Act III – The Grandfather Paradox
Part 9: Entrapment
Familiarity is in the details, Applejack realized as she waited at the door to the large library-tree. When she had visited Braeburn in Appleloosa to deliver Bloomberg, the taste of her family's signature apple pies had been enough to make her forget that she wasn't in Ponyville anymore. Even when she had moved to Manehattan, her aunt still had enough retained habits of their old life to give a semblance of home, at least enough to make it uncanny. Maybe that was why Feng-Shui worked, she wondered. It wasn't about the actual layout, but the pony that chose the layout feeling comfortable. But now, standing outside a building Applejack knew she had been inside dozens of times, she felt like a stranger. Any lingering traces of familiarity had been overwhelmed by strangeness. Her emotions told her that anything could be behind that door.
Pinkie Pie seemed completely unaffected. If anything, she was excited about the prospect of making a new friend. "So, what do you think he's going to be like?" she asked, bouncing on her hooves.
The door opened just enough for a pair of blue eyes to peer disturbingly out at Applejack. The mare tried her best to smile through the scrutiny, but the cold gaze made a friendly visage difficult. She knew her smile looked obviously shallow, and she hoped that wasn't enough for him to kill her on the spot.
The moment stretched on, and Applejack was about to ask if she had come at a bad time when the stallion finally sighed and opened the door fully. Applejack stepped cautiously inside, but she was shoved aside as Pinkie Pie bounded in behind her.
"Hiya, mister!" she shouted at the stallion. "My name is Pinkie…"
She stopped mid-sentence as the stallion turned to face them, a longsword clutched in his teeth. She froze at the height of her bounce and slowly fell back to the ground, the end of her name disappearing on her tongue.
The stallion glowered, and Applejack swallowed. She knew she could defend herself, but against an armed opponent? She put faith in her diplomacy and pressed onward.
"Mister Silver Shield, sir," she began. "I heard about you from some of the other ponies in town. They said you're a member of the Royal Guard."
Silver Shield cut her off before she could try to flatter him or ask him for favors. "I'm not part of the Guard," he corrected her. "I can't be; not anymore. There's no guard left for me to be part of."
Applejack chuckled gently, trying to move past this minor setback in her introduction. The look she got from Silver in return warned her that the laughter had done nothing to lighten the situation. "That said," she continued, "I wanted to know if you'd be willing to help us."
Silver grunted in annoyance. "Depends. Do you have money?"
Applejack tried to laugh it off again, but it worked even less effectively the second time. "Well, no sir, but…"
This time was Silver's turn to laugh, a different, deep laugh that reeked of malevolence and set Applejack and Pinkie Pie on edge. "Well you certainly aren't in a position to make any demands then, are you? What are you planning on appealing to? Honor? Obligation? I have neither. Or were you just hoping that a former Guard member would help a good Samaritan for free, saving you the hassle of hiring a mercenary?"
Applejack was sweating now. She had achieved nothing but irritating a large stallion with a sword. "Actually," she managed to stammer, praying that Pinkie Pie wouldn't interrupt with something that could only make the situation worse, "it was your help specifically that we were looking for."
"You flatter me, girl," said Silver Shield in a way that made it clear he wasn't flattered in the least. "What's so special about me?"
"The townsfolk said you were an expert in fighting unicorns."
Silver Shield chuckled and relaxed his grip on the weapon, but he made no move to put it down. However, at just the mention of a fight, his attitude seemed to improve considerably. "Hunting a unicorn is dangerous work, sister," he mused, and Applejack's stomach turned at the thought of her suddenly becoming a sister. "What ungrateful bastard are you hoping to slay tonight?"
"Not slay," a spooked Applejack quickly corrected. "Just capture."
"Oh." He sounded disappointed.
"But the mare we're after is a high-ranking member of Nightmare Moon's order. She goes by Trixie. As a servant of Celestia, I figured you'd be interested."
Silver Shield paused, taking time to replay the entire conversation over in his head, trying his best to understand. "Let me make sure I got this right," he finally said. "You want to track down somepony who works directly beneath the Nightmare Queen herself, and capture her without killing her? You're insane."
Applejack had been half-expecting this response. "I understand if you consider this to be too risky…" she began, figuring she should try to end the conversation with mutual understanding and no hard feelings.
"Are you kidding? I'm in. My last prey got away from me, and I could use a little pick-me-up."
Applejack and Pinkie Pie, well aware of who the last prey had been, were both more than a little disturbed by the stallion's particular choice of words, but both were careful not to let it show. The last thing they needed was to insult him and lose his assistance.
"What did you say your name was again?" the stallion finally decided to ask.
"And I'm Pinkie Pie!" the bubbly pony shouted enthusiastically as she extended a hoof. Silver nervously shook it.
"Alright then girls," he declared with a grin both inspiring and devilish. "I'm going to teach you how to catch a unicorn."
Trixie, proud of her own abilities as she was, knew that attempting to outrun an athletic earth pony was futile. But repeated teleportation might make up for her lack of athletic prowess. If she could displace herself faster than he could run, she'd be able to keep out of his reach until she reached the trapped building.
It occurred to her that she was depending on the success of a plan she had already deemed idiotic. But clearly the resistance was at least somewhat competent, if they'd raised the concern of the Queen herself. If their trap didn't work, she'd have to face off against the stallion in unfamiliar territory, with both of them strained by the run. She wasn't sure who this would favor.
The world blinked in and out of existence rapidly, buildings shifting down dozens of yards at a time. Teleportation, a very high-level and intensive skill, was already starting to get to her. She wasn't sure if she would have any energy left when if she then had to turn and fight.
She only risked looking back once, to discover that the stallion was somehow closing the distance behind her. Making the last turn, she passed the radio tower and counted the buildings, stopping at the one whose shape she recognized from the map. Giving her magic a chance to rest, she dashed up the steps and through the door.
Stepping inside the building, Trixie felt as if she had just teleported again. The walls were covered with pulleys and ropes, the fringes of some complex contraption that spanned the entire building. Various appliances were nailed to the walls, including a set of frying pans and a tambourine. She flew to the far side of the room, where the lever waited tantalizingly. She turned and waited, and as soon as the stallion was on the doorstep, she pulled.
Trixie wasn't sure exactly what would happen when she pulled the level. She had no reason to doubt Pinkie Pie's engineering ingenuity, but the very brief description still left quite a bit to the imagination. She wondered if the cage was going to fall from the ceiling, or if the floor would open up, or if the walls would appear together or individually.
But she was certainly not expecting the entire room to become an explosion of light and sound.
"Okay. To bait and trap a unicorn, we need to follow a few simple steps." Pinkie Pie and Applejack listened with rapt attention as Silver Shield detailed the plan. "Step one: plant the bait."
Applejack considered this. "We need a reason for her to come to us. What does she want that we have?"
"Ooh! Ooh! I know!" Pinkie Pie was struggling to contain her excitement. "I know this one! Pick me! Pick me!"
Applejack and Silver Shield exchanged an uneasy look. "Is she always…" began Silver Shield, but the look of resigned acceptance on Applejack's face told him everything.
"Yes, Pinkie Pie?" said Applejack.
"She wants me! I escaped from her clutches once, and she probably wants to put me back in them!"
Applejack chuckled as she realized that was surprisingly accurate and on-topic for Pinkie Pie. "That could work," she considered. "But what are we going to do? Broadcast our location across Equestria? She'd see through that in a heartbeat."
"Not if we had some excuse for doing so. Is there anypony else that you might want to know your location? Somepony that Trixie wouldn't bat an eyelash if you were looking for?"
Applejack considered her options. "There is one," she said at last. "A mare. Twilight Sparkle."
The name affected a sudden souring of Silver Shield's attitude. "You're allies with Twilight Sparkle?"
"Yup!" claimed Pinkie Pie enthusiastically. "Best friends forever!"
"Maybe not," said Applejack hurriedly. "But Trixie wouldn't know that. Twilight's the enemy of our enemy, and in Trixie's eyes that makes us friends."
"But your friend just said…"
"Pinkie's friends with everybody," stated Applejack. "Isn't that right, Pinkie?"
"Uh huh." Pinkie just nodded vigorously. "It's my special talent."
"Fair enough," said Silver Shield with a shrug.
"I mean, I just want to throw the whole world a party, but I don't have enough party hats! It's so frustrating!"
Applejack rolled her eyes, catching another concerned glance from Silver Shield. "Moving on," she said, "and to make sure I got a firm hand on this, we're sendin' out a distress call, knowing darn well it's gonna to be hijacked?" asked Applejack. "I like this plan already."
"Which brings us to step two: Plan and counterplan. Trixie will come after us expecting a trap of some sort. We need to be able to examine the situation from her perspective and determine exactly what precautions she's going to take. That way, we won't be caught by surprise.
"What if Trixie makes herself look like Twilight so we can't tell which one is real and which one is fake?" Pinkie Pie asked worriedly.
"Is that possible?" Applejack asked nopony in particular. Then, realizing she probably wasn't going to get an answer that way, she asked Silver Shield. "You know about unicorns. Can they pull off shapeshifting like that?"
Silver Shield laughed. "I'd like to see one try. Something like that would require a tremendous amount of energy and focus."
"See, Pinkie Pie? You ain't got nothing to worry about."
"Illusion magic, on the other hoof, is foal's play. If we send out a call for help to some ally of yours, it's not only likely, but immensely probable, that she would attempt to impersonate them. She'll think she's got the jump on us when really, we've got the jump on her. Which brings us to step three: Always maintain the advantage, but keep this a secret. She must always think that she's the one in control. Or, at the very least, she must think that she has more control than we do, until the moment is right for us to strike our blow.
"Now, Trixie probably knows we don't have any unicorns on the team, so she's going to come out with her magic cannons slinging. Which will only make things better for us if we can create a unicorn-hostile environment."
"Magic requires focus, so anything that can break her concentration can eliminate her advantage. Loud noises. Bright lights. If we can keep her from getting any spells off, this fight is as good as ours."
"But won't that hurt us too?" asked a worried Pinkie Pie.
"Yes, but it evens the playing field, puts her and us on the same level. Then, it's a matter of numbers. Three versus one."
"Four versus one, actually."
As soon as the lever was pulled, multiple sets of bells began chiming, whistles blew, drums began beating at irregular intervals, and Trixie lost her capacity to think.
Overwhelmed by the sudden cacophonic storm, she failed to anticipate Silver Shield leaping forward and knocking her to the floor. She tried to focus and gather the energy for a spell, but it came slowly, her thoughts scattered from the noise. After too many seconds, she managed to summon a firebomb above her, an explosion of heat and force that threw Silver Shield off of her and into the wall. She stumbled to her feet and prepared to launch a magically formed hammer at Silver Shield when the lights finally flickered on.
The lights imbedded in the walls and ceiling where brighter than anything Trixie had ever looked at. She shielded her eyes, but her vision had already been replaced by searing red. The hammer dissipated, half-formed, and Silver Shield attacked again. Still distracted by the light, Trixie was hit full-on by the attack and was knocked backwards into a cuckoo clock, which activated on impact, driving a shrill cry directly into her ears. And as Trixie struggled to blink the pain away, a new figure descended from the ceiling and charged.
Something in Silver Shield's demeanor had changed for the better. He finally put his weapon down and began prancing about the room scaling ladders and pulling books off the shelves.
Too late, Applejack realized why the stallion looked almost happy. Whatever they were about to see or hear had been rehearsed.
Finally, with a brief elated cry, he found the book he was looking for and held it high above his head, nearly toppling off the ladder in the process. He tossed it down to Applejack, who looked at the plainly bound cover.
"Liberty and Equality, by Iron Sickle? The hay?"
"It's a good read," said Silver Shield as he slid down the ladder to rejoin his new employers. "Sickle, an earth pony, lived a long time ago in the lands to the south. There was an uprising, and a unicorn elite took advantage of the chaos to establish power and extort the other ponies. But he used his skill with words to inspire the earth ponies to protect themselves. 'Nature is unkind and unequal, so we cannot ask her to aid us. Neither is our fellow pony steeled in compassion enough for us to sacrifice our autonomy to them. Neigh, we much work ourselves, through hoof and nail, to claim what will not be given by authority, whether God or Equine.' He devoted his life to researching and discovering ways to hold his ground against unicorns and exposing the tyranny that invariably came with their worldview."
"Well that's…" Applejack struggled to think of the right word. "Presumptuous."
Silver Shield rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me you're a sympathizer," he moaned. "It's the simple truth. They're stronger than us, so we have to be smarter than them. And in the end, he discovered a way to remove a unicorn's magical powers entirely. That's how we stop this Trixie. We're going to steal her magic."
She was running on instinct now. Anything that required conscious thought was impossible given the environment. Miraculously, she managed to raise a shield to block the new pony's strike, but the pony was quick to attack again, this time coming from the side. Trixie dove forward, and the attack missed her. The pony flared a pair of pegasus wings and turned on her feet with more agility than Trixie had been expected and came in for another attack.
Her eyes beginning to adjust, Trixie was able to make out that the new pony was a mare, fully covered in tight blue clothing, her eyes obscured by sunglasses and a pair of earplugs protecting her. Just before she reached her target, she was knocked aside by a floating brick. Rolling with the blow, the mare was soon up on her feet again and coming in for a strike from the side. Silver Shield also came forward, attempting to flank her. Thinking quickly, Trixie jumped, using her telekinesis to propel her through the air and toward the door.
The mare was on her before she got halfway. Trixie felt a sharp pain in her back, and as she turned to get a look at the mare, she noticed the syringe now sticking into her. She crumpled to the ground.
This wasn't worth it, she decided. The plan had gone astray far enough. She dropped the illusion, although she suspected it had already been dropped earlier in the fight.
"Stop!" she cried. "I'm not who you're after!"
She didn't expect the two ponies to believe her, nor did she expect the stallion's response.
"We know," spat Silver Shield. "But I'm not terribly fond of you either."
Trixie squeezed her eyes shut in concentration. She needed to get out of here. Just far enough away to recoup, to get her energy back, and then she could strike with all her force. Yet the blinding lights and cantankerous noise made it impossible for her to manage any magic beyond simple cantrips. She focused, trying her best to gather the reserves of energy necessary to teleport. She finally felt a breakthrough, and sensed the world vanishing around her.
Only to be teleported ten feet away and unceremoniously dropped to her ground, her magic failing mid-transport. Looking down the road, she spotted Applejack and Pinkie Pie trotting up the lane, looking rather pleased. Ahead of her, Silver Shield and the pegasus stood at the doorway, the mare's bright orange mane no longer obscured by the darkness.
But now that Trixie was away from the noise, she could focus again. But as she envisioned the spell components in her head, nothing happened. The spell stubbornly refused to come together. She had the energy, she had the focus, and her magic still wasn't responding how she expected it too. Some sparks formed on her horn but promptly sputtered and died.
Applejack stopped above the panting mare and smirked. "Hey there, Trixie," she said, chuckling. "You look a bit tuckered out."
Trixie's breath was labored and her gaze was furious. "What in Equestria did you do to me?"
"Alright," said Applejack. "So let's say we actually manage to capture her. What then? How do we contain somepony as powerful as her?"
"That's what the book is for," explained Silver Shield. "In his studies, Iron examined purported cases of unicorns losing their ability to perform magic. He discovered that there existed a special magical herb that, in certain situations, could interfere with a unicorn's power. But that herb is only found in a small number of locations throughout all of Equestria. The Everfree Forest is one of them. That's why I came to Ponyville, to harvest more of it. I was hoping to grow and cultivate it on my own."
"You're talking about Poison Joke," figured Applejack.
"Poison Joke takes from you what you're most proud of. And as it turns out, most unicorns of Trixie's caliber are pretty proud of their magic. The most common means of exposure is physical contact. But that takes far too long to take effect. It turns out we can extract the potency of the flower and distill it as a liquid."
"And we make her drink it?"
"We could, but I was imagining something a little bit more expedient. Do you have a medical kit?"
Trixie huffed, trying to regain control of her breathing. She attempted to focus and assess the situation. This is nothing you can't handle, she told herself. You've been in worse spots before.
"You can't beat me," she warned. "Just to let you know. If things get any more serious, I'll walk away with bruises. You won't walk away at all."
"You talk pretty tough for a horn-less unicorn," quipped Applejack. "But you know what? You're like a critter that makes it fur stand out when it sees ya. It tries to look tough 'cuz it knows it can't win in a fight."
"Or maybe I'm telling the truth. You can't beat me because you can't possibly account for every tactic at my disposal. You're not the only one with backup plans. I've got an ace-in-the-hole too."
"Oh, really? Like what?"
"Like a size-shifting dragon hidden in my mane. Spike? Now."
Not bothering to try and make sense of Trixie's words, Applejack leaped forward to try and pin the unicorn to the ground, but she stopped as she spotted the purple and green mass burst outward from within Trixie's hair. Blown backward by the ensuing shockwave and deafened by the crack of the compressed air, Applejack was knocked on her back and dazed as the dragon flapped its wings and rocketed toward her, landing with a claw placed over her throat.
Pinkie Pie watched in shock while Silver Shield took action, succeeding where Applejack failed and knocking into Trixie, landing on top of her and holding a hoof above her head threateningly.
Trixie grinned. Hoof-to-hoof combat was boring. Now things were finally interesting.
Spike looked back and forth between his master and his prey, recognizing both his advantage and the danger Trixie was in. She didn't seem to mind.
"Ooh, now we're getting somewhere," she declared excitedly. "A real Mexicolt standoff. You really know how to make my day, don't you?"
Madame Orange awoke to the sound of music. It was a slow, remorseful tune, dancing around at the edges of her hearing, leaping away before she could manage to recognize any of the notes. Still, the haunting refrain chilled her.
She stretched and stepped out of bed, irritated at losing sleep but knowing much better than to admit it. She hadn't heard the music many times before, but she knew what it meant. As she closed the curtain to her bed and opened the curtain to the window, she wondered what was preventing Trixie from talking to her. Usually she received her orders via intermediary. It was a rare for her to see the Queen at all, let alone outside of the castle.
A cloud of vibrant violet dust hovered outside the window before seeping through the cracks. In the sparse room, it expanded, filling up every available corner. And as the cloud enveloped Orange, the music increased in intensity. It seemed to have no source, instead surrounding her, oppressing her.
"Your majesty?" she called into the oppressing darkness. "Is that you?"
As she finished speaking, she attempted to refill her lungs with air, but instead only coughed debilitatingly as she breathed in the dust. As she slowly recovered, taking smaller shallower breaths to avoid another fit, she heard, or rather felt, the response.
We will not entertain your wishes concerning the Generosity Bearer any longer. Tomorrow you will take her and bring her to the garden.
"The garden? Are we going to fix her mind there?"
No. But I believe the Loyalty Bearer still retains some allegiance to her. If we cannot motivate her on our own to open a new gate between her world and ours, then perhaps she can provide additional encouragement.
Orange nodded, but her movements felt sluggish, as if the cloud were water. "I was supposed to meet with Trixie, but I couldn't find her." Even that sentence seemed to take a lot out of her. She knew she couldn't remain here for very long.
As she inhaled again, she felt the cloud entering her, mingling about in her lungs. She could feel the cloud as it moved about, brushing every part of her and forcing its way into her ears and mouth. Her eyes burned. She could sense the life of the Queen's incorporeal form.
The not-voice boomed again, and Orange felt like she was being deafened, even though she doubted it was making any sound at all.
The Knight is away. She will return with the Bearer of Laughter from the Other Side, the prisoner you let escape. She is doing your job, and you should be thankful.
She was distracted by a sudden overwhelming sensation, a sadness that discouraged her from talking, from even thinking, as if everything that had ever been important to her had suddenly been taken very far away from her.
Rarity. Her family. Her entire life seemed impossibly distant. And from that immense feeling of isolation, a bitterness emerged. Orange fought to keep it down.
"I have a request then, for you?"
She felt the Queen's rage, like a hot breath washing over her, coating her in perspiration and making her hair stick together.
You have done nothing to deserve any favors from me.
"I know, but I thought I should ask anyways."
The movement in the cloud ceased, as if it were considering her request. Finally, it began moving again.
Orange tried to remember the speech she had prepared, but any sort of focus was difficult with the cloud filling all of her senses. Unable to see anything beyond the purple veil, Orange closed her eyes, but she could still feel it moving around her and in her. She could feel it pressing against her throat and lungs, pushing any air out. While her entire body felt numb and heavy, her head was light, and she wondered if she would be able to speak her request before she passed out.
Focus, she told herself as the Queen's loneliness and self-loathing mingled with her own. Every thought and feeling felt multiplied, overwhelming, and it took all of her concentration not to succumb to them. The one sliver of conscious thought that had not been driven out by the presence, continued to operate.
"Well, I've seen the spell that you and Trixie use to control ponies. You alter their minds to make them want to serve you more. You make them perfect servants."
"I was merely thinking that I am not a perfect servant. Not yet."
You wish for me to eliminate your free will?
Orange had not expected the Queen to put it that bluntly, although that conclusion had crossed her mind. "Yes, your Majesty," she said. "That is what I wish."
She tensed as she awaited the Queen's response. She had been considering this request for weeks, and it seemed reasonable.
A resounding shudder moved through the cloud, as if it were laughing.
"Beg pardon?" Orange asked, accidentally slipping into her accent.
I understand why you might pursue such a drastic path. You are burdened by the work I ask of you. You are worried you might fail me.
"Exactly! Which is why I need you to make it so that I can't fail you."
No. You wish this because you think living with such a curse is easy, a lighter load than what I currently have you bear.
"Not at all, your majesty! I understand that the curse is painful. I am willing to sacrifice anything so I can serve you."
But you have concluded that having your priorities assigned to you is easier than having to figure them out on your own. You believe that false conviction is more effective than having to decide what you believe. You wish this weight upon you because the thought of free will terrifies you.
I will not grant you this release because you are much more useful as you are. Cursing you would only hinder your ability to make sound judgments, and would defeat the purpose of your punishment.
"Punishment?" asked Orange, genuinely confused.
When I first approached you, I gave you the option to side with me. When you refused, you made it clear you required coercion. Removing your will, allowing you to function knowing that you are no longer responsible for your own actions, would remove your incentive to do well. I understand that you wish to be absolved of your sins. But trying to pursue such a pitiable escape as abandoning your own responsibility for your actions is childish. No, I much prefer you where you are.
This is the last I wish to hear of such a request. You will bring the Generosity Bearer to the garden tomorrow. You will do whatever it takes to convince the Loyalty Bearer to open the gate. Once our mages are given the opportunity to analyze the passage between worlds, we will attempt to recreate it, and both of the otherworldlings will become disposable.
"I don't see why we have to kill them," interrupted Orange, her composure and deference slipping. "I can look after Rarity. She won't be a problem."
Shelve your amorous attitudes. The mare is a distraction. Even once she is no longer useful to us in any way, you cannot ascertain that she will not be a threat. For the good of the empire, she must be eliminated. Do you understand me?
Orange nodded, defeated. "Yes, your Majesty," she said solemnly, bowing. "I understand where my loyalties lie, and I know what I must do to serve them."
The music began to fade in her ears, her vision cleared, and within seconds she was alone in her bedroom. She stood still silently for a minute, just to ensure that the Queen was really gone, before she changed into a green dress more presentable than her nightgown and slipped out into the night.