my advantage.”

Shadowstep hesitantly raised his head to look at his employer. “S-sir?”

“Normally, such a display of incompetence would earn my wrath,” Silvertongue said. “However, the rest of the information you have obtained has put me in rather high spirits. You went above and beyond my orders in that regard, and I believe I will find it most helpful in the near future.”

Shadowstep gulped. “Oh... yes, of course sir.”

Silvertongue leaned back in his chair again and tapped his hooves together. “I need to begin preparations for the next stage of developments. In the meantime, I will grant you a very rare opportunity. A second chance. Stop that Chronomancer, and do not let these mares leave the city. Do I make myself clear?”

“C-crystal, milord.”

“And one more thing, Shadowstep.” Silvertongue glared at Shadowstep again, causing the pegasus to back off the table. “I rarely grant second chances. I do not grant third ones. Understand?”

“Y-yes, milord.”

“Leave me,” Silvertongue dismissed with a half-hearted wave of a hoof. “I require privacy. Contact me again when the situation has improved.”

“Yes, milord.” Shadowstep nodded, and backed away into the darkness of the room, where he vanished without a trace.

Silvertongue sighed lightly to himself as he perused the report more thoroughly. There was something in all this information that struck him as awfully peculiar. These six mares contained enough magic within them to shift the balance. It was unsettling. It was also unimportant for the time being. What was important now, was alerting Nihila to the developments, and devising plans for what to do about the situation. He focused his mind and let his essence waft out about him, an aura of magic that would serve as a beacon for his Goddess and draw her to him like a moth to a flame.

You summoned me, my Warden?

Nihila’s voice came cool and crisp into his mind, flooding his thoughts with a soothing sensation. He shuddered at the way her essence filled him. Elation and curiosity were not emotions he was used to her feeling.

Milady, I bear news regarding those creatures I discovered.

Her spirit sparked with pleasure, sending a shiver down his spine. “Ah, you flatter me with your efficiency. I am eager to hear how they pertain to the situation.

Silvertongue began to read off information from Shadowstep’s report. Every time certain strings of words were used, different sensations flooded his soul as Nihila’s essence fluctuated in reaction to their meanings. The thought that another world would soon be in its death throes pleased her, filled her with joyful anticipation that made Silvertongue’s entire being feel her pleasure. He was in ecstasy, and only maintained a calm and controlled demeanor because of years of posturing and proper etiquette.

The knowledge that these six, these wielders of the Elements of Harmony, were responsible for the imbalance that was beginning to manifest in this world made Nihila rather displeased. That word in particular, Harmony, filled Nihila with so much loathing that it worried even Silvertongue for a brief moment, not for his own sake, but for hers.

But, it also piqued her curiosity. The longer these six remained in this world, the more the imbalance would tilt in Harmonia’s favor. While it would be only a minuscule proportion, it was the the principle that mattered. The Chronomancer had not picked up on the imbalance in her own world just yet. It was minuscule to her. But, Nihila could sense it. Nihila’s initial thoughts were simply to have the six destroyed immediately and be done with it.

But, Silvertongue’s own thoughts disagreed.

Her voice hissed into his heart. “My Warden, tell me, were you in these six mares’ place, to what lengths would you go to return home?

He raised an eyebrow. “Me, milady?” A most curious question for her to ask, since she had a full understanding of his mind and soul. A test, then. “You know well by now the lengths to which I will go to accomplish any goal I have set in mind. I have always been ambitious. Were I in their place, nothing in this world, or the next, or the in-between could possibly stop me.”

I do know well the extent of your drive, my Warden. And, I believe they would agree with you, in that regard.” She coolly flittered through his mind, picking apart his thoughts. “The Chronomancer plans to see Harmonia, does she? She thinks my... counterpart will grant them passage and return them home?

“So it would seem. It is certainly within her power if she knew the methods, which I’m certain the Chronomancer does. Certainly within yours, as well, milady.” Silvertongue laughed when Nihila’s spark ignited. “I suspect that you do not wish to utilize that might for their benefit, naturally. We can deal with a little imbalance for a time, and simply let their world be destroyed before we deal with them. I’d consider it an experiment. Let us see what the effects of full-blown dark magicks have upon a world with no way to stop the flow. Your own attempt so many years ago was stymied, remember?”

Nihila’s spark flared again. “Hold your tongue, my Warden, lest—"

Silvertongue laughed again. “I tease, of course, milady. The Chronomancer will take them to Harmonia, that much we know. And without intervention, she may just yet succeed. We cannot just allow them to roam free.”

Nihila’s voice became soothing again and melted into him. “Perhaps we can convince them that their new ally is misleading them? Convince them that perhaps Harmonia is not as benevolent as she seems?

Silvertongue looked over the report again in an attempt to see if Nihila’s idea had merit. His eyes brightened when he made a completely different connection. It was brilliant, and it made him all the more thankful for Shadowstep’s thorough investigation. This would not prove difficult, at least not conceptually.

“Turning them against Harmonia will not be an easy task, milady,” he explained. “She shares their qualities in a great many ways, and we both know full well that she will do what she can to help them once they meet her. Perhaps, instead, we corrupt them?”

Corrupted, my Warden?” Her voice floated through his mind like a cloud, soft and innocuous. “An unorthodox plan. I cannot corrupt them quite the same as I have done in the past with others.

Silvertongue grinned. It was a smug grin, hinting at a darker intention than she had guessed. “Ah, but milady, perhaps you won’t need to corrupt them, at least not personally. Perhaps somepony else could accomplish such a task.”

You, my Warden?” She laughed, her voice echoing like thunder in his head. “I did not think you liked to dirty your hooves with menial labor anymore. You always preferred to command from afar and manipulate your pawns.

“Precisely, milady.” He grinned wider and leaned contentedly back into his chair. “I am not in the position to carry out such an errand anyway. While I have a simple understanding of their personalities, there are a great many things I lack that I would need to corrupt them adequately, to make them truly believe my words over those of their new ally who is promising them a way home. I do not have an intimate knowledge of their psyches, their hearts’ desires, their hopes and dreams, or the qualities of their souls. I do not know how deeply connected they are amongst themselves, nor do I know which particular buttons to push to elicit my desired reactions. And further, I do not even know which of them exemplifies which Element, apart from Twilight Sparkle. Though, I may be able to fathom a guess to a few, another failing of the Chronomancer’s ability, unless she is merely not speaking her mind. No, I do not believe I am qualified to corrupt them.”

You have a plan in mind already, my Warden?

Nihila felt her way through his thoughts. His plan wafted through his mind, and she picked it apart and understood it as if it had been her own. She was elated to find her Warden was such a resourceful thinker, but then again he always had been.

Ah, you are a most devious schemer. If we cannot corrupt them directly, perhaps we can do so indirectly. A brilliant idea.

“I thank you, milady, for your praise.” He smiled, feeling a tear come to his left eye as the sensations of warm pride filled his heart. “I shall begin my task immediately. Should that accursed Chronomancer still be alive, I will need to work quickly to complete this plan, before she renders it difficult to accomplish covertly. If the Chronomancer has perished, then we may merely need to adjust our plans slightly. This is a satisfactory foundation, regardless of the circumstances, wouldn’t you agree?”

Nihila’s voice cooed, giving Silvertongue a feeling of warmth. “I will leave you to your work, my Warden. Call to me again when you are ready, and I will assist you with the final phase. Until then, I must monitor the Belt of Tranquility and continue my observations of their effect on the balance there.

“Aye, milady. I thank you for your blessings.”

He felt Nihila’s essence leave his mind and spirit. He shook off the feeling of emptiness, a sensation he would never grow accustomed to no matter how many times over how many years he had experienced it. Once his mind was at ease and his wits were gathered, he clicked a button on the table, turning on the intercom.

“Shroud.”

Yes, milord?

“I need you to make a few calls.”

***

The little box that sat upon the den table of room eighty-four and five was a peculiar device. Flathoof had called it a “Teevee”, or something to that effect. It was quite alien to the Ponyville natives, capable of displaying images in the same way the movie projectors back at home did. Twilight had spent a great deal of time trying to discern the origin of the magic that made the device run, and even now sat glued to the rear of the device, rather than the front.

-just pay shipping and handling. And if you call now—"

Click.

“-Oy’ll keelhaul ya, ya scurvy dog! Oy’ve got—"

Click.

-terrible news, Mister and Misses Fudge. Your son is—"

Click.

-pregnant?! How can you be pregnant, we never even—"

Click.

-made a scrumptious cake! Best of all, decorating cakes is—"

Click.

“Heeeyyy, I was watching that...” Pinkie Pie said, her eyes as big as dinner plates.

Flathoof leaned to the side to keep her from snagging the remote back. “We can watch your cooking program later, Miss Pie. It’s almost eight o’clock, and I need to watch the news.”

“Awww...”

The couch in their den was much too small for all of them to sit on, so Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie sat on the floor in front, letting Fluttershy and Rarity use the couch proper. Flathoof continued to stand off to the side. He’d arrived about an hour earlier that morning, waking most of them up to get them started on their day. Rarity had made several complaints about interrupting her beauty sleep, none of which were paid any heed to.

With another click, the image upon the Teevee changed again. A delightfully engaging jingle played over a background displaying many sweeping vistas of New Pandemonium City. Bright, shiny gold text that reflected light that wasn’t actually there, floated swiftly down from the upper corner of the screen. It twisted through the center to surround a circular silver emblem that had zoomed in from the background, bearing a large, glittering number one.

You are watching Channel One Eyewitness News in the Morning. With Daybreak—"

The text was swept off the screen to reveal the moving image of a unicorn stallion with a lustrous golden coat and a short, tidy, bright blue mane. He wore a fancy brown double-breasted dress suit, with a matching tie. The stallion was giving a broad, rehearsed grin to the audience that gleamed in an unseen spotlight. His name was highlighted in bright bronze letters in the lower corner of the screen.

-and Butter Pecan in the studio—"

The image of a white earth pony mare replaced that of Daybreak. Her curly, cream-colored mane matched the color of her own sleek dress suit, though she wore no tie. She gave a broad grin to the audience as well, and proudly crossed her hooves in front of her chest.

Featuring Meteorologist, Clarity, with the weather—"

Now, a dull brown pegasus mare replaced the image of Butter Pecan. She kept her shiny black mane in a neat, slicked-back style, and wore a dusty blue jacket with a matching bow tie. She just stared ahead, no smile upon her face at all.

Stalwart, with sports—"

A burly, sky blue earth pony with a brown mane kept in a short crewcut appeared next. His dark blue sports coat was stretched to its limit to fit his physique. He didn’t so much smile at the audience as give them an assured, confident nod.

And Skyline with the traffic—"

A lithe pegasus stallion appeared next, sea green in color with a whitish-green mane styled back in a ponytail. He wore a decorated red flight jacket and a pair of matching goggles. He gave the screen a brisk salute, snapping to attention as he did so.

“Hey, that pony’s got style”, Rainbow Dash said, nudging Pinkie in the side. “He might be almost as cool as me.”

This... is Channel One Eyewitness News in the Morning.

The image shifted to show the first two ponies, Daybreak and Butter Pecan, sitting behind a desk and shuffling papers in front of them.

Good morning everypony,” said Daybreak, light gleaming off his smile. “Today’s top stories—" As he started to speak, his image shifted slightly to the left. Beside him, the tiny image of a red cross appeared. “Hoof Rot season, already? New Pandemonium Medical reports a rise in cases of the serious disease early this year, and are recommending action be taken by every citizen to prevent the spread.

The image next to him changed into that of a great inferno towering over several buildings. “Also, yesterday’s major fire in the northeast Outer District has still not been contained by New Pandemonium Fire Brigade, and is beginning to spread further outwards in the district. Authorities are worried it may soon spread into Mid-East and Mid-North if efforts to stop it fail.

The image beside him shifted away, leaving just Daybreak again in the center of the screen. “First though, here’s your weekly weather forecast with Clarity.

Flathoof snorted. “Seriously? Get to the news about the fire! Nopony wants to hear about the damned weather right now!”

The image panned over to the pegasus mare, Clarity, who was standing in front of a large green screen that quickly flickered to reveal a map of the city with lots of colored splotches plastered across it. The map was perfectly circular, ironically organized into very precise Districts. In the center was the Inner District, the smallest of the three major divisions. Just beyond that and covering roughly twice the area were the Mid Districts. They saw theirs, Mid-South, was covered in the least of the colors, excepting the Inner Districts. The Outer District covered double the area of the Mid Districts, and was divided into two sections: the Outer District itself, and the much smaller area in the south labeled Gate District.

Clarity lazily pointed out a bunch of the splotches of color, and as she traced her hoof along the map, the image slowly changed to reflect the movement of the colors. She didn’t seem particularly fascinated with her job.

Weather forecast for this week,” she said in a steady monotone. “Smog today, smog tomorrow, more smog the day after that. Smog all week folks, nothing new. Temperatures are staying steady in the mid-80’s, though citizens in Mid-East and Mid-North may notice temperature spikes as that big fire starts moving towards them. I recommend turning on your air-conditioning.

She yawned, then pointed to a big red cloud over Mid-West. “Citizens of Mid-West are advised not to go outside without protective gear for the next three days, starting tonight. All signs point to a freak acid rain storm. Weather teams from Mid-South and the Inner Districts will attempt to divert it, but are not expecting to be able to do much except contain it.

She yawned again. “That’s all for the weather, but we’ll be back for a second look at the end of today’s reports. Back to you, Daybreak.

Thanks Clarity.” Daybreak beamed, his teeth shining bright as ever, and turned to his other side. The image shifted with him. “Now over to Skyline with the morning’s traffic report. Skyline?

Now, the image switched from in the studio to that of the pegasus stallion, Skyline. It stayed steady behind him as he flew through a few smog layers above a particularly busy area of the city, where other pegasi were busy dodging one another for seemingly no reason at all. They all seemed to be constraining themselves between two lines of floating, bright green lights that wound through the taller buildings. There was a blue line in between the two green ones, with pegasi on one side flying north, while those on the other side were flying south. The two halves were further divided into fourths by white lines, and these were the ones that the pegasi constrained themselves to the most.

The northbound side was where the trouble came in. Two of the three lines of white were instead flashing red, and no pegasi were flying between them.

Thanks, Daybreak. As you can see, for all you pegasi out there it might be a good idea to steer clear of Northbound Air Intercity Thirteen. There is some heavy congestion this morning caused by a malfunction in the two of the three Guiding Lines. Traffic Control estimates a three-to-four hour delay for repairs. I’d recommend taking Ground Intercity Thirteen instead if you’re headed for Mid-North, and either Air Intercity Twelve or Fourteen if you’re headed anywhere else.

The image shifted downwards towards the city streets, which looked just as congested with all the pegasi above swooping down to take the street level. “To all of our unicorn and earth pony pedestrians down there, please be on the lookout for wayward pegasi taking illegal highway exits. NPPD units are already en route to try and direct the flow of traffic, and estimated arrival time is in one hour. Now back to you in the studio.

Thank you, Skyline. We’ll be back to you for an update shortly.” Daybreak smiled brightly and turned to his left, towards the mare sitting beside him. “Now to Butter Pecan with our top story of the day. Pecan?

Butter Pecan spoke in a cheerful, though focused tone as the image shifted to her. “Good morning everypony. Today’s top story! Hoof Rot Season is striking our fair city early this year, and there have already been numerous reports of it spreading quickly through the Outer District areas. Doctors are recommending immunization measures be taken as soon as possible. We have more from our correspondent at Central General, Hotwire.

The image shifted from the studio again, this time to a young unicorn stallion standing in a pristine white hallway, holding a microphone with his magic. His coat was a shiny purple, his mane a neatly-combed orange with red streaks. He sported a gold jacket and a matching tie.

To his left stood another unicorn, this one with an off-white coat. His olive green mane and tail spiked out and stood at attention, and from their luster it was apparent he used a great deal of product to keep them so straight. His eyes were obscured by his large lab goggles, and he wore a brownish-white lab coat that draped all around his form.

Thank you, Butter Pecan,” Hotwire said. “I’m here at Central General where the reports of Hoof Rot being on the rise early this season were first discovered. With me is the Committee-Approved Chief of Medicine here at Central General, Doctor Blutsauger.

The white unicorn nodded with a soft smile as his name was mentioned.

Hotwire turned, hovering his microphone over for the other unicorn to use. “Doctor, tell us a little more about what exactly you’ve discovered.

The white unicorn coughed into his hoof and adjusted his goggles, then spoke into the microphone. “Ja, vell, for zee past few hours vee have been gettink calls from our clinics in zee Outer District about zese Hoof Rot incidents. Typically, Hoof Rot is a late Vinter, early Spring illness, und ponies vould have plenty of time to get zeir annual immunization shots, if zey haven’t already. But, if Hoof Rot vere to begin spreadink early, before most of zee city got zeir immunizations?” The doctor then turned dramatically towards the screen. “Vee’d be lookink at... an epidemic.” He then turned back to Hotwire. “Zat was good, ja?

Hotwire coughed, his eyes darting back and forth between the screen and the doctor. He tilted the microphone back towards himself. “What sorts of actions are being taken to prevent such an occurrence?” Then, he tilted it back towards Blutsauger.

Blutsauger crossed his hooves in front of his chest and nodded firmly. “I have spoken vis zee Committee directly, und shown zem mein research. Zey agree vis me zat it vould be better to practice caution, zan to risk toyink vis zee lives of our citizens. I believe your studio vill be gettink zeir issued mandate soon.

Hotwire raised an eyebrow. “Mandate, doctor?

Ja ja, I know zere are many ponies in zee city zat do not listen to medical reports or even vatch zee news, und so I requested zee Committee take responsibility to ensure zat all zee ponies in zee city take action to prevent zis possible catastrophe.” Blutsauger turned towards the screen again and pointed at it, wagging his hoof in shame. “Immunization shots are free to all ponies vis valid identification, und all of our clinics are open twenty-four hours a day. Zere really is no excuse.

I see.” Hotwire lifted a small pamphlet from his jacket pocket and glanced at it briefly, then turned back to the doctor. “For those at home, what are the symptoms of Hoof Rot, so they may know which ponies to avoid to prevent infection?

Blutsauger adjusted his goggles again. “Ja, of course. Hoof Rot comes in stages, und luckily vee are only in zee first stage of zee disease's run. Zee first stage sufferers of Hoof Rot vill have tiny green splotches or varts on zeir hooves; unicorns may also have similar blemishes on zeir horns, as zey are similarly affected. If a pony is in zee secondary stage, zen zeir hooves vill be completely green. Hoof Rot is highly contagious. Do not touch anypony zat shows zee symptoms, do not let zem breaze on you, do not interact with zem! Zis is important!

Hotwire nodded. “Thank you for your time, doctor.

Blutsauger smiled back and waved towards the screen. “Alvays a pleasure to do a service for zis great city.

Hotwire turned towards the screen and stepped away from Blutsauger. “This has been Hotwire reporting for Channel One. Now back to you in the studio.

The image returned to the studio view, where Butter Pecan was shuffling a paper she had just been given.

Thank you, Hotwire, and thank you Doctor Blutsauger. As noted in the report, we have just received the Committee’s Mandate.” She lifted the paper she’d been given and began to read. “Issued one hour ago this morning, the Committee has issued an order that all citizens without up-to-date Hoof Rot immunization records in the past thirty days are to report to their nearest New Pandemonium Medical Clinic as soon as possible. They have also issued that anypony that does not get their immunization shots within the next twenty-four hours is subject to forced admission by order of the New Pandemonium Police Department. This mandate will be aired on all stations within the next fifteen minutes, and throughout the rest of the day in hourly intervals. It will also be broadcast every ten minutes on the public broadcast system.

She immediately brightened and turned to her right. “Now back to Daybreak for our next top story. Daybreak?

Thank you, Butt—"

Click.

“Awww what?” Pinkie wailed, grabbing the screen. “I thought you wanted to hear about the fire?”

“Bigger news just came up,” Flathoof said. He sighed and adjusted his cap. “One thing after another. Come on then ladies, you heard the... lady.”

Applejack got to her hooves and started to follow Flathoof towards the door. “Already? We have all day, don’t we? What’s the big rush?”

“If I’d known about this report, I would’ve had all of you at Central General an hour ago when the Mandate was issued. I swear, I’m always the last to know these things.” He adjusted his cap. “It’s like this. The closest Clinic to us, Central General, is the busiest Clinic in the entire Mid-District collection. I’m certain ponies are already starting to make their way there. I’d really like to get this done before too long, and the longer we wait, the longer we’ll have to wait. So, let’s get moving. Hop to it.”

Twilight stood up and followed after Flathoof and Applejack. “You heard him, girls, let’s get going. Chop chop.”

Rainbow groaned. “Awww... but they were about to get to sports. I want to see if they have a Skyball league here.”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Rainbow Dash, why do you have to be so argumentative?

Fluttershy frowned. “Oh dear... here we go again...”

Twilight stamped a hoof. “Girls! Really, this is neither the time nor place for this sort of thing.”

Both Rainbow and Rarity grunted. “But—"

Applejack stepped in and pushed Rarity and Rainbow apart. They both turned their looks of disapproval towards her instead. “Y’all heard Twilight, let’s just get this over with. No more fussin’ around. I reckon it won’t take that long, an’ we can get back home an’ start gettin’ to work on more important things. If y’all wanna argue, do it later.”

Rainbow sighed. “I just wanted to see if they had a Skyball league. Geez, sports was next anyway. It couldn’t have taken that long...”

“That can wait for later, this is important. Do you want to get Hoof Rot?” Twilight asked.

“Well, no, but I mean, it’s not that big of a deal. Pfft, we have that stuff back home too, they’re making it sound like it’s super serious and—"

“That’s because maybe, don’t you think, it is a serious illness over here?” Twilight tutted. “It might not be that big of a deal back home, true. Just get some bed rest and drink some medicinal teas, eat plenty of foods, and you’ll be healthy in no time. But here, they’re making it sound like it could be deadly. Multiple stages? Warts? Hoof Rot back home doesn’t work like that. It just makes you smell for a bit.”

Flathoof blinked and scratched his head. “You all must have it pretty lucky wherever you’re from to have Hoof Rot be treated like a common cold.”

“Even then, it is a most dreadful little illness.” Rarity shuddered. “Oh my, I remember having it once as a little filly. It made my hooves smell just awful for a whole week. Since then, I’ve taken great care to watch my health and avoid catching it again. It would drive away business!”

“Ooh, Hoof Rot stories!” Pinkie giggled, patting Rarity on the shoulder. “Why, I remember when me and my sisters all had it at the same time. They had to declare our rock farm a Class Five Smelly Zone! It was really hard to try and throw parties in all that stink, and it was just the three of us so we really couldn’t get any supplies or anything! Mom and Pop couldn’t come anywhere near us, and it was really awful. I didn’t like it all that much. But I mean, you’d have to be a crazy pony to actually like having Hoof Rot.”

Rainbow held her hooves up in defeat. “Fine, fine, I didn’t mean to sound like I didn’t want to get this done at all. I was just wondering what the dang rush was for, geez. No need to bite my head off.”

“You’d have to be crazy to eat pony heads too,” Pinkie said.

Twilight stamped a hoof again. “Girls, please, can we just get going? I’d like to get this done as soon as possible. Right, Captain Flathoof?”

“Right.” Flathoof sighed and nodded. He looked at the clock face on the nearby wall. “We’re probably already running a little late. Come along, everypony.”

***

The Central General Clinic was shorter than the nearby buildings by a fair margin, nowhere near as tall as Southeast Point. It wasn’t particularly wide either, not like Twilight and Applejack had described Central Database Holdings. It was still very big, to be sure. Flathoof explained that it had a very large underground portion where they performed the more serious treatments in order to avoid contamination from any smog residue. The building was a dirty white, with large red crosses adorning many of its features. A particularly large one was plastered just above the doors at the front. The doors were large enough to let a few dozen ponies in and out of the entrance at once, likely to accommodate room for stretchers, beds, or other equipment. The cross above the door was emblazoned with bright golden letters reading out the name of the building.

“See? I told you it’d be crowded,” Flathoof said as they entered the sliding quad doors to the building.

Twilight Sparkle and her friends’ jaws collectively dropped at the sight of so many ponies in a tightly-packed space. A line of ponies stretched down the long hallway ahead of them and all the way around the corner in the distance. A little signpost at the end of the line by the door read:

Hoof Rot Immunizations

Approximate Wait Time:

15:00

“Fifteen hours!?” Twilight exclaimed.

“Whoa nelly...” Applejack removed her hat and fanned herself with it. “Golly, we’re gonna be here all dang day.”

The ticker clicked, and the numbers on the bottom changed.

“Fifteen hours and thirty minutes!” Rarity began breathing heavily and fanning herself with a hoof. “Oh my, having to stand in line with all these ponies, for that long? Heavens, this is simply unacceptable!”

The ponies at the end of the line just ahead had apparently anticipated the wait time, and like many others ahead of them had brought cushions to sit on, and little bags of snacks and drinks. Rainbow Dash wished she had brought a book. She related the line to those she’d waited in to get tickets to Wonderbolts shows. But fifteen hours? Even the Wonderbolts weren’t that popular.

“Geez, you weren’t kidding,” Rainbow said. She scuffed her hoof on the floor and gave everypony an apologetic look. “Sorry I held us up. If I’d known—"

“It wouldn’t have made much difference,” Flathoof said. “Maybe saved fifteen or twenty minutes, I don’t know.”

He adjusted his cap and straightened his uniform. “Listen, you six go ahead and get in line. I’ll see if I can find something out from the nurse station. I might not be Lockwood, but maybe I can try and get us some sort of a... I dunno, something.”

Flathoof trotted away from the six mares as they took up positions in line. He rang a bell at the nurse station when he got there. A white pegasus mare came out of the nearby room, clad in a white uniform and a little cap with a red cross.

“Can I help you... officer?” she asked.

Flathoof gave a bright smile and removed his cap. “Yes. Well, maybe. I’m the parole officer for those six mares over there.” He turned and pointed at his parolees. “I was wondering if there was anything you could do to maybe help me get their shots a little sooner?”

The nurse narrowed her eyes and frowned. “You’re kidding... right? You want me to try and skip six mares ahead of a fifteen hour line? You must be out of your mind.”

Flathoof continued to smile as he tugged his collar. “Eh heh. I... I know it sounds a little selfish, but they’re new in the city and don’t even have last year’s shots. I’m worried something—"

The nurse sighed and calmly placed both hooves on the counter. “Look, as much as I’m sure that’s the case, I simply can’t just break protocol and skip them all ahead. This place is a zoo already. Can you imagine the kind of chaos that skipping a few mares ahead of the line would cause? If you think you can hold off a riot all by yourself, then feel free to convince me otherwise.”

Flathoof sighed. “Well, it was worth a try. Thanks for your time.”

He dejectedly walked away and returned to the other mares. “Sorry ladies, no luck. I’m sure Lockwood might’ve been able to do something. Knowing him he probably knows half the staff here. We’ll just have to tough it out.”

“Aw geez.” Rainbow crossed her hooves in front of her chest and slumped against the wall. “This is gonna be so boring. I knew I should’ve brought a book. I could probably finish the newest Daring Do adventure before we’re even done.”

“Aw, take it easy sugarcube.” Applejack chuckled, patting Rainbow on the shoulder. “At least we all got company, yeah?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Um... m-maybe we should think of something to... to t-talk about? To pass the... um... time?” Fluttershy said from her hiding place behind Rarity. “I mean... if... if you want to...”

Pinkie started bouncing. “Ooh! Ooh! We should play a game!” She then stopped, and glanced around the room. “Okay, I spy, with my little eye, something white!”

“Is it me?” Rarity asked, her mouth curled in a confident smirk.

Pinkie shook her head rapidly. “Nnnnope!”

Rarity frowned. “Well... hmph. She usually always picks me with that color.”

“Is it... um... the... nurse’s gown?” Fluttershy asked, peeking out from behind Rarity.

“Nnnnope!”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Is it the floor?”

“Pfft, what? The floor is clearly beige, Dashie,” Pinkie said. She then put on her best Rarity impression. “I mean, really, Rainbow Dash? I know Rarity’s the fashion expert here and all, but you can’t tell the difference between beige and white?

“Well, it used to be white.” Rainbow scuffed at a tile, revealing how much dirt was caked on it. “If they ever cleaned it, it might be.”

Rarity laughed and nudged Rainbow. “I never thought I’d hear that sort of thing from you.”

“C’mon you guys, you gotta keep tryin’!” Pinkie shouted. “Something white!”

Twilight hummed and tapped her chin. “The lights, maybe?”

“Nnnnope!”

“The... ceilin’?” Applejack asked.

Pinkie put her hooves on her hips and gave the others an impatient glare. “You guys are terrible! Come on! Something white!”

“We give up!” Rainbow exclaimed, waving her hooves around in the air. “Come on, Pinkie, everything here is nearly white! It’s a hospital! What did you pick?!

Pinkie sharply pointed at Flathoof.

“Uh...”  He shied away from her accusing hoof.

Her hoof scrolled down his face, to his chest, to his badge, then to tiny, white writing upon it. The NPPD motto. It’s a Living.

“Oh for the love of—" Twilight groaned, throwing her hooves into the air. “We can’t even read that from here, Pinkie!”

Rarity fumed. “I thought it was a reflection of the light! Really, Pinkie Pie? Really?

“Hey, come on, I’m just trying to pass the time,” Pinkie said. She pointed at the signpost, which they still hadn’t even passed yet. “See?”

15:25

“Ugh. Moving on.” Rainbow turned to Twilight. “Hey, I know what we can talk about! Twilight, how did last night go? Find out anything about getting—" She remembered Flathoof was just half a yard away. “A... job? Yes. Getting a job.”

“Well, the Chief Librarian said I was more than qualified for the position and wants me to go back... tonight.” Twilight put a hoof to her mouth. “Oh dear. How am I going to go in for an interview if I’m standing in line waiting for a shot? Do you think he’d understand?”

Flathoof nodded. “For a Committee Mandate, I’m sure he’d make an exception. Heck, if it were my guess, he might even be in this same line here, assuming he lives in Central Plaza.”

Rainbow nudged Twilight softly. “Did you find anything else out, Twilight?” In a hushed whisper, she added, “Y’know, anything important?

Twilight blinked for a moment, then her face lit up. “Right. Well no, I couldn’t find out anything I was hoping to. I didn’t have much time to do my research, sadly. I’d planned on spending all of today there and trying to find out some more but—"

“Excuse me, officer?”

The nurse had come over specifically to speak to them.

Flathoof hadn’t noticed her walking over and was taken a little by surprise. “Oh, yes?”

“It would seem there was a misunderstanding,” she said, her smile small and apologetic. “You said your parolees were new citizens, right? Well maybe there is something I can do for you then.”

“Oh?” Flathoof asked. He hopped to attention. “Oh! That’s good news. Great news!”

“Now, since they’re new citizens and all that, they’re going to have to go through a routine physical and get some bloodwork done,” she explained. “Nothing special. We only have one doctor on staff that can do this right now, that’s why I didn’t think of it before. But you’re in luck! Our Chief of Medicine had to be here early today to be interviewed for the news report. I’ve already spoken with his secretary and she says he’s agreeing to do it. Though, not without resistance.”

“Doctor Blutsauger?” Flathoof blinked and scratched his head. “The Chief of Medicine is going to give my parolees a standard medical exam? Isn’t that a bit beneath his station?”

“Yes, typically. But the Hospital Board would want him to do it anyway, since...” She leaned in a little and hushed her voice. “We get tax breaks whenever new citizens get fresh medical records, kinda like the NPPD does, yeah? Every little bit helps, if you catch my drift.”

He just nodded and smiled. “Thank you. I appreciate this, Nurse...?”

“Tenderheart,” she said. “And don’t thank me, I’m just doing my job. To tell the truth, this might put me in good graces with the Board. We have been a little short on funding lately. All these free immunizations are expensive, and we had to call in extra staff members to see that the line moved as quickly as possible, as well as monitor our actual patients and the like. Pfft. If the actual doctors were showing up at a decent hour, this line would be half as long.”

“Right...”

Tenderheart handed Flathoof a card. “Here, give this to his secretary and tell her I sent you. She’ll admit your parolees no problem. She’s expecting you. Take the elevator—" She pointed down another hallway perpendicular to the one they were already standing in. “Up to the eighth floor. Take a right, down the hall until you reach the big wooden door on your right side, just before you turn the corner at the end. That’s Doctor Blutsauger’s office.”

Flathoof nodded and took the card. “Thank you again, Nurse Tenderheart. Come on, ladies. We’re in luck.”

“Thank goodness,” Twilight said. “Hopefully this won’t take quite as long, right?”

“It shouldn’t.” Flathoof shook his head as he led them towards the elevators, “Well, the examination part at least. Those don’t take very long at all. Either way it’s not going to take fifteen hours. I dunno, maybe thirty minutes for each of you? Longer than just getting a shot, but hey, we don’t have to wait in line, right?”

“Well that’s a relief,” Rainbow said.

The elevators at Central General were much larger than those at NPPD Central Station, so nopony had to be squished next to anypony else. This elevator even played music as they waited, a cheery tune that was easy to hum along to, or in Pinkie’s case, bounce along to. The elevator dinged as it reached each new floor. When it dinged a seventh time, the door opened and they disembarked.

The eighth floor was nice. The lobby had been a filthy white, clean enough to be passable, but not really sterile or hygienic. This felt more like a high-rise office building, like it didn’t even belong in a hospital. The floor was carpeted, and the walls and ceiling were a pristine white. They traveled down the hall to the right-hand side, just before the corner, to a big door made of a blackened wood. It was marked with a gold placard that read Dr. Blutsauger, MD - Chief of Medicine.

Upon entering, they saw the secretary they were to contact, a unicorn mare with a dull blue coat and curly white hair. She was busy filling out some paperwork when they walked in, and hardly noticed them until Flathoof stepped up to her and coughed.

“Can I help you?” she asked without looking up from her work.

Flathoof set the business card he’d been given onto her desk. “We were sent up here from Nurse Tenderheart to see Doctor Blutsauger. Something about getting—"

The secretary lifted the card with her magic and floated it in front of her. “Ah, right, I got her message a few minutes ago. You should count yourselves lucky that Doctor Blutsauger is even here this early, but what can you do when we have a possible epidemic on our hooves, hmm? These six mares are the patients then? May I see their identifications?”

The six all hastily fumbled through their outfits to find where they’d stored their ID cards, then presented them.

The secretary looked over each carefully and entered their information into her computer station. “Hmm, they don’t have any medical records on file, as you said. They just got into the city yesterday afternoon, did they? And already they’re getting medical records taken care of and everything?” She beamed at the mares. “Good for you! It’s not often we see new ponies take such quick action. Wait here, I’ll inform the doctor you’ve arrived.”

Flathoof nodded. “Thank you.”

She left the room, exiting through the large door behind her. Flathoof breathed a sigh of relief, as did everypony else.

“This is going pretty smoothly,” Twilight said, taking a seat in one of the office’s comfy-looking chairs. “I was worried when we first got here that everypony was going to be unhelpful and rude, like the first few we met. It’s nice to see there are other ponies around here that are like you and Mister Lockwood.”

Rainbow grunted and took a seat next to Pinkie. “This all seems a little fishy, if you ask me.”

“Aw, c’mon Dashie, everypony’s gotta get lucky sometimes, right?” She threw her foreleg around Rainbow’s shoulder, and got a faraway look in her eyes. “Why, I remember when I was just a little twinkie Pinkie, growing up on my family’s rock farm. One day, I saw a moving rock and got really scared because, hey, rocks don’t move on their own! But it turned out it wasn’t a rock, it was a rock lobster! Mom and Pop were super excited, because those are worth so much money to rich ponies as pets! So we sold it, and then we decided to take a vacation at the beach with the bits we made, and everypony got matching towels, and—"

Rainbow leaned over to Rarity. “What the hay is a rock lobster?”

“-so we were headed there, and we saw a sign on the road that said fifteen miles to the—"

Rarity shook her head and shrugged. “Never heard of one. Fluttershy? Do you know, dear?”

“-and it was set way back in the middle of a field, which seems like a really weird place to put a place called the Love Shack, but I dunno, I guess everypony likes their privacy every now and then, right? So yeah, it was just a funky old shack, and—"

Fluttershy tapped her hooves together. “Um... well, they’re little critters that use r-rocks for their homes. K-kind of... like a shell. But... um... they typically don’t live where Pinkie Pie lived. They live by the ocean... usually under docks...”

“-so we took it hip to hip, rocking through the wilderness, which was really fun! Mom and Pop never liked to dance much, except at my parties, so it was really neat to see than having such a good time. I told ‘em, ‘Mom, Pop, you gotta roam if you want to, even without wings or wheels or—"

“So what the hay was one doing on her farm?” Rainbow turned to Pinkie. “Pinks! Your story doesn’t make any sense!”

“-and it had pink air, which I thought was super cool, ‘cause I’m pink and stuff, and I thought maybe the air would taste different, but it didn’t really, so I was kinda disappointed. All the trees were red though, which was weird. I thought maybe they were like, licorice or something, but nope! So then—"

Flathoof put a hoof to his face and groaned. “I swear, if I have to hear one more of these crazy stories—"

Their attentions were diverted away from Pinkie’s bizarre tale when the large double doors opened and the secretary reappeared.

“Doctor Blutsauger will see you now,” the secretary said. “One at a time,” she quickly added when all six mares took a step forward.

“And, he insists on doing it alphabetically. That means you’re first, Miss...” She glanced at her computer screen again. “Applejack?”

“Ah… well, okay I guess,” Applejack said as she trotted forward and past the secretary. “Wish me luck, girls.”

***

Applejack jumped at the sound of the big doors snapping closed behind her. With a gulp, she looked around the new room she found herself in. Doctor Blutsauger’s office was, to put it lightly, fancy. The walls were richly decorated with all sorts of unique, exotic décor, all of it with an eerie medical feel. The lavish carpet felt oddly comfortable under her hooves, like walking on crisp, freshly-cut grass. There were no windows, and she actually preferred it that way, since the big city was still unsettling to her.

The massive wall of degrees and qualifications eased Applejack’s trepidation. Doctor Blutsauger was clearly a highly-decorated expert in his field. Rather, fields, given the amount of degrees on the wall. She didn’t know any of the many different specializations that were listed, though. There were degrees for Cardiology, Hematology, and a few others, none of which she knew the nature of nor really cared to know, truth be told.

Along one of the walls was a display of jars filled with a transparent, greenish liquid, as well as something else. Applejack had never paid much attention in school during biology lessons, but she figured the objects in those jars were organs. Certainly now Applejack was less at ease, and wondered how Doctor Blutsauger expected a wall full of pony organs to really soothe anypony that came in here.

The Doctor himself soon exited from the side room.

He smiled broadly when the mare caught his eye. “Ah, Miss Applejack, ja? Vunderbar! Let’s get zis ordeal over vis. I did not expect to be comink in today to give physicals und do zee Hoof Rot shots meinself, but business is business. Follow me, please.”

He gestured behind him towards the room he’d just left. Applejack followed, and came into a sterile white room with a large table in the center. The walls were lined with various medical implements.

“Let’s take care of a few measurements first. Step over to zee device here please.” He gestured to a machine that Applejack thought looked similar to a scale. She stepped on it, and he came over and began adjusting knobs and levers on the panel. “Now zen, I understand you are from Utopia, ja? Did you take a physical over zere any time recently?”

Applejack thought for a moment, and remembered a doctor’s visit she’d taken a little while before all of this to see about a cramp in one of her forelegs. “Yeah, some few months ago, I think. I don’t rightly remember exactly when it was.”

Blutsauger continued to adjust the scale as he talked. “Do you remember any of zee measurements you vere given?”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “My... measurements?”

He waved a hoof in a gesture for her to continue. “Ja, your height, veight, zings like zat? I’d like to have zem for comparison, in case zere is a large difference in zee numbers. It helps to see if you’ve grown or shrunk in figure, ja? To learn if perhaps zere is somezing in your daily routine or diet zat may be affectink you.”

“Ah, okay.” Applejack nodded, and tapped a hoof to her temple in thought. She came up blank. “Uh... I don’t rightly remember. I ain’t that good with numbers, see, and—"

“Fine fine, it’s no big issue,” he dismissed. “Vee can vorry about zat zee next time you have one, and see how vell you adjust to changink livink conditions. Let’s see. Ah, height is one hundred und forty-one, slightly above-average, very good. You are a tall one, ja! Veight is four hundred und twenty-seven, also above-average—"

Applejack turned her head and glared at him. “Well that’s a bit rude, doc. Y’all sayin’ I’m fat?”

Doctor Blutsauger blinked. A second later, he laughed. Loudly. “Ach, goodness no... ha! Ha ha!” He took a kerchief from his coat pocket and wiped it under one of his goggles. “Fat! Zat is a new one. I vill have to remember it for zee next Doctors’ Ball. Anyvay, nein, you have some tone as vell, so I suspect zee extra veight is all muscular. You are a vork pony, ja? Understandable, given your height. You must do a lot of physical labor, und quite often? From Utopia... hmm. Construction maybe, or a farm pony, perhaps?”

Applejack blinked and nodded. “Yeah, that’s right. Good guess, doc.”

“Ach, I make it mein business to know mein patients on a personal level, ja? Helps make zem feel at ease, since many patients feel uncomfortable vis a few of zee procedures.” He tugged the collar of his lab coat and licked his lips. “Now zen, for zee next procedure, I am goink to need you to... strip.”

***

Bonjour. Est-ce que votre réfrigérateur marche? Alors, vous feriez mieux d'aller l’attraper!

Blutsauger pulled back several inches and looked at his stethoscope carefully.

No, there wasn’t any dirt or dust on it. He leaned in again.

“おはようございます! クレージーホースインザモーニングへ ようこそ! 僕は アンカーマン クレージーホースです!”

His stethoscope shifted.

This is your captain speaking, we are currently on our final approach to—"

He kept himself calm; Pinkie only smiled. He coughed, and gave her a relaxed, though quizzical, look of concern.

Pinkie’s grin got wider. “Problem, doc?”

***

“Vill... you... stop... movink... please...?” Blutsauger gasped. “You are... makink... zis... so much... harder... zan it needs... to be...”

“C’mon doc, you gotta try harder than that,” Rainbow said. “Or am I too fast for you? I’m not just a fast flier, y’know. I gotta be fast all over.”

“You are not supposed to dodge zee hammer,” he panted as he lifted it once more. Again he swung it down, again he missed as, again, she moved her leg out of the way.

Rainbow crossed her hooves over her chest. “Well that’s dumb, how is it supposed to test my reflexes if I just let you hit me?”

Blutsauger sighed and wiped his brow with his kerchief. “I zought... I vas done vis dealink vis zings like zis...”

***

“Ouch!”

“Zere vee go, all done.” Blutsauger nodded as he used his magic to flick the tip of the needle. “Mmm... zis is somezing I have not done in a long time,” he chuckled. “Bloodvork is such a pleasure. Ah... sometimes I vish I had not gotten zis promotion, ja? It is alvays zee little zings you miss zee most.”

“Right.” Twilight grimaced as she felt him apply the tiny bandage to the injection area. “So... are we all done here for today? With everything? Please tell me that’s the last of it.”

“Mmmm? Oh, ja, zat vill be all,” Blutsauger dismissed. “Tell mein secretary you are all done, und she vill send zee tax papervork to your place of residence. Und she vill give you a lollipop too, I zink, for being such a trooper,” he added with a wide smile.

“Oh... right...” Twilight gulped. “Um... thank you, Doctor Blutsauger.”

Twilight sighed in discontent and left the office. Her friends were all in the entryway waiting for her, wearing varied looks of displeasure or bewilderment at the experiences they’d just gone through. Well, doctor’s visits were certainly different here in this new world, that much Twilight knew was for certain.

***

It was good to be back at Southeast Point. Not too many hours had passed, but it was still closing in on mid-afternoon as Twilight, her friends, and Flathoof ascended the stairs to their apartment. Every time she traversed these stairs, Twilight felt she was becoming more and more accustomed to the climb, and she hoped the others felt as she did. Plus, having a good night’s rest, stopping for a little lunch on the way home, and not having to deal with a lot of stress thanks to getting sucked into another world, allowed them a lot more energy for it. Even Rarity barely complained as they made the climb.

It came as a surprise to find Lockwood waiting at the top of the stairs for them, pacing back and forth outside their open door. He looked calm, but impatient. His jacket was off, leaving him in just a plain white shirt.

“Lockwood?” Flathoof pushed ahead of the girls and approached his friend. “I didn’t expect you until later tonight.”

Lockwood greeted them with his bright smile. “Oh, there you all are. Must’ve been going in for those immunization shots, hmm? Right right, of course you were, silly of me to even ask. How was it? The line wasn’t too long, I hope?”

“Fifteen hours and thirty minutes,” Twilight said, sighing heavily. “When we got there, it was packed. I’ve never seen such a crowd in one place before, and I’ve seen an awful lot of crowds.”

Lockwood raised an eyebrow. “Fifteen hours? Really? You’re all back awfully early, then.”

“Yeah, we got some help from a nurse there,” Flathoof said. “A Nurse Tenderheart, to be precise. Friend of yours? Maybe she recognized me or something. I figured you might have had something to do with it, maybe called in a favor knowing we’d be there?”

“Tenderheart? No, the name doesn’t sound familiar. I do know one doctor there, though.”

Flathoof smiled and nodded. “Ah, there we go. It wouldn’t be Doctor Blutsauger, would it?”

Lockwood chuckled. “The Chief of Medicine? Oh, Flathoof, I think you overestimate me. I know a lot of ponies, but that’s a little beyond my reach when social circles are concerned. I had nothing to do with this at all.”

Flathoof hummed and scratched his head. “Well that’s odd. I guess that nurse or secretary was just really nice then. Shame. I could’ve gotten some information for you. You’d probably like to meet somepony like that.” He shook his head, then pointed at Lockwood. “Anyway, I know you didn’t come up here just to make conversation. Well, maybe you would, but that doesn’t look like why you’re here. What’s going on, pal?”

“Ah, yes, right. It would seem our new friends here have a visitor.”

Twilight, her friends, Lockwood, and Flathoof entered the apartment.

A minty green unicorn mare was resting on their couch, using Lockwood’s jacket as a pillow. She looked as if she had been through Tartarus and back again in the past day. Her body was covered in small cuts and bruises, many of which had clearly not really healed properly. Some of the worst ones were on her face, particularly a few nasty cuts around her muzzle, and a deep gash along the bridge of her nose. At least her cutie mark was still recognizable, a plain-looking silver stopwatch, even if it too had some shallow cuts. Her beige sweater vest was torn, her bow tie was half-missing and the other half was frazzled and dirty, and the white shirt underneath was stained with blood and dirt. Her sky blue mane and tail drooped with sweat and smelled of smog.

She did not look well.

“She came looking for you about an hour ago, she said,” Lockwood whispered. “When she found you all weren’t home, she came downstairs and asked for me. I offered her some medical aid, but she insisted there wasn’t time for that, and that we come up here and wait for you. I at least got her to lay down and be patient. Poor girl. And now look at me, pacing in her stead.” He shook his head and put a hoof to the bridge of his nose. “Ah, I’m getting off track again. She said she was a friend of yours, and—"

“You trusted her, just like that?” Flathoof asked, pointing angrily at her. “Lockwood, look at her, she—"

Lockwood held up a hoof. “She looks like she’s not exactly a reputable pony, I know. But, I listened to her talk. You know me. Judging character is my thing. There’s no malice there, my friend. She looks like she’s been through a lot getting here, so I thought it would be right to see to her request.”

Twilight stepped forward first, determined not to continue arguing about who this pony was. She had claimed to be their friend, but Twilight had never seen her before in her life. Well, that wasn’t true. She looked familiar, but it must not have been a particularly long or pleasant meeting if she could not recall it too clearly. Either way, there would be time to deal with those sorts of details later. Now, all that she wanted was an explanation.

“Who are you?” Twilight asked, simply and firmly. “Why were you looking for us?”

“Hmm?” The mare shook off her half-sleep. “Oh! You’re here. Finally.” She smiled, though it was a pained expression. “Relax, Twilight Sparkle—"

“And how do you know my name?”

The mare sat up straight and coughed into her hoof. “I know a lot more than that about you six, actually. But don’t worry, I am not your enemy. Quite the opposite, in fact. If you’ll forgive my mild theatrics, I’ve always wanted to do stuff like this,” she said, laughing. She lifted a hoof into the air dramatically. “My name is Tick Tock, and I am here to help send you home.”


CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter Six: Initialization

“Listen, I appreciate the help and all, but if we’re all done buggering about?” Tick Tock rolled her eyes as Rarity started wiping dirt off of her cheek.

Pinkie snorted loudly into her hooves. “Buggering? Whaaat?”

Tick Tock glanced briefly at Pinkie, then back to Rarity. “Look, I’m going to try to explain this quickly. We don’t have a lot of time, hence why I didn’t want to muck about with all of this... this rubbish you’re doing.”

“Nonsense, dear,” Rarity said, running a brush through the other unicorn’s mane. She blanched when she caught sight of all the caked blood she’d gotten out. “You’re in quite a state. It simply won’t do for you to try and help us looking like this.”

Tick Tock grumbled. She was never too keen on accepting help from others, and being doted on was something she considered a colossal waste of time. They were just minor injuries, really, so they didn’t need to go to such lengths to help her.

Tick Tock’s wounds were deep and dirty. Twilight had insisted she get cleaned up first, so that she could assist with healing magic. Rarity ran hot water into some bowls and soaked some towels to use for cleaning Tick Tock’s cuts, while Fluttershy and Lockwood sought out the apartment’s first-aid kit. Once Fluttershy and Lockwood managed to find it under the sink, they began to sort out the cotton balls, rubbing alcohol, and bandages.

Tick Tock sighed. “If you insist, I suppose I can’t stop you.”

To her, it felt like she’d been shoved into a combination hospital and spa. Rarity seemed more concerned with mending Tick Tock’s appearance, from cleaning up dirt to trying to straighten up her outfit. She admitted that it needed it, and regretted that she wouldn’t be able to go back home to grab a replacement. Fluttershy, on the other hoof, was soaking cotton balls in the rubbing alcohol and placing them in another bowl for use.

“Anyway, it basically comes down to this: you six need to get home, and you need to get home fast. Your being here is going to have a pretty severe negative effect on your world the longer you’re here. If I don’t get you lot home soon, there won’t be a world for you to return to. Do you understand the gravity of the situation?”

The six mares looked at each other, faces downcast with worry.

Flathoof coughed and held the bridge of his nose. “Wait wait wait, you’re telling me that these girls are from another world? Pardon my saying so, miss, but maybe you hit your head one too many times?” He tapped the side of his head with his hoof.

“I assure you, I am perfectly sane and clear-headed, injuries aside. In plain and simple terms, yes, they’re from another world,” Tick Tock explained.

She winced as Fluttershy dabbed an alcohol-soaked cotton ball onto one of her more serious cuts. “Ow! Bloody hell, that stings!”

Pinkie snorted again. “Heh... bloody?

“Oh... um... I’m sorry.” Fluttershy took a step back from the aggravated unicorn. “Um... b-but, you really need to get these t-taken care of. You could probably use a bath too... um... if you d-don’t mind my saying...”

Rarity frowned as she wiped a towel across Tick Tock’s forehead. “Good heavens darling, where did you get all these injuries anyway? You look an absolute mess.”

“Yeah,” Applejack said. “Y’all look like ya done got in a fight with a lawnmower.”

Tick Tock hesitated for a second. “I had a little... scuffle with somepony. Not everypony out there likes what my line of work entails, I suppose.”

Truth be told, she didn’t want to tell them she’d been subjected to attempted murder. First, because she didn’t know who that pegasus had been. Second, because she didn’t actually know what he was after her for, even if she had a good guess. Third, because worrying them about that kind of thing would just slow them down. Besides, once they got out of the city, he wouldn’t pose a problem. She’d handled herself decently on her own, so having others with her would surely increase her chances. Plus, whoever he’d been, he seemed the type to go for a covert attack, not to try and ambush them in the middle of the open desert. No, he would not pose a problem.

“What exactly is your job, if you don’t mind my asking?” Twilight asked. She followed along after Rarity and Fluttershy’s motions, healing the cuts with her magic as they cleaned them.

“I’m a Chronomancer,” Tick Tock said, throwing her hoof out dramatically. The blank looks everypony was giving her, even from Twilight Sparkle, were disappointing.

“A Chronomancer?”

“We take pride in being the guardians of the Equestria Multiverse, preventing the destruction of our worlds against the many natural forces that threaten to do so. We don’t get involved in the politics or wars or things like that. Those are superficial events that might tear apart a world at its surface, but time heals those sorts of wounds eventually. What we are concerned with, are the fundamental laws of magic and how they affect our worlds. Typically, we’re most focused on Void portals though. If left unchecked, a Void portal just expands and expands, and can eventually damage the foundation of a world itself.”

“Hmmm... interesting,” Twilight mused. “The concept sounds familiar. I’m certain I’ve read something along those lines before.” She tapped a hoof to her chin. “Well then, how exactly are we causing trouble back home by being here?”

“Because you’re the wielders of the Elements of Harmony,” Tick Tock said. All six looked at one another, eyes widened and mouths agape. Tick Tock continued, “Your very existence in your world keeps a seal on this Discord fellow, and with you six here, that seal is weakening fast. It’ll likely be broken within the the next three-to-four weeks. So we don’t have—"

Pinkie gasped. Loudly. “Oh gosh, Discord’s back? Girls! We have to get home soon! We’re gonna miss the free popcorn! Cotton candy clouds! Chocolate milk rain!

“Wait, could you run that by me again?” Twilight asked. “Discord’s seal is breaking? Already? Princess Celestia’s seal took nearly a year to break entirely.”

Tick Tock sighed. “Apparently your seal was weaker, seeing as you’re all mortal ponies, while Celestia is an Alicorn.”

“Well that’s kind of a gip,” Rainbow said, crossing her hooves over her chest. “Our seal should be just as strong as the one the Princess used. That’s not fair.”

Tick Tock shrugged. “Well, that’s just how magic works. Celestia’s control of Law magic is significantly greater than any of yours, especially since only two of you are unicorns. At any rate, the longer you’re here, the faster the influx of Chaos magic will—"

Twilight waved a hoof to stop Tick Tock. “Hang on hang on. See, now you’re confusing me. Chaos and Law aren’t really those kind of forces, they’re more like classifications of magic, how certain types of magic work. They’re not—"

Tick Tock narrowed her eyes. “Are you really arguing with me on the semantics of how magic does or doesn’t work? We don’t have time for—"

“I’m just trying to understand it,” Twilight said. “The better I know what’s going on, the better I can think of a solution. I’ve studied magic for my entire life, so this just seems to go against everything I’ve ever learned. I mean, if you’re wrong about—"

Wrong?!” Tick Tock shouted. “My dear Twilight Sparkle, I am a Chronomancer. We’re never wrong about these sorts of things. My counterpart from your world, Time Turner, is—"

“Mister Time Turner? The clockmaker?”

Doctor Time Turner,” Tick Tock corrected.

“Oh. Right. Forgot how insistent he is about that. I’ve known him since I was just a filly. You mean he’s—" Twilight paused and she tapped her chin. “Huh. Well, I guess then that would make sense if he were a Chronomancer too. He always seemed to hang around the palace an awful lot for clockmaker. How do you know him?”

Tick Tock rolled her eyes. “Chronomancers can communicate with one another across the dimensions, to a certain extent.”

“How is Doctor Time Turner connected to all of this?”

“I’m trying to get to that,” Tick Tock said, snorting through her nostrils. “He’s the one who postulated this whole theory when he noticed the beginning of the problem after you six disappeared. He’s the one who came up with the plan to get you all home. And, I think he knows a little more about magic than you do, even if you’re the Element of Magic or whatever. He knows more than I do, that’s for certain, and I think even I’m a little more experienced than you are in these matters.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “Well that’s a little arro—"

Tick Tock returned the gaze. “Look, are you a Chronomancer? No? Well then you have no experience dealing with the three different forms of magic as intimately as we do. You think Law and Chaos are mere classifications?” She threw her hooves up. “For heaven’s sakes, I’m trying to help get you home, and you’re going to bleedin’ debate with me on- ow! Fluttershy.”

“Sorry!” Fluttershy gulped, jerking back another alcohol-soaked cotton ball. “You... you n-need to sit still... um... please?”

Twilight grunted. “Hmph, I guess you’re right. This is neither the time or place for this. I’ll discuss the issue with you later though, I assure you, because I still don’t think—"

“Come on now, Twi,” Applejack interrupted. “Let her finish the story, huh? She’s just tryin’ ta help.”

“Right... I didn’t mean to sound disagreeable,” Twilight said. “Go on then, Tick Tock. You say you have a plan?”

“Yes, of course.” Tick Tock took a deep breath. “The plan is to get you to Utopia, and to ask Harmonia for help. She’s the Goddess of Balance, and one of this world’s two Alicorns. She has the power to send you home. Granted, so does her counterpart Nihila, the Goddess of Disparity, but she would not likely be willing to help you. A bloody shame since you’re right at her doorstep. Sure would make my job easier, I tell you. I’m proper knackered running around all bleedin’ day, and now I have to do this too.”

Pinkie stifled another laugh. “Pfft... knackered.”

Twilight sighed. “I guess it’s pretty bad luck we ended up on the wrong side of the world, then.”

“It’s a natural occurrence. Bugger-all you could’ve done about that,” Tick Tock explained, shooting a look at Pinkie when the latter snorted again. “Void magicks don’t really work properly in the presence of abundant Law magic, and since the southern hemisphere has so much ambient Law magic in the air, Void portals can’t really manifest there on their own. Hence why we need so much power to make a portal that can sustain itself long enough to get you through it.”

“And we can’t just wait for another one to appear?” Rarity asked. “If it’s your job cleaning these awful things up, then it sounds as if they’re rather common.”

Tick Tock sighed. “There won’t be any more natural portals in this dimension for another month. The portal on this end you came through was one of many in a portal storm, and this world is now in the midst of the eye of that storm, so it’s going to be pretty calm as far as that is concerned. That’s where the unfortunate circumstance is, sadly.”

“So hang on then,” Rainbow said. “You said you knew a lot about us, but I’ve never met this ‘Doctor Time Turner’ guy. Twilight sounds like she has, so I guess I can believe you knowing about her if you can talk with him across worlds and junk. But what about the rest of us? How do you know our names and stuff?”

Tick Tock hesitated for a moment, then decided honesty was the best policy here. “I had to do a little... snooping, to find out who you were so that I could report back to Time Turner, so that he could figure out why things were going wrong in your world. I apologize for not revealing myself sooner. If it weren’t so imperative to rush you all home, it would be the preferred method to wait for a natural portal to send you through. I didn’t want to get your hopes up.”

Spying on us, huh?” Rainbow narrowed her eyes and turned to Twilight. “I don’t know about you, Twi, but that sounds fishy. How do we know she just didn’t overhear us talking about going home, and is just making all this up to try and take us for a ride?”

Twilight eyed Tick Tock, giving her a brief once-over. “It is awfully convenient.”

Tick Tock’s jaw dropped. “You’re joking. You’ve got to be bloody joking!” she shouted. “I’m trying to help you, and—"

“But," Twilight interrupted, “she did mention Time Turner, and you’re right, I’m the only pony here who even knows him well. And, I never mentioned him once in all our time here. It would be a pretty ridiculous coincidence if she picked a name out of the blue like that, and picked the one pony that would probably know how to help.”

Rainbow nodded. “I guess that makes sense. Well, if you say so, Twi, I guess we can trust her.”

“So wait,” Flathoof said. All the mares jumped, having forgotten he and Lockwood were even still in the room. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around this... this. Let me get this straight. These six mares are from another world. Their being here is going to destroy their home if they don’t get back, and to do that you need to get them to Utopia, the other side of the world, in three-to-four weeks. Am I understanding this right?”

Tick Tock nodded. “That’s the gist of it, yes.”

“Well if you ask me, you’re attempting the impossible,” Flathoof said.

“And you are?”

Flathoof removed his hat and nodded. “Captain Flathoof, NPPD. I’m their parole officer. I’ve helped these young ladies get through their first twenty-four hours here pretty well, I’d like to think. If they need to get home that quickly, well, I suppose I’d be willing to help a little more.”

“Ya mean, y’all’re gonna help us?” Applejack asked.

Flathoof nodded.

“The better question is, you believe us?” Rainbow asked.

“Your whole plan is getting out of the city. If your original story were true, that means you’re just going right back out into the desert, and that’s plain dumb.” Flathoof shrugged. “So, what else is there to believe?”

“Well said,” Lockwood said, patting Flathoof on the shoulder. “If you eliminate the impossible until only the improbable is left, then the improbable must be true. I’m with Flathoof. Anything I can do to help, just ask.”

Flathoof turned to Tick Tock. “How exactly did you propose to get out of the city?”

Tick Tock groaned and touched the bridge of her nose. She winced and jerked her hoof away from the still-healing gash. “Oh bugger, I knew I forgot something. How am I going to get them out of the city? I didn’t really get time to think on it, what with the... scuffle.”

“What’s the big problem?” Twilight asked. “Why can’t we just leave?”

“The city’s government doesn’t take too kindly to losing taxpayers,” Lockwood said. Then, he shook his head, and gave Twilight a bright smile. “But now that I know you’re not from around here, I can assume you didn’t see the massive door that leads in and out of the city? That would be the Gate. Like the rest of the Outer Wall, it keeps threats out, keeps everything else in.”

“It’s like this,” Flathoof explained. “To get through the Gate, you need a passport. Simple concept, really. But passports are... expensive. Very expensive. Five years of my salary if I was working overtime every day, expensive. But—" He reached into his pocket and pulled out his ID card.

Twilight examined it and compared it to her own. “It’s similar, but I see the slight differences. This is a passport then?”

Applejack scratched her head. “I thought y’all said they were expensive?”

“I have one because NPPD officers of Captain rank get complimentary passes so that we can accompany the Chief on any of his personal trips to Utopia if he wishes us to go. Kind of a dumb reason, but I’m not complaining. It was free.” Flathoof shrugged. “You don’t refuse free stuff around here. Besides, you never know when one can come in handy.”

“I have one as well,” Tick Tock added. She fumbled in her vest pocket and fished hers out with her magic. “My... superiors ensured that I got one, for when I’m required to perform duties outside city boundaries.”

Flathoof breathed a sigh of relief. “Well that’s lucky. I was worried you’d need one too. So the problem here that we have is that we still need six passports.” He tapped his chin. “I suppose we could try to sneak you out. I know plenty of ponies every year try it.” He shook his head. “No, that’s risky. Breaches in the Outer Wall are few and far between, and most of them don’t lead into any neatly-organized areas that are safe from the dangers of the Wastelands. The Gate at least leads out into the open.”

Tick Tock sighed. “So the bloody Gate really is our only option.”

Pinkie didn’t try to hold in a giggle this time.

Tick Tock shot her another glare. “Oi! What in the bloody hell do you keep laughing at?!”

Pinkie shook her head. “Oh... nothing old bean. Sorry, sorry, go on, I’ll keep quiet.”

Tick Tock went to retort until Lockwood interjected with a cough. “I think, then, that I may provide a solution.”

“You? Lockwood, you know you don’t have the money for this sort of thing, not on your salary,” Flathoof said. “I don’t care what kind of connections you might have. Even with a discount, six passes would break your bank so fast your head would spin.”

“Heck, if we all pooled our money together we might be able to afford one,” Tick Tock suggested. Her head sank. “Next year. Maybe. With interest.”

“Ah, you underestimate my connections at times.” Lockwood rummaged through one of his coat pockets and pulled out his own ID card. “See, I also have a Gate Pass.”

Flathoof’s eyes widened as Lockwood waved the card in front of his face. “Where in the hay did you get the money to afford one of those? Why do you even have one?”

“Oh, I figured I might want to leave this little berg one day, see some greener pastures or so the saying goes.” Lockwood shrugged and gestured towards the air, spreading his wings slightly. “The sky’s the limit, though. I’ve just been saving up for an airship ticket, then I’m good to go. The going is slow, unfortunately. I don’t make too much, you’re right. I’ve been offered one before, but I’m determined to get one on my own. Principle of the thing.”

Flathoof grunted. “Right. Okay, but still, how did you afford it? What kind of discount did you get on that thing, hmm? What kind of favor did you call in? I can’t imagine the hoops you needed to jump through.”

“Show me your Gate Pass, Flathoof.”

“What?”

“Just let me see it.”

Flathoof took his out of his uniform pocket and handed it over.

Lockwood held both up in front of Flathoof’s face. “Now, I want you to tell me the difference between them. Aside from the personal information, of course.”

Flathoof looked between the two, and shook his head. “They look the same to me. Where are you going with this, Lockwood?”

My Gate Passport is a fake.”

Flathoof’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding...”

“Not at all!” Lockwood laughed, shuffling his passport back into his coat and returning Flathoof’s to its owner. “Completely indiscernible from the real thing, yes?”

Flathoof held the bridge of his nose. “Lockwood, you know falsifying passports is illegal, right?”

“Is it? Huh, how about that.”

Flathoof stared blankly at Lockwood for a moment, then sighed. “Go on...”

Lockwood beamed, and continued. “Well, at any rate, it works well enough on more than just your eyes, too. It even fools the card readers at the Gate itself! I’ve tested it! It not only works, it works perfectly. If I had the money to afford an airship ticket, I would’ve done it ages ago. Can’t fake one of those, and I’m just not confident enough to try and make the trip on foot. Bit of a pickle, see.”

Flathoof crossed his hooves in front of his chest. “And I assume then, that your plan is to get more of these for these six here?”

“Precisely. I know just the pony to see.”

***

The Outer District was not known for many things: its cleanliness; its safety or security; its quality economic, employment, or educational offerings; its high-class medical services; its good-mannered social network; or, its helpful social workers and everyday citizenry.

Least of all, the percentage of ponies that wanted to move to and live there was legitimately zero. In fact, it had been statistically proven every single year since New Pandemonium City had ‘abandoned’ the Outer District in the process of moving most of the quality services and government offices into the Mid Districts. Nopony wanted to live there, and everypony who did live there wanted out.

In shorter terms, the place was a dump. A heap. A ghetto. A slum. A pig-sty. A rundown old town with more problems in a single city block than there were ponies that lived in that city block, and there were a lot of ponies living in the Outer District. It was twice the size of all of the Mid Districts combined, if one were to account for the Gate District in the southeast as a part of the Outer District, which technically it was. So long as one didn’t tell anypony living in the Gate District that, all was well.

It was not as densely packed as the Mid Districts. Both the Mid and Outer Districts actually had relatively comparable populations, but that didn’t change the fact that the ponies living there lived in what essentially amounted to squalor. They were impoverished, mostly unemployed, uneducated, and imperiled, and the ponies that could claim they were actually comparable in health and habit to the Mid District ponies were so few and far between it was like looking for a needle in stack of more needles.

Lockwood knew a few of these diamonds in the rough. One of them was a young unicorn mare named Keeneye, and she was going to help him with his most recent conundrum, or so he said. Her home was located in the southwest sector of the Outer District, relatively close to the Divider Wall that separated it from the Mid District both physically and symbolically.

The Ponyville natives looked on in rather depressed disbelief at the state of the Outer District.

“How can anypony live like this?” Twilight asked, scrunching her nose at the smell. “I don’t mean to sound rude, but this place is a...”

“Dump,” Rainbow finished, hovering just above the ground so as to avoid touching it.

“That’s putting it mildly darling. I can’t imagine the quality of ponies in this area if this is what their living conditions are like,” Rarity said. “Surely even Applejack can agree that this is perhaps just a little in need of some tidying up?”

“I reckon it could use a lil’ work, yeah,” Applejack said. “Rainbow’s right, this place is a dump.”

They tried not to look at the huddled groups of ponies gathered around smoldering trash cans, their hooves splotched with green.

“Hoof Rot.” Twilight gulped. “That news report was serious.”

“Golly, don’t the city care none ‘bout these ponies out here? Ain’t they gonna do somethin’?”

“Nnnnope, not a bit,” Flathoof said. “And it’s a shame, too. If we took better care of these ponies, perhaps the crime rate wouldn’t be quite so high. I know you can’t see much of it here by the Divider Wall, but if we went deeper in, well, I don’t think many of those ponies would be too frightened of just one NPPD officer, if you catch my drift?”

Rarity shuddered and slowed her pace to drift closer to him. “I don’t even want to think about it. Thank goodness we have you here though, Captain Flathoof. Please tell me we’re not going that deep in.”

“Nah, we’re sticking pretty close to the Wall. It’s not as bad as it could be though,” Lockwood stated proudly from the front of the line. “You should’ve seen how this part of the sector looked when I was just a little colt. Some volunteer organizations do an awful lot of work around here to make it less like the rest of the District. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but we do what we can.”

“Oh... y-you’re... a part of one of these... v-volunteer groups?” Fluttershy asked.

“Part of one? I helped found one.”

Lockwood smiled and tipped his hat, a wide-brimmed fedora that matched his jacket. It was something he always wore when he went outside, along with a little black umbrella. When asked why he carried an umbrella, he’s said that it was never a bad idea to be prepared for freak acid rain storms. This unsettled the Ponyville natives, even though he later assured them he was joking and the umbrella and hat were just what he liked to wear outside.

“Really?” Rarity asked, her eyes alight with curiosity. “You helped to found a charitable organization? Splendid! How noble! How in Equestria did you manage that?”

“Oh, I called in a few favors with some like-minded ponies, got together some supplies and foodstuffs. We run a little food donation drive once a month to try and help out the ponies around here. I know Dolor food’s not much, but all they’re able to afford out here is scanty supplies of Dolor Brown, and that’s just... ugh. Do you have any idea what that stuff tastes like?” The six mares gave him odd looks. He laughed. “Well, imagine eating dirt, with gravy made from more dirt. That’s pretty much what it tastes like.”

“Yuck,” Twilight said. “And that stuff’s considered edible?

Lockwood shrugged. “Well, it has semi-decent nutritional value at least. More than Blue does, but Blue’s practically a drink anyway so it doesn’t count. Hey, don’t knock the Brown too badly though. It might taste like dirt, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Still, eww, that sounds just plain yucky,” Pinkie said, scrunching her nose. She threw her hooves in the air and made wide circles. “Ooh ooh! Idea! They should really make some of them cupcake-flavored! Dolor Pink! Or ice cream-flavored! Dolor White!”

“They have that,” Lockwood said. “Does have a sort of creamy taste to it. Really expensive though.”

Pinkie gasped. Loudly. “Ooh! Ooh! Better idea!”

She leapt in a cartwheel over Lockwood’s head. He came to a stop as she grabbed him by the shoulder and held her hoof out, presenting her idea to him as if it were floating in the air around them.

“Treat these weird ol’ Dolor foods like jelly beans, and make them every color you can, and give every color a different flavor! Like root beer, and candy cane, and peppermint, and cotton candy, and butterscotch, and chocolate, and strawberry shortcake.” Her mouth began to water. “Mmmm... strawberry shortcake. Aw phooey, I could really go for some jelly beans right now,” she complained, rubbing her stomach dejectedly.

Lockwood laughed. “Yes, well, I’ll be sure to run that by the employees at Dolor I know,” he said. “Anyway, we try to get these poor ponies some of the healthier stuff. Dolor Green, for example. Every now and then I try to slip in some Dolor Red, for the colts and fillies, yeah? The young ones love the stuff.”

“That’s my favorite flavor,” Tick Tock said.

“I’ve always been fond of Blue, myself,” Lockwood added. “Though I’m taking a liking to the new Black.”

Flathoof rolled his eyes. “Please. Everypony knows Orange is the best. You two are crazy.”

***

At long last they arrived at Keeneye’s house, giving Rarity a chance to rest her aching hooves. Walking around town all day, including up and down eighty flights of stairs, twice no less, was an exhausting experience. The house was noticeable enough for a pony looking for it, but not enough to make anypony think whoever lived there had enough bits on-hoof to be worth stealing. They didn’t live in apartment complexes out here. Though a vast majority of ponies lived on the streets, many lived in houses, though they were small and dirty. They weren’t even worthy of the assorted bugs and rodents that normally enjoyed such squalor.

Inside the house was a different story. It was neater and tidier, though still ‘dirty’ by Rarity’s standards. Everything was neatly organized and laid out, but there was a distinct layer of dust on nearly every object in every room. It was cramped, rather comparable to the six mares’ apartment, though built for one and housing one, rather than built for four and housing six.

Lockwood had asked Flathoof to remain outside, so as not to frighten Keeneye, who was about to do some very illegal things to help them out. Still, the house appeared empty at first glance. None of those who had entered the house, nor the home’s owner, were anywhere to be found. They were not in the den, they were not in the kitchen, nor were they in the bedroom.

Only a single light kept the basement lit, bright enough to prevent it from being in total darkness. The dust that caked the rest of the house’s furniture held little sway down here. It wasn’t spotless, certainly, but acceptable. Rarity expected Applejack’s or Rainbow Dash’s rooms to look like this when they were done cleaning. “Good enough”, she’d called it. There were two comfortable sofas and some tables with magazines down here, making the basement feel very much like a waiting room.

Everypony waited patiently on the sofas. Some of them had started reading magazines to pass the time. Rainbow entertained herself with an issue of Sky High Weekly, which had a pegasus wearing a very sleek flight suit on the cover. Pinkie had taken to an issue of the Dolor Foods Catalog, and was busily pointing out things to Lockwood, who was gladly going over the many different flavors of Dolor Foods with her. Rarity had discreetly snagged up a copy of Studs!, which she’d thought was self-explanatory and hid it behind an issue of Fashion!, which was also self-explanatory. Rarity snorted and threw the inner magazine aside after a few pages; home improvement was hardly what she’d expected. Twilight was reading instead from the far wall, where there was a list of pricing for all the things Keeneye was capable of doing for her customers, namely under the category labeled Forgeries.

“Keeneye must do things like this often,” Twilight said. “All this stuff seems awfully expensive. Thirty-five bits for a false identification?”

“You’re joking, right?” Rainbow asked, not taking her eyes off a page loaded with fancy flight goggles. “I got a fake ID when I was still in flight school. Cost me like five bits. Worked like a charm.”

Lockwood chuckled. “I suppose identification cards are easier to forge in your world then. Here, they’re very delicate. Remember, we use those cards for just about everything. The most important parts are the serial number, and the accuracy of the barcode.”

“How does she do it, anyway?” Twilight asked.

“Well, Gate passports are actually made by altering the bar code on your ID,” Lockwood explained. “Keeneye used to work for the NPRD a few years ago, until she found she could make better money selling her own Gate Passports than getting paid salary to make them legit. She claims the conversion process is so easy, that a pony with the right tools could make them herself for next to nothing. So, here we are.

“You saw the listings up there, Twilight. Two hundred bits for a fake one. That’s six month’s rent at your apartment. The real deal costs ten times that.”

Tick Tock crossed her hooves in front of her chest and leaned back into the sofa. “And these false passports are good enough quality to fool even the machines at the Gate? Seems a bit far-fetched.”

Lockwood laughed and straightened his collar. “Works like a charm. Tested my copy out myself, got to check out the Airship Dock and everything. Then I turned right back around when I saw the price of airship tickets.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “Darn shame you can’t fake those too. All digital, not little hard-copy things. And even if you could, I don’t think I’m brave enough to try. You can bribe yourself out of trouble with the NPPD, but the NPAF is a different story.”

“NPAF?” Twilight asked.

“Pandemonium’s military,” Tick Tock said.

“Military? This city has a military?” Twilight shook her head in disbelief. “I thought armed forces were for entire countries, not just cities. Granted, this city is probably big enough to be a country.”

“You have a military back in your world?” Lockwood asked. “I figured your home wasn’t quite like ours is.”

Twilight smiled and nodded. “Sure we do. They don’t see much action, though. Our little Equestria is relatively peaceful with its neighbors. They mostly worry about natural disasters and monsters from the Everfree Forest, though some exceptions pop up here and there.”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Ugh. Changelings.”

Rainbow bolted upright and pounded her chest. “Yeah! And my heroes, the Wonderbolts, serve a double purpose as the best stunt-fliers in all of Equestria, and as Equestria’s Air Force. I’ve been wanting to join them since I was little, they’re so awesome. Finally got into the Wonderbolt Academy too, so I’m like, this close to making it!

Twilight tapped a hoof to her chin. “Actually, the Royal Guard is a division of the army too, now that I think about it. I guess we do have pretty active armed forces. I can’t imagine them dealing with the same things yours does over here though.”

Applejack nervously shuffled deeper into the sofa cushions, adjusting her hat over her eyes. “Can we change the subject? I ain’t feel too keen on talkin’ ‘bout these kinda things, if y’all don’t mind?”

Twilight hesitated. “Oh... sure thing, Applejack.”

A moment passed, and Keeneye herself finally stepped out of the side room, looking exhausted but quite satisfied with herself. She was a creamy orange unicorn with a bright green mane and tail, the former kept short in front, long in back, the latter tied in a bun. She wore a pale pink bathrobe, as they’d caught her in the shower. It did not hide her cutie mark, a magnifying glass, very well at all. She wore a large device over her right eye that looked like many, many magnifying glasses all on top of one another. The glasses got smaller as they got further away, making it look as if her eye was morphing into a drill in an attempt to get away from her face.

Keeneye lit up her horn and used her magic to toss one card each to the six mares from Ponyville. Rarity in particular carefully scrutinized hers to see if she could notice the difference between her original ID card and the modifications made to make it a valid passport. She did notice the slight differences in the barcode on the bottom, but that was about it.

Keeneye smiled and tilted her eye device up and over her head, then turned to Lockwood and swished over to him in all of about a second. “Now then, Woody,” she cooed, putting a hoof to his chest.

Lockwood coughed at her pet name for him, turning bright red. Some of the mares stifled giggles, though Rainbow Dash and Tick Tock were not trying too hard. He particularly tried to avoid Rarity’s scrutinizing gaze.

“I believe it’s time we discuss the issue of payment,” Keeneye continued. “Six Gate Passports normally run two hundred bits apiece. That’d be one thousand, two hundred bits total.” Lockwood’s nervous gaze made her giggle. She fluttered her eyelashes and put her other hoof on his chest too. “For you, well, I would consider other forms of payment.” She winked.

Lockwood coughed into his hoof. “Um... Keeneye, what—"

“Treat me to dinner this weekend?” she interrupted. “That new fancy place in Central Plaza, what was it called? Chez du Fromage de Terre? Something exotic like that. I hear they actually serve Dolor White, can you believe it? That’s Inner District-quality stuff right there. I don’t care what the ads say, that new Black stuff isn’t as good. Tastes like old licorice.”

Lockwood nervously adjusted his hat and collar. “Keeneye, sweetheart, as delightful as that sounds, I’m going to be taking a little... vacation for the next... undisclosed amount of time. Starting tonight.”

Keeneye pouted. “Well that’s sudden. Aw phooey.” She sighed. “Fine, I’ll just give you a little discount, it’s the least I can do. Six passports... for you, fifty percent. Six hundred.”

Lockwood reached into his deepest pocket and pulled out a small satchel. “I’ve got four. Make it that, and when I get back I’ll... give you a rain check on the dinner.”

“Deal!” Keeneye slapped his hoof in agreement, snagged his satchel, then twirled away from him. “Ooh, I can’t wait! I’m gonna use these bits to get myself the nicest dress, and you and me are gonna enjoy ourselves all evening.”

“Eh heh.” Lockwood tugged his collar. “R-right. Well, thanks Keeneye. I appreciate the help.” He turned to the mares. “Come on then ladies, time to get back home and prep up.”

As they headed up the stairs from the basement, Rarity sidled up to Lockwood. “So, you’ve decided to travel with us then?”

Lockwood nodded. “Sure have. Like I said, I’ve been trying to get an airship ticket for years, never had the guts to try the land route by myself. But now, I’ve got a whole group going! I can’t pass up that kind of opportunity.”

Rarity smiled and nodded appreciatively. “We’d be glad to have you along. I feel bad for Miss Keeneye though.”

Lockwood raised an eyebrow. “Eh?”

Rarity laughed. “Well the poor dear is being left behind while you go on this grand adventure. You never told us you had a girlfriend.”

“Huh?” Lockwood blinked. “Oh, you’re right, I didn’t. Well, I don’t have a... girlfriend.”

“Oh?” Rarity asked, eyebrow raised. “So, what’s the situation with you and Keeneye then, hmm? Am I just misreading the signs here, Woody?

Rainbow Dash and Tick Tock didn’t try to stifle loud laughs this time, and Applejack and Pinkie Pie found themselves trying harder than before not to laugh alongside them.

“W-what?” Lockwood flustered as her words sunk in, then he turned a bright red and quickly waved his hoof in dismissal. “Oh... ohhh, ha ha, heavens no. Keeneye, she’s just a little... eccentric, is all. We’re not dating or anything like that. Not even anything physic... casual. She’s just a friend, nothing more. Besides, she’s not my type.”

Rarity smirked and leaned in close. “Oh? Then what exactly is your type, dear?”

Lockwood tugged his collar and pulled his hat just over his eyes. “W-well that’s a bit of an odd question. W-why would you...”

“Just a little curious, darling, nothing more,” Rarity laughed.

“Right... I say, Flathoof!” he called to his friend as they left the house. “We really must be going, yes? Yes... let’s head back to Southeast Point and pick up some supplies from my place before we get going. No need for... all these bizarre conversations.”

Rarity hummed as he slipped away, running over her growing checklist in her head:

Nice? Check. That was evident enough is his demeanor and polite manner of speaking. Generous and kind? Check. The good stallion had already helped them out an awful lot, and he had still yet to ask for a single thing in return. He was shaping up to be quite the gentleman. Decent-looking? Check. He was neat and tidy, took good care of himself, and was physically fit. Nothing spectacular, but then again Rarity had learned that her taste in stallions, as far as outward appearances were concerned, was perhaps a little misguided. Fashion sense? Well, perhaps not. The fedora was nice, but his raincoat wasn’t exactly stylish. But, then again, nopony in this city seemed to be much in touch with their fashionable sides anyway. Single? Check. She’d asked if he had a girlfriend, he’d said no. Simple as that.

Rarity stored that idea in the back of her thoughts, quite curious at the prospect of having him along for their little journey. This might just be exactly the opportunity I’ve been looking for.

Applejack smirked and nudged Rarity out of her train of thought. “Well now ain’t this a fine how d‘ya do? Is prissy missy Rarity gettin’ an eye for somepony? Lockwood don’t look fashionable enough fer yer tastes, if y’all ask me.”

Rarity stared at Applejack, then gave a dismissive laugh. She batted Applejack’s hat playfully. “Oh, heavens, Applejack, I am merely trying to make conversation. If the good stallion is going to be traveling with us, I want to make sure we know a little more about him, yes? Like if he’s leaving a significant other behind, for example? Nothing more than that. Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Uh-huh.” Applejack nodded, a wide grin spreading on her face as she leaned in for a whisper. “Just between you ‘n’ me, Flathoof let slip ol’ Lockwood’s into the more graceful type. If y’all catch my drift? Hint hint?”

“Oh ho ho!” Rarity chuckled, leaning into Applejack. “My dear Applejack, wherever did you learn such juicy information? Chatting it up with dear Captain Flathoof are we, hmm? Maybe I’m not the one who should be asking others if they have eyes for somepony?”

Applejack turned red and tugged her hat over her face to hide it. “W-what the hay is that s’posed ta mean? D-don’t go changin’ the subject, Rarity. I’m just tryin’ ta help.”

Applejack trotted ahead, leaving Rarity behind. The unicorn smiled and made another inward note or two. And he likes graceful mares, does he? This is just too perfect.

***

Rarity rounded the corner of Twentieth and Wallway, following behind the rest of her friends and keeping pace with Fluttershy, and began the approach to Southeast Point. They could see it looming in the distance now, only a few dozen blocks to go. It was beginning to get late, and everypony was eager to get their prospective supplies lined up, then get something to eat and get some sleep before they started off on their journey the next day. This was despite Tick Tock’s insistence that they get started immediately. Tick Tock found it hard to argue when Twilight pointed out her still-healing injuries, though.

Flathoof scratched his head and took a deep breath. “This is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done since I joined the force, I tell you that. Bunch of mares show up out of nowhere, I get assigned to them, and now their crazy friend is telling me they’re from some other planet and they have to go home.”

“Y’all think that’s weird, ya should hear some o’ the stories about things we’ve done where we come from,” Applejack said. “Honestly, if I were in yer shoes, this wouldn’t’ve really surprised me all that much.”

“Well that’s just peachy. Lockwood, are you seriously going with them?”

Lockwood nodded. “As sure as the sky is smoggy and orange every day. I’ve been telling you for years that I wanted to get out of this stupid city. If you’re worried about your taxes—"

“Listen, idiot, I’m not worried about our damn taxes. I’m worried about you. You know ma’s gonna kill you when she finds out.”

“She’s just going to have to trust me on this, Flathoof. I promise once I get everything taken care of on the other side, I’ll send away and have the whole family transferred over.”

Flathoof rolled his eyes. “Delusions of grandeur aren’t helping your case any, Lockwood.” He sighed. “I’ll feel better once I get this all behind me. Tomorrow, I’ll escort you all to the Gate District and see to it that you get through without too much hassle.”

“I really must thank you again,” Twilight said. “You’ve done so much for us and asked for nothing in return, and you’ve only known us for one day. Even back home we don’t have many ponies willing to do that sort of thing.”

“Right, well...” Flathoof tugged his collar nervously. “All in a day’s work. You know the motto now, right? It’s a Living.”

Applejack frowned and nudged him in the side. “Ya sure y’all don’t wanna come with us? Lockwood’s comin’, I’m sure he’d be glad ta have ya. I know I’d enjoy... we’d enjoy yer company, I’m sure of it.” She shot a glance at Rarity, who grinned before turning her attention elsewhere.

“I’ve still got my duties here, sorry to say,” he said, adjusting his hat. “I’ll make sure everything goes smoothly getting you through the Gate, that’s about as much as I can do.”

“No worries, Flathoof,” Lockwood said, patting his friend on the shoulder. “I’ll take good care of them, I assure you. Just a short little jaunt across the Wastelands, a few other areas here and there, no worries, right? I still regret that we can’t make this easy and get some airship tickets there, but so it is. Besides, we’ve got Miss Tock with us as well, and she seems mighty resourceful wouldn’t you say?”

Flathoof sighed. “I suppose...”

Tick Tock snorted. “Yes, thank you for the vote of confidence.”

Pinkie Pie tripped on her skates and landed face-first on the cement. “Oof!”

Twilight stifled a laugh, and she and Rainbow each reached out a hoof to help Pinkie up. “Whoa there, Pinkie, maybe you should’ve practiced more with those roller skates, huh?”

Pinkie jolted upright, not grabbing either offered hoof. She then circled around them without a care in the world. “Nope, all okay, see! Not the skates’ fault, my knee just got all pinchy all of a sudden.”

Applejack tilted her head and gave a nervous smile. “Like... Pinkie pinchy, or regular pinchy?”

Pinkie continued to skate circles around the group, but leaned back to do so on her hind legs. She tapped a hoof to her chin, then nodded sagely. “Definitely Pinkie pinchy, yup yup. That’s weird, it hasn’t popped up at all since we got here! I was beginning to think this new world was making it not work at all, but I guess it still does. Just kind of spur... spar...”

“Sporadic,” Twilight said.

“Yeah, Spormatic.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Sporadic, just like back at home. Pinkie, this is no time for your nutty antics. We’re in a hurry. The last thing we need to worry about is falling potted plants or something silly like that.”

Tick Tock, Flathoof, and Lockwood all shared confused looks with one another.

“Uh... what’s going on here?” Flathoof asked.

“Well—" Twilight started to say. She paused, and sighed. “It’s hard to explain.”

“C’mon now, Twi, y’all know as well as anypony that Pinkie Sense works,” Applejack said.

“I’m not denying that it works, I’m just saying that we don’t need to worry about it. Potted plants and frogs are hardly what I consider worth worrying about.”

“How about anvils, pianos, and hay bales?” Rainbow asked, stifling a laugh.

Twilight’s eyebrow twitched. “Carry on...”

Applejack chuckled and tapped a hoof to her chin. “Anyway, y’all picked the wrong Sense too. Twitchy tail means ‘fallin’ objects’, not pinchy knee. That was pretty much the only one I ever got ta see. And the ’doozy’ one.”

“Didn’t pinchy knee mean ‘alligator in the tub’?” Twilight asked. “I’m a bit rusty on the Senses.”

“Nah, that was achy shoulder,” Rainbow said. “Pinkie’s gotten me out of one-too-many encounters with Gummy thanks to that one. Pinchy knee... pinchy knee.” She shrugged in defeat. “Huh. I forget which one that is, she doesn’t get it often.”

“What’s all this talk about?” Lockwood asked. “Pinchy knees? Alligators? What?

“Oh, that’s Pinkie Pie’s Pinkie Sense.” Rainbow said, as if it were common knowledge. “It’s kinda like a sixth sense, I guess? Right?” She looked to Twilight for guidance.

“If there was anything to describe it, I guess that’d be it.” Twilight rolled her eyes. “It’s all still a mystery to me. I know I said I’d be a little more open-minded about it, but she’s really inconsistent. It only happens randomly, no rhyme or reason to it at all.”

Applejack chuckled. “C’mon Twi, y’all know ya can’t ask anything o’ Pinkie’s ta follow rhyme or reason.”

Lockwood shook his head in confusion. “I don’t follow. Flathoof? Did they mention any of this to you?”

“This is my first time hearing about it.” Flathoof shrugged and shook his head as well. “First they’re from another world, now the pink one has ESP or something. I tell you, I’m starting to think these past two days are just a really bad trip from some expired Dolor.”

Flathoof turned to his left. “Miss Tock, you and your story just keep getting weirder and weirder. Are you sure you’re sane?”

Tick Tock flustered and defensively pointed at herself. “M-me? I didn’t bring up any of this rubbish. I think it’s just as bloody ridiculous as you two do. Don’t go blaming this on me.”

“It’s not ridiculous,” Twilight said. She then sheepishly ran a hoof through her mane. “I mean, okay, it sounds a little strange, I’ll grant that. It usually just means something’s about to happen to somepony in Pinkie’s immediate proximity. Usually me,” she added, looking warily about herself. “I’m still a little skeptical on how exactly it works, but I admit it does have some merit. I’ve seen it in action.”

“Yeah, one too many doors in the face’ll convince you, I guess,” Rainbow said, failing to stifle her laugh this time.

Twilight glared at Rainbow, then sighed and gestured to Pinkie. “I think Pinkie Pie herself could explain it best.”

Pinkie gave an exasperated sigh. “About time you give me a chance to explain it, guys, instead of arguing about what sense means what. I mean, duh, you could’ve just asked me from the start what everything meant, instead of letting me be the only one trying to figure out what was making me feel it.”

She rolled her eyes. “Anywho, every now and then, I get little niggling feelings that mean different things. If my back gets itchy, that means it’s my lucky day!” Her tail started twitching too. “Aha! See, and twitchy tail means that stuff’s gonna start falling, so you should get under something sturdy. Pinchy knee means something scary is about to happen, but Dashie’s right, I don’t get it too often, since nothing scary ever—"

An ear-deafening explosion burst into the air several dozen feet directly over the heads of the group.

Above them, a raging fireball burst outwards from the eighty-second floor, spraying debris in all directions. Large chunks of metal, concrete, and glass rained from above. A few other floors below and above followed suit, blazing outwards with flame and spraying debris towards the city street below. It took them only a second to realize that, in their current position, they wouldn’t have time to move out of way and avoid being crushed.

A blazing light exploded from Twilight’s horn, and she and her friends became encased in a protective bubble that shattered and deflected the falling debris like clods of mud striking a wall. Every strike against the shield made Twilight wince sharply. Her magical shield flashed with every impact, but managed to withstand the weight and power that the debris struck with.

The sensation of the assault slowed to a crawl, then finally dissipated after several seconds. Twilight struggled to keep her shield up for a moment as everything settled down, as there was a lot of rubble remaining on top of them. Once the pressure on the bubble was stable and everything on top stopped shifting around, she could relax. For now, she focused herself to fit the shield in between the cracks, keeping the rubble out without expending too much energy.

The group looked above them at the dome of pink magic surrounding them and keeping them safe. It sparked in spots where the large chunks of metal and granite pressed most heavily. Twilight’s horn remained bright, and her breathing had slowly returned to normal.

“Is everypony okay?” Twilight asked, turning her head around to check those behind her.

“Yeah, physically at least,” Rainbow muttered, pounding a hoof against her ear. “Pretty shook up though. That was loud.”

“What the hay happened?!” Applejack asked, removing her hat and placing it over her chest. “I thought I was gonna kick it fer sure.”

“Phew! Well, I think I’ve had my fair share of near-death experiences for the day,” Lockwood breathed, fanning himself with his hat.

“Fascinating,” Tick Tock muttered. She turned to Twilight and gave her a slight smile. “I never pegged you to know a combat-oriented spell, Sparkle. Barrier spells are advanced magic. It takes years of study and practice to utilize one, and it’s usually very personal, not something somepony can extend over a group. Not without considerable skill, at least.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Combat-oriented? No no, I found this spell in Student Savings: How to Get Through College Without Breaking the Bank. It’s supposed to save money on umbrellas. There was also a chapter on utilizing burst spells to clean your teeth to save money on toothpaste.”

Tick Tock raised an eyebrow, and spoke slowly. “Saving money... on umbrellas and toothpaste. You learned highly-advanced combat magic... to save money on umbrellas and toothpaste.”

Twilight nodded, not seeing anything wrong with it at all.

Tick Tock shook her head in disbelief. “No wonder Time Turner spends more time in his T.A.R.D.I.S. than out in the field! Your world is bloody bonkers!”

“How in the hay are we gonna get outta here?” Applejack asked. “That’s a lot o’ rubble, I tell ya what.”

“Oh dear, I hope we don’t have to dig out,” Rarity muttered, flicking her mane in worry. “That seems dangerous.”

“Rarity’s right, digging out isn’t a valid option here,” Twilight said. She stepped forward to the front of the bubble and carefully examined the wall of rock outside it. “There’s a lot of debris on top of the shield. I can’t let it go without risking us getting crushed, so I can’t just blow a way through, and trying to teleport us out while keeping the shield up might be a little beyond me, I think.”

“Allow me to help, then.” Tick Tock stepped forward and ignited her horn. A light green glow lit up and settled itself in directly under Twilight’s. “My shield will underlay yours, so when yours drops, mine will take over. I use these kinds of spells often, though usually only on myself. I won’t be able to hold it for long, but it should be long enough for you to teleport us all out, if you’re as powerful as I think you are.”

“What if I can’t?” Twilight asked. She nervously looked around the bubble and bit the tip of her hoof. “Holding the shield isn’t taking too much effort, but teleporting nine ponies is a little bit of a different matter. Why can’t you—"

“Teleportation spells aren’t exactly my forte,” Tick Tock interrupted. “You’re going to have to take this, Sparkle. I was skeptical at first, but it seems you really do live up to your title as Element of Magic. I’ll hold the shield as long as I can, you just focus on the teleport.” She turned to the remaining unicorn. “Rarity, if you’d assist me?”

Rarity pointed at herself. “Me? Miss Tock, I’m afraid I don’t see how I can be of any assistance here. I’ve never had any experience with this kind of magic before. I don’t think—"

“Listen, all I need for you to do is reinforce my magic. I’ll hold the shield up, you just make sure my magic stays steady. Twilight may have enough magical power to hold the shield on her own, but I don’t. I’m going to need an extra horn, so to say.”

“Well... okay then, I suppose,” Rarity mused. “Um... how am I supposed to... help?”

Tick Tock gestured for Rarity to step closer. “Just channel your magic into your horn, and then will it to flow into my spell. It’ll boost the power. Any unicorn can do it, you just need the know-how.”

“I see... very well, I’ll give it a try.” Rarity ignited her own horn and let her magic flow outwards into the air, and concentrated on channeling it through Tick Tock’s own aura. A white tint enveloped the green glow of Tick Tock's horn.

Tick Tock took a sharp breath. “Whoa! Bloody hell, Rarity, you really put your all into it, didn’t you?”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “I... suppose I did. Are you sure this is enough?”

“Plenty.” Tick Tock turned to Twilight. “Go on then, Sparkle. I think we’ve got this proper covered.”

“Alright then, if you say so.” Twilight gulped and cracked her neck, then settled her hooves in place. “Here goes...”

Twilight dropped her shield, and instantly Tick Tock’s face changed from one of stern focus, to one of strained, painful concentration. Rarity puffed rapidly as she too felt the intense strain. Though her focus was elsewhere, in the back of her mind a thought began to take hold: How much power does Twilight have? Rarity knew Twilight had a lot of ability. She’d seen it for herself on many occasions. But, she’d never felt what that sort of strain was like before. Just a moment earlier, Twilight had been holding up this shield with minimal exertion for several minutes, and not just against the pressure of the rubble, but against the intense amount of force from debris slamming into it. Now, here Rarity was with Tick Tock, powering the same barrier spell together and struggling to maintain it for only a few seconds.

Twilight quickly ignited her horn again, creating and engulfing herself and her companions in a white light. Tick Tock yelped in pain as her shield began to snap under the pressure. Rarity flooded more of her own magic into Tick Tock’s spell, but her own power became just as strained, like a dying light bulb.

There was a bright flash. The shield shattered, and the rubble fell inward.

***

Everypony breathed a sigh of relief from their position many yards away from where they’d been buried only a moment before. The rubble crashed upon that spot and let loose a large cloud of dust and soot that spread out into the street. They looked around to make sure everypony else was okay, and clearly saw that their surroundings had been completely trashed. There was debris everywhere, little fires had sprung up, and a thin sheen of dust blanketed the air. Some large chunks of metal and concrete had slammed into other nearby buildings, tearing them apart and destroying everything inside.

It was a disaster.

“Come on girls, we need to get moving,” Flathoof said, adjusting his cap. “Get someplace safe, I’ll be back to you in a moment.”

The party started moving back the way they’d came. Flathoof, on the other hoof, headed the opposite direction, towards the building.

Applejack stopped and turned when she noticed. “Where y’all goin’?” she asked.

“Work,” he said. “Crowds are gonna start forming, and I’ve gotta try and keep everypony calm and orderly until more NPPD units show up to help evacuate the building. Please, just get someplace safe for now, okay? I’ll be back soon. I promise.”

“Can we be of any help?” Twilight asked, taking steps towards him. “I don’t feel right leaving all of this... disaster without trying to do something. I could’ve helped.”

“I think you’d be more help now trying to keep your friends calm.” Flathoof pointed back towards the others, particularly at Fluttershy, who was shaking in panic. “Just get someplace safe, let me do my job. That’s not me asking you, that’s me telling you.”

Twilight and Applejack reluctantly nodded, and returned to the huddled group. While the Pandemonium natives weren’t particularly shaken by the event, the six mares from Ponyville certainly were. Twilight frowned, knowing she’d only had time to shield herself and her companions. She hadn’t had time to save anypony else.

Some survivors huddled nearby in a state of shock, others had panicked and fled the area. Others hadn’t been lucky enough to get out of the way, and the debris had crushed many of the fleeing citizens. Twilight heard a voice cry for help, and stepped back into the street. The voice came from beneath a particularly large piece of debris. She latched onto it with her magic and lifted it away, but instantly regretted the decision upon seeing what lay beneath. She struggled not to retch at the sight, and failed miserably.

The earth pony mare had once been a light purple, but now was more black and red. Dirt and blood covered her coat. Lockwood was the first to rush in to the injured mare, and quickly shooed both Applejack and Tick Tock away when they moved to follow suit.

He grimaced and removed his hat, setting it aside, then leaned down and cradled her head. “Glitter Dew, can you hear me?”

The mare’s eyes fluttered open, and she weakly nodded.

Lockwood smiled. “Good. Hold on, sweetheart, paramedics are going to be here soon. It’s going to be okay.”

“Mister Lockwood... I... I can’t feel my legs...” She choked. “It’s bad... isn’t it?”

“Don’t worry about that, okay? Save your energy. I’m here for you. Just stay with me. Hey... hey, c’mon now. Stay. With. Me.”

The mare looked up at him. “I... I don’t want to die...” She coughed up blood.

“Shhh, c’mon, save your energy,” Lockwood pleaded.

“I d-don’t... want... to...”

Her eyes dimmed. Lockwood sighed and set her head down easy, then moved a hoof to her face and shut her eyes for her. He returned to the others, and Fluttershy began to cry, shuddering in fear as she clung to Rarity, who tried her best to soothe the pegasus even though she herself was shaking. Applejack removed her hat and held it over her chest in a showing of respect for the ponies that hadn’t been as fortunate as they had been.

“I... w-w-want to g-go home...” Fluttershy whimpered, clinging tightly to Rarity and burying her face in the unicorn’s chest.

“There there, dear, shhh,” Rarity said, stroking Fluttershy’s mane delicately. “We all want to go home.”

“I d-don’t... l-l-like this p-place anymore. I just... w-want to go h-home...”

“Hey now, Fluttershy, don’t cry,” Lockwood said, leaning in close to help. “It’ll all be okay. Bad things happen, but—"

Fluttershy caught sight of the blood on his jacket and hooves, and shied away from him. “I just want to go home!” she cried. “I hate this place! It’s so dark, and everypony’s so mean and rude, and there’s nothing natural or nice and everything’s scary and mean!” She curled up and began stroking her tail. “I w-want to go home... I want to see m-my little Angel again...”

Twilight looked on and shook her head, appalled at what had happened. Fluttershy was speaking what was on everypony’s minds, she knew it. She wanted to go home too. She didn’t like this place much either. She never had, and was certain the others felt the same. She was worried so much about Spike, her brother, her parents, the Princess, her friends’ families, and everypony back in Ponyville. That fear now grew inside her like a virus, because she knew that the longer she stayed, the worse things were going to get back home. And worse still, this world had, in a heartbeat, gone from mildly inconvenient, perhaps unpleasant, to openly deadly and hostile, with nopony in sight they could hold accountable. She worried more than ever whether their journey to Utopia would succeed and see them returned to their bright, sunny skies again, or if it would end in tragedy.

It was a rather sobering experience. Even Pinkie Pie was visibly shaken, holding tightly onto Rainbow Dash and shaking all the while.

“Oh Dashie, I was so scared for a minute there. Like real scared, the kind of scared that you can’t just laugh away,” Pinkie said, shaking her head in disbelief. “I... I didn’t think my Pinkie Sense could see things like that. That wasn’t just a teeny bit scary, that was downright life-threatening. I don’t want to think about what would’ve happened if I didn’t have these little feelings.”

Twilight stepped forward and gave Pinkie a warm smile. “You should feel proud of yourself, Pinkie Pie. Your Pinkie Sense just saved all our lives.”

“Yeah, kind of indirectly. You’re the one who saved us with all that fancy magic,” Rainbow said. Twilight shot her a stern gaze, and Rainbow quickly waved her hoof in defense. “I didn’t mean it like that. I know we all owe Pinkie Pie a lot too. If we hadn’t all been out here talking about it, we might’ve been inside the building when it started blowing up. We might’ve been caught in the blast, instead of just under a pile of rubble.”

Twilight sighed. “But if we’d known what to expect right from the start, we could’ve avoided this. None of us would have been in as much danger, and I... I could’ve helped.” She turned towards the ruined street and stamped her hoof on the sidewalk. “I could’ve saved some of these other ponies.”

“Come on now, Twi, you know you had to act fast,” Rainbow said, reaching up and patting Twilight on the shoulder. “Besides, if you’d tried to make that bubble bigger and protect more ponies, you might have overexerted yourself. And then where would we be, huh?”

Twilight frowned and joined Pinkie and Rainbow’s hug. “I should’ve paid more attention to you, Pinkie, like I said I was going to. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, Twilight,” Pinkie said, sniffing back tears. “I know you guys don’t always pay much attention, but at least you did when it mattered, right?”

“But I should’ve listened to you right away instead of arguing about it, again.” Twilight then looked in Pinkie’s eyes, firmly, not angrily. “From now on, Pinkie, if you get any of your ‘little niggling feelings’, you tell me immediately, okay? This whole journey we’re about to embark on sounds awfully dangerous, and if your Pinkie Sense can detect things like this, I want to know what else it can detect. You might just keep us alive through all of this.”

“That’s putting a little too much pressure on her, Twilight, don’t you think?” Rainbow said, ruffling Pinkie’s curls. “I know she just got a really big set of brownie points for this, but her Pinkie Sense isn’t always consis—"

“I’m not willing to take that risk, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight interrupted. “I’d rather listen to all of the silly ones and take them seriously, if it means every now and then we’re going to get one that keeps us from getting crushed by a landslide or walking over a sinkhole, not just getting hit on the head by an potted plant or walking into a door."

Pinkie nodded and hugged Twilight tighter. “If you say so, Twilight, sure, I’ll speak up about them from now on.”

“Good.”

Flathoof trotted over and began dusting off his uniform and cap. “Finally, some extra patrols showed up. Typical NPPD response time, business as usual. We should be able to get back to trying to get you all... oh...” He frowned as he looked at Fluttershy, who appeared to be in even worse straits than he’d left her in. “Is she okay? She’s not hurt, is she?”

“She’s just in shock,” Lockwood said. “I think this the first time she’s ever seen anypony... die.”

“It’s a first time for all of us.” Twilight stood up and trotted over to Flathoof. “I’ve seen dead ponies before, but those were just pictures and lab specimens, not... not this. This is new. For all of us.”

Flathoof nodded and put his hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “It’s not an easy thing to get over. I wish I could say I’m not affected by it, but I still am. Be glad that you are affected by it. You know there’s something wrong with you if death doesn’t shake you up a little.”

Tick Tock sighed. “Well, so much for going to Lockwood’s place to scrounge up supplies. I wonder what in the world caused all this?”

Flathoof snorted. “I’ll take a look at the reports tomorrow, but if I had a guess or two I’d think it was some sort of accident.” He turned to Tick Tock and narrowed his eyes. “A rather convenient accident, if I do say so myself. I saw where that first explosion started.”

“Hey now, it came from the eighty-second floor,” Lockwood said. “Looked to be about the twelve-thirty position too. It has to be related to that gas leak from yesterday.”

“Well now, wouldn’t it be convenient if somepony happened to have been spying on these six mares and heard you get called down to fix that?” Flathoof said, giving Tick Tock an icy glare.

Tick Tock’s eyes narrowed in response to his. She stood firm. “Are you accusing me of something?”

“Nnnope.” Flathoof poked Tick Tock’s nose scar, causing her to jerk back. “But, you said you got into a bit of a scuffle, was it? With somepony that didn’t like you or your line of work? Seems to me like you’ve made an enemy, Miss Tock, and whoever they are, they just tried to take you out so that you wouldn’t get away again. Just an observation, you understand. I’m no detective, but it doesn’t take one to put two and two together.”

Tick Tock nodded. “He must’ve followed me here and knew he couldn’t attack me with all the rest of you around. Bloody hell, causing so much destruction and killing so many just to get to me? Talk about overkill.”

Flathoof straightened his cap. “Well that settles it then. Change of plans. I’m going with you.”

Twilight was taken aback. “You are?”

Applejack shook her head. “But didn’t ya say y’all had responsibilities here?”

“Of course I do. I was just going to let you all head on off, though I made that decision with some difficulty. The Wastelands alone are dangerous enough, and there’s more places out there that might give you all some trouble in the long run. I didn’t want to let you all leave alone like that, but—" He sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “It’s not my place. It’s your world in trouble, not mine, and I do have responsibilities here.”

“So why the change of heart?” Twilight asked.

“I don’t feel right sending you all out there if there’s some murderer chasing after your guide here,” he said, pointing a hoof at Tick Tock. “So, I suppose it’s time I took a little vacation.”

“Vacation?”

“NPPD officers get one week of paid vacation every year,” Flathoof explained. “It’s cumulative. I’ve been on the force for five years, so that means I’ve got five weeks stored up. More than enough to get you wherever you’re going and get home. I’ll head over to the station now and put in my application. Snapshot should be able to get me through the process pretty quickly. Lockwood?”

Lockwood raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

“Time for me to ask another favor of you. These girls are going to need to recuperate after an experience like this, and you’re still going to need supplies for the journey.” He put his hoof on Lockwood’s shoulder. “Take them to my place instead. Get them all rested up, let my parents know what’s going on. They’ll be more willing to help if it were you asking anyway.”

Twilight smiled and nodded. “Really, Captain Flathoof, there’s no sense in going to that much trouble. Burdening your family with us now? I’m sure Mister Lockwood can find somepony to call in a few favors from and get us all stocked up, right?”

Lockwood nodded. “Yeah, I’ve got a few contacts in Dolor Manufacturing that can get us some food supplies, and—"

Flathoof stamped a hoof on the pavement. “Look, Lockwood, just do this for me, okay? Your contacts might get you what you need, but just look at her.” He pointed to Fluttershy, who was still huddled close to Rarity. “She’s a wreck. I know they need to make a rush job of this whole thing, but there’s no sense in trying to push them too hard.”

“I’m with ol’ Flathoof here,” Applejack said. “We’re all a lil’ shook up after this, an’ we do need ta stock up on supplies, right? I reckon gettin’ rested up too would be a good idea, don’t y’all think?”

Twilight shook her head. “I can’t argue with that, no. I just didn’t want to place more undue burden on him, is all. But if you insist.” She turned to Flathoof and smiled again. “Thank you, we appreciate your offer.”

Lockwood shrugged. “Well then, if we’re all in agreement, let’s be off. See you when you’re all done with this paperwork I suppose?”

“Right. Snapshot works quick, I should be right behind you,” Flathoof said. “You all rest up until then, then we can head out the Gate by nightfall and rest at the Airship Dock until morning.”

“Right then.” Lockwood waved a wing to the girls. “Come on ladies, follow me. We’re heading to Mid-North, which means it’s time to introduce you all to the wonders of the Pandemonium subway system.”

As the group started following Lockwood, Flathoof reached out a hoof and stopped Tick Tock from doing the same. “Hang on there, Miss Tock.”

Tick Tock blinked. “Hmm? Something the matter?”

“You’re coming with me.”

Tick Tock’s jaw dropped. “Say again? What, I don’t get to ‘rest and recuperate’ too? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a bloody mess. Literally. I think I—"

Flathoof glared at her and stomped his hooves on the ground. “I don’t care if you’re missing all your hooves and your mane’s on fire! I’m not letting you out of my sight, and I sure ain’t gonna let you head on up to my family’s home when you’ve got some sort of psychopath chasing after you that’s willing to blow up half a damned residential complex just to get to one pony!

Tick Tock backed off a little, as Flathoof was getting right in her face now.

“You’re coming with me, got it? If this lunatic comes after you with just me around, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. I’m not risking my family, my best friend, and six completely innocent strangers when I can take the burden up myself. You got a problem with that?”

Tick Tock shook her head. “Not at all, you make a reasonable point. Very well then, let’s quit sodding about here and get your little ‘vacation time’ settled up, hmm? You said it wouldn’t take long anyway, right? I still remind you, I’m bleedin’ knackered, I am.”

“It won’t take long at all,” Flathoof said. “Lockwood’s got his connections, I’ve got mine. Snapshot’ll take care of this all in a jiffy.”

***

The clerk office at NPPD’s Central Station was, as always, dead quiet. At least, it had been, until Flathoof and Tick Tock showed up, and the former noticed that a certain unicorn wasn’t sitting at her desk. So instead, he’d gone to the next desk over, that belonging to Firecracker, to investigate.

“What do you mean ‘she never came in today’?” Flathoof asked, his voice loud and angry. “She works every day. She’s never taken a day off the whole time she’s worked here.”

Firecracker barely paid any attention to him, and focused instead on filling out the myriad forms she had all over her desk. “I mean exactly what I said, big boy. She didn’t come in today. Figures, she leaves me with all the paperwork and junk the same day there’s some bombing or something down at Southeast Point. Do you have any idea how many forms I have to fill out for police reports? It’s a paperwork nightmare, is what it is, and—"

Flathoof pounded a hoof on the counter. “I don’t care about any of that. I want to know why nopony’s bothered to find out why she didn’t come in today. Surely somepony called her apartment when she was late this morning? Did she call in sick?”

“Pfh, as if.” Firecracker rolled her eyes and waved her pen in the air. “Probably too busy shacking up with that CIA stallion that was here last night. Either that or too busy crying her eyes out after he shot her down. I doubt she could’ve landed a stallion looking like he did. Guy looked like he could’ve handled two of me.”

“CIA? They had an Agent here last night asking for Snapshot?” He shook his head. “What in the world? Why?”

“Don’t know, don’t care,” she said, shrugging it off. “Dumb little filly got all hot and bothered the second he walked in too, I could see it a mile away. Maybe she got lucky and the idiot fell for that ‘nerd charm’ of hers. Hey, everypony’s gotta get lucky sometime.”

Flathoof glared. “And nopony bothered to inform the Chief about this, did they?”

“Duh, why would I?” Firecracker flicked her mane and idly eyed one of her hooves. “It’s not my business. They were still in questioning when my shift was over. I didn’t really feel like sticking around to see what they were talking about. What Snapshot gets up to on her own time is her own business. She’s not my friend, so I don’t really—"

Flathoof sighed and held the bridge of his nose. “Look, I’m going to just ignore the massive breaches in protocol that not reporting a CIA Agent being involved entails. I’ll even ignore your complete disregard for Snapshot’s well-being. So, you’re going to do me a favor.”

Firecracker rolled her eyes and fluttered her big wings. “Stallions. You’re all alike. Fine, I get off in a few hours, then we can head back to my place and—"

“What the—" Flathoof shook his head wildly. “Ha ha, what? No, you’ve got it all wrong. I need some paperwork filed. Not... whatever it is you thought I wanted. What in the hay made you think I’d—"

Firecracker was taken aback. “And what is that supposed to—" She cleared her throat and tucked her wings back in sharply. “Whatever. As you can see," she said, gesturing to a huge stack of folders and papers to her side, “Snapshot’s not here, so I’m working double duty on the busiest day we’ve had here in months. I’m a little backed up with paperwork as it is, so—"

Flathoof planted his hooves on the table and leaned forward. “Are you disobeying orders from a superior? Everypony around here knows I’m a hardass rules-jockey, so considering the circumstances I think I’ll bring up a few points. First, you’re already in breach of protocol by not filing a report on the involvement of a CIA Agent in a case—"

Firecracker scoffed. “That would be Snapshot’s job, she’s the one who—"

Flathoof slammed his hoof on the desk. “And Snapshot isn’t here today, which means all of her responsibilities fall to you, as you’ve been keen to point out. In case you haven’t noticed, the Chief doesn’t take too kindly to CIA Agents sneaking around his offices. He knows he can’t bar their entry, but he does want to know when they have any interaction with an officer. For breaching that protocol alone, you’re already looking at getting fired.”

Firecracker stuttered and looked around in a panic. “B-but—"

Flathoof leaned forward further. “And then, disobeying a request from a superior officer to file paperwork. Two rule infractions in the span of a few minutes? You’re lucky I’m in a patient mood. Now, are we going to have a disagreement here, or are you going to cooperate?”

Firecracker gulped and pushed her current load of paperwork aside. “W-what kind of paperwork am I taking care of for you, Captain Flathoof s-sir?”

“Oh, just a vacation application form,” Flathoof said, casually waving a hoof. “Starting tonight. See to it it gets through the system before the end of your shift, and I won’t worry about that CIA thing either. I’ll make sure Snapshot fills out the report when she returns.”

“R-right sir, of course.” Firecracker fumbled around her desk in search of the form.

Flathoof turned and left her behind, then came over to Tick Tock, who had been waiting patiently at the bench nearby. “Come on, we’re heading for Southwest Point.”

“What? I thought you said your family lives in Mid-North?” Tick Tock asked. “I remind you, we’re on a tight—"

Flathoof dismissed her with a hoof. “I know all that, but I’ve got to check up on something. Somepony...”

***

Tick Tock waited patiently behind Flathoof in the stairwell of the thirteenth floor of Southwest Point. She leaned against a wall in an attempt to relax, as they’d just finished running nearly fifty city blocks to get here. This time, at least, she hadn’t had to climb eighty-four floors to get to their destination; getting to Flathoof’s friend’s apartment had been much easier than getting to Twilight and her friends’. Even though Tick Tock was used to physical exertion, it didn’t somehow make it enjoyable. The stress of recent events overwhelmed her, making her feel tired and hungry. This had been a very long two days.

Flathoof knocked harshly on the door of Room thirteen and six.

“Snapshot!? Are you in there?!” he called.

No response.

He knocked again. “Snapshot!? Hello!? If you’re there, open the door! It’s me, Flathoof!”

Still no response.

“I don’t want to barge in there, Snapshot, but if you don’t open up, I’m going to have to! Snapshot!? Okay then, I’m coming in!”

Flathoof signalled for Tick Tock to come over to him. “You think you could do something for me?”

“Like what?”

“You can’t pick locks or anything like that with your fancy magic, can you?”

Tick Tock smirked. “Fancy that, an NPPD Captain asking me to commit a breaking and entering.” She narrowed her eyes. “This isn’t some sort of bloody trick so you can nick me, is it? I’m not going to be picking these locks and then you yell, ‘All right, all right, what’s all this then?’ right?”

Flathoof stared at her, his mouth slightly open. “What?

“Nevermind,” Tick Tock mumbled.

Her horn glowed a bright yellow, and her magic latched onto the doorknob. She contorted her face in firm concentration, licking her lips as she worked her magic into the little crevices inside the lock. She could hear a few subtle clicks and snaps as the locking mechanisms of the door unlocked. Then, a sharp click, and Tick Tock let her horn’s glow dim.

“I wasn’t being serious, you know?” Flathoof said, scratching his head. “I was just going to bust the door down and needed a little extra ‘oomph’. Why in Equestria would you have any use for picking locks, anyway, huh? Something I should know about?”

Tick Tock turned pink and coughed into her hoof. “Uh... I forget my keys a lot. Why isn’t the bloody door opening though?”

Flathoof smiled. “Well, she’s got more than one. She had a break-in a year ago, asked me to help her upgrade her security.”

“Huh.” Tick Tock shrugged. “Righto then. Back to work.”

She lit her horn again and slid her magic through the crack in the door to access the other locks. She bit her tongue as she worked the next one. It gave a satisfying click, and she let out a breath of relief before moving on. Two down. She fiddled her magic around again. Click. Three down. Click. Four. Click. Five.

“Phew,” Tick Tock muttered as she started working on another lock. “I recognize some of these locks your friend uses, they’re pretty standard issue stuff. Bloody hell, though, why does she have six locks on her door, anyway? Excessive, eh?”

Flathoof looked at the door for a moment, then raised an eyebrow when he saw where the glow from Tick Tock’s magic was, just below the doorknob. “Six?”

Tick Tock stared at him, but continued to fumble with the lock. “Right, six. And this last one is giving me a proper hard time too. I think I’ve almost got it... and... aha!” Another click. “See? No problem.”

“Hang on a sec, you said six locks, right?” Flathoof stared at the door for a moment, then nervously pressed his ear against it.

Tick Tock rolled her eyes. “Again, yes. What of it? Are you bad with math or something? What are you doing?”

Flathoof narrowed his eyes and leaned in harder against the door, though he was seemingly trying not to open it. “I helped Snapshot install all these locks. She only has five.”

Tick Tock tilted her head. “What are you going on—"

He gestured for her to listen in too. She rolled her eyes and pressed her ear against the door. Her eyes widened when she heard a repeated clicking sound. “Oh. Ohhh, bugger.”

Flathoof gulped. “It might be best if we... stepped away from the door.”

 

Tick Tock and Flathoof twisted away from the door in a panic, barely avoiding tripping over one another. They leapt towards the stairwell, only to get enough distance from the door that the explosion behind them didn’t engulf them straight away.

Flathoof lost his footing and tripped on the first stair as a large chunk of the door shattered across the back of his head. He fell to the floor at the turn of the stairwell.

Tick Tock, meanwhile, was knocked over the stairwell railing by the force of the blast. She fell down two whole stories and crashed through the opposite railing onto the floor. She groaned, and held her head to ease the stiff ringing in her ears. She struggled to get up, and yowled in pain as she put weight on her left hind leg; it felt like it was broken.

A familiar, dark chuckle from behind her caught her attention. “Well, well, well, look what we have here.”

Her eyes widened, and she flashed her horn and let loose a burst of magic in time to slam a pegasus face-first into the wall.

He removed his face from the wall and chuckled again. She frantically scrambled to get up and distance herself from him.

The pegasus drew a knife from a strap on his right foreleg and went on the offensive. She had little time to react in the extremely tight space and barely managed to cast a barrier spell. His dagger flashed brightly as it deflected off her shield.

She staggered backward a little, trying to gain footing in the narrow walkway.

The pegasus dove at her again. Her shield flashed and reflected him away. He struck from different angles with every swipe, keeping himself unpredictable.

Tick Tock backed away, carefully stepping on the stairs behind her as his assault forced her around the corner.

“Why do you keep coming after me?!”

He forced her down the stairs with his assault.

“What did I ever do?!

The pegasus sighed. “Why do you insist on asking?”

He used his tongue to twirl his knife around, then gripped it firmly again in his teeth. He feinted to her left, then as she directed her shield there, he quickly slashed instead to her right.

Again, her reflexes were a lifesaver. She cried out as the blade slashed its way across her cheek, then staggered back a few steps, almost losing her footing as the stairs ended and flattened out at the next floor.

“You’re going to be dead soon, Chronomancer. Would that kind of information matter?”

Tick Tock glared at him, her eyes filled with fury and fear.

She tried to strike out against him instead, firing off a volley of sparks. He twisted himself to the side and dodged them with ease.

She blasted another bolt at him. He merely shifted his weight to avoid it.

He didn’t let her keep up her approach, and continued to force her back with another strike, and another. She deflected them each in turn. She knew he could see the weariness in her eyes, the shortness of her breaths.

“What’s the matter, Chronomancer?” he taunted. “You look tired.”

He swept forward again, his eyes gleaming when she did not put up a shield.

Then, he hesitated, and slowed his assault. Tick Tock beamed, and her horn flashed. Got you.

For his effort, he was rewarded with an incredible injury to his right wing. He slammed into her, and they rolled together down the stairs. He collapsed further down than she did.

She knew the wound was severe. That it was deep. That his flying was now severely hampered. She could see the rage in his eyes.

She did not waste her advantage. In her magic, she wielded a sharp piece of the rusted metal railing.

Now it was his turn to be on the defensive. His grin returned, and it seemed to actually widen at the prospect.

Tick Tock fought pragmatically now. She was tired, and needed to conserve her magic. Telekinesis was less consuming than barriers.

“You fancy yourself a swordsmare, do you?” The pegasus snorted. He blocked her makeshift weapon with his dagger and pushed her away. “Maybe when you get a real sword I’ll consider you a threat.”

“Sod off!” she shouted.

He shifted his weight upwards to meet hers. She felt his ragged breath against her face. Tick Tock forced him away with a sharp push, then swung at him with a wide downward strike.

He stepped to the side to avoid it. “Clumsy.”

He lunged his shoulder in response and slammed her into the wall.

Tick Tock barely had enough room to avoid getting sliced across the eyes when he slashed at her again. She screamed in pain as the blade sliced across the scar that had yet to heal.

She lunged forward with a horizontal swing.

It was easy enough for him to duck under. “Pathetic.”

Her wide swing left her open to attack. He bucked her hard in the stomach and sent her reeling back, then flung his knife at her.

She panicked and raised a barrier spell again, sending his weapon flying into the wall beside her. The concentration on her telekinesis was broken, and her makeshift weapon fell into the emptiness of the open center of the stairwell. She hesitantly looked down after it.

In her distraction, he tackled her and forced her to the floor. She tried to struggle and force him off, but the energy bolt fizzled uselessly against his chest. Her magic had nearly dried up. Bugger all.

“I’ve been looking forward to this.” He chuckled darkly, pressing a hoof against her throat. “The chance to finally kill you, and be done with this silly game we’ve been playing.”

He pushed himself up and put most of his weight into his hoof.

She choked and made to grab at him, but he was too heavy.

“It’s been fun, Chronomancer.”

He pushed more weight downward, laughing again at her ragged, throaty gasps for air. Tears formed in her eyes. This is it then. I’m out of time.

“Freeze! NPPD!”

The stallion’s attention diverted behind him sharply, but he hadn’t much chance to avoid the crushing body of red and black. Flathoof crashed into him and slammed him hard against the nearby wall, then pressed his baton to the other stallion’s head and applied pressure to keep him pinned.

Tick Tock took in a deep gulp of air. “Oh bloody stars...”

“You’re under arrest for the murder of an NPPD officer!” Flathoof spat into the other stallion’s ear. “And for the countless other ponies at Southeast Point you killed in that explosion!”

The pegasus laughed, and flicked his good wing, striking Flathoof’s hind leg to throw him off balance. It was enough to let him squirm out of the hold.

“Ah, you must be Captain Flathoof,” the pegasus said, chuckling and distancing himself. “Snapshot spoke very highly of you.”

Flathoof barreled forward, reared, and brought his forelegs down in a crushing motion. The pegasus dodged backwards and moved downstairs.

Flathoof pressed his offensive and pounced at the pegasus, who shifted to the side and shouldered Flathoof into the wall. Flathoof’s baton dropped out of his mouth and rolled over the side of the stairwell.

“I’ll be sure to add Resisting Arrest to the list.” Flathoof snorted, shaking himself off and squaring off against the pegasus. “You will be brought to justice for your crimes!”

“Are you seriously considering turning me in?” the pegasus asked. “As if I haven’t broken out of a pathetic little jail cell before. May as well make them out of cardboard!”

The pegasus lunged forward and grappled with Flathoof. Flathoof shifted his weight, using his bulk to overpower the smaller pony. The pegasus chortled, and twisted around Flathoof’s weight to lock the bigger stallion in a chokehold.

Flathoof coughed, and slammed the pegasus in the gut with his hoof before shoving him off. The pegasus fluttered up over Flathoof’s head when he charged in again, kicking Flathoof in the back and knocking him down the rest of the stairs.

“Aww, and here I thought you’d want revenge. Your girlfriend was such a sweetheart, you know? You must not have been the best lay, because she was just dying to get to know me better.” He laughed loudly at his own joke.

“Shut up!”

Flathoof grit his teeth and rushed forward with a shoulder tackle. The pegasus twisted around to avoid it, and bucked Flathoof hard in the chest.

Flathoof staggered back and grunted as he hit the opposite wall. The pegasus had more than ample time to distance himself.

“Well, Captain, as delightful as this has been, I’ve grown tired of all of this fooling around.” The pegasus drew a second dagger from the strap on his left foreleg. “Time to play for keeps. I wonder, when I’m done with you, who’s going to take care of your crippled brother, hmm? Maybe I’ll pay him a little visit and put him out of his misery.”

Flathoof glared at the pegasus. “You’d best stop talking, flyboy, before I make you eat that knife of yours.”

The other stallion’s grin widened. “Ooh hoo hoo, did I strike a nerve? I’ll be happy to strike at more than that!

He lunged forward and swung his knife at Flathoof’s chest. Flathoof grunted and staggered back. His hoof went to his chest, and drew back blood.

Flathoof backed down the next set of stairs, and ducked under another swing. He twisted himself around and tried to buck the pegasus, but the pegasus narrowly avoided it.

The pegasus lunged again, tackling Flathoof from behind. They struggled, and they grappled. Flathoof was stronger, and was able to crush the pegasus against the wall for a moment. But the pegasus was a dirty fighter, and bashed his head against Flathoof’s throat.

Flathoof choked and staggered back, then was slammed against the railing.

The pegasus leaned over him and grinned wide. “Looks like a long fall. A shame you don’t have wings, like—"

The pegasus howled in pain. His dagger jutted from the joint of his left wing, enshrouded in an aura of green magic.

Flathoof wasted no time in capitalizing on the opportunity, and sunk down and kicked his legs as hard as he could.

The pegasus careened over the railing, struggling to right himself as he fell. Neither of his wings were working. The stallion’s back slammed into the railing on the next floor down, and he fell, straight towards the bottom.

Flathoof breathed deeply and leaned against the wall, clutching his heart and panting heavily. He chanced a glance to the stairwell above. Tick Tock limped down to meet him, rubbing her throat the entire way down.

“Are you okay?” she asked, her voice hoarse.

“I’m fine,” Flathoof wheezed. “He mentioned going after my family. We should get a move on.”

“Can we... rest a bit? Please? I... I think my leg is—"

Flathoof pointed tersely at her. “No, we’ll rest later. We’re going to check and make sure he hit the bottom. If he did, I doubt he’ll be in shape to give us trouble anyway.”

“And if he didn’t?”

Flathoof started down the stairs. “All the more reason to hurry home.”


CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter Seven: Invention

Shadowstep took in a sharp breath as the pain settled in. His limbs ached, and he couldn’t feel his wings. The pounding in his head was astounding, like somepony was playing drums in his skull. At least now, he knew he’d survived the fall.

He glanced around the room, blinking his eyes rapidly to adjust to the room’s only light source, a bright silver glow emitting from a large cylinder in the corner.

He tried to move, but could not. He lifted his head and saw himself laying upon a metal slab, his body strangely intact. He saw no traces of injury marring his legs or torso through the tears in his flight suit, despite the intense pain he felt. Thick, metal braces upon his hooves locked his legs in place, stretching them to his sides. Shallow indents in the slab held his wings, keeping them sprawled out.

He grimaced when he saw how horribly mangled they were compared to the rest of his body, and was glad that he could not move them. He’d seen pegasi with this kind of wing damage, even inflicted it himself on many occasions. They never flew again.

“Ah, you’re awake. Excellent. I feared my Restomancy was rusty.”

Silvertongue’s voice. Shadowstep attempted to acknowledge his employer, but the pain in his head made him regret it.

“I wouldn’t move too much, were I in your position,” Silvertongue said, stepping out of the darkness. “You look like you took quite a fall.”

Shadowstep gulped as Silvertongue stepped over to the slab. “M-milord—"

Silvertongue sighed. “Shadowstep, I entrusted you with two fairly straightforward tasks, endeavors I believed were tailor-made to your talents and capabilities.” He removed his monocle and breathed on it, then wiped it with a kerchief. “You have not lived up to my expectations. While one task has been completed, you have failed at the other twice in the span of a day.” He set his hooves upon the slab, glaring at the pegasus. “I am disappointed, to say the least.”

Shadowstep made to speak, but Silvertongue silenced him with a glow of his horn.

Silvertongue presented a folder, levitating it over from the corner. He opened it and began to read. “The NPPD report on the explosion at Southeast Point. It would appear that it was caused by a gas leak and an electrical fire.” He lowered the report slightly so that Shadowstep could see his glare. “If somepony were to have orchestrated that, it would appear as nothing more than a freak accident. Not very subtle in its execution, but it would most definitely eliminate the Chronomancer. And, anypony else in the vicinity, for that matter. Particularly six ponies I have no desire to see dead quite yet.”

“S-sir, I had nothing—"

“Save your breath, Shadowstep. If I desired excuses, I would have asked for one. I prefer to divulge my information more directly.”

Shadowstep gulped. “D-directly, sir?”

Silvertongue’s horn shined a brilliant gold. Shadowstep writhed in pain as a searing electrical sensation shot through him. He could feel another presence in his head with him, swimming along his mind as though it were an ocean. A sharp spark shot through his mind as the events of the day after he’d left his master’s dining room were revisited.

He saw the look of scrutiny on Silvertongue’s face. It was the same look the unicorn got when he was perusing a report. This worried him. Is he reading my mind?

‘Reading’ is such a nondescript term.

Shadowstep would have jumped in surprise were he not locked in place. “M-milord?”

I prefer the term, ‘analyzing’. Your thoughts are laid bare before my prodding. I will get to the bottom of this.

Shadowstep took a deep breath as he recalled himself trailing Twilight Sparkle and her friends from Central General Clinic, in hopes that the Chronomancer would make herself known to them. Silvertongue’s presence in his mind sent a sharp pain through Shadowstep’s spine when he saw her, alive and well, waiting in their apartment.

And there she is. You certainly did rough her up, didn’t you Shadowstep? Ah, and those six believed her story so quickly. They’re trusting of those who offer them help. Excellent.

Shadowstep remembered trailing them as they left for the Outer Districts, with plans to pass through the Gate using false passports. He tracked them down to the home of one “Keeneye”, and while he did not witness it first-hoof, he could tell from the looks on the ponies’ faces that everything had gone well.

False passports. Interesting. I did not anticipate that they would take that route. Unfortunate for them that they are, though. The Gate is much easier to monitor. Well done, Shadowstep.

Shadowstep remembered returning to Southeast Point on his targets’ trail. He remembered witnessing the explosion, and seeing Twilight Sparkle’s magic save herself and her companions, first by erecting a magical shield, then by teleporting all nine of them to safety simultaneously.

So that is Twilight Sparkle, is it? Such aptitude. Such power. A pity that her ambition is solely for scholarly pursuits. I shall have to keep an eye on that one.

Shadowstep remembered spying on them as they recuperated after the ordeal. He saw the NPPD officer, Captain Flathoof, divide the group out of fear that the Chronomancer’s would-be assassin would target his family. He followed them to NPPD Central Station, and overheard them check on the desk clerk, Snapshot. As they left, he rushed ahead of them. He entered through her window and rigged the explosive. Then, he waited.

Last, Shadowstep recalled fighting against them when his trap was foiled. Worse, he remembered losing.

A pity that this Flathoof fellow seems smarter than he looks. Oh, Shadowstep. It appears that without the element of surprise on your side, you are not the most apt fighter. Well, we shall soon solve that problem.

The pain drained away the instant Silvertongue’s horn ceased its glowing. Shadowstep took several deep breaths, and watched his master circle the slab, a pensive look upon his face.

“You’re quite fortunate in a great many ways, Shadowstep,” Silvertongue said. He laughed once, then removed his monocle to clean it.

“Fortunate, sir?”

“Yes, fortunate. Not only because the explosion was a freak accident in and of itself, but that your first aforementioned failure seems to have been a great boon.”

Shadowstep hesitated. “Boon, sir? You mean... you’re not upset?”

“It’s simple, really,” Silvertongue said, dismissively waving a hoof. “Had the Chronomancer been taken care of as I had tasked you with before, then the Elements of Harmony would have returned from their immunization shots and likely stayed to rest a while. Certainly some of them may have left, but the risk was there. Had they not been out of their room at that precise time, they’d have been caught in the blast. Ironic, that by your failure you single-hoofedly kept all my plans in order.”

Shadowstep breathed a sigh of relief.

“However, there is still the matter at hoof,” Silvertongue continued. He smoothed back his mane carefully and stepped over to the glowing cylinder in the corner. “While your first failure is justifiable in light of new information, your second is not. The Chronomancer still lives and breathes, and as long as she does so I do not doubt that she will be an ever-persistent thorn in my side.”

Silvertongue hovered the container towards the slab and lifted the lid. The light within shined much brighter, illuminating the entirety of the room. Then, he lifted something out of the container, a sort of liquid kept in a spherical shape by his telekinesis. He floated the orb in front of his face and manipulated it in his magic, causing the liquid to morph into different shapes.

“Do you know what this is, Shadowstep?” he asked.

The pegasus shook his head slowly.

“It is a very rare, valuable metal. You’d be hard-pressed to find much more of it. My own supplies are dwindling, and this is some of what little I still possess. It bears numerous magnificent qualities: it is highly regarded for its functionality as weapons and armor; it is exceptionally lightweight and malleable, yet extraordinarily durable; most importantly, it interacts remarkably with magic.

“Were one to forge a weapon from it, their magic could manipulate it fluidly, as though it were an extension of their mind. It is also notably resistant to any magic other than that of the forger, hence its potency as shields or armor. It’s called obidium, because it obeys orders. Much better than any pony ever could.”

Shadowstep frowned at Silvertongue’s mocking tone.

Silvertongue replaced the ball of liquid into the container, then lifted the container over one of Shadowstep’s wings.

Shadowstep eyed it warily. He could feel the heat coming from it. “W-what are you doing?” he asked.

Silvertongue smiled wide, his teeth gleaming in the light. “Why, isn’t it obvious? I’m going to imbue your wings with obidium.”

He laughed and tossed his mane. “It will repair the damage you have sustained, and my magic will fuse the metal to your nerves, flesh, and bone. The metal will become your new wings, giving you a modicum of control over it. It shall be a new weapon for you to wield against your enemies. Against my enemies. I could have affixed it to you while you were unconscious, certainly, but I believe that if you experience the sensation of it bonding with you, you may have a greater appreciation for the power it will bestow.

“Oh, a fair bit of warning,” he added. “This might hurt a little.”

Silvertongue tilted the container over, and poured the molten metal out.

Shadowstep screamed in agony as it seared the flesh on his wings, burning all the way to the bone. He knew the scent of his precious wings burning away would forever remain ingrained in his nightmares. More pain ripped through him as the magical metal coiled inward and fastened itself to every joint, muscle, and fiber of his wings until the metal became a part of him, replacing his flesh and bone entirely.

He steeled himself through the rest of the ordeal, his breathing ragged and dry. He was unsure if he could even remain conscious through much more. He watched the container move to his other wing, and gave an embarrassingly audible gulp. The process repeated itself: more pain as the metal stripped clean his flesh; more agony as the metal ingrained itself within him. In the back of his mind, there was a wish that the fall had killed him. Surely death would be preferable to this.

Silvertongue grinned and lifted the container just over Shadowstep’s face. Without warning, he snapped the lid closed, and returned the now empty container to its spot in the corner. The room’s only light source now was Silvertongue’s dimly-glowing horn.

With no fear of further writhing torture looming ahead, Shadowstep was allowed to breathe normally again. The braces on his legs snapped open, allowing him to stand. He struggled to his hooves and stood at attention, his legs still trembling as the pain subsided.

Silvertongue laughed. “Excellent! The process went better than expected.”

The silvery-metal wings gleamed in the light of Silvertongue’s horn. They were perfectly proportioned, fitting in place as if they’d always been there. He ran a hoof along one of Shadowstep’s new wings.

Shadowstep could feel every touch, every jolt, every snag. His eyes widened.

“New and improved, wouldn’t you agree?” Silvertongue asked.

Shadowstep took a sharp breath, as the pain still lingered. He flexed his wings to see if they still worked. They did so fluidly, their movement completely natural. The joints looked real. Even the feathers looked real. The metal had coated them flawlessly just the same as the rest of the wing.

“They’re... beautiful, milord.”

Shadowstep reached a hoof out and stroked it along a primary. Though the material was cold to the touch, it had the same smooth, silky texture as his original feathers. His elation showed upon his face. He was eager to see if they could fly.

“Thank you, sir,” Shadowstep said, bowing deeply. “I did not expect to receive such a gracious reward after my recent transgressions. To be honest, I never expected to wake up again. Your last words to me were hardly... encouraging.”

Silvertongue laughed and patted Shadowstep hard on the back, causing the pegasus to stumble forward. “Oh, Shadowstep, wherever would you get that idea? Mindlessly killing my subordinates is hardly what I would consider a worthwhile use of time or effort. You are a valuable asset, more so now than you may realize. Even if your more recent endeavors have proven rather disappointing, I still have a purpose for you.”

“Thank you, milord.”

Silvertongue removed his monocle and cleaned it. “Now, this Chronomancer? She either is not to be taken lightly, or she has the most extraordinary luck imaginable. In either case, these new tools I have bestowed upon you should prove useful in your efforts to destroy her, in due time. So, if you’re quite done preening about, it is time we came to the next order of business.”

Shadowstep saluted with his new wing. “Of course, milord. I’ll finish off the Chronomancer this time, I swear it.”

He trotted briskly over to the door, eager to leave and return to his work. He couldn’t wait to thrust a knife into the Chronomancer’s heart. No more playing around. Oh, and that stupid police captain too. He’d ruined everything. A nice drop from the top of Pandora Tower seemed an appropriate solution. No wings, no magic. Just lots of limb flailing and-

Shadowstep's muzzle slammed into the door.

Shadowstep stopped and tilted his head. This was peculiar. He was used to the doors in Pandora responding to the proximity of ponies and opening automatically. Was it broken? Perhaps this room’s door wasn’t one of the automatic ones? He pushed a hoof against it.

The door did not open.

“Where do you think you’re going, Shadowstep?”

Shadowstep froze up. His heart raced. Beads of sweat formed on his brow. He turned slowly. “To... to kill the Chronomancer, sir? That’s what you—"

Silvertongue laughed. “You? My dear boy, you’ve already failed me twice in that regard. Stars above, what made you think I was going to give you another chance so soon?”

Shadowstep raised an eyebrow, flexed his wings, and took a hesitant step back. He didn’t like the way Silvertongue was smiling at him. “But your gift—"

Silvertongue chuckled darkly. “Oh, that gift of yours is a rather double-edged sword, you’ll find soon enough. I did not grant you this boon so that you may destroy that meddlesome little Chronomancer. At least—" His grin widened. “Not yet. That will come in due time.

“For now, I have more pressing matters to attend to without worrying about whether or not you’ll fail me yet again.” Silvertongue’s horn started to glow brighter, causing Shadowstep to take another step back. “No, your gift has far greater purpose than that. Be glad that it will at least give you some sort of a fighting chance in regards to your punishment.”

Silvertongue’s horn flared white. Shadowstep panicked and made to move, but found himself engulfed in a bright light. A teleportation spell. “P-punish—"

***

“-ment?”

Shadowstep had seen many dead bodies in his career. He’d disposed of corpses, seen ponies soil themselves in fear and upon death, and crawled through some of the most unsavory areas imaginable. He thought his nose to be mostly immune to the sensations of foul odors. Nothing could have prepared him for this stench, though.

The sudden exposure instantly nauseated him. His eyes watered. It didn’t take more than a second for him to be forced to choke back vomit. Only this stench, a rancid odor like hundreds of rotting bodies, colored his sight, hearing, taste, smell, and even his thoughts.

It took several moments for his stomach to settle and his nostrils to become accustomed to the odor. When at last it did, his mind eased and he could finally see where he was.

A blackish-red goo stained the ground, sticking to his hooves like glue. When he lifted his hoof away, he saw it follow his movement just barely, as though it were reaching out to keep him in its grip. It looked like blood, but he’d seen enough of the stuff to know it wasn’t.

The trees around him appeared dead, their branches devoid of leaves and their trunks black. Yet, their trunks were also thick, and the branches swayed gently in the breeze, still soft and full of life. They dotted the landscape, creating the illusion of what had once been a swamp or a marsh.

There were also the corpses. Oh. That’s what the smell is.

At first, Shadowstep had thought the large mounds to be piles of garbage, not carcasses. Their blackened, rotting flesh had been decomposed as though they’d been there for years, yet still meaty enough that they couldn’t have been there longer than a few days. They dotted the landscape, outnumbering the trees. He’d never seen so many in one place before.

Shadowstep groaned as a searing pain flashed and Silvertongue’s voice echoed through his mind.

The Blood Mire,” Silvertongue said. “A fitting name, is it not? I could tell you stories of this place, Shadowstep. Tales of death that would awe even a murderous psychopath like yourself. I must warn you now, though, you may want to watch your back.

Shadowstep turned his head, then leapt aside in surprise as a burst of magic screamed past him, exploding only a yard behind him. The explosion wasn’t particularly strong. He’d seen average unicorns with more force than that. But, that didn’t concern him. Shadowstep’s eyes widened as he traced the bolt back to its source. For a moment, he wondered if he were dreaming. If this was some horrible nightmare.

The unicorn was clearly not alive.

It was difficult to describe what, exactly, the unicorn was. It certainly moved like a living, breathing unicorn, even cast spells like one. It may have well been one, as far as those qualities were concerned. Its charred and rancid skin melted away in places, exposing great deals of corroded bone and decayed innards. Its shattered horn could still cast spells without hindrance. One of its legs was ripped apart, and in places where there should have been bone and muscle connecting the two pieces, a faint glow of red magic held them in place. This same magic filled other important voids in the unicorn’s horribly mangled, rotten body, most notably its eyes.

No, it clearly wasn’t alive. But, it wasn’t dead either.

Shadowstep hesitated for a moment, unsure if what he was seeing was real. In that hesitation, he almost did not react in time to the movement to his other side. He turned to see another of these things bearing down upon him like a starved predator. This one, a pegasus. Where its wings were torn and decomposed, the same glow of red magic filled in the pieces, allowing it to take flight.

Shadowstep narrowly avoided the thing’s mangled hoof, panicking when he realized his dodge had been sloppy. The creature twisted around towards his wing instead, jaws open, fangs bared.

Flesh and bone clanged against metal, followed by a crunch. He felt the creature strike his wing, but didn’t feel any pain. He glanced down at the thing that had attacked him. Its face had been horribly mangled by his new metal feathers. He realized they weren’t just feathers. They were blades.

Shadowstep’s grin could not have been more massive. He stretched his wing out and brought it down, cleaving the creature’s head clean off. The head rolled aside, and its glowing eyes darkened. The sensation of his own body being a weapon, capable of tearing through flesh and bone, exhilarated him.

The unicorn fired another bolt of magic at him. Shadowstep swept his wing about in a wide arc, reflecting the bolt of magic back at the creature. It struck with enough force to blow the thing’s body apart. Magic-resistant indeed.

Fascinating material, is it not? Effective as both a weapon and as a shield.

Shadowstep chuckled. “If this is my punishment, milord, to slaughter these mutant abominations, then I am thankful you granted me such a gift. I shall return soon enough to slaughter the Chronomancer. Though I do see why the ponies of the city fear them, these creatures are nothing before me now.”

Peals of crowing laughter rang through his head, coming from everywhere at once, and yet from nowhere at all. Shadowstep’s smug smile dwindled away, like a fire facing down a monsoon.

Arrogance. Amusing. You’ve yet to earn the right to be arrogant, Shadowstep. You think you’ll only encounter them in such short bunches? I was merely giving you reprieve, that you may practice with your new gift. But, if you’re that confident in yourself, then perhaps it is time I removed my protective barrier.

The reds of the land beneath and the blacks of the mounds of bodies became clearer, as though a shroud had been lifted from around him. Shadowstep watched in horror as the piles upon piles of bodies around him stirred. There were hordes of them. Not several hundred, but several thousand.

Worse, they were not slow to wake, nor were they slow to act. They engaged Shadowstep on all sides. Unicorns, pegasi, and earth ponies alike assaulted him with reckless abandon.

He swung his wings around like great scythes, slicing apart most of the ponies that got nearby and sending heads, wings, legs, and horns flying about. He found it difficult to keep up with the horde that seemed to grow larger every minute.

Shadowstep knew that there were only two options: fight, or flight. Right now, the former seemed to be a fool’s errand. He flapped his wings and took to the air. Let’s see what else these new wings can do.

Unicorns continued to fire bolts of red magic at him, and still the pegasi pursued him through the air. His lithe, aerodynamic new wings easily outpaced them. Fighting the creatures was hard. Running from them was easy.

He breathed a sigh of relief as their forms dwindled in his wake, then twisted himself around to make a course for New Pandemonium City, which he could just make out in the distance.

For shame, Shadowstep.” Silvertongue chuckled, sending a shiver down Shadowstep’s spine. “Are you trying to escape your punishment? Were it that easy to do, I would think myself a right fool to believe you wouldn’t attempt it. No no, we won’t be having any of that.

A sharp pain shot through Shadowstep’s wings, and suddenly they felt heavy. Very heavy, like metal weights that would grant him flight about as well as they would let him swim. He struggled to maintain altitude, but could barely move his wings at all. He careened into the ground below, rolling several feet and crashing into a pile of bodies to come to a stop.

He felt sick, not just because he’d been injured in the crash, but because he’d been covered in the bloody goo. He was certain the stuff was the remains of some of these abominable creatures, a thought that nauseated him.

He looked up from his crash site to see more freshly-woken monsters stalking towards him. The weight of his wings made moving excruciatingly difficult.

An earth pony lunged at Shadowstep. Half of its face was missing, but the other half bared its fangs. Shadowstep barely had the strength to swing his wing around to defend himself.

He used his wing as a shield, rather than a blade. The earth pony slammed into it and fell to the ground. Shadowstep slumped forward, using his other wing for support, too tired to try and capitalize on his advantage. It took incredible effort just to move, and his focus dwindled.

A pegasus sprung upon him and sunk its sharp teeth into his neck, clamping down like a vice. Shadowstep cried out before tearing it off and stumbling away. The monster was still chewing; Shadowstep felt blood flowing down his back. They’re trying to eat me.

He screamed in anger, slashing at the abomination with his other wing. The creature lunged away, and he only managed to slice off its legs.

He jerked his head up at another noise. A unicorn. He took a bolt of magic to the face that knocked him onto his back. He smelled burning flesh where he’d been struck. It had barely missed one of his eyes, and he struggled to see out of it.

Worse, he felt a sharp, burning sensation at the wound on the back of his neck, like something was crawling inside.

The earth pony pounced upon him and slammed its forelegs down into Shadowstep’s chest. He wheezed, coughing up blood as the creature’s sharpened hooves ripped into him, threatening to pierce straight through to his lungs and heart.

He took a deep breath and flexed his wings above him, bringing them together to crush the thing’s head. Its head burst open, splattering Shadowstep with blood and rancid gore. He fought the urge to vomit as it slumped forward on top of him.

The burning at his neck was joined by one at his chest. The unnatural pain made him feel dizzy.

He screamed in pain when the pegasus bit into one of his legs. He swung his wing down, slicing through its neck. Now, his leg burned too. What is causing that burning?!

He struggled to his hooves and staggered away, until the unicorn’s magic exploded against his back. He felt its weight upon him as it buried its teeth into the freshly cooked flesh. The burning sensations intensified. He felt like his whole body was on fire.

He tried to shake the unicorn off, but could not find the strength. He slumped forward, losing consciousness, then looked out into the field. All he could see were hundreds more of the glowing red eyes coming his way.

That was the last thing he saw before closing his eyes.

***

The elevator hummed quietly as it slowly made its way down the side of Pandora Tower. Its only passenger gazed out of the glass exterior and out into the city skyline. No smog congregated around the tower itself, giving Silvertongue a clear view of the city almost as far as the Outer Wall. Eventually, as the Inner District’s gleaming black skyscrapers and office complexes rose up into view, his view became obscured.

The elevator played soothing ambient music throughout its descent. The slow, delicate melody came from Silvertongue’s favorite opera, the same as all the pieces of music he regularly listened to. He bobbed his head slightly in tune with the music, waving one hoof around as if conducting his own invisible orchestra. The singer, who played the villain of the piece, sang in his deep baritone as he set about his final scheme to vanquish his heroic foe. Silvertongue still recalled the opera clearly from the last time he’d seen it, despite how very, very long ago that was.

The elevator dinged when it reached the underground level. The doors opened, leading out into a long, beckoning hallway with black metal walls decorated with banners bearing the red and gold emblem of New Pandemonium. The darkness coating the hall drowned out Silvertongue’s pristine coat, leaving him in a shadowed veil of deepest black.

A large metal door, bordered with a gold and black outline, stood at the end of the hall. As Silvertongue approached it, he lit up his horn and turned the great circular handle in its center. The door unlocked, giving a great hissing sound. He lifted it open, striding through the doorway with confidence, eager with anticipation. Every step further in was a step further towards completing the monumental undertaking that was laid before him.

The contents of the room beyond were easy enough to see in the dim light. An abundance of techno-magic machinery filled every space in the room, barring the circular walkway that bordered it and the walkway leading into the center of the chamber: monitors larger than Silvertongue displayed mathematical calculations and abundances of text; several machines just to his right bore multitudes of buttons, levers, knobs, switches, and dials; a small power generator stood on the far side of the room, its orange glow bright enough to illuminate the room by itself; cables of all shapes, sizes, and lengths connected them all together.

Silvertongue’s eyes focused towards the center of the room, where a large platform had been raised. He approached it with a spring in his step, ecstatic to see the fruit of his labors firsthand, to see what his mad science and his forbidden magics had wrought.

The large machine on the platform held six large, egg-shaped containers made of blue-tinted glass. Each container connected to a plethora of cables which in turn connected to the series of machines and monitors just to the side. A quick glance at the monitors told him that the contents of the containers were stable.

Silvertongue’s mouth curled in a tiny grin. He turned and called out into the room. “Doctor! Is everything prepared?”

A crash from the side of the room drew Silvertongue’s attention. Somepony had tripped over one of the cables and was now swearing loudly as he tried to untangle himself. The pony, an off-white unicorn stallion wearing a dull beige lab coat and an overly-large pair of goggles, rounded the nearby machinery and greeted Silvertongue with a brisk salute and a smile.

“Herr Silvertongue! I apologize, I did not hear you come in. I vas occupied viz monitorink zee subjects.” Blutsauger ran a hoof through his slick mane to straighten it, giving a nervous chuckle. “But ja, everyzing is ready. I only need to make a few final adjustments, and zen vee may begin. Are you as excited as I am, Herr Silvertongue?”

Silvertongue laughed and patted the other unicorn on the shoulder. “You have outdone yourself, Doctor. Six in total, and in such a short time as well. I am glad to see I will not be experiencing any more delays. This shall be your greatest work, I assure you of that. History in the making.”

Blutsauger smiled and nodded. “Zank you... zank you, Herr Silvertongue. Zough, I really must zank you for makink it so easy to get zee genetic material. I do not know if I vould have been able to do zis vizout pure samples. Zese specimens are fantastic!”

Silvertongue turned his attention back to the containment pods. A mare rested in each. Here, in the one closest to him, lay a lavender mare, a unicorn with a deep purple mane and tail with a bright pink streak shooting along the middle. Her eyes were closed and from here he could not see her breathing, but all of the instruments told him that she was very much alive.

Twilight Sparkle, representative of the Element of Magic. The only difference between the one here and the one somewhere out there in New Pandemonium City was that the latter had a soul, the former did not. The lack of a cutie mark upon the flank of the one in the pod proved that. Silvertongue knew that soon, that would no longer be the case, that the little mare in this containment pod would no longer be Twilight Sparkle, and yet would be all the same. All of the original’s thoughts, memories, passions, and dreams, every last fiber of her being, would be twisted to his advantage.

In each of the other chambers lay another perfectly-copied clone of the rest of the Elements of Harmony, awaiting the next stage of his plan. The thought of his labors being given physical form at long last brought a smile to his face. Soon enough, they could begin the task he had set before them.

Silvertongue smiled. “Excellent. Now then, Doctor, go ahead and finish your final preparations. I need to focus myself for the next stage. I should only need a few moments. Alone.”

“Ja, Herr Silvertongue,” Blutsauger acknowledged, hastily shuffling away.

Silvertongue breathed deep and let his magic waft about him.

Nihila quickly responded, as always.

My Warden, you work quickly,” she cooed, sending a shiver of cold through him. “I am pleased with your progress.

Silvertongue responded with his thoughts, not daring to speak aloud. “I am as anxious to begin as you are, milady. The stage has been set, and the actors are all in place. With your blessing, I may pull back the curtain and let our masterpiece perform for itself.

Nihila hesitated. A curious feeling, one he hadn’t felt in a long while. “My Warden, I will be granting phenomenal magical powers to you, with which you will be gifting these creatures with life. Their bodies and souls will become warped to serve us. But I warn you, it will weaken me greatly. I will be unable to reach out from the Dreaming for quite some time, unable to assist you should you require my aid.

I have utmost confidence in my plan, milady. These six mares that we are birthing this very hour are the perfect pawns to carry out this task. I have no doubt that the powers you are to bequeath upon them will be more than enough insurance that, even should our initial plan fail, they may still be of some use in the future.

I am entrusting you with a great risk, my Warden. I know you will not disappoint me. You have my blessings. Continue your work and see to it personally if need be that my will be done.

As you wish, milady.

Silvertongue then felt the oddest sensation. Nihila’s consciousness left him, but he did not feel empty. He instead felt empowered as her essence remained, filling with so much dark magic that for a fleeting second he feared it would tear him apart, unable to be contained by his mortal form.

“Herr Silvertongue!” called Blutsauger, shaking him from his awed stupor. “All zee preparations are complete, und vee are ready to begin.”

Silvertongue nodded, and strode away from his prized creations to a large machine opposite Blutsauger’s workstation, where Blutsauger awaited him. The Doctor assisted Silvertongue in attaching a mechanical brace to the latter’s horn. The brace and the machine connected to cables of many different sizes and colors that stretched up to the ceiling, then came down again and attached themselves to the machine holding the six containment pods. Blutsauger checked the readouts on the nearby monitors to make sure everything had been connected properly, then trotted over to his workstation and made a few final adjustments.

“Right, now zen, ven you give zee vord, Herr Silvertongue, I vill begin zee energy transfer,” Blutsauger explained. He ran a hoof through his mane and adjusted his goggles. “Ach, zis is mein first time performink zis precise procedure, but it should not be much different zan zee ozer times, ja? Zis time at least I have bodies to start viz.”

Silvertongue took a deep breath. “I am ready to begin whenever you are, doctor.”

Blutsauger nodded and ignited his horn. He flicked switches, turned dials, adjusted levers, twisted knobs, and pushed buttons, then turned to the massive red power switch behind him. He took a sharp breath as he lifted it, and with a loud clang, it snapped into the ON position.

Silvertongue felt a rush of electricity snap through his horn. The power in his body reacted to the amplification device he had designed, causing the machine to glow a dull red.

Blutsauger double-checked all his station’s monitors, then gave a satisfied laugh. “Ha ha! Vee are all ready to go! Venever you are ready, Herr Silvertongue, you may begin—” He dramatically lifted his hoof straight up into the air. “Zee magicks!”

Silvertongue chuckled. “Then let us begin.”

He churned his new powers slowly through the amplification machine’s funnel, watching as the energy coursed through the cables above, causing them to glow a bright blue, and into the containment machine at the room’s center. The machine rotated slightly and lifted one of the containment pods from the platform to center of the machine, latching it firmly in place beneath the other end of the funnel.

The pony inside was orange. Applejack’s clone. Doctor Blutsauger always did have a habit of doing things alphabetically.

Silvertongue licked his lips as the pod began to glow a dark purple, obscuring the pony inside from view. He allowed more of Nihila’s magicks to flow forth until he was certain he’d drained a full sixth of it. He laced her magicks with some of his own.

Darkness filled the room, shrouding everything in pitch black, leaving only the glow of the machines, the two unicorns’ horns, and the pod to light the room. The room trembled once, causing the monitors to shake and their images to flicker. Once the darkness had ebbed away, the machine stopped spinning. The containment pod remained shrouded in a dark mist, even as the machine pulled it away and lifted it towards the nearby wall, where it would be sent to an adjacent room for safekeeping and further monitoring.

Silvertongue snapped his hoof towards Blutsauger’s station. “Halt the loading process, Doctor. I wish to look upon this first creation of mine.”

“Ja, Herr Silvertongue.” Blutsauger nodded and flicked a pair of switches beside his station, causing the pod to smoothly grind to a halt.

The black and purple mist slowly dissipated, and Silvertongue gazed into the pod. His first creation lay inside, alive, breathing, and kept in stasis to allow her body to adjust to the dark magicks that empowered her and gave her life. A smile crept upon his face. She was lovely.

Applejack’s clone had been changed, no longer looking anything like her original self. Her orange coat had turned a vibrant blue. Her blond mane and tail became a shiny red. Her figure was slightly leaner and more refined than the toned muscle of the original.

Silvertongue eagerly awaited the chance to see how her personality had changed from that of her Harmony counterpart, to see if her mind had been twisted as much as her body. He motioned to Blutsauger to send the pod on its way, then re-focused his magic.

There were still five more ponies to transform.

The machine spun and lifted up the clone of Fluttershy into the central slot. Silvertongue fueled the device with Nihila’s magic, and the room darkened and shook. Fluttershy’s counterpart was lifted away the same as Applejack’s had been. Silvertongue did not signal to halt the process this time. He’d witnessed its effects upon Applejack’s clone already, and knew he would soon see and meet the rest of these marvelous mares without squandering precious time.

Silvertongue repeated the process with Pinkie Pie’s counterpart next, then with Rainbow Dash’s, then with Rarity’s. The one he was most eagerly anticipating, Twilight Sparkle’s clone, came last. Everything started off rather smoothly as he funneled Nihila’s magic laced with his own through the amplifier.

But then, something went wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.

Several of the machines in the room shook violently, monitors shorting out or becoming overloaded with static. Silvertongue felt phenomenal power flowing outward from the clone of Twilight Sparkle as she was slowly transformed. He’d expected Twilight Sparkle and her copy to have incredible power as the Element of Magic. The energy felt somehow familiar, though he could not recall where he’d felt it before.

He turned to Blutsauger’s station. “Doctor! What is happening here?! Why is she reacting this way?!”

Blutsauger observed one of his readout meters, then leapt away as it burst apart. “Her magical levels are off zee charts, Herr Silvertongue! I did not zink anypony could contain zis much magic.”

“What manner of magic is it, Doctor? This is neither Light nor Darkness.”

Blutsauger wiped his brow and adjusted his goggles to double-check his readings. “Zee machines cannot pinpoint zee source. Zey do not recognize it.”

More of Nihila’s power flowed into the machine, causing Twilight’s clone to give off even more energy. Silvertongue felt it tickling his skin, making his mane and tail waft about as though there were a fierce breeze in the room. The hairs on his coat stood on end. So much of Nihila’s power remained to give this mare, and yet her power still proliferated.

Several tense moments passed.

“Her energy readings are stabilizing, Herr Silvertongue,” Blutsauger said. He ran a hoof through his mane and shook away sweat. “Zee safety parameters vill hold for now. Zee starglass cannot vizstand much more, but so long as her power does not increase, zere should be no—"

A loud crack reverberated from the center of the room, knocking some of the taller machines over.

Blutsauger quickly trotted in and eyed the glass, then staggered back. “Impossible. Impossible! Herr Silvertongue, her magic is cracking zee glass!”

“What?!”

Silvertongue’s eyes widened at the implications. The magical power required to break through starglass was extraordinarily high. He himself had trouble cracking through it, and as Nihila’s Warden he was the most powerful unicorn in all Equestria. Were Twilight Sparkle and her clone that powerful? As powerful as he was? More powerful?

Incredible.

Another crack. The fractures snaked along the surface of the glass like it was ice. The sound of pounding came from inside. Once. Twice.

Blutsauger leapt back as the glass snapped open, and galloped back to the safety of his workstation. “Nein! Impossible! Nein, nein, nein!

The intense magic burst out the little pod, a fierce storm set loose into the chamber. Without its host to control it, the powerful magic acted of its own will. The magic sporadically took shape and flared about, lashing out randomly at nearby machines. Silvertongue continued to pump more of Nihila’s power into the amplifier, giving this wild and untamed magic more to work with. The cloud of darkness launched bolts of energy that ripped metal and glass apart like paper; it lashed out with fluidic tentacle-like strands, grasping at things, crushing them like toys or smashing them like a sledgehammer.

Blutsauger clambered over to Silvertongue in a panic and groveled before him. “Herr Silvertongue, vee must stop zee process! Her powers vill tear zee room apart!”

“Stop? When we are so close?” Silvertongue snapped, kicking Blutsauger away. “We are only a few short moments away from bestowing life upon the most powerful mortal creature in this world, and you want to stop?” He jabbed a hoof in the direction of Blutsauger’s workstation. “Get back to your station you miserable little foal, and keep her lifelines stable. I am not about to end this just because you are a pathetic coward.”

Blutsauger gulped, and nodded as he backed away. “Ja... ja, I vill... just go back to mein station, Herr Silvertongue.”

Blutsauger returned to his instruments, tweaking them in an attempt to calm the empowered mare’s magic. All the safety dampeners had been damaged or destroyed; she’d already broken through the Starguard glass. Nothing seemed to be working at all. More of her increasing power flooded the room, tearing apart everything it touched. Blutsauger huddled under his workstation in terror.

Silvertongue remained undeterred, even as the magic lashed out at machines close to him. One bolt of magic flashed just past his ear, close enough that he could feel heat. Another exploded nearby, tearing apart a monitor station in a shower of metal, glass, and wires. He continued to stand firm, and grit his teeth and steeled his hoove.

One bolt of magic shot straight at him. He did not attempt to avoid it or block it, and trying to do either was impossible given the circumstances. All of his magic was maintaining the power transfer, and as long as he was latched into the amplifier, he couldn’t move.

When the black bolt struck him, he recoiled in agony. All he could see was black and red as darkness and blood flooded his vision. The blast exploded, shattering his monocle and ripping his eye apart. A lesser pony might have blacked out or gone into shock, but Silvertongue was too far into this focus. He would not be deterred, not if it cost him life and limb. He’d worked too hard for far too long to reach this point. He was not about to stop now.

Only a little more.

He fought through the searing pain. It would not move him.

Only a little more.

He ignored the salty taste of blood. It would not shake him.

Only a little more.

He couldn’t see straight. That would not deter him.

Only a little more.

It was done.

Silvertongue felt a saddening emptiness as the last of Nihila’s magic fully transferred into the clone of Twilight Sparkle. The intense magicks calmed, and retreated back to their host.

Silvertongue snapped the amplifier off his horn roughly and stumbled out of the bracing device. He tripped over some of the broken debris of the room. He felt dizzy from bloodloss.

Blutsauger jumped out from cover and ran to Silvertongue’s aid, helping to keep him steady. “Herr Silvertongue, you’ve done it! Zee process vas a complete success, und—" He trailed off, and his face paled. “Herr Silvertongue... your eye—"

“It is a minor inconvenience.” Silvertongue snorted, though his breathing was labored. He turned towards the center of the room, towards the heavily damaged machine in the center and the broken pod that lay in its remains. “Her pod is shattered. That means she will not be in stasis, correct?”

Blutsauger nodded. “Ja, correct. She vill not be in stasis vizout zee containment pod. Her life signs are stable zough. She vill likely vake up on her own in a few moments.”

“Excellent.” Silvertongue smiled and licked his lips, ignoring the taste of blood. “Bring me to her.”

Blutsauger hesitated. “Herr Silvertongue, shouldn’t vee get you some medical—"

“I said, bring me to her, Doctor. You can attend to my injuries later. I insist that they all see me soon after waking. She is no exception. Bring me to her. Now.

Blutsauger sighed and wiped his brow. “Ja... ja, of course, Herr Silvertongue.” He assisted Silvertongue in hobbling towards the central platform.

The entire room had become like a battlefield. Sparks of electricity jumped about from nearby machines. Debris had been scattered about. Smoke clouded the air. The pair had to walk carefully to avoid stepping on anything that might cause further injury.

Silvertongue insisted upon limping the rest of the way up the platform without Blutsauger’s help. He came to the shattered pod, and beheld his sixth and final creation.

She had a deep, dark purple coat, not at all the bright, colorful lavender of her original form. Her mane a bright pink and purple mix with a natural curl. This mare was perfect. She was just as powerful as her Harmony counterpart, but without things that prevented her from using that power for personal gain and for destruction, such as compassion or mercy.

The mare’s eyes slowly fluttered open.

Silvertongue smiled down at her. “Rise and shine, little one...”


CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter Eight: Impasse

 

I can’t believe she’s gone. Why did she have to get tangled up in this? I should have never gotten involved...

Ow! Cripes, ma, could ya’ take it easy?”

Flathoof winced when the heavyset earth pony mare in front of him flicked his ear.

“Now is that any way to talk to your mother, hmm?” Shortcake tutted, dabbing another cotton ball in a big bottle of rubbing alcohol. She shook her head. “Oh, you boys are all alike! You come home crying and whining about this and that and something-or-other. ‘Oh mama I got hurt at work today. Can you kiss it and make it feel better?’ And you just expect me to do everything.”

She shook the wet cotton ball in his face, making him flinch. “See? See? Things like this are why your father and I didn’t want you getting into the police business in the first place! You remember what your father said? Hmm? About his hoof and certain unmentionable areas?”

Flathoof rolled his eyes. “Like it was yesterday. C’mon ma, this was a pretty uncommon—"

“Don’t interrupt!” she interrupted, flicking his ear again.

Shortcake dabbed the alcohol-soaked cotton ball at one of the many cuts on Flathoof’s chest, paying extra attention to the particularly deep one where his badge normally rested. She discarded the cotton ball, then wiped the alcohol on her hoof off on her apron before grabbing another. She blew her damp mane out of her face and returned to work.

Ooh, tomorrow morning I am going to have so many words with that little unicorn, and I tell you now Flathoof, your mama is gonna be using some language that she don’t want you ever taking out of this household, understand?”

She took a few deep, rapid breaths. “Dragging my boy into danger like he’s some kind of... danger-facer. The nerve! Why, if Lockwood weren’t so keen on treating her nice I’d—"

“Now ma, she didn’t drag me anywhere.” Flathoof sighed. “I’m the one who took her to Snapshot’s place.”

Shortcake’s expression soured. “Oh, please don’t mention that poor girl, Flathoof. That poor dear...” She sniffed loudly, wiping the tissue she had in one hoof to her eyes. “Such a sweet mare. Your sister was so fond of her, and your father was too, and you know how hard he is to please. Thickhoof wanted her to come over for the holidays again. I was so certain she’d be a part of the family sooner or later.”

“I ain’t interuptin’ nothin’, am I?”

Flathoof nearly jumped out of his seat, completely taken by surprise as Applejack made her presence in the doorway known. He turned pink in the cheeks, realizing he was not only out of uniform, but not wearing any clothes at all.

“Oh geez!” he blurted. He reached over to the bed stand and grabbed his cap, using it to hide his indecency. “Ma! Would it kill you to close the door, huh?”

Shortcake flicked her son’s ear again. He winced. “Hush! We are in a private residence, so that fool Dress Code doesn’t apply in here. And mind your manners, talking to your mother like that in front of company. What would your father say?”

“Ma, I am naked here and there is a girl standing in my room.”

Shortcake chuckled, patting him on the shoulder. “And about time too, if I do say so—"

“Ma!”

Applejack stepped back. “Um... I can come back at another time, if—"

Shortcake turned to the doorway and gestured for Applejack to enter the room. “Oh don’t mind him, he’s a bit of a stick in the mud sometimes when it comes to those kinds of things.”

“M-ma! Come on, at least let me put a shirt on!”

“It’s alright, really,” Applejack said, adjusting her hat. “Ta be honest, back where me ‘n’ my friends come from, we don’t usually wear clothes anyway. Ain’t nothin’ ta be ashamed of.”

Shortcake tapped her chin. “You were... Applejack? Yes?”

Applejack nodded. “That’s right, ma’am. I was just checkin’ in, seein’ if everythin’ was okay. Twilight wanted ta know if y’all needed her help mendin’ him up any.”

Shortcake smiled and patted Applejack’s shoulder. “Oh I think I’m done fixing the big lunk up for now. He’s a tough cookie, I’ll give him that.”

She yawned. “I’m going to hit the hay myself, pretty soon. It's been a long night. My boy’s going with you on this little adventure, is that right?”

“Yes ma’am, that’s what I hear. We’re right glad ta have him along.”

“Keep an eye on him for me, will you? I get the feeling I can trust you to do that.” She put her hoof on Applejack’s shoulder and gestured towards Flathoof. “Oh, and be a dear and help the big lunk get dressed? If you say you’re not nervous about my son being naked, well...” She winked.

Applejack turned as red as Flathoof. “R-right. Sure thing, ma’am.”

Shortcake left the room, shutting the door behind her. Applejack trotted over to Flathoof’s side. He busied himself trying to get a clean, plain white shirt on, but the gauze wrapped around his shoulder gave him trouble.

“Do ya need any help?” she asked.

Flathoof fumbled his foreleg through a sleeve. “No, I’m perfectly fine. Is everything okay out there? How’s Miss Tock?”

Applejack laughed and rubbed the back of her neck. “Well, she’s got enough energy ta argue with Twilight ‘bout this ‘n’ that, so I reckon she’ll be right as rain soon enough. I tell ya, Twilight’s magic impresses me more ‘n’ more every time I see it. She fixed that girl’s leg up real quick like, with some help from Fluttershy, o’ course.”

She coughed into her hoof. “How about you though, are y’all gonna be okay? Do ya need anythin’?”

“I’ll manage. I’ve had worse. All in a day’s work for one of New Pandemonium’s finest.”

Mentioning the department reminded him that Snapshot was gone. He took his cap and stared at the New Pandemonium emblem on the brim for a moment, then tossed the cap aside, sighed, and layed back on his bed.

An awkward silence lingered for a moment.

Applejack rubbed the back of her head. “I’m... I’m sorry ta hear ‘bout yer friend.”

He shook his head and kept staring at the ceiling. “I feel like a terrible pony, Applejack.”

“C’mon now, sugar, it ain’t your fault she’s gone. That there crazy pegasus is the one ta blame, y’hear? Not you.”

Flathoof tilted his head and saw her forcing a smile. “That’s not what I meant. I meant... about everything.” He sighed. “If I’d just been honest with her from the start, with myself, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. I don’t know...”

Applejack spoke slowly. “She was... more ta y’all than just a friend... wasn’t she?”

“Not like that, if that’s what you’re asking. My brother’s the one who really liked her. I suppose I may have felt something too, but that might just be the grief talking.”

He sat up and dejectedly picked his cap back up. “I always told myself I’d find out one day, but I kept telling myself the time wasn’t right. That there’d always be another day. I’m such a coward.” He sighed. “I feel so... empty.”

Applejack sat next to him on his bed. “That’s what it feels like ta lose someone ya hold close ta yer heart. I know that feelin’, sugar.” She looked away and removed her hat, placing it over her heart. “I know how hard it is ta get the news and deal with the loss. The feelin’ that ya couldn’t stop it. That ya never had a chance ta say goodbye.”

They sat in silence for a moment.

She put a hoof on his un-bandaged shoulder and turned back to him. “If y’all need somepony ta talk to, I’m here for ya, y’hear?”

He smiled and leaned into her. “Thank you, Applejack. I really do appreciate it. This isn’t my first time dealing with loss, but... it still hurts.”

Another awkward silence came between them.

Applejack shifted and got up, adjusting her hat back on her head. “C’mon, let’s go see if Tick Tock is gettin’ along better now, yeah? Get yer mind off all this. The last thing y’all need is ta beat yerself up over it. She wouldn’t like ta see y’all in a rut.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea,” Flathoof said. He got up as well and smoothed his shirt, then placed his cap on the nightstand.

“I suppose after dealing with my mother, she’s not going to be very stable,” he added. “She’s going to need some checking up on.”

Flathoof opened the door, and the pair headed out into the hall.

A young colt was waiting for them, and gave Flathoof a big hug. “Big bro! You're okay! Mom said you got hurt and—"

Flathoof scowled at the little pony. “Shorthoof! What in the wide world of Equestria are you doing up at this unwholesome hour? You have school in the morning. What were you doing, hiding outside in the hall? Does ma know you’re still up?”

The small, butter-colored pony sniffed and gave Flathoof a pleading look. “I just wanted to see if you were okay, big bro...”

Flathoof sighed, and leaned down to give the little one a hug. “Aww, don’t you worry about me, little guy. Your big bro is invincible, got that? Nothing’s gonna put me in my place just yet.” He ruffled the colt’s cherry-red mane. “Now you get off to bed, okay? I don’t want to hear nothing about you doing poorly in school because you were up all night.”

“Okay big bro, I will.” Shorthoof’s glance shifted sideways to Applejack. He flinched. “Oh! S-sorry miss, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Applejack laughed. “It’s alright, lil’ guy. Why, I’ve got a lil’ sis just like y’all back at home. I reckon she’d be just as worried ‘bout me if she were in yer horseshoes.”

“You have a weird accent, miss.”

“Shorthoof!” Flathoof stomped a hoof and pointed at Applejack. “You apologize to Applejack right—"

“It’s okay, he didn’t mean nothin’ by it.” Applejack leaned down and patted the little earth pony on the head. “I reckon I do sound awful strange ‘round these parts anyhow. Heck, even back home there ain’t many ponies that sound much like us Apple Clan folk.”

Shorthoof nervously stepped away. “W-well, it’s been nice talking to you, but my big bro’ll scold me some more if I don’t get to bed. Night, big bro. Night, Miss Applejack.”

“Good night, little guy.” Flathoof sighed as he shooed Shorthoof away.

He chuckled as the colt rounded the corner back towards his own room. “I think he likes you.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

“Shorthoof’s not exactly the most sociable pony in our family.” Flathoof circled his hoof around dismissively in the air. “I deal with the public, my ma and sister love to gossip, pa is a foreman at the Foundry, and Thickhoof’s at home all the time now, so I think ma and Pattycake are starting to rub off on him.”

He sighed and rubbed his neck. “Shorthoof though, he tends to stick to himself. He mostly does a lot of reading, and I don’t think he wants to take after the family line. Doesn’t have many friends either.” He patted Applejack on the shoulder. “But you? He actually talked to you all on his own, even having just met you. I think it took him a week to even talk to Lockwood without us telling him to.”

Applejack smiled. “He’s a cute lil’ guy. Really does remind me o’ my lil’ sis. Even looks alike, minus the bow.” She stepped down the hall and waved for Flathoof to follow. “C’mon, let’s go see how Tick Tock’s doin’.”

The pair headed down the hall towards the den. The den was nearly twice the size of the one back in Room eighty-four and five. Though with two couches, a dining table with room for ten, a bookshelf, a small entertainment center, and several cabinets, it was significantly more cluttered. The television on the entertainment center was on but had been muted. A few of the cabinets had been opened to get to the box of first-aid supplies, which was big enough to take up all the room in one of the cabinets by itself.

Only three ponies occupied the den. Tick Tock rested on one of the couches while Twilight tended to her injuries, a small frown on her face as she was concentrating on the healing spell. Busy in his own world, Lockwood gathered the assorted medical supplies that had been scattered about the room and busied himself putting them back in their box.

Tick Tock looked a mess, though thankfully she'd gotten proper care more quickly this time, so her injuries had already mostly healed. A sling kept her leg still, and both it and her leg were enshrouded by a light pink aura that matched the one around Twilight’s horn.

“Well, don't you look a sight,” Flathoof said. “You’ve seen better days, Miss Tock, that’s for sure.”

“You're one to talk.” Tick Tock frowned and looked down at the floor. “I’m sorry about what happened to your friend. That bloody maniac used her to get to you, since you were with me...”

Tick Tock's sullen expression deepened when Flathoof didn't reply.

“Is her leg gonna be okay, Twi?” Applejack asked.

“It wouldn't be, if you hadn't gotten here as quickly as you did,” Twilight said, continuing her work. “Restomancy, or healing magic, is not an easy field to work in. Very delicate stuff; there’s so much that can go wrong if just a little something is even slightly off. It was just a fracture, but if she tries to move it too much it won’t heal properly, and she might break it next time she tries to walk. She'll be okay for now, though.”

Flathoof shook his head. “If only a pony like you had been around when my brother had his accident.”

“It’s not your fault that procedure costs so much, Flathoof. Come now, don't look so downtrodden,” Lockwood said, sliding the large box of supplies back into the cabinet. “I know you’ve lost a lot today, but if this little errand of ours is going to go well, we should try and start it in high spirits.” He snapped his head up. “N-not that I’m trying to rush your grieving,” he added. “I am sor—"

Flathoof held up a hoof to dissuade Lockwood from continuing. “Don’t worry about it, I know what you mean. If I’m going to get through this, I should keep myself active, not lay about and mope and weep.” He stomped a hoof on the carpet. “So, I stand by my decision: I’m going to try to ensure these girls get home safe and sound, and that you don’t get yourself killed out there. It’s the least I could do.”

He turned to Tick Tock. “So I assume, then, that our plan remains unchanged?"

“If by that you mean, ‘are we still going to the Gate to use those ruddy fake passports?’ then yes, the plan is the same,” Tick Tock muttered. “Bloody well can't change it now, not that I can think of any reason why we’d need to. I don't think I'm in any condition to try and climb over the Outer Wall, at any rate. I really wish we didn’t have to delay it on my account. We’re pressed for time, and every day counts.”

Twilight jerked her head up. “Say, that reminds me! I had a pressing question about this whole situation. More specifically, what exactly our role in our world entails.”

Tick Tock rolled her eyes. “Great, this again. Now what are you going to argue about?”

“Why is it so imperative that we get home so quickly?”

Applejack's jaw dropped. “The hay’s the matter with you, Twilight? Don't y'all wanna go home?”

Twilight shook her head. “That's not what I meant. Of course I want to go home, Applejack. What I mean is, is that really the only solution? Getting home in three weeks?”

Tick Tock raised an eyebrow. “I don't follow.”

“Well, couldn’t Princess Celestia try and find new bearers of the Elements of Harmony? That way, they’d be ready to combat Discord immediately, right? I mean, I don’t feel right putting that kind of responsibility into someone else’s hooves, but it sounds less dangerous that way.

“Considering the injuries you two have sustained,” she added, pointing at Tick Tock and Flathoof, “I just wonder if perhaps we should reconsider our options, especially if outside the city is more dangerous than inside. I don’t want anypony getting hurt, or worse, on our account."

Tick Tock moved to speak, then stopped a moment. “Hmm... that is an interesting theory,” she said. “It certainly would ease things on our end a great deal.”

She shook her head and sighed. “But we'd have no way of contacting Time Turner to inform him, and hoping he has that same theory himself is too risky. Considering how our last conversation ended, he likely would be considering other solutions. But, I have no idea what he might think of. He’s not an easy pony to predict. A proper good idea, Sparkle, but not something that’s in the cards for us, sad to say.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “I thought you said Chronomancers can contact one another?”

Tick Tock chuckled and tugged her collar. “Well... I’m afraid that that is not possible. I made a grave error in my first encounter with that maniac, and left my Timekeeper in my T.A.R.D.I.S. I’m such a bleedin’ idiot.

“What’s rule number one Tick Tock?” she said to herself, her tone condescending. “Always keep your Timekeeper on you, Tick Tock. Easiest bloody rule in the book and I broke it like I’m some sort of stupid foal.”

Twilight frowned. “I assume that it’s important?”

“‘Important’ is putting it lightly,” Tick Tock sighed. “A Timekeeper is everything a Chronomancer needs to do anything and everything their job entails. It’s how we open our T.A.R.D.I.S., control and destroy Void portals, and it carries multiple tools for running quick, accurate calculations for just about any mathematical or magical problem. I’d go into it, but...”

She buried her face in the couch’s cushions. “Oh, what’s the point? It’s not like I’m gonna get to show it off. I left it on my desk when I entered the T.A.R.D.I.S., because I wasn’t thinking. I was just eager to take a rest for a little bit after walking around the bleedin’ city all day, and when that brute attacked I never got a chance to pick it up.”

“Couldn’t we go back for it?” Flathoof asked. “It sounds like this thing is really important. Won’t you need it to send these girls home?”

“Luckily, no.” Tick Tock said. “But you’re making the assumption that that psychopath didn’t lay a trap for me if I came back for it, or that it’s even still there. The T.A.R.D.I.S. door was left wide open. He could have easily gone back and nicked what he could. I wouldn’t put it past him.

“Besides, we didn’t find a body, and that worries me,” she continued, glancing at the door. “I’ve already taken a chance against that bleedin’ lunatic twice, and I’ve come out on top by the skin of my teeth. I don’t think I have the heart to try my luck a third time.”

Twilight sighed. “Well shoot, there goes my idea. I was hoping to avoid the risk of something happening to somepony, or the possibility of delays. We may as well follow through with your plan then, if that’s the only viable option.”

“Good. Glad to hear we finally agree on something.” Tick Tock yawned. “Now if you don’t mind, I need some shut-eye. I’ve had an exhausting day, and I’m bloody knackered.”

Twilight turned to the others, and gestured for them to follow her out of the den, giving Tick Tock her peace.

“I’m glad she’s okay,” Twilight said once they were in the hallway. “Her attitude may be disagreeable, but she seems to know more about the outside of the city than either of you.” She looked at both Flathoof and Lockwood. “She sounds like she’s our best chance at getting out of here. No offense.”

Lockwood chuckled. “Well, I wouldn’t say I don’t know anything about outside the city walls, I just lack the personal experience. I know a few ponies that have been outside the city on many occasions.”

“So, I assume the plan is settled?” Twilight asked. “We’ll head for the Gate tomorrow morning, and try to get as much distance between us and the city as we can before nightfall?”

“Sounds reasonable enough,” Flathoof said. “We can decide on the route we want to take to Hope’s Point when Miss Tock is awake again. She might have a better suggestion than just hoofing it across the Wasteland. There’s gotta be a safer route, and if anypony here knows it, it’s her.”

Twilight yawned. “Right. Let’s all get some rest then, hmm? We’ve got a big day ahead of us. Come along Applejack.”

Applejack nodded and began to follow Twilight. “Nighty night, y’all.”

“Goodnight, Applejack,” Flathoof said. “And thanks again.”

“Don’t mention it, sugar. Just keep in mind what I said, y’hear?”

As the two mares rounded the opposite corner, Lockwood gave Flathoof a playful jab in the side.

Flathoof grunted. “Hey! What was that for?”

“Oh, nothing sugar,” Lockwood said, laughing into his hoof. “Glad to see you’re not letting things get you too down. I don’t want to be the only one with a positive outlook on things. Come on, we should get some rest too. I guess I’m bunking with you tonight. I’m letting Fluttershy and Rarity use the room usually reserved for me. Poor girls looked like they needed a good, soft bed to rest on.”

Flathoof caught a certain glimmer in Lockwood’s eye. He laughed. “Glad to see you’re still the same ol’ Lockwood.”

“That’s right, I—" He stopped and raised an eyebrow. “Wait, what’s that supposed to mean?”

Flathoof slapped Lockwood on the back. “Nothing. Come on, let’s get some shut-eye.”

 

***

 

The distinctness of the Gate District, compared to the rest of the Outer District, surprised Twilight. Even the Mid Districts could not compare to how neat and tidy everything looked. Their surroundings were high-tech and clean, which gave the place an eerie, sinister feel, for lack of a better description, as nothing she’d seen of the city thus far came even close to being this organized.

Iron walkways replaced concrete sidewalks. Silver and black buildings of sleek, shiny metals replaced the dingy, rusty browns and reds of the rest of the city. There weren’t any shops, restaurants, or leisure locations as far as Twilight could tell, just domicile complexes. She had to call them that, because that’s what they had listed above their doorways, each followed by a letter and a number.

While the rest of the city had a distinct smoky smell to it that stung Twilight’s nostrils and eyes, here that odor was very faint. Instead, the scent of freshly-cleaned linens hung in the air, concentrated the most around dull metal grates located on every street corner. A group of pegasi colts played near one, and whenever they leapt over it, they’d spread their wings and try to stay airborne in the air currents. It marked the first time Twilight had seen anypony in this city actually having fun.

Twilight figured it made sense, in a way. The pleasant atmosphere put both her and the rest her friends in a better mood. Everything was clean and neat to an unnatural level, almost sterile.

“This place is so clean, it makes Rarity’s place look like a dump,” Rainbow said.  She looked skyward, where even the air itself was clean, completely free of smog.

“Well I wouldn’t go that far, dear,” Rarity said. She stole a glance towards a couple who casually strolled past them, each wearing elaborate matching ensembles and discussing something that was drowned out by the chatter of the crowd. “Hmph... at least the ponies here have a sense of style. Oh my, I feel terribly underdressed.”

Twilight tapped her chin. “Well if those passport prices are accurate, I guess you’d have to be pretty wealthy to afford one of those and an airship ticket.”

All of the other ponies in the area wore classy, luxurious outfits, jaunting to wherever their destinations might be. Twilight wondered how many, if any, of these ponies were secretly using fake passes. Most of them were walking back towards the city, carrying sagging satchels of souvenirs they’d brought back with them. The saddlebags she and her friends carried and had filled with supplies did not look even remotely as full.

Twilight could just barely make out pieces of conversations as she and her friends cantered by these posh ponies.

“Oh I know, darling, I just can’t wait to tell Seabreeze how exquisite Utopian cuisine really is!”

“And like, oh. My. Stars. Did you see the muscles on that one at the ranch?”

“We shall perhaps wisely consider selling our cherry shares and investing in grapes before they go into season, hmm?”

“Hasn’t anypony down there ever heard of ‘chic’? Maybe next time we’ll just take the trip around to Hope’s Point. Ugh, so much better than here at least. Just look at those ponies over there? Are they part of a circus?”

Twilight noticed these ponies all shared a certain tone of voice: refined, perhaps haughty. It felt like being back in Canterlot. Almost.

“The ponies here are so different from the ponies in the rest of the city,” Twilight said, shaking her head. “Actually, I’m more surprised at how organized everything is here. It’s like a completely different city.”

“You can say that again, darling,” Rarity said. “I am glad to see that at least one place in this dreadful city has a certain degree of consideration for its appearance. Even the hospital wasn’t this clean, which I find quite disturbing if I do say so myself.”

“Everything here is kept under constant maintenance,” Flathoof explained from the front of the group. “After all, what good would it do if one day everything broke down? From what I hear, the Gate requires tons of power to run. It’s what generates the shield that fortifies the Outer Wall, after all.”

Twilight looked around, hoping to see some of this “constant maintenance”, but couldn’t see anypony that looked like they were actually working. “Hmm...” she mused. “Well then, where are all the maintenance crews that should be doing that kind of work? The only ponies I’ve seen so far look like mostly tourists and business ponies.”

“Rumor is they all work underground,” Lockwood said, dramatically pointing his wings downwards. “Worse, that they’re all mutants, conscripted into service by the government in exchange for safety and peace of mind.”

Applejack scratched her head. “‘Mutants’? What in tarnation is a mutant?"

Lockwood hesitated. “Well, I guess the best way to describe them would be ‘deformed ponies’."

“Oh m-m-my...” Fluttershy huddled in even closer to Rarity than she had been before.

“Deformities?” Rarity asked. “Good heavens, how dreadful. How does that sort of thing happen?”

Lockwood waved his hoof through the air. “Well, rumor is that its all that orange gunk in the sky. It’s supposed to be radiation or something.” He patted his stomach. “And rumor also goes that whatever’s in Dolor’s foods counteracts it. Yup, even Dolor Brown. Worse, out there, you’re exposed to more of it.”

“It’s like I said when you all first got here,” Flathoof said. “If anypony thought you were from the Wasteland instead of Utopia, they’d think you had some kind of mutation. Albeit in your case, one that was a little more... subtle.” He shuddered and rubbed his leg. “I’ve seen case files of some of the more transformative mutations and I tell you, they’re not pretty. Let’s just leave it at that. Trust me.”

“Ooh, what kind of mutations we talkin’ about?” Pinkie asked. “Like, are we talking about laser vision? Because that’s one of my favorite ones! I wish I could shoot laser beams out of my eyes.” She set one hoof to the side of her head, and used the other to imitate shooting out of her eyes. “Pchew! Pchew!”

A passing, wide-eyed filly stared up at Pinkie's hoof from the shadow of her father. She tugged on the stallion's tail. “Daddy—"

“It’s not polite to point at the mentally handicapped, dear,” her father replied.

“It’s not a handicap, it’s a benefit!” Pinkie called after them, rising up onto the tips of her back hooves in her effort. She lost her balance and pinwheeled to the ground, plopping onto her face in a huff.

“That’s not the kind of mutations we’re talking about,” Lockwood said. “Seriously, what?

“Yeah, we’re talking more about real deformities,” Flathoof added. “Like extra bits. Or missing bits. Not something you’d probably really get excited for. Well, I hope that you wouldn’t get excited for, anyway.”

Twilight gulped. “Sounds serious. You don’t think something like that could happen to us out there, could it?”

Tick Tock patted Twilight on the shoulder and chuckled. “Relax, Sparkle. The whole mutation thing is just a silly old piece of rubbish the government likes to spread about to dissuade ponies from leaving on hoof, so they have to buy the ludicrously overpriced airship tickets. Why, if something like that could happen, I must be the luckiest pony alive, because I’m immune to it. I spend plenty of time outside the city gates, and I don’t have any bleedin’ mutations.”

Pinkie hopped over and gave Tick Tock a scrutinous gaze. “Are you suuure?”

“Quite sure,” Tick Tock said. She warily stepped back as Pinkie moved in closer, her gaze trying to pierce the veil that wasn't there. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“Just checking!” Pinkie said with a sing-song voice. “Wouldn’t want to be traveling around and have you get all mad at Twilight for asking a question. You’d say something like, ‘You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry!’ and then get all big and green—" She paused. “Well, you’re already green. But your clothes would rip and you’d yell, ‘Tick Tock SMASH!’”

Pinkie turned when a gaggle of young mares nearby started giggling madly at her. She waved, causing them to laugh harder and canter away.

“Seriously, where the bloody hell does she get all these ridiculous ideas?” Tick Tock asked the others. “Laser vision? Shapeshifting? Please tell me the rest of you think she’s bonkers too.”

Twilight, and all the others, shrugged. “She confuses the rest of us just as much most of the time. I wouldn’t question it too much if I were you, Tick Tock. That’s just Pinkie being Pinkie.”

Pinkie rolled her eyes. “Pffh, I say this all the time, but you all really need to get with the times. C’mon, Dashie, you've seen my comic book collection. You know what I'm talking about.”

Rainbow chuckled. “I’ll be honest, Pinkie, when I'm in your room the last thing on my mind is your weird hobbies.”

Pinkie wiggled her eyebrows.

“Action figures!” Rainbow blurted. “I like your action figures!”

“Anyway,” Flathoof said. “Time to focus, ladies. We’re almost to the check-in station. Get your passports ready.”

The group rounded the next corner, and at last the Gate loomed into view. They had yet to see it as, despite its size, the buildings, awnings, and tunnels they had to walk by and through obscured it. The gigantic door stood twice as tall as the rest of the Outer Wall, and even that was large enough to force an Ursa Major to climb over.

“Why is it so big?” Twilight asked. “Why would it need to be so big if it’s just supposed to be keeping ponies in and out?”

Lockwood laughed. “Well, you haven’t heard of some of the predators out there in the Wastelands, have you? From what I hear, the only one that really still exists is called a ‘gargantuan’.” He shuddered. “Never seen one myself, but I’ve heard stories. Oh, I’ve heard stories.”

“Proper monsters, they are,” Tick Tock added. She gestured towards the top of the walls. “The Outer Wall was made so tall to keep the adults out. Trust me when I say that they’re big. Very big. That’s why we’re taking a route that will skip past the areas the adults tend to occupy. The adolescents aren’t too much trouble except in big numbers, and we won’t encounter many of them if any at all.”

“Okay, that explains the wall then,” Twilight said. She scratched her head and stared upwards at the Gate, which stood about half as tall as Dragon Mountain back home. “Doesn’t explain the Gate itself. Why is that so tall?”

“Well that’s more of a statement than anything, I think,” Lockwood said. “The Wall is big to keep out threats. The Gate is big to intimidate those coming in and out of the city. The only thing bigger is Pandora Tower, the capitol building.”

“I don’t see how it’s that big of a deal,” Rainbow muttered, lazily floating by. “I mean, can’t pegasi just fly over the walls?”

Tick Tock laughed. “The Outer Wall doesn’t keep things in and out just by being tall. If you want to risk getting shot, be my guest. The NPAF’s anti-air weaponry would love to get a piece of you.”

The group approached the Gate entrance, passports in hoof. A large divider separated the two sides of the Gate’s door. Crowds of ponies entered through the left side, which was wide open. All of them were dressed as high-class as the other ponies they’d seen on the walk here.

Markings on the walkway beneath, marked Exit, led them towards the right side, which was closed. Apart from themselves, the pathway on the exit side was completely unoccupied.

“Shouldn’t there be more ponies here?” Rainbow asked, looking around. “It seems a little, I dunno, deserted?”

“Well, it is the winter quarter,” Lockwood explained. “Very few ponies leave for the Utopian continent this time of year, so most of these ponies are probably coming back from their autumn vacations. Utopia is popular almost every other time of the year, mostly the summer. I hear the Utopian beaches are extremely hot tourist traps.”

“You really have been planning a trip, haven’t you?” Flathoof laughed. “You’re making me actually look forward to this. Stop it.”

Rainbow grunted and fluttered back down to the ground. “Still seems a little odd. You’d think you’d see at least one pony going this way.”

“Maybe it’s just a bad day of the week?” Twilight said.

Pinkie chuckled, patting Rainbow’s back. “C’mon, Dashie, lighten up a little. This isn’t like you, being all grumpy all the time. Where’s that big Dashie smile? Huh? Huh?” She used her hooves to draw a smile on her own face.

Rainbow gave Pinkie an uncomfortably-large grin in return.

Pinkie hugged Rainbow tight. “There, that’s better.”

“Sorry, Pinks. I’m just trying to look out for everypony, that’s all.” Rainbow said.

The check-in station, made up of a series of machines in a row, waited ahead. Each machine was a tall, silver column, bearing a large blue screen with several silver buttons on either side. A slot beneath the monitor read, Insert Passport Here, and included a picture to demonstrate the proper method of inserting one’s own.

Flathoof approached one, stepping onto the hoof-shaped markings on the ground that read, Please Stand Here.  He fished his passport from the pocket of his shirt and inserted it into the slot as directed. The column beeped several times, then its monitor turned green and displayed the words, Performing Identity Confirmation. Twilight and her friends each took a cautious step back when the silver buttons on the sides of the monitors opened up and revealed a set of faintly-glowing, needle-like attachments.

Twilight saw faint traces of magic flowing out of these attachments. Machinery that could simulate magic? Curious, indeed. Most of the city disturbed her greatly, namely the disorganized way things were run, the quality of life, and the sociability of the ponies living here. Their technology, on the other hoof, fascinated her more and more every time she saw it in action. If not for their haste to get home, she would love the chance to research how it all worked.

The machine beeped again, and the appendages sunk back inside. The screen returned to blue, and Flathoof slid his passport out of the slot.

“There we go, all done, Flathoof,” Lockwood said. He stepped forward, and presented his own passport. “As an act of good faith, allow me to demonstrate that the passports you lovely young ladies are using will work just as well as Flathoof’s.”

He inserted his card as Flathoof had done, and the machine repeated the approval process. Once he was approved, he slid his card out of the slot and replaced it in his jacket pocket.

He laughed. “See? No problem at all. I am nothing if not dependable, if I do say so myself.”

Twilight stepped forward next. “Well then, let’s get to it, girls. Time to get out of this crazy city and start getting back home.”

She inserted her card. The process repeated itself. She took her card.

“See, Rainbow? Everything’s fine. No trouble. Pinkie’s right, you really need—"

“Yeah yeah, I get it,” Rainbow grumbled. She stepped in next and used hers. Approved. “All of this just seems too convenient if you ask me.”

The other Ponyville natives stepped in and used their passes too. All of them were approved, and now they were ready to move through the Gate.

At last, Tick Tock stepped in and readied her own passport. She looked at the screen rather nervously, glanced back to the card, then back to the screen again.

“Something the matter, Tick Tock?” Twilight asked. “You’ve done this dozens of times before, right? What’s up?”

Tick Tock shook her head. “Sorry, I guess I’m just a little cautious. I’ve dealt with a load of bollocks these past two days, and I just get a strange feeling that everything I do is going to end in horrible disaster.”

“Don’t fret over it, darling,” Rarity said, patting Tick Tock on the back. “We’re all here together now.”

“Yeah, if anythin’ or anypony tries ta give y’all any trouble, they’ll be in fer a load o’ trouble back from us, y’hear?” Applejack added, stomping her hoof.

Pinkie bounced up on her hind legs and started boxing her fore hooves about. “Yeah! We’ll give ‘em the ol’ what-for! Or maybe even the what-five! That’s like, the next level! Hey! This gives me a great idea! Ahem...”

Both Twilight and Rainbow groaned. “Oh no...”

“♫Oh we’re all in this together

Nothing’s gonna keep us down.“

“Oh come on, you guys got her singing again!” Rainbow complained, fluttering over to Rarity, Applejack, and Tick Tock.

’Cause we’re all in this together

Gotta get on out of this smelly town.“

“Seriously Pinkie, we don’t have time for this,” Twilight grumbled, putting a hoof to her face.

“♫Gonna cross the land, the sea, the sky

And it’ll be a blast with Pinkie Pie!

“That’s me!”

“Was that a tuba?” Lockwood asked.

‘Cause we’re all in this together

And Friendship makes the world go rooound!

Tick Tock’s jaw dropped. She rubbed her eyes. “What. In the bloody hell. Was that?”

Twilight chuckled. “Pinkie likes to sing. It’s just something you have to get used to.”

“Good luck with that,” Flathoof added.

“What in Equestria have I signed up for?” Tick Tock muttered. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Tick Tock took a deep breath and inserted her card into the slot. The process repeated. Her card was presented like all the others.

She breathed a sigh of relief. “Finally, things are looking up. Maybe I am just paranoid.”

“See? Nothing to worry about,” Twilight said. “You just need to relax. Take it easy. If you get all stressed out, this journey might get the better of you.”

Tick Tock rolled her eyes. “Gee, thanks.”

***

The group proceeded to the Gate door itself, and the ground beneath them glowed as they walked across it. Before they even reached the door, it began emitting loud hisses as the multiple clamps and latches opened. The door opened next, leading into a long, foreboding hallway that stretched off into the distance. No light at the end of the tunnel marked any sort of exit. Dark reds and blacks decorated the interior walls.

Rarity felt it all to be rather drab and unnecessarily foreboding. “Considering this hall is leading out of this dreadful city, you’d think it would be more uplifting.”

Fluttershy huddled in close to Rarity. “Um... Rarity? Do you think that... everything will be okay?”

Rarity gave a comforting smile. “Oh of course, sweetheart. If we all stick together, there's nothing to fear.”

“I’m j-just so... anxious. I don’t know where we are, or what we’re doing, or where we’re going, or how we’re going to get there. I’m s-scared, Rarity.”

Rarity grinned and pat Fluttershy on the shoulder. “Well, do you think maybe if you knew a little more about what’s ahead, you’d feel a little better? Hmm?”

“I... suppose so.”

“Well then, what say we go have a little talk with somepony that knows quite a lot more than we do about this world? Doesn’t that sound nice?”

Fluttershy tilted her head. “Oh? Um... I don’t—"

“No need to be bashful, darling. Come on, let’s go have a little chat with him.”

“Oh... o-okay if you—" Fluttershy paused. “W-wait... ‘him’? W-we’re not going to t-talk to Miss Tock? I th-thought she was the authority on—"

Rarity giggled. “Heavens no, darling. As much as I’m sure she knows, that dear young lady has much too much on her mind at the moment, I think. And, as you can see, she seems to already be having a little discourse with somepony else.” She gestured to where Tick Tock was busy talking, or rather, arguing, with Twilight Sparkle.

“Oh...” Fluttershy murmured.

Rarity smoothed Fluttershy’s mane out of her eyes. “Come now, Mister Lockwood should be more than adequate, if I do say so myself. He really is a wonderful stallion.” Rarity winked at Fluttershy.

Fluttershy tilted her head. “Um... w-well, okay then Rarity...”

Rarity trotted ahead in the formation with Fluttershy at her side. “Hellooo, Mister Lockwood?” she called in her sing-song voice. “May we speak with you a moment?”

He tilted his head to face her. “Oh, certainly Miss Rarity.”

Rarity sidled up beside him, drawing Fluttershy up alongside her. “First of all, thank you so much for letting us use your room last night. Your bed was simply marvelous. We certainly were surprised that you have your own room reserved at Captain Flathoof’s home.”

“Oh, that was no trouble at all, Miss Rarity,” Lockwood said. “I understand you take a deal of pride in your appearance and poise, and I sympathize. It simply wouldn’t do to let you use anything but the best.”

He tilted his head to look at Fluttershy and added. “And Miss Fluttershy as well, of course. Such a nice young lady. Since you two are such close friends, I didn’t want to separate you.”

Rarity smiled and winked at Fluttershy again. “Such a gentlecolt. I was wondering if you would be willing to keep my dear friend Fluttershy and I a little bit of company, for the time being? The poor dear is so delicate, you understand. She could use the assurance of somepony with a little knowledge of the area.”

Lockwood nodded, tipping his hat. “Certainly! I'm not one to turn down a request from a lady. Bit of a habit of mine.”

“Splendid! Come now, Fluttershy, you can ask Mister Lockwood anything you want, if it will make you feel better.”

“Oh... a-alright...” Fluttershy squeaked. “Um... I know you’ve never been... outside the city before, but... is... is it scary out there?”

Lockwood smiled. “Well, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. But, we do have a knowledgeable guide in Miss Tock, and if what she says is true, we’ll only be traveling for a few days. Once we get to Hope’s Point, everything will be fine. Trust me.”

***

Meanwhile, Rainbow Dash watched the whole spectacle with disdain. “I don’t like any of this,” she whispered to Pinkie Pie. “Everypony’s getting a bit too buddy-buddy with those three, especially him. It’s all a bit shady, if you ask me.”

Pinkie squinted and looked skyward. “I don’t know if smog counts as shade, Dashie.”

Rainbow gave her an annoyed look.

“Kidding!” Pinkie giggled. “Just kidding, I’m not a dummy. I know you’re worried about trusting them.”

Rainbow raised an eyebrow. “You do?”

Pinkie rolled her eyes. “Uh duh, I mean it’s only obvious. You’re super duper suspicious about ‘em. Especially Mister Lockwood, you really don’t seem to like him. I don’t know why though.”

Rainbow blinked, and laughed. “Wow, that’s really observant of you. I didn’t think you were paying any attention.”

Pinkie pulled a magnifying glass and a pipe out of her mane. “It’s elementary, my dear Dashie! Sherlock Pie doesn't miss anyth—"

She tripped over her roller skates.

Rainbow stifled another laugh. “You okay there, Pinks?”

Pinkie bounced to her hooves and rolled in a circle around Rainbow. “Yup! Just took a little trip.”

Rainbow gave her a cautious look. “Your... knee isn’t pinchy, is it?”

Pinkie shook her head. “Don't worry, it wasn't a ‘Pinkie Sense’ trip like last time. Just a ‘Clumsy Pinkie’ trip.” She giggled and stuck her pipe in her mouth, sending up a stream of bubbles.

“Right...” Rainbow turned serious again. “But seriously, Pinks, just promise me one thing?”

Pinkie nodded enthusiastically.

“No matter what happens, you stick by me, okay?”

“Pfh, as if that's a hard promise to keep,” Pinkie said. “I’m practically glued to you as it is. For you, Dashie, you get better than a Pinkie Pie Swear or a Pinkie Promise. You get my super secret Pinkie Vow! I’ll always stick by you, Dashie.”

She leaned in and nuzzled Rainbow’s neck.

Rainbow blushed and brushed Pinkie with a wing. “Thanks Pinkie.”

Pinkie stopped dead in her tracks. “Uh-oh.”

Rainbow blinked. “What's the matter?”

“I feel a combo coming on.”

***

“I don’t know, Tick Tock, I’m still skeptical about the whole thing,” Twilight said. “I understand what you’re saying, but—"

“Sparkle, you say you understand, but honestly I don’t think you do,” Tick Tock muttered. “If Law and Chaos aren’t the two forces of magic, then what are, hmm?”

“Well from what I’ve learned, I suppose the most direct terms would be ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ magic. Take Restomancy for example. That’s definitely Good magic - it helps ponies recover from injuries.”

Tick Tock shook her head. “If Restomancy were solely ‘Good’, then evil ponies couldn’t use it. Are you trying to suggest to me that a bad pony couldn’t use that sort of magic to heal herself?”

“Well that’s not exactly what I said, but—" Twilight paused. “Huh. Fair point.” She smiled and pointed accusingly at Tick Tock. “Well, by that logic, if Restomancy were Law magic, then chaotic ponies couldn’t use it. Explain that then.”

“That’s because magic is magic,” Tick Tock said, sticking her nose in the air. “Anypony can use any spell, but the source of their magic is derived from either Law, or Chaos. Certain spells are stronger when used by certain forces, but—"

“Hey Twi! We got a live one over here!” Rainbow called from the rear of the group.

“Uh-oh,” Twilight muttered. “Come on, we’d better go see what’s up.”

Twilight trotted over with Tick Tock in tow. “What’s the problem, Rainbow?”

“Pinkie Sense time, Twi,” Rainbow explained. “She said it was a combo.”

“Oh no, more of that bloody nonsense?” Tick Tock said.

Pinkie bounced rapidly in place. “Ooh, here it comes!”

“Eye-flutter. Knee-twitch. Ear-flop.” Twilight tapped her chin. “Hmm... interesting.”

Pinkie stopped moving and scratched her head. “Huh? That’s weird. A new one? I don’t remember that one at all.”

“Yeah, I don't think I've seen that combo before either. What’s it mean?” Rainbow asked.

“Well how would I know, Dashie, it’s new,” Pinkie said. “I’m not psychic, y’know? Ooh! See, now that would be a cool mutation—"

Rainbow sighed. “Nevermind.”

Twilight snapped a hoof up, and her face brightened. “Aha! I’ve got it! I knew it seemed familiar enough. It’s the reverse of her ‘watch out for opening doors’ combo.”

Rainbow threw her hooves in the air. “Well what the hay does that mean? Watch out for closing doors? In case you haven’t noticed Twi, we’re in the middle of a really long hallway with no doors or windows or anything at all.”

Twilight tapped her chin for a moment, then paused. Her head snapped up and her eyes widened. “Oh dear.” She turned to the others and shouted, “Everypony! We need to move! Now!

She didn't leave time for questions, and immediately began galloping at full speed towards the light of the exit ahead.

Rainbow flew up alongside her. “Whoa whoa whoa, what the hay, Twi? What’s up?”

“Don’t you get it? A gate is a kind of door! The Gate is going to—"

A siren blared loudly, and red and yellow lights sprung to life along the Gate corridor. The glowing floor panels beneath them changed from soothing blues to angry reds.

Attention! Unauthorized citizens have been detected in Gateway Sector Nine.” The loud, mechanical voice came from everywhere at once. “All citizens currently in Sectors Ten and Eight are advised to clear the area. All citizens in Sector Nine, please remain where you are and await further instructions. Sector Nine will be sealed off in sixty seconds. Repeat: All citizens in Sectors Ten—"

“Aw horseapples,” Applejack said. She increased her pace, catching up to Twilight and Rainbow. “Come on, everypony! Y’all heard the... whatever that was! We gotta vacate!”

Tick Tock shouted, “This is exactly what I bloody well knew would happen! Bugger this whole damn city!”

The group galloped as fast as they could, but their hearts sank when the Gate walls ahead of them started closing in. Even though they were getting closer to the light of the exit, it was getting smaller and smaller.

Twilight chanced a glance behind her. She saw the Gate walls far behind them closing too. “They’re trying to seal us in!”

“Come on, everypony!” Rainbow yelled. “Move move move!”

“Oh dear, we’ll never make it!” Rarity cried.

The Gate closed with a loud crunch, forcing Rainbow to screech to a halt.

They were trapped.

Rainbow stomped a hoof, then fluttered back to the others who were still several dozens of yards behind. “Well, shoot. Now what are we gonna do?”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Lockwood said. He furiously tapped his head. “No, this isn’t right at all. If we were unauthorized, the authorities would have been alerted immediately when we tried to use the passports in the first place. They’d have never even allowed us in. This looks like a technical issue.”

“I knew this was all too good to be true!” Rainbow spat, glaring at Lockwood. “I bet those stupid passes are to blame for this.”

“They are not! I swear, I’ve used mine before, they work flawlessly. This is all just a malfunction somewhere. One of the authorization panels we’ve been walking on must’ve been faulty.”

“What should we do, Lockwood?” Flathoof asked. “You’re the expert here. Well, you and Miss Tock.”

Tick Tock shrugged. “Perhaps we should turn back and ask a Gate Technician to clear us?”

Lockwood nodded. “That might be the best idea. The NPPD is notoriously slow, so we might be here for hours if we wait for them. It would take less time than that to just walk back, find a Tech, fix this, and walk back again.”

“Uh, I don’t think we’ll be waitin’ that long,” Applejack said, pointing towards the corridor behind them.

Flathoof scratched his head. “Huh. I’m not used to the NPPD being so quick on things. Must really be a slow day.”

“Them ponies don't look like they’re wearin’ the same uniform y’all usually do.”

Flathoof squinted and looked at the collection of ponies approaching them. His eyes widened. “What the- this isn’t right.”

Now what’s the matter?” Rainbow asked.

Lockwood shook his head and stepped to Flathoof’s side. “What is it, Flathoof? You look positively spooked.”

Flathoof turned Lockwood’s head towards the approaching ponies and pointed. “We’re right about the NPPD taking their sweet time, but the military is a different story.”

Lockwood squinted to see the ponies. He leapt back in surprise. “Oh dear! This isn’t right at all!”

Tick Tock stepped in between them and squinted, then shook her head. “Bloody hell, what’s the military doing here? This isn't their jurisdiction.” She glared at Lockwood. “You posh tosser, what’d you get us into?”

“Yeah, well, they’re sure are making a beeline right for us,” Flathoof noted.

Applejack gulped. “I’ve got a bad feelin’ ‘bout this.”

“Not to worry, I’ll see if I can get us out of this,” Lockwood said, stepping ahead of the others. “I know a lieutenant in the NPAF. Maybe we’re lucky and it’s him, or whoever this is knows him.”

“Right, let’s see you use that fancy mouth of yours to get us out of trouble,” Rainbow said. “It’s sure seemed to work so far hasn’t it?”

Lockwood gave Rainbow a dejected frown. “Really now, this isn’t my fault. Just a misunderstanding, I’m sure.”

“Misunderstanding, right.”

“I don’t like the look of this,” Twilight said, shaking her head. “I’m with Applejack. I’ve got a bad feeling.”

Flathoof put his hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “Relax, Miss Sparkle, I’m sure Lockwood will think of something.”

Twilight could make out the group of approaching ponies clearly now. There were five ponies total. The four at the front wore sleek, black armored uniforms covering them from head to hoof, and red visors on their helmets hid their faces. All four of them were tall, thick earth ponies, built with enough muscle that Twilight was certain any one of them could give even Big Macintosh a run for his money.

The fifth, a pegasus, wore the same uniform as the other four, though he did not wear a helmet as they did. Scars dotted his face, his jawline was square, and his leaner build barely filled out his uniform. His position in the center made it obvious he was the squad leader, and when they approached the other ponies, he took position at the front of the formation.

He removed a small electronic device from his pocket and examined it briefly, then turned back to his men. “Prepare to take the unauthorized citizens into custody.”

“See? Totally called it.” Rainbow glared at Lockwood. “This is all your fault.”

Lockwood coughed into his hoof. “Yes, well... pardon me, my good—"

“This is not open to negotiation,” the squad leader said. “I have my orders, and I’m to take in nine unauthorized ponies.”

“Wait, nine?” Lockwood asked. “Shouldn’t that number be smaller?”

“Yeah, hang on a tick, you’re saying my passport is unauthorized?” Tick Tock huffed. “I just used it three weeks ago! I’ve been using it for years. Passports don’t expire.”

“I’m a captain in the NPPD, so my passport is perfectly valid too,” Flathoof said, stepping forward. “These mares are here with me under my authority. Surely we can work something out?”

“I’m afraid that passports do, in fact, expire under extraneous circumstances.” The squad leader presented his device, and pointed at Tick Tock with one wing. “According to my information, Miss Tock’s passport expired two days ago.” He then pointed his wing at Flathoof. “And Mister Flathoof’s expired last night. Very strange that the check-in station didn’t catch those. Hmm. Must be a technical problem.”

“It’s Captain Flathoof,” Flathoof said, snorting through his nose.

The pegasus sneered at Flathoof, sizing him up. “I’d watch your tone, Mister Flathoof. You’re out of uniform, you’ll notice? And besides, it says here that I’m also to take you into custody for the murder of one Officer Snapshot.”

Flathoof turned white. “Ex-excuse me?”

“I don’t like involving myself in NPPD affairs, but orders are orders so there you have it. Terrible shame, one corrupt cop killing another.”

Flathoof stomped both hooves on the ground and took a few steps towards the pegasus. “How dare you! I saw the pony responsible for it, and I tried to take him in! I informed the station of it while I was—"

“Fleeing from the scene, according to them,” the pegasus dismissed. “And now here you are, trying to leave the city. Awfully suspicious circumstances, you see. Now, I’ll say this again: I have my orders, you’re all coming with me, and that’s the end of it.”

Flathoof glared. “Under whose authority?”

“And who exactly are you?” Tick Tock asked.

“Commander Jetstream, New Pandemonium Armed Forces Special Ops Unit Omega. Under whose authority is none of your concern.” He turned back to his men. “Enough chatter. Take them in.”

One of the soldiers stepped towards Flathoof, until a bright purple glow unceremoniously lifted the soldier off his hooves into the air. The soldier dangled in the air and flailed his limbs.

Twilight stepped forward, her horn glowing bright. “No.”

Jetstream raised an eyebrow. “No? You don’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation here, Miss Sparkle. You’re under arrest, and right now, you’re resisting arrest. That will make things very difficult on you and your friends.”

“I said, no,” she said. “My friends and I have gotten too far to stop now. We’re too close to getting out of this city once and for all to care about your rules and regulations anymore. We’re not going anywhere. Not as long as I have anything to say about it.”

The commander’s expression soured. “So be it.” He turned to his men again. “Remember your orders. Targets one through six are to be taken in alive.”

The other three soldiers stepped forward, but Twilight stared them down, her face a mask of unflinching resolve. Flathoof stood firmly beside her, and was joined by Applejack and Rainbow.

Rainbow chuckled and spread her wings proudly, scuffing at the metal ground beneath and snapping her goggles over her eyes. “About time we get to playing by my kind of rules. I never knew you had it in you, Twi.”

Twilight smiled. “I just figured, ‘what would a brave pony like Rainbow Dash do?’ It wouldn’t be the first time it got me out of trouble.”

Applejack cracked her neck, adjusted her hat, and licked her lips. “C’mon, Rainbow, let’s see what kinda fight y’all got in ya’. Fifty bits says I take down more than y’all.”

Rainbow laughed. “You’re on, AJ.”

Twilight’s horn ceased glowing, letting the hapless soldier drop and fall into its squadmates. Applejack and Rainbow leapt into the fray as Twilight galloped back towards the Gate wall. “You guys keep them busy, I’m going to open the Gate back up.”

“Oh no you don’t!” yelled Jetstream. He flapped his wings and took off after Twilight like a bullet.

Flathoof leapt up and tackled Jetstream in mid-air. “Not so fast, flyboy!”

“Stupid police dog!

Jetstream reached for his sidearm. Just as he reached it, Flathoof stomped on his leg, causing him to jerk it to the side several yards away.

“Aw buck me.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.” Flathoof turned to his side and called, “Go on, Miss Sparkle! We’ve got this covered!”

“Rarity! Tick Tock! Come with me! We've got a Gate to open!” Twilight commanded as she sprinted past the other ponies.

The other two unicorns nodded and galloped off behind Twilight. Lockwood followed them closely, desperately trying to bring Fluttershy, who was clinging to his leg, to safety. Pinkie Pie, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen; Twilight was deeply concerned, and hoped it was just Pinkie Pie being Pinkie Pie, ready to pop out of nowhere when needed.

They came further down the corridor and reached the massive Gate door. Twilight surveyed the Gate, seeking out some manner of weakpoint.

Finding none, she turned to Rarity. “Rarity, do you remember that spell you cast with Tick Tock the other day, to assist her with her shield?”

Rarity nodded. “Of course, darling. A surprisingly simple spell, after the fact.”

“Well, I need you two to use it on me, to reinforce my magic so I can try to pry this thing open.” Twilight planted her hooves and lit up her horn.

Rarity stepped forward and did the same. “Certainly, dear, that’s—"

“Not going to work,” Tick Tock interrupted, stepping in between the two and pushing them apart.

Twilight balked. She shook her head and narrowed her eyes at Tick Tock. “Excuse me?”

“It won't work, simple as that.” Tick Tock shrugged. “You’re in over your head, Sparkle.”

Twilight smirked, though she was curious about why Tick Tock was disagreeing with her. “Um, hello? Element of Magic here? I know the Gate looks heavy Tick Tock, but—"

Tick Tock rolled her eyes. “Weight has nothing to do with it. You’ve shown you’re bloody well more powerful than any other unicorn I know, and I'm certain you'd get it to budge if we all chipped in. But, the problem is that the Gate is protected by an anti-magic field. If a particularly powerful spell could just tear the Gate open, it would be pretty ineffective as a protective measure, would it not?”

Twilight smiled and took another step forward. “Oh, is that the problem? I happen to know a few spells that should break through any enchantments on the Gate. I think a little dispel magic will do the trick.”

“Use magic, on an anti-magic field, to remove the magic-resistance from the thing its protecting, so that you can cast magic on it. Yup, sounds bloody brilliant. A real cracker, that one. I should be taking notes.”

Twilight stomped a hoof. “What is with you? Why is every idea I have so stupid to you, huh? I don't see you coming up with any ideas. In fact, all of this—" She gestured around her. “Wasn’t even your plan in the first place, it was Lockwood’s and Flathoof’s! And getting us out of the world was Doctor Time Turner’s idea, not yours.”

Tick Tock glared. “Cute. You want a bloody idea? Here's one: take that, ‘oh I’m the Element of Magic and I’m so special’ crap, and shove it right up your—"

Ahem!” Rarity interrupted. “Ladies please, this is no time to bicker and argue. We need to get out of this mess, and quickly, so if I may suggest that you two put your differences aside for a moment? I’m certain the others, who are busy risking themselves back there, would not appreciate us wasting time.”

***

Applejack wrestled one of the soldiers to the ground. She brought a hoof down into his visor. Once. Twice.

His partner, whom she’d managed to take down earlier, tackled Applejack from behind. They rolled, and he pinned her. He lifted a hoof to punch her. She grabbed his other hoof and twisted, knocking him aside, then rolled away to get some distance.

Every time she managed to get one of the two out of the action for a moment, he’d be back up in no time at all.

“Don’t y’all ever run outta energy?” She panted, staring them down. “Golly, all that military trainin’ must be pretty dang good.”

The two soldiers wordlessly advanced on her, flanking her.

“Huh. Quiet too. Don’t y’all say anythin’ either?”

No response. The left soldier galloped forward to attack.

***

Rainbow took advantage of being able to fly. The only advantage it provided was being able to put distance between herself and her opponents and get a chance to breathe. She couldn’t rest long, though. One of her two opponents decided that she wasn’t worth his trouble, and turned and began cantering off towards Applejack.

“Oh no you don’t!” she called, sweeping down and kicking the soldier in the back of the head.

The soldier tripped over and slammed hard into the metal floor.

Rainbow went to continue her assault. The other soldier leapt at her. She rolled out of the way and swept her leg around to kick him in the face. He stumbled back, then came in again.

“Man, you guys don’t mess around.” Rainbow fluttered up out of his reach. “That kick should’ve done some real damage.” She rubbed her hoof and winced as she touched a sore spot. “Sure did damage to me. The hay is that armor made out of?”

The soldier turned away from her and galloped off towards Applejack, so she swept down and kicked him in the side. He tumbled over. She turned in time to avoid getting tackled by the other soldier, swooping back into the air again.

She groaned. “Dealing with you two at once bites. Where in the hay is Pinkie Pie?!”

***

Twilight grunted. “Hmph. Perhaps there’s a way to open the Gate without magic?”

“I was getting to that,” Tick Tock explained. She started looking around. “If we can find the maintenance panel, I suppose I could try to hack it. I’m no expert, but I can improvise.”

“Hack?” Twilight asked, tilting her head. “As in, with an axe? We don’t have an axe, Tick Tock.”

Tick Tock sighed and held the bridge of her nose. “I really wish I wasn’t the only pony here with any knowledge of techno-magic. Come on, just help me find the bloody panel. It should be nearby.”

“Is this it?” asked Pinkie.

The earth pony stood near the wall, pointing at a point on it.

Tick Tock did a double take. “Pinkie Pie? Where in the—" She shook her head. “Nevermind. No, Pinkie, that’s not it.”

Pinkie tilted her head. “It isn’t?”

“No, that’s just a blank wall,” Tick Tock said.

Pinkie’s head tilted further, until it was nearly upside-down. “It is?”

Tick Tock groaned. “I really don’t have time for this. Look, if you’re not going to bloody help, just—"

“Are you sure this isn’t it?” Pinkie asked, putting her hooves on her hips. “Because, when I touch it, it does this.”

She touched it. The wall hissed loudly, then slid to the side to reveal a hidden panel filled with an assortment of buttons and wires.

“See? I thought it was weird that the wall would slide out and show off all sorts of techie stuff, and then you went and said something about a panel. So hey! This looked like a panel to me!”

Tick Tock’s eyes widened, and she hustled over. She looked into the panel, rapidly examining everything. “This is it, you found it! But when did you... where did... how are... what?

“Guess that just leaves ‘why’ and ‘who’, doesn’t it?” Pinkie giggled, batting Tick Tock’s nose. “Like I said to Dashie, nothing gets past Sherlock Pie! Speaking of Dashie, I’d better get back to helping her out. She’s a little overwhelmed at the moment. Glad I could help you guys too, though! Toodles!”

The pink party pony was off in a blur back towards the scuffle behind them.

Tick Tock’s face contorted in confusion. “What in the bloody hell just happened?” She shook her head. “Whatever. I think I’m going to just stop questioning how that ridiculous pony works.”

She leaned in to examine the various wires and switches. “Hmm...” she mused. “This shouldn’t be too difficult. Sparkle! Over here!”

“Yes, O Knowledgeable One?” Twilight asked. “How may I be of assistance?”

Tick Tock ignored Twilight’s tone. “I’m detecting a number of magical energy conduits here, but I can’t tell them apart from the electrical ones. I’m guessing there’s a proper potent veil spell on them, but you should be able to pierce it. Do you know a tracer spell?”

Twilight puffed out her chest. “A tracer spell? That’s a piece of cake, I learned that in—"

“A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will do.”

Twilight deflated, and breathed in sharply through her nostrils. “Yes. I know one.”

“Good. Your magic is stronger than mine, so it should be able to identify which is which. Highlight them for me, so I can redirect the magic elsewhere and try to lower the anti-magic field.”

“Ohhh, so that’s why my dispel wouldn’t work. The barrier is being kept constantly refreshed by machinery? Fascinating stuff...” Twilight mused, squeezing herself in next to Tick Tock. “I’d love a chance to study—"

Tick Tock rolled her eyes. “Sparkle.”

“Yes?”

“Tracer spell, please.”

Twilight turned red. “Oh... right. Sorry.”

Twilight’s horn glowed bright pink, and her magic wrapped around all the wires inside the panel. Several of the once black wires stayed black, while others gained either a red, blue, or yellow glow.

“There we go,” Tick Tock said, lighting up her own horn. “Time to get to work.”

Rarity came up behind them. “Well then, if you ladies are ready to act civil and don’t need my assistance, it might be best if I returned to the others. They could likely use some help.”

“That’s fine Rarity, we’ve got it covered here,” Twilight said. “Please, be careful?”

Darling, if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s being careful,” Rarity said. “Try not to strangle one another before you’re finished, hmm?”

***

Rarity galloped towards the scuffle. She could see Rainbow and Pinkie each handling two of the soldiers on their own just fine, but Applejack was still dealing with two by herself. Applejack took heavy breaths after kicking one of the two away, only to be assaulted by the other from the rear.

“Hang on, Applejack, darling!” Rarity shouted.

Rarity latched her magic onto the rear hoof of the soldier who’d just tackled Applejack, and yanked him sharply backwards. She took a sharp breath as she tried to keep him up.

Applejack saw the opportunity and took it, bucking the soldier in the chest. He flew out of Rarity’s magical grip and slammed into the wall.

Applejack took a deep breath. “Phew...” She trotted over to Rarity. “Thanks, Rarity. I appreciate it.”

“Ugh, all this roughhousing is just so... uncouth,” Rarity said, sticking out her tongue. “Ech. I really don’t agree with any of this.”

Applejack chuckled. “Well, y’all be sure ya let that soldier fella know ya don’t like fightin’.”

***

Pinkie bounced excitedly over to the soldier Rainbow had just slammed into the wall.

“Need a hoof?” she asked, offering him a hoof to help him get up.

He took it, then spasmed violently as an electrical surge shot through his body.

Pinkie giggled and showed her hoof to the pony as he slumped to the ground. “Oopsie! Forgot to take my joy buzzer off. My bad!” She waited for the soldier to get back up.

He failed to do so. Instead, the joints in his armor started emitting puffs of smoke.

“Um... uh-oh...” Pinkie gulped, backing away. “I’m just gonna... let you rest, okay? Bye!”

She streaked off in the opposite direction, and saw Rainbow flutter away from one of the other soldiers. A perfect opportunity to help.

She pounced on his back, grabbing onto his head and putting her hooves over his visor.

“Guess who?!” she cheered. “Go on, Dashie! I’ve got ‘im! Grrr!

Rainbow smirked, swept around, and delivered a swift kick to the soldier’s midsection.

Said midsection catapulted several meters away. His head remained tight in Pinkie’s grip, and she fell to the ground with it in her hooves.

Pinkie looked at it, then looked at Rainbow.

Rainbow looked at it, then looked at Pinkie.

“Aaaahhh!” they both screamed.

Pinkie starting shaking the head in Rainbow’s face. “Dashie! What did you do?! Look what you did! What did you do?!”

“Me?!” Rainbow blurted, stepping away nervously. “Y-you were the one holding his head!”

“I was?” Pinkie asked.

She blinked, and looked again at what she was holding.

“Oh! I was! Ahhh! I’m holding a head!” she yelled. “Get it away, get it away!”

She shook it violently, then chucked it as hard as she could away from her.

It hit Rarity square in the face. “Oof!”

The unicorn lost control of her magic, flinging the soldier she was holding with her magic into the wall. He smashed into it head-first, crumbling to the ground, his face shield shattered.

Rarity shuffled her hooves around in a panic and quickly put them over her mouth. “By Celestia! Pinkie Pie!” she yelled, wheeling around and glaring at the earth pony. “What did you do?! And look what you made me do!”

“I swear, it was self defense!” Rainbow exclaimed. “You all saw it! I didn’t do nothin’!”

“We’re innocent, we swear!” Pinkie wailed, putting her hooves together and planting herself at Rarity’s hooves.

Applejack grunted as she shouldered one of the other two soldiers in the face. “If y’all have time ta chat, maybe y’all have time to help!

“R-right!” Rainbow swept around in a circle and zipped towards the other soldier that Applejack was dealing with.

Rarity did a double take as she looked down at the head of the soldier. “Hold on a moment.” She lifted it up with her magic, examining it. “Wires? How odd. They look like the same kind in that maintenance panel back there.”

“Wires?” Pinkie asked, popping up from behind Rarity. “That’s silly. Ponies don’t have wires in their necks. That’s silly. You’re silly, Rarity.”

“Look,” Rarity said, holding up the head so Pinkie could see. “There, see? Wires.”

“Zombie! Zombie pony!” Pinkie screeched, grabbing Rarity’s face and pointing rapidly at the pony she and Rainbow had just dealt with.

The headless pony slowly rose to its hooves, and immediately bolted off towards Rainbow’s back.

“Dashie! Look out!”

“Huh?” Rainbow turned in time. “Holy—" She zipped upwards.

The headless pony sailed underneath her and crashed into the soldier Rainbow had been dealing with.

Pinkie scratched her head. “Wait a second, that’s not a zombie. Zombies die if you remove their heads. That’s like, Rule One in every zombie movie. That, and zombies don’t have wires. They have guts, blood, rotten flesh—"

“Pinkie please.” Rarity continued looking at the head she held in her magic. “Wires, hmm? I suppose it’s some sort of machine, and it runs on this ‘techno-magic’, like the gadgetry Twilight and Tick Tock are fiddling around with back there.” She huffed and canceled her spell, dropping the head to the ground. “They’re not living, breathing ponies, that much is for certain.”

Pinkie bit her tongue and tapped her head for a moment. Then, she slapped her hooves together. “Aha! That’s why my shock buzzer made that other pony act all weird! These ponies aren’t ponies at all! They’re robots! Cyborgs! Androids!”

Rainbow chuckled darkly. “Oh man. This is gonna be fun.

Rarity leapt in surprise and wheeled on the pegasus that had snuck up behind her. “Rainbow! Heavens, dear, you scared me half to death! Don’t surprise me like that.”

She cleared her throat. “But seriously, darling, fun? This is combat we’re talking about here. Try and take this a little seriously, Rainbow Dash.”

Rainbow laughed. “Oh, I’m taking it seriously, I promise. Yo AJ!”

“A lil’ busy!” Applejack shouted. She shifted her weight to get underneath the soldier she was grappling.

“These ponies aren’t real ponies! They’re robots or something! You know what that means?!”

Applejack turned to face Rainbow, then turned back to her opponent. “Well, I reckon it means I ain’t need ta worry ‘bout hurtin’ nopony just tryin’ ta do their job.”

“That’s what I’m talking about!” Rainbow cheered, barreling forward. “Time for me to really dish out the damage! Heads up!”

Applejack ducked. Rainbow tackled the earth pony’s former opponent, using her velocity to sweep it up into the air.

Rainbow released it. The machine sailed for several dozen yards through the air, then crashed to the ground, snapping its legs clean off.

“Whoa nelly, y’all pegasi sure do fight dirty,” Applejack blanched. “Remind me never ta pick a real fight with any o’ y’all, yeah? I like my legs.”

***

Flathoof shifted his weight to get out of Jetstream’s stranglehold, flipping the pegasus up and over him and slamming him on the ground.

Jetstream twisted his hind legs up and clamped them on Flathoof’s neck. He reached off to the side, scrambling to put his hoof on his sidearm.

Then, his eyes widened and his grip loosened.

Flathoof turned his head up to look. He saw one of Jetstream’s soldiers sail over his head, landing behind him. Its legs snapped clean off.

“Well now, I completely forgot about that,” Flathoof said. “You NPAF folk use mechanical troops as frontline soldiers, don’t you? I don’t suppose you’re a robot too?”

He headbutted Jetstream in the face while the pegasus was distracted.

“Son of a—" Jetstream swore, flinching as blood splattered from his nostril.

Flathoof laughed. “Guess not.”

***

Twilight watched anxiously as Tick Tock fiddled with one of the blue-highlighted wires in the main panel.

“Are you sure you can do this?” she asked.

Tick Tock huffed and wiped her brow with a hoof. “Relax, Sparkle. This isn’t my first time sodding about with techno-magic.”

She twisted the blue wire and connected it to one of the red ones, causing the stream to start turning a bright purple. The wire sparkled and hissed, emitting multi-colored sparks.

“Got it!” she cheered. “I think I got it!”

The Gate walls made a resounding screeching noise, so loud that Twilight and Tick Tock had to hold their ears. When the screeching stopped, a loud clang was heard, followed by a low whirring noise. The walls started moving inwards.

A siren blared and alarm lights lit up all along the corridor, filling it with red and orange lights.

Attention! Sector Nine trash compactor process has been activated. All citizens in Sectors Eight and Ten are advised to remain clear of Sector Nine. Those in Sector Nine are advised to vacate the area immediately. Repeat—"

“Uh... I don’t got it,” Tick Tock muttered. “Oh bugger.”

Twilight glared daggers. “Some idea this was! You’re gonna get us all killed!”

“This is no time to panic, Sparkle!”

“I heard the word ‘compactor’, and the walls are closing in!” Twilight grabbed the sides of Tick Tock’s face. “This is the perfect time to panic!”

Tick Tock slapped Twilight’s hooves away. “Just keep that Tracer on, I can fix this!”

Tick Tock licked her lips. She twisted a red wire into an empty slot that was leaking blue magic. She connected a yellow wire to a red one, then sliced another red one and attached one half into a blue slot, the other into a yellow slot.

Nothing seemed to be happening at all.

“Why isn’t this sodding thing working?!” Tick Tock spat.

“Is it okay if I panic now?”

“Dammit dammit dammit! This bloody piece of junk!

She slammed her hoof down hard on the panel’s rear wall.

It whirred loudly, and all the wires that had been mixed immediately reacted. They glowed brighter than ever, and the colors intermingled until the entire light spectrum exploded out of the panel box.

All of the alarm lights turned bright blue.

Warning! Warning! Attention maintenance staff. The anti-magic field on the Sector Nine Gate has suffered a catastrophic mechanical malfunction. Immediate attention is required. Repeat—"

“Aha! Ha ha ha! That did it! I’m a bloody genius!” Tick Tock cheered. She grabbed Twilight’s hoof and dragged her towards the Gate door, which had lost its subtle purple glow. “Come along then, Sparkle, it’s time to crack this thing open!”

“About time. Let’s get this show on the road,” Twilight said. She looked around and gulped when she noticed the walls were still closing in. “Oh dear. You didn’t shut off the trash compactor?”

Tick Tock chortled. “Stars no. It’ll buy us time after we escape. They’ll have to re-open the whole corridor to chase us, so we’ll only have to break through any soldiers outside.”

“Fantastic. Pressure’s on then.” Twilight took a deep breath. “Rarity!” she called behind her. “We’re gonna need a little help over here!”

Rarity turned and called back, “Com-ing. Let me just put this down first.”

Rarity canceled her spell, letting another of the struggling mechanical ponies fall several yards to the ground where it was set upon by a ferocious Pinkie Pie.

The pink party pony gleefully jabbed her joy buzzer into the back of the machine’s head, and held it there until the thing started to smoke.

Rarity trotted over to Twilight and Tick Tock’s position, settling in on Twilight’s left. “Okay then, darlings, I’m ready whenever you are.”

Tick Tock nodded and steeled herself on Twilight’s right. “Right. Let’s get this done proper, and we’ll be out of this bleedin’ city in no time.”

Twilight stomped a hoof. “Okay then, on three. One.”

Twilight lit her horn. Tick Tock and Rarity followed suit.

“Two.”

A bright purple light flared up from in between them and flowed outward to illuminate the entire corridor.

“Three!”

Twilight fired a bolt of magical light directly at the Gate door, striking it in dead center. The light expanded out further and further, enshrouding the entire door in a light purple glow.

The Gate door groaned loudly, and the entire corridor trembled. Twilight’s face contorted as she strained to push the two halves of the door apart in the middle. Beads of sweat streamed down her face, and her horn haphazardly shot off sparks in all direction. Tick Tock’s and Rarity’s horns did the same, until a bright light enveloped all three unicorns. Twilight opened her eyes to gauge her progress, and her eyes flared with magic of the purest white.

Twilight turned towards the others when the door had been cracked open wide enough to fit a few ponies safely through. “Everypony! Through the Gate! Now!

Applejack bucked the remaining mechanical soldier away from her, slamming it into the wall. “Y’all heard Twilight, time ta mosey on outta here!” She started galloping towards the opening door. “C’mon Rainbow, let’s get a move on!”

“C’mon, Dashie! Let’s go!” Pinkie called, galloping off after Applejack.

Rainbow swept down and slammed the soldier back into the wall before it could get up. “I’ll cover your back, you guys get going!”

Applejack and Pinkie corralled Lockwood and Fluttershy ahead of them towards the Gate door.

Applejack called back, “Flathoof! C’mon!”

Flathoof had Jetstream pinned on the ground. At Applejack’s shouting, he shifted his weight and brought his hoof down hard into the side of Jetstream’s head, then turned and started galloping off towards the others.

Jetstream tripped him. “You’re not going anywhere!”

He scrambled for his sidearm again, reached it, and slipped it over his hoof. His mouth split in a wide smile. He rolled over, aimed his weapon at Flathoof’s retreating form.

“Booyah!”

Rainbow swept in and kicked him in the side of the head. He fired wildly as the gun was flung off his hoof. The bullet ricocheted off the wall and into the air. She swept over to it, snagging the brace in her teeth and circling off.

Jetstream sneered at Rainbow’s trailing form, then turned back towards the three unicorns. He took flight and raced towards them.

“Hey! Don’t you ever learn?” Rainbow struck him in the back with a kick. “You’re not getting anywhere near Twilight, bucko.”

Twilight struggled to keep the Gate open, but knew they needed to get moving. She turned behind her. “Okay girls, your turns next. I’ll keep the Gate open so you two can get through.”

Tick Tock panted. “Are you off your trolley? We can barely keep this bloody thing open as a team. What makes you—"

“Just do it! I’ll hold it long enough for you all to get out, just go!

“But—"

“It’s best not to argue when she gets confident like that,” Rarity said, dropping her spell. “Come along, Miss Tock, we need to get going.”

Tick Tock nodded, dropped her spell, and followed close behind.

“Rainbow Dash! Go!” Twilight yelled.

Rainbow called back, “Had to keep you covered, Twi!”

The lightning-quick pegasus looped off the ground, dropping Jetstream’s gun beside her in the process, and raced towards the Gate

Twilight’s magic gave in, and the Gate screeched as metal slid against metal.

“Rainbow!” Twilight exclaimed, her magic faltering and her horn losing its glow. “I can’t keep the Gate open!”

Rainbow scooped Twilight up in her hooves and bolted for the opening.

“We’re gonna beat it Twi, don’t worry!”

The door started to close in on them as they entered it.

“No!” Jetstream called, struggling to his hooves and into the air.

“Hurry, Rainbow!”

“I’ve got this!”

“We’re not gonna make it!”

“We’ll make it!”

“It’s closing!”

“We’re gonna—"

The Gate door slammed closed, flinging about shrapnel and debris as the halves struck together in a way they were never meant to.

Twilight and Rainbow crashed and tumbled into the metal ground on the other side.

Jetstream slammed face-first into the Gate. He worked to his hooves again, glaring upwards at the massive obstacle in his way. “Dammit! Dammit!” He slammed a hoof into the metal door.

He realized that the compactor system was still underway, and hustled over to the maintenance panel. He popped open a smaller panel inside it, then entered a code into the numerical pad there. Sector Nine’s walls stopped moving in and began to move back out.

He stared back upwards at the obstacle. The gate doors had been slammed closed unnaturally and now stood slightly askew. He couldn’t fit in the opening, and by the time he flew up and over, his targets would have gained too much distance for him to be of any use. His only hope was that the exterior security forces would stop them.

He slumped against the wall, trembling. “I am in so much trouble...”


CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter Nine: Introductions

Silvertongue stared into his personal mirror, scowling at the sight of the unicorn on the other side. Yesterday, he would have gazed upon his visage, a testament to everything he believed in, with an air of pride. But, from this day forward, he knew that he’d see that something had been robbed from him, something he would never see again upon that face.

Perfection.

Doctor Blutsauger’s commendable work at repairing everything around his eye genuinely surprised him. In a rare moment of bewilderment, he had actually praised the good Doctor’s talent. No scars marred his face, his coat was as sleek and shiny as ever, and barring one single detail, he could swear that nothing had happened at all. But then, of course, that detail taunted him. Reminded him of what he’d lost.

A strange darkness filled the void where Silvertongue’s eye had once been; a black, ethereal stuff that drew all warmth from the air. A tiny speck of gold broke up the otherwise solid darkness, and where he looked, it moved. He could see clearly through it, more clearly than his original eye had ever been able. The speck pulsed with magic that he was not intimately familiar with, though he felt the similarity between it and the magic that Twilight Sparkle’s clone contained within her.

A buzz from his intercom interrupted his thoughts.

“Ah... right on schedule,” he said. He set his mirror upon his desk, then pressed a button on the intercom. “Yes?”

Milord, sir? Commander Jetstream is here to deliver his report on the Gate incident.

“Thank you, Shroud. Send him in.”

Silvertongue lifted his wine glass and took a short sip, then leaned back in his chair and tapped his hooves together. His chamber door slid open; Jetstream entered the room. Though Jetstream’s pace was brisk and his expression alert, his eyes betrayed his exhaustion.

Jetstream quickly bowed before Silvertongue’s desk. His nervousness was palpable. “M-milord.”

Silvertongue stared at Jetstream, unblinking, for several moments, not even gesturing for the soldier to rise from his bow. “Commander,” he said. “You look as though you’ve had a rough morning.”

Jetstream remained bowed, as Silvertongue had yet to permit him to do otherwise. “I apologize, sir, if my appearance isn’t in ideal condition.”

“Ideal condition. No, I suppose nopony can maintain that forever.” Silvertongue snorted and sat upright in his chair, at last gesturing for the soldier to rise. Jetstream did so, taking a sharp breath in the process. “I understand you are here to deliver the report on how the assignment you were tasked with went?”

Jetstream gulped. “Yes sir, you asked that I deliver it as soon as I was able.”

Silvertongue set his hooves upon his desk and tilted his head to the portfolio resting between them. “Now, you know well that my sources of information are speedy and accurate. So, I am assuming you also know that I am already well aware of your failure?”

“Milord, I can expla—"

Silvertongue’s horn glowed brighter for half a second. His wine glass shattered, splashing magmaberry wine on the floor beneath. “Excuses!”

Jetstream flinched back half a step.

Silvertongue took a deep breath and smoothed his mane back. “You can make excuses you mean. Save them. I have no concern for how you failed, only that you did. I can assemble the pieces satisfactorily with this,” he noted, gesturing again to the portfolio.

He opened it with his magic and began to read. “According to the Gate Taskforce Report, the Gate suffered massive technical difficulties this morning on multiple fronts. Gate Technicians have been performing maintenance and repairs since the incident.”

Silvertongue twisted his chair to the side so he could stare out the open window. “Now, the first issue seems to be that the check-in station improperly authorized seven ponies using falsified passports, and two using invalidated ones. Seven unauthorized passports, hmm? Lucky then, it would seem, that somepony was able to uncover that fact ahead of time, else these criminals may have escaped unhindered.” He thrummed his hoof slowly on his desk. “A shame he couldn’t complete his own assignment.”

Jetstream gulped loudly. “R-right, sir. Shadowstep’s information proved useful here. I regret that I could not access the system in time to spring the trap before they got as far into the corridor as they did.”

Silvertongue spun his chair back, and spat at Jetstream, his voice terse, nearly cracking. “When the error was discovered, the Gate was immediately sealed around the ponies in question, and a special task unit was deployed to apprehend them. Now here, this is where it becomes interesting. The unit's assigned leader never arrived at the scene, as he had been replaced by one Commander Jetstream.” His stopped rapping his hoof, slamming it once on the desk. “The Taskforce made a note here that it seemed suspicious that a Special Ops officer showed interest in unauthorized ponies, none of whom were particularly remarkable.”

He took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. His new eye was starting to agitate him, but he knew not why. He absently picked a pen off his desk and twirled it around in his magic, becoming distracted by a fly that had somehow buzzed into the room.

Jetstream hesitated, then quietly cleared his throat. “S-sir?”

“Really now Jetstream, have I not made myself clear about subtlety? This kind of sloppiness is quite... bothersome.”

“I had little choice, milord, you made it clear that time was of the essence,” Jetstream explained, his eyes darting between Silvertongue and the pen. “The other commander was an idiot, a real rules-jockey. He claimed it was his unit, fair and square, and showed a complete disregard for authority. I persuaded him to reconsider his decision.”

Silvertongue grunted in acknowledgement. “The unauthorized ponies were confronted by Commander Jetstream’s unit, and subsequently engaged by them in turn when they attempted to resist arrest. During the altercation, they hacked into the Gate security system. Now, which of them did this?”

Jetstream rubbed the back of his neck. “I was engaged at the time with the NPPD Captain, so I only caught a glimpse of what happened. I’m certain it was the green and purple unicorns, Tick Tock and Twilight Sparkle, respectively.”

Silvertongue snapped the pen at the wall, skewering the pesky fly and embedding it in the wall. “The damned Chronomancer again!” He took a few short breaths, then leaned back in his chair again. “I am beginning to tire of her interferences.”

He glanced back at the portfolio. “At any rate, they managed to disable the anti-magic field around the Sector Nine door, and then proceeded to rip it open by force. How did they manage that? Each Gate section weighs several hundred tons.”

“It was all three unicorns, sir,” Jetstream explained. “They combined their magic somehow. I... I didn't know unicorns could do that, or I would’ve focused my attention on them.”

“It is a rather advanced spell, yes, but certainly not out of the limits of a unicorn with the drive and talent to learn. They showed aptitude in that feat, did they? I shall keep it in mind for future reference. If they already know how to perform it, then perhaps...”

Silvertongue shook his head. “After breaking apart the Gate, the nine ponies fled out into the Wastelands. Now, does that all sound accurate?”

“Y-yes milord, but—"

Silvertongue sighed and absently went to remove and clean his monocle, before remembering he no longer needed or wore one. “I assigned you a very simple task, Jetstream. At least, I thought it was simple, but it is slowly becoming clear to me that anything involving those particular ponies is far from being simple.” He leaned forward, his mouth curling in a scowl. “So here we are, because you have failed. I dislike failure, Jetstream.”

Jetstream dropped to his knees. “P-please, milord, give me a second chance.”

“If memory serves, I do not have a history of granting second chances,” Silvertongue snorted. “History and reputation have ensured that that remains the case.”

“B-but sir, I—"

Silvertongue shook his head and began thumping his hoof on his desk again. “Jetstream... Jetstream, Jetstream, Jetstream. How long have you been directly in my employ? Twelve... no, thirteen years? Your father recommended you. In that time, you have never once failed me, never once disappointed me. Until today. Fortunate for your father that this failure of yours does not reflect any incompetence on his part.”

“Thank you for that, sir,” Jetstream said.

“Now, Shadowstep, you remember him don't you?”

Jetstream nodded.

“I gave him a second chance. A very rare opportunity. He squandered it, to be sure, but he got one all the same. Do you know why? He earned it. Despite his failure, he did still manage to come through on a great deal of things that made up for some slight complications.”

Silvertongue slammed his hooves on his desk, and his horn flared a bright red.

Jetstream was slammed into the nearest wall. He instantly grabbed at his throat, which was surrounded by a red aura.

“You, unfortunately, have not earned that privilege.”

“P-please... m-milord,” Jetstream choked.

Silvertongue sneered, and got out of his chair. He slowly strode over to Jetstream’s place on the wall. “Your failure, Jetstream, has forced me to accelerate my plans much more quickly than I desired.”

He jerked Jetstream and slammed him into the wall again. “Your failure has caused damage which cannot be easily repaired!”

He flung Jetstream across the room, where the pegasus crashed into the mantlepiece. “And, you have absolutely nothing positive to show for it, no sort of bandage to place over this great, gaping wound of incompetence. I do not tolerate such failures, Jetstream. I erase them. I should kill you right now.”

Jetstream grasped desperately at his throat. “Sir... please...”

Silvertongue lifted Jetstream into the air and glowered at him for a moment. Then, he released him, dropping the pegasus to the floor.

Jetstream gulped in air like a freshly caught fish.

Silvertongue’s mouth curled in a tiny grin. “But, I won't. No, I have a better use for you.”

 

***

 

Lord Silvertongue had called it a weapons test. An opportunity for Jetstream to redeem himself and earn his second chance. That eccentric Doctor Blutsauger had been present when Silvertongue went over what the test would entail, so he figured this was another one of the Doctor’s freakish genetic experiments. But, that was not what really bothered him. No, it was the conditions that were strange.

Aside from being a guinea pig for whatever fool experiment the Doctor had conducted, Jetstream wasn't even sure what he was supposed to be doing. Blutsauger had called him target practice. He’d been corralled in this room, a grand, circular arena, within the basement levels of Pandora Tower, wide enough to hold a hundred ponies comfortably. He’d also been provided with forty A.M.P. Troopers to command. His opponents would be set loose against him one at a time, and it was his duty to ensure that they were given a proper challenge.

One? Against forty troopers? That wasn’t a challenge, that was downright suicidal. Blutsauger must’ve been exceedingly confident in his new toys. He’d even gone as far as boasting that, should Jetstream run out of troopers to use, he’d be provided with replacements.

The Doctor’s preening did not concern Jetstream at all. Blutsauger had always been a pompous ass and a supreme brown-noser. He’d put him in his place, earn his redemption, and make his father proud.

The thick, iron gate on the opposite side of the arena creaked open, and his first opponent trotted into the arena.

Jetstream was not expecting the first of Blutsauger’s genetic weapons to be a perfectly ordinary mare. Well, maybe not ordinary. She was built larger than the average female pegasus—larger than even some male pegasi—standing slightly taller than himself. Her bulky, muscular frame filled out the plain-looking silver jumpsuit that covered only her body, not her legs, exposing her royal blue coat. Her wild mane and tail alternated between turquoise and magenta, making her look like some sort of glam rocker. Each hoof wore a metal boot, and the arena’s stadium lights reflected off of the decorative red and gold gems. Her cutie mark was a storm cloud with a thin streak of golden lightning through it.

Jetstream was bothered by one thing, rather two things, in particular: her eyes. He knew he’d seen somepony before with almost those exact same eyes. Plus, her large wings made him feel both self-conscious and confoundingly aroused. He’d never seen a pegasus before with such an impressive wingspan.

She wasn’t really doing much of anything aside from just standing there rigidly, staring ahead, not looking at all like she was prepared for combat. Her face was the epitome of boredom. Wasn’t she supposed to be attacking his soldiers? What was she waiting for?

More tense moments of silence lingered between them before Jetstream decided he’d make the first move instead. He placed his hoof to his temple, clicking some buttons on the command visor he’d been provided to increase his response time.

Ten of his troops moved in on her at his command, merely a scouting maneuver to gauge the combat level of his target. He’d applied extra soldiers out of a sense of curiosity, as typically he’d have only used three or four. There was no sense in paranoia, but being cocky wasn’t wise either.

She remained still, though her eyes darted between each of the troopers that approached her.

Jetstream commanded his troops to activate their static-charged hoof-guards. He’d been given permission to use one-hundred percent lethal force, so he figured he may as well utilize it. He wanted to see what she would do.

Each soldier, charged with enough electricity to kill a pony four times over, leapt into action.

She flapped her wings just once. All ten mechanical ponies slowed to a crawl, as if struggling against their own weight.

Impossible. That was the only word Jetstream could think of to describe what he was seeing. A pegasus pony, using unicorn magic? No, there wasn’t a glow around his troops, nor around whatever part of her body was channeling the magic. It didn’t add up. Pegasus magic had no visual clues excepting the faster fliers, who left trails of magic behind them, but she wasn’t flying at all. What sort of magic was this?

The soldier at the front of the formation took another step forward. Its leg snapped apart as if it couldn’t support its own weight. The soldier stumbled forward, breaking into pieces as it hit the floor. The other soldiers in the formation stepped forward, stumbled, and shattered just as the first had.

Ten troopers down, and the target had hardly even put any visible effort into destroying them. She hadn’t even moved, apart from flapping her wings.

Her demeanor infuriated Jetstream. She looked bored, and she even gave an exaggerated yawn.

He tapped a hoof to his temple again, issuing orders for another ten soldiers to circle her. He hoped that whatever magic she’d used could only be applied to a small area; by surrounding her, his troops could not all be affected at once.

Predictably, she took to the air and climbed all the way up to the high ceiling, far out of the reach of his troopers. At least, she would be, if they were only capable of melee combat.

Jetstream laughed quietly to himself. Typical pegasus tactics. So predictable.

He tapped his visor again and his troopers armed their shoulder-mounted flechette launchers.

They aimed upwards, locking-on to their target. They fired their sharp-tipped bullets in a steady stream.

The mare flicked her wings again, losing altitude only briefly.

Not a single round reached its target. Instead, the projectiles curved sharply back towards the ground as if they hadn’t even been fired with enough force to reach that height. Some of the bullets dropped down and impaled the troopers that had fired them, striking with an unnatural amount of force.

Then, she took the offensive.

She tucked her wings in against her sides and dove at the group of soldiers. She slammed her hooves into the ground, bouncing off the metal floor with enough impact to leave a massive dent.

The shockwave was enough to make Jetstream and his remaining soldiers stumble. He’d never claimed to be a physicist, but he was fairly sure what he’d just seen was physically impossible. For her to hit with that much impact, she’d need to weigh at least a ton, and worse, she should have been reduced to paste. Must be those boots she’s wearing. Are they enchanted or something?

She flapped her wings and made to take to the air again, until a voice crackled over the arena’s speakers. Both Jetstream and the mare turned to face the tinted window on the far side of the room where they knew Silvertongue was observing from.

Grayscale Force. That’s enough for now. I’ve seen what I needed to see.

The mare nodded, then gave Jetstream a look that made him feel incredibly small. He knew she’d made his soldiers look like toys, and had treated them as such. Would this affect his odds at being given a second chance? He swore right then and there that the next opponent he faced would not make a fool of him.

As Grayscale Force started to leave, the next pony, another pegasus mare wearing the same silver jumpsuit, entered the arena. She was toned with more lean muscle than the other pegasus, clearly built more for agility than power. Her coat was a sporty red, very bright and colorful compared to the other pegasus. Her mane and tail resembled a skunk, jet black with a streak of white down the center. She kept her mane short and wavy, though her tail was still rather long and dragged against the floor behind her. Her cutie mark was a bat wing attached to a flame.

Most curious of all, she had a tiny fang that jutted out of her mouth and rested on her lower lip. There’s something wrong with this picture. Since when do ponies have canines?

Grayscale Force began to pass her by, then stopped, turned, and offered a hoof to shake. “Best of luck to you, I suppose. I know I set the standards high.”

The red mare didn’t look at her, keeping her beady eyes directed at Jetstream. “Get away from me,” she said, spitting a little. “I don't need your damn loser-ness rubbing off and ruining my run.”

Unfazed, Grayscale gave a small shrug, then continued on her way through the iron gate.

Jetstream nervously shifted in place. One opponent—one pony—took half a platoon of A.M.P. Troopers and made them look like nothing. He grit his teeth and signaled for a replenishment of his forces, which entered the arena from the gate behind him and moved into formation. This time, he wouldn’t fail.

Unlike Grayscale, this pegasus made the first move, taking to the air and racing straight into the heart of the largest formation of soldiers. She was very loud, shouting, hollering, and especially swearing, the entire time.

She looped around and slammed her hoof into one soldier’s visor, shattering it. Before it could react, she sped away and kicked another in the midsection.

One trooper raised a hoof, preparing to strike her with a lethal electric shock. She swerved under it and kicked out its legs.

But, every one she managed to take down only stayed that way for a moment. Her tactics were hardly working against the mechanical soldiers that had been built to take this sort of abuse.

Jetstream chuckled to himself as his confidence returned. This mare clearly didn’t have the same strange powers the other had used. Why Blutsauger would empower one mare but not another was perplexing, but it would be the Doctor’s own folly. Jetstream tapped his visor again, ordering more troops to close in.

The red mare seemed to realize she’d made a mistake by charging in. She pulled out, looping high into the air.

The soldiers took aim with their flechette launchers, and fired.

She abruptly snapped skyward, like a missile, narrowly avoiding a salvo of bullets. Jetstream balked at her sudden burst of speed.

She swept low to the ground, and one of her hooves started glowing orange. There was a spark, followed by a flame. The red mare fired it forward like a bullet at one of the troopers.

The tiny fireball exploded spectacularly, sending strips of shrapnel flying every which way. Jetstream staggered back, dumbstruck. More magic? How is this possible?

She fired another fireball and blew apart another soldier, then flew through the explosion undeterred, cackling all the way. She looped around and fired another, and another. The bursts were getting bigger with every shot.

Jetstream was losing troopers fast. He shook off his stupor and tapped his visor. His troopers took aim and fired once more.

The mare swept around in rolls and loops, nimbly avoiding all of the salvo. A few rounds came close, so close that Jetstream had to resist the urge to tear his visor off his face and throw it to the ground in frustration.

She did not look at all happy about nearly getting hit.

She struck up another pair of flames, smashing them together to create a billowing sphere of fire. She lobbed it towards the center of the largest cluster of troops, which happened to be dangerously close to Jetstream.

Jetstream yelped and bolted away from the target area as fast as his wings would carry him.

He took a few seconds to regain his hearing and clear his eyes. He glanced sideways, towards the towering plume of smoldering fire and smoke not more than ten yards away. The inferno was all that remained of, according to his readout, thirteen troopers. The intense heat made his wings ache, so he quickly distanced himself from it.

The mare stood with her back to the blaze, mirthfully laughing, waving her hooves around to make the fire dance.

The speakers crackled, and as before, both Jetstream and the mare dropped what they were doing to glance at the observation deck.

That will be all, Havocwing. That was quite an impressive display.

The mare pumped her hooves excitedly. “Hell yeah it was impressive, pops! Booyah! Best damn fighter this side of Pandemonium!” She turned to Jetstream and snapped her hoof at him. “Yo punk! I just took your ass to school! What are you gonna do about it?”

Jetstream sneered, but stayed quiet. It didn’t seem wise to antagonize her.

She chuckled. “Yeah that's what I thought. Smell you later, loser. If you’re still alive, that is, heh heh.”

Havocwing strut her way towards the arena exit just as the next mare was entering. Were they all going to be mares? Jetstream was perturbed by that. Here he was, one of the most decorated soldiers in the NPAF, getting shown up by a bunch of mares. If any of his comrades in the soldiery found out, they’d laugh him right back to boot camp. They wouldn’t believe for an instant that these mares had such unreal magic powers.

The next mare was not a pegasus, but a unicorn. Jetstream never considered himself an expert on beauty, but he had an eye for mares, and this mare certainly lacked anything he considered pretty. Her charcoal-black coat looked dirty and was matted with sweat; her mane and tail were messy and tangled; even her jumpsuit was wrinkled, and looked as though she’d never once washed it. Worse, her mane and tail were an unnatural yellow, as if she’d tried to do her own dye job and accidentally used paint instead of dye. A true “fashion disaster”, as the mares in the streets of the Inner Districts would say. Her cutie mark was a trio of plain-looking coals. He did notice that she at least kept her eyes in good condition, and in a bizarre contrast she seemed to have a natural aptitude for applying eyeshadow.

“Break a leg,” Havocwing said in an obviously-sarcastic sing-song tone. The unicorn made to reply, but the pegasus interrupted, “No really, break a leg. That’d be hilarious.”

The unicorn snorted. “Okay, that’s, like, totally uncool. I’m so gonna get you back for that? For. Sure.”

Havocwing laughed. “Yeah, right. You couldn’t fight your way out of a paper bag, los—"

The unicorn jabbed her hoof into Havocwing’s midsection, causing the pegasus to yelp in what sounded like severe pain, leaping away as if she’d stepped on a nail. The unicorn’s hoof glowed a dull red, then absorbed the light into itself.

“You touched me! You bucking touched me!” Havocwing shouted. “I told you not to touch me! You touch me again, you’re a dead mare, you got that?”

The unicorn paid her no heed.

“Hey!” Havocwing ignited one of her hooves. “I’m bucking talking to you, punk!

“Yeah, yeah, what-ever,” the unicorn dismissed. “Like, if you’re done here, I’ve got to get to work and junk? So like, make like a tree and hit the road.”

Havocwing sneered and made to say something, but apparently decided against it and stormed off in a huff.

Jetstream grimaced at the increasing numerical callsigns on his soldiers. A few of the troopers from his initial platoon still remained with him, so that put him somewhat at ease; at least he was only losing half a platoon at a time. Still, the combat prowess of these mares concerned him. They possessed powers that were beyond his understanding. What exactly were these “weapons” being used for?

The unicorn stumbled forward, almost tripping as she was distracted by her own hoof.

Jetstream shook his head, chasing his doubts away, and tapped his temple again. His troops surrounded her and armed their flechette launchers. She wouldn't be able to fly away, was hideously outnumbered, and was clearly unaware of the danger. He almost felt sorry for her.

Almost.

“Let’s see, like, how did she do this again?” the unicorn asked herself.

She pointed her hoof at one of the lingering flames left by the previous mare. A large swath of flames snaked its way through the air and crashed down on one of Jetstream’s soldiers, then burst outwards to engulf two more.

Jetstream had been expecting this mare to be able to use magic, as she was a unicorn, so he wasn’t surprised at her display. But, it still unnerved him that the others had been using magic he hadn’t seen before.

He took a deep breath to calm himself. Three troopers down already, but that was nothing serious.

He ordered the other troops to attack. They fired their weapons from all sides.

She yelped and panicked, raising a barrier spell to protect herself. It was an awkward cast, so while none of the bullets had gotten through, they hadn’t been properly reflected either. Instead, they clattered harmlessly to the ground around her.

“Hey! I’m, like, busy here!” she said. She seemed more bothered that he’d broken her focus than that he’d threatened her life.

Her body glowed a dull red for a brief moment, then returned to normal. “Whatever, I was, like, getting so bored with this power anyway? Cha. Fire is stupid.”

Her horn flared, and an aura of gold magic grabbed one of the surrounding troopers, snapping it over to her. Its visor shattered when it crashed into her barrier.

“Y’know, I totally bet one of these fancy robo-ponies has a much better power!” she said, her smile unnaturally large. “Gimme gimme gimme!”

She jabbed a hoof into the machine’s face. The trooper wantonly fired off sparks, as if it had been struck by an incredible electric shock.

She dropped it to the floor, and her body glowed bright gold for a brief moment. Without warning, she released her barrier and aimed her hoof at the nearest soldier in the formation. A ferocious bolt of lightning burst out of her hoof and ripped into her target, tearing it to pieces.

Jetstream’s jaw dropped. He frantically ordered his soldiers to fall back and engage her from range, but her aim was improving every time she fired off a shot. While her barrier spells were still very sloppy, her newfound weapon was extremely effective.

“Boom! Zap! Kapow!” She cheered with every explosive burst. “Okay, this is totally neat-o!”

He lost three more soldiers before Silvertongue’s voice crackled over the speakers again.

A fine display, Insipid. You may stop now.

“Yay! You liked it?!” Insipid squealed, clapping her hooves. “Oh. My. Stars. This is, like, the best. Possible. Thing. Eeee!”

She cantered airly towards the arena exit, where the next mare stood awaiting her turn.

Jetstream squinted and rubbed his eyes, befuddled by what he saw. The next pony looked familiar. Too familiar, in fact. He knew he’d seen her escape just that morning. What was her name again? Pinkie Pie? He was certain it was her, even though he saw some differences in her appearance. Her pink coat was a little duller, as were her mane and tail. She wore those in a straight, neatly-combed style, not at all the same poofy style he’d seen before. It was her, it had to be. Then again, her cutie mark was different. He could have sworn she had a trio of balloons, not a chocolate cupcake.

“So, like, I guess I should wish you ‘best of luck’ too, or whatever?” Insipid said as she trotted over. “Hoofshake on it?”

The earth pony kept her gaze forward, ignoring the unicorn.

Insipid snorted and stomped a hoof. “What-ever, if you’re gonna, y’know, be rude about it, you can, like, bite me.”

The earth pony slowly tilted her head sideways and smirked. “Is that an invitation?”

Insipid paused for a moment, then blanched. “Like, ewww, no! Totally. Major. Grody!

She trotted away in a huff, leaving the earth pony behind.

Jetstream snarled, deciding to completely throw any sense of fairness out the window. Trying to fight fairly had gotten him nowhere, accomplishing nothing save for embarrassing him in front of Silvertongue.

Most of his troops, except the new ones streaming into the arena, still had their flechette launchers armed. He ordered them to fire immediately.

The mare grinned, and shot forward to avoid them.

Jetstream fought hard to keep a straight face, to avoid cheering in triumph as multiple rounds pierced through her. She fell in a bloody heap only a yard away from her starting point.

His troops began reloading.

She struggled to rise to her hooves, her legs bleeding profusely and her body riddled with holes.

His troops fired again

To his surprise and horror, she not only managed to stand up, but managed to defend herself. He was sure what she was doing was medically impossible.

Her blood moved entirely on its own. A thick stream flowed from the many gaping wounds on her body and flared upwards, forming a shield that protected her from the bullets.

She staggered to her hooves and stepped awkwardly towards the nearest formation of soldiers. Her eyes were hidden by her blood-drenched mane, but he could see her wide, toothy grin.

Another stream of blood lashed out, grabbing one of his soldiers by the face. It squeezed until the soldier’s head popped in its grip. The soldier attempted to aim its guns at her, but the tendril slammed it harshly into the ground.

Another stream took on a thin, blade-like shape, and rapidly sliced through the middle of another trooper. The clean cuts didn’t appear until it made to move, and it crumbled into multiple tiny pieces.

A nearby trooper attempted to pounce on her with its static-charged hooves.  Another stream twisted up to meet it, forming a spike that impaled it through the neck. She violently tossed it aside, flinging it into another formation.

The pool of blood she left in her wake converged on her, snaking its way back into her myriad wounds. Said wounds seamlessly repaired themselves until she was able to walk normally. She looked as though she hadn’t even been touched, let alone mortally wounded. A thick cut along her spine remained untouched. It was from here that her weaponized blood poured, flailing about her like the tendrils of some horrid beast he’d seen only in nightmares.

Her wide smile and blood red eyes weren’t helping to ease his mind, either. It had been odd enough to see the red pegasus with one, but this pony had a mouth full of razor-sharp, gleaming fangs. Her tongue slid out of her mouth and licked along every single one.

She sauntered towards Jetstream now. He took a step back, fearful that she was coming after him rather than his expendable troops. The hungry look in her eyes frightened him. She was out for blood.

Jetstream stepped backwards again, but the mare drew closer and closer, taking two steps for every one of his.

Mmm... you seem nervous.

Jetstream leapt into the air and turned to face the high-pitched, peppy whisper behind him.

Nothing.

Jetstream turned back to where the mare had been before. She stood perfectly still and wore that same damned smile on her face.

Maybe you should take a little... break?

Jetstream blinked. The mare was gone. He frantically checked his surroundings.

Nothing.

Cold sweat... a hint of the jitters. Mmm... you smell delicious.”

Jetstream put his hooves to his ears. The mare’s voice echoed inside his head.

I wonder what you taste like...

One of her tendrils snapped from thin air at Jetstream’s face. He flinched and squeezed his eyes shut.

That will be all, my dear.” Silvertongue’s voice.

Jetstream’s eyes blinked open. The tendril lingered mere inches away, angrily writhing in the air directly in front of his face.

“Aww, but I was having fun.” The mare took more steps towards him, nearly touching him with her tendril.

I said, that will be all, Red Velvet. You can stop frightening the whelp.

Her bloodlust vanished in an instant. She calmly cantered towards the exit without another word to Jetstream.

The fifth mare, a violet-coated unicorn, was already waiting there for her turn. Her mane was styled with bouncy curls, half of it fuschia, the other half bubblegum pink. Her cutie mark almost matched the emblem that represented New Pandemonium City, but instead of a red, flaming sword thrusting downwards through a golden disk, hers was a simple, silver sword thrusting sideways through a golden crescent. She wore a great deal of mascara under and over her eyes, making her look like one of those eastern Outer Distract floozies.

Her eyes concerned Jetstream the most, as they were frighteningly familiar. He remembered seeing that exact same spark of determination, confidence, and focus in the eyes of the accursed unicorn that had started off his morning on such a sour note, Twilight Sparkle.

The pink mare did not verbally greet the newcomer. Instead, she merely gave a respectful nod that was given a half-hearted return as the unicorn stepped forward.

Jetstream grit his teeth. He knew he only had one more chance. He was going to throw everything he had into this: no holding back, no fair play, no mercy.

His fully replenished troops moved, surrounding her and arming their weapons. The cocky smirk she wore filled him with rage.

“Is this genuinely all the force you can muster?” the unicorn asked, laughing. She shrugged. “If you insist upon participating in such tripe, I suppose I am obligated to respond in kind.”

Jetstream sneered. The others had at least waited until after their tests to mock and taunt him.

She chuckled, putting her hoof over her mouth in mock apology. “Oh dear, have I disconcerted you? My condolences, but certainly your ego should not be such a crucial matter. Or am I wrong?”

Jetstream grit his teeth harder and tapped his visor, signalling his soldiers to take aim and attack, with only the two he kept at his side being omitted. He’d grown attached to these two remnants of his original platoon, T-001 and T-017, and wanted to keep them close in hopes that their survivability would extend to himself. Besides, seventeen was his lucky number.

“I see,” she said, giving a light-hearted shrug. “Very well. If you possess no retort, then commence with your demonstration.”

Nearly all of his troops fired their flechette rounds in unison.

Her horn glowed as bright as a star, and a shockwave of energy cascaded throughout the arena. The closest soldiers to her were lifted into the air, flailing about as they attempted to re-acquire a lock. The flechette rounds that had been fired by the rear line had all been caught in a glowing field of energy less than a yard from their target.

She twirled her collection of machines and bullets around, dancing them through the air like toys. “Lamentable. Inadequate. Uninspiring. Suffice to say, I am not impressed,” she droned. “Now allow me to demonstrate.”

She twisted all of the bullets she’d caught in front of her and arranged them in a ball. Without warning, the projectiles rapidly shot outwards in random directions, ripping apart mechanical ponies like tissue paper. The first line of troopers, those she’d lifted up with her magic, remained untouched; the second line, just behind those, were completely destroyed.

The third line finished reloading and fired again. She swept the robots she held through the line of fire with dazzling speed, using them as shields to soak up all of the incoming fire. Once the third line ran out of ammo, she discarded her makeshift shields, or rather the wreckage that was left of them.

A full two-thirds of his platoon gone in the space of a few moments.

He commanded his remaining troops to fire again, knowing the gesture was futile, but what else could he do?

She placed up a barrier at the last second, reflecting flechette rounds in every direction. Many of his remaining troops were struck and mangled, and he was forced to duck to avoid a few rounds himself.

Down to five soldiers.

She stepped forward, her horn aglow, and grabbed the three that remained of his third line in a purple aura.

The glow around one grew bright, and the soldier it held compacted on itself, crushed like a tin can.

She flung another upwards into the air with so much force that it slammed into the ceiling.

The last glowed a bright white and disappeared with a flash and a pop. A teleportation spell. Where it had been teleported to, he did not know nor did he want to.

He knew simultaneous spell-casting was possible, but limited, difficult, and exhausting. She’d been using some exceedingly complicated magic, yet did not look at all the worse for wear. If anything, she looked dissatisfied.

“How astonishingly soporific,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I anticipated that you would offer some modicum of challenge, but at present all that I have witnessed is a rather pathetic exhibition. Is not the intention of this ‘test’ evaluating my innumerable, prodigious talents?”

Her arrogance was unbearable. Jetstream had never once in his life ever wanted to slap a mare’s mouth shut, but there was a first time for everything. He tapped his visor again, signaling for additional reinforcements.

She laughed as the heavy iron gateway cranked open and another full platoon of troops entered the arena. “Well! I had certainly hoped you would mobilize more than just an insufficient rabble of machines to your aid, but I am aware of the impossibility of such. A shame.”

Mechanical soldiers streamed in a line out of the gate. She shook her head and ignited her horn, shrouding the gate with a bright pink aura.

As soon as the last trooper appeared, she slammed the door closed on top of it. She then ripped the gate off its rails and proceeded to one at a time smash the other soldiers with the giant slab of metal.

He looked on, completely dumbstruck, unable to process what he was seeing. The gate weighed several tons and was designed to hold a Gargantuan patriarch, a creature stronger than twenty ponies and just as big. A single unicorn could never lift such a thing.

She swept it around as if it weighed nothing at all. The massive object pummeled his soldiers, scattering mechanical parts in all directions.

Jetstream frantically ordered his units to spread out to minimize the damage. As they moved, he ordered them to open fire, hoping to break her concentration.

She casually teleported herself out of harm’s way, not once dropping her weapon. Jetstream slammed a hoof to the floor in frustration.

She crushed the last of his new platoon with the gate, then merely laughed and tossed it aside.

She snickered. “And so concludes another chapter in the fiasco that is your existence.”

He reached his hoof up to summon more reinforcements. Her horn flashed, and his visor shattered. Down to two soldiers again.

He gulped, and pointed his hoof at the unicorn. His hoof shook. “G-go! Take her down!”

“Oh, you puerile, predictable, poignant peon. You still presume to challenge me? You are dreck. You and your miserable machines are but specks of insignificance compared to the might that I wield.”

She turned to one of his troopers, T-017, and lit her horn again, lifting the robot into the air. He watched in shock as her magic took the thing apart like one would do a toaster oven that wasn’t working properly. Every single piece of machinery jettisoned outwards, spreading in the air before him.

“A mundane little thing, isn’t it?” she mused. “Such enterprise employed to create such a pitiable construct.”

She floated over a small cube-shaped component that had been removed from its chest, no bigger than an orange. “And here, the central processing unit. The machine’s heart and soul. Powerful enough to calculate elaborate physics trajectories in the merest fractions of a second—" She snapped it in half. “And yet so fragile. Not unlike yourself.”

She laughed loudly. “My trial was completed before it commenced. I suppose I should conclude this charade. You are unaided, after all.”

“You’re f-forgetting my last trooper,” Jetstream said, glancing hopefully at his only remaining ally. “I haven’t heard milord call you off yet.”

“Oh! How sophomoric of me, I forgot,” she said, playfully smacking her hoof against her forehead. “I suppose he is waiting for your other opponent to conclude her test.”

She turned to the other trooper and nodded.

“What the buck are you—"

T-001 sharply turned and bucked him hard in the face.

He stumbled away and glared at the offending machine. His jaw dropped. No bucking way.

The soldier’s mechanical features dissolved away, and what was once a machine turned into the form of a living, breathing mare. Shiny azure fur covering a sleek, elegant, feminine body replaced dull black metal covering a thick, heavy, masculine frame. A plain indigo headband kept her vermillion mane out of her eyes. Three oranges made up her cutie mark. Her mouth was curled in a sly grin, which she directed at him.

Jetstream rubbed his cheek where she’d kicked him. Hot damn. I’ve never been so happy to be hit by a mare.

“Have you enjoyed a suitable amount of fun?” the unicorn asked the earth pony.

“Mais oui, I ‘ave ‘ad a wonderful time sitting and waiting for all of you to finish vos tests,” the earth pony said, her voice light and airy. “You know as well as I do zat Oncle Blutsauger wanted us to go par ordre alphabétique. Donc, I did what I do best.”

“Cower in a corner?”

Une opération d’infiltration,” the earth pony dismissed. “You did not expect me to go vis-a-vis wiz zose garish zings, did you?”

Silvertongue’s voice crackled over the speakers. “Starlight Shadow. Curaçao. An exemplary display, both of you. I’ll be down shortly to meet with you and the others, and to deliver your results. Well done.

The unicorn beamed. “Excellent! I am not anticipating receiving anything less than maximum marks.” She tilted her head towards the earth pony and grinned. “Do not assume you are inadequate when your tally is inferior to mine, Curaçao. It is only logical, after all.”

“If your score trumping mine ovrried moi, zen j’aurais très peur de tout,” Curaçao said. At Starlight Shadow’s blank look, she coughed into her hoof. “I vould be scared of anyzing, vois-tu?”

“Right...”

Jetstream grumbled and stepped aside as the two mares headed for the open entry gateway. They seemed to be completely ignoring his presence. He figured it was probably better that way anyway, because then they couldn’t ridicule-

“Hey loser!

Havocwing raced out of the gate and made a beeline straight for Jetstream.

She got right in his face and poked him hard in the chest. “You just got your ass royally bucking handed to you! Ha! I’ll be surprised if Pops doesn’t just rip your stupid wings off and push you off the roof. You’re the worst excuse for a pegasus I’ve ever seen!”

“So much for being ignored,” Jetstream muttered.

Insipid literally skipped into the arena next. “I, like, totally deserve the best score, boss,” she gushed, addressing Starlight Shadow. “I mean, yeah, okay, your little display was, like, impressive and all? But, like, I am so much more deserving and junk? Cha.

“Mais oui, such a tremendous display yours vas, ma copine,” Curaçao said, her voice flat.

Insipid gave a happy squeal and leapt over to Curaçao, giving her a crushing hug. “Aha! There you are! I was, like, so totally worried when I didn’t see you in the prep room! I’m so never letting you out of my sight again.”

“C’est... bon.” Curaçao gave an obviously-forced smile as Insipid lovingly stroked her mane. “Je suis heureuse.”

“Ooh, I love it when you talk all fancy,” Insipid sighed, leaning her cheek against Curaçao’s neck.

Havocwing made a puking gesture behind her back.

Grayscale Force entered the arena next, remaining quiet and not moving to join her comrades. None of them seemed to even notice or care.

Red Velvet, on the other hoof, bounded straight over to the group and landed precisely in the middle of the formation. Aside from Starlight Shadow, the mares all took a subtle step away from her.

A large clang alerted all the ponies present to the opening of the small door on the opposite edge of the arena. Silvertongue entered the room, striding straight for the collection of ponies. Doctor Blutsauger followed closely behind him, hovering a datapad in front of his face and rapidly running his hoof across the screen. As they approached, Jetstream snapped to attention and saluted. Five of the six mares scrambled to get themselves in a line, except Starlight Shadow, who took a position opposite Jetstream and stood proudly.

“Ladies. Calm yourselves,” Silvertongue said.

The other five obeyed instantly, lining up without another word. Silvertongue’s mouth curled in a smile as he looked over the six of them, each one standing straight and tall.

“An admirable display, all of you,” he said, stepping down towards the end of the line. “It gladdens me to see that the accident has not diminished any of your powers. Now then, I suppose you are all excited to learn how well you performed, yes?”

They all nodded enthusiastically, save Starlight, who bore a cocksure grin.

Silvertongue laughed. “Ah, but before I administer my evaluations, your dear Uncle Blutsauger needs to give you all a brief examination. Nothing serious, just some simple diagnostics. This is your first time utilizing your abilities since the accident, after all, and it would be simply dreadful were any of you affected negatively.” He gestured for Blutsauger to step forward. “Doctor, you may proceed. And please,” he added, narrowing his eyes, “keep it brief.”

Blutsauger cantered forward, a wide smile on his face. “Ja ja, I vill not be long, Herr Silvertongue. As you said, just some diagnostic magicks, ja? Zis vill take seconds.”

He stepped up to Starlight Shadow and pressed his hoof on his datapad. It glowed, sending out a beam of light at Starlight that enshrouded her in a dull blue glow. He hummed to himself and pushed some buttons on the pad, then brightened when the device’s glow turned bright green.

“Vunderbar! You are in peak physical condition, dear,” he said, adjusting his goggles. “Are you sure you don’t vant me to give you a closer examination? It might be wise to be more zorough, ja?”

“No thank you, uncle,” Starlight said, shying away just slightly and giving Silvertongue a nervous glance.

Blutsauger shrugged and went down the line, performing the same quick examinations on the other five mares and becoming visibly disappointed as they each rebuked his inquiries in turn.

When he was completed, he returned to Silvertongue’s side and saluted. “All done, Herr Silvertongue. Zey are all at zeir peaks, in prime physical condition, ja?” he said, leering at the line of mares. “None of zem sustained any injuries in zee first place, viz one exception; and Red Velvet has recovered from her injuries completely, as if zey vere not even zere. I am impressed!”

“Excellent, Doctor,” Silvertongue said, gesturing for Blutsauger to stand at ease. “Now then, for my evaluations.”

Silvertongue walked over to the last pony in the line, Curaçao. She kept a firm, professional look on her face, but Jetstream saw the glimmer of happiness in her eyes.

“First, Curaçao,” Silvertongue announced. “You displayed an incredible aptitude for subterfuge and deception, and I was quite impressed with your ability to mislead even your opponent’s techno-magic equipment. A clever ruse. However,” he tutted, shaking his hoof, “You withheld yourself from multiple opportunities to strike at your opponent when he was distracted. In the future, remember, always capitalize on the element of surprise. Ninety-two points.”

“Merci, papa.” Curaçao smiled, bowing down on one knee.

Silvertongue stepped next over to the Grayscale Force. She stomped a hoof and stood at even firmer attention, were that possible. Jetstream was impressed at just how tall she was, even in comparison to Silvertongue, who’d always towered over other ponies before. Grayscale stood nearly eye-to-eye with him.

“Grayscale Force. You displayed an acute understanding of physics and gravity, utilizing it to bring tremendous force to bear against your opponent. I am impressed at how much power you wield, and am eager to see how much control over it you truly have. However, you only displayed your ability to increase gravity’s force upon your targets, and upon yourself. In the future, remember, decreasing weight has its own applications. Ninety-eight points.”

Grayscale bowed down on one knee as Curaçao had done. “I deserve as much, I guess. Thanks, dad.”

Silvertongue next turned to Havocwing, who beamed wide and lifted her hoof up as if expecting him to give her a hoofbump.

Silvertongue left her hanging. “Havocwing. First, let me express my disappointment in you for beginning your test by utilizing such lowbrow combat techniques. This test’s intention was to evaluate your control over your powers, not how well you could ‘kick ass’, as you would say.”

Havocwing’s smile drooped and her hoof fell limp to the floor.

“However, the rest of your display was quite impressive, and while it did not excuse the disappointing beginning, it was enough to increase your average,” Silvertongue continued. “In the future, remember, always bring your full power to bear against your opponent. Do not lower yourself to their level. Eighty-seven points.”

Havocwing sighed. “Yeah, pops, I get it...”

Insipid snickered from the side, and Havocwing shot her a fierce glare.

Silvertongue stepped up to Insipid. She beamed up at him, barely able to stay still. He chuckled softly and patted her on the head, making her laugh. “Insipid. Your display of mimicking the capabilities of other ponies was impressive, and that your touch causes such powerful feedback intrigues me. I was unaware you could drain the power from a techno-magic construct as well, so that came as a pleasant surprise. However, your standard magic has room for improvement. In the future, remember that you are a unicorn, and that you can use your magic together with the powers you copy.”

Insipid stared up blankly at Silvertongue, and tilted her head. “Uh... does that, like, mean I did good?”

Silvertongue smiled. “Ninety-one points.”

“But daaddyy,” she whined, “I want a higher score, pleeease?”

Silvertongue laughed and ruffled her mane. “Ninety-two points then.”

“Whoopie!” She tilted her head over towards Curaçao and grinned wide. “Curie! I got the same score as you!”

“Très bon, good for you,” Curaçao said, shaking her head. “I am... proud of you.”

“Yay!”

Silvertongue moved next to Red Velvet.

She kept a serious look on her face, but Jetstream couldn’t help but notice she was glancing in his direction every other second. That same damned hungry look lingered in her eyes. He took half a step back and shuddered.

“Red Velvet. You displayed exceptional fortitude and capability for both enduring and distributing pain. Your primary power is exemplary, and I see no need to advise you on improving it, other than continuous practice to hone your skills. I also believe I witnessed the utilization of some fraction of your other power, and was quite impressed with how well that worked. However, remember, that secondary power you wield is not a guarantee for success. Creatures can conquer their fears, after all, even their fear of you. Ninety-four points.”

“Thank you daddy,” she said, bowing down as Curaçao and Grayscale had done.

Red Velvet glanced at Jetstream and gave him that wide, toothy smile again. It chilled him straight down to the bone.

Silvertongue approached the last of the six, Starlight Shadow. She stuck her nose in the air and kept that supremely smug grin on her face.

“And last but not least, to you, the youngest of my six wonderful little ponies,” Silvertongue announced. “Starlight Shadow. You displayed the most incredible magical power I have witnessed in a long, long time. You suffered no damage and destroyed your opponent’s entire regiment twice over. I see no need to advise you on your capabilities in combat. A perfect score, one hundred points.”

“It would have proven impossible for me to achieve anything less,” Starlight said, bowing low but not taking her eyes off of Silvertongue. “Your praise fills me with pride, father. Thank you.”

Silvertongue smiled and patted her on the head as well, causing her grin to widen. He stepped away from the line, then turned back and addressed them. “My daughters. You six are most precious to me, more than anything I possess in this world.” His words caused them all to smile brightly. “It pains me greatly to send you away, but you all have a greater purpose out there than you do here in the safety of my tower.”

Silvertongue motioned for Blutsauger to step forward again. “Doctor, if you would?”

“Ja, Herr Silvertongue.”

Blutsauger pushed a button on his datapad, which emitted a green light straight up and displayed a holographic projection of the six mares Jetstream recognized from that morning. The six mares here all looked at the images, and their happy smiles contorted into fierce scowls.

“These six have wronged you greatly, and they deserve to be punished,” Silvertongue explained, gesturing towards the holograms. “You have all recovered from the accident in such a short time. Now it is time you got your just and deserved revenge.”

“Booyah!” Havocwing exclaimed, pumping her hoof in the air. “Aw man, I cannot wait to break those punks’ faces in!”

Red Velvet rubbed her hooves together. “This is gonna be great. Like a feast! Ooh, ooh, or a buffet! I love buffets.”

“Havoc! Velvet!” Starlight hissed. “Cease your outbursts, father is talking.”

“It is quite alright, my dear,” Silvertongue laughed. He walked over to Havocwing and patted her on the head, making her chuckle. “Your sisters are merely excited. And with good reason.” He turned to Red Velvet and shook his hoof at her. “But, I do not want you to kill them, remember that. Do not succumb to your base desires. There is greater work to be done here, and you all are the keys to making it possible. Even you are not exempt from the same rules that I apply to all those who work for me. I do not tolerate failure.”

Silvertongue turned towards Jetstream, his mouth curling in a mocking smile. Jetstream gulped and straightened back to firm attention.

“Isn’t that right, Jetstream?” Silvertongue asked. “Oh, but where are my manners? I do believe this whole time you’ve been waiting to see whether or not I was going to give you a second chance, is that correct?”

Jetstream nodded. “Y-yes, milord.”

Silvertongue chuckled darkly, clapping his hooves together slowly. “I do applaud your efforts, commander. I suppose that I wasn’t really treating you with dignity, sending a plebeian individual such as yourself to challenge the likes of such powerful adversaries as these. It would be unfair of me to consider your inability to even pose a threat to them as a mark against you.”

Jetstream breathed a sigh of relief, completely unconcerned with the backhoofed compliments. “Thank you, milord, for—"

“‘Thank you’?” Silvertongue laughed. Loudly. His laughter was infectious, and the six mares started snickering as well. “Jetstream, correct me if I’m wrong, but do you believe you’ve earned a second chance?”

Jetstream glanced over at Blutsauger, who was the only one not laughing, then back to Silvertongue. “Uh... y-yes sir?”

Silvertongue sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Did I not just say that you failed to pose to them even a modicum of a threat? They barely exerted a minimum of effort. I don’t have time to wait for them to reach their full potential, as they need to catch up with those six mares. I remind you that your ineptitude this morning allowed the mares in question to gain quite some distance.”

“B-b-but—"

Silvertongue’s horn sparked, and Jetstream was jerked into the air. “I have no use for the likes of such a worthless pawn, Jetstream.”

Aw crap.

Silvertongue turned to Starlight Shadow and gave her a praising smile. “Starlight, my dear, Commander Jetstream here is in dire need of some punishment. Normally I have somepony to take care of such a task, one who relishes greatly in it, but he is... indisposed at the moment. How would you like to test your powers against a normal pony, rather than a simple machine?”

Crap. No. No!

Starlight’s horn glowed and she took over Silvertongue’s spell, pulling Jetstream over to her. She dismissively waved a hoof. “Father, I surmise that you and I both are aware of somepony present who would much preferably be blessed with such an opportunity.”

Jetstream frantically darted his eyes between the six mares. He couldn’t decide what was worse: Grayscale Force crushing him under his own weight, or worse, under hers; Havocwing roasting him alive, maybe blowing him to pieces; Insipid electrocuting him; or Red Velvet slicing him apart. He did know one thing for certain though:

I’m dead. I’m bucking dead. Dad’s gonna be pissed.

“Yeah! Me!” Havocwing exclaimed, bolstering over. “Can I, boss? I just wanna fill him up with so much fire that he bucking explodes, and then when he’s done, make him explode again. Please boss? Can I?”

Starlight snorted and pushed Havocwing away. “Havoc, as I recall, you received the lowest marks. As penance for detruding our aggregate average, I am prohibiting you from this undertaking.”

Havocwing’s jaw dropped. “What?! Oh come on boss! I really want to kill this guy! He’s an embarrassment to pegasi everywhere! Please? I promise I—"

“Puh-lease,” Insipid said, bouncing over and shoving Havocwing aside. “If, like, anypony should be allowed to kill him, it should, like, totally be me and junk? I mean, for. Sure.”

Starlight and Havocwing stared at Insipid, eyes half-lidded.

Havocwing balked. “What?”

Curaçao raised an eyebrow. “You would prefer to kill ‘im? Quelle surprise! Zis is unlike you, ma copine.”

“Yeah, since when do you care about killing and stuff?” Havocwing asked.

Insipid rolled her eyes. “Like, since now. I mean duh, if you want a piece of him, I want a piece of him. You should totally, like, share? Sharing is caring, after all.”

“Bullshit! Like you’d share with any of us!”

Insipid stuck out her tongue. “You’re just mad I got a higher score than you.”

“Oh, but ‘avocving ‘as already lost ‘er opportunity, ma copine,” Curaçao said, patting Insipid on the back. “Besides, Grayscale earned zee ‘ighest score, after zee capitaine, of course. She is zee one who should deliver zee coup de grâce, n’est-ce pas?” She turned to the mentioned pegasus. “Grayscale? What do you zink?”

Grayscale shrugged and lazily took a few steps towards Jetstream. “I guess that’s fine, if you say so. Better than wasting it on Havocwing.”

Starlight nodded. “That is acceptable. If Grayscale wishes to—"

“Hey, buck that noise!” Havocwing said, pointing angrily at Grayscale. “Check it, she doesn’t want to!”

“Hell-ooo?” Insipid said, waving her hoof in the air. “This totally means, like, that it should be me, right? Not little miss low score here? She’s, like, so worthless?”

“Buck off!” Havocwing lit her hooves on fire, and swiveled around between Insipid, Grayscale, and Curaçao. “C’mon, which one of you wants to bucking say something else about me, huh? I’ll kick your ass into next week!”

“Aha, oui. I would not wish to disparage, euh, insult you, dear ‘avocving,” Curaçao said, pursing her lips.

She morphed her face to take on Havocwing’s appearance. Then, in a perfect imitation of Havocwing’s voice, she said, “But I have no problems insulting myself! I sure am a bucking idiot! I smell too!”

Havocwing stomped her hooves on the floor. “That’s it! I’m gonna—"

Grayscale yawned. “Can you guys make a decision already? I wanted to take a nap after the test.”

Starlight groaned and put a shield up in front of Havocwing just as she was darting towards a taunting Curaçao. Havocwing bounced back and rolled away, swearing loudly.

“I am surrounded by juveniles,” she said, holding her head in her hooves. “Velvet! Jetstream is yours for the taking.”

She dropped her spell on Jetstream, and he fell painfully to the cold metal floor.

Red Velvet licked her lips. “Thanks boss. You have no idea how much I wanted this. I’m starving. Why, I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse,” she said.

Jetstream scampered back several paces and darted his eyes to Silvertongue. “Milord... please!”

Silvertongue turned to Starlight. “Starlight Shadow, I shall leave you and your sisters to this gruesome task. When Jetstream has been disposed of, you may proceed with your assignment.”

“Of course, father,” Starlight said, bowing down on one knee.

“P-please, milord,” Jetstream said, putting his hooves together. “Please! Let me have another chance! I... I’m sorry!”

“It’s far too late to beg me for forgiveness, Jetstream,” Silvertongue said, his mouth curled in a scowl. “Your life is in their hooves now, specifically in my dear Red Velvet’s very capable ones. I suggest if you want to keep breathing, you ask her.”

Silvertongue and Blutsauger disappeared in a blinding white flash.

        

Red Velvet sauntered forward, her eyes regaining the baffling red glow Jetstream remembered from before. “Come on then, you heard daddy. Beg. Beg me to spare you. I promise I’ll listen. I just want to hear it...”

Jetstream gulped. “P-p-please, Miss Velvet, d-don’t—"

“‘Miss’ Velvet? Well, aren’t you just so—"

She vanished.

Jetstream staggered back from where she’d last been. He bumped into something. Something fuzzy and warm.

Polite?” Velvet breathed into his ear.

Jetstream shot upwards several yards, wondering how she’d managed to get behind him.

She beamed up at him. Tendrils of blood began to leak out of the slit along her spine. “Mmm... and so skittish too. I love when my stallions get all jumpy like that. It’s like seasoning! Come on then, let me hear some more begging.

Jetstream made to say something, but was at a loss for words. Her voice echoed inside his head again, higher-pitched than before, with a deep reverberation. It was like having a migraine that talked.

What’s the matter, stud? Cat got your tongue?

A sharp pain ripped across his flank, and Jetstream stopped flapping his wings in shock. He crashed into the floor, but ignored that pain to look at his flank in a panic.

His armor around the pained area had been stripped bare, letting him clearly see the injury. Claw marks. The cuts were thick, deep, and bleeding heavily. He couldn’t see his cutie mark at all through all the blood.

Such a thick flank! So tender. I can’t wait to just... sink my teeth in.

He scrambled away from Velvet again, but when he looked up, she wasn’t where he remembered seeing her.

I can smell your blood. Mmmm... oh stars, it smells delicious. It makes for great marinade, you know?

“Stop this! Please!”

You don’t need to be so loud,” Velvet’s voice whispered.

He turned around to see her right behind him again, her eyes glowing red.

“After all, there’s only just the two of us. I like to dine in private, especially with such a hunky stallion as yourself. A dinner date for two.”

Jetstream frantically searched his surroundings as he stumbled away from her. The other five ponies were gone too, without a trace. The room darkened around himself and Velvet, surrounding them with nothing but black that washed light away like vulgar graffiti.

Soon, it was all gone. He was alone with her in a small circle of light no bigger than ten ponies across. When he reached the edge, it felt like he’d backed into a wall.

“Come on,” she pleaded, stepping towards him. “I want to hear you beg some more. I need to hear you beg some more. Please?”

“Milord!” he called out. “Blutsauger! Anypony! Please! Call it off! I promise I’ll—"

“I said,” she growled, her voice deepening and acquiring a fierce echo, “BEG!

Jetstream tried to flee again, holding on to nothing more than a fleeting hope that he could escape. Perhaps this was his test, he thought. If he managed to get away, he’d earn his second chance.

But, every time he managed to reach the edge of the darkness, she was there. Her eyes were stained red, growing brighter every time he saw them, and her pupils were tiny and black.

“I normally like it when they run, but you’re making this so boring,” she said.

A tendril of her blood lashed out and grabbed him by the neck, dragging him towards her. He began to scream, and her grin widened in response.

She cackled. “Now that’s more like it!”

“No! L-let me go! Please!” He tried to run towards the only light he could see.

The light flickered and died, and his hopes died with it. He collapsed to the ground, holding his head, and sobbed.

I’m going to die.

Velvet slumped on top of Jetstream, and her tendrils began to snap around him and strip off the rest of his armor. A thick tendril slid out along her side and oozed to the gash on his flank.

Jetstream screamed when her blood mingled with his, causing a severe, burning pain. His whole body was on fire within seconds.

“See? Now was that so hard?” she asked, pinning him down and running a hoof along his chest. “Mmmm... you’re not too shabby at all. Lots of thick meat, tasty juices, and just the right amount of seasoning. I give this dish—" she giggled, leaping off of him, “Five stars!”

“P-please... stop this...” he whimpered.

“Stop? But we’re just getting started.” She pouted, then lifted a hoof as if she’d been struck with an idea. “I know! This is a dinner date, and what’s a dinner date without a little serenade?”

Her tendrils wrapped around every part of his body. His blood ran cold when they lifted him into the air and stretched him out.

I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I’m going to-

“Yes, yes, die, geez,” Velvet said, rolling her eyes. “Stallions. Always got a one-track mind, huh? Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah! Ahem...

“♫The femur bone’s connected to the... pelvic bone.

Snap.

He screamed.

“Ooh that’s good!” she said, pointing her hoof at him in praise. “You’ll provide a nice little chorus for me. Where was I? Ah!

“♫The pelvic bone’s connected to the... spinal bone.”

Snap.

“♫The spinal bone’s... connected... hey. Hello?” She huffed and put her hooves on her hips. “Awww... shoot, there goes another one. I’m never gonna finish that song...”


CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter Ten: Interjection

Applejack couldn’t sleep. She lifted herself up from her resting position against a large rock and stretched her legs. It had been a long time since she’d ever had to rough it and sleep in the dirt every night like this, but circumstances didn’t favor ideal camping conditions.

Two days had passed since the Gate incident, and even in the dark of night, Applejack could make out the first landmark up ahead in the distance. The terrain ahead gradually shifted from drab grays and browns into striking reds and blacks, and sharp inclines replaced flat expanses. The tops of several great volcanoes loomed beyond, spewing fire and ash into the air and coating the sky above with thick, black smoke like a coven of dragons battling amongst themselves over a potential mate.

Tick Tock had insisted the group make camp several miles away, so that they wouldn’t be sleeping in range of any possible volcanic activity. The site they’d picked was littered with ash-stained rocks, but was otherwise the clearest spot they could find for nearly a mile around. Twilight had magically crafted a blueish-purple flame that flickered in the center of their campsite, around which most of the group now slept.

Their saddlebags, or rather what was left of their collection, rested nearby against the largest rock. In their haste to flee from the Gate, they’d left behind a full third of their initial number, leaving them desperately short of supplies. Fortunately, most of the bags they’d managed to keep carried their rationed assortment of Dolor products. Their fortune ended there. Other supplies were in much shorter availability.

Originally, Flathoof’s parents had given them substandard sleeping bags, one for each of them. They were now down to three, and one of them had been heavily torn. The two that remained in good condition were at first a topic of debate for the group, but Lockwood had insisted they be given to the less hardy members of the party: Rarity and Fluttershy. The other was being given out in rotation, and tonight it was Lockwood’s turn.

They also had no changes in clothes, something Rarity claimed to be an unmitigated disaster. The clothes they’d been wearing during their escape, which for the Ponyville natives were the same clothes they’d been wearing for the past two days, had long since become uncomfortable. They were barely used to wearing clothes at all, and certainly unaccustomed to wearing clothes while traveling, so some of them had to make some changes. Rarity had altered her dress in such a way that it no longer caught under her hooves. Pinkie had ditched her roller skates, as the desert terrain of the Wastelands wasn’t suited for wheels. Other than that, they were just matted with sweat, and covered with dirt.

Still, the journey hadn’t gotten off to too bad of a start.

Applejack inched around the campfire, making her way towards the perimeter of the camp to where Flathoof stood at attention. He’d agreed to take first watch, and it was nearing time for Applejack to take over for the next shift. Or so she guessed - she couldn’t be too sure. The sky above still churned with the murky orange veil of the ‘Beacon’, as Tick Tock had called it, so Applejack couldn’t see the moon or the stars at all.

“Y’all look like ya could use a little break,” she whispered, stepping up to Flathoof.

Flathoof half-turned his head towards her, and nodded to acknowledge her presence. “Are you still awake, Applejack? You really should be—" He interrupted himself with a loud, drawn-out yawn. “Getting some sleep.”

She chuckled. “I could say the same ‘bout yerself. Go on, get some sleep. I’m takin’ next watch anyway, so consider yerself relieved.”

“Nnnope, I’m not leaving my post until my shift is up,” he said, stomping a hoof in the dirt. “You can’t say anything that’ll change my—" Another yawn. “Mind.”

She laughed, feigning insult. “Don’t try actin’ all macho with me, sugar. That sorta thing might work on the others, like Twi and Rarity maybe, but it don’t hold with me.”

He chuckled, shaking his head. “Perhaps you’re right. You’re a tough cookie, I’ll give you that.”

He took another look at the smoldering red tops of the mountains in the distance, and let out a deep sigh. “I suppose I’m just trying to keep my mind off things. Whenever I get any sleep, I... dream. Not good dreams either. I’d rather put that off, if I could.”

Applejack frowned and nodded her head. She didn’t have the heart to tell him, but he talked in his sleep. “They’re ‘bout her, ain’t they? If ya need ta get somethin’ off yer chest, I’m here ta listen. That’s what I said I’d do.”

Flathoof stared at the ground for several moments. “Do they have magmaberries in your world?”

She blinked. “What-berries? Naw, I ain’t heard o’ nothing like that. What are they?”

“They’re a rare delicacy around these parts. Sweet on the outside, spicy on the inside... or was it the other way around? Popular in desserts around the holidays. My cousin Bundtcake works for a catering company that specializes in working with them.” He pointed off towards the volcanoes. “She says the Redblade Mountains are the only place in all of Equestria they grow, so they’re usually pretty expensive. They’re supposedly very dangerous to harvest.”

Applejack scratched her head. “Sounds awful fancy. I ain’t never been one ta like them high-falootin’ foods. I prefer my eats nice ‘n’ simple-like. Hay ‘n’ oats, apples ‘n’ carrots, stuff like that. Heck, I’m still gettin’ used ta this weird Dolor junk y’all got ‘round here. That Green stuff we brought... ugh.”

Flathoof laughed and scratched his chin. “Trust me, if you can handle the spice, they’re real tasty. I think you’d like them.”

“If y’all say so.” She adjusted her hat and stepped a little closer to him. “If these here things are so expensive, how d’ya get ta eat ‘em? No offense, but y’all said yerself that yer family weren’t exactly wealthy.”

“Well, my cousin always sends out a few magmaberry treats around the holidays to everypony in the family. Cousin Bundtcake is very popular, you understand. My mom makes the best magmaberry pie.” Flathoof closed his eyes and licked his lips.

“Last year, I invited Snapshot over, since she and her family were kind of on the outs. I felt it was the right thing to do, seeing as we were friends and all. She’d never tasted magmaberries before.” He laughed into his hoof. “We all got a good laugh. She couldn't handle it at first, but they grew on her.”

Applejack joined him in smiling. “See? There’s a happy memory. Y’all gotta hang onta those.”

“Yeah...” His smile fell. “A few weeks ago, she asked me about this year. My family just adored her, and they wanted her back so much that they asked her to come again. She wanted to know if we were having magmaberries, and asked me if I could get her a very specific kind of dessert she was interested in. She had a good taste in desserts, I think.”

He sighed. “Seeing these damned mountains reminds me all about it. I wish we didn’t have to come this way...”

Applejack remained silent a moment, then removed her hat and placed it over her heart. “If I’d known what this here place meant to ya, I would’ve argued goin’ ‘round another way.”

He sniffed and wiped a hoof under his eye. “Don’t blame yourself or your friends, Applejack. I don’t. I knew we were coming this way, and I chose not to argue it with Tick Tock. If this is the fastest way to get you all home and save your world, then this is the way we’re going. I’ve got to face these feelings eventually, and as much as I want to put some of them off... I know there’s no avoiding it.”

“Well that’s awful strong o’ y’all,” Applejack said, placing her leg around his neck. “I wish I could say the same ‘bout myself...”

They stood in silence for several moments.

Flathoof turned his head and looked at Applejack. “Applejack, what happened to your parents?”

Applejack shied away from the question, letting her hoof fall from around his neck. “It’s a long story,” she said, trying not to meet his gaze. “Ta be frank, I ain’t told nopony the whole story. My friends know just the most basic thing, that they ain’t with me no more. None o’ them know what it’s like, so I don’t feel right talkin’ ‘bout it much more’n that.”

“Don’t worry about it, Applejack.” Flathoof placed his hoof on her shoulder, putting her at ease. “I wouldn’t force you to talk about something you don’t feel comfortable with.”

Applejack nodded and grunted her appreciation. “Thank ya kindly. I don’t mean ta be short with ya, but—"

He smiled. “You don’t need to make excuses for me. I understand.”

Applejack turned back to look at him, hesitating for a moment before leaning her head into him. She laughed when he yawned loudly again. “My offer still stands, sugar. Go on, get some sleep. I’ll cover the rest o’ yer shift.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Fine. You win. You and your friends have a real way of convincing me to do what you want. I’ll have to watch out for that. Who knows what you girls might convince me to do.”

Applejack stopped him before he headed back into camp. “Y’all sure ya don’t need nothin’ else?”

He chuckled, continuing on his way. “Eeyup, pretty sure. Thanks again, Applejack.”

Applejack nodded. “D-don’t mention it, sugar.”

After he left earshot, Applejack shook her head, perplexed. “Did he just say what I think he did?”

That single word had deeply disturbed Applejack, and she wasn’t sure why. She’d heard that same word hundreds, perhaps thousands of times over the course of her life. Big Macintosh used it, and it was one of the only things he ever really said. Apple Bloom used it sometimes when imitating him, and Applejack used it herself every now and again. So why did it bother her now?

“Applejack? Are you taking over for Flathoof?”

Applejack jumped and swiveled to face the voice. “Oh! Twilight!” She let out a sigh of relief, then scratched her head. “Uh... yeah, ol’ Flathoof was gettin’ a mite tired. I don’t think he's used to late nights like this. Sent him off ta bed early.”

Twilight tilted her head and gave Applejack one of her analyzing looks. “Are you alright, Applejack? You look pale.”

Applejack tugged at the collar of her shirt. “What? Naw, I’m fine, sugarcube. Just... thinkin’ ‘bout somthin’, no big deal.” Her eyes darted back and forth in an attempt to think of something to change the subject, settling on the obvious. “So... what’re y’all doin’ up?”

“Tick Tock wanted to show me what kind of route we’re going to be taking, using that fascinating map of hers. She’s just gathering everything up.”

“Y’all seem ta be gettin’ along better with her, don’t ya?” Applejack chuckled, slapping Twilight on the back. She was just glad to get the focus off of herself. “Just a matter o’ time ‘fore y’all’re the best o’ friends.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and sighed. “I wouldn’t go that far yet, Applejack. I like certain aspects of her, to be sure. She’s certainly intelligent and really knows her stuff about this world and all, so I’m learning a lot that might come in handy. But, there are a few things I think she’s gravely misinformed about.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Such as?”

“For one, that whole thing she tried to explain about the nature of magical energies?” Twilight huffed when Applejack kept a blank look on her face. “Well, it bothers me. See, I’ve done a great deal of studying, and I know where her point of view comes from, but I know she’s mistaken. I just don't know why she’s so adamant about it.”

Applejack shrugged. “All that talk went over my head last time y’all were arguin’ ‘bout it. Care ta tell me what exactly don’t make sense? I don’t like seein’ ponies arguin’ ‘bout somethin’ fer no good reason. Even if I don’t rightly understand, I’m a good listener.”

Twilight hesitated a moment and looked Applejack up and down, as if sizing her up. Then, she smiled and nodded. “Well, she says we all represent Law forces, right? You, me, and the other girls?”

“Yeah, I got that part.”

“And she said that we’re all opposed to Chaos forces, right?”

“Well yeah, that makes perfect sense ta me.” Applejack laughed, stomping a hoof. “We did fight off ol’ Discord right? The... funda... fondue... aw shoot, I forgot what y’all called him.”

“The fundamental representation and manifestation of the powers of Chaotic magicks?” Twilight said, eyes half-lidded.

“Yeah. All that hogwash.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Yes, well, think about that for a second. She’s asking us to believe that Pinkie Pie represents a force of Law, not Chaos. Our Pinkie Pie. The same Pinkie Pie that operates a Party Cannon, randomly bursts into song, eats her weight in sugar every day, and keeps rubber balls hidden all over Ponyville in case of a ‘Ball Emergency’.”

Applejack chuckled and scratched her chin. “Now that y’all mention it, she did sorta enjoy all o’ Discord’s magic-y stuff. Chocolate milk rain and all.”

“See? It doesn’t make sense,” Twilight said matter-of-factly. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Pinkie Pie. But you have to admit, she’s not exactly the most... orderly.”

“Well I guess I can kinda see yer point, Twi, but do ya really need ta argue it so much with Tick Tock? It ain’t botherin’ nopony, right?”

Twilight sighed and slumped down. “It bothers me. It’s not so much that she’s wrong, so much as she’s so sure she’s right and won’t listen to reason. She still has a thing or two to change about her attitude.”

“And you still have a thing or two to learn about listening.”

Twilight jumped and wheeled around. She chuckled, her voice cracking. “Oh... uh, hey there Tick Tock. H-how long have you been standing there?”

Tick Tock snorted and pushed her way past Twilight and Applejack. “Long enough to know that I bloody well want to get this all over with, before you start trying to convince me I’m wrong about other fundamental world concepts. Like maybe telling me that up is down, or the moon is made of bloody cheese or something.”

“Well that’s just—"

Tick Tock ignored the other unicorn and turned to Applejack. “Applejack, you can get to bed now, if you’d like. Sparkle and I have matters to discuss, and we may be up a while. We’ll take over your watch.”

“If y’all don't mind, I’d like ta stay. I can't sleep,” Applejack said, looking off towards the camp. “I got a few too many things on mah mind, ta be honest.”

“Oh?” Twilight asked. “Like what?”

“Nothin’, don’t worry ‘bout it none.”

“Actually, this is good,” Twilight said, smiling and patting Applejack on the shoulder. “You’ve got better mountain climbing experience than I do. You’d probably be a better judge of what looks like a safer route.”

“Well thank ya kindly, Twi,” Applejack said, chuckling and tipping her hat. “I’d be more than happy ta help.”

“Good thinking, Sparkle. That experience might come in handy,” Tick Tock said. “I usually take the quickest route through, but I’m also usually by myself. Traveling as a group is a little different.”

“Fantastic!” Twilight said, clapping her hooves. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

Tick Tock nodded and unfurled her map out of her vest pocket, fanning it out until it was about a yard long on every side. Her hoof flittered across it, prodding corners, and tapping images, causing the image on the map to erase and redraw itself rapidly until it looked like it was a detailed drawing of a mountain range.

Applejack shook her head in disbelief. “That map o’ yers always confuses me. How d’ya get it ta do all that? That some kind o’ magic?”

“To put it bluntly, yes,” Tick Tock said. “It’s a rare enchanted map, quite ancient in fact.”

“See? Isn’t it fascinating?” Twilight said, pointing her hoof at all the colorful displays, a huge smile on her face. “I’m not sure how many different spells were used to make it work, but there’s a lot of familiar magic here. This is better than any map I’ve ever used. Where did you get something like this, Tick Tock?”

Tick Tock paused for a moment, then started tracing her hoof along the map, creating a red trail. “My predecessor gave it to me a long time ago. It was a birthday present, the last he gave me before...” She waved her hoof and gestured to her map. “Come on, you said you wanted to help, so quit bloody talking and help.”

***

Rainbow snorted and pointed towards the trio of ponies that were wide awake on the other side of camp. She and Pinkie were resting just on the other side of the campfire, far enough away that they couldn’t be seen by the trio that was definitely awake. She didn’t want anypony else awake to see her.

“Look at them,” she whispered to Pinkie. “They’re all completely suckered in by this stupid plan. I can’t believe we’re going along with this. We’re agreeing to go slogging through a range a volcanoes. That’s just asking for trouble.”

“Tick Tock did say we could’ve objected at any time.” Pinkie yawned, snuggling tighter into Rainbow’s wing. “Kind of late to be complaining about it now.”

“I’ve been against it from the start, Pinks,” Rainbow said. “I didn’t know this place was a full range of volcanoes. I thought it was just one, and that we could find a way around it or something. Just how stupid does she think we are, taking us across a dangerous place like that?”

“Well of course they’re super dangerous, Dashie. They’re volcanoes,” Pinkie said, making an exploding gesture with her hooves. “But using common story logic, the adventurers must always pass over the most dangerous regions if they wish to take the shortest route, but then it ends up being longer. It’s part of the Eighth Law of Travel, only in this case the shortcut is actually shorter, but still more dangerous.”

“Pinkie, this is real life, not one of your weird games.”

Pinkie shrugged. “Same thing, as far as I’m concerned.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Well whatever, we’re all stuck walking along, climbing mountains covered with death and no escape plan. Twi’s gonna be busy focused on that aura spell or whatever to keep us cool, so I doubt she’d be able to get a teleport up for everypony in an emergency.”

“Well, Twilight and Applejack seem like they’ve got confidence in the plan, and so does Tick Tock. She says—"

“That she has plenty of experience climbing through here, yeah, I heard,” Rainbow said. She sighed and slumped into the dirt, narrowing her eyes at the green unicorn in the distance. “I still don’t trust that we’re not being led into some sort of trap, or something. I don’t know. I’m just still really suspicious of her motives.”

“Well at least you’ve moved on from not liking Mister Lockwood,” Pinkie said, kneading her hoof into Rainbow’s shoulder.

“H-hey, not so hard, Pinks. That spot’s still sore,” Rainbow winced.

“See, Dashie? You’re super stressed,” Pinkie cooed, working her hooves into Rainbow’s knotted muscles. “You need to relax. Twilight trusts Tick Tock, so we should trust Twilight’s judgement. Right?”

“I suppose.” Rainbow grunted, shifting as Pinkie began moving her hooves around to her other shoulder. “I’m just worried. Everything about this whole world just makes me feel... uneasy. I don’t know what it is.”

“You’re thinking of Finagle’s Law,” Pinkie said. She rolled her eyes and sighed at Rainbow’s blank look. “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, normally in the worst way possible.

“Exactly.”

Pinkie blinked. “I was joking, you weren’t supposed to—"

“It’s like this,” Rainbow continued, “I’ve read enough Daring Do books to know that sooner or later something really, really bad is going to happen that just totally ruins everything.” She pointed incredulously at Pinkie. “If it wasn’t for you and Twilight, that explosion could’ve been it! Then, there was that whole thing at the Gate! We’re just barely making it through by the skin of our teeth here, Pinks, and now we’re storming into a whole mess of volcanoes.”

Pinkie giggled and bopped Rainbow’s nose. “Dashie, this is real life, not one of your story books.”

Rainbow stared ahead, then laughed. She tucked her wing tightly around Pinkie and ruffled her poofy mane. “Okay Pinks, you got me there. Still, I dunno, I’m just nervous about having so much faith that these ponies we just met are going to help us.”

“You don’t seem to have a problem with Flathoof.”

Rainbow stared off past the campfire at the large, breathing lump that was Flathoof. “Flathoof’s okay with me. He’s a decent guy. His attitude reminds me a lot of Twi’s brother, to be honest, even if he looks more like AJ’s. Both of those guys are pretty cool.

“Lockwood though...” She snorted, glancing off in the opposite direction to where Lockwood was sleeping in his sleeping bag not too far from Rarity and Fluttershy. “He’s too nice. Just gives and gives and gives, doesn’t ask for anything in return? I’ve met guys like that before. You think they’re all sweet and stuff, but...”

Pinkie gave Rainbow an expectant glance. “But...?”

Rainbow shook her head. “Whatever. I’m just worried about something happening. I don’t trust him. I know nopony else really brought it up, but don’t you think it’s weird that he doesn’t have a problem doing illegal stuff? He just kinda brushed it off as nothing.”

Pinkie glanced sideways at Rainbow, her eyes half-lidded. “Dashie, you admitted to having a fake ID. That’s exactly what he did for us.”

“Yeah well...” Rainbow muttered. She paused a moment, then huffed and scratched her ear. “That’s different.”

Rainbow then swished her hoof towards the three ponies talking on the opposite side of camp again. “Then there’s Tick Tock. I dunno... something about her just bothers me, I don’t know what it is.”

Pinkie sighed and wrapped her hooves around Rainbow’s neck. “Look, you really just need to relax. Take it easy. Hakuna Matata. Everything will work out okay.” She nuzzled Rainbow’s neck. “I don’t like seeing you like this, Dashie. It makes me nervous...”

“Sorry, Pinks. I just worry about all of you...” Rainbow leaned into Pinkie and tucked a wing more tightly around her. “You most of all.”

***

Fluttershy tossed and turned, rustling along the inside of her sleeping bag and becoming more and more uncomfortable every second. She hadn’t told anypony yet, but she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since she left her cottage with Spike and Rarity to see what all the fuss was about concerning Princess Celestia’s letter to Twilight.

Fluttershy sighed when she noticed that Rarity still slept beside her. She was jealous that her best friend was able to focus on sleeping at a time like this. Strange, dangerous creatures could jump out at them at any moment. The volcanoes in the distance could erupt and spew flaming rocks that would crush them all. Sure, they had ponies standing watch to protect against both of those things—she could see Twilight, Tick Tock, and Applejack just at the camp perimeter studying something—but that didn’t put her at ease at all.

She needed somepony to talk to, somepony to tell her everything was going to be okay.

“Um... Rarity? Are you awake?”

Rarity stirred and began to mutter in her sleep. “Mmm... yes, I'll have the usual, please.”

She must be dreaming. Oh... I don’t want to wake her, but...

Fluttershy sighed, and prodded Rarity in the side. “Rarity? I... um... I need to talk to you.”

Rarity’s mouth curled up in a smile. “Oh yes, that is simply divine. A little lower please.” Her face became tinted with a soft, pink blush. “Ah... that’s the spot.”

Fluttershy raised an eyebrow. “What?” She paused, then put her hoof to her mouth. “Oh. Oh dear...”

Oh, she’d be so embarrassed if somepony heard her. Come on, Fluttershy. Be assertive.

She poked Rarity a little harder. “Rarity... w-wake up, please?”

Rarity grunted, and squealed in delight. “Mmm... such strong hooves,” she murmured, grabbing onto Fluttershy’s hoof and stroking it. “I bet you’re talented in other—"

“Rarity!”

“Eh?” Rarity smacked her lips together and blinked up at Fluttershy. “Fluttershy? Is it morning already?”

“No,” Fluttershy peeped, hiding behind her mane. “I’m sorry Rarity, but I c-couldn’t sleep. I was hoping I could... talk to you?”

“Oh?” Rarity yawned. “I don’t suppose this could wait until morning, could it? I was having the most amazing dream.”

Fluttershy blushed. “I know. I... um... heard.”

Rarity smiled. “Oh, you did?” She paused, then turned bright red. “Oh... you did.” She chuckled. “Eh heh... yes. Well. Um...”

“It sounded like a nice dream,” Fluttershy said, grinning. “D-do you want to t-talk about—"

Rarity coughed into her hoof. “Er... w-what did you want to talk about darling?”

“Oh, right. Well, I was wondering... d-do you think anypony is... upset with me? For agreeing with Miss Tock about the volcanoes?”

Rarity blinked, obviously surprised by the question. “Whatever do you mean? Why would you think such a thing?”

Fluttershy rubbed her hooves together. “Well... do you think anypony is upset that I p-pushed for us to go along with it? I know that everypony was arguing about it at first... b-but—"

“Ohh... heavens darling, I don't think you have to worry about anything like that,” Rarity laughed, patting Fluttershy on the back. “They were all just upset that Miss Tock was so forward with the issue. I think Rainbow Dash and Applejack are just surprised you of all ponies would be her advocate. Nopony could ever be upset with you, Fluttershy, not unless you went out of your way to make it so.”

“I just... I want to go home, Rarity.” Fluttershy shied away into her sleeping bag. “I don’t like this place. I miss the colors and smells of home. I miss all my animal friends, my little Angel Bunny most of all.”

Rarity frowned and pulled the trembling pegasus in for a hug. “We all want to go home, my dear. We all have loved ones we’re worried about. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about my dear little Opalescence. I’m worried about what my parents and sister are going through too, and my dear little Spikey Wikey of course. They must all be simply devastated. We’re all worried, dear. You’re not alone.”

Fluttershy sighed and let Rarity tighten the hug. “I... I know. B-but you all seem so much more... um... accepting of things here. This place is nothing like home. It’s dirty, cruel, dangerous, gloomy, and... I j-just don't like it here at all.”

“Oh... Fluttershy. You poor dear,” Rarity cooed, stroking Fluttershy’s mane. “Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?” She placed a hoof gently on Fluttershy’s shoulder. “Anything at all, you just say the word, and I’ll be there.”

Fluttershy sniffed and buried her face in Rarity’s neck. “I just... I w-want to know things are g-going to be okay. That we’ll all be safe. I’m s-so worried about everything. I... I’m s-s-scared, Rarity.”

Rarity smiled. “Don’t worry, darling. Everything will be just fine. After all, we all have each other here, right? And we have such knowledgeable guides with us to keep us safe.”

“Well... I suppose that makes me feel a little better,” Fluttershy said. “Miss Tock does seem to know—"

Rarity chuckled. “I was referring to Mister Lockwood, of course.” She winked. “He has been a most gracious traveling companion, has he not?”

“Oh... well, yes,” Fluttershy said. “He’s... nice.”

“I should say so. After all, these sleeping bags he provided are most comfortable, and they protect from the elements. A shame that some of them were left behind, but he did insist that you get to use one.” She coyly leaned into Fluttershy. “Wouldn’t you say that was awfully kind of him?”

“He insisted you get one too, though,” Fluttershy said, shying away from Rarity.

Rarity laughed. “Because I’m your friend, of course. The poor dear is nervous, I can tell. I think it’s charming, actually. Why, a mare should appreciate a little initial nervousness from a stallion.”

Fluttershy raised an eyebrow. “Nervous? Why would he be nervous?”

“Well think about it, darling,” Rarity said, pointing her hoof out towards the sky in presentation. “You’re a beautiful young mare, considered one of the most delicate and graceful mares in all of our own Equestria. A former model, might I add? It obviously wasn’t my dress that drew Photo Finish to you, dear.”

“W-wait, he’s nervous... b-because of me? B-b-but—"

“Well of course he is, Fluttershy! And why not? In all the time I’ve known you, I have never once seen a stallion with enough courage to come up to you and attempt to court you. Imagine my surprise when I noticed! You, my dear, make stallions tremble at the knees.”

Fluttershy blushed and hid behind her mane again. “Oh... um... I don’t know about—"

“Funny how things like this work out though, is it not?” Rarity said, giving Fluttershy a teasing tap on the nose. “We had to travel across dimensions to finally meet a stallion brave enough to make a move on such a wonderful mare as yourself. It would make for a terrific romantic novel, don’t you think?”

“Oh... oh d-d-dear. I h-had no idea.”

“Oh I know, darling. He does such a fine job of hiding it. But, a mare with a keen eye for these sorts of things picks up on it quite quickly. The poor dear must be terrified of rejection! No wonder he isn’t so up-front about it yet. Why, I’m sure that’s the reason nopony back at home does it either, come to think of it.”

“Oh... b-but, what if you’re wrong, and—"

Rarity laughed. “Wrong? Oh Fluttershy, I don’t suppose you were paying much attention to certain things back in the city. Really darling, I can safely say that you two would be perfect for one another.”

“W-what makes you think—"

“Well for one, he’s such a sensitive individual, not unlike yourself. A little bolder than you in some respects, but that’s just the kind of companion you need. And while there aren’t many animals around for him to have much opinion of, he does care about other ponies, especially those poor foals in the slums.”

“Oh... that’s right,” Fluttershy mused. “I thought that was awful nice of him. I wish there had been something we could do to help.”

“And such a handsome gentlecolt too,” Rarity said, winking.

“Oh... um..” Fluttershy huddled into her sleeping bag again. “I... I wasn’t l-looking that much...”

Rarity exhaled. “It is a shame that we are not back at home with him. Why, I’ve been looking for a stallion with his physique to try out some male fashion lines, maybe branch out a little in my repertoire? Can you imagine him in a snappy tuxedo? Ooh, or a sleek collared vest? Oh, the possibilities. I bet he could keep me busy for weeks! If I could get him away from you, of course,” she added, playfully nudging Fluttershy in the side.

Fluttershy blushed even redder. “W-well, that does sound... nice. And I’m touched that you think he likes me and all, b-but what about that other mare? Um... Keeneye, was it? They seem to h-have... something between them. I w-wouldn't want to—"

Rarity chuckled into her hoof. “Oh, I assure you there is nothing going on there. Not to worry, darling. I’ll ensure everything works out between you two, or my name isn’t Rarity. After all, what could be more generous than helping my closest, dearest friend find her one true love?”

She yawned. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get back to my beauty sleep. Do try to get some sleep yourself, darling.”

“Oh, okay Rarity,” Fluttershy said.

Rarity set her head back down on her pillow.

Fluttershy breathed a sigh of relief. Then, her eyes widened. “Wait, what? I didn’t ask for you to help, Rarity. I’m certain if he... oh d-don’t fall asleep...” She poked Rarity, but the unicorn had already dozed off. “Rarity? Rarity? Oh dear...”

***

Nothing broke the monotonous stretch of barren desert that expanded as far as the eye could see. No trees blessed the arid sands with shade. No rocks beckoned travelers to rest. No landmarks stood as beacons of hope. Nothing. Just a vast expanse of nothing but sand, dirt, and dust.

The Wastelands. While the name for the region certainly wasn’t creative, it did get the point across.

Starlight Shadow marched across the inhospitable desert, her pace brisk and unfettered by exhaustion. Curaçao and Insipid were behind her, the former marching along at an even pace with Starlight, the latter bouncing along beside the former, giggling and talking a mile-a-minute. Starlight had learned to tune out the other unicorn’s incessant babbling.

However, she hadn’t learned to ignore Havocwing yet.

The pegasus fluttered up past the other two ponies and settled in alongside Starlight. “This is stupid,” she said, putting her hooves behind her head and kicking herself along in the air. “We’ve been traveling for two damn days, and we still haven’t caught up with those losers. How are they so far ahead of us? They didn’t get that big of a head-start.”

Starlight grunted and turned to glare at the pegasus. “Havocwing, clarify for me how your dissent is of any assistance, exactly?”

“Yeah Havoc, it’s, like, not all that bad,” Insipid said, picking up her pace to butt her head in between the two arguing ponies. “If we take a while, that’s just, like, more time I get to spend with Curaçao!”

She turned, and circled around the aforementioned earth pony. “You’re totally perfect and junk, Curie! I’m, like, totally learning so much from you? On how to be perfect, I mean.”

Curaçao sighed as Insipid nuzzled up against her, shying away just slightly. “Zut alors. I do not know what is worse: waiting to rendezvous wiz zose cretins, or ‘aving to deal wiz zee idolization. C’est la vie.”

“Oooh... fancy talk! I love the fancy talk! Say la vee! Teach mwah to talk all fancy and stuff, please Curie? That would be, like, tray sweet of you.”

Curaçao rolled her eyes. “Per’aps anozer time, non? We ‘ave much more pressing zings to be concerned wiz, vois-tu?”

Havocwing groaned. “Yeah, like catching up with those losers! Oh man, boss, you have no idea how much I want to find those jerks and pummel the ever-living crap out of them. You know what I mean, right? Well, maybe you don’t. Pummeling isn't your thing.”

Starlight snorted. “Patience, Havoc. We are certainly not far behind them now.”

She flared her horn and closed her eyes for a moment. Then, without a word, she stopped walking, and the other three followed suit. She pointed off in the direction they were marching towards.

“According to the information father provided us, we are merely another day and some hours’ march from our destination.”

“Still, we ‘ave not seen ‘ide nor ‘air of zem so far. Surely zere should be a trail?” Curaçao asked.

Starlight grunted and returned to marching, and the others fell back in step. “It is plausible they are attempting to bypass confrontation with any of the creatures out here. That grants us a crucial advantage. Those annoying arachnids are certainly not hindering our progress.”

“That’s my point!” Havocwing shouted, sweeping around in front of Starlight. “We should’ve caught up by now, yeah? Are you sure we’re going the right way, boss?”

Starlight stopped walking again. Her mouth curled in a scowl, her eyes narrowed, and her gaze shifted to Havocwing. “Havoc, correct me if I am mistaken, but are you questioning my sense of direction? Because it certainly sounds as though you are questioning my sense of direction.”

Havocwing gulped and shied away from Starlight’s intense glare. “Uh... n-no way boss. I was just repeating something... Grayscale said! Yeah! That bucking traitor.”

Starlight huffed, then turned her gaze upwards to the great-winged vulture that circled above them. “Grayscale Force! Present!”

Grayscale drifted to the ground like a feather caught in stagnant air. She yawned when she landed. “You called, boss?”

“Grayscale, have you been questioning my sense of direction?” Starlight asked, though her furious eyes were still directly fixed upon Havocwing.

Grayscale shrugged. “However you want to get where we’re going is fine with me, boss.”

“I presumed as much. That will be all, Grayscale. You may return to your duties.”

Grayscale stared at Starlight for a moment, then shrugged again. “Whatever you say, boss. I guess I’ll just get back to floating around, or whatever.” She flapped her great wings once, knocking Havocwing slightly off-balance, before taking flight and twisting back up into the sky.

“Now, what was it you expressed about Grayscale detesting my itinerary?” Starlight asked, stepping towards Havocwing until she and her were eye-to-eye.

Havocwing shuffled her hooves. “Uh... I... er...”

Starlight tilted her head and put her hoof to her ear. “Hmm? Please, enunciate more clearly. Once more?”

Curaçao coughed, drawing Starlight’s attention. “If I may, ma capitaine?” she interjected. Starlight nodded for her to continue. “I do not zink zat ‘avocving was questioning you, she is merely trying to ascertain zee situation. She is une idiote after all, non?”

Havocwing glowered at Curaçao, then jerked away when Starlight turned back to face her. “Uh, right. I just meant, what if they’re not taking this route? Then all of this is wasting our time, giving them a bigger lead. Right? They could have gone across Redblade.”

Starlight raised an eyebrow. “They would be exceeding the thresholds of stupidity and lunacy to travel via the Redblade Mountains. No, they are moving for Goldridge Pass and the ancient Gryphon Territories beyond the mountains. It is the only logical choice. I am aware of their rampant stupidity, but father maintains that their guide, the Chronomancer, is superbly experienced. At least she would not be so dense as to direct them along that route.”

Curaçao chuckled. “Oui, only a true imbecile would take zee ozer way. I know I would not want to go zere. Ah, it would ruin my perfect mane, non?”

Insipid sighed as she stroked the perfectly-styled mane in question. “And it is perfect, like totally perfect. I want a mane like yours, Curie.”

“Yeah, too bad all you’ve got is that mess on your head you call a mane,” Havocwing said, flicking her hoof through Insipid’s tangled curls. She tucked her hooves behind her head, her mouth curling in a cocky grin. “I’d go through Redblade if it were me.”

“Zank you for proving my point, dear ‘avocving,” Curaçao said.

Havocwing shot Curaçao another glare. “Because I can take the heat. Hello? I’m fireproof, you bucking idiot.”

“Like, watch your mouth, Havoc,” Insipid said, lurching forward so that she and Havocwing were nose-to-nose. “Like, ponies get hurt when they start bad-mouthing Curie around me. Got it?”

Havocwing snorted and pushed Insipid back. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” Insipid lifted a hoof, which started crackling with electricity.

Havocwing took a half-step back. “You... you kept that?” She sneered, then snorted and took another half-step back. “Whatever. Stay away from me. You smell like garbage.”

Curaçao rolled her eyes, but swooned. “Ah, mon chevalier en armure—my knight in shining armor.”

Insipid beamed in response.

“Enough, all of you,” Starlight said, stomping a hoof. “We are exhausting our precious supply of time and distance.”

“I don’t know what everypony's getting all worked up for,” Velvet said, suddenly appearing in the middle of the group.

Insipid and Havocwing jumped in surprise.

Velvet was covered in a grimy, greenish-red goop, but was obviously still busy cleaning the stuff off of herself. She scraped a great glob of the gunk off her flank and put it in her mouth, making pleasured mumbles as she cleaned it with her tongue.

“Quit doing that!” Havocwing shouted. “Gonna give me a bucking heart attack one of these days!”

Velvet licked her lips. “Mmm... myocardial infarction.”

“Yeah well, I... yeah! Take your... big words... and...” Havocwing took a sharp breath through her nostrils, then turned around and started off along their marching path. “Whatever, creep-job. Just stay away from me.”

Velvet shrugged and turned to Starlight. “As I was saying, I don't see what the big deal is. All these buggy things we’ve been killing has made this little trip fun! So much blood... mmmm...” She licked her lips and cleaned off more of the gunk. “Ohhh, it’s so tasty.”

Insipid blanched. “Like, gross. Gag me with a spoon.”

Velvet brightened and turned to Insipid. “Yeah, I know, right? Gargantuan blood isn’t quite as good as pony blood. Got a spicy kick to it, tastes kind of like booze? Eh, I miss Mister Jetstream already.” She sighed and rubbed her stomach. “I should’ve rationed him a little more, huh? But pegasi wings are just so good!

Insipid pouted and rubbed her own stomach. “Can we take a break, boss?” she asked. “All this walking is making me just, like, so tired. And I’m hungry for some reason now?”

Starlight raised an eyebrow. “Hungry? We dined no more than an hour ago. Why are you—"

Insipid shrugged. “I dunno, like, Velvet mentioned food or something, and now I’m hungry too.”

Grayscale landed lightly amidst the group. “So, basically, you want to eat ponies too? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Like, where did you come from?” Insipid asked, sneering and giving Grayscale a once-over. “You never, like, talk? What’s it to you if I’m hungry and junk?”

Grayscale shrugged. “Oh, sorry. I thought you were gonna try being a cannibal now, and needed the moral support. I guess if you don’t, that’s okay too. Just trying to help.”

“Wait, huh?” Insipid scratched her head. “Cannibal. Cannibal... oh!” She blanched. “Like, total barf trip, ewww, no!

She turned to Starlight, her eyes as wide as dinner plates. “Booosss, Grayscale’s being totally meeean. Like, punish her or something?”

“Wonderful, now you are whining as well,” Starlight muttered, holding the bridge of her nose. “I anticipated this trip grating upon my nerves. I detest my precognitive capabilities.”

Insipid snorted. “Like, nuh-uh, I am totally not whining, boss. I’m complaining. Do you, like, want to hear whining?”

“No!” Starlight shouted, her voice cracking. She coughed into her hoof, attempting to regain her composure. “Rather, if you insist, then I imagine that some repose may be to our benefit. Grayscale!”

Grayscale saluted. “Yeah boss?”

“We are assembling camp here. I am granting you the honor of primary patrol, so ‘shake a wing’, as Havocwing would say. Rouse us from our slumber in two hours, and we shall continue forging ahead. You may nap then, and rendezvous with us subsequently.”

Grayscale shrugged. “I’m honored that I get to stand here motionless for a few hours while everypony else sleeps. Thanks boss. I guess.”

“Excellent. Havocwing!” Starlight shouted, turning to glare at the other pegasus.

Havocwing swooped over and gave her own half-hearted salute. “Yeah yeah yeah, ‘get a fire started’. What else is new?” She snorted, igniting her hooves and spreading a flame along the ground in front of her. “So stupid... taking a break right now. I ain’t even bucking tired.”

“Oh moan moan moan, that’s all you ever do,” Velvet said, sticking her nose in the air. “If you really wanted to make yourself useful, you’d be a good barbeque and help me cook up these bugs for dinner. They’re not as good raw.”

“I’m not your personal bucking kitchen, Red!” Havocwing shouted, wheeling around to face Velvet.

Velvet snickered and loosed a cluster of bladed tendrils from her back that snaked around her. She dangled the sharp appendages in front of Havocwing’s face. “I beg to differ, Havoc. I bet your wings taste the best...” She licked her lips and sauntered towards the pegasus. “You’re so lean... and tender...”

Havocwing staggered back, though she tried to maintain a fierce scowl on her face. “You stay the hell away from me and my wings, psycho. You touch me, I’ll kick your ass, you got that?”

“Everypony’s gotta sleep sometime, Havoc...” Velvet said, her eyes gaining a red tint.

Starlight flared her horn and grabbed the two ponies by the neck, dragging them over to her and glowering at both of them. “Enough! I grow impatient with your constant quarreling! If I am required to repeat myself again, I will forcibly separate the both of you - atom by atom. Am I clear?”

The two shared nervous glances at one another, then nodded. “Yes, sir,” they said in unison.

Starlight released them, then snorted and curled up in the sand. Her horn flared again, taking a great scoop of sand and morphing into a pillow before resting her head upon it and getting to sleep.


CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter Eleven: Inflammable

Twilight’s dilemma was perplexing at best, confounding at worst: was Tick Tock a complete and utter imbecile, or amongst the smartest ponies she’d ever met? Normally, Twilight felt she was able to determine within a short time the level of another pony’s intellect. Now, she admitted that perhaps academic measurements weren’t the absolute answer.

She certainly knew spell modification was possible, but in her experience it was mostly theories, rarely practice, and rarer still commonplace. Tick Tock had, with her usual snark, guided her through a process she thought preposterous, as if she were going over a baking recipe. Twilight wasn’t particularly impressed per se, just put off that somepony with such a lacking knowledge of fundamental magical forces could have such an understanding of obscure, specialized areas. It was like meeting a brilliant arcane physicist who couldn’t do simple addition.

Now, she was hiking along a volcanic mountain trail, generating an aura of magic that kept herself and her friends in moderate comfort, protected from the intense heat. The spell was officially known as a Personal Temperature Aura, and normally wasn’t suited for extreme temperatures nor for multiple ponies. A little tweaking had turned it into a Party Temperature Aura; Tick Tock insisted on the name to keep the abbreviation the same.

It wasn’t perfect by any means, as keeping it too large took a lot of concentration, and Twilight needed to keep it maintained for about three full days. They were thereby forced to travel in close proximity to one another. Only Tick Tock avoided being cramped up with the rest of them, taking the lead ahead of the group in her own personal aura.

The tightly-knit group rounded another bend of the cliff and climbed over a ridge. Up close, the Redblade Mountains looked every bit more imposing than they did from afar. The great, black volcanoes dotted the landscape for miles into the distance. Rivers of red magma flowed from the tops of many of them, trickling down into various craters and forming lakes. The entire sky was covered with black smoke and ash, and they could no longer see the orange veil of the Beacon whatsoever.

Worse, it was hot. Very hot.

Rarity groaned as the party clumsily climbed another small steppe. “I don’t know which is worse: the ravaging all this heat is doing to my beautiful mane, or the smell from the rest of you.”

She fanned herself with Lockwood’s hat, as the stallion had graciously lent it to her for expressly this purpose. Her dress, like all the others’ clothing, was damp with sweat. “Ugh... much too much pony sweat for such a confined space, and I know some of us haven’t properly bathed once since we got to this world,” she added, glancing at Applejack and Rainbow.

“What stinks is that I’m not able to fly.” Rainbow sighed as she attempted to flex her wings, but couldn’t really stretch them without slapping Pinkie or Twilight. “There isn’t any room in this bubble to really stretch out.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “What’s worse is yer moanin’ about it, Rarity. Give my ears a rest. Y’all been flappin’ yer gums fer the last two hours. What’d y’all expect? One o’ them fancy sauna thingies?”

Rarity snorted. “If it were, you would be certain I wouldn’t be having any complaints. Heavens, I could certainly use a trip to a spa when this is all over. I might even have to spring for the Deluxe treatment! Oh... my poor mane.”

“Sugarcube, y’all gotta get yer priorities straight. We’re here climbin’ up a dang volcano and you’re worried ‘bout yer dang mane?

“And why not? Just because we’re in inhospitable conditions doesn’t mean I shouldn’t want to look my best.”

Twilight sighed. “Girls, really, it’s enough trouble trying to focus on keeping this spell steady without you all bickering back there. Can we at least save it until we hit the first checkpoint? Please?”

“How much longer is it, anyhow?” Rainbow asked, her eyes darting about. “We’ve been walking for hours already, and all the heat is making me thirsty.”

“It's beyond the next ridge, not much longer,” Tick Tock called back from her position further ahead.

The group had to cautiously tread across ground that they would have normally been much less concerned about. They coordinated climbing over boulders and steppes, sliding along crevices and cliffs, and hiking through winding paths and twisting slopes. It all seemed like trying to solve some sort of complicated puzzle. In most cases, the pegasi had to hover low while the earth ponies and unicorns were forced to crowd together, hence Rarity’s grievances about the smell. Other areas that alone would seem only slightly exerting were proving near impossible. Small chasms, not much wider than the one they remembered from Dragon Mountain, became gorges.

Such a problem presented itself to them now: a narrow chasm, no more than two yards wide, overlooking a slowly-churning river of molten rock. This was no matter that a little hop, skip, and a jump would solve.

Applejack looked over the edge, careful not to poke her head out of Twilight’s aura. “This sure wasn’t on the map, Tick Tock. I thought y’all said it was accurate? It sure as shootin’ showed a rock bridge here.”

Tick Tock grunted and pulled her map out to double-check, showing it to Twilight and Applejack as proof. “Volcanic regions are naturally in a state of constant flux. This is a recent change, sad to say. I last came this way no more than a month ago.”

The map subtly altered itself without any prodding from Tick Tock at all. The rock bridge that had been on the trail before was erased and replaced by the broken chasm that lay before them.

Applejack scratched her head. “Well don’t that beat all. It did that all on its own.”

“Fascinating...” Twilight said. “I really hope we get some time eventually that I can give this map a proper lookover. I’m constantly impressed at the capabilities it has. Your predecessor must have been some magician.”

Rainbow snorted, drawing their attention. “If we’re not too distracted praising the piece of paper, can we get back to the fact that our route just got royally screwed over?”

“Can’t we just go around?” Twilight asked, glancing back at the map. “Surely there’s an alternate route?”

“Sadly not,” Tick Tock said, shaking her head. She pointed up along the trail to a higher point on the cliff. “Until we hit the second ridge, this is the only practical path in or out of the mountain range, or at least it will be for a few dozen years. When this magma cools, it’ll make for a proper nice shortcut up the slope, should save travelers a good couple of hours.”

Rainbow groaned. “Great. Just great. How are we supposed to cross this all at once? We can’t exactly jump it together, we’d risk misstepping and getting all of us killed!”

“Don’t look at it so negatively, Rainbow,” Twilight said. “Think of it as a test. We just have to think it out a little, that’s all. Just keep calm, focus, and we’ll get through it, just like we have with every other problem we’ve faced.”

“Hmph, you would think of it like a test, Twilight.”

“Is this test multiple choice, or true-and-false?” Pinkie asked. “Or maybe it’s like an essay exam? Ooh, I hate those. I remember having to write some when I was in school, and sister let me tell you, it is hard writing without magic. Nah, this looks more like fill-in-the-blank. See ‘cause there’s a big gap in the middle that should be filled in with something else, and—"

Twilight breathed an exasperated sigh. “Not that kind of—" She paused. “Wait... say that last part again?”

“Well, I was until I was interrupted,” Pinkie said, rolling her eyes. “Like I was saying, there used to be a rock bridge here, like Tick Tock said, right? So the question would be, ‘There used to be a blank here’, and the answer would be, ‘rock bridge’!”

Twilight groaned. “Before that, Pinkie.”

“Oh, about my essay? Well the topic was about this book we were reading, The Great... Gallopsby? I didn’t really like the book too much, ‘cause there was a lot of really weird dialogue in it. Pfh, who calls anyone ‘old sport’, really? And that ending! So depressing. I mean—"

Twilight narrowed her eyes and gave Pinkie a grumpy look.

Pinkie laughed nervously. “Oh, right. Uh... fill-in-the-blank?”

“Yes, thank you.” Twilight hummed in thought for a moment. “Aha! That’s it!” she said, her eyes alight with an idea. “Pinkie Pie, I don’t often say this, but you are a genius.”

“Well thanks, Twilight, I appreciate it,” Pinkie said, her smile enormous. Smile still on her face, she leaned over to Rainbow and asked, “Why am I a genius again?”

“I wonder sometimes,” Rainbow replied.

“We’re going to ‘fill in the blank’, like you said,” Twilight explained, pointing out across the chasm. “As Rainbow pointed out, we can’t all jump across at once and stay under my spell without serious risk. So, we’re going to pretend the gap is the ‘blank’ and we’re going to ‘fill it in’ with my aura.”

“Sounds simple enough,” Applejack said. “Then we just jump across, right?”

“Precisely. The gap’s not that wide, anypony here could make it across with just a—"

“Hop, skip, and a jump!” Pinkie shouted. “♫It’s not very far, just move your little—"

Rainbow put her hoof in Pinkie’s mouth.

“Are you sure that’s wise, Sparkle?” Tick Tock asked, glancing over the chasm. “This aura is already a proper challenge to keep up, you’ve said so yourself. It wouldn’t do us any good for you to wear yourself out.”

Twilight laughed. “With Rarity’s help, I’m sure it’ll be no trouble at all.”

Rarity pointed at herself. “Me, darling? Oh! Am I to give you a little ‘boost’ again, as t’were?”

“That’s exactly right,” Twilight said, giving Rarity her most encouraging smile. “You’ve shown us how good you are at it already, so I see no reason not to use that to our advantage. If you can help me tear open two massive slabs of metal, why couldn’t you help me get a little more range out of my aura?”

Rarity smiled and brushed back her mane. “Well, yes, I suppose I am quite the natural,” she said, earning eyerolls from Rainbow and Applejack. “Very well, Twilight, let’s give it a try. No harm in trying, yes?”

“Do you need my help, Sparkle?” Tick Tock asked.

Twilight shook her head. “Not with the spell, no. However, I’d like you to be the first to leap across, if you would? Since you have your own aura magic, I’ll feel better sending you over to test the extent of the spell.”

Tick Tock nodded. “Very well. Whenever you’re ready, Sparkle, Rarity.”

Rarity and Twilight gave one another reassuring glances. Rarity channeled her magic, causing Twilight’s horn to glow bright blue instead of pink.

Twilight took a deep breath and willed her aura to expand. It grew and grew, growing large enough that it could easily contain all of them. It kept growing, and soon the edge of the magical field was just touching the opposite side of the chasm. She took another sharp breath as she continued expanding the spell, until it stopped expanding just past the ledge.

“Whoa nelly,” Applejack said. “It sure did get mite bit cooler in here, didn’t it?”

“You can say that again,” Flathoof said, wiping his brow.

“It sure did get a mite bit cooler in here, didn’t it?” Pinkie said in her convincing imitation of Applejack. Applejack and Flathoof both gave her a look of disbelief. “What?”

“Phew...” Twilight took a deep breath. She blinked her eyes open, and her mouth curled into a frown. “Drat... not quite far enough. I don’t think... I can expand much more... without expending too much... energy.”

“Are you alright, Sparkle?” Tick Tock asked. “I can help if you—"

“Hang on, I’m going to... modify the field’s shape...”

Twilight closed her eyes again and focused her mind. A perfect sphere was of no use here. They didn’t need to back up too far to make the jump after all, nor did they need much room on their sides. So, she elected on something else. Cubic? No, that held the same principle problems as a sphere and made the landing zone too strict. An ellipsoid? No, that made the issue worse by detracting from the height allowance. But, it did give them more room on the other side of the chasm. That was it then. An oblate spheroid.

As soon as her brain came up with the idea, the field of magic shaped itself to her whim. It expanded just enough on all sides to give them plenty of room to land safely, but left enough room above that they wouldn’t be out of the bubble while in mid-air either. Just perfect. Thank you Mathemagicks 201.

“See?” she said, gesturing out over the chasm. “Rarity and I... have this covered. No problem. Now then... let’s start getting you ponies across. Tick Tock, I believe... you’re our first volunteer?”

Tick Tock nodded. “Righto then, here I go.”

She stepped back from the chasm edge, then took a running leap, landing safely on the other side.

“Woo! Nice jump, Tick Tock!” Pinkie cheered, holding up a large card reading 10.

“Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.” Tick Tock waved over at the others. “Okay, girls, no time to dawdle. Who’s next?”

“Piece of cake,” Rainbow said, stepping forward. “Watch and learn from the master, ponies.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Dash, y’all can fly. This ain’t nothin’ hard at all.”

Rainbow snorted and laughed. “Oh AJ, please. If you’re going to leap a chasm, you may as well do it with style.” She snapped a hoof over at Pinkie. “Pinks, my cheering section all set?”

Pinkie raised a pom-pom covered hoof. “All set, Dashie!”

Rainbow stepped forward and snapped her wings open to flex them, earning a flustered sputter from both Rarity and Twilight who got faces full of feathers. She took a graceful leap over the gap. About midway through, she casually twirled into a loop, and ended up scraping the top of the aura, ending up outside of it for a fleeting second. She yowled and dive straight back down and landed on the other side of the chasm, beating her wings to cool them off.

“Ahhh hot hot hoott!” she shouted, stroking her slightly-singed wings. “Sweet Celestia, it’s like I just took a bath in boiling water!”

“Fancy that, it’s hot outside the protective aura. Who’d have thought, eh?” Tick Tock said.

Rainbow snorted. “Oh shut up...”

“Yay Dashie!” Pinkie cheered, waving her pom-poms around like a madmare.

“Well that was somethin’ alright, Dash,” Applejack said, trying not to laugh. “Y’all sure ya don’t wanna give it another go?”

“Yeah! Encore!”

“Not helping, Pinks!” Rainbow shouted.

Twilight turned to the others and gestured towards the other side. “That’s two down... who wants to go next?”

“Well shoot, I’ll do it,” Applejack said, adjusting her hat. “I’ve jumped wider at dang near every rodeo I ever entered. Like Dash said, ‘piece o’ cake’. Only I won’t go burnin’ my biscuits.”

“Oh, ha ha,” Rainbow said. She took a step back so that she was even with Tick Tock, who was standing exactly where she’d landed earlier. “Ten bits says you can’t make it over my head.”

Rarity snorted. “Girls, this is no time for—"

“You’re on, Dash,” Applejack said, her mouth curling in a smirk. “These legs o’ mine ain’t just good fer buckin’ apples, y’know? Tell ya what, double or nothin’ I don’t even need a runnin’ start.”

Rainbow huffed and paused to think a moment, then snapped her hoof at Applejack. “You’re on, AJ!”

Applejack chuckled, took a single step backwards, then leapt forward and with a great push from her hind legs. She sprung across the gap, an eagle in flight.

Rainbow’s jaw dropped as Applejack sailed over her head, ducking as the earth pony’s rear hooves narrowly missed her.

Applejack landed perfectly, just inches from the protective aura’s border. She turned, and gave a proud whinny. “Yeehaw!”

“Horseapples...” Rainbow muttered.

“This looks like fun!” Pinkie said, bouncing about. “I always did like the lava levels. Can I go next? Huh? Can I can I can I?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Yes. Fine. Just... be careful, Pinkie. This isn’t a—"

Pinkie took an exaggerated but effortless hop across the chasm, nowhere near good enough to make it across.

“Pinkie!”

Rainbow bolted forward and made to charge out and grab the tumbling earth pony, who was about to miss the other side of the gap and fall into the magma below.

But then, to everypony’s surprise, Pinkie somehow managed to bounce in mid-air and bound over Rainbow’s head, landing precisely next to Applejack.

Applejack stepped back. “What in tarnation...”

“How did... wait, what in the... did you just... how?” Rainbow blurted.

“Pshaw, piece of cake, Dashie. Or piece of Pie rather,” Pinkie said, snickering and waving her hoof. “Tutorial levels are really forgiving anyway. No trouble at all. You’re looking at the master of the double-jump.”

“There are no words,” Tick Tock said, shaking her head.

“Well... um, right.” Twilight coughed and turned back to the others still on her side. “Okay then, who wants to go next?”

Flathoof snorted and took a few steps back. “Step aside, please, Miss Sparkle, Miss Rarity. I’m the only actual jumper left anyway, I think.”

Lockwood laughed. “Oh, good for you, Flathoof. I suppose you were just being polite, letting the girls go first?”

“Oh shut up.”

Flathoof charged forward and leapt into the air, sailing across the chasm. He just barely landed in front of Applejack, almost bumping right into her.

Applejack chuckled, shaking her head. “Gosh, sugar, y’all barely made it as far as I did.”

“Uh...&