Starswirl’s temple was a simple one-story building, carved into the cave walls. A few halogen lamps lit up the cave. Past the temple were several cave entrances.
Spring Step said, “Stick with me, Ekon. I want to find your brother before we go any further. Pinks? Stay close to the others. If anything goes wrong, get them out of the cave first.”
Pinksworth nodded her massive head. “Will do! Hey, I just heard some hoofsteps from the temple. Maybe you should say hello, Ekon.”
Swallowing down his nervousness, he took a deep breath. “Azi!” he shouted, “ It’s Ekon! I know you’re in here! Don’t worry about these people, they’re friends of mine. I just want to talk to you.”
A zebra peeked around the temple’s doorway, his left eye blinking. “What happened to Path Finder and Sure Shot?” he asked.
Ekon replied, “Sure Shot’s dead, Azi. I don’t know where Path Finder is.“
Azi stepped away from the doorway. His right eye was covered by a black eye-patch. “I paid them a ton of money to get you back here, one way or another, but I never figured you’d grow a spine and face me yourself.”
“Azi, I tried to find people who could help get everyone out of the cave-in, but the world was too screwed up for anyone to help me.”
His brother snorted in disgust. “That’s your excuse? It took me three weeks to dig my way out of here. That’s three weeks of watching our parents rot. Three weeks of digging at tons of boulders, with only one working eye, no less. A piece of falling debris smashed into my eye, Ekon. Every day, it hurts.”
Ekon’s bottom lip trembled at the sight of his wounded brother. “Azi, I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
Pinksworth turned towards the cave entrance. “Uh, guys?”
Ekon waved her off. “Just a minute, Pinks. Listen, my friends and I aren’t just here so I can see you again . . . “
“There’s a lot of movement outside, Springy!”
Spring Step pulled her sniper rifle off of her shoulders and cocked a round into the chamber. “Who is it?”
A familiar angry roar filled the cave as the manticore ran towards Pinksworth. Three armed bandit ponies rushed in behind the beast.
Path Finder hopped off the manticore’s back as Pinksworth was gripped by the beast’s large paws. Landing on all four hooves, his large backpack, which was heavy with bandit weapons, almost made him fall over. The backpack’s straps pulled against the bandages around his chest, making him hiss with pain. He stared at Ekon in disbelief for a moment before he spotted Spring Step.
She raised the rifle towards him, the cross hairs gliding near his face.
One of the bandits fired his gun at her. A bullet smashed into the rifle, knocking it out of her hooves.
The manticore slammed Pinksworth into the ground, which made her yelp in surprise. The beast then bit down on one of her eye-stalks and began to pull.
“No! Bad manticore! No treats for you!” cried Pinksworth as she slammed her boxing glove into her attacker’s gut.
Roaring in agony, the creature pulled away from her, yanking her eye off. Spitting the camera-eye out, the manticore began to circle around Pinksworth.
“Ooh, you are a naughty critter!” Pinksworth scolded. “I’m going to swat your nose for that!”
When the beast charged at her, she fired her cannon into its face. When the elastic confetti stuck fast into its eyes, it scrambled to a halt. Clawing desperately at the sticky webbing only made the large paws get tangled and stuck to the manticore’s head.
“Ka-bam!” she yelled, slamming her glove into the animal’s forehead.
With a whimper, the manticore landed unconscious with a large thud.
Spike and Moondancer hid behind a nearby boulder, but a bandit spotted them.
Spring Step dodged the next shot from the bandit and whipped out her spare gun. A lucky hit hit the bandit in the chest, but Path Finder closed the distance faster than she figured he would.
Both Ekon and Azi backed away as Path Finder bit down on her left front foreleg and yanked her sideways. As she staggered, he let go and swung at her head.
She ducked under his hoof and turned her gun towards him.
Azi screamed “Everypony stop! Right now!”
Path Finder flinched with surprise and stopped. Staring wide-eyed, he exclaimed, “Azi, these people . . .”
“Who told you to attack these ponies? Your men almost shot my brother! Tell your crew to stand down!”
Pointing frantically at Spring Step and Pinksworth, he pleaded, “B-but, sir!”
Stamping a hoof impatiently, he glared at Path Finder. “Do you like getting paid? Then put down your guns this instant!”
Spring Step kept her gun aimed at him while she backed away next to Ekon. “Pinks?” she said. “Keep Spike and Moondancer right next to you over there.”
Waving her glove, she replied, “Will do! I’ll keep my one eye on them!”
Path Finder’s bandit crew put away their weapons and gathered next to him. One of the ponies whispered, “What’s going on? I thought we were supposed to kill these oddballs protecting Ekon.”
He whispered, “Just wait. Let’s see how this plays out.”
Ekon took a calming breath. “As I was saying, I and my friends are here for two reasons. One, I want to make things right between us.”
Azi sat on his haunches and crossed his front legs. “Yeah, it only took you five years to grow a pair.”
“It’s hard to be brave against armed bounty killers, Azi.” Ekon pointed at his shoulder wound. “See this? One of your men shot me a few days ago. How brave can I be against a five year grudge?”
Azi said, “For the first three years after I got out of the cave, I really wanted you dead. When I found a hidden stash of gold bars in the temple, I hired Path Finder and Sure Shot to hunt you down and kill you.” His eyes glimmered with a faraway look. “For three years all I could think about was them dragging your dead ass back here. I thought your death would be even payment for mom and dad dying. I even prayed that they would make you die slowly.”
Spring Step scratched her head, bewildered. “For what? Running away from a cave-in? You heard Ekon swear that he tried to find help, right? There’s more to this story than your brother realizes, isn’t there?”
Smiling humorlessly, Azi replied, “Hmm, you’re pretty clever. At least Ekon found a good friend. You’re right, there’s a lot more to tell.”
“I don’t understand, Azi,” Ekon lamented. “What did I do that made you want to kill me?”
Azi stared at him in disbelief. “What, you seriously don’t remember what you did?” He got up and walked slowly towards Ekon. “When the cave-in started, we all ran towards the cave entrance. Our parents were right behind me as you raced towards us. Remember?”
“Uh . . . y-yeah.” Ekon struggled to focus on a memory that was blurry at best.
Azi was only a few hoofsteps away when a steely edge crept into his voice. “Do you recall exactly and precisely what you did next?”
Ekon could only shake his head.
“You knocked me over! You were so fucking anxious to get out of the cave, you pushed me down to get to the entrance first! Mom and dad tripped over me when you did that! By the time we all got back up, the only way out was blocked!”
“Azi, I . . .”
Azi mashed his muzzle against Ekon’s, tears streaming down his cheeks. “And then a boulder snapped loose from the ceiling and killed our parents! That wouldn’t have happened if you helped us all escape instead of thinking of just yourself! You stupid, thoughtless fucker!”
Spring Step intervened, saying, “Now hold on, Azi. You were all in a panic trying to get out. There’s no way Ekon deliberately knocked you over.”
Ekon wept as he put his front hooves on Azi’s shoulders. “Azi, I’m sorry! You’ve always looked up to me ever since you were a kid. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help you, but how is killing me supposed to help anyone?”
“Because pain was the only thing in my life from then on.” Azi lifted his eye patch, revealing a milky, pulped eye. The eye lid was purple-tinted scar tissue. “I had the pain of losing my entire family. I wanted you to suffer as I had suffered.”
Azi gestured towards the caves past the temple. “For the first three years since you left, I prayed for your death, with only my research of this dig site to pass the time. My bounty hunters kept me up to date on how badly Equestria has turned out to be. I began to think, ‘What is the point of holding onto this vendetta when the whole world has suffered worse than I have?’”
Wiping away tears from his muzzle, he continued. “That’s why in the last two years, I told Path Finder and his partner to not kill you, but instead bring you back alive.”
“You forgave me,” guessed Ekon.
“Yes,” said Azi as he hugged his brother. “You taught me the value of patience. But I had to teach myself the value of mercy. It took far too long for me to be brave enough to let go of the past.”
“I’m no longer your target,” Ekon said as he recalled what his mother advised in his dream. “I just wish I was brave enough to come back here a lot sooner.”
Their ears pricked up at the sound of Path Finder’s gun cocking. They turned to see him pointing his gun at Azi. “Bravery. Mercy.” He spit out the words as if they were moldy food. “You two have no idea how weak you are.”
Spring Step took a step towards the bounty hunter, but one of the other ponies aimed his revolver at her head. She scowled, angry at herself for getting so distracted by the zebras.
Azi fumed as he cried, “Path Finder, put that piece away! I got my brother back, so your job is over. I’ll pay you the amount we agreed on.”
Shaking his head, he growled, “I thought you wanted him alive so you could kill him yourself! If I had known you were wimpy enough to forgive him, I would have blown him away out of sheer spite!”
Ekon could only stare into Path Finder’s furious pin-pupil eyes. “Oh, good grief, you’re crazier than I thought. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since you killed your own partner.”
Whirling towards Ekon, Aki yelped, “What?!”
Spring Step nodded. “That’s right, Azi. He stabbed Sure Shot in the back with that manticore’s stinger.”
“How could you do that to your friend?” demanded Azi.
“Because that’s the only thing this rotten world allows!” His voice began to crack as his gun drifted between the brothers. “It demands that you kill your friends when they become too weak to rely on!”
Azi stared down the barrel as the gun pointed towards his face. “You’re both too weak to live. I owe Ekon a bullet to the head for shooting me with a flare gun, anyway.”
Path Finder’s ears swiveled towards a whooshing sound behind him. Turning around, he spotted a glint of metal just as Pinksworth’s severed eye bashed into his head. Screaming in blinding agony, he hit the rocky floor with a muffled crunch.
“Booyah!” shouted Pinksworth with a triumphant whoop. “I knew I could hit you from here!”
Pulling himself up, spitting out blood and tooth fragments, he yelled, “Kill them all!”
One bandit turned away from the zebras and ran towards Pinksworth, taking aim with a hunting rifle.
Spring Step leapt onto the bandit closest to her, knocking him off his hooves. “Run, you guys!” She yelled, struggling to keep his revolver away from the zebras. “Get your asses out of here!”
Azi nudged Ekon as he ran from the fight. “Come on, Ekon!”
Path Finder growled as he spotted the zebras escaping into the temple. Forcing himself to ignore the pain of his broken teeth, Path Finder reached into his backpack and pulled out a six round grenade launcher.
“I have had enough of you, whatever you are,” he seethed as he aimed at Pinksworth. He fired a round at her.
Pinksworth shot her party cannon at the flying grenade, smothering it in the elastic webbing. The explosion was just muffled enough to only startle the bandit galloping closer to Spike.
She shouted, “Guys? Stay behind me,” as she aimed her cannon at the bandit.
Path Finder fired again.
A fireball blossomed from her cannon, making her cry out in surprise. A moment later the cannon popped loose from her fragmented, smoldering arm and hit the floor with a heavy thud.
Spike’s eyes widened at this sight. Balling up his fists, he stepped out behind Pinkworth. “That’s it,” he fumed. “I’ve had it up to here with this crap!”
The bandit was sidetracked by the sight of Pinksworth’s damage just enough to not notice the flames streaming from Spike’s mouth. A second later he was bathed in dragon fire.
When the bandit took a breath to scream, his lungs filled up with the searing flames. He could only wheeze due to his vocal cords snapping from the heat. The overwhelming pain made him drop and writhe a few moments before he finally died.
Pinksworth stared at Spike’s handiwork for a moment. “Yikes! And the eggheads wanted to give ME a flamethrower?”
An explosion knocked Pinksworth sideways. Her severed boxing glove flew past Spike and Moondancer.
Pinksworth waved her claw at the manticore as she flew away from Spike. “You guys hide behind that thing! Be right back!”
Path Finder’s hooves shook as he fired at her, shearing pink metal away from the left side of her head. Smoke boiled from the hole.
“You have serious anger issues, mister! I think you’ve been in the wastelands too long!” She was almost on top of him.
Ekon’s hooves slid as he stopped in mid-gallop. He turned towards the explosions that rang out from the temple doorway .
Azi yelled, “Don’t stop now! Are you crazy?”
“I’ve been running away for five years, little brother. Now that I’ve found you, I can’t lose my friends.”
“But you’re not a soldier!”
“No, I’ve been a self-hating coward. But I’m sick of living my life as if it were a form of punishment.”
Azi tilted his head. “What? What you talking about?”
Ekon pointed towards the cave. “These ponies risked their lives to save me, Azi.” He broke into a gallop. “I have to return the favor.”
Spring Step struggled with the bandit. Digging her rear legs into the rocks, she opened her mouth wide and bit down hard on the bandit’s muzzle. While he struggled to pull away from her bloodstained teeth, she lifted her right foreleg and slammed it down onto his gun-holding hoof. With an audible snap of his radius, he screeched and dropped the gun.
The bandit yanked his head loose and thrashed frantically to get out from under her. He managed to kick Spring Step in the gut. When she squeezed her eyes shut from the lucky hit, he swung his uninjured leg into her chest.
Reeling from the unexpected blow, she backed away, sitting up on her haunches.
He grabbed his gun and swung it towards the pegasus.
Shaking away her pain, she saw the glint of the gun barrel as the gun took aim at her head. In the space of a heartbeat, she felt like she was looking down the mouth of a train tunnel.
Then a blur of black and white fur smashed into the bandit. The gun went off, but the bullet zipped past her ear and ricocheted off a nearby cave wall.
Landing on his back, the startled bandit saw a furious zebra lift up his hooves. The last thing he ever felt were those hooves frantically pounding skull splinters into his brain.
Pinkworth slammed into Path Finder, his legs spread across her face. Firing her jet exhaust at maximum thrust, she crashed into the temple.
Path Finder bounced off the wall and fell to the floor. He hadn’t let go of his grenade launcher, however. Even with two ribs broken, he struggled to take aim at Pinksworth.
“Yeesh, you’re like a roach!” she exclaimed. She grabbed the barrel of his weapon with her claw and tried to yank it away. Unfortunately, pulling the weapon forced him to pull the trigger.
A fireball blossomed from her jet engine as she crashed into the stone floor with a loud clang. Path Finder’s ears were ringing, but he still heard a hiss coming from the top of the head. Ignoring his screaming rib cage, he stood up and peeked inside the smoking cockpit.
“Uh-oh,” trembled Pinkie Pie as Path Finder grinned evilly at the helpless, coughing filly.
He reached inside, but flinched when a shot was fired. His legs suddenly went numb and he slipped out of Pinkie’s view.
Blood trickled from the small hole that he found in his lower back. A moment later, he saw the ragged, gory maw in his gut. He looked over at Ekon, who held the bandit’s revolver at him with bloodied hooves.
His head began to tilt from one side to the other as he slumped to the floor like a wet rag. Grinning mirthlessly, he said, “Well, well, look at you. Big, bad, zebra brother saving his marefriend. Your parents would be proud. It gets easier after this, you know.”
“What are you talking about?” demanded Ekon.
“The first kill was easy. I see what you’ve done to that bandit. I’ll bet I was even easier to kill. Soon, you won’t even think twice about blowing ponies away. You’re finally going to be strong enough for this world.” He snickered. “ Just like me.”
Taking a step closer, Ekon kept his aim steady. “No. I could never be like you.”
Path Finder’s eyes dilated as he became limp. “That blood on your hooves will never wash off, Ekon. You’ll see.” He closed his eyes. “Only the . . . s-strong . . . survive.” His head slumped forward.
Spring Step cautiously approached Path Finder. Carefully lifting one eyelid, she nodded to Ekon. “He’s gone. It’s about fucking time, too.”
Pinkie peeked outside her cockpit. “Uh, Ekon?” she said. “You can put down the gun. We won.”
Ekon placed the gun on the steps of the temple. Feeling lightheaded, he sat down and stared at his front hooves.
His bloody hooves. That smashed in a pony’s skull as if it were a clay pot. That began to tremble as a low moan rose in Ekon’s throat.
Spring Step turned to see Ekon hugging himself, moaning and rocking back and forth. She trotted over to him, but was beaten by Azi as he dashed past her to hug him.
Popping open her bat-wings, she engulfed the brothers in her embrace.
“It’s okay, Ekon,” whispered Azi. “It’s all over now.”
“There’s blood on me, Azi.”
“I’ve just killed two ponies. Without thinking. Without even trying.”
Spring Step consoled, “You did it to save me and Pinkie Pie. Thank you, Ekon.”
“I feel sick,” moaned Ekon. He blinked and stared at Spring Step with rising fear. “What if Path Finder’s right? What if I start acting like him?”
He shivered, tears dripping off his muzzle as he looked at Path Finder’s corpse. “What if . . .”
Azi gently planted a hoof over Ekon’s lips. “Shh! Hey, listen to me, big brother. For a while there, I was as bloodthirsty as that nut was. But I eventually came to my senses. I know what Crazy Town looks like, believe me. If I see you travelling there, I’ll let you know.”
Spring Step rubbed Ekon’s back. “So will I.”
Spike sat down next to the trio and added, “Same here.”
Moondancer said, “Count me in.”
Pinkie tsked in mock annoyance. “Ahem! Don’t forget about me, Ekon. You have more friends than you know.”
Ekon looked at his brother and smiled. “Oh, I think I have a pretty accurate head count.”
* * *
After Pinkie was pulled from her wrecked suit, she was strapped to Spike’s back. “Hey, guys?” asked Pinkie, “Let’s all go into the temple and away from this mess, okay?”
Azi waved them in as he turned on the temple’s lamps. The room’s large round table and three chairs were carved from the cave rocks. The walls were smothered in ornate scribblings of ancient languages. A faded black cave painting of Celestia, Luna and Starswirl the Bearded covered one entire wall. Smiling at the fascinated stares of the newcomers, Azi guessed, “I take it you guys are here for more than just my family reunion.”
Spike replied, “That’s right, Azi. I and Moondancer are from the Canterlot Intelligence Agency. Your father sent us reports about the artifacts he discovered here. We think that the secret to bringing back the Princesses and Equestria’s magic is hidden somewhere around here.”
“They need me to navigate them through all this mountain’s caves,” said Ekon.
Moondancer examined the huge painting. “One question that’s been rattling around my brain is why this temple is so remote. If Celestia and Luna were worshipped here, why wasn’t this temple located in a city or at least a town?”
Azi smiled and chuckled. “Because this temple isn’t where they were worshipped. It’s where they were created.”
His smile grew even wider as he looked at one gap-jawed reaction after another. “I wasn’t just waiting for Ekon, you know. I kept myself busy continuing our parent’s research. A few scrolls are missing from this temple’s library . . .”
“Those have to be the spell scrolls that Starlight Glimmer stole!” exclaimed Spike, wide-eyed.
Azi flinched from the news. “What? Who are you talking about?”
Spring Step said, “Starlight was this insane unicorn mare that somehow found out about Starswirl’s most powerful spell. Before your family showed up here, she swiped it and used it to send the magic and the Princesses away.”
Rubbing his chin with a hoof, Azi said, “Yeah, that explains the how. I would love to know the why, though.”
Spike pointed at himself. “I was there when the Unraveling started. She swore that if she couldn’t control the future, then no one would.”
Azi pointed at Moondancer. “So you guys brought another unicorn to try and make a counter spell?”
Moondancer nodded, smiling shyly. “Well, I’m hoping I can, especially after all that we had to go through to get here. Now what’s this you said about the Princesses being created here?”
Azi sat on one of the stone seats and held up an ancient, yellowed scroll. “That’s what he admits in this journal of his. Two thousand years ago, he felt that Equestria needed dynamic rulers in order to bring all the pony tribes together. Starswirl was the world’s first top-tier wizard, you see. He needed someplace private to conduct his Princess-building experiments. “
Turning to the wall painting, he gestured to the alicorns. “Having both wings, horns and an unnatural size was enough for anypony to take notice of them. When Celestia and Luna were eventually released into the world, he was the one who had taught them how to be rulers.”
Moondancer scratched her head. “What about when Luna rebelled and got sent to the moon? Did Starswirl have a contingency plan for that?”
Azi nodded. “Celestia was the only one who knew that spell. But only Starswirl knew how to get rid of both Princesses in case they both turned bad.”
Pinkie asked, “But why did he make a spell that could take away all the world’s magic? That’s seems kinda mean.”
Looking over a few more scrolls, Azi replied, “Since the Princesses are made of solid magic, having any magic on the world’s surface would give them something to climb out of the pit with. No magic means no ladder.”
Ekon examined the scrolls. “What do you mean, ‘climb out of the pit’? Where did the magic and the Princesses go?”
Azi held up a map of the world. “I figure about halfway towards the world’s core. There’s a nickel and iron alloy layer down there that’s kept all that energy from sinking any further.”
Moondancer studied the map and pointed to a few scribbled lines. “It says here that a cave reaches all the way down to this layer. This mountain was a volcano a long time ago, I guess.”
Smiling appreciatively at her, he remarked, “You have a good eye for detail, Moondancer. I can show you the cave’s entrance where Starswirl created the so-called ‘Alicorn sisters’. There’s one tiny problem you guys will have to deal with. When the earthquake hit, it dumped a bunch of boulders on top of that entrance.”
Pinkie’s ears pricked up. With a wide, manic grin, she asked, “Would an explosive of, let’s say, five pounds of C4 open up that cave?”
Blinking in surprise, Azi replied, “Uh . . . I want to say yes, but I don’t have anything like that.”
Turning her head towards Spike, Pinkie asked, “Spike? Could you be a sweetie and get my self-destruct device out of my suit?”
* * *
Spike carefully planted the bomb in the middle of the boulder pile. He had never handled explosives powerful enough to shred Pinkie’s suit before, so he treated the device as if it were made of eggshells. When he was confident that it wouldn’t slip off the giant rock pile, he ran back to the others.
“Okay, now what, Pinkie?” he asked.
“Let’s move down the cave a little further.”
When they all moved out of sight of the blocked cave, Pinkie said, “Everypony, cover your ears and count to ten.” When they did this, Pinkie took a deep breath and yelled “Pinkie wants big boom!”
After a few heartbeats, a sudden teeth-loosening roar flung boulders and dust down the cave. Pinkie giggled with delight, saying, “Ohh, somepony remind me to kiss Time Turner when we get back home!”
When the dust settled, the cave’s boulders were smashed to scattered rubble. When Moondancer cautiously peeked into the cave, she shivered. “If I didn’t know any better, I would swear I could feel magic in this chamber.”
Spike found a wooden torch, breathed a bit of fire onto it and placed it on a nearby wall-mount. The stone chamber was as big as the temple. A perfectly round black cave was at the far end. “I think you’re right. It’s like what I told Ekon, magic is just energy. All the world’s magic must have reached a certain filling point before flowing up to the surface.”
Azi asked, “So why aren’t the Princesses here?”
Moondancer studied Starswirl’s writings on a nearby wall. “According to this, he used this spell to retrieve them and all the magic.”
“Can you make the spell work?” asked Spike with a twinge of anxiety. “Please say yes.”
Moondancer walked over to the seemingly infinite cave and pointed her horn into the darkness. “I’m going to say definitely maybe. My horn’s getting just enough juice to hopefully pull this off. You guys might want to stand back.”
While Moondancer’s companions huddled together away from her, she closed her eyes and recited the spell she had memorized from the wall.
Her horn glowed.
And then flared like a firecracker.
Ekon would later recall being able to see every color in the universe as the typhoon of magic rushed past him. Because his eyes were open, he could observe, for only a moment, the nervous system of his brother. For an even shorter moment, he witnessed what his brother’s soul looked like. A swirl of luminescent cloud, just like his own.
Then, as quickly as it began, the magic stopped it’s flow. Moondancer wobbled and then slumped to the floor, moaning.
Spring Step ran over and pulled her onto her feet. Moondancer opened her eyes, stared at the pegasus, and said, “Spring Step?”
Pinkie squealed. “Ooh, look at you! I guess you don’t need your bat-wings anymore!”
Landing on her hooves, she laughed at her good fortune, but then stared into the cave that now glowed a florescent blue. “Never mind my wings, where are Celestia and Luna?”
Azi said, “This cave runs miles towards the inner core. Give them time.”
A few moments later, everyone saw two blotches of light rushing towards the chamber. One was white, the other a dark blue. Moondancer stepped away from the cave entrance.
The white blotch coalesced into a familiar Alicorn shape as it got closer. Spike stood next to Moondancer, bowed at Princess Celestia with closed eyes and said, “Welcome home, your highness.”
Princess Celestia stared at Spike and went “Merp!”
Princess Luna drifted past her sister and said, “Narf!”
Spike slowly lifted his head and a shiver rattled down his spine as he saw the condition the rulers of Equestria were in. The sisters were translucent and floated around like pony-shaped jellyfish. They stared at everything and everyone with the mad fascination of a kitten.
Celestia chirped “Blark!”
Luna brayed “Nee!”
Trying desperately to not panic, Spike planted his hands on Moondancer’s cheeks and asked, through gritted teeth, “Are you absolutely certain you cast the counter spell right?”
“Yes, I promise! I don’t know why they’re acting like this.”
Azi held a hoof over his mouth to hide his amused smirk. “It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? The layer of iron and nickel alloy I mentioned earlier is at least a thousand miles wide. When they got sent away, their minds got spread throughout all that surface for five years . No wonder they lost track of them-selves.”
Moondancer gently pushed away Spike’s hands. “He’s right, Spike. It would be like spreading a pat of butter over an entire loaf of bread. You couldn’t really tell where the butter was, right?”
Spike sat down and stared at the ghostly princesses as they drifted around the chamber. Then he snapped his fingers. “Wait a second! Azi, isn’t this what the Princesses were like before they were taught by Starswirl?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
Spike jumped to his feet and pumped his fists. “Then that means we can still get them to rule us again!”
“Er . . . after we take them back to New Canterlot. And after they graduate.”
Spring Step asked, “How are we going to sneak these proto-princesses past the gate? Snails will flip if he or anypony else sees them like this.”
Pinkie said, “Why don’t we stuff them into my suit’s cockpit? They haven’t solidified yet, so it would be like stuffing bed sheets in there. After my suit gets delivered to the think tank, you pop open my suit and let the reeducation begin!”
Ekon asked, “But the engine’s blown up. How are we going to get the suit out of the cave?”
“By having pegasi air-lift it back home, of course, silly! When my self-destruct bomb went off, my suit’s locator beacon switched on. We’ll be seeing plenty of friends soon.”
Spring Step trotted over and nuzzled Pinkie. “You’re a genius, Pinks. Spike, I need you to do two things for me.”
“Sure, name them.”
“First, get these bat-wings off me. I don’t need them anymore.”
“Strap Pinkie onto me. I want to fly her back to New Canterlot myself.”
Pinkie sniffled as tears pillowed around her eyes. “Aww, you don’t have to do that. It’s a long trip!”
“Hey, you spent the worst days of my life trying to lift me up. It’s time I returned the favor. In a literal way.”
In a few minutes, Spring Step flew out of the chamber with Pinkie cheering like a foal on a roller coaster.
Spike shook the hooves of both Azi and Ekon. “I want to thank both of you for all you have done. Since this temple’s messed up from all the fighting, you’re both welcome to stay at New Canterlot.”
Ekon put a hoof over his brother’s back. “Maybe later. Azi and I have a lot to catch up on, so I’m staying here for now.”
The dragon smiled. “I was hoping you would say that. Twilight would have been proud to have seen you patch things up with your brother.”
“She would be just as proud of you, Spike,” replied Ekon.
He nodded, wiping bothersome specks of dirt from his dampening eyes. “I’ll see you guys outside. Moondancer? Help me herd these fillies away.”
When the brothers were alone, they hugged.
Ekon said, “I’m sorry I was such an idiot for so long.”
“I already said I forgive you. You’re going to have to forgive yourself eventually,big brother.”
“I’m recalling something dad taught me. ‘If something stays lost long enough, it eventually gets found.’”
Azi patted Ekon’s non-wounded shoulder. “We were both lost for years.”
Ekon smiled at his brother. “But not anymore.”
“Welcome home, Ekon.”
* * *
“Make compassion the cotton, contentment the thread, modesty the knot and truth the twist. This is the sacred thread of the soul; if you have it, then go ahead and put it on me.” – Guru Nanak