Chapter 13- The Cost of Tough Love, a Loving Child at a Terrible Price
And so began the team's adventures in rescuing. They tossed leaves over the heads of Kin to confuse them, while unshackling Diamond Dogs and leading them into the shrubbery. They lassoed the Kin's wings. They blinded and distracted Kin with light show displays. They dropped down on top of Kin from the treetops. Sometimes, they even telekinetically slammed Kin into the trees. Bit by bit, the team disposed of the Kin subtly, and in their own individual ways. But even as their roster of dogs grew and grew, and the Kin grew less and less, eyes filled with hatred watched from afar, and the teeth of their owner ground fit to fill the jaw with chalk dust.
These four and their mongrels are making the most powerful armies in Equestria look like bumbling goons!
Where's dat creepy lil' twig when ya need 'em?! Guy seems ta dink dat teaching dem guardsmen howda sing is bedder dan helpin' deir sorry plots track a few damn few-juh-tivz!
Behind her, there was a constant murmur of conversation between the newest exiled rulers. "Don't dink we didn't hear you down dere!" barked Limescale Rust. "We heard da whole fing! You wanded do work wiv dem and kill da queen!"
Thunder Stroke rolled her eyes. "You realise of course, that was a deception on my part. I was going to pretend to side with them, and then stab them in the back when they least suspected."
"It sounded real enough from this perspective." It was the usual hard, flat tone from the former Mistress Mould. "We do not appreciate deviation in our ranks, Stroke, especially not in the midst of a crisis such as this."
"When we are in 'a crisis such as this', the best possible option is to adapt upon the fly!"
"So you are saying that the best way of fighting your opponent is joining them?"
"I'm saying that the best way of fighting them is to not fall prey to routine!"
"Dat fighd you had had a paddern do!"
"For the love of the moon, Limescale, just blow your nose or something?"
"SILENCE!" roared Nightmare Moon, almost blowing the Baronesses off their hooves through sheer volume. "I can hardly hear myself think! You are all doubtful in your loyalty to the cause, judging from the speed in which you failed! Either you deliberately lost, or you are all as worthless as the dirt beneath my hoof! Now, I have neither the time nor patience for your bickering, so you will either let me concentrate on my work, or you all be taken to the very brink of death and hung there by your throats. UNDERSTAND?!"</b>
The room was an icy silence. The Baronesses were stuck like statues. All that could be heard was the sound of faraway events being played out through the projections in the fireplace. There was a sound from there like snapping rope. Nightmare Moon turned to look, and saw a Horned Kin, having broken free from its bonds through telekinesis, going off through a gap in the hedges.
How indubitably foolhardy of the interlopers. It would appear their engineerings of their rescue-and-retrieval operation has given the guardsmen ample opportunity to pursue them. Those interfering quadrupeds shall be incapacitated on the hour.
Will they? Would they really execute the rescue so poorly by accident? That doesn't seem very likely...
At long last, a veritable horde of Diamond Dogs were gathered in front of the shadow cube. There was barely enough room for them in that small patch of woodland space, let alone clustered around the walls of the great block. But clustered they were, and with Gilda at the top, and Twilight and Trixie on stand by, the final rescue for the night seemed ready to go.
"Okay everydog! On the count of three!" cried Twilight, "One two three..."
A chorus of grunts went up, as the Diamond Dogs heaved the slab walls up and away, Gilda pushed, and the unicorns funneled all their magic into shining all forms of energy onto the box. Whatever hellish adhesive was holding the thing together was gradually, gradually coming lose. A couple of cracks appeared where the light and heat spells shone strongest.
Everyone slumped at once, to gain their breath. "One two three..."
Trixie felt the powerful light nearly baking her own face. "This all seems a lot of effort, for just one pony!"
Everyone slumped. "One two three...HNNG," It was already getting hard for Twilight to sustain the light long enough, "Only because she's a friend, and only because Nightmare Moon made the box this way! Guuuh. One two three..."
The cracks in the walls were getting extremely large now, and the point where the edges lay became seriously disordered. But as the cube was wearing down, so was the workforce. Gilda hung to the top, gasping for breath, when suddenly there came the sound of approaching hoofbeats. "Perfect timing," said Gilda, then called down to the others, "HERE THEY COME!"
The Horned Kin came crashing through the trees at full pelt, seemingly intent on trampling everyone into muddy jam. For a moment, the Dogs almost panicked, but they remembered the plan, and flattened themselves against the walls. The Kin came thundering ever closer, until the Dogs could see where the whites of their eyes should have been. As one Dog, they jumped straight over the unicorns, allowing them to crash right into the wall. The cracks spread right across to the other sides.
Dazed but not downed, the Kin put their magic to use. Each one scooped up a Dog of their own to take back to the camps. But the team had been methodical. For every Horned Kin they simply tied up, they knocked two unconscious. And so the Kin that remained were only enough to catch a fraction of Dogs, and were not enough to protect themselves from outside attack. Gilda swooped down, knocking a row of Kin on the heads. They dropped their cargo, which turned around, picked them up, and flung them bodily at the wall. The Box was now covered in cracks, and began to sway.
Kin began flinging bolts of lighting at whoever wasn't a Dog. Twilight chose to dodge by teleporting every which way, faster and faster, in more and more random places, from far away on a branch to right up in the Kin's face. She guessed correctly that this would aggravate the Kin into becoming careless, to the point where it didn't realise until a second later that the last thing it fired a bolt at last was the box. The walls of the shadow cube finally crumbled, and as each piece fell it erupted into black smoke that merged with the shadows, obscuring the surroundings as a mighty brawl ensued.
As the dust settled, the Kin lay battered and unconscious on the ground. A great cheer went up from the Diamond Dogs, who felt like they were finally free. The regime of shadow was far from over, but it lifted that little bit of weight off their shoulders to know that these canines felt liberated again. And at last, the contents of the box were revealed. The brutish tree stood there, eerie but none too threatening. Candlelight shone a little bit brighter with the fresh rush of air. The door swung open, and out quietly stepped a pony-like being, adorned in black and white stripes.
"Thank you, Twilight Sparkle, for your timely save. Otherwise I feared my home would be my grave."
"Good to see that you're safe, Zecora," said Twilight. "There's been more than enough lives wrecked by this nightmare."
"Times have been dark, the sky as black, since the shadow's nationwide attack. Even in these woods I could not avoid the dark hearted fiend with twisted viceroy."
"Well that much is obvious," said Trixie dismissively as she adjusted her hat.
Twilight looked down at the Kin as they lay unconscious. "Zecora...before all this madness started, the Slenderman came out of the Everfree Forest first. I was wondering if you'd seen anything, heard anything, that might tell us a little more about what it is, what it wants, where it comes from?"
Zecora looked away, with a look of exasperation on her face. "The ghoul hails from a time and space so very separate from this place. His motives are not known to me, though what I've seen shows him to be a cruel, reckless, scheming one, that helps and hinders just for fun."
"Have you...met with 'him' that often?"
"I have seen him slipping through each tree. I know not if he looks back at me. One night I found my herbs gone, and recipes in commotion. An hour later came a batch of herbs fit for a freezing potion. I took them, shouting my thanks as well, then woke up trapped in that shadowy cell!"
"Yes, 'he' has been very confusing." she thought back to Cloudsdale, and being taken out of the fire into the frying pan, in a way. "Well, do you know where the Baroness is?"
"If you want to battle Hagbeetle here, her stomping grounds are very near. She hides in the ruins from any resistors, in the castle of the royal sisters!"
"What?! Seriously?!" Zecora nodded. "Well, I suppose it's the only regal place for miles, but if she wanted defence, she could hardly lurk there without protection. Do you still have the ingredients for the freezing potion? I think it might be useful."
"The draught will take a quarter hour to brew to its most potent power."
"That's okay. With the Dogs free and the Kin out for the count, I think we have some time to spare."
"Oh, yes..." Zecora looked back at the unconscious Kin with a rather sad expressions. "...I'd treat them gentler, truth be told. I fear they are not in control."
"Alright. I'll tone down the attacks in future...if possible..." She wondered to herself why she'd added that little clause on the end, but deep down, she knew. They'd gone through so much fighting, so much brawling, that she'd simply gotten used to fighting. She, all six of her, were a little less innocent, and a little less restrained, since their troubles began.
The night air weighed heavy upon the group. The group waded through branches and bracken with only the Trixie's light as their guide, as Rainbow Dash had decided she'd be best for clearing their path that she would recover the bridge that would inevitably be dismantled. Zecora had decided to tag along, as she was already carrying the bottle of the suspended animation elixir. Their trek through the dark forest was uneventful, which made it all the worse.
There was a sudden sound, like a loud hoot, followed by the cracking of a whip. "Sounds like her! C'mon guys, we're almost there!" The group passed on through a gap in the trees, Trixie pausing only to gripe about some briars stuck to her cape. Rainbow Dash flew up to the point where land ended and, not even stopping to gloat about her prediction, dropped down the canyon, pulled up the rope bridge, and tethered it to the other side. As the party started to cross the rickety thing, a sudden brown and white blur sped past Dash. "Gilda, wait!" Dash yelped as she flew after her.
Gilda slammed back first, up against the wall as if she were some kind of superspy. Dash reached her before she could try anything. "(What're you doing, Gilda?!)" she whispered loudly.
"(Ssh! What does it look like I'm doing? I'm sneaking up on her.)"
"(We gotta wait for the others first!)"
"(Nah, Dash, I got this. When she takes off, I'll be there to yank her down from the sky, and batter the snot out of her.)"
"(How do you know she's a pegasus?)"
"(I talked to one of the Diamond Dogs. What are you, a police interrogator?)"
"(Look! You can't just take out a Baroness all by yourself just 'cause you feel like it!)"
There was another hooting sound that almost seemed upset, followed by another terrific whip crack. "SILENCE, YOU FEATHERBRAINED CRETIN!" Rainbow Dash snuck a peek around the corner, managing to catch a glimpse of a cage, holding a bruised, half molting bird inside it. A bird that she recognised, and last saw being dragged into the forest by shadowy tendrils.
Dash gasped with horror as she saw the state of Owlowiscious. With a cry of "HEY, YOU!", Rainbow Dash leapt out of the shadows, and into the doorway. The Baroness span around, and was not quite as enthusiastic.
Hagbeetle was a pegasus quite unpleasant to look at. Her hide was a dark purple, and her mane was a green just as grimly hued. Dash didn't know why, but it made her think of some huge lizard, which wasn't helped by the fact that the mane was so hacked up into unruly spikes. Her firey orange eyes were marked by a massive claw mark on her scowling face. All about, there were caged animals just as fouled up as Owlowiscious was. "You dare to trespass on the home of Taskmistress Hagbeetle?"
Gilda stepped out as well, hearing the others catch up behind her. She snickered as she saw Hagbeetle. "Nice papercuts, princess. Have a run in with a bear, or are you really that scared of a comb?"
Hagbeetle bared her teeth. "Insults now?! Hypocritical insults?! If you don't get out of my land this instant-"
"Hey, wait just a minute!" Rainbow Dash dug her hooves into the ground. "This isn't your home! And this certainly ain't your kingdom! You've got no right to boss us about, or bully those Diamond Dogs, or torture those animals!" CRACK! Rainbow Dash winced at the blow, but didn't so much as raise a hoof to her face.
"You presumptuous dunderhead! I have not been disciplining these vermin for the sake of my own blood pressure, you know. The Diamond Dogs needed to get the wood ready for delivery for carpenters all over Equestria, and these animals need training if they are to act as scouts and guards for me. Is it such a crime that my approach is a little stiff?"
"A little?!" Rainbow Dash gritted her teeth. "You're full of it Hagbeetle, and you know you're full of it. You worked those dogs half to death, you're almost killing those harmless critters, and if you think some spiny whip is gonna protect you from me-"
"-then you've got another...huh?"
"That's partly why I've been training the animals up. So I can sit back and watch them tear you to pieces."
Trixie snorted. "A gathering of birds and ferrets does not a full scale battle make."
"You poor buffoons." Hagbeetle made a clicking sound with her mouth, and a battered songbird appeared, carrying a whistle on a length of string. "Not all animals are held within cages." She caught the whistle in her teeth, and blew hard. Instantly, a tremor went through the ground, starting small but building up in a manner of seconds. With a great crash, the earth erupted beneath Hagbeetle, and from the ground rose seven identical long-necked reptilian heads, accompanied by an almighty stench. Dash looked up at the heads the way a squirrel looks at an oncoming stagecoach. Hagbeetle flew up to the top of the centre head, and cracked her whip twice in the air: a signal for the hydra to start the show.
The first head struck the ground a mere meter away from Rainbow Dash, who leapt back and shot up into the air. Another set of jaws came straight at her, forcing her into a left swerve, and yet another chomp came in from below. Rainbow Dash was veering thorough the air all over the place, until finally getting close enough to a head to kick it straight in the eye. Two other heads didn't appreciate this gesture, and attempted to eat her out of the air, but as they lunged, Dash darted right out of harms' way, leaving the other heads to collide and tangle in the air. Dash flew straight for the Baroness, and straight into the path of the whip, which struck her belly abnd stung so very hard.
Dash vaguely made out Zecora shouting, and remembered the vial of potion. At near-unrivaled speeds, she rushed back to the zebra and snatched the bottle right out of her mouth. A Hydra head followed her, ready to swallow a pony whole, but found its mouth propped open by Trixie's magic. The rest of the group cheered Rainbow Dash on.
Dash circled the hydra heads, her blunt hooves fiddling with the cap as she forgot that she could use her mouth. One hydra head saved her the trouble as it tried to snap at her. The bottle slipped out of Rainbow Dash's grasp, but in her panic she caught it again, just as the hydra caught it between the points of its teeth. She tugged and pulled at the unwilling bottle, until finally giving one last heave. The top of the bottle broke right off, splattering some of the contents over the Hydra's mouth, causing it to spit in disgust.
"Rainbow Dash, remember my call!" cried Zecora, "Pour it onto the skin, save a drop for all!"
Hagbeetle snarled. "Head Number 3! Silence the mohican!"
The head shot for Zecora, but stopped and howled as a drop went onto and into its eyes. Dash flew to each of the remaining heads in turn, spilling drops of the ancient remedy onto their faces as they went. The sixth droplet missed and hit the ground, prompting Dash to go for broke and smash the rest of the bottle onto the respective head. Each head writhed and roared, some continued to attack, but one by one, each one slowed to a stop, and six of the seven heads were as still as statues.
Rainbow Dash hovered over one of the frozen heads, and touched down with a look of triumphant, grinning back at the Baroness standing atop the one free head left. Hagbeetle grimaced, then dug her hooves into the Hydra's head. As if she were controlling it directly, the Hydra head roared, and followed the signal to lunge. Its head crashed into the other head, leaving it dazed for two seconds before it shook itself out. On the next head along, Pinkie hopped up and down excitedly. "Missed me by a mile!" she taunted. The head lunged again, once again missing her as she hopped to the next one. Four more times the trend repeated, with Pinkie hopping about, and the head crashing into the heads, becoming more and more wound up, literally and figuratively. The beast's head twirled itself free, and let out a mighty roar. Or at least, a roar that would have been mighty, had it not faded to silence.
Hagbeetle stood astride the head, as it ceased to move in mid roar. She whipped the neck, then stomped on the scalp. To her shock, the feeling was like stomping on marble. "Not possible! You used up the last of the potion!"
"Allllmost! There was still an itty bitty bit left on each head that wasn't all absorbed! All I had to do was rub it onto the head, and poof! Instant statue!"
"Oh really? Well what about 'crack! Instant corpse'?!" Hagbeetle whirled her whip above her head and lashed out at the space where Pinkie had been a second before.
Pinkie landed on the fourth head. "Nah, not really in the mood for that." She leapt clean of another crack of the whip, bounced of another head, then another, then another, bouncing circles around the taskmistress. Hagbeetle soon grew wise to the pattern, and cracked her whip ahead of Pinkie. Pinkie had already decided of her own accord that she would do that bounce backwards.
"Okay!" Pinkie jumped to the next head and stood still. The whip came shooting at her, only for her to catch it in her teeth. Without paying attention, Hagbeetle pulled the whip backwards, and found herself squashed flat. Pinkie bent her hooves as she landed, and shot right up into the air. "Wheeee!" Then she felt a thorny whip curl around her tail. "Uh oh." Pinkie was yanked back down towards Hagbeetle, and found herself pinned to the ground by her neck. She lashed out with a hoof to the face, and received a bite to the mane. The close quarters struggle erupted into a big ball of fighting. If there'd been any dust on that head, there would have been a cloud around the two of them. It was hard enough as it was for the onlookers to keep track of what was going on. They squinted to focus in on the battle, until suddenly something was flung down to them. It was Hagbeetle, hogtied with her own whip.
"Ta Daa!" Pinkie jumped down to Hagbeetle. "Ookay, Ms Hagbeetle! Tell the other Baronesses I said hi!"
"You can tell them that yourself, on your deathbed!" snapped Hagbeetle defiantly. "You've still got two to more to go, and you'll be right out of your depth! You've stood your ground against animals and magic, but now you'll be up against the rigours of technology!"
Cheerilee spoke up, "Technology! It means contraptions and machines like trains or clocks."
"That's all?" said Pinkie cheerfully. "Well, we'll get through a bunch of trains in a snap!"
"Good!" barked Hagbeetle, "Then if Nightmare moon doesn't have the satisfaction of turning you into leather, I will. Just you wait! You'll be sorry! You foals, you...YOU IDIOTS!" And with that, shadow erupted around the roped up Baroness, and she was gone.
"Sheesh, what a grump." said Pinkie Pie, who transitioned to Applejack on a whim. "C'mon, gals, lets go'n find us a secret-"
"Hey guys!" Gilda emerged from behind the Hydra, clutching in her claws a certain blue topaz.
"Y' got it already? Aw hay, I wanted to find it," said Pinkie with a smile.
Ordinarily, Gilda would've said something like 'Too bad squirt', but in a way, she decided, she was still talking to Dash, her old friend. In fact even that smile seemed a little Dash-like to her. "Weeell, I saw you were busy with that whole Hydra thing, so I thought I'd save you a little time. 'Course, if you'd gone and I'd taken her on instead, I coulda beat her in eight seconds and we'd have even more time." The two chuckled for a bit, as the Element of Kindness hovered into the air, then shot into Applejack, and the vision began.
She was inside the bushes. She was shaking, that much was certain. There was the sounds of frightened squeaking on her part, and there was a glimpse of her knees, showing she was curled into a fetal position.
There was the sound of crunching leaves. She held completely still. After a moment, she peered out through a gap in the branches.
The children walked about outside. They showed no emotion as they moved. Their faces were blank, their eyes like porcelain. Roots of shadow had engulfed their faces, making them look like living mosaics. They were getting into order. Like they were expectant of something.
The creature without a face stepped out of the darkness. It looked over the children and adjusted its tie. A colt stepped up to it, like an orphan asking for food. The creature without a face reached out a claw.
Tendrils of shadow issued forth from the talon tips. They snaked through the air, each searching for a child. As they reached a foal, the foal began to rise into the air. The tendrils of darkness encircled each pony child, wrapping them up in their black embrace. The coatings formed spheres, ones which became thicker and thicker, larger and larger.
The spheres took shape. Parts unfurled from each one, forming the shape of a limb. Four extensions became thick stumps of legs. One at the back formed a scythe-like coating for the tail, while the front bore the rounder shape of a head. This sprouted points, for the function of ears, and shadowy holes melted into it to accommodate eyes or grating across the muzzle.
Some sprouted pointed horns, some unfurled tremendous bladed wings. All bowed their head in respect and thanks to the creature without a face. Their master looked over its children, its expression non existent and so emotion unreadable. Then, as if on an afterthought, it pointed to the bushes. All the armoured horses turned to her.
The ponies all stared at the spot where the vision had been, all at a complete loss for words.
"...my...my pupils..." Cheerilee began to cry.
Gilda was incensed. "You mean ta tell us this whole time we were bashing and kicking and zapping up KIDS?! Dude, that's just low!"
Applejack stammered for a moment. "I, I, I, Zecora? Did you know about this?"
"When I heard the songs, I feared it then, but saw not what was in that glen."
Gilda glared at her. "Why didn't ya say something then, ya double-chocolate freakshow?!"
"The very thought refused belief! I wanted proof before doling grief."
"Well, there's the proof now! Any other suspicions you have that might give us pause?!"
Suddenly, there was a loud screeching sound over from the corner. One of the cages was rattling furiously, its inhabitant furiously attempting to break free. "Owlowiscious! Ah completely forgot!" Applejack rushed over to the cages, and Twilight used her magic to open up all of the cages. As each animal came out, with varying degrees of trepidations per species, Owlowiscious fluttered onto Twilight's back and nuzzled up to her head. "Yes, Owlowiscious, I missed you too."
The owl flew into the air, and began flying a figure of eight, making hoots like some outlandish morse code. "Could you get your pet to calm down?" protested Trixie. "She's making me dizzy."
"Owlowiscious is a boy, Trixie."
"With eyelashes like that? I'd never have guess STOP HOOTING! He's giving me a headache!"
"He's trying to tell us something," said Twilight as Owlowicious sat down on her horn.
"Can't Fluttershy talk to animals or something?" asked Gilda.
"Talking to animals is one thing. Having them talk back and understanding them is another."
"The vision you gained from within that pearl; is it not a magic spell?"
"Well, I assume so, Zecora."
"You might use your magic, say, to harness that and then display projections of a different kind; memories from within his mind!"
Twilight blinked at this. She'd never so much as thought about harnessing the projection thing herself. It was really like a muscle reflex triggered by absorbing an Element of Harmony. But if it could show forgotten memories from each of her selves, then why not memories from someone else's mind? "It's worth a shot. Owlowiscious; please get down, then concentrate on what you want us to know."
Owlowiscious obediently fluttered down to the ground, then screwed up his eyes tightly. Twilight carefully placed a hoof on his chest, and tried to think about him being an extension of her. She focused hard, her horn glowing ever so lightly. Different muscles twinged up and down her body, as she tried to search through her own self, and find that part of her that showed the images. She tried hard to visualise every aspect of herself; her muscles, her organs, her bones, her mind, her nervous system. Suddenly, there it was! Like a gag or a hiccup, Twilight's eyes suddenly shot open. Light spilled out, and an image played in the air once more.
The eyes of Owlowiscious glided overhead. They scanned the spaces between the trees, searching for something, for who knows what. They even scanned the trees, just before they came up close. Suddenly, the eyes saw something. It looked like a tree from a great distance, and yet it moved. It carried something on its back, something lying very still. The eyes of Owlowiscious flew up higher into the trees, and suddenly spotted something else; a stone pillar jutting out of the woodlands. It perched upon the top, and watched below, as something was cast onto the ground. Shadows faded away from the object, or rather objects, and revealed the shape of three small fillies, one yellow and red, one orange and purple, one white and grayish rose.
"Owww, what hit us?" said Scootaloo.
"Last thing I remember, we were going to get some cotton candy," said Sweetie Belle "And then..."
"...then alla sudden there w's this great spindly black thing," added Apple Bloom, "'n' then everythin' went dark".
"Where are we?" asked Scootaloo.
"Looks to me like 'n awful lotta trees about. Don't git many o' those in the middle o' Ponyville"
"Yeah, looks more like the Everfree forest."
Everyone stopped. "...THE EVERFREE FOREST?!"
Sweetie Belle whipped around. "Oh no! What if we got kidnapped and dumped here? What if nopony knows where we are? We might be one of the...ulp...disappearances!"
"Oh nooo!" Apple Bloom curled up. "Ah cayn't be dis'ppeared! Ah don't wanna be like Twist 'n' Slivuh Spoon an' Dyemond Tiara, all acting weird and sayin' strange stuff!"
Scootaloo pulled Apple Bloom up. "Hey, c'mon, Apple Bloom! We're not gonna be like them! We're tougher than that! And we're not gonna let some Slenderman go and brainwash us!"
Sweetie Belle perked up. "You're right! We're not just any old fillies! We're the Cutie Mark Crusaders!"
Apple Bloom smiled, "Ya'll know sumthin'? Ye're right! We're all together here, an' we can show that mawnstuh who's boss! C'mon out, Slendyman! We ain't chicken! We can take ya!"
"That won't be necessary."
"Huh?" said the three in unison. They slowly turned around, and from out of the shadows stepped three pegasi, wearing purple and black jumpsuits.
The filly of the trio spoke again. "The Slenderman isn't here. Don't be afraid; you're in safe hooves, and we mean you no harm."
"Who're you?" asked Sweetie Belle.
"Are you with the Wonderbolts?" asked Scootaloo.
"Close, kid, but no cigar. We're the Shadowbolts. My name's Night Terror, and these are my partners, Stormer and Penumbra."
"Why're ya'll see-thru?" asked Apple Bloom. "'re you like ghosts 'r somethin'?"
"Yeah an' no," said Stormer. "'t's a long story, an' we got more 'mportant things ta be yackin' about."
"Us?!" cried the Crusaders.
"Yes, you." This was Penumbra speaking. "From our vantage point within these inadequately lustrous woodlands, we have been told many anecdotal tales of the indescribable and exhilarating exploits of the adventurous band of rapscallions known as the Cutie Mark Crusaders."
"You've heard of us?" cried Sweetie Belle, "That's great!"
"And as we have heard of these endearing escapades, we have judged between ourselves that you are a cooperative striving to discover the ultimate purpose within your lives."
"Yeah, that's true..." Each filly looked back at their blank little flanks and sighed.
"And because-" Penumbra was interrupted by a hoof over his mouth.
"And because we found the tales of your adventures so exciting," interrupted Night Terror "We decided to give you a helping hoof. You see, my little ponies, we have something that we're sure will help give you purpose."
"Ya do?" asked Apple Bloom. The Crusaders edged close.
"We could make you into something incredible," said Night Terror, with a conspiratorial grin. "Something so big, so important, so unbelievably purposeful, it'll give you a Cutie Mark better than anyones!"
The Crusaders were bunched up together, eyes wide, grins wider.
"How would you like...to be an Alicorn?"
The Crusaders gasped. "A-a-a-a-a-an Alicorn?!" cried Scootaloo, "Like Princess Celestia and Princess Luna?"
"Exactly," said Night Terror.
"With loadsa powers 'n' magic, and bein' able ta c'ntrol th' spheres? Y' c'n turn somepony inta that?"
"You got it, kid." said Stormer.
"Well now hold on a second," said Sweetie Belle, "This doesn't feel right to me. It's too good to be true. How do we know this isn't a mean prank?"
"I can honestly assure you, my cherubic Sweetie Belle, that this is the absolute truth:" Penumbra held out a hoof, and a ghostly fire came out of it. "We know a great deal of ancient magic," The fire became a dancing mare, "And a great deal of arcane secrets of the way the universe operates," The dancer became a miniature swarm of butterflies, "So when we tell you that we can convert you into an Alicorn," The butterflies became a solar system, "You can be sure to place your trust in us." The solar system came together, and for a split second was a skull before suddenly vanishing.
"Y'know, after seeing that, I'm not so sure either," admitted Scootaloo. "I mean, don't get me wrong, it sounds great, but you don't really seem that...uh..."
"Trustworthy?" asked Night Terror.
"Yeah! Trustworthy! You look all dark and edgy and stuff. I mean, isn't the dark supposed to be bad? That's why people're scared of it, right?"
"People are only scared of the dark because they can't see what's in it," said Night Terror gently. "And like the dark, you can't look at us and tell if there's anything good or bad inside of us."
"Have you ever seen a parasprite?"
"Yeah, sure! They tore up the whole of Ponyville ages ago."
"Did they seem trustworthy?"
"No. Wait...yes. I guess they were all cute and cuddly with their big eyes."
"Well, there you have it. Some nice things often turn out nasty, and some nasty things often turn out nice."
"She's right, Scootaloo," said Apple Bloom. "Y' cayn't judge a book by it's cov'r."
Sweetie Belle looked thoughtful. "Well, that sounds about right."
"Okay, I'm sold," said Scootaloo. "Zap me into an Alicorn, Mrs Shadowbolt! I'm ready!" She held out her legs and closed her eyes.
"Hay, now, wait jus' a second!" cried Apple Bloom, "How comes you get ta be the Alley-corn?"
"'Cause I asked first, and I wanna be the Alicorn!"
"No, I wanna be the Alicorn!"
"No, ah wanna be the Alley-corn!"
The crusaders erupted into a kicking and biting fight on the ground.
"(Welp, dey're vicious 'nuff ta be Night-mayer, dat's fer sure!)" said Thunder to Penumbra.
"Girls! Girls!" called Night Terror, "You will all get to be the Alicorn!"
"YAY!" cried the three as they got up of the ground.
"Here's how it's going to work. An Alicorn body will be made up, filled with buckets of magic. That body can have a mind linked up to remote control it. We will put you into special tanks where all of your minds will be linked to the Alicorn body. In essence, you will become the Alicorn, and you'll also have your friend's memories, like how to use a pair of wings or a horn. Plus, we three will join you inside the head, you that way we can show you anything other memories you'll need for your new life."
"Awesome!" cried Scootaloo, pumping her hoof.
"I can't wait to show Rarity!" cried Sweetie Belle.
"Sounds a barrel o' fun!" said Apple Bloom, "But wh't if we wanna go back ta normal?"
"You can remove yourself should you ever want to change to your old life." Night Terror put a barely detectable, yet strange, emphasis on the word 'want'.
"What're we waiting for?" cried Scootaloo. "Let's do this!"
"Just follow us!" said Night Terror, as the Shadowbolts spread their wings and lead the way.
"CUTIE MARK CRUSADER ALICORN PRINCESS!"
The projection faded from the air. Twilight stood rooted to the spot. Sometimes her eye twitched.
"I really hate kids," said Trixie.