The ponies, both unicorn and alicorn, fretted before the last magic portal. They’d made it all the way to Camelu, where the last jump awaited. Unfortunately, so did Neighpon Customs.
“How long are they going to make us wait here?” demanded Twilight. She pouted. “It’s a diplomatic insult!”
“As long as they must,” answered Princess Celestia. “Please don’t raise your voice. Be calm. Meditate. We are not done negotiating with the Kirin on the other side.”
Trixie Lulamoon cowered, trembling. Against Twilight’s advice, she’d obeyed Celestia’s firm directions and identified herself in a clear, yes, even a Great And Powerful voice (that quavered only a little) when the voices of Kirin asked for the travellers to identify themselves.
It wasn’t the immediate word “Stop” that had shattered her nerves, either. It was the twenty minutes of silence that had followed.
Chaos cuddled Trixie, uncharacteristically serious. She’d stuck to her alicorn form since leaving Canterlot, and groused about it the whole way, and swore she’d explode in a huge burst of randomness as soon as she got back… but the whole time, she’d figured that the diplomatic issue would be herself. She’d joked about it, teased Celestia about her poor taste in consorts, said again and again that for Trixie’s sake she’d willingly go back alone and let Celestia, Twilight and Trixie enjoy Neighpon if there was trouble.
Celestia had protested that idea with gentle force, and Twilight and Trixie sided with Celestia, and they’d all arrived at the final portal feeling brave.
And the Kirin on the other side, their voices kindly but stern, hadn’t even hesitated at Celestia or Twilight, and barely hesitated in welcoming ‘Alicorn Princess Chaos, it’s just a name’. They’d greeted each one in courtly manner, while Trixie got the shakes worse and worse hearing those voices, so like the ones out of her past.
And then she’d introduced herself, and the voice said ’Stop’, and the portal went out.
Celestia’d had to order away several dromedaries to ensure Trixie’s safety, for it appeared much like Trixie had broken the portal somehow. The tall, statuesque alicorn Princess had insisted it was part of a diplomatic negotiation, normal procedure, security protocols.
She very much feared that was the truth, and racked her brain for what to say when communication was re-established.
“Twilight, don’t charge through the portal when it comes back,” she said.
“You mean, IF it comes back!”
“It will,” vowed Celestia. “I have known the Kirin for many, many years. I don’t know what’s taking them so long, but they will return.”
“Why don’t you warn Trixie not to charge the portal? Since they’re apparently so paranoid about her getting in?” challenged Twilight.
“Look at her,” said Princess Celestia.
Twilight looked, and almost started to cry, just to see Trixie brought so low. She stared dully at nothing as Chaos petted her mane and gazed worriedly up at Celestia and Twilight.
The lavender unicorn gulped, her lip quivering. “Kirin SUCK!”
“Twilight!” chided Princess Celestia. “I don’t know what’s happening, but I assure you, they certainly do not! I knew the Kirin for centuries! We will continue to wait,” she said, glaring sternly at a couple fretful dromedaries who were growing impatient.
“We should go home and take care of Trixie!” protested Twilight, stamping a hoof.
“If needs be,” said Celestia. “For now… wait! I command you. We know nothing of the situation. The Kirin will not betray my trust.”
“Wait how long? Centuries?”
“No,” said Celestia. Her gaze darkened. “They are aware of the company I am with. The Kirin had better not betray my trust. I do not have centuries to spare.”
“Centuries?” brayed one of the dromedaries, and spat at the Princess, narrowly missing her head.
“Stop it, Swirlie!” cried Celestia at once, not even looking. Hastily, she added, “You too, Twilight!” She then turned to the hapless Camelu official who’d let his frustration get away with him, and she glared. “You don’t know your peril. Cease.”
“It’s my nature,” grumbled the dromedary.
“Very well,” said Celestia. “Shall I allow this smaller alicorn and this lavender unicorn to express their natures?”
The dromedary tried to play it cool as he checked out the savagery of the glares coming from Chaos and Twilight.
“I’m not sure they’ve ever cooperated,” said Celestia, “but I think they’re about to start.”
The dromedary official gave her a withering, sour look, and he stalked off, his ungainly hocks trembling only a little. Once he was out of sight, they heard the frantic drumming of his hooves as he fled. The other dromedary batted her heavy black eyelashes haughtily, stood her ground, and said nothing.
Chaos turned immediately back to Trixie. “What are we going to do? She’s taking this so badly.”
“You mustn’t jump to conclusions!” protested Celestia, looking haggard. “We don’t know if this is rejection.”
“Well, what else would it be?” demanded Twilight, with another stamp of her hoof.
The portal flickered to life again.
“Twilight! Don’t!” snapped Celestia, and Twilight clattered to a halt, inches from the glowing magic field.
From the portal, the Kirin voice came once more. “Don’t what, Celestia-san?”
“Ah, nothing!” replied Celestia, hastily. “Greetings to you! We rejoice in your return! May we come through, jewels of Neighpon?”
“Two Kirin come to join you,” said the voice. “Permit them passage.”
“Stand aside, Twilight Sparkle,” commanded Celestia. “We’ll do this diplomatically. You must trust me.”
Through the glowing field of magical force came two Kirin, whose expressions were grave. Twilight glared at them, while Chaos looked more curious than angry.
They paid attention to neither. The Kirin looked around, appraising the situation, and then converged as one on Trixie Lulamoon.
Hearing them approach, Trixie looked up… and jerked in surprise, her eyes going very wide, stricken, guilty.
“Trixie, what is it?” cried Twilight.
Trixie’s voice rasped. “It was you…”
“Please hold still,” said one Kirin, his eyes troubled and attentive.
“They’re gonna… Princess!” shouted Twilight, but Celestia’s foreleg blocked her path.
“Be calm,” ordered Celestia. “Trust.” Her haughty gaze raked the two Kirin. “They shall not harm her, lest they face my wrath. Do not fear.”
The other Kirin glanced at the Princess. “We must know the truth of her, oh Celestia-san. Surely you see that?”
“I think I do,” replied Celestia, watching the two Kirin sternly.
Without further argument, both Kirin leaned in as if trying to hug Trixie Lulamoon, who made no effort to escape. Their manes flashed and flickered, but they didn’t complain: they concentrated fiercely, as the other ponies fell silent. Trixie stared off into space tragically, surrendering to whatever it was they proposed to do.
The Kirin backed off. One glanced at Celestia. “Your doing?”
“If you mean her curse, no,” said Celestia. “She, and Twilight here, cured that themselves. I presume this was your purpose here, and that we shall be free to proceed to our destination?”
“No,” said one Kirin, as the other said “Yes.” They glanced at each other, startled.
“Which question did you answer, jewels of Neighpon?” asked Celestia, with a touch of asperity.
“It’s complicated,” said one, and the other said “It is a secret…”
“Are you concealing something from me?” said Princess Celestia, and her tone was darker still. She scuffed the ground with a forehoof, her eyes narrowing.
“Don’t worry!” squeaked the first Kirin, and glanced frantically at the second one. “Do it now!”
Before anypony could make a move, the Kirin had magemelded and sent some kind of magic force against the portal, causing it to shimmer and morph. Almost as soon as they’d begun, they were finished.
“It is only right!” said the second Kirin, gulping. “You will see!”
“We must go!” protested the first, and, pinned in the mistrustful stares of ponies and alicorns alike, they bounded forward and disappeared through the portal, back to Neighpon… or wherever they’d directed the portal, when they’d altered it.
“Okay, that was special,” grumbled Twilight. “What did they do to it? We’re gonna end up in a jail cell.”
“It was them,” said Trixie, trembling. “Those ones. They’re older now, but… I just know it was them.”
Celestia nodded. “I remember your story. Yes, I daresay it was. You did see what they were doing? If I’m not mistaken, the Kirin remembered Trixie. Upon hearing her name, they sent for the two Kirin who’d turned her away. Call it a second chance? Or a health check-up. I fear had your curse not been lifted, we would remain unwelcome. But we’re clearly free to enter Neighpon: they said yes.”
“And no,” added Chaos. She blinked at the looks of dismay she received. “What? I thought that was nicely random. They even know how to make a spirit of Chaos feel at home!”
“It’s not that,” argued Twilight. “They’re up to something. I’m sure they were reprogramming the portal. We’ll end up in a jail cell… or dropping into the mouth of a volcano.”
“They themselves went through the portal, Twilight!” objected Celestia. “I don’t sense moral tone as they do, but I can’t believe they mean us ill.”
“I don’t know,” said Trixie, distraught. “I just know those were the ones I saw. Last time they told me I had to leave. They didn’t tell me that this time. Does that mean we can use the portal?”
“I don’t like how frightened they were,” said Twilight. “They were up to something. They panicked and ran back into the portal!”
Celestia tsked. “If you could see yourself, Twilight, maybe you’d have a hint about why. They know you and Trixie are with me, and might have what you’d consider a sort of limited diplomatic immunity. Yet I believe it was my own visage that caused them to flee.” She sighed. “I owe them an apology. And, very likely, a hug.”
“But why would they be so scared of you being mad?”
Celestia lifted an eyebrow. “As only two Kirin? And, moreover, ones I’ve never met? It stands to reason. Stories of my power have not faded, since my last visit to Neighpon. I really must apologize.”
“Fine. The portal is that way,” said Twilight. “If it’s a jail cell, I’m not sure we should break you out of it.”
Celestia snorted, but gave a little smirk. “Twilight!” she said. “It will be no such thing!”
“One way to find out…” challenged Twilight.
“Hmph!” said Celestia. She flapped her mighty wings once, and then walked decorously across the floor. She reared a bit, lifting her forehooves over the lip of the portal, plunging her front half into the magic field.
She unexpectedly toppled forward, falling right into the portal, her hind legs flailing briefly… and, faintly, the sound of a squeal was heard. Not through the portal, for sound from hundreds of miles away didn’t carry. The sound was transmitted through Celestia’s body, through lungs and diaphragm and flesh and large, elegant rump. And then she was gone.
“Celly!” squealed Chaos, and before Twilight or Trixie could blink, the little alicorn had plunged headlong through the portal herself.
Twilight and Trixie gawked at each other. Behind them, the remaining dromedary spat on the floor.
“I have to know,” said Trixie. “You understand that, don’t you?”
“If it’s something bad,” said Twilight, “I’m going in there with you.”
That broke Trixie’s funk. Her lips quirked in a smile, and some spark returned to her eyes. “Trixie suspects you want it to be bad, so you can spank a Kirin!”
“Princess Celestia fell down!” protested Twilight. “Or… something?”
“We’d better go see,” said Trixie.
“Okay. One… two…”
They bounded, side by side, through the portal, little unicorn bodies in perfect synchrony: mute testament to their deep and timeless bond, two mares acting as one.
They burst forth into a clear dawn, soft and radiant as if the light was cast through flower petals in a world that was a poem.
They dropped just as Princess Celestia had, with no floor beneath their extended forehooves…
Two unicorn mares splashed, as one, into clear and unaccountably fresh waters.
“Pbbft! Gah!” squalled Twilight, her mane drenched and falling wetly across her face. She heard laughter and a mocking clapping of hooves, and tossed her mane away from her eyes, looking for her tormentor or whoever aimed to teleport her to a strange place only to laugh at her.
But the hoof-clapping was only Chaos… and the laughter, was Princess Celestia herself, standing on the shore with the two Kirin.
Twilight stuck her lower lip out and glared at her Princess ferociously. The water was so shallow, that she could easily stand on the bottom, and just deep enough to ensure she hadn’t been hurt by her unexpected fall. She drew a deep breath, prepared to shriek in exasperated outrage at naughty Celestia, so rarely the prankster, and the Kirin she apparently hoped to impress.
Celestia’s eyes had widened, she put a hoof to her lips, she was frantically gesturing to Twilight, and to the side. To what side? To move to the side, rather than gallop through the clear waters and bop Celestia on the nose with a teleported pillow? Under normal circumstances, Twilight couldn’t blink a pillow all the way from Equestria, but in moments of great excitement and emergency…
No. To look to the side… to look at Trixie, for the first time since materializing on the shore of Neighpon.
Trixie was frozen, barely able to breathe, looking across the short stretch of water to the shore with her eyes wide and vulnerable. She bit her lip, and released it. Her body trembled.
Twilight suddenly remembered her story. How she’d journeyed to Neighpon, reaching the shore, only to encounter two Kirin. How they’d told her that she must leave, given her no choice. She had come all the way and turned around and gone home, never to return. Trixie Lulamoon had clung to her old book with its pictures of Neighpon, and pursued her tragic and cursed destiny as best she could. And she’d never seen a cherry blossom, not a real one.
Twilight followed Trixie’s gaze, across the water to the shore.
Trixie wasn’t staring at the Kirin, or Chaos, or Celestia. Her gaze was locked upon a hill, right by the water.
They were to the side of a river’s mouth, as it poured fresh water into the ocean. Pristine beach gave way to luminous green, a bed of grass where one could believe every blade was individually tended to by ageless Kirin, and from the grass the hillside rose serenely into a stand of trees, Neighponnese cherry trees, fine and green and healthy, their limbs curled in elegance as if they were very slowly dancing for the joy of existence.
Near the top of the hill, one single tree caught a persistent sunbeam, filtered and refracted it in a different way.
It was a solid mass of cherry blossoms, just for Trixie Lulamoon.
Trixie seemed paralysed. Twilight could see why. It was so beautiful it hurt to behold.
The air was warm. The barest hint of the fragrance came delicately across the water. Trixie bit her lip again, tenderly, her ears laid back in distress, not daring to believe.
Twilight’s eyes glistened. She nudged Trixie with a hoof, not to break the spell but to un-freeze it. “Go on,” she said. “It’s time.”
Slowly, Trixie began to walk, never looking away from the glowing petals spotlit at the top of the hill.
They reached the shore, and Twilight trotted over to hug Princess Celestia, a wordless apology for her mistrust, an embarrassed glance at the Kirin who sat, so calm, watching.
Twilight followed their gaze to see Trixie steadily walking onto the grass, up the hill, through the quiet stand of trees, and before she knew it she was following without getting too close: unwilling to intrude upon the moment but unable to be far away from her beloved as she steadily closed on her destination.
Trixie walked up to the tree. She closed her eyes, her nostrils flaring at the exquisite scent, nuzzling the cherry tree and rubbing the side of her face against it.
As Twilight watched, breathless, Trixie lay down beside the tree on a soft bed of grass, her back snuggled up against it.
Trixie looked up, her neck arching as if trying to reach out to all of Neighpon, her lips slightly parted. Her eyes seemed unfocussed, as if she wasn’t really seeing the hillside and Twilight watching and the Kirin and alicorns at their polite distance… or, as if she was seeing it all at once, drinking in the sights and scents and sounds and feels of her surroundings.
A little breeze stirred the hillside.
Tenderly, cherry blossom petals drifted down to blanket the grass, her body, and Trixie Lulamoon’s upturned face.
As the five watchers held their breaths, Trixie’s expression changed. In the magic of her introduction to Neighpon, she’d resembled an innocent filly, somehow: some alternate Trixie Lulamoon who’d never been hurt, who hadn’t suffered.
In an instant, as flower petals settled onto her, that expression was transfigured. The entranced naivete dropped away, and it was the grown and experienced Trixie Lulamoon laying beneath the tree, fully present… but there was something more. It wasn’t just Trixie, with all the weight of her tragic past. It was a Trixie that only Twilight had seen, sometimes only while asleep or at very special moments.
It was Trixie Lulamoon, as if she had just been kissed for the first time, and told she was loved.
Her eyes remained focussed on everything at once, but tears flooded them, ran down her cheeks even as she stared, transfixed, stricken to the heart with forgiveness and love as she’d never felt.
She lowered her head, and wept: her face hidden in her forelegs, sobbing in near silence, her tears watering the nurturing grass.
Twilight Sparkle gulped, her lip quivering.
And, with that one quiet sound, Trixie reached out a foreleg blindly in Twilight’s direction, and then Twilight was galloping madly over, herself weeping, throwing herself to the grass to embrace her beloved Trixie like she’d never let go, and the two little unicorns hugged and sobbed and kissed, sharing Trixie’s perfect moment, helping her to withstand the devouring beauty of it, making it real for her moment by moment.
At the foot of the hill, two Kirin silently wept for joy to witness it, and little Chaos hugged Celestia in delight.
“I like this place!” she cried. “Who knew fussy tidiness could feel so nice?”
A tear of joy dripped down Celestia’s cheek, as she held her head high, vindicated in her trust.
And, softly and forgivingly, Kirin magic snuck up the hillside… not to touch the sobbing, overwhelmed unicorns, but only to heal the crushed and broken blades of grass Twilight had trampled in her frantic haste.
“Bring that old gunny sack over here, Silver!” yelled Apple Bloom.
Ponies scurried this way and that. “Applejack!” demanded Apple Bloom. “You get them scissors from Granny Smith?”
“Sure did!” said Applejack. Earth pony scissors were cumbersome things that you braced against a table or floor and stepped on, but sure enough, Granny had a set stashed away in the basement, testament to bygone days before Rarity had come to Ponyville and single-hornedly supplanted all earth pony seamstress duties.
“We’re gonna cut up that big heavy cloth,” explained Apple Bloom, “and we’re all gonna wear a double layer of gunny sack around our necks. Hear me? It’s gonna be some kinda protection, while we hunt for more vampires.”
“What if it ain’t more vampires?” said Oakback.
“Then we’ll do somethin’ else!” said Apple Bloom.
“What if it’s Fluttershy?” said Silver.
Apple Bloom snorted. “Then, wrap it around your dick! Shut up, we’re doin’ what we kin to keep y’all safe.”
“The other vampire already done kilt Snowy Hocks!” protested Silver, ears laid back in panic. “Et him up, hooves an’ all!”
“We don’t even know it is another vampire!” argued Oakback. “An’ Snowy run away like the coward he is, I seen it myself!”
“He ain’t the only one,” grumbled Applejack. “A whole mess of ponies run off outta town. Somepony’s talkin’ about our lil’ problem and it wasn’t me, or Rainbow Dash either.”
“Where’s Rainbow Dash now?” said Apple Bloom.
“Off watchin’ Fluttershy for every second of the damn day,” retorted Applejack, “the dern fool! We know it was Hollyhock all along, and we even know how he caught it.”
Apple Bloom frowned at her big sister. “She din’t stick her hoof in the fire, like she promised.”
“ARE you suggesting…”
“Ain’t no suggesting. That’s a fact,” said Apple Bloom. “I’m not gonna overlook it twice, and maybe it would be good to check in on our good friend Rainbow Dash.”
A blue streak zoomed out of the distance, and Apple Bloom tensed.
“Hey guys!” said Dash, flying up looking frustrated. “I can’t get her to come out from under her bed, so I thought I’d come back and…”
“Well, Rainbow Dash!” proclaimed Apple Bloom. “Ain’t that convenient.”
“Yeah? And by ‘her’ I mean Fluttershy, obviously. I’m not sure whether it was seeing Hollyhock burn, or seeing the Kirin right there in front of her, but…”
“Your turn, Rainbow,” said Apple Bloom, with a tight little smile.
“We won’t ask Fluttershy to jump in what’s left of th’ bonfire. It would be cruel on account of we know what would happen,” said Apple Bloom. “But I remember you making a promise to me. Did you forget?”
Dash glanced at the guttering fire, still feebly burning even after the corpse of Hollyhock had turned to foul ash. Then, she looked back at Apple Bloom, her eyes wide and shocked.
“There’s the fire, Rainbow,” said Apple Bloom. “Ah am WAITING.”
For a moment, their gazes locked. Dash, looking angry and hurt, Bloom tense and grim.
Then, without a single word, Rainbow stalked over, and stuck her hoof right into the flames, gritting her teeth, and not drawing it back.
“Alright, stop,” ordered Apple Bloom, as Applejack glared at her. “Stop! You heard me. You’re good. And don’t even pretend that wasn’t necessary.”
Dash had staggered back, into the embrace of Applejack, who hugged her and blew on the lightly scorched hoof, then ran madly over to the barn, grabbed a bucket, filled it at an irrigation brook and galloped back. Rainbow gratefully lowered her hoof into the bucket. No steam came up, but she looked relieved.
“I get that,” said Rainbow. “I wonder if you realize how fucked-up it was, even so. After all this is over, you might owe Fluttershy an apology.”
“That’s as may be,” retorted Apple Bloom. “Ah got responsibilities. Thank you for makin’ the effort and not being just another insane pony violatin’ my trust in them. Already now, Hollyhock turned into a murderin’ monster, Snowy run away when I need him to guide us an’ teach us about monsters as he’s always done, the Kirin’s a whiny pile of mess, and don’t even get me started about Pinkie Pie!”
Dash winced. “Yeah. She’s taking this really badly. Can you blame me for trying to protect Fluttershy?”
“How bad do you think?” said Applejack, still directing sulky glares at her little sister. “What’s she doin’?”
“I’m not totally sure,” said Dash. “She’s gathering stuff, like she did with the parasprites, but it’s not quite the same stuff. I mean, it’s not just musical instruments though it looked like she found a trombone somewhere. She’s not much good at it…”
Applejack’s distraction continued, as she and Apple Bloom glared at each other. Rainbow poked her. “Hey. Hey!”
Applejack got a fervent kiss on the muzzle, and for a moment she only had eyes for Rainbow.
“Settle down,” ordered Rainbow. “We’re all in this together and I’d be pretty worried if Apple Bloom didn’t keep a close eye on me. We know Fluttershy’s a sweetheart, but think about it, okay? If she did go wrong, and she turned me, you guys would be in really bad trouble.”
Northern Spy, who’d helped Applejack find the earth pony scissors, grinned. “Yeah! I was mostly good when I was a vampire, but when I went on a rampage, not even Twilight or Princess Celestia in a bunny suit could stop me!” She nuzzled Applejack. “Just only mom…”
Rainbow continued, “Besides, you know me, right? You have to admit there’s nothing more badass and hardcore than the amazing Rainbow Dash sticking her hoof in a FIRE to prove her true identity. It’s, like, total Daring Do grade awesome but it’s real and we’re living it. Top that! If you can!”
Applejack made a face. “If you say so.”
“Stick your dern wing in th’ fire if you’re so hardcore,” griped Applejack.
Rainbow jumped back, flapping frantically. “OH FUCK no! What? You can’t… Applejack! Oh my gosh, what the fuck?” She glanced frantically at Apple Bloom, her gaze pleading with the diminutive Boss Mare.
Applejack smirked, a bit sadly.
“You settle down, Rainbow. Ain’t nopony doing nothing of the sort, nor asking you to do it. You did tell me ‘top that’, it’s your own silly fault. An’ I guess Apple Bloom ain’t so far off base if I’m honest.” She shuddered. “I just don’t like any of this. How do you know we haven’t killed the real monster, and the Kirin’s just making a big fuss over nothing?”
“She was right about Hollyhock,” said Apple Bloom. “Big Macintosh’s gonna try to settle her down, and she’ll try again. I don’t know what else to do, Applejack. Din’t Rainbow Dash say that Bon Bon said that Princess Celestia’s on vacation?”
Granny Smith snorted, while trying to cut up gunny sacks. “Snowy Hocks was right. This ain’t Princess business. This is old school earth pony business! If we got us an infestation of vampires, we’re gonna give ‘em what fer! Plus, it’s personal. They got Fern Gully, the pore silly thing, and it was Hollyhock what done it, and who’s to say it was Fluttershy who turned him?”
Rainbow blinked. “But we watched it happen, Granny. I saw him gnawing on her wing and everything.” She blushed fiercely, and furled her own wings tight against her body.
Granny quirked a half-smile. “I don’t see as much, maybe…”
“Let’s not get into that ol’ story,” said Applejack, glancing nervously at Apple Bloom. She’d disobeyed the Boss Mare good and hard, that night.
Granny wasn’t finished. “But from the tone of th’ pegasus music, I’ve HEARD my Applejack doin’ the same dern thing to you!”
Rainbow went scarlet.
“And I never saw or heard about no blood, crazy lil’ wingy-pony,” added Granny Smith, smug at putting one over on Rainbow for a change. “All y’all pegasuses got a bee in your bonnets about wings. It might not have been what you thought. Mebbe you were readin’ too much into that on account of what it’s, how’d you say… a sensitive spot.”
Applejack was cuddling Rainbow, as both grinned shamefacedly. Their private bedroom rodeos took place behind closed doors, but not by any means soundproofed. And they could hardly object to their family cataloging Rainbow’s cries of lusty delight, when ponies halfway to town could hear those birdpony calls. And yes, the wings were Applejack and Rainbow’s favorite spot for a blow-off, the finisher meant to leave Rainbow hoarse, limp and stunned by her own erotic fireworks displays.
Applejack nodded, fondly nuzzling Rainbow, smiling. “So you’re saying, maybe it ain’t such a danger, ‘cos the best part of pegasi is using ‘em as chew-toys, and there ain’t no harm in it?”
Rainbow blushed and smirked harder, fwapping Applejack with her wing before furling it tightly again.
“Ah’m sayin’ mebbe somethin’ else turned Hollyhock, not Fluttershy,” said Granny Smith, and the two lovers’ smiles switched off as one.
“Another vampire?” said Rainbow.
Granny Smith added, “An’ it’s still out there. And us earth ponies… we’re gonna hunt it down an’ kill it.”
“Think about it,” said Apple Bloom. “We had to test Rainbow, in case it was Fluttershy. But if it’s not Fluttershy then it’s something else. Maybe not even a pony at all, but there’s enough of ‘em to freak out the Kirin. And either the Kirin’s gonna help or she’s not, but we are not gonna sit around waiting! We’ll try to bring her back and have her sniff the thing out, whatever it is. But if she’s flipping out because there’s not one vampire but a whole vampire team trying to take us all over…”
Silver whinnied in terror, and ran for it, panicked beyond reason.
“DAMMIT!” yelled Apple Bloom. “Silver! You see? It’s like that! If vampires are pickin’ off damn fool ponies who won’t answer to discipline, well on the one hoof Ah’m mighty glad Rainbow Dash is tough enough to keep up, and on the other hoof we gotta go out and do battle right away, before their team is chock full of stinkin’ pony idiots! And MY farm ponies, I might add!”
Applejack nodded. “You ain’t wrong there, Apple Bloom. Okay, I’m with you. We got some special help, whether that’s Hina the Kirin, Rainbow Dash, or even our tame vamp Fluttershy. Did you say she was with us, Rainbow?”
“Absolutely,” swore Rainbow. “I saw the look on her face. I asked her if she was okay with the whole bonfire thing, ‘cos I had to warn her not to fall in it. This is why I’ve been so upset you guys don’t trust her! She was ready to kill Hollyhock herself. You gotta understand, Fluttershy’s super nice, but if you’re hurting animals or ponies around her… She is so totally not down with that. She’s on our team to the death. Uh, or a little ways past death if you want to be picky about it.”
“I agree,” said Applejack. “I hope you see that, Apple Bloom.”
“I do, and unless there’s some reason to think otherwise we’re gonna consider her an important ally,” said Apple Bloom. “We just proved she didn’t turn Rainbow, and I’m bearin’ that in my consideration. Though keep in mind, we’ve been thinking about this stuff for a while. Even before we learned Hollyhock was a vamp, the farm pony workers were learning how to kill vampires. Maybe that means they got Hollyhock recent-like. Ah know he was part of the hunt when they were huntin’ them monster-bunnies.”
Rainbow Dash cringed. “That was weird. And incredibly gross. We dealt with it, though. Or at least Fluttershy and Twilight did. Me and Applejack were way too busy restraining Pinkie Pie, she went nuts and tried to stop us.”
The words hung in the air, horribly. Apple Bloom frowned.
“Oh, now, come on!” protested Rainbow. “That was ‘cos Pinkie can’t possibly handle killing bunnies! Or especially Fluttershy killing bunnies, or being around Twilight killing bunnies… something like that! She seriously went completely insane!”
“Must be Tuesday,” grumbled Applejack. “That does worry me, Rainbow. Is it me, or does she seem a lil’ more apple turnip cakes these days?”
“Hey!” squawked Granny Smith. “That was an accident! And they weren’t so bad, were they?”
“Sorry,” said Applejack. “Ah mean… apple turnip cakes drenched in a pound of salt and four cups of special cider?”
Granny made a face. “Ow. Ah see yer point, though. That mare ain’t right. We’re tryin’ to find an’ wreck the Ponyville monsters, usin’ mostly good old earth pony ways. Here, take a gunny sack neck-cloth, Applejack. My point bein’, does Pinkie Pie even count?”
A pink head stuck out of a nearby tree. Not the foliage… the tree.
“I can count to zero! Can you?”
“Dang it!” yelled Apple Bloom. “Pinkie, you can’t do that!”
“Yes I can,” objected Pinkie’s head. “Why are you being a party pooper?”
“That’s one of them willow saplings we’re gonna plant for erosion,” insisted Apple Bloom, “an’ you don’t even fit in there, and what the HAY do you mean by count to zero, Pinkie Pie?”
“We can all count to zero if we know how!” replied Pinkie’s head. “In the end, everypony counts to zero when they know the secret!”
“What SECRET?” demanded Rainbow Dash, trotting over to confront her old friend and lover.
“The SECRET is… it’s sad!” chirped Pinkie. At this, she blinked, and twitched, and just for a moment she stared into space and seemed to wilt, tragedy written across her features.
“Pinkie?” said Rainbow hesitantly.
Pinkie shook herself. The willow’s branches curled inward, reaching like hooves making spell-casting gestures. A curious sort of headband appeared, with one-half an arrow on either side of it. The branches placed this on Pinkie’s head. She coughed, coughed again, and a party squeaker flew out of her throat. She caught it between her lips, and blew, and it unrolled and went ‘fweeeeeeee’.
“Pinkie!” yelled Rainbow Dash.
“Not now, Dashie!” said Pinkie. “I’m counting to zero! And I have ponies to talk to! Right, Green Streak?”
“That’s right, Punka Pow!” said Northern Spy loyally. “What’s the plan?”
Pinkie winked at the feisty green filly, as Rainbow and Applejack looked on in horror. “Counting first, plan later!”
“Okay!” said Spy, and Pinkie vanished back into the willow sapling again.
“Spy, what the hell is this?” demanded Rainbow.
“We’re superheroes!” said Northern Spy, in exasperation. “Don’t you remember? She’s the Pickle Poing, and we fight evil! We’re even talking to…”
“Now hold on a minute!” interrupted Applejack. “Before you get too busy with that, maybe we need to have a lil’ talk about our good friend Pinkie…”
“We’re talking to HER!” said Spy, and Applejack turned to follow her kid’s gaze.
“Hello!” said Numeric Essence politely, trotting up to join the group. “I thought I saw our leader Pinkie Pie here? I must report on my progress!”
“You can report to me!” said Spy proudly. “Me and Rock Candy, I mean the Rock Lobster, are second in command!”
Oakback stamped a hoof, and stomped over angrily to confront the tiny green filly and tall, elegant winged unicorn.
“Miss Spy? First of all there ain’t but one Boss Mare in these parts, and secondly, what if Miss Pinkie Pie is actin’ so strange because she’s another vampire?”
Spy didn’t even flinch. “But she isn’t. I’m the vampire expert here. I WAS one. I think I can tell if somepony is a vampire or not, even after I got cured. Hollyhock must have gotten made into a vampire only a couple days ago ‘cos I never noticed anything vampirey about him before. Fluttershy’s a vampire, but she’s nice. Peggle Pop is a superhero, not a vampire. Everypony knows that!”
“Whoof,” said Rainbow Dash. “Are you serious, Spy? Do you have some kind of vampire-sense now?”
“Maybe! ‘Cos I don’t feel anything wrong with Pinkie, vampire-wise!” She trotted over, reared way up, and threw a companionable foreleg around Dash’s neck. “I think I probably should tell you, though, Mom. Just between you and me…” she glanced from side to side, and whispered, “Pinkie Pie’s kind of weird in the brain.” Spy nodded solemnly.
Dash rolled her eyes. “I’ll make a note of that one, Spy. You think?”
Spy nodded. “Rock Candy’s noticed too! It’s okay, though, because it seems to make her more powerful. We’re totally gonna wipe out the evil.”
“Yeah, about that…”
Numeric Essence interrupted. “I believe I’ve observed something similar. But please, I must report my findings to Northern Spy, as she requested! I’ve made important progress on the spells we’d discussed!”
“Whoa, hang on,” said Applejack. “She’s got you makin’ spells? This here’s earth pony business!”
“No no!” protested Essence. “Not little Spy, no! It is Pinkie Pie!”
“What is?” chirped Pinkie, now wearing X-Ray Specs as well as the arrow-through-the-head as she poked her head out of the slender willow sapling.
“Oh!” cried Numeric Essence. She squinted at the sight of Pinkie’s head sticking out the side of a slim treetrunk. “Pardon me, Pinkie Pie, but if I’m not mistaken, that is impossible.”
“SO?” demanded Pinkie.
Essence, flustered, kicked the dirt with a forehoof a couple times and then carried on anyhow.
“Thank you for letting me work with your team of heroes,” she said. “I think I’ve found a spell that I can cast, which will do what you asked. It’s a ‘getting killed spell’.
“That’ll save time,” said Pinkie’s head, “but it sounds totally useless. Try harder!”
“No, no!” said Essence. “I mean, it’s like a beacon! I’m nearly certain that using it, I can target whatever vampire or evil influence is at large in Ponyville! It’ll make a brilliant beam that extends upward and downward for miles, visible from anywhere in Ponyville. If you see the beacon, it’s time to converge and destroy the monster, which should be in the vicinity of the beacon!” She hung her head. “I’d like to make it target the monster directly, but I’m not sure how to do that without killing the monster.”
“Then you’re on the right track!” said Pinkie’s head, and her eye gave a horrible twitch. “We’re lucky you’re here! Sounds great!”
“Oh, thank you,” said Essence, her serious face lighting up in a grateful smile.
“Yeah,” said Pinkie’s head, “you’re going to save the day in the most appropriate way for a subverted alicorn OC with no fucking personality!”
Pony jaws dropped all around the remains of the bonfire.
“What?” said Applejack.
Pinkie’s eye twitched again. “Did I say something bizarre? Oh well, the end of the series is always weird. How many times have we done it, three?”
Rainbow Dash stepped forward. “Hey listen, Pinkie, how about you come out of there and I take you to see Nurse Redheart, maybe she can make you some nice herbal tea and you can get some sleep and maybe you’ll feel better…”
Dash’s voice was openly worried, but Pinkie didn’t respond to that at all. “No sleeping, no better!” she declared. “Essence, you keep working, stick that spell everywhere you can! Green Streak, you practice charging to the rescue. Pyrrhic Plot, out!”
She yanked her head back into the slender willow trunk, impossibly, and was gone.
“What-ic what?” gawked Applejack.
Numeric Essence nodded. “She’s right! If I might ask for volunteers? Because of the nature of the spell, the more ponies it’s cast on the better. I think the most risk is run by the first instance of any given species, but once I’ve cast it on say an earth pony or unicorn, I think that will help establish its safety going forward…”
“Whoa whoa whoa,” said Apple Bloom, trotting right up. “Start over. What is this spell, Miss Essence, that you’re gonna cast?”
Numeric Essence blinked. “But I told you. It’s the getting killed spell.”
Ponies stared at her. Apple Bloom quipped, “Sounds useful! What the hay do you mean?”
“If you are killed by the evil influence, whether that’s more vampires or some other form of evil, the beacon is cast and will persist for at least three hours, visible at a range of the square root of two RH plus H squared in which R is the radius of Equestria and R and H must be in the same units. I need to account for atmospheric refraction, though, because that will cause light to be directed downward, particularly over water. The opposite may occur if there are deserts between the beacon and the observer, which makes it very difficult to estimate maximum ranges though they will be very great in practical terms… what?”
Apple Bloom stared at Numeric Essence. “Did you say, ‘getting killed spell’?”
Essence nodded happily. “Yes! Get killed and a beacon springs forth that will reveal the location of death! It was very difficult to exempt all forms of natural death, such as heart failure, simple accident, being crushed by falling rocks either alone or in a party…”
“We AIN’T gettin’ killed!” vowed Apple Bloom. “We’re huntin’ monsters! You get on back to th’ drawing board, missy!”
Essence blinked. “But that’s the spell! I’m sorry, I should explain that it triggers on the recipient getting killed. I didn’t mean to say that casting it kills the recipient. That’s largely unproven. It shouldn’t take much testing to determine that.”
Applejack frowned. “Whaddya mean, shouldn’t take much testing?”
“Well, there’s no way to know whether it’ll kill an earth pony upon casting,” said Numeric Essence, “that’s clear. It would be a category error.”
“It’d be a bigger dang error than that!” objected Applejack. “See here—the beacon idea sounds okay, but you’re saying it ain’t safe?”
Granny Smith spoke up, outraged. “Okay? Spells that kill earth ponies, okay? You git outta here, Miss Numeric Essence, if you’re gonna do magic experimentin’ on us earth ponies!”
Essence fell back a step. “It’s not about persecuting earth ponies!” she protested. “I assure you, I have no better grounds for assuming pegasus or even unicorn safety!”
Rainbow’s ears were back. “Oh, that sounds promising! You have a killing-ponies spell, but it fires off a beacon? What if we just all agreed that, if we get killed by a vampire, we’ll scream really really loud?”
Essence knit her brow. “But… Rainbow Dash, the attenuation of sound frequencies makes such a scream far less useful. I thought I’d explained that under normal atmospheric conditions the beacon would be seen tens, even hundreds of miles away.”
“Sure,” objected Granny Smith, “while it kills ponies!”
“We can’t be sure of that!” pleaded Numeric Essence, her own ears back in chagrin. “With a spell of this nature nothing can be tested conclusively without unleashing the whole spell! I simply cannot guarantee earth pony safety, as I said it’s a category error and the spell must be considered effectively untested. But isn’t the chance of targeting the evildoer with a beacon, worth the risk? I thought the benefit would surely outweigh the risk!”
Apple Bloom stared hard at Numeric Essence. “How do you know if it worked?”
Essence gulped. “Er… you die. At the fangs of the vampires. I believe that would be a good test. I’m sorry. I can’t do better than that, and by the nature of the thaumic matrix, which uses a rather clever mechanism for diverting energy from the disruption caused by grave and malign injustice, it can’t be tested other than setting it off for real…”
“You can’t even know whether it’s ON?” demanded Apple Bloom. “You’re gonna risk killin’ earth ponies with a totally untested magic spell and you can’t even know if it worked without killin’ the pony anyway?”
“Not exactly,” said Essence, blinking rapidly.
“Oh, Ah’m sorry, you can’t know if it worked unless you kill the pony anyway AND you’re evil!” yelled Apple Bloom. “If you’re good, ain’t nothin’ happens at all!”
Essence whimpered. “But… the specification said, the spell must only trigger if it’s really the evil! That seemed like a reasonable constraint! Do you want the beacon to trigger in the event of some tragic accident? What purpose would that serve?”
“Funny,” retorted Apple Bloom, “I was just asking myself that! What purpose would this serve? You know what? Git outta here! You may not zap the ponies here with spells and maybe kill ‘em, you got that? Back to the drawin’ board with you, Miss Numeric Essence! You’re just gonna have to come up with somethin’ better… or, better still, you kin help us hunt the evil, on hoof, like earth ponies done since the olden days!”
Essence backed off a step, looking distressed. “I can’t come up with something better. I’m totally committed to this spell. I told you, it’s merely untested for your purposes. If I can persuade other earth ponies to test it, can I do that and report back on whether it killed them?”
Apple Bloom growled. “We have enough monsters killin’ us, ma’am, and don’t need your help…”
“You tell ‘er, Apple Bloom,” encouraged Granny Smith, her eyes cold slits. “Miss Essence, take your magic elsewhere.”
Applejack gave Numeric Essence a hurt look. “Sorry, Essie… I gotta side with my kin. It ain’t right for you to experiment on us like we was some kinda lab animals! How is that fair, hittin’ us with spells and not knowin’ if it would kill us right off?”
Numeric Essence’s lip quivered. “But… I can’t know! You can’t make generalizations like that about safety! I’m only being honest with you!”
“And I honestly think,” said Applejack, “you’re gonna have to give up on this idea. Sorry, Essence. It sounds like a neat spell an’ all, but it ain’t never gonna be tested if it’s that dangerous.”
Essence’s lip quivered harder, and then she’d dashed off into the woods, much as Silver had: giving way to the most natural tendency of the panicked pony, to gallop.
“Land sakes, look at her go!” exclaimed Granny. “Foolish girl! I don’t see why them unicorn ponies can’t just help us in normal, pony ways. Makin’ up a killing ponies spell? That is jes’ exactly what we DON’T want, the daft pointy thing!”
“Easy now,” said Rainbow Dash. “You don’t mind me flying recon, so don’t get too snarky about us different ponies. She was trying to help, it’s not her fault if she couldn’t use the spell she made. It really does sound like it was dangerous. I’m kind of disappointed in her. That’s pretty cold, to think of something that dangerous and then trot off and ask us to be her test subjects. It does sound cool, though. A beacon, miles high?”
“Unless I miss my guess,” said Applejack, “she’s still gonna be lookin’ for ponies to experiment on. Maybe we’ll get lucky and she’ll zap a vampire by mistake!”
“Reckon there ain’t nopony that lucky,” said Apple Bloom. “More’s the pity.”
“Could have been worse,” suggested Rainbow Dash. “Could’ve been Twi. I think maybe we got off easy!”