"The seal is imperfect. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say somepony wasn't one hundred percent committed to the spell."
As the late afternoon sun slowly sank toward the horizon, the tall city buildings cast shadows that plunged most of the streets into an early twilight. For those who lived and frequently visited Manehatten, the premature evening was a simple fact of life that garnered no commentary or attention. For one pale blue unicorn mare, however, it felt like another light blow between the ears after a day of disappointments. With her head and ears drooping and a simple mauve skirt chosen simply to hide her cutie mark, one would need to look twice to recognize her as the Great and Powerful Trixie. She sighed as her stomach rumbled, and the stallion walking beside her gave a small chuckle. "Let me buy you some dinner," he said, "I'm sure you'll feel better after some food."
"Thank you, but Trixie has already taken up enough of your money," the showmare said, "I can pay for myself."
"I insist," the mahogany-colored unicorn said, "you've talked me into deeper pay cuts than you deserve. I can't have my shining star starving herself sick in the middle of the season."
"You flatter me Mr. Arch," Trixie said, her dull tone giving lie to her words, "But can you really consider me a star when my shows are barely breaking even in ticket sales? And don't try to tell me I'm wrong about that; I've seen the books."
"We're simply having a slow patch," Proscenium Arch said, "That happens from time to time in our line of work. Surely you've noticed that Trixie."
Trixie pursed her lips in thought for a second before replying. "On the road, I could always pack up and move on if I received a lackluster reception." She looked over at Arch and said, "To be honest, I think I prefer the traveling life."
"Well, don't let me hold you back from it," Arch said, and then coughed and added, "After you've fulfilled your current contract that is. Ah, here we go," he said, stopping in front of a salad shop, "This seems like a good place to eat. What do you think?"
"It will do, I suppose," Trixie said, plodding toward the door. Proscenium held the door open for her as she entered and looked around. The showmare looked around at the tables, most of which were occupied.
"Go find a seat," Arch said, coming up next to her, "I'll go get our food. What do you want?"
"Something with pine nuts," Trixie answered. Arch made his way to the counter while Trixie resumed looking around the shop. A sudden peal of high-spirited laughter drew her attention to the far corner of the seating area. After working her way around another group of diners, Trixie spotted six familiar mares gathered around a table. Closest to her, with their backs to the showmare, were a vibrantly pink earth pony with a wildly curly mane and tail, an elegant-looking white unicorn with a purple mane and tail, and a butter-yellow, pink-maned pegasus. On the other side sat a cyan pegasus with a short, rainbow-striped mane, an orange earth pony wearing a Stetson hat, and, of course, Twilight Sparkle. Trixie was momentarily puzzled by their presence, but when Twilight looked up from her food and didn't seem to realize the showmare was looking at her, she decided to get some answers, in her usual way. She shifted her weight slightly as she struck one of her trademark condescension poses, with a hoof placed on her chest to temper it with an air of pleasant surprise.
"Hiya Trixie!" Pinkie Pie all but shouted as she spun around to give the blue unicorn a welcoming grin. Several eyes - including all those belonging to Pinkie's friends – were immediately directed at the showmare, who dropped her façade with a sigh.
"Hello," she said with a smile, "What, may I ask, has brought the six of you here to Manehatten?"
"We're taking a well-deserved vacation," Twilight said, "I'm sure you heard about how we defeated Discord a little while back."
"The embodiment of chaos and disharmony?" Trixie asked, arching an eyebrow, "Of course I have! That… creature's influence was felt all across Equestria! And of course the Princesses weren't shy about spreading the news."
"Yeah," Twilight said, "He picked Ponyville as the center of his kingdom, and even after using the Elements of Harmony to seal him and his work away, we're still finding little pockets of… whatever to clean up."
"We simply had to get away for a while to unwind," Rarity said, "and when Applejack here mentioned Manehatten, we all agreed it would be the perfect place to spend a week off."
"I see," Trixie said, "Well, I do hope you enjoy your time here."
"Hey," Pinkie said as Trixie turned to leave, "you're not looking too happy there. Why don't you take a seat and let me cheer you up?" She shifted to the side, ignoring the glare Rarity gave her as she bumped up against the white unicorn.
"I…" Trixie said, "thank you, but I don't want to intrude. Besides, I'm here with someone." She caught the sly look in Dash's, Applejack's, and Rarity's eyes and quickly added, "Not like that. It's just my manager, Proscenium Arch."
"Just your manager?" Arch's voice said from behind Trixie, "My dear, have you been leading me on this whole time?" Rainbow Dash muffled a laugh as the pale blue unicorn blushed furiously and whirled on the mahogany unicorn, who was wearing a goofy smile as he levitated two plates of salad above his head.
"Is this 'Embarrass the Great and Powerful Trixie Day' or something?" she snapped.
"My apologies," Arch said, "The opportunity was simply too good to pass up. Who are your friends?"
"Well, friends may be too strong in certain cases," Trixie replied, casting a withering glance at the laughing cyan pegasus, "but these are Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Twilight Sparkle of Ponyville. Everypony, this is Proscenium Arch, owner of the Silver Halter Theater where I am currently performing." Except for Fluttershy, who hid shyly behind her mane, and Dash, who cut her laughter off instantly to strike a proud pose, each pony nodded a greeting as they were named.
"It's a pleasure to-" Proscenium Arch began, but then did a double-take and nearly dropped the salads. Trixie grabbed the one that looked like it had her pine nuts on it as the mahogany unicorn found his voice again. "Pardon me," he said, "I wasn't expecting to meet the six ponies who saved Equestria. I'm honored to meet you all."
"Yep," Rainbow Dash said casually, all too willing to bask in the recognition. Twilight cast a glance at her friend, rolled her eyes, and then gave Arch and Trixie a friendly smile.
"You're welcome to join us if you want," she said, "I'm sure we can make room for two more."
"Thank you," Arch said with a low bow. The mares at the table shifted around to make space as Trixie and Arch set their plates down and took their seats. They spent a few minutes simply eating and giving the mahogany stallion better introductions, but soon the conversation turned toward the theater and Trixie's mood.
"It's terrible, to be honest," Trixie said dramatically, "I used to sell out the house almost every night, but now we're lucky if half the seats are taken during the evening, and there's simply no point trying to hold matinees anymore."
"Why would you hold a manatee?" Pinkie asked, earning several confused stares, "Is that a new part of your act?" The others puzzled over the question for several seconds, and then Twilight and Rarity both face-hooved.
"Darling, she said 'matinee,'" Rarity explained, "That means a performance held during the day."
"Ooooh," Pinkie said before applying herself to her food again.
"Yes, well," Proscenium Arch said, returning to the original train of thought, "As I was saying to Trixie here earlier, lulls in audience turn-out do occur on occasion, and I haven't seen any reason to panic about it."
"I suspect most folks are more concerned with recoverin' from Discord's shenanigans at the moment," Applejack said, "No offense to you Trixie, but listenin' to some of your tall tales don't sound to appealing so soon after that nightmare."
"You're hardly one to judge, little miss Honesty" Trixie said critically, "Besides, I've been cutting down on my stories in favor of more tricks and audience participation. Although now that I think of it, perhaps that is why my popularity is waning?"
"I believe Applejack makes a valid point actually," Arch said, "It's difficult to predict how large-scale disasters will affect audience turn-out. Sometimes they turn out in greater numbers to escape for a few hours, but sometimes they turn their attention to more important things like family or self-preservation." Silence fell for a few seconds as the ponies continued to eat. Suddenly, Arch's ears perked up and his chewing slowed for a second before accelerating in his haste to voice the idea that had just popped into his mind. "My dears," he said sweetly, looking around the table, "You aren't by chance busy this evening, are you?" Trixie gave him a suspicious glance.
"Not particularly," Twilight said, looking at her friends in case somepony thought differently. The other five Ponyville mares were simply looking at Proscenium Arch with varying levels of curiosity. "Why?"
"Perhaps you would do us a favor and grant tonight's show with your presence?" Arch asked, eyes shining in a manner that reminded Twilight of Rarity receiving inspiration, "Could you imagine the publicity-"
"No," Trixie said firmly, cutting the stallion off, "The Great and Powerful Trixie stands or falls on her own merits, not on her connections. Besides, my shows tend to go very badly when any of these ponies get involved."
"Well that's a bit of an exaggeration," Rarity protested.
Trixie raised an eyebrow at the white unicorn. "Ponyville visit number one ended with an Ursa trampling my wagon," she said, "visit number two was nothing less than an embarrassing temper tantrum. I recall Applejack here being present when Princess Luna almost blew the roof off the Silver Halter. And then when I returned to Ponyville for the third time, I was subjected to projectile produce, followed by nearly two days of having another pony in my head! So, as much I have come to consider you pleasant company, you'd be doing me a favor by spending your evening elsewhere."
"Oh, this just will not do at all."
"Indeed. Oh well, can't be helped."
"I beg to differ."
Shouts and cries from the street brought all conversation in the salad shop to a halt. Twilight and company found themselves at the back of the crowd pushing its way toward the front to peer out the windows. Even Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy were blocked off by the pegasi flying in front of them. As Twilight, AJ, and Trixie tried to push their way through the mass, Pinkie Pie bounced up and down trying to see over everypony before losing her patience and jumping up onto the nearest back. Ignoring the complaints and attempts to shake her off, the pink earth pony bounced lightly from pony to pony until she reached the front and squeezed her head between a pair of pegasi wearing matching newsboy caps.
"What do you see?" Twilight called out as she continued worming her way toward the door.
"There's a squirrel out there," Pinkie reported.
"A squirrel?" Twilight replied, eyes crossing in confusion, "All this commotion is because of a little squirrel?"
"No," Pinkie said, "it's because of a squirrel the size of a pony running around dressed like a ninja."
"What's a ninja?" Twilight asked.
"Seriously?" Rainbow Dash asked, giving Twilight an odd look, "How can you read so much and not know about ninjas? They're only the coolest warriors ever! They can hide in the shadows and wield these awesome swords that can cut through anything. They're normally only found in Neighpon though…"
"So," Twilight summarized as she and the others grouped up to push their way out faster, "There's a giant squirrel out there dressed like some sort of magic shadow warrior from Neighpon. That doesn't make any…" she trailed off and then facehoofed as the realization hit her. "Great," she deadpanned, "it's got to be a Discord leftover…" Gasps and horrified whispers erupted as most of the crowd turned their eyes toward the lavender unicorn. "Uh," she said, briefly overwhelmed by the sudden attention.
"Well," Trixie said, raising her voice to project over the murmurs, "If that's the case, then the best thing for everypony to do is make room for the Elements of Harmony here so they can go deal with it!" It took several seconds for the message to sink in, but it had the desired effect. A path to the door began to form and Twilight's group, plus Trixie and Proscenium Arch, found themselves quickly herded out into the street and into a convenient gap in the street-side crowd that had formed. Like Pinkie had said, a pony-sized red squirrel dressed in a black bodysuit and matching ninja mask was running up and down the street in front of the salad shop. It even had a sheathed katana strapped to its back.
"Yep," Rainbow said, staring at the animal in mild shock, "That's a ninja squirrel alright."
"Right then," Twilight said, growing serious, "It may be big, but it's still just a squirrel. Fluttershy, you're up."
"Right," the yellow pegasus said with conviction. She walked toward the scampering rodent and cleared her throat politely as it ran past. "Excuse me," she said as it came to stop in front of her, "I don't mean to interrupt whatever it is you're doing, but you're causing a big scene. Why don't you stop running for a bit and let us… fix whatever's wrong with you. If you don't mind." The squirrel's head cocked to one side as it regarded Fluttershy, and then pulled down its mask and stretched its cheeks out with its front paws while sticking its tongue out at her before running off down the street at full speed. "So that's a 'no' then?" Fluttershy said quietly.
"Don't let it get away!" Dash shouted, rocketing after the ninja. Her friends followed close behind her, with Trixie taking up the rear alongside Rarity. The showmare felt no obligation to help out, but she was quite curious about how the chase would end, hoping she could build some new story out of it later on. The Ponyvilleans may have been bad luck for her performances in the past, but by the same token they'd proven to be great sources of material.
After weeks of dealing with the remnants of Discord's brief reign, the Element Bearers had learned to expect the unexpected, so Dash wasn't too surprised when the ninja squirrel vanished from sight in a cloud of smoke and re-appeared on the fire escape of a nearby building. In fact, the cyan pegasus was impressed. "That is so cool," she squeaked as she banked toward the rodent of unusual size. As she approached, the squirrel jumped off the fire escape and pulled a quadruple somersault over Dash's head before hitting the street and taking off again. Now I know how Pinkie felt about the chocolate rain, Dash thought as she looped around to make chase again. She arrived back on the street just as Twilight and the others caught up. "When we catch this thing, can we just shrink it down to normal size?" she asked the lavender unicorn, "It would make the greatest pet ever."
"No Rainbow," Twilight answered flatly, "We can't let anything Discord made stay. There's literally no telling what kind of effects this creature could have on the city."
"But, it's a squirrel that's a ninja," Rainbow persisted, "You can't tell me that's not some kind of awesome."
"Consarnit Rainbow," Applejack snapped, "Just hurry up and catch the varmint. There's no point in arguin' over keeping it if ya can't even catch it in the first place."
"Puh-lease," the pegasus said, "There hasn't been a ninja squirrel yet that can out-run Rainbow Dash!" She zipped away in pursuit as several pairs of eyes were rolled.
For several blocks, the chase remained simple and straight-forward, right up until the moment that Dash was close enough to touch the squirrel. The rodent vanished in another puff of smoke, and Dash slowed to a stop as she looked around for it to reappear. With another, larger puff, the squirrel materialized in the middle of the next intersection and began making comical faces at the approaching ponies. "That's it," Rainbow growled, flying at the ninja with all the speed she could muster. After blowing one last raspberry, the squirrel ran off again – in three separate directions. Dash came to another stop, jaw hanging open in disbelief. "That's not… WHAT?" she exclaimed, looking around wildly at the trio of retreating ninja squirrels.
"I told you," Twilight said as the others caught up, "There's no predicting what'll happen. We'll have to split up. Pinkie and Fluttershy, take the left one; Rarity and AJ, take the right. Dash, you're with me. Catch them if you can, but make sure you don't lose sight of them. Go!"
"Could I-" Trixie began, only to snort in frustration as the six scattered to chase down their targets, ignoring her. After a quick glance around, she galloped off after Pinkie and Fluttershy, if only to give each pursuit group a unicorn to work with. "Do we have some sort of plan?" she asked as she came up even with the earth pony and pegasus.
"Nope," Pinkie said with a smile, "just go with a flow Trixie."
"Well," the showmare said, "I'd rather not run across the entire city waiting for that thing to tire out." With her magic, she removed her skirt and sent it flying ahead to wrap around the squirrel's face, forcing it to stop and try to remove the offending cloth. Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Trixie quickly caught up and surrounded it before moving in quietly for the capture. Trixie kept the skirt over the rodent's face while Fluttershy tried to talk it down with soothing tones. When it continued to scratch at the cloth blocking its eyes, Pinkie leaped forward to tackle it to the ground. The moment she impacted it, however, the squirrel disintegrated into a cloud of dust and a single pinecone that bounced off the earth pony's head after she hit the ground.
"Ptooey," Pinkie spat, clearing some dust from her mouth as Fluttershy helped her to her feet, "Wow, even I couldn't have seen that coming!"
Trixie picked the pinecone up in her magic and scrutinized it.
"Oh wow!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed as Twilight extracted a pinecone from the dust pile that had been their quarry until the pegasus had rammed it, "That was a decoy clone! Unicorn Ninjas are supposed to be experts at that trick!"
"As are chaos-powered squirrels it seems," Twilight muttered, dropping the pinecone and smashing it underneath a hoof. She sighed and looked around, noting that the chase had brought the pair into the theater district of Manehatten. "This is great," she said grumpily, "now we're probably going to have search the entire city to find the others."
"Nuh-uh, we're right here Twilight!" Twilight and Dash looked to see Pinkie Pie bouncing down the street toward them, each landing dislodging a fresh puff of dust from her coat. Fluttershy was behind her, using her wings to shield her eyes from the dust. Taking up the rear was Trixie, who was…
"Why are you eating that pinecone Trixie?" Twilight asked, giving the unicorn a strange look.
The showmare plucked another scale off the cone and chewed it as she thought. "I'm not sure what possessed me to start," she said, "but they taste pretty good."
"You just decided to start eating something that came out of a… clone of something altered by Discord?" Twilight nearly shouted.
"This isn't my first," Trixie shot back defensively, "and there's nothing magical or strange about this one. Although, it is a bit old, and tougher than I prefer…" She bit off another couple of scales and chewed them as defiantly as she could.
"Drinking all that chocolate milk rain didn't hurt me any Twilight," Pinkie pointed out. She cast a glance toward Trixie, and then leaned over and bit a scale off of the cone. "Hmm," she said, chewing it thoughtfully, and then her face screwed up and she spit it out. "Bleh, needs sugar," she declared.
"Sugar?" Trixie scoffed, "Pinecones are meant to be enjoyed as they are. If you must put something on them it must be either salt or a mildly bitter herb." Twilight and Rainbow Dash exchanged bewildered looks before shaking their heads and leaving Pinkie and Trixie to their discussion.
"So," the cyan pegasus said, "Now we just need to find Apple-"
"Put me dooown!' The ninja squirrel landed in the middle of the group with a struggling Rarity tucked under one arm. "Girls," the unicorn said with forced calm as the squirrel looked around, "Would you be so kind as to help me!" Before anypony could react, the squirrel dashed toward the nearest building and kicked its way through the door. Applejack arrived a second later, sides heaving as she paused to catch her breath.
"Ha," she gasped out, "The… varmint's gone… trapped 'isself now… if we hurry… Come on!"
"Right," everypony said as they followed the farm-pony into the theater. Trixie noted that it was her venue, the Silver Halter, that they were entering. I knew it, she thought, I start hanging around these ponies and something happens to the stage I use. At least it won't be my wagon this time. The group entered the theater proper and saw the squirrel on the stage, trying in vain to taunt them while keeping Rarity from escaping his grasp. The white unicorn wiggled free and kicked the rodent's leg just as Rainbow flew in for a tackle, knocking it to the ground.
"Ok Twilight," the pegasus said, pinning the squirrel in place, "do your thing." The lavender unicorn nodded as she and her other friends climbed up on the stage and gathered around the over-sized rodent. Twilight's horn lit up as she began to examine the squirrel for spells and stray magic. The creature seemed to be a real squirrel that had been subjected to fundamental changes. Reversing Discord alterations was trickier than simply banishing constructs, such as giant pepper shakers, but this was nothing Twilight couldn't handle while she had her friends around her. A quick blast of magic to isolate the discordant elements followed by pin-point spells derived from the Elements of Harmony's rainbow blast cleaned the squirrel up and left it lying on the stage in a daze, restored to its proper size and frame of mind. As Twilight sat back and let her magic fade away, she gave Fluttershy a nod to prompt the pegasus to take charge of the little critter. Trixie, standing out in the audience, stared in awe at the magic she had just witnessed.
And then the lights went out. The ponies didn't even get a chance to scream before something forced them into a deep sleep.