Friendship is the Key

Chapter 6: Back Again

by Appending_fic

Applejack blinked as the blazing light of Agrabah's sun gave way to cool shade. Bands of shadow blocked out the sun, cooling the air enough that Applejack could breathe easily. She glanced around to make sure everypony was all right; nopony seemed hurt, although Riku's outrageous yellow shirt had given way to his blue-gray coat, suggesting wherever they were, a human shape would not be taken well.

"Do you have any idea where we are?" Applejack asked. "Is this Hollow Bastion?"

"No," Riku replied. His voice lacked its normal energy. He sounded tired and lost; Applejack glanced towards him, and saw that Riku had dropped his head towards the forest floor. "I'm surprised you don't recognize it. You nearly died here."

Applejack started, and tried to take a closer look, to see some resemblance between this shadowed wood and the pleasant forest they'd already seen. But nothing looked right. The trees were covered in crawling black moss, and the ground was hard and unyielding, like it was the middle of winter. The air carried the stench of smoke and burning hair, although there was no fire visible. There was no sun in the sky, and yet light glowed from within the dark sky to allow Applejack to see what was around her.

It was the ruin of a world, something twisted and dark.

"You don't mean-"

"This is what happens when you don't seal a Keyhole," Riku said quietly. "It happened to my home, though I didn't know...exactly what was happening. When I heard - no one here deserved what..." He broke off and tried to storm away, only to be stopped by Rainbow leaping in front of him, eyes almost glowing a fierce red in the strange, dark light of the dying world as she reared back, wings spread. "Get out of my way!"

"No," Rainbow said harshly. "I'm not letting you walk out of here on your own." She settled back down, still glaring at Riku. "You chose to come with us, and that makes you one of us, and I wouldn't let Rarity or Twilight out there on their own, so you're not, either."

"And what about Bambi?" Riku demanded.

Fluttershy's pained gasp told Applejack the yellow pegasus had realized what the twisted form of the forest might mean.

"I reckon he's beyond our help," Applejack said. "I reckon...he wouldn't've let things get this bad if he could help it."

Riku was shaking, whether with anger, pain, or what, Applejack couldn't tell. But a little to the rear, Rarity had closed her eyes, horn glowing faintly.

"Maybe we ought to get out of here," Twilight suggested warily. "It can't be healthy hanging around with all this darkness around."

"Give me a moment, if you would, darling," Rarity murmured. "I think...yes!" She turned to Rainbow. "Rainbow, if you give Riku and I a minute, we can find Bambi. And then, yes, I definitely think we should get out of here. After all, if the forest has been overrun like this, what do you think has happened to those poor puppies?"

Applejack glanced at Rainbow, who, after all, was the one with the right tool for the job of locking worlds away from the darkness. She didn't look rebellious, or angry, like Applejack would have expected, given her violent protest of the idea of sealing worlds off. Applejack took a brief glance around their surroundings. Maybe seeing the consequences of leaving things alone were enough to shake even Rainbow's confidence.

"-hurry," Twilight concluded, and Applejack realized she'd missed something. Except not, because it just seemed that Rarity was leading Riku into the forest at a canter, horn glowing in an oddly familiar way-

Of course. She'd said she was collecting gems made up of lost hearts-

Applejack winced, and glanced around nervously, hoping the others hadn't drawn the same conclusion she had. Fluttershy had to be on her last nerve, surrounded by pain she couldn't soothe. Twilight seemed on edge, too; Applejack didn't doubt learning about Ansem and his apprentices had shaken here. Even Pinkie seemed a little subdued. The only pony who seemed unaffected was Rainbow Dash.

And that wasn't true. Dash seemed...more, now. Like she was fulfilling the role she'd always expected to, and that gave her the freedom to act exactly as she liked.

A crashing in the underbrush startled Applejack out of her thoughts. Rarity burst into the clearing, Riku stumbling behind her. "Get together - now!" Rarity snapped. Applejack hurried to obey, unwilling to face whatever had put Rarity into such a panic. "Riku, go, get us to that city."

He gave her a brief, surly look, but closed his eyes as the others clustered into a rough circle. The transition was faster than it had been before, and when they landed, Fluttershy looked unmoved by her exposure to the darkness between worlds. They'd landed in an alley - again - although much less roughly than last time. Riku was human again, and Twilight, bless her heart, performed the magic to cloak the rest of them in human shapes and (thankfully) clothes.

"All right," Twilight said, as soon as everypony'd been camouflaged (even Spike, who was half the height of everypony else, with wide eyes that had made Fluttershy squeak when she'd first seen them. Even Applejack couldn't quite set aside the urge to pat the disguised dragon on the head, earning her a brief glare). "We need to find out if the Heartless are still lurking around, and if so, where they're congregating."

"We don't need that," Riku said. "We have to find the heart of this world."

"Do you know how to go about finding it?" Twilight asked archly.

Riku met her eyes for a moment before glancing at the pavement, shoulders hunching. "I guess not," he muttered.

"So we're looking for Heartless, who presumably know how to find the heart, and we stop them. I recommend we split up - Spike, you're with me. Rarity, you take Pinkie Pie. Applejack, go with Fluttershy. And Rainbow-"

"I don't need a baby-sitter," Riku snapped. "I can get around fine on my own." He stormed out of the alley, glowering at Fluttershy as she half-heartedly tried to step in front of him, sending her skittering back.

"Rainbow Dash!" Twilight snapped, watching as Riku's form turned the corner. "Go-"

"I don't think so," Rainbow said, shaking her head. Twilight's jaw dropped, and Rainbow shrugged helplessly. "It looks like he needs a little time by himself, Twi. And he's right, you know. I'm pretty sure he can take care of himself. Did you see when he was using Sora's Keyblade?"

"Yes," Twilight murmured. "I was wondering about that. I mean, your Keyblade - that's yours. So how did he get Sora's?"

"I don't know," Rainbow said. "You know, we can check out a library to see if there's anything in there about Keyblades."

Twilight nodded. "That might...be for the best. Girls? We'll meet back here in two hours. All right?"

"Right!"

;;;:::::[-}

Riku slowed after a minute of walking, once he was fairly certain none of the ponies were following him. He shoved hands deep into his pockets and slouched down the street. During the battle with Jafar, he'd hoped for a second that...

But no. Sora had explained. The Keyblade was linked to Sora's heart; as long as Sora willed it, the blade couldn't be taken from him. Tied up and unable to fight, Sora hadn't seen any reason to have the blade. And then he'd invited Riku to tag along with him and the stupid duck.

Tag along! Riku kicked a piece of trash and watched it bounce against a gutter. A large black rat scuttled out of the sewer and grabbed the trash in its mouth before scurrying back underground. If Sora thought he'd be happy trailing along after Sora, helpless and useless, he obviously knew nothing about Riku. At least the ponies needed Riku for something, even if Riku couldn't shake the feeling that if he left, Twilight Sparkle would find a way to travel between worlds.

"Hey, fella, you look down in the dumps. Look like you could use a little...help."

A smooth, drawling voice drew Riku out of his musings to glance around to see a tall, slender man dressed in eye-catching purple leaning against the opening to an alleyway. He was black, although his skin was a very pale, dusky shade. His white teeth formed a wide grin, practically gleaming in the shadows of the alley. He was idly playing with a deck of cards; when he saw Riku looking at him, he grinned wider and arced the cards between his hands artfully.

"I'm pretty sure this is exactly the sort of situation my mother meant when she warned me about strangers," Riku replied.

The man threw back his head, chuckling. "Oh, lad, I'm no monster. I'm a business man. My name is Doctor Facilier, magician, spiritual advisor, and all-around guide to the world unseen. Here's my card."

He flipped one of the cards to Riku; it looked as legitimate as a business card could, printed on cream-colored paper in dark brown ink. 'Doctor Facilier - Curses, Love and Fate'.

"Nice card, but I don't think I need your sort of help," Riku said, handing the card back to Doctor Facilier.

"Are you sure, boy?" the doctor asked. "Oh, I'm not saying you need a love potion, but men with your sort of face are men who need a little...illumination." He snapped his fingers, creating a spark that briefly lit up the alley. "A little understanding of a situation can help you find a way out of a jam. Here." He took a step back, around a small table set up in the alley, and sat down. He dropped the cards down and gestured at them. "Reasonable rates, boy, and I'll give you all the help you need."

Riku stared at the cards on the table. Of course he'd heard about people who read the future with cards. Before he'd been thrust outside his world, met magical talking ponies, and fought sorcerers, he would have refused to believe mere cards could tell the future. But now...

Riku sat down on the opposite side of the table and picked up the cards. "All right." He dealt out the first card, which had a picture of a young man dressed in leather and a coat with a fur collar; he looked unimpressed, and had a long, sharp-edged rifle slung over his shoulders.

"Whoops!" Doctor Facilier said, scooping the card up with the rest of the deck, shuffling them together. "Got everything mixed up." He handed the cards back to Riku. "Shuffle those a few times, and then deal out three, one two three!"

Riku did as the doctor had ordered. The first card, on the left, was upside-down, and showed a blond man in a white suit, holding a small electronic device, a phone or something similar, while he leaned on two tall staves.

"Ah! The Two of Wands, boy. This is a telling card, as it shows your past. Here we can see a dream achieved, but at terrible cost, for the ambition won turned out to be worthless. The achievement shook your faith in yourself."

The second showed a white-haired man dressed in elaborate loose clothes, including a wide white scarf. He was holding a golden cup and contemplating it. It, too was upside-down.

"The Page of Cups shows that your present is overshadowed by the threat of a great deception uncovered, of your attempt to shield your selfishness and failures from those around you."

Riku felt a shiver run down his back at the man's words. Certainly, there had to be nothing to it, but the doctor's predictions cut unhealthily close to Riku's worries. "Look, maybe-"

The last, upright, showed a dark-haired man dressed in a long red coat, one arm tucked inside, and the other holding a long sword. He watched the world through sunglasses, seemingly glaring at Riku.

Doctor Facilier's eyes widened. "Oh. Oh my. My poor boy," he said. "I'm so sorry."

"What? What's wrong?" Riku demanded.

"You've drawn Death, my boy!" Doctor Facilier declared. "The card showing the reaper himself!"

Riku found his eyes fixed on the Death card. The threat of death or something worse had been hanging over him ever since the night the Destiny Islands had been destroyed, but Riku had too long been convinced of his own superiority to have considered it a real possibility.

"But that's...symbolic or something, right?"

Doctor Facilier laughed. "Oh, possibly. But sometimes a skull is still a skull. And with this spread, child, you're due for terrible things."

Riku shivered again. "That's not...I can't - you can't tell me I'm going to die and there's nothing I can do about it!"

"Nothing?" Doctor Facilier asked. "Oh, I never said there was nothing you could do about it, lad. I am, after all, a witch doctor. Fate is my plaything, boy. I can put it on and take it off like a suit of clothes. If I don't like my fate, I can simply...trade it in."

"Trade...fates? You can give me a new fate?" Riku asked, a bloom of hope in his chest.

"Of course, boy. What sort of doctor would I be if I couldn't fix a problem after finding it?"

"What'll it...cost me?"

"Oh, this one'll be a freebie, lad. I'm nothing if not charitable." Doctor Facilier reached his hand across the table. "I want to help. All you have to do is shake my hand, and we'll replace your fate with a...new one." He flipped a card over the card of Death, this one a tall tower with a clown-like figure atop it, lightning striking the building in half. "The Tower! A life of greatness and power. And all you have to do is take my hand."

Riku stared at the new card. It looked unsettling, but he wasn't the expert here. And death...was a frightening prospect. Moreso because he knew his death wasn't going to be from heroics. Sora had his stupid Keyblade. The ponies had...whatever it was they had. The power to cow Heartless, destroy them with laughter, and whatever other tricks they still hadn't revealed. Riku could barely fight; the only time he'd entered a battle, it had been with someone else's weapon. Power...was a lot more appealing than dying. And if he was going to help anyone, he'd need power.

He reached out and took Doctor Facilier's hand. There was a tingle that ran up Riku's ring finger and stopped at his heart.

"Ow!"

"Done!" Doctor Facilier declared.

"That's it?" Riku asked in disbelief.

"That's all," Doctor Facilier replied smoothly. "That nasty specter of Death isn't looming over you anymore." He smiled at Riku with wide teeth. "I wish you the best of luck."

"Wait-" Riku started, but shadows leapt from the walls and engulfed Doctor Facilier. When they vanished, so had he, leaving Riku alone in the alley.

"Hey! Boy!" Riku turned to see an older gentleman, dressed in suit and tails, staring at him. "What are you doing out here? Don't you know there's a plague on?"

"Plague?"

"You'd better get inside, boy." When Riku didn't reply immediately, the man took him by the shoulder. "Come with me; I'll see you safe before the rats get you."

;;;:::::{-]

It took Twilight barely any time at all to find a library; Rainbow suspected it was a part of Twilight's talent, like magic and being a know-it-all. The streets were less crowded than Rainbow had expected. She couldn't quite figure out why, although the panicked looks of the few humans she saw gave Rainbow pause. And then there were the flashes of movement out of the corner of her eyes-

"Twilight? I don't...think we should be out here. It's creepy."

"Are you scared, Rainbow Dash?"

Rainbow took a short breath, and another glance to her right, where something dark flickered in and out of view near the entrance to an alley. "Yes," she said. "This is big stuff, Twilight! Like, end-of-the-world big! And I...I don't know if I can fix it all," she finished, as quietly as she could manage.

Twilight gave Rainbow a sidelong look, something speculative that made Rainbow want to hide under a rock. Bad enough she had to admit it to Twilight and Spike, without Twilight saying anything about it.

"Look, just forget I said anything, okay? Seriously," Rainbow snapped,.

"No, I get it." Twilight gave Rainbow a bright smile. "But I think you can do it, Rainbow. Besides, isn't that Sora kid doing his part, too?"

"I guess," Rainbow concluded. "But I keep thinking - how many worlds are there? I don't think we can save all of them, unless we find out where these things are coming from and stop them for good."

"Well, then good thing we're at the library, then, isn't it?" Twilight asked. Rainbow looked up, and up, and kept tilting her head up; the library, a massive building that rose into the clouds, stood before them, covered in gargoyles and twisting stone sculptures of landscapes. She glanced at Twilight, who was staring at the heavy wood doors with a look of awe in her eyes, and Spike, who had one eye surreptitiously fixed on a jade inset that was the background to a pair of stone unicorns gamboling through a forest.

She smirked. Seeing Twilight ready to storm her way through a library to fix this problem (or, more accurately, point Rainbow in the right direction and sit back to watch the carnage) gave her a boost of confidence better than Twilight's half-hearted encouragement. Hadn't Discord taught them that together, they were unstoppable?

The door swung open to reveal a disaster area. Scorched paper drifted slowly downward over piles of shredded books and shattered bookshelves. Wisps of shadow curled up from the wreckage; Rainbow edged closer to Twilight, hand twitching at the signs of the Heartless. "Twilight?"

"Oh, thank goodness it's you!" A pale human dressed in a wild blue robe and face framed with white hair that included a four-foot beard appeared from behind a stack of bookshelves that were nearly intact. "Put that thing away, Rainbow, they're not going to show up for a few minutes at least."

"Who the heck are you?" Rainbow demanded.

The man's eyes widened, and tears began gathering in them at the question. "Oh. Oh, I hadn't realized...I'd forgotten."

"Sir?" Twilight asked.

"This is the first time we meet, isn't it?" the man asked sadly. "And here I am in my second-worst robe." He wiped away a tear. "You never plan for this sort of thing, and then it happens, and you're caught by surprise."

Rainbow glanced sidelong at Twilight, who had the doe-eyed look that meant she was going to get sappy over some strange guy, so stepped to her friend's side and grabbed her elbow. "Come on, let's get out of here before it gets weird," she muttered.

"No, please," the man said. "Allow an old man a sentimental moment. It's a...sad one, for me. But a worrying one for you, isn't it? I remember you telling me about it."

"Wait a minute!" Spike snapped. "How can you remember anything Twilight told you if she's never met you before?"

The human smiled at Spike, eyes twinkling with a sudden strange glint. "An excellent question. It will take too long to explain fully, but I live...backwards. I can remember the moment of my death, but not what I had for breakfast this morning. Or, rather, what I will have." His smile widened when Twilight let out a quiet, choked noise. "Don't think too hard on it, or it might drive you mad."

Rainbow might defer to people like Twilight when it came to...math, and reading, but wasn't stupid. So she jumped at the opportunity once she saw it. "Then you can tell us how to stop all this!" she said.

The man gave her a wan smile and shook his head. "I can, and then again, I can't. You already know to go to Hollow Bastion, but the way there I don't know. And beyond that...things are foggier. They change more often." He held a hand briefly to his temple. "It gives me a headache, sometimes."

"But-" Rainbow scrambled for something they could gain from this man. "You must know - oh, how to stop them, or how to get home, or..."

"Just be yourselves," the man said, grin returning full force. "It's done wonders already. I still remember when things were much worse, when Riku cut out-" He stopped, abruptly, glancing down at Rainbow's hands. "Please, Rainbow, put that away. It calls them, and we must finish here before they return."

"What did Riku do?" Rainbow demanded.

"Nothing. And I don't remember it anymore. He's fine, I'm certain..." The man trailed off, staring into space for a moment before shaking his head violently. "Anyway, there are things you need to know, things you told me I told you. First-"

"What happened here?" Twilight had, unsurprisingly, been distracted by the books, and was currently nosing through a pile of shredded dictionaries.

The man gave her a short, harassed look. "Someone has been hunting librarians. There was almost certainly a battle here...one awash with both light and dark. And I remember...oh, dear."

"What?" Rainbow demanded, fists clenching as if of their own accord.

"Another princess," the man murmured. "You must hurry, Twilight, Rainbow. You must take my memories to, ah, heart. You will tell me, Rainbow, that I warned you not to use your magic except in the direst of circumstances."

Rainbow's stomach twisted. "Why? Is it dangerous?"

The man chuckled. "In a manner of speaking. It would be unwise to use it if you didn't need it. Ponies, it seems, have certain innate talents, and the Keyblade will empower those before granting you other magics."

"So what? Is it some kind of flight spell?"

"This is not some tool made for pegasi, Rainbow. It is made for you." The man leaned close, a sly look in his eyes. "It is Haste."

For a moment, the word rang in Rainbow's head without her comprehending it. And then...

"You mean I can go faster?"

Something in her tone must have worried the old man, because he waved his hands in front of hi. In an abortive gesture. "Yes, faster than you have ever traveled before. Faster than you are used to. Faster than your wings have ever borne you. You understand why I was to warn you about it? You only ever told me about using it once, and the consequences..." He shook his head. "I warn you not to never use your magic, but to use it when the benefit outweighs the risk."

Rainbow nodded, but her mind was reeling at the thought. Traveling past the speed of sound-light was the most exhilarating feeling of her life; she couldn't imagine traveling even faster than that. How much faster, she wondered, could she go? At the same time, the tiny part of Rainbow's mind that paid attention in flight school was listing off a litany of risks. Steering, reaction time, experiments suggesting the pegasus body could suffer only so much acceleration...

"You said you had something else to tell us...sir? Um, we never got your name."

The old man winked. "And what if I said you told me I never told you? Would you risk paradox just for the sake of politeness?"

Twilight's face contorted oddly as she considered the man's words. "Uh..."

"Never mind! It doesn't work like that. And even if it did, life's worth having a few risks in it. The name is Merlin."

Twilight reached out to shake Merlin's hand; Rainbow was still trying to calculate drag coefficients on her head, so barely noticed the exchange. "A pleasure to meet you, sir. But you said you had something else to tell us?"

"Of course!" Merlin scowled. "I'll lose my head next. The Heartless - they're not just searching for the hearts of worlds. They seek, in the end, the heart of worlds."

Twilight's face again twisted in confusion, and the sight of the human face contorting like that snapped Rainbow back into the conversation. "I thought you said that."

Rainbow let the words roll about in her head for a minute, and found them just as confusing as Twilight did. Except... "Are you talking about one...big heart?"

"Exactly. It is why I suspect they have sought out the Princesses of Heart, aside from the fact that those women bear a powerful weapon against the darkness. But for now, I think it might be best to focus on keeping London from suffering the same fate as my own home."

;;;:::::{-]

"Um, hello? Is anyone in? We're just looking to talk, if it isn't too much trouble..." Fluttershy sighed at the closed door as nopony responded. "Sorry, Rarity. I thought this one might be different."

"It's hardly your fault, darling," Rarity replied with a sigh. "Something's got everypony spooked, and they wouldn't come out for Celestia herself, I suspect."

Fluttershy dropped her head, the yellow mane she retained in her disguise shielding her from the gazes of anypony around. "Well, then I guess we should head back. Maybe the others had some luck?"

"Not if everpony's this friendly everywhere," Rarity said. She glowered at the sign hanging over the last door they'd tried. It bore a picture of a flagon and loaf of bread, etched crudely but clearly, definitely the sign of a tavern. These people had to be more than spooked to have locked up their business. Or maybe they knew there wasn't any business to be had; there were few enough humans outside to patronize the shop.

The realization gave Rarity an idea. She banged her hand against the door again, shouting, "Sanctuary! Please, help!"

Fluttershy stared at her, but Rarity ignored the curiosity. "Please!" she begged, in her best 'damsel in distress' voice. A moment later, she heard something being shifted behind the door, followed by a second of silence. The door opened with little ceremony, revealing a pale-skinned female human, dressed in serviceable work clothes. She glanced at Rarity before her sharp blue eyes alit on Fluttershy, and they widened. "Oh, my! What are you - never mind, come in!"

Rarity shot Fluttershy a smug grin as the woman opened the door to admit them. Fluttershy, however, seemed distracted; her gaze drifted to the woman's flank, as if there would be a Cutie Mark there, visible through the woman's dress. Rarity nudged Fluttershy as she passed and gave her a sharp look. This woman was helping them. It wouldn't do to be rude.

"Thank you for your assistance, ma'am," Rarity said as she stepped inside. "My name is Rarity, and this is-"

"Fluttershy," the woman said.

"Flutter - how did you know that?" Rarity stepped back into the doorway, between the stranger and Fluttershy, who had yet to enter. "Get out of here, Fluttershy!"

Fluttershy, however, didn't move. "Rarity, don't...she's a friend. Sort of. We've met, at least. I think."

The woman laughed. "Well said! Oh, do stand down, Rarity." Her eyes flicked towards the open door. "I'd rather spend as little time exposed as I can."

Rarity gave Fluttershy an uncertain glance; when her friend showed no sign of excess nervousness, she stepped inside, allowing Fluttershy to follow. The room was large, and much like most bars Rarity had seen, dark and filled with small tables. A huge mirror stretched along one wall behind a sturdy wooden bar. Once they were both inside, the woman slammed the door shut and dragged a solid armoire back in front of it. This done, she turned to the two visitors and smiled, brushing stray dust from her hands,

"Now, I'm afraid I didn't properly introduce myself. My name is Cinderella."

"And who are you?" Rarity demanded. "I doubt you're just a simple tavern owner."

"It is my main skill set," Cinderella replied. "But no. I am...well, have you met a woman named Aurora?"

"Yes," Rarity said flatly.

"I'm a friend of hers. And...well, I think I might be the last one or two of us left." She sighed, sitting down on a stool. "You must know about the Heartless."

"Of course," Rarity replied, tossing her head. "Uncultured brutes, the lot of them. One of them tried to make me into a coat, could you imagine?"

"I could," Cinderella said, giving Rarity an even stare. "But it must have struck you as odd that there are creatures of pure darkness, and none of light."

Rarity was ready to snap back, but the statement caught her off guard, and she instead stared, unfortunately slack-jawed, at Cinderella. "Well, no, it hadn't," she admitted. "Philosophy, admittedly, is not my strong suit."

"Nor mine," Cinderella said. "But Belle explained it best. In order for an extreme to exist, its opposite must also exist, else there is a natural imbalance in the universe that biases it towards that extreme. Um." She frowned. "Well, it sounded fancy. I'm still not entirely certain what she meant."

"I think...if there's pure evil, but not pure good, the world would be evil," Fluttershy murmured. "And it isn't. so there must be pure good." When she realized both women were looking at her, she yelped and folded her arms around herself. "Sorry. I just thought-"

"No, you're right," Cinderella mused. "In any case, Belle and Aurora and I are the opposite of Heartless."

"The...opposite?"

"We have no darkness at all in our hearts," Cinderella declared. She abruptly chuckled and raised a hand to her forehead. "God, Belle's right, it does sound pompous when you say it out loud."

"No...darkness? What does that mean? You can't get angry?" Rarity asked, an odd suspicion overcoming her.

"Not quite. We've had a long talk about it. We lack...the capability for viciousness, I suppose you'd say. If we were attacked by a Heartless, we'd just fade away, instead of making more Heartless. No darkness to amplify, you see."

That settled that. "If that's true, then Flutter-"

"Is not something we should be talking about," Cinderella said firmly. When Rarity opened her mouth to complain, Cinderella interrupted. "The Heartless hunt the Princesses of Heart with almost as much vigor as they hunt the Keyblade. I suspect they have captured the other six of whom we know, captured or worse. Do you know what happens when someone's heart fades away?"

Rarity let her mouth snap shut. Cinderella was right. There was no point in discussing it unless doing so had some benefit. "Well, then, if you're the opposite of Heartless, you must have some useful power, like they do."

Cinderella sighed, shaking her head. "Not nearly as much as you'd hope. We seem to have power related to our core talents. Belle found a way to travel between libraries, and was keeping us well informed. Snow had a way with animals, and people, too, for that matter. And Aurora...well, Aurora grew up around sorceresses. Losing her was a setback."

Rarity nodded, filing the discussion away to mull over. But as she'd seen first-hand what the Stare could do to Heartless, she felt she knew what, if anything, would result from her investigations.

"And all of us can open doors."

"What?" Rarity asked. "You mean you can travel between worlds?"

"Maybe. There are doors - natural doors - between some worlds. I don't know exactly where all of them are, or what logic they follow, but any Princess can open them. I doubt you'll find doors to where you need to go. You'll be traveling to Hollow Bastion, eventually. And I know there is no passage there, none that a being of light can walk."

Rarity growled under her breath. She'd so looked forward to an opportunity to stop Riku from dragging them along his way, which the others had told her wasn't safe, especially for Fluttershy.

"No use whining over spilled cider, then," Rarity said. "But we don't have a fantastic amount of time to sit and chat, Cinder, dear. We're traveling with a Keyblade bearer, and we're trying to find the heart of this world."

Cinderella frowned. "I can't help you, I'm afraid. Hearts are delicately hidden, and don't reveal themselves, not until you're right on top of them. The only thing you can hope for is that your friends have better luck-"

"Oh my gosh RARITY!" A pink blur erupted from behind the bar. When it landed, it was clear it was Pinkie Pie, who was just as gaudy in human form as in pony. She grabbed Rarity by the shoulders. "You gotta go help Applejack! I left her back with the Heartless and-"

"You left her?" Rarity demanded sharply, rather than ask any question a sane mare would have of Pinkie Pie, such as how she'd gotten in through the armoire and locked door, where she'd been, or any host of things you just. Didn't. Ask. Pinkie.

"To get help!" Pinkie retorted, rolling her eyes.

"Why didn't you get Rainbow Dash first, then?"

"I already did, duh!" Pinkie reached out an arm and snagged Fluttershy's wrist. "Now hang on-"

"Wait, Pinkie Pie, I don't think you should-"

;;;:::::{-]

Applejack grinned as Twilight lifted her disguise spell, returning her to the familiar shape of an earth pony. "Thanks, hon," she said, turning to the growing mass of rat Heartless. Now that she had reinforcements (Rainbow had taken to the air to deal with the flock of bat-like Heartless that had appeared shortly after her arrival) and the proper shape, she was feeling a little more confident.

Not that her confidence would do much. They'd been wandering the streets before they'd run into a strange old blind woman who'd laughed when Pinkie Pie had asked if she could help them. "What is the heart of a nation?" she'd asked, and Pinkie had gasped, dramatic like she did, and dashed off, leaving Applejack to follow at full gallop. She didn't try to ask questions because, for one, she was running top speed, and for another, because you didn't get a chance to grow old in Ponyville if you questioned the Pinkie Sense.

Also, if you hung on long enough, you got your explanation, even if you later wished you hadn't.

They'd arrived at the heavy gates to a large palace, a wide, blocky building, guarded by humans in red and wearing large, fuzzy hats that made Pinkie giggle. Applejack could begin to see why Pinkie would think this was where they needed to be - the Princesses were the heart of Equestria, and it looked like a place where somepony mighty important lived. How Pinkie had found it was...well, one of those things you just. didn't. ask. Pinkie.

And soon enough, it would've been a fatal distraction to even try. Applejack had barely gotten her breath back before the street rumbled, releasing a horde of Heartless rats from the gutters. The monsters leaped onto the guards, and moments later, the struggling men had become bipedal Heartless, armor marked with a hollow heart sigil and eyes a glowing gold.

They still had the hats, though.

"Form a perimeter!" Applejack had tried to command, only to discover Pinkie had vanished, leaving Applejack to try to stem the tide of darkness that was trying to fight its way into the palace.

Luckily, Pinkie appeared from behind a hedgerow a moment later with Twilight, Rainbow, and Spike in tow, which brought them to this moment. Pinkie had vanished again, but Applejack, armed with Bucky and Kicks, was more than a match for a bunch of rats.

Spinning and kicking with the same ferocity she brought to the harvest, Applejack tore through any rat foolish enough to get close to her. But even seeing the evidence of Rainbow's work - streaks of color as she opened swaths of sky at a time - Applejack had to admit the growing horde was pushing them back. Even Twilight's reserves were low; her magic could knock the beasts back, but every one felled seemed to spawn a dozen more.

"Any ideas, girls?" Twilight asked.

"You got any fancy magic that can make Spike an adult dragon?" Applejack asked. "Because that's about the only thing that could take all of these!"

"Princess Celestia doesn't let me read books on time magic anymore!" Twilight replied, summoning a barrier that blocked a dive-bombing gargoyle.

"So no, then," Applejack concluded. "I think our only chance is to hope Pinkie gets Rarity and Fluttershy, and one of them has an idea."

Remembering how Fluttershy had held back a mass of rats before with the Stare, Applejack wondered if she'd be any help.

Probably not. There were just too many of them.

Applejack kicked one of the creatures, causing it to evaporate into black smoke. Well. Nopony would ever say Applejack hadn't fought to her last breath. Even if they lost, she'd give as good as she got.

Better, even. That was the Apple way.

;;;:::::{-]

Fluttershy opened her eyes only once she felt solid ground under her...hooves? When had she gone back to being a pony? She fluttered her wings to steady herself, and smiled. It was at least more comfortable than being a human.

"Don't move!" Fluttershy yelped and her wings locked at the sharp voice. She looked up, and yelped again, startled at the sight of the armed humans surrounding her, Pinkie, and Rarity. All of them were back in pony form, and Rarity looked a little green around the ribs. She probably hadn't closed her eyes when Pinkie had...done what Pinkie did.

"Um?" she asked, but her voice was too quiet to hear, because the nearest guard jabbed at her with a pike.

"Identify yourselves!"

"I..." Fluttershy glanced at Rarity, hoping the fashionista would answer. "Pinkie?"

"Oh!" Pinkie grinned at Fluttershy before turning to the guard. "I'm Pinkie Pie. That's Rarity, and this is Fluttershy! We're ponies!"

"Sire?" The guard looked back, and Fluttershy got a chance to take in the room - a throne room, by her guess. A tall, dark-haired human with a wide brown mustache and neatly-trimmed beard stood at the back, next to a throne. He had a sword in one hand, and stared fixedly at the ponies.

"They are not dark, as the devils that run our streets are," he said thoughtfully. "And yet the pink one seems some sort of witch-"

"Um. Sir? Sire?" The man glanced to his left at the same time Fluttershy turned toward the familiar voice. She gasped, earning her a sharp look from the nearest guard.

Riku stepped out of a small knot of people, and waved at the man. "I know them, and they aren't any harm, sire. Um. In fact, they're...soldiers, of a sort. They've been fighting the devils."

"They have, have they?" the man asked thoughtfully. "Then well that they should be here. Pinkie Pie! Does this lad speak truth? Are you a warrior against these demons?"

"Well," Pinkie said, "I can't say I'm a warrior specifically; Rainbow Dash is the one with the awesome sword and stuff, but I'm an in-your-face protector of the happy against all sorts of nasty terror-monsters!"

The man mouthed portions of the comment silently, but at last nodded decisively. "Very well. Then I bid you...ponies join us in defeating the siege that now besets our empire."

Pinkie twisted her head around, examining the human. "Well...I suppose we could. But we need to know your name, first. I don't help strangers."

"This is His Majesty King George V, monarch of the British Empire!" one of the guards snapped.

Pinkie gasped. "Your name is Five? I've always wanted to have a number for a name!"

"Pinkie!" Rarity, who seemed to have recovered from her journey, grabbed Pinkie and tugged her close. "Don't offend royalty."

"Oh, I don't mind," the king said. "Even if I did, this is no time for offense. These demons have been running rampant over our land for weeks, now, and I fear they will grow more bold before we can bring an end to it."

"Bring an end to it? You have no hope of doing that." A new voice echoed from some distant corner of the hall. Fluttershy, due to her experience tracking and helping the smallest animals, saw the source of the voice first. A rat the size of a small dog stood near a tiny hole in the wall near one of the room's corners. It wore an elaborate robe that draped around it, concealing its feet and tail, and a crown topped its head. It strode forward, smiling wickedly as it approached King George. Fluttershy stared at the robe, which moved...oddly, as if there were something squirming beneath it.

"Identify yourself!" one of the guards demanded.

The rat just glanced at the guard, who moaned and fell to his knees, grabbing at his head. Fluttershy felt a chill settle over her heart. She knew of so few creatures that could do a thing like that, and only one that could pass as an ordinary rat...

"I am Ratigan," the rat declared. "I am lord of all rodents, and soon to be the next king of England and the British Empire."

"The pink pony has a better sense of humour," King George V said.

Ratigan stared, uncomprehending at the human for a few still seconds, and then bared his teeth in a ferocious snarl. "You would mock me? When I bring an army to your doorstep?"

"An army of rats!" George snapped. "The most miserable and pathetic of God's creatures! No matter what magic you use to command them, you are nothing but vermin!"

All color drained from Ratigan's face. "What did you say?" he demanded, voice so emotionless he could only be concealing a ferocious rage.

"I should think your ears are big enough to pick it up," George replied.

SAY IT TO ME AGAIN. The voice wasn't a proper voice; it didn't travel through the air, but instead spoke to the brain without passing the ears. It was something Fluttershy had never witnessed, but had read about in Twilight's books, and had heard from older ponies years before, when she hadn't been able to escape Nightmare Night story circles.

George did not respond immediately. Fluttershy could see his throat work a few times before he bit his lip. After a moment of silence, he smiled at Ratigan. "You. Are. Vermin. A rat. Something that should be poisoned or drowned because you are nothing but a filth-ridden nuisance."

Ratigan's face transformed into a perfect picture of hatred. "I had planned to give you an opportunity to surrender peacefully-"

"Why would I trust the word of a rat?"

"But instead, I will slaughter you all! You ask what magic I wield? I am no ordinary rat, no ordinary vermin! I am a Rat KING!" He cast off the robe he wore, revealing the dozens of Heartless rats behind him. As Fluttershy had expected, their tails were intertwined with his own.

The humans and Rarity let out gasps and groans of disgust at the sight. Fluttershy just stared. She had never seen a Rat King, but knew it to be the most miserable creature to ever exist. A dozen or more rats with their tails tied together could not survive naturally. They let their minds intermingle, as their bodies did, and created something greater than the sum of its parts. They - it - could command weak minds, and could control rodents of all sorts.

But they knew nothing but pain and hatred.

"Get down!" Rarity knocked Fluttershy aside; Fluttershy had been so worked up she hadn't noticed the rats pouring from the walls at Ratigan's command, and only Rarity's quick thinking had moved her out of their way before they devoured her. "Pinkie!"

"Don't worry, girls, I got this!" Pinkie threw herself into battle with abandon, knocking rats into walls, bouncing them off of the floor, and generally making a nuisance of herself. The guards backed into a tightly-knit circle around the king and the small group of what had to be servants, and Riku, but Fluttershy knew it was a lost cause. Under the command of a Rat King, the Heartless were relentless.

"Stay out of the way, Rarity," Fluttershy said, and crouched, ready to leap.

"Fluttershy, what are you doing?" Rarity demanded.

"Ending this," Fluttershy replied. She saw the flicker of Ratigan's sickly yellow eyes and leaped. She hit him with full force, and the rat immediately began scratching and biting in an effort to fight her off. But Fluttershy had plenty of experience treating animals who were too scared or in too much pain to let her close. Ignoring the blows, she pinned the rat and struggled at his tail.

A score of Heartless pulled her away, but Fluttershy saw a tiny creature sprinting away from Ratigan's form.

She rolled and firmly pushed the rats off of her and bounced after the Rat King, using her wings to give her the lift and buoyancy to catch him in one leap. He was perhaps even more ferocious this time around, but by Celestia, Fluttershy had once faced down a dragon!

Ratigan tore at Fluttershy's front leg, darting away as she instinctively pulled the injured limb close. Another few rats fled his form, and Fluttershy, feeling more confident than she had in ages, gave chase.

Ratigan howled at the nearest rats, who gave up their assault upon the guards and threw themselves in Fluttershy's way.

She almost laughed. "Down!" she snapped. "Don't you dare try to stop me!" The shout sent some creatures scurrying out of her path, but it was those who met Fluttershy's furious Stare that just dropped meekly to the ground as she soared over them.

Ratigan was ready for her, though. A furious thought slammed into her as she closed in on him.

DIE.

Her heart skipped a beat, but Fluttershy's mind was consumed with a single thought. There was a creature in pain that needed her help.

Whether he wanted it or not.

Her heart beat again, and Fluttershy slammed into Ratigan, bowling him over, and snapped her head down, untangling the knots that tied the Rat King together with swift delicacy.

In a moment, it was over, and the dark rats scattered, leaving Fluttershy perched on a large, ferocious, but (mostly) ordinary rat.

He grunted and then threw Fluttershy off of him, sending her scuttling back a few feet while he snarled. "Do you think you've won?" he demanded. "The Heartless are still here! We will take the king and destroy this world-"

"No," Fluttershy said evenly, and Ratigan stopped mid-rant. She met his gaze and just stared. "You need to settle down, and go home. These poor things need help."

"Help?" Ratigan demanded. "They are beyond help-"

"WRONG!" Fluttershy screamed, and the rat recoiled from her. "They didn't seek this out. They didn't want this. And I can find a way to make them better, as soon as you go home!"

Ratigan laughed. "You and what-"

A sword cleaved the rat's head from his body, both of which began to steam black smoke before evaporating entirely. Fluttershy moved backward a dozen feet without recalling how, and found that when she raised her head, it was to meet the stern gaze of King George.

"He would not listen to reason, dear lady," George said. "I would not watch you attempt to sway him in vain."

Fluttershy looked around her, startled to find the throne room devoid of any other rats. "What happened? Where did they go?"

The king smiled at her. "It seems you are fearsome when you choose to be...yes, Dame Fluttershy." The assembled humans let out a collective murmur.

Fluttershy shrank from them, and from the king's steady gaze. "Um," she whispered.

Rarity was abruptly by her side. "Dear sire," Rarity said quickly, "My friend is terrifically shy, and not used to attention from royalty. You must give her pardon."

"For a creature who has saved our royal person as well as the entire empire? Certainly," the king replied with a chuckle. "But I see you do not understand the significance, and so I will stand on the formality for this. By my authority, granted by the will of His Eternal Majesty of Heaven, I do dub thee Dame Fluttershy, of the Royal Victorian Order, in recognition of your extraordinary service to the royal family and the people of the British Empire."

"Oh!" Fluttershy yelped. "I...um...thank you...sire?" She could feel everypony in the room staring at her, and had to resist the urge to hide behind Rarity.

Luckily, hoofsteps and voices distracted everypony's attention from Fluttershy, allowing her a moment of relaxation.

"No, it's definitely this way." Rainbow Dash soared through one of the large doors to the room, stopping to hover at the sight of the people. "All clear!" she shouted behind her, which seemed to be the sign for Twilight, Spike, and Applejack to follow.

"Dashie! You okay?" Pinkie asked, bouncing up to nearly Rainbow's height.

"Course I am!" Rainbow snapped back. "It got a little dicey out there, but then all the rats just bolted like they had..." Her eyes landed on Fluttershy, and Rainbow suddenly grinned, landing next to Fluttershy with a quick flap. "Shy! I bet you turned the Stare on them and told them to get out of here, right?"

"Um...I guess it sort of...something like that might have happened," Fluttershy replied.

"Are you friends of Dame Fluttershy?" One of the people who had been huddling with the king stepped forward. The king stepped back, although not without first winking at Fluttershy. She felt herself blush, and wasn't certain why.

"Yeah. We've been trying to keep those monsters from breaking in here," Rainbow said. "Plus we've been looking for the heart of this place so we can keep this from happening again. Any ideas where it is?" She gave the new speaker a careful look.

"Traditionally, the Crown is the heart of the Empire," the man replied stiffly.

"Explains why they were in here. All right, let's see if this works." Rainbow summoned the Keyblade, only for the guards to immediately move to surround her. "Hey! What's the big deal?"

"You are not to be armed in the presence of the king!" one of the guards snapped.

"Oh, come on! This is for stabbing Heartless, not kings!" Rainbow protested. "Anyway, I can't seal this place up without the Keyblade. Fluttershy, can you back me up here?"

"Oh!" Fluttershy brightened at the request, and glanced at King George. He seemed nice enough. "Um. Sire? I...Rainbow Dash is really...she's a good pony. She wouldn't hurt you. And she really needs to use the Keyblade to...protect you from darkness." She flushed and ducked behind Rarity rather than risk any additional questions.

"Step back," the king demanded. "I think we'll give this...pony an opportunity to help out."

As the guards stepped back, a Keyhole appeared on the throne behind the king. He stepped aside, and Rainbow raised the Keyblade, locking the world and protecting it from further incursions of Heartless. Fluttershy hoped it would help all the poor rats who'd been turned into Heartless, but she knew they didn't have time to find out.

"Well, I think knighthoods are in order all around," the king announced.

"Pardon me, sire," Twilight said, "But we are in a bit of a hurry."

"Then I suppose we'll make this quick."

It took a few minutes to trade names and for the king to make his announcement and, of course, have it written down. In the end, all of them were Dames Grand Cross of the British Empire (except for Spike, who was a Knight Grand Cross, something that a number of the humans present seemed to think was funny), and ready to take their leave.

"If you should ever return to British soil," King George announced, "I promise you will find us willing to aid you in any way we can."

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Rarity said, bowing. "But we really must be going. Riku?"

Riku, who Fluttershy had managed to forget in the fracas, scowled as he stomped over to the ponies. Fluttershy opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, but he seemed in no mood. She felt the familiar sensation of Riku's shield enveloping her, and then they were gone from Britain and on to wherever the whims of the world between took them.

She had a moment to wonder if maybe Riku had some plan for where they were going, but by the time the chaos of landing was over, she'd forgotten about the concern.

;;;:::::{-]

"Ha! Trixie is triumphant!" Trixie, brandishing the tool she had chosen in the nightmare-filled world into which the zebra witch had thrown her, laughed at the guards who only stared at her dumbfounded. The Keyblade was less a sword and more a staff, edged with a key's teeth and topped with a star, but the iridescent staff was all the more impressive for it.

"I am glad to see you have done your best, but it is time for you to start your quest," Zecora said to Trixie. "Another whose heart a blade will allow, and one who approaches even now." An irregular flapping heralded the arrival of a grey pegasus with a yellow mane and...strange eyes.

"Mail delivery for Princess Celestia!" the mare declared.

"I'm afraid the princess cannot be reached until this barrier can be breached," Zecora said to the pegasus. "It is vital that this be done soon, and to do so, you must go to the moon."

"Wait," Trixie said. "You cannot expect Trixie to travel with some...derpy pegasus on her glorious quest to save Equestria."

"I'm not happy about this either." A griffon landed next to Zecora, glowering at the zebra. "Here I am, like you asked. But you didn't tell me you wanted me to hang around with some landbound, nerdy unicorn."

"Nerdy?" Trixie demanded. "You take that back, you fluttering mule!"

"You did not just..." the griffon shrugged and cracked the knuckles above her claws. "You know what? Fine. Just remember, you asked for this."

"Girls! Girls! Leave it alone! You cannot make it on your own. You must work together to end this threat, even if you are not friends yet."

"Friends?" the griffon asked. "I'll travel with them if I have to, but there's no way I'm going to be friends with nerd-o-corn and the derpy wonder there."

"Agreed," Trixie sniffed. "Trixie will work with whomever she needs to save Equestria, but she refuses to like them."

The pegasus glanced between the two of them before letting her wings droop sadly. "Sounds great," she whispered.

;;;:::::{-]

A/N: Finally got this one done! I'd just love to thank everypony who's commented, favorited or watched this fic, because I like knowing I'm entertaining someponies out there with it (also, this method of writing is infectious. I've actually almost used 'somepony' and 'anypony' at work, which would be embarrassing).

Hopefully there'll be a shorter delay before the next chapter. Happy reading, y'all!