The Devil's Stallion

Chapter 2: Lost in the Woods

Twilight felt like she was beginning to come back to her senses and regain her powers of speech, but thoughts still swam in her head: was the id all there was to the mind? Was she wrong to use other ponies to distract corrupted ponies? Even if it was wrong, did she have a choice? And if she didn't have a choice and it was wrong---then what kind of world did she live in?!
Applejack, bless her heart, mercifully interrupted Twilight's tormenting thoughts: "D'ya s'pose we should see Zecora? Maybe she knows where the core is."
Rainbow Dash hadn't yet made it far into the woods, but she screeched to a halt mid-air. "Why do you think she'd know where the core is?"
"I don't know why or how she'd know, but I do know this: when there ain't an answer anywhere in Ponyville, she's had the answer before. More than once."
Twilight struggled to keep her overwhelming questions down, and managed to get two words out: "Applejack's right."
Rarity chimed in, "It's certainly worth a try."
Without another word, Rainbow Dash veered off towards Zecora's house. Surprisingly many small creatures leaped out of the shadows at her and chased her. Unsurprisingly, she was far too quick for them to catch her. But as she slowed to a stop in front of Zecora's house, the animals closed in.
Rainbow snorted at the creatures, daring them to try and touch her. The animals didn't slow down, so Rainbow blasted them with a gust of wind from her wings. That pushed them away, but only bought her a few moments before they began closing in, again. Rainbow gulped.
Fluttershy willed herself into physical form, and the moment the animals got near her, they lost their corruption and scurried back into the shadows.
"...What just happened?" Rainbow Dash asked.
"Duh! Isn't it obvious?" Pinkie asked back. "When the animals get near Fluttershy, they lose their corruption! It's because of her super-animal-control power!"
"I knew you were good with animals, but not magic-grade good!"
Fluttershy flushed at the compliment as more birds began to circle her. "Well, um...you know..."
Her stammering was brought to an end as the door to Zecora's house slammed open, and a snorting, enraged, corrupted Zecora burst out. It wasn't a surprising sight, but it was still a disturbing one.
Fluttershy scampered away from Zecora to try to get some space between herself and the bewitched mare---she knew another battle was about to happen, but she didn't quite know what to expect. She decided to open up by sending her birds toward Zecora to distract her, but as the birds closed in, Zecora seemed to fire some kind of hypnotic rings out of her eyes. When the birds were hit, they fell to the ground and landed in the bushes. Fluttershy gulped: this would be harder than they thought.
Amazingly, Zecora began to dance, and as she did, musical eighth notes materialized and went flying at them. Fluttershy froze with fear, but Rainbow Dash popped out into material form and began using her speed and agility to dodge each note as it flew at them. Rainbow Dash was too focused on dodging to notice it herself, but as one of the eighth notes flew past, its flag---which looked a bit too much like a blade for comfort---rammed into a tree trunk, cutting its way through the bark.
Twilight took note of it, however, and she thought to herself, I'd better warn Rainbow Dash about this! But before she could say anything, Rarity shouted, "Careful, Rainbow Dash! Those notes are sharp!"
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. "This isn't the time for puns, Rarity!"
Twilight paused for a moment, confused that Rainbow was talking about puns. What pun? All Rarity had said was that the notes were sharp, and she flies off the handle---then it dawned on Twilight that a "sharp" was also a musical term. She actually found Rarity's accidental pun a little bit amusing for a moment and giggled silently to herself; a good laugh was just what she needed right then.
Rarity was not so amused: "Ohhh! I didn't mean that, I meant those notes could cut you in half!"
Rainbow continued to dodge the notes. "You could've said it like that instead of sharp!"
Twilight's laughter faded: her friends were arguing---at the worst possible time. A good leader stopped unneeded arguments like this and made sure that everyone kept working toward the team's goal---Twilight's head was still swimming with doubt and horror, and with arguments against herself that might or might not be needed. But she knew she couldn't let her friends down. She screamed, "FOCUS!!" and that was all Rainbow Dash needed to hear.
Eventually, Zecora (or the corruption in her) realized that the musical notes weren't working, so she switched tactics. She pulled her cauldron from inside her hut and began mixing something up in it. Green smoke began to overflow out of the cauldron and create a wall of fog around her.
Twilight decided not to wait to see what this spell was: she popped out and began firing arrows at Zecora. But the arrows were somehow stopped and dissolved by the fog. Then Zecora made some kind of casting motion, and clouds of smoke flew at them. One of them hit Twilight in the face, and she began choking.
Rainbow Dash switched back out into physical form and blasted the clouds with wind, sending them back in Zecora's face, making her pause and cough. Rainbow Dash smirked at her. "I've sent thunderclouds back the way they came with my gusts! Did you really think your little puffs of smoke would slow me down?"
Twilight popped back out and began firing arrows at the choking Zecora. Zecora's corruption began to fade, but it wasn't gone, yet. She fired more rings out of her eyes, and two of them hit Twilight squarely. Twilight was suddenly entranced, and all the doubts and questions she'd had swept over her like a tidal wave once again: was she lying to herself by resisting temptations? Was she evil for using other ponies to keep herself safe? Would the horrors of the corruption keep her on an emotional roller-coaster forever? Something in Twilight wanted to push this all aside and focus on---what was it she had been doing before she thought of all this? She couldn't quite remember, but wasn't it important? She thought she heard someone, someone familiar, shout her name and say something like "snap out of it!" but the voice seemed so distant, almost like a far-off memory or a forgotten dream, that it didn't seem relevant.
The next thing Twilight knew, she was a spirit orb again, and Rarity was out. She had slammed a crystal into the ground that had grown into a pillar, and she was using it as cover to hide from the flurry of bladed notes that were flying at her. "Twilight! Twilight, can you hear me?!" Rarity asked.
Twilight tried to shake off the doubts that were still clinging to her, but the questions still hung heavily on her mind. But she could at least hear her friends and felt like she was all there again, and she knew once again that the battle at hoof was more important than her questions. So she answered, "Y-yeah, I can hear you. What happened?"
"It's like I told you before," Pinkie shouted, going into her sing-song mode: "She's an evil enchantress, she does evil dances, and if you look deep in her eyes, she will put you in trances, then what will she do? She'll mix up an evil brew---"
"Pinkie, now is not the time! We can see what she's doing!" Applejack insisted.
As varied as Zecora's attacks were, she proved that corrupted zebras don't learn from their mistakes any better than corrupted ponies do: once again, she sent clouds of noxious smoke at them. And once again, Rainbow Dash's tornadoes sent them right back at her and gave Twilight the opening she needed to use her arrows on her.
But the hypnosis would be next, and Twilight tried to think of a way around it...what would work? Rarity's crystal pillars? Turning around? ---No; she couldn't let an enemy as dangerous as Zecora out of her sight! She didn't want to have that wave of mind-control drown her with doubts again; she felt like she'd break down crying or screaming if that happened to her again, and then Zecora would win, and who knows what could happen to Equestria? If only there were someone who wouldn't go crazy when Zecora's corruption-given hypnotic magic was used on them---maybe someone who was already crazy...PINKIE! Of course!
But...how to get Pinkie to come out? Asking her to absorb a blow wasn't the nicest thing, but what if Pinkie could do something else...? "Pinkie, try your party cannon on her!"
Pinkie popped out, and fired her cannon at Zecora just as Zecora fired rings back at her. The rings were far too fast to dodge, and Zecora swatted away the fly strips before they could tangle her up. Pinkie was hit and was apparently lost in thought, too dazed to react to the things around her.
Zecora began dancing again, and Twilight shouted, "Pinkie, DO SOMETHING!" But it was too late: a spinning note slashed at Pinkie, and she fell over.
Twilight's wave of doubt gave way to a wave of rage: the corruption had hurt Pinkie. Not just hurt the poor, sensative creature's feelings: injured her. NO ONE hurts Pinkie! And as much as Twilight tried to push the realization out of her mind, she knew that it was her stupid idea to send Pinkie to absorb the hypnosis attack that got her injured.
Twilight's rage at herself, Zecora, and the corruption burned, and like any mare, she projected that rage onto Zecora. Her first thought was to pop out and blast Zecora with so many arrows, nothing could stop them. But she caught herself before she did that; she knew the gas clouds were next, so she just shouted, "Rainbow Dash, use your tornadoes on the gas clouds!"
Rainbow did as she was told as Zecora brought out her cauldron once again, and Zecora was stunned again. Twilight took that as the opportunity it was and finished the fight, snorting with rage---rage at herself for letting poor Pinkie get hurt, rage that the corruption would do something like this, rage at how her throat still hurt from the gas she'd been hit with earlier...rage!
Applejack's words cut through the fog of rage that clouded Twilight's mind. "What're you snortin' about, Twi? We won!"
Twilight shook her head to try to clear it---frustration was added to the doubts in her mind, and she stood in awe that she could actually feel worse than she felt before. And she stopped herself: why was she getting mad at Zecora? This wasn't her fault any more than it was Applejack's or Fluttershy's fault when she was fighting them. She shouldn't get mad at Zecora; Zecora was another one of her friends! What was she thinking?! Twilight suddenly felt terribly guilty, and felt like she had to say something. "Sorry," was all she managed to croak out.
Applejack seemed to sense that Twilight was in a daze, and she popped out and began explaining the situation to Zecora, and how they were looking for the core, and failing that, a fast way to the ruins of Everfree Palace.
Zecora shook her head sadly. She told them, in her rhyming style:

Alas, I wish I could tell you more,
but I have not seen or heard of a core.
But, if I really know my math,
it will save you an hour of you take this path!

Applejack looked down the path Zecora was motioning down. "This'll take us to the castle?" Zecora nodded. "We'd better get a move on, then!"
"Wait!" Zecora said, a sad and guilty expression on her face. They had never seen this look on her before; she had been wise and impeccable before that day.

I...I fear I never again shall know glee;
for Pinkie Pie was hurt...because of me!

Pinkie's orb hovered close to Zecora. "It...hurts pretty bad, but Rarity can find some gems to heal me up," Pinkie hesitatingly answered.
Rarity popped out into physical form, surprising Zecora. "She's right; I'll take point and try to find more gems on our way to the castle."
Zecora blinked, startled that the Spell of Unity allowed them to switch out so quickly.

This spell is proving stranger and stranger...
but I hope it keeps you safe from danger.

Rarity nodded back. "Thanks."
Twilight tried to force herself to speak, through the guilt, frustration, and doubt, "Try to get to Ponyville as fast as you can, Zecora---it's safe there." Thoughts of her home in Ponyville flooded her head, and she remembered that, the last she knew, Spike and the Mayor were hiding in the basement, completely unaware of what was going on outside---they were probably still in there, worried and hungry. And she'd forgotten to send word back to them that Ponyville was safe! ...She could do something about it now, though, if Zecora made it back. "And, if you make it back, please go to the Library---Spike and the Mayor are hiding in the basement, and they'll be hungry by now...!"
"Better run like you've never run before: if one of those animals so much as touches you, you'll be corrupted all over again!" Rainbow Dash pointed out.
"Should we...go with her?" Fluttershy asked.
Rarity hesitated. "I...I'm not sure we have time. Twilight, what do you think?"
Twilight didn't want to think; she felt very mixed up---she even hated herself for projecting her rage onto Zecora: none of this was her fault! But she had to say something, so she just said, "Let's get to the castle as soon as we can!" trying to push ahead as much as she could.
Zecora nodded and galloped as fast as she could toward Ponyville.
Rarity trotted the other way down the path Zecora had shown them, using her horn magic to look for gems as they went. Each time she found one, she touched it to Pinkie's orb. Some of them were absorbed, and some weren't---Rarity put the ones that didn't work in her saddle bag. Twilight noted that the size and shape of the gems usually decided what worked and what didn't: smaller gems didn't work, while larger ones that were heart-shaped were absorbed. Some really big gems, shaped like suns, also didn't work to heal Pinkie. But it wasn't long before most of Pinkie's wounds were healed, and her orb began swinging back and forth with rekindled glee.
Twilight wanted to apologize to her friend---she hoped Pinkie would forgive her. So much was swarming her head---was she really evil under everything? Was evil even avoidable?---that she was afraid anything she said would come out wrong---for a moment, she wondered if it was ever possible at any time to avoid saying something wrong if evil was unavoidable---but she decided she had to try: "Pinkie, I'm sorry I told you to take point back there..."
Pinkie's answer came slowly. Pinkie never spoke slowly unless she was sad or hurt, so her very tone felt awful to Twilight. But the words were soothing enough: "It's...okay, Twilight. It's not your fault; it's the corruption's fault. Don't feel sad about it! ...I hate it when my friends are sad."
As childish as it was to put it that way, every word was right. And some part of Twilight knew it. Twilight was still afraid of what being injured had done to Pinkie emotionally and mentally, though, so she asked, "How are you doing?"
"It doesn't hurt as much, anymore. I think I'll be okay."
That wasn't quite what Twilight meant; she tried to think of a way to ask how Pinkie was doing emotionally without sounding too sappy. She wondered briefly if she shouldn't worry about sappiness, but she deciced to put it this way: "That's how your body's doing, but how're you doing?"
Pinkie paused for a moment, then answered, "Getting hurt was...scary. I'm still scared. But...I know I shouldn't be. I know I'll be all right because Rarity can heal me up---and because I'm with the rest of you. I know I shouldn't be scared, but...I am."
There was a pause---Rarity filled that pause by collecting more gems and trying to finish healing Pinkie.
Pinkie solemnly added, "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry, Sugarcube," Applejack chimed in. "We're ALL scared here. Everything we care about is at stake! Our ability to care about it all is at stake. It's okay to be scared...it's just not okay to let fear stop us from trying to fix it."
Twilight let the words soak into her sore brain. It was such plain, simple wisdom---again, from her friends. Would they be able to ease the pain of the questions that were bouncing around in her head, if she could ask them? But how could she explain it all to them? Nopony who hadn't done a lot of reading would know about Immanuel Kanter or Sigmund Fjord! And how could they forgive her for getting mad at Zecora? And how would Fluttershy react if Twilight told her that she was glad Fluttershy was stupid??! Her friends were wise, but they weren't smart like she was. Usually she thought "wise" was better than "smart", but how can they understand what she's feeling if they aren't smart?
Her thoughts were interrupted as swarms of small animals began charging them, again.
Fluttershy popped out and glared at the little creatures. They froze in their tracks, and the corruption left them. Fluttershy smiled and whispered, "It's okay, little ones, I'm not mad at you. Now, hide your little selves and try to stay safe!" The animals obeyed at once, except for a few more birds that again began to circle around her to protect her.
They suddenly heard a loud snarl, followed by one, two, three---uncountable bone-chilling howls. They all knew exactly what that sound meant: timber wolves. Corrupted timber wolves.
Fluttershy wasn't quite sure what to do; the canopy of the trees above was too thick to fly through, so flying away wasn't an option. She decided to try distracting them with her birds, so the moment they showed their faces, she sent her birds after them. But the wolves were only distracted for a moment; after that, they immediately turned their attention back on her. She gulped and tried to think what to do---but couldn't.
Pinkie willed herself into physical form. "I'm not gonna let fear stop me! I'll show you!" she shouted, blasting a wave of fly paper from her party cannon out over the wolves. Their thick, shaggy fur stuck fast to the fly strips, and for a few seconds, they couldn't move.
Twilight popped out and began firing arrows at the wolves, and soon, they were all uncorrupted. She sighed in relief. "And I was afraid they'd be hard to beat!" The wolves freed themselves from their sticky bonds, and began to close in on Twilight.
Applejack pointed out, "They might not be corrupted, but they're still predators!"
Pinkie popped back out and fired another wave of fly paper at them. All but one was immobilized, and Pinkie's cannon wasn't ready to fire again!
She didn't know what to do, either, but Rarity had an idea. She popped out into physical form and smacked the wolf with a gem---and he was frozen in a crystal prison. One by one she imprisoned the rest of the wolves as well.
Breathing heavily, she shouted, "Rainbow Dash, get us out of here before anything else happens!"
Rainbow Dash switched out and flew as fast as she could down the path.
Twilight suddenly got another nerve-wracking thought: up until then, uncorrupting an enemy was always enough. Now, it wasn't enough. Even worse, Zecora normally didn't have the kind of magic she had displayed during the fight---she'd never been able to use hypnosis or musical attack magic before: the corruption had to have given her those powers. What all was the corruption capable of? What if this adventure was going to be harder than they thought? ...Twilight didn't have the strength to push this thought aside; it stuck in her head. What if this was going to be harder than they thought? Would they be able to do it? Would they be strong enough---even together, would it be enough?
Twilight brooded over this question, would they be strong enough? They had faced a lot of things before---Nightmare Moon, DisQord, a dragon blowing smoke all over Equestria, a hydra, an army of changelings---but this was a whole new kind of evil that reached into the most inner parts of their being, their wills, and twisted them around into something horrible, something that knew only rage, hate, and anger. The more Twilight thought about it, the more it scared her.
She felt a whisper in her mind: "It's okay to be scared...it's just not okay to let fear stop us from trying to fix it." But there's more to it than that; what if all her desires to do anything to help are really just lies?? She loved to read---almost more than she loved to be with her friends. Or was it more? That thought made her feel guilty, but shouldn't she feel guilty that it makes her feel guilty if all she really wants is to read? Is friendship even necessary? Is this really what she wants, deep down? She was getting sick and tired of all this doubt and guilt and frustration; she didn't want to think about it, but it just kept coming back to haunt her.
Her thoughts were interrupted again as Rainbow Dash asked, "Pinkie, just how much fly paper do you have in that cannon?"
"A lot," Pinkie answered. After a pause, she added, "I don't think we're gonna run out this adventure."
Twilight tried to giggle---but she couldn't. Why does she have be keep doubting herself and her friends???
Thank goodness: the ruins of the castle quickly came into view, and Rainbow began flying a scouting run to see if she could find any trace of the core. All seven of them looked in all directions, high and low, for any signs of the core. But the it just didn't seem to be there.
"Great...the core isn't here. NOW what do we do?" Rainbow groaned.
"I have an idea, but we'll need to find someplace safe where we can land," Celestia said.
Rainbow Dash veered toward the ruined courtyard of the castle and looked around. At first, it didn't seem like there were any enemies, but then she heard a snarl---it was a Manticore! Predictably, it was corrupted. Twilight wondered, What kinds of magic will it have?
Twilight popped out into physical form and fired a few arrows at the manticore to see what would happen. The manticore slashed at the arrows and splintered them to pieces. Twilight tried to think of a way to get the arrows to hit, but her doubts kept weighing her down. She knew she couldn't let them slow her down in the middle of a battle, but her brain felt cramped and exhausted. She just couldn't think! And she was beginning to feel hungry again! Those cupcakes helped, but they weren't as filling as she'd have liked. And Twilight suddenly felt that her bladder was full---of all the times!!
Fluttershy popped out and tried to get close to the Manticore to see if her animal-calming aura helped. Sure enough, just by being near it, the corruption slowly faded from the huge monster. But the corruption didn't want to lose its grip on the creature so easily: it swiped at Fluttershy and sent her sailing into a tree. She let out a gasping shriek, and was obviously injured.
No! Twilight thought. Not Fluttershy, too! Oh, why do my poor friends have to get injured? Especially the ones that are hurt the most by it?? Why does the world have to pick on the sensative ones?!!!
Rarity popped out and tried to hurl a gem at the manticore to keep it busy while she searched her bag for a heart-shaped gem to heal poor Fluttershy. The Manticore slashed at the gem, and that encased the manticore's paw in crystal. The manticore began banging the gem against the ground to try to break the crystal, and that gave Rarity the time she needed to find a heart-gem and heal Fluttershy up.
As soon as Fluttershy was healed, Twilight tried to pop out and use her arrows again, while the manticore was distracted by the crystal on his paw. Unfortunately, the manticore immediately slashed at her arrows, even with his paw encased in crystalline rock. Twilight snorted in frustration, realizing that Fluttershy's animal aura might be the only way to cure the manticore, and using that aura meant being near the manticore, which would put her in danger.
Her mind raced...how could they restrain the manticore so that Fluttershy wouldn't get hurt again? Fluttershy was weak and timid; she wouldn't stand up well to being hit again---emotionally or physically.
Twilight thought of something random: "Rainbow Dash, try your tornadoes on that manticore!" Rainbow immediately popped out and blasted the manticore, who still struggling against the crystal on his paw. That unbalanced the manticore; it looked like it was about to fall over. That made Twilight wonder...could she use her arrows now? She popped out again and tried blasting the manticore, but the moment her arrows got near, the manticore swiped at them, destroyed them, and almost immediately regained its balance.
Enough---Twilight decided to stop trying her arrows. But the manticore didn't slow down; it began to send waves of magic that were almost exactly like the magic Trixie had used on them. Twilight thought, just for a moment, that this was a sign that at least some of Trixie's power was coming from the corruption in her, and wasn't part of her normal unicorn powers---but she had little trouble pushing this thought aside for the battle at hoof. Twilight did her best to dodge the incoming magic attacks, but she had a lot of close calls. Rainbow Dash popped out and began dodging, and she was much more agile and better able to avoid getting hit. After a few volleys of magic missed them, the manticore charged. Rainbow Dash easily dodged the charge, but the manticore quickly turned around and roared.
"Rarity! Your crystals!" Rainbow Dash shouted. It had been the only thing that worked, and it had proven very distracting. Rarity popped out, hurled a gem at the manticore, and true to their experience, the manticore hadn't learned from its mistake: its paw was encased in rock once again. Rainbow Dash popped out again and blasted the struggling manticore with another of her tornadoes, and the manticore was again unbalanced.
Twilight tried to think---they went wrong last time because she tried to user her arrows on him. There had to be a right thing to try, but what...? For a moment, she thought that Fluttershy should get near him again, but if he can regain his balance and senses for her arrows, he can regain his balance and senses for Fluttershy. Twilight had already made one bad call that resulted in Pinkie being hurt in a fight; she didn't want to be responsible for another bad call. So she decided that it was too soon and too dangerous for Fluttershy to get near the manticore again.
So what COULD they do? They needed to restrain him...what about Applejack's Lasso? "Applejack, try your lasso!" Applejack popped out and lassoed the manticore's flailing leg, giving it a good yank. The manticore flopped on its back and seemed to be in a daze. But it wasn't all tied up, so it wasn't quite restrained enough for Twilight to feel safe sending Fluttershy at him again.
Wait---would Pinkie's fly strips be enough to restrain it? "Pinkie, party cannon!" Twilight shouted. Pinkie popped out and covered the monster with fly paper, and it immediately began struggling against its bonds. It was restrained, at least for the moment.
"Fluttershy, get near him and try to cure him! But be careful!!" Twilight shouted. Fluttershy popped out and landed near the manticore, and Twilight could see the corruption slowly seeping out of him. It was bizarre to think that, just by being near an enemy, they could damage him---or at least neutralize the treat he posed.
Twilight grew pensive as she pondered the strangeness of this battle, and then thought that there might be something that she had forgotten for a moment, something important and very sad that she didn't want to think about---then she began remembering the doubts she'd been plagued with. Her heart sank: for a moment, she forgot her troubles. For a moment, she was free---but no longer. If she'd still had eyes, she'd have shed a tear.
A ripping sound reminded her that she and her friends were in danger: the fly paper was beginning to tear. "GET AWAY FROM HIM!" Twilight screamed at Fluttershy, but she was already flying away to get some distance between him and her.
By now, her friends knew how to finish the battle; they could repeat what they had done before to finish the fight: crystal, tornado, lasso, cannon, and then Fluttershy simply stands by the Manticore. Twilight became lost in thought, lost in her doubts once again. Before she realized it, the battle was over---she didn't even remember how many times they had had to repeat the cycle to win. It was pathetic and frustrating how lost in her thoughts she was. Again, she longed to tell someone, anyone, but especially her friends, what she was thinking. And she hoped---oh, how she hoped!---that they could prove every one of her doubts wrong.
She could hardly pay attention as Fluttershy nuzzled the now-gentle giant, said some words of encouragement, and sent it on its way. But when Celestia spoke, Twilight was shaken out of her obsessive, unwanted doubts, even if only for a moment:
"There is one thing I can try to find the core, but...the results are impossible to predict. I may have to re-cast the Spell of Unity, depending on what happens."
Applejack asked, "What d'ya mean, yer Highness?"
"The scroll that had the Spell of Unity on it was very badly damaged, and parts of it seemed to imply that something was---different for when the caster of the spell came into physical form, herself. I saw the word 'danger' and 'less stable', but there was no context to go with them. So there's no telling what will happen if I go into material form, myself."
Twilight wondered, how would you going into material form help? She tried to will her voice to say it, but all that came out was some kind of coughing squeak.
"Oh, mercy me! I'd completely forgotten what corrupted!Zecora did to your throat!" Rarity scolded herself. She switched out into physical form and began rooting through her pack for a heart-gem for Twilight. "But, Princess, why shouldn't you stay in spirit form, then?"
"I know of a spell---it's called a 'radar' spell, and it sends out a pulse of energy in all directions that sort of echoes off of whatever it is the spell is supposed to find. How long it takes for the spell to return, and what direction it comes from when it does, tells me where exactly the object I'm looking for is located. I can use this spell to find the core. But depending on the distance, it could take hours for it to return."
"Couldn't Twilight cast the spell instead of you?" Rainbow Dash asked.
I can't use any magic at all but the arrows of light! Twilight thought. Wait---did I say that, or just think it? Twilight wondered.
Celestia herself answered, "The Spell of Unity puts a limit on what Twilight's magic can do; if she tries to use her magic for anything other than the Arrows of Light you've seen her use, it could disrupt the Spell of Unity. We can't take that risk. Besides, I didn't bring the radar spell's scroll with me; she wouldn't be able to cast the spell because she doesn't know it. I've memorized the spell, so I'm the only one who could use it, in any case.
"So, even though this is a risk, I'm going to try it." Celestia popped out into physical form, but surprisingly, Rarity stayed in physical form---the two mares stood side-by-side.
"I---I'm not a spirit??" Rarity wondered aloud.
Celestia looked confused for a second, then decided not to let this slow her down. "I knew the rules for me would be a little different, but I didn't know in what way. It appears I can switch in and out of physical form at will, independent of the rest of you. But it's possible that it's more dangerous for me to be in physical form---I'm not sure, the scroll was too damaged to be certain." Celestia dropped the subject and began weaving a golden glow of energy with her horn. A faint ring appeared around her, like a halo, then grew larger quickly and disappeared with a soft, indescribable noise. "It's done...now we need to remain here until the radar comes back to us."
Celestia lay down on the ground, tucking her hooves underneath herself. She began looking around, saw some wildflowers, and began plucking them out of the ground with her horn magic, stacking them into a small pile next to her. She ate a few herself, then said, "There's no telling how long it'll take for the radar to get back to us. While we're waiting, we should take care of your bodies' needs. Eat up, everypony---we'll need our strength for this adventure."
Celestia went back into spirit form. One by one the ponies took turns in physical form, eating the flowers and stalks. Twilight went last, and she was still lost in doubt, but began wondering, trying, probing her imagination for a way to explain her doubts to her friends so that they could understand her. But it was so frustrating; everything she thought of---and she couldn't think of much---just plain wouldn't work; any other philosopher's work to which she could compare Sigmund Fjord or Immanuel Kanter would just go over their heads.
As Twilight finished her lunch, she immediately and uncomfortably remembered how full her bladder was. It almost hurt, it was so full. She looked around, and saw that there was a small dropoff on one side of the courtyard; she could empty her innards over that. But---her friends were all there... "I need to...use the little filly's room," Twilight slowly said, doubts and questions and longing to speak with her friends tainting her tone with frustration and uncertainty. "Can you all give me a little privacy?"
Applejack hesitatingly answered, "I...don't think we can, Twilight. I mean, this Spell of Unity doesn't let us."
"Well..." Twilight struggled to think, getting more and more frustrated. "Can you all just...look away for a minute?" Her friends' spirit orbs stayed motionless. "Are you looking away?" she asked angrily.
"We're looking away, Twilight."
Twilight backed up to the small cliff, eyeing the orbs as they followed her. There was no reaction from them, and she waited in silence---agonizing silence as her bladder complained and complained that it was too full. Finally, Twilight decided she could wait no longer: she swished her tail up and to the side, and let everything splatter out to the ground a story below. Twilight herself couldn't believe how long it took to get everything out, but the relief she was getting sorely needed.
Finally, everything was out. It still hurt a little, but Twilight knew it would pass. She looked around for something to wipe off with, and saw some small leaves on a vine nearby. She used her hoof to snap one off, but paused, looking at it. There was something about that leaf---where had she seen it before...?
"Oh, don't wipe with that, Twi," Applejack said. "That's poison ivy. You don't wanna see the results of THAT, now do ya?" Applejack began chuckling.
They're laughing at me! Twilight thought to herself. I'm in pain---physically and mentally, and they're laughing at me!! Twilight roared, "I THOUGHT YOU SAID YOU'D LOOK AWAY!!!"
Applejack's orb took on a pink, embarrassed hue. "I'm sorry, Twi, I heard---I thought you were.... I'm looking away, now."
Twilight let out a groaning growl, snorted, and found a non-poisonous leaf to wipe with. She angrily walked back to the spot where Celestia had cast the spell from. She began to think that her friends not only wouldn't be able to help her sort through all the things she'd been doubting herself and the world about, but they would be unwilling to help her. They'd just laugh at me again! Twilight thought. Is that all I am to them? A laughingstock? She narrowed her eyes, lay down, crossed her hooves, and sulked in fury.
"We're still looking away," Pinkie said.
"Pinkie!" Rarity scolded.
"I'm done." Twilight growled back through her teeth. She wasn't done with her doubts, though, as much as she wished otherwise. And her friends wouldn't be any help, either.
The orbs didn't seem to react at first, then Applejack's orb floated in front of Twilight's face. "Twilight...I'm sorry fer lookin' too soon. It was an honest mistake! Please don't be mad at me!"
"I'm not mad at you," Twilight answered darkly.
Applejack paused for a moment, before deciding to answer honestly: "...Yes, you are, and I have no idea why!"
Twilight didn't answer. She didn't want to be laughed at again.
After a pause, Applejack continued, "Listen, Twilight...I can tell something's bugging you---I know you well enough to say that much. And I'd give my hat to make ya feel better, you know I would!"
Twilight's scowl faded, replaced with a sad frown. She began to wonder if her friends really wanted to help her, after all---why was she getting mad at her friends? She should know better than to think they just want to make her feel worse!
Applejack couldn't stand the silence any longer. "Listen...Twilight...it seems like every other week, one of us goes crazy and needs the other five to help her out of her funk. I'd like to think we're learning our lessons from all that instead of forgettin' everything we've ever learned from each other. So please...just tell us what's bugging you. Maybe we can help."
There was a pause as Twilight began to wonder whether her friends really could help her; she began asking herself again how she could explain it. Using other ponies---what words did Kanter use to describe it? Hypothetical imperatives? ...Those words would go right over their heads; they just about went over Twilight's head when she was in this state! And other philosophers who commented on Kanter, like Georg Frederick Wilhelm Hobble---they'd go right over her friends' heads, too!
"But I wantcha to know just one thing," Applejack interrupted Twilight's vain attempts to think of a way to communicate. "Even if you don't wanna talk about it---we're still yer friends. We still trust you an'...an' want what's best for you, an'...an' if you don't wanna talk about it, we'll just accept that, and keep bein' yer friends."
Twilight realized that she could count on her friends to help her out of her doubts---if only she could find a way to explain them. But how? How can she even begin to explain it all to them? She wanted to open up and get help from her friends; she was sure of that, now. Her friends wanted to help her out and help her feel better; she was sure of that, too. But one final wall remained between her and relief---a glass wall that taunted and tantalized her, letting her see relief, but not letting her touch it: she couldn't put what she was feeling into words so that her friends, with their simple, plain, soothing wisdom, could help her figure out her doubts.
Twilight sobbed, and a few tears dribbled down her muzzle. "It's not that I don't want to talk about it," Twilight finally moaned. "It's that I can't put it into words!"
"...It's not what I said to you when I was corrupted, is it?!!?!" Rainbow gasped.
"No," Twilight sobbed back, realizing only a split-second after she said "no" that corrupted!Rainbow Dash's words were part of the reason why she felt so terrible. But should she correct herself? No---she didn't want to make Rainbow Dash feel terrible, and even if she said "yes", how could she explain Sigmun Fjord's theories to them?
"You're tired and confused, Darling," Rarity said. "And nopony can blame you for it. This has been a very tiring adventure---and an awful one; I don't know about the rest of you, but I feel awful about fighting with you and the others. Now, I know, I know---it wasn't my fault, but I still feel terrible about it. Having to fight your own closest friends---it's no wonder you're feeling so mixed up! Just...stay in spirit form for a while and get some rest; you'll feel better. Trust me; the rest of us can handle things for now."
Twilight didn't think rest would help her feel better---until she found a way to explain Sigmund Fjord and Immanuel Kanter, she was convinced she couldn't get lasting relief from her friends. But---some rest would do her good. And the food the Princess provided for them did make her feel a little better, and it came just when she needed it. So she decided she'd rest a while, and try not to think about anything. Maybe the stress would go away, and she'd be able to think clearer. Until then, she'd stop worrying about things, stay in spirit form, and just rest.
For the next little while, she was in a state that was something like sleep---almost in a dream-like trance, she was half-aware of the things that went on around her, but half-felt like they weren't happening to her. In a way, they weren't happening to her, since her friends were taking care of everything that happened. She couldn't tell just how long they stayed at the ruins of the palace, but while they were waiting, she knew that some of her friends also used the little filly's room, but she didn't know which ones. She saw that the magical radar came back and told Celestia that the core they were looking for was in some caves east of the palace. She saw her friends move through the forest, pacifying small animals with Fluttershy's kindness aura, distracting foxes, badgers, and larger animals with Fluttershy's birds, immobilizing huge animals with Rarity's crystal prisons, and using other tactics she couldn't recall.
Then they came to the caves, and found that their own spirit orbs projected enough light for them all to see where they were going, and Fluttershy was able to send bats against anything dangerous that was in the cave. There were bears and kobolds and huge spiders to worry about, and the caves were like a maze. But there was also an abundance of gems---no matter what happened to them, they wouldn't get too wounded to continue. Finally, they found the core---it was unguarded by anything other than the cave maze.
Twilight seemed to awaken as she was drawn into physical form along with her five friends; she slipped her tiara on, and with her friends, blasted the core with the Elements of Harmony. She felt relieved and did feel quite a bit better from having had a nice, long "nap". But she still had unanswered questions, and she still couldn't think of a way to explain to her friends what had been bugging her.
Just like the last core had, this core exploded and scattered gems all over the floor of the cave. Rarity scooped them up into her saddle bag, but let out a little gasp.
"What is it?" Celestia asked.
"I had well over a hundred small gems in here, but---now there's another big sunstone in here! Those small gems couldn't have becomes a sunstone, could they?"
Celestia sighed. "I didn't want to worry you about this, but you have a right to know what I do, even if I have incomplete information."
"What're you talking about?" Rainbow Dash asked.
"There was mention of a sunstone in the scroll, and there was mention of small gems becoming a sunstone. But there were three words that appeared in a damaged portion of the scroll, not long after the sunstones were mentioned. One of those words was 'time'. Another was 'memory'." After a sad pause, Celestia continued, "The last word...was 'death'.
"Please, don't panic," she continued. "There's no telling what it was talking about, and from what I know of how magic works, there is no possible way that the sunstones you've collected could cause any of us to die. But they have something to do with time, memory, and death, and I don't know what."
"Should I...drop the sunstones I'm carrying?" Rarity asked.
"No; it was definitely a deliberate part of the Spell of Unity that the small gems would be merged into sunstones when you get enough of them. We're supposed to want to get as many sunstones as we can---that much I know. But we must be careful; there's no telling what the scroll meant when it spoke of death."
Twilight gulped. A scary silence hung in the air.
The Spell of Unity kicked in, and they were out of time to be all in physical form at once: only Twilight remained in physical form, and everypony else was a spirit orb, again.
They needed that to interrupt the scary questions that were occurring to them all. Twilight tried to think what to do next. "Do we...need to go all the way back through the caves to get out?" A crackling noise answered Twilight, and a sudden cave-in sent a boulder falling, blocking the passageway they had come in through. After another scary silence, Twilight gulped. "NOW what?"
Pinkie's orb suddenly began bouncing. "Ooo! Ooo! My Pinkie-sense is telling me something!"
"What? What?"
Pinkie switched out and looked at a wall. She began shaking all over. "There's a way out through that wall!"
"How are we supposed to get through a wall?" Twilight asked.
Applejack popped out, walked up to the wall, and tapped it with her hoof. It made a hollow klunk. "It's not a very thick wall; I'll see if I can buck through it." She turned around, wound up, and kicked the wall solidly. It gave way easily, and there was a passageway leading away from the core's chamber. "Awright, let's go!"
"Waaaaait!" Pinkie shouted.
"What's wrong?" Fluttershy asked.
"Right before I switched out with Applejack...my knee got pinchy."
They all gulped.
"Your knee is pinchy?" Celestia asked.
Twilight quickly explained, "Pinkie Pie gets these psychic pains or feelings or tremors, and they can predict the future---kind of. I still don't understand them, but she's got a sixth sense about them. I guess it's some kind of weird magic that we still don't understand...but we know that, when her knee gets pinchy, that means that something scary is about to happen. So we need to be extra-careful."
"Maybe Pinkie should go first?" Applejack suggested. "Y'know, so she can sense things better?"
"Okie-dokie-loki!" Pinkie sang. Out she came, and she began to bounce down the corridor.
They were coming up to a large chamber, and Pinkie froze in her tracks. "My knee is pinchy again!" she moaned. Then she looked up and saw an enormous green dragon. Twilight recognized that this was the same dragon she and Owliscious saved Spike from months ago.
The dragon noticed Pinkie, frowned and roared at her. "I've had my fill of ponies!" the dragon snarled at her. Pinkie didn't move, other than trembling. The dragon began inhaling, obviously to breathe fire at them.
"Pinkie, DO SOMETHING!!!" Twilight shouted.
Pinkie whipped out her party cannon and screamed at the dragon, "I'm not scared!!!" She launched a barrage of fly paper into the dragon's mouth, but it was too late: the dragon blew fire at her, and incinerated the fly strips.
Twilight tried to think, but it was too late: nopony could live through a direct blast of fire from a dragon, and there was no cover anywhere---this was it!! She felt the searing heat of the dragon's flame everywhere around her, then everything went black...
The next thing Twilight knew, she was back in the chamber where the core had been, and she and her friends were uninjured.
"Wh---what just happened?" Applejack asked.
Pinkie was trembling, teeth grit, and just as confused as the rest of them. "Did I...die??" she asked. "Because...this doesn't look like pony Heaven, and I don't wanna be in the other place!"
"Of course," Celestia thought aloud. "That's what it meant!"
"What what meant?" Twilight asked.
"The scroll: when one of us dies from injuries, the Spell of Unity reverses time! Your injuries are undone, and whoever dies is brought back to life---but what does it have to do with the sunstones?"
Rarity switched out into physical form and opened her saddle bag. She gasped. "I had eight sunstones before we went into that dragon's lair, and now I only have seven!" Rarity suddenly became very angry. "That thieving lizard! I'll take his whole hoard and see how HE likes it!"
"Wait...that's what the scroll meant!" Celestia thought aloud. "Every time the Spell of Unity brings us backwards in time, the spell must consume a sunstone to do it!"
Rarity was in awe. "You mean these gems can actually keep us alive, even when we meet an early end?"
"Apparently, yes," Celestia thought aloud. She sighed. "This is really making me wish I knew more about the Spell of Unity in advance. I hate the thought of learning by trial and error, since errors could spell doom for Equestria. But at least we have some insurance for ourselves with the sunstones."
"I'll make a point of collecting as many sunstones as I can, then," Rarity thought aloud.
"But, uh...what about the word, 'memory'?" Fluttershy asked.
There was a pause as Celestia considered the question. "Perhaps...perhaps we are the only ones who remember anything that happened between the time we were snapped back from and now?"
"Maybe," Twilight agreed. "I guess we'll find out when we see the dragon again."
"W-w...When we see the dragon again?!?" Fluttershy whimpered. She let out a squeak of terror and whimpered, "Please can we try to find another way out??!"
"I'm with Fluttershy on this one," Applejack agreed, "I don't think it's a fight we can win, and it definitely ain't worth the risk. We gotta find another way out; lemme at that boulder!" Applejack popped out and began shoving away at the boulder that was blocking the way they came in. She sweated and strained against the boulder, but it didn't budge. Gasping and panting, Applejack sighed, "It's no use...we gotta figure out a way past that dragon, or else we're stuck in this here cave...forever!"
Twilight began to think aloud. "If only there were a way to stop him using his fire breath...! What if...what if you threw a gem in his mouth while he was inhaling, Rarity?"
"It's worth a try," Rarity thought.
"Why don't I just fly past him?" Rainbow Dash suggested. "I can get past him so fast, he won't even see me! He'll think he imagined me!"
Twilight tried to shake her head, but all that did was make her orb sway side to side. "There wasn't enough room; he was blocking the whole way out! If we just had enough room, that would be the perfect way out of here...we just need to keep alert and keep thinking of whatever we can to get past him..."
It didn't take long for them to get back to the dragon's lair, and once again, he shouted down to them with a roar, "I've had my fill of ponies!" Twilight knew immediately that the dragon didn't remember a thing about their previous fight, but didn't say anything.
Rarity took point, and while the dragon was inhaling, she hurled a gem into his mouth---apparently, it grew into a cystral prison somewhere in his windpipe, because he suddenly began choking and writhing. But he still blocked the whole passageway out; Rainbow Dash's speed was still useless against him.
After a few seconds, the dragon seemed to crack the crystal inside him and swallow it. He glared darkly at them and snorted smoke at them.
Rainbow Dash switched out and used a tornado to blast the smoke back in the dragon's face. The dragon looked like he was about to sneeze, and began inhaling again. Rarity took that as the opportunity it was and hurled a gem into his mouth, again. His mouth was locked shut with crystal, and he looked like he was in some kind of a daze.
Twilight looked around---now was the time to strike, but what could possibly do enough damage to hurt a dragon? Or at least make him stagger to the point where he'll get out of the way?
She looked up at the ceiling of the cave---there was a boulder that looked like it was about ready to fall. But the dragon's head wasn't under it! How could they get his head under that boulder? ---Applejack's lasso!
"Applejack, use your lasso! Look at the ceiling!"
Applejack did as she was told and immediately knew what Twilight was thinking. She yanked the dragon's head under the boulder, kicked the wall, and let the boulder drop onto the dragon's head. The dragon was knocked out instantly, and a sliver of moonlight shone from behind him. Rainbow Dash instantly switched out and flew as fast as she could for that sliver, and soared as quickly as she could out of the cave and into the night sky.
"Yeah-haaaah!" Rainbow Dash whooped. "Where do we go next?"
"We need to find somewhere else to send the radar off from to find the next core, and the ruins of Everfree Palace are the best place---their elevation means the spell has the least amount of interference," Celestia answered.
"Um...wouldn't it be, you know, a little safer if we, um...went to Ponyville first, and sent the radar from there?" Fluttershy asked.
"We need to get the radar spell sent as quickly as possible; every minute counts. Besides, we need to find shelter quickly; I don't like the look of those clouds."
Rainbow Dash looked up, and a bank of gloomy clouds were creeping through the night sky, blocking out the stars. "Those? I've seen a million clouds like 'em. I promise you: nothing wetter than drizzle is ever gonna come out of those."
Twilight tried not to think about her doubts, and said, "The night...is starting to get a lot colder, since the sun has been down for so long. And water has a very high specific heat; if we start to get wet, we'll get very cold, very fast. We should try to stay dry if we can---even if we wouldn't pay attention to drizzle back in Ponyville, we should find shelter now."
Rainbow rolled her eyes and sped toward the palace ruins. She landed in the courtyard again, outside a small archway that led into a dome-like, tiny building that was still intact, clean, and dry on the inside after all these centuries---the perfect shelter.
Celestia switched out into physical form, sent out her radar again, again plucked as many wildflowers and stalks of tall grass as she could, put them in a pile, and hid inside the archway. One by one, the six ponies switched out, lay down next to Celestia, and ate their fill---and again, Twilight was the last.
She was somewhat depressed and still shaken up from---well, dying. She felt like things were just getting worse and worse: first, she had her doubts, then frustrations and guilt were layered on top of that, and now she and her friends had made a mistake and actually died. Granted, they were together and alive, now, but how much worse could things get? And the night was getting colder! She shuddered against the chill, and wished she'd thought to bring a cape or sweater along.
Suddenly, she felt something very warm and very soft spread over her back. What was that? A blanket? But they hadn't brought a blanket with them; how could this possibly be? Then it dawned on Twilight: she must be dreaming. Everything that had happened to her, all the danger and every doubt she'd thought of, was all just a nightmare, and she was actually safe at home in bed---the covers had just fallen off, and Spike must've woken up in the night and put the covers back over her. What a nice, thoughtful assistant!
Outside the archway, drizzle began to fall silently---in fact, it seemed to make the night even quieter than it had been before. Twilight barely noticed it, and didn't think it was important, anyway, since it was all just a dream.
Suddenly, Twilight felt a tug on the covers that moved her closer to---who was it again? Someone really close to her heart. Twilight looked up from her reverie, and saw that Celestia had tucked her wing over Twilight to keep her warm. ...This was no dream...it was real, after all. Twilight's heart sank.
"Why are you looking so sad, Twilight?" Celestia asked, concerned. "You used to love it when I put my wing over you."
Twilight sniffled and nuzzled her mentor in apology. She rememberd the first time Celestia had tucked her under her wing, when she was a little filly, studying away in the cold basement of the palace, alone. She had been absolutely thrilled to be that close to the Princess, and to discover how affectionate and caring the Princess really was. But now, knowing she was under Celestia's wing instead of in bed was a saddening thought---what had once made her happy, now made her sad.
She decided to tell Celestia everything, in complete, open honesty---she didn't want to hurt her feelings, and thought she'd understand. "I'm sorry, it's just that...when you put your wing over me...for a second, I didn't realize it was you. I thought it was a blanket, and that I was in bed, and all this was just a dream..."
She felt a warm nuzzle on her forehead. "I wish it were all a dream, too. You've every right to be disappointed that it isn't. But don't worry. We'll get though this."
Celestia motioned with her head for the five mares in spirit form to also come under her wing to snuggle against the cold. They clustered together next to Twilight, and there they sat for a while, waiting for the radar to come back, trying to get comfortable and keep warm.
Celestia broke the silence. "Twilight, are you feeling any better?"
The doubts that were lingering just below the surface rose up in Twilight's mind again. She just couldn't forget them for long. And her friends wouldn't be able to help her---but then it dawned on Twilgiht: maybe Celestia could! But...would she? ...She was one of the most compassionate and affectionate ponies Twilight knew; Celestia would condescend to her strange needs. Twilight was sure of it.
"It's just...the more I think about the corruption, and what it does to everypony...the worse it all gets..." Twilight inhaled deeply and tried to think where to start. "Princess...do you remember the work of Immanuel Kanter?"
Celestia smiled and nodded slowly, "He was one of my students, a long, long time ago. I remember him well."
Twilight's spirit rose a little: Celestia would be intimately acquainted with his work! "He said that we should never use ponies, or anyone who can talk, as a means to an end. But...back in Ponyville, the only way I could survive...was to do just that."
"...What do you mean?"
"Well...when a crowd of corrupted ponies came at me, the way I survived was I cured a few on the edges of the herd, and then the ones I cured ran away screaming, and that lured the whole herd away from me to chase them. Doesn't that mean I was using the ponies I was curing?"
Celestia thought it over for several seconds, then asked, "Did you have any other choice?"
"That's another thing that bugs me. I mean, if it's wrong to use other ponies, but I don't have any other choice then---then that means you have to do the wrong thing to get by! What kind of world is it where you have to do the wrong thing??"
"Shhhh," Celestia quietly whispered, trying to buy time for herself to think. "This world wasn't always beautiful and safe. It can be, and has been, a terrible place---a place where we all have to make hard choices just to survive. It's only by working with diligence and care that we can make the world a better place where those kinds of hard choices aren't necessary. And all ponykind has been doing just that for over a thousand years to make Equestria as happy and prosperous as it is today..." Celestia's tone grew sad, suddenly, as she remembered that the threat at hoof. "...or as happy and prosperous as it was yesterday..."
After a pause, Celestia added, "Even when you use those other ponies to keep yourself safe, know that you're doing what it takes to make Equestria safe and happy again---even what it takes to make those ponies you're using safe and happy again. You're doing what you have to do. And you're doing the right thing. Immanuel Kanter was a brilliant pony, but even he didn't know everything. He certainly didn't see this coming."
Twilight sniffled as her doubts began to die; she felt quite a bit better, but there was unfortunately a lot more on her mind than just that. What should she ask about next? ...Her friends! Of course! "Thanks, Princess...I needed to hear that, but...a lot more than that is bugging me. When I was first fighting Fluttershy, and I realized that corrupted ponies can't learn from their mistakes...I realized that the dark magic that made them want to attack also made them stupid, and...and for a minute...I was glad that Fluttershy was stupid." Twilight's face flushed with embarassment, and she looked at Fluttershy's yellow and pink spirit orb. "I'm sorry, Fluttershy."
"Oh!! You don't need to apologize to me! I need to apologize to you!" Fluttershy insisted. "I was the one who hated you; I was the one who attacked you!"
"But...I can't believe I was glad that you were stupid!"
"I'm glad I was stupid!" Fluttershy insisted. There was an awkward pause in the conversation. Neither of them was quite sure how to break the silence; laughing didn't quite seem like it was appropriate. Finally, Fluttershy stammered, "Because, you know...since I didn't learn from my mistakes, you could...you know...cure me better..."
Twilight sniffled again. Another of her doubts was gone. Then she remembered how mad she got at Zecora, and continued, "And...during that fight with Zecora---"
Pinkie interrupted Twilight, talking just as fast as she could: "Don't be mad at yourself Twilight I forgive you I forgive you please stop being sad about it Twilight I know you were doing your best when you told me to use my party cannon on Zecora and she smacked all the fly strips away with one swipe and I looked deep in her eyes and she put me in trances and she did her evil dances and I got smacked by the music notes and I was bleeding and it hurt so bad and I was scared but I don't want you to feel bad about it because I know you didn't know it would happen and you care about me so you'd never let something like that happen if you could help it but you couldn't help it so I forgive you so pleeeeeeeease don't feel bad!!! Pleeeeease???!!"
Twilight tried to let her thoughts catching up with Pinkie's words. Her first impulse was to yell at Pinkie for going too fast, but she stopped herself before she did---that would only make things worse. She should say something nice, something kind and soothing... "Thanks, Pinkie," was all she could think of. "But...it's not that. It's...I got mad at Zecora. And I knew I made a mistake, and...and that's why I got mad."
"Don't feel so bad about that, Sugarcube," Applejack answered. "We're all pretty mad at ourselves, too, for what we did when we were corrupted. Having your heart turned inside out...makes everypony confused about their feelin's. But you're not mad at her now, and she's not mad at you now. That's the important thing."
Twilight still felt a little guilty, but she knew she'd be easily forgiven for that moment of hate, however pointless it was. She was actually running out of doubts to worry about and explain, and it was a relief that she was running out of them. But the last one, as it came into focus, she remembered was the worst...and she remembered how deep it cut into the very core of her beliefs: was the id all there was to a pony's identity? Was every kind or selfless act she'd ever done a lie?
Twilight swallowed hard, and hoped Celestia and her friends would be wise enough to answer this one, too. "There's one more thing...just one more, but...it scares me. A lot." She paused to try to think how to say it, and stiffened herself for the pain that came with having the thought go through her head and out her mouth. "Princess...you know about the work of Sigmund Fjord?"
Celestia nodded. "I never met him, but I know of his work."
"He divided the mind into three parts...the id, which is all about raw emotions and desires; the superego, which is basically the conscience; and the ego, which mediates between the two. And...I'm terrified that the id is what really defines us."
"...But doesn't that contradict what Fjord said? I thought he said that the superego and ego are as much a part of you as your id is."
"But...but the id is about what we want! It's about our goals---and...and it doesn't always tell us to do the right thing. Are we...lying to ourselves about who we are when we listen to our consciences?" Twilight's voice was beginning to crack; it was clear to all present that this was scaring her a lot.
Celestia gently shook her head. "Do you want that to be true?"
"...No..."
"That says a lot about what you really want, deep down...if you don't want to want something bad."
Twilight had to go over that statement in her head several times before the meaning sunk in...and suddenly, her doubts seemed downright silly. Just a little reflection, and she'd have known that what she wanted wasn't evil. She wanted to see her friends happy; she wanted to see even strangers smile. Her temptations didn't define her! She defined herself by making choices---choices that made her and her friends happy.
Why did she ever doubt these things? All she did was tie herself up inside, emotionally and mentally.
But she felt a lot better now.
Twilight nuzzled Celestia, feeling like she'd finally put down a heavy burden and could finally rest. "Thanks."
"What ever made you think that the id was all there was to the mind?" Celestia asked.
To Twilight, the question itself was the important thing, not how the question came up. But Twilight wanted to tell her mentor and Princess the truth, so she answered, "Well...when the corruption was making Rainbow Dash talk, and she said we were all lying to ourselves and pretending to be something we're not, I remembered what Fjord said about the id, and that's what---"
Rainbow Dash's sobs cut Twilight off. Twilight paused in shock; she had never once heard or seen Rainbow Dash cry before. This wasn't like her at all; Twilight silently noted to herself that it took a special kind of evil to make Rainbow Dash cry.
Twilight took Rainbow's orb between her hooves and held it in front of her face. Between sobs, Rainbow blubbed, "I can't believe I...something I said...hurt you, Twilight! I'm sorry, I'm sorry; I couldn't stop myself! I couldn't even wanna stop myself!"
Twilight hesitated for a moment, not sure how to react. Finally, she rubbed Rainbow's spirit against her cheek. "It's okay, Rainbow...I don't blame you for how bad I've felt since we left Ponyville; it's not your fault, it's the corruption! It was trying to mess with my head, not you!" Then something dawned on Twilight. "Wait, I just thought of something!"
"NO! PLEASE!!! Don't think, Twilight! Thinking makes everything get worse!"
"No-no, trust me, you need to hear this. What if the corruption wasn't just trying to get to me when it made you say those things? What if it was trying to get to you, too?"
Rainbow's sobs stopped short when she heard that. There was another pause.
"Tell you what," Twilight suggested, "I won't let it get to me, if you won't let it get to you. Deal?"
Rainbow sniffled, and answered, "Deal."
Twilight rubbed her face to wipe the tears off of it. She was tired of being sad, confused, and terrified of questioning the world around her, and she hoped that she could finally put it all behind her. She half-thought that there was one question that still scared her, but she couldn't remember what it was, and had confidence that, even if she did remember it, either her friends, or Celestia, would be able to answer it. So she decided not to worry about it or even try to remember it. She wanted her worries behind her.
"Twilight...there's something that's been bugging me, too," Pinkie said.
Twilight stopped herself---she'd been concerned about her own doubts and feelings, and it hadn't even occurred to her that her friends might have doubts of their own. She was a bit ashamed that it hadn't occurred to her that she wasn't the only one hurting on the inside, but she decided she could do something about it, now.
She looked at Pinkie's orb, hovering near her shoulder just under Celestia's wing, and asked, "What's bugging you?"
"Do you think I'm...still a filly?"
Twilight tried to find a right answer to that question in her mind. She knew she couldn't let silence linger for too long. So she admitted, "You...aren't quite grown-up. Maybe you never will be, but...but that's not necessarily a bad thing." Twilight tried to think of how to say it. "I mean, you're still loads of fun to be around---for every pony in Ponyville. And you can be responsible, and successful, and happy, so...don't feel bad that you're still a filly at heart." For a moment, Twilight thought to bring up a common psychological theory that every pony is really just a foal with culture layered on top, but she was a little worried this would go over Pinkie's head, so she decided to leave it at that.
Celestia chimed in, "I've seen a thousand years of cultural change, and I can tell you that the answer to the question 'what is an adult mare?' is constantly changing---there is no one right answer. So don't be sad that your answer is different from other ponies', Pinkie."
Pinkie sniffled. "Thanks..."
Twilight could tell that it had been bugging Pinkie a lot. This corruption somehow knew exactly how to get under each pony's skin, and it did a good job of messing with their heads. It was scary how smart it was.
Twilight decided she'd speak up about it. "Guys...this corruption is obviously trying to mess with our heads, and it seems to know exactly what to do to hurt us the most. I think we need to promise each other now that we're not going to let it get to us."
"You mean---Pinkie-promise?" Pinkie asked.
Twilight smiled. "Why not?"
Pinkie perked up immediately, and let them in a chorus of, "Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!"
The drizzle outside stopped just then, and the sun peeked over the horizon, casting its light into a golden rainbow that reflected off the departing drizzle. Twilight noticed that Celestia hadn't seemed to use her magic to raise the sun, but she stepped out of the shelter they were hiding in to have a look at the dawning sky and the rainbow. The rainbow was very faint, but it was there. Celestia walked up, stood over Twilight, and looked at the rainbow, and sighed happily. "It's been a long time," she said.
Twilight suddenly felt confused. "A long time since what?"
Celestia's face grew red for a moment, then she turned around and used her horn magic to shine light on the inside of their shelter, and she illuminated a tombstone with the words, "STARSWIRL THE BEARDED" engraved on it.
Twilight gasped as she realized that their shelter was the tomb of one of the greatest unicorn wizards ever to have lived. A reverent silence fell over her; she felt like she was standing on sacred ground.
"It's been a long time since I visited his grave," Celestia answered. "He was my mentor, almost like a father to me after..." Celestia's sentence trailed off. She walked slowly up to the tombstone and lay down in front of it, as if to speak with it. "Hi again, Starswirl," she said. "I've been ruling Equestria for a thousand years." She kept pausing between her soft sentences. "Luna is finally back---we forgave each other, and now she's helping me rule, again. We're both very happy. Oh!" Celestia beckoned Twilight, and Twilight slowly walked up to Celestia's side. "This is my prize student, Twilight Sparkle. She's got the most powerful magic I've ever seen in all thousand years. And she's got five very close friends. They're studying the magic of friendship, the magical powers of good that you theorized about. All your theories are coming true in these six---it's one of the most beautiful sights I've seen in all my years. The magic is so powerful, it's saved Equestria a few times. It'll save it again, too, just you wait and see." Celestia looked at Twilight and then back at the tomb. "I'm very proud of her."
Twilight was flattered and very glad that Celestia was proud of her and her friends. She stepped forward to the tombstone and said, "Wow...Starswirl...I've read all your books! I know how much all ponykind owes you---"
"Twilight, don't be silly, he can't hear you!" Celestia chuckled.
Twilight was a bit shocked. Celestia had been speaking as if he could hear her, or as if some part of her believed he could. Now she acts like he can't? "...Can he hear you?"
"Of course not!" she giggled.
Twilight was lost in thought for a moment, then something in her head clicked. "So...being silly is just a Princess's prerogative?"
"Ex-actly!" Celestia beamed. She added with a smile, "You've got to remember your place, young lady!"
Twilight giggled and rushed towards the Princess for a hug. She knew the Princess liked being casual, affectionate and even sometimes downright silly rather than stuffy and formal, and she was just cleverly adding silliness to silliness. And from what Twilight had read of Starswirl, he probably wouldn't feel insulted that this was happening in his tomb; he might even find it heartwarming.
"Oh, I wish we could do this more often...just lie around and play and have fun!" the Princess happily moaned.
A strange noise at the tomb's entrance interrupted their fun, and Celestia saw that the radar spell had returned. She stepped up to it, looked it over, and frowned sadly.
"What is it, Princess?" Twilight asked.
"You're not going to like it. The closest reading...came from the direction of Ponyville."
Twilight's heart sank, and she could practically feel the hearts of all her friends sink, too. They had hoped their friends and family back in Ponyville were safe, that the corruption would no longer touch their parents, their brothers and sisters, their employers, their other friends and neighbors---their homes. But the corruption didn't give them a break: it was back.
Then Twilight remembered that one last thing that she had forgotten, and had thought wasn't important: "Princess...I just remembered one other thing that was bothering me from before. Every time something happens to make us feel better---a little victory, a friend who gets uncorrupted, or we think of a solution---something else that's terrible happens, and we feel worse again...I'm scared that this emotional roller-coaster...just won't stop!"
After a sad silence, Applejack spoke up: "Twilight...just listen. I'm worried about Apple Bloom 'n' Big Mack 'n' Granny Smith---we've all got folks back home we're worried about. And...I was hopin' they were safe, an' that all the worryin' for them was behind us, an' I'm disappointed that it ain't, an' I think we're all feeling the same.
"But buck up, everypony! We've beaten the corruption twice already; we can beat it again! We can make them safe again, so don't worry about it! Worryin' won't help anypony."
Pinkie chimed in, "Applejack's right! We don't have to be sad, anymore! Why can't we be happy?? We can do this!"
Twilight nodded. "All right. Let's go out there and beat back the corruption, and show it who it's messing with!"
Celestia smiled and switched back to her spirit form. "I can tell, the fate of Equestria is in good hooves."
Twilight smiled back. "Rainbow Dash, you can get us there the fastest."
Rainbow Dash took point and flew as fast as she could toward Ponyville.
"I should warn you all about something else," Celestia said as they were flying back up the path Zecora had shown them.
"Uh-oh," Rarity thought aloud.
"The corruption---or whatever is behind it---might be building some kind of tower."
"What makes you say that?" Rainbow asked.
"Because the signal that came back to me...didn't quite come from ground level."
Rainbow Dash swallowed hard.

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