Chapter Four - Unexpected Complications
A wondrous display of magic suffused the air. It fractaled outward at an ever greater speed until the frontier finally vanished beyond sight. Two ponies watched, awestruck, the final culmination of a spell millennia in the making. One turned to the other. “But what does it do?”
The slow tolling of midnight resounded throughout the hall. Since the last time Twilight had visited, Canterlot Castle had undergone a dramatic change in decor to the point where she barely recognized it. It was as though the interior designer, in a fit of artistic angst, had determined that the sun motif had been overplayed and had decided to experiment with moons and stars.
Feeling a little stiff in the neck, Twilight adjusted her torc of office about her neck. It didn’t slide about her neck as easily as usual, oddly enough. She summoned a mirror to get a better look to discover that the ornate regalia she wore as the archmage had been replaced with a plain, enchanted collar. While that seemed strange to her, she thought nothing more of it once she’d shifted it into a more comfortable position.
A brisk trot through the corridors of the castle brought Twilight to a pair of large double doors which nearly reached the high ceiling. The guards posted at them let her pass with twin salutes. In the hall on the other side, she moved forward down the center aisle with faceless ponies on either side of her. It was almost as if she were…
A moment of realization brought clarity. Oh, ponyfeathers. I’m at open court. What on Equus possessed me to come here? I give all my reports to the queen in private.
Looking over the assembled ponies from the corner of her eye, for stopping to examine them would be a social faux pas even she wouldn’t make, Twilight recognized nopony in particular. She couldn’t even recall some specific plea she wished to weigh in on publicly. That brought a frown onto her face. Surely she had a reason to come here. Her memory was better than this.
At the end of the hall, Twilight dipped into a quick bow to her queen. She then scaled the dais to take her place upon the lesser throne beside her master’s. Once seated, she turned to the black alicorn above her. For a few moments, her eyes grew lost in the ethereal mane caught in an absent breeze. The stars in it lent it an otherworldly, dreamlike quality which she could study with the same passion as the night sky itself.
Twilight shook herself of her distraction. “What am I doing here, Queen Moon?” Something about that question felt off.
“Recall that this is your punishment for your disobedience last night, my faithful slave,” Nightmare Moon replied, mild amusement written on her face underneath the stern tone. “We both know corporal punishment doesn’t really work on you when I want the message to stick. Besides, I just love how you squirm with every pony you must deal with calmly and civilly.”
“I…see.” After a few moments to process the explanation, it all came rushing back. Twilight was Nightmare Moon’s plaything. She had been ever since she’d failed so spectacularly to save Celestia. “Thank you for reminding me of my place, my queen.” How could I forget?
Nightmare Moon nodded, satisfied with the response. “We’ll quash that little rebellious streak in you eventually. Then we won’t have to resort to such heavy hoofed measures to discipline you. There is still the second half of your punishment, of course. I thought it would be more…actively entertaining for me, shall we say, to give you to that one guard later tonight. You know, the one that doesn’t understand the meaning of no or what being repeatedly defenestrated might imply.”
The horrified look in Twilight’s eyes spoke for her and filled Nightmare Moon with a predatory mirth.
“I – no, you can’t–”
“Oh, but I can. You belong to me. And as it seems you need to be taught a real lesson to fully understand that.”
Nightmare Moon summoned a large collection of papers and notebooks. Eyes wide, heart stopping, Twilight gasped in shock. She’d gone to no small effort to keep her most precious research hidden from everypony, Celestia included, but Nightmare Moon had somehow gotten her hooves on it. The queen’s horn glowed an ominous cyan, making a show of carefully selecting a single sheet of paper and holding it aloft between them. And then she spoke the most terrible words imaginable.
“You didn’t think I would let you go through with this, did you? Even my sister would have balked no matter how much trust she claims to have in you. It amused me to watch you try, but it’s time to put an end to your delusions.”
The paper ignited, burning unnaturally slowly and crackling with maleficence.
Screaming in defiance, Twilight tried to summon up her magic to save her research. When that didn’t work, she leapt from her throne and snatched the paper from the air. The fire didn’t hurt her, but when she stomped on it, it wouldn’t go out. She watched it crumble away, powerless, and then fell to her knees and sobbed.
All that work, my life’s ambition, gone.
No. Not gone. Twilight’s head snapped up with a fire in her eyes. Most of it is still left. I can recreate what I’ve lost. I just need to–
A click of the tongue met Twilight’s defiance. “I had hoped we might burn through this more slowly, my rebellious slave, but you’ve clearly not learned your lesson. I think a more provocative image is in order.”
Nightmare Moon ignited the rest of the papers and notebooks before tossing them into the air. They flew about the hall, burning to ash and being destroyed forever. There were no other copies in the entire world, and Twilight didn’t know how much she could recreate purely from memory. It was over. It was all over. She’d been defeated on every level and had nothing left but to content herself with life as a slave to the mare who’d ruined everything.
Twilight awoke crying.
With all the horror stories I’ve heard, I never imagined the Everfree would be so dull. Moon Dancer had spent some time exploring what was left of the Old Castle, but the most interesting parts of it were a little too structurally unsound for her to feel comfortable stepping hoof in. Maybe next time she would bring some paperwork to tackle during her down time.
Moon Dancer’s gaze strayed to Magic sitting atop the pedestal in the throne room. It ‘hated’ Princess Celestia, in her own words, and she’d needed assistance to transport it back to the Old Castle to use as a stabilizing agent against the Everfree’s chaotic magic. Despite the princess’s recommendation to the contrary, Moon Dancer had indulged her curiosity and worn it during the flight over.
That had been a mistake.
Even at a vastly reduced power output, for the Element was not hers, Moon Dancer felt the call more strongly now that she’d exposed herself to Magic’s effects directly. Like a gravity well, if she stopped fighting it, it pulled her attention back to it. If her thoughts ever wandered, they wandered to it. It was a terrible distraction. She couldn’t imagine what Twilight had felt when parting with the Element.
The quiet of the night broken, Moon Dancer’s attention turned back to Princess Celestia. She’d finished her latest spell, it seemed, and was busy reading through the revised spellwork Twilight had delivered with Magic before leaving yesterday. With a nod to herself, she passed the plans over to Moon Dancer with the usual request to double check her work.
Despite feeling a little out of her depth, Moon Dancer did as asked. She lit her horn and sent probing spells into the enchantments laid down in the castle with the lightest touch possible, wary of triggering any of the traps herself. They should only react to Princess Luna’s return from banishment, but it never hurt to be careful when poking lethal spells set on a hairpin trigger.
Satisfied with the results she obtained, Moon Dancer said, “You’re good,” and floated the instructions back to Princess Celestia. She hadn’t caught any mistakes yet, but a second horn was essential with this level of sensitive and dangerous detail work.
Outside the castle, beyond the protective wards Princess Celestia had placed to keep animals out, came first the cry of some poor creature falling prey to a predator and then the roar of triumph. A shiver ran through Moon Dancer as her gut twisted, but she pushed the incident from her mind. It was merely the circle of life, after all, when there were no ponies around to engineer the environment. It wasn’t even the first time she’d heard something similar tonight.
“I remember when this forest was the beating heart of civilization. Discord never liked to come here, which made it a safe haven for all sentient creatures. When Luna and I defeated him, we went home to our forest village and celebrated. Ponies flocked to us from near and far. Our home grew into a city. Our city became a capital. Families who had preserved scraps of knowledge from before Discord for generations emerged from hiding and joined our growing kingdom. For the first time in an era, we learned of our heritage and celebrated Hearth’s Warming. Thus was Equestria reborn.”
Moon Dancer, hyperventilating in silence, fought not to disturb the princess’s pensive mood. Was this what it was like to be Twilight? Did this happen all the time? That might possibly be the only firsthoof account of Equestria’s second founding in existence. Did Princess Celestia always impart such priceless knowledge to her faithful student on a whim, or was it her sister’s imminent return which made her careless and had her lost in memories?
One question slipped loose. In a low whisper, one easily ignored without discourtesy, Moon Dancer asked, “What happened?”
Princess Celestia took a slow, steady breath, filling her lungs to capacity before emptying them. Her gaze shifted from her work to the moon hanging in the sky above. “Luna and I fought. Our battle raged until I collapsed from exhaustion. In desperation, I used Magic to recall all of the Elements to me, but by then the damage had been done. Can you imagine how much magic we unleashed in our struggle?”
“Then the Everfree’s magic…”
“It’s ours,” Princess Celestia said solemnly. “Luna’s and mine. The forest took on a semblance of life before the dust even settled. Eternally locked in combat with itself, it greedily devours all magic within its reach, even my own, to gain the upper hoof. I always meant to return here and clean up my mess, but the centuries slipped away on me.” Softly, she added, “Perhaps Luna will find the time.”
A pregnant silence fell.
“Princess…” Moon Dancer hesitated. While she recalled the warning Twilight had given her back in Manehattan, this was Princess Celestia. It was lèse-majesté to even hint at her suspicions! But perhaps an oblique approach would be permissible. “You do believe in Twilight, right?”
Now that the question had left her lips, Moon Dancer felt the fool. Of course Princess Celestia believed Twilight would succeed in reawakening the Elements of Harmony. It was why they were going to all this effort to prepare for Princess Luna’s return, after all. She really shouldn’t have ever needed to ask.
Indeed, Princess Celestia replied, “Naturally. Equestria is in good hooves in her care.”
Thus reassured, Moon Dancer set aside her worries. Princess Celestia hadn’t given up. It’d been silly to think otherwise for even a moment. She only expected to have her sister back once this was all over.
When Princess Celestia finished casting the next spell, Moon Dancer found a minor mistake, one no doubt caused by the distracting conversation. It would work perfectly in its current form, but if left unaltered, it would interfere with the placement of a few other enchantments later down the line. She explained the error using Twilight’s annotations as a guide and walked Princess Celestia through the corrections.
When Twilight finally settled down and realized everything had just been a very vivid dream, Pinkie Pie was already at her bedside, holding her hoof and whispering meaningless words of reassurance. While the physical proximity unsettled her somewhat, she was too emotionally exhausted to freak out as she had upon her arrival to Ponyville.
“Feeling better?” Pinkie Pie asked. She squeezed a little tighter with her hooves for a moment.
“I’m fine,” Twilight said. As Pinkie Pie already knew she had more skill with magic than she let on, she ran her telekinesis over her body and pulled off everything that wasn’t attached to her, which included both sweat and tears. It wasn’t the perfect replacement for a bath, but it served well enough. She then went ahead and disintegrated the filth before getting back into character. “Just a bad dream.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Index could choose no words less firm than, “Absolutely not.”
But it seemed that wasn’t quite the end of it. Pinkie Pie didn’t let go of her hoof and instead stared at her in the oddest way Index had ever seen. It had a certain intimidation about it in a creepy sort of way, but Pinkie Pie otherwise didn’t have the right presence to pull it off if indeed she was trying to force Index to speak.
“What are you doing?”
“Aw, I guess only Fluttershy can do the Stare.”
With that unexplained statement, Pinkie Pie fell to the ground. It only occurred to Index then to wonder how she’d been there to begin with. The balcony was on the opposite side of the bed, and the other side was just a straight drop-off. When Index peered over the edge, she found no support system of any kind in place, just Pinkie Pie moving about on the floor.
“How did–” Index cut herself off when she remembered who she was dealing with. There’s no way I’m getting a real answer out of her. About this or the ‘Stare’. She made a mental note to ask later after the latter if she ever ran into whoever Fluttershy was.
Distracted, Index made the mistake of meeting Pinkie Pie’s gaze when she looked up. “Are you really, super duper sure you don’t want to talk about it? One time my sister Marble was having these really bad nightmares, and they really started getting to her until one day she ended up in a mining accident and had to be rushed to the city to see a doctor. She has a permanent limp in her left leg now, but during her stay in the hospital, some ponies finally got her to talk about her problems, and then all the nightmares went away.”
“Yes, I’m sure. Just go back to be–” A stray thought occurred that, upon inspection, turned into a brilliant idea. Index had zero interest in psychoanalyzing the mess of a nightmare she’d just experienced, but while she had Pinkie Pie right here, there was something she wanted to ask. “Actually, you know everypony in town, right?”
“Yep-er-rooney. Even grumpy, old Cranky Doodle Donkey on the outskirts of town. He was a tough nut to crack. I had to find his long lost love to get him to finally admit to being my friend, and before that I went through this whole big shebang, and that’s not even–”
“Pinkie! Focus!” For her, Index felt that was a very restrained response.
Of course, rather than oblige or be in any way helpful, Pinkie Pie gasped. “I’m getting through to you! That’s the first time you called me as just Pinkie! Oh, Index, we’re going to be the best of friends. I just know it!”
One facehoof later, Index said, “Can you please stop going on tangents?”
“That hasn’t worked out well in the past. Like the pony before the last who asked me to do that – oh, I’m doing it already.”
“Just… Just try, I guess.” Index sighed in resignation. “I wanted to ask a favor of you. Could you come up with a list of ponies in town that exemplify a specific character trait? Like, say, kindness?”
Without missing a beat, Pinkie Pie replied, “Weeeell, if you’re looking for kind ponies, then you need look no further than Fluttershy. Of course, almost everypony in Ponyville is kind in one way or another when they’re not all tied up in knots. There’s Applejack, and Rose, and Rarity, and the Cakes, and–”
“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Index muttered to herself as Pinkie Pie droned on in the background. I guess she did focus in on that Fluttershy mare right away. I’ll prioritize following up on that today.
With that plan set, Index interrupted Pinkie Pie’s endless list of ponies. “I get the idea. Same question, then, but for generosity, loyalty, honesty, and laughter.”
Pinkie Pie gasped once more. This one was far and away the single most exaggerated gasp Index had ever heard, lasting longer than a pony should have had room for air in her lungs without practicing circular breathing. And now that she thought about it, Index would not put it past Pinkie Pie to learn that skill just to do nonsense like this.
On another note, Index had a bad feeling about Pinkie Pie’s reaction. She quickly threw up the standard series of privacy spells to make eavesdroppers mind their own business, finishing just in time.
Pinkie Pie transitioned from her gasp into a high-pitched squee. “I can’t believe it! You have the Elements of Harmony, don’t you!”
Bad feeling confirmed. Reluctantly, Index replied, “Yes. I suppose it doesn’t matter that you know so long as you do not spread that information around.” It would also help if she didn’t have to hide her plans from her roommate.
“Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.” The strange promise concluded with Pinkie Pie actually sticking her hoof in her eye.
Index arched an eyebrow but let the odd act pass as just another quirk of a pony who, she suspected, wasn’t entirely compatible with this reality. “I have to ask,” she then said. “How did you know about them?”
A giggle met the question, and then Pinkie Pie said, “There’s a book on them in Golden Oaks Library. The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide.”
Index’s eye twitched. “Why! I emptied the Canterlot Archives of every reference and related work and found practically nothing. I dug through the entire restricted section. I even pulled from Celestia’s own library. Why is there a reference guide in this backwater!”
Rather than take offense, Pinkie Pie said, “Ponyville isn’t a backwater, silly. Practically every northbound train from the south and west passes through town.”
“I…” To her great lament, Index found she didn’t actually have a response for that. “Whatever. Do you happen to know if anypony else has read the book?”
Pinkie Pie hummed in thought. “Not likely. Nopony has checked it out in a few hundred years according to the log inside it.”
That little statement revealed, in the absence of a pure coincidence of timing, either a startlingly strong memory or that Pinkie Pie had somehow worked out how to improve her retention via her own magic. Both only added to the enigma. Photographic memory was rare, and mind magic was as far from trivial as a pony could get.
Unconcerned, Pinkie Pie continued on with her deep insights delivered as a ramble. “Which is odd ‘cause Ponyville isn’t even a hundred years old. Whoever the librarian before Rhyme was must have reused the log when the book was moved to Golden Oaks. We get a lot of old books from Canterlot, you know. You can tell by the musty smell they have.”
It was at this point that Index concluded that Pinkie Pie was actually a genius. Now she only needed to determine if the mare was obfuscating insanity or if Pinkie Pie had some sort of mental disorder. Her bits were on the latter.
“But who cares about that!” Pinkie Pie suddenly exclaimed. She rushed over to her wardrobe and started throwing clothes out until she shouted, “Eureka!” She then stepped inside the wardrobe – Index didn’t even care to contemplate how she fit at this point – and changed into a mismatch of clothes consisting of a deerstalker hat with pipe, a giant foam sword strapped to her back, and a black shinobi shōzoku from Neighpon.
That explained so much and yet created so many more questions.
Pinkie Pie put the pipe between her lips and blew into it. Bubbles came forth from the other end. As she indulged in this frivolous act, she put one hoof on her jaw and stroked it thoughtfully. “Yes, yes. This is a quest if ever I saw one, my dear Index. It will require cunning, stealth, and probably strength. Whether of mind, heart, or body, I do not know. But fear not! Pinkie Pie is here, and I shall help you bear this burden.”
Yeah, no. “The most helpful thing you could do is direct me towards ponies who could bond with an Element. The rest…” Index heaved a resigned sigh as she thought of the ordeal awaiting her. “The rest I need to deal with on my own.”
“Nonsense!” Pinkie Pie said, thrusting her sword out with a dramatic flair. “On a quest, you need a party with you–”
“–and I guarantee that you won’t find a better party pony in Equestria. Oh! By the way, are you the bearer for the Element of Magic, or do you have a friend somewhere already working on the main quest line?”
Eyes closed, Index forced herself to run through Cadance’s breathing exercise, clear her mind, and ultimately release the urge to throw in the towel and teleport home. Why did I have to choose Ponyville? “Yes, Magic is mine, but there’s no adventuring that needs doing and thus no adventuring party that needs forming. If you’re looking for that sort of excitement, join the EIS.”
Her sword sagging sadly to the floor, Pinkie Pie responded, “No thanks. I mean, I’m sure their work is important and all, but I don’t think I could do it.” She paused, thoughtful for a moment, and blew more bubbles from her pipe. “You know, I don’t really know much about you. Everything you’ve told me could just be a cover. You could secretly be the best field agent in the history of Equestria! Ooh! Or this could all be an elaborate disguise. Maybe you’re a shapeshifter. Are you even a mare? Not that I mind sharing my room either way, of course. Hmm, but perhaps you’re not even a pony. You’re a spellcaster, so it’d have to be a unicorn-like species.”
Pinkie Pie suddenly leapt up to somehow perch herself on the edge of edge of the top bunk. There she locked eyes with Index and asked in a perfectly serious tone, “Are you a seapony?”
What did I do to deserve this? “No,” Index said flatly. “Just…no. I’m not a seapony. Neither hippogriffian nor the naturally occurring kind.” Not that the former had the right type of magic to qualify. “I don’t work for the EIS.” They worked for her. “And I assure you that I’m one hundred percent female.” She freely admitted she didn’t like being male regardless of species and avoided it whenever possible. “Nor am I a…”
It occurred to Index that few ponies even knew changelings existed, and the magic required to reshape the body was obscure and prohibitively difficult. It didn’t even show up that often in fiction. “Are you just throwing everything you’ve ever read about at the wall and seeing what sticks?”
“Well, you wouldn’t be the first shapeshifter to come to Ponyville.”
Index buried her first response and more evenly asked, “How do you know that?”
“Observation,” Pinkie Pie replied without a hint of deception. “At first I was like, ‘Wow, she must be going through a growth spurt or something,’ but then the changes happened again but in reverse, and everyday there’s these little minor differences, so I knew something was up. I asked around and heard about the polymorph spell from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend who works in Princess Celestia’s school.”
That…is an impressive information network for a civilian. And she proves her observational skills once again. It was time to reevaluate Pinkie Pie’s role in this venture. She clearly had a lot to contribute and the inclination to do so. It didn’t matter in comparison to the stakes at risk if her personality grated or if she made Index feel vulnerable.
Thus Twilight teleported out of her covers past the obstruction in her way to the floor, where she deftly landed upright on her hooves. With a light application of magic, she rearranged a few of the furnishings in the room to provide her and Pinkie Pie with a table and cushions to have a serious conversation over tea. She then pulled the necessary equipment for brewing said tea from her bag of holding and invited Pinkie Pie to sit down.
“That was amazing!” Pinkie Pie said. For some reason, she vibrated rapidly as she did so.
Twilight conjured some mineral water to fill the teapot. As she adjusted its temperature independently of its container, she watched Pinkie Pie with a wary eye. “Are you well? You seem to be…oscillating.”
Her huge smile was answer enough, but Pinkie Pie added, “Never better!”
“Right…” Twilight would take her word for it. “Anyway, we need to have a proper conversation, and a friend of mine always insists on tea in these sorts of situations.” Come to think of it, Celestia hadn’t broken out the kettle at all since the subject of her sister had come up. That was a bit of a red flag. Hopefully Moon Dancer was proving to be good company for her.
As Twilight went about preparing the tea, a skill Celestia had successfully pounded into her skull despite her disinterest, she divided her thoughts and turned inward.
So, we’ve bought ourselves a respite, Overseer said. Let’s quickly decide what we think of Pinkie Pie.
Immediately, Advocate said, She’s insane.
Possibly, Opposition replied, but that’s not really the point. However much she leaves out and despite the leaps in logic she makes, her behavior and conclusions are directed and correct. She’s odd, yes, but so are we. Besides, that’s not really the right question. We need to decide what we want to do with her. After a moment, she added, You know, beyond tying her down to a lab table as an experimental subject.
As much as I hate to suggest it, we should fully bring her in if we can. She’s too useful to ignore.
Although Opposition agreed with the idea in principle, she asked, Can we trust her?
Advocate shrugged. If she meant any immediate harm for whatever reason, she could have planted a knife in our chest upon our first meeting.
A shudder ran through Twilight as she poured the tea in the real world. Maybe dealing with so many cultists, evil sorcerers, and the like had given her a bad case of paranoia, but being undercover, being without all of her magical defenses in place, it made her feel on edge. The presence of anypony she couldn’t swat like a bug with a thought, a category which she strongly suspected Pinkie Pie belonged to, only made the unease grow.
I suppose you have a point, Opposition admitted. We can defer ultimate judgment until the solstice draws near.
It was then that Advocate put forth a horrible idea. We could befriend her.
She’s our total opposite. It’s not going to work.
Why not? Advocate asked. She seems to want to be friends with everypony, and she seems like somepony useful to be friends with in return.
Pretty sure you’ve got the definition of friendship wrong, Opposition dryly remarked. The Elements, I’m sure, would disapprove.
While likely true, Twilight refused to be bound by some ancient set of magical artifacts’ code of conduct. If she was going to make a bunch of friends and harness the literal power of friendship into a magical rainbow of doom, she was going do it on her own terms.
Continuing from where she’d left off, Advocate said, It’s not like it would be hard, and Pinkie Pie seems like the forgiving type if we mess up. All we’d really have to do is tone down the impulse to lash out when she surprises us.
Opposition remained unmoved.
It costs us literally nothing to attempt, Advocate added. If we can’t score a win here on easy mode, we should find out now so we can go home and enjoy what time we have left with Celestia.
It came slowly and rather begrudgingly, but Opposition said, Fine.
So agreed and with tea in magic, Twilight took her place opposite Pinkie Pie at the table. “Sugar, I assume?” She’d hardly needed to wait for Pinkie Pie’s response to know to add a few lumps. It was perhaps not the wisest idea with the mare still twitching up a storm on occasion, but worse come to worst, she’d just cast a sleep spell and be done with it.
Twilight took her first sip of the tea. It was…passable. She’d brewed worse. When she set the cup down, she spoke. “So…Pinkie.” The mare in question interrupted with a quiet squee but calmed down, relatively speaking, quickly enough. “In taking advantage of your help, and more importantly your silence, I would be remiss not to be more honest with you. But before that, I’d like to know who the local polymorph is and how long you believe she’s been here.” Changelings typically didn’t make the kind of mistakes Pinkie Pie had described – they were biologically wired not to – and simple illusions were easy for anypony to spot when they didn’t sync properly with the target.
“Lyra Heartstrings,” Pinkie Pie replied, a questioning look quickly passing over her face. “She’s been here and her for six years, a season, and twenty-two days.”
Even expecting an more detailed answer than most ponies would give, Twilight still nearly choked on her tea. “That’s very accurate.”
“And suspicious,” Twilight added. It wasn’t all that unusual for a unicorn to modify small things they disliked about themselves longterm. For example, illusions which altered the color of a mane were well within reach of the skill level most unicorns possessed. Physical, full body changes, however, required exponentially more talent and raw power to maintain. In her experience, that indicated the subject had something to hide. Even deep cover EIS agents typically stuck to simpler spellwork, if any.
Pinkie Pie, as might have been expected, didn’t see it that way. “Lyra is super nice and my friend. She’s never done anything wrong.”
“We’ll see. I happen to have a meeting arranged with her” – Twilight briefly pulled a watch from her bag of holding – “tonight, so I’ll determine what action I need to take then.”
Although a frown met that compromise, Pinkie Pie accepted it without further protest.
“Now what questions do you have for me? I’m willing to answer most any relevant question.”
“Ooh, ooh, ooh!” Pinkie Pie flailed her hoof around in the air as if waiting to be called upon. “I want to know the big one! Who are you really?”
Twilight sighed. Might as well rip that bandage off right away. She melted her disguise, reshaping herself back into her base appearance. “Twilight Sparkle. I would introduce myself further, but I fear my reputation will precede me.”
Without warning, Pinkie Pie’s vibrations increased until she bounced a not insignificant fraction of her own height repeatedly off the ground. Her body contorted in a some strange way each hop, even swelling up like a balloon once before rapidly deflating back to normal.
Unfazed by what had just happened – which led Twilight to, distressingly, conclude that it wasn’t unusual – Pinkie Pie said, “Oh my! I knew it was going to be a doozy, but this is so exciting! I want to throw you a proper welcome party soooo bad, but I can’t break a Pinkie Promise.”
“Wait, what?” This wasn’t how ponies usually reacted to coming face to face with Equestria’s archmage. “Do you actually have a good impression of me?”
“Of course! Everypony does. The half of town that doesn’t idolize you is in love with you.”
Twilight gaped. When she finally recovered the ability to speak, she only managed, “Well, that’s…new.”
“How is that new? It’s like that all over Equestria, silly!”
“That’s impossible.” She might not be the most socially gifted pony in Equestria, but she wasn’t blind. “Everypony I interact with is always terrified of me, nervous I’m going to do something awful to them, hates me, or reluctantly works for me.”
“Wow, you don’t get out much, do you?”
Despite herself, Twilight weakly shook her head.
“That explains so much. You and your brother are the shining–” There Pinkie Pie giggled. “–example of what the common pony can accomplish through merit instead of birthright. Everypony has read something about what you do for Equestria. For Celestia’s sake, you stand side by side with the princess herself at public events!”
All of Twilight’s muscles went lax as she struggled to process this strange new facet of reality. Her cup of tea fell out of her magic and crashed onto the table, but she repaired it and cleaned up after herself with barely a thought. Then, once her mind stopped glitching, she carefully sounded out, “You’re telling me I’m popular?”
“That’s… I don’t… Please give me a minute to absorb that before you ask any more questions.”
“Take all the time you need,” Pinkie Pie replied. “It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”
It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but all three friends mourned the loss of their clubhouse nonetheless. Although it would never be the same, they would rebuild. They would always rebuild. If there was one thing they could do better than anypony else, it was to carry on in the face of failure. Their clubhouse would rise again greater than ever before as a reflection of the skills they’d gained over the past few seasons.
Three knocks of a gavel upon their temporary lectern, an old water barrel, broke their moment of silence. Then in a deep twang so common to the Apple family, Apple Bloom said, “I call this meeting of the Cutie Mark Crusaders to order. Seeing as the mayor is real upset with us and says we can’t do anything like our usual activities for the next few weeks–”
“It’s your fault,” Scootaloo accused, a glare in her eyes. “Your design didn’t work.”
Sweetie Belle’s eyes drifted to the still smoldering remains of their trebuchet nearby.
Holding up her hooves in apology, Apple Bloom said, “Now, now. I admit to being partially at fault, but my latest work worked just fine. I just forgot to account for the trees.”
“In other words,” Scootaloo said flatly, “it didn’t work.”
Apple Bloom’s eye twitched. “Well, who was the pegasus that went and messed up her glide?”
“Oh yeah? Well, who put a gouge in the sling-release mechanism?”
“Who dropped the payload on our clubhouse!”
“Girls, please.” Sweetie Belle stepped between her two friends who, by now, were muzzle to muzzle and pushed them apart. “At the end of the day, are we not all covered in tree sap?”
That managed to get a snicker out of them both, something which soon turned into full blown laughter. The two quickly apologized and made up. It was nopony’s fault. It was never anypony’s fault. Once that was over with, the meeting resumed.
“Does anypony have an idea for what we can do today?” Apple Bloom finally got around to asking.
“Yeah, I’ve got a bunch.”
With a nod, Apple Bloom said, “Go ahead and share, Scoots.”
“We could try stilts.”
“No!” It sounded harmless enough, but even if they kept getting into disaster after disaster, Sweetie Belle could learn from their mistakes. “Mayor Mare would put us under house arrest. Remember what happened with our pogo sticks?”
Apple Bloom and Scootaloo cringed in unison. That hadn’t been one of their better days. The former, however, made a weak attempt at a defense of her invention. “Hey, we get a whole bushel of funding from the royalties.”
“Yeah,” Scootaloo said, “but there’s a reason why they’re not popular in Ponyville.”
Disheartened, Apple Bloom admitted the point with a simple, “Fair.”
“We could try pet sitting,” Scootaloo offered.
Sweetie Belle had to shoot that idea down. “Rarity is allergic to most pets. If I came home covered in, well, anything but cat hair, she would have a conniption. Whenever Fluttershy comes over, she scrubs the entire boutique clean afterward.”
“How about mountain climbing, then?”
This time Apple Bloom objected with the obvious. “We don’t have a mountain to climb.”
“I guess. We could just read?”
“Really, Scoots?” Apple Bloom said with some incredulity. “Reading? Did Rainbow Dash pick up a book or something?”
Scootaloo folded her arms together in a huff. “Well, fine. If you’re going to be like that, never mind.”
Privately, Sweetie Belle said, I like reading. Granted, she mostly like to read about magic, which none of the other Crusaders would really benefit from, but that counted.
“I didn’t really want to anyways. I just thought we needed to expand our activities since none of us have gotten a cutie mark yet.” Scootaloo next offered, “How about making sweets?”
Apple Bloom, skeptical, said, “I’m rather more on the consumption side, myself. Besides, the Cakes’ and Bon Bon’s grub would be way better than whatever we can cook up.”
“Then I’m out of ideas.”
The two turned to Sweetie Belle. She, however, had nothing to give. “Sorry, but Rarity has needed my help around the boutique lately. I have nothing.” Her friends took that well. While she had the dubious privilege of actually having parents, like her friends, she knew how difficult life without them could be at times.
“All right,” Apple Bloom said. “How about we help my sister, then? Applejack was looking for some help with corralling the cows.”
Sweetie Belle thought for a moment. It might violate the spirit of what amounted to the parole the mayor had put them under, but they were just helping Apple Bloom’s sister. Surely that had to be allowed. She looked to Scootaloo. They nodded to each other, and then nodded to Apple Bloom in turn.
In unison, the three shouted their oft changing motto. “Cutie Mark Crusaders, corralers! Yay!”
Index had little time to ponder how much magic she should use to not die. Quickly, she settled on an old favorite and levitated herself several meters into the air. From that safe vantage point, she watched the disaster unfold below her in bemusement.
What on Equus is a stampede doing in town?
Upstream of the rampaging cattle, she saw three fillies, one of each pony tribe, desperately trying to stop, or at least redirect, the stampede. In the other direction at the front of the line, a fully grown orange earth pony mare was having much more success at averting damage to the town.
Hmm… Were she here as the archmage, Index could end this with a thought and then get on with her day without the distraction. Alas, she was not. There’s no way I can magic up an instant fix to this and not draw attention. Being a local hero might act as a social lubricant of sorts, but… I don’t know. It feels like too much. I’m not really looking for hero worship.
Index weighed the scales and settled on a compromise. She would let the mare at the head of the stampede handle the matter. She seemed competent. Index, meanwhile, would float along at a more relaxed pace and keep watch for trouble further down the line.
As the stampede appeared relatively cohesive, the cattle involved largely following the road through town, Index’s attention drifted to the three fillies attempting to help who were, very obviously, inexperienced and in the most danger.
Although now that Index took a closer look, the earth pony one was performing remarkably well. Her kicks to prod diverging cows back into line were well intertwined with her gallop. While she sported a little discolored flesh beneath her coat that looked likely to turn into a nasty bruise, she held her own. Beneath the mud accruing on her coat as she ran beside the road rather than on it, she bore a distinct resemblance to the mare at the front of the stampede.
Probably sisters. She’ll be fine.
The pegasus filly was keeping up, if nothing else. Almost all pegasi could fly at her age, but she’d chosen an odd combination of wings and scooter to move fast enough over the ground to be considered part of the stampede. She didn’t help much, but she was clearly trying her best.
Index cast a magnification spell to get a better look at the filly’s wings. Something about them seemed off.
Hmm… I’d need to perform a full examination to be sure, but her primary feathers look stunted. That would explain the scooter, I suppose. Index made a note to talk with the health care department when she had the time. She wasn’t an expert on wings, but such conditions should be manageable, if not outright curable. The occasional growth spell, at the very least, would allow her to generate enough lift for flight without straining herself.
Assuming the filly’s magic wasn’t crippled as well, of course. A shudder ran through Index at the thought. What a short, miserable life that would make for. Ponies were as much their magic as they were the flesh they walked around in, inseparable and indivisible. When one died, so too did the other. In most cases, the flesh was the first to wear down, but there were exceptions.
Shaking off such morbid thoughts, Index turned to look upon the unicorn filly. She was doing…less well than her friends – far less well. Not that it was any surprise, given the respective advantages of each tribe, but she was clearly the least athletic of the trio. It didn’t help that ponies were made for sprinting and cows for endurance. She panted for breath as she struggled to keep pace with the adult bovines moving at their full gallop.
Much to Index’s interest, however, the filly wore roller skates powered by both muscle and magic. A hint of a smile pulled at her lips. Clever. Reminds me a bit of myself when I was young and innocent.
After a time, the unicorn filly looked up and noticed Index floating overhead. Eyes wide, she stumbled over a dip in the road in her surprise. She twisted her head as she fell to bring the stampede threatening to crush her into view. Rather than cast a spell or take evasive action, however, her arms moved to protect her head and neck.
Good instincts, but they need a little refining.
Reacting immediately, Index plucked the filly from the ground before any harm could come to her. Held suspended in midair, she had her eyes closed and her arms covering her neck to supplement the protection her helmet offered. It wasn’t the worst move she could have made. She probably would have survived if the stampede ran her over, but she likely wouldn’t have escaped unscathed. Some part of Index wondered what she got up to for this to be her natural first reaction to danger. Ponies as a species tended more toward panic and flight when untested.
A few seconds passed before the filly cautiously lifted her head. Surprisingly, she froze rather than flailed but wore a terrified look on her face all the same as she stared at the passing herd below her and spoke some voiceless words between heavy breaths. Before too long, Index drew near enough to hear her over the stampede.
“–please, oh please, don’t let me fall mysterious floating magic. Thank you for saving me, but–”
“You’re welcome,” Index said.
Startled, the filly’s head shot up.
“Relax. I won’t drop you. You’re safe.” Index pulled her prize up to eye level. “Luckily enough. This seems like something you should have left to your friends.”
When the filly’s surprise finally passed, she shouted out between slowing gasps for air, “Thank you so much! I was so scared that was going to be the end of me.”
“No need to thank me. It did look like I distracted you to begin with.” As Index said this, she cast a subtle little spell to help the filly regain her breath that passed unnoticed beneath her telekinesis.
“Well, this stampede is kind of, sort of, a little bit our fault…”
Index arched an eyebrow but didn’t inquire further. Instead, she shifted their relative positions to set the filly down on her back. She then dropped her magical grip on the filly to give the calming illusion of a simple ride on her back. It seems I finally get to experience the other side of this conversation. She’s not as young as I was, but no matter.
“You don’t need to worry about that right now,” Index said assuringly. “I know how scary near death experiences can be. Whatever part you played in this, just forget about it for now.”
The filly said nothing to indicate the message had sunk in but asked, “Where are we going?” Now that she’d settled down and had her breath back, she spoke with an affected Canterlot accent. It wasn’t exactly wrong, per se, but she’d clearly never spent a day of her life in the capital. Index politely chose not to comment and answered her question.
“Well, as I’ve already gotten involved, I might as well make sure nopony else gets into any trouble. Your friends will probably worry when they realize you’re missing, too, so I figured I’d give you a lift along the way.”
“Whoa! You’re like a hero!”
“Like?” Index felt she deserved more than a like.
“You are a hero! Even cooler than Archmage Twilight!”
Index’s eye twitched at the mention of her real name. She’d thought she’d made peace with her alleged popularity after Pinkie Pie had gone back to bed, but it seemed all evidence – what little there was to be had – was to the contrary.
“You…like the archmage?”
“Who would not?” the filly replied with the kind of dreamy quality that only came from a foal who’d never met her hero. “I mean, I heard she has a temper, but she is the most amazing unicorn in the world!”
“What happened to me?”
“Oh, uh, except for you, of course.”
Index rolled her eyes. This filly certainly wouldn’t be getting the Element of Honesty.
“And my big sister. Hmm… No, just you. Rarity is too prissy and scared of getting her hooves dirty. She’s far too prim and proper.”
I see. Well, that explains the affected accent. Ugh. And here I thought I’d left Canterlot behind. Regardless, Index knew precisely how to progress this conversation now. “I saw what you were doing with your roller skates back there. That’s pretty impressive yourself.”
“Thanks!” the filly chirped warmly. “I came up with that a few weeks ago so I could keep up with Scootaloo and Apple Bloom.”
Index paled. Oh, no. She’d gotten names but not descriptions. I’m trying to tutor a Crusader. She chanced a hesitant backward glance at what must be their third member and saw exactly what she expected. Sweetie Belle wore a huge grin which perfectly mirrored her own when she’d been that age and spoke of magic. Although she feared what agent of chaos she might unleash upon the world, she couldn’t say no to that.
“That makes you the third Crusader, Sweetie Belle, right?”
An enthusiastic, “Uh-huh!” met the question.
“Have you been studying magic long?”
“For years. Ever since my sister brought home a copy of 103 Spells Every Unicorn Should Know from Canterlot.”
Index’s ears perked up at the title. Ponies actually read that? Huh. Maybe it hadn’t been such a waste of time to write that textbook for Celestia’s school. “How many spells have you learned from it?”
“Only the easier ones,” Sweetie Belle replied, the disappointment in herself evident in her voice. “I’ve learned other spells, too, but… Well, Ponyville is an earth pony town.”
It was, sadly, an imperfect education system that existed in Equestria. “Do you not have magic kindergarten here?” Index asked. “Flight camp?” When she received negatives to both questions, she let out a displeased hum. It didn’t come as some great shock given the local demographics, but it disappointed her all the same.
Regardless, she’d not come here to institute rural educational reforms. Index asked, “So how many spells have you learned in total?”
Index felt Sweetie Belle sit a little taller before she proudly proclaimed, “I have but six left before I reach one hundred.”
To the claim, Index returned an impressed hum. She’s about…ten…eleven, maybe, years old. Shining, I think, is sitting at around a thousand. Mom and Dad are only a bit past a hundred. The average unicorn isn’t even half that. Not bad. I think I see a magic focused cutie mark in her future. She snorted to herself. But no wonder she’s a Crusader. Those are hard enough to get in the best of circumstances, and her environment certainly isn’t doing her any favors.
After reminding herself to be careful not to slip into the first person, Index said, “You can color me impressed. Is your goal to be like the archmage, then?” How strange those words felt to utter.
“Yeah! I know I’ll likely never even meet her, but my sister always says to dream big.”
“You could become a singularly easily reformed supervillain. You’d get her attention and probably a job offer.” Index regretted the joke the moment she’d made it. With the stories Pinkie Pie had told her about the Cutie Mark Crusaders, Sweetie Belle might actually take the suggestion seriously and follow through. She twisted her head around to stare her passenger in the eye and emphatically commanded, “Don’t.”
Sweetie Belle looked far too contemplative for Index’s liking. “But what if–”
“Don’t.” Index turned her eyes back onto the stampede below her and breathed deep to calm herself. She would not be responsible for creating a mess so easily avoidable. “Look, I know the archmage, okay?”
A moment after Sweetie Belle gasped, she lunged forward, an excited bounce in her frame, to wrap her hooves around Index’s neck and cried, “You do?”
“Yeah.” What exactly did I tell Cheerilee again? Oh, right. “I do odd jobs for her and the princess. We also went to magic kindergarten together.”
“Whoa,” Sweetie Belle whispered in awe. “What was she like?”
“Eh, asocial. Completely uninterested in everypony else. Her passion was magic even then. That’s not the point. Let’s bring this back to what we were discussing before we got sidetracked. How many spells do you think she knew at that age?”
Sweetie Belle considered the question and made all sorts of odd humming noises in the process. “It must either be really low or really high for you to be asking.” After a few more seconds, she guessed, “A thousand?”
“Well, you went in the right direction, but if you asked her directly, she would tell you, ‘I don’t know.’”
“I guess I’d lose track if I knew that many spells too.”
Index shook her head. “You misunderstand. You’re not wrong, but that’s not the reason she would give you. Tell me, have you ever invented your own spell?”
“No. Inventing spells is really hard without inspiration from your special talent.”
“Bah!” Twilight said, slipping out of character for a moment. While valuable insights could come from such spells, they were gifts hoofed over on a silver platter to their ‘inventors’. Neither science nor even true understanding played any part in the process. Checking herself before she destroyed her masquerade, Index added, “The archmage was already doing it in magic kindergarten without a cutie mark. On the fly even.”
“Granted, most of her creations either failed outright or blew up in her face until…” Index cleared her throat. “Never mind. Not important. That, too, is not the reason she would give you. She knew plenty of spells. She could invent more as needed. Yet neither of these explains her response. I hope that lends weight to the wisdom I’m about to impart to you.”
“Of course,” Sweetie Belle said as solemnly as an eager filly could.
“Then this is what she would say.” Index paused for effect and felt Sweetie Belle draw unconsciously closer. “Every spell has a thousand uses and every use has a million spells which fulfill it. I don’t know a number high enough to estimate how many spells I know because, by the way you count spells, every one I know is worth more than all of the ones you know put together.”
Now that they were out of Ponyville, Index blindly followed the sound of the stampede and turned her gaze back to Sweetie Belle. Trying to imitate Celestia as best as she could, she asked, “Do you understand the meaning?”
“I think so…” Haltingly, Sweetie Belle put her thoughts into words. “Basically, she’s saying that spells have more than one use.”
“And one spell used wisely…” Index prompted when Sweetie Belle faltered.
A moment passed, and then Sweetie Belle’s eyes widened. “–is better than a thousand used poorly. So what she really values is…creativity?”
Sweetie Belle’s excitement and wide smile turned into sudden panic. “Watch out for that–”
Index turned away from Sweetie Belle to check in front of her and immediately face planted into an apple tree.
“…tree,” Sweetie Belle finished once they’d hit the ground. “Are you all right?”
“Peachy.” The good news was that the stampede had slowed down outside Ponyville, so Index hadn’t hit the tree as fast as she could have. The bad news was magic couldn’t heal her pride. She had half a mind to throw subtlety to the wind and restore all of her defensive enchantments. This village clearly had it out for her. At least they hadn’t been trampled in the interim with a solid barrier behind them. The tree was good for something, it seemed.
Sweetie Belle dismounted and ran a semicircle about Index. Standing upright on her legs, she inspected the forming bruise just above Index’s nose and then the scrape on her forehead.
“I said I’m fi–”
Sweetie Belle’s magic swelled, and Index felt the bruise heal. The spell had been well formed and executed with a practiced horn. A few moments later, she attempted to heal the scrape with equal skill, but Index dispelled the magic before it took effect.
To Sweetie Belle’s confused look, Index said, “I’m young and healthy like you and your friends, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” She then walked her temporary protégé through a disinfectant spell. Sweetie Belle learned delightfully quickly with an expert at hoof to guide her, and soon, it was done. A second spell right after healed the now cleaned scrape.
“Good work,” Index said. “I take it you Crusaders injure yourselves often?”
Sweetie Belle nodded. “When we first met, we got in a lot of trouble…” She pursed her lips together. “Well, we still get in a lot of trouble. But back then we got in a lot of trouble for coming home hurt. I learned some healing magic so our guardians would stop scolding us.”
‘Guardians’? The next time she stopped by town hall, Index resolved to find out if Ponyville’s flag was just a big red flag. “Nice initiative,” she said when nothing more appropriate leapt to mind.
Sweetie Belle absorbed the praise like a bone-dry sponge.
Exactly how starved is she for a magical authority figure in her life? Sweetie Belle really needed to find an education before some unicorn with less than noble intentions found her. “How about some homework?”
It was a cautious optimism which met the question. It’d caught Sweetie Belle’s interest, certainly, but presumably only if it wasn’t boring or tedious.
A smirk crept onto Index’s face. She could work with that. “Take a spell you know. Any will do, but no medical spells. Those have nasty side effects when used improperly. Anyway, take that spell and think of thirty nonstandard ways you can use it. Don’t expect it to be easy. Come find me once you’re done. I’m staying with Pinkie Pie at Sugarcube Corner. Ask for Index Code.”
Index approved of the alacrity on display. Nodding, she turned her gaze from Sweetie Belle to the direction the stampede had left in. “Do you need an escort the rest of the way, or will you be fine catching up to your friends on your own?”
“I’ll be fine. Apple Bloom’s home is close by.”
“Now I know you were just trying to help, sugarcube, but what you did was the plumb opposite.”
“Eeyup,” Big Macintosh agreed with Applejack.
Apple Bloom sighed. “I know, Sis. We were trying, honest, but…stuff happened.”
Of course, that fell on deaf ears. Applejack gave Apple Bloom a look that promised a further talking to later. Then she looked around with furrowed brows. “Where’s Sweetie Belle gone off to? Rarity will be awful sore with us if we lost her.” Raising her voice, she called out for the absent Crusader.
“I’m coming!” The filly in question approached from far off on the path to the corral, skating gently along at a casual pace.
“Well, that’s something, at least,” Applejack muttered.
When she finally arrived, Sweetie Belle said, “Hey, everypony. How did the rest of the corralling go?”
“It went just fine, sugarcube, but it shouldn’t of been necessary to begin with.”
Apple Bloom remained willfully ignorant to the look her sister gave her and went over to Sweetie Belle, inspecting her for any sign of injury. “You’re all right, right? I saw you were tiring mighty fast, but the whole town could of been in trouble if I didn’t stick with the herd.”
“I understand. I did almost die” – everypony gasped – “but I was saved by the nicest, smartest, most amazing pony I have ever met!”
“Rainbow Dash?” Scootaloo asked, joining the circle.
Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes in answer.
“I’d like to know myself,” Applejack said. “The Apple family will need to thank whoever it was something fierce. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for ya when you need me.”
“Her name is Index Code. She’s the overseer for the festival, I think.” Sweetie Belle sounded a little unsure on that last point until Applejack confirmed it for her.
“Even if she saved you, there’s no way she’s cooler than Rainbow Dash.”
“Oh, Scootaloo. We shall forever have different definitions of cool. What a cruel divide this makes in our friendship. Perhaps if we never argue over it again, we may pretend that the very fates themselves do not conspire against us.”
“Whoa, turn down the Rarity, Sweetie Belle.”
Both Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle laughed at the reaction. Applejack proved unable to resist a private chuckle, and even the ever stoic Big Macintosh’s eyes lit with mirth.
“So,” Apple Bloom began. She was curious what about this mysterious pencil pusher had gotten Sweetie Belle’s attention. “I get that she saved you and all, but what exactly makes her so amazing?”
“Well, first of all, she knows the archmage.”
Apple Bloom shared a groan with Scootaloo.
“Anyway,” Sweetie Belle continued pointedly, “she gave me a magic lesson right after she saved me. It was brilliant! Practically straight from Twilight Sparkle herself!”
“I see…” Applejack said with a distinctly nervous inflection. “And what spell exactly did she teach you?”
“It wasn’t just one spell but ninety-four thousand!” Sweetie Belle proclaimed with pride.
Out of the corner of her eye, Apple Bloom saw her big sister and big brother grow pale. Amusing, yes, but as excited as she was for her friend, something felt off. “I don’t get it. How did she teach you that many spells in just a few minutes?”
“Well,” Sweetie Belle began, “it was more a lesson about creativity than spellcasting. She did teach me a disinfectant spell, but the lecture was infinitely more important. I’m one giant leap closer to the archmage now!”
“If you say so, sugarcube,” Applejack said. “Now about this whole stampede business.”
All three Crusaders groaned in harmony.
The Golden Oak Library was small by most standards and minuscule in comparison to the Canterlot Archives, but it had a certain rustic charm about it. Somepony had gone to a lot of effort to turn a still living tree into a habitable structure. The magic behind it must have been intricate and fascinating. Someday Index would have to get her hooves on it.
She was just about to open the library door when it slammed into her face and knocked her onto the ground. Index fell heavily onto her rear with a grunt, her poor abused muzzle protesting its rough treatment. When she recovered from her daze, she cried, “Why!” to the heavens. What had she ever done to Ponyville to deserve this? Why was everypony in this insufferable village crazy?
On the library’s doorstep stood a cloaked electric blue pony. A faint rustling underneath the cloak marked its wearer as a pegasus.
“Sorry about – oh, you’re fine.” By the sound of the voice, the cloaked figure was female and approximately Index’s real age. “Whatever. Still sorry. I was never here.” With that abrupt apology, she pulled her hood further down over her face and ran off into the wide and not very concealing alleys of Ponyville.
Yep. Crazy. Index got to her hooves and set about cleaning her coat off with a little application of magic. She could have at least done a better job of concealing her identity. Rainbow manes are incredibly rare. If she were so inclined, it would be simplicity itself to track down the mare.
Once clean, Index levitated her saddlebags from where they’d fallen, pleased to find that they’d not landed in the mud, and returned them to her back. She’d taken them from her bag of holding on the walk back into town to carry books, but little had she known the dangers that had awaited her.
Index laughed to herself at her little bit of dramatic internal dialogue as she entered the library. There were less books than she’d imagined. While she knew that the upper floors served as living space for the librarian, she’d still expected a larger collection. This was, after all, the library which housed a work as obscure and esoteric as The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide. It made her wonder what other books were in stock. Knowing Ponyville, she had no doubt the collection would be eclectic and eccentric.
The librarian, Rhyme, stood behind the counter filling out a few forms which likely pertained to the pegasus who’d bumped into Index. She seemed normal at first blush. She was a unicorn. There was nothing unusual about that. The blue color of her mane and tail didn’t stand out either. Her coat was a deep purple, and although ponies tended more toward pastels, that wasn’t particularly odd. Her cutie mark was a sheet of paper with a quill. Again, not strange. But one detail in particular floored Twilight.
That’s my manecut! Or my…not manecut. Twilight just snipped a flat line off whenever it obscured her vision without much care for how it looked. Moon Dancer, she recalled, used to do the same. But it was the principle of the matter! Curse you, Pinkie Pie. This is your fault. If you hadn’t said anything, I’d have remained blissfully oblivious to these sorts of things for the rest of my life.
“Can I help you?”
Twilight forced herself back into character, tried her best not to show that anything was bothering her, and broke off her incredulous stare. As Index approached the desk, she pulled a manila folder from her bag and floated it over to the librarian. “I’m running an errand for the Canterlot Archives while I’m in town. They want to acquire a book from this library and asked me to see to it.”
Rifling through the documents, Rhyme hummed in thought. “Well, this all seems in order, but The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide? Do I even have a book by that name? One moment, please.” Rhyme set the folder down and went to search the shelves. “Let’s see… A… B… C… D… E… El…e…ments–”
Index’s eye twitched. That was not how libraries were sorted. She told herself, It’s just Ponyville. Don’t fight the madness.
“Aha! Here we are. The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide. Hmm… Oh! I think Pinkie checked this out a few years ago. Who knows what gets into that mare’s head.” The librarian opened the cover to glance at the log. “But nopony before her, I see.”
Rhyme walked back behind her desk. She pulled out a few forms from the drawers and quickly filled them out. Once done, she looked up and pushed them across to Index.
“If you’d just sign these at the bottom. All right, then. You take the yellow copy, and I keep the other two. Do you want me to mail the book, or will you be delivering it?”
Stashing the reference guide in her saddlebag, Index replied, “I can take care of it. Thanks.”
“No problem. Need anything else?”
Index declined the offer and left the library. Part of her wanted to explore its shelves, but the larger part of her didn’t want to know what Ponyville considered essential reading. As soon as she was outside and out of sight of the library, she pulled the book from her saddle bags and began reading. It only took a few seconds before she paused, surprised, and then started flipping through the rest of it.
Page after page was filled with trivial details Index already knew or illustrations. There was nothing hoofwritten in, no concealing spells placed upon the book, and as far as she could tell, there were no secret chemical stains to uncover and turn into readable text. Alas, her knowledge of the mystery genre had let her down again. She had no idea why this red herring was in Ponyville, but that was a mystery that would wait for another day.
Well, that was a wash.