Another ring of rainbow light bloomed across Ponyville’s skies, followed by a muffled boom. “Ooooh! That one was even bigger! And now she’s doing a super-speed loop-the-loop-the-loop!” Pinkie Pie spun around twice and tumbled over on her back.
Twilight Sparkle mumbled, “Uh huh.” The torrent of commentary parted around her and flowed past unnoticed. She was so engrossed in Immainuel Kanter’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Magic, she hardly registered it when Applejack stepped in to guide Pinkie away.
“Twilight can see it, sugarcube. Let ‘er alone. C’mon, wouldja like to help me sell some apples?”
“But she’s not even looking--”
Twilight was vaguely aware that she was being a bit unsociable, but Kanter had some fascinating theories on the nature of magic that suggested a new direction to develop her spells! Another boom echoed across the valley, followed by a low, rhythmic scraping sound that gradually grew in volume until it penetrated her concentration. Her brow furrowed more and more as she tried to ignore it. After reading the same line three times, Twilight finally gave a frustrated huff, looked up, and snapped, “Pinkie, would you please stop--” The last few words died unspoken. Pinkie Pie and Applejack were staring open-mouthed, and the buzz of activity in the town square had fallen silent. An eerie blue light pulsated in time with the scraping sound, and a tall blue box gradually materialized precisely between Rarity’s shop and an adjacent tent – perfectly unobtrusive, except for being utterly conspicuous. The scraping halted abruptly and Twilight slowly slid off the bench to join the gathering crowd.
A door on the front of the device popped open and the assembled ponies drew in a collective gasp and stepped back. Twilight thought she caught a glimpse of an enormous room inside it before a brown-maned stallion in a jacket was propelled out into the sunlight and landed in a heap. The door slammed behind him with a final-sounding rattle. He tried to rise once, fell, then froze, staring at his hooves in apparent horror. “Wot? Wot?? Wot?!”
Pinkie Pie: “Da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da, dah dah dah...”
Derpy Hooves: “oooWEEEoooooo, WEEEoooooo…”
by Lord of the Wrongs
No one moved for several seconds, then the crowd erupted into sound and activity. Some shouted for somepony to call the nurses, others for the mayor, and still others for Celestia herself. In the midst of the chaos, Rarity’s door burst open and the unicorn strode out, glaring over her horn-rimmed glasses and gathering aloof outrage around herself like a fine cloak. “What is all this commotion?” she demanded. “We simply must have peace if we’re to be ready for the Gala!”
Fluttershy peeked from behind her, a pencil tucked negligently behind the pegasus pony’s ear. “Um. Please?” They were both ignored.
Twilight shook herself and straightened up. Well, if any situation ever needed an organizer--! Her horn glowed briefly with an effort of will; trick #17, voice amplification. “QU-I-I-ET!” she bellowed. Nearby ponies flinched away from the sound. The square fell into shocked silence all eyes turned toward her while her voice echoed back from distant buildings. “You three,” she pointed at the flower shop ponies, “Go fetch the nurses. You,” she jabbed her hoof toward a cluster of weather-workers, “Find the mayor. The rest of you...” She hesitated. Good luck getting these ponies to go about their business now. “The rest of you, stay quiet and out of the way!” That should do it. The crowd parted before her as she strode toward the blue box, with Applejack and Pinkie falling in behind her.
Rarity apparently noticed the blue box and its passenger for the first time. “Oh, my goodness,” she gasped, hopping down from her porch to the fallen stallion’s side. “Are you unwell? ...Sir?”
The strange pony started shaking his head. “No...” he said, not looking at Rarity. “No, no, no no no no no no no!”
He scrambled onto his hooves, swaying unsteadily and staggering in a circle as he looked back at his body. “Oh, this isn’t good, this can’t be good--” He cut off with an exasperated sigh and flicked his tail. “And still not ginger.” By this point, Twilight and company had joined Rarity and Fluttershy, and he seemed to focus on them for the first time. The pony stared for a long beat, peered quizzically at his pocketwatch cutie mark, then started looking frantically all around -- the city, the sky, the grass. “Oh, no. No. Tell me this isn’t a sugar bowl!” The ponies were just staring at him. “Right. Err. Do you have predators here? Wolves? Lions?” Twilight shared a confused look with Rarity and Applejack. What kind of question was that? As one, they focused on the resident animal expert, Fluttershy. She quailed under their gazes, but the stallion followed their eyes and took a step toward her. “What do badgers eat around here?” he asked urgently. “You have badgers? Weasels? Ferrets? Anything?”
“Um.” Fluttershy gave a squeak and her eyes fell to the ground, her voice dropping from small to tiny. “Um. Ferrets eat carrots, and turnips... and tomatoes... and...” She trailed off into silence because the brown-coated pony was shaking his head in horror.
“I knew it. A sugar bowl. I’m in a sugar bowl. I’m in a sugar bowl!” Fluttershy darted behind Rarity to escape the outburst, but the stallion had already rounded on the blue box and started yelling. “Why did you bring me to a sugar bowl?!” Then he seemed to deflate and slumped to the ground, staring at his hooves and mumbling to himself.
Twilight quietly started making eye contact the biggest, strongest stallions in the crowd and nodding them forward. Just in case. Pinkie started to say they should throw something, but Applejack – thankfully – jammed her hoof in Pinkie’s mouth and started whispering urgently in her ear.
“Twilight, what’s the big idea?” An annoyed Rainbow Dash swooped down to land directly on top of the blue box. “I toldja I was gonna be practicing sonic rainbooms all afternoon! You know how noisy they-- Who’s he?”
The stranger seemed to come to himself again, and his response was so cheery that it sent a chill up Twilight Sparkle’s back. “Ah. Yes, well. Hullo! I’m the Doctor.” He waved a hoof, though that made him stagger.
Rainbow Dash peered at him blankly. “Doctor... what?”
“Nope, just ‘the Doctor’.” They stared at each other for a moment, tangled up in syntax.
“Ahem! Are you injured, Doctor?” Rarity finally cut in.
“Ehh, I don’t think so, no. Thank you. Not as such. But I certainly shouldn’t be here!” He flailed a hoof to encompass the whole town and awkwardly tugged on the door. It rattled against its latch and he grimaced.
Twilight glanced around. No nurses yet. No mayor either. Probably best to keep him talking. “So...” she began with a nervous little chuckle. It sounded forced. “What’s this ‘sugar bowl’ we’re in?”
The Doctor started taking experimental steps in a circle. “It’s a directed universe. A universe that makes its own rules and doesn’t like things that don’t match. Sweet as sugar, and... a bowl, because it doesn’t like to let anything leave.”
Twilight raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Leave the universe,” she stated in a flat voice.
“Yes. Well,” He dragged the word out, waaaahll. “It’s not a universe per se. More like a... an eddy in the flow of space-time. An eddy with certain ideas about how things should be.”
“Oh! I see!” Twilight replied brightly. “I would say that was the craziest thing I’ve heard all week, but I’m friends with Pinkie Pie.”
Pinkie let out a huff past AJ’s hoof and gave Twilight a look that clearly said, That is so totally unfair! The Doctor seemed to take it in stride, though.
“Yeh, I get that a lot. But what I don’t understand is, this universe should have never let me in in the first place.” He patted his pocket with a hoof, looked annoyed, and twisted to dig into it with his muzzle. “Should be too... insular... oof!” He finally got a grip on his prize and pulled out a short silver tube with a blue glass tip. “There we go.” Pinkie Pie muffled something past Applejack’s hoof, but the Doctor absently replied as if it were perfectly clear. “Sonic screwdriver.” As if that explained everything. Or anything, for that matter! “So either the universe wants something new,” He fumbled with the device for a second, pausing to twist the middle of the barrel with his teeth. It emitted a blue light and a warbling hum as he waved it around. “Or else...” With a flick, the tube telescoped and the Doctor’s face fell as he read the results. “...something’s cracked the sugar bowl.”
A cloud drifted across the sun. Twilight was still trying to work through the Doctor's strange comments, but Rainbow Dash sat up straight and stared skyward. “What the HAY?!” Twilight Sparkle gasped. In the sky directly overhead, a broad disc of cloud hovered above Ponyville. After a few seconds, she realized it was rotating as well, and slowly spreading – a vortex that had now grown large enough to obscure the noonday sun. “I'll take care of this,” the pegasus pony growled as she crouched, then shot skyward.
“That... is worse than I thought,” the Doctor said in a distracted tone, then stared after Dash. “Where's she going?”
Applejack shrugged. “I reckon she's gonna wrangle them clouds,” she replied without taking her eyes off the sky.
The Doctor started to ask what that meant, but stopped as Dash demonstrated. She accelerated into a multicolored streak that spun around and around the clouds, moving opposite their rotation. Chunks began to break off and dissipate from the edges, but the center responded, growing steadily darker and more compressed. “Oh. Oh, I don't think it likes that...” he murmured.
The wind began to pick up in the square and loose debris tumbled and danced across the cobbles. Ponies began to abandon the square in favor of the shelter offered by surrounding storefronts, and Twilight had to squint her eyes against the wind. “What's wrong? Why won't it break up?” she yelped, unable to keep alarm out of her voice.
The Doctor was the only one who answered. He had to raise his voice over the wind, but he sounded… calm. Competent. He never took his eyes off the sky. “What happens when you put stress on a piece of cracked crockery?”
She stared at him in bewilderment. What kind of question was that?
“The cracks spread!” He changed the settings on the sonic screwdriver and turned it on again, to no effect. He tried twice more. “No good. It’s too far!” He craned his neck to spy Fluttershy over Rarity's back. “Miss, um, sorry, I didn't catch your name--” After an awkward moment of silence, he continued. “Could you possibly carry me up there? Only your sky has a little crack in it, and it's kind-of, sort-of my fault, and I need to get closer to fix it.” Fluttershy just crouched lower, her wings slicked tight against her sides.
Twilight placed her body between him and the pegasus. The wind was whipping her mane and tail out straight like banners in a storm. Up above, Rainbow Dash's efforts had shrunk the cloud cover, but now the core was the deep gray of thunderclouds, and it was beginning to form a funnel lit from within by a weird blue-green radiance. She could faintly hear cries of alarm and surprise carried on the wind from the townsponies that took whatever cover they could from the wind. Flowerpots started to fall over and roofing tiles clattered and smashed on the pavement. A pang jolted her as Groundwork tumbled across the pavement to fetch up under the joke shop’s hat-shaped roof. “What do you need to do?” she asked in a brisk tone, hoping she’d kept the rising panic out of her voice.
“I just need to get within, oh, fifty meters or so and wave my sonic at it.”
“Just press the button?”
Twilight took a deep breath and focused on the sonic screwdriver, a light lavender glow sheathing her horn and the device. She lifted it out of the Doctor's grasp and sent it aloft,eyes clenched shut with the effort of telekinesis. The glow around her horn steadily intensified as the sonic screwdriver shot toward the clouds.
“Ah... well that's different.” He shielded his eyes against the wind with a hoof as he stared after the tiny purple comet. The vortex was getting awfully low – the lofty Town Hall was starting to sway visibly! “Almost there... all right! That should be close enough!” The words were almost whipped away by the wind. Twilight gritted her teeth and focused on the switch, splitting her attention two ways. A gust rocked her on her hooves, and in the distraction her control slipped and the glow faltered. She struggled for a few seconds just to keep the sonic screwdriver suspended, until a muscular shoulder pressed up against hers, solid as a rock. Twilight's eyes popped open to meet Applejack's kind grin; the lean earth pony had lost her hat and her blonde mane whipped free in the gusts. Twilight smiled silent thanks, then shut her eyes again and poured all her concentration into the spell. Heatless sparks leaped from her horn for several seconds, and the speck of lavender light in the sky finally sprouted a tiny blue star. The effect was instantaneous – the vortex began to respond more naturally to Rainbow Dash's efforts, cloud shredding as though for the first time deigning to notice the pegasus' efforts. With one final gust, the windstorm blew itself out. Soon there were only a few drifting scraps of cloud for Dash to kick to pieces.
Twilight relaxed and the sonic screwdriver plummet. It halted a few feet above the ground and slid itself neatly into the Doctor's pocket. He could only shake his head. “Fan-TAS-tic!”
A ragged cheer gradually rose as ponies hesitantly returned to the square, and Pinkie Pie started bouncing in circles around Twilight Sparkle and the Doctor. “I have no idea what just happened, but IT WAS AWESOME!”
In the sudden stillness, the flower ponies emerged from an alleyway with the nurses in tow. Twilight Sparkle flashed a proud grin at the Doctor and trotted to meet them. “I’m sorry to have bothered you – he says he’s not hurt after all. Why don't you see if anypony got hit by anything in the storm?” She bobbed her head to the flower shop owner. “Thank you so much for your help, Rose.”
The Doctor spun so fast he fell over his own hooves and crashed to the ground again.
“Woah, nelly! What’s got you all flustered, Doc?” Applejack helped the Doctor back to his feet.
The Doctor looked around wildly until his eyes came to rest on Rose's cutie mark. “Ah. Nothing. Sorry, just... nothing.” He shook his head as if to clear it and squinted up at the clear sapphire sky. “Well, that should hold for now, at least.” It was an obvious subject change, but nobody called him on it. He sighed quietly and shrugged to Twilight. “It looks like I’m stuck here for a while. The TARDIS won’t let me in until I fix whatever’s wrong with your universe.”
Pinkie silently nudged Applejack and gave her a hopeful grin. AJ frowned and glanced to Twilight Sparkle. Twilight chuckled and nodded assent. Pinkie Pie let out a tiny “Yay!” and darted away into town.
The mayor finally appeared from down the street, her glasses hanging askew and her mane and tail windblown. “What in the wide, wide world of Equestria was all that?”
* * * *
While Princess Celestia completed her final duty for the day on the western horizon, heavy bass beats rumbled across a marketplace festooned with ribbons, lights, and brightly-colored paper lanterns. Vinyl Scratch’s turntables both glowed blue as she carefully adjusted their speeds to match their rhythm, and the buzz of conversation added a white-noise hiss beneath the music. Twilight leaned close to Rarity’s ear to overcome the joyful riot. “Pinkie Pie really outdid herself this time! Especially on such short notice!”
Rarity laughed and tossed her mane. “Darling, simply everypony is eager to meet our mysterious stranger. She had volunteers lined up around the block!” They threaded past the dance floor where Lyra and Bon-Bon energetically swung one another around, and Cheerilee did... something vaguely rhythmic, though Twilight wasn’t sure she would call it dancing. The Doctor was at the center of an enormous crowd in the relative quiet near the food and drink. Rainbow Dash waved her hooves expansively as she spoke. “No, see, we get clouds and rainbows an’ stuff from the main factory in Cloudsdale. And I put it all together to make the weather! Well, not all by myself, heh. That’s the job of all the pegasi!” Dash polished her hoof on her chest.
“That is brilliant! Just... brilliant! Weather control, I’ve seen, but to actually assemble it from parts, oh... I love it! Have you seen many, ah, glitches, like the one today?”
“Uhh... well, Ditzy Doo lost control of a storm out over the Swaybacks a few months ago, but that’s just Ditzy Doo.”
“Yeh, everyone makes mistakes.” the Doctor said quickly. “I mean, times when the weather didn’t act the way it should, anything like that.”
“I’ve never seen a cloud fight back like that before, no. Things were a little crazy after last Summer Sun Festival, but that was because Nightmare Moon stopped Princess Celestia from raising the sun for like eighteen hours.”
The Doctor leaned forward, eyes bright and intent. “Do tell...”
“Well, see, Princess Luna, I mean Nightmare Moon, got loose and nabbed Princess Celestia--”
“Rainbow Dash, you have no poetry in your soul whatsoever!” Rarity’s voice cut across the story and earned her a glower from the pegasus. “Twilight, do be a dear and tell the whole story from the beginning, won’t you?”
Dash seemed on the verge of arguing, but gave way with a wave of her hoof. “Yeah, fine, whatever. Go ahead, Twi, you’re good with all that history junk.”
Twilight felt her cheeks heat even as pride swelled in her chest. “Um, sure! No problem!” She cleared her throat as the pages drifted before her mind’s eye. “‘Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria, there were two regal sisters who ruled together...’”
The Doctor listened attentively as Twilight recited the story of Luna’s fall, described her own re-discovery of the prophecy, and recounted Nightmare Moon’s escape and return. When she got to the quest to recover the Elements of Harmony, Rainbow Dash jumped in to fill in a bit about her personal trial, but left it to Twilight to finish with Princess Luna’s restoration.
“...So Princess Celestia decided I would study the magic of Friendship and report back to her with my findings from my new home in Ponyville.”
A wave of cheers and applause spread through the crowd and the Doctor clopped his hooves together in approval. “Bra-vo, Twilight Sparkle! But I wonder,” he added when the noise died down, “Can you tell me more about Nightmare Moon? How exactly did Princess Luna turn into Nightmare Moon?”
Twilight scuffed a hoof on the ground in embarrassment. “I’m afraid I don’t know much about that. It was over a millennium ago. I can look in the library, maybe some of the older histories...”
Rainbow Dash leaned down from where she reclined on the roof of a handy alfalfa felafel cart and tapped Twilight on the horn. “Hey, egghead, you’re thinking too hard again. Why don’tcha just write Princess Celestia and ask her to have Luna tell us about it?”
Twilight’s eyes widened as she sputtered in shock. “What are you-- Dash, that’s-- I can’t just pry into Princess Luna’s affairs like that!”
“Twilight, it’s important.” The Doctor’s voice was so soft and serious, it raised the hairs on the back of Twilight’s neck. When he’d been ranting at his box, she could dismiss him as a raving lunatic; but now he sounded... so terrifyingly sane. “Something awful has happened to your world. The universe is crying for help. I think that’s why I’m here.”
Twilight looked up at the gibbous moon, a near-circle barely clear of the horizon, so eerily devoid of the mare’s-head marking she’d grown up studying. “I’ll try,” she heard herself saying. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll try.” How in Equestria was she supposed to start that letter? Dear Princess Celestia, a pony with a big blue box says the universe is crying. Can I please tear the scab off Luna’s most painful memories?
That gloomy train of thought derailed a moment later as Applejack pushed her way to the front of the crowd. “There’ll be plenty of time for writin’ letters in the morning, Doc. This is s’posed to be a party! Wouldja like ta dance?”
The Doctor demurred. “Ah, no, sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t--”
“Don’t you worry none, sugarcube,” the irrepressible filly insisted, propelling the Doctor toward the dance floor in the face of his objections. “Ah’ll teach ya!” With that, the crowd began to disintegrate and Twilight Sparkle found herself seeking out Pinkie Pie. Like Applejack says, she thought. Tonight is for partying. She hastily pushed away a quote that she’d once come across in her literary browsings: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!
She spent the evening trying to party hard enough to keep from thinking.
Spike’s green flames consumed the letter and the ash drifted out the open window. Twilight flopped down in front of her writing desk and held her head with a groan, physically and emotionally exhausted and in pain to boot. “There. It’s sent,” the baby dragon announced. The sound only sent a relatively small railroad spike through Twilight’s head, but she must have winced anyway. “Sorry,” he said more softly. “I still think some breakfast would help.” Her stomach objected strenuously and she cautiously shook her head.
“No thanks. Not hungry...” Except maybe for more aspirin. And water. Everything was blissfully quiet for a while, so when the door rattled under somepony’s hoof, it merely felt like they were using her head for the clapper in the schoolhouse bell. Still, Spike answered the door.
“Good morning, Twilight!” shouted Pinkie Pie, bursting past Spike and ignoring his abortive plea for quiet. “How’re you this morning? I’m fantastic! There’s nothing like a big, big, super-successful party to make you feel just great!”
No, wait, now her head was being used as a clapper. “Ugh… Pinkie… please…” she begged weakly from the floor. “My head…”
The bright pink pony finally stopped – briefly – and giggled. “Ohhh. I see. Had a little too much apple cider, eh?” She gave Twilight a sly grin. “I mean the drink, not Applejack’s cousin. Though you had plenty of her too!”
Spike stared at Twilight with a wide, startled eyes and a grin tugging at his muzzle. “Oh man, I went to bed too early!”
Twilight sat bolt upright and froze, headache or no. “What?! What are you talking about?”
Pinkie laughed and nudged Twilight with an elbow. “Oh, I gotcha. You’re right, nothing happened! By the way, Princess Luna’s coach is nearly here.” With a flick of her mane, she lightheartedly bounced out the door.
Twilight scrambled after Pinkie. “No, wait, what happened? I really don’t remember any—Luna?!” She was having trouble keeping more than one train of thought running at a time, and this derailed her entirely. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I must look like a wreck!”
“You do, Twilight darling, which is why I’m here!” Rarity barged in next, her horn aglow and suspending an industrial-sized case of makeup. “I’ll have you looking fresh as a daisy in a trice!” She appraised Twilight with an experienced eye. “Hmm. Perhaps two trices.”
Applejack followed her in, wearing a pair of saddlebags and balancing a bowl of mush on her back. “An’ I brung ya some apple’n’cinnamon oatmeal. You gotta eat somethin’, even if ya don’t feel like it.” Twilight grimaced, but accepted the bowl meekly, and after a couple of bites, she found the nausea fading into hunger. She finished off the bowl in short order. “Thank you for all this, Rarity, Applejack. I really appreciate you looking out for me.”
Rarity dabbed a bit of perfume behind Twilight’s ears and muttered to herself as she started doing something arcane with colored powders. “You should thank Pinkie Pie, darling. Don’t worry – we shall ensure that you don’t disgrace yourself in front of the Princess.”
Mention of Pinkie dragged her back to the earlier comments. “Oh... yeah... Umm, AJ, would you happen to have a cousin named Apple Cider?”
Applejack thought for a moment. “Mmm, nope, I don’t think I know any Apple Cider.” Twilight relaxed a little. Pinkie must have just been pranking her. “But shucks, I mighta forgot somepony. The Apple clan’s so big, I can only keep track’a the first couple’a cousins. Why?”
Twilight was ‘um’ing and trying to compose some sort of reply to that uncomfortable question when Rarity sing-songed, “Finished!”
Applejack gave Twilight the once-over. “Great job, Rarity! She looks even better’n usual.” She indicated her saddlebags with a nod. “Twi, the Doc says we should bring our Elements, just in case. He reckons we might need ‘em before this is all over, and I reckon he’s right.”
Twilight Sparkle nodded and drew curious gazes from the other ponies when she trotted to the F section of her bookcases and levitated out Fundamentals of Social Concord by Ellie Mint. She’d made that cover herself, and was justifiably proud of it – and, perhaps less justifiably, of the pun. The heavy latch on the cover clicked open, revealing that it wasn’t a book at all, but a book-shaped box. Inside, nestled in a perfectly shaped hollow, was her tiara.
“Well ain’t that somethin’! I just been keepin’ mine in my good boots. Stick it in my saddlebags, we gotta skedaddle. Everypony’s waitin’ on us!”
It was uncomfortably bright outside. Twilight squinted her way after the big orange blob until her vision adjusted, though she still wanted sunglasses. Before they’d gone far, a blur of motion crossed Twlight’s path. Apple Blossom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo skidded to a halt and formed a neat rank in front of her, and Apple Bloom announced, “The Cutie Mark Crusaders wanna thank ya for the lesson!”
“I learned a lot last night!” The little pegasus threw in, almost on top of Sweetie Belle’s, “It was highly educational, Miss Twilight.” Then they spun and careened off down the alleyways with a cry of, “Cutie Mark Crusaders, yay!”
Twilight stood aghast for a few seconds. “AJ...” Twilight asked slowly, staring after the Crusaders in horror. “What exactly did I do last night?”
Applejack rolled her shoulders in a shrug. “Don’t worry ‘bout it, sugarcube. Tweren’t nothing. Apple Bloom was ‘bout due for that talk anyway, so you just saved me the trouble!”
“Please don’t ever let me drink that much again.”
Rarity couldn’t contain her giggle. “But dear, you danced so well...” She and Applejack shared a belly laugh that had Twilight looking for a nice hole to crawl into, princess or no princess. “Ah, good, we’re still early.”
The Doctor was waiting on the main road on the outskirts of Ponyville, chatting amicably with Pinkie Pie and watching a dark dot in the sky. The Doctor greeted them cheerfully. “’Ello, Twilight! You look well this morning!”
Twilight gave an embarrassed chuckle. “All thanks to my friends...”
“Naturally. ” The strange pony smirked as if at some private joke and resumed his watch.
Everypony was present except for Fluttershy; Twilight was about to ask when she saw the pegasus coming up the street, her wings flapping at top speed. “Sorry I’m late,” she panted, dropping to the ground beside Applejack and jamming her Element of Harmony into the saddlebag. “The ferrets found my necklace and stashed it somewhere while they were playing.”
Spike laughed. “Well, I’ll admit it looks tasty!” That earned him a round of stares. “What? They do!”
The dot in the sky gradually resolve into an ornate coach drawn by a quartet of armored guardsponies. Silver trim and moonstones shone in the sunlight, highlighting Luna’s deep blue coat. The princess was laughing merrily; Rainbow Dash had intercepted the coach as a sort of honor guard, and now she was giving the princess an impromptu airshow. She darted and pirouetted like a dolphin playing around a ship’s bow. Twilight caught a glint of metal, shaded her eyes with her hoof, then pressed it against the bridge of her nose.
“Tell me she’s not wearing her ‘Best Young Flyer’ award.”
Spike smirked. “Okay, I won’t tell you that.”
Rarity’s hoof touched her shoulder. “Princess Luna missed her performance at the contest, remember?” Her smile turned brittle and her voice shook for a moment. “…thankfully.” She gave a wistful sigh and regained mastery of herself, patting Twilight’s shoulder. “Let Rainbow Dash have this.”
Dash broke away for the coach’s landing and ascended into the sky, then rolled back and power-dived directly toward the gathering. She swooped low overhead at the last second, dragging a window-rattling sonic rainboom over the town to celebrate her highness’ arrival. Luna stood open-mouthed for a few seconds, then reared and pawed at the air, whinnying enthusiastically. The Doctor just stared in amazement. Dash bled off the speed as she arced back to join the welcoming committee, panting hard with a grin plastered across her face even as they all bowed in respect to the Princess of Night.
The mayor stepped forward to say a few words of welcome and move the whole affair along into the town hall. Twilight Sparkle couldn’t help mentally returning to the Summer Sun Festival, the last time Luna – or rather, Nightmare Moon – had stood in the hall. From the other ponies’ somber expressions, she wasn’t the only one. This time, short notice had dictated there be no colorful draperies, no singing birds; the cold, bare stone and plain wooden fittings forcefully reminded Twilight that despite its recent importance, Ponyville was still in many ways a frontier town.
The Doctor came right to the point and explained, with a great deal of hoof-waving and metaphor, what was wrong with the world. Luna’s face started out a stony mask of polite skepticism, but as the assembled ponies – far from objecting – nodded along with his observations, her expression gradually changed to concerned confusion. “Now, I have some vague suspicions, but I can’t confirm them without knowing the details of, well, what happened to your Highness before…”
Princess Luna clearly leaped ahead of his words. Her eyes suddenly swam with such grief and self-loathing that Twilight felt her own heart break a little. In that moment, Princess Luna was an infinitely ancient, wise, and powerful sorceress, but simultaneously just a frightened little filly. I think I’m glad I’m not immortal. Her thoughts went out to Princess Celestia – for the first time, she thought, she truly appreciated a sliver of her mentor’s perspective.
The Doctor stumbled and changed course mid-sentence. “Before Nightmare Moon,” he finished as gently as he could. “If you’d rather not talk about it, I can read it from your mind instead. If you’d allow it.” She dipped her head in assent, and a tear slid down her muzzle. “I’m sorry,” the Doctor murmured. “I’m so sorry…” He placed his hooves lightly on her temples and concentrated. “If there’s anything you’d rather not let me see, just imagine a door and close it against me.” The Doctor suddenly hissed and his brow knitted in shared pain. “Oh, my god. Such guilt! Your sister forgave you, but you’ve never forgiven yourself, have you?” He flinched back as if a door had just been slammed in his face. “Ah. Right, sorry. Farther back, then…” They stood like that for a time, the silence broken only by the tiny sound of tears striking stone.
The Doctor gave a faint grunt. “Such bitterness, so much hate… this isn’t you. This can’t be you.”
Princess Luna mouthed, “It is,” though no sound came out. The Doctor shook his head violently.
“No, I don’t belive it. I can feel your soul, and it’s so kind...” He leaned closer until his forehead touched hers just beside her horn. “I don’t understand. Nightmare Moon doesn’t fit here. You literally aren’t capable of… waaait… there. Just there, do you see it?” He spoke slowly and softly, as if trying to catch a soap bubble without popping it. When he broke away from her, the Doctor’s muzzle was as wet as Luna’s, but his eyes were bright with excitement.
The Princess didn’t share the Doctor’s sense of triumph. She swallowed a sob and folded in on herself, fresh guilt and shame written all over her face. Twilight saw Rainbow Dash and Rarity looking away uncomfortably and caught herself doing the same. It was too personal a moment for an audience, the kind of vulnerability that everyone instinctively knew belonged only to oneself and one’s closest—
One’s closest friends. Does she even have any friends? Twilight thought, mentally bludgeoning herself for not having realized it sooner. Besides Princess Celestia, does she have any shoulders she can lean on? She glanced at Applejack for advice, but she wasn’t moving either. I never read anything about this! How do I help her? Should I say anything? Do I go over there, or leave her in peace, or..?
Indecision shattered as a pale yellow shoulder brushed past her. Fluttershy walked right up to Luna and wrapped her forelegs around the larger filly’s neck. “It’s all right, Miss Luna,” she murmured in her soft, breathy voice. “We don’t blame you.” The deep blue mare curled up a little tighter, pressing her face against Fluttershy’s breast, her breath coming in halting sobs. That broke the dam. Twilight and the rest of the ponies moved forward as one, adding their own quiet reassurances. The Doctor stepped aside without a word and parked himself next to the mayor.
“I did… such terrible… things,” Luna panted once she had control again. “My sister…”
Applejack stroked her mane like Twilight had seen her do for Apple Bloom. “Yer sister forgave you, sugarcube. Nobody hates ya. Honest truth, Luna.” Rarity winced faintly at the lack of a title, but it really wasn’t the time for titles.
The mare shook her head again. “It’s all in here,” she whimpered, her voice steady, but still tight. She pressed a hoof to her chest. “I can be someone… that horrible…” Her throat constricted again and she stopped, fighting back more tears. “I don’t deserve forgiveness! I’m an awful pony!” she finally cried.
Nobody quite knew what to say to that. Even Pinkie Pie could only hug her and murmur, “There there.”
The Doctor pushed between Applejack and Fluttershy, gently lifting Luna’s chin with one hoof. “Luna, love – you’re wrong. So very wrong! The memory – please, show it to us!” She sniffed a few times and obediently lifted her head. Her horn shone a luminous silver and the dim hall melted away into a far more lavish room – not the throne room at Canterlot, but a startlingly familiar chamber in the sisters’ ancient castle.
When Twilight and her friends had battled Nightmare Moon, the chamber had been a ruin; in the vision, it was intact and furnished with blue and silver velvets, thick cushions and couches, marble statuary, and a library that made Twilight’s hooves itch. The Mayor gasped “Oh my stars!” and Rarity choked off a delighted squeal, and a round of ooh and ahhs rippled around the room. The assembly sobered quickly, however. On a tall dais, sleeping in the square of sunlight under the bay windows, the Luna of the past lay looking much as she did today.
Applejack recovered first. “Now hold on, if this’s Princess Luna’s memory, shouldn’t we only be able to see the inside ‘a her eyelids?”
“Shh! It’s magic,” was the only explanation Twilight offered.
The doctor pointed with a hoof. “There! You see it?” The Princess unashamedly wiped her eyes and leaned closer with the same desperate hope that a drowning pony shows a sturdy rope. A violet-edged haze was rising around the image of Luna, probing with tiny tendrils around the mare’s head. The tendrils pulsed faintly and the haze grew more distinct, seeming to draw substance from Luna and soon growing into a cloud of swirling deep purples and glittering midnight blues. Twilight Sparkle couldn’t help but think of Nightmare Moon’s weird, amorphous mane and tail. All at once, the cloud sunk entirely into the image-Luna. She gasped awake, and her eyes were the eerie slit pupils of Nightmare Moon.
The real Luna snorted and recoiled, banishing the vision with a shake of her head. It burst into scattered motes of light and the interior of the town hall returned. “I told you,” the Doctor said gently into the silence, turning to give her a brilliant grin. Luna met his eyes with a dazed and uncomprehending expression. “That was a noncorporeal animaphage. It made you hate your sister. You’re not a bad person. I mean pony.”
The young, ancient mare still looked poleaxed from the unlooked-for absolution, but the tears that slid onto her cheeks were clearly those of joy this time. She tried to smile past them, but clearly didn’t trust her voice yet. “Thank you…” she managed in the barest of whispers, then leaned over and planted a kiss on the Doctor’s nose. He blushed and looked away.
They all withdrew to confer in low tones while the princess collected herself. Twilight considered the Doctor’s diagnosis. “You’re saying that was some kind of spirit entity? And it ate... what? Emotions? Magic?”
“Dunno, I just made it up. But it was definitely feeding on Luna.”
“Well, okay, but we defeated it with the Elements of Harmony… right?” She frowned into the Doctor’s hesitation. “…Right?” she prompted less confidently.
“’Defeated’… but maybe not ‘destroyed’.”
“If the Elements of Harmony couldn’t destroy it, what could? They’re the most powerful magic in Equestria!” Twilight’s voice rose a little and Rarity hissed her back to a whisper. There was a brief silence.
“…It’s like a rope,” the Doctor murmured distantly.
“Oh! Oh! I got it!” Pinkie Pie piped up, bouncing to her feet. “You can’t cut a rope with a hammer, no matter how hard you hit it, right? But if you have the right tool, it’s easy!” Everyone, including the Doctor, was staring at her. “What? Wasn’t it obvious?”
“I wanted to explain it,” the Doctor complained faintly. “Bah. Anyway, that’s exactly right. We just have to find the right tool to fight this thing, this…” He groped for a word.
“Nightmare.” Princess Luna had moved up behind them so silently that Fluttershy shrieked and launched herself under a table, bowling over Rainbow Dash in the process. Her voice was steady and she had dried her cheeks and put her mane back in order, and if her eyes were red and puffy, at least a casual look wouldn’t indicate she’d been crying. Luna managed a ghost of a giggle and smiled her apology to Dash and Fluttershy as she continued. “I hereby charge you seven with a royal quest: to discover whether the Nightmare still exists, and if it does, to destroy it by any means necessary. Equestria has never faced a greater threat.”
“Yes, your Highness!”
“But of course, Princess.”
“Yippee! Road trip!”
“You betcher boots!”
“Technically, if the hammer was moving fast enough…”
Spike pointed his quill pen at Rarity. “Tents?” The nine of them – Twilight and all her friends, Spike, the Doctor, and Luna stood just beyond the edge of town, staring across the plain toward the forbidding gloom of the Everfree Forest.
“Check, and repair supplies in case we need them.”
“Great thinking, Rarity! You’re becoming a real outdoorspony!” The unicorn was too busy preening with pride to notice Spike’s rather goofy grin as he checked off the item. “Food?”
Applejack nodded to her bulging saddlebags. “Check. I got trail rations fer everypony fer a week, and plenty of extra besides. Our you-know-whats are on the bottom.” It was unlikely that anyone would bat an eyelash at the phrase “Elements of Harmony”, but with a rogue animaphage on the loose, they’d decided not to take chances.
Twilight and Luna chorused, “Check!” Both their saddlebags were stuffed with useful reagents and scrolls of abbreviated instructions, along with the sturdier tools of the trade. Twilight was sure she would miss having an alembic with her, but the glass was just too fragile. If she wound up needing to distill something, she would just have to make do.
“Check!” Fluttershy was unusually chipper this morning, especially considering the trepidation that had Twilight’s stomach tied in knots. But, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising after all. It was Twilight Sparkle’s nature to worry, and Fluttershy apparently had a new friend! Luna – Princess Luna, she chided herself – had accepted Fluttershy’s offer of a bed in her cabin instead of the town inn, and if the Princess’ eyes were any indication, she’d had at least one more crying jag during the night. Whenever they stopped moving, Luna just “happened” to end up close to the little yellow pegasus, though Twilight didn’t think anyone else had noticed. She couldn’t help a small, private grin despite her worries.
“Great. Baby dragon?”
Twilight did a double-take as she was dragged out of her musings. “Spi-i-ike. I told you, you’re taking care of Angel and Gummy until we get back.”
“Aw, come on. I haven’t even been out in the forest once! The Cakes could take care of them…”
“For the last time, this isn’t a camping trip!” She dropped her voice in case of lurking saboteurs. “We’re about to try and fight an entity of unknown power to stop a plan we don’t understand with a weapon we don’t have. Stay. Put.”
Spike deflated and let out a long sigh. “Fine, fine… Good luck, Twi.” He leaned up and hugged her, leaving an ink spot on her neck from the carelessly held pen. “Come back safe!”
“Thanks, Spike.” She turned toward the Everfree Forest to hide suddenly brimming eyes. “Let’s go!”
Eight set out down the ancient road to the ancient capital of Equestria, and one stood waving until they passed under the shadow of the trees.
* * * *
The trip out toward Zecora’s hut went easily enough. Pinkie Pie kept up a steady stream of jokes to keep their spirits up, and Luna giggled at every one of them, even the ones that weren’t funny. It wasn’t easy, Twilight thought, being the pony with her hooves on the ground. She watched the turn-off to Zecora’s pass and felt a sudden longing for a cup of the zebra’s delicious tea – she drank it often enough just to calm her nerves, but perhaps right now she was more eager to delay the trip just a little bit longer. Probably a little of both. Okay, a lot of both. A sudden rustle in the bushes brought her back to the here and now.
“…and then I said, ‘Oatmeal? Are you kuh-razy??’” Gales of laughter went up from the group. Twilight started trying to shush them, but it was no use. Luna staggered against a tree, she was laughing so hard. She leaned there until she finally stopped, had a fit of giggles, and quieted again.
“Hey-- Shh-- Pinkie! Everypony, did you hear that?”
The bushes rustled again as though in answer. Twilight pointed her hoof. “That!”
“Pssssh. It’s just some animals moving around. You need to relax, Twi! There’s nothing to worry about!” Pinkie Pie faced the nearest clump of bushes, stood up straight, and brayed, “Ha, ha, ha!”
Their own laughter came back from all directions – Fluttershy’s cute little titter, Rainbow Dash’s hearty guffaw, the Doctor’s throaty chuckle… and then her own voice hissing, “Hey-- Shh-- Pinkie! Everypony, did you hear that?”
Eight rumps met in the middle of the road.
The eerie voices started moving around them. Bushes giggled and undergrowth howled with laughter as it thrashed at the passage of something pony-sized. Several somethings. “Oatmeal!” “Oatmeal!” “Everypony, did you hear that?”
Twilight’s heart skipped a beat and her veins filled with ice water. “Everypony… run. We’ve got to run. Now!”
The Doctor’s firm, too-calm voice overruled her. “Too late. We’re already surrounded.” He pulled out his sonic screwdriver and risked a glance over his shoulder. “You know what these are, Twi?”
The unicorn bobbed her head once. “Crocotta.”
As if summoned by the word, a four-foot-tall creature stalked into the road. It was bigger than a pony, lean and wolfish. Its fur was muddy gray-brown barred with black stripes and a long catlike tail waved behind it, tipped with a black tuft. Its feet were cloven, deerlike hooves, and its head…! The face seemed to blend the worst aspects of cat and badger. Its malevolent eyes glittered through every color in the rainbow from moment to moment, like the sequins Rarity sometimes used on dresses. Its lips peeled back as it repeated a parody of Pinkie Pie’s laugh, revealing a single razor-sharp ridge of unbroken white where it should have had teeth. “Ha, ha, ha!” Then its voice changed to a masculine baritone shouting, “Help, help! Anyone! AIIEEEUUGH!” The crocotta screamed a falsetto scream of primal terror and pain that could only come from…
From a pony being torn apart. The scream just went on and on. Her hooves froze to the ground.
“Decoy, decoy!” the Doctor barked.
Applejack broke from the group nearly opposite Twilight, lunging forward a step to free her hindlegs, then planted her hooves and threw her hips forward. The bushes exploded in front of her hooves as a crocotta leapt from hiding right into the buck. Applejack’s hooves took it square in the mouth with a resounding crack and tumbled it back into the bushes. “How d’ya like them apples?!” she whooped, and the fight was on.
The ambush spoiled, the decoy crocotta plunged off the trail to join the assault. The three unicorns’ horns were aglow in a moment. Twilight levitated one of the beasts as it leaped, sending it soaring clear over her to crash headlong into a tree. Luna had created a shimmering plane of silver magic which a crocotta was scratching and biting at, and Rarity was holding off another with a pair of shears that spun and flashed menacingly through the air. “Back! Back, you ruffian!” she shrieked. “Fluttershy, use your Stare!”
“I can’t!” the pegasus moaned, pressing back toward the center of the protective ring. “It just happens!”
Rainbow Dash met a crocotta in the air with a flurry of jabs, hammering it to the ground, and while the quick blows kept it from attacking, they weren’t enough to back it off either. “Twi? We could sure use some good magic right now!”
Twilight’s eyes flicked back and forth, trying to follow the swift crocotta. “I – I don’t have a target!” she temporized. Twilight Sparkle had never been so certain she was about to die, and the panic slopped around her thoughts like thick mud. She tried to mentally flip through her spellbook, but all she could think of was wings and mustaches. Even when she had battled Nightmare Moon, she hadn’t panicked. The Mare in the Moon could be negotiated with, even surrendered to if need be; the crocotta pack would tear them all to pieces without hesitation. When she had faced down the Ursa Minor, it had been forearmed with the knowledge that she was battling nothing more than a cranky baby; these beasts were hardened hunters with prey in their sights. She launched another of the creatures skyward in mid-pounce and tried to think of a spell that would save them. Maybe she could teleport the entire group at once?
The crocotta writhed as it passed overhead, got its feet between itself and the tree, and sprang off the trunk straight at Pinkie Pie! She didn’t even have time to shriek, but Luna’s barrier slewed sideways and smashed into the monster edge-on, knocking it flat. However, the first crocotta she’d been blocking lunged as soon as it saw the opening. Luna whinnied and reared, flailing desperately with her hooves. They never connected – the crocotta collapsed under the hearty smack of a heavy wooden staff!
“Kukimbia, wewe mnyama!” Black and white exploded from the side of the trail and a shrill, reedy screech filled the air. The crocotta flinched against the noise. Their attack faltered.
The zebra drew in a deep breath and blew another blast on her whistle. The Doctor reacted as quickly as if it had been pre-planned, adjusting his screwdriver with a vicious twist. Its hum matched and amplified the tones of the whistle, and the crocotta broke and ran. They fled yelping and whining into the forest, and Zecora dashed after, charging a few yards down the road and giving a third peal for good measure.
Twilight ran a quick headcount. Nobody seemed to be injured, somehow, though they were all out of breath and trembling from the adrenaline. “Zecora! What a relief to see you!” She trotted over and shared a brief embrace of necks.
“Crocotta have a sensitive ear; this whistle’s something that they fear. I heard them while I meditated, and feared someone would be predated!” She chuckled briefly, then frowned after the beasts, a hoof idly digging at the soil. “But they should not be quite so near. Their home is very far from here.”
“What a coincidence they should be in our way,” the Doctor added in a sardonic tone.
“Then why--” Twilight interrupted herself, the obvious but impossible answer looming. “The Nightmare? But how?!”
“Who knows? Maybe it felt my arrival.” he shrugged. “Point is, I don’t believe in coincidence.”
Twilight realized Zecora was standing politely by as they spoke. “Oh, excuse my manners! Zecora, this is the Doctor, and Princess Luna. Your Highness, Doctor, my friend Zecora.” There was a brief round of rhyming pleasantries. “A princess pony, now, you say? An honor, then, to save the day! You ponies all should come with me; I’ll make some good, refreshing tea.”
Twilight Sparkle gritted her teeth to keep her tongue from accepting that offer on the spot. “I’m sorry, Zecora, but we’ve got to keep moving. We’re on an important mission, and we shouldn’t delay.”
Applejack nosed her lightly on the back. “Twi? I think a break’d be a good idea. Fluttershy’s lookin’ pretty wobbly.”
Twilight glanced at the pegasus. If anything, she looked better than the rest of them – accustomed, she supposed, to moments of undiluted panic. Still, she took the meaning, and was a bit glad AJ didn’t mention that Twilight wasn’t trusting her own knees very much just then either. For that matter, the earth pony herself was moving a little stiffly, as if holding herself under tight rein to keep from shaking. I guess if we’re all going to be useless for the next twenty minutes anyway, we might as well do it at Zecora’s hut. “Well… in that case, thank you very much!”
The group took Zecora’s lead for the relatively short trip to her hut, which gave Twilight the opportunity to assess their condition more completely. Pinkie was skittish, starting at every unexpected rustle and sometimes letting out a single “Ha,” before thinking better of it and casting nervous glances into the forest. Rainbow Dash was drifting lazily above them, dripping false bravado. Rarity, at least, looked quite pleased with herself – from the smirk on her face, Twilight could almost see her picturing herself as the heroine of her own fairy tale. Luna, on the other hoof, looked a little shocky, the whites showing all the way around her eyes. Twilight didn’t blame her. Even excluding her time imprisoned, this might have been the first time in centuries – or ever – she had needed to fight for her life… and she’d made a fatal error.
The Doctor was striding ahead as if facing down monsters with nothing but a power tool were his day job.
Twilight decided he was either completely insane, or the second scariest person she’d ever met. In fact, the scariest was currently dazed and putting one hoof in front of the other out of sheer inertia. She considered revising the order.
Zecora, thankfully, kept conversation to a minimum until they had all collapsed in her main room. Her smaller cauldron sat on the fire and the sharp, homey scents of herbs filled the air as she dropped them into the pot, and if her soft singing was unintelligible, it had a comforting tone. Dash, Pinkie, and Applejack had flopped down in a heap together with a silent pact not to acknowledge that either of the others was scared stiff as long as their own terror went unremarked. Rarity was preening in a little mirror and occasionally pausing to pose with her scissors as if the mirror were a book cover.
The Doctor was the only one on his feet, staring fixedly out the window, lost in his own thoughts.
Fluttershy dug out a brush and started combing Luna’s mane, whispering faintly in the mare’s ear. Twilight found herself a little jealous. She wanted someone to hold her and tell her it was all going to be okay, too.
But it wasn’t going to be okay. It was going to get worse. Her mind went back to the foggy, vague memories of the party two nights ago. Despite her vow to never indulge that heavily again, she found herself wishing for something stronger than tea. She pulled out her abbreviated spellbook and started cataloguing all the ways she could have saved the group if she hadn’t frozen.
Twilight’s reverie was broken only when Zecorra deposited a cup of warm tea in front of her. It smelled like heaven. “Thank you,” she murmured, noting that she was the last to receive a cup. Zecora seated herself opposite Twilight and carefully sipped from her own hot cup.
“You think you made a big mistake,” the zebra murmured, though the room was so silent the conversation was easily audible to everypony.
“I screwed up bad,” Twilight corrected bluntly, abandoning grammar for effect. “There were at least fifteen spells I could have--”
“This is an error warriors make,” the zebra interrupted. “It’s well and good to gain training and skill, but they don’t toughen as experience will. You’ll eventually learn to think fast but I’m saying everyone panics the very first time.”
As she sipped the tea, Twilight noticed Luna’s ear cocked toward them. Oh. Of course. She was still being as thick as molasses in winter. She crammed her own worries down into a little ball and pushed it aside – she had to be strong for everyone else right now. “I think I see what you mean,” she agreed with a false grin. “I guess I shouldn’t beat myself up over this. We’re all fine, and even if that’s by sheer luck, it means I’ll do better next time.”
Twilight sipped her tea silently for a minute and concentrated on releasing her stress. With the herbs steadying her jangled nerves, she felt almost ready to brave the Everfree Forest once more. Well, maybe in a few more minutes.
The Doctor crushed that hope as if reading her mind. “We should go soon.” There was a round of groans and mild complaints. “The weather’s turning bad. We’ll have to push hard to reach the castle before the storm.”
Zecora joined him at the window while Rarity and Twilight Sparkle re-packed their belongings. “The air feels very strange today. What it will do, I cannot say.”
“Four hours. Maybe less.” He sighed and ran a hoof across his mane. “It’s getting worse. The weather out here is more sensitive than it is in Equestria.” One by one, the ponies climbed to their feet and hefted their packs.
Zecorra accepted his word with a shrug. “Just as you say, Doctor, but I urge you to heed my warning; the forest is not safe. I saw a dragon just this morning.”
Fluttershy smiled gently. “Oh, I don’t think he’ll be any trouble to us.” Zecora looked confused at the chuckles that provoked.
Twilight herself took a few seconds to get the nervous giggles under control. The adrenaline again. She cleared her throat and paused in front of the door, mentally lining up the syllables her friend had taught her. “Asante sana, rafiki. Kukaa salama na furaha!”
Zecora returned a warm smile. “You as well, my purple friend. Come back safely in the end!”
The Doctor bowed to their hostess with a smile and suddenly spat out a stream of foreign words so fast that Twilight didn’t have a chance of following. Zecora’s jaw dropped and she replied with a short question in the same language. The Doctor blinked twice, glanced at the rest of the group with an expression she could only call embarrassed, and said, “Er, yes, I suppose I do.” He sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Sorry, won’t happen again, it’s the translator… psychic, um, thingie.” He beat a hasty retreat out the door.
Twilight held the door open with a perplexed expression, peering after the Doctor. “Right… well, after you, your Highness!”
They trooped out into the shadowy forest, shaken but armed with far more respect for the Everfree Forest.
Once the hut had fallen behind, Princess Luna moved up closer to Twilight. “By the way, you can call me Luna. I don’t mind.”
Twilight couldn’t help but smile. “All right… Luna.”
* * * *
The narrow slash of sky above the river filled from horizon to horizon with a jagged, meandering bolt of lightning. It didn’t look right. Lightning shouldn’t be blue-green, and it certainly wasn’t supposed to rejoin after it forked. It looked like it was tracing the pattern of cracks in a broken vase that had been glued back together.
The basso rumble that followed didn’t sound like any thunder Twilight had ever heard, either. The reverberation had a discordant overtone that set her teeth on edge. It sounded like a cracked bell being struck.
She hoped they wouldn’t come to regret the delay.
“Careful, Dash,” she said as she jumped into the hock-deep water. “I wouldn’t bet on you being able to control that lightning.”
Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy hovered halfway across the river as the rest of the group forded it. “Yeah… don’t worry. I’m staying way down here,” the pegasus agreed. “I really, really don’t like the way that sky looks.” The occasional green-tinted flashes left the clouds looking bruise purple by comparison. The next flash briefly silhouetted a vast black shape. “Woah! Well, somebody’s flying today. Did that look like our smokey friend to you?”
Twilight strained to pick up the image again as she climbed the far bank and the group started into the forest. “I couldn’t tell, it was too quick. But shouldn’t he be asleep someplace?”
Dash snorted. “Doubt it. That thunder could wake the dead!”
Applejack stiffened and glared upward. “Dash, couldja please not say stuff like that?”
“Oh, what? Are you afraid of zo-o-o-ombie ponies?” Dash raised her hooves straight out in front of her as though in rigor mortis.
“My brain just don’t need any more horrible images than it’s already got right now!”
“Aww, you running outta room?” Dash taunted. “Maybe you need a bigger—“
Brilliant orange light flared a few dozen yards ahead of them and a wall of flame licked up across the road. In the lurid glow, the massive soaring frame of the dragon seemed a glowing coal against the dark skies. Dash’s voice reached a higher register than usual. “What the hay?!” The dragon glided in a circle, blasting more flames down into the forest, tracing out a ring of flames.
Fluttershy straightened up, her brows drawn down in an angry V. “Excuse me, please.” She rose into the air, looking decidedly grim.
“The Stare…” Rarity breathed. The pegasus topped the trees, then plunged back down with a squeak as a gout of flame licked the treetops. Tiny fires caught there, too, turning the pines into giant birthday candles. Within moments it had finished the ring of fire.
Twilight spun in a circle, looking for any way out. The best protection was a tiny creek, only ankle deep. Frustration welled up. “You know, I have a fire extinguishing spell back home!” she snarled.
The Doctor watched the dragon as it vanished over the trees again. “It’s afraid of us,” he said finally. “It could have roasted us directly, but it never came within a hundred yards.” A sudden grin split his muzzle. “That means we’re on the right track.”
Rarity rounded on the Doctor. “Be that as it may, it won’t do us much good if we stay here!” She paused, considering. “Can’t go over, the dragon’s up there. Can’t go through.” She gave a polite cough into her hoof. The air was beginning to fill with smoke. “Can we dig under it?” All eyes fell on Twilight.
She shook her head sharply. “Not before it roasts us! That much dirt, it’d take hours to set up a spell!”
“I’ve only ever taken myself and Spike,” she said doubtfully. “And if I miss…” She looked into the fire.
Rainbow Dash coughed harder. “Don’t mean to rush you, but it’s getting closer!” The air sweltered like the inside of an oven.
Rarity suddenly blurted, “Ah!” Her pack flew open and their tents floated out, followed by the taffeta repair tape and tough cord. “Fear not, faithful companions! Rarity will save the day!” The tents floated up end to end, and the shears flew, dismantling the tents in moments. The sewing awl spiraled cord through the canvas to form a long continuous sheet. She dropped the canvas in the creek and started slicing up the taffeta. Needle and thread whirled around it. “First, wet these and tie them over your nose and mouth. That will help keep the smoke out.” She hovered a makeshift mask over the creek, dipped it, then tied it over her own muzzle. “Like so!” It didn’t take long to outfit everyone with all three unicorns helping.
Dash tugged at the mask, making sure it was secure. “But what’re the tents for?”
Rarity pressed her hoof to her mouth and crowed a laugh. “Oh, dear Dash, I suppose you wouldn’t know! When ironing clothes, wet cloth won’t scorch until the water has all steamed away,” she explained. “The wet canvas will protect us from the fire and we can run right through it!”
“Rarity, wait.” Twilight shook her head. “The air in there will be just as hot as the fire. We can’t breathe that!”
“Well, darling – you can create a breeze, can you not?”
Twilight stared for a moment, then smacked herself with a hoof in chagrin. “Duh!”
The Doctor flashed a lopsided grin under his bandana. “Absolutely brilliant! You ponies are almost as good as humans.”
The unicorn waved them toward the roaring wall. “In order of speed, please. Dash, then Luna and Fluttershy up front; then Applejack, the Doctor, and Pinkie; and I’m afraid Twilight and I shall be bringing up the rear.” She gave a crooked smile. “I never was one for the athletic arts. I shall make sure nopony is left behind.”
Twilight jumped in again. “You flyers, get in the air as soon as you clear the flames. The ground will still be hot.”
The roll of soaked canvas drifted up beside Dash. “Excellent advice, Twilight. Now make sure you run on the bias, darlings! Ready, set, go!”
The column of ponies dashed straight toward the wall of fire. Even with her mask in place, Twilight had to work not to cough on the smoke in the air. As they closed on the flames, the bolt of tough cotton unrolled through the air and spiraled ahead into the flames. Twilight willed a light wind to blow, pushing the hot smoke out of the canvas tunnel and replacing it with cool air. They plunged into the tube, lit red and orange from without, hissing like a hundred angry cats where it touched hot coals. Rarity fed the scorched length back through the middle as she passed, sending it rushing over their heads to lay down more tunnel in front. The air was hellishly hot from sheer radiant heat even with the breeze blowing, and even with their bandanas on, smoke stung noses and throats and it was an effort not to cough. Finally, the fire thinned and the end of the tunnel broke through!
Rarity stopped feeding canvas – it had grown black and crumbly under their feet, leaving a trail of smoldering fabric that was quickly consumed in the fire. The mad dash couldn’t have taken more than a few seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. Every pony was gasping for breath, and flames were beginning to chew the edges of the canvas. The tube of safety was becoming uncomfortably short – the pegasi slowed, all the runners bunching up as the front end started to disintegrate. The pegasi finally burst out the front end of the tube and kited up a few feet, coming to a hover beyond the back edge of the fire. The ground was cracked and baked, littered with glowing coals and individual torches where thicker bushes still burned. Applejack put on a burst of speed, crouched for a fraction of a second in the mouth of the tunnel, and launched herself for the welcoming green growth beyond the field of coals.
Applejack flew. The Iron Pony competiton had never seen anything like it. She arced over the scorched earth like a low-flying comet, streaming mane and tail, seeming to hang there forever. “YEEEEEEE-HAW!” she howled through the air.
Her hooves touched brown, dried-out grass and the mare crashed in a tumble, rolled over twice, and came to rest laughing on tender green.
The Doctor leapt on Applejack’s heels, but he clearly wasn’t the jumper she was, and Pinkie Pie couldn’t even hope to make it. Luna’s silver glow enveloped her, though, while Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy together caught the Doctor and hauled him beyond danger. Twilight focused herself for her signature trick. Her horn glowed and sprouted a brightening flare at the tip.
Five yards to go.
Twilight’s next stride landed on cool mud instead of burning coals. She threw her head back and let out a short laugh of triumph, slowing to a canter while Applejack picked herself up and started dusting off her hat.
That was when they heard the scream.
The canvas had burned out from under Rarity’s feet, and she shrieked as she flinched away from the heat under her hoof. Twilight looked back just in time to see the other unicorn stumble and crash to the coals.
Pinkie Pie was launched to the grass with an undignified yelp and auras of silver-white and lavender enclosed Rarity at the same moment. Together, Twilight Sparkle and Luna lifted her and floated her out of the burned zone. “Fluttershy! First aid!” she barked, choking on smoke and horror together. She could already see the scorched ruin of Rarity’s left side. Tears blurred her vision as they lowered Rarity to the grass and Fluttershy threw supplies in every direction digging out the first aid kit.
The injuries weren’t quite as bad as she’d first feared, but it wasn’t saying much. Some of the black was just soot, but a lot of it was burned hair and angry red skin, and hot coals still clung in places. For a few minutes, everyone was too busy applying burn dressings to think. At some point Rarity started to feel the burns and began to cry. Pinkie slipped her some pain killers. “It’s all right, they’re not too bad,” the pink pony tried to soothe her, and it was true… from a certain perspective. The burns weren’t too deep since they’d plucked her off the coals quickly, but they all knew there would probably be scarring. It was too early to tell for sure, but… she’d have to be the luckiest pony alive to get away without any.
Twilight felt sick – not from the burns themselves, however ugly they might be, but from knowing what it would do to Rarity. She had always been so proud of her looks, vain even, and when the bandages came off to show patchy fur and shiny scar tissue--! She crammed that thought down next to her anxiety. And, on top of that, she’d saved herself before her friend. Without hesitation, without a thought. She had abandoned Rarity, the most beautiful pony she knew. A scholar like herself, she could get along with a few scars. If only I could take the burns myself… she couldn’t finish that thought. The sympathy and worry and guilt wound up into a tight ball in the pit of her stomach, tighter and tighter--
Twilight galloped a few yards away to retch behind a tree.
I’ll work out a spell, she promised herself as she spat and wiped her mouth. What good is magic if it can’t fix something like this? Rarity will have her looks back if it takes me the rest of my life.
A rustle of grass made her turn. Applejack brushed tears away from Twilight’s cheek. Was I crying? I didn’t notice…
“The Doc’s doin’ something-or-other about her pain, but he says we can’t stop fer long. ‘M sorry. Can ya carry her?”
“I’ll do what I have to do.” And I have to fix this.
Applejack watched her for a long moment. “This weren’t yer fault, Twi,” she murmured. “Don’t be beatin’ yerself up over it.”
The ball of misery in her stomach compressed tighter still, and suddenly, something snapped. The different emotions were crushed together so tightly, they abruptly fused and transmuted into a solid, dense lump. The process liberated energy; a white-hot blaze of rage flared through her body and consumed everything else.
“I DON’T CARE!” she exploded, startling AJ back a pace. “Why in the name of Celestia’s left hoof do I have this power if I can’t use it to save anyone?!” It felt good to scream right now. The hurt in AJ’s eyes just fed more guilt into the star’s heart inside her.
“Twi, you can’t carry the whole world on yer--”
“I’m the magic pony! I’m supposed to be the one who can do--” she waved her hoof wildly. “ANYTHING! I defeated an Ursa Minor! I stopped Nightmare Moon! I SHOULD BE ABLE TO FIX THIS!” That last came out in a desperate, almost petulant tone.
“Twilight Sparkle, get ahold of yourself!” Applejack reached out to her. Twilight slapped it away and clipped AJ’s jaw with her hoof in the process.
The blaze of rage chilled and shrank so quickly she thought she might implode from the sudden void. “Oh… AJ… I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to--”
Applejack’s emerald eyes had gone as cold and hard as gemstones. “That was yer free one,” she said curtly as she spun on her heel. “We’re goin’.”
“I’m sorry…” she begged to Applejack’s back, then dragged after. More guilt. More worry. More frustration.
The star’s heart was still there in her chest. Its fire was banked low for now, but it still smoldered hungrily, and Twilight quietly fed it all the anguish it could eat.
* * * *
Twilight was still dragging along in the tail of the party an hour later, stewing in her misery as a semiconscious Rarity floated along beside her. The events kept replaying in her head like an endless slow-motion video. Rarity falling on the hot coals, all alone. Applejack’s hurt eyes. The mare’s head snapping to the side when Twilight’s hoof grazed her. How could she have done that? What kind of person was she?
And then came the other memories. The powerful, awful sensation of rage flowing through her. Anything seemed justified. Only her own pain mattered, and…
And it felt good to share it. Misery loves company, eh?
Pale pink hair bobbed in her vision. “Twilight? Can we talk?” Fluttershy asked softly as a curve in the trail gave them a modicum of privacy.
Twilight mentally steeled herself for the dressing-down she deserved. The one she’s already given herself fifteen or twenty times. “Yeah.”
The pegasus took a deep breath and let it out again. “I’ve kept animals for a long time,” she said firmly.
Twilight felt her thoughts derail in a way she normally associated with Pinkie Pie. “Huhwhat?”
Fluttershy glanced significantly toward Rarity. “And the biggest thing I’ve learned is that they all die eventually. No matter how much you love them, they’ll always get old, or get hurt, and die, and there’s nothing you can do about that.”
Twilight’s mouth was too dry to respond.
“Sometimes accidents happen. I know what it’s like to feel powerless when someone you love gets hurt.” She stepped in front of Twilight, stopping her short. Fluttershy’s gentle eyes filled Twilight’s vision. “Even a pony as powerful as you can’t stop that. Don’t try to, and don’t blame yourself when you can’t.” She held Twilight’s eyes for a few seconds more, then looked down. The moment passed. Twilight could breathe again. “Um. Please.”
Twilight stood stunned for another few seconds. Don’t try to, and don’t blame yourself when you can’t. The simple, blunt statement echoed in her ears. Her throat constricted and she pushed that down as well. “Fluh…” She cleared her throat. “Fluttershy, I…” I understand what you mean? I want to apologize? She didn’t even know what she wanted to say. The rest of the group had continued around the bend, leaving them alone for a moment. She expected Dash to come flying back looking for them any second—
There was a loud crack. Fluttershy’s eyes rolled up in her head and she collapsed to the ground.
Rainbow Dash hovered behind her wearing a malicious grin and holding a broken tree branch.
“Dash?!” Twilight’s abused brain spun. The pegasus dropped the branch and shot into the trees.
Rarity moaned in pain as Twilight’s levitation spell quietly failed.
“Help!” Twilight cried as she crouched to examine the limp pegasus. She was breathing, that was good. A trickle of blood started to run down her scalp, but not too much. “Help! The Nightmare got Rainbow--“
The other five ponies thundered back around the bend. Dash was with them. Wheels started spinning in Twilight’s head.
Luna burst out of the group and galloped to the fallen pegasus’ side. “Fluttershy? Fluttershy, wake up!” She started shaking the filly. Fluttershy groaned, then pressed her hooves to her head with a pained squeak. “Ow,” she complained softly.
Applejack leveled a hard look at Twilight. “You didn’t…”
“Of course not! We were talking, and then Rain – no, someone that looked like Rainbow Dash hit her with a branch. Has she been with you this whole time?”
“What?!” Dash squawked.
Pinkie Pie nodded. “Yup! She was right there in front of me!”
Twilight rubbed her chin. “Hmm. Could be some kind of shapeshifter. Assuming, of course, that you’re really Pinkie Pie.”
“That’s me!” she replied cheerfully, then wilted a little as she realized what Twilight meant. “You don’t believe me?”
Twilight sighed and ran a hoof down her mane her head. “Look, what I mean is, if we’ve got a shapeshifter lurking around, as far as you know, I’m not really Twilight Sparkle. I’m just saying.”
Pinkie hmmmed and started stalking around Twilight. “Well, then, Twilight, if that’s really your name, what was the first thing I said to you when you arrived in Ponyville?” She sat down on her haunches, looking satistfied with herself.
Twilight shook her head. “That would work if we’re up against a bogey or a skin walker. And you didn’t really say anything, you just went HUUUUUUUUH.” She mimicked Pinkie’s enormous gasp.
Pinkie suddenly pounced forward and hugged her. “That’s RIGHT! You remembered!”
She pushed the pink pony off of her. “I’m serious, Pinkie!” The earth pony’s face fell. “If I’m a doppelganger, I can read the expected response from your mind.”
“And would a doppelganger have told us that?” the Doctor put in, sauntering up beside Pinkie Pie and resting a consoling hoof on the shoulder.
“Er. I guess not?”
“Then I trust you,” he replied carelessly. “Where’d the doppelganger-or-whatever go?”
Twilight waved vaguely into the forest. “It flew off into the trees. Probably waiting to catch somepony alone again.”
The Doctor puffed out a breath. “I don’t mean to seem callous, Fluttershy, but if you’re all right, we need to keep moving. From now on, nobody goes anywhere alone. If you see someone alone,” he clopped his hooves together. “That’s your beastie.”
Fluttershy pushed herself up, though her legs were visibly wobbly. “I’m okay…”
Luna smiled at the the pegasus pony and offered her a shoulder to lean on. They started off once more.
When Twilight levitated Rarity, she was surprised to see the unicorn’s eye open and focused on her. “Oh! You’re awake.” She heaved a sigh. “Rarity, I’m so sorry I left you behind! I promise I’ll find a way to heal you to make up for it!”
“I didn’t ask anyone to save me. I’m glad you’re all safe.” She spoke slowly, the pain medicine making her a little hazy.
“I shouldn’t have needed to be asked! I should have used my magic to get you out first!”
Rarity watched her for a few moments, head cocked. “Are you trying to replace me, darling?” she murmured.
Twilight gaped at the other unicorn. “What?”
“Pride and vanity… Remind you of anyone?” She gave a faint cough of a laugh. “Stop being so selfish.”
“Well darling, you have all that stress and you won’t share it with anyone else. You’re as bad as Applejack.” Rarity giggled again, clearly a little bit loopy at the moment.
Twilight was silent for a bit. The land gradually rose toward the castle, the trees growing more sparse until scraps of sky appeared between them. “I can’t just dump all my worries on them… they’ve got enough problems without adding my concerns to it.”
“So do you,” Rarity murmured. “Your friends want to help support you, so let us.” She flashed a wry grin. “If you’re going to carry me around, you can at least let me take some of your own burdens.”
Twilight shivered for a moment as a cold, lightning-smelling gust blew down from the thick blanket of clouds above. It couldn’t be long now until it opened up. Blue-green not-lightning flickered almost constantly, providing light as bright as a full moon. “…all right, Rarity. I’ll try,” she assented at last. She walked on for a few minutes, mulling it over.
Rainbow Dash suddenly cried out, and when Twilight looked, a lightning flash froze the tableau on her retinas. Hovering around the edges of the group, Dash had strayed close to the trees, and the duplicate had grabbed her from behind. It held a hoof across her throat as if trying to choke her, but Dash’s own hoof had got in the way and kept the mimic from silencing her. Twilight carefully lowered Rarity onto her hooves.
In the strobing lightning flashes, the scuffle played out in a series of still images. Dash flipped the copy over her with a buck of her hips, then launched herself on top of it and bore it to the ground. They twisted around one another, kicking and biting. Twilight lost track of which was which in the dark moments between flashes. Suddenly, Applejack was diving into the middle of the fray. The orange pony managed to catch one of the combatants in a full nelson and the other broke away.
An aura of purple suspended the escaped Dash in the air. Both Dashes squirmed and tried to protest louder than the other that they were the real one until the Doctor finally shouted them down.
“All right! That’s enough!” He looked between the copies, running a hoof over his mane. “Did anyone see which is which?”
“I’m the real one!” they said together.
“You two be quiet!”
Pinkie rubbed her chin and sized up the two Dashes.
“Any twitches?” Applejack asked hopefully.
“Mmmmm… nope! But I think you’ve got the fake. I’m about sixty-three percent sure!”
The named Dash shook her head violently and strained against Applejack’s hold. “Pinkie! How could you?”
Luna scuffed a hoof. “I don’t like those odds either.”
“Yeah,” Pinkie Pie agreed amicably. “It’s just a gut feeling.”
Applejack glanced between the two. “How the hay do we even tell ‘em apart?”
Twilight grinned wickedly and pulled a marker out of her saddlebags. “No problem.”
One of the Rainbow Dashes fluttered her wings helplessly as Twilight brought her near. “Hey, no! I know what you’re thinking, keep that thing away from meeeeEEEE--“
There was much squirming and yelling, but in the end, the pegasus Twilight held captive wore a large number 1 on her forehead, and the one Applejack restrained wore a 2. They both glared unhappily at Twilight. Suddenly the first Dash looked at the second. “I’m number one,” she sneered.
“Stick a sock in it, ya phoney.”
“I’m no phoney, you fake!” Applejack had to fight to keep Number Two restrained.
Twilight made a zipper appear over each of their mouths until they stopped trying to argue.
She strode back and forth in front of the two Dashes, pondering. “Sooooo… how many times did you have to practice the sonic rainboom before you got it right?” she asked suddenly. She really had no idea, so if she was right…
“A hundred and thirty five!” the twins chorused, then stared at one another with mirrored expressions of shock. “HEY!”
Twilight nodded. “Definitely a doppelganger. That’s going to make it tough.”
Dash One piped up. “Hey, I know! I’m the fastest pony in Equestria, so let’s have a race! No imitation can keep up with the one and only Rainbow Dash!”
“If we let the doppelganger race it would just fly away.”
Number Two smirked. “That means YOU’RE the doppelganger!”
“Hey, no way! Twi, tell her I’m not--“
“Don’t worry. Doppelgangers can read the behavior you expect, and I would expect Dash to make a stupid suggestion like that.”
Dash Two yelped, “Hey!”
They fell silent for a moment.
Twilight glanced toward Luna and the Doctor. “Any ideas?”
Sounding subdued, Dash One piped up. “I have an idea. Just--”
“SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!” Dash Two shrieked in Applejack’s arms. Twilight zippered her mouth again.
“Just tie us both up and bring us along. The real one will be able to help when you need the Elements.”
Applejack glanced toward the lasso hanging out of her pack. “Ya sure, Dash? We’re runnin’ low on helpin’ hooves. It won’t be comfortable.”
Rainbow Dash flashed her a rueful grin. “What’s a little dignity between friends?”
“There it is!” the Doctor shouted. Dash Two’s body went rubbery and flexible. She slipped right out of Applejack’s grip and spun, swinging at Applejack and knocking her to the ground. “It’ll kill me!” she yelped, launching into the air.
Twilight’s vision went red. Outrage gave the lump of fury permission to flare to life, even brighter than before. She wanted to use it, now. She had no reason to hold back. This was for making her doubt Rainbow Dash. This was for hurting Applejack. This was for Fluttershy!
This was Justice.
Fury backed her will with steel reinforced by diamond. Lavender flames exploded from her horn and fountained five feet in the air. A hammerblow of amorphous force smashed the doppelganger back to the ground and held it pinned like a giant hoof. She barely restrained herself from crushing it like a bug.
“Who sent you?” she thundered, the violet light from the flames turning the false Rainbow Dash’s face pale.
“Augh, lemme go, lemme go!”
A violet ripple shot down the telekinetic hoof, slamming into the creature again. “WHO?!”
It shrieked in agony. Dash – the real Dash – grabbed her shoulders. “Woah, Twi! You’re outta control!”
Twilight shook off the pegasus and pushed past her. Another hammerblow formed.
“All right! I’ll talk!” the pathetic doppelganger shrieked. She let the blow fall anyway.
“Twilight! Stop it!”
“Who?” she barked, leaning closer. The flames reflected in Rainbow Dash’s large, frightened red-violet eyes. Stolen eyes. Her precious friend’s stolen face! She fed that to the star, too.
“The dragon! The dragon made me do it! It sent the crocotta too! It’ll kill us if we don’t do what it says!”
Twilight had heard enough. If she listened to this mewling wretch for another moment, she might crush it anyway! The hoof vanished and she slapped the doppelganger into the air, then formed one last hammer of force. The blast struck it at an angle from beneath, sending it rocketing over the trees. She didn’t care where it landed or if it was intact when it did, but she’d let it go alive. The little beast should be thankful.
Twilight held the savage satisfaction for a moment longer before forcing it back down inside her, almost regretfully. She pushed it down far enough that the spout of flame went out, but it still raged in her chest. She wanted to level the forest, flatten the hills, beat something bloody with her bare hooves until she felt better!
When she turned back to her friends, the rage vanished like a snuffed candle. The ponies were huddled behind the Doctor, watching her like they would watch a rampaging Ursa. The Doctor had his sonic screwdriver ready… leveled at her… along with a hard, even stare.
She staggered. She hadn’t realized how much magic she was pouring into that. “I’m all right,” she protested, but it sounded hollow even to her. Nobody moved. “I’m not going to hurt you!” she protested. Pinkie and Dash glanced significantly at Applejack’s bruised jaw.
“Twi. That was way outta line.” Dash hopped up out of the cluster and soared over to her. She landed, Twi noted bitterly, beyond hoof’s reach. “I’ve been known to go overboard once in a while, but you’re completely out of control!”
The star rumbled threateningly at Dash’s tone, but Twilight quashed it. “You weren’t there,” she spat. “You didn’t watch that thing knock Fluttershy out and grin about it with your face!”
“You’re right,” Rainbow Dash replied, eyes narrowed with disgust. “I watched something a lot worse.” Real anger flashed across Twilight’s expression.
“Dash.” Applejack’s voice had gone cold again. It was far worse than when she was angry. “Yer not makin’ it better.”
Luna slid gracefully past Rainbow Dash and brushed Twilight’s cheek with her soft muzzle. “You’re my friend, Twilight,” she murmured. Twilight winced a little. She didn’t feel like a very good friend right now. “I hate seeing you like this. I know what it’s like to want to lash out, to hurt people because you hurt, but trust me – it never makes it hurt any less. It just makes more pain.”
“Luna, I--” She pulled up the only defense she could think of. “But that thing was a monster! It could have killed Fluttershy! That was--”
“Justice?” The Doctor cut.
The word dried up and crumbled to bitter ash on her tongue. It was a lie – a lie she’d told herself because it gave her permission to be judge, jury, and… executioner.
The Doctor’s eyes looked faraway and haunted. “I’ve seen that kind of ‘justice’ burn planets out of existance, slaughter entire species. I’ve destroyed…” He stopped himself abruptly and shook him head instead. “Revenge with pretty clothes on is still revenge.”
Luna stared up at him with large, shocked eyes, and something passed silently between the two. Understanding, perhaps.
“Okay,” Twilight said in a small voice, her eyes feeling hot. Did I actually think I was being merciful to the doppelganger? The star’s heart threatened to vomit up all the guilt and doubt she’d fed it. It was all still there, not consumed at all, just waiting for her to soften her heart a little. She struggled to keep it compressed. She couldn’t afford to break down now. Not now, not with her friends and everyone in Equestria counting on her. Once the quest was over, she promised herself, once they were all safe back in Ponyville, then she could collapse and cry and beg everyone’s forgiveness. But not yet. She set her jaw. I don’t have time to bawl!
* * * *
The ruined castle finally loomed ahead, along with its rickety bridge over the river canyon. The cold wind had cleared every shred of fog, and the view was both majestic and terrifying. The forest spread out below them like a carpet, stretching out to where the brighter fields and orchards of Equestria began. The dark clouds were steadily marching past that boundary, and sheets of rain already smudged patches of the horizon. From the surviving tower in the ruins, a plume of thick, black smoke steadily drifted out to join the clouds above.
“The dragon’s probably the most magical thing the Nightmare could find,” the Doctor was saying. “That makes it weak, so it’s using proxies to attack us.”
Luna nodded slowly. “Do you have any ideas on the ‘right tool’ yet?” she asked.
“Not really. We’ll have to play it by ear.”
Twilight lowered her tiara onto her head, then carefully fastened Rarity’s necklace around her neck. Applejack tossed the last Element to Rainbow Dash and started putting on her own.
“Are you sure you feel steady enough?” Luna asked solicitously as Fluttershy put on her necklace.
Fluttershy carefully nodded past her persistent headache. “I’m fine,” she whispered.
“Ya’d think the dragon coulda pulled down this bridge,” Applejack noted as she stood at the near end of the span.
“Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly,” the Doctor murmured ominously past the sonic screwdriver in his teeth.
Pinkie suddenly yelped, “Twitchy tail!”
“What about my tail?” The Doctor asked, glancing at his rump. A crash echoed from the ruins.
“Incoming!” Applejack shouted as the dragon’s tail exploded through the wall of the ruin and sent a spray of bricks and mortar whirring through the air.
Luna slammed a barrier into place in front of herself and Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash ducked and swerved, laughing at the masonry that failed to touch her. Twilight caught three bricks and a windowsill with her telekinesis.
Applejack shouted, “Down, Doc!” and shoved him down behind her.
Her hat flew off.
Applejack collapsed onto the Doctor.
The dragon that Fluttershy had once tamed roared triumphantly and burst out of the ruins, flames licking from its jaws as it came. “It knows were’re down an Element!” the Doctor shouted over the noise as the ponies regrouped. Luna strained to expand her barrier to cover them all.
The dragon’s mouth opened, but instead of flame, thick, choking smoke flooded the clifftop. It swirled around Luna’s barrier and plunged them into choking gloom. All was still for a few moments except for the heavy rush of wingbeats and the coughs of the ponies caught in the cloud.
A gust of cool night air started to disperse the smoke. The dragon was visible as a shadow against the flickering sky… retreating? The Doctor straightened up. “Oi, where’re you going?” he called. “It had us dead to rights. Why would it just smoke us, and then leave? Unless…”
Then Twilight realized that one bit of smoke wasn’t thinning as it should – a purple-edged cloud that reached hungrily toward her head.
“It didn’t leave!”
* * * *
Somewhere, distantly, ponies were shouting her name.
The star’s heart grumbled hungrily, demanding her terror of the smoke cloud, but Twilight hesitated. She didn’t want to be the pony that attacked the doppelganger. The ball of tangled emotions in her chest quivered. If she didn’t feed it, it promised, it would spit up everything, swamp her in the full comprehension of what she’d done and failed to do.
Then, suddenly, blessed darkness curled around the star. It occluded the rays of pitiless rage and shielded her from the sorrows she’d stored up there. It had been so long since she’d been free of the gnawing guilt, the fear of failure, the weight of duty and responsibility! The darkness protected her from it. It locked away sympathy, kindness, everything that could cause her pain – and yes, her fear of the darkness itself as well. Once that was gone, she embraced the relief gladly. Somewhere far away, the star exploded, but she didn’t have to care anymore. For the first time in days, she felt able to laugh.
So she did.
The ponies stood stunned for a heartbeat, staring at Twilight Sparkle. She felt as light as a feather! For the first time she could remember, there were no doubts, no worries. It was liberating.
In a flash of blue and a disorienting tumble, Twilight found herself pinned beneath Rainbow Dash. “You let go of my friend!” the pegasus shouted in her face. “Twilight! Twi, can you hear me?”
It was only a mediocre effort of will to pull the little foal off of her and send her careening to the ground. “My ears work well enough,” she replied flatly as she climbed to her feet. Interesting – although her raw magical power hadn’t increased, her willpower was more… focused without all those silly doubts clouding her mind. A smirk curled her lips as she thought back to t he book she’d been reading before that stupid blue box appeared and interrupted her. Kanter’s theories made so much more sense now. Willpower was leverage. Rage had given her more power, blinded her to the effort she was expending, but this cold, placid calm allowed her to apply the power she already possessed so much more efficiently! How absurdly simple!
The Doctor’s pleasant voice cut annoyingly across her musings. “Excuse me? Yes? What are you called? Where are you from?” The Doctor was eyeing her cautiously and slowly nudging the other ponies behind him.
Twilight let out an irritated sigh. “Twilight Sparkle, from Canterlot, of course. Now shut up before I shut you up.” Suppose that magic were as analogous to physical law as Kanter posited…
“The Nightmare is thinking with her brain,” he murmured to the other ponies. “It must not have much of a mind of its own, pure stimulus-response. It just seeks out the most, erm, magical creature it can find…” He continued, but Twilight stopped listening.
The most magical creature… Twilight let out a bark of laughter as the last puzzle piece fell into place. “Of course! I see now! I see it all!” Energy can be neither created nor destroyed…The unicorn’s horn began to glow, smoothly extruding a tendril of power toward the Princess. The silly, predictable foal gasped and formed her magic into a barrier between them once more. But that was exactly what she wanted – was not Luna’s magic a part of herself? And had not the Nightmare tasted that magic before? The tendril kissed the barrier and stuck. …only converted from one form to another!
“Luna, no! Wait!” the Doctor cried, far too late. The barrier began to deflate like an untied balloon, the power that formed it flowing along the tendril into Twilight. Luna tried to withdraw her magic, but the connection was already entangled with Twilight’s own energies – a silver-white filament remained, fading to lavender along its length, connecting horn to horn as it leeched the Princess’ enormous reserves of power into Twilight. Luna tossed her head and whinnied fearfully, frozen in place by the improvised spell.
The Doctor tried four settings on his sonic screwdriver in quick succession, to no effect.
“Stop her, Doc! Do something!” Dash urged.
“It’s only a sonic!” he snapped back without a trace of irony. “I’m trying!”
After a few seconds, Luna began to shrink visibly and Twilight’s stature increased in turn. She drew more heavily through the connection, adding the weight of the stolen power to her leverage, increasing the flow. Perhaps Luna could have stopped her at first, if she had known what to do, but now Twilight was the stronger party in this little tug-of-war. A torrent of magical potency flowed into her.
Luna suddenly cried out in pain and spread her wings. They began to shed feathers, which disintegrated and vanished as they fell. Twilight’s shoulders itched. As the last scraps of Luna’s power entered her, a pair of long, violet wings emerged from her shoulders, sprouting feathers as they grew. Twilight fanned the air experimentally. The other ponies could do little more than stare and gape.
At last, Luna’s black circlet drifted up from around her horn, spinning slowly as it floated along the filament. Twilight shook the silly tiara off her head and allowed the crown to settle in its place. She released the spell then, leaving Luna the barest dregs of magic – less, probably, than even that stuck-up tailor possessed. The former princess collapsed as the spell broke contact. But I have no need of a crown, Twilight thought. Perhaps something more… useful. Again, Luna herself provided inspiration. The crown fragmented with a crystalline crack and liquified, half of its mass flowing over her head to form a night-black helmet, while the rest dripped down her neck to become a breastplate. A flourish of magic splashed the center into the shape of the large starburst in her own cutie mark. After all, armor could be stylish as well as functional. Those she once called friends drew back from the lavender reflection of their one-time nemesis, Nightmare Moon.
“Twilight! No!” Pinkie cried in horror. The pain and loss in her voice never reached Twilight – the darkness walled off empathy and regret. It was actually a bit funny.
“‘Twilight Sparkle’. It doesn’t quite seem like the name of a queen, does it?” she thought aloud. “From now on, you may call me… NIGHTMARE DUSK!” She reared and beat her wings, and a bare twitch of will sent a sheet of vivid green lightning forking across the sky behind her. That should look rather dramatic! She wished she could see herself just then.
“I wish you could see yourself right now,” Fluttershy’s soft voice broke in, sounding more disappointed than angry. “You’ve become everything we’ve been fighting against—“
An offhanded flick of power struck the impudent filly across the face and staggered her. “And you’ve grown insolent toward your betters,” she hissed. “I think you should bow to your queen.” She strutted toward the yellow pony with a careless smirk.
Pinkie Pie charged her, fury in her tearful eyes. “The Twilight Sparkle I know would never say something like that! Don’t worry, Twilight, we’ll save yghlf!” She cut off as a whiplike tendril of magic and mist curled around her throat and jerked her off the ground.
I am better than you, Nightmare Dusk thought. I’m smarter than everyone else, more powerful… better! What can you do better than me? She realized after a moment that she was speaking aloud. Fine, let the insects listen. “Clothes? I clothe myself in power manifest, woven from the breath of the stars! Laughter? Don’t make me laugh! Growing apples?” She scoffed. “I can create a forest with a thought, and wipe it away with less!” She dropped Pinkie Pie heavily on top of Rainbow Dash. “None of you are worthy to even look upon me!”
Bandaged and staggering, Rarity limped from behind the group to the Doctor’s side. “No matter. We can stop you!” she hissed past clenched teeth.
Luna dragged herself to her feet, leaning against the Doctor’s other flank, clearly exhausted. “We will stop you. Together!”
Nightmare Dusk glanced toward the tiara laying at her feet. “The Magic of Friendship, Luna?” She stomped one hoof down on it. The tiara crumpled and shattered. “You foal! I am the Element of Magic! Nothing in Equestria can stop me now! I will take Celestia’s power as easily as I took yours, and rule this land for eternity!” Lightning flickered across the sky, tracing invisible cracks. Cracks… her cruel smile spread wider as she focused on the Doctor. “No… I’ve seen the truth. You, Doctor, have shown it to me. How could I ever be happy in this ragged little corner of time and space? I will burst this pretty little cage, and then nothing in the universe can stop me! All things will bend to my desires! I WILL BE A GOD!”
“There’s one thing in this universe that can stop you. And that’s me!” The Doctor stared her in the eye, every trace of humor drained from his face. “This is your one and only chance, Nightmare. Leave Twilight Sparkle, and I promise I will do everything in my power to find a host for you.”
“Insolent worm!” bellowed Nightmare Dusk. She reached for the power of the gathering storm, packing together a sphere of mist shot through with lavender lightning – a tiny, compressed storm cloud. Lightning crackled between her horn and the the storm ball as it grew. “Who do you think you are?!”
“I’m the Doctor.” He pressed the switch on his screwdriver as the ball shot toward him. In the face of the little device’s whine, the storm ball slowed, rippled, and then burst in a blaze of crackling lightning. The Doctor’s face broke out in a sudden smirk. “Hah! Electromagnetic containment. Dead easy to counteract, that!”
Luna shook her head sharply, pushing herself up to stand on her own. “You’re wrong, Nightmare Dusk. Did you think that the spirits of the other five Elements of Harmony just happened to live in the same town? Everyone has an Element within them.” She looked at her friends with a smile, one at a time. “Some are simply more in touch with it than others. My own Element is Magic, as is my sister’s!”
Nightmare Dusk‘s flicker of doubt vanished into the shadow so quickly she barely even registered it. She waved a hoof toward Applejack, still unconscious where she’d fallen. “It doesn’t matter! You’re still short by one Element! Bow before me or die!” A whip of mist stretched out, then swung down toward Luna, the ordinary unicorn.
“You’re not my queen!” A rainbow blur intercepted the whip before the blow could land. Dash took the brunt across her flank and ribs, crashing to the ground at Luna’s feet with a pained wheeze. The tip of the whip curled past her and sliced Luna’s cheek, a tiny line of scarlet across her midnight blue coat.
The mare never flinched. When her eyes opened again, they were the eyes of the ancient sorceress. A trickle of blood ran down her cheek unheeded. “Aren’t you listening, Nightmare Dusk? Everyone has an Element. Would you like to hear what I’ve learned about friendship?” She glanced toward each of the ponies in turn. “Fluttershy was the first to comfort me when I doubted myself. She showed me compassion when even I couldn’t believe in myself.” She strode forward slowly, brushing Dash’s cheek with a comforting hoof as she moved to protect the pegasus. “Rainbow Dash taught me that Loyalty means putting my friends before anything else; my dignity, my dreams, and even my own well-being. Pinkie Pie showed me that true joy is a state of mind that nopony can ever take away from you. I’ve learned that generosity isn’t just about giving people things that you value; it’s putting others first, as Rarity did, without expecting anything in return.”
The fragments of the tiara trembled, then rose into the air. Luna advanced another step, and Nightmare Dusk fell back a pace. What was all this? “You can’t possibly…”
Luna reached out with her remaining scraps of magic, just enough to levitate Applejack’s necklace off and draw it to her. “…And the Doctor, the Element of Honesty, who helped me to see the truth: that no matter what I’ve done in the past, I can be whoever I choose to be!” She slid the necklace around the Doctor’s neck and lightly kissed his cheek as he stood staring at her in surprise.
The fragments of the Element of Magic glided toward Luna and circled her horn, swirling as the tiara reassembled itself. The large jewel in front was no longer a bright purple starburst, but a single clear gemstone in the shape of a gleaming crescent moon!
“Friendship means trust, Nightmare Dusk, and I’ve put my life in their hooves many times now – and they’ve never failed me!”
A brilliant white corona blazed to life around the six ponies and shattered into a spectrum, the individual colors swirling like ribbons in the air. The light was like a physical presence, overwhelming not just vision, but all the senses. It tickled across skin and carried brief scents of home, flavored the air like favorite foods and filled it with a vast chord that wasn’t quite sound. And beneath the chaos of tactile, scented, tolling not-sound came the hum of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, sweeping up and down until it harmonized with the rainbow of light.
* * * *
The ribbons of color united and swirled around Nightmare Dusk, hard as steel fetters and soft as a warm blanket. She heard herself wailing as the light pierced her heart and started to burn away the shadow, but at the same time, some deep corner of herself rejoiced. She started to clutch at the shadow, trying to retain the protection against her own doubt and pain, but then it melted away from her fear and she recoiled from the Nightmare. Little chunks of guilt and pain that the Nightmare had intercepted began to fall out as it withdrew, like stones melting out of a glacier. For a moment she wondered how she could endure the coming avalanche, but the answer presented itself with the swiftness of thought: the rainbow of light was her friends’ deepest feelings incarnate, their love and trust and support. Hush, it seemed to whisper, No need to fear. We won’t reject you. We’ll help you through it. She could almost feel her friend there with her. Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash shoulder to shoulder with her to help her face her fears head-on; Rarity and Fluttershy behind them to advise and comfort when she needed it; Applejack’s solid support behind her when her own strength failed; and Luna, watching over them all from above.
Except that it wasn’t Applejack after all, but an enigmatic, jacket-wearing stallion known only as the Doctor. She smiled. It didn’t matter. Either way, with that warmth wrapped around her, Twilight Sparkle could finally face the avalanche.
* * * *
Twilight’s eyes fluttered open as a heavy, cold raindrop splashed on her nose. She stared dully for a few seconds, watching the increasing rain crater the dust. She became aware of an odd thrumming in the air, the buzzing hum of…
Her throat caught as the avalanche crashed down, but the warm-blanket sensation still lingered – she knew her friends were supporting her. Not just intellectually; she knew it and felt it and believed it. The other ponies were gradually coming around as she had, but the Doctor was already up and gripping his sonic screwdriver firmly in his teeth. A cloud of violet-tinged mist rose from her shattered armor to hover and tremble in the air, trapped by a narrow ribbon of rainbow.
“Hello,” the Doctor said conversationally. “Welcome back! I’ve got it captured for now, but the resonance is fading, so I’d say we have maybe two minutes to do something…”
The rest of the ponies trickled over as they woke in the rain, first a bedraggled Pinkie Pie helping Rainbow Dash, who was nursing a bruised rib, then Applejack, freshly awakened, helping Rarity along in spite of the knot on her own head. Finally, Fluttershy helped the greatly diminished Luna to the group. Twilight’s stomach twisted at that. “Luna, I’m so sorry--”
“Time for that later,” the little unicorn cut her off. “Keep the magic for now; we have to think of something fast!”
They all stared at the little cloud and the ring of rainbow light that hovered over the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. The rainbow clearly faded by the second.
Pinkie Pie perked up. “It eats magic, right? What if you sucked all its magic out?”
Twilight grimaced and physically shuddered, but the Doctor’s muzzle split in a grin. “Of course! How stupid of me!” He smacked himself in the face with a hoof. “Its cohesion is based on controlled pseudo-random fluctuations in the universal probability field!”
The ponies gave him a round of blank stares.
“Errr. It’s held together by magic.”
Twilight snorted. “Why didn’t you just say so?” She closed her eyes, grimacing as the thought back to her… possession. It wasn’t a pleasant memory by any stretch, but she thought of her friends, and somehow, it didn’t seem quite so bad anymore. “I don’t know if I can do this… but I’ll try!”
Twilight’s horn glowed, then exploded with light. A huge aura enveloped its length, stretching out a tendril toward the cloud. She shivered and hesitated before it made contact. What if it got back in? What if the magic was somehow tainted?
“Twilight… quickly, please,” the Doctor said, too calmly. The tendril made contact.
The cloud started to struggle, writhing and throwing out pseudopods as Twilight drew in the magic it had consumed. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” the Doctor said regretfully to the cloud-like creature. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I wish I could find you a safe place to live, but you just can’t understand that.” The cloud steadily shrank, bits tearing off and evaporating. The glow around Twilight’s horn intensified, throwing off showers of violet sparks that briefly matched the rainfall. “I’d do this myself if I could.”
The cloud emitted a shriek that started at hooves-on-a-chalkboard and quickly rose beyond the range of equine hearing. It shrunk down to the size of an apple, then a marble, and then vanished in a tiny puff of violet smoke.
Twilight’s horn was still sparking and glowing, and her head felt ready to split. “Too much… magic…” she grunted past clenched teeth.
Luna put a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “A thousand years of feeding on me… of course it’s too much! You’ve got to get rid of it, Twilight!”
Twilight’s eyes darted around, looking for a receptacle, something, anything--
Her gaze fell on Rarity.
With so much raw power at her disposal, she had to fight to control it rather than to draw up enough energy. Healing the burns themselves was complicated, but she could at least start the process and try to minimize scarring. It would still take a long time to heal completely, but it should be reasonably clean. In the meantime… another spell. This particular spell she knew very well, it just took a lot of strength to make permanent. But that, she had in spades right now. Just a few minor alterations…
The flesh beneath Rarity’s bandages began to glow brightly. Razors of pure force sliced the bandages free, revealing…
Hundreds of tiny white mustaches speckled the burned areas, with even more appearing every moment. They steadily filled in the bare patches, as if somepony were painting hair onto Rarity’s side. Within a minute, she at least looked entirely normal again.
It wasn’t enough. Twilight still strained to contain the magic. “Quick, something else, anything else!”
The Doctor pointed upward. “The universe! Fix the universe!” he shouted.
A pillar of pure lavender light shot skyward into the clouds and spread out, shooting along the “cracks” that the lightning had been following. It raced out in every direction, spreading farther and farther until the entire sky glowed from horizon to horizon. Twilight poured in the power, everything she’d taken from the Nightmare, shaping it into the simplest possible mending spell.
The column thinned and vanished. The sky glow faded. Rarity and Dash stared with their mouths hanging open.
“Did it work?” Dash asked.
As if in reply, a bolt of normal blue-white lightning crackled across the clouds.
* * * *
A celebratory atmosphere reigned in Ponyville, even if most of the populace had no idea what had gone on or why. Princess Luna said Twilight Sparkle and friends were heroes, and so they were. Again.
Applejack patted Pinkie Pie on the back. “You thought of the Nightmare like a jelly doughnut??”
“Uh-huh! I love to suck the filling out of ‘em!” She poured hot sauce over another cupcake and passed it to Luna, now fully restored, who devoured it with every sign of enjoyment. Who knew?
Applejack just shook her head. “Well, that was downright perspicacious of ya!”
Conversation stopped dead within a ten foot radius.
“What?? I’m allowed ta know big words, too!” she added defensively.
Twilight didn’t feel too much like laughing, but she gave it a shot anyway. “Anyway, Dash, I wanted to apologize to everypony individually…”
Rainbow Dash waved a hoof. “Don’t sweat it, Twi! I’ve been known to get a little intense from time to time, too.”
“Yeah, well… I’m not proud of the way I acted. I don’t like who I’ve been lately, and I don’t mean Nightmare Dusk.”
Luna leaned toward them, a few cupcake crumbs still clinging to her lips. “Twilight,” she smiled, “Don’t you remember what I said? You can be whoever you choose to be. All it takes is the desire to change and the will to follow through.”
Twilight leaned in and pressed her neck against Luna’s. “I’ll remember. Thank you, again.”
Rainbow Dash draped an arm across her shoulders. “And we’ll all be here to help you!”
Twilight couldn’t reply because her throat was suddenly too tight. She just barely managed an embarrassed smile.
“Um, excuse me,” Fluttershy said in her loudest mumble as she scurried across the floor. “Oh, dear. You’ve all got to come right away!”
Outside, a lone figure was trotting across the square toward Rarity’s shop. Or rather, the blue box parked beside it. The Doctor tried the handle, and the box opened easily for him.
“You didn’t think you were going to leave without saying goodbye?” Dash demanded from its roof.
The Doctor sighed. “I don’t like goodbyes.”
“Then how about ‘see ya later’?”
“Thank you again,” Twilight added.
“Don’t be a stranger, now!” called Applejack.
Luna caught him and pressed a kiss against his cheek again.“You won’t be forgotten.”
“Au revoir!” Rarity said, waving a handkerchief. “Until we meet again!”
Pinkie Pie pushed a cupcake toward him. “One for the road!”
Rainbow Dash laughed. “Pinkie Pie, you are so random!”
“Have a safe trip,” Fluttershy offered.
He stepped inside. For an instant, a giant rose up in the doorway. “Goodbye.” The door closed and the box began its scraping, rushing noise and slowly vanished into thin air.
Twilight finally burst into tears.
* * * *
Twilight Sparkle sat at her writing desk, surrounded by wadded papers, pen levitating in front of her as she tried to compose her thoughts. She began to write.
Dear Princess Celestia,
Today, I learned that when you’re upset, you mustn’t take out your friends, no matter
She crumpled that paper and tried again.
Dear Princess Celestia,
When you feel bad, you might want t
That sheet joined her other attempts on the floor. She let out a long sigh.
Dear Princess Celestia,
I’m going to have to process this one for a while. I need some aspirin. And a drink.
Your faithful student,
Deep in the Everfree Forest, a fragment of black armor gradually melted into a questing tendril of violet vapor. It crawled across the ground, drifting like mist, until it entered a deep cave. Inside a huge, semi-transparent Ursa Major slept beside its child.
The vapor slid into the smaller bear’s head and it awoke, pupils curiously slitted…
* * * *
The ponies spilled out of the sound stage door laughing and chattering.
“Oh my GOD, that was fun!” Twilight gushed. “I can see why you were so happy to get the villain role in the pilot, Luna!”
“Oh, yeah. It’s always a blast. You get to monologue all over the place and chew the scenery, and everyone loves you for it!”
Twilight shook her head with a rueful grin. “Down side, I’m gonna be picking black paint off my ass for a week.”
Pinkie nudged her with an elbow. “Why don’tcha get that husband of yours to help? Eh? Eh?”
She blushed. “Between his students’ dissertations and his own research, he’s really busy lately…”
Rainbow Dash shook her head as she drifted along just above the ground. “Man, how’d a genius like him get cast as a hayseed?”
“It’s just a bit part, Dash. I mean, all he has to say is ‘eeyup’ and ‘nnnope’. He’s just got the voice for it, is all.”
“And the body,” Rarity put in.
Twilight’s blush deepened. “No comment.” They all laughed.
Fluttershy paused to light her cigarette and take a long drag. “Ahhhh. Jesus H. Christ, all that whispering makes my throat sore!”
Rainbow Dash chuckled. “So is An-hel still upset about the rabbit thing?”
“It’s already recorded, so he can suck it. Anyway, I think he won’t mind so much after this weekend.”
“It’s his birthday, and I’m getting him a stuffed rabbit.”
Dash blinked a couple times. “And this will make him feel better because?”
Fluttershy leered. “I didn’t tell you where I’m gonna be wearing it--”
“TMI!” chorused Dash, Pinkie and Twilight.
Rarity waved and broke off toward the Mercedes in the parking lot. “Have fun at the wrap party, darlings! I’m off to make the other models jealous!”
“Say hi to Hoity for us!”
“Of course I will! Ciao!”
Applejack glared after her. “ ‘Ciao’? She’s from Montana, y’know,” she grumbled.
Dash gave Applejack a one-armed hug. “You look like something’s on your mind.”
Applejack smiled and hugged her back. “I was just thinkin’ about post. Y’all don’t think they’d edit in some crappy ‘Or Is It’ ending at the last minute, do ya?”
Pinkie laughed. “No way, that’d be so lame!”
“Yeah, yer right. Hah!”
Fluttershy paused to finish her cigarette while the rest of them stepped into the club. Music was already thumping somewhere a level below. “Hey, Pinkie,” Twilight asked after a second, “Is Gilda coming to the wrap party tonight?”
“Nah, she’s still working on the banner for the pride parade tomorrow.”
“Ah, that’s a pity. She’s always a hoot to party with!”
Pinkie shrugged. “Yeah, well, it’s important to her.”
“Oh, yeah, sure! You gotta support your S.O.” Twi glanced over her shoulder at Dash and AJ. “You two gonna be marching?”
Rainbow Dash flashed a grin. “You know it!” The group headed down a narrow set of stairs to the basement of the building.
“Derps! You made it!” Luna jogged ahead and hugged the gray mare.
Derpy chuckled. “Of course! It’s too late to fire me now.”
“You were making that face again?” Luna accused.
“You know it! I must do what I can for my fans.”
Twilight snorted. “You mean those internet troglodytes?”
Derpy poked her in the nose. “They prefer the term ‘bronies’. Anyway, I think I’m making progress. Lauren had the CGI department leave the eyes in ‘Pinkie Keen’, and I’ve heard some rumblings about getting my character named on screen!”
AJ stopped dead. “They’re actually gonna call ya Derpy Hooves?”
Dash made a face. “Aw, man, that’s almost even worse!”
Derpy shrugged. “A name’s a name. So who’s the guy with the camera?”
Twilight spun. “What? SHIT! How long have you been recording us?! Turn that thing--“