This Is Your Quest

 

Rainbow Dash stirred, and whimpered in her sleep. It was the dream again—the one that put dark circles under her eyes.

But it wasn’t about the Diamond Dog.

It was the other dream—the one she did not remember past waking.

She lay in a cozy bed in her dream. The air was chilly and smelled of a wood fire that had smouldered to ashes. She lay on her back, her wings tucked neatly under her, for there wasn’t room to stretch them out.

That was a half truth, literally, for on one side there was room to spare.

On the other side of the bed, her marefriend Applejack cuddled up to her, asleep.

The luminous, loving green eyes were lidded, peaceful. Rainbow glanced to the side, seeing that sometimes-stern pony face softened into fillyish gentleness by sleep, admiring the careless waves of blonde mane as they fell across her beloved face—but Rainbow did not turn her head, or stir.

And that was because Applejack might roll over, or turn, or even wake. It was near dawn already, and soon she would be getting up, turning her head, greeting the morning.

And when she did… she would no longer be sleeping, her face right next to Rainbow’s… and then Rainbow would no longer feel her warm, sweet breath against her cheek.

Rainbow Dash had never told her lover of these moments. She was afraid Applejack would laugh at her, or not understand: the country pony had got her to be all soppy for real, and how could she understand how safe Rainbow felt, letting herself be even soppier in total privacy as she gazed upon her love’s sleeping face?

In her dream, Rainbow heard a sound.

“Rainbow Dash!”

It was the voice of Fluttershy. It was outside—but then somehow it hadn’t been outside, it was next to her and she looked and it was Fluttershy’s sleeping face and as she rolled away, not understanding how she was suddenly in Fluttershy’s cottage and in her bed…

Rainbow Dash woke up, the details of the dream evaporating like mist in daylight.

“Rainbow Dash!” called Fluttershy.

Dash shook her head. Why the fuck was she crying again? What kind of a way was that to start your day off, crying? Musta been more nightmares. Whatever…

“What?” she yelled.

“Please come quickly? It’s an emergency!” called Fluttershy.

Dash struggled to get up to speed with things, shaking her head again. There was no sense in getting mad at Fluttershy. “Hey,” she replied, “Rainbow Dash always comes quickly, right? Gimme a second…” and she looked over her wings, deemed them acceptable to be seen in public, and flew out her front door.

“So what happened?” she asked, as she followed Fluttershy, who was going astonishingly fast.

“Oh, it’s terrible!” said Fluttershy, falling back a little to answer. “Princess Celestia has stolen Trixie, and Twilight is just hysterical! She wouldn’t stop screaming, and then she curled up into a little ball, and… Wait! Stop! Rainbow, I have to warn you that…”

It was too late. Dash was already gone, racing at her full unmatchable speed to Twilight’s house to rescue her friend somehow—without a single word of warning about who else she could expect to find there.

She burst through the library’s front door like a little blue bomb, crying out “Where is she?” but it wasn’t Twilight that stopped her. Twilight was in the back of the room, with Pinkie and Spike. Pinkie looked angry, but it wasn’t that which caused her to rear and shy away, either.

She’d nearly run over Rarity—and Applejack, who was wearing another filmy dress, this one a green to match her eyes. It still showed off her ass, though. Rarity obviously had ideas about Applejack’s assets.

Rarity obviously had other ideas, too. Before Rainbow’s shocked eyes, Rarity and Applejack got into a scuffling match. As rainbow pegasus burst in and reared, earth pony had instinctively flung herself in front of her unicorn lover—and unicorn had shoved earth pony out of the way, in order to shield her in turn. They had, so obviously, both had a ‘no, I protect you!’ reaction.

Rainbow stared wildly, caught off guard by two aggressive reactions, and only settled down to all four hooves when both Rarity and Applejack stepped back a pace, glaring at each other.

“Mornin’,” muttered Applejack.

“Uh… morning,” squeaked Rainbow Dash, and saw Applejack wince at the sound of her scratchy little voice. It was a heck of a wince, and Dash backed up a step herself with a dismayed look, for it seemed as if Applejack couldn’t even bear to hear her anymore.

Rarity’s eyes narrowed, for she saw something different in that pain—saw a pony on the rebound who’d just felt a stab to the heart. Well, thought Rarity. It’s like that, is it? It is on. I’ll warrant that I can care for her better than you, dear. I shall defend the real mare inside her, that a roughneck like you would never guess was there…

“The hell happened to you, Rainbow?” said Applejack.

Dash felt her mood cratering further. “Oh, now you don’t even remember, huh?”

Applejack snarled, “Ah MEAN, your belly. An’… thereabouts.” She gulped.

“Hard partying. Crazy sex. It was awesome,” said Rainbow Dash bitterly. “You don’t like it? Get in line.”

“Rear again. Lemme see.”

“No,” said Dash.

They were interrupted by Fluttershy’s apologetic arrival—and by Twilight, who trotted up showing such distress that all four ponies fell silent. “Rainbow, Rarity, Applejack, maybe you’ll believe me. You’ve got to!”

“How ‘bout you run that story by me one more time?” said Applejack. “I want to hear it. I don’t see why Pinkie should stop you tellin’ it, neither.”

“Because it’s WRONG! Duh!” yelled Pinkie, sulking at the back of the room.

“Never you mind!” said Applejack sharply. “Let’s hear her out!”

Twilight sighed heavily. “Some of this might sound a little weird…”

“Because it’s WRONG!”

“Pinkie Pie!” yelled Applejack. “Let Twilight speak!”

Unwilling silence fell like an executioner’s hood. Twilight Sparkle cleared her throat like the executioner’s next agenda item.

“I’m sorry if this is hard to accept, but it just all makes a horrible kind of sense, and it’s sort of my fault.” She glanced over her shoulder at Pinkie, who glowered back at her but didn’t interrupt. “The first thing is that Princess Celestia never approved of Trixie.”

“I didn’t approve of when she made me dizzy and I went off and was sick,” said Rainbow Dash, “but when she hooked up with you she got a lot nicer. Right?”

“It’s complicated,” said Twilight. “The last night I saw Trixie, I… I beat her up. With a stick.”

Applejack’s eyes widened, as did Rainbow Dash’s, but Rarity tsked. “Of course you did. Go on…”

“Princess Celestia may have seen it somehow, and acted…” began Twilight, but she was cut off.

“Of course she did?” squeaked Rainbow. “Am I missing something? This is Twi we’re talking about!”

“You don’t know Trixie that well,” said Rarity. “I assure you, they were expressing their love for each other. Go on, Twilight.”

She did. “You are missing something, Rainbow, another motive. Remember how we magemelded and summoned you? And I went and checked up on you later because you were so upset, remember that?” Twilight glanced fretfully at Applejack, not wanting to reveal too much, but went on. “That wasn’t the end of it, that day. We did another teleport. A, um, bigger one.”

Applejack’s and Dash’s eyes widened further, and Dash breathed, “You didn’t…”

“We did. Well, Trixie did—her power when melded with me is amazing! We yanked Princess Celestia away from Canterlot, and dropped her into my bed. Without asking.”

Rainbow’s eyes bugged out, and then she reacted—with a “Woo!” and a hoof-pump, as if Twilight had pulled off some incredible stunt. “That’s amazing, I never heard of anypony able to do stuff like that!”

Her glee faded immediately, because nopony else present seemed to share it. Applejack was glaring at her, and Twilight seemed distraught.

Twilight’s voice quavered. “She… yelled at me, Rainbow! I’ve never seen her so angry. That’s what made me start to worry. We depend on her so much… and I’d asked her to let us ponies take care of our own affairs, because I found out she was interfering more than she wanted to…”

“Good!” said Pinkie. “Let her! We are ponies. She’s a Princess and a super alicorn wonderfulness thing. It’s her job and it makes her happy!”

Twilight’s head snapped around, her patience exhausted. “She wasn’t happy! Aren’t you listening? Don’t you understand what this means?” She whirled to face Pinkie, whose head was held high in defiance.

“Well, what do you think it means, Smarty McSmartersons?”

Twilight gritted her teeth. The other ponies had rarely seen Twilight so worked up.

“My relationship with Trixie may have pushed Princess Celestia too far. I showed you that scroll she sent. Only she can send scrolls through Spike. She’s taken Trixie, she also took our magic bit and Trixie’s stick—it’s called a rod, and yes it was Trixie’s toy and she’d begged me to get it for her—and then she sent this scroll. She’s taking ownership of those actions, but I don’t get any sense of the compassion she’s always had, and she’s certainly gone back on her word when she said we could make our own choices. A personality change that goes that deep can only mean one thing.”

“Yeah, that you’re wr…” began Pinkie, but Twilight cut her off.

“No! It means we may be dealing with… Nightmare Sun.”

Rainbow Dash whimpered, cowering back for a moment as the words sank in. Applejack was gritting her teeth, her eyes wide like a cornered animal. Rarity looked very serious, and Fluttershy looked stunned.

Pinkie never flinched.

“Wrong!”

“I realize this is hard to hear,” said Twilight, “but we are the Element Bearers and we have got to go out and face the situation. It’s not even about my Trixie anymore. All of Equestria could be in danger. We can’t shrug this one off. It’s even worse than Nightmare Moon!”

“No it isn’t,” said Pinkie, glaring right back at Twilight, “because it’s not true! Whatever is happening, it’s not that!”

“Pinkie, the logic might be hard for you to follow but let me tell you…”

“No!” said Pinkie Pie. “Let me tell you! Princess Celestia… is my FRIEND.”

That silenced everypony. She went on. “And friends don’t always get along with each other—but they do not do things like you said she did. You are NOT going to go off hunting Princess Celestia to zap her with the Elements of Harmony!”

“And how can you be sure of that?” demanded Twilight.

Pinkie blinked, innocently, as if struck by a thought. “Hey, good question! I have a good answer, too! This is how! …Fluttershy!”

“Yes, Pinkie?” called Fluttershy.

“We’re going home. Twilight is being a meanie, and she’s wrong, and we’ll talk to her when she feels better and is less loco in the coco.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped. “Y… You can’t…”

“I hope you feel better soon, Twilight! We love you! Come on, Fluttershy, they’ll feel a lot better when they realize how wrong they are about this stuff. Don’t feed into it!”

Pinkie hopped to her hooves as if nothing was wrong, and trotted out the door… and froze, outside. She turned, and her expression was cranky again.

“Fluttershy? Come on!”

Fluttershy was trapped, glancing back and forth between her upset friends and her earth pony mate. She gulped, and managed to ask, “…do you have a Pinkie Sense about this?”

Pinkie’s jaw was set, her chin high. “I don’t need a Pinkie Sense to love and trust Princess Celestia. She’s, like, Princess Celestia! Come on. This is just silly and you know it.”

Fluttershy looked back at Twilight, who stared in mute horror. “I’m sorry… I probably wouldn’t be much help anyway… and you just can’t be right. No! It can’t be true, it can’t! I hope you feel better soon…”

With that, Fluttershy walked politely out the door to join Pinkie, and the two trotted away, down the street. After a moment, they heard Pinkie begin to sing, defiantly—and then, Fluttershy’s “Don’t…” which quieted the outraged pink pony again.

Twilight, lip quivering, stared at her three remaining friends, who stared back in shock.

“So…” said Rainbow Dash, “now we go and fight Nightmare Sun… without all the Elements of Harmony?”

Applejack shot her a glare, but was distracted by Twilight stepping forward with a pleading expression on her face.

“Can I… talk with Applejack? Alone? Please!”

Rainbow, Applejack and Rarity threw wary glances at each other in a hectic, unspoken battle of worried looks—and then Applejack stepped forward. “Of course you can, Twi. Talk ta whoever you want to. Ain’t no reason you shouldn’t. Ya want to take it upstairs or sump’n, where it’s more private?”

Twilight nodded mutely, looking miserable, and Applejack began coaxing her towards the stairs to her bedroom. She twisted and shot a look back at Rainbow and Rarity that was both commanding and imploring.

“Y’all be good now…”

The two walked up the stairs, and were lost to sight, and their low voices were too soft to understand.

Rainbow Dash and Rarity looked at each other.

“Look…” said Dash.

“Yes?”

“I just want to say… for the record… that as far as I’m concerned, you and Applejack…”

Rarity interrupted her. “Uht!”

“What?” demanded Dash.

“We have been friends, Rainbow. Please believe me when I say that this conversation cannot go well. Please, please, leave this unsaid.”

Rainbow Dash bridled. “For your information, I wasn’t gonna say what you think I was gonna say.”

“Immaterial,” said Rarity. “It really, truly, does not matter, Rainbow! You and I cannot discuss the matter. Please, change the subject!”

“But I’m telling you, I want you and Applejack to be happy together! …urrk!”

Rarity drew herself up. “Oh, very convincing. The mere words make you gag! I’ll ask you one more time…”

“Sorry! It’s… a touch of feather-flu! I swear, that’s probably what it is, okay?”

Rarity blinked. “Oh, dear. Should you hurl, can you give me advance warning so I can stand well back? I don’t wish flecks of… erm… your breakfast, on my coat.”

“I’m not gonna hurl! I’ll be fine. And I didn’t have any breakfast. I flew here as fast as I could. Fluttershy said Twilight was upset.”

“No breakfast? Poor darling! That and the excitement may have been enough to upset your stomach. I’m sure Twilight would not object—may I prepare you something in her kitchen?”

Dash blinked. “You… want to make breakfast for me?”

Rarity’s smile was rather hard, almost forced. “Oh, yes. Knowing that you’re unwell and have skipped it, I will indeed. I would be delighted. And, if I do not, I dare say somepony else will want to.”

She hesitated—and then finished the thought.

“And I can’t have that, dear.”

Rainbow Dash’s expression went through three distinct stages.

First, pain at recognizing the admission that yes—Rarity was going to keep her marefriend, was not the least bit dubious about the matter. Yes, if Applejack knew Dash had gone hungry she would probably insist on feeding her in spite of everything. Yes, Rarity was one step ahead of the situation, preventing it from happening with unicorn cunning.

Then, a grimness upon realizing this was what she’d asked for—that Applejack would be with Rarity, who was making her happy, and that Rarity’s manipulation meant they were working towards the same thing. Whether Dash really wanted to or not, she was going to help Applejack be content with Rarity. She didn’t have the luxury of insincerity—and didn’t really want to be insincere about it—and it seemed there was only one way things were going to work out, thanks to a surprisingly formidable rival.

And then… Rainbow Dash smiled, a wry and wounded but geniune smile, because she knew her love deserved no less than somepony formidable, somepony a little ruthless, somepony unshakable in her love—and apparently that was Rarity. The elegant creature’s devotion was evident, unmistakable, and Dash lowered her gaze, grinning her painful grin harder and harder.

“You’re a unicorn and a half, Rarity,” she said.

“Thank you, Rainbow. This way?”

“Would it bother you if I also said… you were a high-powered mega-bitch from pony hell?”

Rarity glanced quickly at her friend—but the rueful, wry grin was unaltered, and this was Rainbow Dash saying it, after all.

“Then I would wonder,” Rarity said, “a good one or a bad one?”

Dash sighed heavily.

“The best,” she said, “only the best.”

Rarity’s eyes glistened. “Oh, Rainbow!” she said, and she trotted forward, reared and hugged her old friend, petting her neck.

“Urrk!”

Rarity gave a little shriek and flung herself backwards off Dash, her mane going slightly unkempt from the urgency of her escape. She then hesitated, for there had been something odd and stilted about the sound—and then she saw Dash’s grin, now irrepressible.

“You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” accused Rarity.

Rainbow Dash just nodded, a world of mischief in her eyes. She said nothing—but everything in her bearing and expression said ‘gotcha!’

Rarity began to grin as well, her eyes narrowed, and gave a little nod, as if saluting a worthy adversary. “That is fair, I dare say. Come along, Rainbow, I’m quite serious. Let’s fix you a snack.” She turned, and made for the kitchen.

Rainbow hesitated, turning away—wiped a tear with the back of her hoof—and followed, peaceably.


“I’m here, Twi. I’m here. Ya okay?”

Applejack was cuddling Twilight, in bed. It was a silly question, for the purple unicorn had given way to shakes and sobs, and none of her words were intelligible. Applejack had turned immediately to hugs and cuddles, and eventually she’d calmed Twilight.

“I just don’t know…”

Applejack blinked. “Y’all seemed pretty certain before. Got right in Pinkie’s face, you did.”

Twilight twisted to look at Applejack through tear-streaked eyes. “But that’s just it! I, I, I feel like I know what has to have happened, but…”

“Steady there pony girl…”

“It’s like this—this is why I had to talk to you, Applejack. I’m so sure, I just know in my bones and my mind and my horn what’s happened—but there was a time—do you remember? There was a time when I was just as sure about… something else.”

She looked away, ashamed. “And it was… that I needed to hurt Rainbow. For taking you from me. When it was me that was wrong the whole time…”

Applejack glowered at nothing. “Yeah. That weren’t good.”

“But do you see?” said Twilight. She laughed a little false laugh and added, “For all I know, now maybe you wish I’d gone ahead with it!”

“No!” said Applejack in a panic. She blinked, catching herself. “O’ course not, that’s crazy talk…”

“Maybe I’m making more crazy talk,” said Twilight quietly.

“Well, now… how much do we really know, Twi?”

“Trixie’s gone,” said Twilight. The tears began flowing again.

“Aw… easy now, girl,” said Applejack. Her ears quirked to the side—it was disconcerting how easily she slipped into the role of Twilight’s stallion, even without sex or a bit. It was also very obvious that Twi needed it, needed the rock of Applejack’s security to cling to. She clung even through a vivid green sexy-mare dress, and didn’t seem to notice the incongruity. Applejack noticed it. Suddenly, her whole girly thing seemed fake to her, and she tapped into something deeper that had lay neglected, something she’d grown up with, something which had stifled her but now gave her strength.

Applejack hugged Twilight closer. “Do ya know anythin’ else? There, there…”

Twilight sniffled. “Our bit is gone. And the rod thing…”

Applejack chuckled softly. “Mine’s gone, too.”

At this, Twilight blinked. “Gone? How?”

“Rainbow done stoled it one night. Guess it’s hers now.”

“You’re kidding, really? I should make you one to have for yourself.” Twilight’s face fell. “Or I would, if I had Trixie with me…”

Applejack wasn’t looking at her. She was frowning and staring into space. “I reckon, don’t bother. I can always grab Rarity’s if it comes to that. An’… I got a feeling she don’t like me bein’ that way. Best t’ not even go there, I reckon.”

“That seems weird,” said Twilight. “I don’t understand it. I thought you were the best stallion ever. Um… at the time, that is. Not trying to start anything now!”

“Naw, it’s okay. Uh, thanks? An’ I don’t understand it either. Ain’t sure how I feel about it. Don’t know what you got till you cain’t have it no more, I guess.”

Twilight’s eyes filled with tears again. “Trixie…”

“Aw, sugarcube! We’ll get her back. I promise. Even if we ain’t got Pinkie and Fluttershy, the rest of us will go with you and we are gonna find her. And whatever’s got her, well, I feel sorry for it, that’s all I kin say.”

“But… what if nothing got her? What if she just ran away, what if I was terribly wrong? When I b-beat her with the stick? I mean, she begged me to get it, she kept on being bad and glancing at it…”

Applejack’s face was scrunched into a disapproving look. “I can’t answer that, Twilight, on account of I don’t really understand it. But… well, maybe you ought to know that me an’ Rarity, we’re runnin’ into some problems too. I don’t want to be tellin’ tales about it—jes’ only to say that you ain’t alone. I got Rarity, and I believe she do care about me somethin’ fierce, but that lady got some quirks to her, damn… an’ I think she really does need that weird stuff. I reckon your Trixie is th’ same way. If she wanted you to spank her with a stick, well that’s what she wanted. Ain’t for the likes of you and me to understand it.”

Twilight nodded solemnly, eyes wide. “Actually… I think one of the things that upset Princess Celestia so badly is that… I do kind of understand some of it. I think that is what drove her crazy and turned her into Nightmare Sun.”

Applejack shuddered. “Don’t be talkin’ such things! Not if we don’t know! I don’t mind sayin’ I hope Pinkie’s right. I’d like to believe she’s right. You say the Princess was fearful mad? I can’t even imagine it.”

“I wish I didn’t have to imagine it. No, wait—I wish I DID have to imagine it. Because I don’t. It happened. I was right over there, cowering on the floor, trying not to piddle myself. I’ll never, ever forget it as long as I live.”

Applejack was silent—then, “If that’s true, she’ll be rememberin’ it for a lot longer than that. She loves you best, you lil’ faithful student, you. What do alicorns do when they do stuff that stays with ‘em? In a not-good way?”

Twilight thought. “Apologize?”

Applejack hugged her. “There, ya see? Maybe that note was an apology, nothin’ more.”

Twilight was trembling. “But… at the same time, it could be the other thing, and you know what that would mean for all of us…”

“We’re gonna have to go an’ find out, Twilight. We got to find out where your Trixie is—and we got to find out why the Princess took her away. Or where she went to, if it weren’t the Princess. Lotta questions.”

Twilight nodded. “I know you have the farm to take care of, and you can’t…”

Applejack snorted. “Hah! M’ stupid brother can make up for his follies, at least a lil’ bit. He’s been workin’ all hours anyways, let him work more. I’m comin’ with you to help.”

“But… well, I was originally thinking we’d need the Elements of Harmony, but it might be difficult for everypony if both you and Rainbow… and of course Rarity…”

“You hush now. Some things is important. We’ll jes’ have to make do and stay polite—because I’m tellin’ you, we’re all comin’ with you to help. ‘Cept Fluttershy an’ Pinkie, I guess. They can look after Ponyville in our absence, how’s that? An’ Spike can stay here in case your Trixie turns up on th’ doorstep. Can’t say fairer than that!”

Twilight managed a wavery little smile—that strengthened, as Applejack nuzzled her nose affectionately.

“I promise you, no matter what it costs us, we will be there for you. This is your quest, Twi—but you won’t do it alone. We’re gonna get you your Trixie back or we ain’t comin’ back!”

Twilight teared up, and grabbed Applejack in a tight hug, her head over Applejack’s shoulder, and Applejack stroked her back comfortingly.

The courageous earth pony’s expression wasn’t as sure as it had been when she looked Twilight in the eyes, though. Instead, she stared into space with an expression that said one thing.

‘Oh, lordy, what have I got myself into?’


They gathered outside Twilight’s, laden with saddlebags, having made their arrangements with all possible haste: closing the Carousel Boutique, settling Opalescence in with Fluttershy, arranging with Big Macintosh and Apple Bloom to take over the farm duties even if they couldn’t quite match Applejack’s workload. Big Macintosh looked determined to try. He also asked if all the Element bearers were going along, and seemed pleased that Pinkie and Fluttershy were staying behind.

Applejack left all her fancy clothes at Rarity’s, and galloped off to Sweet Apple Acres to pack for the journey. She picked out provisions with an experienced eye, having journeyed with her friends before, and loaded her packs heavily—food, rope, bandages, even a grappling hook.

Rainbow Dash just wrote a note to stick on her door—‘No hay delivery for a while, don’t know how long’—and brought Tank over to Fluttershy’s as well, biting her lip at his look of dismay. “Don’t give me that, Tank! I’ll be back right away. Or what you’d probably think of as right away… oh, stop it! Everything’s gonna be okay,” she’d said, not believing it any more than he did. “Listen—I gotta do this. I just gotta. For what I’ve got left.”

They gathered, as the sun lowered in the sky through foreboding clouds, casting a russet glow over the four companions.

“If we hurry, we can get a few miles before nightfall,” said Twilight. “I’d like to travel secretly in case we’re not real welcome. The obvious place to go is Canterlot… but there’s something I’d sort of like to try, first. I hope it doesn’t work too well, but it could be very helpful.”

Applejack blinked. “Now hold on a minute. It’s helpful, but you hope it doesn’t work?”

“More like, I wish I didn’t have to do it, and it should only be a vague help? Rarity, I’m going to have to ask you to go back home and get your bit, the one I gave you. I realize that’s not an appropriate thing to ask…”

She trailed off, seeing the look on Rarity’s face. It wasn’t a pleased look. Rarity stared straight ahead, refusing to meet anypony’s eyes, glowering at nothing.

Her horn glowed, gently. One of her saddlebags opened—and the magic bit floated out, reluctantly, and moved over to Twilight, whose magic took it from Rarity’s.

“I’ll need it back,” said Rarity, flatly.

Rainbow Dash’s ears were laid back, but they laid back still flatter at Rarity’s remark. Applejack bridled at the implications. “Oh, you will, will you? This ain’t a pleasure trip!”

“It’s mine. It goes with me. Pray let us not discuss it here.”

“Thank you, Rarity,” said Twilight, though her ears were back as well. A particularly clever rock could have picked up on the tensions of the situation—they were nearly strong enough to throw a shadow.

Applejack gulped, feeling like a bone of contention—or the soon-to-be-boned of contention. “Well, now, Twilight, guess we din’t have to go fetch nothin’, heh… What are you gonna do?”

“You’ll all have to forgive me, but it’s for a good cause. I’m going to use it—and work a contiguity spell to scout out its resonance. I’m pretty sure I can get a vague sense of similar objects, once I’m in contact with it and my biomorphic field extends into its own. Its arcanomorphic field, I should say, it won’t have a biomorphic field. I’ll try to get a resonance from a similar artifact that’s active with only an arcanomorphic field.”

Applejack’s eyes had glazed over a bit. “You’re… gonna smell out the other bit?”

“Roughly, yes,” said Twilight. “Avert your eyes, if it matters to you. Here we go!”

She bit down on the magic cylinder, and from between her hind legs sprouted the elegant Sparkle ponycock. Applejack averted her eyes, politely. Rarity stole sidelong glances, and Rainbow Dash was pacing around restlessly and seemed uninterested.

“Yes…” said Twilight. “I’m pretty sure I can feel the one I gave to Lyra and Bon Bon. That’s good, it gives me a reference… I’m reaching out now… not feeling much over by Canterlot… nothing in the Everfree Forest, thank goodness… going out farther, out where Spike got in trouble with those dr…”

Twilight froze, looking stricken.

“Twilight!” snapped Rarity. “Speak!”

“C’mon, Twi, what happened?”

“Did you find it?” squeaked Rainbow Dash.

Twilight spat the bit out upon the ground, producing a cry of dismay from Rarity, whose magic snatched it up again and began brushing off dirt. Twilight didn’t notice. Her jaw hung loose and she stared at nothing.

“Twilight!” cried Applejack, and that got her attention. She shook her head, and answered.

“It’s in a cave, in not the second but the third mountain as you go into the area. It’s well within dragon territory, and it’s got to be a cave because it’s quite a bit below ground level. Those caves are all occupied by dragons. I’d say we need Fluttershy, but there’s no way she can work her scolding trick on a dragon who’s on his own turf. They’re fiercely territorial. We’d better get moving. We’ll think of something as we go.”

The other three ponies stared at her in wonder.

“Come on!” she said. “Don’t just stand there!”

Applejack snorted. “Course not! Move on out, Rarity!” She nudged Rarity’s rump, and the white unicorn got moving.

Rarity complained, “Move on out, indeed! You’ll forget everything I’m trying to teach you,” as she stashed her magic bit away in her saddlebag again.

“No time for that, missy! This is serious!”

“You could ‘move out’ every bit as well in a ladylike fashion, Applejack, there is no reason to throw decorum to the four winds…”

Twilight lagged behind, but Rainbow Dash, in the throes of her new sensitivity to feelings and implications, picked up on something, and hung back with her.

“Is something the matter, Twilight? I thought you said that was gonna give you a general sense of where it was. What happened?”

“I… I should have got just an arcanomorphic field. Just a vague sense of direction,” managed Twilight.

“But you got a lot more than that—because?”

“Because the other one was… in use,” said Twilight, and her face twisted.

Rainbow hugged her wordlessly, and they continued on.