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The Third Generation

Chapter One

By Candle Light

A cerulean coated pony with a rainbow-colored mane trotted through the streets of this strange new town, taking in the unfamiliar surrounding and the ponies that resided in it. She was glad to have found some form of civilization after hours of aimless wander, but these ponies looked very strange to her eyes. And the fact that some of them would wave at her, casually calling out her name as they passed, was even stranger. At first she had been too surprised to respond to such calls, but she knew she couldn’t avoid interaction much longer. She needed to find out where she was, if she were ever to find a way home.

In the corner of her eye, she saw a lavender unicorn pony leaving a building she surmised from the exterior was a bakery. Their eyes met, and the stranger’s eyes lit up; this was as good an opportunity as any.

“Excuse me, darling,” spoke the cerulean pony. “My name is Rainbow Dash, and I seem to have gotten myself lost. I was wondering if you could be so kind as to tell me where I am.”

The stranger looked at her questioningly, and Rainbow Dash only now noticed her bipedal companion, a small light-purple creature she could not identify, that looked as though it was about to burst out laughing. Which it did. “Good one, Dash! Is this for the theater performance next week, The Wandering Beauty? I thought you wanted to be the troll.”

“I, for one, think you look gorgeous,” said the lavender unicorn, expression softening. Then added, “Did you lose a bet again?”

Rainbow Dash was quite at a loss for words. A theater performance? After a few moments, she managed, “You must be mistaking me for someone else, darlings. I only came to this town just now. Just a few hours ago I was having a tea party with my friends, and then next thing I knew, I was on a field, far from my village. It’s a small miracle I even found this place.”

The creature and the lavender pony exchanged looks, whereas they eyed Rainbow Dash again. “If she’s acting,” remarked the creature, “she’s freakishly good.”

“No Spike, look,” the lavender pony pointed a hoof. “She’s got no wings! And her cutie mark is different!”

“Hey, you’re right!” noted the creature named Spike. Were they referring to the rainbow mark on her flank? A cutie mark? And did she just call him Spike? “Come to think of it, Rainbow Dash would never keep her mane this styled long enough for other ponies to see.”

“We’re sorry,” the lavender pony addressed Rainbow Dash. “It’s just that a friend of ours is also called Rainbow Dash, and she looks very… actually, almost identical… to you.”

“Plus, she wouldn’t be caught dead using the word ‘darling’,” remarked Spike.

Rainbow Dash let out a small laugh. “That’s okay, darlings. This certainly explains why people were waving at me. Quite a coincidence, isn’t it.”

“My name is Twilight Sparkle, and this is my assistant Spike,” she introduced. “He’s a baby dragon. As for where you are, this is Ponyville.”

“Ponyville?” gasped Rainbow Dash. “But darling, I come from Ponyville, and this is looks nothing like it!”

“I’m pretty sure this is the only Ponyville in Equestria though,” said Twilight Sparkle, concern showing on her face.

“Equestria?”

“It’s the name of this land.” She looked positively puzzled now. “You really have no idea where you are?”

“Not a clue, darling,” she told her. “I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened. Everything suddenly went black, and when I regained consciousness, I had this feeling like I was waking up from a long sleep. It took me quite a while for my body to get accustomed to itself.”

“This is getting weirder by the minute,” said Spike. “Maybe we should write to Princess Celestia about this.”

“Oh Spike, we don’t have to bother the Princess for ever little crazy thing that goes on in this town. Maybe she got teleported here from some other country; I read somewhere that long-distance teleportation spells can cause brain damage – even memory loss – if not done properly.”

“Oh my,” said Rainbow Dash, worried, but at the same time somewhat relieved to have found at least a possible explanation. “My head did go for quite the spin, but I do feel fine now.”

“That’s good to hear. At any rate, you should probably come with me to the library. If we can figure out where you woke up, maybe I can trace the spell.”

“So darling of you to lend a helping hand,” said Rainbow Dash. “And if it’s not too much trouble, I would like to meet this friend of yours, the other Rainbow Dash.”

“Sure! If you’d like, we could go see her right now. It’s closer anyway.”

“Much obliged, darling.”

***

“Rainbow Dash!” the cerulean Pegasus pony vaguely caught from below the cloud she was resting on. “Do you have a minute?”

She stretched her legs and smacked her lips, then jumped off the cloud and glided effortlessly to the ground. “Sure, what can I do for you, Twi—whhoaa!”

For all intents and purposes, she might as well have been looking at her long lost twin sister, the only real difference being the mane, which was much curlier and stylized. Both versions of Rainbow Dash only stared, mouth agape. It was the pegasus who broke the silence. “Twilight, why am I looking at myself?”

“I-I do beg your pardon, darling,” said the other, her voice much softer than her own, though now a bit shaky. “But I don’t look anything like you do,” she looked over at Twilight, a frightened expression starting to form on her face, “do I?”

“You kind of do.”

Fright slowly turned to panic. “A mirror! I need a mirror, quickly!”

Twilight looked around. “There’s a pool of water right over there!”

The frightened pony rushed over as quickly as she could, and even from where they stood, the expression of terror consuming her face was plain to see. Then, with a light ‘oooh’, she fainted.

“She certainly doesn’t act anything like me,” remarked the pegasus Rainbow Dash. “What’s the story, Twilight?”

“I don’t know. I only met her a few minutes ago, said she’d gotten lost. She says she's from another Ponyville.”

“But there is no other Ponyville in Equestria!”

“That’s what I told her,” said Twilight, her expression one of contemplation. “I think she may have been magically transported here from someplace far away… but I’ve never heard of a transportation spell that changes your physical appearance.”

“Still think we shouldn’t tell the Princess?” asked the baby dragon.

“Spike, I’m sure she has better things to do than solving our mysteries,” Twilight turned him down. “Besides, I have no doubt she has complete faith in my ability to solve it on my own.”

“I sure hope so. Though we won’t get very far until she wakes up.”

“Good point. Let’s get her to the library.”

***

“You just can’t get around it; she does look an awful lot like you, Rainbow. Y’sure she ain’t a relative o’ yers?”

“Positive! At least, I don’t think I have a long lost sibling from outside the Equestrian borders.”

“Come on, girls, give her some space.”

“It’s alright, Twi’, she’s coming to!”

The first thing Rainbow Dash saw when she opened her eyes was the face of an orange pony with freckles and a friendly smile. “Mighty pleased to meet ya, miss Rainbow Dash. Welcome to Ponyville!” Without warning she grabbed her left front hoof and started shaking it. “Applejack’s the name!”

“Oh… charmed,” she managed, getting to her hooves. “Are… are you one of Twilight Sparkle’s friends, darling?”

But instead of a proper response, Applejack looked as though she was trying holding back a giggle. Which she couldn’t for long. “Ah’m a might sorry miss, but Ah never thought Ah’d hear the word ‘darling’ come outta that face.”

“Nor did I!” the wingless Rainbow Dash agreed, the memories what she has seen in the water pool returning. She suddenly felt weak. “Oh, what in the world is going on, darlings? First I’m separated from my village and my friends, and now I look like somebody else!” Panic was starting to seep through her voice. “What if I’m stuck like this forever? What if I never see my friends again?!”

“Hey, at least it could be worse,” offered the pegasus. “Looking like me isn’t so bad.”

“I think what she meant to say,” corrected Twilight, “was that we’ll all help you get to the bottom of this, and find your friends.”

“Yeah, I was just about to add that,” the pegasus remarked.

“I am very grateful, darlings,” Rainbow Dash said, allowing herself to calm down a bit. She took another moment to eye her new doppelganger: her mane and tail were indeed dyed in the colors of the rainbow, only horribly unkempt. She then cast a glance at the mirror by the bedside, scrutinizing her own appearance, comparing herself to the other. She had to admit, they looked like identical twins.

Her own mane wasn’t much to look at either, she noted. First thing’s first. “Say Twilight, darling, you don’t happen to have a spare comb you could lend me? If I can’t keep my looks, I at least want to keep my style.”

Applejack gave a small laugh. “Are you sure you aren’t Rarity in disguise?”

“Did you say Rarity?!” Rainbow Dash gasped. “Why, I know someone named Rarity!”

There was a silence as the ponies exchanged looks. “The plot thickens,” Twilight said. “Could you describe her?”

“Well, she’s a younger unicorn, her horn barely grown out yet, with a light pink coat, and – ooh, let’s see if I can remember – a multicolored mane of yellow and orange, and a blue tail. She’s a bit of a silly pony, but nevertheless a gentle little darling.”

“Sure doesn’t sound like our Rarity,” said Twilight. “She’d resent being called ‘silly’. What about your other friends? Could you tell us about them?”

“Well, there’s Pinkie Pie…”

We have a Pinkie Pie!” said Twilight, her eyes widening more by the second.

“What about Sweetie Bell?”

“Yes, actually.”

“Scootaloo?”

“Yes!”

“Cherelee?”

“My gosh, yes!”

“I’m telling you, Twilight, the Princess needs to hear about this,” voiced Spike. “This is beyond weird, and right into creepy.”

“I’m starting to think you’re right,” Twilight admitted. “Still, we don’t know whether or not this is just a freak coincidence. Do you know anyone called Twilight Sparkle or Applejack? Or Fluttershy?”

“I do not, darling. But what about Sky Wishes? Or Minty?”

“Well, no,” said Twilight, who now looked more confused than ever. “See Spike, it’s too early to jump to conclusions. First we need to–” but the sentence was cut short by a knock on the front door. “Let me go get that,” she excused herself and ran down the stairs.

The moment Twilight was gone, Rainbow Dash soon found her supposed doppelganger’s face barely an apple’s length away from hers, as she was put to curious scrutiny. She circled around her, viewing her body from every angle. “At least your Cutie Mark is different. And your hair is all spiffed up and stuff.”

“But darling, I haven’t given it a brush in hours, and now it’s all tangled up,” she rebutted.

“Yeah, I don’t usually brush my hair,” admitted the other, earning a gasp from the earth pony. “Seriously, you’re Rarity to a tee!”

“Well, I would certainly like to meet this Rarity of yours. Maybe there is a connection.”

“She’s right there,” Applejack pointed with a hoof. Twilight had returned with the new visitor: a snow white unicorn with a twirling purple mane. She instantly knew why the others had likened her with this pony: this was obviously someone who cared about her looks. Right now, however, her mouth was agape, her eyes shifting from one Rainbow Dash to the other.

“T-t-two Rainbow Dashes?” she stammered.

“I’m the real one, by the way,” said the blue pegasus with a hoof in the air.

Rarity walked up to them, glancing over at her friend, then to the newcomer, giving her the same scrutiny the pegasus had. Rainbow Dash felt it might be appropriate to introduce herself. “Hello, darling. I’m, uh, Rainbow Dash. So pleased to meet to.”

“Likewise!” she returned, not dropping the surprise in her voice. “Twilight, what in Celestia’s name is this?”

“We don’t know yet. Only that she turned up about an hour ago, doesn’t know anything about Equestria, and says she’s from another Ponyville where there are other ponies named Rarity and Pinkie Pie, among others we know.”

“My stars!” Rarity whispered, her gaze constantly shifting between the two Rainbow Dashes. “I didn’t know there was another Ponyville outside of Equestria. You two simply must be related somehow; you are just uncanny! Minus the mane, of course.”

“How could we be?” the winged one protested. “As far as I know, all of my family roots are Equestrian.”

“Well I simply can’t think of any other explanation.” Rarity turned her attention to the earth pony. “However did you get all the way here? Don’t you remember?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t got a clue, darling,” the cerulean pony replied. “One moment I was at home, and the next I was someplace else. And I didn’t use to look like your friend here, I’ll have you know.”

“You didn’t?” spoke the white unicorn, blinking twice. “That’s a piece of magic I’ve never heard of before. Oh, you poor darling!” Her tone changed from shock to sympathy. “This must all be so traumatizing for you. If there is any way at all I can help, don’t you hesitate to ask. We’ll help you set this straight, don’t you worry.”

“Thank you, darling. Your concern means a lot.”

At this point, the other Rainbow Dash was groaning. “If I have to hear the word ‘darling’ one more time…”

“Oh don’t listen to her,” Rarity dismissed. “Now, if you have nowhere else to go, you are more than welcome to stay with me for as long as you need. I have more than enough room in my fashion boutique, no trouble at all.”

Rainbow Dash lit up. “You run a fashion boutique, darling? How lovely; so do I! I can tell from that fabulous mane of yours that you know a thing or two about dressing in style.”

“Why thank you!” Rarity grinned from ear to ear, her voice almost giddy as she spoke. “I daresay we are going to get along just fine, you and I.”

“Yeah, whatever,” said the other Rainbow Dash. “By the way, shouldn’t we tell Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy about this? You know what, I think I’ll go tell Fluttershy right now.” And with that, she pushed opened the window and took off into the sky.

“Oh my,” the remaining Rainbow Dash spoke. “Was it something I said?”

“Nah, she just needs some time to get her head together,” Applejack offered. “Seeing her own splitting image musta spooked her more than she cares to admit.”

“I am so sorry for causing such a stir,” Rainbow Dash apologized. “And I truly do appreciate everyone’s help.”

“Think nothing of it,” assured Twilight Sparkle. “But she’s right; we should probably go introduce you to Pinkie Pie. If nothing else, she’ll be more than happy to throw a cheer-up party for you.”

“Your Pinkie Pie likes to throw parties?” Rainbow Dash felt hope return. “Why, so does mine!”

“Then the sooner you meet her, the better. Come on, everypony!”

***

No sooner did Sugarcube Corner come into view did the Pink energetic party pony approach them. “There you are!” She looked even more excited than usual. “You’ll never guess what happened! There’s a new pony in town, but not just anypony! She looks just like me, but she’s not me, but she looks so much like me that she could be me! And guess what’s more—”

“Slow down, Pinkie,” interrupted Twilight, trying to process the onslaught of words. But before she could, Rainbow Dash spoke up.

You’re Pinkie Pie, darling? Where is she? Where’s the new pony?”

At this, the excitement in Pinkie’s face diminished slightly as she looked curiously at Rainbow Dash. And then it returned in full force. “Ohmygosh, Rainbow Dash too?! This is so incredibly super-duper exciting! I’m gonna have to throw a double party now!”

“Just show us to her, Pinkie,” urged Twilight.

An extra hyper Pinkie Pie led them into the bakery. There, by the counter, was another pink pony that – although not quite as uncanny as was the case with Rainbow Dash – had very similar facial features to Pinkie Pie. The biggest difference was her mane: lighter pink and shorter, not to mention a lot less poofy. Her eyes widened as she saw her counterpart with her group of friends. “Look, Pinkie!” said Pinkie Pie, giggling as she said her own name. “These are some of my friends I told you about! And guess what, Rainbow Dash here is a lookalike too! Isn’t that wild?”

Twilight’s gaze fixed on the other Pinkie, then at the ‘real’ Pinkie, and then at Rainbow Dash, whose mouth was agape. “Pinkie Pie?” she spoke quietly. “Is it really you?”

The other Pinkie Pie only stared at Rainbow Dash in utter amazement. Then her whole face shone up. “Rainbow Dash! Yes, it’s me!”

“Oh, darling!” they met half way, where they exchanged a hug. “My stars,” her voice was starting to crack, “you have no idea how worried I was! I was starting to think I would never see you again!”

“There there,” said her pink friend, patting her on the shoulder. Much like the Rainbow Dash, her voice sounded nothing alike her counterpart’s; this Pinkie Pie had a raspier tone, and not quite as energetic. But it didn’t lack kindness. “I was pretty scared myself, to be honest. But this Pinkie Pie here was really nice to me, offered me a place to stay, let me taste all kinds of sweets; she even said she would throw a party for me!”

The two of them let go of each other. “I’m just so happy we found each other, darling. It’s been one crazy event after another.”

“I’d say! What happened to us? None of us look like we used to, and there are people that look just like us! And I don’t remember my hooves being so stiff. How am I supposed to grab things with these?”

“My gosh, you’re right!” Rainbow Dash flapped one of her front hooves in the air, staring at them with concern in her eyes. “This doesn’t feel right at all.”

“Don’t worry, you two,” said Twilight, not sure what they were on about, “we’ll do everything in our power to figure out what’s going on, or my name isn’t Twilight Sparkle!”

“We could, I dunno, ask the one pony who might know anything about this stuff,” remarked Spike.

“Fine, Spike,” Twilight gave in. “If we can’t figure this out by tomorrow, we’ll write a letter to the princess, deal?”

“The princess?” asked the alternate Pinkie Pie. “You’re not talking about Princess Rarity, are you?”

“Well, I would hardly call myself a princess, but thank you for saying so.”

“Uh, Rare, Ah don’t think she meant—”

“I know, Applejack; it was a joke.”

“Princess Celestia is the ruler of Equestria,” Twilight explained. “She’s the one raising the sun everyday. You didn’t even know that?”

“I certainly did not,” Rainbow Dash told her with bemusement. “Raising the sun? Sounds more like a Goddess to me.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Twilight said. “She also happens to be my mentor. I’m staying in Ponyville by her decree, studying the magic of friendship.”

“Oh my! I never realized you were such an important pony.”

“It’s nothing to brag about, really,” said Twilight, maintaining her modesty. “But as the princess’ personal student, I promise that you are in good hooves.”

“Great, now that we have that settled,” said the hyper-Pinkie, “I need to get started on the party! Ooh, we’re gonna need double the balloons now. Better get busy.”

“Actually, I was thinking it would be best if we took these two to see Zecora,” suggested Twilight, “and that you and Rainbow Dash came along.”

“But that would give me less time to plan my party!”

“I’ve seen you shoot parties out of a cannon! You don’t need all day for one party.”

“Duh, these are Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash from another dimension! I want this party to be a super fantastically fabulously amazing party!”

“We don’t know where they’re from,” reminded Twilight. “That’s why we need to see Zecora; she’s traveled far, so she might be able to tell us what lies beyond the Equestrian borders, and if there’s really another Ponyville out there.”

“Don’t ya think these two need some rest, though?” Applejack pointed. “Hay, if Ah were in their horseshoes, Ah sure wouldn’t wanna go off into the Everfree Forest first thing I did. Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

“That’s okay, darling,” Rainbow Dash told her. “If this Zecora fellow can help us find home, the sooner the better, I say.”

“Agreed,” said alternate Pinkie Pie. “We can throw the party when we get back. If we both work together, we’ll get it done in no time.”

“A Double Pinkie Pie Party?” contemplated hyper-Pinkie. She smiled contently. “Double the fun! Let’s do it!”

“Do you wanna help out, Rainbow Dash?” asked her pink friend.

“If you don’t mind, darling, I’d rater leave it up to you two.”

“Ah’d love to help out, Twi,” said Applejack, “but Ah got plenty o’ apples that needs sellin’. ‘Sides, Ah’d rather not go into the Everfree if Ah can help it.”

“I very much agree,” Rarity concurred. “And I would very much like to finish my new design this afternoon. I only ever came by to borrow a book on cross-stitching to begin with.”

“That’s okay, you two, just me will be enough,” offered Twilight. “Now, all we need to do is find Rainbow Dash, and we’re all set.”

“But she’s right here,” the straight maned Pinkie pointed.

“No, darling, she was referring to the other Rainbow Dash.”

“Oh. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.”

Twilight resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Anyway, we’d better get going. It’s not terribly far, but the forest can be a dangerous place if you don’t know where to go.”

***

Applejack and Rarity went their separate ways as Twilight led the two newcomers through town, towards Fluttershy’s cottage, where she expected to find her friends. They didn’t need to go quite so far, however, as they spotted the two pegasi in the air halfway. Twilight waved them down.

Fluttershy’s eyes, just like everypony else’s had, widened in surprise. “Oh my, she does look like you.”

“So nice to meet you, darling,” the earth pony Rainbow Dash replied. “I’m sure you’ve heard all about me at this point, but let me formally introduce myself. I’m Rainbow Dash.”

“Oh… m-my name is Fluttershy,” the yellow pegasus managed, as though confused as to whether or not to treat her like a stranger.

“Good thing we ran into you, Dash,” said Twilight, “you need to come with us to Zecora’s.”

“What?! But I got weather duties in twenty minutes!”

“Whatever happened to clearing the skies in ten seconds flat? This won’t take long; you want to get to the bottom of this too, right?”

“Of course I do, but I don’t wanna be…” but the rest of her sentence was lost as she then laid eyes on the Pinkie Pies. She gave her head a rough shook, then rubbed her eyes, blinking. “Pinkie Pie? You too?!”

“Uhm, nice to meet you?” the less poofy-maned Pinkie Pie greeted. “I’m… Pinkie Pie?”

“Buh… what is… I don’t even…” the blue pegasus stammered, her eye muscles twitching. She heaved a deep sigh. “You’re right, Twilight. We need to get to the bottom of this. Has anypony else found their clone?”

“No, just you and Pinkie,” said Twilight. “You two don’t know any other Fluttershy, do you?” The two doppelgangers shook their heads. “See? I don’t think it’s as simple as somepony going around cloning us. I do hope Zecora has an answer.”

“The Princess might,” suggested the pegasus.

“I know, but she’s our last resort,” Twilight told her, hoping she would be the last one to tell her to contact the princess. “Besides, if there’s anyone who knows her stuff about far away lands, it’s Zecora.”

***

“Woah, this place sure is spooky,” Rainbow Dash’s pink friend noted. “And it’s the middle of the day!”

“No joke, darling. Twilight Sparkle, are you sure this is the right way?”

“I’m sure. Don’t worry, we won’t stray too far from the road.”

While it did help to reassure her, it certainly didn’t do away with the creeping feeling of unease she felt from these woods. Several instances she had caught something in the corner of her eye and jumped, and each time Twilight had told her to be careful where she looked, in case there was a Cockatrice – a creature that could turn living beings into stone. Eager for something to avert her focus, she decided to start a conversation with the pony walking next to her, which incidentally happened to be her rainbow-maned lookalike. “Say, darling, what did you mean when you said you had ‘weather duty’?”

“Don’t pegasi take care of the weather where you’re from?”

“Until a few months ago, I didn’t know pegasi existed,” Rainbow Dash admitted. “And the weather is handled all by mother nature herself, thank you very much.”

“Seriously? So it’s like one big Everfree over there?”

“Most certainly not, darling! It is a peaceful and welcoming place, utterly unlike where we are now.”

“This is so fascinating,” said Twilight. “Wherever you’re from, it must be far beyond Celestia’s rule… and yet you speak the same language as us. If we could figure this out, it would be a breakthrough in geographical studies!”

“But Twilight,” said the energetic Pinkie Pie, “they look just like me and Rainbow Dash, and they’re from a place called Ponyville that isn’t this Ponyville! They must be from a parallel dimension!”

“That’s ridiculous,” rebutted Twilight, letting out a small laugh, as if trying to convince herself. “Ponies have been trying to prove the existence of other dimensions for centuries, and it’s never been done.”

“Whatever you say, Twilight. But I got a rattling tooth that says otherwise.”

“Oh my, darling, maybe you should go see a dentist.”

“No, that’s just her Pinkie senses,” the other Rainbow Dash replied for her. “Supposedly her body parts twitching and shaking predicts the future. Scary thing is, she’s usually right.”

“That sounds like my Pinkie Squink!” said Pinkie Pie. Her face then lit up. “My Pinkie Squink! That’s it! I’ll think a squink!”

“Oh, that’s right, darling! It’s sure to tell us what to do!”

“A Pinkie what-now?” Twilight inquired.

“First I squish, then I wink, and then I think! I’ll show you!” The group came to a halt, the other four sets of eyes on Pinkie Pie. She began shaking her head to and fro, throwing her hair in every direction, then began hopping around in a circle, until she squished herself down on all four. She rose, shaking her head some more, then closed her eyes. After a few moment of silence, she opened them and gave the group a wink.

The only reply was more silence. Until her counterpart happily burst out, “What a cool dance! I gotta remember that one!”

“No darling, you don’t understand!” said Rainbow Dash. “There’s supposed to be sparkles from her hair, forming a pink cloud that shows us a solution to our problems!”

“This is so strange,” said Pinkie, her face crestfallen. “I look different, but I’m still Pinkie Pie, right? Why won’t it work?”

“Strange is right,” said the blue pegasus, looking skeptical. “That’s something you two have in common.”

“Ooh, oh, maybe if I tried it!” The hyperactive party pony began shaking her head in a mimicking motion to the dance, then in an exaggerated motion fell sprawling to the ground, only to repeat the motion, ending with a wink. “Nothing? Oh well.”

“I’ve never heard of any spell like that, much less from an earth pony,” Twilight thoght out loud. “Of course, it could be a residual type magic… I’ve read that some places have a higher concentration of magic in the air than others, but nothing that would affect a spell… come on, the sooner we get to Zecora’s the better.”

They didn’t have to walk very far until they arrived at a clearing, in the middle of which was a strange-looking hut seemingly carved out of a tree.

“I suppose I should have asked beforehand,” said Rainbow Dash, “but who is this ‘Zecora’?”

“She’s a Zebra, and an herbalist. She knows a lot about, well, everything; if she can’t tell us anything about this situation, no one can.”

“Except maybe the princess.”

“Shush, Spike.”

“A Zebra? I’ve never heard of such creature.”

“She’s not that different from us ponies,” said Twilight. “You’ll see.” She knocked on the door. It opened only moments later and a head popped out that made Rainbow Dash take a step back. Her nuzzle was black, yet the area around her crooked eyes was white, and her black and white mane was standing up straight from her forehead and down. She was wearing golden earrings, as well as three golden rings around her neck.

Like expected, her smile changed to a surprised expression when she set eyes on her and Pinkie Pie. “What is this before my eyes? Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie appear before me twice!”

“That’s kinda why we’re here,” Twilight explained. “These two showed up only a few hours ago, no clue where they were or how they got here.”

“Hmm,” the Zebra said, eyeing the two strangers with the familiar faces. “I think it’s best you come inside. Don’t worry, my friends, I am on your side.”

“Thank you most kindly, darling,” said Rainbow Dash graciously, trying her best to hide her nervousness. While Twilight explained things to the Zebra, Rainbow Dash had a look around the hut; bottles were stocked onto shelves carved into the walls, around which decorative masks had been hung. In the center of the room was a big cauldron hung over a fire, its inside filled with some green bubbly substance.

“Your story to me is quite a riddle. Fetch me that bottle, the one in the middle,” she pointed a hoof at one of the shelves, and then suddenly Twilight’s horn and said bottle were engulfed by a purple aura. It flew off the shelf on its own accord, the aura vanishing as Zecora grabbed it with her mouth and poured the content into the brew. Rainbow Dash knew she had just witnessed magic, but none of her unicorn friends had ever used it for such everyday purposes. “You’re in luck, I was just preparing a stew; with this potion, it will turn it into a magic brew. But for the spell to work, you both need to share, something of yourselves, perhaps a strand of hair.”

“Beg your pardon, darling?” said Rainbow Dash, taking a step back. “You want me to tear a piece of my hair and put it in this… ‘brew’ of yours?”

“Just a few strands will do. Without it, we cannot complete the brew.”

“But darling, does it have to be my hair?”

“Oh for pony’s sake, just give her the hair!” urged the pegasus Rainbow Dash, and before she could stop her, she took a bite into her mane and pulled off six or so strands. The cerulean earth pony looked at her in shock; the other rolled her eyes and dropped the strands into the cauldron. “Look, I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to worry about our manes right now.”

“But you didn’t have to yank it out like that!” Rainbow Dash eyed her with a hurt look. She was starting to fear this supposed doppelganger was going to prove more disagreeable than she had hoped.

“She’s right, y’know, there’s no need to pull her hair,” Twilight defended. “Here, Pinkie Pie, let me get that for you.” Once again she set her horn aglow, gently pulling three strands of hair out of her friend’s light pink mane, levitating them into the stew. “There. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s this brew for?”

“If what you say is true, then we need to find out, just what these ponies are all about,” the Zebra rhymed, a habit Rainbow Dash found most peculiar, but also rather endearing. “If they come from afar, their life-force is of another kind. We may learn from where they hail, if we have a look into their mind.” The brew then gave off a sudden boom, startling everyone in the room except Zecora. The contents of the cauldron had now adopted a red hue. Zecora shuffled some dirt from the floor onto the fire to put it out. “It appears it is ready for a taste. Now let us hope the potion did not go to waste.”

“We really do appreciate your help, Zecora,” thanked Twilight.

“Think nothing of it, my little pony friends. Now take a sip, before the magic ends.”

“From the cauldron?” asked Pinkie Pie. “It does look awfully hot.”

“It will not burn your tongue, worry not. The potion made sure the brew is no longer hot.”

“If you say so, darling.” Rainbow Dash walked over to the cauldron, glancing down at the red-shining substance inside, and took a sip. On her left, Pinkie Pie did the same. It was a spicy taste, but nothing more than a tickle to the tongue.

She was about to ask what was suppose to happen when Zecora put her front hooves of Rainbow Dash’s and Pinkie Pie’s foreheads, balancing on her hind legs. Her eyes were closed, looking as though she was concentrating hard on something. Almost a minute passed in silence, until Zecora abruptly took a step back, frantically mumbling something in a language Rainbow Dash could not understand. She looked worried, frightened even. “Whatever is the matter, darling?”

“Your life-force is the same as those of Ponyville, but behind the exterior lurks something ill. The Princess must know, to stall we can’t afford, for the energy I sensed is the one of Discord!”

The word did nothing but confuse the newcomer Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie further, even more so as the other ponies gave them looks of utter shock and fright, backing away from them. “B-b-but that can’t be!” stammered Twilight. “We used the Elements of Harmony to lock him away in stone!”

“Discord? Elements of Harmony? What in all things rainbow are you all going on about?”

“Discord is the meanest mean-bean meanie in the world! He turned Ponyville upside down – and created cotton candy clouds, which was kind of nice – but then he turned us all against each other!”

“He’s an ancient spirit of chaos,” Twilight told them. “He escaped from his prison not long ago, and it took all we had to turn him back into stone. It almost broke us…”

“Spirit of chaos?!” exclaimed Rainbow Dash. Of all the unnatural things she had endured today, this was by far most shocking. “We’re the spirit of chaos?!” And so for the second time that day, Rainbow Dash fainted.


The Third Generation

Chapter Two

By Candle Light

“Stay calm, there is no need for alarm,” the Zebra said. “I sensed chaos within them, but they cannot yet do harm. I doubt they’ll grow to be another Discord or Nightmare Moon, but nonetheless, Celestia must be informed soon.”

Twilight mind was frantically trying to piece it all together. The newcomers had appeared out of nowhere, from another Ponyville, and apparently shape-shifted into near-copies of the ponies who shared their names. And Zecora sensed Discord within them? Maybe Pinkie Pie was right; maybe they were from another dimension.

“I tried to tell you,” remarked Spike, pulling out a scroll and a quill from under his scales. “Just tell me what to write.”

“Not now, Spike! I need to collect my thoughts.”

“Uhm,” the less poofy-maned Pinkie Pie spoke up in a timid tone in her voice that reminded more of Fluttershy than Pinkie Pie. “Please don’t hate us. Whatever we did, we’re sorry.”

“Nobody hates you,” Twilight assured. “We’re just, well, surprised by all this.”

“Surprised is an understatement,” added the pegasus Rainbow Dash. “Look, we’re sorry, Pinkie…”

“That’s okay, Dashie,” hyper-Pinkie said gleefully. “We’re cool.”

“Not you! Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be! What I’m saying is, you’re probably more shocked about this than we are; it’s just that Discord is a bit of a sore subject for all of us.”

“Okay… so, what’s gonna happen to us now?”

“That’s for Princess Celestia to decide,” said Twilight. “For now, we go back to Ponyville, get you settled. I’ll write the letter as soon as we get back; I suspect she will want to summon you to the castle.”

“Let’s not forget about the party!” the poofy-maned Pinkie Pie interjected. “You said you’d help me prepare it, remember!”

“Oh yeah!” the other Pinkie Pie remembered, breaking a smile. “We could sure use one after all this gloomy talk.”

Twilight was torn on the idea. While they sure needed something to take their minds of things, her instincts told her she ought to hit the library, try to find out all she could about Discord... but of course, knowing Pinkie Pie, there would be none of that. Then there was the matter of explaining this to the rest of Ponyville. Even omitting recent revelations, the whole thing was still a bit freaky. She supposed they could try passing them off as relatives to Pinkie and Dash; if nothing else, one could tell them apart by their manes.

At this point, the other Rainbow Dash was regaining consciousness. “Oh, darlings,” she muttered, “I had the strangest dream.” But the moment she saw Zecora and Twilight, her expression instantly spoke terror.

“It’s okay, Rainbow Dash,” said her pink friend, giving her a comforting smile. “They don’t hate us or anything. We’re going to have a party soon, and then we’re going to see the Princess!”

“A-a-a party?” replied the cerulean earth pony. “How can you still be thinking about the party? We need to find our friends! And if we embody the spirits of chaos…!”

“Look, we’re not sure of anything yet,” Twilight tried to calm her. “The princess will know what to do; for now, let’s just head back to Ponyville. You two could use some rest, I’m sure. Thanks again for everything, Zecora.”

“You are quite welcome, Twilight dear. If you ever need my help, know that I’m always near.”

***

The trip back to Ponyville passed mostly in silence, which pegasus Rainbow Dash found uncomfortable. Her clone still seemed shaken, but once or twice she would ask a question or two about Ponyville or the forest, still repeating the word ‘darling’ in every sentence. Rainbow Dash herself couldn’t quite put her hoof on it, but the whole ordeal made her very uneasy. She knew full well that none of this was the fault of the two newcomers, but all the same, she could barely stand to look at them. As soon as they had exited the forest, Rainbow Dash excused herself, flying back towards her home in the clouds. The other pegasi could do her job for one day; she needed some alone time.

But fate had other plans, as she heard Fluttershy calling from the ground below. Too late she realized she had flown over her cottage. Part of her wanted to ignore her and fly away, pretend she hadn’t heard her, but eye-contact was already met, and she felt that would be a little too head-strong even for her. Besides, Fluttershy was already on her way up to meet her.

“How did it go?” asked Fluttershy, a worried look on her face. “Was Zecora able to tell you anything?”

“Yeah, apparently they’ve got Discord’s magic in them.”

Fluttershy’s eyes widened in terror, her flapping becoming irregular. “D-d-discord? B-but how? Why?”

“I don’t know, okay?!” Dash shot, a bit more fierce than she had intended. Noticing that her friend was starting to have trouble keeping herself airborne, she motioned for them to descend. When they touched the ground, she said, “I’m sorry, Fluttershy. Everything’s just been so… bizarre lately.”

“I can only imagine,” said Fluttershy compassionately, having calmed herself a bit. “All the more if Discord is behind this. Did Zecora say anything else?”

“Only to contact the princess as soon as possible. Twilight’s on it as we speak.”

“That’s good. I think you’d better go home and get some rest. You don’t look so good.”

Dash bit her lip. She hated showing her weak side to Fluttershy – she had done her best to avoid the subject during the earlier visit today – but truth to be told, she needed somepony to talk to. “Oh Fluttershy, I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she opened up to her friend. “Whenever I see that… clone, I get annoyed. She looks just like me, but she acts just like Rarity. It’s like her very existence is mocking me.”

“You don’t have a problem with Rarity, do you?” asked Fluttershy worriedly.

“Rarity’s fine, because she isn’t trying to be me,” Dash replied. But then she shook her head. “And neither does she. I know it’s not her fault, and that she’s probably way more weirded out than I am – she’s fainted twice already! – but it’s like whenever I look at her, I see what I could have become… gosh, when did I become so petty?”

“You’re not petty, Rainbow Dash, we all have our rough days,” Fluttershy comforted. Being her oldest friend, she always seemed to know just the right things to say. “Your cutie mark isn’t just for show, you know; you’re the bravest pony I know. You know what I think? You should go talk to this girl, get to know her better. Just because you have the same name and appearance, it doesn’t mean you’re the same person. It’s the inside that counts, right?”

“You know what, you’re right! I can’t avoid her forever. I’ll talk to her at the party tonight.”

“Pinkie Pie is throwing a party tonight?”

“She didn’t tell you yet? Both of them are, actually. That’s gotta be interesting, at least. Anyway, thanks for listening. You’re a real pal.”

“Not at all,” replied her yellow-coated pegasus friend, giving her a hug. “You know I’m always there for you when you need me.”

***

“And over there is Ponyville’s Retirement Center,” said Rarity, pointing with a hoof. “Be mindful of that hill though, things tend to come rolling down from there. They ought to set up a fence or something, if you ask me, but the residents up there say it’s ‘part of their image’”

“Oh my,” spoke Rainbow Dash. After a quick nap at Rarity’s boutique – a magnificent establishment indeed – the pearl-white unicorn had been kind enough to take her on a tour around Ponyville. “Your town certainly does have everything, doesn’t it?”

“We have what we need to get by,” Rarity replied. “This place is just a backwater town compared to places like Canterlot, or Manehattan.”

“It’s much bigger than the Ponyville I’m used to, I assure you. I would much like to see this ‘Canterlot’ someday.”

“It’s right over there!” Rarity pointed to a distant, where what looked like a white castle could be seen perched on the mountain. “That’s where all the high-society folks live.”

“Such as Princess Celestia?”

“Exactly! They know my name up there, I’ll have you know. Though it does help being best friends with the Princess’ personal protege.”

“You do have the air of a royalty,” Rainbow Dash admitted. “I was a princess too, once, but despite what my friends like to believe, I’m hardly befitting of such a title.”

“Why, whatever happened, dear?”

“It’s a funny story, really; my friend, Wysteria, found an ancient flower that crowned her a Princess, but once she realized it did nothing but isolate her from her friends, she declared everyone in Ponyville a princess. That was months ago, and the fad has long since gone.”

“I see,” said Rarity, seemingly unsure of how to react to the story. “I didn’t know Princesses weren’t allowed to have friends. Or that a flower could grant you’re the privilege…”

“Oh, no one is quite sure what goes on inside Spike’s head.” She took note of Rarity’s incredulous look, and added. “He’s Ponyville’s local sage, a dragon of immense knowledge. That’s right!” she suddenly realized, “Twilight’s baby dragon was called Spike as well, was he not?”

“Yes… quite a coincidence, isn’t it,” said Rarity, giving off a nervous laugh. “Speaking of coincidence, didn’t you say there was a Princess Rarity where you’re from?”

“Only until the next Rainbow Celebration. But she’s not from Ponyville; she lives in the Rainbow Castle of Unicornia.”

Rarity blinked, giving Rainbow Dash a blank expression. “Unicornia?”

“Why, yes, Unicornia. Where I come from, each type of pony has their own home land. We’re all good friends, but we don’t share a village like you do.”

“That’s interesting,” Rarity said, looking more and more dumbfounded. “According to the history books, Unicornia was the name the Unicorn Princess wanted to dub this land before the tribes united to found Equestria. Of course, Unicornia is rather generic name, so it could just as well be a coincidence… but then, what hasn’t been a coincidence lately.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” the local Pinkie Pie said, popping out of a trash can. A banana peel hung from her mane. “These two are from another dimension! And the party’s almost ready, by the way. You might wanna show up before it gets too crowded.” She jumped out of the trash can and skipped off around the corner. Rainbow Dash exchanged looks with Rarity, who looked alarmingly unalarmed.

“Does she always do that?”

“Yes. Yes she does. I think it’s best we get going; she doesn’t like it when we’re late.”

***

The newcomer Pinkie Pie stepped back to admire her work. She and her sister-in-name-and-looks had proved an excellent team; while she herself had a knack for organizing and designing the decorations, the other Pinkie Pie had been an extremely fast worker putting them up just where she wanted them. It also helped that they were on the same wave-length, their opinions seldom clashing, and when they did, the other Pinkie often let her have her way. She still wasn’t used to carrying stuff in her mouth, but she was slowly learning.

“Wow!” the other pink party pony admired. “It looks amazing! I’ve never seen a party with quite much pink!”

“Pink is a great color, wouldn’t you agree?” said Pinkie Pie. “You use it surprisingly little for someone named Pinkie Pie.”

“Oh, I like all colors. My favorite depends on what mood I am. Right now it’s is blue. No, yellow, yellow! But pink is fine.”

Getting used to her other’s hyperactive nature had admittedly been difficult at first. When the other Pinkie Pie had first discovered her lost in a forest of apple trees, she had grabbed her by the mane, flung her up on her back and rushed into the store, making her promise to stay hidden in there, and then started bombarding her with questions. But now that she had gotten to know her better, she found these traits amusing. She always had a joke to crack, and her constant positive nature was hard not to absorb. Still, being with her for so long had wore her out; as much as she looked forward to the party, she found herself longing instead for a soft bed to collapse in.

It wasn’t long before their friends started to show up, first of all being…

“Oh darlings, this looks simply smashing!” commended Rainbow Dash, looking around the room. “A bit monotonous for my taste, of course, but your mastery of pink never ceases to amaze me.”

“I have to say, I quite adore what you did with the banner,” added Rarity. “Seven shades of pink in heart shapes within one another, how clever.”

“Boy howdy!” came another voice from the door. “Ah haven’t seen this much pink since… just now, Ah reckon. Ah do apologize for mah manners earlier; ah plum forgot to introduce mahself. The name’s Applejack, and Ah work the apple farm ‘round these parts. Best apples you’ll ever find in all of Equestria.”

“And I’m Fluttershy,” introduced the yellow pegasus beside her. “I run an animal shelter just outside of town.”

“Happy to meet both of you,” said Pinkie Pie. “I’m Pinkie Pie, but I guess you knew that already.”

“Good thing your mane is so different,” Fluttershy commented. “Otherwise we couldn’t tell you two apart.”

“Ohmygosh, you’re right! Pinkie, we need to fluff up your mane! Just think of all the parks pull if everypony thinks there are two of us! We could be at two places at once!”

“Pranks?” repeated Pinkie Pie. “No offense, but I’d rather keep my mane as it is. I think it’s a good thing people can tell us apart.”

“Ah vote for that,” agreed Applejack. “Confusing enough as it is.”

“Aww,” the Pinkie Pie with the fluff expressed her disappointment, but was soon distracted as she caught sight of the first guests. “Ohh, there they come! Come here Pinkie, stand right here, beside me. And remember to greet them with a smile, just like this!”

Pinkie Pie did her best to emulate her lookalike’s expression, and soon found herself just as amused when the ponies stopped in their track, gasped and stared. All the questions that were inevitably thrown at them were answered by giggles from the other party pony, or a vague response like ‘you’ll see’. When she deemed that enough guests had arrived, and every eye was on them, she put on her announcing voice. “Welcome, everypony! This is my distant cousin from distant village, and she’ll be staying here for awhile. Can anypony guess her name? It’s Pinkie Pie! Can you believe it? I sure can’t!”

“Nice to meet you, every…pony,” greeted Pinkie Pie back.

“But enough about that, let’s party!” As per magic, bass-heavy music started playing, and it wasn’t long before it drew the attention away from her. Some started dancing, others were hitting the refreshments, while some remained to ask her more questions. Where did she come from again? What brought her to Ponyville? As instructed, she stuck to the story the other Pinkie had made up for her: she was from a rock farm far across the mountains to the north, owned by Pinkie’s fathers uncle’s cousin’s daughter, and that one day when was a traveling circus came to town, she had decided to become a party planner, which is why she’d come to see her cousin.

“I never knew the Pie family had a farm up north,” a dark purple mare told her. “What town did you say it belonged to?”

“Oh, it’s just a small rural town,” she replied. “Locals call it Ponyville, actually.”

“Well, you’re not too far from home, then,” laughed the mare. “Have a nice stay!”

“I certainly will!” As the guest moved along, Pinkie Pie was glad to see that ponies weren’t paying too much attention to her anymore; if she could, she would have fallen asleep on the floor right there. The attention was instead drawn to Rainbow Dash, who was getting a similar treatment, to which Twilight was helping her explain to them how she too was from the same backwater village up north. The pegasus Rainbow Dash, she noted, were still nowhere to be seen.

Pinkie Pie, deciding she wouldn’t make good company at the moment anyway, made her way to the door. Telling the other Pinkie she was going out for fresh air – to which she wasn’t sure if there even was response – she stepped outside and let the cool evening air hit her face. It was such a nice and warm evening, the sun setting over the rooftops, the only noise coming from the party back inside. Walking a few paces, she lay down on the ground, resting her tired legs. Before she knew it, her mind had drifted off into sleep.

***

Rainbow Dash was quite enjoying herself. There was certainly quite a lot more hullabaloo than what she was used to from a Pinkie Pie party, but the atmosphere was friendly and the refreshments divine. The residents of Ponyville were a nice bunch indeed, more than willing to share stories about their town and its traditions. And while Twilight Sparkle had made her promise to stay quiet about her circumstances, she took the opportunity to share some tales from her own town, with reactions ranging from utter disbelief to laughter. The Rainbow Celebration seemed especially foreign; in Equestria, it seemed, rainbows were made in a place called Cloudsdale, the capital of the pegasi; a fact she found absolutely fascinating.

Speaking of pegasi, Rainbow Dash had not yet seen her counterpart show up. Part of her, as much as she loathed admitting it to herself, was glad she hadn’t: her other was hardly ill-natured, but her rough demeanor made it hard for her to find common ground. Truly, as if her change in appearance wasn’t mystifying enough, the pony she now resembled was of the complete opposite personality.

Her train of thoughts was interrupted as she felt a tapping on her shoulders. She turned around, and could not help but be taken aback when she saw the very pony she had been thinking about stand right there. “Hi,” she greeted; she noticed how her eyes were shifting uncomfortably. “Do you have a second?”

“Why of course, darling!” Whatever it was she was going to say, having a chat with this fellow was the best way to get rid of any unpleasantries that might spring up between them. “Whatever is on your mind?”

“Not here… everypony is staring at us.” Sure enough, the other Rainbow Dash’s appearance had drawn most all attention on them. “Let’s get some air.”

All eyes were on them as they made their way to the door, but no one tried to stop them, and a well-timed party stunt from Pinkie Pie drew their attention away from them long enough so that no one noticed them slipping out.

“Oh my,” the wingless Rainbow Dash said when she found her sleeping friend on the ground. “She must have been bushed to the bone.”

“I bet,” agreed her other. Letting her sleep, they walked passed a few buildings and into the town square, where they halted. The pegasus Rainbow Dash turned her attention to her doppelganger. “Look, I… I’m sorry for pulling your hair back there.”

“Oh, that? Darling, think nothing of it.”

“It’s not just that. It feels like I’ve been a really poor sport this whole time. I mean, obviously you and I are connected somehow, but we’re the total opposite, and… I was just too weirded out by the whole thing, didn’t stop to think how you would feel. Forgive me?” The fluster on her face made it obvious that she wasn’t used to this sort of situation, but the awkward smile made it clear her intentions were pure.

“Oh darling!” Rainbow Dash returned the smile, all doubt she had about her before fading away. “Of course I forgive you. Believe me when I say I was just as ‘weirded out’ as any of you by all of this. I am as guilty of apprehension as you are, darling, but who can blame us?”

“Right,” she agreed. “No hard feelings?”

“No hard feelings, darling.” She lifted a hoof for a hug; at first the pegasus seemed hesitant, but soon moved in to accept the embrace.

“By the way, remember when I said you act like Rarity?” said the pegasus as they let go. “I take that back. You got Rarity beat in ladylikeness.”

“Well, that’s one way of telling us apart,” replied Rainbow Dash with a soft laugh, which the pegasus returned.

“Yeah; don’t judge a book by its cover and all that. Maybe I should write a letter to the princess about this.”

“A letter, darling?”

“The princess is making us all write to her whenever we learn something new about friendship. Guess she’ll wanna know about this.”

“That won’t be necessary, my little pony.”

They both whipped around. There stood an elegant pearl-white pony, at least twice the size of either of them, adorned with both wings and a long slender horn. The other Rainbow Dash widened her eyes in utter surprise. “Princess Cele—!” but the being quickly put a hoof to her mouth.

“Would you be a dear and fetch me the rest of your friends?” she asked, her voice kind yet authoritative. “But just them; we wouldn’t want the whole town listening in on us.” The pegasus gave a quick nod, and jogged back to the bakery.

The earth pony stared at her in awe. “You’re princess Celestia, darling?”

“Yes, that’s me. And you must be Rainbow Dash. Would you wake up your friend Pinkie Pie for me?”

“Y-yes, darling! Of course, darling!”

Within minutes, all eight ponies were gathered around the majestic figure. Even Pinkie’s drowsiness was washed away by her brilliance. “P-Princess Celestia,” spoke Twilight. “You didn’t have to come here by yourself! You could’ve just summoned us!”

“And miss out on a party thrown by two Pinkie Pies?” countered the princess. “Excellent idea to put streamers on balloons, by the way.”

“You were there?!”

“Yeah, didn’t you see her?” said hyper-Pinkie Pie. “She was right there, disguised as a normal pegasus. I thought everypony was just playing along.”

“Impressive intuition as always,” Celestia commended. “ And I’ve had plenty of time to observe the two of you.” She focused her eyes on the two newcomers. “It’s as you wrote, Twilight; it’s faint, but the traces of Discord are unmistakable.”

Rainbow Dash’s stomach turned icy upon the mention of the spirit of chaos. “W-what does it mean, dar—Your Majesty? What’s going to happen to us?”

She expected grim response, but instead she got a friendly smile. “You don’t have to worry; while it’s certainly in there, there is no possible way for it to manifest, at least for the time being.”

“Really? Thank goodness.”

“It’s important, however, that the situation is dealt with before it has the chance to do so. As scary and confusing as it all may seem, this is actually a very fortunate turn of event. Let me tell you a little story.

“A thousand years ago, when my sister Luna and I defeated Discord and turned him into a stone statue, there remained a final piece of his chaotic magic in Equestria that we couldn’t resolve. A plot of land was shrouded in a field of magic of Discord’s design, untouchable by us or the Elements of Harmony. We don’t know how, or why, he did such a thing, but it’s been under scrutiny for the past millennium.

“It wasn’t until his second coming that the magic field began to stir. He never had the chance to return there – or he simply forgot it existed – but after his second defeat, the spell was dissolving. Perhaps time had weakened it, or your mastery of the elements was more powerful than ours; whatever the reason, Discords last legacy ended today. Or so we thought, until you two appeared.”

“B-b-but darling!” stammered Rainbow Dash, trying very hard not to faint this time. “You can’t possibly mean that Pinkie and I are products of some demon’s spell!”

“I don’t think so either,” the Princess agreed. “We later discovered that the reason it remained untouchable by the Elements of Harmony was because unlike most of Discord’s magic, this was not entirely chaotic. There was another force involved, one very similar to the elements. Its nature had me mystified all these years, but this morning, things finally started to make sense. Underneath that maelstrom of magic was a village, one wrapped in an illusion for all these years, shielded from the flow of time.”

Twilight Sparkle let out a gasp. “A Time Capsule? Discord cast a Time Capsule?!”

“That is what I’m guessing,” confirmed Celestia. “If my guess is right, you two, Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, have been living out your lives in Ponyville – and the world Discord created for you – in a loop that has lasted for a thousand years, endlessly reincarnating again and again.”

Rainbow Dash was about to faint again, but held it together when Pinkie Pie put a hoof on her back for support. This was all too much to take. Hungry for answers, she asked the first question that came to mind. “Is… is everyone alright, then?”

“They’re all a bit dazzled, but yes. Your village is safe.”

The relief must have been visible on her face. “Thank heavens!” For the first time since she got here, she felt her body truly relax, to which her muscles took to opportunity to remind her of the stress, making her buckle. “Would… would you be so kind as to take us there? They must all be awfully worried.”

“I will, in the morning,” Celestia promised. “For now, you both need your rest. As it stands, I’m afraid I don’t have any more answers to your questions. Discords plan are still shrouded in mystery, as are the circumstances of why you woke up outside the village. Hopefully, things will become clear tomorrow.”

“I vote for rest,” said Pinkie Pie, accompanying the statement with a yawn. “I’m just so glad they’re all okay. If it’s alright with you, I think I’m going back to the grass.”

“I’ll see you all in the morning then,” said Celestia. She flapped her majestic wings and took to the air. “Good night, my little ponies.” Without warning, there was a flash of light, and she was gone. Leaving Rainbow Dash with no more reason not to faint one more time, this time from exhaustion.


The Third Generation

Chapter Three

By Candle Light

Thistle Whistle looked around nervously, gazing out over the sprawling view from a cliff high up a mountain right next to Ponyville. A mountain that hadn’t been there the day before. Clouds! Strange, swirling clouds in shapes she had never seen before! Of all the strange things that had happen to the village lately, why did clouds have to be one of them?

“I don’t get it,” said Scootaloo, the orange-coated earth pony that had talked her into coming with her on this trip. The stripes of pink in her mane mixed with the overall blue as the wind rustled her hair. “If this leads where I think it does… but that’s crazy! A mountain can’t just up and move, right?”

The pegasus let out a whistle. “That’s what you said when we found Breezy Blossom,” she let out a 'fwee' whistling sound, as was her habit, “just down the river from Ponyville. And ponies can’t just up and – fweee – change how they look either, if you ask me.”

“I know; I’m as confused as you are. But Breezies are small; maybe they just wanted to move to another meadow. But a mountain? Come on, it’s just a little further now.”

“Fweee… how did I get talked into this...” complained the pegasus, her gaze stuck to the strange cloud formations overhead. “Why not a brave pony like Star Catcher?”

“I couldn’t find her anywhere,” Scootaloo told her. “Besides, you were trembling in the bushes! Trust me: a little adventure will do you good.”

The two followed the trail, Thistle Whistle opting to keep her hooves on the ground, taking care not to stray too far from her companion. The path was rocky and oftentimes steep, but nothing they couldn’t climb or fly over. The pegasus tried not to look down – or up, at the clouds – but occasionally her gaze was drawn to the fields just outside of Ponyville. The scenery had been redone completely: a forest had sprung up only a short sprint from the village, and beyond that extended a field she was certain she had never seen before. She would have remembered the large rocks scattered all around it.

When they did reach the top, they were met by a high wall of pink bricks. Looking up, they saw a blue dome and several pointed towers. “I knew it!” exclaimed Scootaloo, as she ran off to round the structure. Thistle Whistle followed, and soon it came into full view. It was a castle, its walls mostly pink, adorn with seven towers, each painted to represent a color of the rainbow. Rounded stairs were leading up a big set of doors with a heart shape on them. “This is Crystal Rainbow Castle! We’re in Unicornia!”

“Are you sure? Isn’t that like – fweee – a couple of hours’ balloon ride away? Not that I’ve been there myself.”

“Well, I have, and I recognize those houses!” Scootaloo pointed down the mountain the opposite direction from where they came; sure enough, there was a small village, its houses painted to keep with the theme of rainbows. “But this doesn’t make sense! How could Unicornia be back to back to Ponyville?”

“Oh dear.” The pegasus let out a long string of whistles. “It’s the end of the world – fwee – isn’t it.”

“Calm down, Thistle Whistle, it’s not the end of the world! But it is pretty freaky. It’s like the world has shrunk or something. And you’re definitely right about the clouds; I’ve never seen them shaped like this before.”

Scanning the skies; it was sunny for most part, but here and there were big, fluffy clouds that stuck out in odd angles, making them almost look like faces. Others were twirling like whirlpools, ending in an elegant tail. But just as she was contemplating whether or not she dared take to the air for a better view – those clouds seemed awfully low – a couple of unicorns came walking up the stairs. One was yellow, the other purple; Thistle Whistle didn’t know their name, but Scootaloo seemed to. “Cheerilee? Brights Brightly?”

“Scootaloo!” said the purple unicorn, Cheerilee. “What on earth are you doing here? And who’s your friend?”

“Well, you know how nothing’s been quite normal lately?” said Scootaloo. “We were actually in Ponyville just a while ago, but then we found a mountain that wasn't there before, and here we are!”

Cheerilee’s eyes widened in surprise. “Is that Ponyville just behind the mountain? We can see your castle from the village! And there’s a lake right over there I haven’t seen before.” She pointed with her leg off to the right-hooves side of the mountain, and sure enough, there was a large expanse of water, the other side barely visible on the horizon. Right around its center was an island, and ever from this distance, Thistle Whistle thought she could recognize its shape.

“Is that Butterfly Island?!” she exclaimed, forgetting about the clouds long enough to take flight. She rose about ten pony lengths, and from here, the shape was unmistakable. “It’s Butterfly Island!” She let herself descend to the ground, her heart lighter. She had found home!

“It’s like someone took here, there and everywhere and shuffled them all together!” remarked Scootaloo. “Where’s Rarity? Is she alright?”

They both gave them a solemn look. “Well,” said the yellow unicorn, Brights Brightly, “we haven’t seen her since it happened. We’ve looked everywhere. Maybe she’s in Ponyville?”

“We haven’t seen her,” offered Scootaloo. “But you’re more than welcome to come and look, seeing as we’re neighbors now and all. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Pinkie Pie around either. Or Rainbow Dash.”

“I hope they turn up okay,” said Cheerilee. “I don’t care what happens to the village or our bodies, but I couldn’t stand to lose any of our friends.”

***

“Good morning, Rainbow Dash!” greeted the other-village Pinkie Pie as she entered Rarity’s fashion shop, Carousel Boutique. “And you too, Rainbow Dash!”

“Good morning to you too, dahling,” the cerulean pegasus said, flapping her eyelashes in an exaggerated motion. “Such a rainbowy dahling day today, dahling.”

Pinkie Pie laughed. “Nice try, but your voice is just too different.”

“Plus, I don’t carry myself with quite so much flamboyance,” remarked the earth pony counterpart. “Do I?”

“Well, that’s the best I can do. You happy, Rarity?”

The snow white fashionista unicorn giggled. “It will do. And I hope you now realize that I do in fact know just as much about the Wonderbolts’ flying techniques as you do. I’d have to, if I ever want to branch out into aerodynamic uniforms. Wouldn’t want them to break by a few loops, would we?”

The cerulean pegasus grumbled, making a mental note to think twice before challenging Rarity to a quiz again. “I guess. Shouldn’t everypony be here by now?”

“I’m sure they’re all on their way,” replied Rarity. “Show some patient.”

“I hope they get here soon, though,” said Pinkie Pie. “I for one am really looking forward to going home. Not that our time here hasn’t been absolutely positively festive, but I’m sure all of our friends are worried sick”

“I just hope they’re all there,” pointed her cerulean friend. “It’s been on my mind since we met the Princess yesterday: if we woke up outside of Ponyville, who’s to say our friends didn’t? What if Minty is out there somewhere all alone, hungry and lost? Or Wysteria? Oh, my poor heart couldn’t take it if something were to happen to little Rarity.”

“Yeah… could you imagine Minty lost on a field? She’d be going around in circles!”

“Or cry herself to sleep under a rock…”

Seeing her own face so dismayed sent a jolt of discomfort through the pegasus’ stomach. She felt she had to say something, anything. “Come on, have a little faith in your friends!” she tried. “Plus, the Princess’s got it all covered. If your friends aren’t there, she’ll know what to do, no sweat.”

“Unless they’ve starved to death already,” Pinkie remarked.

“Don’t you ponies eat grass? There’s no shortage of food in Equestria, trust me.”

“Grass? Tell me you’re joking, darling!”

“Guess you’ve never tried it. It’s not the tastiest thing around, but it gets the job done when you’re out of options.”

At this, the earth pony’s expression did soften a bit. She even broke a little smile. “If you say so, darling. I suppose you’re right; no point in worrying, is there.”

“There you go,” pepped the other, glad that she’d managed to be sensitive enough for once. “Now if only the others would show up, we could be on our way.”

***

Twilight knew she was late. She had been up until the early hours in the morning, studying up on every piece relevant piece of literature she could find, which had turned out to be more than she thought. She had skimmed through a history book covering all known facts about Discord’s magic, and then read up on the Time Capsule spell. Both topics were heavy and intricate, and it required her to look up some archaic magic terms and practices to follow along. At first, all she had found were more questions, but as her mind started to adapt to the complexity, she eventually came across a theory that was in equal parts fascinating and frightening. She would need the Princess’s opinion on it.

She knocked on the door to Carousel Boutique, and after a moment, the upper part of the door swung open, and Rainbow Dash peeked out. “Hello, darling, such a pleasure to see you again.”

“Why, thank you, Rainbow Da—wait, Rainbow Dash, that’s you, isn’t it!”

The pegasus let out laugh. “I’m getting better at this!” She opened the lower door for her, ushering her in. Everypony else seemed to be present, except the village local Pinkie Pie.

“Well, it’s nice to see you two are getting along,” noted Twilight, eyeing the pegasus’ unusually styled hair.

“I didn’t even have to ask her that time,” said Rarity. “What do you think of the hair-do? Her mane is to die for, really; if only she’d let me work away those nasty tangles. You should lose some bets with me more often.”

“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen,” she replied. “Isn’t Spike coming?”

“He’s taking care of the animals for me,” Fluttershy explained. “He’s such a nice little guy.”

“Right. So I guess we’re all here? Wait, where’s Pinkie Pie? The other one, I mean.”

“Right here!” Startling everypony in the room, Ponyville’s local party pony popped out basket in the corner, spraying pieces of cloths on the floor. “Geez, you guys are so slow! I’ve been here for hours.”

Only the lookalikes didn’t drop their surprise after about five seconds. “Okay then,” said Twilight, “now I suppose all we have to do is wait for the Princess to pick us up. She said she’d be here nine o’clock.”

“And here I am.” Although she didn’t pop out of a basket, the way Princess Celestia entered from the next room over, as though she’d been there the whole time, was more than enough to warrant a jaw-drop from all of them. She always did that, and Twilight never got used to it; the Princess was worse than Pinkie Pie sometimes. “A pegasus carriage waiting for us out back; we’re ready when you are.”

“Right…” said Twilight, pulling herself together, “let’s go, everypony.” As they all filed out the door, Twilight lagged behind a bit to ask the Princess, “How long have you been here?”

“Just long enough to see some friendship unfold,” replied Celestia. “Now move along, we can talk more on the carriage.”

***

“Hey, Rainbow Dash!” called a voice from behind. The cerulean earth pony turned around to see an orange-hued little pegasus filly eying her excitedly. “Are you going somewhere with the princess?”

In the corner of her eyes, Rainbow Dash noticed her pegasus other was peeping out from behind the carriage, grinning wildly. She got the hint, and decided to humor her. “Yeah,” she tried her best to mimic her high tone. “We’re going out on an adventure! It’s gonna be, uh, awesome!”

“Sweet!” replied the filly, none the wiser. “I wish I could come with.”

“That’s very swee— cool of you, dar—dea—little girl,” Rainbow Dash struggled, earning a strange look from the filly.

“Is it me, or is something different about you today?” she noted. “Hold on… your wings!” She took a step back. “Who are you, and what have you done with Rainbow Dash?!”

“I’m right here, squirt!” called the pegasus version, popping out from behind the carriage. The earth pony felt quite sorry for the filly as she let out a screech, stuttering nonsense, her eyes shifted between both of them. The pegasus, meanwhile, was on the ground laughing. “You should see your face, Scootaloo! This just keeps getting better!”

“I’m so sorry, darling.” So this was their Scootaloo. She was much younger than the one she knew. “I suppose I got caught up in the moment. I may not be the Rainbow Dash you know, but I am nonetheless called Rainbow Dash. Nice to meet you, darling.”

“‘Darling’?” repeated Scootaloo, an apprehensive look on her face. “Dash, is this your twin sister or something?”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” explained the cerulean pegasus, still getting over her fits of giggles. “Apparently these two come from an alternate Ponyville that’s been hidden under a spell for a thousand years.”

“A magic spell?” she parroted. “These two?”

“Yep, I’m here too,” announced the less hyper Pinkie Pie, bringing back the shock to Scootaloo’s face. “I’m – who else – Pinkie Pie! Nice to meet you!”

“Wait a sec… there’s another Ponyville where ponies look just like us?” asked Scootaloo, not taking her eyes off of Pinkie. Then her expression went from shock and back to excitement. “That sounds awesome! Is that where you’re going? Can I come with?”

“Aren’t you s’posed to be in school right now?” pointed Applejack. “Apple Bloom told me you’ve been playin’ hooky three days in a row.”

“Besides, this isn’t a leisure trip,” added Twilight Sparkle. “We’re talking about a society that’s been trapped in one of Discord’s spells for a millennium. You remember Discord, don’t you? We’re not sure what we’ll find.”

“Sure we are,” said the other-village Pinkie Pie. “There’ll be a peaceful village full of friendly ponies. I don’t mind bringing her along; the more the merrier, I always say.”

“I agree with Pinkie Pie,” Princess Celestia voted. “Getting out of the village once in a while will do the little one good. Your friends are welcome to join us as well.”

“Awesome!” said Scootaloo, jumping up and down on the spot. “Thanks, Celestia! You’re the best Princess ever! I’ll go get them right away!”

“That won’t be necessary,” she replied. “I’ll be right back.” And so with a flash, the Princess was gone, and not ten seconds later, she rematerialized, holding two other fillies in her mouth. She dropped them on the carriage. “Would you two like to go on an adventure with us?” she asked.

“Uh… okay!” replied one of them, a yellow earth pony with a red mane and tail, still looking a bit confused. “Where’re we going? An’…” her jaw dropped, “why’s there two of Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie?!"

“Ah’ll explain it to you on the way,” said Applejack. “Lil’ sister, we’re goin’ on one hay of a trip.”

***

“This is so awesome!” Scootaloo shared with her two friends. “I’ve never been on a flying carriage before! I can’t believe we’re flying over the Everfree Forest!”

I can’t believe we get to go with the Princess!” said Sweetie Belle.

“The pleasure is all mine, my dear.”

“Am Ah the only one still curious about these two?” said Apple Bloom, pointing at the two lookalikes. “Ah don’t think Ah’ve ever seen two ponies look so much alike mah whole life! It can’t be natural!”

“My thoughts exactly, little darling,” the earth pony version of Rainbow Dash agreed. “Believe me when I say it’s hasn’t exactly been easy getting used to.”

“You’re lucky your gets to look like Rainbow Dash,” Scootaloo remarked. “I’d love to look like Rainbow Dash.”

“Don’t we all,” the cerulean pegasus agreed. But when Twilight gave her a hard look, she added, “I mean, er, you’ll get there. Once you get your flying going, you’ll be up there pulling Sonic Rainbooms with yours truly.”

“What’s a Sonic Rainboom?” asked the other Pinkie Pie.

“If you fly fast enough, you can break the speed barrier and blast a rainbow all over the sky!” explained Rainbow Dash excitedly.

“Wow, that sounds magnificent!” her counterpart said. “Can you do that too, Fluttershy darling?”

“Who, me?” reacted Fluttershy, almost a bit taken aback at being addressed. “Oh no, I-I could never do that. I’m nowhere near as fast as she is.”

“Don’t sell yerself short, hun,” Applejack comforted. “I’ve seen you busting those wings like yer life depended on it.”

“Yes, because our lives were depending on it…”

“I’ll show it to you someday,” the pegasus promised. “Trust me, you haven’t seen a rainbow until you’ve seen a Sonic Rainboom.”

“I wouldn't be so sure,” Celestia voiced. “Look over there.”

Across the skies, over the treetops of the Everfree Forest, a giant rainbow was being shaped before their very eyes. Rainbow Dash’s eyes filled with awe as she practically leaned over the edge to look at it. “Would you look at that!” she breathed. “I’ve never seen one so big!”

“I’m glad you like it,” said Celestia. “We strive to make Equestria as beautiful as we are able.”

“Did you make that, darling?”

“Oh no, that honor goes to the pegasi of Cloudsdale.”

“So it’s true that pegasi make the rainbows in Equestria?”

“They do occur naturally,” she told her, “but sometimes, we like to lend mother nature a helping hoof, as you see before you.”

“Just don’t try drinking a rainbow,” warned the native Pinkie Pie. “It’ll burn your tongue.”

“Drink it?” repeated Rainbow Dash. “Why on earth would I want to drink a rainbow? I never realized it could be drunk.”

“And here I thought you knew all about rainbows,” laughed the other Pinkie Pie.

“It would seem I still have much to learn. But I don’t mind; the more there is to know about rainbows, the better! Rainbows, darlings, rainbows!”

***

As the others continued to gaze out over the rainbow, Twilight took the opportunity to converse with the princess. “Your majesty, I did some reading up on Time Capsules last night.”

“As did I. What did you find?”

“If I’ve understood this right, Discord shouldn’t have had the right magical nature to cast the spell to begin with. The only way he could have done it if he had an army of mages do it, or…” she paused.

“…if he wielded the Elements of Harmony himself,” finished Celestia, her expression darkening. “While it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that he may have discovered them before we did, I can think of no possible way he would ever be able to harness their powers. Nor can I imagine any followers of his being in the right sate of mind to pull off a spell of such magnitude. Not the way he ruled...”

“Then there is the simple question of ‘why’. Could there be something he was trying to preserve in there?”

“That, or keep something out,” guessed Celestia. “Looking at these two,” she motioned toward Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, who were now watching the pegasus Rainbow Dash performing acrobatic tricks in the air, “I don’t think the village is under his influence anymore, but it’s probably safe to say he left something there. We should keep our eyes peeled.”

Twilight was about to give a response, but was interrupted by the clapping and stomping of hooves. “Simply amazing, darling! I’ve never seen a pegasus spin around so fast!”

Pegasus Rainbow Dash landed on the carriage. “And that’s what put the Dash in Rainbow Dash.”

“Dashing indeed! Ooh, just looking at you is giving me ideas for some absolutely darling outfits! Just imagine, a cape adorn on all the colors of a rainbow, blurred into an extension of her mane as she flies by!”

“That would look fabulous, wouldn’t it,” Rarity agreed. “And if you’d straighten up her tail a bit, I bet you could even look good in a spin! See, Rainbow, if only you’d let me work on you more, the possibilities would be endless!”

“I modeled for you last week! Can’t Rainbow ‘Darling’ Dash do it? We look the same, don’t we?”

“My gosh, you're right! I simply must take your measurements when we get back, both of you! You’re not weaseling your way out of this one!”

“Ugh, me and my big mouth.”

“I can’t wait to meet my lookalike!” said Scootaloo excitedly. “She’s older than me, right? I bet she’s already got her cutie mark!”

“Cutie Marks?” said Pinkie Pie with the lighter mane. “Oh yeah! That’s what Toola-Roola calls them!” She turned her head to observe her own: a picture of three balloons, same colors as the other Pinkie Pie, but closer together and in a different angle. “Yeah, she’s got one. Everyone does.”

“Sweet! Don’t tell me what it is; I wanna see it for myself!”

“Hay, could that be the village?” Applejack called, pointing downwards to a spot by a mountain and a hill. Twilight walked over to her side; down there she could see what was unmistakably two castles, one on top of the mountain, and the other a smaller one with houses dotted around it. Soon, everypony gathered around the edge for a better look.

“That’s it!” cried Pinkie Pie. “That’s Ponyville; it has to be! But why are there two castles?”

“I must warn you,” Celestia spoke up, “your home will more likely than not be different from how you remember it. Yours was a world created by an illusion, and I cannot tell you how much of it was based on reality.”

“As long as all my darlings are still real and well, that’s all I ask.”

***

“Greetings, sister! And to you as well, pony friends!”

The voice came as sudden as its source; Pinkie Pie had kept her eyes on her village, when suddenly a dark blue pony who, just like the Princess, wore both horn and wings appeared before them seemingly out of thin air. Her mane looked more like a transparent liquid than hair, stars twinkling within. She landed on the carriage, and Pinkie took a step back.

“Princess Luna!” exclaimed Twilight. “What are you doing here? In broad daylight!”

“We are to meet the ponies imprisoned by Discord, are we not?” The mighty pony’s voice was dark and full of authority. “For diplomatic reasons, my presence is required.”

“A…are you a princess too?” Pinkie Pie dared.

“Indeed. My name is Luna, ruler of the night. From your semblance, you must be Pinkie Pie.”

“Y-yeah, that’s me,” Pinkie Pie managed, staring into the Princess’s soul-penetrating eyes. “N-nice to m-meet you´.”

“Why are you so frightened, my dear?” asked Luna, giving her a quizzing look. She turned her head to Twilight and Celestia. “Am I doing this wrong, Twilight Sparkle? Is my voice too imposing? My language too archaic?”

“No, it’s fine,” said the lavender pony reassuringly. “You’re doing lot better than last time. It’s just… your presence can be a bit overwhelming the first time. It’s okay, Pinkie, she’s a nice pony.”

“Oh,” replied Pinkie Pie, raising her posture a bit. Come to think of it, she didn’t look angry or anything. “I’m sorry, Princess.”

“It’s quite alright, my dear. And you must be Rainbow Dash. Your likeness to your counterpart baffles me.”

The earth pony gave her a bow. “As does it me, darling.”

“So how did it go?” Celestia inquired. “Were you able to gather up the remnants from the spell?”

“An impossible task, dear sister,” reported the dark-blue princess. “It wouldn’t crystallize using conventional spells. It would require weeks of continuous effort from our High Mages, and that could drastically affect the magic flow of the surrounding areas. The cause is clear: there is no doubt the spell was created by the mixed powers of Discord and the Elements of Harmony.”

“Hold on a darn tootin’ minute,” questioned Applejack, her incredulous expression shared by her friends. “How’s that even possible?! That creep wouldn’t know harmony if it hopped up an’ square-danced on his face!”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” replied Luna. “If he had acquired the Elements before we did all those years ago, and was able to wield them, I can’t think of a reason why he never used them against us.”

“We’ll have plenty of time to think about it later,” said Princess Celestia, getting to her hooves. “Right now, we have a new village to welcome to the world.” No sooner did she finish the sentence did the carriage come to a halt, giving them a good view of the village. Pinkie Pie gazed down upon it, smiling widely; there was no doubt in her mind that this was the Ponyville she knew: all the houses, parks, the river, everything was just as she remembered it. She could even see ponies walking on the streets.

“Oh, darling!” said Rainbow Dash next to her. “It’s all here. There’s my shop, and there’s the castle!”

“I still can’t place that mountain though,” Pinkie Pie pointed out. “Or those houses over there. And was the forest always this close?”

“Is that a roller coaster!” said the other Pinkie Pie. “I like this place already!”

“Could you two tell me how many ponies live in your village?” asked Celestia.

“How many? Geez, I don’t think I’ve ever counted. Thirty, maybe?”

“More like fifty, darling,” corrected Rainbow Dash. “Not counting the Unicorn or pegasi; that would make it more like a hundred.”

“I would have thought it to be bigger,” Luna remarked. “I suppose this will make things easier.”

“I hope so,” said Celestia. “Land us over there, please, on the hill.” The pegasus ponies keeping the carriage airborne turned around and started their descend. Pinkie Pie’s heart swelled with happiness the closer they got to the ground, and when they touched down, she practically flew out of the carriage.

“I can’t wait to see everybody!” she said happily. The park was just bellow the hill, and she could see that some ponies had already spotted them, and were approaching curiously.

“I know, darling!” her cerulean friend agreed happily. “This hill here is new, but everything else looks untouched!”

It wasn’t long before two ponies rounded the hilltops. One a white unicorn, her mane purple and pink, the other a light-purple earth pony. Even with their altered looks, Pinkie Pie knew them well. “Sweetie Belle!” she called. “Razzaroo!” She ran over and gave them both a big hug.

“Pinkie Pie! It is you!” happily replied the purple pony, Razzaroo. “And Rainbow Dash!”

“Are you alright?” asked the other pony, Sweetie Belle. “We’ve been so worried!”

“So were we, darlings!” their Rainbow-maned friend said. “We’re just fine, thank you. How about you? Is everyone in the village all right?”

“Yes yes yes!” sung Razzaroo. “Everyone is a bit confused, of course, but we’re all doing fine. So what’s the story? Where have you been? Who are these people? And… why are there two of you?” she added as the other Pinkie Pie joined the group hug for no apparent reason.

“It’s kind of a long story,” the straight-maned version replied, as the ponies untangled themselves. “One I’m not sure I understand myself.”

“Yeah, things have been pretty crazy around here too,” said Razzaroo. “Nevermind our new looks, Unicornia and Breezie Blossom just up and moved right next to Ponyville!”

“That’s Unicornia?” exclaimed Pinkie Pie, looking up at the unfamiliar mountain.

“Looks like we have much to discuss,” said Celestia, drawing the two newcomers’ attention. “Would you two be kind enough to tell everyone in your village to gather around this hill?” The two ponies stared at the Princesses in awe, just like Pinkie Pie had; no one in their village had ever heard of ponies with both horn and wings. “Tell them to follow the rainbow.”

With that, the two princesses thrust their horns skyward, and a bright beam of light was expelled from each. The two beams swirled around one another like a spiral as they grew in size, eventually changing colors to all those of a rainbow. The twirling pillar rose high into the sky, piercing a cloud above. The two ponies only stared at it, but when the princesses lowered their gaze at them again, they tensed. “Y-yes, ma’am! Right away!”

***

It had been so long since Ponyville’s premium party planner had seen so many new faces. One hundred and nine ponies, by Pinkie’s count, of all kinds were flocked on and around the hill, practically standing in line to welcome their friends Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie back to the village. Actually, many of these faces weren’t new at all; their manes and coat colors were different, but Pinkie recognized around twenty ponies that shared the exact same face with residents of her own village. It wasn’t a village of clones as she’d hoped, but she couldn’t wait to get to know all of them, not to mention exposing them to her parties.

“Citizens of Ponyville!” Celestia’s voice resounded over the crowd, drawing every eye to her and Luna. “I am Princess Celestia, and this is Princess Luna; together we are the rulers of the land of Equestria!”

“What we are about to tell you may be difficult to for you to believe,” Luna took over, “but yours is a society that has been wrapped in magic for a thousand years! You have all been asleep under an illusion, brought about by Discord, the spirit of chaos! Only yesterday were you finally able to awaken to the real world!”

A shock wave of gasps and murmurs spread throughout the audience. The Princesses allowed them a moment to collect their thoughts, before Celestia continued, “Unfortunately, many of the questions you must have for us are mysteries to us as well. We don’t know how or why it was done, but this much I will tell you with utmost certainty: there is no need to be afraid. Luna and I both welcome you with open hearts to the land of Equestria, and will do everything in our power to assure you are able to adapt to your new home.”

There was a silence, as the crowd exchanged looks and whispers with one another. Then a nearby pegasus spoke up. “Uhm, excuse me, Princess?” she ventured, followed by a whistle. Pinkie thought she resembled that mail-mare with the lazy eye; what was her name again? “Are you telling us that a-all our lives up until now have been n-nothing but a dream?” She drew a long whistle. “B-but how could that be? We’re all still here, aren’t we?”

Everypony in the audience shared the same worried expression as they looked upon the Princesses. Celestia faced it with a smile. “Exactly. Yours was a dream shared by all of you, an illusion spell meant to preserve your minds for generations. You still have your memories, don’t you?” The pegasus nodded. “Then they are as real as you want them to be. All that matters is that you are still you, alive and well, here and now.”

“I-I suppose so.” It helped to calm the crowd down a little, but concern still lingered on their faces.

“Know that we offer you all the support we can,” Celestia promised. “That’s why I’d like to ask all of you to come up to us, one at a time, and tell us your names. Just so we know who is who, and so we can make sure nopony is missing.”

“We ask that you form an orderly line!” instructed Luna. Be it from imitation or curiosity, the order was carried out immediately, the ponies scrambling around to fit themselves into a line. “This won’t take long; just your name will do!”

One by one, the ponies approached the two princesses, telling them their names, to which Pinkie Pie paid close attention. April Daisy, Blue Mist, Golden Delicious, Coconut Top; for each greeting, Pinkie Pie made sure to remain right next to Celestia, giving them an extra ‘hi!’. Many ponies remained on the hill to hug and welcome their Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash back to the village. There was a reaction from her friends when somepony actually introduced herself as Applejack, but since she shared no physical traits to the orange work pony, it had to be more more than a funny coincidence.

The procedure didn’t take more than a couple of minutes. “Thank you, everypony,” Princess Celestia concluded when Fiesta Flare had introduced herself. “I hope we all get to know each other from now on.”

“Excuse me, but has anyone seen Minty?” asked one of the ponies: a purple earth pony named Wysteria.

“No, I haven’t,” Toola-Roola, a white earth pony with a yellow and pink mane, replied. A bunch of other ponies nodded in agreement.

“Rarity is gone too!” a purple unicorn that was this village version of Cheerilee said. “We’ve searched everywhere; Unicornia, Ponyville, Breezie Blossom, even Butterfly Island!”

“Fweeee,” whistled Thistle Whistle, “I haven’t seen Star Catcher either.”

“Minty’s missing?” repeated the other Pinkie Pie, her eyes sinking. “And Rarity too?!”

“Oh no,” said Rainbow Dash, looking just about ready to faint again. “This is dreadful, darlings!”

“You guys showed up alright,” their version of Scootaloo pointed. “I’m sure they will too.”

“This is different, darling! Pinkie Pie and I woke up in the middle of nowhere! It was a miracle that we even found these kind people. Our friends could be anywhere! Princesses, darlings, we simply must find them!”

“We’ll certainly try,” replied Luna, “but tracking an individual we haven’t even met is a difficult task.”

Pinkie Pie slumped down on the grass, her head sinking. “We’re never gonna find them again, are we.”

“Of course we are, darling, don’t say that!”

“But how? It’s a big, unknown world out there, and we don’t even know where to start,” her eyes were shaky, and tears were starting to form. “I’m sick of this. Why did everything have to get so complicated? Why did we have to lose our friends?”

The other Pinkie Pie couldn’t explain it, but seeing her other so sad sent a jolt of coldness through her veins. Maybe it was because she hated seeing ponies sad, or maybe it was the likeness to herself, but it was a sight she couldn’t bear to look at. She walked over and put a hoof under her chin. “Come on, cheer up, Pinkie. I-I’m sure we’ll find them, if we all work together.” Looking into her teary eyes made a lump in her own throat appear. She tried her best to keep up the smile.

Pinkie looked up at her solemnly. “Is your twitching telling you that?”

“Well… no. I’m telling me that. That’s gotta be worth something, right?”

Their eyes locked for a few moments. And with the tears finally letting go, Pinkie Pie hugged the other, wailing like a baby. Both of them. It had been so long since the party pony had a good cry, she’d never had a reason to. But she wasn’t about to let any Pinkie Pie of hers cry their heart out alone. That’s no fun.


The Third Generation

Chapter Four

By Candle Light

“And here we have the Ponyville Theater, darlings. One of several, I should say; we have many musical talents here in Ponyville.”

“There’s something we have in common,” Twilight commented. “I guess ponies everywhere likes to sing.”

“You wanna hear a song right now? Please tell me you wanna here a song right now!”

“Later, Pinkie.”

The royal introductions done, Luna descided to fly back to Canterlot to start organizing a search party for the missing ponies – and get some sleep; she wasn’t used to being awake at this hour. Celestia, ending their introduction by telling them to look forward to more company tomorrow, promising to send ponies to teach them all about Equestrian customs and history, had been more than willing to come along when Rainbow Dash had offered them a tour of the village.

Nearly everypony in town had come along at first, but the more places they passed, the more they dropped off – likely to go check on Pinkie Pie, whom the village Sweetie Belle had taken home to rest – until only Rainbow Dash and a few of her friends – Razzaroo, Wysteria and Whistle Wishes, if Twilight remembered correctly – were accompanying the Princess and her entourage.

“Next up, we have my fashion boutique,” said Rainbow Dash. “Do come inside, darlings, there is plenty of room for one and all.”

Twilight thought it was going to be crowded in there with thirteen ponies in one room, but the interior was much roomier than she had thought. All along the walls were hangers filled with different kinds of clothing, and much like in Rarity’s shop, there were the occasional pile of fabric on the floor. “It’s not much, but here is where I make all our garments.”

“Very nice establishment indeed,” the Princess commended. “It’s nice to see an earth pony working with fashion. It’s becoming quite rare these days.”

“Well, I hardly see what that would have anything to do with—” Rainbow Dash cut her own sentence short, her eyes swelling up. “Oh no,” she gasped, trotting over to a pile of cloth, poking it with her hoof. She kept poking it, as if trying to wake it up, her expression gradually descending into despair. “I can’t pick them up!” She then tried to scoop the sheet up, but it would only glide off. “How am I suppose to make clothes when I can’t even pick up the fabric?!”

“Can’t you just use yer mouth?” suggested Applejack.

“And get teeth-marks all over the cloth?!”

“Oh darling,” calmed Rarity, “you don’t have to use your teeth. See?” She demonstrated on a piece of pink fabric, holding it up with her muzzle, and then dropped it on the floor, leaving no mark of any kind. “I do it all the time, when my horn is occupied with other things. You’ll just have to be, well, extra good at it.”

“You can do it,” Razzaroo pepped. “No one makes dresses and hats like you do.”

A smile returned to Rainbow Dash’s face. “You’re right; I’ll just have to adapt, just like everyone else. Thank you, Raz and Rarity, for being so darling.”

When the Princess was done looking around the shop, they all went outside to continue the tour. They passed over the river on a pink bridge, walked through a park right next to a big roller coaster – to which Twilight was surprised to see Pinkie Pie wasn’t rushing off to play – and onwards until they reached the Ponyville air balloon yard. All in all, Twilight found the village rather endearing, and surprisingly modern for a town that had been hidden away for a thousand years.

“Why is everything so gaudy?” complained Scootaloo. “There’s like a heart shape on every door.”

“We put heart-shapes on things back home too, you know,” remarked Twilight.

“And I never liked it. At least we don’t have heart-shaped lamp posts.”

“Well, little darling, I think it adds a homely touch,” said the local Rainbow Dash. “After all, doesn’t every girl like it bright and colorful?”

“Not really my style,” Scootaloo said dismissively.

“I’m with Scoot,” the pegasus version of Rainbow Dash agreed. “All this pink is kinda making me dizzy... no offense.”

“None taken, darling; every village has their own customs. Why, in Unicornia, everything is themed around rainbows, darlings! I’ve wanted to moving there for a while, but I could never bring myself to leave my friends behind. But now that it’s just a stone’s throw away, maybe I can!”

“Ah think it’s kinda nice here,” said Apple Bloom. “It’s peaceful and bright, and everypony is mighty friendly.”

“If by peaceful you mean boring,” said Scootaloo. “I wanna go check out that mountain! We could be the Cutie Mark Crusader Mountaineers!”

“Didn’t we already try that?” pointed Sweetie Belle.

“Yeah, but not on a real mountain! That’ll be way more exciting that going around looking at buildings and flowers!”

“Well then, little darlings, would a castle be exciting enough for you?” As they left the garden, there, atop a small hill, one of the castles they had seen from the carriage came into view. It was pinkest structure yet, contrasted only by a few smudges of yellow. It was also the smallest castle Twilight had ever seen, only slightly bigger than one of Applejack’s barns. A hot air balloon was parked by one of the towers, floating in the air uselessly.

“Castles are cool,” said Scootaloo, eagerness returning to her eyes. “But why is it so pink?”

“It used to be purple, actually,” Rainbow Dash told them, “but one day, on Pinkie’s birthday, we decided to paint the whole town pink in her honor. We all agreed afterward that the castle just looked more darling this way.”

“That’s debatable,” remarked Scootaloo. “But I’m definitely all for exploring a castle!”

“Yeah!” agreed Sweetie Belle. The fillies grouped together and added, “Cutie Mark Crusader Castle Explorers are go!

“What’s a Cutie Mark Crusader?” asked Razzaroo. “Sounds like fun!”

“It’s a ton of fun!” said Apple Bloom. “We’re on a crusade…”

“…a quest…!”

“…a mission…!”

“…to find a way to get our cutie marks. We’ve been trying a bunch of different stuff!”

“But no results so far.”

“But we’ll get it eventually! We just have to keep on trying.”

“So these things are actually called cutie marks?” said Razzaroo, fascinated. “Toola-Roola will be happy to hear that. I just call them butt symbols.”

“That reminds me; I can’t wait to meet Scootaloo!” said the orange filly. “I mean, both Rainbow Dashes and Pinkie Pies share similar cutie marks; there’s gotta be a clue to what mine’s gonna be.”

“I think Scootaloo went to check on Pinkie,” said Rainbow Dash. “But I’m sure we’ll run into her eventually. Now, into the castle we go.”

The drawbridge already down, the entourage of ponies walked into the pink building and into a big hall that was only marginally less pink. The cutie mark crusaders wasted no time running off in all directions to explore. “This is where we hold extra special events, such as the Friendship Ball, or birthday parties.”

“Remarkable architecture,” commented the Princess, observing the heart-arcs and the star-shaped doorways. “Very reminiscing of the Heartthrobian design from a couple of centuries back, but the ceiling is definitely a St. Lightsburg inspired piece that was popular about five hundred years ago. Intriguing…”

“Hey, there’s a second floor to this place!” Scootaloo called to her companions, who rushed over to her. She then turned to their guide. “What’s up there?”

“Why don’t we go and have look,” she suggested. “I think it’s time we gave Spike a real royal wake-up.”

***

Celestia scanned the cluttered library that made up the second floor of the castle; piles of books thrown unceremoniously on the floor, a bed that had clearly been unmade for a long time, a desk filled to the brim with half-empty mugs, quills and half-scribbled parchments. On the floor, not the bed, lay a blue creature, its back turned to the entering ponies. But its spikes and tail was more than enough for her to recognize the creature. It almost made her heart stop.

“Spiiike!” called Razzaroo. “Oh, it’s no use, nothing we’ve tried had made him so much as budge. You don't happen to know how to wake a sleeping dragon, would you Princess?”

It was too much to be a coincidence. Celestia walked around the creature to get a better look at it, and the conformation to her suspicion made her gasp out loud. “Kenbroth!”

“Do you know this dragon?” asked Twilight, surprise in her voice.

“Yes but… I don’t believe this! I never thought I’d see him again!”

Her faithful student came to her teacher’s side, examining the dragon-like creature, her eyes filling with curiosity. “This is an Earth Dragon, isn’t it,” she realized, eying it with utmost fascination. “But I thought they went extinct several thousand years ago, when the Windigos covered the land in snow.”

“Earth Dragons are one of the world’s most intelligent and cunning creatures; many survived by moving deeper underground,” Celestia explained to her. “There are only a handful left in Equestria. As for this one… I do happen to know how to wake him up.” The Princess set her horn aglow, initiating a memory spell, then carried it down to the dragon’s forehead. With the voice akin to a knight addressing her liege, she spoke, “Your Majesty Sir Kenbroth, it is time to rise!”

The effect was immediate. The dragon rose into sitting position, looking around wildly. “Whu-wha? It’s time already? But I…” After a few moments he calmed down, and the first thing he saw was Princess Celestia, gazing down on him with a serious look. At first he only looked drowsily back at her, but then, slowly, realization filled his eyes, until he said in an almost whispering tone, “Celestia?”

“Good morning, Master Kenbroth Gilspotten Heathspike,” she greeted. “I trust you’ve had a nice sleep?”

He looked at her dumbfounded, then turned his head to see the other ponies in the rooms. Then he turne back to the Princess. “Princess Celestia… what in all of Equestria has happened?” he asked incredulously, though his voice still carryed that deceivingly quirky nature that earth dragons were known for. “I-I don’t remember anything… except that one moment I was with you and Princess Luna, and the next I… yes, I think I was given a mission by someone: ‘guard this flower,’ they said, ‘and teach whomever finds it the way of the Princess.’ That’s when Wysteria and Pinkie Pie found me! I’ve been here staying here in Ponyville ever since, but… that was all a dream, wasn’t it.”

“Like the rest of the village, you were put under a spell,” Celestia told him. “Just as you were when Discord took you from us. You were our most loyal adviser, an integral part in upholding our society with Discord at large… but I suppose we underestimated his cunning.”

“Ah yes, it's coming back... oh, Princess, I-I…” The look of dismay spoke volumes more than his stuttering, which answered a question Celestia had been asking herself for centuries. He had not been a traitor after all. “I have no excuse for what I did; whatever I did. I do remember bits and pieces, now that you’ve brought it up… yes, he snatched me away, then dug his claws into my head, and…” he paused, looking down at his feet. “Oh my. I went and lent him all my wisdom, didn’t I. It is because of me that Discord rose to power...”

“What is done is done, and lamenting the past will serve us no purpose,” spoke the Princess. “Discord’s rule lasted only eight years, and more than a thousand years has passed since then. This village, and the illusion you were under, was the last of his legacy; now his magic only exists as a scattered remnants within some of the residents of this town.”

The blue dragon turned his attention to the ponies, watching them curiously as they were watching him. “Ah yes, I suppose your appearances were also just a part of the dream. Nonetheless, it’s so good to see you are well. You must be Rainbow Dash, yes? I didn’t know you were really a pegasus.”

“Uhh… hello, darling?” the outsider Rainbow Dash managed, giving him a sheepish grin. He looked at her conspicuously, then jumped as he saw her lookalike right behind her.

Two Rainbow Dashes?” he observed, like many others before him shifting his eyes between the two. “This is peculiar indeed.”

“You could say that again,” agreed the Rainbow Dash he was acquainted with. “You look rather different yourself, darling; you were not so big when we saw you last, nor were your scales quite so… scaly.”

“Now that you mention it,” the dragon realized, “I do seem to be taller. Why, before I went to have my nap, I was only half your size; now I’m nearly double!”

“Still mighty small for a dragon, if ya ask me,” said Applejack.

“Earth Dragons never get bigger than this,” said Celestia. “He’s actually more than two thousand years old.”

“Three thousand, if you add the time I’ve been asleep,” added the Earth Dragon. He turned his attention to the village local Rainbow Dash, staring deep into her eyes. “Hmm, yes, I do sense a little bit of Discord left in you, my dear. Not to worry, it’s just a small drop among all the other wonderful things that makes you you. But…” he moved on to one of the other local village ponies, staring her into the eyes, “Wysteria, I sense nothing in you, except your kind heart and warm compassion.” He moved on to Whistle Wishes, and then Razzaroo. “Nor you two.”

“Just as I suspected,” said Celestia. “Of all ponies currently in the village, only Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie carry the remnants of Discord.”

“Are you sure?” asked Twilight Sparkle.

“Yes, I checked them each individually when they introduced themselves, which leads me to believe that those who are still missing also carry a fragment of Discord.”

Realization swept over Twilight’s face. “Rainbow Dash, how many ponies are missing right now?”

“Let’s see; Minty, Rarity and… Star Catcher, right?” But then Rainbow Dash gasped, “Kimono, darlings!”

“That’s right!” said Razzaroo. “She wasn’t there when we introduced ourselves. How could we forget about her?”

“She lives in a cave outside of Ponyville,” Wysteria explained to Celestia. “She’s wisest pony in the land, and keeper of pony legends and lore.”

“This confirms my suspicions,” concluded Celestia. “Six elements of harmony…”

“…six missing ponies…!” Twilight filled in. “Each carrying a remnant of Discord!”

“What, so it’s like some kind of Elements of Discord?” guessed Applejack.

“No, the traces are too faint,” said Celestia. “But it could be a piece to a larger puzzle. It only means we need to be careful how we handle things, and that we need to find the missing ponies post-haste.”

“No sweat, Princess,” the cerulean pegasus said. “When we find them, we’ll just zap ‘em with the good ol’ rainbow, and they’ll be good as new.”

“Unless that turns them to stone,” pointed Rarity. “Or send them to the moon.”

“Rarity is right; the Elements are a mystery unto themselves,” the Princess agreed. “We don’t know how it would react to them, and we certainly don’t want to punish those who have done no wrong.”

“I take it from this conversation that you and Luna actually found the Elements, then,” interrupted the dragon.

“We did, and with them, we ended the war and turned Discord into a statue,” Celestia recapped to him what was now ancient history. “Perhaps it would be best if we ended the tour here, Rainbow Dash; Kenbroth and I have a lot to discuss. Twilight, why don’t you and your friends spend the day here, get to know the villagers better. I’ll come pick you up at sundown.”

“An’ here Ah’d promised Big Mac I’d be back to help with the buckin’ come supper,” Applejack said with a sigh. “Guess he’s on his own.”

And with that, everypony filed out of the room, leaving the Princess alone with her old royal adviser. Despite it all, she was happy to have him back, as he had been one of the sister’s closest friends back in the day. She looked forward to having a good chat with him for the first time in eons.

But before she could, Pinkie Pie with the poofy mane popped back up from the stairs. She looked up at her, an uncharacteristic seriousness in her look. “Princess, I would like to ask you a favor.”

***

“Well, darlings, where should we go next?” wondered Rainbow Dash.

“I’m worried about Kimono,” Wysteria suggested. “We should at least check her cave, see if she’s still there. Maybe she’s locked herself in.

“I agree, darling. Besides, there is much to see on the way there: we have Wysteria’s flower garden Daffy’s beauty parlor…”

“Flower garden?” repeated Scootaloo. “Beauty parlor? Isn’t there anyplace more fun we could go? Someplace not so snuggly-wuggly?”

“Have patience, little darlings, you’ll get to see everywhere eventually.”

“But that’s no adventure! The Princess said it would be an adventure! We wanna go explore on our own, don’t we guys?”

“Yeah,” agreed Apple Bloom. “How are we gonna be the Cutie Mark Crusader Explorers we’re just following a group.”

“I know you you want to stretch your legs,” said Twilight, “but we can’t have you wandering off on your own in an unfamiliar town; how are we going to find you?”

“I could go with the kids,” offered pegasus Rainbow Dash. “If we need to find you, I’ll just spy you from the sky.”

“Awesome! Can we, miss Rainbow Dash?” The three little ponies gave the earth pony a pleading look, adding in chorus, “Pleeeease?”

“Oh, all right, darlings, if it’s that important to you,” she gave in. “Just don’t venture outside the village.”

Twilight considered it for a moment. She was against the idea of splitting up the group; who knew what other tricks Discord had hid around the village? But she knew how impatient the kids could be – and Rainbow Dash as well, for that matter – so maybe letting them have their fun wasn’t such a bad idea. “Alright kids, but you’ll have to come back to us around dinnertime. Can we count on you to fetch them for us, Fluttershy?”

“Uh, okay,” the yellow pegasus said with a small nod.

“Thank you, Twilight!” said the three all together. And with a final, “Cutie Mark Crusader Explorers are go, yay!” they ran off the opposite direction from the castle, the cerulean pegasus following in tow.

“By the way, where’s Pinkie Pie,” noticed Twilight. “Ours, I mean.”

“Here I am!” said mentioned pony from behind. “What did I miss?”

“Nothing much, just the fillies running off with Rainbow Dash on an adventure.”

“Oh, makes sense. Actually, I can’t stay either, got lots to do. See ya!”

“Pinkie, wai—” but the pink party pony had already rounded the nearest building. Twilight sighed. “And that’s what we like to describe as Pinkie being Pinkie.”

“Did we say something to offend her?” asked Razzaroo.

“Nah, she just likes to run around doin’ her own thing,” assured Applejack. “Makes ya wonder what she’s up to this time.”

“Guess we’ll have to wait and see. Until then, I can’t wait to see that garden.”

***

“So, Crusaders, do you have a plan?” asked Rainbow Dash, having watched the fillies running around aimlessly for about ten minutes. Three ponies had mistaken her for the other Rainbow Dash already, so she made sure to keep herself in the air to avoid confusion.

“Sure we do,” answered Sweetie Belle. “If we’re gonna be the Cutie Mark Explorers, we need to go where there is most exploring to do.”

“You mean the amusement park, right?” said Apple Bloom.

“No, I mean that.” Sweetie Belle pointed at the tall mountain towering over the village. “I say we cross that mountain and see what’s on the other side!”

“Yeah!” Scootaloo whooped, flapping her wings. “One of us are bound to get our cutie mark if we can climb that thing.”

“Alright, girls, knock yourselves out,” said Rainbow Dash, estimating a total climb height of ten pony lengths before they would decide to go around the mountain instead.

As the girls made their way through town, towards the looming behemoth of a mountain, Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but note the excessive cutesiness that was the overlaying theme of this town. Seriously, pretty much everything in this town had a heart-shape somewhere on it, weather it be a window or roof ornament. Sure there was some of that back home, but not so blatantly gaudy. Every rooftop had been painted with a bright and colorful scheme; pink most of the time. Also, unlike her version of Ponyville, buildings were usually made of bricks and stones around here, as opposed to tree and thatch.

It didn’t take long before they arrived at the last stretch of grass separating the town and the mountain, and there, the Cutie Mark Crusaders came to a halt. Because on the grass, they spotted…

“Scootaloo!” called the orange filly, running over to her counterpart, which very much took her by surprise. “You’re Scootaloo, aren’t you? I’m Scootaloo! Man, I bet this is how I’ll when I grow up. Well, if I dye my mane.”

At first, the grownup version only seemed confused, but then she laid eyes on Rainbow Dash, and realization seemed to hit her. “Oh! You came here with the Princess, didn’t you. Holy smokes, you do look like a younger me! And you’re…” she took a second look at Rainbow Dash, “…not Rainbow Dash, are you.”

“Thank you!” the pegasus replied. The mix-up had been fun the first ten times, but it was getting old fast. “You think having a smaller version of yourself around is confusing? If I didn’t have these wings attached to my back, even I couldn’t tell myself apart.”

Grown-up Scootaloo laughed. “I know, it’s weird, right? I tried asking the Unicorns of Unicornia about it, but they say this is beyond any magic they’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah yeah, enough about that,” said the filly Scootaloo impatiently. “Let’s see your cute mark!” she rounded her flank eagerly, but then the smile dropped from her face. “A butterfly? My special talent is a butterfly?!”

“Special talent?” asked the grown-up version. “Is that what they’re supposed to represent?”

“Don’t they teach you anything in school?” commented Apple Bloom.

“What’s school?”

“You don’t have school around here? It’s where you learn how to write, read, do math; that sorta thing. Ah’m jealous.”

“Oh. My mom taught me all that when I was a kid,” explained grownup Scootaloo. “I don’t see what my mark’s gotta do with my talents, though. Pinkie Pie told me I got it when I was chasing a butterfly when I was a baby. I thought it had to do with things you liked, not what you’re good at. I’ve always liked butterflies.”

“Aww,” said the filly-version in disappointment. “I thought you’d give me a clue on how to get my own cutie mark. Though I guess I’m glad my special talent isn’t a butterfly. I don’t wanna be an animal tender like Fluttershy.”

“I thought cutie marks were the same anywhere,” said Apple Bloom. “I’ve never even heard of somepony getting theirs when they’re just a baby.”

“Don’t feel bad,” said Sweetie Belle, “it’s probably just Discord messing with the laws of reality.”

“I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that we’ve been under a spell our whole lives,” the village Scootaloo shared. “But I’ll be honest with you, ever since I ‘woke up’, as it were, I’ve felt… different. Like I’ve entered a body that’s not my own, taken on a different life. It’s a strange feeling alright… but not altogether bad. I don’t know how to describe it, but the world feels more alive somehow.”

“Yeah, I can relate, actually,” Rainbow Dash told her. “I was under Discord’s spell once too.”

“Seriously?!” the filly version exclaimed, and the cerulean pegasus realized she never actually told her about it.

“Yeah, Scoot, not a proud day. I was in my own world, where nothing matter but me myself and I. Getting out of there was one of the biggest reliefs I can remember. But I guess that’s not the same; I didn’t spend my whole life there.”

“So is Discord is gone?” asked big Scootaloo. “That’s why the spell around the village broke, right? Because you defeated him?”

“More or less.”

“Well, I guess that means we're in charge of our own lives from here on out. It’s been nice meeting you guys; I gotta scoot. I’ve been avoiding my friends for too long. And Scootaloo, next time we meet, I’ll show you some of my wicked Scooter tricks.”

Her eyes lit up. “I can’t wait!” And with that, the grownup version of Scootaloo galloped off back into town.

***

“Kimono, darling?” called the village Rainbow Dash as the group gazed into the dark cave. “Are you there?”

Silence. And darkness. Kimono’s cave was never dark; every time Rainbow Dash had come to visit, torches had been lit along the walls, giving the place a welcoming glow. Now, the cave only extended into blackness, a slight echo greeting Rainbow Dash’s call.

“There’s a pony living in here?” asked Fluttershy. “It’s so dark and cold.”

“This can’t be the right cave,” said Wysteria. “She would always decorate the entrance with pots of flowers.”

“But where else could it be?” Rainbow Dash rebutted. “I say we at least go have a look inside. That is, as soon as we go back and fetch a torch.”

“Allow me,” offered Twilight, and without another word, her horn started glowing. “Will this do?”

“Perfect, darling. Let’s go.”

There were indeed signs of residence – empty baskets, torch holders – but nothing that would indicate someone actually living here. Dripping of water could be heard from all around them, and the occasional bat would fly off and frighten them, making Fluttershy squeak in terror. The cave bent to the right, and just as Rainbow Dash remembered it, there was a wooden door. She did not, however, remember it being so cracked and rotted.

“I really, really don’t like this place,” said Fluttershy in a shaken voice. “Do we have to go in there?”

Rainbow Dash found herself sharing the sentiment; just looking at the worn-down door filled her heart with unease, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever they would find beyond would not be pleasant. Nonetheless, they couldn’t turn back now; if by any off-chance Kimono was still in there – perhaps unable to move or speak – they couldn’t just leave her there. “I’m afraid we have to. Anyone want to go first?”

“I’m the one with the light, so I guess I’ll go,” said Twilight. As she pushed the door open, Rainbow Dash half-expected something to jump out at them… but nothing came. They entered the room, the light from Twilight’s horn revealing a picture that almost made Rainbow Dash’s heart stopped.

This was Kimono’s room alright, but everything was in ruin. One brought not by physical struggle, but by the test of time itself. A rotted pile of wood occupied one corner, the iron skeleton of a bed another; the few pieces of furniture that were still standing were covered in cob-web. No water was dripping here, making it perfect for dust to settle, and once again being stirred as the ponies entered.

“There are heavy traces of magic here,” Twilight told the group.

“Hay, even ah can feel it,” said Applejack. “And it's givin' me the chills. It’s like Discord’s in the room with us.”

“I don’t feel anything,” said Razzaroo. “Except creeped out. This can’t be Kimono’s cavern.”

Fluttershy was shaking head to hoof, her posture very low. “W-whatever it is, I-I d-don’t wanna be here. I really don’t wanna be here.”

“That’s something we can agree on,” said Rarity, observing what must have been a closet in ages past, now only a wooden hollow square. “I’ve never seen a place quite so dusty. Would you like go back and wait outside, dear?”

“I-I’m okay. Just as long as we don't take too long?”

“It’s like no one’s been in this room for who knows how long,” pondered Twilight. “Are you absolutely sure this is Kimono’s cavern?”

“Not so much anymore,” admitted Rainbow Dash. “But the interior is the same, what's left of it anyway, and I’m pretty sure we took the right path here. Why, I visited Kimono just a few days ago, and it was as homely as could be.”

Twilight looked like she was thinking hard. “Just to clarify: the town as you remember it is still the same, before and after the spell was broken, right?”

“More or less, yes.”

“In other words, the Time Capsule must have preserved the village as it appeared when the spell was first cast. This place, on the other hoof, looks as though it’s been left to its natural flow of time. Was it some flaw in Discord's magic, or did he plan it this way? Why here?”

Rainbow Dash gasped. “But if the cave has fallen into such state, what if Kimono…!”

“It’s too early to say that,” said Twilight, calming Rainbow Dash down before her imagination could get the better of her. “I think it's safe to assume she was spirited away into Equestria, just like you and Pinkie. That said, Kimono and Discord must have been connected somehow. Enough for Discord to want to leave his mark on her home.”

Rainbow Dash walked over to her old bedside table, staring into what used to be the mirror, now only a slab of old metal. She was about to open a drawer, when Twilight let out a loud gasp, startling her. “Rainbow Dash!” she spoke frantically. “There! On the wall! Is that Kimono?”

Looking up, she saw Twilight’s glowing horn illuminating a small framed picture on the wall. The colors were faded, but there were no doubts the mare depicted on in the frame shared an exact similarity to Twilight Sparkle. She stared at it wide-eyed; despite the fact that she looked like someone else entirely, for reasons she could not explain, there was no doubt in her heart that this was indeed Kimono. “Why, it must be!”

“Well Ah’ll be strung by mah own rope,” said Applejack, staring at the picture. “That’s you to a tee. Is yer middle name Kimono, Twi?”

“Not that I know of...”

Rainbow Dash couldn’t stop staring at the picture. Somewhere deep within her mind, she felt she knew the girl on the picture from somewhere long before she met Twilight Sparkle, or even Kimono. Almost like memories that had been long forgotten were starting to resurface. Then, out of nowhere, the image of a creature came to mind, one whose only body part resembling a pony was the face. And immediately she knew what she saw. “I think we’ve stayed here long enough, darlings,” she opted. “I think the magic in this place might be getting to me.”

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for help with editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Five

By Candle Light

The Cutie Mark Crusaders didn’t even make it ten pony lengths up the mountain before they decided that Cutie Mark Crusader Mountaineering was old news and a waste of their time, opting instead to go around the mountain, toward the small village at its foot. Though it wasn’t a long way around, the three fillies somehow managed to get side-tracked more than once along the way. Keeping them focused was harder than Rainbow Dash had though. Eventually, they arrived in a patch of forest, its trail leading through to the village beyond. And who should they meet on the way if not…

“Uh, hi Pinkie,” greeted Rainbow Dash.

The village local Pinkie Pie, sitting there alone on a rock, looked their way, and gave them a little smile. “Hi, Rainbow Dash. And you too, kids.”

“What are you doing here all by yourself?” asked the pegasus, as it was obvious from the look in her eyes that she wasn’t as happy as somepony named Pinkie Pie ought to be.

“Oh, y’know, just thought I needed a good walk,” she told her. “Stretch my legs, do some thinking. A lot of thinking, actually. I’m not used to thinking so much.”

“Guess I can't blame you,” Rainbow Dash said, walking over. “Don’t worry, we’ll find your friends; I’m sure the Princesses’ henchponies are combing every street of every town in Equestria as we speak.”

“That’s what everyone tells me,” she replied. “And I guess you’re right. Worrying about it sure won’t help. So instead, I’ve been thinking. Why we’re here, what we are, what’s gonna happen from here on out….”

“Say, why don’t you come with us?” invited Rainbow Dash. “I’m keeping an eye on the kids while they’re adventuring; it’ll take your mind off things.”

“You know what, I think I will,” Pinkie Pie agreed. “Y'know, I usually go talk to Rainbow Dash whenever something is bugging me, so I guess you'll do.” She laughed a little, and Rainbow Dash did the same, hoping it wouldn’t come off as a nervous one; she couldn’t recall anypony actually coming to her for advice.

“Whatever, let’s get going,” urged the impatient orange pegasus filly. “This place won’t explore itself!”

***

On the other side of the glade was the town of Unicornia: seven or so houses surrounding a gazebo in its center. Not much of a town at all, actually, but the Cutie Mark Crusaders were more than happy to run around exploring every nook and cranny of it as ponies on the street came up and greeted Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash, to which the pegasus once again had to explain who she wasn’t.

“Are you alright, Pinkie Pie?” asked one of the unicorns that Pinkie told her she recognized as Lily Lightly.

“More or less. And you? Rarity hasn’t turned up yet, has she?”

“She’s not playing hide and seek this time, I’m afraid. All we can do now is to wait, and trust in the Princess.”

“That, and round up all the things that’s changed around here,” said another unicorn. “Like my voice for instance; why’s it so dark?”

“Uhh… because you’re a colt?” Rainbow Dash ventured.

“A what-now?”

“A male, a guy,” she explained. “Are you saying you weren’t a guy before?”

“I-I don’t think so,” the unicorn replied, looking really uncomfortable. “My voice was as light as anybody else's. What is a ‘guy’, exactly?”

“So… were there any colts in your village before?” asked Rainbow Dash. She was sure she had seen at least several back at the hill, but the unicorns all shook their head. “Oh my…”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she brushed it off, not too keen on having to explain nature’s purpose for dividing creatures into genders. They’d figure it out eventually. “Don’t worry; you’ll live.”

“As will all of us,” added Lily. “There are so many things I don’t understand. The Princesses said everything up until now was just an illusion, but other than our looks and Unicornia moving closer to Ponyville, nothing has really changed. Who was the spirit of chaos? Why would he even do this?”

“All I know is, he’s not very fond of things making sense,” Rainbow Dash offered her meager insight. “Could be he just wanted to leave some chaos behind, and you guys just happened to be the first to catch his eyes before the Princesses did him in. But don’t worry about it too much; Equestria is an awesome place. Not perfect, but what is?”

“As long as Rarity and the others are found, I don’t care about perfect,” said Lily. “I’ve been thinking that maybe we should set up a search party ourselves. I don’t think anybody has even gone outside the village yet.”

“Hey, Dash!” called Scootaloo, the three fillies apparently having seen everything there is to see in this small village. “Let’s go explore the castle!” She pointed up the mountain, where a big, colorful castle rested, its towers reflecting the colors of the rainbow in the sunlight.

“You can’t just run into a castle without asking,” replied Rainbow Dash.

“Oh, it’s alright,” Lily gave them permission. “Anyone is welcome in the castle. I live there myself; I’ll come with you.”

“Sweet! Race you there!” And the Crusaders were off, sprinting up the mountain road toward the majestic structure at the top.

***

“It’s beautiful,” commented Fluttershy. “And it smells wonderful.”

Rainbow Dash, Razzaroo and Wysteria had just led the four ponies outsider ponies into a forest that, according to the villagers, had not been there before, although both Rainbow Dash and Wysteria had said that this was without a doubt the place they called Breezie Blossom. It had to be one of the most beautiful places Fluttershy had ever seen. Other than a few meadows around Ponyville, she had never been in a forest this peaceful, so lush, so full of flowers. It was the perfect place to forget about the horror she had felt in Kimono’s cave.

“Breezies, darlings!” called Rainbow Dash. She had told them about the Breezies: tiny flying ponies with antennae that made their homes in flowers and mushrooms. Fluttershy couldn’t wait to meet them. “Are you there? Darlings?”

“Breezies… I’m sure I’ve come across that word somewhere,” Twilight shared. “But where?”

“I can’t believe such ponies even exists,” said Rarity. “Why would ponies need antennae?”

“Why, so they can suck nectar from the flowers, darling,” said Rainbow Dash. “Breezies have a very close bond to nature; that’s why they stay in the forest and not in Ponyville.”

“They sound lovely,” said Fluttershy, almost giddy at the prospect. “Just imagine being able to fly among the flowers, surrounded by all the woodland creatures. I wish I was a Breezie.”

“Don’t we all sometimes, darling. I do wonder where the little darlings have gone. I just hope they are still here.”

“They can’t have been gone for long,” noted Applejack, pointing at one of the bushes. “Ah’ve rounded up enough small flying critters to know when they’ve passed through a bush, and those berries couldn’t have picked themselves.”

“Maybe they’re just frightened,” Wysteria suggested, her voice soft-spoken enough to rival Fluttershy’s. “I know I was frightened when it happened. I’m sure we’ll find them if we just keep looking.”

The further in they went, the more colorful the scenery became, and the way the flowers were arranged made it clear that they had been planted there and tended to by hoof. The trail leaned steadily upward, until they appeared into a small glade on top of a hill.

Fluttershy could not believe her eyes. Around the glade were sculptures, carved out from the bushes, resembling all kinds of animals: squirrels, bunnies, giraffes, even animals she had never seen before. Next to one of these, on the ground, lay a tiny carriage with pink wheels and heart-shapes. Twilight hovered it to her face with her magic, eying it wondrously. “This is amazing,” she said. “It’s too well-crafted to be a toy. I didn’t know they used tools.”

“And look at this little seed pouch,” Fluttershy pointed at a small toppled bag of seed. “Looks like they were in the middle of planting these.” She also noticed a small stick that was flattened on one side and sharpened on the other. “And this must be what they used to do it. They’re crafty little things.”

“It all looks mostly the same,” Wysteria noted. “But the trees didn’t used to be so high.”

“I dare say the forest has grown since we last saw it,” said Rainbow Dash. “Fluttershy, darling, would you mind flying up and have a look for us?”

Fluttershy nodded, and started flapping her wings. She rose above the tree-tops, and further still. Rising high enough so she could see the village, she saw the forest extend nearly endlessly to the opposite direction; and further to the right-hoof side, a large field took over, huge boulders scattered all across the plain. She descended, reporting what she had seen.

“Oh, I hope the Breezies didn’t get themselves lost,” said Rainbow Dash.

“I just hope we won’t get lost,” said Razzaroo. “With a forest this big, who knows where they ended up.”

“No, Razzaroo, look,” said Wysteria, calling her friend over to an especially thick set of bushes on the other side of the glade. She came up beside her and peeked through the bushes… only to pop back out with a smile, “Yes yes yes, here it is!” Everypony rushed over and hurdled together, putting their heads through the bush.

Fluttershy’s heart skipped a beat. There they were, the tiny Breezie houses, built out of flowers, mushrooms, tree stumps and anything else that grew in the forest. There was even a small bridged over a stream. The miniature village was simply adorable, and filled Fluttershy’s heart with warm and fuzzy feelings. But where were the ponies?

“Breezies!” Wysteria called softly. “Are you in here?”

And to their surprise, a flowers actually stirred in response; and then noise came from it. Voices! Fluttershy couldn’t make out what was being said, but then her entire body tensed when the flower opened up, and the very small head of a pony peeked out. As soon as it saw the much bigger heads, it let out a squeaking noise and hid… only to reappear with two more miniature pony heads. Eventually, one of them spoke up. “W-Wysteria? Is that you?”

“It’s me!” she told them. “Come on out, Breezies! There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

More whispering, this time from all around the houses. Then, Fluttershy’s heart nearly stopped as a myriad of tiny ponies flew out from their homes, right toward them. She instinctively withdrew her head and backed away, and the others did the same as the Breezies flew into the glade. They really did look just like regular earth ponies, only adorned with said antennae and what resembled moth wings. They circled around Wysteria and Rainbow Dash.

“What’s happened?” a yellow one asked, her high pitch voice reminding her of Pinkie Pie. “Why do you look so different? Why do we look different? Why are the trees so high? Who are they?”

“One question at a time, darlings,” Rainbow Dash calmed them down. “It’s a long story, really, so you might want to settle down.” The Breezies slowed down and came to a stop, hovering in the air. “Thank you. Now, where do I begin.”

“Perhaps I should begin by introducing myself.”

Fluttershy let out a squeal at the very familiar voice, turning around to see Princess Celestia standing there in the glade. The blue earth dragon stood at her side, giggling. “I see you haven’t lost your touch, Your Majesty.”

“I didn’t mean to startle them,” she replied playfully. “But many insist on being spooked whenever I show up. The curse of being a Princess, I suppose.”

“Oh yes, I know the feeling,” agreed Wysteria. “Did you come here to visit the Breezies?”

“We didn’t expect to see you so soon,” said Twilight Sparkle. “It’s only been an hour.”

“An hour well spent, but more reminiscing will have to wait. Kenbroth believes he has found something out about the Time Capsule spell, and you all need to hear it. Where is Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie?”

“Here I am!” said the pink party pony, instantly appearing beside Fluttershy, making her jump a second time. “What did I miss? Ahh, parasprites! No wait… these are the Breezies!”

“So it’s true,” said Celestia, a hint of emotion dying her tone. “I didn’t know what to believe when you told me.” The fairy-like ponies circled around the Princess, one of them landing on Celestia’s outstretched hoof. “I thought I’d never see your again. Not after Discord drove you all to extinction.”

“Extinction?” said the Breezie. “What a thing to say! Who’s Discord?”

“Come to think of it, where are the others?” asked Wysteria. “This can’t be all of you.”

“We don’t know,” replied another Breezie. “We’ve looked around, but we’re the only ones in Breezie Blossom.”

“I think I know where they are,” said the Earth Dragon, his tone becoming serious. “Or to be more precise, I know where they’re not. I’m very sorry to tell you this, but they never were. Discord was the spirit of chaos, and Breezies were very sensitive to the chaotic magic, and also very susceptible to illusion spells, and as we know, Discord was a master of illusions. This may come as a shock to you, my dears, but he trapped us all in an illusion for a thousand years; my guess is that he designed the spell so that each of you Breezies would appear as many more in the dream world.”

There was a silence, the Breezies no longer circling the Princess or Wysteria, rather floating still in the air. The one on Celestia’s hoof eventually spoke up. “So… all of our friends are gone?” she looked up at the Princess pleadingly.

“Not quite,” said the dragon. “Think back for a moment: did you know all of the Breezies personally?”

“Well… now that you mentioned it,” she then took off from the hoof, looking around at each of her friends, her eyes widening as she did.

“You see?” said the dragon. “You’ll soon find that all of your fellow Breezies were based off of one of you, so now that the spell is broken, only the ‘originals’ remain, so to speak. One might even say they all live on within each of you.”

“I… think I understand,” said the Breezie, the sadness in her voice replaced by a tone of realization.

“Yeah…” agreed another. “It doesn’t feel like anyone’s missing. That’s so strange.”

“And now that you’ve returned to Equestria, I will personally see to that no harm befalls you,” promised Celestia. She put her horn right next to one of the Breezies. “Yes, I can sense it; the Elements of Harmony kept you safe all these years, and I suspect they will continue to do so.”

“What Elements of Harmony?” asked the Breezie. “What’s Equestria? Will someone explain things?”

“Soon, my dears,” replied the Princess. “But first I must speak to my students. Where is Rainbow Dash?”

“She’s off playing with the kids,” Rarity told her. “Said something about climbing the mountain.”

Celestia closed her eyes, her horn giving off a faint glow. “Yes, she’s at the other castle.”

“You can find ponies just like that?” asked Twilight.

“Of course, how else did you think I found you so quickly? You Element bearers are especially easy to sense. Let’s go meet her, everypony.”

***

“Pinkie Pie!” greeted Cheerilee, who turned out to be another splitting image to the similarly named teacher pony from Rainbow Dash’s town, save for the nuance of purple on her coat, the blue and pink mane, and the horn on her head. The earth pony next to her – introduced as Story Belle, a close friend to Pinkie’s, judging from the heartfelt hug they shared – didn’t ring a bell: her coat was light pink, her mane alternating in yellow, pink and purple stripes. Multicolored manes seemed to be common around here. “I’m so happy to see you’re up and about. Are you feeling alright?”

“Yeah, I think I got it all out of my system,” Pinkie told her. “But I'm still worried. Especially for Minty.”

“I know she's a very dear friend to you,” said Story Belle.

“The best a pony could ever have.”

The Cutie Mark Crusaders, having none of this sap, spread out to search the circular room for whatever interesting stuff they could find. Rainbow Dash, on the other hoof, was more interested in the ceiling, a glass dome high above her head. All the sparkly decorations making her head spin.

“And… which Rainbow Dash were you again?” Cheerilee addressed the pegasus.

“Well, darling… actually, nevermind. I’m the cool one.” She stressed her point by flapping her wings.

“Just checking. I thought she might have turned into a pegaus. So I take it you’ve met our own Rainbow Dash. How is she?”

“Fine, as far as I can tell,” she relayed. “She was going on about not being able to pick stuff up with her hooves, but nothing life-threatening.”

“That’s something that has given us all trouble,” said Story Belle. “I can’t even pick up books anymore.”

“I’m not sure how bending the flat of your hooves would even work,” Rainbow Dash admitted, “but you’ll learn to work with your mouth. Unicorns have it good though; they just lift stuff with magic.”

“We can?” said Cheerilee. “That would make things much easier. Thank you for telling me!”

“Hey, where did the kids go?” pointed Pinkie Pie. Sure enough, there were nowhere to be seen around the hall, but Rainbow Dash could hear giggling and talking coming from somewhere. She then noticed a tile on the floor had been opened, which on closer inspection led to stairs leading downward. “Was this always here?” asked Pinkie.

“No,” said Cheerilee. “We found it just awhile ago. Come, I’ll show you. I just hope the kids don’t touch anything.”

***

“Check it out!” Scootaloo marveled. Unlike the other castle, which only had a room and a boring old library, this one actually had a cellar filled with all kinds of stuff she had never seen before. The room shared its size with the one above, and everything was stacked neatly around the walls, leaving ample space to roam. The place was lit up by the candle lights from a chandelier, giving it the perfect Secret Base feel. Scootaloo liked it. “Hey Sweetie Belle, what do you think this is?”

“I don’t know,” she said, eyeing the statue of a griffin’s claw holding a blue glass orb, “but I don’t think we should be touching anything.”

“I know, but just look at this stuff!” Scootaloo replied excitedly. There was a suit of armor in one of the corner, kind of resembling the ones Celestia’s guard wore, and a big painting of a castle was stacked against a box next to it. Scootaloo decided to check out a drawer that looked like nopony had dusted off for quite a while, but then…

“Kids?” All three adult ponies came down the stairs, and all three Crusaders stopped rummaging. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with you poking around these things,” said one of the unicorns. “Even we’re not sure what most of this stuff is.”

Only now did Scootaloo notice that she bore striking similarities to her teacher, and it gave her pause. “Is your name Cheerilee?” she asked.

“Why, yes, how did you…?” she began, but stopped, exchanging looks with Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie. “I have a double too, don’t I.”

“Yeah, kinda,” said Apple Bloom, coming up next to Scootaloo. “She’s our teacher. Not a unicorn, though.”

“I thought I recognized you before on the hill,” remembered Sweetie Belle. “That’s so weird. Only some of you look like ponies from our village. I’ve never seen you around.” She pointed at Story Belle.

“The important thing is you’re not our teacher,” remarked Scootaloo. “What do you say, Miss? We could help you sort through this stuff, see what’s useful.”

“I have a better idea!” offered Story Belle. “I found this picture book down here.” She walked over to one of the book shelves, pulling one out; only to remember she couldn’t grab it with her hoof, so she let it fall to the floor with a thud. She awkwardly pushed it along the floor, showing it to she children. “I thought it was really fascinating. Wanna hear it?”

“I don’t know…” Scootaloo hesitated. Exploring was way more fun that sitting around listening to somepony talk, but the neat picture on the cover – a big castle on top of a mountain – did pique her interest.

“You know you shouldn’t go poking around other people’s stuff, right?” Pinkie Pie pointed out.

“I know, but…” She decided to seek advice from the, in her eyes, biggest authority in the room, “What do you think, Dash?”

“She’s right, kiddo; this is someone’s basement, not a clubhouse. Even I know messing around with ancient and potentially magical stuff can be dangerous.”

“I thought you said your name was Rainbow Danger Dash!” remarked the orange filly.

“And when Rainbow Danger Dash tells you it’s dangerous, you’d better listen.”

“‘Sides, Ah could use a break,” voted Apple Bloom. “Ah like hearing stories. Granny Smith tells me stories all the time.”

“Fine,” Scootaloo gave in, sitting herself down on the floor. Her two friends sat down next to her, as did Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. Story Belle opened the book, turning it to its side so that everypony could see the pictures. On the first page, it depicted a bunch of unicorns on an open field.

In our land, long ago, long before the chaos and snow;

there lived tribes of unicorns, friends through blood and magic horns.”

“Don’t tell me it’s gonna rhyme the whole story!”

“Shhh.”

Six they were, and though divided, all with harmony they sided.

Friends in games, drinks and food, never far from happy mood.

Though all folks had all they wanted, with one question they were haunted.”

She turned the page, and picture of ponies gazing out at sea spread across both pages.

This is here, but what is there? For this, the ponies had a flare.

To find out what the unknown held, what other wonders out there dwelled.

What could be across the sea; no one had yet gone to see.”

She turned the page again; on the first was a picture of big waves on the ocean, and the other depicted a group of ponies gathered around a circle with star shapes drawn on the floor.

For in these waters, danger lurked; beasts from which the bravest shirked.

Even if through spells you flew; a magic shroud would hinder you.

But though the ocean would not yield; perhaps if one would magic wield,

one could travel far beyond, reappear beyond the pond.

For this dream to realize, every unicorn so wise,

banded into one group strong, so to travel distance long.”

The last page had a picture of six castles on it, shining bright in under a starry sky, each a different color.

And so was cast by every tribe, spells not easy to describe.

Through their bonds and love for all, a pillar bright, big and tall,

made a bridge across the sea, which ponies quickly crossed with glee.

Nevermore would they return, for everypony shared a yearn,

to see what else out there to see, no one knows where they could be.

But in the castles left behind, friendship’s magic you will find.

The end.”

“Wow,” said Sweetie Belle. “That’s pretty neat.”

“Are you kidding?” objected Scootaloo. “There was no action, and way too much rhyming.”

“Is that what you say to someone who just read you a story?” said Pinkie Pie sternly.

“It’s okay, Pinkie,” Story Belle assured. “Do you wanna hear another one? There’s a bunch more in this book.”

“No!”

“I, for one, found it really fascinating,” said Cheerilee. “I know this may sound crazy, but—ah!” A bright flash startled her and everypony else in the room, but more startling still was the fact that nine more ponies and a dragon-like creature – along with a bunch of flying small things – were now in the room with them.

“Pardon our intrusion,” said Princess Celestia; by her side stood all of Rainbow Dash’s friends, plus a few ponies from the village. “I thought this would be quicker than walking.”

There was a moment of silence as everypony just stared at the newcomers, and in Scootaloo’s case, allowed her heart to calm down. She did not expect a crowd to just pop up like that. Even more freaky as the small, butterfly-like ponies now circling over their heads. Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash alike only stared at them incredulously.

“Breezies!” exclaimed the village Pinkie Pie, facing lighting up. “You’re okay!”

“Introductions will have to wait; Kenbroth here has discovered something that you all need to hear,” said the Princess, as the dragon creature stepped forward.

“Hold on a minute; ‘Kenbroth’?” said Pinkie Pie, eying the blue dragon with great curiosity. “Is that you, Spike?”

“None other, my dear. And you’re the Pinkie Pie I’ve come to know and love. I heard you were quite upset about Minty; I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“As good as I’ll ever feel.”

“No doubt. And you two are… hold on, let me guess… Cheerilee and Sweetie Belle?”

“Story Belle.”

“Ah, right; Belle is such a common name around these parts. In any case, I should probably bring you up to speed; I was the Princesses’ adviser back in the day, before Discord started running wild and created this mess. As such, I have both an inside and outside perspective of this little fantasy world that he created. I confirmed some facts with Celestia, and I do believe I have some answers for you.”

The newcomers settled on the floor next to the Crusaders, and soon all eyes were fixed upon the dragon. “You see, the village I remember from over a thousand years ago looked quite different from how it appears today. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: ‘how could that be? I thought you said it was a time loop!’ There are more factors in play, I’m afraid: a major one being the nature of Discord’s illusion, another being the Elements of Harmony. Mind you, these are only educated guesses, but I believe that Discord's inclusion of the Elements' magic into his spell had some unforeseen side effects. They resonated with the illusion he created, shaping the physical reality inside the Time Capsule to match. In other words, this village is a literal case of a dream coming true.”

“I-I don’t believe it,” said Twilight, shaking her head. “What kind of spell could turn abstract thoughts into reality?”

“Only one created by the Elements of Harmony,” answered Celestia. “I find it hard to believe as well, but you saw Rainbow Dash’s shop, didn’t you? All the clothes she had made were there, but how could they be, if she had been a sleep for millennium?”

“I thought we had been sleepwalking or something,” said the earth pony Rainbow Dash. “Were we really still for a thousand years, darlings? No wonder I felt so out of shape.”

“It still doesn’t explain why some ponies in this town look like us,” pointed the pegasus counterpart.

“Well, no,” admitted the dragon. “We’ll have to figure that one out as we go.”

“But if the village as we know it was created by magic, how did it look before?” asked the village Pinkie Pie.

“A lot less colorful, for one thing. A rather poor town, actually, but it had its rustic charm.” He stopped prancing, noticing the book on the floor. He picked it up and started flipping the pages. “Ah, yes, a child’s version of The Legend of Harmony, an epic created by Fillyam Haykespeare. No, wait, she wrote that tragic love story with the warring families. Anywho, I have reasons to believe this tale is actually based on a true story. In fact, I believe one of the castles mentioned here is actually the one we’re in right now.”

“Seriously?” exclaimed Scootaloo, all of a sudden finding the story much more interesting.

“I thought I felt something from these walls,” shared Cheerilee. “A sense of familiarity I can't properly explain.”

“Are you sure about this, Kenbroth?” asked Celestia. “The Legend of Harmony has been a widely studied subject for scholars throughout the ages, and no one has managed to prove the existence of these castles.”

“That’s because they’ve stayed hidden in plain sight,” he explained. “Can you think of no castle with a high amount of magic condensation? Perhaps one you rebuilt from crumbled ruins all those years ago?”

“You don’t mean Canterlot!”

“But I do. Other such castles may already have fallen into ruin, but that doesn’t mean the magic has left. I suspect this was the case with this castle; Discord, for whatever reason, must have recreated it for the illusion. Incidentally, the castle in Ponyville wasn’t there at all before; maybe he just liked to build castles.”

“We still can’t be certain whether or not he even knew it was there, or if it was part of his plan,” said Celestia. “Miss Cheerilee, am I right assuming you’re the caretaker of this castle?”

“Yes, I live here with a few friends.”

“Would it be too much trouble to allow a couple of my mages to stay for a few weeks, so we can study the castle’s magical properties?”

“Not at all. I want to know more about this as much as you do; I’ll be happy to help anyway I can. I’ll talk to Whistle Wishes and Brights Brightly.”

“Thank you, Miss Cheerilee. I’m afraid this is where I’ll take my leave, then; I have much to discuss with Luna. Kenbroth, would you like to come with me and see Canterlot again?”

“As much as that sounds delightful, I think it would be best if I stayed here for the time being, see to that everyone is settled.

“Very well then. As for you, my faithful students, I’ve already talked to the carriers, and they will stand by to take you home whenever you wish.”

“Oh no they won’t,” said the hyper-version Pinkie Pie. “Standing around all day is no fun, so I told them they could go ahead and fly back to Canterlot. So now we have to stay the night!”

“Pinkie!” complained Rarity. “I have orders to fill tomorrow! You can’t just set the schedule for us. And think of the fillies!”

“Oh, you don’t wanna miss this. Princess, is the thing about the stuff taken care of?”

The Princess smiled. “Yes, Pinkie, the thing and the stuff has been placed as per your request.”

“Then that’s my cue to be off! Be sure to be in town by seven!” And with that, Pinkie Pie ran up the stairs before anypony could object.

“Wow,” said the other Pinkie Pie. “That one gives ‘being Pinkie’ a whole new meaning.”

***

After their visit to Unicornia, everypony was free to spend the remaining hours of the day however they wanted. The Cutie Mark Crusaders, of course, quickly ran off to do more exploring, this time accompanied by Fluttershy, as Rarity quite insisted that both Rainbow Dashes came with her to the clothes shop so that she could do some measuring. Twilight Sparkle opted to stay in Unicornia with Cheerilee, as she had been asked to teach her and the other unicorns some basic magic.

As for Applejack, she had been wandering the town, taking in the sights, when she had come across some local ponies who were curious about her hat. One topic led to another, and soon she was showing off some of her rope tricks, to which the small crowd was clapping their hooves; trying to, at least, as they didn’t seem to know the concept of stomping them to the ground as a form of cheering.

“That was dazzling!” praised a white pony with a yellow-and-purple-striped mane, her name given as Sunny Daze. “I’ve never seen anyone play with a rope like that before.”

“Ah don’t use it just for play, y’know,” told Applejack. “This baby comes in great handy when you’re rounding up them critters; cows, sheep, pigs, y’know.”

“Actually, we don’t,” she replied. “What’s a cow?”

Applejack blinked. “Y’all never seen a cows?” The six-or-so ponies shook their heads. “But how do you get yer milk?”

“I’ve never given in much thought, really,” said a blue-coated pony with a mane of pink-and-orange; Twinkle Twirl, if she remembered correctly. “We get milk and flour and stuff from the Ponyville storage room.”

“And it replenishes itself?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” replied Sunny Daze. “Dunno how it works; magic, I guess.”

“Oh boy,” sighed Applejack, starting to worry for the future of this village. “I dunno how things were before y’all woke up from that there spell, but here in Equestria, we have to work for our food. Do you have a farm at all?”

“What’s a farm?”

“What exactly do you ponies eat?!”

“Oh, we eat bread, muffins, cakes, all sorts of thing.”

“What about grass, flowers, vegetables; things that you grow?”

“Flowers? Do we eat flowers now?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “Yes you do. Ah’ve no doubt the Princesses will provide you with whatever you need for the time bein', but eventually you’re gonna have to learn to survive on your own production. And since it’s clear none of you have any experience with farmin’, how about I show you the ropes, as it were; help you get started. First, we need to find a good patch o’ fertile land.”

“Aw man, can’t we just eat berries and fruit from now on?” complained Sunny Daze. “There’s a lot of those.”

“Berries and fruits are nice and all, but y’all need more varied meals than that,” countered Applejack. “Ah’m mighty sorry, but unless that unlimited storage room still works – which Ah’ll bet my hat it doesn’t – you’re gonna have to produce yer own wheat, and soon.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said a third pony, Puzzlemint; a white mare with a mane of yellow, pink and blue. “And I suppose it would be rude to turn down your kind offer.”

“Then let’s get dirt huntin’,” said Applejack, pleased with the change in attitude. “Have any of you ponies been outside of town yet?”

“Not very far,” replied Puzzlemint. “There’s a field littered with huge boulders just outside of town.”

“That’s as good a place to start as any. Come along, everypony!”

The band of seven ponies headed off out of town, and not ten minutes later, the field came into view. True enough, boulders the size of houses lay uselessly on the ground, about ten to twenty pony lengths apart, making for a very strange landscape. The soil beneath their hooves felt soft enough; the field itself definitely had potential. Applejack leaped onto one particularly large rock and gazed out over the irregular landscape. In some places, the rocks were clustered, in others they were far and few between. She soon spotted one such place that looked promising, hopped off the rocks and told the ponies to follow.

Zigzagging between the rocks soon became tiring, and once or twice she had to scale another rock to get their bearing, but soon enough, Applejack had led them to a decently spacious rock-free ground. She walked a few paces, scanning the ground, before digging into the ground with her hooves. She smiled to herself. “Yup, this place is a beaut! We’ll be getting them seeds planted in no time.”

“Does it have to be so far from town?” asked Twinkle Twirl. “What if we get lost on the way?”

“Once we find a way to move these rocks, we’ll think about expanding,” said Applejack. “We’ll just have to mark the rocks with arrows until then. Now, we won’t get far without the proper tools, which unless there’s just happen to be some lying around town, Ah reckon we’re outta luck ‘till morning; but in the meantime, ah’m gonna teach you some o’ the basics o’ working the fields and sowing. Even if ya don’t fancy yerselves work ponies, knowing the know-hows will get ya far on the way. Now listen closely, and get ready to learn something.”

***

It had been hours before Rarity and Rainbow Dash had let the other Rainbow Dash free from the clutches of fashion. As it turned out, the two did share nearly the exact same physical features, all except around the wing area, and thanks to that, Rarity wasn’t ready to promise never to rope her into modeling ever again just yet. But it didn’t bother her now; she was free to stretch her wings, so she had decided to take a trip around the area. She flew over the castles, a bit over the forest, and eventually ended up over the grand lake. The butterfly-shaped island in the center was especially eye-catching; she thought she might do some exploring on her own.

She touched down on the beach of the isle. The place was actually pretty neat: just a bit in-land was some of the biggest flowers Rainbow Dash had ever seen. Beyond the palm-tree crowns was a waterfall, above which a big natural rainbow could be seen. A few tents dotted the beach, but there didn’t seem to be anypony home.

Staying on the ground, she went into the woods, rounding the small pond at the island’s center and ascending the slope leading up to the top of the waterfall. This was the most alien forest she had ever seen; not only where the flowers and leaves huge, but pretty much every tree bore fruit, from bananas to pineapples. Stuff you rarely ever saw in Ponyville. The place had a nice smell to it, a freshness that didn’t have that mustiness that the Everfree had. It only took a minute to climb the hill, where she had an excellent view of the back-side of the island.

But her eyes weren’t drawn so much to the view as to the present company. A light-blue pegasus pony – the same one that had spoken up during the Princesses’ introduction – sat looking out over the pond, and the moment she noticed Rainbow Dash approaching, she let out a squeal and took a few steps back. “Uh, hi,” greeted Rainbow Dash, trying to appear as none-threatening as she could.

“H-h-hi,” the other pegasus replied, following it up by a whistle. “A-are you Rainbow Dash?” Her voice was high-pitched, and rather quirky. “No wait, you’re a pegasus… that’s right – fweee – you were with the Princess, the one who looks like Rainbow Dash.”

“It’s a common mistake,” said Rainbow Dash dismissively. “What’s you’re name? And what is this island?”

“You mean Butterfly Island? This is where the pegasi live, but I’m the only one here right now. I’m Thistle Whistle, by the way.”

“So where did they all go?”

“They’re in Ponyville. They figured this sort of thing is best handled with everyone in the same place. But I just wanted to go home… so here I am, all alone.”

“I see.” Rainbow Dash noted the sad look on her face. A face that, in fact, reminded her a lot of Derpy the Mail Mare back in Ponyville. “I’m sure they’ll come back eventually. Or you could always fly and meet them.”

“I know… but Butterfly Island is the only place that feels familiar anymore. It’s home, y’know? It’s comforting to know at least something stayed the same – fweee – illusion or not.”

“I get what you’re saying,” said Rainbow Dash. “But being here all alone can’t be fun, can it?”

“I know,” she repeated. “Part of me wants to go join them, but it’s like I’m the only one who's still scared. The only one who hasn’t accepted it and moved on... And then there’s – fweee – Star Catcher; I feel like I should be out looking for her, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin? She’s not here, that much is for sure.”

“Look, I don’t think anypony has ‘accepted’ anything yet. “Being told that your lives up until now was just a dream, that’s not so easy to accept. I know it’d drive me nuts.”

“Sure they’re confused, but I’m terrified,” Thistle Whistle told her. “They’ll probably just tell me to stop worrying. They always do.”

“Maybe. But isn’t it better to get it out of your system than to sit here and worry? If they’re really your friends, they’ll take you seriously.”

The gray pegasus whistled. “I know I should, but, well… there are clouds up there. Why do clouds have to move so fast…?”

“You’re scared of clouds?”

“I had a difficult experience with them as a child,” she shared. “Go ahead, laugh.”

“Hey, if that’s all that’s stopping you, I think I can be of assistance,” Rainbow Dash told her, and without giving a hint of warning she took to the air, aiming for the nearest cloud puff. She kicked it hard, vaporizing it, and did the same to the next; and the next, and another after that. She then spun around a larger cloud, using the rotation to send it off toward the other side of the lake. She landed, a smug smile on her face. “What about now?”

The other pegasus only stared, whistling furiously. “H-how did you do that?”

“It’s the pegasi’s job to take care of the weather in Equestria,” she explained. “Destroying clouds is what we do. Maybe you’d like to try it. A friend of mine once said you gotta learn to face your fears.”

“Me? K-k-kicking the clouds?” she stammered, as though she had suggested kicking a dragon. She whistled again. “Do you r-really think I can do it?”

“Sure you can; what’re they gonna do to stop you?” she pepped. “Just give it a good buck, and it’ll be gone.”

“Well…” she looked up at one of the remaining cloud puffs. “…okay… I’ll give it a try.” She took to the air, slowly ascending toward the white fluffy ball of moistness, the look in her eyes that of somepony confronting her worst enemy. Rainbow Dash flew up right beside her, giving her a reassuring smile.

Thistle Whistle was soon hovering right next to it, eying it with a look of both fright and determination. Then, closing her eyes, she spun around and kicked the cloud as hard as she could. When she looked again, and saw that it had been smashed to nothingness, her face beamed. “I-I did it! I – fweeeee – I beat a cloud!”

“See, it wasn’t so bad,” said Rainbow Dash. “Now how about we go back to Ponyville.”

“Actually, if it’s okay with you,” said Thistle Whistle, almost looking a bit flustered. “I’d like to smash some more clouds… that is, i-if you would come with.”

“Sure thing. And while we're at it, I’ll even show you some of my slick moves. Let me tell you about this awesome group of fliers…”

***

It was almost seven o’clock, and the village local Pinkie Pie, having listened to Twilight and Cheerilee talk about magic for hours, decided to go for that walk. She felt much better now that she had talked to her friends, but the same question still lingered in her mind. Where is Minty? And Rarity? Minty was prone to getting into trouble, but Rarity was just a child. Last time she got lost, the Breezies had been there to help her, but according to Twilight, the Breezies they had found in Breezie Blossom were the last in the world. She hoped beyond hope that the little unicorn had managed to find a nice village that could take her in. The thought of a child alone in a dark forest or out on a field made her heart ache.

She had walked down the hill from Crystal Rainbow Castle, into a patch of wood along the lake shore. The sun was starting to settle, lending the scenery a really pretty orange glow. After a bit of walking, she heard voices from the woods. “N-no, girls, I really don’t think you should go in there.” Pinkie Pie followed the sound, and soon came across its source.

“Come on, Fluttershy,” pleaded Apple Bloom, the three girls standing in front of a cave. “If there’s a bear, you’ll just teach it to play it nice, right?”

“I’d rather it didn’t come to that,” the yellow pegasus pleaded back. “Besides, I don’t want to go into any more caves… oh! Hi, Pinkie.”

“Hi, Fluttershy,” she replied. “Wat’cha doing?”

“We wanna go into this cave,” Scootaloo told her. “But Fluttershy thinks it’s too dangerous.”

“It does look pretty scary,” agreed Pinkie Pie. “I’m not sure I’ve even seen this cave before. Isn’t there anywhere else you can explore?”

“See girls, even the pony who lives here doesn’t think it’s a good idea,” said Fluttershy. “Can’t we just head back into town?”

“You know what,” said Sweetie Belle, “you’re right, Fluttershy. I’m getting kinda tired. I should go find Rarity.”

“Ugh, fine,” Scootaloo surrendered. “Maybe I can find Rainbow Dash!”

“‘Sides, didn’t Pinkie Pie tell us to be in town round seven?” said Apple Bloom as they started walking away from the cave. “Wonder what she’s up to. Something crazy, I bet.”

“Yeah, I could never compete with her,” said the local Pinkie Pie, giving a little laugh. “People tell me sometimes that I’m ‘acting Pinkie’, but I don’t pop out of baskets. I don’t see how I could even fit in one of those…”

Before long, they emerged from the forest and into Unicornia village, from which they followed the road toward Ponyville. The sun had already gone down behind the horizon, basking the world in gorgeous dusk. As they walked, Pinkie Pie took the opportunity to ask the yellow pegasus, “So, how do you like our Ponyville?”

“I think it’s lovely,” said Fluttershy. “It’s so colorful and homely. I could definitely see myself visiting here more often.”

“You totally should; we love making new friends around here. Plus, we’ll take any excuse we can get to throw a…” Before Pinkie Pie could finish the sentence, there was a loud bang from all over town, and from seemingly every direction at once, an endless rain of streamers, glitter and shining bulbs of light came flying, all of it settling neatly onto the buildings, as though guided by magic. Another boom fired, sending into the air another volley of objects – banners, ribbons, even gemstones – they too landing perfectly as decorations. In the blink of an eye, the entire town had been dressed up for a party.

But there was no time to recover from the initial shock before fireworks started blasting the heavens, creating an absolutely stunning display of glitter. Glitter that, in fact, formed words. Pinkie Pie’s heart almost leaped through her throat, her loud gasp drowned by the blast from the fireworks.

Cheer up, Pinkie Pie!’

“Oh my,” said Fluttershy. “Looks like they’re already throwing a party.”

Pinkie Pie stared at the message for a few moments. Who? Why? How? Then suddenly, a red orb of light came into her field of vision, grabbing their attention. It sped off into the streets, and Pinkie knew she was meant to follow. She dashed as quickly as she could after the orb, until the music theater by the castle come into view. It was lit up by innumerable floating lights, and the entire village seemed to be gathered there.

“There she is!” called a high-pitched, excited voice that could only belong to one pony. She walked up to the crowd, and they all came to greet her. The entire street area had been covered by a large mat, enough space for all hundred-or-so ponies gathered there.

From the stage then jumped the second pink party pony, and landed only an inch from Pinkie’s face. “Well? Did you like it? Were you surprised?”

“Very!” replied her double. Surprised was an understatement. “Is this for me? But why? I’m pretty sure my birthday isn’t for a few months.”

“This isn’t a birthday party, silly,” said the hyperactive party pony. “This is a Cheer-Up party! You were so sad and so worried before, so I thought to myself: how can I make this pony happy again? With a party, of course! But it couldn’t be any old party – I mean, you’re worried about losing a friend, and that’s heavy stuff! – so I asked the Princess to lower the sun a little earlier today, and install party cannons all over the village, so I could throw a humongous party to let you know everything’s gonna be alright. Took me all day to get it just right. Did you like it?”

“Like it?” she repeated. She was still having trouble processing what was going on. But seeing all these sparkly decorations, and all of her friends smiling at her, it became increasingly hard not to grin from ear to ear. “I love it!” She gave the other Pinkie Pie a big hug. “This is absolutely positively wonderful! I can’t believe you’d do all this just to cheer me up; we only just met yesterday! Thank you so much, Pinkie Pie!” She let the tears out of her system. This time, they were mixed with tears of joy.

***

“I can’t express how grateful I am, darling,” said the village Rainbow Dash to the hyperactive party-planner. Pinkie Pie had gone so far as to send in a DJ from Canterlot, turning the mat into a dance floor as she wasted no time putting on a Pinkie-brand musical number she liked to call The Ballad of the Double Ponyville. More than half the ponies were still dancing to their hearts’ content to the DJ’s rhythmic beats, while the others were mingling, or trying out the refreshments. “I thought nothing could cheer her up after hearing about Minty, but you worked wonders, darling! She couldn’t ask for a better friend… or lookalike.”

“You’re welcome,” replied Pinkie. “I’m just glad you all enjoy it. I was worried for a sec that I’d gotten the colors wrong, or the punch wasn’t goon enough.”

“They both get five stars from Rainbow Dash, darling.”

“Make that ten stars,” said the other Rainbow Dash, coming up beside them. “You really outdid yourself this time, Pinkie. Even Fluttershy’s letting loose; I don’t think I’ve ever seen her dance in public party before. I hope setting the sun early doesn’t cause panic anywhere, but man, this is so worth it! I wish Spike could be here.”

“But I am here!” said a most recognizable voice from behind, making the Rainbow Dashes jump. The blue earth dragon giggled. “Of course, I assume you’re talking about the little one back in your town. Did you know he was named after me? The Princess told me as much.”

“But I thought your name was Kenbroth something,” commented the pegasus Rainbow Dash.

“Kenbroth Gilspotten Heathspike, if you please. But I never was fond of that long-winding title, so I invite the commoners to call me simply Spike. Of course, that might cause some confusion now; perhaps I should stick to Kenbroth.”

“We’re used to confusion by now, darling,” said the cerulean earth pony. “To me, you’ll always be our dear friend Spike.”

“And you’ll be the one I think about when I heard the words Rainbow and Dash. And that’s something we must not forget in all this; as much as things has changed, just as much has stayed just the way they were. We’re still us, and we still have our towns, our castles, our friends… just look at how happy everyone is right now. Why, I dare say that in many ways, this is an improvement.”

“That’s a darling way to look at it,” the earth pony Rainbow Dash said. “Though I think I might need some more time to accustom myself to making dresses with my mouth.”

“Rainbow Dash!” called the village Pinkie Pie as she approached the three ponies and the dragon. “You should come dance with us! Fluttershy and Twilight are pulling some crazy moves out there; you’re not gonna let her take the crown as the best dancer in Ponyville, are you?”

“Well, darling, I’ll have to show them a thing or two about dancing in style,” she acknowledged the challenge. “Just as soon as I’ve caught my breath.”

“Thanks again, Pinkie, for throwing this amazing party,” Pinkie told her lookalike. “I haven’t had this much fun since everyone painted the town pink in my honor. It’s really helped taken my mind off of worrying.”

“Your friends will show up, I promise,” replied the counterpart. “Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.” At the last word, she actually pulled out a real cupcake and smashed it into her eye.

“Uh, right, thanks,” she played along. “I just wish there was something I could do. Maybe if I tried Squinking again.”

“If only it was that simple, darling.”

“Well, doesn’t hurt to try,” Pinkie said, taking a few steps back from her friends. And so she began shaking her mane back and forth. Back and forth. Then jumping around in a circle, and more back and forth. Rainbow Dash sighed; she had never quite understood Pinkie’s ability to Squink, but it was such a shame to lose it now when she needed it the most.

Or had she? Was that sparks coming out of her hair? Pinkie must have felt it to, because she was shaking faster now, taking higher jumps, and then she squished herself down on the ground. And as she rose, a miracle happened. A pink puffy cloud rose from her temple, settling over her head. At this point, the music had stopped playing, as every eye was one Pinkie Pie. Rainbow Dash thought she looked more strained then usual, her face flustered.

And then, as she winked, the pink nuance grew more vivid. She kept flailing her mane, and that’s when Rainbow Dash noticed a glow from the distant background. It was Crystal Rainbow Castle, engulfed in a multicolored light. Pinkie stilled her head, closing her eyes in concentration, and let the vision flow into the pink mist.

It was shaky, and rather blurry, but she could make out a forest, on a cliff-side. Barely visible in it were two ponies, one small and pink and a slightly bigger, blue one. The big one was pointing a hoof at the small one, and whereas the sound from a Squink would usually be clear as day, the voices she heard sounded like it came from behind a brick wall, and Rainbow Dash had to strain her ears to make out what was being said. “…ed…ind you… reat and Pow…xie is a…ician, not…ysitter! How…out…ful…”

That was all they got before Pinkie Pie fell to the ground in exhaustion, breaking up the pink mist and dimming the light from the castle.

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for help with editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Six

By Candle Light

Princess Luna gazed out over the darkened landscape from the royal balcony of Canterlot Castle, her horn aglow with a spell she knew better than any other. Even a thousand years of absence had not diminished her mastery over the giant rock in the sky. Tonight, she had been asked to bring forth the moon earlier than usual, on request of one of the Element Bearers; an ironic task, as extending the nighttime beyond its due was what had ultimately led to her banishment in the first place.

Not a minute later, the deed was done, and the aura around her horn vanished. The celestial body would now move on its own accord, fulfilling its cycle, after which she would again set it in motion. Every night was the same routine. She felt for her sister, having to assume responsibility for both sun and moon when Luna had been gone.

The Princess was just about to reenter the castle when she felt a sudden tingling in her mane. A magic reaction she was unfamiliar with stirred inside the castle walls. Nothing harmful, however; on the contrary, the magic she sensed put her mind at ease, helped heal her spirit. The sensation grew stronger, and as it did, she noticed the stars dim. Neigh, it wasn’t the stars dimming, but the castle it self lighting up like a beacon. Luna felt changes and shifting in Canterlot’s magic structure, and for a moment, she feared it would disturb the balance of the various charms and barriers the sisters had put up so long ago.

The sensation soon faded. But the magic didn’t wholly go away; mixed with the castle’s own magical aura, another force had taken residence. To add to the mystery, it felt to her vaguely familiar. Where had she sensed this magic before?

No doubt that her sister was already awake, Luna trotted off into the castle to tell Celestia about what she had felt.

***

Rainbow Dash was speeding through the dark sky, the newly raised moon her only source of light. The vision from Pinkie Pie’s ‘Squink’ magic thingy had been rather unclear, but it was more than enough for Rainbow Dash to recognize the place in the background. She must have flown over there at least a hundred times on weather duty. Once she had reached the Everfree Forest, she turned westward toward the cliff side she knew would be at the edge of the forest. At top speed, she would be there in ten minutes.

She eventually touched down. It didn’t take much looking around the moonlit area before she spotted some stones formed into a circle, surrounding burnt remains of wood. It was still fairly warm, telling her that somepony had been here just recently. She sprinted into the forest, looking around as best she could, but the darkness grew thicker for each step. “Hello?” she called. “Anypony there? Rarity?”

Her counterpart and Pinkie had been sure about it: the little pink pony in the vision was their version of Rarity. As for the other pony that was with her, Rainbow Dash had her suspicions, but it was too early to tell for sure. She walked back into the moonlight, deciding to have a look around where she could see.

It was only a few minutes before she found something on the ground, half-buried: the remains of a firework. The ground on both sides seemed awfully ruffled as well, so Dash started digging around with her hoof, and soon uncovered four more firework stubs, each placed about three feet from each other. One of these still had most of the label intact; she could barely read it in the dim moonlight, but she recognized the brand. She had bought them for Scootaloo once, when she and the Crusaders were doing a play: the theater sparkle effect kind, easily ignited by a spark of unicorn magic.

Perfect for making you look great and powerful…

***

The sun rose for a new day, its first beam illuminating a lone traveling wagon by the edge of the forest, jolting awake a blue unicorn mare which slept therein. Grumbling to herself – it was way too early, and she hadn’t gotten much sleep last night – she stretched her legs, and proceeded to poking her companion, a much smaller pink unicorn with a mane that ranged from yellow to orange to pink.

“Wake up, Rarity!” she told the filly. “Morning has seen it fit to come, and so we must be off.”

There was muttering from sheets, and the pink little unicorn named Rarity slowly rose, yawning as she did. “Trixie?” she spoke. She looked out the window drowsily. “It’s not morning; it’s still dark. Wake me up later.”

At this, Trixie merely grabbed hold of the bed sheet with her magic and threw it off. “Are you suggesting you would sleep while The Great and Powerful Trixie pulls the wagon? Be up with you, lazy bone, we leave in ten minutes.” Trixie turned around, swung the doors open and stepped into the cool morning air.

She walked over to the steam by the forest and splashed herself in the face. The water was cold against her skin, but it helped clear her mind. Once she deemed herself fresh enough, she scanned the ground until she found a patch of particularly tall grass, which she then began munching. A rudimentary breakfast, but the best she could afford if she wanted any bits left for the fireworks and other props. The new wagon hadn’t been cheap either. She hoped that once she reached Winecolt, she could earn up enough coins and get herself a decent meal and a warm bed. Herself and the runt, that is.

Speaking of the runt, Rarity sluggishly stepped out of the wagon. She looked up at the rising sun, and was mesmerized by its glow… until a couple of butterflies flew by, catching her attention, giving her a childlike smile. “Focus, Rarity,” Trixie called out to her. “Go wash up and get something to eat; we must be off.”

“What’s the rush?” asked the unicorn, yawning as she walked over to the stream. “Do we have a time to keep?”

“The rush is that if we don’t hurry, there might not be time to put up a show in Winecolt,” Trixie argued. “No show, no Bits. Not to mention you are still in desperate need of some more practice before you are fit to by my assistant.”

Rarity dipped her whole head into the stream, held it there for a few moments and pulled it back up, shaking her mane. “But I practiced a bunch yesterday. I even think I got the levitation spell down. Watch!” The younger unicorn closed her eyes and assumed a concentrating look, whereas her horn stared glowing. Or flickering, rather; as did the aura around the small rock now wobbling in mid-air. It held out for about five seconds, before it fell. “See? That’s something.”

“Please. You couldn’t even set off magic-igniting fireworks; remember what happened yesterday? If you hope to be of assistance to The Great and Powerful Trixie, you need to do more than wobble a rock in the air.”

“I dunno, Trixie,” said Rarity, “maybe I’m not ready for magic just yet. You make it look so easy; I’ve never even seen a unicorn use magic like you do.”

“Of course you haven’t; what pony could possibly hope to compare to The Great and Powerful Trixie?” asked Trixie nonchalantly. “I’m not asking for a miracle, but if you want me to help you find your way home, you will have to earn it. Be grateful that I’m even willing to sacrifice some of my precious time on you.”

Truly, more than once had she wondered why she even bothered keeping the filly around. It seemed innocent enough at first: a lost child all alone in the wilderness, a miserable look on her face, asking for directions. Trixie wasn’t heartless enough to just leave a helpless foal to fend for herself, so she had agreed to take her to the nearest town. She kicked herself for not foreseeing the troubles; the child would never stay quiet – telling her a bunch of crazy stories about flying fairy-ponies and magic rainbow castles – and every time Trixie tried to talk to her, she would only listen when she wanted to, more often than not getting distracted by the most minute things, like a worm on the ground or a butterfly.

To top it off, once she let slip that she was a traveling magician, the little pony had been begging and pleading to take her with her, in hope of maybe finding her way back home; someplace called Unicornia. Being as great as she was powerful, Trixie had done the only right thing and given the little one a chance, on the condition that she would become her background assistant. A choice she had a feeling she would soon come to regret, as Rarity’s talent for magic inspired about as much confidence as her pink heart cutie mark.

She also couldn’t shake the feeling she had seen this filly somewhere, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember where.

“I know,” said Rarity downtrodden. “But I am doing my best, y’know. It’s not my fault that nobody ever taught me these things.”

“Then whose fault do you suggest it is; mine? Just eat your grass; we leave in two minutes.”

***

Applejack, stuck with the habit of rising with the early beams of the sun, snuck out of the Ponyville Castle that the villagers had been kind enough to lend them for the night. She had no real business outside, but neither did she lying still waiting for the others to wake up, so she figured, why not go for walk? It would be a nice change of pace having a morning stroll without having to worry about apples to buck. She hoped her big brother Macintosh wasn’t too sour about being left to tend to the farm on his own.

She trotted over the draw-bridged and into the streets of Ponyville. It was a real pretty-looking town; as much as she questioned the overuse of the color pink, she found that these brightly colors on the houses – especially dressed with the decorations from yesterday’s party – reflected in the morning glow of the sun gave the village a very homely feel. She walked around the town for a bit, absorbing the fresh morning air, no clear goal in mind. Maybe she could go check up on the village Pinkie Pie? Except she had no idea where she lived.

Whatever magic she had pulled yesterday, it had sucked the energy right out of her, leaving her barely able to stand, let alone keep the party going. Her efforts hadn’t been in vain though; not only had they caught a glimpse of Rarity of Unicornia, Rainbow Dash had recognized the scenery in the vision, and sped off as fast as she could in hope of meeting the ponies there. She had returned roughly half an hour later, reporting that she had just missed them, but that she knew for sure who the blue pony in the vision had been: Trixie. A showpony that had come to town a while back to just to brag how special she was, only to be completely shown up by Twilight Sparkle. She felt sorry for Rarity’s counterpart, as she doubted Trixie handled kids any better than she did magic.

The good news was, Rainbow Dash had a pretty good idea of where they were going: a small town to the south of the Everfree Forest called Winecolt. Unless they traveled all night, there was no risk of them arriving before noon today at very earliest, so the plan was to go there and head them off.

“Hello, Applejack.” A blue mass popped out from behind a corner bend, only inches from her face, making the orange pony yelp. Kenbroth Gilspotten Heathspike laughed to himself. “And here I thought I wouldn’t get to scare anyone today.”

“Whoa nelly,” Applejack gasped, catching her breath. “Scare is right; you almost made my heart stop!”

“I’m sorry,” said the Earth Dragon. “But you should have seen the look on your face. I never get tired of those. I should take a picture next time.”

“Very funny,” replied Applejack, less than amused. “So what’re you up to so early, Mr. Kenbroth? Trouble sleepin’?”

“Not at all; I never went to sleep,” he replied. “Earth dragons can go weeks without sleep, but then they have to spend a couple of days in bed to make up for it, so I usually adjust my sleeping habits to suit the needs of those around me. But I couldn’t possibly go to sleep after what happened yesterday. Let’s walk and talk.”

“Uh, okay,” replied Applejack, as they started moving toward the river. “So… you’ve been up all night thinkin’ ‘bout stuff?”

“That, and poking around town, trying to piece together whatever I can about the Time Capsule spell. There’s still much I can’t determine. You’ve been to Kimono’s cave, yes?”

“Sure have. Nastiest place ah’ve ever been to. And this Kimono girl, she’s Twilight counterpart, ain’t she?”

“So it would seem. But there is something I find peculiar: if we are to assume that the room was left out from the affects of the Time Capsule, wouldn’t that mean that the picture we saw was from before this mess began? As in, from a thousand years ago?”

“Heavens to Betsy, you’re right!” Applejack realized. “That means Kimono looked like that long before Twi did! Could she be her great-great-great-great-grandma or somethin’?”

“That’s one possibility,” agreed Spike. “That, or the Elements of Harmony might have a claw in this. Evidence does seem point to them having a mind of their own; remember that book we talked about yesterday, ‘The Legend of Harmony’? It’s supposed to be a thousand years old, but it was written in modern Equestrian, rhymes and all. Same with most other books I found lying around. I thought it was strange that everypony in the village, myself included, were speaking in modern tongue, but books? Did the Elements rewrite them? Whatever the case, the spell seems to have been a connection to the outside world somehow; perhaps if we had some linguists take a look at these books… oh, sorry; I’m rambling, aren’t I?”

“That’s okay,” Applejack replied. “Things were already too complicated when Discord became involved. Might as well try to make sense of it as best we can.”

“That’s a good attitude. As I was saying, I believe I have found several pieces to the puzzles already, so with luck and some diligence, today I might… oh, hi there, Sky Wishes!”

A pink earth pony with a mane-do that looked a lot like Twilight’s sat on the river bed, turning around as she was called. At first, her eyes widened, but then she asked, “Spike? Is that you?”

“Funny how many times I’ve been asked that lately. Yes dear, that would be me. Hard time sleeping?”

“Yes… I’ve been so worried for our missing friends. So I’ve been sitting her all morning, wishing.” Her voice was rather high-pitched and raspy. She looked over at Applejack. “And you’re one of the outsiders… I mean, visitors! I mean… oh, you know what I mean! Applejack, was it?”

“Uh, yes ma’am.”

“Thank you ever so much for taking care of Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like, lost and confused, far from home. I hope everything goes well finding Rarity today.”

“Not to worry, miss; she’ll be back in the village in time for lunch.”

“By the way, who is this Trixie you were talking about?” asked Sky Wishes.

“A pony with lots of brag and little hustle,” Applejack told her. “And unless she’s done a one-eighty in the humbleness department, Ah can’t see her being a good influence on lil’ Rarity.”

“I see… good thing Pinkie’s Squink was able to find her so soon. Speaking of which, have you seen Pinkie today?” Applejack shook her head. “I hope she’s alright now. Something like that has never happened with her Squinking before.”

“That’s because she was doing it outside of the realm of the illusion,” Spike offered. “I’m surprised she was able to do it at all. What intrigues me most of all was Crystal Rainbow Castle lighting up when she did it; there has to be some kind of connection there. Not to worry, I checked up on her just a while ago, and she’s sleeping peacefully.”

“What a relief,” said Sky Wishes.

“Now Sky Wishes, my dear, if you wouldn’t mind, could you give me one of your extra special wishes?” Spike asked.

“Sure, what about?”

“How about the safe return of all of our missing friends?”

“Oh, okay.” Sky Wishes closed her eyes, facing her head skyward. “I wish I wish I wish everyone will return to the village, safe and sound.”

There was a moment of silence as Spike looked like he was pondering something. Then he said, “Yes, I did sense something just now from the castle. Just a tiny twitch of magic, but it was definitely there. This would point to the fact that not only Pinkie Pie, but all ponies from this town are connected to the castle. Most intriguing.”

“There’s real magic in my wishes?” said Sky Wishes, fascinated. “I never knew that. Well, part of me always kinda did. I mean, of course I didn’t, but… oh you know what I mean!”

“Not sure Ah do, sugarcube.”

Before anypony could reply, the sun was suddenly blocked by a dark figure. Applejack recognized it immediately, but couldn’t help taking a step back from the intense presence of the being that descended to the ground. “Princess Luna!” exclaimed Spike, running over to the ruler of the night, giving her a big hug out of the blue. “How I’ve missed you!”

“It is a pleasure to see you again, Sir Kenbroth,” the Princess replied, returning the hug. “It seems I was not the only one who took a thousand year leave.”

“Indeed.” They let go of one another. “Looks like we both have some catching up to do. What happened to you, my dear? Celestia would only tell me that you fell victim to the darkness in your heart.”

“Another time, perhaps,” Luna told him. “There are more pressing matters that need our attention. Fair Applejack, are the others not awake yet?”

“Well, no; it is still pretty early. Is Celestia not with you?”

“I am here in her stead, as she is otherwise occupied. As such, I wish to speak to all of you at earliest opportunity. Come, Applejack, let us awaken the lazy fellows.”

***

Traveling with Trixie was so boring! She had made it very clear to Rarity that she was not allowed to talk, and was quick to remind her whenever she opened her mouth. She had been nice enough not to force her to help pull the wagon, but Rarity soon began to wonder if this wasn’t more tiresome.

She spent most of the time quietly taking in the scenes. They were traveling through a big field, topped and lowered by hills here and there; it was unlike anything she had ever seen in her life, as she had spent most of it in the Crystal Rainbow Castle and Unicornia. There was that one time when a spell gone wrong sent her all the way to Breezie Blossom and Ponyville, but none of the places she got to visit then had been anywhere near as widespread and open. She just wanted to run off, as far as her legs would take her, but of course ‘The Great and Powerful Trixie’ had told her off when she tried to do so.

Trixie wasn’t a bad person, really; she was just way more strict than anyone she’d ever met before. She thanked the stars she had found her at all; Rarity had never been so lost and confused as she felt two days earlier. She had been outside, playing with a caterpillar, when suddenly everything had gone black before her eyes, and the next thing she knew, she was in the middle of a forest, on a dirt road far from anywhere she recognized. Her joints were sluggish, like that feeling you’d get when you sleep in too long, and from a nearby pool of water, she noticed that her face looked different. Had she forgotten the magic wand in her hair again, and accidentally set it off?

She didn’t want to think about what would have happened if Trixie hadn’t come along and agreed – reluctantly at first – to take her along with her. Although she wasn’t the most cheerful company, she had taught her a lot of useful things, such as how to recognize the tastiest grass, and how to tell east from west just by looking at the sun or the stars. She had also shown her an incredible magic show, sending sparks and lights everywhere, making branches and leaves dance to her will, and insisted that she too learn some of these tricks so that she could be her assistant.

Speaking of which, this was where Trixie stopped the wagon. “Alright, Rarity, I think we’ve earned ourselves a break. And you know what that means.”

“That I get to talk?”

“For now, but no pointless rambling.” Trixie’s horn started glowing, and she used her magic to lift five small rocks and put them in a half circle in front of Rarity. She dislodged herself from the wagon’s pulling belt. “Now, stand right between rocks, just like before. If you’ve practiced like you said, then I expect this little trick won’t be any trouble.”

“Uh, right,” Rarity agreed meekly. She had been practicing, but those practice rounds hadn’t gone as smoothly as had hoped. The point of the exercise was just to nudge the rocks all at once, which was all the energy it would take to set off the fireworks Trixie needed for her show, but Rarity had accidentally managed to fling one of the rocks right onto the wagon, making a hole she sincerely hoped Trixie would never notice. “Piece of cake.”

“Remember, don’t think of the rocks as five separate entities,” coached the magician. “Picture them as one being in your mind; that will take your mind off of multitasking.”

“Right… here goes.” She locked the five rocks onto her gaze, trying with all her might to shut down all other external thought. She had gotten better at it, but the little pony always had something going on in her mind, and these were just boring old rocks. She let her horn fill with magic – a sort of tickling sensation, which only added to the distractions – and as per Trixie’s instructions, she imagined all the pebbles as a single rock, shifting on the ground. In reality, only two stirred, barely noticeable, whereas the others hopped a full pony length into the air.

Trixe just sighed, shook her head and told her to try it again. Rarity did… and then again… and again… for the next ten minutes, she tried, the closest she got being getting three of the pebbles to roll away from her. “I’m sorry, Trixie,” Rarity apologized. “Isn’t there any other mind tricks you can teach me?”

“Well,” she offered, annoyance clear in her voice. “Why don’t you imagine the rocks as dancing monkeys singing a lullaby? That’s sure to produce more results that you’ve done thus far!”

Dancing monkeys? She looked at the little pebbles; what if they were dancing monkeys? The idea made Rarity laugh; so all she had to do was push over these monkeys? She gave them all a push in her head, and lo and behold, the rocks all shuffled. Rarity broke out a smile. “I did it! Did you see that? Thanks, Trixie!”

The magician only stared at her, disbelief in her eyes. “Not… bad,” she praised, grinning awkwardly. “I guess you’re good for something.”

“Okay, so now that I can do that, what’s next?” asked Rarity eagerly.

“Oh no, first we must make sure you truly got the hang of it.” Trixie lit up her horn, and from inside the wagon came flying five firecrackers. She installed them into the ground in the same pattern as she had the rocks, only a bit further apart. “Now let’s see you try the real deal. Go on.”

Rarity tried the same trick again, imagining the firework sticks as monkeys, singing so silly she got the giggles. She pushed them over again, and her day-dream was broken by the loud bangs of the fireworks as they exploded into swirling sparkles around them.

***

Trixie was pleased. She had meant the remark as an insult, but it had unwittingly helped the child concentrate. “You’ve made progress. Perhaps you are worthy of being The Great and Powerful Trixie’s assistant.”

“Do you think I could be The Great and Powerful Rarity one day?”

“Doubtful, but it’s a good attitude.”

“How did you become so great and powerful anyway?” asked Rarity. “Were you taught by some amazing unicorn master? Or did you go off braving the world, sharpening your skills for each new adventure?”

“The latter, my dear. I’ve been all around Equestria, polishing my skills on adventures far beyond your little imagination, seeking new places to dazzle ponies with my spectacular feats of magic.”

“If you’ve been everywhere, do you know where Ponyville is?” asked Rarity excitedly.

“Ponyville?” repeated Trixie, rather taken aback by the question. “Were you not looking for Unicornia?”

“Well yeah, that’s where I live, but I got lots of friends in Ponyville, like Minty, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie…”

Hold on… Rainbow Dash? In that moment, it all came back to her: Rainbow Dash was one of those neighsayers who had tried to upstage Trixie when she last visited Ponyville. And Rarity… yes, Rarity was the name of that unicorn obsessed with glamor and pretty dresses. With a jolt, Trixie realized that this young filly looked just like her. Could this be her little sister? But then, why would they both be called Rarity?

Of course, she wasn’t about to go back to Ponyville yet for awhile. Not as long as Twilight Sparkle still lived there. She straightened her face. “No, I’m afraid I haven’t heard of such place.”

“Oh… bummer,” said Rarity, looking dejected.

“Don’t worry,” Trixie attempted to cheer her up. “Equestria is a big land; there are plenty of places I have yet to visit. Why, after Winecolt, we’re going south to visit one of the largest lakes in Equestria. Supposedly there is a castle-town on an island there; maybe that could be your Unicornia!”

“No, Unicornia’s not on an island,” said Rarity. “Thanks for letting me come along, Trixie. I dunno how else I would have found someone to take me around.”

Of course, Trixie knew several places where they took in lost children and helped them find their home. She was sure that if she handed her over to Mayor of Winecolt, she would be put in an orphanage until they could contact her parents or caretakers; after a week or two, she would be home with her friends and family. Dropping her off was a tempting prospect, but at the same time, she felt that it might seem a bit cruel to just abandon her at this point; Trixie was the only pony she knew around these parts. Besides, as obnoxious as the foal might be sometimes, she had to admit that her company was to be preferred to traveling alone.

She put a hoof to Rarity’s shoulder, affording her a smile. “Just practice hard, and The Great and Powerful Trixie will see to that you have a home on the road.”

***

When Pinkie Pie opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was Pinkie Pie’s face staring down at her. She let out a frightened gasp, before her mind could make sense of the situation. “…and then I said, ‘put em up! And don’t try to eat those cupca– ’oh, good morning.”

“Good… morning?” replied the village Pinkie Pie, still disoriented, but awake enough to recognize her counterpart. Some of her joints were still aching. “What time is it?”

“Somewhere around 7:37:06. Are you awake? Luna is in town, and she says she wants to speak with us.”

Luna? Who’s that…? Then it all came back to her: the Princesses, the party, the Squink… the Squink. “Rarity!” she exclaimed, rising from the bed so fast she nearly slammed into the other Pinkie Pie. “I saw Rarity! The Squink worked! Did you go get her?”

“No, we just missed her. But we know where she’s going, and we’re heading there to meet her soon”

“Oh…” the local Pinkie Pie calmed herself down. She stepped out of bed, ignoring the aching muscles. “Well, I’m coming with you. When do we leave?”

“Luna said she’d take use there once she’d had a chat with us. We should probably hurry.”

The two Pinkie Pies exited the house and ran down the street, until they reached the royal flower garden, where earth pony Rainbow Dash, Sky Wishes, Cheerilee, Spike, and the ponies from the Equestrian Ponyville were waiting with the Princess of the Night. “Ah, so you are awake,” said Luna. “I had intended to let you rest, but I’m glad that you are here.”

“How are you feeling, darling?” asked the Rainbow-maned earth pony.

“I’m okay; a little sore, is all. I’m just glad my Squink actually worked.”

“Just barely, darling; we could hardly tell what we saw. If Rainbow Dash hadn’t recognized the scenery and taken off after them, we might not have had a lead at all. I never knew your Squinks could be so straining.”

“It’s never been before. This time was different; it felt like there wasn’t enough magic in the air, so I had to Squink really hard to reach whatever I could.”

“You weren’t pulling magic from the air, my dear,” said Luna, “but from the castle.” She pointed over to the castle on top of the mountain. “The magic therein has been asleep there for eons, and your Squink did nothing less than pulling it out of its eternal slumber. I truthfully did not believe such thing could even be done.”

“Sleeping magic?” asked Twilight Sparkle. “But I didn’t sense any special kind of magic when I visited the castle.”

“It stands to reason that you wouldn’t; sleeping magic is not a commonly observed phenomenon. It occurs only when large quantities of magic is used to seal away powerful magical entities; it then ceases to be magic in a conventional sense, and becomes one with the forces of nature. It is impossible to sense through ordinary means. Needless to say, there haven’t been many instances of this throughout history.”

“So… you’re saying Pinkie Pie accidentally broke some sort of magic seal?” asked Twilight.

“So it would seem, yes, but it is yet impossible to determine the nature of what was sealed away. But there is more. Last night, I felt a mysterious new energy well up inside the castle of Canterlot, and similar surges have sprung up on four other locations throughout Equestria. We believe that the awakening of Crystal Rainbow Castle triggered a chain reaction that also awakened the other castles mentioned in the Legend of Harmony. Among them was the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters, which I’m sure you six remember.”

“That’s the place we kicked your… I mean, eh, Nightmare Moon’s flank, right?” said the pegasus Rainbow Dash.

“Indeed. I never knew it was in fact the resting place of one of the ancient castles of legend.”

“But for the other castles to react to Crystal Rainbow Castle,” contemplated Spike, “that would mean the other castles are connected to it. A castle which, for the past thousand years, has been inside Discord’s Time Capsule… could the sleeping magic have seeped its way into the illusion? It certainly would explain why the castles would react to the Pinkie Squink, being a spell created by the illusion and all. Does this mean that… oh my!” The earth dragon’s face lit up in realization. “Why, yes! It all makes sense now!”

“What is on your mind, Kenbroth?” asked Luna.

“I’ll tell you about it later; I have one more thing I need to check. You go on ahead.” And with that, the earth dragon ran off from the group. Pinkie Pie watched as he disappeared behind a corner.

“Very well,” said Princess Luna. “I suppose I have told you all I know, anyway. Now then, I shall take you to Winecolt as promised.”

“Is that where Rarity is?” asked the village Pinkie Pie.

“That’s where she’ll end up,” the winged Rainbow Dash said. “It’s the closest town from where they set up camp, and this is Trixie we’re talking about; she’s probably going there to try to brag her way into their wallets. All we need to do is sit tight and wait for them to come to us.”

“A sound plan,” approved Luna. “Should they not turn up, we can at least determine their general location. I assume all who are going with us are present, then?”

“Pretty much,” confirmed Twilight. “But wait, what about the children?”

“Unless we encounter problems, we should be back within a few hours,” replied Luna. “I have already taken the liberty of writing them a letter, so they won’t wonder where we are when they wake up. Now then, let us be off.”

Before Pinkie Pie could ask how they were going to get there, a veil of stars covered her eyes, and for a moment it felt like she was floating weightlessly in space. When the world reappeared, she was standing on the streets of another village altogether.

---

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for help with editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Seven

By Candle Light

“…and in the end, we found each other after all! But we were running out of time, so I summoned a carriage with my magic wand, and…”

Trixie groaned inwardly. As a way to encourage the child, she figured she might as well humor her by letting her talk, but half of what she was saying didn’t make any sense, and the filly kept assuming that Trixie already knew about things such as Breezies and Rainbow Berries. Though occasionally, parts of the story did pique her interest, such as the mention of Rainbow Dash as the glamor girl of Ponyville, and how she almost fainted from getting splattered with mud. It certainly didn’t sound like the similarly named pony she had met. In fact, much of the filly’s description of Ponyville didn’t sound like Ponyville at all? Was there another Ponyville that just happened to have a Rainbow Dash and a Rarity in it? It certainly wasn’t outside the realm of possibility, it was quite a coincidence.

“…and the light flew over all of Unicornia, and brought back the colors to everything in the land! It was so cool, the colors flying all around us—”

“Thank you,” Trixie interrupted, reaching her limit. “I think I get the gist of it. Can we have some quiet now… please?” She tried to give her a smile, which she realized must have come off as rather awkward.

“Oh… alright,” obeyed Rarity reluctantly. But Trixie barely had time to breathe out before she opened her mouth again. “Y’know, Trixie, you’ve seemed kinda down this whole time. You got this sour look on your face.”

“Well, I can hardly help it that I don’t find dragging a heavy carriage along very enjoyable,” replied the magician.

“You should try laughing more,” suggested the little one. “I mean, don’t you just get the giggles sometimes? Like you just gotta laugh, or you’re tummy’s gonna bust?”

“Only if there is something to laugh at,” Trixie replied. “Which is a rarity indeed where I come from.”

“Don’t people laugh around here?”

“Oh, they laugh alright. In fact, it doesn’t take much for them to laugh. Once you’ve been around Equestria long enough, you’ll see that ponies are silly creatures that will laugh at anyone and anything, funny or not.”

“I know, right?” agreed Rarity with a giggle, apparently missing the poison in Trixie’s voice. “That’s what makes it fun! I mean, can you imagine living in a world without laughter?”

“Yes, and it would be a world of peace and quiet where ponies would mind their own business and not make fun of something they don’t understand!” Trixie went off, her voice growing in volume.

“What’s wrong with making fun of something?” asked Rarity, looking at Trixie as though her face has turned green. “Fun is fun, right?”

It was a senseless remark that rubbed Trixie the wrong way. “Well, little foal, maybe you haven’t realized yet that oftentimes when ponies laugh, it’s because—” but she stopped herself mid-sentence. Maybe she hadn’t realized. After all, she was still a young filly; maybe she had been sheltered all her life, never knowing what other ponies were capable of. It sent a pang of sympathy through her, mixed with a bit of jealousy. She sighed, calming herself down. “Just forget it.”

“Okay,” agreed the simple-minded filly without question. “You should totally come to Ponyville sometimes; you’ll have tons to laugh at!”

Seeing the happy-go-lucky little pony gave her mixed feelings. She could only imagine what the world must look like through her eyes: a place of fun and games, where everything was sunshine and rainbows. And quite frankly, her innocence irked her. Would Trixie have to be the one to teach her the standards of society? At the same time, part of her didn’t want to take that innocence away from her. No pony should have to grow up the way Trixie had. Rarity would have to learn the truth eventually… but for now, why not let her have her fun?

***

“Welcome to The Merry Grasshopper,” said the pony behind the counter. “What can I get you?”

At first, earth pony Rainbow Dash could only stare at the slender pony. The darker voice, the hair underneath his nose; this must be one of those ‘colts’ she’d heard about. A male, just like Spike. Of course, it made sense that there would be male ponies as well as female, but she could not for the life of her remember ever meeting one. Before the bar colt could ask why she was looking at him so strangely, she asked, “‘Merry Grasshopper’, darling? I don’t see any grasshopper.”

“It’s the name of the bar, madam,” he told her, using the same tone one would use to explain the concept of walking to a child.

“Oh, my apologies,” she said, a little embarrassed. “It’s just that I’ve never been in an establishment such as this.”

“My sympathies. Do you want my personal recommendation, then? Our Red Hay Punch is quite a treat, if I do say so myself.”

“We’ll take five glasses o’ milk, two Orange Ciders and one Salt Berry Blast,” Applejack came up beside her and placed their order. She added to Rainbow Dash, “Ah don’t think you’re ready for the strong stuff just yet.”

“Well, uh, thanks for the warning, darling,” she replied, not sure what ‘strong’ was referring to. Was it spicy? Who would want to drink something spicy? The bar colt merely nodded and started levitating glasses and bottles from the wall behind him, pouring various liquids into them.

“That would be eighteen bits.”

“Actually,” the other, winged Rainbow Dash said, “we’re here on official business with Princess Luna. You wouldn’t wanna charge a Princess, would you?”

“Of course I wouldn’t,” mused the bar colt. “Next you’re going to show me a remarkably well-crafted forgery of Her Highness' seal. Trust me, I know the trick; tried it a few times myself.”

“Do you mean to tell me there are ponies misusing our name to encourage their drinking habits?” said Luna, appearing from the door, her timing too perfect to be a coincidence. “We shall have to look into such matter. Did you say eighteen bits?”

The colt looked as though he was about to swallow his own mustache. “P-P-Princess Luna! I-I’m sorry, I had no idea you really were visiting our rural little town. It’s on the house, of course.”

“How generous of you,” the Princess said simply. The pegasus Rainbow Dash looked pleased as she grabbed one of the orange drinks with her teeth and poured the contents into her mouth. The sight did not appeal to the other Rainbow Dash, but she supposed it was the only way to get around it. Unless you were a Unicorn; Twilight and Rarity instead grabbed their drinks with magic, holding them afloat within their glowing auras as they took small sips.

The Princess turned to address the ponies. “I’m sorry I had to leave you at such a short notice; Canterlot business does come first, I’m afraid. I take it they haven’t arrived yet?”

“No, they haven’t,” said Twilight. “Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie are on the lookout right now.”

“Is that so? Too bad the surrounding area is cover by rather thick forest; otherwise we could have easily searched from the skies. I suppose our safest bet would be to simply… ah, there you are, Miss Fluttershy.”

As soon as the yellow pegasus walked through the door next to Luna, everypony’s eyes were on her. But she just solemnly shook her head. Twilight sighed. “Oh well, guess it’s my shift, then. I hope she gets here soon.”

“Trust me, she will,” pegasus Rainbow Dash assured. “Unless they get sidetracked or something, which I doubt, I’d say she’ll be here any minute.”

***

Trixie excused herself from Rarity, telling her to stay by the wagon as she went to ‘do her business’, but that wasn’t the only reason she had parked a ways away from town. It was a habit she had developed throughout her years of traveling: before putting up a performance, she would always size up the town, see what the ponies were like. If there were already magicians or other entertainers around, she tended to avoid those towns.

She made her way through the trees, and soon the entrance to the town of Winecolt came into view. It was a small town surrounded by a wall of wooden pikes, their tops sharpened; a remnant from medieval times. A cozy, rural town, its inhabitants more likely than not consisting mostly of earth ponies. Perfect for putting up a dazzling show that would surely go over their heads.

But the theory was put into question by the fact that there was a unicorn standing right by the gate. A unicorn that she, in fact, seemed to recognize. Lavender coat, a big star for a cutie mark… her eyes widened, heart skipping a beat as she quickly hid herself behind the nearest tree. Curses! Of all the ponies to run into, why did it have to be Twilight Sparkle? What was she doing all the way out here? Had she been following her?! But then, why would she?

Regardless, this put a wrench in her plans. If she was here, chances were her friends were as well, and there was absolutely no way she would subjugate herself to their criticism again. Admittedly, Trixie had been the one to lied about vanquishing an Ursa Major, and she had not plans on making the same mistake this time, but one word from those ponies and her credibility would be down the drain before she would even get a chance to prove them otherwise.

No, this wouldn’t do. Careful not to be seen by the accursed mare, she made her way back to the wagon. But what now? If not here, where could she go? She contemplated the geography in her head; the next town of this size was too far to the south, and it would probably take them a few more days to reach. But, she realized, there was another, smaller town not too far from here, just further down the road past Winecolt. There may not be as many ponies to be awed by her magic, but at least there would be no Twilight Sparkle.

“That took you long enough,” said Rarity upon her return. “Did you get this painful stab in the tummy, and had to get it all out? That’s happened to me sometimes; Cheerilee says it’s because I eat too much sweets.”

Ignoring her somewhat disgusting comment, Trixie put on her best smile. “Actually, it seems like I might have misread the map a little. We weren’t supposed to go to Wintecolt at all; what we’re looking for is Flakesville.”

“Oh, okay,” replied Rarity, looking at her curiously. Was her story convincing enough? “How long’s that gonna take?”

“Just a few more hours,” Trixie promised. “Honest mistake. Now let’s not waste time; we might still make it in time to put up a show.” She put herself through the pulling belt, and motioning for the little filly to follow as she walked away from the main road, through a path that would take them a safe distance around Winecolt.

***

“Dear… Applebloom… Sw-sneek… Sweetie Belle! And Scooooo… I hooo… thgwa… it’s no use, ah can’t make heads or tails out of this thing.”

When the Crusaders had woken up, they had found themselves all alone in the hall, a note on the floor next to them. Unfortunately, the writing was one of those fancy writing styles rich ponies used, and was harder to read than Granny Smith’s scribbling. “Let me see that,” said Sweetie Belle, pushing Apple Bloom aside. She gave the letter a quick look-through. “You’re right; not even Rarity writes this fancy. Look here: I think the signature says ‘Princess Luna’”

She was here?” reacted Scootaloo. Then added a gasped. “Wasn’t Luna the Princess that used to be the Mare in the Moon? What if she turned back, and kidnapped the others?”

“You silly filly, why would she leave an official-looking letter if it was a kidnapping?”

“To demand a ransom, of course!”

Sweetie Belle scanned the letter one more time. “I don’t see any numbers. Besides, wouldn’t she want to leave a ransom note that ponies could actually read?”

“Yeah, you got a point,” Scootaloo admitted. “So where did everypony go?”

“Didn’t they say something ‘bout picking somepony up today?” Apple Bloom remembered. “But why would they just leave us here?”

“Who cares,” said Scootaloo. “It’ll probably be a while until they come back; I say we go do some exploring!”

“The only thing Ah wanna explore is some food,” remarked Apple Bloom. “Couldn’t they at least have left us some breakfast?”

“Maybe somepony in town could give us some food,” suggested Sweetie Belle. “I say we go outside and have a look around.”

***

Many ponies were already up and about, walking down the streets, or talking in groups. As the fillies crossed the drawbridge, a white Unicorn with a pink and purple mane came up to them. “Good morning, girls!” she greeted. Her voice sounded as though she had swallowed a bundle of helium balloons, not unlike Pinkie Pie. “Had a good night’s sleep?” But Sweetie Belle didn’t care about the voice; she was preoccupied by the face, and its likeness to her own.

“Are you Sweetie Belle?!” she asked excitedly.

“That’s me,” the bigger pony confirmed. “And you must be Sweetie Belle too!”

“Yeah! Quick, let me see your cutie mar... a pink heart?”

The grown-up Sweetie Belle chuckled. “Yeah, Scootaloo said she got the same reaction from her filly counterpart. Guess my special talent is being sweet.”

“That’s not a bad talent to have, if ya ask me,” said Apple Bloom.

“But I’m already sweet,” rebutted the white-coated filly. “It’s in my name! Anyway, do you know where the others went?”

“I thought they were still sleeping in there,” said the grown-up unicorn. “They must’ve gone to get Rarity already.”

“But she was right here yesterda—oh,” Sweetie Belle realized, “you’re talking about a second Rarity from around here.”

“Well, from Unicornia, to be exact; though I guess that doesn’t really matter at this point.” She looked up at the looming mountain, where the castle was barely seen from this angle. “It’s funny actually, I moved to Ponyville just a few weeks ago. if I’d have known we’d be neighbors, I wouldn’t have had to go through all that trouble. Speaking of which, see that billboard?” Sure enough, right next to the drawbridge was a billboard, and on it was a picture of the castle of Canterlot. “It says that Princess Celestia is going to send ponies from this place called Canterlot to teach us stuff about Equestria. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?”

“Sounds like a nice way to say school,” remarked Scootaloo. “We’re so skipping that.”

“Come on Scootaloo,” the filly Sweetie Belle urged, “don’t you wanna meet ponies from Canterlot? Maybe we could even help them teach and stuff.”

“If that sounds like fun to you, knock yourself out,” Scootaloo returned. “I’d rather go do something more exciting.”

“But what if our special talents are teaching?”

The skepticism in Scootaloo’s face vanished. “Why didn’t I think of that? If we were the teachers, we could totally make it fun and awesome!”

“You make it sound like learning is boring,” said the grown-up version of Sweetie Belle. “I’ve never actually been to school; what’s it like?”

“Before we go into that,” halted Apple Bloom, “do you have any food? The others kind of left us without any breakfast.”

***

About an hour later, the grown-up Sweetie Belle having treated the Crusaders to some delicious cinnamon buns for breakfast, the beds inside the castle had been replaced by long benches. At the far wall, a small stage had been set up, where a light-brown unicorn stallion wearing a silver vest stood watching all the local ponies file into the castle. His cutie mark depicting two smiling faces looking up at stars. He wasn’t alone; on his back rode…

“Spike!” called Apple Bloom, running up to the stage to greet the purple baby dragon. “You’re gonna be the one be the one to teach all these ponies about life in Equestria?”

“Yup,” he replied happily. “Celestia sent me over from Ponyville, along with Doctor Hoofenstein here. Where are the others?”

“Off rescuing somepony, or so we were told,” said Scootaloo. “Leaving us hanging.”

“Weren’t you gonna tend to Fluttershy’s animals?” pointed Apple Bloom. “Who’s doing it now?”

“I asked Granny Smith to do it,” Spike explained. “She has a way with animals, let me tell ya; not even Angel wanted to mess with her.”

“Tell me about it,” the yellow filly said with a laugh. “The pigs always seem to calm down whenever she enters the barn.”

“Are you girls from Ponyville?” asked the Doctor. The Crusaders nodded in response. “Would you like to join us on stage?”

“Would we!” Scootaloo replied for the group, hopping onto the stage. “When do we start?”

“Any moment now,” replied the doctor, gesturing toward the growing crowd, now almost big enough to fill the entire castle floor. Spike climbed on top of a stool at the stage’s center, and watched as the crowd settled down, whispering to one another, pointing at the baby dragon. When the hall had gone completely silent, Spike put on his announcing voice.

“Welcome Ladies and Gentlemen!” called Spike over the crowd. “Or as we like to say these days, Fillies and Gentlecolts! How is everyone doing? Or should I say, how is everypony doing?”

“Yes Spike, there are many different speech patters we use nowadays that may seem unfamiliar to all of you,” Hoofenstein took over, “as well as many customs here in Equestria. That’s why we’re here, to teach you about these things, fill you in on modern Equestrian life…”

For the next few moments, Spike and Dr. Hoofenstein explained what to the fillies was already common knowledge: about how the Princesses controls the Sun and the Moon, when to use words such as ‘everypony’ instead of ‘everyone’, all the different holidays and what they represented, even down to how basic monetary system worked; all the while answering ponies’ raised hooves. Some of the stuff the townsponies said was downright kooky; apparently they never had to ‘earn’ money; it was always there when they needed it, and although they did have something similar to Hearth Warming Eve, they called it Christmas, where a fat bearded man would come and give everypony presents.

“Now, let’s talk about these,” Dr. Hoofenstein turned around to show symbol on his flank. “Can anypony tell me what this is called?”

“A Cutie Mark!” called a pink earth pony with a multi-colored mane of pink and yellow from the audience. “They’re Cutie Marks, aren’t they?”

“Indeed they are,” confirmed the doctor.

“Woo! I totally called it!”

“Then perhaps you also know what they symbolize?”

“Things we like, right? I like to paint, so mine’s a paintbrush!”

“Nuh-uh!” Apple Bloom spoke up. “Ah’m afraid it’s not that easy; those things are supposed to represent your talent, and ya gotta find what that is before it can appear!”

“Yeah!” agreed Scootaloo, jumping onto the stool Spike was on, knocking him down. “If all it took was liking something, I would’ve had my Scooter on my flank a long time ago! No, you need to fight for your Cutie Mark, try everything you can think of to discover who you really! That’s why we are,” the other two jumped up and crowded the stool, joining her in the chant, “The Cutie Mark Crusaders!

“Or, you could do it the safer way and wait for you talent to come naturally,” added the Doctor, levitating the Crusaders off the stool. “But it seems all of you already have your Cutie Marks. Maybe you actually did get them based on your personal likes, in which case you ponies are very special indeed.”

“Not to mention lucky,” added Apple Bloom quietly.

“Right, any more questions?” asked Spike, back on his stool. Pretty much everypony in the room raised their hooves. “Oh my…” he looked over the crowd, intimidated by the sheer amount of questions. But then his face lit up, and he motioned for the Doctor; he whispered something in his ear, and he too assumed a wide smile.

“That is an excellent idea, Spike,” commended Hoofenstein, then turned to address the crowd. “Who wants to go on a field trip?”

***

“Come one, come all!” boomed Trixie over the crowd, admittedly a small one, as Flakesville was only a small settlement compared to Winecolt. The wagon had lowered its walls and raised the floor, transforming it into a stage. Rarity was hiding behind the curtain at the back of the stage, enchanted by Trixie so that she could see the crowd but the crowd could not see her. “Come see the most talented, the most traveled magician in all of Equestria: none other than The Great and Powerful Trixie!”

Upon the last word, fireworks erupted from all around the stage, sending a mix of ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s over the crowd. But it wasn’t Rarity’s doing; Trixie had been very clear she was not to do anything at all before the time was right. “I have wandered far beyond anywhere you have ever ventured, seen things that would feed your nightmares. Now, The Great and Powerful Trixie is here to show you her spectacular feats of sorcery few have ever had the privilege to witness!”

The magician then started waving a hoof in the air, and next moment a bouquet of flowers appeared out of nowhere. She grabbed it with her mouth and threw the flowers up in the air, where it exploded in a white puff of clouds, from which birds appeared. They flew over the crowd… only to explode again, this time turning into glitter. There was an awed noise from the crowd, and if Rarity hadn’t been told rather strictly not to make a sound, she would have done the same. She had never seen anything so spectacular; Trixie wouldn’t show her anything on the road, so she never realized she was this talented.

The stage pony beamed at the crowd. “Thank you, thank you. But you haven’t seen anything yet!” Her hat then started glowing, lifting itself up to reveal the horn beneath. The ground around the spectators then began spinning up dust, which began swirling around the ponies. Higher and higher it went, until it seemed to gather onto a spot right above the crowd. And then, the dust shot out in all direction, turning into ribbons as it did. Rarity, as well as the spectators, only stood wide-eyed, until a loud sheering erupted, accompanied by stomping hooves to the ground.

***

Trixie had made the right choice to come here instead of Winecolt. The lack of cynical neigh-sayers made it much easier to work her craft, and ponies had already started throwing coins onto the stage. But the biggest number had yet to come. She gathered her thoughts in concentration, hoping Rarity wouldn’t mess up her part in this.

She threw off her hat and began spinning her head round and round, as was necessary to amplify the magic effect. The resulting spell began immediately; more dust flew up from the ground, this time suspending itself in mid-air, surrounding her and the audience. Then, with a last flash from her horn, the dust started glowing, and seconds later, they appeared to be standing on a large field of flowers. A clever illusion spell that had taken months and months to perfect, and it certainly seemed to strike home with the crowd. But the trick wasn’t over; just as the audience was starting to reach out for the flowers, the scenery changed.

They were now floating in the sky, the Equestrian landscape far beneath their hooves. Many gasped, some let out a yell. Trixie amped up the illusion, making it look like they were moving through the air, Equestria speeding by far below. Trixie had spent many late evenings creating the landscapes from the memories of her travels. The flight stopped, and the scenery suddenly changed from fields and mountains in daylight to Canterlot at night. Fireworks were now shooting from everywhere, illuminating the city landscape over which the ponies were floating.

Trixie was starting to get a little bit nervous now; upholding the illusion took all the concentration she got, so it was up to her assistant to pull off the real fireworks, and that time was soon approaching. Inside her illusory world, Trixie’s stage rose above the spectators, placing herself so that the full moon would be her backdrop as the fireworks exploded around her. She magically flashed her horn red, signaling to Rarity that the time was nigh.

“This, Fillies and Gentlecolts,” she announced mightily, “is the life of the Great and Powerful Trixie!” The moment she said her name, she stood up on her hind legs, assuming a dramatic pose, hoping for the best.

A magic force pulled her hind legs upward, making her lose balance and tumble right onto the floor. Only three out of five fireworks went off, two on the left and one on the right. The dust fell to the ground, the spell broken.

It felt as though the world stood still. Her grand finale, the moment that was supposed to have captivated her audience – her biggest success yet, one might say – all ruined. And she knew perfectly well why. As the world slowly started to move again in her brain, she found herself holding back the boiling anger that was starting to surface. “Uh, are you okay?” asked a stallion, a concerned look on his face.

Trixie laughed awkwardly. “Ah, yeah, just a little trip, is all.” She felt her own words stab like daggers into her heart. Just a little trip?! “Nothing to concern yourselves about.”

“Well, except for the last bit, that was amazing!” said a mare next to him. “I can’t believe such skilled magicians would visit our little town!”

The disappointment was mixed with glee from the adoration of the audience, but the fact still remained that she had failed. No, actually, she hadn’t failed...

Rarity…!

***

The little pony’s heart might as well have been turned into a clump of ice. She had panicked. She had been so engrossed in the fantastic show that she had been caught completely unprepared when the signal came. She must have mistaken the blue spots on the floor that she was supposed to concentrate on with Trixie’s blue legs. And now, Trixie was mad. Even receiving praise from the townspeople, she could see it in her eyes that she wasn’t happy at all. Rarity tried to discreetly slip away, maybe hide for a bit until it blew over – that had worked before – but Trixie quickly thwarted that idea, approaching her with the angriest face anyone had ever shown her.

“You…!” she hissed, jabbing an accusing hoof to her chest. “I gave you a simple task, and you blew it! I thought I made it perfectly clear that the finale was of utmost importance, and that if you had any doubt whatsoever, you would at least have the sensibility of not igniting the fireworks at all!” Every word was like beating to Rarity’s heart. “But you know what frustrates me? You said you wouldn’t fail me! You promised me that you wouldn’t mess this up, that would make me proud! That’s one way of pulling my leg; is this your idea of a joke?!”

“I-i-it was an h-honest mistake!” Rarity tried to counter, but the lump in her throat made it difficult to speak.

“Then it escapes me how utterly incompetent you must be to mistake my legs for blue dots!” she fumed. “No, silly me; my legs for dancing monkeys! Should I perhaps have coached you in colors? Perhaps I should have taught you how to discern ponies from inanimate objects.”

At this point, a new emotion was starting to join Rarity’s shame. A very dark emotion, that she could not remember having felt before. Getting her voice back temporarily, she tried to defend herself. “W-well, what about you? It’s not like you never make mistakes; you thought we were going to Winecolt instead of here, remember?”

“An astute observation, but there is one little detail you forget. That cost us a few hours of extra traveling; this cost me the respect of the villagers! My greatest achievement, gone with the wind! The fact that you don’t seem to realize what you have done to me leaves me angry and disappointed. I hope you’re happy.”

The words struck harder than a fall from a cliff right in the head. She lowered her voice, speaking very quietly, “I’m sorry, Trixie.”

“I’m sure you are, but saying so isn’t going to help me,” Trixie snapped back, not dropping the venom in her voice. A venom that fed the lump in Rarity’s throat, as well as the darkness within. “I’m starting to think it was a mistake bringing you along. But I suppose it was my own fault for thinking I could trust someone I just happened to pick up along the road.”

“W-won’t you give me another chance?” pleaded Rarity, barely holding back sobs.

“I’m surprised I’m still speaking to you as it is!” replied Trixie through gritted teeth. But then she looked away, sighing sourly. “We’ll see how I feel in the morning, but don’t hold your breath. There will be no lodging for you, and not food, got that?!”

“Hey, excuse me, miss?” came another voice, belonging to one of the town’s people that had walked up to Trixie. Rarity only now realized that there was a small crowd of around six or seven ponies gathered around the two. “Now granted, I only listen in half-way through the conversation, but don’t you think you’re being a bit hard on the kid? I take it she’s your assistant? Maybe it was her fault you tripped during that last bit, but everypony makes mistakes, especially when you’re young.”

“You keep out of this!” snapped the magician. “This is between me and her!”

“Easy there,” commented another pony, a bulk-bodied stallion with a black beard. “I mean, we all agree you’re great with illusions and all, but this doesn’t exactly paint you in the best light.”

The others around them only stared at Trixie, who now looked almost frightened. “But I…! She was the one that…!” She then gave Rarity a look. One that bore into the very depth of her soul. A look of absolute loathing, but also sadness, one that clear as day conveyed the message ‘look what you have done!’

At that moment, something snapped inside her head. It felt like all happiness and color just drained from her life. “Oh yeah?!” she shouted back. “Well maybe I wouldn’t have messed up so bad if you would actually teach me things! You’re not Great or Powerful, you’re just a mean old… meanie that’s too stuck-up to think of anyone but herself!” And with that final comment, she couldn’t take it anymore. Any of it. So she ran as fast as her legs could carry her, away from the cluster of houses, further up toward the hills.

***

For once in her life, Trixie thought things couldn’t get worse. All the respect she had worked so hard to earn, washed away, not to mention having been shouted back to by her incompetent so-called assistance. She was more than eager to let a good glass of salt water sweep her troubles away… but lo and behold, things got worse. It always did. Just as she was about to swing open the door to the bar, a cerulean pegasus pony was suddenly up in her face, giving her an angry look. “So, ‘Great and Powerful Trixie’, we meet again. Remember ol’ Rainbow Dash?”

Trixie, in no mood to put up with any of this, shot her daggers. “Well, if it isn’t one of the neigh-sayers from Ponyville. What, have you been stalking me? What’s the matter, can’t get enough of the show-stopping abilities of The Great and—”

“Cut the act, Trixie, you know you’re nothing special!” the pegasus shot back. A remark that only deepened her wound. “Where is Rarity? I know she was with you!”

She was looking for Rarity? So she was a Ponyvillian. Well, why should The Great and Powerful Trixie be obliged to help this ruffian? “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Now, if you excuse me, I have some sorrows to drown.”

Rainbow Dash wouldn’t give up, pressing her snout against Trixies. “Where. Is. Rarity?!” Then, almost as though her indignity was answered by the weather itself, the cloud overhead suddenly started swirling in the shape of a cone, in the middle of which a dark figure appeared.

Trixie lost her breath for a moment as a dark-blue pony with both grand wings and a tall horn descended from the skies, hitting the ground with a sound thud. Above her, encapsulated within an aura of magic, was – Trixie’s heart froze – Twilight Sparkle and six of her friends. The aura suddenly burst, throwing the group unceremoniously to the ground. “There you are, Princess,” said Rainbow Dash. “Why didn’t you just teleport like you did before?”

“I cannot relocate to a place I have never been,” explained the dark-blue being. Did she say Princess? With a jolt, Trixie realized that this had to be Princess Luna, Ruler of the Night, only recently returned from her thousand year banishment. “Forgive me for the rather rough landing.”

“No worries,” said Twilight, she and the ponies getting to their hooves. “It was my idea.”

That’s when Trixie noticed that there was another Rainbow Dash in the group, identical in all except the lack of wings, and a less ruffed mane. Suddenly everything that Rarity had told her about Ponyville and Rainbow Dash the fashion pony made sense. Speaking of Rarity, the white Unicorn with the same name looked indeed like an older version of the filly she had just parted with. But before she could think deeper on the matter, Twilight Sparkle approached her. “Hi, Trixie,” she greeted, rather friendly actually. “Remember me?”

“I remember that you made an utter foal out of me last time we met,” Trixie replied bitterly.

Twlight sighed, looking almost dejected. “Look, we just came here to take Rarity off your hooves. Also,” she added, this time affording her a smile, “we wanted to thank you for taking care of her.”

Only now did the obvious question strike her. “And how would you know any of this?”

“I made a Pinkie Squink,” a pink pony stepped forward and explained; another duplicate to one of Twilight’s friends. “It’s a special magic I have that lets us see the solution to a problem. And since we were looking for Rarity, we saw her with you. Though it was pretty blurry, so I guess it could’ve been somepony else.”

Trixie sighed inwardly; she might as well come clean. Get this mess over with. “If you mean a little pink unicorn by the name, then yes, she was with me just a while ago. But we got into a little… argument… and she ran off.” She pointed towards the slope behind the houses.

Rainbow Dash immediately took to the air. “Come on, Fluttershy, help me look!” she called, whereas she sped off, her yellow pegasus friend following suit.

***

Rarity had stopped running, letting her breath catch up. She wasn’t used to running so fast, or so far. Nor was she used to the bubbling feeling of unease in her heart. She knew that what she felt was anger and sorrow, but she couldn’t remember ever having felt it so strongly before. Why wouldn’t it go away? Why couldn’t she think of Trixie without her blood growing cold? So cold…

She was just about ready to burst into tears, when two pegasi strangers landing right in front of her, making her jump. One was blue – kind of the same color as Rainbow Dash, and a similar mane – and the other yellow. “Wh-who are you?” she managed.

“Uhm… is your name Rarity?” asked the yellow one, giving her a friendly but anxious smile.

Rarity just nodded. Then the other one spoke more quietly to her friend, “Didn’t Trixie say she was a pink unicorn? She’s more white than pink, if you ask me.”

“You’re right,” the yellow one agreed. “She does look exactly like Rarity though.” But then the pegasus’ eyes widened, and she got an expression of fear on her face that almost mirrored what Rarity felt. “Y-you don’t suppose she… she lost her colors?”

“Now why would she—?” but then the rainbow-maned one gave her a look of realization. “Oh no,” she too looked upon the unicorn with concern, “you mean like Discord did to us?”

“Remember what Zecora and Celestia said: there’s a piece of Discord in all of them.”

Discord? Losing colors? What were they talking about? She looked down on her hooves… and realized that sure enough, they were no longer the bright pink color she was used to. She also realized that she didn’t care. All she cared about was getting away from these weirdos. They were probably just going to yell at her.

“I think we’d better let Twilight have a look at her,” suggested the cerulean pony. “She the one who snapped us out of it. Come along kid, we’re here to take you home.”

Taking her home? To Unicornia? But were they really? Maybe they were sent by Trixie to get her to apologize or something. “I-I’m not going anywhere,” Rarity replied defiantly.

“You don’t wanna go home?”

“I can find home all on my own!”

“Good luck with that. Trust me kid, I’ve got experience dragging ponies along with me, and I’m not afraid to use it.”

Her words, for reasons she did not quite understand, send a shockwave of fear through her entire body. It told her to run. These ponies were out to get her! And run she did… but she could go so far until hooves wrapped around her little body, pulling her in. In that moment, fear was replaced by anger, and the little filly started pounding her with all her might. “Let go of me, you big jerk! Let me go!!”

***

The pegasi return was announced by shrill screaming and hollering, mixed with what sounded to Cheerilee as ‘let go!’ or ‘meanie!’. She watched as Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy carried the little filly between them, each holding two legs in their grasp, all trying to free themselves. They let go the moment they landed. Was that bite-marks on their legs?

Despite her new looks, Cheerilee knew right away that this could only be Rarity. She was looking around at the group, a frightened look on her face. “W-who are you people?” When she laid eyes on Trixie, she immediately tried to run away, but was stopped by Rainbow Dash, who had to wrestle her down. Her rash behavior filled Cheerilee with unease; Rarity was young and playful, but she would never hit anyone, let alone bite.

She approached cautiously, and put a hoof on her shoulder, to which the filly turned around. “Rarity? It’s me, Cheerilee! Are you feeling alright?”

At this, Rarity seemed to calm down a bit, as she stared into the unicorn’s eyes. “C-Cheerilee?”

“I know I look different, but it’s really me,” she assured. “What happened to you? Where are your colors? Did this Trixie character do anything bad?”

At the mention of Trixie, the unicorn flared up. “You bet she did! That mean old witch scolded me for no reason, and said I was incompetent! I hate her!” She was positively shouting, her eyes screwed up with rage. It made Cheerilee take a few steps back, staring at the filly in disbelief. It was like Rarity had become a different person altogether.

You hate me?!” Trixie replied hotly. “How do you think I feel, when the pony I take in as an assistant from the goodness of my heart can’t even perform one measly task without messing everything up? What, did you dye your coat so you could come back and try to impress me? Every foal knows that trick.”

“Don’t talk to me that way! I’m the Rainbow Princess!”

“Well excuse me, Princess! You want me to kneel before your ignorance?”

It was Luna who broke the argument. “It would appear we are disturbing the local peace. Let us continue this conversation back in Ponyville.” And so without warning, stars appeared before Cheerilee’s eyes, and after a short moment of weightlessness, they were once again standing in the royal flower garden of Ponyville.

***

The change of scenery came so suddenly, Twilight had to take a few moments to adjust her brain. The sudden transportation was certainly enough to distract the filly Rarity from her bitterness, her eyes shooting up as she started to realize where she were. Her gaze went from the flowers, to the buildings, and then to the big mountain. “Is this… really Ponyville?”

“I assure you, darling, it is,” the local Rainbow Dash told her sweetly. “Things have changed around here, but we will explain everything, as soon as you tell us what happened to you.”

“I think I know what happened,” said the pegasus Rainbow Dash. “Look at her color. Didn’t you say she was pink?”

Twilight immediately understood. How could she ever forget? “You mean she’s been… discorded?”

“Yeah, just like what happened to us.”

“But how could that be?” Twilight questioned. “Celestia said the piece of Discord inside them wasn’t substantial enough to do any harm.”

“Unless it was egged on by something,” suggested Rainbow Dash. “Or somepony.” She pointed an accusing hoof at Trixie, who Twilight only now realized had been swept along with Luna’s teleportation.

“Sure, why not drag mean old Trixie to Goddess knows where and start grilling her,” countered the magician fiercely. “If something goes wrong, blame it on Trixie. That’s usually how it goes.”

“Oh cut the coy,” pressed Rainbow Dash. “What did do to her?”

“Only telling her truth, that she is an ungrateful runt who can’t even perform the simplest of tricks.”

“And you’re an ungrateful old witch who can’t say a single nice thing to anyone!”

“And you’re a pest who shouldn’t be pushed on anypony, let alone The Great and Powerful Trixie!”

“You’re not a real magician! Why, I bet you just lied to me about all those places you’ve been to!”

During the whole exchange, Twilight noticed how Pinkie Pie – her Pinkie Pie – seemed unnaturally restless, nervous even. She couldn’t blame her; she probably hated arguments like these more than anything. Eventually, the need to say something grew too great; Pinkie’s face darkened as she exclaimed, “Quit it, Trixie! I know you did something mean! I bet you kidnapped Rarity, and did all sorts of terrible things to her!”

“Now really, darlings,” earth pony Rainbow Dash tried to calm everypony down, “there is no need for such drama.”

“No no, that’s fine,” Trixie conceded. From the expression of pure anger and sorrow on her face, even Twilight had to admit that Pinkie might have gone too far. “If you really want a scapegoat, I suppose I’m happy to comply. I kidnapped her, tortured her, and fed her worms. There, you happy?! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some other kids to kidnap!” She stomped her hooves fiercely to the ground, then turned around and ran the opposite direction as quickly as she could. No pony felt the need to go after her.

“Good riddance!” Rarity shouted at her. “I hope you trip and fall! I hope you never—”

“Enough!” It was the other, grown-up Rarity’s time to shout. She approached the filly with a strict look on her face. “Now, I don’t know exactly what happened between you two, but from what I’ve seen, you certainly haven’t conducted yourself any better than Trixie!”

“Rarity, wait, she’s—”

Rarity held up a hoof to silence Twilight. “Trust me, Rarity, we’re all on your side, but you have to tell us what happened.” She gave her a friendly smile. “You’re better than that mean ol’ Trixie, aren’t you?”

It worked to the extent that the filly Rarity’s face softened, her expression of rage being replaced by a sorrowful one. “I… she was so…” was all she could get out, before she lowered her head and stared into the ground, sobbing softly. “I-I just don’t k-know anymore…”

“I think it’s best that I take her home,” suggested Cheerilee. “I’ll stay with her as long as she needs.”

“Yeah,” agreed Twilight. “We’ll figure something out. I bet Celestia knows a way… no offense, Luna.”

“None taken; I am just as lost for words as you,” The Princess replied. Cheerilee excused herself, leading the sorrowful child away from the group.

“Well I have a few words for Pinkie Pie,” spoke the grown-up version of Rarity. “I expected such behavior from Rainbow Dash – the pegasus, of course – but I never imagined you of all ponies would blurt out those things! I mean yes, it was what we were all probably thinking, but have you ever heard of such a thing as tact?”

Twilight half-expected Pinkie to give a nonsensical excuse, but instead, she sighed unhappily. “I know. I’m sorry guys; it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, but extreme situations calls for extreme measures! And this time, Pinkie Pie style ain’t gonna cut it. I just hope it isn’t too late.”

***

Rarity was finally home. Reunited with her friends and back in Unicornia, which had magically moved closer to Ponyville while she was gone. She was also more miserable than she had ever been her whole life. The castle was empty, so Cheerilee had tried to talk to her alone, but Rarity didn’t have it in her to reply to anything anymore, as her words would only get stuck in the giant lump in her throat. All she could manage to get out was that she was tired, so Cheerilee left her in her room to sleep.

The thought of Trixie still filled her with loathing. Why did she hate Trixie so much? What did she do again? She only remembered bits and pieces of their conversation after the show, mostly the faces that she made at her. Ones of disappointment and anger. It was so unfair! Anyone makes mistakes, she said so herself!

All the same, that white unicorn was right: Rarity hadn’t been acting much better herself. And that’s what she hated most of all. She never wanted to make her friends sad or worried, never wanted to hate anyone. She just wanted to laugh, have fun! But now she was starting to wonder if she would ever laugh again. Would Cheerilee even want to talk to her anymore? She couldn’t shake the feeling that everything was out to get her, that no one really needed her. She buried her head under her pillow, trying to block everything out.

But fate had other plans. “Hi Rarity!” came a high-pitched voice. Pulling up her head, she was startled to see one of those pink ponies from before just outside the window, which she had opened. “How are you feeling?” Without waiting for a response, she hopped inside.

It was the last thing Rarity needed. Whatever she said next would only make her feel worse. “Go away,” she mumbled.

“Say, what’s this?” asked the pink pony, ignoring Rarity and pointing at something on her desk. “Is this a magic wand?” She then went ahead and picked it up with her mouth.

This awoke a reaction from the downtrodden filly. “Don’t touch that!” she exclaimed. “It’s mine!”

“I know, I’m just gonna borrow it a little.”

“Give it back to me right now!” shouted Rarity, feeling the anger coming on again. She couldn’t stop it, and it tore her up inside. The pink pony didn’t seem to listen; instead she just opened the door and ran down the stairs. Furious, Rarity followed.

The chase led her out of the castle, and down the slope, the pink pony always staying a few pony lengths ahead of her. Rarity didn’t care that her legs were starting to hurt: she needed that wand back! It nothing else, it was all she had left from a happier time. The pony ahead led her away from town, toward a lake she had never seen there before, and then further into the forest. Suddenly she picked up the pace, sprinting away from the little filly, and no amount or screaming, pleading or crying did anything to slow her down. Soon, the pink pony was gone from sight.

But to her immense relief, she found the wand lying on the ground just ahead. Rarity tried to pick it up, but remembered her hooves could no longer bend that way, so instead she used her mouth, and to the best of her abilities tangled it into her hair. Who was that pink pony? Pinkie Pie? But why would she do such a thing? And now she was lost in an unknown forest. This time, all alone.

A sound that temporarily distracted her from the anxiety. Was that sobbing? No, it wasn’t just sobbing; someone was crying. Rarity followed the sound, which led her to a small clearing. There, sitting on the dirty ground, head slumped and mane in a tangle, face distorted with tears and anguish, was Trixie.

The initial reaction was a surge of fear, followed by anger, but then came another feeling into the mix: curiosity. Why was she crying? It was Rarity who was hurt, not her! Was she crying because she ruined her show? But her senses were starting to catch up with her: that couldn’t be it. She had been angry, sure, but that wouldn’t make The Great and Powerful Trixie cry like a baby. There was something else, and new pieces of memory were starting to surface from the depth of Rarity’s mind. ‘If something goes wrong, blame it on Trixie! That’s usually how it goes.’

But it didn’t really matter. Someone was crying right in front of her, and needed comforting, and that overpowered her sense of disgust.

Trixie jumped when she saw the little filly, staring at her with a look of pure horror. “You…!” her tone was neither angry nor frightened, only surprised.

“Hi, Trixie,” Rarity tried meekly. “W-were you crying?”

“Of course I wasn’t,” she shot back. “Why would The Great and Powerful Trixie be crying? It’s not like she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere, lost her wagon… hated by everypony. Again.” Her head sank and her volume diminished as she spoke, as though she didn’t even have the energy to be sarcastic anymore. “Just leave me alone.”

It was like looking at a mirror image of Rarity herself. Except Trixie actually had a good reason for crying. All the things she said to her, the accusing remarks from the others, her show ruined… her life ruined…

Where did that leave Rarity?

“I’m sorry…” said the little pony. “I’m so sorry…” As she said those words, something lifted from her heart, the darkness that was plaguing her soul being pushed away. “You’re not lazy, and you’re not a witch. I’m sorry…!” Her body grew lighter, her voice stronger. “I’m sorry for calling you useless, and… I’m sorry for ruining your show.”

No sooner had she said it did she feel legs wrap around her little body, as Trixie embraced Rarity in a hug, sobbing as she did. It was all it took for the dam in Rarity’s heart open, unleashing her own flood of tears. For a moment, they just cried in each other’s embrace, the tears carrying with it the hatred and anger, freeing her soul.

“And,” Trixie began to speak, “I’m sorry for shouting at you. You’re not incompetent. It was an honest mistake.” She flashed her a smile… and Rarity did the same for her. She felt the happiness return to her body, and the relief was so huge, she couldn’t help but burst out giggling. Even more so when Trixie started laughing with her. As they fell rolling on the ground, she barely took notice of the pink returning to her body.

***

Pinkie Pie peaked out from behind a tree, watching the two ponies laugh, a smile on her face and a tear in her eye. Mission accomplished.

---

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for help with editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Eight

By Candle Light

The green-coated earth pony walked onwards. On and on. She had been walking for days now. It was all she could do. She was tired and dehydrated, covered in sweat and almost delirious. What was her name again? That’s right: Minty.

All she could remember was that she had just woke up from a long afternoon nap, when suddenly her senses had blacked out for a moment, and then she was in a place filled with nothing but dried dirt and brownish rocks as far as eyes could see, feeling as though she had slept in for weeks. Thinking that maybe she was still dreaming, she started walking a random direction, but after hours of traversing this dead landscape, sweat soaking into her coat and legs slowly building up pain, she started to think that maybe it wasn’t a dream. She had done her best not to freak out, but as time went on, she found it harder to do. Eventually, she had found a decently tall rock, jumped onto it and screamed for help as loud as her lungs would allow. No response came, and she had fallen exhausted to the ground.

She had woken up a couple of hours later, or so it felt, and by then the sun had already gone down, replacing the scourging heat with bitter cold. Left with no other option, she kept walking, keeping a steady pace for several more hours. Her mind drew up all sorts of crazy theories: was this an illusion created by a unicorn, to teach her not to doze off in the middle of the day? Or had Rarity accidentally used her wand to teleport her away from Ponyville?

At some point or another, she actually started thinking that maybe her life in Ponyville had been a lie; that she had somehow woken up from an illusion. But she soon found herself laughing at the idea. Because if that was true, she would have to go completely insane. She didn’t want that.

She wandered all throughout the night, watching the landscape subtly change; the rocks would become bigger, or the ground would slope ever so slightly. She tried to convince herself that this was all just a dream after all, that she was just having trouble waking up. But try as she might, she could not awaken from this nightmare, so eventually she just stopped trying. The thought was the only thing that held back any sort of rational emotions; every time hunger would make its presence known, she would just laugh it away, thinking about the delicious meal she would have when she woke up.

But eventually, even that didn’t work, as she could not remember ever having gone so far without a meal before in her life. There was nothing there that remotely resembled food. Or water, for that matter, and her body was starting to pester her for it. As much as she tried to remind herself that none of this was real, she couldn’t help the panic from spreading inside; in an act of desperation, she started munching down some dried-up straws of grass – nothing more than weed – that was growing by a particularly big rock formation. It had to be the nastiest thing she had ever tasted, but her stomach was just happy for whatever meagre sustenance it could come by.

Her wandering continued… and continued… until night fell once more, and at this point, her throat was aching like she had swallowed a can of needles. She hadn’t had anything to drink in what, two days? And the dry air sure didn’t help. What she wouldn’t give for a cup of Sweet Berry’s Rainbow Berry Juice. Or water, or anything. She tried to keep her mind from her throat by gazing up at the stars: was it just her, or were they strangely different from how they were before? Well, of course it was just her, who else was with her in these deserted lands? No one at all, that’s who! And as soon as the thought hit her, she felt a twinge in her heart. She missed her friends. Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Wysteria… where were they now? She allowed herself to drop a few tears; hoping beyond hope that she would wake up soon.

Morning came at last, and by now, Minty’s legs were aching furiously with every step, no energy left to even keep her eyes up. The truth dawned upon her with the sun. This wasn’t a dream. This was the cruel, harsh reality; a world she had been mercilessly thrown into without her consent. Regardless, she had to press on. She didn’t want her life to end this way, far apart from her friends, her home. Why did it have to end up like this? What did she do to deserve this?

Her whole self depleted, she fell to the dry ground, the last of her energy converting into a single tear as the images of her friends started to fade.

***

“So, are you here to take another jab at the mean old Trixie?”

“It’s not her fault, y’know!” the filly Rarity came to her defense. “She was really sad, and—”

“Whoa there, filly, hold your horses,” Applejack told the child. She and all her friends, including the lookalikes and another unicorn Trixie did not recognize, had come to meet her and Rarity as they appeared from the forest. “We actually wanna apologize for bein’ so darned nasty to y’all before.”

Before either of them could reply, the pink pony with the poofy mane rushed forward and hugged Trixie. “I’m so sorry! I knew it was gonna hurt you, but I had to make a choice between you and Rarity, and this was the only way I knew would save her! I’m so-so-so-so sorry that I said those things to you; you’re not a kidnapper, you’re—”

“Slow down a notch!” Trixie silenced her. This whole situation felt bizarre to her; the fact that ponies didn’t usually apologize to her notwithstanding, it sounded to her like this pink pony had staged the whole thing. She certainly didn’t appreciate being a pawn in some mind game, but how could she be mad when what Pinke had done had given her back a sliver of something she thought she had lost long ago. “I, uhh… it’s no big deal. It all turned out alright in the end. No hard feelings.”

“Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou!” exclaimed the pink pony, tightening her hug. Trixie had been hugged more today than she could remember being hugged her whole life. Maybe she was too weirded out to push her away, or maybe she was starting to feel that it really wasn’t that bad. “I was so worried that you weren’t going to forgive me! Do you have any idea how horrible it is to have somepony hate you for the rest of your life? Well, me neither, but can you imagine?!”

“Well, uh, yeah…” she replied vaguely. Trixie had an idea. The pink pony thankfully let go.

“And, uh, Cheerilee?” Rarity spoke up. “Will you forgive me for being such a, uh, handful?”

“Oh, Rarity,” her friend came up and hugged her. “You’re always a handful, but I still love you. Besides, you weren’t even yourself; your colors were gone and everything.” She turned to face the others, “Do you know what happened to her?”

“You said she had been ‘discorded’, did you not?” Trixie added, not even attempting to hide her concern. “She’s going to be alright, isn’t she?”

“There should be no more immediate danger to her well-being,” Luna told them. “What happened to her was… well, it is a long story. You remember Discord, do you not?”

“Actually, I do not,” Trixie admitted.

“Don’t you remember when all the roads turned into soap and clumps of earth started floating upside-down in mid-air?” asked Twilight.

“You mean to say that really happened? I-I thought it was just a dream?”

“More like a nightmare, created by the spirit of Chaos and Disharmony, Discord. The six of us barely managed to stop him, but not before draining us of all happiness and turning our negative emotions against us. That’s what happened to little Rarity; Discord left a piece of his magic inside a select few ponies from the village.”

“Inside Rarity?” Trixie repeated, looking at the filly worriedly. As crazy as it all seemed, it was starting to make sense. “So this is the other Ponyville she was talking about…”

“To put it simply,” Luna explained, “it is a village that has been hidden away from the rest of the world for a thousand years, locked in a time loop illusion spell created by Discord.”

“Time loop? Illusion?” she parroted. She was definitely in way over her head. “B-but why are there two Rainbow Dashes and…” she motioned toward the two identical pink ponies, then at the other, older Rarity.

“Trust me, darling, we’re doing everything we can to figure that out,” said the wingless Rainbow Dash.

“And maybe I can shed some light on the situation,” came a voice from behind Trixie, startling her. She turned around to see a giggling blue creature resembling a dragon. “Oh you are a delight, my dear.”

“Spike!” exclaimed little Rarity. “You’re Spike, aren’t you!”

“Indeed; we meet again, my dear,” he replied, petting her on the head. “I’m so glad you made it back to Ponyville in one piece! You had us quite worried, I’ll have you know.”

“I never would have made it without Trixie!” She put a leg around her neck, to which she did not resist. “But I gotta say, I’m still pretty confused. And a little scared, to be honest. I just can’t believe what I became. Everything was so dark and hopeless…”

“It’s alright my dear, what’s important is that you’re back to your old cheery self, among those who care about you,” said the earth dragon comfortingly.

“But what if it happens again? It still hasn’t completely gone away, y’know. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I can feel this ‘discord’ thingy is still in here somewhere.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much, my dear. In this little dream world that was our home for the past thousand years, there was very little in ways of fear and anxiety, so you’re still unfamiliar to the concept. It’s a part of life, but trust me when I say you’ll learn to handle it. Keeps your wits about you and you’ll be fine.”

“Yeah,” agreed the pink pony, the one with the poofy mane, “and if you ever feel sad or lonely, I’ll throw you the biggest Pinkie Style cheer-up party you’ve ever seen and get your smile right back on your face! It’s hard to stay sad with Pinkie Pie around, especially now that there’s two of me!” She pulled her lookalike to her side.

“So… you’re sure I’m not still being controlled by the chaos magic stuff?” Rarity ventured.

“You pushed it away by your own strength, remember?” reminded Spike. Wait a minute, Trixie realized, how would this guy know? “I mean sure, you had a little push from Pinkie Pie, but you were the one who found it in your heart to sympathize with your fellow pony when she needed it the most. As long as you never lose that kindness, and don’t give in to negative emotions, you have nothing to be afraid of.”

“I guess you’re right,” said the little pony. “Thanks guys. Actually, speaking of Pinkie Pie, why are there two of you? And two Rainbow Dashes! And why do we all look so different?”

“Like I was saying before I jumped out from nowhere,” said Spike, “I believe I’m ready to shed some light on things, including that little mystery. Remember how we talked about the six Castles of Legend, and the sleeping magic?”

“Of course we do,” said Twilight. “The Pinkie Squink activated the magic within Crystal Rainbow Castle, causing a chain reaction that woke up the magic in the other five castles across Equestria, which in turn released some sort of ancient seal.” Trixie got the feeling she was recapping this so that she would understand, which she appreciated.

“Precisely. And since waking one castle affected the others, it seems to me there’s a link between the six castles; and that, my friends, is the missing link we were looking for! It’s what connected Discord’s illusion to the real world, and if my guess-work is right, our world has been continuously influencing the illusion for all these years.”

“Okay, fair enough, but why,” the pegasus version of Rainbow Dash accepted. “But why us? There are hundreds upon hundreds of villages and towns in Equestria; how did our village end up with so many lookalikes?”

“I recognized quite a few familiar faces from Canterlot as well,” the grown-up Rarity told them.

“The key to that, my dear, is the power that Discord used to construct the spell,” said Spike. “Can you think of no common bond that both you and the villagers share?”

“The Elements of Harmony!” exclaimed Twilight. “I see now! The Time Capsule was created using the power of the Elements; if the sleeping magic seeped into the illusion, it must have merged with the magic from Elements and created a link to the actual Elements of Harmony!”

“Uhh, run that by me one more time,” said Applejack.

Spike crouched down and started drawing on the ground with his claw. “Here’s how it works: this big circle represents the Time Capsule, and these smaller circles represents the castle, and these lines represents the connection that the castles share. As you can see, one of them is within borders of the Time Capsule, which means there is a passageway where magic can travel freely to and from the outside world. Add to the equation the Elements of Harmony, which Discord used to bind the Capsule together; it makes sense that this magic would have merged with the sleeping magic connecting the castles, following it to the outside world to seek out,” Spike drew a square on the ground, then connected it with lines from each of the five castles outside the Capsule, “the real Elements of Harmony, and those connected to it.

“Why, you may ask? Who knows; the ways of the Elements of Harmony are a mystery to us all, but I think it might have been a counter-reaction to the six ponies that were tainted by Discord. In any case, there is no doubt in my mind this is why you bear such a striking resemblance to the citizens of Ponyville. For a thousand years, the illusion inside the Time Capsule has been ‘inspired’ by the outside world, reshaping the ponies to the image of those near the Elements of Harmony.”

“Now wait just a minute here,” the grown-up Rarity interjected. “It’s only been a little more than a year since we first came across the Elements, and I can only assume these ponies are more than one year old. Are you suggesting Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie only became Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie after we defeated Nightmare Moon?”

“I’m afraid that’s exactly what it means,” Spike confirmed.

“But darling!” said earth pony Rainbow Dash incredulously. “I’ve always been Rainbow Dash, and none other! I have memories of my mother brushing my rainbow mane when I was a child. They can’t be fake, can they?”

“Not to worry, I’m confident that the only parts of your memory that were changed were those concerning your looks and names,” Spike assured her. “There’s no reason to believe you weren’t always a pony with an astute sense of fashion, and that Pinkie Pie didn’t like to throw parties.”

“But what about that Kimono gal?” pointed Applejack. “Ya said it yerself, she looked like Twilight even a thousand years ago, before all this craziness.”

Twilight’s eyes widened in realization. “My gosh, you’re right! But how could that be? Could she be my distant ancestor...?”

“That, or the Elements have a different role in this altogether; everything I’ve said is pure speculation, after all. In any case, I think it would be best if we reported all this to Princess Celestia,” the dragon concluded. “By the way, has anypony seen the other villagers anywhere? The town seems sort of empty.”

“I received a message from my sister not too long ago,” Princess Luna told the group. “It would seem Spike has taken the village to go see Canterlot. Something about a ‘field trip’.”

“But I never… oh, you mean the little one,” the earth dragon realized.

“He was here?” said Fluttershy. “Then who is taking care of the animals? I hope he didn’t ask Granny Smith to do it again.”

“Why not?” said Applejack. “Granny always does a bang-up job takin’ care o’ critters.”

“You should have seen poor Angel last time. I’ve never seen him so spooked before.”

“I could take you to Canterlot right now if you wish,” offered the Princess. “Kenbroth is right, we need to report to my sister immediately. What of you, Trixie? Would you like to come along?”

Trixie was almost surprised they hadn’t forgotten she was still there. Before she could reply, the filly Rarity looked at her excitedly and said, “That sounds unicorn fun! Come on, Trixie!”

The magician thought about it for a short moment – it did sound like a nice change of pace – but she knew she couldn’t. “I’m sorry, Rarity, there’s just one small problem,” she turned her attention to Luna. “Princess Luna, Your Majesty, would it be too much to ask to send me back to Winecolt? I left my wagon there, and, well, I’m not much of a magician without it.”

“But of course not,” she agreed. “I must apologize for whisking you away without your consent.”

“Well, if you hadn’t, things may not have turned out so great,” Trixie replied awkwardly.

“You’re leaving already?” said Rarity, sadness in her voice. “B-but I’ve barely gotten to know you! Won’t you stay for a while?”

“Don’t worry, my dear, I’ll… I’ll be back.” She made the decision on the spot. “I’m just fetching my wagon; then, when the ponies of this town come back from their, uh, ‘field trip’, I’ll welcome them with the greatest performance of their lives! Then we’ll see who is the better magician, Twilight Sparkle!

“Hay now, no need to go back to braggin’,” Applejack warned.

“No, really, her show was amazing!” Rarity vouched for her friend. “You should have seen it, it was like fly—”

“Thank you, dear.” Trixie put a hoof to her mouth. “No giving away trade secrets now. They’ll think better than to second-guess The Great and Powerful Trixie once they see with their own eyes what she’s truly capable of.”

“You know, Trixie, I’d love to see that,” Twilight replied, giving her a smile to let her know that she accepted the challenge.

“Are you ready to be off, then?”

“Just one moment.” Trixie turned to Rarity, and gave her a final, big hug. “See you soon.” She turned back to the Princess. “There, all set.”

***

From beyond the darkness, there was a voice. Yes, it was unmistakably a voice. What was it saying? Cus’? Cus’ what? But more importantly, the fact that she was hearing things meant that she was still alive. Probably.

Plus, her throat wasn’t hurting anymore. At some point, water had been poured into it, and her body was slowly regaining its functions. “—no, she must’ve caught the Clover Virus,” someone said. “Never seen it turn anypony’s mane pink, though.”

“Or this shade of green.”

Green? Did they say green? Just hearing the word sent calm through her heart. Maybe if she opened her eyes, she would find herself on a large, lovely green grass field. These calming thoughts in mind, she opened her weary eyes.

She didn’t see a field of grass. Instead, she saw another pony looking down on her. A sight that was just as relieving. The stranger’s face reacted when it saw her eyes open. “Hey, she’s coming to!” The voice was funny, she thought; kinda dark, and it sure didn’t sound like any pony from Ponyville. “Are you alright, Applejack?”

“Apple…?” Minty murmured, slowly processing the words. Was she talking about her? “I could sure go for some apples right now…”

“You got it, cus’!” replied the pony, disappearing out of sight, only to return ten seconds later with an apple in mouth, dropping it on Minty. She took a bite… then swallowed it whole. As though reading her thoughts, the strangers returned with a few more apples, which she ate passionately. She had never tasted apples so good in her life. They were so good, they brought tears to her eyes. How wonderful to be alive!

“Slow down there, darling,” said another voice from somewhere. Darling? Rainbow Dash?! She tried to get up… but was halted by stabs of pain. “See, you’re still in pretty bad shape. Don’t worry, hun, you just rest in the cart for awhile.”

Well, she certainly wasn’t in any position to argue, so she didn’t resist as she was lifted up and carried between two ponies’ back and dropped on something wooden. A minute of shuffling later, the wooden cart started moving, but she could sense someone staying by her side.

If nothing else, she knew she was safe and sound at last. Enough to allow herself to fall back into sleep.

***

She woke up a time later, the sun having reached its zenith. She mustered the strength to sit up straight, but her heart sank just a bit when she realized she was still in the same desert. She was sitting on a cart, dragged along by dark-brown pony, and next to it was another cart drawn by a light-green one.

“Applejack!” someone called, walking up to her next to the moving cart. It was a light-yellow pony with golden hair, wearing a hat and a leather jacket. “I’m so glad you’re alright! Don’t worry, the effects of the Clover Virus will wear off soon.”

Clover? Effect? But first things first. “Who, me? But my name’s not Applejack. I mean, I know an Applejack, but she sure isn’t me. I’m Minty. Who are you?”

The mysterious pony only looked at her wonderingly, before suddenly jumping onto the cart – to which the puller yelled ‘careful!’ – and started taking a closer look at her face. She was scrutinized from all angles, after which the stranger straightened herself… or was it really a ‘her’? Maybe this pony was male, like Spike. “Well Ah’ll be danged. You sure could’ve fooled me; aside from the colors and all, you’re the splitting image of my cousin Applejack. Though now that I look closer at ya, your freckles’re kinda small compared to hers. Could you be some kind of distant relative to the Apple Family?”

“B-but I don’t know any Apple Family,” replied Minty, growing more confused by the minute. “I’m from Ponyville, you see; one minute I was taking a nap, and the next I was all alone in the middle of the…” but then the memories of her deathly walk halted her words, giving her pause. “I… I don’t know who you are, but you… you saved my life! I thought I was done for…”

“I’d say,” agreed the stranger. “Thank Celestia we found you when we did! You were nothin’ but a dried-up husk of a pony; a few more hours and you would have been beyond saving. I’m Braeburn, by the way, and these are my friends Brittle and Coffee Pot.”

“Howdy!” greeted the dark-brown pony, her voice reminding her of Rainbow Dash. The other, coated in a dark color of green – to which Minty couldn’t help but smile; there weren’t that many green ponies in her village – greeted in kind, in a much darker voice, in a darker voice still than the stranger beside her.

“Nice to meetcha,” Minty responded to the gesture. “I can’t thank you enough for saving me. Who are you people, anyway? Do you happen to know the way to Ponyville? Do you have anymore of those delicious apples?”

“There’s a bag right next to you,” said Braeburn. “Just don’t eat too much; that’s gotta last a few more days.”

“Oh, shufr,” replied Minty, her face already stuffed with two apples at once.

“This here is the northern Equestrian wastelands,” Braeburn explained. “Not much here ‘cept rocks and weeds, and the occasional jackal. Be thankful ya didn’t run into one o’ those. And just about a day’s journey to the south you’ll find our pride and joy, the fruits of us settler ponies’ labor, the town of Aaaaapplooza!” The golden-maned pony made a dramatic gesture with front-hooves in the air.

“You always have to do that?” remarked Coffee Pot.

“Nothin’ wrong with bein’ proud o’ your home. Well, Miss Minty, if you wanna go back to Ponyville, all you need to do is hop on the train, and it’ll take you right back there in a matter of days. What boggles my mind, though, is how you could possibly be from Ponyville if ya haven’t even heard of the Apple Family.”

“Maybe you’re confusing it with a village with the same name?” suggested Minty.

“Not likely; there’s only one Ponyville here in Equestria as far as Ah know. Then again, it’s no more unlikely than finding the spitting image of Applejack starved half to death in the middle of nowhere.”

“Maybe it’s got something to do with the castle,” suggested the puller pony. “Y’know, since they both appeared out of nowhere…”

“Castle?” repeated Minty. “We have a castle in Ponyville!”

“Well then that’s definitely not the same Ponyville,” concluded Braeburn. “Quite a head-scratcher, this.”

“You got that right,” Minty could only agree. “So, what’s this castle about?”

“It’s the place we’re off to have a look at right now,” explained Braeburn. “A couple of nights ago, there was a flash of light that lit up all the prairies, and the very next day, we get a letter from the Princess herself, telling us there’s a castle in the middle o’ nowhere that we need to check out. Dunno what she expects us to find, but who are we to say no to the Princess?”

It didn’t take a genius for Minty to understand that this castle was her best bet. If it turned out that it was responsible for bringing her here, it might be able to bring her home! What if it was actually the Ponyville castle, that had somehow up and moved, dragging Minty along? “Could I come with you, please?”

“That’s the plan! We’re not about to leave you hangin’ out in the wilderness, and we’re too far along to go back and drop you off. Don’t worry, we’ll take care o’ ya.”

“I’m sure you’re pretty darned tired of seeing nothing but rock and dirt,” said Coffee Pot, “but just bear with it for a little longer. In the meantime, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself?”

“Me?” said Minty, not expecting this turnabout. “Well, uh… my name is Minty – but I guess I already said that, heh – and, uh, I really like green things. And socks! Can’t go wrong with socks!”

“Socks, huh,” said Braeburn, looking amused. “Never worn a sock since the day Ah was born, mahself, but Ah hear they were quite popular back in Ponyville.”

“You should try it! They’re so warm and comfy, especially if you wanna snuggle up in bed, or by the fireplace… ooh, I wish I had a pair or two right now!”

“Do you make socks, then?”

“Of course I do, but they never turn out as good as when my friend Rainbow Dash makes them.”

“Did you say Rainbow Dash?” said Braeburn, eyes widened in surprise. “Could… could you describe this fellow?”

“Sure, she’s blue, got a rainbow mane and tail…”

“…and a heck of a good flyer, right?”

“Well, she’s no pegasus, but she’s a really good runner, if that’s what you mean. She also makes dresses, and never misses a chance to put up rainbows everywhere. Why, do you know her?”

“I know a Rainbow Dash, but Ah don’t reckon it’s her,” told Braeburn. “That’s another strange coincidence, though.” He looked thoughtful for awhile, then walked over to the other cart, rummaged around in their packing, and put something in his mouth. “Good thing Ah forgot to put this away.” He dropped the item on the cart next to Minty. A photograph. “Did she look anything like the one on the far left?”

“Uh… not really,” said Minty. “No offense, but no pony I know looks anything like you guys.”

“What’re you talkin’ about? The one in the hat looks just like you, don’t she?”

But she didn’t. At least not to Minty’s eyes. But if these ponies recognized her as the pony on the picture, then…! “D-do you have a mirror I can use?”

“One sec.” Braeburn went back to the luggage on the other cart, grabbing a mirror with his mouth – why not just use your hoof? – and showed it to Minty. Her heart skipped several beats as she saw a complete stranger looking back at her. She leaned closer to the mirror, scrutinizing her features, then looked back on the photo, comparing the two. Her eyes turned to saucers as she realized they did look very much alike.

“Well, uh, this is… weird,” she said to herself, trying again not to freak out. She laughed to herself a bit as an attempt to ease the absurdity. “Oh well, a-at least I’m still green; that’s a plus, right?”

“No kiddin’, else I couldn’t tell you apart,” agreed Braeburn. “Ah’m more than convinced there’s something fishy goin’ on ‘round these parts. Minty, would you mind telling me more about that Ponyville o’ yours?”

***

“Woooow,” gasped Apple Bloom, marveling at the fancily decorated buildings of surrounding the group. It was only the second time she had been to Canterlot; the closeness of the houses, the crowd of ponies, the rich clothes everypony was wearing… didn’t appeal to Apple Bloom one bit, but it was a cool to look at.

The same had to be true from their point of view, she figured; a crowd of over a hundred ponies marching through the streets of Canterlot, a baby dragon riding on a pony’s back speaking through a megaphone over the crowd. “As you can see, the closer we get to the castle, the fancier the establishments become, and the snobbier the ponies— eh,” Dr. Hoofenstein looked back and gave him a stern look, “I mean, the prettier they get, yeah. To the right, we have one of the most expensive hotels in all of Canterlot, and possibly all of Equestria.”

“Excuse me, but what’s a hotel?” called somepony from the crowd. Apple Bloom rolled her eyes; hadn’t their parents taught them anything?

“A hotel is a place where you can stay for the night if you don’t have anywhere else to go, as long as you have the bits to pay for it,” explained Spike. “Sometimes ponies use if for other reasons as well, if you catch my drift.”

“I hardly think that’s important right now, Spike,” the Doctor remarked disapprovingly.

“What? Don’t you rent a room sometimes to get some quality time to practice your singing?”

“Not in the middle of the night, when I’m trying to use it for sleeping.”

“I said I was sorry! Anyway, just up ahead are the stairs that leads into Canterlot Castle, where Princesses Celestia and Luna lives, and they’ve given us special permission to go have a look inside.”

This made Apple Bloom’s whole face shine up, grinning wildly to her friends. “Wow, Ah never thought Ah’d ever get to see the Castle from the inside!”

“Just make sure to stay with the group,” the doctor reminded the crowd, as though he could read Apple Bloom’s mind. “This is the political central of Equestria, where all the important decisions on ruling the country are being made. If you wander off into the wrong room where they just happen to be having an important meeting, it would be within their full right to throw you in prison for espionage.”

The group ascended a set of long, chalk white stairs leading up to the impressive set of doors that separated the castle court yard from the town below. Two unicorn guards were standing by the gate, and as the crowd approached, they nodded to each other and lit their horns, to which the doors responded by opening themselves up.

***

“There she is,” breathed Braeburn, gazing upon the towering structure looming ever closer as they rode on. “Sure never seen anything like that ‘round these parts before.”

Minty was stunned, to say the least. Unlike the castle in Ponyville or Unicornia, this seemed to be made entirely out of or crystal of some sort, casting a light reddish shadow in its wake.

“Hey, isn’t this where we found those ruins a while back,” Brittle, the green one, asked Coffee Pot. “I recognize these cliffs. Those were nothing but dusty old foundations, though.”

“Ah’m startin’ to doubt we were the right choice for this,” said Braeburn. “Ah can sense the magic from all the way here; wouldn’t it’ve been better to sent some magic scholar or some such?”

“I can feel it too,” Minty told them. “Feels like there’s something warm inside my chest.”

“Actually, all Ah’m feeling is a slight tingle in my skin,” said Braeburn. “Guess that seals it; there’s somethin’ between you and this castle alright.”

The group of four approached the crystal castle. It had to be about twice the size of the Crystal Rainbow Castle of Unicornia, not to mention a lot more, uh, crystally, though it looked rather similar in design. It had a slight orange glow to, and it looked really out-of-place in this desolate landscape. She was starting to wonder if it was really there, and not just an illusion caused by a sun-stroke.

But the thought was abandoned as they came close enough to touch it. She put a hoof to the wall, and suddenly a ticklish sensation erupted in her leg, the warm feeling in her chest growing to an almost painful degree. She pulled it away, and the feeling diminished. Braeburn seemed to be fine though, as he was pressing both hooves into the crystal wall, then his ear. “By Celestia, this is downright eerie. It’s like Ah can here a sorta hymn comin’ from inside.”

Not daring to press her face onto the magic wall to confirm it, Minty instead asked, “Who’s Celestia? You mentioned that name before.”

“You don’t know about the Princess?” asked Braeburn, giving her a look of disbelief. “You know, ruler of Equestria, she who raises the sun everyday?”

Minty blinked. “Wait, is this a pony we’re talking about?”

“Sure is, but she and her sister are a bit special; they’re neither unicorn nor pegasi, or Earth Ponies like us, they’re all of ‘em. Rules the country with a benevolent hoof from high in the castle of Canterlot, the Capital of Equestria.”

“I, uh, see,” said Minty. There was no doubt in her mind: this was definitely not her world. Not only did none of these ponies seem to know anything about the Breezies – and they seemed downright perplexed at the mention of Christmas – but a pegasus-unicorn that moves the sun? “So… I guess we’re supposed to enter this thing?”

“As soon as we figure out how to do that,” replied Coffee Pot. The group rounded the structure, taking in its grandeur. Eventually, they came across something that broke the monotonous shade of orange: a set of doors marked by lines of what looked like ruby to her eyes. The four of them exchanged looks, and nodded to each other. Braeburn put his hooves on the doors and pushed. They opened seemingly effortlessly.

The group was met by a large circular chamber, much like the ones found in both of the castles Minty was familiar with, only bigger. And very empty. On the far side of the room was something that looked like a throne, and on either side were spiral stair cases, one leading up and one down. The warmth in her chest didn’t seem quite as pressing in here; instead, she felt as though someone – or something – was watching her. Could this castle be a portal that connected her own world to Equestria?

“Yup, I can definitely hear music coming from the walls,” commented Brittle. There was a slow, calm disembodied melody echoing through the chamber, and as eerie as it was, Minty found it rather soothing. “What do you say; should we go up or down first.”

“Always better to start from the top,” reasoned Braeburn. “Gotta be something here that’ll tell us what the hay this is all about.”

***

“Hay, girls,” whispered Apple Bloom to the crusaders. Their guides had taken the crowd around the castle ground, the University, the royal flower gardens, and were now inside the castle proper, walking around these insanely awesome corridors, new statues and window paintings to see around every corner. But Apple Bloom had an idea how to make it even more awesome. “The next chance we get, let’s split from the group.”

“What?!” exclaimed Sweetie Belle, though not loud enough to draw Spike’s attention. “But didn’t you hear what they said? If they catch us, we could go to prison!”

“Only if we walk in on something important,” Apple Bloom reminded. “We’ll make sure to stay away if we hear voices. Come on, this might be our only chance to explore the actual Castle!”

“I think it’s a great idea,” Scootaloo whispered back. “We’ll be back in the group before they even realize we’re gone. We might even get sneaking Cutie Marks!”

The group stopped before a large framed painting on the wall. “And this, fillies and gentlecolts,” Dr. Hoofenstein spoke, “is a depiction of one of our time’s greatest magician, Star Swirl the Bearded. This stallion was responsible for some of the most complex, as well as some of the most iconic, magic spells that we…” As the doctor rambled, Apple Bloom backed away from the crowd, making sure that all eyes were on the painting; given how long they had stopped to explain all the flowers in the gardens, they would be here forever. More than enough time for the Crusaders to go crusading. Scootaloo followed her without a sound, and although Sweetie Belle looked reluctant at first, she eventually followed suit.

Apple Bloom’s heart pumped wildly as they successfully rounded the corner and sneaked away into an unfamiliar corridor. They kept a quick pace, not daring to make a sound that would alert the group, until they came into a hallway with a spiral stair case leading both up and down. Paintings and colored windows adorned the way up, whereas the way down seemed utterly devoid of those. “We did it, girls! Now, let’s hurry up and see everything we can before anypony finds us.”

“I’m still not sure about this,” Sweetie Belle voiced her concerns. “I mean, exploring didn’t give us our cutie marks before…”

“But this is a castle!” countered Scootaloo. “Complete with the danger of being caught. How cool would it be to get a ninja Cutie Mark?!”

“Quick, which way do we go?” asked Apple Bloom, weighing the options in her mind. Up looked like it would probably take them to the more important parts of the castle, but down had a mysterious feel to it; this was still ground level, so it would probably take them to a cellar or something.

“I say down,” voted Sweetie Belle. “Seems less likely that anypony would be down there.”

“No, up!” Scootaloo counter-voted. “That’s where all the cool stuff is; we’ll have to sneak past guards and stuff!”

“That’s exactly the point! I don’t know about you, but I don’t wanna risk of getting caught and end up in prison.”

“Fine, you go back to the group; Apple Bloom and I will—” but she was distracted by a clip-clop sound coming from above. Ponies were coming down the stairs! Apple Bloom was starting to sweat; this cut off one of their options, leaving them with two choices: go back, or go down.

“Come on,” she whispered, motioning towards the stairs spiraling downwards. No pony argued as they ran down with her, hoping that their hoof-steps wouldn’t catch the guards’ attention.

As they descended, the windows and paintings were first replaced with pure white walls, then solid rock. This was definitely a cellar of some sort, thought Apple Bloom, probably where they stored royal food and things. Over the rail, they could see the abyss continue down for at least ten more stories, the lower part lit up by a glow of some sort. “I don’t know about you,” said Sweetie Belle, “but I’m starting to think this is pretty creepy.”

“You’re the one who wanted to come down here,” Scootaloo reminded. “But now I’m glad you did; this place just screams dark secrets.”

Eventually the fillies reached the bottom floor, where they realized that the glow had come from fireflies, illuminating the rock with a yellow glow. They filled a tunnel right ahead, one that led to some much brighter light source. They followed it; the passageway was easily big enough to fit three ponies standing on each other’s back, but the cave-like atmosphere made it feel somewhat claustrophobic.

On the other side, in a small open chamber, was the most beautifully ornate door that Apple Bloom had ever seen, giving off an almost blinding shine. It looked as though it was made of diamond or something, adorned with different kinds of jewels and golden shapes. It didn’t look like it belonged on the rocky surface of the cave. “What’n the world is this supposed to be?” asked Apple Bloom out loud.

“A secret door to a room full of treasure?” suggested Scootaloo.

“If it’s supposed to be secret, why is there an open stair case leading down here?” pointed Sweetie Belle.

“Well, what else could it be? Maybe we were in a secluded part of the castle to begin with. Come on, let’s see what’s inside!”

Apple Bloom certainly didn’t have any objections; the door looked heavy, so she pushed on it with all her might… which was more than enough to force it open with a bang, toppling her into the chamber beyond from the momentum.

Two things registered in her brain at once: the chamber was big and circular, consisting of nothing but crystal that gave off a yellow sheen – just like the fireflies – and there was somepony standing there right by the door.

“Oh!” the Princess Celestia let out in surprise. “Why hello there, my little ponies!”

“A-a-ah,” stammered Apple Bloom, mouth agape. They were sooo busted. “Uh, h-hi, Princess.”

“What are you doing here?!” asked Scootaloo, her face equally spooked.

“I might ask you the same question,” Celestia told them gently. Apple Bloom found her smile rather unnerving. Was she going to yell at them or not? “But I suppose you asked first. This here is a chamber that magically appeared right after the party we held in the other Pinkie Pie’s honor. Remember how she collapsed in the middle of it? She was conjuring a spell, which accidentally awoke a magic power that has been asleep here in Canterlot, and other magical castles like it, for eons.”

“For how-long-now?” asked Scootaloo.

“A very long time; thousands of years, if fact,” the Princess clarified. “Now, what are you three doing down here?”

There it was, the moment to come clean. Sweetie Belle spilled her guts before Apple Bloom could. “We’re so sorry, Princess; we snuck away from the group to explore the castle on our own! I tried to warn them, but they wouldn’t listen,” Scootaloo gave her a push, “uh, I mean… we’ll return to the group right away, so please don’t send us to prison!”

“No?” said Celestia, in a gut-wrenching tone that suggested that was exactly what she planned to do. “Very well, then. I am just going to have to punish you myself. You’re going to have to stay here and by my assistants as I look around this chamber. You are not allowed to go back to the group until I am done with you.”

She gave them a playful smile, and Apple Bloom took the hint. “Yes ma’am! I mean, uh, Your Highness!”

***

The orange crystal castle was a sight to behold indeed; from the highest towers to the lowest cellar, the mysterious warm feeling inside persisted throughout. It kind of looked to Minty as though someone had actually lived here before, as they found both what looked like a kitchen and a bath, but there were no furniture to speak of. And as pretty as the castle was, who would want to live in a house made entirely out of crystal?

The band of four was approaching the last door, the final place where they hadn’t looked, in the deepest part of the castle. Being underground, there weren’t as much light here, but the walls themselves were enough to illuminate their path with a faint orange glow. Braeburn scanned the door; just like leading into the castle, it was lined with ruby, as well as an insignia of sorts, put together with different kinds of jewels. “Well, it sure looks important enough. How’re you holdin’ up, Minty?”

“Really warm,” reported the green earth pony. “It’s like I feel a heat wave from this door, but from inside of me, and… i-it’s really hard to explain.”

“Maybe you ought to stay out here then,” suggested Coffee Pot.

“Maybe,” agreed Minty. “But what if there’s something important in there? I can’t turn my back now; I promise I’ll get out if it gets too painful.”

“Alright then,” said Braeburn, pushing the door open. Minty braced herself and walked into the magnificent chamber beyond. “Well?”

“Actually… I actually feel it less in here,” said Minty. “Well, I feel it, but it’s not so much heat anymore as a slight tingle. Kinda tickles,” she added, letting out a snort.

“Weird,” said Braeburn. “Doesn’t look like there’s much at all in here. Let’s spread out and look.”

***

“Look, I think I found something!”

“What?” asked Scootaloo, coming over to Apple Bloom’s side, as did Sweetie Belle and the Princess. “Looks like a plain old pillar to me.”

“No, there’s definitely something here,” insisted Apple Bloom. “Can’t you feel it? Like there’s something prickly in the legs when you put your hoof on it.”

Scootaloo did just that. “I can’t feel anything.”

“Earth ponies tend to be more sensitive to magic than pegasi, or even unicorns,” explained Princess Celestia. “Good job, Apple Bloom. Let me try something; step back for a moment.” She let her horn touch the pillar, setting it aglow with magic. Then, a sudden flash erupted from the pillar, startling the Crusader. “There, just as I thought.”

Apple Bloom and the others approached it again, and saw the figure of somepony seemingly stuck inside. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped.

***

“Applejack?!” exclaimed the small yellow pony that had suddenly appeared inside one of the pillars. “Whu… what is… what’re you doin’ in there? And why are you green?”

Minty stared curiously at the filly; it looked as though the pillar had become a window to another, identical room, only yellow instead of orange. Two other fillies stood beside her, and behind them – she realized with a start – stood a much larger pony than she had ever seen. A pearl white pony with a long slender horn and a pair of wings. The majestic figure addressed the child. “No, this isn’t Applejack. You’re Minty, I presume?”

“Y-yes!” she breathed, her heart beating faster, barely noticing Braeburn and his friends coming up beside her. “A-are you Celestia? Were you the one that brought me here?”

“I am indeed Princess Celestia,” she told her. “But I certainly had nothing to do with bringing you to Equestria. I assume Braeburn is with you.”

“Yes ma’am,” announced Minty’s savior. “She was on death’s doorstep when we found here. Been out walking through the desert without drinkin’ or eatin’ for days, she had.”

The Princess looked rather struck by the story. “My word! I’m so sorry, Minty.”

“I-It’s okay now,” she replied. That experience hardly even seemed real anymore.

“She doesn’t seem to know anythin’ ‘bout Equestria, but she says she’s from a town called Ponyville, but not our Ponyville from the sound of it. Since she showed up out o’ nowhere just like the castle, we figured there’d be some sorta connection.”

“Oh, I get it!” the yellow filly shone up in realization. “You’re the Applejack lookalike from the other Ponyville.”

Minty couldn’t help but burst out smiling. “Is there a Pinkie Pie in it? Or a Rainbow Dash?”

“Yes, your town and all of your friends are safe and sound,” Celestia told her. It sent a jolt of immense relief through Minty’s body. “Well, almost all of them; it’s actually a long—”

The Princess was cut off by a sudden, soul-shattering roar that seemed to be coming from both sides of the pillar. The Princess looked around in fright; even as the noise subsided, there were still tremors around them, almost to a rhythmic beat. “Oh no…!” Celestia let out, panic spreading in her face. “It can’t be…! Stay where you are, children! Whatever you do, don’t leave this room until I say it’s safe!” And with that, she sprinted away from the magic window, out the chamber and disappeared in a flash, leaving Minty any everyone else with a thousand questions.

---

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for help with editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Nine

By Candle Light

“After a thousand years, to once again set foot in the royal bed chambers…” Kenbroth Gilspotten Heathspike said as he looked around the luxurious room. Twilight had been invited up here a few times herself by the Princess, but her friends were wide-eyed, taking in the sight with awe on their faces. Few ponies, let alone from Ponyville, had ever had the privilege to set foot in the rulers’ personal space. Kenbroth stared into one of the corners with a solemn look of nostalgia. “I see you threw out my old bed.”

“Forgive us, old friend, but we were certain you would never return to us,” said Luna.

“I understand, of course,” assured the earth dragon. “But I really did like that bed. Do they still make them?”

“It was custom made to begin with. I shall see if the blueprints are still in the archives.”

During the conversation, earth pony Rainbow Dash had approached one of the royal beds, feeling up the curtains. “Oh, darling! This is one of the softest pieces of cloth I’ve ever had the pleasure to touch.”

Rarity, previously held back by codes of courtesy of which Rainbow Dash seemed to be unaware, was quick to her side. “My, you’re right? Whatever sort of material is this, your Highness?”

“It was made from the coat of an Ursa Major,” shared the Princess, taking Twilight and her friend by surprise. “There was a time when they were lawful game for hunting, but extinguishing Ursa ended up having dire… consequences, so the practice was abandoned. Should you be lucky enough to find a piece such as this one, its price would reach beyond the worth of your whole boutique, to put it mildly.”

“Oh… too bad,” she said, letting go of the curtain, though not taking her eyes off of it, overflowing jealousy in her eyes. “I suppose I should expect nothing less from the two most powerful ponies in Equestria.”

“Personally, could not care less about what animal my bed curtain used to belong to,” said the Princess, “so if you truly desire it, I’m sure we could…” A loud, ear-splitting roar interrupted Luna, giving everypony in the room a fright. It was so loud, it was hard to determine where it came from or how far away it was. It persisted for a few moments, but even as silence fell, there were still rumblings. Rhythmic, powerful rumblings, as though a giant was walking across Equestria.

“W-what was that?!” called the filly Rarity, running up between her grown-up counterpart and Rainbow Dash. “Is there something out there?”

Luna didn’t reply, but instead ran over to the window and peered outside. She looked first to the right, then the left, and that’s when an expression of pure fright distorted her features. As she tore away from the window, she told the ponies, “Come! Follow me, quickly!”

The urgency in her voice left no room for back-talk. They all followed her out the door, staying close behind as she led them through a couple of corridors, then up a stair case leading out onto a large balcony. On it, Princess Celestia waited, gazing out over the Equestrian landscape, now occupied by the most frightening gestalt Twilight had ever seen.

***

Celestia wanted so dearly to doubt her eyes. She wanted to believe that the sleepless night had made her see illusions. But both her sister and her faithful students were wearing the same face of shock and disbelief on their faces. There was no denying reality.

A Mother Ursa once again walked the land of Equestria.

About thrice the size of an Ursa Major, the bear-like beast’s head reached up a ways over Canterlot’s highest top, an endless night sky visible within its blood-red coat. Images of a near-forgotten early chapter of the Princesses’ rule – a chapter of trampled cities and years of strife – surface as the beast loomed ever closer with brisk steps. Could this be the magic entity the ancients had sealed away? But there was no time to ponder; each thunderous step brought it closer. It would be upon them at any moment. “Luna, get the Elements of Harmony! The rest of you stay here!” And with those orders, Celestia took off into the sky, speeding toward the colossal monster.

Acting purely on survival instinct, fed by the memories of the Princess’ last encounter with the Mother Ursa, Celestia gathered every bit of magic reserve in her body to create a force field around her, and with the highest speed her wings could muster, she rammed it into the beast in an explosion of magic. A thunder, like a mountain crashing down on its own weight, resounded across the hills and fields as the giant fell over, but it paled in comparison to the roar the monster let out. That dreadful, fear-inducing roar filled Celestia with adrenaline, intensifying her magic beyond her normal capacities as she prepared a second spell. Just as the gigantic Ursa was about to get up, its movements far too agile for a being of its size, the Princess let loose a beam of concentrated magic. Like a snake, it entwined itself around its limbs, pressing them against its body.

But even the power to move the sun and the moon was no match for this monster of legend, and as much as her spirit had grown in the last millennia, it was all she could do to focus all her effort in pinning it down, hopefully long enough for Luna to return with the Elements of Harmony. If all went well, a sprint from the balcony to the Canterlot Tower and back would take no more than a couple of minutes at most… but every second was a strain standing alone against such unparalleled might.

The bind lasted no more than twenty seconds, and cost a considerable toll on Celestia’s body and soul. But there was no time to catch her breath, as the Mother Ursa was quickly getting back onto its feet. Fortunately, the gesture had been enough to divert its attention and halt its advance, shifting its focus to the Princess, much like a pony stung by a wasp. The monster responded by flailing its giant arm with alarming speed, in an attempt to swat the flying pest.

The Ursa was quick, but Celestia had millennia of flight experience behind her, and could easily predict where the arms were going to fly. But this became increasingly difficult as she was reminded of another one of the Mother Ursa’s terrifying traits: when provoked, its magical aura intensified, exposure to which could potentially result in psychological trauma. Thankfully, the Princess had the proper knowledge and spells to compensate for this, but it came with the price of divided concentration and quicker draining of her energy reserves.

Celestia saw it coming, but could do nothing to stop it. She took a direct hit by its mighty paw, and was flung like a meteor onto the mountain on which Canterlot rested. Her head was scrambled, her world thrown into chaos as she struggled to recover from the shock. The moment she could see clearly again, her blood iced as she saw the behemoth take another step toward the castle. There was no time to come up with a plan; she flew up beside the Mother Ursa’s head – only a few paces away from the balcony – filled her hooves with whatever magic shielding she could muster, and pressed furiously against its head.

At the very least, it seemed to catch it off guard, enough so for it to start losing balance. Renewed resolve fueled her wings as the Princess flapped harder enough that, in any other circumstances, it would likely have set off a Sonic Rainboom, fatigue and shooting pain pushed back by sheer urgency. Her efforts were rewarded as the beast fell… but it was a short-lived victory, for it caught itself with an outstretched paw. She had bought them maybe ten seconds, but the magic it had cost her no longer made it possible to for her to deflect the crushing aura. There was nothing she could do to its full force from hitting her, and it blocked her brains’ functions, including the energy or will to keep the wings beating.

The Princess of the Sun fell, wholly depleted, sheer force of will the only thing that kept her eyes open to witness as the monster would bring down the castle, her home, her life…

However, what she instead saw was a brilliant multicolored light extend from the balcony, freezing the creature as it surrounded it in a spiral. She also felt legs wrap around her body; she didn’t need to tear her eyes away from the light to recognize Luna’s familiar presence.

Celestia stayed conscious just long enough to hear the Mother Ursa let out an agonizing roar, and see its body tear to pieces as it was swallowed by the light.

***

“So, let me get this straight,” Minty repeated to the fillies. “All my life, I’ve been living inside an illusion, created by a spirit of chaos named Discord, a thousand years ago! And… and now that the spell is broken, there are now two Ponyvilles… and me and my friends look almost exactly like your big sister and her friends?”

“Pretty much,” replied Apple Bloom from the other side of the pillar. “Trust me, we don’t really get it either.”

“That’s quite a story,” said Braeburn. “I’d say you’ve got lively imagination, but it does seem to add up.”

“But what did the Princess mean by ‘almost’ all of them were safe? Is Pinkie Pie still there? What about Rainbow Dash, o-or Wysteria?”

“No worries there,” told Scootaloo,” your Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie have both made our lives very confusing these past days. I heard some ponies never showed up, though; do you remember who, Apple Bloom?”

“Well Minty was one o’ them, obviously,” she pointed, “Wasn’t there a Rarity too?”

“Oh yeah,” agreed Sweetie Belle. “They said they were going off to find her, so she’s probably home by now.”

Minty was so relieved, she slumped down on the floor. Most of her friends were okay, it seemed, and the rest were being rounded up. She couldn’t wait to see them again. It hadn’t been more than a few days, but it felt like an eternity to her, especially after that nightmarish experience in the desert. The thought of going home after all that trauma was just about enough to burst her into tears. Just a few more days, she told herself herself. Just a few more days.

“Golly, I hear crazy things happen in Ponyville all the time, but this has gotta take the cake,” commented Braeburn. “By the way, little filly, did you say your name was Apple Bloom?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Well Ah’ll be! It’s me, your big cousin Braeburn!” he told her excitedly. “Guess it’s no wonder you don’t know me; you were just a lil’ newborn cutie last time we met.”

Apple Bloom’s eyes shone up. “Oh, it’s you! Applejack n’ Big Mac talks about you a lot!”

“Then maybe its high time ah come down to Ponyville for a visit,” suggested Braeburn. “Ah still gotta deliver Mints here, and Ah’ve been dyin’ to see the farm and the family—”

The sound of hooves against glass reached their ears, and a dark blue pony appeared behind the fillies. Like Princess Celestia, her mane was ever-flowing, her back wearing a pair of wings and her forehead a long horn. “P-Princess Luna!” Apple Bloom exclaimed, falling into a bow.

“As you were, young fillies,” the Princess spoke, her a bit lower than Celestia’s, though not as low as Braeburn’s. “I have come to lead you back.”

“Wait a second,” said Scootaloo, “Celestia said we weren’t supposed to leave this place until she told us herself that it’s safe!”

Luna only looked at them with a solemn expression. “Come with me, children,” she ordered softly. “I am here by my sister’s request; I shall take you to her. Braeburn, can I trust you to bring Minty to Canterlot?”

“Not a problem, your Highness,” the golden-hued pony replied, he too lowering into a bow.

“Thank you. I will send a chariot to meet you in Appleloosa. Do make haste; time may be of the essence.”

***

“No…!” whispered Twilight, staring frighteningly at the crippled husk that was her mentor. Luna had carried her to their chamber, and had asked the ponies to watch over her as she went to take care of a few things. Her faithful student was desperately trying to fight back the shock, the fear, the tears. Celestia looked as though she had aged hundreds of normal pony-years, her skin wrinkled and eyes soggy, bearing closer semblance to Granny Smith than the proud ruler of Equestria. “How is this happening…? She’s not gonna…!” She looked over to her friends as if looking for reassurance, but were met with nothing but looks of worry.

Earth pony Rainbow Dash was the first to offer a response. “Oh, darling… I never realized such frightening monsters even existed.”

“Neither did we,” replied Applejack. “An’ if not even the Princess can hold it down for long without having all life sucked right out o’ her—”

“Don’t say that!” shot Twilight. “She’s still alive! I know she is. Right, Pinkie? Doesn’t your left ear twitch or something.”

“Nothing,” said her pink friend. “And that would be both ears and right hind-leg for telling if somepony is barely alive or not.”

Turning around in frustration, Twilight initiated a spell; she was no expert in medical magic, but she had read enough books on the subject to perform a simple check-up spell. She needed to prove to herself that her mentor wasn’t going to die, and do everything in her power to rescue her from the brink if needed. But before she was even done conjuring, she was taken aback as she saw the Princess’ eyes twitching. “Princess Celestia?!” she exclaimed. “Are you okay?!”

The bed-ridden pony’s voice was extremely hoarse, no louder than a whisper. “Don’t worry, Twilight... I’m okay, thanks to you. Though I can barely move a muscle right now…”

“You don’t need to worry about anything,” promised Twilight. “We’ll make sure to bring you everything you need and nurse you back to health, won’t we, girls—oh, Luna!” The Princess of the Night walked through the door, “Look, Celestia came to!”

“Thank heavens!” she sighed in relief, walking up to her sisters, followed by – for reasons lost to Twilight – the Cutie Mark Crusaders. “I have sent for an elite team of doctors; they should be here momentarily.”

“Thank you, sister,” whispered Celestia. “But please, listen to me, all of you.” Everypony, and Kenbroth, leaned closer. “I will be okay, though I may need a week or more to make a full recovery. But there are more important things to worry about. What I just fought was the very magic force that the ancients had meant to seal away: a Mother Ursa!”

Twilight could not hold back a gasp. She had come across the name in a text book about mythical creatures, and it was listed as one of the most dangerous magical beings in Equestrian history. “As in, the spawn of all Ursa?” she asked incredulously. “The absolute embodiment of cosmic energy?”

“The very same,” confirmed Luna grimly. “Very little is known of the Ursa kind, but it is believed that when an Ursa perishes, its life force is returned to the cosmos, where it accumulates to form the Mother Ursa when the time is right, which in turns offers up its body through the course of centuries to create its spawns. We learned this the hard way eons ago.”

“Wait,” the pegasus Rainbow Dash said, “you’ve fought one before?”

“It nearly ended pony civilization,” Luna explained. “With no Elements of Harmony, it took our mages months of sacrifice to discover a way of fight back, and even then, it was nothing more than a spell to accelerate its natural spawn cycle, shortening it to merely a few years. Perhaps the most tasking years in all the history of Equestria. Never in my wildest imagination would I have guessed we would lay our eyes on another one…”

“But now it’s dealt with, right?” guessed Rainbow Dash. “Zapped it to kingdom come! All’s well that ends well, and all that.”

“Let us hope so,” whispered Celestia lowly in her distorted voice. “But I dare not assume. We still don’t know if this was all that was sealed by the castles, and until we find out, I must urge all of you Element Bearers to stay here in Canterlot.”

“Uh, sure, but…” Applejack spoke up, “how long do you reckon it’ll take, your Highness? With all due respect, I’ve been shirkin’ my responsibilities for too long as it is.”

“Your concern is duly noted, Applejack,” replied Luna. “But it is for everypony’s safety that the six of you stay together, should another such creature appear. We will make sure to alert your family, and send extra work force should we require to hold you for an extended period.”

“What about us?” asked Apple Bloom. “Do we have to go back to Ponyville?”

“Yes, children, you must,” Luna ordered. “Recent event notwithstanding, you must not ignore your educational duties. Especially you, Scootaloo.” The orange filly responded with an embarrassed grin.

“Oh, what’s the harm in letting them stay another night?” Kenbroth vouched for them. “It’s not everyday you get to stay in Canterlot Castle, is it?”

Luna gazed upon the three fillies, who were looking back at her with the biggest puppy-dog eyes Twilight had ever seen them pull. “Very well,” the Princess gave in. “I’m sure we can spare an extra room. As for you three,” she addressed the other-village Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash and Rarity, “we won’t force you, but it would be of great help if you would stay the night as well, to aid us in understanding the connection between you and the ancient castle.”

“But of course, darling!” Rainbow Dash agreed without a second thought. “It’s the least we can do after all you have done for us. And who are we to day no to staying at such a magnificent castle?”

“And if Rarity is staying, I’m staying,” added Cheerilee. “I am her guardian, after all.”

“Thank you. And perhaps as an extra incentive, I have some very fortunate news for you. Minty has been found, and she is being brought to Canterlot as we speak.”

Everypony’s faces shone up, but none more than Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash. “Really, darling?! Oh, thank goodness!”

“Is she okay?!” asked the other-village Pinkie Pie. “Where has she been?”

“Unfortunately,” said Celestia in he whisper-voice, “she was not been as lucky as you. It is a harsh truth, but one I cannot hide from you: Minty was thrown into the northern Equestrian wastelands, where she was almost lost to us.”

“That doesn’t sound too harsh,” said other-village Pinkie Pie. “Minty gets lost all the time. I’m sure she was fine. I’m just glad she found her way back.”

“No, Pinkie Pie, listen to me,” Celestia continued. “Remember the confusion you felt when you were first brought to Equestria. In such state, Minty wandered through the scorching wasteland alone, no water, no food, and no idea where her steps would take her. I’m sure death must seem like a strange and foreign concept to you, but ponies usually don’t survive such harsh conditions for as long as she did. It was only through a miracle’s intervention that she was found before it was too late.”

“O-oh come on,” Pinkie tried, “it couldn’t have been that bad, could it? I-I mean, I’ve sure never heard of… a pony… in a…” her voice trailed off, the shifting in her face signaling that she was starting to understand. “Oh dear…”

“Your friend is fine now,” Princess Luna reminded her gently. “We only tell you this so that you may understand the extent of her peril, and fully appreciate the preciousness of life. Death is a terrifying prospect, for those receiving it and those left behind, but a day must come for all of us that we must learn to accept it. Be thankful it was not this day.”

“Yeah,” agreed Pinkie. She afforded a smile. “I guess we still have a lot to learn about Equestria… don’t we, Rainbow Dash.”

“I don’t think she can hear ya, hun,” said Applejack, holding up the wobbly form of the wingless cerulean pony.

“No… I’m fine, darlings,” she breathed. “But, my word, poor darling! I-I think I need to sit down for a minute.”

“Feel free to use my bed,” offered Luna. “Kenbroth, can I count on to start researching the crystal chamber post-haste?”

“Of course, your majesty,” Kenbroth acknowledged. “And can I count on you, Pinkie Pies,” he turned to address the two identical pink mares, “to come up with a delightful welcome party for our poor traveler?”

“Oh, you bet!” replied the curly-maned one, breaking into a huge grin. “Let’s make this even bigger than the last one! Let’s invite all of Canterlot!”

“Or, a simple tea party would suffice,” pointed Kenbroth.

“Then let’s make it the world’s biggest tea party!”

“I like the sound of that,” concurred her counterpart. “Just don’t forget to bring the tea. Trust me.”

“Just make sure not to expend too much of our resources,” Luna told them “Now that Celestia is bed-ridden, I shall have to oversee the national budget myself. On that note, there is much that needs my attention.”

“Princess, wait!” halted the grown-up Rarity. “About those bed-curtains we talked about earlier; you said something about parting with them?”

“Rarity, I am surprised!” Luna gave her an odd look. “How can you be thinking of such thing at a time like this?”

“Oh, nononono, please don’t misunderstand; I was thinking that for Minty’s home-coming celebration, she might appreciate a little gift.”

***

Wysteria gazed upon the window paintings, whose depictions she could only try to decipher. There was little else she could do; after hearing that frightening roar, Dr. Hoofenstein and the purple baby dragon creature had taken the population of her village to what appeared to be the audience hall of Canterlot Castle. As soon as the mysterious beast-like roar had quieted down, instructions had been given to wait for one of the Princesses to make an appearance. Anxiety was still thick in the air, and it was all anyone could do to pass the time to talk to each other or having a look around.

She heard a familiar buzzing sound around her, and looked around to see three of her Breezie friends hover beside her. The doctor had asked them to remain out-of-sight while they walked through town – something about the Princess wanting to formally introduce them to society – but in here, they were free to flutter about. “Hello, girls,” Wysteria greeted. “Are you okay? Those noises gave me quite a scare.”

“Yeah, we’re fine,” replied the yellow one with an orange mane and tail, Zipzee. “I’m just happy to be flying again; this castle is so huge! Have you seen the chandeliers?”

“Yeah, and look at these windows!” added Tralala, the light-pink Breezie. “They got pictures on them! I wonder what they’re supposed to be.”

“I don’t know what that big thing is,” Tiddly Wink, the purple Breezie, answered, “but those things on the bottom kinda look like ponies to me.”

“That’s what I was thinking too,” said Wysteria. “And look at that one, with the rainbow tail, and the pink one in the corner: could these be the Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie from the other village?”

“Yup, that’s right,” a voice came from beside her, where the small purple baby dragon suddenly appeared. “Those are the bearers of the Elements of Harmony – my best friends, might I add – and the thing they’re shooting with the pink glow,” the playfulness in his voice dropped a bit, “that’s Discord.”

That’s Discord?” asked Wysteria. The glass paining depicted his image as rather jagged, but she could still make out the strange tail, and the mismatching horns, legs and wings.

“You wouldn’t believe it unless you see it, but he’s pretty scary in person,” said Spike. “I was hoping we could take you to see his statue after we were through with the castle, but I guess that’ll have to wait until we figure out what’s going on out there. Judging from Celestia’s message,” Spike held up a piece of parchment for Wysteria and the Breezies to see, “it sounded pretty urgent.” All it said was, ‘Spike, take the villagers to the Audience Chamber and await instructions,’ the writing seemingly scribbled down in haste.

“Isn’t that the thing you were spewing out earlier?” asked Zipzee. “How can it be from the Princess when it came from your stomach?”

“That’s because the two of us share a magic connection that allows us to send stuff back and forth through dragon fire,” replied the dragon, his face shining up as the Breezies circled around him. “Wow, you guys really are fairy ponies. Neat.”

“And you’re really small and chubby,” said Tralala. “Are you a dragon? Are there many dragons? Do you live here? What’s your favorite color?”

“Well, I’ve always been partial to purple—” but Spike was distracted as ponies around him were starting to gasp and murmur, and had to turn around to find the source. The door to the chamber had opened, and through it walked Princess Luna, followed by a group of ponies.

Wysteria broke into a smile as she saw who they were, cantering over, the dragon and the Breezies in tow. “Rainbow Dash!” she called, as ponies flocked around them. “Pinkie Pie! Where have you been?” But it was most likely drowned by the ponies giving them similar questions.

“It’s a long story, darlings,” answered Rainbow Dash, quieting the crowd down. “And I think Princess Luna here is more fit to tell it than us.”

Indeed!” boomed the dark Princess, taking to the air to gain an overview of the crowd. “We ask that thy giveth us… that you give me… your attention… please?” Within seconds, the room was dead silent. “Thank you. Now, as I’m sure you are all wondering, the roars you heard only moments ago were those of an ancient evil that was released on account of an old magic seal being broken. Know however that there is the danger has been averted, but it came with a price: our Princess of the Sun has been heavily wounded in the battle, and it will take her at least a full seven days to make a full recovery.”

There were gasps and murmurs, as well as questions thrown into the air in hope that Princess Luna would give them answers. Especially Spike seemed incredibly shocked by the news, his expression a mixture of surprise and horror. The Princess continued, “As such, I shall send you back to your village, and advise you to stay there, as there is no guarantee there weren’t other magical beasts hidden beneath the broken seal.”

“Send us home?” came Sunny Daze’s disappointed voice. “As in, right now? Tour’s over?”

“No,” the Princess gave as reply. “There is one more place I wish for you to see. Spike, I believe we have not yet give permission to see the Canterlot Sculpture Gardens?”

“Well, no,” said the dragon. “I was going to ask, but then all this happened.”

“Then we shall give it now,” said Luna. “These ponies have the right to see the creature that sealed their fate.”

***

“…but then Princess Luna appeared and fashioned Twilight Sparkle and her friends with these charming accessories, and suddenly their eyes started glowing with magic! And out came the most fabulous rainbow I have ever seen, darlings! It wrapped itself around the monster, and just like that, it was gone, leaving behind a beautiful spectrum of colors! Oh darlings, I do wish you could have been there to see it!”

The crowd of ponies was moving through the outer gardens of Canterlot Castle, following Princess Luna’s lead, and every pony within earshot of Rainbow Dash was eagerly listening to her account of the battle. Wysteria, who was among the closest, giggled. “It sounds like your kind of magic. I do feel sorry for Princess Celestia, though.”

“Luna said she’d be fine,” Sunny Daze pointed. “But I gotta say, things sure have taken a turn for the weird. Magic seals setting free ancient monsters? This just happens to happen just as we’re visiting the castle?”

“Actually,” said their fellow villager Pinkie Pie, “the seal was broken when I used my Squink. Not sure how it happened, but I guess you could say it’s my fault…”

“Of course not, darling!” assured Rainbow Dash. “You only wanted to help us find our friends; no one could have guessed all this would happen.”

“Besides,” added Sunny Daze, “unless there are any more magic seal thingies, you can use your Squink as many times as you want to find Minty, Kimono and Star Catcher!”

Rainbow Dash’s face lit up as she remembered what the Princesses had told them. “Oh, that reminds me, darlings! Minty has already been found! And she’s coming here!”

“Rock on!” exclaimed Sunny. “Did you hear that everypony? They found Minty!” A joyful cheer erupted from the crowd.

“Thank goodness!” sighed Wysteria. “I was so worried something awful might have happened to her.”

Rainbow Dash exchanged looks with Pinkie Pie, and mutually agreed that this was not the right time to tell them that something awful had in fact happened to her. Instead, Pinkie said, “Hey, here’s a Squink for ya: we should all stay for her big welcome tea party!”

“Duh, we have to!” Sunny agreed. “Yo, Luna!” The group came to a halt, as did the Princess. “Can’t we stay here a little longer? Y’know, for Minty?”

“But we do not know when she will arrive,” the dark-blue Princess argued. “And I’m not sure we can spare the resources to accommodate all of you.”

“I don’t think they’re expecting a first-class suite for everypony,” pointed Kenbroth, who was riding on Luna’s back. “I see no harm in it; in fact, I dare say they’d be safer under our protection.”

“I could pull a few strings a get them a place,” offered the other Spike, the baby dragon on Twilight’s back. “And it shouldn’t be too hard to scour a hundred ponies’ worth of tea when you’re in Canterlot.”

“I like the way you think, my young dragon friend,” commended Kenbroth. “And I think Minty would appreciate the support from her fellow kinsponies.”

Luna sighed. “Very well, Kenbroth, I will leave it in your capable claws, then,” she turned around and resumed walking.

“Neato!” the curly-maned Pinkie Pie exclaimed as she popped out from between her counterpart and earth pony Rainbow Dash. “Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, we’re gonna have to put all of our heads together for this one. And you too Wysteria; I can see it the way you did your mane today that you’re good at organizing and decorating and stuff.”

“I-it will be my pleasure to help,” she replied, seemingly somewhat taken aback to be addressed by the more spirited of the Pinkie Pies. “But to tell you the truth, I didn’t really have time to do my–”

Here it is!” said Luna, putting on her royal announcer voice to grab their attention. “The Canterlot Sculpture Garden.”

Rainbow Dash could not help but watch in awe as they passed along the statues, sculptured in the exact likeness of ponies of Equestria. One was depicted as a mare in a cape, holding a spire, while another showed three little ponies jumping happily about. Each one of these, if painted right, could easily have passed for real ponies, and Rainbow Dash was eager to know more about the artist that made these. But Luna offered no explanation as they cantered by, just leading the group on as she rounded a hedge.

The Princess stopped before one particular statue, one that did not resemble a pony in any shape or form. “This, fillies and gentlecolts, is Discord.”

From all the horrible things she had heard, Rainbow Dash has imagined something more frightful, like the image of a dragon or something. This creature looked rather funny, actually, with its disproportionate horns and mismatching legs and paws. Though it clashed rather disturbingly with the look of terror on its face. “He is a Draconequus, the head of a pony and the marriage of a myriad of other animals. The only one if his kind, as far as we know, and the embodiment of chaos and disharmony. Unlike the other statues, this is not sculpture: what you see before you is Discord in his petrified flesh.”

Gasps and murmurs of disbelief came from the crowd. Rainbow Dash felt her initial curiosity turn to fright; they had told her that Discord was turned to stone, but she never imagined they would be keeping his petrified form within the castle walls. Luna answered her unspoken question, “We keep it here so that we may never forget the notorious things he did to our land, and so that should he break free, we can act without delay. Although truth be told, it did us little good last time…”

Rainbow Dash hardly evened heard her last words; she was so enthralled with the figure. It looked so frightened, having been turned to stone suddenly and unexpectedly. She could just imagine the fear he must have gone through, knowing that the next moment, everything would be lost… everything he worked so hard to accomplish… a cruel, undeserving fate…

“…ie Pie? Rainbow Dash?” came a voice from somewhere outside of Rainbow Dash’s mind. “Are you alright!”

“What!!” Rainbow Dash snapped at the source of the voice, determined to give whoever spoke a piece of her mind, of this raging indignity… when a moment later, she herself snapped out of her stupor. Luna was looking back at her with a perplexed expression, and everyone around her was giving her worried looks. “I-I’m so sorry, darling!” she tried to apologize, panic seeping into her voice. “I don’t know what… I must’ve…” but she found herself unable to form a coherent sentence, because despite her awareness, she still felt the urge to lash out at everyone around her bottling up inside. She looked around in rising panic, trying to figure out what was happening to her, when her eyes again came upon the statue, and she immediately understood. “I… I need to get away from here…”

“Why, what’s the matter—”

“Just move it!” she roared at the speaker, not even registering to whom. The crowd thankfully dispersed as she ran through, and when it didn’t do so fast enough, she pushed her friends to the side with a tackle. All she could think about was running away; it didn’t matter where, as long as it was far away from Discord.

---

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for help with editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Ten

By Candle Light

“Thanks, Twilight,” Pinkie Pie breathed, trying her best to calm her pounding heart. She had watched in horror as Rainbow Dash, face distorted in fear and anger, had stormed off, and if Twilight hadn’t been quick to set up a force field around Pinkie, she would have done the same. She had a hard time defining what she had just felt: words such as anger, indignation and hatred came to mind, all of which made her feel sick to the stomach. As the group moved itself away from the Sculpture Garden at a brisk pace, Pinkie Pie willed herself to speak. “What just happened back there?”

“You tell us!” replied Sunny Daze. “It looked like you were about to hurl, and Rainbow Dash just took off shouting at us. What’s her problem?”

“It wasn’t her,” Pinkie Pie tried to explain. “It was the statue. The moment I looked at that thing, I got these horrible feelings… like I was angry at everyone, and that I would never be happy again…”

“I felt it too,” shared the filly Rarity, walking next to the protective bubble. “Not as bad as before, but still that depressing feeling, hopeless feeling…”

“Perhaps being so close to Discord’s physical body somehow resonated with the taint that is inside of you,” speculated Luna.

“Intriguing,” said Kenbroth. “Troubling, yes, but intriguing. What you just described, was it simply the dark magic tampering with your mood, or could it have been… no, I suppose it’s too soon to tell.”

“Whatever it was,” said Twilight Sparkle, “we can’t just leave Rainbow Dash like this!”

“Yeah, we just have to find her!” agreed Pinkie. “She could be anywhere, crying her heart out…”

“Yes, but we can’t have all of you running around an unfamiliar city,” pointed Kenbroth. “I think it would be best that you Ponyvillians stay within the castle bounds for now, while I set up a search party.”

“No need for that, big guy,” the winged Rainbow Dash told him. “She can’t have gone far; it’ll be faster if I have a look from above.” With a couple of fierce flaps she took to the air. “You ponies wait here. If anypony can find Rainbow Dash, it’s Rainbow Dash.” And so she was off before anyone could say otherwise.

***

Rainbow Dash ran, as fast as her earth pony legs would allow, just aware enough of her surroundings not to bump into things on the way. For all she knew, she could have run back into the castle, or somewhere else entirely; all that mattered was to get away. Away from that horrible monster, away from the shame of having lashed out at her friends. But was it really a monster? Was there really no truth in what she had felt? Somewhere in her heart, she knew that the world was wrong, corrupt, evil… but she also knew these feelings weren’t here own. Or were they? She couldn’t think straight, only run.

Eventually, her mind began to clear, at least so much that she could tell she was surrounded by buildings and ponies. Everyone was staring at her, which wasn’t surprising, as she was turning her head around like a mad pony, hyperventilating furiously. Unsure of where to go, she sprang into the first alleyway she saw. Thankfully, at this point, the unsettling feeling was starting to wane, and she was starting to regain some sense of self.

Still dizzy, she stumbled back into the street. The sun was starting to set now, casting an orangey glow over the white city landscape. A sight that helped to calm Rainbow Dash’s mind, at least a bit. She sat herself down on the side walk, shaking top to hoof, ignoring the passersby as she allowed her nerves to calm down… until they were jolted back to life by a voice calling her name.

“Ah, Rainbow Dash, I presume!” The voice was unfamiliar, but friendly. “The trainer of the Wonderbolts herself, or so your friend speaks of you.” Rainbow Dash lifted her head to observe the stranger: a snow white unicorn with a monocle and a small, fancy mustache. “I know she was exaggerating, of course, but after seeing you pull off a Sonic Rainboom in a vertical uplift at the Royal Wedding, I’m surprised they haven’t… oh my.” He paused to take a closer look at her. “You look rather down, my friend.”

“I-I…” Rainbow Dash started, but her voice must not have reached further than her own ears.

“Also, you seem to have misplaced your wings… actually, upon closer inspection, your Cutie Mark is different. Forgive me, my lady, I seem to have mistaken you for somepony else. Though I must say you bear a striking semblance to miss Rainbow Dash. Are you perhaps a relative of hers?”

Rainbow Dash tried once again to speak, very lowly. “Actually, darling, I… you see…” but that was how far she got before realizing she had nothing to say, no excuses to give. Or anything to give an excuse to.

“Oh, how very rude of me,” the unicorn added. “I should of course introduce myself before asking such personal questions. My name is Fancy Pants.”

Maybe it was his tone of voice. Maybe it was his kind face, or maybe it was air of grace; whatever the reason, Rainbow Dash gave into the toll on her heart and slumped down to the ground, letting the tears flow freely.

***

Fancy Pants levitated his cup of tea to his mouth and took an elegant sip, before looking over to Rainbow Dash. “Do take a sip, dear; this tea is quite a delight.”

Rainbow Dash nodded slightly, assessed her slightly bigger tea cup, and bent to pick it up. She was still rather clumsy working with her mouth, spilling just a little, but still... “Oh my, this is a delight.”

“Ah, so you do speak,” noted Fancy Pants. “I was afraid our conversation was going to be rather one-sided.”

Rainbow Dash felt her face go red. She had not meant to burst out crying, much less to a complete stranger, and certainly not in front of a crowd. And yet, he’d been kind enough to invite her to a café so that they could talk in peace. “I-I’m so sorry, darling. It’s just that… well,” she searched for the words, “I was touched by something dreadful… some dark magic…”

“Dark magic?” repeated the unicorn. “But I thought spells that influences negative emotions were banned hundreds of years ago by Celestia’s degree.”

“Well, it wasn’t unicorn magic, rather…” She knew she would have to explain everything to him, but where to start? “I… I don’t suppose you’ve heard of someone named ‘Discord’?”

“Why yes, of course,” said Fancy Pants with a nod. “I don’t suppose there is anypony in Equestria who hasn’t heard of… hold on.” His expression then turned from surprise to realization. “But of course! How did I not make the connection! You must be from that village that was recently discovered, the one hidden away by Discord’s magic! The one supposedly filled with ponies that looks just like us. Then you must be indeed be Rainbow Dash.”

“Why yes, darling, I am,” she nodded. “I know it may be hard to believe, but Discord enchanted my village and surrounded it in a time loop for a thousand years.”

“So I read in the news paper,” confirmed Fancy Pants. “Quite a predicament, I would imagine.”

“You have no idea, darling! Imagine being told everything you knew was a dream, losing half your bodily functions, your friends gone missing, and then you learn that one of them almost starved to death!” She realized her volume had risen progressively, and some ponies were watching them closer now. A little quieter, she continued, “You’re right, darling, it hasn’t been easy. And to top it off, it seems that Discord left me and my friends with a piece of his magic within each of us.”

“Is that a fact?” said Fancy Pants, looking very surprised.

“I went to see the statue,” she went on, “and it felt like another being had crept into my mind, affecting my every emotion…. I was angry and disappointed at everything…”

“That does sound like what Discord would have felt in his final hour,” said Fancy Pants. “And I suspect leaving his magic behind is more than mere happenstance. Perhaps he planned to use you in some way for his return.”

“I’ve been thinking about that too,” agreed Rainbow Dash. “All of us are trying our hardest to find the truth behind all this, but every time we figure something out, more questions only come from it.”

“Did perhaps that awful roar a while back have something to do with any of this?” Fancy Pants inquired.

“Oh darling,” she sighed, “where do I even begin?”

***

The winged Rainbow Dash was sure she had seen a flash of cerulean flash by somewhere around here, but by the time she touched the ground, the street was empty of anypony except a few passersby. Her counterpart had been here, no doubt about it, but where did she go?

She was just about to round a corner when a voice called out to her. “Hey Rainbow Dash,” she turned to see one of those Canterlot snob ponies, a gray mare with a slender body much like the princesses, “I hope you’re feeling better now. You made quite a spectacle of yourself back there.”

“What spectacle?”

“Oh come now, Rainbow Dash, I can imagine the most promising young flier in all of Equestria wouldn’t care to admit wailing like a foal in public, especially since it just happened to bring the attention of one of the Canterlot Elites, but I know what I saw. So did the paparazzi, I’m sure. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s news paper.”

The pegasus felt her gut go cold and her cheek grow hot. Her counterpart had broken down crying? And now everypony would think she did it? “Now listen here, missy,” she walked up to her and looked her straight in the eye. “You obviously don’t even read the news paper, or you’d know there’s a village of lookalikes that’s popped up south of the Everfree Forest. You may have noticed the one you saw didn’t have any wings?”

To Rainbow Dash’s credit, she seemed to have put the mare on the spot. “D-don’t be silly, of course I read that, but do you honestly expect me to believe—”

“Whatever!” She was getting tired of talking to this pony. “Just tell me where she went!”

***

“By Star Swirl’s beard!” gasped Fancy Pants. He looked around the café, almost nervously, to see if anyone had listened in on the conversation. Which, it seemed, they had. The table closest to them made no attempt to hide their interest, and one pony conveniently got up and left. “Canterlot can’t seem to catch a break, can it. First the Changeling invitation, and now a Mother Ursa…”

“Changeling invasion, darling?”

“Something that happened about a month ago,” he explained. “A bunch of nasty insect-like creatures almost tore Canterlot to pieces.”

“I just can’t believe the things that happen here in Equestria,” said Rainbow Dash with a sigh in her voice. “Where I come from, making sure the rainbows were done on time was the biggest of our worries, but we’ve never had any creatures trying to destroy the whole town.”

“Yes, well, you know what they say: whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. It’s true that we are forced to live through the return of some ancient evil or another every so often, but for the most part, Princess Celestia has done a marvelous job bringing peace and prosperity to the land.”

“I hope you’re right, darling. I just want to go back to living a peaceful life among my friends, making hats and dresses, going on adventures, having parties every week…”

“Parties, eh? Well, I know one certain Ponyvillian who would meet your fancy.”

“Oh, trust me darling, we have already met.”

Both of them jumped as the door to the café slammed open. “Rainbow Dash!” called the pegasus at the door, as cerulean as the one sitting by the table and with a rainbow mane to match. “Thank Celestia I found you.”

“Ah, the original article, or however I should put it,” commented Fancy Pants.

“Oh, it’s you,” the pegasus replied, earning herself some strange looks from the onlookers. “I heard you took care of my pal here. Thanks a bunch. Are you feeling better, Rainbow Dash?”

“Oh, I…” she began, feeling a bit flustered by the scene. “Yes, darling, I think I’ve managed to calm down.”

“Everypony is worried sick! Well, Pinkie Pie is, anyway. Come on, let’s go back to the castle.”

“Of course, darling.” As she got up from her seat, she gave the stallion a last appreciative look. “Thank you so much for everything, Fancy Pants, darling.”

“My pleasure,” he replied. “I seem to run into the most interesting sorts when I’m out grocery shopping. If you should ever need me, don’t be a stranger. I’m not very hard to find.”

***

“Ouch,” commented the winged Rainbow Dash as the earth pony version recounted her experience. She could totally relate; the memories of what she had done to her friends under Discord’s influence were still fresh in her mind. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure you don’t have to go anywhere near that statue ever again. I don’t get why they even keep it around; wouldn’t it be easier to just throw it to the bottom of the ocean or something?”

“I seem to remember Princess Luna saying something about keeping it for safe-keep,” said the earth pony.

“For all the good it did,” reminded the pegasus. “Can’t they at least cut him up into small pieces or something, make it harder for him to get back on his feet?”

“That’s a terrible thing to say!” her counterpart rebutted, but then seemed to realize what she was saying. “I mean… yes.” She looked downright appalled with herself. “Oh darling, it’s like a part of me is still thinking like Discord…”

“Oh, uh, okay then; we don’t need to talk about him anymore. So… how about that Minty? She’s gonna be here soon, right?”

The sentiment seemed to cheer the earth pony up just a bit. “Oh Minty, my darling… how I want to see you again…”

***

The cerulean earth pony barely took a step into beyond the castle gate before she felt hooves wrap around her neck, her vision obscured by her friend’s pink mane. “Are you okay, Rainbow Dash? I was so worried! We were all worried!”

“I’m okay, Pinkie Pie, darling,” she assured her. Her concern truly touched her deeply. But then, realization struck. “What about yourself? Did the statue do anything to you and Rarity?”

“It did, but then Twilight put up this bubble-thingy around me, and I couldn’t sense it anymore,” Pinkie Pie explained as she let go of her friend. “Rarity seemed to be fine though.”

“I’m glad,” said Rainbow Dash. “Now I just need to apologize to everyone for lashing out at them.”

“It’s okay,” Pinkie Pie assured, “we all know it wasn’t your fault.”

“Speaking of everyone,” the winged Rainbow Dash cut in, “where is everyone?”

“They all went back into the castle. Spike – the little one – says he’s working on getting us our own place, but we’ll have to stay put until then.”

“Right, let’s not keep them waiting then,” said the earth pony. She glanced at the walkway that led to the sculpture gardens; maybe it was her paranoid mind playing tricks on her, but she almost thought she could sense something in that direction, much like one would sense thunder in the air.

***

“I know it’s getting late,” Kenbroth told the group walking behind him, consisting of the other village versions of Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie and Rarity, as they made their way down the stairs that would take them to the crystal chamber beneath Canterlot, “but I’d much rather we get the answers we need sooner than later. I do appreciate your help.”

“But of course, darling,” agreed Rainbow Dash. “We want to get to the bottom of this as much as you do.”

“Sure,” said the filly Rarity, “but what exactly are we gonna do?”

“Just a few experiments,” told Kenbroth. “Nothing too tedious, I assure you.”

The group reached the bottom of the stairs. Rainbow Dash found herself mesmerized by the butterflies. What were they doing so deep beneath the ground? “It’s just through here.” They passed through a rather narrow rocky passageway, and soon arrived at a beautifully decorated door, which Kenbroth pushed open with ease.

The chamber beyond, Rainbow Dash realized, was very similar to that of their own castle back in Ponyville and Unicornia, except everything here was made purely out of yellowish crystal. Pinkie Pie let out a sound of amazement. “Wow… I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Neither have I, darling,” said Rainbow Dash. “How do you suppose it ended up all the way down here?”

“My guess is that when the castles were awakened,” Kenbroth explained, “it was supposed to reappear where Canterlot Castle now stands, but because of all the protection spells and enchantments put up by the Princesses, it was pushed underground. Speaking of the Princesses, Princess Luna said she would be joining us shortly, as soon as she’s setting the sun and the moon in proper orbit.”

“She can do that all by herself?” asked Pinkie Pie incredulously.

“They aren’t the rulers of Equestria for nothing. In any case, let’s begin, shall we. First, I must ask you, does being here in this chamber make you feel weird at all?”

“Well, yeah, this place is pretty weird,” Rarity pointed. “It’s like my house, but made out of glass or something.”

“I meant on the inside,” Kenbroth clarified. “A gut feeling, if you will, something that resonates with your very being.”

“Y’know what,” said Pinkie Pie, “this is gonna sound weird, but I kinda do feel something. Like a prickling feeling in my stomach.”

“Now that you mention it, darling,” agreed Rainbow Dash. She hadn’t thought about it until they she brought it up, but it felt almost unsettling, like there was something knocking on her belly from the inside.

“As I thought. Now, stand over here, Pinkie,” he led her to one of the pillars, and put one of his claws on it. He closed his eyes for a moment, assuming a look of concentration. A few moments later he nodded to himself, and said to Pinkie, “Now Squink!”

“Uh, okay.” The pink pony began doing her signature moves: shaking her mane back and forth, and then squished down on all fours, winking as she straightened herself. But for all shaking and winking, no tell-tale sparks appeared.

Pinkie came to a stop. “Well, I do feel something, but it doesn’t feel anything like a proper Squink.”

“‘Something’ is indeed right, my dear,” Kenbroth told her. “There was definitely a stir in the magical structure of the castle just now. But this is very peculiar indeed… Rainbow Dash, now I want you to try it.”

“Me?” repeated the rainbow-maned pony. “B-but darling, I thought only Pinkie Pie could perform a Pinkie Squink. And my hair will get all ruffled.”

“That’s a sacrifice you’ll have to make,” Kenbroth told her matter-of-factly. “I’m sure Daffy would be more than happy to do your do when we get back.”

“Well, alright,” she agreed reluctantly. Having watched Pinkie Pie do it innumerable times, she knew the motions well enough, but this would be the first time doing it herself. Her mane flew about uncomfortably as she rocked her head – this was harder than it looked! – then she lowered her body in a squish. She rose to her full height, winking as she did.

Just like Pinkie Pie had said, she felt something inside, a weird sort of tingling in her skin. More than that, she felt ridiculous. Spike, however, had a look of triumph on his face. “Eureka!” he exclaimed. “I think I’ve figured it out! Of course, this raises a few other questions, but still!”

“Still what?” asked Rarity.

“I’ll explain soon enough; now I want you, Pinkie Pie, to go Squink over there, and Rainbow Dash over by that pillar. Rarity, you’ll stay and Squink right here.”

Confused but obedient, the three ponies took their positions. Kenbroth walked over to the center of the room and sat himself down. “You may begin.”

“Wait, how do I do this?” asked Rarity. “Do I just wave my hair around?”

“Come to think of it, I don’t think you’ve ever seen me Squink before,” said Pinkie Pie. “It’s okay, I’ll show you how.”

While Pinkie Pie taught the little one the moves, Rainbow Dash was working her body by the opposite pillar, feeling increasingly uncomfortable as sweat ran down her chin. She remembered that she hadn’t had a bath since they left this morning, and made a mental note to ask for one when they were done. After a while, Spike directed her go Squink by another pillar, and then by a wall.

Just when she was about to ask what the point of this silliness was, Spike called them all to her. “Thank you, my dears. I’m sorry if this seems like a pointless exercise routine, but this is all giving me some excellent results. For example, young Rarity, it seems you’re not quite getting the hang of the movements.”

“I’m trying,” replied the filly. “It’s just not clicking! I keep tripping by the squishing part.”

“But I still felt the castle’s magic stir just the same,” Kenbroth told her. “It would seem what matter isn’t so much what you do, but that your heart is in the right place. Now, if I could just ask you to do one more thing.”

“Making progress, I see.”

Princess Luna walked through the door, setting her gaze on the dragon. “Ah, Princess!” said Kenbroth delightedly. “Just bear with me for another minute, I’ll give a full report soon. Actually,” he added, “I think would be quicker if you watched the flow of magic yourself.” Noticing the three very confused sets of eyes, he cleared his throat. “Now then, I want the three of you to stand right here and Squink at the same time.”

The three of them walked over and started shaking their bodies to and fro. It was rather out-of-sync, with Rarity tripping a few times, and Rainbow Dash was starting to feel dizzy from flailing her head around so much. After what seemed like minutes, the earth dragon gestured them to stop.

“By the stars,” gasped Luna, removing her horn from the pillar, surprise on her face. “If what I’m thinking is correct…”

“…then we can reseal the ancient magic and return peace to Equestria!” finished Kenbroth.

“By Squinking?” asked Pinkie Pie incredulously.

“Yes, in fact, by Squinking. You see, as I mentioned before, all ponies from your Ponyville are connected, spiritually if you will, to the very special magic energies residing in the castles of legend. As we saw with Pinkie Pie accidentally releasing the seal, this is especially true for you unfortunate ponies that carry Discord’s magic within. With you three squinking together just now, there was a considerable shift in the magic structure, like the seal was trying to repair itself.”

“Should we keep Squinking until the seal is fixed, then?” suggested Rainbow Dash.

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple. With the three of you alone it would likely take weeks, or even months of non-stop Squinking. What we need is all six of you together for one, big Squink.”

“So, once we find our friends, all we have to do is visit all the castles and have a Squinking party!” Pinkie Pie recapped. “And ta-daah, Equestria is safe!”

“But darling, the Mother Ursa was defeated. Isn’t it safe already?”

“Like my sister told you, we cannot afford to assume,” Luna told her. “We would do well to prepare for the worst, lest we are caught off-guard by another such monster from the abyss.”

***

Minty could find only one word that would do justice what she was looking at. Her eyes were wide as saucers, her mouth hanging agape. “Wow.”

Maybe it was because had she had secretly been dreading spending another night out in these lands, or maybe it was her love for all things flying, but seeing a gilded carriage descending before them, carried by two chalk white pegasus ponies in shining armor, nearly brought a tear to her eyes. They came to a stop right before the group, where one of the guards spoke up in a dark, almost intimidating voice. “Are you Miss Minty?”

“What? Oh, uh, yeah, that’s me.”

“We have received orders from Her Majesty Princess Luna to bring you to Canterlot Castle,” they explained in a reciting tone. “We were told to await you in Appleloosa, but when we saw you from the air, we thought we could spare you the travel.”

“You mean it?” said Minty enthusiastically. The sooner she could get back to her friends, the better. “Oh thank you thank you thank you!” She gave the guard a big hug, to which it didn’t move a muscle. “You have no idea how much I want to get out of this place.” She added a little laugh. “So what are we waiting for?”

“Nothing at all, I’d wager” spoke Braeburn. “We could sure use the lift ourselves. Would you mind dropping us off at—”

“This carriage is one-way only: back to Canterlot.”

“Aw shucks,” Braeburn let out. “Well, Ah don’t wanna leave Minty hanging with a couple o’ strangers – no offense – and Ah’ve been meaning to give my cousins a visit anyhow.” He turned to his traveling companions. “Would you guys mind terribly if Ah took them up on their offer?”

“Hay, more food for us,” replied Brittle.

“Halt!” the other guard cut in. “Our orders were for miss Minty, no one else.”

“Come on, can’t he come?” asked Minty. If she could help it, she really didn’t want to be left alone with strangers. “I mean, he kinda rescued me from certain death, and the Princess told him to bring me to Canterlot himself, so—”

“Fine, he can come,” the guards agreed simply, not even moving a facial muscle. “Hop on-board, then.” Minty wasted no time jumping onto the carriage, which was fitted with a cushioned seat easily big enough for the two of them. Once she and Breaburn were seated – and before they could even wave goodbye to Brittle and Coffee Pot – the carriage lifted itself into the air seemingly by magic.

Minty remained breathless as she watched the landscape become smaller and smaller, spreading itself out as far as eye could see, painted in the orange glow of the nearly set sun. Not entirely unlike the glow from the castle they had visited.

As the scenery flew by beneath, Minty’s mind couldn’t help but wander. What would’ve happened if she’d started walking any other direction than the one she did. She would have ended up just as lost and thirsty, but with no one to bring her back from the brink. The thought made her queasy, so much that she had to close her eyes and lay down on the floor, willing her mind to think about something else. Fortunately, there was a lot to think about: the Castle, the roar they had heard, Braeburn and his friends… her friends waiting for her in Canterlot…

This alone made her open her eyes and look back up, towards the darkened green hills that were starting to become visible over the horizon.

***

“Check it out,” said Sunny Daze in awe. Spike the baby dragon had led the Ponyville crowd to the Canterlot Ballroom, where he had directed a couple of guards to prepare sleeping mattresses and pillows for everypony. “This would make a wicked place for a party!”

“As a matter of fact, it would,” Twilight Sparkle agreed with a laugh.

“Not many ponies get the privilege to use this establishment,” grown-up Rarity told them. “Much less for a bed room.”

“Yeah, what’s up with that; it’s not time for bed yet,” remarked Sunny Daze. “I wanna go explore the castle some more!”

“I don’t know,” said Twilight, “I don’t think Princess Luna would appreciate us snooping around where we’re not welcome.”

“What about the Collage?” suggested Spike. “I’ve talked to the guards, and they say you’re all free to go anywhere you like, except into the city or the castle, or the sculpture gardens.”

“See, this dragon knows what I’m talking about.” Sunny Daze gave him an approving smile and rubbed him on the head.

“You know what, that’s not a bad idea,” realized Twilight. “I’ve been meaning to visit the Royal Library anyway. Though I’m not sure we could fit everypony in there.”

“I think most ponies here are pretty much ready to tuck it,” pointed Sunny Daze, gazing over the crowd, many of which had already crept under their blankets. “But hey, if we’re going to the library, we should totally invite Story Belle. Hey, Story!” she called, catching the attention of a certain pink pony with a mane that – as was the norm with these ponies – was multicolored, with stripes of yellow, red, purple and blue. She came trotting over to them. “Wanna come with us to see the library with me and Twilight?”

“You have a library?” she replied excitedly. “Of course I would like to see it! If it’s anything like the rest of Canterlot, I can hardly wait!”

“And this coming from the pony who owns a windmill full of books,” remarked Sunny. “That Cutie Mark isn’t just for show.” Sure enough, Story Belles cutie mark depicted a story book beneath a windmill, connected by a rainbow.

“Trust me, you’re in for a surprise,” promised Twilight. “Anypony else want to come along?” she added, addressing the two of her friends that were within earshot, which was Rarity and Fluttershy.

“Why, I certainly would,” the white unicorn agreed. “I do love visiting the Royal Library whenever I get the chance. How about it, Fluttershy?”

“Actually, if you don’t mind, I would rather stay here,” said the yellow pegasus. “The Breezies were telling me this fascinating story about these earth ponies who wanted to fly.”

“Suit yourself then,” Rarity acknowledged. “And seeing as Applejack was abducted by Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash is horsing around over there,” indeed, in one of the corners, a bunch of ponies were engaged in an epic pillow fight, “I’d say we’re good to go.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Sunny Daze. “Let’s go, everypony!” As they left the room and stepped into the cool evening air, she added with a giggle, “‘Everypony’. I love it.”

***

The school building, as always, was opened to its students around the clock, and no guard thought to hinder Twilight as she and her friends stepped into the main building of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. They passed through a big entrance chamber – stairways decorating every wall and corner – and into a hallway that was lit up by floating magical orbs.

“Is this one of those ‘schools’ you guys were talking about?” asked Sunny Daze.

“Well, yes, and no,” said Twilight. She led the group around a bend, then down a staircase, through another hallway with windows giving a view over an inner garden. “This institute is for the especially gifted unicorn, recognized by Princess Celestia herself. Not to sound like I’m bragging…”

“Come now, darling,” said Rarity, “as the Princess’s personal star pupil, you’re most certainly entitled to a certain measure of bragging.”

“Is there school for earth ponies too?” asked Sunny.

“Well, no, since earth ponies can’t do magic,” explained Twilight. “At least not in the same sense. Earth ponies are known for their superior strength and close connection to the earth, and are sometimes capable of incredible feats that seem almost impossible by scientific standards. I learned that the hard way from Pinkie.”

The group came to a stop by one particularly big door. “Here we are. Don’t worry, there are books in here of interest to unicorns, earth ponies and pegasi alike.” Twilight lit her horn and grabbed on to the door itself, pushing it open.

What met them inside was enough for Story Belle to drop her jaw in amazement. Lit from a giant chandelier high, high above their heads, bright enough to rival daylight, the rounded room held rows upon rows of bookshelves lined along the walls. A staircase led up to a second floor, and a third floor, and beyond. The books never seemed to end.

“And I thought your library was impressive,” breathed Sunny Daze. “They must have everything in here.”

“Well, almost everything,” Twilight told them. “The Princess says there are still plenty of books they don’t have, but for the most part, everything on any subject I’ve ever studied is right here. And this is only the library; over at the Canterlot Archives is where we store the ancient and most valuable texts.”

“This is so overwhelming!” Story Belle managed. “Have you read all of this, Miss Twilight?”

“Not even close. I would certainly like to do so one day, but with so much knowledge, I’m not sure anypony could absorb it all in one mortal lifetime?”

“You certainly could have fooled me,” came an elderly pony’s voice from ahead. A mare of purple coat and a mane of blue and yellow walked up to the four of them. “So, even when you moved to Ponyville, you still take time to visit your old fort.”

“Good evening, Mrs. Know-It-All,” Twilight greeted the mare, which Story Belle guessed to be the librarian. “I’m afraid I’m not here to stay; I was just showing a few friends around. Have you heard of the new village that showed up a few days ago?”

“Only what I read in the news paper,” she told them. “So these two are ponies from this ‘other Ponyville’, is what you’re saying?”

“How do you do,” greeted Story Belle. “My name is Story Belle.”

“And I’m Sunny Daze!”

“Sunny Daze, eh? I believe my grandkid in Ponyville has a friend with that name. You do rather resemble her… would you be her ‘counterpart’ then?”

“She might be,” said Twilight, “but I’m still puzzled by the fact that grown-up have counterparts that are just children.”

“Still out to solve every mystery in the world, eh Twilight,” remarked Mrs. Know-It-All. “Just don’t work yourself too hard. You’ve been at it for days now; I think you deserve a break.”

“I could sure use it; things have been pretty crazy… wait,” Twilight gave her an odd look, “how do you know what I’ve been up to?”

“Whatever do you mean, Twilight?” said the librarian questioningly. “You’ve been staying in the library for the past three days.”

***

“I don’t know about you,” the straight-maned Pinkie Pie told Rainbow Dash as they walked through the castle grounds, led by Kenbroth, “but I’m just about ready to get some shut-eye.”

“I’m doing no such thing until I’ve had myself a good bath or shower,” replied her rainbow-maned friend. “I do hope the Canterlot ponies took that into consideration when they said they’d accommodate us.”

“A bath would be nice,” agreed Kenbroth. “Come to think of it, I haven’t had one since I woke up here in Equestria.”

“Just as long as you don’t wait another thousand years,” said Pinkie Pie with a giggle, remembering the time she and Wysteria found her under a pile of mud beneath the castle in Ponyville.

“Gosh, don’t remind me. ‘Years and years to create this smell and slime,’ what was I thinking? Granted, we earth dragons do enjoy a layer of grime on our scales, but a thousand years under a pile of mud would make me nauseous. Poor Daffy.” Then he added with a sigh, “And poor Wysteria. The things I put her through…”

“Guys!” came a voice from behind. There was the other Pinkie Pie – the local Equestrian one – followed by Applejack. “Thank Celestia we found you! Come with me, quick! It’s an emergency.”

“Why, what’s the matter?”

“Yeah, Pinkie,” remarked Applejack. “Why don’t you tell us instead of running off like a mad pony? Didn’t you want me to show you how to make those Apple Family pies?”

“No time for that now; come with me everypony, and dragon!” No more words were spoken as she ran off, and the three ponies and dragon, exchanging confused looks, had no choice but to follow.

Pinkie Pie led them to a large building, almost the size of Ponyville castle, where the crowd of ponies from their village could be seen inside. She knocked open the door fiercely and announced, “Attention, everypony!” whereas she wasted no time hopping onto one of the tables. All the ponies in the room, many of who looked getting ready to go to sleep, only looked at her with flabbergasted expressions. “It has come to my attention that the royal guards have picked up Minty, and are on their way as we speak!”

Gasps as smiles filled the room. “Are you sure, darling?” Rainbow Dash said, voicing their enthusiasm.

“Absoposilutely! And you know what that means. We only have about one hour and fifty-seven minutes to get the Welcome Home party ready. No time for sleeping, girls, we got cookies to bake, bakeries to cook and shakes to make!”

“Just remember what Princess Luna said about not spending too much on this,” Kenbroth reminded. “Like I said, it’s just a tea party.”

“The biggest tea party ever!” corrected Pinkie Pie. “We need tea, teacakes, cupcakes, teacupcakes. And milk, and sugar cubes!”

“I’m with Pinkie!” Razzaroo said as she hopped up on the table beside her. “We can sleep later; this is for Minty!”

“Right on!” the pegasus Rainbow Dash flew up on her opposite side,.“If we’re doing a tea party, then let’s tea party Ponyville style!”

If anyone objected, it could not be heard over the cheers. As the curly-maned Pinkie Pie began shouting orders to ponies, the other Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash took a moment to savior the fact that they were finally going to see Minty again, tears welling up in their eyes.

But then Rainbow Dash let out a gasp. “Oh dear, this isn’t good!”

“How can you say that? This is absolutely definitely positively wonderful!”

“Yes darling, but I meant the present! The one Rarity and I was going to make.”

“Oh.”

“If we start on it now, we might make it on time,” Rainbow Dash thought out loud, “but I don’t see Rarity anywhere. You stay here while I have a look around outside.”

***

“Wait,” said Twilight Sparkle, unsure if she had heard Mrs. Know-It-All right. “No I haven’t. I’ve been in Ponyville all along. Both of them.”

“She’s right,” Rarity agreed. “I’ve been with her this whole time.”

“Well, all I know is that someone who looks exactly like you has been putting up fort here in the library, asking me for all sorts of books concerning Equestrian history and geography, among other things.”

Twilight racked her brain trying to come up with an explanation to how she could possibly have been in the same place twice. Had her future self been messing around with ancient time travel magic again? But then another, more obvious answer dawned upon her. “Are you sure she was even a unicorn?”

“I would assume so. Although, she was wearing a hat, so I didn’t actually see the horn.”

This confirmed her suspicions. But she needed to be sure. “Did the Register pick up my name?”

“Indeed it did,” said the Librarian as she, guessing Twilight’s intentions, walked over to the counter, looking up at a big rune-covered pillar behind it. “I never bothered checking it more than once, however; if what you’re suggesting is indeed the case…”

Mrs. Know-It-All put her horn against the pillar, triggering its activation. While she did, Story Belle took the opportunity to ask, “What is this ‘Register’?”

“Like the name suggests, it’s a pony registration device,” Twilight explained. “Whenever somepony enters of leaves Canterlot Castle, a force field picks up on their personal magical imprint – their ‘aura’ if you will – adding or removing their name in this magical registry.”

“My word!” exclaimed the librarian. “It has never once shown false information in all my years, but according to this, there are now two Twilight Sparkles within the Canterlot walls.”

“But no two ponies have the same magical imprint,” Rarity pointed out the obvious. “How could it possibly—oh!” Her eyes told Twilight that she understood.

“‘Oh’ what?” asked Sunny Daze. “What does it mean?”

“It means,” explained Twilight, her heart starting to accelerate, “that Kimono is somewhere in Canterlot.”

***

Rainbow Dash only now realized that running off by herself probably wasn’t such a good idea. She hadn’t even bothered to ask if anyone knew where Rarity went. The moon and the stars were starting to provide light in the sun’s stead, but it didn’t stop her from getting lost among the many compounds of the castle ground. All she knew was which way not to go; the direction of the sculpture garden still gave off a menacing presence. She thought to herself that maybe she ought to ask one of the guards for directions…

Fortunately however, before she had the chance, she spotted a group of ponies led by Twilight Sparkle rushing out of one of the buildings. Rainbow Dash called out to grab their attention; to her delight, Rarity was among them. So were Story Belle and Sunny Daze. “Thank goodness, Rarity darling, I was just looking for you!”

“Really? Whatever for?”

“More importantly,” Twilight cut in, “Rainbow Dash, did you see me run by?”

“Of course I didn’t; you’re standing right here.”

“We just discovered that Kimono is somewhere within the castle ground!” Twilight explained hurriedly. “She’s supposed to be heading this direction.”

“She is?” she exclaimed, a broad smile spreading across her face. “That’s wonderful, darling!”

“Yeah, but it’s strange too,” said Twilight. “According to the librarian, she has been holed up in the library in secret ever since you all appeared in Equestria. And if she’s heading this way, that would take her to the gate leading out of the castle. Let’s hurry.”

The group of five ran across the castle ground, Twilight leading the way, until the main gate came into view. Rainbow Dash thought she saw a figure under the flames of the lanterns by the gate, talking to one of the guards.

There was no mistaking it, even from a distance, the exact likeness of Twilight Sparkle, save for the hat on her head and the lack of the pink stripe in her mane, could not be mistaken.

“Kimono?” Twilight called out. “Is that you?”

It caught her attention alright, but not the way they were expecting. The moment she turned around to meet their gaze, her expression shifted to that of fright, and her legs started to wobble. “Kimono, darling?” Rainbow Dash called. “It’s us, your friend from Ponyville! It’s me, Rainbow Dash!”

But the supposed Kinomo only let out a neighing noise, before desperately working her legs to shuffle herself out the gate. Out of sight, they heard the sounds of her hooves echo through the air, telling them she was running away from the castle as fast as her legs would carry her.

Rainbow Dash wasn’t sure if she was imagining it or not, but she thought she heard a shout in Kimono’s voice saying, ‘I’m sorry!’

***

Twilight’s plans to tell everypony about their strange encounter was thwarted as she entered the ballroom, and was met not with ponies crawling into their beds, but ponies hurriedly scurrying about, putting up decorations, unpacking boxes of teas, and otherwise doing what Pinkie Pie ordered them to do. When said party pony spotted the team, her face shone up and she bounced over to them. “Oh my gosh, girls, have you heard? Minty is already on her way, so we’re setting up the party right now!”

“Oh!” reacted Twilight. Seeing her excited face, along with the excited faces of everypony in the room, made her think twice about dropping the news about Kimono. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”

“But darling, we just saw—”

“…saw the beautiful moon outside,” Twilight finished her sentence, putting up a hoof in front of her. “Luna sure knows her stuff.”

Satisfied with the answer, Pinkie Pie hopped away and resumed organizing the party. The moment she was out of ear-shot, Twilight turned to address her four companions. “I don’t think we should mention Kimono just yet. It would only ruin the mood for Minty’s celebration.”

“But darling, we can’t just leave her,” objected Rainbow Dash.

“You saw how panicked she was,” pointed Twilight. “For whatever reason, she was very desperate of getting away from us. I’ll have one of Luna’s guards follow her, see where she’s headed.

“Maybe she was under Discord’s influence,” suggested Sunny Daze. “Y’know, like Rainbow Dash.”

“Maybe,” agreed Twilight. “But she looked fine just before she saw us. Maybe the piece of Discord in her reacted to the piece inside of Rainbow Dash…?”

“But that never happened to me and Pinkie Pie, or Rarity,” reminded Rainbow Dash.

“I know, it doesn’t make sense. And that’s why we need to know more before we approach her. Right now, we need to focus on giving Minty the welcome she deserves.”

“Right you are, darling,” agreed Rainbow Dash with a smile. Then let out a gasp. “Speaking of which, Rarity darling, we have to finish you-know what before she arrives!”

“Whatever do you—oh yes!” she seemed to realize. “You’re right! Let’s not waste a moment then. Twilight was kind enough to let me use her old dormitory for the night, so I think we can work there in peace.”

***

The party was coming along swimmingly. Under the lead – and the occasional song – of Pinkie Pie, and with a helping hoof from Twilight, all the decorations were soon put into place. Tables had been set up along the walls, on which some extraordinary baked goods, usually reserved for events like the Grand Galloping Gala, had been placed by courtesy of some of the greatest chefs in Canterlot. The other Pinkie Pie, on her end, was determined not to mess up like last time she tried to organize a tea party, and was going around double-checking that there was enough of every flavor of every tea.

“You know,” said Kenbroth, watching her work. “When I suggested a tea party, I didn’t mean for it to be taken literally.”

“I know,” she replied with a giggle. “But it is more fun this way. Come to think of it, this is the third party we’ve thrown since we came to Equestria.”

“I suppose ponies of all ages likes to party,” said Kenbroth.

“Hey, Pinkie Pie!” the pony with the same name came up to them. “Come with me, quick.”

She didn’t have much choice in the matter, as she was dragged off with surprising force, coming to a stop by the doorway, where earth pony Rainbow Dash was waiting. “Minty is coming!” the curly-maned Pinkie Pie announced excitedly.

“Right now?” her counterpart asked. “How do you know?”

“Twitchy tail and tingling eye lashes: a friend is dropping from the sky!” she replied. “And since you two are her best friends, I thought you should go meet her. Come with me!”

“Don’t mind if we do, darling,” said Rainbow Dash, following her out the door. “I can’t wait to see my darling Minty again.”

The three of them made their way through the grounds, to an unremarkable spot near the wall. There she pointed to the sky, and sure enough, a silhouette was making its way down toward them. “There, it’s them!”

The straight-maned Pinkie Pie felt her heart beating faster. After all this time worrying about Minty, and after hearing what had happened to her, it felt almost unreal to finally see her again. Any number of things could have gone wrong: what if she hadn’t been found in the desert? What if she had been attacked by some vicious animal? She shook those thoughts out of her head: Minty was alright, that’s all that mattered. The hows and whys could wait.

Two armored ponies, levitating a carriage behind them, set down softly on the ground. On it rode two figures, clearly visible in the moonlight; one of them with an unmistakable shade of minty green.

***

In other circumstances, Minty might have been surprised to see there were two Pinkie Pies. She might even have thought it strange that both her friends looked totally different from how she remembered them. But her heart was too busy swelling up in happiness and producing tears of joy. With no doubt in her mind which Pinkie Pie was hers, she flung herself at her at such force that toppled them both to the ground.

“Pinkie Pie!” she cried. “It’s really you! I’ve missed you so much!”

Not letting go of the embrace, Pinkie lifted her head so they were in eye contact. Even with her looks changed, she could see it in her eyes, the way her face moved, that this was none other than Pinkie Pie she knew and loved. “I’ve missed you too, Minty.” she said. “I thought we’d never see you again.”

“Me too…” she sniffed. They held the embrace for a moment longer, before she looked up to see Rainbow Dash’s smiling face.

“Minty, darling,” she spoke through a cracked voice. Nothing else needed to be said; Minty pulled her into the hug, so that the three of them could appreciate the fact that they were finally together again. So that Minty could appreciate the fact that she was alive.

---

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for help with editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Eleven

By Candle Light

Kimono gazed out over the night time landscaped as it flew by outside the train. It was an entirely new form of transportation to her, and she could only thank her lucky stars that she had managed to get on board just as one was about to leave Canterlot. Luckier still was the fact that Twilight Sparkle, the pony whose semblance she wore and under whose guise she had been staying at the Canterlot Library these last three days, was a pony of high status, and was offered the trip free of charge. Other than her saddlebag and the charm bracelet around her front hoof – an item she could have sworn she had lost long ago – she had nothing to her name.

It was hard to accept that a full thousand years had passed since Discord had returned to the village on that fateful day. In her mind, only a few days had gone by, yet in her heart she knew that somewhere in between that time, a whole lifetime had passed. From her hazy memories and the books in the library, she had managed to piece together most of the puzzle: she and her village had been trapped in a time loop for an entire millennium.

Sometime soon before the spell had broken, she had regained some sense of self. How she had spent that time, she could not recall, but she was certain that she had been trying to do something important.

All she knew for sure was that Discord had planted a piece of himself within her and her friends. That was a memory she could not shake, of the Draconequus lowering his paw upon her head, grinning viciously as he filled her with darkness. She hated having to run from the ponies she wanted to see the most, but she knew that unless the evil that rested within her could be dealt with, she would never be able to face them again. She hoped beyond hope that they would find the message she had left behind. It was little more than hurried scribbling, as was all time had allowed with her unrefined mouth-writing, but hopefully it would give them the clue they needed.

***

“Surprise!”

Minty had expected her friends to come running to her, showering her with hugs, asking if she was okay. She had not expected to be met by an explosion of confetti, streamers and balloons. Her jaws hung open as her eyes traveled from the ponies to the decorations, before they settled on the other, poofy-maned Pinkie Pie. “Do you like it? We worked really hard to get it done in time.”

“For me…?” breathed Minty.

“That’s right,” said an orange-hued pony that Minty instantly recognized as Applejack, “and for lil’ Rarity here too, to celebrate that you both made it back in one piece.”

“Rarity?” parroted Minty. Sure enough, even wearing the face of someone else, there was no mistaking the mane and that pink coat.

She walked up and gave Minty a hug, and said, “I’m so happy to see you again.” One by one, the ponies started coming up to her, giving her embraces and well-wishings. She wasn’t dreaming, right? She wouldn’t blink and find herself back in the desert, would she? Of course she wouldn’t. Despite all the absurdity she had been through, this felt more real than any dream ever could. More real, in fact, than she could ever remember.

While all the ponies were hugging her, she noticed that Applejack had been staring at her. Their eyes met, and Minty gave her a cheapish grin, which the orange mare returned. “Ah knew this day would come,” said Applejack, “but it doesn’t make it any easier…”

“Tell me about it,” Minty answered. “At least you don’t have to get used to your face being all wrong... no offense.”

“None taken. Guess we should count ourselves lucky your name isn’t Applejack, or this would get real confusing.”

“No kiddin’,” Braeburn was the one to reply. “You shoulda seen her when we found her starving out in the desert. Ah thought for sure you’d found yourself in pickle there, cus’.”

“Heh, yeah, I guess that musta… Breaburn?!” Applejack realized. “Hold on, you’re the one who found her?”

“Yup. Quite the coincidence, ain’t it?”

“Add it to the pile, I guess.”

The other, curly-maned Pinkie Pie was still alternating her gaze between the two. “Aww, you two don’t look anything alike; I mean look at the freckles.”

“Do I really have freckles?” asked Minty.

“Oh well,” Pinkie Pie told herself, “this isn’t the time to cry over spilled prank. Let’s party!”

“Sure,” the green earth pony agreed. “I think I could use a party right about n—” Minty collapsed onto the floor, fatigue from the craziest day of her life with next to no sleep to finally catching up.

***

It was at times like these that Sweetie Belle was reminded that she was still just a little pony. Even with the guest of honor passed out, Pinkie Pie wouldn’t allow for the party to go to waste, and three hours later, ponies all around were dancing, singing, talking and snacking, music blasting in the background all the while. It was more than enough to overload poor Sweetie Belle’s mind. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo did not seem to have this problem, and were dancing happily to a duet by Pinkie Pie and one of the pegasi from the other village – some song about meeting a new friend every day – which left Sweetie Belle having to cope as best she could. She didn’t want to just leave her friends there while she went to sleep.

But there was no reason she couldn’t go out for a bit of fresh air. She made her way to the entrance… where here eyes met with the grown-up Sweetie Belle. “Hey, Sweetie!” the mare called in her high-pitched Pinkie-esque voice. “Having a good time?”

“Uh, yeah,” she lied. “I was just going out for some air. Too much dancing, y’know?”

“Good plan. Can I join you?”

“Oh, uh, sure. Why not.” She really just wanted to be alone for a couple of minutes, but at least one pony would be easier to deal with than a hundred.

The two lookalikes stepped into the night-time air, where the filly Sweetie Belle took a deep breath. It was really soothing. “To tell the truth,” the grown-up version spoke up, “I was getting kinda dizzy in there. Too much noise, y’know?”

“Me too!” admitted the younger one. “Honestly, I just wanna get some sleep. I guess I’m not much of a party pony.”

“It’s okay, you’re still young. Though I really recommend you at least try the teacupcakes before you leave. I need to get that recipe.”

“So… your special talent is cooking?”

“I guess so; I’ve always liked doing it.”

“Do you think maybe my special talent is cooking too?” asked the filly. “I get that your Cutie Marks works different than ours, but maybe – y’know, since we look so alike and all – we have similar talents?”

“Can’t hurt to try!” replied the grown-up. “I’d love to teach you how to bake some goodies.”

“My parents say I have a knack. Dad says he likes it crispy, so I—oh hi Twilight!”

Twilight Sparkle came walking out the door and spotted the two. “Hi, Sweetie Belle and… Sweetie Belle?”

“Yup, we’re a couple of Sweetie Bells,” said the grown-up, holding the little one up.

“Glad to see that everypony is getting along with themselves,” said Twilight, chuckling slightly. “Well, I have things to do, so I’ll see you later. Minty should be waking up soon, if my spell worked.”

“Are you going for a walk, Twilight?” asked the little Sweetie Belle. “Can I come?”

“Actually, I was called out here by one of the guards,” explained Twilight. “I’ll explain it to you later.”

“Miss Twilight,” came a voice from above. A pegasus wearing dark armor landed gracefully before her. “Kimono has left Canterlot, and is heading towards Ponyville via train.”

“Hold on, did you say Kimono?” repeated the grown-up Sweetie Belle. “You found Kimono?” Twilight glanced at them both with a look of discomfort, as if to say they weren’t meant to hear this, before addressing the guard.

“Good job. Keep following her and report back to me in the morning,” Twilight instructed. “I really appreciate your help.”

“Just doing my job,” he told her proudly, flapping off the ground and back up in the air.

Twilight turned her attention to the Sweetie Belles. “Yes, we found Kimono. She was actually here in Canterlot all along, but when we tried to approach her, she ran away in a hurry as though she’d seen a dragon. That’s why I’ve been keeping quiet about this; I don’t wanna start a commotion without knowing what’s going on with her.”

“But why would Kimono run away from us?” asked the grown-up Sweetie Belle. “Doesn’t she like us anymore?”

“I don’t think that’s the reason,” said Twilight. “This is Discord’s magic we’re dealing with, remember? There was definitely something behind that terror in her eyes, and until we find out what it is, I don’t think it’s wise to approach her carelessly.”

“But how do we find out without asking her?”

“Well, for starters, she did spent three days in the library; if we can find out what she was reading, maybe that’ll give us a clue. But for now, let’s say we go back and give Minty a real welcome back.”

***

The first thing Minty felt when consciousness returned was a weight on her front leg. She looked to the side and saw Pinkie Pie using it as a pillow, breathing softly, eyes closed. She wondered for a moment where she was, and why she was lying in a bed, but then remembered that she had collapsed in front of everyone. How long had she been asleep? She felt completely rested, but it was still dark outside.

She took a moment to observe Pinkie Pie’s sleeping form. In her head, she knew that the pony by her side was much slimmer and looked nothing alike how she remembered her, but in her heart, she felt somehow that this was how she was supposed to look. The pink pony stirred, mumbling something about the color pink, to which Minty giggled. It didn’t really matter where they were, or how they looked, as long as Pinkie Pie would remain Pinkie Pie.

She was contemplating whether or not to give her a shake, when Pinkie stirred again, this time opening her eyes. “Uh, wha…?” Their eyes met, and she shone up. “Minty, you’re awake! How long have you been up? Do you feel any better?”

“I’m feeling great, Pinkie Pie,” the minty-green pony assured her. “I woke up just now. Did you stay with me all night?”

“Well I was going to, but I guess I was more tired than I thought,” laughed Pinkie.

“You and me both,” Minty laughed along. But then she remembered something that made her stop laughing. “What about the party? Ooh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to pass out on you like that. I probably ruined the party for everyone.”

“The party hasn’t gone anywhere,” Pinkie Pie told her. “Twilight Sparkle put you under some sort of super sleep spell; you’ve actually only been asleep for a few hours.”

“Phew, thank goodness! That would explain why it’s still dark out,” reasoned Minty.

“Come on, let’s go downstairs. You gotta try Pinkie Pie’s punch.”

***

“Hay everypony!” shouted the pink hyper party pony. “Minty’s back!” It didn’t take long for all the ponies to drop what they were doing and turn their attention to Minty and her pink friend. “Are you okay? Are you ready to party?”

“Yes and, uh, yes,” answered Minty.

“Did you like my Power Nap spell?” asked a lavender unicorn, which she guessed was the previously mentioned Twilight Sparkle. “I’ve only ever used it on myself, so I wasn’t sure if it would work if I tried it on somepony else. Did you sleep well?”

“That would be another yes. I’m just glad I didn’t miss the party.”

“Of course not, silly,” said the curly maned Pinkie Pie, who on closer inspection had a very different feel about her than her own Pinkie. “When you’re celebrating a friend’s return from something so terrible that you probably don’t wanna talk about it or even hear it mentioned, you gotta party all night! Isn’t that right, Razzaroo?” She grabbed the pony who just happened to be closest.

“Yes yes yes! This is definitely the greatest tea party I’ve ever been to. You should really try the punch. It packs a tea! Wait…”

“Yes, yes, but first,” a white unicorn interrupted, “don’t we have something to give to her, Rainbow Dash darling?”

“Oh yes,” the cerulean earth pony agreed. “Come this way, Minty darling.”

As Minty was led toward the other end of the room, the unicorn took the opportunity to add, “I’m Rarity, by the way. Charmed.”

“And I’m Rainbow Dash,” a cerulean pegasus came up and greeted. “Fastest flier in all of Equestria, at your service.”

“You mean you don’t make hats and dresses and paint everything in rainbows?”

“The only rainbows I paint are the ones blazing after me when I break the sound barrier. That’s Fluttershy over there, by the way; come and say hi!” The yellow pegasus approached cautiously, giving a soft “hi”.

“Here we are, darling,” the grown-up Rarity announced, gesturing at a wrapped present on a table. “Rainbow Dash and I worked like horses to get it done before you arrived.”

“For me…?” Minty’s face shone with happiness. “B-but it’s not my birthday. Or even my Special Day.”

“Honey, Ah’d say this day is special enough,” Applejack insisted. “Come on, open it up.”

Minty sized up the package, then tried to grab the lid, only to fail because of her new-found stiffness of her hoof. Fortunately, the lid was easy to slide off by a push, and by doing so, her eyes grew to saucers at what lay inside. Two pairs of blue, glistening, sparkly socks.

“Oh my,” she whispered, trying to pick them up, again remembering that her hooves no longer served that purpose. “These are for me?”

“Absolutely, darling,” said the wingless Rainbow Dash. “Try them on, why don’t you? Rarity, if you would.”

All of a sudden, the socks were enveloped by a white-glowing aura, and were levitated out of the package. Was this unicorn magic? She never realized it could be used so casually. “Now lift your hooves, dear.” One after another she raised her legs to let the magic slid the socks onto her hooves, and Minty has to hold back a sigh of content. These were some of the softest, most comfy socks she had ever worn.

“Do you like them, darling?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“I… I-I’m speechless,” she admitted, her whole face beaming. “They’re so soft! So pretty! I’ve never seen anything like it!”

“These were made from a very rare and special fabric that once graced the bed curtain of Princess Luna’s own bed,” explained the earth pony Rainbow Dash. “I dare say they are the only pairs in Equestria, darling.”

“Oh thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!” erupted Minty, proceeding to hug Rainbow Dash, and then Rarity. “You’re the best friends a pony could ever ask for! These are so beautiful… I-I don’t think I should be wearing them here. What if they rip?”

“Nonsense, Minty, these were made to shine and endure,” Rarity told her. “Any less would be a crime against all things fashionable. After all, what good is a piece of clothing that you can’t be worn?” Minty just laughed. Couldn’t argue with that.

“So let’s continue the party already!” the curly-maned Pinkie Pie urged. “The tea won’t drink itself!”

***

Kimono looked out from the dark alleyway, making sure no one had seen her exit the train. She had noticed a pegasus flying above, and while she didn’t think it was paying any attention to her, it was best not to take any chances. When she could no longer see the pegasus from where she stood, she darted across the street and took cover behind another building. From here, she could see the sign that welcomed her to the village. ‘Welcome to Ponyville’.

She remembered the stories her mother used to tell her about her own Ponyville, how there had been an argument among the settlers on what to name the village, and since neither side could come to an agreement, the Mayor had stepped in and decided on the simplest, most unimaginative name she could come up with: Ponyville. Kimono always figured that with such a name, there had to be hundreds of Ponyvilles all over Equestria, but according to the map she had read, this was the only one, prior to the reappearance of her own. It was a quaint little town; big enough to set it apart from the surrounding villages in the region, but small enough so that everypony would know your name, or at so the book said. This was one of the reasons she wanted to be discreet; she wore the face of one of the town’s most famous figures, twice champion over ancient evil. One of which was Discord himself.

Nonetheless, she was counting on the fact that even if someone were to see her, no one would think twice about Twilight entering her own house. She made her way through the cover of darkness, and soon enough, the tree library came into view. But the fact that this was Twilight Sparkle’s home wasn’t what drove her here; what she was after was something that could be found in any library, but had not dared to bring with her outside of Canterlot; for all she knew, those books might have been enchanted to prevent such a thing.

Kimono was surprised to find that the door was unlocked, but then remembered that, unlike a thousand years ago, these were peaceful times. She opened the door and stepped inside, scanning the empty, dark room, lit up by the meager rays of moonlight seeping in from the window.

She gently pushed the door shut behind her, and started looking through the book covers as best she could. She could barely make out the text, but with some concentration, she soon started to discover the pattern in which the books were organized. Kimono smiled to herself; this Twilight Sparkle was a well-organized pony, and it wasn’t hard finding the category she was looking for. A spot of moonlight conveniently lighting up the spines, her eyes landed on a certain book that read “Equestrian Geography”.

With some struggle, she pulled it out, put in on the floor and flipped it open. She scanned the table of contents, but to her disappointment, the section she wanted didn’t seem to be in this book. She went back to the shelf, when suddenly a creaking sound from above made her jump.

“Hello?” she called. If someone was home, there was no point trying to hide or get away. Maybe they could help her find the right book. “Anybody there?”

No reply. Kimono gulped; it looked like she had no choice. She gathered her courage and ascended the stairs.

The room on the second floor looked very much alike the room downstairs, with books lined along the walls. There was a desk right by the stairs, on top of which bottles of ink and a few papers were spread around. Kimono knew better than to read other’s personal documents, so instead, she walked up the stairs to the loft, keeping an eye out for whatever had made the sound… and stopped dead in her track when she spotted something standing on one of the bed poles.

Sensing her presence, its head screwed itself half-circle to face the pony. Kimono breathed out. “Just an owl…”

“Hoo?”

“You, an owl.”

“Hoo?”

“You. You’re an—” she caught herself mid-sentence, and chuckled to herself. Maybe it was the intelligent look in its eyes that made it hard to ignore. “Do… do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Hoo.” It was hard to tell with the hooing, but its eyes had the unmistakable look of comprehension to them, and it made her nervous. “Well, uh… as you can see, I am not Twilight Sparkle. I’m not here to steal anything; I’m just looking for a certain… something.”

At this, the owl jumped off the pole and onto the floor. It looked into her eyes and gave her a questioning “Hoo?”

Kimono smiled, feeling somewhat at ease. “I’m looking for an atlas. Specifically for Ponyville and its surrounding areas.”

The owl took off into the air, and soared down from the loft, and came to a stop at the writing desk. It shoved away a heap of parchment, revealing a book underneath. With its claws, it grabbed the book, then flew back to the bed and dropped it. Kimono walked closer; the cover read, ‘Southern Kingdom of Canterlot: An Atlas’. She flipped it open, and broke a smile as she spotted the headline in the index. “Thank you, friend,” she said to the owl. “This is just what I was looking for.”

“Hoo.”

She sat down on the bed and flipped to page 76: ‘The Everfree Forest.’ Every trail, hill, swamp and difficult undergrowth had been marked on this map, and Twilight had even marked out some spots on her own. This was just what she needed for where she had to go. “You don’t suppose Twilight would mind terribly if I borrowed this for a while, do you?”

“Hoo.”

“My thoughts exactly.” She scanned the map for another minute, memorizing what she could in case she lost the book. She scrutinized all the hills, the bogs, the markings for various caves and cliffs… until all the lines and text were starting to blur together. She shook her head to regain clarity, but as she tried to get up, she found no energy to do so. She realized she hadn’t slept much at all these last three days. She felt rather embarrassed borrowing someone else’s bed, but she figured that if she was going to wait until morning anyway, she might as well do so in a bed. Surely Twilight wouldn’t mind.

***

And so the party lasted long into the night, with laughter, music, song and dance, and lots and lots of tea. Kenbroth made a point to try each and every flavor, and found that he had greatly missed some of the leaves that Discord hadn’t bothered to include in his little dream world. Contently sipping on an Everfree Lark Berry brand, he watched Applejack lead the ponies to dance to a song about Unicornia, performed by the two Pinkie Pies and earth pony Rainbow Dash. It was wonderful seeing everyone in such high spirits, and even after Twilight came up on stage and announced she had arranged for beds on the second floor, few ponies took her up on the offer.

A bit away, Wysteria was sitting on the floor, watching the dance and talking to the baby dragon Spike. Kenbroth thought for a moment, and figured this was as good a time as any to have a talk with her. “Having a good time?” he asked as he approached them, catching their attention.

“Yes, just delightful,” replied the purple-hued pony softly.

“You bet!” agreed the baby Spike. “Feels like I should’ve been asleep hours ago, but how could I sleep when two Pinkie Pies are trying to out-sing each other? It’s not like Twilight’s here to tell me off; she went to the library hours ago.”

“Why yes, I see Luna has already begun raising the sun.” Kenbroth looked out the window, where the first rays of sunlight were starting to appear.

“Oh my,” said Wysteria with a small gasp. “This must be the first time I’ve stayed up all night. I should really try to get some sleep.”

“Aww, but I wanted to hear more about the Dragon Bell flowers,” said Spike.

“Some other time, Spike,” promised Wysteria, getting to her feet. “Well, good ‘night’, then.”

“Before you go, my dear, there was one thing I wanted to discuss with you,” Kenbroth said.

“Of course. What’s on your mind?”

“Just that, well…” he searched for the appropriate words, “I suppose what I wanted to say was… I’m sorry for putting your through all that.”

“Through all what?”

“You know, forcing you to be a Princess, distancing you from your friends,” he reminded. “Acting as if my life depended on it.”

“Oh Spike, you don’t need to apologize,” Wysteria told him. “We all had a great time thanks to you. I mean sure, I might have been against it at first, but it all turned out okay in the end.”

“Well, yes, that’s true, but I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t quite being myself. It would seem my head took the biggest beating from Discord’s shenanigans.”

“But you’re still Spike spike, right?” Wysteria sounded almost worried. “It’s not like you’ve become a different person, have you?”

“Not to worry, my dear, I’m still me,” he assured her. “I just thinking that the whole Princess idea was something that Discord planted inside my head. It still hasn’t gone away; even as I’m aware of it now, my instincts are telling me that you are everyone else from the village are Princesses for me to serve.”

“But we’re not Princesses anymore,” Wysteria said. “You’re our friend. You don’t have to serve any of us.”

“Indeed. So let me put it another way: in my eyes, you will always be Princesses.”

“That’s very sweet of you to say,” she said with a smile. A small yawn escaped her mouth. “Well then, Spikes, I bid you good night.”

“And to you.”

“Night!” the baby dragon returned, waving her off. Kenbroth watched her go, feeling just a bit lighter for having that weight off his chest. The little one turned his head his way. “Not sure if I wanna ask what that was all about.”

“Are you sure? It’s quite a fascinating story.”

“I’d rather hear more about you,” said Spike. “I’ve never heard of earth dragons before. Twilight say you live in caves deep underground. Do you hang out with the other dragons?”

“Not for the last thousand years, but yes, it happens occasionally,” told Kenbroth. “Keep in mind, I was in the service of Princesses Celestia and Luna; I haven’t lived in a cave since I was very young.”

“How old are you, exactly?”

“Quite young, I’ll have you know, merely a century or three past a thousand. Of course, that was before I was put in the Time Capsule, so technically I’m two thousand. Most earth dragons predates Equestria as a nation by quite a large margin, and can live to be hundreds of thousand years old, sometimes even a million.”

“So how come you ended up with the Princesses?”

“They found me when I was almost newly hatched, only a few hundred years old. It’s not everyday that ponies come across one of us, and certainly not everyday one of us gets the opportunity to quench our thirst for knowledge from atop of a nation’s hierarchy, so it worked out great for the both of us. Speaking of hierarchy,” Kenbroth cut short, “Princess Luna shall be expecting me shortly, and so I must take my leave.”

“Sure no prob,” said the little dragon. “Let’s talk again sometime. I may be a pony at heart, but it’s always nice talking to a fellow dragon now and again.”

***

“Best Young Flier Breaks Down Crying, Earns Canterlot Elite Fancy Pants’ Sympathy…” Editor-in-Chief Black Print, owner of the Canterlot Informer news company, read the title of one of the feature articles. He scanned the article with a quick and precise eye forged from the many years of his occupation. Satisfied, he looked up to address his staff. “Good stuff. Gotta feel bad for the poor pegasus – this thing’ll probably ruin her reputation – but this is Canterlot, what can you do. Too bad nopony thought to follow them, otherwise this would’ve made first page.”

“May I bring something up, sir?” asked one of the reporters. He gave him a nod. “It’s just that, can we really be sure the pony on the picture is really Rainbow Dash? I mean it’s hard to see from that angle, but I don’t see any wings. And was her cutie mark really just a plain old rainbow?”

“You saying this could be her twin sister or something?” replied Black Print skeptically.

“Wasn’t there something about pony lookalikes in that article we featured a few days back, about that newly discovered village? Couldn’t it be one of them?”

“Sure could, but unless we have proof that any one of them are in Canterlot, I say we roll with what we got.”

“Then perhaps I can be of assistance.” The Editor-in-Chief let out a loud gasp, dropping his magic grasp on the article, as the Princess of the Night revealed herself by the doorway.

“Your Majesty!” he breathed, trying to keep his composure. It had happened before on very special occasions that Princess Celestia had graced their news office with her royal presence, but never Princess Luna. “How may we be of service?”

“Today, we shall both require each other’s services,” said the Princess. “As you no doubt have heard – and felt – things transpired yesterday that the people of Equestria need to be aware of. I have personally written down my account of the happenings of yesterday’s events; it is imperative that it appears on today’s front page.” She levitated a piece of parchment to the Editor-in-Chief, who caught it in his own magic. “Please feel free to edit if it feels too archaic.”

“Ancient Threat Awakened: Princess Celestia’s Downfall?” read Black Print. As he kept reading, his eyes widened in shock. “Time Capsule… magical seal… Princess Celestia wounded?! B-but Princess, this is the first we’ve heard of such things. We can’t just print it just like that!”

“Which is why I came to you personally, to give it my own royal stamp of approval.”

“With all due respect, Princess, it’s just so much to take in! If we could just have another day to ascertain all the—”

“I hope you are aware that I have every right to shut this establishment down should you refuse to cooperate,” Luna raised her voice. “Do whatever you must to verify it later; for now, I must ask you to simply trust in the words of your Princess.”

It was hard to argue with logic like that. “…as you wish, Your Majesty.”

“Good. Also, I must ask that you withhold the article regarding Fancy Pants and Rainbow Dash. It would not do to spread false rumors about one of Equestria’s champions.”

***

Luna grumbled under her breath as she flew back toward Canterlot Castle. Back in her days, nopony would even think about questioning a direct order from their Princess. She knew better than to second-guess her sister’s regime, but the laxness of the monarchic body was one of the many things she had trouble adjusting to.

She made a quick stop at the ballroom, letting her gaze travel over the messy room, where twenty or so ponies had collapsed on the floor after a night full of activity. She wished she could join them in their blissful rest, but there were much that still needed her attention. She had already put Kenbroth to work examining the magic structure of the ancient castle chamber, and was expected to join him soon. It was at times like these that she wished Celestia hadn’t seen it necessary to put up an anti-teleportation spell around the castle. Yet another change she had not yet gotten used to.

Before she took off, she made sure to taste some of the left-over buns on one of the tables for an impromptu breakfast. Satisfied, she flew out of the building and soared over the castle complex, landing by the entrance to the castle proper. As she made her way through the castle, she felt fatigue trying to tighten its grasp on her, and found herself appreciating what Celestia had gone through in Luna’s absence. A thousand years to shoulder the responsibilities of two Princesses. A thousand years to stand alone at the top, watching everypony she knew grow old and pass on… Luna shuddered at the thoughts; it sickened her with guilt.

She reached the crystal chamber, where she found Kenbroth looking intensely at one of the walls. “Making any progress?” asked Luna.

“I’m not sure,” replied the dragon without turning around. “I’ve been monitoring the flow of magic and trying to determine the depth of the seal, but I can’t seem to quite make head or tail out of it.”

“Explain.”

“I’m not sure what words would do it justice, but if I were to liken the magic flow to an ocean, I sense plenty of fish swimming about. Whether or not this is a natural occurrence for this type of magic, or if it’s something else entirely, I couldn’t tell you.”

“Then guide my senses, and let me see what you have seen,” ordered Luna, putting her horn against the wall.

“Ah yes, we used to do that all the time,” Kenbroth reminisced. “That’s how we would appraise magical objects; I picked out the details and you interpreted them. Like that time when we paid a visit to the Unicorn Tomb, and we thought we had—I mean, uh, right away, Your Majesty.”

Kenbroth put his claws on the wall, and immediately a mini-cosmos of magic opened up to the Princess, the scope of which left her breathless. She had never before encountered any one spell of such magnitude; there was no doubt in her mind that it covered all of Equestria. Guided by the unseen aura of her companion, she sensed that his analogy was a justified one; she was standing in the middle of an ocean of power, swirling around her with its gentle touch. She felt the same sense of satisfaction and euphoria as when the castles had awakened a few nights ago.

The ‘fish’ that Kenbroth was referring to, she realized, was not part of this magic. They were of a different entity altogether, one Luna thought she recognized. As Kenbroth kept guiding her with his thoughts, the ‘fish’ became clustered, forming large schools that, upon touching her mind, almost stung. But then, further ahead, the felt the ocean stop, as though a giant whirlwind had cut through the surface and created a hole to the bottom. Luna dared to peer into the void of utter blackness. Blackness, and a glow of red...

“My stars!” she exclaimed, breaking contact with the wall, heart racing. It simply could not be.

“What about them?” asked the earth dragon.

“The seal! I saw the crack, and the things that lurked beyond! And unless my senses were cheated, then…”

“Then what?”

“Then Equestria is running out of time. Come, Spike, we must report this to my sister at once!”

***

For all the nasty rumors Kimono had heard about the Everfree Forest, bathed in the morning sun, it looked far from intimidating. The rays of light penetrating the ceiling of leaves created an idyllic scene, giving these supposedly dangerous parts a cozy atmosphere. Kimono stopped in her track, pulled out the book and flipped it open. She scanned the map, assuring herself that this was the right direction.

She had been lucky enough that nopony, as far as she could tell, had noticed her sneaking out from the Library and run towards the forest, and she had made doubly sure that she had not been followed. It wasn’t that she wanted to avoid people; she just didn’t feel comfortable taking any chances. If the villagers were to realize that she wasn’t Twilight Sparkle, questions would be asked, and the last thing she needed was to draw attention to herself and have her friends come running. Not until she had accomplished what she came for. She hoped it wasn’t already too late.

According to the book, most creatures slept during the day, so she made sure to move at a brisk pace. Following the map, she navigated the trails, scaled the cliffs, crossed the river and braved the undergrowth when necessary. Despite the urgency of the trip, Kimono found the landscape utterly fascinating; unlike anywhere else in Equestria, this place was wild an unchecked, a land outside the rule of ponies. A place where nature lived by its own rules. There had been no such place back in her time, and she wondered what could possibly have created it.

A few hours into the journey, she was met by a gorge. The sheer high made her step back a few paces; there were no water at the bottom, meaning a fall would result in her untimely end. The only way across seemed to be a rope bridge nearby. Part of her wanted to find another way around, but she knew her goal was just a little further, so she suppressed her anxiety and took the first step onto the bridge. It shook uncomfortably under her hooves.

She kept perfect balance as she walked, not allowing herself to look down, but by the time she passed the half-way point, her mind was starting to race. She had never been scared of heights before, but now she found that she was. Really scared. She was starting to hyperventilate, her balance getting shaky.

“Not now, Discord,” she muttered to herself. The taint inside of her was clinging to the fear, amplifying it and distorting her senses. There was only one thing she could do now to avoid plummeting into the abyss: she kicked off as hard as she could, sprinting with all her might towards the other side. It rocked the bridge violently, and as she was about to reach the other side, there was a cracking sound from behind. She leaped, and landed safely on the ground just before the rope bridge came crashing down.

She allowed herself a few moments to calm down, letting the fear, both artificial and real, settle before getting to her hooves. She was out of breath, as though she had been running for hours. She’d had these attacks before, in the Canterlot Library, but never this intense. She started walking, trying to her hardest to shake off the feelings of dread.

But she didn’t have to walk more than maybe ten minutes before a sight met her that made her forget all about the fatigue. A grand castle, made entirely of purple crystal, glistened in the sun before her. The castle of the royal pony sisters, one of the ancient Castles of Legend reawakened. But what really took her breath away wasn’t the structure itself, but the thing that floated above it. A metallic halo had been attached to one of the towers, held afloat by two large balloons, though in a crooked angle that suggested there used to be a third. From the halo danged metallic objects, and though their colors had faded, she could not mistake their shapes. Polka mints, flowers, berries, a rainbow…

Something stirred deep within her memory. She lifted her hoof to look at the bracelet around her leg, and then back at the halo. She remembered a birthday, her friends coming out of the castle, cheering. One of the ponies – Razzaroo was her name – had come up to her, presenting her with a charm bracelet that they had all made together. Kimono let her gaze wander between the ring over the castle and the one around her leg, the exact likeness of the objects dangling from them both awakening memories of a forgotten life.

It filled her with the purest of joy, enough to summon tears to her eyes.

“My dear friends,” she whispered. It all made sense now. This wasn’t the lost bracelet given to her by Discord, filled with empty promises and taken from her by contempt, but a gift from her friends with that signified friendship eternal. She looked up at the giant floating ‘charm bracelet’, the biggest smile on her face. “You made the best welcome sign of all.”

---

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for help with editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Twelve

By Candle Light

“Good morning, Miss Sparkle.”

“Huhh, whu…?”

“Miss Sparkle, it is I,” announced the royal guard. “You asked that I reported back to you in the morning.”

“Oh my gosh!” realized Twilight, scrambling to her hooves. As the party had continued long into the night, she had excused herself in order to spend some time in the library, with the intention of backtracking Kimono’s reading material. When she realized she could no longer keep a steady focus, she had applied a Power Nap spell on herself to get a few hours of sleep. During which time she would have been impossible to wake. “How long have you been waiting, sir?”

“About an hour, Miss Sparkle.”

“I’m so sorry! I should’ve realized you were coming; I was just so focused on getting this done that I—”

“Kimono got off at Ponyville, where she spent a night in your library,” reported the guard. “She then made her way into the Everfree Forest; that was thirteen minutes ago.”

“The Everfree Forest?” Twilight repeated questioningly. “Whatever could she be doing in there? Is she visiting Zecora? Or maybe the ancient castle of the royal pony sisters…”

“Should I attempt to follow her into the woods?”

“No, that’s okay. You’ve done enough; I’ll take it from here. Thank you for your service.” With an acknowledging huff, the guard took flight out one of the windows, which magically opened on his approach.

From what Twilight had managed to gather, with some help from Mrs. Know-It-All, the first book that Kimono had asked for was Equestrian History, which she had apparently read through cover to cover by the end of the first day. The second book was one on advanced unicorn magic, and the third one on ancient magic; the same ones that Twilight had looked into when she had read up on the Time Capsule, so it was probably safe to assume that Kimono had figured out what Discord had done to her village.

She was about to reach for the last book she had read when she heard a voice from the first floor. “Miss Twilight Sparkle?”

The unicorn peered down from the railing, and saw another royal guard stand by the doorway. “Yes, that’s me.”

“Princesses Luna and Celestia request your presence in the royal bed chambers,” he reported.

“Thank you; I’ll be right there,” affirmed Twilight, wondering what could be so important that Celestia had to summon her to her sickbed. The guard took his leave, and the unicorn began putting the books in order, but as she did, a bookmark accidentally fell out from one of the books. She sighed dejectedly – she hadn’t noticed it before; what if it marked something important? – and was about to put it back in a random page when she noticed something on the back of the card. Something had been scribbled on it; she couldn’t make out most of it, but one word stood out that she couldn’t mistake. ‘Twilight’.

***

“Hey, Twi, glad you could make it!” called Applejack, as the lavender unicorn came running through the corridor toward the Princesses’ bed chambers, where all her friends – as well as other-village Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash and Minty – were waiting for her. Luna was with them as well.

“I’m so sorry!” she apologized. “I was in the library, and I used a Power Nap spell, and—”

“Never mind that,” said the Princess dismissively. She grabbed the door’s handle with her magic and opened the door. “Please, enter.”

“C’mon, Rainbow.” Applejack prodded the pegasus, who lay sleeping on the floor next to her. She helped her get to her hooves, as pegasus Rainbow Dash mumbled something about being too early for this.

Princess Celestia looked much better than last time they saw her. She was still bed-ridden, but she looked a lot younger, bearing more resemblance to the Mayor of Ponyville than Granny Smith. “Thank you all for coming,” she told the group. She sounded a bit hoarse, but the energy in her voice had returned. “Luna and Kenbroth were just telling me some alarming news, and I think it’s important that you all hear about it as well.”

“I’m so glad to see you’re feeling better,” Twilight told her teacher. “But it’s only been a day; you should still be resting.”

“Why, what happened?” asked Minty, but then her eyes widened. “Oh no, did the monster get you?”

“Yes, Minty; it turned out to be a little much for me to handle on my own. I’m well aware I should still be resting, but this takes precedence over my own well-being. For unless we act now, Equestria might still be in grave danger.”

The statement certainly brought the tension up in the room. “You mean as in, Mother Ursa danger?” asked Twilight.

“Worse,” said Luna. “Kenbroth and I were examining the magic flow of the ancient castles down in the crystal chamber. I sensed the crack in the seal, and the power that is seeping out from beyond as we speak. My sister and I agree: the Mother Ursa from yesterday fought was merely the top of the iceberg. It will only be days now before more such creatures will start to appear in great number.”

Gasps erupted among the ponies, and Twilight, utterly speechless, could feel the pit of her stomach beginning to match the coldness of said iceberg. The Mother Ursa was supposed to be a mythical creature comprising of untold cosmic energies, the mother of all Ursa. The fact that two of them had appeared throughout Equestrian history was mind boggling enough; how could there be even more? “How many are we talking…?”

“Hundreds.” That simple word was enough to freeze any warm blood left in Twilight’s body. “If not thousands. There is enough cosmic energies beneath that seal to cover the entirety of Equestria, transforming it into a wasteland of magic where only the most magically adept creatures could survive. Indeed,” she added with a small smirk, “it would appear that in this time of crisis, we have unearthed one of Equestria’s oldest secrets.”

“These lands were once part of the Echo,” breathed Twilight, letting this momentous new fact sink in.

“What echo?” the cerulean pegasus asked.

“It’s what we call the great shrouds of cosmic energies at the outer rim of the known world,” she explained. “They say it’s the birthplace of some of the world’s most mythical creatures, including the Ursa. It got its name from a scholar that once described it as an echo of the world’s most ancient history. This is so fascinating! If Equestria used to be a part of the Echo, then the world must’ve been much smaller… but what kind of magic could seal away the Echo itself?”

“The magic of friendship,” replied Luna matter-of-factly. “Or, as it is otherwise referred to, the Elements of Harmony.”

Even Celestia seemed surprised at this. “Are you certain, Luna?”

“There is no mistake about it. The magic I felt when the castles were awakened was identical to that of the elements when they tore my… tore Nightmare Moon away. It is entirely possible that the ancients who built the Castles of Legend were the ones responsible for bringing the magic of harmony to these lands to begin with, and by doing so driving off the Echo.”

“This is stuff for the history books!” Twilight declared enthusiastically. “Can you believe it, girls? We get to partake in the historical find of the century!”

“I would share your enthusiasm, did it not come with the prospect of the ruin of every living thing in Equestria,” Celestia said, sugarcoating nothing. “That is why we must find your missing friends without delay, and with your connection to the ancient castles repair the seal before it is too late.”

“By Squinking, right?” said the other-village Pinkie Pie. “Spike told us all about it.”

“Your Squinks can repair castles?” Minty asked

“It’s a long story.”

“We have also sent word to Shining Armor and Princess Cadence requesting their return to Canterlot immediately,” added the Princess to Twilight. “I hate to interrupt your brother’s honeymoon, but I’m afraid we are going to need our Captain of the Guards to organize the search.”

“I understand,” agreed her faithful student.

“Then you must also understand that all of you must remain at our beck and call until this crisis is over. We won’t know when or where the Mother Ursa will show up, but when they do, we must be ready to send you there at a moment’s notice. You six are the only defense we have against them right now.”

“But surely, we don’t have to sit around her in Canterlot,” suggested Rarity. “With all due respect, Your Highnesses, I’m sure we all have things back home that we would like to set in order.”

“Unless we avert this catastrophe, there won’t be a Carousel Boutique left, Rarity” reminded the Princess of the Night. “Nor will there be a Sweet Apple Acres, or woodland creatures to care for. Your frustration is understandable, but we must ask that you be patient until the two missing ponies are found.”

Two missing ponies? “Wait,” Twilight suddenly remembered. “We found Kimono last night!”

This earned the lavender unicorn many looks of surprise. The other-village Pinkie Pie looked overjoyed. “Explain, Twilight,” said Luna.

“We found her last night. Kimono has been staying here in the Canterlot all along, holing up in the library and pretending to be me. We caught up with her just as she was leaving the castle, but the moment she saw us, she ran away from us as if in panic. I had a guard follow her, and he reported back to me only a few minutes ago, saying she’s entered the Everfree Forest.”

“And you didn’t think to pursue her yourself, or even tell us about it?”

“Seeing her so frightened, I didn’t think it was such a good idea to follow her carelessly. I’ve been holed up in the library ever since, retracing her reading material to try to figure out what she’s up to.”

“A very prudent choice, Twilight,” commended Celestia. “And I appreciate that you didn’t want to ruin the mood for the Ponyvillians, but it wouldn’t have hurt to share this bit of insight with Luna or Kenbroth.”

“You’re right,” admitted Twilight, a hint of shame in her voice. As much as she tried to get over it, she was still in the habit of trying to solve every problem on her own , and the Princess knew it. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Alright then, how do we go about this?” Kenbroth spoke up. “We could always send one of the guards to intercept her. Or perhaps someone she would recognize? Either way, we can’t leave her out there.”

“About that,” said Twilight, magically holding up the piece of paper she had stuck in her mane. “I found this in one of the books that Kimono was reading.” She moved closer to let Celestia see. “It doesn’t look like anything more than scribbling, but look, I think it says ‘Twilight’ right there. Maybe this is Kimono trying to tell us something.”

“‘Royal Sister Castle. Twilight Come,’” read Celestia with ease, her eyes widening in surprise. “This looks very similar to your handwriting.”

“It does?” asked the unicorn incredulously.

Celestia lit her horn; the glow was faint, but strong enough to open one of the drawers, flip through a heap of parchment and pull one out. She showed it to Twilight, explaining, “This is one of your first letters you wrote me when you were just a foal, even before you became my pupil.”

Sure enough, the mouth-writing was no better than the one of the note. Twilight felt her cheeks go red. “I-I didn’t know you saved those.”

“Why wouldn’t I? It was such a sweet little letter; it even came with a cute little drawing of me.” Twilight’s lavender hue beamed bright red as she held up the picture of a stick figure that barely resembled a pony under the sun for everypony to see. It didn’t help that he friends seemed to be very amused by it. “And I think it’s evidence enough to assume that Kimono did, in fact, write this note.” Celestia hovered the old letter back into the drawer. “And it sounds like she wants you to meet her at the ancient castle of the royal pony sisters.”

“Then let us go there immediately,” suggested Luna. “From this room, I can transport you directly to the Everfree Forest in a matter of moments.”

“Yes, I think that would be best,” agreed Celestia.

“Come to my side, Twilight Sparkle.” She did as she was told, placing herself next to Luna, who initiated the spell without pause. Twilight felt that sensation of weightlessness as an endless expanse of stars appeared before her eyes.

When the world reappeared, they were still in the sister’s bedchamber.

“We… were bounced back,” uttered Luna, her voice betraying confusion. “It was as if my magic was blocked by some other force. But the only force strong enough to do so would be… oh no!”

“They’ve appeared!” Celestia exclaimed.

“The Ursa?!” asked Twilight.

“Yes, and much sooner than expected. Girls, with Luna, now! She’ll take you to the forest’s outskirt in Ponyville; make your way to the castle as quickly as you can.”

“We’re coming too!” Minty spoke up. “If Kimono’s in danger, we gotta help her, don’t we girls?”

“Quite,” agreed the wingless Rainbow Dash, the corresponding Pinkie Pie nodding in agreement.

“We appreciate the sentiment,” Celestia offered, “but I would recommend that you stayed here, where it’s safe.”

“Not to mention,” Twilight added, “if her panic attack really was a reacting to your inner Discord, you might actually be putting her in danger.”

“Although, it might also serve as a reassurance,” pointed the earth dragon. “Just to let her know that her friends care about her. We’ll keep them at a distance, should need be.”

“It’s not my habit to second-guess you, Kenbroth,” the Princess of the Night spoke up, “but would that not put us all at risk? Are you sure it is wise?”

“I wouldn’t suggest it if I thought wasn’t,” said the earth dragon. “Keeping a pony from running to their best friend is hardly the way to deal with these sorts of things. Just remember, you three: use discretion, and do whatever Twilight tells you.”

***

If Minty didn’t know any better, she would have thought that she and her friends were running through a torn and overgrown version of Breezie Blossom. She had never seen so many different plants and flowers, and definitely never seen them grow so randomly and out-of-place. The spell that brought them here had been disorienting enough – who knew that magic could move people across a whole landscapes like that! – but seeing this ‘Everfree Forest’ made her feel like she had stepped back into a dream.

There was little time to slow down and take a closer look at things; Twilight Sparkle led them along at a brisk pace, urging them forward by reminding them that Kimono was in danger. Minty had a hard time grasping exactly what they were about to face; Pinkie had just described it as a clump of stars in shape of a bear, oozing magic so powerful it prickled her skin. Granted, her knowledge of magic was spotty at best, but the magic she had witnessed so far from these ponies truly boggled any common sense she previously had. She would just have to be ready for anything.

“Oh look!” the hyper-version Pinkie Pie pointed, “it’s those trees that inspired that song!” The pink pony took the time to stop and laugh at the oddly-shaped trees. “Don’t they just look silly now in the daylight?”

“You’re right,” the other pink pony agreed with a giggle. “Almost looks like they’re making funny faces.”

“We don’t have time to take a trip down memory lane,” urged Twilight. “We’re on a rescue mission, remember?”

“Isn’t that the stream where we met the sea serpent over there?” asked Rarity, as the gang trotted closer to the body of water. “I do wonder how he’s doing. Did he ever grow his mustache back?”

“Seeing how the stream is pretty calm, I’d say all his facial hair is where it belongs,” Twilight pointed. “It shouldn’t be far now; let’s pick up the pace.”

And so the nine ponies ran through the forest, dodging branches and cutting through bushes, until they arrived at what looked like a gorge, forcing them to stop. “Please tell me those aren’t the poles that are supposed to hold up the bridge…”

“I’m afraid it is,” the winged Rainbow Dash confirmed, hovering above the gap as she pointed to something at the bottom. Minty drew close enough to peer down at what looked like a pile of rope and planks, but it was hard to make out from this distance.

“Great,” Twilight muttered. “Now how do we get across?”

“You forget that the original Rainbow Dash got wings. Just sit tight.” The cerulean pegasus sped off down the gorge. Minty could see her pick up the remains of the bridge, and ascend back up with it. She put the wreckage on the ground for all to see. “Looks like it broke in two,” she observed. “We’ll have to make do with the bigger piece, and hope it’s enough. Ew,” she added as she picked up a piece of rope, “these ropes are all soggy and slippery; no wonder they got loose. Do you think you could fix them up with magic?”

“One dry-cleaning spell, coming right up.” Twilight put her horn to the rope, and a magic flash later, the slippery moist was gone. “Come to think of it, Zecora said something about this bridge starting to rot. That was several months ago.”

“Let’s hope it can hold one more trip, ‘cause it’s all we’re gonna get. Unless you want me to fly you over one by one, but that could take a while.”

“You’re right, we need to hurry.”

With quick and nimble hoof-and-mouth work the likes of which Minty had never seen, or even thought possible, Rainbow Dash knit the ropes back around the support poles. She then went to pick up the other end and flew with it across the gap. The bridge was barely long enough to cover the distance, so Twilight Sparkle had to pitch in to magically tie down the ropes to the opposite poles. The hang bridge was now almost perfectly straight. “Well,” the unicorn spoke, “it’ll be safest to go one by one. Guess I’ll go first…”

Careful but not slow, the lavender pony traversed the gap. Minty wasn’t sure whether or not the bridge would hold, but it managed to carry Twilight all the way across. Next was Applejack, then Rarity; one by one they tip-hoofed across – except poofy-maned Pinkie Pie, who happily bounced across without so much as rocking the planks – until it was Minty’s turn. The bridge felt kind of unstable under her hooves, but not enough to make her nervous of falling. She had never been one to be afraid of heights anyway.

About half-way through, however, a thought struck her as she peered down into the abyss, one so powerful she had to stop right there. If she were to actually fall from this height, she would die. She would hit the rocks below so hard, it would knock the life right out of her. How would that even feel? What was death? Somewhere in her mind, she knew that death meant ceasing to exist, but the very concept felt so foreign, so far-fetched. And yet, at this very moment, one misstep would let her experience it. The idea hardly even felt real; after all, back in the desert, she had been so sure her life was at an end, and she escaped that, didn’t she...?

“What’s the matter, Minty?” called her friend Pinkie Pie. “Don’t be scared; you’re almost there.”

“Oh!” she snapped out of it. “R-right, I’ll be right there.” Within a few moments, she had reached the other side with the rest of the gang.

“That’s the last one,” commented Applejack. “That means we’ll probably run into one o’ them Ursa anytime now. Stay on your hooves, ladies.”

“It’s too quiet,” Twilight observed. “There’s definitely something here, I can feel it in my horn, but nothing so powerful as a Mother Ursa.”

“Maybe it’s asleep?” suggested the straight-maned Pinkie Pie.

“We can only hope so. Let’s go.”

***

Trixie dislodged herself from the wagon, glad to let her muscles rest a bit. Finding this place had been more difficult than she had hoped, especially the last bit with all those giant boulders putting up a labyrinth outside of town, but she had finally reached the second Ponyville, where Rarity lived. She left the wagon at the outskirt and set off into town. She was surprised to find that nopony was home yet. She didn’t think this ‘field trip’ of theirs would take so long, but it was just as well; perhaps now, there would time to set up her show and truly make it a surprise. One they would not soon forget.

She trotted through streets, taking in the gaudy design of the buildings, trying to find a suitable place to put on her spectacular performance. She found a few open stages, but they were either too small or too secluded. After a bit more search, she figured she might as well try looking from where she would have a vantage point. It didn’t take long to find herself by a road winding counter-clockwise up around the mountain.

On the other side was a quaint little cluster of houses, surrounding a plaza with a gazebo at its center. Up ahead, the forest took over, and she recognized the place where she had conversed with the Ponyvillians and Princess Luna. To her left, the castle looked down on her from atop the mountain, adorned by a rainbow that stretched between its tallest towers. She set off toward it, when she heard voices coming from one of the houses.

“…but I don’t think this’ll even fit through the door, Pa.”

“You’re a unicorn, ain’tcha? Just zap it outside!”

And sure enough, next thing she knew, a yellow flash zapped a big grandfather clock into the plaza. A yellow unicorn mare with a light brown mane walked out the door, followed by a dark green earth pony stallion with a white mane. “That’s good, now let’s get it to the rest of the stuff, and…” The stallion stopped talking as he laid his eyes on Trixie. There was an awkward silence as both parties appraised the other. “And how long’ve you been standing there, missy?”

“Long enough,” she replied coolly, appalled by the situation she had found herself in. “Am I to believe you two are pilfering these houses, because nopony is around to stop you.”

The stallion’s expression grew serious. “That’s a pretty serious accusation there, lady. What if I happen to own this place, and just in the mood for a change of scenery?”

“Well well, my apologies then,” Trixie returned sarcastically. “Since you’re obviously from around here, would you mind telling me who lives in that castle over there?”

The question seemed to be putting some pressure on the earth pony. “I, uh, no, I don’t usually concern myself with the royalty here. I’m just a simple citizen, soon to be ex-citizen.”

“Then I suggest you return everything that you stole and gallop out of town,” the magician told the two firmly, adding a threatening flare to her voice. “For starters, there are no earth ponies Unicornia, and second, there is not a pony in town that does not know the name of Princess Rarity.”

A dirty grin spread across the stranger’s face. “So you ain’t so dumb as you look. Then perhaps you’re also smart enough not to mess with a couple of scoundrels like us when we’re desperate for some cash.”

“And why, pray tell, do you need it so desperately,” Trixie shot back. “You need food, hm? Allergic to the grass around here? Afraid the water will poison you?”

“You stay out of our business and we’ll stay out of yours,” he rebutted. “‘Cause I’m willing to bet you ain’t here for any noble business either.”

This pony seriously made her sick. A prime example of why the world wasn’t as peachy as Celestia would have them believe. His mare companion just stood and watched the conversation, contributing only with the occasional nod. “The Great and Powerful Trixie has been accused of many things, but petty thievery is not one of them. Does the words Traveling Performer mean anything to you?”

“Sure does. That’s a whole other level of stealing, if you ask me; you show off with some fancy tricks and ponies are dumb enough to throw their hard-earned money at you.”

That was just about all Trixie could stomach. “I’ll only say it one more time: get your flanks out of town, now!”

“Your opinion is noted,” he returned, then turned around to address his companion. “C’mon, sugar, just flash that big thing out of here so that we can get going.”

Words were inadequate at this point. Trixie instead fired a beam of magic – a basic spell for pushing things – hitting the mare square in the chest, sending her flying across the plaza. Other than illusion spells and those she learned out of necessity for water dosing and poison detection, this was the only practical piece of magic she really knew. Not so effective against an Ursa, but enough to get unsavory ponies out of your mane. She gave the stallion a taste as well, but he was quick enough to jump aside.

“Do you really want this to get violent?” he asked.

“Why not? Might help me vent.”

“Suit yourself. Hun!”

The unicorn mare – which the stallion had not once addressed by name – gave a quick “Yes, Pa,” and then fired a magic beam of her own. It came at her fast, much faster than her own magic. It was all she could do to react instinctively and counter it with her a beam of her own, which fortunately was enough to push it off course. The projectile spell impacted behind her with a loud bang.

Trixie was not prepared for this. These ponies were obviously professional. But she didn’t let it dishearten her; she had dealt with worse hoodlums than these in the past. The key was putting up a convincing charade. A good illusion. “Was that was supposed to scare Trixie? Typical of your kind, think you can do whatever you like just because you know how to talk big and throw some magic around.” As she went off, her mind was racing to think up anything that would work for her illusion to scare them off. The old spinning rock trick might work, or the Falling Abyss number… but then she saw something in the corner of her eye that made her smirk a bit.

“Says the pony who fights a cannon ball with a pea shooter,” the stallion provoked. “How about you put your magic where your mouth is and show us what you got.”

“Works for me!” Trixie lit her horn, aiming her magic at the rainbow atop the castle. The classic rainbow spin, the same one she had used to show up that nosy pegasus last time she had visited the other Ponyville; all she needed was a little piece of rainbow for the visual effect, and the hypnotic rotation would do the rest, spinning them around involuntarily. If done well, it would weaken them enough for a few blasts of magic to knock them out.

Only to Trixie’s surprise, her spell ended up pulling the whole rainbow off the castle. This wasn’t like any rainbow she had ever before; it wasn’t liquid, but rather felt like a bed sheet, sturdy and flexible. Guiding it with her mind – more by instinct than anything – she wrapped it around the two ponies, and started spinning them around like a hurricane. She lifted the spinning package off the ground, and before she knew it, it blasted off over the trees, throwing the two thugs off to who knows where.

Before she could even start collecting her thought as to what had just occurred, a streak of rainbow colors erupted from the crown-shaped top of the gazebo, growing into a rainbow matching the size of the old one, whereas it flew and took its place above the castle. She sat down on the ground, letting a sigh out. She didn’t quite know what just happened, but it appeared she had managed to get rid of the thieves.

Her eyes fell on the grandfather clock left standing on the plaza. She guessed it was only to be expected that a low-life or two would try to steal from these ponies if they didn’t even bother to lock the doors. Then again, if Rarity was anything to go by, these were ponies that knew no strife, accustomed to a life where hostility simply did not exist. It begged the question: had they been here to witness this, would they have fared any better? Would they have had it in them to stop the robbery? This was an issue she had tried not to think about on her way here, one that made her queasy. Soon enough, they would have to learn about all the nastiness that would inevitably present itself wherever sentient beings lived. What then?

She could not help but contemplate the strangeness of this situation. This was paradise about to be shattered. Trixie could hardly remember the time when she had been able to live such a carefree life. She had to learn very early on the proper way of dealing with other ponies, how to stay ahead of the game and never fall for their fake intentions. Though in reality, she must admit, it hadn’t always worked out that way. Foals will be foals, and there had been plenty of times when she would gladly throw herself at any sort of compassion she could find, without considering the consequences. Like a child clinging to her mother for security. And that was the only proper way to describe these villagers: children, foals, newborns to this world.

But then there was Rarity. In a sense, she had been as brutally exposed to the darkest emotions of ponykind as Trixie had, but instead of being pushed farther into the abyss, ponies had been there for her, gone to great lengths to save her from it. To give her a chance to get it all out, to return to her normal cheerful self. A lump was starting to form in Trixie’s throat. Perhaps, had she been in Rarity’s horse shoes, things would have been different…

How was she now? She had seemed happy enough when she left, but was she still? For a short moment, Trixie was overcome with the urge to see her again, to make sure nothing had broken her spirit, but was quick to catch herself. The whole thing was so absurd, she had to laugh. After all these years, she had actually managed to grown attached to another pony!

She was eternally grateful that nopony was around to see her now, as her face must have looked quite ridiculous. Get the giggles indeed!

***

The purple crystal castle took them all by surprise. Twilight had heard Minty describing the castle in the desert, but the sight of the majestic towers reflecting the beams of the morning sun across the forest held a beauty words could not do justice. It took her a full minute before she even noticed the thing that floated crookedly above it.

“Isn’t that the charm bracelet, darlings?!” gasped earth pony Rainbow Dash. “The one we made for Kimono?”

“It is!” agreed straight-maned Pinkie Pie, “but what’s it doing out here?”

“Are you telling us that you made this mysterious floating contraption that just happens to be hanging above a mysterious castle in the middle of the Everfree Forest?” the pegasus Rainbow Dash questioned.

“Yup, that’s ours alright,” said Minty with a nod. “It’s a funny story, really; we wanted to make a charm bracelet for Kimono on her birthday, but we got the scale all wrong, so we decided to make a giant version and hang it over the castle outside of town.”

“Was there another castle outside your town?” asked Twilight.

“Yeah, the Friendship Castle, just a short balloon ride from Ponyville. Or was it the Family Castle? I always get those mixed up.”

“No, you were right the first time, darling; that was the castle representing Friendship,” earth pony Rainbow Dash told her. “Back in our, uh, realm, there were seven magic castles, each representing a color of the rainbow and celebrating something different: yellow for happiness, purple for Friendship, blue for Family, green for Kindness, orange for, uh…”

“Music!” finished Pinkie Pie. “And pink for laughter, of course.”

“And the most magnificent castle of all: the Rainbow Castle, darlings!”

Twilight found it absolutely fascinating. The castles were the connections between the world of illusion and Equestria, so it would be theoretically possible for an object as large as this one to be transferred over to the outside. Still, the concept of an invisible force changing the fabric of reality was still a frightening one. “It’s all in Spike’s map,” the cerulean earth pony concluded. “Although, it does strikes me as odd that there only seem to be six magical castles in this realm, and seven in ours…”

“Uh, girls,” her flying counterpart cut in, “I think we have bigger problems than counting castles. Look at this.”

The nine of them rounded the structure, where the landscape suddenly opened up. For quite a stretch ahead, debris of splintered trees, as though crushed from above, lay haphazardly on the ground. Definitely not the work any denizens of the forest. Fluttershy whimpered, hiding behind Twilight.

Rarity was the first to speak. “What do you say we start looking for Kimono. You know, before it comes back.”

“Good idea,” Twilight agreed shortly. “Let’s hope she’s still here. Into the castle, quickly!”

***

The inner chamber looked just the same as the one Minty had visited in the desert, only purple. And just like that time, the peculiar feeling in her gut was back. With every room, Twilight had been very thorough looking for signs of Kimono before letting the others in, and this one, like all the others, was just as empty. “Well, this certainly appears to be a dead end,” Rarity commented. “You would think that when somepony calls you out, they would at least have the courtesy to show up.”

“I know,” agreed Twilight. “Maybe she sensed us coming, and had to run away…”

“Or maybe them Ursa came knockin’ on the door,” suggested Applejack. “Maybe she had to run for her life. Woulda been nice if she left some kinda message.”

Twilight’s face shone up. “That’s it! She must’ve left us a magical recording!” Seeing the confused look on most of the other ponies’ faces, she explained, “It’s a simple spell for record sound messages into an object. Unicorns use them all the time to keep personal logs, since they can only be activated by the touch of the caster’s magical imprint. And since she and I share the same imprint…”

“You know she’s not a unicorn, right?” pointed the straight-maned Pinkie Pie.

“I know, but this is a spell that even earth ponies or pegasi can pull off, as long as the object is magical in nature, such as this castle. It was all in the book that Kimono read on ancient pony magic; that has to mean something. Let’s spread out and look, and keep your eyes open for anything that glows out of the ordinary.”

Minty stuck close to Pinkie Pie as they started searching the chamber. Rarity was working some sort of spell across the floor, while the pegasi were taking a closer look at the ceiling. “Say, Pinkie,” Minty struck up a conversation. “This may sound weird, but do you feel strange at all when you’re in here? Like a sort of warm, almost tingly feeling?”

“You too, huh,” replied Pinkie. “It’s probably got something to do with the Discord thingy we got inside of us. Hope it’s nothing dangerous.”

“So far so good, I guess.” As they walked past one of the pillars, Minty came to a halt. “Hey, do you feel something from this wall?”

Pinkie stayed quiet for a moment, concentrating, then replied, “There’s something stuck inside the wall! Hey everypony, over here!”

By the time they were gathered, the object inside the wall started to give off a faint glow. It was blurry at first, but was slowly taking shape. It looked like shards of some sort, light blue in color and glittery. Twilight Sparkle let out a gasp. “It’s… Nightmare Moon!”

“N-n-n-n-nightmare Moon?!” piped Fluttershy, her body sinking to the ground. “B-b-but how? Where?”

“More specifically, this is what’s left of Nightmare Moon after the Elements tore her away from Luna,” Twilight explained. “They must have been absorbed into the castle when it awakened and turned to crystal. I didn’t expect them to still be here.”

“Is that all,” breathed the flying Rainbow Dash. “See, Fluttershy, no need to be nervous.”

“I… guess not,” she replied meekly, looking flustered. “I can be pretty jumpy sometimes.”

“That’s quite alright, darling,” the cerulean earth pony comforted. “We’re all a little on the edge, aren’t we, Pinkie Pie?”

“Oh you bet!” the poofy-maned version agreed. “I’m scared of things all the time. It’s fun! Isn’t it, Pinkie Pie?” But the other Pinkie Pie didn’t reply right away. She just stood there, legs shaky and eyes staring into nothingness. “Uh, Pinkie Pie? Are you in there?”

The reply came in form of her started to shake her mane to and fro in big gestures, which Minty immediately recognized as a Squink. Before anyone could ask why, a sudden electric shock stung through Minty’s body as the entire chamber started glowing brightly. The stinging intensified, almost bordering on pain, as a pink cloud was starting to form in the air above her friend’s head.

Usually when Pinkie Squinked, it would only show a pony or two on a monochrome pink background, or show a blurry image of a place related to the problem she was trying to solve, but this time imagery was crystal clear, showing a landscape as vivid as if they were looking at it through a window.

Giant grasslands, a large pine tree forest, a waterfall; the vision flickered a myriad of different sceneries in and out of existence, until it settled for a snowy mountain, caught in a raging snow storm. A captivating sight that looked anything but hospitable, yet on one of the peaks sat a lone pony. The Squink zoomed in on it; a white pegasus mare, almost camouflaged in the snow. It looked up, revealing a face that was unmistakably one matching the yellow pegasus in the room, a mark on her adorning her forehead.

It was Star Catcher.

Before any of it could sink in, the scenery changed. It showed a homely little village she did not recognize; this time – judging by the shaking image – through the eyes of a pony. The vision sped up tenfold as it walked down the streets of the village, and as it did, Minty had the strangest feeling of Déjà vu. She had been there, she was sure of it... but how could she possibly have been there. The pony came to a stop, and a gray earth pony mare came into view. Minty thought she could hear a gasp erupt behind her.

Another scenery change, this time more abrupt; they were now shown the insides of a cave, where six ponies and some other creature were sitting around a magic glow, smiling and laughing. The creature didn’t even look like a pony; she didn’t know what it looked like, but found its disproportionate limbs and horns rather silly. But then, as per instinct, a name popped into her head. Discord.

The scenery changed again. The other ponies and the cave were gone, and Discord was standing on top of a mountain, laughing to himself as things below started shifting shape, turn upside down and dart across the skies erratically. The sun started spinning, the hills were bouncing, but then Canterlot came into view. Or what used to be Canterlot; it had been transformed into a dark fortress, the faces of ponies in agony carved into its surface. The laughter continued, as the world fell into chaos.

Then it all stopped. The crystal chamber settled down, and all was still.

***

Rainbow Dash remembered now. At least, she remembered enough to piece together another part of the puzzle. But it only left her more confused

Her winged double was the first to speak up what everyone was thinking. “What just happened?”

“I… I’m sorry, ponies,” the pink pony responsible for the visions spoke up. “I was overcome by this powerful urge, like I just had to Squink, or I would go to pieces.”

“Yeah, but… what did we just see?”

Pinkie’s eyes widened as she let out a gasp. “Star Catcher! We found Star Catcher! I know where she is; I sensed her. She was so sad and lonely… we just have to go to her!”

“Was this the message Kimono wanted to convey,” Twilight theorized. “But then, why would she ask for me to come, and not Pinkie?”

“But what about all of that other stuff,” asked the orange farmer pony. “That was Discord back there! He’s not come back, has he?”

“No, that’s not it,” said the cerulean earth pony, drawing all eyes on her. This wasn’t going to be easy to put into words. “The village we saw… that was Ponyville. Our Ponyville, from a thousand years ago. And the gray pony on the street, well,” she swallowed, “that was me. As for the cave, that was Pinkie Pie and me, as well as Minty, Rarity, Star Catcher and Kimono… and Discord. He was… he was our friend.”

Just as she had predicted, there was an awkward silence, where all of the ponies stared at her in disbelief, mouth agape. It was, however, interrupted by a loud and very familiar roar, alarmingly close by. The explanations would have to wait. The Mother Ursa was back.

---

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for help with editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Thirteen

By Candle Light

The straight-maned Pinkie Pie might as well have been looking at a mountain, towering twice the size of the crystal castle. She couldn’t decide what frightened her more; its sheer mass, or the crushing magic aura that felt like it might pierce her skin. The red-glowing bearlike behemoth held its gaze on the castle, snarling. Pinkie Pie and her friends took cover by the doorway, as the Element bearers rushed outside, wasting no time.

As though by practiced routine, they lined up on either side of Twilight, and a light started shining from the tiara on her head. The necklaces on the other ponies lit up in unison, and Twilight’s eyes became pure glowing whites. Pinkie had to gasp as she once again witnessed these six ponies being engulfed by the magic rainbow light, spreading a soft feeling of delight in place of the Mother Ursa’s deadly presence.

But all was broken when the Ursa, with the speed of an arrow, flung its paw at the bearers in an attempt to crush them. The magic of their Elements deflected the limb, making it roar out in agony, but it also broke the spell and sent the ponies flying. A searing pain overtook Pinkie Pie, the magic from the Ursa so intense it felt like it had actually cut through her bone. When she thought of pain, she imagined maybe a paper cut, or a scraped leg – nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a simple band-aid, but this pain seemed to come from within. She wanted to scream, roll around in agony, anything to make it stop… and then it did. A purple force field had surrounded her, Minty and Rainbow Dash, courtesy of Twilight Sparkle, who was back on her feet. The others were slowly pulling themselves together as well, making their way to her side.

All except Applejack. Twilight realized with an expression of horror that she had been flung closer to the Ursa, and that her necklace lay on the ground next to Twilight. She lit her horn, and a strained expression later, a protective magic bubble appeared around the orange mare. This, of all the worst luck, was when the Ursa recovered from the blow and fixed its gaze on the ponies. But instead of launching another hit, it reached out and picked up the magic bubble with Applejack in it, looking at it curiously.

A look of raw horror took hold of the earth pony’s face, as the energy bubble started crackling and sparkling wildly. Twilight was quick to send a stream of magic to mend and reinforce it. Pinkie Pie’s heart was pounding as she watched the seemingly hopeless situation play out before her eyes. Without the Elements of Harmony, there was no way of beating this thing, and if the barrier around Applejack broke, there was no doubt she would… she shook her head. There had to be something she could do. Anything…!

Her eyes fell on the necklace that the orange mare had been wearing, and an idea struck her. An idea of utter madness, but she knew it would work. She swallowed, steeling her mind, before running head first out the intangible barrier surrounding them. The pain kicked in instantaneously, but she filtered it out, focusing all her energy on getting to the necklace on the ground. The other ponies gave her incredulous looks, but didn’t stop her as she grabbed it with both hooves and stuck it on her neck. The pain subsided slightly as she did. “Come on, ponies!” she called. “We don’t have much time!”

“Time for what?” Twilight said through strained voice, not taking her concentration off the spell. “Wait, you’re not… you’re not an Element of Harmony! And even if you—uhg!” pain flashed across her face, “even if you were… Pinkie Pie is the element of Laughter, and that’s Honesty you’re wearing!”

“There’s no time to argue!” she urged. “Just trust me on this one! We gotta save Applejack!” The ponies exchanged looks, but their expression soon turned serious, as they nodded and got into position. Twilight seemed very skeptical at the idea... but then her eyes widened, as if she suddenly realized something. She gave a quick smile and an approving grunt.

The lavender unicorn severed the connection to Applejack’s bubble, and without wasting a breath, initiated the Elements of Harmony. The pain was gone entirely, replaced by a feeling of euphoria, every sense in her body tingling with pleasure. She was lifted off the ground by an otherworldly energy, and in that moment, she felt a sort of closeness to the other ponies that she had never experienced before, like they were touching each other’s very beings. She felt the love, trust and friendship emanating from the others, as well as their other emotions; the Pegasus Rainbow Dash was confused by this, but also appreciative, and her counterpart Pinkie Pie was really amused.

Before the sensation could last, the magic rainbow erupted from their collective mass of harmony, shooting straight for the Mother Ursa. Like last time, it let out an ear-deafening screech, and the magical pressure was gone. The form of the giant beast was warped and distorted before their eyes, until it was wholly disintegrated into particles of magic.

***

“Pinkie Pie, you’re a genius!” Twilight praised. “If it wasn’t for your quick thinking, we would’ve been done for.” She gave her a tight hug. “You really saved our lives.”

“Yup, especially my sorry flank,” Applejack added. “Ah always seem to get myself roped into trouble.”

“What just happened back there?” Pegasus Rainbow Dash questioned. “How can Pinkie Pie be the Element of Honesty? Isn’t that why they look like us in the first place; ‘cause we’re connected through the Elements?”

“I was thinking the same thing, but then it hit me,” Twilight attempted an explanation. “They look like us, yes, but they are not our clones; their personalities are completely different, so it’s not that hard to imagine that they do, in fact, represent different Elements of Harmony. It may not be as clear-cut as we first thought… it could be they’re connected to the Harmony within us as a whole, as opposed to the individual Elements…”

“Not the individual Elements, gotcha,” Minty nodded and smiled. “Uh, what’s an Element?”

“The Elements of Harmony are—”

“They’re kinda like the embodiment of love, friendship and all things good,” the straight-maned Pinkie Pie took over. “There are six Elements in all: Laughter, Generosity, Loyalty, Honesty, Kindness and Magic,” as she listed them, she pointed to each of the corresponding ponies in order: Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Fluttershy and Twilight Sparkle. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever felt in my life! Everything was all bright and happy.”

“Oh, and that rainbow, darlings!” Rainbow Dash added excitedly. “Every time I see it, my heart is set a-flutter.”

“Now I get it,” said Minty. “It’s strange though; I’d have though the Element of Laughter would be perfect for Pinkie Pie.”

“She might still be,” Twilight elaborated. “Just as there is never only one side to a pony, each of the Elements plays a part in who we are. A long time ago, Princesses Celestia and Luna wielded all of the Elements between just the two of them. All this really means is that there is enough honesty in Pinkie Pie for the Elements to recognize her as a bearer.”

“Well I do like to talk to people and help them out,” Pinkie Pie considered. “And I never tell a lie! I guess I am pretty honest, huh.”

“So, do you think maybe I could be the element of laughter?” asked Minty, giving small laugh as she did. “Or maybe that better suited for Rarity. She’s always giggling at something or other.”

“For all we know, any one of you could fit any one of the Elements,” Twilight guessed. “I’m more worried about what kind of effect it will this have on the piece of Discord within you.”

“Speaking of Discord,” the pegasus Rainbow Dash spoke up, “I’m still curious about the vision we saw.” She turned to face the cerulean earth pony. “What did you mean when you said he was your friend?”

All eyes fell upon the wingless Rainbow Dash, as the issue of the mysterious Squink made itself reminded. “Right…” she began, resigning herself. “When I looked into that Squink, I started to remember things, mostly bits and pieces… was I the only one?” she asked her friends.

“Well, I did have feeling of déjà vu when I saw the village,” Minty told her. “That’s about it.”

“I don’t remember anything either,” said Pinkie Pie. “Was that really our Ponyville?”

“It was, darlings. Like I said, I don’t remember much, but I do remember that it was a much smaller village than what we know today. We were newly settled, actually. As a matter of fact…” her expression tensed, as if she herself was only starting to realize these facts, “I was the Mayor of this village.”

“I could totally see that,” Minty nodded. “You’re always looking out for everybody.”

“That’s not all,” she continued. “I was… I was older. Yes, a senior citizen… only a few years to retirement.” The volume of her voice dropped progressively, as if she was getting lost in thought. Twilight couldn’t blame her; apart from having to sort out the memories of a life she had led a thousand years ago, she wasn’t sure aging was even a concept they knew back in their world.

“But what about Discord!” pressed her winged counterpart. “How the hay did you become pals with the likes of him?”

“I-I don’t know,” she replied. She coughed, straightening her voice. “All I remember is the affection we all had for him, and…” Twilight could have sworn a bit of color just drained from her face, “and the heartbreak we all felt when he betrayed us.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised there,” the pegasus offered, putting a comforting hoof on her back.

“I-I’m so sorry, darlings,” the earth pony told them, sitting herself down. “It’s just that… it’s so much to take in. I seem to be remembering more and more; images without context, mostly…”

“We understand.” Pinkie Pie give her a hug. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“Thank you, darling,” she told her in a grateful tone. “I’d rather just lie down for awhile.”

“Well Ah’m still worried about that last bit o’ the Squink,” Applejack spoke up. “The one where Discord was all laughing and spreading chaos around. That wasn’t a vision of the future, was it?”

“Of course it wasn’t,” said Twilight dismissively. “Divination magic has been proved scientifically impossible by centuries of study. At least, there hasn’t been a single successful attempt of predicting the future… that is, unless you count the Pinkie Senses. What we saw must have been Equestria as it was like during Discord’s rule.”

“No, Twilight,” Pinkie Pie told her, “I’m sure it was a vision of the future. My squinks can do that.”

“But that’s impo—” she stopped in mid-sentence, and realized that ‘impossible’ was a moot concept when dealing with Pinkie Pie of any variety. “Right … so where does that leave us? Could it have been Discord’s plan all along to use your village to plot his return?” Beside her, Fluttershy squeaked, shrinking to half her size.

“So what if he comes back,” said the winged Rainbow Dash confidently. “We’ll just give him a taste of the ol’ rainbow and he’ll be back into stone in a jiffy.”

“I don’t know, Dash, if he did have a plan, it’s best to assume that the Elements of Harmony played a part in it,” pointed Twilight. “Whatever the case, we won’t get any closer to an answer until we find Kimono and Star Catcher.”

Pinkie gasped. “That’s right, Star Catcher! She’s far up in the north, hiding in the mountains.”

“Hiding?” Rarity asked. “Whatever for?”

“I don’t know, but she felt very sad and lonely… I don’t know what happened, but we just have to go to her!”

“And what of Kimono,” spoke Luna, giving everypony a start. She was standing there as though she had been there from the start.

“Whoa, where did you come from?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“Kenbroth told me the energy surge surrounding the forest was gone, so I came to fetch you,” she explained. “Though it seems you did not have as much luck recovering Kimono as we would have hoped.”

“I know, it doesn’t make sense,” said Twilight. “She asked me to come here, and I can’t imagine she would try to lure me into a trap. I mean, how could she have known there would be a Mother Ursa just outside the…” she paused, eyes widening. “Wait here everypony, I’ll just have a last quick look inside the castle.”

***

Apple Bloom stopped for a moment to stretch her sleepy legs as she let the early morning sun jolt her awake. She wasn’t used to being so tired, but then again, she wasn’t used to staying up all night partying either. More than half the ponies were still asleep; Sweetie Belle had prodded her and Scootaloo awake, and now they were taking a morning stroll.

“It’s too early,” complained Scootaloo. “I don’t think we’ll get out Cutie Marks just by walking around. We’ve tried that.”

“If you had gone to sleep like I did, you wouldn’t have this problem,” pointed Sweetie Belle. “This is the only chance we’re gonna get explore the castle grounds; they’ll probably just send us home once everypony’s awake.”

“C’mon, Scoots, it’ll be fun!” Apple Bloom agreed, considerably more awake than the little pegasus. “Maybe we could sneak into the kitchen. Ah sure could go for some breakfast right about now.”

“As long as they’re not making anything sweet,” commented Sweetie Belle. “I think I’ve had enough sweets to last me a—hey, isn’t that…?”

Looking intently at a couple of butterflies, a silly grin on her face, was the pink filly wearing the face of Sweetie Belle’s sister. As they flew away, she reached out to try to grab them, like a cat would a straw of grass. She failed, and fell flat on her belly, and that’s when she noticed the three fillies watching her.

“Oh!” she let out, getting to her hooves. “Hi guys. Watcha doing?”

“Uhh, hi,” Sweetie Belle replied, an awkward expression on her face. She stepped closer, taking a closer look at her sister’s double. “So… you must be, uh, Rarity?”

“That’s me,” the pink filly confirmed. “How did you know? Oh, right, I look just like that older white unicorn.”

“Yeah, that would be my big sister… sorry for staring. I’m Sweetie Belle, and this is Apple Bloom and Scootaloo.”

“Howdy!” the Apple Bloom greeted. “We were just about to go explore the castle ground some more. It’s not everyday we get to stay at Canterlot, after all. And who knows, we may even stumble over a way to get our Cutie Marks, if we’re lucky.”

“Cutie Marks?” repeated Rarity. “Ohh, you mean these things,” she showed hers to the fillies: a rainbow over a pink heart “Don’t you already have one?”

“No, not yet,” Apple Bloom told her, unable to hide the dejection in her voice. “I know they work differently where you’re from, but here in Equestria, a Cutie Mark represents a pony’s special talent. That’s why the three of us are on a mission, a crusade, to try everything we can possibly think of to discover the might be.” The three moved together and shouted in chorus, “We’re the Cutie Mark Crusaders!”

“Wow, sounds unicorn fun!” Rarity replied excitedly. “I’ve already got mine, but I don’t know if it’s supposed to represents any talent. I’m not that good at anything, I think.”

“Ah’ve been wondering about that,” said Apple Bloom. “If you ponies get your Cutie Marks just by things you like, does that mean you don’t have any talents?”

“Or maybe they are fake Cutie Marks,” offered Scootaloo. “Y’know, ‘cause they lived in fantasy world. And now that they’re free, they can go find their true marks!”

“Ah like the way you think,” said Apple Bloom with a smile. “That means all the ponies in that other Ponyville are in the same boat as us! Why, it’s like a whole village of Cutie Mark Crusaders!”

“I dunno, you guys, I kinda like my mark,” Rarity told them. “It’s got a rainbow, and rainbows are born in Unicornia; makes sense to me.”

“But wouldn’t you rather have a mark that represents who you are?” asked Sweetie Belle. “Not to be rude or anything, but I’ve seen a bunch of ponies from your village with hearts and rainbows; I can hardly tell them apart.”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

“How about it, Rarity,” said Scootaloo. “How would you like to become an honorary member of the Cutie Mark Crusaders?”

“Oh, okay, sure!” she accepted. “I always love to hang out with new ponies! So, where are we going?”

“Ah have an idea,” Apple Bloom spoke up. “Ah think we’ve seen enough of castle grounds already. We need someplace cooler.”

***

“Your friend?” Celestia repeated earth pony Rainbow Dash’s words in disbelief. “Discord was your friend?”

“Believe me, Princess darling, this is as much of a shock for me as it is to you. But there is no question, I’m afraid; all six of us grew to love him dearly. So much so that it left us emotionally scarred when he betrayed us…”

“I believe this answers the question of where he was hiding during those last four months before his defeat,” Princess Celestia surmised.

“He was right under our noses all along,” agreed Luna bitterly.

“You can’t really mean to say mean he was living with them,” Twilight argued.

“Most likely,” Celestia answered. “Not long after Luna and I discovered the Elements of Harmony, we hunted him down in what we thought would be the final showdown. But my sister and I were inexperienced with the Elements’ powers, and the battle became much more fierce than we wanted it to. The landscape was ravaged and both of us were beaten until there was almost nothing more left to give, but in the end, the Elements gave us the edge we needed to pin him down. Or so we thought… but then he disappeared, and was not seen again in eleven months and seventeen days.”

“The remains of that battle is what you see outside the village today,” Luna told them. “Those boulders were once mountains, torn apart in our struggles. Curious that they remain, though I am thankful that the earth is no longer scorched.”

“Back then, the confusion of the war made it difficult to keep track of all the villages that sprung up now and then,” said Celestia. “Needless to say, we never realized there was a settlement nearby, and neither of us was too keen to return to that place. Not when there was much to be done righting all the wrongs inflicted by the Spirit of Disharmony. In the end, the battle was never recorded for the history books.”

“He was hiding right in our shadow,” commented Luna bitterly. “I admit that it must seem rather embarrassing, in retrospect.”

“But how does someone like Discord just ‘hide’ in a village?” asked the winged Rainbow Dash. “Was he hypnotizing them? Or keeping them hostage?”

“I doubt it,” Celestia shook her head. “If he had the energy to do that, he would have returned much sooner. Discord made a point to never show his true form to the public; only Luna and I knew what he really looked like. It can’t have been the first time he had hidden in plain sight.”

“Okay, fine. So how did you end up defeating him?”

“He simply emerged one day,” said Luna, “and started wreaking random havoc. By then, we had gained complete mastery of the Elements of Harmony, and it wasn’t long before we had him on the run. Say, sister, do you remember our final encounter with him?”

“Most of it. We chased him to the Frozen North, where he surrendered without much of a fight.”

“I remember the exact words that he spoke then,” said Luna. “He was congratulating us on beating him in ‘a fair game of political struggle’, and bringing onto Equestria a new era of peace and prosperity. Down to his last moment, he was mocking us, laughing at us…”

“Yes... I remember now. I never could shake the feeling that he was playing us for fools, luring us there for a purpose.”

“As a matter of fact, Your Highnesses,” Kenbroth the earth dragon spoke up, “I believe he may actually have been. From analyzing the flow of magic from the Canterlot, I’ve been able to determine where in Equestria the other Castles of Legend showed up. As it happens, one of them appeared in the Frozen North. Let’s not forget that even back then, when the castles were nothing more rubble buried under rock and snow, they were still linked through the sleeping magic that held the seal; I’m speculating that he might have used that connection to channel parts of the magic from the Elements the moment you hit him with it, thus providing the magic necessary to finish the Time Capsule spell around Ponyville.”

“And so he managed to preserve a part of himself, hidden in plain sight around a mystery we could not unravel,” Celestia summarized. “It pains me to imagine he used the ponies who trusted him as a friend for his scheme. If only we knew what his plan was.”

“Maybe we have already put a stop to it,” suggested Twilight. “The spell was weakened after his second breakout, wasn’t it? That could not have been part of the plan.”

“Or maybe it was,” Luna countered, “and we have all played right into his hands. I think he saw the… bitterness in my heart, and knew that the Elements would eventually change masters.” Luna’s face turned grimmer by each word. “Yes, it makes sense that he knew… which is why he laughed…”

Twilight gasped as a realization struck. “Hold on, ‘changing masters’… Pinkie Pie used Applejack’s element! What if it’s no longer connected to her now?”

“No need to worry, Twilight,” Celestia said. “From what I can sense, the Element of Honesty is still with Applejack. Only, it is also with Pinkie Pie.”

“So, uh,” the pink pony with the straight mane offered, “is that bad?”

“Not at all,” the Princess assured her. “But it is rather surprising. I didn’t think it was possible for two ponies to share mastery over an Element. Another peculiar side effect of the magical bond you share.”

“If only we knew what more about the magic that Discord put into them,” Kenbroth thought out loud. “I suppose that if I could borrow all of you for a day or two, Rarity included of course, I might be able to find something out, but…” he looked over to the wingless Rainbow Dash, who looked sort of pale, “but I’m getting ahead of myself. You ponies deserve a rest.”

“I agree,” said Celestia. “There are other things that requires our attention. Twilight, you mentioned that you found a clue to Kimono’s whereabouts.”

“Right. It was right by the doorway arch to the inner chamber, a magical recording left there in a hurry as she was fleeing from the Mother Ursa. Just a short spoken message that said: ‘Star Catcher is at the Frozen North. I will meet you at the castle there. Bring friends.”

“Short, but not very specific,” noted Luna. “Bring friends? I hope she did not mean for us to bring the whole village.”

“I’m assuming she meant all the ponies tainted by Discord,” Twilight guessed. “I think she knows about the castles and what they are.”

“A fair assumption. We would be wise to act upon this information at earliest convenience.” Addressing the other-village ponies, she said, “As I am sure you are aware, we cannot send the element bearers to accompany you, so I will instead assign a troop of royal guards to escort the you to the Frozen North. As for little Rarity,” she added, “she is much too young to be traveling to such a place.”

“But what if she still wants to meet with me?” asked Twilight. “There’s got to be a reason why she asked for me to come to the Everfree Forest.”

“We are doing the best we can with the options available to us, Twilight,” Luna told her. “You know the Elements are needed here.”

“So we gotta sit tight while these three go off on an adventure,” the winged Rainbow Dash noted. “Swell.”

“Oh don’t be like that, Rainbow Dash,” countered Rarity. “Trust me, I’ve been there once before, and you should be happy we don’t have to go to that dreadful place. You heard the Princess, we’re needed here, in case another Mother Ursa appears.”

“I know, but it still makes me antsy.”

“Trust me darling, if I could, would switch places with you in a second,” her counterpart shared.

“Switch places, eh…?”

“Do not even think it, Rainbow Dash,” Luna saw through her.

“Drat.”

“Frozen North?” wondered Minty. “Is that like the North Pole, where Santa lives? That could be fun! You guys do have Santa here in Equestria, don’t you?”

“Uh, no, that doesn’t ring any bell,” replied Twilight, much to Minty’s apparent dismay. “And I’m afraid won’t be much fun at all. It’s extremely cold up there.”

“We shall tend to the preparations immediately. You are adjourned until you are summoned.”

***

The splendorous sight of the big city of Canterlot was a lot for the little filly Rarity to take in. With some clever distraction methods from Apple Bloom, she and her new-found friends had been able to sneak past the guards and down into the streets bellow. There were so many ponies! So much noise! So much to see! It made her all giddy inside.

“Tell me again what we’re doing out here,” Scootaloo complained, less enthusiastic.

“Think about it,” Apple Bloom pepped. “We’ve tried almost everything to get our Cutie Marks back in Ponyville, but this here’s the big city! It’s a whole bunch of untapped potential, I’m tellin’ ya!”

“Well, okay, you might be on to something,” the orange filly agreed. “But if we’re gone for too long, somepony’s bound to come looking for us. There’s no way we’ll have enough time to try everything.”

“I know, but we don’t have to actually try anything. Why, if one of us is meant to be a banker, and we pass a really fancy bank, I bet you anything it’ll pop right up!”

“Worth a shot, I guess,” said Scootaloo, convinced for now.

As the group of four moved along the stylish streets, Rarity was too busy being utterly awestruck to listen to the others prattle on. Her travels with Trixie had been strange and wondrous, as had her visit to Canterlot Castle, but this was hooves-down the biggest contrast to her life back in Unicornia she had experienced yet. Almost all the ponies were wearing clothes or other accessories, and the way they walked seemed a lot more graceful and elaborate. The buildings were all funny-looking to her eyes, and much taller than she was used to.

They passed a whole bunch of what Sweetie Belle described to her as ‘boutiques’, where ponies with lots of money came to buy stuff. Trixie had taught her the basic concept of money, but her only experience with any type of store had been the café back in Ponyville, where she had been treated for free. Here there were bakeries, cafés, fashion shops, toy shops, jewelry stores, even boutiques for furniture. One by one, the three fillies went inside each of them, and Rarity could not help but be absolutely fascinated with the number of things that money could buy. Even without money, just going around looking at all the amazing stuff was great fun. Especially when they started having a pillow fight in one of the bed boutiques, which lasted until the store owner came and threw them out.

Not surprisingly, they soon lost track of time. It wasn’t until Rarity realized the sun was much higher now than it was before that she asked, “You don’t suppose we’ve been gone too long, do you? I’d hate to make everyone worry.”

“You’re right; I wouldn’t want Rari—my sister to catch me doing this,” Sweetie Belle agreed. “She would freak.”

“I wouldn’t worry; if she’s anything like me, she’ll just laugh when she hears how much fun we’ve had.”

“That’s just it: she’s nothing like you.”

“Uh, girls,” spoke Scootaloo. “Which way did we come from again?”

Come to think of it, Rarity noted, this particular street looked very similar to the one before it, and the one before that. Unlike Unicornia or Ponyville, this town didn’t seem to have any obvious landmarks. They couldn’t even see the castles from where they stood. “Don’t tell me we’re lost,” sighed Apple Bloom.

“It’s okay, we could just ask someone the way,” suggested Rarity.

“Except we don’t want anypony to realize we snuck out without permission, remember?” pointed the white unicorn. “What if they start asking questions? Come on, I’m pretty sure it’s down this road.”

The other three followed Sweetie Belle down one of the streets, where they eventually ran into an open space crowded with ponies. Rarity wondered if there was any some sort of celebration going on, but everyone seemed to be eager to just get from one point to the next, without any clear goal. The four made their way through the crowd, and then down a smaller street, until they came out on another, almost identical road.

“Admit it, we’re lost,” Apple Bloom said.

“No no, I think I know where this is,” replied Sweetie Belle. “If I’m not mistaken, that’s the train station over there. If we just follow this road right there, I think we’ll be able to see the castle.”

“And you know this because…” Scootaloo questioned.

“They showed us a map in school once. Unlike you, I pay attention in class.”

Deciding it would be quicker just to ask someone, Rarity intercepted a couple of regal looking ponies walking by. “Excuse me, do you know the way to the Canterlot Castle?”

“Rarity, wai—!” Sweetie Belle began, but her words were cut short as her face tensed and her eyes shot open, staring at the couple. “Y-y-you two are…”

“Why hello there, little filly,” greeted the one of the ponies, a mare as pink as Rarity was, but with a body more slender than anyone she had ever seen before, and like Celestia and Luna she had both a horn and wings. “Haven’t we seen you before?”

“Have we?” asked Apple Bloom, which earned her a trod from Sweetie Belle. She looked at her quizzically for a moment, then at the stranger, followed by a gasp. “Princess Cadence?!”

“Hey, if it isn’t the little flower girls we had at our wedding,” the stallion next to her spoke up; a white unicorn with a flowing blue mane and tail. A few ponies nearby, Rarity realized, was starting to take note of the group, whispering and pointing.

“Oh yeah,” agreed the Princess Cadence character. “So good to see you again, girls. What brings you out here?”

“It’s, uh, kind of a long story,” Scootaloo admitted. “We were staying at the castle, and then we kinda snuck out here without permission. And now we’re… kinda lost.”

“Bunch of troublemakers, eh?” The stallion sounded more amused than anything. “That’s perfect then, we were just on our way there. Let’s get moving; I don’t feel very comfortable standing out here where everypony is watching us.”

***

She was walking down the rock-paved streets, her hips aching slightly. She wasn’t a wrinkled old prune just yet, but age was starting to protest to her busy lifestyle. Nevertheless, it was her duty to oversee the town, especially during these troubled times. She came across a pink pony with a fiery red mane. She asking if she had seen Kimono, to which she replied that yes, she had, and she was doing a bit better today. She decided to make a point to go see her herself, right after she had talked to the farmers about that last plot of fertile ground left around these parts.

And then she was staring up at a ceiling. She scrambled up into sitting position, and realized she was on a bed, somewhere else entirely. But where, and how? Panic was starting to creep into her mind as she frantically looked around for anything that was familiar to her. There was a painting of a castle on the wall, a fancy desk that looked to be made of mahogany, and a rainbow-themed tapestry. Rainbow… rainbows!

The cerulean earth pony pressed a hoof against her forehead as everything flooded back to her, and as it did, all that was her life before Discord’s imprisonment was washed back into the unreachable obscurity of her mind. For a short moment, she hadn’t just remembered, she had actually turned back into the pony she used to be… but try as she might, the persona of her past life was slipping further and further out of reach, until she could no longer think of herself as anyone other than Rainbow Dash.

How long had she been asleep? She had only meant to take a short rest, but the recent hullabaloo seemed to have taken it out of her more than she thought. She wasn’t as young as she used to be, after all… but then she realized that she was. A part of her – perhaps a lingering fragment of her former self – couldn’t quite shake the feeling that this wasn’t supposed to be the case, and it gave her a head ache trying to sort it out. She had been oblivious to the very concept of age until only a few hours ago, after all.

She needed something to take her mind off of things; anything at all. She got up from bed and walked out the door. The corridor beyond was empty, lined only with the doors to other rooms. Some of them where opened, so she took a few quick peeks inside, but since no pony seemed to be there, she decided instead to go for a walk until she inevitably ran into someone.

The decor around the castle was absolutely fabulous! Where there weren’t paintings of the most stunning quality, there were murals that depicted things she could not even begin to decipher, or masterfully carved statuettes aligned by the windows. She looked out one of those windows, and found herself gazing out over the magnificent backdrop that was the land of Equestria. Forests, mountains and field as far as eyes could see. Of course, there were also the giant paw prints where the Mother Ursa had walked, and rubble of crushed mountains to remind the world of the battle. She pulled herself away from the sight and kept walking, determined to find something that would distract her. She needed a break from all this confusion.

Eventually, she came across another door that stood ajar. There was an intersection where the corridor kept going forward and turned to the left, but she decided to let curiosity run its course and peeked into the room. She barely held back a small gasp: it was the Royal Bed Chambers, and Princess Celestia was fast asleep on the bed.

Common sense dictated that she ought to just leave her alone to rest, but her eyes couldn’t help but linger on the room for just a little while longer. Now that there was no one else in there, she could see how it would be quite cozy as a bed chamber. There was something humbling about peering into the place where the ruler of the whole country came to relax. She lingered for a few moments longer, before withdrawing her head from the gap… when Celestia in a sudden movement raised her body and said, “Hi, Rainbow Dash. How are you feeling?”

The ensuing surprise was enough to send her stumbling to the floor onto her back. She awkwardly got back on her hooves and presented herself to the Princess. “P-Princess, darling! I’m so sorry, I noticed the door stood ajar, and, well, I guess I was a little curious, and… I’m so sorry that I woke you up.”

“Oh, you didn’t wake me up,” assured the Princess with a calming tone. “I was just resting, but I have to look like I’m asleep, or the doctors will get on my case. I think they’ve gone away for the time being; would you care to come in for a chat.”

“A-are you sure, darling?”

“You have no idea how boring it is to lie here all by myself,” the Princess told her. “I feel fine, except my muscles ache whenever I try to move my legs. Please, sit down.”

Rainbow Dash was happy to take her up on her offer. She sat down on the bed, next to the Princess. “How are you feeling?” she asked again. “Do you remember anything else?”

It certainly wasn’t the distraction she was hoping for, but perhaps getting it all off her chest would work just as well. “Actually, darling, I have. I was just taking a short nap, and by the time I woke up, I could have sworn I was back in my old skin of who I was a thousand years ago. For a moment there, I wasn’t sure who I was.”

“Really?” Celestia’s interest perked. “Do you still remember it?”

“Not much, only bits and pieces. My coat was grey, not cerulean, and my mane… it wasn’t even a rainbow!” The thought made her cringe a little. “I was the Mayor of a small, newly settled town. And… say, can I ask you something?” The Princess gave her a gentle nod. “When a pony grow old, does her body grow weak and frail, until… until she eventually dies?”

“Yes,” replied Celestia simply. “It is a fate all ponies must one day face.”

“I thought as much,” Rainbow Dash said in a low voice. “You see, darling, the other me, she… she was older than I am now. Not terribly old, mind you, but old enough that my hips were hurting, and I think I may have commented a lot on how I wouldn’t get any younger… which, ironically, it would seem now that I have.”

“This is remarkable,” Celestia told her. “No magic known to ponykind has ever been able to unlock the secrets of returning youth.”

“To be honest, darling, I’m not quite sure how I’m supposed to feel about it. I have this persistent feeling that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m not surprised that you feel that way. I don’t think there is a spell in the world that can erase the experience of age. It sticks to your bone, the very depth of your soul. I bet somewhere in your heart, you don’t want to lose that pride of having lived a long, rich life.”

Rainbow Dash contemplated her words for a moment. “I do think that might be part of it,” she admitted. “And also… now that I know what growing old is like, the prospect frightens me. I know that might sound contradictory…”

“Not at all,” said Celestia. “They are both natural feelings that are sure to cross every pony’s mind at one point or another. But consider this: years from now, regardless of whether or not you remember who you used to be, you will have lived a long and wonderful life. And if you do start to remember, that’s two lives for the price of one; it only means you were blessed with incredible longevity. You wouldn’t be the first one; the only living founder of Ponyville turns two hundred and thirty seven this year, and she’s still hanging in there.”

The Princess’ words did help to put her heart somewhat at ease. “Thank you, darling. I suppose it is a rather silly concern.”

“Sometimes, it’s those silly concerns that matters the most, and when we need someone to talk to about it.”

“I know, darling. I’ll be sure to have a chat with Minty and Pinkie Pie about this the next time I see them. Do you know where they went?”

“I don’t know about Pinkie Pie, but Minty has been standing right there behind the door for a time now.”

There was a scramble outside, much similar to what Rainbow Dash must have sounded like before, and soon enough, the minty green pony stepped inside. “I-I-I’m sorry, Princess, i-it’s just that I heard you two were talking, so I got curious, and…”

“It’s okay, Minty,” the Princess calmed. “If I didn’t want you to eavesdrop, I would’ve called you in here.”

“Oh,” Minty let out, giving the Princess an awkward smile, accompanied with a laugh. Addressing her friend, she said, “Still, sorry about eavesdropping. Kinda wish I hadn’t; all this stuff about death and aging is making my head hurt. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately…”

“We all have, darling,” said Rainbow Dash. “But it’s okay, as long as we’re here for each other.” She moved in and gave Minty a hug, which she returned. “We’ll figure it all out,eventually.”

“Indeed you will,” Celestia agreed. “Take as much time as you need. Now Minty, wasn’t there something you wanted to tell us?”

“Wait, how did you—oh, right!” she seemed to remember. “Princess Luna asked me to come get you. She’s sending the rest of the villagers home.”

“Oh, all right,” acknowledged Rainbow Dash, turning to address the Princess. “Thank you ever so much for this darling little chat, darling.”

“Come visit anytime.”

***

“You’re a stallion, aren’t you!” spoke the pink filly to the unicorn.

“Sure am,” Shining Armor replied with a small chuckle. “What tipped you off, kiddo?”

“Well, your face is kinda blocky, and your voice is sort of low,” she listed. “Trixie told me about stallions – she’s one of my best friends – and she said there are stallions so that mares can make pony babies. Dunno how that works, but it sounds cool!”

The stallion laughed awkwardly. “Did she now?” The Princesses had told him in the letter about how the ponies from this other village were rather ‘new’ to the world, but this was worse than he thought; she didn’t seem quite that young. Changing the subject, he decided to introduce himself, “I’m Shining Armor, Captain of the Canterlot Royal Guards. This is my wife, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza.”

“Just Cadence will do,” said the mare. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Rarity, and I’m a Princess too! Rainbow Princess of Unicornia.”

“Wait, you’re a Princess?” Apple Bloom questioned. “As in, the ruler of Unicornia?”

“Well, not ruler exactly,” Rarity explained, “but I’m the one responsible for making all the rainbows this year, until the next Rainbow Celebration.”

“I don’t think we have that in Equestria,” pointed Scootaloo. “At least I’ve never heard of it. But if you’re the Princess of Rainbows, does that mean you can control rainbows and stuff?”

“Sure can!” Rarity told them, her face beaming with pride. She stuck her hoof into her mane, fumbling about until something fell out. The group came to a stop as what looked like a toy wand made a clunking sound against the paved road. “I almost forgot I still had this tied to my hair. You see, with this, I can—” she poked the wand with her hoof, as if expecting it to stick to it, but when she realized it didn’t, she instead picked it up with her mouth. She swung it around in the air for a few moments, but quit when whatever she expected to happen, didn’t happen. Her smile dropped as she lay it down on the ground. “Guess I can’t do the twirls if I can’t hold it properly…. oh who am I kidding. It probably doesn’t even work anymore.” With a sad face, she turned to the others. “Could someone help me tie it back into my hair?”

“Sure kid, I got you covered,” Shining Armor offered. With Rarity’s thick – not to mention messy – mane, it stuck almost by itself, and was almost invisible to the casual observer.

“I’m sorry, Rarity,” Sweetie Belle tried to comfort. “I’m sure you were a great Princess. You don’t need that silly wand.”

“Thanks, but how am I supposed to be a Rainbow Princess without being able to summon Rainbows, or the Rainbow Chariot?” replied Rarity sullenly. “I hope Cheerilee lets me keep it, though. It’s all I got to remind myself of another life… n-not that I haven’t had a blast with you guys, it’s just…”

“We understand,” Apple Bloom told her compassionately, giving her a pet on the back and a sweet smile. Rarity returned it, and the grouped resumed walking.

“So, Rarity,” Princess Cadence spoke up after a while. “Tell us about your home.”

“You mean Unicornia? It’s a small village beneath this big mountain, with Crystal Rainbow Castle on top; I live there. It’s the most beautiful castle you could ever imagine – much prettier than Canterlot, if you ask me – and then when the sun shines right above it, this huge rainbow appears!” But then, her excited excitement dropped a bit, and her eyes betrayed a hint of sadness. “I wanna go home. This has been really fun and all, but I’ve been away from Unicornia for too long.”

“I bet,” said Shining Armor. “Not to worry though, the way I hear it, they’re supposed to send you guys back home today.”

Rarity seemed happy at the prospect, but before she had the chance to reply, a voice came from further up the street, calling Apple Bloom’s name, and then Scootaloo’s. It was a very familiar one that brought a smile to Shining Armor’s face. “Twilie! Over here!”

In the distance, his lavender-hued sister looked to their direction, and then ran over. “Shining Armor!” Twilight called and, as she came up to them, gave him a hug. “And Cadence too! It’s so good to see you again!” She hugged the Princess as well.

“Too bad it can’t be over a cup of tea; I’m to report directly to Princess Luna the moment I arrive. How’s Princess Celestia?”

“Oh, much better, but you should have seen her before,” Twilight told him. “She was shriveled up like a prune, almost no life left in her…”

“I can’t believe she fought the Mother Ursa. I thought it was just a legend. Looks like things are gonna get ugly fast if we don’t hurry up and find those missing ponies.”

“I know. But don’t push yourself too hard, okay?” Twilight gave him a serious look. “You always push yourself too hard.”

“Oh yeah? Look who’s talking.”

“Touché. And as for you four…” she turned to the fillies with a stern expression.

“Let’s not jump the party canon,” her brother cut in. “We, uh, sent a message ahead of time and asked for them to come greet us, didn’t we, honey.”

“Oh, oh yes,” Cadence played along. “We thought it would be nice with some child company as opposed to an overly-serious body guard.”

“Really?” said Twilight, looking a bit flustered. “Guess there’s no harm done then. C’mon, let’s head back to the castle; Luna is getting ready to send the villagers home.”

***

Ohh, that silly filly, where could she have gone? Cheerilee, along with the rest of the villagers, had been loaded onto six rather large carriages – twenty or so ponies on each – that would take them home, but Rarity and three other fillies seemed to have somehow disappeared from the castle grounds. Twilight Sparkle had gone into the city to find her. Cheerilee had offered to come with her, but had been assured that if they were still within Canterlot City, they could easily be found. Why, oh why did Rarity always have to be such a trouble maker? Hadn’t she learned anything from being lost in the big world twice now?

Finally, the gates to city opened, and a group of three adult ponies and four children came into view, and among them was… “Rarity!” Cheerilee called, jumping off the carriage and ran toward them. Rarity’s face shone up, and started sprinting to meet her. She opened up her front legs for a hug...

But Cheerilee had other plans, staring her straight in the eye and barked, “Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?!”

“Oh, uh, I—”

You may think it’s all fun and games to hide and run away on your little adventures, but have you ever stopped to consider how that makes me feel, or any of us? Why, when we woke up here in Equestria and you weren’t there,” her tone softened, but the desperation in her voice wasn’t gone, “I thought for a moment that I had lost you. I waited for what felt like the longest days of my life, and when we finally do find you, you have been corrupted by some kind of evil magic! It’s a miracle that you managed to go back to your cheery old self… and now you’re senseless enough to run off again without telling me?” At this point, Rarity was beginning to tear up, an expression that Cheerilee wasn’t sure she had ever seen on her face before. She moved closer and put a leg around her. “Please, Rarity, at least let me know before you run off.”

“Please don’t be mad, miss Cheerilee!” a yellow filly – who apparently knew her name – spoke up. “We were the ones who invited her to come with us.”

The little pink filly was sobbing now. “I-I’m sorry,” she breathed. “It’s just that y-you were asleep, a-and I didn’t want to wake you, a-and…” the rest of her sentence became lost in her tears. Cheerilee felt a twinge in her heart; perhaps she had been a little hard on her. After all she had been through, of course she would jump at the opportunity to go have some fun with friends.

She sighed. “Just tell me next time, okay?” she said as calmly as she could. “We don’t know what’s out there, and I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

She nodded, still clinging to her. Gently, she let her go, and lifted her face up with a hoof. “What do you say we go take a seat? It’s time to go home.”

Rarity sniffled. “Okay…”

“And you three,” she addressed her three filly friends, who still looked very spooked up about the whole thing. “Thank you for taking care of my little Rarity.”

“Uh, sure thing,” Apple Bloom replied.

“You’ll come play with us sometime, won’t you?” asked Scootaloo. “That is, if that’s okay with you, miss.”

“It is,” she laughed. “When the Princesses say it’s safe, we will be sure to come visit your Ponyville.”

Together, the two ponies walked over to one of the carriages and hopped on board. Not long after they took their seats, Princess Luna came up before them and spoke, “Now then, as little miss Rarity is returned, we will take off shortly. I will accompany you to the village and see to that you are settled, and leave a few overseer guards for any further questions or issues.”

“Wait, aren’t they coming?” asked Sunny Daze, pointing towards Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie and Minty.

“I’m afraid we can’t, darlings,” answered the cerulean earth pony. “We’re needed here, to help the Princesses find Kimono and Star Catcher.”

“Makes sense, I guess. Wish I could stay.”

“Well everypony, it’s been nice meeting ya,” said the pegasus counterpart of Rainbow Dash. “We’ll come visit once all this is over!”

“Yeah, and when you do, let’s have another party!” said Toola Roola from another cart.

“You know it!” came the voices of both Pinkie Pies in union.

“Right then,” announced Princess Luna. “If everypony has said their farewell, we shall depart.”

All ponies in the court yard waved as the carriages lifted off the ground, much quicker than an air balloon would. Cheerilee gazed over the city that sprawled before them, white and magnificent, before they sped off towards the horizon. She and Rarity both looked forward to coming home.

***

“Shining Armor,” Luna acknowledged the presence of Twilight’s brother. “Princess Cadence. I am pleased to see the two of you. We apologize for pulling you away from your relaxation, but I am afraid Equestria is in need of your services.”

“Don’t worry, we’ve had a good month off already,” the Captain of the Guards told her. “Would you fill us in on the situation?”

“Certainly. Let’s walk and talk.”

But they hadn’t walked very far until Kenbroth the earth dragon came running across the grounds. “Princess Luna!” he called. “We have news!”

“Report.”

“I’m afraid we might have to change up our plans,” he explained. “There have been movements of what we believe to be another Mother Ursa in the Frozen North.”

“Another?” repeated Shining Armor. “You can’t mean there’s more than one!”

“This is the third thus far,” spoke Luna grimly. “Kenbroth, you are sure about it.”

“I know my freakishly enormous power surges when I sense them, Your Highness.”

“Then we must act immediately,” She turned around and faced Twilight and her friends. “All of you, come with me. We are in need of your services sooner than expected.”

***

“This is just great,” complained Rarity, floating a box of essentials onto a carriage. “Here I was hoping we wouldn’t have to fling ourselves half-way across the country today.”

“You were the one reminding me how we needed to be ready to deal with Ursa,” pointed the winged Rainbow Dash, dropping a box on her own on. “I’m just glad we get to see some action! Hay, we even get the newest member of the Wonderbolts to escort us!”

“When I’m on duty, I’m nothing more than your everyday royal guard,” the blue-hued stallion replied humbly.

“That doesn’t make it any less awesome! Say, do you think you could put in a good word for me at the top?”

“To be honest, I would say anypony who’s helped saved Equestria twice and is able to pull off a Sonic Rainboom against gravity is much more deserving to be a Wonderbolt than I am. I’m surprised they haven’t scouted you yet.”

“You’re one of Luna’s guards, aren’t you?” asked Twilight as Rainbow Dash returned to packing with an enormous grin.

“Sure am,” he told her. “I usually work at night, but with Princess Celestia being incapacitated, Luna had to arrange the escort. Guess she wanted someone she knows and trusts.”

“I see. Those bat wings… is it true you had to amputate your normal wings and replace them with those?”

“Ampu-what-now?”

“To cut off a limb, Spike.”

“Oh. Ouch.”

The guard laughed. “Yeah, but not to worry; they keep our old wings safe under a preservation spell, for when we need them back. Personally, I like these better. They don’t call me Night Gale at the Wonderbolts for nothing.”

A ways away, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle were saying goodbye to their big sisters. “Now y’all behave yourselves, ya hear?” Applejack told them. “Stick close to your cousin Braeburn on the train-ride home.”

“And do try to stay out of trouble,” Rarity added. “I heard about your little escapade into the city. I understand the fascination, but you’re much too young to mingle there on your own.” Her little sister only brushed it off with a ‘yeah yeah’.

“Can’t we come with you?” pleaded Scootaloo. “Pleeeease?”

“What did I just tell you about being too young?”

“How come we’re too young and Spike gets to go. He’s not much older than us!”

“But I’m a dragon,” Spike joined the conversation. “And I’m no stranger to epic adventures. Besides, I have to be there in case we need to send reports to Celestia.”

“There, darlings, that’s the last of them,” reported the wingless Rainbow Dash.

“Excellent, all aboard then,” Princess Luna ordered. The element bearers, Rainbow Dash, Minty, Pinkie Pie and Spike hopped onto the carriage and took their seat among the boxes. Luna positioned herself next to the fillies, Braeburn, Shining Armor and Cadence, and said, “I suppose we ought to count ourselves lucky the Ursa decided to appeared where we needed to go. If all should go well, we can neutralize the threat, find the last missing ponies and have you all back to start mending the seal before the end of the day. Just remember, be swift.”

“And be safe,” added Shining Armor. “I may not be a Princess, but I got some handy spells in my arsenal. We’ll hold fort if they come here.”

“Sun and moon watch over you, my little ponies.”

***

Hours after the carriage had left Canterlot, they group were now further north than Twilight had ever been before. They had long since passed Appleloosa, and as they flew over the northern wastelands, they had all marveled over the big orange crystal castle that stood out like a lantern in a dark cave. Soon enough, the landscape of rock and dust gave away to the northern Flatlands: a vast expanse of grass that stretched on almost endlessly, until the forest took over at the horizon. Beyond that, she knew, awaited the mountains, and she thanked Celestia – or Luna, in this case – that they had brought plenty of warm clothes and food for the trek. Not that they would probably need it, but one could never be too prepared.

“See Minty, we’re passed it,” Minty’s version of Pinkie Pie told her, prodding her on the back. The green pony had been staring down on the carriage floor for the majority of the trip over the barren landscape, likely as to not relive the memories of her last visit. She reluctantly looked over the railing, and broke into a huge grin.

“So much green!” she breathed. “It’s like a sea of nothing but green!”

“Not only, I see some specks of animals down there,” pointed Rarity. “Say, is that a moose?”

“Don’t let its peaceful front fool you, the northern Flatlands are actually known to be one of the most dangerous places in Equestria,” Twilight educated them. “It’s the home to a myriad of different predators that could eat a pony whole, or so I hear.”

“Only if you make them angry,” corrected Fluttershy. “Most creatures are perfectly happy eating the grass, which is why it never grows very tall, and the few creatures that do eat other animals usually leave ponies alone, unless they’re desperate.”

“Uh, Fluttershy.” The winged Rainbow Dash, pointing at something down below. “Is there an animal that glows?”

“Glows?” Twilight echoed, an uneasy feeling settling in her stomach. Sure enough, among the monotonous shade of green, a blue spark of light was moving around.

“Oh that’s probably just a Crackle Tiger,” answered Fluttershy. “Their bodies have lightning in them, to ward off thunder from the sky.”

“Phew, is that all,” said Twilight Sparkle, relieved. “Call me jumpy, but I thought maybe it was a—”

But then a gigantic pillar of crackling blue lightning shot skyward, only a few pony lengths from where the carriage. Before Twilight or anypony else could offer anything as to what had just happened, a familiar aura started pressing down on her as though gravity had suddenly doubled, taking her breath away for a second.

Twilight acted upon instinct, putting up a protective barrier around the carriage, and watched in horror as the head of a being seemingly made out of night sky rose from the ground, creating an optical illusion that seemed to send ripples through the fabric of reality itself. It was, however, not the head of a Mother Ursa, but of a deformed being Twilight could not recognize right away. But then, a second pillar of blue lightning appeared a bit away, followed closely by a limb that was neither a paw nor a claw: it was a pincer. Twilight realized in equal measure of fascination and horror that this was a creature of a different constellation: Cancer.

She turned around and gave a quick nod to the girls. They knew what to do. Twilight initiated the spell, and in a moment’s notice, the air around them was filled with the magic of harmony. With any luck, they would be able strike before the monster even noticed them.

But history decided to repeat itself as the Cancer, with a display of speed unmatched by the previously encountered Mother Ursa, shot its pincer at them. Only this time, the spell was near-completed and already powerful enough to deflect the projectile limb, exploding it countless into tiny blobs of light. But just as Twilight thought they were safe, there was a stabbing sensation of pain mixed into the bliss, and she realized that the impact of such a powerful mass of cosmic energy must have disrupted the spells in ways she did not anticipate. For a moment, she thought this unsettling feeling would make her throw up.

It all ended with a very short but powerful stab of pain that made her yell out, and the last thing she knew before she passed out was that she was soaring through the skies in an uncontrollable spin, away from the carriage that was falling to the ground.

---

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for help with editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Fourteen

By Candle Light

“Come one, come all!” The tried and true magically amplified opening phrase carried over the newly arrived Ponyvillians, drawn to Trixie’s self-invented stage just outside of town, three boulders overlooking an open area she had freed by using the rainbow of Unicornia to move the rocks. She gazed down over the crowd from her vantage point; Rarity was clearly visible among them. She had hoped that Twilight Sparkle and her friends would be around to see this too, but that minor set-back was soon forgotten as she noticed that Princess Luna herself was gracing Trixie’s show with her presence. Pushing this momentous fact out of her head, she went on, “I understand that you ponies have been living in a dream, and thus have yet to witness true Unicorn magic. It is thus the duty of the Great and Powerful Trixie, one of the greatest magicians of our time, to welcome you to Equestria with some of the most dazzling tricks your pony eyes will ever see!”

Too boastful? Nah. First rule of performing: make an impression on the audience, make them believe in your abilities. And unlike that other time with the other Ponyville, this time she had a solid game plan. With total confidence in her voice she continued, “The spirit of chaos may have put you to sleep inside a world of illusion, but the illusions I bring to you are ones experienced wide awake, and will pull you from this reality to another one altogether. I will take you to fantastic places, give you the most marvelous sensations. For who else can bend the very fabric of reality itself other than the Great and Powerful Trixie!

An explosion erupted from the mountain behind her with such an impeccable timing and power, it would surely put the ponies at awe… had it actually been planned into her act. In actuality, the fire-works she had planned to set off at that moment was drowned by a blood-curling roar that made Trixie forget about her audience and look around.

A huge chunk of the mountain had been torn right off, sending cascades of stone onto the villages bellow, and from that gaping hole appeared the head of the most frightening creature she had ever laid eyes on. A red glow seemed to emit from its body, its very presence inspiring something that Trixie had not truly felt in years: fear. Fear amplified by Rarity’s shout from the audience, “It’s a Mother Ursa!”

Almost as if the creature had heard her, it rose above the hole in the mountain and climbed on top of it, showing its full length. It was a sight that made Trixie’s blood freeze. It was about as tall as the mountain to begin with, and standing on top of it, it towered higher than Canterlot itself. A Mother Ursa? As in, even bigger than an Ursa Major? The idea was almost too absurd to take in, and she found herself getting caught up in the panic that was starting to ripple throughout the crowd.

“Remain calm, everypony!” called the Princess over the frightened mass of ponies, but the hint of panic in her voice only managed to plant more seeds of fear in Trixie’s heart. But it did calm the crowd down a little. “Run,” she ordered. “Away from here, as fast as you can! Your Princess shall protect the village.”

***

Shining Armor was very proud of the force field spell. It was an advanced piece of magic developed through equal measure of ancient arcane scrolls and intense training, and had been passed on throughout the generations of Captains of the Guards from the beginning of the Princesses’ regime. The protective barrier was said to be able to withhold an assault the Princesses themselves, and it was only through continuously weakening it from the inside that the Changeling army had managed to break through it.

These facts offered little comfort. “Five of them?!” he uttered in sheer disbelief.

“Yes, one that we picked up earlier at the Frozen North, and one that appeared out of nowhere just south of the forest at its base,” Kenbroth briefed, the calmness in his voice not matching the seriousness of the situation. “Another has appeared very close to the other Ponyville, and one is approaching Canterlot as we speak. At least the fifth one is wandering aimlessly just due south of the Everfree Forest, and won’t be causing anyone harm until it reaches someplace populated.”

“By the sun and the moon…!” breathed Celestia, her face plainly distraught. “I never thought in my wildest dreams they would appear this soon.”

“What do we do now?” Shining Armor tried hard not to panic. “Twilie and the gang are far gone by now, and even if we call them back, it’ll take them hours to get here!”

“Then I thank the sun that you both are here,” the Princess addressed Shining Armor and his wife. “Never forget, Shining Armor, that you are the most powerful unicorn in Canterlot; with the force field in place, enhanced by the power of Princess Cadence’s love, we must hold out. Although…” the fear in her voice could not be hidden, “at the rate these monsters keep appearing…”

“You can count on us, Princess!” Cadence acknowledged, stopping her from perusing that line of thought. “Come, Shining, we don’t have much time.”

“Right behind you.”

The Princess was hovering a piece of parchment and quill, scribbling something down in haste, whereas she rolled it up and magically vanished it. “I have sent a message to Spike. Godspeed, my little ponies…”

***

In any other circumstance, Minty would have been the happiest pony in the world. As far as eyes could see was the most beautiful field of green grass she had ever seen.

Only she was lost, alone, and sore all over. She could stand there looking at the pretty green all day, but it wouldn’t change the fact that she had no idea what she was supposed to do now. Eventually, she would have to start walking in any random direction, but the more the thought sank in, the more she felt unease turn to panic. Walking along, all alone, no idea where to go… it was an idea she had never wanted to entertain again, and the very thought made her dizzy. But there was nothing else for it, unless she wanted some wild animal to find her first. Her head was spinning as she was trying to push back the panic, but failing. Her world began to tilt, her eyes began to swell…

“Heeeey!” a voice broke through the veil of fright. “Anypony there?!”

“I’m here!” Minty wasted not a second replying as loud as she could, the knowledge that someone else was out there with her easing her doubts. “Over here!”

Not half a minute later, a pink pony came running her direction at neck-break speed. It lifted her spirit considerably, and when Pinkie Pie came to a stop before her, she felt her heart flutter… except it wasn’t the Pinkie Pie. Not to her.

“Boy, am I glad I found somepony,” the fluffy-maned version said. “Like, what was that all about? I’ve never seen anything like it! Well, I guess the Mother Ursa was ‘like’ it, but this time it was like ‘bow!’ and we were all sent flying to Celestia knows where. Do you know where we are?” Minty’s heart sank a little. Having company really didn’t change anything, only that they would be lost and helpless together. Better than nothing, she told herself.

Something must have shown on her face, because Pinkie’s expression then turned uncharacteristically serious. “Okay Minty, I know this must be very scary for you, but I want you to listen to me carefully.” The green earth pony nodded meekly. “Okay then, repeat after me.” She cleared her throat. “Pffbwahahahahah!!”

Minty watched incredulously as the pink pony started rolling on the ground, laughing as though someone was tickling the life out of her. For a full minute, she kept doing it; Minty couldn’t understand how she could laugh at a time like this, but at the same time, she couldn’t help but to smirk at the display. A smirk that turned into a giggle, which turned into full-out laughter. A few moments later, they were both rolling on the grass, laughing as though being lost in the wilderness was the funniest thing in the world.

It took them a few minute to calm themselves down, but when they did, Pinkie told her, “See? There’s nothing to be afraid of.” To her amazement, Minty realized that she was right; all the anxiety, all the fear, was completely gone. They had laughed it all away. Though she knew full well that their situation hadn’t changed in the slightest, for whatever reason it didn’t feel so terrifying anymore. “Alrighty then. First we need to figure out which way we’re supposed to go. Too bad my Pinkie Sense isn’t telling me anything. Any bright ideas?”

Now that she had calmed down, Minty felt sense and reason return to her head. Sure, she had wandered off without a plan before, but she had been very disoriented, and this was a different place altogether. The earth was rich – meaning plenty of food – and even from here, she could see animals walking in the distance. On a whim, she put her ears to the ground, and found that she could hear them too. Very faint sounds, accompanied by equally faint vibrations, told her that this was a place full of life. From the way they strutted about, these creatures seemed to her more, well, crude than any she had ever encountered before, as though they lacked the intelligence of ponies, but they still had a certain pattern to them. A certain instinct that kept them alive; some ran in packs, and some hunted alone, each with their own survival strategy. She was amazed how much she could tell from just the vibrations; was this perhaps what earth ponies possessed in place of wings or magic?

She could also tell that in one specific direction, there wasn’t as much activity. Or rather, the activity was different; another sort of rumble, and… a different kind of earth? Minty took a moment to marvel at how close onto she had become to the world. There, far off into the distance, maybe an hour’s trot away, was the forest they had seen from the air, no doubt about it.

“I’m not sure what you’re listening for, I just hear a rumbling,” Pinkie Pie told her, her own ear on the ground. “Oh wait, that’s my stomach.”

“I know where to go!” Minty told her. “Follow me!”

***

Why was he lying on a cliff surrounded by trees? Why was he all alone? Why was there a parchment scroll lying on the ground next to him?

Then Spike remembered everything that had happened before the creature came and… he shuddered. The thing had hit them, and next thing he knew, here he was, in the middle of nowhere and nopony in sight. Since he was in a forest, he assumed it must be the same forest they had seen on the horizon on their way here. He was a dragon, so of course he could take such a fall; he just hoped the same could be said for his pony friends.

“Hello?” he tried calling. “Anypony there?”

No response. At least, not right away; he was about to scale down the cliff when he heard a voice behind him. “I’m here!” He didn’t recognize the voice at first, but realized it had to have come from one of the ponies from the other Ponyville. Following the voice, it wasn’t long before he stood face to face to…

“Uh, Pinkie Pie?”

“That’s me. Spike, was it? Twilight Sparkle’s pet?”

“Number One Assistant, thank you very much.”

“Right, sorry. What happened to us back there? I remember we were attacked by that big super-scary thing, but it’s kinda fuzzy…”

“Yeah, didn’t look like an Ursa to me, but it’s gotta be something similar,” Spike guessed. “I wonder what happened to it. Did we beat it?”

“A better question would be: where are we, and what happened to our friends? I hope they’re alright…”

“We came out unscathed, didn’t we? Come on, let’s get down from this cliff and look around.”

Spiked hopped onto Pinkie Pie’s back, to which she winced. “What’re you doing?”

“What? I’ll just slow us down if I walk next to you.”

“Oh… guess that makes sense. It’s just that I’ve never had anyone ride on my back before. Feels kinda weird.”

Spike thought about it for a moment. He thought ponies were always lugging stuff around on their backs… but then, what other ponies did probably wasn’t a good indicator when it came to present company. “I’ll try to stay still. Now let’s go find our friends!”

***

It didn’t take long for the denizens of the village to heed the Princess’ words and flee the opposite direction of their home, eager to put as much distance between them and the enormous magical beast as possible. But not all, Trixie realized; a few ponies were rooted in place, either out of fear or reluctance of leaving the village behind. Among them was Rarity.

“…gotta hurry, before it destroys the castle!” the filly protested to something that her purple unicorn friend had said to her.

“Please, Rarity, you have to let it go! Leave your things behind; your life is more important.”

“This isn’t about my things,” Rarity replied. “Well, there’s that too, but I just don’t want to see the castle destroyed! It’s like something inside me is telling me I have to go to it.”

“I actually agree with Rarity,” another unicorn spoke up next to them. “Don’t you feel it too, Cheerilee? We can’t just leave it behind.”

“Of course I feel it!” snapped the purple unicorn named Cheerilee. “But how do you suggest we protect it from something like that? We can always rebuild a castle, but not if we’re…” her expression turned from desperation to frightful shock, as if she had only just now realized something. She spoke a simple word, one Trixie could hardly hear, and certainly not one she was expecting, “…dead.”

“What was that?” the other unicorn inquired.

She gave her head a shake. “What I’m saying is, if we don’t get away from this thing, we won’t be around to return to anything!”

The sentiment gave the others pause. There was a loud crashing sound behind them, and Trixie turned around to see Luna hovering some giant boulders in mid-air around her, throwing them one by one at the Ursa. It caught its attention, and it swung its giant paw at the Princess, which from the looks of it she barely dodged. The monster was now looking away from the town; Luna’s idea seemed to be to lure it away from Ponyville. Trixie sincerely hoped she had a plan, but was starting to doubt even a Princess wasn’t powerful enough to vanquish a Mother Ursa.

Vanquish an Ursa? Trixie’s eyes shot up wide as a thought struck her. Her gaze shifted to the mountain top where she knew the castle lay, and then down at Rarity and her friends. Her heart started pounding furiously as she realized there was something she could do. Any sane pony, like herself in any other situation, would see it as insanity and possibly suicide, but the thought that it would mean saving something dear to Rarity, as well as actually vanquishing an Ursa, gave her all the courage she needed. “There might be a way,” she told the other unicorns as she stepped forward.

“Trixie!” Rarity shone up, coming to her side and giving her a hug. Though it was hardly time for hugs, she allowed herself to give one in return. “I knew you’d think of something!”

“Why, you didn’t think I would let down my number one assistant, would you?” she replied, Rarity’s enthusiasm feeding into her own.

“So what’s your plan?”

“Rainbows!” she announced, her performer-spirit returning, though mostly by self-preservation instinct to keep her nerves from breaking. “The Great and Powerful Trixie was able to control the rainbow with a mere thought, one powerful enough to move these enormous rocks with ease. Yours is the Rainbow Crystal Castle, is it not? If it truly lives up to its name, we can use all the rainbows in the world and drive the Mother Ursa away from this village!”

To her relief, the other ponies actually seemed to buy the idea. “Of course! The rainbows! I’ve yet to see any creature stand against those!”

“I dunno, I’ve never seen any creature tear a hole in a mountain before,” Cheerilee responded doubtfully.

“But what if we were to summon a really big one!” suggested a third unicorn. “All four of us who participated in the Rainbow Celebration are here, after all! What do you say!”

The purple unicorn still looked troubled. Trixie did her best to meet it with confidence, to make it seem that she had everything under control and that she understood the bit about the Rainbow Celebration. Eventually, Cheerilee sighed. “Alright then. Let’s hurry; it looks the Ursa is moving away from the castle. We might not get another chance.”

***

Fluttershy was a little amazed how well she was handling the situation. Maybe it was the tranquility of the forest and all the familiar wild animals around her that eased her heart. It was a forest consisting solely of pine trees, with almost no undergrowth, making the landscape stretching on for infinity between the tree trunks. The ground was mostly flat, but as she walked, it would occasionally slope, and she even came across a small patch of rocky cliffs.

She was about to climb it when the sight of another pony made her jump back. The initial surprise was immediately replaced by relief as she saw who it was. “Pinkie Pie!” she recognized the other-village variant of the pink pony. “And Spike! Oh, thank Celestia you’re okay!”

“No kidding,” replied the baby dragon. “If you’re okay, the other’s gotta be.”

Not sure how to take that remark, she instead asked, “What happened to us back there? All I remember is that we were about to vanquish the Mother Ursa, but then…”

“Yeah, it hit us pretty hard, I think,” Spike told her. The returning fragments of the memory sent shivers down Fluttershy’s spine. “Dunno what happened to it, but I don’t hear it or anything. Maybe the elements hit it as hard as it hit us.”

“If only we knew what happened to the others,” Fluttershy offered. “How are we gonna find them?”

“Guess we could try calling for them,” Pinkie Pie suggested. She raised her voice, “Heeey! Is there anypony out there?!

They waited for a couple of moments, but no answer came. Fluttershy whimpered. Spike, on the other hoof, seemed undeterred. “Guess not, huh. Okay then: Fluttershy, you’re up.”

“I’m what?”

“Up! As in, you can fly up above the trees. Y’know, search from the sky?”

The idea was so simple and obvious, she could not hold back a blush. “Oh… of course.” The tree crowns weren’t that close together to begin with, so if anyone was in the immediate area, she could probably spot them easily. She started flapping her wings, rising from the ground; once she rose above the tree tops, a seemingly endless sprawl of forest spread out before her eyes, dotted here and there by cliffs and treeless patches. They were in deeper than she thought. She swallowed her fear – reminding herself that Spike and Pinkie Pie were right there on the ground – and dared fly a bit higher. There, away in the distance, were the plains of the northern flatland. The opposite horizon was lined with towering mountains, adorned with monstrous clouds.

She lowered herself to a more comfortable altitude, and started looking around the area. She tried calling their names – she had gotten considerably better at raising her voice as of late – but she still doubted her voice would carry very far. After about ten minutes of searching, she touched down on the ground, a disappointed look on her face.

“Guess there’s nothing to it but to hoof it,” Spike surmised. “Question is, which way do we go?” Whilst he contemplated this, his eyes caught something he was holding in his claws: a scroll. His eyes widened. “That’s right, I almost forgot about this.”

“Is it from Princess Celestia?” asked Fluttershy, as Spike unrolled the parchment.

“Seems like it. Let’s see, ‘This is an emergency! Please return to Canterlot as fast as you are able. The Ursa are attacking!’”

***

Shining Armor felt the power flowing from her wife’s horn into his own, filling his body and soul with the purest of bliss. As wonderful of a sensation as it was, he didn’t let it distract him from using that power to construct the magic barrier. Unleashing such powers and banishing an evil Queen had been one thing, but maintaining it, shaping it into a shield powerful enough to withstand the assault of Equestria’s most powerful magical being was another altogether.

He was almost finished. And just in time too, as the grotesque form of a Mother Ursa was starting to appear by one of the mountains. Shining Armor and Cadence were standing on the same balcony where his sister and her friends had defeated the first Mother Ursa with the Elements of Harmony; in one direction was the sprawling yet somewhat wounded landscape of Equestria, and in the other was the entirety of Canterlot City, as well as Ponyville off in the distance. He wondered if the townspeople had noticed the Ursa yet, and what would go through their heads when it was upon them.

The beam of magic vanished from Shining Armor’s horn, proud of his work. The force field had a much deeper shade of purple than the one he had conjured a month ago, and thick enough to actually block some sunlight, casting a dark purple shadow all across Canterlot.

In the very few times when he had actually had to prepare for battle, all of Canterlot’s sizable force had been at his beck and call, but this was a battle only he and Cadence could fight. There was nothing his ponies could do other than maybe distract it, and it was too much risk for too little gain. Still, as the figured loomed ever closer, he started to feel his resolve wane; the company of his Princess was all that gave him the courage to stand firm.

The very moment it was upon them, the behemoth bear raised its paw – in a motioned that seemed strangely intelligent to Shining Armor – and brought it down on the barrier. The impact caused a loud bang, as though a giant hammer had hit the world’s largest bell, and the ringing almost broke his ears. He quickly conjured up a simple ear plug spell, watching the barrier anxiously as it shock and wavered.

It was enough to hold it together, but there were cracks forming where the paw had hit.

Shining Armor’s mind raced as he saw the Ursa recover from the impact, and readying for another blow. It came way too swiftly, and it was only by instincts honed by many years of royal service that jolted him into action, sending a stream of energy at the force field right as the paw hit again. The impact wasn’t felt on the barrier this time, but in Shining Armor’s body. It felt like being hit by an anvil dropped from the sky.

His wife was quick to fill his senses with a healing spell. The sensation was eerily similar to the one he had had to endure when the Changeling Queen had posed as Cadence, but it did make the pain go away… just in time to intersect a third blow with a well-timed, well-placed ray of magical fortification. The blow to his head didn’t get any easier to endure; in fact, it seemed to hurt more the second time.

At least he knew now that with timing and precision, he could deflect the Ursa. The only question was: how long could he hold out?

***

“It’s at times like these that Ah actually envy Rainbow and her wings,” Applejack told Twilight as the two of them made their way south, pointed by the unicorn’s compass spell. “Would’ve made things much easier.”

“Well, I could try lifting you up with magic,” Twilight offered. “Though I’ve never actually tried it o a pony before; supposedly it takes a lot more energy than levitating an inanimate object.”

“Uh, no thanks, sugarcube,” Applejack said apprehensively. “Let’s save that energy for walkin’. Ah just hope the rest of the ponies have sense enough to head back to the field so we can get regroup.”

“And that they’re all okay,” Twilight added in agreement. “We were lucky the tiara and necklace are still on us. I just wish I knew what happened to the Cancer.”

“Cancer?”

“That thing back there wasn’t an Ursa,” Twilight explained. “Though it was definitely made up from the same type of magic, so I think it’s safe to say it’s of the same race. Anyway, I don’t know how far away we got thrown, but if I’d have to guess, I think we would hear it if it was still alive. At least, I hope we would hear it…”

“You and me both.” No sooner had the words left her mouth did she have an idea. “Speaking of hearing, isn’t there a spell or something that can amplify your voice? Y’know, so we can call out to our friends?”

Twilight seemed to follow the idea. “You know what, I think I have just such a spell! I’ve never used it before, but I’ve read about it enough. Let’s see if I can pull it off… you might want to stand back.”

The farm pony heeded her advice and stepped back about ten paces, letting the unicorn do her magic. Her horn sparked up, and a beam of purple light started pouring down her head, gathering by her throat. She coughed, its amplified noise telling her that the spell was working, before she shouted. “Hello? Is there anypony out there?! Rainbow Dash? Rarity?” But before she could finish, the magic glow disappeared. She walked up to Applejack, speaking very hoarsely, “I forgot you’re not supposed to use this spell when shouting; it’s murder on the throat. I’ll have to let my voice rest a bit before I try it again.”

“You did fine, sugarcube,” complimented Applejack. “The whole forest must’ve heard that; ‘least they know we’re okay. Come on, let’s keep walking.”

***

“Well,” the cerulean pegasus reported to her companions as she touched down on the rocky ground, “I can’t see them anywhere around here. There was a forest over that way, but it looked pretty big. They could be anywhere.”

“Of all the worst luck,” Rarity cursed the fates. “Still, we can’t just sit here and twiddle our hooves.”

“If only I had wings like you, darling,” Rainbow Dash’s earth pony double told her sympathetically.

The three of them had found themselves in the midst of a barren mountain landscape, not too far from one another, nor very far from the snowy peaks that loomed over them only about twenty minutes of flight at Rainbow Dash’s speed. “Don’t worry about it,” the pegasus replied bitterly. “Rarity, you’re a unicorn; don’t you have some sort of pony-finding spell?”

“No, my forte is finding gems, not ponies,” she replied matter-of-factly. “Twilight would be the one with the spells for this sort of thing.”

“Nothing else to it then,” Rainbow Dash resigned to her fate. “Guess I just have to wing it. I might be a while, so don’t move from this spot until I get back.”

***

Twilight!” called the baby dragon. “Applejack! Rarity! Anypony?!

As Spike and Pinkie was shouting their lungs out while they ran through the forest, Fluttershy only followed in silence. Canterlot was under attack. And there wasn’t a thing they could do to stop it, unless they could somehow miraculously find their missing friend – not to mention the pony who flew them here in the first place – and fly them the way back before all was lost. What if the carriage had been destroyed? If the Princess herself couldn’t keep one of those monsters away, what chance did they have?

“Come on, Fluttershy, pick up the pace!” Spike ordered; she realized she had been slowing down. She tried pushing those depressing thoughts out of her brain, but they were persistent. She kept thinking about what the Princess had said about the worst case scenario, how all life in Equestria would be no more…

“I know things doesn’t look good,” the other-village Pinkie Pie spoke up. “But we can’t give up yet! The others gotta be somewhere around here. Why don’t you fly up and have another look around?”

Fluttershy really didn’t want to. In this state, she wasn’t even sure her wings would carry her. This wasn’t an immediate emergency like the time when she saved that poor squirrel, or stood up to that dragon; this was a looming, intangible danger that didn’t have an obvious solution. Still, she knew she had to do something. She came to a stop, and took a deep breath. “All right, I’ll try…”

***

“So basically, every year, four unicorns are selected to summon the first rainbow of the season,” one of the unicorns, introduced as Brights Brightly, explained to Trixie as they ran up the slope. “We all come together with our respective colors under the castle’s crystal dome to make the rainbow appear. We were thinking that maybe it’ll work for us again, if we put our hearts into it.”

“Sounds reasonable enough,” Trixie went with it. At least they had a plan, whereas she did not. It wouldn’t be the glorious vanquishing that she could rub in Twilight Sparkle’s face that she had hoped for, but that was the least of her worries. “And this is the most powerful rainbow in all of Unicornia?”

“If the Rainbow Princess herself is making it, how can it not be?” Whistle Wishes joined in. “Not that we’ve actually tried to vanquish anything with it, but if there’s anything that can get rid of a monster of darkness, it’s a rainbow from Crystal Rainbow Castle!” Trixie didn’t even try to seem like she understood the concept of rainbows as they saw it, but she nonetheless hoped that whatever magic had once existed inside their dream world had carried over to reality, and seeing what she had witnessed with the rainbow from before, she remained hopeful. At least a little.

They were about to approach the castle, when the air itself seemed to turn to needles, pricking their skin and making all of her companions gasp. “What’s happening?” Cheerilee said with a strain in her voice.

“It must be the Ursa’s aura,” said Trixie. There really was no other way to explain it; even the Ursa Minor she had faced in Ponyville made her skin tingle – frightening at the time, but nothing harmful – but this was actually painful, even potentially deadly if the Ursa decided to come any closer. But none of that mattered; they only had this one plan to go on, so Trixie gritted her teeth and tried her hardest to remember how to conjure a basic barrier spell. “Just give me a moment…!”

It was hard to remember things with the pricking in her skin nagged on her concentration, but eventually, after what must have been more than a minute, she managed to put up a light blue protection bubble. It was rather small, but it did the job well enough, reducing the painful pricking to a mere tickle.

“Everyony in here,” she ordered. “Hurdle together!” All four of them pressed against Trixie’s body, making sure they were all within the barrier. Slowly, and very uncomfortably, the group started moving toward the castle. Along the way, the Ursa let out of deafening roar that almost toppled the ponies over, but Trixie used her tail and teeth to keep them all together.

The moment they stepped inside the castle, the tingling sensation stopped completely, and Trixie dared disperse the barrier.

***

For all the training Shining Armor had to go through to become a royal guard, and all the hardship he had endure to rise through the ranks, this trial was perhaps the most taxing he had ever had to live through, and he knew it in him that had there been any less at stake, and anypony else at his side, he would probably have fainted a while ago.

Blow after blow, his magical reinforcement hit straight and true, at the cost of severe pain to his body. Magical mending was admittedly not his forte. His magic was powerful, but he wasn’t Twilight; this clunky method was the best he could do. The fact that his wife was healing him after each blow – and by this point, pouring healing magic over him non-stop – was the one life-line that kept him fighting. But he was at his wits end. For all his efforts, the cracks in the barrier were spreading slowly but surely.

But just as his body was ready to quit, the entire mountain to his right crumbled before his eyes. He thought for a moment that fatigue had made him delirious, but Cadence seemed just as surprised as he was. No sooner had his brain started to process that it was actually happening, did the broken pieces of the mountain catch itself in a sort of magical whirlwind, swirling the rock and gravel around in a shape that looked eerily like a creature. A creature with an arm that shot towards the Ursa.

The impact made a crushing sound, but did nothing more than making the Ursa turn its head. It did, however, give Shining Armor a second to breath, and let his wife’s healing spell repair his tired body and mind. The rock-tornado creature then enveloped the monster, which made it really angry. It roared to the sky, flailing its arms at it randomly, effectively turning the rock and gravel to dust that blow away in all directions.

The Captain of the Guards, giving up on trying to figure out the cause of the welcome distraction, readied himself for another onslaught, his body and soul filled with renewed energy.

***

Rarity of Unicornia knew very well this wasn’t the time for celebration, but she couldn’t help but feeling happy to be home. She hadn’t been herself last time she came here, and now she would even get to summon a rainbow! She remembered how good it had felt the last time, when the four of them had summoned one for the Rainbow Celebration. Her wand may not work anymore, but she hoped that the magic of Unicornia still did.

The four unicorns got into position under the crystal dome’s center, pointing their horns at one another. The key to the spell was positivity. She filled her head with all the happy feelings she could muster; she thought of her friends, with whom she had finally been reunited, and she thought of Trixie, who had become nothing short of a big sister to her. She thought of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and all their fun adventures in Canterlot.

All the happiness combined made it very easy to ignite the spark in her horn. The energy gathered inside her head, and she could see the most magnificent rainbow in her mind’s eye. The other four looked on with smiles on their faces as she unleashed the it, sending it out the window and off towards the Mother Ursa. Far away, it let out a loud roar as the rainbow engulfed it, forcing it on its knees with a loud bang.

The rainbow then disintegrated, and the Ursa made its way back to its feet.

The happiness was sucked out of Rarity faster than her mouth could drop in disbelief, replaced instead by dread. Despair, even. They had earned the attention of the monster, and it wasted no time starting to make its way towards them. The castle walls rattled harder the closer it got, as if its very presence was threatening to tear them apart. She shook her head, taking a few steps back, bumping into Cheerilee as she did. It was over. All over. Trixie had warned her about these kind of situations, where it would feel like the world was crashing down on you, and there was nothing you could do about it.

But when she looked upon Trixie’s terrified face, she felt some of the fear wash away. There had to be something she could do, right? Anything at all! That’s when her eyes landed on the magic wand on the floor; it must have fallen out of her mane as she bumped into Cheerilee. In one last desperate attempt, she bent down and grabbed the wand in her mouth, and swung is as hard as she could, hoping beyond hope that its magical powers had somehow returned and would save them all.

What she didn’t expect was all of her negative emotion to explode within her. All the anxiety, stress and fear seemed to amplify tenfold, adding to it the feeling of sorrow, bordering on anger. But the wand did expel something. A beam of some sort, colored only in shades of grey, extended from the tip of the wand, expanding into a bubble that engulfed first the ponies, then the castle, and then all of Unicornia. It eventually reached the Mother Ursa, which reacted as though it was hit by a solid wall, and was unceremoniously pushed back.

Rarity had no idea what she had done, but as the Mother Ursa pounded the bubble with no result, letting out a muffled roar, she knew at least one thing. Unicornia was safe.

---

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for helping out with the editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Fifteen

by Candle Light

“Is something the matter, dear?” Rarity asked, looking worryingly at the cerulean earth pony’s strained expression.

A sudden stab of pain. No, not pain, sadness. Well, not sadness either, rather… dread. Inexplicable dread. Yes, that was the word for it. “I’m not sure,” Rainbow Dash replied. “Something just now gave me this awful sense of unease.”

“Well, that can’t be good,” Rarity surmised. “I just hope there isn’t a Mother Ursa or the likes lurking about.”

She tried to pinpoint the source of the feeling. It felt akin to anger, but also fear; had perhaps the shock from the attack earlier caught up to her? No… this was more like a memory resurfacing from the depth of her mind. But it wasn’t her own.

Then it hit her. “Rarity!”she exclaimed.

“Yes, dear?”’

“No, the other one! Something has happened to her! Ooh, the poor darling is in pain...”

***

This time, there was nothing to distract him from the fact: Shining Armor could go on for no longer. The Mother Ursa would not let up, and both his and Cadence’s magic were getting weaker by the minute. The barrier around the castle was cracked like old porcelain, and wouldn’t withstand much more of this.

As the Captain intercepted another hit, the pain made him topple over. No more, his body decided, refusing to move another muscle regardless of the stakes. He watched the paw descend towards the castle, and he closed his eyes, praying to Celestia that some other miracle would delay the inevitable.

It did. A loud voice he at first did not recognize rang across the balcony. “Now!”

Shining Armor realized that he had not yet been crushed along with the castle, and that it was the Ursa, not he or Cadence, who was roaring in pain. He willed his eyes to open and looked up upon the beast. Countless white shining lines were streaming upwards from the ground to its head, freezing it in place. Cadence was still working her healing magic – probably by instinct, at this point – giving him enough energy to move closer to the balcony railing.

The ground below was littered with what he could only barely make out as unicorns. Hundreds of them, standing just outside the magic barrier, all directing their magic at the Ursa. His unspoken question was answered when Kenbroth the earth dragon appeared next to him, “Well done, Captain. Now rest, and let us take care of things from here.”

“Whu…?” Slowly, the pieces were starting to fall together.

“You see, Shining Armor, even a monster as big as this one will eventually hurt its paw pounding against a wall long enough,” he explained. “Only, it works a bit differently with an Ursa; they don’t hurt anywhere specific; any damage it receives disrupting its cosmic energies, weakening it. This may not be enough to hold it indefinitely, but it will at least buy us some time. I hope my little distraction was of some use.”

“You broke the mountain...”

“I am an earth dragon,” he returned with a grin. “But none of this would have been possible if you had not held on for as long as you did. Now rest, my prince; regain your strength. I’ll think of something from here.” The two exhausted ponies were suddenly enveloped by magic auras and lifted from the balcony floor. Two royal doctor unicorns carried them back into the castle.

***

“Looks like it’s going away.”

Whilst Whistle Wishes kept watch by the window, Trixie was giving Rarity a shoulder to cry against. It was an awkward situation to say the least; she wasn’t sure why she was crying, or if there was something she could do or say to comfort her. Come to think of it, she was crying even harder than she had back at the meadow. Judging by her expression, it almost seemed like she was in physical pain, hyperventilating between sobs.

The realization hit her like an anvil as she connected the dots. “We need to get Rarity out of Unicornia!” she told the group in an urgent voice, picking the filly up unceremoniously and started running out the door. Puzzled, the others followed.

“Out?” Cheerilee questioned. “But what if it comes back!”

“It doesn’t matter; if we don’t, Rarity might not make it,” Trixie pushed. “That spell, I think it did something to the air.” She wasn’t sure how to explain it, or that she even understood it herself, but the slight tingling in her throat could not be a coincidence. “She must have somehow used the dark powers that Discord put into her…” Horrible scenarios were starting to form in her head. “If we don’t get her out of here right now, she might drown in it.”

It was all the convincing they needed. Dashing down the slope, they made their way toward the lake, where the outline of the dark barrier was clearly visible on the sky backdrop. It didn’t take more than a minute before they reached it, and as they ran through, Trixie felt a chill spread through her entire body, and relief as they come through to the other side.

***

Luna held only one thought in her head: there was no time to lose. Another Ursa was attacking Canterlot, she could feel it, and as her telepathic link to her sister had been weakened, she could not say for certain that she was safe. But she know now how to save them. Though she did not know the source of the barrier around the second Ponyville, she instantly recognized it for what it was: concentrated cosmic energy.

Canterlot – surrounded by a purple semi-transparent cracked shell – soon came into view. Her mind raced as she her astute eye caught the monolithic form of a Mother Ursa, half-obscured by the barrier. What came as a surprise, though, was the magic that erupted from hundreds of tiny sources on the ground, directed at the Ursa. They were holding it at bay, much in the same way they had fended off the Ursa terrorizing Equestria in ages past. It wouldn’t hold.

Luna’s idea would assure Canterlot’s safety, but held the risk of tearing Equestria apart were she to make a mistake. But it was the only way to give the Element Bearers the time they needed.

Landed to on the balcony next to Kenbroth, she ordered, “Guide me to the crystal chamber, post haste!”

***

“Fluttershy? Is that you?”

Fluttershy turned around, and beamed when she saw the rainbow-maned pegasus flying towards her, barely noticing the second pegasus flying behind. “Oh, thank goodness!” she squeaked, giving her a big hug. “I thought we would never find you! I-I was starting to think we’d be lost here forever as Equestria falls apart around us, and…”

“Easy there, girl,” Rainbow Dash comforted. “Equestria won’t fall anywhere on my watch! And guess who I found on the way?”

“Oh, Night Gale!” Fluttershy recognized; the stallion gave her a grin. “That’s wonderful!”

“Except I only have myself to show for it,” he told her. “The carriage got smashed clean in half, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, I’m sure we can figure something out,” Rainbow Dash encouraged. “Are you alone, Fluttershy?”

“Oh no, I’m with Spike and Pinkie Pie – the other one – they’re not too far from here. Follow me.”

A short flight and a landing later, there was much rejoicing as Spike and Pinkie moved in for more hugging. “Awesome!” Spike whooped. “That just leaves… well, more than half the group, but it’s a start!”

“I know where Rarity and Rainbow Dash are,” Rainbow Dash told them. “We were flung closer to the mountains, so I flew ahead to look for you. Any ideas on where to find Applejack and Twilight?”

“Well, if I know Twi right,” Spike pondered, “she would probably count on Rainbow Dash to go look for us by air... so she would head back toward the field, where she’d be easier to spot.”

“Sounds reasonable to me,” agreed Pinkie. “Let’s just hope that Applejack’s with her.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Rainbow Dash urged. “The flatland is that way,” she pointed off into the woods, “shouldn’t be more than half an hour’s gallop from here.”

***

“You’re playing with really high stakes, your Highness,” Kenbroth warned as they stepped into the crystal chamber beneath Canterlot.

“I am aware of that,” assured Luna. “If you have a better solution, I would love to hear your input.”

“Unfortunately, I have none,” the earth dragon sighed resignedly. Luna put her horn to one of the pillars. “Alright then. May the stars be with you.”

Luna’s mind once again slipped into an almost endless expanse of magic that was the magic seal, now barely separating Equestria from a surge of cosmic energy of untold proportions. The damage was apparent; wherever she looked, there were whirlpools of blackness and unease, disturbing the few remaining placid waters of harmony in this turbulent magicscape. At this rate, she knew, it would only hold for a maximum of three days.

She was about to shorten it to one. Guided by Kenbroth, she soon found herself face to face with the source of the outpouring, the abysmal crack from which the otherworldly cosmic energy was seeping out. Using the seal’s magic of harmony as a base for her spell, she reached out with her own magic and grabbed a hold of the darkness. It was not an entirely pleasant sensation, but nor was it unbearable, and soon she found herself in full control of it. As Princess of the Night, she had a much deeper understanding of cosmic energies than most. She had to take care not to let too much of it into her spirit at once, or it would overcome her, as it had a thousand years prior.

Spell completed, she channeled the powers of the cosmos reach through rocks and walls of the castle, through the enchantments, engulfing the the city as if it was an extension of herself. She felt the magic hit the Ursa, and was relieved to find that her efforts had not been in vain.

The Ursa was trapped outside. Just as Luna was trapped within.

***

As the Mother Ursa seemed to have gone away, and Luna was nowhere to be found, the villagers of Ponyville and Unicornia decided to approach their home. They stood by the edge of the grayish bubble that now surrounded it, wondering if it was safe to touch. Eventually, a white pony with an ice cream bowl for a cutie mark stepped forward and put a hoof to it. It went through.

“Well, Coconut Cream?” asked Thistle Whistle, adding a nervous whistle. “How is it.”

“It’s cold,” he replied, in a dark voice none of them was yet used to. He dared stretch the hoof a little farther in. “But I think we can go through it... if we make a run for it.”

“I don’t think we have any other choice,” Wysteria agreed, pulling her hoof back after trying touching it herself. “Alright everypony! On the count of three. One! Two… three!”

And so they ran. Wysteria felt a stab of cold through her body as it slipped through, but it was gone the moment she emerged on the other side. Soon all were through, and Sunny Daze breathed out. “Whew, I’m sure glad that’s over.”

“But it’s not over,” Wysteria reminded. She turned to the rest of the crowd, trying to grab their attention, but her soft spoken voice was lost in a sea of murmurs and talk from a hundred other ponies expressing their relief. “Excuse me, but I have something to…” when she realized only a few were listening, she decided to put on her crowd voice. “Hey!” The single word was enough to win her the silence and attention of every pony there. “Thank you. I just wanted to stress that just because we’re back in our village, doesn’t mean we can relax. There are still monsters out there, and we don’t know how long this, uh, bubble will even keep us safe.”

“Come on, Wysteria, loosen up a bit,” one of the ponies told her. “The monster’s gone, we should celebrate!”

“All I’m saying is that we need to keep on our hooves,” she urged them, hotness creeping into her cheeks. Why were they all being so lax about this? “We need to make sure everyone is—”

“Everypony,” corrected Sunny Daze.

“…that everypony is accounted for, and that we have enough food to last us for however long we have to stay trapped in here. We also need to be ready for when the Princess returns, or to pitch in if there is anything we can do to help.”

Razzaroo was the first one to speak up. “She’s right, girls. First things first, we need to make sure everypony’s alright; we can celebrate later.” There was some sounds of disappointment, but most of them seemed to nod and agree, which Wysteria appreciated. She went on, “And let’s face it, Wysteria has always been the one to keep us together at big events and stuff; we should all just let her do her thing.”

Wait, was she trying to push the responsibility to her? She felt herself scowling, but then she caught herself. Of course they would rely on her, and that’s exactly what she wanted. “Uh, yes, of course,” she managed, wondering if maybe stress was starting to get the better of her.

***

“…but then the booger won’t pop out, and you have to like try to scoop it out with your hoof, and that can get really nasty if you don’t know the trick.”

“Ohh, I know, right?” Minty nodded enthusiastically, running alongside Pinkie Pie across the field, getting ever closer to the forest. Just a little longer. “But when you do get it out, you get this feeling of accomplishment! Even moreso now that my hoof is all stiff.”

“I wish I could have those bendy-wendy hooves. Imagine baking with your mouth and your hooves? Why, I bet you could make cupcakes twice as fast!”

“And here I am, still trying to get used to doing stuff with my—hey, isn’t that them?”

“Ohmygosh you’re right!” breathed the pink pony, picking up the pace and making it very hard for Minty to keep up. “Heeeey! Twilight! Applejack!

Ahead, the green pony watched as Pinkie slammed into her lavender friend, sending them into a roll until she stood on top of her. “I’ve missed you so much!” She rubber her nose against Twilight’s. “Even though we’ve only been apart for like an hour or so. And Applejack!”

“Nice to see you too, Pinkie,” Applejack preempted, giving her a hug before she could jump her. “And you, doppelganger of mine.”

“Same… here,” she replied through wheezes.

“Still, that’s quite some lucky timing,” Applejack commented, “coming out of the woods just as you two happened to show.”

Realization hit Minty like a snow ball to the head. She was right: just like with Braeburn’s rescue back at the desert, it was nothing more than luck that they just happened to run into Twilight and Applejack. It made her think, was it all really just luck? Could it be her earth pony senses was picking up on some minute detail she knew she needed to follow? Maybe getting lost in the desert had heightened her survival instincts on a subconscious level. In any case, she was just glad everything had turned out okay, at least for now.

“What’s the plan now, Twi?” asked Applejack. “Do we wait?”

“We wait,” she nodded. “If Rainbow Dash is okay, there is no way she wouldn’t double back from where we came and look for us.”

“You got that right!” Rainbow Dash agreed as she landed right in front of her with a thud, giving the ponies a start. “Great minds do think alike!”

“Good gravy,” Applejack sighed, though looking relieved all the same. “Always with the grand entrances. Good to see you made it.”

“I knew I could count on you.” Twilight gave her a hug. “Any luck finding the other!”

“No, no luck,” she told them, earning her dejected looks. “Only skill!” She pointed a hoof toward the forest, where three more ponies emerged, one of them carrying a small dragon on her back.

All at once, there were cries of names as they all came over to hug and greet: Spike to Twilight, Fluttershy to Pinkie, and Minty was overjoyed to see her Pinkie Pie again. “You really need to stop getting yourself lost without me,” Pinkie told Minty, and she could only agree. She had really grown to like the other Pinkie, but there could be no substitute for the original.

“By the way, where’s Rainbow Dash?” she asked.

“I’ m right he—” The winged pony bonked a hoof against her face. “She and Rarity are on the other side of the forest. We’d better get moving, it’s a bit of a run.”

“Are we still going north,” straight maned Pinkie Pie seemed confused. “After all that happened? Not to mention losing all our stuff.”

“Of course not, but we need to get everyone together so that we can go back vanquish the Ursa that’s attacking Canterlot!”

“What?” erupted Twilight. “Oh no! Celestia is in no condition to defend the city now! It’ll take hours to get Rarity and Rainbow Dash, and we don’t even have a carriage anymore!”

As panic spread across Twilight’s face, the purple little dragon raised his head to say something, but stopped abruptly and clutched his belly. There were a few spasms, and then he burped, and out came a puff marvelously pretty green, along with a scroll, which dropped to the ground.

Spike wasted no time opening it up, as all eyes were on him. “‘Dear Twilight Sparkle, I hope this letter reaches you, as I am writing to tell you that Canterlot is safe,” he read, hearing sighs of relief from the crowd. “Princess Luna has constructed a barrier strong enough to hold off the Mother Ursa, by borrowing the cosmic energies from beyond the seal—”

“Of course!” Twilight beamed, “Ursa are made from cosmic energies, and there’s the theory that two cosmic entities repel one another if... I mean, uh, please continue.”

“Thank you. ‘—but it is also speeding up the rate of which it is seeping into Equestria. You have sixteen hours to find Star Catcher and Kimono, and mend the seals before Equestria is cast into shadow.

“Unfortunately, dragon flame can not pass through the barrier, making it impossible to send letters from your end, so I will not be able to give you my advice; creating even a small opening to send send this one letter was a risk we cannot afford to make again. But I know I can trust in you, my dear Twilight Sparkle, and all of your brave friends. May the sun and the moon be with you.’ Signed, Princess Celestia.”

There was a silence. Applejack was the first to speak. “Well, this changes things.”

“S-sixteen hours!” It was Fluttershy’s turn to panic. “B-but that’s less than a day!”

“Yes,” Twilight agreed, her calm returned, “but sixteen hours should be all we need. If we’re quick about it, we should have no problem reaching the castle well within that time. There’s just one problem,” she added, “and that’s little Rarity. I didn’t want to bring her with us because of all the danger we would be facing, and I figured there would be plenty of time join up with her later, but it looks like we don’t have that luxury anymore; we need all six together if we are to repair the seal. Night Gale,” she addressed the Wonderbolt, “do you know the way to the other Ponyville?”

“I would think so.”

“Then I need you to go there and bring Rarity back to the castle at the Frozen North, as quickly and as carefully as you are able.”

There were some questioning looks from the others. “You want me to bring a child through an Ursa infested Equestria, by myself?” Night Gale asked dubiously.

“Yes, because the fate of Equestria depends on it!” Twilight stood firm. “I don’t like the idea anymore than you do, but it’s our only chance. Do whatever it takes to get her to come along, and protect her with your life. It all depends on you.”

The stallion, though still seemingly uncomfortable with the idea, nodded his head. “Understood. I shall not fail.”

“We all believe in you,” Twilight pepped. “Now go, make good to your name!” And with that, Night Gale rose to the air, and bolted off toward the horizon.

“Sure hope he’s up to it,” said Applejack. “I sorta get the feeling everything’s barely hanging on by a silk thread.”

“Which is why we need to get moving,” Twilight urged, but then halted. “Just... one thing.” The unicorn magically grabbed a long piece of her hair with her magic, and with no aid of scissors, the piece separated itself from her head. She fixed her gaze on the severed hair strands, whereas it and her horn sparked simultaneously. She then hovered it to Rainbow Dash’s mane, tying the two seamlessly together. “It’s a tracking spell,” she explained. “Now you can dash ahead and tell the others we are coming; we’ll just follow the magical beacon.”

“Smart thinking as always, Twilight,” commended the pegasus. “Don’t take too long!” She took off, and was gone from sight in less than two seconds.

***

“Are you sure?” Cheerilee asked her smaller friend.

“Well, we can’t stay out here forever,” Rarity pointed. “I’m okay now, I think. Plus, all the grub’s in there. I’ve been running on grass for way too long!”

“And, like you said,” added Trixie, “what if the the Mother Ursa comes back?” She wasn’t too keen on the idea of going back there herself, but she knew how much Rarity wanted to go home, and trusted in her judgment. “At least in there, we’ll be safe.”

“Okay then,” Cheerilee reluctantly agreed. “On the count of three, we’ll all go toge— Rarity!” The pink unicorn was already on the other side, giving the others no choice but to run after.

As the little filly galloped toward the village, all traces of her breakdown was gone, smiling from cheek to cheek like the happiest pony in the world. When they appeared in square of Unicornia, nobody seemed to be home, but she could hear voices coming from farther down the road. Rarity ran ahead to greet them, her convoy in tow, which suited Trixie just fine; she would rather avoid having to explain why one of the houses stood empty.

“Lily!” Rarity exclaimed. “Butter Milk! Fairy Glow!”

“Oh Rarity, I’m so glad you’re safe,” Lily replied as they group hugged. “We were afraid the monster had gotten you. Where did you run off to?

“Well, uh, it’s a long story,” she dodged. “But guess what, I made a new best friend. Let me introduce you to Trixie! She took care of me when I was lost and lonely. She can be a bit crass sometimes, but she’s actually really nice.”

“Yeah, I remember, you tried to put up a show for us, before the monster showed up,” said one of the ponies. “I’m Butter Milk, and this is Lily Lightly and Fairy Glow. Any friend of Rarity’s is a friend of ours. Welcome to Unicornia, such as it is.”

“Well uh, thanks, pleasure’s all mine,” Trixie replied, smiling awkwardly. Rarity’s friendship was one thing, but being treated so openly by ponies she had never met made her really uncomfortable. But for Rarity’s sake, she played along.

“We were on our way to the castle?” said Lily Lightly. “Is it still there? The monster didn’t destroy it, did it?”

“Nah, it’s fine. I was on my way there too. My room is probably a mess now; I haven’t cleaned it in ages, literally.”

***

Home at last. Not through a veil of despair and dark magic; just home, and no rampaging monsters threatening to tear it apart. Sure the monsters were still out there, and truth be told, the air inside the protective bubble didn’t taste as fresh as it used to. But home was home.

“Everything seems to be in order,” Butter Milk assessed. “Pink curtains, check. Crystal dome, check. Trapdoor that leads down to some kind of secret storage, check.”

As the others went around making sure everything was where it should be, Rarity made her way up the stairs toward her room, dragging Cheerilee and Trixie with her. She found it just the way she left it, unkempt and homely. “Welcome to my room, Trixie!” she announced. “That’s my bed over there, and my closet – you don’t want to open that – and that’s my desk… and that’s pretty much it!”

“Not bad,” Trixie admitted, looking out the window. “Nice view, too.”

“Seriously though, you should get cleaning,” Cheerilee commented. “Technically you haven’t done that in what, a thousand years?”

“I don’t mind,” Trixie told them. “Kind of reminds me of my room, from when I was a foal. That was a long time ago, never had one since.”

“So you’ve been living in a carriage your whole life?” Rarity asked.

“Pretty much,” she admitted. “That, or whatever cheap inn I could find. I guess it wasn’t so…” but whatever she said was lost to Rarity as her mind started to race. No room of her own? Jumping from place to place? It all sounded so familiar. But she’d lived in the Rainbow Crystal Castle her whole! She had never been in any town fraught with poverty, in a small house surrounded by five siblings, always hungry and only a small cupboard to call her own. She was never sold off to another family, spending months on the road before settling down in another poor town...

“Are you even listening?” Trixies voice cut through the veil. “Rarity? What’s the matter?”

“Oh!” she abruptly snapped out of it, feeling rather dizzy. “I-I don’t know. Something you said reminded me of something, but can’t remember from when. Cheerilee, I’ve lived here my whole life, haven’t I?”

“Of course you did. I remember taking care of you as a foal... trust me. Why, what did you remember?”

“I’m not sure. Like, I was in this big family, and really hungry and cold… and then I was…” the lingering emotions spoke stronger than the images, and she struggled to get the words out. “I-I was abandoned… by my own…”

“Say no more,” Cheerilee stopped her, pulling her into an embrace. “Whatever it was, that’s not how it is now.”

“It’s okay…” Rarity told her, wiping her eyes. She had cried enough for one day.

“Do you think it could have been a suppressed memory?” Trixie suggested. “From a thousand years ago, before Discord put you all in the time loop?”

Cheerilee looked alarmed at the prospect, but she softened her expression as she turned to Rarity. “Be that as it may, it doesn’t change who we are right now. No need to think about the past.”

“I know,” Rarity agreed. “Anyway, let’s go give Trixie the grand tour of the castle! I’m sure you’re gonna love the ball room.”

***

Okay, so maybe flying ahead wasn’t such a good idea after all. Being the fastest flier in Equestria, she had been waiting for hours for her friends to catch up, all the while having to listen to the two most hardcore fashion divas in Equestria. “Red and green socks? But darling, one would think that would cancel one another out, would it not?”

“I know, darling, but Minty has a, well, special taste in socks. I try to make them for her whenever I can, but when she goes off on her own, the results are almost always… interesting.”

“Well, at least she’s not as bad as Pinkie Pie; would you believe, this one time when she—”

Needless to say, she was bored out of her skull. She had passed the time by scouting the area, but nothing more interesting than trees and mountains graced the near vicinity. She had also tried practicing her state-of-the-art sure-to-woo-the-Wonderbolts signature moves, but since her counterpart and Rarity were too busy discussing socks and color schemes to pay any attention to her, she quickly grew tired of it. She needed to preserve her strength anyway. All she really wanted was to grab everypony and fly them off toward the castle. Weren’t they in a hurry? And for that matter, wouldn’t it be quicker if Twilight would just use her fancy magic and zap them all to where they needed to go?

“You know, Rarity, I think you and I could do wonders together,” the wingless Rainbow Dash complimented her partner-in-fashion. “We simply must discuss a future joint… that is, if we can save the world from eternal darkness, first.”

“You bet we will!” Rarity agreed passionately, grabbing her dramatically by the shoulder. “With our combined sense of style, not even the cosmos itself can stand in our way!”

Unless you bore Equestria to death before the Ursa even get a chance, the pegasus thought bitterly. As luck would have it, that’s when she heard hoof steps coming from around the cliff. She shot up, and ran to greet her friends just as they came around the corner. “Girls!” she called, giving the nearest pony a big hug, which happened to be Twilight. “I’m so glad you made it! Can we please get going?”

“We can take a hint, Rainbow Dash,” her double said, “but just look at the poor darlings, they’re exhausted!”

“Yes, well,” Twilight replied between wheezes. “Rest would be nice.”

“Whatever you say, Twi,” said Applejack. “But let’s not stick around for too long; Ah don’t like the idea of Equestria bein’ covered in darkness an’ that.”

“Right, just for half an hour. That will give us some time to find something to eat.”

“There’s a patch of grass right down the mountain,” Rainbow Dash told them. “Please, allow me to take you there.”

***

Thistle Whistle let out a long, resigned whistle as she gazed across the landscape outside the gray magic dome, toward the lake and Butterfly Island. She wanted to go back there, but her friends kept telling her it was too dangerous. So instead, she flew around in circles, passing the time as best she could. She felt all antsy inside; maybe it was all the worry of everything going on in the outside world, or that this downtime in the action had given her time to think some more things. Being told your whole life had been a dream wasn’t something you could easily accept in just a few days, after all. Whatever the case – perhaps the combination of both – she was hurting for something to do.

“What do you mean, calm down?!” she heard a pony shout, almost freezing up Thistle Whistle’s wings. Ponies were never shouting at each other. “My house is empty, and you want me to calm down?!” Curiosity getting the better of her, she landed near the outskirts of Unicornia Square.

“I’m just saying we should think about it calmly before we start to freak out,” another pony, whose name escaped Thistle Whistle, replied. “Your things were here before we left; they can’t have gone far. Nothing to get you mane in a knot about.”

“Well, excuse me if I care about my house and my things,” replied the first pony, clearly affronted. “Imagine if all of your stuff suddenly disappeared, wouldn’t you be upset? Oh, but of course, you’re so neat and tidy, you would never let your stuff wander off, am I right?”

“There really is no need for that kind of tone, missy,” the other pony flared up. “You always forget things anyway, maybe you simply forgot that you were moving before we were shipped off to Canterlot. Ever think about that?”

“Hmph, some friend you are! You know what, if I ever do find my stuff, maybe I will move, so I don’t have to see your stupid—”

Stop!” cried Thistle Whistle, unable to stomach anymore. She approached the two quarreling ponies, nervous and unsure, whistling perhaps a little too loudly. “I-I don’t think that – pwee – g-going at each other’s throat is going to help anyone.” The mad glares from both ponies made her shrink against the ground. “I-I mean… you don’t need to say that to each other, y-you’re – pwee – friends… aren’t you?”

To her relief, both faces softened, and the two exchanged look. The pony with the empty house rubbed her forehead. “Golly, you’re right, Whistle. I’m not usually this jumpy...”

“No, it’s my fault, I was the one being inconsiderate,” the other apologized back. “I’ve been feeling a little bit off ever since we came back from Canterlot; I guess I took everything you said the wrong way, and…” all of her sudden, her eyes widened. “Took it the wrong way…” Her gaze was distant, as though she was trying to remember a word.

“What’s the matter?”

“I dunno… I just had this weird feeling of Déjà vu. I don’t have a little brother, do I?

“Not that I know of? Heck, I didn’t even know there were guy ponies until a few days ago.” At that, they shared a small laugh.

“So, eh,” Whistle Wishes tried. “Are you two good now?”

She sighed. “Yeah, let’s just forget about this whole thing. Would you help me look for my things?”

“Always.”

With a smile on her face, Thistle Whistle flew off, flying toward the castle. She was happy they were able to make up, but couldn’t help but wonder what had sparked the argument in the first place. She gazed off into the distance, at the landscape obscured by the barrier. A bit off ever since they got back from Canterlot, huh...

***

“That’s weird,” Cheerilee pointed out. “This door wasn’t here before.”

Rarity had been very eager to show Trixie every inch of the castle, from every pony’s private room to the big crystal dome, from the royal Ball Room to a room literally full of balls, the kind foals could climb onto and bounce around on. Trixie had gotten bored of it rather quickly, but Rarity – after figuring out how to use magic to compensate for the lack of sticky hooves – was enjoying herself to her heart’s content. Cheerilee called to her, and she bounced over. “I don’t remember this being here.”

“Hey, you’re right! What’d ya say we go explore?”

“Now hold your horses, we don’t know what’s down there,” said Cheerilee, concern in her eyes. “You’ve been through enough danger as it is; the others and I will check it out later, so we know that it’s safe.”

“Aww, but that’s no fun,” the little pony replied dejectedly. “Aren’t I allowed to explore my own castle? What could be so dangerous?”

“She does have a point,” Trixie spoke up in her defense. “I doubt there’s anything in there worse than what she’s already been through.”

“I don’t want to take that chance,” Cheerilee stood firm. “No offense, Trixie, but you don’t know Rarity like I do; she’ll run away, hide, touch everything she can find…”

“C’mon Cheerilee, give me some credit,” Rarity countered. “I know when to stay put. Running away is the last thing I would do.”

As Cheerilee still looked a bit reluctant, Trixie suggested, “How about this, Rarity; Cheerilee and I will go in first and have a quick look around, and it looks safe, we’ll call for you.”

“But—”

“We’ll be back before you know it,” Cheerilee assured, seemingly alright with the plan. “I know you wouldn’t run away, but we can’t be too careful now, can we?”

Rarity’s frown lifted, as she seemed to give it some thought. “Well… alright. Just promise you’ll be back soon.”

“We will.” Cheerilee turned her attention to the door, as Rarity continued bouncing about. Cheerilee put her hoof on it and gave a push. It swung open softly and without a creak. Beyond was a corridor covered in darkness, save for a faint glow coming from the walls themselves. As the two of them walked through it, Trixie used her magic to gently shut the door behind them.

There was just enough light in the corridors to see the paintings on the wall – a sort of abstract art that was lost on Trixie – as well as what looked like a spiral stair case at the far end. As they started following it down, Cheerilee commented, “Well, this certainly wasn’t part of the old castle.”

“No kidding,” replied Trixie, eying the rather eerie pictures that adorned the walls. “Do these paintings mean anything to you?”

“I… I’m not sure. I want to say yes, but I couldn’t tell you why.”

Curiosity taking over, she went on to ask, “Do you remember anything from before the spell?”

“Not a thing. Of course I’m curious, but after seeing how Rarity reacted, I’m not sure I want to anymore.”

“Well, as you said, it doesn’t change who you are right now,” Trixie reminded. “No need to think about the past, right?”

Cheerilee gave her a smile. “I guess you’re right.”

Something about that smile, the gentleness in her voice, warmed Trixies body in a way she never thought possible, and suddenly she found herself glad it was dark enough to cover up her blush. Amplified by the fact that each step she took down the stairs, she began to realize what had just come out of her own mouth. The past doesn’t change who you are right now… what a concept! Cheerilee and Rarity’s situation was admittedly a bit different, and could hardly be applied to herself, but nonetheless, the fact that she was trusting another pony – one she had met not even a day earlier, enough to have such a deep conversation – had to count for something.

“By the way,” Cheerilee spoke up, before the pause could get too awkward, “thank you… for looking out for Rarity, I mean. She’s always been one to befriend anyone she meets, but I’ve never seen her take such a shine to anyone like you before.”

Well,” she offered a somewhat forced laugh, “I suppose that’s what happens when you go at each other’s throats hard enough.”

“The one thing that was missing from her life, I suppose...”

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, they could barely see their outstretched hooves in front of them. Trixie lit up her horn, revealing a round chamber, the floor sagging like a bowl in its center, with six pillars lined up in perfect symmetry around the indentation. Carefully, the two ponies approached the middle; there was a clear presence of magic in the room, and in contrast to the dark atmosphere and the ominous air above, it felt rather nice. Cheerilee must have felt it too, as she let out an awestruck, “What is this place?”

“Good question.” Trixie moved closer to inspect the pillars. For each one she passed, she noticed a faint but distinct color glowing from its center: yellow, indigo, green, orange pink and... rainbow? As she stared intently into the green one, she almost thought she could see a reflection of a room that didn’t quite match the one behind her.

That’s when she almost had a heart attack, as a figure of a pony – most definitely not Trixie or Cheerilee – appeared in the reflection. Cheerilee turned around, gasping as she saw the reflection. “Kimono?!”

***

Seeing her unicorn friend on the other side of the pillar, Kimono breathed a sigh of relief. So far so good. In retrospect, much of her success up till this point had been the work of sheer, dumb luck, and she dreaded the fact that she might have to rely on it again for things to come. From the other side, Cheerilee spoke incredulously, “Are you alright? Where are you? Everyone’s been looking for you!”

“I know, Cheerilee, and I’m fine,” she returned. “I am at the Crystal Castle in the Frozen North. I’m sure you have many questions, but first, I must ask that you listen to me. Tell me, where is Rarity?”

---

Special thanks to Tess Tesseract for help with editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Sixteen

By Candle Light

“Nineteen Mother Ursa and counting,” Kenbroth reported to the Princess of the Sun. “We have successfully evacuated twelve towns, moving the citizens into caves protected from the Ursa aura by our mages. The major cities are still safe, fortunately, but I believe one of the monsters might have its sight set on Manehattan.”

Eight hours had passed since the Princess had sent the letter to Twilight Sparkle, and thanks to the nonstop effort of her medical staff – though she was told her sheer willpower had helped speed up the process immensely – she was now well enough to move around, though still plagued by sporadic headaches. She could only manage menial magical tasks, and was in no fit shape to defend a nation. “It would seem that once again, we must leave the fate of Equestria on the saddles of my students.”

“I only wish I could share your confidence, Princess,” Kenbroth offered. “Though I suppose we have little choice but to hope an pray at this point. I have done everything in my power to rally the ponies of Canterlot to Equestria’s aid, but should our time run out...”

“It won’t,” Celestia told Kenbroth with as much certainty as she could muster. “Never forget, these are the wielders of the Elements of Harmony, the ponies that once saved Equestria from eternal night, stopped Discord’s evil rampage, and also played a part in fending off an army of Changelings.”

“Admirable indeed, Your Highness. All I’m saying is that if – and I do mean if – the worst should comes to pass, we should be prepared with a backup plan.”

“Should that time come, Luna and I will do everything within our might to move each and every living creature out of harm’s way,” the Princess promised. Though in reality, she wasn’t sure what she could accomplish in her current state, a concern that reflected on the earth dragon’s expression. “But remember, Kenbroth, Equestria is our home, the fruit of thousands of years’ worth of history and culture. That is not something so easily replaced.”

“I realize that, Your Highness; I am merely suggesting that we keep the back door open, as it were. I have a few things in mind that—”

“—that would distract our efforts of keeping Equestria safe for as long as is necessary. Think, even if we were to flee, where would we go? What land that hasn’t been claimed by the races would there be left to us to call our own? No, old friend, this is one time where we must stand our ground, for it is not just our lives at stake, but the very balance of peace that we have fought for over a thousand years to build.”

There was a brief silence where Kenbroth looked to be contemplating her words. A moment later, he simply said, “Well, then I only hope our little ponies have it under control.”

“You and I both. But I believe from the bottom of my heart that Twilight Sparkle and her friends will pull through. I share your concern, Kenbroth, but there comes a time in everypony’s life where we are forced to take a leap of faith.”

***

“Isn’t that the castle over there?” pegasus Rainbow Dash asked excitedly, as the group of ten ponies and a baby dragon gazed across the snow-covered valley. It was faint, but off in the distance on the other side of the valley, through the veil of whirling snow, there was an unmistakable glow of green amongst the landscape of white.

“I believe it is,” Twilight confirmed, a sense of accomplishment filling her chest. It had been just about nine hours since they set off from the northern flatland, and though she knew their remaining time was closing in on them, she felt confident that they had more than enough.

“Look at how green it is!” Minty breathed, much akin to how Rarity would react to a particularly large diamond. “Come on, ponies, we haven’t a minute to lose!”

The gang swiftly found their way down the rather steep cliff-side, taking care not to trip, until the ground panned out into sparse collection of trees. Cold bit into their skin as they walked, and Twilight wished Night Gale had thought to bring some clothes from the crashed carriage. Working their way through the deep snow, Applejack brought up, “Ah sure hope you still know where we’re goin’, Pinkie. Not sure how else we’re gonna find Star Catcher in a place like this.”

“Don’t worry, I know,” the straight maned pink pony assured her. “Well, sorta; it’s kind of a blur, but it’s not that far from the castle. I think.”

“Don’t worry, double of mine,” her counterpart told her cheerfully. “If there’s one thing Pinkie Pies are good at, it’s finding where ponies are hiding!”

“I can attest to that,” Rainbow Dash agreed. “And let’s not forget these babies,” the pegasus flapped her wings. “If push comes to shove, I could just grab Twi let her do some sort of magic search sweep from the sky.”

“We could,” replied the unicorn, “but in this weather, I’d rather avoid it.” She had considered the plan herself, as it was much more solid than relying on a vague premonition, but the other-village Pinkie Pie hadn’t led them astray so far, and they all needed to conserve their strength.

As the journey progressed, the trees became tighter and the taller, and it occurred to Twilight that this place, much like the Everfree Forest, had remained untouched by ponykind, left to fend for itself. Which meant they were likely to be wild animals, not found in other regions of Equestria. With Fluttershy on their side, she wasn’t too worried, but there was always the danger that something would catch them off guard.

They found no wild animals, but what they did find gave them pause all the same. A crevice, deeper than she could make out, stretching all the way to the other side of the valley, where a parts of the mountain looked to have been blown clean off in an unnatural shape.

“Whoa Nelly!” Applejack exclaimed, barely saving herself from an unpleasant drop as she backed away from the hole. “Where’d all this come from?”

“This wasn’t done by nature,” Twilight deduced. “There is a definite trace of magic in the air.”

“You think the Mother Ursa was here?” Rarity asked. She gasped, adding, “Maybe it’s still in the area!”

“If it was, we would have seen it by now,” Twilight calmed her fears. “Or at least sensed the quake of their foot steps; they’re pretty hard to miss. Although, we probably shouldn’t stick around, in case whatever did this comes back.” Pointing towards the hollowed out mountain, she added, “We should be able to climb without any problems over there.”

If this was indeed the work of an Ursa, Twilight pondered, what could have provoked it to break apart the land? There wasn’t anypony here, and any wild creature with any self preservation instincts would know to stay clear of such monstrosity. Maybe it wasn’t an Ursa, but a Cancer, like the one they encountered on the flatland. If that was the case, was it still lurking underneath their hooves? Her mind wandered at the prospect of running into cosmic entities still unknown...

What they encountered instead was a lone unicorn stallion, levitating rubble from the base of the mountain farther up ahead.

Twilight decided to take first initiative. “Hey, you there!” He turned around, obviously not expecting to see an entourage of ponies and a baby dragon walk toward him. “What are you doing all the way up here?”

“Actually, I could ask you the same thing,” the stallion replied, his eyes wide. “What brings Twilight Sparkle herself up to this remote part of the country?”

Twilight eyed the stranger curiously. “Do I... know you?”

“No, but there isn’t a foal alive that doesn’t know the name of the Princess’ personal protege.”

Twilight let out a small laugh. She knew she was famous, but it had never really occurred to her just how famous. “We’re headed for the castle further up the mountains,” she told him. “It’s a long story, but the short of it is, we need to go there in order to prevent the destruction of all life in Equestria.”

The stallions first reaction was that of disbelief, but all too quickly, his face turned grim. “I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise; all sorts of crazy things have been going on lately. This mountain right here? It used to be my home town.”

“Your... home town?” Twilight parroted. “B-but how could there be a town all the way up here?”

“It’s not uncommon to see pony settlements this close to the border. Some prefer the harsh freedom over Celestia’s controlled rule.” The way he spoke of the Princess so casually irked Twilight, but she let it slide. “Not that it matters now. Luckily, no pony was caught up in the blast, but as you can see, our town is gone. That’s why I’m here, hoping to find some food that might’ve survived the blast.”

“Oh, you poor darling,” earth pony Rainbow Dash sympathized. “How did it happen? Was it one of those giant monsters?”

“There was no monster,” he said, bitterness in his voice. “Just a pony.”

The statement almost made Twilight lose her balance where she stood, as her mind sped into overdrive. “A unicorn did this?!”

“Not a unicorn, a pegasus. A normal pegasus pony lost on her journey. She didn’t seem to know much about Equestria, so we figured she must be from beyond the border. We offered her food and a place to stay, when a surge of magic went and—”

He paused, his gaze landing on Fluttershy. His eyes shot up and his voice flared. “You!” The yellow pegasus jump in fright. “It was you!” He approached Fluttershy menacingly, leaving her covering in the snow. “How dare you show your face here, after—”

“Hey, back off!” the winged Rainbow Dash shouted, pushing him away. “You think Fluttershy tore down your village? What the hay is wrong with you?”

The surprise from the sudden outburst must have calmed him down a bit, as the anger in his face melted away. Slowly, he looked around the cerulean pegasus, watching the yellow one’s almost teary face carefully. “No...” he spoke lowly. “You’re not her... are you?”

“Um... sorry?”

“No need to apologize to him, Fluttershy.”

“She’s right,” said the stallion. “I’m sorry, I jumped to conclusions. It’s just that, you look almost identical to that pegasus. Now that I think about it, I think she was more whitish than yellow... and she had a strange mark on her forehead.”

Twilight, Minty and Rainbow Dash all reached the same epiphany. “Star Catcher!”

Pinkie Pie’s face beamed. “She was here?”

“Hold on, so you do know this pony!” the stallion asked incredulously.

“But of course, darling, she’s one of our best friends,” earth pony Rainbow Dash told her, but tensed as she realized the implications of the statement. “B-but darling, she wouldn’t harm a fly! I’m sure there’s an explanation for all this.”

“She’s the Element of Magic...!” Twilight realized. It opened up a whole slew of new questions, but it was the only explanation that made sense right now. “As a pegasus, she doesn’t know how to control her powers. She must have fled into the mountains to avoid any more casualties.”

“So that’s why she was so sad,” straight maned Pinkie Pie remembered. “I hope she’s okay.”

“Well, good luck helping your friend, then,” said the stallion, an edge in his voice. “Me, I got things to find in the ruins of my city, and then I gotta go and help some three dozens of ponies left homeless with no food.”

“I... I’m sorry about your village,” Twilight spoke for all of them, “but please understand, it was an accident.”

“I’m sure it was. But that doesn’t change the fact that ponies might starve because of her.” And with those parting words, he walked away toward another part of the cliff-side, and began searching the rubble anew. Leaving Twilight with sensation in her stomach colder than the wind blowing in her mane.

***

“Big Mac?!” Apple Bloom exclaimed as her family walked through the gates of Canterlot Castle. “Granny? What’re you two doin’ here?”

“Jus’ a lil’ trouble brewin’ down the village,” Granny Smith replied, as the little filly ran to meet her great grandmother. “All o’ Ponyville’s being shipped off into th’ city. Some nice dragon creature told us we could stay here with you in th’ castle.”

Apple Bloom’s stomach knotted. “Is the village okay? Has one of those monsters come near it.”

“Not one,” Granny told her. “Ah tried tellin’ th’ Canterlot folks we’d give ’em a good smackin’ if they tried comin’ close, but they kept goin’ on ‘bout bein’ more than we can handle. Stubborn ol’ young’ins. Th’ orchard ain’t gonna tend to itself, right sonny?”

“I dunno, Granny,” replied Apple Bloom’s big brother, Big Macintosh. “Things’ve been mighty out of sorts lately. Maybe it’s better that we wait it out.”

“Bah, yeh always were such a softy. Why, back in mah prime, Ah woulda gone out there and show them cretin what the Apple Family is made—”

“Madam Granny Smith,” a guard pony interrupted, “Sir Big Macintosh, Miss Apple Bloom, Miss Scootaloo, we have prepared a room for you in the castle; we will tend to your needs there.” Addressing the small white unicorn, he added, “Miss Sweetie Belle, a pony will come along and take you to your parents.”

“Aw, can’t they come here instead?” the white-hued filly pleaded, not wanting to leave her friends.

“It can be discussed later; your family is very worried, and insisted that I—” the guard pony’s words stuck in his throat, his eyes widening to the shape of saucers as he slowly lifted his head upward. Apple Bloom first wondered what was so scary about Sweetie Belle’s parent, but as he began taking steps back, she turned around to see what he was look at.

A Mother Ursa was staring down upon the castle courtyard, like a fiery mountain with a face. Apple Bloom’s heart almost stopped; the gray barrier surrounding the city had allowed the monster to soundlessly approach the castle close enough for her to make out its nostrils, from which boiling heat blew with every breath. The only reason Apple Bloom didn’t scream was because her two friends and her family – as well as the guard – were cramped together in fright.

And yet, the beast did nothing, only stared. Looking at the ponies as though they were fish in an aquarium. But it was enough to send unadulterated fear into Apple Bloom’s little heart.

Then it simply walked away. No sound of its gigantic footsteps, no vibration from its massive weight; it was just gone, like a ghost. Apple Bloom, first to snap out of it, ran over to the open castle gate, where she had a view of the great expanse south of Canterlot. The colossal creature, clumsily and bearlike, was walking away from the city.

She breathed a sigh of relief. Only to swallow it it as she realized where it was headed. Off in the distance, almost distorted through the Mother Ursa’s reality bending presence, was Ponyville. Admittedly, the village had been wrecked time and again in the past, but never like this. Never having to bear witness to every moment from afar. For each step, the surrounding buildings were blow apart: first a huge chunk of the Apple Trees, then the town hall...

When the Ursa was gone, Ponyville was nothing more than rubble. Big Mac and Granny Smith walked up beside her, and more than shock, she felt a pang of appreciation for the fact that they were all safe within the walls of Canterlot. When this was all over, Ponyville could always be rebuilt...

***

“It’s so... green,” Minty swooned, looking as though she had been given the greatest gift in the world, staring at the marvelous crystal castle as they approached. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful!” This was undoubtedly the biggest castle yet, dwarfing the one in the Everfree Forest by a considerable margin, and Twilight’s eyes were drawn to the fine details of the towers. Perhaps this had been part of a big city of the ancient pony civilization who created these castles.

Rarity didn’t seem any less smitten. “It is, isn’t it! If only I could pick off just a tiny piece of that wall, why, I bet I could make the most fabulous—”

“Focus, you two,” Applejack snapped them out of their reverie. “So what’s the plan, Twi?”

Since Kimono was nowhere to be found, there were only two likely possibilities: either she was waiting for them inside, or she had yet to arrive. In either case, they needed to handle this with utmost caution. “I think it’s best that I go in alone. We can’t be too careful, or she might run away again. If nothing else, we know that she wanted to meet with me. Don’t come in until I tell you it’s safe.”

“Very well,” the wingless Rainbow Dash conceded. “Just... do give her our regards, darling. Let her know we are all here for her.”

“I’ll do that,” Twilight assured her. “I’ll be right back.”

Even the front gate was disproportionately enormous, and Twilight did not have it in her to pass up examining the detailed carvings around on the door. It wasn’t everyday you came across imagery from a pre-Equestrian era. They depicted ponies, that much she could tell, but they looked quite different from what she was used to seeing on the window paintings in Canterlot. Their faces were carved as triangles, with a single line representing all facial features. The rest seemed defuse and unintelligible; there were a plethora of different runes and signs – some lines she believed represented mountains, and what might have been a sea. As her eyes began to adjust to the patterns, she realized that some of these runes, when viewed in the right way, almost looked like the outlines of a bear.

She was pulled out of her own head when Rainbow Dash called on her, asking if she was going in or not. She pulled herself together; this wasn’t the time to be distracted.

***

Wysteria breathed heavily, tears still running down her cheeks, frantically trying to grasp the situation in her mind. These last few hours had been the the most trying times in her life.

At first, ponies had been listening to her just fine. Since the Canterlot ponies that were suppose to assist them hadn’t returned yet, Wysteria had done what she could to keep the villagers happy, helping out with things such as rationing the food that the Princesses had given them, and creating a temporary home for the Breezies in the garden. But then, things had taken a turn for the worse. Some ponies suddenly could not get along with one another, or someone was throwing a fit about menial things like not being able to eat their favorite treats anymore. Others were crying for no obvious reason, and more than once, there were quarrels the likes of which she had never seen before.

And before she knew it, she was lost, screaming at anyone who got too close. She hated them. Had always hated them. For pushing responsibility onto her. For never listening to her. For forcing her into being a princess. It all reached a breaking point when she decided to silence one of the children – one of the only three in Ponyville, not counting Rarity – by hitting her. It was at that moment of sheer guilt and desperation that she regained what little sanity was left in her, long enough to run away, through the barrier and into the field of boulders. There, she cried, letting it all out, unable to understand what she had done as her sense of self slowly came back to her.

There was no doubt in her mind: the magic bubble around the village was the cause. She should have seen the signs; ever since they stepped inside that thing, everypony had been on edge. Whatever sorcery was protecting them, was also eating away at their happiness.

She dreaded having to go back, but what choice did she have? Her friends needed her. She needed them. She needed to make things right, before they tore each other apart. Thinking about it made her sick to her stomach; she had never felt such fierce emotions before. Yet somehow, it felt strangely familiar... even natural. That scared her the most.

She forced herself to focus on the immediate task, and started moving, mind racing with ideas of how to tackle this dilemma. Perhaps if she could get them to listen long enough to tell them what was going on, they could all make an effort to stay their emotions, hide inside their houses until the danger was past. Though she suspected few would be in the right mind to listen right now; she might have to lure them out of the barrier first. Provided the monster would stay away...

When she reached the edge of the gray bubble, she only stood there for a while, staring into the darkened village beyond. No pony was in sight, which was for the best; she wasn’t sure she was ready to face anypony just yet. Nonetheless, she had to act quickly; every minute they stayed in there, the deeper they would sink into despair. With these thoughts in mind, she sighed, and took the plunge back into the barrier.

The effects weren’t obvious or immediate; in fact, she felt no different at all. This small realization sparked a glimmer of hope; maybe if they set up camp near the edge of the barrier, and took breaks outside whenever the monster wasn’t around, perhaps they could withstand the dark magic’s influence until the crisis was over. Not a perfect plan, but it was a start.

As she set off toward the town square, contemplating on what would be the best way to get everypony’s attention, she caught sight of an opening in the cliff to her right. Kimono’s cave. Chills went down her spine as she remembered her last visit, and how Twilight Sparkle and her friends had said something about Discord’s dark presence lurking in there. She hadn’t sensed anything at the time, but now, as she eyed the entrance to the cave, she was beginning to notice something. The air around the entrance seemed distorted, as if heat waves was coming out of it. Against better judgment, Wysteria approached the mouth of the cave.

There was no heat. On the contrary, she felt an uncomfortable coldness tug at her skin. A drop of sweat dripped from her brow, and she felt from the very core of her being that she didn’t want to be there anymore. Through sheer force of will, she overcame the fear long enough to take a few steps backwards, until she passed through the bubble, which cut off the sensation. She sat down, panting, terrible scenario’s flowing through her head.

But there was no time to dwell on them; an ear splitting roar that almost made her heart stop echoed across the field. She flung her head around; off in the distance, half obscured by the boulders, was the monster. Though still far away, she knew she that had to get back into safety. She breathed heavily, stumbled back onto her legs, and forced them to carry her back into the village.

A feeling of dread that had nothing to do with the magic influence entered her heart.

Was there no safe place left for them in Equestria?

***

In the innermost chamber of the castle, ascending a flight of stairs, Twilight found her. The pony they had been chasing all across the country. Twilight Sparkle’s split image. Her hue was a darker shade of purple, and the distinct pink stripe in her mane was missing, as was the horn. Her cutie mark appeared to be a set round lamps. She looked weary, like a pony with a fever pushing herself to stay out of bed.

“Twilight Sparkle!” she called, her voice a bit darker than her own. “Thank goodness you’re here!” The absurdity of seeing her own split image gave her pause, and she now understood what Rainbow Dash and the others had to go through. Reading her emotions, Kimono continued, “I’m sure this is all very disorienting to you, but I have important things to tell you. First of all, I want to apologize for using your identity back at Canterlot, and running off without giving you more than a vague clue.”

Twilight pulled herself together, and asked, “Is it Discord’s magic? Is it hurting you?”

“More than you will ever know know,” her double confirmed her theory. “Whenever those who share this corruption comes near, it trashes within me. Even now, with a castle that emanates the magic of harmony separating us, their presence makes my stomach want to tear itself apart.”

Twilight walked closer, lighting the horn in a preparation for a spell. “May I? I’m only going to check your magic flow.”

She nodded, and Twilight put the horn against her chest. Not two seconds later, she drew it back, gasping. Kimono eyed her worriedly. “What did you see?”

Twilight couldn’t reply right away. She had expected Kimono’s magical pulse to be different from the others’, but not this magnitude of chaos! Just like the cave back in the second Ponyville, it was as though Discord was there with her. Choosing her words with care, she relayed this to Kimono.

“Just as I feared,” she replied simply. “All I could piece together is that Discord meant to use me and my friends for his grand design, and that I was the center piece.”

Twilight could not contain her curiosity. “What happened between you and Discord? Rainbow Dash told me that the six of you used to be friends.”

Kimono only looked away, her already pained expression growing darker. A few moments passed before she spoke. “Yes, we were friends. I don’t remember how it started, only that it ended in tragedy... which is likely why he choose us as cornerstones for his scheme, his idea of revenge...”

Kimono’s confession only sparked more questions in Twilight, but she knew that this wasn’t the time to try to jog her memory. Even if she were to remember, such memories weren’t so easily shared. Instead, Twilight said, “Well, your real friends are outside, waiting for you. They wanted you to know that they are there for you.”

This did manage to bring a smile upon Kimono’s face. “I’m glad. I was worried they might have their misgivings about me after my little escapade.”

“Is there a way to fix this?” Twilight asked. “You called us here for a reason, didn’t you.”

“Yes, I do have something in mind, but I need the opinion of a skilled spell caster, and the books describe you as one of the most accomplished unicorns in Equestrian history.” Twilight tried not to blush; for the second time that day, she was reminded of her renown. “I have read that there have been instances in the past where unicorn magic has spun out of control, and then been brought down to a stable level through the aid of someone more powerful.” Twilight nodded. She was more than familiar with the concept; she had been on the receiving end of it as a foal, in an incident ending with the Princess herself having to step in and save her. “Should it not be possible, then, to apply the same principle to help subdue the magic of chaos within me?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think that will work,” she told her, shaking her head. “Chaotic magic doesn’t work the way regular Arcane unicorn magic does. Arcane magic comes from the world itself, and is a near infinite and flexible source of energy, whereas chaotic magic is finite, and cannot be removed from existence the same way.”

“I see,” Kimono acknowledged, surprisingly undeterred. “But what if we were to transfer the chaos, from one magic body to another?”

Twilight thought on it for a moment. It wasn’t impossible; the theory was sound, but there was one catch: the objects on both ends would have to be of the same magic nature, which meant in this case, they would have to find something of pure chaos. Perhaps the Discord statue could work, but that would be risky; if the slight trace of Discord inside of Kimono’s friends was enough to cause her this much hurt, what would happen if she were to go near the god of chaos himself?

Then again, she realized, she had spent three days in the Canterlot library, located only a few buildings away from the garden where Discord was being kept. If the magical properties of this castle wasn’t enough to stay Kimono’s pain, then by all account, neither would Canterlot, and yet it was only when her friends had arrived that she had to run away. It wasn’t that Discord’s imprisonment in stone had stilled his aura either; Rainbow Dash had been affected all the same. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t so much chaotic magic in and of itself that caused her the pain, but rather...

She lit up her horn again. “Pardon,” she said, lowering it toward her chest again, this time regulating the spell so that her senses wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the chaos. For a few moments, she remained still, listening, feeling. Remembering. She thought back on the day she and her friends had fought Discord, trying to recall what it had felt like when all the colors had drained from her body, his corruption taking over. As the memories returned, so did the emotions that belonged to them – amplified, she realized, by the chaos within Kimono – and before she knew it, her legs were shaking, and her breathing was growing heavy. She felt a strong urge to cry, or crawl up in a corner, anything but look back on those dark times. But still she looked. She had to, or the answer would forever elude her and there would be no hope for Kimono – and by extension, Equestria.

She pulled away from her chest, sitting down on the floor, feeling probably no better than Kimono did. But she was smiling. “I got it,” she told her, looking up at her perplexed double. “It can be done! Discord’s magic and the thing that’s in you... it’s not the same!”

“What do you mean?”

“To put it simply,” Twilight said, getting to her feet and wiping her eyes, “Discord didn’t just put his own life force into you, but something different, something he created specifically for whatever magic he had in mind.” Twilight’s mind raced, all sorts of possibilities flowing through her head. “For a spell transfer to work, both parts need to be of the same magic nature, and while there is nothing in Equestria that can house pure chaos, there is something that can house your particular type of chaos.”

Kimono’s eyes widened. “You mean...!”

“Yes, your friends! If we can divide Discord’s magic between the six of you, it would become stable enough that neither of you would come to harm!”

“I know I could count on you, Twilight Sparkle,” Kimono said gleefully, her eyes filled with a new found glimmer of hope.

“The only problem is,” the unicorn added, letting the reality of the task sink in, “your friends would have to be standing right next to you. I’m no expert in this sort of thing; I know the theory, but it could take minutes to pull off. Maybe if I cast a spell to dull the pain... but that could cause serious side-effects if you don’t know what you’re doing, which I’m not sure I—”

“That won’t be a problem,” Kimono interrupted. “I’m sure you have been wondering why I asked you to meet me here, of all places. These castles, you see, are the very embodiment of harmony, and its magic helps soften the pain. This one in particular offers a protection far greater the others. It is the only place where I can meet my friends, if only for a moment.”

So she said, but judging from Kimono’s heavy breathing and wobbly legs, she wasn’t sure how long that moment would be. Of course, Twilight couldn’t think of a better option, and it was clear that Kimono had put a great deal of thought into this. The fact that she had gone out of her way to make sure she would be able to meet with her friends meant she must have suspected that this was the only way. Twilight was humbled by the trust her counterpart had shown her, risking everything to put her fate into her hooves. She wasn’t about to betray that trust. “Alright... but I think it’s for the best that we concentrate on finding Star Catcher first. Unless we have all six, the spell might become unbalanced. I forgot to tell you this, but Rarity—”

“—is on her way, I know,” Kimono finished, earning her a look of bewilderment from Twilight. “And we need all six to mend the seal, after all. Don’t worry about me.” The unicorn blinked. How could she possibly have known about the seal? Or Rarity, for that matter. Kimono chuckled lightly. “My apologies, I should have explained this to you earlier. Come here, look into this pillar.”

Twilight did just that, staring into it intently. Floating colors adorned its center, creating an effect that reminded her of a rainbow, and then she saw it. The reflection was not of this chamber at all. The pieces all crashed into place in Twilight’s head. “Of course! The castles are all connected; that’s Rainbow Crystal Castle on the other side!” That’s how she had talked to Rarity, who must have brought her up to speed about the situation. Although, Twilight reminded herself, that must have been hours ago. Meaning Kimono must have waited her for quite a while already. “Say, just how did you get here anyway.”

“I knew you would ask. You see, sight and sound is not the only thing that can be transferred through these pillars, but also magic.”

Magic? But how would that... oh! “A teleportation spell!” Twilight realized. “It transforms your body into pure energy and... and how the hay did you pull off a teleportation spell when you’re not even a unicorn?!”

“I had a little help from a certain somepony,” Kimono told her. “Or should I say, a certain somezebra.”

Zecora helped you?”

“When I had to flee from the Mother Ursa back in the Everfree Forest, I remembered the stories about a Shaman zebra from the books I read in Canterlot, and that her location had been pointed out on the map in your library.”

It all made sense enough; Shaman magic was a branch still relatively unknown to Twilight. It wasn’t surprising that there would be a potion or the sorts that would achieve the same effect as teleportation magic. Twilight gave a raw laugh. “If only I’d known a simple transportation spell could have gotten us here, we could have avoided a whole lot of trouble.”

“No, Twilight Sparkle, you must listen to me: traveling through the connection was a mistake,” Kimono told her with a serious look. “The veil separating Equestria from the cosmic energies beyond has become very fragile, and sending something so big as a pony in energy form was enough to create another tear in the seal. It is because of me that the cosmic energies have been seeping into Equestria as fast as it has lately...”

True, it had been right after their encounter with the Mother Ursa at the Everfree Forest that the beasts had started appearing in droves, which couldn’t have been long before Kimono met with Zecora. And yet, if what this was true... “Princess Luna used the cosmic energy from beyond the seal to make a barrier around Canterlot,” Twilight remembered the letter from Celestia, “to protect the city from the Ursa. Princess Celesta said it weakened the seal, speeding up the process.”

Kimono looked troubled, the implications sinking in. “Of all the bad timings... regardless, it doesn’t change the fact that, through my recklessness, I cut our time short by a considerable amount. If I hadn’t been so impatient, this might not have turned into a race against time...”

“It doesn’t matter who’s to blame,” told her Twilight gently. “What’s important is that we find Star Catcher as fast as we can. Just stay put; we’ll bring her back before you know it.”

“I know you can do it. Don’t worry, I won’t run away this time.”

***

Despite everything that was going on and all that was at stake, Kenbroth could not help but to enjoy racing through the ground faster than any pegasus, the way only an Earth Dragon could. In an ironic sort of way, he quite enjoyed the task that had landed upon his shoulders, as it meant serving the Princesses and their country again. Though the thousand years of sleep and the years manipulated by Discord’s side had passed as though in a dreamlike trance, somewhere in his heart he felt the eternity that had passed since he had last tasted this kind of freedom.

Although perhaps he would have preferred a time when stakes were not quite so high as the undoing of Equestria in its entirety. This wasn’t about outsmarting an enemy bent on conquering it, but a force of nature threatening to drown the land in untold magic. It required a different kind of thinking. He was sure that many a pony was going to hold a grudge later for what he was about to do, but in the long run, a little restructuring in the scenery was a small price to pay.

When he emerged to the surface, he was standing at the base of a mountain that blocked the metropolis of Manehattan from the Mother Ursa stomping its way toward it. With nimble feet, he began to climb, one giant leap at a time, until he stood at the top, surveying the landscape. Everything he needed was within reach.

He put his claw to the ground, and in that moment, he became one with the earth. The fields before him began to quake, and on either side of the mountain, a bulk sprouted from the ground. He worked quickly yet deliberately, gauging the speed of the approaching behemoth. Timing was important. From this distance, the aura was strong enough to make a pony faint, but to an earth dragon, it was nothing more than a mere tingle.

When he was done, the bulks had grown into mountains equal in size to the one he was standing on. Right on schedule, the Ursa took its first step between them, and Kenbroth set the earth in motion. There was a loud crashing sound that must have made every citizen of Manehattan jump, as the earth beneath the Mother Ursa’s feet crumbled, unceremoniously dropping it into a pit dug twice as deep as the mountains. The beast roared, trashing its paw as it fell.

Though he could no longer see it, he felt through the earth the beast getting up on its feet. Trapping a being such as the Mother Ursa with mere hole in the ground was impossible, but that wasn’t his plan. Before the monster extended a passageway, dug big enough for for it to walk through, leading away from town and off towards the shore a couple of hour’s to the north, its walls hardened to withstand the Ursa’s crushing aura.

For all that could be said about the Mother Ursa’s might, they were simple creatures operating on basic instinct, and would not expend needless energy trying get up where it came; not when there was another path conveniently set up for it. Whether or not it would actually follow the road all the way, or get bored halfway and break free, he couldn’t be sure, but at the very least, this would give Kenbroth the time he needed to evacuate Manehattan.

This had been the easy part. He didn’t much look forward to the things to come, but he was determined to do his part in saving the citizens of Equestria. Even if it meant going against the Princess’ expectations.


The Third Generation

Chapter Seventeen

by Candle Light

“You’re doing great, just don’t lose your concentration!”

“I’m trying!” Cheerilee replied in a desperate tone, as the Crystal Carriage rocked uncomfortably, forcing her to keep shifting her stance to brace herself against the sudden motions. “I’ve never used magic like this before!”

“First time or not, the fate of Equestria hangs upon our safe arrival,” Trixie reminded her. “You too, Rarity! Eyes on the spell!”

“Sorry!” Rarity quickly returned her focus to her magic. At first, it had been easier said than done; the view from the carriage as it left Ponyville had been distracting enough – Rarity had never been so high up before! – but not ten minutes after their journey began, they had spotted their first Mother Ursa. Mountains had fallen as it walked, though thankfully it hadn’t seen them.

The spell had two purposes, Trixie had explained: to split the wind and allow the flier to go full speed without having to worry about any of them falling off – even when they had flown head-first into a particularly large cloud – and to hide them from sight, in case the Ursa could jump. Not to mention that, according to the bat pony that had come to get them, there was some sort of cosmic crab creature that could reach above the clouds with its pincers. Fortunately, the Crystal Carriage was nice and wide, giving them more than enough space to work: Trixie at the front, Cheerilee and and Rarity on either side.

The carriage, which Rarity had originally summoned during her Rainbow Princess coronation, had of course lost its power and could no longer fly on its own; it just happened to be the most convenient carriage at hoof. But Rarity was still happy that it was turning out to be useful after all this time. So much had changed, but at least she still had her royal transportation. It served as a reminder that she was, after all, a Rainbow Princess, and as such she could not run from her responsibilities. It was hard having to leave Ponyville again, but after a long talk with Kimono, she knew where she was needed.

The carriage cut through the cloud, and Rarity’s concentration dropped momentarily as she laid eyes on the landscape below. The sun was setting, casting an orange glow across a perfectly flat field of green. It was the single most stunningly beautiful scenery she had ever seen. A gust of wind whipped her in the face, reminding her to keep focus on the spell. Even so, she couldn’t help but smile, as she renewed her efforts. This was starting to feel like a real adventure!

***

Kenbroth could only marvel at the sheer size of the metropolis that had sprung up during his thousand-year rest. He had seen Fillydelphia and Baltimare from a distance while helping with the evacuation of those areas, but this was his first time actually walking amongst the grand buildings. From the iconic landmarks like the Statue of Friendship to the rectangular buildings almost as tall as Canterlot itself, the big city and its population of over two million ponies was at the forefront of Equestrian civilization, and made Ponyville seem positively miniscule in comparison.

What more fitting choice of people to potentially become the preservers of ponykind.

While the streets were empty, the docks were nearly impossible to navigate for all the ponies gathered there, though most of them made an effort to get out of the way when they saw the earth dragon coming. He swiftly made his way through the crowd – not daring to jump over them for, fear of breaking somepony’s back upon landing – until he stood face-to-face to the Vice-Captain of the Guards, second in command after Shining Armor. He was a stoic white stallion that blended in with the rest of the guards at Canterlot, his only distinguishing features a cutie mark resembling a spear broken in half, from which he was aptly named Broken Spear. An irony that had surely haunted him for most of his career.

“Sir Kenbroth,” he spoke in a brisk voice. “Preparations are going smoothly, sir.”

“Excellent. How long before it is finished?”

“By my estimate, sir, it shouldn’t be more than another hour,” Broken Spear replied, a hint of pride in his voice. Well-deserved too, Kenbroth thought; despite the large crowd, the ponies were boarding the floating carriages in an orderly manner, and the relay train of transportation had all been handled with utmost precision, the mages casting the necessary spells on the ponies with expert timing. No doubt it was such skill of organization that had earned the stallion his place within the ranks.

He only hoped it would be enough. Kenbroth was fairly certain that no Mother Ursa was close enough to reach them within the hour, but there was no telling when another would reappear from beyond the seal. On the other claw, if he were to rush the process along, chaos might ensue, and that could be every bit as destructive as an Ursa coming to join the fun. He looked up at the sky, observing the creation he had ordered the mages to begin constructing the moment he’d stepped out of the Princesses’ chambers. For the casual observer, it would merely look like a storm was brewing over the ocean – but that storm cloud was the ark that would carry the citizens of Manehattan to safety. Away from the cosmic energies leaking into their reality. As far away as possible, for as long as was necessary.

***

“Fine, Wysteria,” one of the ponies snapped at her. She didn’t register who through the clump of annoyance in her head, gnawing at her like a worm lodged in an apple. She barely even took notice of the Mother Ursa growing ever closer beyond the gray barrier. Of course, everything seemed gray to her eyes now. “We’re here, so tell us what you want.”

It had taken a lot of patience, and even a bit of screaming – controlled, this time, or so she wanted to believe – but Wysteria had finally gotten everypony together in one place. All of them had a sour expression; some were crying, and others were giving each other disgusted looks. Steeling herself as best she could, she put on her best “crowd” voice. “Alright, everypony! I need you to listen to me! Ever since we came back here, things haven’t been right! Have you not seen what we have become? We are yelling at one other, fighting, hating! This isn’t who we are!”

“She’s right, everyone!” one of the Breezies – Zipzee, she seemed to remember – said as she flew up next to her. There was a pang of appreciation from beyond Wysteria’s veil of darkness: the Breezies had been by far the easiest to persuade to come with her, almost as if they weren’t affected by the dark influences at all. “I was wondering why you’ve been acting so weird lately. Even you, Wysteria; I saw you hit a child!”

She groaned silently, but where there should have been guilt, there was only annoyance. She was, at least, self-aware enough to realize what was happening to her, and it gave her the motivation she needed. “Yes, you see? No one is safe here, we need to get out of town, now!”

“And get eaten by that thing?!” a pony Wysteria only halfway recognized as Sweet Berry stepped forward and challenged, her usually kind voice raspy and threatening. She pointed up toward the sky, and Wysteria had to take a step back in fright as she realized that the Mother Ursa was right upon the barrier, looking in on them expressionlessly. “You’re the one who always says we need to keep calm and think things through,” Sweet Berry continued, “but look at you now! You go around hitting children, and then tell us to—”

She kept talking, but Wysteria’s brain registered nothing after the second remark at her child abuse. Why couldn’t any of them leave her alone? Why was she the one getting judged when she was trying her hardest to help them? Somewhere in the depth of her consciousness, she knew that she was no better. This time, she was forced to admit that being aware of the problem didn’t help much. Still, it served as a reminder that she had to keep trying. “If we don’t,” Wysteria said in what she hoped was a reasonable tone, “we’ll all tear ourselves apart! Is that what you want?”

“I’m not sure I even believe you,” Sweet Berry shot back. The rest of the crowd were following the argument with solemn glances. At least they were paying attention. “I’m not stupid, I know stress has been getting the better of us lately, but what you’re telling us, it’s almost as if you want us to get smashed under its feet.”

“Sometimes I wish...”

“Wysteria, please!” Zipzee pleaded. Or maybe some other Breezie; they were all hovering above her like flies. “Don’t be mad.”

“Why shouldn’t I be mad?!” she roared back, as she felt the last of her sanity slip. “None of these selfish, ungrateful ponies listens to anything I have to say, nor can they seem to think for themselves! If they had even the slightest bit of sense left in them, they would understand—!” Wysteria became aware of the wetness of her cheeks, and the blurring in her eyes. She stopped talking for a moment, wiping away the tears. She was at her wits end, but if she broke down now, her friends would ridicule her, blame her for being mean, and never listen to anything she had to say again. Then it wouldn’t take much for them to start attacking each other, and then...

Her despair was brought to a peak when her eyes fell on the Mother Ursa, which seemed to have lost interest in them and was starting to walk away. If only that thing wasn’t here. If only these monsters hadn’t shown up in Equestria to ruin everypony’s lives. “You...!” she hissed, redirecting all of her hatred and anger towards the behemoth. “You’re to blame for all of this... and now you’re going to pay!”

She leaped down the building and shot through the crowd, paying no attention to who she knocked aside. She knew she couldn’t do anything at all against such creature, that she was throwing her life away, but the will to inflict as much harm on the beast as possible overpowered any trace of sensible thought.

All that was left in her mind was hatred.

Suddenly there was a sharp, blinding pain, as a pair of hooves landed squarely on her head with such force, she was thrown several pony lengths before hitting the ground with a jarring thud. The world spun around her, hatred replaced by pain, as she struggled to regain some sense of self. But before she could, she felt herself being lifted onto somepony’s back...

And before she knew it, she was breathing the almost unbelievably fresh air from outside the barrier.

***

It was an awkward time to be bored.

The Princess of the Sun was well enough that simply resting in bed drove her up the walls, yet she did not yet possess the magical strength to do any actual good. She considered giving Luna a visit in the crystal chamber, bringing her up to speed on current affairs, but she didn’t want to risk disturbing her sister’s endeavor of keeping up the grand shield that protected Canterlot. So instead, she went for a walk around the castle. It was a rare opportunity; most all of the guards were away on duty, leaving the castle virtually empty. Though if she weren’t mistaken, Shining Armor would still be in the hospital wing; she might as well give her Captain of the Guards a royal visit.

Or at least, so she thought until she heard a voice coming from one of the rooms up ahead. “How many times do I have to tell you, Apple Bloom, I’m not a chicken!”

“Ah didn’t say you were, Scoots. Now yer just being jumpy.”

“You were making noises at me just now. Big Mac, you heard her!”

“Eeyup.”

“Whose side’re you on, anyway?”

“Now who’s being jumpy?”

“Come on now children, no fighting,” Celestia interrupted in a sing-song tone as she let herself in. The effect was rather amusing: the big red stallion literally jumped, landing in a perfect bow, whereas the children gasped as though they had been caught stealing cupcakes from the kitchen. Only Granny Smith didn’t seem bothered, greeting her with a happy smile.

Well hello there, Princess,” she croaked. “How nice o’ ya to come over fer a visit.”

“Nice seeing you too, Granny Smith,” the Princess replied. She had known the old mare ever since she had been a filly, watching her family and farm grow, but had never had many chances to catch up with her in person. “How are you holding up.”

“Fit as a timber wolf during zap-apple harvest season,” Granny said happily. “Ah got this new hip since we last met, see? Gotta hoof it to them magic folk. Why at this rate, Ah could keep on buckin’ for another century or two.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” If there was a downside to being the immortal ruler of a nation, it was watching the ponies around her being claimed by the hooves of time. Celestia had outlived many whom she cared about, and had long since come to terms with her destiny as an immortal, but she secretly hoped that the Grim Reaper pony would keep forgetting about the elderly matriarch of the Apple Family. “I’m sorry about your farm. We are doing everything in our power to set things right.”

“Eh, don’t ye worry yer wavy lil’ Princess head about it,” Granny said, brushing it off with a wave of her hoof. “We can always replant them trees; got plenty o’ seed in the ol’ cellar. I’m jus’ glad we’re all safe, an’ together.” She pulled her little and big grandchildren into a hug, sweeping Scootaloo along for good measure. “Cept Applejack, of course. Ever since that Twilight Sparkle girl came t’ town, she’s always off on some adventure or another.”

“I’m sure she’s doing just fine,” Celestia said. “She is, after all, the bearer of one of the—” Celestia’s words stuck in her throat as a searing pain passed through her head. The third such pain this hour alone, coming and going as they pleased.

“You alright there, yer highness?”

“Yes yes, just a bit of a headache,” she told them. “I am still recovering, after all.”

“Guess even Princesses get into trouble every now and again, eh?”

“Especially Princesses,” she replied with a small laugh.

For nearly half an hour, the two of them talked, catching up on life at the farm and at the castle. At first, Big Macintosh and the children only sat still and listened, too transfixed by the fact that their Princess was talking on equal terms with their grandmother – another downside to her position which Celestia had learned to live with – but after a few well-placed prompts, the fillies began to open up, and were soon eagerly participating in the discussion. Even their big brother eventually felt comfortable enough to join in on a few occasions.

“...and that’s why we never let Apple Bloom anywhere near the plow,” the old mare finished a particularly amusing tale, much to the embarrassment of the yellow filly and the enjoyment of her orange companion. “I’m tellin’ ya, this lil’ thing’s spreadin’ more mischief than Discord himself.”

The mention of Discord forced Celestia’s thoughts back to reality. None of her guards had reported in yet, so she assumed everything was still under control, but she felt she had indulged herself long enough. “I’m glad we had the chance to talk,” Celestia said, getting to her hooves, “but I’m afraid I must take my leave. I was actually on my way to check up on my Captain of the Guards.”

“Ah know, duty calls,” Granny sighed. “Make sure t’ come visit us in Ponyville sometime. Once we’ve put it back together, that is. We’ll have a nice long chat over a big mug o’ apple cider.”

The prospect lit a warmth inside Celestia’s heart, and it strengthened her resolve. “I’ll remember to do that.”

***

“Let’s see if I got this,” the cerulean pegasus said. “All we need to do is grab Star Catcher, get back to the castle, wait for Rarity to show, and then perform some kind of spell that makes her not hurt anymore?”

“That’s the gist of it,” Twilight confirmed. They were climbing the mountain where Star Catcher was hiding, led by Pinkie Pie’s “squink” intuition. It wasn’t steep enough to give them trouble, but the sun had already set, and a storm had blown up, making their progress much more difficult. Twilight had set up a large barrier spell around the group to protect them from the wind, but it did very little to protect against the biting cold.

Twilight’s mind hadn’t stopped spinning since the conversation with her counterpart. She remembered the picture back in Kimono’s cave, the only place that had aged inside the Time Capsule, suggesting that the way Kimono looked was her original appearance from a thousand years ago. Twilight was Kimono’s counterpart, not the other way around. It could, of course, be a coincidence; maybe Kimono was really just an ancestor, and her genes just happened to be extraordinarily similar. But what if it wasn’t? Maybe, as Kenbroth had suggested, the Elements did play a part in this. They were, after all, the connection between the dream world and reality; perhaps the influences had worked both ways, somehow giving Twilight Kimono’s appearance just as the ponies of Canterlot and Ponyville had given the ponies of the dream world theirs? Had Kimono been the Element of Magic as well, Twilight thought, that might have made a lot of sense, but such wasn’t the case. All she knew for certain was that the two of them seemed to be connected at a completely different level than the others... but how?

Soon enough, Twilight no longer needed Pinkie’s directions; there was an unmistakable surge of magic up ahead. This, she knew, was another reason to keep the shield up; if Star Catcher was capable of blowing up mountains, they would need all the protection they could get. What worried her most was the fact that Star Catcher was a pegasus. Twilight had no idea how exactly pegasus magic gone berserk would manifest itself. Theoretically, it shouldn’t even be possible for a pegasus to express their magic that way at all.

Then again, a lot of theoretically-impossible things were happening lately.

“So, how do we do this?” Applejack asked. “Is there a spell that’ll take her magic away?”

“Not exactly,” Twilight told her. “I’m going to have to get up close, and try to bring her magic level down myself. Things might get rocky, so I want you to stay inside the barrier no matter what happens, and leave the hard part to me.” With that, Twilight flashed her horn brightly, sparks flying, reinforcing the protective bubble surrounding them.

“I’m all for leaving the magic mumbo-jumbo to you, Twilight,” said Minty. “But we’re going with you this time, no matter what you say.”

Twilight nodded. She had initially thought to go up there alone, to lessen the risk – but if there was one thing Star Catcher needed right now more than safety, it was the comfort of knowing her friends were there for her.

***

Another failure. Though she couldn’t see the landscape before her, Star Catcher knew it was ruined beyond recognition. She had made very sure no ponies lived in these parts, so that she could test the extent of her powers without causing any harm. Her very presence blew the snow away and made the air around her waver. But on the inside, she was cold. This was the second night in a row where she would not been allowed to sleep, as the magic pouring out of her in a never-ending stream forced her mind into a constant state of alertness. She had spent last night, and most of today, in contemplation of this strange new world, and worry for the friends she had left behind. And guilt, for the ponies whose lives she had unwittingly destroyed.

It had all started so suddenly: one moment she was crossing the ocean, returning home to Butterfly Island, and the next she was flying over a large field of green. Her first thought had been that she had accidentally fallen asleep while flying – though that had never happened before – and that she was simply a few minutes away from the ocean. But when she couldn’t find it again, even after hours of searching, she was forced to conclude that, however unlikely it seemed, she had been transported to another place entirely. At the time, she had thought the forest and mountains in the distance were the better place to start looking for ponies, but as the days passed, all she found was forest wildlife and mountain peaks covered with snow. That was until she had finally found others like herself, in caves deep into the mountains. Only they weren’t like herself; she had never seen ponies so thin and graceful.

They had taken her in, given her food, told her about the land she was in – a land called Equestria, ruled by the winged unicorn Celestia – and she had rewarded them by blowing up their home. As suddenly as the moment she had appeared in this land, a force beyond her control had welled up inside her, crushing the stone walls around them. Before she knew what was going on, the mountain was no more, and she had found herself standing in the midst of rubble, surrounded by ponies giving her looks of fright and despair. Looks from which she fled in shame. Now, she knew she could not leave this desolate mountain until she could somehow figure out her powers, a feat that seemed more and more impossible by the hour.

Her ears perked, as an unexpected sound brought her out of her troubled thoughts. Hoofsteps. Someone was coming here! She wondered frantically who could possibly be foolish enough to climb a mountain in this storm? Star Catcher gazed down into the dark landscape, considering whether or not she dared move from this spot. Maybe she could try scaring them away? Before she had time to make a decision, a bright purple dome emerged from behind a pile of rubble, moving towards her. Inside the bubble was a whole group of ponies. She was about to open her mouth to shout a warning for the strangers to stay away, when a very familiar voice spoke her name.

“Star Catcher, darling?”

For a moment, she didn’t move a muscle, her eyes fixed on the newcomer who had spoken. It could not be. By all account, the ponies before her looked just like the ones she met in the caves – yet her voice, and her rainbow mane, could not belong to any other. “Rainbow Dash...?”

“It’s us, darling!” replied the stranger, beaming. “You probably don’t recognize us, but it’s us! Your friends!”

Star Catcher glanced over to the two ponies standing on either side of the pony with the rainbow mane: one mint-green with a pink mane, the other all pink all over. In that moment, she knew. All of the doubt that had plagued her these last few days vanished, replaced by sheer joy. Joy and relief. She had no clue why they looked so different, or who the other ponies were, but it didn’t matter. Her friends had come for her.

The surge of joy set off another surge of magic. Star Catcher watched in horror as the raw, uncontrolled wave of magic struck the bubble surrounding the group. The bubble flickered under the assault, lightning crackling across the surface, but to her relief, it held. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, calming her emotions as best she could. The surge faded, but she knew it wouldn’t last. “I don’t know what has happened to me,” she told them, “but it seems I have become some sort of... conduit of magic somehow. You have no idea how happy I am to see you, but until I have learned to control it, you cannot stay.”

“Oh yeah?” the purple creature perched on one of the unfamiliar ponies’ backs spoke up. “Do your worst! Twilight Sparkle here is the greatest unicorn in all of Equestria!”

The pony in question, a dark-lavender unicorn with bright-rose streaks in her straight-cut mane and tail, referred to by the creature as Twilight Sparkle, turned her head and picked up the creature with her mouth, placing it on another pony’s back, then stepped forward. “We’re here to help. I understand you must have hundreds of questions right now, but for now, I am going to have to ask you to tru—”

“Basically, you and all the other ponies you know were actually living in a dream world caused by Discord the god of chaos and now there’s a whole bunch of cosmic energy and big bad star monsters destroying Equestria,” the other pink pony among them prattled, talking rapidly, “unless you and five of your friends shake your manes back and forth in six legendary castles in order to push back all the bad stuff!”

“Uh, yeah, that,” the lavender unicorn agreed awkwardly. Star Catcher was still confused. Dream world? Monsters? Discord? “I’ll explain later. First, we need to get your magic under control.”

Star Catcher’s eyes widened in surprise, involuntarily emitting another burst of energy, which shook their barrier. She reeled herself in. “Can you do that?”

“In theory, yes. But I need you to promise me to stay calm, no matter what happens. This may feel a bit uncomfortable, but it’ll be over before you know it.”

Star Catcher nodded. “I promise.” Everything was going to be alright. She had to believe that.

She almost broke her promise when Twilight Sparkle stepped outside of the barrier, and started walking towards her through the onslaught of raw magic. Her dark-purple mane flowed wildly in the fierce winds of Star Catcher’s magic surges, but her expression remained firm, almost unfazed. Before long, they stood face to face, and Twilight raised a brow as she held Star Catcher’s gaze with her own, silently asking for permission.

Star Catcher simply nodded. The unicorn closed her eyes and put her horn to her chest.

And then she became someone else.

***

“Captain!” shouted one of Shining Armor’s subordinates as he rushed into the hospital wig. “Come quickly! We have a situation!”

The Captain of the Guard had recovered enough to move, and had told his troops to report to him if anything came up, but he had hoped that they could at least have waited until Cadence had come to. He sighed inwardly. “What’s the status?”

“It’s Princess Celestia!” the guard told him. “She’s out of control!”

“What?!” Shining Armor shot up from his bed, instantly awake. “What do you mean, out of control?”

“Its her magic, sir. It’s... you’d better see for yourself.”

Without another word, Shining Armor let the guard lead the way as they ran through the corridors of the castle, wondering what in Equestria could have happened. He didn’t have to run very far to find the answer: a sphere of bright light blocking the corridor leading to the Princesses’ chambers. Sheer, unadulterated magic, making the air shimmer with heat – and floating in the midst of the storm, wings outstretched, was the silhouette of the Princess. Blasts from the magic battered against the stone walls.

He skid to a halt, then crept cautiously forward, one hoof at a time, getting as close to the magic storm as he dared as crackes began to appear in the walls around her. Was this a side effect of the magic overuse from the first Mother Ursa attack? Or was it something else entirely? All he knew was that there was a protocol for this sort of situation. “Guards!” he called with an authoritative voice. “Situation ‘Eclipse’! Formation ‘C’, now!” His ponies all gathered around him, forming a letter “C” with the Captain at the back. Shining Armor initiated a spell – one he’d hoped he’d never have to use – and his stallions followed suit, all of them directing the beams from their horns at the formation’s center. The Capitain’s armor literally started to shine as the white rays of light wove themselves into a ball of energy, which in turn emitted a crackling beam of darkness toward the Princess. It struck the sphere of light, but instead of punching through, it formed a cubical encasement around her, containing and dampening both the eye-aching light and the destructive effects of the magic outburst. 

There was nothing more he could do. The Princess’ standing orders had been to ensure the safety of Canterlot in the unlikely event that control of her magic was compromised, and had herself enchanted his armor to give him the power to do so. A power meant to stop her and her alone.

Now all he could do was watch, and hope.

***

The pony floating in the endless space of magic was unsure of her identity. She was Princess Celestia, ruler of Equestria, on her way to visit Shining Armor in the hospital wing. No, she was Star Catcher of Butterfly Island, reunited with her friends after days of confusion and grief. In reality, she was neither, and she was both.

The part that was Princess Celestia was perplexed at the images of an island in the middle of the ocean flashing through her head, and a Ponyville more colorful than she could have imagined, filled with ponies in shapes she had never seen before. Memories of Discord’s dream world. Likewise, the part that was Star Catcher was beginning to understand that the pony whom she had merged with bore memories spanning thousands of years. The memories of one whose nation always rested on her shoulders.

Memories of peace, memories of pride... but also then memories of immeasurable sadness. The memories of saying goodbye to a sister. The Celestia side could do nothing to keep the intruder from reliving her most personal and painful moments of her life: Princess Luna’s descent into madness, her attempt to overthrow Equestria, and her inevitable imprisonment. Her entire being shook from the unbearable sense of grief and loss... but then suddenly the images changed to an even earlier point of her life. Kenbroth. The Mother Ursa. Discord.

Discord!

The name triggers violent reaction on both sides: Star Catcher was given glimpses of the war, and the struggle to keep Equestria safe. Celestia, however, was shown a side of their shared enemy she had never known. Friendship. Love. Trust.

And betrayal. With a start, she realized that Star Catcher was no longer Star Catcher, but a different, Equestrian pony, and that she lived in a small town surrounded by boulders. Her past life. In a hurricane of emotions, Star Catcher understood who she was.

The magic surrounding this limbo grew more intense as the pegasus fought to come to grips with her new found life, and that’s when Celestia became aware of another presence within the aether. Twilight! Her faithful student was in direct contact with Star Catcher’s soul, her mind struggling to keep the torrential flood of uncontrolled magic surges from consuming her.

The Princess knew knew where they were, for she and Star Catcher were one and the same, and in a flash that lasted less than a second – shattering the shield that Shining Armor had prepared in order to protect Canterlot – the Princess materialized next to her other.

***

As Wysteria slowly regained awareness of her surroundings, the first thing she saw was the face of Sunny Daze hovering above her fallen body, looking down at her with an expression of both concern and shame.

“I’m so sorry,” Sunny Daze pleaded. The sky above her friend was clear blue, which meant they weren’t within the barrier. “It was the only way I could think to stop you. That thing would’ve... and I couldn’t just let you run toward your...

“The village...” Wysteria started to ask, her mind still in a daze.

“They’re safe; they all followed me when I carried you out. It’s been about half an hour since then.” Wysteria groaned as she willed her aching body to move, to roll over and get back onto her hooves. Looking around, she saw the large group of ponies that was the villagers all surrounding her in a circle. Uncertainty and fright was smeared on their faces, but the anger was gone. So was the Mother Ursa. “Knocking the hay out of you must have knocked some sense into them.”

“Sunny Daze...” Wysteria spoke softly, feeling her eyes tear up again. This time for a very different reason. “You... you saved my life. All of our lives.”

“Don’t celebrate just yet,” Sunny said, shaking her head wearily. “We may be out of the frying pan, but we still got mountains of fire walking around.” She pointed off into the distance, where the Mother Ursa was wandering aimlessly. “It doesn’t seem to care where it’s going, but I’ve seen it return here every once in awhile. We can’t stay.”

“B-but,” Daffy Daisy, the town’s hairdresser, spoke up, “where do we go?”

“I have a suggestion,” one of the unicorn ponies, Brights Brightly, said hopefully. “There’s a chamber in the Crystal Rainbow Castle where air felt fresher, somehow. I think it might help protect us from the dark magic.”

“Really?” Wysteria felt her enthusiasm starting to return. Of course, it meant that they would all have to go back inside the village, but maybe if they made a run for it... “How big was it? Will it hold all of us.”

The unicorn’s face fell, and as she spoke, so did Wysteria’s hope. “No, I don’t think so... maybe half, if that...”

“Then there’s nothing else for it,” Sweet Berry answered for her, her voice and posture high as she spoke to the whole crowd. “We need to run, as far away from this place as possible, until we find somewhere safe.”

Sweet Berry was right; leaving half of the village to their fate was definitely not an option. But on the other hoof, wasn’t it better than letting all of them get trampled? She quickly rejected that thought; doing so would only breed more conflict amongst the villagers. She could see it in their faces; though the influence of the spell was gone, too many ponies still had confused, even frightened looks on their faces. Give them a reason to stand against each other now, and it really would be the end of the village.

Sweet Berry’s suggestion received mixed reactions from the crowd, but no pony spoke up in objection. There were whispers and murmurs, but other than that, they all sat quietly, as if waiting for Wysteria’s response. Once again turning to her for leadership. She felt a pang of relief; they were still willing to listen to her. But at the same time, she felt some of that frustration from back inside the barrier return. Part of her, she realized, had wished she didn’t have to take responsibility this time. But in the end, she thought, it was for the better. At least this way, she could make up for some of the horrible things she’d said.

“Alright, everypony,” she called over the crowd. “I realize how difficult this must be to you – I feel the same way – but Sweet Berry’s right, we have to leave, and soon. But I promise you, I won’t let any more bad things happen to any of you. We can overcome this, together!”

Unbound by the dark magic of the barrier, her speech had a much more positive effect. More and more ponies began to smile, nod and give her looks of trust. Then, one of the ponies started stomping her hooves to the ground. Some seemed confused, but others lit up, following suit. As more and more seemed to understand the idea, the thumping grew louder and louder, until everypony was giving her a stomping ovation.

Wysteria was speechless. In a way, she wished they would stop. She didn’t deserve this kind of respect. Not yet, at least. But she was determined, now more than ever, to earn it.

“We wouldn’t have any other pony lead us,” said Sweet Berry over the applause. Then her face dropped and she added, “I’m... I’m sorry for what I said to you back in the village.”

Wysteria gave her a smile. “It was the spell. Don’t feel bad about it.”

The other mare shook her head. “But it felt so real. When you held your speech, I honestly felt like everything you said was just—”

“It was the spell,” Wysteria repeated, looking at her meaningfully.

Sweet Berry nodded, smiling. “It was the spell.”

***

Twilight was thrown back by a violent shock wave, her breath painfully driven from her lungs as she crashed unceremoniously against the rocks. She worked through the aches, forcing herself to breathe despite the pain as she hauled herself back onto her hooves – then almost toppled over again in surprise at what she saw.

“Twilight Sparkle,” Princess Celestia said to her, her voice oddly twisted, as though another voice was talking in unison. “Help me hold down Star Catcher. Quickly!”

A moment passed before Twilight snapped out of her confusion, by which time the Princess was already surging magic from her horn, directing it at the magical pegasus, who was nearly invisible through a whirling sheen of white. There was a violent reaction resulting in bright flashes as the two magic sources collided, and Twilight had to shield her eyes. Hold her down?! She quickly went through all the spells in her head, trying to think of which one would be best for the situation, until settling for the simplest  solution: a barrier spell. She had conjured one strong enough to keep Star Catcher’s magic out when they had first approached, so in theory, it should work the other way around. In theory...

It took nearly a minute – or so it seemed to Twilight – to charge a spell she felt would be strong enough. She lowered her head and unleashed the spell in one terrific blast of force, a ray of purple leaping from her horn to form a dome that pressed down on the pegasus, intending to put a lid on the magic. She was met with partial success, as the hurricane of magic surrounding them became somewhat gentler – but it took all the strength she had, leaving her horn flaring dangerously. Her legs wobbled under the sheer magic pressure as she poured every ounce of her energy into the barrier, and for a moment, she imagined she could actually feel her horn crack under the stress... at least she hoped she was just imagining it. Whatever you’re doing, Princess, you’d better do it fast, she thought desperately as she struggled to hold the barrier for just a few seconds longer.

Fortunately, a few seconds was enough for what the Princess had in mind. The instant Twilight’s barrier spell flashed into place, Celestia had penetrated the barrier dome with her horn, working her own magic directly onto the pegasus. The light began to fade, the pressure on Twilight’s barrier lessening. Gradually, the raging outbursts of raw magic subsided, even as Twilight’s spell finally broke.

For about a minute, though it felt like an eternity, Twilight watched as the pegasus lay on the ground, desperately trying to catch her breath. Tiny bursts of flare emitted from her body, whipping her mane, until eventually it stopped. She was safe. Twilight fell to her knees, exhausted.

***

Star Catcher was herself again, her other half no longer inside her head. Instead, she stood before her, watching her curiously as the others gathered around them. These ponies – Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, Rarity and Applejack – she knew them now, thanks to the memories she shared with the Princess. The bearers of the Elements of Harmony.

“Princess Celestia?” Twilight was the first of them to speak, as she struggled back onto her hooves. But instead of the obvious question, she asked, “Are... are you crying?”

So the Princess was. Even now, the tears were running down her cheeks, though she held her face straight. Celestia scooped her faithful student closer into a tight embrace. Though at first taken by surprise, Twilight returned it; no doubt she understood the importance of her comfort right now. Star Catcher understood; she had felt the unbreakable bond between the Princess and her faithful student, how she had always been there for her like a mother… just as Celestia needed her now. And Twilight would be there, for as long as she needed.

Despite the cold, harsh winds, despite the aching in her body, Star Catcher couldn’t help but smile. It was perhaps the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

And yet, pegasus looked away in shame. Though she did not understand the magic at work, she knew in her heart that it was because of her that the Princess had been made to relive what she had felt when she had turned the Elements of Harmony against her own sister.

Finally, Princess Celestia turned her attention to the pegasus. “You must be Star Catcher,” she said quietly. It was nothing more than a formality, since they now knew one another closer than their closest friends. Star Catcher only nodded. The Princess moved closer, putting a hoof to her chin. “It’s alright now, my little pony. I don’t blame you for what happened, nor am I angry at you for what you saw.”

“Whoa whoa whoa!” Rainbow Dash – the other Rainbow Dash, the pegasus she now knew from Celestia’s memories – spoke up. “Time out! What the hay just happened there? What’re you even doing here, Princess?”

“It’s a long story,” Celestia replied. “Remember when Kenbroth told you about how you are all connected to your counterparts through the Elements of Harmony? He deduced that the Elements of Harmony connected the six of you to the other Ponyville counterparts because of their chaos within. If this holds true, then it seems we have neglected a large part of the puzzle. Tell me, who was it that held the Elements of Harmony before you discovered them?”

“Why, that would be you, Your Highness,” Rarity said, catching on. “Are you saying that Star Catcher is your counterpart, not Fluttershy’s?”

“She’s both. From the day the six of you wielded the Elements of Harmony against Nightmare Moon, she took on the appearance of Fluttershy. But before that, for a thousand years, she was connected to the one pony in Equestria wielding all six Elements: me.”

“And that’s why Magic chose her,” Twilight concluded. “There is no pony more magical than you, Princess. But... one thing still doesn’t add up. Why Star Catcher? If Kenbroth was right about the Elements being connected because the of the chaos, shouldn’t it have been Kimono? She was the one singled out by Discord.”

“I’m afraid I have no answer for that,” said Celestia. “Once Kimono is back among us, she might be able to shed some light on that part of the mystery. All I know is that Star Catcher and I,” she stepped closer to her pegasus counterpart, “though no longer linked through the Elements, share a fundamental bond that will stay with as long as both of us live.”

Said out loud, Star Catcher understood the implications. She fell to her knees, bowing her head. “I am not worthy, Your Highness.”

“Why don’t we let time be the judge of that,” the Princess told her consolingly. “Of course, time is one thing that is running short. Twilight,” she turned to address her prodigy, “did you find Kimono?”

“Yes, Princess,” said her student. “She’s waiting for us at the castle of legend not far from here. Rarity – the other Rarity, I mean – is coming here by carriage; it shouldn’t be long before she arrives.”

A trace of relief appeared on the Princess’ face. “Good. Then there is no more time to lose.” The Princess raised her head, closed her eyes, and set her horn aglow. There was a blinding flash of light, and a second later, they were off the mountain. A grand, green castle towered over them.

“Well, that saves us some work,” remarked Applejack appreciatively.

“Aw yeah, the Princess is back in action!” the pegasus Rainbow Dash whooped.

“Get the elements ready,” the Princess ordered the Bearers. “Protect the castle with your lives until Rarity arrives.”

“What about you?” Twilight asked.

“I will do what I can to protect my country,” said the Princess gravely. “Kenbroth and I will buy you as much time as we can, but the fate of Equestria ultimately rests on your shoulders.”

“Heh… don’t it always?” Applejack said with a wry chuckle of amusement.

“Not to worry, Princess,” Rarity assured her. “I dare say we’re professionals at it by now!”

Celestia smiled, and disappeared in a flash.

---

Special thanks to EquesTRON for helping out with the editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Eighteen

By Candle Light

Leaving Twilight, Kimono and the others behind at the Castle of Legend, Celestia’s first stop was Canterlot. She teleported herself right outside the barrier, then flew inside. The barrier rippled and tingled slightly against her body as she passed through, but offered no resistance. It was meant for holding back magic, not ponies.

Shining Armor came galloping to meet her in the corridor the moment she landed on the balcony, a look of relief on his face. “Your Majesty,” he said, dropping into a quick bow as he skidded to a halt in front of her. “You’re safe! I was worried sick! What happened to you?”

“It’s a rather long story,” Celestia said, “but rest assured that everything is under control. I was with Twilight and her friends.”

“Twilie?! Is she okay?”

“Yes, Captain Armor, Twilight is fine,” she assured him, smiling kindly at the stallion’s obvious worry for his little sister. “She and her friends have found Star Catcher and Kimono.”

Shining Armor sighed in relief. “That’s great news! That means this should be all over soon, right?”

“Little Rarity is still being brought to them as we speak,” she replied, “but yes, if all goes well, this trial will be over within the hour.”

“And not a moment too soon. I’m not sure what you did, Princess, but the spell you gave me to seal away your powers... actually, it’ll be quicker if you see for yourself. Come with me, Your Highness.”

Curious, Celestia followed Shining Armor through the castle corridors... until, quite suddenly, there was no longer a corridor to follow. It was as though a portion of the castle had simply been sliced away. The aftermath of breaking through her encasement, she realized with a sinking feeling.

“No one was hurt,” Shining Armor answered her question before she asked it. “But you might want to take a look at that.” He pointed a hoof into the distance outside the castle, gesturing towards the gray barrier that kept Canterlot safe. To her astonishment, she saw that a hole had been punched clear through it, one big enough for a royal carriage to fly through with ease. “It’s not as big as it was a few minutes ago,” he added. “It seems to be patching itself up. Let’s just hope it’s seals shut before another one of those things shows up.

Indeed, even as she watched, the edges of the hole were rippling, growing ever closer towards its center as the barrier slowly regenerated itself. She thought she could feel a subtle gust of wind blowing through the hole... and with it,  a sound. Thump... thump... The sound of distant footsteps from the behemoths that now roamed Equestria. Shining Armor clearly noticed it too, for his ears were standing on end, his body tensed.

“If you see Kenbroth,” Celestia instructed, “tell him what I have told you; I’m sure he’ll appreciate the good news.” She spread her wings and took to the air, casting one last glance at Shining Armor, “I need to see to my nation. I will tell you everything when things have settled down, but for now, I leave Canterlot in your care.”

The Captain of the Guard gave her a salute. “I’m glad your strength has returned, Your Majesty.” Celestia nodded with a reassuring smile, and shot off through the hole in the barrier. Things looked good for her students, but there was still much to be done.

***

Wysteria had no idea where she was taking the villagers.

They had been running continuously for at least half an hour at this point, going through the labyrinth of boulders until they eventually broke free to the open fields. A forest ran parallel a short galloping distance to their left, the stars and the moon giving just enough light to make out the mountain range towering beyond.

She was astounded at her own strength. She had worried about what would happen when they all grew too tired to keep running, but even at full gallop, she was barely panting. The same seemed to be true for the rest of the villagers as well. Which was fortunate, because they couldn’t afford to stop. No less than three Mother Ursa could be seen on the horizon; none of the beasts had taken notice of them, luckily, but one was getting dangerously close from their right. As they ran, Wysteria continued to shout motivational words at her friends, trying her best to keep their spirits up.

But the more they ran, the harder it became to hold back that sense of hopelessness that was resurficing in her mind. Was there really any such thing as a safe place? Even with their seemingly endless stamina, they couldn’t hope to outrun a Mother Ursa if the beast decided to pursue them. She did her best to block those emotions and concentrate on the task at hoof – running and leading her friends as far away from these beasts as possible – but the stress was starting to accumulate beyond anything she had ever known.

Then suddenly, her worst fears became reality, as the nearest Ursa turned its head toward them, finally taking notice of them. At the very same moment, the one farther behind them roared, as did the third one behind them to their left. The villagers came to a grinding halt. The monsters were coming for them. They were done for.

At that moment, Wysteria felt another emotion that was both alien and distressingly familiar. Fear. The fear of death. There was absolutely nothing they could do now; she had led her friends to their doom. She didn’t know what hurt most, the fact that her life would soon end, or that she had let everypony who had counted on her down. It weighed on her mind, dulled her senses...

...allowing herself to calm down a bit, and collect her thoughts. She shook her head, then looked around frantically as if she actually believed there was something around here that would magically stop the monsters from stomping them flat. There had to be something, anything! As she laid eyes on the mountain silhouette beyond the forest, she paused, contemplating it for a brief moment as the sight gave her a small spark of hope. It wasn’t that far, if they could just...

A piece of her bravery fell back into place. She turned to face the villagers – their expressions perfectly mirroring what she felt: faces screwed up in fright, faces in tears – and bellowed. “Follow me, everypony! Run as fast as you can! I have a plan that might save us!” Without waiting for them to reply, she turned and dashed off toward the forest, pushing her legs to carry her beyond their limit, hoping desperately that the villagers would do the same.

In truth, she had no plan. She was only delaying the inevitable. Maybe they would get lucky and find a cave or something that would hide them, but she wasn’t counting on it. The giants’ footsteps boomed in her ears, the magic pressure prickling her skin; it was basic survival instinct more than anything that drove her on. She didn’t even steal a glance back to see if everypony was following. She couldn’t bear it. Part of her knew that she had only managed to dig their grave even deeper by giving them a false sense of hope. And yet she ran, and ran and ran, watching the trees grow ever closer.

It was all she could do.

***

One by one, the Princess teleported herself to the cities, towns and villages of Equestria. She and Luna were the only two with such ability, for the spell only allowed one to transport to places known to the caster, and only they knew this land like the soles of their horseshoes.

Kenbroth had done an admirable job indeed. Every town she visited was empty, its inhabitants hidden away in distant caves created by the earth dragon and protected by a set of mages to keep their presence hidden. Even she would have had trouble finding them had she not helped decide on the locations. The walls, she noted with satisfaction, were hardened to withstand the monstrous weight of the Mother Ursa, though it was uncertain how long they would hold were one of the beasts to make a deliberate effort to crush it. Still, it was the best that could be done given the circumstances.

However, the more towns she visited, the more her opinion started to change. Several caves had only one mage casting the spell; not enough to keep a faint presence of the ponies inside from leaking out. In others, Kenbroth had apparently forgotten to harden the earth. Celestia found it strange; she had made sure there were more than enough mages to go around, and Kenbroth was not one to leave his work halfway finished. Maybe his claws had been  forced by an approaching Ursa? One or two simple mistakes, Celestia could understand, but by the time she’d reached the fifth such inadequately-prepared site – one where no mage had been stationed at all! – she was beginning to wonder.

The sixth time made her heart skip a beat. The town of Saddleton, by the western coast, was full of ponies still going about their daily lives, as though no one had warned them about the crisis.

The Princess couldn’t believe it. Had Kenbroth not told her that he had done everything in his power to move the citizens to safety? Manehattan was the only area left to evacuate, he had promised. There was no way he could have simply missed an entire town – a small one, to be sure, but one fairly well-known for its seaweed trade – but she couldn’t imagine him outright lying to her, either. Why would he?

She made a mental note to ask him about it, but there was no time to waste. She would have to handle the situation herself. Only Kenbroth could harden the earth to make it safe enough for evacuation, so her only option was to move them to Canterlot for the time being. Hovering above the village, she magically amplified her voice, using the Royal Canterlot Voice to its fullest effect. “Hear me, citizens of Saddleton! It is I, Princess Celestia, coming to you with urgent news: magical beasts have invaded Equestria! I ask that you all gather outside the village, so that I can transport you to Canterlot for shelter until the crisis is past. Quickly, my little ponies; there is no time to lose!”

The effect was immediate. Ponies started scurrying out from houses and the streets. Only a few minutes later, a crowd had gathered on the field just below where the Princess had landed. She was pleased to see that her subjects trusted her enough for such a quick response; she often made casual visits to little towns like this one, and though she was usually met with distant reverence, she hoped that this gesture would help convey her feelings that she was one of the people, not a deity meant for worship.

She glanced over the crowd: two hundred and thirty six, by her count. An elderly navy-blue earth pony stepped forward. “Your Majesty,” she said, giving a little bow, which the rest imitated. “We heard the noise in the distance, but we had no idea things were getting so outta hoof.”

“Don’t worry, we have the situation under control,” the Princess promised. “But until the situation is dealt with, your lives may well be in danger if you stay here. Is everypony accounted for?”

“Yes, your majesty, every last one of us.”

“Good. I’m going to teleport you to Canterlot, fifty at a time.” She didn’t much like the idea of letting the rest of the villagers out of her sight, even for a moment, but it was a risk she would have to take. There had been a few occasions in the past where she had tried transporting groups of hundreds, and the sheer amount of magic necessary had torn the surrounding scenery asunder on both ends. She would rather avoid it if she could, or she might obliterate Saddleton. “Don’t worry, this shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”

The elder nodded. The Princess set to work immediately, motioning for the first group of fifty to follow her a safe distance away from the rest of the crowd, then initiated the spell. A flash later, they were looking up at the mountain on which Canterlot rested. Before she transported back, she led the group into the safety of Luna’s barrier; fortunately, it covered more than enough ground space to set up tents for the villagers. She just hoped this was the only village that Kenbroth had neglected; if push came to shove, she would have to start bringing refugees into the castle.

The moment she reappeared by Saddleton, her blood froze as her eyes fell on a Mother Ursa in the distance, lighting up the dark of night like a giant torch, dashing toward them at alarming speed.

It was running! She had never seen a Mother Ursa run before! But then she realized with a start that it wasn’t a Mother Ursa at all. The glowing, translucent-red skin filled with stars was the same, but it had giant antlers and stood on two tall legs, its upper body bulging with thick, corded muscle.

A celestial Minotaur!

For a short moment, Celestia’s fascination overpowered her sense of urgency. So the Ursa was not the only creature of Luna’s constellations after all! Celestia’s academic side was bombarded with questions: if there were others, why was the Ursa so prevalent? How many different species were there? Were there smaller versions of these somewhere in the far reaches of Equestria, like with the Ursa Minor and Major? But as the ground shook violently and the villagers started to scream, she was reminded that this was hardly the time for such contemplations.

The Princess of the Sun lifted from the ground, drawing upon her connection with the sun to coat herself with incandescent solar plasma-infused magic, and shot herself at the monster. Just as she hoped, she managed to catch its attention as she rocketed past, making it stop and turn. Like its Mother Ursa sisters, the magic pressure of this creature was more than the Princess could hope to handle on her own, and she wasn’t about to let herself end up crippled like last time; she just had to lead it away from the villagers, make it lose interest...

Making a U-turn, she slammed her magic-enhanced body into the beast with resounding force. Though she managed to topple it, the impact knocked the wind out of her. Celestia recovered first, giving her enough time to move herself to the side so that when it looked around to see what had hit it, it would hopefully forget all about the villagers and chase after her.

That part of the plan, at least, went off without a hitch; getting up on its feet – far faster than she would have liked – it fixed its gaze upon her. Celestia took a quick but deep breath, steeling herself, her senses on high alert as the monster came at her. Her body still remembered the last encounter with a monster such as this, and she had no intention of repeating the experience if she could help it.

She dodged its lightning-speed arms as it swung at her, steadily tricking the beast further and further from the village. The plan was working... or so it seemed, until suddenly the Minotaur stopped flailing, turned its head and started running towards the innocent villagers again. Celestia’s heart froze; if this brute worked the same way as the Ursa, it confirmed Celestia’s suspicion: these beings were hunting ponies.

There was no time to come up with a more elaborate plan, so the Princess strengthened her magic coating and shot her magic-fueled body against the Minotaur’s back, felling it before it could reach Saddleton. Once it got up, Celestia was its target once more. She bobbed and swayed between the giant’s strokes, her mind struggling to come up with a way out of this mess. Leading it away obviously wasn’t going to work, and no matter how far the ponies could run, there was no way they could outrun the Minotaur.

Could she, perhaps, buy them enough time to escape to sea? Testing the theory, she led the Minotaur toward the shore, daring it to follow her out into the water.

Which, to her dismay, it did. It didn’t seem the least bit fazed by the water, but the water seemed to rebel at its touch, pushing away in big waves. Closest to its body, she even thought she saw the ocean boil. The Princess flew further off-shore, testing it to see how far it was willing to go... which, it turned out, wasn’t very far. As the water came up to its waist, the beast stopped flailing its arms and halted its advance, giving her a disgruntled look. Celestia could only assume that it didn’t much like to wander where its movements were limited. Perhaps even it needed to breathe. In any case, this was good news; if she could tell the remaining villagers from here to head to sea, she could join up with them later and teleport them to Canterlot. She filled her throat with magic, preparing to—

—an impact sent her senses into chaos, and the next thing she knew, she was smashed into the sea. The shock of impact knocked the breath from her lungs as she skidded across the ocean floor, kicking up clouds of mud in her wake, before she regained enough sense to magic herself to a stop. She lay suspended in the water, every fiber of her body roaring in pain, cursing herself for her moment of distraction. She had let her guard down, and the Minotaur had seized the opportunity. The magic coating around her, fueled by her connection to the sun, was the only reason she was still alive.

She allowed herself a moment for her dazed mind to clear, then whipped her wings and shot out out the water. Her head darted left and right as she frantically searched for the Minotaur. She found it once again running at full speed toward the villagers of Saddleton.

Celestia acted without thinking, ignoring the pain in her muscles as she speed as fast as she could toward the villagers, charging a spell as she did. Equal measure of fear and determination drove her forward; she had almost forgotten what it felt like to watch her subjects die before her, and she could not – would not – bear to see it happen again.

She sped past the Minotaur with speed she never knew she possessed, and released the spell just as she reached the villagers. A brilliant flash of white blinded her, and the next moment, she and the remaining population of Saddleton reappeared on the other side of Equestria, on the field overlooked by Canterlot Castle. Somepony yelped as she realized they were standing in a smoking crater, wooden debris that was the ruins of Saddleton scattered everywhere.

***

It was done. Kenbroth watched as the last carriage took the final batch of Manehattan ponies away. Far behind him, at the outer rim of the city, a Mother Ursa had finally caught wind of the ponies here, and was smashing through the houses toward where Kenbroth stood. There was nothing he could do to save the city, of course, but at least now he could rest easy knowing that whatever befell Equestria, ponykind would live on. The ark would carry them off to sea, far away from the reach of the cosmic beasts; if necessary, it would take them to a distant land, where they would have a chance to begin anew.

He sighed. Back to work. With a sense of accomplishment, he plunged into the sea, where he would have to swim back to shore in order to avoid the Ursa.

***

“Rainbows, darlings...!” Rainbow Dash gasped in wonder, her eyes wide as saucers as she beheld the magic power unleashed by the Elements of Harmony. “Such magnificent, beautiful rainbows!”

Pinkie Pie wished she could channel some of her counterpart and share her friends’ enthusiasm, but as pretty as the rainbow-colored beams of light were, it didn’t change the fact that each one that flashed over the night sky marked the arrival of yet another Mother Ursa. The air seemed to grow heavier whenever one approached, only to let up a moment later as the six Bearers engulfed it in rainbows.

Some time had passed, half an hour at least, during which time seventeen Ursa had ascended the hill, by Pinkie’s count. Rarity had yet to arrive, and Pinkie Pie’s stomach was starting to twist. What if she doesn’t make it? Then all of Equestria will be...

A mint-green hoof laid itself across her shoulders, gently startling her out of her worried thoughts. “She’ll be here,” Minty said in a comforting tone. “Rarity can be a silly pony sometimes, but she always comes through when we need her to.”

Pinkie Pie nodded, and tried to smile. She wasn’t sure how convincing it was. “I know... it’s just that so much is at stake, and I feel so helpless...”

“You can say that again,” Minty agreed. “I mean, I guess we’re kinda important in fixing this magic ‘seal’ thing, but I don’t understand what’s going on half of the time. Seems like we’re just along for the ride, y’know?”

“Magic is a mysterious thing,” Star Catcher said, coming up beside them. Her soothing voice let Pinkie Pie calm down a bit. It always had that effect. “Though it can be hard to place your trust in something we don’t understand, perhaps it is not quite so hard to place your trust in your friends.” Another flash of rainbow brightened the sky, making the air just a bit lighter. “Don’t worry, Pinkie Pie; the magic of friendship is on our side, and that is the most powerful magic of all. In fact,” she added, pointing a hoof at the sky, “here it comes now.”

Pinkie Pie turned her head, and this time broke out a wide, real smile. The Crystal Carriage had arrived. Rarity was safe.

***

Twilight was floating in a sea of bliss. The constant stream of magic from the Elements of Harmony brought out every imaginable positive emotion, allowing her to close her eyes and forget all about the dire situation they were actually in. It almost felt as though the Elements themselves were doing all the actual fighting against the Mother Ursa; she barely needed to lend a thought at blasting the Elements’ rainbow-colored force to reduce them to nothing, leaving her mind free to do what it liked doing best: thinking. Were these cosmic creatures specifically drawn to the castles in some way? Or were they just naturally spawned near them? Just how did they spawn, anyway?

Being inside the Elements was like therapy, the ultimate form of relaxation. She found herself wondering; could she really be sure everything she had experienced over the last few days – and for that matter, her whole life – hadn’t been just a dream? Would she wake up and realize there was only one of each Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, from the one and only Ponyville? Which, by the way, was not in peril from monsters invading from another dimension. Who knew... maybe she wasn’t even Princess Celestia’s prized student, either. Did Celestia even exist? No, she would probably wake up and see that Equestria had only just been born.

Wait... what was that last part?

Her eyes instinctively shot open. The snowy mountainside was gone, and in its place roared a hurricane of sight, sound and emotion she could barely decipher. A reality split in two. Untold cosmic energy flowing into a newly-born world, leaving the other shimmering with magic but barren. Both worlds becoming home to creatures, one with ponies and other animals, others with giant beasts made from cosmic energy...

In a moment of epiphany, it all made sense to her. If Twilight hadn’t been suspended in mid-air by magic, she would have jumped around in circles whooping. She was being shown the memories of the Elements of Harmony! They really did have a mind of their own: one unified mind of harmony! Like a holy spirit hovering over Equestria, protecting the land from harm, keeping the two worlds separate and preventing one from leaking into the other... Twilight’s heart raced, as she finally understood the true nature of the Elements of Harmony.

They were the very seal they were trying to mend.

***

“...ilight?” the drowsy unicorn thought she heard faintly. “Twilight!” Some other pony was yelling at her from somewhere just out of view. “The Great and Powerful Trixie demands a response!”

The sea of bliss fractured, and reality came crashing in as she unceremoniously slumped to the ground, the coldness of the snow giving her a rude wake-up call. Her mind was in disarray, all her senses in a jangle, as if both in pain and comfort. Trixie’s head was hovering above her face for some reason, which didn’t help. “Uhwhu?”

“Are they all right?” asked another pony that came up next to her. The new pony appeared to be some smaller, pinker, more colorfully-maned version of Rarity.

Rarity...?

With a start, Twilight shot up, the world falling back into place. “You made it!” she shouted gleefully. Looking over their shoulders, she saw a rather fancy carriage, from which Cheerilee’s other-village counterpart was climbing down.

“Why, you didn’t doubt the Great and Powerful Trixie, did you?” asked the light-blue mare, nonchalantly rubbing a hoof against her chest. The mini-Rarity gave her a look. “’Um, I mean, these two had a hoof in it as well, of course,” Trixie added.

“Rarity?” Star Catcher came forward, as did the other three from her village. “It is you, isn’t it. Do you recognize me?”

The little unicorn just smiled and gave her a hug. “Star Catcher, I don’t think anypony could mistake you with that funny-looking mark on your forehead.”

Star Catcher chuckled. “I’m glad.”

“Is Kimono inside?” Rarity asked.

The question brought back Twilight’s sense of urgency. “Yes, and we have to hurry. Everypony ready?” Her fellow Element Bearers were already in the process of getting to their feet – all except Pinkie Pie, who was bouncing around more hyper than ever. Twilight helped the rest of her friends up, wondering in passing if they too had seen what she had seen. Her heart was still pounding from the revelations she had seen within the Elements of Harmony, but she had to set those thoughts aside for now. Those same Elements were in danger.

As the group ran into the castle, Twilight thought she heard the roar of another Ursa in the distance.

***

The pain was actually not so horrible as Kimono had expected. Perhaps it was because she had mentally prepared herself for the worst, or maybe she was just so happy to see her friends again.

“Kimono, darling!” Rainbow Dash called to her as soon as the group entered the room. “Are you okay? Are you hurting?”

“Yes, and yes,” she answered, trying to smile. “But it’s all right. I’m happy to see you all as well, but let’s postpone the celebration until Twilight has done her thing, shall we?”

“Of course, darling. Where do you need us, Twilight?”

“Line up next to Kimono,” Kimono’s unicorn double ordered. They did as they were told, and Kimono bit back another surge of pain as her friends came up to her side. It felt as though her insides were trying to escape her body. As though the piece of Discord inside of her wanted to reunite with its brethren. She yelped and gritted her teeth as the pain grew stronger by the second. At this rate, she wasn’t sure if she could last more than a few minutes...

Thankfully, Twilight Sparkle was already at work, her horn touching Kimono’s chest.

***

Only when Wysteria had reached the outer rim of the forest did she allow herself to steal a glance back behind her. To her relief, all ponies seemed accounted for. It was enough to keep Wysteria going; as long as they could still move, they would be safe.

When she was sure they were all within earshot, she shouted for them to follow, and began running through the forest. She cut through the underbush where needed, lending no thought to the destruction she had brought to this place by leading two Mother Ursa to stomp it flat. Such thoughts would only slow her down. Every second counted. All that mattered was their survival.

All too soon, the villagers found themselves at the base of the mountain. There was no cave to speak of, obviously, but the trail seemed straightforward enough, leading steadily up and around the mountain. Maybe they could hide behind it! At the very least, putting a mountain between them and the Ursa would surely slow the monsters down. As she ran up the trail, making sure everypony followed, she felt her courage starting to resurface. They could do this!

Those hopes were punctured like a balloon when they reached the other side, revealing a fourth Mother Ursa on the other side of the mountain, standing in the midst of a ruined forest, close enough for its presence to sting into her skin.

She couldn’t stop. If they stopped, they would die. Those were thoughts running through her head as she kept running, following the trail that led up the mountain. A cave! A hole in the ground! Anything! They needed a place to hide! But as the villagers reached the top of the mountain, all they were greeted with was the sight of two fiery monsters, bigger than the mountain on which they stood, approaching from either side.

Panic finally caught up to Wysteria. She found herself hyperventilating. Now what? She had told everypony she had a plan. She had to come up with something, anything! Fast! Maybe the pegasi could fly away, save themselves... in fact why hadn’t they? They could have flown to safety a long time ago! Because of her, she realized. They didn’t want to abandon their friends, and were counting on her supposed plan. And now, she realized in horror, it was too late. If they took flight, they would only be swatted like flies by the Ursa’s colossal paw.

No matter how fast Wysteria’s head spun, no solution came to mind. Only despair, shame, and agony. As the last pony trickled in, all eyes were on her, silently telling her to hurry up with whatever she had in mind. She couldn’t face them. This time, she had failed them for real. She kept her gaze at the beast as it stomped its way through the forest. Its mere presence weighed heavily on her body as she stood there waiting for their demise to come.

“I’m sorry, everypony...”

***

It was taking too long.

The relocating of inner magic was turning out to be a trickier business than Twilight had hoped. She knew the theory behind magic transfer, and the necessary spells, but those theories had never touched on how to grab hold of sheer chaos like this, forcing her to improvise and think outside the box. Even under ideal circumstances, adapting spells on the fly like this was no cake walk – and these circumstances were far from ideal, working against the clock, with every unexpected noise reminding her that another Ursa might show up before she could finish.

Focus, Twilight, Focus, she told herself sternly, willing herself not to panic. Because if she did, Kimono would be done for, and with her all of Equestria. Twilight renewed her efforts, searching for a way to adapt the spell to deal with chaos magic. If she could just get a firm hold on it...

Her concentration was broken as a sudden, violent quake threw her off balance. She caught herself in a levitation field and got back onto her hooves, and was about to go help the others up when she realized that a large chunk of the crystal dome was gone, exposing to the night sky above... until a Mother Ursa showed its face in the hole. Though slowed by the castle’s magic, its deadly presence was creeping into the chamber, and Twilight let out a yelp as its aura cut into her skin like knives.

A claw of deepest black grabbed the rim of the hole, and the entire castle made a dangerous noise as the walls around it started to crack. Her friends lay sprawled all over the room. Next to Twilight, Kimono was writhing in pain. I can do this... she thought, trying desperately to calm herself. For Equestria! But before she could even reach the pony closest to her to help her up, the castle shook again, as the Ursa’s claw tore off another piece of the ceiling. Acting on reflex, Twilight swiftly cast a protective barrier spell around the hole... but against the awesome might of the Mother Ursa, it shattered like glass.

The whole chamber erupted in cries of pain as the deadly aura seeped in, and Twilight collapsed as her legs gave out from underneath her. She could hardly think, let alone work a spell. All she could do was cry bitter tears of frustration. She had saved Equestria so many times before, only to let it fall like this...

Suddenly the pain stopped. Not entirely, but enough to let her pick herself up from the ground, and look around to see the torn-off pieces of the castle wall encased in a light-blue aura, blocking the hole. A flash of blue caught her eye, and there was Trixie, her horn flaring with magic, the physical and mental strain of the effort smeared on her face. Twilight was moved by the gesture, but knew all too well Trixie wouldn’t be able keep it up long enough to make a difference. Trixie’s brand of magic just wasn’t meant for lifting heavy objects, and she could tell it was taking everything Trixie had just to keep the chunks of castle afloat.

In a desperate attempt, Twilight reached out with her magic and grabbed the debris – negating Trixie’s hold on it – trying with all her might to reattach the pieces to the wall, just as she had once fixed the Ponyville dam. But crystals of harmony magic weren’t the same as rocks, and the aura pushing against them from the outside didn’t help either.

Twilight’s entire body shook as she resorted to pushing the debris against the hole, to which the Ursa reacted by hitting the castle again. This time, she was prepared enough to stay on her hooves, but it didn’t help the situation. Her horn was tied, Kimono was dying on the floor, and it was only a matter of moments before the monster outside broke through.

Twilight gave up. It was over.

“Come on, everypony!” the other-village Pinkie Pie shouted, her voice resounding through the chamber. “Squink!”

It took Twilight a few moments for Twilight to process the words, and by the time she did, Pinkie Pie, Minty, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Star Catcher were already back on their hooves, shaking their manes to and fro, as though in a dance pattern. Before Twilight could even begin to question what they hay it was supposed to accomplish, the walls around them started to glow.

The will to live flared in Twilight anew. They weren’t done just yet!

Kimono apparently had the same idea, as she was struggling back onto her hooves as well. For a few horrible moments, it seemed as the effort would be too much for her... but then, with a cry of pain and determination, she forced herself upright and began shaking her mane with the others. Back and forth, back and forth, then a squint, followed by another toss of the mane. And a wink...

The entire room exploded into a storm of harmonic magic. Twilight let the castle debris fall to the floor, but the pain did not return. The beast’s claw had withdrawn from the hole, and there was a muffled roar from the outside. The magic of harmony filled the chamber in a fog of seething, swirling rainbow light, calming her mind and healing her fatigue as it washed over her. It felt much like using the Elements – only this time, she was still in control of her mind and body, standing outside the flow of magic and looking in, rather than being in the center of it. Not wanting to squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, she lit her horn and peered into the magic pattern of the seal.

Twilight was at a loss for words. Only now, seeing it from without, did she fully understand what a formidable force the Elements of Harmony truly were. With a growing sense of awe, she realized that all along, she and her friends had only been using a fraction of the Elements’ power – almost as if they had been controlling its “mind”, but unable to tap into its “body.” A body that, she realized with a start, was broken to a mere shadow of its former self. But even as Twilight began to fear that it was beyond repair, the the whirling energies around them were piecing themselves together like some unspeakably complex jigsaw puzzle, growing in strength as it formed magical patterns her feeble brain couldn’t begin to understand.

Then came the second surge of magic. Cosmic energy, appearing as dark blue streaks to her naked eyes, swirled around the room until they vanished, sucked back into the realm from whence they came.

And as suddenly as it began, it was over. All was still.

Kimono let out a scream. Bleeding cuts were starting to wind themselves around her body. The chaos inside her was literally tearing her apart. But still she kept squinking, as though her mind was stuck on the motion. Twilight shook herself back to the here-and-now, ordering the ponies back to their place next to Kimono as she put her horn against her double’s chest once more.

To her surprise, she discovered that the chaos magic had changed. Instead of a dense, hard “knot” in the center of Kimono’s being, it was moving in a flexible, erratic pattern, trying to find a way out. There was more sense to its movement than before, almost as if Discord himself was in there, guiding it. Frightened by the surge of harmony...

Twilight thanked the heavens for the irony. This new, movable chaotic substance was just as easy to transfer as any regular Arcane magic, and within a matter of moments, she had distributed the excess chaos between all six of the pony friends equally.

***

Their demise never came.

Wysteria wasn’t sure exactly what had just happened, only that in one form or another, she and her friends were still alive. Time itself seemed to have stopped, because neither of the Ursa was moving a muscle, and their presence seemed weaker. Yet Wysteria could feel her own heart beat, and the wind blowing against her cheeks. The world was moving as usual, only the big beasts were no longer closing in on them.

Whatever happened next, Wysteria would not remember, as the accumulated stress finally took their toll and sapped her energy, allowing her to faint.

***

When Kimono came to, she felt cold against her back – snow, she realized – but was otherwise quite comfortable. A soothing energy surged through her body, and as her eyes adjusted, she realized that Twilight Sparkle was leaning over her, a look of intense concentration on her face, applying some sort of magic.

Flinching at an unexpected touch against her side, Kimono turned her head and saw a butter-yellow pegasus with a flowing pink mane kneeling beside her, gently dabbing a warm cloth against her cuts as she carefully washed the blood away from her coat.

“Easy now,” the pegasus – Fluttershy, Kimono reminded herself, the yellow pegasus’ name was Fluttershy – said to her in a soft, calming voice. “Just try to hold still for a little longer. Twilight is closing up your wounds so there won’t be any scars, but you’ll probably be sore for a while.” Kimono nodded, letting the two of them work. Her body stung as her wounds closed, but compared to what she had just been through, it was little more than a tickle.

Staring up into the sky, she noticed the aurora lighting up the darkness of the night. Kimono was suddenly hit by a hurricane of emotions. She had lived through this trial. Somehow, she was back with her friends. Her tears froze as they escaped her eyes, but she didn’t mind; how wonderful it was to be alive to witness such a beautiful night!

It wasn’t long before Twilight and Fluttershy gave her the okay to get to her feet. There were still a few dull aches and twinges of stinging discomfort as she rose, but they were all but forgotten as all of her friends threw themselves at her. They gave her a big group hug and, far from hurting, it was the best she had felt in a long, long time. Rainbow Dash, Minty, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Star Catcher... in the dream world, she had been a hermit, keeping to herself at the outskirts of Ponyville, but she remembered well the time before that – before Discord’s intervention – when these five had been her closest friends. Closer than family.

She wasn’t sure how much they all remembered, but to Kimono, the events that set all this in motion a thousand years ago still burned strongly in her heart.

Memories that needed to be shared.

“You don’t hurt anymore, do you darling?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“No, I’m fine now,” Kimono replied with a smile. “Thanks to all of you. Especially you, Twilight Sparkle.”

“All I did was act on instinct, really,” Twilight replied bashfully. “If it weren’t for Pinkie Pie’s fast thinking, none of us would have made it. Not to mention Trixie,” she added as she turned to face a light-blue unicorn mare whom Kimono did not recognize. “If you hadn’t thought to block the hole.... you really saved our lives back there.”

“Yeah, Trix, nice going there,” the winged Rainbow Dash praised, patting her on the back. “For once in your life, you were actually pretty great and powerful.”

The light-blue unicorn named Trixie seemed quite embarrassed by the praise. “It’s... it’s nothing, really,” she replied, ducking her head slightly, as though to hide her blush. “Twilight did most of the work... I’m just happy we’re all in one piece.”

“So, does this mean we’ve saved Equestria?” asked Minty.

Pinkie Pie – her Pinkie Pie, Kimono thought fondly – shook her head. “I don’t think we’re done just yet. Spike – uh, Kenbroth – said we need to do the same thing at all the other castles too, remember?”

“True, but the worst is behind us,” Twilight Sparkle told her. “The cosmic energy is being pulled back into the other dimension as we speak. Without it, the Mother Ursa won’t have enough energy to move.”

“Does this mean that if we leave it alone, it’ll fix itself?” Applejack asked.

“I don’t think so,” Twilight said, “but at the very least, it means we’re no longer in a race against the clock.”

Kimono’s Pinkie Pie sat down in the snow, a look of mixed happiness and disbelief on her face. “So it is almost over. We can finally go home soon...!”

“Yes, it’s almost over,” said Twilight compassionately. “Of course, there is still the question of Discord’s magic still being inside of you, and how that might affect you in the future... but that’s a question for another day.”

“Although... I must ask, darling,” the earth pony Rainbow Dash said. “Do you... do you remember anything? About Discord, I mean.”

“Yes...” Kimono sighed. It was time to let it all out. “He was our closest friend, a shining ray of happiness in a world full of hardship... but to me, he was something more. Discord and I... Discord and I were in love.”

---

Special thanks to EquesTRON for helping out with the editing.


The Third Generation

Chapter Nineteen

by Candle Light

“When we first found him, he was a broken creature. His wings were torn, his face deformed. We were about to bring him back to the village for a proper burial, when we realized that he was still breathing.

“We decided to do what we could to nurse him back to health. It seemed a hopeless undertaking at first, but through our tireless efforts, and what I can only attribute to a miracle – such as it was – his near-fatal wounds began to heal. After only a week, his wings and features were restored. As you can imagine, we were quite taken aback by his strange appearance. I had never seen a creature such as he: a horn and an antler, a claw and a paw... everything about him seemed the very picture of asymmetry. A few days later, he finally regained consciousness. He told us that he was a Draconequus, and that, as far as he knew, he was the last of his kind.

“It seemed that from the moment he opened his eyes, we were destined to become the best of friends. Though he wouldn’t be well enough to get out of bed for another month, our band of friends spent most of that time in his company, talking about the world outside of our village, the fascinating places he had been to, and the war that had taken everything away from him. He had us all fooled... most of all me. Of the six of us, I was by far the most struck by his stories, always asking him for more.

“But for all the questions we asked, he would never tell us about his past. It was clear to us that he had nowhere to go, however, so we offered him to stay in the village. Of course, the other villagers weren’t quite as happy to accept this strange outsider – times being what they were, they had good reason to be wary – so he made a home for himself in a cave at the village outskirts. The six of us would share our food with him, and in return, he would help out with the chores the best he could, plowing the fields or repairing rooftops after storms. But most importantly, we had his friendship. We would often spend nights at his cave, talking and laughing, just having a good time as friends do.

“I was taken with his knowledge, his charisma, his wit... he must have noticed the attention, because more and more, he started to spend time with me alone. We would go on long walks together, or sit atop of the mountains for hours, just talking. Before I knew it... I was in love with him. I remember well the time he invited me to the lakeside, where he gave me my first kiss...

“Naturally, you all thought it strange at first, but it wasn’t long before you gave us your blessings. And for many months to come, we were happy. The villagers gradually started to open up to him, even offered to build us a house of our own, but we decided to stay in the cave. We were made for each other; he quenched my thirst for knowledge, teaching me about magic and so many things about the world... and I taught him about the magic of friendship, and the happiness that could only be had with others. He even made a charm bracelet for me as a token of our love.

“The most painful part to remember is that, for a time, he seemed so sincere. As though he really wanted to better himself, and live out the rest of his life quietly by my side.

“But in the end, it was never to be. One fateful night, he gathered the six of us on top of the mountain, where he revealed the truth about who he was. Discord, the god of chaos, the very one responsible for the hardship our land had to endure for so long. He thanked us for hiding him from Celestia and Luna’s eyes while his power recovered, and asked us to join him in his quest, to conquer Equestria and reshape it in his own image. The village would become the Capital of Chaos, and we would rule the world together...

“We refused. He didn’t take it well. He grabbed us in a field of magic, about to crush us all... but he didn’t. He just let us go, snatched my charm bracelet and flew away. Leaving us with broken hearts, knowing that in time, Equestria would be engulfed in chaos once more.

“We bore the heavy knowledge for ourselves, never telling the villagers what had really happened. We just waited, dreading that each new day would be the day he would bring eternal chaos to Equestria.

“But he never did. He brought it to us instead. The last thing I remember before waking up near Canterlot a thousand years later was him entering the cave, laying his claw to my head and hissing these exact words: ‘Don’t ever let it be said I don’t love you, my dear. You’re about to mean the world to me.’”

***

The Crystal Carriage flew through the sky as fast as Night Gale’s wings could muster, the ponies on board kept safe from the winds by Twilight’s barrier spell. Rainbow Dash was at a loss for words. This was a lot to take in, but Kimono, the poor darling... how painful it must have been to tell them this story.

“I’m sorry, everypony,” Kimono said softly. “If only I hadn’t been so blind. If only I had seen the signs in time...”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Star Catcher said in a motherly, reassuring tone. “Don’t even think it. Discord did what he did because, in the end, power and greed meant more to him than love and friendship. And in the end, he failed because of it. We are all here, together, and he is trapped in stone, alone for all eternity.”

“To be honest,” Minty said, scratching her head, “I still barely remember anything from that time. But I am starting to remember about us, and the fun we used to have.”

“Yeah,” Pinkie Pie agreed with a thoughtful nod. “We... we used to hang out at Rainbow Dash’s place a lot, didn’t we? It was the biggest house, since she was the mayor and all.”

“Biggest house...” repeated little Rarity. She gasped, her eyes becoming big as saucers. “Biggest house! I lived in the biggest house! Rainbow Dash, you were my adoptive mommy!”

“I - I was...?” Rainbow Dash managed, taken aback. But as she peered into those excited little eyes, it all came back to her in a flood of memories and emotions. A filly sitting by her side by the fireplace. A filly jumping on the table and crushing the plates. A filly crying on her shoulder after getting in a fight with the neighbor. “I... I was, wasn’t I!” Rainbow Dash pulled Rarity into an embrace. Her daughter! How could she not have realized this before? Tears welled in her eyes. “Oh Rarity, my darling... my dear, dear Rarity.”

“This is so exciting,” the straight-maned Pinkie Pie said with a grin. “All sorts of things are coming back to me! I think I got into trouble once, and I was taken to the mayor’s house. That’s where I became friends with Rarity!” She paused, her expression thoughtful once more. “I got into a lot of trouble, didn’t I.”

“Yes, you did,” Star Catcher chuckled. “And that’s why we loved you. You always brought a bit of well-needed spice into our group.”

“Do you remember it too, Star Catcher?” Pinkie asked.

“Yes... when Celestia’s mind melded with mine, I remembered everything.”

“I’m so happy for you,” Cheerilee spoke up. “Me... I’m sorry, but I don’t remember any of this. Nothing concrete anyway... loose emotions more than anything.”

“I think you’re better off,” Star Catcher said firmly. “It doesn’t matter now what Discord did. He is gone now, and we are all together. A new life awaits, with real friends that can help us regain what we have lost.”

All six of them nodded in agreement. For the first time since she’d come to Equestria, Rainbow Dash felt that everything was back to the way it should be. They had been through so much, facing the impending doom of a whole country – almost losing each other in the process – but now, finally, things were looking up.

***

When Wysteria woke up, she found herself looking up at a fancy, domed ceiling.

She shot up, her mind struggling to pull itself together. The villagers! The Mother Ursa! Right, she started to remember, it didn’t actually crush us. It stopped for some reason. Had she done that? No, it couldn’t be... but that wasn’t important right now. What happened to her friends?

She pulled herself into sitting position, and looked around the room. There were several rows of beds, all empty, and only one other pony in the room with her, a brown Earth Pony mare wearing a hat with a red cross on it. Seeing that Wysteria was awake, she walked over. “Morning, moonshine. Are you feeling alright?”

“I guess so,” Wysteria replied quietly. Sure enough, the light of the moon shone through the window, telling her it was still in the middle of the night. “What happened? Where am I?”

“You’re in the hospital wing of Canterlot Castle. Don’t worry, your friends are all safe. We had to make an impromptu guest quarter in one of the conference rooms to accommodate you all; they should be sound asleep about now. You ponies had quite a night!”

The relief was too much for Wysteria’s poor body to handle. She slumped back onto the bed, letting her mind play catch-up. She was alive. She was alive. She was...

And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to be happy. She had failed them. Because of her, everyone she held dear had stood on death’s door steps... and yet they all lived. How? Why?! How could the world be so ironic?!

It was too much. She began to sob, and soon, the tears wouldn’t stop coming. She barely even noticed the nurse pony holding her comfortingly; she just kept weeping. She had accepted her fate. Before the end, she had come to terms with the fact that her life was over. But she hadn’t been prepared to live. Live to answer for what she had done. Would they ever forgive her? How could she face them, having betrayed their trust when it mattered the most?

“There there,” said the nurse. “You just get some rest; you’ll feel all better in the morning.” She lay her down on the bed, and with magic put the bed sheet over her. Wysteria sniffled, but had not the strength to argue. The nurse stayed with her until she calmed down and, eventually, fell back into sleep.

***

How long had it been, Kenbroth find himself wondering, since he had seen an aurora, especially one as brilliant as this?

He stood atop of a mountain, the nighttime scenery set aglow in part by the sky, in part by the Mother Ursa that stood on the field, unmoving. Twilight Sparkle and her friends had done it. They had mended the first seal, and were likely on their way to repair the rest at this very moment. Now it was only a matter of time before this whole ordeal was over with. He had never been so happy to have his hard work go to waste.

“Master Kenbroth!” came a voice from above. Looking up, he saw an armored pegasus – one of the bat-winged ponies of the Luna’s Night Guards – descending downwards. She landed with a thud in front of him. “Master Kenbroth. Princess Celestia demands your presence immediately.”

Kenbroth sighed. He knew all too well what this was about. “Good job, soldier. No need to report back to the Princess; I’ll be there within the hour.” With that, he leaped off the mountain, diving headfirst into the ground, never losing momentum as he shot himself forward like a bullet. He wasn’t looking forward to the upcoming discussion with the Princess... but then again, everything did turn out alright in the end, so perhaps she would go easier on him.

***

Trixie could not shake the feeling that she was incredibly out of place.

The Crystal Carriage’s first stop was an orange crystal castle in the wasteland. The pony called Minty seemed very reluctant to leave the carriage for some reason, but once her friends had  persuaded her to follow them into the castle, they had repeated the ‘Squink’ process from the Frozen North. As silly as that dance looked, it seemed to be doing the trick; even Trixie could feel the energy emitting from the walls as the seal repaired itself. It was unlike anything she had felt before; without the threat of a Mother Ursa trying to knock the castle down, she felt like she could really let all her guards down and lose herself in the sensation. When was the last time she had felt this good? Exiting the castle and boarding the Crystal Carriage, she found herself humming, but stopped when the poofy-maned Pinkie Pie started to hum along. Hopefully nopony else had noticed.

Her good mood only lasted for so long. In fact, it only helped to solidify the feeling of isolation. Trixie was an observer. She didn’t have anything to contribute to any of their conversations, nor was she of any use saving the world. Even Rarity and Cheerilee didn’t seem to pay much attention to her anymore, busy talking to their old friends. Not that she blamed them, but it sent her mind spiraling down paths she usually preferred not to tread. What use was she, exactly? She went around boasting how ‘Great and Powerful’ she was, while all she was really good at was parlor tricks. Illusions meant to wow the oblivious. These ponies, on the other hoof, had the power of harmony at their hooftips. They had saved Equstria more times than she could count. Where did that leave Trixie...?

...what was she thinking? She had done plenty to help! Without her, Rarity would never have made it back to Ponyville, nor would there had been anyone to take her safely to the Frozen North. Not to mention, she was the only one who had thought to plug the hole between the Mother Ursa and them, giving Twilight Sparkle enough time to...

But it wasn’t enough, was it. In the end, Twilight had been the one to save the day, not her. Far from Great and Powerful, Trixie was a commoner caught up in events far greater than she could wrap her head around. As much as she hated to admit it, she would never be like Twilight. Her talent was magic itself, taught to her personally by the Princess of the Sun. Trixie’s talent was smoke and mirrors, self-taught.

“Trixie?” Little Rarity’s voice brought her out of her thoughts. Rarity, apparently bored with the others’ conversation, had sat down beside her. “Are you feeling okay? You had this downer look on your face.”

“Aren’t I always a downer?” replied Trixie, smirking.

“Guess you are,” said Rarity with a laugh. Rarity would always laugh. She didn’t need a reason to; Trixie might as well have told that her she stunk, and she still would’ve laughed. “Come on, you can talk to me about it.”

“I don’t think that I can, Rarity,” Trixie said, giving her a solemn look. Watching the little unicorn smile at her, like so many times before, filled her heart with a still-unfamiliar warmth. This one, at least, cared about her. Really cared, not just found her amusing because of her silly tricks. Despite herself, Trixie found herself returning the smile. “I’m okay, sweetie, I just have a lot to think about right now.”

“Oh, okay.” Rarity accepted the excuse. She returned to listen to the others’ conversation – Rainbow ‘darling’ Dash was going on about different types of food in Equestria. Trixie found her attention drifting again, when a thought suddenly hit her.

Did I just call her ‘sweetie’?

***

The sea of harmony and chaos was still. Giant blotches still darkened the giant expanse of energy, but they were slowly being swallowed by harmony. Two castles mended. Soon, Luna would be free of this self-imposed prison.

She could only thank the stars she had made it through these past hours. The energies had raged like a hurricane, bombarding her with in equal measure harmony and chaos, and it had driven her to the brink of insanity. The memories of the time she turned into Nightmare Moon had nearly consumed her, and had it not ceased when it did, there would have been no turning back. The loneliness, the hatred...  she had felt it far stronger than her memories had previously allowed. Once she was free, she suspected she would need some time alone to put her spirit to rest.

In the mean time, she could do nothing but to let it sit there, observing the ocean-like seal spreading out before her. Now that the energies were still, those dark blotches seemed no more threatening than the night sky. The ‘fish’ – pieces of concentrated cosmic energy – were gone, leaving the dark spots clear as a lake’s surface. Curious, she focused her magic on one of the dark spots, and peered inside...

The Princess momentarily lost her grip on the barrier around Canterlot from the shock of what she saw. Far, far below, seemingly at the bottom of the vast sea of energy, was Equestria. But not Equestria as she knew it: the landscape was the same, but though she could not see quite as clearly without Kenbroth there to guide her senses, there was no mistaking the bearlike behemoths that were the Mother Ursa. Whole hordes of them, flocked together in a thick, red band stretching southern end to the northern. With a start – causing the barrier outside to flicker once again – she noticed that a few points shone brighter than other.

The Ursa were converging by where the castles stood in her own Equestria.

Luna could not contain her curiosity: she steeled her mind and sent a sliver of magic down the void, carrying with it her senses. Her body and spirit shook as they were nearly overwhelmed by the strange new world. To her sight, everything was coated in a layer of thick, dark blue with dots of white scattered across the air. To her smell, it reminded of burnt wood, with a sweet after taste. As for sound, all she could hear were incomprehensible noises, like flaring unicorn magic, sped up and listened to through a thick layer of glass. Plants existed here, but their shapes and growing patterns were as different as could be: bushes with thorns big as a pony, entire forest complexes the size of tall grass, and trees that were more often round than long. The creature they called the Mother Ursa, she realized, was the dominant life form in this realm, just like the ponies were in Equestria...

But when the landscape started to bend before her magical eyes, and the sound was starting to hurt, she pulled back the magic into her spirit. Even to Luna, the raw cosmic energy of such density was enough to break her if she weren’t careful. Not that it mattered; once the seal had mended, the two worlds would be forever split, never to be beheld again. As happy as she was for Equestria’s safety, it saddened her that a whole world of such rich wonders would be lost to them forever.

***

Three times during their flight did they encounter a Mother Ursa, made quick work of by the Elements of Harmony. And each time, the Elements showed Twilight a glimpse of the world from long ago.

Villages dotting a still-glittering landscape. Crystal castles, having served their purpose and slowly falling apart. Ponies encountering for the first time creatures such as manticores and hydras...

“Hey, girls...” Twilight ventured, the third Ursa being blown to magic smithereens. “Did you see something just now?”

“Other than a magic rainbow of doom?” said Applejack. “‘Cus Ah’ve seen that many times now.”

“No, I meant like a vision. Glimpses of strange places.” As expected, she was given curious looks. “I’ll take that as a no.”

“Usually, I’d say you were suffering from hallucinations from all the stress,” said Rarity, “but then again, this is you we’re talking about, Twilight. Go on, dear.”

“It’s the spirit of the Elements,” Twilight began, thinking how to best describe what she had felt. “It started when we were defending the crystal castles; I was shown bits and pieces of their memories from when the Elements were born. They are the seal! The very same seal that Pinkie Pie accidentally broke with her Squink.”

“Wait, time out!” the pegasus Rainbow Dash cut in. “We’ve been using the Elements left and right these past few days. If it was broken, wouldn’t we have, I dunno, noticed somehow?”

“That’s what intrigues me. It’s almost as if the Elements we’ve been using all this time aren’t actually the true source of their powers. Perhaps similar to how pegasus magic works: their magic helps them keep their bodies aloft, but it’s the wings that grant them the power to speed through the air.”

“Whoa... in other words, if could figure out how to use these ‘wings’, we’d be unstoppable! I mean, even moreso than we already are!”

“I’m not so sure about us, but I’m starting to think they can,” said Twilight, waving a hoof toward their counterparts.

“Come again, darling?” said the other Rainbow Dash.

“Your connection to the seal was the thing that woke up the sleeping magic and broke it in the first place, and it’s through the same connection that you’re able to fix it. In a way, you ponies are more closely connected to the Elements than we are...”

“That sounds amazing!” Minty said excitedly. “Just imagine what this could... uh, what does it mean exactly?”

“That we’ll be able to make rainbows the way you do?” the earth pony Rainbow Dash said hopefully.

“To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what it means,” Twilight admitted with a huff of frustration. It was just another piece to the puzzle she just couldn’t quite seem to piece together. It was beginning to drive her crazy. “Maybe Discord planned it this way, hoping that somepony would accidentally break the seal... but what would he have to gain from it? He can’t very well rule over Equestria if all life is gone.”

“Who knows with Discord, really?” Spike joined in. “Destroying the world sounds like a solid villain-motive to me.”

“Maybe in those comic books of yours,” Twilight chuckled. “Real life tends to be a bit more complicated, though. Who’d want to rule over a world that’s...” Twilight trailed off, theories starting to solidify in her head. Maybe Equestria wasn’t the goal. She thought back to what the Elements had told her: reality had split, creating a world filled with cosmic energy beyond the seal, from which the Mother Ursa were born. A realm of pure, cosmic energy...

A crazy idea hit the unicorn. “Let me try something.” She doubted that what she was thinking would actually work, but nonetheless she reached into the vast reservoir of magic within her body, concentrating it on the tip of her horn. She then started to absorb cosmic energy from the air around them; although the amounts were nowhere near lethal, especially not this far away from the castles and Ursa, the broken seal had still allowed more than enough to leak into Equestria for her to work with. Bending cosmic energy was considered one of the highest-level magic arts in Canterlot, but like most branches of magic, it had come naturally to Twilight with very little tutoring. Even so, she doubted anypony in Canterlot had ever attempted what she was about to try.

Flaring her horn, she started to compress the magic, reconstructing its magical particles, changing its structure... until it all started to feel very familiar to her. It was the same sensation she had felt the time she had accidentally turned her parents into potted plants, on the day she’d gotten accepted as Celestia’s protege.

A sensation eerily similar to Discord’s touch.

She expelled the dangerous magic skyward in a display of dark, crackling sparkles. Everypony on the carriage was giving her frightened looks, but she couldn’t stop smiling. Applejack was the first to speak. “Uhm, Twi, since when did you start dabbling in the dark arts?”

“Only just now,” the unicorn replied, barely containing herself at the excitement of her discovery. “This solves it! Discord was after the cosmic energy””

There was a confused silence, until Minty remarked to the others, “You think all this magic is making her strange in the head?”

“Yeah, more than usual,” Spike replied, nodding.

“Alright, let me break it down for you. What I did just now was refining some cosmic energy, and it turns out that I was able to make chaos magic! The same magic Discord uses to bend reality to his will! There are only trace amounts of it in Equestria, but imagine what would happen if he had an unlimited supply of it!”

“Oh my,” Fluttershy seemed to catch on. “He would be unstoppable...”

“Precisely! Why, with that amount of raw material for chaos, he might’ve been able to free himself before Equestria went under.” Twilight’s heart fluttered. Not that this was good news, but the fact that they now had a solid theory of what Discord was trying to do gave her a profound sense of accomplishment. “So, cosmic energy and chaos energy are really just different forms of the same thing. I wonder if the Princesses know...”

“No, they don’t,” Star Catcher spoke up. “Celestia and I share memories through our bond, and as far as she knew, what you just did should be impossible.” The white Fluttershy-lookalike seemed downright spooked. “I’m not sure I should be telling you this, but... the transformation of cosmic energy into chaos has been attempted in secret for thousands of years, but not once has there been a recorded case of success.”

The jubilation inside Twilight quickly diminished. “You mean... I just did on a whim what countless generations of unicorns could not?”

“Had it been anypony else, Ah s’pose Ah’d be surprised by that,” Applejack commented, “but Ah’m with Rarity on this one; this is you we’re talking about.”

“Uh, thanks, I guess.” Twilight wasn’t sure how to take this news; on one hoof, it might simply mean that she had become the most powerful unicorn in Equestria and not even realized it – a concept that made her light-headed – but on the other, she had summoned chaos! Like Discord! “Maybe it’s because no other unicorn had actually come in contact with him the way we did.”

“And yet, he waged war against Equestria a thousand years ago,” Kimono pointed out. “He must have come in contact with thousands of unicorns back then.”

“Right,” Twilight remembered. “Although they weren’t Element bearers. Or maybe... say, Kimono...”

“Yes?” answered her counterpart.

Twilight paused. Then she shook her head. The idea was ridiculous. “Nevermind. Whatever the case, this is something Princess Celestia needs to hear about.”

***

Shining Armor watched by the landing platform as a dark blob of dark against the brilliant aurora pierced the barrier and approached the castle. He didn’t recognize the overly-decorated carriage, but there was no mistaking the ponies who rode on it.

“Twiley, you’re back!” The white stallion came up the carriage as it landed. Twilight jumped off, and the two met halfway in a hug. “Looks like everything turned out A-OK after all, huh. That’s, what, the third time you’ve saved Equestria now?”

“Fourth time,” replied Twilight with a grin. “But don’t give me all the credit; this was a group effort, and we couldn’t have done it without our friends from the other Ponyville. Even Trixie helped.”

“No need to be modest, Twilight,” Kimono said, walking up beside her look-alike, causing a rather amusing reaction in Shining Armor. “You were the one who figured out a way to save me.”

“And you were the one who held me down when my magic went out of control,” Star Catcher added as the rest of the group got off the carriage.

“We came up with the plan together, Kimono,” Twilight said. “And it was Princess Celestia who saved Star Catcher. I just helped...”

“Well, Twilight darling,” said Rainbow Dash, “I dare say your ‘help’ might have saved us all.”

We saved us all,” Twilight said, beaming at the group. “And I think we have deserved ourselves a good night’s rest. Just as soon as we’re done with the seal in this castle... speaking of which, Shining, what’s with the gray barrier?”

“That’s Princess Luna’s doing,” Shining Armor explained. “She’s down in the crystal chamber, controlling the cosmic energies to protect our city. Turns out the Mother Ursa can’t get past the stuff.”

“Right,” said Twilight, remembering the letter from Celestia. Through all the craziness, she had forgotten all about that. “Guess we’d better get down there and fix the seal.”

“We can’t; Kenbroth isn’t back yet. Princess Celestia says we need to wait for him to pull Luna’s spirit back to her body; otherwise, she’ll be trapped between the castle’s magic and the seal forever. Besides,” he added, “you all look exhausted. Get some sleep first; I’m sure Princess Luna will survive for one more night.”

Shining Armor was right, Twilight realized. She didn’t mind waiting for Kenbroth to return, but she wasn’t so sure about the rest. Especially Little Rarity looked as though she was about to fall asleep then and there. “Some sleep would be nice,” Twilight agreed.

“Anyway, rooms have been arranged for all of you in the castle. Unless you’d rather stay at our parents’ for the night, Twiley.”

“Thanks, but I’d rather not be made a fuss over right now; I’d never get to sleep. Let them know I’m back, though, and that I’ll come visit once this is over with.”

“I’ll be sure to do that. Right this way, then. Oh, and and don’t worry about the hole in the castle. We’ve got everything under control.”

***

“Applejack!” exclaimed the Apple Family in unison as she stepped into the room where her family was staying. She had expected them to be asleep by now, but was glad for the greeting. Scootaloo was there too, sleeping soundly in one of the beds. Sweetie Belle wasn’t there, which probably meant she was with her own parents.

“Ah’m back, y’all,” she announced. “Ah’m alright... ‘cept Ah haven’t slept in ages,” she added with a yawn. “Can’t wait to hit the hay.”

“So did you save Equestria?” asked Applebloom excitedly.

“Sure did, sugarcube,” Apllejack chuckled, giving her sister’s hair an affectionate ruffle with her hoof. “Just another day’s work when you got one o’ these on ya.” She flexed her Element necklace proudly. “Still got a few rotten apples to clean outta the barrel, but they’ll keep ‘til tomorrow.”

“About time!” said Applebloom. “Not that Ah’m lookin’ forward to going back to school... but Ah guess we’ll have to wait for them to rebuild it first.”

“Rebuild?” Then her mind put two and two together. “Aw dang... Ponyville got smashed, didn’t it.”

“Sure as apple pie,” said Granny solemnly.

Applejack sighed, straightening her hat – an old habit of hers. “Guess there won’t be much apple pickin’ for a while then. Ah just hope we’ll have enough for cider this season.”

“Don’t ye worry,” Granny Smith said comfortingly. “Celestia’ll provide for us what we need, and we’ll just have to work extra hard next year.”

“Guess so. Ah feel a bit bad havin’ to rely on her though; she’s done so much for us already.”