The battered band of ponies, plus one draconequus, ran through the dense undergrowth of the Everfree as fast as they could gallop. For a mercy, the creatures of the Everfree were not harassing them; the mutant beasts of the wood had been on the decline since the restoration of the Element stones to the Tree of Harmony already, and the recent rampage through the woods by Tirek had sent the rest into hiding. Deformed by strange magic they might be, but any animal of the woods can tell when a dangerous predator is abroad.
It was still slow, still too monstrously slow. None of them were at their best to say the least; having their magic drained to nothing had left them weak, flightless, magically powerless. Discord was given reasons anew to regret his whimsically chosen mismatched form-- his lopsided body made his struggle to run with the others an ordeal. He was cursing under his breath as he lurched along on mismatched feet, trying to keep up.
Not that anypony was in a mood to care.
Twilight looked over to where Ink Spot ran along beside her, his lips set in a grim line, an unconscious Nyx draped across his back. Fear bit at her heart. This was the second time that Nyx had been forcibly drained of all her magic in her short life. What might it have done to her...?
They arrived at the cave of the Tree of Harmony. "In, in, everypony in!" Twilight said. She pulled a lever by the entrance disguised as a dead stick; with a rumble a huge boulder slid down, blocking the entrance. They stood together in the cavernous chamber, lit with the Tree's cool blue-white light. Twilight sagged with relief and exhaustion. "There. We're safe for now. The Tree has protections on it that even Tirek can't breach."
"Too bad we cain't say the same fer the rest of Equestria," Applejack muttered.
They stood in the chamber and looked around. Over the past weeks, there had been a few changes to the cave; the pristine cave with its stone plinths and glittering pools was now littered with workbenches and folding tables and shelves covered with a miscellany of scientific tools of Twilight's choosing.
"What do we do now?" Rarity said. "Can't we call for help? What about the Celestial Stewards?"
Twilight shook her head. "They're scattered all over the globe," she said. "By the time they got here, Tirek would have absorbed enough magic to be a match for any of them. And if he drains even one Steward of their power, it could mean worldwide environmental catastrophes. The only reason the Sun and Moon are still moving is that Celestia put a platoon of unicorns in a bunker with the Synchronizer... to keep feeding it magic if hers and Luna's got stolen." She shook her head, bit her lip. "And nobody knows how long they can keep it up, or how long it is before Tirek realizes he missed a bunch of unicorns when he was draining all of Canterlot."
All of them stood silent as the grim state of things sank in.
Discord seemed to read her mind. "Don't worry about the podling," he said. "She's just knocked out from the drain..."
"Why won't she wake up?" Twilight said. "We're all awake--"
"Not to belabor the obvious, Sparkle, but all of us here are a little cut above the average," Discord said dryly. "Nyx is still a foal, however, so she's probably going to be conked out for a bit. All the colts and fillies Tirek drained are sleeping it off. She'll be fine, trust me."
"Trusting you is how we got in this mess in the first place," Dash snapped. Discord actually wilted under their combined glares. Beseeching, he turned to Pinkie Pie. Pinkie refused to meet his eye; she looked away, her flat, razor-straight hair hiding her face from him.
"Why did you do it, Disky?" She whimpered. "Why did you side with Tirek against us? Against me?"
"A little question I'd like answered myself," Ink Spot said. He was sitting under the tree, cradling an unconscious Nyx. His voice could have etched glass. "What did he promise you, Discord? A throne next to his? A country of your own?" Ink Spot's scowl deepened to a sneer. "Or maybe he just promised you the pudding cup out of his lunch. You're that trivial and shallow--"
"HE PROMISED ME MY POWER BACK, OKAY?" Discord whipped around and snarled, chest heaving, his claws grasping at air. "He promised me he would restore me to my full power! All the power I lost when I pulled Pinkie Pie's pink plot from those poisoned Plunder Vines. Is that enough for you?" He looked around at the Bearers, a sneer carved on his face. "And don't even pretend you would do differently! Do you have any idea what it's like to go from being a demigod to barely being above the level of the Great and Powerful Trixie? Do you?" He pointed at Dash. "How would you like it if you woke up one day and your wings were gone?" He pointed at Twilight. "Or your horn?" He rounded on Applejack. "Or your legs? Tell me, Applejack, suppose you woke up one morning and your back legs were so weak and feeble you had to ride in a wheelchair the rest of your life? What fiend from Tartarus would you sell your soul to in order to get your life back? How well would you all handle being crippled?"
Twilight actually felt a momentary flash of sympathy. The draconequus, even after having his power reduced to a tenth, had always seemed so powerful, so untouchable simply because his magic was so unpredictable. But from his perspective...
Then Applejack spoke up. "Seems to me," she drawled slowly, "That thanks to you we're all going to get to find out." All that could be heard in the silence that followed was the faint drip of cavewater.
"Congratulations, Discord," Rarity said frostily. " You managed to make the worst trade since Manehattan Island. You threw away everything you had-- and everything your only friends had-- for a big fat nothing."
That let the last of the wind out of him. Discord slumped and sat down on a nearby stone, tears running down his face. "I know," was all he could say.
Fluttershy bit her lip. "We'll... we'll all forgive you, Discord," she said. "just... just not quite yet." Her voice broke as her eyes filled with tears. She looked down. "It just hurts too much right now." Quietly, she turned and wept into Pinkie Pie's shoulder. Discord covered his face with his paws.
"We've got bigger problems right now," Twilight said. "Dealing with Discord can wait till later. Right now we have to figure out our next move-- before Tirek sucks all the magic out of Equestria forever."
While the main six huddled together, arguing over what to do, Discord looked over at Ink Spot. "I... want to make this right. At least let me help with Nyx--" he said, reaching out.
Ink Spot's expression didn't change. He bored holes in the far wall with his eyes. "Discord, if you hurt Nyx-- if you hurt my daughter-- I'm going to tie a balloon knot in your skinny neck. And I won't even need my magic to do it." Sadly and not a little fearfully, Discord backed way.
It had started out as such a good day, too. Twilight had been summoned back to Canterlot for some urgent, but highly secret hush-hush Alicorn Princess business. Spike had gone off with Bright Eyes for one of their training days. The staff had been given the day off, and even the workponies who had been laboring on the much-needed expansions to the Golden Oaks Library/Princess Twilight manor had been off for the weekend. And thus the Alicorn Prince had found himself at home alone and enjoying a wonderful opportunity to bond with his new daughter. It had been a pleasant day, with them puttering around the house and the kitchen, baking some cookies together, going over Nyx's homework, just having a quiet happy time...
Then a giant centaur had ripped the top of the house off.
The crash of the library being ripped open like a paper bag; that bellowing laughter, those enormous hands reaching down for them, grabbing them, Nyx screaming in terror...
Twilight saw the haunted look in his eyes and lay down next to him, her soft wing resting over his withers. She leaned over and nuzzled Nyx; both their hearts eased ever so slightly when she whimpered in her sleep. She saw his lower lip tremble. "I tried to fight back," he said. "I tried to protect her--" he looked down at the foal resting in his forelegs. "He was just too strong--he picked us up in those fists, and drained her while I watched. I-- I failed y--"
"Shh." She put her hoof over his mouth. "You could never fail me. Or Nyx. You tried, and that means everything to me." She pressed her side against his, comforting. "I had the power of three alicorns inside me and it wasn't enough. But we gave as good as we got." Her words were bittersweet in her mouth; she had failed as much as he had. For a while it had looked like she might actually defeat the monster, but then Tirek had pulled his trump card from the ether... his hostages. Twilight had been forced to give up her power in exchange for their lives. Even then they had only escaped because a flight of pegasus Royal Guards had attacked, distracting Tirek long enough for them all to run for their lives...
He faked a half smile. "I suppose. Though I think you gave a heck of a lot better."
She had seen the smoke rising over Ponyville and had come tearing in at supersonic speed to find Tirek standing in the smouldering remains of her home, her husband and her daughter fleeing for their lives. Her first blast had sent the demonic centaur hurtling clear into the middle of the Everfree. She suddenly remembered that Tirek had spent their entire fight clutching his right eye with his free hand. "He was furious when I first saw him. How did you get him to drop you?"
Ink Spot shared a common love for books and reading with Twilight, but he had come to it from an entirely different direction. While her love of books originated from a love of learning, Ink Spot's love of books began with the medium itself--- She loved science books, he loved the science OF books: the way paper, ink, and binding came together to archive and carry on the knowledge of the past to the future. His cutie mark reflected his preternatural gift for understanding writing in any form, be it book, scroll, or clay tablet, alphabet or hieroglyphics, and a corresponding gift for magical control of paper, ink, press and quill. He managed a little smirk. "Remember that novelty quill the Firebird gave me?"
"You mean the one made from a Roc feather?" Twilight said. "How could I forget, it's the size of a surfboard and mounted on the wall like a Billy the Singing Bass. What..."
Ink Spot Spot allowed himself the satisfaction of remembering that last, rage-filled burst of telekinesis as Tirek drained him; the ink stained tip of the giant quill as it shot out of the wreckage like an arrow from a bow, straight and true... "I dotted his eye."
"I wondered why he was squinting," Rarity winced. "He's going to be in a mood once he decides to come looking for us."
Twilight sighed. "At least we're all safe here, for now..." she froze, her eyes going wide in horror. "Spike. Where's Spike?" She looked around frantically.
Ink Spot put his wing over her back to calm her. "He's fine, he's fine! Training day, remember? He and Bright Eyes are off on training exercises for the day with the Heavy Platoon and the Busters. They're miles from here, perfectly safe."
Twilight had just started to calm down when there was a distant, thunderous boom. The cave floor shook, and bits of dust trickled down from the ceiling. Several of the mares yelped in fright. "What was that?" she exclaimed.
Ink Spot looked up at the ceiling and grimaced. "Okay... apparently they're not quite as far away as I thought."
Tirek thrashed his way clear of the trees, knocking the last of the harrying pegasi out of the sky with an energy blast and draining them dry. He left them lying among the debris and stomped angrily out into the open, glaring around him with his one good eye. He was in a long, stony ravine, pocked with rudely dug caves down its sides -- Ghastly Gorge, had he known the name of it. He recognized the dig-marks as those of quarray eels and was unimpressed. At his current size and power the ferocious predators would be little more than annoyances.
He might have been a little more concerned had he known that the eels had been forced to vacate some time ago.
A piercing whistle cut the air. He turned and saw a pony standing atop a pillar of rock in the middle of the canyon. That hadn't been there a second ago, had it? Curious, he stomped over to where the pony stood waiting, the earth shaking under his tread. He bent down till his massive head was level with the oddly glittery red pony. "And who might you be?"
The pony was a ruby red stallion with a golden yellow mane, and enormous by pony standards. He had a cutie mark of an anvil, a rough-stitched khaki vest, an ammo belt strapped around one shoulder and across his withers, and was chewing on the stump of a carrot the way another might gnaw on the stub of a cigar. "Name's Lieutenant Commander Rock Steady," he barked in a barrel-chested voice that echoed in the canyon. "Commanding Officer of the Heavy Platoon. Who the buck are you?"
Tirek leered and gave him a one-eyed glare. "I am Tirek, you pathetic little pony. And you are standing in the presence of your new GOD."
"And you," Rock Steady with a grin, "Are standing in my Platoon's practice range. LOCK AND LOAD!" The last was delivered in a bellow that made even Tirek's enormous ears ring. All up and down the canyon shouts and the drumming of hooves echoed. Tirek straightened and looked up to see the top wall of the canyon lined with ponies, the caves dotting the cliff walls filled with ponies-- ponies, ponies everywhere, their hooves inexplicably glowing like fire...And every cave mouth had the barrel of a cannon poking out of it.
At the highest outcropping stood a white earth pony mare with a braided pink mane, a fizzing cartoon bomb cutie mark, and a dynamite plunger in front of her. "Greetings from the S&S crew, Twerky!" Boom Boom shrieked, and slammed her forehooves down on the plunger.
"Well, buck me," Tirek said.
Ghastly Gorge erupted.
Pinkie Pie pressed her ear to the wall of the cave as the iron thunder rolled outside. "Ooh, that's a Mark Z-seven," she said after one sonorous boom. A second sharper report echoed. "And that's a mark five." A half dozen reports followed by a massive roar. "And ooh, ooh, six K-16 Longnose cannons followed by a bedrock charge! My pop-pop used those all the time on the rock farm, I'd recognize that 'ker-whunch' anywhere!"
"What are they DOING out there?" Rarity yelped as gravel and dust rained down from the roof.
The air itself shook with the whump-BOOM of a fuel-air explosion. Ink Spot looked up at the ceiling nervously, shielding his wife and still-sleeping daughter with his wings. "My guess would be a holding action," he said. "Till the um, big guns come out--"
Twilight looked at him. "You mean--" Ink Spot nodded. Twilight looked up at the roof of the cave and bit her lip, saying a small prayer. "Be careful," she whispered.
Tirek stood in the smouldering hell-gash that had once been Ghastly Gorge, chest heaving. The gorge--- wider and and deeper than it had been an hour before-- was a blackened pit; what wasn't burning was blackened with ash. Leaden cannonballs had pounded the rocky cliff faces to rubble. Explosions had launched house-sized boulders into the air and then blasted them into rubble in the next moment. The very floor of the canyon was torn to gravel; it had erupted from end to end beneath his very hooves. Even the air itself had exploded. He took a moment to snuff out the burning end of his beard. Fiends of the Pits, how the hell had they made the air explode?
He had given as good as he got, though. Just as the bombardment had paused he had lashed out in all directions with bolts of dark magic. The rage-fueled bolts had pummeled the pony ranks, shattering cannons and catapults and sending hapless soldiers flying. His troubles hadn't ended then; to his shock the flaming-hooved ponies had begun chucking cottage-sized boulders at him bare hooved. Others had by some magic he'd never seen sent spikes of rock bursting from the ground underneath him, crystals growing in moments around his hooves...
"Aieee," he said under his breath. Owie, owie, owie. He had already been energy-blasted and slammed through mountains in his confrontation with Twilight, and then this box of surprises had opened under his feet. His ears were ringing, he was bruised all over, singed in places one didn't talk about in polite public and some of his joints were clicking with every move. Yes, was starting to feel it.
A second blast of dark lightning had subdued them all at last. The valley was filled with the groans of downed ponies. Despite the disorienting storm of explosions and fire and all the pain he was currently in, he was standing... they were not. Gloating, he moved--- owww, ignore the limp, walk it off, walk it off--- to the nearest heap of battered ponies lying atop a hillock. He got ready to drain them all of their magic---
And was denied. With a flicker like a bad movie projector half their number vanished. "WHAT?" he roared.
He heard a low basso chuckle. Curious, he looked closer. At the peak of the hill lay the sparkly red pony he'd seen just before all hell broke loose. He was leaning up against the battered remains of a cannon, still chewing on his carrot stump as he looked at Tirek with mockery in his eyes. "Rebound teleport," he said. "We been tryin' for months to find a way to teleport the platoon the way the kid does."The kid? Who was 'the kid?' "But after five, ten minutes we'd just bounce right back to where we started. Has a lot of other little quirks, too. Seemed pretty useless, till somepony pointed out th' obvious tactical application." Even as he spoke, ponies all over the gorge vanished. "We're all going back to base-- fifty miles from here an' outta your reach."
Tirek seethed. All that power he'd expended swatting these bugs and he wasn't even going to get a light snack for the effort! He managed to control himself and smirked at the arrogant stallion. "And once you're gone, what pitiful resistance you mounted will go with you," he said. "Who will stop me now?"
"Tain't my problem," Rock Steady said. "We weren't here t' beat ya... though that woulda been a nice bonus. We were here to delay ya." He grinned fiercely, his carrot stump clenched between his teeth. "Takes the real firepower a little while to travel fifty miles."
Tirek's dread slowly grew. "Are you trying to claim that all this--" his sweeping arm took in the smoking devastation all around. "--was just a--"
"Just a distraction." Rock Steady started to flicker. "In other words, old son..."
"...You just bucked up." With those words he vanished.
Behind him, Tirek heard a growing Thoom, Thoom, Thoom. He spun around to face the threat-- just to time to face an oncoming wall of pure purple rage.
Give him credit, he only screamed like a filly once.
"So what do we do now?" Fluttershy said. The rumbling outside had resumed, only this time it had a different rhythm... and was punctuated by what surely were deafening roars.
Twilight hopped in a single wingflap over to the middle of the floor. The crystal box was still there, nestled in the bloom where it first appeared. "We try to figure out how to open this," she said. "We can't get the Elements back-- they've re-merged with the tree. Our only hope is whatever is in this box-- that it's a tool or weapon powerful enough to stop Tirek."
"Wow, so we're stuck underground trying to solve an inscrutable magic riddle while giant monsters duke it out for the fate of the kingdom," Pinkie said. "Wow, deja vu!" ....The others just glared at her.
"That's great, sugarcube," Applejack said. "Only we still ain't found the keys."
"To the contrary." Twilight reared up and dug through the contents of one of the work shelves. She dropped a cardboard box to the floor. Inside was nestled a odd selection of objects; a silver bit, a spool of thread, a Wonderbolts medal, a magically preserved bloom-- "Boneless!" Pinkie crowed, grabbing the rubber chicken. "I wondered where you'd gotten off to! Shame on you for not telling me where you were!"
"These things?" Rarity said. "Those are the keys?"
Twilight nodded. She tipped the box; the rainbow shimmer became visible as the light played over the objects. "Don't ask me how or why, but we had them right here all along."
"Yer gonna have a heck of a time fitting a rubber chicken into one of them keyholes," Applejack said wryly.
Twilight huffed and shot Applejack a look. "They're obviously transformed. But I can't figure out how to get them to change into keys. I've tried magicking them into keys, they just refused to be transmogrified-- big clue there. I tried touching them to the box, touching them to each other... I'm missing something."
"Well you're missing one key," Pinkie Pie said. "See? Only five objects. The set's incomplete."
"One of them from each of us... so the last one has to come from you, Twilight."
Twilight thumped her forehead with her hoof. "But how do I figure out what the key IS?"
Off to the side, Ink Spot, Nyx and a lonely Discord sat more or less together under the branches of the Tree of Harmony. Nyx still lay in her father's lap, sleeping. Ink Spot, despite all the noise, was asleep as well, his head lolling back... the draining had been brutal to them all. Discord, for a wonder, did nothing to disturb them, simply sitting quietly with his head hung low. To his surprise he felt a tiny hoof brush against his leg. "Mister Discord?" Nyx said weakly, looking up from her father's lap. "Why are you crying?"
"NYX!" Ink Spot grabbed the filly in a fierce hug. "Thank heaven you're awake..."
"I'm okay, Daddy, I'm okay..." She pulled away from Ink Spot's embrace a little. "But why are you crying, Mr. Discord?"
Discord felt something he hadn't expected; he didn't even know the word for it yet. He brushed a tear away. For once in his long life he felt like being completely, utterly honest. Why not after all, it was totally unexpected of him, and the unexpected was what he was all about... "Because I did some terrible things," he said. "I hurt my friends. I betrayed them, because somepony else told me a bunch of lies I wanted to believe. And even though your mother saved my life, I don't--" he took a deep breath. "I don't think she'll ever forgive me."
Nyx looked at him soberly. "I forgive you," she said.
Discord opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. "...Why?" he said finally.
"'Cause I did bad things too. Terrible things. And everypony still forgave me." Nyx rested her head on Ink Spot's shoulder while she looked at the draconequus. "I don't think I have the right not to forgive anypony. Especially anypony that wants it."
He looked down at his necklace, Tirek's necklace, that he had given to Discord as a false token of friendship. "Nyx, could you do something for me?" he said. Nyx nodded. Discord removed the necklace. "I don't know what's going to happen. I'll probably end up as a lawn ornament again for another few thousand years." He rolled his eyes. "But when this is all over, give this to your mother and tell her it's from me. A...token the friendship we all had. What little of it there was... and even though we may never have it again. I may not have shown it, or appreciated it enough... but it meant something to me." He slipped the chain over her head.
Nyx looked at the oddly shaped pendant, tilting it with her hoof. She saw a faint rainbow shimmer play across its surface. Something deep inside her spoke to her: this is very very important...
"Why aren't we using the Rainbow Cannon on him?" Bright Eyes' voice crackled over Spike's intercom.
"Too close to Ponyville," Spike rumbled. "The blastwave might reach it."
"What? Who are you talking to?" Tirek demanded from where he lay. Spike's first bull-rush had knocked him backwards halfway down the length of the gorge on his back. He regarded the armored purple leviathan in bewilderment. Normally he would be trying to plan for his own next attack, but the attack had rattled his brains a bit; the only thought he could focus on was the logo on the monstrous dragon's armored chest.... A big pink heart?
"We can't kill him either-- no telling what'll happen to everypony's magic," Spike added.
"So basically we're gonna have to beat him MOSTLY to death with our bare hooves," Bright Eyes said.
"Works for me," Spike said, smacking his fist into his palm and glaring.
"What works for you, you dimwitted lizard? Who are--- AIIIGH!" An expertly executed elbow drop is a beautiful thing. When it's executed by a roaring monster the size of a skyscraper, it becomes a thing of supernatural awe.
"So how do we even recognize the key if we see it?? Come on, there's GOT to be an answer," Twilight said, frazzled. She was distracted as a tiny, tired form leaned up against her.
"Mom?" wordlessly Nyx pulled off the necklace and passed it to her mother. She told her what Discord had said. "He said sooner or later I'd give it to you," she said. "I figured it better be sooner. It feels really, really important."
Twilight took it from her. "Thank you, sweetie," she said, giving her daughter a kiss on the top of the head. "Go look after Daddy for me, okay?" Nyx nodded and tottered wearily back over to her half-asleep father.
Twilight held the necklace up. If there was anything that could give her more mixed emotions than this... the pendant dangled from her hoof, turning slowly on the end of its chain...
Brief shimmers of rainbow ran down its surface. "No," she breathed. She dropped the necklace in the box. The rainbow shimmer spread across all the trinkets, gleaming. "Yes!" she clapped her hooves in glee.
"Well butter my plot and call me a biscuit," Applejack said. "We walked in here with the last key and didn't know it."
The exclamations of triumph were cut short. The keys were all together... but they still weren't changing. "Okay, NOW what?" Rainbow Dash griped. "Do we gotta do a song and dance now or something?"
Over the course of time, as well as getting some rough training in judo and boxing, Spike and Bright Eyes had become enormous fans of pro wrestling. They'd gotten the idea that many of the moves used in the ring would translate quite well to grappling with giant monsters, especially when said giant monsters didn't know how to land properly to lesson the damage. This current little test run was proving them quite right.
Tirek was no boxer. He either relied on his magic blasts, his magic draining power, or his sheer brute strength to overwhelm foes, he was battered and punch drunk already from his run-in with Princess Overpowered Twilight and the herd of crazy exploding ponies, and he was sorely out of practice at hand-to-hand. After taking several mountain-shattering blows to the face from Spike's gauntleted fists, and watching a full bore blast barely shove Spike backwards a step ("Magic resistant, retard! I'm a dragon!") Tirek had moved in to grapple hand-to-hand with his adversary. He'd seized the dragon's fists in his own and reared back to deliver punishing kicks to Spike's armored midsection--
Only to suddenly find himself in a full-on clinch with the snarling dragon, his forelegs pinned between them. Tirek was a bruiser; Spike, on the other hand, had brawn, magical armor, the power of an Empire and two crystal hearts backing him, several months of military hand to hand training, and the mother of all mad-ons.
Tirek felt his joints and sinews creak alarmingly as the dragon's rippling muscles strained. "I immediately regret this decision--" he grunted, eye bulging.
"Hold him there, Spike, I think I can bring something online to zap him!" Tirek looked up and to his surprise, saw a pony sitting in a turret atop the dragon's helmet. What, was this some sort of pilot, controlling the brute? Fuelling him with unicorn magic?
"No, I don't think you can," he sneered, and inhaled. His draining magic enveloped the turret. The tiny pony slumped, groaning, in his harness.
"BRIGHT EYES!" Spike roared. Tirek, in a burst of confidence, dug in his back hooves and shoved forward, pushing Spike back on his heels. He got his arm around Spike's neck, locking his head in place.
"Your little partner is all out of magic, it seems," Tirek gloated, his mouth next to Spike's ear.
The turret suddenly rotated to face him. The colt was conscious, but barely. The loudspeaker crackled. "I- I don't need my magic... to kick YOUR plot," Bright Eyes said. Side panels on the turret dropped and two multi-barreled instruments of destruction popped out and locked onto Tirek's head. Bright Eyes wrapped his hooves around the trigger.
Tirek gaped in disbelief. "GATLING GUNS?"
"Vulcan cannons, actually," Spike grunted, grinning mirthlessly in the headlock.
"Oh that is just RIDIC--"
Whatever he was about to say next was drowned out in the song of 3900 rounds per minute straight to the face.
"Okay, think think think," Twilight said, thumping her noggin with a hoof. "The box is from the Tree of Harmony. So were the Elements. The Elements of Harmony were, well, they're also the elements of Friendship. So the keys are..."
"the Keys to Friendship?" Fluttershy said.
"Yes, I do believe that's it, darling!" Rarity said, beaming. "If we can name what the key to Friendship is, the way Twilight named the Elements, then they'll take their true form and unlock the box!" Her smile faded. "But what are the keys to friendship?"
"Not keys, A key," Twilight said suddenly. "They all came to us in different ways, in different forms... so the Key is whatever they all have in common. To solve this we have to figure out... what do they all have in common?"
The six mares brooded over the box of "keys," flummoxed.
"The rainbow shimmer?"
"They all came to us by accident?"
"They were all gifts?"
"No no no," Twilight said. "Come on, Twilight think..."
My, isn't flying interesting, Tirek thought as he sailed down the length of the canyon. He slammed to earth with a thunderous boom, right where Spike had judo-tossed him. He'd barely had time to bounce before he was engulfed in a torrent of emerald flame.
"Spike, we need him in once piece!"
"CRISPY is still one piece, ain't it?"
Tirek lumbered to his feet, snorting-- and noticed something was missing. Cringing and wincing he felt his scorched self over, and stopped in horror when he came to his mysteriously bare chin. "MY BEARD!!"
High in their prison in Tartarus, Luna and Celestia found themselves mystified as a smoking haystack of gray-white fibers came drifting down from the vaulted stone ceiling. It only took a moment-- and whiff of the smoke-- for them to realize they had just been buried in half-burnt beard hair. Celestia's muffled voice came from under the pile "Okay," she said. "Chained to a peak in Tartarus was bad enough. This... is disgusting."
"Forsooth," Luna lamented, gagging. "Odd gods, the SMELL...Doth Tirek never BATHE---?"
Back at Ghastly Gorge, Tirek wasn't given a moment to mourn the lost of his beardly splendor, as the next instant he was hit by a mass of armored muscle moving at the speed of a freight train. The battling titans disappeared in a cloud of dust as the beating commenced in earnest.
"They all have a story behind them?" Pinkie said hopefully.
"That's it," Applejack said suddenly, raising her head. "I never thought about it...all the stories about how we got these.... you know what all these gimcracks have in common?" Her lips pressed in a thin line. "Betrayal."
"What?" the others exclaimed.
Applejack nodded, sighing. "Ayep," she said. She pointed to the items one by one. "Rarity got that spool because an old friend backstabbed her at a fashion show. Rainbow got that medal after the Wonderbolts tried to shaft one of their own teammates."
"Don't remind me," Dash scowled.
"--Pinkie got Boneless there when the whole darn town kicked her to the curb for that Cheese Sandwich feller. That silver bit, that was from Shill... who was workin' a scam with the Flim Flam brothers, betrayin' folks' trust. Fluttershy got that flower from the Flutterponies-- after they left their own leader hangin' just so they could stay with Flutters and keep bein' pampered." She snorted. "And Discord's necklace... well that goes without sayin'."
"Oh codswallop," Rarity said, disbelieving. "You want me to believe that the Key to Friendship and Harmony is betrayal?"
"I'm just sayin' that's the common thread, Rares," Applejack said stubbornly.
"C'MERE, YOU SONUVA TIMBERWOLF--"
"ARRGH! Oh come now this is excessive isnt--- AIAIIGH!"
"I mean we're all civilized beings here aren't---THAT DOESN'T BEND THAT WAY!!!"
"And surely in the spirit of friendship and harmony and love and tolerance we could-- HURRK"
"No, I need those!!"
"But that just can't be it," Fluttershy said, distressed.
As they quibbled, Twilight looked over her shoulder. Nyx had made her way back to the Tree; but rather than climbing back into Ink Spot's lap, she had stopped at Discord's side. As Twilight watched, the black alicorn filly gave the despondent draconequus' arm a comforting nuzzle. Discord actually smiled, faintly, and patted her on her tousled head. "No," Twilight said. "You're on the right track, Applejack, but that's not it."
The others looked to her expectantly. Twilight raised her head, a confident smile starting to spread. "Rarity got the spool after she came back to us and reconciled with us all. Fluttershy's flower was from Seabreeze, after he and his fellow breezies patched things over and worked together to get home. Shill's coin, you got that after he confessed to you-- and you gave him a chance to make things right. Pinkie, in the end you and Cheese Sandwich became friends, and he gave you boneless to remember him by. Dash, in spite of everything, Soarin' went back to the Wonderbolts when they admitted they had a few things to learn about loyalty." She picked up the necklace and looked at it, smiling oddly. "And Discord... this came from him because I could have let Tirek keep him... and he knew it." She dropped the medallion in the box.
"That's the key to friendship. The key to Harmony." She took a deep breath. "Forgiveness."
The cardboard box blazed with rainbow colors; startled, Twilight tipped it over. Six shining silver keys fell out. Pinkie lunged for the keys like a frizzy-maned cruise missile. "Finally! I can't stand the suspense anymore!" she shrieked, grabbing a key. "WHERE'S THAT DARN CRYSTAL BOX??"
They ascended on a wave of rainbow magic, soaring through the sky to the site of the raging battle. "Well, it looks like we arrived just in time ---! Holy bucking hay..." Twilight's triumphant entrance speech broke off in mid sentence at the sight that met her eyes.
"Ayeah, just in time to pick up Tirek with a scooper," Applejack said, eyes round.
The would-be tyrant of Equestria was almost unrecognizable. He was scorched all over, his beard was gone, his one good eye was almost swollen shut, and he seemed to be missing most of his teeth. There were claw marks, bite marks, contusions, abrasions....One or two of his limbs stuck out at disturbing angles, and both of his horns had been broken off. That was the most that the girls could make out at the moment, as Spike was still in the process of bludgeoning 9/10ths of the life out of him. The purple dragon was astride the flattened centaur's back, slamming his head face first into the rocky ground by the stubs of his horns.
"And this is for Bright Eyes!"
"And this one's for Twilight!"
"And this one's for Ink Spot and Nyx!"
"And this one's for RARITY!"
"And so's THIS one!"
"Good Night!" Twilight said. "We'd better stop him before he does something he regrets--- Rarity, stop gnawing on your hoof like that, it's unsettling!"
"But just LOOK at him, Twilight--" Rarity said, her face flushed.
"Oh all right, I'll be good, I'll be good!"
They landed on a rock outcropping close to where Spike was methodically flattening Tirek's head. "SPIKE, LET HIM GO, YOU'VE WON!" Twilight bellowed in the Royal Voice.
Spike paused, chest heaving. "Twilight?" He crawled forward on his knees and gently encircled the little group with his massive arms. "Oh, guys, I was so worried about you..." The girls ran up and nuzzled the Crystal Champion's chin, smiles on their faces.
Tirek took advantage of the momentary pause. "Princess Twilight, oh thank the Maker! I surrender, I surrender! I yield, I concede, I throw myself on the mercy of the rulers of Equestria!!" his hysterical surrender came out slurred through his broken teeth.
"Durn tootin' ya do," Applejack said smugly.
"Go on, Spike-- go cool down," Twilight called out. "We have things under control." Spike hesitated, then nodded and got to his feet. He walked off down the Gorge to find a place to rest. Twilight turned her attention back to Tirek. "Here are the terms, Tirek," she said. "There ARE no terms. We're going to depower you. Then we're going to haul you BACK to Tartarus where you will stay for what looks to be a long, long time."
"Agreed," Tirek whimpered from his prone position. "Please... just one thing...." He looked over his shoulder. "Before you shrink me back down.... could you please, please remove my horns from where he put them?"
The magic he had absorbed was released. He was manacled... rather heavily bandaged... and marched (or perhaps the better term would be LIMPED) back to Ponyville by the Mane Six, Ink Spot, Nyx, Discord, Bright Eyes and Spike, who was retaining a six-foot musclebound form just in case Tirek tried one last trick. The ponies gathered in the streets regarded him narrowly as he limped along in chains, with scorn and contempt plain on their faces. They started showing signs of pity, though, when the Cutie Mark Crusaders showed up.
One minute Tirek was tottering along, seething at his captors and carefully going over his next nefarious plan in his head, the next he'd been hit by a yellow, orange, and white thunderbolt and was lying in the street. Scootaloo, Applebloom and Sweetiebelle were swarming all over him like parasprites on a pumpkin pie, yelling, screeching, kicking and biting.
"GIVE US OUR CUTIE MARKS BACK!!"
"AIEE, GET EM OFF, GET EM OFF!!!" Tirek howled, batting ineffectively at the foals.
The adults obliged, and stood there clutching a struggling, fuming-- and once again blank-flanked-- trio of fillies. Nyx's jaw dropped. "Your cutie marks aren't back??" she said.
"Neither is yours," Scootaloo fumed, pointing. Nyx' eyes went wide. She nearly folded herself double twisting around to look at her flank. True enough, Nyx's mark was still missing.
"That doesn't make any sense," Twilight said, shooting a glance at her own restored mark. "It should have come back when we reverted him and released the magic back into--"
"He's a-holdin' out on us!" Applebloom yelled. "He musta found some way to keep some of the magic back. Half the foals in town lost their cutie marks and never got 'em back!" She lunged at Tirek, swinging her hooves wildly. Applejack barely held her back. "DO YOU KNOW WHAT WE WENT THROUGH TO GET THOSE CUTIE MARKS??"
The adults rounded on Tirek. The centaur said nothing, but the gleam in his one good eye spoke volumes. "All right, spit it out," Applejack said. "Cough up them cutie marks."
"What makes you think I would-- or can?" Tirek said. Inwardly he gloated. The tiny bit of magic, hidden inside a crystal in a hollowed out leg bone, would scarcely light a lantern-- but properly applied it would be more than enough to let him escape again at his leisure. And this time, he thought with an inward shudder, he would be far more careful about revealing himself. The next time they would never see him coming---
"'Cause if you don't, we'll throw you in a locked room with them," Rainbow Dash said with a smirk.
"A roomful of fillies..." Tirek snorted. Then he turned to look at the fillies in question and gave a tiny shriek. In the moment he'd looked away, they'd procured weapons and were looking at him with bloodlust in their eyes. Scootaloo was idly swinging an aluminum baseball bat. Sweetiebelle had a board with nails through it, and Applebloom.... "Is that a chainsaw???"
"Sweetie, darling, that's a little excessive of you three isn't it?" Rarity said, perturbed.
"But Rarity," Sweetie said, her voice agonized, "If he doesn't give us back our cutie marks, we'll have to start Crusading for our marks... ALL OVER AGAIN!"
Rarity's eyes glazed as the past few years flashed in front of them. Roofs repaired, fires extinguished, pine sap slowly, painfully peeled off...."Well now," she said faintly, "perhaps that does put it in a more understandable light---"
Brattish laughter burst out of the crowd. "What??" Diamond Tiara said. "You lost your Cutie Mark again?"
The CMC glared at her. "What are you, direct from Central Casting?" Scootaloo exploded.
"How'd YOU not lose YOURS?" Sweetie demanded to know.
Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon sniffed and preened. "We stayed in Daddy's Discord-proof shelter till it was all over, like sensible ponies," Diamond Tiara sniffed. She gave Applebloom an evil smirk. "So what are you gonna do this time, Appleboo-boo? Give yourself another case of Cutie Pox, or just get some Lee Press-On Cutiemarks instead?"
Eyes wild, Applebloom began yanking on the pull-cord of the chainsaw like a mare possessed. "Applebloom, you can't use a chainsaw on Tirek," Twilight said.
"Who said anything about him?" Applebloom hissed.
"I think it's outta gas," Spike said suddenly. He grabbed Tirek's leash and snapped off a four-foot length. "Here," he said, handing Applebloom the length of iron chain and patting her on the head. "Just whale on him with this."
"Spike--" Twilight said.
"Ah, here we go!" The local blacksmith had a tin-sided toolshed standing next to his shop. Spike popped the door open. "Okay, fillies first, but anypony else with some issues to work out, form a double line. Mister Ironshod has plenty of pokers, shovels, and other tools for everyone in that barrel over there--" there was a frighteningly bloodthirsty cheer from the crowd. "In you go, Tirek!" He picked up the centaur by his tail and the scruff of his neck and prepared to throw him into the darkened shed.
"Waaait!" Tirek braced his hands and his hooves against the doorframe. "Discord, as a fellow nigh-cosmic being I beg you-- don't let them do this!!"
Discord floated nearby, chin in his hand, smirking. "Oh what was that, Twerky, ol' buddy ol' pal ol' friend? I didn't quite catch that." He pulled a money purse out of thin air. "Okay, I've got twenty bits says the little singing marshmallow is the first to remove a limb..."
"I got ten on the little pegasus!" Somepony shouted. Money began exchanging hands.
"Well, come on, Spike, let's get this show started!" Discord said.
"Sure thing!" Spike tried to throw Tirek into the shed again.
This time Tirek braced himself in the doorway upside down. "All right, all right, I give, I give!" He released the last bit of magic. The CMC sighed in relief as their cutie marks reappeared on their flanks.
"What a relief!" Sweetiebelle said, patting her hip affectionately.
Scootaloo spun in a circle, eyes fixed on her flank. "Oh heck yeah," she said. "I'm never letting my butt out of my sight ever again!"
"That should look interesting," Applebloom said, grinning as she happily regarded her own restored mark.
There was a whistle from the train station. "Well well, looks like the prison train is here, Tirek," Spike said, letting the shrunken centaur fall to the dust. "From here it's a one-way non-stop ride back to your cozy little prison in Tartarus. Just think... you get a car all to yourself! Here you go, fellas." With that he handed the end of Tirek's chain off to a group of stern-faced royal guards. There were some groans of disappointment from the mob as the very relieved centaur was dragged away.
"Spike, that was NOT very harmonious," Twilight hissed at him as Tirek was marched away.
"No, but it sure was funny," Spike smirked.
They all stood gathered around the remains of the Golden Oaks library. There was little to nothing left; in his rage at being stabbed in the eye, Tirek had blasted the ancient library and then trampled whatever hadn't been incinerated. They picked through the rubble to find what was left. But beyond a few small trinkets and items, there wasn't much left to celebrate. Even the basement had been ruined when Tirek's hoof had smashed down through the floors.
Roller Reel was there, helping clean up the mess, as were the Quartet, Lightning Blitz and Sundiver, and the few workponies who had been hired. "And they were almost done with the renovations too," Twilight sighed. "At least the shipment of new books and filmstrips haven't arrived yet."
Roller Reel gave her a sidelong glance from under his shaggy bangs. "Uh, not to be insensitive or nothing, but... am I out of a job?" He'd only recently taken the new position as the library's movie media custodian-slash-janitor, and he was a little uncertain of his future.
"No, Roller," Twilight said. "They'll be rebuilding the library soon enough. You're still on my payroll regardless, anyway." Roller Reel brightened a bit at that and went back to salvaging the few books and movies he could.
"Things just ain't gonna be the same without it," Rainbow Dash said sadly.
Twilight stood in the center of the ruin and brushed a tear away with her wingtip. "I know," she said. "All those memories..."
Ink Spot put his wing over her shoulders. "We still have those," he said, nuzzling her. "Right here in our hearts. And all the ponies-- and dragons and phoenixes and owls-- that we love are safe and sound. As long as we have that, anything else we lost can be fixed."
Twilight gave him a watery smile and buried her face in his neck. Then she felt something trembling in the ground underhoof.
Spike had finally shrunk back to normal, and now he and Nyx were sifting through the remains with everypony else. Nyx, to her glee, had found Smarty Pants under the shattered remains of her bed. Spike was looking for his treasured comic book collection, but held out little hope for it. He was just happy Peewee was safe; the phoenix chick was perched on his shoulder, nuzzling his neck, obviously relieved that all the noise and destruction was over. Spike noticed Nyx using her magic to pick something out of the broken branches and leaves of the downed tree. "What's that?" he asked.
Nyx showed him. "Acorns," she said, holding out a little bag. "I'm gonna plant them someplace. That way Golden Oaks is never really gone..."
Spike gave her a smile of understanding. "Yeah. I like that." He noticed a commotion. "What's up over there? Come on." He and Nyx trotted over to see what was causing the ruckus.
Twilight and the rest of the Bearers were gathered in a circle at the center of the ruins, They were staring at an enormous blue flower growing from the center of the floor. Cradled in the petals was the crystal box that had caused so much mystification for so long. "What is this?" Spike said.
"I don't know, it just... burst out of the ground while we were standing here," Twilight said. Suddenly the box began to glow. The floor began to shake. Alarmed, Twilight and Ink Spot grabbed up Nyx and Spike in their magic and backed away. "Uh, everypony?" Twilight called out. "--- Run!"
Ponies ran in every direction as the light swelled and grew. It grew brighter and brighter; the earth shook as something enormous began pushing its way up through the soil. After a brief eternity the rumbling finally stopped. Everypony crept back out of hiding and stared in amazement at what they saw. The ruins of the tree were gone; what stood in their place beggared imagination. It was enormous, towering, a gleaming edifice of shining faceted crystal.
They stood in a crowd at the base, staring upward. "It wasn't just a box," Twilight realized. "It was a seed."
"It's... a palace," Pinkie said. "A whole palace popped right out of the ground!" She looked over at the Castle of the Moon in the distance. "Wow, Deja Vu Two!"
"It's enormous," Ink Spot said.
"Dazzling," Lightning Blitz agreed.
"....Ugly," Roller Reel said.
There was no disagreement from anypony. He was right. The castle was ghastly, so gaudy as to be obscene. It was made entirely of crystal, in eye-hurting shades of pink, lavender and yellow. The base started out shaped like an enormous, leafless tree, which then branched out hundreds of feet overhead into an enormous lopsided mansion. At the highest pinnacle was a giant crystal star--- Twilight cringed in mortified embarrassment-- in the exact shape of Twilight Sparkle's cutie mark. It looked like someone had grown a giant Tree of Harmony, killed it, and then stuck a filly's jewelry box in the broken-off branches. And then assaulted the entire thing with an industrial-strength Bedazzler wielded by a color blind locoweed addict.
"That thing is gonna be an airspace hazard whenever the sun's out," was Rainbow's verdict.
Twilight groaned and facehoofed. The bloom of the Harmony Seed, inexplicably, was now in front of the huge double doors at the base. It glittered at them silently, as if to say well what else did you expect? I'm a crystal seed from a magic tree, not an architect!
Nyx clip clopped up to the flower at the front door, looking upward. Her nose was twitching the way it did when she got a hunch. "It looks like... like it was trying to be a tree," she said. "Maybe it's just not done yet..." She reached into her saddlebag and pulled out her bag of acorns. "Maybe it just needs a little help." She emptied the bag on the ground.
As they watched the Seed began to glow... and so did the acorns falling from the bag, shining with springtime green. They hit the ground and began rolling. Glowing and sparking with magic, they spread out and circled the base of the palace, ringing it with tiny green glowing lights. Once they encircled it they burrowed into the ground, burying themselves.
They all held their breaths and waited. And waited some more. Finally Twilight got the hint. She stepped forward, planting a hoof on one of the buried seeds. She took a deep breath and let it out. She was still new, painfully new, at Earth Pony magic. But that was okay; the Seed knew what to do; it just needed a push... slowly her hoof began glowing as she poured Earth Pony magic into the ground.
Ink Spot stepped up next to her and planted a hoof over the next seed, smiling at her as he began adding his own magic to the mix. Then Nyx on her other side, one tiny hoof glowing and her smile beaming up at her. All around the base of the castle, seedlings began to sprout.
Applejack set her hat. "Well come on y'all, is this an Earth Pony town or not? Let's chip in on this barn raisin'!" She joined Twilight's family and planted a hoof, a grinning Applebloom right behind her. The rest of the Mane Six followed. Then Roller Reel, and the Quartet, Sundiver and Lightning Blitz... The unicorns and pegasi hesitated-- wasn't this an Earth Pony thing? Could they even help?-- but the magic flowed for them just the same. Soon all of Ponyville stood shoulder to shoulder around the base of the castle, hooves and eyes glowing like stars.
Seedlings became saplings. Roots burrowed deep. Branches intertwined, boughs merged, crept up the crystal walls, covering cold crystal with green and living wood. High above the lifeless branches were sheathed in twining growth, that branched and budded and exploded into riot of green.
Everypony let out a whoosh of air and sat down. A cheer went up for what they had accomplished; where once the ruins of Ponyville's library had been, stood a vast oak tree the likes of which Equestria had never seen-- towering like a skyscraper, branches spread out over the sky and a canopy so vast the entire populace could picnic in the shade, with a fairy castle right out of a dream nestled in its boughs.
"Much better," Spike said, satisfied.
"And that's how Equestria was made," Pinkie finished.
"Um? Beg pardon?" Celestia looked over her lemonade at the party pony and cocked a confused eyebrow.
"Never mind," Twilight said, waving a hoof. "It would... take too long to explain. And you wouldn't understand the explanation anyway..."
"Methinks not," Luna murmured.
The Bearers and the Princesses were gathered at the Castle of the Moon, enjoying Luna's hospitality for once. (Even Celestia was feeling heartily sick of Canterlot, it's pompous stuffiness, and it's too-little-too-late nobility who were busy panicking about Tirek a week after the fact. "Let's not go there," she'd said when they spoke about arranging this get together. "It is a rather silly place...")
It wasn't anything official, though as for that their "official" duties had seen a decided decline after Twilight's little alicornundrum. (ahem.) It was just a quiet gathering of friends to relax, unwind, and maybe recuperate a little from the mayhem and aftermath of Tirek's rampage.
"Things, at least, have certainly worked out for the best," Celestia noted. "Tirek was recaptured and defeated. And he's not likely to give anypony any trouble for at least three thousand years."
"What's in three thousand years?" Applejack asked.
"His first parole hearing," Luna interjected, reaching for a refill of her lemonade. "Though we may have trouble getting him out for it. He has apparently barricaded his cell from the inside." (She decided to leave out the part where he was spending most of his time lying on the floor in his cell, sucking his thumb and sobbing, and that his jailors could hear him singing "po-nies are e-vil, po-nies are e-vil...") She frowned briefly. "He is a betrayer, born and made... and even now after his brutal defeat, only seeks either to avenge himself or hide from the truth." She shook her head sorrowfully. "A terrible fate for an immortal; to never be able to forgive, nor to bring oneself to seek forgiveness.
"In other matters; the Rapid Response Temporary Transit system has been tested and works flawlessly... you'll be happy to hear that both Heavy Platoon and the S&S team were whisked back to their base hospital as planned. They had few serious injuries and are all recuperating nicely." Spike and Bright Eyes sighed with relief. "There's now a new palace for Twilight and her family in Ponyville... goodness, we're getting a bit top-heavy in castles around here aren't we.... the magic of Equestria is restored, the gates of Tartarus have been reinforced and re-secured, and all is back to normal."
"Not to mention that Ghastly Gorge finally got cleared of Quarray Eels," Rainbow Dash said.
"And re-excavated to twice its original size," Rarity noted.
"And for once Ponyville didn't need to be rebuilt," Twilight added dryly, to chuckles all around.
"And... what about Mr. Discord?" Nyx asked earnestly.
Celestia's expression fell a little. But only a little. "He won't be re-imprisoned," she assured the filly, who let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding. "Time has led me to believe it would be excessively cruel in his situation. He is at heart a mischief maker, not malicious. Besides which, it doesn't seem that incarceration has quite the reforming effect with him we wanted." Her smile was wry. "But he will have to pay a price. It is the decision of the House of Lords and Commons... at my urging... that he be placed on house arrest."
"Grounded," Twilight translated.
"He will remain in the palace hereafter, not to leave his quarters or laboratory without escort or permission. And he will wear at all times manacles that restrain his power to the bare minimum, save when under direct supervision by myself, Luna, or Twilight." She sighed. "It seems we are now his parole officers, for lack of a better word."
"Animal trainers," Luna said with pursed lips over her glass.
"Luna...!" the Night Princess gave her sister an innocent 'who me?' look. Celestia rolled her eyes. "I suppose the lesson is, even if someone is forgiven, there are still consequences, Nyx," Celestia said. "A broken window is still broken, and someone must sweep up the glass." Nyx bit her lip and nodded, understanding. It wasn't anything she wasn't familiar with herself, after all.
"Can I still visit him?" Pinkie asked quietly.
Celestia smiled warmly. "I think that would do wonders for him, so yes," she said. "He's struggled to learn that laughter doesn't have to be cruel; he will take some time more to learn that power doesn't justify everything. But with a forgiving friend at his side, his learning will come easier." Pinkie beamed.
"And, methinks, we have all learned a less than subtle lesson," Luna added. "That while Laughter, Kindness, Honesty, Generosity, Loyalty, and Friendship are the Elements of Harmony, the key that binds and opens them all, the key that we must always seek, is this: Forgiveness."
Twilight smiled wryly and picked up a sugar cookie. "A good lesson," she admitted. "But maybe next time could we learn our lesson without flattening my house?"