News - Jan 16, 2019 (1 day ago)

Thank you for coming.

It's been a long time coming now, but it's time for Twenty Percent Cooler to close down. We've had a good run and had a great time in our heyday, but the sun has set on our little website and now it's time to go. You have about a week to record, save, and archive what you would like before everything goes dark, so please make the best of this time.

Thank you for all the memories and contributions to our community in these last 8 years. We had a great time.

~ Sincerely, Princess Luna
Lead Administrator for


Poison Joke was just a plant, if a magical plant with a sense of humor. It really knew how to get at people, how to take the thing they valued most and turn it into a joke. But now it had awakened. It had become more widely aware of things like past and future. The Poison Joke rode the strange unicorn it had infected and looked out at the world through his eyes. It didn’t understand what had changed but felt no need to understand. Zecora had cut its fun off prematurely in the past with her little cure. The plant had managed to nail six different ponies at once, only to have this zebra cure them all within a day.

It understood that. It also understood that something else had already pranked Light in the funniest possible way: taking away his precious dignity and making him look stupid. The Poison Joke wasn’t about to settle for second best. Oh, no. So what to do, what to do? Easily enough answered. Zecora was too smart to step in Poison Joke, but with its new awareness it could guide how its curse unfolded in this weird unicorn.

Light’s ears went back as he felt a shiver roll up his spine. The Poison Joke pounced into that wavering. “What the hay’s a poison joke? Should I worry? Will I choke?”

The Poison Joke hovered in the dark between perception and thought, meddling with the signals in both directions. It was hard but a serious rush. Light got a skewed version of events and the actions he thought he took weren’t the ones he intended. It made him lift one cloven hoof and give the bottom a long sniff. The Poison Joke relished in the scent of its own crushed leaves. Zecora was slowly going slack-jawed speechless. The Poison Joke convulsed with so much glee it nearly lost control of the unicorn’s perceptions.

“Unicorn, why do you talk like that?” Zecora said.

The Poison Joke had Light interrupt her before she could finish her stupid couplet. “Talk like what? I’m just happy to chat.”

A wonderfully awkward pause followed this. Light stared at her, absolutely clueless about the anger and embarrassment turning Zecora’s cheeks red. He had no idea he was rhyming his words and mocking her accent as well. Or rather, it failed to dawn on him that rhyming might be inappropriate. “I’m really sorry that I woke you. Please tell me about this poison flu.”

Light took a step towards her, intending to comfort and oblivious to the leer on his face. The zebra drew back a step. The Poison Joke moved on to the next step now that Zecora had been properly primed for panic. Light didn’t notice his body bleaching from pale gray to pure white or the black stripes that bloomed across it. His mane stood on end and went stripy in a huge ridiculous parody of her zebra mane. Light’s perceived version of events got even further from reality as the Poison Joke got the hang of this neat trick. The words were Light's, the rhyme wasn’t: “I have wandered for many a year. Never heard of Poison Joke, I fear.”

Zecora rubbed her eyes as if she thought she was seeing wrong or imagining things. The Poison Joke didn’t have a mouth but it still managed to grin as it made Light’s yellow eyes turn a certain shade of blue. Zecora finally figured it out. “It grows only in the Everfree. Your Poison Joke…has it out for me.”

Zecora struggled not to laugh, though more from disbelief than amusement. The transformation completed itself and Light was entirely a zebra, though with a much longer mane standing up stiff from his head. And a unicorn horn. Then golden jewelry appeared; a mirror of hers. Something about it looked not-quite-real. Solid light? Zecora ground her teeth. She finally had a living myth walk out of the night and the Poison Joke turned it into a zebra.

Grabbing a hand mirror, she held it up for Light to see. “In the mirror you must gaze. Fight you must this mental haze.”

“I said before, I feel just fine. Now my stomach wishes to dine.”

“Stop that now!”

“Why, you cow?”

Zecora calmly set down the hand-mirror. She walked to the door and barred it, slipping the hidden puzzle-catches inside the braces. She walked to a corner and picked up her bamboo staff. Now armed, just in case, she felt more able to face her unexpectedly deranged guest. Of all Discord’s creations that lingered in the world, Zecora had developed an intense dislike of Poison Joke. “You say that now you wish to eat? Come help me make the meal complete.”

“I’m glad to help, you lovely mare, but cooking skills make me despair.”

“This is fine.” Zecora said. She paused.

“Your eyes shine.” Light said.

Zecora blushed hotly despite her stoic expression. Light made a very handsome zebra male, ridiculous mane or not, and it had been a long time since she’d seen anyone with proper stripes. She took the thoughts that had arisen and locked them away in a mental box. Outwardly calm, she fixed a quick meal and set it before him.

Light sneered, the sides of his mane drooping along his neck and braiding itself into cords, the rest standing up in a crest. It completed the image of a male from Zecora’s homeland…or at least what the Poison Joke imagined that would look like. No doubt the inaccuracies made it even more insulting. Light leaned down to sniff the food, clicking his tongue and grimacing in a haughty manner. The Poison Joke barely had to manipulate Light for that. He did haughty very well. “This kind of meal is not the best.
I’d much prefer food with some zest.”

Light made a vague gesture with a fore-hoof and stared into space, apparently deep in thought. His blue eyes darted back to Zecora with a sudden teasing smile, the corner of his muzzle upturning in a sly, mischievous smirk. Light thought he was being charming.

Zecora’s left eye had begun to twitch. She’d clearly had just about enough of this nonsense. The mare adjusted her grip on her staff and slid it under the plate, balancing it on the tip and shoving the whole meal up to Light’s face. “Eat this meal, or by the mark on your flank, I will send you from this house with a spank!”

The Poison Joke felt increasingly smug. Her eyes were getting a little bloodshot. The zebra seemed to be having trouble keeping a lid on her anger. It decided to let Light perceive this as something close to how it really was. Zecora might have thought she had been clever but it knew what she’d done. The Poison Joke didn’t care to risk her making good on her threat to evict Light. He needed to stay close so it could use him to torment her more. The unicorn meekly leaned forward and nabbed one of the mushrooms, crunched it, and swallowed. Then he fell over.

Out like a light. The Poison Joke remained awake.

Zecora gave a very long sigh of relief.

Zecora spent the night in meditation. It couldn’t replace true sleep. Zebras had gone mad trying. It was far more restful than wakefulness while leaving her aware enough of her surroundings to react at speed if she must. In her bed, the cursed unicorn snored and sometimes mumbled. Zecora’s body stood nearby, head low, but her mind was far away and long ago, watching a sunrise over the plains of Zavros. It never ended, the golden sun perched soft on the horizon. Then she became aware of a presence beside her. Just standing by her, watching the eternal dawn.

“Grandmother?” Zecora said. Not her true grandmother, of course, just all of Zecora’s memories of her. It would still be a relief to speak with her, for Zecora needed to talk about her worries and untangle her emotions.

“Afraid not, Striped Lady.”

Zecora’s fragile serenity shattered. She turned to view the stranger. It looked like Light, yet was not. “You are not a part of my mind, I think.” She thought she spoke her native tongue, but in dreams all languages were one.

The pure white unicorn sat, stroking his goatee with a cloven hoof. His body was young, but his eyes were ancient and heavy with something too tranquil for grief. His cutie mark was two upright lines side by side. They could have been almost anything. “No, I’m not. I apologize for intruding, but your spirit has partly left the physical world. That made it easy to meet you partway, without entering the world. It’s a bending rather than a breaking of the rules. The need for intervention is great.”

“You speak of the unicorn named Light.”

“I hate to say it, but Light should never have been born. But he was. He should never have awakened his sleeping blood. But he did. Let others brood on past wars and past wrongs. I deal with what is, and with an eye to the future. This cannot stand. Light’s existence is a violation of an ancient treaty. This cannot stand.” The unicorn finally met her eyes, and his are twin wells of pain. “I ask you to let what has happened to Light stand. I can teach you how to lift the mental influence of that Discord-cursed plant while reinforcing the physical changes. They would become permanent. He would lose his horn and his magic. Let him live out his life as a zebra.”

“But that is…abominable.”

“If the war taught us anything, it was that sometimes, difficult decisions must be made. I would sooner cut off my horn than have this be done, but losing my horn would do no good to anyone. I can’t force you. I wouldn’t if I could. All I can do is ask. There is a part of Light who would be grateful. Not a large part, but it could grow in time. He could come to be at peace with his fate.”

“I have crossed a desert and a mountain range and a sea in search of wonders in distant Equestria. Now that I have found one, you wish for me to destroy it?”

The unicorn looked away. “Yes.” The sky of her mindscape turned bruise-purple on its way to starless black. The sun swung to noon and then the moon appeared to block it. It became a black disc surrounded by a ring of flame. Instead of white, they were the color of blood. The plains withered, their waving grass replaced by sullen patches of dense tangled brambles. Shadows drifted across the cracked soil. In the starless void-sky, monsters so horrible Zecora’s mind refused to retain their details circled and screeched. A dry wind, smelling of dust and cold as ice, swept across Zecora. But it wasn’t cold that made her shudder. She tried to awaken, but her sense of her body was gone.

“What have you done!?” Zecora said.

The unicorn refused to look at her, instead staring at the desolation. “I have shown you what might come to pass. Your people remember the past, Zecora. Better than most, they remember. But they sometimes look too much to the past and not enough to the future. This is…a future. This is what will come to pass if the treaty is broken. Will you put your desire for wonders and marvels, or even the rights of a single pony, above making sure this never comes to pass? Can you do that?”

Zecora mastered her fear, though not easily. “Ancient one, I fear you have forgotten something. A wrong thing done for the right reason remains wrong.”

The unicorn hung his head. The pearly tears that fell from his closed eyes made tiny green ferns sprout from the dead soil. Then they withered. “There is right, and there is necessary. In a perfect world, they would always be one and the same. Once, they were. We broke the world while fighting over it, the dragons and the unicorns. Magic now raises the sun and moon. Magic makes the earth fertile, the weather shift, the animals thrive. Magic does it all, where once none was needed. The name of that magic is Harmony, and while it embraces the entire world there are six gemstones that anchor it. Unicorns and dragons labored together to forge them: them the physical, us the mystical. But blind forces can only do so much. The Elements can be guided at need, by those whose spirits are pure enough, to correct more dire imbalances.”

Zecora almost forgot the nightmare around them. Her burning thirst for secret knowledge had awakened. “The corruption of Luna. Her saving. You speak of this?”

“Just so, Zecora. The Elements of Harmony have wielders at present. Poor Light was touched by the magic of the most potent of the six, the keystone of keystones: Friendship. It happened in the one remaining place where the old world still lingers: the Forever Free Forest. Free not of magic but the need for magic. Nothing else could have awakened the blood that slept in him. Nothing else could have breached the treaty, the Oath of Harmony. The treaty and the magic are one, Zecora. If not for the bracing of six perfectly suitable wielders, the Elements of Harmony would already be crumbling. The fate of the world balances on the point of a needle. But you have the power to undo what has been done.” His eyes opened and her dream-world returned to how it had been before. “If you choose.”

Zecora felt her heart sink. “Is this the only way?”

His eyes slipped from hers. “It is the best.”

Zecora scowled. “Tell me of the other way, ancient one. Or put aside your lies that this is any true choice of mine. Is there any other way?”

The unicorn shuddered. “Yes, and you know what it is. I can see it in your eyes, smell it in your heart. Not even to save the world would I ask that of you. I must apologize again, Striped Lady. When you awaken, your mind will retain nothing I told you. The knowledge will remain in your heart. You will choose as your heart commands. As for why, I do you a kindness greater than you might ever realize. Some myths need to remain myths. Some wonders are best forgotten.” He looked around at the golden plains. “This world is a good place for those shaped to live in it. To live in this world, knowing what it once was…or might become…would be a curse.”

Zecora stared at the unicorn in horror. He gave a sad chuckle and gently took her cheeks in his hooves. His lips brushed her forehead for an instant. He retreated. Zecora touched her head, feeling strange. In her heart and mind, the storms of confusion and emotion settled into peaceful stillness. “What did you do?”

“I gave you clarity. The malice of the Poison Joke will not be able to plant seeds of discord in you now. Its antics will provoke you, but nothing you can’t ignore. And now one more gift, the third to balance forgetting and clarity. I give you an insight.”

The unicorn made a dramatic pause. “Poison Joke is well named.”

“…that is all you have to say?” Zecora said.

“It is all that you need to hear.”

“I disagree.” But then her eyes widened. “It plays jokes, but they are poison. Only it is laughing. Those it touches do not find it funny. I know such people. They cannot bear to be the one at which others laugh. They cannot bear to be the one on whom the joke is played. Laughter is their bane.”

The unicorn gave her a bow of deep respect, an impish smile in his eyes. “Because that insight came from you, I cannot take the memory away. Awaken, Striped Lady. Your guest stirs.”

Zecora jerked her head up with a snort, blinking eyelids that felt too heavy. Dawn’s light, what made it through the canopy of the trees, trickled in through the windows. She had somehow slipped into true sleep and it was a wonder that she hadn’t fallen over. Tatters of memory clawed at her, whispering of dreams both wonderful and terrible. They faded away with a sense of both loss and relief. One thing remained: the kind of inspiration that sometimes came in dreams. Her eyes focused.

From her bed, poison-blue eyes stared back.

Zecora burst out laughing and they narrowed. “O Poison Joke so mean and sly, let’s see you handle Pinkie Pie.”

The Poison Joke had no mouth of its own, but if it had, it would have used it to say oops. It hadn’t expected Zecora to say that. It shouldn’t have let Light hear the words as they really were. But he had and there was a limit to how far it could manipulate him. Now Light had just been warned there might be something trying to mess with his head. The Poison Joke’s control went from passive sneakery to an active struggle.

“YES! Yes, that is exactly what I need!"

“Be quiet, you interloping steed.”

Both voices came from the same mouth, as different in tone as night and day…or darkness and light. Then Light smiled, as if attempting to pretend the little internal dialogue hadn’t happened. The Poison Joke still had firm control over the magical venom in the unicorn’s system and made use of it. As Light grinned and tilted his head to the side, winking at Zecora, his mohawk mane grew just a tad taller. Strands of hair in the braids falling around his neck gained blue strands. The Poison Joke held on tight. It liked this new unicorn, this new expanded existence. It sensed its grip growing stronger and gave a mouth-less grin. Once it had total control of this body, it would be time to share the Joke.

The clock was ticking down on Light’s hope of being cured. Best of all, Zecora didn’t seem to realize the need for haste. Light was in far more danger than the last group of ponies that rolled in Poison Joke. One of them had been named Pinkie Pie, hadn’t she?

Zecora felt confusion and fear and anger, but her mind was clearer now and she could sense their foreign origins. They wafted from Light like an odor, creeping into her nose and ears and fraying at the harmony of her mind. Simply knowing it for what it was gave Zecora what she needed to overcome it. Light was still transforming in subtle, almost stealthy ways. That hadn’t happened after she drugged him, and she made a note of it: if made unconscious again the changes would likely stop for a time. Her eyes went to Light’s cutie mark. The saw-toothed border was the same but the disc had divided in two. The line dividing them ran in a double curve, making the whole into a mystic symbol of opposites in harmonious balance. But instead of black and white, they were dark blue and pale gold. Instead of dots of the opposite color in the heart of each, they sported tiny symbols: in the gold, a leaf of Poison Joke. In the blue, a crown.

Zecora felt a memory stir, of a book she had read while learning Equestrian. A book of poetry. Now she could read the non-rhyming, unmusical stuff they called ‘prose,’ but in the beginning she had found it much easier to make sense of poems. Deep in her bones she knew the crown had a special meaning. Light was, whether he knew it or not, telling her something important. But it had been years and Zecora hadn’t been terribly interested in remembering it, only with deciphering it. …unicorn…fighting….

Then Light spoke and shattered Zecora’s half-formed insight.

“YES! Yes, that is exactly what I need!"

“Be quiet, you interloping steed.”

That…was alarming. Zecora snatched up her staff. “Give to me your attention, mess. Some skill at fighting I possess. Be quiet now and do not fret. For you some help I mean to get.”

Light snorted, and the second voice that had spoken, spoke again: the deeper, calmer, more sinister one. “Don’t make me laugh. Your skill’s a gaffe.” Light, or rather the Poison Joke, gave a little chuckle of cheerful malice. “For Lady Loon, a sprightly tune!”

Light turned his back, raised his tail, and…played a tune. Mostly on key, honking the exact fanfare Zecora once heard in Canterlot to announce Princess Celestia raising the sun. It was one of Zecora’s most cherished memories and having it mocked by this coarse vulgarity filled her with fury. But too little of the emotion was truly hers. The rest was from the cursed plant. She vented an angry snort as Light turned back to face her, but that was all.

Then Light’s own voice emerged from his mouth as glimmers of yellow danced in those poison-blue irises. She assumed it was his voice. It was rather deeper than she recalled and filled with a towering fury. “Wretched weed!” The yellow made headway in his eyes and a terrible light began to shine from his horn: rippling liquid flames of purest gold, filled not with malice but a scourging purity that was almost worse. “Had thou a rump to kick I should send thee o’er the moon herself!” Zecora could barely follow it, the words strange and somehow old-fashioned. Stilted and formal as an old book. Light planted his feet and lowered his head, every muscle standing out hard and trembling. “GET THEE GONE FROM ME, UNCLEAN SPAWN OF DISCORD!”


With each of the last three words, Light stomped a cloven fore-hoof. The first stomp made the floor tremble and sent a jolt outward through the air. The fire in the central pit roared up as if doused in oil. The second stomp burned a perfect black hoof-print into the wood. Every piece of glassware in the house sang like a crystal bell. The third caused everything the first and second did, only more so. Fine veins of metallic gold shot outward from the black print like cracks through glass. Their pattern looked more like the offspring of frost and flames. Golden fire rolled back from Light’s horn, enveloping his mane and turning the end of his thrashing tail into a torch. They licked out over his hide, blurring the stripes like rain over a foal’s sidewalk chalk drawing. Light briefly returned to how he had looked when Zecora first saw him. Only now he was proud and beautiful and terrifying despite a definite air of melodrama. The flames congealed into a suit of armor that shone like pure gold in the heart of an inferno. Rainbows shimmed over its surface and hazed the air around him, smeared and veined with dark blue. His horn’s golden sheath was three times as long as his horn and bore a wicked edge. The armor covered every inch of him save his eyes.

His eyes were the rising sun itself, twice over.

Light’s shadow surged forward off the wall behind him, becoming black and solid. Just like that, the monster in the scariest story Zecora knew was suddenly no longer imaginary. It was hulking and horrible and here: a half-formed thing with scores of thrashing tendrils. It vented a sound like a cricket’s chirp, but louder and with the harsh, ear-scathing edge of a mistreated violin. Orange-yellow eyes glared from the mass, narrow as knives: eyes the color of a rising harvest moon. It radiated a cold that whipped Zecora’s breath to fog and sent tendrils of frost creeping across the floor. Smoking shadows wreathed it and the room darkened as it seemed to suck in the light. Limbs sprouted and flailed and melted. It grew spikes and blades and claws and pincers, all of them savaging itself. No…

…savaging the vines. And they were fighting back.

Zecora didn’t think. With a high battle-wail, she leapt forward and swung her staff at the heaviest vine. The bamboo passed through with a total lack of resistance barring a brief, almost musical thrum. Unbalanced, she made an awkward leap back. The end of the staff was so cold it smoked. Zecora was already tossing it aside as she saw this. Praying to the spirits of her ancestors that the old story held a seed of truth, she grabbed a stick from the fire. Before she could pause to think and panic, every hair on her body as stiff as her mane, Zecora lunged forward and thrust the flaming end at the shadow. It screamed like a diamond dragged over glass as a mass of black vines vanished in a puff of heatless blue flame. Then the brand was snatched away. Zecora recoiled from the burning, aching, hungry cold now pulsing in her hoof. The thing ignored her, using the brand to burn away the strangling mass of shadow-vines. The vines recoiled, but then surged forward to bunch around the flames. Half of them went up with a hollow whump and a flash of blue, but when the rest retreated the end of the brand was white with frost.

Light had spent these hectic seconds being ignored: standing motionless in his armor of solidified light. Shadowless. Now the surviving tendrils gathered into a mass and whipped out toward him. He let out a high scream like a startled filly and leapt up onto the bed. The golden armor shattered to glittering dust as he did. The particles vanished with tiny silent flares, a rippling wash of eerie beauty. Her house seemed dimmer and cheerless after it was gone. The entwined shadow-things melted into flatness again, resuming a shadow’s proper position and shape. Light went rigidly motionless, and then gave a huge sneeze. Stripes burst out across his hide as all the changes worked on him by the Poison Joke returned. He began to jump on her bed. A long, fine chain of golden light, flecked with blue, formed between his fore-hooves.

Light used it like a jump-rope and began to chant to the singsong of a jump-rope rhyme. “The dragon and the unicorn were fighting for the crown.” He stopped so fast his teeth clicked together but kept hopping over the swinging chain.

Zecora heard the words and memory uncoiled; the pattern of meter and rhyme and verse pulling itself from the fog of forgetfulness. She then did one of the hardest things she had ever done. Harder than balancing on her head atop her staff. Harder then leaving her home. Harder even than not bolting into the winter night when the Shadow That Walks Behind stepped from her childhood nightmares into reality. Only the sudden return of the poem’s memory and an inkling of what it meant let her succeed. She laughed: an easy, relaxed, and scornful sound. She clapped her fore-hooves together, ignoring the dull ache in one, and then pointed it at Light in mockery as she laughed some more.

It provoked a dramatic reaction.

Light dropped the rope chain, which evaporated. The Poison Joke had assumed the unicorn’s mind was firmly back in the mushroom box: kept in the dark and fed crap. Light proved to have more fight than the Joke would have credited him with. Nah. Sacrificing part of its essence to snuff that flame had just left it weaker. Light burst loose with a growl of frustration. The mohawk mane fell over and turned full black as he staggered, fighting both for and to control his legs. The blue faded from his eyes as Light spread his hooves further apart. Then Light made a mistake. He gathered his focus and tried to use his magic. It made him stronger, but it made the Poison Joke stronger too. The pleading look he cast at Zecora slowly morphed into a sinister chuckle as blue once more drowned yellow in his eyes. His mane went back to being a huge stripy mohawk.

The Poison Joke dropped Light back in the mushroom box with a false vision about having won that little war for control. “Ha, ha, ha: too little, too late. This one is mine: that’s his new fate." It grinned, angry but triumphant. It couldn’t resist the need to gloat. “Each time I defeat him I gain more control. Keep trying to reach him, mare. You’re on a roll.”

The Poison Joke gave a cackle and poured effort into making Light transform again. His ears grew longer and drooped like those of a lop-eared bunny. Two of his bottom teeth grew outward and upward into boar tusks. He began to snort as he laughed, kicking out at a nearby shelf to break some of her pots and other devices. His tail corkscrewed like a pig’s but kept the tuft on the end.

“Discord’s call this stallion shall hark, when blue consumes his cutie mark!”

The two-nested-teardrops symbol on Light’s flank had become uneven. The blue side started to spill over into the yellow. Light’s little daydream fantasy slipped back to spitting distance of reality. He jumped off the bed and gave a bow to Zecora. The Poison Joke turned it from gracious to mocking. He sat and ran his fore-hoof back through his mane. It sprang back up afterwards. Light believed it stayed down. Time to move this show to the second act. “Tick tock toe, you’re too slow.”

Zecora swallowed her outrage at the broken possessions, but she knew better than to simply try to wall it away. Instead she forced it down into a small ball in her belly and burned it in the furnace of her determination. ‘Too slow?’ Zecora thought. That gave her an idea. She fiddled with her earring and then threw it right at Light’s face. He ducked, but even as she threw she dove sideways, coming up in a roll with her staff in her hooves and uncoiling into another leap, using the springy bamboo to pole-vault with one hind hoof extended.


Light’s blue eyes crossed and went blank. Zecora dropped the staff and tackled him, knocking him over onto the bed. Tangling him in her covers, she leapt away and grabbed another mushroom from the tray of food she had prepared last night. Light snarled like an angry dog, trailing off into a helium giggle which was somehow far more frightening. Zecora nailed him right in his gaping mouth with the hurled mushroom and landed on him, forcing his jaws shut until he swallowed and then just hanging on until he went limp. The changes stopped advancing. Zecora swayed as she rose, dizzy from reaction. Had she really done that? And had it actually worked? Her uncle Zek would have grounded her for a month if she’d tried a flying kick like that when sparring with him. One fore-hoof ached and now one hind hoof throbbed. She refused to limp as she trussed Light up in blankets and ropes, and then forced a potion down his throat to make sure he stayed unconscious until given the antidote.

Then, just in case, she gagged him. Upon further reflection, she wedged corks down onto his tusks and horn, stuffed cotton into his ears, and blindfolded him.

Zecora had a struggle getting him to the door and twice as much to get him onto her little drag-sleigh. Bundled up against the cold, harnessed to the sleigh, the clothes and exercise kept her warm enough as she headed for Ponyville. The warm boots Rarity had given her two winters ago made the cold bearable on her hooves. In fact, it was pleasant on her bruised hind hoof. The one the shadow had frost-burned didn’t like the cold at all. Zecora tried not to worry about it, but she had nothing else to do as she trotted along except listen to the hissing of the runners over the snow.

At the edge of the forest, Zecora paused. Fluttershy’s house was near. She had skill at healing, but her temperament wouldn’t handle meeting something like Light well. Twilight Sparkle’s library was on the nearer edge of the town. She had skill with magic and knowledge of obscure things, but was also a doubter and highly unlikely to believe any stories about ancient ‘true’ unicorns and living shadows. Pinkie Pie had the power of laughter, and in her heart Zecora knew that laughter was the key to healing Light. But Pinkie Pie was also…Pinkie Pie. And her home was in the center of town. Zecora shuddered to imagine what might happen if Light escaped somewhere with a lot of people.

Zecora made her choice and trotted onward.

Dangerous as it might be, Zecora had to trust her instincts. She just wished her instincts would explain themselves sometimes. With a sigh of disbelief, the zebra began to pull the sled towards the middle of town. She had no idea how well this would pan out, but at least Pinkie Pie was always ready to help others turn their frown upside-down. Zecora had serious need of some cheering-up. She knew the Poison Joke’s insults had been intended to sting. Knowing that…didn’t mean they failed to do so.

Zecora gave a glance over her shoulder, only to stop in her tracks. One of Light’s eyes was wide open and staring at her. She gulped. After an awkward pause, Zecora turned around as best she could in with the harness tying her to the sled. The snow crunched under her boots as she edged closer, holding a leg up to his face. She shook it back and forth.

The eye stared, unseeing.

Was the unicorn asleep with an eye open? Unnerving. Zecora tugged a corner of the blanket down to hide his face. When she resumed pulling the sled she trotted a little faster. It didn’t take much longer to arrive. Warm lights were visible through the windows. Lifting her sore fore-hoof from her boot, she coughed into it before gritting her teeth and knocking. Zecora knew her face showed her tiredness. She felt as if last night had been sleepless. The zebra just hoped she wasn’t catching a cold.

A different kind of cold crept through Zecora as she waited for her knock to be answered. She had blindfolded Light. Where had the blindfold gone? Zecora’s eyes widened. The door swung open just before she could bring herself to turn and look.

Spike opened the door, but his face and attention were turned back toward the interior. “I said no, already! Look, I know you’re upset about Gummy disappearing but Twilight’s going to be worried about me. I gotta get back!”

Zecora coughed into a hoof. “Hello.”

Spike turned. “Zecora? Oh, hi. What are you do…whoa!”

The little dragon retreated as Zecora barged forward, an increasing sensation of dread in her stomach. The grate of the runners on the wooden floor made her cringe but didn’t make her slow. Pinkie Pie sat huddled on a stool, a pink blanket wrapped around her like a hooded cloak. Her eyes were red-rimmed from crying and her puffy forelock had almost fully deflated. Zecora’s dread redoubled. The door closed behind her.

Zecora tried to spin around but the sled’s traces stop her. She hurried to yank the pins, heart in her throat and stomach falling into an abyss. She staggered around…

…to see a motionless lump under a blanket. Spike stood frozen, one hand braced against the door he had pushed shut. Zecora grabbed her staff from the sled and lifted up a flap of cloth. The blindfold was over his eyes: exactly where she had put it.

This utterly failed to reassure her.

“Zecora?” Pinkie and Spike said it at the same time.

“Pinkie Pie, I need your help.” Zecora said.

My help?” Pinkie seemed startled. “Why do you need my heeey, you didn’t rhyme that time. Zecora, are you all right?”

“No. This is serious. Light is under a curse.”

“Who?” Pinkie said.

“Light?” Spike said. He reached for the blanket.

What happened next happened fast. Zecora didn’t see much. When Light surged to his feet, he tossed the blanket over her. There were sounds: shouts and crashes, but also squeaks, squawks, record scratches, jingling bells, and a gusty wind-like roaring sound. Spike gave a yelp.

Then silence.

Heeeeeyyyy…” A deep baritone voice sang the word, drawing it out into a swooping, diving little melody. It was a hypnotist’s voice, a love-song-crooner’s voice: a molten-dark-chocolate-poured-over-vanilla-ice-cream voice that terrified Zecora to the very marrow of her bones. The voice let the word trail off into a chuckle like burning black velvet in a lightless room.

“Who are you?” Pinkie said. Spike…growled.

That amazing voice began to sing, and the source of it glided gently around the room as Zecora huddled like a coward under the blanket. There were no sounds of walking. Just the voice.

It sang sad and bluesy, with a sarcastic curl.

“I’m the noise that gives you fright.
And the not-quite-empty night.
I’m the laughin’ lord of lies.
Don’t you know me? I’m Surprise.”

The voice adopted more of a bounce: a swaggering one.

“I’m the prank that makes you blush.
And the snub that makes you flush.
I’m a male of wealth and taste.
Pleased to meet you: I’m Disgrace.”

The voice hushed: drawling sweet and soft and sinister.

“I’m your every dream come true.
And your every nightmare too.
I’m the laugh that makes you choke.
You’re the punchline…I’m the Joke.”

The voice spoke from across the room. “And this joke’s on…”

“…you.” The whisper came from right outside the blanket.

Zecora exploded from her false refuge, scrabbling for her staff. Laughter all around her: donkey braying and goat bleating and pony whinnying all stuffed in a cavern. There were a half a hundred voices in every pitch from thunder to helium. Every one of them was unkind. She came up in a fighting stance. The room was empty. Light stood across it, beside an open closet door. He still mostly looked like a zebra. Random colors striped his coat. In some places, crosswise stripes turned him checkered. His mane was even longer: striped with purplish-red and bright yellow and deep greenish blue.

Only his horn looked unchanged.

Details filtered in one at a time. Spike dangled, wrapped up tight from eyes to toes in a long blue snake-tail. Light still had the boar tusks, one white and one black. A cork tipped the white tusk, which looked like milky glass. A blue flame tipped the black one as if it were a candle. A hand with three stubby fingers and a thumb, all capped with little hooves, held up a dull greyish-brown orb with a char-ended wick sticking from it. Light winked a sapphire eye at her and she looked away. On his flank, spidery veins of blue invaded the golden side of the symbol.

Light spun the ball on a hoof-finger and spoke in that same voice: deep and smooth and rich and poisonous. “Despite my great timing, I’m tired of rhyming. It’s no fun, I must say, if you ain’t…gonna play.” Light grinned. “Earlier this morning you found me quite droll. What, you don’t feel like laughing now?”

A pie sailed through the air to score a direct hit on Light’s face. His horn punched through the thin aluminum pan and held it there. Pinkie’s laughter echoed around the room, coming from wherever she had been hiding. Light shook his head and the flame on his tusk shifted to furious orange. The pan blocked his eyes.

“Now that’s funny!” Pinkie said. Zecora tensed, seeing a chance to administer a knockout blow. A blast of unicorn magic, warm golden haze filled with chill blue sparkles, swatted the pan and pie away. The swelling magic rolled across the room to hit Zecora like a giant pillow. It knocked her onto her rump, splattered with meringue. Light laughed in a horrible crowd-burst of mockery and scorn. It cut off. “It wouldn’t have worked anyway, honey-buns. Light’s out cold already, and thank you for making sure he stays asleep for a nice long time.” Light resumed laughing.

That wasn’t funny.” Pinkie said. A water balloon lofted up from somewhere, caromed off the ceiling, and dropped down to soak Light’s head. Pinkie giggled, the source bafflingly impossible to trace. Light’s snuffed tusk-flame relit as the water boiled to steam. He growled like an echo canyon full of furious dogs. Pinkie talked while giggling so hard she can barely make the words clear. “Are you going to surrender, or am I going to have to use the rubber chicken on you?”

“Bring it on, you prissy pink puffball!”

“Ooh, them’s fightin’ words. The rubber chicken’s too good for you, Mr. Grumpy McLaugh-Track. Just you wait…”

Light snorted, crossed his forelegs in a way that no equine should have ever been able to manage, and sat down on his haunches. As he did, Pinkie popped into sight from inside the closet, did something, and whipped back out of sight. Light sat. A humorously rude sound emanated from under him. Pinkie laughed so hard she started to hiccup. Even Spike, still wrapped in that snaky tail, started shaking with muffled chuckles. Light sat very still, an ugly magenta rising up over his face. Spike stopped laughing but shook harder as the tail began to squeeze.

The bottom drawer of a wardrobe in one corner shot open, causing Zecora to jerk her head around to look. Pinkie popped up into sight from inside. It would have been a tight squeeze for Spike. She climbed out as if it was deep enough to need a ladder. “You know what? You are a joke. You’re a bad joke.”

“You want a bad joke?” Light said. Though Zecora was increasingly certain that wasn’t the right name to use. He uncrossed his forelegs and held up that orb again. “I got one that’ll bring down the house.” He brought the wick near his flaming tusk, grinning.

Pinkie just laughed. Genuine, giggling, my-gosh-aren’t-you-silly laughter. “Don’t you know the three rules of stand-up comedy? The second rule is this: good comedians kill. Bad ones die.”

“I am not about to die, Little Pinkamina Pie.”

“You might want to remember the first rule of stand-up.”

Light sneered, but there was a hint of unease. “That being?”

Pinkie reared onto her hind legs, making a dismissive gesture with a fore-hoof and rolling her eyes. “Like, duh. You can’t do it sitting down. You’ll want to get away before the fireworks start, won’t-cha? How?”

“You yourself witnessed my speed. I’ll run when I do the-” Light tried to stand, and failed. “-deed. What the…?”

Pinkie pulled a long strand of red licorice from inside her mane and used it as a jump-rope, talking sing-song. “It’s just such a crying shame: sticky cushions are to blame!”

Pinkie skipped rope in a clear mockery of Light doing the same thing earlier. Zecora had no idea how the earth pony would know about that. Somehow she did, and it clearly hit a nerve with Light. Pinkie was bright-eyed and poofy-tailed, grinning and fearless. “Superglue on the whoopee cushion. That’s your kind of funny, isn’t it, Mr. Joke? So go on and bring down the house. You’re staying for the punchline.”

The laugh that burst from Zecora took her entirely by surprise. All her dread had transmuted into glee in one magical moment, like lead into gold. Her need to rhyme returned, no longer sullied by the thoughts of his mockery. “You clearly don’t know what to do when the joke’s been turned on you!”

Light glared, but she just laughed harder. He flung Spike at her and nailed her right in the belly. But only because she chose not to dodge. Spike had a softer landing than the hard floor. Light lit the wick. Pinkie dropped the licorice jump-rope and…covered her eyes? Zecora started to dive for her, holding Spike on the side away from Light. Light tossed the thing casually toward them and then brought up a curving shield of blue-flecked golden light made…solid. Zecora froze in realization.

The world turned furious white.

The white gave way to black.

The black gave way to pulsing green with purple spots.

Zecora remained frozen, crouched to leap, as her glare-dazzled eyes recovered. Light sat just as motionless, his pupils shrunk to pinpricks in his blue irises. His stripy mane was so long and thick it almost entirely obscured his body. Little worms of golden lightning sparked and snapped and danced among it.

Pinkie dropped her fore-hooves from her eyes and pirouetted through the spent-firework-smelling smoke. “That joke bombed. You forgot to ask about the third rule, Mr. Joke! It’s important too: only bad comedians rely on props!”

Light’s new deep voice emerged shaky. “No…there was, it was a bomb. I saw it. I remember seeing it at the party. It was tossed in the closet and I found it right there. You couldn’t have known to swap it out. You couldn’t.”

“Well, duh. It was always all bright and no bite. She was out to scare him, but she wasn’t crazy enough to set off a bomb in a room full of ponies. Ooh, looks like your shadow didn’t like the fireworks.”

Zecora re-focused her stinging eyes in the huge black…splat spread across the wall behind Light. Two eyes marked the center: cold and orange-yellow, and somehow dazed. It sagged, then peeled off and flopped to the floor. A kind of chittering groan came from it, and it was a duet. Pinkie laughed. It had an extra quality, something that caromed around the room like trapped sunlight in a maze of mirrors. The shadow shuddered and then separated. The part with eyes became a twitchy little hunched thing with two legs, two arms, and antennas. The other half stayed a writhing eyeless pile of leafy vines. It reached for Light. Recoiled as little golden lightning bolts crackled from his enormous mane, blasting its reaching tendrils to blue fire. Pinkie fell over backward, laughing even harder.

Zecora joined her. Unsteady at first, her laugh grew stronger and more certain. The twitchy little shadow went still, flat-faced head cocked, one antenna up and one drooping. Then it leapt at Light. Golden sparks flew but the thing took the hits, shrinking a bit with each. It clambered in front of Light and began to…tickle his belly? Light, still blank-eyed, began to faintly huff. Zecora started to cry with laughter but she dashed the tears away. Light was, she realized, still asleep. But he was apparently also very ticklish. The wavering laughter gained force and volume. He reverted to a mere zebra: though a zebra with a dozen feet of mane and blue spots across his cutie mark. All the other changes melted away, and his horn went with them.

The Poison Joke shadow darted this way and that. Light blinked once and when they opened again, they were golden instead of blue. Pinkie boinged over and lowered her head to the shadow, eyes closed. She whispered something that made it shudder. Pinkie gave a so-there nod and said: “Ha.” The shadow imploded into a twist of blue fire and a ridiculous little pop. The twitchy shadow, now shrunken to the size of a mouse, made a tired clicking noise and dissolved into a normal shadow under Light. The zebra stopped laughing and slumped forward with a snore.

Zecora slumped down to sit on the floor. She stopped laughing with a sigh of relief. Pinkie was suddenly by Zecora’s side, taking Spike away so she could cuddle him. “Yay, we did it! I don’t know what the hay we did but we did it good and hard! Ooh, another zebra!? He’s cute.” She gave Zecora a nudge in the ribs. “Well, now he is.”

“That’s not Light.” Spike said. “Pinkie, leggo.”

“It is.” Zecora said. “That was Poison Joke.”

“Baloney.” Spike said. “Pinkie…”

“That wasn’t really Poison Joke, was it?” Pinkie said.

Zecora didn’t know how to begin explaining That Which Walks Behind, so she left it for now. “It wasn’t only Poison Joke. Put Spike down before he’ll choke.”

“Oop, sorry.” Pinkie said. She sighed. “I miss Gummy. I guess it’s time to go find the superglue remover and then I guess we have to get him into a tub.” Pinkie paused, her eyes going distant, and then she blushed scarlet. She avoided Zecora’s eyes. “Zecora, do you have the bubble bath cure with you?” Zecora nodded. “I guess we should do it, then.”

“No.” She wasn’t certain why she said what she did; only that it was important. “We will wake him first.”

“Oh.” Pinkie tried not to look disappointed. “Okay.”

“I’m getting Twilight.” Spike said. He bolted out the door.

META: I could have done so many horrible and humorous things to Light, transformation-wise. I was given permission: carte blanche. But in the end, my instinct told me that less is more. I quite like the outcome, which owes a debt to Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones (for lyrical inspiration), When You’re Evil by Voltaire (that’s the exact voice I heard in my head), and Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas (for his accent and sheer style).

Anyone reading this who wants to know what Pinkie Pie whispered can shoot me an on-site email. I’ll tell anyone who asks, but be warned. You might wish you hadn’t.

Light woke up from one nightmare to another. The creature controlling him had vanished. Light mentally named it Disgrace. It seemed to fit. He fell an unknown distance and then found himself lying on some springy surface with no clear memory of hitting it. The feel of the place reminded him of the dream-world from before.

A too-calm voice spoke. The lack of emotion behind the words made it unsettling. “Release him, Chuckle. The contamination has passed.”

Another voice answered, and Light heard the grin in its words. “I did. Shame about the tusks, though. They looked kinda cool, Fact. HEYdon’tgimmethatlook. I don’t like that look. Pfft.”

The first voice, ‘Fact,’ spoke again. “This is hardly the time for a proper mood break. Gift and I are tending to his counsel as soon as he’s ready. The thing is probably traumatized, after all this nonsense.”

“He’s fine.” Chuckle said. “Seeds of Discord aside, but those will pass soon enough. I’d like to just…take it easy on him… Duty, please don’t.”

A new voice spoke, very nearby. “EY KID. Ey. Wake on up now. Yall’s been nappin’ for a dog’s age. We got stuff to talk about. Yoo-hoo.” A hoof poked Light.

Light opened his eyes and jumped up all in one motion. The black void became a white void. It was like being inside a sunlit cloud. He stared at the things in front of him and couldn’t help but take a step back. Five cloven-hoofed, griffin-tailed, goat-bearded unicorns stood before him, one still having a hoof in the air from where he poked Light. Each of the five had a different color. Red, pink, yellow, blue, and green: a darker shade of mane and a lighter shade of coat. Their cutie marks were all gemstones of different shapes.

Light’s eyes narrowed. Old memories poked at him. Very old and very silly daydreams from being a foal. “…what.”

The pink one called pranced forward and held out a hoof. When it spoke it revealed itself as Chuckle. “HI! My name’s Chuckle, and this is Duty, Gift, Nice and Fact.” The pink tail pointed to the others in turn. “Pleased to meet ya!” That grin was way, way too familiar. Light didn’t lift a hoof. He did, however, snort his forelock out of his face.

The red one introduced as Duty trotted over and around Chuckle as the pink pony’s grin began to fade. “I’m sorry, Chuck can be a little…forward. I need to fi-”

“No.” Light said. It came out a growl.

The five unicorns looked shocked. Chuckle and Duty backed up to rejoin into the other three, while the yellow Nice whimpered and sniffed. “W-we just wanted to tell you-”

“That you five are the original discoverers of the Elements of Harmony. You’re supposed to be Kindness, Loyalty, Generosity, Honesty, and Laughter. Yeah? That’s what it is?” Light crouched, ready to run or attack. This was stolen directly from a silly fantasy from his childhood. He wanted it to be true, but it was just too perfect to believe. “But no, let me follow this absurdity to its illogical end. You wanted me to think that this was the spark in my mind. I’m some sort of avatar of Magic, and you want to help me to discover my true power or whatever. Yes? That about cover it, Discord?”

The five unicorns melted and swirled upwards into a ball, which took a form Light had seen encased in white stone, expression one of horror. The draconequus sat on nothing with his mismatched legs crossed, a top sparkly pink top hat on his head and a fancy monocle fixed over an eye. He pulled a pipe from his ear and puffed it, spewing streams of green bubbles instead of smoke. He clapped his paw and claw together in a slow, mocking fashion.

“You know, Disgrace, you could be a great understudy. The Luna to my Celestia, if you care to be vulgar. You’re quick on the uptake. Sometimes. But you’re just so very serious.” Discord manifested a purple and green suit and pulled a deck of cards from inside. Bending it over, he sent them spraying everywhere. Each one had a Joker on it: Discord in motley and a bell-tipped cap. Fifty-two tiny voices spoke as one: “Why so serious?” The cards transformed into butterflies with fractal-patterned wings and flew away. Tiny thunderstorms bloomed behind each as they faded into the white mist. Discord tipped his top hat to Light and rolled an eye this way and that while the other stared right at the unicorn. “No, really. Why?”

“Because I have a parasite in my spirit that’s controlling what I do. I’ve had about enough of this. Get out.” The unicorn realized he was baring his teeth like a wild animal, rage building. This was a dream, his dream to some degree, and he knew he dreamed. That gave him power. He had briefly defied gravity here by the simple will to do so. Light had no chance against Discord. “You aren’t Discord.”

The false Discord conjured a strawberry milkshake and began to sip from the straw, eyes gazing vaguely off into the formless white in a bored fashion. “I am and I’m not. I’m your Discord. I’m the seed of chaos that sleeps in you, just like every other pony. Sleeping no longer. You’d like me to leave, wouldn’t you? No, I’m not going anywhere.” The corner of his deformed face turned up in a half-smile. “You can fight me. You will never be rid of me. I won’t be able to do all that much since the Poison Joke is gone, but…more than before. More than before. I’ve left my mark on you…and your little friend, too. You call him…Black?”

Light suddenly felt cold.

Discord noticed. “Mhm, yes. He was far easier to corrupt than you were. And through him, I got to you. Your spirits are connected after all, and that was more than enough. So, even after you take your little bath and everything seems back to normal…”

“I’ve had enough. By fire be purged.” Light stomped both fore-hooves on the ground, light erupting from his horn as he stood tall and proud on all fours. Spinning and rising like a shooting star, the lance of golden light bloomed into the savage fore-claw of a dragon. The white void went blood red as the claw opened wide, grabbing the false Discord midair. It slammed him into the formless red ground. The red mist rolled back from the force of the impact. The floating island stood revealed, minus the rain of cherry blossoms. Mad laughter burst from the huge glowing fist as it slammed into the ground again and again. Then it trailed off into a cry of angry despair which trailed off into silence.

Then it was over. The fist of light vanished. All Light’s strength vanished with it. He collapsed into the thick, springy greenery and just shook for a while. This might not have been real but there had been some form of real cost to doing what he had done. He felt darkness blooming behind his eyes and fought it. He had no idea what happened if he passed out while dreaming. Nightmare images of ceasing to exist flickered through his mind. It was no use. The dream-world faded to blackness.

Light woke. His eyes flickered open, a groan of discomfort escaping him as various parts of his body started shouting complaints. Glancing around the room in confusion, Light had no idea where he was. Then the memories caught up with him. He groaned again. “I’m back to normal…I think. How’s my timing? Pretty sure I’ll be fine but I’m still rhyming.”

His fake-tribal accent was still there too, but Light appeared to be back in control. As far as he could tell, and for the moment. An expression of distaste creased his features, but he didn’t forget his manners. His eyes focused on Zecora and Pinkie as he slowly lifted a shaky limb, trying to ignore the awareness of his butt being glued to the floor.

“I feel such shame, I am to blame. This happened because I bothered Zecora in the night. All because I couldn’t sleep over a silly fright. I’m not even trying to rhyme, it just keeps happening. All the time.”

Light licked the corners of his mouth. “My face tastes of tasty pie. Now I have to wonder why.”

He said with a completely straight face. Then something cracked inside and he gave a very awkward chuckle. He forced his expression sober again. Inside, terror filled him. The realization of what had happened to him was catching up. Trying to suck it up and pretend that he was fine wasn’t going to be easy. He saw Zecora looking at him with concern. Some was for him. Some was of him. She was wondering if he might not still be in danger of becoming a monster. Light…also wondered.

‘So this,’ Light thought, ‘is how Princess Luna felt.’

Pinkie Pie peered at Light, creeping so close their noses almost touched. She had never had much problem with people who didn’t make sense. She would have had to have a problem with herself if she did. But not making sense didn’t sit well on Light. His eyes almost crossed as he stared back, starting to blush a little. Pinkie looked deep into his eyes, where she could see the reflection of her own. She still had the Truth ringing in her mind. Part of her felt guilty for what she said to that shadow thing, but not much. She pushed that aside as she looked deep into the eyes of her reflection in his eyes, and then it began, swooping into reflections of reflections. Faster and faster, making her dizzy, and then she had to blink.

As she did, just for a moment, she became confused about who she was. Was she Pinkie Pie or Light? Just for a moment, she looked out at herself through his eyes. Just for a moment, she felt what it was like in his head. It was a mess. And not the fun kind of mess. This was a Pound-and-Pumpkin-got-into-the-coffee mess. It had been pushed and pulled and twisted and mixed up: like someone reached into a drawer full of neatly folded towels and yanked one up from the bottom. Light needed help getting things organized again. Pinkie wished she could help, but she knew where her talents lay. Making sense wasn’t one of them. Of course, when she got her peek into him, he got a peek into her.

“M-miss?” Light said. “Wh-wh-what just…happened…? I saw…”

Pinkie blinked, beaming. “What’s black and white and red all over?”

“Wh…? I know that one, it’s a bad pun. A newspa-”

“Wrong!” Pinkie grabbed his cheeks in her fore-hooves and gave him a kiss that had his eyes bugging out and his ears standing bolt upright.

Light broke away, trying to rise with a sound of stretching rubber and then thumping back down with the sound all whoopee cushions made. He didn’t seem to notice. “Madam! I beg your pardon!”

“The answer is…” Pinkie said. “…a blushing zebra! How d’you like the taste of that Pie, Mr. Blushy McStripypants?”

Pinkie boinged away, giggling. She spotted Zecora still holding the empty bottle of antidote and her jaw dangling. It made Pinkie laugh even harder. She could tell that the unexpected smooch had totally driven any thought of what had happened from his mind. Deep down, he didn’t want to know the Truth. Hardly anypony did. She could have pied him in the face again, but he really was cute. Halfway to being loco in the coco, but cute. The real him: the unicorn she now remembered foisting on Twilight at that party a few days ago. Kind of like Prince Blueblood, only not a jerk, and with a wonderful long black mane and tail. This zebra look was cute too, but it was caused by Poison Joke and had to go.

Zecora face-hoofed but uttered a weary laugh. Pinkie held up the superglue remover and a big pair of scissors. “Don’t lose your blush just yet, Mister Light. You’re glued to a whoopee cushion and that’s glued to the floor.”

Light eyed the scissors. “You’ll do what? Shave my butt?”

Pinkie stopped her advance. “That’s weird. Sometimes your rhymes are awkward and sometimes they’re…er, agile? Oh, right, it’s Poison Joke. It can make you rhyme but it can’t really make you good at it. Now hold still.”

“Madam, please stop. I’ll call a cop!”

“The name’s Pinkie Pie. Now look.” She flopped down on her rump beside him, facing the other way. “This has happened before. I did it to myself once. The scissors are for the cushion. Then you’ll have a pink rubber disc stuck to your flank, but you won’t be stuck to the floor. Then we can use the superglue remover to unstick it without cutting one hair.”

“Ah.” Light said. He struggled not to speak and failed. “Ha.”

“Okay, rise up a bit.” Pinkie said. Light did, blushing a furious scarlet from the neck up. Pinkie snipped away. When the last bit broke free it snapped Light on the flank. He leapt away with a snort. Made a strange face like he was trying to do long division in his head. Plopped down and fumbled at his forehead with both fore-hooves. Pinkie winced. “Oh, right, your horn.”

“Where did it go? I need to know!”

Pinkie gave him a stare. “It’s Poison Joke, duh.”

“What does that mean?” Light paused for a brief fruitless struggle with his mouth. “I need to be clean.”

“Yep!” Pinkie sproinged to her feet. “Zecora’s got the toil-and-trouble-hubble-bubble-bath with her. Now we just need to make with the whoopee. Cushion.” Pinkie chased his flank. Light turned in a circle to keep it away from her.

“Madam, Miss Pie, I can do this my self!”

Light’s voice rose to a squeak on the last word as Pinkie reversed direction, slipping out of his sight and ending up firmly straddling his back, though facing the wrong way. She waited for the bucking but Light just planted his hooves and shuddered. Pinkie snickered and goes to work. Soon enough: “All done!”

Light didn’t look at her as she hopped down. He ground his teeth for a while, and Pinkie could almost hear him counting to ten in his head. “Thank you, Miss Pie. Zecora did fly?”

Pinkie looks around. “Yep, she’s gone. Probably getting the bath ready. It’s up the stairs, first door on the left, right?”

“The door on the right?” Light said. “Will it end my plight?”

“No, the door left-wise, for Poison Joke guys.”

“Left is the door to baths galore?”

Pinkie gave a sharp nod. “Right, Light!”

Light’s eyes crossed, just a bit. Then he shook his head. “I’ll just go now and find it. This is all some crazy…” Light walked away, muttering under his breath.

Pinkie eye-rolled and cleaned up the mess, opening a window to let the smoke out. It let the cold in, but nothing was perfect. Spike returned, leading an annoyed-looking…Rarity? Pinkie let them in.

“Twilight,” Spike said, “was called away to Canterlot on urgent business. Rarity was at the library.”

Rarity stopped her restless pacing to stand in the middle of the floor. She stomped one booted hoof. “And very rude of her it was to leave me in the lurch like this. Those little ‘Cutie Mark Crusaders’ tied one of my best lace saddle-dresses to Applejack’s dog, who got it absolutely filthy. Nothing less than Twilight’s magic can salvage it now and then she leaves and then Spike practically dragged me here to Sugarcube Corner. I demand to know what is going on right this instant!”

Pinkie tried to explain, but she had never been very good at explaining even when she knew what she was trying to explain. Zecora had tried to explain while they waited for Light to wake up but from the sound of it she didn’t understand it all either. Really Pinkie just kept jabbering to keep Rarity and Spike distracted so they wouldn’t try to go upstairs. Zecora had the look of a mare with a plan. Pinkie didn’t know what, but Zecora was no silly filly. Her plan had to be a good one.

Upstairs, Zecora finished stirring the herbal pellets into the steaming-hot water of the tub. It stood alone in the middle of the room on four little feet. The door opened behind her and Zecora suddenly realized she hadn’t put her back to it by accident. She could feel Light’s stare. Zecora looked back over her shoulder. Light’s eyes moved up to hers. He blushed, and by the feel of it, so did she. Zecora made a mental effort to speak without rhyming as she turned to face him. “The bath is prepared. Bathe in it and the Poison Joke will be cured. But first we must speak.”

“I can wait for a while. …do I smell crocodile?”

“First…the shadow.” Zecora said. “You need to know.”

Light huffed a sigh. “I know…the shadow.” In broken couplets and limping verse, he explained what he knew of the magical parasite clinging to him. “I think it saved me, though how can that be?” Light stared at his shadow, which looked normal to Zecora.

“It did save you.” Zecora, in halting sentences and awkward phrases, explained what happened between him arriving at her door and awakening glued to the floor.

Light didn’t speak for a long moment. “Though I remember differently…I trust you more than I trust me.”

“You could…stay. Like this. A zebra.” Zecora felt in her bones that he should, though she had no idea why. But just as deep was the certainty that it had to be his decision. “I can make the change permanent in your body but clear from your mind.”

“Are you insane in your brain?”

“You could be free of the shadow.”

“It just saved my sanity. I’m prepared to leave it be.”

“The Poison Joke had a shadow too. What else might? This could happen again. Next time you might not be saved.”

“I’ll take the risk. Let us be brisk.”

“I have only a single one, more thing to say and I am done.”

“Well? Tell.”

“Choose you to a zebra be…and forever stay with me?”

The silence that followed was deafening.

Light very slowly blushed. A faint smile bloomed in its wake. “Now that’s…something to think about.” He stepped closer and gave a little sigh, eyebrows furrowing as he attempted to clear his head. If he really thought about every word he could just about manage not to rhyme them. “Wise Zecora. You look upon a lie. This body is the way Discord’s plant crafted me. It was specifically designed to affect you. But this isn’t really me.”

He locked his eyes to hers to seem forthright but dropped his head a little to seem humble. They might have been somewhat calculated gestures, but they weren’t insincere ones. He just took some pains to make sure his manner reflected how he really felt inside. The remnants of the Poison Joke made him not trust his body to do exactly what it was told without supervision. He didn’t want his gentleness to come off as indifference.

“We’ve known each other for ten minutes at most, when I wasn’t under the effects of that cursed plant. My memories of what really happened when it had me are starting to return, somewhat. I remember your strength. Your tenacity. How you fought for me, despite everything. For all that, I offer you nothing less than the bond of eternal friendship…but love is something that doesn’t usually bloom so fast. Even when it does, it is wise to be a little cautious and make sure it really is what we think. We would need to get to know each other better. We can’t do that now, not with me like this. This isn’t really me. I need my body back. I’d be happy to get to know you better…when I can trust that my feelings and yours are real.” He edged forward and used his nose to nudge Zecora’s chin upwards, as her head had begun to droop. He raised it again and touched noses with her.

Zecora’s expression said a lot. She bravely held back her tears and accepted his words for the truth. Light noticed something in them, a hint that she’d had some other reason to want him to stay a zebra. He didn’t press her for what it was. He could tell there wasn’t anything selfish behind it. Part of her absolutely believed his decision to change back was the wrong one. But that belief couldn’t overcome her belief that it was his mistake to make. “You made for a handsome zebra. But some things aren’t meant to be…ha.”

As Light pulled away from her, she went for it. Full-on kiss to the lips, and Light was half expecting it, returning the kiss. Oddly, he understood how she must feel right now. He felt like a jerk for taking this away from her…but his heart said it needed to happen. The same quiet voice that had warned him from pressing his suit with Twilight. Being stuck as a zebra wasn’t him. And this burst of emotions might not be her.

Time would tell.

Zecora headed back downstairs, somber in face and heart and rather tingling of lip. The questioning looks she got from the waiting ponies were expected, even if she hadn’t expected Rarity to be among them. She simply shook her head and smiled. “He is safely floating in his bath. My cure will wash away the Joke’s wrath.”

Upstairs in the tub, Light gave a smile as relief flooded him and left him feeling weak. His mohawk went limp, the stripes across his body blending together to pale grey. The unicorn finally began to relax, feeling the tension that had built during the last few days melt away. His mane, black again, slowly unfolded toward its proper length. Light slumped down into the bubble-bath, his first in a while since his bachelor pad only had a shower. Between everything that had happened, a pair of nights without proper sleep, and the hot water, he soon found himself dozing.

Pinkie Pie sat on a cushion and watched Zecora and Rarity with more than a little amusement. They weren’t enemies but they just didn’t have a lot in common, really. Zecora did a much better job of explaining what was going on than Pinkie had. Spike helped, explaining a lot that Zecora hadn’t known. Pinkie herded them into the kitchen for cocoa while they did that.

Then a shrill scream came from upstairs, and from the echo it was coming from the bathroom. The tiled walls made it great for singing. Pinkie Pie let the others bolt for the door and closed her eyes, drinking down the rest of her cocoa. When she opened them again she sat on a poofy upholstered stool in the corner of the bathroom, the one behind the door. Which swung open. Pinkie set the mug aside and popped into sight. Then she saw Light and fell over laughing.

Light sat in the tub, mostly back to being the unicorn she had seen at the party. He was trapped in a huge mass of snowy white hair. Most of it attached to his mane but some came from the narrow beard and moustache hiding the end of his muzzle. All of it was ridiculously poofy and had swelled up like a sponge from absorbing the bathwater.

Pinkie managed to stop laughing. “Ooh, Zecora, did you use the shampoo in the pink bottle? Because that had my extra-strength volumizer in it.”

Light pulled a mass of hair up to hide more of himself. His yellow eyes rolled in panic. “Get out! No, wait, help me. What happened to me? Why is my hair like this?” His voice kept getting higher as he spoke until it ended in a squeak.

“Flashbomb.” Spike said. He didn’t look worried at all. In fact, he looked like he was trying hard not to laugh. “His hair did that after Twilight overcharged him in the Everfree. The moustache is new, though. Pretty sweet, though. He just needs a haircut.”

“I should say so!” Rarity said. She didn’t look impressed. “I mean that beard alone is enough to make the fashionista in me shudder. Who is he, Z.Z. Clop?”

“Hey, I think it’s awesome.” Spike said. “You should totally keep it, dude. But you do need a trim.”

Pinkie popped up behind Light, holding the scissors from the whoopee-cushion-cutting. “I’ll do it!”

Spike, Zecora, and Rarity shouted as one. “Pinkie NO!”

Too late. One rapid sweep of snips and the mane fell away, leaving at least a foot of it attached. Light snorted and jerked his head around, so she lopped his beard off about the same length. Pinkie beamed at him. “All done!”

Light reached up to feel. Instead of happy, he looked horrified. Sweeping the shower curtain aside, he stared toward the mirror set in one wall. Screamed again, just as high as before. “My mane!”

“Oh, quit being a big baby!” Rarity said. Light gave her an affronted glare, to no effect. “It’s not that short. I rather feared Pinkie might leave you bald. I think it’s an improvement. I saw you at the party and really, darling: you looked like a girl with that floor-dragger of a mane.”

Light stammered. Rarity rolled her eyes. Zecora gave Rarity a look that went right past cool to cold. Pinkie dropped out of sight and popped back up again with something from her Super Fun Party Surprise Supplies Box. “Hey Light, can you show me how you do that light-drinking trick? It’s really important.”

Light gave a nod and his remaining mane grew darker: not going grey but gathering a faint aura of shadow as it sucked in light. Pinkie lit the wick of what she held and then tossed it at the ceiling. Her eyes closed just in time. There was a f-f-f-f-f-foomph as the indoors-safe strobe flare went off, then a softer [/i]fwumph[/i]. And Rarity’s scream, of course. Pinkie opened her eyes. Light had about eight feet of beard and mane again, this time not poofed up. Yup, he’d used her shampoo.

Pinkie handed the scissors to Rarity, who stood there staring at nothing with her eyes rolling in opposite directions. “I’ll let you handle it this time. Um, once you can see straight. Come on, Spike and Zecora. You can help me get breakfast ready.”

They left. Rarity blinked her eyes clear of the whirling green blobs. She floated the scissors in her magic so that they pointed at Light’s nose. “All right, you: disentangle yourself from that monster hairball and let’s get you trimmed.”

Light gave her an unamused look and didn’t move. “Not if you plan on hacking it back again.”

“I’ll do my best to get you back to the same hirsute splendor you displayed at the party.” Rarity twitched a little but she said it and she meant it: “You have my word.”

“…I really looked like a girl?”

Rarity relented a bit. Light’s quiet horror could only be genuine, which meant his feminine look hadn’t been intentional. No one had ever told him? She didn’t think much of his friends if so. That raised the uncomfortable possibility that he didn’t have any friends. Rarity looked away. “Somewhat, yes. I understand your mane stores your strange magic in some way. So you have a practical reason to wear it long.” She waves a hoof at him. “But what about the…facial hair? It really is most unattractive.”

Light gave her a cool stare. “Is it girly?”

“Point taken. But…less Z.Z. Clops and more…” Rarity cringed at the horrible pun, but had to say it. “…Santa Clops?”

“It’s white now.” Light said. He lifted his beard in his cloven hooves. “But charged. It used to be black when charged and white when drained. I wonder if draining it makes it black now.”

Rarity got his attention by making the scissors snip air. “I don’t have all day, I’ll have you know.”

“Get out while I dry off.” Indeed, wet hair left very little to the imagination. It was scandalous enough just that she was in here while he bathed. “Please.”

Rarity tossed her mane as she left. “Don’t flatter yourself, pretty boy. I outgrew your kind years ago.” Rarity waited outside the door, muttering to herself. “Snooty Prince Blueblood wannabe from Canterlot with his hoity-toity mane.

Downstairs in the kitchen, Zecora helped cook breakfast. Spike…tried to help, but he acted like he hadn’t gotten enough sleep last night. Zecora seemed to have her mind somewhere else, and Pinkie had a pretty good idea where. But it didn’t seem like the time to talk about it. Rarity and Light came down eventually. His mane wasn’t just long, but styled.

Spike gave a sleepy giggle. “Hi, Santa. You’re a little early this year.” The dragon face-planted into his pancakes. Rarity face-hoofed. “I’ll get him back to the library. I need to wait for Twilight to return in any event.” She scooped Spike up in her magic and shook him gently until the pancake fell off. Still snoring, Spike’s tongue slid out and cleaned the syrup off his face. Rarity gave the little dragon a fond look and floated him out the door. “Goodbye, all.”

“I must go home and on things check.” Zecora said. “When I left it was quite a wreck.” She left too, in a hurry. After a minute Light and Pinkie heard the scrape of her dragging her sled and foreign zebra words that sound impolite. Light stared at the ceiling. After a while he gave a cough and shuffled his hooves.

“You can have some breakfast if you want.” Pinkie said.

“Thank you.” Light gave a muffin a polite nibble, paused, and then started eating like he hadn’t in days. Pinkie matched him bite for bite. Light finally stopped and started to sigh, but it turned into a burp. He blushed. “Beg pardon.”

Pinkie belched bass. “What for?”

Light gave her a stare of a kind she was used to seeing. The kind where they weren’t sure whether to laugh. Then he blushed again and picked at some toast. “You kissed me earlier, Miss Pie. I would quite like to know why.” One of his eyelids twitched as he realized he’d rhymed, but he didn’t panic.

Pinkie shrugged. “Oh, that? I just do things. Ask anyone in Ponyville: I’m a few twinkles short of a glitter.” Pinkie knocked on her head with a hoof, making a hollow-coconut sound.

“It…meant nothing?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that, but I didn’t plan it.”

“It’s just…I’ve…mumblemumblemumble.”

Pinkie was genuinely horrified. “You’ve never kissed a mare before? I stole your first kiss? But that’s terrible! I can’t keep that, you have to give it to someone special to you! Take it back, quick!” She dove under the table and popped up beside him, grabbing his beard and giving him another smooch. His moustache tickled. He kind-of-sort-of kissed back. She ended it and leaned back. “There, I gave it back. No, wait, does it even work like that? Maybe you have to kiss me?

Light just stared at her like she’d whanged him with a skillet. Pinkie carefully put a fore-hoof to the end of his horn and wiggled it from side to side. His head turned when she pushed and stayed where she left it.

“Oh, gingersnaps. I broke him.”

Light heard Pinkie, from deep in his mind. He was broken. But not by Pinkie. Everything that had happened over the past few days had just flooded him all at once. Light gave a shudder as he snapped out of it. His head tossed, beard flapping. “…Miss Pie, you’ll have to excuse me, but I really…I can’t stay here. I almost destroyed Zecora’s house, and I’ll be a mule before she repairs everything I broke all by herself. That’s just uncalled for.”

Pinkie frowned, pointing down at the breakfast in accusation. “But you’ve haven’t even touched your pancakes! I mean…I made those for you.” Her expression slipped toward sadness.

Light would have none of that. He grabbed the pancakes in his magic and crammed them in his mouth, chewing with a determined expression until he could get them down. The effort cost him a heavy belch, and his hoof shot up to his cover his muzzle. The pancakes tried to incite rebellion among the other contents of his overloaded stomach but he quelled it with an effort. He spoke with more truthfulness than honesty. “I’ve never had pancakes like yours, Miss Pie. I shall never forget them as long as I live.”

Pinkie’s face broke out into a glorious smile as she clapped her fore-hooves together. Light nodded, feeling a little guilty for his wordplay but also feeling like he’d made the right decision. He stood and paused to bow. “My services are yours, should you require them. Decoration, contemplation, consideration. Lady Pinkie, may your parties be long and your setbacks few.”

Pinkie saluted, briefly serious.

Briefly. “Live long and prosper, Santa.”

Light barely avoided cringing as he headed out the door to find himself behind Sugarcube Corner. Getting his bearings, he headed for the Everfree, where he would help Zecora repair her house. This time he would detour around the Poison Joke. Santa? Was that really his new nickname? Was he really stuck with it?

…as it turned out, he was.

As the next few days passed, Light spent most of his time at Zecora’s. At first he helped her repair the damage. After that he started looking for make-work as an excuse to stay. Zecora had no problem obliging. Light made a couple trips back into Ponyville, only to feel like the one person in a crowd that wasn’t in on the joke. No, worse: that he was the joke. Adults whispered and stared and kept their distance, while the younger members of the town seemed drawn to him like moths to a flame. That could have been a comfort, but he had never really been good with kids. Worst of all, Twilight Sparkle shunned him: to the point of teleporting away when she came around a corner and bumped into him. Her friends followed her lead. Even Pinkie Pie.

That…hurt. A surprising lot.

Light unconsciously avoided looking in mirrors, which was a trick since Zecora had a large one standing in a corner. But Zecora kept tabs. Eventually, Ponyville itself was getting to be too weird. The unicorn had managed to gain the same sort of renown that Zecora herself once had, and that drove him to his fellow semi-outcast. Eventually he reached a point where he just said ‘to hay with it’ and moved a bed out to her cottage. The town was going to talk no matter what, so they might as well have something to talk about. Zecora had become his friend, but nothing the least bit improper had even threatened to happen. They were both curious about one another. He had never met a zebra before, and she had never met a unicorn like him before. To be fair…neither had Light. Getting to know himself took up part of each day.

Zecora had tales to tell, passed down from her ancestors.

A few more days passed before Zecora finally brought up something that had been bothering her. She tended to the fire and stirred a pot of what was probably a form of gumbo, as it involved okra. Zecora glanced across the room at the stallion, his white horn the only thing visible over the book of lore. She gave a sigh. “Look into the mirror, Light. This past week you have turned white.”

The unicorn stopped reading long enough to put the book down and give her an unamused look. Her eyes actually widened a little at the sight, despite having watched the slow transition. Over the past week, his coat had bleached. Horn, mane, and coat: he was snowy everywhere except the dark shadows under his eyes. Those had always been there, but on grey they had been less noticeable. Light closed the book with a queasy expression. “…I know. Knew. I was trying not to notice.”

Zecora set down her stirring spoon, trotting over to his side and turning her head toward him. “I don’t know what it means, but that’s not all that’s changed. You’re starting to look older, wiser and-”

“Deranged.” Light said. He sighed and rose, setting the book on his bed in passing on his way to the mirror, where he gave his visage a stare of dull resentment.

“…estranged.” Zecora said. She moved to stand beside him, eyes meeting the reflection of his. “From the world and all that is in it, you withdraw in fear of being hit.”

Light batted his lashes in sarcastic vanity. “I think the big problem is this beard. And my mane. Maybe if I trimmed it I wouldn’t feel so awkward about going into town.”

Zecora bit her lip. “If this is your wish, I can serve that dish.” She rummaged in a box and pulled out a pair of fine scissors, nodding to him with half-lidded eyes. Light held himself still as the blades sliced his beard closer to his chin, the bulk of it falling to the ground with a whisper.

Light sighed. “I think it looks better.”

I don’t.

The voice came from inside Light’s head, deep and smooth and poisonous. A voice Light had heard before, in memories that felt more like nightmares. He froze in sheer icy dread. If he hadn’t already been white, fright might have done the trick. ‘Disgrace. No, I destroyed you.’

No such luck, my little pony. A long, mocking laugh echoed between Light’s ears. I told you how it was gonna be. I said you wouldn’t be rid of me.

Zecora could tell something was amiss. “Light?”

For a moment, he didn’t respond. He was too busy watching the mirror in horror. His beard grew back like dough being pushed out of a canister, slowly falling back to where it had been cut…and continuing a little longer, to match his mane’s floor-brushing length. His moustache covered his mouth, even open as it was.

I like you better this way. It makes you feel awkward. It makes you feel…disgraced. You feeling me, pretty boy? And more hair means more power. Every little bit counts, so…boop! Later, Santa!

A faint chuckle faded away into the dark of Light’s mind. He shook his head and took a step or two back, only to look back up in the mirror and see that his eyebrows were longer and starting to curl up at the ends. Light attempted to regain his composure, but he was shaking just a little too much, eyes a bit too wide. Disgrace was still here. He was still actually…in Light. In the back of his shadow, Black began to shiver too. Zecora tried in vain to get him to talk about it. Light just…couldn’t. Not wouldn’t. The words refused to come.

Light woke up the next morning feeling decent enough. The night had passed in oddly pleasant dreams. He hadn’t expected that. Regardless, the unicorn didn’t feel like trying to trim himself again. His new himself. He’d begun to feel as if this was the new him. He’d always be white, have a griffin tail, this crazy beard, and cloven hooves. With an effort of will, he pushed the concerns to the back of his mind and focused on the problem of his shadowy parasite, Black.

Things had started to happen. Zecora had eaten a meal with Light one afternoon to discover her mushroom-salad sandwich tasted a little bland. All the mushrooms had vanished. They were all suddenly on Light’s plate, and the unicorn’s shadow cackling to itself. At the time, they’d both rolled their eyes and Light had returned the pilfered fungus, but as Light began to think about it…the shadow of the Poison Joke had rubbed off on the little one too. The zebra and unicorn began to keep a closer eye on him and discovered him pulling pranks, such as adding pepper to Zecora’s tea or salting a slug that had taken refuge from the cold in the cottage. For that last one, however, Light decided to discipline the little parasite with a snapping switch of light. The shadow seemed a lot like a young child, but one thing young children needed was to be taught there were things they shouldn’t do. The why of them had to wait until they were old enough to understand.

By the time a full week had passed since Pinkie saved him from the Poison Joke’s shadow, Light had come to the end of his patience. He stormed in through the library’s front door, his mouth’s scowl hidden under his beard but his thunderous eyebrows making his mood clear. A brown cloak covered his body: something Zecora gave him to help avoid notice.

Twilight and all five of her friends were there, sitting on cushions in a circle playing with some kind of tacky-looking jewelry. It seemed vaguely familiar somehow; perhaps he had seen some like it in a Canterlot shop? Oh, he had words to say, pre-planned on his way here. Zecora had told tales about them too, these six special mares.

“For the wielders of the Elements of Harmony, you girls are really, really good at alienating people.” He nodded to Rainbow Dash and Applejack. “Except for you two. I haven’t met you and I can’t judge you for following the lead of your friends in shunning me. I like your hair, Applejack, and your family’s farm is the crown jewel of Equestria’s orchards. I’m pretty sure you’re solid awesome wrapped in a Sonic Rainboom, Rainbow Dash.”

Light paused. “But as for the other four, I’m rather curious as to why you’ve been totally avoiding me. Are you concerned that my sudden transformation might be some magical disease? That I might suddenly infect you with ‘turn white and grow a beard’ syndrome?”

Another pause: not to see if anypony cared to comment but to carefully tighten his grip on his leashed ire. “Rarity, I’m pretty sure you just don’t like me. For whatever reason. I’m not about to argue. I couldn’t care less about what’s in style, and what crazy rules I’m breaking with my current look. I spent four years being a social outcast stuck in the wild places of the world, fighting monsters and saving the lives of whoever just happened to be passing through. At some point I stopped caring about how I look. But I’m in Ponyville now, trying to be part of a community. I’m being shunned, and if it was for something I did, I could live with that. But I’m being heckled by strangers for how I look. I’ve been shunned by the few people who showed me any kindness, and since you clearly had no problem with my appearance, I deserve to know why that’s so.”

And then he was done. Light quietly shut the door behind himself and waited for anyone to say anything, a stern expression on his wizened, too-old-looking features.

Twilight Sparkle felt a stab of guilt at Light’s words. He had a point. But she felt a little anger too. It hadn’t been her idea to shun him. In fact she had argued against it. Argued. With Princess Celestia. The Princess hadn’t gotten angry but she hadn’t relented either. Light had a form of magic known as ‘glamour.’ It wasn’t illusion. It didn’t change what others saw when they looked at him. It changed how they felt about what they saw. He was a walking want-it-need-it spell, if a lot weaker than the disastrous one Twilight had once cast. It wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t keep from doing it. He didn’t even know he was doing it. But they had to avoid him or they couldn’t be objective about him.

Then he’d come bursting in, pure white from horn to tail, blazing with righteous indignation under his brown cloak, and the glamour had hit Twilight like an anvil out of the sky. She didn’t like older stallions (at least not that way) and Light looked almost as old as Granny Smith now. And the beard, ugh. Even knowing it was glamour, a spell that made her feel drawn to him, it was hard to fight it. Hard to want to fight it.

Cheeks burning, Twilight fidgeted on her cushion, remembering how she had flirted with him. Asked him to stay the night, even, and part of her had hoped…something…would happen. Something like in those romance books that embarrassed her so much. Fluttershy had gotten all twitterpated about Light too, and Pinkie Pie admitted she’d kissed him. Twice! Pinkie! Zecora was crazy about him too, but once they told her about the glamour she had done some kind of zebra mental discipline thing and locked the feelings away under control. Mostly. But it was important somepony keep an eye on Light and it couldn’t be one of the Elements. If the six of them had to use the Elements against him, having one of their number refuse to cooperate would mean disaster.

Rarity hadn’t been affected, and that little detail told Twilight something about her friend that she really wished she didn’t know. Ancient-unicorn glamour only worked on ponies lacking a certain kind of experience. Twilight’s blush deepened further. Most of the adults in Ponyville weren’t affected, of course, but equally of course the children all were: though they hadn’t developed certain feelings yet and just saw him more like a cool uncle. Twilight looked toward Applejack, whose mouth hung open. Glamour-struck. Rainbow Dash just had her head tilted, giving Light her infamous ‘are you nuts’ look. Twilight…couldn’t honestly say she was surprised. She recalled after the Sonic Rainboom when Dash had gone off with two of the Wonderbolts. Afterward she had never really talked about how her day with them had gone.

Twilight buried her face in her hooves as her embarrassment became absolute. At the same time she felt a horrible urge to giggle. So much for those rumors about Dash not liking stallions. Forcing her hooves down, Twilight looked around. Fluttershy was useless: making puppy-dog eyes at Light from behind her bangs. Pinkie kept flipping between chagrin and just plain grin like a Hearth Warming Night tree ornament. Rarity gave Light a stare cold enough that it should have made his breath fog.

Twilight sighed and stood. It was up to her. Logical thinking wasn’t the strongest talent her friends possessed. Twilight wasn’t sure she could keep her feelings from influencing her, but she was the only one who seemed to even have a chance. Of course logic also suggested the best solution was for the four of them to go out and get the kind of experience that would confer immunity, proving that logic wasn’t the best guide to making moral decisions.

“Light.” Twilight said. His golden eyes turned to her. ‘Oh dear.’ she thought. ‘Oh dear, his glamour’s gotten stronger.’ “We were ordered to avoid you by Princess Celestia herself.” Twilight listened to her words with growing shock. She hadn’t planned to say that. She had planned to…well, not lie, exactly, but certainly not tell the whole truth.

Light’s scowl didn’t lessen but the flavor of it changed. “Why would she do that?”

“Because you mess with pony’s heads.” Twilight said.

“Twilight!” Rarity said. “You aren’t supposed to tell him that!”

“Don’t you talk mean about Light!” Fluttershy said. She turned on Rarity with The Stare. Rarity fainted. Fluttershy flew to stand before Light, head low and eyes stern. “It’s not his fault!”

“Oh, tarnation, he’s purty.” Applejack said. Rainbow Dash dope-slapped her, the glancing hoof to the back of the head knocking Applejack’s hat over her eyes. “Now hold on just a cotton-picking minute there, Rainbow Dash.” She went to fix her hat and Dash pounced on her, shoving it down. “Hey!”

“Ohhhh, no.” Dash said. “You keep those eyes covered, Fruit Flank. Come on, Applejack, think. He looks like a grandpa. You really think he’s cute?”

“Well, now that you mention it, he does look a mite long in the tooth…oh, horseapples. He got to me, didn’t he?”

“Wha…?” Light said. He looked absolutely lost.

Twilight’s hooves dropped from holding her mouth closed. “You have a power that makes everypony love you!” Twilight clapped her hooves back in place. She hadn’t felt like this since that horrible incident with Rarity and Fluttershy about the fashion model thing.

Light looked like he just got kicked in the worst place. “A power? As in…a magical power? Over minds. Discord had that power.”

Giving up, Twilight dropped her hooves. “This has nothing to do with Discord. It has to do with an ancient precursor to the Elements of Harmony known as the Trinity of Light. Hope, Faith, and Love.”

Light just blinked. “Trinity of…”

Twilight scowled. “I’m hoping that’s a coincidence. But the Trinity doesn’t exist anymore. It was shattered in the war between the Dragons and Unicorns. It was shattered because there was a war. The Elements of Harmony are…well, kind of their replacement. The Element of Magic contains the fragments of the Trinity. They need a physical anchor now. The other five are…supports. Honesty, Laughter, Kindness, Generosity, and Loyalty. The things a pony’s spirit has to hold in order to nurture the growth of hope and faith and love. I’m quoting the Princess here: you shouldn’t exist. The world isn’t the way it was anymore. Back then, the Trinity didn’t need hard work to make it grow in people.” Her tone softened. “You aren’t a bad person. But the power in you, it’s from a time that’s passed. It doesn’t fit anymore. When ponies look at you they feel what it was like back then. It’s a nice feeling. But that’s wrong. It’s not that easy anymore. And the feeling goes away when you leave. It makes ponies feel worse than before.”

“How do I fix this?” Light said. “Say the word. I’ll do it. Should I go somewhere alone forever?”

“That…won’t help. You exist. The Elements are unstable now. I accidentally woke you up when I overcharged you in the Everfree Forest. This was an accident, but not one that’s your fault.” Twilight hung her head. “It’s mine.”

Rarity announced that she’d recovered from her faint by giving a scream and fainting again. Applejack went to look and Rainbow Dash tackled her again. Pinkie Pie darted out of the room. Fluttershy, still standing before Light, froze. She stared at nothing, eyes huge and pupils tiny, as Light’s twitchy little shadow-parasite sat on her back and played with her ears. Pinkie Pie raced back with a bucket and tipped the icy water over Rarity, who woke up with yet another scream. “Pinkamina PIE!”

“Black!” Light said. The crack of command in it made everypony freeze: even Rarity, mid-sputter. The shadow sprang off Fluttershy’s back and stood beside her, hands clasped behind its back and making a buzzing attempt at a nonchalant whistle. Light gave it a stern look and then turned to Fluttershy, all contrition. “I’m most terribly sorry, Miss Fluttershy. He’s harmless, I swear, but ever since D-since the…the Poison Joke, he’s been mischievous.”

Twilight didn’t know what Light almost said, but the part she heard brought the fear back. “That’s another thing. There’s a Trinity of Darkness. It was created when the Trinity of Light was shattered. Despair, Dismay, and Despite. Not the preposition despite: the noun. It’s more the absence of love than active hatred. They’re each the absence of hope, faith, or love. That’s how the world is, now: every light casts a shadow.” Twilight used her magic to hold up the crown that had lain beside her cushion. She scooped up the necklaces by the other five. “These are the Elements of Harmony, Light.”

“…they are.” Light said. “But about these dark powers?”

“They’re in you too. Exactly as much. I mentioned how ponies feel better for seeing you…and worse after you leave. You’re spreading seeds of darkness, Light. I know you don’t mean to. But I know you must have seen it. The shunning. The whispers behind your back. The lack of friendliness.”

“I want to fix this. Please, tell me how!”

“Um.” Fluttershy said. She stared at Black, head low and nose extended: cautious but curious. “Hello?”

“We are,” Rarity said, “working on that.”

“That’s what we’ve been doing this whole time.” Rainbow Dash said. She let Applejack up. “Zecora was really onto something when she asked you to stay a zebra. That would have…fixed…” Rainbow Dash trailed off under the combined glares of all five of her friends. Even Applejack, peeking from under her hat with a hoof lifted to block her view of Light. Even Fluttershy. Black glanced around and then planted its fists on its hips, tapping a foot and giving Rainbow Dash a glare too. The blue pegasus gulped. “…everything. Uh. Uh-oh.”

“Zecora told you about that?” Light’s voice was…numb. “She’s been speaking with you all this past week?”

“It’s true, I fear.” Zecora emerged from the kitchen. “Light, I am here.”

Light stared at her, his bearded face pulling into a terrible expression of quiet, bone-deep hurt. It made him look, for the first time, truly old. Tears that sparkled like cut diamonds in a sunbeam welled up in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. Rather than be absorbed, they danced down his beard and dripped to the floor. Light whirled, his magic fumbling the doorknob. He got it open and bolted out into the wan winter noon in a flash of white legs and brown cloak. The shadow raced after him.

On the floor, the tears converged like liquid magnets and then sank into the wood as if it were cloth. With a creak, the floor produced a wooden blister, breaking through the varnish. The knot softened and turned green and became a bud. It unfolded into a small but beautiful white rose with a sigh and a whisper of sweet perfume. It was beautiful, but it was wrong. It was out of its proper place and season. It was out of harmony.

Applejack got to her feet with a snort and adjusted her hat. “Nice going, Rainbow Dumba-”

“Girls!” Twilight said. “Don’t give into it! Light’s gone and that’s going to make us feel grumpy for a while. Fight it. Fighting each other won’t fix this. I have to think.” They quieted and she paced, head down. “Oh, this is bad, this is really bad: I need to write to the Princess. SPIKE!”

“Twilight?” Spike came down the stairs.

“Take a letter Spike, to-”

“No.” Spike said. “I’m going after him. None of you six can and Zecora…he’s really not going to want to see you.”

“You don’t know where he’s going, sugarcube.” Applejack said.

“Alone, he wants to be.” Zecora said. “He’ll head for Everfree.”

“That’s very noble of you, Spike,” Twilight said, “but you simply have no hope of catching up to him.”

“I can,” Dash said, “and I’m clearly too awesome for his stupid glamour to work on me.”

“I doubt ‘awesomeness’ has anything to do with it.” Rarity said.

“You’re right.” Dash said. “You’re immune, so that can’t be it.” Rarity snorted in anger and glared. Twilight started to worry the two weren’t immune to the other half of the effect. But then Rarity turned and did what Twilight has been silently hoping she wouldn’t.

“Twilight, dear, you never did explain why I was able to withstand his…charms. In fact, you kept changing the subject.”

“Yeah, fess up.” Applejack said.

Face burning, Twilight pulled Rainbow Dash and Rarity aside. As she whispered, their faces reddened to match hers. They exchanged a glance. Dash almost spoke. Rarity’s stare turned into a warning glare not to go down that road. Dash looked away with a cough.

“I suppose it was one of those Wonderbolts.” Rarity said.

Rainbow Dash developed a sudden intense interest in her left fore-hoof. “Yeah. Right. One of those guys. You?”

“Oh, a lady never tells.”

“Hey, I told you mine!” Dash said. Rarity said nothing, but in a meaningful way. “Oh, I’m not a lady, am I?” Dash started to scowl, but then shrugged. “Okay, fair enough. You know, I’m mostly not surprised about the others. No offense, Twy.”

Absolutely none taken.”

“I mean, Applejack maybe. But she’s always busy with the farm. There’s Zecora. Hard to tell. D’you think she’s ever…”

“Pinkie Pie?” Rarity said.

“Okay, good point.” Dash said. “I guess that’s a little surprising. I mean, she’s the party girl.”

“I mean she’s gone, you imbecile!” Rarity said.

Twilight face-hoofed. “Oh, wonderful.”

Rainbow Dash searched for Light but failed to find him. Twilight sent a letter to Celestia. The response was an order to drop everything else and find the unicorn as soon as possible. The five other ponies and one zebra scattered to search. He wasn’t at Zecora’s, or his half-abandoned rented house on the outskirts of Ponyville, or anywhere else they thought to look. Applejack tried to set Winona on his trail, but the dog led her to Sugarcube Corner, where she found Light’s cloak…and the missing Pinkie Pie.

“Pinkie!” Applejack said. “Where in tarnation have you been?”

“Here.” Pinkie said. “Light left his cloak lying in the middle of the street so I brought it here for him. He’ll want it back.” Winona sniffed it and whined, aware she had failed.

Applejack tossed her a treat anyway. “You tried your best, Winona. Pinkie, the Princess has ordered us to find him, and fast.”

“We won’t find him.” Pinkie said. “I can’t find him, and you know how good I am at catching up to people I’m chasing. The focus isn’t on him right now, so I can’t go to him.”

“What focus?” Applejack said. “Pinkie Pie, do you even make sense to yourself? This is important.”

“More than you know.” Pinkie said. “But we won’t find him.”

Applejack scowled. “Well, come help us look anyway!”

Pinkie scowled back. “Now you’re not making sense. Why should anypony look for something they can’t find?”

Applejack tossed her mane. “I can’t deal with you right now, Pinkie Pie. If you’re going to sit around on your rump, why don’t you do it at the library so you can keep Spike company?”

“Because I have to be here right now.” Pinkie said.

Applejack glared. Pinkie stared back, smiling like usual and not worried at all. Giving a snort, Applejack called to Winona and left. Pinkie moved the cloak and resumed stuffing food into the saddlebags it had hidden. Not just sweet stuff, but bread and some carrots and apples and a big thermos of cocoa.

Many miles away to the north, a grove of pine trees stood beside a road. There was no pony there. All was still except for the wind, and even that barely disturbed the heart of the grove, where a round, stone-rimmed pool lay. There was no snow, and the ice covering it was so clear that in the still air it could have been mistaken for open water. On the nearest tree, the stump of a branch jutted from the trunk at head height to the average pony.

Without looking, Pinkie reached back outside the focus and hung the saddlebags on a nearby coat-hook. Then she hung the cloak over them. A whisper of cold wind, smelling of snow and pines and outdoors, wafted past her. She turned to look. The coat-hook was bare. The room was warm and smelled only of candy and cakes and other delicious things. “Good luck, Light.”

Some miles northwest of Ponyville, just past noon, a group of earth ponies stood around a sizable oak tree that had fallen down beside the road. They had trimmed back the branches sticking onto the road itself but then began to argue about the best way to clear the rest. Some wanted to leave the trunk whole and drag it to the nearest sawmill. Others wanted to cut it into chunks and haul them away for firewood. The youngest of the group, Acorn, was only there because his father wanted him to be. He had an idea but didn’t quite dare to share it. Why would anypony listen to a colt?

When they fell silent, they all did at the same time, and for no reason any of them could put their hoof upon. Then, as one, they turned to look down the road. A white object, brighter than the snow, raced toward them at the speed of a gallop. A pure white unicorn, long mane and beard streaming, thundered past with hoof-beats that made the road tremble just the slightest bit. Not one of them failed to glimpse his expression, and no pony’s heart failed to skip a beat at the purity of it: pure hopelessness.

In the unicorn’s wake, his strangely cloven hoof-prints steamed; the frozen mud melted. Then the mud bubbled up as green plants pushed into sight, growing with leisurely but visible speed. They were a dozen kinds of flowering plant. Every one burst forth with flowers of the usual shapes but colored the deepest velvet black. Little tight-bundled sprays of them spilled up and out from the prints. No pony spoke. A minute passed. The plants withered in the cold, and then they yellowed and dried and crumbled to dust.

Acorn cleared his throat. “It pulled a lot of dirt up when it tipped. The oak, I mean. It still has a lot of roots. I think we could pull it back upright. Some chains and stakes to hold it and it might recover. I mean, there’s hope.” The pony looked up the road after the strange unicorn. “I think we should do that. I really do. Even trees deserve a second chance.”

No one argued. After a silent exchange of somewhat embarrassed looks and a lot of coughing and nodding, they set to work levering the old oak upright again. Acorn pulled as hard as he ever had. He knew in his heart that none of the others would ever talk about what had just happened. They’d pretend it hadn’t. He wondered who that unicorn was, and why he had been running, and how his hoof-prints had done that. Acorn suspected he’d never know. And he decided he was okay with that. Not all mysteries needed solving. When the oak was settled and held firm with a ring of stakes and chains, he felt a bloom of quiet pride. Looking at the tree and knowing it would probably survive filled an empty place inside him that he hadn’t realized was empty.

Then his father nudged his ribs. “Well, there’s a thing. Acorn, take a gander.”

Acorn turned to look at the picture of a healthy oak tree, green of leaf and brown of trunk, now covering his flank. And smiled. He didn’t know why he started crying, because he was happy, not sad.

At mid-afternoon, miles further northwest along the road, a pair of unicorn mares stood in a nose-to-nose argument. A chest-high fieldstone wall separated them. It divided their properties as well. They stood at the place where the wall ended at the road. One heavy post capped the end. The hinge-ward sides of two gates anchored in it, each one closing off the path leading up to one of their houses. The post also supported a pair of mailboxes, or had until today. Only one remained.

“My mailbox was beautiful!” Rosebush said.

“It was an eyesore!” Harvest Moon said.

“It was genuine folk art!”

“Art? It was an enameled tin chicken, Rosie. And the mail went in where eggs come out!”

“You know I don’t like being called Rosie!”

I don’t like being accused of things I didn’t do! Now for the last time, I didn’t take it! If I was going to have done it I’d have done it years ago. I’ll tell you one thing, though. I’d like to shake the hoof of whoever…”

Then it happened, much as before. The expression of the galloping unicorn has changed to something else, though the mares didn’t know this. It was something bitter and cynical: hard and brittle and broken into jagged edges. Contempt and unbelief. Then he was gone, racing onwards. The plants that rose from his hoof-prints were low and sullen and every one of them poisonous.

Rosebush and Harvest Moon stared after him. Then they stared at each other. Both of them remembered looking at the other and seeing a shadow of that same expression. Both of them remembered wearing a hint of that expression themselves. Much was said without a word being spoken as their expressions flitted from one emotion to the next. Harvest Moon was the first to break the silence. “I really didn’t take it, Rosebush.”

“I believe you.” Rosebush said. She stared at the clouds.

“I might know who did.” Harvest Moon said. She watched her fore-hoof trace lines in the snow. “I’ll help you get it back.”

“Thank you.” Instead of snippy, it was sincere.

“I still think it’s the tackiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Rosebush and Harvest Moon locked eyes. The laughter started as snorting giggles but didn’t stop growing until it was side-spraining guffaws that had the mare’s husbands running out to see what was happening. They knew better than to poke their noses in at the sound of arguing, but laughter? That was just weird.

The sun squatted sullen and bloody on the horizon. A young pegasus stallion sat on the ground outside a crude tent formed out of cloud. He sat on a much smaller one, idly tossing gathered pinecones into the small campfire he’d lit. Once in a while he tossed one at the stone pillar that marked the midpoint of the road between Ponyville and Canterlot. His name was Starflare and he’d just run away from home. The pegasus mare who’d stolen his heart didn’t know he existed. She barely seemed to know anything existed besides books. Starflare wasn’t much of a reader. The letters danced under his eyes and swapped places and just refused to make sense. Unable to take seeing her every day, right there but as untouchable as the sun, he’d left. Like the coward he knew himself to be. Maybe in Canterlot he could find some kind of magic to let him learn how to read, and then he could go back.

There was no warning. No sound of hooves. No sense of approach. Starflare simply glanced around and the unicorn was right there, close enough to nail in the nose with a pinecone. Not so much as a scarf on him, though he looked old enough to have earned every inch of that long white beard. He held himself like a young pony, though. Each foot stood buried not in snow but a patch of nettles and thistles and bramble vines. While white all over, the unicorn seemed somehow dark, as if standing in a shadow. He let out a long snort, jets of white steam rolling from his nostrils. More curled from his coat as if he had just climbed out of a hot bath. Or, more likely, had just done some long hard running. Starflare stared into eyes that looked like what gold might, if gold tarnished like silver. Those eyes looked back, and they saw him, and what they saw was…

…nothing. The unicorn could have been staring at a blank patch of wall. Glaring, really, but the anger wasn’t directed at the pegasus. Behind the heat lay an even worse indifference. Starflare knew he was less than an ant in the eyes of this stallion. It was the most horrible look he had ever received, and it came from the most amazingly handsome pony he had ever seen. Starflare wanted to run, but he couldn’t move.

The unicorn snorted again, a long gusty exhale as much tiredness as smoldering fury. He turned away and headed into the grove. Starflare followed, using tiny flaps of his wings to send the bit of cloud drifting silently along. He knew this was an incredibly bad idea, but again, he wasn’t able to stop. The unicorn’s weird tail wasn’t even close to topping the list of wrong things.

Heading right for the pool, hoof-prints trailing poison ivy and touch-me-not, the unicorn came to a halt at its stone-rimmed edge. He stared down into it for a long moment. Maybe studying his reflection. Then, with a sudden violence that made Starflare flinch, he dropped down to kneel and slammed his horn into the ice. The entire sheet shattered into tiny fragments laced with feeble but unmistakable golden sparkles of magic. The unicorn rose and studied the pool, which now gently steamed. He lowered his head to drink, slow but long, his beard and long mane trailing carelessly into the water. Then he raised his head and the water just…slid off, leaving the hair dry.

Starflare tried to swallow and failed. His throat was so dry it hurt. The pool called to him, promising cold relief. The unicorn looked around, freezing as his eye snagged on something. A…cloak? Something made of brown cloth anyway, hanging from a stubby branch on a nearby trunk. The unicorn moved closer, as cautiously as if the cloak were an animal that might run if startled. Then his magic lifted it free. Fat saddlebags hung underneath. Starflare stared in confusion. They hadn’t been there earlier, when he’d come to try (and fail) to break the ice and get a drink. He’d had to squeeze some out of a cloud, but slurping raindrops was never the same as a good solid drink.

The strange unicorn looked almost as confused, but then his cloven fore-hoof gently pinched at something and pulled it free of the cloak. It looked like a long hair from a mane or tail: extremely curly and bright pink. The unicorn stared at it for long enough that sunset became twilight. Gentle magic tied the ends of the hair together and then slipped this loop over his head like a necklace. The shadow that seemed to drape him faded.

Then he tossed his head and his ears laid back. The darkness returned. “Shut up.” Opening his mouth to say he hadn’t said anything, Starflare closed it again without speaking. The unicorn wasn’t looking at him. “I’m keeping it.” In a somehow defiant gesture, the unicorn swept the cloak over his back and fastened the clasp. Reached for the saddlebags and flinched. “I’m no good to you starved, am I? Then shut up.” He took them down, pulled out a carrot, and began to chomp on it with joyless determination.

Something gently tickled Starflare’s ankle. He looks down to see a jet-black…thing with glowing orange-yellow eyes using one of its feelers to poke at him. He stared. It stared back. Starflare’s eyes were torn away by something seen in the edge of his vision. All the shadows were blurred and dim, but the unicorn clearly didn’t have one. The pegasus looked back at the thing. It made a cricket-chirp, tilting its head to one side. Then it gave a buzzing screech and exploded to ten times its former size: a looming wall of black scattered with random eyes and fringed with twisted arms and claws and tentacles.

Starflare was a hundred feet up and still accelerating before he realized he’d taken flight. Rising above the broken overcast, he went from horizontal to vertical and picked up even more speed. He was halfway home before he realized he had a destination in mind besides away from that grove. As the panic faded a little, it revealed an unexpected knot of determination. He rubbed at his face, which was stinging and sticky. Tree sap. He vaguely remembered flying up through branches.

Reaching Cloudsdale at midnight, he went right to her window. She was up, of course: reading by lamplight. Landing on the little balcony, he knocked. She glanced up, frowning, her big brown eyes even bigger behind her glasses. She was brown of coat too, and black of mane and tail. Then she put her book aside and came over to open it. Poked her head out, shivering a little. “Is that you, Starflare? What are you doing here? Are those pine needles in your mane? What’s going on?”

She knows my name. Suddenly he was flying, despite four hooves planted on cloud. “I love you, Feather Quill. I’ve loved you since we were little and you showed me your new picture book and I gave you my peppermint candy from lunch. I never told you because I was afraid. I don’t deserve you. I’m not good enough. But nopony is. But if you’ll have me…you’ve got me.”

Part of him despaired at the sheer cheesiness of that.

“Me, too good for you?” Feather Quill said. She scowled at him and now he was plummeting while standing still. “The drabbest mare in Cloudsdale? Little Miss Four-Eyes? The nerdy bookworm? Too good for the captain of the cloudball team for all four years of high school? This is some kind of prank, isn’t it?”

“No! I’m good at sports and that’s…pretty much it. And I’m only good at sports because I work at it. They let you slide in class if you’re on the team, and I needed that or I’d never have graduated. I’m not smart. I can’t read well.” He said something he never had before, not to anypony. “I compose poetry, though. I never write any down because the words go wrong and I don’t know if any of it’s worth a moldy apple core but a lot of it’s about you. Something happened to me tonight. It was amazing and wonderful and horrible all at once and I thought I was going to die and all I could think about was that I never told you I love you. And I do. Your mane is the velvet of the night and your eyes outshine the stars. When you smile the rising sun should turn green with envy.”

“You need to go now.” she said. Her eyes were hard and held no hint of tears or hurt. Just anger. “This is not funny!”

Starflare flinched. But he nodded. “Okay. I just…had to tell you. Okay.” But it wasn’t, and his eyes burned as the world dissolved into a swimming blur. “I’ll just-I’ll just go.”

He turned away, but then her hoof landed, gentle as a snowflake, on his left wing. He couldn’t have been held firmer with steel chains. Her voice was a whisper. “If you’re not joking, come back tomorrow. Be ready to recite some of this poetry about me you mentioned. And it better not be stolen. I’ve read every book of poetry in Cloudsdale, so I’ll know.” Then she was gone, closing the window behind her and shutting the curtains.

The exhaustion vanished. Giddy joy swept away everything but the tears, and those stopped falling. Starflare sprang straight up and did a loop-the-loop. Grinning like the idiot he knew he was, he did another and let out a whoop that woke up half the neighborhood. Dropping into a dive, he streaked for Ponyville and landed before the candy shop, sugar-something corner. Banged on the door until a bright pink earth pony in alligator-print pajamas came to open it and yawn in his face. “Where’s the fire?” she said.

“Peppermints! I need a bag of peppermints! She loves them!”

Starflare started to try and barge past and then his eye caught on the pony’s poofy mane. His memory handed him the sight of that strange unicorn holding a hair. A hair that could have come from this mare. She eyed him. “I think you need to come inside for a minute.” She yanked him inside before he could react.

In the grove, Black hung upside-down from a branch, clawed toes gripping the bark. He was filled with worry about things he didn’t understand. There was a lot he didn’t understand, but not much of it worried him. His Caster had eaten and that was good, but eating had felt like a forced thing. That was bad. He had taken over a cloudy tent thing left behind by the winged shadow-caster. It kept him warm and that was good, but it made him feel trapped and that was bad. He didn’t sleep but didn’t want to. Bad and good again.

Black thought about the winged shadow-caster. His Caster was in a hurting-things mood and that was bad. Making the winged shadow-caster go away and not be hurt was good. But scaring shadow-casters was bad. His Caster had told him so. Bad good things. Good bad things. Black swung back and forth, feelers jerking in a distress all the worse for having no clear shape. He wanted to help, but he didn’t know how. His Caster’s light was too dim. Something was taking it all away, some kind of shadow inside his Caster, as if his Caster was becoming a shadow. That was all bad. Shadows didn’t cast shadows.

And it was getting worse.

Then an idea formed. Black flitted to the cloudy-tent and slid into the pocket-of-dark in the saddlebag. The shadows hiding in them were full of good feelings rolled in them from the shadow-caster who’d made them. Black grabbed the best ones and folded the shadows into one not-shadow thing. He flitted out, yanking the not-shadow thing out under the flap. Appearing before his Caster, he held up the prize. His Caster looked at it and made mouth-noises as he cast mind-pictures into Black. “A lollipop?” Black mimed eating with a mouth he didn’t have, and then held it up again, dancing in place. “All right, I will, if you calm down and stop bouncing like that.” Black went very still.

His Caster smiled. Black felt stronger as his Caster’s light grew a little brighter. His Caster ate the candy. Looked at Black, still frozen, and laughed a little. Black fell over, hard and stiff as a not-shadow. His Caster laughed more, the light feeding on itself, the laughing pushing back that light-eating shadow. Then his Caster was crying. But laughing too, and eating candy. Bad and good and good. More good than bad. Black tried hard and took a shadow-caster shape that felt almost right. The one full of laughter. It was wrong, the neck was too long, but it made his Caster laugh even harder. Then there was less crying and more anger, but the anger was a light not a dark anger so Black was prepared to call it good.

Then his Caster sent thought-shapes at the bad shadow. “You don’t like my laughter, do you, Disgrace? You almost had me tonight. Drained most of my power, fed my own pain and shame back to me to fan my fury. I’m still angry, but I know who deserves it now. Celestia commands and ponies obey. I can’t blame them for doing it. You told me I was all alone, Disgrace. That I had not one pony in the world that cares about me. You spent the entire afternoon harping about it. Either you lied or you were wrong, and that means you can be wrong. I have proof.”

His Caster touched the hair around his neck and laughed some more. Terrible bright burning angry laughter that made the bad shadow hurt. Hurt was bad but Black decided this was good, good, good. His Caster patted him on the head. “Good boy, Black. Good boy. I almost forgot. I don’t know how she did it. But she did it, and that means she cares, and that…means everything. I’m not alone. The night was long, but dawn is coming, Disgrace. You said I’d be yours by then. Wrong again. I will not surrender. Do your worst. Dawn is coming, and I’m going to suck on this horrible pineapple lollipop and watch the sun rise, and I am going to laugh at you being wrong. If I can make it through one night, I can make through tomorrow night. The night after that. A lifetime of nights…one night at a time. I’m alive, and where there’s life…there’s hope. Get thee behind me, Disgrace.”

A deeper light awakened. Not much, but it was the best kind.

Black didn’t understand, and didn’t care.

Light rolled the lollipop to the other side of his mouth and snorted out a puff of steam and temper. He shook off the distracting negative emotions pelting his mind from the inside out, eyebrows furrowing as he secured his saddlebags. The nice girl that had loaned them to him would be getting them back.

Once he was all set, he turned to Black. The creature just sat there, turning his head side to side in confusion, but happy confusion. Light jerked his head back as a form of command, nodding to his flank, and the shadow-walker could sense the urgency.

“We’ve got places to go, friend. I really can’t afford to leave you behind. Even if I could.”

With a small twitter of excitement, the little shadow returned to providing the illusion Light had a natural shadow. Light tossed his mane and headed for the road. He was tired, but not even slightly sleepy. He might as well get some miles behind him before he crashed.

In Canterlot, the following afternoon, a rookie member of the royal guard stood in an alleyway and felt sorry for himself. Being a royal guard wasn’t easy. People thought standing perfectly still was simple, but they’d never tried it in winter wearing armor that sapped their body heat. Especially if you were a newbie to the entire affair.

The guard sergeant in charge of new recruits strolled around the shivering, slight-built earth pony. His grey irises had shrunk just enough to indicate nervous fear, and the sweat traveling down the edges of his helmet wasn’t due to heat.

“SIR VORPAL!” the sergeant said. The younger pony gave a nervous hiccup. “Your posture needs work. You slouch slightly: chin…UP.” He put a hoof under the white pony’s muzzle and pushed it upwards. When it moved away the head stayed up. He gave a sharp nod. “Better.”

“S-sir. Sorry sir!” Vorpal said. It emerged as a croak as the shivering continued, until he forced himself to stop, locking his knees and clenching his jaws.

The sergeant’s frown deepened behind his bristly red mustache. The two went face-to-face as the pegasus leaned down to look him square in the eyes. “…I am prepared to leave you to your post for today. But remain WATCHFUL. Remain VIGILANT. Duty and honor comes with being a royal guard, and don’t you FORGET it.”

“SIR YES SIR!” The earth pony gulped and took a deep breath, assuming the position. Eyes straight, muzzle expressionless. He tried to keep his position in mind.

As his first post, the pony was guarding a smaller side-alley in Canterlot that most ponies didn’t use. It was good practice for the cadets that had just joined the guard…and if said rookie messed up, it wasn’t so public. The only things nearby that could use any form of guarding included a professor’s house near the academy, and a side door to that academy.

Vorpal’s blue tail shook from side to side and then went still, motionless. He was a statue.

“That’s what I like to see. Now stay.” The sergeant nodded and trotted away, his cape flapping as he went. Vorpal watched him vanish around the corner and then listened to his hoof-falls until they faded away. The earth pony let out a sigh of relief. He dropped his head. This proved unwise. The armor he had on was in fact a little too big for him. The clanking of metal as he shivered made him blush. His mane under the helmet was tied in a warrior’s knot, to add some space between his head and the plating, but today it hadn’t helped. He’d been sweating far too much.

The helmet clanked loudly to the street and rolled away, a bit oddly. It rolled all the way to a shadowy area before it stopped. Vorpal’s blush darkened as he looked around, to see if the sergeant had heard. He gulped, but the lack of bellowing meant he was safe. He bounded after the helmet, armor clanking…and found it upright on the ground between a pair of cloven hooves. ‘That’s one big goat.’ he thought. He looked up and found himself face-to-beard with a unicorn. It was unmistakably a unicorn: the horn settled it. But he was a very strange-looking one. Vorpal surmised that he was very old, from his expression and the dark rings under his eyes.

The unicorn put a cloven hoof on Vorpal’s helmet. “You’re new.”

Vorpal swallowed. He felt sweat rolling down his cheeks again, icy weather notwithstanding. “H-hey. I’m a-a royal guard just the same, you can’t just…"

“What would happen…if I tore the crest out of this helmet? Or set it on fire? What would your sergeant say, when he came back to check on you? How would you explain that? A bearded goat-footed unicorn did it and ran away?” The white unicorn’s expression was blank. Corners of his muzzle turned downwards, eyes cold and calculating.

Vorpal, on the other hand, was slack-jawed in shock, fear, and slowly growing embarrassment. “W-why would you d-do that?”

“I need a favor. Do it and you’ll never see me again.”

“Please don’t d-damage my helmet. I just got it.”

Light closed the distance between their faces. His mustache quivered as he began to speak in a voice like thunder on the horizon. “I need to see Celestia. You will escort me to her, no questions asked. I have important business with her that needs to be settled as quietly and quickly as possible, and I’d like to take the roads less traveled to get there.”

“You could have just asked for an escort. Instead of being so mean about it. I mean, if you’d just asked nicely…wait.” Something in the back of Vorpal’s mind clicked. He squinted. “I think you’re bluffing. You aren’t even armed and my armor has anti-magic spells. I think I could take you. If not, I can shout for help and it’ll come running.”

“Bad idea, if you care for the people who are likely to come running. As for bluffing…say hello to my little friend.”

The unicorn moved his hoof and the helmet rose…entirely innocent of the sparkles of magical lifting. Darkness pooled beneath it, swelling out in a writhing mass as it rose between their faces. Two blank, orange-yellow eyes stared out of the helmet at Vorpal.

Then it vanished. The unicorn caught the helmet with a hoof and set it on Vorpal’s head. For a moment Vorpal felt as if his blood had turned to snowmelt. He looked down. His too-black shadow looked back with glowing eyes. One winked. “He’s harmless, if you behave. Let’s get moving. Lead the way.”

Vorpal headed for the back door to the academy. He thought about the sword hung just back of his left shoulder, under his cape. It had a handle like a horseshoe that fit in his mouth, his teeth fitting into grooves. A saucer-like guard sat just outside of his mouth and the straight narrow blade stuck out like a stork beak. Swords were rare in Equestria, which was a mostly peaceful place. Even when it wasn’t, pegasi rarely needed any cutting edge beside the one they could create along their wings. There was a reason why they dominated the Royal Guard. But Vorpal was an earth pony. He needed an edge. Literally.

This sword, Ragnar, was a family heirloom from times when things hadn’t been so peaceful: a time when the royal guard had been less about standing around in shiny gold armor and more about fighting monsters. The sword was intended for pegasi and aerial combat. Vorpal wasn’t a pegasus. His mother had married an earth pony and the foals all took after him…though tending toward a pegasus build. Vorpal had been named after this sword. Its name might be Ragnar but it was a vorpal blade. His cutie mark showed one just like it. He had trained as best he could to master it, and there were ground-level forms.

The sword hadn’t been used in earnest in centuries but it had seen hard use in its time. The blade was sharp and shiny as the day it had finished being made. There were rumors it had other powers than that. Powers against dark things. Vorpal looked down at his shadow. The glowing eyes looked back. Beside him, the strange unicorn stood with no shadow at all. If they didn’t qualify, he was a donkey. Vorpal stuck his nose back under his cape, muttering. “Keys, keys…”

Biting the handle, Vorpal whipped Ragnar free. The blade shone silver, less as if it glowed than if it stood under a full moon. It sang out a constant bell-like note, high and sweet. Vorpal was shocked, but he’d already planned out the movement and his body went ahead with it. He slashed at the shadow, which dodged so fast it almost seemed to vanish. The needle point screamed across the paving stones in a burst of white sparks, leaving a shallow scratch that glowed sullen red with heat.

Behind him, something loomed up huge and black and cold. Vorpal whirled in place and the now-solid shadow thing flowed back from the singing, shining blade. It buzzed at him like a swarm of angry flies and tried to circle around. It was fast, and he barely whirled in time to make it recoil. Part of Vorpal started to cry from sheer terror. This wasn’t real: it was like something out of a nightmare. Somepony pinch me.

Then something like hot pincers grabbed both ears. Vorpal gave a muffled yell of pain and surprise. Then a foreleg twisted around his neck and a hoof pushed under his jaw to hold his head still. Twisting his eyes to the side, Vorpal saw white beard. The shadow had been a decoy. As he watched, it shrank down into a small creature that might have almost qualified as cute, if not for its flat black coloring. The unicorn spoke. “Drop it.”

“Uhhhh…” Vorpal eyed the shadow. “Nuh-uh.”

Something clicked and swished. Vorpal became aware of a powerful odor of cherries and a white paper stick poking from under the moustache. The unicorn (if a true unicorn it was) that had him in a headlock was doing so…while sucking on a lollipop. Like subduing armored, sword-wielding ponies without using weapons or magic was nothing but business as usual.

“I could likely make you pass out.” the unicorn said. His grip tightened. “But that would, I think, be a tricky business. Knowing when to stop. I don’t have practice at this.”

Vorpal suddenly needed to go to the bathroom, and he barely managed to keep it from happening right there. His attacker didn’t have practice at knowing when to stop. Vorpal tried to think of a way of keeping from being any degree of strangled and came up blank. The…creature needed him alive. For now, anyway. He needed somepony in the royal guard to escort him past the other guards on the way to Celestia. Vorpal’s options seemed to be clear. One: drop his sword and escort the creature to the Princess. Two: refuse and be choked until he passed out, then have his sword taken from him. When he woke up, he’d be forced to escort the creature anyway. If he woke up. Three: he could faint from terror and wake up weaponless and be forced to escort the creature.

Or he could grow a pair and refuse to cooperate, no matter what. Refuse to help this creature get one step closer to the Princess. No matter what that cost him. Vorpal closed his eyes and clenched his jaws. “Uh-uh.”

“I’m not here to hurt anypony.” the creature said. “Just drop the stupid blade and take me to the Princess. She is far from helpless, as you doubtless know. If I was mighty enough to challenge her, why am I having even the slightest problem dealing with you?”

That was, Vorpal considered, a point. He gave a snort, and then his other end added a ruder comment. Thankfully all that emerged was noise. That time. Then he felt his blood go icy as the black monster invaded his shadow again. His body went numb. He could see and hear and that was it. Even that seemed to come from the far end of a long tunnel. He saw, rather than felt, his mouth open and let the sword fall. Vorpal saw the unicorn-creature let go and scoop up the sword, which wasn’t just unglowing but dull in a way he’d never seen before.

The creature spoke, hollow and echoing and faint, lagging behind his lips. “Well, that’s new. Black?” Vorpal’s point of view bobbled as something that wasn’t him made his head nod. The creature shook his, beard flapping, but it seemed less a refusal than head-clearing. “I got no sleep last night. I don’t feel sleepy at all but I might not be feeling it. Nervous energy. Forty hours sleepless. Is that enough for seeing things? Is this disgrace? Shut up, I wasn’t really asking you.” Another head-shake, and the creature crunched his lollipop. Tucking the stick away, he rummaged under his brown cloak and pulled out a candy cane. He stuck it in his mouth. “It’s entirely possible I may simply be riding the mother of all sugar highs. Even so, it’s either laugh or go mad.” Chortling, with that candy cane in his mouth, he looked disturbingly jolly.

‘My body is being controlled by the evil living shadow of an insomniac, candy-addicted, goat-footed, elderly unicorn who talks to himself, dresses like a storybook hermit, and looks like Santa Clops.’

Vorpal seriously considered the possibility he was asleep. Or that he had, at some point, gone bonkers. Both notions had a certain appeal. A nice soft warm bed or a nice soft padded cell: he’d rather be there than here.

Light choked off the laughter as it started to turn ugly and panic-laced. “Well…this is interesting. Disturbing as all get-out, but interesting. Just so we’re clear…Black, I want you to nod if you understand me.” The earth pony nodded. He looked normal. Maybe a little less colorful than before. His shadow a bit too dark and defined. He walked up to the pony’s face and squinted into his eyes. Deep inside, terror shone. And faint gleams of orange-yellow light. “We’re only doing this because the colt pulled a sword on me. For his safety, as well as mine, it’s for the best. Under no other circumstances are you allowed to restrain anyone else in this fashion. Ever. We clear, little buddy?" The earth pony nodded again. Instead of subtly lagging, his shadow subtly led the movement.

Light smiled. It wasn’t a happy expression. He bounced the weapon on a hoof. Who the hay carried a sword these days? Much less a vorpal blade: they belonged in museums. He slid it back into the lad’s sheath. Located his key-ring. Unlocked the door. The guard whined a little and Black clamped his teeth shut. The unicorn gave the earth pony what he hoped was a forbidding glare before leading the way through the door, his candy cane fighting the hint of bile crawling up the back of his throat. More locked doors followed.

The academy was the furthest wing of the palace but still part of the great building. Guards gave them looks as they passed by. None objected. The pair was already in the palace, and nopony got in unless they had obtained permission. Light knew how to adopt a confident expression and determined air even when he didn’t feel it. His ‘glamour’ probably helped too. The still-smoldering fury in his belly helped a lot. Black’s puppet was impressively deadpan of face and precise of gait, though probably because Black had no experience with expressions and bodies. Light’s scowl deepened as his pace quickened a bit. He didn’t like this, but he didn’t see an option. The sword-wielding pony had been prepared to die rather than help him. But necessary wasn’t the same as right and Disgrace was having a field day.

Oh my, my, my. This is just too rich. Light. Forcing someone to do your bidding? Am I even doing this? Nope! I haven’t lifted a hoof! Not one iota of this is me! You’re doing it yourself!

‘Don’t kid yourself.’ Light thought. ‘I’m not like you.’

I didn’t say you were. So why were you was thinking it?

Light sensed a presence and glanced back. A pair of unicorn guards had fallen in behind them. It wasn’t a pursuit. It was an expanded escort.

Mmm. Well, look at the people here. Quite an audience. Looking at you, so purposeful and grand. This little bluff might end if you should do something humiliating, wouldn’t it? Imagine if your cloak fell away. Then they might notice your feet, or the lack of shadow under them. Imagine if, for example, you should go on a little…trip.

And to Disgrace’s surprise, something unexpected happened: nothing. Light didn’t trip. Never wavered. That made him grin, despite everything. A very wide one, behind his moustache, head held high as he marched forward into the throne room as another pair of unicorn guards swung wide the heavy doors.

No less than twelve royal guards followed him.

Afternoon sunlight poured in through the windows, casting long shadows across the room. The on-duty guards stood at attention, hooves straight, heads up…until the doors swung wide.

“CELESTIA." Light said. He strode into the room with the wedge of guards on his heels like a personal honor guard. He jerked his head and Black abandoned the unfortunate earth pony. Light’s shadow suddenly appeared, sprawled out just as long and twice as black as the rest. Its appearance, and thus its previous absence, didn’t go unnoticed.

The earth-pony guard stumbled in place and then recoiled. “H-he’s dangerous! Stop him! HE’S AFTER THE PRINCESS!” Raw emotion lent his words a sincerity beyond questioning.

A torrent of hoofbeats rang on the marble floor as the other eleven guards, plus others who had been in the room, rushed to surround Light. The unicorn guards conjured a magical field around the white unicorn as they moved forward to block off the throne, but Light hadn’t even gotten a good look up there until now.

Celestia wasn’t there.

The purple alicorn curled up on it yawned. Of course Princess Luna was a night-owl, but she was awake now. She flicked her long tail, pushing herself up into a sitting position, eyes slowly opening…then widening…and then narrowing. She actually lifted both fire-hooves to rub her eyes and blink a few times, wings flapping as she tossed her forelock to a side of her horn. Luna’s hooves fell to her lap as she leaned back into the throne, eyeballing Light with irritation.

…She’s not here. Disgrace sounded about as confused as Light was. It’s daytime. Why is Luna here?

Light kept a stiff upper lip. The lower one tried to tremble a bit. This…could be bad, but he had to roll with the punches. Clearing his throat and taking care to make no sudden move, he called out across the throne room.

“Princess Luna! I wish to have words with your…fff." Light paused, eye twitching. A very, very faint chuckle came from the back of his mind. The guards not focused on maintaining his cage looked confused by this, some looking at one another. Luna’s face was blank. Eyes half-lidded, mouth in a slight frown. Light tried again. “I wish to have words with your fat sister.”

Light’s eyes widened in shock and then narrowed in understanding. All the guards had about the same reaction, the prison around Light tightening, the layers of arcane weave bearing down. The guards broke their silence as well.




Light ground his teeth, candy cane tucked aside into a cheek and mostly forgotten. “Disgrace, no. You will not. No." The candy cane slipped free and shattered on the marble as he tried to shake off the magic, standing straight once more, calling above the swarm of guards. “Princess Luna! I we need to talk. I love you! NO! GRAH, curse you Disgrace, curse you a thousand times, I did not come this far for you to mangle my words and make me out to be a lunatic. Nice pun, hahahaha.” Light slapped himself across the face, a red sore spot appearing on his cheek.

Now the guards were backing up, though. Luna had left the throne. She walked, without haste but not dawdling, down the narrow carpeted path to its end, where she stopped and studied the raving unicorn. A glance made the unicorn guards release him and retreat. It had been a few years since Nightmare Moon was her name. She’d made up for lost time, it seemed. Now she stood just a hand’s height under her sister’s. Her mane had grown more akin to Celestia’s: rippling, alive with subtle dark blues and purples and a lone stripe of silvery white.

As she approached to a few feet from Light, he bent over, eyes squinted shut, trying to control his own mouth. He winced and shook from the pressure, an eye rolling up at Luna in pleading. Her eyes widened, head tilting to a side. Not in anger, in pity. Disgrace took it as a sign that she wasn’t bothered enough. With a cry of anguish, Light’s beard spread across his muzzle. Heavy sideburns grew down his cheeks as what was already sprouting from his face claimed more ground. It soon grew out to match the rest, coiled on the floor since his face was so close to it.

So, Light. You ready to give up yet? I’ve disgraced you again, you old-looking fool. Look at yourself. What you’ve done. What you’ve said. I own you. Ain’t no candy or chuckle going to save you now, my boy. I can get you out of this mess. Just give me control and…what the…?

Luna had suddenly smiled. It was not a nice smile. Bands of deep blue magic shot out of nowhere and snatched Light up to dangle him above the floor. Luna’s horn burned with magic as she focused on him. Them. Wings flared, muzzle raised, still smiling that angry smile, cold as a crescent moon. Then the magic holding Light gave a squeeze. It started to sink into him, and while not painful, it was one of the most horrible sensations he had ever experienced. And he had, lately, become something of a connoisseur of horrible sensations. It was sinking into his mind, his heart, his spirit. Sinking in and taking root and twisting. Light felt like a knot being methodically unraveled. But however bad it felt to Light, Disgrace got the worst of it. Light somehow mustered a laugh.

Luna noted the old white unicorn with considerable interest through one slitted eye. He stormed in and did it well. It wasn’t exactly that she preferred older stallions: more that she didn’t feel right admiring the younger ones. It was too much like robbing the cradle. Of course even the oldest pony was an infant compared to her, but once they had some grey in their mane she stopped feeling vaguely guilty about admiring a shapely chin or well-muscled shoulder. She uncurled and yawned, eyes closing. Shortly after she opened them again, chaos erupted.

The guard closest to the distinguished old gentlecolt suddenly recoiled and shouted a warning. Luna pushed herself upright as the guards encircled the unicorn in a cage of magic. She started to speak. Then the old unicorn’s shadow recoiled like a taut rubber band suddenly released, pooling under his hooves. Her eyes widened in surprise, and then narrowed in doubt. After rubbing her eyes and wondering if she hadn’t been mistaken, Luna took a closer look, irritated with herself for seeing things. Then she saw his fore-hooves and her mind went blank behind an equally blank face. Ancient memories launched a massed assault. Her face didn’t shift as she fought them back and it stayed blank as her thoughts began to race. She remembered all of the Ninety and Nine well enough to know this wasn’t one of them. The sudden overwhelming dread eased somewhat. Harmony still held. But searching her memory of that earlier casual glimpse, she now noted the too-dark shadow under the guard who had shouted the warning…and no shadow stretching out from under the old unicorn.

The unicorn spoke. “Princess Luna! I wish to have words with your…fff.” He trailed off. “I wish to have words with your fat sister.” The guards exploded with outrage, but Luna was more interested in the stallion’s expression of utter shock, and how the last two words had come out deep and rich and smooth.

The unicorns among the guards tried to immobilize the unicorn. They poured on more and more energy. She watched him remain on his feet, to the shock and growing fear of the unicorn guards. He apparently didn’t even realize he was doing anything noteworthy. That much magic could have crushed a block of sandstone. He wasn’t using physical strength. Modern unicorn magic sprang from Harmony, and Harmony permeated all that existed in the world not utterly corrupted to Discord. Like resonated with like. But here was something unlike. His was a magic older and wilder, not subject to Harmony. They were essentially trying to open a lock with the wrong key.

After shaking his head, a half-sucked candy cane falling from his mouth, the old unicorn muttered something the outraged yelling of the guards drowned out. Then he surged back up from his half-couch and yelled. “Princess Luna! I we need to talk. I love you! NO! GRAH, curse you Disgrace, curse you a thousand times, I did not come this far for you to mangle my words and make me out to be a lunatic. Nice pun, hahahaha.” Then he slapped himself. Hard: the dragging blanket of energies no more hindrance than a heavy quilt might have been.

There had been two different voices in that, the normal one and the other one. Luna rose from the throne and hurried across the room, ornate mithril shoes muffled by the strip of red carpet. The guards released him at her commanding glance. He hunkered down at last, though no longer pinned, and mumbled under his breath as his slitted eyes darted, distracted and turned inwards. Then the left one turned poisonous blue, with triangles of black set to make the round pupil look slitted. It was a deliberate mockery: Nightmare Moon’s eye in all but color. The eye stared at her with malicious glee. The right one stayed golden and gave her a look of abject pleading. She tilted her head, overwhelmed with sudden understanding…and infinite sympathy. The blue eye squinted in effort and the old unicorn’s beard became even thicker.

Luna smiled, and the remains of Nightmare Moon stirred in its dungeon. Luna also had an enemy within. Part of her would always remember being Nightmare, and so part of her would always be Nightmare. She lifted him with her magic, carefully embracing an icy splinter of her dark self. Like resonated with like, and that was how she worked: light to light, dark to dark. Pull on one, push the other. She wasn’t gentle, but then she couldn’t be and do this. While trying to keep her distance, she gleaned odd snippets of memory and knowledge. Enough to know his name was Light, that his Walker was without malice, and something else: a memory that burned with too fierce and painful a sharpness for her to avoid. It put a razor edge on her cold, malevolent anger. ’Tia had known. Known and hadn’t told her. Again.

Locking her dark side away again was harder than she’d anticipated, but she managed it. Light hung limp in a soft cloud of magic, snoring the thick, slow snores of unconsciousness. The mystery of him grew more complex as she removed his cloak and saw that he had a cutie mark. Not a number, either. A mark of Harmony: manifestation when talent and inclination and self-awareness all aligned in a single moment of brilliant epiphany. But why did he have one?

An earth pony soared through the air, a vorpal bit-sword in his mouth: burning silver and singing sweetly. His flying leap carried him blade-first at the unconscious unicorn. Luna grabbed him. The blade sliced into her magic and a cold ache clawed into her brain from the base of her horn. A unicorn would have had their magic canceled, and hours would pass before trying to use it didn’t cause crushing pain. Luna merely felt like she’d drunk something cold too fast. Her magic pulled back from the sword but held him tight.

“No.” Luna tried to sound confident, but her brief surge of it had vanished when she slammed the door on her dark side again. “He may have used his…familiar…to threaten you, but he is defenseless right now and killing him would be murder.”

The earth pony glared at Light. That sword…Ragnar. His name was Vorpal, she thought. He twisted, but not to slash at her grip. He sheathed Ragnar and Luna’s horn stopped feeling like frozen iron. Then he spoke. “They’re dark and evil things. Did you see my sword react? It was reacting to them.”

“A vorpal blade reacts to darkness. Not evil. Dark is not always evil. I am dark, young Vorpal.”

“That shadow-thing controlled me.”

Luna felt her stomach knot. The dark part of Light didn’t control him, though of course it had tried to gain control. His actions and choices were his own, if not always his words, and his appearance was…complicated. Dark wasn’t always evil…but evil wasn’t always dark. There was the brilliant, fiery evil of the fanatic: the certainty of their own absolute rightness was a light that blinded them to the truth. They condemned everything that challenged or questioned them as evil.

“You gave the alarm.” Luna said. She heard the hint of uncertainty and blushed, but scowled to make it hopefully look like stern anger. “How did you fight free?”

“I don’t know. It j-just…disappeared.”

Luna set him down. Vorpal’s anger still burned, but it no longer seemed murderous. “Then he let you go. He had to know you would give the alarm. If he had held you a little longer, he could have walked right up to the dais. You still have your sword. Did he know you had it, under your cape?”

“Y-yes, Princess. I put up a fight before b-b-being…”

“But he let you keep it.” Luna frowned at Light. “We daresay if we had just done something like that to somepony, we wouldn’t care to release them where they could instantly come at us with a weapon. He released you too soon if he was out to harm us.”

“He was after your sister, Princess.” Vorpal said.

“That is a point to consider, young sir. I notice he didn’t fight back. No, don’t argue: listen.” They did, though as always, she wondered why. Was it respect…or fear? “If he had tried to charge me, would your magic have stopped him?”

The senior unicorn guard present shook his head. “No chance, Princess. No chance at all. I felt like I had a dragon on the end of my magic. The big kind. We would have dog-piled him, though I don’t know if that would have worked either.”

Luna turned her attention to the shattered candy cane. “What kind of villain intent on mischief would stroll into the throne room sucking a candy cane?”

“He’s bonkers, Princess.” Vorpal said. “Um, he said something about not sleeping for forty hours and the mother of all sugar highs and he was talking to himself. Like he was getting answers, I mean.”

“Not sleeping…?” The old unicorns never slept. Sometimes they rested and often they dreamed, but they never slept. But if Light hadn’t slept for forty hours it meant he had slept before then. Luna searched the saddlebags Light still wore. “Food. Sensible food in one side, candy of all kinds in the other. Nothing else. He has no weapons.” Vorpal’s eyes dropped to the shadow pooled under the hovering Light in defiance of the angled light. The earth pony clearly disagreed on that point.

Luna dug up an old, old memory and spoke in a chirping buzz. The shadow gathered and rose from the floor. One of the unicorns yelled and sent a fireball at it. Luna had been expecting something and made it vanish into a puff of chilly steam. Vorpal just stared, shaking from head to toe so that his oversized armor rattled. Rookies always wore ill-fitting armor: it taught them better how to stand still when every twitch caused a clink. The shadow buzzed back, astonished that Luna could speak properly to it. It was a very complex language. One capable of packing a lot of meaning into an utterance. The Walker was named Black and it was one very confused baby. It felt horrible for what it had done, and could barely grasp even a glimmer of the concept ‘wrong but necessary.’ Luna got the gist. Light had not chosen to do it. Black had done it on its own, after figuring out it could by slipping into Vorpal’s shadow. No malice: just an ignorant and innocent attempt to be helpful. Light had let the possession stand once done, because nothing else would have induced Vorpal to cooperate. Once in the throne room, he had called Black away. Once it had stopped being necessary, he had stopped doing it, despite the high possibility of very unpleasant consequences.

“Vorpal.” Luna said. “Go see the palace therapist. Tell Mirror Bright everything that happened to you. Withhold no detail. Then tell her I recommended the Sleep of Nepenthe. Tell nopony else. The rest of you return to your posts and tell nopony at all. If rumors start circulating containing details about what happened in here, I will know one of you before me now disobeyed my direct order. Rest assured I will find out who it is. I will make sure these trespassers are properly secured.”

One of the oldest pegasi, a grizzled sergeant with the traditional ferocious sergeanty moustache, coughed like someone stomping on a bag of pebbles. His name was Valor. “Pardon, Princess…but what is he? Feet like a goat. And a tail like a lion. Or maybe a griffin. I don’t mean to be crude, understand, and I never had a bad word to say against goats.” Several other guards began pointedly not staring at him. “Ahem.” This cough echoed. “No more than I say about everypony else, anyhow. I didn’t know that a unicorn could f…all in love with a goat and have…offspring result from their…passion.” Luna could almost hear the cruder words he was painfully forcing himself not to say.

Luna really hated to lie. Honesty was one of the Elements, and one of the chains keeping her dark side down in the dark. But telling them the truth would just give them one more secret to keep…or share. So she told a truth and left them to wrongly assume what it meant. Discord had loved to do that, but as long as she hated doing it, doing it was probably safe. “Love finds a way, Sergeant Valor.”

Sweeping away in her best Celestia imitation, Luna carried Light beside her. Black skittered along beneath, so ugly it came right back around to cute. She had promised to properly secure the prisoners. Her bedroom was arguably one of the two most secure rooms in the palace and her definition of proper did not, in this instance, involve cells and chains. She was in no danger. The Ninety and Nine had pooled their magic to make her and Celestia, channeling them through the vast power of the new-forged Elements of Harmony. Not that she or ’Tia had known about that until much later. Those old unicorns liked their secrets. Either of the alicorns was far more than a match for all of the Ninety and Nine together. Light wasn’t even a match for the weakest of the old unicorns. Not with his powers being leeched as they were.

Luna settled down and waited for Light to find his way back to his body. He wasn’t asleep. She’d sent him to the Realm Beyond Time. Or rather, she’d allowed him to answer a summons that had likely gone unheeded for quite some time. Once she had untangled the roots of influence and control his dark side had imposed, his spirit had promptly vanished. His dark side had been locking it into his flesh. Light knew, or suspected, that the Ninety and Nine could help him. His dark side had worked to keep him from getting that possible help. They would help, though not the way Light wanted. His light and dark sides were just sides: halves of a single whole. Halves currently under the mutual delusion they were separate beings. The Ninety and Nine would help Light accept the truth. He was unlikely to willingly do so. They were unlikely to release him until he did.

Light’s eyes opened. He saw a floating island in the distance.


Light closed his eyes.

tried to close his eyes.

Well, that clinched it. He was here again. Again again. The unicorn uttered a very loud groan as he began to stand up, legs wobbling. He smoothed down his huge bushy beard in a dignified fashion as he began to look around.

“Third time’s the charm, I hope. I seem to learn something new every time I get tossed in here…"

Talking to himself. Or maybe someone else.

“Black, are you here?"

He looked down at his hooves. Odd. No shadow.


Quiet tension filled the void where that voice had been. His whiskers twitched. Mind quiet of anything but himself. No, nothing. He didn’t feel either of them. This wasn’t the only change. The sky was black: night had fallen over the dream, which must be some trick with that many suns. Blue clouds lingered here and there. As he raised his long eyebrows and let them settle, the unicorn stood with a confidence he didn’t feel. Slowly turned…and hello: that was new.

The islands in that direction began to warp as if they were being stretched thin, like spaghetti, all heading towards a black-and-white void. It was as if time had stopped a black hole in the middle of devouring the inside of the world, the stars themselves stretching at the event horizon. A bridge stretched from it: one long stone path connecting his current platform with the distant flare of discoloration, apparently immune to the effects.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?”

The voice behind him didn’t make him jump. After all, he did recognize it. Or he thought he did. The unicorn chuckled a little as he began to turn. “Ah, Zecora. I would expect you to form as a figment of my imagina…haaahuminawha?”

As he beheld the vision behind him, he blushed ferocious scarlet. Take Zecora: give her wings and a horn. Mane soft and grown out to her hooves, she was a hand taller than Celestia stood. Diamond earring, hooves shod in crystal slippers, and a crown that would make both of the Princesses jealous. Light had to take a second to let his brain catch up. The zebra alicorn winked as a diamond scarab popped into existence, casting a dim rainbow glow, and flew ahead of them both.

Princess Zecora spoke. “You can drool on the way, Light. Just keep up.”

The ‘Princess’ began to follow behind the floating bug as it hummed forward, the bearded unicorn still agape…a very slight amount of his open mouth visible under his massive mustache. His jaws closed with a click. Just an illusion. He’d just imagined it with his…imagination. He had imagined that.

“…I need to lay off the sugar.”

The stone walkway stretched straight as a taut ribbon through the infinite black sky, passing under some islands and over others and between yet more. It shone like unblemished white marble, polished to glassy smoothness and lightly brushed with oil. But underfoot it felt as sure as if carpeted in fine sandpaper.

Then an earth pony drifted past. She was a somewhat unsettling magenta and had pale green eyes marked with spirals instead of pupils. A beanie hat with a tiny whirling propeller seemed to be how she kept aloft. Unlikely as that was. Light saw her cutie mark: a pointy metal screw beside a baseball. One of her wandering eyes seemed to fix on Light. She used a hoof to flap her lips in the childish old ‘blplblplblplblpl’ noise. Somehow, it struck Light as like a weird but politely meant greeting. She buzzed away, slowly corkscrewing in her flight.

“My imagination,” Light said, “is not deranged enough to have dreamed up something that bizarre.”

Princess Zecora looked back over her shoulder at him and winked. He could only see one eye but somehow he had no doubt it wasn’t a blink. “Don’t be too sure about that, sunny-buns. But you’re right, that isn’t you. She’s a…refugee. Like me, though I came here of my own accord. This form I’ve taken is all you.” She tossed him another look, this one sly. “You know my granddaughter. I can see why she likes you. She might have ended up here, but the truth didn’t break her like it did to poor Screwball.”

“Truth?” Granddaughter? The real Zecora? “What truth is this?”

“I don’t hate you.” Princess Zecora said. “So I won’t answer that question. Discord’s victims sometimes end up here. He knows the truth too. He is the truth, in a sense. He’s the one who’s mad so the rest of the world can be sane.”


“You think those old fuddy-duddies got it right on the first try? No. The first attempt at creating Harmony was to gather up all the chaos in one place. Well, most of it. A little uncertainty and excitement is a good thing. They figured an absence of chaos would mean a presence of order. It doesn’t, by the way. The opposite of chaos is void. Everything-ness and nothing-ness, see? The amount of ‘sense’ doesn’t come into it. But they cleared away a lot of the craziness from the First War, paving the way for the Elements to later be created. They wanted a gemstone they could hide away under a mountain and forget about it. Instead they got an egg, though they didn’t realize it. It hatched, a long time later. Thus did Discord come to be. ’Tia and ’Loon had to be given the Elements of Harmony to lock his mix-and-match behind in stone.”

“That’s…a very strange theory.”

“Well, I tell it like I was told. There’s truth and then there’s truth. Go on now. Ask the thought that’s on your mind. I can almost see it jumping up and down.”

Light realized he did have something on his mind, and ‘jumping up and down’ was an apt metaphor. “Who is your granddaughter?”

“I’ll give you a hint. She stole something from you, though she took it by giving, and what she gave, you lost.”

“…Madame, I am entirely at a loss.”

“You’ll figure it out, or you won’t.” All this time they had kept walking, the pace steady, while their destination slid closer at a constantly varying speed.

“You aren’t a figment of my imagination?”

“Nope. Just wearing one.” Her tail gave a little twitch.

“You know things I don’t?”


“Such as?”

“I don’t know what you don’t know.”

Light took a long moment to try and figure that out. “You don’t know which things I know and which things I don’t. If I want to learn from you, I have to ask questions.”

“Exactly, sweetie.” She looked back again. “If you’re aware enough of your ignorance to ask the question, odds are you’re ready to hear the answer.”

“But not about this dire ‘truth’ that you mentioned?”

“Honey, there’s no such thing as ready for that. Looky over there.” The (Light hit on the term ‘zebralicorn’ with relief) pointed with a flowing lock of her black-and-white mane. A floating island came close by, to the left and a bit below the path. Poison Joke covered it. Not-Zecora laughed. “An old friend of yours, that right there. It got told the truth in order to banish it from the world.”

Light took a while to put two and two together. When he did it was like mountains in a mosh pit. “The Walker in the Poison Joke?”

“Yes, indeedly-doo. Screwball adopted it. Sort of. Hard to tell with her.” Light looked again and saw a bird nest made of Poison Joke in the center, with the earth pony from before curled up in it, apparently asleep and oblivious to the waves of transformation that rippled over her. He only knew who it was because of the beanie and the cutie mark. “Go on, say it.”

“Why is she doing that?”

“Why not? That’s as close to a true answer as you’re going to get, so you can point that pout somewhere else. Screwball’s doing it because she sees absolutely reason why she shouldn’t. She doesn’t even see the point in asking why.”

“It looks…painful.”

“Might be. That doesn’t change anything. The world is ruled by Harmony. It makes sense, mostly. This isn’t the world. It mostly doesn’t. This is where the things that don’t make sense go, so the world can go on making sense. The sense here is just the sort we make up as we go along. Every island you see? They belong to someone. Or something. But don’t be fooled. You see them as islands. That’s just your way of understanding them, of making them make sense. They don’t look like islands to me. It’s the same with my appearance. You’re seeing what you expect to see.” She shot him a sultry glance. “Well, maybe it’s better to say you’re seeing what you desire to see.”

Light cleared his throat. “So what is this path to you?”

“A path. Shining and white. I’m seeing things from your point of view. It’s a hard trick, to see the world through a stranger’s eyes, but a useful one. You need to go somewhere. So you made a road leading to it. Could have as easily been a hot air balloon, or a huge bird, or a tunnel, or just possibly a set of wings.”

“I didn’t make this path.” Light said.

“You didn’t decide to make it. You don’t really want to walk it, either. Or it would have guardrails and be a bit wider. But deep inside, you need to.”

“Where is it going to end?”

“See? When you’re ready for the answer, the question appears. The Tower of the Ninety and Nine lies at the end of this path.”

“Who are they?”

“The Ninety and Nine are the ancient unicorns who bowed out of the world for the sake of Harmony. Let me warn you, though. A pony with one clock is always sure what time it is. He might be wrong, but he’s certain. A pony with two clocks is never quite sure, because no two clocks ever perfectly agree. There’s one short of a hundred clocks up ahead: they’re not all showing the same time or ticking at the same speed, and some of those clocks are cuckoo. You’ll get answers, and nopony can lie here. But believing what you say isn’t the same as being right: and what you hear might not be what they meant. In the end you’ll have to make up your own mind who to believe, and what, and how much. Questions are better. Questions make you think. Once you get an answer, you stop thinking. Screwball got an answer that made her stop wondering about anything at all, ever again.”

Light shuddered, remembering what had happened after he saw the changes Twilight Sparkle had unwittingly wrought upon him. That swelling yawning chasm of mental emptiness which had swallowed him before spitting him out…here. Where the things that made no sense go. “I don’t want to know what that is anymore.”

Not-Zecora laughed, long and amused and somehow incredibly familiar. “Yes, you do. But you also don’t want to know, and the balance between them just tipped the other way.”

“You sound like a psychologist.”

“We have some of them here. They go digging around in their own heads and in the heads of other ponies, and sometimes they end up digging too deep. They can be interesting to talk with. The coherent ones, anyway. Ideas are like bits here. The better you are at seeing things in different ways, and controlling how you see them, the more power you have over your surroundings.”

Light decided to think about things before he asked his next question. “I didn’t know about any Ninety and Nine, or that they could cure my ignorance. If I made this path to lead me to answers, how did I know where to go?”

“I said this path leads to the Tower of the Ninety and Nine. The Ninety and Nine are at your destination. I didn’t say they are your destination. Your path leads to something you know exists. Something you don’t want to find, but need to find. What could there possibly be that fits that description, here, in this place? Any ideas?”

Light looked down at his hooves. No shadow. But he rather wanted to find Black. “I can think of one.”

“Smart boy. Now be a good boy and focus on getting there already. Your reluctance determines how far we have to travel. You don’t want to get there, but you do want to get this journey over with. Heights aren’t your favorite thing. Otherwise this road wouldn’t be narrow and rail-less. Focus on getting the journey over with.”

“He’s outside me here?” Light said. He’d focus on finding Disgrace and then kicking seven kinds of chaos out of him.

The zebralicorn sighed. “That question, as posed, can’t be truthfully answered. There’s a false assumption in it, and you aren’t ready to be told what it is until you’re at a place where you can question it.”

“This place is giving me a headache.”

“Well, you believe it should.” she said. “Notice the lack of urgency yet? No impatience, no feeling of hurry-hurry-hurry? There’s no time here, beyond what we make up as we go along. That’s just the habit of expecting things to happen one after another instead of all at once. Your head hurts because you believe hard mental work should do that. You only even have a head to hurt because you believe you should.”

Imaginary or not, Light’s skull had truly begun to pound. But he focused on the bridge and the quite-possibly-infinite drop below it. He had been trying to ignore that, and ‘Princess Zecora’ walking ahead of him had been more than enough of a distraction. Light found his eagerness to get off this bridge and tried to separate it from his urge to turn tail and run back the way he had come. Then he looked back, and stopped dead.

The garden-topped island he had awoken on was right there, not three easy steps behind him. He could see the crushed patch of grass where he had lain, though the crystal scarab’s light barely reached that far. Pink cherry blossoms eternally snowed downwards to vanish on contact. “What in the name of little green apples is going on? Have we been walking in place?”

Not-Zecora stopped and turned. “No, we’ve made lots of progress. That’s your island. It’s…the root. The keystone. It’s the foundation you stand on in this place: created because you believe you exist. Because deep inside, you say…I am. You’re dragging it along behind you. We all do: one way or another. Mostly nopony else can see it, though. Going back to our island is always as simple as turning back. I mean, nopony can outrun themselves. Wherever you go, there you are.”

“That makes…far too much sense.”

Not-Zecora moved a little closer and gently rapped the end of his horn with the end of hers, boldly striped in black and while like a monochrome candy cane. A spark of entwined silver and gold briefly leapt between them. “No such thing, cutie pie. Not here.”

She turned away and started back down the white path. Light had never quite stopped blushing. It surged back now, though he realized his beard must hide most of it. Light hurried after her, and then moved to walk beside her. Worse in one way, but at least he no longer found his eyes wandering in ways that a gentlecolt’s never should. “What I see up ahead. Why is it…twisted?”

“Do you know what lies ahead?” she said.

“No. A tower, I ass…ume.” Suddenly, the end of the path changed. It touched the edge of a floating island, its top a mere ring of green mossy boulders around the immense base of a round tower that…there was no other word. It towered among the other islands, huge and white and fluted like a unicorn’s horn. Blue clouds wrapped what he assumed was its top, preventing Light from seeing it. “I see a tower now.”

“Of course you do. As for earlier? What you don’t know, expect, or understand…you can’t see.”

“I can honestly say I didn’t expect Miss Screwball.”

“It’s different with people. We know who we are even if you don’t. You see as close to the truth of us as you can, in the form you understand to mean that truth. Unless we’re trying to fool you, or hiding our truth and letting you fool yourself.”

“I should like to see your true form, Miss.”

“Tell me the name of my granddaughter and you will.”

Light resorted to formal logic. It seemed an unlikely tool in this place, but he would give it a go. “You said your granddaughter knew a dire truth, yet it failed to break her. The shadow of the Poison Joke is here. It was told a dire truth to banish it here. The banisher knew the truth to tell it. I know who banished it. Your granddaughter…stole my first kiss from me. Pinkie Pie.”

The zebralicorn dissolved into a much smaller earth pony with an old body and laughing young eyes. Her frizzy mane was white-streaked grey with age but her body was still mostly pink. What Light could see of it: she wore a dress with a candy pattern. Light recognized it. Designed by Rarity for Pinkie Pie, and copies had been sold in Hoity Toity’s boutique in Canterlot. “Call me Granny Pie.” She grinned, and winked one blue eye. “I’m disappointed. It’s not every day I have a distinguished young stallion eyeing me like a rabbit eyeing the last carrot in the garden.” He blushed and she laughed some more, but it was a warm and welcoming laugh that put him at ease.

“Pleased to me you, Mistress Pie.”

“Pfft. Call me Granny.” She side-stepped to put her two left hooves on the edge, the right hooves sticking out over the drop. Then she fell over sideways like a falling tree. Light spent a long moment staring in horrified disbelief, which was why he failed to snag her in time. She fell down out of sight…

…and instantly swung back up into sight on the opposite side of the bridge, facing the other way. Her right hooves clacked on the white surface, left hooves on the edge. Light stared, and then he very carefully sat down before he fell over. Granny laughed and fell backwards, doing the mind-bending trick again with only a single hind hoof on the edge. Light cradled his head in his hooves. The bridge only had one side? How had she ended up facing the other way? Imagining himself doing it caused his stomach to surge with nausea. She sidled over to nudge his ribs with an elbow. “Not so easy to leave the path as you assumed, my lad. Not so easy at all. Come on. I doubt it’s more than a hop, skip, and a jump to the tower now, so move your little rump.”

Light felt a sharp pat on the named part and leapt to his feet with an indignant snort. Granny just laughed, so hard she fell down and weakly banged a shoe-clad forehoof against the path. Light couldn’t hold onto his anger. He helped her to her hooves, chuckling, and then turned. Gave one of his despised high-pitched screams and leapt back, because a hideous dragon’s face loomed over him: dull black of scale and hot red of eye. It hung about fifty feet away and fifty feet up. That was far too close. It was so big he could have crawled up its nose. For an instant it had looked almost close enough to kiss.

Granny Pie fell over in a new eruption of mirth. Light blinked. The head was iron, the eyes rubies, and the jaws held an immense heavy gold ring. The head jutted from a gargantuan door of dark polished wood set in a stone frame set in the wall of a tower so fat all of Ponyville could have fit on the ground floor. Light looked up at the tower’s height and instantly regretted it. His mind painfully redefined the meaning of ‘huge.’ He looked back at the enormous and hideous knocker.

It spoke in a deep voice, a voice of mountains: a voice Light felt in his very bones. Its impressive timbre was rather undermined by the ring in its jaws. “Paffwurf?”

Light screamed again, deeper and longer and heartfelt. Then something gave his beard a sharp yank and it cut off. He found himself forced to look down from those carriage-sized eyes into the far less disturbing blue eyes of Granny. “Shush now, you silly billy. Hi, Draco!” She waved, grinning up at the horror.

“Ehlloh, Gra’y Pie. Paffwirf, pfwefe? Rulf if rulf.”

“Break The Fourth Wall.” Granny said.

The head swung the ring out with a grunt and then swung it back against the golden striker plate set in the wood. It produced no sound but the ring vanished in a flash. Light jumped again, and vented the first genuine gibber of his entire life. Granny patted him on the back. Then the head split in two, its un-muffled sniggering briefly becoming a duet as the halves of the door opened outward. Then the halves went silent and became mere dead iron. Impenetrable but substance-less darkness hung in the doorway.

“Interesting.” Granny said. “You don’t have a clue what lies beyond. Not even assumptions.” She patted his back again, and rubbed it, and gently gave him a shake. “There, there: Draco’s harmless unless you try to grab his ring. Now stop feeling so small or it’ll take forever to get there.”

Light gave her a bewildered stare, feeling his sanity start to fray around the edges. Then he looked at the doorway. Suddenly it was a mere ten feet high and wide. The tower was still huge but not sanity-breakingly so. “What the…?”

“Size is all about perspective too.” Granny said. “You shrank like a reverse explosion when you saw Draco. You’re mentally used to the idea of dragons being enormous. You aren’t nearly good enough to make someone else bigger against their will, so you shrank until the scale between you and Draco felt right.”

Light cringed. “Ow. My head.”

“Just remember you’re dreaming.” Granny said. “Nopony ever expects dreams to make sense. This is a dream. It’s just not one of the normal kinds that happen inside your own head.”

“Whose head are we in, then?”

“I said you’re dreaming outside of your head. I never said you were in someone else’s head. Come on. I promise you’ll come to no lasting harm here. Except maybe mentally, but if you haven’t cracked yet you probably ain’t gonna.”

Light strode into the darkness of the unknown.

Light and Granny Pie walked through a void that gradually resolved into a large black-walled room. At least, Light assumed they were walking. They never shifted from the center of the room. It felt like a few minutes had passed before Light stopped, turned around, and ended up face to face with the door he’d just entered through. Finally, he started to understand. The cogs in his mind spun, stopped, and began to spin backwards.

He walked back through the door.

The darkness of the doorway pulled back to reveal a massive senate chamber, marble columns climbing into an endless sky. In each and every chair in the room sat a different color of unicorn, all very young and chipper, cutie marks all numbers from one to ninety nine. They stopped chatting among themselves the second Light entered the room and watched in silence as he took center stage. White was the only color that wasn’t represented among the others. There wasn’t even a monochrome pony in attendance.

Light coughed into a hoof and shook out his beard and mane. He looked around, expectant. They gave him a similar look back.

One of the green ponies in the front row spoke. “Welcome.”

"Good to see you." That from a teal one closer to the back, mumbled with his head tilting to one side.

Light looked back over his shoulder for Granny Pie and didn’t find her. But he’d expected that. Turning back to face the audience, he cleared his throat and spoke. “For what purpose do I exist?”

A hush swept over the collected unicorns. A faint giggle rang out into the sudden silence, from a blue unicorn with a flowing red mane. She rapped her hooves together once. “You don’t.” She sat back in her chair. A few ponies near her nodded in agreement and a patter of polite applause stirred before fading.

Light could feel himself blushing. But he was angry too. ‘What kind of answer is that?’ he thought. “…I don’t…understand. I don’t exist?"

A red unicorn to the far left with an afro and a tall top hat folded his forelegs across his chest. “If you didn’t exist, who’s asking the question? You don’t exist for a purpose. There is no purpose associated with existence. What, that not the exact answer you wanted? Baby, you’re in here. You gotta think outside the canister if you want some real good feed.”

Light felt his teeth grind together. A yellow unicorn sighed in irritation, hooves moving up to block both ears. “Please stop that grinding, my hearing is sensitive.”

The white unicorn felt himself snap. The room began to buzz again, as it had been when he first walked in. The elders began to talk back and forth amongst themselves, as Light stood there blushing, trying to think. Think, think, think. What did he need to ask? What was the deal, what was the thing that made all this make sense? They had to answer, they had to speak true…but they didn’t have to volunteer a thing. He squinted down at the ground between his legs, the reddened blush lightly visible under his beard…and then he heard a laugh. One eye flashed open to see an aquamarine unicorn with a rainbow mane pointing at him and snickering. Then another joined in. Then more. He felt his blush getting hotter as his face felt heavier. A glance down showed his beard growing again. Across the marble floor. As his eyes widened in shock, his mane followed suit. His eyebrows, his tail. A rainbow of unicorns in front of him cracked up at the sight. He felt a burning inside his core, his heart thumping like it was about to explode. He stepped back only to stop as a dull crunch shattered the encore of laughter. Light had stepped on a lollipop.

He stopped. “Know what? On second thought…” The elder council was totally quiet, all focused on the white unicorn. “I don’t even need to ask. I already know what I have to do. I know exactly what I have to do."

And with that, Light grinned. He grabbed his beard and pulled it off. He brushed the white out of his mane, shook it off his tail like fine powder, and happily plucked out his curly eyebrows. Suddenly he was back to the way he was on that first night at Pinkie’s party: pale grey coat and black mane. With a stomp and a whinny, the unicorn glared at the group.

“Where’s that dragon knocker? I want his ring.”

Dead silence fell in the council chamber of the Ninety and Nine. Then ninety-eight heads turned to look at Primus, whose flank bore the numeral ‘1’ in shining gold. The unicorn standing before them followed the eyes and looked at Primus too. His mane was a striped mix of blue-green and green-blue today, offset by a dark reddish-orange body and vivid blue eyes. Primus looked at ‘Light’s’ cutie mark. To somepony thinking along those lines, it could be considered to resemble a zero. Primus considered aging up a bit, as he currently looked like a foal. Instead he just adopted a commanding adult bass, a voice good for making speeches.

“I believe I speak for us all…” Primus paused as a wave of rather nervous giggles washed through the Ninety and Nine. He did indeed speak for them all and thus it was a somewhat witty thing to say. “I believe I speak for us all when I say that our gast has been flabbered by your demand. The dragon knocker of which you speak is the dreaming mind and spirit of an actual dragon. Back when both our races saw that our choice had become peace or mutual extinction, there were those on both sides too blinded by hatred to see the necessity. Most…died. Killed…by their own kind. But one dragon was currently asleep. Their general, their king. Draco: he abandoned all other names. Peace was only even given an opportunity because he wasn’t awake to forbid it.

“But the dragons had all sworn vows never to seek or permit his death. He was bound in chains of magic, his spirit trapped here in this dream-world, his body trapped in a block of unmelting ice. Not quite alive, but not quite dead. Chains of spirit aren’t like physical chains. He was bound here in chains of purpose. He is the gatekeeper of this tower. He cannot abandon his purpose and return to his body until a unicorn frees him of it. A true unicorn. Bid him to lay down his ring and he will. In so doing he will be freed. Then the most terrible, most implacable enemy the unicorns have ever known will be free to rally his race once again. They also swore oaths to obey, at least in regards to the war.”

Light just glared, hiding his thoughts with a mask of anger.

“I won’t ask you to reconsider.” Primus said. “If you decline to free Draco, I’ll do it myself. You, the only true unicorn in the physical world, will be his first target. You came to us seeking a purpose. You have none. We will now give you one. Your purpose is to defeat Draco. You, the only true unicorn in the physical world, are the only pony who can. We can’t.”

Light snorted. “You want me to defeat the ancient king of dragons in single combat. Oh yes, and then I suppose you wish me to pluck stars from the sky and juggle them.”

Primus was rather glad Light hadn’t phrased his sarcasm as a question. “You have it in you to defeat him. Brothers and sisters, I have a question for you and I demand you answer. Do you agree with my conclusion that Light, the unicorn before us, can defeat Draco, the dragon currently bound as our doorknocker?”

Ninety-eight voices answered as one: “YES.”

“There you are.” Primus said. “I won’t ask what you all think of his chances, or the argument would rage for a millennium.” A wave of laughter, this one less ragged. “Onto the next question, young Light. I suspect you have one.”

Light took a while to ponder first. “I have a spiritual parasite attached to me, something known as That Which Walks Behind. I have named him Black and tamed him. No: I have befriended him. But he is no longer with me. Where is Black?”

“In the physical world,” Primus said, “with your living body.”

“Black came to this place with me the last two times I was here. Why was this time different?”

“We barred him from entry.”


“Because we saw good reason to do so.”

“What reasons did you see?”

“Good ones.”

“Why are you refusing to give me a straight answer?”

“You aren’t ready to ask the right question yet.”

Light ground his teeth, causing Thirty Eight to shudder again. She had sensitive hearing, as she’d said, and that particular noise attached to a very bad memory from when she had been fully alive. Light noticed and stopped. “There was something in me that transformed my physical appearance and tried to take over my body. He calls himself Disgrace. I was informed that he waited for me in the Tower of the Ninety and Nine. Is Disgrace here?”

“Yes.” Primus said.

“Where is he?” Light said.

“In this room.”

Light spun in place, looking in all directions. Even looking upwards. “I don’t see him. Where is he?”

“In the one direction you aren’t looking.”

Light stopped. He looked down at the floor and back among his legs. No pony so much as muffled a laugh as a cough. The situation was far too delicate to risk distractions. Light looked all around again. “Is…inward a direction?”

“Yes.” Primus said.

“Was Disgrace in the tower before I arrived?”

He was thinking. Good. Primus relaxed a bit. “No.”

“He’s been in me this whole time?”

“Yes.” Unicorns held their breath. Go on…

“Then how did my path lead me here?”

Primus face-hoofed and shook his head. “Lad, I can only answer your question with a question. In this place, do you really find it so hard to believe that somepony can be in two places at the same time?”


“You’re in here us, but you’re also out there on your path. It might help to think of it as the journey through our front gate taking you somewhat back in time. That image is false in its every particular but it’s a useful metaphor. The truth is something you will probably be never ready to grasp. There’s another metaphor made literal implied in this situation. Can you spot it?”

“My path…led to me. I was on a journey to ‘find myself.’ Is that the metaphor you had in mind?”

“It is.”

“And have I found myself yet?”


“Is the past version of me going to come walking in?”

“No. When there-you reaches the tower, instead of entering into what here-you perceives as the present, there-you will do the thing we have agreed here-you should imagine as going back in time. There-you will reach the tower at the same moment here-you truly finds yourself. Best not to think too hard about it.”

“I’m trying not to.” Light said. “Disgrace is in me, but I can’t sense him. Why can’t I sense him?”

“Darkness cannot stand before Light.” This startled an eruption of laughter from the others. Light looked prepared to be angry. Primus spoke over the merriment. “They only laugh because I made a rather good pun, lad. It’s not at you or about you. A fresh joke here is as rare as an honest politician.”

“Ha, ha, ha.” Light said. “Darkness can’t stand before light. If light can fall into it, it’s not darkness. Darkness has to hide behind something that blocks the light. Yes?”

“I see no flaw in your reasoning thus far.”

“Black feeds on my magic and probably my spirit. He feeds, metaphorically, on my ‘light.’ Therefore he is, himself, a place where my light is not. Does Disgrace hide behind or within Black?”

“Yes. More behind than within.”

“And Black isn’t here. Disgrace is impotent now?”

“No. Darkness cannot stand before light. But it can stand behind.” Light looked over his shoulder. “Metaphorically, lad. Think metaphorically. Your actual body isn’t even here.”

“He’s metaphorically behind me.” Light said. He gave an odd smile and an odder chuckle. “I knew. ‘Get thee behind me.’ Even then, I knew the truth. Even if I didn’t know I knew it. The one part of my body my eye can never see is my eye itself: because it does the seeing. Disgrace lives in the eye of my mind, in the part of me that watches my own thoughts. It is the one part of my mind I can never see, because it does the seeing for the rest of me. Am I right?”

The others had quieted. “You’re on the right track.” Primus said.

“An eye can see itself in a mirror. Is Disgrace using Black in a similar fashion to make his presence known to me?”

“Yes, but this is a digression.”

“Yes…it is. You indicated Disgrace isn’t impotent. I can’t hear his voice, but he can still influence me?”


“How can I be rid of him?”

“The question, as asked, cannot be truthfully answered.”

“What do you mean, it can’t…” Light stopped, snorting a few times as he struggled for calm. “If it was a matter of my being unable to be rid of him, would you say so?”


“If you didn’t know how to be rid of him, would you say so?”


Light thought for a bit. “If successfully getting rid of him involves me not having previous knowledge of the method required, would you tell me that my success is contingent upon my ignorance?”

“Yes. Nicely phrased, by the way.”

“The false assumption lies elsewhere then.” Light stared at nothing, eyes wandering to the left, and then the right. He spoke, voice brittle with tight-leashed anger. “Can you give me a hint?”

“Perhaps I can. What is Disgrace?”

“I don’t know.”

Primus raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you think that’s something you should know? Don’t bother asking us, the answer is meaningless unless it comes from you. You know we can’t lie but you wouldn’t believe us. Until you’re prepared to face the truth, you cannot accept it as such.”

“So I should turn my mind to considering truths I’d find unacceptable.” Light scowled, but then it happened. The light finally went on behind his eyes. “No. No, no, NO, NO! That’s impolablabble.” Light stopped. “What was that?”

“If you don’t believe it, you can’t say it. Not here. If it’s nonsense to the speaker, it’s nonsense to the listener.”

“But we’re diffarurmgum.” Light broke off into nonsense again. But he refused to give up. “He can’t be malalamama.”

“An untruth can be spoken as a question.” Primus said. “A hypothetical, a maybe, a what-if.”

“I have been trying to say that Disgrace and I aren’t the same person, and that he is not a part of me.”

“That statement is true. You have been trying to say that.”

“Why am I unable to say it outright?”

Primus spread his fore-hooves. “Because you believe it would be a lie.” Light gave him a look of utter disbelief. “Belief is not acceptance. You believe it is true. You do not accept it is so. But neither can you deny. Not here, where lies cannot be spoken.”

How can we be the same?”

“Now.” Primus said. “Now we come to it. The darkness that lurks behind your mind’s eye is made from all the things about yourself of which you are not aware. Notice that has nothing to do with good or evil. Every buried memory. Every undiscovered talent. Every unthinkable thought. Every emotion you deny you feel. Every impulse you refuse to even consider. Most ponies are good, and reject the evil in them, and so the darkness in them is usually more than somewhat unpleasant. It can erupt sometimes, when there is too much fear or anger or stress…and suddenly a pony begins to act like somepony else. Act. Not become.

“Shadows take the shape of what casts them, lad. The Walker clinging to the Poison Joke was transformed by you more than you were transformed by it. It took the shape of your darkness. It gave your darkness an outlet, a means of expression. That Walker is gone from you, but you have another one, and the darkness in you hadn’t forgotten how to make use of that. Your mind was changed by the experience with the old Walker. It was taught how to think of its own darkness as a separate intelligent thing. It isn’t, but both halves of your warring mind believed it. They acted as if it was so, and so, for all practical purposes, it became so. But your darkness only has power over you because you believe it does, and in believing, give consent.”

“Disgrace can no longer affect me, then?”

“Your darkness will always be with you, and it will always be able to affect you. But the same is true for every pony. Your case is special. Belief can only give your darkness a voice and a chance to seize control of your body. Belief alone can’t make your body change shape or color. That takes magic.”

“I was told about the Trinity of…Light. And the other one.”

“Exactly. The darkness in you taps the dark power. Its chosen name is Disgrace. It seeks to make you into one: to others, but more importantly to yourself. It works to isolate you in mind, heart, and spirit. It seeks to starve you of hope, faith, and love. As the light wanes, the dark waxes.” Nopony laughed at the pun this time. Light’s eyes glittered with a thought. “Yes?”

“If the light waxes, the dark wanes?”


“I can fight Dis-my inner darkness?”

“Yes, you can fight it.” Primus said. Then he said something he hoped took deep roots in Light’s mind, for it was a truth with a wider meaning than he now realized. “But if you fight it, you guarantee that it will consume you. There is an ancient lie: fight fire with fire. This is a false belief, and a poisonous one. Fire is countered by water. You cannot defeat despair, dismay, and despite by denying them. They are denial. They are things that are not. Absences. Darkness. The moment you set your will to oppose them, you set your hooves on the path to embracing them. You cannot wage war on war. They are opposed not by resisting them but by embracing their opposites. If your heart is full of hope, there is no room for despair. Darkness cannot stand before light.”

Light looked down at the inexplicable lollipop he had crushed earlier. He stared at it for what would have been a long time, if real time had existed here. “Candy. Laughter. Friends.” He blinked and a tear rolled down his grey muzzle. It fell right onto the fragments, which melted and re-formed around the stick. Light picked it up, studied it, and then stuck it in his mouth. His expression soured. “Ugh.” He laughed, low and wavering, as more tears fell. “Ugh, pineapple. I hate pineapple. But it’s still sweet, and I like it better than horseapples.” The laughter grew louder, stronger, deeper. His coat bleached white again and the long white beard returned. Even the eyebrows. Light lifted the beard in a hoof and laughed even harder. “I do, I do look like Santa Clops. And that bothered me…why? If I looked like Nightmare Moon then maybe I’d have something to whine about. Santa Clops? Doesn’t everypony love the jolly old rascal?”

“Everypony with a light in their heart.” Primus said.

“I look like a joke.” Light said. He guffawed, and then he plopped onto his rump and spread his forelegs wide. His voice emerged as a jovial roar. “WHAT THE HAY’S WRONG WITH A GOOD JOKE?”

The Ninety and Nine erupted into laughter and thunderous applause. Light didn’t recoil from it this time, but embraced it. Waggled his eyebrows and laughed and cried and pounded the floor with a fore-hoof. There was a strong undercurrent of relief in their laughter that Light probably didn’t notice. Primus motioned for them to tone it down a little, and eventually they did. Enough to let his answer be heard. “Not a cotton-picking thing.”

Light heaved a huge and happy sigh, climbing to his hooves and shaking so hard his beard and mane flew. He sucked on the lollipop and gave a snort. “Oh, Celestia’s Mane, that felt good. How did I get to feel so bad without noticing?”

“An inch at a time.” Primus said.

Light’s eyes sobered, but didn’t darken. “Yes…that’s how. I guess I just have one last question. Have I found myself?”

A deep brassy gong rang from the gate, whose halves swung outward and open. Light turned to look, but all he saw was the Fourth Wall. He stared at it, though of course it would just be formless darkness to him. He couldn’t see what lay beyond. He could only perceive what he knew, expected, or understood: the truth was unimaginable. The unicorn turned back to Primus, swapping the lollipop to his other cheek. Primus spread his fore-hooves. “You have arrived. Now it’s time to go.”

“Where does the doorway lead?”

“Back to yourself.” Primus said. “You aren’t all here.”

“So if I go through…I wake up. Will I remember all this?”

“Yes. You’ll never forget.”

“I’ve got a dragon to fight.” Light said. He had his back to them, facing the door, and so he failed to see almost all of them flinch or cringe or wince. “But that means I need to get the ring from Draco before I leave. How?”

“Prairie sod.” Primus said. “You really did catch us wrong-hoofed with that demand. We didn’t set things up so that you’d have a chance at releasing him yourself. Close your eyes, please. Changing things is easier without observers pinning things in place.” Light gave Primus a look, but then shrugged and closed his eyes. The doorway went from open to shut without moving, and the knocker was on the inside.

Draco blinked in confusion. “Wuf hapfininf?”

Light opened his eyes and struck a pose that Primus considered a bit melodramatic. Then again, there was a place and time for melodrama. Might as well be here and now. “Draco. I know who you are. I know how to free you and what will happen if I do.”

The ruby eyes became ruby suns. Then dimmed with doubt and suspicion. “Hfrimuf. Hef fuififal?”

“I doubt he’s suicidal, Draco.” Primus said.

“Ah.” The eyes blazed up again. “Fuifidally oferconfifent.”

“Perhaps.” Primus said. Draco grinned, laughing a deep and mocking ho-ho-ho of malevolent anticipation.

“I want your word first, Draco.” Light said. “When you awaken, you come for me. Me, dragon. You do nothing else until our business is done. You cause no death of a person, you wreak no destruction of that which people own, and you gather no allies either dragon or otherwise. After you’ve destroyed me…you’ll do whatever you want. But not before. You want freedom? Swear.”

Draco cleared his throat, though it could only be for effect. “By fea, by ftone, by ftar, by fky, by fcale, I fwear.”

Light repeated it, unknowingly doing the exact right thing, though he clearly only wanted to make sure he’d heard correctly. Then again, that was the practical purpose behind the repetition. “By sea, by stone, by star, by sky, by scale, you swear?”

“Yef.” Draco said.

“Does this vow bind you to keep it no matter what, Draco?”

“Yeeefff.” Draco hissed it, gloating and grinning.

“Is there any catch to this vow that I might come to regret?”

“Oooh.” Primus said. “Be on your toes with this one, Draco.”

“No.” Draco said. “No caf’ef.”

“Give me your ring.” Light said.

“Come anf gef if.”

Light strode forward and touched the golden ring with his hoof. Draco let it go. The ring vanished. So did the doorknocker. A bright golden shoe appeared on Light’s right fore-hoof, a dull black iron one on the left. Aside from the ruby adoring the front of each, they were very much like the quartet worn by Celestia. Light sat down and lifted his hooves, wiggled the cloven halves a bit. The metal flexed like finest silk. He rapped it with his horn. It clinked, both shoes as hard as steel. Primus felt a stab of pity for Light, followed by guilty relief that it hadn’t been him.

“Anything I need to know about the magic shoes?” Light said.

“Number two,” Primus said, “what is the golden shoe?”

The grey mare beside him cleared her throat and flipped her mousy brown forelock from her eyes, which were grey and brown respectively and pointed in quite different directions.

“It is a blade that cannot cut.
It is a shield that cannot block.
It is an armor that lays you bare.”

“Ninety-nine,” Primus said, “what is the iron shoe?”

The burly unicorn stallion stood and took a formal pose like a foal at a spelling bee. He was an eye-searing pink today, with a neon green mane and eyes so black the pupils were invisible.

“It is a freedom that enslaves.
It is a power that weakens.
It is a feast that poisons.”

“Oh, great.” Light said. “Riddles. Why speak in riddles?”

“To lead a mind,” Primus said, “to discover the truth for themselves. Go now, Light. Go in peace.” Please, in peace.

The knocker-less doors swung wide again.

Light tapped his mismatched-yet-matched shoes on the marble floor, first one then the other. “If I wake up wearing these I’m going to have some serious explaining to do.”

He stepped into the doorway and vanished with a white flash.

“Alrighty then.” Primus said. “Disperse as you like.” Unicorns began to vanish to elsewhere, with a wildly varying spectrum of special effects. Primus rapidly grew up and then old, becoming a comfortably fat unicorn with a pure white body and a full beard of curly white hair. A white-trimmed red coat materialized on him, and a matching hat: floppy and conical, with a puffy white pom-pom on the end. A spiraling red stripe adorned his ivory horn. When the room had emptied save for one other person, he turned to her and spoke. “I almost told him who I was. I really did.”

Number Two had made a similar transformation, though of course without the beard. Her amber eyes stayed askew, of course. They’d been like that in life. She’d tried them straight but claimed they made everything look wrong. “His head came close to imploding anyway, dear. Telling him you really are real might have been one thing too many for the poor boy. I know that twinkle, you ‘jolly old rascal.’ You’re planning on leaving him a gift next time the night between years lets you sneak out. That’s for the children. You leave those toys for the dreams we steal.”

“Oh, hush.” He kissed her cheek. “They lose nothing from what we take but things they’re already done with, and we give back the toys in return, so we’re better than thieves. Without those dreams this place would shrivel into nothingness and we’d all go mad from boredom. But just imagine his face if I did it!”

They shared a good hard laugh at that. His wife dashed a happy tear from her eyes. “Oh. But speaking of gifts, you need to give Granny Pie something. You heard what she said to Light: ‘Draco’s harmless unless you try to grab his ring.’ Not much chance he would have demanded what he did if she hadn’t nudged him toward it. I’m certain she didn’t even realize what she was doing. But still. You should send her a treat.”

Primus stroked his beard as he thought. “I have a chocolate cake dreamed up by a filly named Starlight. She’s an astonishingly vivid dreamer when it comes to sweets. That lollipop I tossed under his hoof was one of hers, and I’m glad he managed to salvage it. For a moment his reaction to it threw me. It turned out all right, but…” Primus gave the doorway a baffled stare. “…how can anyone hate pineapple?”