Chapter 7- There's One Scorned Every Minute
The landscape of the mountain rim wasn't exactly hospitable at the best of times. Even before you reached the jutting cliff face, loose soil and stinging nettles made for an unpleasant journey if one didn't stick to the path. Things had only gotten worse under the new reign. Potholes dotted the ground, no doubt a hole leading to some kind of threat underground. Multiple boulders and high ledges were embedded in the ground, as if some Kin further up the mountain had thrown them down there for the purpose of having more boulders and high ledges embedded in the ground. At least, that's how it seemed to Twilight, as she, Cheerilee, and the schoolteacher's bulging saddlebags worked their way over the churned-up terrain. Unluckily for them, they had somewhere to be over all of this. And the pathway was the first place the Kin would look, or so Cheerilee had said.
Twilight flattened herself against a cuboid boulder, pulling Cheerilee with her. A Kin came out from the side, meters away, looked left and right, then turned back. A two second peek around the corner told Twilight there were two on that face of the boulder, going up and down like toy soldiers. She informed Cheerilee, who looked upwards. "This rock has to be fifty feet high. Too far up to jump." She put her hoof into a crevice, which came apart with a nasty rattle. Twilight's ears pricked, and the two of them dashed for cover behind a petrified tree, moments before two Kin came from around either side, checking the area.
"I could turn into Dash," whispered Twilight, "But she'd want to take the Kin head on, and we'd be overwhelmed." "Come on, I could take them!" cried Dash, but Twilight covered her own mouth. "Sorry, that slipped out."
"It's okay, you're still coping. Twilight, how does unicorn teleportation work?"
"I need to have at least seen the place I'm going to. I can't make out the top of that thing from here."
"Then we need to go higher up."
Twilight looked about. The hills about wouldn't quite be enough. The tree would make too much noise. That only left the second flyer they had. Fluttershy faded into existence, then nervously began her ascent into the air. She just about managed to glimpse the floor of the pillar, then she thought a Kin had looked her way and dropped like a rather heavy stone onto Cheerilee's back.
She hopped off quickly, "Oh my gosh! Are you all right?"
"Saddlebags...absorbed shock...just a little...winded..."
It didn't sound like a little, but Fluttershy nonetheless helped her up, and dug into the right saddlebag. The two of them (alternate selves notwithstanding) had decided Cheerilee would be most useful behind enemy lines for three reasons. Distracting the enemy, comforting the victims, and sadly, beast of burden. So Cheerilee carried the important equipment while Fluttershy and co put them to use. Fluttershy pulled out a length of rope, then switched to Twilight and focused on the image of the top before it faded.
Two successive bursts of light later, and Twilight was up. She let down the rope and stood on the end, switching to Applejack for a better hold on the stone floor. Cheerilee waited a few seconds until the coast was clear, then ran up, gripped it with her teeth, and walked her way up. As she did, Applejack took another look up at the moon. The slit pupil was still there; big, black and obvious. The other thing, however, was the craters. With a few full moons she'd known, it was hard to make out the craters since they were grey and there was too much light coming off the moon. That might've been why Pinkie Pie didn't notice the Lunar Mare that had returned to the satellites' surface, although it seemed slightly different this time. Applejack remembered what Cheerilee said about the princesses being placed in opposite places this time.
Cheerilee heaved herself up, and collapsed onto Applejack's feet. "Y' sure y're okay?" said Applejack.
"Stop worrying, I'll be fine. Bags put on a little bit more weight is all," wheezed Cheerilee.
"Wurll, so long as y' don't spend the whole quest outta breath." She glanced up a the moon again. "Cheerilee, y' did say that the princesses w're stuck in th' sun and the moon, jus' the other way 'round?"
"That's right. A joke on her part, I guess."
"Yeah, but...princesses? Plew-rall? If both of 'em are stuck up 'n there, then who in tarnation's she?"
"I have wondered that. I've also wondered what happened to Trixie. And you know what I think?"
"...Th't somehow, she got 'erself transmogr'fied into a Naht-mare Trixie?"
"Well, that would explain why th' Kin ah, Applejack that is, met at the farm called 'er the 'Great and Powerful Nightmare Moon'." She did the impression pretty well, "And it's right 'n line with 'er bloated sense o' self worth."
"But the question is: How did it happen? How did ANY of this happen?"
"We'll cross that there bridge when we come'n to it. Right now, we got ourselves the world's worst ringmayster t' catch."
There was the far off sound of a gong. The two ponies looked toward their destination. The circus' doors were opened, and there were the beginnings of a large crowd emerging. "C'mon, let's take a closer look!" said Pinkie as she suddenly swapped in and pulled Cheerilee along. Pinkie took a running jump to the next rock, Cheerilee close behind. The two hopped, skipped and jumped across the way, heading towards the huge tent.
At the fifth outcrop, they ran to the top, and beheld a dismal sight. A huge crowd had rolled out of the tents and was coming down the pathway. Surrogate Kin marched on either side, as dozens of ponies, all ones they knew well, trudged along looking downcast, with tears in their eyes. Their moans and sobs sounded like some sort of chorus. Suddenly, one pony broke formation on the other side, in a mad break for freedom. He was immediately flanked, stomped down to the ground, and slashed with a knife. Pinkie would have jumped down, had Cheerilee not held a leg out in front of her. The pony on the ground was frogmarched back in, leaving only a bloodstained lock of his mane behind.
"What do we do?" whispered Pinkie. "Those ponies looked so sad."
"We can't get distracted by the other ponies, no matter how bad their plight is. We need to get to the tent."
Twilight came back on. "You're right. But the whole line is kept in place by Kin." She squinted at the tent, which see now had a better view of. There was actually a moat across the front, and as the last pony went off, a bridge folded up into a block of metal plates. The circus was round, had a spire coming out the top, four shorter spires around that... "Oh no, the smaller spires actually have guards on top of them."
"Well, so long as we stick to the dark then-"
FWOOOOOSH! Another fireball went up, startling the ponies all about. This Fire Orb Spitter wasn't too far away now. Twilight suddenly switched to Dash, who grinned wickedly. "I got an idea." she said, and ran towards the machine before Cheerilee could stop her.
By the time Cheerilee ran over, Rarity was at work on the Spitter. She was using her magic to move slates of rock and broken wood over the Spitter, meticulously placing it on top.
"Rarity, what are you doing?"
"Just trust me, darling, I know what I'm doing. Or rather, Rainbow Dash does."
"Well, what do I do?"
"You do things your way, sneaking around the Kin. I'll wait up ahead, then lower the bridge."
"You have more reason in your head than any other pony in the world right now. Are you sure about this?"
"If I get this just...right." She wedged in a crate to the pile. "It just might work."
Pinkie swapped in. "Of course it will, Rarity did great!" She hopped on top of the pile, and jumped up and down on it eagerly. There was a bright orange light building underneath, along with a deep, deep rumbling. Cheerilee backed off, frightened. "Heeere we go!" said Pinkie, crouching down, ready to release one big bounce.
Pinkie shot high into the air, he squealing eliciting some glances from below, but all the Kin and Ponies could see were more fire. Up above, the pink pony rocketed higher and higher, until she eventually began to slow down. The second she stopped in mid air was the cue for Rainbow Dash to unfurl her wings and dive. The pegasus shot through the air like a two-dimensional throwing disk of steel. The wind whipped around her ears, sticking her into a single position. But still, Dash managed to curve off her descent, and swooped through the air, heading straight for the tent. A journey that could have lasted ages was cut down to seconds, and Cheerilee raced to catch up with the streak. A Kin on the rooftop glanced up at the strange whooshing sound, and was instantly knocked unconscious. Dash whipped around the rooftops, knocking the unsuspecting footsoldiers clean off their perches. As she swirled around, she grew closer and closer to the topmost spire. Then, holding out her front hooves, she caught the top in her hooves, and whirled around and around in one place. Gradually, Dash lost momentum, until finally she slid down the slope of the spire, sick as a dog.
A few moments rest was all she needed, then she clambered towards the edge of the roof. There was still two kin guarding the door. She looked up, and saw Cheerilee heading over the terrain as fast as she could. There was every chance she would get spotted. Dash quickly swapped in Twilight, who focused her magic on a rock on the ground. The rock zipped seven meters southwest, and clattered across the ground. The Kin were drawn to the noise like marbles to a magnet. Twilight teleported down, and as she tiphoofed along, she quickly used her magic once more to knock their heads together. They weren't knocked out as she had hoped, but dazed and confused enough not to notice her as she moved to the folded bridge at the edge of the waters. Twilight realized she was holding her breath. She looked around, and suddenly saw a handlebar lever on the side. "Please don't make too much noise," she prayed, as she went to the lever, held it with her magic, and pulled sharply down.
There was a squeal of iron hinges, and a thunderous rattle as the metal plates slid outwards. Twilights' eyes went wide, and she span around. At first, there was nothing. Then, there was the clopping of leaden hooves, and the Kin cantered out of the shadows, bearing down on her. She could have sworn they were snarling. All the same, she drew a breath, braced herself, and Applejack burst into action.
A right hoof to the face, a left hoof to the gut, Applejack was kicking around just about anywhere. A Kin could be heard rumbling towards her back. She jumped into the air, coming down just as the Kin came underneath her. She wrapped her front legs around its throat, and it began bucking and braying all over the place. "YEE HAW! RIDE 'EM COWPONY!" The Kin's bucking dispatched the rest of the Kin, until finally it was just her and it. The Kin dropped to the ground, bruising Applejack's side, and then rolled about with her on its back. She could feel its weight squeezing the breath out her, but she only squeezed tighter. It lashed at her face with the blades on its front hooves, but she wriggled about, sustaining only a few cuts, and squeezed tighter. At long last, the Kin began to freeze up, making semi strangled sounds, then finally fell limp. Applejack released the unconscious creature's throat, and wriggled out from underneath.
Cheerilee came over the bridge to find Applejack and five unconscious Kin. "How are you, Applejack?"
"Ah'm all right, but ah think ah'll lay off this body fer now."
She became Fluttershy. "I think how it works is that whatever injuries I get as one pony, they don't pass onto the others, but that pony still has them. They do heal faster when I'm not that pony, but still very slowly. That's why that cut on Applejack's shoulder didn't vanish until we were about at the middle of the field, and Twilight had had a few healthy apples that were lying around."
"Well, it seems like yoAPPLEJACK, Applejack is getting better at fending off the Kin, so facing Mistress Mould should be fine, right?"
"Oh, I do hope it doesn't come to that..."
The two ponies came up to the entrance, took one last glance at one another, and stepped through. The interior was filled with row upon row of seats, topped with an array of steel bars crisscrossing beneath the green and grey roof of the building, from which huge cages hung. The front stage was a sandpit, dotted with circular saws, steel benches, chains and spatters of red liquid. A further board seemed to have something white wriggling on it that was hard to make out. The four corners of the stage was marked by four high pens, cordoning off large terrified crowds of rabbits, chickens, cats and dogs. In the very centre, there stood Mistress Mould.
Even at a glance, it wasn't hard to see why she got her name. Her hide was a sickening green, covered in welts and boils, and her lighter green mane was tangled up like some sort of parasitic grass, dangling off her head in half made pigtails. She wore a crumpled ringmaster suit of red felt, a top hat and a coat leading down to her tail, to be exact. She had dull, glimmerless eyes like glowing embers, and a sombre face like a wooden spoon. She was drinking from a silver chalice, which she placed back on a tray being held up by a small purple reptile, bearing stitches and a black eye.
Fluttershy's eyes widened. "...um, excuse me?" she said.
"How do you like it, Mistress?" asked Spike.
"Insipid," replied Mould. "Send it back, add 20% more grape juice."
Fluteershy tried again. "Pardon me, but I was hoping..."
"Yes Mistress, so sorry Mistress." Spike retracted the tray being careful not to knock over the chalice. "...Uuh, Mistress? I was just wondering..."
Mould remained impassive.
"I was wondering..." repeated Spike, "If I coouuld visitthelibraryearlythisweek!"Spike hit the brace position.
"Well, Spike, you are free to go when you please..." Mould rested her left foot on her right. "...But then, who would prepare my drinks?" She pulled out a metal grey tip from her sleeve. "Who would feed the monsters?" The tip came out further, revealing a serrated blade. "And who would so voluntarily lay themselves on the slab, so that our patrons could see the fascinating organs of a live baby dragon." An entire blade of a sawlike sword slipped out of the sleeve. "After all, they were promised a live one."
"Hello? C-could you please just..."
Spike trembled, his eyes the size of saucers. "...y-y-yes...I was stupid to ask..."
"Quite so. Oh! And Spike?" She turned to the wriggling white shape on the slab. "Make sure our little angel doesn't have too much slack."
The two snapped around to face the entrance, only to find two ponies standing there, one covering her mouth. "...too loud..."
"Why have you come here?" demanded Mould, her face eerily impassive as she moved forwards. "The show is over. The kin will search for you. Perhaps you are volunteers? Wise choice, running away to join the..." Mould stopped dead in her tracks. She was staring directly at Fluttershy, scrutinizing her. "...Well well...It seems we're a little late for the performance."
"Umm...hello...are you...Mistress Mo-"
"If you've come here to make some sort of protest, maybe even a confrontation, then you should have given it some thought before you vanished at the first sign of darkness. Where were you at the coronation of Nightmare Moon?"
"They've been gathering their strength!" interjected Cheerilee. "Making themselves even stronger so they can beat you!"
"For thirty days?" argued Mould. "The show's over, Bearer. The night has won out. What exactly do you plan to do?"
"Well, I, er, the plan, um, er, is-" "I'll tell you what we're gonna do!" cried the purple unicorn suddenly. "We are gonna save Ponyville, find the gems for the Elements of Harmony, and take that Nightmare Moon down a peg! THAT'S what we're gonna do!" Fluttershy blinked. "...If that's okay with you..."
Spike swayed about, then blinked blearily. "...Twilight?..."
"A bold statement, to be sure." stated Mould, with a chilling deadness in her tone. "Shall we see how you can match it? Fillies and Gentlecolts, come one, come all. Feast your eyes on the Incredible Blowhard, and her spectacular final moments."
Suddenly, a strange, slow fairground music began to build. The tune was completely disorganised, but had a trancelike feel to it. Machinery suddenly kicked into gear, and the cages began to rise and fall sequentially to the rattle of winding chains and crumbling gears. The iron girders above vibrated heavily, and something began to slip off the top of them. A glass shard tumbled down and embedded itself in the ground. Then came another shard, and another. The shards came raining down, and Fluttershy darted left and right as she dodged them. Suddenly, there was a rumbling roar, and the music suddenly became faster, more urgent and threatening. There came the pounding of monstrous paws, as three great wildcats, maned, winged, and scorpion tailed, thundered into the arena, irritable and very hungry.
"Manticores. On loan from the Everfree forest." Mould held up her blade. "We'll be throwing a little more than custard pies tonight."
The first manticore struck. Fluttershy dived forward to avoid its paw, and ungracefully landed on her chin, not far from where three pieces of glass came crashing down. She hurriedly got to her feet, as another Manticore rounded on her. The two beasts were beginning to corner her, slicing at the air. A claw narrowly missed her head, and fingered the sand as it slipped through its grasp.
"Do something, Fluttershy!" cried Cheerilee, backed up by the third Manticore. "Twilight-", dodge, "-told me you faced-", dodge, "-the one sent by Nightmare Moon easily!"
"Yes, but that was different! I could see from his face he was in pain!"
"Well, what are these ones?"
"Angry...and hungry..." Fluttershy trembled in the shadow of the manticores. All of a sudden, their jaws opened wide and their heads shot forward. Their foreheads promptly collided, and Fluttershy dashed between their legs. She saw the animals in their pens, bunched up and away from the chaos.
"Cheerilee! You have to get the animals out of the fences!"
"I'll try!" Cheerilee tried to keep eye contact with the thing, jumping from one hoof to the next. The moment the next swipe came along, Cheerilee hit the deck, and the blow intended for her came crashing through the barrier. The cluster of startled rabbits fled the ring, but the creature noticed full well, and roared in anticipation of a new snack.
"Over here, little bunnies! This is no place for baby animals!" Fluttershy waved to the adorable creatures, who stampeded her way towards one of the exits. But the manticores were closing in left and right, herding the bunnies in an attempt to swallow them up. "No! Keep coming this way! I won't let-EEK!" Fluttershy hopped backwards as a wrench came down in front of her.
Suddenly, the seedlings of an idea began to grow. Fluttershy looked up toward the cages, rattling up and down, shaking off the april shower of broken glass. She picked up the wrench in her teeth, and flew up to the nearest cage. But every time she tried to board the top, it kept shooting up and dislodging her. Even when she switched to Rainbow Dash the platform was moving too fast.
Fluttershy floated down, and dropped the wrench for a moment, so that she could call to the bunnies louder. The rabbits made a beeline for her, one of the manticores in hot pursuit. Next, Fluttershy became Twilight, who picked up the wrench with her magic and shunted herself onto the top of the cage. She had to cling onto the chain to steady herself, but maintained her grip on the wrench. She looked down at the animals below and, ignoring the nausea from the up-and-down motion, waited for the exact moment wheeeen... THERE! Twilight jammed her wrench into the hook that held the chain and twisted. The cage lowered slightly, than suddenly fell free. Twilight felt her mane rise and her stomach vanish as she and the platform plummeted through the air, and struck the ground with an almighty clang. The snarling beneath her and the paw grabbing at thin air through the bars confirmed that her aim was right, and that Twilight had just bagged herself a manticore. "Okay, we now have a strategy." She looked at the rabbits cowering nearer the exit. "Fluttershy's not gonna like using the poor things as bait, but with that many animals, it's the best we've got."
And so the pattern repeated. Cheerilee would set free a pen of animals, a manticore would give chase, Fluttershy would coax them over, and then Twilight would teleport on top and drop another cage on its head. While formidable predators, manticores are not famed for their intelligence. Now, there was one pen. One cage. One puke-green pony staring coldly at her from across the room.
"That was very good. But now you're about to fight me. Not a brainless ball of teeth. And need I remind you, I have a weapon."
Mould charged at Twilight. She swung her blade to the left, narrowly missing, then to the right. There was a clang as the serrated edge met the shaft of a wrench, and the two metal objects trembled together in mid air.
"Is this actually happening?" asked Mould, "Are you seriously duelling me with a monkey wrench?"
"I think dignity in battle goes out the window when you start fighting in a circus ring with a saw."
The wrench and blade came free, and clanged almost rhythmically as the two traded blows, as if in some farcical fencing match. Cheerilee lingered for a moment on the sidelines, then made up her mind to run for the pen. Unfortunately, Mould's left eye was not sidetracked. As the next blow struck metal, she lashed her second hoof into Twilight's face, yanked the wrench from the air as the magic loosened, then in two long jumps spat the wrench a distance away and pinned Cheerilee down. "Going somewhere?" she hissed, and slid the blade across her neck. Luckily, Twilight recovered quickly from the strike, and decided two could play at that game. Twilight sprinted for the pen, while Mould's attention was elsewhere, and with two bursts of magic catapulted the wrench at her head, and yanked the blade from her wrist.
Twilight pulled the gate open, and the young dogs came pouring out. But much to her surprise, these animals didn't move to directly to the exit. It seemed that these ones had gotten their confidence built by watching the fight, and it seemed they weren't very satisfied with how they'd been treated. The dogs relentlessly tore into the red felt of Mould's clothes as they exacted their revenge. All she could do was flail and roar straight back, as Cheerilee trotted away carrying her weapon. Twilight spent only a few moments marvelling, before she realised that the dogs were dragging Mould her way, and she was starting to pull back. Quickly, she teleported on top, making quick work of the chain. There was the familiar rush as she dropped like an incredibly heavy stone. Then, as the jolt of terra firma arrived, she hopped off to find the puppies neatly escaped the trap, and admiring their handiwork.
Twilight turned to Mould, trying to keep herself from looking too smug. "All right, Mistress Mould, you feel up to another round? Or shall we just call it even, and you let Ponyville go?"
The ringmaster snorted with derision. Her posture was slumped, her outfit torn, but she still looked as eerily impassive as ever, accentuated by the shadows cast on her. "Don't behave as if you've just won. There are another five settlements under Baroness control, and one nation under alicorn. I will let you have this victory without immediate repercussions, if only so that your misplaced confidence will be more bothersome to my coworkers. But we'll soon see how you cope when you know the true meaning of brute force. Don't worry. You'll see me again." Suddenly, a rush of shadows erupted from beneath her hooves, and she was gone.
"No! Wait!" Twilight rushed to the cage much too late. She took a deep breath, then turned towards Cheerilee. Or began to, before she was interrupted by a tiny glomp, and the feeling of tears.
"Twilight...it's really you...I...I'm sorry I let the place go."
"...It's okay Spike, I missed you too." The two shared a tender embrace for a moment. Twilight was vaguely aware of a squeaking sound. "...Oh! Right! Angel's still tied up! 'Scuse me a sec, Spike." Twilight went over to the operating table, catching a murmur of 'Dumb rabbit' from Spike. She loosened the straps on the lagamorph's wrists, and switched to Fluttershy so that the two could have their own embrace.
"How are you doing that?" asked Spike, "The morphing thing I mean, not the hugging."
"That's a very good question," replied Fluttershy, "I'd like to know the answer as well."
Cheerilee came up. "First things first, though. We came here to find an Element of Harmony, didn't we?"
Spike suddenly started jumping up and down. "Oh oh oh! I know where that is! Mould's inner sanctum! Follow me!"
Spike dashed off without even bothering to check if he was being followed. The ponies exchanged glances, then went after him. They passed through a door at the back, through what looked like a dressing room, and then finally the back of the circus itself; a big stone wall which appeared to be the mountain itself, and a door placed across the front with the image of Mould's head on it. Spike reached into a crack in the rock, and retrieved a simple key. The door unlocked quickly, and the three were soon within a small room. A number of torture weapons were stacked against the side, blunt, bladed and others. The other wall had autographed pictures on it of ponies in the most painful scenarios imaginable. And right in front of them, above a dressing mirror, a chair and a desk, a blue topaz was embedded in the wall.
"Mistr-I mean, Mould guarded it with her life. She said if I ate it she would turn me inside out, pour lemon juice on me, and roast me on a spit before eating me alive!"
"SPIKE! Too much information!" cried Dash, who'd stepped in so Fluttershy could cope with all of that.
Cheerilee gazed up. "It seems a little in plain sight. Do you think that's really the gem, not some booby trap?"
"Only one way to find out." Dash flew up, giving no heed to any warnings, and stretched out to grip the diamond in her teeth. No sooner had her lip brushed it, when the diamond gave off a brilliant shine of turquoise light. Everyone backed off and shielded their eyes. The topaz twitched side to side, wriggling free from its rocky crevice, then finally dropped into the air, rose up again, and swirled around Dash.
"Don't go into me, don't go into me, don't go into me, don't go into me, don't go into me,"
It went into her. Rainbow Dash cried out and reared backwards in mid air, when suddenly her eyes shot wide open. A strange, unnatural spotlight emerged from each one, and merged into an image in the air. An image of a screen, which showed a flickering image laced with black threads, showing a rather unexpected scene.
The perspective was Point Of View. The view was going up and down, moving through a darkened street. It was a full moon night over Ponyville, back in the pre-Nightmare Moon days, and all seemed peaceful. The perspective seemed to be singing to herself in a high pitched voice.
"Bounce, bounce, down the street, bounce your cares away!
"Going for a night time walk, doesn't look like day!"
Something flickered and froze in the corner. The bouncing suddenly stopped, and the perspective turned around, seeing a tree.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"I'm a tree," said the tree.
"You're a very odd tree."
"That's not a bad thing! I just thought there'd be more leaves."
"I've been struck by lightning."
"Aw, that must've hurt! I'll complain to the pegasuses tomorrow."
"Them too! Say, I haven't noticed you here before."
"Do you know everyone in this town?"
"I know everypony!"
"Do you know every tree?"
"I guess not."
"Well there you go."
"That makes sense. You're a nice tree, you know. Friendlier than the others. They just ignore me."
"You're not bad yourself."
"I love how the moon goes through your branches like it's sitting on you."
"Shouldn't you be sleeping? I wouldn't want to keep you waiting."
"Oh, right. Goodnight, Mr Tree!"
"Good night, Pinkie Pie."
The perspective turned and continued to bounce
"Just talked to a tree, don't know if he sings,
"Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, hope I'm not seeing things!"
The projection petered out with some kind of rattling noise, and then faded entirely from Dash's eyes. For a few moments, all was silence.
"...What the hay was I just looking at?!" cried Dash.
"It seemed to be something through Pinkie Pie's eyes," commented Cheerilee, "Memory? Dream? Hallucination maybe?"
"And is that gonna happen every time I pick up a new gem?"
"Probably. With any luck, there might be something more useful next time. One can only hope."
"Well, I guess we'd better get ready. Five more Baronesses and all."
"I'd suggest we pack our bags. It's a long way to the next place."
Spike gave a triumphant laugh. "That's what YOU think!"
Spike rushed to the weapons end of the room. He fingered through the assortment of tools, and suddenly grasped hold of a fly swat and pulled. A panel came out of the wall and swung open, revealing an oval of pink light beneath. Spike waved to the other two, and dove through as if it were a sideways pond. The two ponies exchanged shrugs, and followed suit, Dash turning to Twilight as she landed.
The next moment, they were in a circular room of what looked like highly polished steel. On the ceiling, a portrait of the triumphant Nightmare Moon. On the floor, a portrait of Celestia, chained down with a heartbroken expression. On each wall was an oval ring, decorated with a pony skull and a few talons, holding a coloured portal like the one they had just stepped into in different colours.
"Eesh. Ostentatious, much?" asked Twilight.
"THIS," Spike paused for effect, "Is the Darkness Monarchy Nexus. But I just call it the hub. It has a portal in it going to the home of each and every Baroness, just in case Mould needs to visit them or drop off a weapon. They hardly ever use it though, 'cause they can't stand each other. Now there's a chance that they might spit us out at the edge of town because we're not one of the Baronesses, but it shouldn't be too far from their castles or wherever they live. "
Cheerilee smiled brightly, "This will cut down our journey by days!"
"Yup! So, Twilight, where first?"
Twilight turned to Spike. "Thank you very much Spike, for showing us this and helping us get the gem. Now, I need you to do one more thing."
"What is it?" Spike came closer, his eyes and smile wide.
"I need you to go back to the town, tell the other ponies that Mistress Mould is gone, and that we're doing everything in our power to set things right."
Spike's smile slipped off his face as they spoke. "But...then I won't be there to help you."
"Spike, I'm doing this to protect you. You've been hurt far too much already."
"B-but that was when you weren't around, and now you're here, and I'm a dragon so I can breath fire-"
"Cheerilee just ran round the arena, and helped me through a dangerous fight, while still carrying two loaded saddlebags. And dragon or no, you're still a baby."
"I am not a little kid! I'm a big dragon now and you never let me help you when you're on a big quest AND I WANT TO HELP!"
Twilight came down to Spike's level and put a hoof on his shoulder. "Spike...don't make this hard on me too. You know that I care about you, you've known me your whole life. And you know I've only tried to do what's best for you, because I love you. And somewhere inside me, I can feel that Fluttershy feels the same way about Angel. Right now, I need you both somewhere where no Kin or Baroness or anypony else can hurt you. Please, Spike, try to understand. For all of us."
Spike looked up at Twilight with tear streaked eyes. When he looked into her pleading expression, he found he wasn't just looking at the pony who'd been like a mother to him. He saw her eyes, and felt like five other ponies were in there, looking out through them. She was just as scared and confused about this whole thing as she was. Maybe even more; she was juggling five other brains for crying out loud. This wasn't about her giving him what he needed, it was the other way around.
"...Okay...I'll go back...just...promise you'll come back okay..."
"I promise, Spike." They hugged each other one last time, then stood up and composed themselves. "Okay, these doorway things aren't labeled, so we need a system so that we don't go into the same one twice."
"We should go for something simple," said Cheerilee, "Like going clockwise or anticlockwise around the room."
"I vote anticlockwise. I like the look of that silver one."
"Silver one it is!" went Cheerilee. "Here goes nothing!" And with that, she put a hoof through the silver puddle, sending up beams of white light.
For a moment, all that Mistress Mildred Mould could see was pitch blackness.
When she and the other Baronesses had been granted the power of the Shadow Shift, they were told they could only use it once, and little else. Truth be told, she wasn't entirely sure what it did. Apparently take them away from their current pain, to a safer place. Right now, she almost worried that it was a kamikaze move, and she was now dead.
Instead, she gradually found out she could make out more and more of the room. There were patterned lines indicating a tiled floor. She felt the warmth of a small fire behind her. On the other side of the room, she could see the rim of a large door, and a gathering of large black poles.
Or rather, black legs. She turned her gaze upwards slowly, taking in every bit of the bodies, until she was staring at the faces of the two most powerful people in the land.
And they were not impressed.