Beginning Anew
by Bernard Doove

This is a spin-off from Off The Mark.


CHAPTER 1: What A Fright!


“Perhaps our chaotic friend could bring some special disaster that he has been saving for just such an occasion. What do you think, Dowser?”

That startled me out of whatever I was contemplating. So much so that I had no recollection of what it was. “Lulu, I think you shouldn’t tempt fate or minor deities by asking for more trouble than you can handle.” Trixie continued to frown and tapped a hoof on her throne. Day Court wouldn’t start for another ten minutes. I hoped that gave me time to get to the bottom of whatever was bothering her. “Dear, what’s the matter?”

My wife had to lean forward to flap her wings impatiently. After a couple of seconds, she folded them again and sat up straight. “This will be the twelfth Nightmare Night celebration of Trixie’s reign and it is the same every year. Luna and the Element Bearers whoop it up in Ponyville while Canterlot Castle shuts down. Even the thestral guards abandon us to be anywhere but the Royal Palace. Trixie is tired of our home being the anathema of happy foals and merriment.”

She did have a point. One global emergency or another seemed to show up right before this holiday season, forcing one of the royals to be safely detained (I’ll call it what it is) inside the castle. That way a voice of authority could respond at a moment’s notice. This year, Celestia’s intelligence network brought news of half of dozen Zebrican tribal leaders swearing revenge upon all ponies for the latest imagined offense. Six months ago, it was for exporting lavender-scented soap to their country. Celestia’s agent informed us the soap smelled too much like ancestral embalming fluid. Regardless, the Triarchy endured a month of yelling from their ambassador in the hour-long timeslots allocated for our weekly talks with their nation’s representative. This only stopped when a staff-wielding Zecora entered the Throne Room and dressed down the stallion in the melodic tones of her native tongue. Her rhyming was complex and went on for several minutes. Rather than waiting for a rebuttal, the shaman held her staff out in front of her, dropped it at the ambassador’s hooves, turned around, and marched out the way she came. At our next meeting, the stallion was nowhere to be seen. Instead, his understudy wore the robe and necklace of office.

In any case, some youthful hotheads traveled halfway across Equus to “regain Zebrican honor” or some such. When one of these idiots seriously injured an Equestrian Customs official, Twilight took it upon herself to permanently change his stripes to rainbow hues and drop him into the fountain at the center of the Zebrican capital. Over the next few weeks, my co-ruler did the same for the other half-dozen captured glory-seekers. Zebra cultural norms dictated that attractiveness meant having the darkest blacks and whitest whites. Twilight hoped this would send a message. Maybe it did, and maybe it didn’t. All I knew was that I drew the short straw this year. Twilight and Trixie were free to enjoy Nightmare Night while I cooled my fetlocks in the castle.

My wife pointed a hoof at me. “What Trixie needs is a different perspective. What traditions from your home can solve this problem? Be glad your wife is giving you two weeks’ notice.”

I was pretty sure she was talking about the upcoming holiday and not abdicating her crown. I looked down at my hooves and thought back. “Well, I worked at a facility not unlike the Royal Assessor’s department: lots of offices on both sides of a looping corridor. For our equivalent holiday, employees could bring their kids in at lunchtime and they would trick-or… uh… ask for something sweet to bite at the different rooms. The big boss only let them stay for a couple of hours, but everyone loved the break from the normal monotony.”

Trixie stopped tapping her hoof. After several seconds she nodded. “Yes. Immediately after sundown is perfect. School would be out and that time would not interfere with any being’s late evening plans. We shall ask the castle staff to bring their young ones to the Throne Room. What else?”

“What, you want more?”

“Of course! One does not finish tapping a well until it is dry. What else?”

I rolled my eyes then got back to thinking. “Each department will have their own treats to give out. For example, the Building Codes department could give out puffed-oat sculptures of a frosted castle on a stick.”

Trixie added, “The Royal Sisters will be here. I’m sure they would love to have their chambers on the list of stops. Raven?”

My wife’s advisor jotted down notes on her clipboard while looking at her boss. “I’ll send a scroll to them both. We can’t have foals running everywhere through the castle, though.”

Penumbra’s voice carried up from her spot at the foot of the dais. “I, for one, do not want to be pulling youngsters from every forgotten maid’s closet until Hearth’s Warming because they got lost. Unicorns can put glowing arrow markers on the floor to guide groups of foals to their next candy station. We’ll make a huge, meandering path through the castle so they don’t get lost.”

Chrysalis cleared her throat to get our attention. “I don’t think that will be enough. I propose a changeling disguised as a foal lead each group. Crystal Hive drones can do that with King Thorax coordinating their efforts.”

I said, “And what will our herd’s changelings be doing?”

She showed me all her fangs. “Nymphs stuffing sugary treats in their bags is insufficient. We have a standard to uphold here at the center of the Equestrian Empire. The event must be memorable! My drones will take on monstrous forms and scare foals away from corridors they are not to take, chasing them back onto the right path.” She licked her lips. “Children of all races love to be scared...”

Trixie coughed.

“… within reason,” concluded the changeling queen.

I tapped my chin. “I like it.”

My wife said, “Raven, would you send a note to Twilight and Thorax?”

Penumbra turned to glance at the unicorn mare. “I have to visit Sugar Cube Corner after my shift. I’ll deliver the message and answer any questions they may have.” She paused. “OK. I’ll answer any questions Thorax has and bring back Twilight’s scroll of questions.”

“Just one scroll?” I asked with a smirk.

“I’ll bring my largest saddlebags.” Penny jerked her head toward the double-doors that held back the petitioners. “Now if you two lovebirds are too busy planning to preside over Day Court, Chrysalis and I could take over and—”

Trixie straightened up and called out. “Sergeant-at-arms! Let our little ponies approach!”

I gave my wife’s hoof a quick squeeze with mine. “Day Court is now in session!”

My wife and I stood in the doorway of a quaint cottage on a dusty country road. I grinned and shook my head. “Lulu, it just isn’t fair. Cuteness on this scale is simply too dangerous to be released into Canterlot. Every household will give out all their candy when our foal knocks on their door.”

Right on cue, Gemini set down their bucket. The little yellow unicorn swung their neck back and forth as they sang, rocking the tiger head. The plush snake and goat heads of their chimera costume followed along thanks to the strings attached to the top of the tiger’s neck.

“Nightmare night! What a fright! Give me something sweet to bite!”

With a flash, Gemini switched to light green Pegasus colt and picked up their bucket in their teeth. I swear the puppy dog eyes could have convinced Carpacia to give up her crown.

My wife dropped the illusion and our chambers faded into view around us.

“Well done, Gemini. Your performance was flawless. The Great and Powerful Trixie knows true showponyship when she sees it.”

Our foal said nothing, instead jostling their bucket up and down. The few pieces of candy inside rattled.

Trixie rolled her eyes and her horn flared. Two Carrot Zingers popped into existence before clattering into the waiting bucket.

I asked, “Are you sure that little cauldron is big enough for all your loot?”

“Auntie Twilight put a spell on it,” Gemini replied with a grin. “It’s really big on the inside!”

I snorted with amusement. “Of course it is. Trust her to think of that.”

“It’s time to go,” Trixie said. “We must not be late for our performance!”

I lifted Gemini onto my back with my magic. “Our little monster and I are ready,” I replied with a grin. “Let’s go!”

We exited our suite where Penny, Rarity, and Chrysalis were waiting with the rest of the foals. Gemini’s fancy costume had taken a lot more time and effort to get into and they were the last to be ready. Trixie’s insistence on a rehearsal probably hadn’t helped my other herdmates’ patience, but I think seeing the result of Rarity’s costume-work helped ameliorate the irritation.

While the fashionista and Penny gushed over Gemini (Sally does not gush!), I looked over our other foals’ outfits. Pearl had been dressed by her mother in a superhero costume like those in the comics that her Uncle Phil had given her. This year she was the Huntress from DC comics. Verdant was a zombie, ghoulishly made up by his over-enthusiastic dam to be comically hideous. Allura and her constant changeling companion Lacewing were a double act as a Frankenstein-type monster. Lacy had shape-shifted to appear to merge with the unicorn filly so that they had six legs and two pony heads. That was truly weird and wonderful. They had even practiced finishing each other’s sentences! My youngest foal, Spotlight, had gained sufficient control of his color-changing that he could keep it one hue for a while. Right now, his coat, mane, and tail were all a very deep blue and he had on a black cape. Trixie had fixed up a special-effect amulet for him that emitted a small amount of dark fog when activated so that he could be the Pony of Shadows. My kids were going to knock the socks off the neighbors when they went begging for candy!

I urged my mares to stop fussing with last-second adjustments so we could get to the Throne Room. Not only did we have to be there to start the special event, but Trixie also needed to set the scene. Upon our arrival, the bright and airy chamber was transformed by my wife’s illusion power into a grotto. Water from stalactites dripped slowly onto stalagmites and fireflies flitting around the chamber. Moonlight filtered through a gap in the roof to illuminate the dais where the thrones had turned into piles of bones. Bats fluttered in and out of nooks and crannies while glowing eyes could be seen peering out between the rocks.

I lifted an eyebrow and asked, “You don’t think this is a bit too much?”

Trixie smiled condescendingly. “As our herdmate said, foals love to be scared.”

Judging by the awe on our children’s faces, I suppose she was right.

Gallus arrived just then, his pet by his side. Twiggy came up to the griffon’s waist now. The timberwolf made a habit of lowering his head when my son addressed it but would jump up to greet everybeing else. Gallus paused to look around in wonder. “Whoa! This is awesome!”

His pet ignored it all though. As soon as the now-grown timber-monster spotted me, it bounded over and nearly knocked me off my hooves before beginning to lick me.

“Darn it, Twiggy! Knock it off!” Every! Single! Time! Why was I so tasty?

“Why did you ask me to bring Twiggy when you knew what was coming?” Gallus asked with an unsympathetic grin on his face.

“Because I want him lying next to me looking dangerous.”

“You know he wouldn’t harm a fly though.”

Spotlight drove home the point by climbing on Twiggy’s back and lifting one forehoof in the air. With a big grin, he yelled, “Gid-jup! Gid-jup!” My back twinged in remembrance of when all of my foals tried to ride their dad at the same time. Darn it, Phil. You are a bad influence on my children.

I grinned as I turned to look at Gallus. “Yeah, but the foals don’t know that… well, the ones who haven’t been to Ponyville.”

My wife gave me a flat look. “What was that you were saying about Trixie’s scenery being a bit much?”

I chuckled. “Guilty.”

I noticed Luna arriving, dressed in her Nightmare Moon regalia. She gave me a fang-filled smile. Somehow, her teeth gleamed with more light than anything else in the room. “Recallest thou my commitment to Ponyville’s festivities. I must hasten away no later than three hours hence.”

I gave her a nod and said, “No problem.” I looked around the room. “Everyone’s here now. I believe it’s showtime. Places everyone!”

Penny said to our foals, “Come on everypony. Time to score some candy!” She and Rarity were leading them through a few Canterlot neighborhoods while other children came here. After all, our lot already knew the castle intimately. This special event was for the foals of the castle staff, including a few chicks from parents in the Griffon contingent of the Royal Guard. Two diamond dog pups came along thanks to their parents working for the Department of Natural Resources. We also invited the students from Hackleberry Primary School. With so many of the youngsters at the castle, our foals would have first dibs on a lot of the homes participating in Nightmare Night!

Shadows roiled around the dark alicorn and she laughed madly. Nightmare Moon had truly arrived. She sat upon the throne of bones while Trixie and I took our places in front and to the side as her henchponies. Trixie and I wore a mixture of rags and broken armor. While we had dressed the part as our evil counterparts, my wife added her special effects to give us glowing eyes and vicious fangs. The thestral Royal Guards took up their positions along the approach to the dais. Thorax nodded to me and disappeared into the shadows behind the throne. Creepy music started playing from concealed speakers, adding to the atmosphere. As the final touch, I put a studded faux-leather collar around Twiggy. A rusty chain reached from a ring on the collar back to behind the throne. The timberwolf let out a huge yawn, turned around three times, and curled up alongside the dais. Seconds later, I heard his light snores. Oh, well. Can’t expect every stage prop to work the way you expect it to.

At a sign from me, the thestral Guard stationed at the entrance threw open the doors.

“Enter if you dare,” he addressed the gathered children in dark tones. He had been selected for the task specifically for his voice which was even deeper than Fluttershy after drinking poison joke extract. “Nightmare Moon awaits those who have the courage to face her!” He then slammed the butt of his spear onto the floor, making many of the foals jump.

Slowly at first, a few of the braver foals and chicks entered the chamber. Emboldened by them, the rest soon followed. They were all soon gaping in awe at the scenery, the group of a hundred or so grinding to a halt in the middle of the room as they tried to take it all in.

I created a small thunderbolt that drew the children’s attention and Nightmare Moon stared at them imperiously. “Do not keep me waiting, little ones, or thou may makest me angry!

The foals hastened to obey and gathered at the base of the dais.

Nightmare Moon gazed at them sternly. “Have you brought me thy tribute? I see many foals but naught of that which is my due!

“P-please, N-nightmare M-moon,” one brave filly stuttered, “W-we haven’t had a ch-chance to get any y-yet.”

The dark alicorn frowned and turned her attention to Trixie and me. “Why have you brought these children here bereft of my tribute?

I gave her a deep groveling bow. “Your Majesty, we have prepared a quest for these foals which, should they be successful, will gift you with more candy than ever before.”

Nightmare Moon appeared to consider my words. She eventually nodded. “Very well. I will expect much candy this year or else I will take some of these foals instead! Thou hast but two hours or all shalt face my wrath!

A gigantic hourglass materialized next to the dais and the sand began to trickle down into the lower section which was marked in half-hour segments.

“By your command, Your Majesty,” my wife said before turning to face the crowd of youngsters. “Foals, chicks, and pups, you have heard the words of our mistress, Nightmare Moon. You will be sent in search of the candy she craves in groups of six. You may seek it in any room that is open to you, but beware! Monsters prowl the castle tonight. If you see one, do not attempt to pass them. Instead, return to the path of safety marked by glowing arrows on the floor. Harder to find are the Masters of Lore, for they do not lie directly on the lit path. If you encounter one, seek their wisdom. You may come away with far more than you expected. Gatekeeper – do your duty!”

A heavily shrouded mare shuffled forward, giggling madly while carrying several staffs in her magic. She then placed one in front of the group and activated it. A portal opened to reveal a corridor elsewhere in the castle. I pointed at a foal.

“You! Choose five companions and take them through the gateway. Seek out the hidden stashes of candy and gather as much as you can carry. If you are truly clever, you may even discover the lost secret treasure trove of sweets. Be back within two hours but do not dare return without the Nightmare’s tribute!”

“Y-yes, sir!” squeaked the colt. He rapidly chose five of the youngsters and sent them through before following them. Then the portal was closed.

The colt was actually one of the Crystal Changelings planted among the children to watch over them and act as guides. I repeated the sequence with several more groups while the Gatekeeper, who was really Twilight hamming it up, sent them to the various start points throughout the castle. That way, no one area or “Master of Lore” would get overwhelmed by a sudden influx and hidden helpers could replenish the candy stashes for the next group. Eventually the last of the foals were sent on their way.

“That was fun,” Luna commented as she took off her helmet. “I commend thee on thy idea, Prince Wells. Now, I had best be off to my chambers – mayhap I will find some younglings interested in astronomy to bide some time with me before I must return to my role.” She then teleported away.

Twilight pushed back her ragged shroud and joined Trixie and me. “How soon do you think a group will return?”

I replied, “Going by experience both on Earth and here, there will be some foals who will be obsessively fast at gathering candy and will be able to make two rounds. So, that gives us about an hour before the first ones come back here.”

My wife said, “That will give Trixie plenty of time to prepare for her next performance. Come, Dark Knells, we have a spooky spectacular to set up!”

“Yes, Mistress!” I replied in my best Igor voice.

The light blue alicorn narrowed her eyes. “Know your place, lackey. I heard you say ‘showtime’ earlier. Don’t steal Trixie’s thunder!”

As we had anticipated, several foals returned to the Throne Room… I mean Nightmare Moon’s domain… in just under an hour, their candy cauldrons filled to the top. I shuffled over to them and looked disdainfully at their loot.

“What have you brought our mistress?” I asked in character once more.

One filly held up some of her candy. “I’ve got caramel crunches, chocolate-coated daisies, and sherbet bombs!”

A griffon lad showed me his prizes. “I found licorice straps, choc fudge sardines, and glazed jerky!” Cat birds! No accounting for their weird tastes.

The other children had similar treats but some types were conspicuously missing.

“Is that all?” I asked. “Nightmare Moon will not be pleased with such pitiful tithes. Did none of you seek the wisdom of the Masters of Lore?”

“But… if we stopped there, we would not have been able to get all this for Nightmare Moon,” protested a colt.

“None of you have found our mistress’s favorite treats though. She will be sorely displeased with you.” I knew certain items were only passed out by the ‘Masters of Lore’, so the fastest children would not be the most successful ones. However, they would get another chance … with a little encouragement!

The room abruptly plunged into darkness lit only by a few flickering candles. Lightning flashed, smoke roiled, and then Trixie appeared abruptly in their midst. Several foals squealed as my wife gave a demented cackle.

“Nightmare Moon demands her tithe! Where are the maple-glazed oatmeal pops? The chocolate caramel wafers? The candy-coated peanut clusters?”

The children looked at each other helplessly. “We haven’t got any,” one foal replied.

Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled.

“You have angered Nightmare Moon. You must try again. Minion! Give these foolish children a new cauldron to fill. Gatekeeper! Send them on their way!”

I exchanged empty candy cauldrons for their full ones which I put aside. Then Twilight directed them through portals that would exit near the first of the ‘Masters of Lore’. I believe the Spell Codes department manager was hoofing out scroll-shaped caramel treats. The Office of the Exchequer, of course, gave solid chocolate bits wrapped in gold foil. Celestia was doling out ‘Princess Size’ chocolate wafers. The Captain of the Royal Guard’s office passed out rock candy mini-lances. Luna wanted to give the foals Moon Pies but the baked treat had been the number one seller this season — none could be found in all of Canterlot. The Night Princess felt both wildly pleased and deeply irritated. She settled for hoofing out peanut clusters instead. And so forth. It appeared that no one had found the secret stash yet. There was still plenty of time for that though.

With the first of the fast foals dealt with, we reset the scenery and signaled to the guard at the door that it was okay to send in the next lot.

The changeling guides had done a good job of keeping track of the eager over-achievers, hoofing them off to another while they stuck with the ones who were intrigued by the places and people they discovered in their search. After a while, Thorax reported that the last of the racers had been dealt with and there was a lull for a short time. Then the first of the groups that had stopped at one of the ‘Masters of Lore’ arrived and we changed the script for them.

Trixie cackled with glee. “Well done, children! However, there is much time still left. Are you happy that Nightmare Moon will be merely satisfied, or would you be excellent minions and gather more bounty to make her truly delighted with you?”

Just like the speedy ones, we provided the youngsters with another candy cauldron and, after checking which of the Masters they had visited, sent them to one of the others. With only a quarter-hour to go, we put a halt to this and any groups that returned had to wait for the others to arrive. Trixie kept them amused by manifesting all kinds of fantasy creatures of the more harmless kind to mingle and interact with the children. Naturally, keeping up that degree of illusion work was taxing even for my wife, so it was up to me to do the talking and return any goodie baskets left in my care.

Then, with time almost up, the Gatekeeper rose into the air and loudly proclaimed, “The Chamber of Secrets has been discovered and its treasure looted. But the guardian beast has been angered and it pursues the perpetrators. The children are headed here to try to escape it, but they will only bring doom to all who are gathered here. Doom! You are all doomed!” Twilight finished with maniacal laughter which came off pretty well. She must have been practicing a lot. Actually… scratch that. This was how my co-ruler sounded whenever she went into full mad scientist-mode.

Twilight disappeared in a showy flash, ostensibly to escape the danger. In reality, she had been carefully coordinating portals for the group that had dared to explore an unmarked passage that led down into the hive where Chrysalis had set up both the secret treasure and the dangerous guardian. With time almost up, I had begun to worry that none of the candy hunters would find our special set-up. I know Sally would have been sorely disappointed. After all, she had a starring role in this production, but not before Nightmare Moon made her reappearance.

As the last grain of sand dropped to the bottom of the hourglass, there was a crash of thunder and Nightmare Moon emerged from the shadows and seated herself on her throne.

I see that the children have returned. Have they brought my tribute?

“Yes, my Queen,” I simpered. “You will be most pleased.”

I will be the judge of that, minion. Step forth, younglings, and give me that which is my due. Take care not to cheat the Queen of the Night or I will take all your candy… and maybe a foal or two as well!” She bared her fangs.

The first to step up was one of the bolder griffons. He gave her about a quarter of the contents of his candy cauldron. Among the pieces were some of the goodies from the ‘Masters of Lore.’ Since each station gave out three of the special treats, the youngsters would also end up with some. When Nightmare Moon nodded in satisfaction, he scurried away to let the next child make their offering.

The line was about halfway done when screams of fear echoed down the hallway approach to the Throne Room. They were accompanied by a monstrous roar. Everyone turned to the source of the sound and, shortly, a small group of foals burst into the room. Each had the handle of a cauldron carried in their mouths, filled to the brim with treats. In their haste, some were spilling out, but they didn’t stop to pick them up because a towering adult manticore was hot on their heels.

The children in the room squealed in fright but Nightmare Moon stood up and bellowed, “HALT, BEAST!

The manticore skidded to a stop and snarled at the dark alicorn while its prey sought the safety of their peers who gathered behind me and Trixie.

Begone foul creature! Thou shalt not take back that which my minions have wrested from thy grasp!

The manticore’s muzzle wrinkled as it drew back its lips to show dripping fangs. Then it roared in defiance and began advancing.

Thou hast been warned! Now meet your fate!” Nightmare Moon fired a blinding blast of energy at the beast.

The manticore bellowed in pain. Its fur was scorched and one eye was swollen shut, but still it advanced. Then it was hit by an even bigger and brighter blast. Blinking away spots before our eyes, our vision cleared to see that the dread beast was no more.

The children started cheering.

“You did it!”

“That was awesome!”

“You’re my favorite Princess, Nightmare Moon!”

The alicorn smiled smugly and seated herself once more.

Your Queen thanks you, loyal subjects. Now – I believe that you have yet to give me all your tithes.

The remaining children eagerly lined up once more to give the dark alicorn her share. Meanwhile, I gave a wink to the extra filly that had joined them. She grinned back, obviously delighted by the fun she’d had. Chrysalis had been eager to play the manticore and had made sure that Twilight had sent as many of the groups past the unmarked and unguarded passageway to her hive as it took for at least one of them to dare to check it out. Chrysalis bided her time as the adventurous party of foals discovered and looted the secret stash (sugar-frosted hay-bacon sticks and princess-sized Cherry Royals). When Twilight signaled that all was ready, Chrysalis made her appearance and chased the final group of candy-seekers out of the hive. The disguised changeling guide directed the group up to the Throne Room for the final act. Once here, Nightmare Moon hit Chrysalis with a bright but harmless beam of light. Under the cover of the blinding second beam, my changeling wife then took the form of a unicorn filly and joined the others. And as Sally had said, the foals loved a good scare on Nightmare Night. Mission accomplished!

When the last of the children had given Nightmare Moon her share of their loot, the dark alicorn rose and gazed at them sternly. Then with an evil smile, she proclaimed, “Your Queen is satisfied with your tribute. Each of thee hast bought thy safety with enough candy to keep me sated for another year, and I shall not gobble up any of you tender morsels… this time!” She threw back her head and laughed maniacally. There was a flash of lightning and crash of thunder, and both Nightmare Moon and her pile of sweets were gone.

The children cheered as Trixie shuffled her way up onto the dais. Once there, she held up her hooves to demand the attention of the youngsters.

“You have all done well. Our Queen of the Night has gone to another town to demand her share of the candy from the children there.” She paused to chuckle evilly. “But best yet, you distracted her from finding my treasure trove! For that, I will give each of you a small portion of it. Behold!”

From the floor between the dais and the children, a column of smoke arose with sparkling embers. When it cleared, a table laden with more candy treats was revealed. These were the goodies that the ‘Masters of Lore’ had left over plus all the loot that the changeling guides had acquired. None of the youngsters had noticed their absence after they snuck away during the chaos. The drones did not eat candy but they had already feasted on the joy radiating from their charges. I expect that there were not a few bloated changelings going back to the hive this evening.

Trixie said, “Take a share with our thanks, but then be on your way. Dangers still lurk about this dread night!”

Every foal, cub, and chick had pounced on the bounty the moment my wife had given them permission, but as if to underscore her words of warning, a baleful howl echoed through the castle. Twiggy jumped to its feet and started barking, straining at the collar and chain. From the foals’ perspective, it must have looked like the timberwolf was angry at them! The yowling and barking hastened the grab for candy and the exodus of the children under the watchful eyes of the thestral Guards. The howl repeated and was joined by a second and then a third voice as the last of the treasure seekers galloped out of the Throne Room. As they left, Thorax and Penumbra walked out from the shadows behind the dais. Penny scratched the timberwolf behind the ears, getting it to calm down. Wait. When had she gotten here?

The doors closed with an echoing boom and the show was officially over.

As all the illusions faded away, I said to Trixie, “Nice touch with the baying hounds.”

My wife’s eyebrows rose. “That was not mine. Trixie thought one of you had arranged that.”

Twilight shook her head. “Not me. Sounds like Cerberus is prowling the halls.”

I frowned. “That can’t be. Cerberus is still in Tartarus guarding…”

My wife finished my sentence. “… nothing at all. If you recall, Fluttershy reformed the few remaining caged beasts—well, to an extent—they were released into the Everfree. After that, Cerberus wandered off.”

Sally said, “None of my changelings made that howl.”

“Nor mine,” Thorax added.

Penny grinned. “I wish I had thought of it.”

I blinked in puzzlement for a moment. Just then, the three-throated baying began again.

“If it wasn’t any of you, and Luna has already left for Ponyville to play Nightmare Moon there, then where’s that coming from?” Trixie asked.

We looked at each other in bewilderment.

I frowned, “I can’t believe that Cerberus took up residence in our basement without someone noticing. Still, wouldn’t hurt to bring along a red rubber ball. Okay, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, Fred, and Scooby-Doo, it looks like we have a mystery to solve!”

Trixie gave me a flat look. “Truly, Bark Yells, you have lost your marbles yet again.”

Back in her suite, a certain alabaster alicorn munched on her candy stash as she watched the fun through her scrying glass. She giggled before lighting up her horn and another mournful triple howl reverberated throughout the castle.



CHAPTER 2: Change Of Direction


There was a lot more to being a Prince of Equestria than sitting on a throne and making regal pronouncements. For example, all the paperwork that went with the job. To be fair, my secretary took care of most of the day-to-day stuff and only passed on to me those items that required royal authority. It was still an impressive amount but I had to admit that I had myself to blame for that. In trying to modernize the empire and Equestrian society, I had undertaken way too many projects that only someone alien to this world could facilitate. In other words, being a former human with Earth-based knowledge made me uniquely qualified. I really had to find some way of recruiting some highly-capable people from my home world to help cope with the workload – but how do you run an employment campaign for another dimension? Sure, we could offer some very good incentives and our medical system had America’s soundly thrashed, but we needed to keep the portal to another world secret. I hoped that someday I could find a solution with Phil and Rosa’s help, perhaps through their company. For now, I just had to deal with the problems on my own.

In the face of going over these intractable problems for the umpteenth time, more often than not, I welcomed interruptions to give myself a break. The tap on my office door immediately brought my attention to the hallway. My secretary would normally alert me to visitors, so this unannounced caller was most likely family. Sure enough, my eleven-year-old daughter, Diadem, was standing in the doorway.

“Have you got a moment, Dad?” the young proto-queen changeling asked.

My eyebrow rose. While Diadem was a friendly and outgoing changeling, she usually called me “Father” rather than the informal “Dad”. Her mother, Queen Chrysalis, tended to encourage proper forms of address. That Diadem did otherwise told me that she had a personal problem. I deliberately put aside the documents I had been working on and said, “Come in and close the door.”

She did so and then seated herself. I rolled my chair around next to Diadem while she fidgeted.

I waited a bit before saying, “Okay, Di, spit it out. What’s bothering you so badly?”

She looked up and gave me a lost look. “Dad – what is it that I’m supposed to be?”

I blinked. That was not what I had been expecting. “What do you mean, hon? Hasn’t your mother been training you to run the hive almost since the day you were hatched?”

“Yes, of course she has, but so what? Do you know how long changeling queens live? Centuries! What am I supposed to do in the meantime? Am I supposed to just do meaningless trivial things until Mother passes on?”

“What about the responsibilities to the hive that keep you busy?” I asked. “You’ve often told me about what you’ve learned while growing up. And Chrysalis can’t spend all her time at the hive due to her role as my Advisor.”

“You don’t get it, Dad. Mother can handle both jobs easily – it’s what queens do. Any task she gives me is just more practice and I don’t want to spend year after year being the Princess-in-Waiting. I want to do something meaningful!”

I frowned. “Do you want to take over the hive now?”

Diadem shook her head. “No. Mother loves what she has built and has plans to make it even greater as my brothers and sisters grow into maturity. The hive is her pride and joy and I would not want to take that from her.”

“I agree,” I said with a slow nod. “And I see your point. Chrysalis wanted an heir available to take her place as Queen of the Canterlot Hive if she passed away unexpectedly, but that may never happen. Aside from the brief times that you’ve been left in charge to give you experience while your mother and I went on diplomatic missions or such, you really haven’t been needed to fill that role. So, the question is – what would you like to do with your life?”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “I don’t know!” she wailed. “All my education and training have always been directed towards the hive to the exclusion of everything else.”

I sighed. “That’s my fault. I felt that I was too ignorant of the needs of changeling queens to be able to offer more than a few suggestions. Perhaps I should have been firmer with Sally on that subject. And while your mother has had nothing but good intentions, she may have been slightly misguided in your upbringing. However, I do seem to recall you gushing excitedly about various subjects over the years. Did you ever try to pursue those interests?”

Diadem looked downcast. “No, not really. Mother wanted me to concentrate on my lessons rather than passing fancies, as she called them.”

I grimaced. “I’m going to have a word with your mother about her perceptions of what is important. You are as much a pony as you are a changeling and you naturally have curiosity about non-changeling matters and interests beyond the hive, or even the palace. So, what does interest you? Forget about how it pertains to the hive right now.”

My child looked thoughtful for a long moment before slowly replying. “I’m not sure. Magic, I suppose. Making some friends outside of the castle. Colts—” She slapped a hoof over her mouth and looked embarrassed.

I chuckled. “Like I said, you’re part pony and of the age where boys become interesting. I think I have an answer for you. Why don’t you apply to Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns? You can learn a lot there while making new friends, some of whom might be colts. Youth is fleeting. Go be a young mare rather than a queen-in-training.”

Diadem began to look excited. “What will Mother say though?”

“Maybe she will surprise you. And if she needs a little persuasion, tell her your Dad supports you. It’s about time I had a bigger say in my daughter’s path to fulfilment.”

She giggled and got up to give me a hug. “Thanks, Dad. I’m going to do that.” She then started heading for the door.

“And if you’re looking for something to do before the next semester starts, you could always help me wade through this paperwork, Princess.” I gestured at the mounds of documents.

She glanced at it and stuck out her tongue. “No thanks, Dad. I did not list that as one of my interests!”

She had me there. I looked at it again and said, “Screw it. That can wait a bit. I think I need to check out the rest of my buggy children and see if I can do something about their education. It’s time for a little change.”



CHAPTER 3: Visitors (Part 1)


“Thank you, Your Highness,” the golden yellow mare said.

“Always a pleasure to help Our Little Ponies,” I replied.

The petitioner bowed and headed for the exit from the throne room. These interactions always made me happy. Through no fault of her own, Meadow Bloom’s business premises had been severely impacted when a runaway cart had careened through her shop’s window, destroying much of her stock of flowers. The businessmare’s insurance should have compensated for the damages but the company had cited a loophole to deny her claim. The mare’s funds had already run out trying to rebuild. She had reached the point where she could not even afford to put food on the table for her family. As a last resort, she had petitioned the Crown.

As a matter of policy, we did not dish out money to everyone who came begging. Do that and you would very quickly find that you would have a line of ponies wanting a handout stretching out the palace gates. Nonetheless, we could look into how they got into their dire straits. Anypony who petitioned one of the triarchs had to file it first with the Clerk of the Court. This not only allowed the Clerk to organize the appellants but also weed out the frivolous time-wasters. Not that I was too strict on the latter – the convoluted rationalizing of those entitled ponies never failed to liven up an otherwise boring court session. The Clerk also prepared facts and figures for the presiding triarch’s advisor. Chrysalis filled that role for me and she had a hive full of drones ready and willing to perform rapid background checks. Over the years, my wife became a master at delegation—a hundred drones working simultaneously on small pieces of the investigation produced amazing results! In this case, in the hours between the mare filing her petition and presenting it to me, Sally had uncovered some very interesting and disturbing facts about the insurance company. Their annual report filed with the insurance licensing bureau claimed more bits were paid out for claims than policyholder companies declared in their financial summaries. That was even after taking into account a hoofful of settlements paid to corporations that seemed to exist on paper only. Crooks truly ticked me off – just ask the duo who were my first scalps after arriving in Equestria. Now the reformed twins worked for the Crown, and I got to sic them onto other ponies who tried to take advantage of good citizens. Flim and Flam’s expertise at pulling off scams gave them a sixth sense when it came to ferreting out crooked deals. Plus, I believe they got a kick out of their new job.

Anyway, I arranged to have some meals sent to the mare’s home and promised to have her circumstances investigated. She didn’t have to know that it was already in progress. We never gave away our behind-the-scenes machinations because we did not want to tip off anyone being investigated. So Meadow Bloom departed filled with hope and I was left with a deep sense of satisfaction.

That was the last petitioner for the day and the Sergeant-at-Arms bellowed, “Day Court has now concluded!” The audience members filed out of the Throne Room, all except one young hippogriff who instead wandered up close to the dais. Oddly enough, the Royal Guards ignored her. My personal guard, Captain Penumbra, merely raised an eyebrow at the impudent bird. Then the Throne Room doors closed with a soft boom and we were in relative privacy. The hippogriff grinned and bounded up the stairs.

“Hi, Uncle Mark! Hi, Aunt Penny and Aunt Sally!”

I met her with a hug. “Hello, Yolanda. Does your mother know you’re here in Equestria?”

My best friend’s daughter hugged my wives first before answering, Chrysalis basking in the love that the young hippogriff always projected to her. The girl was the only one besides me whom the changeling queen tolerated calling her Sally. Then again, my wife and Rosa were pretty tight and both had doted on the child since birth, so it was hardly surprising.

Yolanda answered, “Mom was the one who suggested that I come see you.”

My eyebrow rose considerably. “Oh? And why would Rosa do that?”

The hippogriff hesitated and shuffled her forelegs. “I want to ask a favor.”


“I want to bring some friends over to Equestria.”

I paused as I considered my words carefully. “You’re old enough and smart enough to know why we keep the portal confidential, so why the urge to let some others into the secret?”

“Ivana and Latisha are my best friends and they’ve invited me on their special trips but I’ve never been able to do the same. They’re beginning to wonder what I do on so many weekends.”

That was hardly surprising considering that her entire family spent a lot of their spare time in this world. Yolanda had practically grown up here. Her hippogriff form was as normal and natural to her as the human one.

I glanced at Penny who said, “She has a point.”

Chrysalis said, “I saw this coming months ago.”

I frowned at her. “Why didn’t you say something?”

The changeling smirked. “And miss out on watching you panic while you try to figure out a solution?”

After years of marriage, Sally still loved to needle me. On the other hoof, I knew that she would have been quietly working on the problem already. Chrysalis was nothing if not organized. I gave her a token response of “Gee, thanks,” before heading for the exit behind the throne. “This decision can’t be made by me alone. I’ll have to discuss it with Trixie and Twilight first. I guess you’ll be staying for dinner, Yo?”

“Sure thing, Uncle Mark.”

I sent a message to Twilight inviting her and Thorax to join us for dinner so that we could all discuss Yolanda’s request. Trixie deferred to Rosa’s judgment on her daughter’s readiness for the responsibility. Twilight was a bit more cautious, reminding us that we would be dealing with a couple of unknown teenage girls. I pointed out that we were already planning to expand contact with my birth world and this might make for a good trial step. Chrysalis offered up some ideas to mitigate potential risks. Yolanda gave us her best puppy-dog eyes. The decision was virtually a forgone conclusion.

We settled on the Saturday after next for the trial visit. After agreeing to all the conditions that we had set, my niece could hardly wait to get home and let her friends know the good news. After the young hippogriff had departed, we amused ourselves in speculating what species her friends would arrive as. After Phil and Rosa’s son, Miguel, was born and brought over for the first time, we expected another hippogriff but he was a unicorn like his father. Therefore, we knew better than to assume.

I flexed my fingers to get used to having them again. I needed to visit my birth world or the anthro world more often! I waited in a lounge chair in the spare room where the new portal mirror hung on the wall. The oval-shaped frame glowed with the same iridescence as the glass. I looked at the mirror with a grin. As much as Rosa loved her husband, she did not agree with all his interior design choices. The deactivated original mirror with the fantasy-creature motif sat in storage as a backup.

Neither Phil nor Rosa wanted an interdimensional gateway in their bedroom, especially after recounting my “Rasta Jacob Marley” prank and inadvertently spying on Phil while he slept. This led to an awkward conversation of why the name “Valerie McPherson” caused my best friend enough panic to awaken him from a sound sleep. Ah, well. That was Phil’s problem to explain to Rosa, not mine.

A series of careful experiments had shown that changelings could survive in my magic-poor homeworld, though only with the precaution of ensuring their love stores were full. As a result, Chrysalis stood next to me, having taken a gorgeous human form. While the adaptation spell did not work on changelings, Sally had more than enough practice taking this form due to her many visits to chat with Rosa. She did retain a scaled-down version of her horn but it was hidden under a hat that matched the slinky green dress that she was wearing.

It wasn’t long before I heard the excited voices of Yolanda and her friends and, moments later, they were ushered into the room by Phil and Rosa. I got up and my niece hugged me before turning back to her friends.

“Guys – I’d like you to meet my uncle, Mark Wells. He’s here to take us on the special trip that I promised. Uncle Mark, these are Latisha Tyson and Ivana Kalchik.”

Latisha was African-American while, by looks and name, I guessed that Ivana’s family was of Slavic origin. I was pleased to see the mixture of ethnic backgrounds together with Yolanda’s Latino heritage. That boded well for dealing with the multiplicity of races in Equestria.

“Pleased to meet you, girls.”

“Same here, Mister Wells,” Latisha replied.

“Why all the mystery?” Ivana demanded.

That was a bit abrupt but I could empathize with their frustration at being kept in the dark. “First, I want your promise that you can keep a secret. Our destination is very confidential at this time and access is limited to only a small number of people. Going there is a privilege which won’t be repeated if you blab.”

My mysterious words only served to make them more excited and they both hastened to assure me that they wouldn’t tell anyone. I glanced at Chrysalis who gave me a nod.

“Okay, we will literally be traveling to another world. Believe it or not, this mirror is a portal to a realm of magical beings.” Unsurprisingly, both girls’ expressions immediately fell as they doubtless thought they were listening to a lunatic. Yolanda merely grinned knowingly. I ventured on. “By passing through, you will be transformed into one of those beings, just like Yolanda. I hope you’re ready to have your minds blown.”

Ivana scowled at my niece. “Is this just some big practical joke on us because we kept nagging you to bring us on one of your family trips for a change?”

“Nope!” Yolanda replied with a grin. “Just ask Auntie Penny.” She pointed behind them.

While the two girls’ attention was on me, Penumbra had quietly slipped into the room behind Phil and Rosa. They stepped aside to allow Penny to approach the girls.

“Is this proof enough?” the thestral mare asked. My third wife only wore her usual saddlebags so no clothes obscured her natural form. Twilight had turned off the adaptation spell to allow my wife and bodyguard to precede us untransformed. Having anticipated the reaction to my outrageous claims, we had prepared some irrefutable evidence.

Ivana and Latisha gaped in surprise and awe at the batpony. They grabbed each other with both arms for support, eliciting a wave of giggles from Yolanda.

Penny spread her wings to look even more impressive. “My name is Penumbra. I’m a counselor here at the Mount Off-Your-Rocker Insane Asylum. Would you please describe the hallucination you are imagining right now?” She then gave her winningest, fang-filled smile.

Rosa rolled her eyes. “Always with the pranks, isn’t it, Miss Penny?”

“You bet!” She turned back to the teenagers. “You can touch me if you like to prove I’m real.”

Latisha was by the pony’s side like a shot and started stroking her mane. That got an appreciative purr out of my wife. She was a sucker for any kind of mane brushing! Ivana approached more cautiously before fingering one of the outstretched wings.

After a suitable amount of time for the two to get their fill of the exotic equine who could actually talk to them, I asked, “So – do you believe me now?”

“Yes, Mister Wells,” Latisha replied.

“Will I turn into one of these…?” said Ivana.

“Awe-inspiring thestrals,” supplied Penumbra.

I had to talk over Phil and Rosa’s chuckles. “I have no idea what forms you will take. Yolanda is a hippogriff, while her mother is a griffon and her father is a unicorn. The adaptation spell on the portal decides what form bests suits you in Equestria. That’s the name of the country you’ll be visiting, by the way.”

“Uncle Mark is a prince there,” Yolanda said smugly.

“Um, yeah, so there will be plenty of Royal Guards around. As long as you behave yourselves, they won’t bother you because you’ll be our guests. Now, shall we get started?” When the girls nodded eagerly, I said, “Rosa, want to show them what to do?”

“Of course. Nothing to it, girls.” She then leaped through the mirror, eliciting gasps of surprise.

I said, “I suggest that you step through carefully. Rosa knows exactly what she’s doing but you will have to get used to some changes. Just do what I do. Latisha – you follow me and be prepared to fall forward. If you end up as a pony, you will land on forehooves like Penumbra. Oh, and leave your electronics here on this side. Jewelry is fine. Phil, give Latisha a few moments to clear the exit before sending Ivana through.”

“No problem, Mark,” my friend replied.

I then stepped through the mirror and joined Rosa, Twilight, and Trixie in the room that we had set aside specifically for this portal. With the regular trips between worlds being done by Phil and his family, we needed something more convenient than the one where all the other mirrors were located.

Apparently, Latisha had not hesitated because someone followed right on my heels … err … hooves. She had obviously listened to my instructions as she fell forward onto her brand new hooves. Our first guest was a pegasus with medium blue feathers and a pink mane. The teenage mare stood there, mouth agape, trying to take in the change. She craned her neck around to look at herself before saying, “Oh, wow!”

I went over to Latisha and gently urged her forward with a wing. “Better make room for the others.”

She looked at my face and said, “Oh, wow! You actually look handsome over here!” Trixie and Twilight leaned against one another in support as they whinnied with unrestrained laughter.

Latisha gasped and held a hoof to her chest. “I’m sorry, Mr. Wells. I was just—”

I waved a hoof. “Apology accepted. I can honestly say I’m quite used to this sort of thing by now.”

“O… OK, thanks!” The teenaged mare trotted away from the portal. She stopped and spread her wings in front of another full-length (but not magical) mirror on the far wall. The improved adaptation spell allowed the new pegasus to move fairly confidently, although it was clear that she was still preoccupied with all the amazing beings she saw in the room. It apparently had not hit her yet that her clothes had been replaced by a dainty saddlebag and she was essentially nude like the rest of us. Her jeans and T-shirt had been transformed appropriately by a new tweak to that portal for the convenience of those of us on either side.

Before long, my co-rulers had recovered and our second guest stepped through the portal. This one was a surprise to us too – she was a dragon! While not having a form as graceful as Smolder’s, it was clear that Ivana was still female and standing bipedal. She stopped and stared at her new talons and bronze scales before checking out the rest of her body. She flapped her leathery wings and swished her tail before grinning and saying, “This is sick! I’m a fucking dragon!”

“Watch your language, please,” I said. “Step away from the mirror so that the others won’t bump into you.”

Yolanda came through next and the three girls started checking out each other’s forms.

“I’ve got pink hooves!”
“Your mane and tail are pink too!”
“I’ve got cool talons!”
“You’ve got wings!”
“You do too!”
“We’ve all got wings!”
“I wanna fly!”
“I love your two-tone feathers!”
“What’s it like having a beak?”
“Can you breathe fire?”
“Yeah! Make me a pizza!”
“Your slick scales are gorgeous!”
“I know! They’re so awesome and EEEK! Where are my pants?!

The new mirror’s sophisticated adaptation spell took into account a being’s garments or lack thereof and no one had to worry about clothing when transitioning this particular portal in either direction. That meant that someone like Rosa could travel from Earth fully clothed nowadays and arrive in just her feathers and fur. When she returned, her clothing would be restored. It was a surprise to me that Ivana had retained her blouse – her body did not need it, nor did it conceal boobs because dragons didn’t have any. However, it had apparently distracted her long enough to not realize that it was her sole remaining garment. Having noticed, she now had her hands clutched over her crotch. Not that a dragon’s cloaca was particularly noticeable, but nobody paid attention to such things in Equestria anyway. I had become so acclimated that it hadn’t even occurred to me until the young girl screamed.

Yolanda hastened to reassure her friend. “It’s okay, Ivana! Almost no one wears clothes here. And have you ever seen a picture of a dragon wearing anything?”

“You’ll get used to it,” I added. “And it’s worse for males when they come through for the first time. We’re a lot more conspicuous.”

Now I reckon that the dragon’s blush was no longer over her nudity but at the image that I had brought up. When Phil stepped through moments later, I noticed where Ivana’s eyes drifted and then hastily looked away. Distraction successful!

Latisha seemed to have been just as oblivious as Ivana but merely curious after the subject had been brought up. She was reacting a lot better than I had after I first arrived in this magical world.

Miguel trotted through right after his father, followed immediately by Sally with Penny joining her a moment later. The changeling queen drew a new series of gasps from the two visitors followed by a rapid stream of comments and questions. I felt a bit annoyed that my mates smiled through the hundred-mile-per-hour interrogation. Just like the teenage friends, the adult mares seemed to have no trouble following the excited babble – an ability I lacked entirely.

Trixie and Twilight formally introduced themselves before suggesting that their guests head out to see the world that they had come to visit. Ivana was surprised once again when she automatically fell to all fours to walk quadrupedally which was not unusual for some kinds of dragons. In fact, she looked a lot more comfortable now.

As Trixie led our visitors out, Twilight stopped me with a hoof and waited for everyone to get out of earshot. She frowned. “Mark, I’m a little concerned that Ivana came through as a dragon.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That’s not exactly something that I expect to hear from the Princess of Friendship.”

She shot me an annoyed look. “You know I don’t mean it that way. However, the mirror’s adaptation spell matches the user’s new form to their basic nature, and you know what the average dragon is like. I’m worried that Ivana might not have the restraint that natural dragons need to learn to overcome their instincts.”

“Good point,” I acknowledged. “I’ll keep my eyes open and ask the others to do the same.”

We then hastened to catch up. The first stop was a balcony overlooking Canterlot and the valley below. They took in the wondrous view just like Phil and Rosa had done the first time that they visited. Then Yolanda startled her girlfriends by leaping over the rail, spreading her wings, and climbing up into the sky.

“Woohoo!” she shouted. My niece never tired of being able to fly and it seemed her enthusiasm was infectious. Both Ivana and Latisha’s wings were partially spread as they watched.

My first wife said, “While I’m sure that Yolanda will be able to give Latisha Tyson pointers, Trixie will ask Smolder to give you flying lessons, Ivana Kalchik. Dragon wings work differently from feathered ones. Please do not try leaping from heights until you both have had some practice.”

I wish Trixie had shown me the same restraint when I had first arrived!

Since this was ostensibly the Martine family’s outing, Phil and Rosa were in charge of the girls. Nevertheless, I accompanied them with my ever-present mate, Penumbra. Chrysalis surprised me by tagging along.

First, we toured the castle. Because it was the weekend and there was no formal Court today, it lacked the usual bustling weekday activity. It let me show off the Throne Room which never failed to impress with its size and grandeur. The scenes depicted in the stained-glass windows prompted discussions and hoof-pointing at all three triarchs followed by a promise from Yolanda to tell the associated stories. The gravity-defying fountain on the ceiling made our visitors’ jaws drop, as it did most newbies to this room.

“You really are a prince,” Latisha said to me. “And you rule this world?”

“Actually, I co-rule with my wife, Princess Trixie Lulamoon, and my colleague, Princess Twilight Sparkle. And we three rule the Equestrian Empire, not the whole world.”

“How did you get to meet Yolanda’s dad?” Ivana asked.

“I grew up with him. He’s practically my brother.”

The dragoness blinked. “You mean, you used to be a human too before you came here and became royalty? How did that happen?”

“That’s an incredibly long story which I’ll save for another time. Suffice to say that I found a portal by accident and met the right ponies.”

Chrysalis said, “What my husband failed to mention is his inability to stay out of other ponies’ business and thwarting their plans. So they’re left with no option than to go with his.”

I gave my mate a flat look. Her little dig might have been largely true but it made me sound like a jerk. She put on an innocent smile. Our guests didn’t latch onto that topic, thankfully. No, they came up with something more awkward instead.

Ivana looked shocked. “I thought you said that Trixie was your wife.”

“She is, and so is Chrysalis,” I admitted.

“And me,” Penny piped up.

“And don’t forget Miss Rarity,” Chrysalis added helpfully.

“You have four wives?!” gasped Latisha.

“Yes. You have to understand that mares greatly outnumber stallions and, while monogamous couples aren’t unusual, de-facto herds are far more common.”

“You weren’t satisfied with one,” Ivana accused.

I rolled my eyes. “It was more of a case that they weren’t satisfied with me having only one. It’s different for dragons like you are now, but for ponies, the competition for the stallions is quite fierce.”

Latisha looked thoughtful. “So, if I wanted to find a boyfriend here, there would be plenty of rivals?”

Rosa spoke up. “There will not be any colt-chasing while you are visiting,” she said firmly. “You are still a filly and you are our responsibility while you’re here. That goes for you too, Ivana.”

“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused.

I heaved a sigh of relief now that I was out of the spotlight and Rosa had responsibility for controlling the teenagers. “Let’s move on,” I suggested.

After the tour of the castle was completed, we headed out into the city to see the sights. The girls were overwhelmed once again by the mountainside community and fascinated by its diverse inhabitants. While it was still a predominantly unicorn population, the number of other races calling this city home had increased dramatically since I had arrived in Equestria. Some were rarer than others, however, and one in particular distracted from the fact that a Triarch was wandering through the town like a tourist.

After garnering a lot of curious looks, some of them a bit nervous, Ivana pointed out, “I haven’t seen any dragons.”

“They don’t tend to mingle with other races very often,” I replied. “However, you should get to meet one or two, depending on my daughter-in-law’s dinner plans.”

“Your daughter-in-law is a dragon? Are mixed marriages common?”

I raised an eyebrow. “They’re not too unusual. Why? Do you have a problem with that?”

The dragoness shook her head. “No. It’s just that… well… a pony marrying a dragon is a bit weird, isn’t it?”

“My son’s a griffon, actually, and no, it’s not weird. They love each other very much and I’m proud to be her father-in-law.”

Ivana nodded and looked thoughtful as she wandered off.

It was a little bit like herding kittens as our two visitors’ attention got grabbed by virtually everything the city had to offer, especially the shops. Eventually, though, we made our way to the wall that was on the edge of the cliff next to the waterfall that plunged to the valley floor far below. Yolanda took off over the wall and hovered while she excitedly pointed out the various places that could be seen from here. I noticed that both Latisha and Ivana’s wings had half-opened as they felt the urge to follow their friend’s example.

“Are you sure we can’t fly too, Mister Wells?” Latisha asked.

“Yolanda has been coming here since she was a baby and she still needed flying lessons just like any other foal. You have the instincts but not the knowledge. If you try to copy Yolanda, you’re more likely to plummet than fly.”

Both the girls looked disappointed. I smirked. “However, maybe you’d be interested in a compromise.”

“Yes! Anything!” Ivana replied and Latisha grinned and nodded rapidly.

I pointed to a town in the distance. “As Yolanda said, that is Ponyville. We will be visiting there next but I was going to take you there via a portal. Instead, how would you like to be carried there?”

“How do you mean?” Latisha asked.

“Like this.” I powered up my horn and levitated her. She squawked in surprise, her wings flaring, but she quickly settled down when she realized that she was hovering safely. “You can both be carried in our telekinesis and have some of the sensations of flying. You might even get a gliding lesson along the way if you feel confident enough.”

The pegasus filly grinned. “You’re on!”

“Me too!” Ivana enthused.

“So – no problems with fear of heights?” Phil asked. “Rosa and I are responsible for you and I don’t need either of you having panic attacks and hurting yourselves.”

Yolanda said, “Trust me, Dad – we all love thrill rides. They’ll be fine.”

When our two visitors nodded in agreement, I grinned. “Great. Now, since I’ll need to concentrate on levitating Latisha, I’ll switch to a form more competent at flying while distracted.” I then transformed to my Celestial body and spread my white-feathered wings wide. Jaws dropped and my smile grew.

“You were just dying for an excuse to do that,” Phil said with a roll of his eyes.

“Of course. How could I resist the opportunity?” I replied, unabashed.

The girls’ eyes widened further upon hearing my voice. “You sound like a girl!” Latisha blurted out before covering her mouth with a hoof.

I gave her a wink. “That’s because I am a mare at the moment. Magic can do wondrous things. Now – are you ready to go?”

Upon gathering their wits and agreeing, I said to Chrysalis, “Would you mind carrying Ivana?”

“As you wish, husband. I believe I will take a more appropriate form too.” She then flared with green fire and transformed into a large dragon. Her twin horns glowed and Ivana was lifted into the air. Don’t bother telling me that dragons can’t do that – Sally was a queen changeling and she made her own rules.

Rosa crouched down to allow her husband to climb onto her back as the griffon and unicorn had done so many times before. Twilight offered to carry Miguel. Then we all took off, Penny in the rear and watching our backs. The girls squealed in a combination of fright and delight as we crossed over the wall and there was nothing between them and the ground far below.

I had grown much in power over the years as an alicorn and carrying Latisha in my magic was not a strain. She squirmed and held her wings at odd angles, causing the wind to tug on her in random directions. As Marklestia, I coped easily and adjusted my flight unconsciously. I didn’t scold her or ask her to keep still – this was her first flight, kind of, and I wasn’t going to spoil it for her. At least, she would come through it a lot better than my first time.

We were about halfway to Ponyville when Chrysalis said to Ivana, “Hold your wings rigid like this, child.”

The young dragoness attempted to imitate Sally and when my wife was satisfied, she released her hold on Ivana. The girl wobbled nervously but held the glide. I turned my attention back to Latisha who looked at me expectantly.

“Okay, feathered wings work slightly differently but the principle is the same. Hold yours like this.”

The pegasus filly did her best to copy me and I nudged her wings into a better position before letting her go. She lasted about five seconds before she shifted her wings and started tumbling out of control. I caught her and straightened her out.

“Don’t flap. Just hold the glide. You need to learn to draw on your flight magic before you can do much more. Ivana’s dragon form is better at non-powered flight than pegasi, so don’t try to be as good as her yet.”

Latisha’s second attempt went much better but when I saw her starting to tire, I grasped her with my magic once more.

“That’s enough for now. You’ll need some lessons and wing muscle-strengthening exercises before you can do much more.”

“Thanks, Mister Wells.”

“You’re welcome, Latisha.”

Meanwhile, Chrysalis decided that Ivana had done enough too. While the dragoness had successfully held her glide for the entire time, she was panting. And besides, we had lost a lot of altitude and needed to get back to powered flight.

We flew directly to Twilight’s castle, waving to the occasional pegasus who passed by. The locals had long ago become accustomed to seeing me and my wives passing through, and a royal visit was just another day in this unusual town. We came to a landing in front of the living crystal edifice that my co-ruler called home. The girls gaped in awe.

“Is it just me or does that castle look like a tree?” Latisha asked.

“It grew from a seed, so you’re not wrong,” I replied.

Ivana just stared at it with drool escaping the corner of her mouth. I wondered if I was going to have to ask her to refrain from trying to take a bite out of it. Fortunately, she was distracted by the person who came to greet us at the door.

“Welcome to Friendship Castle!” Spike announced with a grin. Twilight had sent a Royal Guard ahead to advise Spike of our change of plans, so it was no surprise that my dragon friend was there to meet us. While he was now the town’s librarian, the castle was still his home and it was the weekend, so he was free to meet up with us. Then he realized exactly who we had brought with us. Spike’s eyes locked with Ivana’s and they both gazed at each other wordlessly.

I had not been the only one who had grown over the years. Although still a youth by dragon standards, Spike had become a fine specimen of a male dragon and all that that implied. It seemed both liked what they saw. While Ivana had only been a dragon for a few hours, I could tell that she was bowing to her new instincts quite readily and Spike was reacting to her interest. However, she was a little too young yet to allow anything to happen between them, but before I could intervene, Rosa interposed herself between the two.

“Spike, this is Ivana Kalchik who is my guest and my responsibility.” She gave the drake a hard look and he took the hint.

“Right. Twilight told me to expect a surprise but I didn’t expect this. Good to meet you, Ivana. And who is this filly?” he asked as he turned to the pegasus with a warm smile.

Yolanda answered this time, “This is Latisha Tyson and these are my two best friends.”

“Awesome. Show your friends around the castle while I make lunch. It’ll be ready in about twenty minutes.”

Naturally, Yolanda was as familiar with the castle as me, perhaps even more. After all, she had spent much of her life in this town and had many friends here. She even had her own room which the castle had adapted to her needs. It was right next to her parents’ room, of course. Phil and Rosa gave her a lot of freedom while they were in Equestria, but only occasionally let her visit here by herself as yet. I suspected that would be changing in the near future – my niece was growing into a young adult and she would deserve the freedom and responsibility of such.

Lunch was enjoyable with much conversation. The girls asked a lot of questions that Twilight was happy to answer, although we had to stop her from going into full lecture mode at times. In turn, we all learned a little more about the transformed humans. Latisha was already leaning towards a career in veterinary medicine while Ivana intended to do business studies for a career in her family’s investment company. The latter helped explain her species change. I was left puzzled about what she had in common with Latisha and Yolanda. My best friend’s daughter planned to become an engineer like both her parents. Further conversation pegged Ivana as strongly independent and inclined to be adventurous, so perhaps not so odd after all. And despite the implied warning to Spike, he and Ivana kept exchanging interested glances. Teenagers! What can you do?

The moment that caused the most amusement was when Spike sprinkled some sapphires on his sandwich for seasoning. Ivana’s attention was caught immediately and she asked what they were. Her eyes became as big as dinner plates when informed of their nature.

“You eat gemstones?!”

“Sure! They’re a part of a dragon’s normal diet.”

“But… how could you afford it?”

I said, “Gemstones aren’t rare in Equestria. Ones of that size are very common and the local grocer stocks them for Spike.”

Ivana leaned her head back and blinked rapidly. “Consider me boggled! What about bigger gems?”

Spike answered, “I normally save those for special treats. Want to try one?”

“I… suppose so.”

“Back in a minute.” Spike hastened out of the dining room and soon returned bearing a ruby as big as a golf ball. Yeah, the guy had to be smitten to willingly give away one of those. Spike panted for a few seconds to catch his breath. The young drake must have sprinted to his stash and back!

He handed it to Ivana.

The dragoness stared at the gem in her palm. “What exactly do I do with this?”

“Just bite into it like a plum,” Spike instructed.

“Okay, but if I break my teeth, you’re going to regret it.” Ivana then tentatively chomped on the ruby. To her surprise, it broke off easily and she started chewing. Her eyes lit up. “This is delicious!”

Latisha asked, “So? Spill it! What does it taste like?”

“It tastes like a spicy strawberry, which I never thought I’d enjoy!”

“Well, yeah,” Spike said. “I just got it fresh from the rock farm yesterday.”

Ivana swallowed her mouthful of ruby and stared at him. “They grow these on farms?! This world is amazing!” She then popped the remaining half of the ruby into her mouth and masticated it thoughtfully.

After the meal, we let Yolanda take off with her friends without supervision. Or at least, nothing overt. While the teenage hippogriff was fine by herself in Ponyville, Phil and Rosa were still responsible for the other two girls. Fortunately for my friends, I was a prince with Royal Guard pegasi whose keen eyes could watch unobserved from a distance. Penny arranged to have a pair keep an eye on the girls while the rest of us adults socialized. No doubt the three would have plenty to tell us about when we returned there for dinner.

We arranged for a late dinner to allow the girls to have as much free time together as possible. In fact, when we returned to Canterlot Castle, it was time for Twilight to set the sun, this being late autumn. We watched our two visitors' worldviews get blown away by the fact that this sun revolved around the planet (with a little help) rather than the other way around.

When Gallus arrived with his wife, Smolder, we introduced them to the girls. I had Spike send my son and daughter-in-law a note advising him about Yolanda’s friends so that they could come prepared. However, Smolder had turned up in a flattering evening dress for the occasion which immediately set off Ivana.

“How come she gets to wear clothes and I don’t?!”

Smolder looked at her coolly. “I am a Lady of the Court and I’m expected to dress accordingly. Besides, I’m not like most other dragons – I love gowns. You, however, look out of place in that blouse and would be better off without it. Appearances are everything among the nobility and I must dress to impress while you would be mocked as a try-hard. I dressed up for this occasion in honor of our guests but I see now that I need not have bothered.”

My daughter-in-law was a well-mannered and socially apt person, but she was still a dragon and knew how to burn. “Give her a break, Smolder – she’s only been a dragon since this morning. Perhaps you can give her some pointers later on how to fit in better?”

Smolder looked at me and raised an eye ridge before responding, “As you wish, Father.”

She had started calling me “Dad” like Gallus did after getting married, and only got formal when she was irked. Oh well, I could live with that. She’d cool off soon enough.

Aside from the rough start, dinner went well. Latisha was surprised to find the smoked salmon was to her taste despite her being a pony, but we informed her that pegasi typically liked fish. However, I think the highlight was watching Ivana’s expression when she was served an apple pie with one-carat-sized diamond sprinkles for dessert.

“I don’t know whether I should eat this or invest it!”

That provoked a round of laughter and assurances that it was worth more here as a gourmet food than otherwise.

After the meal, we let Yolanda leave with her friends to amuse themselves until bedtime, trusting Yolanda to keep the other girls in line. Meanwhile, I caught up with my son. While I saw Smolder frequently at Court, Gallus’s schedule was a bit more erratic due to everything he was undertaking to further his ambitions in the Royal Guard. I was pleased that he still felt it important to touch base with his dad as often as possible and I was very proud of his accomplishments. Just as Phil and Rosa were obviously proud of their daughter. My niece deserved good friends to share her world. That’s why I hoped that this weekend visit would go without a hitch.

In quick succession, two scrolls appeared in front of me which I caught in my magic. I smiled while reading their contents.

Gallus asked, “What’s that all about?”

Smolder said, “I know that look. You’re nipping a problem in the bud, aren’t you?”

I looked up. “While at the Castle of Friendship, I had Spike send a couple of dragonfire scrolls. I changed the itinerary for tomorrow’s activities for Yolanda and our visiting guests. These replies tell me our friends and allies can accommodate us.” My smile showed all of my teeth. “Looks like tomorrow will be an… interesting day.”



CHAPTER 4: Visitors (Part 2)


The next morning, Spike treated Trixie and me to a smoked salmon and egg quiche that earned the dragon a hug and nuzzle from my wife. While I had always liked all kinds of fish, Trixie only became a fan after her ascension. If I could convince Spike to give me the leftovers, I would have my number one choice for cold lunches next week.

Who was I kidding? All of my wives loved Spike’s cooking. Yes, even Sally. It would never last the weekend, no matter where I tried to hide it. Still, having happy wives is not the worst thing in the world.

An hour after sunrise, a growling Twilight stumbled into the kitchen. Trixie and I refrained from saying anything until the terminally sleep-deprived alicorn had a few cups of coffee in her system… which took less than a minute.

Our co-ruler sighed and gave us a cheery smile. “Good morning! I hope you slept well.”

Trixie narrowed her eyes. “Better than you. Let me guess: Comprehensive Lectures on Optical Fiber Communications?”

Twilight waved a hoof. “No. I finished that series of books from Sunset Shimmer’s dimension yesterday.”

I blinked. “But you got a shipment of books from her only two days ago.”

“Exactly! Why wait?”

Trixie and I shared a look. Thorax still visited the Red Changeling Hive every month for further instruction. During those weeks, his wife would invariably fall back to burning the candle at both ends… with blowtorches.

Before either of us could try reasoning with Twilight, giggling drew our attention to the doorway. Phil and Rosa strolled in with little Miguel hanging onto his father’s mane with all four hooves. Phil would lurch forward or backward, bounce a bit higher or stumble a bit lower – each time he would pretend he had “tripped a little bit”. The peals of laughter let everyone know who was the happiest foal in Equestria right now.

Rosa looked around the room. “Where is my daughter?”

Twilight said, “They were still chattering away when I went to bed.”

The griffoness looked at our host. “And when was that?”

“A couple of hours before sunrise.”

Dios mio. They won’t awaken until this afternoon.”

I stood up. “Nah. They’ll be down in a minute.”

Phil looked up. He had finally gotten Miguel to shift attention from his father’s mane to a cereal bowl. “Good luck with that, buddy.” He shouldn’t have let his attention waver. Miguel attempted to grab the spoon sticking out of the bowl. His near-miss resulted in a launch of spoon, milk, and cereal at his father.

Miguel clapped his hooves. “Again! Again!”

I used the convenient distraction to make my exit. Soon, I knocked on Yolanda’s door. Not even a groan in response. Thought so.

I opened the door to see all three friends splayed out on the much-too-small bed. Ivana snored once, coughed, then snored again. I knelt next to Yolanda.

“Time to get up.”

“Noooooooooo…..” The hippogriff used a pillow to cover her head and cut off her pitiful wail.

I stood. “Fine then. I got special permission to visit the Dragonlands, but since you aren’t interested—”

WHAT!” Yolanda bounced into the air, flapping her wings to hover. “Are you serious!?”

I smiled and headed for the door. “Sure am. And Mount Aris tomorrow. As for today, there’s just enough time to get breakfast… maybe.”

“Get up! Get up! Get up!” Yolanda landed on Ivana’s stomach which made the dragon belch out a squeak along with a puff of smoke. The hippogriff shoved Latisha off the bed with two hooves. The pegasus squawked once before tumbling across the floor. “You two get your lazy butts moving!”

“I want to sleeeep!” protested Ivana.

With a much stronger shove, Yolanda knocked the dragon off the bed. “Sleep tomorrow! Today we’re seeing the homeland of the dragons.”

A pair of heads with wide eyes rose like periscopes off of the floor. The two friends chorused, “Really?”

As I exited the room, Yolanda nearly tackled me with a flying hug. “Did you set this up? You set this up. Thank you! Thank you, Uncle Mark!” Before I could reply, she had already dashed back into her room. “Get up now if you want to eat! Spike is a great cook. Ivana, leave your blouse here unless you want it to get ruined.”

I chuckled at the display. Teenagers.

My happy mood ended when the girls made it to the daggerscale portal room. The last remnants of my precious leftover quiche disappeared before my eyes. A question confirmed my suspicions. They had been in too much of a hurry to appreciate or even taste their breakfast. Belatedly, I remembered my many foals when they were that age. Vacuum cleaners with legs.

I sighed.


Penumbra and I led the way through the series of four daggerscale portals that reached the Dragonlands. Only the largest of scales could reach the dragon kingdom in one jump and this trip did not constitute the kind of emergency that justified using up our limited supply. As a result, the adults had to herd the girls and Miguel like cats! Yes, this forest with light blue trees taller than redwoods is fascinating, but we have places to be!

I stepped out onto the broken basalt plain at the center of the dragon homeland. Like many other locations on Equus, the region had transformed in the last dozen years. Off to the left, a small city had sprung up to accommodate the other races that lived and worked here. Dragon and minotaur masons carried stones and wood beams at the construction site of the largest building. The home office of the First Draconian Bank would hold its grand opening ceremony in a few months. Of course, the Triarchs were invited to attend along with the leaders of other nations.

After the last of our party exited the portal, I waved everyone forward. A couple of juvenile dragons—Scrounger and Mayhem – waved as they walked past. Both dragons oversaw business holdings in Equestria and used this opportunity to make an unscheduled trip. Business between the two realms steadily increased throughout the years. Thanks to dragonfire scroll delivery, dragons had become outstanding offsite managers!

I stepped up to Ember and bowed. The blue dragoness had grown another half-meter in stature from the time we last met. Her scales gleamed in the sunlight along with her fangs. I had known the ruler long enough to recognize her friendly smile. “Welcome, Prince Mark!” Her eyes shifted behind me. “Welcome, beings from Mark’s homeworld! Know that friendship is magic across all of Equus.”

I nodded in acknowledgement and motioned with a wing. “Dragonlord Ember, you already know Captain Penumbra, Phil, Rosa, and Miguel.”

My herdmate, my best friend, and his wife lowered their heads in respectful bows. Rosa said, “A pleasure to see you again, Ember.” Miguel was not quite as polite. From his perch on his mother’s back, he blew a raspberry at the dragoness then devolved into a fit of giggles.

I said, “Today, Yolanda brought her best friends: Latisha and Ivana.” I identified each guest with my primaries.

The young pegasus pranced forward. “It’s wonderful to meet you! Getting to see dragons in the wild like this is just… incredibly awesome!”

Ember laughed. “Likewise, Latisha. I assure you that my race doesn’t get too wild.”

When I didn’t hear anything else from behind me, I turned around to see Ivana staring at Ember… no… at the Bloodstone Scepter. The young dragoness trembled and moved her mouth, but no sound came out.

Yolanda slapped her friend on the side. “Hey! You’re being rude!”

Ivana blinked. “What? Wait. What!”

Ember strode up to the smaller dragon. “Ah, I see. You feel unfamiliar emotions toward my staff of office, don’t you? Perhaps a desire to possess it or swear fealty to the one who holds it?” Ember shifted the staff to her other hand. She loomed over Ivana to force the teenager to stare the queen in the eyes. “Remember who you are, young human. You are only borrowing this form for your time in this land. You are more than what your instincts tell you to do. Be aware of these drives so that you can resist them.”

Ivana nodded. “Umm… yes, Your Majesty.”

“The title is ‘Dragonlord’, but just call me Ember, please.” The blue dragoness smiled at the teenager then walked back to her previous spot. “I’ve arranged for you girls to sample some of the recreational activities our kingdom has to offer. First, however, I’d like to introduce you to my father.”

A blast of hot wind blew across our party from behind. I looked back and up… way up. How he could sneak up on us like that escaped me, but there stood Torch in all his massive glory.

Hello, little things.

Yep. Definitely in a good mood—and I knew what would keep him that way. I switched to my long-maned Marklestia form and rose into the air. “Good morning, Torch!”

His eyes locked on me. “Ahhh… little pretend Celestia. Good to see you again, Prince Mark.” He leaned down until his right eye was only a pony body-length away. “Did I tell you that my vision is better now than when I was a youth? Having tiny ponies put tubes in my eyeballs was a great idea.” He grinned. “Perhaps I should do so every year when I attend the board of trustees meeting in Canterlot.”

There is no humor quite like dragon humor. I smiled and said, “I’ll be sure to tell ‘Tiny Doctor Twilight Sparkle.’” Torch chuckled, causing tremors to shake the ground, the air, and everyone around him.

I waved a hoof behind me. “Torch, let me introduce—”

“I heard your introductions.” He shifted his head to point his fang-filled smile at our party. “A pleasure to see you again, little family… and guests.”

Phil, Rosa, and Yolanda bowed to show their respect. Miguel found something more interesting in his mother’s plumage and hadn’t bothered to look up. As for the other teenagers, their reactions couldn’t have been more different. Ivana shrank in on herself, her entire body shaking. Latisha had wide eyes and an open-mouthed smile. Even her wings were spread out wide.

The pegasus bounded closer to the gigantic dragon. “As you got bigger, did your diet change? Did different foods suddenly taste better? Is it true that the biggest dragons have the biggest harems? What on this world is a match for you after you got to this size? Are your teeth still growing? If even diamonds get ground down by them, how do you keep them sharp? When you—”

Torch threw his head back and laughed. Suddenly, cascading beams of light shot out of Latisha as she levitated into the air.

Ember gasped. “Is that… Is she?”

“She is!” yelled Yolanda.

Torch said, “Hrm? What’s this?”

Ringing filled the air and Latisha closed her eyes. A bright flash emanated from the young pegasus and she floated down to the ground. Her wings drooped and she shook her head as if trying to clear it.

Yolanda practically tackled her. “You got your cutie mark!”

“I did?” She looked at her flank. “I did!”

Everyone rushed up to take a look. Her flanks showed a pair of orange dragon wings over a familiar red cross symbol. I said, “It looks like you will have a special talent for healing dragons if I had to guess.”

Phil said, “If you choose to pursue that profession.”

I nodded. “Good point. Your cutie mark tells you where you could excel. It doesn’t mean you have to take that career path.”

“How fascinating,” said Ember. “I had heard about how ponies got their cutie marks, of course. But to actually see it? And so soon after our hospital broke ground.”

Latisha smiled then seemed to catch herself. She looked up again. “Do you remember how your body felt when you were younger? What were the biggest changes since —”

Torch had a way of stopping all other conversations. “I may answer your thousand questions another time, little pony. But first...” He leaned down to the still-shivering Ivana. I only now realized that she hadn’t rushed up to Latisha as everyone else had done. “What about you, little dragon? You have nothing to fear… as long as you don’t steal from a dragon’s hoard.” Puffs of smoke escaped his nostrils. “In fact, would you like a tour? I haven’t shown mine to anyone since Mark’s purple-maned herdmate was here a few months back.”

That was true. Rarity and Torch hit it off famously. They could both talk about gemstones all day… and did just that while I caught up on my reading. Rarity’s special talent helped her find a few of Torch’s gems that he had lost ages ago while redistributing his mountain of wealth. She also installed lighted shelving along one wall to best display the pieces most valued by the former Dragonlord.

The display was just as impressive this time. Rarity’s flair at presentation ensured that every gem and piece of jewelry showed its full glory. After recounting tales about the dragons vanquished to obtain a few prize items, Torch sighed. “Sadly, those times are over now. The last two dragons to try stealing from another’s hoard ran into this!” He put on one of the bladed gauntlets and informed his audience about how he acquired two dragon tails. I noted that he did not mention that those brothers earned them back two weeks later.

Torch put on a smile that I recognized as playful. I doubt any of the other ponies did.

He looked at the teenagers. “I certainly hope none of you try to steal from my horde.” Then to Ivana. “Be honest now. You feel compelled to take just one tiny, insignificant little memento, don’t you? A flawed topaz, perhaps? An emerald so impure it looks like gravel?”

Ivana shook her head emphatically. “No. No sir, Mr. Torch. Not at all.”

“Good, good.”

Ember said, “Father, it is time for these young ones to play with others their age. Prince Mark will put heat resistance and toughness spells on them so they can lava surf and have fireball fights with their peers.”

“Ah. Very well, Dragonlord.”

After the three gave their heartfelt thanks to Torch, I applied the spells. Ember led the trio to the entrance of her father’s cave where a few smaller dragons practically dragged the teenagers away.

Ember returned and gave me a knowing smile. “So do you think our little skit worked?”

“I certainly hope so. Humans have a great deal of willpower. Now Ivana has several reasons to override the instincts her body is giving her.”

A deep rumbling voice came from overhead. Because my body only vibrated a little, I knew Torch was whispering. “I believe your scroll mentioned something new?”

I nodded, opened my bottomless saddlebags, and drew forth two large white sacks. “Each of these holds five pounds of Tasmanian Pepperberries. They are one of the more exotic spices from my homeworld. I don’t have a recipe for them but could bring that next time.”

“Don’t bother.” Torch reached down a hand and I deposited the cloth sacks onto his palm. “I’ve learned to trust my very clever chefs and their creativity.” He winked. “And it is so much fun to scare the scales off of the little ones. You know I would do that for free, but please continue to bribe me.”

I chuckled. “You didn’t seem to scare Miss Latisha. I’m going to guess that she’ll be your number one fan from now on.”

He grinned. “Indeed.” His smile fell. “Good luck with your pony or human ways of teaching, little prince. Dragons learn through pain.”

I shook my head. “Your Bank President Xyrdur talked to Princess Twilight and me about how he trained to run the institution. I think the younger generation can learn the pony way.”

Torch nodded. “Good. That is an improvement.”

I sat in the center of the longest couch in Twilight’s study, my rear hooves on the room’s coffee table. Trixie curled up on my right, happily accepting scritches with her head on my lap. Rarity leaned into my left side, her gentle and regular breathing letting me know how much of a toll her six-day workweek had taken on her. The unicorn had drunk only one sip of her wine before succumbing to her exhaustion. Thorax hugged Twilight from behind while a half-dozen scrolls drifted nearby. The custom-made “rolling office chair for two” allowed Twilight to spend some quality time with her husband while she finished the last of the day’s paperwork.

Rosa strutted into the room, carrying her husband on her back. The griffoness held her wings upwards to effectively cage him in.

Phil’s look of resignation was nothing new. “Dear, I’m perfectly capable of walking on my own.”

Rosa shook her head. “My time here in this land makes me appreciate how truly rare and special a worthy stallion can be, mi amor. Do not worry. Your bigger, stronger, and more capable wife will protect you from all threats.”

My best friend sighed and buried his face in her plumage.

I chuckled. “I take it Rosa has gone into season?”

My friend raised his head. “Oh, did you notice? Excellent work, Sherlock. What clued you in?”

I laughed freely, only to stop short for fear of awakening my mares. “You know there is a way to cure those nesting urges... for nine months at least.”

Rosa said, “Not this time. Possibly next year we will try to give Miguel a playmate.” The griffon lied down and with a complicated rolling maneuver involving wings and legs, ended up with her husband firmly grasped in front of her. “Until then, my dear, sweet querida will accept his cuddles like un hombre.” She then proceeded to nibble the neck of her plush toy/husband.

Phil gamely attempted to carry on a normal conversation while Rosa preened his imaginary neck feathers. “Mark, Thank you for chaperoning Yolanda and her friends this weekend. They had a great time with the dragons.”

“How could you tell?”

“We passed by Yolanda’s room on the way back from putting Miguel to bed. It was suspiciously quiet.”

“Oh yeah,” said Twilight. When I raised an eyebrow, she clarified. “When you couldn’t hear what Nyx and the Crusaders were up to, you didn’t walk, you RAN.”

“Which universe?” I asked, remembering how Nyx had two sets of Crusader friends in her past.

“Oh Tartarus, yes,” replied Twilight with a shiver.

Phil chuckled. “What makes you think that would be different anywhere or anywhen, Mark? Anyway, we peeked in and found the girls crashed out in a lump of limbs and wings on Yolanda’s bed.”

His wife chose that moment to lick his unicorn horn from base to tip.

“Gah!” Phil struggled to get his head tilted to look the griffoness in the eye. “Dear, you can’t taste me there in public!”

“Quite right, mi sienna.” Rosa stood and tossed her squawking husband into the makeshift wing-cage on her back. “Instead, I will taste you... everywhere.”

Phil’s voice faded as the couple moved down the hallway. “But, Honey, we should be socializing... Dear, are you listening to me?”

The wine glass in front of me took on a light blue hue. I felt Rarity’s head lift off my shoulder as the glass floated closer. “The poor dear. Savaged by an amorous mate.” She took a sip and returned the glass. “A stallion’s work is never done, it seems.”

Trixie spoke without bothering to raise her head. “Tell me, Dowser – does Chrysalis boss you around like that when she takes on a dragon or griffon form?”

“Only when I allow it.”

Every mare’s ears pointed my way. Even Thorax turned to face me. The papers surrounding the Element of Magic stacked themselves on her desk.

After a long pause, Twilight broke the silence. “I find that hard to believe, Emperor Markus.” She had borrowed the nickname from Phil. He would tease me when he thought I was exaggerating. Unlike my best friend from Earth, the purple mare hadn’t learned I could usually put my bits where my mouth was.

The most recent lessons from Twilight’s magic class involved levitating a dozen objects and uniquely manipulating each. As a result, it was foals-play to lightly stroke Trixie below her wing joints, lightly press Rarity’s barrel in two places, and run a feather-light touch along the sides of Twilight’s neck.

The three mares smiled, closed their eyes, and made a squeeing sound like little foals. And the best part? As long as I tickled them, their unicorn magic would be incredibly weak.

After ten seconds or so to get my point across, I stopped.

Twilight recovered first, turning around to bat her husband’s shoulder with a hoof. “You’re supposed to protect me! And you blabbed where I’m ticklish. How could you?”

Thorax shook his head. “I won’t protect you from the trouble you cause yourself, no I didn’t, and… uh… no I didn’t.”

“Celestia told me,” I said. “We were comparing notes on wrangling unruly foals and she let that information slip.”

The purple mare huffed. “I need to have a talk with my former mentor after I have a word with my husband.” She snuggled against Thorax with a contented smile on her muzzle. Why not a fake pout? I knew from personal experience that putting on airs didn’t work with a spouse who ate your emotions for lunch. While I enjoyed denying the truth when Chrysalis called me out, Twilight opted to not bother masking her feelings.

Rarity said, “You do realize there must be payback, don’t you dear?”

My first wife said, “Trixie agrees that revenge must be…” she yawned. “…be carried out.”

I smirked. “Oh, that means I have to stop giving you scritches, then.”

“It does not. First, your wives must deliberate an appropriate punishment… A little lower, please… Ah, that’s it… This will likely take hours.”

I answered the fashionista’s glower with my best wide-eyed innocent stare. When that didn’t work, I stuck out my tongue. Sure, I was playing with fire, but that sure beat living a life of boredom.

Rarity harrumphed. “You are fortunate Chrysalis stayed at the Hive tonight. I’d have asked her to change into a form that you don’t know how to tickle.”

I shook my head. “Sorry. She’s a lot more ticklish than you. I’ve figured it out for every form she’s tried so far.”

Trixie turned her head just enough to look at me with one eye. “Even for griffons?”


“And you didn’t share this information with your best friend? To save him from his terrible fate?”

I scoffed. “What kind of friend do you take me for?”

The silence lasted longer this time... if you didn’t count the snickers from the three mares. A soft breath followed by a nip to my right ear told me a fourth mare had entered the conversation. When in the heck did Penumbra get here?

My thestral herdmate answered my question. “The kind of friend who gets teamed up on by all his wives tickling him until he begs for mercy… then gets tickled for another hour...”

Trixie coughed.

“… when he least expects it. Maybe next week. Maybe not.”

I swallowed. I’m sure my sudden change of mood set off the next round of giggles. Did I actually go pale?

The anxiety of waiting was going to be the worst part.

My first visit to Mount Aris was accomplished by a long train trip. While there’s a lot to be said for leisurely enjoying the scenic journey, we did not have the luxury of time for this weekend jaunt. However, Canterlot maintained a daggerscale portal to the land of the hippogriffs and our group soon stepped out into the vestibule that was our official arrival point. When Rosa, Phil, and Miguel exited the portal, I led our group to the far side of the room. Two guards were stationed there and, upon recognizing me and Penny, saluted.

“Her Majesty is expecting your party, Your Highness,” one of the guards said. “Please follow me.”

We were led directly to the throne room although, for reasons of security, that was not very close to the portal. I used the time to remind our visitors about protocol. “Remember that Hippogriffia is an ally of the Equestrian Empire and not a part of it. Don’t take being granted this audience lightly. While Equestrians are free to move between our countries, visiting the palace is a privilege granted by my friend, Queen Novo. Be respectful of her and those working here. The fun starts later.”

“Yeah, we get it,” Ivana replied. Latisha merely nodded in acknowledgment. Naturally, Yolanda had been here before with her parents.

Novo was perched regally on her throne with a full honor guard. The latter was just as much done in respect for me as it was to impress our visitors. While we were, in fact, good friends, there were always formalities to observe. I led our group up to the base of the dais, stopped, and bowed. Everyone else took their cue from me and bowed also. Straightening up, I said, “Your Majesty, thank you for granting us this audience.”

The queen of the hippogriffs smiled. “Welcome Prince Mark Wells, and to your lovely mate, Penumbra. It is good to see you again. I recognize your friends and their foals. Welcome back to Mount Aris.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Rosa replied on behalf of her family.

“And who are these two?” the hippogriff ruler asked, turning her attention to Latisha and Ivana. “I must admit that I was not expecting a dragoness.”

Yolanda stepped forward. “Your Majesty, may I introduce my two best friends from my homeworld – Latisha the pegasus and Ivana the dragon.”

“You make some intriguing friends, young one. I am sure my daughter will be quite delighted to meet them both.”

“Where is she? I thought Princess Skystar would be here to meet us,” Yolanda said.

There was a loud flutter from an alcove and a hippogriff landed next to us and gave Phil’s daughter an enthusiastic hug. “Yo! It’s great to see you again! You gotta come more often!”

Novo rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated sigh. “Daughter – you were supposed to wait until the formalities were over.”

“Sorry, mom, but I couldn’t wait to see Yolanda again; it’s been ages since she last visited!”

When I first met Princess Skystar, she was a hyperactive teenager. Since then, she had matured physically into a beautiful adult hippogriff but her demeanor had not changed a whit. Her enthusiasm and friendliness knew no bounds. The queen knew better than to expect otherwise.

“Very well – we will forego the rest of the pleasantries and I will leave you in the care of my daughter. I will see you all again when we convene for dinner. I wish you all an enjoyable afternoon.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” I replied, formally ending the audience.

“Hi! I’m Skystar,” the hippogriff addressed Latisha and Ivana offering a hoof bump to each. “You can tell me all about yourselves and how you know Yo, ya know?” She put a wing each around the pegasus and the dragon and began herding them out of the throne room.

I grinned at Phil and Rosa and they smiled back, completely familiar with the hippogriff’s eccentricities.

Skystar gave the newcomers a brief overview of the township and Harmonizing Heights before heading down to the shore. “I know what you guys really want to do here and it’s perfect weather for the beach!”

We were soon on the sand where an open-sided tent had been set up by the palace staff. A table had cold drinks and snacks laid out for their guests but the things that caught the attention of Ivana and Latisha were the windsurfing boards.

“Oh, cool!” Latisha exclaimed. “I’ve always wanted to try one of those.”

“We’ll get to them later. I thought I’d show you around the bay first,” Skystar said before turning to Yolanda. “Have you told them about the Pearl?”

Yolanda grinned and shook her head. “I reckoned that was your surprise to spring on them.”

The older hippogriff’s smile grew and she nodded. “You’re going to love this!” she enthused as she gestured for everyone to follow her down to the water. She paused for a moment as she regarded Ivana. “Although I have no idea how it will work for a dragon.”

“I got to swim in lava – I’m sure I can handle water.” She then gave us a puzzled look when most of us started chuckling. “Okay – what aren’t you telling me?”

“You’ll find out soon enough,” I replied as I waded into the sea along with everyone else.

Miguel bounded in and out of the water, enthusiastically trying to jump over incoming waves. “Pearl! Pearl!” he exclaimed.

“What’s he talking about?” Latisha asked.

“This!” Skystar held up her piece of the magic Pearl that all the Hippogriffians possessed. “And let me show you what it can do.” She triggered its magic and all but the two newcomers transformed into our aquatic forms. As always, I became Marklestia – we’d never figured out exactly why the change to seapony caused that. Not that it bothered me like Penumbra’s change did to her. Even after all these years, she still didn’t enjoy being a seapony. However, Penny refused to leave me unguarded, so she always joined me. Miguel was off like a shot for deeper water with his mother and father in hot pursuit. That left the rest of us to regard the stupefied looks of Latisha and Ivana.

My niece giggled and said, “You two look like gaping fish. Might as well come join us and swim like one.”

“H-how…?!” Latisha demanded.

Skystar said, “The Pearl of Transformation allows my people to change between hippogriffs and seapony forms. With your permission, I can do the same for you too.”

“I’m game,” Ivana said.

“Me too,” Latisha added.


The two were enveloped in magic and, a moment later, another seapony joined the group. However, it was our turn to gape when we saw what Ivana had become. Even Skystar looked uncertain. My chats with Sunset Shimmer allowed me to identify Ivana’s new species. With the unmistakable huge dorsal fin and seahorse-like features, she couldn’t be anything else.

“She’s a siren,” I announced.

“I like it!” Ivana declared as she looked over herself.

“Just don’t sing, okay?” I advised.

The girl looked puzzled, “Why not?”

“Sirens possess powerful magic. You could easily get someone hurt, and you would be held fully responsible.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah. I think you’re exaggerating.”

Yolanda got in her face. “Just don’t sing. OK?”

Ivana looked between Yolanda and myself. Eventually, she shrugged. “Okay.”

“Let’s go! Follow me,” Yolanda declared before diving beneath the waves.

“Don’t worry – you can breathe underwater in those forms,” I assured the two girls before I joined the others.

Unsurprisingly, neither of the girls was quick to actually try breathing water at first. I think only the instincts that came with their new forms stopped them from heading to the surface. It had been a long time since I first transformed but I think it was that way for me too. Once they settled down, Skystar took us on a tour of the bay before diving down to the magnificent marine city of Seaquestria. Gentle currents brought freshly oxygenated water and nutrients to the grotto in which the city resided and it was bursting with life. Yolanda pointed out her favorite places while her friends enthused over every aspect of the coral, kelp, and glowing creatures that made the entire town a living thing.

I always enjoyed visiting here but this time I got the most enjoyment from seeing the awe and wonder on our guests’ faces. However, the stir caused by a siren swimming through the city was entertaining. It was also a little reassuring. What I had learned about the three sirens in Sunset’s world hopefully didn’t apply to all their species. The fact that none of the seaponies were panicking at seeing a siren hopefully meant that the evil three were troublesome exceptions among their own kind.

After the tour of the city was done, I swam over to Skystar and asked, “Have we got time for a history lesson?”

“For you? Anytime!” she replied. “What did you have in mind?”

“The Seapony Temple.”

“Ah! Well, as you know, access to the temple is restricted without royal approval.” Then she grinned. “Good thing I’m a princess and can give you that permission! We’d better hustle our tailfins though if we’re to squeeze it into our schedule.”

We gathered the group including Phil and Rosa who had managed to round up their over-exuberant son. Miguel wore a vest with a leash, which amused me to no end. Still, especially where we were headed, it was better to be safe than sorry. We headed off towards the temple which was about half a mile away circling the island. We had almost reached it when four soldiers confronted us. After a quick word with Skystar, they allowed us to pass unhindered.

The temple was a coral structure but one that could not have grown naturally in that shape. Great buttresses supported a small roof that was encrusted with shellfish, anemones, and seaweed. Underneath was an altar carved out of the rock, a perfect obsidian cube which, unlike everything else under the water, was unblemished by any form of sealife. It also glowed softly with the magic that it held. Once we were close enough, we could see the runes that had been carved into its surface, their meaning long forgotten but obviously the cause of its magical potential. On the top of the altar was a cradle arrangement, big enough to hold a small melon, but currently empty.

“Welcome to the Temple of the Seaponies,” Skystar announced. “Long ago when the hippogriffs first came to Mount Aris, we knew nothing of seaponies or any other sapient marine species. The island was our refuge and our new home and we sought to utilize its many resources to the best of our abilities. That also meant taking advantage of the sea’s bounty and, before long, we had fishing and diving ships. A few years after our settlement, one such diver discovered this temple. Of the people who had built it, there was no sign. However, they had left behind an artifact. In this cradle was a pearl of enormous size, as unblemished as the altar upon which it lay. When the diver sought to take the pearl, he became the first hippogriff to assume seapony form. That person was my distant ancestor, Prince Seafoam. He brought it to the queen and it remained a royal treasure for centuries. The Pearl enabled the queen to change any hippogriff to seapony form and back. My people took full advantage of the ocean’s resources and built the city of Seaquestria. My mother later discovered that a shard from the pearl was just as powerful so she divided about half of it up among our citizens. That’s what saved us when the Storm King went conquering all the lands. He could not follow us into the sea, the big dope!”

Latisha asked, “Did you ever learn about the ones who built this temple?”

“Funny you should ask! Princess Celestia and her friend Daring Do did some poking around here a few years ago, trying to figure out exactly that!” Skystar shook her head. “No luck though. However, we suspect that this was an outpost designed to charge up their transformation pearls. Something must have happened to them for this one to have been abandoned, but its magic has kept it intact and undamaged for centuries.”

“The pearl needs recharging?” Ivana queried.

“Yes. It supplies the power to the ones we wear but it has its limits. Each year, Queen Novo brings the pearl here to restore its power overnight. That is why the temple is protected at all times, and the number of guards quintuple when the pearl is present. It is easily our greatest treasure.”

Ivana said. “Can we see the Pearl later?”

Skystar frowned. “That’s up to mom. Not even I’m allowed to mess with that.” Then she brightened. “But I’ve got a lot of other more fun stuff planned. First though, who’s hungry?”

There were plenty of affirmative replies and the hippogriff princess took us back to the beach where our snacks and drinks awaited us. After that, the windsurfing boards were put to good use. I sat out that activity having learned long ago that it was not my forte. Or, as Penny liked to put it, I was as graceful as an epileptic minotaur. I did join in with the beach volleyball games and chatted with a few acquaintances there. I bumped into Terramar who asked about the Cutie Mark Crusaders and we caught up on what had been happening since we had last seen each other. Turned out that he had a fiancée now, one who matched his dual land and sea lifestyle. Terramar introduced me to Palmbreeze and the adorable hippogriff mare blushed and stammered out a greeting. I did my best to put her at ease but she clung onto Terramar like a life preserver. Ah, well. They promised to send me an invitation to the nuptials. Maybe Rarity would like to attend with me – she was always a sucker for a wedding.

Our group only made its way back to the palace as the sun set. We were shown to rooms where we could shower out the saltwater from our coats and feathers before being taken to dine with the queen. Fortunately for the girls, although it was slightly more formal than a family dinner, the meal did not have the strict protocol of a royal audience. Novo was genuinely interested in what we had done all afternoon, even if she was a little surprised when she learned of our visit to the temple. Even so, she nodded in approval.

“The young should know the history of all races, not just their own. As Princess Twilight might say, knowledge promotes friendship. And in the name of friendship, I have prepared a gift for our visitors.” She gestured to a servant who brought over a tray with three plates upon it which were laid in front of each girl. The plates held oyster shells similar to the ones we had been dining upon, only larger.

“More food?” Ivana asked.

Skystar laughed. “Maybe. But just for you!”

“Open them,” Novo said with a smile.

They did so and gasped. Each contained a pearl the size of a tom-bowler marble – about an inch in diameter. They would have been a ridiculously extravagant gift on Earth but, for this world and place, they were probably about average for gifts to visiting royalty, their family, and friends.

“Thank you, Your Majesty!” Yolanda said.

“Yes, thanks! It’s beautiful,” Latisha added.

Ivana gazed rapturously at hers without saying a word. Safe to say that she was impressed but it would be best if the dragoness didn’t dwell on it too long at the table. A distraction was called for. “Why don’t you give it a taste, Ivana?”

She looked startled then replied, “I don’t want to damage it.”

“Just give it a lick,” Latisha suggested.

“Yeah, give it the old dragon taste test!” Yolanda urged.

“Well… okay.” Ivana held up her pearl and hesitantly gave it a delicate lick. An eye ridge raised and she licked once more. “It tastes like vanilla-flavored boba!” she exclaimed.

Her friends laughed and there were chuckles all around the table.

I said, “I suggest that you girls put your pearls away in your bags to make sure you don’t lose them.”

With Ivana’s focus distracted from the precious object, she put it out of sight in the hip pouch that she was wearing.

I said, “Those gifts will need to say in Equestria, I’m afraid.”

Latisha said, “Why? Why can’t I… oh.”

“Exactly. There simply don’t exist any natural pearls that size on Earth. Or at least none that are perfectly round. The Triarchy is developing a plan to introduce Equestria to the nations of Earth and vice-versa. Right now is not the time, and doing so would put Phil and Rosa’s family in danger.”

Yolanda said, “You know the basket in my room where you put your blouse, Ivana? You can store your Equestria stuff there. I’ve got one for you too, Latisha.”

Neither teenager looked happy, but that changed when the pastry chef wheeled out dessert: Nautilus-shaped cream horns, marzipan starfish, and a blown sugar sailing ship atop waves of chocolate!

After dessert, we thanked our host and bade our farewells. It was time to leave for Canterlot. While the girls had a long weekend and thus Monday free, the same could not be said for me. Twilight had Day Court that morning and I was scheduled to take the afternoon session. Also, Ivana and Latisha’s parents would be expecting them back home before midday, so the girls’ visit would be over in the morning. Nevertheless, I reckon that they got more than they expected out of the past two days and they could look forward to more in the future.

To my surprise, I only had to ask once to get the girls to wake up on Monday morning. Actually, that isn’t quite right. Penumbra and Chrysalis joined me in the unpleasant task and Sally took on the form of a green and gray manticore. So while I technically only asked once, it was her deep-throated growl that panicked the teenagers into wakefulness. Still, we’re a team so I can take partial credit.

Sure, I can!

I teased my herdmate. “Sometimes, I think you take a little too much pleasure in playing the role of the big meanie.”

Sally smiled smugly but then her expression drained away in stages. That couldn’t be good. I gave her a nudge with my shoulder, but she shook her head. Not something that needed my immediate attention, then. I trusted my herdmate would let me know in due course.

The six of us headed to the kitchen for a quick breakfast served by the ever-reliable Spike. Then, just before we were leaving for the portal room, Ivana said, “Oh! I forgot!”

I turned around to see Ivana giving us a sheepish grin as she trotted back up the hallway. “I totally forgot my blouse! Be right back!”

I felt a poke in my side. Sally frowned and shook her head while giving me a meaningful stare. My expression must have changed as well.

“What’s wrong, Uncle Mark?”

I put on a hint of a smile. “We’ll take care of it in the Portal Room, Yolanda.”

The hippogriff mare narrowed her eyes which darted between Chrysalis and me.

A minute later, a clothed Ivana came back, walking a bit oddly. “Sorry! Ready to go now.” The dragoness smiled and I nodded in acknowledgment.

We all took the daggerscale portal connecting Twilight’s castle to mine. As we made our way through the richly decorated hallways to the mirror portal room, Latisha jabbered away with Yolanda waving her wings for emphasis. Ivana glanced around but said nothing.

When we reached the Portal Room, I saw Phil and Rosa entertaining Miguel by tossing the giggling foal back and forth between them. Phil kept his horn lit, ready to intervene if his son’s squirming caused a slip.

I walked in front of the mirror portal and sat down. “Everyone, thank you again for visiting Equestria. Remember, coming to this realm is a privilege.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Phil freeze after catching Miguel. He knew me well enough to recognize something was up. I turned to face Latisha and Ivana. “I hope you found your time here valuable and would like to return here someday.”

They both nodded their heads fervently.

Latisha said, “Absolutely! This place is amazing! Thank you so much, Mark!”

Ivana showed me all her teeth. “Yeah, no doubt.”

I smiled thinly. “Remember that commerce between dimensions is strictly controlled. The only item that can go back in the other direction is Ivana’s blouse. Everything else needs to stay in Equestria. Yolanda will hold onto your stuff for you.”

Latisha smiled. “That works for me.”

“No problem,” said Ivana.

I let the silence stretch out for an uncomfortable length of time before I sighed. “That’s what I thought.”

I lit my horn and forced Ivana’s left elbow away from her body. Three iridescent spheres fell from her armpit to the stone tile, each an inch wide.

Latisha gasped and flared her wings. Yolanda crouched down. “Ivana! What the fuck!?”

The dragoness gathered the three pearls under her clawed hand. She rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. Stop pretending this is a big deal.”

Latisha said, “You’re stealing from us?”

“It’s not stealing if it isn’t worth anything. Were you looking around at all? This castle is practically made of gems and gold. They’re like gravel here.”

Yolanda said, “Bullshit. You stole from us because you wanted to. Just like with my 3DS until I found it under your bed!”

“That was a mistake! I forgot I put it there.”

“You are so full of it.”

Ivana.” I used a bit of the Royal Canterlot Voice. Yolanda and Latisha flinched but not the dragon. “I told you that taking things from Equestria to Earth could put Phil’s family in danger.”

“Yeah, I don’t remember—”

I moved closer, pointing my horn. “You heard me and understood me.”

The dragoness lowered her head and smoke escaped her nostrils. “Oh, it’s convenient for you to keep my stuff here, isn’t it? Who’s stealing from whom now? And don’t give me that crap about not bringing anything through. I know how Phil got rich. What about all those diamonds?”

Yolanda winced. She must have confided that family secret with Ivana.

I said, “That was a mistake that won’t be repeated.”

“Oh, yes. That’s fine.” Ivana’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “It’s fine when your friend breaks the rules but no one else is allowed to.”

“Enough. I’m not going to debate this. You aren’t going to Earth with those pearls.” Before she could voice the next protest, I said. “Any of them.”

Ivana reared and flared her wings, the pearls held in her left hand. Her voice dropped an octave. “Get out of my way!” she demanded, more threatening smoke trickling from her snout.

When she stepped forward, I arced lightning from both wings to the tip of my horn. I’m sure my eyes were glowing white as witnesses said they did when I used my power. The dragoness jumped back, the anger on her face replaced with fear. She also dropped the pearls. Before she could recover, I cut off the lightning and picked her up with my levitation magic. Turning around, I forced the protesting teenager’s wings and limbs to her side before carrying her to the mirror portal. With my magic holding her immobile, I pushed Ivana through immediately in front of me. I had enough familiarity with the transition to emerge still in control of Ivana. I held her at arm's length by the back of her blouse.

Seconds later, everyone had arrived, again clothed thanks to the magic of the mirror portal.

I released the screaming and cursing teenager. “For the crime of attempted theft and for your blatant disregard of the wellbeing of your friend’s family, you are banned from visiting Equestria again, Ivana Kalchik.”

“Who fucking cares?” Her snarl reminded me greatly of her dragon form. “I’m sick of you fucking losers!” Her eyes settled on Yolanda and Latisha. “ALL OF YOU!”

Ivana ran into the hallway. Her stomps down the stairs carried into the room, followed by the sound of the front door slamming.

The house was still shuddering from her dramatic exit when Yolanda burst into tears and raced off to her bedroom. I wanted to go after her to reassure her but Rosa gave me a look and shook her head before following her daughter. Yeah, this was a job for Yo’s parents, not her uncle. I turned my attention back to the remaining teenage girl and it was obvious that she was on the verge of tears also. When she realized that I was regarding her, she came up to me, head downcast and her arms wrapped around herself tightly.

“P-Prince Mark? I… I’m sorry about Ivana and everything that happened. I’m the one who introduced her to Yolanda even though I knew how she is. She’s been a bit greedy before but I never thought she’d do something like this. I never wanted Yolanda to get hurt.”

I glanced at Chrysalis who nodded, convinced of her sincerity. I put my fingers on Latisha’s chin and lifted her head to look her in the eyes. “Don’t take this upon yourself, Latisha. Everyone is responsible for their own actions and you haven’t done anything wrong. Making mistakes is something we’re all guilty of sooner or later. I’ll tell you about the whoppers I’ve made sometime. And yes, that means that you’re welcome to visit Equestria with Yolanda again. It has been a pleasure having you as our guest.”

Phil spoke up. “That goes the same for me and Rosa too. And we certainly don’t want Yolanda to feel that she can’t have her best friend come over on other occasions.”

Latisha sniffed back her tears. “Thank you, Mister Martine, and you too, Prince Mark.”

I smiled. “I am curious why you had such a mean person as a friend though.”

The girl thought about that for a moment before replying, “I suppose because she’s so dynamic. She liked her fashions and her bling, yeah, and she had some obnoxious acquaintances, but she was always dragging us into another adventure. That’s how I first met her. It was at a school summer camp and I was partnered with her for rock climbing. I loved it but she was way more enthusiastic about it than me! We did canoeing, rappelling, and archery together and had a blast! After introducing Ivana to my thrill-seeker friend Yolanda, we began going out on activities together more often. Mister Martine knows how frequently all of us went river rafting, cave exploring, and even parachuting. I mean, yeah, it pretty much always had to be her choice and not ours, but we were all having fun. Her family’s money enabled us to do a lot of stuff that other girls couldn’t afford, and we two gave her an excuse to go out and do those things when she would otherwise be stuck at home. I suppose we used each other, but I still thought we were friends.”

I nodded. “Phil and I were inseparable when we were growing up. The difference is that we earned our money to go on our adventures while Ivana seems to have been pretty much handed whatever she wanted. It’s hard to not be materialistic under those circumstances. Hopefully, she will learn from this experience but I won’t be holding my breath. Twilight put her hoof on the possible problem when Ivana turned up as a dragon, so it’s not as if we weren’t forewarned. Anyway, as Torch says, dragons learn through pain.”

“I guess.” Latisha sighed. “I gotta head home, but can I see Yolanda before I go?”

Phil replied, “Go up and say goodbye. Let her know that things are okay between us.”

The girl smiled gratefully before heading upstairs.

“Well – sorry that this turned out to be such a mess,” I said. “I hate to leave you with this problem but I’ve got an empire to run.”

Phil chuckled. “Yeah, take the easy job and leave me to deal with teenagers. Don’t worry – I got this from here.”

I gave my best friend a parting hug before turning to Chrysalis and frowning. “I suppose you’re going to tell me, once again, that you knew this would happen from the very start.”

My herdmate shook her head. “No, husband. I perceived that she bore watching, but no more than any other teenager. Her actions this morning surprised me. From what we have learned, Ivana’s behavior today was not an aberration. Her selfishness has been a problem for some time.”

I absorbed that for a moment before walking toward the mirror. “Coming, Sally?”

She shook her head. “With your permission, husband, I will stay to give Yolanda and Rosa some emotional support.”

Because Twilight had Day Court duties, I would be doing office work when I got back. Therefore, I would not be requiring my Advisor’s assistance at the moment. “Okay, I’ll catch you later.” I headed back to Equestria with Penny in tow.

Later that morning, I had been working on a proposal for rezoning an area for light industrial manufacturing. It was on behalf of a Griffonstone company branching out into Fillydelphia. A knock on my office door interrupted my musings.

“Enter!” I called out, wondering why my secretary, Sharpened Quill, hadn’t warned me.

A Royal Guard opened the door and saluted. I recognized him immediately as one of the two regularly stationed outside the room for the portal to Phil’s place.

“Sire! I have an urgent request from Lord and Lady Martine for your attendance at their abode!”

The titles had been given to them to smooth things over with the nobility but otherwise had little relevance. It did, however, lend urgency to any request that they made of the Royal Guards. Knowing that they would not do so lightly, I immediately dropped what I was doing and got out of my chair. As I headed out the door, I caught the eye of Penumbra. She had obviously heard what the guard had said and she fell in behind me. As we moved at a fast trot for the portal, she spoke up.

“What’s the bet that this is related to Ivana?”

“No bet. Timing is too coincidental. Got your special gear?”

Penny scoffed. “As if I’d ever be without it.”

One thing that could be said for my guardian herdmate – she never took her duties lightly and was always prepared for any foreseeable event. That included a pouch of enchanted weapons for use while on Earth. We had no idea what we were headed into but we weren’t going to arrive defenseless. As an added precaution, as soon as we passed through the portal, I tapped a sequence on the top of the mirror’s frame to deactivate entry. For the moment, it would behave as an ordinary looking-glass. While it would slow down a retreat, it was more important to protect its secret. We headed downstairs, already aware of shouting from an unfamiliar male voice.

How dare you accuse my daughter of being a thief! Ivana has no need of anything the likes of you could provide!

I saw him now, standing in front of Ivana who was glaring defiantly at everyone in the room. Her father looked to be in his fifties, slightly overweight although his finely-tailored suit did a good job of hiding that fact. It also screamed ‘I am better than the common rabble’. He was the very picture of an entitled rich white businessman and, judging by the emphasis that he had put on the ‘you’, a very bigoted one. Phil’s Latino heritage was obvious in both his looks and the house’s décor. Nevertheless, it wasn’t him that caused me the most immediate concern. It was the dark-suited huge man standing nearby. I knew hired muscle when I saw it and it seemed that Ivana’s father had come spoiling for a fight.

My friend frowned and ignored the finger jabbing him in the chest. “That fact only makes it worse that she chose to take what belonged to those who were supposedly her best friends.”

“Take what? Where are these oh-so-valuable trinkets that you claim she stole? Ivana says that it was mere costume jewelry that she had forgotten to put back but you blew it up into a major crime.”

“The items are in safe storage where they belong,” Phil calmly replied. “Also, let me remind you again that you are trespassing in my house.”

“I’m told that at least one of those items belongs to her. I demand that you return it!”

“She would have to fetch it in person, but she has been banned from there.”

Ivana’s father looked apoplectic by now. I could see why Phil and Rosa wanted backup. It was time to take some heat off my friend. “Since your daughter was a guest in my home this weekend, I can verify that.”

The man turned on me instantly. “And who the hell are you?” he demanded.

“That’s Prince Mark Wells!” Ivana blurted out. “He’s the one who took my pearl!”

Mister Kalchik glanced at his daughter before getting up in my face. I wasn’t intimidated due to the self-defense training that I regularly kept up. Years ago, Crimson Boulder had insisted I branch out to study martial arts in my anthro and human forms. Not that I would need to do anything – Penny would lay Ivana’s father out flat almost before I could react to a threat.

“Prince? This is America, boy, and you have no authority here, and you sure didn’t have time to take Ivana to any damn African kingdom! And if you did, I’ll have you rotting in prison for child abduction and whatever other charges my lawyer can dredge up. No, I’ve met your type before. You’re a fraud, pretending to be Nigerian royalty.”

It had been a long time since the color of my skin had been an issue. While I wasn’t particularly dark, any amount was too much for the likes of this man. I wondered what he would think of my normal green coat. “Sir, I was born and bred in this state and, although I don’t currently reside here, I can conclusively say that the charges are valid.”

“Nevertheless, you have no right to hold my daughter’s pearl. She cannot steal what belongs to her already.”

I frowned. “Mister Kalchik, Ivana was informed that she could not take anything from my home to hers. The same instruction was given to Yolanda Martine and Latisha Tyson. Your daughter was the only one who chose to ignore that and not only tried to take hers here but also all the others. She has gotten off extremely lightly for her offenses and I strongly suggest that you let matters rest.”

“You don’t know who you’re dealing with, boy, and my lawyers will get what belongs to my daughter, even if it’s just costume jewelry. And while I’m at it, I’ll hang your hide out to dry! I don’t care if you have your own private island – it’s still in the United States of America. I’ll have a subpoena served on you today. Now, tell me who you really are!”

I smirked. “You already know my name but I decline to tell you anything more. It wouldn’t do you much good anyway.”

The man glared at me, fuming. Then he said, “Boris.”

Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me! Such a cliché name! Although I suppose with Kalchik’s ethnic background, it wouldn’t be all that strange to have employees from the same circles. The henchman stepped forward. Penny moved up beside me, unsubtly showing that I was not unprotected. The royal bodyguard and hired muscle regarded each other with some unspoken form of communication I wasn’t privy to. The batpony mare was certainly not any less dangerous in human form. In fact, her build could be considered Amazonian. She also had enjoyed taking martial arts lessons here at times when Crimson Boulder had bodyguard duty back in Equestria. Penny would not hesitate to fight dirty either if she had to. She took her duty extremely seriously. Fortunately, it did not come down to that.

Ivana blurted out once more, “He’s from Equestria! You can only get there through a magic portal.”

Kalchik frowned and turned to his daughter. “What are you blathering about, girl?”

“It’s true! The Martines have a magic mirror upstairs that is a portal to another world. Don’t you see? That’s why he’s a prince! He’s one of the rulers of Equestria!”

“What’s this magic nonsense? I thought you said you went on a trip out into the country?”

“It was to another country in a different world. Look for yourself! I’ll show you!” Before anyone could stop her, Ivana dashed past us and up the stairs.

Mr. Kalchik followed his errant daughter. Phil gave me a worried look but I shook my head and calmly followed the others. When we got to the spare room with the portal mirror, Ivana was standing next to the looking-glass, gesticulating dramatically.

“This is it. This is the magic portal to Equestria. You just step through it and get changed into something else.”

The father looked at me with wide eyes. In turn, I glanced at Phil with my mouth agape and brows furrowed. My friend picked up on what I was doing and returned an even more confused stare. Playing dumb is something all males know how to do instinctively from an early age and we must have been convincing.

Mr. Kalchik’s face was flushed again. “Ivana—”

She leaned forward, grabbing her knees. “I’m not making this up, Daddy! I became a dragon while Yolanda became a hippogriff and Latisha was a pegasus. Mister Martine was a unicorn—”

“Enough! Stop this nonsense, Ivana.”

“I’ll prove it to you!” the girl declared before throwing herself at the mirror. “OW!”

I winced as she smashed her face against its surface. Blood immediately started dribbling from her nose. She stared at the glass in rage and started beating on its surface.

“Let me through, you stupid portal!”

Phil reached out as if to restrain her. “Stop or you’ll break it! It’s only glass! You’ll hurt yourself!”

Actually, there was zero chance of that happening. A spell had made it shatterproof. That had been a lesson well learned. Nevertheless, Phil didn’t betray that fact, playing it off as a normal mirror.

Kalchik was about as red in the face as any human could get, and not far off from Big Mac’s coat color. From his sputtering, I had to assume anger mixed with humiliation at his daughter’s seemingly insane antics. He grabbed one of her wrists and started dragging her out of the room. “You and I are going to have a very long talk, young lady, and it better not be about fairies and witches!”

“But it’s true, daddy! All of it!”

Stop embarrassing me, daughter!” he roared as he took her downstairs. He threw the front door open with a crash and marched Ivana down the path. Boris, to my surprise, closed the door quietly behind him.

Phil sighed. “Sorry to get you involved, Mark.”

I shook my head. “No, it’s better that I know exactly what’s going on and my presence probably provoked Ivana to be indiscreet about what she knows. It only made her look crazy.”

“Do you think that will be the last we hear about this?”

“Hard to tell but if there’s anything that I’ve learned about dealing with nobles, they don’t like losing face. Ivana has humiliated him with what seems to be unsubstantiated lies and fantasies. He’s more likely to bury this than pursue it further. However, don’t take that for granted. People like that have long memories. Make sure you disable the portal whenever you’re not using it. And tell Yolanda to avoid interacting with Ivana. I recommend serving all three of them with a restraining order if any of them give your family trouble.”

“Yeah. And hopefully Yolanda will be a bit more careful choosing her friends in the future.”

“If only there was some magic way of guaranteeing that,” I sighed. “How’s Yo doing?”

“Heartbroken. She feels betrayed.”

“I understand that feeling. However, she’s young and resilient – she’ll get over it. If she feels the need to have a chat with me or Sally, she’s welcome anytime within reason. Anyway, it’s time I got back.”

“Okay. Thanks for coming.”

Phil stayed to shut off access to the portal again after I enabled it so Penny and I could pass through. I ruminated on the day as I trotted back to my office. What should have been the finish to a perfect long weekend had turned into a disaster, but I had to concede that not every story has a happy ending.



CHAPTER 5: Bean There, Done That


Foreword: This chapter crosses over into Irrespective's Beanverse - The Noses Know stories. Familiarity with them is desirable because this takes place soon after the birth of Celestia and Bean's foal.


“Are you absolutely sure this is safe?” I asked, staring doubtfully at the makeshift setup around the new full-length mirror. Wires, tubes, and jewel-encrusted metal boxes of unknown purpose reached from wall to wall. I’d feel better about the hodgepodge of seemingly random components if they didn’t emit a puff of smoke every few seconds.

Twilight Sparkle sighed. “For the fifth time, Mark, I have absolute confidence in the efficacy of this prototype portal despite its unfinished appearance. When we’ve done a few test runs, I’ll build a more finished version.”

“It’s the idea that it still needs testing that worries me more than its looks.”

“All new equipment needs testing. Star Swirl himself approved my design and he wrote the book on creating portals to other worlds.”

I stuck my tongue out in distaste. “Quoting that old fraud only makes me more leery of it, not less. He may have written the book but you wrote the corrected and updated version.”

Twilight frowned at me. “Prince Mark Wells – get over your prejudice! While Star Swirl might not have been quite the pony I had idolized when I was younger, he is nevertheless still one of the greatest mages in history. His abrasive personality is a product of his time and he has been genuinely trying to improve on that. You could do more to meet him halfway.”

I rolled my eyes. “We have very different concepts of ‘halfway’.”

“Regardless, you both need to keep working on your friendship issues. Enough about that for now. We have a portal to try out.” She turned to her brother who had been listening to us bicker with a resigned look on his face. “Are you ready, Shining?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” the stallion replied.

Twilight’s magic floated a large sapphire over to him. “Here - put this somewhere safe,” she instructed.

“Sure. What’s it for?” he said as he opened the pouch slung around his neck.

“Insurance. This mirror is an open-ended portal without an anchor on the other side. If something happens to collapse it while you’re over there, you can reestablish a connection by attaching that sapphire to any non-liquid shiny surface, another mirror preferably, and activate it with your magic. That will make a connection to this mirror to allow you and anyone else with you to return.”

Shining Armor grinned and winked at me. “Good to know I have a failsafe.”

I said, “Well, as you have volunteered to be in the vanguard to provide the shield for our little expedition, it’s only right to give you a way out.”

Shining Armor’s involvement in our attempts to make contacts with new alternate worlds had come as a direct result of my and Twilight’s disagreement over where and how to enter the different realities. I had advocated for a subtle approach, virtually sneaking in and checking out the situation in disguise if necessary before making contact with the leaders. I listed all the dangerous dimensions we had passed through in pursuit of Starlight Glimmer as my reason for this approach. Parking the outlet for the portal in some remote region would be the safest.

Twilight had flatly contradicted me. “For starters, while a remote location might obscure our arrival on a physical level, on a thaumaturgical one, you might as well attach a beacon and a siren to it. An open-ended portal will spill so much raw magic that it will be blindingly obvious to any pony mage, let alone an alicorn. Sneaking around after making such a raucous entrance would only cast suspicion upon us. It would be best if we choose a location that is convenient to our needs but not too threatening. I’m thinking that the palace gardens would be suitable.”

“How do you know that they’ll even be there?” I argued. “We encountered some very bizarre worlds back then.”

“Star Swirl and I analyzed all the worlds that we’re currently in contact with to find their commonalities. To put it in laypony terms, we found a frequency band that has a 91.6% chance of giving us a fairly benign version of our familiar universe.”

“It’s the other 8.4% that I’m worried about. I insist that we prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

“You don’t think my abilities to be sufficient to protect us?” Twilight thought about that for a moment. “How about we ask my brother to provide extra security for us? Shiny has the strongest shield of anypony, myself included.”

Thankfully, my friend was intrigued by the idea of exploring new worlds and had agreed to take the lead. I say ‘thankfully’ because Trixie was not happy about me gallivanting off to an unknown world without her and she wanted to ensure my safety. Twilight and I had insisted that at least one triarch remain just in case and, since this was our project, my wife had drawn the short straw. However, with Penumbra by my side and Shining Armor shielding us, Trixie had reluctantly acquiesced.

“Okay, let’s get started,” Twilight said. Her horn emitted a beam of magic that struck a sapphire on the mirror that was a twin to the one she had given to Shining Armor. That activated all the arcane gadgetry attached to it and there came a throbbing noise that quickly died away. “It’s ready,” she told her brother.

The stallion lit up his horn with a shield spell ready to be activated the moment he emerged on the other side. He then stepped through the mirror’s surface without hesitation. Twilight glanced over her instruments for several seconds. After Twilight nodded in assurance that everything was proceeding well, I followed with Penny hot on my heels.

The exit was a bit rough but Twilight had warned us about the turbulence of an unanchored portal. We stepped out onto the manicured lawns of the Canterlot Castle Gardens and looked around. The view shimmered slightly as Shining Armor’s shield distorted the air. He wasn’t using full power but he had the ability to ramp up the shield’s strength in a fraction of a second. Everything seemed normal and familiar, so we waited for the inevitable reaction to our arrival.

Royal Guards had immediately been attracted to the disturbance – an open portal hanging in the air in a quiet garden was impossible to ignore. However, the first pegasi on the scene barely beat the purple alicorn that teleported in to join them. Her alarmed look turned to confusion when she saw Shining. “BBBFF – what’s going on here?” Then her eyes shifted to me and widened hugely, her jaw dropping. “A male alicorn? Who are you? Where did you come from?”

“I am Prince Mark Wells. As for where I’m from, here’s a hint.” I must be getting the knack for dramatic timing from Trixie. My Twilight stepped through the portal just then. I knew she had planned to spend several moments checking the performance of the portal before following us.

“Hello, other me,” my Twilight said with a smile. “We come in friendship.”

“Oh my!” the other alicorn mare said with a growing grin. “This is looking to be a lot more interesting than the policy updates that I’ve been preparing this morning. Would you all care to join me for morning tea?”

We accepted Twilight’s offer although we could not stay for long. An open-ended portal drew too much power to keep it operational indefinitely. Over tea and cake, we hit the highlights of our different worlds. We found out that their Celestia and Luna had retired and left Twilight to reign over Equestria. Spike served as her Number One Assistant and Advisor. Many other things were very similar to our world, but the statue of Tirek, Chrysalis, and Cozy Glow in the garden showed how some events took a very different course.

We agreed to schedule a full-day meeting in a week’s time. We gave Shining’s sapphire to Princess Twilight so she could set up a proper permanent portal. In return, the alicorn monarch gave us a small gift that we could use to home in on that dimension’s “frequency” if necessary. My Twilight had squealed with delight at getting that copy of her counterpart’s Friendship Journal and I was looking forward to reading how our histories had differed from the personal experiences of her other self.

After we returned to our dimension, Twilight shut down the portal with a nod of satisfaction with its performance. “I’ll let the equipment recharge for today. May I suggest that we try another destination same time tomorrow?”

That is exactly what we did.

The ponytaurs in that second world found us just as fascinating as we did them. Frankly, our pegasi were far more aerodynamic and graceful, but I admit to envying their hands. That one variation had made a big difference in their civilization though. The ability to finely manipulate objects outside of magic had led to an early industrial revolution. This had led to much more automation and its unfortunate consequence; pollution. Thankfully, it was nowhere near as bad as it had been on Earth but whole teams of all kinds of creatures were employed to mitigate the problem. Comparing the dimension to its technological counterpart, I reckon that the House Path dimension had achieved a better result with their magitek systems.

On the third day, Trixie insisted that it was her turn to accompany Twilight, so I had to remain behind. When the expedition came back, Twilight had a very odd expression on her face but my wife was grinning hugely. Twilight teleporting away without another word confirmed my suspicions.

“Okay, what’s so amusing?” I asked.

“We found out that all alicorns in that dimension are hermaphrodites.”

My eyebrows rose. “I see. Because I can turn into a mare, I know what it’s like to be the opposite sex, but Twi must have been disconcerted.”

Trixie giggled. “That isn’t even the best part. Their Twilight is married to Celestia who got pregnant and gave birth to their foal.”

I found myself grinning along with my wife. “So, that Twilight is the stallion in their relationship? Oh, I’m so going to tease ours about that.”

“Way ahead of you, Dowser!” Trixie said with a huge smirk.

I returned the grin. I could hardly wait for when Celestia paid us a visit between her adventures.

The next world was inhabited by hippogriffs instead of ponies. There were a few with horns that served the same function as our alicorns. Also, there didn’t appear to be any ability to change into seaponies. Their history was a lot different from ours but they still chose to build a city on the side of a mountain and named it Canterlot. We were gifted a history book that promised to give an insight into how that had come about. Considering the genesis of their species from how it occurred in our world, I wanted to know if something had happened to ponies and griffons in their past. Did some disaster occur or was there a more sinister reason? The book might give us the answers but I was reminded of the saying – ‘History is written by the victors’. Further relationships with that world could wait until we had some reliable answers.

Rarity was intrigued to hear about the world where ponies cross-dressed. It had been startling to see noble stallions in flowing dresses while their mares wore suits. Yes, I took lots of photos for my herdmate. Their Rarity, dressed in a stunning three-piece outfit made out of silk, had passed me a large stack of designs to give to my herdmate with the understanding that she would reciprocate. I had a sneaking suspicion that alt-Rarity was perturbed by my distinct lack of finery fit for a prince and this was a not-so-subtle hint to her other self. In return, my Rarity gifted several books on the fashions of our Equus. Included was a signed artist proof copy of Fabulous Designs for Everyone by, you guessed it, Rarity Belle. She also provided a sketchpad that was magically linked to a copy in our herd’s bedroom. Twice each week, the two fashionistas traded design ideas late into the night. My Rarity’s exclamations of “Brilliant, Darling!”, “How very interesting!”, and “I never could have imagined!” kept me from falling asleep until their joint inspiration sessions were finished.

There were many minor variants of Equus visited, none of them possessing a Mark Wells so far. That seemed to indicate that those universes were further from the highest probability ones we had been aiming for. However, the first alternate reality that affected me more deeply than a casual meeting was one where Princess Celestia had met her future earth pony husband in a most unusual way….

The visit began in a typical fashion with pegasi Royal Guards arriving first and warily taking up positions a few paces from the portal. As soon as they had recognized Shining Armor, they had relaxed a bit, but seeing an alicorn stallion standing next to him had obviously confused them. Then Chrysalis stepped through to join me and they went right back to being on full alert. My changeling herdmate had insisted that she had the right to come along on one of these visits. I had pointed out the strong possibility that she would be unwelcome. Many dimensions had negative experiences with their Queen Chrysalis, our friend Chryssy notwithstanding. Not even the addition of Twilight helped the mood.

Normally, by this time, an alicorn would join us at the scene. Today was different though. Earth pony Royal Guards galloped up followed by the slightly slower unicorns. None seemed pleased to see the changeling queen. One unicorn stepped forward whom I recognized as Spear Point and he addressed Twilight rather than me.

“Princess Twilight – would you care to explain this situation, ma’am?” His eyes indicated the faintly glowing shield.

“A simple precaution in light of my companions, Lieutenant Spear Point. This Chrysalis is not any with whom you would be familiar as she is the wife of Prince Mark Wells here.” Technically, Sally was my herdmate but the changeling queen never suffered anything less than being addressed as my wife. Frankly, neither did I, legal technicalities aside. The alicorn continued, “Additionally, I am not the Twilight Sparkle that you know. That is a portal to another dimension and we come visiting in peaceful exploration. The shield is just a precaution until both parties are assured of a harmonious visit.”

The unicorn gave Chrysalis a hard stare but she merely smirked back. He turned his attention to me. “I’ve never heard of a male alicorn before. How can I be sure that you are not a changeling in disguise?”

“I suppose we could wait for you to fetch a changeling detection spell, but I have a faster method to convince you,” I replied. “I am the Alicorn of Lightning. Care for a demonstration of power beyond that of any changeling?”

Spear Point glanced at the currently cloudless sky and said, “Not even the best weather pegasus can conjure lightning without a storm cloud. How do you intend to prove your boast?”

“So, I have your permission to demonstrate?”

He grunted skeptically and waved a foreleg. “Be my guest. However, if you try to harm anypony here, it will not go well for you.”

I was pretty sure that he was bluffing because I was almost certain that his Shining Armor was no less capable with shields as mine and he knew it. Nevertheless, I played it cautiously. “Please step back a dozen paces.” When every pony had complied, I selected my target and unleashed a furious lightning bolt from my internal storage. A moment later, all that was left of a tree was a smoldering stump and burning leaves raining from the sky. I had no sympathy for the plant – the same one in my home dimension gave me a raging case of hay fever when it bloomed and I’d had it removed from the garden.

The thunderclap from the lightning had been deafening to all those ponies confronting us. Shining’s shield had been tuned to deaden the sound so that none in our party were affected, but there were plenty of Royal Guards rubbing their abused ears.

“Are you satisfied?” I asked Spear Point when he returned his glare to me.

“What?!” he yelled back.

Before I could repeat myself, a new voice came from behind the assembled Guards. “Enough! I’m convinced of our visitors’ bona fides.”

A path cleared and a yellow earth pony stallion wearing a royal purple coat and a sunburst medallion around his neck stepped through, accompanied by a pegasus Guard. As I was in the forefront, he stopped in front of me but turned his head to Shining. “Please drop your shield, Captain Armor.”

My friend nodded and complied.

The earth stallion faced me again. “I am Prince Baked Bean and this is my personal guard, Sergeant Clover. Welcome to our world. My wife, Princess Celestia, is currently busy with our foal, but I am sure that she will be pleased to meet you.” He held up a hoof. I held out mine and we shook hooves.

A fairly ordinary-looking earth pony was Celestia’s husband? My curiosity was roused and I looked forward to finding out how that had happened. “I am Prince Mark Wells, Triarch of the Equestrian Empire. Princess Twilight is my co-ruler along with Princess Trixie Lulamoon.” The final name caused Prince Bean’s eyebrows to rise sharply. He obviously knew the local version who, judging by his reaction, was not a princess.

I continued. “My wife, Chrysalis, is Queen of the Canterlot Hive which is sworn to defend and uphold the throne of the Equestrian Empire. Prince Shining Armor is the husband of Princess Cadance of the Crystal Principality, and my final companion is my Chief of Security and personal bodyguard, Captain Penumbra. We hope to open beneficial relationships between our two worlds.”

Prince Bean looked impressed. “I would never have believed that there were other worlds like ours without meeting you. I bet you have some interesting tales to tell us.”

I looked at Twilight with a raised eyebrow and she nodded. It would seem that they might not have had a Starlight Glimmer incident in this universe, or it was yet to occur. After all, while history was fairly consistent within this band of realities, there was still a bit of variation. “We would love to share stories with you although we can’t stay long right now. This portal takes too much power to maintain for an extended time.”

“That’s for the best,” Bean replied. “Celly is rather preoccupied right now with our son. However, we would be pleased to meet you under more comfortable circumstances, say tomorrow morning?”

“That would be fine with us. Do you mind if I bring another with me?”

“Princess Trixie, I assume? No problem. I look forward to meeting her. How do we go about that, by the way?”

I levitated an enchanted sapphire out of my saddlebag and gave him instructions on what to do with it. “And make sure you put the mirror in a secure room for both our sakes.” After agreeing on a time for our follow-up meeting, we headed back to our world and closed the portal. I had a lot of work to get done before our little jaunt tomorrow but the anticipation would keep my mood high.

“Time to get up, Your Royal Splendiferousness.”

Penny. Nopony else used that word. I had to admit the mild annoyance helped pull me out of my awakening stupor. To my surprise, I was alone in our herd’s oversized bed. As expected, Penumbra was fully armored and ready to start the day.

I could hear Rarity, Trixie, and Chrysalis in the sitting room next to the bedroom. When I got out of bed and headed that way, my personal bodyguard and third herdmate stopped me with one gigantic wing.

I raised an eyebrow. “What’s the occasion?”

“You’ll find out when it’s time and no sooner. Now go freshen up and get ready for your extra-dimensional mini-vacation.”

I rolled my eyes and changed direction for the bathroom. “Pushy mares.”

I got the wide, fanged smile I was looking for. “Yep. And you love every minute of us bossing you around.”

I stopped in my tracks. “Oh, so this is a test? Very well, I’ll just slip past you.” Sure, it was a bluff, but also an invitation for some wrestling to spice up an otherwise boring morning.

The thestral’s smile disappeared. “No, no. No need for that. Just get ready now, please.”

Interesting. Penny very much wanted me not to interrupt my other wives. Enough so to back down from her bluster. Well, if Penny was afraid of getting in trouble for ruining the surprise, I would doubtless earn the full wrath of all four of my mares. No reason to spoil the day for everypony involved. “Yes, my Jedi Master.”

“Hah! And don’t you forget it, Apprentice!” Penny followed that with a kiss on my cheek. In a much softer voice, she said, “Thanks.”

After a quick shower (a boring one on account of Penny not helping scrub my back), I put on my crown with the Changeling Stone and my standard gold vest for visiting other dimensions.

When I stepped out of my dressing room (more like a modest walk-in closet), I came up short at the sight I beheld. “Wow!”

Chrysalis held a hoof to her chest and asked, “I take it you approve, my husband?”

Did I ever! Multicolored textured fabric draped over her barrel and down her sides. Thin strands of gemstones fell across her neck and legs. The length of the strands varied to create a layered effect. Her crown had been widened by extensions holding different gemstones. “You look positively radiant!”

Rarity let out a “Squeee!” and pulled Trixie into a hug.

The fashionista’s manic grin got even wider when I said, “You’ve outdone yourself once again, Rarity. Let me guess. Inspiration from the cross-dressing universe?”

“Of course, darling! Our luminous herdmate has already agreed to walk down the runway for the Spring Fashion Show.”

I smirked. “Oh, so Marklestia won’t be needed this year?”

The unicorn shook her head while her stare bore into my soul. “Nice try.”

Only when my eyes returned to Chrysalis did I notice one very important detail. “Holes in your legs? And mane and tail?”

Sally drew closer and gave me a smoldering look. “You’ve never complained about my holes before.” I gaped while the rest of my wives chortled.

Chrysalis continued. “My old look was necessary for this fashion to succeed. I’ll seal them back up after our visit to Prince Bean’s dimension.”

If anything, I gaped even more. “What!? You’ve already been there. I thought it was going to be Twilight, Trixie, Penny, and me.”

“I refuse to let my herdmates, as wonderful as they are, hoard all the fun.”

“But Rarity…” I remembered my insomnia brought about by the fashionista’s late-night vocal inspiration sessions. That certainly counted as ‘fun’.

I said, “OK. I concede the point. And I agree that your appearance should help allay any fears that you are the same mare as that dimension’s Chrysalis.”

Sally said, “True. Also, no one did anything too rash when I accompanied you yesterday.”

Penumbra patted me on the head. “Such a smart stallion – agreeing with his mares after they have all made a decision.”

“Indeed,” said the changeling queen with a smile. “If I had known he was this intelligent, I would have let him marry me years earlier.”

Without waiting for my reply, Chrysalis opened the doors to our suite with her magic and sashayed into the hallway. I heard the two door guards say “Wow!” as she strode past.

I caught Penumbra’s eye as we trotted to catch up. I held her gaze until she nodded. Message received. There was no guarantee how any Chrysalis might be looked upon in a new dimension and the one that we were visiting had already shown its hostility towards her. Penny would be extra cautious about the safety of our herdmate.

We transitioned the new portal mirror without incident and I noted that our hosts had chosen the same room in their castle as we had to accommodate it. Great minds think alike, it seemed. There was a squad of Royal Guards awaiting our arrival. Judging by their cautious appraisal of Chrysalis, I figured that they had been forewarned of her presence and they were as much as a precaution as an honor guard. Sally ignored them as Trixie and I acknowledged the salute of the squad leader.

“Please accompany us, Your Highnesses,” the corporal said.

He might not have laid eyes on Trixie or me before, but even the least of the guards knew what an alicorn represented and he treated us with due deference. With Trixie by my side and my three herdmates following behind, we were escorted to the Grand Ballroom.

Our arrival caused quite a stir among the gathered nobles but I was focused on the white alicorn mare and yellow earth pony stallion toward which we were headed. I noted that Sergeant Clover flanked his prince’s side and another Royal Guard stood by Celestia – her personal bodyguard, I presumed. I was startled to see a unicorn Trixie standing a pace back from the Prince. Her eyes grew wide as she saw my wife and she dropped the clipboard that she had been holding in her magic. Prince Bean was looking at my Trixie with intense curiosity and even Celestia had raised an eyebrow. We stopped in front of them and bowed.

Celestia said, “I am Princess Celestia Bean and this is my husband, Prince Baked Bean. On behalf of us both, I welcome you to our world.”

Celestia Bean? Now that was unexpected. Normally, I would let Trixie take the lead on these occasions. However, the prince had met me and not my wife, so we had agreed that I would do the honors this time. “I am Prince Mark Wells and this is my wife, Princess Beatrix Lulamoon.” I turned halfway around to introduce the others. “These are my herdmates, Rarity Belle, Captain Penumbra, and Queen Chrysalis of the Canterlot Hive.”

There was a loud muttering at the last but Sally ignored it with dignity.

“A herd?!” Prince Bean blurted out. “You have a herd?”

I replied, “I am unaware of the practices in this world, but in mine, the gender imbalance necessitates arrangements to deal with the needs and desires of so many mares without husbands. The herd arrangement bypasses the restriction of only one legal spouse. Nevertheless, I regard all my herdmates as my wives.”

Bean sputtered, “But four wives?!”

Chrysalis smiled. “Of course! Along with his four wives, my husband has impregnated more mares than I can easily count.” The discussions and muffled cries of shock from the nobles grew louder.

I rolled my eyes and again addressed the Royal Couple. “Between the pony social custom of finding your partner at or near your social class and the ratio of mares to stallions, it's only natural in our Equestria. And Sally, 'one' is not a large number to count, dear.”

“But you certainly tried your hardest with Rainbow Dash, and wasn't there a second Trixie at some point?” At that, the unicorn Trixie took a step back, picked up her clipboard with her magic, and thrust it between us like a shield.

Penumbra showed her fangs and went in for the kill. “Just think of the possibilities, Prince Bean.”

A few vaguely negative sounds escaped Bean’s lips. His eyes darted between my wives, who now nodded while staring levelly at the Prince.

Celestia recovered before her gaping husband. She hid her smirk and whispered to Prince Bean just loud enough for all of us to hear. “Won't Luna be glad to know when I tell her the good news.”

Bean’s head whipped around to stare at his wife. “You wouldn't!”

The white alicorn could only hold a straight face for a few seconds, then every mare burst out laughing. Even their Trixie did so seeing Bean’s facial expression.

The formal aspect of the royal meeting was over, completely smashed to bits. Bean trotted down the stairs of the dais and moved up next to me and asked, “Do you have to put up with this all the time?”

I put a wing over Bean’s withers. “Welcome to my world, Prince Bean.”

With the ice broken at my expense, as usual, we settled down into informal conversation. While my Trixie chatted with a very intrigued Celestia, I noticed that the local version of her was hanging on every word. Knowing her personality, I guessed that she might be looking for clues on how to ascend to alicorn status too and live up to her “Great and Powerful” boast.

Rarity, Chrysalis, and Penumbra banded together to deal with the questions that the noble mares peppered them with. Not unexpectedly, many of them concerned the presence of the changeling queen but I was sure that Sally could handle them. If not, Penny was on the job.

Bean and I were left in relative peace. Sometimes it was good to be a stallion in a mare’s world because the focus almost always shifted to those they perceived as most important – in this case, my wives. If I hadn’t been an alicorn, I suspect that we would have been left totally alone despite our ranks. It did give Bean and I a chance to talk candidly and we compared how we had each attained our lofty statuses. I was flabbergasted by the bizarre law that precipitated his marriage with the most powerful pony in the world. Touching noses? Surely Celestia could have thought of something better? I made a mental note to ask my Celestia how she had coped with power-hungry noble stallions during the early days of her reign.

Bean was boggled in turn when I revealed that I was formerly a human. Apparently, he was familiar with the species and, after a few questions, I figured out he’d been to Sunset Shimmer’s world. I wondered if it was the same one that I knew or yet another parallel universe. Anyway, finding out that we had both been commoners before being thrust onto the throne by different circumstances had given us a sense of camaraderie.

We were sharing a drink and trading recipes when I noticed a disturbance. A pegasus Royal Guard stallion was stomping angrily in the direction of my herdmates. His glare seemed focused on Chrysalis in particular, unsurprisingly. I murmured, “Bean – who’s that?”

He turned to see the pony I was looking at. He frowned. “That’s Sergeant Hokey Pokey. He’s the stallion that our Chrysalis is enamored with.”

“Doesn’t he know that this isn’t his Chrysalis?”

“He was off-duty yesterday and he’s only just come back on, so he might not have heard.”

I started moving towards my herdmates. “While Sally and Penny can handle the situation, I think we’d better nip this in the bud.”

Pokey had already reached my wife though and he wasn’t holding back.

What in Celestia’s name are you doing here, Chrysalis?!” he hoarsely whispered. “You can’t keep crashing their Highnesses’ functions at a whim! And where in Tartarus did you get that dress?”

Chrysalis was unperturbed and smiled back at the red-faced pegasus. She walked in a slow circle in front of the stallion to best show herself off. “Do you like it? I thought I’d look my best for this special occasion.”

Pokey grated his teeth before grudgingly admitting, “It looks fantastic. Nevertheless, you are coming back home with me right now!”

Chrysalis raised an eyebrow. “Really? Not that it wouldn’t amuse me, but I think my husband might object to that.”

“Your what?

I spoke up. “Me. Her husband. That is not your Queen Chrysalis, Sergeant.”

Bean hastened to back me up. “It’s true. These are visitors from an alternate universe and this changeling queen is married to Prince Wells here.”

I think that the Sergeant might have had difficulty swallowing that explanation if I hadn’t been an alicorn. It took only a few moments for him to swing from righteous anger to embarrassed humiliation. He saluted me. “My apologies, Your Highness. I meant no offense.”

“Does this mean our date is off, Sergeant?” Chrysalis asked in a sickly sweet tone dripping with disappointment.

“Not now, Sally,” I muttered. “It was an understandable mistake, Sergeant. Rest assured that my wife poses no problem to you.”

“Thank you, sir. I wish I could say the same for my bug queen.”

I suppressed a smirk. He might have accepted that Sally was legit but he obviously still held a grudge with changeling queens. I could sympathize. “I’m curious. Could you tell us all about your Chrysalis and how you became a couple?”

Boy! Did that open the floodgates!

Sally and I glided in to land in front of a modest, single-story house on the outskirts of Canterlot. Nothing about the residence proclaimed it was housing royalty, changeling or otherwise. I walked up to the door and was about to knock when my wife’s loud throat-clearing made me pause. I dutifully waited until she had gotten her dress all sorted out for maximum impressiveness, I suppose.

I brought my hoof up again. “Ready?”

“Always.” My wife’s green magic aura encased the door and it swung inwards. Sally lifted her head as she strode past me and inside.

I brought my hoof down to reach into my saddlebags as I mumbled, “Of course. Why bother knocking when going to visit yourself?”

We found Queen Chrysalis at the kitchen table with a stack of magazines to one side and a pile of torn-out pages to the other. Her chitin was marred with subtle blotches of color. It reminded me of wood that wouldn’t let go of some hint of its previous paint, even after repeated scrubbings. She spoke without looking up. “Almost done editing these dreadful magazines, my Pokey-poo. So much better without any dreadful alicorns inside.” She tore another page free with a flourish. I came up next to my wife and decided to follow her lead at just waiting for our hostess’s reaction.

After “Pokey-poo” didn’t answer, Queen Chrysalis looked up. The years spent with Sally let me recognize shock, confusion, then anger. She said, “Dimension travelers! Get out of my territory, imposter! And as for your pet alicorn—”

A downward twitch of her head clued me to exactly when to throw my nullstone tracking band. Before the queen could use her magic or utter another syllable, her horn was neutralized and my wife’s magic aura forced the queen’s head down onto the table. That’s when I noticed the green field wrapped around the captive’s neck. That explained the lack of complaining.

As much as Sally liked to drive home a point, Queen Chrysalis would need to breathe sometime. I said, “Make it quick, dear.”

Queen Chrysalis’s eyes went wide and she scrambled with her hooves to pull away from the table. Magazines and papers flew everywhere. Whoops. Might have phrased that poorly.

Sally expanded her magical grasp to immobilize the Queen’s forehooves and waited for the Queen to meet her gaze. “Hello. I don't believe we've been properly introduced. I am Queen Chrysalis of the Canterlot Hive. I’ll have you know that I swore an oath to uphold the laws of Equestria in letter and in spirit.” My wife moved closer and showed her fangs. “But we aren’t in my Equestria right now, are we?”

This was going on too long. “Dear, make your final points, please.” That elicited another round of struggling from the changeling queen. I reconsidered what I had said. Oops. I’m just not very good at this.

It did seem that my wife had heard me. With a dismissive sniff, she tossed the queen back into her chair while releasing her magical hold. “Good. I'm so glad we understand each other. So, let's just set some ground rules, shall we? You shall not disparage myself or my chosen mate. At all times, you will act with decorum. In return, we may choose to inform your Twilight how to remove your nullification band. I’ll leave the groveling to her for a favor in your capable hooves.”

I sat down across from the changeling queen. Her breathing slowed as she got oxygen back into her body. Her stare reminded me of old times. I pointed with a hoof. “See that dear? You used to glare at me like an angry cobra, too.” I sighed. “What happened to those happy days when we would flirt with unbridled venom? Do you think we’ve lost that chemistry… that special feeling between us?”

“Yes.” My Chrysalis sat next to me in the only remaining empty chair. We stared at her counterpart across the table.

I said, “You’ve already surmised that we come from the Equestria of a parallel world. I am Prince Mark Wells.”

Our hostess’s hoof moved from rubbing her throat to feeling the nullstone band but chose to say nothing. Fine then. I’ll talk to my wife. “Was all of that posturing necessary, dear?”

Sally gave me a quick nuzzle. “Noling knows me like I know me. This one has the emotional maturity I had when I was a teenager. I should know because I stagnated in that state for so many decades. Trust me, my stallion. The one thing she respects is power. And now, I have that power.”

Queen Chrysalis continued to glare at us. After several seconds, she dropped her hoof to the table. “What do you want?” she spat out.

My wife tilted her head and smiled sweetly. “Oh, I just had to find out about this version of me that was horn-over-hocks in love with a stallion in this world.” Her magic lifted the changeling queen’s mane until Queen Chrysalis batted her hair free with wildly flailing forehooves. “I see that expressing your love to someone other than your children hasn’t made you all sparkly. Most interesting.”

I said, “I suspect the Laws of Magic and Harmony may work a bit differently here.”

My Chrysalis turned to me, “Or she could be defective.”

I bumped her with my shoulder. “Dear, enough. You’ve sufficiently established both your dominance and your distaste for this version of yourself. Now; do you plan to issue a formal challenge for control of her hive?”

My wife looked appraisingly across the table at her counterpart, who once again had the anger drain away from her face.

Sally shook her head. “No.”

“Then you need to follow your own directive and likewise act with decorum.”

“Yes, husband.”

Queen Chrysalis glanced between us, her brow furrowed. “You… you let your stallion dictate to you?”

My wife said, “No. We listen to each other and value what the other has to say. We reach compromise through common respect.”

“And love?”

My wife stiffened. Queen Chrysalis saw that reaction and pounced. “You don’t love him, do you? He is a convenience and a means to achieve your ends, isn’t he?”

I cocked an eyebrow and looked at Sally. I thought I knew the answer already but we had not discussed it. One of the unspoken rules of our relationship was that my wife didn’t talk about her emotions unless she chose to do so.

My Chrysalis sighed. “I admit that I used a careless promise made by Prince Wells to establish my new life once I left the old one behind. When I joined his herd, I held respect for him but no affection.” She paused and shuffled her wings.

“And then?” I prompted.

“And then we grew closer than I had intended.” She gripped my hoof in hers. “His wit, power, and outstanding qualities as a father made me care for him.”

Queen Chrysalis tapped the table impatiently. “You are avoiding my question. Do you love him?”

My wife looked at me and smiled. “I do.” It may have been a trick of the light, but Sally’s mane seemed to sparkle a bit brighter. “I admitted the truth to myself when he ate up the last of the now-extinct cavefish in Luna’s grotto inside Canterlot Mountain.”

Queen Chrysalis said, “Wait. Princess Luna has a secret grotto?”

My wife’s smile faded and she looked forward, once again all business. She continued to grip my hoof, however. “Ummm… Perhaps I should not have mentioned this. It may be another aspect that is different between alternate worlds.”

I chuckled. “No worries. If you’re wrong, I’m sure this version of Princess Luna will be overjoyed that you just made this common knowledge.” That earned me a sideways glare.

“Hmmm…” Queen Chrysalis tapped her chin. “That sounds like a lovely spot for a date with my stallion. The darker and damper the better. Even if Luna doesn’t know about it, I should be able to find it by sending drones to map the underground streams.”

My turn to ask a question. “So, Your Majesty. Do you still plan to conquer Equestria? Take the entire population captive and breed and pod them as you see fit? Make your hive supreme over every sapient creature on Equus?”

From her scowl, Queen Chrysalis caught my sarcasm. “Yes. It is the destiny of our race.”

My wife said, “And how will your Babboo feel about this? Do you think he will fall deeply enough in love with you to allow his fellow guardsponies, friends, and family to live the rest of their lives in pods?”

The queen rustled her wings that were decidedly not sparkly. “I’m working on it.”

Sally leaned forward. “Why don’t you just green-lock him and order him to love you without reservation? Why would an empty husk not be sufficient?”

Queen Chrysalis looked away. We gave her as much time as she needed to craft her answer.

Softly, she said. “Because of exactly that. I love the stallion that he is. Hypnotizing him would break him.” She raised her voice a bit. “Don’t think I am unaware of how much damage I did to Shining Armor and Prince Bean.”

Actually, I didn’t know. Not the time to ask, though.

My wife said, “Then realize the inevitable as I did. My Equestria is an empire. Its territory and protectorates span most of the races on Equus. Even now… even today, that empire gains new allies across even more dimensions. Against such a force, no changeling hive can stand. Many years ago, that Equestria invaded my hive and defeated us without the loss of a single life on either side.” That piece of news got a jump out of the queen. “That’s right. My throne was smashed and hive overrun almost without effort. And still, you cling to the belief that you can win through the might of your indomitable force of will?”

Queen Chrysalis smiled. “I have my own ways.”

I said, “Ah. Replace the leaders with drones and rely on ponykind’s tendency to follow the leader of the herd. Yes, we had to work a bit to counteract that. Entirely doable.”

The queen frowned at me. “I also have other ways. I will not give you any hints so you can blab to the big-white-round-flanked one.”

I leaned back in my chair. “You mean any more hints. Thanks, by the way.”

She snarled and started to stand up. “Don’t patronize me, you …” The queen slowly sat down. Her voice was level. “No. You will not bait me.”

My Chrysalis said, “I agree that this is one of his worse tendencies. I’m glad to see I’m not the only me he can play like a fiddle.”

“Oh? Tell me about his other bad qualities.”

“He is exceptionally stubborn. Still, the four members of our herd are teaming up with several other mares to teach him a stallion’s proper place in any relationship.”

While I knew Sally was teasing me, this Chrysalis ate it up. She jumped on the chance to alter the power dynamic of the conversation. “Is that true, stallion? Have you not learned yet that despite your lofty title, you hold power only by the whim of females? Can I assume you are intelligent enough to realize that mares will always run the world?”

I gave a defeated sigh. “I know better than anyone. I’ve been living that truth for years.” I saw all of Queen Chrysalis’s fangs now.

I smirked. “Only one thing to do.” I switched to long-maned Marklestia and yelled, “BOO!”

“GAH!” Queen Chrysalis threw herself backward and tumbled off her chair.

I smiled at my wife. “You were right, dear. This was a great idea to visit the other you. So much fun.” We shared a long and passionate kiss. When I looked back at our hostess, her lips were pulled down in disgust but her wings were extended to soak up the freely given love. I chuckled. Few things were as amusing to me as a conflicted changeling.

“Sally, we need—”

“Ugh!” The changeling queen stuck out her tongue. “Sally?! Is that… is that a nickname? It’s abhorrent!”

My wife said, “Of course it is. Still, you have to remember what I said about compromise. I settle for getting a little act of revenge for every time he calls me that terrible name.”

I blinked. “What act of revenge?” My Chrysalis just smiled while the other laughed openly. “What have you been doing to get even? For years?”

“Come along, husband. We mustn’t dally.” I used an outstretched wing to keep her from heading for the door.

I shifted back to my stallion body, pulling my vest out of the dimensional storage where I had put it when changing forms. I lowered my voice. “We’ll talk about that later. We still have two final matters to attend to.” I looked back at Queen Chrysalis who was no longer chuckling. In fact, her ears were pointed backward. “Tracking bands are on Twilight’s restricted export list. ‘Pugnacious’.”

At the spoken keyword, the nullstone band uncurled from the queen’s horn and flew back to my hoof. I stuffed it into my saddlebag.

I continued. “Also, didn’t Sergeant Hokey-poo express some positive emotions regarding your choice of fashion?”

Some?” exclaimed my wife. “I think only professional pride and his annoyance at seeing his ‘marefriend’ at the Castle kept Pokey-Yummy from running his hooves all over me.”

The queen’s eyes grew hard. “Don’t you dare call him…” She blinked. “Wait. Really?”

I said, “That was my impression as well. Dear, why don’t you leave the outfit for this Chrysalis to try on? She did behave herself to an extent and we are trying to spread the Magic of Friendship wherever we go.”

The queen practically bounced up and down. “Oh, yes. Be my friend and all that nonsense.”

I stared into Queen Chrysalis’s eyes. “Before you get any clever ideas, I’ll be telling this world’s princesses who is the new owner of the dress.” I used the Changeling Stone in my crown to give myself a longer set of fangs than even my wife. “You will not be impersonating my wife.”

Our hostess’s horn glowed for a moment then winked out. My lack of a single shred of fear may have caused her to reassess her actions. She said, “Understood.” Or maybe she just really wanted that dress.

I nodded and looked at my wife. Sally shifted the voids in her legs until they reached the surface and disappeared. The many thin chains of multi-colored gemstones fell to the floor with a hiss. Her horn glowed and the dress unwrapped and lifted free. “Do take good care of it… unless your stallion tears it off your body in passion. That is also acceptable.”

Queen Chrysalis held out a foreleg and my wife draped the fabric onto it. The queen said, “I can only hope.” Her horn lit again and the chains floated to her side. She smiled. “You two know your way out. I need to get ready for a date tonight.” With that, Queen Chrysalis trotted past us with a beaming smile on her face.

I called after her, “It was nice to meet you, too!” A slamming bedroom door was her answer.

I looked my now naked wife up and down and smirked. “What do you think? Is she herdmate material? Would she make a good fifth wheel, Sally?”

She laughed. “Already taken. I thought you had learned not to make light of such things. Talking about adding to your herd without first consulting with your lead mare? It seems I was mistaken.”

I smiled. “What? No rebuke or fresh threats about calling you Sally, Sally?”

My wife chuckled darkly. “To be honest, my stallion, I’m surprised you haven’t recognized the petty acts of retaliation that… Well, never mind. I’m sure you’ll find out someday.”

Damn it, not even a hint… if these supposed acts of revenge existed at all.

“Yes, they do exist. Ask Penumbra if you don’t believe me. You simply aren’t devious enough to—”

I growled. “Fine, fine. Like you said, we can’t be dallying. Come on, let’s go… Sally!”

As I chivvied my wife out the front door, she laughed freely. I gave a dark stare to her happily swishing tail. She had gotten to me and I couldn’t even pretend it to be otherwise.

The treaty that we signed with the rulers in Prince Bean’s world was not the last. The success of forming alliances with so many new dimensions had filled us with a strong sense of accomplishment. Therefore, while we would soon need to refocus on work in our home dimension, we decided that we could handle a couple more before putting a hold on our exploration of alternate universes.

The latest one was a peaceful world much like our own. However, the major players were largely different although still familiar. One, in particular, had taken a great interest in those differences and had asked me to bear a message to my changeling wife. I enthusiastically agreed.

Chrysalis was waiting for our return. I had promised to deal with some hive matters with her when I got back from this meeting and it appeared that she did not intend to waste any time. That made it very convenient for me to pass on the missive immediately.

I gave my mate a kiss before saying, “We had a lovely talk with the Princess of Love while over there. She wants to meet you, Sally.”

Chrysalis gave me a puzzled frown. “Why would another world’s Princess Cadance want to talk with me? There is nothing wrong with our relationship, husband.”

I grinned. “I’m afraid you’ve gotten the wrong idea.” I pulled a photo out of my saddlebag with my magic and passed it to my wife. “Here’s a picture of her.”

Sally took the photo in her magic and looked at it. Then her eyes bulged and she gave a strangled cry. “Ack! SHARDS, NO!” She tore the photograph to shreds and then immolated it for good measure. She turned and stomped away, her nose in the air as if she had caught a whiff of something distasteful.

Shining, Trixie, and I cracked up laughing as I pulled out a second print of the photo. “I think I’ll put this on display – preferably in a magically reinforced frame. The Princess of Love deserves it.” I gazed at the image with a broad grin on my face. The changeling queen had never looked so adorably cute!



CHAPTER 6: Unexpected Company


I was enjoying this latest royal visit because of the ponies involved rather than anything political in nature. In other words, Prince Baked Bean and his wife, Princess Celestia (Bean), were here in our world purely for social reasons. The Prince had even brought along some culinary treats that he had made himself just like one’s neighbor would pop around to watch a ball game. I loved the spicy pepper cauliflower dip and Trixie couldn’t stop praising the dark chocolate sunflower seed butter cups. When I asked if I could try one, she let me know that there was a limit to how much she loved me, and that limit was defined by dark chocolate. I laughed as loud as our guests at that playful jab. Still, that left me with the spicy stuff which suited me fine.

Interacting with the yellow earth pony was a breath of fresh air after dealing with the stuffy nobility. However, because both our visitors were true royalty, I was more than ready to use that as a legitimate excuse to take an afternoon off from my duties. The lords and ladies would never know that Trixie and I were conversing about our foals, favorite foods, and pranks we’d pulled rather than serious matters like trade agreements and mutual defense pacts between our worlds. Right at the moment, the subject had turned to how each of us had become leaders of our respective nations.

“I can’t believe that you chose this life,” Bean said. “I fell into it completely by accident.” He glanced fondly at his wife. “Best accident ever, but still completely by chance.”

I replied, “Would you believe I once jumped off a castle balcony before I had yet to master flying just to get away from the suggestion that I become a ruler?”

My wife said, “There you go again, Dowser – taking credit for something that was not your idea. The Great and Helpful Trixie recalls that she dropped you in a sensible attempt to get you past your unreasonable fear of flying.”

I had almost forgotten about that incident. “I hadn’t had wings for even a day! And I had no idea we would ever get married, especially with that kind of first impression.”

Trixie smirked. “Could it be that even then, you made a precipitous attempt to escape your destiny…”

“… or just crazy mares.” I quipped back. “Looks like I failed that spectacularly as well.”

She patted me on the withers. “Don’t feel inadequate. It is what all your wives have come to expect of our stallion.”

By now, both Bean and his Celestia were crying tears of mirth. I shot a glare at Captain Penumbra in time to see her toothy grin. She nodded to Trixie. Of course. Why wouldn’t she give lessons in snark to my other wives?

Still, I could at least get the conversation back on track. “Actually, I was talking about when I jumped off the balcony at the Castle of Friendship. This was before Trixie and I were an item and she joked… I think… about having Marklestia sit in for the Diarchs. Not wanting to take any chances, I high-tailed it out of there.”

Bean chuckled. “Sounds like something I would have done, and I don’t even have wings. And yet, here you are today, Prince of an empire.”

I reached around Trixie with a wing to cuddle her. “It just shows what stallions will do for love. Trixie stole my heart and I would have done anything to make her mine. Taking responsibility as a Prince of Equestria was the price I was quite willing to pay to be with my soulmate.”

My wife smiled and leaned into me. “Trixie made sure that her stallion knew what was best for him.”

That was not quite how I remembered it happening but I wasn’t going to argue with the results.

Celestia beamed and emulated my action with Bean. “I believe that we were both fortunate to gain the husbands that we needed to complete our lives. And both our worlds have benefitted from the changes those events precipitated.”

I nodded. “Sometimes, it takes a major shake-up to get a country out of its comfortable rut and make advancements. Bean was your catalyst while the disappearance of our Royal Sisters and their subsequent replacement was ours. I hope that my and Sally’s visit to your Queen Chrysalis was of some help too.”

“That situation is still playing out,” Celestia admitted, “but I have high hopes.”

Trixie said, “You are every bit as optimistic as our Celestia.”

The alabaster mare smirked. “I have reason to be. The changeling queen may not want to admit it but she is hopelessly smitten with Hokey Pokey, and he with her. I would not tolerate her presence in Canterlot or her continued freedom otherwise.”

“Your Chrysalis deserves a chance,” my wife agreed. “Our herdmate has more than proven herself.”

“What else have you been doing to encourage her to stay on the right path?” I asked Celestia.

Before either could reply, there was a firm knock on the sun room’s door. At Celestia and Bean’s curious looks, I said, “We left word not to be disturbed unless something important came up. Pardon me for a moment.”

I nodded to Penumbra who opened the door to talk with whoever had knocked. While their voices were too low and muffled, I did detect a surprised tone. The batpony then turned around and said, “I think you need to deal with this, Your Highnesses.”

If Penny was reverting to full formality, it had to be important. “Send them in, Captain Penumbra.”

She stepped back, pulling the door fully open. Two EUP soldiers, both pegasi, stepped inside the room with another creature between them – a tall biped. My eyes opened in shock as I recognized the species. He was a human! And not one from Sunset’s world either. He could easily have been my neighbor back when I still lived on Earth. He was olive-skinned, had black hair, and was perhaps around thirty years of age. He had a thick growth of stubble and there were several scrapes and bruises visible on his limbs. His T-shirt and shorts were badly torn and filthy. He looked around with the bewildered expression of someone who had just been thrust into an insane situation. The Guards stopped before Trixie and me and saluted.

“Your Highnesses – we found this creature stumbling around the edge of the San Palomino Desert not far from Los Pegasus. It appears to be dehydrated and disoriented. It keeps asking what happened to something called Las Vegas. Because we did not recognize the species, Corporal Slipstream applied the decontamination crystal as per Princess Sparkle’s standard procedure. We then used a daggerscale portal to bring it here and we were going to have it treated and interrogated. However, Sergeant Crimson Boulder saw us and told us that you would want to see it immediately.”

I glanced back to the door and noticed my earth pony alternate bodyguard waiting in the doorway. I met his eyes and inclined my head to indicate that he was to join us. I turned my attention back and noticed that Trixie was appraising our strange visitor. She certainly recognized what he was and was probably wondering if he was from my world too. I spoke to the Guard who had addressed us. “Find Doctor Bellows and have him come here to evaluate this human. Then I want extra patrols sent out to check the desert in case there are more of them. If so, approach them cautiously but do not treat them as hostile unless they are clearly a danger. Have them brought here too. Oh, and provide them with water and food.”

“Yes, sir!” The Guards saluted again and departed.

“Will someone please tell me what’s going on!” the man croaked.

I got up and gently steered the man to a lounge chair. Although I judged him to be of normal human size, he towered over my pony form. It was similar to when I had first visited Phil’s home without the adaptation spell active and Rosa had been much taller than us. The chair was therefore a bit too low for him but better than leaving him standing. “Sit down and make yourself comfortable while we sort this out.”

Bean said, “He looks like he could use a drink.”

“Agreed,” I said, levitating a glass and a jug of lemon squash over to the man.

“What the fuck?!” he said, staring at the objects suspended in the glow of my power.

“It’s magical levitation,” I said. “Don’t question it for now. Take these and pour yourself a drink.”

He gingerly grasped them and did so while I examined him in detail. He drank the lemon squash like someone dying of thirst and I stopped him from pouring another glass.

“Too much too quickly isn’t good for you,” I told him. “Let your body absorb that first. Meanwhile, tell us your name.”

“My name is Caleb Awad. Who and what are you?”

“I am Prince Mark Wells and I am an alicorn, as is my wife, Princess Beatrix Lulamoon.” I then indicated our visitors. “These are Princess Celestia and Prince Bean, guests from another world. Yes, you heard me right. They aren’t from this dimension and, obviously, you aren’t either. This world is called Equus and you are now in the Equestrian Empire.”

“But… you’re all horses!”

“Ponies,” I corrected. “Magical colorful talking ponies. Some are pegasi like the Royal Guards that brought you in. Some are unicorns. Some are batponies or earth ponies like my bodyguards. But all of them are sapient citizens of this country and just one of the many races that fill this world. I know that this is all hard to take in quickly, but you have to accept the situation that you’re in while we figure out how you got here.”

“Easy for you to say. You don’t have what look like animals telling me to be calm. It’s all a bit too surreal.”

“Believe me – I do understand. I was once a human too.”

Caleb’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re shitting me?!”

“Nope. You’re looking at a North Carolina native, believe it or not.”

“What happened to you?”

“An accident with a portal.”

“And that made you a prince?” he asked doubtfully.

I laughed. “Hell, no! However, that’s a very long story. What we need to know is how you ended up here in Equestria and why you were not transformed like I was. Then we will have to see if we can get you back home. The Guard mentioned something about Las Vegas – is that where you’re from?”

“No, I was just visiting. A bunch of my work buddies and I went there for a weekend. We all got a bit drunk and I stepped outside for some fresh air. Not sure how, but next thing I know, I’m waking up in the desert with civilization nowhere in sight. I wandered around for a day and cooked in the heat, then froze that night. Those winged ponies found me the next day. I thought I was hallucinating. Still not sure I’m not.”

“You stumbled into a portal in the middle of Sin City?” I asked dubiously.

“Nah. We had rented a place on the outskirts of town to save money for other stuff. The desert was on our doorstep. I walked into it for a minute or so to get away from the noise from our guesthouse. The lights of the city still drowned out the night sky though. And then… they didn’t.”

“You poor creature,” Bean said, getting up from the sofa. He grabbed the tray of chocolate treats and brought them over. “You must be starving. Help yourself to some of these. We’ll get you a proper meal later.”

“How in blazes are you holding that?” Caleb asked even as he reached for the food. Trixie shuffled on her hooves but didn’t complain as he scarfed down a couple of the chocolate cups. “Oh, wow! These are amazing!” That earned a smile from Prince Bean. Caleb continued. “Did you earn your crown in a cooking competition?”

Trixie and Celestia laughed so hard they had to hold onto each other to keep from falling over. For his part, Prince Bean sighed. “If only it had been that easy.”

“He’s holding the tray with magic,” I reminded Caleb. “It’s pretty much everywhere. Anyway, it sounds like you ran into a random natural portal between our worlds.”

“Does that happen a lot?” he asked between bites.

I recalled some of the stories that Celestia had told me of interdimensional incursions over the centuries and of discoveries made during her adventures with Daring Do. “Not really, and not necessarily to Earth.”

“What about the way you got here?” Caleb asked.

“Magic mirror that was created with a spell,” I informed him.

“Can I get back that way?”

“Maybe. We’ll definitely try that but there’s one problem and it’s a doozy.”

Caleb frowned. “And what’s that?”

“The world I came from might not be the Earth that you know.” I waved my hoof towards Celestia and Bean. “Our guests here are also from Equus, but an entirely different one. I have personally been to several other Equuses and they all differ from this one – some by a little and others by a lot. We might get to my Earth and find that there’s already a Caleb Awad there, or that Caleb never existed. The multiverse is enormous.”

The human slumped in his chair. “Sounds like I’m screwed unless I can get to that portal again.”

Celestia spoke up. “I’m afraid that we have more bad news. Natural portals tend to be temporary, according to our dimension’s research on the subject. That’s why we affix ours to a permanent object such as a mirror. The portal that brought you here may or may not still exist.”

Caleb bolted up out of his chair. “Crap! I gotta go find that portal!”

“Calm down,” I said. “While what Celestia said is true, natural portals tend to last as long as there’s mana to power them. Out in the desert, there’s little else using mana so it should stay around for a while. On the other hoof, I admit I don’t know when it opened, but if the other end was in such close proximity to the place you were staying and hadn’t been encountered before, I’d guess that it was fairly new. Was there some sort of major storm that had recently passed through the area?”

“Yeah. There was a helluva lightning storm while we were in town. It had cleared away by the time we got home that night though.”

“That sounds plausible as the cause.” There was a knock at the door and Crimson admitted Doctor Bellows into the room. “First, we get you checked out. Then we get you cleaned up and given a proper meal while we search for the portal.” I turned to the physician. “Doc, we have a visitor that has suffered from exposure in a desert, and lack of food and water. His species is called a human and you’ll find that he’s very similar in many ways to anthroponies, physiologically speaking, so he should be safe to treat. However, he doesn’t possess any form of magic ability.”

Bellows nodded. After years dealing with me and the many odd circumstances that I had found myself in, he was inured to the unusual. “Please remove your clothing so I may examine you properly,” he told Caleb.

The man’s eyes shot wide open. “What?!”

I chuckled. “No nudity taboo here, Caleb. Just take off your shirt if you don’t have anything wrong elsewhere.”

The doctor glared at me but proceeded with the examination when the man removed his tattered T-shirt. After a thorough check-up, he pronounced that Caleb was dehydrated and sunburnt but otherwise in excellent physical condition. His dark complexion had obviously helped. Bellows patched up his scrapes, gave him some salt tablets, and we allowed him another glass of lemon squash. Doctor Bellows promised to send a salve for his skin before departing.

While the doctor was busy, I had arranged to assign more squads to search the location of the portal. Given that Caleb had been wandering for so long, the area to be checked was quite extensive and there was a chance that it might be gone anyway. Nevertheless, it had to be tried for the man’s sake. Trixie had sent a servant to bring a decent meal for our guest and Lace Doily turned up with a hearty vegetable stew. Not unexpectedly, a full stomach quickly made the exhausted man drowsy. We had two Guards take him to a guest room to get some sleep. The stallions were instructed to keep watch at the suite’s door and let us know when Caleb woke up or if anything else needed our attention.

With that situation dealt with, we were finally able to turn our attention back to Celestia and Bean. However, given the circumstances, we decided that it would be best to reschedule our visit for another day. We all knew that this latest drama wasn’t over yet.

Caleb did not wake up until the following morning and he joined us for breakfast. Fortunately, he had taken advantage of the bathing facilities and a maid had the idea of providing a minotaur robe for him to wear. While the robe was on the small side for one of the bovine bipeds, it was still quite large for the human. Considering that the same maid had absconded with Caleb’s torn clothes, the man was grateful to have something to wear.

“We’ll get you some more clothes if necessary,” I promised.

Caleb looked doubtful. “Ponies make clothes? For humans?”

“Yes to the first, and to the second as well if you ask the right pony.” I was sure Rarity could whip up something fabulous for him in no time. Not my herdmate though – the anthro Rarity. We still visited there regularly due to our anthro daughter.

“Any word on finding the portal?”

“No luck yet, I’m afraid,” I replied as I poured syrup on my waffles.

“So I might be stuck here if your mirror isn’t the way home?” Caleb sighed. “I suppose I should be grateful that I’m still alive and not a pastel pony. What was it like turning into a green four-legger with wings and horn?”

“For starters, I didn’t have the horn then. I was only a pegasus when I arrived and I had no idea how to use these wings. I barely managed to walk. I crashed a lot but I learned. Now, I wouldn’t give up being able to fly for anything. There are worse fates than becoming a pony.”

“So, how did you get the horn?”

“Got a few weeks for me to tell you the whole story?”

“I might,” he replied glumly. “For now, though, give me the highlights.”

So I did. He scoffed about the effect of poison joke so I demonstrated. I think that my becoming a female freaked him out more than anything else. I suppose not everyone is going to be comfortable with the idea of transgender transformations. I bet he’d be leery of blue flowers from now on.

After breakfast, we headed for the portal mirror to Phil’s home. It was the obvious first possibility to eliminate. Despite the implication that I would take my human form there, Caleb was still surprised to see both me and Penny standing there on two legs and fully clothed while he just had the robe. Nobody was home but that was not surprising. Phil and Rosa would be at work right now while Yolanda and Miguel would be in school. Not that it mattered because my family had the run of the place. I also had a cell phone stashed here if needed. I turned it on and waited for it to start up.

“Okay – simple first test. What’s your number?” I asked Caleb when the phone was ready. He told me and I dialed it and put the phone on speaker so we could both hear.

The phone rang for five seconds before it was answered. “Caleb Awad speaking,” came a very familiar voice.

My Caleb’s face fell as I replied to the man at the other end. “Oops! My apologies. Wrong number!” I ended the call and looked at the distraught man. “Sorry, my friend. Wrong universe.”

He nodded glumly. “Can’t say you didn’t warn me. What now?”

“While this world is possibly very alike to yours, I don’t recommend that you stay here. I won’t force your choice but you’re alien to this world and you can’t be replacing the other Caleb. With modern identification systems, you’d be a non-person at best. We’ll have to move on to plan B.” I turned off the phone and put it away. “Let’s go back now.”

Upon returning to the room with the portal mirror, I stopped Caleb from stepping through. “Give me a moment to disable the adaptation spell. If you step through now, you’ll be transformed into a pony or other sapient species.” I was certain he would have been pissed off mightily to end up as a pony or other being. Some might enjoy the experience but I had a feeling that would not be appreciated right now. However, he surprised me.

“If I ended up like you, I’d still become a human if I came back here?” Caleb asked.

“Yes – the adaptation spell is designed to give you the physical form best suited to you in the destination world. Naturally, that means that you’d revert to human form on this side of the portal.”

“In that case, can I at least see what I could have become?”

I shrugged. “Can’t hurt if that’s what you truly want. If it freaks you out, normality is just a couple of steps away.”

“YOLO,” he replied and stepped through before I could ask if he was sure. I glanced at Penny and she shrugged. His choice, for better or for worse. I instructed her to wait and followed Caleb, wondering what he had become.

I discovered an earth pony waiting for me there, incongruously clad in a robe that was far too big for him. He was struggling to get it off and I used my magic to assist him. Once free of the encumbrance, he turned to the mirror to use its reflective properties to study himself. What he saw was a well-muscled stallion with a golden-brown coat and a maroon and purple striped mane. A glance confirmed that he did not have a cutie mark. He nodded approvingly and I reckoned that he made a handsome specimen.

“Feel like staying that way?” I asked.

Caleb chuckled and shook his head. “Nope. I was kind of hoping I’d get wings so I could try flying. No such luck. Gotta admit though that I don’t look half bad. Still, I don’t plan on staying, so I’d rather be human again.”

“Better take this with you then,” I said as I levitated his robe back to him. “The adaptation spell is placed on the departure gate, so let Captain Penumbra know what you want to do.”

“Thanks.” He stepped through the mirror and returned as soon as Penny disabled the adaptation charm.

After my herdmate reset the spell, she joined us in her normal batpony form.

“Man, that felt weird. I don’t think I could ever get used to that.” Now human again, Caleb flexed his fingers. “What’s our next move?”

“We consult with this world’s expert on portals. Twilight Sparkle should be awake by now. She’s really not a morning pony,” I explained.

I think Caleb was more impressed by the daggerscale portal that he had taken from the desert where he had been found than by the permanent portal that connected Canterlot Castle with Friendship Castle in Ponyville. It’s one thing when you step from a natural environment to an artificial one and another when essentially stepping from one room to another. Even so, they awed him while we had long since taken them for granted.

Sure enough, Twilight was at the breakfast table, eyes still half closed as she drank her coffee. Black, of course. Honestly, if she didn’t insist on staying up so late reading, she probably would have been far better off, but that’s our book alicorn for you. She barely raised an eyebrow at the sight of the human accompanying me.

“Morning, Sparkles,” I said cheerfully. “I’ve got a problem.”

Twilight brightened. “A Friendship Problem?”

“If you’d prefer to look at it that way, yes. Caleb appears to have fallen through a wild portal into our world and he wants to rejoin his friends on his Earth.”

“Not the same Earth as yours, I take it?”

“Nope. Already checked that out.”

“And you haven’t found the wild portal yet?”

“We’ve got squads searching for it but no luck so far.”

“How long has he been here?”

“A couple of days but we only knew about him since yesterday afternoon. He was in fairly bad shape and we had the doctor patch him up and let him rest. I figured we could tell you this morning and here we are.”

Spike arrived just then with a plate of waffles dripping with syrup. He placed it in front of Twilight before noticing Caleb. “Hey! I haven’t seen a human in a while. Where are you from?” he asked with a smile.

Caleb looked gobsmacked as he stared at Spike. The dragon had grown considerably since I’d first met him and was now a gangly youth nearly as tall as the human.

“Are… are you a dragon?”

“Sure am. Spike’s the name. I’m Twilight’s Number One assistant and Ponyville’s Librarian.”

I chuckled. By the look on Caleb’s face, that sure wasn’t what he had been expecting. “Seriously? I didn’t think that’s what a dragon would do.”

Spike put his hands on his hips and fixed the man with a frown. “What do you think I should be doing? Menacing ponies and hoarding gold?”

“Umm… well… you see…”

The dragon grinned and laughed. “Just messing with you. My family and friends are my treasure, so this is where I belong.”

In the short time this conversation had taken place, Twilight had wolfed down her breakfast. Wiping her lips with a napkin, she said, “It shouldn’t be a problem setting up a portal tuned to his home universe. All I need is some inanimate object from there to tune into it. Seeing as Caleb has only been here a couple of days, that’s well within the usable parameters before it becomes hopelessly contaminated. What can you give me?”

It had slipped my mind that Twilight could do that. It had been many years since it had been necessary. “He arrived with only the clothes he had been wearing.”

“Those will do. It’s obviously not that minotaur robe he’s wearing though. Where are his clothes?”

“A maid took them away to be decontaminated as per standard protocol. Will that be a problem?”

The purple alicorn looked thoughtful. “Hmm… no, although it does reduce the window of opportunity. We’d better get on it straight away. Let’s go to Canterlot now.” She got up from her chair and started heading for the door before pausing and looking back to her brother. “Thanks, Spike. That was a great breakfast.”

“You’re welcome, Twilight.”

Caleb shook his head. “I still can’t get over a dragon serving a pony waffles.”

I chuckled. “My friend, you’ve seen nothing yet.”

“You WHAT?!” Caleb screamed.

Silky Sheets took a nervous step backward. “Burned them, sir,” she repeated.

“Why would you do that?!” the man wailed.

“They needed to be decontaminated but since they were judged to be irreparable, it was simpler just to burn them.”

I facehoofed. Completely logical and the worst thing she could have done. “Thank you, Silky. You’re dismissed.”

The maid shot me a grateful look and hastily departed.

Caleb turned to me and asked, “Why would anyone burn someone’s clothing? Especially since I don’t have anything else to wear besides this silly robe!”

“Calm down. You have to realize that clothes are unusual here. Aside from uniforms, protective wear, and fancy outfits made for special occasions, most ponies simply don’t wear clothes. Same goes for griffons, hippogriffs, kirin, and other species. There’s no nudity taboo here, remember? It’s usually simpler to buy new items to replace seriously damaged ones. Silky didn’t know that you would need them for non-wearing purposes.”

The man sank down onto a chair. “Can’t you just tune the portal to me instead?”

Twilight shook her head. “No, a living creature won’t do as it’s easily molded by the new dimension and your body has already been too contaminated by Equestrian oxygen and food.”

“Is there any chance that you had something else with you when you passed through the portal and then left it behind? A cell phone? A flashlight?” I asked, grasping at straws.

“I… don’t think so. I just went outside to get some fresh air. I was pretty drunk at the time still.”

“Then it’s even more imperative that we find that wild portal because we’ve run out of alternatives. We’ll go personally and have a look around the region where you arrived. There are already several squads combing the vicinity but, if you recognize any landmarks, it could help us narrow down the search area.”

“Haven’t you got the morning session of Day Court today?” Twilight asked.

“Can you handle it? I’ll take the afternoon session instead.”

“I have a few audiences scheduled but I’ll see if they can come in early. Caleb’s needs are more urgent.”

“Thanks, Sparkles. Come on, Caleb – we’ve got a portal to find.”

Lieutenant Aerial Ace was in charge of the search. As his name suggested, he was a pegasus as were two-thirds of the EUP squads assigned to this task. Their keen eyes and ability to cover large areas quickly made them the ideal ponies for the job, although there were a few griffons too. The ground crews consisted of a mix of earth ponies and unicorns, the latter using their talents to try to detect the magic of the portal. Considering how much mana those holes in the universe leaked, it didn’t bode well for the search if it hadn’t been found yet. Nevertheless, the ground squads diligently searched the ravines and other places that were awkward for the pegasi to check from the air.

“Any luck, Lieutenant?” I asked.

Aerial Ace saluted. “No, Your Highness. No tracks were found because of a sandstorm last night. The area that the human could possibly have traversed has already been swept at altitude without any sign. I have ordered the squads to tighten their sweeps but this will take at least four times as long as the initial search. We are about a third through it so far.”

I grimaced. “We may be running out of time. I’ve brought Caleb here to join the search in the hope that he might recognize any landmarks.”

The pegasus nodded. “That could be useful. Seeing as an aerial perspective would probably be of no help in his case, I will assign a ground team to him. Please follow me.”

Caleb and I fell in behind Aerial Ace and he took us to a nearby tent where we found about twenty ponies apparently taking a break. While it was still fairly early in the day, this was a desert and it soon heated up. The searchers probably had to cool down and re-hydrate frequently. I noticed that several of them looking nervously at Caleb. As a prey species, it was an unfortunate trait of ponies that the unfamiliar was often regarded with fear, and that was true of these soldiers as much as civilians. Familiarity would cure that but we didn’t have time for socializing.

Lieutenant Aerial Ace narrowed his eyes as he scanned the soldiers. “I need a three-pony squad – one earth, one unicorn, and one pegasus to accompany the human, Caleb. He will be attempting to retrace his steps. Any volunteers?”

Smart pony. The lieutenant knew better than to force a human onto a fearful soldier. I’d have to keep an eye on him for potential promotion.

A silvery grey-coated earth pony mare with a dark blue mane promptly stepped forward. “I’ll do it, sir.”

“Very good, Sergeant Willow Branch. You can lead the squad.”

A yellow unicorn stallion named Exact Point was next but no pegasus volunteered. After it became apparent that none of the winged ponies wanted the job, Aerial Ace ‘volunteered’ one. “Private Hawkeye – you’re up.”

“Yes, sir,” the mare replied after a pause.

“Take a cart with supplies,” Ace ordered the sergeant. “You have full autonomy and may continue the search as long as needed subject only to my recall. You have my authority to call upon pegasus scouts to check potential sites.”

Willow saluted. “Understood, Lieutenant.” She turned to Caleb. “Please follow me, sir.”

I spoke up. “I will be accompanying you for a few hours. I wish to learn more about our visitor while I have the opportunity.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” the mare replied. “Please let me know if you think you can be of assistance.”

I nodded. That had to be the most tactful way I had been told to stay out of someone’s way while they got on with business. I liked her a lot already!

Willow Branch was very efficient and she had organized the cart and had us ready to depart within minutes. Meanwhile, Caleb had been scanning the surroundings, trying to find any familiar landmarks. The base camp had been set up at the spot where the human had been found, so hopefully, something would strike a chord.

“Any luck?” I asked when he came over to rejoin us.

“I think so. I seem to recall those twin sandstone peaks. I think I was using them as a goal, but I was pretty much a wreck by that point.”

“Then we’ll start in the opposite direction,” Willow said. “Get aboard the cart.” She proceeded to strap herself into the drawbars.

“Is she going to pull this entire load by herself?” Caleb asked skeptically.

I chuckled and urged the man onto the cart to sit by my side. “You’re grossly underestimating her. Earth ponies are very strong.”

Considering how diminutive the mare looked in comparison to the cart and its contents, I couldn’t really blame him for his assessment. However, any earth pony would be ashamed if they couldn’t handle twice the load comfortably. There was a reason why earth ponies were the shock troops of the Equestrian army. Once I had ascended to alicorn status, the extra earth pony strength I had acquired necessitated me learning to restrain myself considerably. So many broken weapons, practice dummies, plates, mane brushes, utensils, and so forth until I had adjusted!

Hawkeye elected to fly alongside as Willow took off. Penny flew on the other side, her aviator sunglasses firmly in place against the desert glare. I would have stretched my wings too but, as I had told Aerial Ace, I wanted to chat with Caleb until I had to return to Canterlot for my session of Day Court. There was a limit to what I could get away with despite being a Prince of the Realm. Responsibility won out eventually.

“So, you do use electricity here?” Caleb asked.

“Yes,” I replied, “although we are still rolling out the infrastructure. Our two biggest hurdles are environmentally clean methods of power generation and enough expertise in the field to build networks that are efficient and safe. Why is that important to you?”

“I’m a welder by trade. MIG and TIG welding kind of need it.”

I chuckled. “Yeah, I can see that. Actually, you’d come in handy to teach some of our tradesponies modern techniques.”

“Not that I plan on hanging around, but where would you get the welding machines?”

“From Phil’s Earth that you visited briefly. We’re doing some contract work for his company with our revolutionary ‘special technology’.”

“Magic, you mean,” Caleb said with a smirk.

“Of course, but that’s a closely guarded secret. Anyway, the money we earn from those contracts allows us to buy equipment that we can’t produce here yet.”

“Sounds good. What about the expertise problem?”

“We’re exploring the possibility of recruiting some humans, but our first choice is finding the technology in an alternate Equestria. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve been using our portal generator to explore the parallel worlds. So far, though, we haven’t found any Equestria that has a better knowledge of electricity and electronics although some worlds have some superior magitek. It’s our expertise with portals that has enabled us to bring advances to our world that might have taken decades or centuries to otherwise come about. And it’s also your one real hope of getting home.”

Caleb’s face fell. “Tell me straight – do you think we’re going to find the portal?”

I took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes. “My friend, if it’s there, we’ll find it. But considering that it has eluded us thus far is not a promising indication.”

“Yeah, I thought so.”

Willow Branch brought us to a halt just then. Despite pulling us around for over two hours, the only sign of strain on the pony was some sweat staining her coat. Caleb had become a believer in her durability long before then.

“We’ve reached the gully that Hawkeye spotted,” she declared as she unstrapped herself.

“It doesn’t ring a bell with me,” Caleb said.

“Nevertheless, we’ll check it out and eliminate that possibility,” I said. “Let me levitate you down.” Just as I had done at various other places, I used my magic to move the human to a position where he could walk safely. Exact Point was able to levitate himself to the bottom of the depression before using a spell to scan for a portal signature. Willow declined help but she really didn’t need it anyway. She was quite adept at reshaping rock to give her secure footing – a process that Caleb found endlessly fascinating. It certainly helped keep his mind off his predicament!

The site was yet another bust. When we returned to the top, Penny pointed out that it was time for me to head back.

“Caleb, I have to attend Day Court. You’re welcome to continue the search. If you don’t find the portal, I’d like if you would join my family for dinner.”

“Maybe I should stay out here and camp overnight if we don’t find anything this afternoon. That way, we can get off to an early start.”

Willow Branch spoke up. “That’s not necessary, sir. We have daggerscales to take us back to base and we would leave one where we finished so that we could resume the search first thing in the morning.”

“That’s right,” I said. “So, unless you find the portal, I’ll see you again tonight. I hope to miss the opportunity to chat more though.” I spread my wings to take off but paused. “If you do get to Las Vegas, try chucking something back through the portal that we can tune into with one of ours.”

“I’ll do that,” the man promised.

I nodded and took off, Penny by my side as always. Yeah, I could have taken a daggerscale portal back but I really needed the exercise. Besides, I had seen the warning glance when Penny lowered her glasses to stare into my eyes. My bodyguard refused to let my fitness deteriorate. Such a nag sometimes! Glad to have her as my herdmate though. I stole a kiss and she slapped me with her wing. Worth it.

I finished a perfectly routine session of Day Court and Chrysalis and I headed to the living room where our family members would gather to chat about our day before dinner. Before we got there, we were met by Willow Branch and a very despondent Caleb. I instantly knew what had happened but I needed to make it official.

“Report, Sergeant!”

The mare saluted me. “Your Highness, we found the site of the wild portal. It has already closed.”

# # # # # # # # #

To be continued in the spin-off story: BEGINNING ANEW



CHAPTER 7: Luna Loop


I admit it – I got a little careless. Our recent successes with finding allies and friends in alternate universes led us to get complacent. I let the others persuade me to be a little more lax in our approach to new worlds and rather than wait for Shining Armor to get more free time to join us as our primary precautionary defense, I decided that we could handle the initial meetings with just our own resources and proceed sooner. Yeah, I could make a decent shield – alicorn power is nothing to sneeze at even if it’s not my specialty. And, of course, Twilight is better than me. However, shields were Shining’s forte and he outclassed both of us. Our overconfidence nearly got us killed.

It started as each foray always did. Twilight adjusted the “tuning” of her dimensional portal maker, opened the new gateway, and our team stepped through. My co-ruler would follow as soon as she completed her usual analysis, provided we had not emerged into an incompatible environment and had to retreat. Whenever I was part of the contact team, Penny always accompanied me in her role as my bodyguard. My son, Gallus, insisted that we needed additional protection, so he was next to come through, dressed in his Royal Guard armor.

The scene was familiar – lush garden beds and shady trees separated by manicured lawns. However, I quickly noticed a significant difference in this version of Canterlot Castle’s Royal Garden – the heavily fortified walls surrounding it. And just as fast, we were spotted by the soldiers there. Pegasi immediately launched themselves in our direction even as a siren summoned more guards. I had put up my shield the instant that I had stepped through the portal, so it easily stopped the enchanted arrows that came hurtling towards us moments later.

“What the buck?!” exclaimed Gallus even as he drew his magically enhanced sword. “Who attacks without even giving a chance to surrender peacefully?”

Good question. We’d been met with caution and suspicion before, but this was ridiculously hostile. I raised my voice. “Don’t shoot! We come in peace!

The pegasi stopped firing, but I thought it was because they saw that their arrows weren’t working and not because of my words. That guess was confirmed when a squad of unicorns arrived and started hurling assault spells at us. My shield was taking a battering and it was a significant strain on me. I tried again to de-escalate the situation.

We surrender! We wish to parley!

I might as well have been shouting at a wall. The attacks continued unabated. Just then, Twilight emerged from the portal and she looked about in confusion.

“What’s happening?” the alicorn mare asked.

“Big problem, Sparkles. Better go back,” I replied.

“I can reinforce your shield,” she rebutted.

I dithered. Between us, I reckoned that we could withstand this assault indefinitely. Then I saw something that made my heart freeze. “Twilight – go back now! Gallus – don’t let her dawdle!”

The lavender alicorn protested, but Gallus’ military training kicked in and he swept her up in his forelegs and dived through the portal. I felt Penumbra grab me in one of her wings and begin to drag me back too. She had spotted what I had – Celestia was coming. Her mane was a solar flame and her horn was lit with the brightness of the sun. I had seen Daybreaker once before and this wasn’t her, wrong eye color. That didn’t make this angry solar alicorn any less scary – I knew for sure that she wasn’t intending to have a chat. I strengthened my shield to its maximum even as Penny backed us away through the dimensional gateway. Just as we stumbled through it and fell onto the marble floor, I felt my shield shatter from an irresistible blow. There was a flare of heat that was cut off abruptly as Twilight shut down the portal. My head throbbed with the pain of my disrupted magic and my flank felt singed.

“Are you alright, Dad?” Gallus asked.

“Nothing that a quick healing spell can’t fix. How about you, Penny?”

“I’m going to need a bit more than that,” she hissed through clenched teeth.

I got back onto my hooves and turned to have a good look at my herdmate. She was gingerly holding out the wing with which she had grabbed me. A large swath of it was an angry red from severe burns. I winced in sympathy.

Twilight said, “I’ll go grab one of my healing potions!” She disappeared with the usual flash of teleportation.

“Look at this,” Gallus said.

I turned my attention to whatever my griffon son wanted us to see and gulped. The wall opposite to the portal was scorched and some of the marble was even melted. That could have been us!

“From now on, no trips without Shining Armor!” Penny grated out with a scowl directed at me.

“No argument, dear.”

Penny recovered with no lasting ill effects. Shining thoroughly chewed me out for my carelessness. I just shut up and took it like a stallion. I think his sister copped even worse. He was absolutely right, of course. Our explorations were never going to be one hundred percent safe, so there was no excuse for slackening the safety precautions. Even if we never encountered anything like that again, I would always be mindful that the next time might be the last. And it wasn’t as if I just had myself to think about either. Since I was always accompanied by family members, even if I survived, I could lose one or more of them. In the future, Shining Armor insisted that all initial ventures into new dimensions would be carried out with him being responsible for everypony’s safety. I agreed wholeheartedly. We worked out new protocols for all our subsequent expeditions to mitigate the risks.

Remarkably, despite that disastrous trip, enthusiasm for further exploration was scarcely dimmed. The benefits that we were seeking from Equestrias with useful technologies or magical techniques were too important to the future that we had envisaged for our world. And making new friends was never a bad thing either.

The next world we visited was as friendly as they come. Its history was also very similar to ours up until the point where our Royal Sisters had left. Theirs never had that moment, nor was there a Mark Wells. However, there was one major difference from every other Equestria we had been to – all births here were fraternal twins, and they were always a colt and a filly. As a consequence, this world did not have the gender imbalance that others coped with, resulting in a different social dynamic. It delighted Sparkles that the Twilight and Shining of this dimension were fraternal twins. She was not as thrilled when she found out that Celestia and Luna were also twins. Guess which one was the stallion!

Much is said about alicorn immortality. Experience has shown that we’re far from being actually immortal. Personally, I’m pretty sure that we just age very, very slowly. One dimension did a lot to support that supposition. It appeared that when a pony ascended to alicorn status in that world, their age virtually froze at that moment. Celestia was seventeen upon ascension and, eleven centuries later, she still looked it, pink mane and all. Luna was sixteen and I was taller than her! Cadance was a mere fourteen when she gained her horn which must have made things interesting when she got the hots for Shining Armor later. Twilight was twenty though. Lucky mare.

“Something’s wrong,” Shining Armor said with a strained grunt.

This latest version of Equestria looked unremarkable but I could sense that something felt off. My wife nudged me and pointed at the sky.

“Trixie thinks their weather control service is slacking on the job.”

I looked up and frowned. When you have virtually total control over the local weather, you don’t do things by halves. Normally, every Canterlot we visited enjoyed clear blue skies with maybe a few scattered fluffy white clouds for the benefit of pegasi. If rain was scheduled, it was usually overnight so as not to inconvenience the majority of the citizens. Also, when the weather service did bring in rain clouds, they were carefully calibrated to deliver precise showers. I was not seeing that now. Angry and tumultuous storm clouds were rolling in with no sign of pegasi trying to tame them.

“We might have to shield against a downpour,” I said.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to shield against anything soon,” Shining replied. “My magic is depleting rapidly.”

It suddenly clicked as to what felt wrong – I could hardly feel any background magic at all. The stallion must be drawing almost entirely on his internal reserves. Using my affinity for unicorn magic, I could see only one dim ley line in the sky. The ground likewise barely responded when I tried to draw magic.

“Let us take over the shield,” I said. “Trixie and I have huge reserves of power.”

“What if you need that for other reasons?” he queried.

“We’ll retreat if it comes to that. If low magic is the only problem here, we should be able to cope. Keep your reserves in case we require them.”

He nodded and let go of his shield as soon as I threw up one of my own. We would soon find out if we needed it because Royal Guards were approaching. The pegasi were flying much slower than any I had seen before and the unicorns and earth ponies were not far behind because of that. The winged ponies did not hover when they reached us as they normally did in other dimensions. Instead, they landed – I guessed that they were conserving their magic. They held up their weapons warily until the rest arrived and followed suit.

“We are peaceful visitors,” Trixie declared to the unicorn who seemed to be in charge. I did not recognize him at all. Another difference. I realized that the Royal Guard anonymizing spell common across many realms was not being used here.

“Thank you, ma’am, but please remain where you are until you are cleared,” he replied.

We did not have to wait for long. An alicorn soon joined the group, but it wasn’t Celestia.

“What’s this?” she said with a puzzled frown. “Two alicorns whom I’ve never seen before and one of them is a stallion? Who are you and where do you come from? And what is that swirling mass of wild magic behind you?”

This Luna spoke without the slightest trace of the Old Equish accent that every other Luna I’d met possessed. Either she’d had better speech lessons or she had never been banished to the moon for a millennium.

Trixie replied, “That is an interdimensional portal and we are visitors from an alternate reality. An Equestria where I, Princess Trixie Lulamoon, and my husband, Prince Mark Wells, rule our version of Equestria in a Triarchy with our colleague. We come as explorers seeking knowledge and friendship.”

Luna smiled. “In that case, Your Highnesses, may I suggest that we go inside before we all get soaked and have a chat?”

It might seem a bit anticlimactic but that was as dramatic as things got. We had a perfectly nice conversation with Luna, although we never did see her sister as she was holding Court at that time. We did learn that this world had a weak mana field and magic was very limited. Pegasi could fly but they could neither cloud-walk nor control weather, which explained the nasty storm outside. Unicorns could make their horns glow and levitate objects but that was the limit of their abilities. Earth ponies were still strong but had no ability to influence plant growth. Alicorns were the odd ponies out here. Unlike every other creature, they produced more magic than they normally consumed. Ponies in their presence were empowered beyond their normal abilities. As a mana source, I guessed that they could be more powerful than the alicorns I knew back home.

History had treated Luna more kindly here. There had never been a falling out with Celestia, and she and her sister had ruled together since they had become princesses. That explained why the Alicorn of the Moon was as conversant with modern language as any other pony. The biggest hit of that trip turned out to be Penumbra. The thestral race never existed in this world and my herdmate got the full ‘exotic foreign beauty’ treatment from most every stallion we met.

Our Triarchy and their Royal Sisters agreed to further meetings, but it looked like their world was more likely to benefit from us rather than the other way around. In the end, it was an interesting visit if not a particularly profitable one.

I might have given the impression that we did these trips frequently. In fact, we had to confine ourselves to no more than one per week due to our and Shining’s other obligations. That also necessitated a roster system for who comprised the contact team. While exploring other dimensions was chiefly my and Twilight’s baby, I only went on about two thirds of the visits. By necessity, Twilight attended them all, but every other slot was up for change. Penny, of course, refused to let me go without her. Chrysalis would come occasionally although that proved problematic sometimes. Our daughter, Diadem, still wanted to go despite that and she elicited a surprisingly better reception. Gallus also came with us a couple more times before his siblings started begging to go too because their foster brother had gotten to do so. Somehow, these serious ventures started turning into family outings. However, I had learned my lesson well and if one of our children was allowed to come along, it was only in the presence of someone dedicated to looking out for their welfare. Besides a parent, I mean.

By now, we had built up a cadre of bodyguards for our herd. While many had been recruited from the Royal Guard, several were among the earliest changelings the Canterlot Hive had hatched. Changelings matured sooner and had the advantage of being able to absorb knowledge through their hive links. However, as the new hive’s sole information repository was Chrysalis herself, the first changelings who chose to go into protective services had to be given additional training in Equestrian methods and discipline. And yes, they genuinely did get to choose. That was something that I insisted upon for the new hive. While Chrysalis was the ultimate authority within the hive, she did concede to the demands of her senior herdmates as she had sworn to do upon joining Trixie’s herd. Okay, not without some spirited arguments, but I’d rather that than blind obedience anytime. It saved me from making stupid mistakes in my efforts to blend changeling and pony societies. Anyway, the changeling bodyguards had versatility on their side and it took a load off our minds when we brought along one of our kids.

While I made a point of mentioning the more interesting encounters we had, many of them were very similar in history to ours up until the departure of Celestia and Luna which became a non-event. In fact, the subsequent arrival of a Mark Wells almost never happened within the band of dimensions that we were exploring. The one time it did though, he was Prince Consort to both Celestia and Luna. I must admit that I found the Alicorn of the Sun the more desirable of the Royal Sisters and I don’t blame him for choosing Celestia over the Trixie he had not met. However, that Mark was demonstrably as fond of the Lunar Alicorn, if their foals were any indication.

Frankly, it made me re-think some of the times our Celestia had spent in my company. Although she seemed to be enjoying her retirement and the freedom it gave her, I suspected there were some aspects of her life that were still unfulfilled. While I know she had some sort of relationship with Daring Do, I recalled Celestia’s kiss that singed Phil’s mane. That told me she was bisexual, so a stallion and foals weren’t off her agenda. An alicorn has plenty of time to get around to those things though, and if the object of her desire was also nigh immortal, that sure left matters open for a future relationship with her. I’d long since come to the same conclusion that most of the mares in life insisted was true – any mare who got involved with me in some way inevitably wanted to mate with me. I had denied that for years, pointing out some who hadn’t. Trixie then shocked me by informing me of the number of times she had been approached in her capacity as lead mare with a petition to join the herd. Not only had she dismissed the entreaties, she hadn’t even bothered telling me about them. As far as Trixie was concerned, if I didn’t already know the mares’ intentions, then they didn’t bear mentioning. As a male alicorn, I suppose I had to be the ultimate catch for a mare, which made me a logical target for those who were unmated. It still stunned me when I learned that Lyra Heartstrings had been one of them.

Anyway, aside from the perturbations that the arrival of one of my doppelgangers caused to that dimension, we were finding that these Equestrias were frequently little different from our own and we were on the cusp of deciding to broaden our possibilities to one of the lower-probability bands. Then we encountered one of the strangest alternate worlds, and this time it wasn’t “my” fault…

The visit started similar to most of the others – I was there along with Gemini and their changeling bodyguard, Helix. Shining had brought along Crystal Shield, the pegacorn alter-ego of his changeling hybrid son, Shiny Button. Crystal and Gemini had been spending a lot more time together and wanted to come along on this trip, so while Twilight waited for us to give her the all-clear, the five of us watched for whoever’s attention we had attracted.

As was normal, several Royal Guards were the first to respond, but we had barely started to introduce ourselves when Luna teleported in front of the guards.

Something different! Thank Harmony! At long last, something has changed!

Blinking in surprise and confusion, I said, “I beg your pardon, Your Highness, but I don’t understand—”

The Alicorn of the Moon reared up and spread herself against Shining Armor’s shield. I could see that there was a hint of madness in her eyes.

“For the first time in years, something has changed! Please tell me that you aren’t a delusion conjured by my tortured soul.”

“I assure you that we are quite real. We are travelers from an alternate world. We visit other dimensions in search of allies and new technologies.”

Luna looked at the swirling portal behind us. “A gateway to another world?” She looked back at me, wide-eyed and breathing heavily. Luna abruptly turned and galloped into the shade cast by a copse of trees, only to reappear from my own shadow. She moved to within an inch of my muzzle, placing a hoof on my shoulder. “Take me back with you!” Penny took a step forward but caught herself. The guards pointed their weapons and moved forward, obviously displeased at being separated from their sovereign. A pointed stare and a frown from Luna stopped them.

I frowned. “We can’t just bring someone back with us on a whim. Why do you wish to do that?”

The midnight blue alicorn sank to her haunches with a groan. “Thou art looking at the most foolish of mares. I attempted the forbidden and have suffered the consequences for many years.”

I looked about us and, aside from the confused looks on the faces of the Royal Guards, the scene was stereotypically normal. I looked over to Shining Armor who just shrugged helplessly. Turning back to Luna who seemed to be calming down a little, I asked, “Are we in any danger right now?”

Luna shook her head. “Nay. I can tell thee with utter certainty that, aside from the novelty of your arrival, I know with absolute clarity every detail of every event within Canterlot today, and much of what will happen elsewhere.” She raised a weary hoof towards the Royal Guards. “You are all dismissed. I shall parley with our visitors.”

While a few of the Guards looked uncertain, they nevertheless obeyed and left us in Luna’s company. I said to Shining, “I think your shield won’t be needed. Let your sister know that it’s safe.”

He nodded and disappeared through the portal even as Luna watched. With nothing to stop her, I reckon she was barely restraining herself from following. Then her eyes bulged as Twilight stepped through with her brother.

“Twilight Sparkle! Thou…” She blinked and stared. “Thou art an alicorn? Perhaps thou can succeed where all others have failed!”

Twilight looked understandably puzzled. “What’s going on?”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out, Sparkles.” I turned back to Luna. “Okay – from the top! What has happened that has you in such desperate need?”

The lunar alicorn sighed. “I suppose thou wilt not allow me passage until I explain myself. The beginning of my tale starts upon the occasion when I visited Ponyville for Nightmare Night and Twilight Sparkle spent so much time and effort showing me how I could fit in once more with the citizens of Equestria. Heartened by this and the citizens’ new love of the night, I sought many ways to dispel my association with Nightmare Moon so that I could stand by my sister’s side, once more, to rule our kingdom. Then I learned of Twilight Sparkle’s attempt to warn her past self of a great peril by use of a time-travel spell and that was when I made my great mistake.”

I raised a querying eyebrow at Twilight.

“It was before you arrived in Equestria, Mark,” the lavender alicorn explained. “My future self suddenly appeared in my home and warned me that a great disaster was going to happen soon, but I was too excited by that event and interrupted her before I learned what it was and she was drawn back to her time. So I spent every stressful moment sending ponies out to check for every possible problem. When the event failed to occur, I figured that we had successfully prevented the disaster but I would still need to go back and warn myself so that it would not happen. I forgot that my past self didn’t give me a chance to explain fully though and that left her stressed out like I had been.”

I said, “But you can’t change the past – you can only cause it to branch into an alternate history.”

“Well, I know that now,” she replied. “That’s why the time-travel only lasted for seconds. As soon as I did something to make a change, it caused a branch and I was forced to go back to the future of the original timeline. I didn’t talk to Luna about that incident though.”

“Nay, I learned of the event from my sister.”

“So, I’m guessing that you tried to change your past?” I asked Luna.

She cast her eyes aside, guilt written on her face. “Aye. I thought if I could persuade my past self and my sister to resolve their problems, I would not have succumbed to the temptations of the Nightmare. So, I studied the spell and sought to alter it to achieve my aims. Instead, I cast myself into a purgatory that made my banishment to the moon pale by comparison.”

Everything still seemed perfectly normal to me. Perplexed, I said, “I fail to perceive the problem. What are we not seeing?”

“I am stuck in an unending loop. Every day has been the same as the previous for decades! No matter how I try to change events, once I succumb to sleep, I wake up to a world reset to the moment that I cast that cursed spell.”

“Groundhog Day,” I murmured to myself.

“Pardon?” Luna said with a puzzled tilt to her head.

“Never mind. Sparkles – you’ve studied this kind of magic more than anyone else. Any ideas?”

The alicorn shook her head. “I’ll have to examine Luna’s modifications before I have any idea how this situation was caused. Considering that it has done nothing like what it was supposed to do, I suspect that there are major flaws in its design.”

Luna groaned. “ ’Tis ironic. My woes started when my sister ignored my needs, but my current problems stem from me ignoring my sister’s warnings. She has ever been better than I at the arts arcane but I believed her not when she told me that what I wished to accomplish was beyond anypony’s grasp. I have talked to her about this many times since but nothing has been achieved in the precious few hours before time reverts once more. I cannot even save notes on what small progress she makes because they only exist in my memory when I awaken.”

“What happens if you try to stay awake during the moment that time resets?” Gemini asked.

Luna gave them a tired smile. “I know not, youngling. The original spell only sent the caster back twenty-four hours. In my attempt to increase that to no less than a millennium, I poured all my power into the cantrip. Despite my modifications to the spell, I awaken at the same time on the previous day. I arise exhausted each morning and fall asleep later despite all attempts not to.”

Twilight said, “That could be an effect of the original spell’s limitations. You fall asleep because you had fallen asleep in the first iteration of the loop.”

“What if Luna comes to our universe instead?” Gemini queried. “Would that break the cycle?”

“It’s quite possible,” Twilight confirmed, “but I will not allow her to cross into our Equestria before I am certain that we won’t suffer any consequences as a result.”

Luna nodded. “Thou art wise. Fear not – I will not force the issue. Right now, I am enjoying the first novel conversation in far too many years and I have hope where none has existed for even longer.”

Shining Armor spoke up. “How long before the reset? Are we in any danger of being caught up in it?”

I should have thought to ask that. Good thing my friend was on the ball.

“There is still a good fourteen hours before that happens. More exact, I cannot say as I have already explained.”

I said, “Then we can spare a couple of hours before we’re forced to shut down the portal. Normally, we would leave you the means of setting up a permanent portal between our worlds, but I suspect it would disappear with the reset. That means we’ll have to re-open this temporary portal tomorrow. Will you remember us then?”

“I remember every moment of every day of every year that I have spent in this Tartarus.”

“Uh… right. Sparkles – looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you. I don’t think I can be of much help here, so maybe I’ll have a chat with Celestia while you’re doing that. Speaking of Sunbutt, how come she hasn’t turned up?”

Luna looked faintly shocked at my use of the nickname but she let it pass. “My sister is in Ponyville. I chose to cast the spell on a day when she would not be here to stop me. That is where you will find her every day at this time.”

While I could fly there and back easily enough, I did not really want to waste the time doing so. “Perhaps I’ll have a look around here instead. Maybe I’ll find something of interest. Shining – I guess you’ll be staying with Twilight?”

“Of course,” he confirmed.

“Can I stay and talk with Auntie Luna, Dad?” Crystal Shield asked.

Luna’s eyebrows rose. “Auntie?”

“Honorary,” clarified Shining. “You might enjoy chatting with my son – he’s quite… empathetic.”

Well, that was certainly true of a changeling. I wondered if Luna knew of them yet. Not that Crystal would reveal that he was one. He hadn’t assumed his natural form for many years. If it wasn’t for his need to feed on love, he would be indistinguishable from a natural pony.

“I’d like to stay with Crys, if I may?” Gemini asked.

Like I could keep them apart! “Sure, Gem. As long as you two don’t get in Auntie Twilight’s way.”

The night alicorn spread her wings with a warm smile. Crystal Shield and Gemini quickly moved to her sides and were soon draped with dark blue feathers. “I would fain converse with you,” Luna said, “but first I must apprise Twilight Sparkle of the spell that I wrought. Then while she is busy, mayhap thou canst inform me as to how she came to ascend.”

Luna assigned two Royal Guards to accompany me. I may be an alicorn but I wasn’t a prince of this Equestria, so they helped smooth the way while I looked around. I did attract the attention of several nobles and not a few civilians and I threw out a lot of bullshit answers to their questions, confident that everything I said would be forgotten soon. Both the Guards shot me curious looks but I gave them a wink. One of them chuckled at least. I think it was at my declaration that the noble was looking at Celestia’s secret love child!

I didn’t discover anything of particular interest. In fact, due to Luna’s interference, this dimension appeared to be a couple of decades behind in many areas. It looked like we were going to have to chalk this venture up to good will once more. I joined the others again when the portal was down to half an hour’s worth of life and reminded Twilight that it was time to go back. We had a strict protocol of giving ourselves a safety margin and this was one scenario where I definitely did not want to get stuck. While Twilight had trained others in the operation of the portal, because of the time loop, there was no guarantee that we would be here after the reset.

We made our farewells to Luna who insisted on sharing a parting hug with each of us. Twilight declined, insisting that she needed to stay entirely uncontaminated by the spell’s magic. Only when I saw Luna’s fleeting hurt expression did I appreciate how crushingly lonely the mare’s existence had been for decades. However, while she still looked tired, it was clear that her morale had greatly improved. Hopefully, we would have an answer for her the next day.

“Well?” I asked Twilight as we met up in the morning.

“Luna’s spell is a tangled mess, but for that same reason, it does not have co-dependent cantrips to energize and stabilize it,” she explained.

“In plain Equish, please.”

She smirked at me. “I mean, while it almost certainly can’t be undone, we can simply break it. The reason why Luna is always exhausted is that the spell is constantly drawing on her power. Take away the power source—”

“And the spell collapses,” I finished her sentence.


“So, why did the spell create a loop?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Because she tried to do the impossible. First of all, she wanted to change history and we both know that just creates a new branch. Secondly, she tried to make a spell designed for a twenty-four-hour leap go back over a thousand years. Instead she created an error loop that would repeat on the original timeline for the same number of years.”

I shuddered, thinking of having to re-live the same day for over a millennium. Even my wedding day, as joyful and exciting as it was, would become drudgery no later than the thousandth iteration. “Okay, so what do you intend to do?”

“Bring Luna here and close the portal. That will snap the connection between her and the spell.”

“Are you sure it won’t affect our universe?”

Twilight nodded. “I checked while we were there. It’s anchored in her room in Canterlot where she cast it.”

I snorted. “And sucking on her mana as she slept nearby. Do you think if she got far enough away from it, she might have managed to starve it enough to cause it to fail?”

“Yes and no. I thought of that possibility but I calculated that she would never be able to travel far enough to achieve that in the time available. Instead, Luna would be back at her starting point immediately after the reset.”

“Even if the Elements sent her to the moon?”

Twilight opened her mouth then stopped. “I… suppose that might have worked. I’m glad she did not become desperate enough to request banishment for another thousand years.”

“At least travelling to another universe will certainly be far enough,” I said with a smile.

“I would certainly hope so!” Twilight agreed.

So, we kidnapped Luna. Okay, it wasn’t quite as dramatic as that. The Lunar Alicorn was waiting for us though and beat the Royal Guards to the portal. We told her to jump through and she did so without hesitation. Then Twilight shut off the portal. Luna staggered for a moment before steadying and raising her head high.

“I feel as if a great burden has been lifted from me,” she declared.

“That would be because the parasitic connection to your spell has been severed. That should cause it to fail very quickly.”

“You could go back almost immediately if you wish,” I told her.

“Thank thee, but I decline. I have had enough of that day to last me a lifetime. Wouldst thou grant me the boon of staying here overnight?”

We had no problem with that. We got to introduce her to our extended families and gave her a banquet with foods she had not been served in years if ever. Our alliances had given us access to some exotic cuisines. She even met her counterpart in the night club that our Luna owned and ran. I wouldn’t be surprised if she went back to her universe with some grand ideas borrowed from ours.

After probably the best night’s sleep that she had in ages, she was almost in tears the next morning when Twilight confirmed that it was a new day and not a repeat once more. She was almost reluctant to return to her home universe but, when she stepped out of the portal, she found her worried sister waiting for her. The two embraced while explanations were made. Apparently, Luna had left a note for Celestia, telling her that she might be gone for a day and to meet her here in the morning. The Royal Guards were able to point out exactly where our portal opened, so the solar alicorn had been waiting at this spot since sunrise. That was the final proof we needed that the spell was broken.

After disengaging from her sister, Luna came back to us. “Princess Twilight Sparkle – I cannot thank thee enough for thy wisdom. Thou hast my eternal gratitude. Prince Mark Wells – thou hast my greatest thanks for thy campaign to explore other worlds that brought me my salvation. I would gladly bear thee many foals.”

Penny fell over laughing and I facehoofed. Not another one!



CHAPTER 8: Surf's Up!


Twilight called for a new dimensional exploration team following the latest recalibration of her portal. I had to admit that, despite the potential Pandora’s box of unforeseen consequences, the continued exploration of the infinite multiverse did keep life interesting. I fully expected whenever Celestia and Daring Do ran out of ancient temples and cursed artifacts to chase, they would be next in line begging to jump through the portal to explore new worlds. In the meantime, Cadance decided to tag along with her husband “to see what all the fuss was about”.

Not because you’re itching for some adventure and want to keep an eye on your hubby? OK, fine, Princess. Whatever you say.

The exploration portal was a constant work in progress. Twilight always tweaked one aspect or another to some extent, though most of the technobabble she mumbled before every trip went over my head. The one constant of these upgrades? Worrying amounts of smoke emanated from the various gems, circuits, and boxes connected to the portal. I did notice that with each new tweak, the color of the smoke from all the bits and pieces tended to differ. My favorite had been the time the smoke was rainbow-colored. That universe was ruled by a single pony – Alicorn Rainbow Dash. After Twilight escaped to attend to a supposed “emergency”, I had sat on the palace garden lawn for ninety minutes listening to the monarch recounting the stories of her awesomeness. Eventually, I gave up and promised to return when my co-ruler could keep the portal open for longer than two hours. Somehow, despite the teasing of my wives, I had not made it back to that universe yet.

Go figure.

Today’s expedition was a bit different from the usual affair. Phil had bugged me for weeks to allow him to come along. He got tired of just hearing about the excitement second-hoof and wanted to take advantage of a long weekend to join in on the fun. His final and most convincing argument was that the Triarchs sometimes allowed our kids to come along. After assigning Crimson Boulder to guard my best friend, Rosa signed off on her husband’s mostly safe adventure. No way was I putting Phil potentially in harm’s way without that seal of approval!

Twilight signaled that the portal was ready, and Shining Armor jumped into the maelstrom of energy. I nodded to Cadance and we likewise passed through the portal in quick succession.

I immediately noticed that this dimension differed widely from the standard routine. I could usually count on a few constants in every universe: Mount Canterhorn, Canterlot Castle, the castle gardens, and Royal Guards. Today they were all missing.

In the place of the castle and gardens was a very large beach hut surrounded by palm trees. They fit in well with the changed location: a white sand beach that stretched from horizon to horizon with a sparkling blue ocean keeping it company. Instead of Royal Guards, stallions and mares chatted under umbrellas and lounged on beach blankets.

The two locals who jogged up to the party wore no armor. In place of spears, they carried surfboards.

I had to smile when I heard my childhood friend gasp behind me. Trust Phil’s dumb luck to choose to come along on a mission to a beach paradise.

The pair of approaching stallions looked the newcomers up and down. The light-brown earth pony stopped gaping long enough to say to me, “Gnarly entrance, dudes! You here to catch a wave? Boards are up against the hut. Help yourselves!”

“Actually, we’re from another dimension,” I said. “We travel from world to world to open trade and spread friendship. We’re hoping to talk to whoever is in charge.”

The two surf ponies exchanged looks, then the teal pegasus said, “Sounds heavy, man. You probably want to talk to the Big Kahuna or one of her crew. That’s her surf shack by the way.”

They didn’t have a princess? I assumed the portal had simply opened in a different area of Equestria. Maybe Canterlot Castle didn’t exist in a dimension with no princesses to occupy it.

Penumbra cocked her head. “The Big Kahuna?”

The two stallions pointed out onto the ocean where a huge wave was just coming in. My jaw dropped at what I beheld. It looked like Princess Celestia… sort of... except this version had a light-sandy color to her body. Then it occurred to me that this could be best described as a ‘tanned’ look. The alicorn wore a Hawaiian shirt and had a white bit of sunscreen on her nose. The mare smiled broadly and waved, all while maneuvering her board to stay near the crest. Unlike Marklestia who could find a way to drown in a teacup of water, this Celestia could “hang ten” with the tips of her hooves extending past the end of the longboard.

I turned to say something to Cadance but froze when I saw another figure zooming in on the same wave. The purple mare sped below Celestia, sharing a hoof clop as she passed. The smaller alicorn rhythmically shifted her weight to propel her board off the top of the wave. She grabbed it with one hoof while spinning to land point first onto the wave face. Her wings did not open nor did her horn light. The graceful jump had been executed with nothing but skill. Both the headband of flowers and the geometric tattoo that stretched across her back suited this alicorn perfectly. If witnessing Big Kahuna surf-master Celestia was a bit jarring, beholding what I could only describe as a wahine Twilight was unbelievable. If nothing else, it proved that the Twilight in this dimension was still Celestia’s student. Though the curriculum she was learning was no doubt vastly different.

A loud and familiar gasp behind me told me that our Twilight had stepped through the portal in time to see her counterpart’s acrobatics. I turned to see Cadance and Penumbra staring at our gobsmacked Princess of Friendship. The pair fell onto their backs, laughing up a storm. Twilight didn’t notice. I wondered if I needed to step in front of my co-ruler to snap her out of her catatonia.

Meh. Not my job.

I turned and grinned at Phil. “I think we can wait for the Big Kahuna to finish her set to talk. Let’s catch a wave in the meantime.”

He smirked. “Last one to grab a surfboard is buying!” Except he yelled that over his shoulder as he was galloping toward the shack.

The jerk! As I ran after him, I put another tally-mark on the “Get Back At Phil” clipboard in my head.



CHAPTER 9: Uncommon Interests


“I do not know how you manage to tolerate those fools so well,” grumbled Chrysalis as she, Penny, and I headed to the family room after the latest Day Court session.

My changeling wife was normally imperturbable, but the monthly meeting with the Council of Nobles was enough to make anypony tear their mane out, even if that person wasn’t a pony to start with. “We Triarchs may be the ultimate authority, but you know the nobles hold much economic power. They will always be looking out for themselves first, even if they dress it up as a benefit for the people. I came from a country and culture which makes some of those nobles look like amateurs. So I like to picture them being reamed by America’s most vicious billionaires and it makes me smile.”

Chrysalis deigned to snicker. “I’ve tasted those moments where your emotions are at odds with the situation.”

I angled my head up to kiss my bug wife on the cheek. “Your changeling network is instrumental in keeping those nobles more-or-less honest so I can afford thoughts like those. My thanks as always, my Queen.”

“A pleasure to serve, my King.”

With Chrysalis’ mood restored, we arrived at the family room and entered. I was pleasantly surprised to see a certain white alicorn there, sipping tea with Rarity and Trixie.

After I kissed my wives, I asked, “To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?”

Celestia beamed and replied, “Daring Do has a novel commitment and has gone home to write. And, after years of adventuring, I felt it was a good time to slow down for a while and do some long-overdue socializing.”

After indicating to the maid Whisk Broom that I would like some tea also, I said, “Well, your timing couldn’t have been better. Rarity and I will be presenting her Summer Collection tomorrow. You’re welcome as always to come and watch.”

Celestia exchanged glances with Rarity before the alicorn almost shyly replied, “Actually, I was hoping to have a more hooves-on involvement this time.”

My eyebrow rose. “Oh? What did you have in mind?”

“I’d like to try modeling some of the outfits rather than just looking at them. After all, you always keep them for yourself afterward.”

I had to admit that I loved my collection of dresses and lingerie. I’d had to add another wardrobe to my bachelor room to store them all. Don’t look at me like that! “What does Rares think of that idea?”

My unicorn wife looked as if she could barely contain her excitement. “Darling, I first made those fashions with Celestia in mind. Having you to model them has been a blessing, but to have Celestia herself wear them would be the culmination of a dream.”

I looked back to the solar alicorn. “There’s your answer. This is her passion project and I would never contemplate denying her this. But perhaps we can make it interesting? How about a little friendly competition between us to see who gets the most compliments for their presentation?”

Celestia’s smile grew and her eyes twinkled. “Do you think that you could do better than the pony for whom the garments are designed?”

My smile grew, becoming a little predatory. “You’re asking the pony who has been professionally trained at modeling and has had years of practice.”

“Then it’s game on, I suppose.”

Aside from my wives, we had a fairly large audience that night. Fleur de Lis and her husband were in attendance. The professional model had a permanent invitation to all these events but her schedule rarely permitted her presence. Cadance was here along with her daughters, Skyla and Flurry Heart, the latter for the first time. The young pegacorn had shown little interest in fashions up until now. Perhaps her mother had dragged her along, although the filly didn’t look too unhappy about it. Maybe she just wanted to see her Uncle Mark strut the catwalk as Marklestia. Come to think of it, she might have come just to have a dig at me for my hobby. Flurry was proving to be quite tomboyish despite her very feminine appearance and had more than once amused me by rebelling against her mother’s attempts to make her into a pretty princess.

Also present were Crystal Shield and Gemini. My child was in their mare form which was expected but, surprisingly, so was the changeling alicorn. The whole reason why the two ended up engaged was that Crystal normally switched genders to the opposite of Gemini’s. Perhaps they regarded this as a girl’s night out? Come to think of it, maybe their male counterparts did the same? They were old enough to not come to me to tell me their every plan. Not that I would object – it only indicated good things if all their aspects got along together. I’d have to check with Trixie to see what she knew.

At the back of the room, I spotted Nyx chatting with Luna… I blinked. Two Lunas! I suspected what was happening and trotted over to join them.

“Good evening, ladies,” I said as I looked over the twins. Only one wore a crown and, since my world’s Luna was retired and forewent the bling nowadays, that meant this could only be one pony. “Time-loop Luna, I presume?”

She smiled. “Indeed. I was informed of this interesting event and I admit to being very curious.”

Not to mention seizing every excuse to visit me. The alicorn had not wavered in her intention to bear me foals. No amount of me telling her that she need not ‘reward’ me that way dissuaded her in the least. I had even resorted to telling her that my policy towards me giving mares a foal was that they join my herd, and that required approval from Trixie before I would even consider it. I figured that Luna would not abandon her dimension and her role as Diarch there. That hadn’t had the desired effect though. Worse yet, Trixie hadn’t said no. The best I could do in moments like these was to completely ignore the situation.

“Were you hoping to have some material to tease your sister when you get back home?” I asked with a smile.

“That and to see how my stallion struts his stuff as a mare.”

I groaned inside. I was ‘her stallion’ now? It was definitely a mistake to tell her to ask Trixie. These mares had a one-track mind sometimes. I gave ‘my mare’ a weak smile. “I hope you enjoy the show, although you will also get to see Celestia herself model tonight. We’re having a friendly competition.”

“So I was informed. I brought my camera.” She held it up and smirked.

“Well, I have to get ready now. I’ll talk to you all later.” I hastily beat a retreat, well aware of the barely contained amusement of the other Luna and Nyx.

It was taking a bit longer than usual for me to slip mentally into the zone for the pageant, but then I noticed that Celestia was showing signs of nervousness. Suddenly, I was a fully professional mare and I gave the alicorn tips on how to carry herself. I reassured her that this was going to be fun and to just watch me as I made the first strut down the catwalk.

It was a great show. Rarity had made extra outfits especially for the occasion. The fact that she’d had time to do so should have given me a tip-off but I was too immersed in my performance by then. Anyway, with one of us out on the catwalk, it allowed the fashionista to fit the other out with the gowns or lingerie, keeping the intervals between them short. I adjusted my mane to the shorter side to help distinguish between us although Fleur de Lis would know the difference in an instant anyway. By the time we finished, Celestia was flushed with pleasure and she gave me a huge hug, thanking me profusely for letting her join in. Then Rarity, Celestia, and I went out onto the stage to take our bows to the applause of the audience.

While my wife and Celestia went back behind the curtain to undress the alicorn, I changed back to my normal stallion form right there on the catwalk. I was still wearing a racy little number though, but that was intentional. I loudly said, “And now, for the after-show entertainment. For your delight, I present the latest in nightwear for your stallion!” I then pranced in an uncoordinated manner down the catwalk as the Celestia-sized garments hung off my much smaller form. The howls of laughter were music to my ears. The day I started taking myself too seriously is when I’m getting too hidebound for the job. Besides, maybe Loop Luna might find me a bit too silly for ‘her’ stallion. She certainly needed to see this side of my personality… with or without the ill-fitting dress.

Eventually, I made my way to the back to disrobe. Rarity gave me a mock glare before congratulating me on a good show. Celestia was still giggling. I loved seeing that. The mare deserved every bit of enjoyment after spending over a thousand years in service to Equestria.

I went to join the audience. Fleur and Fancy hung around long enough to congratulate me on another excellent show before they had to leave. Cadance sought me out to hug me and tell me which outfits she liked the most.

“So, who do you think was the better model?” I asked.

“Pfft! As if there was any question! Aunty Celestia might have been having fun, but you were the professional who showed the outfits in their best light.”

“Do you think Celly will be disappointed?”

The alicorn shook her head. “Mark, she’s not that shallow and she knew exactly what she was getting into. No, the only emotion that she will be experiencing is happiness at being able to share this with you.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why do you say that?”

“Because, sooner or later, Aunty is going to ask to join your herd,” she said with a sly grin.

I surprised her by smirking and replying, “I know.”

Cadance blinked, deflated by my reply. “How?”

“Celestia and I have had a very good relationship for years now. I’ve had plenty of time to find out why so many of my other-dimensional selves married her. We are good matches, and I figured that once she got the adventuring bug tamed, she would start looking for something more. Now, such things are not as simple for alicorns. The fact that we live indefinitely means that we have to be careful in our choice of mates. If we choose a normal pony, we would have to be prepared for them to die while we go on living. Celestia already went through that with Mountain Blood. That’s also why she hasn’t asked Rosa and Phil about forming a herd, despite them all getting along like gangbusters.”

I could see that hit Cadance despite her calm expression. She loved her husband very much, but I knew of only one instance in all the dimensions visited so far where Shining Armor had ascended to alicornhood. The odds of that happening to her mate were very slim.

I continued, “Therefore, as a fellow alicorn, I’m an obvious choice for a mate. Between our already good relationship and her long-deferred needs, I figured out long ago that she would ask me sooner or later.”

“Do you know how Trixie will feel about that?”

“Are you kidding? Having Celestia as her junior wife? The biggest problem will be keeping Trixie’s ego in check. I’m sure she’s already planning for the day, and I’ve had plenty of time to get used to the idea.” I sighed. “Unlike for a certain other alicorn in this room.”

Cadance brightened. “You’re referring to the interdimensional Luna?”

I nodded. “What’s your take on her?”

“She’s a lot different from our Luna in as much that she prefers stallions while ours leans toward mares. That means that she finds you attractive for many of the same reasons that you have just espoused for Celestia.”

“Yeah, but I know next to nothing about her. Her life has been different and we met only a few months ago.”

“Then ask her out for a date.”

I rolled my eyes. “You miss my point – I’m not trying to add to my herd beyond Celestia.”

“After you married Trixie, did you intend to start a herd at all?”

“Well… no,” I admitted.

“Did you or did you not delight in bringing in Rarity despite that?”

“You know I did.”

“Did you think adding Penumbra was a mistake?”

“Of course not!”

“And what about Chrysalis?”

“You know that was different!” Cadance gave me a flat look and I sighed. “Yeah, that turned out well too.”

“And now you’ve just admitted that you’re prepared to admit Celestia to the herd. Why do you think it will end there? A six-mare herd is not common but hardly unheard of. And to put things bluntly, Rarity and Penumbra will pass on, and so will Chrysalis eventually. You will need strong mares to support you at those times.”

I nodded, well aware of that. It was something that I preferred not thinking about. “So, what do you think I should do about Luna? Loop Luna, I mean.”

Cadance smiled. “I would never have pushed you toward our Luna – she’s not right for you. If she hooks up with an alicorn, it will be with Twilight. However, my talent is telling me that this other Luna can be a good match.”

Can be?”

“You both need to know each other better. She is smitten with you but she needs to learn more about you and vice versa. This show tonight was a good start.”

A thought crossed my mind and I frowned. “How did she learn about this event anyway? Rather a coincidence that she heard about this private showing.”

Cadance’s enigmatic smile gave me all the answers I needed. “Okay, okay! I’ll start with inviting Luna around for dinner with the family sometime soon. If Trixie is cool with it, we’ll see how things go from there.”

“Good stallion. Now, I believe I have monopolized your time for long enough. Have a good evening, Mark.”

“You too, Cady.”

Flurry and Skyla departed with their mother and I noticed that several others had left the room including Nyx and our world’s Luna. I headed for the remaining Alicorn of the Night.

“What did you think of the show?” I asked.

“Very entertaining and enlightening – I can hardly wait to show my sister my photographs. Your final performance was amusing too.”

As Cadance probably already knew, my little stunt had done nothing to deter the mare. “I’m glad that you enjoyed it. Would you like to have dinner with us tomorrow night? We can talk about other things you might enjoy.”

Luna’s face lit up. “I would be delighted, although you already know what I would most enjoy.”

I shook my head and chuckled. “Patience, Loopy.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Art thou intending to call me that in future?” she asked sternly.

“Yep. Gotta distinguish between you two Lunas if you’re going to be spending a lot more time around here.”

Luna immediately understood the implication and forgave my presumption. “I’ll allow it. In private.”

She didn’t know me too well, did she? Yet. I grinned. “Then I’ll see you again tomorrow. Good night, Loopy.” I then gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.

She teleported away with a squeal of glee. Had I gone too far? Or just far enough? Time would tell. I turned to find Celestia chatting with my wives. Time to face the music. They all fell silent and turned to look at me as I approached. There was no need to ask what the topic of conversation was. They were all waiting to see what I would do. It was time for me to be proactive for a change. I faced the solar alicorn and said, “Ask!”

Unlike when Penny had joined the herd, I did not have to explain. If she was ready after all this time, as I thought she was, she would know what I meant. And she did.

“Prince Mark Wells – will you do me the honor of allowing me to join your herd and being my stallion?”

“Princess Celestia – I would be delighted and honored to be your stallion and I welcome you into our herd.”

She smiled joyfully and sank to my level to kiss me. There were cheers from my wives and they moved in to kiss their new herdmate too. Well, all except Chrysalis. She merely smiled in satisfaction as she soaked in all the love. When she noticed me looking her way, she winked and said, “I am no longer the junior wife.”

I chuckled and turned back to Celestia. “What’s ours is yours. Except for the throne. I’m keeping that.”

I love the sound of my wives laughing – all five of them.

Trixie cheerfully forewent her nightly privilege of being the first to make love with her husband so that I could properly bed Celestia. However, although I had grown considerably over the years since ascending to alicorn status, I was still nowhere near my newest herdmate’s stature. Fortunately, she knew a size-change spell and shrank herself to much more accommodating dimensions. She was still a little bigger than me, but then, so were all my other wives. Let me tell you though, her sexual appetite was in proportion to her normal size. The mare had many centuries to catch up on and I think she must have managed at least one of them that evening. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. The human I once was had now faded to a mere memory, and the pony stallion that I was now had no doubts that this had been the right choice. My herd had grown again, and perhaps it would do so once more in the not too distant future.



CHAPTER 10: Hermit Alicorns


Another week another portal jump.

I had lost count of how many dimensions I had visited by now, although I made a point of not mentioning this as I was sure Twilight would be able to tell me.

As always, Shining Armor preceded the rest of the group. When I completed my transition through the portal, I took in the scenery through the magenta glow of his shield.

What I saw was a whole lot of nothing – well, unless you counted the trees. The valley glimpsed through breaks in the canopy confirmed we were on the side of Canterlot Mountain as expected, but there was nothing here: no city, no castle, no ponies. After Twilight and Penumbra joined us, Shining dropped the shield. A quick flight showed no signs of Ponyville or any other settlements within view. All that could be seen was untouched wilderness.

Was this a world where ponies never migrated to Equestria? Or like that one universe Twilight and I visited where ponies never evolved into sapient beings?

After the three fliers rejoined Shining, a sharp sound in the distance interrupted our discussion. A slow trek through the trees led us to a stone cabin built in a small clearing. A fenced-in garden spread out over much of the open space. What I could only assume was this dimension’s Celestia levitated two stones above a roughly cut section of wood. The upper stone struck the wedge-shaped lower stone three times, splitting the log in two. Nearby, a primitive hoe leaned against the cabin wall. Next to me, Twilight let out a small gasp.

This Celestia didn’t have the princess-perfect look of most of her counterparts. Her mane did not have an ethereal quality. Instead, it was grimy and tied back by a scarf. Her coat was far from clean, and she wore no crown or other golden accouterments. While still possessing the impressive height, this alicorn looked thin and malnourished. What surprised me most was the lack of a cutie mark.

She didn’t acknowledge our presence as we approached, just keeping at her task. When we reached the fence, she spoke without turning to face us.

“What do you lot want? If it’s food, then you are wasting your time. I don’t have any to spare. Trust me when I say you don’t want a fight. Or did you just come here to gawk at the freak?”

A couple of puzzle pieces fell into place on how this world’s timeline had played out. I said, “We’re not here for any of those things, Miss. We’re travelers from another dimension where our Equestria’s history is very different from this one’s. I am Prince Mark and these are Princess Twilight Sparkle, Prince Shining Armor, and Captain Penumbra. Twilight and I are two parts of the Triarchy that rules our Equestria. We’ve come to explore and, where needed, provide aid to other versions of Equestria. Could you tell us a bit about this dimension? Like why you thought we were here for food or to fight.”

When I had started talking, Celestia turned to face us and gaped. “More winged unicorns,” she muttered. “And a night pegasus out of legend.”

Penumbra lifted her head proudly and winked at me. I knew I’d be hearing for weeks about how my herdmate had been acknowledged by none other than a bona fide Celestia as truly legendary.

The white alicorn shook her head. “Well, OK, that’s a first. I’m Celly and I live here with my sister, Luna. She’s asleep in the cabin. We trade shifts to keep watch; she takes the night and I take the day.” She tilted her head and smiled. “So winged unicorns are royalty in your land? Must be nicer than being a freak. That’s what the three tribes labeled me and my sister.”

Twilight stepped forward. “Winged unicorns are called alicorns in other dimensions. They embody one or more powerful aspects of their worlds. My affinities are magic and friendship. Mark’s special talent is lightning.”

Penumbra said, “…and collecting alicorn wives. He isn’t picky which dimension they come from.”

I scowled and gave my herdmate a dark look. When I brought my eyes back to Celestia, her ears were pointed directly at me. Wonderful. Great job, Penny.

Celestia blushed. “Uh, so anyway… I’m not sure how much more I can tell you. We’ve been living here together in the wilderness for I don’t know how long since none of the tribes would accept us. Plus, when we lived closer to the tribes, all three of them would come to harass us. If more than one group came at once. we’d spend days cleaning up the mess from the fight they would have on our doorstep.”

Twilight shuffled on her hooves, clearly distressed not only by the sad life this version of Celestia had lived, but also that ponykind was living so unharmoniously. “The tribes aren’t working together in this dimension? They’re still at war? What about the Windigos?”

Celestia furrowed her brow. “The Win-dig-what’s? Never heard of them.”

“Then why did the tribes migrate to Equestria?”

“You used that name before. Is that what you call this part of the world?” At our acknowledging nods, she continued. “The tribes never migrated, they colonized this area, oh, about a thousand years ago. It was a contest between the three on who could claim the most territory in this new land. A little after the second wave of settlers arrived, the three tribes’ war back in the motherland intensified. From what I heard, they destroyed the homeland in their fighting; it’s nothing but blasted wasteland now. Since the colonies were still dependent on the homeland for shipments of food and manufactured goods, the lives of the colonist ponies here weren’t easy once those supplies ran out. This was made even worse by the refugees who escaped the destruction with nothing but their hides. The stragglers did bring one thing with them: the fighting. The fools got the bright idea to start raiding each other for supplies; thus, starting the whole conflict all over again here. The last time I checked their settlements, ponies had regressed to arming themselves with stone weapons. I don’t know what state they might be in now. As I said, my sister and I aren’t welcome. They may have died out; you are the first ponies I’ve seen in at least a hundred years.”

I frowned. It seemed that without the guidance of the princesses or the mutual threat of Windigos, the three tribes of this dimension lacked the push toward working together. They had gone the other way and paid a steep price.

While our party exchanged a few words, the alicorn excused herself and headed into the cabin. Celestia woke her sister whose complaints we could hear clearly through the chinks in the cabin walls. The griping only stopped when I heard Celestia’s voice get in some words edgewise. The two I could make out were “stallion” and “handsome”. Penumbra’s superior hearing and wide grin reinforced my hunch that the alicorn was not referring to Shining Armor.

When Luna emerged, her face was wet and clean, but the rest of her looked just as bedraggled as her sister. It seemed that in this dimension washing one’s face constituted making oneself presentable.

Luna’s jaundiced eye roamed across the four of us while her sister got her up to speed. Celestia finished with, “Is there anything you want to ask our guests, Luna?”

The dark alicorn huffed. “Now you’ve seen our world – when do we leave to visit yours?”

The sisters were more than willing to allow us to use their cabin as a basecamp for some of our guards. We conversed a while longer with what I had come to think of as Hermit Celestia and Luna while Twilight took the steps to set up a permanent portal.

Shining suggested doing a reconnaissance of where the sisters recalled the three tribes were last located. This would allow us to better decide how to proceed with this dimension.

We extended the offer to visit our dimension to Hermit Celestia and her sister and they jumped at the chance to do so. I couldn’t help but wonder if their eagerness was out of wanting to end their loneliness or confirm our assurances that ponies in our dimension wouldn’t treat them as undesirables.

My herdmate, Celestia, had taken Loopy to Mount Aris for the week to introduce her to Queen Novo and for some relaxation time. Instead, Rarity and Penumbra took charge of our visitors as soon as they arrived in the Castle of Friendship portal room. They told the sisters that the country village of Ponyville would be their first destination. Inwardly, I agreed that the bustling metropolis of Canterlot might be too severe a culture shock. Unsurprisingly, Rarity insisted that the Ponyville Spa was the first order of business. When I switched to Marklestia form, Hermit Celestia fell on her rump in shock. Doing my best to ignore the unrestrained laughter of her sister, I offered to accompany my herdmates.

Rarity patted me on the withers. “Mark, darling, there are subjects to be discussed that would turn your delicate ears red with embarrassment. Another time, perhaps.”

Penny added, “Any other time. Not this time. Trust us.”

I knew better than to argue with my mares. Still, I put my mouth next to the fashionista’s ear. “Let me know if a Royal Command Performance is in order. I don’t mind giving up some of my favorite outfits to this Celestia.”

Rarity gave me a long kiss. “Thank you, Mark. That won’t be necessary, but I love you for offering.”

Penny came to my side and whispered, “I heard that. Only one Element of Generosity allowed in this herd.” She then belied those words with a long and sensuous kiss that left me hungry for more. Unfortunately, that would have to wait as my herdmates chivvied the two begrimed alicorns out the door.

The hermit alicorns returned hours later prancing on their pedicured hooves. They flaunted their exquisitely styled manes and tails. Their coats had lost the overlying shades of gray and brown, now displaying the familiar Prussian blue and alabaster. Suspiciously, the pair presented me with a detailed list of their demands in exchange for allowing a portal to remain on their homestead. In addition, our citizens could establish (well-fortified) settlements of our own in their world. Perhaps seeing a multitude of races cooperating peacefully would serve as an example to the bickering tribes. Squinting at the hornwriting and shape of the bullet-points confirmed that the dictation had been made to Twilight Sparkle. The final bullet read, “Prince Mark Wells will take the two of us to party at Luna’s nightclub this very evening.”

“Is there a reason you are dawdling, Dowser?” Trixie walked past me, already garbed in a dress suitable for dancing all night.

I sighed as I tossed the scroll onto a nearby table. These pushy mares had already made all the decisions for me, it seemed. “Terms accepted. Let’s take care of the last item first.”

The two sisters squealed like foals and planted kisses on my cheeks before I had a chance to react.

A few days later, we returned a very happy pair of alicorn sisters to their cabin – their new saddlebags loaded with food and a variety of items they were unable to create themselves or have the opportunity to enjoy. Both sisters treasured the gift of a simple gramophone and records to play on it. Both had fallen in love with orchestral music – something they had never experienced in their past. Celestia had been brought to tears of happiness by the steel axe and saw. The tools had the best self-sharpening enchantment that bits could buy. Luna’s pride and joy was a telescope larger than herself. A hoof-scribbled addition to the margin of their demands specified an observatory that was already under construction before they returned.

After a week of searching, the scouts found the three tribes, or at least what was left of them.

Their reports described the settlements as extremely primitive but also very hostile. All three settlements featured crude stone barricades behind moats. The nearby trees had been cleared to create lines of sight for kill zones. It was clear the tribes were still not working together and were just barely above the tech level of cave ponies. The earth ponies seemed to be in the best shape, mostly because they retained the knowledge of agriculture. The other two tribes appeared to survive through foraging.

This left me and my fellow Triarchs in a bit of a bind. We were unsure of whether or how we should intercede. Twilight wanted to provide food, but Trixie stated that would only feed them for a while and encourage sloth or looting from the other tribes. It felt to me like a case of ‘Give a man a fish and feed him for today. Teach a man to fish feed him for life’ type of situation.

We tried to persuade Hermit Celestia and Luna to take the reins of power but that was immediately rejected. That surprised Trixie and Twilight but not me. The not-royal sisters had no love for the descendants of the ponies that had run them out of society and into a life of seclusion and hardship.

Sending the guards of the same tribe to broker peace turned out to be a non-starter. Each settlement believed the appearance of strangers to be some form of ruse from the other two tribes and attacked our messengers on sight. Our trial attempt to leave aid packages were buried (earth pony), dropped into a gorge (pegasus), and blown up (unicorn).

In the end, I convinced both Trixie and Twilight that this was beyond our ability to solve. We couldn’t force cooperation onto these ponies and taking over their settlements with our superior military would not only cost lives but just make them feel more justified in their mistrust of other ponies. It was a case of ‘you can’t help somepony that refuses to be helped’.

The Triarchs decided to maintain the portal and relations with the two sisters and hope that the three tribes worked it out themselves or something occurred to force them to work together. That’s why I was so surprised when Hermit Celestia and Luna requested an audience with me a few weeks later.

“Can I help you, ladies?” I asked, only then noticing their daring manestyles and evening dresses. I didn’t have to check the labels to know they were my herdmate’s designs. A whiff informed me that the pair had recently visited Aloe and Lotus. I could smell the floral feather oil that every winged mare I knew would die for.

After a short pause, Luna nudged her sister with enough force to make her stumble. The white alicorn cleared her throat a couple of times before saying, “My sister and I are eternally grateful for all you have done to help us, Prince Wells. We wanted you to know the sincere depth of our appreciation.”

I smiled. “I can’t take full credit. So many ponies in my Equestria have done what they can to help you two – plus my fellow Triarchs and wives.”

Penumbra stood up a bit straighter behind them, her face an unreadable mask. That made me suspicious, and I perked my ears forward. What was I missing?

Celestia blushed and nodded her head before continuing. “Of course, of course. Well, you see... because it is not yet Spring, my sister and I... well...”

Luna rolled her eyes. “What my shy-as-a-baby-breezie sister is trying to say is that we haven’t slept with a stallion in over two centuries. We don’t feel any attraction toward the three tribes and our dalliances with other races have ended poorly. You are the only alicorn stallion in this land, and the two of us want to bed you... for as long as you can withstand it.”

Penumbra’s lips pressed into a thin line and tears leaked from her eyes. She was trying so hard to keep a straight face. The Grandmaster of Pranks hadn’t even needed to do anything beyond the initial quip. She had just let gravity roll her pebble downhill, knocking larger stones loose until two boulders landed in my lap – or tried to. Inwardly, part of me despaired. How in Tartarus could I top this prank?

I returned my attention to the two sisters. I considered their request. Luna was straightforward and that I could deal with. Meet dark fire with equal force until it was quenched.

Her blushing sister, however, was a different story. Celestia rustled her wings and couldn’t meet my eyes. That one I couldn’t predict. I was reminded of Fluttershy when she courted me years ago. I had no inkling at the time about Flutterbat or THE STARE. I shuddered. It was always the quiet ones you had to be careful of.

“I’m sorry, ladies, but I must decline. While as a stallion I have the right to bed any mare, I strongly prefer to share my affections only with my herdmates.”

The two alicorns deflated.

I smirked. “Perhaps you should have scribbled that request in the margins of your list of demands after the fact, just like Luna did with her observatory.”

The dark alicorn jabbed her sister in the side with a forehoof. “I told you to do exactly that! But no! You and your infernal shyness!”

I laughed at their antics. So much like the royal sisters I knew, and yet so different. “I can suggest an alternative if you are interested.” Their pointed stares and pricked ears told me they were. “There is a changeling queen named Ember who recently arrived in Canterlot from another dimension. Her establishment provides satisfaction for clients with... unusual requests.”

“Unusual?” the sisters chorused.

“The more unusual the better.”

Celestia and Luna shared a look and nodded. The white alicorn said, “That would be acceptable.”

“Excellent,” I said as I got to my hooves. “In the meantime, if you two would like to once again exercise the last demand you made upon this Equestria—”

I didn’t get to finish my sentence as the pair kissed me on the cheeks and practically carried me out the door. Luna called out, “Make way! We are off to my counterpart’s club to dance and drink our cares away! This night shall last forever!”



CHAPTER 11: New Venture


Most Court sessions, both Day and Night, called for a single alicorn to preside over them, but every now and then when the need called for it, Trixie and I held Day Court together. This was normally only done when matters of greater importance needed to be decided. The really important decisions were made with the full Triarchy in the monthly meetings, but dealing with the nobles occasionally needed the weight of two alicorn rulers making a decision. This was to prevent the more devious among them from making an end-run around a single Triarch. Despite the number of times my wife and I had foiled their efforts, they never stopped trying to pull one over on us.

I gave my advisor a grateful smile as Trixie called the morning session to a close. The changeling queen played a major role in making our lives easier. Even after all these years, the nobles, industrialists, and various other self-interested parties continued to seriously underestimate my fourth wife’s ability to ferret out the facts in every case. The Canterlot changelings were unmatched in their zeal and were absolutely incorruptible. Their loyalty to the Hive and thus to the Crown ensured that they would always serve the Equestrian Empire to best of their abilities. I had no idea back then when Chrysalis had pledged her loyalty to Equestria and became my herdmate how much of a game-changer that would be. It had enabled our nation to grow sustainably and peacefully for years. I projected my gratitude to my Queen and she smiled smugly back. She loved all the machinations and the payoffs of her role, and she was making good on her declaration on making her hive the greatest in the world.

However, it was another world that was to occupy my thoughts at lunch. As usual, Twilight was in the dining hall to enjoy the meal with us. It was our practice to pass on the results of the morning session to whoever was presiding over the afternoon session. Sparkle was already aware of the matters being brought up that day, so it didn’t take long to apprise her of the relevant details. In fact, we were done before we even sat down at the table, which suited me well because we had guests today to discuss an important new phase in my plans to expand my interdimensional commercial project with Earth. And that is why Phil and Rosa were joining us for a business lunch. Also joining us was Celestia who was on a break between one of her inter-dimensional adventures with Daring Do, and had offered to give us her perspective on the proposal.

The final guests were the last to join us. A human and an anthro mare were ushered in by the Royal Guard at the door. The man smiled at me and said, “I hope we’re not late, Mark?”

“Not at all, Caleb,” I replied. “You and Sky take a seat. We were just about to order some drinks.”

The two newcomers greeted the rest of those gathered as they settled onto chairs, two of which were suited to the bipeds in anticipation of their presence. After everyone had requested their drinks, Caleb addressed me again.

“So – what’s this big favor that you wanted to ask of us?”

“Actually, that’s something you should be asking Phil and Rosa,” I replied.

Caleb turned to the unicorn and griffoness and spread his hands in supplication, wordlessly asking the same question.

Phil’s horn lit up and his magic levitated some papers out of the briefcase that he had brought along. He placed copies in front of everyone seated at the table before replying. “Those documents contain the profiles of four of our staff members on the Earth side of the portal. We’re expanding our business Earth-side and we want to introduce them to Equestria. As our resident human, we’d like you to help ease them into a whole new world.”

To be continued in the spinoff story: Brave New Pony World.



CHAPTER 12: Lyra's Day


Mark placed the last of the paperwork into the outbox. He sighed and leaned back into his office chair. Relations with so many parallel dimensions had increased the workload of all three rulers. Adding oversight of Harmonic Composites cut further into his personal time. The Triarchs’ plans included rapidly expanding interaction with his home dimension, so the problem would only get worse.

Mark made a note on his To Do list to look into suitable candidates to delegate the running of the company. Phil and Rosa were best suited as hooves and talons-on managers involved with everyday work and problems. Strategic planning and, for lack of a better term, glad-handing CEOs of other companies were not their strong suit. Xyrdur would have been a perfect fit but Mark doubted anything could tempt the dragon away from running the largest financial institution on all of Equus, now expanding to other realms with branch offices and partnerships. Perhaps one of the changeling princesses or one of the four human assistant managers?

Chrysalis sashayed into the office carrying a scroll in her green magic. His fourth wife’s smirk made Mark half-expect her to close the door behind her so they could have some quality personal time. On second thought, he remembered that the changeling queen had no compunction about showing off her stallion’s virility.

With a flash of his horn, Mark closed the door. “Shall I clear off the desk? Or is it more fun to knock everything off as we go?”

Chrysalis showed all of her fangs. “Such an impatient and impertinent stallion. Would you debase yourself by taking advantage of your secretary in your office?”

Mark snorted. “You wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Very true.” His wife stopped at the edge of the desk and leaned forward, closing her eyes. Mark stood and tried to kiss her, only to be stopped by a hoof. “But not quite yet, my husband. For context, you must read this report from Agent Sweetie Drops.”

“Bon Bon?” Mark took the scroll from Chrysalis’s magic field and opened it. His wife’s hoof interrupted his attempt to read the contents. She guided his head to look her in the eyes.

“… and her mate. One of my Ponyville drones shared this with me. I will give you a preview of the contents.”

The kiss began as normal then blossomed into something else. Mark felt euphoria fill his body in a way no kiss had done since his first kiss in high school. By the time he could think clearly again, Chrysalis faced away from him, opening the door with her magic. She looked over her shoulder, fixing her husband with one eye.

“I will arrange with Loony to open the portal to the secret grotto. Bring your angry and possessive self, my lover. I will be disappointed if I do not require minor medical attention when the evening is through.” With an especially wide swish of her tail, Chrysalis left the room and closed the door behind her.

Mark sat down to get off his shaky knees. So, it was going to be one of those sessions.

Curious about what could have brought all this about, he began reading the scroll.

Lyra Heartstrings scowled then huffed out her nostrils. If she could have stomped her hooves like an earth pony causing tremors in the ground, she would have. Trying to do so as a unicorn would make her look like a spoiled filly.

Once again, her application for work at Harmonic Composites had been turned down. No matter the position: administrative assistant, manufacturing, watchpony, logistics management, purchasing, and most recently, finance; the answer was always the same. “Sorry, you’re just not a good fit.”

The light green unicorn grumbled to no one in particular. “It’s just not fair. If I had a lance cutie mark instead of a lyre, I could get one of the security guard spots. Could I get an illusion applied? No, that would never work. Their detection spells would find me when I took my first step into the facility … just like it did last week … and the week before.”

Through a gap in the houses, Lyra spotted a human in the market – one she had not seen previously. A mare, shorter and rounder than average, and with a beaming smile. The unicorn knew that the four new Harmonic Composites managers from Earth occasionally visited Equestria in their natural forms. This was a rare opportunity. She stopped in her tracks and looked in every direction, including up. No Bon Bon in sight.


With a spring in her step and perked ears, Lyra cantered forward, eyes locked on her prize. No one else registered in her perceptions until she stood next to the human. Time for introductions. “Excuse me! Do you know who I am?”

The human turned and gave Lyra a huge grin. “Well, Ah reckon you’re the cutest little pony Ah’ve ever seen!”

A shiver rolled up the unicorn’s spine, leaving her head buzzing. The unicorn gasped as the rest of the world slipped away – only the dazzling smile and tiny eyes of the creature before her remained. “Yes. Yes, I am.”

Bon Bon finished bagging the love-infused truffles. The confectioner had no idea how a Pinkie Pie Hug could impart love into a bag of sugar but she knew better than to complain. Business was up … way up with a whole new demographic making regular trips to her store. So much so that the storefront expansion was nearly complete and half paid for. She had already held a few interviews and tryouts for an apprentice candymaker. She smiled inwardly at Prince Mark’s response to her scroll asking if he wanted to try a career change, reminding him of his first trip to Ponyville. Bon Bon had no idea what “LOL! ROTFL!” meant, but he visited Ponyville often enough that she would learn soon.

The earth pony set the bag onto the counter and rang the cash register. “That will be three silvers, Ms. Orthoptera.” When her customer didn’t reply, Bon Bon looked up. The crystal changeling stood gaping with her eyes vacant. A dribble of spit rolled onto the floor.

Bon Bon frowned. “Orthoptera?” She reached out a hoof. “Can you hear me?”

In answer, the changeling’s wings snapped open. “Bliss alert,” Orthoptera said dreamily. Flying out the front door, she yelled, “Bliss Alert!”

The mare went to the window. Several changelings buzzed through the air, all heading for the Marketplace. In the distance, dots resolved themselves to be more changelings on their way. As a Royal Auxiliary Guard, Bon Bon stayed briefed on the latest intelligence concerning all the races on Equus. This behavior didn’t line up with anything she knew of.

Stepping outside the shop, she heard two changelings call out to each other.

“Is it the crazy green unicorn?”


The earth pony mare pulled a pair of sunglasses from her mane and placed them over her narrowed eyes. Even with them obscured, the scowl betrayed her mood. Agent Sweetie Drops a.k.a. Bon Bon should have felt professionalism descend over her like a cloak. It failed, however, to remove the hint of anger from her voice.


Agent Sweetie Drops scanned the scene before her. Six or seven concentric rings of changelings surrounded a spot in the center of the market, away from the stalls. Dozens more changelings filled the air. There were Canterlot changelings, evolved and unevolved crystal changelings from King Thorax’s hive, red changelings, pale green changelings from Queen Polistae’s hive, and a few she couldn’t place. Even the orange-chitined drones of Queen Sanguine Dreams joined the swarm. Sweetie Drops was certain this was the first time anypony had seen them undisguised. All faced the center of the area, their wings outstretched as if to catch an imaginary wind. Every bugpony had their eyes closed and expressions of pure rapture on their faces. Over the constant buzz of their wings, she could just make out voices coming from the center.

“An’ your coat is so soft Ah just can’t believe it! An’ your mane is so purty Ah wanna fill it with bows! An’ these squishy cheeks of yours are so gosh-darn adorable! Ah’m gonna call you Squishy!”


The earth pony projected her anger outward to convince the gathered changelings to step aside as she marched forward. To her surprise, none of them seemed to notice her as she pushed through the gathered throng.

Reaching the center, she found a circular space a dozen pony-lengths wide. To one side, Phil Martine pivoted to look around, his neck arched to study the patchwork quilt of colorful bugponies that surrounded them. In the middle of the area, a human mare sat cross-legged. This must be the replacement manager Jolene Harris. Sweetie Drops had only seen her pink earth pony form before now.

Lyra Heartstrings sat motionless in the human’s lap with the unicorn’s legs folded beneath her. Her eyes were closed and a euphoric smile stretched across her muzzle. At least, it appeared to be a smile. Hard to tell with the human’s hands gripping Lyra’s cheeks and wiggling them up and down.

Jolene let out a squee. “Outa all the Squishies Ah know, you’re mah absotively favoritest! You’re cuter than button eyes on a plush doll! Ah’m of a mind to keep pettin’ your mane and pretty tail forever!” Lyra answered with a foalish giggle.

Sweetie Drops peered over her sunglasses. “Lyra. Lyra Heartstrings. I think you’ve had enough for one day.” This caused no reaction from the unicorn mare … not even an ear flick. The earth pony blinked and spoke again. “Lyra?”

“She can’t hear you.”

The mare turned to see a red changeling princess stride through the crowd. Unlike Sweetie Drops’ walk through the throng, changelings instinctively made room for bugpony royalty. The princess made it a body length and a half further into the circle before her step faltered and she put her hooves down. Sweetie Drops saw a strained smile on the changeling’s face and her furled wings trembled at her sides. Sweetie Drops recognized the distinctive pattern of scars across the bugpony’s chitin.

“Princess Tarsalia? What do you mean?”

The Red Hive Princess nodded toward the two centers of attention. “Miss Heartstrings is in a state of bliss. Pure, life-fulfilling, existential bliss. From my race’s perspective, it is the highest form of love that a pony can feel. As such, it is also the most prized by all changeling hives.”

That explained the undisguised changelings coming out of the woodwork. “Really?”

“Indeed. Many ponies go their entire lives without feeling this emotion. Miss Heartstrings is most fortunate.”

That made Sweetie Drops hesitate. Could she deny her wife this opportunity? From the edge of the circle, a small red nymph looked up at the earth pony with pleading compound eyes. “You’re not going to make her sad, are you, Miss Bonnie Bonnie?”

The mare felt attention shift to her from many of the assembled changelings. What would happen to her business if she interrupted this pony/human séance? Would she lose half of her customers? In any case, no one was in danger of being hurt. Best tread cautiously for now and wait to see if Lyra snapped out of it on her own. “Maybe … you could tell me more about this ‘bliss’?”

An evolved crystal changeling in the front row said, “Princess Cady gave a concert in Canterlot Stadium a year ago. She’s the one from the dimension where she and Queen Chryssy married their Shining Armor. Cady projected out all the types of love she knew to the one hundred percent changeling audience, naming each as she went. Bliss was the last one and it brought the house down!” He laughed. “Everyling helped out to fix the damage before the Canterlot Comet’s hoofball game the next weekend!”

A red changeling smiled. “That was the best concert ever!” Murmurs of assent came from several of the assembled changelings along with head nods.

A green changeling said, “But this bliss is fresh … and spontaneous … and … and …”

“Exquisite,” said Tarsalia. The Red Hive princess snapped her wings to their full extension. Her mouth hung open and her eyes rolled into her head.

Sweetie Drops sighed. It seemed the princess’ strict discipline could only help her hold out for so long, especially this close to the source of the waves of bliss. She looked at Phil Martine who shrugged.

“A bit outside my pay grade and way outside my job responsibilities. So long as town life isn’t disrupted too badly, and not on company time, I don’t see an issue.”

Speaking of that, Sweetie Drops stood on her hind legs and looked across the stalls in the market. The congregation of changelings had increased in size, now crowding out the pony shoppers and some of the vendors. The earth pony mare said, “Alright, everybeing, you’ve had your fun. Time to wrap this up.”

The surrounding changelings slowly opened their eyes and sighed at the same time, which Sweetie Drops had to admit was kind of adorable. Princess Tarsalia raised her muzzle and chittered something in High Changeling, of which the earth pony didn’t know a syllable. The responses were in Low Changeling, which she knew enough to make out unanimously positive responses.

The Princess spread her wings. “As good a time as any for me to return to my duties. I’ll speak to Prince Mark about a job requisition.” Before the earth pony could ask what she meant, Tarsalia shot through the air on a direct route to Canterlot. Drones flowed out of her way and reformed behind like water in a pond.

“Not quite everybeing has had their fun.”

Sweetie Drops turned to see her wife giving her a calm and confident smile. Behind Lyra, the outer rings of changelings flew off, or in the case of those on the ground, lowered their wings. They walked away while talking in hushed voices. The closest hundred or more bugponies stayed where they were, content to lap up the remaining positive emotions. For her part, Jolene wove the unicorn’s mane into a tight braid with deft movements of her fingers.

The earth pony mare folded her sunglasses and stored them in her mane. Once again Bon Bon, she scowled. “What exactly do you mean, O Queen of the Multi-Colored Ponyville Hive?”

Lyra let out her silvery laugh that made Bon Bon’s heart skip a beat. “Is that what I look like?” She glanced upward without moving her head. “What do you think, everyling? Should I demand a seat at the next changeling Queen’s Council?”

Chitters of laughter rolled across the marketplace, punctuated with a “Yes, Ma’am!” from the diminutive red nymph.

The unicorn mare smiled even wider. “In my first action as Her Majesty, Queen Lyra Heartstrings the First…”

Bon Bon braced herself, thinking, “Here it comes.”

“… I decree from the Jolene Harris royal throne that the fun will not cease until you, Bon Bon, have sat in my place for… a half hour.”

“What? Absolutely not!”

“Awwww…” The collective moans from the surrounding bugponies tugged at the earth pony’s … heartstrings.

“OK, fine. Five minutes. That’s it.”

Lyra’s grin expanded to show all her teeth. “Fifteen or I’ll sit here for that long before asking you again.”

Bon Bon thought to herself, “When the heck did she get so good at negotiating?” She sighed. “Fine.” Bon Bon ignored polite clapping from the assembled changelings while more of them drifted away.

Lyra stood and moved to the woman’s side. “Jolene, let me introduce you to my wife, Bon Bon.” The unicorn’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “If anything, she’s even more adorable than me.”

The human grinned. “Ah can see that as plain as day. ‘Specially when she’s all grumpy.”

The earth pony marched to her fate with as much grace as possible, imagining hair curlers, bows, glitter, and all sorts of humiliating mane and tail treatments in her immediate future. After kneeling in the human’s lap, she mumbled, “Pleased to meet you, Miss Harris.” The answering hug did make her feel better.

“Don’t you worry your purty li’l noggin, Miss Bonnie. Ah’ll have you know that Ah’m more than a mite familiar with ponies from mah childhood.”

“You don’t say.”

The human missed the sarcasm. “Yep! Used to spend every summer with mah cousins on their horse an’ pony farm. One of the hired hands, Miss Natalie, took me under her wing, so to speak. Learned me a bit ‘bout how to massage horses and how to read their moods.”

Jolene didn’t miss the ear flick as her hands roamed across Bon Bon’s neck. “Mah apologies. Forgot that ain’t a polite word here. A-a-a-anyways, just touching your splenius and cervical trapezius muscles let me know how much tension your holdin’.” She laughed. “Ah could drive a nail into a board with your brachiocephalicus right now. Why dontcha take some deep breaths.”

“Wonderful,” thought Bon Bon. “Even the human has a way to read emotions.” Still, the mare dutifully followed Jolene’s request. In … hold … out. In … hold … out.

Lyra spoke up. “Jolene, why don’t you try those little mane pulls?”

The earth pony said, “I’d rather you…Oh!” Waves of relaxation radiated out from where the human’s fingers had gently tugged small sections of mane. Bon Bon closed her eyes. “That does feel…” Her words trailed off. A minute later, her mouth hung open as her jaw relaxed. She barely registered the sound of buzzing wings increasing as the changeling swarm reformed.

Sometime later, Bon Bon heard, “That’s fifteen minutes, Bones.”

“I’ll let you know when I’m done. Would you apply that rhythmic pressure above my withers again, please, Jolene?”

“You betcha, you cute thang!” The human gripped and wiggled the mare’s cheeks. “You’re even cuter than your marefriend. Ah’m gonna call you Squishy Junior!”

Bon Bon smiled. “OK”

The next morning, Lyra straightened her green jacket. She counted the forms on her clipboard: four, just like the last two times she checked. The unicorn next inspected the curious metal quill that humans used … what was it called? … oh, yes … a Fountain Pen. She had rejected the Bic Pen as too flimsy and the clickity-clicky Ballpoint Pen as being altogether too addictive. That left her with a familiar writing instrument, though with the ink hidden cleverly inside.

A below-average height Canterlot changeling came up and hugged her. “Have a great first day, Miss Heartstrings!”

The unicorn gave him a nuzzle. “Thanks, Femur. I feel like a million bits today!”

“Must be all that good luck rubbing off our chitin!”

“Hey, I got more than enough from the first dozen to wish me luck!”

The bug pony waved and went through the portal to Baltimare. For her part, Lyra willed herself to be patient …

… though it was harder than she thought. Maybe she should have held onto that super-clicky pen after all. Surely the other ponies and buggies around wouldn’t mind her playing with it.

Just then, her first assignment stepped through the Houston portal. The unicorn trotted up to the human mare and gave her a beaming smile.

“Good morning, Ms. Van Dijk. My name is Lyra Heartstrings and I’m with…” The unicorn couldn’t help herself and danced a quick jig. “… Human Relations. May I have a few moments of your time to gather some ergonomic data?”



CHAPTER 13: An Uncomfortable Truth


Although I was a Prince of Equestria and my home was Canterlot Castle, my true home-away-from-home was Ponyville. Although it could not match the grandeur and beautiful architecture of the capital city poised magically on the side of a mountain, Ponyville had a heart and soul that no other town could evoke. I loved coming here to visit friends or just let my mane down among the citizens of this unusual place. Where else in the empire could I go and be just one of the ponies, or have the citizens barely blink at the weird happenings this place attracted?

Case in point – today I was spending time with the newest member of my herd. Since returning to Equestria from a parallel universe, Celestia had been taking advantage of her release from ruling responsibilities to enjoy life in a manner she had been unable to do for centuries. Much of the time lately, she spent exploring places both ancient and new in the company of Daring Do. However, whenever the pegasus had completed one of her expeditions, she returned to Equestria to write yet another novel under her pseudonym of A.K. Yearling. Celestia, meanwhile, would catch up with the herd, and in particular, with her stallion. Which was ironic because, just for giggles, we were spending this day in Ponyville as twins.

I was in my Marklestia form and we were both wearing outfits out of my wardrobe designed by Rarity that she classified as casual street wear. However, if you knew my fashionista wife, her idea of casual was never anything less than awesome. Because both garments covered our cutie marks, we had fun getting the citizens trying to guess which one of us was the real deal. Admittedly, because the locals were very familiar with me turning up in my alter ego, they could usually pick me due to my speech patterns, but if I kept my mouth shut and Celestia play-acted a little, half the time they would guess wrong.

Celestia and I enjoyed these moments together, just the two of us. Even my ever-present bodyguard, Penumbra, conceded that I was safe enough in the presence of the most powerful alicorn in Equus, and she left us to ourselves. It allowed Celestia to truly relax and enjoy her life as she had not been able while ruling Equestria by herself for centuries. Now, she took every opportunity to wring the most fun out of every day, not to mention making up for lost time in the bedroom! Between talking with the Ponyvillians, we chatted about what had been happening during her latest absence. The most recent subject of interest was the Luna from the time-loop universe.

“So, how does my other-universe sister fare with her suit?” the alabaster alicorn inquired.

I grinned. “As a matter of fact, I took Loopy on a picnic last weekend. Afterwards, we gamboled in the fields and just enjoyed some time together. Penny stayed unobtrusively out of sight, so Loopy got to be herself. She’s gradually learning to relax and forget about the formality that is expected of being a noble princess. You know how I hate that stuff and only put up with it during official duties, so if she expects to ever join my herd, she needs to be Luna the mare and not Luna the diarch.”

Celestia gave me an amused look. “Has she stopped asking to have your foal then?”

“Oh, heck no! She still asks every visit. However, I think she’s been doing it lately as evidence of her commitment to her desire, and not as an indication of over-eagerness. I think she will appreciate and love the foal more when she and I know each other better.”

“So, you’ve already decided to add her to your herd?” Celestia asked with a smirk.

I gave the smug alicorn a flat look. “Do you seriously think I will ultimately have any choice? If Trixie hasn’t knocked her back by now, it’s never going to happen. Luna will persist until she’s so much part of the herd that I might as well formalize it.”

Celestia giggled. “Keep this up and you’re going to have to add a stallion to balance things out.”

I stopped walking and gaped at her. “Are you seriously suggesting that’s an option? I’ve never heard of that being done. How does that even work?”

“I only know that it happened back when I was still a youth. The practice fell out of favor but it was never made illegal. If any herds do that nowadays, they’re discreet about it. I certainly made no effort to investigate it despite what some romance novels might have said.”

We resumed walking. “Well, I can’t see that happening. Hypothetically speaking, though, who could we ask to join us? They’d have to be extremely familiar with the family to even get a hoof in the door!”

“Someone like your valet, for example?” Celestia asked with an innocent smile.

“Steady Flight? Oh, you’ve got to be trolling me!”

Judging by her impish grin and lack of response, I guessed she had to be. Right?

We were interrupted by a group of mares just then, so I didn’t get to push further. When we parted ways with them, Celestia reckoned that that she felt thirsty, so we headed for Sugarcube Corner for refreshments. I decided to let the subject drop, denying my herdmate another opportunity to bait me.

We ordered our drinks from Pinkie who didn’t even hesitate to identify us correctly. We found ourselves a table for two in the corner and sat down. A booth would have been preferable but they could not accommodate alicorns of our stature. However, as it was not a rush hour, empty tables next to us granted a degree of privacy. It didn’t take long for Pinkie to bring out our thick-shakes in gigantic glasses. Our conversation lapsed while we drank thirstily.

I sighed in satisfaction as Celestia slurped the last of her delightfully delicious dairy drink. “Y’know, it boggled me when I first learned that the cows here were sapient and were all in the business of selling their milk and other dairy products. It still puzzles me a bit.”

Celestia lifted a questioning eyebrow. “Why would you think that? It’s a logical profession.”

“Aside from the fact that they’re single-minded about it and not one of them ever considers any other job, I wonder how they exist at all. Back on Earth, dairy cows were specifically bred to give them very large udders and high milk-producing capabilities. Trying to do the same to a sapient species would be considered an illegal eugenics program. And then there’s the fact that there are plenty of non-sapient cattle in this world. Griffons both hunt wild cattle and raise herds of them for their meat. If those cattle were the base for the breeding program, how did they end up sapient? They aren’t the brightest species, and they don’t seem to care about anything beyond a grassy paddock and a barn with hay in the winter, but they can hold a conversation, even if only about dairy farm-related matters, so they aren’t mindless cattle. Why, in this world of so many civilization-building sapient species, are they the only ones with no ambition to further their lives and are so single-minded about their work?”

Celestia’s face darkened. “There’s a reason why they are so.”

When the alicorn said nothing more, I prompted her. “Well? What is it? You can’t leave me hanging like this.”

She sighed. “You’re not going to like it.”

“That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t know.”

“Very well. This goes back to before the tribes were united, before I was even born. In those times, cow milk was a scarce and prized product. It was hard to acquire the cows back then. You always ran the risk of attracting the attention of the griffons and other predators. They obviously required the cattle for their own needs and had no sympathy for our desire for just their milk. Then, one day, a unicorn mage perfected a spell that would transform wild cattle into docile dairy cows. Milk production quadrupled virtually overnight.”

“And this made them intelligent too?” I asked in a skeptical tone.

“Not at all. It made them complacent and interested only in being milked when their udders were full. That was the entire mental effect of the transformation.”

“Not seeing what’s so bad yet. It’s virtually a magical version of a breeding program.”

Celestia grimaced. “If that’s as far as it ever went, it would have been fine. However, demand for the milk increased faster than the supply, and there was a need to increase the herds. The transformation process could only produce females, so there were no dairy bulls to breed more cows, so they had to try to get more of the wild cattle. But, as I mentioned earlier, that angered the griffons who stepped up attacks on ponies trying to get hold of the cattle that they considered their own. That’s when the truly horrible solution was proposed. As I said, this was before unification, and fights between the tribes were common. Captured enemies were frequently kept as slaves. Somepony suggested that they could be put to better use.”

“I gasped and stared at Celestia. “They didn’t…?”

My herdmate nodded sadly. “Yes, they did. It doesn’t say much for the state of civilization back then that they so readily agreed to try turning their captive and rebellious ponies into docile dairy cows. Sadly, it worked. It not only made them complacent but dulled their minds. They could still talk, but they rapidly lost interest in conversing.”

“That’s horrible!”

“It was, but worse could happen to enslaved ponies than a sheltered lifetime of supplying milk, so it was ironically regarded as an equane way of dealing with their enemies. As all the transformed wild cattle eventually died, they were replaced entirely by transformed ponies. And because those cows lived far longer, ponies did not have to risk their lives so often to get more wild cattle. They only occasionally brought back a bull because they wanted to breed calves to increase their herds. Transforming captives only ended with Unification and knowledge of the spell eventually died too. But to this day, dairy cows still need to get in bulls in order to have calves. Now, though, the cows pay for the services of a stud bull from the griffon herds with the bits that they make from selling their milk.”

“So, every sapient cow in Equestria is descended from a transformed pony,” I summed up. “Suddenly, I’m not interested in milkshakes anymore.”

Celestia reached over to lay her hoof on mine. “You will live long enough to hear much worse from our past. I know – I lived through much of it. My sister and I worked hard to civilize the tribes well after Unification. There were many ponies who weren’t willing to let the past go. You can’t afford to do that. Learn from it and move forward. You, Trixie, and Twilight have done so much to bring peace and prosperity to this world since taking the reins of power, but there’s still much to accomplish. When you encounter uncomfortable truths like this one, you must be prepared to deal with them and not let them make you bitter.” She let go of me, grabbed her glass, and got to her hooves. “I, for one, intend to have another shake. This one was delicious.”

I snorted a smothered laugh. “As if anything would stop you from getting your sweets. Even looking like you, I can’t match your appetite for them.”

Celestia returned with two shakes, albeit smaller ones than our firsts. Putting one in front of me, she raised her glass to me and said, “A toast to our future herdmate, Loopy Luna.”

I chuckled and clinked my glass to hers, before starting to drink.

“And to your future husband, Steady Flight!” she added.

I snorted milkshake out my nose. Dammit, Trollestia!



Equestria, canon MLP characters, and other My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic elements are © 2022 Hasbro.
All other original characters and story copyright © 2022 Bernard Doove.

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