Off The Mark
by Bernard Doove & Jeff Hartt


This story was first presented on FiMFiction.net.




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BOOK ONE — “Off The Mark”


 

Chapter 1: A Stumble Too Far

 

“Nice going, Captain Klutz,” my best friend said as he chuckled at my misfortune.

I sighed as I hauled myself out of the mud puddle with a helping hand from Phil. “I just want to know why these things happen to me and not to you. You’ve hauled on that rope just as many times as I have, but it had to break for me.”

Phil shrugged. “What can I say, Mark? You’re the designated fall-guy of this duo.”

As much as I hated to admit it, he was right. Even when I did everything right, if something went wrong, it was always me who copped the consequences.

“Go wash up – I’ll finish breaking camp,” Phil said.

I nodded and headed for the lake shore. The overnight thunderstorm had been spectacular, but it had made a bit of a mess of our campsite, not to mention creating that mud puddle that I just got acquainted with. However, the weather was warm and I had no hesitation in stripping off my clothes and taking a quick dip to clean myself off. I rinsed off and wrung out my attire too and then took a few minutes to just enjoy a last swim in the lake. Phil would have to pay for laughing at me – best friend or not.

Of course, I found out that Phil had packed my belongings in the car already, so I had to put up with the sodden clothes until I dried out.

With the campsite fully cleared and everything loaded, we started our journey home. We were in no rush, so we took some less well-travelled roads which passed through some small towns. That’s where Phil spotted the shop. I sighed as I pulled over to park.

I hate antique stores. Some of the most boring hours of my life have been spent at one or another. If I had my preference, I would never set foot in one again. But I knew I would; I was about to do so right now. I grumbled, “Haven’t you given up yet on finding that matching plate, Phil?”

“Nope. Someone somewhere has got to have one, and when I find it, I’ll have a complete set of one of the rarest collections in the world. It’ll be worth a mint!”

I groaned. “You always say that – did you think I’d be enthused this time?”

Phil gave me a playful jab in the ribs with his elbow. “Aw! You know you love it, Mark.”

“No – I really don’t, and I can’t understand why you don’t believe me.”

“Then why do you always come with me?”

Why indeed? Phil and I had grown up together and had been lifelong best friends. We did almost everything together, shared the same interests, and went to each other’s family gatherings because we were that close. But Phil had developed a keen interest a couple of years ago in collecting rare antiques, much to my bewilderment. However, while I did not share my friend’s enthusiasm for this one exception to our perfect match, I always supported everything else Phil did, and this was not going to be an exception.

I rolled my eyes. “Let’s just get this over with, okay?” I said in my best long-suffering tone.

Phil grinned and said, “I’ll try to make it quick. Have a look around while I’m busy and see if you like anything.”

“Have I ever?”

“First time for everything!”

Phil led the way into the shop, a bell tinkling as the door opened. As I already knew it would be, the store was filled with the usual mixture of useless, ancient, or tasteless bric-a-brac that left my mind numb just looking at it. There was the occasional piece that I recognized might actually appeal to someone, with an optimistically high price attached. While Phil sought out the inevitably geriatric proprietor of the shop, I wended my way through the narrow aisles in the hope of finding something that would help me stave off catatonia while my pal was busy.

I was stifling yawns already before movement caught my eye. A moment later, I realized that the movement was merely a reflection of myself in a mirror. It was a free-standing full-length one, and I paused to look at myself in it. A young adult Caucasian looked back at me; unkempt blond hair and a scruffy beard from days of not shaving while camping hardly detracting from my appearance. However, even I had to admit that my clothes could stand a good laundering despite my earlier attempts to clean them. I was still checking myself out when Phil reunited with me.

“Found something that you like for once?” Phil asked.

I almost automatically said no, but then I paused. I had been in the market for a good full-length mirror, and although I’d had in mind something a bit more modern to mount on a wall, I certainly had the room for something like this. I gave it a good look over and saw that it was in very good condition with a sturdy wooden frame that had been ornately carved. The top corners even had extra details featuring creatures, one that I recognized as a unicorn, while I was unsure of the other.

“What’s that?” I asked Phil, pointing at the carving.

“Hmm? Looks like Pegasus to me.”

“And what’s a Pegasus?”

“It’s a winged horse from Greek mythology. I gotta admit that it’s a rather odd thing to find on a mirror though. Are you interested in it?” Phil asked hopefully.

I glanced at the price tag and frowned. “Costs too much,” I replied with a shake of my head.

“Tell you what – I’ll spring for half the cost if you buy it.”

I stared at my friend in surprise. “Why?”

Phil grinned broadly. “So that I can finally get you to stop saying that you never find anything useful in these stores.”

I groaned. “But complaining is the only fun I get out of these visits.” I gave a resigned sigh. “Okay – I give in. At half the price, it’s a good buy, and it’ll save me trying to find another later. Thanks, Phil.”

The shopkeeper was delighted to make a sale after the initial disappointment of not being able to provide Phil with what he sought. It took both of us to get it into my pickup truck and safely lashed down on top of the camping gear. Then we continued on our journey home.



Phil lived only a block away from me, and after dropping off his bags, we continued to my house and we were very soon backing into my garage. We unloaded the mirror and took it into my bedroom where we put it into an empty corner. Then we unloaded the camping gear and stowed it away properly until it was needed once more. With the work completed, we took a couple of cans of beer from the fridge and toasted a successful and enjoyable outing. We took our drinks out onto the deck and sat down to enjoy them in the warm, late afternoon air. The thunderstorm that had marred our trip was a distant memory, and the sky was cloudless once more. The sun was setting behind the house, keeping us pleasantly shaded as we drank in companionable silence, and a yellow full moon started to peek over the horizon.

“Blue Moon tonight,” Phil commented.

“Hmm? What?”

“Second full moon in a month,” Phil clarified.

“Oh? That’s right. That’s pretty rare, isn’t it?”

“Yep. Spectacular one tonight.”

I nodded, admiring how it appeared to be so large when it was sitting on the horizon.

With the moon fully risen and our beers drunk, Phil bade me goodnight and headed home, walking the short distance down the block. Meanwhile, I headed to the shower to clean off the grime accumulated while communing with nature. I dumped my dirty clothes in the laundry basket and then enjoyed a lengthy hot shower. Finally satisfied that I was as clean and relaxed as I would ever get, I stepped out of the shower and toweled myself dry before walking into my bedroom, still nude. I immediately noticed my reflection in my new mirror and chuckled.

“First thing you do with the mirror is admire your bod,” I scolded myself. Nevertheless, I knew I was a fairly well-built and handsome male – not gorgeously so, but I had yet to be concerned about how I might look to a potential girlfriend. Not that I’d had much time for one yet; I was too busy enjoying being a single unattached male. Plenty of time yet before thinking of settling down with someone who hopefully enjoyed much of what Phil and I liked to do. No drastic life-changing decisions for me!

The mirror seemed to shimmer for a moment and my curiosity was aroused. The light of the moon that was coming through the bedroom window seemed to add a slight glow to my appearance in the mirror, and I wondered how it did that. I reached out to push it a little to swivel it on its pins to adjust the angle, but my hand failed to touch the glass. Startled as my hand seemed to pass through its surface, I dropped the towel that had been in my other hand, stumbled as my feet got tangled as I lurched off balance, and I pitched forward towards the mirror. This time, more than just my hand failed to find the cool glass. Without anything to stop me, I toppled through the frame of the mirror into pitch blackness.

My fall was barely broken by my arms, but my nose still smashed hard against the cold floor. The blinding pain distracted me for a long moment from the fact that it was stone or tile rather than the wood of my bedroom floor. Not that I could confirm that fact because there was not an iota of light to illuminate the room. I reached up with my right hand to touch my abused nose to try to feel if it was broken, only to bash it with something hard that sent another pulse of agony through it. When the pain waned enough for me to think straight, I wondered what the hell had just happened. I lifted my hand again but noticed this time how odd that seemed. Then I realized that I could not feel my fingers. I tried to flex them and nothing happened. I shifted my position on the floor to reach out with left hand to check out the other, only to sense the same lack of sensation. As soon as left connected with right, there was a clack that made no sense whatsoever, and a total lack of the expected feeling.

I began to panic, wondering if I had injured far more than my nose in the fall, and I struggled to climb to my feet. Nothing felt right though, and my balance was shot. I fell over, crashing into something which toppled along with me. There was the sound of splintering wood and shattering glass, and I lay still for a moment because I was worried that I might cut myself on whatever I had just broken. Then I carefully tried to get onto all fours, worried that I still felt weird and could not feel my feet properly either. At least I could still move, but my balance seemed all wrong. A second attempt to stand upright had the same disastrous result, but this time I felt a bizarre twitching on my back as I struggled to stay steady on two legs, and part of me collided with another unseen object with the same smashing consequences. This time however, it sounded like it hit something along the way and brought whatever it was down with it.

It was too much for me. I was blind, injured, insensate in my hands, and incapable of even standing up, and I screamed my frustration. “What the fuck is going on?!” Hell – even my voice sounded odd.

After a few moments, there was the sound of a key turning in a lock followed by a blinding shaft of light coming through an opening door. Through squinting eyes, I saw some animal silhouetted against the light as it entered the doorway.

Who goes there?!

The voice seemed to be coming from the animal, but I presumed it was someone behind it. As the door opened wider to illuminate the room better and my eyes adjusted, I saw that it was a small equine creature dressed in armor. I wondered about that but responded to whoever had made the demand.

“I need help. Something has happened to me, and I don’t know what’s going on.”

The equine stepped closer and a horn on its head that I had not noticed earlier started glowing. A short spear that had been attached to the armor floated free enveloped in the same glow as the horn, and it shifted to point directly at me.

“Who are you and what are you doing in this high-security room? How did you get past the guards?”

It talked! There was no hidden speaker unless he was a great ventriloquist. I stared in numb shock.

“In the name of the Magnificent and Powerful Empress Trixie, I order you to answer me!” the creature said irritably, moving the point of his spear closer to my face.

I held up my hands in surrender as I protested, “Peace! I don’t know… what…” My voice trailed off as I stared at what should have been hands, but I saw two hooves instead. My arms were covered in fur too – light green fur! I suddenly became aware that I could also see my battered nose prominently protruding into my field of vision. With a creeping sense of dread, I turned my head to look at the rest of me and saw a body that was similar to the creature threatening me except with the addition of a pair of wings. I looked back at what had to be a guard and recognized him as a unicorn, just as I now appeared to be a Pegasus like in the mirror carvings. My last thought as my brain checked out was – ‘Green is a stupid color for a horse.’



I awoke in a hospital bed. Anyone who has ever been in one as often as I had will recognize it for what it was irrespective of what country you visit. My hope that my memory of having hooves and green fur was a hallucination was quickly dashed as I struggled to sit up. Pushing the bed sheet off me, I got a really good look at myself. Aside from some bandages that had been applied to various parts of my body, I was still naked. Still male, all too obviously. Odd proportions for the rest of my new form too, and that shade of green simply did not exist on equines. Too small for a horse – maybe a pony would be more accurate. And those wings! Without even knowing how I did so, I spread one, noting several disheveled feathers. It was too surreal, so why was I so calm about it? Oh wait – I wasn’t.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!”

My scream brought a quick response. Two ponies rushed into the room – a doctor and a nurse, apparently. How did I know that? Because the stallion was wearing a doctor’s white coat with a stethoscope about his neck, and the mare was wearing a nurse’s uniform. I stared at them, wondering what a pony was doing wearing clothes at all, let alone something so familiar that I could tell right away what they were.

The doctor looked at me with concern. “Please calm down, sir. Are you in pain?”

Of course they talked too. I gave up – I had to be in a coma and hallucinating this. Might as well play along. “Where am I?”

“Canterlot Hospital. The Royal Guard brought you in last night. You were badly lacerated in places and had several contusions, but you’re basically in good health. May I ask your name?”

“Mark Wells, and where’s Canterlot?”

The nurse looked shocked. “You don’t remember the capital of Equestria?” she blurted out.

“Perhaps some memory loss due to a blow to the head,” opined the doctor. “Let me examine you now that you’re awake. Nurse – the Royal Guard wished to be informed when this pony regained consciousness. Please do so.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

The mare exited and the doctor’s horn started to glow. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that he was another unicorn, although the mare had lacked both horn and wings. I wondered how she got dressed, but that thought was soon pushed away as I gazed at an optical device that was levitated in front of my face, surrounded by the same color glow as the horn. The doctor used it to peer in my eyes, humming thoughtfully as he did so. Then he asked me to open my mouth and he peered within, followed by an examination of my ears. The stethoscope was also put to use as the doctor gave me a thorough check-up, including the new feathery appendages. If it wasn’t so impossible, it would have been terribly normal.

The doctor drew back and said, “Aside from your superficial wounds, I can’t find anything wrong with you.”

“That’s good to hear,” came a new voice.

I looked over to the doorway to see a pony in armor like the one that I first saw. He entered the room and gazed sternly at the doctor.

“I require that you release this pony into my custody immediately.”

“I’d prefer that he stay overnight.”

“Her Highness wishes to talk to this stallion immediately, and you have just said that he is in adequate health.”

“Very well, I will allow it. See the nurse on your way to sign him out.”

The soldier gestured to me. “Get up and follow me.”

“Haven’t you forgotten something?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“How about some clothes?”

He stared at me as if I was crazy. “You are going to be questioned, not attend a royal tea party. You don’t need to get dressed. Now follow me.”

I wondered why I was so suddenly concerned about clothing on ponies, but with every other one that I had seen so far at least wearing a coat or shirt, I was feeling a bit naked. Nevertheless, I tried to follow. I practically fell out of bed as I attempted to get to my feet. Oh yeah – four legs. No wonder I kept falling over when I tried to stand up. I attempted to shuffle forward and planted my poor nose in the floor once more as my body got confused as to which of my four legs to move first. I ignored the soldier’s expression and pretended that I was just slightly dizzy. Firmly focusing my efforts, I managed to start walking fairly steadily, highly aware of my hooves clacking on the hardwood floor. I was led down the corridor and stopped at the nurse’s station where the soldier signed me out before we continued outside.

A carriage awaited, two ponies in armor apparently serving to pull it. Ponies pulling ponies? Sure! Why not? This hallucination didn’t have to make sense, after all. I was urged into the carriage which I managed without making a fool of myself again, and my guard sat down opposite me. Without a word, the two-horsepower vehicle lurched forward. I quickly forgot about it as we drew out into the street and I got a good look at the neighborhood. My jaw dropped as I saw dozens of ponies of all hues and types going about their business in what looked like some fantasy theme park city. Unicorns were common, but it was the Pegasus ponies that left me gaping. They were actually flying! I may not know much about aerodynamics, but even I knew that you can’t stick wings on a horse and expect it to fly! They are just too heavy and the wings too small to provide sufficient lift. But there they were, cavorting in the sky with total disdain for physics. I half-spread my own wings and shuddered at the thought of being in mid-air without any means of support besides those tiny appendages.

“Do not try to fly away,” the guard warned me.

I shook my head. “Believe me – I have neither the intention nor the ability to do so.”

He frowned slightly in confusion at that answer but seemed satisfied that I wasn’t about to flee.

I ignored him while I took in the scenery. For a hallucination, this was way too detailed. I didn’t even recognize some of the aspects of this odd city and I didn’t think that my imagination was this good. For the first time, I started to reconsider my self-diagnosis. Then I caught sight of the palace.

“Whoa! What’s that?” I asked my guard.

He gave me a funny look before replying, “Canterlot Palace – the same place we caught you intruding last night.”

“What? How the hell did I end up there?”

“That’s what you have to explain to her Highness,” the guard replied before clamming up.

I didn’t bother trying to get more out of him because I was too overwhelmed by what I was seeing. I gaped in awe at the beautiful structure with its gravity-defying towers. Then we pulled into a courtyard and the carriage came to a stop.

“Get out.”

Terse and to the point. I was disinclined to argue with the pony with the pointy pike and I quickly moved to obey. Let me say in my defense that going down steps is a lot harder than going up them. My nose was probably beginning to resemble a pug’s by now. The unsympathetic guard merely hauled me to my feet… I mean my hooves… and herded me inside. The inside of the palace was just as impressive as the outside, and I have to say that I loved the stained glass windows.

While I wondered what they depicted, I had a feeling that the guard wasn’t about to enlighten me. We came to a pair of enormous doors flanked by another two unicorns in the same armor as my guide, and they challenged him as we approach.

“Her Magnificence has ordered me to bring this intruder to her for questioning.”

“You are expected. Proceed,” said one of the guards who opened one of the doors for us.

We entered what appeared to be a throne room, although it was not as well-lit as the rest of the palace had been. Long, thick curtains draped at least half of the room, with just a single spotlight focused on the dais with the lavish throne upon it. We came to a halt at the foot of the steps that led up to the empty throne and the guard rapped his spear on the floor.

“I bring the prisoner as you ordered, O Magnificent and Marvelous Princess!”

A shower of sparks and plumes of smoke rose from the base of the throne and a female voice boomed from within.

I am the Great and Powerful Trixie, Duchess of Canterlot, Princess of Equestria, Queen of the Sun and the Moon, and Empress of the Equian Empire. Who are you? WHO ARE YOU?!

“Nice sound system you have in here,” I replied, “but I think you’re cribbing your lines from the Wizard of Oz.”

More smoke and fireworks exploded, and the image of the head of a blue mare with a white and light blue mane appeared from within. Looking closely, I could see the tell-tale lines of the image being projected onto the smoke from the rear.

Answer me, or suffer my wrath!

“Sorry – I just can’t take this too seriously. Mark Wells is my name, Your Blowhardiness.”

The disembodied head looked as if she was going to explode before she turned her gaze to the guard and said, “Leave us!

“As you command, Your Mightiness.” The guard then hastily exited.

As soon as the door shut, the image did explode, but only in a dazzling flash of light. When my vision cleared, the unicorn mare herself stood on the dais, her barrel draped in a purple cape emblazoned with stars. She glared at me and sneered a little.

“Some ponies cannot appreciate Trixie’s true greatness. Nevertheless, you shall answer my questions, prisoner!”

That was going to be a real trick considering that I had no idea what was going on. “Sure – if you answer mine too.”

Trixie frowned but continued. “Why were you intruding in a security area of the palace, Marked Well, and are you responsible for the disappearance of the alicorns?”

Wait. What?!

 


 

Chapter 2: Right Place, Right Time

 

“What’s an alicorn and why the hell should I know anything about them?”

The blue pony stared at me as if I was mad before replying. “How do you not know of the alicorns? Everypony knows the rulers of Equestria are alicorns.”

“Still haven’t answered my question, pretty blue pony,” I pointed out.

“You think Trixie is pretty?” she asked before shaking her head vigorously. “Wait – Trixie is the one asking the questions, impertinent one! But if it helps diminish your ignorance, alicorns have both wings and horns.”

“Oh – like that stained glass picture of you that I passed.” I peered more closely at her robe-covered body. “That’s odd. I swear there aren’t any wings under that cape of yours.”

Trixie was startled and then her eyes shifted nervously. “Do not be so presumptuous of your Princess, peasant! Now, answer my question!”

Between the magic special effects and her bluster, I began to recognize this mare for what she was. Nevertheless, she had the guards at her beck and call, so I decided to play along for the moment. “I know nothing about your alicorns. In fact, I’ve never believed in fairytale kingdoms until now. All I know is that I fell into a mirror and suddenly I’m a Pegasus.”

Abruptly, Trixie was in my face. “You came through a portal and were transformed? Perhaps you saw Celestia and Luna but in the form of the creatures from your world?”

“Not unless they were shopping for antiques.”

Trixie blinked in confusion. “Nay – the Princesses… er… Trixie’s fellow rulers left in great haste on a task of enormous importance, vowing to return promptly. Shopping is hardly the reason. Perhaps you missed them?”

“I don’t know what could be so important that would drag two magical ponies to my world, but I doubt I would miss it.”

“Nevertheless, the portal rarely opens and this is the first time since they left that we have had a hint of where they may be. …Uh… one moment…” With another burst of light and smoke, she was gone, only to reappear a few seconds later in the same fashion. I would have been more impressed, but her hacking cough as she waved away the smoke kind of ruined the moment. I did notice that there were now lumps on either side of her barrel under her cape. “Attend us, Mark Swell.”

“That’s ‘Wells’,” I corrected even as I followed the mare out of the throne room. The doors opened to her glowing horn, and the guards bowed as she passed.

This situation just seemed to be getting more bizarre every minute. This Trixie person was obviously in control for whatever reason, but she came across to me like a showpony – all bluster and razzle-dazzle. Did these ponies really fall for that routine in the throne room? And I was willing to bet a month’s salary that there weren’t any wings under her clothing, or at least not real ones like mine. Maybe they were ceremonial? Artificial wings put on at certain times to mark them as special? And why was she so worried about the alicorns’ return?

“How long have the princesses been gone?” I asked.

“About two months,” she answered absentmindedly. Then she shot a glance at me. “Stop asking Trixie questions! You are our prisoner, remember?”

“Why am I a prisoner?” I asked, ignoring her order.

“You were found in a restricted area of the castle.”

“Not my fault that my new mirror turned out to be a doorway to another world. By the way, if we’re talking about alternate worlds, I might have a reason why your alicorns haven’t come back yet.” I nearly crashed my nose into the mare’s rear end as she abruptly came to a halt to stare at me intensely.

“Why have you not told Trixie this before?”

“Because I couldn’t possibly know until you answered my questions!” I replied with a glare.

Trixie snorted and resumed trotting. I hastened to catch up, glad that I seemed to have finally got the rhythm of the leg movements.

“Well? Are you going to explain to the Great and Intelligent Trixie your dubious theory?”

“Sure, why not? It’s not like I have anything better to do.” But before I could begin, we came to a flight of stairs.

Trixie trotted down them without pause while I hesitated. She frowned at me from the bottom. “Well, hurry up! Duchess Trixie values her time!”

I poked my tongue out in concentration before giving myself a pep talk. ‘You can do this, Mark.’ Moments later, I was groaning in pain at the bottom of the stairs. Apparently, I couldn’t.

“Trixie is most impressed with the speed with which you followed her command, but questions your people’s sanity if that is your usual mode of descent,” she said.

She lit up her horn and levitated me back onto my hooves before continuing on without waiting to see if I had broken any bones. At least I didn’t land on my nose again. Everything else, maybe.

“The Magnificent and Impatient Trixie is still waiting for your words, Spark Well.”

“ ‘Mark Wells’,” I grated out as I tottered after her. “Look – I’ve read enough science fiction to know that some parallel dimensions could have different rates at which time passes. Your missing alicorns may have only been in another world for an hour while two months passed here.”

The mare looked thoughtful. “Trixie finds your theory plausible. We shall have to try to test it.”

We approached a doorway guarded by a lone unicorn. Although I did not get a good look at him before, I think it was the one that found me after I fell through the mirror.

“Your Empress orders you to open the portal room!” Trixie commanded imperiously.

The guard saluted before pulling out a set of oversized keys and using one to unlock the door. He turned on a light inside before we entered. Trixie pulled up with a gasp.

Turning to the guard, she said, “Why wasn’t Trixie informed of the damage, Guard?”

“My deepest apologies, Your Excellence! I was busy with the intruder.”

Now that I could see clearly, I observed that the room was filled with about twenty mirrors. They were of many different styles, some wall-mounted but most free-standing, but every one of them was full-length and apparently a potential doorway… except for the four that lay smashed on the floor. My stumbling around in the dark had managed to destroy them – shattered glass and twisted frames possibly ruining them forever.

Trixie rounded on me. “Why did you do this?! Are you a saboteur sent to prevent the return of the Princesses?!”

“Don’t be so paranoid, lady! I fell into a pitch-dark room, tried to get onto my two legs and fell over a couple of times before your guard opened the door and let in some light.”

She looked at me incredulously. “Why were you trying to walk on two legs if you couldn’t see?”

“Because humans only have two, and I didn’t know that I had been turned into a pony!”

She exchanged glares with me for a long moment before returning her gaze to the wreckage. “Which was your mirror?”

I looked hard at them all, especially the four broken ones, but I didn’t recognize any of them. “None of these resembles the one that I have at home, but I suspect it’s one of those.” I pointed a hoof at the two in the middle of the mayhem.

The mare sighed. “The Mighty and Frustrated Trixie was afraid of that. We hope that you have not also broken the Princesses’ portal.”

“Why not?”

“Because if you did, like you, they won’t be going home again.”

“What do you mean? Can’t you repair them? You have the magic power to make them, so fix them!”

“The construction of portals is an arcane art known to few, but worse, they have to be anchored to an object at the destination. Once that link is broken, there is no way that I know of to find that particular world once more.”

My eyes bulged and my ears flattened. “I’m stuck here as a green horse?!”

“Pony. And yes, you are.”

“Oh, crap.”

My legs felt shaky and weak. As I fell onto my rump, I heard Trixie start to chuckle. Then she started to laugh a touch hysterically.

“What’s so funny?” I asked surlily.

With a deer-in-the-headlights look on her face, she replied, “The Awesome and Wise Trixie’s reign shall last forever!”

Oh, great. I’m stuck in a crazy world with a nutcase in charge. And I think I sprained a wing. Joy.

With my host apparently having a meltdown, I eventually decided that both of us couldn’t afford that luxury. Sure – I was a ridiculously colored winged equine stranded in an alternate world perhaps for the rest of my life, but I was in good health (various recently acquired cuts and bruises excepted), and I was a resourceful kind of guy when I wasn’t planting my oversized snout into the floor. I turned to the guard and asked, “Were you here when your princesses went through the portal?”

The stallion nodded. “I was stationed outside at my post when Princess Celestia and Princess Luna arrived.”

“Did you see which mirror that they used?”

“No, but I did glimpse one glowing oddly.”

“Which?”

“I’m not sure. As I said, I only caught a glimpse.”

“Take a stab at it,” I encouraged.

“Umm… this one, I think.”

His hoof pointed at one of those on the floor, and my heart sunk. That just about put the final nail in the coffin. “Could you let your… um… great and wonderful ruler talk in private with me for a moment?”

The guard looked at Trixie and she said, “Have you reported the damage here to anypony else?”

“No, Your Majesty.”

“See that you don’t. Also, do not discuss anything regarding our visitor.”

Trixie half-heartedly waved him off. The stallion bowed as he stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him. It looked like solid oak – excellent for security but also good soundproofing. I turned back to the blue mare and looked at her keenly. The slight bulges under her cape seemed askew, but even as I watched, she unconsciously shrugged and shifted them back into place. I was pretty sure that I was looking at some sort of flimflam artist, or at least some show pony who had been thrust into a role that was turning out to be tougher than she anticipated.

“Okay, Your Trixieness – would you mind explaining exactly what’s going on here?”

That seemed to pull the mare out of her strange mood, and she glared at me. “I don’t know what you are talking about, and do not address your monarch so informally.”

“Listen, lady – I don’t know exactly what’s going on here, but I can recognize someone running a scam when I see one. I run across your type all the time in my job. If you’re a real princess, then I’m the King of America!”

Trixie snorted derisively. “The Great and Tolerant Trixie is not amused by your presumption. She is the legitimate ruler of Equestria.”

“Then why are you so freaked out by the news that your princesses are unlikely to return?”

“Trixie is not freaked out; she is deeply concerned.”

“S-u-r-e you are. Mind letting me have a look under that cape of yours?”

“Impertinent stallion! No, you may not!”

“I thought as much. You’re a fake alicorn, aren’t you?”

“Be careful what you call your empress, peasant, or else suffer the consequences!” Her words were imperious, but her tone lacked conviction.

“What consequences? Are you going to dazzle me with more fireworks and stage magic meant only to impress an audience? Or perhaps try to frighten me more with illusions made of smoke and mirrors?”

Trixie gave me a sullen look. “Are you a performer in your land?”

“No, but I can recognize one. So, how did you usurp power?”

She tried to look indignant, but she slowly deflated and her ears sagged. “Trixie did not usurp power – she had it thrust upon her.”

As unlikely as that seemed, her demeanor seemed to back that up. “Care to share?” I asked, keeping the skepticism out of my voice.

For a very long moment it seemed she would not answer, but with a visible effort to firm her resolve, she replied, “Can Trixie trust you, stranger?”

I rolled my eyes. “Listen, ‘Princess’, we both seem to be caught up in this situation, so how about we help each other and cut out the bullshit? You can trust me to zip my lips and I’ll trust you to fix me up in this place.”

“Trixie finds that acceptable if you will Pinkie Promise.”

I looked at my hoof in confusion. “How? I don’t even have a pinkie finger anymore.”

Trixie stared at me in confusion before shaking her head and saying, “No. Do and say as Trixie does.” She then recited some words accompanied by some odd actions.

I just gaped for a long moment. “Seriously?” What sort of childish oath was this?

“Do it!”

“Okay! Okay! Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye. OW!” I had slammed my hoof into my face. Thanks to my ongoing lack of coordination, I probably now had a black eye to add to the list of injuries.

“Just so you know, ‘Bark Smells’, nopony ever breaks a Pinkie Promise.” She shuddered. “And a Pinkie Promise lasts forever.”

Her last word echoed strangely around the room, and I could have sworn it was in a different pony’s voice. Looking around, I didn’t see any…uh…pony else.

Apparently satisfied, Trixie began her explanation. “To understand better, first you need to know that Trixie did some unpleasant… things… in the past that she deeply regrets. Trixie decided that she must complete her magical training before resuming her career with confidence and style. Not that Trixie was ever less than magnificent, of course, but there’s always room for improvement. Her friend, Twilight Sparkle, spoke up for Trixie when she tried to re-join Princess Celestia’s School For Gifted Unicorns, and Her Highness often gave Trixie personal lessons as a favor to Twilight.”

“Why did Celestia favor this Twilight Sparkle so much?”

“She is the Princess’s personal student and a powerful mage. She was visiting Canterlot to check on my progress on the day that the Royal Sisters left through the portal. There were just the three of us in Celestia’s private study when one of the Guardsponies virtually burst into the room. He presented a message to Celestia and Her Highness looked horrified by whatever it contained. She jumped up and said something like, ‘An emergency has come up that my sister and I must attend to. Twilight – could you please help Trixie with completing the lesson?’”

“Twilight replied, ‘Of course, Princess, but if this is some sort of threat to Equestria, perhaps I should fetch the Element Bearers?’ And Celestia shook her head and said, ‘No, Twilight – this is a task for alicorns alone. We will assess the problem and let you know what you can do for us in the meantime.’ Then Celestia left in great haste while Twilight continued with the lesson. Shortly thereafter, a messenger from the Crystal Empire came begging for help against shadow creatures that were attacking the citizens of that distant city. Without either of the princesses there, Twilight took it upon herself to gather her friends and head off to the Crystal Empire to deal with the problem, leaving Trixie to study by herself. Celestia’s right-hoof mare Raven Inkwell found Trixie still there when she came looking for Celestia. She asked Trixie for Celestia’s whereabouts and was just about to leave when the Captain of the Royal Guard arrived.”

“ ‘Are you Celestia’s personal student?’ he asked Trixie. Of course, Trixie replied in the affirmative. He then informed Trixie that, by Celestia’s command, she was to take over the governance of Equestria until they returned.”

“What?!” I exclaimed. “Don’t tell me – Celestia meant Twilight Sparkle, didn’t she?”

“Princess Celestia’s words to him before going through the portal were, ‘My personal student awaits my return in my chambers. Inform her that we empower her to act on our behalf in our absence.’ ”

I gaped at her. “You mean to say that you became ruler due to a case of mistaken identity?”

The mare gave me a half-smile. “Trixie was Princess Celestia’s personal student, and was waiting there for her; Trixie thinks it was fate.”

“And everyone believed you?”

“Raven Inkwell was there to witness. Trixie is the legitimate ruler and her subjects do her bidding.”

“I’m beginning to think you ponies have to be the most gullible people that I have ever heard of. So – do you really want to have the responsibility to rule Equatoria forever?”

“It’s Equestria,” Trixie corrected. Then her ears drooped and she bit her lip before replying. “Trixie only sought to make some improvements and put some pizzazz into the Royal Court while she had the opportunity. She never expected that this might be a permanent gig.”

“Oh, for the love of… What about this Twilight Sparkle? Surely she knows who should really be in charge?”

“Heh! Funny you should mention that. Twilight and her friends spent about a week in the Crystal Empire trying to deal with the shadow creatures. Then they returned to Canterlot to acquire more help…”



Trixie was idly admiring her new crown when a Royal Guard approached the throne.

“Your Majesty – the Elements of Harmony have arrived and they demand an audience.”

Trixie had been anticipating this and she replied, “Let them in without delay, and make sure we are not disturbed.”

“As you command, Your Magnificence!”

As the Guard hastened to obey, Trixie smiled and placed the crown back on her head. “Hmmm. Trixie thinks she likes that one. She will keep him.”

Twilight Sparkle trotted into the throne room, followed by her five closest friends. They saw Trixie sitting imperiously on the throne and Raven standing nearby with her clipboard in hoof, looking like she would rather be anywhere else.

Twilight squared her stance and lit her horn, the other Element Bearers forming a line on both sides of her, their jewelry gleaming in the darkness with their own light. Trixie smirked. Twilight opened her mouth to speak but Trixie held up a hoof to interrupt her.

“Stop! You are here to put an end to my vile villainy and knock the false alicorn from the Throne of Equestria, am I correct?”

The light around Twilight’s horn flickered for a moment, but then her voice returned with its full confidence. “Uh, yes! And…”

“Fine! You win!” Trixie trotted down from the dais and headed for the back of the throne room. She then stopped and called over her shoulder. “Good luck ruling Equestria! You do realize all the Little Ponies will not accept anyone but an alicorn as their ruler, don’t you?”

Twilight gaped. “That’s not true! And even if it was, Cadance can… well, as soon as their emergency is over in the Crystal Kingdom she can occasionally visit to…”

Raven sadly shook her head.

Twilight’s horn went out entirely. “What?”

Raven looked up. “The Boring and Facetious Trixie is correct about the citizenry.”

Trixie turned around completely. “Hey!”

Raven continued as if no pony had said anything at all. “There was mass chaos in the streets after the rumor broke that Celestia and Luna had left. Ponies everywhere were just running around like headless chickens, throwing things in the air and knocking themselves over. They wouldn’t stop screaming and running even when they were on their sides, spinning like tops. Without their Alpha, whether it be the head of their herd or the ruler of the nation, the common pony can’t function. Trixie was…”

“Kind enough,” supplied the smug blue mare.

“…opportunistic enough…”

“~grumble~” Trixie pouted.

“…to seize the reins of power and restore order. She has been doing a sub-optimal and only a shade higher than adequate job of keeping the faith of the ponies since then.”

During this time, Trixie had put on her most smug grin and marched right up to Twilight’s nose. “So what do you say, ‘Prized Pupil’? Until the diarchs return, do you want to be saving Ponyville from their weekly crisis–”

Rainbow Dash spoke up. “Actually, more like monthly after you left.”

Trixie’s smile faltered and she glared at the pegasus, who didn’t seem to notice. “…their bi-weekly crisis and trying to help your foalsitter and brother solve the mystery of those ponies made of shadow that keep battering the shield around the Crystal Kingdom, or do you want to try to ‘reason’ with a nation of screaming equines that won’t listen to you unless you have both horns and wings?” She finished with a confident smirk and a flourish of her cape, showing off the artificial appendages that shored up her claim to the throne.

Twilight frowned and her horn started to glow again. Trixie’s smile faltered and she took a step back.

Applejack put a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “One sec, now, sugarcube. Let’s get all the facts ’fore we do somethin’ we might regret.”

Rarity turned to the Right Hoof of Celestia. “Raven, darling, we were just so busy fighting off those deplorable creatures over the last week that there was no time to talk about anything else. Can you tell us what Cadance has said on the matter?”

The mare nodded. “As you know, Princess Cadance and Shining Armor are very busy keeping up the shield and evacuating the outskirts of their kingdom. We’ve only gotten a few scrolls through, but she…” Raven let out an exasperated sigh. “… praised Trixie for her quick thinking given the situation.”

Trixie crowed. “You see! It takes the intelligence of a royal to appreciate Trixie’s– ”

Twilight turned her head to face Trixie. Her eyes turned white and her mane appeared to catch fire.

The showmare crouched down slightly and softly said, “Shutting up now.”

Fluttershy came up to Twilight’s side. “Breathe deeply, Twilight. In… out… in… out...”

The unicorn closed her eyes and her mane slowly returned to normal. When her eyes opened, they were their normal purple hue. She looked at Raven. “No word from the Princesses?”

“None. And they specifically stated that the dimension they were travelling to was too dangerous for anypony but an alicorn.”

“Prince Blueblood?”

Raven snorted. “If he had been appointed by Royal Degree and the Sisters had personally expressed their full confidence in him to every pony in Equestria, the riots would have started in three days, tops.”

“He would not have missed this chance to seize power. Where is he, then?”

Trixie gave a motion of finality. “The situation has been handled.”

Rarity gasped. Fluttershy gasped. Pinkie Pie gasped because it seemed to be the “in” thing at the moment.

Six stares continued unblinking until Trixie wilted under the pressure. “No, Trixie didn’t kill him. Trixie gave him an all-expense paid trip to Prance to sample the wine at every vineyard in the country.”

Twilight frowned. “Five thousand, two hundred and twelve wineries, one visited in the morning and another in the afternoon makes…”

“Eight years,” supplied the showmare.

Twilight looked thoughtful for some time. Then she raised her head and moved in front of Trixie. “If you can do this, I’ll be the first to congratulate you on pulling off the Scam of the Century.”

Trixie stood up tall and straightened her crown.

Twilight leaned closer and narrowed her eyes. “And if you fail, I have absolutely no idea what the Elements of Harmony would do to the mare that usurped power from the rightful rulers of Equestria, but we would soon find out. Are. We. Clear?”

The blue unicorn’s legs trembled for a moment, then she gave Twilight her most confident smile and returned to the throne. Only after she was comfortably lounging there did she deign to reply. “Trixie has been preparing for this role since the day she was born. The Great and Wise Trixie has … ascended to the occasion and she will not fail.” She waved a hoof dismissively. “Now off with you. The Queen of All the Heavens has a meeting with the Griffonstone Ambassador to prepare for. Trixie does not need your distractions.”



“So basically, you were the least worst option,” I summed up.

“Trixie feels that you could have put that better, but yes. Equestria’s order has been maintained while Trixie has dealt with royal matters. The Elements of Harmony have attended to some minor crises and the Guild of Mages maintain the raising and setting of the sun and moon.”

My mind checked out then. “Say what?! Raising the sun?!”

Trixie gave him a curious look. “How else do you think the day cycles are maintained in the absence of the alicorns?”

My brain was officially overloaded and I rubbed my aching head with that damned hard hoof of mine. “I give up – I’m officially stuck in a fairytale.” Then my stomach emitted a loud gurgle. “And I’m starving. I haven’t eaten since I got here.”

Trixie headed for the door, opening it with her magic. “Perhaps we should discuss this further over dinner. Trixie can have the chef prepare whatever you wish.”

“That would be great. A nice thick sirloin steak sounds good right now.”

Trixie looked at me with horror. “You eat griffon food? Truly you are an alien from another world, Park Well!”



I groaned. Note to self – ponies can’t eat meat. Thank God they have toilet bowls.

 


 

Chapter 3: It's As Easy As Falling Off A Log

 

Dinner had been both frustrating and educational, and I’m not just talking about my visit to the porcelain receptacle. Trixie had kept her word and allowed me to order the biggest and juiciest steak the Royal Kitchen could cook up. The chef’s skeptical look did not discourage me, but the smirk on the blue mare’s face should have tipped me off. While we were waiting for our meals, I took in the details of the dining room. It looked fancy but still quite normal… for humans. I glared at the cutlery in front of me and then queried my host.

“How the hell am I supposed to use these?” I asked as I indicated the offending knife and fork. “It’s not as if I have fingers anymore. I don’t have that magic horn of yours to levitate them. Why give them to me at all?”

“How else are you going to cut your steak?” Trixie replied unhelpfully.

I gave her a flat look before ineffectually prodding the offending silverware with my hoof. “Last I saw, hooves aren’t very useful for picking up things.”

Trixie giggled. “How would you know? Have you tried?”

Now I knew she was yanking my chain. Gritting my teeth I ground out, “I don’t have fingers on my hoof!”

“What are fingers? Are they anything like griffon talons? That’s how they handle their steaks.” Her grin just kept getting bigger.

“You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you? You wanted me to get my steak and not be able to eat it.”

She pursed her lips and tutted in a show of exaggerated solicitude. “Do you think so little of the Kind and Generous Trixie that I would torment you so?”

I started to fume. “If you’re so concerned, would you care to explain?”

“What is there to explain? Pick them up and use them.”

I slammed my hoof on the table, rattling the plates, cutlery, and various other dining table accessories. I waved my knife in her face and snarled, “What sort of explanation is that?! Can’t you stop playing mind games for one moment and tell… me…” I trailed off as Trixie smirk grew to monumental proportions as her eyes regarded the knife. Mine shifted to look at it too. It was there on my upraised hoof. Firmly held. No fingers. Impossible! It suddenly clattered to the table. I looked back to Trixie and asked, “What happened?”

She shrugged. “You stopped holding it.”

“How did I hold it in the first place?”

“You stopped thinking that you couldn’t and just picked it up as any pony would,” she replied, demonstrating by picking up her fork in her hoof without her horn glowing. “Trixie suggests you practice because she is not going to cut up your food and feed you.”

I put my hoof on the knife handle, feeling the cold metal through the frog. I still didn’t understand how I had picked it up the first time, and Trixie was a lousy teacher, but maybe if I pictured in my mind grasping it with my absent fingers…?” I felt it this time – a flow of energy around my hoof. I lifted it and the knife came along with it. I could somehow feel my grasp on the handle and I tested that hold by pressing the tip of the knife against the table. It held firm. Magic. These ponies took these things for granted but I was going to have to learn – although hopefully not from the mocking mare in front of me.

When my steak finally arrived, I was able to cut and consume it with gusto, much to my regret afterwards. When I dragged myself back to the table from the bathroom, Trixie was enjoying a large dessert.

With her mouth still half full, she said, “The Kind and Thoughtful Trixie ordered you a garden salad.” She indicated it with her spoon.

While I thought I would not be interested in food any more after that episode, my stomach reminded me that it was empty… again. I sat back on my chair and regarded the large bowl of vegetables. I could see lettuce, cucumber, scallions, cherry tomatoes, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, cheese, plus a light dressing, and it smelled pretty good. I picked up my fork but before I dug in, I glared at Trixie and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me that ponies can’t eat meat?”

“Who says we can’t?” she replied infuriatingly.

I groaned. “Then why did I just consign my steak to a toilet bowl?”

“Ponies have always been able to eat meat – pegasi are inexplicably fond of fish – but always in modest amounts. If you had eaten a quarter of that steak, you would have been fine.”

I had stuffed my face with some of the salad while Trixie was talking, and I chewed and, unlike the supposed paragon of ponies, swallowed before replying, “But you were disgusted by my wanting to eat a steak. What gives?”

“The Great and Refined Trixie would not stoop to eating a formerly living thing, even if the meat came from a non-sapient cow.”

“So you’re saying it’s a cultural choice? Wait! Sapient cow? Are you telling me that there are talking cows here?”

“Of course. The bovine guild would go on strike if we even considered serving them up to our griffon guests.”

My head swam. “Besides ponies, griffons, and cows, what other species am I going to end up having an awkward conversation with?”

“Let’s see… There are the minotaurs, zebras, diamond dogs – uncouth ruffians, Abyssinians, deer–”

“Enough! I get it – don’t assume that anything is just an animal. Sheesh! How much more ridiculous can this place get?”

“Trixie recommends that you stop complaining and keep eating, or else she will take your dessert too.”

I pointed warningly at the mare with my fork. “Don’t you dare! If there’s anything as sacred to a man as a steak, it’s his dessert.”

Trixie just laughed, but she didn’t steal the generously sized piece of apple and blackberry pie that was waiting for me despite my taking the time to chew the salad properly before swallowing. One upset stomach was enough, thank you!

I have to say that pony chefs know how to cook. I was never much of a salad eater before, but I loved every bite of this one. And the pie was heavenly. No wonder Trixie threatened to eat my portion. Not that she couldn’t have ordered more from the kitchen anyway. Me too, come to think of it. I sighed – I had let her get to me again.

I leaned back in the chair with a groan of satisfaction. I was pleasantly stuffed and my mood lightened. I regarded my host a touch more benignly and thanked her for the meal. “That was a wonderful dinner, but I suppose we had better get back to more important matters, to wit – what happens to me now?”

Trixie tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Hmmm. Trixie supposes that she should throw you in the dungeon for the destruction of royal property.”

“WHAT?! Hey, lady, and I use that term very loosely, it’s not my fault that someone left a powerful arcane object where innocent people can stumble upon it! I hardly wanted to come to this crazy world.”

The blue pony merely smirked at me again. “The Great and Forgiving Trixie pardons you for your crime.”

I reminded myself not to let Trixie get under my skin – or under my green coat I suppose. “Well, thanks a bunch, ‘Princess’. With that option of royal accommodation off the table, that still leaves me at loose ends. Maybe I should consult with that Guild of Mages that you mentioned. Maybe they could get me home?”

Trixie’s face fell and she waved her hooves in distress. “No! You can’t talk to them!”

I raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Why not?”

“If they learn what happened to the portal mirrors, they may decide it’s Trixie’s fault that Princess Celestia and Princess Luna can’t return.”

“I thought you were worried about being stuck with this job?”

“It’s a lot more preferable to the alternative. The Great and Wise Trixie rules only through the good graces of the Council, the Element Bearers, and the nobles who sought stability in the absence of the alicorns. If they think that the Princesses will never return, Trixie’s days may be numbered.”

“Well, that sucks for you, but how else do I get home?”

“Hark Knells – do you really think that the Guild of Mages could do something that even the alicorns could not do without an enchanted portal?”

That brought me down to earth with a thud. I didn’t even feel like correcting Trixie for mangling my name again. I thought hard but only one alternative came up for the moment. “I suppose I need to stick around here in case something comes up. You wouldn’t happen to have an opening for a computer analyst, would you?”

“Trixie has no idea what that is, but what makes you think that the Important and Busy Trixie has need of you? She may just send you on your way.”

I gave her a level stare. “Are you telling me that you’re simply going to kick me out into a world I don’t know, homeless and destitute?”

“You could take a job as an air courier,” she suggested innocently.

“One – I don’t know how to fly. Two – I have a better idea. Seeing as you’re quite willing to just throw me out, I might be just as willing to spread the news about how the Great and Deceptive Trixie is the Princess of Scams. I wonder how much the local newspaper would pay me for that story?”

The de facto ruler of Equestria laughed nervously. “The Silly and Humorous Trixie was only kidding. She is sure that she can find a place for you here at the palace.”

Score one for me, but I had no intention of just hanging around doing nothing, even if it was in the lap of luxury. “Tell you what, Duchess – it sounds like you could use a little help running things around here. How about me lending a hand… I mean a hoof… and we can both try to make the best of the situation together.”

The mare brightened. “The Wise and Clever Trixie knows what to do. I will make you my Grand Vizier!”

I blinked in surprise. “That’s a rather… extreme title. How about just Advisor?”

“Nay! Raven Inkwell is already Empress Trixie’s chief advisor. You need a position that gives you an excuse to be at Trixie’s call at any time.”

I rolled my eyes and sighed. “Okay – Grand Vizier it is. Do I get a uniform? I’m tired of walking around naked.”

Trixie looked askance at me. “What is wrong with that? Don’t you want the mares to see your breeding potential?”

“SAY WHAT?!” My God – I hadn’t been imagining the looks I had been getting from some of the staff.

“Never mind,” Trixie continued. “If you desire a uniform, one can be acquired. Besides, the Princess of Equestria can do without the distraction.”

So now I was a potential stud. I couldn’t imagine getting it on with a pony, but they had no idea that I was a human inside this horsehair coat. Those clothes could not come soon enough for me.

Trixie got up from her chair and headed towards the balcony. “Attend Trixie, Grand Vizier!”

Glad of the distraction, I followed Trixie as she opened the glass balcony doors and stepped outside. She went right up to the railing and gazed around proudly while I stopped a half-pace back to look around. The sun was fairly low in the west, about an hour from sunset, I guessed. The city below was still well lit, but lengthening shadows added sharp contrast to the various buildings. Everywhere I looked, there were ponies going about their business – predominantly unicorns, but I saw quite a few of the other kinds. Cute foals played in the streets without two-ton automobiles to worry about. It was colorful and idyllic, and suddenly it didn’t seem so bad being stranded in this world.

“The Magnificent and Illustrious Trixie comes out here every afternoon so that her subjects may see that she watches over them.”

“I don’t know how many of them actually notice you, except for some of those pegasi flying by,” I commented.

Trixie gave me a sour look, but then her smirk returned. “You say that you don’t know how to fly like those pegasi. Trixie reckons that you have yet to even try.”

Her horn glowed and I felt myself being lifted off the floor. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?!”

“Remember Trixie’s lesson with the knife – your body knows how to fly, so let it.”

She moved me over the balcony railing and there was nothing between me and the ground about fifty yards below. I froze in terror and I barely managed to squeak out, “Bring me back!”

“Like a mother bird pushing her chicks out of the nest to teach them to fly, Trixie will teach you how to be a proper pegasus. Spread your wings, Lark Bells, and fly!”

With that, she released her magic hold on me and I plummeted downwards. I tried to spread my wings, but they were locked to my sides in terror. A flagpole approached and I desperately grabbed for it with my two front hooves. Miraculously, the same magic grip that let me hold a knife with my hoof also seemed to work on flagpoles. I clung like a leech while the pole bent dangerously, creaking from the strain. Then it snapped back, almost managing to fling me off again, finally forcing my wings partially open to flop about uselessly. As the pole wobbled back and forth, I managed to wrap my hind legs around it, securing my position. I glanced nervously toward the ground which was still too far away for my taste.

“What do you think you are doing, Dark Smells? That’s no way to fly,” came Trixie’s voice way above me.

I’m afraid of heights, you fool mare!”I yelled back.

I felt myself enveloped in her magic once more, but it took a mighty effort for her to separate me from my friend, the flagpole. I jammed my eyes closed as I ascended back to the balcony, and I did not open them again until I felt my hooves touch the floor. My legs shook uncontrollably and I nearly collapsed.

“What the hell was that idea, Trixie?” I asked shakily.

“You’re a pegasus – you need to be able to fly or you will look suspicious.”

“Well, you’re a terrible flight instructor, and I like my feet to stay on the ground, thank you very much!”

“Trixie does not know what a feet is, but she knows you must confront your fears as Trixie once had to.”

“Not today, I don’t. Give me a room so I can get some rest – it’s been a crazy day.”

“Very well, but you must wait until the sun has been set first.”

“I don’t want to wait an hour while you sunbathe.”

Trixie laughed condescendingly. “Don’t be foalish, Spark Gells – sunset is scheduled for a little over a minute from now. The Magnificent and Glorious Empress Trixie must be seen to perform her royal duty.”

“What in heaven’s name are you talking about?”

Instead of answering me, she moved over to the railing and her horn glowed. The artificial wings that she still wore started unfolding under the influence of her magic until they were fully spread. I had to admit that she looked quite impressive, but I wondered what the show was for. Then I noticed something that nearly made my mind check out again – the sun was suddenly accelerating towards the horizon. Two seconds later, it had set. And just for an encore, I saw the moon rising nearby at the same inexplicable rate before it settled down to a more sedate orbit. Trixie folded her wings and turned back to me with a smile of satisfaction.

“There – that did not take long, did it?”

“Did you…? The sun and moon… But how?” I dithered.

“Did not Trixie tell you that the Guild of Mages maintains the sun and moon’s schedule? The Great and Powerful Trixie merely maintains the illusion that she controls them as Celestia and Luna once did.”

“I thought you were talking about some superstition, but you ponies really do control them!”

Trixie gave me a curious look. “Who controls them on your world, Bark Sells?”

Nobody controls them! They’re too big to be controlled, and they don’t need to be anyway!” I screeched.

The mare shook her head and said, “The Sympathetic and Understanding Trixie thinks you need some rest. You are beginning to rave.”

I sighed and sagged. “Bed sounds very nice right now.”

Trixie summoned a maid who guided me to a guest room. Right then I didn’t really appreciate just how nice it was, instead heading for the en-suite bathroom to take care of necessities before climbing wearily into bed. So ended my first full day on a truly alien world, trapped in a form that was not of my choosing. Surely things had to get better tomorrow?

Despite my tiredness, I could not get to sleep. I had to get one thing off my chest before I could relax. I pulled back the sheet and raised my hoof towards the ceiling where I imagined Trixie’s room was, and I shook it like it was a fist. “My name is MARK WELLS, you dyslexic dipstick!

Feeling a lot better, I settled back down and quickly went to sleep.

 


 

Chapter 4: First Impressions

 

A shaft of sunlight speared my eyes and I groaned in frustration at being woken from a sound sleep. “Who the hell opened the curtains?” I grumbled as I turned away from the offending radiance.

“That would be me, sir,” came an unexpected voice from beside the bed.

Suddenly, I was wide awake and I shot upright. There was a dark blue pegasus stallion with a white and light blue-striped mane standing there, dressed in a white shirt, black bow tie, and a grey coat with tails. He looked exactly as comfortable as I would be if I was stuffed into a formal outfit like that. I was strictly a casual dresser – I hadn’t worn a shirt with a tie since my job interview years ago. I frowned at him. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my bedroom?”

“My name is Steady Flight, and I am your… butler, milord.”

I noticed the hesitation but I was more stunned by the answer. “Butler? Whose idea was that?”

“Princess Trixie’s, actually. You required a personal servant and I was selected to help you overcome your handicap.”

Alarm bells went off in my head. “What handicap?” I asked cautiously.

“The Great and Compassionate Trixie has informed me about how a severe allergic reaction sent you into a coma and when you finally awoke, your memory had been badly affected. Now you can’t recall your past and even need to re-learn how to fly.”

I stared at the stallion for a long moment in disbelief. Was that the best that crazy mare could come up with? Now I was going to have to play along as some sort of retarded idiot. I groaned and face-hoofed. OW! I had to learn not to do that too. For better or for worse, I now had to play along with the cover story. “Oh, that. Right. Still having trouble.” Then a thought occurred to me and my eyes narrowed. “What did our gracious monarch say that my name was?”

“Lord Shark Sells, sir.”

Called it! “Her Highness… misspoke. My name is Mark Wells. It’s one of the few things that my memory still recalls perfectly. I would appreciate it if you remember that.”

“Of course, sir. Would you care to get dressed now?”

“Shower first. Wait! Get dressed? You brought me clothes?”

“Yes, milord. Her Highness instructed that I bring you clothing suited to your station.”

Oh yeah – that Grand Vizier thing. Curiosity won out. “Let me see what you brought. And knock off that ‘milord’ stuff – it sounds too stuffy. Just ‘sir’ will do.”

“Very good, sir.”

I wasn’t sure, but I think he sounded a little relieved. He moved over to the nearby dresser where a pile of clothes that were not there last night lay waiting. He first held up a white shirt with ruffles. My nose wrinkled in distaste but it was nothing in comparison to the horror that he held up next. It was some sort of fancy red velvet coat with yards of lace and gold braid, plus oodles of shiny brass buttons.

“Who chose that tacky monstrosity?” I asked, aghast at the very thought of wearing it.

“Duchess Trixie selected it personally, I believe.”

What did she think I was, a stage assistant for her magic act designed to distract the audience with my garish looks? “Take those away and get rid of them. Burn them, preferably. While I’m showering, find me something decent to wear. Keep it simple and tasteful.” I particularly emphasized the last word.

“With pleasure, sir.”

“Good man… er… stallion.”

I slid out of bed and made my way over to the bathroom. I found it was well-stocked with shampoo and conditioner, which I suppose was virtually essential for any well-groomed pony, especially one that was supposed to be as important as me. Thanks to a long-handled scrubbing brush and my newly acquired magically magnetic hooves (that somehow worked on wood), I had a long and satisfying shower. Drying myself off was trickier, but there were plenty of towels to accomplish this task. I eyed the mirror suspiciously for a moment before deciding that it was unlikely that someone was going to put a door to another world in their bathroom. I regarded my appearance in the mirror and realized that I was going to need a damn good grooming. I missed my nice smooth, nearly hairless skin. And I still thought green looked silly, but after seeing the multitude of colors that these ponies came in, I realized that it could have been worse.

I found Steady Flight waiting for me impatiently. Perhaps he hadn’t meant to be seen like that, but I think I caught him by surprise after dawdling in the bathroom for so long. Rather amateurish of him, I reckoned. Not that I’d had much experience with butlers outside of the movies; I wasn’t that rich. He had put the new clothes on the bed and I checked them over. Simple off-white business shirt – not my favorite but I could deal with that. Dark grey business jacket – I suppose I had to at least look acceptable to the court. Steady had retained the bow tie, and after some thought, I agreed with his choice. A regular tie would just get in the way a lot. There was still something missing though.

“Aren’t there any pants?”

Steady Flight raised one confused eyebrow. “Pants, sir? I was not aware that you into that fad.”

Pants were a fad? I sighed. “Got to show off my breeding potential, right?”

“I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but yes.”

“Even if it’s a distraction to the mares?”

“That’s what the shirt and jacket are for, sir,” he replied as if explaining the obvious to a slow child. “They draw the eye and indicate refinement. Or at least that’s what I’m told.”

While he had mumbled the last bit, I still caught what he said with these large mobile ears that I now possessed. The stallion seemed even less of a house servant than I was. Buttling was supposed to be a highly professional career, but he was acting more like someone stuck with a job that he had little idea – or desire – to perform… Someone…? She didn’t, did she?

“Steady – what do you do for a job?” I asked casually.

“I’m a Royal Courier—” He slapped a hoof over his mouth.

“Too late. Let me guess – the Powerful and Annoying Trixie conscripted you because she needed a pegasus to teach me to fly. Again,” I added hastily.

Steady Flight was silent for a long moment before he nodded. “Yes, sir.”

I put an arm (yes, I know it’s a foreleg – humor me!) around his shoulders and said, “Looks like we’re both in a situation that we don’t want. I’ll make you a deal – I’ll treat you like one of the guys while you’re stuck with this job, and you do the same for me. Okay with you?”

“Works for me, sir.”

“The name’s Mark, Steady.”

“Okay, Mark, but I don’t want to get into the habit of using your name. I might blurt it out accidentally in front of someone important.”

“Fair enough. Anyway, I suppose I had better get dressed. I could do with some help, and you probably need to get some practice pretending to be my personal butler.”

“I can do that, but would you like your coat groomed and your mane and tail combed first?”

“Oops! That would probably be a good idea. You do know how to do that at least, I hope?”

“Of course! Wow – you really don’t remember anything, do you?”

“It’s like I’m from a whole other world sometimes,” I replied.

With the artificial formality set aside, Steady Flight proved to be quite a companionable stallion and very helpful for someone like me who didn’t know the first thing about pony personal care. And I admit the brushing was not a little pleasurable. We chatted a bit and I regretted that I had to maintain the fiction that I was an amnesiac. I would have liked to have talked about my world with someone who wasn’t a self-absorbed smart-ass mare.

After a quick preening of my wing feathers (which was novel to say the least), Steady eventually declared that the grooming was sufficient and he helped me get dressed. I observed the results in the mirror and nodded in satisfaction. I could tolerate this for the time being. I turned to Steady and asked, “What now?”

“You have time to have breakfast before Empress Trixie’s court starts. I’ll accompany you to the dining room and inform the chef that you are ready to eat.”

I headed for the door. “Will Trixie be there?”

As we exited, Steady replied, “My apologies, but I do not know Her Magnificence’s schedule, Lord Wells.”

Damn. Back in public and Steady’s back to being a stiff. Can’t blame the guy, I suppose. We trotted to the same dining room where I’d had dinner last night and found it empty, much to my relief. I wanted to get this day off to a better start than yesterday and I wasn’t ready to deal with the Great and Snarky Trixie yet. Steady informed the chef that I was ready to dine and I was able to order a stack of pancakes with fruit compote and whipped cream, two eggs on wheat toast, and a large mug of coffee. I don’t know how they had coffee in another universe, but I was deeply thankful that they did. I had a feeling that I was going to be needing it a lot.

I was sipping the last of the fine brew when Steady returned to inform me that I was expected in the throne room immediately. I sighed and nodded. Show time!

I had expected to see just Trixie and perhaps a couple of guards. Instead, there was a large gathering of ponies, mostly unicorns, all expensively dressed, lined up in front of the throne. Steady halted at the entrance while I nervously proceeded inside. I walked along the carpet that led to the throne which was the only clear path through the gathering of what I presumed were the nobles. Halting at the foot of the dais, I bowed extravagantly.

“I, Lord Mark Wells, am here by your command, your majesty.”

There – that pre-empted Trixie from mangling my name in front of everyone.

“Welcome to the court of the Grand and Mighty Trixie, Lord Sells.”

I rolled my eyes. Spoke too soon.

Trixie turned her attention to the gathered nobles. “Let it be known that the Wise and Learned Trixie has chosen Lord Dark Cells as Grand Vizier of the Canterlot Court. He shall be lending his unique perspective to aid in your Queen’s decisions and will speak with my authority.” She levitated a medallion hanging from a blue silk ribbon down to me and slipped it over my head. “Welcome your new Grand Vizier,” she proclaimed proudly.

There came nothing but muttering among the nobles.

Trixie stood up, stamped her forehoof on the dais and raised her false wings. “Your High Queen commands the Parliament of Nobles to welcome Lord Shells as the Grand Vizier of Equestria!”

There was some token applause sufficient to appease Trixie and she refolded her wings then sat down on the throne. “The Great and Astute Trixie recommends that the nobles get to know your new Grand Vizier.” She then turned her attention to buffing a forehoof with her cape.

I faced the nobles with some trepidation. They knew what the real circumstances of Trixie’s ascension to the throne were but they also knew that they needed her as a figurehead while they did most of the real work. The trouble with that arrangement was that all the citizens plus the nobles not in this select group were going to obey her over the authority of these nobles who were running things in the background, which meant that Trixie had quite a lot of real power, and she knew it. There was a delicate balance between her and them, and I had just been thrown into the situation to upset it. This was not going to be fun. Nevertheless, if for no other reason than not getting defenestrated before learning how to fly, I was going to do my best to support Trixie and for this fantasy land.

I bowed to the nobles – might as well make a good first impression. “I bid you greeting, my lords and ladies. I hope that we can work together well for the benefit of all Equestria.”

First mistake. I realized belatedly that the typical noble was more interested in what was good for themselves first and Equestria second. Therefore, they immediately regarded me as an attempt by Trixie to change that situation. Nevertheless, they kept up an appearance of decorum and started introducing themselves. After a lengthy string of backhanded compliments and digs at the validity of my appointment, I was just about ready to strangle half of them. The pompous unicorn Lord High Station was getting on my last nerve, particularly.

“Who are you exactly? Why haven’t I seen you before, Grand Vizier Mark Wells? Why should I not believe you are actually a changeling here to cast your terrible mind control magic on our Beloved and Wise Empress Trixie the First? You are a threat to Equestria that must be dealt with post haste.” His horn began to glow.

I smiled disarmingly. “Very good questions! But would a changeling do this?” I then verified that my skull was just as thick as it had been as a human and that a vicious head butt is almost always an effective way to end an argument.

Lord Fancy Pants looked down at the indisposed and barely-conscious noble, taking the time to sip his cocktail. “I’m inclined to agree with the Grand Vizier – changelings are much more subtle in their ways.”

I was very glad to hear the wry sense of humor in his voice. It seemed that at least one noble wasn’t talking disapprovingly to my face. I’d have to ask Trixie what the hell a changeling was later, but for now, I seem to have put that notion to rest. “My lords, while a lot of my past is a mystery due to my amnesia, there are certain aspects that I do still recall with great clarity. One of them is to deal directly and effectively with a problem without delay. If anyone else would care to dispute my legitimacy, please feel free to step forward now.”

It came as no surprise that no one took up my offer. People… and even ponies in this case… who relied on political machinations rarely had the stomach for more physical battles. However, I had established that I wasn’t about to be pushed around and now everyone was on record as tacitly agreeing with my appointment. I’d have to be on my toes… hooves… tippy-hooves? …and watch out for the more insidious attacks though.

“Attend us, Grand Vizier!” Trixie called imperiously.

I climbed up on the dais and stood beside Trixie’s throne, projecting what I hoped looked like quiet dignity.

Trixie then said, “This meeting of the Parliament of Nobles is now ended and you are dismissed. The Dutiful and Sagacious Trixie must begin Day Court soon and attend to the needs of her subjects.”

The nobles made curt bows and filed out of the throne room. When the last of them had left and the Royal Guards had closed the doors behind them, I turned to glare at Trixie.

“Thanks a lot for throwing me into the lions’ den!”

She just gave me that infuriating smug grin of hers. “I do not see what the problem was, Quark Tells. You seem to have handled the nobles with great efficacy.”

“Yeah, and most of them are already sharpening their knives.”

“They only care that their status and power are retained; if you do your job well, you can keep them happy and serve Equestria at the same time.”

“Not to mention keeping your royal ass safe, right?”

“The Forgiving and Gentle Trixie does not have a donkey retainer, merely yourself. If you wish to be referred to as ‘Your Royal Ass,’ Trixie will permit this. However, Trixie believes you might mean keeping my position safe. That would seem to be an agreeable side benefit,” she replied smugly.

I sighed and gave up. I was curious about my badge of office though – it seemed awfully light for a medallion. I lifted it with my hoof to take a good look at it. It was gold in color and had Trixie’s cutie mark upon it, but when I looked on the back, I discovered it was actually made of painted cardboard with the words: “One night only at the Trottingham Fairgrounds, Foals’ Stage.”

With a snicker, I showed the back to Trixie. She blanched, snatched it off my neck, and ran behind the throne. Curiously, I peered around the royal chair and saw a concealed doorway ajar. I waited a minute then followed into the maze of corridors that all looked the same to me. With the help of one of the guards, I headed towards Trixie’s private chambers. It was then that Trixie returned, triumphantly showing that the medallion now possessed her cutie mark on both sides. “Please add this to the list of things never to bring up again, Hark Hells.”

After her magic levitated the ribbon back around my neck and released it, I immediately noticed how heavy the medallion now felt. I picked up the disk with one hoof and tapped it hard with the other. It gave a metallic ‘clunk’ and, examining the edge, I did not see any damage. I looked up at Trixie. “Did you really use your magic to turn it to gold?”

Her smile grew wide. “You are welcome to believe that.”

I gave her the stink eye. “However...”

“However, the Efficient and Brilliant Trixie finds it much easier to add weight and permanence spells to produce the same effect.”

I lowered my hoof and let my new badge of office swing. I smiled devilishly. “I will think of it as representing everything that you are.”

Trixie’s smile brightened for a moment, then faltered as her brow furrowed. She glared at me and then suddenly focused on my nose for some reason. “Look out!”

“What?” I asked before she zapped my muzzle with her magic. “Ow! That stung!”

“You are most fortunate, Aardvark Smells, that the Quick and Considerate Trixie was able to slay that pesky fly with just one blow!”

I groaned and gave her a glare. “I thought you said yesterday that there were wards on the castle to keep flies out?”

The mare nodded in what was almost a sympathetic manner. “Yes, a most persistent pest indeed to get this far into the castle.” She moved up very close to my muzzle. “We will have to try to be more careful in the future.”

I rolled my eyes so hard I thought they were going to come out of their sockets. “The Wise and Totally-Not-Fooling-Anyone Trixie is correct, as always.”

She blinked and turned around with a smile. “And don’t you forget it! Now stop dallying – the Great and Punctual Trixie needs to open Day Court.”

I snorted and moved up beside her. Was I going to stand for this treatment? Certainly not! I swatted her rump with my tail and she let out a rather adorable ‘Meep!” sound. She turned to me with wide, I-can’t-believe-that-you-did-that eyes.

I grinned. “For a moment, I thought I saw that fly again. Looks like I was mistaken.”

Surprisingly, she just faced forward and chose not to say anything. It was a bit odd how her eyes were still wide and I noticed that her cheek was a shade of pink.

I just didn’t get it. I’ll never understand girls no matter what the dimension.

 


 

Chapter 5: Crash Course

 

Whatever else I felt about Trixie, I had to admit that she actually did seem to care for the average pony. This session of the Day Court was for petitions from the commoners and she handled many quite well in my opinion. When she got stuck, she would consult with Raven Inkwell or her new Grand Vizier (mostly Raven though), and I began to feel less of a phony. It was an education watching her because it was clear that the public was generally in favor of their new princess, and it wasn’t hard to see why. Trixie played the crowd like the showmare that she was – bantering with them, doing minor magic tricks with perfect timing, and genuinely trying her best to please the majority of them. Once or twice, Raven or I had to rein her in to make a less popular but fairer decision, but overall, I would have to give my new ‘boss’ a pretty high grade in public relations so far. By the time that recess was called for lunch, I was in a pretty good mood.

To my surprise, Steady Flight already had a light meal waiting for me laid out on a sundeck, and I queried him about it.

“If I am going to be stuck with this job, I thought I’d ask some of the staff what would be expected of me. Turns out there’s quite a lot. I also got chewed out for calling myself a butler. I’m informed that my actual position is a valet.”

“Let me guess – Trixie was the one who called you a butler?”

“Got it in one, sir.”

“My first piece of advice to you – don’t take anything she tells you at face value. Second piece – don’t think I’m like those nobles who can’t do anything for themselves. That said, this looks like a nice light meal. Thank you for making it, Steady.”

“I prepared it in mind of your flying lesson. I’ve scheduled it for immediately after Day Court finishes – if that suits you?”

My appetite suddenly dropped at that reminder. I really had no particular desire to learn to fly in spite of my wings frequently twitching as if eager to get into the air. However, a pegasus who refused to learn how to fly would look pretty strange, and I was in enough of a pickle without adding another complication. Steady must have sensed my lack of enthusiasm because his brow furrowed and he looked at me intently.

“Is something the matter, sir? Did you want me to schedule the lesson for another time?”

Yeah – preferably the Twelfth of Never. How could I tell him that I had acquired a healthy respect for heights after my numerous falls from trees, from roofs, from a hang glider (how Phil got me into one, I’ll never understand), from… well… you get the picture. It was not for nothing that Phil called me Captain Klutz. Me and falling seemed to go hand in hand, or in hoof in this case. But I couldn’t tell Steady that because I’m supposed to have forgotten my past. I sighed and gave in to the inevitable. “No – that time is fine. Just warning you though that when Trixie tossed me over the balcony, I froze up like an icicle.”

“She what?! I mean, the princess’ methods may not be… suitable.”

“Let’s call it like it is while she’s not in earshot – the Great and Clueless Trixie has no idea how to teach a pegasus how to fly.”

“But… she has wings…?”

I so badly wanted to disabuse him of that notion. It surprised me that no one ever questions them, but for the moment, I had to play along with the charade. “I guess she’s too new to them to teach effectively. Anyway, that food isn’t going to eat itself, and it’s a nice day, so let’s relax while we can.”

“I need to look as if I’m on duty, sir.”

“I need a friend more than a valet, Steady.”

“We can chat while I stand here as if I am tending to your needs. I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“Fair enough. So – tell me what life was like as a royal courier…”



The afternoon session proceeded much as the morning’s had, although I had to bring in some other-worldly knowledge to persuade Trixie not to give the green light to a project that I knew would cause considerable pollution. When I checked with Raven later, it turned out that this petitioner had tried before to get her project approved but Celestia had rejected it, probably for similar reasons to mine. I figure she thought she could slip it past the inexperienced monarch, and she would have been right if Trixie didn’t have two ponies looking over her shoulder.

The afternoon session was concluding when the sergeant-at-arms announced a surprise visitor.

“Twilight Sparkle! Isn’t she the pony who was supposed to get your job?” I whispered urgently in Trixie’s ear. “What is she doing here?” Had I come along just in time to get involved in a confrontation between them?

Trixie merely nodded and ignored my questions. She waited while a purple unicorn approached, a scowl on her face. When the mare halted at the base of the dais, Trixie stood up regally and said, “It is good of you to obey my summons so promptly, Miss Sparkle.”

Twilight’s frown deepened. “I only came because you said there was news about Celestia and Luna. Have you located them yet?”

“The Great and Regretful Trixie wishes that she could answer in the affirmative, but no, it is another matter that requires your attention.”

“I hope you haven’t just wasted my time, Trixie,” Twilight said warningly.

“You wound Trixie. Attend us, and you will see for yourself.” She stepped down from the dais and marched right past Twilight, with me hot on her heels.

Twilight snorted in annoyance and followed. “Where are we going?”

Once the three of us were out of earshot of anypony else, Trixie replied, “To the portal room.”

Twilight glanced at me before replying, “Should this pegasus be coming with us?”

“That pegasus is Trixie’s new Grand Vizier Bark Dells and he is involved with this.”

The purple mare looked startled for a moment before turning a hostile glare upon me. “Are you one of Trixie’s cronies then?”

I gulped and replied, “Firstly, my name is Mark Wells, no matter what Trixie may say. Secondly, I’m just as much a victim here. I’m only the Smug and Annoying Trixie’s Grand Vizier for lack of a better option.”

Twilight looked surprised at my reply. Maybe my description of Trixie helped. I certainly hope so. If everything that I heard was true, the Element of Magic was named that way for a reason. This was probably the most powerful magic-user in the world next to me, and pissing her off was right at the bottom of my list of things to do. I needed to make as positive an impression as possible before she saw what I had done, especially if this mare was my best hope to getting back home.

“Would you care to explain that statement?” Twilight asked.

“I’m afraid that it will have to wait until we get to the portal room. It’s all tied together. Whoops!”

We had just come to my mortal enemy – the stairs that led down to the corridor to the portal room. I glanced at them nervously and then looked back to Trixie. Unfortunately, the blue mare was already halfway down the steps, and Twilight paused to see why I had hesitated.

Come on, Mark – you practiced this earlier. Stairs are your friend.

Moments later, the purple mare was staring at me with a concerned look as I lay on my back at the foot of the stairs.

“Are you alright?” Twilight asked.

“Don’t mind him – he does that a lot,” Trixie said as she continued on down the corridor.

Twilight shot a glare at Trixie before using her magic to right me.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll be fine. Just a little uncoordinated is all.”

Twilight gave me a skeptical look before she hastened after Trixie. I limped along after them both and got there just as the Guard unlocked the door to the portal room. I let the two mares go ahead but I stayed outside next to the Guard, putting my hooves over my ears. When the stallion gave me a questioning look, I said, “Wait for it.”

WHAT THE BUCK HAPPENED HERE?!

Lowering my hooves, I gave the Guard a sympathetic glance as he rubbed his abused ears before I entered the room. “Funny story,” I said. “I said almost the same thing when I arrived.”

Apparently, Twilight was not amused.



After a long explanation which I survived with only some relatively minor singes, Twilight carefully examined the remains of the destroyed portal mirrors. This process took long enough for Trixie to grow bored and start yawning. I took this as a cue to extract myself from the shooting range of a very angry mare.

“Your Majesty, I believe you have other duties to attend, and I have an appointment to keep.”

The faux alicorn perked up. “You are quite correct, Park Dwells. The Busy and Responsible Trixie must keep to her schedule. Twilight Sparkle, your Empress commands that you make repairing the portals your top priority.”

Twilight snorted. “Like I wasn’t going to anyway, ‘Empress’.”

I had to give Twilight an A+ for the sheer amount of snark that she managed to put into that one word. It was like water off a duck’s back to Trixie though, and she left the room without any further comment. I hastily followed, pausing only long enough to warn the Guard to tread on eggshells while Twilight Sparkle was still there.

“No kidding!” he silently mouthed back.

As we headed back, Trixie inquired about my appointment. When I told her about the flying lesson, she brightened and said, “Ah, yes! The Curious and Studious Trixie must learn how flying is taught for the day she truly earns her wings. She will accompany you.”

I groaned. The last thing that I wanted was an audience, especially a mare with delusions of grandeur! The chances of Trixie gaining wings were somewhere between zero and none. Wait! You can earn wings?

Steady Flight was waiting for me in my room, but he was surprised that Trixie intended to watch. I suspect that he had expected to be a lot more informal with his lessons, but instead Steady ended up trying to instruct me as if he was being tested, and his nerves were really showing. I don’t know which of us felt worse, but at least he wasn’t going to have to worry about crashing to his doom if I got the lessons wrong.

We started on the ground, thank God – to be specific, on the floor in front of open bay windows. He had me extend my wings and gently flap them. He corrected the way I positioned them until I could feel a bit of lift from aerodynamics alone. Then he told me to reach for my flight magic and push it into my wings. I just stared at him for a long moment.

“How the buck am I supposed to do that?” Hey! I’ve already learned how to swear in Pony!

Steady opened his mouth but was dumbstruck. Ha! Great teacher! Then I kicked myself mentally because that wasn’t fair to Steady. He probably never intended to teach flight school, and because he was born a pegasus, he would just instinctively know about his flight magic. Instinctively? Maybe if I just feel for something that I never had as a human? I continued to flap as Steady had instructed, but I also closed my eyes and attempted to discover something within me. After a minute or two with no results, I opened my eyes once more. The first thing that I saw was the open blue sky and something inside me suddenly yearned to be out there. Abruptly, my wings were alive with energy and I shot up into the air…

Crashed into the ceiling…

Bounced off the top of the railing beyond the window…

Spun out into the courtyard outside…

Froze in fear and plummeted down to the ground.

As I sat spitting the dirt and grass out of my mouth from my one-point touchdown (that is – face first), I heard a certain mare’s laughter behind me. “You are certainly always entertaining, Ballpark Spells!”

Steady fluttered down to land beside me. “Not bad, sir, but I think we’re going to have to work on your landings.”

“If I wasn’t now seeing two of you, I’d punch you,” I groaned before lying down on the cool grass. “Class dismissed!”



I forgave Steady when he produced a bottle of Eyrish Whiskey afterwards. The Unsympathetic and Nosy Trixie had departed, leaving us alone in my room once more. The stallion and I were partaking in the ancient tradition of bitching about the boss. He poured us both a double and it went down smooth.

As he refilled our glasses, Steady said, “Don’t let today’s incident get you down, Mark. You’ve shown that you still have it within you to fly. We’ll have you back in the air in no time.”

That was what I was afraid of. Maybe next time I’d have some of this whiskey before I try to fly again.

 


 

Chapter 6: Class Is In

 

I woke up before Steady Flight was due to call me, and I lazed in the luxurious comfort of the awesome bed that I had in my room. I could almost imagine that I was on holiday and away from the office. That left me wondering what my boss thought about me being a no-show for a couple of days. And of course, there was Phil. Had he stopped by my house to try to find out what happened to me? We had keys to each other’s homes, so if he came into my bedroom, would he find the mirror broken on that side too? I missed Phil. Steady was a great stallion and already developing into a good friend, but Phil and I had seen one another on a nearly daily basis since we were kids. It was hard to think that I might never see him again.

I was still daydreaming when there was a gentle knock on the door. Considering that Steady must have done the same yesterday, I could only conclude that I had managed to sleep through it because I was so tired. Right now though, I was well-rested even if I was still in bed; that was just plain laziness on my part. It’s not as if I had to punch a time clock now.

“Come in!”

Steady entered and snickered as he saw me sprawled on the bed with no motivation to move. “So – should I open the curtains again?” he asked.

“Don’t you dare! One of these days it’s going to be cloudy and rainy when you come to wake me, and you won’t be able to threaten me with that again.”

“No chance of that. The weather team doesn’t schedule morning showers at this time of year. Nothing but bright, sunny mornings,” he added with a mischievous grin.

I sat up in surprise. “Say what? They schedule showers?”

Steady stared at me sideways as if to determine if I was pulling his leg or not, then he nodded. “Another hole in your memory, it seems. Yeah, the pegasi weather teams ensure that we only have rain when and if we need it. At this time of year, the commercial district relies on a lot of morning traffic, and rain definitely hurts sales. Nothing but sunny days for the rest of the week.”

“So, you’re saying that pegasi control the world’s weather?”

“Oh, no – just in Equestria and a few other places that hire the services of a weather team temporarily.”

And here I thought my world was technologically superior. These ponies could do something that humans could only dream about, and it was so normal that I get weird looks for asking it! Magic for the win, I suppose. What was next? ‘Well, of course, books grow on trees. Where else would they grow?’

I was fully awake now, and my lazy mood was busted, so I heaved myself out of bed… and stayed upright on all four hooves. See that, Mom? Isn’t your son a clever stallion? I learned that trick in just a couple of days! Stop giggling, Mom.

I noticed that Steady had brought some clean clothes, so I started getting dressed. This time, my valet slash friend had added a gold-colored vest and matching bowtie. As much as I didn’t like dressing too formal, I liked this combination. “What inspired you to bring this today?” I asked.

Steady shrugged. “I saw it and thought you might like it. The castle’s resident tailor said that no one had shown much interest in it so far.”

“No one, as in the nobles, I presume?”

“Exactly.”

“Their loss is my gain. Consider this as a contender for favorite outfit already,” I said as Steady tied the bowtie. That done, he stepped aside so I could look at the result in the mirror. I liked it and it complemented my mane color very nicely, but I still had to ask, “No matching pants?”

“The tailor rolled his eyes at me and muttered, ‘Foals!’ when I asked.”

Looks like I had to get used to airing my privates for the duration of my stay in Equestria. I just had to hope that the snazzy attire did an adequate job of distracting from them. “Okay, I give up. Let’s go get breakfast.”

After nothing fantastically unexpected happened during the morning, I was just settling in next to Trixie’s throne when Twilight Sparkle teleported into the room.

“Miss Sparkle!” Trixie called out while waving a hoof. I wasn’t sure why, because the purple unicorn was facing our way and already looking at her. “Miss Sparkle! Do you have any progress to report to the Benevolent and Wise Trixie on your special project?”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Actually, I’d like to speak privately with your ‘Grand Vizier’ for a while. I’m hoping he can prove useful.”

“Yes, I can see how such a rugged stallion would appeal to you.”

I’m not sure which of the two of us gaped more at Trixie, who merely smirked and gave us both a dismissive wave. “Do with him as you will.”

Damn that mare and her mind games. I very carefully walked down the few (thankfully) broad steps of the dais and nodded to the unicorn. “Good morning, your… uh… Elementness?”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t think that’s a thing. Just Twilight, please. Come on.”

Twilight led me away from the throne and soon we were in a small meeting room – thankfully on the same floor.

She smiled pleasantly. “How did your flight lessons go yesterday?”

“As well as my ‘stairs lessons’ but with more dirt up my nose.”

Her smile faltered and she lowered her ears sympathetically. “Well, give it time. Flying is something that can’t be learned overnight, especially if your species has never flown before.”

I shook my head. “Oh, I’ve flown plenty of times, but always as a passenger.”

“Ah! So, hot air balloon?”

“Nope. Heavier-than-air craft. Fixed wing with two to four jet engines, though sometimes propeller-driven for private planes.”

It was actually kind of cute to see her ears prick forward as far as they could go, as if being another couple of millimeters closer would pull in more information. Her eyes took on a hungry look and I could have sworn I saw a little drool on the side of her mouth. But after a moment, she closed her eyes and shook her head.

“Uh… As… fascinating as it would be to learn about your heavier-than-air craft, we have to concentrate on the mirror portals.” Her horn lit and a scroll, what looked like a lab notebook, an inkwell, and a quill pen floated out of her saddlebags and arranged themselves on the central table. Doing all of this apparently didn’t require much of her attention because she continued to look at me the whole time. A second scroll and quill pen drifted out of the bag and hung in the air in front of her. “So, to recap what you said yesterday, your portal was one of the two that fell in the very center of the portal room, correct?”

I nodded. “I don’t know which one of the two, but it’s fifty-fifty whether it was the one the guard thought he saw glowing after the Royal Sisters left. Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it more, I kind of doubt that mine is the one they took.”

She looked up and raised an eyebrow.

“I checked up on the world and local news on my car radio earlier that day as Phil and I were driving home, and nothing noteworthy or especially dangerous was happening. Certainly, nothing that would require beings of their special brand of power to deal with such as an asteroid hurtling towards Earth or solar flares.” Twilight’s nose wrinkled as I think she puzzled over some of my words but nodded for me to continue. “Also, their greatest strength is their magic, and as far as I know, there is no magic in my world. Unless there’s something that we haven’t learned about the universe, the natural laws of physics there just might not allow it. The closest we have…” I gave a long, meaningful glance back in the direction of the throne room. “…are sleight of… uh… hoof artists and illusionists who pretend to be something they are not.”

She closed her eyes and stifled a laugh. It took her a few moments to get her composure back, then she squinted in concentration for several seconds. “I can’t fault your logic. I’ll start my efforts on the lighter-framed mirror because that’s the one the guard saw glow.” She looked up at me. “I’m sorry if that ultimately means it will take longer to attempt to fix what is more than likely the portal to your world.”

I just nodded. I had already figured out that was going to be the case. “Is there any other way I can help with your project?”

She shook her head. “Unless you saw them in your world, either in your ‘human’ form or in an equine form, then I can’t think of anything else at the moment.”

“So what do they look like anyway?”

Her eyes went wide. “Oh! That’s right. Other than the stained glass windows, you wouldn’t know unless you went to the Royal Museum and Art Gallery. In fact…!” Her horn lit brighter and a sheaf of papers and a flat framework holding several crystals appeared next to her. “Would you like me to give you the Introduction to Equestria short course? I’ve had a presentation ready just for situations like this!” She practically danced in place and had a beaming smile. Well, who was I to say ‘no’ to a pretty lady… uh… mare?

I sat down at the table to get comfortable. “Sure! As long as there’s not a test at the end!” I winked and gave hopefully my most disarming smile.

“That’s a great idea!” A wide beam of white light projected from her horn through the top sheet which had levitated off of the stack. The title slide was projected on the far wall.

My smile faltered and I eyed the four-inch stack of papers. What had I just signed up for?



“…and other than rumors of a shake-up in the Zebrican nobility, nothing of much interest has happened during the last two weeks. Any questions?”

I sat somewhat stunned at the sheer volume of material that the mare had managed to pack into my brain over the last two hours. Only the most pertinent information about Equestrian history, races and their special magic, culture, social norms, arts and science, transportation, and even sports now waffled around in my brain. Each crystal had projected what seemed like a full-color audio-visual hologram of some sort. What was more amazing was that I think I retained most if not all of it. I suspected Twilight had put some sort of memory-boosting magic into the presentation, but I decided it was safest not to ask about that. I knew her type and I didn’t want to sit here another two hours getting the full explanation.

“No thank you, Twilight. I can’t tell you how helpful that will be to me, and I don’t just mean for my new job!” I toasted her with the wine goblet in my right forehoof. Wait. When had that appeared?

She returned a kindhearted smile. “I’m very glad to help, Mark Wells. It’s the least I can do for a friend.”

“Just Mark is good. And thanks for considering me such.”

“I’m not only the Element of Magic, but also the Element of Friendship. In this world, Mark, Friendship is Magic!”

I had to smile at her enthusiasm. She obviously believed that to the core of her being, and who was I to doubt how crazy the laws of magic were in this crazy world?

She took out a new blank scroll. “Actually, I have a million questions about you and your world, if you don’t mind answering some of them.”

I thought about it. Lunch recess wasn’t for another couple of hours yet judging by the sun streaming through the skylights. And she had really gone all out to help me, so how could I say no?

“Sure. Fire away.”

“OK, thanks!” That same beaming smile. She leaned over her scroll, quill ready. “So let’s start with what you did in your world. What was your profession?”

I stammered a bit. “Ah… it was a job that was very much tied into the different technology we have there. I don’t know if there’s an equivalent here I can use for comparison.”

Her ears seemed to focus in on me even more. “Oh, that’s fantastic! Why don’t you start with some of the base concepts that underlie the technology?”

I thought back to my classes at college. “Okay… So imagine a series of switches, but minuscule in size… just a few hundred atoms across—”

“And how are these manufactured? What materials do they consist of?” Another scroll and pen levitated out of her bags. She was using her magic to scribble on both scrolls simultaneously while keeping her eyes and concentration on me.

“Do you really want me to go off topic and tell you about that?”

Her smile was like a little kid who just got told she could go into the candy store she had been looking at her whole life but now was allowed to buy anything her heart desired. Her eyes were wide and quite literally sparkled. Huh. If that’s the look she gave her parents, maybe that’s how she got her name.

“Okay. You start by growing a wafer of pure silicon crystal, polished perfectly flat…”



…Two hours later...

Twilight was waving a foreleg now as she walked around the table. Her eyes were wide and unfocused – an expression I was getting quite used to. She now had at least twelve scrolls and quills levitating around her, madly scribbling down who-knows-what without slowing down our conversation. “Ah! I get it! So it isn't until the program is run before the determination is made what code to use for a named function! So if the shape object is assigned to be a square during run-time, then the perimeter method called would return four multiplied by the side length. And if the shape is assigned to be a circle, then a different set of code with the same method name returns pi multiplied by the radius squared. I can see how powerful that is! You no longer have to fix the type of shape at compile-time!”

I blinked. I was having trouble believing how quickly this mare had devoured the concepts of semiconductor theory, circuit design, discrete mathematics, machine language programming, higher level programming and compiler design, and now object-oriented programming. Also, she had an uncanny ability to ask questions that led to the next area I was going to cover. This was a serious Brainiac, and the more she was intellectually stimulated, the faster she would pace and the more wildly she would wave a hoof around. If she had her goblet in her hoof at the time, this would lead to a rain of red wine around the room, sometimes landing on the scrolls. I took a peek at one of these and the stain had been carefully outlined with the caption: “Chateau Inglehoof Select Reserve Merlot. Two Sisters Year One. Moderately tannic with hints of raspberries. 3.5 out of 5 horseshoes.”

I looked up and saw the sun was directly overhead. I stood up from the table and stretched my muscles, sore from so much sitting. “…and that answers your first question of what it was I did in my world… with maybe going down the rabbit hole of tangential discussions once or twice.”

She ignored my attempt at humor and continued to walk around, muttering to herself.

“Anyway, it’s time for the mid-day recess. Would you like to join us for lunch?”

More mumbling and pacing. I can’t say I was surprised at a scientist in the grip of discovery ignoring any mention of food. I’d just take my leave then. I moved up closer to her path.

“Well, thank you for the discussion, Twilight. I hope you found it enjoyable.”

And that’s when I found out what a pony kiss feels like. If I hadn’t been so shocked, I might have enjoyed it more. Then in a flash, she was gone. A few seconds later, she teleported back in just long enough to take all of her stuff with her this time.

What was I supposed to think about that? This was something absolutely not covered in the slideshow.

I trotted back to the throne room to see Trixie turning around to sit back on the throne. She smiled. “Ah, Lark Quells! So good of you to join us again. I am sorry that you missed out on your salad, but the Thrifty and Considerate Trixie had your butler eat it so it would not go to waste.”

Considerate?’ I thought to myself.

I climbed the dais and stood impassively next to the throne. OK, lady. Two can play at this game. I didn’t have long to wait.

“So how was your rather lengthy meeting with Twilight Sparkle? She is quite attractive, is she not?”

I sighed dramatically and thought back to our four-hour conversation. “Wow. We went all over the place. And I know she doesn’t look it, but she’s quite the kisser.”

Silence. Blessed silence. Again, I knew I only had to keep a straight face and wait her out.

“How interesting. Tell us more.”

I turned to look at her and gave an apologetic shake of my head. “A true gentle-stallion does not speak of such things.” I turned to look back towards the doors that would soon open for the afternoon petitioners.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Trixie slowly turn back to face forward as well. She cleared her throat and put on her regal airs. “The Benevolent and Powerful Trixie orders that Day Court resume!”



The afternoon session was educational but otherwise unremarkable. Much credit goes to Raven Inkwell for instructing me in the unfamiliar topics as we discussed what our advice to Trixie should be. The court was closed and Trixie departed immediately without a word of thanks to either of us. Not that I expected any.

I headed off to my room with Steady Flight following close behind. I had hoped to kick back and relax, but as soon as I had removed my clothes, the stallion pointedly made his way over to the bay window.

“Must I?” I whined.

“I have a job to do, and you need to get your wings back,” he replied firmly.

I sighed but I knew he was right. I walked over to the window, trying for a more positive state of mind. I was a pegasus, and while I had never learned to fly, that was something this species lived for. I could do this!

Unlike the day before, I felt calm and collected. I sensed that maybe, just maybe, the force of Harmony that wove through everything in this land had found a place for me. My wings rose of their own accord, I opened my eyes and tried something different. Instead of pushing my own magic through my wings, I tried to reach for a balance. To feel the magic that was within and to match its strength exactly with what I sensed around me; to be in perfect resonance with Equestria.

This time, I didn't bounce off the ceiling at all. Instead, my wings dragged my face along the tiles for a dozen feet, then propelled me in a barrel roll over the railing. That became a tight turn through some sort of fruit tree, several rose bushes (the kind with thorns), and finally another one-point landing – this time in a fountain.

With my face still half-submerged in the water, I heard the sound of a pegasus coming to a landing beside me accompanied by the more distant guffaws and hoof-clopping of that damn mare again.

“Are you alright, Mark?” came Steady’s voice.

I barely understood him through a haze of pain and dizziness, but I raised my head to respond. I felt water pouring off my head and I muttered, “I thought you said it wasn’t going to rain today?” I then slumped back down.

Steady chuckled. “Any pegasus that can respond like that after a crash-landing will be fine with a bit of rest. Frankly, I’m impressed. You show a great deal of flight power, but you have yet to re-learn how to control it. I’m surprised that your instincts haven’t kicked in yet.”

I groaned. If I was supposed to rely on my instincts, I was screwed because all mine were human. My greatest talent seemed to lie in falling from heights, without style.

“Let’s get you out of there. I think Princess Trixie has gotten her laughs for the day.”

He heaved my sodden self out of the fountain and somehow managed to lay me across his back. Mercifully, he did not try to fly us to my room. As he trotted through the damaged gardens, each hoofstep jolting my aching head, I admired the sheer amount of detritus that had been left in my wake. The gardeners were going to be horrified, and I wondered what would happen if they learned who the culprit was.

“Steady?”

“Yes, Mark?”

“You do have more of that whiskey, I hope?”

“Half a dozen bottles, actually.”

“Good stallion.”

 


 

Chapter 7: Testing Time

 

I had a hell of a hangover the next morning, but on the plus side, the headache was the only pain that I was feeling. It was remarkable how resilient pegasus bodies were. Steady had assured me that it was so while we were getting drunk last night, but by that time I didn’t care anymore. I even managed to laugh a little when I saw Steady come to wake me up, looking even worse for wear than I felt. He actually cringed when he opened the curtains, like a vampire shunning the sun.

“I’ve… unh… I’ve ordered a hangover cure for you, Mark. It’ll be waiting for you at the breakfast table.”

“Why not bring it here?” I asked as I eased myself into an upright position. Despite my newfound talent for not falling on my face when getting out of bed, I took no chances and hung onto the bedside table for dear life.

“It needs to be made fresh and taken with food.”

“I don’t exactly have an appetite at the moment.”

“You will when you drink the potion.”

I decided not to argue, putting my energy instead into getting myself ready. I hadn’t showered before crawling into bed last night, so I took a quick one before getting dressed. Thank God for magic driers, otherwise, I’d still be there instead of looking at the smirking face of my present employer over the breakfast table. Come to think of it, maybe that wasn’t the best outcome after all.

“Were you celebrating your latest flight a little too much, Ark Smells?”

“Trying to blot out recollection of your tearful concern for me, Trixie; I’m too manly to admit any failure.”

Trixie snorted in amusement. “I recall no tears.”

“Neither do I. Must have worked.”

Just then, Steady arrived with a goblet of something green and fizzy, plus a huge stack of pancakes that made my stomach squirm just looking at them. My valet looked a whole lot better now, and I suspected that he’d had his dose of hangover cure already. Can’t say that I blame him, but I’d get even with him later for making me wait even one minute more.

I took the proffered goblet while lifting a questioning eyebrow at Steady.

“Just chug it down, sir.”

Ever had an electric shock? That’s what it felt like when the concoction hit my stomach. I must have buzzed for several seconds, but then it stopped and the only thing that I now felt was a deep, yawning hunger. I attacked the stack of pancakes like a person coming off a hunger strike.

After the tenth mouthful, and I do mean full, I managed to choke out, “Whath’s haffenin’?” before shoving another pancake in my mouth.

Steady placed a mug of coffee in front of me as he replied, “The magic potion clears out the system but at the expense of your energy reserves and certain bodily requirements. It forces you to eat until those needs are met.”

I washed down several more mouthfuls before I managed another sentence. “How muth more?”

“I have the second course on its way, sir.”

Why, oh why didn’t I take breakfast in my room? Stuffing my face like a crazy person was bad enough, but watching Trixie pounding the dining table with a hoof while crying tears of laughter was acutely annoying. Steady must have known this would happen but he did it like this anyway. It reminded me of the jokes Phil and I pulled on each other occasionally. I missed that now, but that didn’t mean that I wouldn’t get even with Steady later somehow.

The second course consisted of eggs Florentine, hash browns, fried mushrooms, and hay-bacon. This was followed by a bowl of fruit yogurt before my raging appetite was finally quelled. I sat back with a groan, finishing the dregs of my second coffee before slamming the empty mug on the table. I didn’t think I was going to be hungry again for a week!

Trixie got up from her chair, cheerfully saying, “No time to dawdle, Snark Swells – Day Court is due to start soon.”

I glared after the departing mare’s rear end before I averted my eyes when I realized what I was staring at. I was going to have to remind the Great and Infuriating Trixie that my job was Grand Vizier, not Court Jester.



Trixie and I were just settling down in preparation for Day Court when a messenger abruptly entered the throne room. The earth pony mare hastened to the foot of the dais and bowed deeply.

“O Great and Glorious Empress, I have urgent news!”

“Speak, messenger,” Trixie said imperiously.

“Princess Cadance and Prince Armor of the Crystal Empire have arrived in Canterlot and are coming here to see you, your Majesty.”

“What! Why was Trixie not informed of this sooner?”

“No one knew of their visit until their Highnesses’ special train arrived at Canterlot station. The Royal Guards on duty there sent me here to advise you of their approach.”

I looked at Trixie and quietly asked, “Did you invite them to visit?”

She shook her head. “Trixie has no idea why they are here. They haven’t come to Equestria since Trixie ascended to the throne.”

“I guess we’ll find out soon enough.” I turned back to the messenger. “How long before their Highnesses arrive?”

“I would say no more than a couple of minutes, sir.”

At least we wouldn’t be left sweating for long. “Thank you. You may go.”

The mare bowed again and departed hastily.

I looked past Trixie to Raven Inkwell on the other side of the throne. “What about you? Any clue?”

Raven looked thoughtful for a moment before replying. “I have been keeping Princess Cadance informed of the state of affairs in Canterlot. Up until now, her Highness has been satisfied with the status quo. Something may have changed recently that has precipitated this visit.”

Raven looked at me meaningfully, and a moment later, Trixie also turned her gaze upon me.

“Hey! Don’t jump to conclusions!” I said nervously.

Whatever either of them might have said was interrupted by the sergeant-at-arms loudly heralding newcomers.

“Announcing Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and Prince Shining Armor of the Crystal Empire!”

A very pink alicorn mare strode regally through the doors accompanied by a snow-white unicorn stallion. The princess was taller and leaner than any pony that I had seen so far, and her mane was ridiculously long. Perhaps not as voluminous as those of Celestia and Luna as I had seen in pictures, but it lacked the ethereal nature of the elder alicorns to lift it. The prince was dressed in a gold-trimmed, red military uniform. They both approached the throne in an unhurried manner.

Trixie put on her best poker face, and I did my best to emulate her. I’d bet that she was wondering what was going to happen when they reached the dais because I sure as hell was! Was Trixie about to be denounced and thrown into the dungeon? Was I going to share a cell with her as a collaborator? Never did anypony’s walk from the door to the throne seem so long!

It was to our shocked surprise when they both halted and bowed. Shining Armor’s expression remained neutral, but Cadance burst out into a genuine smile. “Princess Trixie – thank you for seeing us despite our unscheduled visit.”

Trixie’s stage presence served her in good stead as she maintained a slightly aloof demeanor as she replied, “The Great and Cordial Queen Trixie welcomes you to Canterlot. May we ask the purpose of your visit to Equestria?”

“My husband and I have been watching with great interest how Equestria has been thriving under the reign of Empress Trixie.”

How Cadance said that title without a trace of irony, I have no idea. The thought occurred to me that her political savvy made Princess Cadance a much better actor than the lifelong showmare. That just made me even more nervous.

The pink alicorn continued. “After Twilight Sparkle expressed such great concern at your coronation, I felt it wise to keep abreast of the affairs of the Crystal Empire’s greatest ally in the event that you would be requiring our assistance during the turmoil subsequent to the disappearance of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna.”

Translation – we’ve been watching to see that you didn’t screw things up, pretender to the throne. I was particularly impressed by how Cadance maintained a genuine appearance of concern for the new ruler of this kingdom.

“However, we are most pleased that Equestria has stabilized under its new ruler, and you have had the foresight to employ some competent advisors, in particular, the newcomer to your court.” Cadance turned her gaze upon me, but to my surprise, there was real warmth in her smile. “Twilight informed me about her visit with you, Mark Wells, and your unfortunate circumstances.”

Oh, crap. She knows that I’m not an amnesiac.

“I would like to have a chat with your Grand Vizier during lunch, if I may. Meanwhile, I beg your permission to stay on while you hold court this morning.”

Great – we were going to be judged. I had better be on my ‘A’ game.

Trixie undoubtedly realized the same, but she kept up a bold front. “Trixie welcomes our fellow monarchs’ presence during her Day Court. It will give us something to discuss during our recess. Sergeant-at-Arms! Bring seating suitable for their Highnesses!”

“If it pleases your Majesty,” Shining Armor spoke up for the first time, “I would like to visit the Captain of the Royal Guard while my wife sits in at your court. I wish to catch up with my former comrades.”

A-n-d the prince was going to check to see how the military felt about serving Trixie and probably how they observed the general population’s attitude to Trixie’s rule. Marvelous. I felt like I was back at college and going into my final exam which I had to pass or I’d fail the whole year.

Trixie kept on smiling though. “Of course. Trixie is sure that her loyal Guards will be pleased to see you once more.”

Shining Armor gave Trixie a small smile, bowed, and then left the room just as a unicorn entered, two very comfy chairs carried in the glow of his magic. The stallion placed them beside the dais and bowed to Cadance who inclined her head in acknowledgement of his service before seating herself. She then smiled at Trixie who took it as her cue.

“Let Day Court commence!” she commanded.

I gulped and braced myself. Showtime!



I kept expecting the worst, and I had to stop second-guessing myself every time I gave Trixie advice. However, Cadance just sat there listening, a quiet smile on her face. The only time she spoke was in response to the petitioners who greeted her as well as Trixie. It was very unnerving. If she had offered the occasional comment, it would have been better than the silent judging that she had to be doing. I’m sure Trixie was better at hiding it, but I was also fairly certain that she was as nervous as me.

The end of morning court and lunch break could not come soon enough for me. It was with great relief that Trixie declared the recess and we prepared to head off to the dining room for a light snack (for her, not me!) and drinks. Of course, Cadance had already been invited to our lunch, and she was joined by her husband who had returned shortly before the session was done. The waiters served the refreshments before Trixie started a conversation.

“Trixie hopes that you weren’t too bored with this morning’s proceedings. The responsibilities of the Crown are not very exciting sometimes.”

Cadance smiled and replied, “Believe me; I have discovered that for myself. Getting the Crystal Empire up and running again has kept Shining Armor and myself very busy, hence why I have been unable to pay you a visit until now.”

“Trixie can only imagine. You are trying to bring an entire civilization forward a thousand years in every possible way.”

“That is indeed so; however, I was well prepared. I apprenticed under Princess Celestia for decades to master all branches of the Equestrian government.”

I held my breath. There were two ways Trixie could interpret what Cadance had just said.

“But there are only the two of you, Princess. Equestria stands ready to assist its closest ally, the Crystal Empire, in whatever areas you might require aid.”

I let out my breath. Three-point shot. Nothing but net.

Prince Shining Armor glanced at me and smirked. Apparently he had followed my train of thought, read my emotional reactions, and found my fleeting terror to be amusing.

Cadance gave that joy-inducing smile again. “Thank you, Princess Trixie. I will consider your generous offer. I fear it will be some time before the Crystal Empire runs as smoothly as Equestria.”

“Then you do realize that the Responsible and Hard-working Trixie has matters well in hoof?”

“Actually, yes. You do seem to have an effective team supporting you, and I certainly understand the importance of that. Shiny also informs me that the Royal Guard is fairly happy with the status quo until Celestia and Luna return.”

Relief that we had managed to impress the alicorn made the weight on my shoulders start to ease. But then Cadance continued.

“It will be interesting to see how you handle the afternoon session. I believe that you will be dealing with some new and ongoing projects, yes?”

“That is correct, your Highness,” I answered. Gah! Cadance had just been dealing with major projects in her own realm – she probably was very familiar with procedures, and here we were, two amateurs trying to bluff our way through. And Raven! Thank God we had her too. We may yet survive the silent inquisition.

With the agenda firmly set, the conversation turned to discussion of some of the morning’s petitions, in particular, ones that I had a firm hoof in deciding and my reasoning for my advice to Trixie. While many of the decisions that we had made seemed justified, naturally Cadance homed in on the difficult ones. However, one tangentially mentioned Twilight Sparkle and Trixie seized upon the opportunity to turn the subject to the purple mare’s visit and my time spent with the unicorn nerd.

Cadance nodded. “Ah, yes! As I said earlier, Twilight sent me a letter by dragonfire mentioning the fascinating subjects that you discussed with her. She was very excited about some new studies that she plans to do with that knowledge.”

At last, something that I could be comfortable with! I opened my mouth to mention some of the more interesting things that we had talked about, but Trixie beat me to the punch.

“Why don’t you tell the princess about how great a kisser Miss Sparkle is, Woodlark Dwells?”

I froze as the Princess of Love turned her attention on me full blast, her gaze fixed on me like a hawk on its prey. If I thought Twilight's eyes sparkled, that was nothing compared to the grinning Alicorn of Snu Snu.

“Twilight didn't mention that.”

I wilted under the laser-focus of the pink alicorn. I managed to mumble out, “Gee. Imagine that. Oh, look! It’s nearly time for the afternoon court session to start. Please excuse us, Your Highness, but Princess Trixie and I have to prepare.”

Cadance waved a hoof dismissively. “It can wait until later. Shiny and I will join you soon. We have a little errand to attend to first.”

Trixie replied, “We look forward to you both joining us once again.”

That better be the Royal We, because I had no desire to start that subject up again! Never had my daily crashing lessons sounded so appealing!

After Shining and Cadance left the room and started down the hallway, I turned to Trixie and hissed, “Thanks for throwing me under the carriage like that!”

She gave me what was supposed to be a wounded look, but it was ruined by her smirk. “Why, whatever do you mean, Earmark Gels?”

“Blabbing to the Princess of Roses and Baby Showers about Twilight and I kissing!”

“Oh, that! Well, the Kind and Refined Trixie was beginning to feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with the direction of Princess Cadance’s questions. And because your role as Grand Vizier is to provide whatever assistance your sovereign requires, Trixie decided that your dalliance with Miss Sparkle was the perfect distraction.”

I almost snarled. “It wasn’t a dalliance! It was...” I stopped myself mid-sentence, staring at the mare. She looked at me expectantly.

“Yes? Tell us more.”

I closed my mouth and glared at her. “Nope. Not gonna get tricked into telling you. No way.”

A touch of disappointment entered the mare’s face. She opened her mouth.

“Oh, poo.”

Except that had come from the doorway, not from Trixie. Both of us whipped our heads around to see the Alicorn of Love leaning around the door frame with a hoof over her mouth.

I pointed a hoof. “Ahhhh! Eavesdropper!”

She was entirely unabashed. “Well, of course! You don’t get to be in my profession without knowing how to uncover secrets.”

I wasn’t in the mood and I dropped any pretence. “Get lost, Queen of Sneaky-Sneaky!”

Trixie looked shocked, but for her part, Cadance let out a long laugh. “Oh, I’ve never heard that one before! Aren’t you fun? Yes, I could see this working out quite well.”

I frowned and continued to wave her away like a pesky fly.

After she had gone back down the hallway again, Trixie turned to stare at me. “What were you thinking? You can’t treat Princess Cadance that way!”

I snorted. “You’re right. You can’t. I can... and just did.”



On the way back to the throne room, and after Trixie had calmed down, I asked what I couldn’t before. “Why aren’t you more freaked out by Princess Cadance just sitting there in judgement and not saying anything?”

She arched an eyebrow. “What other choice would she have?”

I walked next to her for several steps before I finally said, “I’m missing something.”

Trixie smiled. “Consider the situation from the perspective of power. In Equestria, Princess Cadance and Shining Armor sit below the dais, symbolizing their lack of authority here. If Cadance were to provide unsolicited advice, it would be seen by those in Day Court as undermining my authority. Similarly, if Trixie asked her opinion on all but the narrowest of topics, Trixie would be seen as weak. The only subjects that Trixie could consult with Princess Cadence would be those concerning love or the Crystal Empire, because she is the undisputed authority on those.”

I looked down as I walked, mulling that over. “That clears things up, thanks. I guess I’m just not used to thinking in those terms.”

“Why not, Stark Parallels? Does your country of birth not have a King or Queen?”

“Nope. We outlawed the aristocracy when the country was founded over two hundred years ago.”

Now it was Trixie’s turn to think that over. “Truly?”

“Yep. Pandering to nobles has pretty much been bred out of our makeup. My countrymen have a tendency to treat everyone, everywhere as equals.” I smiled at a memory that brought up. “Or as my best friend Phil would say, ‘All men and women are created equal until they prove themselves to be inferior.’ ”

Trixie continued to look at me until we entered the throne room. “Trixie believes that explains more than a little about who you are, Monarch Quells.”



Thankfully, the afternoon session was fairly humdrum and there was little I felt I could contribute. It seemed knowing a bit more about Equestria now meant that I now knew how little I knew about Equestria. When it came to the commercial interactions with the Crown, I badly needed to know more. This was far more in Raven’s area of expertise than mine. I acquired a clipboard and started making notes about the subjects I needed to start studying. Note to self: between having to sharpen the point periodically and needing an inkwell (not the frowny kind), quills suck.

“Ah! Flim and Flam!” exclaimed Trixie.

I looked up to see the last two petitioners for the day. The pair of yellow unicorns with red and white manes and tails bowed simultaneously to their monarch. Their identical, synchronized movements confirmed what I already suspected – they were twins. They both also wore the same charcoal-colored, double-breasted suit jackets and burgundy ties. From my limited exposure to the nobility and business elite, I thought they looked like very tastefully and conservatively dressed bankers. In fact, the only obvious difference was that one had a prominent red mustache. Automatically, I wondered if this was artificial. If so, it would certainly allow any competent defense attorney to make a strong case for a not-guilty verdict based on witnesses being unable to positively identify the suspect – now why did I immediately think of that when seeing these two?

Trixie’s smile seemed genuine. “It’s been quite some time since we last crossed paths. I think it was after all three of us needed to leave that village outside of Baltimare because of… weather.”

I tried hard to suppress a smirk. More likely a sudden shower of rotten fruit best case and pitchforks worst case. I suppose I should have guessed that they were shysters from their names and the fact that Trixie ran in the same circles as them back before she reformed.

They lifted their heads and the mustached one said, “Hail, Great and Philanthropic Trixie! Empress of the East, Queen of the West, and Duchess of all in between!”

To my surprise, Trixie did not seem to soak up the approbations at all. Instead, her eyes narrowed and her smile turned a bit nasty. “Oh, Trixie knows both of you too well for that to work on her. Anyway…!” Her happy expression returned. “Introductions are in order.”

“Boys, on my right is Grand Vizier Stark Smells. On my left is my assistant Raven Inkwell.” Trixie looked at me, still smiling. “These… gentle-stallions… are Flim…” pointing to No-Mustache, “…and Flam,” now indicating Mr. Mustache. “You’ll never find a more hard-working, enterprising, faster-escaping pair of equines in all of Equestria, which is what made being around them so much fun.” She looked them over. “You two certainly have moved up in the world.”

Flim spoke up. “As if we should be the ones talking.” Trixie smirked at this but her eyes did not lose their friendly gaze. Instead, she nodded slightly, inviting them to continue.

Flam picked up on the cue. “We have indeed found success and station by concentrating our efforts on providing a boon for those who need it most. Our organizational skills, fundraising acumen, and networking talents have focused on a project that I know is dear to everypony’s heart.”

Flim took over. The cadence of their voices and practiced, smooth delivery for an audience reminded me of something – maybe circus ringmasters. “After many false starts over many years, we have succeeded where all others have failed. The Double F Investment Foundation is proud to announce that as of early last month, ground has finally been broken for the Canterlot Foals’ Hospital!”

There were some ooooohs and aaahhhs from the citizens present. I saw some of the nobles turn to each other with hoofshakes and nods.

While Flam floated shiny brochures out of his saddlebags to the three of us on the dais, Flim continued. “With the support of brave nobles such as High Station…” The aforementioned stallion nodded with a smile. “…and many more citizens of Canterlot, the Foal’s Benefit Fund is well on its way to providing a special and caring place for Canterlot’s, no all of Equestria’s most vulnerable citizens!” The applause was louder this time. I started to breathe more heavily and felt my ears lay flat on my head. What was wrong with me?

Flam took over the presentation and turned around to face the crowd. “For…the…Foals! For…the…Foals!” As he pumped a forehoof in the air, soon most of those present were cheering along – excepting the guards and those on the dais, of course.

After this had gone on for several rounds, Trixie stood. The cheers died away respectfully. “Most commendable, Flim and Flam. I’m very impressed with what you have accomplished. However, was there a reason you came to Day Court beyond announcing your progress so far?”

“Indeed, your majesty!” said Flim. “While at the current pace, the project is slated to be completed in thirty months, with the investment of some nominal funding from the Royal Treasury, my brother has calculated that the project can be completed in twenty months. Over the course of that time, the fund will be able to restore the entirety of the funding to the Crown. It is truly a win-win situation!”

“And!” began Flam, “In return for the temporary 250,000-bit contribution, we would change the name of the center to the Royal Canterlot Foals’ Hospital!” There was a great deal of discussion now amongst those gathered.

I tried to speak, but Flim raised a hoof and preempted me. “Now, I know many of you are asking how we could possibly guarantee repayment of everyone’s bits, plus interest… and have enough left over to build the hospital; furnish and equip it; hire the doctors, nurses, and specialists; and even have sufficient funding left over to cover expenses for the first four years of operation? The answer lies with my genius brother.” Flam smiled abashedly and took a small bow.

“He has developed a sophisticated investment strategy that combines real estate, stocks, bonds, and commodities. His return to investors during the first twelve months has been a consistent five percent per month! Far better than any investment vehicle available at a stodgy bank or institution…” He winked to the nobles. “…outside of getting kissed by Lady Luck in Las Pegasus, that is!” This was met with delighted laughter.

Flam raised his head. “So what do you say, Empress? Why should the Crown support this magnificent cause? Well, it’s obvious!” He turned back to the crowd and pumped his forehoof up and down. “For…the…foals! For…the…foals! For…the…foals!” By this point, all the nobles and commoners were gleefully shouting along, without any care for whether the pony next to them was of the same social class or not. I started to hear music swelling up from all around us, in time with the chanting.

“Cease!” commanded Trixie in her magically-amplified stage-voice. The music died out and all eyes moved to her. She nodded in acknowledgment to everyone who heeded her command, then looked to Raven. “Miss Inkwell?”

The white unicorn tapped her quill against her lips for several moments in thought. Apparently, she was somewhat accustomed to being the center of attention for everyone in court, including her ruler. It did not seem to faze her one bit. “On the face of it, providing we have sufficient written guarantees, I don’t have any objections.”

“Excellent!” Trixie turned to me. Her smile faltered a bit as she saw my face and how my front hooves were shaking. Quickly, I forced myself to be calm and put on a neutral expression. “Your thoughts, Grand Vizier?”

I took a calming breath and faced the twin ponies. I smiled and slowly descended the dais. “A once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity, wouldn’t you say, gentle-stallions?”

They both nodded their agreement and chuckled. Flim said, “Indeed! The contribution of the Great and Generous Trixie, ruler of Equestria will go down in history as the greatest moment of her reign, regardless of how many centuries that might be!”

I smirked a bit and looked steadily into Flim’s eyes. I decided to up the game a bit. “Now let’s be honest here. In return for 300,000 bits, you are asking for a full partner in the construction of the hospital, are you not?”

The two shared a look that lasted only a few seconds but allowed them to come to some sort of agreement. “It is as you say, Grand Vizier! Thank you for putting it so clearly.” They then bowed in sync again. Creepy. Cool, but creepy.

“Excellent!” I smiled as I brought up the brochure that was in my hoof. “The Court will require more than these very professional flyers to enter into that kind of arrangement.” I turned to Flam. “I see you brought your saddlebags. May I view your business plan?”

Their smiles froze. Flam recovered first. “I’m most terribly sorry, sir. We left it back in our office. My deepest apologies.”

I frowned. “That is unfortunate.” I glanced at the back of the brochure. “The hospital is being built at the corner of Cloverleaf Avenue and Star Blaze Lane?”

Flim answered. “Actually, the correct term is that the building is being ‘constructed,’ and we would be most pleased to give you a tour of the job site at any time of your convenience.” Both ponies smiled.

I waved a hoof. “It probably isn’t necessary for me to see the business plan. As your future business partner, I need to see the books you have with you, please. I’ll admit I don’t have a background as a financier, but I will need this act of faith.” I stepped back and waited impassively.

They shared a much longer look this time before Flam floated over a small spiral notebook from one of his saddlebags which was then quickly shut again. Instead of taking the proffered notebook, I looked back at Raven and waved her down to come to my side. When she was close, I softly said to her, “All of them.”

She pursed her lips and nodded. Outside of their view, her green magic lifted both of Flam’s saddlebag flaps and levitated out three more notebooks along with a stack of brochures. Their expression turned to shock as the paperwork floated past them. Flam cried out, “Those are my notes and formulae for my investment strategies! Also, all the confidential information from our investors!”

I replied, “Rest assured that the Crown of Equestria is accustomed to keeping secrets and protecting those who ally with them.” I turned to Raven. “Miss Inkwell, please place a copy of these items in the Royal Archives for safekeeping and return with the originals after you have had a chance to study them, please.” She nodded and disappeared in a flash of magic along with the items floating in her aura.

I looked back to the pair, who were not looking nearly as happy as they had been just moments before. I gave them a very genuine smile. “Well then! What shall we do while we wait for Miss Inkwell to return?” I walked back to the dais, noting Cadance’s intrigued expression as I did. After climbing it and turning around. I smiled wider. “I know! Gentle-stallions,” I said, looking down on the pair. “Which bank did you say is the one used by the Double F Foundation for the creation of the Royal Canterlot Foals’ Hospital?”

“Wells Farrier of Manehattan. Their main branch on Fifth Avenue.”

I nodded, then looked to one of the unicorn mage-pages. “What is your name, please?”

Her eyes went wide and she trembled out her reply. “V-v-vintage Scroll, Your Eminence.” Was that really my honorific? No clue. I was much more accustomed to ‘Hey, you.’

“Vintage Scroll, please go to the bank and bring back whoever is the floor manager at this time. By order of the Crown,” I added, glancing at Trixie for affirmation.

She seemed intrigued by my actions and indicated her agreement.

The page nodded vigorously for a few seconds then closed her eyes. She had to take a deep breath before her horn lit and she teleported away. New on the job and a bundle of nerves – I knew the feeling. Just not right now.

“What else? What else?” I looked back to see that the twins had retreated to the edge of the crowd. “Flim and Flam! Yes, I see you there! Please stay until Miss Inkwell returns.”

They turned around and Flim spoke up. “Our apologies, but we just remembered a very critical meeting with our general contractor. We must—”

“Nonsense!” I pointed to the two soldiers closest to them. “Your names, please, Guardsmen?”

The pegasus on the left spoke up with a feminine voice. “Lieutenant Buried Spear and Sergeant Crimson Hooves, Grand Vizier.” Oops. Guardsponies then. I’d make up for that later. Still, couldn’t ask for better names, and the Lieutenant was carrying a spear, too! I nodded to the twins. “Please ensure our two guests stay exactly where they are.”

Lord High Station separated himself from the crowd. “Your majesty, I must protest this ruffian’s treatment of these two fine businessponies. They have done more for Equestria than—”

“Lord High Station,” I interrupted. “The Crown is still considering the business proposition from the Double F Foundation. The only ponies who have the right to speak at the moment are Empress Trixie, myself, and any business partners of Flim and Flam. Do you consider yourself to be such?”

The pompous lord appeared to be taken aback by my temerity to address him that way, then he hesitated, possibly clued in by some remnant of prey instinct going off like a siren in his head. After a moment, he looked up at Queen Trixie.

She smiled. “Well, Your Lordship?”

He shifted uncomfortably for a bit then looked around at his fellow nobles. Apparently not seeing unwavering support there, he retreated – physically and from the conversation. “No, Your Majesty.”

I ignored him and walked up to the lone remaining unicorn page and gave him my brochure. Before I could ask, he volunteered, “Bright Candle at your service, sir!” Quick on the uptake.

“Please take a Chief Building Inspector from the Royal Assessor’s office…” (thank you for the cram session, Twilight!) “…to the construction site. Have him or her return in thirty minutes with a preliminary report.”

With a nod, he was gone.

I walked back up to my place on the dais. In the intervening time, Trixie had returned to the throne. I smiled back at the audience. “And now, we wait.”

Trixie had Steady bring refreshments for both of us in the interim, as well as for our royal guests. I noted the distinctive taste of something to calm the nerves that was probably not in Cadance and Shining’s cups though. I was slightly less peeved with Trixie for the Twilight comment after that.

I heard Cadance approach the throne during the recess and start making small talk about the Crystal Empire with Trixie. I wondered if I was expected to do the same with Shining Armor but decided I didn’t care. Instead, I kept my ears pointed forward and stared out over the ponies in front of me.

About a half-hour later, a dull red, elderly unicorn mare with a T-square for a cutie mark trotted into the room and stopped before the throne. Her coat was peppered with grey and her mane and tail had turned completely that color. Both were tightly braided. She glared at Trixie, then gave the smallest of fractional bows. “I understand the snap inspection was of some importance. Let me give my report so I can get back to my work.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Ms…?”

She looked at me for a moment, snorted, then proceeded like I didn’t exist. I was starting to like this mare more and more. She reminded me of my maternal grandmother.

“I pulled the records and permits for 501 Cloverleaf Avenue. The basement excavation inspection was passed on its third try exactly thirty-five days ago. Plans for the foundation were approved the same day but no pony has been called out to the site to inspect that work. No plans have been submitted for any further construction.”

She frowned even deeper, though I don’t know if it was professional disgust at the state of the construction site or personal disdain of the two ponies on the dais she was looking at. “The foundation has been poured on site but it violates twelve building codes in exactly forty-seven locations around the site. The nature of the concrete pour makes repair impossible. The girder-work frame attached to the foundation will also need to be dismantled. The majority of the framework materials could be reused once the foundation is replaced. Of more concern were the delivery crates of plumbing fixtures, roof shingles, and even shrubbery placed throughout the structure at the site. These materials would not be needed for months, even in the unlikely event that the structure reached that phase of construction by then.”

She stomped a hoof. “When I yelled… ahem… when I enquired with the few ponies on-site to find the general contractor in charge of construction, I was informed he was from either Hoofington, Mare-itonia, or Salt Lick City, take your pick. Also, that he had been fired two weeks ago with no replacement seen since that date. May I go now?”

Trixie nodded and the building inspector chose the straightest line to exit the room, requiring several ponies including two Royal Guards to scramble out of her way.

A minute later, Raven teleported back to her spot next to the throne. She looked between Trixie and me.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie asks you to give your report to all present.” Trixie sounded pleased, but I could tell her smile was forced.

The unicorn adjusted her glasses and referred to her clipboard. “I did a quick read through of every page in these notebooks. Flam’s investment strategy is not present. There are some calculations detailing monthly totals for building supplies. That’s this one.” She lifted the spiral-bound notepad that Flam originally had given me. “The remaining three notebooks are ledgers for incoming investments and outgoing interest payments of five, ten, or fifteen percent per month, plus outgoing payments of ten to twenty percent for a finder’s fee. All investors are marked with one or more code numbers rather than a name. Until I have that key, I will not be able to determine who made what investment.” She looked up.

I nodded. “Thank you, Miss Inkwell.”

My ears turned at the sound of hooves rapidly approaching.

A bespectacled stallion entered the room and literally slid into a kneeling bow in front of the throne. His dark grey suit jacket was darker in a few places from sweat and his blue tie was askew. His coat was a pale yellow and his mane and tail, now slicked down in places with sweat, was blue striped with green. His cutie mark was an old-style cash register. “Baron… ~gasp!~ …Baronet Even… ~gasp!~ …Even Ledger at your service… ~gasp!~ …Duchess Trixie! I came … ~gasp!~ …as quickly as I could!”

Trixie waved a hoof dramatically. “Your Kind and Generous Empress is pleased by your dedication to answering her call promptly. Please take a moment to catch your breath.” She then nodded to me.

I waited for the earth pony to collect himself and for Steady Flight to assist him in getting his clothes back in order. Good lad!

I cleared my throat. “Baronet Even Ledger, do you recognize the twin ponies over there?” I pointed with my hoof at the two stallions who seemed to be wilting under the constant gaze of the guardponies who would not take their eyes off their charges.

The banker smiled. “Yes! Lords Flim and Flam have been customers of ours for some time now.”

“Can you tell me the nature of their business with your bank?”

His smile fell. “Ah, I’m sorry, Grand Vizier. Without a judicial court order, I’m afraid bank confidentiality laws prevent me from discussing it.”

Damn! “Even in general terms?”

He nodded. “The laws are quite clear. I’m sorry.”

Double damn! Didn’t think of that. I heard an amused snort amongst the gathered nobles. I ignored it.

“No matter! Let me describe a situation to you that does not include any ponies by name, and you tell me if it sounds at all familiar. Does that sound reasonable? Would that run afoul of any privacy laws?”

The earth pony took off his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief while he blinked, deep in thought. He then put his glasses back on and looked back at me. “No. As long as there are no names or descriptions of individuals involved, that would be allowable.”

“Excellent!” I felt very calm now. “Imagine that you have a fairly new account, and the deposits and withdrawals are in ever-increasing amounts of bits, both in the size of the average transaction and the frequency. All transactions are in coins, not paper or credit or other means. It starts with nobles making fairly modest deposits, followed by smaller withdrawals to those same nobles on a monthly basis. Over time, the proportion of ponies making deposits are increasingly commoners. Lately whenever a new customer makes a deposit to this new account, more and more often it consists of their entire life savings. If one of these customers comes from your bank, they are reluctant to discuss why they are depositing their entire financial future with this new account and become defensive and antagonistic if questioned further. Occasionally, a percentage of the new customer’s funds are immediately transferred to an older investor. Lastly, nobles who are the oldest investors receive the largest payments, both in number of bits and in a higher percentage of the new customer’s funds that they draw in.”

Even Ledger couldn’t stop himself from glancing at Flim and Flam, then back to me. “How did…how did you know?”

I wandered down the steps and towards the trembling pair of well-dressed ponies. “It’s quite simple, really. There was never any investment done by these two. There was no plan to ever build a hospital. And most importantly, there was never any intention of paying back any of the investors.” Every pony started talking at once. I waved over several more Guards to form a ring around Flim and Flam. I suspected they were going to need protection in another minute.

My voice cut through the noise. “The way the scheme works is like this!” Everypony settled down. “An interest rate far higher than what can be gotten from banks is offered and sustained for a short time. Other ponies see how successful this is and put in their money. That money is used to pay the interest to the first set of ponies. Any pony who is unwilling to invest even more is given a higher interest rate. Finder’s fees encourage current investors to recommend others to invest. After a while, the outflow of money can’t be sustained by the addition of new investors. Then the scam artists have a choice: either take what is left in the nest egg and leave, or get a new investor with deep pockets…” I waved at Trixie. “…who will restore faith in a brand new group of suckers to lose their money.” The crowd started talking again, their voices rising to shouts.

Behind me, I heard Trixie stamp her hooves, the sound amplified somehow. That settled everypony down. “The Crown and the ponies of Equestria thank the Grand Vizier for the service he has done for us this day.” She had to frown and extend her wings before ‘thank yous’ started drifting out of the crowd.

Her wings folded back under her cloak. “As ruler of Equestria, I will ensure the victims of this crime are fully compensated.”

I turned to the mare and spoke loud enough for every pony to hear. “I’m afraid that is not advisable, Your Majesty.”

Raven moved up beside Trixie and said, “The Grand Vizier is correct; the Royal Treasury cannot be called upon to compensate for every fraudulent loss incurred by the citizens. Once the precedent is set, judges would expect this to happen for all future cases.”

I nodded. “Also, every pony entered into the fund of their own will. I recommend that we provide accountants to untangle the mess of exactly where every bit went. Obtain an injunction through the judicial courts to gather every coin in the brothers’ accounts along with every interest or finder’s fee payment made. Only then will investors receive back a portion of what they invested, with all ponies losing the same percentage.”

Raven followed up. “You can also suspend debt collection from the ponies who lost everything and provide them with public services until they receive their payment.”

Trixie looked down at the floor, ears drooping. She spoke softly. “And the hospital?”

I looked at Raven and she nodded sadly. “A total loss, Your Highness.”

Trixie sighed and frowned for several seconds. “Yes. I don’t like it but I see the necessity. Make it so.” Her voice returned to its normal volume for addressing everypony at Day Court. “Guards! Take these two to adjacent cells and have two soldiers watching them at all times.”

“Yes, My Queen!” replied Buried Spear. The guards before and behind her moved into formation around Flim and Flam, leading them away from the court. A shield spell was erected after the first rotten fruit (where had that come from, anyway?) was tossed, impacting Crimson Hooves on the side of the helmet. Nobles and their aim, I suppose.

“Day Court is now adjourned.”

By the time I turned around, Trixie was already halfway to the door behind the throne. I glanced towards Princess Cadance who appeared to be about to follow. I gave her a hard look and the briefest shake of my head before hurrying to catch up to Trixie. I found her in the hallway just beyond the door, which I closed behind me. She was slumped against the wall and her wings were canted at a completely unnatural angle. She looked down at something in her hoof. I poked my head around and saw that it was the flyer for the hospital. Let it be said that a similar situation years ago involving a frying pan made me not completely clueless when it comes to emotionally distraught women. I sat next to her, waiting for her to speak first.

“Trixie failed them,” she whispered. Then she sniffled. “Trixie failed all of her ponies.”

I shook my head. “You couldn’t have known. I’m sure this is the first time this con has been seen in Equestria.”

She bowed her head. “But Trixie did know. She knew better than anyone how everything is just a get-rich-quick scheme to them. They played her like a fiddle. Trixie was stupid and fell for it like the biggest patsy in the whole world.”

I didn’t have a good answer to that, so I waited.

She wiped her eyes with her cape and brought her sniffling under control. She looked up at me with bloodshot eyes. Huge, freaky, totally out-of-proportion-for-the-size-of-her-face bloodshot eyes. “Yet you recognized them, thank Harmony.”

“My best friend back on Earth is a… stallion named Phil. His dad passed away years ago but set up his mom okay thanks to savings and life insurance. Then she got a phone call from an acquaintance running a Ponzi scheme like this one. She put in everything, even borrowed money because it seemed like a good idea. The bastard even told her how proud her son would be that she was doing all this independently.” I wished I could clench my fists, but that option was gone now.

“She was left with no money and a mountain of debt. The bastard got six months in prison for ruining her life but all his money is hidden in off-shore accounts. Her lawyer dropped her civil case because he decided it wasn’t worth the twenty-five percent he would have to work hard to track down. Now she just drifts between her children’s houses, feeling like a failure who doesn’t deserve to even talk to anyone. So, yeah.” I looked up into Trixie’s eyes. “I sure as hell recognized it when I saw it.”

Trixie hugged me, which was a first. “Trixie is sorry for your friend’s loss. Trixie can only say ‘Thank you’ for helping her and all of Equestria today.” She pulled back. “This could have… my mistake could have jeopardized the Crown and all those who serve me.”

I vaguely remembered what happened in Albania in the early 1990’s. “You’re not wrong. Governments have fallen over these schemes.”

She took a few deep breaths and straightened her wings. She nodded to herself. “Trixie will do better. The Great and Powerful Trixie will be the ruler that Equestria deserves.” She looked at me with conviction. “I will protect My Little Ponies.” She smiled.

I smiled back. So she could say that word. Now for the other two.

“ ‘Thank you, Mark Wells?’ ” I suggested with a grin.

The blue unicorn put on her aristocratic air and looked to my flank, then back at my face. “It is unfortunate that your cutie mark is a black cloud pierced by a lightning bolt. It should have been a branch with a single fork.” She walked away, calling over her shoulder. “Thank you again, Dowser.”

I blinked. ‘Dowser’? ‘A branch with a single fork’? Like a dowsing rod for finding where to drill a well? Oh! I got it. ‘What does a dowser do?’ I chuckled. Well, it was at least a step in the right direction… I think.



It took twenty minutes to extricate myself from the royal clothesline that evening, but I noticed a distinct lack of laughter coming from the castle. As for Steady Flight though…. I’m keeping a list, buddy!

 


 

Chapter 8: Errands

 

“So, what’s on the agenda for today?” I asked Trixie as breakfast was served – normal sane proportions this time.

“Trixie must meet with her ministers this morning. The Responsible and Concerned Trixie feels that she needs to have a firmer hoof in the affairs of her kingdom.”

It seemed that yesterday’s incident was still having repercussions. “Do you need me there also?”

She shook her head. “The ministers will be required to give Trixie an initial verbal report on the state of affairs. If they have any concerns to raise, Trixie will listen to them and give them due consideration. Any decisions will be deferred until a follow-up meeting at which time Trixie will expect a full and comprehensive written report for thorough assessment.”

I chewed thoughtfully on a vege-sausage before replying, “Do you suspect anything untoward happening within the ministry?”

“Recent events have made it obvious to the Great and Busy Trixie that she has not given sufficient time and attention to her underlings. Equestria is best served if she keeps them on their tippy-hooves.”

Heh! Translation – fraudsters of Flim and Flam’s ilk will be found and no longer tolerated, not to mention other slackers, tricksters, and incompetents. If I knew Trixie, and after a mere few days with the mare I thought I had her pretty well pegged, her pride had been stung, and no one in the employ of the Crown was going to exacerbate that. Her empathy for the common pony was greater than before, but I considered that a work in progress.

“Any suggestions about what I should do?”

“Trixie suggests that you spend the morning in Canterlot and get more familiar with the city and its citizens.”

I nodded. I think I felt ready to leave the relative calm of the palace and its grounds and mingle with the inhabitants of this fairytale city. At least I wouldn’t look like a slack-jawed yokel like I must have when I first arrived.

The blue unicorn wasn’t finished, however. “Trixie also thinks that it’s a perfect time to get a bit more ambitious with your flying lessons. Besides, Trixie is tired of listening to complaints from the groundskeepers about damage to the gardens and sundry items that you crash into.”

I nearly choked on the pancake that I was eating. Just because yesterday’s attempt to fly had been the least painful so far, did not mean that I thought that I was anywhere near airworthy yet. “But—”

“No ‘buts’, Watermark Clamshells – Trixie expects you to put more effort into… re-learning how to fly.”

If there hadn’t been a servant within earshot, I’m sure she would have come up with a more pointed jab than just mangling my name. Where did she come up with some of these? I hadn’t heard her repeat one yet! I swear she must have looked up all the words that rhyme with my names just to piss me off. Nevertheless, she had a point. I was never going to learn how to fly if I didn’t try and try again, and it was obvious by now that she wasn’t going to let me stay on the nice safe ground. If I balked, I had a feeling that she wouldn’t hesitate to order a pegasus Royal Guard to pick me up and drop me from a great altitude while calling it tough love.

“Okay, Your Royal Bossiness,” I conceded.

Trixie gave me her usual smug smile. Yeah, she hadn’t changed all that much.



Are you bucking kidding me?!” I screamed.

Steady Flight just rolled his eyes. “No, I’m not. How can even amnesia make you forget about cloud-walking?”

Steady had decided to take me up the trail that ascended Mount Canterhorn. Admittedly it had excellent views of the city and the surrounding area, but that wasn’t the main reason why we had come this way. He suggested that it might be a better place to try learning how to control my flight magic. I found that hard to believe because it had trees and rocks aplenty to crash into, but I figured he had something else in mind. When I found out exactly what, I thought he had lost his marbles.

As I had been told previously, the weather pegasi kept the sky clear over Canterlot at this time, so I hadn’t seen them interact with clouds before. Up this high on the mountain though, some clouds persisted but were left alone as they did not affect the city’s weather, apparently, and they contributed to maintaining the snow that capped the peak. We had reached a plateau which brought us just above a couple of layers of clouds, and now the view downward was obscured by a billowing mist. That’s when and where Steady had freaked me out by telling me to walk out onto the cloud.

“Is that a euphemism for taking a blind leap into thin air?” I asked.

He gave me a flat look, then rather than answering, he turned around and stepped off the cliff… and walked a few yards out onto the cloud.

My jaw surely must have hit the ground as I gaped in disbelief at the sight. Flying ponies had been enough of a stretch, but at least they had wings. This just did not compute according to my logical brain.

“Are you going to get out here or not?” Steady asked impatiently.

“Hell, no!” I replied vehemently, my animal hindbrain shrieking in terror at the thought.

“Alright, you forced me to do this.” He took off and flew to hover over me. He reached down to put all four legs around me and lifted me off the ground.

I immediately figured out what he was going to do and I started squirming to try to get out of his grasp. I succeeded, but a little too late. We were already over the cloud, and I screeched in terror as I plummeted…

… all of six feet before I bounced and then rolled on what felt like a soft trampoline. I could barely make myself look, but when I did, all I saw was a sheet of thick vapor underneath me. Buck me! I was lying on a cloud.

“This is so impossible,” I muttered.

“Obviously not,” Steady replied. “Anyway, better to crash into one of these than a tree or a fountain, am I right?”

I found it hard to argue with that logic, but it wasn’t logic that had me quivering in fear on top of a cloud. “I still don’t like heights!” I protested.

Steady obviously had had enough of my reticence because he snorted with annoyance and said in his best drill instructor’s voice, “Listen up, Mark! Stop acting like a foal and get your act together. You’re a pegasus; even if you’ve forgotten everything about being one, you nevertheless are one still. You were born to fly, so get your plot off the cloud, spread your wings, and fly!”

Very motivational. It might have even worked if I wasn’t a human in a pony body. Still, my pride had been stung, and I was damned if was going to look like a baby in front of my new friend. I forced myself up onto my hooves and took a tentative step. The cloud remained firm beneath me, so I took another. The surface texture was spongey but firmed up after it gave about an inch. It reminded me of Oobleck, the non-Newtonian fluid that stiffened upon impact, except that these clouds remained firm if I stood still. Perhaps pegasus magic firmed the attraction between the water molecules, and flight magic decreased the effect of gravity.

Curiously, now that I had given myself a ‘scientific’ explanation of how cloud-walking worked, I felt far more confident about actually doing it. I walked around a bit, then experimentally hopped up and down. The cloud still held firm.

“Having fun?” Steady asked with a smirk on his face.

I begrudgingly admitted that I was. “It’s a little like a fairground thrill ride – it has an element of danger while still actually being safe.”

“I never thought of it like that. However, this is just the first stage. Now I want you to step off the edge of the cloud and glide down to the next one. Don’t try to power fly yet – just hold your wings out like this and feel how the air flows over them.”

He demonstrated exactly how he wanted me to position my wings for gliding, and I emulated that as best as I could. That was the easy part. Stepping off the cloud – not so simple. Did you know that you can cut furrows into clouds? I know because Steady had to shove my ass while my legs were locked in resistance to the concept of throwing myself off a perfectly secure platform. Clouds don’t make for great resistance though, and abruptly I was over the edge.

“Straighten out your wings!” Steady shouted. He accompanied me as I hurtled towards the lower cloud deck.

I had forgotten everything about flying though. My previous ‘flights’ had been powered and had me moving so fast that I did not have time to think as I crashed in and through various objects. This time, the only thing going through my mind during the drop was: “OHHHHHHHH! FFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUU—!”

~SPLAT!~

Let me tell you something about clouds – if you’re a pegasus and you hit one at speed, it’s like diving from the high tower at the pool. You better be angled properly or else it’s going to hurt. There was a flash of light and the boom of thunder, but I was too stunned to wonder about that.

Steady came to a gentle landing beside me. “Well, that could have gone better, but I think we just solved what your cutie mark represents.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked dizzily.

“That was an extremely impressive thunderbolt that you loosed from the cloud. Feels like it’s ready to dump its load of rain right now too,” he said as he tapped the cloud’s surface experimentally. “Better be careful or you’ll send a downpour into the outskirts of Canterlot, and the weather team will be pissed with you.”

I looked again at the cloud and noticed that it had darkened considerably. “I did that?”

“Yep. I think you may have been a storm wrangler, and a powerful one at that. It helps explain why your previous attempts to fly were so wild. Your body is built for power flying, not precision.”

Great. Not only was I having to figure out how to use this pegasus body properly, but it was like I was trying to learn to drive by getting into a Formula One racecar! “So, what do we do now?”

“We’d better get off this cloud before you accidentally trigger it. This time, don’t freeze up. Get the angle of your wings right and glide, not dive. And try looking outwards, not down. Your body will naturally try to fly the direction you are looking.”

I grumbled but tried to comply. That’s when I realized that there weren’t any more clouds below this one to break my fall. I started to point this out to Steady, but he just blew a gust of wind under my wings and I lifted off and over the edge.

There was a heck of a view of the city now that there were no more clouds obscuring the scenery. I think it motivated me not to become street pizza and cut through my fear so I could actually concentrate on using my wings. I began to feel what Steady had been trying to teach me – how the air moved around my body and wings. I changed the angle at which my feathered appendages met the sky and felt the lift that they were generating.

You’re doing great!” Steady called from nearby. “You’ve got enough airspeed now to control your rate of fall. Start angling them up a bit more to pull out of your dive.”

Good suggestion, Steady. I had just realized how fast the cityscape was approaching, and slowing down seemed like a very good idea. I adjusted the angle of the wings so that they forced more air underneath, and I started to level out and wasn’t accelerating as much. It wasn’t happening fast enough though, so I tilted them a bit more. That worked! I was now tearing through the sky at a shallow angle, and it felt great! Despite the wind in my face, my eyes were largely unaffected, and only then did I realize that a kind of third eyelid had slid across my eyes to protect them instinctively.

Now steer for the park and we’ll come in for a landing on the lawn,” Steady instructed.

My heart clenched in fear once more. “Steer? You haven’t shown me how to do that yet!” I yelled back.

The stallion’s mouth made an ‘Oops’ shape before he replied. “You have to adjust your wings like this.” He tried to demonstrate, but of course that made him steer away from me and I didn’t learn a thing.

The ground was approaching a bit too fast for comfort, and I started to panic. If I tried to use my flight magic like previously, I suspected that might make things even worse, considering the lack of control that I had over it.

Steady Flight came back close to me and yelled, “You’re heading into the flight lanes! Pull up! Flare your wings and pull up!

Fortunately, I figured out what he was trying to tell me and I spread my feathers wide and tilted my wings to cup the air like I had seen eagles do. It seemed to be working and I was beginning to think I was going to survive this stunt when Steady yelled again.

Watch out for—

~WHAM!~

I collided with something. No, make that someone, and we both crashed to the ground.

Never did landing in a bush seem so welcome. The nearby pavement was a whole lot harder than a cloud! Judging from the amount of swearing coming from nearby, my unfortunate victim had also landed in the shrubbery. I saw a maroon mane pop up out of the leaves, followed by a very angry blue-furred stallion.

“WHAT THE BUCK WAS THAT, YOU MORON?! WHO TAUGHT YOU HOW TO FLY? DISCORD?!

I think he was irked. Maybe even slightly put out. “I’m so sorry, sir. I’m still re-learning how to fly.”

The stallion blinked in confusion before asking, “What do you mean by that?”

“I’m a victim of a disease that caused me a severe case of amnesia and I cannot recall even the basics from flight school. I’m still under instruction by this guy.” I pointed my hoof at Steady who had landed on the path beside the shrubs.

The incredulous look that he gave me made me curse the stupid cover story once more. “You’re sticking with that excuse? Sounds like the plot of a bad fiction to me.”

“It’s true, sir,” my flight instructor spoke up. “My name is Steady Flight, and I have been commanded by Princess Trixie to teach Mark Wells how to fly again.”

“Well, tell the princess to expect a bill from Airy Words if I’ve suffered any injuries requiring a hospital visit!” he snarled before extricating himself from the bush and limped away.

“Should I be worried?” I asked as I tried to disentangle myself from the shrub.

“Unlikely,” Steady replied. “Pegasi are extremely resilient, as you have had cause to find out for yourself. I think he’ll be okay. Looks like you’re fine too.”

I gave him a flat look as I finally got all four hooves back on the ground. “Speak for yourself.” I stumbled off in the direction of some nearby shops. “Steady – the Grape and Plotful Trixie said to check out the city, right?”

“Yes, Mark.”

“You know where to find a bar?”

“Yes, Mark.”

“You’re paying.”

Steady sighed. “Yes, Mark.”



“Trixie thought that you would still be exploring Canterlot, Pockmark Swells?”

“Too much to see in one morning. Besides, you didn’t say what was on the agenda for this afternoon. I didn’t expect to find you in here.”

Trixie was seated at the desk in Celestia’s study, surrounded by a stack of books which I could only suppose were magic tomes, based on some of the titles that I could see.

“Trixie’s lessons have been interrupted by her need to run Equestria. Some time needs to be set aside for resumption of her studies.”

I was impressed. It seemed that there were other repercussions from yesterday’s events.

“However,” Trixie continued, “Celestia would clearly understand Princess Trixie’s need to prioritize Equestria’s needs before these homework assignments, which is why Trixie is delegating them to someone of a lesser station.”

A-n-d there she goes ruining the moment. “Let me guess – you’re dumping them all on Twilight Sparkle?”

“You are most perspicacious, Hallmark Nutshells, which is why the Wise and Prudent Trixie made you her Grand Vizier.”

I gave her a sharp look. “I sense you’re setting me up for something.”

The mare gave me an innocent smile. “Trixie is merely asking you to take these books to Ponyville to pass on to Twilight Sparkle.” She levitated several of them into a pile in front of me. “Please tell her to pay particular attention to the book of spells by Starswirl the Bearded – Celestia bookmarked a page with a note mentioning her other personal student. Oh, and while you’re there, you can make good use of your time to judge the sentiments of the common ponies, not to mention Twilight herself.”

“So, not only do you want me to be your messenger boy, but you also want me to be your spy? Don’t trust what Twilight may be up to? Feeling slightly threatened, perhaps?” I asked with a smirk.

“Trixie does not know what you are talking about. She merely wishes to keep an ear to the ground, so to speak.”

“When do you want me to go?”

“This afternoon – have your butler make the travel arrangements.”

“He’s a valet, not a butler, and won’t you be needing me this afternoon?”

“There is no court session, and Trixie has more pressing engagements to attend to. Tomorrow is Saturday, so stay the weekend. I will expect you back for Monday morning’s court.”

“What pressing engagements? This is the first I’ve heard of them.”

Before Trixie could answer, a tan unicorn mare entered the room and bowed formally. “Empress Trixie? You asked me to remind you when it was time for your spa appointment.”

“Ah, yes. Trixie must invest many grueling hours to maintain her majestic appearance.” The blue mare turned towards the door and called over her shoulder. “Trixie will be expecting your report on Monday, Meadowlark Knells!”

I stared after the blue unicorn with a sense of chagrin. I should have known better. Just because she had a newfound sense of purpose didn’t mean that the mare’s nature had changed. Trixie was still Trixie. I looked at the pile of books and figured that at least one unicorn was going to appreciate getting them. I just had to hope that she wouldn’t shoot the messenger.



I had Steady arrange a first class compartment because it would take us several hours to get to the township, and if I was going on royal business, then the Royal Treasury was going to pay for it. I enjoyed watching the unfamiliar scenery pass by, but I also made good use of the time by getting my friend to tell me as much as he knew about Ponyville and its citizens, and what I could expect to find there. It turned out that Steady had never actually visited Ponyville, but it was famous for being the home of all the bearers of the Elements of Harmony. Twilight’s presentation, surprisingly, had made only brief mention of her famous friends – just one slide with names and pictures and another with a bulleted list of the adventures that she thought worth mentioning. At the time, I wondered if the list might have been shortened by removing any tales that might have been embarrassing to one or more of the Elements. As such, more than the expected amount of news came from that small township, and some of it was quite intriguing.

The Ponyville station was quaint. For such an important place, it didn’t go out of its way to look it. Instead, just like the rest of the hamlet that I had seen from the carriage as we had pulled into the platform, it looked like some girl’s toy set. More than ever, I knew I had to be in some fantasy universe. Ah well, it beat smog-grimed buildings and ugly cement structures.

Only a couple of other ponies got off at that station, so the pink mare who was standing there apparently waiting for someone was very conspicuous. Imagine my surprise when she dashed up to me with a manic grin on her face.

“It’s you! You’re new to Ponyville and Equestria and you’re going to be our new best friend and I’m here to welcome you and invite you to a ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ party and get to introduce you to all my friends and all the citizens of our town and you’re going to love it here and enjoy our hospitality and sample the finest cider in Equestria and the bestest cakes in the world while having so much fun as you learn about the Element Bearers and how you’re going to change Twilight’s destiny but that’s not going to happen for a little while yet so don’t worry about it for the moment and just enjoy your visit. Gotta go!”

I blinked, and the pink crazy pony was gone. “Did you get any of that, Steady?”

“Umm… I think she was the welcoming committee. I’m not sure, but I think that was Pinkie Pie, one of the Element Bearers.”

“I hope the rest of them are a lot calmer than her. And if she was the welcoming committee, she could have stuck around long enough to give us directions to Twilight Sparkle’s residence.”

“She’s supposed to live in the town’s library.”

“Appropriate for a bookworm, I suppose, but not much help. We’ll have to ask for directions. Maybe the stationmaster will know?”

Whether the stationmaster could have helped, I never found out because apparently they had closed for the day. I suppose that our train was the last until morning, and as no one had required anything immediately after we had gotten off the train, they had simply packed up and gone home while we were distracted by Pinkie Pie. I couldn’t even find out if there was a service available to take our luggage to a hotel, so we had to carry it all ourselves as we went in search of the library.

We headed towards a gathering of ponies in a place that I quickly recognized as a market. Apparently, it too was shutting down for the day and the crowd was rapidly dispersing. However, the merchants who were packing up weren’t going anywhere for the moment. I selected an orange-coated mare who was packing apples from her stall into a cart.

“Pardon me, ma’am, but could I trouble you for some information?”

“Why, howdy, stranger! What can Ah do for ya?”

“I’m looking for the town library. I have some books to give to Twilight Sparkle whom I believe resides there.”

“She sure does. She’ll be happy to see ya if’n y’all are bringin’ her books. Never known a mare so happy to read so much.”

“If you could give me directions, I would be very grateful.”

“No problem.” She gave me pretty clear instructions of the ‘turn left at the fountain’ variety – didn’t they have street names here? “You’ll know the library tree when you see it,” she concluded.

Library tree? I was obviously missing something, but I supposed that it would become clear when I got there. “Thank you very much, ma’am.”

“Would ya care to buy some apples while yer here?”

I was going to say no because I had eaten well on the train, but the aroma of those perfect-looking apples persuaded me to change my mind. I pointed out a particularly nice type. “I’d like two of those, please – one for me and one for my friend.”

“Comin’ atcha!” She hoofed over the apples and said, “That’ll be two bits.”

Considering that those bits appeared to be made from gold, I thought that those apples were a little expensive, but because Steady didn’t blink an eye at the price, I decided that I needed to know more about the coins’ value relative to the goods before I started complaining. I passed the mare the two bits and then she held out a bag full of apples.

“What are those for?” I asked.

“A favah for a favah. Could you drop these off to Twahlight for me. Tell her Applejack sent ’em.”

I took the bag as that name rang a bell. “Applejack? You’re one of the Element Bearers, aren’t you?”

“Sure am. Element of Honesty here.”

“Pleased to meet you, Applejack. I didn’t expect to run into two of the Bearers within minutes of arriving in Ponyville. My name is Mark Wells, the new Grand Vizier to Princess Trixie, and I was hoping to get together with you all while I am visiting this weekend.”

Applejack’s jovial friendliness evaporated and the farm mare narrowed her eyes as she regarded me. “Yer Trixie’s new pet advisah, aintcha? Ah’ve been readin’ the papers. So what exactly caused that there allergic reaction for ya?”

I was getting uncomfortable and looked around for a convenient excuse to get away. “I said I was allergic to blueberries.”

Applejack seemed to weigh my words carefully for a few seconds. “Well, yer not exactly lyin', but yer not exactly telling the truth neither. Ya ain't really allergic to them, are ya?”

I backed away and turned to leave, but I looked back at her with a smile. “Nope. I just said that I was.” I trotted away and called over my shoulder. “Pardon me, but I have books and apples to deliver.”

I could still feel her cold stare as we turned the corner.

Applejack’s directions proved to be pretty good, and soon we arrived at the Golden Oaks Library. I stopped and gaped. The library was a literal tree! It had a door and windows carved into it, and even a balcony in its upper branches. Light coming through the windows and smoke curling from a chimney showed that it was currently occupied. I turned to Steady Flight and asked, “Am I really seeing what I’m seeing?”

He gave me a puzzled expression. “I don’t know what you mean, Mark. It looks like a typical library tree to me.”

Of course it did. Silly me. Where else would you put a library? I sighed. “Come on, we have a tree-dwelling unicorn to meet.”

 


 

Chapter 9: Competitions

 

Steady knocked on the door of the library and we waited.

I heard “It’s always open!” from the other side, fairly low to the ground. A few moments later, the door opened and a diminutive dragon looked up at us. “Can I help you?”

I smiled. “You must be Twilight’s little brother Spike. Pleased to meet you. I’m Mark Wells.”

Spike paused for a moment, then pointed at me with a single claw. Briefly, I felt a pang from missing the ability to do the same thing. “You’re the guy from Canterlot. The Grand Whatsit that got her so excited about stuff.”

I was pretty sure he meant knowledge from my world and not kissing, but I was too smart to risk upsetting fire-breathing family members. “That’s me.”

“She said you were…”

He stopped as I frantically waved a forehoof back and forth that was out of Steady’s view. My eyes went wide and I glanced Steady’s way meaningfully.

“…uh…a really great guy! Yeah, that’s it!” If it was possible for a dragon to sweat, he would have done so while looking sheepishly at Steady. For his part, my valet/best friend narrowed his eyes and looked between us.

“Yep, that’s me. Say! Is Twilight in? I’ve got some spell books for her.”

That put the dragon back on familiar ground. “Oh, that’s just great. So much for her getting any sleep this month. Nope, she’ll be back late tonight. She devours spell books like...” Spike paused and tapped one claw against his teeth. “Like hayburgers,” he finished.

“Hayburgers?” I asked.

“Obviously, you haven't seen Twilight’s restraining order. There's a reason the Hayburger doesn't have an all-you-can-eat buffet any more, and she's it. Two of the employees suffered nervous breakdowns on her last visit, and one of the customers got bitten. Not too hard,” he added. “He just reached for the ketchup at the wrong time. Right now, she's just biding her time with take-out until the restaurant management turns over, which at the rate they blow through employees should be in about a week.” He gave a low chuckle. “Then the Monster will be unleashed again. Come on in.”

If my mind had been boggled at discovering that they put libraries in trees, it was nearly blue-screened by what I beheld inside. Room! Not only room to swing a cat, but a few ponies too. “Holy Doctor Who! This sucker is bigger on the inside than the outside!”

Totally belying its outer dimensions, the interior of the tree was easily twice the diameter of what it could possibly be, leaving plenty of space for some furniture and a staircase, not to mention its raison d’être – books. This was some serious magic! I had to marvel at the interior of the library being exactly what Steady had described it to be. The carefully organized books rested on shelves that were apparently exactly the right size for the number of books present. Any open slot contained a checkout card waiting for the item to return.

Spike gave me a strange look. “What about Doctor Whooves?” After a moment, he shrugged dismissively and said, “Go ahead and put them on the checkout desk. I’ll move them down to her laboratory later.”

“It’s no trouble for us to take them down there.”

“Nah. Better for no one but me to go to the basement. She gets all cranky when she finds anything out of place, though how she can tell in that mess, I have no idea.”

Steady spoke up. “So naturally, you always move one item slightly whenever she’s out, just to mess with her.”

Spike’s cheek scales actually blushed a bit, then he looked up appraisingly at my valet. “Sounds like you’re a younger sibling.”

Steady nodded. “Youngest of five. The two eldest were complete neat and organization freaks. My favorite pranks were to replace photos in frames and to reverse the order of two nearly identical books in their private libraries. The books would take maybe five minutes for them to recognize and freak out about but the photo of Count Stirrup of Mount Chocolate would stay in its revered place for months.”

Spike brightened. “Oh, yeah! I’m going to have to try both of those. Thanks!”

“Don’t mention it,” the blue pegasus grinned.

I remembered one detail from Trixie. “One of these books was written by Star Swirl, and Celestia has a personal note to Twilight in it about solving some problem inside.”

He pulled that volume out of the pile and turned to the page with the note. After reading it, he gave me a flat glare. “Looks like I’m going to have to ‘misfile’ these books for a day so she can actually enjoy the inevitable Pinkie Pie Party tomorrow. Oh, and if you see her, would you remind her she still owes me page 15 from Power Ponies comic number twelve? She substituted for it when she delivered the last invitation.”

I looked to Steady for help but just got a shrug.

The young dragon looked up at us with a smile. “Anything else I can help you with?”

“Actually, can you give us directions to our hotel? I don’t think we passed it on our way here.”

“No problem!”



Steady and I checked in at the Hearthbreak Hotel, and after carrying our bags upstairs, we decided to wander around town a bit before finding a place for a late dinner. The thatched roof cottages and small shops off of the town square reminded me of an idealized version of small-town America from the 50s. Plus, everypony was polite to the new ponies in town, some going as far as to call out, “See you at the party!” Apparently, everyone knew everyone else, and a new face meant a Pinkie Pie Party was in the works to change a stranger into a friend.

The most unusual buildings were a tailor’s shop in the shape of a carousel and a bakery that looked like it was waiting for Hansel and Gretel to stop by to be eaten. According to one of the guards back at the castle (Flash Sentry, I think), craziness happened often enough in Ponyville to just be called “Tuesday,” so some eclectic architecture didn’t seem to faze the inhabitants in the least.

We settled for the greasy spoon Spike had mentionedcalled ‘The Hayburger’ and it certainly lived up to the artery-clogging cholesterol-fueled yumminess as advertised. Between the two of us, Steady and I had almost devoured an extra-large order of fries when a whoosh of air sped past us between the tables. I blinked and noticed that my placemat had been replaced with a flyer. Steady looked suspiciously at the flyer in his hoof that had been a napkin just a moment before. I looked around and saw the other patrons glance at their new placemat, flyer sticking out of their book, or poster now in the window. They smiled and continued on with their conversations.

Steady looked at me questioningly and I shrugged my shoulders. He got up. “Well, looks like I at least have some bathroom reading. Excuse me.”

Picking up my former placemat in my greasy hooves, I saw a crude crayon sketch of two pegasi of approximately my and Steady’s colors in the center. Around the outside in pink crayon, the flyer declared ‘Welcome to Ponyville Pinkie Pie Party for Steady Flight and Mark Wells. Yay! Yay! The best time you’ll have all day! Noon Saturday at Sugarcube Corner! Check the Date! Don’t be Late! Celebrate A First Rate Pri-Mate Migrates To Consummate Soulmate!’

I blinked, but it made no more sense when I reread it. Checking a second flyer that had replaced the menu, I saw that every single mark was exactly identical to the one in my hoofs—down to the same shape and location of the tiny crayon-globs that made up the lines. Looking up, I noticed that the photo high on the wall of the two founders had been replaced with the image from the center of the flyer. I also noticed Steady coming back to the table.

“That was quick.”

He gave me a rather haunted look. “She got the toilet paper, too. I can wait until we get back to the hotel.”

After paying, it was nighttime when we went outside. I was enjoying the night sky, much clearer with more detail now that we were away from Canterlot’s lights. Steady was apparently not impressed and instead studied his flyer. “What’s this about a soulmate?”

“No idea,” I replied. I really didn’t want to get into the whole story about Twilight’s kiss. I recognized teasing material and knew better than to give any to the likes of this guy. He moved his lips for a while before he looked at me with a smirk.

“Not to overstate, but lubricate before you impregnate.”

My forehoof lashed out to clonk him behind his ribs. “Ingrate!” I accused.

We shared the kind of laugh only good buddies can share.



By unspoken agreement, both of us decided to invest our time the next morning in the most productive way possible: sleeping in for a change. When I finally woke up enough to accuse him of failing at valet-ifying by not having breakfast ready for me, he informed me that Pinkie Pie Parties were legendary for having unbelievably good food and we’d be better served waiting until then. I told him that would not excuse the lack of coffee to get my day started. With my token protest out of the way, we agreed to devote another hour attempting to unravel the secrets of pony hibernation.

As Steady pulled out my clothes, I decided to go with my best court regalia, including the gold vest and tie with the pendant of office. When he enquired if the Lazy and Bossy Trixie would have wanted us to have been talking with the town’s residents from before sunup (a bit late to realize that, boyo), I told him that Pinkie did all the work for us. All we had to do was show up fashionably early and let the ponies come to us. Not our fault that the Element of Laughter was such a convenient labor-saving device.

Getting to the bakery perhaps thirty minutes early allowed me to mingle and get to know some of the townsfolk before the party started. Pinkie was a whirling dervish of energy – getting the party ready while somehow serving customers at the same time. She gave me a pink, cotton-candy scented hug when I asked if there was anything Steady and I could do to help. “Nope! Your friend and neighbor Pinkie has it all under control! Just keep being friendly like you always are, Mr. Rodgers!” And she was gone.

Wait. What did she just say?

By the time the shindig started in earnest, I’d been shaking hooves with everypony in sight and hearing their good-natured tales about the frequent disasters that seemed to zero in on the locale. It appeared rebuilding was everyone’s second pastime. In between their generally-positive opinions of Trixie’s rule so far, I got an absolute nightmare-inducing amount of dirt on the mare. Gossip traveled fast in the countryside and the ears in Ponyville gathered up every mistimed spell and failed performance of her career. It might be possible that my clipboard contained more blackmail material than questions and concerns for her Highness. Tactical error on her part to send me out here, really. Can’t feel guilty about that.

I also got some heartfelt thanks for pulling the plug on Flim and Flam’s scheme, along with the tale of their attempt to take over Sweet Apple Acres. I wondered if that would get me in good with a certain orange farm pony, but she and the other Elements were not present. When I asked the pink roller-skating party mare about that, she told me they could only make it to an after-party at the Golden Oaks Library later in the afternoon. Not surprisingly, she gave me a flyer for that party, too. I decided it was safest to put that one away without checking to see if it contained any more suggestively-worded passages. Steady also showed his worth by ferrying punch and various treats to me as I basically stood in place with a changing cast of characters coming to shore briefly around Grand Vizier Island. Note to self: cherry chimichangas rock!

The most noteworthy pony I talked to was Mayor Mare, who wanted clarification on how quickly rebuilding funds could be released from the Royal Treasury. After going over her ledgers, I noticed how the cost of rebuilding each structure in town was always the same amount but that it required several delays and much back-and-forth before that number was settled upon. We agreed to have one of her assistants train at the Royal Assessor’s office under Miss Scares-Me-Down-To-My-Hooves (not her real name – still didn’t know what it is). Then the stallion would be able to give a final, official number within hours and funds could then be expedited. We even agreed to split the cost of the assistant’s training.

Other notables were Bon-Bon, who promised me a selection of toffees and fudges when I stopped by her shop on Sunday; Octavia Melody, whom I had met briefly at the castle at one dignitary function or another; and a bright-green unicorn mare named Lyra Heartstrings. She seemed fascinated by me; though at no time did I feel she was coming on to me romantically – if that makes any sense.

When the party wrapped up, Pinkie grabbed me and bounced off towards the library, pulling me along by happily holding my mane in her mouth. Several boxes bounced right along with the earth pony mare on her back, but somehow they didn’t fall off. Steady accepted Lyra’s invitation to go bowling and we agreed to meet up later at the hotel.

Eventually, I persuaded Pinkie that I was going along willingly and dragging me there wasn't necessary. She didn't appear to be entirely convinced and eyed me skeptically, even as we arrived and she pushed the door open without looking forward. After that, it promptly swung closed.

Stepping inside no more than a couple of seconds later, I saw streamers, balloons, a punch bowl, and more cupcakes than any five shows on Food Network. Did all that happen right before I opened the door? I didn’t see the boxes anywhere, but there was a party cannon of some sort next to the door, fortunately, pointing away from me at the moment.

The backdrop was the just-as-amazing well-stocked library where the books appeared to rest in bookshelves that literally grew out of the walls of the library tree. A large banner across said bookshelves proclaimed ‘Welcome to Ponyville, Jafar!’ I puzzled over the wording until I felt a strong tap on my shoulder and turned around to see a very unamused Element of Honesty.

“So what food was it again that caused yer amnesia?”

I shrugged and gave a friendly smile. “I honestly don't remember.”

Applejack snorted. “ 'Cause it never happened, I bet.”

I grinned. “But am I lying?”

She growled. “There ya go again. Ah think ya made the perfect career choice. Yer a born politician.” She then spat on the floor, lifted her head high, closed her eyes, and strode away.

I shook my head. So much for exposing Flim and Flam’s scheme to the world swaying this mare’s opinion of me. Twilight was happy to see me at least! She waved from her side of the library then returned to discussing something with Spike. I wandered over to an ongoing conversation.

“Just you wait, Rarity. I’ll be a junior Wonderbolt by this time next year, then a member of the varsity squad the year after that. I’ll also be the youngest squad leader by the time I’m done.” The white unicorn agreed with the rainbow-maned pegasus and excused herself.

That left me with the Element of Loyalty, Rainbow Dash.

“Hi, Miss Dash. I’m Mark Wells.”

She didn’t bother looking at me and continued to hover a ways off of the floor. “Yeah. I’d be pleased to meet me too.”

I snorted. “Looking for something?”

She bobbed up and down slightly. At least this time she seemed to hear what I said. “Yeah. When’s Big Mac showing up with the good stuff?”

I'm pretty sure I recognized her type. Time to find out if I was right. “Excuse me, I was hoping I could find someone to play a challenging game with me. Unfortunately, it takes someone with a high pain tolerance.”

She stopped flapping and slowly drifted to the ground. If only I could master that trick! Her ears swiveled to point directly at me, then they seemed to draaaaaag her head around until she was looking me straight in the eyes. “Oh?”

Interesting. No bluster at all from the mare defined by bluster. She was serious about competition.

First of all, here are the rules for Red Hands/Hooves – Equestrian style. No horseshoes. A correct slap is the sole of the hoof against the pastern (the flesh just above the hoof). You slap to sting, not cause damage. If the slapper misses the slappee completely, they switch roles. The slapper is allowed to vibrate, twitch and try to set off the slappee, but is not allowed to start the movement of a slap. If they do, they switch sides and the new slapper gets a free shot. The slappee can pull their hooves away a bit without penalty. Only if they pull completely out of the way do they lose that round. Again, a free slap is the penalty. After the slapper wins five times in a row, you automatically switch sides.

Applejack had been following my explanation closely. “I think Ah'd like to give this a try.”

I glared suspiciously at this mare that had developed a healthy dislike of me. “Are you an earth pony?”

“What of it?”

“I hear your type can reduce a boulder to pebbles or uproot a tree with one blow, right? I'll pass.”

The farm mare frowned. Rarity tittered. “He's on to you, dear.” The yellow Pegasus who had to be Fluttershy hid behind her mane but peeked one bright-blue eye out.

Rainbow Dash and I sat on chairs facing each other. After we fixed the distance between us, she started out as the slapper. Her first two strikes were clean hits. I didn’t give her the satisfaction of showing any discomfort. “Ha! Looks like I’m already awesome at this game.” I anticipated her striking after the same time interval as her last strike and she missed, temporarily wiping off her grin. The moment her hooves were nearly over mine, I pounded them both by flipping over both of my hooves.

“Hey!” she yelled.

“Style points for going cross-hoof or double-hoof. Did I forget to mention…” I twitched. Her hooves flew back. She growled as they came back for a single free love pat. “…that?” My next attempt was a miss so we switched.

“Who wants cookies?” I heard Spike bellow. Rainbow had used the distraction to get in a clean shot.

“Darling! That was not fair! It should be his turn now,” complained Rarity.

I just smiled, never taking my eyes off of my opponent. “Distractions are part of the game. Besides, if you aren't cheating...” I winked at Rainbow. “...you aren't trying.”

“Darn straight!” she said, moving her hooves in a blur in time with the last word. I had anticipated this (because she hadn't tried it yet) and she missed. “Dang it!”

She held her hooves out for the obligatory slap, which I faked three times, teasing her. Her eyes narrowed at my antics. “Alright, buster. Time to put you in your place.”

At last, I gave her the required penalty slap. As before, she didn't flinch.

Let me tell you something about the game some of you may also know as Hand Slap – if you haven't spent your high school and college years honing your technique. It's all about reading your opponent and their tells. Any competent player will be too fast for you to pull away after they start moving. Reaction time just isn't quick enough to get out of the way in the tenth of a second or so it takes to spin your hand, or in my case, hoof around. This mare had incredibly quick reflexes, but that hard and fast rule still applied.

Slowly, it became apparent that she was getting a read on me. Two slaps to one... four slaps to one... then there was a long unbroken streak of her victories. One particularly strong blow on my now-sensitive pastern made me wince slightly.

Rarity shook her head. “Rainbow, darling. Would you please take it easy on the poor stallion? You've amply demonstrated that you are superior at this savage game.”

“No way!” She didn't stop looking at me for a second, even as her hooves continued to sporadically move in a blur and pound mine. “It was his idea to begin with. Not my fault I’m the best.”

She put her hooves on top of mine after yet another string of five victories that necessitated a change of position. I paused and looked at her. “Alright, fine then. How about we make the last one a bet this time? For the championship and all the marbles?”

Her upper body relaxed completely. I recognized this as a preview for her to be able to move with lightning speed. She grinned. “I'm game! What did you have in mind?”

I smirked. “A kiss from you, wherever I want it.”

Her smile disappeared and at that moment I moved. “Thwack!” She pulled her hooves back a moment too late. All her friends started chuckling at her expression as she gaped at me. It took her about two heartbeats to figure it out.

She pointed an accusatory hoof. “Your shoulder twitch! It was all baloney, wasn't it! You were setting me up the whole time!”

“I prefer to be known as 'Champ'.” I bounced my rear as I pranced away. “Aaaaaand you can go right ahead and kiss my behind, sucker!”

Even Fluttershy was laughing now, but again, I think it was more at Rainbow Dash's face shifting rapid-fire between anger, disgust, and disbelief than at my antics. Applejack and Pinkie Pie were rolling on the floor.

Rainbow hovered after me. “Come on. Best two out of three.”

I lifted my head high. “N-n-n-n-n-ope.”

For some reason, that made Rarity laugh louder but calmed down Applejack.

“There’s gotta be something. I’d never live it down! Especially around these mares.”

I slowed down and thought it over. A smirk appeared on my face then disappeared just as quickly. “Well-l-l-l, I suppose I could have pity on you just this one time.”

She scoffed. “I don’t need pity. I just need to do something that’s a lot more awesome than… that.” She almost looked and waved a wing at my posterior but appeared to catch herself.

I turned around fully to stare her in the eyes. I couldn’t hold back my smile any longer. “It’s simple. Just say ‘They’re called Wonderbolts because they’re always wondering what just happened.’ ”

The rest of the mares went silent and looked at the colorful pegasus. Even Spike, in his apron and with a half-full cookie tray in his claws peeked around Twilight Sparkle to get a good view. Rainbow Dash’s jaw moved around like she was chewing a bitter handful of gravel. Ultimately she said in a small voice. “I can’t do that.”

“Points for you!” I beamed. “I admire that kind of Loyalty.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, yeah. Duh! Element of Loyalty and all that.”

“So that’s why you’ll only owe me twice as many kisses as the day before for each day that you don’t pay up. Sounds good?”

She looked away from me and grumbled. “Fine, fine! Until then, you can just cool your fetlocks.”

Twilight came up beside her. “Rainbow Dash, I don’t want to tell you what to do, but you might want to just get this over with.”

She scowled. “Why? What’s so bad about waiting until tomorrow when it’s two kisses? Or next week when it is eight? By then I might be in the mood for being humiliated in front of my friends… again!”

The unicorn shook her head. “I don’t think you understand the math. Tomorrow you would owe two kisses, the next day four, then eight, and so on. After a week, you’d owe 128 kisses. After two weeks, over sixteen-thousand. In a month, you’d be a billion kisses in the rear.” That earned her a glare. She grinned sheepishly. “Sorry. Figure of speech.”

Pinkie Pie pronked up to Rainbow, an abacus in her forehooves. “Yepparoni! In fact, if you don’t pay up by day twenty, you could spend all day and night doing nothing but kissing his cutie patootie and never, ever, ever, ever pay off your balance of smooches.”

Rainbow looked between the two, wide-eyed. After a few seconds, she slumped with a sigh. “OK, fine. I always make good on my debts, but just… not right now.”

I heard coughing from the other side of the room. I looked over and saw Spike burp and a scroll appeared in the resulting flames. He grabbed it and looked it over. “Special Delivery for Twilight! Is there a Twilight Sparkle in the library?” He waved it around, turning every which way. “Does anyone know a frazzled, crazy mare named Twilight?”

I caught Rarity’s eye and nodded towards the little dragon. “Does this happen often?”

She smiled. “The sibling teasing or the dragonfire delivery of scrolls?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Oh, absolutely.”

The mare being paged gently bopped her younger brother on the head and gave him a mock glare before rolling the scroll open. Her eyes brightened and she smiled. “It’s from Princess Cadance!”

As she read the letter, her smile fell. She appeared to re-read it once, then stared at me with one of those stares. Yes, you know exactly the kind I’m talking about.

“YOU!”

All conversation stopped as I instinctively backed up. In mere moments, I was trapped in the Self-Help section.

Twilight rolled up the scroll and shook it at me. I wasn’t sure exactly what she was threatening to do with it, but I was sure I didn’t want to know. “You will take back your lies now!”

From my left, I heard a drawl. “Well ain’t that a big surprise nopony saw comin’.” Gee, thanks for the support, Applejack.

Realizing my attempts to phase through the bookcase were not working, I switched to using my recently sharpened negotiation skills to get out of the situation. “Uhhhh, what?”

Twilight came up directly in front of me. Escape was impossible. “You will tell all of my friends that we never kissed, and then you will write a letter to Princess Kissance…” She closed her eyes and shook her head briefly. When she opened them, her angry expression was the same. “…Princess Cadance the same thing.”

“Ooooooooo…” I heard from my right. Both Twilight and I turned to see Fluttershy, her face consumed with interest. She seemed to suddenly notice she was the center of our attention and disappeared behind her mane with a “Meep!”

I had one forehoof up in front of my chest in a vain attempt to protect myself. So I did the obvious thing when a man is threatened with death or worse. “But you did.”

Twilight surged forward until our noses almost touched. “You dare lie to me with those lips!” At that point, she seemed to realize where her lips were with respect to mine. With a jerk, she backed up a couple of feet. “We did nothing of the sort!”

All the Elements were in a loose circle around us now, staring with interest but apparently not willing to intervene to save my hide. My eyes stopped on Pinkie, who was sharing a tub of popcorn with Applejack. I looked back to Twilight.

“I Pinkie Promise that right before you teleported away…uh, the first time… from our meeting in Canterlot, you kissed me.”

The mares’ eyes all got wider and, one by one, their looks all now focused on Twilight, who just stood there with her mouth hanging open.

She recovered with a frowned and a glare. “Well, I Pinkie Promise that we never—”

“STOP!” interrupted Pinkie Pie with an upraised hoof. Wait, did she have a vertically black and white striped umpire jersey on a second ago? And wasn’t her mane poofy instead of flat?

“But—”

Pinkie Pie looked more serious than any pony I had seen up to now. “Don’t go there, Twilight Sparkle. For on that path lies only pain.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped open even wider. “Really?” She looked me up and down. “Really?!

OK, now, that was just rude.

Pinkie’s mane popped back into its normal shape and she offered the popcorn to the purple unicorn.

Twilight ignored it. “My first kiss, and I can’t even remember it?!”

Time for some payback for threatening and insulting me. I smirked and put on my best nerdy scientist voice… OK… I tried as hard as I could to sound like Twilight. “Well, there’s only one way to settle this. Sounds like an in-depth, full-blown, double-blind study is called for. Double-blind means I close both eyes, right Twilight?” She opened her mouth at this blasphemy of the Scientific Method but I barreled on. “In the names of Science and Safety, I’ll put on a lab coat and goggles. Then I’ll just close my eyes and you mares can take turns kissing me.”

All the girls except Twilight chorused “Ewww!” and most of them laughed. Spike made the universal pointing-a-claw-down-his-throat gesture. I noticed Rarity didn’t really have her heart in her protestation, though.

“And every time I get my guess wrong, we’ll have to repeat the trial until I finally…” I made an exaggerated eye roll and sigh, “…get it right…”

“EWWWWW!” Louder this time with more laughter.

“…nine times out of ten.”

Now everyone except for Twilight was laughing. Her mouth was twisted in annoyance and her friends guffawed even louder when they saw her.

I ambled up to the purple unicorn. “So, Miss Twilight.” I held up a hoof. “Would you give me the pleasure of this dance and submit to doing wonderful, beautiful, sensual science together?” I grinned, but her expression made my smile slip. About a half-second too late, I realized I might have pushed her sense of humor a bit too far.

“I have a better idea since you are so hot under the collar.” Her horn lit and she was replaced with blue sky. In fact, there was blue sky everywhere. I looked down and saw trees briefly then water rushing towards me. Instinctively, I spread my wings and accelerated… in the direction I was looking.

It really wasn’t all that bad of a landing. I was used to trees, walls, fountains, and other pegasi by now, and since I didn’t knock my breath out with a belly-flop, I was in better-than-average post-crash physical condition. OK, fine. I was desperate for a win and decided that was close enough, OK?

I tried using my flight magic to pull me up from ten feet underwater, but that didn’t work. Instead, since I was already standing on the bottom of the lake, I maneuvered myself upright then pushed firmly off of the gravel below me. With a couple of kicks of my legs, I reached the surface without any difficulty.

After taking a few breaths, I looked around and found the nearest shoreline was maybe a hundred feet away. I settled into a backstroke to keep my muzzle as far out of the water as possible and to conserve energy.

Moments later, I heard a whistling sound followed by Rainbow Dash hovering above me. “Dude! Are you dead?”

I shot the Pegasus a glare. “Do I look dead to you?”

She seemed to think about that for a bit. “Well, yeah, kind of. You’re flat on your back. Don’t know how you’re moving in the water though. No pony swims like that.”

I suppressed a grin. “Want to know the secret?”

Her face split with a smile and I waved her down as I stopped using my forelegs for my strokes. She hovered just a hair above where I could reach, so I settled for my second-best option. I raised both my forehooves in the air and thrust them down into the water. The resulting splashes almost caught the surprised pegasus, but she zipped out of the way then floated back to the same spot. She even got a little closer, daring me to try to grab her. “Nice one. Don’t make me drop rocks on you.”

I paused in my motions and looked up at her incredulously. “Seriously? You go from worried for my life to threatening it the next moment?”

She floated upwards a bit with her trademark grin. “Yep! Try to keep up, slowpoke.”

I shook my head as much as my partially-submerged position would allow. As I resumed swimming, I heard “Mark! Mark!” coming from the shore in the direction of my travel. Rainbow looked up.

“About time they got here. Twilight got terrified when Rarity pointed out you might not know how to swim.” She looked back at me. “So are you going to act all half-drowned when you get to shore?”

I squinted at her. “No?”

She smirked. “Then you’re an idiot. I bet that would get Twilight to kiss you again.”

I smirked back. “Double or nothing I can get Twilight to throw me back in the lake in fifteen minutes?”

“Ten.”

“Twelve.”

“Deal.”

She made to clop hooves to seal it but looked in my eyes first. “Yeah, deal,” she repeated then zoomed off. Crap! I could have used some company swimming the final leg.

I should have been more surprised when ten seconds later, Pinkie Pie walked out next to me on what looked like pontoons – one for the left legs, one for the right. “You doing alright there, wet pony? I can put you in my pocket for the trip back.”

I smiled in terror. “No, no, no! Thanks anyway, Pinkie. Actually, I’m kind of enjoying the swim… but don’t tell anypony, please.”

“Are you kidding? No pony can keep a secret like I can! I can tell that’s a secret you should only tell your friends.” With that, she stepped out of the pontoons and plummeted under the water’s surface. Briefly, I wondered if she meant my friends or her friends.

A minute or so later, I heard the lapping of water next to my head. Looking to the side, I could see that I was finally in the shallows.

I rolled over and was able to walk my way onto the shore. I was pleasantly surprised to feel the weight of my medallion of office still around my neck. I wasted no time taking it off and starting to remove my sodden clothing. I was thinking that this was a bit weird, getting naked in front of six mares and a baby dragon, but I guess the place was seriously rubbing off on me. I was even comfortable enough to give a little jab at a certain mare. “Gee, Twilight. Don’t you have a more subtle way to ask a stallion-friend to disrobe?”

She let out a nervous laugh, but I could tell from her eyes that she was genuinely concerned. “I’m so sorry, Mark. I had no idea if your birth species could swim. From my studies of simians and yetis, I was certain I had drowned you!”

“Wait, what now?” asked Applejack.

Rainbow Dash craned her neck down to look at the purple unicorn. “What the hay, Twilight? Do you need glasses or something? That right there is obviously a standard, ordinary, run-of-the-mill clueless pegasus stallion.”

“Who happens to be called ‘Champ,’ ” I snarked.

The mane on the pegasus’ neck bristled, and she glared at me. “OK, maybe not 100% ordinary… but only maybe.”

“See that, girls? Any standard, run-of-the-mill stallion can get the best of Rainbow Dash.”

“Oooooooo,” repeated Fluttershy. This time she hid behind her mane before anypony looked her way.

The Element of Loyalty started to drift closer threateningly while Pinkie munched on more popcorn that I’m sure she didn’t have a moment ago. Sadly, Twilight had to ruin our fun.

“Anyway! Getting back on topic! Mark Wells was born to a nearly hairless bipedal race called ‘humans.’ He came here through a dimensional portal and is now stranded in Equestria.” Remind me to send some flowers to Twilight for not mentioning the whole breaking-while-entering thing. I guess the edible kind rather than the pretty kind. Was it possible to be both? Pinkie’s voice brought me back to reality (such as it was).

“You mean you all didn’t already know?”

OK, reality is seriously overrated. I asked, “So explain to me how you knew, Pinkie?”

Everypony gave me a flat look and shook their heads. Twilight, of all mares, spoke up. “It’s really safer on your sanity just to grin and say ‘That’s just Pinkie.’ Trust me.”

After seeing something in Pinkie’s eyes that tickled my human survival instincts, I nodded my agreement.

Spike changed the subject away from the dangerous. “Aren’t humans those beings with the stubby clawed appendages that Lyra keeps obsessing about? She’ll go completely Twilight-level-eleven bonkers when she finds out.”

Before I could explain what fingers were, Twilight spoke up. “That’s right, but unfortunately, she must never know. Mark is doing a great job keeping fake-alicorn Trixie on an even keel, and the news of his origins would cause havoc, possibly destabilizing the Court. But as we are Equestria’s first line of defense, all of you deserve to know. Would you all mind making a Pinkie Promise not to reveal his secret?”

There were nods all around, and all seven of them went through the motions I had first seen in the Portal Room. Somehow, Rainbow Dash got in an ‘I’m watching you’ gesture in the middle of hers.

“Well thanks, ladies. I appreciate it.” Then I looked at Pinkie. “Was it your idea to have this after-party to let the rest of the Elements know, or Twilight’s?”

They both said the name of the other mare simultaneously, then looked at each other, and they both said ‘it was mine’, again at the same time. I shook my head.

Meanwhile, Applejack took off her Stetson. “Well, I figured you was a bit different from other folk, but I didn’t well know how much. I apologize if my accusations made ya uncomfortable.”

“That’s fine. You were spot on, actually.”

The earth pony mare glared at me as she slowly put her hat back on.

“Ummm, excuse me, Mark Wells, sir?”

It took me a moment to realize that it was Fluttershy who had finally decided to talk with me. “Yes, miss?”

She actually blushed while asking a question. “Does your world have talking animals? Or ponies at all?”

“No other sapient species besides humans, sorry. And yes, we have everything from Clydesdales to miniature ponies as far as equines go. None of them are smarter than your average domesticated animal, though.”

She seemed to shrink in on herself a bit. “Oh… oh, I see.”

Suddenly, I felt an irresistible urge to comfort this mare. I was certain a single tear would destroy my will to live. “Although, humans feel a great deal of love for their pets.”

“Pets?” she repeated, her ears perking up again.

“Yes, yes. Dogs, cats, hamsters, snakes, lizards, tarantulas, all sorts. And that doesn’t even count the sport and farm animals like cattle, goats, oxen, and all varieties of horses.”

“And turtles?” asked Rainbow.

“Yep.”

“And alligators?” asked Pinkie Pie, thrusting a tiny toy of one into my face. Actually, scratch that. It slowly blinked at me.

I pulled back a bit. “No. Actually not. They get to be a lot more rambunctious when they get older and bigger.”

“Awwww…little Gummy here wouldn’t hurt a fly, wouldya, wouldya, wouldya?” She caressed the possibly stunned reptile for a moment then shoved it into her mane.

Apparently, I was the only one that thought this was strange because Rarity spoke up without hesitation. “So tell us, darling. Since you’ve been gathering the opinions of us ponyfolk all day, why don’t you give us your impressions of the six of us.”

The little dragon spoke up. “Hey!”

“…and Spike, of course.”

Nice recovery, Rarity. “Spike’s a cool dude, and I think he understands a lot more about what’s going on than ponies give him credit for.” He beamed. “As for you mares… well, I don’t know. You are all pretty cool actually, and fun to be around.”

That seemed to have the opposite effect than what I expected. They all looked at each other with disbelieving faces. Twilight spoke up. “So…you’re not intimidated by us?”

I looked at her in confusion for a moment before I saw the light. “Ah. Let me guess. Are you saying that because now that the Royal Sisters are gone and Cadance went off to the Crystal Empire, that leaves you six as the most powerful force in Equestria? And that stallions don’t like being reminded how all of you working together or separately can kick their asses seventeen ways to Sunday?”

All of them looked uncomfortable. The white unicorn spoke up. “I wouldn’t have put it… quite that way, but that is the gist of it, I suppose.”

“Well, they don’t know what they’re missing. This is the most fun I’ve had since I got here.”

I noticed Rainbow Dash miss a couple of wingbeats then drift to the ground. The mares all looked at each other in a similar way to how Flim and Flam did in Day Court. Wordlessly, they seemed to come to a decision.

Fluttershy asked, “Ummm… if you don’t mind… and please tell me if you do, because that would be just fine…”

The blue pegasus mare made ‘keep going’ motions with her hooves for some reason.

Fluttershy looked back at me. “…ummm… would your species happen to be the herding kind?”

Well that came out of left field. “Nah. Pretty much strictly monogamous for life.”

The mares then seemed to all share a decidedly different look with each other. Whatever.

Rainbow Dash took the initiative with the conversation. “So what sports were you really good at in your world?”

I thought back. “Well in high school, I was pretty good at long distance running and decent at shot put. My best sport was swimming, though.”

“So you think you are a faster swimmer than me?”

I thought back to how horses swam on Earth, and how my joints’ extra flexibility would allow me to swim basically the same way I always had. If ponies swam with the doggie-paddle style here…

I smiled and lowered my head to look her in the eyes. “I doubt I’m the fastest swimmer in Equestria, but with one little stipulation, I think I’m certainly the fastest swimmer here. Care to prove me wrong?”

If her face was anything to go by, it was like she had just hit the Triple Happiness Jackpot on the Slot Machine of Life. “You’re on, buster. Double or nothing?”

I nodded.

Her mouth took on a predatory grin. “Now go get your staple-thing and we’ll get started right now.”

“Actually, a stipulation is a proviso, an extra condition, something to even the playing field, as it were…”

“Yeah, yeah, fine. Name it.”

“I’ll need Twilight Sparkle to throw me out into the lake for a head start.”

“WHAT! But…but…why?”

I started to pace back and forth, grinning the whole time. “Well, you are supposed to be the best athlete here, aren’t you? And I just survived a near-death experience, so you can’t expect me to be at my absolute best.”

She held out a very sympathetic hoof, which looked really uncharacteristic, actually. “Why don’t you take a breather then…say…five more minutes to rest up.”

Applejack said, “Are you stalling, Sugarcube?”

“No, no! I’m just…concerned that Mark may not be at a hundred percent is all and…uh…”

Twilight walked up next to me and stared at me pointedly. “You want me…to throw you out in the water?”

I nodded. “As far as you think is fair.”

She looked between Rainbow and me, then nodded. Rainbow growled for a few seconds. “OK, fine. Whatever. Let’s just get started already.”

Rarity had been scanning the lake. “Do you all see the branch that is floating about halfway out on the lake? First to swim around it and get back to the shore.”

I looked out. It was clearly visible and appeared to be about a hundred feet out, but in a different direction from the one I had taken. “I see it.”

I heard “Me too,” from right next to me on the shore. She was already crouched down, ready to start.

Bracing myself, I felt Twilight’s magic surround me. I was rehearsing the movements in my head to dive into the water and carry my momentum as far as I could take it.

“Fluttershy, you get to start them off,” I heard the cowpony say.

“Oh. Oh. Really? Do you really want me to?”

“Yep. It’s easy. Just say ‘Ready, Set…’”

“Go?”

I should have expected that, really. Rainbow Dash did, and she was off like a shot, plunging into the water.

I waited, tense and focused, then felt my body lifted for a tiny little hop. I looked down. Maybe an inch, if I was being generous. I tried to lean forward but my body and tail were still held in the purple unicorn’s magic. I looked at her and her eyes glittered back at me. “I think that distance is about fair. Oh, did I not do what you expected?”

Crap. That girl was just too darn smart. I heard the splashing from the lake suddenly stop. “Mark, what the hay?”

“Lover-mare here doesn’t want to let go of my tail.”

“Twilight, you let him go. I need to kick his flank fair-and-square. Look, I appreciate the support, but I want to do this my way, OK?”

I felt the magic release me. I mouthed the word “jealous” to Twilight but got no reaction out of her. Ah, too bad. No rocket-propelled assist.

I stretched luxuriously and took my sweet time to walk down to the water’s edge. I put in a hoof and pulled it back. “Hey! That water’s cold!” I heard chuckles behind me but the wet blue Pegasus just waited with a scowl. I realized then that she was standing on her back legs because the lake must still be shallow there.

I trotted into the water until it was up to my shoulders, then I started a nice, slow breaststroke out to where Rainbow was waiting. As I got close, I saw her rotate her body back to a swimming position. “Are you ready?” I asked.

“Been ready for hours,” she said, her muscles tensing.

My smile might have put her off slightly. “You just think you’re ready.” With that, I exhaled, dropped under the water, streamlined my body, and pushed with my back legs as hard as I could.

With the unexpected burst of speed, I coasted to a full body length lead by the time I breached the surface. I then shifted to a relaxed overhead crawl stroke. The flutter kick worked the same as when I was a human and I found my shoulder flexibility more than sufficient to make the required motion without excessive body roll. Fortunately, after just a few tries, I also figured out my head placement so I could side breathe while not creating excess drag or interrupting my rhythm. Meanwhile, Rainbow’s hooves flew like mad in her standard horsey paddle, turning the lake water to a froth and letting her slowly pull up alongside me. I could occasionally hear cheers from the beach as we got closer to the branch. Both of us reached it at the same time, but she had the inside track and was a half-body length ahead by the end of the turn home. I could now hear the cheers clearly.

Time to put up or shut up. I could only guess what my vo2 max was in this form, but I was betting on my muscles feeling the same as they did when I was a human. I punched up my pace to well above that level, knowing it was then a matter of whether the lactic acid shut my muscles down before I reached the shore. With my faster pace, I soon left an unhappy pegasus in my wake. My forelegs and hind legs were burning now, but I was confident they would not give out. Just then I heard a buzzing sound behind me and, looking to my left, got a face-full of water as the mare zoomed by, her wings fully out of the water and moving at incredible speed. The wake from her body passing mine threw me off my rhythm and I struggled to regain it. When I finally dragged myself up the shore and sat down completely spent, Rainbow was high-fiving and whooping it up enthusiastically with her friends.

Spike was there to give me a sincere few claps of applause. “Amazing race, dude. You might be wrong actually. I’ve never seen any pony cut through the water like that.”

“Except for Rainbow Dash, you mean.”

He grinned. “Well, yeah. Obviously.”

“But how did she do it? Water-logged wings are supposed to be useless for getting any kind of lift.”

The aforementioned mare alighted next to me. She held out her wings proudly. “That’s because I dried them off first.” She proceeded to vibrate them at that incredible speed. “After that, it was a matter of getting forward thrust without pushing me into a dive or lifting me off the water, which would have been a DQ.” She smiled. “If I didn’t need to win so bad, I probably would have taken hours to figure it out. So thanks, dude.”

I got back to my hooves and wobbled a bit. Rarity came up and gave me a hug. “That was absolutely exhilarating, darling! The most thrilling race I’ve seen in ages! I hope you aren’t upset at Rainbow’s… ahem… bending the rules.”

I shook my head. “Not at all. It’s not like I didn’t have wings of my own.” I demonstrated weakly. “There was nothing in the rules outlawing them either. Besides…” I shared a grin with the blue Pegasus. “If you aren’t cheating…”

“…you aren’t trying!” she finished, raising a hoof for me to clop. Then, of course, pulling it away when I tried to reciprocate. “Too slow!” This got some laughs from her friends.

“I thought we settled that one already?” I said.

Applejack smiled at me. “Boy, howdy! You sure know how to run yer mouth when it’s a bad idea, don’tcha? Yer more fun than a swarm of parasprites in a pear orchard!”

Rainbow turned around and came up to my face. “Actually, I prefer to be called ‘Champ’.”

“Oooooooo.” Neither of us had to look to know who said it that time.

I shook my head slightly. “I’m afraid not. Miss Twiggie Sprinkle is still the best kisser in your group, so she’s the Champ of my heart.”

Twilight rolled her eyes but smiled a bit, which surprised me. Maybe I was starting to wear off on her.

In front of me, Rainbow shoved me on one shoulder. I rocked back in place then everything happened quickly. She ducked underneath me and used my momentum to roll me over that same shoulder. I landed flat on my back and she gripped my head. One hoof sealing off my nostrils and her mouth covering mine. Then she inhaled.

Did I mention that pegasi are high-altitude flyers? And that their lung strength and capacity increases with practice? My lungs now felt like they were exposed to the harsh vacuum of space while Rainbow doubtless had two lungfuls of air. And her smiling eyes let me know exactly how badly I had been had.

I tried to roll over, to pull my lips back, to push her one way then the other, but she was very strong and knew how to use leverage. The hoots and hollers from her friends were not helping me one bit, either. As I started to see blackness at the edges of my vision, I tried to tickle her barrel, but while this made her quiver and shift position slightly, I could not take further advantage. When my vision narrowed to just being able to see her eyes, I weakly tapped the ground next to her three times, hoping this was a universally recognized gesture.

It was. Spike helped me to a sitting position while I gasped oxygen back into my system. After accepting another set of very loud congratulations, the mare sauntered back up to me. “So, what do you have to say now, Mark Wells?”

Pinkie Pie now had sunglasses, a lounger, and a fold-out lap reflector to sun the underside of her chin, I suppose. “Yeah. So what have you learned today?”

It didn’t really hit me at the time, but this was the first time Rainbow Dash had used my name. I turned to Twilight and held out my hoof dramatically. “Dearest Twilight Sparkle. Twinkle of my Soul. Our romance was a brief but passionate one. However, now another has stolen my heart, as well as my breath.”

The purple unicorn actually laughed at one of my jokes. “With that kind of hammy delivery, it’s a wonder you aren’t paired up with Rarity.”

Applejack said. “Nah. He’s just been spending too much time with Trixie is all. Picked himself up some bad habits.”

Fluttershy offered, “Well, I don’t know about all of you, but I sure had fun. Maybe we can all do this again tomorrow?”

This was met with a more somber mood.

“’Fraid not. Apples won’t pick themselves.”

“I’ve got day shift on the weather team.”

“I have a fashion order that I’ll need to work on all night and all tomorrow as it is.”

“I have to plan the next Welcome to Ponyville Party to be even more splenderific than this one!”

Twilight offered, “Well, at the risk of getting teased by my friends…”

“Poacher!” yelled Rainbow Dash.

“…I should have some time free—”

Spike finished for her. “That will be 100% taken up by studying the homework that Celestia gave you.”

Her head spun around.

He continued. “Her hoof-written note about the unfinished spell in Starswirl’s spell book?”

After about one second, there was a burst of light and she was gone.

Spike sighed. “It was too good to last. I’d better get back to the library. She’s going to forget to eat again.”

I gathered up my things and poked at Rainbow Dash with a hoof. “Hey, Champ! Do you know a spot in town with good beer?”

She smiled back. “Hah! And don’t you forget it! Yeah, I know just the place.”

“Fantastic. Let’s just rescue Steady Flight from Lyra at the Bowling Alley. I’ll get some dry clothes, then you can show me the town.”

Her smile slipped for a moment, then it returned. “Sounds good. The more the merrier!”

We set off at a slow pace that, much to Rainbow’s annoyance, became even slower as my muscles reminded me that they had not quite recovered completely.



Extricating Steady from the bowling alley proved to be trickier than expected. He and Lyra had just started the deciding game of a three-game match, and I didn’t want to spoil their fun. Instead, Rainbow and I were encouraged to bowl a game while we waited.

“Have you ever bowled before, Mark?” Steady asked after I had acquired bowling shoes to slip over my hooves.

I had done so with Phil many times and was reasonably good for a social bowler. That was when I was a biped and had hands though, and I already knew how hard it was to stand on just my hind legs to walk, let alone try to bowl at the same time. And then there was controlling the ball with a hoof instead of fingers. I decided to play it safe. “I know how to play, but I can’t say I can actually bowl.”

“Just watch how I do it, and then try to copy me,” he advised.

I was in the lane next to his, so I was able to watch closely. Aside from the weirdness of a quadruped assuming a bipedal stance, there was frankly little difference between pony and human bowling. The only mystery was how he controlled the ball, achieving a well-judged spin that resulted in a strike.

“And that’s how you do it,” Steady said with a smug grin in the direction of Lyra.

“Show-off! Don’t count your win just yet,” the mare replied.

Rainbow had agreed to be my partner for the game, and she replied, “That’s right, Lyra. Let’s show these stallions how it’s done!”

Of course, she probably had only agreed because she knew it would give her one more opportunity to show her superiority over me. She proceeded to demonstrate exactly that and bowled first. She knocked down nine pins with her first roll, and picked up the spare with her second. She smiled smugly as she went to mark down her score.

Time to see if I could get through this without being a total dork. I picked up a ball – odd for not having any finger holes, but otherwise just like any other bowling ball I had ever seen. It was even a nice shimmery green to go with my coat color. I promptly dropped it. It was a lot more slippery and heavy than I had anticipated, and my days-old knowledge of how to pick things up with hooves had not properly compensated.

“You might want to start with a lighter ball meant for novices,” Rainbow said with a smirk.

That stung my pride, so I focused a lot of effort into picking up the ball and holding it firmly. I would not drop it again and give her the satisfaction of having another dig at me. Walking on just three legs, I positioned myself in front of my lane and then rose up on my hind hooves, the ball held firmly in both forehooves while I got my balance. You would think that someone who had spent most of his life on just two legs would be better at this, but a pony’s sense of balance was a lot different from that of a human’s. Nevertheless, I steadied and focused on the pins ahead of me. I wouldn’t try to do any fancy spinning – just a straight power shot placed in exactly the right position. I took a wobbling step and firmed my hold on the ball to maintain control of it, swung my foreleg back as I took the next step, then powered through the forward swing as I crouched down to release…

I found myself flying down the lane with the ball still firmly attached to my hoof. Between my light pegasus frame, the weight of the ball, and my determination not to drop it, I had managed to launch myself towards the pins. The lane was well-oiled and I skidded down it with the ball’s momentum dragging me along. I couldn’t get myself to let go, and I squeaked in terror as I hurtled towards the pins. With a loud crash, I barreled through them to come to a painful halt at the back, flying pins landing on top of me and one nearly braining me. Dizzily, I looked up to see the attendant behind the lanes scowling at me.

“Players must keep off the lanes!” the stallion snarled.

“Sorry,” I replied woozily.

The unicorn lifted me out of the lane with his magic and pointed me to the door at the side. I tottered back to the players’ area to find Rainbow rolling on the floor, laughing her ass off.

Steady merely grinned and said, “I thought you didn’t know how to bowl? You got a strike with your first roll!”

“Yeah – too bad it was a foul,” Rainbow promptly added.

“Let’s see you get a strike with your head this time,” I shot back as I walked off.

“Where are you going? Giving up already?” she said slyly.

“Nope. Finding a foal’s ball. I can’t humiliate myself any worse tonight.” And if I could beat that super smug mare with that, maybe it would knock her down a peg or two. Mark ‘Crash” Wells was not going down without a fight!

 


 

Chapter 10: Nothing Exceeds Like Excess

 

I took my time with breakfast the next morning. I planned to visit a number of ponies today before I had to head back to Canterlot, and there was no point in starting too soon while most of them would also be getting ready for the new day. Steady Flight asked for the day off and I was happy to give it to him. It seemed all the sweets yesterday aggravated a cavity and he knew a dentist in Canterlot that would see him on a Sunday.

After getting dressed, my first stop was at the shop of the local confectioner. Although I had noticed that my pony body seemed to crave sugar a lot more than I did as a human, my sweet tooth was not the reason for the visit. Bon Bon had specifically invited me to come to see her at her shop, and that suited me fine. As was typical of the buildings in Ponyville, her premises were themed on the product that sold within, although not to the degree of Sugarcube Corner. Upon entering, my nose was assaulted by the smells of the enormous variety of sweets within. Unlike Earth’s supermarkets, the majority of the candies didn’t have wrappers, although some were enclosed in twists of wax paper. Most were kept in jars with lids such as you would see in old-fashioned sweet shops, while chocolates were on display on trays. The mare whom I had come to see was just putting out one of those trays when I arrived, and she gave me a welcoming smile.

“Good morning, Mark. I trust that you slept well?”

“I had a wonderful night’s sleep, thank you. It might have been even better if I had managed to beat Rainbow Dash at bowling last night.” While I had lost, I had succeeded in wiping the smug grin off her face by almost making a heroic comeback in the final frame. She may have been Equestria’s foremost flyer, but she was far from the best bowler. Despite my lack of practice as a pony, my experience as a human had made up for it. I hadn’t bowled nearly as well as I could with fingers, but neither had I disgraced myself any further since that first ball.

“Excellent!” the earth pony said before turning toward the door at the rear of the shop. “Lyra! Come and say good morning to Mark!”

My eyebrows raised in startlement, although I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Lyra had been introduced as Bon Bon’s ‘very good friend’, although it was plain as the extra-large nose on my face that they were a lot more than that. The mint-green unicorn was nice enough, but she had managed to give me the creeps a couple of times when I caught her staring at me when I inadvertently had tried to do something in a human fashion. Hey! I’d only been a pony for less than a week!

Lyra emerged from the back with a container of boiled lollies carried in the glow of her magic. She set them down on the counter to trot over to me with a big grin on her face. “Hi, Mark!”

“Hello, Lyra. I hadn’t realized that you worked here.”

“Nah, I just help Bons out in the morning before I go to my real job. Music cutie mark, remember?”

I suppose I should have recalled that after the unicorn had grilled me about my own. These ponies seemed to put an awful lot of store in their meaning. I didn’t want to disappoint them and say that I didn’t know, so I just let them speculate. I didn’t tell them my guess that it was Equestria’s private joke on me, indicating that I was a bit disaster-prone.

“Can you show Mark around while I finish setting up for the morning rush, Lyra?” Bon Bon asked.

“Sure thing! C’mon – you can see the shop front anytime. Come out back and see where the magic happens,” Lyra said as she headed to the rear door.

“I thought all of Equestria was where magic happened,” I replied drolly.

“Oh, very funny,” she replied and stuck her tongue out at me. “Anyway, you won’t find a finer confectioner in the entire world!”

As the mare waxed lyrical (see what I did there?) on the accomplishments of her marefriend, I counted myself lucky that Bon Bon wasn’t showing me all this. Undoubtedly, she would have gone too far into the boring intricacies of the vocation, while the unicorn just hit the highlights. It also kept her distracted from quizzing me until the earth pony joined us and the topic turned to more general Ponyville news. I managed to get their impressions of the reign of the current “Princess”, both boiling down to being happy with the status quo. Business was good for each of them, so no reason for discontent. Bon Bon even let me take a spin at candy-making. I proved adept at sugar pulling but had no artistic talent whatsoever decorating the confectioner’s namesake. She took it in good humor and I was allowed to take my feeble attempts home with me. I quipped that this was incentivizing me to fail and that drew a laugh from both mares. I left the shop with my saddlebag half full of a variety of sweets just as the first customers of the day arrived.

I stopped outside the shop and adjusted my saddlebags – OK, fine, I was deciding which would be the first goody sacrificed to the Maw of Mark – and couldn’t help but overhear Lyra talking to her marefriend.

“You did see that, didn’t you, Bonnie? How he didn’t mind shaking hooves sole-to-sole? And how he called hoofguards gloves? I’m 95% sure that he’s actually a human in disguise.”

I panicked briefly until I heard Bon Bon’s reply. “Just like you were 95% sure Gilda was actually a human two months ago.”

“OK, maybe I was wrong that time, but you have to admit, she was suspiciously dexterous with those claws of hers.”

“Maybe because she was born with them? Spare me the conspiracy theories, Lyra.”

“That’s not it at all! I’m just being logical here!”

“Ah yes, ma’am? Have you made your selections?”

I trotted away hurriedly, not wanting to give the green mare any more ammunition for her suspicions.



My next target was the building shaped somewhat like a fairground carousel and, as I soon found out from a small but fancy sign on the door, named appropriately. The Carousel Boutique was the home and workplace of one of Twilight’s closest friends who had insisted that I drop by. I had exactly zero interest in female fashions, but at least it was an excuse to talk to Rarity. I was about to knock on the door when it opened and a small unicorn filly looked up and stared at me.

“You’re Mark Wells, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“Come on in. Rarity’s expecting you,” she said with a giggle as she stepped aside to let me in.

“She is? I hadn’t made an appointment,” I said as I entered the boutique.

That only made the filly grin even more. “She’s been talking about you ever since the party yesterday.”

“They must be hard up for something new to gossip about in this small town, I suppose.”

She giggled again. “I suppose. Gotta go!”

She dashed out the door without even introducing herself. I shrugged and looked around for Rarity, but the showroom was empty except for some mannequins… or would that be ponyquins?

“Hello! Anyone here?” I called out.

Moments later, I heard a familiar voice saying, “Welcome to Carousel Boutique, where every garment is chic, unique, and magnifique! Oh! Mark, darling – how nice to see you!”

The unicorn’s affectations were familiar to me by now, so I just gave her a smile and replied, “It’s good to see you too, Miss Rarity.”

“No need to be so formal, Mark. I’m pleased that you came around this morning. I have something for you.”

“You do? I thought that you just wanted to show me around your business as part of my assignment that I mentioned yesterday.”

“Oh, we’ll get to that, but you had inspired me, and I wanted you to be the first to try out the result.”

I looked about me at the various fancy dresses. “I really don’t think any of these suit me.”

Rarity laughed gaily. “Not those, dear. I do tailor work for the local stallions too. Just wait there a moment, please.”

She disappeared into the back room from which she had emerged but quickly returned, levitating some objects which she placed on a countertop. She then unfolded one of them to reveal a stunning crimson dinner jacket, tastefully decorated with silver threadwork. I whistled in appreciation… of the jacket, not the mare! Not that there was anything wrong about how she looked, either.

She gave me a smile and batted her lashes at me.

“I notice that you prefer to wear a shirt and vest all the time.”

That was true. Despite a breezy backside, I had already gotten used to just wearing those plus a business suit top while I was in court. I now felt ‘dressed’ and comfortable that way, even when most of the ponies around me still wore nothing.

“I like this combination. Steady Flight chose it for me.”

“Your friend has good taste, but you need something extra to go with them when you take a marefriend out to dinner. Try this on, please. I believe I got your measurements right yesterday.”

Well, that explained why I had caught the unicorn eyeing me so much at the party. Still, if she could accurately measure me by sight alone, she must be pretty good. I allowed Rarity to put the jacket on me, and it fitted perfectly. Yep – she’s good alright.

“And just to add that dashing touch, I have one more accessory.”

She lifted the other item on the countertop with her hooves and wrapped it around my neck, adjusting the jacket around it. She then pointed me at a floor-length mirror and I took a look at myself. The sable-colored ascot and jacket went together beautifully and I was very impressed.

“Wow! That looks really snazzy! I’m very impressed. I’ll take it. How much does it cost?”

The elegant unicorn tittered. “Oh no, darling! It’s a gift. Consider it payment for the inspiration that you gave me.”

“I can’t just take it as a freebie, Rarity. This is your livelihood, after all.”

“Well – if you feel that strongly about it, perhaps you might consider taking me out for dinner instead? You need to break it in properly, after all.”

“That seems reasonable and I’d love to, but I have to leave on the last train to Canterlot today.”

Rarity’s face fell. “Oh.”

“I’d still like to pay you for these.”

“No, dear, I won’t hear of it. Perhaps I can take a rain check for the next time you visit Ponyville?”

“If that makes you happy, then fine, but I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

She gave me a strange look. “Is there nothing you’ve seen so far that interests you enough to return?”

“I don’t know yet. You know my circumstances, and a lot of this is very new to me still.”

Rarity closed her eyes and sighed. Her smile returned quickly though. “Shall I show you around the shop while you’re here?”

“That would be nice,” I replied with a smile.



I left the boutique with a better understanding of why Rarity was considered to be the Element of Generosity. After watching her apply an anti-crease spell to the jacket, I carefully folded it and the ascot into my saddlebag. I also had learned far too much about the fashion industry, but at least I had eventually gotten the couturier’s opinion of how Ponyville was faring under the auspices of Trixie Lulamoon. Although Rarity’s views were colored by her friend Twilight’s interaction with the de facto ruler of Equestria, the practical business mare had to admit that overall the nation seemed to be doing well. The Great and Egotistical Princess was going to be pleased to hear that. After her near disaster with Flim and Flam, I think she deserved that much.



My next stop was a twofer – Sweet Apple Acres. Although Applejack’s attitude had thawed after learning my true circumstances and my need to prevaricate, she nevertheless still didn’t like the fact that our relationship had started off with some deception on my part. But because Twilight had wholeheartedly endorsed me (despite the kiss incident!), the farm mare had agreed to tolerate the situation, if not to actively support me. I could live with that. However, my main reason to visit her family’s orchard was not to review how the economy was affecting her but to meet another of her friends there.

Rainbow Dash, flush from her victories, had offered to coach me, boasting that she could do better than Steady Flight. Considering how my flying lessons had gone so far, I had accepted, much to Steady’s chagrin. A round on me placated him, and he eventually admitted that bringing in another expert was probably a good idea. I asked that the lessons be conducted somewhere outside of Ponyville where my clumsiness would not be observed, not to mention fewer buildings and other structures to crash into. Rainbow had suggested Sweet Apple Acres as a good rendezvous point, and as it fitted into my plans and was easy to find, I had agreed.

So, here I was standing on a hill overlooking the orchards of apple trees that gave their property its name, a gentle breeze ruffling my feathers, nervously listening to the prismatic mare’s instructions.

“You have to flap your wings real hard,” Rainbow said emphatically.

“But… Steady reckons that my body is built for power – won’t that be too much?” I queried.

“Look – which one of us is the expert flyer here? We’ll get you in the air first and then work off the rough edges, okay?”

“If you say so.”

“I do. Now, hold your wings like this and start flapping! Put your magic into it!”

I’m not sure if it was twenty-two or twenty-three apple trees that I tore through on my super-powered flight, but my first lesson was abruptly terminated by a red-painted wall. Naturally, I had found the largest structure on the property and crashed into it.

The barn came off a lot better than I did, and as I lay groaning on the ground at the base of the building, Applejack walked up and stared dispassionately down at me, shaking her head.

“Don’t that hurt a mite?” she asked.

“No pain, no gain,” I replied.

“Who’s payin’ for the damage to my apple trees?”

“Send the bill to Trixie.”

“Ah’ll be sure to do that.”

Rainbow landed next to Applejack and the pegasus glared at me. “What the buck was that?” she demanded.

“A painful reminder that Steady may have known what he was talking about,” I replied.

The colorful mare merely rolled her eyes. “Obviously you were doing it wrong. Now get up and we’ll start again.”

I groaned as I pulled myself onto my hooves. Pegasi might be light and resilient, but it nevertheless hurt to go from sixty to zero in nothing flat. I managed to walk off the pain on the way back to the hill to re-start my lessons. This time Rainbow aimed me in the opposite direction before beginning.

“Okay – obviously you have no problem getting into the air. Your acceleration and speed are fine, so let’s work on control. There are seven different techniques to initiate and sustain a turn, so I’ll go through them and the best situation to use each.” She twisted a wing in a manner I hadn’t seen before. “First is wing warp, which can be done clockwise or counterclockwise. Careful not to combine this with the other techniques until you’re really confident. For example…” She then rattled off a string of technical details involving angle of attack, feather spread, wingbeats per second, dwell, and several more that I failed to recognize. “You got all that?” she finished off.

I shook my head. “You kinda lost me there.”

“Oh, come on! This is basic stuff! Now spread your primaries as I showed you and take off!”

I gulped and followed her orders.

Let the record state that I did successfully execute a turn. I didn’t hit any trees this time. I kind of wish I had; they would have slowed me down and the impact with the wall on the opposite side of the barn would have been so much less painful.

Applejack came over once more, shaking her head in disbelief. “Have ya heard the sayin’ – can’t hit the broad side of a barn?”

“Yeah,” I replied dazedly.

“Try it some time.”

“Wise words, Apple Smack.”

She chuckled and left me to the tender mercies of Rainbow Dash who started berating me for not listening to her instructions properly.

I interrupted her. “This time, can we have the Flight For Dummies course instead of doctorate-level Avionics 605? I really don’t think I need to know about advanced wing-overs and stall theory for maximum maneuverability as yet.”

“But this is the easy stuff!” she objected.

“For you, maybe. I just want to stop meeting unmovable objects on a regular basis.”

“I’m going to get you flying properly or my name’s not Rainbow Dash! Now get up and let’s go over this again.”

This time I did not hit the barn wall. Instead, I flew through the open doors and wreaked havoc with the contents before coming to an inevitable halt in a pile of farm implements.

It came as no big surprise to me that the orange mare was there moments later. I got the first words in though. “Look – I missed the broad side of the barn!” I proclaimed proudly.

She snickered before she said, “It may have been pref’rable. You gonna pay for the damages?”

“Add it to the bill,” I said with a pained groan.

“Shur ’nuff,” she replied as she started to help extricate me from the pile of tools and barrels of feed.

“Are you trying to make me look like a fool?” demanded Rainbow who had arrived just behind Applejack.

“Now listen here, Dash,” Applejack said sternly, “Yer not teachin’ him right. Mark’s like a foal who dunno how ta fly yet. Ya gotta start with the basics.”

“But I did start with the basics! You can’t get to be a Wonderbolt recruit without knowing those! Even Pound Cake can fly better than him!”

“The Cake’s colt is an exception and ya know it. What Mark needs is someone who knows how ta take it slow ’n easy fer starters.”

“Sounds like you’re talking about Fluttershy.”

“Bingo! Now, why dontcha take Mark over to her cottage while Ah clean up this here mess. I dun think the farm can take much more of yer flyin’ lessons.”

Grumbling loudly, the pegasus mare helped to get me untangled from the wreckage and supported me as I tried to get back onto my hooves once more. “Come on, Crash Wells. Let’s see if Flutters has some idea how to deal with a klutz like you.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I replied as I stumbled down the path. I had intended to pay her a visit too, so all I had to do is survive Rainbow’s help until I got there.



Fluttershy’s cottage was adorable! It looked almost as if it had grown there rather than being built. It certainly had a roof of living vegetation. And the lack of any square angles gave it a more organic look. The front door had a top half and bottom half, reminding me of the doors of some stables back on Earth. I had never actually seen them in person before, but it definitely suited the rest of the edifice.

Rainbow hovered near the top half and rapped on it, calling, “Hey, Flutters! You home?”

After a short wait, the upper door partially opened. “Yes, Dash?” she asked quietly. Then she spotted me and she flung both halves of the door open fully. “Oh dear! What happened to you, Mark?”

“A little flying accident,” Rainbow replied. “Applejack doesn’t think Mark’s ready for my lessons yet, though he’d go from zero to awesome if he could just pick them up. Anyway, do you want to try teaching him?”

“Come in. I’ll get my first aid kit. Please make yourself comfortable on the couch. That is, if you don’t mind?”

I didn’t mind, but a certain white rabbit seemed disinclined to make room. “Your pet bunny won’t move,” I called out, only to look back and see him frown and narrow his brows. He did jump down from the couch, though. Before I could move, a sharp pain shot through my right foreleg. The rabbit was standing in front of me with his front paws on his hips, glaring at me evilly. The little bugger had kicked me! Hard! But he was off the couch and I sprawled on it before he decided to get back on.

Fluttershy returned then, carrying a white box by its handle in her mouth. I wondered how sanitary that was for something like a first aid kit, but this was pony-land, so what did I know?

“Angel Bunny is a little possessive sometimes,” the yellow pegasus said after she put down the first aid kit. “He can be a bit moody when he gets all comfortable on the couch. Oh, and Angel Bunny isn’t a pet. He’s my friend. All the animals here are my friends.”

“No kidding,” I replied, giving the devil-rabbit the evil eye.

Fluttershy washed off the blood and bandaged my scrapes while Rainbow Dash made her escape. Then she left to make us some tea while I rested up. I laid back on the couch and closed my eyes to rest a bit now that my injuries had been dealt with. As previously, they were already healing, a testimony to the truly magical recuperation powers of pegasi. I’d have been more grateful for that if it wasn’t for the fact that I would not have gotten those injuries in the first place if I had become a unicorn instead. Then again, I probably would have managed to stab myself with my horn in some improbable manner if I had.

“My, you have been creating some delicious chaos lately,” a cultured voice said from right above me.

I opened my eyes and freaked out. “What the hell are you?!” I squeaked as I tried to back away from the serpentine mismatch of animal parts that loomed over me, grinning in a not entirely pleasant manner.

“Now, now! No need for rudeness. I’m a friend of Fluttershy’s. I couldn’t help but notice the shenanigans that you’ve been getting up to since your arrival, and when you turned up here – well, can you blame me for wanting to get a closer look at the unintentional padawan of my favorite pastime?”

“What do you mean?” I asked suspiciously.

“Why, your propensity for causing chaos, of course? You even have a cutie mark for it. I’m almost envious!”

“Oh, Discord! I didn’t know you were here,” Fluttershy said from the doorway.

The name jogged my memory. Twilight’s presentation described him as a ‘semi-reformed pain in the flank’ who was defeated by the Royal Sisters ages ago and then a second time by the Elements of Harmony.

She smiled up at the creature currently sitting on her ceiling. “Would you like some tea too? I’m making some for Mark Wells already.”

“I would love a cup, Fluttershy, dear.” He gave the pegasus a genuine smile.

“I’ll bring everypony some scones too,” the mare said as she turned back to the kitchen.

“You know Fluttershy?” I asked incredulously.

“For a lot longer than you, human.”

I gaped. “How did you know what I am?”

“I forgive you for not knowing, but I am a god.”

“I don’t believe in gods,” I replied, although with a lack of conviction. “Wait! Do you know how to get me home again?”

The creature looked thoughtful. “Maybe, but why would I want that? Your presence in Equestria has made things much more fun. You’ve given me so many chuckles since you arrived. I had hoped for much more pandemonium when that stage magician got the message meant for Twilight Sparkle, but I’m pleased to say you are picking up the slack admirably.”

“How did you know about… no, don’t tell me – you’re a god, right?”

Discord grinned broadly. “Now you’re catching on. I like the bright ones – they’re always more fun.”

“Not sure if I like that. You wouldn’t have anything to do with me being here in Equestria, would you?”

“Moi? Arrange an accident with a magic portal? Don’t credit me for your natural klutziness.”

“I don’t hear you denying it.”

He merely laughed. Just then, Fluttershy came back wheeling a trolley with a teapot, three cups and saucers, and a tray of scones on it.

“I just made a fresh batch this morning. Help yourselves, boys. Do you need any help, Mark? I could feed you one if you like?”

“Umm, no. I’m fine, thanks.”

“Oh. Alright. How do you like your tea?”

With my conversation put on hold while Fluttershy was there, I had to choke back my desire to strangle the strange being until he came up with some straight answers. Meanwhile, I watched and listened to his antics. He apparently really liked tea as evidenced by biting the cup and saucer in half, chewing thoughtfully, and then swallowing it with a sigh of satisfaction. That the rest of the tea stayed in its half of the remaining cup was quite fascinating, as was the fact that we were apparently drinking and eating while on the roof. How we got that way, I had failed to even notice. Fluttershy took it all in stride, and I decided that I wasn’t going to give Discord the satisfaction of seeing me react to his antics either.

Fluttershy concluded what she was talking about. “… so Applejack felt that I would be a better teacher for Mark.”

“Sadly, I must concur,” Discord replied. “I suppose I can’t complain too much. After all, that mare managed to get him to crash three times versus the one-a-day events so far.”

“I will master flight if it’s the last thing I do if only to spite you, Discord.”

“Now, boys, let’s not be nasty. Mark, I’m sure Discord didn’t mean anything by it, did you?” She looked pointedly at him.

Remarkably, he did seem to capitulate. “Not at all, Fluttershy. I’m merely an interested observer.”

I set down my cup and turned to the self-styled Lord of Chaos. As entertaining as the repartee was, my first responsibility was to my job. “So with the possibility of re-hashing already well-plowed ground…”

Discord’s eyes rolled disturbingly around in his sockets. The expression of speech was not supposed to mean tighter and tighter spirals. “Not even ten minutes… here it comes…”

“…as I was saying, do you know anything about where Celestia and Luna have gone and how we can get them back?”

Discord waved his half-a-teacup absently. The liquid inside sloshed but refused to spill. “Why do you think I am no longer collecting bird droppings?” At my confused look, he continued. “I was petrified when Sun-butt and Moon-butt left, and with my far reduced perceptions at the time, I have no clue where they went.”

He then took the time to unchew a scone and delicately set it on my plate. I decided to just leave it there, thank you very much. He pointedly looked at it and I shook my head.

“Actually, I am referring to time magic. After I promised that I would help, the Elements freed me. Unfortunately, my results were the same as Twilight’s. Any attempt to go back in time through pony magic or chaos magic results in a split in the time stream as soon as either of us gets close to the event.”

I frowned skeptically. “So you promised…?”

He smiled with a twinkle in his eye, which he then proceeded to pluck out and eat… first the twinkle, then his eye. “I understand your suspicions, but even the Lord of Chaos will not go against his word, especially to a dear friend.” He grinned at Fluttershy and brought his cup close to the mare. She smiled proudly and clicked it with hers.

“Besides, your Loud and Overbearing ruler already asked me the same thing. She was quite respectful and polite about it, which I didn’t expect. Something of a different pony in private, I suppose.”

I snorted. “I beg to differ. Trixie is just as likely to laugh in your face no matter who is around.”

His grin stretched most of the way across his face. “That’s just because you’re so amusing! Really, Marcus, you should take responsibility for the disasters you cause.” He winked. “I do.”

I flicked an ear at my childhood name. Had he just guessed it? More importantly, was he implying I was in Equestria because of him? How had he known I had tripped into the mirror portal? Or was that another guess? Somehow, I didn’t think any further attempts to get straight answers would be worthwhile, so I turned back to the reason why I was here in the first place – besides to be patched up, of course.

“So, Fluttershy – is Applejack right? Can you teach me how to fly properly?”

“Oh, umm… maybe? I mean, Rainbow Dash is such a great flyer, and if she can’t teach you, I’m not sure that I can.”

I sighed in exasperation. “Yeah, she’s a great flyer, but she’s a lousy instructor. I set a new record for crashes today. Anything has got to be better than that!”

“I suppose you’re right. I mean, if you really want, I could try to teach you.”

“I have confidence in you, Fluttershy.” Not much confidence, but anypony had to be better than Dash.

“Let’s glide down to the meadow behind the house so we don’t disturb any of my animal friends. Discord, would you be a dear and put everything back in my kitchen?”

Discord leaned forward with wide eyes. “Everything?!

The mare smiled and gave him a mock glare, clearly much more amused than angry.

“Oh, alright, I know what you meant.” With that, Discord and the tea set disappeared – also my saddlebags, I noticed. I hoped I’d get them back, though they would probably have one of those jumping snake gags inside the next time I opened them.

Fluttershy broke me from my thoughts. “Can you glide down to the ground safely?”

She definitely earned her title as the Element of Kindness. “Well, I am sure I can survive it, but I tend to get going too fast.” At least I had some experience in doing that much.

“Please hold out your wings in your gliding position for me.” She spread out her wings to illustrate the position she wanted. I did my best to comply.

She looked my wings over and gave a nod. “Now, don’t worry about speed. I’ll have my front hooves on your back and I will make sure you stay at the same rate. And don’t use your flight magic at all. Just concentrate on keeping your wings in exactly that shape.”

She hovered off of the roof and positioned herself directly above me as I reached the edge of her roof. I felt her forehooves grip against my back at the base of my wings.

“Whenever you are ready, Mark. I’ve got you.”

Knowing that I was in the caring hooves of a mare that had doubtless helped many an injured bird re-learn how to fly made me feel immensely better. I pushed off and, like she said, worked on just keeping my wings locked in place. When I felt her hooves pull back on me slightly, I rotated them a touch to slow down. By the time we landed, her hooves no longer had to hold me from moving forward too quickly.

Fluttershy smiled as she hovered in front of me. “There! That wasn’t so scary, now was it?”

I couldn’t help but smile back.

I took the opportunity to look around. There were pens and a chicken coop but plenty of space in between for me to train. She led me to the middle of the lawn and Fluttershy held out her wings.

“Let me see how you place your wings for take-off.”

I spread my wings in what I hoped was the right way given what Steady had shown me.

“Hmmm… A bit too aggressive. Let me help you get it right… if you don’t mind? Touching your wings, that is?”

Was Fluttershy blushing? I never gained the impression from others that touching the wings was that intimate. I shrugged. “Go right ahead.”

The mare used her hooves to reposition my wings and feather-spread.

“There! Now I want you to start a hover. Gently beat your wings in that position, but don’t try to draw on your magic yet.”

I did as instructed, feeling like an overgrown fan, but at least I wasn’t hurtling off somewhere.

“Are you feeling any lift?”

“Not yet. It’s like when I had my first lesson with Steady Flight before I learned how to draw on my flight magic.”

“That’s fine. I just want you to get used to that wing-stroke for a stable hover.”

After another minute or so, I said, “I think I’ve got it. Now what?”

“Now we introduce some magic. Just a little! Believe me, I’m not a strong flier, but I can maintain a hover or slow drift for a long time on just a small amount of magic.”

“Okay, here goes.” I found my well of flight magic and drew upon it cautiously. I suddenly shot vertically into the air, leaving the ground behind at a dizzying rate.

“I said just a little…” Fluttershy’s voice faded into the distance.

For some reason, I couldn’t seem to shut off the flow of magic. I just kept going up and up. The air grew colder as I powered upward like an elevator to the stratosphere, and still I climbed higher. Then I started gasping for breath as the air grew thin. My vision began to go dark, and the last thing that I saw was the far distant landscape below much like I had last seen from the comfort of an Airbus A380. I could also see the blackness of space above me and the slight curvature of the planet from my altitude.

Where’s the call button on this crazy ride…?’ was my last thought before I blacked out.

 


 

Chapter 11: For What Ails Thee

 

I woke up and gasped, my heart thumping wildly. My vision was blurred, but the last that I recalled was my terrifying ascent. I flared my wings in panic, only to hit something solid, making me flip and fall for a brief moment before I came to an abrupt halt. My nose, of course, bore the brunt.

“I advise that you calm before you do more harm.”

The voice was female with what I would call some kind of African accent – if that continent even existed on this world. I blinked rapidly to try to clear my vision as I turned my head and looked up at a figure looming over me. Gradually the view came into focus and I beheld an equine form with a Mohawk-style mane with grey and white stripes, gold earrings and necklets. She was looking at me with mild concern. She should be more worried – zebras don’t belong in the stratosphere! It took a long moment before my befuddled mind realized that I was lying on a wooden floor and not a cirrus cloud. I decided to ask some cogent questions.

“Wha—?” I croaked.

She lifted me with her front hooves and placed me on the cushioned surface nearby which I suppose I fell off. “Your body went too long without air. Now we must take extra care of what's in there.” She poked me with a hoof.

Now that she had brought it to my attention, my lungs felt as if I was breathing sand. They ached mightily, which is not too surprising as I think I had reached some rarified heights. This had to be a new achievement for me – I had endured many pratfalls in my life, but this was the first time that I had fallen up! So, how did I get here? And where was here?

I looked about me and noted the décor. Masks, bottles, jugs, and canisters adorned the walls and shelves inlaid into what appeared to be another tree-house, albeit a smaller one than Twilight’s library tree. A bubbling cauldron sat in the middle of the room and a strange smell permeated the air. As I watched, the zebra used a ladle to scoop some of the contents of the cauldron into a cup and brought it over to me.

“Five sips of this brew will help you heal true,” she said, holding out the cup to me.

I eyed it suspiciously, suddenly realizing that I seemed to be in a witch-doctor’s hut. “What’s that? And what’s with all the rhyming?” I rasped.

“A herbal potion made just for Mark Wells, and my way of speaking is one of my tells.”

“You know who I am? How?”

“Because I told her, dufus!” came a much more familiar voice.

I looked over to see Rainbow Dash standing in the doorway, scowling at me. She then turned to face outside and yelled, “Hey, girls! Sleeping Beauty is awake now!” The mare then went back to glaring daggers at me.

“Dash! What happened? How did I get here?”

The colorful mare trotted over and said, “First, take your medicine. Zecora’s cool.”

The zebra held out the cup once more. If Rainbow thought it was safe, I’d look stupid refusing it now. I took the cup and sipped the elixir. As expected, it tasted worse than my older brother’s socks (Don’t ask me how I know that!) Quickly, I sipped it four more times as directed. My sore and scratchy throat was immediately soothed, and the ache in my lungs dulled. I passed the cup back and said, “Thanks.”

“That should cure the painful wheeze. With my potions, I aim to please.”

“So why does every potion in Equestria taste so awful, anyway?”

“It is not a matter of style, why potions taste so vile. It is an incentive perhaps, not to do the same again and relapse. Now I insist you rest for a day. Only then will my concerns allay.”

I couldn’t fault that logic. With a sigh, I laid back down again. My memory was scattered and I tried to put the pieces together. “Remind me, Dash. Did our last flying lesson go super bad for me?”

She shook her head and furrowed her brow. “Nothing like that. Don’t you remember?”

I sighed. “Oh, you gave me mouth-to-mouth again and made me pass out.”

I heard her stammer. “No! I… I mean… well, I did give you mouth-to-mouth but only on the way here to get help.”

“Why don’t you just admit that your kisses are a danger to all stallions, darling… they are just too fragile.”

I turned to see Rarity trotting into the room and smiled. “Hey, Rares.”

“Hey yourself, Mark. Is that meanie Rainbow Dash threatening to kiss you into submission again?”

“You know that’s not how it happened, Rarity! I saved his sorry flank with my quick thinking and quicker flying!”

Applejack followed Rarity into the room. “And yer high-energy smooches, Ah reckon.”

Rainbow waved her forelegs for emphasis. “He wasn’t breathing! We were still at 50,000 feet! Of course I had to use desperate measures to try to get him to breathe again!”

Rarity smirked. “Oh, I’m quite certain you were desperate, darling. It’s a surprise you can think of anything except those lips of his.”

Rainbow stood with her mouth open in indignation, no words coming out.

Rarity glanced at Applejack long enough for a shared look and they burst out laughing. A few moments later Applejack spoke up. “Ah’m sorry, Rainbow. It was just too good an opportunity to razz ya a bit. Truth is, ya saved Mark and we’re very glad for yer heroics.”

Rarity nodded and pulled the pegasus into a hug. “Do forgive us, dear. We were just having a bit of fun at your expense.” She pulled back and looked Rainbow in the eyes. “Just think of it as repayment for the prank you pulled – the incident with the spaghetti.”

The blue pegasus lowered her wings as her agitation eased. “Yeah, that one may have gotten out of hoof, even for me. I suppose I might have deserved some payback.”

“Welcome back!” Pink suddenly filled my world. That could only mean one thing.

“Hi, Pinkie.”

She stopped hugging me and my face was released from the poofiness of her mane. She straddled me on what had to be the zebra’s… Zecora’s?... bed and gave me her trademark huge smile. Curiously, she wasn’t as heavy as I had expected. “Didja have any cool dreams while you were away? I bet you had the one where a 200-foot ice cream monster is attacking you and all you have is a plastic spork!”

Applejack said, “Pinkie, get off the patient. That’s not helpin’ him heal up none.”

I blinked and everything was dark. I used a hoof to lift what looked like a cowboy hat off of my face, only to see Pinkie riding on the back of a very unamused Applejack, her head where the orange mare’s hat used to be. Not wanting to get any further on the Element of Honesty’s bad side, I held it out to her. “So what happened, exactly? My recollection is somewhat spotty.”

Pinkie answered while Applejack took the offered Stetson in her teeth. “The Noodle Incident? We don’t talk about it.”

“No, I mean what happened to me? I really don’t know how I ended up here.”

Rainbow moved closer. “Do you remember being at Fluttershy’s?”

I frowned, thinking back. Everypony gave me time to collect my thoughts. I started to trace a path through my memories. Arriving, evil bunnies, Discord, on the roof, hovering practice, then the curvature of the planet. Oh.

I looked up. “Yeah, I remember now. My flight magic got stuck on full blast and I couldn’t stop climbing. I don’t know why or how. I blacked out when I got too high. After that – nothing until I woke up here. Where’s here, by the way?”

“Zecora’s home,” Rainbow explained, waving to the mare who smiled back at me while she ground some reagent in a mortar and pestle. “We were over the Everfree Forest by the time I got you down to a safe altitude, and she was the closest medical help.”

“The Everfree? Isn’t that the place that I was warned to stay away from?”

“Yeah, but me and the girls know the safe route here.”

“So, how did you find out I was in trouble?”

“I was working nearby and heard Flutters cry out, and if you ever can hear her from any distance, then you know there’s big trouble. I zoomed over, saw where she was pointing as you were taking off for the moon, and gave chase.”

Where is Fluttershy, by the way?”

Rarity answered. “She was called away by one of her songbird friends. Apparently, there was an emergency with a spider.”

“Oh. A poisonous bite, then?”

She shook her head. “No. Some creature stepped on the poor thing.”

While I tried to wrap my head around that thought, Pinkie apparently sensed my confusion and went in for the kill. “Rainbow Dash is just too shy to give you the good news! Discord was taking measurements. He even gave me her old, obsolete award to re-jigger. You’re the new champ!” She hoofed over a plaque with several words struck out and new words stamped next to them.

Highest Altitude – Unassisted Flight Category

Mark Wells Rainbow Dash

72,143 ft 60,534 ft

Awarded by the Greater Equus Aeronautics Council

Two Sisters Year 2, Day 38 212

I looked over at the pegasus and started to have a better understanding of her foul mood. I held the award out to her. “Rainbow, I can’t take this. It’s yours.”

She rolled her eyes and grumbled. “Not anymore.”

Pinkie bounced over to Rainbow and gave her a hug. “Aww, don’t be a Gloomy Gus! Discord only gave me the one trophy out of all the ones you have. And sharing is caring!”

Rainbow shook herself free of Pinkie’s embrace and stomped over to my bedside. “Yeah, so what’s the big idea? I try my best to teach you and what do you do? You go on break my second-most-favorite record!”

Rarity spoke up. “Actually, darling, it would be more accurate to say Mark demolished your record. Completely obliterated it by over ten thousand feet.” That earned her a glare over Dash’s shoulder. Rarity was nonplused and shrugged. “It’s best to be accurate, dear.”

“Second-most-favorite?” I asked.

Rainbow’s attention returned to me. “Yeah. I totally would be hating you if you broke my Unassisted Ground Speed in Level Flight record. No pony better touch that one.”

I nodded to preserve my safety, but then remembered something. “You said ‘Unassisted’? ”

This got Dash into a better mood. “Hoo boy! That was a great moment in Equestrian history. You see, there was this crazy Wonderbolt second-stringer named Good Doer D. She loved to tinker and told Celestia that she could make a device out of fireworks and liquid candle wax that would allow pegasi to travel anywhere across the country in just minutes flat. With the Princess’ blessing, she got to work. About a year later, she was ready for her maiden assisted flight.”

“How did it go?”

“Do you want the good news or the bad news?”

That was an easy one. The longer Dash wasn’t thinking about how angry she was at me, the better. “All the news.”

The pegasus grinned. “She was the first, and to date, only pony other than myself to achieve a sonic rainboom. And that was more than a mile before she got to the judge’s stand. She topped out at well over a thousand miles-per-hour. Eyewitness accounts said she was grinning like a maniac the whole time. The bad news is that the heat from her device burned her back legs horribly, and her parachute only partially functioned. She was busted up pretty bad and Celestia confiscated her device and banned further research into the technology. She had to drop out of the Wonderbolts but gained immortality and the undying respect of all flyers. Heck, every single active and retired Wonderbolt, some griffons and even a young dragon visited her in the hospital!”

I smirked. “And you’ve been trying to figure out a way to convince Celestia and now Trixie to let you get your hooves on that device.”

She started to nod, then caught herself. She narrowed her eyes, looking at me. “Tell you what. You get me that thing, and I’ll consider us square and fair, sounds good?”

“Sorry I’m late.” Everyone in the room turned to the new arrival. Twilight Sparkle looked like she hadn’t slept since the day before. Her mane and tail were a mess and there were bags of fatigue under her eyes. “Spike convinced me it was a matter of life or death.”

Applejack responded, “Well, Ah reckon that may have been the truth at the time, but Mark’s out of danger now. Zecora’s done a right dandy job of treating him.”

Twilight observed me lying on Zecora’s bed and hurried over. “So, tell me what led up to this, Mark,” she asked, concern furrowing her brow.

I smiled and glanced at Rainbow Dash. “Well first, Rainbow tried her hoof at teaching me how to fly. After I got tired of the physical abuse—”

“Hey!”

I grinned. “...Applejack suggested I ask Fluttershy to teach me to hover. When I tried to push just a small amount of my magic into my wings, it seemed to get stuck in the ‘full blast’ position—”

Pinkie offered, “You mean the “have-a-drink-from-a-firehose position!”

I nodded. “That actually describes better how it felt. I’ve never felt even a fraction of that much magic go into my wings before.”

Applejack smirked and walked up to Rainbow. “Golly, Dash. Remin' me never to ask Fluttershy to teach anyone how ta buck trees. She's such an awesome teacher that Ah'd jus' end up with an orchard fulla matchsticks.”

Rainbow growled. “Look, I get it. But I'd like to point out that I did a sonic rainboom to get up to Mark’s altitude over the Everfree, even if I did have to wait for him to fall down to my flight ceiling. And I did another to get him here to Zecora’s. I knew she had something for altitude sickness.” She looked at me. “So technically, you're the third pony to achieve a sonic rainboom.”

She leaned closer and I could see the concern in her eyes. “My advice? Find out what went wrong before you try to fly again. Seriously, the last pony to get to that height was Nightmare Moon on the way to her all-expense-paid vacation.”

“Thank you for saving me, Dash,” I said with all sincerity. “You are truly awesome.” That seemed to perk her mood up a bit.

I then turned to Twilight with a grin. “Wow. The third to experience a sonic rainboom! Such a momentous achievement in my life and I can't remember one bit of it. I wonder what that's like?”

She smiled. “Well, I think we can rule out brain damage—”

Dash had to get one in. “You mean that wasn't already there!”

Twilight chuckled. “...which is the most troubling side effect of hypoxia, but I still want to do some scans.”

I nodded. “Go right ahead.”

Twilight’s horn lit up. Rather than the usual glow surrounding the target (me) such as with levitation, this time her magic drew a series of arcane scripts in a circular pattern. It then passed around me in a manner reminding me of a CAT scan. The mauve unicorn hummed thoughtfully.

“What’s the news, doc?” I asked.

“Oh. If you weren’t a pegasus, I would say that you should have died, but between your constitution and Zecora’s medication, I don’t think there’s any permanent damage. I’ll have to do some more detailed tests when we get back to my laboratory.”

I gulped. The laboratory that Spike had recommended that I avoid. Hooboy! “Any idea why this happened?”

Twilight shrugged. “Insufficient data for a firm conclusion yet, but my first hypothesis is that you simply panicked. Do you know of the ‘fight or flight’ response?” I nodded. “Well, I have a hunch that you were unnerved when you accelerated upwards much faster than you expected, and you went into the ‘flight’ option, and the further you went up, the harder you got locked into it. You just kept going until you lost consciousness due to hypoxia and the flight magic turned off.”

“But what turned me into a huma… equine rocket?” I asked skeptically.

“We’ll know more after I do my tests,” she replied. Then her smile grew a little too wide. Her twitching eyelid also did little to inspire confidence. “And now I have a great reason to run a series of experiments on you!”

Suddenly, Zecora’s potions didn’t seem so bad. What had I gotten myself into now?



While walking back along the path out of Everfree Forest, I realized how hungry I was. While not as bad as the Sobering Up potion, I had certainly run down my reserves. Since I was at the back of the pack of chatting mares, I looked around for something to snack on. Why not try this small blue flower? It looked just as good as the other flowers that I had been served lately. Sure enough, it tasted great but kind of felt like Pop Rocks once it got to my stomach. I belched loudly.

Applejack looked back over her shoulder. “Ya OK, there pardner?”

I trotted to catch up with a smile. “Yep, fine! Couldn't be better.” Maybe I could ask Spike to whip up a salad when we got to the library.



While the rest of the Elements waited for Fluttershy and visited upstairs, Twilight led me down into the depths of the Basement of Terror. When I asked Spike for a snack, he didn’t respond. He just gave me a very sad look as I headed to my science-y fate. That did not bode well.

Coming to the bottom of the Forbidden Kingdom, it was both exactly what I expected and not-so-much. Like upstairs, hollows in the walls of the room held books, although here the walls were made of dirt and roots. There were science instruments aplenty, most likely powered and operated through magic since there were no power cords anywhere. One somewhat blackened area of the lab held a solid stone lab table complete with flasks containing different liquids. One green bubbling solution in particular was heated by a guttering flame. The sign next to it said in bold letters: “DANGER! DO NOT ALLOW LIQUID TO STOP BOILING!” While I tried to point this out to Twilight, she assured me that everything was fine because she was the one doing the science here. Well, okay then.

“Yeah, you've definitely got the whole 'Mad Scientist's Lab' vibe going on, Twilight. All you need are some mutant animals in cages and a Jacob’s Ladder arcing electricity across its wires and it will be complete.”

The mare's head was down over one of her instruments. “Yep. That's what it’s for, alright.” Hadn't heard me at all.

“Twilight, can we take a break first and get some food? I’m super hungry right now.”

She finally looked up. I had to admit that in her padded lab coat and goggles, she looked absolutely adorkable. Wait. Was she wearing protective gear because she thought I might blow up?

“The sooner we discover the cause of your power surge the better, Mark. I have some theories, but until we know more, there’s the potential for it to happen again. That’s why I asked Rainbow Dash to stay around until we at least have a way to keep you from losing control again.”

I sighed. Hopefully Spike heard what I said earlier and would come down with something soon. “OK, fine. What’s first?”

She beamed. “Science is first! It’s always first!”

Wonderful. I just gave this universe’s biggest nerd the green light to experiment on me.

The purple unicorn turned her head and levitated something out from behind one of the cabinets of equipment. I stood in shock at the sight of what was undoubtedly a hypodermic needle, but it was literally longer than I was!

“Whoa! Whoa! Ease off on the science, lady! I’m not a whale you can drain ten gallons from for a blood test!”

She tittered unnervingly. “Oh, Mark. It only has a five gallon capacity, and, you know – Science!”

I surprised myself by raising my forehooves while backing away balanced on my rear hooves. “Now, now, Twilight! I don’t—YEOWCH!” I felt a sharp sting behind me. I turned to see a much smaller, full hypodermic needle float away from my hindquarters.

“See now? Wasn’t that not so bad?” She levitated the prop back to its original spot while the real McCoy floated over to what was certainly a microscope. “Pinkie Pie gave me that one as a gag gift for Hearthswarming, and it does a great job distracting the test subject.”

I rubbed the sore spot and glowered at her. “I would have given you a sample willingly. Your bedside manner needs a little work, Doctor Sparkle.”

I doubt she heard me. She was very carefully putting a few drops of my blood into a small pipette which she then put under the microscope. A purple field enveloped the sample and a bright lamp lit on the base directly under the pipette. Twilight levitated over a scroll and quill, then began dictating to herself as she stared into the twin eyepieces. “Test Subject: Mark Wells. Blood sample: A. Volume: 0.2 milliliters. Magic Potential Plateau test, trial one. Magic current applied: one micro-thaum per second.”

I moved a bit closer, curious despite myself.

For about two minutes, there was a slowly increasing red glow from the vial. All the while, Twilight frowned. “That just can’t be right. At mark, changing current applied: ten micro-thaums per second… and time mark.”

The glow increased faster. I decided backing up would be the prudent course of action.

After several seconds, she stated, “One hundred micro-thaums per second… and time mark.” Followed soon by, “One milli-thaum per second… time mark.”

The glow from the sample was getting hard to look at. I could only see Twilight by her silhouette.

“Thirty milli-thaums per second… time mark.”

The sample began to rattle audibly. I was getting very concerned. “Twilight, get out of there!”

“One thaum per second…”

I looked around for something sturdy to dive behind. I first saw the stone table but remembered the flask and warning notice on top. I settled for the niche where the giant hypodermic needle was hidden.

“…time mark.”

There was a large explosion followed by the sound of tinkling glass and various debris landing around the room. When the noise settled down, I peeked out. Twilight’s mane was swept back and one lock was on fire. Her lab coat was much worse for wear but her goggles were intact. For that matter, the microscope looked untouched as well. Sturdy stuff! While I watched, Twilight muttered, “Hmmm,” then looked up from the eyepieces to jot more notes down. The parchment was intact, but only the nub of her quill remained.

I stumbled out from my makeshift bomb shelter and came up to her. “Twilight, are you alright?”

She held up a hoof to stop me while she wrote down what was apparently a very important observation. I took the time to lick the sole of a forehoof and used it to put out the bit of her mane that was still smoldering. She looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

“Your mane was on fire.”

She nodded like that was entirely expected and recorded the observation.

“Is everypony alright down there?” I heard Rarity call down the stairs.

“Just doing science on Mark!” yelled back Twilight. “I kind of caught fire for a bit but that was within expected outcome parameters!”

There was silence for a time. Finally, I heard Rarity call back. “You can call it what you like, Darling, but please don’t break the poor stallion.” I then heard the door close again.

This too was jotted down on Twilight’s scroll with a nod from the purple unicorn.

With a sigh, Twilight turned to me, using a hoof to raise her goggles onto her forehead. The raccoon mask created by the soot of the explosion made it hard to take her seriously.

“Do your experiments always end in explosions, Twilight?”

She tossed her head and smiled. “Only on good days. That’s how I know I’m on the right track!”

A slight crinkling sound made me turn my head. The flame that had been sporadically heating the green liquid had been blown out and the flask above it was riddled with cracks. The glass container suddenly failed, expelling the liquid onto the stone table’s surface which it quickly ate through with a release of a bright yellow gas.

“Yellow this time…”

I turned to see Twilight scribbling on a second parchment that appeared out of somewhere. “I was expecting baby blue…” She looked up with a sheepish grin. “Sorry! Multitasking!”

I shook my head. I felt a great deal of sympathy for Spike who must have been roped into the job of lab assistant for years. No wonder he had looked at me with so much pity when I started downstairs. “So the results of your… Something Potential Something test?”

She brightened. “Ah, yes! The Magic Potential Plateau test. I’m afraid you are defective, Mark.”

I blinked. “Excuse me?”

She nodded and walked over to a chalkboard. It pivoted around pins inserted on the middle of both sides, so she rotated to a clean piece of slate. Twilight drew some very crude red circles that I recognized as blood cells.

She continued. “Magical energy is stored in the cells of a pony’s body. For each pony type, the source is different.” The mare then added arrows in white chalk pointed into the cells. “For earth ponies, they get their energy from the ground. For unicorns, from nearby ley lines. For pegasi, from the magical energy carried in the air. Alicorns, obviously, have access to all three.”

Twilight now drew arrows in blue chalk going away from the cells. “Now normally, a pony doesn’t need to store much energy in their cells. The process of drawing magic pulls in replacement energy from the surroundings, and any excess charge from the constant energy draw just leaks out naturally.”

She turned to me and away from the chalkboard. “Now there are two obvious maladies that can happen. First, if the cells don’t have any magic in them or are completely drained of it, they won’t refill. Speculation is that the act of releasing a tiny trickle of magic opens pores that allow the larger ambient background flow to slowly replenish the cells. No magic out, no magic in.”

“The next is your condition.” She erased the blue lines. “On rare occasions, a pony’s cells have trouble releasing energy smoothly, resulting in bursts of extremely strong magic use. Unfortunately, you have the severest form of this. I’m afraid when your body was created, your cells were made without the ability to radiate out excess magic naturally. You can only release the tiny trickle needed to constantly receive a background charge.”

I sat on my rump. I started to see where this was going.

Twilight continued. “When you accessed your flight magic, the amount you had stored was beyond anything any pony has experienced before. When you opened your cells to release magic, your natural regulatory mechanisms were overwhelmed. Your cells spent all of their excess energy propelling you until that reserve was gone. You still have magic left in your cells, but we need to give you an artificial way to help you regulate it.”

She held out a forehoof, her horn glowed, and a boot of some sort appeared. It was tall enough to completely enclose a pony’s foot up to the pastern. “Your condition isn’t common, but like I said, your cells take it to a new level. This hoofshoe will ground out any excess energy your body stores. This one is sized and calibrated for an adult pegasus stallion. You need to wear it at least once per day, even if for just a few minutes.”

She floated it over to me and I tried the boot on a rear hoof. It was adjustable and soon I had the thing fitted well enough. I experienced what felt like a mild electric shock when it touched the ground the first time, but not the second.

Twilight nodded. “That was a discharge you felt. It might be a day or so before you build up enough charge to feel that again.”

I looked down at the floor and considered. “This is a lot to take in. Is there anything else I should know?”

“There are a couple of things. Your cells can store an incredible amount of energy before failing…”

I gulped. “You mean before I explode.”

She nodded. “Yes, exactly that. So it is important to use that shoe regularly.”

That wouldn’t be a problem to remember. I nodded as I took off the boot.

“I’m guessing that is another adaptation or misconstruction from your passage into this world and into your pony form.” She looked at my cutie mark. “Also, you probably want to avoid being repeatedly hit by some types of lightning. I don’t know if that is related to your cutie mark or not, but some storm clouds, such as those coming out of the Everfree Forest, have a large magical component. Those could potentially charge up your cells very quickly. Any other questions for now?”

I shook my head. ”That’s it for that topic. Thank you for helping me, Twilight.”

The purple mare smiled and her horn glowed. The soot fell off her body and her lab coat mended itself. Her mane and tail were still crazy, though. “No problem, Mark. Anything for Friendship!”

I smiled back. “Oh! I actually do have a question .”

Twilight smiled with welcoming eyes.

“Do I have the cells of an alicorn?”

Her smile fell and she chewed her lip for a moment. “I’ll have to say ‘no’ and ‘probably not.’ Why do you ask?”

“Well, since I seem to have this ridiculously large reserve of power, I thought there may be a possibility.”

“I see. I said ‘No’ because your cells only react to pegasus magic. I did a quick test with unicorn and earth pony magic while calibrating your sample. ‘Probably not’ because I don’t know how much magic an alicorn’s cells can contain before they fail. It’s not a well-known fact, but medical information about alicorns is protected at the same level as the most sensitive secrets in Equestria. Extreme measures are taken to ensure no enemy of the state could use that information to endanger their safety. The next time Princess Cadance visits, with your permission, I’ll show her your test results and ask for her opinion, but that’s the best I can do.”

I nodded. That all made sense, even if it probably wouldn’t amount to anything in the long run.

She clapped her hooves. “OK! I know you’re hungry, but I want to do one more test to ensure you are safe to move around upstairs. Got it in you for just one more?”

I sighed. “Just point me where you want me to be.”

In short order, I was standing in an open section in the middle of the room, a silver helmet on my head. The helmet had a random assortment of gems and gadgets hot glued on. A green wire led from it to a console with a printout that Twilight was studying while she pranced in place. A red and a blue wire came out of the console to another piece of equipment upon which my forelegs had been loosely restrained by metal bands. I could swear Twilight was happily singing the word ‘Science’ over and over again.

I glared at her from beneath my chrome dome. “Twilight, this is not a device for measuring magic, it is a colander for straining pasta. Please don’t run placebo trials on me.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” she replied, then went back to her private, happy song.

She stepped back, put her goggles on, and a familiar purple glow surrounded me, twice.

"Mark, I have a magic inhibiting shield up now over you, and a shield spell if anything goes wrong. I want you to try to push a little magic into your wings. Don't worry, it's completely safe."

Safe for her or safe for me? Regardless, I spread my wings cautiously and did as she asked. I felt my stomach gurgle again and heard a loud ‘PING!’ and suddenly Twilight looked shorter. I belched.

She gasped and stared at me with wide eyes. “What did I do!? I know I should never have changed the poles from plus to minus and from minus to plus! I must have reversed the polarity!”

I frowned, slid my forelegs out of the restraints, took the colander off my head, and looked at it in my hooves – that seemed daintier and were attached to very white forelegs. As I ruffled my wings, I noticed something new – a spiraling horn poking up from my forehead. With a much higher-pitched voice, I said, “Maybe there is something to this whole placebo thing after all.”

 


 

Chapter 12: Royal Command Performance

 

I held out a foreleg and poked the sole of my hoof with the tip of my new horn. Yep, it was sharp alright. Wait – did I just permanently lose the body I was just getting used to? I looked at Twilight to ask her a question but she was preoccupied with talking to herself and trying to read several scrolls and books at the same time. I’d have to get through her wall of paper and ink before I could get her attention. I started to walk on my hind legs towards her, only to realize that I was still holding her repurposed pasta strainer. I leaned back to the console it belonged on, lifting one leg in the air to keep my balance. Smoothly, I set the thing down and returned to standing upright. That’s when it hit me.

“Whoa.”

Twilight spared me a glance. “It’s alright, Mark! I’m sure I can fix this if I can just figure out what I did wrong.”

“It’s not that. Did you just see what I did? My balance is as good as when I was a human.”

Curious, I tried standing on one leg and doing a quick spin. I did three flawless revolutions before I chose to stop of my own accord. During the spins, I saw that I had a multi-colored pastel mane and tail trailing behind me. “Scratch that. I have even better balance and coordination than I’ve ever had, even as a human.” I looked up at her again. “Wait. Do I look like Celestia now? YEOWCH!”

Turning around, I saw another hypodermic needle float away towards the microscope, followed closely by a trotting purple unicorn. She said, “Superficially, yes. You sound and look like her, except for your cutie mark.”

I glanced back and saw she was right. My cutie mark was unchanged, although now it was on an alabaster white flank. I rubbed the spot she had taken the second sample from and glared at her. I wanted to berate her again but was afraid it would sound like I preferred the terrifying distraction more than the unexpected jab.

The mare put a few drops of my blood in a new pipette and stared at it through the microscope eyepieces for less than a minute. She then walked towards me, levitating her lab coat back to the microscope. “Your cells are exactly the same, so you are definitely not a real alicorn. You should still be opaque to unicorn and earth pony magic.” She waved my head down to her level. When I complied, she crossed her horn with mine. Her horn glowed. “Do you feel that?”

No, not really. “Ummm. What am I supposed to be feeling?”

She broke the connection and the lavender aura around her horn ceased. “That’s a definitive ‘no,’ then.” She looked me over, then sat down as she lifted her goggles onto her forehead. “Ok, Mark, think back. Do you remember anything unusual happening to you today?”

Apparently, Celestia’s deadpan stare was even easier to read than mine.

“I mean, strange for Ponyville.”

“I had the impression that what just happened to me is commonly known as ‘every other Tuesday’.”

The mare opened her mouth then closed it, settling for frowning at me. Hey, I’d like to be helpful but she’d have to be more specific.

“OK, hold still while I check something.”

Because she didn’t lower her goggles, I decided to comply. Twilight built up the same glowing rune circle as before. I sat down cross-legged and pulled my knees in to make it easier for her to scan me. Just as she was about to finish the circle, it flared and disappeared.

“Celestia doesn’t sit like that!”

“So?”

She fumed. “It’s distracting!”

“So is looking like an alicorn mare. Get on with it!”

With one last glare, Twilight turned around and started to build the circle again.

I smirked. I shouldn’t. I really, really shouldn’t. I uncoiled and licked Twilight’s ear.

“GAAAAH!” she shrieked and threw up a hoof to rub the spit out of her madly twitching ear. The runes collapsed in on themselves again and flickered out. After hopping about on three legs for a few moments, Twilight recovered enough to scowl at me. “Stop that! It’s not funny!”

“I beg to differ – you’re hilarious when you’re flustered. Besides…” I put on my most matronly voice, “…you wouldn’t dare do anything mean to your sweet, beloved teacher.” I batted my eyes with the most loving look I could muster.

She growled and lit her horn for a moment but then let it go out. Holy horseshoes and hand grenades, that actually worked!

“Besides, I’m starving. I haven’t had anything to eat since I snacked on that flower on the way back from Zecora’s. And that one gave me indigestion.”

Twilight’s mood changed to one of surprise. “Were you still in the Everfree? Was it a bright blue flower?”

“Yes and yes. Does it matter? I mean, it tasted good but—”

She waved a forehoof to silence me and her horn lit again. Crap—spoke too soon. I cringed. This time a wide beam of magic emanated from her horn and washed over me. When done, she nodded. “Yep. That’s it. Poison joke.”

I frowned. “I don’t get it.”

“The flower you ate. It’s called ‘poison joke.’ It has a different effect on every pony. At least for the Elements, it was something that was the exact opposite of their defining characteristics. Pinkie Pie couldn’t talk, I couldn’t cast magic, Rarity’s coat became long and tangled, Applejack became pint-sized with the equivalent strength, Fluttershy got a deep voice, and Rainbow Dash lost the ability to steer.”

I smirked. “Sounds hilarious.”

She furrowed her brow. “For Spike, it sure was. It wasn’t for all of us, though. Thus the two parts of the flower’s name.” She looked me up and down. “Now in your case… ummm…”

“I went from my origins with zero magic to the being with the most magic?”

Twilight brightened. “Yes! I bet that’s it. Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Maybe you’re a bit emotionally attached to the form I’m in right now,” I suggested.

The purple mare’s smile fell and she looked away. She started to clop her hooves together nervously.

“What is it, Twilight?”

She lowered her hooves and looked down at the floor, mumbling something.

I pricked my ears forwards and walked closer. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

She raised her head slightly but couldn’t look me in the eyes. The unicorn stopped herself and shook her head. “It’s stupid. Just forget it.” She started rocking from side to side.

I had a pretty good idea now what it was. I pulled Twilight into a hug and she didn’t resist. She leaned into me and started sniffling. I wrapped my neck around her, letting my mane cover her face. After a little while, my neck started to feel wet. She pulled back and looked at me with bloodshot eyes, but a smile. “T-Thanks, Mark.”

I was very glad to help. “Is there anything you would like to hear ‘Celestia’ say?”

Twilight wiped her tears away with a forehoof. “W-w-well…she would call me her faithful student.”

I looked down at her proudly (as I imagine the real Celestia had done). “Oh, Twilight, my brave and faithful student.”

She gasped, said “OooOooOooh…”, then threw her forelegs around my neck and started bawling her eyes out. After a few minutes, Twilight calmed down enough to say, “I miss you… I miss you so much…”

I continued patting her on the back, gently stroking her mane while she cried. “B-b-but the worst part… is when I don’t think about you for hours at a time… then days at a time.” She gulped down her tears. “I don’t want to get used to you not being here but I don’t have a choice. It’s like part of me is trying to forget you and how much you mean to me.” She hugged me tighter. I knew there was nothing I could say right now to help her with her grief, so I just kept holding her.

Several minutes later, Twilight pulled back and I saw a lab rag hover over towards us. She grabbed it in her hooves and blew her nose a few times. After another long pause, she was able to smile at me once again. “Thank you again, Mark. I didn’t mean to burden you with that.”

I waved a hoof dismissively. “Twilight, both of my parents passed away suddenly. If I have any idea how you feel, then you have nothing whatsoever to apologize for.”

She gave me another hug—this time I knew it was for me.

Twilight took several deep breaths and walked back over towards the microscope, picking up her lab coat with her magic and putting it on again. She looked back at me over her shoulder. “Actually, you’re taking this fairly well, Mark. It’s not every day that a stallion gets turned into a mare and… what looks like an alicorn, at least.”

I waved a hoof. “Compared to almost dying yesterday, this is really more of an inconvenience. And obviously, there is a cure for the condition. Besides, you already told me that my cells were the same, so the difference is just cosmetic, right?”

I got a flat stare in return.

Rrrriiiiiight?

The purple unicorn tilted her head slightly and shifted a bit on her hooves. “Well… it would be more accurate to say that your cells process energy the same way, even if you are technically a mare now.”

I blinked and went and checked. My wings spread open in alarm. “Oh… OK, so maybe a little bit of a bigger deal than I originally thought.”

Twilight snorted and covered her mouth. She closed her eyes and made a little squee-ing noise. She put another forehoof on her mouth and her shoulders began shaking.

I rolled my eyes. “OK, Twilight – out with it.”

Her hooves pulled away from her smiling lips. “Not anymore!” She then started rolling on the ground, her hooves flailing in the air as she howled with laughter.

I sat down and folded my forelegs. When she had gotten her cleverness mostly out of her system, I admonished her. “Twilight Sparkle. I cannot imagine you saying or even thinking such a thing. That ‘Mark Wells’ character is apparently a terrible influence on you.”

She rolled over onto her hooves again and got up. “Oh, stop. I do have an older brother you know. And you don’t want to know what the mares talk about when it’s just us.” She looked at me appraisingly. “Or maybe now you do.”

I shook my head. “I prefer to think of mares as pure and innocent as a blanket of freshly-fallen snow, thank you.”

Twilight smirked. “You do realize that snow cannot nucleate except around an airborne impurity, don’t you?”

“And another shimmering light of my innocence is forever stamped out by a cruel and heartless mare.”

It was her turn to roll her eyes. “I’m afraid I can’t take responsibility for your refusal to deal with reality.”

“Between the poison joke and…” Probably not safe to say her name aloud. “…a certain pink mare, my definition of reality has taken a beating lately.”

“Heh. A point. You have my sympathies.” She sat down and sighed. “Well, I think we’re done here. Now it’s a matter of the best way to break the news to the girls.”

I grinned. “Best way, or most entertaining way?”

She looked at me sideways. “Are you proposing we prank my friends?”

“Well, duh! When will you have this opportunity again?”

Twilight started dancing on her hooves. “Oh, yes! This is going to be great!” She moved closer and we started trading ideas in whispers—



Twilight ascended the stairs in front of me. She slammed the door open and I watched her walk into the main floor of the library in a dazed manner. All conversation stopped upstairs.

I heard her voice filter down to me. “I did it… The portal… I finally did it.” That was my cue.

I put on my most regal bearing (thanks for the unintentional lessons, Trixie) and clopped deliberately up the stairs.

The questions aimed at Twilight stopped as first my head, then most of my body exited the doorway. My right flank was pressed up against the side of the stairwell to make it invisible, and I held my tail to the side to cover my left flank. I glared down at the ponies in front of me. All of them except Pinkie took Twilight’s cue and bowed down deeply. For her part, Pinkie looked confused and her left ear and back right leg seemed to be experiencing tremors. Spike was absent, perhaps out running errands.

I drew in a breath and settled on a tone that would brook no argument. “Greetings, My Little Ponies. I am, on the whole, pleased to be back among you. Twilight has informed me of what has transpired in the absence of myself and my sister. As your rightful princess, I believe now is the time to make a few changes to set things right.”

There were some generally positive murmurs from those assembled, except for the party mare who stopped shaking random body parts and narrowed her eyes suspiciously. I’d better hurry up.

“Dame Pinkamena Diane Pie. All parties will henceforth be known as ‘pinkies.’ And I would like to request the biggest and pinkest Pinkie Pie pinkie that has ever been seen by anypony to celebrate our return.” Her eyes went wide and I leaned forward, matching her previous narrow-eyed glare. “Are you pink enough for the job, Pinkie?”

The party mare stood at attention and snapped off a salute. “Private Pinkie-class Pinkie Pie Publicizing Perfect Production of Prodigious and Profligate Pinkies, Princess!”

I nodded. “I am proud of you.” Twilight was having trouble keeping her composure. She hid her muzzle a bit more by curling her head even further between her front legs which were prostrate on the floor.

I turned to Applejack. “Dame Applejack Apple. Long have we endured without proper sustenance. Our time away from fair Equestria has only heightened our appreciation of the fine produce your family is known for. From this day forward, you will be known by the title ‘Duchess of Heavenly Fruit’.”

“Why, thank ya kindly, Princess!” The orange mare lifted her head with a warm smile.

I then muttered under my breath just loud enough for everyone to hear. “Too bad they don’t taste as good as pears.”

The farm pony’s mouth hung open and her pupils shrank to pinpricks. Twilight saw this, closed her eyes, and her whole body began to vibrate.

“Rarity. You are now the Official Seamstress for the Solar Throne. Congratulations.”

Somehow, the purple-coifed unicorn bowed even deeper. Boy, was she flexible! “My deepest thanks, Your Highness.”

I frowned. “As you can see, my vestments were lost between worlds. Rather than replicating my centuries-old designs, I charge you with creating something new and appealing for the Royal Gear.”

Rarity gasped and started to fan herself. Fluttershy pushed up a divan that I was sure was not there just a few seconds before. The yellow pegasus’ timing was outstanding as the Element of Generosity swooned majestically into its embrace. “Oh, thank you, Your Highness! I will, of course, work tirelessly to surpass your expectations.”

“Thank you. Keep in mind that my expectations will involve lace and silk.”

“…Oh?”

I nodded. “Indeed. I’m tired of being the ‘Ice Princess.’ Something with more sex appeal is required to break me out of my self-imposed rut with stallions.”

“Ah! So you are talking about...”

“Lingerie.” I waved a forehoof once dismissively and forcefully. “Don’t worry about the nobles. Once they see their Princess emphasizing her best aspects, they will follow suit. Fashion will bend to the Royal Will.”

“….ummmm…” Rarity raised a hoof to perhaps make a point, but I had moved on. I looked directly at Fluttershy.

“Gentle Fluttershy – Element of Kindness and friend to all animals. Would you do me the favor of teaching a new song to the birds in the Royal Gardens?”

The yellow mare’s eyes sparkled and she smiled. “Oh, yes! Absolutely, Your Highness. Of course, I can only ask for their help, I can’t force them to do so.”

I nodded. “As is proper. I would not have it any other way.” She beamed. “And while you’re at it, have that Angel of yours fixed.” Her smile fell. “If there is one thing that could make that devil bunny stop being such a terror to all around him, it is worth a try.”

I turned to the blue Pegasus who was still prostrate before me. “And lastly, but certainly not least, Rainbow Dash. I call on you to stand proudly before your Princess.” She sprang to do so like a coiled spring. “Element of Loyalty. Fastest of all Pegasi.” I pointed a hoof at her. “You’re awesome. Don’t ever change.”

That got the biggest smile I’d ever seen out of Rainbow Dash. “No, Princess. You’re awesome!”

Applejack had recovered somewhat and now her head swiveled back and forth between us as we traded compliments.

“No, Rainbow. You are the awesome one here.”

“Thanks, Princess – or can I call you Celestia? But you are truly awesome.”

I shook my head. “But your awesomeness is supersonic.”

“And yours is out-of-this-world.”

“True. Perhaps we’ll just have to make do with being awesome together.”

“That works for me! Hey, guys? How great is it that Celestia is back and more awesome than ever?”

That did it. Twilight fell over on her back and shrieked in laughter, kicking her hooves in the air as she had before. Everypony else looked at her for a few moments before their eyes settled back on me. I smirked in a way that I doubt Celestia ever had and strode the rest of the way into the room, letting my tail uncover my left flank.

Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Applejack all pointed at my flanks and yelled, “Ahhhhhhh!”

This just made Twilight’s guffaws get louder.

Applejack marched up to me. “Ya done hoodwinked us!”

Fluttershy took some deep, calming breaths. “Oh, thank goodness.”

Rarity sputtered as she got close. “Mark! The nerve! That was not very—”

“Ladylike?” I suggested with a smile.

“…Polite!” finished the fashionista.

Pinkie deflated a bit. “So… no party?”

I turned to her. “Of course there should be a party! We’ll just have to call it a ‘party’ instead of a ‘pinkie’. ”

I then found myself staring down the barrel of a cannon which went off before I had a chance to move. I spit out some confetti as I absorbed a very pink hug.

Rainbow Dash looked around her friends and shrugged. “I don’t get it. So Celestia got Mark’s cutie mark. Big deal.”

Applejack rounded on her friend. “That’s there is Mark pretending…” She stopped and looked me up and down. “…really, really well to be Celestia. If’n you’d been paying attention ta what she said to us all, you’d a noticed that somethin’ was off about her.”

“Pfffft!” The pegasus gave the farm mare a very skeptical look. “Of course that’s the real Celestia. You’re just jealous because you’re not as awesome as the two of us.”

That got a new wave of laughter from Twilight, who was pounding the floor.

Applejack towered over her purple friend. “This was your idea?”

She got a smile and nonstop giggling in return.

The orange pony glared over her shoulder. “Both of y’all?”

I tried to look innocent but failed utterly.

After one last scowl, the Element of Honesty sat on her rump. “Horseapples. Ah hate when Ah get taken for a ride like that.”

I smiled apologetically to the stubborn blue pegasus. “Sorry, Rainbow. Poison joke did this to me. I’m afraid your Princess is still missing.”

She frowned with her forelegs crossed. After a few seconds, she said, “I don’t want to admit it, but I don’t have much choice, do I?”

“Don’t worry, Dash. You’ll always be awesome to me.”

That got her frown to go away for a second before it returned. “But there still needs to be payback. You made a fool out of me.”

Rarity spoke up. “Actually, I think you did that to yourself, darling. You can’t blame poor Mark for your stubbornness.”

“Sure I can.” She lifted off the ground and hovered just an inch before my nose. “I think you owe us now.”

I shrugged. That sounded harmless enough on the face of it. Might even be fun.

“Well, what did you mares have in mind? What’s something you always wanted Celestia to say or do but never had the guts to ask?”

I got several wide-eyed stares followed by thoughtful looks.

I felt a light poking on my side… almost like a butterfly trying to land but then thinking better of it.

“Umm… excuse me… Mark? I actually… I mean if you wouldn’t mind… would you please give a hug to all of the animals who stay with me? That would mean so much, really.”

My eyelid may have twitched once at the thought of a certain bunny rabbit, but I couldn’t refuse. “Of course, Miss Fluttershy, but I don’t know how I can get to your house without causing pandemonium in the streets.”

“Not a problem.” We turned to see Twilight walking up. She placed a forehoof on each of us. “Ready?”

Fluttershy and I looked at each other, smiled, and nodded.



In the end, even the spiders wanted hugs, and I didn’t skimp. Every creature great and small got the full nuzzle with wings wrapped around them, too. Harry Bear was the only one I had to stand to hug, but I came out of his bone-crushing grip only a bit short of breath so I counted that as a win. The other animals then insisted it was Fluttershy’s turn for an alicorn hug and Harry made sure she didn’t escape my cuddles. As expected, Angel Bunny wanted nothing to do with me and only relented when Fluttershy declared that it would make her sooooooo happy. Defeated, he marched into my embrace. He was a perfectly-behaved soft fluff of fur for the duration of the hug, only to kick me in the knee as soon as I raised my wings and let my guard down.

Twilight then teleported us back to the library. From the smirks of the remaining Elements in front of me, I knew they had all made up their minds what ‘favor’ they would ask. I held up a hoof to stop them before they started. “Girls, I’m sorry, but I need a break. Your Princess is absolutely famished.” They all took a step to the side to show me possibly the most wonderful sight I had ever seen – not one but two cakes on a collapsible table.

Pinkie stood up and put on a dramatic pose, holding one foreleg low and another high. “Ta-da! Since Applejack told me everything is being paid for by the Great and Just-Bill-Me Trixie, I thought to bring over a little something I whipped up this morning!”

I practically stumbled over to the table, doubtless leaving a trail of drool behind me. My royal nose told me on the left was a simple carrot cake with buttercream frosting. The one on the right, however, was more complex. Its plain, dark chocolate fondant exterior hid untold treasures within. Pinkie pulled out a very generous slice and set it on a plate in front of me, revealing all six colors of the rainbow swirled in a marbling pattern. I could practically taste the kaleidoscope of flavors: strawberry, orange, banana, lime, elderberries, and plums.

“I used up all the blueberry extract and pie filling yesterday,” apologized Pinkie. I barely heard her.

“But what are all you girls going to eat?” I asked as the mares gathered around the table. They all got a good laugh, except for Twilight, who lowered her goggles over her eyes.

I tasted carrots for a couple of seconds, followed by a rapid-fire wash of different sweet fruits for a couple seconds more. Then I lifted my head and burped with a sigh.

Looking around, I perceived a few things at the same time. Frosting and bits of cake were splattered everywhere. There were six pony-shaped clean sections on the books and bookshelves all around me. I was ringed by looks of horror except for Twilight, who raised her now-stained goggles and smiled.

“I’ve seen that look before. That was when Celestia got banned from the baker’s kitchen.”

I looked hopefully at all the frosting and cake bits that I had missed, only to have them all disappear in a wave of magic from the purple unicorn. Rather than looking relieved, the girls kept staring at me open-mouthed. I shrugged my shoulders. “I told you I was hungry.”

Applejack seemed to recover from her shock first. “Ya gonna be okay now for a while, Mark?”

I patted my stomach then made it look like I was really mulling over her question. I looked up. “No promises.”

The farm mare rolled her eyes and hoofed over a sheet of paper. I looked over the sets of four lines. “Sing these lyrics?”

She nodded with a smile.

“And amp up the country accent?”

“You betcha!” She turned to face Twilight. “Do ya know where I hang my banjo in up in the living room?”

“Yep!” The unicorn disappeared with a flash and a bang.

I headed to the far side of the library, grabbing the distracted Applejack’s Stetson on the way.

“Hey!” she protested.

“Method acting!” I called back, setting the hat on my head. When I did turn back around, I saw Twilight teleport in said banjo and float it over to Applejack and immediately pop out again. The farm mare checked her instrument’s tune as Twilight reappeared with a camera and what I guessed was an audio-recording device. The unicorn set up both as Applejack started plucking out a refrain. Twilight gave me a nod. I had no trouble picking out when to start singing.

We travel the road of generations.

Joined by a common bond.

We sing our song 'cross the pony nation,

From Equestria and beyond.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDo9KFvMNX8

Applejack joined me for the first chorus, then the rest of the mares did the same each time it was repeated.

To my surprise, Pinkie jumped in at the end to do a stanza that wasn’t on my sheet, then we all belted out the last chorus together with an ending flourish from Applejack’s banjo.

When the song was over, everypony cheered Applejack. She returned the favor. “Thank ya kindly, everypony. Ever since I was a wee foal, Ah’ve wanted to hear Celestia sing the Apple Family Song.”

I walked up and held out her hat. “That was a load of fun. I thought you were going to ask me to try to drink you under the table on apple cider or something.”

She smiled and put the Stetson back where it belonged. “Naw. Don’t get ahead of yourself, Mark. I reckon we’ve got us a bit o’ time before we git to that.”

My grin slipped a bit, but Pinkie cured that for me. A pink foreleg moved in a blur in front of my vision. “Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!”

I laughed. “I guess I’ll pick Pinkie next.”

“YAY! I know just what I want Celestia to do.” Turning around once, she then faced me again, this time with one large ring and three smaller ones.

“Hula hoops?” I asked.

“Nope!” Pinkie beamed. “Loop-de-hoops! Show us what you can do, hot stuff!”

I took the proffered rings and walked on two legs back to the other side of the library. Twilight finished adjusting her camera and smiled at me. I tried to remember the last time I had used these and couldn’t. Oh, wait, yes I did. I tried to impress some girl in elementary school with my skills and the results were exactly what anyone would expect from a person with my level of coordination.

Holding the three smaller rings in one hoof, I placed the large ring around my waist and started to rotate my hips, keeping my wings tight to my barrel. Automatically, I sped up slightly when I could tell the hoop was getting too low. After just a short while, I found the sweet spot and was able to keep it there, even rotating my body in a circle to the whoops and hollers of a certain party mare. Holding my forelegs up high, I started a simple shower pattern with the three remaining rings, switching to a cascade, columns, and finally Mills Mess as my hips continued to work on their own. That was the extent of the tricks I knew from Phil trying to teach me in college. I was fairly certain this body could do more complicated patterns, but I didn’t have any muscle memory for them even if I had seen them done on occasion. Now, what else could I do with the smaller rings?

Inspiration struck. I called out, “Scrunchie!” and received a yellow band of some elastic material from Pinkie. I put the three smaller rings around a forearm while using my hooves to gather up my mane to rest more-or-less high up on my head.

I placed a smaller hoop at the base of my long neck and tried to synchronize my neck movements with those of my waist. After a few false starts, my body figured it out and I heard the appreciative calls of the mares present. For my final trick, I spun the two remaining rings around my forelegs. I heard hoof stomps and I know I was grinning like a loon. I had never had this kind of dexterity before and I was sure enjoying it.

“Think fast!” I heard Pinkie cry out. I saw another small ring arcing towards me and it landed squarely around my horn and started to spin to the base.

“Ack!” I called out but tried to keep the new intruder from rising too high or falling too low. At one point, the ring spun right at the tip of my horn and I thought I had lost it, only for the hoop to fall back to a workable height. For a few glorious seconds, I was in total control of every ring and my body twisted and turned in a perfectly coordinated dance.

Then I let the ring around my horn fall, slapped the two on my arms over my horn to follow the first, and bounced the large hoop over my barrel then shoulders. I finished with a huge smile and with every hoop resting around my neck.

All the mares yelled their approval and Pinkie was doing cartwheels across the room by bouncing off her rump and head alternately. At some point, Spike had snuck in and was giving me much more traditional applause with his hands and claws.

I bowed, sliding the rings off of my neck and head smoothly and returned to all fours… well, threes as I held them out to Pinkie. As the party pony took them, I turned to the purple unicorn. “Twilight? I’ve never had that kind of coordination before. Does Celestia really have this level of physical agility?”

She tapped her chin in thought. “Not that I’m aware of. I think this is more a case of poison joke making you the opposite of your normal, clumsy self.”

Huh. I spread my wings. “I wonder if that extends to flying, too?”

Rainbow Dash spoke up and drew close, flashing her trademark grin. “Just in case you’re wrong, let’s try that later. I still have my orders to give you.”

I frowned. “You mean your polite request or I’ll turn it down on principle.”

She backed up a step but her smile remained unchanged. “Yeah, yeah, pretty-please request, whatever.”

About as good as I was going to get, I suppose. I sat down. “So what do you have in mind?”



Having Applejack (right shoulder), Rarity (left shoulder), and Pinkie Pie (straddling both) climb my back and then stand on me was not that stressful. Keeping my balance on my hind legs was hard but doable. Holding a rear leg of Applejack and Rarity helped stabilize the mare-tower, despite the wobbling and shaking. Even when Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash alighted on us to make the third layer, that wasn’t the worst thing.

“Twilight!” intoned the five elements above me. I was too busy concentrating on my job as the basement of the structure to say anything.

The mare in question looked down into her camera’s eyepiece for at least the twentieth time. “Just one more second! The framing still isn’t right!”

“TWILIGHT!” I heard again. I could see that my muzzle was starting to turn a shade of pink from the exertion.

“Applejack, are you reaching out as far as you can? I don’t want to have it be outside the field of view.”

“TWILIGHT!”

“Fine, fine. I’ll just waste some of the negative and crop it later. Sheesh!” She turned to her draconic brother. “Snap the shutter as soon as I appear on top.” With that, she disappeared and I definitely felt the extra weight. I also heard gasps from above me as the rest of the girls did too.

After a few moments swaying, we kind-of, sort-of, got stable again.

“Now, Spike!” I heard Twilight call out.

“Are you sure? Don’t you want me to—”

SPIKE!

Ow. That hurt my ears. And now one of my knees was shaking uncontrollably. “Better….hurry…” I choked out.

“Ok, Ok, fine. How does this shutter release work again? Oh yeah, I remember. Smile everypony! …and…….…now.”

My body didn’t wait to see if he was ‘just kidding’ or not. I collapsed followed by a thundershower of Elements of Harmony burying everything but my nose. Groans came from all around, including me.

“And there’s a second shot, just to preserve this majestic moment. Thanks for your cooperation, everypony.”

All I could do was make weak threats, but it would be better than nothing. “Spike? If I’m ever able to move again, I’m going to eat...” I addressed nopony in particular. “What does Spike collect?”

“Power Ponies Comics,” said two or three mares from the heap above me.

“…eat your entire Power Ponies collection… without salt.”

As the rest of the mares rolled off of me, I tried to get up, but my back started to spasm, bringing that to a quick halt. I heard the movement of wings and then I felt four hooves start pressing and pulling alternately on my back. It hurt for a little while, but soon my spasms ceased. I looked behind me to see Fluttershy continue to work my back muscles expertly.

She smiled. “Harry Bear has the worst time with his back after he wakes up from hibernation. Is this helping?”

I nodded. “Don’t you ever stop, Fluttershy. You’re a life-saver.” I spread my wings to their fullest and did my best impression of a limp noodle.

After a couple of minutes, Twilight limped up with a print of our formation. Gritting my teeth, I put in the effort to rotate my head straight so I could see it from the correct perspective. I whistled despite myself. We looked just like an act from the old circus shows back home. Four layers of mares standing upright with just me on the bottom. Legs and arms and wings stretched outwards wherever possible. Everypony except me had a reasonably convincing smile on their faces. Rainbow Dash snatched the photo away and studied it.

I looked up at her darkly. “We are not doing that stunt again, just to see if I can smile the next time.”

She looked down at me. “But it would be that extra little-bit awesome if you could just—”

“Unless you want to be on the bottom layer.”

“Nah, this is good. I’m happy.” With that, she flapped over to Applejack to show off the photo.

Rarity was back on her couch, fanning her face as she composed herself. After I caught her eye, I tried to put on my most piteous face. “Please tell me you don’t want me to do anything strenuous. Pretty please.”

“Not at all, Darling. Just some standing around.”

I waited for her to continue.

“There are some fashions I would love to try on a living alicorn model. It’s just that… it would be improper for me to ask the real Celestia.”

To my horror, I picked up on her hidden meaning right away. The wait until getting this over with was going to be just as bad as the act itself. “You want me to model lingerie. That was only supposed to be a joke!”

When I didn’t get any response contradicting my hunch, I covered my eyes with my forehooves. “…and that’s why you saved the most humiliating for last. Just wonderful.”

“Darling, don’t think of it that way. Making a mare feel desirable is the epitome of all fashion. Undergarments are just the purified essence of doing the most with the least.”

“…which you all will doubtless use to tease and torment me for the rest of my days.”

Applejack approached on my right. “Gosh-sakes, no, Mark. We all appreciate that yer helpin’ us out when ya don’t really hafta.” I lowered my hooves and looked up at her.

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Speak for yourself, Applejack. I plan to think back on today as the funniest in ages!”

Applejack growled. “An’ Ah’ll personally feed you yer left front hoof if ya go shamin’ Mark about any a this. Got that, pardner?”

The blue pegasus waved a hoof. “Yeah, yeah. Fine.” At the farm pony’s continued glare, she added, “Alright! I mean it!”

I turned to Rarity. “And you’ll want to photograph the heck out of this, right?”

The fashionista nodded proudly.

Twilight smiled. “I’m also going to set up one of the speak-and-see crystals to record the entire fashion show.”

I sighed. “I’m probably going to regret this, but I don’t see anything wrong with your request. Deeply, personally troubling but not wrong.”

“Thank you, dear.”

I wasn’t done. “Two conditions. One: No Spike.”

“Awww!”

“You don’t deserve it. Two: Trixie never, ever, ever finds out about this.”

That was met with nods all around. Pinkie spoke up. “Do you want us to Pinkie Promise?”

I shook my head. “No, I trust all of you, including Spike. All of you are good for your word.” That earned a smile from the mares, especially Applejack. It also seemed to perk up the small dragon a bit.

I looked back at my masseuse. “Thank you, Fluttershy. I think I’ll try to get up again now.” She smiled and hovered next to me, ready to assist. There were a couple of twinges, but no pain when I stood. I twisted my back around experimentally for a bit then smiled. “Your magic hooves did the trick! Thank you again.”

“I’m happy to help. Let me know if you need another session.”

“I will.” I turned to see the rest of the mares grinning at me, all of them lined up at the front door. Twilight carried her camera in her magic and floated a gray, hooded cloak over me. My furled wings and flanks were completely covered and my face was partially obscured. She then turned to her little brother. “Spike, you’re in charge of the library.”

He grumbled. “Fine. I want to see photos, though.”

“When you’re older…maybe,” replied Twilight in a practiced tone. “Let’s go, girls!”



Rarity led the way as we cantered along the streets of Ponyville. The remaining Elements chatted away behind me as I dutifully headed off to my silk and lace-trimmed fate. Belatedly, I noticed that Twilight placed herself behind me this time, perhaps afraid I would go off and bite some more greenery. Come to think of it, I was still very, very hungry. Despite this, I was pretty sure I’d be fine for Rarity’s private fashion show. That thought went out the window as soon as I smelled it. We must have moved just downwind of Sugarcube Corner because I stopped in my tracks and my nose started twitching.

Applejack almost collided with my backside. “Whoa! Ya OK there, Mark?”

I couldn’t speak as the scents of Snickerdoodles, eclairs, rhubarb and strawberry pie, and more varieties of cupcakes than I could count prodded the animal side of my brain. But I was not an animal. I was a living, breathing, thinking… horse. Crap.

In that moment of weakness, I smelled cherry chimichangas. I immediately spread my wings and hurled myself into a half-loop followed by a half barrel roll. I saw a flicker of Twilight’s horn lighting but my cloak ended up covering her face as it blew off of me. I’m sure the girls tried to say something but I was already picking up speed with powerful beats of my wings. I crested one house, angled between two more on the following block, and landed in a dead gallop with my destination in sight. Ponies shrieked and dove out of the way as I took the shortest path to Sugarcube Corner. I flicked an ear when I heard Rainbow Dash approach me from above, but her efforts were in vain… I was in no mood to share. With a flick of my wings and quick application of my flight magic, I bounded upwards and used my superior mass to bounce her away from my path to the door. I vaguely recalled the screams of ponies as I devoured my way through all the items in the display case. By the time the Elements had gotten past the fleeing customers, they were far, far too late. All that remained were perhaps a half-dozen cupcake wrappers littering the floor behind the display counter and my stomach was distended a bit. I sighed pleasantly and wondered why the mares in front of me looked so cross… and where was Rainbow Dash?

Pinkie looked especially serious as she aimed her party canon directly between my eyes. “Sir or Madam. I need you to put all four of your hooves in the air and move yourself off of Mr. Cake.”

I blinked, decided not to think too hard about the first part, and looked down. Sure enough. A quivering Mr. Cake (nice chap – remembered him fondly from the party) had been repurposed as my seat cushion. I quickly scrambled off of him. A quaking Mrs. Cake moved closer, brandishing a rolling pin for defense, and dragged him into the kitchen and safety.

I blinked and tried to collect my thoughts. It all seemed like it had happened to another pony and I was just a spectator. “What happened, exactly?”

Just then, Rainbow Dash swooped in, pieces of wood and roof tiles tangled in her mane and tail. She grinned and spread her forehooves wide. “I’ll tell you what happened! You gave me the most awesome body check ever! You’re going on my A-league air hoofball team, mister!”

Twilight glared at the pegasus. “Rainbow! We are not condoning this kind of destruction!”

The blue mare scoffed. “Are you kidding? Did you see that timing? Mark even clipped my wings so I had no choice but to go completely through the wall and the roof too. That was—”

“…totally awesome from your perspective, yes, I’m sure, darling. But now we have to deal with the damage he caused.”

I shrunk down a bit as I looked over what used to be a glass cabinet full of the shop’s wares. Now only empty trays and knocked-over shelves remained. I felt my ears flatten on my head. “I’m sorry.”

I turned to look at the kitchen, where the proprietors were now staring at me, probably scared I would go into another feeding frenzy.

I sighed. “I’m afraid the scent of your wonderful baked goods drove me temporarily insane. I thought I could resist but…”

Pinkie had come up beside me unnoticed and pulled my muzzle down to look me in the eyes. She gave me a sad, searching look. “It was the cherry chimichangas, wasn’t it?”

I closed my eyes in shame. I could only nod my head.

I felt Pinkie hug me, then two more sets of hooves shortly afterwards. I opened my eyes to see Mr. Cake on my left and Mrs. Cake’s smiling face on my right. “It’s alright, Mark. Twilight is the same way about cheesy quesadillas.”

I heard an indignant noise from the other side of the counter.

Mr. Cake nodded to a sign on the wall behind him. “It’s why we don’t serve them anymore.” I looked at the sign:

No more quesadillas.

You can blame Twilight Sparkle.

“That is largely untrue!” protested the purple unicorn. The rest of the girls closed their eyes and left her standing by herself in the middle of the floor. “I’m not crazy! I was just a little high-strung that day, alright?” she protested as she followed the mares outside.

By this point, only myself and the Cakes were left in the shop. I hugged each of the Cakes in turn. “Please bill Empress Trixie for all the damages I caused.” I was more than a bit concerned about how many times I had been forced to say those words.



Once again covered in Twilight’s cloak, we made it to the Carousel Boutique with no further property damage. I checked my stomach and it was back to its normal, slim outline. Twilight had followed my eyes and smiled at me. “Your body has already processed all the food you ate. I hope you’re not still hungry?”

I took stock of how I felt and decided I was not famished for a change. “Nope. Good for now.”

I shook off the garment and turned to Rarity. “Before we even get started, just plan to bill Trixie for everything I break or ruin, OK?”

Rarity put a gentle hoof on my shoulder, prompting me to look into her eyes. “Mark, I know that these last couple of days have been a bit of a rough patch, but please don’t beat yourself up like this. Ponyville has been largely destroyed four times in the last couple of years, and we always pull together to help each other and rebuild. Not to make you feel inferior, but I’m afraid your little Reign of Destruction doesn’t even count as an event worthy of the school paper. So promise me that you’ll forgive yourself the way all of us already have?”

I looked around at nothing but friendly smiles. And that was really it, wasn’t it? I had friends here that accepted me, even at my worst.

I turned back to Rarity and gave her a hug. “I think… no, I know I can do that, Rarity.”

She returned the hug. “Thank you, darling. We truly want the best for you.”

I pulled away and smirked. “And that includes the best in intimate, nighttime apparel, doesn’t it?”

The unicorn shuffled her hooves a bit. “If this makes you uncomfortable, Mark…”

I shook my head. “I know how much this opportunity means to you, Rarity. And I’m sure the rest of the audience won’t do or say anything to make me feel self-conscious.” I turned to glare at the other Elements but instead blinked.

Five poolside lounge chairs had been set up, complete with popcorn and fruity drinks with little paper umbrellas in them. Pinkie put on a pair of sunglasses and waved a hoof. “Let’s get this fashion show started!”

The first change the fashionista made was to apply two alabaster fabric patches to my flanks where they stuck like a second skin. They completely covered my cutie marks and then, with a quick spell from Rarity, took on Celestia’s instead. An invisibility spell on the edges made the effect look seamless. When I asked, the unicorn explained that the magic of cutie marks made it nearly impossible to alter them, so they had to be covered to get the desired effect. It was a common technique used in the fashion model profession.

After an hour of sewing, fitting, and alterations later, Rarity gave me some last minute advice before I was to step out of her side room and onto the improvised ‘runway’ with her first outfit. “Mark, we all hope that someday Celestia will return. Think of yourself as modeling for her and the camera to show how stunning she can be. Concentrate on helping her realize what a beautiful mare she is, and your confidence will shine through.”

That was some good advice. Trotting out to the appreciative calls from my audience, I was able to not think of myself at all as I displayed what Rarity called a Saddle Arabian-inspired bit, bridle, and saddle set, complete with sheer fabric that trailed down to my pasterns and veil that wrapped around my muzzle and neck. Small bells tinkled as I moved in a slow circle around the stage. I even batted my eyes at Twilight and her camera before playfully completing my circling of the runway and returning to the side room.

To say Rarity was happy would be a bit of an understatement. She nearly knocked me over with the force of her hug. “Mark! Oh, Mark! That was wonnnnnnnderful! An absolute dream come true! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

I laughed. I was surprised to be in such a good mood. Surely some of the fashion queen’s joy was rubbing off on me. “Careful, Rarity. You don’t want to crease the fabric.”

She stepped back and scoffed. Her magic stripped me bare in mere seconds as the next ensemble was already being fitted in place. “Hardly finished, darling. Just seeing you move in it let me know what needs to be improved. Frankly, runway fashions are only made well enough to last through the show, but no longer. The final works made for clients are professionally finished and much sturdier.”

I felt first my front legs being lifted in the air to have fishnet stockings rolled on, then my front hooves touched the ground as the same was done to my rear legs. Suddenly everything felt very wrong and I had a knot in the pit of my stomach. I shivered a bit, feeling my nerves coming back in full force. “I need another pep talk, Rarity.”

She stopped what she was doing and got down to look me directly in the eyes. After a few moments, she nodded and her stare bore into me. “You don’t exist. Only fashion exists. Your purpose is to display the clothing with flair. Repeat this to yourself: ‘I am the zest for life that all mares want to have’.”

I moved my lips silently, repeating the phrase over and over. Vaguely, I was aware of Rarity slipping something black with straps over my head and cinching it up in several places along my neck and barrel. I stepped into dull, gray metal shoes with spikes on them. Before I truly realized what I was doing, her magic had gently guided me back onto the runway where I pranced forwards with vigor. By then, my mood was set and I didn’t have to repeat the phrase to myself any longer. This time, there were gasps from everypony present. I turned around fully and reared, kicking my front legs and glaring down haughtily at the mares alongside the runway. I saw Applejack jab Twilight in the side. “Stop gaping, ya idjit! Take the gosh-darn photos!”

“Wha? Right! Of course!”

While Twilight scrambled to comply, I moved my angry gaze to the other mares present before lowering myself for one more parade around the stage.

This time, when I got back to Rarity’s side, I didn’t speak or look at her at all. I just stood there and kept perfectly still while waiting for more instructions.

This time, I saw blue silk with highlights sewn in gold thread. Panels of lace were placed strategically along the outfit and soon I felt it being laced along my back, ending below where my wings attached. Rarity wove thin gold chains through my feathers and instructed me to use them to alternately hide then show my body to the audience. Ribbons from two pairs of sandals wove three-quarters of the way up my legs. Rarity’s magic braided my mane and tail which were held in place with golden clasps. She looked me over and nodded. Moving to my ear, she whispered. “You are the most majestic beauty of all who walk in Equestria. You soak up the adoration of others with your gentle grace.”

I felt myself glide on my hooves through the doorway, slowly moving across the floor. I felt completely detached from my emotions as I used my wings to alternately hide myself and tease the audience. Eventually, I raised both wings proudly and turned in place. Slowly, I completed my circuit of the stage and returned to stand before the white unicorn, who was already busy lifting the components of the last ensemble. Belatedly, I realized that I had not noticed the Elements at all during my last trip to the main room.

My mane and tail were unbraided and all traces of the previous fashion removed. A pink corset tightened across my barrel and gold jewelry with large cabochons and faceted gems were floated onto my form. Pink hose covered my legs and this time bejeweled golden horseshoes went over them. A short, nearly sheer train, a horn ring, and a sun-patterned pendant that hung from the tip of my horn completed the look. Rarity took a moment to comb out my mane and tail before guiding me back to the runway. She whispered in my ear: “You are Joy. You bring happiness to all with your beauty.”

I smiled demurely at the mares in the audience. After regally walking around the stage, I lifted my wings higher and began beating them slowly to hover just off the floor. I felt the wind I generated fluff out my mane and tail. I turned my head this way and that, soaking up the applause from the Elements. Gently, I lowered myself to the ground, bowed, and walked proudly off of the stage.

I don’t really remember the curtain call. Twilight showed me a picture of Rarity and I standing on stage together, but I must have zoned out completely. I do remember coming to when the first adhesive fabric patch was peeled off – it was more than a bit painful. I noticed that I was not wearing anything else by that point. As Rarity moved to my other side and her magic took hold of the other patch, she smiled apologetically. The Element of Generosity floated over a shot of what smelled like Griffonian whiskey. She waited until I had downed it. “The pains of being in the fashion industry, darling.” With that, Rarity pulled it off in one quick movement. Ouch.

My energy level crashed just before the fashion mare led me out to meet up with the other mares. I got hugs from all of them and they all expressed their gratitude for helping Rarity.

“So how was your first modeling experience, Mark?” asked Pinkie.

I thought back then turned to look at Rarity. “Did you cast a spell or hypnotize me right after I finished with the first outfit? I felt like an outside observer after that, just playing the roles instead of really being present.”

Rarity smiled and shook her head. “I think you hypnotized yourself, Mark. You put your mind into another state of consciousness. I’ve seen it before with some of the models I’ve employed in Manehatten.”

Twilight spoke next. “Shining Armor talks about that happening pretty frequently with his fellow soldiers.”

I mulled that over. “Huh. Didn’t know I could do that.” I yawned hugely. “Well, I’m beat. I hope the next thing on our agenda isn’t as intense.”

I got the same wry smile from all the mares. Rainbow Dash spoke up. “Oh, you’re gonna love this…”



I groaned in contentment. A pink earth pony mare preened my wings while her blue twin massaged my rear legs.

Aloe (or was it Lotus?) spoke up. “Ze bath with ze poison joke cure eez ready for you, Meester Mark.”

“Nope. Enjoying this too much, thanks. Plus I’m far too relaxed to even try to move right now.”

I felt myself lift off of the massage table and looked up to see a very smug Twilight carrying me away in her magic and towards a huge tub that already held her friends. I frowned. “Spoilsport.”

She laughed, gently placing me in the center of the tub and then letting me go. I held my breath as my body submerged then pushed my way to the surface. Everyone now appeared to be back to their normal size. For confirmation, I held out a green wing before pulling it back in. I went to sit down next to Fluttershy on the underwater shelf that went around the tub. I missed and dunked myself. Coming back to the surface sputtering, I heard Rainbow Dash laugh at me.

“Yeah, cancel that invite to our League team, Mark. Looks like you’re back to your normal klutzy self again.”

Experimentally, I held out my wings. “Can you dry these off for a second, Twilight?”

After feeling a warm tingling sensation trace from the base of my wings to the tips, I tried to perceive how magic flowed in my wings. The feeling of knowing exactly how much magic was present in each and every feather was gone now, replaced by the impression of having one big, undefined lump of flesh. I sighed as I lowered my wings to my sides and then myself back into the water.

Fluttershy leaned forward and asked, “Do you still feel anything that’s the same from your time as Celestia?”

I considered before I realized something. Somehow, my body still felt the same in one aspect.

I smirked. “Well, I’m still hungry for cake.”

This was met with waves of laughter, followed by a different kind of wave as Rainbow started an impromptu water fight.

 


 

Chapter 13: Tardy

 

I woke up the next day feeling well-rested and pain-free. Apparently, between being transformed and professionally massaged, my body had healed up quite well. I just laid there enjoying the lazy contentment of relaxing in a comfortable bed. Steady ought to be along soon to get me ready for breakfast. No rush to get out of bed…

My eyes sprang wide open. Steady was in Canterlot, just as I was supposed to be! How could I have forgotten that? I scrambled out of bed, ignored the fact that I fell on my nose again, and hastily dressed myself. Trixie was going to be pissed! Perhaps I could catch the next train and be in time for the afternoon session? That was before I spotted the clock by my bedside which could have woken me early if I had only thought to set the alarm. It showed 9:42 on the dial. I had slept in late too?! I groaned before grabbing my belongings and hurtled downstairs, tucked and rolled at the bottom and came to a creditable upright stop in front of the counter in the foyer, gave the startled mare at the desk the key to my room, checked out of the hotel, and headed out to the station. I moved at my best trot – I hadn’t mastered galloping in my own body yet – only to hear the train whistle and pull out of the station. I stumbled to a halt, panting and cursing my luck.

From what I remembered of the schedule, there wouldn’t be another train for a couple of hours. Ponyville simply was not big enough to justify a more frequent service at this time of day. I sighed and considered my options, but there weren’t many. First, I needed to let Trixie know that I would be delayed. Then I had to figure out what to tell her when she asked why I was tardy. Explaining that I was transformed into a copy of Celestia and spent an afternoon under the influence of poison joke would satisfy most, but the Great and Skeptical Princess would be less than impressed. “The show must go on!” she once had told me. I wonder what the nobles or the petitioners would have thought of “Celestia” sitting by Trixie’s throne as the unicorn held court? I snorted at the image that conjured up. I briefly considered doing that just for laughs, but then I realized it would be foolhardy to expect the magic of the Everfree Forest to do exactly the same thing twice.

I shook my head and reminded myself to be serious. I turned and headed for the library. Perhaps Spike could send a message to Trixie by dragonfire and ameliorate the situation? Better than doing nothing, I suppose. My stomach gurgled and I frowned. How could I be hungry after all the cake and pastries that I had gorged on yesterday with my bottomless appetite? Did they all just evaporate when I changed back into a pegasus stallion? My belly rumbled again. Maybe Spike would have pity on me and cook something up after sending the letter? I could do him a favor later – perhaps getting those comics in Canterlot that he was so fond of?

I entered the tree library without knocking – it was open at this hour, so I’d look silly doing so. Luckily, I found Spike re-shelving some books. He looked at me with a bit of surprise.

“Hey, dude, I thought you were going back to Canterlot?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I’m supposed to be there now. Between yesterday’s events and sleeping in late, that’s not going to happen. Can you send a letter to Trixie for me?”

“Sure, but don’t expect a reply. Princess Trixie doesn’t know a dragonfire spell like Princess Celestia and Luna do.”

“Maybe that’s for the best. Trixiefire might incinerate the reply.”

Spike laughed. “Ha! I bet you’re right. Let me grab a quill and paper.”

I dictated a note to briefly explain that I was delayed, and Spike sent it on its way in a puff of magic green fire. He then asked, “Would you like some breakfast, Mark?”

“Yes, I sure would, but why would you be making breakfast this late in the morning?”

The small dragon chuckled and replied, “It’s not late if you know Twilight. She often pulls all-nighters and falls asleep at dawn, if at all. She got to bed relatively early last night, and I was planning on waking her soon. Might as well prepare something for you too. I figure you were in too much of a hurry to stop for food.”

“How did you know that?”

“Your vest is on inside-out and your mane has a serious case of bed-head.”

“Oh. Right. Umm… did I leave anything edible here after yesterday…?”

“I went shopping this morning. Thanks for the bits, by the way. I’ve stocked up for the week, providing you don’t go on another binge.”

“Believe me, while it was an interesting experience, once was enough.”

“I hear ya.” Spike set about cooking a substantial breakfast for three people while I set about fixing my appearance. He served up my meal before heading up to Twilight’s bedroom.

The purple unicorn looked half asleep still when she joined me at the table. She downed a mug of coffee before her brain really kicked in and she cocked an eyebrow at me. “Aren’t you supposed to be in Canterlot by now?”

“Yes.”

She waited briefly for an explanation and then shrugged. “I wouldn’t be in a hurry to get back to her either.”

“Not my fault that I’m still here. Some ponies took me for a night on the town after the spa. I only woke up half an hour ago.”

“Oh. Right. Heh! But we had fun, didn’t we? That’s what good friends do.”

“Yes, Twilight, and I enjoyed myself, but I take my responsibilities seriously too. I had Spike send a note to Trixie to say that I was tardy.”

For some reason, the unicorn shuddered at that. “Say no more. I’ll make sure that you get back to Canterlot as soon as possible. I’m sorry that I can’t teleport you there because it’s too far.”

Just then, Spike belched and a scroll materialized from the resultant flames. Twilight took it in her magic and unrolled it. After glancing at the words, she passed the scroll over to me.

“It’s from Trixie,” she said flatly.

“I thought you said that Trixie didn’t know the dragonfire spell?” I queried Spike.

Twilight answered for him. “Maybe not, but she could always ask someone from the Guild of Mages. Some of them know the spell.”

“Right. Let’s see what she has to say.” I spread the scroll on the table with my hooves stopping it from curling back up again. I read the flowery script and winced.

“What’s it say?” Spike asked curiously.

“It says, ‘To the Grand Vizier Spark Dwells, the Magnificent and Patient Empress Trixie is sore displeased with your failure to present yourself as expected this morning.’ ” I paused to look at my audience. “When she’s in an ‘Empress’ mood, she’s definitely not happy.” I continued reading. “I have dispatched a Royal Guard pegasus chariot to Ponyville. Be on it. Signed, H. M. Trixie Lulamoon.

“That’s a bit rude,” Twilight commented.

“I promised to be there this morning, so it’s my fault.”

“Still a bit of a curt way to treat her advisor. Not very princess-like.”

I sighed. “Twilight – I know you don’t like Trixie, but give her a chance. She’s not Celestia, but she’s trying hard, believe me. I wouldn’t stick around if I didn’t think she was worth the effort.”

“Or you didn’t want to get thrown out of your cushy room in the palace.”

Now I was irritated. “A week ago, I was stranded in a strange magical land in a body that was completely foreign to me. Trixie gave me someplace to be and a worthwhile job to do. I owe her a lot, but even if she threw me out, I would still have new friends to help me. Heck – Fluttershy even offered to let me crash on her couch last night. But Trixie is not going to abandon me because I know her better than you. Yeah, she’s a work-in-progress, but she cares, and that’s what matters to me, even if her attitude grates occasionally.”

Twilight stared at me for a long moment before her expression changed to one of chagrin. “If you were here back when Nightmare Moon returned, you might have become the Element of Loyalty instead of Rainbow Dash.”

I grinned. “As long as it doesn’t involve flying, I’m your stallion!”

We all laughed at that and finished our meals. Twilight then left to work on whatever her current project was, Spike went back to his book re-shelving, and I went outside to await the arrival of the chariot.

I settled down on the grass in the shade of the library tree. I had little idea how long it would take for the chariot to arrive, but I figured it would be at least half an hour. With nothing to do until then, I just relaxed and watched the world go by. I snorted softly. The world. A totally different one of ponies, griffons, dragons, and magic. Just over a week ago, I didn’t even believe in unicorns and pegasi and now I was one of them. A defective one, perhaps, but still…

I sighed. Did I belong here? The mares had made me feel welcome, especially Pinkie, but the truth was that I had just blundered into this situation and perhaps even made things worse by breaking the mirror portals. And although Twilight was endlessly fascinated by what she learned from me about Earth, I get the feeling that she’d happily trade me to get Celestia back, not to mention Luna. Aside from obscure knowledge from another dimension, what did I really have to offer to these people? My greatest skills were useless in a land where magic supplanted physics in almost every way. And yet, no one wanted to see me leave. What did they see in me? I was just going with the flow and trying to be helpful along the way. Mark Wells was not a moocher.

To get my thoughts from getting too morbid, I tried identifying the ponies who passed by. I quickly came to realize that I knew a surprisingly large number of them, and I put that down to the Pinkie party where I swear I must have been introduced to the whole town at one stage. Despite the blur of faces, I still remembered the names of so many of them. Aside from Twilight and her friends, there were Vinyl Scratch and Octavia – an oddly well-matched pair of musical mares; the postmare Muffins whom everyone nicknamed Derpy which she seemed to accept graciously; her companion Doctor Whooves, a most confounding stallion with a highly coincidental cutie mark; Mayor Mare – who could forget that name? – the spa twins, Aloe and Lotus; Applejack’s brother, Big Macintosh; Bon Bon and Lyra; Roseluck, Daisy, and Lily; the unforgettable Cutie Mark Crusaders; Nurse Redheart and Doctor Horse; Cloud Kicker and various other weather team members; Sea Swirl…

My mind screeched to a halt as I suddenly realized something: I recalled only a few stallions but a great many mares. I looked about me and didn’t even see one stallion at the moment. At the palace, the majority of the staff were female although I was fairly certain most of the Royal Guards were male. It was hard to be sure because their anonymizing magic armor made all the regular Guards look alike, but some had suspiciously feminine voices. Was I imagining things or did these ponies have a serious gender imbalance? So many mares and so few stallions made for a different social dynamic than I was used to. Thinking back on some of the interactions I’d had recently, I began to see some of them in a different light. My bachelor instincts started to kick in and I shuddered.

I don’t know exactly how long I had been daydreaming but my thoughts were interrupted by a familiar voice.

“There he is!”

I looked up and saw Steady Flight coming in for a landing alongside two Royal Guard pegasi hauling a sky chariot. Apparently, my ride had arrived. I stood up and said, “Hi, Steady.”

“Hi yourself, Mark. What happened? Why are you still here and pissing off Princess Trixie?”

“Long story which I can tell you on the way back.” I approached the Guards and asked, “Do you need to rest for a bit before we go back to Canterlot?”

“No, sir,” one replied in a definitely masculine voice. “We are ready to return immediately.”

It made sense that the pegasi pulling a sky chariot for long distances would be strong males, but the other one didn’t speak, so I wasn’t sure of that fact. Steady had already piled my luggage onto the chariot, and I went to climb aboard. I had seen these used by others but I had not anticipated using one myself. I wasn’t looking forward to it. A week ago though, you could not have dragged me on one with a team of ponies, so I was definitely improving.

“Just a minute, Mark. I’ve got a message for you to deliver to Twilight Sparkle.”

“Huh? Why me?”

“Because you’re the Princess’ right hoof and scapegoat, of course,” the stallion replied, hoofing over a scroll.

“Right. Okay, this should take just a few minutes. She’s still in the library.”

I headed inside and found the mare surrounded by books. Literally. I decided not to ask why and passed her the scroll. “Message from the G&P,” I said simply.

Twilight lifted one eyebrow, shrugged, and unrolled the scroll with her magic. I saw her eyes flick back and forth as she read its contents, and then widen. She then rolled up the scroll once more.

“I have no idea about the contents, so is there an answer that I need to take back?” I asked.

Twilight looked thoughtful before replying, “Trixie has commanded me and my friends to go to the Crystal Empire. Princess Cadance has requested our help in impressing the head of the Equestrian Games Selection Committee. She’s hoping that holding the Games there will help re-establish the city’s fortunes and bring in tourists.”

“Sounds something like Earth’s Olympic Games. There was always quite a lot of competition to be the city to hold them every four years.”

“Then you’ll understand the importance. Tell Trixie that I’ll talk to the others first, but we should be able to go there on the scheduled date.”

I nodded. “Well, that’s my duty done, and now I have to get back to Canterlot as fast as possible. It’s been great visiting, and I hope that we’ll see each other again soon. No colanders though!”

Twilight giggled. “No promises!”

I smiled and waved to Spike as I left. I boarded the chariot and realized that there weren’t any safety harnesses. “How is this supposed to be safe?” I asked Steady.

He merely tapped a rune inscribed on the railing and I felt a gently yielding field surround me. “That’s a restraint spell – you can’t accidentally fall out.”

“That’s reassuring. Aren’t you getting in too?”

“I flew here on my own power and I’ll fly back too. I used to be a long-distance courier, remember?”

“Oh. Right. We’d better get going then. Trixie is going to be mad enough with me as it is, so let’s not dawdle.”

The chariot team took that as their cue to start, and they galloped a few yards before taking off. Damned if it wasn’t like one of the scariest roller coaster rides I’d ever been on. People back home would pay good money for a thrill like this!

Steady drew alongside the chariot and said, “Okay, spill it – how did you get yourself in trouble this time?”

The journey to Canterlot almost wasn’t long enough to tell it all – with some edits, of course.



We arrived during the lunch break and Empress Trixie gave me a flat look from her place at the dining room table. Raven Inkwell stood next to her, her magic rearranging the sheets on her ever-present clipboard. I bowed my head and neck, keeping them low until I heard her intone in her ‘bored’ voice, “Approach, Meadowlark Smells.”

I did so until I stood by her side. She gave me a quizzical look but I chose to say nothing. Eventually, she broke the silence.

“You delivered my note to Miss Sparkle?”

I nodded with a little smirk on my lips.

“She and her friends will go to the Crystal Empire?”

I nodded again. No words required, good.

“You canvased the mood of the townsfolk? And they approve of the rule of Trixie?”

I nodded a third time, though my smirk grew wider.

She narrowed her eyes, obviously displeased with me. That’s fine. I’d just wait her out and she’d speak again. Instead, she held out a hoof. Drat.

I looked back to my saddlebags and took out two items. I showed her my plaque. Trixie’s ears perked forward and Raven whistled.

When Trixie passed it back, I hoofed her a framed photo taken at the Day Spa. It showed the Mane Six gathered around “Celestia”, everyone smiling broadly.

Trixie raised an eyebrow. “And why exactly are you showing me this old photo?”

Raven gasped and pointed her quill at the cutie mark on “Celestia’s” flank. Trixie’s attention was drawn back to the photo and now both eyebrows rose. Her ears actually waggled back and forth for a few seconds. What did that body language mean?

The mares then looked up at me at the same time, both wearing the same bemused smile.

“Ponyville?” asked Trixie.

“Ponyville,” I replied.

She smiled broadly. “Welcome to the club.” She advisor the photo back to me as she stood up. “I’ll expect a full account of your activities over dinner. But for now, we have Day Court to run.”

“Yes, Your Patient and Forgiving Majesty.”

She lifted her nose as she strode past. “Oh, you aren’t out of hot water yet, Mismark Sells. You have just delayed the hour of your judgement.”

Crap. Looks like I’d have to turn up the entertainment and humor factor this evening. I hoped it wouldn’t come back to haunt me with endless teasing later... who was I kidding? Of course it would.

As Trixie, Raven, and I walked to the throne room, I remembered one detail of the trip that was better brought up now than found out later.

When we were in a section of hallway with no pony to overhear us, I said. “So…Great and Powerful Trixie?”

That earned me a suspicious glance over her shoulder.

“There will be some bills arriving for various damages I caused when I was in Ponyville: specifically to Sugarcube Corner and Sweet Apple Acres.”

She turned away with a sly grin. “As much as it pleases Trixie that you faithfully brought back reports of the townsponies’ positive opinion of Trixie, the Royal Court cannot simply absorb such damages. Your pay will be—”

I thought so. I turned to Raven and cut off the Smug and Powerful Trixie. “So the notes you take are made part of the permanent record of the court and distributed to the local newspapers, right? I want to read into the public record the instructive story of a mare who put on a show at the orphanage of a sleepy little village called Hackamore—”

As Raven’s ears swiveled forwards and her eyes began to sparkle, I was rudely interrupted. “On second thought, the Great and Forgiving Trixie will overlook your carelessness this once.” She stopped and looked at me with a cold stare. “We expect this never to be brought up again.”

I bowed deeply. “As the Generous and Many-Storied Trixie commands.”

She hesitated, then continued down the hallway.

Raven’s hoof kept me from following. She broke into a smile once Trixie had rounded a corner. “Spill it.”

I grinned. “According to the Equestrian Township Grapevine, Trixie’s reputation was such that she was not allowed to perform her show until she completed some community service. During her performance next to the town orphanage, the fireworks at the end of the show went awry and burned the place down.”

Raven put a hoof over her mouth. “Oh no!” The corners of her eyes were pulled upwards though—a dead giveaway that she was smiling.

“Oh yes. Trixie’s wagon was impounded until she finished helping rebuild the orphanage. In those three weeks, she camped outside with the foals, who thought this was the greatest thing ever.”

“Really?”

I grinned. “You know foals. Anything different from the boring normal is awesome, and sleeping outside was just the ticket. Also, Trixie has a special gift with little ones and entertained them every night … maybe because she felt guilty for destroying their house, maybe because she loved the appreciative audience.”

Raven dropped her hoof. “So how did that embarrassing chapter of the Great and Powerful Trixie’s life end?”

I chuckled. “Remember how I said the foals loved having her around? On the last night before construction of the orphanage was completed, they tried to burn it down again.”

Raven laughed so hard she started to cry. Eventually she settled down enough to say, “Let me guess. The townsfolk threw her and her wagon out of town because she was such a bad influence?”

I nodded and started trotting to the throne room. “Come on. Let’s not keep Her Royal Highness waiting.”

Raven caught up. “But now you’ve promised not to use that bit of blackmail material again.”

I thought back to the pages of notes I took during Pinkie’s party. “Oh, don’t worry. There’s plenty more where that came from.”

The afternoon court session went pretty smoothly and it kept my mind occupied. Trixie had royal-commanded me to attend dinner with her that evening, so I knew that I was going to be put through the wringer then. There was one other thing that was on my mind though since that morning, and I finally got the chance to ask Steady as we headed up to my room to freshen up and change before dinner.

“Is it my imagination, or do mares greatly outnumber stallions in Equestria?”

His eyebrows lifted in surprise. “You don’t remember that? Sheesh! Of course they do. Depending on where you live, there are three or four mares to every stallion.”

“And how do the mares deal with that?”

“Remember what you said about breeding potential on the day we first met?”

“Y-e-s?” I replied, not liking where this was going.

“The mares like to know what they’re competing for in advance.”

I recalled Rarity’s gifts, Fluttershy’s cuddles, Twilight’s fascination, and even Rainbow’s tomboy challenges in a new light. I gulped. Suddenly I longed for the company of the one mare who preferred to watch me crash into things. That seemed to be infinitely less frightening right now.



I didn’t give Trixie a chance to get on her high horse (Okay, I meant that pun!) at dinner. I started by telling her how I had almost died achieving that altitude record. Then, while she was still on the back hoof, I explained how Rainbow Dash had saved me, Zecora had healed me, and how I promptly screwed up again by eating poison joke. I played up the pranks and other craziness that I did as “Celestia”, managing to keep her laughing so much that she forgot all about being mad at me. Of course, I did not breathe a word about Rarity’s fashion parade. That was a private secret between the six mares and me (and perhaps an inquisitive dragon) that I would take to the grave and Trixie would never learn. That reminded me – I had better find a really good hiding spot for those 8 by 10 glossies that Twilight printed for me.

Oh, come on! You don’t think I’d want to relive my most glorious moments? For a brief time, I was a supermodel!



“Look, Mark – I know that the poison joke made a huge difference, but surely you must remember some of what it felt like to fly properly? Just recall that feeling and let it work for you!” Steady exhorted me. Just because Trixie had let me off the hook for my tardiness didn’t mean that she would allow me to shirk my flying lessons.

I just stood there on the balcony with my wings outstretched, trying to do exactly that, but it wasn’t working. “Steady – thanks to Twilight, I won’t be breaking altitude records again, but other than that, I feel no different.”

My friend sighed. “Okay, then we’re back to trying to re-learn the hard way. Maybe without the power surges, you may be able to control yourself better. You did pretty well with the unpowered gliding, after all.”

“You still haven’t shown me how to steer,” I reminded him.

“Oh, right. I’ll never be a proper flight instructor at this rate.”

“Yeah, you make a better valet,” I teased.

He poked his tongue out at me and I smirked back.

“Okay, smartarse, pay attention.” Steady showed me the methods for achieving basic turns and had me rehearse them a few times before he was satisfied. “Okay, let’s see if you can do it while actually flying. Take your position and carefully summon your flight magic.”

I recalled everything that Steady, Rainbow Dash, and even Fluttershy had shown me, and then firmed my will. ‘I can do this!’ I told myself sternly, and then took off over the Royal Gardens.

Half a minute later after madly careening all over the lawns and flower beds, frantically twisting and turning, overcompensating and spinning out of control, I crashed through a copse of trees and felt the vegetation bring me to an abrupt springy halt. My nose suffered not at all and I would have counted that as a victory if I wasn’t being strangled. Vines were looped about my body and my neck in particular, and I wheezed as I tried to call for aid.

How?! How did you manage to do that?!” Steady Flight exclaimed as he descended through the canopy. “That kind of vine doesn’t even grow in this climate!”

“Less botany, more help,” I choked out.

“And what’s with those crazy turns? Didn’t I tell you to be moderate when angling your wings?” Steady asked as he hovered next to me.

“Still asphyxiating here.”

“I mean, come on! Surely you learned something while you were an alicorn. Don’t glare at me like that!”

“Can’t breathe, idiot!”

Maybe he finally heard me, or perhaps my face was turning blue, but Steady finally realized that I was choking to death while he babbled about his frustrations with me. He unraveled the vine around my neck before helping me get untangled. “How didn’t you manage not to kill yourself before your illness, I’ll never know. You have to be the greatest klutz I have ever met.”

I could have let that pass because I was well aware of my clumsiness that had only been highlighted by my perfect coordination as Celestia, but Steady had left one vine looped around my hind leg while freeing my barrel, and as I slipped free, that last vine upended me before releasing me to plummet to the ground… nose first.

I groaned, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

“Oops! Sorry about that. What was that you said?”

“I said you’re buying again.”

The stallion flinched. “I’m gonna need a raise at this rate.”

That’s what I was afraid of. Flying was for the birds!



The rest of the week was remarkable for being unremarkable. Considering all the weirdness that had happened to me in the first eight days of my arrival in colorful pony land, I considered this a great blessing. Steady Flight even made sure that my lessons were held somewhere without anything harder than a cloud to crash into. I may have made a little progress at last. Practice makes… well… not perfect, but at least it wasn’t painful either.

My first weekend off was basically spent enjoying myself in the city. I even got to see a stage play. I must admit that Roameo and Jeweliette done by ponies is quite fascinating. Just kidding – Steady and I went to some bawdy comedy. I made a return trip to Ponyville the following weekend on the pretext of passing on Trixie’s congratulations for the success of their mission to the Crystal Empire and securing Ms. Harshwhinny’s stamp of approval for the venue of the Equestria Games. Actually, I just wanted to hang out with my friends. Not sure if bringing Steady along with me was a good idea though. On the one hand… or hoof… he deflected attention from me as a potential mate for most of the mares, but on the other, that just left Twilight alone and still wanting to do more tests on me. Oh well, I still got cake. Seems I have quite a craving for it nowadays.



Three uninterrupted weeks of business as usual at the court gave me time to learn more about Equestria and the running of a country, and I had gotten into a comfortable routine. So when Twilight arrived unannounced one afternoon during Day Court, I knew immediately that something serious was going down. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been to Canterlot a few times over the past few weeks; she regularly researched books in the Royal library and made more tests in the portal room. The mare had always avoided confrontations with Trixie though, and definitely stayed out of the throne room. Not today though.

Twilight strode in near the end of the afternoon session, ignoring the sergeant-at-arms who tried to politely do his duty. Trixie waved him off though, and let her rival approach the dais. I could sense Trixie tense up, the barest hint of what I had come to recognize as nervousness that the showmare normally concealed with skill. The way that Twilight kept an unyielding stare at the Princess as she approached only served to increase the tension. I wondered what Twilight was up to as I knew that the unicorn had no intention of rocking the political boat, preferring instead to concentrate her efforts on getting the real princesses back. Yet here she was, obviously on a mission, and wearing a cape of all things. I’d never known her to wear anything before.

Trixie took the initiative and spoke first. “Greetings, my loyal subject. How can the Great and Powerful Trixie help you today?”

Twilight said, “You can get off that throne for starters.” Her horn lit and her cape floated away. From the concealment of the cloak, she lifted wings that matched her purple coat to the gasps of all attending, Empress Trixie and myself included. I noticed, however, that Twilight’s expression was very focused and nowhere near friendly.

Perhaps being the subject of her angry countenance helped Trixie gain her wits back faster than anypony else in the room. She smiled, although I could tell she was anxious. “This is wonderful news, Twilight! Now Equestria can once again have diarchs as—”

“No,” said the purple alicorn flatly.

“No?” repeated Trixie, her brow furrowing.

“No. I will take over as the one and true Princess of Equestria.”

Hooboy!

 


 

Chapter 14: Challenge

 

I looked over nervously at Trixie. I could hear my heart beating wildly. I was about to advise her to just step down, but what I saw stopped me before I got out a sound.

Trixie raised her head slightly. Her anxiety was gone and she looked like a mother gazing at a disappointing child. She tapped her throne with one forehoof, her frown deepening. “Really?”

“Yes. The throne of Equestria was never meant for—”

“And how do you plan to take the Throne of Equestria, Miss Sparkle?”

Twilight paused for a moment, then ignored Trixie’s question. “Celestia meant for me to rule in her place while she was away, but I was called away to the Crystal Empire before—”

Trixie cut in again. “An interesting personal opinion, Miss Sparkle, but not one that holds any weight in law. I rule this country as recognized by the Guild of Mages, the Parliament of Nobles, and most importantly, by the grace of My Little Ponies. You have the support of none of these for your claim.”

I was shocked. I knew Trixie had stage presence, but what I was seeing now was something I had never seen before. She was dominating the conversation with the far more powerful mare.

Twilight lowered her head slightly, apparently to aim her horn at Trixie. “Princess Cadance and Shining Armor—”

“Are now leaders of a foreign nation allied with Equestria. The treaties they signed are with this country, not me, not you. Tell me, Miss Sparkle…” Trixie kept her eyes on the purple alicorn as she descended the dais. “…tell me exactly what the difference is between what you are trying to do now and what Queen Chrysalis attempted mere months ago? Are you not trying to usurp the leadership of Equestria through might alone?” Trixie came right up to Twilight’s nose. “Are you only doing this now because you have ascended to become what you now believe to be an alicorn more powerful than the Great and Beloved Trixie?”

Twilight was shaking. I could see the tendons on her neck clenching her jaw closed. Her eyes began to glow white. “You’re nothing! You’re not even—”

For the first time, Trixie raised her voice. “Would you dare to threaten to fight me here and now? To destroy the throne room and all the stained glass celebrating the missing rulers Celestia and Luna? To put in danger the lives of ALL THE LITTLE PONIES WHOM I LIVE TO SERVE?!”

Twilight’s eyes returned to their normal purple hue but her face remained twisted in anger. “I will not back down. As prescribed by the ancient Law of Alicorns, I challenge you for the right to rule Equestria.”

Trixie stared into Twilight’s eyes with a look I can only describe as pity. After a few moments, she turned around and marched past me towards the door that led to her chambers. “Very well, Miss Sparkle. I accept your challenge.”

The Element of Magic breathed out and relaxed slightly. She started to follow.

Without looking backward, Trixie called out, “Not now.”

Twilight Sparkle stopped mid-step. “But–”

Trixie interrupted. “I will inform you of an appropriate place and time. Remember that you are an immortal alicorn now, Miss Sparkle.” She opened the door with her magic. “Do try to learn some patience.” With that, Trixie finished walking through and closed it.

After a few moments, Twilight Sparkle looked at me. I don’t think my expression made her feel any better. With a flash and the pop of inrushing air, she teleported away. All eyes soon came to focus on me. I tried to keep any tremor out of my voice but failed utterly. “D-d-day Court is now adjourned!” I then scrambled to follow Trixie.

After closing the door behind me, I found her standing stock-still just a little way down the hallway. I came up to her side and looked at her face. She stood impassively gazing into the distance. I thought I could see pride radiating from her eyes.

“Trixie, that was incredible! I’ve never seen you act so… well… regal!”

She said nothing, just continuing to stare at some unknown point far away or maybe in the future.

“I mean it! I can see now why Celestia took you as her personal student. You were magnificent!”

Not a head nod, not a bigger smile, no indication whatsoever that she was accepting my praise… and given what I knew about this mare, it was getting downright creepy.

“Trixie? Hello? Earth… uh… Equestria to Trixie? Say something please!” I decided to wait her out.

After a full minute, she moved her lips without changing her expression in the slightest. “Are we alone?”

I nodded. “Yes. Yes, we are.”

She sighed. After some time, she said, “Trixie is so totally bucked.”

With that, she ran down the hallway screaming.



I didn’t try to chase after Trixie right then because I felt she needed a little time to herself, and besides, I needed to think about the situation. I was upset with how these circumstances came about too, and I needed to know more before I could deal with it. How did Twilight become an alicorn? Why was she so angry with Trixie? I thought that we had come to an understanding that the G&P was doing a reasonable job along with Raven and myself, and that Twilight would not really be suited for the job anyway. The former unicorn was a scholar at heart, not a princess.

I headed to my room. I needed to get out of my fancy clothes and freshen up. I doubted that I would get much of a chance to do so later. Steady Flight was waiting for me there having wisely not followed me when I chased after Trixie. I took off my jacket and passed it to him to hang up, but I put my vest aside before giving him my shirt and tie which he took wordlessly. Finally I asked, “What do you think of this situation?”

“You sure you want my opinion, Mark?”

I nodded. “Yeah – out with it.”

“The general population is going to be split on this. Princess Trixie is popular and doing a decent job, but they are also conditioned to believe alicorns are the true rulers of Equestria. Trixie had it right when she offered Twilight a diarchy – that could have satisfied everypony. Now, I don’t think Equestria is going to be better off for this challenge whoever wins.”

I grimaced. That pretty much aligned with my thoughts too. “That’s not an acceptable outcome.”

“I hate to say it, Mark, but I believe this has just become your problem. You’re the one who advises Trixie and moderates her impulses. You need to sort this out with Twilight Sparkle.”

“I agree, but I have a suspicion that my hooves are tied. This Alicorn Challenge that Twilight made sounds rather binding, so I don’t know if negotiating will solve anything.”

“Maybe, maybe not. I do know that whoever wins, we all will have to deal with the aftermath.”

I sighed and headed for the bathroom. I needed to run a washcloth over my face and brush my mane. I was going to have to look the part of someone who was calm and in control even while I was actually in turmoil too. Whatever I felt though had to be better than what Trixie was going through right now. When I was done, I went back and re-donned my vest. It looked good by itself and I felt confident and more in command. Time to stop delaying the inevitable. I instructed Steady to tell the kitchen to prepare Trixie’s favorite comfort foods and then headed out of my room. I made a beeline for Trixie’s suite and stopped just outside the doors.

“Is Princess Trixie within?” I asked the Royal Guards flanking the doors.

“Yes, sir,” one replied. “The Princess ordered that she was not to be disturbed.”

“I see. Her Highness needs me – are you going to stop me?” I gave the Guard who spoke my hardest stare.

The Guard met my gaze, but after a long moment, he relented and stepped aside. “I believe the Princess needs her stallion.”

I was her stallion? How did they get that impression? Nevertheless, I took advantage of that perception and entered the suite. As expected, I found Trixie on her bed, sobbing into her pillow. I quietly walked up beside the bed and sat down beside it. I reached over with my foreleg and gently hugged her.

Trixie flinched and turned her head to look at me with surprise, her cheek fur sodden from tears. “D-dowser? What… what are you doing here?”

No mangling of my name? This really was serious. “You needed me, so I’m here.”

Her lip quivered and then she buried her face in my neck and sobbed. I just held Trixie and let her cry herself out as I held her. Eventually, she sniffled and drew back.

“What am I going to do? I can’t beat an alicorn!” the mare wailed.

“Why not? I don’t know how Twilight became one, but she can’t know how to be one yet, while you have had years to practice your arts. Aren’t you the Amazing and Astounding Trixie who dazzles ponies with her stage magic in a world where nearly everything is magic? You just need to focus on what you do best.”

“Twilight Sparkle is one of the smartest ponies in Equestria. Trixie was thoroughly humiliated the two times that she clashed with her.”

“Then you have learned what not to do. And you have me, Raven, and Steady to help you prepare.”

Trixie propped herself up higher in the bed and wiped her eyes for a few moments. “Trixie will not go down without a fight, but don’t you think that Twilight has a right to rule?”

You have earned that right – Twilight has yet to prove herself.”

“Twilight is an alicorn!

“Are you all brainwashed into thinking that only alicorns can rule Equestria? You’ve already demonstrated that’s not true. Show her that.”

Trixie was quiet and thoughtful for a minute before her expression firmed. Her confident smile started to return. “Yes! Trixie will show her rival that she has earned the right her place on Equestria’s throne, and if Sparkle won’t accept that, then she needs to be put in her place!”

“Let’s not plan on antagonizing the new alicorn and concentrate on winning the challenge first, shall we?”

Trixie smirked a little. “Do you intend to do this planning in Trixie’s bedroom, Landmark Sells?”

“Umm… perhaps it would be better if we reconvene down in the dining room? I’ve ordered your favorites.” I got up and hastened towards the exit.

“That’s why I appreciate you, Mudlark Smells – you always treat Trixie like a princess!” she called out as I retreated.

I think the door guards heard that last bit before I closed the door to the suite. I’m pretty sure I saw smirks there for a moment before their neutral expression returned.

“As you were!” I ordered and left before my blush got any worse.



Soon, Trixie joined us in the dining room. Raven appeared to be asleep with her head cradled by her hooves on the table. Steady arrived with a tray containing four mugs of jet-black coffee to tide us over while the royal chefs prepared a late meal.

Raven’s nose started to twitch, then it seemed to float on its own accord until she was sipping at the coffee daintily. After a few breaths to cool it down, she knocked back the entire cup and plonked it back on the table. After gaining another mug and a single sip later, the unicorn mare blearily opened her eyes. “Present,” she mumbled.

I started. “OK, Trixie. Can you tell us what was happening to you when Twilight made her challenge?”

Trixie’s eyes darted around a bit, then settled on Steady. “Whatever do you mean, Embark Propels?”

“You hired me to advise you. Now I’m doing exactly that. I’m advising you to tell us what happened out there. We can’t move forward until we know what we’re dealing with.”

The blue unicorn rubbed her hoof against her head, grimacing. With a defeated look, she sighed. “Trixie is not really sure. For whatever reason, despite the fact that the purple alicorn was powerful enough to obliterate Trixie with her dandruff…”

Steady interrupted. “Twilight Sparkle has dandruff?”

I tried to kick him to get him to shut up, but my coordination failed me and I hit Trixie instead.

She glared at me then continued. “…Trixie had absolutely zero fear of her and no intention of backing down. And it was like… no, this is going to sound stupid.”

Steady spoke up. “Nothing sounds stupid two hours after midnight.”

Trixie continued. “Trixie wasn’t angry about the idea of Twilight as the ruler of Equestria. Trixie means… Twilight was probably groomed for the job by Big White Flanks, and she’s a heck of a powerful mare, now with in-field command experience leading the other Elements of Harmony. It was just the way she demanded it. Sitting on the throne like Trixie was, looking out over the court, her demand just… triggered something inside me.”

She squinted, trying to find the right words. “It was like all of Trixie’s acting experience combined with the power of personality Trixie has seen Celestia use a few times. Trixie felt like she was truly defending all of Equestria.”

I thought back to my Intro to All Things Equestrian course. “Do you think it was the magic of Harmony speaking through you?”

She shook her head. “No. Ponies feel that whenever we burst into song. Totally different.”

Raven snuck another coffee away from under Steady Flight’s nose. A glance showed me both her earlier mugs were now dry. “Well, no use crying over spilled coffee. The first order of business is to study this part of Alicorn Law for loopholes or weaknesses.”

A scroll appeared in front of her and dropped into her coffee cup with a splash. She frowned. “Horseapples.”

Her magic lifted the scroll and she watched the liquid drain from the paper. She looked at Steady. “I’m going to need that last coffee. Mark Wells can have this one.”

Trixie waved a hoof. “Well? Who is it from?”

Raven unrolled the scroll and read the contents quickly. “Hmmm. That’s convenient.” She looked over the top of the letter. “It’s from Lord Fancy Pants. He’s already had his legal team go through every bit of Alicorn Law and find the pertinent bits relating to the challenge.” Her eyes returned to the paper. “One – The ruler and challenger have the option of following through with the challenge or accepting permanent banishment from Equestria.”

Trixie winced.

“Two – As the ruler, you get to choose the date, time, location, and the three challenges – pegasus, earth pony, then unicorn. Both the ruler and challenger must agree on the Arbitrator, although the ruler proposes the candidates until one is accepted.”

I spoke up. “Who was that? What’s an Arbitrator’s job?”

“The Arbitrator sets the rules and judges which of the two contestants is the winner. Their decision is absolute.”

Steady asked. “What else?”

Raven rolled up the scroll again. “Other than a ban on combat of any form, even by proxy, that’s it. Alicorn Law is written in Old Equish and is full of conditionals and apologies and compliments and all sorts of rubbish that was the style of the time. It takes pages to get a single point across. ‘Foresooth, oh ye grande soule, and partaken unto this most humbelle scribbe… blah, blah, blah.’ Kind of stupid when paper and ink were so expensive back then, but there you have it. Oh, and Fancy Pants advised not waiting too long to set a date to prevent… um… civil unrest.”

The gears in my mind started to turn. “That’s a pretty short and simple set of rules.”

Something about my tone of voice must have caught Trixie’s attention because first one ear, then one eye pointed at me. “What are you considering, Unmark Pastels?”

I chose to ignore her question for the moment. “OK, first things first. I assume we are all planning to fight rather than literally slinking across the border with our tails between our collective legs, aren’t we?”

Raven and Steady nodded immediately. Trixie looked back and forth. “You are all crazy. If we lose, you are all going to—”

I interrupted. “We don’t plan to lose. And we are with you all the way.” I put my hoof in the middle of the table.

Steady smiled. “I’m riding this crazy train all the way to its destination.” He put a hoof on top of mine.

Raven put her hoof onto Steady’s while smiling at Trixie. The coffee mug had no say in the matter and went along for the ride. “Loyalty to my sovereign is who I am and what I will always do.”

Trixie gaped at us, then smiled. Daintily, she wiped away tears then put her hoof on top of the pile. “Thank you. Thank you all. Trixie is… I am honored to have friends such as all of you.”

I placed my other hoof on top of hers. “It’s because we love you, Trixie.” She blinked and cutely blushed a bit. I then grabbed her hoof with the sole of mine and smiled evilly. “Besides, it will be your tail hairs going up in flames at the contest, not ours.”

Her smile disappeared and she tried to pull away unsuccessfully. Her horn lit and a large spark arced over my head and hit my flank. “Yeowch!”

Trixie’s hoof escaped when I was distracted. I frowned at her. “Strategy point number one: Trixie is a really good shot.”

She sniffed and tried to look disdainful, but couldn’t help but smile back.

I sighed. “The first meeting of ‘Kick Twilight’s Supple Flanks’ is now in order.” That got me an identical glare from both mares. I laughed. “OK! OK! Message received. So – first we list our opponent’s strengths.”

Raven had her omnipresent clipboard and quill out and ready. Steady started. “Probably the most knowledgeable and powerful spell-caster in Equestria since Star Swirl the Bearded, and even that is up for debate. And that was before she ascended.” He looked at Trixie. “Your pardon.”

Trixie waved away the apology. “Her friends were remarkable even before they became Element Bearers. Together, they are unstoppable.”

Raven spoke next. “She is very well regarded by the populace, although her recent actions have no doubt eroded that support somewhat.”

I nodded. “OK, that’s a good start. Now, what are her weaknesses?” Silence and searching looks surrounded the table. “Come on now. No pony is perfect. What are the areas where she isn’t awesome?”

Steady said, “Well, she just became an alicorn, right? So her pegasus and earth pony magic might be strong, and she may have read the theory, but she has no practice.”

I tapped my hoof on my chin. “That would be another reason to have the challenge take place sooner rather than later.”

Trixie spoke next. “She is mentally unstable.” Everyone looked at her in surprise. “I am not just talking about what happened in Day Court. Celestia sent her to Ponyville to learn the value of friendship and shared with me some of Twilight’s letters. She is prone to rationalization and fits of manic behavior. Twilight is well served when she allows the moderating influence of her pet Spike and the other Element Bearers.” Trixie seemed to understand my incredulous stare. “Yes, even Pinkie Pie has a stabilizing effect on her.”

Raven thought for several seconds. “She has a tendency to approach any problem initially from the most obvious path. Twilight does not always prepare contingency plans ahead of time. Instead, she relies on her intellect to steer her when the unexpected occurs. Also, she can become very frustrated when this happens and stops thinking clearly.”

I nodded. “Good. Now let’s get straight to the strengths of each of us at this table, not just Trixie. Anypony can chime in.”

Steady said, “Well, I had the chance to see Empress Trixie perform in her previous career. She has the ability to get an audience onto her side and her stage magic can get ponies to do things they wouldn’t normally do. At the performance I went to, she convinced a heckler to tar and feather himself.”

Trixie chuckled. “Good times. But how does that apply to the current situation?”

I spoke up. “It’s a matter of anticipating what your opponent will do and allowing them to act in a way that they think is in their self-interest, but instead draws them into your trap.”

After some time to consider this, Raven spoke up. “Mark, you frequently see situations from a perspective different from any other pony. Have… any memories come back from your life before your amnesia that would provide an approach to this problem that no pony has seen before?”

Steady looked at her with a furrowed brow, but I understood what she meant. So were there any sleights of hand or technology that would appear to be magic to every Equestrian? I could feel an idea buzzing in the back of my head, but couldn’t put my hoof on it. I tapped the table for a bit. “I’ll give that some thought. Now what about the individual challenges?”

Raven winced. “I don’t think you’re going to like hearing this…”

All of us nodded for her to continue.

“If we choose three challenges and Trixie wins two out of three or even three out of three, support among about half of the nobles will be severely damaged, perhaps irreparably. Especially if the challenges we select play directly to Trixie’s strengths: dancing, giving speeches, Cajun cooking, card tricks, etc.”

Trixie spoke up. “What do you suggest? We can’t let Twilight choose them. We might earn some respect for the gesture, but we would have literally no chance to win.”

After taking a deep breath, the unicorn continued. “We let the Arbitrator select the challenges and they are only revealed during the contest.”

“What!” protested Steady. “That means we have no way to prepare!”

I said, “That also means Twilight will be at the same disadvantage.”

Steady continued, “Well, we could imitate general skills in those areas, like unicorn levitation magic to emulate flying.”

Raven said, “Or time magic to stimulate plant growth.”

I picked up the conversation. “OK, so that’s half of it. Who should we select as Arbitrator that we know Twilight would accept?”

All three ponies in front of me said “Lord Fancy Pants” simultaneously, looked at each other, then back at me.

“No argument. Can’t think of a more honorable pony who also has the best interests of Equestria at heart.” There were some nods and smiles around the table.

An unbidden thought came to me. I evaluated it and decided to share. “This conversation has brought up one memory from my earlier life.” I had everyone’s attention. “I heard that a martial arts champion once said that in the arena, he has two opponents: the pers… uh… pony sparring with him and the umpire.” I looked at Raven. “Does Alicorn Law state exactly what constitutes a victory in each of the areas of pony magic?”

She shook her head. “Just that the criteria are at the discretion of the Arbitrator, which I suppose is why he has to be agreed upon by both parties.”

I said, “So we may not be able to guess the exact nature of the challenges, but we should be able to make some good guesses as to what he’s looking for in a ruler.” Everyone looked deep in thought. “Come back with ideas.”

Steady spoke up. “So now the last question. How long do we need to prepare?”

Any hints of smiles stopped. Raven spoke first. “I… uh… just don’t know.”

Trixie buried her head in her hooves and groaned. Steady put a comforting wing on her withers and patted lightly. “There, there. We will all get through this.”

Surprisingly, I noticed two things. First that he was not holding his wing correctly for level flight. Second, that his coat color, which extended to his wings, was nearly identical to that of our revered leader. I felt my cheeks curl up in a smile as the pieces fell into place.

Raven stared at me. “Mark?”

The other two looked up at my manic smile and waited.

I stopped smiling long enough to ask, “Tell me how long everypony thinks it will take to get the following set up and working well enough for its grand debut…”



The food helped a lot, and between that and the initial plans that we made, Trixie was back close to her usual self. Which is why I was now in Ponyville once more, courtesy of the pegasus royal chariot. At least I got to learn the Guards’ names this time. Gusty Wind and Hardy Wings apparently were Trixie’s normal go-to team for these flights. The stallions were strong and fast flyers and they got me to the township later that morning, landing directly outside the Golden Oaks library. I told them to wait nearby because I was unsure of how long I would be there. At worst, I might be refused entry, but I had to try. Despite the library being officially open at this time, I still felt it wise to knock first.

Spike answered the door. He gave me a glum look and said, “I figured it might be you.”

“Can I come in, Spike?”

The dragon looked over his shoulder before nodding and opening the door completely. I walked inside but saw nothing amiss.

“Twilight is still out, so it’s safe to talk.”

“Did she tell you what happened at Canterlot?”

“Yeah. I told her that she shouldn’t challenge Trixie, but she wouldn’t be swayed.”

“She did strike me as being single-minded at times. So – how the heck did she become an alicorn?”

“That’s a wild story. Did you hear about some crazy weather in Ponyville recently?”

“No. What’s that got to do with it?”

What followed was an incredible story of swapped cutie marks, changed destinies, the resulting chaos, and the efforts by Twilight to fix the situation that had all been brought on by a spell that I had inadvertently given her among all the other material that I had brought from Canterlot for Celestia’s student to study. Apparently, the creation of new magic had pushed Twilight over some kind of threshold and she… well… ascended. Even the scholarly Twilight had not been able to fully describe it, but she had found herself on some spiritual plain all by herself. Scared and confused, the mare hadn’t noticed power growing within her until it burst forth and transformed her before returning her to Equestria. It was when Rarity said “You look like a princess” that the seed of an idea was planted in Twilight’s brain, and she became determined to become exactly that. The new alicorn announced her intention to confront Trixie, and despite Spike and her friends advising that she take some time to think it over, Twilight rushed off to Canterlot without any of them to back her up.

Great. Two headstrong mares and me in between. I wished Celestia had been here to guide them both still but it looked like we had to do it the hard way. I sighed and said, “Trixie’s determined to meet Twilight’s challenge. How’s your big sister taking it, by the way?”

Spike rolled his eyes. “Just like she usually does – completely over the top. Now she realizes that she should have listened to us first. Instead…”



“I so totally messed up!” wailed Twilight Sparkle. She cried into her hooves, but it was hard to tell because she hid her head from sight with her brand new wings.

Spike sat by her side at a table in the Golden Oaks Library, gently stroking her withers with one set of claws while the other took notes. He looked up at the mares standing around the room with his best ‘please help me’ look.

Applejack waved her hat in an attempt to get some air onto the crying alicorn. “Beggin’ yer pardon, newly appointed Alicorn of Friendship and Magic and All Whatnot, but what in tarnation were you thinkin’ by pulling a stunt like that in Day Court? Did those newfound feathers get stuck in your brain or somethin’?”

“I don’t know!” moaned Twilight. “After I got these wings, I just had this feeling that this is what Celestia really wanted. That this was a sign I needed to take the throne.”

Rainbow Dash spoke from the back of the room, trying to hide the broken glass from the shattered window pane while Twilight was distracted. “Did you talk to Celestia in that weirdo place between worlds when you ass-mended? Did she tell you to throw Trixie out on her ear?”

The new alicorn lifted her wings slightly, poked her nose out. “It’s ‘ascended.’ There were panels floating in space showing me images from my past in Canterlot and Ponyville. Celestia was in some of them and you girls were, too. But no, I didn’t get any messages from Celestia or anyone else in that strange dimension.”

Fluttershy said. “Umm… well, it’s really not my place to say, but could you go back and apologize and accept her offer to be a Diarch?”

Twilight shook her head. “I invoked Alicorn Law when I challenged Trixie, and she accepted, alicorn or not. That means I can either go through with the challenge…” The purple alicorn looked down at the table and swallowed. “…or leave Equestria forever.” She lowered her voice and her tears started again. “Celestia would be so ashamed of me. Every single thing Trixie said about me was right. Maybe I should leave.”

“Awww. It’s no big deal, Twilight! You just kinda went...” Pinkie Pie jumped up on the table. Spike pulled Twilight back just before the party pony landed where Twilight’s head had been. Pinkie stood up on her back legs and her forelegs flopped around, looking uncannily like limp noodles. Her mane flowed to cover her face and looked just like tentacles wiggling in all directions. “… ‘Rrrraahhhh! I am now one of the Great Old Ones! Fear my power and the wrath of the Elder Gods! Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn! ’ ”

Everyone stared in a combination of fascination and terror. For Spike, it was like that helpless feeling you get when you watch a train go careening off a bridge, only to see it eaten by an Eldritch Horror that was inexplicably pink. He had to admit that Pinkie did a great job distracting his sister out of her mopey train of thought. Apparently, it was the same for everyone else in the room, based on the same slack-jawed expression he saw everywhere.

Rarity cleared her throat. That’s… a new look for you, Pinkie.”

In a flash, the party pony was on all fours and back to her normal—uh, for her—look. “Actually, Rares, it’s an ooooooooooold look.” She winked then settled down on the table and closed her eyes.

Rarity blinked her eyes a few times then turned to Twilight. “If I understand correctly, the point she was trying to make—”

“Pinkie Pie Point!” chirped the mare in the center of the table, then settled her head down again.

“—yes. The ‘Pinkie Pie Point’ was that perhaps the change into an alicorn gave you much more power than you were used to. And that power went to your head, perhaps just a smidge.”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “More like you thought you were a goddess whose every whim was law.”

“Rainbow Dash!” scolded Fluttershy in a voice that was definitely audible, which is how Spike knew how upset she was. The pegasus mare moved over to Twilight who was hunched over herself now. Fluttershy gently extended a wing to cover her back and pulled Twilight closer. “We’re friends first, Twilight. All of us will always be there for you.”

Everypony crowded around the newest alicorn in Equestria and made her into a hug burrito.

She sniffled. “Maybe… maybe you’re right. It’s just that Trixie makes me so angry!” Twilight’s voice lost an octave with the last word and she snarled. “That mare is desecrating everything Celestia and Luna ever stood for.” Her eyes started to glow. “I have to—”

Applejack spoke up. “Whoa! Whoa now, Sugarcube!”

Twilight’s eyes regained their regular color and her voice returned to normal. “Whu?... What?”

Spike poked her in the side. “You were going off the deep end again.”

She put a hoof to her chest and breathed deeply for a few moments.

“Ugh! Maybe you all are right. I’m not used to these alicorn instincts. They are just so powerful that they make me seem crazy!” All of her friends shared the same knowing look with each other. Twilight noticed. “What?”

Applejack scuffed the floor for a moment with a forehoof, then spoke up. “Beggin’ your pardon, Twilight, but you act crazy a good fair amount of the time.”

“Hoo yeah!” said Rainbow Dash. “If it’s not Mr. Smartypants or freaking out about Zecora or trying to understand Pinkie Pie, then it’s something else that twists your tail into a knot!”

Fluttershy shot a glare at the other pegasus before looking back at the purple mare. “And for all those times, your friends were always there for you, Twilight. And we always will be.”

Rarity added her wisdom. “Darling, we have been your steadying influence for well over a year now. No matter what happens, we will continue to help you through this. Now honestly, is the situation really that bad?”

Spike raised a claw and spoke up. “Actually, it kinda is.” He pointed to two piles of scrolls that had arrived via Derpy Post first thing that morning. “The pile on the left are nobles who are swearing support to Twilight. The pile on the right are those who are informing her of their fealty to Trixie.” He then pointed to the one scroll on the table. “That one is from Fancy Pants. He had his legal team do an all-nighter reading through every bit of Alicorn Law in the Canterlot Library and Royal Archives. Unfortunately, he just confirmed what Twilight said about there being exactly two ways the challenge could end.”

Rarity gave her perfect smile. “Well, it’s good to have his support, at least.”

Spike really, really hated contradicting her again, but he shook his head. “I think he did this for the good of Equestria. He said he was providing the results of his research to Trixie as well. He asked if he could do anything to speed the process along so there wouldn’t be any ‘avoidable unpleasantries.’ ”

“Civil war,” translated Twilight. “That’s what I’ve set in motion. And Lord Fancy Pants is right. Trixie needs to present her three challenges as soon as possible.”

“Three challenges?” asked Rainbow Dash. “So like you choose three champions for trials or something?”

“No. One challenge for unicorn traits, one for pegasus, and one for earth pony. I have the power of all three now, but I need to start practicing.” She looked up. “Applejack, would you teach me how to talk to plants and buck trees? I don’t know how long I have to learn so I need to start now.”

The farm pony nodded. “Apple trees I can do, but for talking to all types of plants, the flower sisters are the best in town.”

“Umm…” spoke up Fluttershy. “I can ask my friend Tree Hugger to come over. I’m not saying anything bad about the sisters, but I’ve never met anyone who can commune with plants like she can.”

Twilight turned to Rainbow Dash. “Can you give me a crash course on flying?”

Rarity frowned. “Not the best choice of words, darling.”

The smile Rainbow Dash gave reminded Spike that she loved to eat fish, and it looked like Twilight was going to be her next meal. “Sure thing, Twi! I gotta tell ya, I’m a stern teacher and won’t go easy on you!”

“That’s fine. I just need to learn quickly. Trixie could summon me for the challenges at any time.”

For some reason, all of the mares looked at Spike and waited.

“What?” He met eyes with all of them but they just continued to stare. Then he got it. “No, I don’t feel a scroll coming through on dragonfire right now. You can relax.”

They all sighed in relief.

Twilight smiled for the first time. “Girls… thanks. This means so much to me.” They all smiled back.

Just then, there was a flash of light and a popping sound from the back of the library. A tall mare with a nondescript gray cloak proceeded to lift her hood, revealing a very familiar smile. The purple mare’s face lit up. “Cadance!”

Twilight’s old babysitter jogged up to her. “Oh, Twilight! I’m so proud of you!” She pulled back. “Let me see those wings!” With a sheepish grin, the nation’s newest alicorn complied.

Princess Cadance literally danced on the tips of her hooves. “They look absolutely magnificent! Congratulations!” They then went for another big hug.

After all the other Elements and Spike had their chance to say hi, Cadance got serious. “I heard what happened in Day Court yesterday. I imagine you are wondering why you felt the need to depose Trixie from the throne.”

Twilight cringed and looked down. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

“I do.”

That caused the purple alicorn to look up in surprise.

“Twilight, there is more to becoming an alicorn than gaining wings and access to the magic of all three tribes. Your ascension was arranged ahead of time by Celestia, I suspect?”

Twilight nodded. “I believe so.”

Cadance sighed. “If I had been made aware, I could have prepared you as she obviously intended to but couldn’t because of her absence.” She looked the mare directly in the eyes. “Twilight, one of the most important side-effects of becoming an alicorn is in your mind. Alicorns are compulsively driven to lead. Celestia started to prepare you by putting you in the leadership position of the Elements of Harmony, and you are considered a leader here in the Ponyville community.” She smiled. “Do you know what I did within an hour of the foal-sized, almost powerless Princess Luna arriving at Canterlot Castle?”

The newest alicorn shook her head.

“I got on my knees and pledged my undying fealty to her. Luna was disoriented, feeling incredibly guilty about her past, and surrounded by strangers, but she accepted my pledge without hesitation because she knew the alternative was a struggle for power as second-in-command of Equestria. Celestia was very pleased and reiterated her promise to provide me a kingdom to rule if the opportunity ever arose.”

Pinkie Pie bounded up. “So that’s how you got the Crystal Empire! And you got Shining Armor too as a housewarming gift!”

Everypony gaped in shock, but Cadance erupted in laughter. “Oh, that’s hilarious, Pinkie!” She put on an uncharacteristically evil grin and spoke to an empty part of the room. “ ‘Honey? I’m going to take you back to Bedchambers-R-Us. I think I’ll get another set of sheets with the store credit.”

Pinkie blew a bubble from the pipe she had produced from her mane. “Nah. You forgot to save the receipt. Classic rookie mistake. Happens at most first weddings.”

Twilight frowned and pushed herself in front of Pinkie. “OK, thanks. That helps me understand my feelings, but I still have to follow through with the challenges. Can I count on your support, Cadance?”

The pink alicorn shook her head sadly. “Neither Shiny or I can attend or appear to side with either party because we cannot be seen as interfering with internal Equestrian affairs. Technically, I shouldn’t be here at all, but… Eeeeeeee!” She started dancing again with a huge grin on her muzzle. “I just had to see the wings on the foal I used to babysit!”

Cadance jumped forward into another hug. “Come on, Twilight. Give me a proper hug this time!”

At her prompting, Twilight Sparkle used her wings to envelop the back of the larger mare.

The Princess of Love held her for several seconds before breaking the embrace. She looked kindly into Twilight’s eyes. “Write to me with any questions you have about your new form. I wish your brother and I could do more for you now in your time of need, but our hooves are tied.”

Rainbow Dash called out, “So what are the unimportant ones?” At Cadance’s puzzled look, the blue Pegasus added, “So what are the unimportant changes of becoming an alicorn?”

The Princess of Love blinked. “Oh! Well, she’ll have a much better appreciation for the taste of all produce now. And she’ll love fish just like a pegasus.”

That got a disgusted look from Twilight. “Ugh! No, I don’t think so.”

Cadance smiled knowingly, then looked over the rest of the Elements. “Any time you want Twilight to do something, tempt her with smoked salmon. Shiny figured out this was an alicorn weakness years ago. You wouldn’t believe what he’s talked me into doing because of it. Why this one time—”

Twilight clopped her forehooves over her ears. “Too much information!”

Cadance chuckled and kissed the purple alicorn on the forehead. When Twilight set her hooves back down, the Alicorn of Love smiled. “Very well, Twilight. We’ll talk about those changes when you’re ready.”

Cadance then lifted her hood over her head, and with a flash of magic and a popping sound, she was gone.

Taking that as her cue, Pinkie Pie jumped onto the table, her mane now in a shape exactly matching Twilight’s. A scroll “floated” in front of her on a wire hanger that looped around her head for support. A quill was in her mouth. “All right, everypony! We have a checklist! Let’s get checking!”



Yeah, Fancypants’ scroll had dampened the mood for Team Trixie. However, now that I knew that Twilight had realized that she had screwed up, I felt that there was a better chance of us resolving the situation in a manner that would be best for everyone. Or at least avoiding some nasty repercussions like civil war.

“Thanks, Spike. I know that you have to be loyal to your sister and you didn’t need to tell me all this.”

“Dude – Twilight’s your friend. Not even this situation will change that. I think she’d be happy that you’re trying to fix this mess.”

I arched an eyebrow at him. “So, are you going to tell her about our chat?”

He gave me a flat look. “Do you think Twilight hatched an idiot?”

I chuckled. “Nope. I had better go before she returns. I just need you to pass on this message from Trixie.” I took a scroll from my saddlebag and gave it to him.

“What’s this?” Spike asked.

“The formal terms of the challenge. We looked them up.”

“Oh. You could have just sent it by dragonfire, y’know?”

“Yeah, but it was my excuse for visiting here so that I could try to learn what was happening on your side of this sticky situation.”

“That makes sense. Anything else you need to know?”

“Maybe, but I can’t think of anything at the moment and I’ve imposed on you enough.”

“Okay. Come back and visit when this is all over,” he said as we walked to the door. “Oh – and may the best princess win.”

I nodded. The best for Equestria, I sincerely hoped.

 


 

Chapter 15: Challenges

 

The next five days of preparations went by in a blur. Day Court was postponed until after the challenge. Trixie, Raven, Steady, and I strategized, rehearsed, brainstormed, improved our plan of action, and maybe went through a bottle of whiskey in the process… for lubricating the creative gears, of course!

Finally, the afternoon of the fifth day arrived. The fountain at the center of the Hurricane Courtyard had been removed (no clue – pony magic, I guess), replaced with a low wooden platform. Flagstone pathways formed rings around the center with flowers and low bushes between them. Ponies crowded the windows and hallways around the circular courtyard but only three had their hooves inside it. Those gathered to witness the unprecedented event included the Elements of Harmony, Spike, the Guild of Mages, the Parliament of Nobles, and an assortment of lesser nobles, castle staff, and common ponies. Raven and I watched from the fourth and top storey, overlooking Hurricane Courtyard from the private enclosed balcony of the Royal Suite. The nature of the privacy enchantment on the glass allowed us to see and hear what happened outside without anypony looking in. When the sun was directly overhead, Lord Fancy Pants strode to the center of the platform.

“Mares and gentle-stallions. We are gathered here today to perform the Challenge of Royalty as prescribed by Alicorn Law that predates our kingdom. In their wisdom, Celestia and Luna decreed that blood would not be spilled in a contest for the leadership of Equestria. Instead, I will present three tasks to the challengers: the first being pegasus, then earth pony, and lastly unicorn. I will provide my judgment at the end of the challenge. The winner will be the undisputed leader of our nation.”

He waited for several seconds but no pony dared to speak. He looked at Equestria’s newest alicorn. “Twilight Sparkle, please step forward.”

With the clomp of her golden horseshoes, Twilight came up to Fancy Pants’ right side and stopped. Thanks to Rarity, no doubt, Twilight wore a very fashion-forward gown that certainly looked the part for a princess of Equestria. Gold fabric was tastefully draped over a dark pink dress. A white train completed the look. It was fortunate that hoof-to-hoof combat wasn’t on the list of activities for the day because that was definitely not appropriate attire. Actually, that would be pretty much an automatic win for Twilight, to the point that attire wouldn’t make a difference. Ultimately, I had to see the logic in her choice of clothing. Dress for the job that you want.

“Are you prepared to continue with your challenge for the leadership of Equestria?”

“I am,” she said. I didn’t hear any emotion in her voice, just confidence.

“Do you accept me as Arbitrator of this challenge, and will you abide by my decision?”

She nodded. “I do and I will.”

Fancy Pants turned to his left. “Princess Trixie Lulamoon, please step forward.”

Platinum horseshoes clopped onto the wood. Trixie stood with a relaxed smile just a few feet from Twilight Sparkle. Trixie wore a more practical outfit – a tight-fitting jacket underneath her most resplendent royal purple cloak. The cloak ended in sharp lapels over her shoulders and was held in place by a large platinum clasp with a star in front. Instead of light blue and white stars, the cloak was adorned by the logo of the day and night alicorns chasing each other in a circle. Her headgear consisted of a pair of flight goggles instead of her hat or crown.

“Are you prepared to defend your right to be the leader of Equestria?”

She turned to the crowd and gave her most beaming smile. Here we go. “When the mantle of leadership was passed to me by the great Princess Celestia, I was uncertain of my worthiness for the office.” I saw Twilight sigh and her ears droop, but the audience was paying full attention. Trixie began to pace the stage in a wide circle, waving with one hoof as she addressed every part of the crowd.

“But these months have done something wonderful to my heart. Do you know what that is?”

She looked around with a smile full of affection. Damn, that mare could work an audience.

“I found the love that Celestia and Luna had for all My Little Ponies. I know now why they worked so tirelessly for you all. I learned of the many ways that make the Ponies of Equestria the most generous, kind, loyal, good-humored, and honest beings in the entire world.”

Twilight’s ears and head perked up at that. Stealing your lines? That one had to hurt.

Trixie had paced almost back to where she had started. “And in closing, let me tell you, one and all, that every breath I take, every move I make, every step I take, it will always be for you.”

I heard sniffs and saw some handkerchiefs coming out around the crowd. I turned to Raven and hissed under my breath, “She cribbed my lyrics!”

“Quiet,” she whispered back.

“She totally stole them!”

“Doesn’t matter. Pay attention.”

I looked back to see Trixie make the final step back to face Twilight Sparkle again. “I will defend my right to the throne with every fiber of my being, my honor, and my life.”

I believed her. Apparently Twilight did too because her eyes widened a bit. This was absolutely, positively, not supposed to be a battle to the death, but Trixie just pushed all her chips to the center of the table and I could tell it rattled the purple alicorn.

Showing no irritation at the delay, Lord Fancy Pants continued. “Do you accept me as Arbitrator of this challenge, and will you abide by my decision?”

She nodded. “I do and I will.”

I whispered to no one in particular. “Showtime.”



Fancy Pants addressed the crowd and the two mares. “The first trial is the pegasus challenge. You will each demonstrate your flying prowess.” He turned to Trixie. “Princess Trixie, you will be first.”

I heard Raven retreat back into the room behind me. Trixie kept her eyes on her opponent, unfastening the clasp on her cloak, folding it and placing it on the ground. Her vest was now shown to be a standard Equestrian military flight vest, her wings poking out of the holes made for that purpose. She lowered her flight goggles and smiled wider as her wings rustled slightly.

I turned and looked back. The room was dark, with the windows set to let in only a small amount of light. All furniture had been removed and Raven stood to the side, her hooves spread wide and her horn alight. Steady floated in the center of the chamber in her magic. He wore a flight jacket identical to the one worn by Trixie, except his wings were completely stiff and unmoving.

“Now,” I said to my valet.

He tapped his flight goggles. “I see it. Counting down. Five… Four…”

I turned back to face the courtyard. We had worked on dramatic timing and synchronizing movements for many hours.

“…Three… Two…”

Trixie finally took her eyes off of Twilight, looked upwards, spread her wings fully, and crouched – all the while wearing the same confident smile.

“…One… Now… Grruh!”

In the courtyard, Trixie sprang upwards like a shot. I could hear her happy laughter cut through the air.

Steady grunted in strain. “Brake… flip… open… dangit! Right hard… climb into loop… out into… crap!”

Well above the courtyard, I saw Trixie come out of her loop off-angle and she had to project a bubble on the side of the castle to keep from crashing into it. She bounced off the barrier into a graceful flip and her wings reopened. “Oh, yeah!” she yelled. Throughout the next couple of minutes, she kept a constant stream of laughter and whoops and hollers, occasionally using her magic to bounce off of an obstacle or grab onto a surface to execute an especially tight turn.

Steady moved his head to look down. “…slow spin to courtyard… and now… balconies…”

This was the part we practiced the most. Trixie grinned hugely as she galloped along the solid barriers that ringed the balconies on the three top levels, giving every observer a close-up look at her mastery of the aerial element. When she was done with the last layer, she sprung off, turned to fly directly over Twilight, then flared her wings to hover over the spot she had started. As she descended, she turned around and alighted on all four hooves simultaneously.

I could see Twilight’s frown from where I was standing and heard her voice clearly. “Nice ‘wings,’ Trixie. I’m curious. Would you mind taking off your jacket?”

Trixie, uncharacteristically, said nothing. She just smiled and reached for the zipper on her flight jacket.

I called out Trixie’s movements precisely. “Zipper pull… done… grabbing… out… forward… backward… half… done.”

Looking in the courtyard, I saw what appeared to be Trixie’s slightly-open wings slowly emerge from the holes of the flight jacket then furl back to her sides. Trixie carefully folded the jacket then levitated her cloak back onto herself, clasping it in place. She looked expectantly at her opponent.

Twilight blinked in obvious confusion.

I heard Steady and Raven come up beside me. Steady was huffing and puffing a bit, flexing the kinks out of his wings.

“I never, ever want to put any part of my body through dimensional portals again!”

“Join the club,” I deadpanned. “Miss Sparkle’s turn now.”

We heard Fancy Pants from the courtyard break Twilight’s contemplation. “Twilight Sparkle: it is now your turn.”

The purple alicorn looked away from Trixie to the stallion. She exhaled and closed her eyes. After a few deep breaths, her wings shot out to the sides, then upwards dramatically. She raised her head skyward, opening her eyes with resolve set in her face. Twilight crouched down, the wooden planks shivering from the magic building in her. With a roll of her shoulders, she burst upwards at incredible speed… only to turn sharply into horizontal flight and smash through a wall on the third storey. A series of crashes followed. Ponies that had dived out of the way peered into the hole, only to be moved aside by the other five Element Bearers who charged in after her. Curiously, Rarity brought along a large bag floating in her magic.

A few minutes later, Twilight stumbled out of the wreckage, looking embarrassed but not worse for wear. She was now wearing a royal purple dress with silver lace highlights and silver shoes. Her mane and tail were braided with silver chains throughout their length. The audience let out applause at both her returning safely and her new wardrobe. The rest of the Elements fanned out on the balcony as Twilight glided back down to her place in the courtyard. Twilight nodded to Fancy Pants, indicating she was ready to continue.

There was a knock at the door to the Royal Suite. Raven trotted towards it as Steady and I kept our eyes on the courtyard.

Fancy Pants motioned to a page that had been staying out-of-sight in a room at the lowest level of the courtyard. The unicorn servant floated two pots full of soil in her magic, resting one in front of each mare on the platform. Each earthenware pot was perhaps the size of a pony’s head and each held a small sapling or vine that only had a couple of small leaves. The page then returned to the room from which she had come.

Steady asked. “What kind of plant is that?”

“No clue,” I replied.

Fancy Pants addressed both mares. “The second challenge is earth pony magic. Attempt to make the plants grow.” He turned to the purple alicorn. “Twilight Sparkle, you are first.”

Twilight got down on her knees, removed her horseshoes and gently placed one forehoof on the soil in the pot while staring intently at the sprig within. She exhaled and the pot seemed to shimmer slightly but when the effect vanished, the plant looked the same. Twilight narrowed her eyes and tapped the pot with her forehoof a few times.

The mare then picked up the pot and walked off of the platform. Her magic lifted a flagstone and a large plug of soil from underneath it. The pot separated itself from the soil surrounding the small green growth and the young plant was gently placed in the ground.

Raven came up carrying Trixie’s flight jacket and goggles in her magic. “What did I miss?”

I growled. “Miss Sparkle is thinking outside the box. Fancy Pants did not say she had to leave the twig in the pot and she figured that out.”

In the courtyard, more flagstones floated away and Twilight stood with all four hooves on the soil. She closed her eyes and lowered her head. The ground beneath her began to turn the dark color of rich soil and small weeds started to sprout from it. The dirt turned that rich color in a slow-moving wave, followed by the second wave of tiny weeds coming up from the ground. The waves reached out to where the small plant lay dormant. After a few seconds, the dark soil surrounded the plug of earth from the pot. The sprouting greenery dutifully followed where the soil had darkened but did not penetrate the dirt that had been transplanted with the sprig.

Twilight opened her eyes and frowned at the stubborn plant. After several seconds, she lifted her head and wings and her eyes glowed white. A sphere of magic began to rotate in the air above the courtyard. It was almost as wide as the space and had splotches of color all along its surface. Slowly, it shrunk, growing less transparent as it descended. A faint crackling sound could be heard and a wind started to circle around the area. When the ball was the size of a melon, it touched the small plant. It continued to shrink until it appeared that its entirety had been absorbed by the small leaves and stem. The wind died down and Twilight was left glaring at the uncooperative twig.

She frowned and tilted her head for a few moments, her brow furrowed in thought. Then she clopped a forehoof against her forehead, leaving a dirty imprint. “Of course! I completely forgot.”

With a flash of her magic, a watering can appeared just above the plant. Twilight leaned in as she carefully sprinkled out the first drops.

I saw the purple alicorn spin away in midair as the plant grew skyward with the roar of earth being moved and flagstones flying away. It took less than a second to reach the level of the top of the courtyard and perhaps two more to grow beyond the height of the tallest castle tower. I glanced down to the courtyard and saw Fancy Pants sensibly backing up while Trixie, her pot safely floating in her magic, walked slowly up to the rapidly expanding trunk of what now was clearly a type of vine. As the growth slowed, she raised a hoof dramatically and lowered it in time with the deceleration of its growth.

“Duck!” I heard Steady yell as he shoved me and Raven down to the floor. A vine burst through the window right where my head had been. He pulled me away from the branch as he simultaneously pushed Raven towards the far wall. After a few more seconds, the vine had stopped its growth. A glance showed it had snaked throughout the chamber and as we watched, large bunches of grapes appeared all along its length.

We heard Trixie call out from the courtyard. “Everypony! Check yourselves and your neighbors for injuries. Call down for any assistance you require or if you cannot locate anypony.” I looked back down in time to see her pointing to the medical staff which had been sitting nearby. “Pegasi, fly up to the upper levels. Unicorns and earth ponies, start at the bottom and work your way up. This contest will not continue until every pony is accounted for.” She then seemed to catch herself and looked back at Fancy Pants. “Do you agree, Arbitrator?”

I looked back to the unicorn stallion who nodded and said, “I do.”

Raven gasped next to me and I followed her gaze. There was a large branch of the vine that had shot down one of the hallways on the second floor that led to the courtyard. From here, I could see that it had lifted the floor of the storey above as it expanded the hallway well beyond its original size. That branch was mirrored by several others that went off in other directions both above the roof and below it—the ones below the roof had punctured their way through whatever wall or window was in their path. The trunk itself was at least forty feet around.

As I watched, Twilight emerged from a demolished stone wall on the second floor. Her dress was ruined (again) and she gaped.

Trixie called up to her. “Twilight Sparkle! Assist Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash with any casualties on the upper storeys.” The blue mare didn’t wait for a response, instead trotting over to talk to ponies that lined the bottom of the courtyard.

In a very short period of time, all ponies had been found, the few scrapes and cuts had been bandaged and most spectators were now happily dining on bunches of grapes that were mere hooflengths away. Rarity had come through again and now Twilight was dressed in a fuchsia dress with a pink saddle and lace along every edge. However, it seemed the fashionista had run out of hoofwear and Twilight was now bare-hoofed.

The three ponies in the courtyard had shifted over a bit, as the place formerly occupied by Twilight had been reduced to kindling by the explosive power of the grapevine’s growth. Fancy Pants looked at the blue mare. “Princess Trixie, it is now your turn.”

I found myself holding my breath and Trixie studied her pot and the tiny plant inside. She smiled at it and gently set it down. Looking at Fancy Pants but projecting her voice throughout the courtyard, Trixie said, “For the welfare of My Little Ponies, I decline to proceed with the earth pony trial.”

That generated a great deal of discussion amongst the spectators. One voice cut through them, however. “Yeah, that’s all well and good, but there’s still a problem.”

All eyes turned upwards to see a frowning Rainbow Dash hovering above the courtyard at about our level on the fourth floor. She pointed upwards. “See that cloud ceiling at about a hundred feet? The other weather pegasi and I pushed it into place along with more clouds further up to keep the vine from collapsing.” As she spoke, I noticed that much of the courtyard was now in the shade as other pegasi continued to push clouds in to buttress up the support for the vine.

Rainbow waved her forelegs wide. “This isn’t a permanent solution. There are over a thousand feet of vine above that cloud that needs to come down before it collapses onto somepony or somepony’s home.”

Fancy Pants tapped his chin with a forehoof. “Twilight Sparkle and Princess Trixie. Your final task is to work together to take down the vine and remove it from wherever it penetrated the castle…”

Twilight nodded and her horn and eyes began to glow white.

The stallion continued. “…without causing further damage.”

Twilight’s magic winked out. “Oh… umm…” She looked up, chewing her lip.

Trixie stared directly at the purple alicorn. “Twilight Sparkle, does your magic have sufficient strength to bring down heavy sections of the vine? Say of the weight of ten ponies?”

The mare’s attention snapped to Trixie. “Yes, but I have to be able to see it.” She spread her wings. “I’ll just head up there.”

“No, you will not,” ordered Trixie. That made Twilight snap her gaze back to the blue mare. “You are very new to your wings. You cannot convince me that you can fly and levitate heavy objects at the same time.”

Twilight blinked and hesitated, her wings still stretched upwards. “I have to try.”

The blue mare made a negating gesture with a front hoof. “There is a better alternative.” She looked straight up at the Royal Suite and called out. “Pockmark Barbells! Bring down both sets of goggles!”

“Is she serious?” asked Raven.

“She’s writing the script as she goes. Yes, she’s serious.”

Steady gathered up both pairs of goggles. “Sorry, Mark, but it’s safer if I go.”

I stopped him with a forehoof. “And if someone notices that your wings no longer perfectly match your coat color? I don’t think so. Thanks for the concern, but gliding I can do just fine.” I yanked the goggles out of his grasp with my mouth. I turned and pulled one of the glass panels inwards that also acted as a door. Without giving myself more time to think, I jumped out into space and opened my wings.

I actually didn’t want to hear Steady’s counter-argument because I knew what it was going to be. There wasn’t enough room to glide all the way to the ground from the height I started. I did get as low as the second storey and managed to get all four of my hooves onto that opposite wall to stop my forward momentum with a minimum of pain. From there, it was a short drop to the ground that I was able to slow somewhat by keeping my wings spread. I trotted up to Trixie and gave her the goggles, only belatedly realizing that perhaps she expected me and my clumsiness to destroy them.

For her part, the blue mare waved down Rainbow Dash and gave her one pair after looking it over. She then gave the other pair to Twilight. “Go ahead. Put them on.”

They both complied and Rainbow frowned. “I don’t see anything different.”

Twilight, however, let out a happy “Ohhhhhh!” She then said to her friend. “Dash, look directly behind me, please.”

Dash did so after a puzzled look at Twilight. The pegasus gasped when several of the flagstones glowed with a lavender radiance and lifted off the ground, then quickly settled down again.

Twilight turned to talk to Trixie. “Are these the same goggles…” The mare was no longer there, however.

Trixie was trotting away, barking orders to those in the gallery. “Sergeant! Open the Royal Armory. Equip pegasi with any weapon that will allow them to cut the vines. You there, chef! Gather whomever you need to collect all of the grapes and transport them to the Royal Kitchens and the four food pantries in town. If there are still extra, place them in the pool in the Royal Spa. It is currently drained. You! Scary Inspector Mare! You are in charge of clearing the hallways and rooms of vines without causing further damage to the building. Permanent fixes can wait until later.”

I turned to see Rainbow ascend into the clouds, a short sword held in her mouth. A few minutes later, she escorted the first long length of vine into the courtyard. When the lavender aura winked out, Rainbow rocketed back into the cloud cover and a team of earth ponies gathered the grapes and chopped the plant into more manageable pieces. Trixie encouraged those on the ground and directed where the vine segments were to be stacked at the rear of the courtyard.

I felt useless with my lack of flying skills and didn’t trust myself with wielding an axe. Eventually, I was able to procure a saw, which I could use with little chance of damaging myself or others. Spirits were high and ponies broke into a work song.

I don’t want to work.

I just want to pluck these grapes all day.

I don’t want to play.

I just want to eat these grapes all day.

I watched enraptured as the ponies around me all started stomping their hooves in time with each other. In fact, all their movements were in sync. Even their voices were harmonizing wonderfully as no pony missed a beat or hit a bad note. So this was the magic of Harmony in action. I could feel some echo of it in my body and soul – like I was standing just a little ways into the surf and the waves were splashing against my ankles, inviting me to go further out in the water.

The song had faded away by the time Rainbow Dash and her crew pushed the final clouds away and the top of the vine was now only a hundred feet or so above us. The entire back of the courtyard was now stacked with pieces of the vine’s branches and stem. I saw a couple of lumberjack saws being carried by teams of pegasi, each at least fifty feet in length. Ponies who had delivered grapes around the city were returning and the last of the vine sections were being brought into the courtyard from the rooms in this area of the castle. The building inspector mare (I still don’t know her name) had directed her crew to bore a tunnel through the middle of a couple of the branches. That allowed ponies to pass through without removing the wood that was supporting the seriously damaged sections.

When the trunk had been altogether removed, the Arbitrator directed everyone to go to the throne room for his decision. Fancy Pants, Trixie, and Twilight moved to the front of the dais, which Trixie had recently upgraded. It now included two levels with ramps instead of stairs (yay!) and cascading pools (boo!—the sound of falling water always made me feel like I needed to pee).

When everypony was in their place (even Steady was present, discretely standing in the back wearing a cloak), the room became silent. I was in the front row of spectators, the other Elements of Harmony to my right and Raven Inkwell to my left. Fancy Pants stood directly in front of the throne, with Trixie on his right and Twilight Sparkle on his left. Both mares looked confident, but Trixie’s smile was relaxed while the Element of Magic’s expression showed determination.

Fancy Pants spoke with poise, his voice carrying through the hall. “I have sat in judgment of these two supremely qualified mares. This challenge was brought in accordance with Alicorn Law, and in keeping with the same, I have made my decision.”

Every pony in the throne room held their breath. Somehow, I felt the magic of Equestria flowing through every pony there, including myself.

“By winning all three trials, Princess Trixie Lulamoon is confirmed as the rightful ruler of Equestria.”

There were more than a few gasps as Trixie bowed her head to accept the platinum crown placed there by Fancy Pants’ hooves. Twilight stared wide-eyed, her mouth hanging open.

As Trixie began walking up the ramp of the dais, I could clearly hear the purple alicorn’s words. “But she didn’t do the first challenge alone, and she didn’t even try the second.”

Fancy Pants turned his calm gaze to Twilight. “There was nothing in the rules prohibiting assistance from other ponies. And I was judging both of you on your ability to lead and inspire the ponies around you, not your capacity to perform the tasks.”

Trixie had reached the landing halfway up the dais. She turned around and spread her wings. All present, some quickly, some slowly, took a knee and bowed to their sovereign. The only exceptions were the two ponies directly in front of the throne. Fancy Pants stood impassively, looking at Twilight. The purple alicorn stood still, breathing heavily. Trixie said nothing, choosing to smile benevolently and wait for Twilight’s next action.

Stiffly, The Element of Magic moved directly in front of Trixie. Still gulping air, she bent her knees and lowered her head until her horn and muzzle touched the red carpet. Twilight’s wide-eyed stare did not change, as if a large part of her could not believe what she was doing. “My fate is yours to command,” she said with a quavering voice.

Alicorn Law was clear – there could be no bloodshed. Other than that though, Trixie could command anything of the purple alicorn, an oath of absolute loyalty being the most likely, but banishment certainly was high on the list. The newly confirmed Princess cut the dramatic moment short. “Rise, Twilight Sparkle.”

With her hooves trembling, the purple alicorn did so.

Trixie raised her head. “Twilight Sparkle. Element of Magic. Finest mage in generations. I call on you once again to take your rightful place defending Equestria and serving all of its ponies.” She lowered her wings and held out a hoof. “Will you join Trixie as Princess and rightful Diarch of Equestria? Will you rule with me?” Trixie’s smile was warm and welcoming.

Twilight Sparkle gasped and held a hoof to her chest. I could feel the tension of the other Elements as they waited.

“Yes,” replied the purple mare. “Yes, I will serve My Little Ponies as their Princess.”

Trixie’s smile grew wider as Twilight climbed the ramp to stand by her left side. I saw Rarity’s aura float the Element of Magic tiara up to Trixie, who took it in her hooves and placed it on its owner’s head. The blue mare then grabbed the purple unicorn’s right forehoof and thrust it into the air. Trixie raised her wings, which were quickly followed by Twilight’s.

Trixie’s magically amplified voice reverberated across the throne room. “ALL HAIL TWILIGHT SPARKLE! PRINCESS OF EQUESTRIAAAAA!”

Her last drawn-out word was completely drowned out by the cheers of every mare and stallion present as they stomped, jumped, and reared.

I looked through the pandemonium and caught Pinkie’s eye. She winked and I grinned. This was going to be a hell of a party.

 


 

Chapter 16: Ominous Visions

 

Trixie and Twilight had quickly worked out a schedule for sharing the duties required of the diarchs, with both attending to some royal business. Night Court had only been held on two occasions during the brief time that I had been in Equestria, but it was now a full four hours each evening Monday to Friday. Twilight took those more often than Trixie because on slow nights she got the chance to bone up on Equestrian law, research tax reforms, and continue her studies into magic. Ironically, she also took some lessons from Trixie.

Having come to terms with her defeat in the challenges, Twilight, as typical of the mare, wanted to learn how to better inspire ponies and exactly how we had pulled off the stunts. She was very impressed at the artifacts that we had created and complimented us. With her ego stroked, Trixie was happy to talk more about her particular skills. It was awesome watching the two bond over applications of magic and illusion that neither had considered before. Trixie also guided Twilight through situations where the new princess would motivate and entertain various audiences — everything from a puppet theater for foals to a pep talk in the Canterlot Comets’ locker room. The team still lost, but Trixie chalked it up as a win in the development of public speaker Twilight.

The new Princess of Friendship was working hard at living up to her title and, in return, Trixie dropped the use of the honorifics of Queen and Empress to show her new humility… most of the time. Twilight merely rolled her eyes now when Trixie went a bit over the top. The purple alicorn had started to grok the stage magician, which made my life a whole lot easier. Twilight gladly stepped into the role Celestia used to occupy as Trixie’s teacher of unicorn magic. It made me smile to see the former showmare put so much effort into improving her skills. While she would never reach Twilight’s level, that didn’t stop Trixie from practicing at every opportunity. I did have to complain to ‘teach’ about her student transforming every single item in my suite into teacups. Twilight didn’t let Trixie go to sleep that night until she mastered the counterspell and I had a place to lay my head again. The teacup motif on the pillows and sheets was a bit odd, but after all, I didn’t have to look at them in the dark.

I was just happy that my friendship with Twilight had not been soured by my support of Trixie. I certainly was welcomed when I paid my next visit to Ponyville where Twilight still chose to reside for those days that she did not serve Night Court duty. Her friends were also glad to see me again – perhaps a little too glad now that I had my eyes opened to the realities of pony society. My Bachelor Spidey Sense kept tingling constantly when either Rarity or Fluttershy was around, although what they saw in a pseudo-pegasus who couldn’t even fly well, I don’t know. At least Spike was just happy to see me and the comics that I brought him.

A firm routine was gradually established after a few weeks. Sometimes a little too routine. My mind was wandering during a particularly dull session and I almost missed Trixie addressing me.

“And what do you think on the matter, Grand Vizier?”

I blinked, bringing myself back to reality. I was standing in my accustomed spot to the right of Princess Trixie’s throne (or was she in a Duchess mood today? I could never keep track). Lately, Day Court was full of endless cases of noble ponies and commoners complaining about trivial little details of their lives I could hardly relate to and rarely understood. When I had brought this to the mare’s attention, she simply recommended I flip a coin to guide my advice to the throne, as her rulings were more often than not decided in a similar manner. I had discovered the true reason why she always wanted me by the throne when I had the misfortune to run into the pony on the losing end of my virtual coin flip two days after Day Court had ended. “Passing the buck”, or in her street parlance, “The Mark Left Holding the Bag For The Coppers To Find”, was an area of her expertise that translated well to her new duties.

In my most bored and condescending tone, I invoked, “I find that I have no wisdom to dispense in this case, Oh Imperial Highness.” In other words, stick it, Your Worship.

Her unamused stare lingered on me for a few moments without effect. Momma didn’t raise no fool. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her look down to her lap and reach for her Golden Bit of Destiny.

“Your Highness!” gasped a guard running into the throne room. “Come ~pant!~ quickly!”

I thought he and his full plate mail looked familiar, and then I recognized him. It was the guard from the Portal Room. Mentally, I kicked myself for settling for Trixie’s habit of calling everyone ‘guard’ or ‘soldier’ or ‘lackey.’ Actually, I guess the last one was mostly for me.

“Calm yourself! Catch your breath and then explain what is more important than the welfare of My Little Ponies here in Day Court.”

The guard shook his head as his sides heaved. “There is ~pant!~ new activity ~pant! pant!~ in one of the rooms!”

I sidled up to… wait, can I still say that? ... moved up to Trixie’s side and whispered, “Portal Room!” into her ear.

“Day Court is adjourned! Attend me, Jafar!” Trixie sprang off the throne in a dead run.

I galloped after her, glowering. I should never have told her that name. Never ever!

Thanks to my longer legs, I had almost caught up to her by the time we got to the stairs. To my amazement, a blue aura engulfed me and carried me safely to the bottom. Trixie let me run the rest of the way although I did call out ‘Thanks’ to her which got no reply.

We skidded to a stop in front of the door and the unicorn’s horn lit followed by the door… which remained closed. “He locked it! Of C-O-U-R-S-E he just had to lock it!” She stared up the hallway and started tapping a front hoof rapidly against the tile.

“Quiet!” I ordered.

“The Great…” she said before she heard it too. A tinkling, almost sizzling noise was faintly heard from the other side of the door.

Several seconds later, the doubly-winded guard ran up. “A thousand ~pant!~ pardons my—”

“Just give me the key, already,” interrupted Trixie . The keys were levitated in a green aura then grabbed in her blue field after which the guard collapsed in the hallway.

In short order, the door was open and Trixie and I went through. We saw immediately what the guard had been talking about. One of the twisted frames on the floor was warping like taffy and shards of glass danced through and around it. A second, darker frame and slightly pinker glass, doubtless from its own shattered mirror, also bumped and moved, but not as vigorously. Everything was covered in a rippling, clear field that made it look like the area around the frames was underwater.

“Do you know what is happening?” I asked.

“This is temporal magic, I’m certain. Trixie doesn’t have the skill Twilight Sparkle has in these matters. Trixie does not want to interfere unless absolutely necessary.”

Suddenly, the lighter frame and clear glass jumped upright, casting the darker frame upwards into the ceiling where it then crashed to the ground. The pink-hued glass shards exploded in all directions. I raised a protective hoof but a shield thrown up by Trixie stopped the fragments.

The now whole lighter-wooden frame did not appear to hold glass at all, but instead slowly whirling clouds that impossibly stretched into the distance.

After a minute, I saw the fuzzy silhouette of a tall human woman with blonde hair approach down the hallway of clouds. She dipped her head as she stepped through, and what could only be Celestia emerged. She raised her head and spread her wings, nearly knocking over one of the other mirrors. “Ahhh! That feels so good!” She stepped a few paces away from the portal, smiled at me like she knew who I was, then beamed down at Trixie. “Hey! Nice crown!”

Trixie didn’t have a chance to speak as another woman approached the boundary of the portal, this time with dark hair. Luna stepped out and spread her wings even before she was all the way through. Perhaps forewarned by Celestia’s entrance, a blue field caught the adjacent mirror that had nearly toppled as a result.

Luna turned and looked that way. “Oops!” Then forward to the source of the magic. “Nice catch! You have no idea what it’s like to not be able to feel or stretch your wings for ages.” She smiled. “I see that being a member of Canterlot Royalty has filled out your figure agreeably in our absence!”

Only then did I notice their accessories. Along with their tiaras, breastplates, and fancy metal horse slipper-things, they both had bulging saddlebags and… peculiar headgear. Celestia had a white and red baseball cap that was familiar to me, and Luna wore a foam finger declaring “#1” proudly on her horn.

Trixie apparently noticed at the same time. “What fiendish monster held you captive with those alien nullifiers on your heads? How did you escape? Do you need help removing them?”

The Royal Sisters laughed. “Oh, Trixie,” began Celestia, “you remind me more and more of Twilight.” She levitated the ‘I ? N J’ cap off of her head. “No, this is a… souvenir of our time in Mark’s world.”

I started. She smiled again. “Yes, Mark Wells, we are aware that you came to Equestria unwittingly.”

Apparently, I was getting used to the place. Of all the reactions I could have had, I chose to poke the blue unicorn in the ribs. “See? It’s not that hard to get my name right.”

Trixie gaped at the newly returned diarchs. “So Marked Bells was right. You did abandon Equestria to go shopping.”

Celestia gasped. “Nonsense! Completely untrue!” Both alicorns’ eyes went wide and their wings ruffled a bit in apparent agitation.

Luna picked up the conversation. “If you must know, our mother asked us to attend her on a matter of extreme importance, and time was of the essence so we could not delay!” She then burped in a very non-princess-like manner, which got her a glare from her sister. During her explanation, when Luna had finally gotten her wings under control and furled, she inadvertently pulled up the flap of one saddlebag. A hint of gold and green was visible until the flap fell back down again.

Trixie turned to look at me. “So what is your 'B.S. Meter' telling you?”

I snorted. “Everything they are saying is technically true but they are so full of it, I'm surprised grass isn't growing everywhere they walk.”

The sisters raised their heads up high, but sweaty foreheads and darting looks told me volumes. “I think the answer to what they were really doing is in Luna's saddlebag.”

Luna snapped a wing protectively over the offending item and sidestepped away. “That is none of your business! We have nothing to hide!”

Trixie strode up to her with a smile. “Then you'll have no problem showing it to me. Also... months of holding Equestria together. You. Owe. Me.”

Luna trembled then looked at her sister pleadingly. It was in vain because Celestia was hiding her head rather adorably under a wing. The Night Princess sighed then pulled her feathery appendage out of the way.

Trixie lifted the flap with her magic and levitated the item out, now revealed to be a trophy – a gold chalice on top supported by four green, malachite-pattern columns.

The blue unicorn frowned then floated the object over to me. “I cannot understand this writing.”

I squinted at the tiny typeface on the much-too-small plaque at the bottom of the trophy. “Centennial Nathan's Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest. Presented to Celestia Faust, Luna Faust, and Lauren Faust. Three Woman Team. 102 hot dogs in 10 minutes.”

Trixie and I gaped at the sisters. I swore I heard two “thunks” from our chins hitting the floor.

Trixie screeched, “You both ate MEAT?!”

I yelled, “102 hot dogs between the three of you! Holy crap, that's INCREDIBLE!”

Celestia looked anywhere but at both of us. “Meat by-products actually. There is a government allowed percentage of sawdust, animal bone, and even insect matter in the sausage casings.”

“Well, that's true,” I mused aloud.

Trixie started hopping up and down like an over-caffeinated chipmunk. “I don't care! How could you two of all ponies abandon Your Little Ponies for months to go off and eat meat!”

Luna turned to her, delicately removing the foam finger from her horn with one forehoof. “Young one, do not be so upset over nothing. Remember how old we are. When we were young, eating meat was a delicacy. It's only a few thousand years of culture that has made this a taboo practice.”

The crown slipped off Trixie's head then bounced and rolled away. I did not think she noticed.

Celestia brought her head out from under her wing and looked kindly at the unicorn. “And when our mother...” She turned to look at me briefly. “She manages a trailer park in Florida.” I nodded. My old landlady might be renting a spot from her right now.

The white alicorn looked back to Trixie. “...she asked us to enter the annals of immortality by getting our names engraved on the Hall of Fame Wall for the one-hundred-year-anniversary event!” She sighed. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity . How could we refuse?”

Trixie snapped out of her funk and started jumping up and down again. “But you're already immortal!”

“Just think of it as quality family time, then.”

I spoke up. “But why did it take you over three months to return?” Both sets of immortal eyes fixed on me, which was more disconcerting than I want to admit.

Luna answered. “Because of you, Mark Wells.”

I blinked.

Celestia spoke up. “We arrived on July 2nd, stepping into the antique store in the dead of night. Our mother picked us up in her Winnebago and we were off. Imagine our surprise when the mirror had been sold by the time we returned. It took some effort to sweet talk the proprietor—”

Luna spoke up. “I don’t think that is the right term, but it was enjoyable. Only eighty-years-old and most spirited!” She smirked, looking at her sister. “You, cradle-robber, you!”

Celestia rolled her eyes. “…anyway, we… gained access to your house—”

I scowled. “Broke down my front door.”

Luna moved out of her sister’s field of view, nodded vigorously, and silently mouthed “back door,” all while pointing an accusing hoof at Celestia, who continued without acknowledgment. “…found the mirror, and were unable to pass through. The two of us were ultimately able to restore the gateway by using our always-present link to the celestial bodies around Equestria, but there was a cost.”

Luna moved up alongside her sister. “In simple terms, the gateway is constructed by folding space-time. When the connection is lost, new material must be added. The results are… unpredictable. Only our expertise with temporal magic allowed us to return within a few months of leaving. In fact, we are still looking for one of Star Swirl’s classmates whom we believe will reemerge from one of the mirrors in this room in the next few millennia.”

Celestia finished. “…upon which time he will be given a “B–” in his ‘Constructing Extra-Dimensional Gateways’ class and discover all of his other class credits have expired.”

“But why didn’t your mother just buy it and keep the mirror with her?”

The Day Alicorn frowned. “Let me repeat… Florida… trailer park.”

I silently made the ‘Ohhhhh’ sound with my lips.

She continued. “Truly much safer in an antique store where everything was priced out of reach, or at least so we thought.”

The Patient and Fairly Peeved Trixie finally got her voice back. “Do you two have any idea what Trixie has gone through to keep your precious Little Ponies from rioting? All so you can get some alien trinkets!? This show is over! The stage is closed!”

She galloped out, followed quickly by Celestia offering apologies and levitating Trixie’s crown behind her.

I brought my gaze back to the Night Princess, who look fixedly at me. I could not read her expression.

“Pleased to meet you, Your Majes… uh, Your Highness. My name is Mark Wells.” She continued to stare, not even blinking. “…but you already knew that.”

Silence. I was starting to feel uncomfortable as a gradual sense of wrongness began to creep over me. “Ummm… is there something you want to tell me, Princess?”

She seemed to look right through me a few seconds more and I suppressed a tremor that wanted to start in my legs. Suddenly she blinked. “Don’t you think it’s about time you woke up, Mark Wells?”



I opened my eyes and brought my head up with a gasp.

After falling out of bed and untangling my legs from the infernal blanket, I trotted for the Celestial Suite. After a few steps, I turned around, went back through my room to the bathroom (priorities, mind you), then, feeling much better, went off again to find Trixie.

The guards nodded to me and allowed me to knock on the double doors with the engraved sun motif. On the fourth set of knocks, I heard “go away!” on the other side.

I started tapping a tune on the door, whispering, “shave-and-a-hair-cut…”

Now I heard “Go away, Park Bells!”

After only three more different jingles (I filed away the “Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?” one as being the most annoying and therefore effective), the Rumpled and Cranky Trixie opened the door, wearing a sheer nightgown so large it must have been owned by the room’s previous resident. She looked at me blearily. “What is so important that you need to awaken the Great and … and…” She yawned. “…Sleepy Trixie and could not wait until morning?”

“Trixie! I had this weird dream about you and I!”

She gave me a skeptical look. Disappointment virtually dripping off of her next words. “Oh. Trixie has heard that one before.”

I shook my head. “No! Not like that! Celestia and Luna were in it, too!”

She blinked once. “Trixie has heard that one, also.”

“Look! It was not like a normal dream. I need to go over it with you before I forget all the details. It might be important! Maybe our first clue!”

She gave me a mistrustful look that lasted for some time. She glanced up and waved off the guards who were looming their shadows over me. She turned around. “Very well. The Patient and Forgiving Princess of All Equestria will listen to your rantings. Give us a moment to restore our beauty.”

When she emerged from the Royal Water Closet, she looked exactly as she had previously. I knew better than to point this out, though. She sat across from me on cushions in the center of the room. I gave her the Cliff Notes version and awaited her reaction.

She frowned, looking at the floor as she mulled over my words. “Trixie is sorry for almost turning you away and doubting your intentions. You were not, in fact, overcome with passion for our Royal Form as we had suspected.”

I knew a trap when I heard it, so I just kept silent.

She smirked a bit and looked up at me, then her face took a more serious expression. She tapped the floor with a forehoof as she thought. “Was there anything in your dream that was new information? Something we can independently verify that you did not already know before you went to sleep? Perhaps the Royal Sisters’ form and voices or that their mother was named Faust?”

I shook my head. “Those were part of Twilight Sparkle’s ‘What Every Alien Creature Needs to Know About Equestria’ audio-visual presentation.” I paused. “Did you know that the title slide had ‘Version 12.1’ on it? How many times has she given it?”

Trixie nodded. “You are doubtless the first. I have always known the Princess of Friendship to be… over-prepared.”

“More like O-C-D,” I mumbled.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing.” I scowled. “Nothing new in the details from my world either. Does time magic look like the magic that is used to fix a broken window pane?”

“Ah, you have seen Rainbow Dash’s dramatic entrances, then. Yes, the appearance is the same. What about the trophy. Have you seen it previously?”

I nodded. “Last year’s contest was televised.”

“I will take that as a yes.”

We lapsed into silence that stretched out for some time.

The unicorn sighed. “Well, we still have work tomorrow, so let’s get some sleep...” She glared at me. “…in our own beds.”

I raised two hooves defensively. “No argument!”

She blinked and seemed to regard me for a moment before nodding to the door. When I was in the hallway, she spoke once more. “The behavior of Luna at the end of your dream is the greatest anomaly. She is the Alicorn of the Night and the Keeper of Dreams. Did she tell you anything that could have a second meaning?”

I thought back and shook my head.

“And what did she say to me?”

I shivered and started slowly backing away, alarm bells going off in my head. “Ahhh, nothing that I can remember—”

The mare held up a hoof and closed her eyes. “Luna’s ways are secretive and circumspect. If there is any chance we can gather a hidden message from her words, we owe it to them to try.”

I shuffled in place a bit. “Well, she said you had filled out during the time you were ruling Equestria and that you shouldn’t make a big deal out of nothing.”

I was on the receiving end of a very focused stare. I smiled sheepishly. Her horn lit up—

From the floor, curled up in a ball, I groaned. Yep. Any doubt getting hit there felt different when I was a stallion was gone now. The amused snorts, brief as they were, from the two guards were not helping.

I heard the offender’s voice from her doorway. “And that, Lark Dwells, is what we call in show business ‘the punchline.’ I hope to have imparted to you the wisdom on when to tell a mare the truth and when to use your fool head.”

I heard the door close followed by steps approaching me. One of the guards used his foreleg to help me to my hooves. I grimaced (closest I could get to a smile in the circumstances) in appreciation and he nodded, returning to his post.



The next morning, I limped into Trixie’s Sun Room, where she was already starting on pastries and coffee. Wincing with each step, I made a show of just barely reaching the chair across from her before collapsing. She rolled her eyes.

“Oh, please. Such acting would get you thrown off the stage, even in the cheapest venues.”

I raised my voice a couple of octaves in my best falsetto. “It’s all your fault. I’m a permanently changed stallion now!”

The unicorn nearly had coffee shoot out her nose. Instead, she brought a hoof up to her mouth and coughed while fighting back a smile. After a bit, she cleared her throat and looked up. “Almost humorous, but no more convincing than before.” Her tone of voice told a different story.

I resumed my normal speech. “Ah, well. Just trying to garner a bit of sympathy.”

She smirked. “Fortunately, I had mine surgically removed with my tonsils. Eat up. We have a big day ahead of us.”

‘We?’ I thought. She didn’t care to elaborate. I decided she would clarify in good time and besides, I was not in the mood to play her mind games this morning.

After some apple juice and a fantastic éclair, I spoke up. “I had one more thought about last night.”

Trixie raised an eyebrow at me. “Really, Bark Swells? I didn’t realize you were ‘into’ that kind of treatment. I can recommend some professional mares who can satisfy your cravings for—”

I broke in. “OK, I won’t tell you then.”

We sipped our drinks for several seconds before she gave in with a lazy wave of her hoof, inviting me to continue.

“Have you ever heard of Information Theory?”

I saw her ‘game face’ take over. She was fully engaged in the conversation now. “No. Explain.”

I leaned forward. “The basic principle is that information has an exact equivalent in energy. For example, if someone is talking to you face-to-face, they can impart a certain amount of information over a given time. Now imagine they are a football… uh… a city block away. They would have to either put in much more energy or settle for slower delivery of information.”

She nodded. “I’m with you so far.”

“Now imagine someone on one of the stars in the sky. How slow would they have to talk to be comprehensible?”

The unicorn frowned at me. “The location of the stars that Luna moves in and out of constellations is her domain. I do not rightly know exactly how far away they are.”

I tried to wrap my brain around that one and just failed utterly. Maybe something else? “How about the moon?”

Her expression brightened. “Ah! Yes, it would be exceedingly hard to understand even a single word spoken over a large stretch of time, or would require as much power as the Two Sisters could summon together.”

“Now how much information could be sent from a universe away?”

She looked downwards, lost in thought. “I see. They might be able to make a connection but not be able to send a single word or even a thought.” She looked up. “That both gives us hope and takes it away. Perhaps Luna did contact you, but it would be unreasonable to think she could do more than make the lightest impression on your primitive mind.”

For the sake of the team, I decided to let that one go. “Exactly.”

The blue unicorn narrowed her eyes in thought until she smirked and looked at me. “You should have realized it was a dream as soon as you found yourself galloping, and faster than myself.”

I nodded and returned the grin. “And especially when you were so thoughtful as to levitate me down those steps and protect me from the flying glass with your shield.”

She looked away and did that rapid swiveling of the ears thing again. After a bit, she got them under her control.

Trixie drummed her hoof on the marble tabletop for a few more moments, then stood up. “Very well. Continue to inform me of any similar dreams, regardless of the hour. Trixie promises not to castrate you in a similar manner.”

I winced and covered myself unconsciously. “Don’t you mean ‘castigate’?”

She looked at me with a furrowed brow. “Don’t they mean the same thing?”

I shook my head. “ ‘Castrate’ means to turn a stallion into a gelding.”

She whispered the words for a few moments before her eyes flew open wide. “Oh! Sorry! Trixie apologizes for implying… um… that.” She turned away with a blush. She coughed a couple of times then regained her composure. “No. That punishment was possibly the first thing outlawed by the Sisters when they took power. Trixie got the words mixed up because those two words you just said are just… not used anymore.”

“I don’t so much care whether the words are used, so much as whether the deeds are done!”

“Believe Trixie – she has no desire to do that to you.”

That was extremely reassuring. At least, I think so…



Today was one of those days when the schedules of both princesses overlapped. Twilight held court that morning, but due to the need to conference with Equestria’s government ministers, both she and Trixie would be spending the afternoon in discussions with them about some changes to the law. I turned up at in the throne room about an hour before the end of Twilight’s Day Court session, but I just took a seat alongside some nobles who were attending. Some nodded politely to me while several studiously ignored me. I was fine by that – it helped sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

The petitioners were of the variety that Trixie and I had dealt with on a daily basis, and very little was different from the way we handled them. Raven Inkwell served to advise Twilight just as she had been doing for us, but that had been her day job long before Trixie had ascended to the throne. The purple alicorn had another advisor for the Night Court though. Even Raven needed some life of her own.

When Day Court was formally closed, Twilight wandered over to me when the throne room was cleared. “Come to spy on me?” she asked with a grin.

“The G&P just wants to keep you on your toes… er… hooves. That doesn’t translate too well. What the heck. Actually, seeing as I seem to be the unofficial moderator between you two, I thought I’d see how you handle things for a change.”

Twilight arched an eyebrow at me. “Oh? And how do you rate me?” she asked with a smirk.

I shrugged. “Different styles but same results. You both want the best for Equestria and its ponies, but you go about it in diverse ways.”

As we headed towards the dining room for lunch with Trixie, Twilight said, “Heh! Once upon a time, I would never have thought that she and I would think so much in parallel. I’m glad that I brought her to Celestia and asked her to teach Trixie, although I never foresaw anything like this happening.”

“Life tends to throw you unexpected twists. I never expected to be advising two pony princesses. For that matter, I never expected to be a pony!”

“And you neatly one-upped me,” Twilight admitted. “I’m still working on trying to restore the portal mirrors, you know?”

I nodded. “I’m not expecting miracles, Twilight. I’ve just been a bit homesick lately.”

“Understandable, but I hope we’ve been making things bearable for you?”

I chuckled. “Between Trixie, you, and your friends, I rarely get the chance to wallow in self-pity. After all, I got myself a good job in a palace with a new best friend for a valet, chef-prepared meals, and a palace suite that rivals a five-star hotel. I’m hardly suffering.”

“Even that doesn’t compensate for being parted from your friends and famileeeeeeek!”

I skidded to a halt and looked back to where Twilight was and gaped. A huge thorny black vine had snared the purple alicorn, wrapping around her barrel and dragging her away. Her horn flared and then fizzled, and despite her earth pony strength, she failed to break its hold. I broke out of my stupor and charged to her assistance. I managed to stop the vine’s progress by grabbing under the base of one wing on her back and hooking the other foreleg under a shoulder. Just when I thought I could feel her start to slip out of the vine’s hold, a second vine swatted me and tore her out of my grasp. I heard something bounce along the hallway as I raised my head, only to see more vines bar my way. Even as I struggled to get past the impediments, Twilight was dragged out of my sight, leaving only a few feathers behind indicating that she was ever there. I heard another scream, this time from the direction that we had been heading. Trixie!

I stopped trying to fight the vines and charged up the corridor to the dining room, passing Twilight’s tiara along the way. There I witnessed another vine had ensnared the unicorn mare, mostly by her wings. She, too, was attempting to use her magic to free herself but with as little success as Twilight.

Trixie spotted me and yelled, “Help Trixie, Dark Smells!

I leapt to her side and attempted to unfasten her artificial wings, figuring that it would be the best way to free her. The notice-me-not spell on the harness that served to make the fake wings seem a natural part of the blue unicorn made it difficult, and the vine had started dragging her away like Twilight. Mostly by touch, I managed to undo the buckles, and Trixie wrenched her hind legs free. If a vine could seem confused, this one was, but it coiled possessively around the wings and dragged them away without the mare attached. I stopped to help Trixie up and by the time I turned my attention back to the offending intruder, it was gone. I dashed back out of the dining room but did not see anything, so I went back to Trixie.

“What in heaven’s name was that?” I demanded.

“Trixie has no idea whatsoever, Hark Bells. She is just grateful that that your attempts to free her were successful. Those were Trixie’s favorite pair of wings though!”

“Never mind the wings – Twilight was taken by those vines too!”

“No!” she gasped. “Where did those vines come from?”

I gaped at her in horror. “You don’t know anything about them?”

Silently, Trixie shook her head.

Oh, buck. If the locals didn’t know anything about those vines, what the hell could I do for Twilight?

 


 

Chapter 17: Elemental Magic

 

When in doubt, act. Standing around like a stunned mullet was not going to help anyone. “Come with me,” I told Trixie and hastened in the direction that the vines had taken Twilight. Almost immediately, we came across the purple alicorn’s tiara and I picked it up. It held her Element of Magic and I had a feeling that we might be needing it. To keep it safe and my leg free, I put it on my head and continued onward.

Trixie snickered. “It suits you well, Princess Dumbbells.”

I frowned at her. “Not the time for this, Trixie.” We came to a spot where a couple of purple feathers lay on the floor. I picked them up and waved them in Trixie’s face. “Twilight lost these while struggling with one of those black vines. If an alicorn can’t stop them, then they’re a real threat. You just got lucky.”

Trixie’s smile faded and she nodded. “Sorry. Trixie is just a bit shaken still.”

“Understandable,” I conceded. I looked ahead and saw no sign of the vines anymore. I tucked the feathers into my mane and trotted down the hall to the throne room where I found a couple of the Royal Guards standing around a large hole in the floor surrounded by marble rubble. As I approached, a pegasus emerged and joined them. They faced us and saluted.

“Report!” I ordered.

“Sir!” the pegasus replied. “Enormous black spiky vines were seen to withdraw into this hole with Princess Twilight Sparkle in their grasp. I attempted to pursue but the tunnel has collapsed.”

“Damn! I suppose none of you has ever seen those vines before?”

They all shook their heads.

“Maybe the Guild of Mages can give us some answers?” Trixie suggested.

“Good idea. Let’s—” I was interrupted by a burst of dragonfire that materialized into a scroll. Trixie caught it in her glow and unrolled it.

The blue unicorn read, “Monstrous black vines are invading from the Everfree Forest and taking over Ponyville. Dragonfire letters to Twilight just bounce back to me. Send help! Spike.”

My face creased with a mixture of fear and worry. “Sounds like the situation is even worse than we thought. At least we have a lead now. I’m going to head off to Ponyville immediately.”

“Trixie will organize the Royal Chariot.”

“That’ll take too long. I’m going to fly there now.”

Trixie gaped at me. “You still haven’t learned to control your flight magic properly!”

“I’ve been getting better, and as long as I hold a steady course and don’t try any fancy maneuvers, I should get there just fine. And besides, I haven’t tapped off my excess mana today, so I should have a turbo boost that will get me there a lot quicker.” As we spoke, I headed to a balcony that overlooked the countryside where Ponyville could just be seen in the distance.

“Are you crazy? Trixie doesn’t know what a turbo is, but she does know what happens when you use that excess magic!”

“It’s a risk I’m prepared to take.”

“Then Trixie will come with you.”

I was startled and I stopped to look at her. Trixie’s expression held a little fear but a lot of determination, and I knew that she wasn’t going to be dissuaded. “Okay, but I’ve never had a passenger before.”

“Learn fast!” was all she replied as she headed toward the rear of the throne. “Guard! Inform the Guild of Mages of what has happened here and in Ponyville. Have them let Trixie know if their research discovers anything useful about the vines or how to combat them.”

“At once, Your Highness!” The Royal Guard dashed away.

“What are you doing? We need to go!”

The mare returned carrying another set of her prosthetic wings. “Trixie cannot go without her symbols of royal authority,” she said even as her magic quickly buckled them into place.

I rolled my eyes but was thankful that she didn’t want to get her full royal regalia too. When we got to the balcony, I pointed myself in the direction of Ponyville and spread my wings. “Climb aboard and hang on tight!” Trixie obviously hadn’t ridden a pegasus before and her hooves poked me painfully a couple of times as she got into position. I grunted but held my tongue.

“Trixie is ready.”

“You better be!” I focused on everything that I had been taught – wing position and curvature, take off and cruising procedures, and last of all my flight magic. The latter was still pretty much an all-or-nothing situation for me, so it was with mental fingers crossed, I drew upon it. I shot off the balcony like a missile.

Trixie squealed in terror, and if she hadn’t been half-strangling me, I would have found it funny. As it was, the seriousness of the situation made me ignore both the humor and the pain. Amazingly, I settled down into a stable flight in the correct direction. I didn’t try to press my luck by optimizing anything, merely maintaining the power beat of my wings. Trixie released the death-grip on my neck but still clung ferociously as we hurtled toward Ponyville.

We were rapidly closing in on our destination and I could already make out the Golden Oaks library. Worryingly, I could also see the mass of black vines that were invading the town. Spike sure hadn’t been exaggerating. Worse yet, now there were bizarre spiky black clouds dotting the skies. Dodging them seemed a very good idea, but hardly my forte. I barely managed to scrape by some and if I hadn’t been going so fast, I might have been hit by the lightning they hurled at me. I aimed as best as I could for the library tree and it rapidly approached.

“Trixie thinks you should be slowing down about now,” I heard her say above the sound of the rushing wind and her flapping cape.

Good idea. One problem though. Just like the day when I accidentally set a new altitude record, my flight magic seemed to be stuck on. Our destination approached at a breathtaking speed and then I saw the flash and heard the bang of teleportation. My load was suddenly gone just before I reached the tree. I desperately tried to flare my wings, but a moment later, I splatted against an upper round window. As I slid off the window with a squeak, all I could think was that they made mighty tough glass in Equestria.

I felt hooves grab me under my forelegs and heard Rainbow Dash’s voice behind me as she gently lowered me to the ground. “Yeah, Twilight got tired of me waking her up by smashing through her bedroom window. She enchanted it so I can’t do that anymore. Next time, choose one of the windows downstairs for your dramatic entrance, though it won’t be as awesome as mine!”

As I lay dizzily at the base of the tree, Applejack emerged from it and helped Rainbow Dash get me to my hooves. As they guided me inside, Applejack said, “Ah’m sure glad yer here, Mark. Mebbe you can figger out what’s goin’ on.”

I noticed that Applejack’s accent got stronger when she was stressed. Things had to be pretty bad. I saw that the rest of my friends were there and Trixie was safely inside too, sitting amidst a pile of books. I growled, “You couldn’t have teleported me in here too, could you?”

Trixie actually blushed. “Trixie is sorry, but she has never rehearsed such a trick before. Indeed, she has never managed to teleport before.”

“That was your first?” I asked incredulously.

The faux alicorn nodded. “Terror is a great motivator, apparently. I have you to thank for that, Embark Quells.”

Pinkie interrupted. “I don’t know if you have noticed, but the Everfree Forest is just a teeny-tiny bit out of control.” Her tail suddenly twitched and she ducked. A massive black vine shot through the window and right through the space she had been in a moment ago.

Applejack used her earth pony strength to cut the vine utilizing the window’s sliding frame.

Rarity said, “But perhaps you already know what’s causing all of this calamity? Has Princess Twilight sent you to dispel it post haste?”

I cringed. “Not exactly. You see, Twilight was kidnapped by those vines. Trixie was almost taken too.”

Everypony gasped dramatically.

“I don’t know exactly what’s happening, but I believe we’re going to need the Elements of Harmony to get Twilight back. I brought along hers.” I touched the tiara that was still on my head. A weird thing about pony manes is how they managed to hold things securely short of being knocked off physically like the vine had done to this. Or maybe I had inadvertently pulled it off along with a few of her feathers when the second vine smacked me away from her. I brought my attention back to the situation at hoof and addressed the other Elements. “You should grab yours too.”

Rarity used her magic to open the case where the necklaces of the other five Elements were kept, and she distributed them among her friends.

“Just like old times,” Rainbow Dash said as hers went into place.

Applejack said, “Ah reckon our connection with Twilight through the Elements will help us find her. Now we just have to figger out who to aim these bad boys at so we can get her back and keep the rest of Equestria from becoming plant food!” She paused, then looked at me. “Any ideas?”

“I haven’t found squat in any of the books that I’ve been looking through,” Pinkie exclaimed. “Oops! Missed a spot.” She grabbed a marker and proceeded to color in a picture.

I shook my head and turned back to the others. “Semi-sentient vines; bizarre aggressive clouds; chaos abounding – I’m starting to get an idea about who we might be up against. Anypony know how to find Discord?”

Fluttershy said, “I think we can summon him with the Elements. I mean, if he knows I really want to see him.”

“Okay, let’s give this a try. Umm… I suppose I’d better give Trixie the Element of Magic as she’s got a horn.”

Trixie looked pleased until Rarity spoke up. “Oh, no, darling – that’s not how it works. Twilight is the Princess of Friendship because the power of friendship is magic, and you’re our good friend, Mark. You must wear the Element.”

“Me?” I squeaked. “I’m just a defective pegasus!”

“No, Rarity has the right of it,” Applejack insisted. “You have what it takes to make it work.”

Rainbow added, “And you’re awesome too. If anyone can do it with us, it’s you.”

Trixie sighed. “Trixie is forced to agree with their logic, Embark Farewells. Trixie expects you to try your hardest.”

I shrugged helplessly. Who was I to argue? I was only talking to some of Equestria’s greatest heroes… and Trixie. They might know a thing or two more about this crazy pony magic than me. “Okay. Let’s try this.”

We all trotted outside at Fluttershy’s suggestion, and I concurred. Heaven knows what would happen when flinging around enough magic to summon a chaos god… if it even worked.

“Okay, how are we going to do this?” I asked as we arranged ourselves in a circle.

“We just concentrate on the traits that make us the Bearers of the Elements,” Rarity explained. “I suggest that you concentrate on our friendship.”

“If you say so.” I closed my eyes and thought of all the enjoyment that we six had while together. At first, nothing happened, but then I felt myself starting to rise even though I wasn’t using my flight magic. I peeked through one eye and saw the other Element Bearers enveloped in a glow and rising into the air also. Then a rainbow ribbon of light emitted from their necklaces and joined together. Then they merged with mine and I felt the inexplicable magic of Harmony flood within me. It was both wondrous and overwhelming. Despite the distraction, I managed to focus on the goal of summoning Discord, and the rainbow magic twisted into a whirlwind of color. When it dispersed, a bathtub was on the ground between us, with a draconequus in it, scrubbing himself and singing.

“Winter wrap-up, winter wrap-ooh! Oho! Now isn’t this interesting? Are you the new Princess of Friendship, Mark Wells? You could have been more considerate – if you hadn’t noticed, I was in the middle of a particularly invigorating shower.”

The way he toweled his butt at me was less than appealing. “Enough! What do you know about the kidnapping of Twilight Sparkle and the invasion by the Everfree Forest?” I demanded as I advanced sternly upon him.

A vine suddenly burst up out of the ground and coiled about me before transforming into Discord. “Why, whatever are you talking about?” he asked with a grin.

“Don’t you play dumb with us, Discord. We know that you’re the one behind all of this.”

The draconequus disappeared and popped up again on the roof of a house. “Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely l-o-v-e what you’ve done with the place.” He snaked through the air until he was next to a hovering Fluttershy. “But I couldn’t possibly take responsibility. I’m reformed; don’t you remember?” he asked, giving Fluttershy a nudge.

“Yeah, right!” Rainbow Dash said sarcastically. “This has got your cloven hoofprints all over it!”

“I’ll have you know that I have only one cloven hoof,” Discord replied in an offended tone. Said hoof and the disembodied leg it belonged to, gave the colorful pegasus a kick in the rear.

With his leg magically reattached, Discord walked away in a huff. “Such accusations! And here I thought we were friends.” He turned and gave us doe-eyes.

“Drop the act, buster!” Pinkie said. “We’re onto you.”

“Ladies! Ladies and lady-proxy! I’m innocent! Would I lie to you?”

“YES!” we all chorused except Fluttershy who added, “Um… maybe.”

“Well then, it seems we’ve reached an impasse. I’m telling the truth, but you think I’m lying. What do friends like us do in a situation like this, Princess Mark?” Discord asked as he poked at the Element that was still on my head. “Congrats on the promotion, by the way – you totally deserve it,” he said snarkily, then his look turned thoughtful.

“Although, I must say, you don’t quite look the part. Allow me to help!”

He snapped his fingers and everything went white for a moment. I blinked and saw a purple horn in the top of my field of view along with blue hair with a two-tone purple stripe. Looking back, I saw the first dress that Twilight had worn to the Alicorn Challenge. The same coloration on my tail and purple wings removed any doubt about my current form.

Discord clasped his hands together and beamed. “Oh, congratulations, Your Highness! Now your coronation can proceed as it was always meant to. Equestria is so lucky to no longer be short an alicorn.” He blinked and held an apologetic paw out to Trixie. “No offense intended.”

Trixie frown deepened. “Offense taken.”

Discord wasn’t wrong. I perceived what must have been unicorn magic running through my horn, and I could feel an uncanny connection to the ground beneath me. “I have to say…” I said in Twilight’s voice as I turned to face the draconequus again. “…been there, done that, taken the photos.” I tried to put on my most disappointed expression. “Frankly, I expected a self-styled Lord of Chaos to be more… original.”

He frowned at me for several seconds before snapping his fingers. The world went white again and everything felt normal.

I turned my back on Discord. “He’s useless. Who else can we turn to for help?” I was hoping the trickster would feel a need to prove me wrong, but instead, Applejack spoke up.

“Well, Zecora knows more about the Everfree than anypony.”

Rainbow Dash flapped upwards and craned her neck. She pointed. “Speaking of the zebra, there she is!”

Turning to look, I saw where the being in question was emerging from the forest with a huge sack on her back and pulling a cart full of what had to be all her worldly possessions. She seemed to be straining under the load, and she came to a tired stop nearby.

“Zecora!” I called out, rushing up to help her along with my friends and Trixie who had decided it was safe to join us now. The mare used her magic to relieve the zebra of her burden which Rainbow and Fluttershy took away while Applejack and Pinkie unhitched the cart.

“From my home, I’ve had to flee. The forest has grown too wild even for me,” Zecora said.

“Any idea why this is happenin’?” Applejack asked.

“I’m afraid it is a mystery to me as well. But, I may have something that may if combined with a spell.” Zecora rummaged around in her cart and pulled out a glass flask with a gold base and neck. “I do not dare to use it myself – the result would be tragic. It only responds to alicorn magic. Where is Princess Twilight? She can turn the potion from purple to white. Then after a sip, she may speak the answers that we all seek.”

“You just missed Twilight. Her timing is awful!” Rainbow Dash said as she gave me a glare.

I ignored the pegasus. I had no intention of begging Discord to change me into Twilight again unless it was absolutely necessary. “Then we have a real problem,” I said to Zecora. “Twilight has been captured by the vines.”

“Will I do in her place?” Trixie asked hopefully, unfolding her wings.

Zecora shook her head. “The spell of this mystic brew will only respond to alicorn magic true.”

“Perhaps we can get Cadance?” Rarity suggested.

“It would take far too long for her to get here,” I replied. I thought hard and something occurred to me. “Zecora – you said the potion responds to alicorn magic. What would happen if I combine it with these?” I pulled out the feathers that I had placed in my mane earlier and forgotten about. “They’re Twilight’s.”

The zebra examined them and shrugged. “Who can tell? Stir it well!” She passed the flask to me.

I dropped the feathers into the liquid and started stirring. At first, I thought that we were out of luck, but then the potion started getting paler. I renewed my efforts and then it abruptly turned white.

“It worked!” Rarity exclaimed.

“Who gets to try it?” I asked.

Zecora said, “The potion responded to you and your will. Take a drink but do not spill.”

“Me?!” I looked around and all my friends were nodding in agreement. Even Trixie seemed to glumly concur. I looked at the milky liquid and wondered what I was in for. “Oh, what the buck…” I lifted the beaker and took a few swallows. Of course, it tasted weird, but nothing happened. “Doesn’t seem to be working—” My vision exploded.

When my sight cleared, I found myself in a strange building, another castle, I believed. There were two thrones with matching banners – one in blue and the other in gold. Then I heard a voice.

“Not another step!”

An alicorn emerged from behind the thrones, one whom I recognized immediately. “Princess Luna!” Had I been somehow transported to where the sisters were stuck? “Where are we? Why did you and Princess Celestia disappear through the portal?”

“Did you expect me to stand idly by while they all basked in your precious light?”

I blinked at the non sequitur. “What the hell are you talking about?”

She walked over to a small balcony, saying, “There can only be one Princess of Equestria, and that Princess will be me!” She reared up and smashed the balcony wall, glaring angrily.

I cringed and watched in horror as cracks spread up the wall and a portion broke away to reveal the sun. Then Luna lifted her hooves and the moon rose to block its light. Shadows started to swirl and a wind arose. The darkness enveloped Luna, and in the moment before it had subsumed her, I saw the doubt and fear in her eyes. Dark magic englobed her and then exploded, revealing a black-coated alicorn with slit eyes in Luna’s place. She started laughing madly, revealing razor-sharp teeth. Suddenly I knew who I was facing from the stories I had been told. Nightmare Moon! Had I at last found the source of our troubles? And how had this happened to Luna?

Nightmare Moon started destroying the castle with blasts from her horn. I dodged the rubble just as a white alicorn walked up beside me. Princess Celestia looked sternly at Nightmare Moon who approached her with a scowl. The rogue alicorn fired a blast at Celestia who rose up to the ceiling to avoid it. A follow-up blast destroyed a section of the roof but again the white alicorn moved out of harm’s way.

“Luna! I will not fight you. You must lower the moon. It is your duty!” Celestia exclaimed.

“Luna? I am Nightmare Moon!”

Wait. How could Celestia not recognize her?

“I have but one royal duty now – to destroy you!” The Nightmare fired another blast at Celestia, but she had taken off through the hole in the roof.

“And where do you think you’re going?” Nightmare Moon asked as she pursued her sister.

Without thinking, I took off and followed, only to witness a major aerial battle. However, it was Nightmare Moon doing all the attacking while Celestia merely dodged her horn blasts. The castle was being torn apart, but that meant nothing to the mad alicorn. Finally, one of the blasts found its mark and Celestia fell with a cry back into the throne room. Nightmare laughed in triumph as I flew down to check on the white alicorn who lay on the floor, injured from the blow.

By now though, I knew something was screwy. Neither had acknowledged my presence, Celestia’s ignorance of Nightmare Moon was telling, and I was flying way too well. As Celestia began to rise again, still not seeing me right in front of her, I realized that this must be some sort of vision caused by the potion that I had drunk. Whatever it was, it was far more immersive and realistic than the best virtual reality that I’d ever experienced. I couldn’t interact with it though, so I could only wait and see how it turned out.

Celestia said, “Oh, dear sister, I am sorry, but you have given me no choice but to use these.” Her horn lit up and the floor opened to allow a pedestal to arise from the depths. It had five arms upon which rested large gems of different colors. She summoned them to her, and then a sixth gem emerged from the sphere atop the pedestal. It was identical in shape and color to the one that now adorned the tiara that I was still wearing. They started to spin about the alicorn and surrounded her with a rainbow of light.

Those had to be the Elements of Harmony as they had been in the past. Even in a vision, I could feel their power. Then Celestia rose back into the sky to confront Nightmare Moon. They faced off against each other and the dark alicorn fired off a massive bolt of magic at Celestia who met it with a combined beam of her own magic and that of the Elements. At first, it seemed stalemated, but then the harmony beam started pushing back the dark magic. As it reached Nightmare Moon, it surrounded her as she screamed, “NO-O-O-O-o-o-o!” Then it blasted off in a beam of light toward the moon where it impacted in a rainbow burst. The silhouette of a dark alicorn appeared on the satellite, completing what I knew of the tale of Nightmare Moon’s banishment.

Suddenly, I was back in Ponyville, with my friends giving me puzzled looks. “Why are you all staring at me like that?”

Applejack replied, “It’s just that… you were mumbling to yourself…”

“And don’t forget all the ‘What the bucks’ you kept exclaiming,” Pinkie brightly added.

“We were really worried about you,” Fluttershy said.

“I, for one, found it dee-lightful,” said Discord who was lounging on a nearby vine. “Sort of a one-pony theatre piece, if you will. You should really consider taking it on the road.” He unrolled a theater banner that showed me gaping like a fool and cringing and cursing. How the hell did he know what I had experienced?

“Did you find out whose rump we need to kick and where we can find them?” Rainbow asked, putting words into action.

“I saw a vision of when Celestia banished Nightmare Moon, but it doesn’t explain what’s happening now.” I lowered my head in thought. “Since the Royal Sisters aren’t here, maybe the vision was saying the Elements of Harmony are relevant to our current problem?” I shrugged. “That’s my best guess.”

Zecora stepped up to me and said, “Perhaps farther back still are the answers you seek. Another sip of the potion will give you a peek.” She hoofed over the beaker to me.

“You sure about this?” Spike asked.

I shrugged. It obviously hadn’t hurt me the first time, and so far I had no better ideas. I drank another couple of gulps of the potion.

Discord suddenly appeared dressed in an old-fashioned movie director’s outfit, along with a motion-picture camera on a tripod to record the event. “Oh, I do hope he breaks into a song this time!”

My sight exploded once more.

The first thing that I saw was a school of fish swimming through the air. Looking around, I saw that the ground was now a surreal checkerboard. Plants were distorted and houses floated in midair on chunks of earth. But it was the two alicorns who caught my attention. Celestia and Luna were deliberately walking towards a tall throne that faced away from us on top of a nearby hill. Both looked worse for wear, but they wore fancy saddlebags. They stopped to glare at the occupant of the throne – Discord!

“Oh, ho-ho! This is so much fun!” the draconequus exclaimed as he faced the alicorns. How about a game of pin the tail on the pony?” He held up a familiar pastel-streaked item.

Celestia gasped and flared her wings before looking around to see that her tail was missing. Then she frowned and said, “Playtime is over for you, Discord.”

“Oh, I doubt that,” he replied as he munched upon a bag of something that he held in his right paw. “Mmm! Hungry?” He threw what looked like dark-colored beans at them, but they ignored him and the beans bounced of their faces.

“Suit yourself.”

Celestia and Luna’s horns lit up, and out of the saddlebags rose the six mystic crystals. They hovered in front of the alicorns as Discord leaned forward to take a closer look.

“Hmm – what have you got there?”

“The Elements of Harmony!” Celestia replied.

“With them, we shall defeat you!” declared Luna.

Discord practically fell over laughing. “Ha ha ho hee hee! You should see yourselves right now. The expressions on your faces – so intense. So sure of yourselves! A-ha-haa!”

Luna and Celestia crossed their horns and a stream of rainbow light burst forth. It streaked towards the draconequus even as he exclaimed, “Hilarious!” Then the beam struck and froze in a stone pose that was destined to last centuries.

The vision abruptly changed and I was elsewhere. It appeared to be a cave, but I was transfixed by the sight of the magnificent glowing crystal tree in front of me. Five familiar gems resided in pods on the branches, and the star-shape of the Element of Magic was at its heart. Even what I believed to be Celestia and Luna’s cutie marks were on its trunk. The alicorns in question approached the tree just then.

Luna gasped and said, “The Tree of Harmony!”

There’s a tree of Harmony now? This was getting weird. I looked around and saw a wide entrance to the cave that appeared to exit out into the bottom of a ravine. I turned back to see Celestia rise to shoot a beam at the symbol of Magic.

Luna asked, “Are you sure?”

Her sister replied, “We have managed to discover the only means by which we can defeat Discord and free the citizens of Equestria. Even without these Elements, the tree will possess a powerful magic.” All six Elements were released from the tree and hovered around them. “As long as that magic remains, it will continue to control and contain all that grows here.”

Then the view flared once more and I was back in Ponyville.

“So – what didja find out?” Spike asked eagerly.

“I’m not sure. This time I saw something called ‘The Tree of Harmony,’ which is where Celestia and Luna got the Elements. I also saw them turn Discord to stone.”

The Chaos Lord waved a paw dismissively, scattering popcorn everywhere. He reached into his bag of popcorn until his entire arm was inside. He pulled it out and glared at his empty hand. He then tipped the bag above his head and a large number of uncooked kernels poured into his mouth. Immediately after closing his lips, I heard the unmistakable sound of popcorn popping.

I frowned. Still hanging around with all of us as his entertainment? Fine. Time to turn up the pressure. “I think the vision meant we are supposed to turn him to stone again.”

His eyes went wide and melted butter shot out his nose as he swallowed then coughed. He stared at me for a moment then slapped both hands over his chest. A red, heart-shaped cartoon flew out his back and bounced away. “My heart!” he cried.

“Ummm…” began Fluttershy, a hesitant look on her face.

“I’ll second that!” said Rainbow Dash.

I continued. “I mean, what harm could it be? We can always turn him back, right?”

“Ummm…” said Fluttershy again.

Discord appeared directly in front of me. His head was now that of a white rooster, and both wings were draconic-looking and a shade of blue-grey. “Alright, buster. I think I’ve had enough of your chest-pounding in front of the mares. Maybe you don’t need to go on this little adventure after all.”

I felt my back legs begin to go numb. Looking back quickly, I saw they were turning to stone.

The rest of the mares and Spike covered their eyes, but Fluttershy flew right up next to us. “Discord, stop it! Mark, I promised Discord I would not turn him to stone. I’m not going to break that promise. So Discord, just stop.”

I turned to look back at the angry godlike creature in front of me. My hindquarters were numb now. I must have really pissed him off because he wasn’t listening to the yellow Pegasus at all. “You see there, human? That’s what friendship is all about. You could have learned a lot from these mares.” OK, selective hearing, maybe.

Fluttershy frowned and glared at the draconequus. “Discord! You’ve made your point. Change him back. Now!”

I narrowed my eyes and started thinking very quickly. As my chest went numb, I said, “I’d be glad to be petrified if it helped a friend. Friendship is when you think of someone else’s welfare above your own, wouldn’t you agree?”

Discord’s demeanor changed to resembling a professor beaming at his prized student. “Indeed! Now you’re getting it!”

I gave him a flat smile. “What’s wrong, Discord? Isn’t Twilight your friend?”

He froze in place and his eyebrows shot upwards, leaving his face entirely. At the same time, the numbness stopped at the base of my neck. Discord glanced at Fluttershy and I did as well. She was looking at him expectantly, her head tilted a bit.

After a few seconds, he blinked. With a snap of his fingers, I felt my body return to normal as his body returned to its original form.

I couldn’t help but let out a relieved sigh.

Discord frowned. “I know when I’m not wanted.” He turned into a white vine with balls sticking out of it instead of spikes. He shot into the air instead of the ground then disappeared.

With the source of the threat gone, my back legs started shaking uncontrollably. Trixie reached me first. She punched me in the shoulder with a hoof. “That was so stupid!” She then proceeded to hug me. “However, Trixie is glad you are safe.”

Applejack came up next. “Ah think there’s somethin’ seriously wrong inside yer skull, Mark. Why in tarnation did ya go pick a fight with him? And yeah, Ah know you were needlin’ him on purpose.”

Fluttershy came up to me. “I don’t know what got into him today. I’ve never seen him so aggressive before. I’ll have a long talk with him later about the proper way to behave around ponies, I assure you.” Her expression softened. “I know it may not look like it, Mark, but he really has reformed. Discord wouldn’t cause anypony permanent harm.”

I held onto Trixie while my heart slowed down. I was glad for the support because otherwise I probably would have fallen over. After several seconds and many deep breaths, the panic subsided to the point I could speak again. “Discord is pretty much omniscient and maybe even omnipotent here in Equestria. I did get him to admit that he expects us to go on some sort of adventure. For whatever reason, he wants us to team up to save Twilight.”

Rainbow Dash flew up, smiling. “Just the kind of hare-brained stunt I’ve come to expect from you, Mark.” She held out a forehoof. With a final pat on Trixie’s back, I separated myself from her and clopped my forehoof against Rainbow’s.

Rarity said, “I hope you are feeling well enough to continue, darling. I also recommend you not go around insulting demigods. There’s no future in it. However, I must ask: what was it that Discord said about chest-pounding?”

“Ah. Humans share a common ancestor with apes. One of these is the gorilla, who establishes dominance over other males for the females in the troop by a show of force, including pounding his chest.”

All the mares gave me bemused looks. Zecora had a hoof over her mouth and I heard her snort. I was surrounded by smirks and raised eyebrows. I started to sweat. “Look, I can’t help it if Discord decides to see things that way!”

Pinkie Pie was the exception to the Skeptical Contingent. She came up and gave me a hug. “Then he’s just plumb crazy. You spend more time with us as a mare than as a stallion.”

I blinked. “I… hadn’t thought of it that way.”

Apparently, the party pony’s observation distracted the rest of the mares as well. I took advantage before the topic of my stallionhood could be brought back up again. “So, I’m thinking this ‘Tree of Harmony’ is in the Everfree somewhere. I saw a large cave at the bottom of a ravine. Zecora, do you know of such a place?”

The zebra shook her head. “I cannot be of service. I know of no such crevice. The forest’s center you must inspect. There you will find it, I suspect.”

I looked around. “Is everyone ready to go in after Twilight?”

Zecora shook her head sadly. “The forest will tolerate me no longer. But if all the Elements go, you will be stronger.”

“Well, alright then!” Applejack exclaimed. “Let’s go save the… tree. Uh – where is it exactly?”

I grimaced and pointed at the Everfree with my hoof. “Exactly? I don’t know.”

We approached the hostile forest with some trepidation.

“Seems like it was only yesterday we were heading into these woods to find the Elements of Harmony,” Rarity said.

“Was it always this creepy?” Trixie asked.

Applejack replied, “Well, it were in the dark that time with only moonlight to show the way.”

Trixie shivered. “At least the plants weren’t trying to abduct you then.”

“If’n yer feeling scared, you can leave it to us, Princess Trixie,” the apple mare replied. “This is kinda our job anyhow.”

Trixie sniffed haughtily. “Are you saying that the Great and Courageous Princess Trixie cannot deal with the same dangers as her subjects?”

Applejack was taken aback somewhat, but she persisted. “It’s just that if something happens to Twilight, Equestria will need its Princess.”

I added, “Those vines could come after you again. I’d feel a lot better if you stay safe back here.”

Trixie frowned. “Do you all really feel that way?”

Everyone nodded, some more reluctantly than others, but I was glad that they supported Applejack and me. I reckoned I’d have enough to worry about without having to watch over Trixie too.

“Very well. Trixie will help the citizens of Ponyville while you risk your lives. Don’t get yourself killed, Hallmark Farewells.”

“By your command, Princess,” I replied, then turned to the others. “Let’s go!”

In spite of my urging, my friends seemed inclined to maintain a walking pace. Even Rainbow Dash was keeping to a low and slow hover above the group. It took a scolding from Rarity to restrain my sense of urgency.

“Mark, dear, trust us when we say that the Everfree Forest is dangerous enough even without the addition of those horrendous malignant vines. We must proceed with caution lest we encounter one of those perils.”

Polite and reasonable as ever, but her delivery made me aware of how pushy I was being in the face of the unknown. I resolved to restrain my impatience and be more alert for danger. This was not the time for ‘Crash’ Wells to screw up. Not long into our trek, that caution paid off.

Our party came to a stream, but there were stepping stones there to help us get over it. As I didn’t trust my wings in this situation, I decided to use the stones and started to cross. Then there was a roar and the steps beneath me moved.

“Cragadile!” someone yelled.

Heedless of the consequences, I took off into the air out of reach of the snapping jaws of a creature that looked like a cross between an alligator and a pile of rocks. I may have bounced off a branch or two, but I landed safely enough amidst the others. I started shouting orders.

“Pinkie! Distractions! Rarity! Use your magic to throw stuff in its face and slow it down! Applejack! Grab a vine and lasso its jaws. Rainbow and Fluttershy – fly behind it and grab more vines and ensnare its legs. Rarity – when the others have it restrained, wrap it in vines to render it harmless!”

To my relief, everyone acted without question. Pinkie pulled a party cannon from who knows where and shot confetti and streamers in the cragadile’s face. Rarity followed up with a shower of stones that caused it to flinch, giving Applejack enough time to break off a vine and make a lasso which she expertly looped around the beast’s snout. With those dangerous jaws and teeth out of the equation, we just had to prevent trauma by other physical attacks. The pegasi were on the job though. Surprisingly, Fluttershy was doing a better job of restraining the cragadile than Rainbow Dash, although in retrospect I realized that the animal carer might know a thing or two about dealing with injured and uncooperative patients. However, Dash was faster at getting the vines to restrain it, and between the two, the monster’s movements were severely restricted. Applejack was already breaking off more vines and Rarity was telekinetically whipping them into place as fast as they were supplied. Soon, the cragadile was rendered harmless.

“Good work, ladies,” I said.

“You ain’t done so bad yerself,” Applejack replied. “You kept yer head and gave directions like a pro.”

I chuckled. “Thanks. I may not be great with the physical stuff, but I usually think fast in an emergency. Anyway, we’ve lost enough time already. Shall we proceed? Cautiously, of course,” I added with a wink.

There were some laughs that relieved the tension before we headed off again.

I wish that the cragadile was the only peril that we faced while venturing through that crazy forest. A wolf made out of pieces of wood thought to make a snack out of us. Ironically, it was snared by several of the black vines and smashed into kindling. I was informed that timberwolves could regenerate though, so we didn’t hang around.

At one point, a manticore blocked our path. Before I could make a plan of attack, Fluttershy stepped forward and said, “Don’t worry – Manny is a friend of mine.”

My jaw dropped as the fierce creature bent over to rub its cheek against the butter yellow pegasus and purred. The quietest and most timid pony whom I had ever met was utterly at ease with this beast. Not to mention the bear and other carnivorous creatures that frequented her cottage. That was very impressive. And she had her eyes on me too? I quietly ranked her way above Rarity as a threat to my single status.

We continued onwards, exploring every possible likely path. Without a clue as to where the Tree of Harmony was located, we had to risk ourselves many times, but working as a team, we overcame all obstacles. However, we were almost undone by a thicket of black vines that came up with a new trick.

Several rose around us and flowers that resembled a cross between a Venus fly-trap and a spider started hissing at us. Then bursts of choking mist were sprayed in our direction. I gagged and coughed before managing to say, “Rainbow – wind gusts!”

“On it!” The multicolored pegasus whipped up a whirlwind that took away the noxious cloud. With the rest of us able to breathe again, we could take action.

“Duck and weave! Tie up these suckers!” I yelled.

I didn’t have to say any more. Each of the ponies used their strengths to tangle, knot, and otherwise restrain every single one of those vines, and soon we stood in the midst of squirming but helpless creepy vegetation.

“Anypony think we’re getting nowhere?” Rainbow Dash asked. “We’ve been at this for hours and got nothing but danger after danger.”

“I don’t know, Dash,” I replied. “Seems to me that these black vines have been getting more aggressive all of a sudden. Makes me think that we may be getting to the heart of the problem.”

“You make a good point, darling, but which direction is this heart?” Rarity asked. “I am quite turned around.”

I nodded. “Good thing we’re out in the open then. Dash – can you get some altitude and scout the way?”

“Aye, Captain!” Rainbow streaked upward and paused to look around. “The vines are thickest thataway!” she yelled down to us while pointing with a hoof.

“Okay, ladies – shall we?”

They all gave me confident grins and followed me as I took the lead. Forewarned about the vines’ latest trick, we were prepared to act whenever they threatened again. Soon we came to a deep ravine with a rickety rope and plank bridge across it. I could see the ruins of a castle on the other side, and I wondered who would be crazy enough to build inside this dangerous forest.

“Oh my! That’s the Castle of the Two Sisters! Do you think that’s our destination?”

Thank you for the convenient answer to my unspoken question, Rarity. I’d have to ask about that later. “No, it was in a cave in a ravine, remember?” I peered over the edge.

“How about there?” Applejack said, pointing to a spot further up the ravine.

I looked where she was indicating and saw the glow emitting from a cave that had caught her attention. “Good eyes, Applejack. That matches what I saw in the vision. Now, how do we all get down there? Those of us with wings can manage. Maybe Dash can lower the rest down? I don’t trust myself to carry anypony.”

Rainbow Dash smirked. “Anypony except the Great and Screaming-Like-A-Little-Filly Trixie like you did all the way to Ponyville.”

My ears folded onto my head. “Uh… yeah. I suppose I could try—”

“Whoa! Oof! Ow! Eep! Ugh! Oops!”

Pinkie’s voice drew our attention down and to the right where we found her sprawled on the floor of the ravine.

“Take the stairs, silly!”

I facehoofed. How did I miss those? I blame the distractions. As Rainbow Dash flew into the ravine, the rest of the mares took the stairs. I eyed them warily and weighed the odds of falling down them or doing a flying face-plant. Then I manned up, spread my wings, and glided to the bottom. I managed a creditable landing beside Rainbow and waited for the others to join us. We then all headed into the cave.

I immediately knew that we had found our goal, but the crystalline tree in front of us was a far cry from the brilliantly vibrant one that I had seen in my vision. It was dull and choked with the malignant vines that festooned the cave, and dripped with some sort of noxious slime. Two coils of the black tendrils lay at the base of the tree and I found myself wondering what they held.

“I think it’s dying!” Fluttershy exclaimed.

“So, let’s save it already!” Applejack said as she leapt into action. She grabbed a vine in her teeth and yanked, but it flicked her away.

“Nice try,” Rainbow Dash said before launching into a flying kick. However, a vine whipped out and sent her hurtling away to crash ignominiously on the floor of the cave.

“Nice try on both your parts,” Rarity said. “But the tree remains in jeopardy.”

“And I suppose you have a better idea?” Applejack snarked.

I recalled what I had learned during the vision of the Tree of Harmony and what Celestia had said about how its magic controlled and contained all that grew here. That magic obviously was almost completely drained, which meant that it was dying, just as Fluttershy had said. There was only one solution.

“I know what we have to do.” Everypony looked at me expectantly. “We have to give the Elements back to the Tree to save it.”

“Whoa! How are we supposed to protect Equestria without them?!” Rainbow protested.

“How are we supposed to rein Discord in, especially if we can’t use the Elements to turn him to stone?” Rarity asked.

I held up my forehooves to halt the protests. “Girls – you’re missing the big picture. If we don’t deal with this problem here and now, Twilight Sparkle may be lost to us and all of Equestria may fall. Now – are you ready to do the right thing?”

They shared a glance and nodded. They concentrated and suddenly their Elements detached from their necklaces. I did not expect them to make a beeline for me and begin orbiting the Magic Element in the tiara that I still wore. I did not have the experience with them as the others had, but I tried to emulate them. I focused on sending the star-shaped gem to join its companions. Much to my surprise, it worked, but it drew the attention of the vines and they whipped out to wrap around me and try to grab the Elements.

My mind raced. Why capture me if the Elements were the danger? Was it because I controlled the Magic Element that was created by the union of the five others through friendship? I had to give it a try. I willed the Elements to go to their places on the Tree, and much to my relief, they complied. They shot forward, dodging the grasping vines, and clicked into place in their respective pods. As the Magic Element settled in, they all started to glow brilliantly. Then the vines that were wrapped around the tree started disintegrating. Like fuse cords, they fizzled away, racing past us and out of the cave. I had the feeling that they weren’t going to stop until every vine was turned to dust. Meanwhile, the two thick coils at the base of the Tree also disintegrated, revealing Twilight Sparkle in one, and a pair of blue wings in the other.

Twilight and the mares spotted each other and raced together into a group hug. I stood back and admired the Tree of Harmony that was now restored to the same brilliance that I had seen in the vision. The Elements throbbed with life and I knew that Equestria was safe once more.

“Hey, Mark! What are you doing just standing there? Come over and join us!” Pinkie demanded.

As the others chorused agreement, I grinned and trotted over to join their embrace. It was good to have such great friends.

And I definitely did not cop a feel from Fluttershy. Don’t look at me like that.

As the hug broke up, Twilight noticed something missing from the necklaces and tiara. “What have you done to my Element?!”

Wordlessly, we pointed to the tree where they all now resided.

“We had to give them back to the Tree of Harmony to save you and Equestria.”

“Tree of Harmony?” the alicorn queried as she turned to look at it.

“Long story,” I replied just as the Tree throbbed with power.

We watched as colored streams of magic ran from the five Elements on the branches and into the Magic Element where they combined and flowed down the trunk and down to the roots. It sent up a shoot that grew into a giant flower bud. Twilight walked up to it and cautiously touched it with her hoof and the flower bloomed. Nestling within the petals was a crystal hexagonal box with what looked like keyholes in some of the faces.

As we all crowded around it to have a good look, Twilight asked, “What’s inside it? How do we open it?”

I said, “Anyone got keys that might fit in those slots?” I got nothing but blank looks. “Well, considering that there are six Elements and six former Bearers, it’s probably up to you six to find them.”

“It should be seven, darling,” Rarity said. “You earned the title today, you know?”

“Thanks, Rares, but I have enough responsibilities. Besides, that would be just one more key to look for, right?”

Twilight said, “You can try to reject the title, but it doesn’t change the reality. You are now and forever more an Element Bearer.”

“I thought you’d be more upset about me using your Element,” I told her.

“Are you kidding, Mark? The Element of Magic is formed through the power of friendship. Besides, it confirms my theory that the Elements choose their Bearers. Anypony with the requisite characteristic that exemplifies any of the aspects can become a Bearer. You are the proof!”

“And she’s nerding away so all is right with the world once more,” I said drolly to the laughter of the others and a blush from the purple alicorn.

I waved a wing at the crystal box. “That thing is a conundrum that can be solved another day. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m tuckered out.” I grabbed Trixie’s wings. “Let’s go home.”



When we got back to Ponyville, the first thing that I saw was that it was totally free of the invading vines. That made it easy to spot Trixie haranguing Discord who actually looked relieved to see us.

Banners and streamers popped out of thin air and party horns tooted. “Bravo! However did you save the day this time?” Discord asked. “Blast the beastie with your magic necklaces, I presume? Where are those little trinkets of yours? You know – the ones that you use to send me to my extremely uncomfortable stone prison.”

“Gone,” Applejack admitted.

“Gone?” Discord asked with a smirk.

Fluttershy flew up and gave him a pointed look. “But our friendship remains.”

Discord wilted and Fluttershy poked him with a hoof.

“And if you want to remain friends, you’ll stop thinking whatever it is you’re thinking and help us clean up.”

Discord popped away and reappeared in a maid’s outfit. “Fine! But I don’t do windows.”

I wasn’t done with the draconequus yet though. “You’re suspiciously blasé about this as if you knew what was happening. What part did you play in all this, and why only now?”

Discord shrugged. “I have no idea. Those seeds that I planted should have sprouted up ages ago.”

“What did you say?!” Twilight demanded.

“Why should I try to explain it when you can see for yourself?” Discord held out the flask of the white potion that I had drunk before.

“What’s that?” Twilight queried.

“Allow me, Twilight,” I said. “Might as well see the final pieces of this puzzle.” I took the flask and drank. My vision exploded once more.

I was back at the scene where Celestia and Luna confronted Discord, but this time the focus was on the beans that he was eating. The vision followed some to the ground where they buried themselves and started sprouting. Then I heard Discord’s voice narrating.

“Well, obviously things didn’t go according to my original plan. My plunderseeds should have stolen the magic from the Tree of Harmony and captured Princess Celestia and Princess Luna thousands of moons ago. Alas, it seems the Tree had enough magic to keep the seeds from growing up big and strong. Until now, that is.”

The vision showed the roots of the plunderseeds being stopped by the Tree of Harmony, and then I was back in Ponyville.

I glared at Discord. “So, not only was that information we could have used hours ago, but you were the cause of the problem in the first place. You could have stopped all this if you wanted to.”

“And rob you of a valuable bonding experience with the others? What kind of friend do you take me for?”

“One who should be a statue right now,” I replied.

“Not much you can do about that now. Without the Elements, there’s little you can do against a demigod.”

“I don’t believe in gods. I believe in friends.” I stepped back to join the six former Element Bearers and they closed in and presented a united front to the draconequus.

Discord gave me a sour look, but his trademark smirk soon returned. “I was right about you, Mark Wells. You are indeed delightfully disruptive.” He then disappeared in a flash of light.

When it was apparent that Discord was not returning, Trixie wandered over to me looking despondent.

“What’s wrong, G and P?” I asked.

“Trixie was not of much use,” she admitted.

“Did you keep Discord preoccupied while we were looking for the Tree of Harmony?” I asked.

Trixie snorted. “The Great and Indignant Princess Trixie had a thing or two to discuss with him. I got him to agree not to pull his antics on my little ponies any longer!” Her ears fell a bit. “Well, at least those outside of Ponyville.” Her ears pointed forward and her mood brightened. “Do you know what else? He told me I thought of myself as better than my friends, which was quite perceptive of him!”

This got an epic eye-roll and a smile from Twilight.

Trixie continued. “I think he tried to shame me into running into the forest to help you all, but Trixie knew that you’re a competent lot, so there was no reason to do so.” She gave a warm smile to the purple alicorn. “It’s good to have you back, Princess Twilight.”

Her co-ruler smiled. “It’s good to be back, Princess Trixie.”

I grinned. “I’m impressed. I suspect old snake-hips respects ponies who stand up to him, even if he’s insufferable a lot of the time. Heaven knows what he might have done if you didn’t keep him busy.”

“That makes Trixie feel better, but she notices that you did not include her with your friends.” She pouted.

I grinned back. “I have lots of friends, but only one princess.”

That brought a genuine smile to her face. “You are forgiven. Now, Trixie thinks it’s time we went home.”

I spread my wings. “Would you care for a lift, Your Highness?”

Trixie laughed. “Not a chance in Tartarus, Birthmark Smells. We’ll take the train.”

I smiled. It was good that everything was back to normal at last.

 


 

Chapter 18: Duties And Distractions

 

It was a particularly nice day and I was settled in a garden chair in the shade of the gazebo at the rear of the castle, overlooking the gardens and the hedge maze. Steady Flight had brought us both cool drinks and I was sipping at mine between playing my guitar. Oh, yeah – did I mention that I’d recently come across a shop that sold musical instruments and I had spotted this on display? Of course, I was intrigued by how a pony could possibly play one with hooves, but I really should have known better. I’d seen cello and violin playing done, so I had to know there was a trick to it, but still…

I queried the shopkeeper about it. Although he was a little surprised at the question, he did give me pointers. Turns out it’s mostly about focusing intention into the magic touch of one’s hooves. Just as I was able to manipulate table cutlery by not thinking about it and just doing it, the same was true for selecting chords and plucking strings. Naturally, I had to practice a little to do it right, but it didn’t take me long to get up to my normal degree of proficiency.

Of course, that did not make me a virtuoso. My talent was definitely modest, but Phil and I used to have a lot of fun singing around the campfire, me strumming my guitar while he laid down some beats with a couple of sticks and a log or a bucket. Once in a while, we attracted other campers and had a great time with the impromptu band. Right now though, I was introducing Steady, Trixie, Twilight, and anyone else who was prepared to listen to songs from Earth. Music seems to run in the veins of these ponies, and I was a hit. Maybe I should go commercial? Nah – too much work. I had always played for the fun of it, and I wasn’t about to change that.

This gazebo had become a favorite place for me to play if I didn’t want to attract too much attention, or I wanted to rehearse a new song. It was great for seeing the world pass by too. More than one session had been brought to a halt while I watched Twilight practicing flying. Honestly, aside from my power-handling problem, I was currently a better flyer than the young alicorn. She had been devoting so much of her time to her studies and her Element of Magic responsibilities that she rarely took the time for flying lessons. She had managed to overtake me in incurring the wrath of the groundskeepers for all the damage she did from crashing. Nevertheless, I envied her the earth pony fortitude that she possessed because she shook off incidents of the kind that had me begging for a healer, and of course she had perfect control of her magic flow. I took my laughs while I could.

Today though, I was a little introspective. A couple of weeks had passed since the incident with the plunderseeds, and I was assessing my life in Equestria so far. My aptitude at using the Element of Magic before I surrendered it to the Tree of Harmony had shaken me. It put me on a level that I felt I didn’t deserve, but more to the point, it had made me inextricably a part of this new world – a pony in a land full of magical colorful equines. What was happening to the human? I was now used to walking around butt naked, but instead, I was having to deal with the unexpected attention of several mares. Thank the heavens that they were all considerate of my stallion sensibilities, although Fluttershy tended to push the boundaries. Who knew that such a timid pony could be so assertive in these affairs? The reversal of the male/female status quo had been a little odd at first, but at least they could deal with a male who played hard to get. And believe me, I was going to be really hard to land. No female, human or equine, had tempted me yet from the joys of being single.

On the flip side, I had gained far more friends in these past weeks than I had ever possessed before. I missed Phil and my life back on Earth, but I was genuinely enjoying my stay here. Then again, I’d been regarding my residence in Equestria as a transitory thing – a sabbatical, if you will. Twilight was still researching ways of recreating the portals to get me home, and of course get the alicorns back, and while that hope remained, I could only regard this as a temporary arrangement. Tomorrow, Twilight might find the answer and I’d be back in my bedroom and my old life at last. I looked over to Steady who was nibbling on a pastry that he’d brought with the drinks, and I wondered what I would be giving up.

Besides my new friends, there was also flying. I hated to admit it, but after my very successful emergency flight to Ponyville, albeit with a less than stellar touchdown, I had grown in confidence and found myself losing the fear of heights that had plagued me originally. When I had mentioned this to Steady, he had scoffed knowingly and said, “Pegasi gotta fly”. How could I argue with that? There was something to be said for gliding through the sky under your own power that could only be poorly imitated by humans. I should know. Before I gave up on any activity that got me more than a couple of yards above the ground, I had tried sports such as skydiving. I’ll never do that again, but now I had wings and damned if I didn’t like them! If only I could lick the flight-magic regulation problem.

Yeah, I had it pretty good here in Equestria, so why was I feeling so melancholy right now? And where was Trixie? She should have joined us a while ago. This was her afternoon off while Twilight Sparkle took Day Court’s second shift. Another quarter hour passed before the Great and Miffed Princess Lulamoon arrived.

“Hi, Trixie! Grab yourself a drink to cool off and tell me about it,” I said when I saw her expression.

The blue unicorn grabbed the whole jug of iced tea and carried it and a tumbler over to a chair. She poured out a full glass and drank most of it before topping it up. “Trixie is having regrets over asking Sparkle to be her co-ruler.”

I sighed. “Let me guess – she was late again?”

“Of course, she was late!” she said with exasperation, dramatically sweeping the jug through the air and spilling half of its remaining contents. “The Princess of Books had lost track of time while studying again. Her lack of responsibility is irking.”

This wouldn’t be so bad if it was the first incident, or even the second or third. Unfortunately, just as I had judged before the Alicorn Challenge, Twilight was a student of magic first and the Element Bearer second. Running a nation came a distant third, despite her intention to do her best for Equestria. The purple alicorn had more than once gotten lost in her studies, or had gone gallivanting about the country with her friends for one reason or another. All were legitimate activities, but it had shifted the burden of running the nation back onto Trixie too often. Even though she had previously ruled on her own, Trixie was peeved that she still had to do the majority of the work despite having willingly surrendered half her authority to Twilight. What had started as a pretty fair and friendly partnership was slowly degrading with incidents like these.

It didn’t help that Twilight was regarded as the more popular princess even though most of those in the government knew that Trixie was responsible for the majority of the hard work. Twilight had started a few pet projects and her focus was on those. It was a pity that Spike was still in Ponyville, looking after the library whenever the alicorn was in Canterlot. The hard-headed and sensible young dragon could usually keep her on time and in focus. Seriously, that little guy had all my respect. And he made the greatest pancakes too. I never forgot to bring him the latest comics as soon as they hit the stands here in Canterlot. I wished the problems with the diarchy were so easily solved.

Recently, Twilight and the other former Element Bearers had gone to the Rainbow Falls tryouts for the Equestria Games. As important as they were to Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy as competitors (and didn’t the latter surprise the heck out of me), they weren’t something that required one of the nation’s rulers to attend. Of course, I did not think that she had to devote every moment to the business of being a princess. That concert by the Ponytones had been fun, and I had been truly impressed by Rarity’s singing (and stunned at the usually taciturn Big Macintosh’s bass virtuoso performance), but at least it had been in support of a charity event. That was definitely on the list of royal-appropriate duties and I was glad to have been invited. I planned to try to get to another recital if there was a corresponding break in my schedule.

“I will have a talk with Twilight after Day Court is finished,” I promised.

“Trixie would appreciate that, though she has little confidence in Twilight Sparkle listening,” the blue mare replied with an air of resignation.

“You just have to know how to handle her,” I replied with as much confidence as I could muster.

Trixie loudly scoffed at that but said nothing more, preferring to concentrate on her drink instead.

It was too nice an afternoon to let her spend it simmering in frustration, so I said to Steady, “How about we practice a few landings?”

He looked at me dubiously. “Are you sure, sir?”

I couldn’t blame him for his hesitation – they were still my worst ability discounting the power-control factor. I leaned my head in Trixie’s direction and winked.

Steady caught on and nodded. “Very well – let’s start with a short-runway drill.”

I followed the stallion out of the gazebo, girding myself for the challenge. If I couldn’t cheer up Trixie with words, a few pratfalls were guaranteed to make her laugh.



Twilight didn’t turn up at the dining room after Day Court, but that was hardly unusual. I knew exactly where to find her though. I headed directly for her research laboratory – site of many a failed experiment in portal creation and other undertakings. It was the latter that I had come to dread lately.

Upon noticing me enter her lab, Twilight came bouncing up to me, happily waving a forehoof while carrying a hypodermic needle in her aura.

Despite the fact that it was a standard-sized needle, I still flinched back. “No, you may not play ‘Science’ on me today. Go back to your play blocks and Erlenmeyer flasks.”

She laughed. I was a bit relieved that it was the ‘Twilight is happy’ version and not the ‘Twilight is in manic science mode’ one. “Oh, Mark. You know just as well as I do that no one really uses Air-land-mare flasks for science. Their shape and glass thickness just aren’t designed for rapid heating and cooling. Mostly, they are props to make everything look all science-y.” She levitated the needle directly between us. “No, I was wondering if I could get another blood sample. In fact, I’d like to get one on a weekly basis.”

I instantly regretted my choice not to eat raw garlic this morning. “Away, vampire! You won’t be draining me dry of my precious bodily fluids!”

This earned even more delighted laughter. Inwardly, I cringed a bit. There was no hope of dissuading this mare if she didn’t take anything I said seriously. She smiled at me. “No, no. I’m not a vampony, and honestly, that’s probably not a good word to say around here. The thestral contingent of Luna’s Night Guards might take offense.”

She sat down and tapped the floating needle with a forehoof. “You’ve inspired me to start another research project! Do you remember the discussion we had about the maladies ponies can have with magic and the cells in their bodies? Some on the other end of the spectrum from your condition can leak out magic almost as fast as the background field provides it. Others can only keep extremely small stores in their bodies. I’m researching a way to use a small sample of your blood as a mana battery to alleviate those conditions. Probably in an amulet that can be worn.” The purple alicorn winked and nudged me with a forehoof. “I was thinking of naming the product after you.”

I snorted. “The ‘Zero To Klutz Amulet’?”

Twilight put a hoof in front of her mouth as the skin at the corner of her eyes wrinkled.

“The ‘Never Take Stairs For Granted Again Good Luck Charm’?” I offered.

She snorted and closed her eyes.

“Maybe the ‘Interstellar Flight Aid… No Guaranteed Returns… Space Suit Not Included Talisman’?”

The Princess laughed out loud. After that petered out, she said, “Actually, I was thinking the ‘Minute of Arc Organelles Magic Aid.’ ”

I shook my head. “Not you too! And you’re really reaching there.”

She gaped in pretend shock. “Don’t blame me if my mangling of your perfectly fine name is science-oriented.”

I thought back on something that sounded off. “So why ‘Magic Aid’ instead of ‘Flight Aid’ or ‘Pegasus Magic Aid’?”

Twilight’s enthusiasm turned back up to eleven and I could tell lecture-mode was fully engaged. “Well, I already knew that your blood could do something previously only achieved by alicorn cells: namely process and store more than one kind of magic – wild Everfree and pegasus. What are the special properties of your makeup that allow this, and can that be adapted to suit the magic of the other tribes? Theoretically, there’s no reason to believe it isn’t possible.” She smiled. “Did you know that your cells are also opaque to dragon magic? I sealed a pipette with a few drops of your blood inside, placed it inside a scroll and had Spike try to transport it to me on the other side of the room with his dragonfire. The blood was the only thing not teleported! It absorbed the heat but not a bit of the magic, and all that was left was a little cloud of fully-oxidized blood cells!” She gave me the smile only a successful experiment could make on a mare passionate about her research.

I shrunk back reflexively and held up a hoof to protect myself. “Please assure Spike that I will not forget his request for back issues of Power Ponies Generation Z.”

She laughed a bit maniacally. “Anyway, I’ve made some progress. I think there’s hope that your cells can be adapted to restore earth pony magic to quadriplegics and unicorn magic to those with cracked or broken horns. Right now I’m investigating the idea of using a catalyst to bridge the gap between types of magic.”

“What about Chaos magic?” I blurted out.

Twilight’s eyes widened. A scroll and quill popped out of nowhere and the latter started scribbling furiously. “I hadn’t thought of that. I wonder if I can talk Discord into donating a few cells, or at least try to charge some samples for me?”

“Maybe you can ask for Fluttershy’s help on that.” I thought of something else. “But isn’t all of this experimenting incredibly dangerous? What if the amulet shatters? Or with even a single blood draw sample, you’d have enough explosive to level half of Ponyville, wouldn’t you?”

Twilight shook her head. “Barely a quarter, actually. Did the math.”

I glared and didn’t feel the need to speak.

“There are barriers, both magical and physical, that will eliminate that danger. Also, I don’t plan to store any of your cells charged. I’ll just put them in time-stasis for preservation until they are needed. But if the research proves fruitful, even if it is just for pegasi, the demand will be extreme. I’d rather provide amulets to everyone from samples slowly donated over time rather than asking for a wing and a leg all at once.”

I nodded then glared at her suspiciously. “No super-sized needles.”

“I promise!” She smiled back. “Oh, and the other reason I wanted to meet with you today.” She fished around in her mane, frowned, then searched from the other side with the opposite forehoof. “Ah!”

Twilight pulled out a green wristband (or was it a pastern-band? A fetlock-band?), then she levitated it in between us. Then it was surrounded by one of her shields. “During my experiments, I realized that you really have only a binary method of determining how much magic your cells have absorbed: either perfectly fine or smithereens!” The purple alicorn gave me a big smile but then it drooped a bit as I hadn’t found her joke to be all that funny.

Twilight sighed and continued. “See the middle third of the band? That is a luminescent strip that repeats four times along the circumference. It turns on for three seconds if you touch it with a hoof or if the cells inside it are over 25% of their maximum capacity. I’ve put some cells inside the band to show you how that works.” Her horn glowed brightly and after a few seconds, I saw a brighter green glow appear as a rectangle in the middle of the band. The rectangle grew outwards on both sides, the entire shape shifting to yellow and then to red as it stretched further across the surface. Eventually, it came to a stop as red sections from further around met up, now making a full, glowing red stripe across the entire surface. After several more seconds, there was a pop, a puff of smoke, and the band returned to its normal green hue.

After the shield dropped and Twilight floated the wristband closer, I allowed her to put it around my left forehoof. It shrunk in place and fit snugly but comfortably. It matched my light green coat color exactly and the edges were mostly hidden by my fetlock hairs. Curious, I touched it with my right front hoof and saw a very thin line of darker green appear. Maybe two percent. I’d already used up my excess magic that afternoon. I looked up. “I noticed that you still had to put in more magic after the band was fully red before my cells blew up.”

She nodded. “100% safety margin. Still, I would not recommend going higher than what the band indicates. While your cells will spread out the magic charge across them fairly evenly, this still takes some time. Getting hit by a lightning bolt will be safe up until the band turns fully red.”

I blinked.

She looked a bit abashed. “Well, as safe as it ever is for a pegasus to be hit by a lightning bolt.”

I looked at the band and grinned. “This will be quite useful and reassuring. Thanks, Twi.”

The purple alicorn smiled happily. “You’re welcome, Mark.”

“While we’re on the subject of magic research, I was talking to Trixie about it this afternoon…”

“Uggh! When will that mare start taking her magic lessons seriously? She hasn’t been practicing nearly as much as she should be, nor following the study courses that I’ve laid out for her. Now that she’s mastered teleportation, I don’t think she cares about getting better at anything.”

I sighed. It seemed that Twilight was determined to hijack the conversation I wanted to have with her. Better to let her get it off her chest, I suppose but try to steer her in the right direction. “You do realize that she has to spend extra time on royal duties whenever you go gallivanting off with our friends, don’t you? There’s little time left in the day to relax and unwind, let alone study.”

“All those occasions were for the benefit of Equestria,” Twilight replied with a pout. “And she makes me do extra Day Court sessions after each of them, so I don’t know why Trixie is so upset. She could still find time to do studies on those days. And after all, she had already been doing Day Court every weekday before my coronation, so she has to have plenty of spare time now.”

I was beginning to get exasperated with the mare. “Don’t you see, Twilight? You’re making time for your magic studies and are constantly arriving late for Court, dashing off on a mission, or some other excuse. You even found time to tend to Discord! If you can’t manage your responsibilities to be on schedule, why do you expect Trixie to be any better? I won’t let you overwork her even if you think she should be doing more.”

“She’s a Princess of Equestria – she should be working hard for the benefit of the nation!”

“Do you think Princess Celestia wasn’t glad to have her sister relieve her of some of the burden of ruling when Luna finally returned from exile?”

That hit the young alicorn hard. I didn’t like using the absent princesses against Twilight, but she had to see something other than her own narrow point of view. However, as the peacemaker between the two current rulers of Equestria, I had to utilize whatever means I could think of, and as I wasn’t a professional diplomat, sometimes I wasn’t as subtle as I would have liked.

“I… suppose you’re right, Mark. I’ll try to not be tardy and to give Trixie her time off. I just hope that she will spend some more of it on her studies. It’s what Princess Celestia would have wanted.”

I counted that as close to a win as I was likely to get. “Okay, I’ll have a chat with her about that. Now, how about you put away your mad scientist gear and come have dinner? Growing alicorns need their nourishment.”

Twilight giggled. “Another thing that I let slip. Thanks, Mark.” She went to put away a few items and then joined me. As we headed out the door, she said, “By the way, Rarity says that the Ponytones are playing their final engagement for the season tomorrow at the Ponyville Town Hall, and she would like you to be there for it.”

“Hmm, I was thinking of visiting anyway. I have a bundle of comics to take to Spike. When’s the event?”



From my spot behind Pinkie Pie, I had a great view of the stage. I was both surprised and pleased by the enthusiastic performance that Big Macintosh was putting into his singing. Frankly, I had not seen this side of him before. The audience was certainly into it with him. Then everything came crashing down – literally. I don’t know who was more stunned to see a certain butter-yellow pegasus belting out the words in the manliest bass voice I’d ever heard, but there were more than a few jaws scraping the floor, mine among them. It took a long moment for Fluttershy to realize that the rest of the group had stopped singing and the audience was staring at her. She froze and didn’t seem to notice when every pony started cheering and hoof-stomping in appreciation. No, it was classic stage-fright that overwhelmed my friend. I started to head up to the stage to try to calm her, but she raced off before I could get there. Applejack immediately started grilling her brother about the incident, and the truth quickly came out. Then we all hurried over to Fluttershy’s place.

It took a bit of doing and a chase around Ponyville, but we managed to convince Flutters that not only weren’t ponies upset with her, but they had loved her performance. Of course, we understood how she felt about singing in front of an audience, but we pointed out how she should now have more confidence in facing a crowd.

Having learned about how poison joke had affected the quiet pegasus, the only thing that surprised me was how pleasant the result was. I was also intrigued by the fact that apparently the blue flower changed someone exactly the same way if re-exposed. I made the tactical error of mentioning this to Twilight and Rarity overheard.

“Darling!” she exclaimed. “You know this means we simply must do another modelling session. I was inspired to create so many more designs for Princess Celestia after your previous fashion show.”

I arched an eyebrow at her. “What is it with you girls wanting me to be a mare so much?” I complained. “I thought you liked me as a stallion?”

That’s when I learned Rarity swung both ways. I was doomed.

 


 

Chapter 19: Discoveries

 

I laughed joyfully as I looped and dived through the air. I did barrel rolls and Immelmann turns, inverted flight, and power climbs. I danced through the air, the perfection of grace and control. So, who cares if I had to be a mare to do it? Certainly not me. Every stressful moment trying to learn how to fly properly was forgotten as I practically made love to the winds. I was master of the air! I was… not alone.

At some point, Rainbow Dash had joined me, and she matched my aerial ballet. Two winged ponies moved as one, twisting and turning in tight formation as if we were bound together by ethereal chains. We took turns leading and daring the other to follow and match the other’s maneuvers. Both successful and failed attempts were followed by laughter. My sheer joy of flight was mirrored on my friend’s face as we cavorted above the canopy of the Everfree Forest, away from prying eyes, but not those of my dear friends.

My desire to be something other than my normal klutzy self had outweighed my misgivings about encouraging Rarity, and the Elements and I had headed off to Zecora’s home in the woods. She had been amused at my request and had given me a small bottle of her poison joke elixir. After being lyrically cautioned that only a sip was needed, she reminded me that the cure still required a bath, although she foresaw the need for a simpler ingestible antidote. Yeah, that zebra saw right through me. And I didn’t give a damn.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that while I had managed to avoid Rarity’s wish for a second, third, or twelfth Royal Fashion Show, I had played right into the hooves of my multi-hued dance partner. My magically induced near-perfection of flight was pushing the mare hard to match, and she was absolutely loving it. I found that while Rainbow’s top speed and maneuverability outstripped my own, Celestia’s form gave me instinctual control of how to release the magic in my overcharged cells. As a result, I had better acceleration and deceleration, especially in a straight line. It was in Dash’s nature to enjoy both flying and the challenge of being the best. One day, that pegasus was going to blow away the Wonderbolts, but for now, her eyes were only on me and the sky.

All good things have to come to an end, and the two of us came to a landing in front of the Castle of the Two Sisters, breathing only moderately hard after our exertions. She grinned at me and I returned the smile. Both of us knew that we would be doing this again sometime. But for now, our friends were waiting. Twilight was the first to approach, curiosity making her eyes sparkle like her name.

“So, did it feel any different after the mane cut?” she asked.

Trust her to be more concerned about the effects of trimming one’s mane on the dynamics of flight than of whether we had enjoyed ourselves. If there had been one thing about being transformed into a simulacrum of Celestia that had really bothered me, it wasn’t being female. No – it was that huge flowing mane of hers which is why I had used a scrunchy to tie it back last time. The annoying mass of ethereal hair had come back, and I had idly asked Twilight whether it would matter if I cut it. After her initial surprise at the question, she admitted she didn’t know. “Why does Celestia keep it so long anyway?” I asked. Twilight explained that not only was her mane a distinctive feature that Celestia liked, it also acted as a safety valve for her magic. Celestia is such a powerhouse that she often had an excess of magic, but unlike me though, she could handle it. However, if it did leak, it would do so in extremely destructive bursts. The constant slow release through her mane eliminated that problem. I, on the other hoof, even fully charged, would not have nearly enough magic to move the sun or moon an inch, even if I had been given a unicorn body. I had no need for such a big failsafe. I asked Rarity to cut it back to a reasonable length. After a little debate over how much constituted ‘reasonable’ (as in she didn’t believe I should cut it at all), I finally convinced her to cut it way back until I had just enough for a ponytail of attractive length as well as my over-sized tail. I loved the result, and I was able to inform Twilight that my mane gave me no problems during the flight and made maneuvering a lot easier. We were both wondering what would happen to the bag full of multi-pastel colored hair once I transformed back.

Okay, maybe one small problem. Rainbow Dash said it made me look sexy. Thinking back, I realized that she likely didn’t have any stallion friends (well, most of the time) that were so willing to compete with her and not care less if they won or not. As if I didn’t have enough problems with the attention of the Elements of Generosity and Kindness already. Fluttershy hadn’t said anything, but I sometimes caught her looking at me hungrily. Damn, that girl was scary sometimes!

So, I had no fewer than three mares measuring my stats – eligible young stallion, easygoing, friendly, fun-loving, well-positioned socially and professionally, and into kinky alicorn sex-changes. I think Twilight could have been a fourth only she got too immersed in the study of all things from the home-world of Mark Wells to worry about petty matters like relationships. I counted my blessings that neither Pinkie nor Applejack appeared to be interested in more than being just friends – three were enough! Steady Flight had informed me that three or four mares competing for a stallion’s favor was perfectly normal. If he ever makes it to America with me, he might be in for a shock.

While Rainbow and I had been indulging in aerobatics, the others had prepared a picnic. The ruined castle had been chosen for the site of the meal because it was not only an obvious landmark for me to aim for once I had finished flying, but it was also a relatively safe place in the midst of the dangerous forest. Between the warnings and tips Zecora shared with us plus the six mares’ experience and planning, the hike there had been relatively safe. The securest route had been mapped out, and Twilight had come prepared with a variety of spells to defend against any foreseeable peril.

We settled down on the blankets that had been brought along, spread out on the floor of what remained of the Great Hall. Fluttershy and Rarity had immediately lain down on either side of me, leaning up against my sides. I suppose I should have been concerned, but it felt nice, and I was in too good a mood to spoil it with a trivial gripe. Pinkie rapidly unloaded the contents of the picnic baskets that Spike had helped carry in. I swear that twice as much as could possibly fit inside those baskets was pulled out, but I shrugged and reminded myself that it was just magic. Still damn impressive though. The horned ones among us (me excepted due to a nonfunctional knock-off) passed the food and drinks around, and we were all soon happily munching on our favorite foods. Only then did I realize how much of an appetite I had worked up. Rainbow Dash also. I think we competed to see who could eat the most. Fortunately, Pinkie had accurately foreseen the need, and we didn’t run out of food before we were replete. Did I say double? I think it might be closer to triple. I wondered if those innocent-looking wicker baskets were actually dimensionally transcendental. I resolved to find out sometime. Right now I was too full and feeling torpid.

Apparently, the others were feeling much the same. Both mares by my sides pillowed their heads on my back. I was feeling that a siesta might be a good idea too, but there were questions that were growing in my mind. I resolved to find some answers. “Hey, Twi – do you know if poison joke has any mental effects?”

Twilight’s brow furrowed as she considered the question. “That’s a little hard to answer, Mark. Poison joke was virtually unknown before Zecora studied it.”

I snorted. “That means that she probably was forced to find the cure because she had been affected once also. I wonder what happened to her?”

“We can ask her the next time we visit if she’s willing to talk about it.” Twilight shook her head. “Anyway, we have too few data points. Everything that happened to the six of us was of a physical nature, and I had thought that the same was true for you too. Have you been experiencing anything that might prove otherwise?”

“Well, when I’m my normal self, I like being male. After my first transformation, I was glad to return to being a stallion again. However, back then and right now, I have no problems with being a mare and I have no strong urge to return to being male. I mean, it’s not a matter of sexual desires – I don’t really think about that at all. I just love being coordinated and skillful in this form. But why don’t I miss being myself?”

“Hmmm… That may be a question for a philosopher or a psychologist rather than a magician. I suppose it’s possible that you have had a shift in mental perspective, but it could also just be that you enjoy yourself too much while in Celestia’s form to worry about those details. Seeing as you seem prepared to do it again now that you have that bottle of Zecora’s potion, my opinion would lean toward the latter. Only time will tell. Does this bother you at all?”

“The first time that it happened, I was disturbed for a little while until I started having fun with it, which thanks to you was in about thirty seconds.” The purple alicorn chuckled at that. “This time, because I was totally in control of the situation, I didn’t feel any disquiet. I’m totally down with being a mare for the duration.” I looked at Fluttershy and Rarity who both seemed to have fallen asleep on me. “And I’m even enjoying being a pillow. It’s so not me, but I don’t care.”

Twilight flashed me a brilliant smile. “Then count your blessings, Mark. You got lucky and the joke has backfired. Enjoy it while you can.”

I nodded. “I think I’ll do that, even if it’s going to be hard to find occasions to transform without half of Equestria finding out.” I blew away a few stray strands of color-changing hair from my eye. “I’m wondering if this mane will grow back next time though.”

“If I was a betting mare, I would say yes. The poison joke has to get you somehow,” she answered with a smirk.

I sighed. “Nothing is ever quite perfect, is it?”

The alicorn looked around at her napping companions and her smirk changed into a fond smile. “I don’t know, Mark – I think this may just be one of those times.”

Who was I to argue with the smartest mare that I knew?

I let the two mares continue to nap while I chatted with the others. The subject turned to the upcoming Equestria Games, and of course, Rainbow Dash was filled with enthusiasm.

“Oh, yeah! The Ponyville team is looking strong. We’ve all been training hard for the Games. As coach, I’ve got to watch the time and dedication they’ve put into their preparations. Even Bulk Biceps and Fluttershy have been giving 101% in our practice sessions.”

“I’m surprised that Bulk is in a flying contest rather than something like weightlifting,” I commented.

Rainbow shrugged. “He may be the strongest pegasus in Equestria, but he can’t match an earth pony competitor. He still wanted to compete in some field though, and I needed a third for the relay team, so we both got what we needed.”

I had seen Bulk fly – now there was real magic! But competitive it wasn’t. Nevertheless, Dash was undaunted and I knew that if anypony could win a race with him and Fluttershy as teammates, it would be my colorful friend. I gave her a grin of confidence. She then told me about the other team members and their events, and I had to agree that Ponyville had some real contenders. I suppose that I should have been more supportive of the Canterlot team, but I had no involvement in their organization and no emotion investiture. I much preferred to root for my friends.

The topic of conversation turned to the ruined castle, and I learned a bit more about its history and how this had been the site of the girls’ confrontation with Nightmare Moon.

“This must be quite a historical site,” I said. “Has any effort gone into preserving or restoring it?”

Twilight looked chagrined. “Actually, I’d been intending to do something along those lines, but I’ve never gotten around to it. And now that I’m a princess, I definitely have been too busy. Perhaps I should remedy that?”

“Uh-uh, Twi. I know that you’d probably enjoy it, but you have to prioritize your royal duties. Need I remind you about how much you’ve been letting that slip lately? Keeping Trixie appeased is becoming a full-time job lately. I suggest that you appoint some expert to look into it and perhaps arrange something in the budget for restoration works if they’re considered feasible.”

Twilight sagged. “You’re right, Mark. I can’t indulge myself like I once could.”

“Well, not when you’re on duty, but right now on your day off…” I hinted with a grin.

The purple alicorn brightened. “Of course! Care to join me in a little exploring, anypony?”

“Nah,” Rainbow Dash replied. “Poking around a dusty castle with zero death-traps? Not my thing. Thinking of taking a nap actually.”

“Oh, good,” I replied. “You can be the pillow while Twilight and I look around.” I indicated the two sleeping mares to Twilight who quickly caught on and levitated them gently off of me and onto Dash. The pegasus rolled her eyes but tolerated the action before laying her head on her forelegs and shutting her eyes. I stood up regally and did my best imitation of what I thought Celestia should act like. “Come, my little ponies! Let us explore this magnificent relic of years gone by.”

Twilight and Pinkie giggled, and I even got a chuckle out of Applejack. I then led the way in what looked like a promising direction.

At first, we did not find much of great interest. Whatever had survived the battle between Celestia and Nightmare Moon had succumbed to the ravages of time. I saw a lot of potential in the intact rooms though, and I was sure that the throne room could be restored with a bit of effort and some investment from the Crown. I resolved to bring it up at the next budget meeting rather than let Twilight butt heads with Trixie about it. I reckoned that the blue mare would take a lot of convincing – she was always more on the practical side. But historically, I was sure this place was a gold mine, and that was my opinion even before we reached the next room.

Twilight had barely stepped through the doorway when she froze and gaped, her eyes going as big as saucers. “Oh, sweet Celestia!” she murmured in awe.

I managed to push past her to see what had enraptured her. A library. Of course. Any thoughts that I’d had about keeping Twilight focused on her royal duties had just gotten a swift kick in the butt. But I hear you say that all the books should be a moldering mess by now, and you’d be right normally. But there they were, all of them looking just as good as they must have been a thousand years ago despite the huge hole in the roof. Row after row, level after level of pristine books of all sizes and shapes filled the room.

“H-how?” I gasped.

Twilight’s horn lit up, and after a moment, a complex glowing pattern appeared in the air. “A preservation spell, and an extremely powerful one at that,” she commented. “Celestia must have intended that this collection of books be an enduring repository of knowledge, and enchanted it accordingly.” Her smile grew to epic proportions. “And it’s all mine!” She was off like a shot to start exploring the huge library.

I turned to the others. “Well, it would appear that we’ve lost one alicorn princess. When I get back to Canterlot, I’ll arrange a squad of the Royal Guard to drag her back.”

“Good luck with that,” Applejack said with a smirk.

I nodded. “You’re right. Better make it two squads.”



As it turned out, we didn’t have to resort to such drastic measures. After we had our fill of exploring the castle, we returned to the throne room as the napping mares were stirring from their sleep. After filling them in on what we had found, Rarity had shaken her head and tutted. “Show me the way, darling. I know just what to do. Pinkie, dear, would you happen to have one of your Death By Chocolate cupcakes with you?”

“Of course I do, silly! I always have one in case of Twilight Sparkle emergencies.”

That had me curious as I led Rarity to the library where we inevitably found the alicorn surrounded by several massive piles of books. She barely noticed us as we approached, but when she did, she gave us a manic grin.

“Look what I have found already! These books alone will fill in huge gaps in our history.” She indicated one pile and then switched to the next. “And these—”

“Twilight, darling,” Rarity interrupted, “I know that these are truly important, but they can wait. It’s time to go home, and Mark needs you to teleport him past the prying eyes of the citizens of Ponyville to the spa. Pinkie – if you please.”

“But how can I turn my back on all the—mmfff!” Twilight’s mouth was suddenly full with a rich chocolate cupcake, and her pupils dilated enormously. She then started chewing and moaning in ecstasy.

Rarity enveloped the alicorn in a bubble of levitation and lifted her away from the books. Turning to head back to the throne room with the mare in tow, she said to me, “Twilight has a serious chocolate addiction. We discovered that it’s the only way to break her from obsessing over something, and it also makes her much more compliant. She shouldn’t put up a struggle for a while.”

“And just in case, I have another cupcake!” Pinkie added happily.

I was concerned that this room with a hole in the roof would not protect books that had been left haphazardly strewn about the floor after they survived a millennium in the bookshelves. However, behind us, I saw Applejack and Rainbow Dash had found a fairly empty set of shelves and were stacking Twilight’s selections there rather than trying to find their original homes. Satisfied, I turned my attention back to the intervention team.

“Well, that’s one way to solve a problem. I’ll have to remember that next time she’s in a bad mood.” And perhaps get the recipe for that cupcake. Seriously – if it could disable a powerful alicorn with just one bite, I had to try it for myself!



Ultimately, my vacation from Crash Wells had to come to an end… of course, that only happened after a full massage treatment by a pair of spa ponies who were in on my secret. This time I got Twilight’s promise not to cut it short.

Fully satisfied and relaxed this time, I wandered over to the large tub which already held my friends. I stood in the middle of the tub, already feeling Zecora’s antidote starting to affect me.

I smirked. “Hey, girls! Want to see a magic trick that even the Great and Powerful Trixie can’t do?” With that, I dunked myself fully underwater.

When I stood up, I immediately noticed feeling a bit colder in spots than I expected. I heard Fluttershy gasp and turned to face her. She was staring at my back and Rarity sitting next to her in the tub winced. “Don’t worry, Darling. I… understand pulled manes are in style this year in Manehatten. I’m sure the twins can give you a wonderful dressage plait before you leave.”

I turned to look at the other Elements. Twilight’s eyes bugged out and her cheeks were red. Pinkie looked upwards thoughtfully then slipped beneath the water’s surface. Applejack’s head was tilted slightly and her brow was furrowed. Rainbow was laughing uproariously – always a bad sign.

With a sense of dread, I turned to look behind me. Where I had previously sported a mane that was about a foot long, now it was maybe a quarter that length. That wasn’t so bad, but when I unconsciously flicked my tail, my eyes went wide. My dock was now bare except for the same three inches of hair covering it. “My tail! What happened to my beautiful tail!” Wait. Did I really say that? I could tell Rainbow heard me because the volume of her laughter went up a notch.

“Found it!” Pinkie was outside the tub, happily waving at me while holding the bag open that used to contain the leftovers from Marklestia’s mane and tail cut.

I bowed my head and slumped my shoulders. Mentally, I knew I shouldn’t be so affected by losing something that I didn’t even have a few months ago, but I was. I really, really was. The poison joke had gotten the last laugh after all.

Some splashing noises approached me and my head was quickly resting on an alabaster coat and purple mane. “Mark, darling, don’t you worry. We’ll not leave the spa until you are back to feeling fabulous about your appearance. I promise.”

As I leaned into Rarity’s embrace, I heard Applejack yell. “Rainbow Dash, caint ya see how bad Mark’s feelin’ right now? Yer makin’ him feel worse than a Mayfly goin’ ice fishin’.”

As the blue pegasus got her chuckles under control, I heard a voice from outside the tub. “Ah, zis eez no problem, Meester Mark. You are most fortuneet zhat you have zee original hair for us to work weeth. Much eezier zhan ’aving to dye zee replaizment.”

I pulled my head away from the fashionista to look into her eyes questioningly. She smiled gently. “We are in exactly the right place for this cosmetic emergency, Mark. It is time to introduce you to another trick of the fashion industry.”



I felt a bit awkward just lying down on the massage table, trying not to move. My friends were busy chatting away happily, occasionally bringing me into the conversation as they sorted the different lengths of tail hair. I was especially grateful to Rarity who sat closest and refused to let my mood turn sour again.

I had accepted Aloe and the fashionista’s recommendation to have the spa mare try “the dressage look” which consisted of repeating tight braids all along my mane. Twilight pointed out that my new look matched the one Shining Armor sported after returning from enlisted training. The regulation mane style was very popular among the troops, although you couldn’t guess it as it was completely hidden by their armor and helmets.

My tail was a more complicated process, with very small bunches of hair called ‘wefts’ magically welded onto the base of the strands still attached to my dock. These were slowly covered by individual hairs that were attached one-by-one onto those that formed the outermost layer. Aloe and Lotus moved like a two-headed machine, each spending less than a second to connect each individual strand, all while gossiping with my friends.

After only a couple of hours, I was allowed to get up and examine my new look in an alcove containing three mirrors. As part of the recovery process, the underside of my dock had been trimmed with clippers. Apparently, this was expected for cultured stallions and no pony had bothered to tell me before today. The extensions were invisible and frankly, the care given to it made my tail look better than ever. I noticed the lingering oil on my coat from a quick massage the spa ponies had thrown in to relax me. It served to highlight the muscle definition I had developed over the months of flight lessons and just trotting around everywhere. I couldn’t help myself but swish my tail in delight and pride at what I saw.

Then it struck me.

For the first time, I felt as pleased looking at my equine body as when I had been admiring my human form in the full-length mirror just before I came to Equestria. I realized that another milestone had been crossed towards making me as contented here as I had ever been at home.

“Are you happy with the results, Mark?” asked the Element of Generosity. I glanced up in the mirror to see smiling and perhaps slightly covetous faces behind me. This time, it didn’t bother me in the slightest. I turned around and thanked the two spa ponies. Then I embraced Rarity. “I’ve never looked better.” I pulled back to look her in the eyes. “Ever.”

She sniffed a little bit but didn’t drop her smile. “Oh! You don’t know how wonderful that makes me feel, Mark.” The rest of my friends came up for their own hugs as I thanked each of them in turn.



I ended up only just making it to the station in time to catch the last train to Canterlot. In fact, I certainly would have missed it if a particular rainbow-hued mare hadn’t been arguing with the conductor about how fast the train could really go if the stallion would stop being so cautious around every bend in the track. As it was, her interference and standing where she wasn’t allowed gave me the extra minute I needed to climb aboard.

The trip home was uneventful and I finally started to relax when I entered my quarters. I noticed that Steady had cleaned up my mess, or had one of the maids picked up after me. I checked the bed. Neat comforter over a rumpled sheet. It was Steady. Speaking of the stallion, I heard a knock behind me and turned to see him smiling in the doorway. “How was your trip, sir?”

I smiled. “Steady Flight! My good stallion! Thank you very much for cleaning up after my mess. I think I owe you a drink for that one.”

To my surprise, he just shook his head. “My work is my own reward, sir.”

I looked at him quizzically. “Ummm… OK. Well, in any case, I had a great time kicking back with my friends there. Hopefully, you won’t be busy the next time I go.” I smiled and struck a pose. “So what do you think of my new look?”

Steady gave a broad smile and made a circular motion with a forehoof. Well, sure, I suppose. I walked around in a circle so he could see the full treatment. The tail repair was invisible even when I looked for it up close, so I was confident nothing looked out of place.

When I came back around to face him, he clapped, though I think a bit sarcastically. He said, “Your level of personal care just went up a few notches, to the point that it befits your station. Even more, I think you’re all set for one of Rarity’s fashion shows, sir.”

I stopped mid-step. After a pause, he continued. “I saw the dinner jacket and ascot that she made for you. With your mane and tail styles, I could definitely see you modeling them for her.”

I recovered quickly with a chuckle. “Uh, yeah. Maybe as her guest at her fashion show or her plus one at another fashion event... crap! I still owe her a dinner out. That’s what I said I’d do in payment for the outfit.”

I started pacing. “The next time I see her will be at the Equestria Games in the Crystal Empire. She won’t be competing, but she’ll want to spend all her time with her friends and fellow townsponies… or maybe she’ll think it’s the perfect opportunity to show off her fashion line at the ritziest restaurant there.” I looked up to Steady. “What do you think she’d prefer?”

My friend shook his head sadly. “I’m not mare enough to have any clue what any mare is thinking or feeling.” He opened his eyes. “I’d suggest bringing the articles with you in case the opportunity arises. Plus this lets her decide on her own whim and schedule, sir.”

I thought I had gotten him out of the constant “sir” stuff when it was just the two of us. Still…

“Yeah. That sounds like the best plan. Great job, dude!” I slapped him on the shoulder. He smirked and bowed his head respectfully. Yep. Definitely acting kind of weird today.

“May I unpack your bag, sir?”

“Ah, no. I’ve got it this time, thanks.” I smiled sheepishly, remembering I had some more private photos to put away. “What you can do is wake me up thirty minutes early. I want to go down to the pool and work on my gait. I’ll master galloping if it’s the last thing I do!”

He rolled his eyes. “I thought ‘flying’ was what you were going to master if it was the last thing you did.” There was the snark I was looking for!

“Yes, yes. I’m sure I’ll finish them all on the same night. Speaking of which, good night, Steady.”

He smiled. “Good night, sir. May you fly to sleep cradled in the gentle wings of Luna.” He bowed and left.

I was left frowning at the door. That last bit was unusual, but I suppose Luna was the Princess of Dreams. No worries. Something to brood on another day.



As much as I wished that I could have spent more time in Ponyville, I had obligations to keep. Monday morning saw me standing by Trixie’s throne once more. Today was a little different from normal as several nobles had requested a private audience with their ruler before Day Court commenced, and Trixie had agreed to it.

“Thank you for meeting with our group from the Parliament of Nobles, Princess Trixie.” Lady Opulent Affair bowed deeply but kept her eyes on the mare on the throne the entire time. The unicorn mare had a pale yellow coat, so light that it was almost white. Her mane was likewise faded, appearing to be frosted silver. This coloration provided a strong contrast to her deep purple irises, which were accented by her silk lavender gown and amethyst jewelry. Anypony talking to her would find their gaze automatically gravitating to her eyes, which the Lady had learned to use to their full, captivating effect. From my spot next to the throne, I thought back to when I asked about her striking features. She was glad to relay how her noble line was the product of dozens of generations of careful mate selection from only the finest stock to create the palest, most beautiful equines possible.

Next to me, the faux alicorn waved a hoof. “Trixie lives to serve all of my ponies, including the nobles. What is on your mind, Miss?”

The noblepony unicorn’s eye twitched slightly as she paused, but then continued. “Well, mostly we wanted to congratulate you on winning the Alicorn Challenge.”

Trixie beamed. “Yes, Trixie was certainly Great and Powerful that day.”

“But how did you do it? We would love to hear how you bested the Element of Magic.”

Trixie’s eyes narrowed slightly and she smirked.

“While in my previous career I would have said ‘A showmare never reveals her methods’, today I am obliged to say ‘That information is classified as an Equestrian State Secret’.”

Trixie’s expression dialed back up to ‘joyful’.

“Still, what is important is that Princess Twilight Sparkle took her rightful place by my side. Equestria was the true winner that day. It has been restored to its rightful state of being ruled by two alicorns.”

“Ah, yes.” Lady Affair shuffled her hooves. “About that. I have heard some gossip among the nobles. I hesitate to bring it to your attention, but I knew you just had to be told…” She lowered her voice theatrically. “…and far better to hear this from your trusted allies!”

Rather than encourage the noble to continue, Trixie just smiled expectantly.

The pale mare cleared her throat. “Others are saying that you might now consider yourself more than the provisional co-regent of our great country.”

“Oh, they are quite correct, Lady Affair.” Trixie’s gaze was direct, as was her tone of voice. “When Lord Fancy Pants declared me the victor, I became the rightful ruler of Equestria. In fact, because I saw you and every other pony present bow to me, you have all sworn your fealty. Did you not understand that was the purpose Celestia and Luna had in mind for the Alicorn Challenge? It established unequivocally who the ruler of this land is.”

The nearly white unicorn face betrayed a mix of emotions and she blinked rapidly. “But… when the Royal Sisters return—”

“If they return, they will first and foremost respect the laws that they wrote with their own hooves. Then Twilight Sparkle and I will meet with them as equals and discuss the matter like civilized mares. Now, did you have any further concerns you wished to bring up before Day Court begins?”

Lady Opulent Affair stood straighter, her face now impassive. “No, Your Highness. You’ve made yourself quite clear.”

Trixie smiled but not very kindly. “Then I wish you and your fellow nobles a pleasant morning.”

After the group had left and the doors closed behind them, I turned to Trixie. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but right now I’m actually glad that you can be an uncompromising megalomaniac when the time comes for it.”

The blue mare laughed and pounded a forehoof on the throne. When Trixie was done, she said, “Why, Grand Vizier! That compliment was so backhoofed, I’m surprised I didn’t spin across the throne room!”

I shrugged. “You employ me to call it the way I see it, even if it involves you.” I looked her in the eyes. “Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long before some of the nobles began to try chipping away at your armor. Oh, I’m sorry, before your ‘trusted allies’ did.”

“Trying to plant rumors all by herself to undermine my confidence. Amateurish, at best.” She sighed. “No. I’m afraid Miss Affair is perhaps a bit too affected by all those uncles breeding their cousins. The true threats among the nobles will come from those we never suspect. That is one reason I keep myself distant from them, even those whose company I enjoy like Lord Fancy Pants. And the whole lot of the nobles are of little consequence compared to external threats, both real like Chrysalis or possible like a suddenly powerful again Griffonian army. That is why I have drastically increased the budgets of select portions of the Guild of Mages and Foreign Relations Department. Next time, Trixie would like to know about trouble before it erupts from the ground and steals her wings.”

I eyed her appraisingly. “You really are growing into your role, aren’t you? You wouldn’t happen to be classifying Celestia and Luna as ‘external threats,’ would you?”

Trixie gasped in pretend shock. “From anypony else, I would consider that to be treasonous! But from you, I’m only mildly surprised it took you this long.” She waved me a bit closer and leaned towards me. I stepped in to hear her whisper. “Celestia confided with me that she had been hoping for centuries that her ponies would take more and more responsibility for their own lives and safety. With the appearance of Twilight Sparkle and her friends, she thought her long-held dream was finally getting closer to becoming reality.”

I blinked. “So do you think they left because they thought their ponies were ready?”

She shook her head. “Too sloppily done. There was so much chaos that it’s a wonder why Discord didn’t break free that day. No, they were called away on some real emergency. Twilight Sparkle also believes the same.”

I nodded my head. “That reminds me. I had a talk with Princess Sparkle.” I described the purple alicorn’s new project and her hopes that it would benefit ponies who no longer had access to magic.

The blue mare thought for a bit then looked up at me. “Trixie has no doubt this is a worthwhile area of research with great potential; however, it is another example of her prioritizing research over her royal duties.” She tilted her head slightly. “Perhaps the personal connection to this endeavor prevented you from seeing this?”

I thought about it. “Hmmm. I hadn’t considered that. When I speak to her next, I’ll keep that in mind. In any case, she reiterated her commitment to make up for sessions of Day and Night Court that she misses and agreed to put extra effort into performing her royal duties on time.”

The unicorn mare narrowed her eyes at me. “You are a wonder, Question Mark Birdwell. How is it that you so easily wrap the will of your sovereigns around your hooves? Perhaps you are a greater threat to the independence of Equestria than we had previously surmised.”

I was used to this by now. “You’re welcome. And now it’s time to exercise my control over your independence and tell you what you are giving up in return. I want to you spend more time practicing your magic.” Trixie rolled her eyes and groaned. Fortunately, I had experience with teenagers. “Don’t give me that. You need to keep improving yourself, if for no other reason than to help protect Your Little Ponies.”

“But the Busy and Overworked Trixie has no time for this.”

“Then make time. Cut back on the number of Night Court sessions per week. Delegate more to the capable ponies who prove themselves. When you go to the spa, have someone read to you, even if it is a review of your spellbooks. Have Raven help arrange more of your schedule for efficiency.” The unicorn mare in question was just arriving in the throne room, her ears now perked forward in interest at hearing her name used.

The former showmare frowned and was silent for some time. After Raven had taken her place and I had silently promised “Later” to her, we both waited for our co-ruler to respond. At last, she said, “Trixie will make the effort and will consider all that you have said.”

I nodded. That meant I had to keep following up regularly to remind her.

Raven cleared her throat to get Trixie’s attention. “In any case, it’s time.”

We all turned to face the double doors where today’s petitioners waited. We had a lot to get through to build a buffer before we took a few days off for an official visit to the Crystal Empire for the Equestria Games.

Trixie’s magically amplified voice boomed, “Let Day Court commence!

 


 

Chapter 20: Games

 

If you can’t be royalty, the next best thing is being royalty’s right hoof stallion. First Class travel all the way to the Crystal Empire in the royal coach of the train that was currently wending its way through the foothills of the Crystal Mountains, the ranges that separated Equestria from the Crystal Empire. Both Trixie and Twilight were on board to attend the upcoming Equestria Games. Fortunately, they each had their own stateroom. While Celestia and Luna may have been happy to share with their sister, that would have been a disaster with their replacements.

Of course, I was hardly the only extra VIP passenger. All the Element Bearers were accompanying Twilight, although it had been difficult to drag Applejack away from the farm for the duration. Spike was here too, and he was teaching Steady Flight and me how to play Ogres & Oubliettes. Even though I had never played the game, I recognized it as being analogous to Dungeons & Dragons, something that I had not gotten around to dabbling with up until now. Discord teleported in to do the session with us, despite my misgivings at the presence of the draconequus. However, I had to admit that his unconventional approaches to problems our party encountered made it twice as fun. Between the game and the gorgeous scenery, I was far from bored despite the lengthy journey.

Because this was an overnight trip, it was good to be able to keep oneself amused. Twilight realized that this was also the perfect time to get Trixie to study her magic and had her hitting the spellbooks hard. Not to be outdone, Trixie had dumped the latest political headache on Twilight for her to sort out. It was remarkably peaceful while both were too preoccupied to snipe at each other. Fortunately, détente prevailed when they stopped for meals. That’s when I had to be at the top of my game and steer the conversation.

“So, Twilight – any progress on opening that box from the Tree of Harmony?” I asked.

The purple alicorn scrunched her face in frustration. “Not a bit. I wish that it came with a set of instructions, but considering its origins, I suspect that discovering the keys is part of a test.”

“If it’s anything to do with Harmony, I guess it might be tied to the Elements that you represent. Maybe do something that exemplifies that Element and you get a key. Isn’t that how you got those artifacts in the first place?”

“A reasonable hypothesis, but one that’s hard to test. Nevertheless, I’ll keep my eyes open for anything that fits the bill and ask the girls to do the same.”

I looked around for Rainbow Dash to inquire about her preparations for her events, but she was absent. Probably coaching her team members again. The prismatic mare took her role seriously, and I would be very surprised if Ponyville did poorly at the Games. Fluttershy was absent too. Being a team member, I suppose she had to train along with the others.

I chuckled at the memory of those two pegasi at the recent Traders’ Exchange at Rainbow Falls. Trixie had been the Princess in charge of settling disputes this year, and suffice to say that things had gotten a bit strange that day when Rainbow Dash was a tad too zealous in her quest to get a prized item. I didn’t think that Twilight had learned what happened there yet and I had an evil whim. “Hey, Twi – has Trixie told you about her day at the Traders’ Exchange yet?”

The alicorn looked up from her work and shook her head. “No, she hasn’t. How did that go, Trixie? Was it the great public relations opportunity for you that I thought it would be?” she asked eagerly.

The blue mare gave Twilight a flat look. “Oh, the crowds gave Trixie the great welcome that she deserved, but then she sat around being bored all day. Whose idiotic idea was it to have no less than an Equestrian Princess arbitrate petty disagreements between ponies? Do you remember how much real work Trixie has to do while you are hanging out with your friends? Not to mention the magic lessons that you consider so essential. But no, it seems that the Great and Underappreciated Trixie’s time was better spent at a trash and treasure market.”

“Oh. I’m sorry that it didn’t work out so well,” Twilight said.

“It wasn’t a total loss. Trixie got to rule on whether Rainbow Dash exchanging Fluttershy for a rare book was a fair trade.”

“She WHAT?!” Twilight screeched.

Trixie continued. “Since both of your friends entered the agreement willingly, Trixie was tempted to say yes, but in the end, Trixie decided that it would set too much of a precedent to start selling ponies into slavery.”

“I should hope so! I’m going to have words with Dash just as soon as she’s done with coaching.”

“Trixie has decided that future events shall have a vice-regal representative attend in our place. We have far more important things to do with our time.”

“But… the tradition…”

“…is one that needs to be retired. Trixie doesn’t know how it started, but she knows how it will end. The Wise and Busy Princess Trixie has spoken!”

Twilight took the defeat pretty well and accepted Trixie’s ruling. Discord gave me a wink and a thumbs-up for getting a rise out of Twilight. Hey, she’s my friend – I can prank her if I want to! If Rainbow and that trader hadn’t accidentally made a deal that was misinterpreted and came out wrong, it would have been possibly the most boring day of my life in Equestria, and perhaps ever. Trixie played it up like crazy though, and we had a laugh about it later. There was never any chance of the shy pegasus being forced into servitude, but we weren’t going to let Dash forget about it for a long time. Yeah, I’m merciless when it comes to teasing all of my friends.



I went to bed a bit later than I had intended due to the O&O game going longer than I thought it would. All the mares had already hit the sack by then, although one of them had hung around longer than the others. I think she may have had some desire for company, and I knew who her pony of choice was. However, I wasn’t in a hurry to encourage her, and with Discord there still, well… enough said.

I woke up to snow-covered scenery which, while not my first experience with the cold white flakes, had a certain fairytale appearance that I had not seen before. I suppose that was appropriate for a land of magical ponies, but it was new to me and I watched it as it passed by as I sat eating my breakfast. Royal chefs had accompanied our group, of course, and the culinary standards didn’t slip for the mere fact that we were still on a train. I was thoroughly spoiled, I know, but at least I burned through all those calories every day. No pudge on this pone!

It came as quite a surprise when snow abruptly transitioned into fertile green fields. Sure, I might have known about how the Crystal Heart keeps the ice and snow out of the Crystal Empire, but it was still a startling phenomenon to see with my own eyes. After a while, farms transitioned into houses and shops, and that’s where the train journey terminated. The rest of the way to the palace was an easy walk, but the G&PT insisted on a carriage ride. Protocol agreed with her, even though none of the rest of us minded the stroll, including Twilight. Besides, you got to see more when you weren’t travelling in a fast-moving carriage.

One thing that you couldn’t miss though was a giant statue of Spike holding up a crystalline heart. I would have asked him what that was all about, but he had been whisked off his feet by a pair of Crystal Guards who then galloped off towards the castle with him. I shrugged and figured that we’d find out what that was all about soon enough. Cadance and Shining Armor were waiting for us at the base of the castle where the actual Crystal Heart was spinning rather hypnotically. Twilight and Cadance exchanged an adorably cute greeting before we were all invited inside for a royal luncheon. There we found Spike snacking on a bowl full of gems that were being fed to him by an eager mare. Curiouser and curiouser. Not so unexpected was Trixie lounging in a chair, sipping wine and snacking on a selection of pastries. I hope she hadn’t eaten the apple turnovers that I liked and Cadance had promised me when I visited.

Over luncheon, I learned a lot more about the Crystal Empire and why Spike was regarded as a hero. I congratulated him even as I made a mental note to keep an eye on the young dragon. Fame like that could go to the head of a kid like him. Of course, Cadance had to go and stoke the fire.

“We were hoping that you could do us the honor of lighting the torch at the opening ceremony tomorrow. You’d be the very first dragon in the history of the Equestria Games to do so.”

Wow! Spike’s eyes lit up when Cadance said that. “Of course, I’ll do it! And I can even do it with my fire breath.”

He proceeded to demonstrate. Fortunately, we had a pitcher of ice water handy to put out the decorative centerpiece.



I was surprised to receive a summons from Princess Cadance the next morning. She asked me to join her for morning tea a half hour before she was to host the Royal Breakfast Buffet (or whatever it was called) for all the out-of-town dignitaries and athletes staying in the Crystal Castle. I hurried to comply, curious if she would be trying to set me up with another of the ponies attending or competing at the Games. As I followed the palace guard who led the way, I mentally compiled a list of the most and least likely being Cadance might invite to share tea with us. By the time the guard knocked politely on a mahogany-stained door, I had put Fluttershy on the top of my list of possibles and Discord at the bottom. As I heard the Alicorn of Love call out ‘Enter’, the thought occurred to me that if the other occupant of the room actually was the Lord of Chaos, that would be conclusive proof that the Pain-In-The-Arse could read minds.

The guard stood in the doorway a moment. “Presenting Grand Vizier Mark Wells, Your Highness.” He then stepped back gracefully while bowing.

I heard her melodious voice carry into the hallway. “Thank you, Amethyst Chip. That will be all.”

As I entered the room, I saw the Princess in her standard regalia sitting behind a small wrought-iron table. A blue and white porcelain tea set, two empty bread plates, and a small covered wicker basket sat on the table. Surrounding us were a variety of potted plants, several reaching nearly as high as the ceiling, perhaps ten feet overhead. Three walls showed the blending of blue and purple crystals that made up much of the castle. The fourth was made of clear, faceted columns of crystal and allowed morning sunlight to shine on the greenery.

Cadance smiled warmly as the Guardspony closed the door behind me. I used that time to verify that there was only one more chair in the room, and there were only two teacups in the set.

“Thank you for agreeing to join me this morning, Mark.”

Since we were apparently on a first name basis, I decided to do the same. “Thank you for inviting me, Cadance. It’s not often I get the chance to have tea in a beautiful Sun Room like this one.”

She looked around, her smile growing. “Yes. I find this room very relaxing and a wonderful spot to enjoy a few peaceful moments before my duties start in earnest.” She waved to the chair opposite her and picked up the teapot with a hoof.

As I sat down, I saw her practiced and steady hoof pour out tea for us, first my cup, then hers. She then gently set down the teapot and unfolded the napkin from the top of the basket, revealing two scones and small ramekins containing soft butter and some jams. She pointed one out in particular that was an odd combination of red, blue, and purple. “This is crystal berry jam and was made by the castle chefs just this morning. It is one of the few items that have been popular exports to Equestria, although our output is still very small. Our hope is that within four years, my crystal ponies will boost capacity to where we can export to other countries as well.” Her pride was evident in her voice.

My coordination with cutlery, at least, had come a long way since my first meal with the Great and Snarky Trixie. I soon found myself humming appreciatively over a piece of scone slathered with butter and the aforementioned jam. After swallowing, I said, “I can see why this is so popular. It reminds me a bit of cloudberries from back home.” I took a sip of the tea and smacked my lips. “Crystal berry as well?”

She smiled with a trace of embarrassment. “I think you’ll find many of the local foods and drinks here use them. They also make a great sugar-base for meads and liquors.”

As the co-ruler of the Crystal Empire prepared her own scone in a manner similar to mine, although with much more butter, it occurred to me that Cadance was being very relaxed and unguarded. I knew she had the skills of a politician hardened by decades of experience and could hide her emotions if she chose, but she was inviting me to let my guard down as well.

After finishing our scones, we both relaxed and stared out at the city before us. The random faces of the crystal columns and slight milkiness to their color distorted the light enough to prevent a clear view of the city, and I suppose, preserved the privacy of those within the sun room. Behind and above me, a songbird decided I was not a threat and started its gentle tune.

I exhaled, quite relaxed. “I know there isn’t a great deal of time before we have to attend breakfast with everypony else. Was there something you wanted to discuss before then?”

Cadance took a long sip of her tea and continued to look outside. “As much as anything, I wanted to get a better feel for you. You are such an important part of so many ponies’ lives now.” She looked at me and smiled. “We haven’t had the chance to spend any time together.”

I grinned back. “And so what have your perceptions told you, if I may be so bold as to ask?”

“Well, first of all, you were clearly expecting there to be someone here with me this morning.” I thought back to my near instantaneous counting of the number of cups. She smirked. “If I may also be so bold, who do you think was going to be here?” Her eyes twinkled in amusement as my eyes narrowed playfully. She knew all along I wouldn’t fall for that trap. I certainly wasn’t going to make it that easy for her to learn which mare was foremost in my thoughts.

“Nice try. But I’m willing to tell you who was the last one I expected to be here.”

Her ears perked forward.

“Discord dressed as Shining Armor.”

Cadance threw her head back and laughed, which was quite a wonderful thing. My respect for her husband moved up half a peg for getting to witness this on a regular basis.

The pink alicorn settled down and looked at me appraisingly.

“What?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I can only say that there are rules on what I can and cannot do in my role as Alicorn of Love.” She poured a bit more tea into our cups.

After a short pause, I spoke. “I noticed that you asked ‘who’ I expected and not ‘which pony’.”

She nodded. “I impose no restrictions on those I advise. Whether it is a single passionate fling, a bonding friendship, or finding your soulmate, love makes no distinction between species and, of course, neither do I.”

She looked at me conspiratorially. “Would you like to know a secret?” I leaned forward and nodded. “I am the anonymous patron for numerous academics, sculptors, playwrights, authors, and painters who push the envelope of what is considered socially acceptable love and friendship in Equestrian society. Everything from historical studies of homosexuality in ancient Saddle Arabia to a future-fiction play about a grounded dragoness and an earth pony soldier – mortal enemies forced to cooperate to survive the harsh climate of the Blasted Lands.”

I nodded. “I think you would have enjoyed the art and literature on Earth. Although we only have one sapient species, the notion of opposites attracting is timeless. And our ‘Science Fiction’ expands tales of love and friendship into other races.”

She smiled. “I hope someday you can share some of these stories; if you would be willing?”

“I’d be glad to. It sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you in pony society.”

Cadance rolled her eyes. “You have no idea. Do you know what the greatest barriers are for ponies to find their special somepony?”

I pursed my lips. “Well, the gender imbalance would have to be the first.”

She nodded.

“And then, at least for the Elements, the fact that they are so much more powerful than all the stallions around them.”

The Alicorn of Love blinked and her smile fell. “Ah! I see how you would think that, but no, that’s not it exactly.” She leaned back and used her magic to draw a series of pink lines in the air with a hoof, one on top of the other. “Think of pony society as a hierarchy of classes. Royalty on top, then a few levels of nobles, then important individuals in government and society, and so until you reach the common pony at the bottom. Pony tradition holds that everypony stays at or close to their birth position in society, at most moving up or down a level or two in their lifetime. As a result, a bankrupt noble will be regarded more highly than a hardworking and successful entrepreneur.”

Starting from the bottom, she swept a new curving line made of a shifting rainbow of colors until it crossed just below the top line. “Then the Elements of Harmony come along. Their power derives from the Essence of Harmony itself. Their importance to society is second only to the Princesses because of their role as protectors of Equestria. Now I’ll allow that Twilight Sparkle started at a higher position because of being Celestia’s personal student, but somepony like the reclusive Fluttershy had practically no social status beforehand, and now they are all securely above the most important nobles.”

I looked over the construct floating in the air. “I think I see the problem. Any that might have known them before they jumped up the ladder now believe themselves to be unworthy of their romantic attention, and those that are at the top of the steaming pile of nobles are resentful.”

The pink princess laughed freely. “An apt description if I ever heard one. I can see why Trixie finds your unfiltered input so valuable.”

“Still, there are always exceptions, aren’t there? What about ponies like Lord Fancy Pants?”

She beamed. “Very astute of you! Fancy Pants married the top supermodel in Equestria, now titled Lady Fleur De Lis, who hailed from an extremely humble background. Fancy was completely besotted, simply didn’t care about the opinions of others and married her regardless. Their story has spawned, indirectly, a number of romance stories and plays about true love finding a way regardless of the obstacles.”

I smirked. “No doubt sponsored by a mysterious donor.”

She flicked an ear but otherwise didn’t acknowledge my suspicions. “However, it has not been nonstop bliss for the couple. At various functions they attend, the noble mares especially take every opportunity to remind her that she has no place among them. It is so distressing for the poor dear that she’s taken to staying by her husband’s side for the duration of these events. Although I understand this has lessened after his commendable work as Arbitrator. Again, he has risen in stature and most nobles no longer feel they have the status to criticize him, even indirectly.”

I hesitated. “I was unaware of his marriage situation. I was actually referring to the way he treats everypony. I’ve seen how he interacts with the castle staff and guardsponies. He doesn’t talk down to anypony and is unfailingly polite.”

“He is just being true to his nature. He is also leading by example. I can only hope others choose to emulate him, although the urge to follow the herd mentality is exceptionally strong in our society…” She winked. “…especially among the weak-minded.”

I stared at the glowing lines and moved my hoof up and down. “So where exactly does ‘Captain of the Canterlot Royal Guard’ appear on this list?”

“Not high enough,” grumbled Cadance. “Only my station as Alicorn of Love and Princess Celestia praising the union and declaring a holiday made the pairing acceptable in the eyes of all ponies.” I raised an eyebrow. She nodded. “Yes, even the common pony would have thought ill of the union without such extreme measures.”

“But don’t ponies worship and follow alicorns implicitly?”

She shook her head. “In my case, not so much worship as idolize and expect to set an example. Consider my role. I am the Alicorn of Love and all aspects of it. I cannot allow myself to become ostracized from society. Even as an alicorn, I am not permitted to outright break the social traditions, only bend them.”

The mare then put on a grin. “On the plus side, Shiny was supremely motivated to reach the top position in his profession. Confidence and ambition are quite the heady mix for a mare to behold in her chosen mate. We made the most of every fleeting moment together, whether sitting politely in a room with other ponies present or with a stolen kiss behind a convenient tapestry.” She shivered at the memory this evoked.

Not wanting to hear the details I said, “I expect the nobles despise me for not being sure of my background.”

Cadance shook her head. “At your introduction, you were an unknown quantity. You proceeded to defeat Lord High Station in single combat, such as it was. Also, you called for any more challengers with no response from those gathered. This established your social position as slightly above those in the Parliament of Nobles, irrespective of your background. Rather brilliant, if I must say.” She peered at me intensely. “Even if you did not understand the social repercussions at the time.”

I nodded, conceding the point of my ignorance. I considered what I had learned for some time as I stared at my cup. “On a separate topic, why don’t ponies form herds? That seems like the obvious solution and is common among equines in my world.”

“And this was common as well amongst our feral ancestors; however, the path to becoming the alpha male or female of the herd was strewn with enormous amounts of blood and suffering. When the Royal Sisters quelled the last independent city-state of what is now Equestria, many of the ‘old ways’ were outlawed, and enforced with a ruthlessness you wouldn’t recognize… oh, wait. You never met them. Anyway, Celestia and Luna worked without pause for a generation to improve the lot for every pony – overseeing the teaching of weather teams, ensuring crops were bountiful across the entire land, setting up mandatory schooling for all foals, teaching civics and law to local government ponies everywhere, and dismissing those who didn’t keep the welfare of all ponies at heart. They were the feudal ladies with absolute authority over an entire country. By the time newborn foals reached adulthood, they had grown accustomed to safety and prosperity. The poverty and scarcity of resources that drove the earlier violence was a distant memory.”

She smirked. “But getting back to your question, that’s also when the lack of stallions was solved through civility and culture. Do you know how an unmarried mare arranges to get pregnant?” I shook my head. “Outside of her heat, she asks a stallion she likes of a similar social status, married or not.”

My eyes went wide.

Before I could speak, she chuckled. “I take it this practice is unlike what you have in your homeworld?”

I shook my head. “Males and females are nearly equally split among humans. A woman choosing a man just for procreation doesn’t happen. Well … that’s probably going too far. It certainly happens, or a couple just doesn’t end up staying together before or shortly after the baby is born. However, the mother is looked down upon for having a child out of wedlock.”

“Ah, I see. No, that attitude does not exist here. It is perfectly natural for a single mare to have one or many foals. Her marefriends support them and society makes extra allowances for their maternal duties. The stallion is not socially required to have any interaction with the dam or foal afterwards.”

I glared at the pink alicorn. She merely grinned back. I’m sure she knew what I was going to say next. “So that makes me the obvious choice for any of the Elements of Harmony if or when they want a foal.”

“Please, Mark – not just then. You’re also their best chance to enjoy friendly stallion companionship and possibly courting, even if nothing permanent comes out of it.” She leaned forward. “You have the opportunity to court them as many times as you want.” She waggled her eyebrows, which looked very odd on the royal princess.

I rolled my eyes, trying to shrug off the thoughts that brought up, but I’m sure my cheeks were blushing. After she refilled my cup, I sat and thought for a bit. Cadance waited patiently.

I sighed. “The thing is… I don’t think I’m ready for that yet. I enjoy my equine body… well, both of them.” I looked up to see her nod. She and doubtless Shining Armor knew already about my moonlighting as somepony with a shred of coordination. “But I don’t think I’m ready for romance yet. And certainly not ready to help raise a foal – even if society would not require me to do so, I would feel obligated to, regardless of the circumstances. Plus, I see myself as a human at heart, and a big part of me still wants to go home.”

Cadance seemed to weigh my words for some time. I was curious what insights she was getting or imagining about me. “Well, you will know if it is time to make a change. Just remember that you are Mark Wells no matter the shape and instincts of the form you inhabit. The most important lesson I teach is how someone can learn to love themselves. You have the unique problem of trying to do so with all three of your aspects. I’m concerned you may be focusing your self-respect on your memory of your human body. As a result, you don’t take the care needed to look and feel your best in either of your equine forms.” She shifted in her seat. “Tell me, Mark. How have you taken the initiative to be at your best physically?”

I thought about my recent trip to the Ponyville Spa. “Actually, only recently have I realized how much my stallion form means to me. It took me losing most of my mane and tail to do it, but I take pride in my appearance now.”

She looked at my tail then back to my eyes with a quirked eyebrow.

“I got better.”

She laughed at that. “But if you don’t mind telling me…” She leaned forward again. “…who is the one you hold the dearest? With whom do you look forward to spending time with the most?”

I looked back down at my tea. “Oh, I don’t know.”

“Try. Let me in on your thoughts.”

Getting pushy, are we? Fine. “Well… it’s a bit embarrassing.”

She smiled. “Remember that I am the pony embodiment of all types of love. From material things to favorite foods to familial love to the most romantic. I am simply unable to judge ponies in matters of their hearts, only guide them when they allow.”

I took my time to set it up convincingly. “It’s… it’s… Steady.”

The alicorn blinked a couple of times then recovered. “That is only to be expected, with your new heritage.” Wait, what? That got me to prick my ears up. “When pegasi fly together, the emotional bonding can be quite intense. It is a natural reaction for that tribe. Romance novels about pegasi invariably include some form of coupling dance, whether it be in the air, underwater, on the dance floor, or even in battle. The tragedy The Generals of Canterbridge tells the story of two star-crossed lovers who meet thrice, each time as the finest and lead warrior of their aerial troops. In the end, the griffon leader kills the pegasus general, neither having declared their love except in their eyes. She screeches her heartsong then takes her own life over the body of her stallion, unable to continue without the only one she will ever love. Emotionally overwhelmed, the armies stop the battle and they dedicate themselves to building their memorial.” She sniffed and wiped away tears. “It’s such a beautiful and poetic story.”

I was too distracted to be empathic right then. “But it’s only a story, right?”

Cadance shook her head. “The ‘Peace of Canterbridge’ was the result. Pony and griffon playwrights collaborated to make the play. The text consists mostly of entries from their diaries.”

I felt my stomach drop. How did Steady feel about me? I mean really feel about me? “But… he’s my flight instructor.”

She nodded. “Having a specific purpose in mind helps alleviate the effect. But I can’t say how much long-term exposure has affected you given your unique heritage of being transformed into a pegasus.”

I leaned back in my chair. Did I really trust how I felt? And for how long? I blinked a couple of times to clear my head. No, I didn’t feel that way, but I’d have to watch for that. Flights with him when I was in Celestia’s form were out. Not happening. Then I thought back to the aerial ballet I had shared with Rainbow Dash. Did ‘just flying around for fun’ count as a ‘specific purpose’? Maybe. Maybe not. How about from Rainbow’s perspective? I took a deep breath.

“Thanks, Cadance. That… gives me a lot to think about.”

She beamed as she stood up. “Any time, Mark. Let me know if I can do anything to help your stay in Equestria and now here in the Crystal Empire happier.”

I set down my cup. “And thank you for the tea. I expect we need to head off to breakfast now?”

She nodded and we discussed more mundane details of the upcoming games on our walk through the crystal hallways. When we arrived at the dining hall, I saw many of the competitors and the entire Ponyville contingent mingling. It seemed breakfast started when the royal hosts decided it would. Fine by me. I grabbed a fluted crystal glass (what else would it be made out of?) and wandered over to where Trixie was holding forth.

After a while, I looked around to see if Steady had gotten up yet or had taken advantage of the opportunity to sleep in. I almost broke out laughing when I found him and saw his face. The Alicorn of Love had practically pinned him up against a wall and was cheerfully grilling him about something or another… probably how he felt about me. His eyes caught mine and I could see the desperate plea for help even from across the room. I waved pleasantly and went back to paying attention to Trixie.

When we were all seated for breakfast, I saw a clearly frustrated Cadance saying something to her husband from their place at the adjacent table. His smile got wider and wider before he flicked a glance my way. He leaned closer to her and I’m sure he exaggerated his mouth movements so I could read his lips. “As a friend.”

Cadance’s back went ramrod straight and she slowly turned to glare at me. I couldn’t help but let out a snicker as I touched the end of my nose with a hoof three times. Trixie’s voice brought my attention back to the table.

“Trixie understands you have had a busy morning, Patriarch Compels.”

As my eyes moved to the blue mare sitting on my left, they passed over Steady. He looked dumbfounded and was not responding to Princess Twilight’s attempts to get his attention. I smiled at Trixie. “You know what they say. Try to accomplish more in the morning than other ponies do all day.” She tilted her head slightly at the non sequitur but chose to nibble on her fruit salad rather than to say any more.



I spent the remainder of the morning inspecting the Games’ facilities and the brand new arena that had been built especially for large events like this in mind. Considering how short a time it was since the Crystal Empire returned, I was astounded at how quickly it had been built. Naturally, there were a lot of magic techniques that accelerated construction, but it was quite a feat nonetheless. I wondered how much money had been poured into it and the justification for doing so. There was no way that they could be certain of being the venue for the Equestria Games when they started. Then again, the Crystal Empire was banking on a huge tourist boom for prosperity as it had little else to offer besides its crystal riches, and you had to invest up front before you could attract the crowds. If I had to guess, it was a mixture of an astute assessment of its potential and a calculated risk. It certainly seemed to be paying off. Hotel rooms had been booked out almost since the announcement of the location of the Games. Extra trains had been scheduled to bring the spectators to the city and they were already pouring into the arena. Vendors were doing a roaring trade both inside and outside the sports ground. The Crystal Empire was certainly going to be a high-profile destination in the future, regardless of which competitors ultimately won.

My position of Princess Trixie’s right hoof stallion gained me access to all parts of the stadium. Comparing them to those that I had visited on Earth, I had to say that I did not find them lacking. I was accompanied by the new Captain of the Canterlot Royal Guard Polished Barding who was inspecting the security arrangements. We both familiarized ourselves with the procedures for the opening ceremony before we returned to the castle.

Twilight was the only one of my mare friends present for lunch as the others were all preparing for the parade of athletes, either as competitors or in supporting roles. The purple alicorn was already dressed for the occasion – as in she had put on her new crown. It’s a wonder Rarity hadn’t managed to persuade her to wear something that the seamstress had whipped up just for the event, but Twilight didn’t even bother with the golden hoof shoes that she normally wore at court. Her explanation was that she preferred to project an image of approachability rather than putting herself too high above other ponies. Not what I would have recommended for most princesses, but it sure fit Twilight Sparkle.

We dawdled over the midday meal until it was time for us to make our way over to the stadium. Once Trixie, Twilight, and Cadance were settled on the thrones in the royal box, I excused myself to go down to check on the Ponyville team and Spike. It took me quite a while to find the young dragon amidst the huge crowd of competitors who were lining up to participate in the parade. Besides ponies of all kinds, there were griffons and even some minotaurs. It was the first time that I’d seen any of the latter in person, and damned if those biped bull people weren’t impressive. Let me tell you though that their females had a couple of assets that would have been the envy of Dolly Parton. Well, they were related to cows after all.

Having dealt with some griffons before at court, I was familiar with their aggressive personalities. I was a little surprised that the majority of their athletes were reasonably pleasant as their species goes. I figured that they focused most of that aggression into their sport and that would make them fierce competitors.

I eventually found Spike talking with Ms. Harshwhinny, apparently going over his role one final time. When she headed off down the tunnel that exited onto the torch platform, I approached him with a grin on my face. As we followed after the mare, I said, “So – are you ready for your big moment, Spike? After today, you won’t be just the hero of the Crystal Empire, but the public face of dragons for half the world.”

“Huh? What do you mean, Mark?”

I gestured down the tunnel through which the dull roar of the crowd could be heard. “Out there, tens of thousands of people of many species have gathered from many cities and nations to watch this event. You’ll be famous.”

Spike’s face fell as we reached the tunnel exit and he spotted the sea of faces. He gulped. “So many…”

Oops. I would never have picked the exuberant young drake for it, but stage fright seemed to be setting in. “Focus, Spike! Eyes on the prize. Don’t let it get to you.”

I don’t think I got through to him though, and before I could try again, Ms. Harshwhinny came over and chivvied him out onto the platform. I was not allowed to follow, so Spike was left to stew by himself under the gaze of thousands of pairs of eyes. I did not envy him. I couldn’t do anything more here, so I decided to make my way back to the princesses before the parade began.

I barely made it back in time, but I was there to watch as the Cutie Mark Crusaders led the way for the opening parade of athletes. They did a great job, as I knew they would. No nerves for any of those fillies! It took a long time to introduce all the teams and have them march around the track, and throughout it all, Spike was sweating beside Ms. Harshwhinny. Finally, the mare made a short speech and introduced Spike. At that point, he was supposed to step up to the torch pedestal and climb the ladder to the cauldron. Instead, he did a great impression of a statue.

“What’s wrong?” Twilight murmured.

Pony ears are quite sensitive, so I caught that comment. I sidled over to her throne and whispered, “Spike has a bad case of stage fright. It started the moment that he saw the huge crowd.”

“Oh dear. I hope he pulls out of it.”

Judging by the way the Royal Guards were physically shoving the small dragon towards the torch, I had a feeling that wasn’t in the cards. “Um, you wouldn’t happen to have a spell to overcome this, do you?”

Twilight’s eyes defocused as she searched her memory. “Aha! Mage Clover’s Concentration Cantrip! Triple C will get you an ‘A’,” she recited.

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t let Spike hang, Princess.”

“Oh, right!” Twilight’s horn lit up and a moment later, Spike jerked a little and then firmly stepped forward to the ladder and quickly climbed it. He paused for a dramatic moment before blowing a perfect plume of green dragonfire. The cauldron burst into flame to the cheers of the crowd. Only then did Spike suddenly become aware of where he was once more, but now that his task was done, he was able to relax. He grinned a little and waved to the spectators before climbing back down the ladder.

The entertainment began then, and a few minutes later, Spike joined us in the royal box. He gave me a wave before going over to Twilight. They exchanged whispered words and the alicorn nodded. The dragon gave her a short grateful hug before settling down on the chair that had been reserved for him. I smiled. Crisis averted and all was well. The rest of today was somebody else’s problem.



The goodwill from the opening ceremonies extended well into the evening, with the various teams mingling in mutual camaraderie and excitement for the upcoming competitions. Despite this, those athletes who had events the next day retired at a reasonable hour to ensure they were well rested. I stayed up until midnight before heading to the room in the castle that I had been assigned. As my valet, Steady had to wait until I turned in before he could do so too. I had observed with amusement how he was still a little uncertain around me. He obviously had no idea why Cadance had been grilling him about his personal feelings about me. And it wasn’t like he could just say “Hey, sir, did you give the Princess reason to think we could be a couple?” He knew instinctively I would deny it to my dying day while ensuring every moment up to then was filled with merciless teasing for him even imagining that delusions could have been true. He may have suspected he was the victim of a practical joke, but with the Alicorn of Love pushing it, there was plenty of room for doubt. Made me kind of wish I could change into Marklestia and muddy the waters a bit more. That’d teach him to “Sir” me!

After breakfast the next morning, the Princesses, Spike, the Element Bearers, and I headed off as a group to the stadium. When I asked about Shining Armor, I was informed that he had left hours earlier to stay on top of the arrangements. I wondered how his military training translated into organizing a diverse group of races, but considering how smoothly the opening ceremonies had proceeded, I suspected that he had everything well in hoof.

As we approached the gates to the stadium, I noticed that the unicorns were being directed to pass through a set of archways while all others went through normal turnstiles. I wondered why up until we reached the Security pony ticket inspectors. As part of the Royal Entourage, none of us required tickets, but I was shocked when the stallion politely asked Trixie to pass through the archway, saying, “All unicorns, including alicorns, must have their magic disabled to ensure no cheating happens.”

WHAT?!” I screamed. “Are you bucking insane?! Whose crazy idea is this?

The ticket-taker just raised an eyebrow at my outburst, although Princess Cadance was staring at me in shock. The stallion recovered quickly and replied, “Sir – it’s extremely important to ensure that there is no magical manipulation during the competition. In order not to show favoritism, all unicorns are treated equally regardless of rank. In any event, this does not affect pegasi such as yourself.”

“Like hell, it doesn’t affect me! As Princess Trixie Lulamoon’s Grand Vizier, I am responsible for her safety. While Captain Polished Barding is in charge of overall security, the Princess is my particular responsibility, and I will not allow her primary means of defending herself, not to mention performing normal everyday telekinetic manipulation, be inhibited. And not just Princess Trixie, but you intend to do it to your ruler too? Have you no idea what that says about the ponies of the Crystal Empire? That they can’t even trust their ultimate authority to not interfere? That they would rather have their Princess be vulnerable to every danger deliberate or otherwise because it would look good?”

The Security pony opened his mouth to say something, but I wasn’t finished yet.

“Do I need to remind you all that Equestria and by extension the Crystal Empire is in a state of war with Queen Chrysalis?” I looked at Princess Cadance and lowered the volume of my voice. “Has a foolproof way to identify changelings been developed? I don't recall anything in the security detail addressing that.”

She hesitated. “All I can say in the open is that Shining Armor has taken measures, but we are not one hundred percent certain they are foolproof.”

I expected as much. “All of the Element Bearers, the royalty of our nations and the lives of our visitors cannot be left vulnerable to attack. Beyond that, an entire stadium full of ponies would be at risk. It simply can't be justified.”

The stallion seemed set to dig his hooves in. “Sir, this was decided long ago and I have no say in the matter. This is a mere inconvenience…”

“Stop right there! Are you telling me that every single unicorn – spectators, vendors, stadium workers, invited guests, and even Security have been disabled?”

“Of course, sir. To be totally fair, no exceptions are made,” he replied.

“Then you’re all crazier than I first thought! Has no pony here heard of Occupational Health and Safety? What happens to the ability to do their jobs properly and safely? What does Security do if they have to break up a fight without getting physically involved? What happens in an emergency like a fire or an accident? Take away a unicorn’s magic and you render them as useful as a foal. They’re physically weaker than all the other tribes and they cannot fly like pegasi or griffons. They’re also less dexterous due to their reliance on magic. So, no – this isn’t a mere inconvenience. It’s a disaster waiting to happen! Back in my home town, this venue would be shut down in a heartbeat for safety violations, and I will not allow Princess Trixie to be put at risk.” I turned to look at Twilight and Cadance. “And if you have any sense, you won’t allow this either. I have no authority over you, but I implore you to reject this in the strongest terms.”

Cadance seemed stunned by my rant, and it took a while for her to recover and respond. “Grand Vizier Mark Wells, I authorized this request from the Equestria Games Committee. I thought it fair and reasonable.”

“With all due respect, Your Highness, the Games Committee is focused solely on its purview, while you and those you have delegated authority to have a much broader responsibility. You must think outside of the Games when considering drastic measures like this. And another thing…” I turned to Twilight. “As the foremost authority on magic in the world, can you tell me if there are suitable alternatives to this stupid idea?”

With an apologetic glance at Cadance, Twilight replied, “Umm… I can think of two or three off the top of my head.”

I turned back to the stallion who looked like he’d rather be anywhere else right at that moment. “So – what are you going to do about it?”

“Ah… sir… I don’t have the authority to do anything about set procedures.”

“Then how about contacting someone who does? Or just ask Princess Cadance. After all, as Her Highness said, she authorized this arrangement, so she can repeal it.”

“It isn’t that simple, Mark Wells,” Cadance said. “I can’t just unilaterally revoke an agreement with the Equestria Games Committee.”

“Then get Ms. Harshwhinny here and hash it out between you two. Meanwhile, Princess Twilight can start putting together the alternative protections, if you don’t mind, Your Highness?” I asked the purple alicorn.

“Of course! I’d be happy to do so. Anything for the welfare and safety of our citizens!”

“Great! Meanwhile, stop all unicorn admissions until this travesty is sorted out. General admission hasn’t started yet, correct?” I asked the ticket-taker.

“No, sir.”

“Good. That just leaves mostly the staff, vendors, and any athletes who have already arrived. They can be recalled to have the binding spell removed at their convenience. Now, let’s get this sorted out! Somepony find Ms. Harshwhinny.”

“I’ll do it,” said another of the Security ponies who had been very carefully staying out of the argument. He galloped away; no doubt glad to be out of the line of fire. Not that he needed to go in person, considering those earpieces that I could see them wearing, but he knew a good excuse when he heard one.

“What should the Great and Impatient Trixie do until then?” the faux alicorn asked with a frown.

I gave her a smile and replied, “I suggest that you proceed to the Royal Box as planned, Your Highness. You’re an honored guest, and this nice stallion isn’t going to stop you, is he?” I gave the pony in question a stern glare.

The stallion caved. “Please go right ahead, Your Highness, and your companions also.”

Trixie gave him a condescending smile and passed through the turnstiles. I sent Steady with Trixie to tend to her while I was preoccupied. Rarity gave me a wink and thanked me before she and the other mares followed. That just left Cadance, Twilight, Spike, and me to wait for Ms. Harshwhinny to make an appearance. I had learned how much of a hard-ass that mare was and I knew she wasn’t going to make this easy. I grinned to myself – I was already looking forward to butting heads with her.



The schedule was delayed that morning, but I got my way. All unicorns who’d had their magic bound had the spell removed before general admissions were allowed to start. Twilight set up several alternatives that, depending on the sport, either required very localized null zones, magic detectors, temporary horn rings, or other cheating prevention techniques that did not interfere with the spectators’ enjoyment of the sport. Finally, we were all able to relax and start enjoying the competitions.

I found the pony version of the decathlon the most interesting. It was divided between events that required strength, speed, and accuracy. For every earth pony or minotaur contestant that excelled at the strength events, there was an equal number of pegasi and griffons that were proficient at the speed events, even with their wings strapped down so they would not have an unfair advantage. Accuracy contests including archery, javelin throws through strong winds, and slinging rocks at moving targets were not dominated by any group. By the time the finals took place, I had noticed that the ponies in the field consisted of the smallest earth ponies and largest pegasi. When I asked Shining Armor about this, he explained that these athletes could earn 750 points out of the thousand possible in all the events. In contrast, a typical member of their tribe could get 900 points in events that matched their specialty but only 400 or so in the others.

While a griffon hen got the gold and a pegasus stallion from Manehatten got silver, an unexpected bronze was awarded to Maud Pie. She joined the Ponyville team as her closest relative lived there and her family rock farm was well outside of any city limits. She had the top scores in the rock breaking, plow pulling, and caber tossing events, but it was her perfect score with the sling in the final event that propelled her from fifth to the bronze spot. When I spoke to her afterwards, she insisted that her sling rock, named Boulder, had coached her to their combined victory, only taking a direct role in the one event. When I sincerely congratulated the small stone as well, there might have been a hint of a smile on her face for a moment – but then again, I might have imagined it. For my part, it was easier to accept that Maud possessed a stone with sentience than two-thirds of what her sister did before breakfast.

Other notable events were the steeplechase run complete with traditional saddle but no rider, fencing with a speed and grace on par with anything I had seen among humans, and the stallion’s heavyweight judo match between and absolutely massive minotaur bull and an earth pony stallion that made Bulk Biceps look diminutive. After their match completed with the nimbler pony winning on points, the stadium had to be evacuated for an hour to repair damage to the foundation caused by their repeated throws that measured somewhere in the middle of the Richter scale.

The final day of competition saw three teams in serious contention for winning the Equestria Games – Cloudsdale, Griffonstone, and Ponyville. Even after several days of intense effort, it was hard to separate those three and the crowd’s excitement at the tight finish was palpable. The aerial relay heats had eliminated all but five teams which included the trio of favorites, and the final race was about to start. My voice was getting a little hoarse (pun intended) from all the cheering and yells of encouragement that I had been giving all day, but I would scream my throat raw if I thought it would help Dash, Fluttershy, and Bulk get first place.

I had seen their previous heats and I was still impressed (and not a little envious) of how that huge stallion’s tiny wings still managed to put in a credible effort, and Fluttershy was all heart. Rainbow Dash anchored the team though and she brought them this far. But now they were up against three of the Wonderbolts, the most skilled flyers in Equestria. The prismatic mare had her work cut out for her, and she knew it. If the race had been a straight run, I had no doubt that she could pull it off, but the competitors had to navigate a series of hurdles and tubes too, bringing in other aerobatic skills. She was all grins despite this because Dash thrived on competition. If anypony could bring their team victory despite the handicap, she could.

The starting pistol fired and the athletes for the first leg of the relay took off. Fleetfoot of the Wonderbolts lived up to her name and took an early lead, closely followed by a male griffon. Bulk Biceps brought up the rear, barely fitting through some of the obstacles. Fleetfoot passed the horseshoe baton onto Soarin who proceeded to increase his team’s lead while Fluttershy patiently waited for Bulk to reach her. When they finally traded off the horseshoe, the yellow pegasus’ training obviously paid off because she flew faster than I had ever seen her manage before. She was still the second-slowest pegasus, but she was definitely holding up her part of the effort. However, by the time she passed the baton to Dash, Spitfire had a commanding lead. The colorful pegasus was undaunted, and she took off at eye-blurring speed, leaving her trademark rainbow trail behind her. The lead Wonderbolt was already on the home stretch while Dash wove her way through the obstacles, but despite Spitfire’s speed, she was up against the fastest pegasus in the world, and she knew it. She poured on the effort even as Rainbow Dash sped out of the last hurdle and shifted into high gear. The crowd held its collective breath but not for long at the velocities those mares were travelling. They seemed to hit the finish simultaneously and the spectators gasped in awe. Only the sharpest eyes could pick them apart. When the official results were posted, I groaned in disappointment – Spitfire had won by a hoof-length.

The ice archery finals were the concluding event of the Games, but Ponyville’s entry Davenport had been knocked out in the semis. Unfortunately, Cloudsdale had two competitors who made it to the finals. I say unfortunately because the medal tally had Ponyville leading the pegasus city’s team by only one – 37 to 36. Cloudsdale could either tie or win depending on the results of this last chance to score a medal.

Ice archery was a rather bizarre sport invented by pegasi to train for one of their weather-control techniques. Enchanted arrows gathered moisture from the air as they flew, removed the heat from it, and deposited the resulting ice on the target. The skill was placing the arrows such that the ice totally covered the target’s surface. A carelessly placed arrow could leave a tiny unfrozen patch that was difficult to hit with another arrow. Naturally, speed was a factor too. You could be the most accurate archer in the world and yet lose to someone who placed twice as many arrows as you. These final six archers were amazingly good at being both.

Half the targets were covered in ice when the crowd gasped. The earth pony competitor had stumbled against the bucket of arrows and fallen even as the stallion was drawing his bow. The arrow was loosed at a wild angle and flew high above the stadium where it pierced one of the clouds that were emplaced there either for shade or viewing platforms. I gaped in horror as huge icicles started growing out of it as the whole cloud froze and started falling into the arena.

Suddenly, a pink dome of magical energy expanded from the ground and stopped the aerial iceberg. Looking towards the source of the shield, I saw Shining Armor’s horn glowing brightly. His eyes were narrowed and he grimaced under the strain. I was boggled by the sheer amount of power that stallion possessed; it had to rival that of the alicorns. Considering that he was Twilight’s brother, I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising, but still…

Shining Armor started shouting commands, ordering spectators to evacuate as he maneuvered the frozen cloud to the center of the stadium. He directed pegasi to assist those in the stands that were still directly under outcrops of the ice before getting Royal Guard unicorns to start carving off chunks that overhung the seats. By the time the ice cloud had been whittled down enough to lower it safely to the floor of the stadium, several minutes had passed, but Shining bore the load steadfastly. Getting out from under it before releasing his shield was a bit tricky, but he managed it, grunting with the effort before sinking to the ground with a sigh of relief. We were left with a two-storey high block of ice that filled most of the arena, and that obviously meant that the Games were on hold until it was taken care of in some manner.

As relief washed over me, I realized that my caution had been vindicated in the most spectacular way possible. Heaven knows how many beings would have died if Shining had not been able to use his shield, or the other unicorns help to render the ice cloud relatively harmless. The stadium had incurred no damage whatsoever with the possible exception of the arena’s floor. I turned towards Princess Cadance who still looked a little shell-shocked. I caught her eye and inclined my head towards her husband. She caught my meaning immediately and had the grace to look embarrassed. I then started to head off.

Spike had been watching the event beside me and he asked, “Where are you going, Mark?”

“I’m going to find Ms. Harshwhinny and her team,” I told him loudly enough for those around me to hear. “I have one or two dozen I told you so’s to get out of my system,” I said with a grim smile. Looks like Team Wells won the final event of the Games, and I was going to collect my prize!



It was decided that the ice archery contest was null and void, which left the medal rankings at their previous standings. That meant Ponyville was the winner of the Equestria Games, with Cloudsdale taking second place and Griffonstone in third place. The presentation of the trophy and the closing ceremonies couldn’t go ahead though before the iceberg in the arena was dealt with, and there was some debate as to what to do. Melting it by application of heat was obvious but slow because too much heat was a fire risk.

To our surprise and amusement, the Cutie Mark Crusaders approached us and declared that we needed someponies with a youthful perspective to solve the problem. Intrigued, we asked for their opinions.

“Just carve some caves!”

“And slides!”

“And caverns!”

“And tunnels!”

“And tunnel slides!”

I had to admit that sounded like fun, but I doubt that Ms. Harshwhinny would approve. I was about to let them down gently when Spike spoke up.

“How about carving and stacking the frozen cloud into a gigantic statue of me – Spike the Great and Glorious?”

Twilight looked disapprovingly at her younger brother. “One huge statue of you is enough, Spike.”

“Aw!” he said with a pout before giving me a wink. “Gotcha!” he told his sister.

Twilight grimaced. “I fell right into that one, didn’t I?”

“Yeah. There’s only room for one massive ego here,” he replied.

Fortunately, Trixie was too busy ordering a hot drink and snacks to catch that, but judging by the guilty smiles of the rest of us, no one else had missed it.

Eventually, it was decided to level out the top of the iceberg and use that as the surface for the closing ceremonies, letting the ice melt naturally at a safe rate. Ponyville got its trophy, the top three teams’ contingents all got medals, and then the real celebrations began which were kicked off by a massive fireworks display. Impressed by the reaction that Spike had gotten from the lighting of the torch, Ms. Harshwhinny adjusted her plans and asked Spike to send up the opening volley. He agreed to do so, eager to put behind him the fears that had nearly paralyzed him at the opening ceremony. Twilight watched her younger brother like a hawk, but he stayed focused on his task and did his part with flair. The ceremony went off without a hitch and everyone gathered there, competitors and spectators alike, celebrated a spectacularly successful Equestria Games.

The week spent in the Crystal Empire at the Games had been an enjoyable diversion, but I was looking forward to going home and back to some quiet routine. Home? How about that? I actually thought of Canterlot as my home now. I must really be going native.

 


 

Chapter 21: Secrets

 

Life settled back into a routine after the Equestria Games, which is not to say that it was all smooth sailing. Clashes between Trixie and Twilight continued to occur even as I did my best to act as a buffer between them. It’s not as if either mare disrespected the other, but rather they were of such different personalities that they could not help but rub each other the wrong way. Nevertheless, it was those very differences that Equestria needed as their different strengths enabled the diarchy to work effectively. Twilight hated the formality of Royal Court while Trixie reveled in it. The blue mare despised the paperwork, but the purple alicorn not only attacked hers with gusto; she also error-checked her co-ruler’s each day. Trixie came up with innovative ideas and Twilight analyzed them to ensure that they were practical and, if they passed inspection, directed them to the appropriate ponies or worked them into the budget for the future. Yes, they made quite a team – just as long as they weren’t together in the same room for too long. Sometimes that was impossible such as when the G&PT had to do her magic lessons. Those days were particularly exhausting for me. Thank heavens for weekends!

Every Friday afternoon, I would catch the last train to Ponyville. I had made permanent arrangements with the railway company to reserve a private compartment for me, and my status even bought me a few minutes grace once when I was running late and they delayed the departure until I arrived. There were a few big tips that day. Sometimes Steady Flight would accompany me. As my best friend, I enjoyed his company although I encouraged him to spend some time with his own family on the weekends. That was a little selfish of me, I admit, because I wanted to spend a little mare time as Marklestia. Having gotten a taste of perfection in flight, I couldn’t let it go anymore, and frankly, I enjoyed being something other than my klutzy self occasionally. That was one thing that no other magic seemed to be able to cure, although I was slowly improving my flight abilities as a stallion with Steady’s ever-patient tutelage. Why my skills and experience refused to transfer to my male self when I transformed back, I may never know.

Hanging out with the girls was always fun whichever form that I was in. Sometimes one couldn’t be available for some reason or another, especially Rarity whose efforts to grow her business would occasionally take her away from Ponyville. I heard that she was working towards branching out with a store in Canterlot, and I certainly could see why she would choose that locale. However, on the latest trip to the capital, she had found the time to visit me at the castle. I was delighted to entertain her there for once, but upon seeing her sly smile when we took afternoon tea in the privacy of my quarters, I got the sensation of a trap closing. And that’s why I was now packing up to go to Ponyville to give another fashion show for my friends.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come along with me this time?” I asked Steady again. He was my only hope for an excuse to bow out of modeling Rarity’s latest designs after the fashionista had browbeaten me into agreeing.

“Nah, I have other plans,” Steady replied. “Some friends want me to go with them to a special event, and it sounds intriguing.”

I sighed. I couldn’t blame him for doing exactly what I kept telling him to do on the weekends. Just why did it have to be now? “I’m sorry we won’t get to hang out this weekend,” I said as I finished packing my bag and slung it over my back.

Steady helped me fasten it securely into place. “Don’t sweat it, Mark – once you’re with your friends, you definitely won’t miss me.”

As I headed out the door, I told him to enjoy himself. He replied, “You too, Mark. Break a leg!”

What the heck did he mean by that?



The next day as I entered the boutique, Twilight gave me a hug in greeting then removed my wristband.

“First of all, this would clash with your coat during the show. Secondly, I have a new and improved version! The old one had the exact same problem we were trying to solve, just on the upper half of the magic storage range. Version 2.0 draws expanding black bands from the outside inwards when you are above 50%. The red line will get thinner and thinner until it disappears.” She looked up at me meaningfully.

“And that’s when I disappear.”

“A bit more spectacular than that. Just don’t let that happen.”

I nodded fervently as we made our way to the backstage area of the catwalk that Rarity had set up. There we found the mare working on last-moment preparations for the show. From previous experience, I figured it would be at least an hour before the show would start, which is why only the three of us were present so far in advance.

“Mark, darling! Are you ready to make the magic?” Rarity asked as she came up to give me a hug.

“Only for you, Rares,” I replied, hoping that I would get over my bout of stage fright like I did last time. Right now, I hoped changing into Marklestia would help settle my nerves.

“Just a moment,” Twilight said as she lit up her horn. “I want to monitor the transformation process this time.”

I had not noticed before, but Twilight had brought the colander and printout machine up from her basement. I sighed and dutifully took the former pasta strainer from the hold of her magic and placed it on my head. The machine beeped to life and the paper roll in the machine started to scroll rapidly.

Twilight faced the machine, twisted a couple of dials and called over her shoulder, “Okay, I’m ready.”

I suppose I should have been relieved that she wasn’t wearing her padded lab coat and goggles this time. I shrugged and uncorked my bottle of potion, noting that it was getting a little low from all the occasions that I had used it. I drank a dose and felt the magic take hold of me.

When the transformation was complete, Twilight rolled the scroll back a ways and studied it. She spoke up with a distracted tone. “Interesting.”

“What did you find?” I asked in Celestia’s pleasant cultured voice as I put the colander onto the top of the machine.

“Your cells were in an intermediate state for around 20 milliseconds. They didn't read as pony cells at all.”

“Do you think they were human cells?”

“Maybe? I don't know. Hmmm…” She looked me over. “And your mane and tail are back to their regular length. That answers that question.”

I looked behind me to see that she was right and that Rarity was giving a little happy dance. Obviously, she had been counting on this to best show off her outfits.

Twilight turned off her machine and headed for the main room. “I need to set up the camera and speak-and-see crystal. I'll have to go over my data later, but for now...”

Rarity grinned possessively and finished Twilight’s sentence, “…you belong to me.”

I seriously started to reconsider the whole idea, but of course, Rarity was all business while getting the new outfits fitted and finished over the next hour. It kept my mind off the upcoming parade up until it came time to trot out the first outfit made from pink silk and black lace. I balked at the curtain when I saw two rows of ponies waiting in the audience. The Element Bearers were lined up on the back row of lounge chairs, while Steady, Trixie, and Raven relaxed in the front row, saying nothing but watching me expectantly.

I felt my ears droop as I quickly retreated back to Rarity. I could tell I was hyperventilating. “Trixie, Raven, and Steady are out there! What are they doing here? I can't go out there now!”

Rarity frowned and gave me a disappointed look. “Mark, do try to pull yourself together. They are here because I invited them.”

My mouth hung open as I stared at her in shock. I had never felt so betrayed.

“Tell me, darling – do you trust each and every one of them with your life?”

I looked down and thought about it as I got my breathing under control. “Yes. Yes, I do.”

“Your time as Celestia is an important part of your life in Equestria now. If you think of all three of them as close friends, why haven't you seriously considered letting them see you as you truly are when in this form? Don't you trust them that far?”

I really hadn't expected this to be thrown back into my face. I thought about it while my heart stopped racing.

“I... I don't know. I just... I'm afraid. I don't want to be humiliated, and that's how I feel right now.”

Rarity came up and pulled me into a hug. I rested my head on her withers while I felt my panic slowly ebb away.

“That's not going to happen, Mark. Not in my shop.” She stepped back so she could look me in the eyes. “Princess Trixie wrote me a very polite letter asking if she, Raven, and Steady could attend your next fashion show, saying that the three had already made a Pinkie Promise to keep your moonlighting job and form a secret.”

I shouldn't have been surprised, but I still jumped when the aforementioned pink mare walked out from behind Rarity. “Completely true!” The Element of Laughter strolled past us into the main room.

Rarity continued as if nothing had happened. “After they arrived, they took an oath to all six of us not to do anything to make you feel embarrassed. If they do, Applejack has promised to buck them out of the shop and all the way to the train station.” I winced. “In Trixie's case, she went as far as to threaten to kick her through the marble walls of the palace for good measure. Bit of history there, I think.”

I sat on my rump as I processed everything. Then my eyes narrowed. “Who blabbed?”

“According to Trixie, it was Steady Flight.”

I blinked.

“Something about photos not being hidden very well and discovering them while cleaning up your mess.”

I facehoofed and groaned. His odd behavior was making a lot more sense now. He'd been dropping hints the last couple of weeks and I'd completely missed them. As far as pranking me back for tricking Cadance into interrogating him, I had to admit to myself this was epic payback.

After I had recovered, I glared at Rarity. “You could have just asked me beforehand.”

The fashionista sighed. “You are a very stubborn stallion, Mark Wells. Do you think you would have been so honest with your feelings unless you were confronted with them?”

I ground my teeth for a moment. She was right, of course. Then I stopped and looked at her appraisingly. “Wait. So is this one of those ‘Friendship Lessons’?”

She smiled. “Perceptive as always, dear. So now you have a choice. You can continue with the show or cancel it. It is entirely up to you. Exactly how much confidence do you have in your friends – all of them?”

I considered the bonds I had developed with Steady, Trixie, and Raven during our months in Canterlot together. All the hours spent in court, serving the nations ponies, flight lessons, defending Trixie’s crown, everything. I stood up. My hooves danced on the floor as I exercised my muscles — trotting, hopping, and flapping around as I built up my enthusiasm again. My head and neck bounced up and down and I snorted at nopony in particular. Rarity sat quietly as I moved around the room. After a couple of minutes, I had worked up a bit of a sweat and felt focused again. I turned to the alabaster mare. “OK. Let's do this.”

She nodded and came up to whisper in my ear as I panted from my recent exertion. “You are fearless. You are about to show your soulmate exactly how beautiful you are.” I nodded my head and repeated the mantra to myself, feeling the mindset of a confident mare start to take over me and guide all of my movements. I then pushed through the curtains and owned that stage!

This time, I felt my self-awareness return when Rarity and I were standing side-by-side on the makeshift catwalk at the completion of the show. Her flank was pressed against mine and I realized that might be what drew me out of my trance. Everyone in the audience was clopping their hooves together and wore enthusiastic smiles.

Rarity called out, “We have new members in the audience tonight. I would like them to give us their thoughts. Be completely honest please – we are all among friends here.”

Everypony looked to Trixie first. For once, she seemed to be at a loss for words.

“Ummm…”

The stares from all the mares present started to get a bit harder.

Trixie sighed. “Thank you for sharing that part of yourself with us. You should never be ashamed of who you are, even if you only let yourself go like this on rare occasion.” She looked up at me and the rest of those present gauged me for my reaction.

I smiled and nodded. “Thanks, Trixie. That means a lot to me.”

Raven spoke next. She was so energized that she had gotten out of her chair and was practically jumping up and down. “That was incredible! I loved the fashions! I don’t have to wish anymore that I could have seen Celestia dress up more than once per year for the Grand Galloping Gala. So thank you both for that!”

Rarity beamed and flipped her mane.

All eyes turned to Steady Flight, who was still gaping. An unsympathetic hoof to the side from Trixie seemed to break him out of his stupor. “Mark, that wasn’t you. I mean…” He waved a forehoof in front of him as he tried to formulate his words. “…I mean I got to meet Celestia briefly and had a pretty good impression of her personality from attending Day Court a few times. What you just showed us… the emotions and bearing you had… that just wasn’t you, and it certainly wasn’t Celestia, either.” He put his hoof down. “It was like there was a completely different pony on stage that I had never met before.”

I laughed. “But I’m back now.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I can see that. You returned just a minute ago.”

Rainbow Dash scoffed. “You just think so. Wait until you have a chance to fly with him now. You won’t recognize him all over again.”

The terror I saw on Steady’s face was probably mirrored on my own. He shook his head. “No thanks! I’ll take your word for it!”

I likewise demurred. “Yeah, I’ll pass, thanks.”

The rainbow-hued mare glanced between us, then shrugged her shoulders. “Alright then, your loss. All the more for me.”

I reached out a wing and pulled Rarity in for a side hug. “Thank you again, Rarity. It’s your generosity that allowed me to enjoy these moments… plus maybe giving me a boot in the plot when I needed one.”

The fashion mare smiled and closed her eyes as she rubbed her cheek against mine for a moment. In the audience, I saw Fluttershy blink a few times. “Darling, this is exactly what friends do for one another.” We shared a smile and I realized suddenly how close my lips were to hers. The noises in the room fell away. Time seemed to stop and I was only aware of the purple-maned mare.

A new voice cut through the comfortable silence. “Yes, bravo! Hooray for Friendship and all that!” I snapped back to reality and looked up to see Discord applauding from a lounge chair on the ceiling. “Great job, everypony!” He disappeared with a flash to be replaced with a confused Rarity now nursing a margarita from his former spot overhead. I felt his lion’s paw wrap around my withers. “I do hate to pop in and run, but I have a friendship problem that requires Mark’s unique perspective. Ta-ta!”

Before I could struggle out of his grasp or do more than open my mouth in protest, the world went inside out for a moment. It was something like the teleportation I had experienced with Twilight, but turned up to eleven, with trippy colors thrown in for that extra added bit of insanity. When it ended, even then I wasn’t sure if reality had completely re-exerted itself because I found myself inside the most insanely designed house that you could imagine. Singing teabags floated in formation through the air. Glowing blue origami cranes flew in the other direction. Lava flowed on the ceiling. And that was just the start of the lunacy! If I wasn’t with the Lord of Chaos, I might have thought that I was going crazy.

Discord blinked and asked, “Why are you wearing that?”

I glared at him. “It’s Rarity’s. I did a fashion show of her designs.”

“You did? I guess I wasn’t paying attention. Show’s over – I’ll return it.” With a snap his talons, I was back to being nude… well, except for the patches covering my cutie marks.

I realized he must be pretty distracted to be this unobservant. “What do you want, Discord?”

He frowned, one of his eyelids twitched, and he patted his hand and claw together. For the first time, I saw him look less than one hundred percent confident. “Well, I have this personal problem and I realized maybe I had been going about it all wrong. You see…”

With a flash, I found myself leaning back in a burgundy Queen Anne leather high back chair (thanks for the antique lessons, Phil), a notepad in one hoof and a quill in the other. My legs were crossed and I was positioned to look down over Discord who was reclined on his back on a low couch in front of me. I glanced at the notepad. In uneven letters, the words on it spelled out, ‘JuST plAiN NuTS!

The draconequus waved a paw. “It started soon after I was released from my stony prison. Over the course of the ensuing months, the feeling got stronger and stronger. But… no matter what I do…” his voice dropped off, his ears drooping.

I sighed then finished his sentence. “…no matter what you do, Fluttershy continues to treat you just as a friend and doesn’t ever seem to see you ‘that way’. ”

He blinked up at me in surprise. “You knew?”

I snorted. “Discord, I think Fluttershy is the only one who doesn’t, but none of her friends wants to interfere.” I paused. “I’m a bit surprised that you came to me with this problem.”

He waved his claw dismissively. “Take it as a measure of my desperation, then. Plus, you have your pick of dozens of mares and stallions.” I frowned but he didn’t look back this time. I supposed he was not trying to be insulting. He continued, “I just have the one. And yes, I’ve discussed this with Pink Princess of Passion. She recommended just telling Fluttershy, but for all that alicorn knows about love, she doesn’t know the Element of Kindness very well.”

He sighed. “How would I know whether Fluttershy is just being nice out of pity or true affection? I really, really want Flutters to realize on her own how she feels about me, if that would even be possible. Well, how I hope she feels about me.”

I frowned and set the notepad and quill aside. “I find myself agreeing with Cadance on this. Fluttershy is honest, Discord. She deserves for you to deal with her honestly, as well.”

Discord was silent for some time. “I know,” he said. “And what is most important to me is her happiness. But as long as you keep waffling like the popular girl in high school who can’t decide which date gets to take her to prom, that still means I have a chance.”

I didn’t like the analogy, mostly because it sounded more accurate than I wanted to admit. “Actually, I was about to choose Rarity just before you kidnapped me for this little talk.”

Reallllllly?” The mismatched creature leaned out of his couch and held his talons up, ready to snap them. His eyes were very bright.

I smirked. “But you had to interrupt. The moment’s gone now.”

He deflated and lay back down. “Harrumph! Figures. I’ve always had a lousy sense of timing. Goes with the job description.”

“Look, Discord – you must know much more than I do because you can presumably access all the self-help books both here and back home.”

“…and in a billion more universes, mortal. For every tidbit of advice, there is an opposing view.” He proceeded to change his voice for each sentence. “Treat her like a princess… Treat her with no respect at all… Buy her something she always wanted… Whatever you do, don’t buy her anything… Become what she idolizes most… Be true to yourself…” He sighed and returned to his normal voice. “Fat lot of good omniscience does when all the advice is contradictory.”

I leaned back into the chair. It was very, very comfortable. “Tell you what. In exchange for this chair, I’ll give you my best advice.”

The couch and he poofed away, to be replaced with a copy of the same chair with Discord sitting in it. He was smoking a pipe and dressed in a deep red jacquard smoking jacket over black silk pajamas. He nodded sagely for me to continue.

“How well do you know her? Have you asked about the moment she got her cutie mark? How much do you know about her family and how she grew up? Have you learned the names and personalities of all the animals she cares for? If you want to be that much a part of her life, you need to really get to know who she is… without creeping her out!” I suddenly remembered stalkers. “Just don’t go poking into anything she would consider intimate; you know, anything she would rather you ask about rather than find out through spying on her, past or present.”

I looked at my hooves for a few moments while I thought. “Look, if you commit yourself to do something special, she might see you differently because of all the time and effort you put into it. When have you seen her the happiest, or the most emotionally involved in what she was doing?”

The Lord of Chaos’ eyes widened and a grin appeared on his face. “Yes! Yes, I think that might do it! It will take some doing to not just snap my claws and make it happen, but I believe I can arrange it.” He beamed at me and clapped his hands. My chair disappeared and I fell to the ground on my rump with a painful thump.

Discord said, “Thank you again, Monseigneur Wells.” His smile turned a bit nasty and I was sure the lighting in the room darkened. “And may the best male win.”

The world turned inside out again and I was on Rarity’s stage once more. Discord was standing on my left, still with his arm around me. His firm grip kept me from falling over in my dizziness. Rarity waved at Discord from her spot on the ceiling while Twilight was directly underneath the fashionista. The alicorn’s horn was glowing and she had a puzzled look on her face.

“Discord, darling! You have to give me the recipe for this drink! I simply must serve this at my next fashion show.”

The draconequus waved back as he handed me a bottle pulled out of his ear. “I’m sure Mark here can mix up a batch for you. Well, we had a l-o-v-e-ly chit-chat, but now I must be going. More special order furniture to deliver. Busy, busy, busy!” With a snap of his talons, he was gone once more. Rarity floated gently to the ground in Twilight’s magic. The alicorn even managed to not spill a drop of the fashion mare’s drink.

I looked over the bottle. The label was missing but raised letters in the glass declared “JOSE CUERVO – 1795 – HECHO EN TEQUILA.” It seemed Discord had a taste for some items from my home world. If he was unwilling to send me back, I wonder if I could ask for some buffalo wings next time?

With a flourish of trumpets sounding from who-knows where, the burgundy chair appeared behind me and I sank into it with relief. It was just as comfortable as back in Discord’s house, and I wriggled in pleasure, grinning from ear to ear at the audience. “Gotta hand it to the Lord of Chaos – he has the comfiest furniture!” Surprisingly though, no pony appeared to be envious of my new acquisition.

“Mark, dear,” said Rarity. “Is that a leather chair?”

I blinked. “Yes? … And?”

Twilight cleared her throat. “Leather is a banned material except for a very small allowance used for specialized applications. You do know that some cows are sapient here in Equestria?”

Rarity nodded. “I’m afraid it just isn’t legal to own such an item, despite its obvious refined appearance.”

I covered my face with my forehooves and groaned. I just couldn’t win. “But they aren’t in my homeworld! That’s where this chair comes from!”

Trixie strode up. “Never fear, Spark Seashells. The Great and Clever Trixie knows exactly how to dispose of your evil monstrosity.”

I gripped the arms of the chair possessively. “No! Anything but teacups!”

She smirked. “Your wish is granted.”



I glowered. I didn’t want to be here, but I wasn’t going to let this happen without me seeing it off.

With a flourish, Rarity removed the drape covering the beautiful chair that was fated to never again feel my sit-mark. The griffon ambassador next to me gasped. “Lady Rarity! What a marvelous piece of furniture! The artistry and craft put into its design are without equal.” Well, at least she had good taste.

The griffoness looked up. “You outdo yourself, even with your title as Element of Generosity. I simply cannot accept such a fine gift.”

I interrupted. “Ah, but first you should try it on for size before turning it down, don’t you think, ambassador?”

She turned to look at me, then to Rarity who motioned for her to try out the chair.

Hesitantly, the griffoness did so and sighed contentedly. “Oh, this is even more comfortable than I had imagined.”

I nodded. “There is something about a finely-crafted leather chair that defies easy description. The way it molds around you and grips you just so. The smell of the tanner’s art combines with the incomparable cool feeling of leather. I do hope you can enjoy it the way it is meant to be enjoyed.”

Rarity walked up to my right and cocked an eyebrow at me briefly then turned to face the chair and its very happy occupant, if her purring was any indication. “Indeed. Griffons have been friends to Equestria for generations. This is a small way our kingdom expresses gratitude for our alliance.”

I knew Ambassador Redfeather was sold. Ah well, maybe the next set of trade negotiations would be a lot more favorable to Equestria.

 


 

Chapter 22: Centaur Crisis

 

Between my work and play both in Canterlot and in Ponyville, life was pretty fine although I still hoped for some good news regarding the portal. Twilight had used a complex spell that reintegrated the four broken mirrors, restoring them to their previous physical states. Unfortunately, they were all now just mirrors. The enchantment that turned them into portals to another world could not be similarly repaired, nor any useful trace of it be found. Magic-wise, we were back to square one. Twilight was researching as much as possible into the creation of portals, but it was such an obscure and arcane art that she was making little headway. The craft of making mirror portals had not been taught for centuries. The reference materials Twilight could find were lacking, even in the restricted sections of the Canterlot Archives and in the now fully catalogued but only partially explored library in the Castle of the Two Sisters. The purple alicorn explained that mages of great power would enchant their personal tomes to combust when opened by any pony else after their death. Only trusted disciples would be taught a portion of the secrets within. After a time, the only ponies remaining with the lost knowledge were the Royal Sisters. So unless Star Swirl the Bearded returned from his mysterious exile, Twilight was stuck trying to reinvent a lost art. I stopped asking for updates when it became apparent that the alicorn was struggling to give me any positive news. If she had a breakthrough, I was sure that I’d be the first to be told.

I was determined to not let that get me down though, so I made every effort to enjoy myself. The work was fulfilling, and my personal life enjoyable. I had it a lot better than several human acquaintances that I had known back on Earth, and I wasn’t going to be hypocritical and whine about my circumstances here in Equestria. Yes, this world was pretty nearly idyllic. However, it’s a pity that I didn’t follow up on Twilight’s cram session by reading more of its history.

The first we knew about the world-shattering disaster that was encroaching upon my happy life was a telegram from Baltimare. We had lost contact from a couple of small towns recently; ponies who had been dispatched to investigate had failed to report yet. The reason only became clear when the message arrived from the telegraph office. It read:

‘EMERGENCY STOP CENTAUR STEALING MAGIC FROM ALL PONIES STOP SEND HE—’

The telegram was abruptly cut off. Hopefully, the operator had not been killed while trying to warn us, but Twilight did not reassure me with the alternative.

“We are creatures of magic, Mark. Without it, we weaken and eventually die. Right now, there could be hundreds or even thousands of helpless ponies just lying around too weak to help themselves. If they don’t die of magic-deprivation, they could die of thirst or exposure.”

“What kind of monster would do that to innocent ponies?”

“The worst kind,” Twilight replied with a grim set to her face. “I seem to recall an old tale about a magic-stealing monster long ago. I’m going to check the records.”

While the alicorn was gone, Trixie called an emergency meeting of the nobles and the high-ranking military commanders. She also sent a telegram to the Crystal Empire to warn Cadance and Shining Armor about the threat. I made a note to myself that if we got through this peril, I was going to get some smart ponies together and invent the telephone. Equestria could not be forced to rely on the few who were skilled with telegraphic messaging to bring timely messages to the authorities in the future.

By the time Twilight returned, General Forthright had given orders to dispatch troops to Baltimare. When I queried what they could do against an enemy who could steal their magic, he stiffly asked me if I intended to just lie down and wait to be conquered. That shut me up quickly. I knew next to nothing about military tactics, and if nothing else, they could buy time for the rest of us to come up with a better plan. Certainly, some scouts could get back to Canterlot with some detailed intel that would help with that.

“I know who we’re up against, and it’s bad,” Twilight announced when she returned. “Centuries ago, a centaur named Tirek and his brother Scorpan came to Equestria to take its magic for themselves. If his brother had not grown to appreciate Equestria’s ways and warned Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Equestria could have been lost. However, between the three, they overcame Tirek and banished him to Tartarus. Now it seems that he has found a way to escape, and this time we didn’t get any forewarning.” Twilight finished in a somber tone. “Tirek doesn’t just take a pony’s magic – he ingests it to grow in power. If he’s reached the point where he’s draining the population of an entire city, he may already be too strong for any of us to cope with.”

“Stronger than even an alicorn?” I asked incredulously.

“I fear so. At this point, I believe that if Cadance and myself together with the Guild of Mages were to combine our magic, we might have the power to overcome him. It depends on how quickly Cadance can come here and how much magic Tirek steals before then.”

“Hopefully General Forthright’s troops can get Tirek to waste some power… if they don’t end up feeding him even more,” Trixie said sourly.

A thought occurred to me – a truly desperate thought. “Umm… I really, really hate to suggest this, but might not there be someone who can match Tirek in sheer power? And by that, I mean Discord?”

Twilight looked shocked. “You can’t be serious?!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of sending just him, but he’s terribly fond of Fluttershy. If she accompanied him to try to persuade Tirek to give up his plans, maybe his protectiveness of her will keep him focused. And if things go bad, his chaos magic could trump Tirek’s.” And, of course, make him look good in Fluttershy’s eyes as a bonus.

Twilight stomped a hoof, making the entire castle tremble. “No! I won’t risk Fluttershy on such an outlandish plan. Discord has done little since his release into her care to convince me that he would really be interested in helping us. He is simply too unreliable. The risk is too high.”

I arched an eyebrow at the alicorn. “Higher than letting this Tirek monster come here are steal everyone’s magic? At least his actions are unambiguous.”

“Are Discord’s any less? After all, he did stand by and do nothing when the plunderseeds invaded, despite knowing their origin.”

“I know, but he helped when pushed to do so. Also, he didn’t take an active role in opposing us as he might well have done so. Like I said before – he’s mischievous, not evil. A thousand years ago, he didn’t have someone to give him bounds or a reason to care. Now he does.”

I got a lot of stares from everyone in the room, some dubious, many disgusted, none enthused including myself. I shrugged. “I admit that I’m grasping at straws here, but has anypony got a better plan yet?”

“Yes, actually,” Twilight said. “I’m going to go to the Everfree Forest with my friends and try to retrieve the Elements from the Tree of Harmony.”

“And what if the tree won’t relinquish them?” I pointed out.

Twilight grimaced. “Let’s just keep Discord as a last resort, okay?”

As much as they disliked the idea of asking the Lord of Chaos, the alternative was worse, so it remained under consideration. Frankly, I was rooting for Twilight to succeed too.



Word came back by dragonfire that Twilight and her friends had failed to retrieve the elements. I wish I could say I was surprised, but that particular McGuffin had been played out already. Desperation led them to try my idea, and to the surprise of everyone (and me too, a little), the butter yellow pegasus had persuaded Discord to help. Trixie and I could only wait and hope for good news.



Everything had gone wrong. We didn’t know what was said, but the centaur had been undeterred. Discord had promised to keep Fluttershy safe and take down Tirek by himself if negotiations failed, but instead, they had both been drained and imprisoned. The follow-up by the ground and aerial troops was a farce. The crystal recording brought in by a pegasus scout described how the ponies fell helpless without most even getting close to the monster. Ranged weapons might have been of far more use, but Tirek rarely stayed still in one spot for long, giving the military no chance to bring in their artillery, such as it was for this era.

Then the situation just got worse. Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity insisted on trying to rescue their friend, and Twilight wholeheartedly agreed with them. At least she managed to get them to wait until Cadance and Shining Armor arrived via the Crystal Express. Telegrams had been sent ahead so that the track between Equestria and the Crystal Empire could be cleared for the high-speed locomotive, and the royal train pushed safety limits to get to its destination in half the usual time. The two alicorns, Shining, plus all the most powerful unicorn mages had left to confront Tirek. Equestria might have been better off if they had never done so. Although they put up a strong fight, Tirek quickly whittled down their numbers until even Twilight was overwhelmed. The scout who reported the disaster to Trixie barely escaped the rout.

I wished that had been the last of the bad news. The scout had also learned that Tirek was headed for Canterlot to steal Celestia and Luna’s magic now that his power was great enough to overcome theirs. He apparently hadn’t heard that they were missing, or chose not to believe, preferring to think that they had gone into hiding to avoid him. It didn’t matter – he was coming here and all that stood between him and total domination of Equestria was a faux alicorn with some fancy stage magic. Imagine my shock when said pony declared that it was her royal duty to defend her little ponies. I would have been proud of her too, but this was no time for heroics.

“Trixie, we have to retreat. We’ve got to fall back and try to make plans to defeat Tirek. He’s looking for the Royal Sisters right now, not you. You staying to meet him is pointless and will likely get you killed.”

“No!” she retorted grimly. “This is the Great and Responsible Trixie’s place. She will not shirk her duty!”

I grabbed her and started dragging her toward the balcony. “It’s called a tactical retreat, you stubborn mule!”

“Unhoof me, Shark Stairwells!”

Her horn lit up, but I was ready for that. I gave the horn a sharp rap near the base as I had been taught in unarmed combat lessons. Trixie yelped in pain and stopped resisting for the moment, and I brought her out onto the open deck. “Climb aboard,” I ordered her.

“What? No! I’d rather face Tirek than ride you again!”

“Well, I have no intention of that happening. Your safety is my primary concern, not to mention mine. Suck it up, Princess, or I’ll do this the hard way.”

Trixie glared at me furiously but I didn’t give an inch. Eventually, she growled and said, “Fine! But Trixie will have words with her impertinent vizier later.”

She climbed onto my back, making no effort to spare me any pain from her hooves. I ignored that and waited until she said she was ready. I checked the power band around my fetlock – about 80%. I had been letting it build up in anticipation of possibly needing the extra power. I was going to make good use of it now. I took off like a cannon shot.

Weeks and weeks of practice had improved my flying skills, but they were still woeful in comparison to most pegasi. I had just the one advantage – with all that extra magic behind my efforts, I was fast and my new power band regulated my output. As long as I didn’t have to deviate from a straight line, I could just about match speed with any pegasus short of Rainbow Dash. Of course, when your destination approaches at that same crazy speed, it’s just a trifle terrifying. Trixie’s screams were extra loud this time. I don’t know why – she got to teleport to a safe stop. I settled for being slowed down by the foliage of a copse of trees before tumbling to the earth. Remarkably, it turned out to be one of my less painful landings, and I hastily righted myself and cantered off to rendezvous with Trixie. We had to find the mayor of Ponyville and start planning our next move.



Sometimes I thought that the citizens of Ponyville had gotten way too blasé about all the dangers that their village had dealt with. While there had been a number of panicked ponies who locked themselves away in their houses, a huge number of them were here in the town hall hotly debating with Trixie about how to deal with Tirek without their heroes. I sat in the back listening to them suggest lame ideas and ineffectual defenses, but as I couldn’t come up with anything better, I chose to keep my mouth shut and try to think.

“Do ya know what happened to mah sister, Mark?” came a familiar young voice.

“And mine too?!”

“And Rainbow Dash?!”

I looked around to see Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo all looking at me expectantly. I couldn’t bear to tell them the whole truth. “They all went to confront Tirek but they failed to stop him.”

“What are you going to do now?” Sweetie asked.

“What am I going to do? It’s not up to me. I just give advice and try to protect Princess Trixie. I just don’t know what anypony can do against a monster like Tirek.”

“Maybe Zecora might know a way?” Apple Bloom suggested.

I gave her a sad smile. “I’m not sure what one zebra can do to a magic-eating centaur.”

“Zecora doesn’t use magic spells though. She makes potions,” Scootaloo pointed out.

“They’re still magic though,” I replied.

Sweetie Belle spoke up, “Twilight says Zecora’s magic is totally different from pony magic.”

“Besides,” Apple Bloom said, “some of her potions are just natural ingredients prepared in a special way.”

My eyes widened as I was struck by a revelation. Tirek consumed raw magic, but Zecora’s potions were of a totally different nature. We could have been going about this the wrong way the whole time! “Girls – I think you might have just turned this battle around. I’m going to visit our resident shaman right now.”

The three fillies cheered and clopped their hooves together. “Yay! Cutie Mark Crusader Monster Fighters!”



I don’t know how Tirek found out that Trixie had gone to Ponyville as I had not informed anyone of my intentions to come here, but perhaps someone had seen us depart. Whatever the case, a scout had spotted the giant centaur headed our way. I say, giant, because apparently draining the magic of all those powerful mages, two alicorns, plus one draconequus had caused Tirek to grow considerably. I prayed it wouldn’t affect my plans.

I had spent the evening brainstorming with Zecora, and she had stayed up all night preparing a very special potion. Of course, it was untested, but we had no choice but to hope that it worked as desired. The trick was going to be administering it, and considering how ineffective the Equestrian military had been, that was by far the weakest factor in my plan. The most terrifying one was that I happened to be the optimum pony to deliver it, and that was because of my little secret. Fortunately, Tirek was just as ignorant of it as the citizens of Ponyville, and I intended to make the most of it. I just hoped that I wasn’t killed trying.

Trixie and Mayor Mare stood beside me. It hadn’t been easy persuading the mayor and the towns’ ponies to go along with my idea, but when Trixie threw the weight of her authority behind me, that had cleared the way for my plan.

Above me on the rooftops, about twenty pegasi waited to take off and attack Tirek, ostensibly to defend Ponyville, but in reality, so I could study how Tirek reacted. They were under no illusion that they had any hope of stopping the centaur, and in fact, it was possible that they would be drained of their magic before even reaching him, but they had volunteered anyway. They were already heroes in my book. If all went well, they would not have to cope with their loss for long. I just hoped that they didn’t try anything foolish that would get them hurt before being rendered helpless.

“Tirek has reached the checkpoint,” announced Cloud Kicker from her vantage point on a nearby rooftop.

I checked the power band one last time. It was ominously dark with only a thin red line across the center indicating that I was near the limit of my capacity. I was going to need every drop of that excess magic today. “Okay, everypony, Operation Stop That Centaur has begun,” I spoke loudly for everyone to hear. “I’m going to reveal my ace in the hole now. Only the Element Bearers and a select few others know of my secret, but I’m entrusting it to you now.” I took the bottle of poison joke potion that I had tucked under my wing and took a swig of its contents. I felt the effects take hold and my pegasus senses expand. There were gasps of surprise and mutters from perplexed ponies.

“Your Highness!” exclaimed the mayor. “How… why…?”

The mare had prostrated herself before me. I sighed but wasn’t surprised. “Mayor Mare, please get up and look at my cutie mark. It hasn’t changed. I’m still Mark Wells and although I look and sound like Celestia, I assure you that I’m not even a real alicorn. I’m not a princess, but I can fool Tirek into thinking I’m the one that he’s looking for. Trixie – please put those patches over my cutie marks now.”

Despite my words, the mayor and the other onlookers still looked doubtful even as Trixie applied the patches bearing Celestia’s cutie mark that I had fetched from Rarity’s boutique. Respect for the royal alicorns was very deeply ingrained. It didn’t matter as long as they did their part.

“Cloud Kicker! Begin your team’s attack now!”

The pegasus shook herself and refocused on the job. “Let’s go!” she shouted, and a flock of the winged ponies rose to join her in a charge towards the lumbering monster.

Those pegasi were not a military unit, but as members of the local weather service, they were used to working as a team. The makeshift weapons they carried were for appearance only and they had no real expectations of damaging the centaur with them. From the reports of previous encounters with Tirek, I knew approximately how close they would get before he started ingesting their magic, but before they reached that distance, they split into four sub-groups and powered off in different directions. Thus when they got within range, Tirek could at most face two of the groups. It did little good. Tirek merely laughed as he saw them attack.

More foolish ponies come to feed me!

He opened his mouth and started to inhale. The pegasi in his sights immediately started faltering. I’d advised them to make sure they weren’t too high above the ground when they attacked so that the fall would not be far when they lost their flight magic. Thankfully, they had taken my advice to heart, although I still winced as I saw them hit the turf. It took only a few seconds for them to be drained, but in that time, the two remaining groups had closed in. One hit high with pitchforks and crowbars while the other hit low with axes and mattocks. I thought that maybe they had actually accomplished something and my hopes soared for a brief moment, but Tirek merely grunted, his gigantic form nearly impervious to their attacks. He quickly drained the magic from one retreating group before turning to do the same to the last group before they could get out of range. Our first offense was over almost as soon as it had begun. I had learned what I needed to know though, and unfortunately, it was bad. I had hoped it would have taken longer. Right now, I dearly wished that Twilight was here so that she could teleport me into range, but she and all the unicorns capable of that had already succumbed to the centaur, and Trixie could barely teleport just herself maybe a hundred yards. Of course, if the alicorn had been here, I’d get her to deliver the secret weapon and I’d stay safely back with everypony else. But no, I had to do this the hard way.

Tirek stopped just outside of town and looked around. “Come out Princess Celestia, Princess Luna! I know that you’re cowering here among these puny ponies. Come out, give me your magic and I’ll spare your subjects.

Yeah, like anyone really believed anything Tirek promised. That was my cue though. I spread my wings and lifted off from behind the concealment of a hedge. I did not charge at him as the pegasi had done. I approached as if I was acceding to his demands. Tirek noticed me and he smiled nastily.

Wise move, Celestia. Your sister had better follow. I will not settle for one alicorn’s magic.

I kept my steady approach but answered Tirek to try to buy time. “Luna is nearby and will come soon enough. Just do not harm My Little Ponies!”

Tirek’s horns flared and suddenly three bubble cages appeared. I recognized Fluttershy and Discord in one; Twilight, Cadance, and Shining Armor in another; while the remaining Element Bearers were in the third. They all looked ghastly from the effects of being drained of their magic.

Your fellow alicorns and friends are still alive. Give me your magic and they will stay that way.

I nodded as if agreeing and kept approaching him. Tirek opened his mouth and I knew what was coming next. “NOW!” I screamed, surprised at the sheer volume that I managed.

A dark cloud in the sky above Tirek suddenly shot a massive thunderbolt straight down at the centaur. He howled in pain and anger before his horns lit up. A ball of flame appeared between them and he fired a huge blast at the cloud, dissipating most of it. Fortunately, the pegasi that had carefully and surreptitiously maneuvered it into place before triggering it on my signal had already taken off at top speed to get out of range.

Meanwhile, I had poured on all the acceleration that my Celestial body could produce. I had to take maximum advantage of the ambush because Tirek wouldn’t be distracted for long. Sure enough, I hadn’t even closed half the distance between us before he started turning to face me again. He began to power up once more, but just before he released his magic firepower, I dodged to the left. The beam of energy missed me by only a couple of yards and blew up something behind me, but I had no time to look at what it was. My new flight path turned him away from Ponyville, hopefully sparing it and the helpless citizens from being blasted.

From that point, it was a matter of me frantically ducking and weaving, barely avoiding being fried several times but getting ever closer. I silently thanked Rainbow Dash for all the practice that I had gotten with her that gave me the familiarity with this body to enable it to perform at its best and keep me alive. Just a bit nearer and I could use my weapon. Then I got careless. I failed to consider a physical attack, and his gigantic palm slapped me out of the air. I tasted blood before I hit the ground and rolled. If I hadn’t been a pegasus, I’d probably be a broken mess, but I was stunned long enough for Tirek to grab me in his massive fist. He drew me up to eye level, laughing at my misfortune.

You should not have done that, foolish alicorn. Now I will take your life after I have taken your magic.

He opened his maw and I immediately felt power being sucked out of me. The worst thing though was that my forehoof was trapped in Tirek’s grasp and so was the secret weapon that it held. I screamed in pain as it felt like my soul was being ripped away.

Abruptly, Tirek stopped ingesting my magic. He furrowed his brow and looked at me closely. “What is this? Your magic doesn’t taste right, almost as if it isn’t alicorn magic at all. Not quite pegasus magic either.

I didn’t know magic had a taste, but I’m glad it did because he quit just before I was drained completely. I had to stall him. Maybe I could get him to monologue. “Even if you drain my magic, you'll never win, Tirek. The Magic of Friendship will defeat you.”

Tirek laughed uproariously. “Friendship? Let me tell you what friendship has done for Equestria.” His free hand gestured to the floating prisons. Tirek continued. “Friendship caused all of your friends to selflessly attempt to challenge me. All fell before me and gave me their magic.” He frowned. “No, Princess – their sacrifices were in vain. The truth is what I learned from my brother ages ago. Friendship is weakness. And now, for opposing me, all your friends will watch you die, Princess.” He opened his mouth to suck in my remaining magic.

I heard Pinkie Pie's voice cut through the air. “That's not Celestia!”

Everypony looked at her in horror and gasped.

Tirek stopped and turned to her with a scowl. “What do you mean?

Pinkie Pie pointed a hoof. That's just a white unicorn mare with a mane dye job. I'm 99% sure.”

Tirek opened his fist to examine me closely and I sprawled on my right side on his open palm. His eyes narrowed as they studied my form.

Pinkie brightened. “Oops! My bad! That’s Princess Celestia, alright!”

No matter, for her magic is mine!

He started inhaling my magic again, but I was free to move at last. Thanks, Pinkie! Before I could be rendered helpless, I struggled to my hooves. Directly under the stream of magic that was being pulled from me, I hurled the small ball that I had been holding all this time into his face. The glowing magic that enshrouded it was drawn into his maw along with my own and I saw its magic shell dissipate just as it entered Tirek's mouth. I was elated for mere moments before I keeled over to my left as the last of my magic was ripped from me. I felt like I had run a marathon or two and was now weak as a kitten from exhaustion, but that wasn’t the only effect I noticed. I was a small stallion once more.

The centaur's voice rumbled like a mountain avalanche. “WHAT DECEPTION IS THIS?

I started thinking quickly as Tirek was probably on the verge of killing me as he had promised. “You fiend!” With a monumental effort, I lifted my head and glared at him. “Is this your idea of a sick joke?”

Tirek pulled back then tilted his head slightly. “Uh ... Nooooo?"

Oh, thank the stars! I had managed to derail his train of thought. I struggled to sit up. “Not only do you steal the magic from all of My Little Ponies, but you also transform me into this?” I paused to stare where the cutie mark patch had been ripped off of my right flank in my struggles. I gaped as if seeing it for the first time. I turned back to stare daggers at the centaur. “And what did you do to my cutie mark? And where's my beautiful horn?”

Tirek looked decidedly uncomfortable now.

Uhhh....

I scraped together enough energy to yell at him as I tried to stand up. “I was also a mare! I swear to Faust, Tirek! Where are my—”

We’re done here,” said the centaur as he dropped me.

I yelped in surprise as I fell the remainder of the way to the ground. I extended my wings, but without any magic, they had little effect, barely slowing my plunge. I landed next to a copse of trees that had been denuded of their leaves by one of Tirek's blasts, hitting the ground hard. I cried out in pain, but at least I hadn’t been killed by the fall. That condition looked as though it would quickly change as Tirek raised a hoof to stomp on me. Helpless, I cringed and waited for the blow.

Instead of oblivion, I heard a loud gurgling emit from the monster’s belly and he bent over, clutching at his torso. I started to smirk. “What’s wrong, Tirek? Ate something that disagreed with you?”

Be quiet, fool! My power is boundless! I will not allow– *hurk*.” Tirek’s hand flew to his mouth as his cheeks bulged. A colorful viscous effluvium squirted from his nose. He wiped his face with the back of his arm and growled. “What have you done, wretched worm? You shall—” He doubled over, slapping one hand over his mouth again and plugging his nose with the other. The lurid spew squirted out of his ears instead, his eyes as wide as saucers. He heaved again, this time clamping his hands over ears and clenching his jaw trying to hold it in. He failed utterly and a gusher of rainbow-hued vomit poured out of his mouth… and onto me. There was no stopping it now. Time after time, Tirek puked and the waves of multi-colored liquid kept inundating me. However, each time he disgorged another flood, I noticed that he shrank in size. He was regurgitating all the magic that he had consumed which had given him his huge form. Zecora’s special potion that had been the core of my secret weapon was doing its job admirably.

I felt my magic gush back into me and I tried to stand up. I was knocked off my hooves again by yet another torrent of the disgusting vomit as Tirek shrank even more. It kept coming faster and faster and I closed my eyes to endure it. Then I noticed that something was wrong. My power was still growing, and I suddenly realized that my faulty pony form was packing in the raw magic at a prodigious rate. I felt my body surge and when I opened my eyes, I was Marklestia once more. If that had been the only thing that happened, I would not have been worried, but the magic-infused effluvium that coated me was still pouring its power directly into me. I looked at the power band around my fetlocks and saw it had already passed through the red stage and was about to hit fully black! I leapt to my hooves to try to get away from the danger, but my hind legs skidded on the slimy fluid and I fell. As I tried to get up again, my body surged with the pent-up power and I yelled in pain and fear. It grew worse, – I felt an agonizing wave of heat sweep across my body and I knew I was about to die. I threw back my head and screamed as the pain grew unbearable.

Abruptly, there was a release of pressure and the landscape lit up as power gushed out of me in a rainbow torrent from my horn. My useless, non-active appendage was suddenly a fully functional conduit for the excess power which streaked up into the sky and spread out in rings as far as I could see. The magic was returning to its true owners. As for me, everything faded to black.



Waking up was a surprise. I thought for sure that I was going to die from the magic overload. Somehow, I had been saved that fate. I noticed that some ponies were washing the nasty spew from me and that it had lost its colorful look. The magic had been drained from it completely. A pity the physical remnants didn’t disappear too. I saw a scrawny centaur only about twice my size now not far away. He was bound with magic-absorbing bonds that prevented Tirek from regaining his lost power. Judging by the look and color of his face, he wasn’t yet recovered from the emetic that I had administered. The townsponies apparently had no problem restraining him once he had puked up all his stolen magic.

As for me, I was still Marklestia and a pseudo alicorn which, judging by the nearly reverential way the Flower Sisters were bathing me, everyone still thought I was. After this performance, I guess I was going to have a very hard time convincing them otherwise.

Upon noticing that I was alert once more, Roseluck asked with much concern, “Are you okay, Princess?”

Yep. I was screwed. Still, I had to try. “I’m feeling fine now, thank you, Roseluck, but I’m no Princess.” That might have sounded more convincing if it didn’t come out in Celestia’s regal tones. I needed to get my reversion treatment soon!

“You’re awake, Dowser! The Great and Concerned Trixie was worried about you!”

I turned to see Trixie looking uncharacteristically uncertain and distressed. I got to my hooves, careful not to knock over the mares attending to me. “Thanks, Princess, but it seems a magical vomit bath was the worst that happened to me,” I replied with a grin.

Trixie frowned at how flippantly I was treating the situation. She lifted a hoof and started poking me in the chest. “Don’t you dare do something so insanely dangerous again. Trixie needs her stallion and Equestria needs its Grand Vizier!”

“Yes, Princess,” I replied meekly, happy to get everything back to normal again. I don’t think even the faux alicorn realized how close to death I came. I wasn’t eager to repeat the effort; I might not be so lucky next time.

A shout drew my attention to a flying purple alicorn coming in for a landing. Apparently, Twilight and everypony else had recovered their magic and been freed.

“Mark! What happened?! How did you vanquish Tirek?!” She paused as if just realizing something. “And why are you in that form in front of everypony?”

“Long story, Twilight, but basically I gave him a tummy-ache.”

The alicorn mare blinked in incomprehension. “You what?”

“I’ll tell you later. The important part is that Tirek is defeated and everypony has gotten their magic back. And I have the horn-ache to prove it.” Actually, that was the first time that I realized that my horn was indeed feeling painful. I had just thought of it as a headache until then, but it was definitely focused in that appendage. That was very odd because, up until now, it was an insensate part of my Celestial form. I was really just a trumped-up pegasus despite my appearance.

Apparently Twilight also found that extremely strange. “Why would your horn be hurting?”

“I suppose it’s because of all the power that I released through it after soaking it up from Tirek’s puke.”

“That shouldn’t be possible. Lean down, please.”

I lowered my head and she touched her horn to mine as she had once done some months ago. I felt a distinct momentary thrill of energy and Twilight jerked back.

“I don’t know how, but your horn seems to be fully functional now. My diagnostic spell detected a completely normal unicorn matrix within it.”

My jaw went slack with shock. “Does this mean…?”

Twilight shook her head. “No, you’re still not an alicorn, but it seems that you can take in and utilize unicorn magic now. You can’t feel any affinity for the earth, can you?”

Having briefly been in Twilight’s alicorn form courtesy of Discord, I knew exactly what she meant. “No, I don’t. And I certainly don’t feel like I’m alicorn-level powerful either.” At least, not now that I had released all that power. “So, what am I now? A unisus? Pegacorn?”

Twilight laughed. “What you are is my laboratory subject for the next few days!”

I gulped. Crap. No good deed goes unpunished. I really wanted to be plain old Mark Wells again.

There was a flare of power and suddenly I was a green stallion. I blinked in surprise as Twilight and Trixie gaped at me. “Huh? That’s new.”



Before we headed off to Twilight’s place, I secured a promise from Mayor Mare to keep my secret and ask the rest of the citizens of Ponyville to do the same. I suspect that she still doubted that I was not an alicorn, but as long as nopony blabbed, I was satisfied. As we walked back into town, I noticed all the ponies whom I had met and become familiar with over the weeks resuming their normal lives. I suddenly realized that I knew them all by name by now, or at least most of them. I saw one nondescript earth pony whom I wasn’t familiar with entering an alley and an equally ordinary unknown pegasus fly out of it later. Odd. I suppose I couldn’t know everypony yet. As we turned a corner, Twilight stopped so abruptly that I barged right into her in my distracted condition. Her earth pony strength anchored her to the ground and I bounced off her, nearly falling over.

What happened to my home?!” Twilight wailed.

The poor library tree was reduced to little more than a stump, a slightly singed Owlowicious perched on a remaining broken branch. The sole power blast from Tirek that had gone Ponyville’s way had hit the purple alicorn’s home with extreme prejudice. I was hit by two conflicting emotions: sympathy for my friend’s loss of everything she held dear, and terror at the memory of the blast that had passed just feet away. That could have been me!

 


 

Chapter 23: Homes

 

I finished spacing out and came to in my lounge chair. I had my robe on over my pajamas and the footrest was up. My slippers had fallen off at some point but I was too lazy to take my chair out of full-recline mode to get them.

Through the window, I saw the neighbors’ white picket fences and perfectly manicured lawns, just like mine. I spotted Phil taking his recycle bin to the curb and waved. He saw me and waved back. Boy, I loved that guy.

I looked back at the newspaper in my hooves… I mean hands and couldn’t really make out anything. Odd. I guess I really did need glasses. I turned to the comics just inside the back page and was happy to see that they were in perfect focus. Andy Capp and Peanuts never got old.

“Honey, I made your favorite!” I heard from just in front of me. I lowered the paper and saw…

“Pinkie Pie?!”

It was true. The pink mare was right there in my living room, smiling her perpetual friendly smile. “What are you doing in my house?”

She giggled. “Making sure you get enough to eat, hubby wubby!”

Wait, what?

She held a monster-sized pan of probably sixty chocolate cupcakes under my nose. “Germane chocolate frosting over triple chocolate cupcakes with molten fudge centers!” Warm, fuzzy feelings replaced my confusion. OK, those sounded and smelled pretty awesome, actually.

I reached out to grab a couple. The earth pony laughed. “Save some for our kids, silly!”

I felt a chill grip me and I froze before I touched the first cupcake. There were that many of them? “Kids?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“Of course!” She turned to an entryway that I knew led to the rest of the house. “Come on in, girls!”

“Girls?” I wondered in increasing panic. I fumbled for the lever on the reclining chair so I could release myself from my polyester fiber prison, but I couldn’t find it on either side.

Small, pink copies of Pinkie Pie started pouring out of the entrance on every surface: floor, walls, and ceiling. Each pronked along and the mass started to converge on me like a cloud of locusts. As they appeared, I heard Pinkie drone on. “There’s Pinkamena, Pinklestia, Pinkalicious, Pink Album, Pink Rheus, Pinky Panky, Pinkerdoodle…” Her voice was drowned out by the swarm converging on me, each one calling out, “Daddy… daddy… daddy…”

As they all started to jump onto the chair with me, everything began to go pink. The last sight I saw was Phil standing outside the front window, pointing at me with one hand while the other held his sides. He was laughing his ass off.



I jerked awake to find Pinkie Pie leaning over me with a cupcake in hoof.

“Hey, dreamy stallion! Tell me what you think of my super-duper-quadruple-chocolate wakeup cupcake!”

I was lying back in a Divan with the rest of the Elements of Harmony groggily waking up around me. Trixie was sound asleep, using my barrel as a pillow.

Looking back to the cupcake, I had no doubt this was a German… or Germane… chocolate masterpiece worth dying for. Not being stupid, I took it in my hooves. “Thanks, Pinkie, but please stay out of my dreams; they are weird enough as it is.”

She laughed as she bounced away. “You are soooooooo funny in the mornings, Mark! I can tell you’re just kid-, kid-, kidding!”

I remembered retiring back to the royal wing of the palace with all my friends and making several attempts to get the margarita recipe just right. I also had tried to outdrink Rainbow Dash and Applejack but found that my Marklestia form gave me no extra stamina and was the first to drop out. After changing back to my stallion form, I just sipped the excellent Sweet Apple Acres hard cider until Rainbow slid gracelessly under the table, snoring in defeat.

“Well are all y’all gonna just laze the day away? Sun’ll be up soon an’ Ah don’t wanna waste it.” The orange mare was dusting off her Stetson and looked exactly zero percent worse for wear. Glancing over at a yawning Twilight, I saw her hop off of her couch with pep in her trot and a big smile.

Everyone else present groaned. “Too loud!” protested Rainbow Dash, pulling her sofa cushion over her head. Rarity tried to cover her ears with a couple of margarita glasses – thankfully empty.

I tore off a quarter of the cupcake and waved it menacingly. “Not everypony has earth pony constitution, you three. Not even remotely fair.” I popped it into my mouth and chewed. Delicious! My head was pounding and I seriously considered using the hangover cure potion. Today was a holiday in celebration of Tirek’s defeat (good thinking, Trixie), so maybe I’d just suffer through the morning instead. “What time is it anyway?”

Twilight’s horn lit for a moment. “About fifteen minutes until sunrise.”

I turned and waved the remainder of the cupcake under the nose of the blue mare draped on top of me. She opened one eye and it focused on the treat in front of her. “As your princess, Trixie orders you to unhoof that captive cupcake. Trixie hereby decrees that it is the property of the crown… specifically mine,” she added as she belatedly realized that this referred to more than one princess now.

Twilight made a sound of mock protest. Trixie glared at her. “Trixie is sorely lacking in vital minerals and vitamins that can only be found in chocolate.”

“I’ll give you half the cupcake if you get up now,” I said.

The blue mare’s horn started to glow. I brought up my hoof as if to strike the base of her horn. Her eyes went wide and the aura winked out. “You wouldn’t! Not to a mare with a hangover!”

I smirked. “My job is to help you perform your royal duties. And it is your turn to raise the sun, assuming the Guild of Mages is in better shape than all of us this morning.”

Twilight trotted past, her nose held high. “I was going to offer to perform the sun-raising ceremony today, but since you are in such an unfriendly mood, I suppose you’ll do it after all.”

Trixie groaned and fell back in the couch, holding a hoof to her forehead. After a few seconds, she slowly rolled off of me and onto her hooves, swaying slightly with her eyes still closed. I held out the remaining three-quarters of the cupcake. The scent enticed her to gently eat it out of my hoof, licking up the last crumbs. She sighed and started shakily making her way towards her chambers, only opening her eyes after jostling the couch.

Twilight bit her lip. “Trixie, I could teleport you there, if you like.”

“Celestia’s sake, no! My stomach is having enough trouble as it is. Besides, I’ve been in worse shape after spending a night celebrating. I should be able to make it there in fifteen minutes.” After leaning against the doorframe for several seconds to get her bearings, Trixie staggered down the hallway.

Meanwhile, Applejack’s not-so-subtle prodding was producing the desired results. Soon, a grumpy and disheveled group of Equestrian heroes were digging into pancakes, toast, jam, and lots and lots of coffee. I saved a cup for the blue princess but she apparently decided to sleep it off after performing her royal duties.

There was still a couple of hours before the next train to Ponyville would head out, so by mutual consent, we returned to the sitting room, which had now been thoroughly cleaned and set back aright. One thing I appreciated about the castle staff – they were very discreet and gave us our privacy immediately after finishing their duties. Sure, if you needed something, you’d have to chase somepony down, but on the plus side, all of us could speak freely.

Rainbow Dash looked me up and down. “So, when are you going for the trifecta, Mark? You’re already most of the way there.” Without waiting for an answer, she turned to her purple friend. “Hey, Twilight! Do you think you could blow him up again? After all his moaning and groaning this morning, I think he could use some earth pony to toughen him up.”

I remembered no such thing! Before I could respond, Twilight said, “Until I can get my lab back up and running again, I won’t be able to tell exactly what has changed about his new form.” She looked at me. “Does your wristband still work?”

I tapped the device. It displayed a green bar showing I was at around fifteen percent.

Twilight nodded. “Keep using your boot to regulate your charge until I say it’s safe not to.” I nodded. I was all about self-preservation.

“Whatever did you do with that Chair of Horrors Ah heard about, anyway?” asked Applejack.

“Gave it to the Griffon Ambassador. Funny you should ask that, Applejack. Back on my planet, the professions that use leather the most are farmers, furniture makers, bookbinders, and clothing makers.”

The orange mare tilted her head and said dryly, “Really?”

“Yep. Saddles, horse tack, chaps, whips, gloves – which are basically hoof covers.”

“Hmmm…” The earth pony squinted her eyes and looked off in the distance. “Ah suppose Ah could see the utility in a material that hardy, if’n it didn’t come from where it came from.”

Fluttershy turned to Rarity. “Is it true that… that animal skins can be used in fashion?”

Curiously, the alabaster mare said nothing. Wanting to fill the silence, I answered the yellow pegasus. “Absolutely: Belts, purses, skirts, pants, jackets, corsets I suppose. There are a sheen and suppleness to leather that no synthetic material can match.”

Now the fashion mare’s silence was getting very noticeable as she stared downwards impassively. Rainbow Dash moved up right next to her, studied her face for a moment, then broke out in a huge grin. “You’re blushing!”

The mare spun so quickly to face the pegasus that Rainbow almost got brained by the fashionista’s horn. Rainbow’s quick reflexes saved her. “I am not!” protested Rarity. Her cheeks turned even redder.

“Oh, my,” said Applejack with a growing smirk. “Our sweet innocent unicorn mare has a… ‘thing’… for leather.”

“Absolutely not true!” said the object of everypony’s attention, her face getting redder by the second.

I couldn’t help myself. “Don’t feel bad, Rarity. I should have known this would happen.” She cocked an eyebrow at me. “All those days with the forbidden piece of furniture in your shop, tempting you, calling you to enter its forbidden embrace.” Rarity sat a little straighter. Now her neck was starting to show color.

“Tell me, Rarity, were you tempted to cut off a piece for a fashion project you had dreamed of for ages but never thought you would have the opportunity to actually try?”

“I would never!” she gasped, holding a forehoof to her chest.

“I didn’t ask if you did, I just asked if you were tempted.” She went back to sitting up straight and staring down at the floor. I smiled. “Was there any excess material on the bottom of the chair, Rarity? Or did you replace the underside of the seat cushion with a large patch of fabric? That is a common way that seats are constructed, so no one would ever notice the difference.”

Every ear in the room was perked up fully and pointed towards the Element of Generosity. She said, “I will not deign to respond to this conversation any longer.”

Pinkie Pie came up and pulled her friend into a hug. “Now, now, Rarity. There’s nothing wrong with liking what you like. Plus, now I know what to get for your next surprise party!”

The fashionista’s eyes went wide and her jaw fell open. Then she just deflated like a popped balloon. Everypony laughed and came up to give her hugs and assure her she was still loved.



With no court today due to everypony dealing with Tirek’s destructive aftermath, I basically had been told to take the day off while Trixie and Twilight worked together with various department heads to fix things. That they could cooperate so smoothly was a miracle in itself, and I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, pun intended. I really needed the time-out and I used it to spend the morning with my friends until they had to catch the midday train back to Ponyville. Steady Flight was absent due to him taking a leave of absence to check on his parents’ welfare, their hometown being one of Tirek’s victims. I was left with nothing to do, so I headed back to my room, perhaps to do a little reading.



I lay on the sofa, staring at the ceiling, my mind a jumble of thoughts. I’d been like that for over an hour since I got back to my quarters and I couldn’t get motivated to move. Turns out that with nothing to do but think, I started getting depressed. That’s how Twilight eventually found me after the Royal Guard at my door let her in. Apparently, Princesses trump mere Viziers, even when the latter just wants to be left alone.

“What are you doing, Mark? I thought you would still be celebrating the victory over Tirek like everypony else.”

“Didn’t feel like it, Sparkles,” I replied dully.

Twilight sat herself down next to me. “Why would that be? You have more reason to party than anyone as it was your strategy that won the day.”

“I almost died, Twi. Twice. Tirek was about to squish me like a bug, and I nearly shat myself from fear. Then I absorbed all that magic and I would have exploded if my horn hadn’t suddenly started working. Have you ever felt so much power that it starts to rip you apart?”

“No, I haven’t. I suspect that you were trying to contain an alicorn’s amount of power in your faux alicorn body, and it’s a miracle that you survived. But you did, Mark. You went into that fight knowing that you could be hurt or even killed, but you emerged virtually unscathed, and even improved!”

I snorted derisively before concentrating for a moment. My body was enveloped in a brief flare of magic and I was suddenly in my Celestial form.

“You can definitely change at will now?” Twilight asked.

“Yes,” I replied in Celestia’s dulcet tones. “Easiest magic I can do right now. I can even tweak my form to suit.”

“I noticed you have the short mane-style that you tried weeks back. It doesn’t affect your stallion form when you change back?”

“Nope,” I replied, demonstrating it for her by returning to my normal stallion form. “The mane comes in full-size if I don’t think about it. Or the opposite extreme – I can make it stop waving around completely and have it hang like a normal mane. It turns an even pink then though. I didn’t intend that.”

“I believe that was Celestia’s natural mane and tail color before her power grew so much that it took on its current look. Anyway, that seems to me to be another reason to be happy about how things worked out.”

“Happy? Is that what Harmony wants me to be?”

Twilight blinked. “Huh? What are you talking about, Mark?”

“I mean… I fall into this world and almost immediately I start gaining friends, and not just any ponies but the Elements Bearers. On top of that, I become an Element Bearer myself, weaving me so deeply into the fabric of Equestria that I can never leave. Then I get a new form that suddenly compensates for my faulty body, and it is bucking perfect! And even though it’s female, I’m more than comfortable with it. How can I not feel that the Magic of Harmony is crafting me to literally be Celestia’s replacement? And not only does that not deter any of my new friends, but it also seems to make me even more desirable. It may have taken a long while for it to sink in, but don’t think I haven’t noticed how you mares have been looking at me lately.”

Twilight blushed a little before starting to reply. “But isn’t—”

“Wait! I haven’t finished. So, not only do I have a perfect body, but now I can change into it at a whim and customize it too! How convenient! Everything laid out on a platter for poor Mark Wells, stuck as a pony in a world where he doesn’t belong. Let’s make him so happy that he forgets about going home!”

Twilight looked shocked. “But… isn’t happiness what everypony seeks?”

I surged to my hooves and stared down at Twilight from my vantage point on top of the sofa cushions. “I am not a pony! I am a human being!” I roared. Then I sighed and covered my face with a hoof. I settled down on my stomach as I regained my composure. “I was a human, but I’m afraid I’m losing my humanity – losing sight of what it means to be Mark Wells: a bipedal ape-descendant person from a world where the only magic is trickery. Day after day, I find it harder to recall what it felt like to walk on two feet, hold things in my hands, or manipulate them with my fingers.” I flicked my ears. “Moving these things is second nature to me now, as is my tail. I’ve become so acclimated to this world and this body that I feel like I’m being assimilated like the Borg.”

Twilight looked thoughtful for a long moment. “I don’t know what this Borg is, but I’m sure of one thing – you are still the same Mark Wells that I met shortly after you came to our world. You’re the same thoughtful, considerate, helpful, intelligent, and above all, friendly person. That hasn’t changed in the slightest in spite of everything else that has taken place. Nothing has happened to you that you didn’t bring upon yourself. The girls and I make a big thing about friendship because it’s such a powerful force in our world, but nopony said that you had to make friends with us. Nopony told you to eat the poison joke. Nopony forced you to enjoy your new form with your friends. And certainly, nopony or force made you risk your life for them. Good things do come to good people, Mark Wells, and you’re one of the best that I have known. It’s no wonder that mares find you desirable. This isn’t Harmony trying to force you into our mold – it’s all you. You earned your happiness, Mark.”

“And what about me losing sight of my humanity?” I retorted.

Twilight gave me a half-smile. “It seems to me that humanity and ponanity are pretty interchangeable. You didn’t really have to learn how to fit in because you already knew how. Oh, sure! There are a huge number of minutiae that you’ve had to learn and still more in the future, but they’re just the fine details that make us interesting. Our fundamental values are still the same. And once you get back to Earth, I’m sure you’ll pick right up where you left off.” She smiled slyly. “You might have to get used to wearing pants again though.”

It was my turn to blush, especially when I saw where her gaze currently lay. Of course, I knew she was making a point of it, but I couldn’t resist anyway. “Don’t worry, Twi – I’m not going to start covering my firm plot in the meantime to preserve my humanity.”

Her blush matched mine as we regarded each other for a very long moment before bursting out in laughter.

After a bit, the purple alicorn turned serious. “Mark, there were never two beings more woven into every aspect of Equestria than Celestia and Luna – and yet, now they are gone, possibly forever. You are not permanently trapped here. If they could leave, so can you.”

I couldn’t poke any holes in that argument, so I nodded.

“Mark, is the problem really the form you are in or the people you miss? If you were able to regain your human body, would you want to stay? Or if your friend Phil were here with you, is there anyone else back there that would be worth giving up the life you have here? I understand that you miss your home and are afraid of it slipping away, but I want you to think about this differently. What specifically is worth the sacrifice of giving up your friends and life in Equestria and why?”

I looked at my forehooves and considered. She was right. I had been thinking about loss from only one direction. I would need to re-evaluate my priorities. I looked up and smiled at my friend.

“Okay – now that you’ve spoiled my perfectly good blue funk, why did you really come to my room?” I asked.

“What can I say? We missed you. Besides, lots of ponies want to meet the hero of the day. There’s even talk about awarding you a medal.”

“No, thanks. Not unless everypony else who helped me gets one too.”

“See? That’s the Mark Wells that I have known since the start. You really haven’t changed where it counts.”

“Thanks, Twilight. Sorry for yelling at you, by the way. You didn’t deserve that.”

“It’s fine – I understand. And while I hope you get to go home someday soon, I hope you won’t mind if we appreciate the pony you are right now.”

“I think I can live with that.” A thought suddenly occurred to me and I snickered.

Twilight gave me a suspicious look. “What was that about?”

“I just realized something. You have competition.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just before you arrived after I defeated Tirek, Trixie called me her stallion. I don’t think she even noticed saying that. It only just dawned on me too.”

Twilight goggled at me. “Trixie likes you that way too?!”

I arched an eyebrow at her. “Too?” I smirked.

She just blushed more and hurried towards the door. I followed, feeling much better. It was good to have close friends, but they were going to have to up their game if they wanted to claim this single stallion.



The next day was back to work, but not quite as normal. With her home destroyed, Twilight moved into her quarters in the palace on a semi-permanent basis until an alternative was decided upon. Unfortunately, the majority of her laboratory equipment in the basement was damaged although her immortal microscope didn’t even get singed. Twilight explained this was because of Germane engineering. In any case, testing my changed condition and several of her side projects were put on hold for now. This meant that she could devote more time to palace duties, and both Day and Night Courts were held for a week. However, This was more out of necessity than opportunistic because Canterlot was flooded with ponies seeking help for problems caused by Tirek’s assault on several towns and cities. Both Princesses worked hard to get through the throngs of petitioners, and Raven and I were kept extremely busy as a consequence. However, as many of the problems that were brought up were of a similar nature, we developed solutions that were applicable to the majority, and by the end of the week, the schedule returned to some semblance of normality.

I was glad to be able to head off to Ponyville along with Steady Flight to have a well-earned break. My valet and friend had worked hard too, keeping me fed and refreshed and going on errands for me during the busiest time of my life. We both needed a couple of days without having to worry about anything more difficult than what to have for breakfast.

Thankfully, Rarity had the sense to realize that I would not be in the mood to be a fashion model for her this trip, and even Rainbow Dash agreed to wait until the following day for some flying time. Spike had organized an Ogres & Oubliettes full-immersion game though with Discord. You might think I’d want to avoid a battle-themed game after fighting a real one so recently, but because the only consequence for a ‘death’ in the game was disappointment, I could enjoy the challenge along with Discord’s special effects.

I managed to get Steady involved in the game too. He was a bit leery of the draconequus, but he mellowed as the adventure proceeded. I found that my attitude towards Discord had improved also. I was beginning to truly understand him now, and I realized that a being of Chaos needed to be kept involved and entertained to keep him from being annoying. His recent attempt to help with the Tirek situation had been motivated by friendship, especially with Fluttershy, and I think the Element Bearers had been vindicated in their decision to release him from his bondage shortly before I had arrived in Equestria. As I had said to others before – Discord was not an evil being. Just don’t let him get bored!



Several days later, the Ponyville Town Hall thronged with ponies, both noble and common, there to attend a ceremony to honor those instrumental in vanquishing one of the greatest threats to the realm in centuries. As the site of the victory, this town was chosen over Canterlot to be the venue for the celebration, but many important lords and ladies still chose to travel to this small community for the event. I stood among the crowd while both Princesses occupied the dais. Not only was I not needed to be at Trixie’s side, but I was one of the ponies for whom the crowd had come to see honored for their part in defeating Tirek. I would have preferred to just let it go as a highlight in history, but Equestrians loved their pomp and ceremony, and they wanted to see the heroes who had saved them from a terrible fate. I wasn’t given a choice in attending when both Trixie and Twilight ganged up on me and commanded me to attend. Pushy mares! Anyone would think they ruled this country or something.

The Ponyville contingent was gathered close to the dais. Cloud Kicker and her volunteer pegasi were all there, as was Zecora. The zebra looked uncomfortable amidst the crowd around her. I knew she liked her solitary lifestyle, and she preferred dealing with only a few visitors occasionally. She was a little overwhelmed right now, but Equestria needed to publicly acknowledge the contribution she had made, so she had agreed to go along with it despite her normal predilections. Of special note was one unusual spectator. Discord stood beside Fluttershy, looking a little impatient as we all waited for the ceremony to begin. Ponies were giving him plenty of personal space, and I could hardly blame them. He had only agreed to come because Fluttershy had gently but persistently asked him to.

The event began with a fanfare of trumpets by the Royal Guard. With the crowd’s attention now focused, Trixie stepped forward to start the ceremony.

“Mares and gentlestallions, today we are gathered to honor those ponies by whose outstanding efforts, Equestria was saved from a foe that threatened every being, a fiend who regarded us as little more than a source of magic that he craved for the power that it gave him. Tirek was a true monster, draining ponies of the magic that they needed to survive, and then left them to suffer. Many were too helpless to even do anything as simple as drink or eat, or get to shelter. Tragically, many ponies died as a consequence, and the Crown extends its deepest sympathies to those who lost loved ones.”

Twilight then stepped up beside Trixie and continued the speech. “However, today we celebrate those whose actions saved many more from that sad fate. Knowing full well that they could be badly injured or even killed, they nevertheless took action against Tirek at his most powerful and won the day. For this, Equestria can never fully repay them, but we can give recognition for their courage and loyalty. The first that we honor today is the stallion whose bold strategy worked where others had failed – a pony who didn’t merely give orders but who led the offensive and nearly paid the ultimate price for it. Mares and gentlestallions, I give you Lord Mark Wells.”

That was my cue. I stepped up onto the podium as the crowd cheered, even those who had never met or seen me before. It was a little daunting. I stopped in front of the Princesses and Trixie held up a medallion in the glow of her magic. She gave me a proud smile and I gave her a nod in acknowledgement. She then spoke up for the benefit of those listening.

“Lord Wells, in recognition for your victory and loyalty, the Diarchs of Equestria proclaim you to be Knight of the Realm, and by this token hold authority only second to the Crown.” As she moved closer, I saw that the platinum disk had the raised images of the day and night alicorns chasing each other. A row of stars were similarly embossed in circles inside and outside the two figures. She then placed the medallion around my neck.

I was shocked. They hadn’t told me about this part. I had only expected the medal that the others would be getting. Why had they done this? I had never wanted this much authority. I was quite happy just being Trixie’s advisor. The princesses weren’t finished yet though. Twilight spoke up next.

“Sir Mark Wells, I am honored to bestow upon you the Pink Heart of Courage for your bravery in the face of the enemy.” She levitated the second ribbon around my neck.

I was too stunned for words. I could only give them a deep respectful bow.

“Please stand beside us as we honor those who helped bring about this momentous victory,” Trixie commanded me.

I took up my familiar spot beside my Princess as she and Twilight turned to face the audience.

Twilight said, “Even the boldest plan needs the help of others to bring it to fulfilment. The potion that Sir Mark Wells delivered to such great effect was brewed by someone who once was feared but is now respected for her skills in creating medicines and salves that have improved our lives. I call upon Zecora the shaman to step up.”

The zebra joined us on stage accompanied by cheers and hoof-stomps. While they were not as loud as mine, they were still respectable and heartfelt. Trixie levitated a ribbon around her neck. “We bestow upon you the Pink Heart of Courage and name you Royal Potion-Maker to the Court.”

Zecora gave a short bow and replied, “I thank you for this honor grand. Your loyal servant is at your command.”

Twilight indicated that Zecora step to one side of the dais and Trixie then said, “Next, we call upon those ponies who helped distract and harass Tirek so that the plan of attack could be brought to a successful conclusion. First, I call upon the members of the Ponyville weather team who knew that they had no chance of winning against Tirek, but nevertheless attacked him so that the monster’s method of fighting could be observed and countered in the final offensive. Two of them provided a crucial blow that bought valuable time. The valor of these eighteen ponies is unsurpassed in all of Equestria, and for that, we award them the Pink Heart of Courage. First, I call upon the leader of the team, Cloud Kicker, to step up.”

The lavender-coated mare came up while the crowd applauded to receive her medal from Twilight and then moved over to join Zecora.

Trixie then continued with the rest of the team.

“Blossomforth!” “Open Skies!” “Thunderlane!” “Clear Skies!” “Sunshower!” “Parasol!” “Icy Rain!” And so forth.

Finally, all the pegasi involved in the offensive had received their medals and I thought that we were finished, but Twilight stepped forward to take over the speech.

“While the ponies whom we just honored were responsible for the victory over Tirek, many others fought with great dedication before the enemy reached Ponyville. One, in particular, was instrumental in slowing down Tirek’s advance before he also succumbed to the monster. This person had little reason to fight for us, and yet he did he did so in the name of the friendship that had been extended to him. While he has had a checkered past, he has proven that he is one of us. I call upon Lord Discord to join us on this stage.”

The crowd was stunned, and even I was taken by surprise. Discord’s jaw hit the floor – literally – before he gathered it back up and said incredulously, “Me?!

Twilight nodded. “Please step up, Discord.”

The stunned draconequus stepped up onto the stage and Twilight levitated a medal up to him. With it settled on his shoulders, Twilight said, “Congratulations, my friend.”

Unlike with the rest of the recipients, the audience just murmured in surprise. I stamped one hoof and then raised my forelegs to loudly clap my hooves. First one, then more and more ponies joined in. Eventually, everypony was clapping and a smile grew wide on Discord’s face.

Trixie waited for the applause to die down before thanking all the honorees and ending the ceremony. Eventually, it was just the two Princesses, myself, and Discord left on the dais. I think Trixie was ready to leave, but I was watching the draconequus as he turned to Twilight.

“Was this your idea, Princess?” he asked.

“Yes, but Trixie and the Element Bearers all approved my nomination.”

“But still you were the one to bring it up. You truly are the Princess of Friendship.” He snapped his claws and a medallion appeared around the purple alicorn’s neck. It was a golden circular disk with Twilight’s cutie mark embossed in tapered wedges of white and pink jewels. She lifted it with a hoof to read the inscription on it.

“Best Princess.” Twilight grinned. “Thanks, Discord.”

“You’re welcome. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a certain yellow pegasus whom I plan to celebrate with.” In a flash, he and Fluttershy were gone.

“That was a wonderful thing to do,” I said to Twilight.

The mare shook her head. “He earned it. I would not have believed it was possible when we first met, but he has learned the meaning of friendship and it needed to be acknowledged.”

“Looks to me that worked both ways,” I said, pointing at her medallion.

She giggled. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.” Then she paused and her eyes widened. “Could it be…?” she said so softly that I barely heard her. She then leapt off the dais, calling out to our friends. “Rarity! Applejack! Rainbow! Pinkie! Find Fluttershy! I think I’ve got my token!”

I turned to Trixie and we exchanged puzzled glances. “This I gotta see.”

She nodded. “Follow them, Remark Fells.”

As we hastened to chase after the mares, I said, “By the way, nice of you to get my name right for once, even if it was just my surname.”

“Trixie does not know what you’re talking about,” she replied.

I chuckled. Yeah, sure.

As we all guessed, Fluttershy was back at her cottage and she and Discord were celebrating with tea and cucumber sandwiches. She was a little surprised at the unexpected invasion.

“Wh-what’s going on?” the shy pegasus asked uncertainly.

“I think I’ve gotten my Friendship token!” Twilight exclaimed.

“Oh. That’s nice.”

“What the heck are you talking about, Twilight?” I asked.

“That’s right – we haven’t told you yet,” the purple alicorn replied. “We recently figured out that we weren’t getting literal keys to the box. Instead, we have been receiving tokens as a result of embodying our Elements, such as a spool of thread for Rarity and a coin for Applejack. All the other girls got some token too for living up to the Element that they represent while under difficult circumstances, and now I think I’ve gotten mine from Discord.”

“Yay me!” the draconequus said with a grin.

“So, what happens now?” Trixie asked.

“We take our tokens to the Tree,” Twilight replied. “Girls, go fetch yours.”

Three mares scattered to grab their tokens. Fluttershy took her flower down from the shelf where she had left it, and Pinkie pulled Boneless, the rubber chicken she had received from Cheese Sandwich, from her mane. She explained that she had gotten an odd twitch and shimmy that morning that told her that she would be needing it. We weren’t kept waiting long by the others, and then we started to head off into the Everfree Forest to visit the Tree of Harmony. Discord was too impatient though, so he teleported us all to the cave. The six-sided box was there just as we had left it weeks ago.

“So – now what?” Applejack asked.

“There’s some way to use these tokens to open the box – I’m certain of it,” Twilight said, holding hers up.

“They still ain’t exactly keys,” the apple mare pointed out.

“Maybe you could transform them into keys like Trixie transmutes things into teacups?” I suggested, earning me a dig in the ribs from the blue faux alicorn.

Trixie frowned at me. “If these items are the literal keys to Equestria’s future, the last thing you want to do is have me try to transform them.”

Twilight shook her head. “Trixie’s right. Besides, something that is earned by earth ponies or pegasi should not need to be altered by unicorn magic.”

“Or alicorn magic?” I asked.

“No, that’s the same thing in this case. And if it was easy as that, we could have made keys from just about anything.”

We fell silent as we all stared at the pile of ordinary objects that sat on the ground in front of us, completely at a loss for what to do from this point.

Pinkie grabbed the rubber chicken, stood on her hind legs, and thrust it above her head dramatically. She lowered her voice a couple of octaves. “Oh, Great Tree of Harmony. We, your humble servants...” Rainbow Dash snorted. Twilight gave her a glare but Pinkie continued, “...present to you these offerings in the name of Friendship! Take them! Take them and rejoice!” She then spun the rubber chicken by the neck for a moment before letting it go.

Boneless flew majestically towards the tree and hit dead center over the Element of Magic star. It squeaked once and slid... well... bonelessly down the trunk.

Everyone just stared. Trixie said, “Well, we tried.”

Discord scratched his head. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Trixie looked up to him. “Why choose just one?”

He grinned. “Excellent idea!” Discord proceeded to point a claw at Pinkie, close his eyes and laugh uproariously. Seconds later, streams of tears poured from him as he sobbed.

Fluttershy floated up to look him in the eye. “Discord! That isn’t very nice!”

He stopped immediately and shrank a bit. His clawed hand fidgeted with his medallion. “Sorry, Fluttershy... Pinkie Pie. Still kind of new to this whole ‘friendship’ thing.”

Pinkie bounced on her hooves. “No problemo, Discordo!”

Twilight rubbed her chin with a hoof. “Maybe we have to touch our token to the Element that we each represent.”

“Nothin’ easier,” said Applejack. Flipping her bit in a forehoof. “Y’all watch this.” With that, she flipped the golden coin extra high, turned around, and with a confident grin lashed out a rear hoof. The coin sailed through the air, passing cleanly over the crystal knot in the tree containing her jewel. The orange mare scowled and started to gallop around the tree. “Horseapples. Now Ah gotta go find it.”

Rarity levitated her spool and it started to drift forward.

“Betcha can’t hit it from here.”

The alabaster unicorn looked over at Rainbow Dash as her spool hovered in place. “This isn’t a contest, darling.”

“Not yet.” The blue pegasus glanced at me then whispered something into Rarity’s ear for a few seconds. They stared at each other and Rainbow increased her smile fractionally and nodded.

The fashionista looked back at her jewel and narrowed her eyes. The spool made a couple of test movements towards the tree before she let it fly. The token arced gracefully towards its target, only to clink off of one of the white crystalline balls hanging from just underneath her target. The milky sphere swung back and forth for a moment on the blue vines that attached it to the branches. All eyes turned to look at the increasingly jittery mare as the sound of her failure clacked on the stones on its way towards the back of the cave.

“Definitely more like laughing now,” Discord said. Then his eyes went wide. Slowly, he focused a very unamused stare at Twilight, his lips pulled into a tight frown.

“Ah, heh, heh, heh,” tittered the purple alicorn nervously. “I think I’ll just place my token against the Element of Magic...gently.”

Discord’s scowl only got more pronounced as she slowly flapped to the center of the tree. With deliberate care, the mare placed her amulet against the star. Pinkie gasped... but nothing else happened.

I heard a scoff from my left. “You guys just aren’t doing it right. Heads up, Twilight!”

The purple mare looked back just in time to see the Wonderbolt pin flying her direction. With a cry, she dove out of the way.

It clanked off the topmost knot, bounced off two lower branches, and careened towards the crystal chest. A golden glow shot out from the box, stopping the pin in midair. It spun around three times, transforming into a golden key that slid into one of the keyholes in the chest.

“I did it,” said the blue pegasus, her eyes and mouth wide. “I figured it out. I did.”

“Trixie thinks luck played more of a—” the faux alicorn said, only to be cut off.

The Element of Loyalty was already airborne, circling the Tree of Harmony with her trademark rainbow streak flowing in the air behind her. “I...”

She circled again.

AM.”

Once more.

AWESOME!

The last word was drawn out as she rocketed out the cave, into the ravine, then straight upwards. The echoes of her exuberant cry were audible for some time as they bounced off the rocky surfaces.

“Do you think she’s coming back?” asked Fluttershy.

I nodded. “If for no other reason than to brag some more.”

Twilight practically pranced in place. “Quick everypony! Bring your tokens over to the chest!”

In quick succession, Fluttershy’s flower, Pinkie’s rubber chicken, and Twilight’s amulet were likewise grabbed in the same golden glow, spun, and turned into keys that fit other openings in the chest. Rainbow Dash flew in to land next to the box. “Hey, girls! Did you see what I did there? How I cracked the puzzle that even our resident Royal Egghead couldn’t figure out?”

I heard “Heads up!” from somewhere else in the cave. Twilight looked up and immediately ducked out of the way as a golden coin fell right where she had been. Just before it hit the chest, it was brought to a halt by the aura and seconds later a new key fit into the chest.

A grinning Applejack trotted up. “Hah! Second time’s the charm!”

Despite the near miss, Twilight was still grinning from ear to ear. “Girls, we’ve done it! Now all that remains is to unlock it. I think we have to do this together!”

The mares each grabbed the key that had been their token. Twilight said, “Ready, on three.”

“Ummm…” said Fluttershy.

“One…”

“Ummm…” repeated Fluttershy.

“Two…”

“Hey! Where’s Rarity?” asked Rainbow Dash.

The fashionista’s sing-song voice came from the furthest end of the cavern. “Just one minnnuuuute!” The roughly teardrop shape of the cavern meant that the unicorn was now near the locus of the egg-shaped chamber.

I couldn’t help myself. “Rarity! That sounds great! Just like you are on stage at a concert hall! Keep on singing!”

Trixie stepped on my hoof. “No, don’t! You can follow your musical career later. We just need the token for now!”

Rarity sang back. “Oooooh, just abouuuuut, darrrrlinnnnnnng! Therrrrrrre’s the spOOOoool!” Apparently, she decided the tasks were not mutually exclusive.

Everypony smiled but those smiles faded after it became apparent that there was no follow up clopping of hooves approaching.

Applejack said, “Rarity? Why ain'tcha hustlin’ back pronto?”

A disapproving pause was followed by, “I was gifted the spool and the thread, which has come… well… completely unwound. Patience, please.”

The five mares at the chest looked at each other uncomfortably. Discord, Trixie, and I were trying hard not to laugh.

Eventually, Fluttershy dropped her hoof off of her key. “So… umm… Twilight. I understand you went to give a pep talk to the Canterlot Comets?”

“What? Oh, yes! I gave them a motivational speech during halftime. Who knew that Canterlot had a professional hoofball team?”

Rainbow coughed. “Really, Twilight? They’ve been in existence for eighty years. How long did you live in Canterlot, again?”

The purple alicorn’s ears drooped. “Well… my whole life before I came to Ponyville.” She shuffled her hooves. “I guess I was a little focused on my studies.”

“Ya think?” said Applejack.

This was followed by more silence that was broken by Pinkie pointing upwards. “Look at that! The thread is still hanging off of some of those crystal chandelier type things up there, too.” I squinted. Sure enough, the thread could be seen hanging down on both sides of one of the vines under Rarity’s element, perhaps caught on one of the crystal spheres.

Rainbow growled, “I hate waiting,” and flew over to the hanging string.

“Don’t break it!” exclaimed all the remaining mares at the chest.

“Not gonna,” the blue pegasus replied. She traced the part of the string that went straight down until she found the end. Gripping that in her hoof, she moved to within a couple of feet of the chest before the thread went taut. “Hey, Rarity! Give me some slack!”

“I’m sorry, what was that?” was the answer called back and Rarity stopped spinning the spool in her magic.

The thread sagged a bit. “Perfect! Thanks!” Rainbow Dash pulled the thread a few inches closer and the end glowed gold and rose off of her hoof. A sparking, golden flare raced up the thread towards the tree, leaving a thick glowing line of magic behind. Rainbow turned around to face her friend. “Rarity, look out!”

“What?” Just then, the unicorn saw the golden ball of magical fire racing directly towards her from where it made a sharp turn high in the tree. With a scream, she jumped back and released the spool from her magic. Like the five other tokens, the spool spun around three times, warping into a golden key.

“Yes!” yelled the Element of Loyalty. “I did it! Once again I—”

Rarity’s key rocketed along the rope of magic into the tree, only to become tangled in two of the blue vines that hung under the knot containing Rarity’s cutie mark. The vines and attached white spheres leaned towards the chest and the cable of magic that led to it but made no further progress.

“Awwwww! Come on!” complained Rainbow Dash.

Trixie and I fell over ourselves laughing. I heard a cranking noise and turned to see Discord speaking into an antique wall-mounted phone, the candlestick receiver held over one ear. “Hello? … Yes, is this Harmony? … Can we order a new set of Element Bearers, please? This set is defective.”

Trixie and I howled while the other mares glared at us… all but Fluttershy who hid her smile behind her mane. Rarity trotted up to the chest just as Rainbow Dash finished untangling the key from the tree. It quickly found its way to the box and slid into the lone remaining slot.

Applejack frowned at the purple alicorn. “Twilight, Ah hold ya personally responsible fer what we’re all gonna endure for years.”

The Element of Magic blinked. “What?”

Rainbow swooped down to her place amongst the girls. “Did you see that? Rainbow saves the day once again! I tell you, without me, none of this would have happened, probably ever! I mean, I get it that we’re all equal here, but is it possible to be the greatest of all equals?”

“That,” replied the farm pony.

Twilight’s eyelid twitched once. She took a deep breath and smiled, looking around at her friends. “OK, girls. All together! One… Two… Three!”

The mares each grasped a key and turned it. A rainbow beam burst from the top of the box to strike the Element of Magic embedded in the Tree. From there, it spread amongst its branches to the other Elements, lighting them all up in turn. Then each shone forth to envelop each of its Bearers, filling them with its power. I could barely look at them as they levitated into the air, bursting with the magic of Harmony. When the glare died down, I could see each of the six had been transformed with rainbow colors, enhanced manes and tails, and replications of their cutie marks. Garish but damn impressive!

“Whoa! What’s happened?” Trixie asked.

Twilight observed her friends’ appearance and that of her own. “I think… from the way that I feel… we now embody our Elements.”

“It figures,” I said. “We could have used this when Tirek was doing his thing.”

Twilight chuckled. “I suppose we could have, but then you would never have had the chance to show how much of a hero you could be. By the way, why are you Marklestia right now?”

I blinked and then looked down at my legs. White. “Huh? How did that happen? I didn’t intend to change.”

“It’s all this Harmony magic, darling,” Rarity spoke up. “You’re as much in tune with it as us, remember? Substitute Element of Magic?”

“Makes sense to me,” Twilight said with a smile.

I then noticed that Discord was shaking like a leaf. “I can’t stand it!” He snapped his claws and was covered in bright light. When it faded, he was wearing an incredibly ostentatious tuxedo with every color of the rainbow in stripes across the bow tie, cummerbund, lapels, sleeves and pant legs. He continued in a dramatic tone while holding a hoof to his forehead. “The fashion peer pressure! It was just too much for me to bear!”

Looking over at Trixie, I saw she was now wearing some sort of sundress with a ginormous hat, also with rainbow stripes everywhere they shouldn’t be. At Trixie’s shocked look in my direction, I steeled myself to look back over my body. I probably shouldn’t have. I was dressed in a black G-string that was clearly visible through a rainbow-hued fishnet mini-dress. A multi-colored garter belt and pink hose did not make me feel any more covered. “Discord!” I boomed, doing a decent impression of the Royal Canterlot Voice. I had to be loud to be heard over Applejack’s laughter.

“What?” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Too conservative?”

I narrowed my eyes.

He sighed. “Fine.” After he snapped his claws again, I was in a standard wedding dress with a spiraling rainbow that started at my neckline and twisted about me three times before fanning out into my train. A bouquet of carnations of every color completed my ensemble.

After looking myself over, I couldn’t believe it, but I said, “Better.”

“Golly, Mark,” drawled Applejack. “Ya plannin’ on getting’ hitched to all the Elements today?”

“Not better.” I returned to glaring at the draconequus.

He rolled his eyes. “You mares and your picky, picky, picky.” After his next claw snap, my outfit matched Trixie’s. Good enough for now.

Abruptly the whole cave started trembling and a burst of power came from the Tree of Harmony. The box and its keys flew upwards and smashed through the roof of the cave, disappearing in a rainbow streak.

We stood there stunned, not knowing what the heck was happening.

“Does anypony else think that we should be following that box?” I asked.

“Good idea!” Twilight said as she lit up her horn.

Moments later, we had all been teleported to the outskirts of Ponyville. From there, we could not miss the newest addition to the landscape on the other side of town – a huge crystal tree-shaped castle. As we stared at it, the girls’ forms reverted to their old selves, and I hastily changed back to my stallion body, hoping that I hadn’t been noticed by any visitors to the township.

“Ahem!” I got Discord’s attention. After he snickered once at the sight of a stallion in an ill-fitting dress, he made the clothing on himself disappear and Trixie and I reverted to our previous garments.

“Sweet Celestia! Where’d that castle come from?” exclaimed Rainbow Dash.

“A gift from the Tree, perchance?” Rarity replied.

“But whose is it?” Twilight asked.

Rainbow Dash lifted off the ground and crossed her forelegs across her chest. “Well, since I was the driving force behind solving the mystery of the crystal box of mysteriousness, and I had the biggest hoof in getting two of the tokens to transform, it’s clearly mine. I’m gonna call it, ‘Rainbow’s Monument to Awesomeness Castle’.”

Applejack glared at Twilight. The alicorn’s ear twitched and she said, “I guess that means you’ll be giving up your home and will be ground-bound from now on. You’ll probably be spending all your time cleaning it.”

The blue pegasus waved a forehoof lazily. “On second thought, I don’t really like the colors all that much.”

Discord laughed and looked at Twilight. “Isn’t it obvious, Princess? It’s yours!”

“Ah think Discord’s got the right of it, sugah,” Applejack opined.

“Of course it’s yours, silly!” Pinkie exclaimed. “And now we have to have a castle-warming party!”

Twilight blinked. “I suppose all of you are right. Let’s check it out.”

We walked towards it, passing several stunned residents of Ponyville and some bemused tourists along the way. Spike was one of the former and he joined our party. I explained what had happened as we headed for the main doors and entered the castle. We all gaped at the huge foyer that eventually led to a large round room that contained several thrones made from the same crystal as the castle. The high backs of six of them were adorned with the cutie marks of the six Element Bearers, while a smaller one next to Twilight’s was bare of markings, although it was obvious whose it was.

“Sweet! I get a chair too!” Spike exclaimed.

“It’s interesting how they’re arranged so that we would all be facing each other,” Twilight pointed out.

“I don’t need no high-falootin’ throne,” Applejack declared, a slight curl on her lip.

“Well, I think that they are perfectly marvelous!” Rarity replied as she flounced up to hers and hopped upon it. The cutie mark on the back of the chair lit up.

Pinkie Pie pronked onto hers with a similar effect.

“I don’t think I deserve a throne,” Fluttershy almost whispered.

Discord strode up to Twilight, rubbing his chin. “Hmmmmm... I suppose it is a step up from the old place, but I just don’t know if it was worth trading away the medallion I spent so much time conjuring up from nothingness.”

Twilight laughed and pulled one of Discord’s legs into a wing hug (he was rather tall). “Oh, Discord! Now, whenever I see the pink crystal in these walls, I’ll be reminded of our friendship.”

Discord’s mouth opened a bit in surprise and then he smiled broadly, even wiping a tear away.

“While you’re all staring at some chairs, I’m gonna explore the rest of this place!” Rainbow Dash streaked away.

I looked at Twilight and said, “I’m with Dash. I think we should check out this new home of yours.”

The purple alicorn looked uncertain. “I don’t know if I could call it a home, Mark. Oh, it’s beautiful, but it seems a bit… cold to me.”

“You just miss your library still, don’t you?”

She nodded glumly.

“Best to keep your mind off it then. You’ve been given a magnificent gift, Princess – one that undoubtedly has exciting potential, considering its source. Shall we see what we can discover right now?” I waved a hoof in the general direction of Rainbow Dash’s exit and gave Twilight an encouraging smile.

The alicorn hesitantly returned it before replying. “You’re right, Mark. I already have so many questions.”

“Consider this to be a test then, and the right answers will get you an A+.”

Twilight grinned and her eyes gleamed. If there was one thing that mare loved, it was acing a quiz!

 


 

Chapter 24: Books

 

We split up into ones and twos as we explored the crystal castle in different directions. It was quickly obvious that just like the library tree, it was much bigger on the inside than the outside. I paired up with Twilight, wanting to gauge her reactions to her new abode. She and I later discovered Trixie wandering through the corridors, passing by virtually identical doors, hopelessly lost. Rainbow Dash had simply sped through the place until she found something of interest. Spike had apparently found the kitchen, while the other mares had made their own discoveries. It hadn’t taken Twilight long to figure out that there actually was a logical pattern to the rooms and quickly proved it by successfully nominating what she expected to find behind doors which I would then open and confirm her deduction.

We steered Trixie out onto a balcony and Rainbow rounded up the others so that we could have a meeting to discuss the new addition to Ponyville’s skyline. However, Spike excused himself to do some hasty shopping to stock the basics for the kitchen.

“Trixie supposes that now that you have a castle of your own, you will be spending much more time here,” the blue mare said with a slight frown. “Don’t think that this will exempt you from your current duties!”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Sweet Celestia! I’ve just got the darn thing! I’ve not had the chance to make any plans yet. I imagine that it’s going to take me the best part of a day just to check this place out, catalog its facilities, and write up a plan of action.”

“Well, darling, the first thing that you will need to do is shop for some furniture,” Rarity said. “I do believe that aside from those thrones downstairs, there isn’t a chair, couch, or sofa in the place. Not even so much as a cushion! And unless you plan to eat off the floor, I suggest that you get a table or two while you’re at it.”

“And beds!” Rainbow added.

Trust the prismatic pegasus to think of that.

“Yes, yes! Trixie realizes that this place desperately needs furnishing… and some signposts,” she added in a low murmur. “However, the Great and Powerful Trixie is referring to the direction that the diarchy will take from now on.”

Twilight tilted her head and frowned a little. “What do you mean, Trixie?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Ponyville has always been your home despite the inconvenience of commuting to Canterlot. Now that you have your own castle, Our Little Ponies will expect you to rule from here. How do you intend to deal with being so far from the seat of government and still perform your royal duties?”

I had to admit it – Trixie had a point. We had been so caught up in the wonder of the new castle that none of us had thought of the ramifications yet. But Trixie had. Perhaps because she didn’t want to get saddled with all the work, but the credit still went to her.

Twilight was thoughtful for a long moment. “I’m going to have to think more about this. I’ll be needing some time to sort through things and figure out what our game plan will be. I’ll use the weekend to get a head start.”

“And if you cannot be back in Canterlot for your scheduled appointments?”

Twilight gave her co-ruler a hesitant smile. “Perhaps you could cover for me?”

Trixie rolled her eyes. “There’s more than enough work for two alicorns at the moment,” Trixie said, ignoring the fact that everyone here knew her wings weren’t real. “Having taken the day off for the award ceremony, we need two Princesses on the job on Monday.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Trixie.”

A smirk grew on the blue mare’s face. “If you don’t make it, the Dutiful and Diligent Trixie may have to appoint a new Princess.” She stood up on her hind legs and waved dramatically in my direction. “May I introduce the future co-ruler of Equestria – Princess Marklestia!”

I gaped and I stared at the grinning mare. I started slowly shaking my head, and then faster. “Nope! No bucking way! You’re not doing that to me!” I wasn’t even in my pegacorn form!

“What are you complaining about, Princess? You already do half the work,” Trixie pressed, her grin getting wider.

Twilight snickered and said, “Trixie has a point. Think of your responsibilities.”

“Nope! Not a chance! You’ll never make me!” I spun around and jumped over the railing of the balcony, not worrying about the possibility of a crash-landing. The sound of the laughter from all the mares faded as I hightailed it out of there as fast as I could.



Thankfully, the two eventually worked out a compromise that did not involve me. It may have been a joke, but those had a habit of backfiring on me lately, so I took no chances. I stuck strictly to advising Trixie and keeping my mouth shut otherwise. However, it wasn’t long before the new routine settled in.

Now that I could use unicorn magic, I needed a teacher. Twilight was happy to add me to her class in Trixie’s quarters and bumped up the frequency to every day when she was in Canterlot. Being in Celestia’s old chambers also served the purpose of hiding Marklestia from prying eyes. Rumors of Celestia’s return and subsequent disappearance were flying through the more disreputable tabloids, and I had to be especially careful not to make a public appearance. We also had to bring Trixie’s personal guards into the expanding group of ponies sworn to secrecy about Marklestia.

Very quickly, I found that my natural talent at unicorn magic was roughly the same as my natural talent at aerial flight. Yeah, that bad.

While Trixie’s recent exercises had her levitating half a dozen items of different weights and materials, I was left staring at a sawdust-filled foal’s toy sitting in the middle of the floor. Actually, calling it a toy was something of a stretch. A small, round burlap sack with two buttons sewn on was a far more accurate description. Twilight told me that in her youth, she practiced with a similar toy named ‘Mr. Smarty Pants.’ Mine was roughly the weight of a foal and I was expected to treat it as such to improve my precision and control. So far I had ripped the buttons off, torn the top half from the bottom half, thrown it into the ceiling, all four walls, and once off the balcony. Twilight did not find my difficulties amusing and accused me of not really trying. Trixie, on the other hoof, was always reduced to tears of laughter and had started to give the ‘foal’ nicknames. The most recent were: Colt Concussion, Filly Fracture, Wreck-O-Mended, and Sir Bursts-A-Lot.

Yesterday, I had given Trixie the idea of using stage props from her previous career and she was now able to maintain three juggling showers of five balls each, though she would invariably drop one or two when attempting to shift to a different pattern. What’s more, this exercise had captured her interest and she showed a genuine passion for improving her skills.

That, however, was yesterday. Today, we were listening to Twilight drone on about magic theory and thaumaturgical equations. In this area, both of us were bored to tears as we felt the same way about the incomprehensible scrawling the purple alicorn wrote on her chalkboard, her hoof dancing with her passion for the subject. In contrast, I imagine we both had the same unenthusiastic and slightly hostile stare aimed at our teacher.

I shoved Trixie with a shoulder. “You’re stupid.”

Like me, she continued to glare at Twilight as she poked me with a knee. “Well, you’re dumb.”

Push. “Magic is dumb.”

Jab. “Then you’re made of magic.”

Ooohh. Good one, Trixie. “Better than what you’re full of.”

I heard her gasp. She was familiar with that phrase as I had used it to describe certain nobles on occasion. She raised her voice, turned towards me, and shoved me with both hooves. “Stop pushing me!”

I faced her and windmilled my forelegs. “Stoooooooooooooooooop!”

She did the same, matching my tone to completely drown out Twilight’s lecture. “Stoooooooooooooop!”

Our teacher finally noticed that her class was no longer even pretending to pay attention. “Mark! Trixie! Stop acting like foals!”

I took my cue. “You’re a meanie! Steady Flight is a much cuter teacher than you!”

The former showmare was just as quick on the uptake. “Teacher, I need to go to the bathroom! Can I get a hall pass?”

Twilight groaned and covered her face with her forehooves. When she looked up again, both Trixie and I burst out laughing, holding each other up for support. The Princess of Magic tossed her chalk to the tray at the bottom of her chalkboard. “Very funny, you two.” Neither of us bothered to tell her that the cause of our merriment was the white line on her lavender coat that streaked across her face from bottom to top.

Twilight frowned. “Fine. We’ll get started on practical applications then. Trixie: teleporting items to you from across the room.” The blue unicorn groaned. She had not mastered anything larger than a cherry pit so far. “Mark: levitation. Keep in mind that you are putting too much effort into it. Your magic is more than strong enough to do the task easily.”

As Twilight started reviewing the process of object teleportation to Trixie, I sat down in front of the bane of my existence and tuned them out. I tried to gently lift it upwards with the same effect as this normally had. Nothing. This had been my problem all along – either my magic was too weak to move the item at all, or it was strong enough to fling the bag around like a button-enhanced missile.

I thought about my difficulties, wondering if there was a different way to approach the problem. I checked my wristband – about thirty-five percent. Invariably, when I drew on my stored energy, it would come out too fast, although I had to admit that at least with flying, I was getting much better at regulating the outflow. Presumably, I would eventually get that kind of control when tapping my unicorn magic. Was there a way to “pre-charge” an item so it would respond to just a light touch of my magic? That was something I had not attempted.

I let out a deep breath and touched my horn to the sack. I concentrated on dumping some of my unicorn magic into it, though I was not sure how much. Better too much than too little. After a while, I checked my wristband. About ten percent now. That should be plenty. Raising my head, I noticed that my effort had been rewarded with a golden glow emanating through the tiny holes in the canvas. Perfect.

I reached out and tried to levitate the sack with just the smallest amount of my magic. Nothing. I tried my standard amount next, still very controlled. The bag jerked a bit but stayed on the floor. I frowned as I considered the problem. Maybe it just needed to be forced off the floor and then it would float freely. I gave the bag a sharp pull upwards with a strong burst of magic.

Burst was right. The sack shot into the ceiling and disintegrated, spreading glowing sawdust in all directions. When I opened my eyes, I saw the entire room bathed in a golden glow that seemed to coat every surface, including the parts of the two mares that had been facing the blast.

Trixie looked at the room in wonder. “Ooooooohhhhhh!” The effect was very pretty, I had to admit. Twilight glanced around then focused her unhappy gaze on me. Before she said anything, I noticed something odd out of the corner of my eye. Just before the last of the glow dissipated, I thought I saw a black spot on the wall next to the room’s large bookcase. I trotted over and started to feel the unbroken expanse of marble with a forehoof.

“Mark?” Twilight trotted up on my left. “Did you see something?” Soon afterwards, Trixie came up on my right but said nothing.

I heard the door to the chamber open. “So what happened?” I turned to see Rainbow Dash enter, followed by the rest of the Elements. “I was flying below your tower and saw a puff of golden magic come out from your balcony, so I gathered up the girls.”

Trixie waved away the two guards who had also entered. They bowed and closed the door behind them as they left. Rarity sneezed. “A bit dusty in here. When was the last time your maid did her rounds?”

Trixie said. “No mortal housecleaning staff can keep up with Mismark Quells. His talent at creating Chaos is second to only… ah… one other.”

I grinned. Accidentally calling on a certain Lord of Chaos was not a good idea, and even when you did want to summon him it wasn’t without risk. Just because he was a friend didn’t stop him from being true to his nature. My hoof then found a depression in the wall. Lifting that hoof showed nothing but solid stone. I moved to the side. “Twilight, would you tell me what you feel right here?”

She walked up alongside me and ran her hoof along the surface, then lit up her horn. She gave a few experimental raps to the stone. “It feels like solid marble. Scans show nothing to the contrary.”

I carefully reached out my hoof. Twilight gasped when the front tip of it disappeared into the wall. I rotated my hoof around. “It’s a circular depression. Maybe two inches wide. I don’t know how deep.” Then I noticed what was sticking out in my upper view. I stared at my horn then looked questioningly at Twilight.

She nodded. “Try placing it inside then using a small amount of your magic.”

I hesitantly lined up my magic appendage to where my forehoof was pointing. I heard the mares around me hold their breath as I slowly sunk my horn directly into the wall. When I bottomed out, it felt like the hole had been made with me in mind—it fitted snugly on all sides. I guided a bit of magic into it.

CLICK

To my left, the bookcase moved away from the wall about an inch. Gently, I pulled straight back until my horn was free. Twilight was closer to the side of the bookcase and pushed it away from the wall. It rotated on some hidden hinges and all of us craned our necks to see what had been concealed behind it. What we saw was a chamber beyond shrouded in darkness. I blinked and looked at the nearest window in Trixie’s room. This was the outer wall to her quarters. There should be nothing but sky beyond it.

“A dimensional portal?” I asked Twilight.

She looked at the edges of the doorway and the floor of the room beyond, her horn glowing. “I think so. The floor consists of Alusian Granite. I think the room was carved out deep inside Canterlot Mountain. I suspect this is the only way in or out.” She levitated one of the door wedges from the front of the room and secured the bookcase in the open position.

I heard voices behind me.

“Well, ain’t that somethin’.”

“Huh! And I thought I knew every place in Equestria that could have a party.”

“Awesome! Just like in Daring Do and the Curse of the Spider King.”

“Princess Celestia’s own secret chamber… fabulous!”

“Should we go in there? I mean… is it safe?”

Twilight turned and started to move for the portal.

“Wait!” I said, holding out a forehoof to stop her. She glanced up at me and raised an eyebrow. I turned back to the yellow pegasus. “Thank you, Fluttershy.”

I looked back down at the purple alicorn. “Have you ever been here before?” She shook her head. “Then it stands to reason that Celestia could have put up some wards to prevent anypony else from entering, or at least until she had done so.” Twilight’s eyes widened and she stepped back.

I lit the end of my horn with the matchstick spell. It gave off a dim white light and was the easiest and first spell a unicorn ever learned. I was no exception. I swallowed and poked my horn through the opening, then when nothing happened, stepped through. The chamber was suddenly bathed in light as torches along the walls lit with a peculiar white flame that had to be magic. A wind swirled around the room, lifting some dust and replacing the stale air with fresh. I moved aside and looked back as Twilight entered, her horn bright. When she stood next to me, her horn aura winked out and she stared open-mouthed at everything around us.

Before following her gaze, I glanced next to the portal we had just exited. Sure enough, there was a hole in the stone wall, doubtless to allow a return journey. I trotted forwards and let go of the matchstick spell, glancing at everything quickly while the rest of the girls came in. The room was perhaps forty feet in length and width, with the center space empty. The vaulted ceiling was made of the same red granite and was high enough overhead to allow limited flying practice. The walls held a collection of weapons racks, ponykin forms holding different sets of armor, display cabinets, tall dressers, and a number of paintings slid into a storage framework that held them so they would stay vertical.

Twilight pointed to an irregular line of dull grey that cut across the ceiling. “Nullstone. That vein would make it impossible to teleport in or out of here, plus make it invisible to any type of magical scan. It must have taken an incredible amount of power to create the portal this close to the vein … probably both alicorns working together.”

The girls spread out and were talking animatedly about what they found.

“What is that?”

“I think it is a hoof-carved wooden figure – you know, like the kind foals get as a circus prize.”

“A scarf. A rock. A pencil. This cabinet is filled with mementos. I bet every one is a cherished memory.”

“I wonder how old that fauchard is? It still looks sharp.”

“Isn’t that a halberd?”

“Naw. No axe blade.”

“How do you know so much about polearms?”

“Ogres and Oubliettes, of course.”

“Silk pajamas! And I think this is Neighponese fine-weave… but the silkworms that made this were all lost during a typhoon hundreds of years ago!”

“That there is one mighty handsome stallion. The painter did a great job!”

“Actually, they prefer to be called artists, darling.”

“I wonder… was this a shelter? A safe hiding place?”

“I don’t think so, silly! No food, no water, no entertainment!”

I walked up next to Twilight. She stood gaping at two bookshelves that were set by themselves on one side of the room. One held books that were all bound in different types of animal hide. The ones on the top shelf were various shades of black and made my hair stand on end just being close to them. Twilight and I looked at each other and I knew exactly what she was thinking. I gently took the book closest to me on the lowest shelf. I held the forest green volume out for Twilight to inspect, turning it this way and that.

“Dragon hide,” she said, shuddering. After a deep breath, she continued. “No markings on the spine or covers.” She looked up and nodded.

I sat down and pulled the book into my lap, putting a hoof on the flap that held the book closed. I tried to lift it but it wouldn’t budge. I then tried holding the matchstick spell again, then a simple door opening spell, followed by a door unlocking spell. Nothing.

Twilight put her hoof on my shoulder. “A mystery for another time.”

Trixie came up to us. “What did you find, Grand Vizier?”

I glanced back. “These are Princess Celestia’s spellbooks.” I heard all conversation cease and the clip-clop of everypony approaching. “Inside these tomes are all the magic spells that Celestia thought worthwhile to preserve.” I glanced at the top shelf. “Perhaps including volumes from Sombra or copied from ponies equally as vile.”

I sighed as I stood and returned the book that was in my hooves. “Without a doubt, the magic spells needed to create and possibly repair mirror portals are in these books, but I can’t open them… not yet anyway.”

I then looked carefully at the volumes in the other bookcase. There were seven rows of books, the top six shelves containing ten identically sized thick tomes. The spines bore sequential numbers: 1 through 64. While the top set of books was the most worn and certainly the oldest, every book was in remarkably good shape. I reached out and took volume 64. To my surprise, it did not have a flap holding it closed and it opened easily in my grasp. I looked down at a blank page, perhaps halfway through the book.

I sat back down and felt the breath of seven mares over my shoulders as they jostled for position. I flipped backward and soon found the most recent update. I read aloud. “Ten days before Hearth’s Warming, Year Three of the 2 Sisters. Our efforts in Zebrica have borne fruit, and with it, the end of Zebrican warmongering against their eastern neighbor. Tribal Leader Thrush is to be commended. If we can ever convince him to leave his current position, he will have a safe home in Equestria. Abyssinia remains a problem, but our three agents there believe they will be too busy with internal divisions for the time being. If the political situation goes sour as quickly as I think it will, I will need to introduce them to each other for a ‘liberation’ mission.”

“Her private diary,” breathed Twilight Sparkle. “I had no idea she kept one.” She looked up to the top row of books. “Maybe going all the way back to her first days as ruler.”

Trixie frowned. “More importantly, the Solar Princess did not bother to record why she was leaving in a hurry.”

I flipped back a page to find a numbered list. “Twenty days before Hearth’s Warming, Year Three of the 2 Sisters. The One Hundred Hottest and Studliest Stallions in Equestria as voted on by Me.”

I heard Applejack’s voice moving back into the room behind me. “Now that there is jus’ plain invadin’ her privacy. Ah cain’t cotton any a that.”

I narrowed my brows. “Big Macintosh Apple is listed here.”

I heard gasps from behind me and in a moment, the orange earth pony had pushed her way up to look over my shoulder. “Lemme see that….” I pointed with my hoof. “Seventy-third?! T’aint no way in Tartarus that there are no seventy-two stallions better-lookin' than him. That’s an insult to all Apples!”

She frowned at the page. “How in tarnation did Donut Joe get all the way to twenty-fifth?”

I looked back. “Great donuts and coffee?” I proposed. Every other mare nodded their heads in agreement.

“And what’s this ‘Mountain Blood is always number one’ supposed to mean?”

I sighed and closed the book before any more bickering could start. “Despite Applejack’s reasonable argument that we have no place poking around in Princess Celestia’s private diaries…” This got a glare from the farm pony but a guffaw from Rainbow Dash. “…we actually do need to poke around in them.” I waved a hoof at the bookshelf. “Somewhere in these volumes is almost certainly the whole story or at least part of the story about what was so important that the Royal Sisters had to run off like they did. The question is, how do we find it?”

“We don’t,” answered Trixie. “We task somepony to read through the books and separate the wheat from the fairly entertaining chaff, as it were. Somepony with outstanding organizational skills who knows Celestia as well as any of us.”

“I’ll be happy to,” beamed Twilight Sparkle.

Trixie glared back at her. “The last thing you need right now, Princess, is another time-consuming side project. No. I was referring to Raven Inkwell.”

Twilight jumped a bit, then seemed to deflate. “Oh. Yes, I suppose she would be a good choice.”

I pulled the alicorn into a hug with my wing. “Raven will report back to all of us regularly, and I’m sure she will have questions to ask about specific magic spells and whatnot.”

The purple mare smiled a bit, her good mood returning. “Yes. That sounds good.”

Pinkie bounded up and gave Twilight a hug from the other side. “If you like, I can finish your face-drawing. Would that make you feel better, Twilight?” The lavender mare stared at the earth pony blankly. Pinkie pointed with a hoof. “You know, finish those white lines on your face.”

Twilight’s mouth opened and her eyes went wide before glaring at Trixie and myself. With a quick glow of her horn, the chalk line was wiped away. All the mares present started to chuckle.

I turned to Trixie. “I think she was happier when she was using her muzzle as a chalkboard.”

The blue mare smiled back. “Such a dedicated teacher.” Somehow, our witty comments failed to erase her scowl.

I turned to the rest of my audience. “Ladies, as neat as the stuff is in this room, I recommend we go back and leave everything else here.” I waved Celestia’s Diary, volume 64 in front of me. “For now, we have everything we need.” I got some grumbles and lots of glancing around.

“Just ten more minutes, darling.” Rarity jogged off towards a cabinet without waiting for my response. The rest of the Elements took that as their cue and likewise scattered across the room. Twilight watched them leave, shrugged her shoulders, and nosed the book in my hooves. For her part, Trixie just raised her eyebrow at me, perhaps curious if I could corral the other mares in the room.

Defeated, I sighed and stretched out on the floor with the book in front of me. Trixie and Twilight happily lay down on either side, each resting their head on one of my shoulders. I opened to the first page. Instead of reading aloud Celestia’s musings on modern aqueduct design, I substituted my own story. “Once upon a time, there was a stallion named Mark Wells. He quickly became aware that he had no say in the matter whenever the two princesses brought all their friends.” I heard giggling in stereo.

Trixie said, “Or any other time.”

Twilight was just as much help. “Better to learn that now than suffer disappointment later.” More giggling.

I rolled my eyes. I was starting to get an idea how long that “ten minutes” was going to take.

“Then our hero Mark Wells became the dashing heroine Marklestia, thinking this was the only way to be taken seriously in this mare-run world. Tragically, his noble sacrifice was in vain and still he was ignored and every brilliant idea pooh-poohed.”

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

“I didn’t catch it either. Must not have been important.”

I heard snickers and a hoof-clop somewhere over my back. The things I would do to help these two princesses get along.



I paused at the door to my quarters and said to the Royal Guard stationed there, “Good evening, Crimson Boulder.”

The large earth pony gave me a small smile and replied, “And the same to you, Your Lordship.”

“I believe your shift ends in about a quarter hour, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. When you are relieved, I would like to talk to you in my room.”

“Sir?”

“Unless you have a previous engagement?”

“No, Lord Wells.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you soon.” I then entered my quarters where I found Steady Flight waiting for me.

“Hi, Mark. How was your day?”

“Not bad. Destroyed another practice dummy. Made an interesting discovery.” I divested myself of my apparel which Steady took to put away properly in my wardrobe.

“May I ask what you found?”

“We found Celestia’s private diaries. We’re hoping to discover something in them that could reveal why she and Luna rushed away so unexpectedly. The fact that they didn’t enlighten anypony suggests that it was a private matter for the Royal Sisters, thus could be only found in the diaries.”

Steady looked thoughtful. “I wonder what else you’ll find?”

“Well, you didn’t make it onto her One Hundred Hottest and Studliest Stallions in Equestria list.”

His eyes opened wide and his ears perked up. “Say what?”

I chuckled. “I’ll tell you about that later. Right now I’d like you to prepare for a guest. I’ve invited Crimson Boulder in for a chat when he gets off his shift.”

“Oh? May I ask why?”

“A couple of reasons, one of which is that I’m hoping to learn something from the corporal’s point of view.”

“Okay. I’ll lay out extra cake and coffee. Did you want me to hang around?”

“Definitely. You’ll soon learn why.”

Steady nodded and got to work. I moved an extra chair to the coffee table where Steady and I would have our evening chats before I went to my bedroom’s en-suite bathroom to freshen up. I timed it nicely, getting back to my chair just before a loud rap on the door announced my visitor.

Steady let the Guard in, saying, “His Lordship is expecting you.” The formality was for the benefit of the relief Guard. Until I set the tone of the meeting, we had to keep up appearances.

“Come in!” I said. “Take off your helmet and anything else you’d like to, then make yourself comfortable.” I indicated the chair I’d placed for him.

A little hesitantly, Crimson Boulder took off his helmet and set it aside along with the spear that was part of his standard equipment. With the headpiece off, the enchantment that anonymized the Royal Guards was lifted and revealed the stallion’s dark crimson coat and maroon mane. He walked over and sat in the chair which, despite its solid construction, creaked under the weight of the large earth pony.

“You wanted to talk to me, sir?” he asked.

“Yes, indeed, but first of all, that’s the last time I want to hear you call me ‘sir’ this evening. Understood? My name is Mark.”

“Uh, yes s– um, Mark.”

“Second of all – lighten up. This is just a friendly chat between you, me, and Steady here.”

My valet and good friend took the cue to drop the formal act. He placed a tray of pastries and a large mug in front of Crimson before sinking into his own chair. “Yeah, if Mark wants to be informal, don’t be concerned about pussyfooting around him. Ignore his titles and relax.”

“What he said,” I added with a smile. “Now – help yourself to coffee, or would you prefer tea?”

“Coffee’s fine. Umm… may I ask why you wanted to chat with me?”

“I’m glad you asked. I have two reasons, actually. First of all, my circle of male friends is pathetically small. Oh, I’m acquainted with a lot of stallions, but aside from Steady Flight, the only guys I hang out with are Spike and I suppose Discord. I’d like to remedy that.”

Crimson Boulder blinked in surprise. “Why me?”

“Because you smile,” I replied enigmatically.

“I don’t understand.”

“Of all the Royal Guards that I deal with, especially those who watch my quarters, you are the only one who ever gives me a smile when you greet me.”

“Oh. Actually, I’ve been reprimanded a few times for that. I’m supposed to maintain a neutral expression at all times.”

“Can’t keep it in though, can you?” I asked with a grin.

“No, I can’t help myself sometimes.”

“And that’s why I chose you. You seem to be a competent Royal Guard without your natural exuberant friendliness being completely repressed. I’ve gotten Steady to discreetly look into your off-duty habits, so I knew a little about you before inviting you in tonight. Basically, you seem to me to be my kind of guy. So, do you think you’re up to making friends with a small pegasus with a big title?”

Crimson chuckled and I finally saw him start to relax. “I suppose I can do that.”

“Great! Don’t let your coffee get cold, and help yourself to the pastries. I think that you’ll enjoy hanging out with Steady and me if this works out. However, as I said, I have two reasons for asking you in tonight. I’d like to pick your brain.”

“Oh? In what way?” the earth stallion asked before taking a large bite out of an apple turnover.

“I’m looking for insights into Equestria’s military. After the recent altercation with Tirek, I believe a shake-up is needed, but I need some education in those matters before I start shooting off my mouth in ignorance. While you won’t be the sole source of my edification, I want to get an insider’s viewpoint and experience. Do you reckon that you can do that for me, Crimson Boulder?”

“I’ll try my best, ah, Mark.”

“Awesome! Let’s enjoy these pastries and coffee first, then we can get down to business.”



Not surprisingly, Crimson Boulder was a little wary of my unexpected offer to be friends, and so it took a while for him to completely relax. It’s not as if it was a one-way thing either. I was taking a chance with asking a Royal Guard with whom I’d exchanged only a few words of greeting into my personal space, but I genuinely wanted some more male buddies and I had a good feeling about him. As the evening went on, we both got a better appreciation for each other, and with Steady there being obviously at ease with his supposed superior, he finally let his guard down and chatted without reservation.

We didn’t just talk about the military though. I found out that he was a bachelor like me, although not without fillyfriends. He liked ten-pin bowling, so I told him about my first disastrous efforts. After he finished laughing, he invited me and Steady to have a game with him later that week which we accepted. We found that we had a pub that we liked in common, although I liked it more for the craft beer that they served rather than the barmaids that Crimson liked to flirt with. After several months in Equestria, I was gaining an appreciation for the finer points of feminine pony beauty and had to agree that they were easy on the eyes.

We would have chatted for a lot longer except that Crimson had to turn in for the night to be fully rested for duty the next day. I promised that we’d chat again tomorrow evening before Steady let him out.

When the door had closed behind the earth pony, Steady said, “Nice guy. I like him a lot.”

“Me too. Really earthy sense of humor, which I suppose is not too surprising.”

“Are you going to tell him about Marklestia?”

“Not yet. I think we both need to be more familiar with each other and build some trust before I let him onto that secret.”

Steady nodded. “I’d play it safe for a while. His indoctrination into loyalty to the alicorns might cause him some angst. Even though your alter ego is only a pegacorn, you still look exactly like Celestia barring your cutie mark.”

Recalling how the citizens of Ponyville had reacted, I had to agree. “Don’t worry – deep friendships take a while to form. I’ll wait until he’s ready for that.”

“So – did you learn from him what you wanted to know?”

“Yes, for the most part. Now I want to have a chat with someone higher on the chain of command and see things from that point of view.”

“Who did you have in mind?”

“Prince Shining Armor.”

Steady blinked. “You don’t aim low, do you?”

I grinned. “Helps to know ponies in high places.”



Once he learned that I was researching the ineffectiveness of the military in significant recent events, Shining Armor set aside half a day to meet with me. I came back from the Crystal Empire with pages of notes and a decent idea of what I was going to present. It took a week to get everything ready, and a dry run with Shining Armor let me do some fine tuning before his wife arrived the following day.

The next morning I was as ready as I would ever be. I just hoped the others would forgive me for what I was about to do.

Trixie, Twilight, Cadance, and Shining Armor all filed into the small conference room in Canterlot Castle. Shining put up a shield spell to keep everypony else out, and his sister put up wards to prevent anyone from listening in. Because no known magic could stop scroll delivery by dragonfire, Spike or the Guild of Mages could still reach us if an emergency arose.

I braced myself – this was not going to be pleasant. “Thank you all for agreeing to this summit meeting. I neither expected nor wanted the title of Knight of the Realm with the rank and responsibility that came with it, but I assure you that I take it very seriously. With this in mind, I have undertaken a review of Equestria’s military readiness to cope with extraordinary circumstances and found it extremely wanting. As I am not a military expert, I consulted with Prince Shining Armor to verify my findings and identify areas where we desperately need to make improvements.”

I looked at them with a frown. “Let’s start with where we are right now. I’ve already heard what Shining has to say on the matter, so I’d like to learn what everypony else has done or plans to do. What changes were made in the Royal Guards and the Equestrian armed forces as a result of the Changeling Invasion?”

The three mares looked at each other, then Twilight answered. “Additional research was started to detect changeling magic and counter their illusions. New spells have been created and existing ones modified. Sweeps are done throughout the castle on an irregular schedule. Biographical data has been compiled on all castle staff members and military ponies. Random members of both are questioned informally to determine if they recall these unimportant facts that no changeling infiltrator would know.”

Trixie continued. “A bounty on changelings, living or dead, has been extended to all nations, including agreements to share intelligence on their race. To date, we have not shared our additional countermeasures with any groups except for the griffons and of course the Crystal Empire.”

“And do we have any defectors or live specimens? Do we know about any other changeling hives? If so, are they a threat too?”

Cadance said, “No to the first two questions, and unknown to the last.”

I looked at the pink alicorn. “And what about military tactics? How has the Royal Guard, the Crystal Pony military, and the Equestrian Navy and Army changed to better deal with the threat?”

She looked to her husband, but he sat impassively. I had to give him marks for that. Cadance looked back to me. “After a six-week study, the senior military leadership determined the problem to be lack of training. Troops are being rotated through—”

I held up a hoof to stop her. “Same question with Tirek. What has changed to deal with that kind of threat?”

Twilight shifted uncomfortably. “There is no preliminary report out yet, although we’ve been promised one in four weeks’ time.”

“I’m sure Equestria’s enemies will be gracious enough to wait a month or two while we get our act together,” I replied sarcastically. I sighed and frowned, gripping the skin at the top of my muzzle with a hoof. After waiting a full minute, I asked, “Does anyone here think that is good enough? Any of it?”

Trixie said, “In your role as Grand Vizier and now Knight of the Realm, if you have suggestions on how to improve—”

“I have already brought up the need for a vastly improved communications system; if I had others, I would have said so already. No, if I just had suggestions, this meeting would not be necessary. The situation is far too potentially catastrophic to simply make ‘suggestions’. ”

Looking around the room, I saw that I certainly had their attention now. “Let me tell you something about my world that you’re really not going to like but you need to know and understand. I apologize in advance for the distress that I am about to cause you. A century ago, we used to approach war in a way similar to how you ponies do now – respect for the enemy’s basic rights; allowing bodies to be removed from the battlefield; keeping conflict away from civilian areas; that sort of thing. And then, everything changed.”

I stood up and started pacing. “A hundred years ago, the opening months of war resulted in ten thousand humans dying and ten thousand more wounded on each side, every single day. Soon, there were no more soldiers left to throw into the grinder and all the rules of war went out the window. Killing civilians. Poison gas attacks. Nonstop bombardments of explosive shells that would last for days. The next war was worse. Cities of hundreds of thousands killed. Entire populations killed or starved to death. Millions dead.”

Twilight vomited up her breakfast, quickly followed by Cadance. Trixie was trembling and went pale.

I waited until they had recovered somewhat before continuing. I pointed a foreleg to the side. “Somewhere out there, you have an enemy that is perfectly willing to do that and more to you. Chrysalis would have enslaved all ponykind and bred you like carp to use you as nothing but a food source. Tirek would have continued his rampage and let every last pony die, not to mention all other beings that rely on magic for survival. Shining Armor has enlightened me about major threats from the past such as windigos that could have destroyed Equestrian civilization. And from what little I’ve gathered from our foreign intelligence, I’m sure there are worse out there.”

I straightened up. “Here – let me give you an example of what war can be.” I pulled two brass cylinders from a cloth bag I had sitting on the desk. One end of each had been filed and polished into a blunt point. The smallest was about half an inch long. The largest an inch and a half. “Imagine this is flying through the air at the speed of sound at a line of Equestrian soldiers. Now picture this being done accurately from three hundred yards away. Now imagine each enemy soldier can cast out ten of these per second, all from a hoof-held device that requires minimal training. That is what the science-based technology from my world could do. With the addition of the magic of yours, the lethality could be made much worse.”

I tossed the larger cylinder to Shining Armor. I had not shown the dummy shells to him earlier. “You have one of the strongest magical shields in Equestria, right? If this was travelling at twice the speed of sound and all that kinetic energy hit a point on your shield the size of the tip of this shell, what would happen?”

The prince rolled the brass cylinder on his hoof. “If I was protecting a city, the area around the impact would be weakened for several seconds. If my shield was just protecting myself, it would stop the shell but shatter in the process. The feedback would prevent me from casting a new shield for around a minute.”

I turned to the remaining Equestrian leaders. “Waiting six weeks to be told that everything in ‘the book’ is just fine and soldiers just need to better understand what is in ‘the book’ is no longer acceptable. Your enemies have read ‘the book’ and are using your incompetence and predictability to defeat you.”

I slammed my hoof on the table. “I want every senior member of the military and Royal Guard to be fired. Let go. Told their services are no longer required. That would send the right message. That doing things the same old way is no longer acceptable. I don’t want the likes of General Forthright telling me or anyone else in authority to mind our own business because he ‘knows better’.”

Twilight spoke. “I … I don’t think military regulations will allow this. There are limits on what the princesses are allowed to change.”

Shining Armor said, “Actually, sister, if a declaration of war is made, then you and Trixie would have the authority to do so. Nevertheless, I believe that is going too far.”

I waved a hoof. “If you can’t stomach that, then give them the option of retiring or being demoted back to Lieutenant rank. If they can prove themselves to be competent enough to be promoted again, so be it. As Knight of the Realm and the top-most authority under the Crown, I insist upon it.”

No pony spoke, so I continued. “My job, the job that you foisted upon me, is to make sure Equestria and the Crystal Empire are ready when, not if, the next enemy comes. There are smart ponies in the services that can solve these problems and make new strategies. Tactics from the single soldier all the way up to full army level. Equipment improvements. Taking the information from the foreign services department and feeding it into strategy sessions and adjusting our tactics.”

I placed a deck of playing cards on the table. I picked up the first and showed it was a blank card that now had my writing on it. “Using what I remember from Earth’s conflicts, our literature, and even several role-playing games, I put together a set of fifty-two scenarios and challenges for our potential new top officers and non-coms. I’ll also be asking soldiers to provide their own suggestions. Shining Armor picked out sixteen individuals who I’ll run through the first session later today. Shining will be disguised as a generic Royal Guardsman and will take notes. We hope to have recommendations for promotions by the end of the week. We’ll also likely have a list of ponies that simply can’t adjust to the new reality of the threats to Equestria. They can serve Equestria in other ways than be in the military. Either they decide on their own to leave or we can help them out the door. After one year, I want to see a military force that has an effective plan of action for any eventuality we can foresee and knows how to formulate one for those that we can’t.”

I looked around the room. “Any questions? Objections?”

Twilight stood up, a bit shaky but determined. “Mark, I had no idea your world was capable of so much… darkness. It’s a miracle that you came out of that environment as the person that you are.” She took a deep breath. “The magic of Harmony and Friendship are real here, Mark. I’m afraid that if Equestria goes down the path your world did, then all that magic would die.”

I smiled reassuringly. “That’s why I’m not advocating the use of weapons like those on my world. That’s also why I used an emetic against Tirek rather than something that would have killed him. I want to preserve Equestria’s way of life, but to do that I need ponies to be prepared for everything up to and including the worst possibilities. Ponies who can think, not just act. Pony soldiers need to be confident in their ability to defend their nation. Let’s face it, Twilight – the last two conflicts showed how weak the Equestrian military is right now. Only through radical action will it improve in time for the next. I got lucky with Tirek – we can’t rely on luck in the future.”

Shining said, “No, Mark – we won because you thought outside the box, and that’s exactly what we need to be able to do too. We relied entirely on our conventional magical abilities at a time when magic only compounded the problem. You came up with a solution which used Tirek’s ability to consume magic against him. That’s what you’re trying to teach us, and that’s why you’re the ideal pony for the job, even though you don’t want it.”

As much as I hated to admit it, it took a non-pony like me, or at least like I used to be, to think differently from the normal ponies. And that’s why I was stuck with this job. If I could not get back to Earth and Equestria was going to be my permanent new home, I wanted to protect it to the best of my modest abilities. Maybe Harmony had this in mind for me from the beginning, but I didn’t care anymore. I had friends here that I would do anything to protect, and if it took a former human like me to do it, I would not be found wanting.



I deliberately chose not to wear my badge of office, Knight of the Realm medallion, or Pink Heart of Courage to the classroom. The soldiers I was looking for would not be affected one way or the other by trappings of power. Besides the teacher’s desk at the front, there were sixteen chairs in the center and four small tables, one in each corner. Shining held a clipboard in his magic and stood behind me, the regulation armor and helmet rendering him anonymous. The chairs were filled with an interesting set of young officers and not-quite-so-young sergeants, all in civilian dress or none at all. Each sat at attention as the last of them to arrive found a chair. Two crystal ponies, four pegasi, four unicorns, two thestrals, three earth ponies, and a griffon made up the class. To a last one, they did not stare directly ahead as they waited. Instead, their gazes wandered around to the other occupants, most frequently to me. That was a good sign – inquisitive minds that chose not to suppress the curiosity their training had attempted to drive out of them. It also meant I didn’t need to introduce myself — they would already know who I am and my position in the Equestrian government.

The moment the last one was seated, I nodded to the door. Shining Armor closed it with his magic and the walls, ceiling, and floor glowed as the room’s privacy wards activated. I pointed to the thick tome on the edge of the desk. “Who can give me the title of this book?” Every hoof and claw went up almost simultaneously. I couldn’t help but grin.

I looked at the closest student and nodded. She was an earth pony with two crossed anchors as her cutie mark: one gold and one silver. “Sir. That is the Equestrian Military Handbook, Revised Edition.”

I looked to the thestral on her left. Her cutie mark was an open book and a quill pen. “And when was it revised?”

“Sir. Two hundred and fifty-seven years ago, next month.”

Hmm. I hadn’t known it down to the month. I looked to the back at the crystal pony mare. “And after that major revision, what are the extent of the changes made on a yearly basis?”

She blinked. “Umm… sir, I believe the only updates are to keep the troop and population levels current.”

I nodded. “Do you know where I found this? In a used bookstore a short jog away from the palace. Nothing illegal about it being for sale there. It’s not like something that ancient and codified can be kept secret anyway.”

I stood up and walked in front of the table. I nodded to the lone griffon hen. “And what do you think Equestria’s enemies do with this illustrated guidebook to all of our tactics and procedures?”

“They use it to find our weaknesses and exploit them.”

I let that hang in the air for a few moments. Without looking, I tapped the volume with my hoof and it toppled into the wastebasket below. “Today’s class will be about changing this. From this point forward, everyone is at ease and a full partner in coming up with solutions. I will present a scenario and you will all have to work in teams to determine possible solutions. You will present three possible approaches and defend why you chose your favorite.” I picked up the deck of playing cards from the table and held it up. “I’ve written out fifty-two scenarios as a starting point. At the end of our hour together, I’d like you to suggest your own. They can cover any aspect of our joint mission to protect Equestria and the Crystal Empire that you feel could be improved.”

I shuffled the cards loosely and flipped the top one so I could read it. “Ah! Princess Celestia has returned but she is insane.” I looked up. “In a matter of hours, she killed every citizen of Vanhoover. Delegations consisting of ponies she personally knew and cared about have all been killed as well. Your intelligence has revealed that she will be advancing towards Canterlot next after a known amount of time. You have 100% confidence in the time estimate.”

“Each of you is in a group of four that is closest to a corner table. Each group has a different amount of time to prepare for her arrival. I pointed to the different tables in turn. Group 1: You have four hours. Group 2: Four days. Group 3: Four months. Group 4: Four years. Sergeant Scratchy…” I nodded to Shining Armor who raised an eyebrow. “…will be observing but not participating. Each group has an hour to make their recommendations. Begin.”

I let Shining walk around with the clipboard while I sat at my desk, making observations. Swiveling my ears to listen in to each table in turn, I was again impressed with the caliber of minds that Shining had found for this preliminary class. I had not actually chosen the scenario randomly, but to weed out any old guard that had their priorities wrong. Not one balked at the notion of opposing their former ruler for the sake of the ponies they had sworn to protect.

After twenty-five minutes, I called a halt. Everyone turned to me. I smirked. “No, this is not the mind game where you were supposed to be done in half the time you were allotted.” That got some chuckles and smiles. Apparently, everyone was more than familiar with that trick. “Instead, the teams are going to share the ideas you have come up with so far. If you are sitting at the outside corner of your table, stay there. Otherwise, move to the table closest to where you are sitting. Each new table will have one member from each old table. Continue.” The ponies and griffon rearranged themselves and discussion resumed. “Sergeant Scratchy” gave me a grin then went back to cycling around the tables.

I gave the teams a five-minute warning then called time. Each had nominated a presenter and defended their conclusions. I let Shining do the majority of the questioning while I wrote down notes to supplement the extensive ones already taken by Shining. The ideas ranged from producing a clone to fight Celestia (perhaps precipitated by certain rumors), to producing clouds of nullstone dust, to overpowering her with a thousand hidden unicorns at the outskirts of town, to reactivating the Elements of Harmony, to forming a mutual-defense pact with Queen Chrysalis. The last one was the most surprising but was well defended by the speaker arguing that everything that had been developed to detect and counter the changelings could be tried surreptitiously during the chaos of battle, likely resulting in a drastic reduction of the threat the changelings would hold in the future. I wrote down Lieutenant Race Sulky as one to watch.

After the participants had provided a couple dozen more scenario suggestions, I thanked every pony and hen for coming. After they had left, Shining Armor took off his helmet. “Were you satisfied, Grand Vizier?”

“It’s still Mark. And yes. All of these soldiers were outstanding. I suspect you don’t have another group that promising lined up for the second session?”

He shook his head. “All these were the best of the best. It will be hit or miss from now on. You should have saved the ‘Celestia’ scenario for some of the ponies that accepted demotion.”

I waved a hoof. “I wanted to use it now to gauge reactions. I should have picked up more quickly that this was not a typical group.”

The Prince sighed as he sat down. “I have to admit my complicity in all this, Mark. I saw many of these problems while I was in the Royal Guard. I tried to suggest better ways to prepare guardsmen for their duties. My ideas were appreciated but rarely acted upon. Once I got to the top position...” he paused, then sighed. “I’m afraid Celestia was even less interested in having the force be more than occasional policemen for the generally law-abiding citizenry. I had to threaten to resign my commission just to get the best quality weapons for every soldier under my command.”

I smiled. “I think your fiancé at the time would have screamed at her aunt for days in the full Royal Canterlot Voice if Celestia had accepted your resignation.”

He snorted. “Wasn’t on my mind at the time. I should have pushed harder. Much harder. The result of my failure, you already know.”

“Well, you now have the opposite problem. By the time we’re done with these sessions, we will have too many ideas to pursue all of them.”

He gave me a genuine smile. “A good problem to have. I assume that since you brought it up, you already have a solution?”

I nodded. “Cost-Benefit Analysis. Something Raven is already somewhat familiar with, at least in general terms. You score different alternatives based on their risk; possible benefit; and the resources needed in ponies, time, and bits. We also have the advantage that no pony is better than your sister at evaluating ideas on new fields or applications of magic.”

“The hardest part is getting her to delegate the research. She’s going to hate that.”

“She has to. There will be too many important projects going on at once. And that’s in addition to all of her other royal duties. Besides, after the first round of projects are complete, she’ll have a team of researchers that will allow her to multiply what she could have ever done on her own.”

“And there’s the carrot.” Shining chuckled as he got up, stowing away his papers as he put on his saddlebags. “Trixie has several ideas on how our nations can project the appearance of a formidable military during this period when the chain of command is still being determined. Cady is tearing through the procedures of the departments in the castle to speed up the approval process for everything, and yes, I do mean everything. But now, it would only be polite to meet our mares for dinner.” He glanced back to me with a questioning look.

I shook my head and grinned. I likewise put away my notes and card deck then donned my panniers. I lifted the Equestrian Military Handbook, Revised Edition out of the wastebasket and set it at the edge of the desk again. I trotted through the door he held open for me. “I think you hang around your wife a bit too much. Her nosiness is rubbing off on you.”

 


 

Chapter 25: Strange Visit

 

“Are you sure you don’t want to go with me?” I asked Steady.

The stallion rolled his eyes. “Unless you change your itinerary, what makes you think I would enjoy this 'girls’ day out' of yours?”

I smirked and waggled my eyebrows. “Why wouldn’t you want to be surrounded by lots of mares?”

He gave me a flat look. “Well, you would be one of those mares, for starters. I still don’t get it – why do you want to do such girlish things anyway? You certainly don’t behave that way when we go to the pub or play a few games of ten-pin bowling.”

I paused my packing to regard my friend seriously. “When I was first transformed by the poison joke, I was shocked and worried that I might not be able to become a stallion again for a long time, but after Twilight reassured me that the cure was simple and effective, I relaxed and let myself enjoy the temporary change of form. What I didn’t expect to discover was how much I enjoyed being Marklestia. Believe me, I was puzzled at first when I realized that I wanted to experience that again. The more I became a mare, the more I became comfortable with my alter ego, but I didn’t understand why until recently when I visited the Crystal Empire. Princess Cadance actually opened my eyes to that. Turns out that being Princess of Love doesn’t mean just romantic love, but all kinds of love including of oneself.”

“I don’t get it,” Steady confessed.

“It’s simple, really. We are happiest when we understand ourselves and live by that. In my case, it was important to realize that everyone has a masculine and a feminine side. Of course, most stallions have a very strong masculine side, while most mares have a very strong feminine side. However, it’s our opposite side that tempers our personalities. My case is special though because when I become Marklestia, my personality shifts to my feminine side so that I behave and enjoy doing female stuff. I was asked if I wanted to have a girls’ day out in Ponyville while I was a mare and that intrigued me, so I agreed to do it this weekend.”

“But you’re a stallion now, so why do you feel the need to go through with it? Surely you don’t think it’s a great idea now?”

I chuckled. “No, I don’t right now, but I also know that once I’m Marklestia, my enthusiasm will return in full. You see, while my personal leanings may change between forms, I’m still me. I am one hundred percent Mark Wells whether I am a mare or a stallion, and I remember what it’s like to be the opposite gender. That’s why I am now totally comfortable with myself as a mare, even though I still prefer to be my normal stallion self for the majority of the time. I’m privileged to be able to enjoy both sides of my nature. Besides, I promised the girls I’d do it.”

“Okay, but now that you’re currently a stallion, you should realize why I don’t want to be involved.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, but it would have been fun having you there as the token male. I could get lessons from plenty of perspectives about how to tease you.”

Steady rolled his eyes again. “Some friend you are.”

“Don’t worry – we’ll plan something to suit us both next weekend,” I replied with a laugh.

I finished packing my saddlebags. Because I was effectively packing for two, the contents had grown considerably from my initial trips to Ponyville. I was also taking some gifts for my friends in another pack. Steady offered to carry it to the station for me, but I told him to go and enjoy his evening in whatever stallion-y way he preferred as I would get Crimson Boulder to carry it for me. The Royal Guard had been reassigned as my personal guardian after both Princesses had insisted that my elevated status required a full-time attendant. After failing to convince them I didn’t need one, I had nominated Crimson for the post. He was delighted by the promotion which helped our budding friendship, so at least I gained some benefit that way. Unfortunately, the flip side was having to ditch him when I wanted to become Marklestia. I still hadn’t decided on whether to let him into my confidence yet, but I was about to go to a town where virtually everypony knew it and yet still managed to keep it to themselves. However, there had been increasing rumors of sightings of Celestia circulating, so I doubt that it was a perfectly kept secret.

Steady opened the door to my quarters and informed Crimson that I was ready to depart. The burly earth pony barely noticed the weight of the pack that Steady lifted and placed on his back. It wouldn’t hinder him in the slightest in the performance of his duties. I said my farewell to Steady, and Crimson and I headed out to catch the train.



Both Twilight and Rarity were at the Ponyville station to greet me upon arrival. As I was a guest in the alicorn’s castle, she insisted upon being the perfect host. As for the fashionista – I knew exactly why she was there despite the late hour. I had to admit that I was flattered, and if I had been interested in having a fillyfriend, Rarity would be a strong contender, especially as the mare liked me just as much in either of my forms and she really brought out the mare in me during those fashion parades. I also liked that she was willing to challenge me when I had my head up my plot, which I think some of the other girls were too polite to do.

Twilight had assigned one of the new castle’s many rooms as my permanent quarters for whenever I visited. Some of the stuff that I had packed for this trip was destined to stay here and personalize the bare room, and of course, to stock up my bathroom with the necessities for both my mild-mannered royal advisor and leap-tall-buildings-in-a-single-wing-assisted-bound forms. After Crimson had deposited my pack, I dismissed him so that he could go off-duty. He told me he intended to enter a marathon bowling tournament in town and perhaps find some fillies worth looking up on return trips since he knew my stops here were a regular occurrence. Friendship Castle, as Twilight had named it, was secured by Royal Guards at both of the entrances – the main front door and the upper balcony. The alicorn hadn’t wanted any at all, but after insisting on one for me, she didn’t have a leg to stand on when applying the same logic to her own domicile.

Spike informed me that supper would be ready soon, but Twilight insisted on showing me something first. She led me downstairs to one of the larger rooms that branched from the throne room. To my surprise, it was partially-filled with shelves of books.

“How’d you get so many books so quickly?” I asked.

“Simple! These all came from the Castle of the Two Sisters,” Twilight replied smugly. “I had the entire contents transferred here over the past week. Now I’ll be able to research the books at my convenience and they won’t be affected by restoration work on the castle. I’ve also got large orders with various publishers coming in to replace the books that were destroyed by Tirek. By the time I have this room filled, I will have the second biggest collection in the world. Only the Royal Canterlot Library will have more, and those mostly being unique and rare items.”

I grinned. “I bet you’d snarf them up too if allowed.”

Twilight blushed and nodded. “You know me too well.”

“What else have you already brought here?”

“I had all the portal mirrors transferred to my new laboratory. The one that Cadance was safekeeping arrived only yesterday.”

I gave the purple alicorn a suspicious look. “How close to being finished is this new laboratory?”

“Oh, I’d estimate 87% so far.”

“And when it’s done… guinea pig?”

She just grinned widely at me.

I looked to the heavens and sighed. “Thought so.”



The three of us enjoyed the supper that Spike had prepared, and we discussed our plans for the next day before retiring for the night. It was the end of a very long day for me, so I fell asleep almost the moment that my head hit the pillow. My last thought was that Rainbow Dash must have approved these beds – mine was as soft and embracing as a cloud!



I had set my alarm for an early rise, giving me time to shower, transform into Marklestia, and primp and prepare for the day out. I now better understood why females took longer to get ready than males. A couple of the simpler spells that I had managed to learn dealt with speeding up this process though, so I was able to get down to the breakfast table in a reasonable amount of time. Twilight was already on her second mug of coffee, so she was almost ready to face the day. Spike piled a large stack of syrup-coated pancakes on my plate which I quickly ate and asked for seconds. Hey! I’m a big mare with a big appetite – don’t judge me! I washed them down with a large mug of orange juice and a café latte. Spike’s also an awesome barista.

Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash joined us not much later, also enjoying a coffee courtesy of Spike before we got our day underway. Only Applejack was yet to arrive, but she had morning chores to attend to first. The life of a farmer was a busy one all week, and it was remarkable that we had managed to persuade her to take most of a day off. I was just glad that all of my friends could participate in this day out.

It was remarkable to be able to walk around Ponyville in my mare form. My friends kept their eyes open for non-residents of the town, especially Dash who maintained an aerial watch, so I was able to move about with little concern. Despite being the home of one of Equestria’s rulers, Ponyville remained a quiet village for now, and there were few visitors on the weekends. The biggest trick was giving the Royal Guards the slip so we could enjoy the day without them intruding on us. Fortunately, Twilight was adept at teleporting us past them.

I was frequently stopped by the locals who wanted to either just say hello, express their gratitude once again, or have a brief chat. Some insisted on bowing to me, but I told all of them that there was only one Princess here and I wasn’t it. Didn’t stop a single one of them though. Can’t win them all, I suppose.

We did all the things that mares do when out in a group. Shopping was high on the list. Rarity helped me pick out a lovely sunhat that I wore the rest of the time we walked around. We also visited a furniture shop to offer our views as to what would suit Twilight’s castle because only a handful of rooms had any furnishings. There was a huge difference of opinion amongst them which I helped get them to compromise on. I can’t imagine what the place would look like if they all had their way. Twilight was just too accommodating to her friends’ whims. Throughout the process, Davenport, the earth pony proprietor, was ecstatic at the good fortune of a furniture order larger than anything he had previously dreamed was possible for this small village. He pulled me aside and told me that Twilight was already his best customer because of all the quill pens that she went through. I was reminded of her exothermic research methods and was suddenly glad her new laboratory was still under construction.

We had luncheon at Café Hay, the fanciest restaurant in town, my treat. I had little to spend my money on anyway, so why not spend it on my friends? Then, before Rainbow Dash blew a gasket, those with wings among us went flying. Naturally, she and I outflew the others, but we didn’t abandon them. Instead, we incorporated them into our sky-dance and put on a show for those still ground-bound. After that, we all headed to the spa where we had the deluxe package. We had booked out the place so that the staff could devote their full attention to just us. By the way, Bulk Biceps gives the most awesome massages and I highly recommend him. Even Applejack had to concede that the stallion knew how to work out the knots in her muscles.

We left the spa tired but highly satisfied. We started heading back to Twilight’s castle to wind down for the day and find out what Spike had prepared for dinner. The citizens of Ponyville obviously had similar plans as there was a general surge of ponies heading for their homes, although we met Vinyl Scratch pushing her equipment in the opposite direction. Saturday nights had to be her busiest, I presumed, and she was probably going to set up for a gig. I high-hoofed her and turned to continue onward, only to nearly bump into another pony emerging from a side street.

“Oops! Sorry about that. Wasn’t looking…” My apology ground to a stop as I recognized the pony with whom I nearly collided. “Crimson?”

The off-duty Royal Guard gaped at me in shock before abruptly bowing deeply. “Your Highness! You have returned at last!”

Oh, crap. I glanced upwards to where Rainbow Dash was hovering and hissed, “What happened to warning me?!”

The multi-hued mare gave me a puzzled look. “I thought your personal guard already knew?”

I facehoofed.

“Rainbow, darling – weren’t you paying attention when Mark told you about Crimson Boulder?”

Dash just shrugged.

Meanwhile, Crimson had looked up from his bowed position with a bewildered expression. “Your Highness?”

I sighed. “Get up, please, Crimson Boulder. Despite my looks, I’m not Princess Celestia. This wasn’t the way that I intended to tell you, but look at my cutie mark.” I turned to show my hindquarters.

The way Crimson’s eyes boggled was quite comical. He started spluttering. “What? How? But that’s impossible. I mean, no way! How did you get Mark Wells’ cutie mark?”

I facehoofed again.

Pinkie Pie burst into a fit of giggles. “No, silly! Mark got Celestia’s everything else!”

Well, that was one way of putting it, I suppose.

“I’m Mark Wells, Crimson. I can shape-change into this form. Long story.” I could tell that he was still failing to process this. Damn it. I said I wouldn’t change back until after dinner which was when our girls’ day out officially ended, but… “Twilight – would you hold my saddlebags for me, please?”

The alicorn obliged and I activated my magic. Abruptly, I was a small pegasus once more, and my lovely sunhat was now too big and flopped over my eyes so I didn’t see Crimson’s reaction. I sure heard him gasp though.

“Lord Wells! Wait! Is Mark Wells Princess Celestia’s secret identity?”

I lifted my hat up to stare at him in disbelief. “No! I’m just Mark Wells! I told you – I’m a shapeshifter.”

“You’re a changeling?!”

Are you freaking messing with me?!” I yelled. “No, I’m not a changeling!

Twilight decided to step in. “Sergeant Crimson Boulder, Mark Wells gained the ability to Celestia’s form first due to poison joke, and then had that form become a permanent alter ego due to a massive infusion of magic. Now he likes to spend time with us occasionally in that form. The citizens of Ponyville are all privy to that secret as he used it to defeat Tirek, so that’s why she was openly walking around the town today.”

Crimson blinked as comprehension dawned. “So that’s why you wanted me to take the day off so badly.”

“Exactly. I didn’t want this to color our growing friendship yet. I intended to tell you soon.”

“I have so many questions…”

“Which I will answer later. We’re headed back to the castle for dinner right now.”

Rarity cleared her throat and looked at me pointedly.

Oops! I changed back into Marklestia. A promise is a promise. “Sorry, Crimson, but I have a previous engagement,” I said in Celestia’s sweet tones.

“This is so weird,” the earth pony said, staring at my Celestial form.

I giggled. “You don’t know the half of it!” That could have gone worse, I suppose. It was going to be an interesting talk with Crimson later, but right now I was looking forward to having dinner with my friends.

Once again, Twilight teleported us past the guards. As we passed through the entry hall and into the throne room, I asked my friends to wait for a moment. I’d been taking photographs all day of us doing everything, and I wanted to finish it off by getting each of them to pose on their thrones. I did Rainbow Dash first in case she lost patience waiting her turn. I was intrigued by how the cutie marks on each crystal chair lit up when they sat upon them, and it made for some impressive portraits. Maybe I could persuade Twilight to get some sort of table in there later and take another group picture of them looking serious as a meeting of Equestria’s Harmony Bearers. That was a project for another day though, and dinner awaited us.



Spike did us proud and had a wonderful feast ready for us with the help of some recently hired castle staff who had already left for the day. Once again, Trixie had been adamant that Twilight have some servants cater to guests so that she could concentrate on her royal duties. So far, that had boiled down to just her close friends and Twilight’s parents when they had visited earlier during the week, but it gave the staff something to do. As we dined, we recounted the events of the day including bumping into Crimson Boulder.

“Told you that you should’ve let him know last night,” Spike said. “Knowing your luck, meeting him today was inevitable.”

I sighed. “You were correct. I owe you ten bits.” Yeah, I bet him that he would be wrong. I should have known better.

After dinner, we settled into the lounge room that had just been furnished with the chairs and sofas that had been delivered in time for us to enjoy them this evening. A lot more was yet to come, but we had what we needed for now. Spike brought us our beverages of choice and we chatted a lot. Frankly, as a stallion, I would have been bored pretty quickly, but as I had told Steady, my attitude and biases swung toward the feminine in my Marklestia form. Naturally, I gossiped as much as any other mare.

I had promised a full day as Marklestia, and considering that we were capping off the day with a slumber party, I wasn’t about to switch back to my normal male form anyway. The girls made it quite clear that they were not sleeping with a stallion, period! I had to chuckle to myself though. Individually, several of those mares were either subtly or blatantly chasing after me, but as a group, they thought it was improper. I wonder if I’ll ever get accustomed to the social dynamics of this world. Then again, I was currently a mare, so who was I to complain?

Silly but fun slumber party games ensued, complete with several pillows losing their life due to earth pony strength or sharp horns. As the last of the down feathers floated to the ground, we gradually settled into quiet conversations. Those also faded out as the mares fell asleep one by one. I’m not sure if I was the last to succumb, but I do recall Rarity using my barrel as a pillow. I drifted off to sleep feeling quite content.



I had no idea what the time was when I was disturbed by distant shouting and muffled noises. I lifted my head to blearily look around the darkened room, my ears swiveling to try to locate the source of whatever had woken me. I realized that whatever it was, it was happening somewhere in the depths of the castle. Since the only ponies who should be awake at that time would be the Night Guard, that was a little alarming, so I decided to get up and investigate.

That proved to be a little difficult. Rarity was still fast asleep, drooling on my back. I thought I might use telekinesis to shift her, but that’s when I discovered that I had reverted to my normal stallion self during my sleep. That would have been very awkward to explain in the morning, but right now it was a different problem. That’s also when I remembered that even if I was in my Marklestia form, my telekinesis was still in the ‘brush it lightly or throw it into orbit’ stage of control. Fortunately, I was able to lift her head with my wing gently enough to crawl away from under her and put her head down elsewhere.

The ruckus outside was getting louder, and I managed to make out somepony calling out to an intruder to stop. I didn’t want the girls to be upset, so I was careful to make my way around the sleeping mares and slip through the door. Bedazzled by the bright lighting in the corridor, I failed to notice a pony hurtling in my direction. Our skulls crashed together and we fell to the floor in a dizzy heap. Next thing that I knew, a thestral Night Guard was bending over me, asking if I was okay. With the beginnings of a huge headache making my head throb, I nevertheless managed to reply in the affirmative and strained to get up to see who I had just collided with.

It was a pale yellow unicorn mare with bright yellow and red striped mane and tail. The thestral’s partner was slipping a magic-suppressing ring on her horn as she groaned in semi-conscious pain. It seemed that I had the harder head – not too surprising considering the number of times I had used it to break my fall over the past few months.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“No idea, sir. We encountered her skulking about inside the castle and she took off when I ordered her to halt. We’ve been chasing her around the corridors for several minutes, but she eluded us up until you stopped her.”

“You’re pretty fast with those wings,” I observed. “How come you couldn’t catch her?”

“She teleported whenever I got close to her, sir.”

“I see.” Teleportation was a highly advanced skill. Not any unicorn could master it. That horn ring was certainly a necessity until we figured out why she was trespassing in Twilight’s castle. The hoofcuffs that were now being added would stop her running away again.

“Take her down to the—”

“What’s going on here?” Twilight’s voice interrupted me.

Damn it! I had hoped that I could get this sorted out without disturbing anypony until it could be dealt with in the morning. My head throbbed a bit more. “The guards caught an intruder,” I replied.

“With the help of Sir Wells,” added the thestral.

“Yes, I used my head,” wincing at my own bad pun. “I was just about to have her taken down to the… um… does this castle even have a dungeon?”

“I don’t think so, but I would like to talk to this mare anyway. I don’t understand why anypony would want to sneak into my castle. It’s not as if everypony isn’t welcome to visit me during daylight hours anyway.”

“Ooooh…” groaned the mystery mare. “Did someone get the license plate of the truck that hit me?”

I blinked and stared at her. Truck? License plate? Those weren’t things in magical tiny horse land. I was suddenly very interested in talking to this mare too.

“Who are you?” Twilight asked sternly.

The mare tried to get to her hooves but got tangled with the hoofcuffs and fell over again. She craned her head up to look up at her questioner and gasped. “You… you’re an alicorn!”

Twilight tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “You’ve invaded my domain and yet don’t even know about me?”

I decided to up the ante. “You are in the presence of Princess Twilight Sparkle, co-ruler of the Diarchy of Equestria, Bearer of the Element of Magic, and Princess of Friendship. Answer Her Highness’ question!” I said sternly.

Twilight gave me a curious look before turning her attention back to the intruder.

“Princess…? Co-ruler…? What’s going on?” she sputtered before noticing my glare. “My name is Sunset Shimmer,” she finally answered.

Twilight frowned thoughtfully. “Sunset Shimmer? I seem to recall somepony by that name. Something about a former student of Celestia before me.”

“Yes, that was me. I left under… strained circumstances. But how could you have ascended after being Celestia’s student for such a short time?”

Now both Twilight and I were puzzled. Something was not adding up here. The purple alicorn was about to speak when another voice interrupted.

“What in Sam Hill is goin’ on out here? Cain’t a body get some sleep? Ah got chores in the mornin’!”

Sunset Shimmer’s head snapped around to stare at the farm mare. “Applejack?” she asked uncertainly.

The earth pony gave the unicorn a curious look. “Do Ah know you?”

“It’s me, Sunset Shimmer!”

Applejack shrugged. “That name don’t ring no bell for me.”

“But…” Sunset trailed off, obviously confused.

“Mark, darling – don’t you know it’s rude to abandon a mare in the middle of the night?”

Rarity stood in the doorway in all her mane- and tail-curler enhanced glory, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“Is everyone awake now?” I asked.

“Well, you’re hardly being quiet out here, so it should not come as a surprise, dear.”

She was right – we had neglected to keep our voices down, and the door was still ajar. I looked back to the pony whose fault it was and caught her staring at the fashionista. I saw her silently mouth the word – ‘Rarity?’ Okay, this was getting weird.

Twilight said, “Perhaps we had better start from the beginning. Let’s do this where we can all be more comfortable.” Her horn lit up and Sunset Shimmer was levitated in its glow. As Twilight carried her into the room, Applejack and Rarity followed. I dismissed the Night Guards.

“Are you sure you will be okay with the prisoner?” the first thestral asked.

“Six of the most powerful mares in Equestria are in that room, so what do you think?” I asked with a smirk.

“Point taken, sir.”

I entered the room just as Twilight was settling Sunset Shimmer on a sofa. The other mares were gathering about her curiously except for Rainbow Dash. That mare could sleep through a thunderstorm! Still, I had a premonition that it was important to have everypony awake for this. It took a bit of doing and some loud complaints, but I managed to rouse the colorful pegasus. She perked up though, once she realized that we had a hoofcuffed prisoner in the room.

“Alright – let’s get started,” Twilight said. “First of all, let me introduce my friends. You seem to already know Applejack. These are Fluttershy, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Mark Wells. Girls, this is Sunset Shimmer who is about to explain to us why she was caught trespassing in my home in the middle of the night.”

Sunset’s eyes had grown wider and her jaw had dropped ever further each time one of the mares was introduced. However, she’d had no reaction to my name. “This can’t be…” she trailed off. I cleared my throat to gain her attention and frowned. “Oh! Sorry. I didn’t mean to enter your home. I fully expected to exit the portal in Canterlot Castle. I also had no idea that it was nighttime.”

My ears had shot up at the mention of the portal, and so had Twilight’s.

“You came through one of the portal mirrors?” the alicorn asked. “You didn’t break it, did you?”

“Yes, I came through the mirror. No, I didn’t break it or any other. As soon as I knew that I was a pony again, I lit my horn to illuminate the room. It wasn’t the same as the one that the mirror had been in when I first used it, so I was confused and disoriented when I left the room.”

I picked out a salient point in Sunset’s answer. “You said ‘as soon as you knew you were a pony again’ – what were you on the other side?”

“A bipedal species that call themselves ‘humans’.”

I looked at Twilight and she stared back at me. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Twilight?”

“I suppose it’s feasible. I didn’t consider the possibility of redundancy, although it does raise other questions.”

Sunset said, “I never met anyone named Mark Wells or Twilight Sparkle there, but–” She waved at the other five mares. “I know all five of you. Or at least your human equivalents.”

Rainbow Dash leaned forward and eagerly asked, “Tell us more about me! How awesome am I there?”

Sunset laughed. “Just as awesome as you are here, I think. You really do have the same personality.” I took this as a good sign. Sunset was starting to relax around us.

Twilight said, “Better yet – start from the beginning when you first went through the portal.”

The yellow mare sighed and stretched out to make herself more comfortable. “Well, it started out about as bad as it possibly could. I exited the portal crawling on all fours, only to notice that all the creatures around me were bipedal. So I stood on my hind legs and saw that everyone there looked like a young adult and they were all staring at me. First, I thought they had seen me exit the portal which was in the base of a statue. Then I noticed that everyone there was wearing clothes on their tops and bottoms, and I wasn’t. All I had were my saddlebags which slid right off of me.” She looked around. “That race has a massive taboo against public nudity, can you believe it?”

I spoke up. “Imagine that.” Applejack poked me in the ribs.

The yellow unicorn looked at me curiously, then continued. “Anyway, the statue was just outside Canterlot High School, and school security whisked me inside. The Principal gave me a shirt, sweats, footwear called flip-flops, and some school supplies from the school’s Lost and Found …”

“What’s a foot?” Rainbow Dash interjected.

“What humans have instead of hind hooves. Anyway, she got me registered in no time flat, gave me a class schedule, and admonished me that even foreign exchange students had to adhere to the school’s dress code.”

Rainbow Dash smiled. “That sounds pretty sweet. Better to make a strong first impression, than be a wallflower.” She blinked and turned to the yellow pegasus. “No offense, Fluttershy.”

Sunset chuckled. “You could say that. The boys I met thought I was the most awesome thing ever. Several asked me that day to be their date to the upcoming school dance. Most of the girls hated me for stealing away the attention of the boys. I was just trying to figure out how to walk correctly and use my newfound hands—” The unicorn held up a forehoof to stop Dash from interrupting again. “Those are like what minotaurs have on the end of their upper limbs – manipulative appendages. I ended up ditching my flip-flops after the third time they caused me to fall. When I returned to the portal after school let out, it was closed – I had no idea for how long. I’d been expecting it to stay open for a couple more days at least. Without my horn and magic, I didn’t know if I could ever get it to open again.”

Fluttershy said, “Oh, dear! That sounds awful.”

Something was bugging me. “I don’t mean to be rude, but… aren’t you a little old to be going to high school?”

Sunset smiled; she hadn’t taken offense. “Actually it was a great place for me to end up. Sheltered and safe, with all the resources I needed to learn about that new world. Also, the transformation gave me the body of a female human that age.”

That was interesting. I wondered what it would do to me? Could this be a virtual fountain of youth? Reset your age every time you pass through the portal?

The purple alicorn tilted her head. “You said ‘most of the girls’.”

Sunset nodded. “I’m not too proud to say I was crying at the base of the statue when all of you found me… at least your human equivalents.”

Pinkie gasped. “Am I a party pony in that world too?”

“Yes, but in human form. I think all of you have the same interests there. Your voices and personalities match theirs, and you even resemble them in a pony sort of way such as your manestyles. It’s some sort of parallel dimension. Anyway, despite me wanting nothing more than to be left alone, the five of you wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and took care of me. Applejack found me a job after school. Rarity sewed a wardrobe for me. Fluttershy found me a place to stay. Rainbow Dash helped me understand how to convert the gold I brought into the local currency and how to not get ripped off. Pinkie Pie stayed with me that whole first week and basically was my physical therapist as I had to relearn how to do everything. By the time the weekend came around, I wanted to just sulk in peace, but none of you would have any of it. You all took me to a carnival, the high school football game, a gaming arcade, and even the Canterlot Zoo. I never had the time or chance to get depressed, and by the time the weekend was over, I realized that for the first time in my life, I had five friends that I truly cared about.”

The five mares all smiled. Pinkie said, “Yep! That sounds like us alright!”

“But as I said, I never met your equivalents,” Sunset said to Twilight and me.

“That might make sense in my case. I need to check this out, Twilight,” I said.

“And we will. Carefully.” Twilight turned back to Sunset. “You said that the portal had closed, but here you are now. How long before it reopened?”

“I’m not sure. I checked it every day that I could, but if it was only open for a few hours, I could have missed it. It’s been about eighteen months since I first went through.”

“And when was that?”

Sunset looked at her quizzically. “I don’t understand the question. About a year and a half ago, as I said.”

“But you don’t know me at all?”

The unicorn shook her head.

The girls and I shared a look with each other. Applejack said, “When exactly did you leave Equestria?”

The mare turned to look at the farm pony. “It was just after Hearth’s Warming in the New Equestrian Year 988.”

Rarity sucked in a breath. After a long silence with Sunset looking around questioningly, the fashion mare said, “That was fifteen years ago, Sunset.”

The unicorn’s jaw dropped. “I… I…” She shivered. “Oh.”

Twilight looked at Applejack and asked, “Is she telling the truth?”

The earth pony sadly nodded. “Every word, Twi.”

“I see.” The alicorn turned back to Sunset. “It appears that time moves at a much slower rate in that world, or vice versa, much faster in Equestria. That explains why the portal was closed when you expected it to be open for another two days. Instead, it was only open for a few hours on that side.”

Fluttershy put a wing around Sunset and gave her a comforting hug. Sunset Shimmer took a few deep breaths to collect herself. “So much time has passed; will it be too late now?”

“What do you mean, darling?” Rarity asked.

“As I said earlier, I left under strained conditions. I had a falling-out with Princess Celestia. I was her personal student until I blew up at her. She wanted me to put aside my studies and make some friends, but I was so impatient to earn my wings that I left the moment I thought she wasn’t teaching me at the speed I wanted.”

Everypony’s eyes focused on Twilight, who fidgeted under our scrutiny.

Sunset continued, “I didn’t really have any friends here when I departed. I didn’t see any need for them at the time, really. I went through the portal seeking knowledge and power. Since then, I learned how wrong I was and I want to try to repair my relationship with Celestia. I came back expecting to arrive in Canterlot and hoping to contact her before going back to Canterlot High.”

The girls looked around uncomfortably. Twilight spoke up. “I’m afraid both Celestia and her sister left through a dimensional portal almost a year ago and haven’t returned.”

Sunset gaped. “Sister? You mean Luna?”

I was shocked. “How did you know that? Did they go to your world?”

The unicorn shook her head, then stopped. “Yes and no. The Principal of the school is Celestia and her sister Luna is the Vice-Principal.”

“Another parallel,” said Rarity.

“But they had been running the school for years before I got there. So they aren’t the ones from Equestria.”

Disappointing but not a cause for eliminating that world as my own. “You say you want to go back?” I asked.

“Yes. I have friends there and I want to finish the school year and graduate.”

“You have a small window of opportunity then.” I smirked. “Well… if you came this far just to see Celestia, I think it wouldn’t hurt for me to try to summon her… you know… one more time.”

All the mares’ ears pointed at me and a few badly suppressed grins were seen. Applejack said drily, “Really, Mark? Ya sure ya wanna try doin’ that?”

I grinned, showing lots of teeth. “Sure. Why not? Sunset might not be able to come back for years and this would be a great chance for them to work through their friendship problem. What do you think, Princess of Friendship?”

I could tell that Twilight was torn between agreeing and telling me not to do something silly. Eventually, she nodded and said, “This might be a good friendship lesson.”

I excused myself and headed into the hallway then back to my room. I grabbed a long cloak to cover my flanks and switched to my Marklestia form. I looked in the mirror then switched again when I realized I had not chosen the long-maned and tailed version. I couldn’t do anything about the lack of a crown or other royal regalia. I’d have to hope Sunset didn’t pay that close of attention.

I clopped deliberately back to the room where everypony was waiting. I put on my most displeased face and walked in like I owned the place. Twilight took the hint, bowing down deeply. The other mares did the same, but all had an open eye pointed at Sunset, who had started hyperventilating. As she was before I left, Sunset was lying on her side but started to move to get off the couch and take a genuflecting position. I raised a hoof and she stopped.

I frowned. “Sunset Shimmer, my former student. Doubtless returning to demand that which you have not earned.”

She was defiant, even if her pupils had reduced to pinpricks and she had to speak through chattering teeth. “I’ve learned what you tried to teach me, Celestia. I just want—”

“Silence!” Not the Royal Canterlot Voice, but close enough for this enclosed space. “Do you truly think I can take you at your word? How can I believe you after what you said to me before you left so long ago?”

“I made friends, Celestia! Five of the dearest and most wonderful friends in any world! I understand now what you wanted me to learn. I came back not seeking power but your forgiveness.”

“My forgiveness is not given without a price. You have a choice. You may accept the penance I decree, or you will be forever banished from Equestria.” I moved closer to her face, narrowing my eyes. “There is only one punishment suitable, and it is one I have reserved especially for you.”

The unicorn was shaking uncontrollably now. Her eyes darted to her horn unconsciously. I raised my head to loom over her. She cast her eyes back down and said meekly, “I accept your punishment.”

“Very well. I hereby sentence you to… five…” I paused dramatically as the flame-haired mare cowered beneath me. “…zerberts.”

She stopped shaking and furrowed her brow. “Zerberts?”

I nodded.

“Uh… I’m afraid to ask, but... what’s a zerbert?”

I beamed. “I’m so glad you asked!” I took a long, theatrical intake of breath then bent my neck to place my lips on her unprotected belly. Then I blew the loudest, longest raspberry I could muster.

“Bwa! Ha, ha! Sto— ha, ha, ha, ha!” She struggled and bucked but couldn’t get away. All the strength left her body and she writhed on the couch.

Just when she started to recover, I said in my most serious tone. “One.”

Her head shot up. “What?! No, no! Don’t ha, ha, ha, ha! Plea— ha, ha, ha!”

When I finished the second, I heard Pinkie behind me say, “I never knew Justice could be so merciless.”

I looked up a Sunset’s face. “Are you sorry?”

She couldn’t speak but nodded her head frantically.

“Really, really sorry?”

“Yes!” she gasped out. “Yes! I’m really, really sorry!”

“I don’t believe you.” I lowered my head again.

“No, no, no! Wait, I can— bwa, ha, ha, ha!” She fell off of the sofa in her attempts to get away.

Once her punishment was finished, I gestured to Twilight who unlocked and removed the nullstone ring from her horn and took off the shackles from her forehooves. Sunset was too busy lying limp and giggling to move in any way.

Rainbow Dash floated next to me. “Yeah… I don’t know if she’s quite sorry enough.”

I winked at Twilight and turned to the blue pegasus. “You know, I think I have one more zerbert in me.”

The Element of Loyalty’s smile grew. “Well, go ahead then!” When I wouldn’t look away, her expression fell. “No way, you’re not—”

This time Twilight’s magic grabbed Rainbow’s hooves long enough for me to plant my lips on the flying mare’s tummy. When I was done, there were two twitching but smiling mares on the ground.

Applejack guffawed. “Well, then. Anytime Ah want to ground Rainbow, Ah know what to do.”

I grinned and looked back to our visitor. “Are you feeling better now, Sunset Shimmer?”

She gave me a small smile. “Yes, I do. Thank you, Princess Celestia. Thank you for believing in me.”

“I’m sure that’s exactly what you deserved, but as there was no other way to bring about closure, I’m afraid I had to deceive you a little, my dear.”

Sunset frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Celestia and Luna never returned after they went through the portal because it was smashed. I only acted as Celestia’s proxy.” I willed the change, and once more I was a pegasus stallion.

Sunset gaped at me. “What the fu—?”

I held up a hoof to stop her. “I’m sure that Twilight will agree with me that you’re among friends now, and I hope you will forgive my little playacting, but I knew you needed to make your peace with Celestia, and this was the only way you could do it.”

Sunset stared at me for a long time before asking, “How did you do that?”

“Very long story. Short version – poison joke plus tons of magic equals permanent alter ego.”

The unicorn blinked. “Okay. Can’t wait to hear the long version. Meanwhile, I have other questions.” She turned to face Twilight. “You said you were the co-ruler of Equestria now?”

“Yes. I took the role after I ascended.”

“You have to tell me how you managed that later. Who is the other Princess?”

“My co-regent is Princess Trixie Lulamoon.”

Sunset gaped. “The showmare!? She became an alicorn?!”

Twilight’s smile was wooden and she hesitated more than a bit too long. “Yes. Yes, she did.”

I fought hard to suppress an eye roll. I mentally added ‘Learn to Prevaricate Convincingly’ to the list of skills Twilight still needed to learn from Trixie. I had to follow up before Sunset noticed.

“You know Trixie?”

“Well, yeah, or at least her human equivalent. Both her and her oversized ego.”

All the mares laughed, although Fluttershy stopped with a hoof over her mouth and a blush.

“Principal Celestia and her sister were the judges for the school talent show held at the outdoor amphitheater. Trixie was the last act and every magic trick she tried to perform fell apart at the last second. A dove escaped its cage while Trixie was talking to the audience. As soon as her back was turned, a rabbit jumped out of her top hat and ran offstage. Card decks fell out of pockets and sleeves while she was ranting on and on about how amazed we would be. Celestia and Luna were laughing along with the rest of the audience.”

Everypony chuckled. Applejack said, “That sounds about right.”

“And she kept up her role as a condescending blowhard the entire time! She looked truly puzzled each time a trick failed or her equipment went missing. After a few minutes, she had everyone in the theater chanting along with her, ‘This went better during rehearsal’.”

That got a laugh out of all the mares. This tale was certainly lining up well with the stories from Trixie’s early performances around Equestria from what I had heard from Ponyville citizens.

Sunset rolled her eyes. “And her assistant! How she talked Button Mash into helping her, I have no idea. But he truly looked terrified for his life up there on stage! I still don’t know if he was in on the act or not. He would miss his cues, forget when to duck, and make a terrible racket from behind the back curtain when he was supposed to have vanished into thin air. By this point, the Principal and Vice-Principal were holding onto each other to keep from falling out of their seats.”

“Trixie’s big finale ended with Button’s coat catching on fire and Trixie chasing after him, yelling at him to stop ruining her show. As he sprinted around, he seemed to inadvertently set fire to every prop Trixie had on stage before the janitor put him out with a fire extinguisher.”

The mares were all laughing loudly now.

“That universe’s Trixie is either the most brilliant actress or the least competent, egotistical fraud I’ve ever seen. Regardless, it was as entertaining as Tartarus. Celestia praised it as the finest display of ‘Performance Art’ she had ever seen. Even then, Trixie wouldn’t break character. ‘See? Even the Wise Principal Celestia recognizes the art of my performance as the best she has ever witnessed!’ As if she truly had no idea what ‘Performance Art’ was!”

When I could be heard over the laughter, I said, “I think there’s a decent chance you might recognize her when you see her.”

Sunset smirked. “I’m not so sure about that. I can’t imagine my Trixie ever becoming a Princess.”

“You have a point there.”

Sunset asked, “What other incredible things have happened since I left fifteen years ago? Still can’t believe it’s been that long.”

Twilight replied, “Princess Luna returned from her banishment, obviously. The Elements of Harmony were rediscovered and my friends and I became their bearers. Discord, the Lord of Chaos broke free of his stone prison, was defeated, and reformed. Queen Chrysalis and her changeling horde invaded Canterlot and were repelled. The Crystal Empire returned and Princess Cadance and my brother now rule that land. And recently, Tirek invaded Equestria and stole the magic from most of its citizens.”

Sunset blinked in shock. “All that in less than two decades? Equestria has been at peace for ages, but suddenly everything went crazy? And the Elements of Harmony aren’t just a myth?”

“Not only aren’t they a myth, but they are what saved Equestria a few times. In fact, that was what Celestia was trying to teach you. Only through the power of friendship were we able to harness their potential. You were Celestia’s chosen pupil to learn and discover their power to save her sister. Instead, it devolved upon me.”

Sunset sighed and shook her head. “I really screwed things up badly, didn’t I?”

I put a wing about Sunset and hugged her. “Come on, we’ve just gone through this. It’s time to put the past behind you and look to the future. Now that you’ve had some catharsis, what do you really want to do?”

She gave me a smile. “Like I said, I want to finish school and graduate. I also want to spend those months with my friends while deciding what I want to do with my life.”

“So, you don’t want to move back to Equestria?”

“If the portal is closed for fifteen years, I wouldn’t be able to see my friends. I don’t think I could bear that now.”

“You don’t have to,” Twilight said.

The yellow unicorn lifted a curious eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve been studying portals intensely lately for reasons that I’ll explain later. It’s true that they all have their default cycles probably because they are tied to natural phenomena, but I discovered that with the right spell, they can be opened at any time. In fact, as part of my research, I have already enchanted a medallion to act as a key.”

I opened my mouth to ask something, but Twilight beat me.

“I only recently completed making it, Mark. I was going to field test it soon.”

“Why did you need a key? You certainly couldn’t have expected me,” Sunset said.

“It’s for me,” I said. “Can I trust you with a secret?”

Sunset nodded.

“I’m actually a human who came to Equestria through one of those portals, but it got smashed and I’ve been stuck here ever since. You just want to see your friends again, but I want to go home.”

“And you think my world might be yours?” Sunset asked.

“It’s my best lead so far, so I have to check it out.”

Sunset looked thoughtful. “I’m sure my friends would love to help you if you go there, and so would I. But are you sure you won’t get stuck there as I did?”

I looked at Twilight. “Are you certain about that key?”

She nodded vigorously. “I’ve tested it thoroughly and it opens the portals every time from this side. Theoretically, the same should be true for the other side too. And even if not, I could open it again for you from this side.”

“Good enough for me. Let’s do this!”

“Aren’t you being a bit hasty, darling?” Rarity said. “You can’t just charge through the portal without preparing.”

“I’m just going to take a quick look. If it’s my world, it won’t take me long to confirm that with Sunset’s help.”

“So you’re just going to walk through that portal right now, naked?” She arched an eyebrow questioningly.

I opened my mouth to reply but failed to say anything as her words hit home. I had gotten so used to pony nudity that I hadn’t even given a moment’s thought to that little problem.

Sunset giggled. “I think you had better get something suitable to wear before going through the portal. Oh, and it has to be large because ponies are relatively small compared to humans.”

Nothing I owned fitted that description. Why would it? Maybe a bathrobe? Perhaps not – that would probably still leave my nether regions rather drafty. “Any suggestions, Rarity?” I asked. Maybe she could put something together for me.

“Oh, but you already own the perfect apparel, Mark, dear.” She smiled enigmatically.

What was that mare getting at? The only clothing that I owned were a few shirts, two cloaks, a couple of vests, and a formal jacket, none of which were suitable. The only other things in my wardrobe were… Oh, no! My eyes widened and I stared at the fashionista who started nodding and smiling broadly.



I felt really silly wearing one of Rarity’s high-fashion outfits meant for Marklestia. It fit my small frame very badly and some temporary ties held the cuffs up so that I wouldn’t trip on the material. To make things worse, Twilight brought out her camera and started taking photographs. If Trixie or Steady ever saw those….

Sunset had left her human clothing by the mirror before heading out of the room, and she had donned them again in preparation for going back through. Despite the purple shirt and khaki shorts also being too large and silly on a pony, she still looked a hundred times less ridiculous than me. Well, okay – maybe the purple and black cowboy boots on the hind legs of a pony were close. I grabbed the camera from the snap-happy alicorn and took a couple of shots of Sunset before stuffing it into the folds of my dress.

“I’ll take some pics on the other side. Now – can we get on with this, please?” I begged.

“That depends on Sunset Shimmer,” Twilight replied.

Sunset held up the medallion that Twilight had given her. “As long as this thing works, I’ll be able to come and go whenever I need to, so I can come back and visit at any time. So, might as well do this now before Mark Wells pops a gasket.”

“Okay. I have just one other thing to give you before you go through.” Twilight’s magic levitated a stopwatch on a lanyard over my head and settled it around my neck. “I want you to do a short countdown and hit the button on the stopwatch at zero and jump through the portal. I have another stopwatch