Once again, Apple Bloom found herself floating through the aethereal void, then coming to rest on a path lined with floating images on both sides... the true Hall of Ascension. The velvet rope was there again, and her big sister, silver apple barding polished to perfection.
Apple Bloom grinned. "Weren't we just here?"
Princess Veritas smiled. "Maybe you were, in some other world. You do know, this is normally a one time deal?"
Apple Bloom nodded... and then she glanced right and left, and even turned around in a circle, seeming puzzled.
"Something the matter, sugarcube?" asked Veritas patiently.
"Ah kind of expected all the other me's to be here as well." Apple Bloom kept talking, waving her hooves in excitement. "It was amazing. Ah've been a nightfilly, and a mortal Alicorn, and everything in between! Wolf, Diamond Dog, griffon, dragon, human..." She grew thoughtful. "But all of those pieces are a part of me now... Ah'm all of them, together in one, and ever since that happened, Ah guess Ah've been toast in a toaster, just waiting to pop."
Veritas gathered her close, nuzzling. "Ah, know. Ah see them all in you, clear as day." She nodded firmly. "You're ready."
A spark of crimson magic formed into a cracked antique mirror, and a Nightmare Mirror stepped out of it. "There's no more time loop, young filly, and no more do-overs. You go in there, and you'll be shining your light of truth for this universe, and the one after it, and the one after that, forever and ever. All your Apple kin who died before you and die after, you don't *ever* get to rest with them in Pony Heaven."
A third Applejack stepped out of the shadows, really tall and lanky with small eyes. "But you can always visit," said Deconstruction, with a wink. "The Elders have to mind everything there ever is or was, but they ain't heartless. Ya might think that your ascension has been foreshadowed eight ways from Sunday and there's definitely no way out of that destiny now... but nothin's decided until it's decided! This is your choice and only yours, Apple Bloom."
A *fourth* Applejack appeared in a sparkling flash, with flutterpony wings and antenna and wearing a pretty dress. "Those three could give ya advice all the live long day, but no matter what ya think ya know about what being a Concept is like..." Princess Epiphany grinned. "Ah can guarantee, you're gonna be surprised!"
Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. "Sis, how come all these different kinds of Truth are you? And what about Big Mac and Red Gala? Ah kinda remember their marks being on our Well of Truth too."
Veritas laughed warmly, then put a hoof to her lips. "Let them come to it in their own time, sis. They'll have their own adventures, their own Truths to discover." She glanced to one side. "And technically, the aspects aren't *all* Applejacks any more..."
A ghostly, barely visible pony approached. Apple Bloom, stared hard, then gasped, backing away. "F- Flummox?!
The shade sighed deeply. "I briefly was, and might again be, though I can still hope I will not be... Nightstallion Apocrypha, the Maddening Truth. I'm meant to speak words of encouragement or advice, I gather? Well, then..." He leaned closer. "Young one, it warms what remains of my heart that you aren't likely to repeat my mistakes. When ponies work and struggle and finally earn the truth for themselves, why, then they are already far more prepared to understand and accept that truth, and not be overwhelmed by it."
"Um, thanks. Ah guess. We'll try our best to save you in our world."
The shade smiled and faded away, a simple "Thank you" echoing in the aethereal void.
Apple Bloom looked at the Applejacks, then closed her eyes, weighting everything in her heart. Then she grinned from ear to ear. "How did you put it, sis? Ah'm as ready as Ah'm gonna be!"
Veritas grinned back, then unhooked the velvet rope and stepped aside, bowing and beckoning with a hoof.
Apple Bloom trotted on through, marveling at all the pictures of their Everfree adventures, many of which seemed to be video shot from their own video camera, wherever that had gotten to. The Alicorns and Nightmare followed, trotting on her left and right. "Hey, sis, do Ah get a song?"
Veritas chuckled. "If ya like. Why don't you start?"
Apple Bloom thought and thought, and suddenly knew just the one. "There's no place that I'd rather be!" she sang out. "Than travelin' with my family!"
Veritas fell into step with her, adding her voice. "Friends all around come to join and see as we shine our light eternally!"
Deconstruction and Epiphany joined in on the chorus, all of them trotting in sync. "We're Apples forever, Apples together! We're Family, but so much more! No matter what comes, we will stand together. We're Apples to the core!"
"Eeyup," added Nightmare Mirror. She slowed her walk and stayed behind, as the others went ahead into the warmest, most bright-shining Light there was...
Apple Bloom found herself floating like in a dream, endlessly on and on, until her hooves came to rest on dusty stone. The filly opened her eyes and found herself standing on a barren grey rock, in a pitch-dark starry expanse. In the far distance, a light shone, so bright that the rock beneath her hooves seemed to boil, and her mane and shadow steamed behind her.
She opened her mouth to gasp and found nothing, not even air. She almost panicked, throwing out her... wings! ... to steady herself with. Her horn glowed orange, ready to cast a protective shield around her, but... "Oh my gosh!" she exclaimed, her voice making no sound, except in her head. "Alicorns don't need to breathe?"
"Welcome, Apple Bloom," spoke a second voice... how, she wasn't sure. It was a stallion's voice, deep and solid and kindly. "You Have Chosen To Take This Trial... But It Seems You Are Done Already? My, Wasn't That Easy?"
Apple Bloom blinked skeptically, lifting a forehoof, then nosing around in her head. "Ah don't really feel like a goddess."
"Do You Not Feel Calm and Clear-Headed, Beyond Anything You've Ever Known? Are You Not Supreme In Magic and Strength Of Body?"
Apple Bloom shook her head quickly. "This is like when Ah was a mortal Alicorn. Mah friends... Ah could feel it back then. They were on a whole other level from me."
"So You're Saying... That Being An Alicorn Is Not The Same As Being A Concept."
She hesitated, feeling like she was on the spot in front of her whole class at school. "Yes, sir."
"Correct." Colors flared, and the owner of the voice stepped into view... a tall, princely Alicorn stallion, with a black coat and a billowing mane that glowed every color of the rainbow.
Apple Bloom bowed without even thinking, horn pressed to the ground. "Are... are you the prince of Alicorns? No, you must be the king!"
The stallion chuckled. "I Could Be Considered Such, But I Prefer 'Father.' Come, Have A Closer Look."
The floating rock began to move, so far and fast that the stars shifted around them. The Light ahead filled all the sky, and Apple Bloom's eyes grew wide, trying to take it all in. It was... it looked like... all Creation. Countless galaxies and stars and nebula, with new souls constantly being born, steaming out to every world with life.
"Tell Me What You Think," said the Father of Alicorns.
She gulped. "It's beautiful! It's amazing, seeing how it all fits together! But..." She looked earnestly up at the stallion. "This isn't what Ah'm here for, is it? My special talent... my Truth... they're about making and building and discovering things, aren't they?"
"Very Good," said the Father. He lit his horn and wove a tapestry out of swirling rainbow threads of light, vast beyond even Bloom's new comprehension. "The Story Of Progress And Invention Is The Story Of Life. From The First Centaur To Sharpen A Stone Knife, The First Pony To Speak The Word 'Friend,' The First Seapony Who Ever Composed A Song, All The Way Unto The End Of Days."
The Father paced, keeping his eyes fixed on Apple Bloom. "For Long Ages In Your World, Progress Has Slept. Mortals Still Fear That Time, Even If They No Longer Remember It... The Time When The Ultimate Achievement Of Science And Magic Brought Together Wiped All Progress Away, Then Shattered Your World, Nearly Destroying It Altogether. But At Last, Change Is Coming. In Science." Floating images of Flim, Flam, Flummox, Twilight, and Dr. Moon Shadow appeared. "And Even To The Very Nature Of Ponykind." Thalia and Veritas appeared, and then more Alicorns, and more and more everywhere, crystal towers and cities springing up around them.
"You Can Guide This Transformation. Fate Opened This Door, and the Moon Lit Your Path. But... Do You WANT This, Young One? You Are Not Even A Mare Grown Yet, And This Not Some Toy Or Prize You Deserve Merely Because Your Sister Had It First." He stamped a hoof sternly... and the floating rock rung like a gong. "Even Unto To Very Moment When You Go Into My Wife To Be Unmade and Remade, There Is No Shame In Saying That You Are Not Ready, Or That You Did Not Want This After All."
Apple Bloom shivered, gazing at the tapestry. Even the red wolves that she created were in there, waiting for their goddess to be. "Ah... Ah'd be lying if Ah said Ah didn't have any doubts whatsoever. But to be the mind guiding all the hooves and claws and hands and fins working the greatest puzzle there ever was... Ah *do* want that!"
The Father leaned and nuzzled her. "We Had Better Start Studying For Your Exams, Then." The whole scene before Apple Bloom whirled away and became the Ponyville schoolyard, with the Father at the blackboard in the form of a ordinary school teacher, and her sitting in the sole desk. "Now then, Apple Bloom, I expect you to study hard and apply yourself! We have a lot to cover. There will be a pop quiz after the first decade!"
Scootaloo did not look happy. She looking at the glowing white light of Apple Bloom ascending. She looked at the alien ponies. The time displaced pony. And countless other things that had come out of the woodwork from their endless nights. "Okay. Pinkie Pie and that surprisingly big brain of hers may not be confused but I am. I didn't think I'd ever have to think about all those alternate stuff we met on our journey ever again! But there's so much stuff here now to keep track of that I think I'm going to go bonkers! What about the shape shifting rock we met? Or freakin' Daring Do?! Whose a character in adventure books I might add! I think things would get LESS crazy now that... ugh. I don't think we slept AT ALL last night, and we had a bajillion nights, and I still have our homework to do I think! And agh! Will some pony please give me a recap of whose here and what's going on?! Do half the ponies here even have a reason to be here? It's like they're here just because it's cool! Normally I don't mind that sorta thing but this is too much!"
Scootaloo sat in front of a mini-TV. She began chowing down on chips in a lawn chair. And began watching re-runs of Pinkie Pie's variety show.
"What are you doing Scootaloo?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Until some pony freakin' makes a list of every pony here and everything they're doing and what sneaked after us from all those times we got zapped into stuff, I'm sitting my rear right here and not doing."
On the mini-TV, Pinkie Pie stopped reading one of the viewer letters and peered straight at the camera. "Silly filly! Breaking the fourth wall is my job!" She squeaked right out of the TV, still black and white, then blew up in a confetti explosion and became Princess Thalia in full color. "Or at least, it used to be my job, but I'm feeling nostalgic and I *am* nostalgia so it's my job either way!" She whipped a cane out from behind her back, then reached off-screen with it and pulled back a mortarboard, which flipped onto her head. "Get ready for one heck of a song!"
Scootaloo had jumped back from the TV, spilling her chips. "Um... Is this really the best way?"
But Thalia was already flying high in the air, firing bursts of cotton-candy magic to summon parade floats staffed with Love Cats, and a brownish pony with a loud yellow shirt. "Good morning, Ponyville!" shouted the new stallion, brandishing an accordion. "I'm Cheese Sandwich, and I have no idea what I'm doing here!"
Thalia jumped into a spotlight, microphone in hoof. "No time to explain! Scootaloo needs those names, and fast!" Cheese shrugged and started playing, while she danced and sang:
== To the tune of Yakko's World ==
There's... Miss Twilight Sparkle
and Spike and Moon Shadow
with Sweetie Belle and Rarity!
and Button and Rainbow Dash
Big Mac and Miss Cheerilee!
Fluttershy, Zephyr Breeze
Thalia, hey that's me!
Nebula, Nova, Pink Star!
Star Hopper, Scootaloo
Blue Dwarf and Imp's here too
Comet the Canis Minor!
"But, I wanted more than just names!" shouted Scootaloo. "Can't you at least slow down? I'll never remember all that!"
But Thalia was huddled with Flim and Flam and Dr. Moon Shadow. Flim threw the switch on a gadget they'd just built, and a statue garden in a shield bubble came flying out of a portal. Carnival Cat and four plastic cherubs could be seen through the portal, waving bye, until the portal closed.
Twilight ran straight to the statue garden, and her jaw hit the ground, seeing her brother and Cadence, still wolves.
Thalia teleported back onto the stage and sucked in a deep breath.
Oh, there's Veritas, Flam and Flim,
Hey, look who's back again!
Cadence and Shining Armor!
Kifuko and Midnight
Cicada, yeah they're alright
Hercules Beetle, yes sir!
While Cheese raised the key and played another verse without singing, and a copy of Pinkie Pie had a little talk with Twilight about making Pinkie Promises for other ponies, Scootaloo banged her forehead against a fence post. Button and Sweetie surrounded her, Sweetie hugging and Button patting her on the back. "There, there..."
Thalia waved a baton, whipping the song into a frantic finale.
And let us not forget
These extra special guests
Golden and Filthy Rich
Discord and Diamond and
Snow Bound and Blanky then
And introducing too
For the first time to you
With little warning, Apple Bloom's cocoon glowed brilliantly and burst, letting a winged shape soar into the sky! Thalia kept right on going without taking a breath.
tria if that's a
just call her Progress
Or Apple Bloom is just fine
Anything that will rhyme.
And that's what
Yeah that's what
Yes, that's what we're going to do!
An older, seemingly teen-aged Apple Bloom touched down and struck a perfectly balanced pose, horn flashing in the sunlight and wings spread. Instead of fancy regalia, she wore a tool apron with plenty of pouches. She had goggles on her forehead, a smith's hammer at her side, and the Cutie Mark that only a few ponies present had yet seen.
There was a brief shocked silence, broken by a familiar voice. "Bravo!" shouted Discord, clapping his paw and claw enthusiastically. "Wonderful, simply marvelous! Wait... Did she say Discord?!"
Beside him, Diamond sighed. "Oh, Uncle, you just can't help yourself, can you?"
"AAAAH! DISCORD!" Somepony shouted. Followed by lots of magical lasers.
*One epic magic laser fight and awkward apology later*
Given Discord's... reputation... the results were predictable, and rainbow colored, preceded by a bunch of pain with Discord and Diamond Tiara on the receiving end.
However, this resulted the side effect of petrifying Sweetie Belle as well, due to the link the two shared. So they were now rather embarrassedly undoing the petrification on both at the same time.
Meanwhile, Scootaloo was speaking with the alien ponies.
"I'm just saying," Scootaloo said, "What PERSONALITY do you alien ponies have? I mean, BESIDES being aliens, which is super ultra-cool and everything, and so is your pet. But ... what really makes you, YOU? You're all the same kinda. I mean, you being aliens was really cool, and you were all mysterious and unknown, and exciting to meet... but now? It really feels like you're here, just to make things cooler by being here."
"Cadence, Shining Armor, you now have two foals who need your attention and protection, and a kingdom that relies on you to see them into the future. I don't think the two of you should risk yourselves, and thus those you care about." Princess Celestia said. "You two will have your own dark lord to face on your own, believe me, those who carry the light attracts the dark, so those who enjoy the light can continue to live their lives, that's the prince of such things. But this isn't your battle."
"And that is why it is prominent that you be sent back to the fiction universe beyond the golden gate that you so clearly came from." Princess Luna said to Daring Do and Day Dream.
"Please stop turning into me. I should be back nice and safe in the foal's bedroom, not out in the open like this." Said the What-If Machine to Imp as it kept copying it and just whistling.
"At least we're still invisible to every pony here except the goddesses and the truth holders." Said Snowbound to Blanky who yipped.
"I think I want to go back into magical stasis now." Moon Shadow said at the chaotic mess.
"I know how you feel about me and the egg." Spike said.
"Can I PLEASE go back inside?!" Zephyr Breeze, "And just wait for big sister to save the world from whatever this week?" Said the grown stallion that most didn't (at the moment yet) remember meeting before.
Maternity said to her son as he watched Sweetie be de-petrified along with Diamond Tiara. "Button Mash, you need to know, just because you have that cutie mark doesn't mean I'm going to let you play video games all day."
"Ah'm just not into having any high priests yet." Apple Bloom said to Flim and Flam.
Princess Cadence smiled sheepishly at Celestia, nodding. "After all the time we spent cooped up in that statue garden..."
Shining Armor nuzzled Cadence warmly. "We really don't mind hopping on the next train home and taking a good long family-bonding break." The stallion twitched, the fur on his back getting ruffled. "Are you sure I'm going to be alright, though? It can't be normal, having twelve or thirteen of me running around in my head. I've been feeling all itchy, too... Like I'm just waiting for the last horseshoe to drop." He flashed into his griffon form and had an easier time scratching his back, sighing contentedly.
Twilight Sparkle didn't know if she'd ever get used to him doing that. His last words made her prick her ears up, though. "BBBFF? You've been having a feeling like that too?"
Princess Celestia beamed. "All misunderstandings aside... Twilight, that was very impressive, the way you wielded the Elements of Magic, Honesty, and Laughter simultaneously." She winked at Luna. "It hasn't often been done before."
Twilight bowed sheepishly to Celestia, and Veritas and Thalia too. "I'm really sorry I didn't listen... When Spike and I found the Elements of Harmony in my library this morning, I assumed you had some kind of plan... and then *Discord* actually appeared..."
Celestia looked to Luna again, then levitated a sealed box to Twilight. "There's a special project that I've been meaning to entrust you with, my faithful student. One that might be even more important to the future of Equestria than rescuing Flim and Flam's uncle." A golden glow from her horn unsealed the box and lifted the ancient tome inside. "This is a spell that was authored by Starswirl the Bearded himself, only, you see, he never completed it..."
There was a flash behind them. "Human!" shouted Lyra Heartstrings, dancing happily on two legs.
Cadence frowned. "We should probably move those statues somewhere else."
"And tell her that humans wear clothes," said Apple Bloom, blushing.
Daring Do was tugging on Luna's mane, trying to get her attention again. "Princess, we didn't want to panic anypony, but... we aren't the only ones who came through that gate. And as tempting as it is to forget all this and never have to deal with Ahuizotl in our world again..."
Luna's eyes widened. "I'll contact the Everfree Rangers and Misfit Squad at once."
Big Mac gnawed on his stalk of wheat thoughtfully. "Guess Ah missed mah chance to wear one of them fancy necklaces again." He turned to Snow Bound and Blanky, snorting. "Ah don't think we've been properly introduced."
Flim and Flam were grinning at Apple Bloom. "Like it or not, Princess Progress..." said Flim.
"You're an inspiration to all of us," said Flam. "This is huge! In that other world, you didn't take on that exalted and splendiferous form until after college."
Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Button Mash approached, with Sweetie Belle still shaking her head, finding more pebbles in her ears. "Well," said Scootaloo, not quite meeting Bloom's eyes. "I guess the horseshoe's really on the other hoof now."
Apple Bloom sat down and used her magic to help gently gather them into a big hug. "Things are gonna be different now, and that's the truth... and there's no more marks to crusade for, but dangit, we're still Crusaders together! Whether you join me someday or you don't, please... don't ever think Ah'm gonna be too high an' mighty for *mah friends*."
"What, no hug for me?" said Diamond Tiara with a grin and a bit of her old snark. She was in her half-dragon form, since everypony had seen it anyway.
Sweetie Belle was the one who magically pulled her over to the hug-pile. "All in favor of making Diamond Tiara an honorary Crusader?"
"Aye!!!" shouted the rest of them.
Off to one side, Fluttershy and Fluttercruel were having a staring contest with Discord, still trying to get him to reveal "his real plan." Rarity was staring at the seapony statue, wondering why she felt so tempted to touch it, and pondering a new ocean-themed line of dresses. Silver Spoon was beside Discord, eyes wide as she read a "So You Want to be a Yokai" pamphlet.
"Why do I feel like I missed something really big?" mused Rainbow Dash to nopony in particular.
Discord flicked a claw, dressing up Dash and himself in matching cheesy bandit masks and capes. "You haven't missed the epic pranks that I'm going to play on Ponyville. Once they're used to me, of course!"
Dash grinned craftily. "Tell me more..."
Cicada said in awe, "I'm not sure I can just leave the statues unattended, how in Queen Rose Dust's name did they all get here? They should be all tied directly to the leylines that they were built on, they shouldn't even WORK here."
Hercules said, "Where the Queen leads, all changelings follow. And sadly I have no answer other than this town is weird."
A remarkable number of Alicorns put their heads together with Cicada, trying to figure out how to teleport the statue garden back where it came from, without severing those mysteriously intact arcane connections. Even little Kifuko and Half-Light Midnight helped. Or they were just doodling with their crayons. It was hard to be sure.
A slim hoof tapped Diamond Tiara on the shoulder. She turned her head, careful not to poke anypony with her horns, and saw... "Featherweight?" When had he gotten here? The odd little colt bowed apologetically and held out a photograph.
Diamond Tiara's eyes widened, and Sweetie Belle's too, looking over her shoulder. It was photo of three granite statues... Diamond and Sweetie rearing up with hoof and claws clasped like ballet dancers, and Discord raising his paw and claw to the sky behind them, all tragically misunderstood. "Wow. Those poses really did turn out pretty good."
"I just want you to know," said Featherweight in a scratchy voice that sounded like it didn't get much use, "I'm sorry about all those photos before, the ones that got you in trouble."
Scootaloo looked to Button Mash, then back at Featherweight. "Are you talking about Gabby Gums?"
Diamond Tiara clenched her claws. "You're lucky I had a nice long talk with Uncle Discord and Miss Thalia about learning to let go of things like... that?"
Featherweight had vanished into thin air.
Diamond looked quickly left and right, and spotted the colt on a distant second-floor balcony. He snapped a photo, then darted out of frame to the right.
"Hey!" shouted Diamond. "I see what you did there! ... Uncle Discord, is Featherweight..."
"Ah ah ah!" said Discord, waggling a claw. "Spoilers." He turned the page in the book he was reading: "Journey to Another World: A Daydream Doo Young Adventure."
Sweetie Belle mumbled, "Thanks for not saying 'Spoilers, Sweetie.'"
Diamond Tiara giggled.
The new, older and somewhat wiser Flim Flam brothers made plans with the Crusaders. They repeated that they wanted a day or two to prepare and scout the mansion, but they promised that when they ventured inside again, all of the Crusaders would be involved, if they still wanted to be.
Twilight Sparkle literally could not be pried away from the ancient spellbook, and Spike had to walk her home.
Lyra Heartstrings refused to touch any of the other statues, or allow Cadence to attempt to change her back. Thalia produced a few sets of clothes, which she claimed to have stashed in case of naked human emergencies, and Rarity took Lyra's new measurements, saying that it promised to be an interesting challenge. Lyra eventually had to scoop up Bon Bon and jog on home, when ponies started arguing about who should get the next belly rub.
Somehow, the Alicorns managed to reduce the statue garden down to an enchanted amulet. Cicada took charge of this, pleased that he could accompany his queen and see more of the modern world without leaving his post unguarded.
Celestia introduced the star ponies to everypony who wanted to meet them, remembering everyone's names perfectly. Then the royal families of Equestria boarded a train to Canterlot, with the spaceship flying along behind.
And then, the Crusaders did something else that it felt like they hadn't done in forever. Each of them went home, with his or her own family, back to their own lives and their own beds... but promising to meet again soon.
Sweetie Belle made a pouting filly face at her homework, still on Rarity's kitchen table right where she'd left it, while Rarity herself whipped up a couple of homemade hayburgers, humming a familiar tune. The whole scene was so normal, Sweetie almost called for Blanky. She'd never convinced Rarity that the stray white puppy was real, anyway.
"Um, Rarity?" she said cautiously. "I'm not sure how much you heard already, or what you remember, but the other Crusaders and I... we kind of went on a great big adventure last night."
Rarity glanced back at her. "So, instead of sleeping peacefully in your sleeping bags during your sleepover, you went out Crusading instead? I'm really not that surprised, although it's good that you're being honest."
Sweetie hesitated. "Well, yes... and no! Princess Luna and Miss Fate made a deal to keep us safe, and we explored all over the Everfree Forest! I learned all kinds of things about my magic, and my friends and family..." She glanced at her cutie mark, and couldn't help but smile. "And even about my singing talent!"
Rarity lifted a spatula in her magic, turning the sizzling hayburger patties over. "I see. Are you quite sure you didn't have a great rollicking *dream* adventure with Princess Luna?"
Sweetie Belle smirked. "Pretty sure. Say, mind if I set the table?"
Rarity nearly fumbled the frying pan. "No! I mean, there's no need, Sweetie! Just wait a moment and I'll... oh my."
Many of the things that she'd done and known as Princess Euterpe were just a blur, but telekinesis wasn't one of them. Sweetie's pale green aura opened the kitchen cabinets and brought out two forks and two plates and two glasses, filling the glasses with ice from the fridge along the way... all at once.
Rarity barely had the presence of mind to not let the hayburgers burn. "My goodness!" she repeated. "Ah, your place setting is just a teensy bit... asymmetrical. Thank you, darling." She recovered her poise quickly... she was Rarity, after all, and she brought the food to the table.
Sweetie beamed. "So, what do you want to hear about first, sis?"
Rarity nibbled on her hayburger, smiling. "Why, I still want to hear all about your new beau, of course."
Sweetie blinked. "Really?" she deadpanned. "You don't want to hear about sea ponies? Or that time we beat Pony Satan? Or when we met Queen Majesty?"
The last one made Rarity's ears prick up. "Ooh, tempting. But I do want to know more about... who was it... ah, Button Mash. Who is this colt who's worthy of my dear little sister?" She paused, blotting her muzzle with a napkin. "Perhaps I'm living vicariously through you, and for that I should apologize. After all, if I weren't so wrapped up in my work and my business plans, then surely I would have found my own Prince Charming by now."
"Well," mused Sweetie. "Button is nice... and he's really smart and kind." She smiled. "He's sensitive too... he used to be kind of a crybaby, but he's brave and strong when he needs to be." A thought struck her. "You know, sis... Spike still remembers all of that about how to control his size. He's older than he looks, and he's as mature as he feels the need to be." She winked. "And as handsome as he wants to be, too."
Rarity leaned back in her chair. "That is... intriguing. I can almost picture it now." She frowned. "Sweetie Belle, why do I remember an orange and purple dragoness wrecking my home in search of gems?" She looked around, as if she needed convincing that it hadn't really happened.
Sweetie chuckled. "Yeah, about that... If you really want Spike, you might have to get him before Scootaloo does."
'Beware little pony, nostalgia may be your friend. But she is also a liar.'
Even after all those crazy Everfree adventures, Scootaloo still felt a measure of pride that she could fly her own self up to Rainbow Dash's house instead of getting carried like a foal. She could even shout "Race ya!" and have her idol not be *obviously* just going slow to humor her.
Speaking of overgrown foals...
"Omigosh, omigosh!" squealed Dash. "I can't believe I really got to meet..." She slapped her cheeks with her forehooves. "The real Daring Do!"
"Yeah, that was pretty cool," said Scootaloo, trying to mask her own grin. "Exploring an ancient temple with them and all."
Dash zipped to her side fast enough to ruffle all her cloud furniture. "*You* went on an adventure with Daring Do already?!"
"Um... technically it was with Daydream," said Scootaloo sheepishly. "We got turned into... um, never mind that part! But Daring did show up at the end!" She blinked. "And then Dr. Caballeron sang a song about how he was gonna get us next time. And Shining Armor showed up out of nowhere and put him under arrest. That was kind of weird, come to think of it."
"Pfft. Well, I'm gonna get to help Daring Do stop Ahuizotl! I was right there when Princess Luna said..." Dash straightened up, putting on a super-serious face. "'Miss Doo, please do not hesitate to call upon the Elements of Harmony as well.'"
"Daring Do kinda likes to do everything on her own," Scootaloo pointed out.
"But even Daring Do needs help sometimes! Like that time in the Griffon's Goblet when she..."
Scootaloo groaned. Daring Do was cool and all, but she didn't want to talk about her *all night*. "Did I mention that I was a dragon, and a kirin and a Nightmare?"
Dash squinted at Scootaloo suspiciously, as if a horn might pop out of her mane. "You were a Nightmare?"
"Um... I got better?"
"Oh, really, huh? What was your Nightmare thing? Flying crazy fast? Doing stunts that were just too extreme?!"
Scootaloo looked down at her hooves, embarrassed. "Well... I was your number one ultimate fan. And I tried to make everypony in Equestria as awesome as you are, Dash."
Rainbow Dash blinked. "Uh, you *do* know that Nightmares are supposed to be evil and crazy, right? I mean, how could too much awesomeness possibly be a bad thing?"
Scootaloo closed her eyes, sighing. "Because it's *wrong* to make other ponies into what you what them to be, whether they like it or not? Ugh... Nightmare Me even did that to *you*, the pony I admire the most! And dragon me didn't even care how much of Ponyville she wrecked, so long as she got what she wanted. Without my friends, I never could have pulled me back together again..."
"Aww..." Rainbow Dash hugged her, ruffling her mane with a wing. "When did my little filly start getting so grown up?"
"Dash..." Scootaloo felt a little guilty, not saying anything about her birth parents... not yet, not until this adventure was really over.
Dash winked. "Maybe even grown up enough to do her homework without me nagging, huh?"
"Ugh, Dash!" Scootaloo giggled. "Okay..." She reached for her school saddlebag...
And for a moment, the filly saw her kirin paws instead of small orange hooves. "Part of you still wants this," echoed that voice in her head from the Tunnel of Love. Had she really started turning back into something dragonish there? *Could* she still do that? She imagined her dragon self busting through the walls of Rainbow's house and falling through the floor, and it was kinda funny... but no, that wouldn't be nice at all.
Scootaloo took a deep breath, then grasped a pencil in her mouth and got to work.
Beyond the boundaries of the world, an Alicorn in ancient Romane barding floated in the aether, a big grin on her face. "Heh. Was I really ever that innocent?"
Princess Fidelitas dismissed that scene and focused her attention on Flummox's mansion, leveling a hoof at it accusingly. "Your number just came up, Lilith! You've come crawling back from Oblivion for the last time."
Button Mash tried to wave his game console away, but he was so tired that he missed it entirely. It floated there like an unblinking eye, still displaying "Objective: Do your homework! 4/5 pages completed." "Wish I could use my sword instead of a quill," murmured the colt.
He yawned blearily and pushed his chair back from his little writing desk, getting to his hooves. He noticed that his saddlebags were hanging on a peg instead of lying on the floor... mom must have done that when she brought him milk and cookies. She'd found his propeller beanie too, and laid both halves of it out on a shelf. Button smiled sadly. Mom could probably sew it back together, but the magic was gone, and he wasn't sure he wanted dad to make him another one.
His bed seemed to call to him... neatly made, with his old Ponio plush sitting on the corner.
[Would you like to rest here? Y/N]
Yes! Button Mash was snugly wrapped up in the bed covers before he knew it. A short lullaby played with a hauntingly familiar tune.
Button's eyes sprang open. It was still pitch dark outside, with Luna's moonlight streaming through the window, and mom was rushing around the house talking to herself.
"I still need to write the letter to Eight-Bit and Sixteen-Bit!" exclaimed Maternity Love-Tap. "And the other families will want to plan the party too! What kind of party will it even be? A cutie-mark celebration and two cute-ceaneras and whatever a goddess has, all in one?"
Button Mash trotted over and nuzzled her warmly. "Mom, if we need a whole new kind of party invented, I'm sure Princess Thalia will be up for it."
Mom put a hoof to her muzzle. "Oh! Why, of course we could do that." She smiled. "Though 'Just leave everything to Pinkie Pie' is still a little scary when I say it out loud." She assumed Stern Mom Pose #3. "And what are you doing out of bed, mister?"
"Middle of the night cutscene." Button blinked. "I mean, I couldn't sleep!"
Maternity chuckled. "Well, back to bed..." She paused, suddenly thoughtful. "Son... I had a dream the other night, a dream that I was an Alicorn who could nurture and support all the foals in the whole world, no matter how far away they were." She looked at him uncertainly. "Was that... more than just a dream?"
Button grinned and nodded eagerly, sniffling a bit.
She hugged her son close. "I remember, you said you'd help... but I guess I can't hold you to that, since you're not an Alicorn like you were in the dream."
Button hugged her back. "Somewhere out there, in some world, I still am. We'll just have to learn about becoming Alicorns together."
"Response: what are you doing?" The What If Machine asked Applebloom.
"Given ya a little upgrade..." she said. "There!"
The What If Machine found itself on a single wheel allowing it to move around freely. "This unit likes this, thank you."
Applebloom rubbed her head. "Shucks, felt yah deserved a way tah move around more..."
"Applebloom, yah need tah get tah bed," Applejack/Veritas said, poking in. No one had told Applebloom Alicorns no longer PHYSICALLY needed sleep, and most likely no one would until she was older.
"Was just givin' the What If Machine a present," she replied. "...Sis..."
Applebloom got up and walked over and spread her wings. "...Will ya teach meh tah fly? Ah think any flyin' Ah've done before now was kinda instinct and it kinda wore off."
Veritas blushed. "Well...ya see, Ah'm in the same boat, sugar cube...Pinkie's got a pegasus as one of her previous selves so she got lucky...but one thin' Ah can teach ya?"
"What?" Applebloom asked.
The older Alicorn focused and her tail turned into that of a Sea Pony. She focused again and her wings gained a sheen and her head gained antenna. "The truth about Alicorns is: we've got more than just magic and wings tah learn about...and those Ah know enough tah teach ya a little bit."
Applebloom smiled. "Ah'd like that, sis."
"Good...now hit the hay! Yah might be an Alicorn but yer still a filly!"
The big day finally came, and a much larger group of ponies made their way through the Everfree Forest, past the place where the carnival had stood. In daylight, it resembled a deserted lot after the circus had left town.
Fluttershy led the way, with the Element of Kindness shining bright around her neck. Any Everfree nasties that thought to ambush unprepared ponies turned right around when they saw her. The Cutie Mark Crusaders came next, riding atop one of Flim and Flam's steam wagons, with the brothers themselves walking on either side. Twilight's whole original group of Ponyville friends walked close behind them, with Twilight, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash also wearing their Elements... and they'd brought a couple of new friends along for the adventure.
Big Macintosh eyed the Element of Honesty, uncharacteristically nervous. "Are ya sure, sis? Miss Twilight worked it just fine." Indeed, the Elements of Honesty and Laughter had turned into crystal spheres with Twilight's cutie mark when she used them, and they were still that way now. "Heck, you could use it just fine. Ah don't know what you'd even want me for."
Veritas smiled. "They're the Elements of *Harmony*, big brother. They work better with six different ponies. Mortal ponies, not know-it-all Alicorns. Here, try it on for size." She floated the sphere in her magic and held it out to him.
Big Mac snorted, eyes darting to follow the sphere as it orbited around him. "And just how do Ah do that? Carry it in mah teeth?" Then the Element of Honesty startled him by blazing orange and turning into an amulet on a golden chain, already bearing his half-apple cutie mark.
"A big round of applause for Big Mac!" whooped Cheese Sandwich. He was doing tricks with the Element of Laughter, rolling it over his hooves, tossing it in the air then pulling it out of his sleeve. The Element flickered, but didn't transform yet. "Huh, tough crowd!"
Thalia nuzzled the skinny, curly-maned stallion. "Aw, you'll get it, Cheesy!"
Twilight kept twitching and glancing over her shoulder as she walked along. "Ah, I just thought of something! This might be a major breakthrough! I should go back and get Starswirl's book. No, no, don't worry!" Her mane twitched. "I can teleport back and bring it here in a flash!"
"Twilight, darling..." said Rarity soothingly. "This is most unlike you, wanting to take a precious, irreplaceable tome into the forest where its pages might get dirty... or even torn!"
The purple unicorn made a bleating goat noise somehow. "Dirty! Torn!?" She took deep breaths. "I can stay strong. Research! No! I can do this..."
"That's the spirit!" said Rarity. "Come, now, everypony... If we're actually going to use these lovely trinkets, then we absolutely must get to know one another better. Cheese Sandwich, dear, I dare you... to make Big Macintosh laugh!"
Flummox's mansion wasn't any less foreboding in daylight.
Flim held some sort of half-tech, half-arcane gadget in his hoof, frowning as he poked at it. "That's not good. The house wards have been re-tuned and powered to full."
Rainbow Dash spread her wings and lifted off. "I'll go check it out!"
Flim blinked. "Weren't you listening? Wait, no, get away from there!" A magical sphere pulsed around the house, sending Dash flying clear over the horizon. It took a good twenty seconds for Dash to fly back and settle on the ground, head still spinning.
Flam cleared his throat. "Nopony attuned to an Element of Harmony is getting inside there. Not unless we can shut the wards off from the inside."
All eyes slowly settled on the Crusaders and Flim and Flam. Flim and Flam grinned and posed. Button, Sweetie, Bloom, and Scootaloo blushed a bit.
"Figures," muttered Veritas.
"If that nasty Lilith is a disembodied spirit," mused Apple Bloom out loud, "then how'd she do that?"
Flam took off his hat and fanned his greying mane, deep in thought. "A very good question, Praegressus."
Thalia trotted forward and started stiffing at the lawn and the hedges like a bloodhound, as close as she could get without setting off the shield. "Aha!" She held up a black hooded cloak. "She had help!"
Scootaloo groaned. "Those dumb cultists again?"
"More than just them," said Thalia, levitating a large purple hat covered with stars.
Twilight gasped, grabbing the hat in her own magic and bringing it closer. "Trixie?!"
Flim shared a concerned glance with Flam. "She was still following us?"
Twilight started shaking her head. "No. Trixie's used the Element of Magic. She couldn't be in there."
"Unless..." Sweetie Belle gulped. "Lilith let her in..."